Ella crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
I scowled at her. She was imitating our mother in exactly the way designed to make Mother forbid us the evening’s festivities. And I was right.
“That’s it,” Mother snapped. She pointed at Ella and shook her finger, that uncomfortable wag that always made me wonder if she might lose control of her power and send an elemental charge in our direction. “You’re staying home this evening. Both of you.”
“But, Mother…” I began. I wasn’t whining, I swear it. I intended a reasoned, thought-out argument. Or at least to point out that it was only Ella who was annoying her.
“No whining. And no impudence!”
I swallowed my words, but my scowl at my sister became a glare. She smirked at me.
Mother swirled away from us in a huff of fury, her robes sparkling with electricity. She tossed a parting shot over her shoulder. “And I’ll be telling your father about this. See if I don’t!”
“Now you’ve done it.” I dropped into the window seat behind me.
“Pfft.” Ella dropped her arms to wave her hand. “You know she wouldn’t dare.”
“She might.” I turned my gaze to the landscape on the other side of the glass. Our school room was the highest room in the tower. From the window, I could see the front gardens of the estate, the wall that surrounded it, the winding road that led away from it, and the tips of forest trees. In the distance, I could see the faint blue of the rising hills.
I’d been looking out upon that view for seventeen years — assuming that a nurse held me in the right direction when I was a fussy baby — and I was heartily sick of it.
I’d been looking forward to the evening’s escape. Even if it was only for a few hours, even if it was simply a neighborly dinner, it was a change. Any change would be an improvement over the monotony of our daily life.
“She won’t.” Ella crossed the room and sat down beside me. “And even if she did, what would he do?”
“Turn you into a chicken,” I suggested. I didn’t know whether our father could do such a transformation, but he was famed for his magic. And his temper. If anyone could, it would be him, and if anyone would, that would be him, as well.
“Squawk!” Ella flapped her arms like wings.
My lips twitched.
“You didn’t want to go to that stupid dinner, anyway.” Ella leaned forward. “If you let her marry you off to one of those Grover boys, you’ll be trapped forever.”
I sighed. Ella wasn’t wrong. Our neighbors had three sons, Lionel, Daniel, and Parnell. It was hard to know which one of them was worse. Lionel, the eldest, was pompous and self-righteous. He had a minor Levitation talent but was otherwise ungifted, so he dismissed talents as remnants of another time. He was determined to enter politics and spent a great deal of time droning on about taxation and proper representation. Daniel was a Water talent and as drippy and melancholy as the stereotypes suggested he would be. And he sniffled. Constantly. Parnell, the youngest, was the most talented of the bunch, but he was a braggart, constantly dropping the names of the other students at his prestigious school as if knowing them made him somehow special and important.
Still, in a competition between their company or staring at the same four walls, their company had its appeal.
“I want you to come with me tonight.” Ella put her hand on my leg, her eyes more serious than was her usual wont.
“Come where?” I asked, confused. I wasn’t entirely surprised that Ella had driven Mother into a temper in order to get out of the evening; she hated the Grovers. But where was she planning to go? We had no transportation, no way to leave the estate.
She let her voice drop. “Tonight is the night, I’m sure of it.”
“The night for what?”
“The night that the hole opens.” She waited, expectant, her dark eyes locked on me.
I blinked at her, and then realized what she was talking about. “The hole in the garden wall? The hole that no one else can see? The hole that’s sometimes there and mostly not?”
She jumped up and dashed back to her writing desk. She picked up a sheaf of papers and flourished them at me. “I’ve been researching. I’ve recorded every known sighting.”
I snorted. “Every known story, you mean. Ella, you can’t be serious. It’s a fairy tale. A long-lasting fairy tale, to be sure, but no more real than the ghost that haunts the great hall.”
“That ghost might very well be —“ she started and then stopped herself. “No, I refuse to let you distract me. Even though I believe that the ghost and the hole are probably symptoms of the same thing.”
“Symptoms of the same mental illness.” I rolled my eyes. “Something that includes delusions. Hallucinations, perhaps, but delusions, definitely.”
“Symptoms of a dimensional rift,” she corrected me.
“A dimensional — what?” I shook my head.
“It’s a hole in the fabric of space and time.” Ella clutched the sheaf of papers closer to her, pulling them tight against her chest. “As the earth and stars rotate, it moves, shifting out of alignment with our dimension, and then shifting back again. According to the records and my calculations, it appears every seventeen months and three days.”
“Every seventeen months and three days?” The number was remarkably precise, but surely much too frequent. The hole in the garden wall featured in a great many stories over the centuries that our family had lived on the estate, but not in the numbers that one would expect if it had appeared hundreds of time.
“It only appears for a few moments. I suspect mere minutes. And the location and time of day, while consistent, are such that most often no one would be present to witness the occasion.” Ella’s cheeks were flushing with eagerness.
“Wasn’t there a great-uncle who made a study of the hole?”
“Uncle Gervais,” Ella hurried back over to the window seat, setting her papers down on the cushion.
“He ran off with a kitchen maid, didn’t he?” I had never met our great-uncle. He was gone before I was born, but stories of scandal were always shared. Live an exemplary or peaceful life and you died forgotten, but the blackguards and adventurers were whispered about for decades after their passing.
Centuries even. I wasn’t nearly as fascinated with our home and its history as Ella was, but even I knew of Amelia de Winterhoffe and her menagerie of forbidden creatures, or Sebastiana de Verayz and her habit of drinking the blood of virgins. Boys or girls, she hadn’t been picky, and apparently she paid well for the privilege.
“The gossips say he did.” Ella thumbed through the top few papers. “But there was never any evidence to support that. No kitchen maid went missing at the same time.”
“Chamber maid?” I suggested. “Milk maid? Laundry maid?”
“None of the above,” Ella snapped, before she caught sight of my smile and realized I was teasing her. “None of the above,” she repeated more temperately. She pulled out a thin notebook from between her papers and flipped it open.
I leaned forward and tried to look at it upside-down. The handwriting, small and perfectly legible, was definitely not hers.
“These are his records,” Ella said. “He believed he had pinpointed the location of the hole and merely needed to find the exact time that it would open. He hired scholars to watch the spot for him. Apparently Grandmother Genevieve was appalled at the expenditure but he was the heir.”
“Until he disappeared? I’m surprised the rumors didn’t have Grandmother doing away with him.” I leaned away from the book. The handwriting was legible, but the notes were not, merely long lists of initialized dates and times.
“They did,” Ella replied absently, her gaze skimming down the page. “But Mother married Father within a year of Gervais’ disappearance. That ended all such talk. At least publicly.” She turned the page.
My eyes widened. Could this be the answer to a question I’d wondered about forever? “Do you suppose that’s why she married him?”
Ella paused, lifting her head from the book. She blinked at me rapidly, dark lashes fluttering around her dark eyes. “Pfft. Can you imagine Grandmother Genevieve caring what anyone thought? If anything, she would have enjoyed the rumors. She would have used them to terrorize shopkeepers into cheaper prices.”
I sighed. It was a good point.
“Here it is.” Ella pointed at the page. “On 7 Midsummer 3043, the scholar Gervais had hired to watch for the hole claimed that it had appeared and that he’d thrown a rock through it. But it was gone by the time Gervais got there. On 10 Earlyspring 3045, the same scholar disappeared. On 13 Earlywinter 3046, Gervais disappeared. Seventeen months, three days.”
I pursed my lips. “Twice is a minimal pattern.”
Ella wagged her finger at me, another imitation of our mother’s habits. “You do me no justice.” She slid out the rest of the papers and held them up. “Three other dated disappearances match. A gardener in 3026, a visiting chaplain in 3012, and a dog in 3000. Everyone believed the gardener quit with no notice, of course, but he left behind a wife and three children who swore he would never have abandoned them. The visiting chaplain was a notorious case, there one minute, gone the next. And the dog… well, it fits the schedule.”
“It was a dog, Ella. They run away sometimes.”
She pulled the sheets that had been on top out again and turned them in my direction. There was the handwriting I recognized; messy, loopy, the bane of our tutor’s existence. Again, it was a list of dates, although without initials or times.
“I’ve done the calculations. Today’s the day. Seventeen months, three days, the fifteenth cycle away from Gervais’s disappearance. Twenty-five years, six months, and eight days since he went missing.”
I frowned at her notes, calculating in my head. Her math appeared to be correct. Today was 21 Earlysummer. But…
“How long have you known this?” I demanded.
She bit her lip and looked away, her eyes turning toward the window.
“Since Midwinter,” she mumbled.
My mouth dropped open as I thought back. She had been bubbling over with excitement in Midwinter, but I’d assumed it was the season. Everyone liked Midwinter.
“I was going to go alone,” she said, words tumbling out over one another in a rush. “I’ve been planning it for months. I’ve got a bag ready, coins saved up, some dried meat and fruit packed.”
“You were going to leave me?” I put a hand to my chest. It felt like she’d punched me.
“Well…” She looked pained. “I thought if I told you, you might feel like you had to tell Mother. And then she might take us away for the day. I’d have to wait almost two more years and hope she forgot.”
“I would not have!” My face felt hot, my eyes stinging.
My sister, my closest friend, had been planning to abandon me. It hurt.
“You did the time I wanted to build a flying device,” she reminded me.
“You were about to jump off the roof!” Our roof was four stories high. Ella had a minor Levitation talent. She could float small objects across the room. But her idea that she could strengthen her talent by building wings had been akin to suicide. Of course I’d stopped her.
“And the time I tried to swim to the underwater caves.”
“The tide was coming in. You would have drowned!” Not to mention that she’d been eight years old and nowhere near as good at swimming as she thought she was.
“Well, yes.” Ella gave me a sheepish smile. “But you see…
I huffed with annoyance but the sting in my eyes was gone. She wasn’t wrong. I’d been stopping Ella’s crazy ideas since she was five and I was seven.
“So why did you decide to tell me now?” I asked icily. I might understand Ella’s position, but I was not about to forgive her. Not so quickly, anyway.
Ella turned her foot down, toe pointing against the ground. I tried not to grind my teeth together. She was about to lie to me. I recognized it in her posture.
“I couldn’t leave you,” she said, not meeting my gaze. “I thought how lonely you would be, here without me, and how angry Mother would be with you and —“
“Try again,” I interrupted her. “The truth this time.”
“Well, you would be lonely without me and Mother will be angry,” Ella said with wide-eyed innocence.
“And that’s not why you told me.” Across the room, a fire leapt to life in the grate. With a hiss of annoyance, I tapped my hand against the air and put it out. It was too warm for a fire.
Ella pressed her lips together. “Well, no.”
Behind me, a candle burst into flame. I glared at Ella and pinched my fingers together, putting it out.
“Sorry,” she said contritely. “But look how well you’re doing! Not a single piece of fabric singed.”
“And you know perfectly well that if Mother was to walk in right now and smell the smoke, I’d spend the next month locked in this room, with not a single scrap of fabric in it. Nor paper. Stop making me angry, Ella, or the next thing that goes up in smoke are those.” I gestured to her sheaf of papers.
She squeaked and clutched the papers to her. “All right, all right. I was going to go alone, but I want you to come with me.”
“Come with you? Through the hole that people disappear into and never return?”
“Amelia de Winterhoffe returned, again and again. She claimed the hole was how she found her menagerie of monsters.”
I rolled my eyes. “That was a convenient way to deny smuggling alien species into the country.”
“Her father, Revel de Winterhoffe, said that he’d been through the hole and it led to another world, a beautiful world, like fairyland.”
“A fairy tale he told his children.”
“Sibylla de Winterhoffe claimed she travelled through the hole to a fantastic marketplace where she traded her outer robe for a string of perfectly-matched pearls. Those pearls are still part of the demiparure traditionally worn by de Winterhoffes during our first presentation to the crown.”
“Smuggling again. Avoiding import taxes.” I waved a dismissive hand in the air. But behind me, all the candles in our candelabra roared into life. I grimaced, snapped my hand flat, and the flames went out.
Ella winced. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault.” I returned my gaze to the window, staring out of it, not bothering to hide my gloom. I was seventeen, a year past old enough to be presented at court. Unfortunately, I was my father’s daughter. The chance that I would ever even be allowed at court, much less enjoy the stress of a full presentation to the Queen and her family, was slim to none.
Ella leaned forward. “Come with me, Lila. We can escape together.”
“Or die together?” I asked, not quite facetiously.
“Well…” Ella nibbled her lower lip.
Realization struck me and I turned my attention back to her. “That’s it. That’s why you want me to come with you!”
“I’d be lonely without you,” she offered with a hint of mischief in her eyes.
My laugh was half-hearted. “I’d be lonely without you, too.”
“But I’d also be safer with you,” Ella admitted. She nodded toward the candelabra. “I know Fire is a hard talent to have. But… well, Amelia de Winterhoffe did collect monsters on the other side of the rift. That means there are monsters over there. And you would be much, much better at facing down monsters than I would be.”
I should tell our mother, I knew. Immediately. Not that I believed the mysterious hole would really appear on cue, but what if it did and Ella went through it? She was fifteen years old and definitely not equipped to fight monsters. Her talents included strong Truesight and Persuasion, and the aforementioned minor Levitation.
My talents, on the other hand… well, I’d taken after both of our parents. All the elementals, telekinesis, speed, illusion-casting, levitation, and a few others too minor to matter. Lucky me. It meant I never got to go anywhere or do anything. The Grovers were the only neighbor who dared my company and that because they had a marbled ballroom which was quite inflammable. As well as three sons to marry off, of course.
“All right,” I said.
“What?” Ella almost dropped her papers in surprise.
“All right.” I smiled at my sister. If I told our mother, Ella would never trust me again. I’d find out about her next escapade at the same time as everyone else, most likely when we found her dead or badly injured body.
The hole wouldn’t show up, but if it did, we’d go through it, take a look around, and then return. No one would need to know. Ella would be delighted with the success of her research, and perhaps the family would make a plan to investigate the hole — or the rift, rather — in more depth in seventeen months.
Ella jumped to her feet. “You won’t regret this, Lila, I swear you won’t.” She glanced at the clock on my mantel. “We have ninety-three minutes. You won’t have time to gather any food, but wear your warmest over-robe. The stories say…”
“I know, I know.” I stood. “There’ll be a space between worlds and it will be chilly. I have heard the stories, too, you know.”
Ella hurried over to the armoire where our school supplies were stored. Opening the door, she pulled out an empty canvas satchel, followed by one that looked stuffed to the brim. “Here.” She levitated the empty satchel across the room to me, letting it float to the window seat. “I got a bag for you. And you’ve got just enough time to pack it.”