Sadly for me, the scant few moments before the Swords arrived were not sufficient time to develop and execute some clever plan of escape.
Running away to the forest had only grown more impractical as winter approached, and running away with a companion in diapers was even more unrealistic.
Fighting was clearly futile: one of me against an unknown number of Swords and Shields was not going to end well for anyone, but most certainly not for me, and the consequences would undoubtedly rebound onto Ella.
Hiding might be a temporary solution, but what good would it do in the long run?
If Ella was also trying desperately to conceive of a plan, she did not share it with me.
I’m sorry, I sent to her via the System. I’ll try to keep you out of it. Stay safe. And take care of Tycho for me. I toggled her line of communication closed. The light in the corner of my vision began blinking again, but I ignored it in favor of watching the Swords.
They seemed to understand immediately that they were facing an illusion, not real monsters. Six of them were responding to the alarm, but four promptly levitated away, while two others dropped to the ground and began walking toward me.
I let go of my illusion. Shoshi’s illusion was gone, too, perhaps because mine had distracted her or perhaps because she’d run out of energy. She wasn’t asleep, but she huddled against my chest in the boneless exhaustion of the very young.
Of course, Rye was one of the two. Did the Swords have duty stations? If so, his must be near Domas, for this was the third time he’d been called to our location. His expression as he approached was inscrutable, but he looked as delicious as ever. His uniform fit him perfectly, as if it been designed to showcase his elegant musculature. Maybe it had been. I entertained myself for a moment by imagining his reaction to the formal robes he could have worn on Tizai. Would he recoil in horror from the velvet and gilt?
The other Sword was a young woman with long, wavy dark hair. She looked vaguely familiar. She might have been one of the guards we saw on our first day.
“Young to start illusion-casting, I’d say, but maybe that’s for the best,” the woman said cheerfully, holding out her hands. “I’ll take her now.”
I did not let go of Shoshi.
Instead, I glared at the Sword.
My glare was not well-practiced. I usually endeavored to avoid such expressions, as I’d learned early on that glaring at servants who already fear you might burn them alive accomplishes nothing other than ensuring cold tea while they bicker over who should deliver your tray. I’d mastered the art of the polite smile instead.
My mother, however, has a glare so withering it can silence a crowded ballroom. I did my best to emulate her.
“No, you not.” I jerked my chin toward the grounds. “Illusion mine.”
The woman laughed at me. “And you’d be quite a bit too old to start with the illusion-casting.”
I understood her words, of course, but the way she said them was subtly different than the way most of the adults at Domas spoke. They were softer around the edges somehow, even though her tone was gently mocking.
“It’s hard, I know, but there’s no choice in the matter.” She stepped forward, hands still outstretched. “She canna stay here.”
I did not shoot a lighting bolt at her, sorely though I was tempted. Nor did I set her ablaze, which was truly a sign that my control had improved in the weeks we’d been on Salazie.
I did, however, muster the pettiest illusion in my repertoire — one practiced on my least favorite governess more than once in years gone by — and dangled a black, hairy spider in front of her on a strand of silken thread.
She startled, flinching away from it, but she didn’t shriek.
Point to her, I suppose.
“Illusion mine,” I repeated, letting the spider disappear in a puff of sparkles.
Somehow it pains me to admit that she was nice about it. I should probably have expected no less, but, reluctant though I am to confess this, I was scared and angry and upset. Having her smile warmly at me and say, “All right, love, that’s shown me, hasn’t it?” was almost more than I could bear.
The corner of Rye’s mouth lifted, and he stepped forward, too. “Take them both, then, Harmony?”
Harmony? That name I recognized. It had been a moment of disconnect in the System’s vision of the monsters, when a random word in the dialogue seemed out of place. Harmony, not a combination of musical notes, but a woman’s name.
“Harmony?” I repeated. I dipped my chin to Shoshi, without relaxing my grip on her. “You rescue baby?”
Her eyes widened a little. “Do you need to be rescued? Aren’t they treating you all right here?”
“Not now. Then. When monster came Lucerne.” Not for the first time, I wished I was fluent in the language of Salazie, instead of struggling to build sentences one awkward word at a time.
“Oh. Aye, we brought them here.” She exchanged glances with Rye, her smile gone.
How peculiar. Why rescue children if you were going to kill them when they demonstrated talents? Why not just let them die where they were? For that matter, why did she seem concerned about whether I thought I needed rescuing? Perhaps they weren’t going to kill Shoshi and me, after all.
I wouldn’t say I relaxed exactly, but the moment of doubt was enough to let me breathe a little easier through the next interminable period of chaos and uncertainty.
And chaos it was. Too many of the children had seen the monsters bugs, and the shortage of adults was never more noticeable than when frantic children were sobbing and hiding under tables. Other of the littles had seen the creatures burning and were over-excited, bouncing off the walls and wanting to know all the details.
Za Reija would have liked to protest my departure, I think, but his hands were full with the littles. Za Qintha didn’t even try, although her frown when the Swords politely informed her that they’d be taking both Shoshi and me was unhappy.
My last sight of Domas included Ella, standing outside by the doorway, with Za Kestrel’s hands on both her shoulders. She was looking pinched and dismal, holding Tycho, who was tangling both hands in her curls with delight. I would have liked to warn her that any second he’d start to pull, but if I opened a line to talk to her — well, neither one of us would want to cry before the others.
But there was a gaping hole in my chest that the presence of Shoshi in my arms did nothing to assuage.
The Swords had summoned a vehicle. The System translated the name to carpet, but it was nothing like the freight carpets we used at home. Our carpets chugged along, a few feet off the ground, carrying crates and barrels of goods. When people used them for transport, they usually sat on top of the cargo. I’d never ridden on one myself. We used gliders for our transport, which were far more comfortable.
This vehicle was sleek and white, but clearly not designed for comfort. We stood inside it, holding onto straps that dangled from the ceiling, as it zoomed along the ground. Shoshi had fallen asleep against my chest. She was heavy, but I didn’t dare use levitation energy, not with the Swords watching me so closely.
“So, Lila,” Rye started.
He remembered my name. I felt a thrill of pleasure, then promptly scolded myself for it. Of course he remembered my name; he would be a mannerless dolt if he forgot it so quickly and nothing about him said mannerless dolt.
“There’s going to be quite a stir about you when we get back to headquarters,” he continued. “Most wielders are discovered much younger.”
Wielders? I assumed he meant talented, although that was definitely not the word the System was using.
“Can you do anything other than craft illusions?” His gaze was steady on my face.
I didn’t hesitate, not even for a split second. Chin in the air, I met his eyes. “No,” I said flatly.
He had beautiful eyes. They had golden lines in the brown, radiating out from the pupil, and a darker ring, almost black, around the iris. There were even tiny flecks of green.
His mouth twitched. If I could read minds, I suspected his would be saying, “Liar, liar, skirts on fire.” But his expression remained impassive.
“Rye.” Harmony elbowed him, as if he’d said something rude. She turned to me and said earnestly, “Ignore him. We don’t judge people based on how they manifest. Illusion-casting isn’t dishonorable, no matter what the Wigs say. It’s true it’s better if we find wielders young, but that’s at least in part because of the horrible messages society gives people about their abilities. There’s nothing shameful about what you can do. You should just ignore the Wigs.”
Needless to say, I had no idea what she was talking about, but I doubted it had anything to do with hairpieces. Sometimes the System’s translation felt like it was just stringing one unrelated word after another.
“Which pick-up were you in?” she continued.
There was an awkward silence. Well, it felt awkward to me, anyway. What was she asking?
Maybe it felt awkward to her, too, because she hurried on, “I don’t remember you from the first Lucerne incursion, but that was a year ago and there were a lotta young’uns. It was…” She paused, then continued. “But you would have been on the old side… well…“
She glanced at Rye again, looking uncertain. Then back at me. “You musta come later, anyway, or your language skills’d be…” She stopped speaking again.
I had the impression that she kept almost saying things that she thought better of before the words escaped. I had no idea what her first few pauses meant, but I suspected her last sentence implied, “you’d be able to talk like an adult instead of a little.”
“You’ll be from one of the recent rescues, yes?” She went on. “I remember Donovan mentioning he’d found a couple more survivors. Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to remind you of your losses.”
My estimation of the chance that Harmony would be involved in my cold-blooded execution, much less Shoshi’s cold-blooded execution, was dropping by the second, from about fifty-fifty when we left Domas to something approaching zero now. I didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen to us, and it might not be pleasant, but it wasn’t going to be fatal.
My estimation of her age was dropping, too. I’d assumed the Swords were adults, but Harmony was too earnest to be much older than I was.
“Harmony was one of the Swords’ first rescues.” Rye hadn’t looked away from my face. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased. As it was, I was wondering whether I had a smudge on my nose or if he was trying to read my mind.
“Years ago, of course,” Harmony said. “They found me in the eye-zee.”
“The ivy?” I asked, once again not sure what she was talking about.
“The I. Z.,” she said, pronouncing the letters more clearly. “The interstitial zone. I musta gone through a rift but I’d wandered too far away from my own R. Z. to go home again. Sometimes I look for it, but I was awful little and I don’t remember much.”
My confusion was not lessened. But before Harmony could continue confusing me, Rye said, “You might like to see where we’re headed.” He must have done something with the System, because panels in the middle of the walls slid open, revealing windows.
Outside the windows was a city. But a city unlike anything I had ever seen before, or even conceived of. The buildings were unimaginably enormous. They towered over us like mountains, if mountains had corners and windows and sparkled with light.
I gaped like the most veritable hayseed new come to the city. Well, I suppose I was exactly that. The largest building I had ever seen was the government building where our father had his workshop and office. It was six stories high and covered an entire city block. These buildings were so much bigger that they made our seat of government look like a country cottage.
I tried counting windows to measure the stories, but we were moving too quickly and I lost track before I’d gotten much past twenty, far less than halfway up the building I was looking at.
Our father was universally acknowledged to be the most terrifying sorcerer on Tizai and it had never occurred to me to doubt that if he found us here, he would retrieve us with dispatch. Now, for the first time, I wondered.
“Where taking us?” I asked. Perhaps it was a question I should have asked an hour or two earlier, but I think then I’d been too afraid of an answer that would cause me to lose all dignity.
Harmony’s eyes widened and her brows lifted in surprise, but Rye responded after only the tiniest flicker of a blink. “Sword Headquarters.”
He nodded toward Shoshi. “I’m sure they’re lining up to foster the little one already. The stipend for nurturing a wielder is generous and the prestige points toward full citizenship don’t hurt. You’ll go into training. Illusion-casting isn’t a lot of use in the zones, but they’ll find a spot for you, probably on a world-walker team. Illusions sometimes come in handy when interacting with the locals.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had so many questions, I barely knew where to start.
The corner of Rye’s mouth dented inward. His facial expressions were ridiculously subtle, but I was fairly sure he was restraining a laugh.
Harmony leaned forward. “Don’t worry, you’ll be in training for years. Years and years, probably. No one’s gonna make you go into the zones until you’re ready.”
“The zones?” I asked.
“The in-between?” Harmony replied, a question in her tone. “Where were you rescued from again?” Her eyes went glazed for a moment. The expression was familiar: she was reading material on the System. “Your file is —“ She stopped talking and looked at Rye. “Does this makes sense to you?”
“It is a bit scanty,” he replied, voice dry.
“There’s no background info at all. No team debriefing, not even the incident report. And no rescue justification. How did they get away with that? In fact…” She paused and her eyes did that thing again.
I looked away, staring out the window. We were still in the midst of the enormous buildings, so there was plenty to look at, but I could feel heat rising in my cheeks. Shoshi stirred in the harness on my chest, perhaps feeling the tension in my shoulders, and I cradled her a little closer.
“Kestrel? Who is that? Is that a new team lead from Albernia? But why would they bring a rescue to Domas? Don’t they have a sanctuary there?” Harmony seemed increasingly distressed.
Rye didn’t answer her.
Harmony didn’t speak again.
I stared out the window, not seeing the city any longer.
Shoshi made a fussy noise, a breathy whimper, and I gently rubbed her back, using the circular motion she liked best. She settled again with a sigh.
And I waited.
And I waited some more.
All right, it was probably no more than two minutes before I gave in and looked back at Rye’s face, but it felt like the longest two minutes of my life. It lasted an eternity, I swear.
He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He and Harmony were gazing at one another, their faces making the tiny muscle twitches that said they were communicating via the System. How annoying of them.
I looked away again. Oh, how I wished Ella were with me. She was a gifted liar. Literally. Her gifts made lying easy. But I was even less practiced with lying than I was with glaring. And I had no idea what tale would be believable and what would be simply digging a deep hole deeper.
But Harmony asked me no further questions. We stood in complete silence until the carpet flew into a hole in the ground and along a deep tunnel, and finally came to a stop.