Chasing Destiny

 Everyone wonders about the arm. Not so many get up the guts to ask, though. Is it guts or is bad manners? Eh, tough to say. 

That night — the night this all started — it was sheer bad manners. The guy was drunk, but not so drunk I couldn’t see the ugly gleam in the back of his eyes. I didn’t know what the gleam meant. The arm didn’t come with psychic powers, more’s the pity, and I didn’t have any of my own. But still, I recognized the ugly. 

So I lied. 

I’m an excellent liar. I like to think of it as creative story-telling, more than lying — bending the truth, not just deception — but the reality is, I’m a liar. I can tell a stone-cold lie, completely obviously untrue, and still get half my audience believing me. Of course, it’s the other half ya gotta watch out for. 

Anyway, back to this guy. He was big, but not enormous. Maybe outweighed me by 150 pounds or so, and I’m not a small girl. He had the pasty-white skin and bald head of a bred spacer, the kind who’d been evolving away from sunshine for a few too many generations, but the build of a heavy G ship lifer. Solid bones, that’s what my mom would have said. His eyes were a cold silvery gray, and like I said, there was a gleam in them that I didn’t like. 

He opened with a slurred, “How’d you lose the arm?” and a nod in the direction of my left shoulder. 

Now the truth of how I lost my arm and got a new one is a great story in its own right. It’s got drama and tension and plenty of surprising twists. But I don’t share it with casual strangers.

“Mining accident.” I gave him a big, bright smile and kept my voice super light and fluffy. The ultra-girl voice. Only an idiot would fall for me as a fluff-head — the arm, the clothes, the hair, the muscles, all ought to give away that I’m no such thing. But I had no reason to believe this guy wasn’t an idiot, so might as well give it a try. 

At best, he’d walk away fast. At worst, I’d walk away richer. “On Stanzia, you know it?” 

Stanzia was a hellhole. Not a fun place to live, and not the kind of place where a mining accident would net you a nifty cyborg arm. I personally had never been there. But out on this edge of the galaxy, no one else had either and most people had never heard of it. On the remote chance that he’d hit up the UD to check on me, though, it would pop as a real place, one with plenty of mines. 

“Can’t say as I have,” he replied with a twitch of his eyebrows. “Miner, huh?” He wasn’t slurring now, so maybe he wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought.

“Well, ex, now. My mining career didn’t last long.” I made my smile wider, brighter, and widened my eyes. “Six years of post-primary, but one little accident — totally not my fault — and they booted me out. Wouldn’t have much wanted to go back anyway, ‘a course, and the rehab took a while, and then there was that little bit about passing their damn drug tests.” I shrugged, making sure the movement lifted both arms equally. “Losing an arm hurts, and those pain pills were prescription. But whattaya gonna do? Can’t win against the man, am I right?” 

I have no idea who the man is. I’m not sure anyone does. It’s just one of those things that people say. A certain type of people, anyway; the young, stupid ones who might be willing to do something a little outside the law. The kind who might be so down and out that a drug courier gig could look like a good deal. 

And yeah, I wasn’t dressed right for that, but I’d just come into this dive bar to kill some time. I’d had no idea that opportunity might come knocking on my door. 

The ugly gleam deepened. But he didn’t offer the casual, “So you looking for work then?” that I’d been hoping for. Instead he gestured with his chin toward the bartender. “Let me buy you a drink.” 

It wasn’t a question. 

I kept my sigh internal. Dang. Well, a free drink, that was better than nothing, I supposed. But I’d probably have to put up with him while I drank it and something about him gave me the creeps. 

It wasn’t his clothing. His dark gray jumpsuit was standard issue attire, although it was a little weird that it didn’t have a single patch or insignia on it. Most folks in jumpsuits dressed them up with their ship logo, guild affiliation, even the games they played or followed on vid. The crap that identified them to their tribe, if you will. 

Of course, my own attire didn’t do much to identify me. I was wearing this cool black top with straps around the neckline. It was one of my favorite article of clothing, not because of the straps, but because it had this nifty mid-back holster that was so cleverly designed that your eye just skimmed over the weapon in it. Seriously, the sales guy had babbled a bunch of shit about the light-bending properties of the fabric, but I thought it was probably magic. 

Not real magic. Just kidding about that. 

The bartender poured two shots from a bottle off the shelf and the creep pushed one of them toward me. 

I blinked. 

My eyes were just normal eyes, no mods, so I couldn’t replay what I’d just seen. I had the usual interface chips but I didn’t run them on record full-time. The power drain wasn’t worth it to me. Plus I know there isn’t supposed to be a performance hit, but I always felt like the connection had a lag when I was uploading real-time vid. 

Point is, I couldn’t use replay to be sure what I’d seen. But I thought I’d seen a drop hit the surface of the shot. Just a tiny vibration. It might have been the movement, though, the bartender’s push of the glasses. 

The liquid was clear. I tipped my head to read the label of the bottle that the bartender had returned to the shelf; some kind of vodka I’d never heard of, maybe local. 

“Good stuff.” The creep tossed back the shot he’d kept. 

I pulled the other one toward me, lifted it, tilted the glass from side-to-side, looking into its depths. No sign of anything, no fizz from a pill, no traces of color from some added liquid. 

Well, what the hell, right? 

I lifted it to my lips, sniffed — the scent of pure alcohol acrid in my nostrils — then opened up. It burned on the way down, a harsh sizzle on the back of my throat, an immediate burn in my chest, but I managed not to cough. I did have to blink back some water in my eyes as I set the glass down with a sharp crack. “Hardcore.” 

The gleam was still there, and the creep had added a lift to one corner of his mouth. Still ugly, but now with an added hint of smugness. 

Oh, good. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. 

Sword training

 The battles had become tiresome. 

Maybe that was because Lila knew they were all faked. She wasn’t really face to face with some nightmare creature with giant suction cups where its face should have been, slithering toward her across a gloomy swamp. 

She was standing in a simulation room, deep in the bowels of the Sword and Shield skyscraper, and lunch should have started twenty minutes ago. The cafeteria would be out of the delicious fried tubers if they didn’t let her out of the simulation soon. 

Or maybe it was because she always lost the battles. The other trainees had been fighting in these kinds of simulations since they’d been discovered to be Wielders, usually sometime around four or five years old. They knew exactly how to move, what to do, when faced with every one of the monster creatures ever discovered on Salazie or the worlds surrounding it. 

“Lila, are you planning on moving anytime soon?” The voice in her ears sounded as tired and as annoyed as she felt. 

“I’m supposed to throw something at it, aren’t I?” She asked, taking a wild guess at the proper technique for battling a creature with suction cups. “Pepper or something?” 

“What?” The annoyed voice sounded incredulous. “What would — have you even watched the lesson? Do you even know what this creature is?” 

Lila bit the inside of her cheek to keep from making the snarky response that would only have gotten her in more trouble. But which one of the eight thousand lessons in her queue was she supposed to have watched? Did any of the instructors ever consider that if she was in class and training twelve hours a day, sleeping eight hours, and taking care of basic human needs like eating, bathing, and dressing for at least a few minutes more of the remaining, it left her very little time to review the endless stream of instruction that the System had lined up for her. 

She’d started out approximately ten years behind the other students in her age range. At the rate she was going, she’d be twelve years behind by the end of the year. 

The voice sighed. 

Lila had no idea who the voice belonged to. The instructors were constantly changing, the assistant teachers rotating in and out according to some mysterious schedule known only to the System. Each of the full Swords and most of the Sword trainees had to take supervisory rotations. Lila wasn’t entirely sure why but apparently the System believed that human supervision was an important precautionary measure when teaching violence. 

“You are battling — supposed to be battling — an Ancortian merslug,” the voice said, with faked patience. “They’re very sensitive to sound. Turn on your aural amplifier to a frequency of 17MhZ and hit play, so we can get the hell out of here.” The patience was entirely gone by the time he reached the end of his instructions. 

Lila checked the belt at her waist. Aural amplifier, that was one of the little black boxes. Not one that she used often. Basically, it made a big noise to scare the monsters away and most monsters were not so easily scared. She pulled it off, the clip that held it in place releasing at her tug, and held it up to her face. Set to 17, that must be the little slider thing on the edge. A small square display should reveal the number, but the screen wasn’t the light up kind, and it was hard to see in the dim light of the swamp. She looked down, toward her cheekbone, and found the icon for suit controls on her interface. Calling it up, she let her eyes drift down until she found the vision icon, then chose the one for brightness. She turned it up, sliding it slowly until she could see the display on the device in her hands clearly. 

She moved the dial on the device up, then down, then up again. The lowest number the display showed was 80. The highest number was 180. She thought the voice had said 17, but he must have meant 170. Right? She hesitated, then gave a tiny shrug, and pressed the play button. 

The noise was immense. 

Lila screamed and dropped the device, clapping her hands over her ears. What the hell? What kind of lousy advice was that? 

The voice was yelling at her, inside her head, but the sound couldn’t penetrate the roar around her. It felt like she was standing in the middle of a thunderclap that just kept going and going and going. 

She knelt and fumbled for the device, turning it over until she found the button that had turned it on. She pressed it again to turn it off. 

Silence, but her ears were still ringing and not just from the yells of the voice. “Megahertz, megahertz, not decibels! Frequency, not volume.” 

She didn’t have the faintest idea what he was yelling about. 

In a decidedly grumpy, but quieter voice, he said, “Well, you’re dead. The merslug would have eaten you before you even found the controls. Fail.” 

Lila stayed kneeling. The simulation wasn’t so good that the ground felt like swamp. She could tell that she was just on the same kind of bouncy artificial surface that all the exercise rooms had for flooring. Which was good, because she really wanted to pound on it, and she really didn’t want mud splattering into her face if she did. 

Her teeth were clenched. These simulations were so very stupid. When would she ever be wandering around a swamp like this alone, anyway? The Swords never went out alone, they were always in teams of five people. And if she had to face some creature with giant suction cups, she would avoid it first and if she couldn’t possibly avoid it, she’d zap it with lightning. 

But why wouldn’t she be able to avoid it? She could levitate herself out of any such stupid situation and obviously would. 

Of course, the administration at the Sword Academy didn’t know she could levitate. They thought she was only an illusion wielder. But even then, if she faced a monster like this one, she’d make herself invisible and get the hell out its way. 

Why were they so determined to make every peg fit into the same round hole? Every trainee had to learn to use the same weapons, had to develop the same strategies, had to pass the same tests. It was so stupid. 

A tiny red dot started blinking at the edge of Lila’s vision. Resigned, she accepted the request for communication access. 

It was text, not voice. A meeting had been added to her calendar, for forty minutes away. Just about enough time to get cleaned up and, if she hurried, to eat some lunch, too. Lila sighed and stood. 

The voice in her head said, “I’ve put you in for a retest, but you’ll need remedial instruction first. You should have recognized that merslug immediately. They’re distinctive and common enough on Andolyn that you will encounter one at some point…” There was a hesitation, brief but noticeable, before the voice continued. “…if you become an active Sword.” 

Lila would have liked to make a rude gesture at the speaker. If she’d had any idea where he was located or where the cameras were that he was using to watch her, she might have tried. But he was just a voice in her head. 

She trudged toward where she thought the exit door was located. But the swamp moved around her, trees scrolling on endlessly. 

“Do you mind?” she said, waving at the scenery. 

“Ah, sorry.” The voice sounded apologetic. 

The swamp disappeared. A wall appeared directly before her, with the door only a few feet to her left. 

Lila tried to let the thought of fried tubers improve her mood. But whatever the meeting was that had appeared in her calendar, it would take up time that she was supposed to be using for classes and then she’d need to make up the classes in some moment of her non-existent free time. The fried tubers were going to have to be good, because she was probably going to miss the evening meal. 

Chapter Eleven

The doors to the carpet slid open. 

 My grip on the strap dangling from the ceiling did not loosen. I knew I didn’t need to be as scared as I was. The silence had been foreboding, but before the silence, Rye had been talking about foster families and generous stipends. Those words did not portend my doom. 

I was scared anyway. 

Harmony walked out, but Rye didn’t move. He gestured toward the door. “They’ll be waiting for us upstairs.” 

They? They who? 

Could he be more ominous?  

But I couldn’t cower in the carpet for the rest of my life, so I lifted my chin and stepped out of it. Our surroundings were simple, a room made of the same white material as the buildings at Domas, unadorned. There were no windows, but dark openings at either end were big enough for vehicles many times larger than our small carpet to come in and out. 

“We came in the back way,” Rye said, following me out of the carpet. “Usually Swords travel through the zones. It’s much faster, but we wouldn’t take a rotecionata there unless it was a real emergency. This area’s mostly used for freight.” 

Harmony was already waiting by a door that looked like it might lead to one of the giant dumbwaiters. She glanced back at us over her shoulder. “The front entrance is super posh, very elegant. But there’s always media hanging around out there, and we didn’t want to let them get any shots of you two. They’d start speculating like crazy — she’s so young and you’re so pretty — and coming in with Rye and me, well, we’re always in the feeds.” 

As usual, I understood only about half of what Harmony said. Feeds? Shots? What was she talking about? But I did catch the compliment. 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. In my entire life, had anyone ever called me pretty? Perhaps when I was a baby, too young to remember, but Ella was the pretty one. She was beautiful and charming, and I was… well, I was the scary one. Which wasn’t the worst of fates, of course. I wouldn’t have liked being known as the stupid one. 

We were in the dumbwaiter and it was moving before I decided that I felt delighted about Harmony’s compliment. Really, quite delighted. Obviously, I was not so superficial as to believe that my appearance meant anything. Being pretty was not nearly as important as being clever or brave or strong. But still, it was quite nice to know that Harmony thought I was pretty. 

“So pretty,” even. 

I stole a glance at Rye. I admit, I hoped he also thought I was pretty. He was looking straight ahead, however, a tiny line between his brows, and with the twitches that said he was engaged in conversation over the System. If he thought I was pretty, it wasn’t what he was thinking about now. 

The dumbwaiter was either slow or traveling a great distance. When the doors slid open, I knew it was the latter, because directly in front of us was a wall of glass, and the scene beyond it was immensely far away. 

My indrawn breath was sharp as a gasp. Shoshi stirred and I patted her absently while I followed Rye and Harmony out of the dumbwaiter and into a corridor, never taking my eyes off the view. 

I’d started levitating at perhaps six or seven. It wasn’t my first talent, more a minor addition to an already complicated repertoire. If I remembered correctly, in fact, the first time I levitated was in desperation after Ella clambered out of our bedroom window and onto the roof, where she promptly got stuck. Her attempt to build wings happened several years later, but her fondness for roofs started early. 

As a levitation talent, I would have said I had no fear of heights. I’d lifted myself easily thirty or forty feet in the air and I could control my rate of descent should such be necessary. 

That said, this was a height to which I had never imagined ascending. Through the wall of glass, I could see innumerable shorter buildings and a few of similar height, stretching out before me like a tapestry. In the distance, water sparkled in the morning sunlight. A harbor held ships as large or larger than the buildings nearest to them, so huge they seemed inconceivable. 

The wall of glass extended ahead of us and I surmised it went all the way around the building, but we did not proceed that far. Halfway down the corridor, Rye paused. A door slid open and Harmony and I followed him into a meeting room, smaller than the typical classroom at Domas but large enough to hold a large table surrounded by cushioned chairs as well as a smaller table against an inner wall. Three people were already seated at the table, engaged in a conversation that broke off as we entered. 

Two of them wore the black uniform of the Swords, while the other was in the red that the Shields wore. I recognized her immediately; she was the Shield I’d seen the first day, doing something with a device around the rift and laughing. 

 She leaned back in her chair, eyeing me and Shoshi appraisingly. 

“What are you doing here, Mira?” Harmony asked. 

“Way to say hello,” the woman in red answered. She nodded at each of them. “Harmony, Rye.” 

Harmony clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Sorry. I was just surprised to see you.

Rye gave a terse nod, his expression unrevealing. He might have been communicating via the System, but if so, he wasn’t making any of the telltale minor movements. 

Shoshi stirred again. She’d opened her eyes and was blinking herself awake. 

I stroked her wisps of dark hair and murmured, “Good morning, sweet girl. Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.” I spoke in Tizain, of course. 

The Sword seated closest to us cocked his head to one side. His eyes narrowed. “No linguistic matches, according to available System data.” 

“You know that doesn’t mean a thing,” Harmony said. “Lucerne has dozens of languages, and even more dialects.” 

He smiled at her. It was actually a rather nice smile, affectionate and approving, as if her impudence pleased him rather than giving him pause. 

A door in the far wall opened and two more people came in, both clad in the black of the Swords. The woman was the oldest Sword I’d ever seen, her hair silvered, her dark eyes holding the look of one who had seen everything and was not inclined to tolerate tomfoolery. She carried herself, however, with the same air of grace and strength as the younger Swords. She reminded me a tiny bit of my mother, if my mother had worn a form-fitting uniform and had looked as deadly as most people thought she actually was.

The man with her did not have the same presence, but he spoke first. “Tell us about the incursion.” 

“It was an emergent manifestation, not an incursion,” Rye replied. “An illusion. There was no rift.” 

“Ha.” The woman in red, Mira, sounded triumphant. “I told you, when I seal a rift, it stays sealed.” 

The man’s lips pursed. “You’re sure? The folks at Domas who sounded the alarm seemed far more concerned than would be warranted by an emerging illusion crafter.” 

“Quite sure.” Rye tipped his head to the side. “Review 7.43 to 7.46.” 

Everyone in the room, except for Shoshi and me, stared at the wall in their own line of sight. I watched their expressions change. Mira caught her breath, then pressed her lips together as if ashamed of her reaction. The Swords at the table frowned. The older woman lifted a single eyebrow, then smoothed out her expression. The man with the pursed lips pursed them deeper, looking displeased. 

It seemed obvious that they were watching the monster bugs Shoshi had created and I had burned. I wondered whose eyes they were looking through. Could they see my lightning? Or the fire attack that had fizzled? 

Lying to Rye about my abilities had been instinctive. Was I about to get caught? 

Shoshi started to fuss. I couldn’t blame her. I would rather like to start fussing myself. She still wore her sleeping attire, including a diaper that had undoubtedly been used hours ago, and neither of us had eaten breakfast. She was understandably cranky. 

So was I. 

Perhaps I had simply been scared for too long, but my anxiety was rapidly turning into annoyance. I didn’t like the way these people were treating me. Oh, it was better than a quick death, of course, but where were their manners? They hadn’t even introduced themselves or invited me to be seated. I wished I could consult my etiquette instructor on the appropriate response to their lack of social graces, but under the circumstances, I thought equal bluntness might be permissible. 

I turned to Rye. “Going make us stand here forever?” 

He blinked, glancing away from the wall he’d been staring at. 

“Shoshi hungry,” I continued. “Need clean clothes. Drag us away, no breakfast.” 

I think there might have been a glint of laughter in his eyes, but I might have been imagining it. His face remained impassive as he said, “Of course. We’ll try to expedite this. Perhaps—“ He glanced at the man at the table, the one who’d smiled at Harmony. 

The man jumped to his feet. “My pleasure.” He held his hands out to me. 

I had no intention whatsoever of simply passing Shoshi over to a total stranger. But a wave of warmth and comfort and reassurance washed over me. It felt like sunshine on an early spring day or the coziness of clean sheets fresh from the line. 

Shoshi crowed with laughter and leaned out, arms extended toward the man. 

“What—?“ I managed. 

“Simon’s a projective empath,” Rye murmured. 

“And fond of the little ones,” the man said, scooping Shoshi out of my arms and beaming at her. “What do you think, Button? Some fresh bread with berry jam, perhaps? Would that taste good?”  

Fresh bread with berry jam? My mouth watered at the thought and my stomach rumbled in agreement. I hadn’t eaten anything except the crumbly squares since we’d arrived on Salazie. I didn’t even realize they had real food on Salazie. 

“We’ll bring some back for you.” Simon touched my arm in passing and the sense of well-being strengthened, then diminished again as he let his hand drop away and moved toward the door with Shoshi. 

She was making no protest. She barely even seemed to notice she was leaving me behind, her eyes locked onto Simon’s face. I would have liked to object, but it was impossible. 

“Don’t worry,” Harmony said. “Simon will take good care of her. He’s a great dad.” 

I looked at her, my expression perhaps conveying my opinion of this whole business, and she smiled. “Personal experience. He was my foster father.” 

“Impressive illusions,” the older woman finally said, interrupting us. “Especially for an emergent wielder.” She looked directly at me. “Where are you from?” 

My mother did not have Truesight. Even so, only a fool would tell her a direct lie. If you wanted to convince my mother of a falsehood, it could only be done with misdirection.

I hesitated, but finally said, reluctantly, “Country named Tizai.”

She looked into space for a few seconds, checking the System. “We have no record of it. And none of your rescue. Who brought you to Domas?” 

Obviously, they only had to ask the System the right questions to learn that I had not come to Domas alone. But perhaps they wouldn’t think to ask the right questions. It was all I could hope for, the only way I could keep Ella safe.  

“Brought self,” I replied. 

“Explain.” The word was a command. She made no attempt to cushion it with any polite niceties, but as resentful as I felt, I couldn’t bring myself to not reply. 

“Walking garden home,” I said carefully. No need to explain that we’d chosen to go through the rift. “Then in other place. Confusing. Many places, all—“ I gestured with my hands, trying to convey the enormity of that cold white space. “—jumbled.” I finally finished. “Walked and walked. Then saw littles playing, fell through hole. Za Kestrel find, say go school.” 

I tried to look innocent, not at all like the kind of person who’d deliberately ripped a giant hole in the wall of their world in order to enter it. 

I was probably not successful, because the man’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you of Domas?” 

His question was completely unexpected. I’d been anticipating that they’d ask me about Ella or the rift we’d opened, and I’d worried that Rye would mention the fires I’d been smothering when he found us in the forest. 

I shook my head, no longer feeling like I needed to pretend to be innocent. “No one.” 

“You expect us to believe you wandered through the interstitial zone until you randomly happened upon a safe haven for refugee children?” the man continued scornfully. 

Obviously, that wasn’t what had happened at all. Ella’s Truesight had led us to Domas. She’d known what she was looking for and her gift had obliged. But I wasn’t going to reveal that to these strangers, so I shrugged. “Lucky, I guess.” 

The man snorted. “Luck?” 

The older woman shot him a stern glance and he fell silent. 

No one spoke. 

I waited. I couldn’t detect any of the signs that indicated they were communicating via System, but if the silence was meant to encourage me to continue revealing more information about my background, they were sadly mistaken in their audience. I was well-used to remaining silent under questioning, albeit mostly because Ella would usually have been filling any silence with her bright persuasiveness. 

The door behind the older woman slid open and another Sword entered. This one was young, female, and extremely beautiful. She could have been Rye’s twin, with similar features, more finely sculpted, and the same eyes that held streaks of gold on a deeper brown. 

She was carrying a long, thin box, made of the shiny white material most often used for objects that were not magical and would not change shape. She set it down on the end of the table. The older woman opened it and turned it to face me. 

“Is this yours?” 

It was Father’s carving knife. 

I stared at it, mind racing. 

I should lie. Who went walking in their garden carrying a carving knife? What did it say about us that we’d been armed?

But the question almost had to be rhetorical. Obviously, it was ours. We’d come through that rift, and had been discovered mere moments later. Who else would have dropped a knife there? 

Ella would have managed some beautifully complicated story about people chasing us and our desperate escape and our need for sanctuary. Everyone in the room would have been enormously sympathetic before she was halfway through. 

I could do nothing of the kind. 

“Yes,” I said flatly. 

The woman indicated the handle with a single finger. “And this symbol? What does it mean?” 

It was Father’s sigil, not the de Winterhoffe crest, but I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. As far as I was concerned, the sigil meant, “Do not touch, lest the most fearsome sorcerer on Tizai take offense,” but that would be rather hard to explain to anyone who didn’t know my father. 

The helpful translator in my head didn’t seem to be providing the appropriate vocabulary, either. Did they not have the concept of monograms on Salazie? 

“Identification mark,” I finally hazarded. 

“What does it identify?” the woman asked. 

I looked her straight in the eye and widened my own, as if the question was mystifying. 

“Knife maker?” I said as if it were a question, not at all as if I was telling a bald-faced lie. Perhaps I had learned something from Ella, after all. 

“Coincidence, then,” the man next to her murmured. 

I had the impression that she would have sighed if she’d been a different sort of person. Instead she closed the lid of the box and pushed it aside. 

“However you came to Salazie, we are pleased to welcome you,” she said formally. 

I blinked. That… was not what I’d expected her to say. 

She gestured toward a seat. “Let us now discuss your future.” 

I swallowed. I no longer believed they were going to kill me. But I strongly suspected I wasn’t going to much like whatever it was that she did have in mind. 

She surprised me, however, for the first thing she said after I sat down at the table was, “Would you like to return to your home?” 

Yes! And… no. 

I must have looked as stunned as I felt, because she continued, “You’re not the first wanderer we’ve found. Our teams can’t always return the lost to their homes, but you’re capable of describing your world to us. Indeed, with illusion-crafting you can paint a picture far more vivid than most. We have path finders, although never as many as we need, but we could spare one for a few days to search for a route to your home for you. We don’t want to keep you here against your will.” 

Reader, I am ashamed to admit that my first thought was of tea. Delicious black tea, steeped properly, with a dollop of real milk. That thought was rapidly followed by images of fresh eggs, bacon, scones with clotted cream, and crisp apples straight from the tree. 

In my defense, I was hungry. 

Also in my defense, I’m sure it was only a few seconds before I thought properly of home. My parents, the rest of the family, the servants — all the people who would have been searching for us. The villagers probably hadn’t missed us, but Father was certain to be in a foul mood. They’d be relieved and grateful to have us home, if only to ease his temper. 

Us. 

My thoughts stopped there. 

Ella. 

The woman was still talking, but I couldn’t even hear her words. My sister would not be happy to be home. She loved it here. And she had so many opportunities here that were nothing like those she had at home. No one in Tizai was suggesting she go to diplomacy school or medical school or whatever the school of the day at Domas was. No one in Tizai was delighted by her eager intelligence. No one in Tizai… no one in Tizai deserved her. 

But if I went home without her… 

I interrupted whatever the woman was saying. “No, thank you.” 

“I — what?” She looked confused. 

“I not go home, please. I stay here.” 

I was not about to explain to my parents how I’d left Ella to fend for herself on an alien world. Not that I had the faintest idea how I’d help her if she needed help, given that the Swords had swooped me away from Domas like I was yesterday’s fish, but that wasn’t the point. 

Home was not an option. 

“In that case, you’ll need to be trained,” the woman said. She seemed pleased, in a grim sort of way. 

E&L – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

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. 

I waited. 

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. 

E&L Ch9 – Let’s watch them burn

(Note for Tim: I added a few more lines to Ch8, to make this transition work.)

Chapter Nine

I blame the weather, to be honest. 

We’d arrived on Salazie in late summer. At the time, the grass was green and lush, the forest rich with the sounds of birds and the rustlings of busy small animal lives. The children played outside every day, both organized sports in the courtyards, supervised by the instructors, and the random games of childhood on the open grounds beyond the walls of the school building. 

But the seasons were changing as seasons were wont to do, the days growing shorter, the leaves dropping from the trees, and the weather turning colder. On my last morning at Domas, the ground was crisp with frost. 

I’d woken up at my usual time, taken care of the necessities, and hurried to the rotecionata halls, as was my daily routine. Za Reija and Za Kestrel were already there, helping the littles with their own necessities. 

“Ah, good, Lila, good to see you.” The circles under Za Reija’s eyes looked deeper than usual. He held a little on each arm. In the pack on his back, a third was sobbing, tiny fists clenched on Za Reija’s shoulders. 

The rotecionata had smaller sleeping pods, not built into the walls the way the roteciona pods were, but lined against them. Usually when I arrived in the morning, all the tops were open and most of the littles had already been moved into either the addie carriers used to transport them to the breakfast room, or to a circular enclosure on the floor which held soft toys and a central small play structure. 

On this morning, however, a solid quarter of the pods were still closed. In one of the nearest, I could see Shoshi, soundlessly crying, her face screwed up in fury, tears running down her face. 

“Bad night?” I asked, immediately crossing to her pod, and tapping the latch to open it. 

As the top slid open, the sound of her cries burst forth, a high-pitched shriek that filled the room. I saw Za Reija wince, as Za Kestrel immediately turned to check on the noise. 

Za Reija shook his head. A yellow light blinked in the corner of my vision and I acknowledged it, letting Za Reija open a line to my System. 

Terrible, his voice sounded in my head. I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve checked and double-checked the medic alerts. Shoshi’s temp’s a little high, but nothing that should cause her serious discomfort. But she’s miserable, and it’s been contagious. They’re all upset. I’ve called for more assistance, but if you could take her, it might help. 

Just her? I asked as I lifted Shoshi out of her pod. Usually, I loaded up an addie carrier with four littles, the number it could comfortably carry, then escorted it to the breakfast room while carrying two or three more littles. While the first set of littles were being fed and supervised by one of the other instructors, I’d return for another load. 

Just her, Za Reija confirmed. 

“Shh, shhhh.” I tried to comfort Shoshi, rocking her in my arms, but she arched her back, screaming hard. 

Maybe outside? He suggested. Even his mental voice sounded tired. 

I nodded, and closed the open line. At night, the rotecionata wore soft sleepers with built-in diapers. In the morning, an adult or one of the older students would help divest them of their sleepers, then place them on a wardrobe pad in the corner of the room. Uniforms — exactly like all of the other student uniforms, except for their small size — would flow into shape around their bodies. 

But Za Kestrel was busy at the wardrobe pad with a line of littles and Shoshi was screaming so hard that joining the line seemed inadvisable. Instead, I headed straight for the door. It was not yet so cold that a few minutes in the fresh air in her sleeper would do her any harm. 

At the doorway, I almost bumped into Ella. She was yawning, her eyes only half open, her curls still tangled and sleep mussed.  

“G’morning,” she mumbled at me. “Here to help.” 

“Za Reija will be happy to see you,” I said through Shoshi’s wails. 

“Mmm.” Ella leaned into me, as if she’d fall asleep against me if I gave her the chance. 

I chuckled, adjusting Shoshi on my hip, and curving my arm around my sister. She’d never been a morning person. 

“No, no, no.” Shoshi sobbed, pushing Ella’s head away from me. 

“What’s wrong with her?” Ella straightened, opening her eyes wider. 

“I don’t know.” I patted Shoshi’s back. “Nightmare, maybe? We’re going to go for a little walk and see if some outside time helps.” 

“M’kay.” Ella moved aside to let us pass, but she frowned as she watched us go. 

When I accompanied an addie laden with littles, I used the giant dumbwaiters to reach the ground floor, but since I only had Shoshi, I took the stairs. They were hidden behind a door at the end of the hallway, but were nicely wide, suitable for the crowds of students climbing them daily. At the moment, a steady flow of roteciona was headed down them toward the breakfast room, with an occasional student moving against the flow of traffic to return to their sleeping hall for one reason or another. 

Shoshi sobbed in my ear, still inconsolable, but her cries barely penetrated the chaos of chattering voices and thudding footsteps. I returned the greetings directed my way absently, more focused on Shoshi than on my surroundings, but steered my steps toward the front of the building instead of the courtyard next to the breakfast room. It would be crowded this time of day, with students coming and going, and Shoshi needed peace. What could be distressing her so? 

“What’s wrong, sweet girl?” I murmured. “What do you need? I’m here, I’ll help you.” 

She turned her head and her eyes met mine. 

Shoshi was not the world’s prettiest child. Objectively, Tycho was far more charming, with darling round cheeks and the sweetest brown curls. Shoshi had wisps of straight black hair on a mostly bald head and pale skin that made her look sickly at the best of times. Her tears had left her eyes red and her skin blotchy, with yellow snot clogging her nose. 

None of that mattered. I loved her anyway. I’d been helping out with the littles for a solid two weeks before she smiled at me, but when she did, it was like finding the first snowdrop of spring, a tiny little miracle of Midwinter. 

“Bad,” she said to me woefully. 

“What’s bad?” I asked her as we neared the door. 

She let her head drop to the curve of my shoulder and neck. “Mama.” She whimpered, her voice so soft I could barely hear her. “Mama.” 

I stopped moving. 

No one ever spoke of the children’s parents. I still thought of my own sometimes, of course. And not always in fear of what they might do when they found us. Granted, my father was Tizai’s most fearsome sorcerer, and my mother could be both brusque and unkind to her daughters, but they were still my parents. 

Shoshi was so young, though. Could she really remember the people she’d lost? 

I started walking again. The door slid open at my approach and we stepped outside. The day was bright and clear, the air crisp on my cheeks. I thought it felt refreshing, but Shoshi disagreed. Vehemently. 

Her head lifted again, her eyes went wide, and she shrieked. “Bad! Bad!”

I was so startled, I jumped. My hold on her loosened, but I tightened my arms again before she could slip more than a bit. Then I froze and my grip turned into the vise-like bind of a drowning woman catching a far-flung rope. 

Monsters were emerging from the forest, hovering in the air across the expanse of land before us. If Ella hadn’t shown me the scene from the Swords on Lucerne, I might have thought them some strange version of a flying maintenance addie, but I recognized their bulbous eyes and protuberant spikiness. 

A rift must have opened beyond the trees. 

Domas had to have emergency procedures for such events, but no one had shared them with me. I had no idea what to do. My first instinct was the obvious: I wanted to run into the building, slamming the door behind me. But there would be children in the courtyard, lots of them, and the walls would do nothing to stop attacks from the sky. 

A great calm swept over me. Shoshi was still screaming, but the sound of my own heartbeat was so loud in my ears I could barely hear her. Without taking my eyes off the swarm of monsters, I pressed my lips against her forehead, then ordered my uniform to reshape itself into a harness. The material slid up and around her and I released my grip on her as my uniform shifted her to my back. 

Electricity or fire? Fire was my strongest talent, but always dangerous. The forest had only gotten dryer over the weeks we’d been on Domas and I’d hate to start a forest fire that could burn uncontrolled through the dry brush. 

Of course, electricity could also start a fire. But a lightning bolt might travel between the creatures, killing more than one with a single strike. I’d never had to worry about how much energy I had before — my issue was always control of my abilities, not power —  but more of the monster bugs were appearing with every passing second. It was not the time for halfway measures. Lightning would be deadlier, I decided, so lightning it was. 

I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t simply use the System to call for help. 

An excellent question. 

In retrospect, it’s certainly one I ask myself. 

But I was the product of an upbringing where “trouble” and “in trouble” were usually one and the same. When I stopped Ella from testing her flying machine, we were both confined to the schoolroom for two solid weeks. When I prevented her from swimming to the underwater caves, we weren’t allowed to go near the water for the rest of the summer. Summoning an adult was a strategy of last resort for me. 

Also, and perhaps more to the point, it simply didn’t occur to me. I spent most of my time with the rotecionata and they didn’t have the System installed, so I rarely used it for communication. 

Am I making excuses for my own stupidity? Yes, of course I am. If I’d spent a fraction of the time experimenting with the System that Ella had, I would have sent out a System-wide alert, the school would have gone into lockdown, the Shields and Swords would have appeared in mere moments to defend us, and my story… well, in point of fact, it probably would have ended exactly the same way. 

Because I shot lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the monsters and not a bloody thing happened. They continued to approach, flying over the grass in a slow glide that seemed endless. My electricity went straight through them, then fizzled out in the air with a sharp crackle and the crisp smell of stormy weather. 

It was the crackle that made me realize the monster bugs were remarkably silent. Not that I knew what a monster bug should sound like, but I was well used to the quiet hum of bees and the annoying burr of flies in the forest and gardens at home. Insects like these, huge and winged, growing ever nearer, ought to be making more noise. I ought to be able to hear them over the sound of Shoshi’s sobs. 

The fog horn alarm I’d last heard weeks ago began bellowing, ruining all possibility of hearing the monsters. But I stopped shooting electric bolts at them and focused. I would try fire, just once, on the closest bug. I stared at its iridescent eye, a bulb the size of one of the balls the older roteciona played with, and pushed with all my mental might, forcing fire energy at it. 

It should have exploded into flames. 

It didn’t. 

On my shoulder, Shoshi’s cries were softening with exhaustion. “Bad, bad, bad.” She choked out the words through her sobs. 

“Bad, yes.” I agreed with her. 

The yellow light was blinking in the corner of my vision. I accepted the communication request absently, still staring at the monsters. They’d stopped moving. 

Ella’s desperate voice sounded in my head. It’s an illusion. Don’t do anything stupid. 

It was far too late for that. 

The monsters attacked Lucerne a year ago, at the turning of the seasons. Shoshi must have seen at least the beginning of their invasion. Somehow she was rescued, but this memory had lingered in the recesses of her mind. Had she dreamed of it in the night? 

She was young for her talent to manifest, but obviously not too young. 

I told my uniform to reshape the harness holding her in place again, pulling her back to the enclosure of my arms.

Illusion was simply a reshaping of light. Most illusion casters found it vastly easier to create an image that replicated a memory, and I was no exception to that rule. But I’d seen the bugs now and I’d certainly seen enough flame in my lifetime. It was no struggle to merge the two. Taking control of the illusion was as easy as overlaying my image on top on hers. 

“Look, Shoshi.” Perhaps it was a little bloodthirsty of me to set the monsters burning. Perhaps it would have been better for her emotional well-being if I’d transformed them into flowers or butterflies or something peaceful and beautiful. But if Shoshi remembered this trauma when she was older, I hoped the utter destruction of the creatures would offer her some satisfaction. 

It was certainly satisfying for me. 

I stood there, holding Shoshi while we watched the creatures burn, until the Swords began floating down out of the sky. 

Ella and Lila (Chapter One – repeat)

Chapter One 

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. 

“Ella?” 

“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 sighed. 

“Please?”

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.” 

Luck, Ch2

Chapter Two

Laurel stared at the ceiling. An overhead fan was twirling lazily. She didn’t really need it, the temperature in the room was perfectly comfortable, and the breeze unnecessary, but the sight was mildly hypnotic. 

Her life had gotten really strange. Maybe she was dreaming? 

She didn’t feel like she was dreaming, though. 

She turned onto her side. She needed to think. Calmly, coolly, dispassionately. She needed to consider everything that had happened and… 

She flipped back onto her back. She did not want to think. 

Maybe it had to be done, but not yet, not now. 

Instead, her thoughts floated back to her dinner companions. Now that was something to think about. 

She hadn’t accepted their invitation to join them on their family trip, despite the seeming sincerity of the invitation. But she had promised to consider it and decide in the morning. That was — she turned to her side again, looking for a clock, but the room had no bedside clock. She picked up her phone from the bedside table and looked at its screen. 

Ugh. 

She felt like she’d been lying awake forever, but it wasn’t even midnight. She set her phone down and collapsed back onto the bed, thoughts turning to the rest of the evening. 

Her dinner had been as delicious as promised, but a little strange. She’d never ordered. She’d never even seen a menu. The waitress had been serving the others and she’d set a plate before Laurel and Laurel had tried to explain that she hadn’t asked for it. But it was busy and the waitress was moving fast and, well, somehow that meal just became Laurel’s. 

If she’d seen a menu, she probably would have ordered the exact same thing, but it was still odd. Not so much the waitress making a mistake — that could happen anywhere — but the calm acceptance everyone at the table had shown about it. Not that Laurel expected anyone to make a scene, but… well, it had been a good meal. Something about it felt slightly surreal, but there was no point worrying about it. 

And she didn’t have to worry about Sadie, either. After dinner, Niall and Noah and Grace had walked her back to her car. Noah didn’t have a code reader, whatever that mysterious device was, but he’d tightened her gas cap and suggested she turn the car on. Like magic, the check engine light had disappeared. She might have felt stupid about that, but Niall and Noah had started bouncing stories about car disasters off one another and she’d been too busy laughing to feel like an idiot. 

They were fun. It would be fun to go to Disney with them. Certainly more fun than going by herself. But…

She sat up, picked up her pillow, plumped it furiously, then plopped down on it, staring up at the moving fan again. 

With the check engine light resolved, Laurel could have driven away. But it had been dark by then, and it wasn’t like she had reservations anywhere. No one was waiting for her. So instead, she’d walked with Grace and the brothers through the springlike evening to the Sunshine Bed & Breakfast, just a block up from the main street. It was a lovely little place, with a white picket fence and a brick walkway, and one available room left, the room in which she was currently not sleeping. 

She sighed. 

It was a nice room, and the bed was comfortable, with great sheets. But she was too restless to sleep and staying in bed was just making it worse. The innkeeper had shown her where the tea and coffee were kept and told her to help herself. Maybe a cup of tea, some nice herbal flavor, would be relaxing. 

She hadn’t, of course, packed a robe. It hadn’t even occurred to her. But her pajamas were presentable enough: skimpy shorts and a t-shirt that said, ‘On Sundays, we stay in bed.’ She debated shoes for a second, but then, barefoot, pulled open her door. 

The house was hushed. She could hear a low murmur of sound from one of the nearby bedrooms — maybe a conversation, maybe someone watching a video on a computer or tablet — but the lights were dimmed in the hallway. She felt an impulse to tiptoe going down the stairs, but resisted. She wasn’t being surreptitious, she was just getting herself a cup of tea. Still, being quiet was only considerate. 

At the bottom of the stairs, the heavy front door stood slightly ajar.

Laurel paused. 

It was late. Why was the door open? Quietly, she padded over to it and peeked out. It was dark, but a lamppost by the gate spread a warm yellow light across the peaceful lawn and gardens. 

“Hey.” A voice came out of the darkness. 

Laurel squeaked as she jumped back into the house, heart racing. 

“Sorry.” The voice held a laugh that she recognized. It was Niall. “Didn’t mean to startle you, just didn’t want you to close the door and lock me out.” 

Hand to her heart, Laurel looked out again. He was sitting on the steps, leaning against the post. She must have looked right over him. 

“What are you doing out here?” She stepped out onto the porch, shivering slightly as the cool night air hit her bare legs and arms. 

“Oh.” He let out a long sigh, then lifted a wine glass in her direction. “Appreciating the night. Or drowning my sorrows, take your pick.” 

“Drowning your sorrows?” Laurel stepped closer to him, trying to see his expression. Was he kidding? 

“I’ve been dumped,” he said, setting the glass down next to him. “By text, no less.” 

“Ouch. That’s cold.” 

“It is,” he agreed fervently. “And her timing—“ He shook his head. “Not the best. Although…” He laughed, but it sounded pained. “Check it out.” 

He shifted but Laurel couldn’t see what he was doing, until he held his hand up with something in it. 

She stepped closer. He was holding a small, square box in a distinctive shade of blue. “Is that—?” 

“Yep.” He didn’t lower his arm, still holding the box out to her. “Go ahead, take a look.” 

She took the box away from him and opened it. There was enough light to see the ring inside. It was a diamond, probably close to 2 carats, wrapped in ribbons of pavé diamonds, set in a platinum band of more diamonds. 

“It’s gorgeous,” she said politely.  

“It’s gaudy,” he replied. 

“Well…” She bit back her smile. “Yeah, maybe. Not really the kind of thing I’d want to wear every day.” She handed the box back to him. 

“Me, neither.” His mouth twisted, smile wry, as he put the box back into his pocket.

“It’s beautifully made, though,” Laurel said. Had agreeing with him been rude? 

“She would have loved it.” 

Laurel dropped down onto the step next to him. “Are you okay?” 

“I had it all planned,” he told her. “I’ve got dinner reservations at Cinderella’s Castle during the fireworks show. The view’s not supposed to be that great from inside the castle and the food’s just okay, but it seemed romantic.” 

“Definitely,” she agreed. “Happily Ever After fireworks, right? What could be more romantic than that?” 

He sighed again. “The funny thing is…” He let the words trail off.

After a few seconds, Laurel prompted him. “The funny thing?” 

“I thought I was ready for a change,” he said, then corrected himself. “I am ready for a change. But… this is embarrassing to admit.” 

Laurel waited. When he didn’t say anything more, she shifted her position, making herself comfortable leaning against the other porch post. 

“You aren’t going to ask?” He sounded amused. 

“Well…” She was pretty sure he’d tell her eventually. She wasn’t going to pry, but he obviously needed someone to talk to, and she was the only one around. 

“I need another glass of wine for this,” he said. “Would you like one?” 

“Ah — sure?” Where was he going to find a drink this time of night? 

But he stood and disappeared into the house, returning a couple minutes later with another glass, a half empty bottle, and a lightweight blanket. 

He draped the blanket around her shoulders. “Grabbed it off the couch for you. It’s a lot warmer than New York, but not that warm.” 

“Thank you.” She snuggled into the blanket, holding it closed with one hand. 

He poured red wine into both glasses, then handed one to her. He tapped his glass against hers. “To running away.”

She chuckled. “To running away,” she agreed. “Where did you get the wine?” 

“Leftovers from Avery’s Wine O’Clock. I should have asked if you wanted white. There might be some in the fridge.” 

“No, this is fine.” She sipped, cautiously, but it was a pleasant red, not overly intense.

Silence fell between them, but it wasn’t awkward. It felt companionable. 

Laurel finally broke it, asking, “Are you going to tell me what you’re embarrassed about?” 

He gave a faint laugh. “Wouldn’t you rather tell me your story than hear my pathetic tale?” 

“Not really. In fact, not at all.” 

“Ah, a lady of mystery,” he said lightly. 

“Not really that, either. Just…” She tried to imagine explaining her story to him. “It’s complicated.” 

“I like complicated stories.” 

She smiled into the darkness, not looking at him. “Maybe someday. But not tonight.” 

“Fair enough. My story then.” He said the words, but then he fell silent again. 

She waited. 

Finally, he said, “The embarrassing thing is that I mostly feel relieved. That ring — I spent a small fortune on it. I did it because I knew it would matter to Sierra, that it was what she would expect. But I should have known it was a mistake when I was looking for the ugliest ring they had.” 

Laurel tried to disguise her snort of laughter as a cough, not very successfully. “It’s not that bad.” 

“I didn’t buy the ugliest one,” he protested. “I just looked for it. Not a good sign.”

“Why did you want to marry her?” Laurel asked. 

“She’s beautiful?” Niall laughed. “Damn, but that makes me sound superficial. She is beautiful, though. She’s a model. You might have heard of her, Sierra Harlow?” 

Laurel’s mouth didn’t drop open, but it took an effort. She had indeed heard of his girlfriend. Probably anyone who paid any attention at all to fashion would have. Sierra Harlow was tall, skinny, glamorous, with perfect skin and elegant cheekbones. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was spectacular. 

“Um, yeah.” Laurel was glad her voice didn’t squeak. “I’ve heard of her.” 

“Turns out, she doesn’t like Disney. She thinks it’s for children. And she doesn’t like kids, either.” Niall sounded horrified. “Who can not like kids? They’re just small people. And they’re so interesting. They have such weird ideas.” 

Laurel liked kids. And she liked guys who liked kids, too. But she wasn’t going to say either of those things aloud. Instead, she asked, “Why was she coming with you, then?” 

“It was a surprise,” Niall said, sounding gloomy. “A week’s vacation. I thought it would be fun. But somehow she got the idea that we were heading to Saint-Tropez. I don’t even know why she’d want to go there. She doesn’t like the sun, it’s bad for her skin. She doesn’t like salt water, it’s bad for her hair. She doesn’t like beaches, because sand. Why would I have taken her to Saint-Tropez?” 

Laurel pressed her lips together to stop her laugh from escaping. She wanted to be sympathetic, truly she did, but he sounded so plaintive. 

“You have to come with us now,” Niall said. 

“Excuse me?” Laurel’s eyes widened. His girlfriend dumped him so she had to join them? What kind of suggestion was that? 

“I’m odd man out in this crew. I’ve barely met any of them, except Noah, of course, and — well, yeah, that’s a long story, too. But you can’t abandon me to being the third wheel with my brother and his girlfriend. It would be cruel and unusual punishment. Sadistic. And me with a broken heart and all.” 

He was leaning forward and she was almost positive that he’d batted his ridiculous eyelashes at her. 

“Are you fluttering your eyelashes at me?” she asked sternly. 

His bark of laughter was loud enough that he covered his mouth and looked toward the door. “Oops. Don’t want to wake the neighbors.” 

“Your heart is not broken,” Laurel said dryly. But her own heart was beating a little faster. Going to the Magic Kingdom with a family not her own was one thing — maybe more fun than solitary wandering, but maybe lonelier, too. 

Going with a cute, funny guy, though? That was tempting. Really tempting. 

“Nope, it’s not. Not even the tiniest bit broken, which definitely makes me think I dodged a bullet. But I’m serious. I wouldn’t have come on this trip if I’d thought it was gonna be just me.” 

Laurel hesitated. She drank a little more of her wine, swirling it around in her mouth before swallowing, while she considered. Finally she set the glass down on the step next to her and said, “Tell me the long story. The one about you and your twin.” 

Niall picked up the bottle and added more wine to her glass. “Evil twins unite? I’ll tell you if you tell me.” 

“If I tell you what?” 

“Why you’re the evil twin. Or not, as the case may be. I saw the way you had to think about it.” 

Laurel’s mouth twisted. “Yeah.” She stared at her bare feet, wiggling her toes. She wasn’t going to tell Niall the whole story, not all of it. Not why she was running away. 

But he was a total stranger. Maybe it would help her think things through to talk about it with someone else. “All right. But you first.” 

“Done.” Niall leaned back against the post. He seemed to be thinking, then said, “I guess it’s not such a long story, really. When we graduated from high school, Noah joined the service, I went to college. He wound up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wound up on Wall Street. It—“ 

His voice roughened. “It messed us up. Messed him up, really. He nearly died once, but he went back anyway. Then he just, he shut down. He stopped calling, stopped writing. After he got out, he disappeared. We didn’t know where he was for months.” 

Laurel could barely breathe. Their stories weren’t the same, not really. Her brother had no war to explain his choices. But at the same time… 

She kept her voice even, nonjudgemental, as she said, “Drugs?” 

Niall shrugged. “If so, he’s never said. About a year ago, he—“ He seemed to be picking his words carefully. “—he resolved some shit. That’s his to tell, not mine. But since then, we’ve been trying, both of us. All of us, really. He visited our mom in Maine last summer, and I saw him, too, just for a weekend. Then he came home for Christmas, which was a really big deal. And then this — this’ll be the longest time we’ve spent in the same place in a decade or so. He invited our mom, too, but she couldn’t make it.” 

He exhaled. “The evil twin thing — we used to do this shtick in high school. All about picking up girls, really, arguing who was the good twin, who was the bad. Girls like the bad one, usually. But I don’t want him to ever think that I’m judging his choices. Or his past. I spent our twenties having fun on Wall Street and he spent them serving our country. And then wrestling with his demons. He doesn’t ever get to be the evil twin again. He’s a fucking hero, whether he believes it or not.” The words were unexpectedly intense. He shook his head, then lifted his wineglass and drained it. 

Laurel waited until he set the glass down. “I wish I could say the same about my twin. He was a baseball player. Really good. Obsessed. But he blew out his elbow in our junior year of high school. They gave him painkillers for the surgery and now…” She blew out her own long breath of air. 

“He’s an addict?” Niall asked. 

Laurel nodded. 

“That’s rough.” 

Laurel tightened her grip on the blanket. Unconsciously, she clasped her left wrist with her right hand, stroking the skin of her arm with her thumb. 

“Doesn’t that make him the evil twin, then?”

The corners of her lips lifted but it wasn’t a real smile. “It’s complicated. And still depends on who you ask.” 

“Is that what you’re running away from?” 

Her smile deepened and turned real. “Also complicated. And not the story I promised to tell.” She picked up her glass and finished off the wine in it, then stood, bringing the blanket with her. 

Niall rose, too. He was standing two steps below her on the porch, which put them almost at eye level. “Please tell me you’ll play with me at Disney. I have FastPasses.” 

He made the final phrase sound like a temptation, as if he was offering her ice cream or some chocolate treat. 

“FastPasses?” Laurel asked. 

“When you buy your admission ticket, you can schedule times for the most popular rides, so you don’t have to wait in line. Otherwise, the lines can last for hours. Sierra won’t be using her admission, obviously, but I’m sure I can transfer it to you. Or you could pretend to be Sierra all week.” 

He was looking her straight in the eye, a smile curving his lips, and Laurel felt her color rising. She was quite sure he meant that exactly as flirtatiously as it sounded. 

“I don’t think I can pass for a supermodel,” she said, keeping the words light.  

“No,” he agreed, far too readily. But then he added, eyes alight with mischief, “You have curves she would kill for.” 

She made a scoffing noise and he spread his hands. “What can I say? I’m a guy, we notice such things.” 

She shook her head at him, but she couldn’t help smiling. 

“Say you’ll come,” he coaxed. “We’ll have fun, I promise. I’ll take you out to dinner at Cinderella’s Castle. During the fireworks, even.” 

She laughed. “No view and mediocre food, according to you.” 

“There’s that.” The blanket was starting to slip. Niall reached out and tugged it up over her shoulder. 

But he wasn’t sleazy about it. He wasn’t making a pass, wasn’t trying to stroke her skin, didn’t let his fingers linger along the curve of her breast. He was just helping her stay warm. 

“All right,” she told him. 

“Yeah?” 

She nodded, smile tugging at her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what she was doing. Running away to Disney World was bad enough; picking up a strange guy along the way was clearly nuts. Even if he was a gorgeous, hot, funny guy. 

But this was going to be fun. They were going to have fun. 

A Gift of Luck

Chapter One

“Siri, where the hell are we?” Laurel’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, a white-knuckled grip of pure frustration. 

Her phone didn’t answer her.  

Laure resisted the urge to yell at it. What good would it do? But she glanced at the screen again — the map app still showing nothing but a white expanse with light grid lines — and then quickly back to the road before her.  

It was not what she’d expected. Florida was supposed to be all palm trees, white sand, and sunshine. This forest that she’d found herself driving through was all wrong. It was pine trees, tall and skinny, with rough bark and tangled undergrowth.

To add insult to injury, it was raining. 

What was the point of running away to Florida if she was running straight into lousy weather? 

Maybe, just maybe, she should have checked the weather report before stuffing the summer clothes she hadn’t worn in months into a suitcase and heading south. Unfortunately, it hadn’t even occurred to her. 

Maybe she should have gotten her car a tune-up before deciding to go for a drive of a thousand miles or so, too. Somewhere around the Florida-Georgia border, after the last time she’d gotten gas, a mysterious orange icon had appeared on the dash. She didn’t know what it meant, so she was trying to pretend she didn’t see it. But the longer it sat there, the more it felt like it was glaring at her. 

She took a hand off the steering wheel and patted the car’s dashboard. “Hang in there, Sadie. We’ll get there. Somewhere. Someday.” 

An hour ago, getting off the highway seemed like a sensible decision. Florida drivers obviously didn’t give a damn about the then torrential downpour — they’d been zipping by at 75 or 80 miles per hour. Breaking down would have been terrifying. 

On the other hand, there were worse places to break down. Like right here for example.

She was in the middle of nowhere. 

She knew it was the middle of nowhere, because there was no cell service. Not a single bar. She might as well be on the moon. 

No cell service meant no calling a tow truck if her car died. 

Also no using her GPS to figure out how her little local street detour had turned into this expedition into the wilderness. 

Worst of all, no cell service meant no more music. She’d been streaming road trip playlists since leaving Kentucky, everything from the classics — Johnny Cash singing “Wide Open Road”, Springsteen with “Born to Run”, the Eagles, Steve Miller, America — to cheerful modern pop and country — the Lumineers, Sam Hunt, Katy Perry.  But only fun, lively, happy music. The kind of music she needed to distract her. 

Without it, the silence left much too much room for her own thoughts to cycle through the same dreary material. She should be happy. She should be ecstatic. But her brain kept getting in the way. 

She pushed the power button on the radio. Static. She hit scan and the radio started cycling through stations. Static, static, static-y country music, static-y Spanish, more static, and finally voices. She pushed the button to stop the search. 

They were talking about baseball. Spring training, pre-season for the Marlins, names she didn’t recognize. Once upon a time, she would have known them, but that was a long time ago. 

She listened for a couple of minutes, but when the scenery outside the car windows didn’t change and the conversation didn’t get more interesting, she hit scan again. The radio cycled through the same static-y stations, passed over the sports guys, kept going, returned, and kept going again. She let it go, over and over, until finally she gave up and paused it. Even baseball was better than silence or static. 

But the talk radio guys had moved on. 

“First thing on my list, a Lamborghini,” the one guy said. 

“Four hundred million after taxes. That wouldn’t even make a dent.” The second guy laughed. “Yep, the massive MegaBall’s got a single winner, folks—“ 

Laurel jabbed a finger into the power button before he even finished his sentence. Okay, there were worse things than silence. 

But the trees were giving way to signs of civilization. With a sigh of relief, Laurel obediently slowed the car to the dictates of a 20 MPH speed limit sign. 

 The rain was finally stopping, too. 

Maybe her luck was looking up. 

She gave a snort of half-bitter laughter at the thought. 

Her luck wasn’t in doubt. 

Her luck was never in doubt. 

The town was small, but she pulled over at the sight of a gas station. Taking her phone out of the holder, she checked her signal again. 

Still nothing. 

How was that even possible? Whoever made the commercials for cell phone companies had obviously never visited this area of Florida. 

Since she couldn’t look up the mysterious icon online, she rummaged in her glove compartment. Her car might be ten years old, with 150,000 miles on it, but the manual ought to be exactly where it had always been, and it was. Skipping to the index, Laurel skimmed down the entries, looking for icons, then flipped back to read. 

Apparently the mysterious symbol was supposed to be an engine; the message was to check the engine; and it might be important or it might not be. 

Laurel did not feel enlightened. 

She slid the manual back into the glove compartment. 

“What now, Sadie?” Laurel patted the car’s dash again, feeling a twinge of guilt. Sadie had been a good, loyal, reliable car. But her days were probably coming to an end, and maybe very soon. 

Laurel wasn’t ready to think about that, though. Instead, she opened the door and headed to the convenience store attached to the gas station. 

A bell rang when she stepped inside. 

A comfortable-looking older woman behind the cash register smiled in her direction. “Afternoon, hun.” 

Friendly. That was a little unexpected. In Laurel’s experience, convenience store clerks tended toward the sullen. But she stepped forward with a smile of her own. “Good afternoon. I’m just passing through, but my car’s got a light showing up on the dash. I was wondering if there was a mechanic around who might be able to take a quick look.” 

The woman’s brows lifted. “A light?” 

“The check engine light. The manual says I should take it in and have someone look at it.” 

“You need a code reader, hun.” 

Laurel blinked. She must have looked about as confused as she felt — Bletchley Park? World War 2? Benedict Cumberbatch? What did they have to do with her car?  — because the woman chuckled.

“Let me call Dave for you.” She bent and rose again, holding the receiver of an old-fashioned phone in her hand. She turned to the wall behind her and ran her finger down a posted paper list. “Let’s see…” She punched the numbers into the phone. 

Laurel glanced around while she waited. She didn’t need gas yet, but she was getting hungry. The store had the usual run of quick snacks — chips of all sorts, candy, beef jerky — but also refrigerator cases with milk, juice, eggs, sandwich meat, frozen pizza, even a limited supply of fruit and vegetables. 

But the woman was talking, so Laurel listened in, hoping for good news. 

After the first explanation, the conversation included a lot of “ohs?” and “yeahs,” and “uh-huhs,” until finally the woman returned the phone to its cradle. 

“Good news and bad. Dave’s got a code reader, of course, but he’s at the airport, just about to fly out for a quick trip to North Carolina.” 

Laurel blinked. How was that good news? It sounded pure bad to her. 

“He ought to be back within three hours,” the woman continued. “He’ll be happy to take a look for you when he gets home.” 

“Three hours? From North Carolina?” Laurel asked. How did that math work? In her experience, it took two hours at an airport to just get on the plane, much less actually go somewhere. 

“Oh, he’s just flying up and back. Running some errand, most like. Or dropping someone off. Those GD folks fly about like hummingbirds, I swear.” The clerk tsk-ed, then added, “You’d think they’d never heard of climate change. But I suppose Dave would be out of a job if they stopped flying so much, so prob’ly best not to mention it to them.” 

She paused expectantly. 

Laurel understood her cue to participate in the conversation — any southern woman would — but she had no idea what to do with it. 

“And Dave’s a — mechanic?” she finally ventured. 

“Well, not for money. But he’s got the tools and the talent. He’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong and what you should do about it.” 

“I see. That’s very kind of him. And you.” But Laurel paused, chewing on her lower lip uncertainly. Did she want to wait three hours for some random guy to come look at her car or did she want to keep driving and hope the light was nothing serious? It wasn’t like she was in a rush to get anywhere: her great escape had been entirely spur of the moment. She had no reservations, no real plans, just a destination in mind. 

The woman glanced at a clock on the wall. “If you want to wait, Maggie’s Place is a couple blocks down the road and she’ll be open for dinner by now. There’ll be a line, there always is this time of day, but you might find a counter seat open. And no rush, after all.” 

“A line?” Laurel glanced at the clock, too. She was hungry, but it was barely 5PM. 

“Great food, great prices.” The woman shrugged. “With the internet, the word got out. People drive a long way to come to Maggie’s. She’s real good for business.” 

That sounded interesting. And Laurel was hungry, after all. 

“Sounds good.” She nodded toward her car through the glass windows. “You think it’s okay to leave it there?” 

“Sure thing,” the woman said. “No one’ll bother it and it’ll be here when you get back. Enjoy your dinner.” 

Laurel wandered slowly down the street in the direction the woman had indicated. Now that the rain had stopped, the early evening was shaping up to be beautiful. The sky was still filled with clouds, but they were layered, fluffy, shadowed with deep gray and blue. The air held the freshness of a cool evening and the smell of warm rain on asphalt mixed with the green smell of early spring. 

She took a deep breath. Okay, maybe running away wasn’t as stupid as it had seemed a couple hours ago. 

It was still stupid. 

At some point, she was going to have to face reality. The thought gave her a weird feeling in her stomach — some strange mix of terror and excitement, with terror definitely predominant. 

The future was looming before her, an abyss in which the only certainty was change. Major, big, dramatic change. Terrifying change, if she was honest about it. 

But she wasn’t ready to think about the future. It wasn’t going anywhere. She could think about it tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. 

Because the thing about thinking about the future was that there was no way to do it without also thinking about the past. And Laurel really truly wasn’t ready to think about the past. Not yet. Not today. 

Maggie’s Place was cute. Planters on either side of the door held pretty purple flowers and gold letters spelled out the name on the glass window. Small clumps of people were gathered around the entrance, chatting companionably. They made way for Laurel with friendly nods until an older man, standing next to the door, said, “Ah, there you are.” 

He smiled at Laurel, eyes crinkling in apparent pleasure, and she smiled back at him, unable to resist. It was such a laughing smile, as if the two of them were sharing a delightful secret. He held the door open for her with a flourish. “We’re so glad you could join us.” 

Was he a maitre d’? But his clothes were casual and the restaurant didn’t look like that kind of restaurant at all. It was a lot like an old-time diner, with a long counter running the length of the middle and an open kitchen galley behind it. Along one wall was a row of booths, and there were tables along the windows and evenly arranged along the floor, all with bright cloth tablecloths and napkins. It was packed with people, but the atmosphere felt friendly and welcoming. It didn’t feel formal enough to have a waiter opening the door and welcoming the guests, but maybe they’d had to hire someone because of the crowds. 

Laurel stepped into the restaurant. She’d put her name on the waiting list or see if there was a seat at the counter for a single. But before she could, the man who had greeted her put his hand lightly on her back and gestured toward two tables pushed together, with several people seated at them. “We’re this way.” 

“Excuse me? I think you might have mistaken me for—“ Laurel started. 

Before she could finish, he’d waved to the people at the table. “Here she is.” 

“Oh, no, I’m not — you’ve — I’m sorry,” Lauren stumbled over the words, letting the man guide her forward as her face flushed with color. 

The most attractive man she’d ever seen in real life was standing up at the table. 

It was totally disconcerting. 

The rush of heat started at her top of her head and flowed straight down. She could practically feel it in her toes, curling inside her tennis shoes, although most of it lingered in her core.

Damn, it would have been nice if she’d thought about putting make-up on this morning. Or, you know, brushing her hair. 

Her hand lifted involuntarily, but she forced it down before she touched the tousled brown waves. Yeah, her hair was a mess. She wasn’t going to worry about it. She’d been running away, she reminded herself. Runaways did not worry about how they looked. 

She lifted her chin. 

He was looking at her, his caramel eyes amused. He had amazing eyelashes, so dark and lush that if she’d seen them on a woman, she would have dismissed them as over-the-top fakes. Maybe they still were. 

“Who’s this, Max?” he said. 

“Your girlfriend?” The man behind her said, sounding surprised. “The one we’ve been waiting for?”

The guy at the table shook his head. “Not so.” 

“Are you sure?” The older man sounded doubtful. 

“Not the kind of thing I’d make a mistake about.” The guy’s voice was dry, but he dipped his head toward Laurel and his lips — his really perfect, eminently kissable lips — widened into a smile. “Not that I wouldn’t be delighted if she were.”

Laurel wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he saying he would have been delighted if his girlfriend had walked in the door instead of her, or was he saying he’d be delighted to have her as a girlfriend? 

The latter was obviously an over-the-top compliment. Not that she was insecure about her own looks. Give her half an hour — well, maybe an hour — with her make-up bag, her flat-iron, some styling gel, her Spanx and her best push-up bra, and she knew she could make heads turn. But after two days of driving and a rocky night in a cheap motel spent tossing and turning while she alternated between panic and excitement, she was not in this guy’s league. 

His smile reached his eyes, though, and the words had been said lightly, as much self-deprecating humor as come-on. Either way, it felt like a compliment. She smiled back at him. 

He lifted his phone, as if to display the screen to the older man. “As it happens, Sierra just texted me. She missed her plane, so she won’t be joining us for dinner after all.” 

“In that case, we have an extra seat at the table.” The older man sounded more pleased than not. “Why don’t you join us, young lady?” 

“Oh, I—“ Laurel started to demur, looking around the restaurant again, gaze skimming in a search for available seats. There were none. The only two unoccupied seats in the entire restaurant were the two at the table before her. 

Before she could decide, one of the seated people — a  man, who’d had his back toward her — stood and turned. 

The words that Laurel had been looking for stopped in her throat. 

Whoa. Who would have thought the universe could hold two guys with such extravagant eyelashes? 

She was still blinking in surprise as the man behind her gently ushered her to the empty chair next to the first guy and seated her, before moving down the table to sit at the end. 

“Twins?” She finally asked as the guys both sat back down. 

She felt silly as soon as she’d said it. Talk about stating the obvious. Unless someone had invented cloning, the two men were clearly identical twins. Not so identical that she couldn’t see the differences between them — the twin across from her must spend more time outside, and maybe spent more time working out, too. He looked a little thinner, a little older, than the one she’d first seen. 

“We’ve heard all the jokes already,” the twin across from her said, smiling. 

She shook her head, amused at herself. “I’ve heard them, too. I’m a twin myself.” 

“Two of you?” The twin next to her shot her a flirtatious look. “How enchanting.” 

“My brother would be delighted to hear you say so,” Laurel replied, voice dry. 

He slapped his hand over his heart. “Crushed. Fantasies shattered.” 

Laurel laughed. 

“As you can tell, I’m the good twin, he’s the evil one,” the guy across the table from her said. 

There was a pause. 

A weird pause. 

The guy across the table’s smile started to fade before the the guy next to her said, a little roughly, “So true, so true. Hard-core evil, that’s me.” He held his hand out to Laurel. “Niall Blake.” 

“Laurel Jones.” 

What had that been about? She gave Niall a quick once-over. He did not look evil. He looked delicious, actually. But then they both did, and could you really tell whether someone was evil from their appearance? His eyes weren’t laughing anymore, but they were still warm. 

She took his hand, meaning to shake it, but he didn’t let go immediately. 

“And are you the evil twin or the good twin?” he asked lightly. 

“Oh.” She half-laughed. Unexpected question, that. It sent a jolt of pain, a spark of misery, straight to her heart. But she forced a smile. “I guess that depends on who you ask. My brother would vote for me being the evil one, I’m sure.” 

“Evil twins unite.” Niall gave her hand a gentle squeeze and released it. He gestured across the table, and started counting down. “My brother Noah, his girlfriend Grace, her brother Zane, his wife Akira, their baby…” He paused, then tilted his head and whispered. “I forget her name.” 

She whispered back, “I bet she doesn’t mind.”

He continued naming names around the table, but Laurel didn’t try to catch them all. The man at the end of the table, the one who’d invited her to join them, was Max, the father of at least a few of the adults at the table. There was also an assorted collection of kids, including another set of identical twins, and a couple more adults. The adults all acknowledged the introductions with friendly smiles and nods, but the younger kids seemed to be in the middle of an argument about the relative merits of Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror and were oblivious. 

“So what are you doing in Tassamara?” Niall asked her. 

Laurel opened her mouth to respond.

‘Just passing through,’ was what she intended to say. The words were in her head.

But somewhere between her brain and her mouth, they turned into, “Running away.” 

“From?” Niall asked the obvious follow-up. 

Laurel wanted to kick herself. She was not going to share her story with total strangers. It was too complicated, too painful. Too immense. She barely wanted to think about it herself. 

“Long story,” she replied with a sigh and promptly changed the subject. “And you? Do you live here?” 

“Not me. I’m just visiting. And not for long. We’re on our way to a family Disney vacation. Seven days of theme park fun. We’ve got the t-shirts and everything.” 

“Really?” Laurel laughed. “That’s where I’m headed, too.” 

“Disney World? You’re running away to the Magic Kingdom?” 

She nodded. “Yep.” 

“Good for you. Awesome choice.” 

“I’ve never been. It was a childhood fantasy, but…” She shrugged. “Never happened.” 

“You’re gonna love it,” Niall predicted confidently. “We used to come every couple years.” 

“We grew up in Maine,” Noah said. “Our mom always wanted to escape the winter and Disney was the great escape.” 

The blonde woman, Grace, said, “When I was a kid, we had annual passes, but we never stayed at the parks. We just visited for the day.” She nudged Noah with her elbow. “Noah and I spent a weekend there a few months ago and had such a good time that I convinced everyone we should do a family trip. So we’re all going. This is supposed to be our planning meeting. We leave tomorrow.” 

“Fun.” Laurel smiled, suppressing a twinge of jealousy. She was on her own adventure, and that was fine, but… well, she would have liked going to Disney with a big family and kids. 

Of course, first she would have needed to have the big family and kids. And that would have been nice, too. But before she could start feeling sorry for herself, a voice called out from the other end of the table. 

“You should come with us.” 

Laurel’s eyes widened as she glanced at the man who’d welcomed her to the restaurant. 

He was smiling at her. At her look, he gave her a firm nod. “Lucas and Sylvie can’t make it, so there’s an extra room in Grace’s villa.” 

“Um…” Laurel had no idea how to respond. 

Was it a little crazy to invite a total stranger to join you on a family vacation? Yes. Yes, it was.

In fact, it was a lot crazy. Maybe he had dementia or something, although he looked awfully young for that. Would one of his children intercede? 

But the dark-haired woman on her side of the table — one whose name Laurel hadn’t bothered to remember — leaned forward and said, “Yes, you should join us.” 

Noah and Niall and Grace all exchanged glances, and the man on the other side of Grace chuckled. 

“Resistance is futile,” he intoned in a quiet voice. 

The woman next to him rolled her eyes. “Way to freak out the visitors.” She smiled in Laurel’s direction. “Ignore him. All of them. But hey, if you’re headed to Disney anyway…” 

The baby in the high chair next to her let out a high-pitched shriek and banged her tiny fists on the tray, and the woman turned her attention to scattering more Cheerios on its surface. 

 “We do have an extra room,” Grace said. “My brother and sister-in-law were supposed to be coming with us, but they had to fly up to North Carolina for a job.” 

“Did a guy named Dave fly them there?” Laurel asked slowly.

This was weird, wasn’t it? She glanced at Niall. He was looking at his phone, a slight frown putting lines between his brows. 

Yeah, this was really weird. 

“Yes.” Grace sounded surprised. “Do you know him?” 

“I only stopped here because my car’s check engine light went on. The woman at the gas station, she called him, and he said he’d come take a look after he got back from North Carolina.” 

“Sounds like it’s your lucky day, then,” Niall said, sliding his phone back into his pocket. 

Laurel fought the semi-hysterical laugh that wanted to escape. Lucky? Maybe. 

 

Story Genius #2 – Cici 2

In no more than a page, write down why you care about the story that you want to tell. THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS! 

I think it’s fun? It is incredibly pure escapist reading: the reader is escaping from their life, whatever their life includes, and Cici is escaping from her life. And the reader gets to go along on this journey of escape. But I don’t have any deeper goals than that. I think that’s okay — there are no wrong answers. I care about the story because I want to make people, including me, smile. Because I want to be a spark of fun and joy in someone’s day, because I want to give readers that kind of good book glow that has been a delightful life experience for me. I want readers to end with the satisfied sigh, the smile of appreciation, that glow of enjoyment. That’s the goal, nothing bigger (or smaller) than that. I care about creating an experience of fun.

But what does that mean for the story? What makes this story fun? What about it inspires that sense of joy?  Time to think some more…