Ella came to me in the night.
After I recovered from having the system installed, they assigned me a room in one of the roteciona halls. Each hall held sixteen rooms, but I use the term “room” loosely. Our linen closets at home were larger than these bedrooms. They were more like pods, each containing nothing but a bed, with a storage cabinet at the head. The bed was completely enclosed, with room enough to sit up, but not to stand. Needless to say, there were no windows. When the door was shut, one could imagine that one was lying in a coffin.
A comfortable coffin, however, one with soft cushions and blankets, and plenty of room to wiggle around and get comfortable. The System could project images on the ceiling and walls, too, which created an illusion of more space.
I was lying awake, staring at a picture of a night sky. None of the stars were recognizable, which I tried to tell myself was simply because I’d never spent much time gazing at the stars at home. The peculiar blueish moon put the lie to that fantasy, however. I would have noticed if our moon was blue.
I was tempted to ignore the blinking yellow light in my peripheral vision, suspecting it was another message from the System informing me that I would need to repeat the day’s lessons, having “failed to demonstrate mastery of the material.” It would not be the first time I’d received that message. But the light wouldn’t go away until I acknowledged receipt, so I sighed and did so.
Ella’s voice sounded in my head. “I’m outside. Let me in.”
I frowned but sat up. At my mental instruction, the door to my pod slid open and Ella scrambled through it, crawling onto the bed. I lay back down and resumed my staring at the ceiling, as the door slid closed behind her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“What do you have to be sorry for?”
She lay down next to me, snuggling close. I could feel her looking at me but I didn’t change the direction of my gaze.
“They took three children today,” she answered. “Abby was a rotecion. She was very quiet, I’m not sure you would have met her. And then Fee, he was that boy who was yelling at dinner the other night.”
I knew the boy she was talking about. One of the bigger kids, with coppery glints in his curly hair. He’d been ranting about monsters and Za Aviv, the medico, had had to escort him from the room because he was upsetting the other children.
“You say ‘was.’ Do you know that they killed them?” I tried to ask the question calmly, but if I hadn’t had such tight control wound around my energy, the bed linens might have started smoking.
“You’re doing so well,” Ella answered without answering. “You’ve never gone this long at home without…”
“An incident?” I couldn’t get the bitterness out of my voice. She wasn’t wrong. My control had improved by leaps and bounds. It was astonishing how well the fear of death did as a motivator.
“Yes.” Ella put her arm across my midsection. The weight was oddly comforting. I blinked back the tears that wanted to escape.
“I don’t know,” she answered my previous question. “I still haven’t been able to find out what happens after the Swords take them.”
I’m not sure how I knew it was a hesitation, not simply a pause. Maybe something about the way she was breathing? It felt like she was holding her breath, holding back something she wanted to say.
“What is it?”
Her arm tightened. “When I progress out of rotecion and become a contributing citizen, I’ll get access to the information, I think. But…”
I waited. I didn’t know whether I wanted to know what she didn’t want to tell me. Today had already been a horrible day. Was she going to make it worse?
“Za Kestrel gave me information today,” she finally continued. “On my options once I become a contributing citizen.”
I blinked. “Options?”
Ella released a shaky breath. “Other schools, mostly. Learning tracks. I’m still behind on the science lessons. There’s so much to learn. But the science needed to pass out of rotecion is rudimentary, really. Most of the interesting classes come after you’re a contributing citizen; rotecion is just the basics. The math is nothing I haven’t done already, and I really like the language classes. Za Kestrel thinks most of the children at Domas will take the agriculture track, and I don’t think I want that, but there’s a diplomacy track she thought I might be interested in that looks fascinating. Languages and political science and history and economics — it’s a mix of lots of subjects, all of which I’d love to study.”
She’d been getting more enthusiastic as she spoke, but her hand clenched into a fist on my blankets, and her voice was softer as she finished, “It’s at a school in Corbu.”
“The capital of Dalais. On the coast, about six hundred kilometers away.”
Six hundred kilometers?
My bed did not burst into flames.
But a jagged bolt of blue lightning snapped free from my hands and darted around the walls of the pod, before disappearing into a square on the wall.
“Oops,” I said.
Ella’s arm had clamped down on my midsection as if I were a rock and she a limpet with the tide coming in, but now she relaxed. “Electricity? You never used to have a problem controlling that one.”
I suspected it was because I’d used the ability earlier in the day, but I wasn’t going to tell Ella that. She didn’t need to know I’d been torturing small children.
“A shock for a shock, perhaps.” I sniffed. The air had an odd smell, not the typical smoke smell to which I was accustomed, but an unusual and vaguely unpleasant, almost chemical odor.
The door to the pod slid open.
“Did you do that?” I asked Ella.
“No.” She wiggled down to the end of the bed and stuck her head out the door. “All the doors have opened. I should get out of here before someone comes.” She looked back over her shoulder at me, biting her lip. “Or maybe I should stay. If they know someone’s used a talent…”
“Go,” I ordered her. “Quickly.” I forebore to point out that I was still a roteciona and if they suspected me of anything, they could just look through my eyes and see what I was seeing, but I squeezed my eyes closed, just in case. I would let them see nothing but the blackness of my inner eyelids.
“I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
I heard a rustling, felt the bed compressing, and then Ella was gone. I lay still, eyes closed tight, waiting for what would happen next. It took so long that I was half-asleep by the time I heard voices murmuring in the hall.
“If there was a storm, perhaps…”
“…a flaw in the electrical system…”
One of the voices belonged to Za Rhea, who oversaw the addies in change of building maintenance. I had never once seen her without a little in a pack on her back, and was half tempted to glance out and see if she was carrying one now.
The other was Za Qintha.
The sound of Za Qintha’s voice did something peculiar to my muscles. Everyone at Domas — and I did mean everyone, from the most senior staff to the smallest little — adored Za Qintha. She was gentle and soft-spoken, perceptive and endlessly kind. When she spoke to the children, she always did so on their level, crouching so she didn’t loom above them. She noticed everything — a tear-stained face, a scraped knee, a lost look in the eyes — and always had a thoughtful word to say.
But she’d given Cam to the Swords.
And I rather hated her now.
My body was so tense it hurt. It took everything I had not to simply let go and hurl myself at her, or rather hurl my energy at her. I tried to breathe shallowly, silently, while I held myself still.
If I revealed myself, I would endanger Ella. She had opportunities here, possibilities for her future that she would never have had at home. She’d lose those if they discovered her talents through mine.
And they would, because if they tried to take me, Ella would use the full force of her Persuasion to try to stop them, and then we’d both be doomed. Persuasion might work on human beings but it wouldn’t work on the System and anyone observing us through the System.
I had to keep my sister safe, which meant not using my talents. Not attacking Za Qintha, not defending Cam, not doing anything that would make us noticed.
Pretending to be asleep had never been so hard.
The voices moved past, down the hall, and finally I relaxed. My body hurt from the tension and I felt cold and clammy, but eventually exhaustion drew me deep into real sleep.
The next several days passed without excitement. The most interesting thing that happened was that Za Kestrel questioned me about my rather lamentably high failure rate on my lessons, and I learned for the first time that a spinning circle in the corner of the lesson review was a timer.
It had never occurred to me that speed of completion would be a measure of learning — the concept seemed quite ridiculous, in fact — and I had been doing the lesson reviews in bit and pieces, in the spare moments between caring for littles. Once I began completing the reviews in one fell swoop, my success rate shot up and I began progressing through the lessons at a more reasonable rate.
The maths were by far the easiest, of course. Basic computation did not change from one world to the next; two plus two still equaled four, and so did two multiplied by two. The courses requiring written language became easier the more I became comfortable with the language, which in turn got easier as lessons offered new material.
I didn’t start loving the classes the way Ella did, but some of them were quite interesting. Unlike our world, which included many different nations with their own languages, beliefs, and systems, Salazie had a single over-arching government, and it was most peculiar. All contributing citizens had a right to offer their opinions. Every day, they were asked to respond to a question that would guide the government’s actions. In the roteciona lessons, the questions were presented as simple matters of resource allocation: should the government invest in a museum or a sports complex? In medical research or agricultural research?
I had no idea how that system could work. To me, it seemed like a remarkably stupid way of managing complex matters. Why in the world would my opinion, assuming I someday managed to progress from roteciona to contributing citizen, be useful when considering subjects about which I knew nothing? How could people possibly make these decisions unless they spent all their time researching the details of the questions?
I also wanted to know who decided which questions were asked and when. It seemed to me that the power behind the throne, albeit not a literal throne, would lie in the ability to frame and schedule the questions. This detail was not included in the roteciona lessons. Needless to say, the lessons were rather more idealistic than I was.
But it made me wonder whether the contributing citizens of Salazie had declined to invest in Domas. It was not that the facilities were inadequate: every child was clothed, fed, and educated, with a safe place to sleep, and a roof over their head that didn’t leak when it rained. That was far more than could be said for every child of Tizai. But the food was always those crumbly squares; each student had only a single uniform; we were stacked together in the sleeping halls like logs piled for the winter fires; and there were not nearly enough adults to meet the needs of the youngest littles. Whoever determined the funding for Domas was not over-generous.
On the other hand, if two strange girls had appeared in Tizai, not knowing the language, friendless and alone, their fates would likely have been far grimmer than mine and Ella’s at Domas. I was hardly in a position to criticize the people of Salazie, particularly not with the adults suggesting new opportunities to Ella at every turn.
Za Aviv was encouraging her to join the medical profession, providing her with the equivalent of letters of introduction to senior professors, “just to chat.” Za Rhea had suggested she might like to explore addie development. Za Pezival, who helped the rotecionio and rotecion with their classes, was piling her with supplementary materials to help her prepare for the diplomacy track in Corbu.
And Za Qintha, with a delicacy I found annoyingly considerate, had suggested she might want to pursue independent studies at Domas until I was ready to progress out of rotecion myself.
I really did hate Za Qintha.
Of course, I wanted Ella to stay with me at Domas. She was the only vestige of home I had in this strange world. She was comfort, companion, confidante — the only person I could trust, my safety in an uncertain storm.
But I was not her safety.
Indeed, far from it. We had been at Domas almost two months and the fact that my talents had not been discovered already was nothing short of a miracle. It was clear that talents were uncommon in Dalais, because I should have been caught a dozen times or more. I’d done a superior job of keeping my Fire talent hidden — far better than I would ever have imagined possible when sitting at home in our schoolroom — but I couldn’t say the same about my less dangerous talents. I was trying to be careful, truly I was, but levitation, telekinesis and speed were so very useful when helping with littles.
But in the end, it was none of those that did me in.