E&L – Ch 8 – Are we asleep yet?

Chapter Eight

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.” 

She hesitated. 

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.” 

“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. 

“…surge protection…” 

“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. 

E&L – Ch7 – Technology or magic?

Chapter Seven 

Separating reality from the System was not nearly as easy as one would expect. My eyes had become liars. At any moment, some portion of my vision existed to no one but me. I would call it the very definition of insanity, were it not that every person on Salazie was having the same experience and took it much for granted. 

Tiny dots appearing in your peripheral vision meant information awaiting your leisure. A wish for access granted a display of tiny images floating before you, each of which contained its own abilities and data. Queries brought answers, either via the voice speaking only in your mind, or in moving pictures like the one Ella had shown me, overlaid on reality but slightly transparent unless you chose to direct your gaze to a wall or blank surface. 

I hated it for the first few days, grudgingly accepted it for a few more, and then forgot about it as thoroughly as any other Salazie resident. I was much too busy to worry about anything as trivial as a machine in my brain talking to me. 

At home, I had no experience with children. It wasn’t cultural: any ordinary child in a town or with younger siblings might have been supervising the littler ones from the time he or she was old enough to be deemed responsible. But Ella and I weren’t ordinary. We lived mostly isolated, and had no regular encounters with children younger than ourselves. Plus, of course, no one would ever expect a young Fire talent to be responsible for anyone who might be vulnerable to accidental burns. 

But on Salazie, I wasn’t a young Fire talent or even a deWinterhoffe. I was just a girl with two hands, two arms, legs long enough to outrun a toddler, and a perceived ability to judge the wisdom of smearing your breakfast into your hair. 

Not wise, in my opinion. 

But Tycho, the unrepentant little in question, responded to my exasperated sigh with his usual sunshine smile. He thrust his messy hands into the air and demanded, “Up. Up, up, Lee-lee-lee-lee.” 

I pointed at those hands. “Dirty.” 

He clapped them together, scattering more of his crumbled vito onto his head. “Up!” 

The little already resting on my left hip, Shoshi, clung tighter. “My Lee-lee,” she whispered, before giving a sleepy yawn and rubbing her face against my shoulder.

I rested a hand on her back. “Two arms,” I reminded her. Two arms, a back, and occasionally a front, in fact. 

Of the four hundred children at Domas, three hundred or so were between the ages of four and ten. Roughly another forty were between ten and fourteen, and the remaining sixty were infants and toddlers. Under any circumstances, twenty adults would have been hard-pressed to meet the needs of so many children. It was only possible at Domas because of the capabilities of the Salaziean magic. 

Well, they called it technology, but it seemed like magic to me. 

No one had to cook, because food emerged from a box in the wall. Little machines called “autonomous devices” or “addies” maintained the grounds and did most of the housekeeping. The machines in our heads provided students with individualized educational programs and supervised and tracked our learning, testing, and achievement. The System also alerted the appropriate adult if a child left the grounds or a heart began racing or a temperature rose. 

There were still not nearly enough arms to go around. It was rare to see an adult without a child or three in tow. Fortunately, our uniforms — the strange jumpsuits — were willing to rearrange themselves to form handy carrying harnesses. I was a little proud of myself for not even jumping the first time my clothing reshaped itself, but once you’ve been startled by magic furniture, magic clothing is practically ho-hum. Of course, Ella claimed it wasn’t magic but more technology, but I was quite sure that was just a translation issue.

I admit, I also made life easier on myself by using a bit of deftly applied levitation to lighten the load. Otherwise I would have ended every day exhausted and sore from the exertion of lugging multiple littles around all day. One wasn’t so bad, but all of them wanted to be held and carried, and I found them hard to resist. 

“Up, up,” Tycho demanded again. He banged a hand on the table. We were among the last people left in the large breakfast room. Most of the children had already moved on to their classrooms or playtimes. 

“Clean, clean,” I mimicked him. An addie trundled over to the table and up the side of it, pausing next to Tycho’s plate. Its top slid open and a tray rose into the air, a damp cloth resting atop it. 

Tycho’s face screwed up. Before he could let loose with the inevitable wail, I snatched up the cloth and swiped it over his face, then scrubbed it over his short curls. He screamed and I ignored him  — it was an already familiar routine — but Za Reija, at the next table over, turned to check on us. 

He took in the scene with a quick glance, but before he could do more than open his mouth, I handed Tycho the cloth and said, “You do hands, then up.” 

Independence was strongly encouraged: a necessary goal, I supposed, with so many children. Still, I personally didn’t want to stand around waiting for the ten minutes it would take Tycho to get over his loathing of cleanliness and make an attempt to wash his face and hair himself. 

Za Reija’s lips curved and he walked over to us anyway. 

“Thank you for your help, Lila.” He said the same thing every morning, and it always sounded absolutely sincere. 

“My pleasure,” I said carefully. I bobbled Shoshi a little. Her head was drooping, tilting down my chest. 

“How are your lessons coming?” Za Reija asked.

I restrained my sigh. 

“Your sister’s doing incredibly well,” Za Reija continued. “Za Kestrel believes she’s going to be our first student to progress out of rotecion.” 

‘Rotecion’ was another word that the machine in my head struggled to translate to Tizaian. It didn’t mean childhood or supervision, but it meant something like both those things. Variations of the word referred to different states of being. 

The babies and toddlers were rotecionata, the most protected. Eventually, for reasons not as obvious as the turning of the year, the System would declare them roteciona. They’d enter the medical tank, inhale a dose of nannies, and have the System integrated into their brains. Then their formal education would commence, including basic instruction in the subjects the System deemed important. 

As the roteciona demonstrated required proficiencies, they became roteciono, and then rotecion. Progressing out of rotecion meant being declared a contributing citizen of Dalais. Contributing citizens could choose to continue their education, leading to further ranks, including that of full citizen, and then something known as demorsay. 

Za Qintha, the woman to whom Ella had curtsied at our first encounter, was demorsay. Demorsay did not mean royalty. It was not a hereditary position, and Za Qintha was not a queen. It was a rank that was earned. But Ella hadn’t been wrong: very few people on Salazie became demorsay, and Za Qintha was treated with the kind of deference and awe reserved for royalty in Tizai. 

I was currently a roteciona, along with most of the children aged six to ten and a few of the adolescents. 

I was not particularly happy about this. 

For one thing, roteciona had no right to privacy. At any time, their caregivers could monitor them by choosing to see out of their eyes. Indeed, a caregiver could also set the System to record, and everything the roteciona did would be logged for future review. 

I found that idea truly horrifying. If our mother could have seen out of my eyes when I was a child, I would have spent my entire life locked in our schoolroom or my bedroom. But on Salazie, the concept of “when no one is looking” was non-existent — someone could always be looking, and through my very own eyes. It was not a relaxing thought, especially given how imperative it was that I hide my talents. 

Also, though, I was apparently quite stupid. 

This was previously unbeknownst to me. While Ella was flying ahead in her coursework, I was struggling to pass the earliest set of lessons. The alphabet was different from that of Tizai and while the System interpreted spoken words for us, it did not translate the written language. Ella’s Truesight helped her understand what she looking at, but I was learning to spell the equivalent of “cat” and “dog,” while Ella was studying history and biology and the Dalasian literary classics. 

I was not jealous. 

Truly, I wasn’t. Annoyed at my own stupidity, yes. But at any given moment in time, Ella’s eyes were glazed over, her lips moving slightly, as she studied the images inside her own head. I much preferred seeing Tycho’s smile or singing a lullaby to Shoshi or listening to the earnest chatter of Cam, one of my other particular favorites. 

All of my life, people had treated me with a certain wariness that came from both my talents and my heritage as the child of my parents. But the rotecionata had no idea of either, nor would they care if they did. They just wanted attention, interaction, and love, all of which I was only too happy to give them.

Za Reija was still waiting for my answer, however. 

“Ella very good,” I said, feeling like an idiot. I could understand Dalasian perfectly well because of the System, but I still spoke like a rotecionata myself. 

“We appreciate your help, very much,” Za Reija continued. “You’re wonderful with the children. But it’s important you don’t shortchange yourself. Your needs matter, too. If you need some private time to get your studying done, that can be arranged. I know the classroom experience might feel a little awkward.” 

I refrained from snorting. I was a solid half meter taller than the average child in the group setting for my skill level. Awkward was one word for it. 

Za Reija was trying to look me in the eye, his gaze earnest, but I kept my own eyes on Tycho, who was swinging the cloth around as if it were a toy flying machine instead of a napkin. 

“Here, let me take Shoshi,” Za Reija said, apparently giving up on his academic encouragement for the moment. “She must be getting heavy. I’ll get an addie to put her down for a nap.” 

Before I could respond, he was lifting her off my hip. Swiftly, I released the bit of levitation energy I’d been using to support her.  

It wasn’t swiftly enough. 

Za Reija blinked in puzzled surprise as her body went from light to heavy in his arms. 

Oh, bother. 

I needed a distraction, and quickly. Illusion? No, that wouldn’t help. 

With a silent but profuse apology to Shoshi, I shot a tiny dart of electricity into her leg. Her body arched in shock, the jolt of pain awakening her immediately. She shrieked, as loudly as if I’d just stabbed her through the heart, and then began sobbing. 

I reached for her, apologies spilling off my lips. 

I’d just hurt a baby to protect my own secrets. What kind of monster was I? Fortunately, I was speaking Tizaian, which meant no one could understand my apologies. 

Za Reija’s puzzled look didn’t entirely disappear, but the distraction was effective in that he couldn’t ask uncomfortable questions over the sound of Shoshi’s screams. He drew her close, patting her back, and murmuring the kinds of things one says to crying littles. 

Tycho dropped the cloth. His eyes started to fill and his lower lip slid out. “Baby cry,” he announced. He drew in a shaky breath, but before he could start wailing in sympathy, I scooped him out of his seat. His hands were still sticky, but I ignored them. I’d wipe the traces of food off of both of us later. 

“Tycho not cry,” I said firmly. 

As quickly as that, his incipient storm was over, but Shoshi’s storm continued unabated. 

“I take?” I said to Za Reija, shifting Tycho to my right hip and drawing the nannie material of my uniform into a harness for him. I held out my empty arm. 

“I must have startled her.” His frown was worried, but he passed Shoshi back to me. 

“Shush, shush, shush,” I crooned to her, gently bouncing her. “Shush, shush, Shoshi, sweet girl. Sorry, sweet girl, so sorry.” I was half-humming, half-singing the words, and avoiding Za Reija’s eyes. 

I shot him a sideways glance, but he was looking beyond me now, his frown deepening. I followed his gaze.

Two black-clad Swords were standing in the doorway with Za Qintha. 

I felt a flush of heat, then a flush of cold, and my heart began racing. One of the Swords was the young man from the forest. His eyes skimmed the room, moving over the scattering of children and came to rest on me. They narrowed. 

I should probably have looked away from him, but I felt frozen. They couldn’t be here for me. Za Reija might have noticed me using levitation but he would hardly have had time to summon the Swords. Although that wasn’t actually true. With the System, he could have sent an alert the moment his suspicions were aroused. I might have shocked Shoshi for nothing. The Swords might already be here to take me away. 

Za Reija left us and crossed to the doorway. 

Shoshi’s crying was subsiding, but she was thoroughly awake now and clearly feeling cranky. She batted at Tycho’s arm. “Go ‘way. My Lee-lee.”

“My Lee-lee,” Tycho replied indignantly, shoving her hand away. 

In some other time and place, I might have found it charming to have children fighting over my attention. Here at Domas, such behavior was strongly discouraged. The adults couldn’t afford to have the rotecionata become possessive of their time. But instead of putting the littles down, as I should have, I held them both closer. 

“My Shoshi,” I said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. “And my Tycho,” I added, dropping a kiss on his forehead, too. 

I wasn’t going to look at the Swords again. If they were here to take me away… well, what could I do? I could hardly fight them, not in a room filled with littles. I could illusion-cast and turn myself something akin to invisible, but I couldn’t hide inside Domas indefinitely. If Za Qintha was turning me over to the Swords, I was already doomed. 

“We meet again.” 

I didn’t jump, but I squeezed the littles so hard that Tycho yelped in complaint while Shoshi flung her arms around my neck and buried her face against my shoulder. 

The Sword from the forest had walked across the room to me. I looked up into his eyes. He was as beautiful up close as he had seemed before — taller than me by several inches, with warm golden-brown skin, dark eyes framed with much darker lashes, and pronounced cheekbones. Really, he was absolutely the prettiest boy I’d ever seen. 

I hoped he wasn’t planning to kill me. 

“I’m Rye,” he continued. 

Rye? As in the grain? Or was he saying ‘wry,’ and telling me his state of mind? 

My confusion must have shown, because the corners of his (well-shaped, rather perfect, quite lovely) mouth lifted in a twitch too slight to be called a smile, not sly enough to be a smirk, but a definite indicator of amusement. 

“And your name?” 

I swallowed. My mouth was far too dry to speak. 

My mother would have been appalled at my lack of manners. I could almost hear her scolding me now. “Delilah Raphaella Lucretia de Veryaz de Winterhoffe, an introduction is the most basic of courtesies. Were you paying no attention at all during your etiquette instruction? Were you simply wasting the time of your tutors?” 

Fortunately, before I could open my mouth and reveal my full name — needless to say, not the one that anyone at Domas knew me by — Tycho answered for me. 

“Lee-lee. Dis Lee-lee-lee-lee-lee-leeeee. Me Tycho.” He leaned forward off my hip, extending his arms peremptorily toward the Sword. “Up.” 

This time the curve of his lips, though still not what one would call wide, was definitely a smile. “Afraid not, kiddo. We’re just here for a pick-up.” He looked over his shoulder and the curve flattened again. 

When he looked back, he was definitely not smiling. 

“Time to go. But it was nice to meet you, Tycho. And you, Lee-lee-lee-lee… “ His face was still somber, but his eyes were laughing as he said politely. “Were there a few more in there?” 

“Lila,” I said, feeling as out of breath as if I’d just been running through the forest again. “It’s Lila.” 

“Good to see you again, Lila.” He dipped his head and turned away. 

I watched him go. There seemed to be a shortage of oxygen in the room, as if he’d sucked all of it away with him and I was quite sure that if the medical team was paying attention, an alert might get called on my heartbeat at any moment. 

He’d come over to me to introduce himself. Just that. No threats, no danger, no killing, just an introduction. He was polite and had a sense of humor and was so, so beautiful.

Really, it was a good thing I was wearing a Dalaisian jumpsuit, because if I’d met him while in formal attire for a Tizaian ball — the kind of gorgeous layered dress I’d never gotten to wear, being deemed too dangerous to have a social season — I would absolutely have swooned. Those things were dazzling, but difficult to breathe in at the best of times. 

Still, I wished I was wearing clothing more flattering than the jumpsuit. And — I glanced down at myself to confirm my suspicions — yes, it would also have been nice if I hadn’t had Tycho’s vito smeared across my chest. 

His name was Rye. That name rang some bell of familiarity deep inside my head. Had I heard it before? Over the past few weeks, I’d met literally hundreds of children and most of their names blended together in my memory. Perhaps one of them shared his name? 

I stole another peek in his direction, but the sight in the doorway brought an end to my internal speculations. The other Sword, a somewhat older man who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was speaking to Za Qintha and Za Reija. But he had taken Cam by the hand. 

Cam was a rotecionata, but he was older than Shoshi and Tycho. I had no idea how to judge children’s ages — I truly hadn’t had much exposure to them in my previous life — but he seemed to me to be elongating out of true little status. His legs were longer, his cheeks slimmer than those of the others. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was almost old enough to become a roteciona. 

I found him a most delightful human being. His conversation was endless, and yet highly entertaining. He was curious about everything and loved to tell me things he’d learned. His fascination with plumbing verged on obsessive, but he had an earnest sweetness about him that was beyond charming. 

What was he doing with the Swords? 

What were the Swords doing with him? 

Za Reija rested a hand on Cam’s head for a moment. Za Qintha knelt next to him and spoke to him, words I couldn’t hear. When she stood, the Swords turned and led Cam away. 

The feeling of not being able to breathe was back, but this time it wasn’t a good feeling. It was matched by a sick churning in my stomach. 

Za Reija was returning to the children, his expression grim. 

“What — where is Cam going?” I asked, my voice higher-pitched than usual. Maybe Shoshi heard the stress in it, because she started to fuss again. 

Za Reija’s lips tightened. “Last night, the System recorded Cam levitating in his sleep. He goes to the Swords now.” He shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Such a waste,” before heaving a sigh. “Well, what can we do?” 

The question was rhetorical for he didn’t wait for an answer before turning back to the last littles left at the table and beginning to help them down. 

Not that I had an answer to give him. Argue? Fight? Scream and yell and resist with as much noise as we could bring to bear? 

A strange trembling deep in my chest might have been fear, or grief, or even fury, but all I could do was stand motionless, holding Shoshi and Tycho, and do my best to suffocate the flames that wanted to burst forth from the deepest part of my soul. 

E&L – Ch6 – Trapped

Chapter Six

Trapped was not a pleasant word. 

I stared at Ella. She met my eyes, but her lips quivered until she pressed them together. 

Finally I said, “If they know how to close a rift, do they know how to open one?” 

Ella’s eyes widened, then glazed over, unfocused as if she was looking at something I couldn’t see. 

“Ella?” 

“Give me a moment.” 

I waited. A moment passed. And then another. 

“Ella?” 

“Uh-huh.” Her eyes did not regain their focus. 

I started counting. I was going to give her thirty more seconds before I poked her, hard. Probably in the stomach, and possibly not so hard that it would hurt, but not gently either. 

But before I reached thirty, she sighed and shook herself back into awareness. “Maybe? I’m getting the access denied message, no matter how I try to phrase the question.” 

I did poke her. Hard. 

She yelped and jumped back from me. “What was that for?” 

“For being annoying. What are you talking about?” 

Ella clapped her hands together and held them before her, fingers folded as if in prayer. “Lila, it’s so wonderful. It’s so —“ She stopped as if overcome by emotion, words not sufficient to express her feelings.  Then she opened her arms wide, leaped forward, and flung them around me.

“Oof!” I gasped. 

“But I’m so glad you didn’t die. So, so, so glad. I can’t even tell you how glad I am. I’m just —“ She squeezed, her head on my shoulder, her arms tight around my own body and arms. “— So glad.” 

“Can’t breathe.” I gasped, through the quantity of dark curls covering my mouth and nose. 

She squeezed even harder for a second, then let go. 

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “But I’ve been so worried. I love the System, I do, it’s the most wonderful thing ever — like a library, in your head, all the time — but it wouldn’t have been worth losing you. Really. And not just because Mother and Father would have been so angry at me when they found out. I mean that would have been bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have liked that at all. Well, no one would, although I’m not sure they ever would find out. I mean I don’t know how they could know that we’re here. But—“ 

“Ella, stop.” I broke into her stream of babble. She always talked too much when she was nervous. “What were you doing just now and what is this System you keep talking about?” 

I will spare you Ella’s meandering explanations. The short version, if such an explanation can ever be short, is that the nannies Ella mentioned previously had built machines inside our bodies. 

These devices generated the visual artifacts I’d already noticed, allowing one to control elements of our surroundings; the doors, windows, lights, and so on. Those empty classrooms we’d walked by weren’t empty at all. The students within them were surrounded by vibrant displays invisible to people without System access. Their school books, their chalk boards, all the tools of learning, were created by the System. 

The System contained vast quantities of information, plus entertainments unlike anything we’d ever seen or experienced. It was also a tool for communicating with others; an artificial telepathy machine, if you will. Plus it could record everything you saw or heard, monitor your health, map your location, maintain your schedule, and much, much more.  

In truth, it was a miraculous device. 

Ella adored it, of course. An entire library stored in her head? It was her idea of paradise. 

I found the idea profoundly disturbing. Having machines — even tiny machines, invisible to the eye — inserted into my brain without my permission offended me. 

But no one had asked me and it was much too late to complain. I had been unconscious for six whole days while the nannies did their work. (Or their damage, depending on how you looked at it.) 

“Six days?” I said in disbelief when Ella told me that. No wonder I’d wobbled when I stood up. I’d never been sick for so long before. 

Ella nodded. “I was sick, too, for the first few days, but nothing like you. Za Kestrel and Za Aviv swore you would be all right, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. I could See that they thought they were telling me the truth, but…” She shrugged. 

Six days. The thought was appalling. When had our family realized we were missing? The servants would have noticed we were gone when we skipped dinner. Most likely, they would have waited to inform our mother until her return from the Grovers. Would she have sent for our father immediately? Even if she waited until after they’d searched and failed to find us, by now he would certainly know we had disappeared. 

But that was what we’d wanted. Or at least what we’d committed to when we entered this world. The sick feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with the nannies and everything to do with the thought of home, but I swallowed hard and pushed the feeling away. 

If we were trapped here, we would simply have to make the best of it. 

Perhaps the danger would enable me to gain the control over my magic that mere societal disapprobation and genteel punishments had never been sufficient to ensure. 

One could hope, anyway. 

During the six days in which I had been unconscious, Ella had been being typically Ella. Dimples, curls, and curves were potent social weapons when properly utilized. Add her Truesight and Persuasion to the mix and a stone wall would have trouble resisting Ella’s charm, much less the type of people running a school for refugee children. She’d made many friends, and had already gained a position of trust with the senior staff. 

Although that, as she pointed out to me, might have been due at least in part to the shortage of adults. The school contained four hundred children — four hundred and two, if Ella and I were included in the count — with a mere twenty adults to both manage them and meet their needs. The staff was, to put it charitably, overwhelmed. Extra hands were more than welcome.

 The situation was thus: the school was named Domas, which was a term laden with untranslatable nuances. Something like “safe haven for unfortunate souls,” perhaps, or “sanctuary for those lost in a storm.” Nothing so simple as “orphanage” or “boarding school,” although those were implied as well. 

It was located near a town named Verdun, in the country of Dalais, on a world named Salazie. But the children at the school came from another world, Lucerne. 

Unlike our world, where rifts were almost unknown, Salazie and its neighboring worlds were plagued by them. And, as had been apparent by the prompt response of the Swords to our arrival, not everything that came through the rifts was as harmless as Ella and I were. 

Lucerne had been invaded by monsters. The children at Domas were the survivors. They ranged in age from barely out of infancy to slightly younger than Ella but the majority were young, six or seven or so  — small enough to hide in cupboards and closets when the attacks began, old enough to run when they had a chance to escape. 

“Some of their stories…” Ella shivered. “Monster tales as scary as any our nurses ever told.”

“But more truthful?” I asked. It was not that I doubted the existence of monsters, but I knew how stories spread and grew along the way. At least half the tales about our father seemed highly implausible to me. Perhaps not entirely wrong, but even he acknowledged that the tidal wave he’d summoned during the siege of the island city of Mazlair had been only a few feet high, nowhere near enough to demolish the city’s well-built structures. Of course, the saltwater had contaminated their fresh water sources, which did devastate the city, forcing their complete surrender, but not as the stories would have it. 

Ella stared into space for a moment, then said, “Do you see a yellow dot in your peripheral vision?” 

I looked and I did. 

“Touch it.” 

I reached for it, hand lifting. 

“Not like that. Just think it.” 

My eyes narrowed as I tried to understand what Ella meant, but I let my hand drop and imagined myself touching the dot. A quiet voice inside my head said, Transmission from Ella Smith.

“Smith?” I said aloud. 

“An alias,” Ella replied, as if it should be obvious. And it was, of course. Not using our real name was a sensible precaution, in case our parents managed to reach this world while searching for us. 

“But Smith?” It was so mundane.

“I was on the spot. It was the first name that came to mind. It’s not important.“ Ella shook her head impatiently. “Just watch.” 

“How?” I asked the question, but the voice in my head was already responding to my intention, saying, Displaying transmission. 

Suddenly my eyes were no longer my own. I squeaked and grabbed for the nearest object, which happened to be Ella’s arm. The room around us hadn’t disappeared. I could still see the walls and the window, but they were overlaid with an entirely different reality: a dirt road, mid-winter, with barren fields on either side bordered by low hedgerows and shrubs with glossy, deep green leaves. The road was rutted, barely wide enough for two farm carts to pass. 

“Heads up,” a male voice sounded, so close it was almost as if came from my own throat.  I glanced down, but my view of the other world moved with me, the dirt road now running down my chest and torso. 

“Hot zone ahead, Rye,” a female voice replied calmly. “I’m reading red.” 

I wanted to look in the direction of the voice and see who was speaking, but I had no control over the sights I was seeing. 

“This is a major incursion,” a third voice said, this one from behind me. I couldn’t tell from the pitch whether it was male or female, but a tightness in the timbre sounded like stress. 

“Ahead and to the left, about a hundred meters, I’m getting a small patch of idezee.” The voice kept talking, but the words were nonsense to me, and Ella was speaking over it. 

“It’s easiest if you look at the wall, somewhere blank and open. You’re watching a recording made by a Sword on Lucerne. It gets… unpleasant.” 

“A what-ing?” I asked, but I was distracted by the images. They were moving now, as if I were moving, rapidly hurrying down the dirt road. I’d never seen anything like it.

I’d also never seen anything like the sight before us as the movement slowed. My eyes tried to make sense of it. The square brown shape, that had to be a farm cart. But where there should have been a horse, or at least a pony, between the traces, there was… a thing. It huddled low on the ground, and was lumpy, brown and mottled, with weird bulbous protuberances on the top and sides. 

“What is that?” The voice came from one of the invisible speakers, but I wanted to know the answer, too. And then abruptly the strange shapes shifted into meaning in my brain, and I gasped. 

It wasn’t one thing, but two. The bottom brown lump had once been a horse, but now it was a desiccated shell, crumpled in on itself. The mottled lump on top of it was an insect, with a segmented body and globular eyes like a wasp. Or perhaps a more appropriate description would be insectoid-like creature, as it was vastly larger than any insect I’d ever seen. 

“Stop, stop!” I heard Ella’s words underneath the almost incomprehensible speech of the invisible speakers, but I was too distracted to pay attention to her. The speakers’ words were still doing that strange thing in my head where meaning was assigned to them, even though the words themselves were unfamiliar, but it didn’t help: I had no idea what they were talking about. 

“Jase, take my six.” 

“Position green, Brie. Harmony, your read?” 

“Idezee nine point nine. This is fresh.”

The creature was moving, rising into the air. It pulled a serrated proboscis as large as a broadsword free from the dead horse, dripping red liquid as it hovered. 

I flexed my fingers. Where did insects hide their hearts? Did insects have hearts? 

Slap. The sound of Ella hitting my face broke my concentration a split second before the sting in my cheek would have done the same. 

“Ow!” I glared at her. 

She grabbed my wrist and yanked my hand into my line of sight. Tendrils of flame were crawling along my skin. “Tell the System to stop playing the transmission.” 

I repeated her words obediently and the world overlaid on the room disappeared. 

“You hadn’t even gotten to the awful part yet.” She shook my arm, sending the flames flickering. “You have to be more careful.” 

“It felt so real.” I closed my fists, suppressing my fire. 

“It was real, to the Sword whose eyes you were seeing through. The System records their missions and sometimes, if it’s in the public interest, they’re shared. Children don’t have access to recordings like that, but Za Kestrel let me see this one because many of the children here at Domas came from that incident.” 

“Incident? The bug?” 

“More than one. There was a swarm of them. Hundreds. They sting their prey and their poison liquifies the prey’s insides. Then they suck it out and eat it.” Ella shuddered. 

I stared at her. She seemed to be telling the truth, but it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever heard. 

“And they did this to people? The children’s parents?” 

Ella nodded. 

Not just disgusting, horrifying. 

“Ella…” I started. Our world was far from perfect, but there were no monster bugs liquifying people’s innards on it. Surely we could find a way back there. 

“Those creatures aren’t here,” she said hastily. “And the Shields and Swords protect this world. We’re in no danger. Well…” She let go of my arm, eyeing my hand. “Not from monsters, anyway.” 

They would think I was the monster, I feared. 

I put my chin up. “I will do better. It was just so real.” 

Ella’s mischievous grin flickered. “Wait until you play some of their games. Amazing! But you might not want to try any quite yet, not until you’re sure you can separate reality from the System.” 

E&L – Ch5

Chapter Five 

I woke slowly, reluctantly. I wanted to roll over on my side and burrow into the blankets for a few more moments of peace, but something tugged at my arm when I tried. I mumbled a protest. 

“Lila?” Ella’s voice sounded breathy, cautious. And most unlike her. As you may have gathered by now, my sister was not a cautious sort of person. 

I opened my eyes, blinking against the light. It was so bright that I tried to raise my arm to cover them, but was again stymied by something holding it in place. I would have complained, but my mouth was miserably dry and my throat hurt. 

Was I sick? But I was never sick. 

Slowly the memories began to return and despite the light, my eyes flew open. 

I was lying in a narrow, tube-like structure with sides that curved up and partway around me. My left arm was restrained by bands of some soft material holding it against the side of the structure, with a wide tube entering the vein near my elbow. 

“Lila?” Ella repeated, sounding more certain of herself. “Are you finally awake? They promised you were getting better and would awaken soon.”

I turned my head in her direction. 

“Of course, they said that yesterday, too,” Ella continued, voice disgruntled. “And I’ve been sitting here for hours, waiting and waiting.” 

My eyes met hers. She smiled at me. She looked her usual self, her flyaway dark curls in need of brushing, dimples peeking out of her golden cheeks with her smile, but her eyes were uncertain. 

“What happened?” My voice rasped in my throat, the words husky. “Where am I?” 

“In a machine.” Ella glanced over her shoulder, then leaned closer. “I’ve learned so much, Lila. This world is so different. They have the most amazing machines.” 

A machine? The surface underneath me was soft and cushioned. It felt like a bed. But I supposed it did look more like a machine than any bed I’d ever seen. Still, I’d meant rather more by my question.

“Where are we, then?” I tried again, but it hurt to talk. My mouth felt horrible, dry and nasty-tasting. I ran my tongue around my teeth, trying to work up some saliva. 

“It’s a healing room. We were right, this place is a school. But it’s a school for refugee children. Refugees from another world. It’s perfect for us. Well, sort of perfect. I mean… well…” Ella wrinkled her nose. “A few minor problems, perhaps, but mostly perfect.” 

I let my eyes flutter closed. Somehow I suspected that Ella and I were going to have different standards of perfect. 

“That lady in blue? Her name is Za Kestrel and she’s a teacher here,” Ella continued. “She knew we weren’t students, but she didn’t want to let the Swords take us. I think she was being practical, really. She hasn’t said as much, but there are so, so, so many children and not very many grown-ups. It’s wonderful. Sort of wonderful, anyway. Everyone has to do chores and everyone who’s old enough has to help with the littles. It’s not so bad, though. You should see what they use for diapers.” 

She paused, then said tentatively, “Lila? Are you listening to me?”

I opened my eyes again. “What happened to me?” I whispered. 

“Machines.” Ella raised her hand, squeezing her thumb against her forefinger. “Teeny-teeny tiny ones, called nannies. When you breathe them in, they zoom around your body.” She spread her hands, wiggling her fingers as if they were flying creatures. “And they do stuff.” 

I swallowed. Ella’s enthusiasm was most disturbing, given how miserable I felt. Although, apart from my mouth and throat, I actually didn’t feel all that miserable anymore. I remembered the feel of my head wanting to split apart, but it no longer hurt. The nausea was gone and my stomach felt at worst mildly hungry. 

A face appeared behind Ella’s — a man, with smooth, ageless skin, and dark hair and eyes. He might have been any age, from barely older than me to decades past my years. 

“Patient doing better? Good, good. You worried us a bit, young lady. Not often we see a reaction so strong. But then you’re on the old side to be receiving System access. Generally the network build happens at a much younger age, when the brain is more malleable. Not to imply that your brain is inflexible, of course.” He chuckled. 

The old side? I blinked. This world must be strange indeed if seventeen years was old. 

He started fussing with the side of the bed and the bands restraining my arm slid away. With a small pinch, the tube followed suit. He placed a brown square against my skin where the tube had been, then said, “Ready to sit up?” 

I lifted my arm, examining the square, first with my eyes, then with the fingers of my other hand. The material was soft, but smooth, with no weave that I could feel. And somehow it was staying in place without wrapping around my arm. 

“What is this?” I asked.  

The man shook his head. “You’ll have to learn our language, I’m afraid, before I can answer any question of yours.” 

For the first time, I realized he was speaking the way the woman in blue had, with strange words whose meaning was still readily apparent. Even the sense of vagueness — of one word having many possible interpretations — was largely gone. 

“A bandage,” Ella answered in our own language.

“A most peculiar bandage.” I let the man assist me in sitting up. I was wearing an odd garment, not the clothing I’d started out in, but a soft one-piece item, like a child’s romper, that left my legs and arms bare. Like the so-called bandage, I didn’t recognize the fabric, nor did it have a detectable weave. 

Ella was wearing a deep green jumpsuit, but hers covered far more of her, with full-length pants and long sleeves. 

I licked my lips. My mouth was still unpleasantly dry. The man noticed and promptly handed me a clear glass, saying, “Water?” 

The glass was a relief. It was just an ordinary glass, round and clear, and the water in it tasted exactly like water always did. I drank it down in thankful gulps, feeling it ease my throat. 

“That’s better now, isn’t it?” the man said cheerfully. “Now I’ll give you a few minutes to talk with your sister and then I’ll be back with some real food. But first, let’s just get you more comfortable.”  

Without further warning, the tube started to move beneath me. I yelped and grabbed for its sides as my feet dropped and the area behind me rose. 

The man patted my hand. “Nothing to worry about. I know Lucerne is a low-tech world, but this is just a standard med-cot.” 

The bed stopped moving when it had turned into a chair. I let out my breath in a long sigh and the man disappeared through a door on the other side of the small room. The door slid shut behind him. 

“Clever, isn’t it?” Ella said. She left my side to sit down on a chair against the wall. It extended beneath her, turning into something like a sloped divan. “This place is wonderful. We made such a good choice.”

“We need to go home,” I replied. The words were automatic. I was still feeling disoriented and confused, but not so much so that I didn’t remember the danger we were in. 

“We can’t,” Ella said. “They closed the rift.” 

In a moment, I was going to be very distressed about that, but meanwhile I was finding our surroundings quite distracting. Something was wrong with my vision. At least I thought it was my vision. Around the room, unreal lights shone in odd places. I could detect no source for them — no nearby lamps or candles, no crystals dangling in sunlit windows  — and the lights themselves were uncanny, translucent but precisely shaped. A green square rested on the center of the closed door, while a small panel of colors sat next to the room’s only window. Overhead a square of amber light shone next to a much larger circle that actually emitted light in the fashion of an ordinary lamp. 

As I gazed at the amber light, a symbol appeared upon it. It might have been a sigil, but it was not one I had ever seen before: one long line, with several short fine lines perpendicular to it, and a single midsized thicker band also perpendicular to the long line. The longer I looked, the darker the sigil became, while the midsized band began to pulse in a deeper amber. 

Ella, seeing the direction of my stare, said helpfully, “Have you found the controls? Light, sixty percent.” 

The band moved down one notch on the line and the light dimmed. 

My mouth dropped open. “What?” 

Ella laughed in delight. “Isn’t it amazing? You don’t even have to speak aloud. The System understands you if you just think about what you want to happen. As long as you have access, anyway. Some System functions are restricted to higher-level users.” She kept talking, but I was barely listening. 

I pictured the amber band sliding back up the line. It did and the room became correspondingly brighter. I imagined it sliding down and the room grew darker. I moved it up and down, with nothing but the power of my mind, and the lights flickered on and off like lightning. At the very top of the line, the brightness was so strong that it hurt my eyes and I closed them again. 

What a peculiar place. 

“Discovered the System, I see,” the man’s voice spoke again. “Don’t worry, you’ll be used to it in no time.” 

I opened my eyes to see him carrying a tray over to my chair. The tray held a covered plate and a tall glass of an unfamiliar yellow liquid. He glanced at the side of my chair, and a table formed out of the side of it and slid silently across my lap. 

This time, I did not flinch. True, I had no experience with magical furnishings, but I was a de Winterhoffe. Magic was my heritage, even unusual magic. I refused to be shocked on general principles. 

The man set the tray down. With a brush of his finger, the cover unfolded and tucked itself away, revealing several neatly arranged squares of different colors. A yellow square, two greens, a brown, and a deep blue.

Was it food? It almost had to be food, really — what else would be served on a plate? 

But when he’d said “real food,” I’d anticipated the familiar. Eggs, perhaps, accompanied by toast and bacon. Oatmeal, maybe, with berries and cream. 

I sniffed. The aroma rising from the plate was not unpleasant, but it was nothing I recognized. 

“What is this?” I asked. 

The man looked toward Ella, brows lifting in question.

She promptly stood. “She says thank you for your kindness, Za Aviv. I’ll make sure she eats it all.” She dipped her chin in a nod that came close to being a bow of dismissal. 

He smiled at her. “More where that came from, if you’re hungry yourself, young one.” 

“Thank you, but I broke my fast with the littles. I’ve had sufficient.” 

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” The man departed. 

I poked at the blue square. “No silverware?” 

“Not for these.” Ella came to stand by my chair. She pointed at each square in turn. “Carbo, vito, vito, proto, sweet.” 

The words were unfamiliar, except for the last. “What?” 

She shrugged. “They don’t translate. But they taste all right.”

I picked up the first square, the yellow one, and took a tentative bite. It tasted vaguely like bread might taste if bread had a slippery texture. But my stomach rumbled as if to remind me that I’d been hungry for days, so I took another bite, and then another. One of the greens tasted somewhat like fresh spring peas and the other had a mildly spicy bite, while the brown reminded me of mushrooms, and the purple had the sweetness of a honey cake with a berry flavor. 

Ella was right: they tasted all right. Strange, but satisfying. 

Finished, I turned back to her. She’d wandered over to the window while I ate, and was leaning against the frame, forehead against the glass, looking out. 

“What are you looking at?” 

“One of the Shields is teaching a self-defense class in the courtyard.” 

Ella was speaking our language, but I had the same sensation of words that didn’t mean what I thought they should mean. “Fencing with bucklers?” I asked doubtfully. 

“No.” Ella turned back to me with a smile. Her earlier uncertainty was gone. “Come see.” 

I felt a little wobbly as I stood, but the feeling quickly passed and I joined her at the window. 

Below us, a man in a red uniform stood before several rows of adolescents. They were moving in unison, arms swinging forward, stepping back, turning, beginning again. It was like a dance lesson, if the dancers weren’t partnered, were all wearing matching attire, had no music, and — well, all right, it wasn’t much like a dance lesson. They kicked into the air, far higher than any formal dance of Tizai would ever allow. 

“The man in red is called a Shield?” I asked. We were far enough away that we must have been on the third story of the building, and I couldn’t see his face, but his uniform looked much like the one worn by the woman we’d seen next to the rift. 

“Yes. They’re the guardians of this land.” 

“Who are the people in black, then?” It was perhaps not the most important question I could have asked. A dozen others — ranging from how long I’d been unconscious, to how they’d managed to close the rift, to how we were going to return home — should have been foremost in my mind. But the eyes of the man in the forest were still vivid in my memory. 

“They’re called Swords.” Ella glanced behind her and dropped her voice. Almost whispering, she said, “We have to stay far away from them. If they discover us…” She shivered. 

In a normal voice, I said, “Why are you whispering?” There was no one else in the room with us and if I understood correctly, no one here spoke our language, so it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been. 

“If they choose to look, they can see and hear everything,” Ella whispered, barely forming the words. “And they have seers who understand unknown languages. We have to be careful.” 

My brows rose. I wanted both to object and to ask more questions. How had Ella learned all this? 

But she continued, still whispering. “The most important thing is to not use your talents, not any of them, when the Swords are around. Whenever they discover a child with talent, that child disappears. Forever.” 

Our eyes met. Ella was as serious as I had ever seen her, her eyes intent on mine, no hint of cheer on her face. 

But she knew, as well as I, the impossibility of her command. She might be able to hide her talents — even to use her Persuasion to ease any suspicions should some observer catch her levitating  — but I’d spent most of my life trying to control my own unruly abilities, with only mixed success. 

If I could conceal my talents, I wouldn’t have been sitting in our bedroom, available to join her in her escape. I would have been off on adventures of my own: finishing school, the appropriate travel, the social season in the capital — the standard milestones that marked the coming-of-age of a daughter of the aristocracy in Tizai. 

“I’m not a child.” My mouth felt dry again. 

“I don’t think that would stop them.” 

“No.” I wasn’t cold, not really, but I wrapped my arms around myself as if I was, fingers closing against the bare skin of my upper arms. “We need to go home, Ella.” 

“They closed the rift,” she said simply. “We’re trapped here.” 

E&L – Ch4 – They didn’t kill us

They didn’t kill us. 

You probably already deduced that. Well, I could hardly be sharing our story with you if I was dead, could I? 

But their behavior was most mysterious. 

Mind-reading is an extremely rare talent, so precious that children displaying signs of the ability are immediately taken into service by the queen. It was not one of my talents, much to my regret. Not that I wanted to read people’s minds — no one liked a telepath — but even our father would have had difficulty resisting her majesty’s demands had I been so able. 

But these people looked like they were reading one another’s minds. They said nothing, merely glancing at one another, but their expressions changed. The woman in blue’s forehead creased, as if in concern. A corner of the mouth lifted on one of the recently arrived black-clad strangers, perhaps in wry resignation. The other’s brows rose, as if she were asking a question. 

I looked from one face to the next, trying to understand what was happening, while Ella kept her eyes locked on the face of the man holding her arm, her lips slightly parted. A charitable interpretation would have had her gazing at him in wonder, but I thought she looked like an idiot. 

The guard holding Ella’s arm shook his head, emphatically. He gestured toward me, and then toward the charred leaves next to me. It was nothing so direct as a finger-waving accusation, but the meaning felt clear: he was blaming me for the smoke slowly dissipating in the air and the fire that created it. 

Correctly, of course. 

I kept my chin high as befit a de Winterhoffe, but my legs quivered like a Latewinter fish aspic. In parts of our world less civilized than Tizai, Fire talents were routinely put to death, in order to ensure the safety of those around them. I understood the rationale, but I preferred to keep living myself. 

I had no need to fear, however. The woman in blue stepped forward. She spoke aloud for the first time, her voice brisk. She clapped twice, then made brushing gestures toward Ella and myself, as if we were a flock of chickens she wanted to chivvy along. 

The guard holding Ella pressed his lips together, restraining some comment perhaps, then dropped Ella’s arm. He took a step away from her. 

I hurried to Ella’s side and put my arm around her. 

The guard dipped his head toward us. His dark eyes were unreadable, and when he spoke his words were incomprehensible to me, but I would have wagered a week’s desserts that whatever he was saying was sarcastic. Then he and the other two in black lifted off the ground and levitated away, back in the direction from which we’d come. 

“And the same to you,” I muttered under my breath. 

Ella gave a muffled choke of laughter. For a brief moment, she leaned into me, giving me a convulsive hug, her arms tight around my waist. Then she pulled away as the woman in blue spoke again. 

“Can you understand her?” I asked. 

“Not at all,” Ella replied. “Truesight says she’s not a threat, though.” She beamed at the woman, her smile the bonfire variety she usually reserved for a delivery of new books. “Thank you,” she said fervently. 

The woman’s returning smile was much fainter. She glanced at the sky, at the receding guards, and it disappeared entirely. She took a deep breath, then blew it out in a long exhale, before gesturing again. The “come along” meaning was obvious. 

Ella and I followed her, back along the path we’d broken through the undergrowth. I eyed the forest as we went, looking for familiar plants, and wondering what our chances for survival would be should we need to take to the wilderness to hide. 

Yes, I was being ridiculous. 

No, we did not have the skills we would need to make a life in the forest. Oh, I could certainly pick an apple from a tree, should one appear in my path, but that rat in the space between the worlds was the first thing I’d ever killed in my life, bar a few inadvertently squashed insects. If circumstances necessitated a quick escape from this woman, we would need to get back to the rift and find our way home 

But when we emerged from the forest, it was immediately obvious that that would not be so easy. A dozen people, some in black, some in red, were congregated around the spot where we’d entered this world. 

With them was — well, my steps faltered and I stared in as much gape-mouthed surprise as Ella had shown for the handsome guard. 

What were those things? Not buildings, for they were surely too short. Not carriages, for they lacked wheels. If they were gliders, they were the oddest gliders I’d ever seen, with rounded tops and sleek sides. They were made of some bright material, in a red that almost matched the red of the uniforms, just a few shades deeper. 

They were beautiful. Clearly, devices of some sort, but what could their function be?

As I watched, a line of fire shot out from one of them, slowly tracing an outline in the air. It might have been the outline of the rift, although we were too far away for me to say for sure. Could the devices be weapons? 

The people surrounding it stirred in seeming reaction. A woman in red, her hair in short, equally red curls, put her hand on the device, patting it in a motion that seemed proprietary, then tossed her head back and laughed in response to something one of the others said. 

I wanted to know her. 

No, I wanted to be her. She had an air of casual confidence, a certainty of competence that radiated from her like sunshine. 

Of course, that might have just been her hair, which was really quite bright. 

But the woman leading us said something, voice sharp. Ella grabbed my hand and tugged me along. We were headed toward the wall that enclosed the school. I tossed a final yearning glance over my shoulder at the rift. 

If we could just get through it… but it was impossible. 

My mouth was dry and my throat felt tight as we followed the woman around a corner and through a doorway into the courtyard we’d first seen from the space between the worlds. 

The children were gone now, but the courtyard was still attractive — open and spacious, paved in a white stone that matched the white of the buildings. It was remarkably unworn, considering how many children had been playing on it such a short time ago. But the woman didn’t give us time to admire our surroundings, taking us straight across and into one of the white buildings. 

Ella squeezed my hand as the woman led us down a long corridor. 

“Thank you for coming with me,” she said quietly. 

We were passing door after door. Some were solid, but many of them had windows, through which I caught glimpses of groups of children, most of whom seemed to be in motion.

Ella and I had never attended school, but the rooms had to be classrooms. They held none of the accoutrements of my imagination’s vision of an academic setting, however. Where were the books? The desks? The chalkboards and stern teachers? These classrooms were white rooms, scantily furnished with simple chairs and tables, with walls barren of any decoration. 

“It will be all right,” I responded, equally quietly. If Ella felt anything like I did, there was a pit yawning in the center of her being, composed of equal parts fear and regret. But I was going to take care of my baby sister, no matter if it killed me. 

“This is going to be so much fun.” Ella gave a little skip as she tried to peer through the nearest door. 

Apparently Ella did not share my emotions. 

I was tempted to smack her, but I refrained. Mostly because of the woman with us, but also because Ella never hesitated before hitting back and now was not the moment for violence, no matter how deserved. 

We followed the woman until she finally came to one of the doors without windows. It slid open at her approach.  She stepped inside and we followed her. 

The door slid closed behind us, but the room was barely a room. It was a box. I felt the slight whoosh of movement as the box began moving and realized she’d taken us into an extremely large dumbwaiter. 

“Oh, how clever.” Ella poked at the floor with her toe as if assessing the sturdiness or perhaps the vibration. 

The woman in blue’s gaze followed her motion. She spotted Ella’s shoes and her eyes widened. She leaned in a little, as if trying to get a closer look, then straightened abruptly. She turned away, staring at the door, but biting her lip. 

I took a closer look at Ella’s shoe. She was wearing her most comfortable walking shoes, just as I was. They were perfectly nice shoes, made of the finest kidskin, with a sturdy low heel and a square toe. Completely unexceptionable in every way. What about them could have made the woman uncomfortable? 

The pit in my stomach grew larger. It didn’t diminish when the dumbwaiter door opened and the woman led us along another hallway and into a room where a second woman in blue stood by a window overlooking the lake. 

The woman turned at our approach. Her sweeping glance catalogued every inch of our beings, head to toe, pausing on our feet, and then returning more slowly to our faces. 

Ella stepped forward and sank down into her best royal curtsy, bending her head and holding the drop for the count of one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three, just as our protocol tutor had forced us to do at least ten thousand times. It would have looked much better had she been in full court regalia instead of leggings and her heavy robe, but I promptly followed suit. 

As I counted silently, I wondered what Ella had seen. I saw no discernible evidence of royalty: the woman wore no crown, the room held no throne, there weren’t even any armed guards lending her consequence. But Ella’s Truesight must have told her something about the woman’s rank. 

But when I lifted my head, the woman was looking horrified. She’d drawn back, brows raised, lips parted. 

The woman in blue stepped between us and rested a hand on each of our shoulders. She spoke aloud, the words meaningless to me, but the tone firm. 

The new woman blinked. The horror on her face faded and her brow furrowed. 

The woman in blue spoke again. 

The new woman put her hands on her hips and shook her head. 

I really hated not understanding what they were saying. 

They seemed friendly enough, though. The woman in blue was the younger of the two. She had dark hair, loose around her shoulders, and a gentleness to her features. She was attractive, but she looked tired, her eyes shadowed, mouth tight. 

The new woman was older, with silver hair and fine lines around her eyes, but undeniably beautiful. She might not have the accoutrements of royalty, but she had the bearing. 

The women fell silent, but it was not the quiet of true silence. I was watching the new woman and her face had the same small reactions — a muscle moving in her jaw, her brows shifting, the tiny dip of her head to one direction or another — as the guards in the clearing had had. As if she were talking, but without speaking.

“Are they all telepathic here?” I murmured to Ella, barely letting my lips move. That would make life rather challenging. And, as far as I was concerned, was further reason to get back to the rift and go home. 

“I don’t think so.” Ella was watching their faces, too. “I think it might be a device of some kind.” 

What kind of device would let one communicate without sound?

The older woman shook her head and, with an expression that mingled rueful dismay with concern, opened her hand to the door. 

The woman in blue squeezed our shoulders, then indicated that we should follow her. 

We did, obediently. 

Perhaps too obediently. But I don’t believe I could have brought myself to hurt the woman in blue and we’d seen that the rift was already well-guarded. We might not have managed to make it back through, even had we tried. 

But we didn’t. Instead, we followed the woman in a blue to a completely mysterious room. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The walls were shiny, made of some unknown material, and it was filled with devices — boxes with colorful lights, wires, lines. 

In one corner of the room, a circular translucent column rose from floor to ceiling. The woman walked straight to it, touched it, and one of the sides swung open. She gestured to us and then to it. 

The message was clear. 

“Oh, dear,” I murmured. She obviously wanted us to enter the column. 

“It’s all right,” Ella said absently. She had her head tipped to one side and was staring at the column, eyes narrowed. “I think it’s a…” 

“A what?” I demanded, when she didn’t continue. 

The woman was waiting, a line of worry deepening between her brows. 

“Medical,” Ella finally said. “Some sort of medical machine.”

“I’m not sick. Neither are you.” As it happened, Fire talents tended to be almost offensively healthy. Our propensity for fire burned any illness right out of us. Ella was not so fortunate, suffering from the occasional ailment or influenza, but she was healthy enough at the moment. 

“Yes. Well. That’s good, isn’t it?” Ella took a deep breath, then started forward. 

I slammed my arm out in front of her, using my enhanced speed to stop her before she’d had a chance to move more than half a step.

“Oof!” She grunted as she banged into it. 

“Me first,” I said grimly. I moved ahead of her. 

She didn’t object. 

Ella’s Truesight would have told her if the machine were clearly dangerous to us, but her lack of enthusiasm demonstrated uncertainty. If I let her enter the machine, I could destroy it if it seemed to be harming her. But what if I couldn’t detect the harm before it was too late? Better that I do it myself. 

The woman gave me an encouraging smile, and I stepped into the column. 

The door slid closed. 

I swallowed hard. 

But it was fine. From the inside, the column looked white. The air felt cool, with a mildly astringent smell, but it wasn’t unpleasant. With a quiet whirring sound, a blue light spun around me, starting at the base of the column and moving upward. When the blue light reached the top of my head, it stopped, and a chime sounded. Several seconds passed and then the blue light started again. This routine went on for several minutes, long enough for my fear to dissipate and for me to get thoroughly bored. 

My thoughts drifted, first to the woman with the red machine. What could that device have been? And who was she? But from there I found myself wondering about the man in the woods, the one who’d caught Ella. What had his parting words meant? He hadn’t sounded threatening, not exactly, but his eyes had been so compelling. And he had been so very beautiful. 

Just the memory made my cheeks feel hot. 

I suppose it was the distraction that first prevented me from noticing a faint gas filling the column, but by the time I did notice, it was too late. 

I’d already breathed it in. 

It tickled. 

I coughed, trying to clear my throat, feeling a fizziness in my nose and eyes that spread, rapidly running through my entire body. It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t like it. It itched, internally. Years ago, when I first started escaping into the forest surrounding our home, I’d inadvertently seated myself on an ant mound. I didn’t realize what I’d done until ants were crawling all over me. Fortunately, they weren’t the biting kind, but this felt much like that — bugs crawling on me, but on my insides, not my surface. 

The column door slid open and I stumbled out, still gasping and trying to clear my throat. 

“Are you all right?” Ella hurried to my side, putting her arm around me. 

I rubbed my throat, then my face, wanting to scratch but knowing it would be pointless, even as the itch started to fade. “Ugh, how unpleasant.” 

She narrowed her eyes, studying me as intently as if she could see the ants crawling through my interior. “Not medicine,” she finally said. 

“Not?” I kept my hand at my throat. 

“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what it does.” 

“Lovely.” I shook out my hand and blinked a few times. My fingertips were still tingling, and my eyes still felt odd, but the sensations had mostly diminished. “I can’t tell, either. But it doesn’t hurt.” I blinked again, unsure whether my eyes were working. “Not really.” 

The woman spoke and I drew back, startled. 

I didn’t understand a word she said, of course, except… I almost did. The sounds themselves didn’t mean anything to me — I couldn’t have repeated them — but I had the strong impression that she was telling Ella it was her turn. 

Had I somehow understood her meaning from her body language? 

“What did you say?” I asked. 

Her lips tilted into a faint smile. Speaking slowly, she said, in total gibberish, “Your companion also needs System access. Please ask her to step into the scan terminal.” 

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Somehow I was comprehending her, although not truly understanding her language. 

But I use the term “comprehending” quite loosely. 

Scan terminal? System access? Those words felt like they most closely described the concepts appearing in my mind, but she might have said “look machine” or “review interface” or “network entrance” or “structure opening.” It scarcely mattered which of those options was closer to correct, however, as none of them meant anything sensible to me. 

“How are you doing that?” I asked. I pressed a hand to my temple. My head was beginning to throb in time to my pulse. 

“Do you understand her?” Ella demanded, catching on far more quickly than I had. “Oh, I want that, too.” Before I could stop her — before I could even decide whether I should stop her — she darted into the column and the door slid closed behind her. 

“What did you do to me?” I demanded of the woman in blue. 

She opened her hands. Again, her words didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before, but I understood them to mean that she couldn’t understand me because the System was unfamiliar with my language, and therefore not capable of translating it for her. 

My questions were accumulating quickly: what sort of System was she talking about? How could I understand her language if she couldn’t understand mine? What magic was this? 

But the pounding in my head was becoming more and more intense, matched by a churning in my stomach. We’d missed dinner and luncheon had been far too long ago, so it was pure bile burning its way toward my throat. I clenched my teeth, feeling beads of perspiration springing up on the back of my neck, saliva pouring into my mouth. 

A litany of ladylike injunctions ran through my head, the voice of our first governess so loud it was as if she was in the room with us. 

Ladies do not discuss unpleasant physical sensations. 

Whilst in company, ladies never mention body parts, whether their own or those belonging to others. 

If a lady needs to take care of a necessary biological function, she excuses herself discreetly and does her business privately. 

Also, of course, ladies are always quiet, polite, and well-behaved. Ladies do not get angry. Ladies never, ever get angry. Fire talents, on the other hand, have tempers, and I was feeling mine rise. What had this woman done to me? 

Fortunately, the room we were in did not appear to contain much in the way of flammable materials. 

Also, I suppose, somewhat fortunately, my anger was no match for my growing nausea. And it is extremely hard to maintain a temper when spewing a stream of yellow muck across a spotlessly clean floor. 

Under most circumstances, I would have been horribly embarrassed, as well as dismayed about how the servants would react to the mess. They were going to hate me before they even met me. But my head was pounding so much and the taste in my mouth so unpleasant, I could barely bring myself to care. 

The woman in blue was exclaiming, but her words couldn’t penetrate my misery. Perhaps the magic she had inflicted upon me should have let me understand her meaning, but it required more from me than I had to give. I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to block out the pain along with the light. 

I felt hands on my shoulders, heard Ella’s voice, and then… nothing. 

E&L – Ch3 – Onto the new world

Chapter Three 

Ella walked with absolute certainty, as if she knew exactly where each step led. But the hedge maze soon faded out into nothingness, the skies brightened, and we entered a place of utter chaos. 

It was as if we were in a hall of mirrors where all the mirrors had been fractured, yet each reflected not our presence but a different place. So more accurately, perhaps, it was as if we were in a hall of broken windows, where each piece of glass, no matter how infinitesimally tiny, displayed a glimpse of another world. 

It quickly made my head pound with pain and my eyes go blurry. 

“Stop concentrating so hard,” Ella said over her shoulder. “It won’t help.” 

“How can you see where you’re going?” I didn’t let go of my grasp on my bag, but I raised one hand to shield my eyes. 

“I’m using Truesight.” Ella paused so abruptly that I almost walked right into her. “Not that way, I think.” She took a quick right turn and started moving perpendicular to her previous path. Still away from the hedge that led to home, but not the way she’d been going. 

“What’s that way?” I tried to look past my blurry vision to see what she had seen. 

“Danger.” She was still holding the knife in her hand as she gestured. “I can’t see it with my eyes, but my sight tells me there’s something big out there. Big and hungry.” 

“Oh, Ella.” I stopped walking. “We should go home.” 

“Don’t be silly. This is our chance.” 

“Our chance for what? To get eaten?” Ella hadn’t stopped walking so I hurried after her. 

Above me,  a cityscape of sparkling light with buildings bigger than any I had ever seen or imagined glimmered. Beside me loomed a desert, one lone barren tree rising up out of an expanse of brown. Water, water, more water… window after window opened on to ocean vistas. A tiny smidge of a window at eye level, no bigger than my palm, showed a winding trail through a deep forest. 

“Our chance to live real lives, away from our parents.” Ella hiked her bag higher on her shoulder. “We just need to find the right place.” 

She paused by a panel almost big enough to be a doorway and eyed it. It showed a fantastical market, stalls piled high with brightly-colored objects, crowds of people pushing and shoving, a food vendor with a tray of meat kebabs held above his head, lips moving as if he were calling out his wares. 

My stomach growled.

“That one?” I suggested. 

Ella shook her head and kept moving. “That might be the one Sibylla visited, but no.” 

“Why not? I’m hungry.” I couldn’t smell the meat kebabs, but they looked delicious. 

“Look at it again and tell me why not,” Ella replied, moving on. 

I rolled my eyes. She was beginning to resemble our father more than a little. He never answered a direct question, either. But I looked more closely and realized that the few women in the crowd were heavily veiled. My nose wrinkled. Not a world where Ella and I would be at home, I agreed.

Several yards ahead of me, Ella stopped again. 

“What do you think of this one?” she called. 

I hurried to catch up with her. The window by which she stood was smaller, not a full-fledged doorway, and angled oddly. If we were to fit through it, we would need to squeeze. But the scene on the other side looked quite pleasant. A crowd of children were playing some sort of game in a paved courtyard. It involved a ball and much laughing. The courtyard had a few buildings around it, made of an unfamiliar white stone, with carvings decorating the windows and doors. Farther away lay a deep blue lake. 

Most of the children had dark hair and eyes and golden skin, like our own, and they were dressed in leggings and shirts not too different from our travel attire. We might fit right in.

“As a place to live?” I asked, voice hushed as if they might hear us. 

“It looks nice.” Ella tipped her head to one side, considering. “I think that must be a school.” 

I considered, too. I’d never entertained any fantasies of running away. Where was there to go, after all? Our father would find us anywhere we went, and if he didn’t and his enemies did… well, his rage in those circumstances would be something to behold. 

Something no one sane would want to behold. 

Running away would not only be a danger to us, it would be a danger to anyone around us. But if the rift only opened up every seventeen months and if Ella was the only one who knew where and how it opened up… She might, in fact, have found the only possible way for us to escape. 

“Do you want to go to school there?” I asked doubtfully. 

“It might be fun to go to school, don’t you think?” 

“I’m too old,” I said, but a trickle of glee stirred in my chest. Once I would have wanted to go to school, but if I could do anything… “I want to get a job.” 

I leaned closer to the window. No smoke came from the buildings, so it couldn’t be too cold. No sign of roadways, so they must use gliders or carpets more than ground-powered vehicles. 

“What sort of job?” 

“Perhaps I could be a shop clerk. Or a maid. Maybe a cook.” I took a deep breath, feeling the glee begin to filter through my veins even as the sharp tang of the cold air stung my nose. I glanced at Ella. “Anything. I could be anything.” 

She gave a firm nod.“And not a prize to go to the highest bidder.”  

“Father wouldn’t sell us off. Not exactly.”  

“Not a prize to sit on a shelf, then.” 

I couldn’t argue with that. It was an apt description of our role in our parents’ lives.

“And Mother would sell us off,” Ella added darkly. 

“Not for money.” I didn’t want to argue with Ella, so I lifted my shoulder in a shrug. “Although for prestige, I suppose.”

The children were being called in, an adult standing in the middle of the courtyard beckoning them to form a circle around her. She was wearing a pink thing, like the overalls our gardeners sometimes wore, only with long sleeves. It was quite ugly. “Not a teacher, I think,” I said thoughtfully. 

Ella grinned at me. “Anything you want to be.” 

“Are we going to be able to fit through that window?” I measured the space with my hands. It was small, triangular in shape, and set at a peculiar slant. We would have to squat and crawl through, but with the way that it was angled, I couldn’t see what we would be crawling into. 

“Of course. Here, hold this.” Ella jabbed the knife she was holding in my direction. 

I took a quick step back. “Be careful with that.” 

“Take it.” She gestured impatiently, turning the knife so that its blade pointed to the side. 

Warily, I took the knife from her, holding it in my fingertips, rather than clutching it the way she had. “What are you going to do?” 

Ella pulled her bag around to her front, clutching it like a pillow. “Just in case,” she said obscurely. 

“In case what?” I asked. 

Ella sat down on the ground, stuck her feet through the window, and wiggled forward in a most unladylike motion. “In case I fall on my face, of course,” she said, just before her torso reached the edge of the window. With a squeal, she slid through it. 

“Ella!” I dropped to my knees and stuck my face through the window, letting the knife clatter to the ground next to me. “Ella!” 

She looked up at me from the ground, about three feet below, and gave me a wobbly smile. “That didn’t work quite right. I should have dropped my bag in first.” 

“Are you all right?” I demanded. 

“Um, yeah, I think so.” She scrambled to her feet and rubbed her posterior, glancing around her. The ground didn’t look like the courtyard where we’d seen the children playing. It was grassy and sloped. “There’s a wall. The school must be on the other side of it.” 

“All right, I’m coming through.” I swung my bag forward and dropped it through the window. For a moment, I considered the knife I’d dropped, but if I brought it with me, Ella would just keep waving it around. Someone was bound to get hurt, probably her. Besides, we didn’t want to look threatening to these new people. So I abandoned the knife and wiggled through the window. 

Having seen how Ella did it, I went the other way: still feet first, but backwards, clinging to the edge of the window. My feet waved in the air, feeling for the ground, which had to be down there somewhere. 

“Just drop, Lila,” Ella called up to me. “You’re close.” 

But letting go felt terrifying. I should have thought this through sooner. Once I dropped in, we would be stuck. With the window so far overhead, there would be no ducking back into it should we decide that this world was no place for us. 

In fact, hanging there, turning red-faced with the effort of not letting gravity have its way with me, I became quite convinced that this was a terrible idea. And entirely unwilling to let go. 

But the window decided for me. It crumbled away underneath my hands. With a shriek, I landed on the ground. Before me, the tiny window had become a gaping door into the in-between. 

“Oh, dear,” I murmured.  

Ella was chewing on her lower lip. “That’s not good.” 

Not good felt like something of an understatement. We were standing on a grassy hill, with forest and rolling landscape in front of us, the wall that must enclose the playing children behind us, and between them, a path that led to chaos. 

Ella circled the window. “Interesting,” she reported from the other side. “It has no depth, and I can’t see it from the back.” She walked straight through it, appearing in front of it. “Well, that’s not so bad. No one will stumble into it by accident, anyway.” 

My stomach roiled with unease. Or perhaps it was just my hunger. I pressed my hand to it. 

An alarm began blaring, making me jump. It sounded like a fog horn, low and resonant, penetrating deep into my bones. It paused and a voice, inhumanly loud, began speaking. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word it was saying. I could imagine them vividly, though. 

Alien girls have torn a hole in the fabric of the world. All staff, be on the alert. Shoot to kill. Something like that, anyway. 

“Perhaps we should move away from this spot?” Ella suggested. She scooped both bags off the ground and shoved mine at me with unnecessary force. I caught it, staring at the in-between. It still made my vision blurry and my head hurt to look at it too closely, but my brain was racing, trying to think of some way to close it back up again. 

Fire would be useless, of course. And starting a forest fire would be disastrous. I could create an illusion to hide it, but unless I wanted to take up residence on this very spot, the illusion would fade when I moved away. 

Before I could consider whether any of my other talents could be of use, Ella grabbed my hand and began tugging at me. “We don’t want to be caught here, Lila.” 

“We have to fix this.” I didn’t try to break free, but I didn’t start moving either. 

“It’s a dimensional rift. I’ve been researching them for years and I have no idea how to open or close one. A great many of our ancestors also worked on the question for years without discovering the answer, so I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem in the next five minutes.” 

Ella pulled harder and I began stumbling after her, my eyes still on the rift.

“But we have to tell someone,” I said. 

“Funnily enough, I think they might know.” 

“There’s no need for sarcasm,” I said huffily, but I stopped resisting. The fog horn had started again, reverberating so loudly that it was as much a vibration as a sound. I didn’t have a hand free — Ella had one, I held my bag with the other — so I couldn’t clap them over my ears, but I would have liked to. “Where are we going?” 

Instead of following the wall and searching for a door, Ella was heading straight for the forest, away from the school. 

“We can hide out in the woods for a while, until the hubbub dies down,” she called over her shoulder, and then her eyes widened. 

I didn’t look over my shoulder, just cast the simplest illusion possible behind me — the sight of what was ahead of us. Someone perceptive might notice that the forest had just moved fifty feet closer to the wall, but with any luck, the rift would distract them until we were well-hidden. 

Ella’s view would have been immediately blocked by the trees of my illusion, but she wouldn’t have been deceived; her Truesight would see straight through them. She didn’t pause to appreciate my quick thinking, however, instead turning and running until we were among the real trees. 

There was no path so anyone with eyes would see where we’d crashed through the undergrowth into the forest, but Ella kept running and I kept following. I could have passed her easily — Speed was one of my minor talents —  but I wasn’t about to leave her behind. 

Finally, she paused, breathing hard. She put her back against the trunk of a huge tree. I stopped next to her and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees as I also caught my breath. 

A tear in the fabric of my leggings caught my eye. I must have snagged it on a branch or a bramble. 

“Bother,” I said, fussing at it. “I don’t suppose you thought to bring a sewing kit?” 

“A sewing kit?” Ella asked between gasps.

“It would be far more useful than silver candlesticks.” I’d caught my breath faster than Ella but then I spent more time roaming the woods at home than she did. She spent her free hours in the library. 

“Really not a priority at the moment.” Ella rested her head against the bark and closed her eyes. “Your illusion was inspired.” 

“Thank you.” I acknowledged the compliment with a gracious tilt of my head. Mother was very firm about the forms for polite acceptance of flattery, but I heard the truth in Ella’s words. She did believe my illusion was inspired, and I had to admit, I was pleased with my own ingenuity. 

Honestly compels me to admit, however, that I’ve pulled the same trick more than once at home, when for one reason or another I haven’t wished to be discovered. It wasn’t a novel idea for me, more of an automatic reaction to the fear of being seen. 

“Did you see those guards?” Ella asked. 

“I didn’t look.”

Ella fanned herself. Her cheeks were flushed, I assumed from the heat generated by our brisk run. “They were…” She paused. Was the flush on her cheeks deepening? 

“Ferocious?” I suggested. “Heavily armed?” That fog horn alarm, still audible, although not nearly so oppressive with a bit more distance, was foreboding. 

“Beautiful.” Ella sighed. 

“Beautiful?” I repeated in surprise. 

“Beautiful,” Ella repeated firmly. “Just…” She waved a hand in the air, as if she couldn’t find the words, then put it over her heart. “Beautiful. There were two of them, levitating over the wall. Both dressed in black, both young. A woman, her hair…” Ella gestured, moving her hand in circles down her side, as if to indicate long ringlets. “And a boy—well, man, I suppose—with…” She sighed again. 

I waited, but she seemed to have lost her ability to speak. Or perhaps her vocabulary. Her eyes were dreamy. “That doesn’t sound so bad. Perhaps we shouldn’t have run.” 

“Oh, no.” Ella shook her head, the dreamy look disappearing and being replaced by her usual sharp focus. “They were terrifying. Beautiful, but stern and determined. And…” She nibbled on her lower lip. 

I recognized the expression. She was considering what to tell me, and whether to tell me the truth. “This is not a time to be keeping secrets.”

“No. Well…” She swallowed. “I may have made a mistake. We might have been better off in that market world.” 

“How so?” 

“They intended to kill us.” 

“Kill us?” I squeaked. And then covered my mouth, coughed, and said in a more normal voice, “Kill us? Without even talking to us? Without a trial? Or… or…” I tried to think of reasons why terrifying armed guards would hesitate to murder two innocent young girls. 

Well, mostly innocent. I had ripped a hole in their world, after all. 

“Kill whatever had come through the rift,” Ella corrected herself. “They were looking for monsters.” 

“Your Truesight told you that?” I demanded.

Ella nodded, looking troubled. “I could see it on them. They’ve killed before. Many times.” 

My throat felt like it was closing up, like I couldn’t draw air through it. Mother was going to be so angry. Father… 

Ella pushed off the tree trunk. “Will your illusion be gone by now?”

Illusion-casting was not my strongest talent. Oh, don’t mistake me — my illusions are perfectly competent. Had it been my only talent — and had I been born to a different family or even to a different branch of my own family — the military would have snapped me up in a heartbeat. In preparation for my future career, I would have trained obsessively, practicing for hours a day, every day. My illusions might then last without me for several hours. 

As it was, though, they faded as soon as I wasn’t there to maintain them. “Most likely.” 

“We don’t have much time, then.” Ella’s eyes met mine. “We need a plan.” 

“We need to go home,” I said firmly. 

Ella winced, her face screwing up as if my words physically hurt her. “Oh, Lila, no.” 

“Oh, Ella, yes. Can you imagine what Father would do if these people kill us?” I waved my arm in the direction we’d run from. “How many do you think would die? All of those children playing at the school or just some of them?”

The expression of pain on Ella’s face deepened. 

“He’d turn this place into cinder and ashes,” I continued. 

“If he found it. There are thousands of worlds. It could take him decades to track us here.” 

“All the worse.” I looked back in the direction of the rift. Perhaps the hole I’d ripped was fortunate after all. The new rift touched the ground. All we needed to do was to get back to it and go through it without being seen. Perhaps we could hide in the forest until dark. Or perhaps I could create another illusion, something to hide us as we approached the rift. 

Of course, we always had the option of fighting our way out. It would grieve me enormously if I had to kill some guard who was just doing their duty, but I’m sure if I had the chance to explain that they were sacrificing themselves for the well-being of their people, they would understand. 

Well, perhaps not understand, exactly. One really had to know my father to appreciate the risk. 

But I was not going to let my sister die. Or me, either, of course. 

Ella grabbed my arm. “What about finding a new world, a safer one?” 

“How could we ever be sure?”

The bark on the tree next to us began to smolder and smoke. With an aggrieved mutter, I flattened my hand against the air and stopped it. 

Ella set her chin stubbornly. “I am not going home, Lila. I refuse.” 

“You are going home, if I have to drag you there.” I flipped my arm over, breaking free from Ella’s grasp, and returned the favor, grabbing her arm. 

It had been a long time since Ella and I had gotten into a physical tussle, and I wasn’t entirely sure my two years head start on her would be enough of an advantage to counteract our disparate shapes. Unfortunately for me, nature had kindly granted Ella curves. Not excessive curves, but the type of curves that caused the Grover boys to use words like “luscious” and “tasty” to describe her.

Obviously, they should have said nothing of the sort in our hearing and the fact that we had overheard them might have something to do with Ella’s total disdain for their company, but the point remained: I might have the advantage of two years in age and an inch in height, but Ella was no lightweight to be casually dragged back to the rift. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try. 

“You can’t make me,” Ella said. 

“Of course I can,” I responded, but my doubt grew. 

“No, you can’t.” Ella said. Her eyes caught mine. Their dark brown seemed to hold glints of green in the shade of the trees. “I’m much too heavy.” 

“You are not that heavy,” I said but my voice sounded uncertain, even to my own ears.

“I am very heavy,” Ella said deliberately. “I am much too heavy for you to move. You can’t even shift me, no matter how hard you try.” 

I wasn’t even trying yet. I’d taken hold of her arm, but I hadn’t tried to pull her. But perhaps she was right. She probably was, in fact. Hadn’t I just been thinking that I might have trouble? 

“You’re not strong enough to move me,” Ella said. 

And that was a phrase too far. I dropped her arm as if it was electrified and drew myself up to my tallest height. “Ella Rose Marie Serafina de Winterhoffe, how dare you! To even think of using Persuasion on me!” I was spluttering in my fury. 

A forest is a terrible place for a Fire talent to become enraged. 

Dried leaves on the ground near us burst into flame. The bark on the tree began smoldering again. Some bushes a few feet away must have had some dead branches because they began smoking, too. 

Ella shrieked, yanking the bag that she’d let rest on the ground away from the burning leaves and leaping away from the tree. 

Hot tears of mingled embarrassment and rage filled my eyes. I fought to get myself under control, and the fires with me. 

One at a time, I smothered each fire. The leaves were hardest. They were so dry that the fire wanted to run away from me, to escape into the undergrowth. By the time I succeeded in suffocating each little burst of flame, I was sweating and breathless. 

I turned to resume my argument with Ella. 

The black-clad stranger who had a firm grasp on her arm was not going to have any problem carrying her. 

They’d found us. 

The stranger said something. It was completely incomprehensible to me. I just stared at him. 

As might have been obvious, Ella and I were somewhat sheltered. Cloistered, even. We saw our neighbors, of course, and upon occasion, Mother would host guests at the estate, usually family. And when Father was in residence — a circumstance generally as brief as it was rare — a steady stream of visitors journeyed to meet with him. 

So it is entirely possible that it was simply my very limited exposure to members of the male sex in an appropriate age range that made this one seem so absolutely breathtaking. 

But he was. Breathtaking, I mean. 

I truly didn’t think I could breathe. I was acutely aware of the rip in my leggings and the sweat beading my forehead and probably staining my blouse, and I rued my decision to braid my hair like a little girl instead of wearing it up as befit a young lady of my years. 

He repeated his previous speech, speaking more slowly. 

I still understood not a word. 

Ella and I really hadn’t thought this out. Of course we didn’t speak this world’s language. How could we? Like all well-educated young ladies, we spoke our own language, Tizaian, and that of our closest neighboring country and perennial enemy, Reveth. Ella, in addition, spoke a smattering of Elzbiet and Fra.

I glanced at her, to see if she understood what he was saying. She was staring at him, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, not even trying to escape his grip. 

“Ella,” I snapped at her. “Wake up.” 

“Oh, yes.” She dragged her eyes away from him. “I can’t understand him.” 

“What should I do?” I asked her. I had thought that I could kill a guard or two, if necessary, but that was before I’d seen him. Burning him would be a travesty, like destroying a piece of art. 

Plus, and perhaps more to the point, he looked… tough. And deadly. The form-fitting black suit he wore showed off an elegantly muscular build, but it was made of some material I didn’t recognize, and I wouldn’t be surprised it if was fireproof. Nor would I be surprised if he was perfectly capable of breaking my sister’s neck the second I made an aggressive move in his direction. 

I entirely understood why Ella had run and if he hadn’t been holding my sister prisoner, I would have done the same again. 

Ella shrugged helplessly. 

But the moment when we could have done anything was over. Two more of the black-clad guards and a woman in blue were floating down through the treetops toward us. If they were going to kill us, we were already doomed. 

E&L, 2 (Repeat)

Chapter Two 

I felt a fool standing by the garden wall, a heavy bag over my shoulder. Ella had insisted I bring along three changes of clothing, including a heavy woolen robe that I wore only in the depths of Midwinter, and the entire contents of my jewelry chest. At the last minute, as we’d passed through the dining room on our way to the French doors that led to the back patio, she’d stuffed a wooden box containing the carving knife set used on special occasions and two silver candlesticks on top of the bag. 

“You never know,” she’d said cheerfully. Fortunately, we’d heard the rumble of Mother’s conveyance departing before we ventured downstairs, but I knew that if we were to encounter any of the servants before we made it safely back to our room, I’d be trying to explain this to her before morning. 

That was not a pleasant thought. 

The location that Ella claimed was the right place was at the outer edge of the kitchen gardens. I could well imagine that a hole could open up in this spot and no one would see it, especially at this time of day. The gardeners would be long gone for their dinners, and no random passersby should be strolling back with the rutabagas. At least, I thought those ragged green leaves belonged to rutabagas. They might be turnips but I had no inclination to pull one up to confirm.  

“You’d think that Amelia or Sibylla or one of them would have noted the spot,” I remarked idly, lowering my bag to rest on my booted toes.

Ella and I were both dressed as if for a journey in comfortable walking shoes, sturdy leggings and sleeved blouses topped with close-fitting tunics. But Ella already wore her heavy robe. Sweat was beading along the edges of her forehead, curling the fine threads of hair.

She shot a glance at me, her lips quirking. She gestured toward the wall. “Do you recall what lies on the other side?” 

I tried to envision the layout of the grounds. Given my lifetime on the estate, I ought to know them like the back of my hand, but how often did one really stare at the back of one’s hands? I knew the front gardens well, the walking trails through the forest even better, but I didn’t often ramble about the working areas of the estate. I hazarded a guess. “The rose garden?” 

“The maze,” she told me. “Built by Revel de Winterhoffe.” 

“How interesting.” I regarded Ella’s section of wall with a bit more care. The maze was hundreds of years old and a nightmare. No pleasant strolls down sandy paths between gentle green shrubs for de Winterhoffes, no. Our maze had brambles, thick and ancient, that would tear at your skin if you brushed against them, and the hedges met overhead, making for dank tunnels populated by spiders and probably rats. 

Well, maybe not rats. Or at least there was no particular reason to think that rats would care for the maze. But spiders, definitely. We avoided the maze unless we had an unpleasant visitor who needed to be shown a miserable time, and that hadn’t happened since our cousin Georgia visited when I was twelve and Ella was ten. 

Georgia was from the de Verayz side of the family and she was the kind of sugar-and-light that barely disguised poison. She slithered. Less so after she made it out of the maze, although the poison then became much more obvious. 

“So how long do we wait?” I asked Ella. 

“It’s not time yet.” Ella chewed on her lip, a sign of her nerves, and kept her eyes on the wall. 

“Yes, but I’m hungry. And since Cook expected us to dine with the Grovers, she’ll have nothing planned. Perhaps she’ll let us fend for ourselves. We could make omelettes.” 

“Nonsense.” Ella didn’t blink. “You know she won’t let you in the kitchen.” 

“She might.” I tugged the bag higher on my feet, wiggling my toes. They were growing numb from the weight. I should let the bag rest on the ground, but I didn’t know where Ella had found it or how much trouble she’d get in if it were dirtied when she returned it. 

“She won’t.” 

I sighed. Ella was undoubtedly right. Even if I could assure Cook that I wouldn’t set fire to her kitchen, she would fear Father’s wrath should anything untoward happen and he hear about it. 

“You could ask her,” I suggested. 

“Persuade her, you mean?” Ella shifted the bag slung over her shoulder to the other side. It, too, must be getting heavy. 

“No, of course not.” I defended myself, but without much force behind the words. Ella was not allowed to use her persuasion ability on the servants. But if she phrased the question the right way, it would take barely any persuasion at all to convince Cook to let us in the kitchen. Something like, “Wouldn’t you like help preparing dinner?” would have Cook nodding yes before she even thought of resisting. 

“It’s not going to matter,” Ella said. She grabbed my hand. I had just enough time to grab the bag off my feet and swing it up into the air before Ella dragged me straight into the wall. 

Into the wall and out the other side. 

I gasped. My breath formed vapor on the air. 

“I did it, I did it!” Ella dropped my hand and began jumping up and down, squealing with delight, while I tried to look in all directions at once. 

We were in the space between worlds. It looked remarkably like my memories of the hedge maze, except not finished, as if we’d entered a painting with most of the structure merely sketched in. The colors were missing and the details. And the leaves faded off into nothingness, a black empty space that reminded me of nothing so much as the endless expanse of a midwinter sky on an overcast night. 

It was terrifying. 

I was terrified. 

Or perhaps I was just cold. 

“It’s freezing,” I said, between shivering lips.

“It is, rather.” Ella puffed out a white cloud and laughed with delight. 

I dropped my bag to the ground and crouched next to it, pulling it open. I needed my warmer robe out and on, as soon as possible. Ella should have suggested gloves and hats, too. 

The wooden box holding the carving set was too big, preventing me from rummaging beneath it, so I pulled it out and set it on the ground, letting the candlesticks slide deeper into my bag. I had just laid my hand on the heavy wool of my winter robe when Ella’s squeal turned into a scream. She dashed behind me and I looked up to see a rat charging at us. 

Not just a rat, though. A big rat. A rat out of nightmares. The kind of rat that you might invoke in a scary story designed to keep children up at night, with glittering red eyes and a hairless tail lashing the air behind it, clawed feet and teeth dripping with poisoned saliva. It leaped at us, flying through the air as if propelled by demons. 

I incinerated it, of course. 

Without hesitation. 

And with none of that fancy drama some elemental talents throw into their work, with pointing hands and mystic gestures, lines of fire extending from their eyes or balls of flame shooting out of their finger tips.

No, I just set it on fire. All of it, inside and out.

The fiery corpse was still alight when it landed on the wooden box containing the carving set. 

“Oh, Lila, thank you, thank you,” Ella was saying over and over behind me, as I quickly snuffed the flames and grabbed the box. I shook off the ashes and charred bones and stared at the wood in numb horror. The surface was blackened, charred with the remnants of rat corpse. 

“Oh, no.” The words were a bare breath. “Oh, no.”

“You saved us, Lila.” Ella grabbed me, trying to hug me where I still crouched. “You saved us.” 

“I burned Father’s carving set.” I turned toward her, shaking off her hug, holding up the box to show her. “Look!” 

“So what?” Ella shrugged off the disaster as if it were nothing. 

“He’ll be livid.” I set the box down, wanting nothing more than to run away from it, but staring at it in sick fascination. I couldn’t just abandon it. If it was missing, one of the servants might get blamed. That would be unacceptable. But I couldn’t put it back in the dining room. The damage was unmistakeable. As soon as someone noticed it, all eyes would turn toward me. 

“We’re not going back.” Ella reached down and grabbed the box. “He’ll never know.”

“We… we have to go back.” I hadn’t envisioned this. I’d pictured us standing by the wall for a while, long enough to get hungry, before giving up. Or, if Ella was right and the hole opened, going inside and then returning home. Yes, I’d packed, but just because Ella wanted me to. I was humoring her, not seriously intending to run away. 

Ella opened the box and took out the knife, tucking the box under her arm. Clutching the knife in her hand, she jabbed it forward a few times, then reversed her hold on it, and stabbed it down. “How do you suppose one does this?” 

“Does what?” I decided to defer my moment of panic until after I had my winter robe on. Pulling it out of my bag, I shook it out and shrugged into it, as Ella continued experimenting with ways to hold the knife. 

“Kill things with a knife, of course,” Ella replied impatiently. 

“One doesn’t.” I tucked the collar of the robe up, wishing I’d brought the scarf that should wrap around it, but any cloth was better than nothing on my bare neck. There was no wind, fortunately, but the air held the chill of a deep midwinter evening. I was surprised the hedge leaves weren’t rimmed with frost.  

“You don’t, but I might need to.” She waved the knife in the air, like a painter smearing oil on a canvas. 

“You cannot learn to wield a weapon all in an instant, Ella.” 

“You might be right.” Ella didn’t relinquish her grip on the knife, eyes scanning the terrain. “Do you want the fork?” 

“Do I —?” I gave an involuntary bark of laughter at the image of Ella and I, walking along, knife and fork in hand, ready to prepare any monsters we met for carving. “No, of course not.” 

“All right, I’m leaving it behind.” Ella lifted her elbow and let the box holding the rest of the carving set drop to the ground. It landed, half open, the fork still securely wedged in the velvet sleeve. 

“We can’t just…” I started, as I reached for it. 

“Yes, we can,” Ella said ruthlessly, stepping forward to block my way. “I’m keeping the knife out. Just in case.” 

“In case of what?” I snapped, as I finally stood up. “In case we run into a roast tenderloin?”

Ella grinned at me. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. Her momentary dismay at the rat’s presence and her jubilance at its destruction were over and she seemed her usual insouciant self. “I’m trusting you to do any roasting that needs doing.” 

“This is crazy, Ella.” I shivered deeper into my robes, eyes turning to the sky. The sketchy hedge leaves loomed above us, but I could see through them to nothingness. A great, vast nothingness. “We need to go home. Right now.” I tried to make my voice firm, as befit the elder sister in charge of the younger. 

“Home so you can tell Father you burned his carving set?” Ella nodded toward the box on the ground. 

I felt my stomach sink. For a moment, I’d been able to let go of that grim reality. What would Father do? 

“Come along.” Ella didn’t wait for my reply, but started walking, away from the garden wall and deeper into the maze. 

Sighing, I picked up my bag again and followed her. 

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.”