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 bedroom 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 that 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’s a dog, Ella. They run away sometimes.”
She pulled the sheets that had been on top out again and turned them in my direction. There was the handwriting I recognized, messy, loopy, the bane of our tutor’s existence. Again, it was a list of dates, although without initials or times. “I’ve done the calculations. Today’s the day. Seventeen months, three days, the fifteenth cycle away from Gervais’s disappearance. Twenty-five years, six months, and eight days since he went missing.”
I frowned at her notes, calculating in my head. Her math appeared to be correct. Today was 21 Earlysummer. But…
“How long have you known this?” I demanded.
She bit her lip and looked away, her eyes turning toward the window.
“Since Midwinter,” she mumbled.
My mouth dropped open as I thought back. She had been bubbling over with excitement in Midwinter, but I’d assumed it was the season. Everyone liked Midwinter.
“I was going to go alone,” she said, words tumbling out over one another in a rush. “I’ve been planning it for months. I’ve got a bag ready, coins saved up, some dried meat and fruit packed.”
“You were going to leave me?” I put a hand on 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 that 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 ruling family, was slim to none.
Ella leaned forward. “Come with me, Lila. We can escape together.”
“Or die together?” I asked, not quite facetiously.
“Well…” Ella nibbled her lower lip.
Realization struck me and I turned my attention back to her. “That’s it. That’s why you want me to come with you!”
“I’d be lonely without you,” she offered with a hint of mischief in her eyes.
My laugh was half-hearted. “I’d be lonely without you, too.”
“But I’d also be safer with you,” Ella admitted. She nodded toward the candelabra. “I know Fire is a hard talent to have. But… well, Amelia de Winterhoffe did collect monsters on the other side of the rift. That means there are monsters over there. And you would be much, much better at facing down monsters than I would be.”
I should tell our mother, I knew. Immediately. Not that I believed the mysterious hole would really appear on cue, but what if it did and Ella went through it? She was fifteen years old and definitely not equipped to fight monsters. Her talents included strong Truesight and Persuasion, and minor Levitation.
My talents, on the other hand… well, I’d taken after both of our parents. 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 successes 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 her bed. Leaning down, she dragged 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.”
I felt a fool standing by the garden wall, a heavy bag over my shoulder. Ella had insisted that 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, probably 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 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.
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.
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 fingers.
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. Clenching 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.
“Kills 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 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. Never answering a question directly was his style, as well. 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 considered, too. I’d never entertained many 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 just 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 run away.
“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 a job?”
“Perhaps I could be a shop clerk. Or a maid. Perhaps 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 said. “I could be anything.”
She gave a firm nod.“And not a prize to go to the highest bidder.”
“You know 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, still 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,” she said.
“We have to fix this,” I said. 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 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.
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 tried to catch 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? Creatures out of nightmare?” 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.”
“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,” she said hotly. “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 grabbed 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.