Ezra couldn’t make out anything but swirling colors and flashing lights for what felt like far too long. He had a sense of sitting up, then falling back down onto something soft. Voices echoed around him, incoherent.
The second time he tried to wake up, his eyes decided to obey him, albeit reluctantly. They burned, as if he’d rubbed his face after cutting raw onions, and wouldn’t open for several minutes.
Someone or something was supporting him when he sat up this time, and at least he could hear.
“…Couldn’t handle the unexpected extra burden. Why do you suppose it brought him through anyway? It should have rejected him. He wasn’t the target.”
Forcing his eyes open, Ezra finally got a look at his surroundings. He was in an all-white room sitting on a thick, black-fur rug, facing a shattered frame with remnants of mirror glass hanging from it. It was much larger than the wall mirror at the Anemone, twice again his own standing height. What he had to assume were servants in black livery swept up pieces of glass, moving with precision and care that the greatest Sky dancers and martial artists would envy. In fact, they all seemed to move in sync with one another.
The room itself was sparsely decorated save for that strange mirror, walls bare, lit by a glowing glass orb mounted into the ceiling. If he looked right into it he could see the telltale crackling of captured lightning inside. Did the people of the land have Lighting Catcher Gems? They were still expensive up in the Sky, where gem carvers had only recently managed to reverse-engineer them. Was he in the Sky?
It seemed unlikely, given the humans standing around him. A tall human woman in a long black frock looked him over and frowned, sticking her quill up in her white wig as she marched up to him. “So,” she said in a level, cold voice, “you’re awake.”
“I think.” Ezra held his throbbing head, pushing back a wave of nausea. “I’m not well. What am I doing here? Wait, where’s Marjorie?!”
He looked about in panic as he remembered the friend he’d tried to save from the strange mirror-vortex. There weren’t even visible doors in this room, just broken glass and a solid wall behind him. No sign of Marjorie, Basil, Red or Aurora.
Then he recalled the sight of Basil desperately reaching out to him before everything vanished, their hands not touching.
Well, there was that. Wherever he and Marjorie were, the others might be safe. That didn’t exactly quell his panic, but it was a small blessing. And if what he overheard was true, he wasn’t supposed to be there either.
The woman whistled and one of the livery servants poured Ezra a glass of water from a carafe in the corner. It was too tiny to be of much use, but he drank it anyway. There was something salty mixed in, unpleasant to drink down, but it did make him feel less like he was going to throw up.
“Marjorie is safe,” the woman in the coat said. “She’s been escorted to the hospital to get the care she needs.”
“Care she needs?!” Ezra rose to his feet, albeit unsteadily. “What are you talking about? You kidnapped her! You brought her through that mirror-thing and just took her to a hospital? Against her will?!”
The woman seemed unconcerned with the Sky giant looming over her. She looked up at him the way one usually peers down at an unruly child. “Why do you assume it was against her will?”
“Because Marjorie was already under medical care. The Thumbelinans were taking care of her.” Ezra didn’t know the true extent of her strange maladies, but he knew she had bouts of weakness linked to her mysterious curse. He noticed the herbs she took, and while he wasn’t aware of how badly she’d risked her life to get into the Gourmet’s palace, he knew she had.
“We can offer her much better care. Thumbelina may believe itself to be at the forefront of medical research, but that’s only because they refuse much contact with Libra. And as Marjorie is a citizen of Libra, it is our duty to help her.” The woman brushed herself off and indicated to two servants again. “Lead this individual to a holding cell for now until we can discern his identity. The Mirror System should have information on him if it went to all this effort to pull him through.”
“Yes, Lady Swann.” The servants spoke in unison. The air seemed to shimmer around them as they produced crossbows, aimed right up at him.
His first instinct was to flinch away, then to lash out and let his pent up anger give him courage for once. He was much larger and stronger than them, crossbow bolts or no, and if there was ever a justification to fight back this would be it. He had to find Marjorie, and find out how to contact the others.
But he could barely will his body to walk forward at the prodding of the servant-guards, suddenly feeling as if his feet were made of stone and he was walking through a thick soup. Everything felt slow and distant, voices echoing. Was this the, for lack of a better phrase, ‘travel sickness’ that had hit him moments ago, or did they poison him?
He couldn’t even make himself speak in protest as a panel in the wall slid away, leading into dimly-lit darkness. In his dulled state, he didn’t have the energy to panic. He looked back over his shoulder once more to see if he could figure out what was helping him sit up, since a human certainly couldn’t have done it; he saw only the glint of broken mirrors.
Marjorie sat on the edge of a beautiful, soft white bed, glaring daggers at the nurse in the cream-colored smock trying to offer her a drink. “I told you,” she spat. “I will not eat or drink anything here.”
“This isn’t a fairy market,” the nurse said, his voice young and melodious in a way Marjorie did not trust. “And we won’t force you to eat unless your life is at stake.”
“I’d rather take my chances at the fairy market.” Marjorie was in no mood to attempt her usual deceit through charm, and doubted it would work on this strangely stone-faced nurse and his staff. She was in a windowless room lined with soft white carpet, lit by bubbling lanterns filled with some kind of blue liquid. Soothing music played, not in tones she would recognize as hypnotic music. It was just clearly intended to put her at ease, as was everything else in the room. The lanterns cast a soft blue glow on everything, suggesting a gentle midday sky.
And if they thought she would relax around anyone who contacted her through the mirror, captured her and knew who she was, she couldn’t lower herself to fake falling for it.
“I’ve left Libra. I renounced citizenship.” That was not entirely true, but Marjorie had to assume runaway children were eventually written off as dead. “You have no right to hold me here, and Thumbelina Kingdom will not be pleased with you capturing one of their citizens.”
The nurse set the tea aside on a table along with a tray of glazed cherry cakes, equally untouched. “We mean no offense to the people of Thumbelina. But I think they would understand, if they knew what we were offering.”
“I don’t care what you’re offering.” Marjorie dug her fingers into the infuriatingly soft, goose-down quilt. If she had a window she could tear it into strips and use it as a ladder, or make a rope and strangle the nurse and guards. No, that was too obvious. They had to have taken precautions against it. There was no taking the obvious route in Libra.
Wherever in Libra she was. This was not the palace, unless it had changed considerably since her last, horrendous visit.
The nurse, a younger-looking man with glassy blue eyes, folded his hands, nodded and stood up. “Lady Swann wants only to help you, Miss Blanche.”
“Snow. It is Marjorie Snow.” She would use Muller for a time, Snow among most people, but never that name. “The young mistress Blanche was killed in a hunting accident. Very tragic.”
The man’s blue eyes went out of focus for just a second, pupils dilating and then contracting. “Miss Snow, then. Allow me to explain the situation on behalf of Lady Swann.”
“By all means.” Marjorie offered her most sarcastic, insincere smile, all while taking note of those eyes and his wooden body language. Was he under a compulsion spell? If so, she felt a little bad for being so rude to him.
Well, no. She didn’t. She could examine her conscience later, when she wasn’t a captive.
“You are in The Spire of White Emeralds, or just The Spire if you like. Are you familiar with what we do here?”
She blinked, allowing herself to sit back on that cloud-soft bed. There’d been no Spire last time she was here. “It’s new to me. Go on. I’m sure I’ll be wowed by your explanation for your lady’s actions.”
“Here we research ways to bring about a better world, the happiness that the Empress promises her people. We seek to reunite the old with the new, the wonders of lost ages with the ideals of a brighter future. The princess you serve would likely find much to admire about our work if her brethren were willing to ally with us.”
Marjorie squinted. “She generally doesn’t approve of kidnapping.” But at least that meant Philomene wasn’t here; nightmarish images of the princess somehow being pulled in through a mirror smuggled into Thumbelina Kingdom weren’t true. “And anyway, I can’t imagine what I could offer you, or what you might give me other than my freedom.”
“Your life, possibly?”
She stared up at the nurse, wide-eyed, and then realized she was laughing. It was a harsh, bitter cackle, not her usual practiced trill. “You really don’t know me very well if you think I value my own life very high. If you’re threatening to kill me over something, my only reaction would be to wonder why. I have no secrets to offer up, none that would be useful to you.” Marjorie hoped she could still pull off lying in her current state. “And frankly I don’t see why you would go to all this trouble to drag me through those fake Moonflower gates of yours when you have plenty of obedient, scholarly Libra citizens in Nautilus who I’m sure would go willingly. Or were you just testing some new magical equipment? Has the great Ever After Empire grown so bloated and bureaucratic that someone actually convinced them to waste valuable funds on—”
“You can stop playing the fool now, Marjorie.”
Marjorie froze at the sound of that voice. She looked past the nurse as a panel opened in the wall, sliding open to form a door into a dimly-lit staircase. A young woman stepped through, curls pinned up and jet black as her gown, lips painted blood-red. She merely gave a look to the nurse and a strange gesture of her hand, and he walked out of the room without another word, the panel sliding closed behind him.
It had been easy to defy that vacant-looking man, or to lash out against the servants who had hovered over her when she came-to in this confection of a prison cell. Marjorie prided herself in being someone who knew when to flatter and insult, which buttons to press to get the right reactions. She did not let her emotions control her reactions.
When she saw the girl standing in front of her, she did not know what to say. She imagined words flickering behind her, like the ones from the mirror. RUN THEY’RE ALL AROUND YOU.
“So!” The girl smiled sweetly, twirling in her dress. “You couldn’t even think of an original family name. They say guilt does make one panic.”
“Snow.” Marjorie’s mouth went dry. “You…”
“Died?” Snow giggled, a sound like a bell just out of tune. “Lady Swann didn’t think sending me in would work, but she doesn’t know us as well as we do, right I was sure I could convince my dear, troubled stepsister to give our lady an audience. Surely you’ll forgive me for bringing you back so quickly?” She grabbed a limp Marjorie and pulled her into a hug. “I was just so excited to be reunited with you! And don’t you worry. I’m going to break your curse.”