One foot in the arroyo, one foot on the crushed grasses of an unfamiliar landscape.
Arlie withdrew, making sure of the doorway.
She stepped again—going further, leaving only a lingering toe. Trying to maintain the strength of the song, lest it reflect the wild flutter of her heart.
No, that wasn’t the way to do it.
She withdrew. Closed her eyes, found her memories and her connection, both to this place of hers and to Jaice. She could not do this on nerves and fear.
She had to do it on heartsong.
She found her strength in the memories of him and strode through an invisible doorway to another world.
That first time, she did little more than look around from where she emerged. The wind blew strong and harsh, whipping her hair around; the next time she would stuff it up under a cap.
The next time.
Snow-capped mountains surrounded her; the grasses crunched under her feet with frost. A stone structure of size and oddly delicate grace tucked in against a stark slash of a cliff face, sitting atop a knoll of cleared fields. Smoke trails rose off from the side, barely visible slate shingles peeking out from over the hill between Arlie and what must have been a small village. A bird of prey soared overhead, and someone’s shout reached her on the wind.
She stepped back through the door and into the silence of her own world, in her own night.
Already she thought about the next time.
Her friends labeled Arlie reinvigorated, frankly glad to see her working through whatever had gripped her so hard.
They weren’t wrong. She had new purpose, now—work that took her through October. Refining her ability to perceive the doorway through sound. Daring to lower her flute on the other side of it, letting silence interrupt the music, then starting a new song to restore the doorway. Daring to walk away—one step, and then another, and then out of sight. Taking her explorations further into the night, where she found safety in darkness—and where she began to grow comfortable with the idea of being in this other place in this way, no matter how absurdly fantastical the notion.
She never found anyone near the gate—not so much as a sheep. The grasses grew wild around it, as though even wild animals avoided it. The tidbits she left beside the gate sometimes disappeared, but were never reciprocated.
And then the end of October loomed: Halloween and Samhain, with Day of the Dead not far behind. Holidays built around the crossing of seasons and souls, here in this place already so sensitive to seasonal cycles. If there was a better day for Arlie to brave the crossing, to leave the doorway long enough to truly search for Jaice…
Arlie didn’t yet know the language. But she had his name. With a man like Jaice, maybe it would be enough.
She wore her winter jacket, stowed the Taser, brought chocolate bars as gifts, and wore her half-gloves so she could finger the flute. Then, when dusk came, she sang herself through the gate.
Snow drove against her face, stinging and thick. She stumbled those first few steps, not expecting drifts in her path—but not the least dismayed by it.
An evening like this meant less chance of random witnesses—and more chance that those who might talk to her, those in the little village below, would be in their communal cooking and gathering spaces.
Or so she thought, right up until the moment a woman’s voice broke through the susurrus of the falling snow. “Very nicely done, my dear. And pleasingly predictable.”
It was a beautiful voice, with the clarity of a note well-sung and the modulation of a born speaker—and a cruel curl of word that told Arlie exactly who had found her. The doorway had already closed—the sound of the snow hissing against the ground told her that much. Been closed behind her, to have happened so quickly.
Arlie wiped the snow from her lashes and turned around.
The woman and her party stood in an illuminated bubble of protection. Their feet didn’t sink into the snow; they needed no winter garments against the weather. There were five of them—four attendants arrayed around the woman and her fantastically fiery robes, and the woman herself.
The attendants all stood with a stoic and impersonal stillness. And the man in the back left corner was Jaice.
He stood with the precise attention she’d come to expect of him—and with misery in his eyes that she’d never seen. His face bore old bruises and scattered new cuts, and his hands—
Arlie narrowed her eyes against the falling snow. His hands were secured with heavy manacles, and one glance at the woman’s coldly satisfied expression told her how deliberate this humiliation had been.
After all, a woman who could control another person’s words didn’t need manacles to assure her own safety.
“By all means, look at us at length,” the woman said, staring back with unblinking eyes of solid black, the irises crowding out the whites of her eyes. “It will be your only satisfaction. You can’t escape me, no more than your Jaice Theyasa can ever escape me.” She lifted one hand and ran her fingers down the broad fire-orange lapel of her glittering robe, the gem-encrusted sleeve shifting with her movement. Her nails glittered improbably long, lacquered in merging shades of orange and red.
Arlie had just enough time to wonder at the significance of those nails when they took up a complex tapping dance against a lapel that turned out to be not of the robe’s silky material at all, but a hard, glossy surface that reflected each tap with pointed precision.
Jaice made a choking noise and staggered, his knees buckling. No one helped as he just barely caught himself, bracing against his knees to sway with head bent.
Arlie made a sound of protest, taking a quick, short step toward the protective bubble. “How cruel you are!”
“It amuses me that you think to have an opinion.” The woman tapped another quick pattern and this time Jaice slowly curled over himself and down, his knees making no imprint in the snow. Blood slowly welled and dripped from cuts made anew, cuts that looked like the slash of a sharpened nail across skin.
Panic bubbled in Arlie’s chest. No, no, no, don’t hurt him anymore.
Except Jaice couldn’t be hurt. He could be injured, but not—
His groan belied that thought. She could hurt him, this woman could.
The woman stroked her lapel, no more than a gentle scritching. She held herself as though it had been a threat.
Jaice had once said that Arlie wasn’t the only one who sang, but singing wasn’t what this woman did.
Tapping with nails filed to points and hardened with bright lacquer. Tapping out her will and her punishments, and doing it with such power and finesse that she could create complex beauty or elicit terrible pain.
“Come.” The woman gestured, nails flashing. “You have been foolish, to come away from your home and into mine—on this night, of all nights. Now you will pay the price.”
Arlie glanced over her shoulder at the closed doorway, wondering how quickly she could open it again, and whether she could hold it open.
The woman laughed. “I could do to you what I have done to him, but that wouldn’t suit my purposes. So let me say this to you—the pain he has endured these months while refusing to speak of you is nothing compared to his agonies should you not come with me now.”
But Jaice lifted his head, his eyes distant and dazed—not quite finding her. “Run, Arlie—” But the woman tapped a quick, staccato pattern and he cried out, twisting like a broken thing. He landed on his back, knees still bent beneath him, his body shuddering.
The woman regarded Arlie with cold black eyes, unnatural and glittering like her nails, and her meaning was clear enough.
Defiance will not be tolerated.
Arlie might or might not escape. But Jaice would die if she tried—and he would die hard.