Finna closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. This was hard. Centering herself, she expelled her thoughts with a rush of air and opened her eyes.
The room was the same, down to the pattern on the pillowcases and the spray of flowers in the vase under the window.
“Dammit!” She thumped a fist on the mattress. The pillows jumped, just a little. She threw herself down on top of them.
It wasn’t real. She knew it wasn’t real. She had seen the nearly-bare cell with its white, featureless walls and diffuse light, just before they had shut her in. That had been six days ago, as near as she could tell. Her sense of time was guided only by the brightening and darkening of the room – simulated sunrises and sunsets.
“That was good, Finna.” A voice echoed across the room. “Very good.”
Finna rolled over on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She had never been able to figure out where the voice came from.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said. She scrubbed her hands over her face, ran her fingers through her hair.
“You were closer this time. Did you see the pillows bounce?” The voice was soothing, and despite herself, Finna felt some of the tension drain away.
“I did that?”
“You did. The first step to breaking through the illusion is manipulating it.”
It was one of the core maxims. Only, Finna wasn’t very good at it.
When the thin man had approached her, Finna had run. She had been certain he’d seen how she used glamours and cantrips to pick pockets and swipe small edibles from the market stalls. The last thing her little sister needed was for Finna to be brought in on larceny charges. She had dropped one last orange in her pocket and strolled toward the alley, tossing a tangle of thread behind her. A thicket of brambles and thorns had grown up in the mouth of the alley, blocking the entrance, and that, she’d thought smugly, was that.
Until the thin man strode through her illusory barrier, dismissing it with a wave of his hand.
For a split second, Finna had frozen. Nobody had ever seen through her illusions so easily, let alone dismissed one. Then she ran – straight into the arms of another man.
“What would you say, little one,” the thin man had asked in that reedy voice, “if I told you I had a place for you, and your sister too?”
Finna could create a river from a trickle of water, darkness from a strand of her own black hair. She could turn a pebble into a stone wall. All illusions, of course, woven through with a ribbon of touch-me-not. The thin man was much better: his illusions had weight, texture, solidity. He had promised to train her; more, he had promised her a home. If she could break out.
“You don’t lack skill, little one, or determination. What you need, I think, is proper motivation.” One of the walls of her cell faded away, and she saw a room that was mirror image to hers. Her sister sat on the bed with a doll. Chandir, whom she hadn’t seen since they were brought here. Finna put one hand against the transparent wall.
The door to Chandir’s cell opened, and a woman walked in. She was dressed entirely in red. The girl looked up in alarm and scrambled to the far side of the bed. The woman barked a command, gestured, and Chandir started to cry. Placing the doll carefully on her pillow, the girl wiped her nose on her sleeve and took the woman’s hand.
“Stop!” Finna slammed her hand against the wall, but neither child nor woman heard. They disappeared into the dark corridor.
The first step is to manipulate the illusion. She had nothing to work with: no jewelry, no bits of stone. Pressing her face to the illusory wall, Finna exhaled, fogging the glass with her breath. The glass wavered and evaporated, just like mist over the river.
She stepped through–and nothing changed. The bed still had its flowered coverlet. The doll still slept on Chandir’s pillow.
Is this just another layer of illusion, then? Finna concentrated, sweeping her hand before her like dusting away cobwebs. The room was empty. Her sister – if she had ever been there – was gone.