The woman rushed through the corridors, tears streaming down her cheeks, but she had no time to focus on her fear and sadness. The men escorting her bundled her down a side hallway, seeming to take turns at random through the warren of passages, but clearly focussed on an objective.
Her cloak flapped and her hood obscured her vision, adding to her rising panic. There was no other choice. This had to happen. She thought bitterly of the men who had agreed to this plan and then simply presented it to her as a fait accompli.
They burst into a room full of those gathered to say farewell. Those she had trusted; those who had betrayed her. Her friends, and her husband.
“There is no time!”
She couldn’t see who’d said it. Her escorts moved her to the machine in the centre of the room, then pushed her into its blue glow.
Everything was a brilliant blue and then… black.
* * *
“Your Majesty, are you okay?”
The queen looked up, pulling her hood back and letting it fall down her neck.
“Are we here?” She ignored her bodyguard’s question. Of course she was not okay. How could she be?
“Yes, Your Majesty. The house is just up ahead. It’s a short walk from our current position.”
The three of them walked slowly up the road towards the farmhouse, which had materialised on the horizon. Despite her mood, the queen looked at the countryside around her and could not help but be taken by its beauty. In the distance, the rolling hills gave way to a thick covering of trees that failed only where sheer cliff faces prevented their growth.
Her breathing became more laboured than it should have been. She placed a hand protectively on her swollen belly, then removed it quickly. Best not to become attached.
She heard the river to her left before she saw it. It was a small thing, the kind of river that entertained children in the summer, and perhaps provided some fish for a patient angler. It gave her some comfort that this place had beauty, but that did not help ease the pain in her heart.
Finally, they were at the door, and it opened to reveal a kind face. The face of the woman who would raise her child.
“Thank you, Linda.”
Lily smiled patiently at her director while handing her a bundle of files. She had given up correcting the woman about her name and resigned herself to forever being ‘Linda the intern’.
Lily sighed and looked at the collection of folders still left in her arms. This morning’s mind-numbingly boring task was to deliver folders to various people who were far too important to collect them themselves.
She continued down the corridor, smiling politely at people who had no idea who she was, and greeting those who remembered they had met before. It had been almost three months since she started as an intern in this government department, and she still didn’t really understand what they did. She did know that whatever it was, she didn’t want to do it.
But the problem was, Lily didn’t know what she did want to do. The rest of her family seemed to all have their lives figured out, but Lily was yet to find her thing. Her purpose. She felt, deep down, that there was something she was supposed to be doing. But that feeling was frustratingly silent on what that something was.
Lily had thought she had it figured out when she left the family farm after graduating from high school. But then, when she arrived at university to begin her business and economics degree, she had very quickly discovered that she liked neither business nor economics. And so she had dropped out, much to the despair of her parents.
That had prompted Lily to panic, and instead of taking a long hard look at herself and what she might be suited to, she had applied for every government internship possible. Having secured this one, she had then tried to convince her parents, and herself, that whatever it was that she was meant to be doing here was what she really wanted to do.
“Morning, Lily.” Her team leader greeted her without looking up from her computer. “Can you get started on this brief for me? It needs to be with Brooke by lunchtime.”
Lily had no idea who Brooke was.
“Um, sure, but I just need to drop off these files for—”
“Perfect. Now, you should be able to figure out the gist of it from this email I’m sending you, but basically the brief should explain to the minister why we can’t do a brief for him.”
Lily stared at her team leader. “You want me to write a brief, explaining that we can’t write a brief?”
“Exactly. Be sure to emphasise that we just don’t have the time or resources to be writing pointless briefs.”
Lily blinked, her brain struggling to comprehend the bureaucracy in which she found herself. In her first couple of weeks, she had asked far more questions when presented with a task like this. But now, Lily found it less frustrating to just go with it.
“Sure thing.” Lily went and sat down at her desk.
“Oh, you can drop all those files off first though.”
Lily closed her eyes for a beat, stood, and headed back out down the corridor.
“Oh, and bring me a latte when you’re done. Please. You’re a doll.”
Lily wandered around the maze of corridors, delivering the files and getting most of them to the right area. She fantasised about simply dropping the pile on a desk and walking out, never to return. Only the idea of the look on her parents’ faces stopped her.
“Oh love, you lost your job.” (That would be her mum).
“No, I didn’t lose it…”
“But sweetheart, maybe you just need to give it a bit more of a go?” (That would be her dad).
“I did give it a go…”
“Opportunities don’t grow on trees; you have to tend your own crops.” (That would be both of them).
Finally, she delivered the last of her folders and headed down to the coffee shop. Naturally, the elevator wasn’t working, so she took the stairs, squeezing awkwardly past people trudging back up.
Waiting in line, Lily absentmindedly checked her phone. No messages from Brandon, her boyfriend, but his latest social media post had him at some university event with Gemma, her best friend. She felt a vague pang of jealousy. Brandon and Gemma were spending so much time together lately. Ever since Lily dropped out. Lily told herself she needn’t worry, as she looked at the photo again.
A small voice in her head wondered if it would be so bad if they did hook up together. Brandon was a great guy, but Lily just wasn’t sure if he was a great guy for her. Maybe he was the kind of great guy Gemma deserved.
There wasn’t anything wrong with Brandon. He did everything right and was really kind. But what could I say? Sorry Brandon, you’re just too nice? She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was mainly with him because she felt she should have a boyfriend. Kind of like this job.
Grabbing the tray of coffees, Lily headed back up the stairs. She was fairly sure she had got enough for everyone, and she’d even bought an extra, in case her team leader changed her mind about the latte. Last week, by the time Lily made it through the snaking line at the café and back up to their floor, her team leader had decided that she was lactose intolerant and could only have black coffee.
“Oh, you’re a life saver, thanks Lily,” the team leader said, taking the latte from Lily’s tray as she entered the work area. Pausing before taking a sip, she asked, “Is this skim milk?”
Lily considered lying, but her hesitation was enough. Her boss replaced the coffee in the tray. “Well, thanks anyway.” She checked her watch, sighing heavily. “I’m not sure I have enough time to run and get one before my meeting…”
Unsure why she did, Lily found herself offering to return to the cafe. Her boss happily sent her on her way before sitting with the others in the break room as they enjoyed the beverages Lily had supplied. Why am I such a pushover?
Lily began her ascent back up the stairs, skim latte in hand, resolving to quit. This was ridiculous. She could find something else to pay the bills. Something that gave her time to consider her path in life. Something less painful. As the last thought rolled across her mind she became hyper aware of just how much her shoes were hurting her feet. She cursed her job. Why on earth, in a department that spanned several floors of rabbit-warren work cubicles, was she expected to wear shoes that were not conducive to movement? Or even standing, really.
“Cheer up darling, it can’t be that bad!” called a man Lily had never met as he and his friends passed by. They all chuckled. With an ominous feeling, Lily ducked into the bathroom and instantly saw what they’d been laughing at. The pale face that peered out of the mirror at her was frazzled. Her brown, shoulder-length hair was mussed up, as if she had been wandering in a gale rather than traipsing around an office building. She pulled it back into a ponytail and washed her face clean of the makeup that was starting to run from sweat.
Re-examining her reflection, she decided against trying to reapply her makeup. Lily often worried her features were plain, but considering no one seemed to remember her anyway, she felt no need to try and stand out.
Lily exited the bathroom, keeping an eye out for the men who had called out to her. Suddenly, she resented worrying about what they thought. And why did they get to call out to her like that? Or call her darling? Why wasn’t there an equivalently patronising term to use to refer to men?
Shaking off her spurt of feminism, Lily plastered a smile on her face and presented the team leader with her coffee.
“Oh, thanks doll. But Paul got me one. Gotta run to my meeting, just send that brief straight to Brooke, okay? Oh, and can you run this file to Robert? He needs it right away.”
Lily went in search of the mysterious Robert, unwanted latte still in hand.
Lily almost collided with the director, who came steaming around a corner, seemingly late for something. She eyed Lily’s coffee. “You’ve planned well—I’d kill for a coffee.”
Lily offered the latte and the director graciously accepted.
“Thank you, you’re a gem. Are you coming to the professional development session?”
“Oh no, I have a brief to write.”
“I’m sure it can wait; professional development is very important.”
“Uh, what’s it about?” Lily asked.
“You know, I’m not sure,” the director said thoughtfully.
Lily hesitated, then decided to go with it. She had little desire to write a brief about not writing a brief, and if nothing else it’d give her feet a rest. The delighted director linked arms and escorted Lily to the conference room, babbling happily about how good professional development was for developing oneself professionally.
I really need to get out of this place.
Once they were inside the conference room, Lily managed to slip the clutches of the director, who went to greet other people of greater import than Lily. She navigated to the back of the room and secured a seat by the window.
Eventually, the presenter managed to get his slides to work and started droning on in a monotone that made it physically impossible for Lily to concentrate on whatever it was that he was saying. Instead, she gazed out the window, watching the rain fall and tried to fight the overwhelming feeling that she just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.
Suddenly, she saw the reflection of a figure standing in front of her that definitely hadn’t been there a second ago. Looking up, she saw not one, but three men in front of her. One grabbed her shoulder. There was a bright blue light, and then the world was a black nothingness.
A moment later, she found herself unceremoniously deposited in a chair with the three figures still surrounding her.
At first she thought perhaps she had just blanked out for a second, startled by the sudden appearance of the three strangers, and she looked around the conference room to see if they had shocked anyone else. But everyone else had vanished.
Weird. Since when did the conference room have this many crystals embedded in the walls? Or a holographic display?
She watched the display in amazement for a beat as figures that looked almost real paced and seemed to be talking to each other, though she couldn’t hear what they might be saying.
The three men stepped back slightly and stared at her.
“Um… Hello?” Lily said awkwardly. Immediately, all three dropped to one knee, their right arms braced across their bodies and heads bowed.
“Oh. Okay…” Lily wondered whether she should also take a knee when a loud bang sounded behind her, making her jump.
“Get up, get up,” chided an officious-looking man hurrying towards them from the other end of the room. Lily was temporarily distracted by the sheer volume of the hall behind her.
Enormous pillars framed the hall, which was large enough to fit a football field. The roof loomed high above them, peaking in the centre and supported by massive wooden beams. It was like the great hall of some medieval castle. With a sudden sickening lurch, Lily realized she was not in the conference room anymore, or even in the government building. This place was far, far too large and… different.
“Don’t tell me they brought her back and then are just kneeling around while she probably doesn’t even know what’s going on,” the older man muttered to himself as he ushered the three strange men out of the way.
“You are Royal Guards, for crying out loud. How are you supposed to guard if you’re all staring at the floor?” None of the men responded but glared pointedly at the man, then moved to various points around the room and stood in an imposing fashion.
“Right now, there you are,” he glanced at the guards, looking satisfied, then turned to Lily, his eyes and tone softening. “How are you, Your Majesty?”
“I’m, um…” Lily looked around. “Where am I?”
“Oh yes, of course!” He coughed and straightened up slightly. “Welcome, Your Majesty. Welcome to Highacre.” He gestured theatrically around him, bowing slightly.
Lily blinked at him. The silence stretched awkwardly as Lily cast around for something that would help her understand and react appropriately. The man was staring at her, his expression shifting from a satisfied, warm one, through to surprise and concern until ultimately landing on a quizzical look, much like one wears when staring at a broken lawnmower.
“Is she broken?” asked one of the guards, who Lily realised was staring at her with the same expression.
“It can happen, I guess, but it’s rare,” said the older man, moving closer to her.
“Didn’t seem broken when we got her here,” the guard said, slightly defensively.
“No, no, it’s the process.” The man started palpating her glands like a doctor. “Sometimes people can have an adverse reaction to interdimensional travel.”
“Perhaps she needs a shock,” the guard offered.
“No, we just need—”
“It works for the hiccups,” the guard interrupted, clearly put out that the older man was not listening to him.
“Yes, well, this is not—”
“Boo!” bellowed the guard from behind Lily. She squealed and jumped, tripping on the chair and falling to the floor. Immediately, the older man and the guard were at her side, fussing and helping her to her feet.
“No, it’s fine, I’m okay,” she told them, trying to push them off.
“Nice one, Boris,” said another guard.
“‘What?’ What do you mean ‘what?’ You don’t yell at the monarch!”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
As the guards continued debating the relative merits of yelling at royalty, the older man sighed and led Lily out of the main hall and down a long corridor. Lily looked around in a stupor.
Where am I?
The walls were a light grey stone, punctuated periodically by dark wooden beams. Paintings adorned the walls at sporadic intervals, affording each a prominence that allowed it to be enjoyed without distraction. Many were landscapes, but some were important-looking people, staring in judgement at those scurrying through the halls below.
Eventually the man opened a set of double doors, and they entered a large room that looked very much like the ground floor of a hunting lodge, but without the expected dead animals mounted on the wall.
There was an enormous fireplace set in the middle of an open space. Lily could look through the flames and see the other side of the room. The room itself was filled with dark brown leather sofas and wooden tables of various heights and uses. To her left, the entire wall was a strange smooth black, and in a far corner of the room she saw a pool table.
The man murmured to a young woman dressed in a rather plain uniform, who nodded and left. He then guided Lily to a comfortable chair and sat her down near the fireplace.
“Your Majesty,” the man said gently, drawing her attention back to him. “I know you have questions, and I’ll answer them, but first, are you alright?”
Lily nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. But where am I?”
“These are your rooms, Your Majesty. This room is commonly known as the Lodge. It is your personal space where you can relax and where you will take your meals unless you are attending a function. You may take visitors here, though it is more common for you to meet with them in your office, which I will show you later.”
Lily looked around in dumbstruck awe.
All this is mine?
“Okay,” said Lily, still gaping at her surroundings. “But where am I? I mean, I was in the conference room at work, and now…” She looked around in benign confusion before her eyes found the man again. “And who are you?”
“Of course, my apologies. My name is Giles and I am the personal assistant to the monarch of Highacre.” Giles smiled at Lily, and she smiled back reflectively. Giles smiled more and leant in slightly towards her. “That’s you.”
Lily’s smile froze on her face. The girl in the plain uniform re-entered the room and placed a tray on the table between Lily’s chair and the one on which Giles was perched. It held some sandwiches, a glass of water, and a hot drink. The girl bowed slightly and left again.
“Why don’t you eat something? It helps with the travel. And I will explain a bit about what’s going on.” Lily nodded and reached for a sandwich. Giles looked thoughtful, as though trying to determine where to begin.
“We are in Highacre, Your Majesty. Highacre is a large country that exists in a different dimension to the one in which you grew up.”
A different dimension? Lily absentmindedly took a bite of the sandwich as she tried to make sense of what Giles was telling her.
“One of our greatest scientists developed a machine that allows for interdimensional travel; travel between worlds. Where you are now, this world—it is not the world you were in this morning.”
Lily blinked and looked around the room, which was not overly helpful in trying to grasp what Giles was telling her.
“Wait, so, I’m not on Earth anymore?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“So…are we on another planet?”
“Well, Your Majesty, we are actually in a whole other dimension to the one in which Earth exists.”
None of what Giles was telling her made sense to Lily and her extreme confusion was the only thing stopping her from launching into the kind of panic one might experience after being told they are in a different world in another dimension.
“But why am I here?”
“Ah yes. Years ago, your father, the king…”
“My father’s a farmer,” said Lily, her mouth full of sandwich.
“Um, yes.” Giles looked about the room uncomfortably. “So, the king became concerned about the decline in Highacre’s relations with the other large countries in our world, Meridia and Valmead. With the strong possibility of war, he took action to protect his line. Now, I should point out that Highacre is the only country to have developed the ability to travel to other dimensions, and it is a closely protected secret. Very few people here know about it, not even the Prime Minister.” Giles nodded importantly at Lily, who finished her little sandwich, dusted the crumbs from her hands, and looked at Giles, hoping that he would start to make sense soon.
“The king decided to send his heir into another dimension, where they would be out of reach of his enemies and the dangers facing his country. So, he sent his wife, who was pregnant, to a dimension that, after some thorough scouting, was selected for its similarities to our own world. The queen gave birth and left the child with a family who would protect her and raise her as their own.”
Lily got a sick feeling in her stomach. Perhaps those sandwiches didn’t agree with her. She tried to smother a burp and reached for the water, suddenly feeling a little hot.
“That child, Your Majesty, was you.”
Lily paused, the glass midway to her lips. There was a slight ringing in her ears.
My parents are not my parents?
It made no sense. They would have told her if she was adopted, or whatever it was called when your mother took you to another dimension and left you with random people.
Panic broke through the buffer of confusion. Perhaps this was a joke? Yes, clearly this was a joke. A mean joke, but someone had to be pulling a prank on her. Or maybe she was dreaming. That was it. A weird, terrible dream. Lily subtly pinched her arm. Nope, not dreaming. A prank then. That was why she’d never heard of this ‘Highacre’ place.
This prank is mean. Lily tried without luck to think of who she knew that would go to this level of effort to play a trick on her. That would think any of this would be funny.
Lily felt her stomach drop, unable to help but think about how different she was to her siblings. They all seemed to have everything figured out, whereas Lily had no idea what she was going to do with her life. That doesn’t mean we’re not related, though. And it certainly doesn’t mean that any of this is real.
But something about her not being related to her siblings or her parents rang true and provided a cold anchor for Giles’s story. On the inside, her thoughts and feelings were screaming around her head like someone with their hair on fire, but somehow Lily had so far managed to keep a relatively calm exterior.
“I know this is a lot to take in, Your Majesty,” Giles said sympathetically.
“A lot?” Lily’s calm exterior dissolved instantaneously. “Apparently, I’ve been kidnapped and taken to a different dimension and my family is not my family. Yeah, that’s a lot.”
Giles looked distinctly uncomfortable. “We didn’t kidnap you…”
“You came into my workplace and took me to another world without asking!”
“We retrieved you—”
At that moment, a middle-aged, motherly looking woman entered the room, smiling warmly but worriedly at Lily.
“Is everything okay in here?”
“Yes,” said Giles at the same moment Lily muttered, “No.”
Giles seemed to collect himself and then stood, the woman moving to stand next to him.
“Your Majesty, this is Addison Grange.”
Addison curtsied, bowing her head.
“Addison is in charge of the royal household.”
“It’s an honour to meet you, Your Majesty. Welcome home.”
Home. This wasn’t home. Lily looked grumpily around the room that had previously seemed warm and inviting, but now was dark and dingy.
“Well, I might leave you two alone for a bit,” Giles rubbed his hands together, clearly eager to hand Lily over to Addison. “I’ll go and prepare your office where you will soon meet your advisors. Addison will help you get freshened up a bit.” Giles swiftly exited the room, leaving the two women alone.
Addison sat quietly next to Lily. When it became clear that Lily wasn’t going to say anything Addison smiled gently at her. “You have your mother’s eyes.”
Lily immediately thought of her mother back home, then realised Addison was talking about the queen. If there was a queen. Lily needed to figure out if this was real. How could this be real? She leant in towards Addison and whispered conspiratorially, “Is this a prank?”
Addison’s eyebrows flew up in surprise. “Gosh, no, Your Majesty. This is not a prank.”
Lily nodded thoughtfully to herself as she picked up and cautiously nibbled at the corner of a sandwich. Of course, that is exactly what someone playing a prank would say.
Addison’s eyes flitted to the strange black wall and back to Lily. “Perhaps, Your Majesty, this might help.”
Addison rose and crossed to a panel on the wall adjacent to the smooth black one. Lily stood and took a few slow steps towards her, unsure of whether she was supposed to follow. Addison pressed a couple of buttons and suddenly the black wall transitioned, the glass transforming from black to clear.
Lily was momentarily blinded by the sudden light. She blinked furiously, and when she opened her eyes again, Addison had opened a door in the glass and was ushering her out onto a balcony.
The view was breathtaking. They were high up, on a hill or perhaps partway up a mountain, and she could see down into a city below. It was sprawling, but not overcrowded, and there looked to be lots of trees and parks. The buildings reminded Lily of what she imagined European cities looked like, having never visited herself. They were white with terracotta roofs, and though some looked tall, there weren’t any skyscrapers.
Farther out beyond the city was a deep but vibrant green forested area that bordered a beautiful blue lake and vast mountain range, all covered in snow from about halfway up. It was like a picture. Lily had never seen anything so beautiful in her life.
There was nothing like this vista anywhere near where Lily lived, nor could she recall seeing such a sight in pictures or in movies. She had definitely moved, or travelled, what would appear to be a great distance. With a jolt, Lily realised that she wasn’t in her home country anymore. She didn’t even think she was on Earth.
Giles had been telling her the truth.
This was real.