Isa had never been so warm in her life, not since the days her parents were still alive. The blanket covered her with delicious heat, and although she was awake she didn’t want to get up. It was all a dream, of course. This wonderful feeling would leave as soon as she properly opened her eyes. But the slanting light pricked her eyelids playfully, and she grudgingly sat up.
The chamber, if it could be called such a thing, was rounded at one end. It was here that her bed lay, snuggled into the curve of the smooth glass wall. She could not see the other end of the room, for images shifted and rearranged themselves with rapid speed there. It was like looking down a long corridor filled with the most bizarre murals. She glimpsed at places she’d only imagine seeing: the enormous clock on Big Ben, the beautiful church at Vatican, and the lovely boulevards in Paris. Hidden here and there were familiar sights, the winding alleys of Venice and the golden lions atop Saint Mark’s Square. There was a small buzz coming from the scenery as well, a harmony of different languages spoken by the people who went by these places. It was as though every single thought in her head had materialised in front of her, shifting as quickly as she was changing her mind.
Dizzy from the ever-changing room, she closed her eyes and thought of her parents as she had done every morning. The hum of the crowd subsided, until there was nothing but a soft tapping noise. Her brother had stirred beside her, and she could feel him struggling up into a sitting position. The tapping noise became louder, and Xavier’s hand tightened around her wrist painfully. She opened her eyes.
“It’s them,” he whispered as her eyes followed his gaze, “I know it’s them.”
He was right. The two figures walking down the corridor have the familiar silhouettes that she would’ve recognised anywhere. No one but her father walked with that confident gait, and only her mother could glide so effortlessly alongside him. The jumble of scenes have arranged themselves into the much loved interior of their old home, the one they had both lived in until four years ago. Aghast, she pinched herself and her mind drifted from the thoughts of her parents. As mysteriously as they’ve appeared, the two figures dissolved into thin air.
“I see you’ve discovered your gift,” said the voice from the night before, its owner emerging from nowhere.
“What gift, madam?” Isa asked, still shaken from her parents’ appearance.
“That,” said the woman, sweeping her hand about the room that was filled with a kaleidoscope of colours again, “Illusions, tricks of the mind. Although that is only a small part of your ability.”
“Illusions,” Isa repeated, “Tricks of the mind. If you don’t mind me asking, madam, what is this place? It feels like an illusion and a dream to me.”
“I thought you pinched yourself already,” the lady said, coming closer, “This is no illusion, just another reality. It’s a complicated place with a complicated history, one that I will tell you another day.”
“But why am I here? Why are we here?” she gestured to her brother as well as herself, “Who are you, madam?”
“Ah, the young ones and their many questions,” the woman smiled, “I shall answer the last question first, I think. My name is Esmeralda, although I have another thousand personas through my illusions. I’ve been appointed as your counsellor and mistress for the duration of your stay here, and I am responsible for teaching you all that you need to know before you leave.”
“To where, madam?” Isa asked, overwhelmed by the sudden avalanche of information.
“To somewhere important,” Esmeralda replied, “And that brings me to the next question. Why are you here? It’s because of your gift. As my apprentice you will learn to control those illusions you created, to read minds and muddle the enemy’s thoughts as well as other things. And your brother is here because of your bond. Believe me, I’ve tried to pry your grasp on each other but nothing worked. He may prove to be useful one day.”
“Me, madam? An urchin like me with a gift for illusions and mind control? I think you may be mistaken.”
“No, I’m quite sure. Now, you two better get up and put on more respectable clothes. My apprentices will not walk into town looking like two street rats.”
A pile of serviceable clothes was waiting for the siblings atop a small cupboard next to the bed. Esmeralda disappeared while they took turns to get changed behind a screen, and came back again as the two struggled to tie the laces on their shoes. It had been such a long time since they had shoes, let alone ones with laces. With some help, finally Isa and her brother were ready. As they walked down the shifting corridor towards an exit that Isa could not quite see yet, she turned around to face Esmeralda.
“Madam,” she began uncertainly, “I... Is there... Is there a catch for this?”
“A what?” Esmeralda asked, “Speak up child, my apprentices do not mumble.”
“Is there... Is there something I must pay for this dream?” There, she said it.
“No, no price,” said Esmeralda, “I only need you and your brother to behave accordingly, and for you to learn and obey my every word. That is all, Isabella Perazzo.”
Isa was more at ease somewhat, but she was still wary. She had learnt from her years on the street that nothing came without a price, and Esmeralda and her alternate reality seemed too good to be true and free.