Daniel’s first impression of Tenai’s world was of darkness.
They had been at Jenna’s college graduation, he and Tenai. Jenna had wanted Tenai to come, of course, so she had taken a day off from her job—easily, now that she was Brian McKenna’s full partner and the senior master at his third martial arts dojo. Tenai had been gravely interested in the graduation ceremony, as she was still interested in new things she encountered in her life. She had been smiling a little, pleased by the happiness of the young graduates. She knew a handful of them, of course: some of Jenna’s college friends, like Jenna herself, were habitués of her dojo. But nothing could make Tenai look like an ordinary parent or friend.
Daniel had been conscious of the sidelong glances Tenai attracted—tall, with that unusual bone structure; carrying herself with an absolute physical confidence that was clearly out of the ordinary. No doubt some of the attendees thought he and Tenai were a couple and were wondering how a man like him had attracted a woman like her. The thought hadn’t bothered him: anybody with an ounce of discernment was going to be struck by Tenai. Even sixteen years after having built a normal life for herself, she still stopped the eye.
As far as he could tell, Tenai hadn’t even noticed the reactions she engendered. Well, she was no doubt used to double takes, and she was focused on Jenna anyway, rising to greet her when the young woman tossed her cap into the air and ran back to them, the sun no brighter than her happiness.
They had been heading back toward the car after the ceremony. Jenna had grabbed his hand and then Tenai’s. She had pulled them, linked hand-in-hand-in-hand, into nearly a run. They had been laughing, pleasantly guilty because they were skipping out on the reception. Even Tenai had been laughing.
And now they were elsewhere. The change was jarring, like missing an unexpected stair, only more so. Daniel had been holding Jenna’s hand, but his daughter’s slim hand was no longer linked to his own: they’d both stumbled hard and lost their mutual grip. He knew he yelped, and heard a shocked little cry of surprise from Jenna. There was ground underfoot, not pavement; he had fallen and caught himself on one knee and the palms of his hands, and it was earth and grass under his hands, not blacktop. The very air had changed: much more humid, warm with a moist heaviness not at all like May. It smelled of growing things. He could not see anything.
A long hand reached out of the darkness, closed on his elbow, lifted him back to his feet, and let him go again. From quite near, Jenna’s voice, sounding very young in the dark, a child again instead of her almost-twenty-two, said, “Daddy?” in a tentative tone.
“Jenna?” he said quickly. “Tenai?” He took a step, and stumbled again over the uneven ground. It was not completely dark, he found. It was the contrast between the place they had been and the place they now were that blinded. Overhead, a half-moon rode through torn fragments of cloud.
“Daddy?” Jenna said again, frightened.
“Hush,” said another voice, velvet and dark as the night. Tenai’s voice, but her slight accent had taken on a less familiar edge in this place, unutterably more foreign. “Hush, child. There is no danger for you here. See, here is your father.” Faintly visible as their eyes adjusted, Tenai led them together.
Even in the dark, even through his own shock and fear, Daniel felt her anger, burning across the surface of his skin as though he stood too close to a fire. He hadn’t felt that for a long time. He said, “Tenai?” again, and his voice shook.
“I am well enough, Daniel,” answered that velvet voice. Pale moonlight slid down Tenai’s cheek as she turned her face toward him. “I am angry, yes, but I have reason for my anger. I am my own master. Do not be afraid.”
“Where are we? Where are we?” Jenna’s teeth chattered despite the warmth of the air, and Daniel put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. He was terrified himself, and fighting it. It was hard to believe that this was real, and for a moment Daniel even thought that maybe it wasn’t real, that this was a weird and complicated hallucination; probably they were all still running over the sunlit parking lot, with the car just a few yards away—they would bang into it any minute, and that would jar them out of it—jar him out it, probably no one else was hallucinating this way, that’d be a mass hallucination, and too strange for belief –
The night was quiet around them, all of them, Jenna and Tenai and himself. The warm, humid air was unstirred by any breeze. It carried living country scents that had nothing to do with a large city.
“Where we should never have come,” Tenai answered, speaking to Jenna. “Not even I, and certainly not you. This is my world, and I am sorry that it is unlikely to offer you a fine welcome, child.”
“You brought us here?” Daniel asked, leaving aside for the moment other questions, like, You mean this place is real? You mean that everything you told me was true? Incredulity ran through him like a tide, and certainty, as strong, that it wastrue. He stood still, caught for a trembling instant between convictions. At the same time, all the stories Tenai had told him of her long, long life in this world crowded at once into his memory, and for a moment he was so frightened he was close to throwing up.
Jenna broke the moment, by asking in her clear, trusting voice, “But where is this place? Your world? Tenai, what do you mean?”
“The land is called Talasayan,” Tenai answered her. “Once, it was my home.”
She was angry, angry, angry. That was unmistakable. Daniel heard other emotions in her voice as well: grief and loss and something very like joy, in a complex tangle. He asked her again, “Did you bring us here, Tenai?”
For a moment, he thought she would not answer. She walked away a little distance, far enough to be lost in the night, but then she came back, her arms full of branches. She dropped them on the ground and a moment later, fire caught in the center of the pile, golden and homey as any other campfire, utterly welcome despite the smothering warmth of this night. The fire blazed up. The crackle it made against the too-silent dark was comforting as a blanket. Its light showed Tenai’s face more clearly, fine-planed and foreign and not comforting at all. She said, “Not I, Daniel. This was never my intention nor my action.”
“Then whose?” Jenna asked. She was still shivering, but not so much now, in the light of the fire. She held out her hands to the warmth as though it offered hope of safety.
Tenai glanced at her, a glance so filled with impassioned anger that Jenna blinked and stared and even took an involuntary step back; probably, Daniel thought, without even knowing she had done so. “Not my friends,” Tenai said, and turned away to gather another armful of wood.