Rina looked around, trying to blink away the memory of a strange, glossy blackness.
“It’s a tent,” she said at last. Cream-coloured canvas walls rippled in a gentle breeze which smelled of thunderstorms and something thick and floral. Cushions were scattered all around, jewel-bright colours darkened by lighting that gave the impression of candlelight, although Rina couldn’t see any candles. The space was large, with plenty of room to stand and walk about. A low, wooden table had been placed near one wall, more cushions around its sides. Little clusters of books lay on the floor, some open, some closed, some with their spines bent painfully back.
Jin nodded cheerfully, as though being transported from a room full of shouting people to a wedding marquee which the bride and groom had decided would make a nice first home was entirely normal and everyday.
Rina picked up one of the books from the nearest pile. “Mushrooms of the Northern Isles of Araniae?” she asked.
“I like to read,” said Jin, settling on one of the cushions near the table.
Dozens of questions bubbled in Rina’s mind. For some reason, the first sentence to make its way out was: “you said this was a craft.”
“So it is. The Slipper can move outside of what you understand as space and time. Which, I am certain, is very little,” she added.
“I did physics at school.”
“Of course you did, child. But-”
“Why do you keep calling me child? I’m not a child!”
“How old are you?”
“I am four thousand, five hundred and sixty-seven of your years, approximately,” said Jin, calmly. “You are a child. As I was saying, human understanding is very limited. You struggle to comprehend anything you cannot describe with language. You know that there is no concept of the colour blue in your famous Homer’s Iliad? Blue did not exist in your minds until you invented a word for it.”
Rina’s knowledge of Greek mythology was limited to playing the part of Medusa in a school play, and she wasn’t even sure that was in the Iliad. “That can’t be right,” she protested. “What about the sky? And the sea?”
“Have you ever looked at the sea? It is only ever blue in childish drawings.”
“But…” Rina shook her head. “Why am I arguing about this? I don’t care. The only thing I know about Homer is that a cartoon character was named after him. I think.” She walked over to one of the canvas walls and pressed her hand against it. It gave slightly, but only slightly, and merged seamlessly with the floor and the ceiling. Where was the breeze coming from? “Thanks for rescuing me and everything, but how do I get out of here? I need to get home.”
“You do not.”
“I do. Mum hates it if I don’t get back when I said I would.” Rina felt in the back pocket of her jeans for her mobile.
“I meant, you do not get out of here. You cannot get ‘out of here’ without my leave, and I say that you stay,” said Jin cheerfully, glancing at her book. “Your plastic and glass thing will not work,” she added.
Rina stared, a terrible sensation of wanting to press ‘undo’ filling her gut. “I can’t go home?”
“You cannot. Do not make me eternally repeat it,” said Jin, waving a hand dismissively. “Accept it. Explore. The Slipper is larger than it seems.”
For the first time Rina noticed what looked like a fold in the canvas to the right of the table, a sliver of blackness behind it. A thought worked its way around her growing panic. “What if I wish to go home?” she asked slowly.
Jin inclined her head slightly as if inviting her to try it.
“I wish to go home!” said Rina.
Jin chuckled. “Very good. Now we have resolved that. You still cannot go home, because I cannot safely return to your world, and you cannot get there without me. You can demand it, or even wish it, as much as you like, but it will quickly become a very tiresome and circular dialogue.” She turned her attention back to her book.
Anger elbowed its way to the top of Rina’s emotions. “You’ve got to be kidding me! I helped you! I called that stupid dog because you told me he was lost, not some bloody guard dog! And now I’m trapped on your… your… this!”
Jin did not look up. “You requested that I take you.”
Rina moved towards the old woman. “I just wanted you to get me out of there!”
“And so I did.”
“You didn’t explain that it was a one-way trip!” Rina was now just two feet away from Jin, who was still staring at her book.
“You did not ask,” said Jin, mildly. “I suggest, child, that you cease this tantrum.”
“STOP CALLING ME CHILD!” Rina reached out and made a grab for Jin’s book, intending to fling it aside and make her meet her eyes.
She blinked. She was back on the other side of the tent, and Jin was still in her spot by the table. Rina ran at her, only to find herself moved back to the same spot. Again. And again.
“You realise,” said Jin, after the fourth attempt, “that I could destroy you? I am simply choosing not to. It is quite possible that I will get bored with this game. Are you sure you want to see how long that will take?”
“Why did you bring me here, if you didn’t have to?” spat Rina, breathing hard.
“You amused me.”
“So, what, I’m some sort of, of, dancing monkey?”
“Finally you understand,” said Jin cheerfully. She reached out and pulled on the fold in the fabric, creating a triangle of darkness. “It really could be very much worse. You are alive, you have not been disfigured by a vicious dog, and you find yourself on a craft which can travel through multiverses in the blink of an eye. One might imagine you would be excited. Now,” she waved her arm at the gap, “explore!”
More to follow soon…