Chapter 1: In Which Alice's Apprenticeship is Made Clear, Lord Ascot Flies in the Face of Convention, Alice Tries Oriental Tea, and Tarrant Seeks Audience with His Ex
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He was quite the tallest person outside of Underland that Alice had ever seen. His dark skin set him well apart from the other gentlemen in the room, even without his colourful suit of clothes and his long black hair. Perhaps, however, the real reason Alice found herself wanting to cross the room to him was because he was the only one holding a cup and saucer, drinking tea. It wouldn’t have been so odd, only it was after dinner and all the men in Lord Ascot’s study were drinking, well, drinks.
Alice paused at the threshold of the study, glancing at Lord Ascot, beside her, and a little nervous. All her life she’d been taught that women did not set foot in studies, nor was it proper for a lady to go un-chaperoned with gentlemen after supper; Lord Ascot gave her a small smile that had some edges, and nudged her forward.
‘Since when did you care about proper, Alice?’ he murmured, as though reading her thoughts. Without further instruction or warning, he walked into the room.
‘Gentlemen!’ Lord Ascot said jovially, to get the attention of his colleagues. ‘There’s someone I’d like you all to meet.’
‘Ascot!’ said a sleek-haired dandy, his drink waved in flourish, cigarette poised in his other hand. ‘Old thing, where have you—oh my.’ His eyes fell on Alice, and one of his sharp brows raised.
‘I’m Alice Kingsleigh,’ Alice said in what she hoped was a sure voice, holding out her hand—not to kiss, but to shake.
‘Charles’ little whelp,’ Lord Ascot said fondly. ‘And—to the great fortune of us all!—she inherited his vision. Alice, may I introduce Lord Sidcup?’
‘Is that like a buttercup?’ Alice asked curiously. ‘or a tea cup?’
Like most people, Lord Sidcup was taken quite aback by Alice’s question; he gave a nervous little laugh, though startled when he found the laughter joined by a deeper, sweeter one. The Indian gentleman had crossed the room quietly, and stood with his teacup and saucer balanced in one hand.
‘You must be Captain Jaya,’ Alice said, glad to talk to someone who seemed to think she was genuinely amusing, rather than mad. ‘Lord Ascot’s told me all about you.’
‘All terrible things, I hope?’ Jaya’s voice resonated, as though his voice came from very deep within his tall frame. Alice laughed.
‘Only that you are quite scandalous, having women aboard your ship, and all. Do you really speak seven languages?’
‘Oh,’ Jaya said modestly. ‘many more than seven, now. I have been in Europe too long to not learn some of the languages there.’ He sipped his tea. ‘I am told you shall be my newest crewmember, Alice Kingsleigh.’
Immediately there was a bit of an uproar.
‘Now see here, Ascot!’
‘You can’t possibly mean to put a young English woman aboard a ship!’
‘The scandal, Ascot! We’d go up in smoke!’
‘Excuse me,’ Alice said politely. ‘I am in the room, and it’s rude to talk about people who are in the room as though they are somewhere else.’ She wanted badly to tell them she had slain a Jabberwocky, with a sword, and that she thought this made her quite more than qualified for any sort of horror getting on a merchant ship and sailing to the Orient would bring. The fact that she couldn’t frustrated her terribly; she bit her lip quite hard to keep herself from telling them.
‘Likewise, I am the captain of my ship. There would be no safer vessel for anyone new to life at sea.’ Captain Jaya was serene, and seemed to impart a calm to the company with his deep, quiet voice. ‘There are, as Lord Ascot knows, many more women in my crew.’
‘Oriental women,’ Lord Sidcup said with a fleer. ‘are not of the same delicacy as English women.’
‘Women are women,’ Alice said with a thoughtful frown. ‘and I daresay enough people have told me I’m not as delicate as they’d like. So perhaps Oriental women and I shall have that in common.’
‘You are very wise, Alice Kingsleigh,’ Jaya said with a smile. ‘I shall be honoured to speak further with you about your forthcoming time upon my ship.’
Alice knew an excuse to leave when she heard one, and was eager to take it; she didn’t glance at Lord Ascot for guidance this time, and gave the captain a genuine smile. He reminded her a little of Queen Mirana; he might have made a good husband for her, Alice thought.
‘I should like,’ Alice said, ‘to have some tea with you. I don’t drink anything else, anymore.’
Jaya smiled. ‘Come, there is a kind I think you have not tried….’ He led her away from the throng of men that were glaring at them, seeming not to care very much. Alice liked him for that, and gladly joined him on the other side of the room, where a chocolate pot had been placed on the desk. A young lascar was straining tea into a cup, even as they approached, and by the time Alice and Jaya met him at the desk, he was offering the cup and saucer.
‘Your eyes are quite green,’ Alice remarked as she took the cup. ‘if you don’t mind the personal remark.’ She looked down into the milky tea and was slightly disappointed—she’d half-expected it to be purple, or blue—but it looked just like ordinary tea. ‘Do Indian people often have green eyes?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said with a bright smile. He was much younger than Jaya, Alice thought as she balanced her tea, waiting for it to cool. Perhaps he was her age, he looked it.
Taking the first sip of tea, Alice tasted normal tea with milk and sugar until the spices danced on her tongue, warm and prickling. She swallowed and nearly coughed, but didn’t, and thought.
‘Curious,’ she said softly, before taking a longer sip. Again the tea put forth its hidden sharpness, and Alice found she liked the lingering warmth. ‘Oh, but I do like this. Is that ginger? I think it might be, only I’ve never tasted so much of it at once.’
‘There is ginger, yes.’ Jaya’s dark eyes glittered keenly, and he poured himself more of the tea as he watched Alice. ‘What else do you taste?’
‘It isn’t a taste so much as a smell,’ Alice murmured. ‘Vanilla and…’ she hesitated as her mind whirled with images of Tarrant. Tarrant smelled like vanilla, and like something sharper, spicier. Feeling a gentle touch on her arm, Alice blinked, realising she must have been lost in thought. Jaya’s dark brows were tilted up in concern.
‘Are you well?’
Alice put the tea down on the desk. ‘I…’
‘Was the tea too strong?’ the young lascar asked, twisting his long fingers. ‘Shall I make—’
‘No, no,’ Alice said, feeling a little… strange. Not dizzy, but… she put her hand in her pocket. ‘No, it just… reminded me of someone.’ She closed her fingers around the phial of Jabberwocky blood. ‘Someone I knew a long… a long time ago.’
‘Someone you miss?’ Jaya guessed, and when Alice met his eyes she knew she couldn’t lie to him; and after all… she did miss Tarrant. Horribly. Sitting down, she took another sip of tea.
‘Where is he?’ asked the young lascar. To Alice’s surprise, he sat down as well—perhaps he wasn’t a servant, then? Misinterpreting her look, he gave a small, Oriental bow of apology. ‘Forgive me, I do not mean to pry. I’m only curious.’
Lips tugging into a little smile, Alice sipped the tea again. ‘I quite like curiosity,’ she replied, before looking into her teacup.
‘He was a… a friend.’ She had never had to talk about him before, and Alice tried to think quickly. Having a gentleman for a friend was suspicious for a lady—Alice felt an odd wincing feeling, thinking that. Strange. ‘A very close friend. He saved my life,’ she added.
Tarrant never thought it would come to this, but here he was, knocking on Time’s door and fiddling with his thimbles, trying to ignore the furious alarm bells of the watchdog as it barked ferociously at him.
The door opened, revealing a tall, thickset man of indeterminate age, his face an asymmetric riot of colour that almost looked like several things. His eyes swirled with depthless hues, and Tarrant almost got lost in them before Time blinked.
‘Good, er, morrow,’ Tarrant stammered, as always transfixed by Time’s beauty. ‘I… hello.’
‘Hello,’ Time replied, impassively. The dog was still going off, straining at its chain. As he raised a teacup to his lips, Tarrant realised…
‘Have I interrupted tea? I’m so sorry, one shouldn’t have tea interrupted it’s—’
‘What do you want, Tarrant?’ Time interrupted, with the precise tones that no one could find any scrap of emotion in, least of all Tarrant.
‘I just wondered if… perhaps… I might come in?’
‘Come in and kill me?’ There was a barbed strike to the question, and Tarrant felt it quite vividly.
‘There was a war on,’ he protested, though even he knew it was a mimsy excuse, especially said in the fluttery Underlandish accent he’d trained himself to use. ‘I wasn’t planning to really—’
The door shut in his face; Tarrant took a moment to realise this, before knocking rather more desperately on the carved mushroom-wood. ‘Time!’ he called. ‘Time, I didn’t mean it! I couldn’t ever! Please!’
No answer from the immaculate house, with its dark windows and sharp spiral-carvings. Tarrant’s voice rumbled in his chest as he got angry, eyes turning fiery yellow.
‘Fine! I’ll stay here until y’answer, ye slurvish bastard!’ he called up at one of the windows, before glaring at the watchdog. ‘Shut it and wind yerself!’
The dog paused, thinking twice about the look in the intruder’s eyes, and turned away, circling before sitting down and obeying, hind leg cocked to reach the key of the watch that was its body.
‘He’s still vexed with you, you know,’ the dog said, revealing she was a bitch; Tarrant wondered what had become of the other watchdog, because the one Time had before hadn’t been female.
‘Isn’t he always?’ Tarrant sighed, anger draining from him as he sat on the front steps of the house.
‘Why did you come, then?’ the watchdog asked, ticking softly as she scratched one cropped ear. ‘if you knew he’d still be cross?’
Tarrant mumbled something from between his fingers, hands on his face. The watchdog tilted her head, ears pricking. ‘Alice is a fish?’
Tarrant took his face form his hands. ‘I miss Alice,’ he repeated irritably, reaching in his coat for the snakesilk pouch full of zmetiks. Pulling one out, he rolled the purple stick between his fingertips fretfully, searching in his pockets for a pinch of dust. Surely he had some in here somewhere… he used enough of it… there! He sprinkled a bit on the end of the zmetik, taking a grateful drag of the fuchsia smoke and feeling his thoughts clear a little.
The watchdog sniffed interestedly at the smoke as it fell to curl over the ground, and lay down after a few moments, resting her head on her paws.
‘Are you really going to stay here until he answers?’
Tarrant took a deep drag, and blew out a lungful of the smoke in a long sigh. The smoke sorted out his thoughts from his emotions, and he realised it might be a bad idea to just wait. He ought to be more productive. Would Time like a hat? Perhaps not, he was too fond of his long white hair. Perhaps a fascinator? No, if Time was anything, it was not someone who wore a fascinator. Perhaps a pair of gloves? Tarrant knew Time had a fondness for them; but where would he find slinkroom skin at this time of year? Imports from Snud and Marmoreal were too high in price for a gift from a hatter like Tarrant. True, he was again the White Queen’s hatter; but he had a lot of repairs to do on his house, and no coin to spare for extravagant gifts, even for one such as Time. No, not gloves.
‘Have you not the Oraculum, that you must come and ask me when Alice will return?’
Tarrant turned, to see Time sitting beside him, the colours on his face changed around, as they often did. He held his long-stemmed pipe, though the blue-green smoke was lighter than the zmetik’s, and moved in spirals and whorls. A quirk of his brow signalled Tarrant might speak to him without being cut off.
‘Will he return?’ Tarrant asked, trying not to sound meek and failing. Time took the stem of the pipe from his mouth, blowing a ring of the story-smoke, that expanded and showed a dingy, bustling harbour.
‘He sets forth to explore his own world, now.’
Tarrant saw the blue-coated figure on the deck of one of the ships, blond hair whipping in the sea-wind, eyes on the horizon as he stood on the bowsprit. Alice, his Alice; he’d probably forgotten all about Underland by now, Tarrant was sure.
‘He will not return soon,’ Time went on quietly, almost gently. Tarrant looked at him so fast he got a little dizzy, his smile wide.
‘But—but he will come back.’
Time tilted his head, nearly shrugging, and stood. ‘Come inside, Tarrant,’ he sighed, and his voice was enough to make Tarrant shiver in all the right places. ‘you’re late for tea, but just in time for dessert.’
Lascar - Lascar was a term used in Victorian Britain for servants and militiamen from the Indian subcontinent, or any other country east of the Cape of Good Hope.
The tea Jaya and Alice drink is spiced tea--which is what we in the West call chai, though 'chai' actually just means 'tea'.
Notes on the use of Oriental, Lascar, and other outdated terms: I realise these are not politically correct, but the story is told from a Victorian point of view, so the terms are for the sake of authenticity.
Original Underland Words in this Chaper:
Zmetik - n. - A type of inhaled/smoked drug, similar to a cigarette but activated with a pinch of dust rather than lit with a match. It clears the mind and temporarily soothes madness; both a stimulant and a sedative, with no long-term adverse effects on the mind or body. Fuschia smoke. Made from the skin of the zmetik fruit, wrapped in the skin of the common purple mushroom. Smoked by 'common' people (especially hatters, dyers, and those affected by fumes), banned in Iracebeth's court.
Slinkroom skin - n. - Slink is a term used for leather from unborn calves--used in glovemaking. Slinkroom skin is the skin of the slinkroom, a variety of mushroom.
Chapter 2: In Which Alice is Briefed and Bonds with Lord Ascot Before Leaving England and the Banished Knave and Queen Find Gainful Servitude
I didn't realise the ship already had a name, so it's been changed accordingly from Mercury to Wonder. Sorry for any confusion.
The young lascar, Alice found out quite soon after meeting him properly, was named Anand, and was the first mate of the Wonder. The clipper was, Ascot told Alice, the best in their line; he was like a schoolboy as he spoke to her, excited about their plans to trade with China. Jaya was a very good merchant, from a long line of them, and (Lord Ascot said) had secured many profitable trade agreements with merchants in many countries, as well as finding a way to get exotic glassware from somewhere undisclosed.
‘Undisclosed?’ Alice asked, as she peered at the treasures Lord Ascot showed her. They were in his house in London, preparing for Alice’s journey. ‘You mean, he goes places and doesn’t tell you?’
‘He’s a mysterious man at times,’ Lord Ascot said, picking up an ornament made of spun glass so delicate it looked as though it might float away on the air. As he turned it to catch the light, it sparked with sudden colour and Alice gasped.
‘Oh, how beautiful…’
‘Isn’t it though?’ Lord Ascot said with a smile, admiring it. ‘And that’s not to mention the beautiful jewellery he’s brought back for Lady Ascot, and the useful medicines.’ He carefully set the ornament back in the velvet lining of the case. ‘Whenever I ask, he says it is the Venice of the Orient, the place he goes to get these wonders.’
‘How curious…’ Alice said softly. ‘but, it’s just like a story. You can’t simply ask questions in the middle of a story.’
‘Precisely so, my dear apprentice,’ Lord Ascot spoke fondly, opening another part of the case and taking out a small velvet pouch. When he gave it to her, Alice opened it curiously and tipped the contents of the pouch into her hand: it was a ring of delicate make, looking made of hair-thin strands of glass. Afraid she might crush it, as though it were made of gossamer, Alice turned it in her hand, trying it on her wedding finger. It was cool, but as it warmed from her hand it flooded with bright colours.
‘Oh it’s just like—’ Alice caught herself, realising she’d been about to say ‘just like something from Underland!’ ‘—like something in one of my dreams!’ she amended.
That got one of Lord Ascot’s kind laughs. ‘You’ll find yourself saying that frequently, I think,’ he chuckled. ‘The Orient is full of wonders. You just have to keep your eyes and thoughts open to them. That,’ he said, leaning forward conspiratorially. ‘is the main problem with most people-they don’t look properly, nor listen. Charles did, though. He knew how to talk to people, your father did. Even without being able to speak their language—and they’re hard languages to learn, I don’t mind telling you. Don’t know how Jaya manages all those sounds; they’ll sprain your tongue, upon my word!’
Alice laughed with him, pleased that she was his apprentice. Since she had been a small child, Alice had always loved sitting by and listening to her father and Lord Ascot speak about the Orient, about the customs and the people and exotic locales. Alice understood why her father was gone so often, and didn’t fault him for it as her sister and mother did; for he always came back with stories and stories and new things to show her. When he’d died, all the adults had been so busy and Alice had been up at a Seminary and there just hadn’t been any more sitting in the study with Lord Ascot and Father, hearing tales and talking about the lands to the East. When she’d come back from Underland, and Lord Ascot had offered her an apprenticeship, Alice had been happy enough to attempt a Futterwacken, even though she had no idea how to do it.
‘Did Captain Jaya mean this to be mine?’ Alice wondered, marvelling at the ring still. It fit so perfectly on her slim finger….
‘He brought it this morning before breakfast—your train was still en route—and said I ought to give it to you, with his compliments, and that he’d explain how it worked when you got on board. I’ve no earthly idea what that means, other than Indian women do wear glass bracelets, and all the women on his ship have a ring just like it.’
Stayne had never recalled so many different ways to attempt regicide as he did when chained to Iracebeth. He found small comfort in the fact that he’d effectively terrified the former queen into submission with all his attempts; she no longer slept except when she collapsed in exhaustion, and Stayne was sure to sleep as lightly as ever, just in case she got ideas.
Both found the sentence not so hard—well, at least, Stayne didn’t. For only Iracebeth had been sentenced to have none do a kindness to her, nor speak a word. Stayne was simply to be chained to her; people were free enough to show kindness to him.
It took him about a month to realise this meant he might get someone to separate them. Once the idea wormed its way into his head (and such an idea! Stayne wondered who had spent so much money on him, to buy an idea like that—which surely came from Snud, all the best ones did—not to mention the cost of courier services to the Outlands), it lodged fast and stayed there, until Stayne did nothing but look for someone that might let him earn such a kind deed. Eventually, he simply picked up Iracebeth and carried her—she was rather light now that most of her skirts and things were shredded and gone.
‘Why awe you in such a huwwy?’ she snapped, though her rancour was much deflated from fear. Had he finally thought of a way to kill her? Hearing the roar of the sea, Iracebeth twisted and her eyes widened as she saw the promontory Stayne was carrying her toward, with nothing but the sea beyond, presumably miles below the cliffs. She squirmed hard, terrified. ‘NO! NO! I HATE GETTING WET, STAYNE!’
Her former knave paused, and though she couldn’t see his face, he sounded as though his smile were as wide as that evaporating cat. ‘Is that so?’ he murmured thoughtfully. ‘I shall have to remember that. Now, do stop squirming, or I may just lose my balance…’ he trailed off ominously, and Iracebeth gave a little squeak, going very still.
He walked on, along the edge of the escarpment, and Iracebeth tried not to stare at the long, long way down the sheer face of it, to the rocky, snark-infested sea below. She didn’t dare ask where they were going—she’d learned, in their short time alone in the Outlands, that her former advisor was as deadly and frightening as her sister was lovable and charming.
Not long after approaching the cliffs, Iracebeth heard the alarm bells of a watchdog; and a growling, guttural voice. To Iracebeth’s shock, Stayne answered it in kind (he spoke Outlandish? How had he learned?); the dog stopped ringing, and a stocky, fiercely ginger woman came around to stare up at her appraisingly.
‘Aye,’ she said, spitting on the ground beside herself. ‘ee’ll du. Putal a balgan if ee outgribes.’
Stayne laughed, putting Iracebeth down. She tried to hold to her dignity, combing through her messy red hair with her fingers, and smoothing her hopelessly ruined clothes. As she looked up, she noticed they were in the front garden of a house that looked carved straight into the side of a hill.
‘She says she’ll shove something in your mouth if you give voice to the smallest sound.’ Stayne was smirking down at her, clearly enjoying the delivery of the message.
Iracebeth felt a flush colour her pale face, hands clenching to fists—but she was powerless to do anything, and the rage drained, leaving despair to fill its void. She looked away, toward the sparkling sea. ‘Fine,’ she said finally, in a quiet voice. There was no other choice, just like she had no choice but to follow when Stayne followed the woman into the house.
It was small, carved out of the grey stone of the hill, with a floor of hard-packed dirt and furniture made of gnarled wood. The watchdog was one of the biggest and wildest Iracebeth had ever seen, and lay down by the fire that was burning in a nearly-open pit in the middle of the house’s single room, keeping an eye on them, his ticking somehow foreboding. Stayne had to duck more than usual to fit into the house, and finally crouched, looking almost graceful—Iracebeth couldn’t help thinking him handsome, even after he’d tried to kill her and all. He was still handsome.
Seeing nowhere to sit, Iracebeth simply sat on the floor. She was tired and hungry—when had they last eaten, anyway?
The woman came back with a chunk of black bread, and a bucket of water with a ladle. She set the bucket down and handed the bread to Stayne. Iracebeth knew her sentence, but just as Stayne had found ways around it, she’d found ways around it too. She took the ladle since Stayne’s hands were full, and the water tasted as sweet as squidberry wine. Even if she didn’t get a crumb of the bread, she’d have water at least….
It was why she was so surprised when Stayne offered her exactly half of the bread.
‘You awen’t supposed to be—’
‘I’d rather not carry around your corpse if you die of starvation,’ he interrupted sharply. Iracebeth winced, snatching the bread and eating it, glowering at him.
Chapter 3: In Which Tarrant Spreads the Good News and the Captain Discusses Alice with His Sawbones
‘You mean,’ Mallyumkun said slowly, her furry tail twitching in tightly-held anger. ‘if you’d just stopped by and apologised, we could have gone on with our lives and not been stuck here?’ Her voice had risen to a shrill squeak of rage by the time she finished, and dark eyes looked murderously at Tarrant.
Sitting low in his chair at the head of the tea-tables, Tarrant frowned, quite sure that wasn’t what he’d said at all—nor, indeed, what he’d meant by what he said. He thought, fiddling with his pins. ‘No,’ he said finally, then thought better of it. ‘Yes.’ Another pause. ‘What I mean is, I didn’t know so I couldn’t have told you.’ He rose, beginning to pace, his voice still the lilting Outlandish accent that was comfortable, his mind too occupied to bother hiding his origins at the moment. ‘so that wasn’t what I meant at all; and anyway,’ he turned, waving a hand and smiling widely. ‘this all pales in comparison to the fact that he’s coming back!’
The dormouse scowled deeply, folding her arms. ‘We don’t need him,’ she snapped.
Tarrant frowned again. ‘Mally, what’s got into you? He’s Alice.’
Mallyumkun hurled her teacup across the table, to land with a crash on the ground. ‘I’m going home.’ she spat. Since Thackery had been employed as the White Queen’s cook for some time already, it left Tarrant alone to clean up the years-long tea party. He didn’t much mind, but he was puzzled at the dormouse’s reaction to such good news. Ah, well, he had hours and hours of dishes to do—he always thought best when his hands were busy.
The Wonder was the fastest clipper at sea, though few knew why; Captain Jaya looked over his map, his sawbones the only other resident of his cabin. The woman was as tall as Jaya, long-boned and well-muscled, her brown skin speckled and her black hair curlier than his. She wore trousers, like most of the women on board, and it had been so long that none of the English and Scottish sailors thought it odd anymore. As the captain charted a course using not stars and latitude but ocean currents and waves, he spoke in his native tongue to the sawbones.
‘What think you of her, Malii?’ he said softly, not taking his eyes from his charts, long fingers tracing possible courses thoughtfully.
‘There is something unsettled about the inside of her, moreso than most,’ Malii answered. ‘but I think it not dangerous, simply distressing.’
‘Purple eyes see too much?’ Jaya murmured, looking up. His brows were quirked, and a smile hovered on his lips as he met the doctor’s eyes, which were deepest violet—not that any of the white men on board noticed. They were not supposed to notice. Malii gave a little smile, going over to stand at the window.
‘Sometimes, yes.’ She paused for a moment. ‘I suppose you meant is she trustworthy enough to take to our home?’
‘Why does this even come to mind?’ she asked, turning to fix him with a sharp look. ‘she is English, they are violent.’
‘I see something in her, Malii;’ Jaya said calmly, plotting their course. ‘I need no violet blessing to see she is different.’
‘She is,’ Malii allowed, still cautious. ‘but she is still English.’
‘And young,’ he answered, putting his tools back in a drawer and beginning to roll up the map. ‘and raised by Lord Ascot, who is very peaceful, for an English man.’
Malii gave a noncommittal noise, but looked to Jaya as he came up beside her. ‘I saw the ring you gave her. She often does gaze at it, and there is more than vapid appreciation for beauty in such a gaze.’
‘She wonders what it is for, Anand tells me.’
Malii nodded. ‘And speaks such strange things when she dreams at night; I hear so many words I have never heard. The white men say she is mad, and already treat her so. She does not seem mad to me, though…’
‘White men think much wisdom is mad,’ Jaya finished with a nod. ‘I will speak with her, and them. I know they find it difficult to adjust to change.’
Pausing just outside the cabin, both took up more formal stances, and Jaya’s voice was stern with his authority as he spoke again, just loud enough for those few crewmen nearby to hear. ‘I would like you to speak further with Miss Kingsleigh, Doctor Patel; just to make sure she is quite well.’
‘Aye, Captain,’ Malii answered with a formal nod, her own voice sharper in timbre, movements precise—though she and her fellows could never manage the stiffness of Europeans, too fluid and graceful were they. Jaya went back up to take the wheel from his first-mate, satisfied the exchange would soothe the nerves of his crew.
As Anand finished reporting to him the wind, the waves, and the activity he’d missed while reviewing their course, Jaya looked over the decks, searching for Alice; he saw her blue coat almost immediately. She was standing almost on the bowsprit, leaning on the railing; he couldn’t see her face, but he’d spoken with her at length that evening of their meeting, and knew well enough she was likely just looking at everything, from wave to horizon.
Chapter 4: In Which Time Begins to Seduce His Ex and the Banished are Unlocked and Put to Work
If you can't understand the Outlandish, try saying it out loud to yourself, and kind of playing with it. You should be able to figure it out, save for a few words that'll be listed in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Everywhere and anywhere whenever he wanted, Time sat on a low wall of the gardens of Marmoreal, tapered fingers picking a cascade of notes out on the strings of an Outlandish lute. He had no reason but one to be there, and even he knew it. His watchdog lay at his feet, along with a gathered audience of other animals, drawn by the music. When Time played, you listened; it was the way of things.
The white, fluttering figure of the queen he knew was on the balcony, leaning on the railing and listening with her usual dreamy smile; but it wasn’t she he’d come to lure out, not with this song, and not with this instrument. Time could play any instrument, from the Marmoreal moralin to the dream-harps of Snud and even more, the exotic instruments from Up Top. His favourite, however, were the mournful, fierce, wild instruments from the Outlands, some of which were found in Witzend, brought there by the settlers who’d crossed through the mountains.
And it was a Witzender he wanted. Time knew his erstwhile lover was listening, the soft clicking of sewing machine audible as soft metronome to Time’s playing. When the sewing machine stopped, Time’s lips curled into a smile, hidden by his long white hair as he continued to play. The footsteps were even more welcome, and Time glanced up when Tarrant sat on the ground in the throng of the audience, which was now growing to include the courtiers as they passed through the garden.
As Time played on, a tune less suited to the refined, measured steps of Marmoreal and more at home in the ragged moors of the Outlands, he favoured the hatter with a smile that promised all kinds of things, before beginning to sing. The collected catching of breath was nothing to Time as he gave voice to the old love song, voice in perfect pitch as his tongue wound over the guttural Outlandish and made it beautiful; he had eyes only for Tarrant.
Alice would return, yes; but by then, Tarrant would be the one to have forgotten.
Waking the chained pair of Underlanders was unnecessary for the work the locksmith was doing; Muirran thought it best to let them sleep. They were exhausted, and had the pinched look of folk unused to travelling in the harsh Outlands, with too little food and rest. They’d be useless if she woke them this early; they might even be useless for the better part of the month, until she could feed them back to health. Still, they were well enough to tend the fire, and the tall one looked as though he might be useful for most things. The woman… Muirran stirred the sticky mass of porridge that was to be breakfast, taking her eyes from the blacksmith for the moment.
She knew the woman. Bluddy behg hid, the queen from Crims, who took over so many years ago. Frabjous Day had come, even those in the Outlands knew that; still, it was more than a small surprise to see the behg hid in person. Hearing a promising series of clinks, Muirran looked up to see the smith had done his job, his large, square hands holding the manacles.
‘Dunnae see why ye want her freed,’ he rumbled.
‘So she can work,’ Muirran said simply, taking the pot off the fire and setting it on the table. The smith snorted disbelievingly, and Muirran gave him a sharp look. ‘Does she nae have two hands, man? She’ll work or she’ll shortly die, mark me.’ She started putting the porridge in the rough clay bowls she had on hand. Even though most lived alone, the Outlandish kept surplus crockery around for visitors—one visited whenever one was near a neighbour, because there was no other time. Breaking with this tradition, however, the Blacksmith didn’t stay, gathering up his tools and leaving once his job was done; Muirran didn’t fault him—she knew how strongly against the people east of the mountains he was.
The man was already waking—a Cairdhaen, by his looks. Probably a Hardht, though why he was in servants’ black was a mystery to Muirran. If he were a Deamondh, perhaps she’d understand—and Cluivh were always servants; but never a Hardht, they were nobility.
‘What’re ye called, Hardht?’ Muirran asked, when the man began to stretch. ‘Ye didn’t tell me, yestereve.’
Still rubbing the sleep from his good eye, the man finished in a hurry and started at her in surprise. ‘Ilosovic Stayne,’ he answered. ‘Stayne, usually.’
‘Ah, no wonder ye speak a bit of the Tongue,’ Muirran chuckled, and the sound was familiar to Stayne—not that she realised that. ‘How did a thief manage to get involved wi’ the bluddy behg hid, then?’
Stayne came over to sit on one of the benches, quietly murmuring thanks for the bowl of porridge before tucking in. He was halfway through before he seemed realise he was free, and held up his right hand slowly, as though in a dream. He looked over at Iracebeth, still sleeping in a heap by the fire, and then back at his hand, and then back at her, and then turned wondering eye to Muirran.
‘Work,’ Muirran said shortly, heaping more porridge into his bowl. ‘Now eat, ye’ll need it thismorn.’
Stayne’s face grew serious, and he nodded, before eating gratefully, smiling when she slapped a lump of butter on the top, and put a bowl of honey in front of him before going over to wake Iracebeth.
‘Shake her,’ Stayne suggested quietly, as he drizzled honey on his porridge. ‘It’s fastest.’
Muirran smirked, and beckoned her watchdog, who padded over and promptly went off. Iracebeth startled awake with a little scream—anyone would, woken by an Outlandish watchdog—and immediately felt to see if she still had all her limbs and that she didn’t have gaping holes in herself. It was just reflex, after months of Stayne trying to kill her every time she fell asleep. Convinced she was alive and whole, she knew better than to glare and snap at the woman standing over her—there was something wild in those eyes that frightened her, in any case. They were green and yellow, and reminded her of someone, though she couldn’t think whom.
‘Up,’ the woman said, her accent so heavy it sounded almost like Outlandish for a moment. She pointed toward the table. ‘Food.’
Iracebeth looked at the table, and then echoed Stayne’s reaction when she saw him so far away. Muirran got impatient, and grabbed her hand, pulling her up and pushing her toward the table.
‘Food,’ she said again, sounding irritated. Iracebeth didn’t need to be told twice.
‘What’s going on, Stayne?’ she whispered, not sure if she was allowed to use her voice yet. ‘Why awe we…?’
‘Try to eat,’ Stayne said with a smug smile, pushing the butter and honey toward her. ‘We start earning this freedom today.’
‘Eawning…?’ Iracebeth was mystified, but happy to have substantial food—even if it was peasant food, it was hot and filling. ‘By doing what?’
‘Work,’ Stayne said, obviously quite amused as he scraped the last dregs of porridge from his bowl. There was laughter at the shocked expression this garnered—though not from Stayne. The watchdog and his mistress were both nearly in stitches with amusement.
‘Nae woarkdh a die, aye?’ she giggled.
‘Nair uin,’ Stayne answered lightly. He looked back to Iracebeth. ‘It isn’t a kindness if you earn it.’
‘I can’t wowk!’ Iracebeth protested, covering her horror with irritation. ‘I don’t know how!’
‘Then you’ll learn,’ Stayne said simply, turning to address their hostess. ‘Tiye fir foadmairn.’
‘Ta’ll earn’t, vairly,’ she answered with a grim smile, before pointing out the door. ‘Faetch t’waetir, Hardht.’
Stayne gave a polite bow of his head before leaving the house, ignoring Iracebeth’s protests as he looked for the well. It wasn’t far, and stone walls were built around it in the signature mortarless style of the Outlands. He’d seen a few such wells unattended while they’d been travelling, along with walls whose purpose seemed known only to the Outlanders. This well had no winch, only a bucket attached to a rope. Stayne lowered the pail and began hauling up water. The first pail went in the kettle to heat, the rest into a basin full of dishes. Stayne saw the woman already had Iracebeth at the rim of the basin with a brush in one hand, and a rough cake of soap in the other. However stern, she was showing the former queen how to do the task she’d been assigned with patience only a mother might have. Stayne wondered again; no, it couldn’t be… he shook his head, and went to fetch more water.
His second time at the well, he realised he didn’t know what to call their hostess, and remedied the void as soon as he came back inside. He poured the water into the waiting pot this time, probably for lunch’s serving of porridge—or possibly dinner stew—and asked,
‘What isth ta, marni?’
‘Muirran,’ she said, distracted as she showed Iracebeth how to scrub the dishes, ‘Haetopp.’
Cairdhaen - Cardian, one of the cards. (compare Chessian, one of the chess pieces)
Hardht - Heart
Deamondh - Diamond
Cluivh - Club
Foadmairn - Breakfast (food + morn)
Tiye - Thank you
Marni - 'mother'--used in the old style of address (same as modern-day 'ma'am')
Chapter 5: In Which Alice Goes from Passenger to Sailor, Has to Explain Her Somniloquence and Time Has His Way with Tarrant
Alice quickly learned that the Wonder lived up to its name. The captain introduced her to all manner of people she’d never met before: a tall, statuesque woman with short black hair and freckles on her dark skin, Doctor Malii Patel, the sawbones; a sturdy, fierce woman from Austria, who had been a governess but now was the bo’sun (Alice had been unsurprised to learn this—though she already knew what bo’suns did, it seemed as though Matron Hauer was more than capable); and the Quartermaster, a well-spoken Englishman with a wicked wit, who put Alice in stitches of laughter within minutes of his introduction.
It wasn’t just the officers—everyone on the ship seemed to be from somewhere different, and to look different. Alice had never realised how much banal sameness everyone in she'd known before had, and found herself following every member around, asking about them, where they were from, their family, what did they like to eat best? Had they sisters? The questions were endless, and Alice tried very hard not to be a bother but she was so very curious.
‘Sod off!’ snapped one of the deckhands after the second day of this, a Scotswoman Alice remembered was named Maggie.
‘I only want to know,’ Alice said, less than timid as she followed the woman across the decks, only losing her balance a little—she nearly had her sea legs.
‘Then pay for it,’ another deckhand, Will, said—the only African on board, his voice was accented with something he called ‘Kriol’. Now, he tossed her the end of a rope; Alice instinctively shied from it, and it fell to the deck. He laughed, but not unkindly, picking the end up and holding it out. ‘Come on, you want some answers, you help tie this off.’
Alice took the rope. ‘Only I don’t know how, you know,’ she said, feeling a little guilty. He shrugged.
‘Then we teach you. Watch.’
It took the rest of the afternoon, and several frustrating times of having Will undo it and give it back so she could start over, but Alice had managed one of the many knots by sundown. It gave her a swell of pride, knowing she’d tied that knot, and that one over there—and furthermore, what each tying had done to help the ship. At dinner, she eagerly told the captain of what she’d done, and he looked pleased.
After that day, Alice no longer simply hovered and tried to stay out of the way—Will made her tie the knots he’d taught her, and showed her more and had her do them regularly. Maggie called her over to show her how to coat the deck with tar; the Chinese deckhand, Lao-Min, taught Alice how to climb the rigging and the things that needed doing while suspended in the ropes, battered by the wind; Svan taught Alice to read the stars and sing songs both haunting and ribald; everyone had something, and even more, they lent her clothes when her petticoats and dresses became impractical for running about and hanging from rigging and having to be half-soaked all the time. Billowing trousers, a shirt, a tight-fitting vest that helped strap down her admittedly modest bosom…. The most useful new accoutrement, however, were the calluses on her hands and feet. Inside of a month, Alice was happy to say she could tie knots, scale rigging, and curse with the rest of the crew.
The others started to call her ‘Kingsleigh’, and treated her the same as anyone—but there were a few, mostly English sailors, who would insist on ‘Miss Alice’ this and ‘Miss Alice’ that, and not let her pull her line or tighten her knot. Though she knew they were trying to be polite, Alice found herself feeling as though every ‘miss’ and ‘lady’ was a blow to her person.
Still, she told the women (the hold was roughly sectioned on one end, large enough for all of the female crew to find privacy enough from the men to sleep safely) of her frustration. Malii only studied her for long moments, and Alice thought she saw a flash of violet in the woman’s eyes, in the low light of the lamp; but it was gone in a moment. Collette, the feisty Cajun woman, had some help to offer.
‘Ah could teach ya some new insults, cher,’ Her lips curled into a smirk, one leg dangling out of her hammock as she idly played cat’s cradle with some string. ‘If you be wantin’ dat.’
Alice smiled, nearly laughing, and slid gratefully into her hammock. ‘I don’t think that would help,’ she sighed. ‘They tell me I ought not to use such language, being that I’m a delicate lady and all.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘I’m starting to hate that word.’
There was laughter from more than one of her companions. ‘Men,’ Maggie snorted. ‘When will they learn? Y’aren’t made of glass jes’ you’re a gel.’
Alice shifted uncomfortably. There was that odd feeling again, of being shaken suddenly from a very nice pretend. Only she couldn’t think what she’d been pretending. Feeling eyes on her, Alice looked over to see Malii watching with that piercing gaze of hers, and looked quickly away.
‘Does something trouble you, Alice?’ Lani asked in her soothing voice; she was another of the Indians, and her eyes glinted even in the low light. ‘You make that face often.’
‘I… I wonder, often,’ Alice said, though the words felt a sorry excuse on her tongue.
‘Is that why you speak in your sleep?’ Lao-Min asked, curious. Alice gaped at her, alarmed.
‘You weren’t supposed to go tellin’ her!’ Collette hissed, her cat’s cradle forgotten as she glared at the youngest member of the crew.
‘You… you’ve all heard me talk in my sleep?’ Alice stammered, unsure whether she was embarrassed or frightened—what had she said?
‘You have such terrible nightmares,’ Lao-Min said softly, as she pulled at her slim fingers. Her dark eyes glanced nervously at the company.
‘What do I say?’ Alice breathed, afraid of the answer. Was she talking about Underland? Did they think she was mad? Visions of Bedlam haunted her, and she shivered, pulling her blanket tighter around herself.
‘Ya’ll talk nonsense sometimes,’ Collette sounded resigned, playing with her string again.
‘It isn’t nonsense,’ Malii retorted.
‘I ain’t never heard of a Bandersnatch before, cher,’ Collette shot back lazily, kicking her dangling foot slightly.
‘It’s a monster,’ Alice said in a small voice.
‘Leave the poor thing alone, Collette!’ Lani said with a frown. ‘Dreams are very personal.’
Collette’s voice curled wickedly in the half-dark belowdecks. ‘As personal as Tarrant?’
Alice squeaked, and felt herself blushing deeply. Oh no. She’d been talking about Tarrant? She had… dreams… about Tarrant. Very specific, non-nightmare dreams that were the sort that made her disappointed to wake up. Alice had learned, though, that Collette was like the boys—she would tease you until you stuck up for yourself. It was odd, but Alice almost understood it; it was still something she was learning, however, and she swallowed hard, gathering her wits about her.
‘Could it be you’re jealous, Collette?’ Alice said, finding herself smiling. There were laughs and calls from the other girls, and Alice knew she’d done well.
‘Jealous of a hatter?’ she shot back with a laugh.
‘He’s more than that,’ Alice said, part of herself relieved that she’d been pushed to finally speak of him. It eased the pain a little. ‘he’s brave, and he saved my life.’
‘Ah, so he’s the mysterious man that saved your life!’ Lani said with a stifled giggle. ‘Only Anand was telling me the other day, when we were talking.’
‘Do you all gossip behind my back?’ Alice was laughing despite herself.
‘You never talk about anything you dream about, we are curious,’ Lao-Min said apologetically.
‘What’s he like, then, this young man of yours?’ It was the first that Matron Hauer had spoken; she was not one to speak often, Alice had learned, though she listened always.
‘He’s…’ Alice hesitated, before going on. ‘He’s got red hair, and green eyes.’
‘Handsome,’ Maggie commented with a wry smile in her voice. ‘Freckles too?’
‘No, no,’ Alice said. ‘He says he’s a hatter, but he made me a dress too, just like that.’ She left out she’d been the size of a mouse at the time.
‘What did he save you from?’ Lao-Min asked eagerly, always keen on tales of romance.
‘Oh well,’ Alice said, at a loss. ‘There was a…’ War. There was a war and he was the leader of the rebels, and risked life and limb for me in the face of terrible danger from a tyrant and various savage beasts. And there is no way you are going to be able to make that into a story that could have happened in your boring normal life, Alice. Don’t try. ‘I’d… rather not talk about it,’ she finished lamely, rolling over. ‘Good night.’
‘Time! Please, please let me—‘
‘Mmm, such pretty begging, Tarrant…’
‘Harder, perhaps? A faster tempo?’
‘Ah, beautiful creature. Do you know, love, how pretty you are?’
‘Please, Time, please…’
‘Beg, love, beg for it!’
‘I have been, slurke—nunz! Please, Time! Pleasepleasepleasepleeeeeeeeasewithsugarbits!’
Time turned his head, laying the softest of kisses on the inside of Tarrant’s leg, both of which were resting on Time’s broad, rounded shoulders. He moved again, and reached one hand down almost carelessly, snapping off the ring of bone around Tarrant’s length and savouring the explosive effect. The arch, the tossing head of curls…
Time drew his breath in a hiss as he felt his own rush of pleasure, delicious colours dancing in his skin, his whole body screaming with sensation, though he himself gave voice to nothing but a quiet hum as he held Tarrant’s hips flush to his own, the rings on his fingers flashing with riotous hues. Sighing, watching his hatter—his—through eyes nearly closed with pleasure, Time was content to see the little twitches—perfect little twitches, each timed to precisely one-and-one-fifth of a second. He carefully set Tarrant’s legs back down on the grass, leaning over him, hands on either side of the orange curls.
‘My beautiful Tarrant,’ he purred, finally granting him their first kiss in centuries.
The hatter’s moan was delicious.
Chapter 6: In Which Alice Finds Out the Indians Aren't Indians, the Banished Grow Used to Their Lot, and Tarrant Doesn't Say No
It had been six months now, and Alice was tanned and could curse fluently in three languages, and was working on four. She knew most of the shanties, and could boast she’d been around the coast of Africa, could tie off a line and hold her own in a fight. She’d gotten frustrated with her hair and had the sawbones crop it short, so the wind wouldn’t blow it into her eyes; she wasn’t the only one—most of the other women had short hair, even Lao-Min.
When they passed the equator, Alice found herself pressed into a ceremony for her ‘crossing the line’, and held down as the captain pierced her ear, putting a glass hoop through it. From what Alice heard from the male sailors, this was incredibly mild. Svan had horrific tales of when he’d crossed the equator, and so did the former English Navy men. Alice was increasingly glad her captain was an Indian man, the more the men told her about other ships.
Another thing Alice loved about being a sailor was all the singing; she loved nothing more than when Malii would strike up a song in her sharp timbre, or when Svan’s booming voice would sound over the decks, rumbling to your very bones. Collette and Will had bawdy songs in Cajun and French, and Mr Langley, the Quartermaster, even struck up a song that was enough to make Alice blush red (and Collette fall down from laughing at her)—even after all she’d heard, it was quite lusty.
The dolphins were thick around the ship’s wake when they reached the equator again, and the sea was calm, so there was time to watch them frolic. When there was the sound of running steps, Alice turned from the starboard railing just in time to see Lani balance for a moment on the rails beside Alice, naked as a jay, before she launched into the water. Looking over the side, Alice watched fearfully—and then saw Lani’s head surface, her face laughing. As adept at swimming as a sailor had to be, there was still the half-formed ‘Man Overboard!’ cry of alarm on Alice’s lips when she’d seen the woman launch into the water.
‘What the bloody hell is she at?’ Alice asked in a voice half-scared and half-irked, when Svan came up beside her. She’d barely spoken when there was another splash from the port side of the ship. Svan laughed, a hand on her shoulder.
‘Just watch, Kingsleigh.’
Lani raised a hand to her lips and gave a strangely musical whistle, clicking and squealing, the dolphins seeming to understand.
‘She’s talking to them,’ Alice breathed.
‘You’re faster than the rest of us,’ Svan said, impressed. ‘Took me damn near an hour to figure she was talkin’ to ‘em.’
Alice didn’t say she thought it was perhaps her time in Underland that made it seem first to come to mind, talking to animals; but she turned, looking across the deck as she spoke again. ‘Who was that, diving off to port?’
‘First Mate,’ Svan said. ‘Bones and Cap’n talk to ‘em too. It’s how they are, them people.’
The old sailor gave his rumbling laugh again. ‘I forget ye’ve never met a real Indian. Nah, ain’t Indians, they only say so.’
Alice was about to ask further, her curiosity so piqued she could taste it, when she heard the captain call her name.
‘Kingsleigh! Crow’s nest!’
As the months wore on, Iracebeth and Stayne grew used to their new fate as dogsbodies for Muirran Haetopp. They came to know she was the weaver for the shire of Snarksaede, which apparently covered as much land as Salazen Grum and Marmoreal put together, but was only inhabited by about forty people—and she was the weaver for them all. Stayne and Iracebeth learned how to herd sheep, how to give commands to the watchdog (who was also, apparently, a sheepdog); and it was eye-opening for Iracebeth especially, to know how much work went into making cloth. It wasn’t just weaving that Muirran did—there were vats of reeking, bubbling dye, and the carding and spinning to make yarn to weave, and birthing lambs and shearing in the spring… the work was endless.
Stayne wasn’t in his element, but Iracebeth took well to the work, strangely enough. She seemed to gain some sort of purpose, and liked best the blood and mess of birth.
‘I nevew knew,’ she said one day, as she was shoulder-deep in a ewe. ‘that healing was so delightfully messy, Stayne. Miwana nevew said. Got it!’ she said triumphantly, as she caught hold of the unborn lamb’s other hoof and pulled.
Stayne was holding the ewe, and raised a brow curiously. ‘You like mess?’
‘Oh yes,’ Iracebeth said happily, as she wiped the afterbirth off the lamb with a handful of hay. ‘I love mess, Stayne. Especially the sticky, wawm kind.’
Stayne thought this rather explained a lot of things as he watched the lamb sneeze, shakily get to its feet, and stumble over to nose at its mother, bleating pitifully.
Time had stopped, but it was in the most delicious way, with endless evenings that gave way to mornings that were just as lovely, that eased into afternoons and sparkling sunsets on the beach of fine sand and the sea that was Time’s back garden. Endless hours of Time’s riddles and conversation, his perfect voice singing the old songs that had been forgotten, the throbbing ones that came in time to the sea, the ones that sang to the wind and the sky and the rain and all things that folk had forgotten how to understand. Time knew them all, and Tarrant could sit for hours and listen to him sing.
And then there was the sex. Tarrant had taken to honey in his tea to soothe his throat, and had taken a leave of absence from Mirana’s court—something of which she was, thankfully, entirely understanding. After all, it had been the romance of the millennium, and everyone remembered what had happened the moment Time had first seen Tarrant, in the court of the White Queen. There had been interrupts, gasps, and the sun moving backwards quite a few hours in the sky just so Time could see ‘all that lovely hair’ by morning light. The steps of courtship had been perfectly timed, of course, each one coming at just the right moment, never too soon or too late. They’d nearly been married when Horunvendush Day had arrived.
Tarrant shook the thought away, frowning, and Time put an arm around him.
‘Are you well, lover?’
‘Bad memories…’ Tarrant muttered. ‘I’m fine.’
Time tapped his long-stemmed pipe against the steps, going about the process of cleaning the bowl; Tarrant was surprised—had he been lost in memories that long? When last he’d looked, Time had been just beginning his after-supper smoke. Now the dark blue smoke was a faint haze in the air, its heady smell clinging to everything it touched. Absolem’s smoke, most people knew it as—Tarrant had always known it as Time’s.
‘Kiss me properly, Tarrant.’ Time’s face had changed again, the smudges beneath his eye shimmering in the same colours as the sunset around them, only the sun was Time’s eye, gold and glittering. Tarrant kissed him, trembling, still in disbelief that he’d been forgiven, accepted back into Time’s warm, soft arms and into his heart once more.
A soft hum from Time, and Tarrant melted, a shivering mess in his lover’s arms. Breaking the kiss, Time trailed his lips along the hatter’s pale jaw and down his neck, savouring the mews and moans, the way Tarrant’s hands fluttered over Time’s shoulders…
‘Time…’ Tarrant’s voice was high and light again, though unmarred with the fashionable (well, for about two hundred years ago) lisp he’d taken up to disguise his identity from the Red Queen. ‘Time… Time—oh!’ A giggle. ‘Naughty.’
‘I’ve missed how you say my name, Tarrant,’ Time murmured into the softness of the hatter’s skin. Oh, his favourite spot, how could he have forgotten? Time nuzzled it happily, for the moment forgetting his machinations and instead remembering when he’d not been mad, when he’d been able to let go and lose himself in moments or days or lips all soft from kissing (those were best). Blissful, he burrowed his face in Tarrant’s neck, delighting when his hatter's gasps turned to giggles.
‘What’re ye doing?’ Tarrant said as he lost his balance, falling into the soft sand. He didn’t expect an answer, his heart nearly breaking at the sound of Time laughing—laughing! Time hadn’t laughed yet since they’d reunited, only smiled or chuckled or smirked or—it was beautiful. Tarrant had missed it.
‘Stay with me,’ Time said, serious as he held himself over Tarrant, eyes dark and brows tilted up with worry. ‘Please, Tarrant, stay with me always.’
Tarrant couldn’t say no.
Chapter 7: In Which Stayne and His Employer Set Out to Find Tarrant and Alice Figures Out She is a He
Stayne finally got a chance to talk to Muirran alone on a warm summer day, while Iracebeth was out with the sheep. The Outlander was sitting at her loom, weaving as she sang to herself; Stayne recognised the pattern of the tartan (he had a good memory for details), and finally found the courage to ask as he fed the fire carefully.
‘Have you family in Witzend?’ he asked in Outlandish, knowing the weaver’s Underlandian wasn’t very good. Muirran froze, her shuttle nearly clattering to the floor. When she spoke, her voice was a low growl.
‘Ye killed them all.’
Stayne winced at that; what could he say, though? That he’d been following orders? That his family had all but sold him to Iracebeth, that they might spare his father’s life? That he had no choice but to do as the Queen commanded, until she bade him cease? All were mimsy excuses, especially in the face of losing one’s entire family—or a large part of it. Stayne would know—the Queen of Hearts had sentenced most of his to death, and Iracebeth had picked the rest off one by one over the years of her reign.
‘He…’ Stayne forced himself to go on. ‘He wears that pattern you’re weaving. He’s a hatter.’ He didn’t look at her, keeping his eye on the fire. ‘Tarrant Hightopp.’
There was a choked noise. ‘Tarrant!’ Muirran’s voice was disjointed, like broken pottery. ‘My brother’s son! He’s alive?’
‘Yes.’ Stayne was sure the hatter still was, for there was nothing in Underland to have slain him now that Frabjous Day, and the reign of the Red Queen, was over. ‘I faced him in battle,’ he added, knowing enough about the Outlands to know battle-prowess was admirable. ‘He’s a true Outlandish warrior.’
‘Course he is!’ Muirran seemed fierce and pleased at the same time, getting up from her stool; Stayne turned to look at her, and she motioned him up. ‘Up, get up! Take me to him.’
The knave blinked a few times, not really processing the words. ‘Take you…?’
‘Aye!’ she said, pulling him. ‘Come on, ye long-shanked bastard! Do ye know we’ve been thinkin’ all the Witzend Haetopps dead all this time?’
Stayne was in shock as she yanked him outside, nearly cracking his head on the lintel of the door. He ducked just in time. ‘Muirran, I’m banished,’ he felt he should point out. ‘I can’t return to—’
‘Hang them for a skein of string!’ Muirran said, her eyes flashing from green to yellow as she dragged him down to the stable. ‘You’ll take me and if anyone gives ye trouble they’ll answer to me!’ Raising her hand, she whistled sharply, the sound carrying a far distance in the treeless moorland.
At first, Stayne thought the whistle was to summon Iracebeth, who was so far off her red hair looked like a speck among the fleecy white covering one side of the hill; but the watchdog was the one who came, loping easily and moving faster than should have been possible—but Time did fly, and watchdogs could.
‘Mistress?’ he said, panting as he trotted toward them.
‘Tarrant’s alive,’ Muirran informed him. ‘We’re goin’ to him. Mind the house, and Beth.’
The watchdog’s tail was wagging furiously, as he licked his mistress’ hands, whining and dancing around happily. ‘Bring him home!’ he begged. ‘Pleeease please please…’
Muirran laughed. ‘Down, pup!’ she teased, scratching his ears. ‘Stayne, fetch Keavhy from the stable. Ye’ll be walkin’, I’m afraid.’
There was only one horse, Stayne knew there was nothing for it and didn’t really mind. He could keep up with Keavhy’s ambling gait easily with his long legs, and was used to walking long distances over rough terrain after months in the Outlands.
Still, it was strange to know that they were leaving, and Stayne was concerned about Iracebeth alone out here; startled when he realised he was worried about her safety, as well as the sheep and the house and the watchdog (whose name was completely unpronounceable, even to Stayne). He’d never really worried about Iracebeth before, it was odd. Stayne was distracted as he went into the dark of the stone stable.
‘Keavhy,’ he called. ‘We’re going east.’
‘What?’ the gelding said, as he came out from his stall. ‘East? There’s nothing there but wasteland.’
‘And Underland,’ Stayne couldn’t help saying.
‘Like I said, nothing but wasteland,’ he said smugly, switching Stayne with his tail as he passed. Stayne couldn’t help laughing as he followed.
It had been the strangest month of Alice's life. She’d gotten angry three times at three different people and cursed them in not English, Cajun or even Chinese, but Outlandish. She’d started having terrible dreams about Tarrant, mostly involving him getting slain or her marrying Hamish, or finding Tarrant in Bedlam. Alice was just glad she wasn’t the sort to wake up screaming.
It wasn’t the dreams that bothered her so much as the temper—she knew she’d always had one, but lately… perhaps it was feeling she was finally strong again, respected, only to have it thrown in her face. She wasn’t sure. She already knew how to deal with the surges of mood that came with her monthly problem (and she’d always thought of it as a problem, which seemed to startle the other women), but that wasn’t it…
Captain Jaya was on deck that night, Alice on her first night watch. There was no lookout at night, so she was helping the few men on the skeleton crew with whatever was needed. Jaya was at the wheel, and watched her work quietly for a few moments, before she nearly started a fight with Robert Cross for the fourth time in as many days.
‘Kingsleigh!’ he called down.
Alice whirled, and stomped across the deck angrily, coming up to him. ‘Yes. Sir,’ she ground out, obviously reining in her temper just so. Jaya pulled his waterskin from his hip, offering it.
‘Have a drink, have a breath.’ It was something he told his crew often, when their nerves were worn thin. Alice couldn’t help the frown melting from her face, and the relief. She took a long drink of the sweet water, grateful.
‘You’ve been tetchy, lately,’ Jaya said, eyes turning back to the horizon, weathered hands turning the wheel just a tiny bit to port. ‘Malii says you’ve begun having nightmares…’
Alice bit her lip, unsure what to say—how to even explain herself. Still, the Captain wasn’t being accusing, he never was; contrariwise, he sounded worried.
‘I just don’t like being reminded I’m a girl,’ Alice found herself saying, confused even as she said it. ‘It’s….’ She trailed off, the thought unfinished.
‘What about the other girls?’
Alice shook her head. ‘It isn’t that. They’re… they’re proper girls.’ She gave a mirthless little laugh, a hand on her face. ‘I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean!’
‘I think I do.’
Alice swung around to look at him, startled. ‘You do?’
‘Perhaps you aren’t a girl,’ he said simply.
Alice was struck dumb with the Underlandian logic in that, and stared at him for a few long moments. ‘Tarrant always called me a boy,’ she realised, eyes widening as she looking into the middle distance.
‘Sometimes those who know us see it first.’
‘He believed I could slay, too!’ Alice went on, too excited to be afraid of being thought mad. ‘Even when I said I couldn’t; and even when everyone else said I was the wrong Alice, he knew that I was absolutely—’ her voice caught in her throat, ‘A-absolutely Alice,’ and she swallowed the lump that had appeared there.
I’d know him anywhere!
Wiping her tears, trying to press them down forcefully, Alice couldn’t help sniffing. ‘Yes?’
‘We can go to where he is. This is an exploratory voyage.’
Alice shook her head. ‘We can’t. It’s not—not on a map.’
There was a smile in the captain’s voice as he answered. ‘Neither is our next port.’
Chapter 8: In Which We Meet Two Spades, the Wonder Arrives in Asniir and Stayne et al Find Tarrant
The messenger wore colours not seen for many centuries in Underland, at least not together. Likewise, the painted face and the cold, clever smile full of poison-knife promises had been absent for so long it was thought mere legend. He rode on a white horse with black caparison, the rider’s standard held high and proud at the end of his spear. Unlike the white horses in the Marmoreal stables, this one had a mane and tail black as night.
Nivens raced through the corridors, his claws scrabbling for hold every time he skidded around a corner. ‘Your Majesty!’ he panted, as he ran into her private corridor. ‘Your Majesty!’
Mirana had risen from her sofa by the time he got to her parlour door, smiling down at her right-hand bishop, a glass of water already in her hand for him. ‘Nivens, there’s no need to run so quickly!’ she assured him. He was always in such a hurry….
‘Your Majesty…’ the rabbit gasped, his ears back in fear. ‘The Spades have sent their envoy!’
The glass of water fell to the floor, shattering. The Spades; Mirana felt the blood drain from her face, her hands feeling cold. Already one of her pawns was cleaning the mess, and she was so flustered she nearly forgot to thank him as she floated past. Nivens and the pawn exchanged a worried look, before the rabbit loped out of the room to follow his queen.
He didn’t blame her for her reaction, of course—he knew but little of the Spades, they had been banished well before his grandfather’s time; but what little he did know had given him nightmares when he’d heard it. Oh, not as bloody as the infamous Queen of Hearts, nor Iracebeth herself; but it was only because the Spades were so terribly efficient. None of their own subjects had ever risen against them, for the Dread Cardians ruled with a fist of cold iron. It wasn’t tales of the Red Queen that haunted the nightmares of the children of Underland, it was the flashing, death-cold Spear of Spades, held in the inexorable hands of their King (or Queen, it depended on the storyteller).
The armoured envoy waited in the courtyard, dressed in fine black and white—though the white on him felt… a different shade. Marmoreal, the White Palace of the Chessians, was a healing white, of purity and light. The white of the Spades was that of death, of cold; and their black, the colour of fear.
Even the smile that the envoy gave was chilling, as he dismounted. His pointed boots clicked like bone on the pave-stone as he met Mirana, giving a deferential bow.
‘White Queen Mirana, I am Trephan, the Knave of Spades.’
‘Well met,’ Mirana said, wishing her voice did not sound quite so faint. She felt rather sick even being in the presence of a Spade, let alone having one kiss her hand. Forcing down the bile in her throat, she tried to smile. ‘To what do we owe this—honour?’
‘Frabjous Day, of course,’ Trephan answered, leaning casually on his spear. He cast a nonchalant gaze on Nivens, who was already hyperventilating, and there was a sadistic smile on his lips when the rabbit fainted dead away. It vanished in a moment, however, leaving one wondering if it had been there at all, and he returned his gaze to Mirana. ‘the Imposter is dead—‘
‘Oh no, not dead!’ Mirana rushed to explain. ‘Only banished to the Outlands. My vows prevent me from harming living things.’
The look in Trephan’s black eyes was very like confusion and pity. ‘Never?’ he asked, his voice sounding rather child-like in its confusion. ‘Never, ever?’
‘No!’ Mirana exclaimed. ‘Never.’
The Knave’s brows raised quite high, nearly disappearing into his hairline. He was dumbfounded for a few long moments, until Mirana prompted gently,
‘Yes!’ he said, shaking his head to clear it, though he still couldn’t help staring at her in wonder. ‘The Imposter is banished, and the Spades shall rule Crims and Queast once more, as is their right.’
‘Rule… Crims?’ Mirana was horrified. She knew how the Spades ruled—they made her sister’s reign look like child’s play. Yet… she couldn’t deny them, for it was, as Trephan had said, their right. ‘I…’ she felt faint, imagining the shadow that would fall across the lands, the endless night and darkness, while unspeakable things lurked to feast their fill on blood and fear and worser things.
‘Majesty,’ came a sly voice, and Mirana turned gratefully to the sight of her left-hand bishop, Rufan. The silver fox seemed unperturbed by the Knave, giving him a curling smile and a slightly mocking bow. ‘I came as quickly as I could, Majesty, forgive my lateness—but perhaps consulting the Oraculum would soothe any lingering… misunderstandings?’ His golden eyes slitted as his smile widened. ‘I believe it was taken back from the Castle Crims by one of the freed prisoners…’ he trailed off. He knew very well who had slipped into the queen’s throne room while she’d been occupied with the uprising, rolled up the Compendium, and slipped away to Marmoreal with nary a care for the folderol in the Red Queen’s courtyard.
‘A wonderful idea,’ Mirana said immediately, giving Rufan a grateful smile.
‘Ah yes,’ Trephan said softly, bowing his head. ‘of course. It has been long centuries since we have consulted the Oraculum. I would fain see it, for I never have.’ His long hand gestured elegantly toward the Great Hall. ‘Lead on, Your Majesty, if you feel it best.’
As he followed, however, Trephan studied the back of the fox with eyes slightly narrowed. He wasn’t sure whether he wished to kill this piece, or praise his opponent’s move. Still, it was not as though the Chessians could stand against their army. None stood against the Spades and yet lived.
…Well, there might be one….
It was near morning when Alice scampered down the rigging that looked fragile as a spider’s web with nary a thought as to how terrifying it had been the first few times he’d done it. There had been land in the dawn light, and he wanted to see for sure; his boots—almost broken-in but not quite—raced across the deck on his way to the captain’s cabin. Jaya had only just gone to sleep an hour before, but Alice needed to borrow his telescope and knocked on the door.
Alice heard him stir, and he was opening the door in a trice, somehow completely awake. Seeing Alice, he blinked a few times.
‘It’s not even dawn yet.’
‘I think I saw land, may I please borrow the telescope?’ Alice asked eagerly. ‘Please, I haven’t raised the cry yet, I want to be sure.’
Jaya laughed gently. ‘Of course…’
Careful of the telescope on his way back up the rigging, Alice perched in the crow’s nest and unfolded the telescope, pointing it north-north-east and peering across the grey waters, which were already lightening with dawn’s first sleepy breaths of light.
There was the sparkle Alice knew was glass; he focussed the telescope again, trying to get a surer look. There! Alice felt his heart leap—the land that didn’t exist! It took him several seconds to muster his voice, and it cracked a little as he rose up the triumphant cry.
He folded up the telescope, racing back down. ‘Land!’ he cried again, ‘Land!’ He offered the telescope to Jaya, the captain only half-dressed as he walked barefoot across the deck. ‘There, sir!’ he pointed.
Jaya looked for himself, and gave a nod as he folded the telescope once more. ‘Aye, we’ll be home soon.’ His… entire being seemed infused with joy, Alice noticed; if this were Underland, he might have Futterwackened (was that the proper conjugation? Alice wondered).
In only a few hours the sun had fully risen, and the full crew was on deck. Alice helped all he could, but it was a tricky thing, with the reef, and so he mostly tried to stay out of the way, watching the approaching shore. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be any docks—Alice couldn’t see any ships anchored in the harbour, only small canoes and outriggers. And the deadly reef was thick and so close to the surface, the water frothing with the movements of the dolphins that had been following them steadily since they’d left the coast of Africa to stern.
‘But how are we to get there?’ Alice wondered to himself, worried as he looked from reef to shore and then over his shoulder to the crew, rushing around and doing the subtler work Alice hadn’t learned, things like tacking and heaving to and oh, they were very close to that reef…. Alice looked back to the crew again, watching First Mate Anand and Captain Jaya barking orders as quick as you please, racing hither and thither, Malii working quickly, hauling sail and letting sheet fly to slow the ship’s progress.
‘Let fly that line, Mister Merritt!’ Malii called, half-suspended by the ropes as she pulled.
‘No good, Malii! Wear ship!’ The captain’s voice boomed across the deck, and Alice wondered what it meant, wearing ship. He was sure it had been mentioned before, now when was it…
‘Kingsleigh!’ screamed Lao-Min, and Alice looked up just in time to see the Chinese girl drop on him, knocking them both flat to the deck just in time for the boom to come flying over them with ominous creaking. Alice watched in a kind of daze, still in shock. If he hadn’t been knocked down, he would have been beheaded….
He started laughing without knowing quite why—it wasn’t that amusing, the idea that only last year a despotic tyrant had ordered that very thing, and just now, if Lao-Min hadn’t noticed him—Alice laughed harder, even as Lao-Min quickly climbed off him, and he was terrified to find he couldn’t stop.
Lao-Min wasn’t sure what to do; Alice wasn’t well, and she wasn’t sure why—Alice was always a little odd, true; but never like this before. ‘Alice!’ she tried desperately, shaking the other’s shoulder. ‘Alice!’ It wasn’t working, and Lao-Min looked around, frantic. ‘Bones!’ she finally cried. ‘Bones!’
Collette knew panic when she heard it—and that laughter wasn’t mirth. She was already on her way over when Lao-Min began calling—screaming—for the sawbones. The ship wasn’t in such immediate danger now, the strong wind that had carried them toward the reef now blowing them sideways, safely away. Collette crouched and checked Lao-Min over, before turning to Alice, who was still in the clutches of panicked laughter. Only one thing for it…
Alice stopped laughing, the slap startling him back into breathing. He gasped for breath, before looking up at his shipmate; Collette’s hand was still raised, and her dark brows were arched.
‘You need another?’
Alice shook his head, still finding his breath. ‘I’m fine,’ he wheezed, then choked back another sound that may have wanted to be a laugh, or a sob—he couldn’t tell. He got to his feet with the two girls, checking his hands for splinters and picking them out.
‘Don’t get into one of your daydreams at a time like this!’ Collette scolded, her voice sharp. ‘Didn’t you hear the captain call gybe-ho?’
‘I’m sorry, Collette—’
‘Shut it, you two!’ barked a nearby sailor—Alice remembered his name was Cross, which seemed fitting at the moment. ‘Saint,’ he snapped to Collette, which was short for the girl’s surname, which was… saint something, Alice couldn’t ever keep things like that straight. ‘Ready the longboat if you want to help. Cap’n’ll want it soon.’
Tarrant woke suddenly, sure he’d heard an unfamiliar voice calling familiar words. What someone, though? He sat up, feeling uncomfortably as though he’d forgotten something important, and—without really knowing why—wandered out to the waves, padding barefoot across the powdery sand, the breeze soft on his bare skin.
There were people. Tarrant paused at the sight of the little party some ways down the beach, one very tall figure worrying him; but there was someone else, someone shorter with flaming orange curls and the Hightopp pattern, running across the sand and knocking him to the ground with the force of her embrace.
‘Tarrant!’ she held him tightly, her Outlandish thick with tears. ‘Tarrant—Tarrant—oh, lord, look at ye—’ She sniffled, letting him up and wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. ‘Oh, you have Donvall’s cheeks, sure as ferrets’r ferrets ye do!’ She hugged him again, sobbing. ‘You’re alive!’
Her hair tickled his face, the scent of it surrounding him, and something clicked in his mind. The smell of sheep, and of crisp hay and oats…
‘Aunt Muirran,’ Tarrant made the words without really realising what he said—then he heard them. ‘Aunt Muirran!’ he finally looked at her, before hugging back. ‘What—you got away over the mountains?’
‘Aye,’ she said, with a watery smile. ‘And you?’
‘Just me,’ Tarrant said, the bittersweetness of it dampening his joy. ‘and by a bit of luck, and all.’
‘Better one than none,’ she said, quoting an old Outlandish saying. ‘Och, Tarrant…’ She held him tightly, beyond words. He finally had a moment to see Stayne, however, and felt rage bleed into his eyes.
‘What is he doin’ here?’ he growled, his embrace turning protective.
‘He’s my manservant.’
There was a silence, as Tarrant looked from Stayne to his aunt, to Stayne in his homespun tunic and trews, to his aunt, back to Stayne…
‘You know you’re giving me quite a lovely view,’ Stayne said idly, leaning on the horse beside him, who whickered amusedly.
‘Aye, well, Outlandish men,’ the gelding said with a satisfied nod.
‘Not what I meant.’
‘Is whatcha meant, ye eastern pansy.’
They hit the sand just as a glass knife whistled past where Tarrant’s head had been, the hollow blade shattering with a hiss of its deadly contents as it hit the ground.
‘Get inside!’ Stayne yelled. ‘Run!’ He knew those blades, and their wielder—he knew them very well. He should, for the assassin had his eye as trophy around her neck. He looked toward the source, knowing the ace had evaporated already, but heard her again, snapping into view just in front of Tarrant, her favourite weapon raised, the manic grin that greeted all her targets pulling the two Outlanders up short.
Stayne was already bolting, had started the minute he realised Tarrant was her target, since she never missed, but it was too late—the blade came down with the speed of bloodlust and—stopped.
Everything, for a moment, stopped—the sea, the wind, sound, smell, everything.
Time stood perfectly balanced on the low wall of his back garden, as naked as Tarrant was, teacup and saucer poised in his hands, his skin full of stark, terrifying colours that Stayne didn’t have a name for but Time itself, in all his unfathomable muchness. For long moments—decades, possibly aeons—Stayne couldn’t breathe, and saw the beach’s entire life from this point onward, moving feverish fast without moving at all, the ocean tireless in its pursuit up and down the beach, the mountains in the distance shifting and crumbling, the sky going horribly sideways for a moment and then—Time blinked, and all but the Ace of Spades moved once more, and he was no longer on the wall but beside them.
‘What,’ he said softly, though his voice carried. ‘is all of this?’ He plucked the dagger from the assassin’s ebony fingers, and regarded first his lover, then Muirran and Keavhy, before his eyes came to rest on Stayne. ‘Cardian. You are banished.’
‘He’s my bluddy cairdhaen,’ Muirran said stoutly, folding her arms. If she’d seen the same horrific visions as Stayne, she didn’t show it. ‘I know very well he’s banished. Now what, if I may ask, is goin’ on?’ she too looked to Stayne. ‘Who’s that?’ she jerked her head to the time-frozen cardian.
‘That’s Misericordea.’ Stayne tried to keep his voice steady as he gazed upon her, and swallowed hard. His sister, she was his sister, though there was no loyalty between them anymore—not since both had pledged themselves to their Monarchs—Stayne to Latericia, of Hearts; and his sister to the House of Spades.
Muirran let out a string of curses, looking curiously at the slender little assassin. ‘This is the Dark Mercy, then…?’ she murmured wonderingly. Keavhy snorted.
‘Thought she’d be taller.’
‘She tried to kill my Tarrant,’ Time said quietly.
‘He’s not your Tarrant, he’s our Tarrant, and he’s comin’ home wi’ me!’
The teacup was set down on the saucer with audible clink. Tarrant went pale, knowing what it meant when Time let his crockery make noise. ‘Time!’ he said quickly. ‘Time it’s quite breakfast, we’ll all feel better after breakfast, don’t ye think?’
There was a long pause, before Time picked up his teacup again, a smile gracing his thin lips. He turned. ‘Come inside, as the Knave said. And leave that,’ he looked disgustedly at the assassin. ‘I will deal with it later.’
Chapter 9: In Which the Crew Goes Ashore, 'Banished' is Mistaken for 'Killed', Stayne Explains the Aesthetics of the Black Cardians, and Alice Accidentally Sends the Wonder to Underland by Dreaming Too Hard; Also Snarks
'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,' - Robert Burns, To a Mouse
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They sailed around the reef carefully, Malii and the others directing most of the activity. Alice made sure to pay careful attention, despite there being little for him to do. When the other ships came into view, seemingly anchored outside the reef itself, Alice saw the Indians-that-were-not-really-Indians paddling toward them in the narrow, fast-moving fishing boats nearby, or flying across the waves in the wide outriggers, steering the sails by hand. The dolphins streaked away, into the lagoon, and the first of the fishing boats came close enough for Alice to make it out.
It was made entirely of green glass. Alice stared, his mouth dropping open. The boat was made of glass. The whole boat. The weather-aged old woman inside smiled up at him as she paddled through the water, moving fluidly with the swells, her eyes sparkling with vivid orange-yellow.
Startled, despite himself, at a native speaking such perfect English, Alice shook his head slightly, blinked, and recovered himself. ‘Good morning!’ he called back politely. ‘I’m Alice.’
‘I’m called Ni’kali,’ she returned, circling. ‘Come down. I will take you to the island.’
Alice hesitated, looking over his shoulder to see Anand had come up.
‘Grandmother!’ the first mate cried happily, as he spotted Ni’kali.
‘Your… grandmother?’ Alice said, surprised. He couldn’t imagine anyone’s grandmother running about wrapped in so little, let alone paddling a boat in the ocean.
‘Come, come!’ Anand pulled Alice from the railing, laughing. ‘You must get ready to go ashore!’
Alice laughed, letting Anand pull him across the deck. The Wonder was securely anchored now, from the look of things, and the activity was far more like Anand’s excitement. The crew were lowering the rowboats and Alice got a spot in the first one after getting his rucksack. As for the First Mate, Lani and a few others—they simply launched into the waves again; only this time, it was for play. There were whistles from them and the dolphins, and Alice finally got impatient with the speed of the boat, wanting to join the swimmers in the water. A freckly dolphin was keeping time with the boat, one eye looking mischievously at him—or perhaps it was that all dolphins looked mischievous.
‘There’s a lot of things on this island aren’t good for a lady,’ muttered one of the sailors, watching Alice with one beady eye. Alice ignored him, but the words stung badly—especially now that he knew he wasn’t a lady, he wasn’t even a girl.
‘Oh shut it, will you?’ Langley drawled, manning the oars that were drawing them toward the island. The clear water made the teeming, colourful fish and coral visible below the surface. Alice had never known coral was from living things—and what things! They looked so strange and… Alice winced as a now-familiar pang shot through his chest, taking his hand from the water. Underland. Why did everything remind him of Underland? He slipped his dry hand into his satchel, pushing through his box of pencils, past his diary and clothes to close around the phial of Jabberwocky blood. He held the bag to his chest, looking at the approaching island, and tried desperately not to think of Upelkuchen, or the strangely exhilarating dropping feeling of shrinking, or riding on dogs, or slaying, or tea parties…
Trephan whispered his message to the raven, before the bird took off into the air, winging toward Crims. The Knave watched her go, before turning to see his horse had come up behind, another with it; a black stallion, one that looked like a Cardian breed.
‘Who is this, Hyn?’ Trephan asked, folding his arms and tilting his head slightly.
Hyn flicked his tail, nudging the strange horse. ‘Nymnurro, lately mount of Ilosovic Stayne.’
Stayne? Trephan was intrigued—he remembered Stayne quite well, oh yes. ‘Pity about your rider,’ he said, his voice not quite achieving sympathy. The stallion drooped a little.
‘I hope he’s doing all right out there,’ he said in a low voice. Trephan perked a little.
‘He’s alive?’ He wished he hadn’t sent his raven just yet—that was news. ‘By the Glaive! Where? What happened?’
‘He was banished,’ Nym answered, confused. ‘Didn’t the Queen tell you?’
‘Banished?’ Trephan’s black eyes snapped narrow. ‘She has no jurisdiction over Cardians, the little—Majesty!’ he whirled to see her coming into the little courtyard. ‘I was just about to come find you; I’m afraid,’ his smile got a little more sharp-edged. ‘there’s been an egregious mistake on your part, in the banishment of Ilosovic Stayne.’
The fear the White Queen attempted to hide was enough to make it very hard for Trephan to concentrate.
‘Ah?’ she managed. ‘How so?’
‘He is not under your jurisdiction, as your sister is.’
‘He was her subject.’
‘He was a Cardian. He was not her subject.’
‘But my sister—’ Mirana hesitated, realising if she was the one to tell them of Iracebeth’s treachery, she would be the one with blood on her hands. ‘I’m sorry,’ she amended. ‘It all happened so quickly, and he had done such damage to my kingdom….’
‘Of course, of course,’ Trephan said, surprisingly understanding, almost friendly. ‘You wanted your revenge. How better than to send him away to be killed by the elements?’ He laughed. ‘Ah, I see how you work now, Majesty.’
‘No! No, I sent them to the Outlands because…’ Because they would be cold and hungry and—oh my, did I really kill them? ‘Oh no…’ she breathed, feeling pale and cold again, hands on her face as she stared in horror. ‘No, no… I didn’t mean that. I only wanted to send them away, and the Outlands…’
‘Do we have permission to find him?’ Nymnurro asked, hoping that would snap the Queen out of it. He didn’t hate her, he had been in her stables since Frabjous Day, and she’d been very sure to treat him kindly. At the Queen’s trembling nod, the stallion had to work hard to keep from prancing like a colt. ‘Well, then we’ll find him. He’s not dead, you don’t know him like I do,’ he added cheerfully.
Sipping his tea, feeling more than a little cramped in such close quarters, Stayne found himself describing his sister to the group clustered around Time’s dining table.
‘She’s apparently done something more to her limbs,’ he said, thoughtfully sipping. This garnered a lot of odd stares, even from Time.
‘More?’ Tarrant asked, looking out the window. ‘Odd’s bobs, she’s got eight eyes and pointed teeth!’
‘And her mouth is black,’ Muirran added in Outlandish, sounding completely unruffled as she spread wishful thinking on her scone. She was pleased that everyone present spoke her native tongue easily—certainly she wasn’t going to learn Underlandian.
Stayne’s high cheeks coloured slightly in embarrassment; he coughed, taking another drink of tea to try and hide the blush. ‘The black cards,’ he began. ‘are fond of… body modification.’
‘Uglification, ye mean,’ Tarrant muttered, sipping his tea.
‘Hush,’ Time admonished, attending Stayne with curiosity. He’d never visited the Cardian court; it seemed a little superfluous when he knew precisely how all the intrigues would ultimately end, having written the Oraculum himself. ‘Modification?’ he prompted, eyes intent.
Stayne shifted his legs. ‘Longer, taller, pierced with quills, skin inlaid with silver wire and gems… Miseri is… extreme, even for a Spade.’
‘Inlaid skin?’ Tarrant stared at him. ‘That’s not extreme?’
Muirran shuddered. Stayne tried not to roll his eyes.
‘It’s pretty,’ he said stubbornly. ‘The knave of clubs had star-wire in intricate whorls all over his…’
‘You’re mad.’ Tarrant interrupted. ‘Absolutely, completely gallymoggers.’
Muirran hid a snigger as Stayne gave Tarrant a deep scowl, before the knave regarded Time.
‘What will you do to her?’
Time raised a brow over his teacup, pouring himself more tea and stirring in milk with graceful movements before answering.
‘Lose her,’ he said simply. Stayne suppressed a shiver. To be Lost was—well, it wasn’t cruel, but it wasn’t kind, either. He nodded.
‘Thank you. She is still my sister.’ Even if she wouldn’t have done the same for him. Before more could be said, there was a shrill sound—a sailor’s whistle. Time set down his teacup, and stood.
The cry of the Champion followed, and Time knew even he couldn’t stop what was written in the Oraculum. Still, he was too mad not to try; he stalked outside, grabbing his cane on his way, his guests following (everyone fully dressed now—Tarrant had changed before breakfast; or rather, he had put on clothes in the first place). Keavhy was running straight for them, his mane and tail streaming in the sea-wind.
‘Saw it that way,’ he said, falling back into his smoother amble as he neared them. ‘Cannae say as to what it is, though.’
‘It’s called a ship,’ Time replied, his voice back to being expressionless, face nearly blank of colour.
Stayne, Muirran and Tarrant barely heard him; no one knew of seafaring in Underland, despite the ocean covering the north coast—there was simply nothing in the Oraculum about journeying over the sea—and to see something huge and looming, floating on the water like… like a duck. A giant, wooden duck with sails like a windmill.
It was completely mad.
Alice had never meant to dream too hard. He wasn’t even aware one could dream too hard; but, he’d apparently dreamed too hard and sent them all back on the ship, in strange waters full of vicious beasts that Alice had never seen before, that were all sharp teeth and milky eyes. Rope wrapped around his waist, balancing on the railing of the ship itself, Alice felt familiar bloodlust as he slashed at the creatures swarming up the sides of the ship. The cutlass wasn’t a Vorpal blade, but it was much better for one-handed wielding in the close quarters of a ship.
It was only after he was covered in purple blood that Alice realised he might be in Underlandian waters. However, there wasn’t time to think more than that, Lao-Min was in trouble, slashed almost to ribbons and quickly losing blood, she couldn’t hold back the surge of sharp-edged little creatures as they climbed over her like spiders. Alice waded through the battle, seeing the rest were busy with their own skirmishes, and started hacking off the creatures. It was difficult not to hit Lao-Min, but Alice got an idea after seeing Malii, only feet away, pry one off her thigh with a fish-hook.
Alice realised he couldn’t cut them off, but he might be able to pull them… Sheathing his sword, Alice grabbed one by its body and yanked; the brittle, sharp legs snapped and the creature gave one of its awful screams as Alice tossed it to the deck, crushing it beneath his boot.
‘Man down!’ Alice cried, pulling frantically at the swarming beasts. ‘Stay awake, Lao-Min!’ he hissed, his movements turning into a pattern of grab-yank-drop-crush.
‘Cold…’ Lao-Min muttered. Eyes fluttering. She was so small, a part of Alice’s mind reminded him, so very small and young. No, he couldn’t give up on her!
‘Man down!’ Alice cried again, harder, surprised at how furious his voice sounded. Risking a glance, he saw the creatures were—thankfully—retreating. What had they been? He’d never dreamt this before—and he was sure he was in his dream, because there were familiar smells, sounds, that couldn’t be replicated. That and—as Malii had angrily pointed out moments before the attack—none of them could remember how they’d gotten off the island and back on the ship.
Purple blood, though… he knew purple blood. The Jabberwocky had purple blood…
‘Malii!’ Alice cried, seeing the woman kneeling next to them. He jumped to his feet, realising how exhausted he was, but kept himself alert. He was used to not having enough sleep by now.
‘Get my kit,’ was all the sawbones snapped, her voice terse. Alice didn’t question, racing across the slippery deck to the cabin with Malii’s surgery. The kit was sealed, full of instruments made of tempered glass, the same kind Malii’s people used for swords, knives, and boats. It was hard as steel, and much sharper.
When Alice got back, Malii was barking orders; there were many wounded, but none so much as the little Chinese girl. The spines and legs of the creatures were still stuck in her, looking like sickly growths. Malii snatched the case from Alice’s hands and opened it, beginning to pull gently at one of the spines with a pair of forceps. It burrowed deeper, and Malii nearly lost her grip on it as it pulled into Lao-Min’s arm.
‘If I pull, she’ll bleed,’ she said, well and truly terrified. ‘If I don’t…’
‘What she needs,’ came a disembodied voice; Alice looked around, startled but not afraid; he knew that voice. ‘Is someone with evaporating skills.’
Two green eyes, a smile, and—in a moment—the teal and grey body of an old friend. Chessur was looking inquisitively at Lao-Min, and Alice didn’t hesitate.
‘You said last time you didn’t want my help,’ the cat pointed out. Alice scowled, trying to be patient. He was a cat, cats needed very delicate handling.
‘A girl’s life is in danger!’ Malii snarled.
‘Malii,’ Alice said, trying to keep calm. He looked to the cat. ‘I’ve learned since then. I’m sorry,’ he said quickly. ‘Now, please Chessur! Quickly!’
He disappeared, and Alice nearly thought he’d decided not to help, before the spines began to vanish one by one, disappearing in wisps of smoke.
‘Who is this?’ Malii asked, more than a little disturbed.
‘A friend,’ Alice said. ‘Chessur-puss,’ he said gently, ‘will you help the others? Only I know you’re the best at evaporating.’ He thought perhaps flattery would help. Cats were prone to vanity, after all.
The cat reappeared, sitting lightly on Lao-Min’s chest as he started on the spines in her face, touching each one with his paw to make it vanish. ‘You are demanding, aren’t you?’
‘Well if it’s too difficult…’ Alice trailed off, ‘I suppose I could find—’
‘It isn’t any such thing!’ Chessur snapped—and just like that, all the spines in anyone were gone in an eye-blink. He glared. Alice only grinned at him, and scratched his ears and jaw. He tried to keep glaring, but melted into a loud purr, eyes squinting closed in a matter of moments.
‘Get off my patient, if you please,’ Malii was barely polite, worried and more than a little nonplussed. Alice’s madness, his dreams… they were real? She startled a little when the cat disappeared.
Lao-Min seemed much improved, though pale; her eyelids fluttered, and she accepted the coconut water Malii pressed to her lips gratefully. As she grew a little stronger, enough to lean on someone and drink for herself, everyone felt a little less tense. Svan replaced Malii in tending Lao-Min, bidding the sawbones tend to the others. He waved aside concern about his own lacerations, assuring her he was fine.
The captain had stayed at the wheel, someone needing to keep the ship from being pulled willy-nilly into strange currents. There may have been reefs, rocks… there were certainly cliffs in the distance. Lani and Anand had been in the rigging, trying to keep the creatures from shredding their sails, and help their captain to steer. The rest of the crew had flooded the deck to help with the swarm of sea-monsters; as they recovered, most eyes turned to Alice.
‘You called them, didn’t you?’ one of the old sailors accused. Alice’s head whipped around, but before he could retort, Cross—surprisingly—leapt to his defence.
‘Don’t be an arse, Chandler,’ he snapped.
‘It’s her dream,’ he snapped. ‘Didn’t ye hear ‘er when we found ourselves back at sea?’
‘I didn’t,’ Alice said, feeling hot and frustrated. ‘do this on purpose!’ He felt his fists clench tightly. ‘Do you really think I’d want any of you to be hurt?’
‘All right,’ drawled Langley. ‘Stop this noisome bickering, or I’ll fetch the cat.’
‘Where is there safe harbour, Alice?’ called Lani, from the rigging. ‘If this is your land?’
‘It isn’t mine,’ Alice insisted. ‘And—’
‘Alice! Alice!’ croaked a voice, as a raven settled on the railing. ‘I hear the name Alice on this sea-house.’ She hopped back and forth, fixing Alice with one black eye. ‘The Alice?’
Alice smirked, his head high. ‘The Alice, one and the same who slew the Jabberwocky and brought the Red Queen’s reign to an end.’
The raven hopped up and took to the air, swooping around the ship. ‘Alice returns!’ she cawed, flying away. ‘Alice returns!’
The captain, Lani, Anand—even Malii—were staring at Alice with awe. Alice suddenly remembered that the natives to their island revered birds as messengers of the gods.
‘Oh,’ he said, thinking quickly. ‘All animals talk in Underland, you know,’ he said, feeling a little embarrassed. It was strange, being the Champion again. He was used to his place among his crew—how was he to reckon being Champion and Lookout of the Wonder?
‘Is that why you weren’t fussed about the dolphins?’ Svan asked with a grin, easing some of the tension.
‘I think we should drop anchor,’ Captain Jaya called, ‘but I wonder if the waters are safe.’
Alice was thinking hard. ‘I… met a mock-turtle once…’ he muttered, trying hard to remember; but his second trip, the one through the looking-glass, had been so confusing… he could barely remember any of it, except for the croquet game. ‘I don’t know,’ he said helplessly. ‘I’m so sorry, I was always inland….’ He looked over the side of the ship, into the waters, then looked toward the shore, about a league away. There were figures on the shore, watching them… Alice thought he saw a flash of orange, and that height was unmistakeable… He looked back to the captain. ‘Drop me in a rowboat. I’ll go ashore.’
‘Not alone, you aren’t,’ Anand dropped to the deck. ‘I’ll go with Alice, Captain.’
‘And me,’ Lani said as she climbed down. At Anand’s look, she raised her dark brows innocently. ‘I speak with many animals already, Anand. Surely I can be useful.’
‘They all speak English,’ Alice said, hiding a smile. ‘Well, they don’t call it English, but it’s English mostly.’
Lani dropped to the deck, eyes shining eagerly. ‘Still,’ she said, going over to help ready the small rowboat, ‘there must be some use for—’
‘Lani, Underland has no gods,’ Alice said, trying to be serious—though he couldn’t help being pleased to be home. Wait, home? The word had just popped into his head, unbidden. He shook it off, promising to look at it later, and continued, ‘the birds talk just the same as the rabbits.’
‘Are there any people at all?’ Langley wondered, curious as he looked toward shore. Alice gave him a hard look.
‘They are people,’ he said severely, ‘but if you mean humans, then no.’
‘Then who are those on shore?’ Captain Jaya asked, lowering his telescope, ‘or do you know them?’
‘I think,’ Alice said, as he climbed in the boat with Anand, ‘I do. I saw Tarrant’s orange hair.’
‘So he isn’t Scottish,’ Maggie sounded slightly disappointed.
‘He’s Outlandish, I think,’ Alice said happily. ‘Lower the boat.’
‘Just you and Anand?’ Lani looked upset, and turned her gaze pleadingly toward the captain. ‘Isn’t that too small for a landing party?’
‘Not when there might be more of those creatures,’ the captain answered.
The creatures though, seemed to have learned this prey was too well-armed, and left the boat alone as it splashed into the water. Anand rowed, Alice at the tiller, and when the water was clear enough to see, Alice caught sight of those on the shore. Alice counted three he didn’t know, including a short, shaggy pony; and then there was Stayne, who looked very strange out of his armour and dressed in something other than black.
Deciding to risk attack, he hopped out of the boat and waded to shore, holding his cutlass and boots above the waves. Nothing swarmed from the water, only cold waves, fine sand and stray bits of seaweed. The surprise was when Tarrant only watched him curiously. Had he forgotten? Had they all forgotten? Alice went up to the group, set his boots and cutlass down on the dry sand before turning and going back into the tide to catch the rope and help Anand pull the boat ashore.
‘Quiet lot, your friends,’ Anand commented. Alice’s brow was furrowed.
‘It’s like they don’t know me,’ he said, and turned to them after the boat was safely on the sand. ‘Tarrant!’ he called, running across the sand—only to find his own cutlass pointed at him, in Tarrant’s hand.
‘Who are ye?’ his voice was dark and eyes orange. Alice blinked.
‘Tarrant, it’s me,’ he said, ‘Alice.’
His eyes narrowed, and he studied the boy before him. Short curls, bleached by the sun; dark eyes, browned skin… and a little mark above his lips. Tarrant lowered the sword, eyes cooling to green as he almost smiled.
‘Absolutely,’ Alice said with a smile, running into his arms. He nearly lost his balance, but hugged Alice back fiercely.
‘What’s he doing here?’ Alice asked, looking darkly up at Stayne.
‘Does everyone have to say that?’ Stayne sighed, rolling his eye. ‘I’m Mistress Haetopp’s servant.’
‘Mistress—are you Tarrant’s mum, then?’ Alice said, letting go of Tarrant (who handed him back his cutlass, Alice tucking it in the sash at his waist) and turning to the sturdy woman with Tarrant’s green eyes and orange hair—though she had considerably less colour on her face.
‘Aunt,’ Tarrant corrected, ‘and this is Time.’ He gestured to the being, who only quirked his brow a fraction. Alice decided he wasn’t sure he liked Time; he seemed too much like a stern lord eager to tell everyone how to behave.
‘Keavhy,’ the pony said, not one to be left out. ‘Who’s the tall, dark one?’
‘Oh!’ Alice had quite forgotten Anand, who’d been standing quietly behind him, some ways away. The first mate only smiled.
‘Anand,’ he said with a little Oriental bow. ‘First Mate of the Wonder, there. Tell me, is it safe to drop anchor here? Those creatures—’
‘Snarks,’ Time provided, impassively.
‘The snarks were quite voracious, but we need to at least come ashore for water and provisions.’
‘It is safe now,’ Time went on, ‘to go into the water.’
‘What, that huge… thing… is called Wonder?’ Tarrant asked, looking at it again. The two sailors exchanged glances, and Alice tentatively spoke.
‘Have you never seen a ship, Tarrant?’
‘We don’t go on the sea,’ Stayne said, just as curious. ‘Do people do it Up Top, then?’
‘All the time,’ Alice said, puzzled. ‘for centuries.’
‘You’ve never wondered what lies on the other side?’ Anand was slightly aghast.
‘There’s something on the other side?’ Keavhy turned toward the horizon, sniffing interestedly. ‘I don’t smell anything.’
‘It might be miles away,’ Alice tried to explain.
‘The sea’s too full of snarks to go in it,’ Tarrant began, ‘unless you plan on dying,’ he added, with a flash of orange to his voice and eyes.
‘There’s nothing in the Oraculum about it,’ Time added, in a tone of finality.
‘If the waters are safe,’ Anand broke in, ever polite, ‘we must go back and tell the crew.’
‘No,’ Time said, and all looked to him. There was a great deal of Muchness in the statement, and the colours on his face were grave black and white, his eyes depthless, ‘you are not meant to stay. Alice is the only one to stay.’
Anand thought, studying Time. He had never met the gods himself, but this was Time—Time, himself. As much as Anand knew he couldn’t leave Alice behind, he felt as though there was nothing to do. He knew of Destiny, or Fate, but it wasn’t something that came to his people naturally. He fought against it. ‘I cannot,’ he said finally, his voice hard, almost angry. ‘Alice is part of the crew. He’s family. We don’t leave family behind.’
The air rippled, and Time’s black lips pressed together in a thin line. Anand felt the weight of a terrible Something begin to lean upon him, but he stood his ground, staring down the personification, even as he heard the screech of a monstrous crow in the distance and the sky darkened, clouds fitful and roiling.
‘Anand,’ Alice said, and the everything went back to normal with the snap of his light voice. Anand broke his gaze with Time and looked down at Alice, to see the younger boy looking determined. ‘They need me. I’m their Champion.’
‘You’re our lookout, Alice,’ Anand pointed out, hand on Alice’s shoulder. Pained, Alice put a hand over Anand’s.
‘I was their Champion first, Anand. I have responsibilities here. Here,’ he added, ‘and alone.’ For all of the gravity of the situation, he managed a soft smile. ‘You’ll see me again. I’m not giving up my apprenticeship. Perhaps I should open up Underland, not China.’
‘This land?’ Anand looked toward the lush wood at the edge of the beach, and the mountains in the distance, and shook his head. ‘Not to England. It is too beautiful.’
‘Your island, then.’ Alice held out his hand. ‘Done?’
‘Done,’ Anand said, though he felt a bittersweet joy at their parting.
To get an idea of my snarks, look up deep sea urchins, and then look up a deep sea spider crab and cross the two.
Yeah, sorry about the nightmares.
Chapter 10: In Which Plans are Changed, the Oraculum is Challenged, Underland's Lack of Seafaring Causes General Confusion, We Find Out Iracebeth is NOT the Queen of Hearts and Time Finally Lets Go of the Past
Alice turned, giving Time an arch of his brow.
‘I suppose that was in the Oraculum?’
‘One must look,’ was all he said, though he was no longer so terribly beautiful as before, his colours back to vibrant, shifting hues on snowy-white, eyes soft. Anand smiled at Stayne.
‘I shall not see you soon,’ he began. ‘But you are beautiful.’
‘They like largeness,’ Alice said with a teasing smile at Stayne; the knave had the grace to blush slightly. Tarrant was giving Stayne a very dangerous sort of look, before Alice laughed and pulled his hatter toward the rowboat. ‘Come on!’ he called. ‘It’ll go faster with more!’
With Stayne and Tarrant, Muirran and Alice, it wasn’t long before the rowboat was back on the waves. Just before they let go, Alice remembered something. ‘Tell the captain he’s to have my effects.’
‘I will,’ Anand said.
‘The phial,’ Alice said, just before Anand began to row. ‘will get you back, if that is what you wish.’
Anand nodded, and Alice waved as he went back toward the ship. ‘Fairfarren!’ He felt his eyed burn a little, and his chest tighten. ‘Fairfarren, all!’
He watched as the boat went back to the ship, and was pulled up. The wind was blowing the ship to port, and Alice watched the sails shift, furling as they caught the wind and began to turn. He half-heard the voices of his friends—Svan’s carrying bass, Langley’s loud drawl, Matron Hauer’s sharp little barks… As the ship put Underland shores to stern, Alice saw the colours run up, snapping in the breeze. A grin crept onto his face quite without him meaning to, as he saw the pure red of the flag; it was the pirate flag, and somehow he knew it was for him.
‘Crimson,’ came Stayne’s soft voice, as Alice returned to dry land once more. Alice nodded, still a little unsteady on his feet—he’d been on a ship for nearly a year, after all.
‘Blood,’ he said, grinning. ‘They used to be pirates—thieves. Pirates run up colours just before they strike.’
‘A ship full of thieves?’ Stayne was keenly interested, now.
‘Oh,’ Alice said carelessly, still cheerful as he sat down and wiggled his toes in the warm sand. It was oddly warm, but he wasn’t complaining. ‘pirates aren’t just thieves. And the Wonder isn’t a pirate vessel anymore—well, not if you’re asking.’
Stayne chuckled, and Alice was surprised to find it a nice sound.
‘We’re glad to have you back, Alice,’ Tarrant said, sitting in the sand next to Alice and putting a possessive arm around him, shooting Stayne a little glare.
‘Why do you need me back?’ Alice asked, wanting to get straight to the point.
‘I—’ Tarrant struggled, hesitating, looked left, looked back at Alice, then down, back at Alice. ‘I missed you?’
‘There is trouble afoot; as well as Tarrant missing you,’ Stayne added at the end, fain to keep the hatter from getting angry with him, ‘someone wants him dead.’
‘What?’ Alice wasn’t the only one surprised.
‘Me?’ Tarrant stood. ‘And what makes ye think it’s me she was after?’
‘I know my sister,’ was all Stayne said, his voice dark. ‘If I hadn’t seen it coming, she would have hit you. She was aiming for no other.’
Alice got up, brushing the sand off himself, going to get his boots, a few feet away. His feet were still too wet to wear them, but Alice was used to carrying his boots while he waited for his feet to dry by now. ‘Is she a card, then? I’m not quite sure how that all works.’
‘She’s the Ace of Spades,’ Stayne answered.
‘Spades?’ Alice thought, trying to remember the cards he’d met in Underland. ‘I’ve only ever seen Hearts.’
‘Spades are colder,’ Stayne felt odd, the only one explaining something that was common knowledge—well, to him. The little party on the beach were all from the western parts of Underland, whereas the Cardian kingdoms were to the east.
He found himself gazing east, and his heart, long buried and locked away, shuddered a little at a memory, and bled. It hurt, and Stayne felt his breath come up short. ‘I’m…the only Heart left.’ His voice didn’t sound right, cracked and broken-edged.
Alice watched him, and felt some great sorrow, nameless, behind his words. He opened his mouth to speak, finding the words just tumbled out, as they were wont to do when he was overwhelmed with curiosity.
‘Who was she?’ he checked. ‘Or he, I suppose,’ he added, with a glance at Tarrant.
Stayne didn’t answer for long moments, then looked at them, all eager to know.
‘Well?’ Keavhy said, expectantly—he’d picked up Underlandian in the time Stayne and Iracebeth had been living with Muirran; likewise, he wasn’t as staunchly adverse to speaking it, inferior though it was. Keavhy liked to talk too much to do that. ‘Who’s this bonny love of yours that she killed? Come on, you’re in good company.’
‘The Queen,’ Stayne said, his voice dark but not cold, as they were used to—it was hot as fire, as a Heart, his yellow eye red. ‘My Queen. The true,’ he growled. ‘Queen of Hearts.’
Now he remembered, the chains on his heart loosed, the broken pieces, scarred once, now bleeding once more—remembered why he’d wanted to kill Iracebeth.
‘Iracebeth wasn’t the Queen of Hearts?’ Alice wondered.
‘No!’ Stayne said, furious and restless—he paced, gesturing as he spoke. ‘The little red chess queen, she! My Queen stole her away—she so wanted children—and Iracebeth killed her for her kindness!’
‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ Alice murmured, which pulled Stayne up short. The Underlandians looked at her with varying degrees of surprise, or horror.
‘Is that an adage, Up Top?’ Time asked, vaguely interested.
Alice had the familiar feeling of having said the wrong thing—he delighted in the feeling, for it only came when he was here, in Underland. Home. ‘I’ve heard it before,’ he said simply.
‘I don’t know how you turned out so well,’ Tarrant said, holding Alice’s hand tightly. ‘If there are adages like that running about.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Alice said politely, to Stayne, squeezing Tarrant’s hand. ‘That…’ he paused. He’d been about to be polite and understated and bland, but he caught himself just in time. He let go of Tarrant’s hand and went up to Stayne, looking up at him for a moment before hugging him. His head only went up to Stayne’s waist, but it was something, at least. The cruelty of chaining him to the murderer of his lover… Alice felt sick at the unfairness of that.
‘Why did you serve her?’ Tarrant asked, curious despite himself, and almost afraid of the answer. Who would serve someone they hated, if not because they liked the work?
‘I swore to serve the Queen of Hearts,’ Stayne’s voice was hollow. ‘I was young, I didn’t dare speak her name—to my doom, since Queen is only a title.’
‘But you meant her, not Iracebeth,’ Alice was puzzled.
‘But I didn’t say what I meant, even though I meant what I said.’
‘Dangerous,’ Tarrant commented sombrely.
‘Are ye three goin, then?’ Keavhy asked. ‘The Champion will need a mount,’ he arched his neck proudly.
‘You’re hardly a charger,’ Stayne sniped.
‘Oh and I suppose a charger is useful for travel, aye?’ Keavhy came right back. ‘Quite comfortable, chargers? Able to live outside a coddlesome stable-hand’s care?’
Alice couldn’t help hiding a giggle. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, trying to remain serious in vain. ‘I can’t ride.’
‘Can’t ride?’ Stayne and Keavhy chorused, both horrified.
‘No horses at sea,’ Alice pointed out. ‘And I travelled by hat and dog while I was here.’
‘No better way to travel, hat,’ Tarrant said with a cheery smile. He looking thoughtful and began to check his pockets. ‘I’m sure I’ve got some spare pishsalver in her somewhere…’
‘There’s only to be three of you,’ Time’s voice was again expressionless, which meant there was something about all this he disliked greatly, Tarrant knew. ‘But,’ he smiled, and it was as mocking as the final minute before you know you’re late for a party, and you’re still home, trying to find your shoes. ‘it didn’t say which three. Tarrant, stay?’
Alice didn’t like the way his colours went soft, his eyes melting and violet-sad. When Tarrant started for Time, Alice grabbed his arm.
‘Tarrant!’ he said sharply, and Tarrant seemed to snap out of a trance, looking back at him. ‘I…’
‘Tarrant,’ Time pleaded, reaching out a hand. The sky began to cloud, shutting out the sun. ‘Please…’
‘Time never says please…’ Tarrant murmured, pained. His eyes were almost blue, looking toward his lover and then back to Alice, and then again to Time. ‘Never…’
‘Tarrant.’ No, this wouldn’t stand. Alice pulled Tarrant close. ‘Tarrant, I came back for you!’ he growled. ‘I’m not leaving you here with him!’
‘Besides,’ drawled a lazy voice, from the treeline. ‘It is written.’
‘Trephan,’ Stayne hadn’t expected to see the Spade again; but he looked much the same, though apparently inlaid wire had gone out of fashion, and piercings were back in.
‘Ilosovic,’ Trephan returned. ‘Brought a friend of yours,’ he said, as Nymnurro caught up. He looked sleek, well-fed, and trotted happily over to Stayne.
‘Hello, you,’ he said, butting his head against the knave. ‘I knew you were alive.’ Still, he sounded relieved, and Stayne smiled as he ran his hands along Nymnurro’s face and neck.
‘Good to see you too,’ he murmured.
‘Trephan?’ Alice asked, not as disturbed by the myriad bits of metal and glass in the man’s face, nor his too-long fingers, with their sharpened nails of what looked like black gemstones.
He bowed. ‘Knave of Spades, O Champion. Funny,’ he said with a smirk of his black lips. ‘Thought you’d be a little less… dirty.’
‘I’ve been at sea,’ Alice said with a sharp smile. ‘fighting snarks.’ As he’d hoped, the news impressed Trephan. ‘Now why are you here?’
‘To retrieve Ilosovic; the White Queen—’ his lip curled just slightly. ‘—unlawfully banished him to the Outlands. His sentence is, therefore, rendered null and void.’ The smile he gave didn’t, somehow, seem altogether nice. ‘It means you can go home, Ilosovic, darling.’
‘Home to an empty suite?’ Stayne said sharply, to which the Spade only grinned wider.
‘Think of it!’ he said, spreading his long hands—they looked like spiders. ‘All that space to yourself! Your own servants, and—’
‘Trephan,’ Alice said, his tones clipped. ‘Shut up.’ His hand was on the hilt of his cutlass.
‘Oh, has he sworn fealty to the Champion as well?’ Trephan’s voice was mocking.
‘It’s his fancy,’ Stayne said, tying and re-tying his hair back—it had gotten much longer over the months in the Outlands. ‘Spades have no hearts, so they like to play with others’.’
‘I have a heart!’ Trephan shot back with a tease. ‘I’ve seen it and everything,’ his grin was too-wide, revealing narrow pointed teeth. Like a fish, Alice thought.
Stayne just snorted, unaffected by the Spade’s efforts to horrify and disgust. He was used to it by now. ‘Nervous, Trephan?’ he taunted quietly, with a slinky little smile.
‘Whatever do you—’
‘You expected him to be dead, didn’t you, my dear?’ Stayne knew no one had seen him like this, not Alice nor Tarrant nor his newer friends, Keavhy and Nymnurro and Muirran. ‘My sister is so very good at what she does. Perhaps I’m better.’
‘Hardly,’ Trephan didn’t sound terribly sure. ‘You were never a proper knave. Queen’s Whore!’
‘Careful,’ Alice said with a smirk, understanding better than the others this battle of wits for what it was, ‘lest you reveal your jealousy.’
‘Jealousy? For a red card?’ He snorted.
‘Oh but it’s true,’ Stayne purred. ‘I know it is. My Queen was beautiful, you cannot deny you thought so. I saw the way you stared at her, my long-legged goddess-queen, with all her power and Muchness.’
Alice wondered if he resembled this long-legged goddess-queen. Perhaps that had been why Stayne had—but no, only moments ago he’d referred to Alice as ‘he’, so it couldn’t be that Alice looked like the Queen of Hearts.
‘Are there any portraits of her?’ he couldn’t help asking, knowing he was interrupting something but unable to help himself. Both knaves looked at him, and Stayne softened.
‘Yes,’ he said quietly, mounting Nymnurro. ‘I’ll show you.’
Alice hesitated. Keavhy sighed and butted him. ‘Come on.’
Nymnurro snorted disdainfully at the rouncey. Keavhy swung around, ears back and the whites of his eyes showing.
‘Is there a problem, ye spoiled hobby horse?’
‘You’re hardly a proper mount for the Champion.’ Nymnurro matched the aggressive posture, stamping a hoof in warning, his tail whipping the air.
‘Keavhy!’ Muirran snapped sharply. ‘Saet dain, les ye waich ta be guilled.’ She crossed the sand, and Keavhy had all four hooves on the ground before she reached him, head and tail low.
Nymnurro waited patiently, calming. He was not as wild as the Outlandish horse, raised and trained warrior that he was. Brawling hardly solved anything, though he wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself and his rider, even from a sassy little rouncey. Keavhy may have been small, but Nymnurro knew Outlandish horses had to be sturdy as anything to survive the harsh winters and terrain. He was likely stronger and tougher than he looked.
Still, it was hard to go against instincts that said to rear, display, paw the ground and show his teeth; he was grateful to feel Stayne’s long hands against his neck, stroking in silent approval as Keavhy and his Boss Mare argued in furious Outlandish.
Alice sidled up to Tarrant, curiously listening to the words he almost understood. They were almost familiar, it was strange. ‘What are they saying?’ he whispered to his hatter.
‘Well,’ Tarrant said, gesturing. ‘You saw the first bit; Keavhy’s upset that he couldn’t settle this like horses. Muirran’s tellin’ him he’s got to get on with Nym, if he’s to be your mount. Personally, I’d recommend it. Outlandish horses are the only comfortable ones for journeying.’
Alice thought. ‘But what will you ride?’
‘He can carry both of us,’ Tarrant replied, with confidence. Alice raised a brow, and Tarrant returned the expression. Alice smiled, and laughed, hugging Tarrant again.
‘I’ve missed you,’ he said softly, glad to see Tarrant’s clothes looked to be in better repair. Tarrant ruffled Alice’s hair.
‘I missed you too.’ Tarrant could practically feel Time’s fury, and couldn’t help bracing himself, glancing off to the side, though he didn’t turn around.
‘You’re free to leave me,’ Time’s voice was—uncharacteristically for him—pained. Tarrant was so shocked he turned just to see what a pained Time looked like.
‘It is written.’ Time’s voice was brittle, the thin veneer of impassive coldness cracking. ‘I cannot change what will happen, but…’ He hesitated, before he was holding tightly to the hatter. He didn’t speak, trembling as his heart broke along lines that had been carved there since the beginning of all things. ‘but even I am not immune to wanting to rewrite what is fated,’ he admitted in a low voice.
Alice watched them, his initial impression of Time changing; he was clearly more than the stern, heartless figure he’d seemed. Alice looked away in sudden embarrassment as he heard a muffled sob from Time, feeling as though he were spying on something private. He turned his attention elsewhere for the moment, letting his beloved and Time have their good-byes.
It was about then he noticed the Knave of Spades had disappeared, probably sometime during the almost-fight of the two stallions—who seemed to be speaking civilly, if in tones that were a little clipped. Alice couldn’t help a little smile; some things were really very similar, between Underland and Up Top. Still, the disappearance of Trephan was a little unnerving. Perhaps it was just the news that Tarrant had nearly been killed just before Alice had found him again… Stayne didn’t seem worried, despite the knave’s rather fierce appearance—and he would know, after all. Alice tried to shake the feeling, but couldn’t. He decided to ask Stayne more about this Trephan character, later on.
Speaking of… ‘Shouldn’t we get on?’ Alice asked, tentatively. He didn’t want to interrupt, but he was eager to get started on whatever journey they were making.
‘You should,’ Time said, disentangling from Tarrant; the being’s cheeks were wet, and his face was flushed with too many colours, the colours of sadness and regret, that didn’t really have names. He cupped Tarrant’s cheek with one stout hand. ‘Whatever happened between us, I love you,’ managing something that tried to be a smile, he went on, ‘and if you—or your companions—need any favour, you need but ask.’
Tarrant put a hand over the one on his face, turning his head to kiss Time’s palm. ‘Thank you.’ He knew the depth of power Time’s favour had, perhaps more than anyone. When he let go, opening his eyes, Time had gone. Tarrant wasn’t surprised—Time had shown far more emotion in the past few moments than he had ever done to any, even Tarrant had only but felt the slightest hint of the currents of feeling that ran in the deep waters of Time’s heart—the being was unfathomable.
‘I’m fine.’ He wasn’t, but he would be. He turned. ‘Come on, you!’ he called amiably to Keavhy, crossing the sand, Alice following beside him. Muirran caught her nephew and kissed him fiercely, murmuring something dark and guttural, that Tarrant answered in kind, in a reassuring tone. With Muirran and Tarrant’s help, Alice soon found himself on Keavhy’s back, and gripped the grey strands of mane tightly on instinct.
‘I wo’n’t buck ye off, lad,’ Keavhy’s tone was almost gentle. He swivelled one ear toward Tarrant. ‘Are ye waitin’ for a fancy invitation? Get on, I can carry the two of ye!’
‘It isn’t as though we’re running,’ Tarrant pointed out. ‘Best if Alice learns to ride on his own.’
Muirran said something to Alice, Tarrant translated.
‘She says she had her doubts about the Champion before, but she’s pleased all that talk about a wispy boy made of glass is just talk.’
Alice laughed. ‘I was when I came,’ he said. ‘But you can’t stay that way on a ship. Thank you,’ he said politely. With a few more exchanges, Tarrant joined them and Muirran patted Keavhy’s neck, before looking to Stayne. She spoke again, and Stayne flushed a little before murmuring,
‘Taye, marni,’ in a shy voice.
Alice wished dearly to know what she’d said, as Stayne turned his horse and rode off, toward the rough path that started through the forest. Alice gave a startled little yelp when Keavhy started moving, but was more surprised at the lack of bouncing—Stayne was moving with his horse, the instinctive rocking that Alice had seen on countless people, that spoke of a true rider. Keavhy, on the other hand, was almost gliding, despite his messier-looking gait.
‘Someone explain why I’m not bouncing, please,’ Alice said after a few minutes looking from one horse to the other, beyond puzzled.
‘Outlandish horses walk differently,’ Keavhy explained. ‘I can keep this up for days, like a wolf. Long-shanks, on the other hoof…’
‘Is for war,’ Stayne finished, not wanting a repeat of the near-duel. ‘Nym’s best for combat and short bursts of speed.’
‘An’ cushy ballrooms,’ Keavhy muttered.
‘What was that?’ Nym asked archly.
‘Shut it, both of you,’ Stayne’s voice was the bark of a commander. ‘Neither of you are in charge.’
Keavhy’s tail lashed for a few moments, but that was it.
‘Odd to have you on our side, Stayne,’ Alice said, wanting to change the subject.
‘I didn’t have a choice,’ Stayne maintained in a dull voice.
‘You could have helped us,’ Alice pointed out. ‘You know, secretly.’
‘No,’ Stayne didn’t sound angry so much as… weary. ‘I couldn’t have. You don’t seem to understand the fact that I vowed to serve the Queen of Hearts.’
‘Well,’ Alice reasoned. ‘vows can be broken.’
There was a pause, as they kept moving. Tarrant raised one bushy brow as he looked up at Alice.
‘No, they can’t.’
‘Really?’ Alice was startled. ‘So…’ As everything fell into place, he realised… Stayne was, like Underlanders were wont, being literal. ‘Oh. Oh.’
‘People are usually very careful about vowing things,’ Tarrant wondered, now, if Alice treated promises so lightly, if he was so used to being able to break them? Of course he was Alice, and therefore perfect, but… Tarrant did wonder about the boy, sometimes. The hatter had never been Up Top, but the more he discovered about it, the less he liked it.
‘I’ll remember that.’ Alice sounded subdued, as they rode on, Stayne leading them through the forest, and toward Crims.
Chapter 11: In Which the Captain Decides What to Tell Lord Ascot, Alice's Curiosity Does a Great Service, and the King of Spades Adapts to a Complication in His Plans
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Captain Jaya surveyed the contents of Alice’s rucksack; two journals, one full and dating back to a month before he and Jaya had met, one half-full; four pencils, kept in a battered box that had once held a dozen; a penknife, a bit of cake, and… a phial half-full of purple, viscous something. The phial wasn’t glass but crystal, capped at both ends with silver intricately worked into spirals Jaya had never seen, a strange dragon spiralling around the stopper.
Beside him, Anand also studied the phial. ‘The workmanship is exquisite, don’t you think?’ he said, merely to have something to say—for both men knew the purple liquid within was ripe with magic, heavy and altogether… altogether alien.
‘Very,’ he agreed, tilting the phial. ‘Drink this and return? There isn’t enough for everyone…’
‘I wonder…’ Anand studied the phial, before pointing at the level of the liquid… ‘He drank a bit. He did send us there.’
‘Perhaps in his sleep,’ Jaya conceded, quietly. ‘He was a troubled young man.’ He unlocked a small chest, secreting the phial away inside. ‘Anand, when we return to Asniir, call a meeting of our officers.’
‘And the journals?’
Jaya gathered them both. ‘We return them to Lord Ascot.’
‘Jaya!’ Anand rarely forgot his rank, even with how close he was with the captain. ‘He will blame you! Whatever he says, he thinks of Alice as his people think of women! You will be—’
‘It will be worse to say he was lost at sea,’ Jaya said sharply, then softened, stroking Anand’s cheek with the back of one weathered hand. ‘I know you worry, fii’nele; but I have a great belief in Lord Ascot’s wisdom.’
Anand calmed, wrapping his arms around his beloved. ‘I know he is at peace,’ he murmured, head against Jaya’s shoulder. ‘But he didn’t see Alice for what he was…’
‘Nor did we. One usually doesn’t, Anand.’
‘You worry too much.’
‘Perhaps you don’t kiss me enough.’
A kiss. ‘Langley is on watch for another hour, yet.’
Anand’s eyes glittered with his smile, and he quickly cleared Alice’s things off the bed, setting them carefully in a drawer.
Alice was curious about the woodland they were riding through—the trees were tall, dizzyingly so, and he’d never seen any like them before. Curling ferns and sorrel spread around the trees, moss and mushrooms growing on the fallen trunks. The track they followed wound around the fallen, since not even Nym could leap over the hulking logs.
‘What are these called?’ Alice asked in a hushed voice, feeling as though he was in a cathedral.
‘Forever Trees,’ Tarrant and Stayne chorused.
‘They’ve been here forever, you see,’ Tarrant explained, climbing on a fallen log. Alice giggled.
‘This was her favourite place,’ Stayne said quietly. ‘It’s not far from the desert of Crims, over the foothills.’
‘We should stop for the night soonish,’ Nymnurro said, growing more alert as the light beneath the canopy waned. There was a ragged cry in the distance, and the horses tensed, stopping. It wasn’t yet dusk, but the cry had been not too far off, and in the direction they travelled.
‘I don’t like the sound of that,’ Keavhy said, and Alice felt his skin shiver beneath him. Alice lifted his hands, cupping them around his ears and closing his eyes, listening, tilting his head to one side.
‘What are you doing?’ Tarrant whispered.
‘Listening,’ Alice said simply. It had been something Anand had taught him. Sure enough, when the cry sounded again, Alice could better tell from whence it came. ‘It’s a strange cry,’ he said thoughtfully.
‘Injured,’ Keavhy observed, ears pricked in the same direction. Alice had opened his eyes, and noticed Tarrant had copied him.
‘Why tilting?’ the hatter asked.
‘Owls,’ Alice said. ‘Owls have got one ear higher than the other.’ He put his hands down, holding to Keavhy’s mane again. ‘Remarkable hearing, owls have.’
‘Oh yes,’ Keavhy agreed cheerfully. ‘Can hear mice gossip a mile away and beneath snow, owls can. That’s clever,’ he added.
‘Quite,’ Stayne said, circling Nym to see Alice. ‘Perhaps we should stop here for the night. The fallen tree there can be effective cover for that side, and if this injured creature—’
‘That sounds like a jub-jub bird, if I may be bold,’ Tarrant suggested. Nymnurro snorted.
‘They don’t scream like that, trust me. That’s no bird.’
‘Agreed,’ Stayne said with a nod.
‘What about a fire?’ Alice suggested, unsure of how camping worked, let alone in Underland. He knew enough to know a fire was essential, but not much more.
‘We’d have to travel farther toward the creature for that, to get to the rocks.’ Stayne eyed the cutlass at Alice’s hip. ‘Can that cut foliage?’
Alice relaxed; he’d wondered if trees were allowed to be cut—after all, flowers talked—but it seemed so. ‘A cutlass? Of course. Machete is another name for it, especially in the tropical forests where plants are too thick to find path through.’ He was pleased to show off a little of his new experiences, and knowledge. Hesitating, he looked down at the ground. ‘How do I get off?’
‘Swing one leg over and slide down,’ Keavhy instructed.
‘And here I thought it was complicated,’ Alice laughed, doing so. He finally had a chance to put his boots back on, and brushed off his feet in a hurry, not keen on risking injuries to his feet—he’d seen the disaster that led to. Boots securely on, he observed the forest with the eye of one looking for combustible material; but it was a very wet place, this forest.
‘Are we splitting up to get firewood?’
‘Looks like we’ll have to,’ Stayne said, dismounting. He unfastened Nymnurro’s bridle as he spoke.
‘I need to rest,’ the stallion’s tone was matter-of-fact, and he ignored Keavhy’s snort. Stayne tucked the bridle in one of the saddlebags, and set the bags on the ground before starting on the saddle. Nym’s barding was thankfully gone, since he wasn’t actively in battle.
‘Then you stay here,’ Stayne said decisively.
‘Keavhy and Tarrant should go out together,’ Alice said quickly. ‘Besides,’ he said, at Tarrant’s betrayed look. ‘I know the measure of Tarrant. I don’t know you so well, Stayne.’ He rested his hand casually on the hilt of his cutlass—Stayne wasn’t armed—and was pleased to see Tarrant’s eyes light in understanding, green turning a little yellow as a smirk curled his pink lips.
‘And I’ll stay,’ Nymnurro added. ‘I can take care of myself, Ilosovic.’
‘I don’t like that we’re an odd number, that’s all.’
‘Nor I,’ Alice agreed. ‘But it can’t be helped. Come on,’ he said, making his way further, toward where the terrain was rockier, outcroppings visible through the columns of impossibly thick trunk that made up the trees. It was odd, how far one could see, Alice thought as he scrambled over another fallen log.
‘I’ve never heard that sound before,’ Alice said, as he stripped parts of a dead tree. Stayne was impressed at the efficiency of his strokes.
‘Nor I,’ he said, content to merely be the beast of burden, as Alice handed him the wood.
‘What is it, do you think?’ Alice asked, after they were treated to another cry. ‘Are there trappers?’ he asked, the idea occurring to him. ‘Perhaps it’s someone caught in a trap?’
‘Trappers?’ Stayne asked, morbidly curious.
‘Well, Up Top animals don’t talk. A lot of people hunt them, for meat or fur. Usually trappers are after fur. They’re nasty things, traps that are spring-loaded and snap closed on the poor animal’s leg or something….’ Alice paused, looking up at Stayne. ‘I don’t approve,’ he said severely. ‘I’m just saying, people do it.’
‘I can’t imagine you’d approve,’ Stayne murmured gently, taking the newest piece of wood. It was all damp, but that couldn’t be helped, not in this forest. ‘Must we be so close to it?’ he asked, as the cry sounded again; it was definitely coming from the rocks ahead.
‘I can’t just leave it alone, Stayne,’ Alice answered.
‘It could be dangerous.’
‘The Bandersnatch was dangerous,’ Alice felt he should point out, as he headed toward the noise, which sounded more and more like the sounds of someone in the throes of a nightmare. The bedrock sliced up through the sloping ground, moved there by some bygone shiver of the earth, and Stayne had no choice but to follow Alice.
He stopped some yards from the half-cave, at the edge of the carpet of bones that littered the ground. Alice kept going, cutlass drawn, curiosity driving him forward.
‘Alice,’ Stayne called, softly, not wanting to draw attention from the creature in the cave. ‘Be careful.’
The crying stopped, and the forest seemed deathly still for it. Alice paused, glancing back at Stayne. There was the sound of movement from inside the darkness, and indistinct sounds that could have been muttering, or could have been something else altogether.
Keep talking, Alice mouthed to Stayne, before perching on a nearby rock and watching the darkness carefully, barely breathing.
Like most people, Stayne’s mind went blank when he got Alice’s message. He scrambled to find something—anything—to choose as a subject.
‘Tell me,’ Alice prompted. ‘what happened.’
Stayne didn’t need to be told what the boy meant. He shifted the load in his arms, keeping his eye on the darkness and—despite thinking it was a bad idea—began to speak. ‘As I said, Iracebeth killed—’
‘No.’ The voice was barely a voice, so ragged and torn. There was more shifting. ‘Begin at the beginning.’
A bear? Stayne had only encountered a few bears in this wood; bears were particular about stories… except this seemed too small to be a bear, from the sounds. He stepped back, as he tried to figure—perhaps the more cantankerous boars that did wander the wooded places? But boars didn’t live in caves…. Perhaps a young bear, then.
‘At the beginning!’ it snarled, the fury sounding painful. Stayne swallowed, and started again.
‘We were riding—’
‘How did you meet your queen?’ Alice asked quietly, wondering if the creature in the cave thought that was the beginning—it was literally the beginning of the story between Stayne and the Queen, after all.
‘I was quite young,’ Stayne answered, with a quiet smile at the memory, ‘barely becoming a man, and I’d been caught up with the King of Spades’ coterie, since my sister was one of his favourites.’
‘I know the feeling,’ Alice said with a smile, thinking of countless parties and dinners he’d been frocked up and dragged to attending. It hadn’t been so terrible when his father had been alive, but afterward…
‘I…’ Stayne hesitated, and decided to skip over the first meeting between him and his queen; the memory twisted at his chest too much for that, and was far too full of moans and gasping besides. ‘She named me her knave some few years later, much to everyone surprise—red cards aren’t supposed to be dark of hair.’
‘She liked you a lot, then.’
‘She….’ Stayne hesitated, wondering at the unseen creature that had so ordered this retelling. ‘We were lovers,’ he finally admitted.
‘And the king…?’ Alice didn’t seem surprised, nor scandalised—merely curious. Stayne was finding that he liked this about the boy. Curiosity was far preferable a reaction.
‘Couldn’t appreciate her,’ Stayne’s voice was fierce as he finished Alice’s musing query. ‘My goddess, my queen… he thought her ugly, the mimsy little—!’ His voice was tightly-checked fury, barely-contained and shaking. ‘He dallied with—tiny—’ He spat the word. ‘—little milkmaids! Pips!’
‘Ah,’ Alice said with a sagely nod, ‘that sort of thing tends to happen, with Kings.’
‘And the poison, the poison—poison!’ the voice rose to a screech of broken, horrified giggling, then ragged coughs.
‘Let me guess,’ Alice said wryly, taking his cue from the creature, ‘she planned to poison the king and make your love legitimate by marrying you. Being a knave makes you a noble, doesn’t it?’
‘You know more than you said.’ Stayne wasn’t sure what to think of that.
Alice shrugged. ‘Royalty isn’t much different, Up Top.’ He thought for a moment or two. ‘But… how did Iracebeth come into it?’
‘My queen often wandered, over Underland, exploring to break the monotony of court.’ Stayne frowned. ‘Iracebeth had run away from home….’
‘I think I can put together the rest.’ Alice thought that perhaps it would be asking too much to make Stayne recount that piece of the story.
‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ Stayne said with a mirthless smile, a part of him—the bitter part—liking the phrase’s wisdom. ‘Iracebeth adores me, as you probably noticed.’
‘I think I had that sorted when you charged me with Unlawful Seduction, sir I-Like-Largeness.’ Alice pursed his lips as he gave the words a teasing lilt.
‘I do like largeness,’ Stayne answered coolly. ‘And,’ he added, two spots of pink appearing on his cheeks. ‘I am sorry. It had been long since… and I…’ he trailed off, looking away.
‘Tell him the rest of the story; tell him how the Queen died.’ The voice sounded… almost human, the shadowy figure coming forward.
‘Iracebeth,’ Stayne had trouble getting the words out, arms tensing around the bundle of sticks he’d been carrying, his gaze no longer on the clearing, or even their surroundings, as he spoke like a man in a dream. ‘Iracebeth couldn’t stand seeing us… we didn’t realise… not until she had my queen charged with treason.’
Alice waited patiently, but Stayne didn’t go on; after long moments, he spoke gently. ‘What’s the sentence for treason?’
There was a long pause. Alice waited patiently, keenly watching the figure from the side of his eye—it was hugging the rocks near the entrance to its lair, and Alice was almost certain the silhouette was that of a human person… or, at least, human-shaped (he wasn’t, after all, quite sure if Cardians and Chessians were the same as humans).
‘To drink from the Chalice.’ Stayne set the bundle of sticks down, ‘I don’t know what you know about the Chalice.’ A glance at Alice, who shook his head apologetically.
‘Anything put into it is poisoned,’ the figure offered in a whisper, ‘according to its nature.’
Stayne took a shaking breath, running his hands through his hair.
‘I… I had to watch. It’s… how I lost this eye.’ He looked at Alice, voice almost accusing, daring him to mock the knave’s pain. ‘How would you feel, if—she—made you watch—if you couldn’t—couldn’t—look away, and had to see Tarrant choke, and writhe, and—?’ He realised he’d pinned Alice against a nearby tree, and stepped back, closing his eye and forcing himself to breathe deeply, to calm, even though the scars on his heart were bleeding and the chains he’d wrapped so tightly around were broken and useless, and it felt so much….
‘So you plucked out your eyes,’ Alice was… almost amused, in a horrified way. The story seemed so perfectly… story-like. People plucked out their own eyes so often, in tragedies….
‘Would have,’ Stayne said bitterly. ‘Gladly, I would have gone blind if only I never had to watch my queen suffer! My sister—’ he broke off in sudden rage, rounding on the figure. ‘What do you care, wretch?’ he yelled at the figure. ‘Are you half-Spade, to enjoy this—this torture you put me through?’ He wanted badly to storm off, he didn’t want Alice to see him so undone, so vulnerable; but the creature in the rocks might attack.
‘You aren’t done,’ the wretch answered very quietly, moving from the shadowed entrance to its cave, into the half-light of dusk. It was a woman, wrapped in rags, her long hair matted and woven through with bones. ‘They drove her to the desert to die.’ Her voice rose in passion as she spoke. ‘Left her, retching blood, to drag herself across the sand. Left her in her madness!’ The passion in her voice rivalled Stayne’s fury, and for many long moments there was nothing but the mad half-laughter, half-sobbing, as she clung to herself. ‘Left her speaking to shadows.’ Her voice was soft once more. ‘Left her for the birds and the bandersnatches, the heat and the sand….’ Her voice lilted like the moan of the wind.
She came closer, into a stray shaft of fading sunlight—it glinted on red eyes, fell over the once-proud planes of a noble face.
Stayne dropped to his knees, in shock.
‘Latericia?’ the name still felt forbidden on his lips, but she’d ordered him to call her that, whenever he addressed her—he couldn’t help but obey. Which meant…
‘Just because you leave something for dead, doesn’t mean it will die.’
Alice bowed in deep respect. ‘Majesty,’ he murmured, not knowing if there was more one should do; he’d only ever met three monarchs before, after all. After a few moments, he tentatively rose, to see she’d cupped Stayne’s face in her hands, and that the knave’s cheeks were wet. Feeling his face flush, Alice looked away. He realised it was the second time he’d done so that day—the first to let lovers say good-by, the second to let them say hello again. Perhaps it balanced out—great loss with great gain.
‘I thought you were getting firewood, not—’ Nymnurro began as he saw three figures return; he stopped mid-word at the sight of the stranger. Ragged, mad, and lost to time and who knew what torture, but there was no mistaking that scent… and those crimson eyes. He lowered his head in an equine’s bow. ‘Your Majesty,’ he murmured, hardly believing it.
She stared at him for long moments, before seeming to remember… ‘Rise.’
Stayne’s mount did so, before sniffing the air. ‘The others will be back soon.’
Alice was already setting the sticks in what he thought was a good shape, before Latericia knelt and impatiently batted his hands away. It was easy to notice, this close, that the rags were somewhat clean and neatly stitched, if coarsely so; Alice also saw hints of a corset beneath, that looked made of hides.
‘How long have you been out here?’ Alice asked as he watched her examine each stick, tossing away most of them, using what looked like a carved piece of skull to clear a place in the leaf-litter.
‘Since Horunvendush eve.’
‘I’m not quite sure how long ago that was.’
‘One-hundred sixty-seven years ago,’ Nymnurro put in helpfully.
‘What?’ Alice was in shock, staring at all of them. ‘You’re all a hundred and…’ but that’s impossible! nearly came out of his mouth, but he checked just in time, and returned to watching Latericia. He didn’t know how to make a fire, and it was a rather essential skill if they were going to be camping.
‘It’ll rain,’ Latericia said, apropos to nothing; she was balancing the approved sticks in a sort of cone as she continued. ‘Fog in the morning, but it’s too early in the summer for no rain.’
‘We have a shelter,’ Nymnurro said, ‘in the saddlebags.’
‘Better shelter in the rocks—’ Latericia broke off and looked up, alert, as she heard the sound of Keavhy and Tarrant’s voices. ‘Outlanders,’ she breathed, unmoving. Outlanders hunted, were very dangerous. Very beautiful, very dangerous….
‘They’re friends,’ Alice assured her, getting up as he saw his friends coming through the trees. Tarrant had fashioned some sort of sling over Keavhy’s back, and it was full of firewood—none of it the fibrous, red kind that Latericia had tossed aside in disapproval.
‘Who’s this?’ Tarrant asked, as though it were perfectly ordinary to pick up hermits while collecting firewood. Latericia didn’t answer as she started to unload the wood with nary a word.
Moving up to help with the unloading, Alice spoke in a low voice to Tarrant. ‘Latericia, The Queen of Hearts.’
‘Who?’ Tarrant was in shock, both he and Keavhy staring at Latericia as she worked; but while the hatter gaped in astonishment, Keavhy merely investigated the little cone of sticks.
‘Well good,’ he said, after watching her for a minute or so, ‘Queens should know how to make a decent fire.’ His tone said clearly that was that, and she had his approval.
‘Are you wearing skins?’ Tarrant couldn’t help but notice her clothing; and he wished he hadn’t.
‘No mushrooms out here.’ Latericia’s tone was rather severe as she levelled a gaze at the hatter.
Stayne knelt beside his queen, offering his flint and steel. Latericia reached to take them, but he gently pushed her hands away. She glared at him, but when he met her gaze some unspoken conversation passed between them; she leaned forward and kissed his cheek gently, and smiled, and went to sit just outside the fire ring, watching while Stayne lit the tinder. The knave called to his companions as he coaxed the flames.
‘Alice, Tarrant, there should be a tent in the saddlebags.’
‘What, with poles?’ Tarrant asked, eyeing the saddlebags with extreme scepticism.
‘One can shrink poles.’
Tarrant snorted, even as he and Alice dug through the bags. ‘And I’m a hare,’ he muttered.
‘You can shrink people,’ Alice pointed out, as he found the smallish bundle; it was labelled Shelter in neat copperplate. If things were labelled like this, instead of Drink Me… Alice thought with a roll of his eyes and a smile.
‘It’s not the same thing,’ Tarrant was arguing, ‘people are alive. Poles aren’t alive, Alice.’
‘My Queen invented them, for when we travelled together.’ Stayne got up and went over to them, helping Alice unwrap the bundle. There was a small bottle, and Stayne poured its contents on the bundle of sticks and cloth that only looked big enough to shelter a mouse. ‘Stand back.’
Winging her way over the trees after Trephan gave her his message, the raven soared high on the updrafts that came off the desert sands, barely flapping as she rode the heated air to her destination. With a raucous cawing she circled the towers in her descent, swooping around the maze of parapets and arches that made up Crims, until she came to the windows of the Great Hall.
There, occupying the throne most lately taken by Iracebeth, a figure clad in black and violet waited; his long limbs were graceful and shapely, his torso a testament to the exquisite torture a corset wrought, black eyes glimmering with specks of violet in the shafts of fading evening light. With form and face of one with gelded beauty Ezraseur, King of Spades, sat watching the antics of his Fools as they tossed colourful juggling knives back and forth, slowly slicing to ribbons each other’s outfits, in a race to see which would break skin first, hair by hair, shred by shred.
Ezraseur was not the only audience for the Fools, however; beside him was a figure of halves, half-flesh, half-doll, a work of art unique to the Suite of Spades: Queen Annalace. Porcelain face devoid of all but a doll’s expression, her pale lavender eyes were the only source of life in her countenance, still warm and wet as she followed the Fools’ movements keenly. With spidery fingers of bone and inkbrass she toyed with the ends of her veil, the only movement as the rest of her sat still as stone, whirrs and clicks coming with every breath, every twitch of her fingers.
‘Your Majesty!’ the raven called as she came through the open window, circling above the throne. ‘Such news!’
Ezraseur raised a hand for the Fools to cease their play and shifted, holding out an arm for his courier; Annalace moved then, her flesh parts moving with different smoothness than her artificial ones as she turned to regard the raven—silently, for her lover had removed her voice box long ago.
‘Alice returns,’ the raven said after landing, ‘on a conveyance most curious, Your Majesty!’
To this, Ezraseur raised his brows. ‘Go on.’
‘I cannot describe it, but to say it was the top half of a house turned on its head, with great curtains on posts to catch the wind.’
Annalace’s head slowly tilted to one side, her clickings hastening with her excitement; one hand moved from her veil to clutch her husband’s arm.
‘Is that all?’ Ezraseur asked, his smile of amusement growing as the raven began to straighten her tail
‘No, Your Majesty!’ The raven paused, hesitant. ‘It is fell news, Your Majesty, I do not like telling it.’ She ruffled her feathers, strafed nervously, and continued in a low voice. ‘The Knave of Hearts lives.’
The smile fell almost audibly from the king’s black-stained lips; his face drew into lines of discontent. ‘Stayne?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty. He travels with the Champion.’
Fell news, indeed; however, his messenger was not the cause. Stroking gently at the feathers of the raven’s chest, Ezraseur fell into deep thought; Ilosovic Stayne being alive meant the Suite of Hearts had not fallen, that the Suite of Spades had no claim on Crims nor Queast. However… a smile curled his face once more, as he came up with a solution. Reaching into the pouch at his hip, he produced a token that had struck terror in the hearts of all who’d ever received it: Mercy's Fee. It was deceptively mundane, merely a coin of iron, stamped with a single Spade. The king handed it to the raven without ceremony; she clutched it in one talon.
Ezraseur’s voice was deceptively nonchalant as he stood, going over to the open window.
‘What knave?’ he said quietly, before moving his arm in silent bid for the courier to take off. The raven cackled as she spread her wings, bound for the unlucky recipient of the coin.
fii'nele - term of endearment. Asniiri. Translates to sweetheart, though literally means 'one coated in honey'.
The Forever Trees and the Forever Forest, are based heavily on the sequoia and coastal redwood forests. Hence the name 'forever', since redwoods are so long-lived.
Chapter 12: In Which the Adventurers Learn More About Each Other (and Snog), Alice Loses His Patience with Arguing, We Find Just How Lost the Ace of Spades Got, and Hamish Actually Does Something Adventurous
22 Sept 2010: Edited a few things after researching army ranks a bit more.
The fire was crackling happily, the tent—pavilion, really—sheltering them from the rain that was falling all around. Stayne had found provisions in the saddlebags, and they were eating the last of the blackmush stew when Latericia finally spoke. She had not since she’d let Stayne start the fire, and seemed lost in thought—or madness, it was difficult to tell.
‘I haven’t had mushroom in years.’
‘What did you live on, then?’
‘Flesh,’ Latericia said, gratefully taking the last bowl of stew. Everyone but Alice winced. Latericia continued after taking a sip of broth. ‘There’s nothing else to live on out here. Forever Forest doesn’t have eatable mushrooms.’
‘You do what you can,’ Alice offered kindly. ‘Anyway, you haven’t wasted them.’
‘Wasted?’ Tarrant was incredulous. ‘She killed something and ate it, Alice!’
‘Better than killing it and not eating it,’ Alice returned simply, poking the fire. ‘Up Top there’s all kinds of senseless waste. People kill animals for only small parts of them, like their teeth or horns or skins—or just because they’re in the way. The only people I’ve met who don’t waste life are the Asniiri—my friend Anand is Asniiri. They only eat pigs and fish, and they use the bones and the skins and all.’
‘Alice…’ Tarrant realised something and regarded Alice rather precariously. ‘Do… do you eat flesh?’
‘We don’t have mushrooms Up Top. Not ones that are any kind of nourishing.’ Alice watched the flames. ‘Anyway, I don’t plan on eating anyone.’
‘Better not,’ Keavhy said, though it was with good humour.
‘Can’t eat horses,’ Alice shot back cheerfully. ‘Too stringy.’
Latericia laughed, adding another bit of wood to the fire. ‘You’d do well in court, Champion.’
Between the patter of the raindrops, there was the sound of something heavier falling. All looked up, the horses pricking their ears as there was the dull ringing of metal striking one of the guy-pegs that they’d driven into the ground some hours before. There was the laugh of a raven, and her voice rang even through the din of the rain. ‘Knave! Knave!
‘The night falls, the wind squalls,
The screams shall be her feast.
She comes for thee so have thy fee
When Mercy comes to call!’
Alice knew the message of death when he heard it, and looked around at his companions. Tarrant clung to Alice, his knuckles white, face somehow drained of colour. He buried his face in Alice’s shoulder, murmuring something that sounded like a prayer and trembling. Knowing him, knowing his bravery, Alice was afraid; and he looked to the Cardians for their reactions. Both looked deadly serious, and Stayne rose like a man in a dream. Latericia hissed,
‘Don’t touch it!’
‘I have to, it’s for me.’
‘He’s a fool and a pip if he thinks we’ll be frightened so easily!’ She rose, and Alice could see the formidable ruler, the goddess-queen that Stayne so fondly painted with his words. Her head had not been held high before, nor her eyes so bright. Even through the roughness of her voice, Alice could hear the ringing tones that would penetrate the halls of Crims.
Something occurred to Alice, and as he wrapped arms around Tarrant, he spoke his mind. ‘Is this how it’s always done?’
The Cardians turned to her.
‘Yes,’ Latericia answered. ‘Why?’
‘Tarrant, did you get a coin?’ Alice asked, eyes narrowed in deep thought. He looked up at her, startled, eyes wide.
‘No,’ Stayne said, realising, ‘I was there.’
‘So she kills for fun as well?’
‘No. I see your thoughts—I don’t know why she hunted Tarrant.’
‘They’re overstepping their bounds!’ Latericia fumed, and Alice found himself pleased by her show of temper; it suited her, much more than the short sentences and the jerky, bird-like movements of before. She’d been calmer since they had set up camp, even smiling a little; but this message seemed to have shaken her completely out of her shell and given her back what life, what spirit she’d had before. ‘He has no right to put bounty on my—’
‘Pardon me, Majesty, but doesn’t he think you’re dead?’ Alice asked quietly, and when they looked to him, he was grinning mischievously. ‘There’s a great deal one can do, when one is thought dead,’ he went on. He found himself studied intently by the queen and her knave.
‘He has no reason to think I survived,’ she said slowly, catching on.
‘Then wouldn’t that make Stayne the last of the Hearts?’ Alice wasn’t sure how it worked, but if the King was dead and the Queen was dead, the next highest card was the Knave….
‘And if he wants me dead, that means he’s convinced I’m the last obstacle to the throne of Crims.’
‘That cheeky little monkey!’ Latericia hissed, half-furious, half-amused; Alice nearly laughed aloud, not expecting such a phrase from Up Top used in Underland.
‘One can’t blame him,’ Nymnurro said thoughtfully. ‘It is the nature of the Cardians.’
‘Is it?’ Alice murmured, raising a brow. ‘What bit, exactly?’
‘Stealing,’ Nymnurro replied.
‘Assassination,’ Tarrant added, against Alice’s neck. He had calmed, but it was very comfortable here by Alice’s neck, smelling his Alice smell and he hadn’t quite had the reunion with his Alice that he’d wanted. There was far too little kissing in it so far, and far too much adventure. He supposed that was what you got for being in love with the Champion.
‘Betrayal, scandal, games of power and deceit,’ Latericia recited, her temper cooling. ‘I’ve been away too long,’ she murmured with a soft sigh. Before she could again sit in her huddled place, Stayne caught her and pulled her into his lap. She gave a cry of surprise, and slapped him on reflex; he only laughed and held her close.
‘I’ve missed you so,’ he murmured against her hair. She laughed, turning to kiss him.
‘Silly boy,’ she said fondly, cupping the his reddening cheek. His eye was unfocussed and his expression dreamy, after the kiss. Alice smiled as he watched them—it was very unlike the fevered kissing he’d seen between his adulterous brother-in-law and whatever pretty maid he’d cornered. This, he fancied, was what True Love kisses looked like. Speaking of True Love and kisses… Alice realised that he was being held quite securely by someone he’d had rather suggestive dreams about for the past year, and cursed himself for only just now having it sink in.
‘Tarrant,’ he said softly, turning to look at the hatter, ‘Tarrant, I’ve missed you.’ He bit his lip, feeling ridiculous. What did one say in these situations? They’d been travelling together for the better part of the day, and yet—Alice thought to himself—he was only just now realising that here Tarrant was, for all intents and purposes very pleased to see him, and he’d just gone on like it had only been a week instead of a year? Alice sighed, face in his hands. ‘I’m so stupid…’
‘No!’ Tarrant had no idea why Alice was proclaiming such a thing, and caught his face, tilting his head up to look at Tarrant. ‘You’re the smartest, Muchiest person I’ve ever met and—’ It sort of deteriorated from there, because Alice was looking at him and then suddenly leaning forward and Tarrant wasn’t going to argue with Alice’s ideas, and this one was a very good Alice-idea, and he tasted very lovely, like the sea and a little bit of blood and underneath there was the Muchy taste of Alice, and he’d never gotten to really, properly kiss his Alice before—it was marvellous….
Alice was having difficulty not just throwing himself at Tarrant—especially after turning down so many proposals after his short stay in Asniir, where sex was free and celebrated; or earnest, quiet propositions by some of the crew of the Wonder. Alice could have ‘eased his tension’ (as they so delicately put it on the ship); but hadn’t because no one was really, exactly like Tarrant or Underland and…. As he lay his head against Tarrant’s shoulder, catching his breath, Alice reflected Underland was—had been—the home he’d sought, ever since going the first time. It was heady, it was confusing sometimes, and he’d not known whether to like or hate it when he’d been small—but now, he was here. He’d only gotten here that morning, and already he felt right at home discussing Cardian politics and strategising, kissing a man with lips unnaturally pink and eyes eerie green that wasn’t all there. It seemed completely… normal; so unlike the world Up Top, that had seemed to make less and less sense the more he stayed in it.
‘What are you thinking of, Alice?’ Tarrant was saying, and Alice leaned back to look at him.
‘I’m home,’ he replied, ‘I just realised that.’ He could feel how wide his smile was—it felt… not quite as strange now, but strange enough. Smiles that big were rare for Alice, and he could count them; most came from Underland.
Tarrant’s answering smile was enough to break Alice’s heart into a thousand little pieces that skipped about joyously… and then Tarrant had squashed the breath out of him in an embrace.
‘Home,’ he repeated, so pleased he could barely speak. ‘Yes, home.’
‘Tarrant, I can’t breathe,’ Alice managed, trying to sound gentle but only managing to sound like he was suffocating. The hatter let go of him in a hurry.
He sounded so worried, his brows tilted up in such earnestness, that Alice couldn’t help but laugh and kiss him again.
‘Parade your fortune in our faces, will you?’ Keavhy muttered, and Alice looked up to see that while he’d been kissing Tarrant, Stayne and the queen were nearly undressing each other, hands wandering as feverishly as—well, Alice had seen quite a bit while wandering around the ship, including (notably) stumbling across Langley and Malii belowdecks, the quartermaster with a hand quite deeply between the sawbones’ legs and it had been rather… educational.
Stayne and his queen were murmuring breathlessly in a language that sounded almost Latin and nearly at the point Langley and Malii had been; Stayne only smirked at Keavhy’s protest.
‘You have each other,’ he said simply, before burying his face in Latericia’s cleavage once more (it was, Alice realised, quite the most prodigious cleavage he’d ever seen).
Alice, however, cleared his throat.
‘Er,’ he managed, congratulating himself on not looking away in embarrassment this time, ‘I was thinking, perhaps we ought to stop at… a…’ he groped for a word. ‘Well, we need clothes before much longer. I didn’t bring any, and er, Her Majesty…’
‘I’ll make you clothes,’ Tarrant said immediately, and there was a flash of a very different sort of colour in his eyes as he caught Alice in his arms again, burying his hands in the boy’s blond hair. ‘And hats,’ he continued, sounding quite aroused, Alice realised as Tarrant went on, ‘and shoes, and…’
‘You were the Chessian hatter, weren’t you?’ Latericia didn’t speak as imperiously as she could have, knowing what it was to be reunited—but she hadn’t had proper clothes in so long, and the thought of having them again, so close… ‘Can you corset?’
‘Of course!’ Tarrant was nearly offended as he nearly glared at her.
‘I haven’t had a proper corset in so long…’ she murmured, red eyes hungry; Alice was almost sure she was leering at his beloved, until he heard the queen speak further. ‘Nor skirts or shoes or…’ A happy sigh. ‘I miss my clothes, Ilosovic. She destroyed them, didn’t she?’
‘I hid them,’ Stayne said, ‘since she told me to “take care of them”.’
Alice laughed at that, trying to stifle it lest he be considered rude—but everyone else was laughing as well, so Alice relaxed.
‘Oh, clever boy!’ Latericia cupped her knave’s face and kissed it. ‘My sweet Heart…’
‘Latericia,’ Stayne was blushing, unused to her effusive affection while others were watching. Especially those he’d hurt… ‘Please…’
‘Go on,’ Nym whickered. ‘You deserve it.’
‘Idunno ‘bout that,’ Keavhy snapped back. ‘I mean, fire an’ death an’ slaughter—’
‘But if he swore to serve the Queen, he couldn’t help but do what Iracebeth said. So really…’ Alice faltered. ‘Iracebeth was really…’ he trailed off, just realising the enormity of the woman he’d thought so… almost comical. ‘Oh my God…’
‘Yes,’ Stayne said grimly, not really knowing what the phrase meant, but able enough to guess.
‘It’s hard to understand,’ Latericia spoke quietly. ‘She looks harmless, and Ilosovic has always looked fiercer than he is.’
‘I can be fierce,’ Stayne protested in a quiet voice. His queen laughed—though not unkindly.
‘Yes, when you speak of your hatred of my husband!’ she chuckled. ‘You are a Heart, not a cold-blooded Spade. You are sweet,’ and she touched his face. ‘Even if you don’t remember.’
‘I am not as sweet as all that anymore,’ Stayne insisted bitterly.
‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself!’ Keavhy sniped. ‘Whiny little—’
‘We need to get this out in the air,’ Alice said sharply, eyes flashing, ‘but not like small-minded people. Stayne was the Queen’s right hand, her sword. He killed a lot of people, Your Majesty Latericia. A lot of innocent people that Tarrant and Keavhy knew.’
‘And me,’ Latericia said quietly. ‘She made him give me the poison.’ She arched her brow in challenge to them, ‘and I know it was not his will.’ She caressed his face fondly, voice soft and cooing. ‘He is not wilful, my Ilosovic. He wants for a mistress, to give him will of her own.’ She threaded fingers through his black hair. ‘Truly I am sorry for your losses; but it is not to him you should point your ire—tis to the brat.’
‘She’s stuck wi’ the sheep,’ Keavhy muttered. ‘I hope one of the ewes kicks her.’
Latericia laughed. ‘It is not my dungeon, tormented by my cousins; but it will do, perhaps. For now,’ she amended with a savage kind of anticipation.
‘We could punish her the way they do on ships,’ Alice said darkly, poking up the fire.
‘How’s that?’ Tarrant asked, and Alice shivered at the flash of red eyes and dark growl.
‘Everyone gets one snap of the whip at her,’ Alice said. ‘Or a cut, depending. Usually a blow with a whip or a cat-o-nine-tails—that’s a whip with nine lashes on it.’
‘Such weapons Up Top!’ Latericia sounded delighted. ‘We have whips here, but never named so colourfully.’
‘It’s also called the Captain’s Daughter,’ Alice said helpfully. ‘Captain Jaya used it but little on the ship, but I’ve been lashed before,’ he said, surprised at the pride in his voice. It nearly made him laugh, since he always thought it a poor thing to be proud of when the others spoke of it. There was something in it after all, he supposed, though he couldn’t think what—other than being treated like one of the crew, rather than ‘like a lady’. ‘I, er, wasn’t paying attention and nearly got myself beheaded by the boom and—you all have no earthly idea what a boom is, do you?’
‘A loud noise?’ Tarrant offered hopefully, red fading with confusion and curiosity.
‘A sharp animal?’ Latericia added.
‘It’s… well, the sail of a ship catches the wind, right?’ Alice groped around for a stick, and started to draw a rough diagram of a ship in the dirt. ‘This,’ he pointed with the stick. ‘Is the mast, the sail is attached to the mast and—’ he drew another line. ‘The boom, here. The boom can swing back and forth, so you can catch the wind no matter which direction it’s blowing. Usually you don’t want to move the boom too quickly, but sometimes you need to and that’s what we were doing when I was off in a daydream. It nearly hit me.’
‘I’ve been lashed,’ Tarrant said in sudden remembrance, voice darkening, eyes reflecting the orange of the fire. ‘Lashed, cut, burned—’
‘Tarrant!’ Alice shook his shoulder, trying to snap him out of it. It didn’t work, and Alice kissed him fiercely. ‘Tarrant,’ he said again, and was worried when that didn’t work either.
‘I swear by the Chalice, I was as gentle as I could possibly be with you,’ Stayne murmured, unable to meet Tarrant’s eyes as he added more fuel to their fire.
‘So ye say,’ Tarrant growled. ‘Even swearin’ by yer slurking, mimsy Chalice—’
‘One does not idly swear by the Chalice!’
‘Ye frumious bastard, that flail cut to bone!’ Tarrant was on his feet, eyes blazing.
‘Yes and I dressed it!’ Stayne couldn’t rise, his queen was on his lap, but he needed to make them understand…. ‘After I was through, after I could…’
‘That doesn’t change—’
‘I tried to help!’ Stayne interrupted, desperation putting a different-coloured edge to his fury.
‘—and the snark-spines you stuck all over me and left there?’
‘—weren’t snark spines or you’d be dead—’
‘—and the Ulimosh cuffs and the—’
‘All right ye pack’f mangy bilge-rats!’ Alice was on his feet, bellowing as loud as he could. Both men were so surprised they stopped to stare at him, and he glared at both, ‘shutcher cock-sockets ‘fore I lash the lot of ye!’ Alice finished in a low growl he didn’t even know he had. He’d heard enough talk like this from his ship-mates, though he’d not had occasion (until just then) to use it himself. Taking a breath, he folded his arms.
‘I said shut it, Tarrant,’ Alice snapped. He glared at Stayne and Tarrant—and Keavhy and Nym, for good measure. ‘If you can’t all get along like—like grown-up people—then I suggest you go the hell back home; I’ve never seen so much childishness in my life, by Christ!’
‘But Alice—’ Tarrant began again.
‘We’ve already established you should be baying for Iracebeth’s blood, Tarrant! You were the one that told me promises can’t be broken!’
He closed his mouth, lowering his hand meekly. ‘Yes sir,’ he said quietly, unable to argue the point. Besides, it was hard to argue logically with it—and with Alice. Especially Alice all ire and fury like that, not crying-angry but furious. It was terrible and beautiful; Tarrant was finding it hard to think at all.
‘Now,’ Alice said, feeling a little calmer as he began to pace, dragging his hands through his hair, ‘we’re heading into enemy waters now, we have to be careful—especially since by all accounts we’re being hunted.’
The stars were different, twinkling in the night in wholly alien patterns, the moon too far away, too white; the lawns were cold and cut as fine as a carpet, the flowers sound asleep as though dead. Misericordea skittered across the grounds, flitting in and out of the hedgerows and flower beds, narrow feet barely touching the ground, pausing to crouch, araneiform, on top of a statue or on a branch, before evaporating in wisps of black smoke.
Two dogs, wandering the grounds on guard, caught scent of something out of place and began to bark, sniffing the air in their quest to find the disappearing scent. Catching the smell as the wind shifted, they raced across the grounds, barking before changing direction as the intruder appeared somewhere else. Tree, fence, flowerbed… the dogs were running everywhere, furious and frustrated as the long-limbed, multi-eyed monster appeared and disappeared like a dream, until it was perched on the side of the house.
Both dogs were at a loss as to how it could have escaped them, but planted themselves at the wall, pacing and barking, relieved when they heard the voice of their keeper, the thin light of a lantern crossing the lawns from the gamekeeper’s cottage. Though he lifted his lantern high, the half-moon and the shadows from the trees surrounding the west side of the manor house made the creature difficult to make out. It was human-sized, and he gave the dogs a sharp orders to stay as he made his way to the doorman, who was just coming down the front steps in a hurry, his hair mussed.
‘Milord wishes to—’
‘Thief or summat,’ said the groundskeeper shortly. ‘Best wake the menfolk. Dogs have’im treed but ‘e got on the west side of the ‘ouse.’
The doorman’s eyes widened, and he ran back inside without another word. The groundskeeper was glad of his rifle as he went back, but wasn’t prepared for the sudden appearance of a—thing—on his back. There was the squelch of two spikes digging between his ribs, and through his haze he could register the face that swam into view—his wounds weren’t high enough to affect his yell, and the mocking laugh of his assailant harmonised with it before she sliced his throat.
The dogs had eluded her knives, their lack of intelligence making them impossible to frighten; she was an intruder, they were bound to attack. Climbing up the side of the house, her elongated fingers grasped ledges, dug into crevices, as she heard the house beneath her stir in fright. Her lips curled into a smile as she heard the screams of the women, and the harried voices of the men, the twitches of curtain and drape, worried eyes looking out, latches rattling hopefully before hands were pulled away in a rush.
Inside the house, Lord Ascot was attempting to take hold of the situation; the dogs were still barking outside, but there had been a sickening scream—and he knew the screamer was likely dead. This was no mere thief, then, but a madman, a murderer. He ordered the housekeeper to usher the women into the innermost room of the house, and badly wished he had more than two soldiers here as guests as he had the servants wake the rest of the gentlemen.
Hamish was the first out of his room, slamming the door shut and holding it. ‘It got in!’ he yelled, his voice desperate as he braced a foot on the doorframe, fighting with the—the thing—on the other side. He heard his valet coming down the hall, along with Henry Blakeney, the only other boy Hamish’s age.
‘Blakeney!’ Hamish called, struggling, the door snapping open a worrying inch; horrid black fingers slid through the crack before pulling back as Hamish threw his weight into pulling the door closed again.
The taller boy leapt to his aid immediately, his hands joining Hamish’s at the crystal doorknob. As he pulled, and felt the strength he was pulling against, he gave a laugh as though they were only at a game.
‘You’re stronger than you seem, aren’t you?’
‘Thank you, but this is hardly the time for compliments!’ Hamish strained.
‘Wentworth,’ Blakeney called down the hall to his valet, ‘we’ve got the blighter trapped in Mister Ascot’s room.’
‘Hamish, I’ll hold this alone; tell everyone you can to get their hands on a pistol and come back here! I can’t hold this forever, and it’s—’ The door gave a worrying shudder. ‘—going to figure out another way in, eventually!’
Hamish nodded, letting go and running, glad to be away from whatever it was; Blakeney was far more equipped to fight monsters anyway, tall and strong and valiant as he was, just like his father. Hamish wasn’t suited to that, as much as he wished he were; as he ran down the first-floor flight of stairs, he had a fleeting thought that seemed out-of-place: the fervent wish that Alice was here. She, surely, would know what to do…
‘Hamish!’ Lord Ascot almost literally ran into his son on the landing between the ground and first floors.
‘It’s in my room,’ Hamish panted, feeling his heart race painfully; he thought he might be sick any moment. ‘Blakeney’s got the door—said to—get pistols…’ He put a hand on the railing, breathing hard for long moments.
Hamish looked up at his father, and Lord Ascot didn’t like the haunted look on his son’s face.
‘Whatever it is… it’s not human,’ Hamish answered with a shudder. ‘Too many eyes.’
‘Ascot!’ called a voice, and Lord Ascot saw that Sir George, Blakeney’s father, had taken over leading the guests; he’d managed to throw on something more than a dressing-down, and though his hair had been finger-combed, and he was only in shirtsleeves, he still looked more awake and prepared than the men with him.
‘It’s in Hamish’s room,’ Lord Ascot said, pausing to address to his son. ‘Hamish, fetch someone for the dogs—I have a feeling they’ll be useful.’ He started up the stairs.
‘Which dogs?’ Hamish called helplessly at his retreating back, completely at a loss.
‘All of them, lad!’ Sir George called as he passed. Hamish pressed himself into a corner of the landing while the other men followed, before going down the final flights of stairs to the ground floor.
Upstairs, Misericordea had tired of pulling at the door and had backed away, mustering her strength. She’d used up her energy for evaporating away from the dogs, or this would have been a simple exercise; but she could still vanish into the shadows, and there were plenty of them in this cluttered room. She retreated into the darkness, climbing up to balance on one of the posts of the bed to wait. Curiosity would make them open the door, curiosity was always on her side….
By the time his father got to him, Blakeney had cautiously slackened his hold on the door.
‘Hamish is on his way with the dogs,’ Lord Ascot said, ‘what is it?’
‘It stopped,’ Blakeney said quietly. ‘Some little time ago, about three minutes.’
‘Hamish said it wasn’t human.’
‘No human would make a noise like what I heard.’ This was from Colonel Sewell, an old soldier in his sixties who was holding a rifle on one shoulder. His face, normally laughing, was grim. ‘Might be an ape of some sort, they’re cunning enough to get away from dogs.’
Lord Ascot wasn’t sure—Hamish had mentioned eyes, too many eyes to be human. The only creatures that had more than two eyes were small, though—spiders, insects. Nothing big enough to kill a full-grown man.
‘Kick in the door,’ Sir George was saying, ‘we’re more than a match for this beast, whatever it is!’
This could be agreed upon, and Blakeney backed up, unlatching the door before kicking it—the sound would surely startle anything inside.
They found an empty room, the French doors to the balcony closed, the curtains making the moonlight shift strangely, painting shadows into flitting creatures.
‘Where is it?’ Lord Ascot asked as he searched the darkness.
‘Did you catch a glimpse of it, boy?’ Sir George asked his son.
‘Only black fingers,’ Blakeney said in a low voice, taking a pistol from his father. ‘Long and thin, with black claws.’
There was a chittering sound from above, and all eyes looked up, toward the noise, to see the slightest shifting as something near the ceiling moved. There was the deafening crack of a gunshot, a scream that sounded like a woman’s, and the thump of a body hitting the floor.
‘Good shot, Colonel!’ Sir George said, stepping carefully over. ‘That was you, wasn’t it?’
‘My eyes aren’t too old, yet,’ he answered.
There was a wet sound of laboured breathing, and Lord Ascot carefully made his way to the night-table, where a lamp waited unlit. He turned up the glow as he brought it over, and held it high, that its light would fall over the black creature. As the light fell in dim glow over the thing, he felt lost for words—it was something unspeakable, this horror that his friend had shot.
‘God in Heaven!’ Sir George’s bonhomie was dashed by the sight. ‘What is it?’
The thing had a flat face, looked as though it might have once been a woman, except for the extra eyes, half-closed and black; and the long limbs, the black lips and the impossible thinness… but one couldn’t help thinking it a woman. Blood like ink seeped from a wound in its narrow shoulder.
‘Is it a woman?’ Blakeney breathed, hoping it wasn’t. ‘It…’
The thing hissed, and seemed to go wispy around the edges as it moved, breaths wet and sticking. Another chittering sound, and from the movement of black lips it was clear she was laughing. She twitched, but before they could get their weapons drawn again her long fingers had clasped around Blakeney’s ankle and pulled. As he fell, he suddenly found himself beneath her, the tang of her blood filling his nostrils as she crouched over him and slowly bared her teeth in a smile, before hissing again; he threw up his arm as she lunged to bite with her shining fangs, and stifled his cry in vain as they dug into his flesh like needles.
‘She’s too narrow, you’ll hit the boy!’
‘Where are the dogs?’ Blakeney called desperately. The spider-woman pulled off him, her mouth stained with his blood, and laughed her chittering laugh again.
‘Where are the dogs?’ she mocked, and—disappeared—right before his eyes. There was only black smoke where she’d been, and Blakeney cradled his injured arm as he slowly got up, reaching for the hand Lord Sidcup offered. The older man looked pale—Blakeney knew he wasn’t built for fighting, but one didn’t speak of such things to men of Sidcup’s station.
‘Are you all right, boy?’ Sir George was trying to hide his worry—but Blakeney was his only son.
‘Fine,’ Blakeney said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. His arm was throbbing badly, her long teeth having dug in deeply.
‘Not for long!’ the creature taunted with a giggle.
‘What do you mean, not long?’ Blakeney called, though he was already feeling a little strange, his head light as his vision began to go off-kilter. ‘Oh…’ he said, stumbling a little. ‘I see…’
There was the sound of baying and barking down the hall, and scrabbling claws on the floor; soon the room was filled with hounds, with the two guard dogs, even the bloodhound; Hamish had followed the instructions, and seemed to have emptied the kennels entirely. There was a shriek as one got its teeth into her, and the crunch of bone.
‘Don’t kill it!’ Sir George cried, wading through the dogs. ‘Don’t kill it, damn you! It’s poisoned him!’
Lord Ascot and Colonel Sewell were pulling back the dogs; Hamish ran to his friend just as Blakeney swayed like a drunken man. Lord Sidcup was sternly holding back two of the hounds by the collar, and each of the others had taken to holding back the brace of hounds, though the guard dog refused to let go of his prize, dragging the spider-woman with him as he was dragged back by his master.
‘He’s got hold of her leg,’ Lord Ascot called as the creature was dragged into the light once more.
‘I don’t have the antidote,’ she was saying faintly, blood bubbling under her words as more blood seeped into her lungs. ‘Useless to ask me…’ she grinned, her long, pointed teeth stained with Blakeney’s blood.
‘Who does?’ Hamish found himself saying severely, as he steadied Blakeney in a chair, little minding the blood that was getting everywhere. It was easier to deal with in the half-dark, where it looked like ink. He wished he had his handkerchief, something, anything to stem the flow of blood.
‘I might,’ Lord Ascot said, as he thought of the box of medicines Captain Jaya had given him. There was an antidote in there….
‘Stay, I’ll fetch it.’ The quiet voice of Sir Frederick had not yet sounded, the man more a listener than a talker; but he hurried from the room, knowing from when Lord Ascot had shown him where the box of exotic medicines was.
‘You don’t,’ the creature said, sounding just as amused half-dying as she had before the dog had got hold of her. More amused, possibly.
‘You think this is funny, don’t you?’ Hamish was horrified. She laughed in reply.
‘You’re mad!’ Lord Sidcup had a knack for stating the obvious.
‘We’re all mad, here.’
Hamish paused, staring at her. He’d only ever heard one person say that before, and it had been Alice… visions of vanishing cats that grinned, mad people named after cards and chess pieces, a hatter, a hare, a dormouse and mushrooms that made you taller or smaller flitted through his mind. Alice’s dream, the one she always had, the one she always talked about… but there had never been any monster like this in her dreams—not a spider, only a caterpillar and a gnat.
‘I know who has the antidote,’ he was surprised at how steady his voice was. ‘She’s not here.’ He looked to his father.
‘What are you saying?’ Lord Ascot nearly had an idea, but it was impossible….
‘If we’re asking questions,’ Blakeney said weakly, trying to smile through his haze of sick wooziness. ‘I want to know what’s poisoned me, exactly. What is she?’
‘The Ace of Spades,’ came the answer, the fangs flashing in a grin. ‘And what—’ she coughed. ‘—delicious weapon from Up Top—’ Her voice was thicker and thicker with blood, breaths shallow now. ‘—killed me?’
‘Stay alive, damn you!’
‘It burns…’ she breathed with euphoria in her voice, little heeding the desperate anger of Sir George, well past caring about the mastiff hanging doggedly to her spindly leg. ‘Oh, how it burns… yes….’
‘Always knew cards would come back to bite me in the end,’ Blakeney said, with a dreamy sort of humour. ‘Didn’t think it’d be lit’rally, but…’
‘Shut up, Blakeney,’ Hamish said, putting a hand on Blakeney’s uninjured shoulder, ‘just… just shut up and breathe.’ It was something Alice had told Hamish often enough, when the latter complained of faintness (Alice never had much patience for Hamish’s delicacy).
‘Get the dogs out of here, all of you. And someone fetch a doctor,’ Lord Ascot said sharply to the others, knowing they could at least help with that. The butler was already at the door, along with the biggest of the footmen. They helped with the dogs. ‘You stay here, Colonel, please.’ Lord Ascot added, not wanting to be completely impolite, even at so grave a situation as this.
Sir Frederick arrived only moments after the mastiff was finally persuaded to let go of the creature’s leg, carrying the carved box from Lord Ascot’s study.
‘It’s the book I want,’ Lord Ascot crossed the room as Sir Frederick set the box down on a spare table, and Lord Ascot keyed it open, searching the compartments until he found the little booklet, written in the neat handwriting of the Sawbones of the Wonder. ‘Venom, venom…’ he muttered, looking over the index. ‘Fish, snake—here, spider….’
Hamish wasn’t at all sure there was any literature about the venom from this spider; he tried to think. What would Alice do? What would Alice think of, if the Ace of Spades had bitten her? What did he know about the Ace of Spades, Hamish thought frantically, as he held tightly to his friend’s hand; he wished he hadn’t been so dismissive of Alice before, so eager to forget her half-mad little ramblings.
‘Who’s got this antivenom?’
Hamish was startled from his thought by Sir George, who’d come up beside them.
‘I—Alice,’ Hamish stammered. ‘Alice would know. It’s… it’s her dream.’
‘Felt quite real, old thing,’ Blakeney said, eyes half-closed, his body starting to twitch.
‘Alice?’ The dying creature on the floor gained a bit of life in rage. ‘Alice?’
‘You know her?’
She spat. ‘Meddling brat!’ she hissed, froth on her black lips as she struggled to sit up, ‘should have killed—’ a fit of coughing blurred her next words, but it was clear she was cursing. ‘—when I had the chance!’
Lord Ascot paused, one hand holding the book, the other holding a clear phial of something yellowish and watery. Hamish’s guess, from the sound of the creature’s rage, had been right.
‘What did she say about this creature, Hamish?’ he asked, trying to keep his voice low and logical.
‘The devil are you two talking about?’ Sir George snapped.
‘The rabbit hole, the one in the garden,’ Hamish explained shortly, impatient. ‘It leads to another world, apparently.’ He looked back to his father. ‘Nothing, she never mentioned Spades, only Hearts.’
‘This is what I like about you,’ Blakeney said, still smiling despite the pain and the twitching, ‘you’re as mad as a hatter.’
‘You should meet Alice,’ Hamish muttered. ‘Father, I’m going,’ he said, having made a decision. He was the only one that knew enough, and that wasn’t saying much but it was something.
‘Well if you’re going, then at least dress for it,’ Sir George said, Hamish’s matter-of-fact nonsense having been the last straw. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but the creature—woman—dying on the floor was proof enough that mad things were currently all around him. If some Fae world at the bottom of a rabbit hole had the antidote that would save his son’s life then by God, he would accept that. Stranger things had happened to his father, after all.
‘I’ll wear boots,’ was all Hamish replied on his way out, determined. He wasn’t very good at adventure, but Blakeney needed him and the older boy had been nothing but a steadfast friend since he’d been introduced to Hamish; the least Hamish could do—the decent thing—was to go find that damned rabbit hole and see if he couldn’t find Alice’s Wonderland. So, he was going to go put on boots and maybe hunting tweeds, and take useful things he’d never used, like a pocket-knife and some string (string was always useful, wasn’t it?), and perhaps some of the things in that medicine kit, and go down to that tree Alice had always liked, and the hole she’d liked more, and hopefully—Hamish wasn’t sure how to purposely fall down a rabbit-hole in a way that didn’t break one’s neck—he’d get to Wonderland relatively unscathed.
After that, he could always ask directions.
Chapter 13: In Which Iracebeth is Reminded of Her Debts, Alice Climbs a Tree, Hamish Meets All Sorts of Strange People (and Offends Them) and Chessur Shows His Gratitude for Quality Skritchies
Summer made the Outlands beautiful, the hillsides rippling with heather and the skies clear and bright. The wind from the sea still crept with fingers of ice across the moorland; but, as Iracebeth sat on the side of one of the many hills and watched the small flock of sheep, long shepherd’s crook leaning against one narrow shoulder, she reflected that—for the first time in her life—she wanted nothing more than what she was doing. Sighing happily, she kicked out her booted feet as she sat in the grass, and leaned back. The occasional bleats of the sheep, their coats short-cropped from the spring shearing, were the only sound aside from the distant roar of the sea and the occasional bark of the watch-dog when one of the flock strayed a little too far.
Looking out over the ofttimes-forbidding hills—hills that were now covered in a sea of fragrant heather, Iracebeth smiled, tracing the staff with her fingers, the familiar wobbles and curves worn smooth from years of hands upon them.
‘Why have you not paid your due?’
Iracebeth jumped at the voice, breath catching in her throat, the staff tumbling off her shoulder and into the grass as she startled. Beside her, standing as though It had always been there, blending with the landscape despite Its precise and slightly-whimsical appearance, was the speaker.
‘I—well,’ Iracebeth scrambled for a reason. ‘I’ve been thinking on it,’ she said meekly. Its face remained unimpressed.
‘I gave you a task to pay for your boon.’
Iracebeth, like all Underlandians, knew there was no arguing with It; but she couldn’t help herself. ‘But it’s impossible!’ she insisted. ‘There is no Ace of Hearts, there hasn’t been for—’ Iracebeth faltered at the look on Its face, and her sentence died in her throat.
‘I will take back what is mine, th—’
‘No!’ Iracebeth cried, catching its sleeve desperately. ‘No!’ She didn’t want to lose this life, not now, not after all she’d learned and known and done; she didn’t want to spend more time out in the middle of the moors alone and afraid.
‘Then pay your due.’ Its sleeve was no longer in her hand, though she couldn’t think how—but that was the way of It. Iracebeth couldn’t recall exactly why, but one was never quite able to touch It for long.
‘I… but who will look after the sheep?’ she asked. It gave her a severe look in response, one that made her feel rather younger than she was; she hung her head. ‘I’ll go at first light, tomorrow,’ she said miserably.
Thankfully none of the contents of the knapsack had been broken when he fell to the tiled floor of the circular room. As he closed the pack back up again, Hamish looked around and was also grateful he hadn’t fallen on (and surely broken) the glass table that dominated the centre of the chamber. He was bruised enough without also being lacerated by shards of—
Had that bottle been there before?
‘Do you know how to build these ships that travel on the sea?’ Latericia said as they travelled further south, the Forever Forest giving way to a wood that Alice found more familiar. The queen rode on Nymnurro, Stayne walking beside her. Alice had let Tarrant have a turn riding Keavhy, and was truthfully having more fun climbing through the underbrush as they travelled.
‘Not really,’ Alice answered.
‘But you know what they look like, how they should work,’ Latericia reasoned as Stayne moved a low-hung branch aside so it wouldn’t hit her face as she rode on. ‘Perhaps if you worked with an architect…’
‘Better a carpenter, Your Majesty,’ Alice corrected. ‘But ships are made of wood, you know.’
‘Of course they are,’ Latericia agreed, though not as unkindly as most; for that, Alice was grateful. As much as he liked Underland, the constant assumption he knew how it worked was irritating.
‘So cutting down trees…?’ Alice left the thought hanging, not sure how to finish it.
‘We build with trees,’ Latericia said with a nod.
‘It’s the same Up Top,’ Alice said with relief. ‘Most things are wood, though in Asniir they build with sand and glass; they don’t have a lot of wood.’
‘Wouldn’t houses of sand be washed away in the rain?’ Tarrant asked curiously; he’d spent hours building things out of the sand on the beach, watching the tide reclaim them.
‘Not if you mix the sand with other things,’ Alice replied, jumping up to catch a low-hanging branch and swinging himself up.
‘What are you doing?’ Stayne asked, unable to help smiling as he watched the boy scramble with the ease of a squirrel.
‘I want to see where we are,’ Alice called down, already near the top.
‘Don’t fall!’ Tarrant called, worried.
‘Don’t be silly, Tarrant!’ Alice called back. ‘I was Lookout, you know!’ As he pulled himself to the tree’s highest boughs, balancing with a hand securely gripping the trunk, he found he could poke his head above the canopy. The view was breathtaking, the green canopy extending all around; Alice got down to the business of being Lookout in moments, however, and squinted, shading his eyes from the sun as he peered in all directions.
Looking back north, from whence they’d come, he saw the forest get taller; looking south, where they were going, the canopy was so green it nearly looked blue; to the west he saw the trees lift up as foothills gave way to mountains shrouded in mist, snow on their peaks; and to the east, the trees suddenly ended, the wind from the east hot and dry.
‘Is Crims to the east?’ he called down.
‘Aye!’ Latericia called up, having adopted the phrase after Alice telling her more about sailing. The whole subject fascinated her greatly, and she liked the new word over the familiar synonyms.
‘What do you see?’ Stayne’s voice carried rather better than his queen’s.
Alice climbed higher, straining to see eastward. There were large shapes wheeling overhead, quite unlike the falcons and songbirds nearby… he couldn’t help ducking back down as one that was quite close dove closer with a terrible cry.
‘Alice!’ Tarrant was off Keavhy and halfway to his dagger.
Alice climbed down quickly, keeping his head. ‘I’m fine,’ he called, as soon as he found a safer—lower—place to be.
‘I heard a jub-jub bird!’
‘Come down!’ Latericia added. ‘They have a good sense of smell!’
Alice had seen all he needed to and obeyed, jumping the last of the way down and spreading his arms to show he was unscathed. Tarrant caught him in a tight embrace immediately.
‘Don’t do things like that!’
‘Tarrant, I’m not made of glass,’ Alice protested, struggling. When Tarrant let go, Alice leaned back and studied his face. ‘What’s got into you?’
Tarrant’s brows knit in worry. ‘I don’t know,’ he confessed with a frown, after long moments of thought, ‘only that I can’t lose you again, Alice. Not that you’re Lost-lost, or even prone to getting misplaced; but—’ he pulled Alice close again. ‘Please don’t go away again.’
Understanding, Alice resisted the urge to sigh ‘Oh, Tarrant’, fearing it would sound too much like a romance-novel heroine—or Margaret, which was worse. Instead he just hugged back fiercely. ‘I’m not going to leave you, not this time.’ He looked up into those big green eyes, transfixed for a few moments before he remembered what he’d been going to say. ‘You’re all I’ve thought about since I left, I…’ He laughed a little. ‘I still can’t quite believe I’m here again, having a… a quite more agreeable adventure, this time.’
‘Much more agreeable,’ he said after a long moment. He kissed Alice’s forehead in a thoughtful way. ‘Much, much more agreeable.’
‘I’m more prepared this time,’ Alice reminded him with a fond little smile.
‘Shall we continue south?’ Nymnurro asked, nostrils flaring as he smelled the wind. ‘It wouldn’t be wise to travel into the desert without supplies.’
‘Is there a town nearby, hatter?’ Latericia asked politely.
Tarrant shook his head to clear it, and looked over to the queen. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said, ‘we should be there by brillig, if we can find the road.’
‘Road?’ Nymnurro turned, following as Tarrant mounted Keavhy once more. The hatter looked back at them.
‘Yes, road. It’s one of the old Diamond Roads.’
Alice, walking beside Keavhy, brushed his hair from his face. ‘Diamonds? What do they do?’ He thought it a safe thing, assuming Tarrant was referring to the suite and not the rock.
‘Trade,’ Latericia said with a smile. ‘Diamonds are traders, merchants, and skilled labourers. Most of my clothes were Diamond-made, from Snud.’
Idly, Alice wondered what corsets were boned with, if not bone. He’d heard of steel, of course, but it rusted… did mushrooms provide something like bone as well?
‘I studied under the Ten for a bit,’ Tarrant was saying, ‘he was a friend of my grandda’s.’
‘Which?’ Keavhy asked. ‘Fervin or Evannack?’
‘Fervin,’ Tarrant answered, ‘Evannack turned to trade, himself, after gettin’ across the mountains.’
‘Haetopps,’ Keavhy explained to Alice, ‘are weavers. But ye can’t keep a flock of sheep in a wood.’
‘That’s why all the wool comes from the Outlands,’ Latericia added, ‘there are no woods there, only open land.’
‘And the silk?’ Alice asked, remembering the acres and acres of silk that Mirana wore.
‘Caterpillars, of course. How do you get it Up Top?’
‘Caterpillars,’ Alice said, ‘but we call them silkworms.’
‘One shouldn’t call a caterpillar a worm,’ Nymnurro advised, ‘they don’t take it very well.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Alice said, wondering about other caterpillars. ‘I’ve only ever met the one caterpillar, you know,’ he said, ‘Absolem, I mean.’
‘He’s not the right kind to make silk,’ Tarrant said. ‘Silk-spinners are usually less colourful. All the colour is on the inside, y’see.’
They’d been travelling for some time, and Alice had learned a great deal more about Underland in those minutes than he’d learned in all his other visits, when they came to an overgrown path through the trees. The wheel-ruts were deep, and not even the sorrel and wildflowers could fill them in. They shimmered in the light filtering through the canopy, filled with water as they were.
‘Old indeed,’ Latericia remarked as they moved onto it, ‘it isn’t paved.’
‘Time doesn’t like paved roads,’ Tarrant said immediately, then paused, as though he wasn’t sure why he’d said it.
‘I don’t like them either,’ Keavhy said.
‘Barefoot, are you?’ Nymnurro asked curiously.
‘I was born wi’out shoes and I’ll die wi’out them,’ Keavhy declared firmly.
‘That,’ Hamish declared to no one in particular—but secretly Alice—upon finally getting out of the room full of doors, ‘was, I feel, unnecessarily complicated.’
He looked about him, at the overgrown forest that might have been a garden at some point, at the green pigs and the strange flies that buzzed around him—he waved the latter away with a wince at their size—and took a deep breath of the rather lovely air. It smelled like roses and something fresh and green that he’d not smelled before. He supposed the smell was due to it being a real proper Forest, and not just a thicket. Stepping carefully, he made it down the wet stones and onto the path.
‘Hallo, who’s this?’ came a small voice somewhere on his right.
‘Is it a weed, do you think?’ said another.
‘Don’t be an idiot, Lily, weeds don’t move,’ the first admonished.
‘I think,’ yawned a third voice, ‘it’s probably a tumbleweed. They move.’
Hamish had been frantically looking around, searching for the speakers and finding no one except… there were roses. Rather well-groomed roses, and lilies, and peonies and… flowers that didn’t belong in a wood. He came closer, peering at them. Hadn’t one of Alice’s stories been about…
‘You’d better not be thinking of picking me, I’ll stick you through, I will!’ a pink rose said fiercely. Hamish drew back, realising it had a face; that all the flowers had faces, and were turned to look at him.
‘I wasn’t,’ Hamish assured… her? Best not question the gender of flowers. ‘Er, do you know anything about an Ace of Spades?’
The flowers screamed as one, shivering and going silent. No matter what Hamish tried, he couldn’t get them to talk again. Finally, he sighed in defeat.
The direct approach wasn’t going to work, apparently… Hamish turned to walk on, reflecting that he might find someone else, someone more helpful—didn’t the animals talk? Alice spoke of a white rabbit, and a caterpillar (Hamish was dearly hoping not to meet him), and… what else? A march hare, a dormouse….
He met no one for some time, had tripped over a whole swarm of things that had looked like colourful dandelion-clocks but proved to be angry, hissing little creatures that flew in his face and—he was quite sure—insulted his mother as they’d flown away; he’d twice had to run completely off the path as one of the green pig-things chased him, and had nearly fallen out of a tree while climbing it to get away from one. He was sure he was completely lost, and had tried asking at least six more things about where to find anti-venom, when he saw what looked like a little girl with bright red hair watching him from down the path.
‘Oh.’ Hamish felt a little silly at the look she was giving him.
‘Why awe you talking to a twee?’ she asked, without preamble. ‘They’we all bawk, you know.’
‘Er,’ Hamish retorted, ‘I didn’t. This is rather the first time I’ve been here, you know.’
That seemed to interest her; she looked him up and down, coming up to circle around him—Hamish realised she wasn’t a little girl, she just had a rather large head. She sucked on the tip of her braid thoughtfully.
‘Well you can’t go awound talking to twees; people will think you’we mad,’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘Flowers talk,’ Hamish felt he should point out. ‘It was rather a logical jump, thinking trees might.’
She just stared at him. ‘Well of couwse flowews talk,’ she said, rather severely.
‘Of course,’ Hamish sighed. ‘Though they aren’t very helpful.’
‘Well no, not genewally,’ she conceded. ‘Daisies may as well not talk at all, fow all the use they awe. Why did you come?’ she asked, and Hamish wondered how she’d gone through life with a speech impediment like that. Did people think lisps and things were desirable, down here?
‘I’m, er, I’m looking for anti-venom. One of my friends was bitten by a—by a rather large, er, spider. Thing.’
‘A spidew-thing?’ she echoed, raising a brow. ‘Stop being obtuse! Was it a spidew ow wasn’t it?’
‘Well it’s only that when I say what it was, people tend to stop speaking to me.’
She folded her arms, her look saying clearly she was not impressed with this excuse, considering Hamish’s predilection for talking to trees.
‘The, er, the ace of—’ Hamish looked around cautiously. ‘Spades,’ he finished, bracing himself and closing his eyes. He wasn’t quite fond of all the shrill screams of horror he’d been hearing in the last hour.
‘Oh has she got venom now?’ the woman said, and Hamish opened his eyes to see her looking thoughtful.
‘Ah, yes?’ Hamish ventured. ‘It’s pretty deadly, and I’m looking for anti-venom because Blakeney—that is, my friend who was bitten—’
‘I doubt,’ interrupted the woman, ‘that thewe is an anti-venom.’
‘There has to be,’ Hamish insisted, ‘he can’t die, he can’t. He’s too…’ he gesticulated. ‘He’s my friend, a-and I don’t really have a lot of friends, you know. People don’t like me very much.’
This seemed to stop the woman completely—her gaze softened, and her fingers twitched as though she wanted very much to reach out to him. She fiddled with the end of her plait, before speaking in quite a different voice.
‘I know what that’s like.’
Oh. Oh. Hamish looked rather differently at her, but didn’t quite know what to say. He hadn’t meant to reveal that about himself—it was a rather personal remark, after all, and certainly not something one told a lady—but she looked at him with a friendly smile and smoothed her dress.
‘Well,’ she said, obviously trying to be kinder, ‘You might twy evapowating it. That wowks with most things.’
‘Oh, can’t you?’ She lowered her voice to a conspiratory murmur. ‘I can’t eithew.’
‘I can,’ purred a voice, and Hamish stood very still—he’d decided that staying very still when he started hearing disembodied voices was the safest option, after the last time he’d accidentally stepped on a patch of dandelions and gotten bitten. There was a warm, fluffy thing on Hamish’s head, of a sudden, something that was… purring?
‘Is there a particular reason you’re on my head?’
Hamish couldn’t really argue with that, considering he had no earthly idea how comfortable his head may or may not be. Also it was clear from the twitching feeling of a tail around the vicinity of his neck that this was a cat, and for all he wasn’t used to mad things like talking flowers, the idea of a talking cat seemed completely normal. Hamish supposed it was because he’d had cats, and cats seemed quite on the verge of sly remarks at all times.
‘Does evaporating work on venom?’ Hamish asked, wanting to get straight to the point. The weight vanished, leaving Hamish’s head a little cold, and the silver and teal moggie appeared smile-first in front of him.
‘Venom?’ He floated around Hamish, slinking around Hamish’s shoulders with little lead-feet and rubbing against him. Hamish unconsciously reached up and scratched behind the furry ears.
‘Oh, you’re much nicer than Alice was, when he was first here…’ the cat purred.
‘Alice?’ Hamish said, whirling excitedly; the cat disappeared at the movement, like a startled bird, appearing a few feet away, floating. ‘Alice Kingsleigh? I know her, you know.’
‘Do you?’ the cat asked, intrigued; he grinned at the woman. ‘He knows Alice.’
‘I heawd,’ the woman said in a grim sort of voice. ‘Well, I must be going, I’m suwe you can help him bettew than I can.’ Her voice was a bit clipped as she turned and walked through the forest, her red hair hidden by ferns in a few moments. Hamish felt rather like he’d said something wrong, and his lips drew together in a moue. He didn’t know anyone who disliked Alice. Certainly plenty of people thought her mad, but they didn’t dislike her—well, not unless they were thoroughly pompous, unbearable people like Lord Sidcup, anyway.
‘What was that about?’ he asked the cat, glad that it—he—at least, was still there.
‘I wouldn’t know,’ the cat answered, lazily turning over and batting at a fly, ‘I never get involved in politics.’
‘Oh yes, she was a queen once,’ the cat said conversationally, ‘but you were saying, about venom? Is it snark? I’m rather good at snark by now… or perhaps bandersnatch claws?’
‘Er, the um, the ace of…’ Hamish didn’t want the cat to leave, but it was waiting so politely, wearing the expectant look of someone waiting for one to finish one’s sentence.
‘Of spades,’ Hamish finished.
‘Oh dear,’ the cat said thoughtfully, vanishing and reappearing on a nearby branch, tail twitching at the tip. ‘I’m afraid evaporating wo’n’t help that.’
‘Might you know what would help?’ Hamish asked, tired of how utterly useless people were, down here, coming and going so quickly, and getting offended at perfectly innocuous questions, and saying things like evaporating wouldn’t help without saying what would…
‘I might,’ said the cat, without elaborating.
‘Look, someone is dying!’ Hamish snapped, losing his temper and gesturing behind himself, in the vague direction of whence he’d come. The cat peered over Hamish’s shoulder curiously, before looking at him again.
‘Have they bequeathed you anything?’
‘What? No!’ Hamish yelped. ‘I don’t want him to die!’
‘Oh,’ said the cat in surprise, ‘well, I suppose you wouldn’t, if he hasn’t bequeathed you anything nice.’
‘I rather enjoy his company, I’d like him to live a great deal longer and I came down to this mad place to find him an anti-venom so if you can’t direct me to this person who might be able to help please at least tell me who to go asking around after!’
‘All you have to do,’ said the cat, vanishing stripe by stripe, ‘is try everything you can think of, and then, when you come to the end, try the last one.’ He was only a smile now, and a pair of eyes that winked out, the smile vanishing.
Just as Hamish was about ready to scream, the cat reappeared.
‘What did you say your name was?’
‘I didn’t, and my name is Hamish Ascot.’
The cat hummed thoughtfully. ‘Alice never mentioned you. Of course, he didn’t really mention anyone, he was quite busy saving Underland from her.’
‘Her?’ Hamish realised he’d started letting the cat steer the conversation, checked, and decided that this was probably the best course of action, all things considered. One, because Hamish himself rarely knew where to steer; and two, because, in every conversation he’d ever had with a cat (which was a lot, considering the cats were the only people that seemed to like Hamish’s company back home), the cat had done the steering.
‘Er,’ he added, ‘might you come back down? So I can pet you a bit?’ he asked meekly, taking off his pack. Inside a second he had an armful of roly-poly cat. It rather put him off, half-crouched as he was, and he fell on his back, the cat on his chest. It reminded him so much of the cats at home he couldn’t help smiling.
It was a long time before he thought of much again, occupied with scratching the cat. ‘What’s your name, then?’ he asked in the soft coo he used on his own cats.
‘Chessur,’ the cat’s voice was almost obscene; but Hamish, somehow, didn’t mind. Chessur rolled onto his back, wiggling until his belly was under Hamish’s hands. ‘Mmmyou’re very nice, Hamish.’
‘Thanks.’ And he meant it. There was something much… well, much more… about a cat calling one ‘very nice’. Hamish stopped scratching now that he was on softer territory, now stroking very gently, careful to pet with the soft fur.
There was something much more meaningful about petting a cat when it urged ‘more’ and ‘yes’ and ‘right there’; Hamish knew he might be blushing at the implications, and especially at the fact that he secretly wanted them to be more than assumptions—he was really not too adverse to being rather close friends with a cat. Chessur had such a lovely speaking voice, warm and soothing and very cat-like; and he was Hamish’s favourite sort of cat, enormous and fluffy and obviously well-fed…
‘Oh,’ Chessur said, eyes opening as he stopped squirming around, ‘are you interested?’ A grin as Hamish blushed. ‘You’ve changed colour.’
‘I…’ Hamish stammered. ‘I, er—that is… what?’ he finished helplessly. Chessur gave an unfair chuckle and turned about, putting his front paws at the front of Hamish’s trousers and kneading….
Hamish gave a very unmanly squeak.
‘You seem interested,’ Chessur said simply, his voice having gone a little—if possible—more velvety. ‘And you were petting me so nicely….’ He looked back at Hamish, his pupils dilating. Clearly, something in Hamish’s expression satisfied him, because in a moment there was a breath of that same not-smoke and he’d changed shape.
This, Hamish reflected before all his rational mind shut down, was completely mad. Completely, absolutely… he heard himself give a sound rather like a mew.
Chapter 14: In Which Hamish Meets Someone Helpful and Finds Someone Who Can Save Blakeney
Well, this is the one-month birthday of this story--I started writing on 27th August, and in nearly a month I've reached 41k. Heh.
NaNoWriMo, here I come!
This chapter, you may wanna look up pictures of the Elephant Bird, Secretary Bird, and various ratites.
After Hamish had left the room, Lord Ascot picked up the dying Ace of Spades; he looked to Sir George.
‘I’m moving her to another room. You get Henry to bed, and I’ll send for the veterinary surgeon.’
‘He’s closest, Sir George; I think you’ll agree time is of the essence.’
Sir George nodded, and helped his son from the settee. ‘What will you do with... her?’
‘I don’t know, to be honest. I only hope Hamish finds someone who can help us.’
When Hamish came to, Chessur was gone and he was completely dressed once more; there was also a very large bird staring curiously at him. A very large bird, that he couldn’t quite make out at the edges on account of it being night, and the bird being black; it was standing on one long leg, looking something like an ostrich though with a larger head and stronger-looking neck. Hamish sat up very slowly, not sure if it was considering ripping him apart with the deadly claw attached to its innermost toe. Its bright green eyes were certainly cunning-looking, almost intelligent... Hamish remembered where he was, and realised it probably was intelligent.
‘Er, hallo,’ he began, ‘I’m Hamish.’
‘Oh you’re alive!’ the bird said in relief, voice surprisingly low and mellifluous. Hamish wondered if it was a hen, the voice sounded female. ‘I was so worried,’ the bird went on, ‘I was walking along, and there you were, all sprawled out but uninjured—I thought you’d eaten some of the foxglove, and I said to myself, “Naphileen, if you don’t stop and wait for the poor creature to move you’ll never forgive yourself.” And so I’ve been here since sundown, making sure you were breathing—you are breathing, aren’t you? I’m afraid I’m not very good at telling, with fuzzies.’
‘Fuzzies?’ Hamish echoed, opening his pack and getting out the canteen—because it was one thing to deal with yet another new, strange creature; but it was quite another to have to do it without a decent drink of water.
‘You know, fuzzy things. You’ve got fur, not feathers.’
‘Rather pretty crest you’ve got, actually. I suppose you’re rather successful during mating season.’
Thinking of his last proposal, and the embarrassment of Alice first running off, then coming back and saying a very complicated, very sure no, Hamish swallowed his mouthful of water before saying,
She made a low sort of chirp at that, untucking the leg that had been under her and coming closer; Hamish finally saw a bit more of her as she stepped into a patch of moonlight, and he froze—she was a lot bigger than he’d thought, a puffball of feathers the height of a horse, with a hooked black beak and those sharp green eyes. But... her voice was so very sweet, and she nuzzled softly at his hair, her beak quite gentle.
‘Really? What sort of hens wouldn’t like all this?’ She chuckled, pulling her head back. ‘I’ll never understand fuzzies, I suppose. I’ll tell you, if I saw a cockerel with plumage as orange as all that, I’d be quite smitten.’
Hamish was rather starting to decide this large bird was a bit like his father’s cousin, Violet Wooster; the bird had the same chattery, meandering quality to her speech. Looking up, Hamish found himself smiling.
‘That’s kind of you to say,’ he said, getting up. ‘If it isn’t a rude question, what sort of bird are you? Some sort of ostrich?’
‘Ostrich?’ she asked, cocking her head. ‘Never heard of an ostrich. I’m a borogove. I suppose,’ she added, cheer fading, ‘you’ll run off now. People don’t much like borogoves.’
‘Why is that?’ Hamish had a feeling it was because she was huge and full of sharp nasty claws and things, but as soon as she’d spoken he’d liked her well enough, despite all that.
‘We eat people,’ she said mournfully.
‘Oh—ah?’ Hamish stuttered, trying to remember that ‘people’ might mean animals as well. ‘You mean, rabbits and—’ he groped around for more animals, trying to remember, ‘er, deer, and things?’
‘Well you don’t eat people like me, do you?’
‘Oh no, no. “Never eat anything that doesn’t have at least five babies in one go”, that’s what my mother always said, and up-walking fuzzies only have one at a time—it’s a wonder you surivive at all, because I know jub-jubs don’t have the upstanding moral fibre us borogoves do, and—why are you laughing?’
Hamish couldn’t help himself—she was so earnest and sounded so much like one of his second-cousins that he’d been overcome with giggles. ‘I’m sorry,’ he gasped. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s just—I’ve had a long day, and you’re the first light-hearted person and you just—you remind me of someone I know.’
‘Someone nice?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘very nice.’
‘I’ve never reminded someone of someone nice!’ She sounded quite pleased, and Hamish heard a low sort of trill—so low, in fact, that it wasn’t hearing so much as feeling it somewhere in his chest. He wondered if Blakeney would like her—which reminded him quite painfully that Blakeney was still dying, and he needed to find the anti-venom. Perhaps, if everyone was so afraid of borogoves, borogoves wouldn’t be afraid of the Ace of Spades.
‘I, er, I came down here for a very important reason,’ Hamish began, shouldering his knapsack, ‘my friend Blakeney’s been bitten by the Ace of Spades, and I need to find the anti-venom.’
‘Oh, poor thing!’ the borogove answered, and Hamish felt she honestly did mean it, ‘Poor, poor thing! Oh, I wish I could help, what can I do to help?’ she muttered to herself. ‘What…. h’mm… who would—oh, of course!’ she looked down at him, her green eyes smiling. In a moment she’d lowered herself to the ground. ‘I’ll take you to Alice! I heard from a narybird who heard from a momerath swarm who heard from Time’s watchdog who actually saw him!’
‘Him?’ Hamish asked, as he tentatively came forward, adjusting his pack before reaching out a hand to the fluffy body. It was not dirty, as he’d thought when he saw the mess—on the contrary, it was quite soft, and warm.
‘Isn’t it exciting?’ she gushed, turning her head to look at him. ‘Go on, get on, I can carry you,’ she nudged him gently.
‘I’m not quite sure how to get on,’ Hamish confessed.
‘Oh!’ she giggled, ‘of course, of course—only I thought an ostrich was a sort of mount, you know. Get on just in the middle of my back, and hold on there, to the beginning bit of my neck. There you are! Comfy?’
It felt a little strange, especially when she got up; Hamish clung to her feathers, unable to quite reach her neck. She nudged him gently again, making the same trilling sort of noise.
‘You wo’n’t fall off, don’t worry. Hold as tight as you like. Ready?’
‘Good. Here we go!’
Hamish couldn’t help the rather girlish shriek that came out of him as she took off through the wood, darting here and there, using her head to seemingly butt things out of her path. Hamish decided to keep his head as low as possible when a swinging twig snapped a cut across his cheek, and found he could barely breathe for the giddy speed. He’d never even ridden this fast on a horse….
After the first few minutes, when he’d got his balance, Hamish decided he could get to liking travel by borogove.
‘This is wonderful, Naphileen!’ he called breathlessly, remembering from when she’d been talking to herself.
‘Have you never travelled by bird before?’ she sounded, in contrast, not breathless at all.
‘You’re missing out!’
‘I find myself agreeing with you!’ Hamish felt a laugh bubbling up in his throat—it was rather different from any laugh he’d laughed before; he could hardly get it out for the wind and the speed, and it felt so much like breathing. He lowered, hugging her back, and though his eyes were watering he didn’t dare close them—there was too much to see.
Latericia stopped them just before they went into the little town, pointing out the sight of the saviours of Underland, along with Stayne and she, would cause a stir. Alice pointed out wisely that no one would recognise him now, not with his tan skin and short, sunbleached curls. Tarrant and Stayne could both agree, having seen Alice on Frabjous day. It had been, therefore, decided that Alice and Tarrant would go into town on Keavhy, and the other three would stay behind and wait.
They’d gotten plenty of provisions and Tarrant spent about half the money they did scrape up on fabric, thread and notions. Alice was eager to see what he’d do with them, as they trekked back to the other half of their party.
They heard Nymnurro scream while they were on the road, and Alice paused, before starting to run; Keavhy shied, no matter how Tarrant urged him forward.
‘Borogove!’ he cried, in a neigh that was nearly as panicked as the ones they heard from Nymnurro, in the distance. ‘Mud and mire, they’re dead already!’
‘Not,’ Tarrant said grimly, ‘if I can help it! Ye slurvish coward, are ye Outlandish or no?’
Keavhy shook himself, stomping the ground, flicking the air with his tail, the whites of his eyes showing all the way around, ears back—but nevertheless, after a moment he reared, giving a growling war-cry before speeding headlong into the undergrowth.
They should have caught up to Alice, but Tarrant saw a flash of brown breeches as Alice swung up into a tree, heading upward. Tarrant heard him call, in a voice that was as loud as a crow’s cry, an ululating shriek that chilled the blood.
Alice’s perch let him see the clearing and he saw the black bird that must have been a borogove—more surprising, however, was the streak of orange and tweed riding it.
Borogoves were quite good at stopping, and Hamish nearly went flying when his mount suddenly halted; he was caught, however, by the sudden appearance of Naphileen’s wings, which unfolded their stubby—but strong—length to catch him before he slid forward too far.
‘Sorry,’ she whispered, not looking back at him. Hamish wondered why, until he realised they were facing a rider with black hair and only one eye and an actual war-horse, one that undoubtedly knew how to kick, thrash and bite. Hamish swallowed hard, unable to help cowering a little.
Just about to say something, though he couldn’t think what, Hamish looked up when he heard a shrieking cry. From above, a small, blond figure dropped from a tree and landed, rolling to a crouch before standing and drawing a machete in a way that clearly meant business. Naphileen took a step back, fluffing, her claws raised high.
Hoofbeats carried another horse and rider, both looking just as fierce, even with the small horse—pony, really—laden with wrapped packages.
‘Wait,’ Hamish squeaked, but he found the blond boy with the machete peering warily at him and Naphileen, before straightening from his fighting-stance and looking merely curious.
Hamish startled, staring at the boy. ‘Do I…’
‘Alice!’ the redhead on the pony called, his eyes flashing yellow.
‘Alice?’ Hamish half-fell, half-dismounted off Naphileen, staring at the—at Alice. ‘Alice, Naphileen’s perfectly decent, you have—’
‘Stand down,’ Alice said to the people behind her, voice much different than anything Hamish had heard before. She sheathed the machete with a movement that spoke of long practise, and regarded Hamish. ‘Hamish, what in blazes are you doing here?’
‘Looking for you, so you can explain what people mean when they spout nonsensical wisdom at me!’ Hamish snapped, then checked. ‘I’m sorry, it’s been a long day full of disappearing cats and red-heads that storm off when I mention your name, and flowers that talk and fluffy little things that I’m sure spoke ill of my grandmother—oh, trust you to laugh!’ he added, when she began to, ‘I came here to get anti-venom, Alice. Please tell me you know who the Ace of Spades is, because she’s bitten a really rather spectacular fellow, and he’s dying as we speak and no one’s told me a bloody thing.’ He paused, glancing at Naphileen, ‘Not for lack of trying, on the part of Miss Naphileen.’
She’d been drooping at his tirade, but brightened again at these last words, nudging Hamish affectionately. ‘You’re so nice to me!’ she murmured.
‘Misery’s gone Up Top?’ The tall warrior had lowered his horse, and his voice was a tenor—unexpected, for someone so tall.
‘Misericordea,’ Alice explained to Hamish. ‘The Ace of Spades, and his sister.’
Hamish looked rather intently at the man, who was currently dismounting the stallion. ‘Would he have the anti-venom then? I imagine, vicious thing she is, that there was a lot of biting in the nursery.’
‘The venom is new,’ the man answered, ‘knowing Misery, there is no antidote.’
‘There has got to be,’ Hamish insisted, surprised at how fierce he sounded. ‘I refuse to believe that there isn’t—I’ve got all the way here and been shrunk—’
‘Shrunk, stretched, scratched and stuffed into a teapot,’ Alice finished softly, putting a hand softly on Hamish’s shoulder. ‘Hamish, what happened to the Ace?’
‘We shot her,’ Hamish said frankly, slightly calmer. ‘Colonel Sewell shot her—in the dark, yet.’
‘So she’s dying,’ Alice deduced, knowing the old colonel—he was one of the nicer people in Lord Ascot’s company, Hamish remembered he’d always been nice to Alice. She paused, looking behind Hamish and hiding a smile.
‘What is it?’ she asked the borogove, ‘you look bursting with a comment unsaid.’
Naphileen had been hopping from foot to foot in excitement, her head remaining level; now she fluffed and made an excited little whirr before bursting into speech.
‘I didn’t know you knew Alice, Hamish! I didn’t know you were friends! I know a friend of Alice!’ she sang, quite pleased with herself. ‘I’m sorry,’ she amended. ‘I know this is a very serious matter, someone being gravely injured; but it isn’t every day you meet the Champion of Underland and the closest I ever got to Destiny before was just happening across the dead Jabberwocky a few months ago, on word of my brother and here you are! Oh!’ She shivered giddily. ‘So exciting! And to think, just last evening the most exciting thing I was expecting was perhaps I’d go…’ she trailed off. ‘But it’s not important,’ she ended, embarrassed.
‘She reminds me of…’ Alice whispered to Hamish, with a little smile; Hamish nodded.
‘I still can’t believe,’ the war-horse began, ‘we are having a civil conversation with a borogove.’
‘We are a lot nicer than people think!’ Naphileen protested hotly, fluffing. ‘No one bothers to get to know us! You all just think we’re as wicked as jub-jub birds! And really that is about as fair as expecting all Cardians to be Spades! But does anyone listen? Noooo, we’re just those horrid evil creatures that eat other creatures! Well for goodness’ sake how else do you think the population gets controlled? And what about all those carcasses that are lying about? Think they just disappear on their own, do you?’
Hamish had never seen his newest friend angry, but she was working into a fine temper, and he edged away, toward Alice; women—females—in eruption were at the top of his Least Favourite Things list, second only to his mother in a fury.
‘I didn’t think—’ the war-horse began, affronted.
‘Oh I don’t think you do! Grazers aren’t very good at thinking, I’ve noticed!’
Hamish hadn’t noticed the pile of rags and hides that had been in a heap at the roots of an oak; now, it had risen, and spoke with the voice of—of a queen, Hamish decided. Crimson eyes flashed, and she held herself as though her rags were robes of office.
‘My queen,’ murmured the Ace of Spades’ brother, sinking to one knee in a bow. No one else moved, however, as the queen came forward.
‘Naphileen, forgive us our assumptions.’
The bird’s green eyes softened into not her usual cheer, but first dawning recognition, then awe. ‘Queen Latericia?’ she whispered. The queen gave a wistful sort of smile.
‘I was,’ she murmured.
‘You will be again,’ Alice and the Ace’s brother chorused, in differing tones; the man spoke with something a little more devoted than love, and Alice merely spoke in a tone that was quite final.
‘And you, Hamish,’ Queen Latericia said, and Hamish felt himself blush brightly, not really knowing how to address a queen, even a former one.
‘Er,’ came out before he could stop it, and he blushed harder, his ears burning, ‘Y-yes, Your Majesty?’
‘The venom you seek cannot be more deadly than the venom from the Chalice of Hearts.’
‘Is that… you’re shaking your head, that’s not good, then.’ Hamish went from hopeful to crestfallen mid-sentence, as he saw the look on the queen’s face.
‘However,’ she said, putting her hand gently under his chin and lifting it, ‘there is one we might call upon, for it is It who gave Misericordea the venom.’
Hamish and Alice seemed to be the only people in the little group unaffected by this statement—everyone else, save the queen, went rather pale and shivered.
‘Who is It?’ Alice asked, ever the straight-forward sort.
‘Hear the rhyme of the ancient ones.
One, the Sleeper, who of us dreams,
One, the Keeper, who for us writes,
And one of whom we never speak,
Whose favour carries dearest price,’ the queen recited softly, in a lilting song.
‘That’s a bit fairy,’ Hamish commented, recoiling a little at Alice’s look, ‘What did I say?’
‘They are not. Fairy,’ Alice said severely, before turning back to the queen. ‘What happens when you speak Its name?’
‘It comes,’ she said simply.
‘That is what we want, rather,’ Hamish felt he should point out.
‘Are ye deaf, lad?’ the pony asked, ‘Did ye not hear the last line?’
‘Blakeney is my friend,’ Hamish said stoutly, ‘and as a friend and a gentleman, I am bound to do everything I can possibly do in order to save his life.’
‘Then,’ Queen Latericia said, ‘you must call It.’
Hamish looked expectantly at her, before realising… ‘But I don’t know Its name!’
‘You do,’ she said, with utter conviction.
‘I do not!’
‘Everyone does,’ Naphileen said softly. ‘Even people Topside.’
‘I’m telling you—agh!’ Hamish put his face in his hands. ‘Alice, how do you stand this?’ he groaned, through his fingers. Peeking out at his friend, he saw that Alice was deep in thought.
‘Hamish,’ she said slowly, in a tone that meant—Hamish knew from experience—that she was about to come up with some mad, wonderful idea. ‘Hamish, what nonsensical wisdom got spouted at you, precisely?’
‘ “Do everything you can think of, and it’s the last one.” But honestly Alice, what on earth—’
‘Hamish, we’re in a world made of cards and chess and things,’ Alice prompted, Hamish felt rather like she was coaxing him to solve a riddle. He’d never been good at riddles—that was more Alice’s forte.
‘I, er…’ Hamish realised everyone was looking at him—and the too-big eyes of the redhead on the pony were more than a little unnerving. ‘I don’t know.’
Alice sighed, clapping hands on Hamish’s shoulders and looking up at him. ‘Hamish, what do you always,’ she shook him slightly, ‘end up doing in parlour games?’
‘Alice I’m rubbish at parlour games!’ Hamish answered plaintively, ‘you know that!’
‘And you have to…?’ Alice trailed off, obviously trying not to get frustrated—Hamish knew the tone very well, since he’d spent his life frustrating Alice with what she seemed to think was utter obliviousness.
‘Er?’ Hamish said hopefully.
‘Hamish, I can’t say it. You have to.’
‘Well you may as well forfeit now, bec—’
‘You wish a boon from me,’ came a voice, that was at once ringing and yet seemed to emerge quite naturally from the noises of the forest, as though it had always been there and always would be. Hamish gave a yelp and whirled, realising it had been coming from a being just behind him. It was dressed in… garments, but beyond that, Hamish couldn’t tell of what sort; Its face was likewise nondescript, but looked profoundly expectant.
‘You wish a boon from me.’ It repeated.
‘I…’ Hamish felt Alice nudge him, and swallowed, nodding. ‘Yes. My friend, Blakeney, is dying of a bite from the Ace of Spades, and I want him to—’ in a flash of sudden wariness, Hamish remembered how all deals with strange beings in stories worked, and stopped talking. He needed to word this very carefully or terrible, awful things would happen.
‘To not die?’ It suggested quietly. ‘To heal from the wound and be well and strong once more?’
‘Yes, please,’ Hamish agreed with a nod, ‘he’s one of my only friends, and a really…’ he gesticulated helplessly. There was no way to describe Blakeney, Hamish felt—he was simply a paragon of everything good in man, practically the sort of hero in stories, ‘really stalwart chap,’ he finished.
It appeared to be thinking the matter over, pacing through their little clearing, pausing here and there with a fond smile, or laying a hand on someone’s neck or shoulder. Everyone seemed wary of It, Hamish noticed, even though It was thoroughly unthreatening. Possibly the most unthreatening person Hamish had ever met, almost like a very old, very close friend that always agreed with you—not on purpose, just by accident—and who always had something to say that made sense.
‘I am one of the pillars of Underland, you know.’
‘I just found that out, actually.’
It shrugged, spreading Its hands helplessly. ‘Then you understand I can’t exactly help those not part of Underland.’
There was silence for a few moments, and Hamish gaped in disbelief. ‘But…’ he began, ‘well… that makes sense, but—what about this Ace? She went out of Underland, and hurt someone else. Surely there’s a… an exception?’
‘It isn’t a law,’ It said, touching Hamish’s shoulder in apology, voice soft and kind, ‘it’s a fact. As much as Time cannot change what is written; likewise I cannot change what is.’
‘That’s the price, then,’ Alice said suddenly, having been thinking carefully. ‘Hamish, you have to bring Blakeney here.’
‘What? In his condition?’
‘Didn’t you say you were bound to do anything to help him?’ the tall man asked, his yellow eye very intent on Hamish, scrutinising.
Hamish looked back at Alice, thought, and then looked back at the being. ‘And if I bring him here?’
‘You will have your boon.’
Worrying his lip with his teeth, Hamish tried to think like Alice; the rhyme had said that this being—whatever it was called—demanded a great price for Its favours. It followed, then, that saying he had to bring Blakeney in order to have what he asked was a greater price than it… Hamish’s eyes widened.
‘A great price, for a great boon,’ It said softly, still gentle. ‘It must be paid.’
‘I can’t trade someone else’s life like that.’ He stepped back, leaning against his newest friend, knees feeling rather like they might give out at any moment.
‘Hamish, isn’t that what you were doing when you came down here?’ Naphileen asked softly, confused as she looked down at him, cocking her head. ‘You said you were trying to save his life. A life is a powerful thing to be trading.’
‘That… that wasn’t what I meant.’
‘Isn’t it?’ Alice asked. ‘Hamish, stop waffling so. Your mother isn’t here to terrorise you.’
‘For once,’ she spoke over him, laying a hand on his face, ‘take a risk.’
Hamish looked around and bit his lip.
Chapter 15: In Which The King and Queen of Spades Have a Moment, Blakeney Decides to Go Adventuring, and the Ace of Spades is Returned to Underland
Taking off the bandersnatch-hide gloves, Ezraseur unfastened his goggles and admired the fruit of three months of work, his workshop littered with his delicate instruments and tools, from miniscule wrenches to coils of inkbrass wire and finely-wrought fleams.
‘It’s lovely, isn’t it?’ he murmured, half to himself, half to the figure laying on his worktable; he finished wrapping the bandages around the stitched flesh and metal, before turning to the tripod beside the table, that held a pump, flipping a few switches and watching carefully as the blood flowed back into the figure, the valves inside the figure’s chest beginning to move once more, the clicking soothing in its familiarity.
Letting out a breath he had been holding, Ezraseur leaned down to kiss the cold, porcelain lips. ‘My beautiful little doll.’
The clicking grew a little faster, as she twitched her hands and opened her eyes, looking up at him.
‘Ah, careful, my darling,’ he purred, lightly holding down the hand he’d only just finished. The other reached up to touch metal fingertips to his mouth; with a fond smile, he leaned down and kissed her again. Gently, he lifted her from the worktable and set her on her feet, not letting go until he felt her regain her balance. Still, she leaned heavily on his offered arm.
‘Hungry, precious one?’
His black lips curled wickedly as he took the wrong meaning from the word. ‘Perhaps you might watch me bathe. Latericia always did indulge when it came to her baths.’
The clicking grew faster, though she placed her un-bandaged right hand on her belly. Her husband’s smile softened, and he touched his forehead to hers.
‘Of course, of course,’ he murmured, ‘I knew it was that kind,’ Leading her down the hall, he admired his new palace. This would do for a winter home, especially with the hot winters of Crims.
‘Sirrah,’ he snapped at the first Heart pip he saw, ‘Queen Annalace requires tea.’
‘Yes, Majesty,’ the seven answered; the Spades were not to his liking, but they were at least fair. He was unsure as to how the queen ate, however, with that face. ‘Majesty, might I ask as to how…?’
‘You’ll find her chef in the kitchen, pip.’
As the couple walked on, the seven reflected that yes, they were definitely an improvement over Iracebeth. Still, it was a terrible blow, the entire royal suite having been killed; the Hearts had fallen lower than even the Clubs.
‘…so that’s why you have to come with us, Blakeney.’
Hamish’s voice echoed into silence as he finished his explanation, standing in the bedroom in his father’s country house. He tried not to fidget, or bite his lip, or feel betrayed by the fact that Alice and the others had sent him up here with only Stayne (the Ace’s brother, who was apparently the Knave of Hearts) and Naphileen (she’d taken rather a liking to him, and had insisted on coming) for company. The giant bird was hardly comforting, especially since she had to wait outside, chatting amiably with Lord Ascot as she explored the grounds and waited for Hamish to need her; Stayne was equally quiet, though at least he was human-shaped and present, which gave Hamish proof that he wasn’t mad or dreaming.
‘I’m not trading my son off to the fairies!’ Sir George said immediately, from his place at the foot of the bed. The whole trip had only taken Hamish minutes, and Sir George would not have believed a word of the boy’s story had the man behind him not so resembled the monster that had bitten his son, yellow eyes and all.
‘It’s either say good-by or say good-by, father,’ Blakeney’s voice, though weak, still had the sparkle of his perpetual flippancy. ‘I’m sure I could write, you know. I imagine rabbits carry the post, or… something.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Stayne’s voice surprised the Blakeneys with its register, just as it had surprised Hamish. He sat down on a nearby sofa, stretching his long legs out on the cushions. ‘Wolves carry the post, if there’s post to be carried.’ He snorted. ‘Rabbits are secretaries.’
‘Oh, of course,’ Blakeney said cheerily, ‘perfect sense. Who does the—?’
‘Hush, boy,’ Sir George said, worried his son was getting delusional with fever again—and this man wasn’t going to help. He looked at the stranger—this Ilosovic Stayne, God what a name!—with disapproval clearly written in the lines of his face, and paced. ‘Sir, I’ll ask you not to treat this matter lightly!’
The single yellow eye looked over, and the brow quirked. ‘You,’ he began, ‘are the one taking it lightly, speaking of being able to stop Destiny.’
‘A man makes his own!’ Sir George was pacing the room, since the ruffian’s impossibly long legs were monopolising the only seat.
‘What nonsense,’ Stayne drawled, not bothering to get up, though Sir George was quite sure he knew how insolent he was being. Before Stayne could add anything else, however, the door opened and the housekeeper came in. She was a sturdy woman, not one given to fright; but she was pale.
‘Forgive me for interruptin’, sirs,’ she began, ‘but the thing m’Lord set me to watchin’, she’s… well, she’s become a proper young lady, of a sudden.’
‘I thought so,’ Stayne muttered, swinging his booted feet to the floor and standing—the woman jumped back a little at the height of him. ‘Take me to her, if you please.’
‘What?’ Hamish asked, curious and lost. Stayne looked at him.
‘She called It.’
‘Who do you think,’ Stayne said, ‘stretched her bones? Gave her new eyes? I’d wager she’s had to trade all of it back, in order to buy her life.’ He glanced at Blakeney, at his pale face, then at the boy’s father. ‘If you do not let him come, he will die,’ he said coldly, ‘and you will have no one to blame but yourself.’
He left the room with the housekeeper, leaving the baronet gaping after him in shock and outrage.
‘There is no antidote,’ Blakeney said quietly, his voice a little breathless from the venom’s toll on his body, ‘is there, Hamish?’
‘No,’ Hamish admitted, sitting down on the sofa. ‘No, there’s not. It’s… it’s the second-most lethal poison in Underland, and, er, and there’s only one person who can heal it. But It’s hard to explain….’
‘Well,’ Blakeney said, ‘I don’t object to go—’
‘Henry!’ Sir George rarely called his son by name, but he did it now, whirling so fast his coat-tails flared behind him, ‘No!’
‘Father,’ Blakeney paused, gathering his strength, ‘I am dying. I’m not going to do that to you, if I can help it. Think of it as…’ he trailed off, ‘as my going off to find adventure.’
Sir George regarded his son for long moments, face unreadable—before he took a deep breath and sat down on the edge of the bed.
‘I never did like people who did that; but my father always did warn me you would be like him,’ he finished, with a rueful smile.
Blakeney flushed, and it wasn’t from fever. ‘He did?’ he asked shyly, nearly speechless; to be compared to his grandfather was high praise, indeed.
Sir George didn’t need to answer, and went over to Hamish, looking sternly at him. ‘You take care of him, boy.’
‘Yes sir,’ Hamish answered, without hesitation. There was no question he would take care of Blakeney—he wanted to show him how fun it was to ride a borogove, and thought perhaps the madness of Underland wouldn’t be quite as unbearable with Blakeney to make sense of it.
‘Well, come on,’ Blakeney said, ‘I’ve got to change out of these clothes, I can’t go among royalty without a proper cravat on!’
Upon entering the bedroom, Stayne found himself pounced upon by a slender woman that must have been his sister. With a familiar movement, he threw her off, surprised at how easy it was now—of course, last time they’d met, it was before Stayne had become experienced as the head of Iracebeth’s enforcers. Looking down at Misericordea, Stayne didn’t bother identifying himself—he saw how her yellow eyes (so like his, that was always so unnerving) sparkled with the shattering of sense. Surprise made her hiss, and he struck the flat of his hand on her chest, just above her stomach, shocking her breath from her. As she gasped on the floor, Stayne pulled a length of orange ribbon from his pocket; Tarrant had given him a spool as a token of peace, and Stayne had impressed the hatter by knowing what the particular weave-pattern meant: that the tape was proof against evaporation.
Quickly binding Misericordea’s forearms together, Stayne didn’t bother cutting the ribbon before winding it around the rest of her. She certainly did look different, now that she wasn’t full of her hard-won modifications.
‘What—’ the housekeeper began, before Stayne threw the Ace over his shoulder and stood.
‘Let me go! Wretched pip!’ Misericordea had got her breath back, ‘Moa putid, futu—’
Stayne glanced at the housekeeper, whose brows threatened to disappear into her hairline at the vulgarities issuing from his sister’s lips.
‘You know Cardish?’ Stayne was surprised.
‘I don’t need to know what language she’s talkin’ to know it’s nothin’ nice, my lad.’ The woman almost looked impressed, though she hid it well; after watching for a few moments, she even smiled a little. ‘Mad as a hornet, is she?’
‘Te futu et equ’tuum, Vicky!’
‘Shut up, Misericordea,’ Stayne said wearily, before answering, ‘as a hornet? Hornets are quite sensible.’
‘Stirred up, I mean.’
‘Ah,’ Stayne shifted as Misericordea tried to bite through his woollen shirt, ‘she is that.’
‘You’ll be off, then, back under the hill?’
‘I—yes,’ Stayne said, remembering the stories older than Alice, about when people from Underland had gone to Up Top more often. ‘Yes.’
‘Need help outside?’ she asked as he turned to leave, ‘I can call Brown, he’s our footman. Right strong lad, can pull down a horse by hisself.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ Stayne replied, ‘but thank you.’
He paused in the doorway to the bedroom where Hamish had been, only to find it empty. Puzzled, he figured the boy was already somewhere else, preparing his friend to leave, perhaps.
When he got outside, it was to see Blakeney and Hamish standing with Naphileen, the ill Blakeney nonetheless resplendent in doeskin trousers, with velvet coat and waistcoat of fine brocade picked over with five-petalled flowers. Both of the latter garments were crimson, and Stayne found himself smiling a little. The gold hair, the red, the cream of the breeches….
‘Have care what colours you wear in Underland, boy,’ Stayne murmured as he came up to the group. At Blakeney’s raised brow, he only chuckled and did not explain. His Queen would find Blakeney lovely indeed, perhaps—but that was thinking too far. ‘Come, we haven’t much time.’
‘I should say not,’ Blakeney’s voice was faint, obviously standing was exhausting—but he hid it well, only leaning somewhat heavily on his walking stick as he followed them down to the hedge-maze. Noticing him wobbling, Naphileen pushed at him with her head.
‘You ought to ride on me, you know,’ she said.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly—’
‘Of course you can possibly. Come on,’ she lowered, ‘come on!’ she prompted, fixing him with her bright green eyes, stern, ‘we’ve got a long way to go, and it wouldn’t do if you were to just fall right over because of your pride! Think of Hamish! He’d be heartbroken! Get. On,’ her voice was low and brooked no argument.
‘Ah—’ he hesitated a moment, before submitting, ‘As you wish, madam.’
‘I’m surprised you aren’t dead already,’ Misericordea commented, watching as best she could, eyes narrowed.
‘Oh, I’m a stubborn old whatnot,’ Blakeney said cheerfully, letting Hamish settle him on the bird. ‘La, but a man might think you’ve ridden one before, Hamish.’
‘He has done,’ Naphileen said cheerfully, ‘he’s splendid!’
Hamish turned beet red at that, looking away. ‘I’m not as good as all that—I… I got a cut on my cheek, see?’
‘Oh hush. You’re splendid,’ she insisted, straightening.
‘I look forward to meeting this It fellow,’ Blakeney commented, tucking his stick under one arm after a moment’s thought, leaning down against Naphileen to balance better.
‘It’s a bit unnerving,’ Misericordea giggled, remembering It fondly.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. He—er, It—is actually rather amiable.’ Hamish was starting to look forward to Blakeney’s opinion of Underland.
‘You’re odd,’ Naphileen declared fondly, ‘because everyone else is rather afraid of It.’
‘I suppose that makes you rather brave, what?’ Blakeney chuckled.
Hamish didn’t think he could be brave, but didn’t argue; he did, however, blush, and didn’t say anything until they’d gotten back—he’d been expecting the room of doors again, but it seemed as though their errand simply brought them right back into a forest.
And right into Iracebeth.
Naphileen hissed, her claws swinging up, feathers fluffing as she opened her sharp black beak, revealing the bright yellow inside; Stayne narrowed his eye, his hatred for her rekindled now that he had his real Queen back; Hamish, however, smiled.
‘Hallo, didn’t know you’d be here,’ he said.
‘Hamish!’ Naphileen didn’t tear her eyes from Iracebeth, ‘you can’t possibly—she’s a murderer!’
Misericordea was laughing at that. ‘Murderer? Her?’ she giggled, ‘Oh, oh, that’s funny...’
Iracebeth looked nervous, backing away and giving a nervous smile that was more a baring of teeth. ‘Well, I can see you’we all busy so...’ she turned and ran; Naphileen jerked, as though she very much wanted to follow—so did Stayne. He cursed darkly under his breath.
‘She’s back, is she?’
‘Shut up, Misery.’
‘Futu equ, Vicky,’ she returned.
‘Where are we?’ Blakeney was watching as a snapdragon-fly buzzed past on some unknown errand.
‘Here!’ called a voice from above, and Alice swung down from the branches. Peering at Blakeney, he raised a brow. ‘Oh, you.’
‘Have... have we met, sir?’ Blakeney straightened on his mount, trying to search his memory. He was sure he’d have remembered meeting a sailor boy....
‘Blakeney,’ Hamish began, ‘this is Alice.’
‘La!’ Blakeney’s cheeks coloured in embarrassment, ‘Forgive me, miss, I—’
‘Am not a miss,’ Alice said sternly, ‘but I am Alice.’
‘Why does everyone Up Top think you’re a miss?’ Naphileen wondered.
‘They don’t look properly,’ Alice replied.
‘Where is It?’ Blakeney asked, confused but willing to let the matter lie. ‘I mean, I’m rather—’ he paused, as he realised he felt... fine. The pain in his arm was gone, and he could take a full breath again, his fever had evaporated... ‘fine,’ he finished.
‘Of course you’re fine, Hamish fulfilled Its price by bringing you here,’ Alice explained, ‘now come, we have to get to Crims before she does.’
‘Surely you saw her?’ Alice asked, ‘the woman with the enormous head?’ He called ahead of them, ‘Keavhy! We’ve got to go!’
As they got into the clearing, it was to see Tarrant flitting around Latericia, the tall woman standing straight, her rags gone, wearing only a flimsy chemise of red silk as the hatter snapped a tape around her, across her, at dizzying speed. Two horses waited with them, the shaggier of the two shaking out his mane as he trotted over.
‘Ye’ll be waitin’,’ he said gruffly, ‘a body doesn’t interrupt a fittin’ when a Haetopp’s doin’ a fittin’.’
Alice raised a brow, folding his arms. ‘I understand the need for proper clothes, but this is rather an emergency, Keavhy. We’ve sighted Iracebeth.’
‘Ye don’t interrupt a fittin’, boy.’
‘I should say not,’ Blakeney said, he and Hamish having both averted their eyes from the nearly-naked Queen, ‘really, it isn’t done.’
‘Sensible, this one,’ Keavhy said with grudging respect. ‘What’ve ye got over yer shoulder, Knave?’
‘The Ace,’ Stayne answered.
‘Best keep hold on her, then.’
‘Er, isn’t there somewhere we can... be?’ Hamish stammered, desperately trying to figure out how to turn around without seeming rude, eyes on the ground.
‘Be?’ Keavhy asked curiously, flicking his tail to chase away a stray fly.
‘Well it isn’t decent, being in the same—same room, as it were, while a lady is—is—’ he gesticulated helplessly.
Yards away, Latericia heard Hamish’s distress, and her lips curled. ‘How like Our Ilosovic you are,’ she murmured softly, her voice soothed somewhat by an application of honeyed tea some hours earlier. The crack, she knew, would be permanent—never again could she sing, or seduce with honey-smooth tones. Glancing to one side, she gasped sharply. Tarrant gave a frustrated growl.
‘I said don’t move!’ he hissed. With anyone else, Latericia would have been quick with a reprimand—but she understood how precise the measurements needed to be, and that the Outlander was concentrating deeply in any case.
‘Me’culpa,’ she murmured automatically, calming her breaths. ‘Who is the golden-haired boy?’ she asked, not risking another glance, as Tarrant was measuring her collarbones.
Hamish nudged his friend, ‘That,’ he whispered, ‘is the Queen.’
Blakeney dismounted quickly, taking off his hat and giving a low bow. ‘Henry Blakeney, if it pleases Your Majesty,’ he said.
‘Oh, it pleases Us well,’ Latericia murmured, lips curling in a dark little smile; Stayne shivered slightly, knowing that voice intimately, and glad he’d been taught from a young age to control his body, because he was wearing only wool clothes at the moment, which would not hide arousal.
‘Rise and come where We might look at you, Henry Blakeney.’
‘She has a new favourite, Vicky,’ Misericordea’s glee was a vicious little hiss, as Stayne set her on her feet, holding her arms securely even though they were bound.
‘Hold thy tongue, Pip,’ Latericia’s voice was serene as she dismissed the Ace; she looked Blakeney up and down with a flick of her eyes, ‘Pretty boy, tell Us, have you any mischief?’
Trying to keep his eyes on the Queen’s face, Blakeney hesitated, unable to help blushing just a little at the knowledge she was practically naked, at the look in her red eyes and the little smile on her lips. She was and wasn’t his idea of a queen—on the one hand, she seemed rather... straightforward—but on the other, she certainly held herself like royalty, and had command of all around her, everyone having gone quiet, waiting for her word to speak or act. How to answer? Blakeney hesitated a few moments.
‘No more than reason, Your Majesty.’
Stayne smirked, catching Blakeney’s gaze and mouthing, ‘say yes,’ his heart lifting; his Queen had asked him the same question at court, many years ago.
‘He has got,’ Alice said suddenly, voice shattering the silence, ‘he went to public school.’
Blakeney laughed, caught off-guard, and took several moments to recover—it wasn’t that it was terribly funny, but it struck him then that he’d nearly died, that he’d never see any of his school friends again, that even though he was alive, he was still dead. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, trying to breathe, ‘Sh—he’s right, after all.’
‘There are schools for mischief?’ Latericia was intrigued; perhaps Up Top had a few sensible ideas....
‘La no, Your Majesty!’ Blakeney couldn’t keep from smiling, ‘only... well, small boys do get up to a bit of mischief.’
‘All boys,’ she returned, eyes half-lidded, smile curling up on one side, ‘get up to mischief, small—’ she gave a side-glance to her right, toward Stayne, ‘and large.’
‘Done!’ Tarrant said cheerfully, completely oblivious to what had been going on. ‘I’m afraid I wo’n’t be able to put it together by brillig—I need a workroom for a corset, you see, but—’ and he paused, whirling, eyes snapping narrow as he noticed Blakeney—or, rather, the fact that there was another hat in his presence.
‘May I see that hat?’ His voice was very quiet, almost feral.
‘It’s my favourite hat,’ Blakeney held it protectively for a moment, before cautiously offering. Tarrant took it lovingly, running calloused, bandaged and needle-stung hands over every curve. Alice sidled up to him, always a little shivery when Tarrant was at his work; there was something heated and barely-restrained about him then, something a little—but not too—dark.
‘Tarrant hatted two queens,’ he mentioned in a low voice to Blakeney.
‘And studied corsetry under the Ten of Diamonds,’ Latericia added with a sigh that had nothing to do with Tarrant and everything to do with dreams of her new clothes.
‘He made me a dress in about a minute,’ Alice added, grinning, ‘back when I wore dresses.’
‘I thought you liked them,’ Tarrant murmured, pausing to kiss Alice’s curls, ‘some boys do.’ He looked back at Blakeney. ‘Quite an excellent hat, though too plain.’ He offered it back, leaning forward to add, earnestly, ‘It doesn’t suit your voice at all.’
Contrary to Hamish’s confusion at hats having to go with one’s voice, Blakeney smiled as he took it back. ‘Perhaps fashion is a little more prone to colour, here in Underland.’
‘Oh yes,’ Tarrant said with a cheery smile.
‘You adore clothes, Henry Blakeney?’ Latericia was ever more pleased with this Henry Blakeney, the more she learned about him.
‘Tis why the Lord created men, my grandfather always said.’
Latericia smiled. ‘You shall make,’ she began, ‘an excellent Knave.’ She turned, ‘and you, I think, Hamish Ascot, have the makings of—’
‘Surely not!’ Misericordea interrupted, in what was almost a yelp.
‘We are holding court, Spade; stand down.’ Crimson eyes were hard and all who heard Latericia’s sharp voice had no doubt there would be obedience.
Hamish wasn’t sure what she’d been about to name him, but he tried to stand tall—it was easy to cower behind Naphileen when Blakeney wasn’t present to watch and see his weakness; but Blakeney was there, completely healthy once again, and Hamish found he could not just be his usual self under that sort of scrutiny. It wasn’t that Blakeney was terribly judgemental—it was quite the opposite: he simply believed, with absolute certainty, that Hamish was just as capable as he was. Hamish didn’t understand where Blakeney got such an idea, but it was firmly lodged in the older boy’s mind and Hamish wasn’t prepared to lose such esteem—even if he did think it was unwarranted.
Blakeney, on the other hand, was looking at Stayne, his brows gaining a furrow between them.
‘I thought you were the Knave of Hearts,’ Blakeney tried not to seem ungrateful, inelegant, or a host of other things—but he thought he might understand why Hamish was so frustrated after being here. Things happened so very quickly, without any proper explanation.
‘Ilosovic Stayne,’ Latericia said, turning to look at him, ‘at long last, is no longer my Knave; but,’ she turned, gesturing to Blakeney and Hamish with a pleased smile, ‘I had to find two others, before I could change his rank.’ And what others! She thought to herself, visions of just what she wanted to do with three gorgeous boys already making her blood heat, her nerves snap with shocks of desire.
‘That’s a stupid rule,’ Alice said sharply, folding his arms, ‘you’re the queen, you ought to be able to choose your own King.’
‘Alice!’ Hamish was horrified. One did not speak that way to a queen—but Latericia was laughing.
‘You sound like me,’ she chuckled, dropping the royal We as her speech got less formal, ‘I said the very same thing to my mother when I wished to marry the King of Spades.’
Misericordea inhaled in a hiss of shock, and Stayne even drew back.
‘You...?’ he stammered, feeling suddenly like a pale replacement. Latericia saw it in his eyes.
‘And my mother was wise to forbid our union,’ she finished, crossing the clearing to her folded clothes, slipping the skirt over her head and settling it around her hips and lacing it closed. ‘Ilosovic, come here.’ She picked up the bodice she had made of hides so many years ago, ‘let your sister go, and lace me.’
‘Let her go?’ Blakeney was startled. ‘Your Majesty, I mean no offence, but—’
‘It would be a great pleasure to kill you again,’ Misericordea grinned at the newest Knave of Hearts, already planning the deaths of all in the clearing. This one first, for humiliating her….
‘Thou wilt not,’ Latericia’s voice was a thunder-crack that echoed through the trees, silencing even the ever-gossiping birds for a moment. ‘These are not Ezraseur’s lands, they are Ours. We are Queen, here.’
‘Spades outrank Hearts.’
‘You would provoke my Queen’s temper, sister?’ Stayne carefully pulled the stays tight, knowing even the stiff hide was not enough for his Queen. She was suffering so, and only he knew it... well, possibly Tarrant was intelligent enough to know it, but Stayne didn’t want to go down that path of thought, it gave him poisonous jolts of envy, the idea that the hatter was able to order his Queen around, even if it was only as much as a tailor could.
‘Especially weaponless,’ Tarrant had a hand on his knife, mentally going over where the rest of them were hidden in his clothes. Alice had his machete, and Tarrant knew the horses could fight as well as any.
‘Do you challenge me, Outlander?’ Misericordea laughed.
‘I’ll challenge you,’ Blakeney’s voice was the sure snap of a gentleman, as he straightened, his pale eyes flashing.
‘I’ll kill you if I can,’ Tarrant said grimly, caring little of challenges.
‘Touch any here and I’ll not hesitate,’ Alice agreed, hand on the hilt of his machete.
‘My claws are proof against evaporation, and you know it,’ Naphileen raised said claws, a hiss beneath her voice.
‘Untie me, and I’ll—’
‘Do nothing,’ Hamish said, surprising himself. ‘No one here’s afraid of you any more—Misericordea, was it? I’m... I’m not very brave, admittedly, and Alice can tell you lots about that; but even I’m not afraid of you, not now.’
His words echoed into an unsure silence, and at first he was sure he’d spoken hastily—until Misericordea’s gaze darted around the clearing, at each of them in turn. She struggled against her fragile-looking bonds once, then hung her head.
‘It wouldn’t be any fun, any way,’ she sulked, before brightening as she heard the thrum of her coin, nearby, ‘but I was given an order, it seems. My fee calls to me....’
Latericia was done dressing, and flung the iron coin at the assassin’s feet, her words proud and cold as she ordered Stayne to untie the ribbon.
‘Get thee to thy King, and tell him this from Latericia, Queen of Hearts; that We are alive, that We are well, and that he is under arrest for an act of war.’
‘Thy word,’ she snapped, over the Ace’s voice, ‘that thou wilt repeat the message to him, not changing a word.’
Knowing defeat, the assassin’s face twisted into an ugly frown and she ground out her promise through gritted teeth before evaporating, wisps of black smoke the only sign she’d ever been there. Hamish wasn’t the only one that let out a sigh of relief.
‘Hamish,’ Alice’s brows were high, as he stared at Hamish in shock, ‘you were... clever.’ A smile tugged his lips, ‘clever and brave.’
‘One underestimates an Ace,’ Latericia spoke quietly, meeting Hamish’s eyes, ‘if one has a proper Ace, he must be a subtle card, one that is overlooked, and strikes unexpectedly when all seems lost.’ She held out her hand. ‘You are such a card, Hamish Ascot.’
‘Oh, I’m not thing special, Your Majesty, I—’
‘You rode into danger to save the life of a friend,’ she pointed out.
‘But that was the right thing to do!’
‘You made the Ace of Spades back down with words alone,’ she went on.
‘I—well, I’m not actually sure why I did that, it just seemed like a good idea at the time and—’
‘Come off it, Hamish!’ Blakeney laughed.
The Queen was touching him, Hamish realised; she was very close, and her hand was on his shoulder, and she had such a proud, strong face, and she was so tall, and...
‘Be Our Ace, Hamish,’ her voice was a quiet murmur, and Hamish swallowed, his mouth having gone a little dry. She smiled, cupping his cheek in her hand. ‘Be my Ace,’ she repeated, softer still, ‘my best and least, my silent courtier.’
Oh dear, Hamish thought, what exactly did it mean? That would make him very powerful, wouldn’t it? He wondered what sort of duties an Ace had—obviously he couldn’t be an assassin, that was completely out of the question, he couldn’t possibly manage that, not in a thousand years! He had to say no, he had no idea what it meant, and he was not about to join a foreign court when he could barely find something to say at a casual tea in his own country!
‘All right,’ Hamish heard himself saying, and startled. No, that wasn’t the right answer at all! He’d been sure he was about to say, No, I can’t, I’m sorry. What, exactly, had happened to the phrase on the way from mind to mouth?
Chapter 16: In Which Many Things (But Mostly Sex) Are Discussed, The Lovers Can’t Wait Any Longer, And The Monstrous Crow Appears
The supplies had to be redoubled for the new travellers, and Blakeney was keen to get a horse—Hamish was as well, but the newly-appointed Knave seemed much more comfortable with the idea that horses were not just beasts of burden but opinionated people. Hamish asked after this, but Blakeney opined that one had to have a rapport with one’s horse Up Top, so the fact that they talked made that easier Down Here (he’d started referring to Underland as Down Here some time ago, and the epithet spread to nearly everyone else). Nymnurro wanted to know what kind of horse Blakeney rode, and Alice asked—coldly, abruptly—how many animals Blakeney had tortured and killed in his love of sport. This soured the conversation, and Blakeney stared at Alice’s cold, dark eyes for several minutes, completely at a loss—it wasn’t just rude, it seemed… almost unimaginably hateful.
‘Have I done something to offend you?’ he managed after long minutes, still in a sort of shock. They’d never met, after all, and while Hamish had mentioned that Alice was a little blunt, Blakeney liked to think his friend would have warned him about such depthless malice.
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘I haven’t tortured anything,’ Blakeney snapped.
‘Oh no? Haven’t run down some poor little fox with dogs? Beaten some grouse out of bushes to shoot at them?’
‘That hardly sounds sporting,’ Tarrant commented.
‘It’s not,’ Alice snarled, ‘it’s monstrous and cruel and I will not have everyone walking along thinking you’re wonderful when people like you go about and—’
‘I rather lost my taste for hunting the conventional way after hunting with Lord Sidcup’s son, honestly,’ Blakeney interrupted. Hamish gave a sympathetic shudder.
‘Oh good, it’s not just me then,’ he muttered, looking a little green.
‘What do you mean?’ Alice’s rancour was soothed by morbid curiosity. He’d never liked Lord Sidcup, but the way the boys were acting was unnerving.
‘We’re in mixed company, it isn’t for the ears of ladies,’ Blakeney insisted. ‘But, rest assured, I have more sympathy for other living creatures than I did even three months ago; I only wish I had been so taught by happier circumstances.’
‘Ladies?’ Latericia raised a brow from her place sitting in front of Stayne, on Nymnurro, ‘Knave, I have witnessed hangings, and far stranger bits of gore than are in your nightmares.’
‘Your Majesty,’ Blakeney began, pleading, ‘it is—’
‘Tell me. After all, it is not your own cruelty you tell.’
‘He kicks cats,’ Hamish said, with a dark sort of anger. ‘He throws bags of kittens in ponds, and—’
‘He likes to kill things slowly, just to hear them suffer,’ Blakeney summarised, ‘especially rabbits, cats… he’s a thoroughly horrid little boy, even my father thinks so and—look, you can’t look at a rabbit the same way once you’ve had someone say “isn’t it wonderful how they sound like little girls when they’re dying?”.’
Hamish was glad to feel fur beneath his fingertips, and held almost too-tightly to the cat that had appeared in his lap, nuzzling his face in Chessur’s fur.
‘How perfectly wretched!’ Naphileen was outraged, ‘surely you don’t think all hunting animals are like that? Do you? I hope not, because we aren’t, really. It’s just a sharp, quick blow and if we miss—’
‘No one thinks you’re like that, Naphileen,’ Hamish managed to smile at her—though it was a weak one.
‘I’d like to kick him back,’ Chessur’s voice didn’t seem match the threat, as he rolled onto his back in Hamish’s lap; though his eyes glinted with a dangerous playfulness.
‘I’m sorry,’ Alice’s declaration was as sudden as ever, and his sharp movements softened as he offered Blakeney a hand of friendship. The older boy regarded him for a moment, then smiled and took the slim, dirty hand.
‘That boy…’ Alice went on, ‘he sounds like Iracebeth, really.’
‘She didn’t seem awfully terrible,’ Hamish protested, though it was half-hearted—he had only met her for a moment, after all. ‘Might I get up, Chessur?’
‘Mmmmallright,’ Chessur noised, and evaporated; Hamish tried not to be disappointed.
‘Inside of an hour and you’ve got a cat lolling about your lap—Hamish, it really is a talent,’ Blakeney teased with a smile, glad to be on lighter subjects once more.
‘We met when he arrived,’ Chessur informed them as he reappeared draped over Hamish’s shoulders, ‘he’s got a very clever tongue.’
‘He has not,’ Alice argued, not out of anger but simply out of knowledge—Hamish was simply not witty in the least, and that was that. Anyone who spoke to him for five minutes together would have found that out, his thoughtful rant to the Ace of Spades aside.
There was a ringing silence that followed this, and then more than a few stifled smiles. Latericia peered very interestedly at her new Ace, who was currently bright red and wishing he could evaporate. Chessur was just grinning, as always, and Alice was completely nonplussed; he startled when he heard Tarrant behind him, breath warm and smelling slightly of vanilla smoke.
‘I’ve got a clever tongue, too,’ he murmured in his dark, growly brogue, and Alice squeaked as he felt the tip of a very hot tongue trace behind his ear, blushing (he fancied) nearly as brightly as Hamish.
‘I should like to experience this clever tongue of yours, Hamish,’ Latericia murmured, almost to herself.
‘It’s lovely,’ Chessur assured her.
‘Shall we get on?’ Blakeney’s voice was breathless, and he turned away from them to gesture rather unnecessarily at the path ahead ‘I mean to say, still a long way to Crims; and I, for one, am eager to see what fashion means Down Here.’
‘Me too!’ Hamish squeaked, running to catch up with Blakeney, even though the older boy was only a few yards away. Alice very much wanted to join them, but at the same time he also very much wanted Tarrant to continue talking in that very wild sort of growl, and maybe bite him a little.
He decided on the latter, since he would have decided on the former if he’d been Up Top; turning to Tarrant, he gave a half-crooked smile and tried not to sound nervous. ‘I like that voice.’
‘I think we ought to stop for a little while,’ Tarrant said, his eyes a curious shade of purple-orange as he glanced up at Latericia and Stayne. The Hearts glanced at each other, before Stayne dismounted.
‘Perhaps a few hours,’ Latericia agreed, as Stayne helped her down. ‘Nymnurro, Keavhy, if you wouldn’t mind making sure my boys aren’t getting lost…?’
‘Not at all, Your Majesty,’ Nymnurro broke into a trot, little minding the tack he was wearing. Keavhy hesitated as a gesture only, before following.
‘I don’t mean to interrupt, but are all boys from Up Top so strange about these things?’ Naphileen asked of Alice, who had quite forgotten the borogove was there (who had, honestly, forgotten anyone was there—Tarrant was doing very interesting things to his ear).
‘Sex isn’t really—something people think is polite conversation,’ Alice managed, hoping that would satisfy the bird because she seemed just a little oblivious and really Tarrant was something very like a force of nature and Alice was rapidly losing the ability to think of anything but orange frizzy ringlets and eyes that kept shifting colours and Tarrant’s fingers were very skilled, Alice almost wondered where he’d gotten it and… ‘Tarrant!’ he gasped, eyes wide in shock.
A few yards away there was a low noise that could only be described as a yowl.
A throaty purr, and Stayne gasped.
Alice didn’t have time to look over—Tarrant was fluttering long, agile fingers deep inside him and making tingling jolts of pleasure run up and down his body with every flicking movement, lips tracing Alice’s throat and collarbones. At the Outlander’s first bite, Alice was lost to the rest of the world, arching and gasping, little thinking who heard—or saw.
‘Is that really necessary?’ Blakeney couldn’t ignore the sounds any longer, even so far as they were, the full-voiced screams and animalistic yowls of their companions echoed through the trees.
‘I’m surprised you aren’t more interested in joining them,’ Nymnurro said frankly.
‘Alice says,’ Naphileen had caught up to them, ‘that people Up Top don’t think sex is polite conversation; which I don’t understand, because everyone has sex and it’s quite lovely and everyone knows it so why not? Hamish?’ she asked, cocking her head, green eyes distressed.
‘Hamish rather likes sex,’ Chessur said helpfully, appearing around Hamish’s shoulders once more. Blakeney had enough, and stopped, giving his friend a very curious look. Hamish made a choking noise that might have once been ‘er’, still bright pink. It clashed horribly with his tweeds.
‘One doesn’t simply fall to rutting like ani—’ Blakeney checked himself, looking around and swallowing hard. ‘Er, never mind. It’s… private. One does it with someone one is… well with one’s spouse, you know. Humans mate for life.’
‘Not from what I’ve seen,’ Chessur murmured in a lilting voice, unwinding from Hamish and gambolling lazily through the air, grinning.
‘And what would you know?’
‘I rather like going about Up Top, on occasion,’ Chessur answered, settling on Keavhy’s hindquarters and beginning to groom his belly.
‘Er, Blakeney, everyone goes around on their wives.’ Hamish had a lifetime full of Alice’s advice on Underland to go on, and remembered all of Alice’s talk about honesty being very important with Underlandians. He had Naphileen’s naïve curiosity to prove that, and wanted to not lie to her because she was… she was very nice and he didn’t want her to think him a liar.
‘I was about to say—fuzzies never mate for life, unless they’re wolves.’ Naphileen was busy preening her feathers, though her voice was still surprisingly clear.
‘Men never mate for life,’ Nymnurro agreed, before pausing, ‘well, very rarely,’ he amended. Even though he’d offered himself many times, his constant companion in war had gone without copulation since losing his queen, despite how unhealthy it was to do so. There was something thoroughly mad about Stayne, that way.
‘Oh?’ Keavhy said, sceptically.
‘Stayne mated for life,’ Nymnurro explained.
‘Good man.’ Blakeney muttered, more than a little put-out by the matter-of-fact way everyone seemed to treat infidelity.
‘I don’t see why you’re so upset,’ Naphileen told Blakeney, ‘it isn’t as though you’re not allowed to mate for life, it’s just not the way men normally go about things.’
‘Er, Naphileen,’ Hamish tried to explain, feeling odd as he realised he was now in Alice’s position, and Blakeney in his. ‘Naphileen, Up Top we rather think humans—er, that is, men—do. We, er, we aspire to that, at least.’
The others stared between Blakeney and Hamish looking startled. Naphileen cooed, nuzzling Hamish happily. ‘Borogoves mate for life, you know,’ she said happily.
‘I need to get away from…’ Blakeney gesticulated in the direction of the lovers.
‘I think you ought to join them,’ Chessur floated around him—Blakeney startled at the suddenness of the cat’s appearance.
‘No,’ Nymnurro said firmly, before the boys could protest (they did so much protesting!), ‘we will let them all be. It has been long years of waiting.’
‘Well,’ Chessur purred, lighting on the ground and twining around Blakeney’s legs, ‘there’s always me.’
‘Excuse me?’ Blakeney’s gold brows threatened to disappear into his hairline, as he carefully stepped back in sheer incredulity. ‘You’re a cat, in case you haven’t noticed.’
Chessur looked up at him, tail twitching into quizzical lines. ‘Cats notice everything, especially that they are cats.’
‘Well—I—’ Blakeney looked pleadingly at Hamish, who bit his lip.
‘Hamish likes cats,’ Chessur added, and Blakeney paled as the realisation dawned. Hamish flushed brightly again.
‘Ch-chessur, a gentleman doesn’t mention—’
‘I,’ Chessur said, lifting once more to be at face-level, ‘am a cat, in case you haven’t noticed.’
‘One rather thinks cats are gentlecreatures,’ Hamish countered, feeling rather clever. Chessur paused.
‘Gentlecreatures don’t mention what?’
‘Well, having had…’
‘Hamish are you telling me,’ Blakeney’s voice was faint, as he struggled with the idea, ‘that you’ve had… relations… with a cat?’
‘Not a cat,’ Hamish felt he should point out. Realising what he’d admitted, he hid his face in his hands, ‘Oh dear…’ When he heard the gasp from his friend, he peeked through to see Chessur in his… rather larger and more bipedal form, perched in the lower branches of a tree. Blakeney was staring at him.
‘Well I was like this, at the time,’ Chessur pointed out.
‘One usually is,’ Keavhy said wisely, ‘if one can evaporate. Never took to it.’
‘Horses don’t,’ Chessur replied lazily, running his hands along himself, knowing Blakeney was just as drawn to the innocent action as Hamish had been. People Up Top were so very easy to tease….
‘Well,’ Naphileen said cheerfully, ‘I think it’s a good idea. Fuzzies need regular—what did you call it? We call it mating, or copping if you want to be vulgar, which I don’t but—’
‘FUCK!’ came Alice’s ragged voice, rather startling considering the volume of the goings-on had gotten a little quieter in the past few minutes. Everyone looked—or swivelled their ears, if they had a talent for it—toward the clearing for a moment. There was a giggle, but the other words were too low to make out.
‘That’s actually what we call it Up Top, when we’re being vulgar,’ Blakeney said, giving up on propriety. He decided there must be different rules of etiquette about polite conversation, and that he ought to start trying to learn them if he was going to be living here. It wouldn’t do to be thought more quaint than charming.
‘Well, with an “ing” on the end,’ Hamish added, his mind on a sort of overload. He wondered if madness was far behind, everyone here was supposed to be mad, after all. He decided in absence of Alice he’d follow Blakeney and Naphileen’s lead. Neither had steered him wrong before, and Chessur was a cat—Hamish knew enough about cats to know they were not the most reliable teachers.
‘What a delicious word,’ Chessur purred, disappearing again.
‘I don’t think so,’ Naphileen said thoughtfully, pausing and lifting her head, cocking it to one side as she shifted to rest her weight on her other leg. ‘I mean, it’s got far too many—’ though she’d been about to launch into one of her babbling tirades, she suddenly broke off and looked up, her movements jerky and her pupils shrinking to pinpricks. A moment later, Chessur fluffed out and disappeared; the horses were on alert, twitching and pawing at the ground.
‘What is it?’ Blakeney asked, his voice soft as he searched the sky and the trees for some hidden threat.
‘The Crow,’ Naphileen’s voice was quiet, just as the two men noticed the noises of the forest had silenced, the air heavy as though with rain. Unlike a burgeoning storm, however, the clouds boiled above them and the wind didn’t feel so much like wind as the shockwaves of huge wing beats.
Hamish thought it was a good idea to scramble onto Naphileen, just as Blakeney leapt into Nymnurro’s saddle and dug in his heels. Naphileen took off like a shot, and Nymnurro followed out of sheer panic, Keavhy—and the monstrous Crow—not far behind.
Fear was a taste in the air, as the rush of wings and cry of the Crow echoed through the forest. The two pairs of lovers clung to one another, their play interrupted; the flight of their companions was inaudible for the earth-shaking cackle of the fell bird. Tarrant’s arms wrapped tightly around Alice, who twisted to look skyward, at the boiling clouds and the ragged wings; Stayne held himself over his Queen, bracing in case of attack, relying not on sight but sound and sensation to tell if it would come.
The trees quaked under the onslaught of wind, the litter from the forest floor stirred up and tangling in hair and clothes; they closed their eyes to keep out the grit being blown about, and the wave passed over as the Crow disappeared into the distance.
The clouds, however, stayed—and opened up with a discontented rumble of thunder, blotting out the sun. As fat, warm summer raindrops fell all around them, The Underlanders laughed in relief. Tarrant pulled Alice down to kiss, little caring about the wet, his clever fingers caressing the nape of Alice’s neck and down his naked back.
Stayne, atop his Queen, nuzzled her freckled breasts briefly, before sitting up and looking around, listening.
‘They’ve gone,’ he said, getting up hurriedly and dusting himself off, scrambling for his clothes after a glance at Tarrant and Alice, his cheeks blotchy red in a blush. He’d forgotten they were there….
‘We’ll manage,’ Alice said, though he too got up and started shaking off his breeches and shirt, getting into them despite the pouring rain. He was used to being wet, and rain was quite agreeable. Curious, and having lived on a ship where modesty about personal nudity was lax due to living in such close quarters, he couldn’t help watching Stayne dress. He’d always been curious about Stayne’s build, with his spidery legs.
‘Alice!’ Tarrant hissed.
‘Don’t stare, it’s rude.’ Despite the admonishment being mild, Alice noticed Tarrant’s eyes were an angry sort of yellow. He raised a brow.
‘Tarrant I wasn’t looking,’ he said matter-of-factly.
‘Yes you were.’
‘I was not,’ Alice insisted flatly, getting up. ‘Any more than I was looking when anyone went bare on the Wonder.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Latericia mentioned, gazing her fill as she traced the curve of her breasts with one hand. ‘I don’t blame you for being drawn to him, especially soaking wet…’ she trailed off with a wicked smile.
‘One doesn’t go about without clothes,’ Tarrant insisted primly. Alice put his hands on his hips.
‘Excuse me? Keavhy goes about without clothes, and so does Naphileen!’
‘Naphileen’s a borogove, Alice! Honestly—’
‘And Keavhy? I suppose horses don’t wear clothes?’
‘Of course not, they’re horses.’
‘And what makes humans so different?’
‘We don’t have fur.’
‘I suppose no one is going to ask me if I mind,’ Stayne cut in amiably, pulling his shirt over his head. Latericia giggled, her arm held casually under her ample chest as she pushed herself up with her other arm.
‘I’m quite enjoying the sight of you, my love,’ she remarked.
‘Yes, well, it’s hardly something one shares—’
‘I’ll show you off if I like,’ she interrupted simply, pulling on her chemise. She raked crimson eyes over him, ‘and I can now,’ she said in a low voice, something deeper than flirtation going between them. Alice could well understand how it must feel, to have to spend so long keeping one’s love a secret, and then suddenly being able to not keep it a secret.
He was also learning a lot about technique from them; he’d learned quite a bit from the goings-on of the Wonder, but Alice was sure he didn’t know everything yet. Shaking the water from his eyes, Alice laughed at the absurdity of arguing about nudity when it was pouring rain, in the middle of a forest, after having fallen to kisses and caresses like it was water in a desert. He’d heard Stayne’s moans alongside his own, and had to admit it had been quite inspiring, altogether.
Tarrant was still protesting, until Alice grabbed him and kissed him hard enough to stop him protesting anything at all.
‘Come on,’ he said.
‘Come on?’ he asked faintly, ‘it’s raining.’
‘And?’ Alice asked. ‘It’s not cold.’ It wasn’t, and Alice was perfectly willing to keep travelling, especially since their companions were lost and they were back to travelling on foot. ‘We have a lot of ground to cover, we may as well keep going or we’ll never get to Crims.’
‘Oh yes, we have to go back there, don’t we?’ Tarrant said faintly. He looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see it was Latericia, dressed again and soaked as the rest of them, her hair like dried blood from all the water, freckles intermingling with raindrops on her skin.
‘Crims is mine,’ she reminded him, ‘Iracebeth is no more, and I would fain give you a hero’s honour, as you have earned.’
Chapter 17: In Which the Clubs are Introduced, Our Heroes are Separated by a Tempest, and War is Declared
The Knave of Clubs stood on the balcony of the highest tower, voice crying to the skies as the wind screamed through her pale hair, rain soaking her wintry skin, though her clothes were dry as the bones that scattered around the tower’s base. Through the chaos of the tempest, her song never wavered, calling down the rain, the lightning, the thunder that woke the mountains and caused the waves to pound the cliffs. When the Crow came back, she was ready for him, and leapt from the railing to land on his back.
‘I have seen him,’ the Crow called, ‘I have seen them both entwined, Hearts’ Queen and King.’
‘Queen… and King?’ she breathed. She looked up at the rain, out at the waves, and crafted a new song. This one would cleave the clouds in twain, bring thunder to shake stone and lightning to rattle bones. She had to give them time. She’d not sentence Heart to what her people suffered, not when she could help it.
They ran when the lightning began to crack its spidery fingers closer and closer, when the rumble of thunder became a roar. Blakeney yanked on the reins at the edge of the forest on instinct, but it was too late—the horses were in a panic, and Naphileen had far outstripped them, the only evidence of her was muddy footprints over the desert sand. Nymnurro ignored him, running over the sand, Keavhy beside him. Blakeney leaned down and held tight, knowing he was just on for the ride, and hoping the lightning would miss them.
Alice knew storms like this—this wasn’t an ordinary thunderstorm, this was fast becoming a hurricane. He pulled them back, not wanting to tempt the lightning.
‘We have to keep going!’ The storm seemed to have brought out the Queen’s madness—the smile that reached her red eyes was too-bright, too fierce, too many things that didn’t go together.
‘It’s getting worse!’ Alice insisted, ‘This isn’t a thunderstorm any longer!’
‘I know!’ She gave a smile, looking out toward the empty plain of desert, though little of it was visible through the rain, ‘It’s a gift!’ She pulled Stayne, pushing on, determined. Alice didn’t follow, retreating into the safety of the trees, Tarrant following him; he wasn’t that trusting of the Queen, not enough to follow her advice about a storm he’d seen often in his time at sea. He settled against the base of the tree, pulling Tarrant close. They didn’t talk, holding to each other tightly as the fury wrought its will around them.
The storm could only go on for so long, even with her song; the Knave of Clubs knew this, and as she landed outside her foster-brother’s hillock-house, she hoped he was home. Huddling under the stoop, she pounded the door.
‘Milorrin!’ she yelled to the Ace, ‘Milorrin, get up!’
The door opened just enough, and she burst in, closing it behind her. Her brother-in-arms had clearly just awoken, a zmetik balanced in his mouth as he spoke, a cup of Headache Tea in his hands.
‘What’s in your head, you mad thing?’ he asked as he bolted the door behind her, gesturing at the windows. ‘It’s wetter’n a—’
‘Latericia’s alive,’ she said, having just caught her breath, wringing out her long hair by the fire.
‘I know,’ he said, raising a brow at her, ‘I did write that one down.’
‘No, I mean she’s back, she’s headed for Crims right now!’
At this, his green eyes darkened, and he hushed her. ‘Keep yer voice down, Aingleen!’ Coming back over to the fire, sitting in the rough-hewn chair beside it, he took the zmetik from his lips and offered it to her; as she was taking a drag, he looked into the fire.
‘This is it, then,’ he said grimly, and downed the rest of his tea, ‘we’ve got to get across the western border, to Queast.’ He looked to her, ‘how many are near Crims?’
Aingleen was taking her armour from the secret compartment in the wall. ‘A score of our own and as many Outlanders.’
Milorrin grunted his approval, got up and started helping her strap on the cuisses. It was dangerous to go about with armour, almost as dangerous as going about armed; but they were not concerned with stealth, not now that the day had arrived. After belt and breastplate, spauldrons and arms, he wove her hair in warrior’s braids. As he painted her face in the purple-black sigils of battle, he thought—as always—that his sister looked better in the mushroom-leather, her great two-hander on her back.
‘For Clubs,’ she said as she fastened her cloak, and he gave a grin that was wild and worryingly mad.
She went out into the storm, remounting the Crow.
The crows covered every parapet, every spire and battlement. Even when King Ezraseur ordered they leave or risk death, they only fixed him with their dark, wise eyes. Even when he made good on it, calling his Captain of the Guard to shoot down the crows until not one was left, the crows only erupted as one black cloud, cackling and whirling around and through the towers and arches of Crims.
From the window of the throne room, the King of Spades watched the fell omen, and it was not lost on him. He spoke without turning, as he heard his Ace enter the room.
‘You have not earned your fee.’
‘This, I can’t deny,’ she said, not showing how his tone made her bones shiver. He half-turned at her phrase, and she flinched at the full weight of his violet gaze.
‘I have a message from Latericia.’
If the news that Latericia was able to give messages disturbed the King, he didn’t show it—the Queen, however, put a hand to her porcelain face in shock, eyes widening. Behind the small opening in her lips, something shifted with a soft, wet almost-sound. Ezraseur didn’t move, giving the slightest lift of his thin brows.
‘She is alive, she is well, and you are under arrest for an act of war.’
There was a long pause, and the King turned slowly from the window to pace the floor, his Ace captive in his narrowed eyes. Misericordea was almost quailing by the time he reached the throne, running a long hand over the curves of gold and scarlet before he threw his lanky form into its cushions, his black lips curling into a terrible smile as he leaned on one hand.
‘War it is, then.’
Misericordea’s fear vanished in the wake of an answering grin; for a moment she forgot her beloved modifications were gone as she let loose a laugh of glee.
‘Fetch me my Knave, sirrah,’ Ezraseur said to a guard, before turning attention back to his Ace. ‘And you, Ace. What has happened to your beauty?’
‘Traded for my life, Your Majesty,’ she said, regarding her hands with a slight tilt of despair to her brows. At his flicker of concern, the whole story spilled out, told in fits of rage and cold emptiness that hid grief. She knew he only wanted what she’d seen, that her loyalty demanded she tell him the Champion had returned, along with the Queen, and that furthermore there were now an Ace and Knave of Hearts, as well as King and Queen.
At this, Ezraseur laughed, showing the inky blackness of his mouth, and his own fangs. ‘Such a game this will be!’ he said, eyes glimmering. ‘Such a game as I have not played!’