Alice Kingsleigh met Susan Pevensie in Hong Kong. It was her first interview with a woman journalist, and her first interview interrupted by gunfire.
"Does this happen often?" Susan asked after the police burst in, arresting the gunmen. She was still sitting behind the knocked-over table, her hands busy correcting the pins in her hair.
Alice thought about it carefully. "Not in restaurants. But our company gets in people's way. Some people want the trade with China all to themselves."
Susan gave her a measured, inscrutable look. "Do you carry a gun?"
Alice showed her the three guns she wore, on the hip, ankle and in the handbag. Susan nodded with approval, showing no shock at all, and offered to lend Alice her lipstick.
"I'm not afraid of guns," Susan said as they walked down an alley in Kowloon. "They're machines. A train can kill you in an instant, but then you're only dead. I'm not afraid of things that are real."
That was why Alice hesitated an hour later, when they were perched in the rafters of a warehouse and McTwisp cleared his throat next to them.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Alice," the White Rabbit said. "But Her Majesty was wondering if you could perhaps visit Underland again? There are some - problems, and you - have a way with problems."
Alice knew the kind of things Mirana didn't want to deal with, but she spared a look at Susan, who was very pale. Then a beam gave in under Susan's foot, and they were falling, and it wasn't any choice at all.
The landing was softer than it could be. Alice helped Susan to her feet, buying time to think on how to explain it all. She hadn't taken anyone but Aunt Imogene to Underland before, and she didn't have to explain much to Imogene. Not the purple sky, certainly, or McTwisp's constantly ticking watch.
Finally she resorted to manners. "Susan, may I present Nivens McTwisp?"
Susan was still very pale. Alice hoped she wouldn't scream.
"You don't have to shake his paw," Alice said quickly. "He's an old-fashioned sort of guy. And he's a rabbit, and he talks, I know-"
Susan bowed solemnly. "How do you do, Master Rabbit?" she said.
Mirana's problem turned out to be a Black Queen who claimed the right to some parts of the Red Queen's territory. A decade after Iracebeth's fall, the borders still weren't settled, since everyone who moved far away so as not to hear her screeching now moved back. And the Black Queen's forest was moving nearer and nearer to Mirana's castle, barring the road from the White to the Red.
"I could just talk to her," Mirana said, wringing her hands. "But I - ah, I tried." She smiled charmingly. "It didn't turn out well. She's very much a character. And when I named Chessur as my emissary, she tried to turn his head inside-out."
"So you want me to talk to her?" Alice thought it couldn't be harder than a four-way trade agreement.
"Talk! Yes, I want you to talk to her!" Mirana was trying hard to pretend she hadn't been looking at the vorpal sword.
Susan was standing next to them, still quiet. She hadn't said more than a dozen words since they arrived in Underland, not since Alice had explained where they were and that they were going to Marmoreal, the palace of Mirana the White Queen. She seemed relieved.
Alice wrote a letter that Bayard took to the Black Queen, then took Susan for a walk in the grounds. It was curious to talk about Underland to someone who wasn't an Underlander, but it was nice, too. Chessur came by, hovering in the air and staring at Susan with wide eyes. Others were curious, too.
"Who's she?" Mallymkun demanded, jumping on a ledge that put her at shoulder-height. She drew her sword. "Are you from the Black Queen, with your black hair?"
Alice reached out to swat Mally, but Susan bowed first.
"Lady Mouse," she said. "Forgive me if I offended one of your brave race."
Mally stared at her for a moment, then cleared her throat. "You didn't. Yet!"
"The brave race of mice?" Chessur floated closer to ask that question.
Susan stared between them, her eyes unfocussed. "I know the bravery of mice. They remind us of what loyalty and honour mean."
She bowed her head, then turned on her heel. The white dress Mirana lent her swirled in the evening light.
Mally scratched her head. "She's absolutely bonkers, isn't she?"
Bayard brought the Black Queen's answer the next day. Her name was Valarye, and she required Mirana's emissary to come unarmed.
"Not likely," McTwisp, Tarrant and Mally said at once.
Alice looked at the vorpal sword on its stand. "I could try-"
"You're my champion," Mirana said. "You simply cannot go unarmed."
"Unarmed and alone," Susan said.
Everyone turned to look at her. She wasn't staring out of the window anymore. Now she was looking at them with quiet self-assurance.
"Unarmed and alone. That is the word that is missing. Alice can go armed with an unarmed emissary."
"Susan?" Mirana looked as puzzled as everyone else.
The young woman bowed lightly, her dark hair falling to hide her face. "I am good with words."
"It could work," Alice said. "Under a white flag?"
McTwisp lifted a paw. "Perhaps not the flag of the White Queen? It is traditional to come under the flag of truce, but in this case - perhaps a neutral symbol?"
Alice shrugged. Mirana could figure out this one.
Everyone in Marmoreal tried to reason with Susan or instruct her in diplomacy, but she disappeared within an hour of making her offer. Alice didn't see her until well into the night.
Alice had a room in the palace, somewhere, but she preferred to spend the nights in Tarrant's suite, even if sometimes she found hatpins in the bed. She was already in her nightgown and fending off his attempts to re-measure her ears for new earmuffs when the knock came.
Tarrant kissed her ear firmly and motioned for her to stay in bed. He closed the bedroom door only partway, and Alice tiptoed to it when she recognised the other voice.
"You are the Hatter, aren't you?" Susan looked as composed as she had in the meeting, though her face was even paler.
"Aye, that I am." Tarrant was frowning and pulling at the bandages on his fingers. "Does your Highness need a hat? A wimple? A snood? A beret? A barbette?"
"Needle and red thread, Master Hatter," Susan said. "Unless you can spare a length of green cloth?"
Tarrant procured the items in a mad dash across his workroom, adding a set of wooden hoops and a pincushion to the pile. "It's late for embroidery, your Highness."
"It's late," Susan murmured. She sank to the floor, pulling the cloth over the frame. "Late, but not too late. I've waited for the dawn before."
She took the offered chalk and sketched a shape that Alice couldn't see. When she picked up the needle, her hands moved very fast, without hesitation. After a few minutes Tarrant crossed the room to his own workstation.
Alice went back to bed. They would ride in the morning.
In the morning, Alice scratched the Bandersnatch's ears to stop him from clawing at the courtyard ground in impatience.
"I'm sure that Susan will be here soon," Mirana said brightly. "After all, this is a very important mission and she wouldn't promise if she wasn't planning to come." Her fingers were twitching softly.
Alice touched the sword hilt at her side. "Maybe I should leave it after all. I'm still your champion, and if I come armed..."
"There is a way."
The gathered crowd turned. Susan wore white, and the barbette that Tarrant had named for her. The small hat shone with gold embroidery; when she approached, Alice saw that lions reared between trees around the edge. She carried a long staff wrapped in white cloth.
She bowed to Mirana. "Your Majesty. Can I borrow your champion? I need a standard-bearer."
Mirana simpered with satisfaction. "Alice?"
Alice caught the staff, then pulled the Bandersnatch enough to the side to let Tarrant lead a grey mare into the courtyard. He helped Susan onto the horse, then smiled apologetically at Alice, pointing to his hat.
The Bandersnatch gave a token protest as Alice leaned over to nudge Tarrant's hat and whisper her last admonition.
When she straightened, Susan was holding the mare's reins like a born rider. She gestured to the staff that Alice held.
The cloth fell with one tug of the string. The banner unfurled, red on green. The edges and lines were picked out in gold that sent wind streaming through the lion's mane as he reared up and roared.
Alice tried to ask about the banner en route, but the horse and the Bandersnatch kept apart, and Susan kept her eyes on the horizon.
The Black Queen's camp was in the hills, and her soldiers were spiky and branching, with towering bunches of leaves that gave them permanent frowns. They let them pass by, confused by the green and red lion.
They rode into a circle around a campfire. The Black Queen emerged from her tent. She looked tired in her armour, her hair flecked with brown and red.
Before Alice could speak, Susan slid off her horse. She took the Black Queen's hands. There were words spoken, too soft for Alice or the soldiers to hear.
The Black Queen shook herself, looking back at her soldiers. "Fall back, all of you!"
"You too, Alice." Susan was smiling, gentler than Alice had ever seen her. "I will talk to Valarye alone."
Alice sat by the Bandersnatch until midnight. Each time she looked up, she saw Susan and the Black Queen, walking along the summit of the hill. She didn't know why it was so important for her to watch.
Susan never told anyone what she and Valarye talked about, but the next morning, they rode back with the draft of a treaty. It took three more days to arrange a signing at the new border, within sight of the fertile plain where Valarye's soldiers could take root and flower.
On the last morning, Alice found Susan talking to Mally. The dormouse listened raptly to the story. In Susan's tale, a chivalrous mouse saved a kingdom by turning the tide of a battle.
"I'm going back," Alice said when Susan was done. She wondered what the answer would be.
Susan set Mally down and took Alice's hand.
They stumbled out of the warehouse without being seen. Susan was shaking, taking one careful step after another.
"A church," she said softly. "I need to find a church."
"We'd need to get back to the Nathan Road," Alice offered. "About twenty minutes if we take a shortcut."
Susan grabbed Alice's wrist, her grip making the small bones grind together. "Now."
Alice caught a passing cart-puller, and his broken English and her elements of Chinese got them to a building that wasn't a church at all. The temple was layered with smoke and soot, the small statues showing traces of gold leaf. Only the big, long-eared Buddha was lit by candles.
Susan fell to her knees. She cried for a long time in silence.
The Buddha smiled. Alice thought it was the candlelight.
The treaty was displayed on the wall of Mirana's throne room, the calligraphed text followed by the signatures of the Queens and their champions. Mirana of Marmoreal. Valarye of the Lark's Plane. THE Alice. Ash Yessep.
And below them, the signature of the witness.
Queen Susan in Narnia.