This time, Tarrant thinks, it is good to be working at his trade again.
Her Majesty the White Queen possesses an exquisite head, small and stately and perfectly proportioned. His old quarters in the palace have been lavishly restored, stocked with every last oddment he could possibly wish: buttons, pins, and fancies; fabric, ribbons, and lace. Each and every painstaking creation is met with her reflection's serene, dark-eyed approval.
Oh, Her Majesty is gracious, nothing like her hideous, huge-headed sister. That beast had quite got what she deserved.
But Mirana is not sublime. No, she is not even perfect.
Her hair is not the color of dawn's pale light reflected off a rockinghorsefly's delicate wings. Her eyes are not as changeable as quicksilver, one moment playfully bright, the next, steely and keen as new scissor-blades. She is not blunt in all the right places and graceful in all the wrong ones. She is not even slightly disagreeable, which is disappointing.
Tarrant pins a stray ribbon-end in place, studying the hat with a wistful frown.
However kind or good at queening, Her Majesty is not Alice.
Alice spends the first weeks of her journey ill in the bowels of the ship, scarcely able to drag herself up to the deck without help. On the rare days that she does see sunlight, Absolem is never far away, lit upon the nearest rope or plank or piece of rigging. His presence comforts her. She can almost hear his voice in her head.
You've strayed far this time, dear girl. Somebody's got to look after you.
After a month, it becomes clear that her malady may be more than seasickness. Her fits of delirium worsen, and there are murmurings amongst the crew about bad water and grog running out. Alice is attended by the only other woman on the ship, the cook's apprentice, who brings her tea and croons to her in a soft Scottish accent.
She wakes from fever dreams with the girl's cool hand on her forehead and the Hatter's eyes burning in her memory, an after-image of despairing, yet stubborn hope. Her nostrils fill with the smell of her condition, of close, cramped quarters and stale bedclothes. She turns her face into the girl's sauce-stained skirts, where she catches the faintest whiff of saffron and spice. Black tea from Ceylon. The bergamot of fine Earl Grey. Scents she knows by heart, because she caught all of them each time she was near him, each and every time. Maddening, to know she hadn't got close enough.
“You smell like someone I once knew,” murmurs Alice, squeezing her eyes shut again.
“A lady-friend, Miss, or a gentleman?” asks the cook's apprentice, stroking her hair.
Alice feels the air stir at her cheek, the faintest brush of a butterfly's wing.
Let me rephrase that: somebody's got to look after you for him.
“A gentleman,” sighs Alice, resigned. “The only man for me.”
“Your Majesty requires my presence?” Tarrant asks, bowing before the throne.
The Queen smiles at him with heartbreaking benevolence. The object lying in her snow-crisp lap is ominous, the worn vellum scroll open to a section that Tarrant has never seen before. Unable to restrain himself, he steps forward, peering curiously down at it. The Queen holds it out to him, urging him to take it.
“A choice lies ahead of you," she says.
The ancient ink drawing stirs something in him: a memory that never happened. No, wait—it's an image he's seen somewhere before, or he's at least seen something similar, and it takes him a moment to realize where. In his father's possession, there had been an old deck of cards that his ancestors had supposedly brought from the world above long ago. The picture in the Oraculum is, unquestionably, of him: the ribbons trailing down from the figure's hat are unmistakeable. Over his shoulder, he bears a walking-stick with a bundle tied at the end. A familiar dog, as if it had, until that point, been trailing after him, turns uncertainly in the opposite direction.
“Ah,” says Tarrant, darkly. “The Fool.”
“This is no ill omen,” replies the Queen, taking the scroll from him. She rolls with her right hand and unscrolls with her left, until Tarrant can see the scene that follows.
Alice's hair tumbles about them both, concealing whatever is happening beneath it.
Alice recovers long before they make port at Hong Kong, although she is left feeling weak and drained, even empty. Her father's company will establish headquarters here in preparation for striking out into China's interior. She has been studying treatises on the trade routes of old, reading of the Silk Road's many wonders. She would like to retrace it, preferably with a companion who knows a great deal about tea.
By night, in her over-lavish bed at the Embassy, Alice dreams of Underland in fits and snatches. On the first night, she follows Absolem's voice into the darkness, only to find him hovering in the garden on the other side. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are there, of course, waiting to greet her. She's so glad to see them she could cry.
Another night, she dreams of playing chess with McTwisp. He asks after her health, which she admits has seen better days, and tells her that Underland's commerce is much improved under the White Queen's dominion. He trounces her soundly, and she wakes before they can start a second match, still clutching one tiny black pawn.
Setting up the company offices is a tedious process, not least because translators are required. Alice slumps at her desk and shuffles through each endless stack of papers again, wondering if she ought to just start learning Chinese.
That night, Mallymkun spends ten minutes attempting to stick Alice's foot with her sword before Alice manages to calm her down. She's angry because Alice has been away so long, it would seem. Everyone misses her. Even Mallymkun misses her. Most of all, though, the Hatter misses her. She doesn't need to be told twice.
Alice wakes with tears in her eyes, and she doesn't speak to anyone at breakfast.
That day proves particularly exhausting, but they settle on a second office location nearer to the docks. The deal takes several hours to close, as they are, part and parcel, invited to a lavish feast of local delicacies and endless cups of tea. They'll spend a few more weeks in Hong Kong outfitting the offices, and then they'll re-provision the ship and return to London. Alice can scarcely stomach her disappointment, but along with it comes a curious sort of relief.
That night, sleep comes quickly. She falls faster than she ever has before.
She lands hard in a clump of tall grass, the wind knocked out of her. Struggling to her feet, she finds that she is neither too small, nor too tall—just right, in fact. She's barefoot, still in her night-dress, and all is quiet and still in the Underland dusk. She spots a broken-down windmill in the distance and begins to walk.
When she finally rounds the crumbling structure, one hand lifting a shred of broken sail in order to duck under it, she can see that the tea party is just where she left it.
But only one guest is there.
“I come here at night, sometimes,” says Tarrant, softly, his lowered eyes fixed on his teacup as she approaches. “The others stopped coming with me.”
Alice lays a hand on his shoulder. She can't keep her fingers from trembling as she leans low and tilts his chin up with the other. His hat falls back as he raises his head, landing with a soft thump in the grass at Alice's feet.
“I'm here now,” she says, offering him a hopeful smile.
They kiss because it's the only thing left for them in any world to do. Alice guides his pin-callused hands to her waist and he draws her down, tasting her with a hunger normally reserved for the rarest of teas. She wonders if she still tastes of Lapsang Souchong, pine and gunpowder, no sweetness at all as she straddles him, struggling for balance. He pulls her in close, eyes blazing green, then yellow, shifting, doubting. She draws her night-dress up about her hips and touches her lips to his.
“My mother and sister tried to marry me off to somebody wretched,” she whispers. “But I simply wouldn't have it. Do you have any idea why?”
Tarrant shakes his head sadly and touches her cheek. He's distracted by Alice's hands, which have worked their way past his waistcoat and shirt to the warm skin beneath. She's careful not to strain the stitching, which he's doubtless done himself.
“It's an easy riddle,” Alice says when the kiss ends. “He wasn't the man for me.”
“Do you know what today is?” Tarrant asks, his breath coming shallow and fast
“No,” Alice admits, her voice faltering as she finds him ready.
“Ours,” he gasps, and so it is.
Afterward, they lie together in the grass, watching the faint stars fade into morning. Alice feels a lassitude creep over her, the terrible momentum of departure. She clings to Tarrant as fiercely as she's able, but it's almost superfluous, what when he's holding her so tightly in return. Her thoughts begin to drift as her eyelids grow heavy. As they huddle close under his coat, he turns his face into the tangle of her hair.
“Don't leave me again,” he implores her, softly, his voice rough.
“I can't stay,” Alice whispers, finding speech difficult. “Not yet. There's something I need to finish. My father's company. We expanded to Hong Kong, there's so much...”
“Muchness,” Tarrant finishes for her, sounding drowsy. “So much more than before.”
Alice can only nod, pressing her nose into the hollow of his throat. Sweat. Clove.
“In which case, I shall keep it for you.” He pauses, growing tense. “Alice...?”
“Tarrant,” she whispers. Not Hatter, but his name. She's a thousand miles away.
Alice wakes to a twinge of pain and an empty bed, finding a rust-colored stain on her thigh. Her night-dress lies discarded on the floor. As she bends to collect it and clutches it to her chest, a flash of blue at the window catches her eye.
Silly girl, Absolem says inside her head. This cannot be undone.
“Nor would I wish it to be,” she answers, but the butterfly is already gone.
“This is the last of it,” murmurs the Queen, proffering the purple-tinted vial between dainty thumb and forefinger. “As I did with Alice, I advise you to choose wisely.”
“Madam,” says Tarrant, with all the dignity he can muster in spite of the pitifully drab garb he has donned, “I believe that the choice is already made.” Only his beloved hat remains. He uncorks the stuff and gives it a sniff, for the briefest of moments reeling.
“I will miss you, old friend,” says the Queen, smiling—ever and always smiling.
Before his mind can flit off in distraction, Tarrant downs the stuff with a shudder.
“I'll send you hats!” he shouts as Underland fades to white, swallowing the Queen entire. “Kilts! Fezzes! And tea all the way from China!”
A moment later, he's standing in a dingy, damp street in front of a door he doesn't recognize. There are no keys lying about or elixirs with helpful tags attached. But there is a huge brass knocker, and whatever people may say about him, he's not so mad as not to know what to do with it. He lifts it and raps three times.
The door opens to reveal her standing there, mouth half-open in amazement.
“Your Queen, I hear,” he says humbly, “is in sore need of hatting.”
“That can wait,” Alice replies, pulling him inside. “I need you more.”
During months when the running of the company does not demand her presence and Tarrant's constant stream of customers seems to wane, they travel. Alice takes him to Hong Kong first, to show him where her journey started.
“I didn't get to finish,” she explains. “Not quite. We have connections in several major cities, but there are a thousand towns and villages we've left unexplored.”
“That simply won't do,” Tarrant says. “That's an awful lot of tea left untasted.”
When they tire of tasting and meeting new faces, they sleep. They find quiet spaces in the vast expanse of the Silk Road's strange landscape that become theirs alone, places where it's possible to vanish without a trace if the right blue butterfly or white rabbit or disembodied feline smile appear to lead you off the beaten track.
The White Queen welcomes their visits with open arms. She holds festivities in their honor, dances and garden parties and banquets, but never once has anyone implored them to stay. Alice knows that, one day, the time will come. Tarrant hopes for it continually, she knows, but he hardly seems unhappy. Just as Underland holds wonders for her, so her world holds marvels for him.
Most of all, though, they are for each other: the most wondrous impossibility of all.