The Hospital of Dreams hadn't been prepared for such an explosion of desperation. It had spent well over a year with little else to disturb it except for its usual bizarre clientele of junkies and those driven to the occasional bouts of obsession with tea. The Hospital had even been doing so little business that it had started to cater strictly to those able to afford its bizarre treatments and doing less charitable work. It had been very quiet and thankfully so for the once overworked doctors and nurses. Yet that was all in the past and the building was crawling with people trying to use it to hide instead of heal.
Less than a month since Jack Heart's death had brought on refugees with nowhere else to go as Wonderland crumbled at the edges. Joining the refugees from the tumultuous outer regions were people that were avoiding the re-emerging reign of the Queen of Hearts and who used the Hospital as a gathering place to avoid her secret police. There wasn't a citizen who didn't remember her frequent fancies that often resulted in executions on the spot. It now took even less reason or evidence to end up at the executioner's block.
One of the men who occupied the Game Ward, a private little room meant for rich and ill politicians, was a previously established businessman. He'd prospered from the overthrow of the previous Queen of Hearts in selling relics from her reign. But when she'd sent in her cronies to dismantle his pawn shop, Leo Pardenlace had run off and sheltered himself in the Underground trade. It didn't help that he was a new citizen to Wonderland City and he'd had no friends to go to. So he had chosen the hospital to hide in.
It didn't make his life any easier, living in the cavernous building and its bizarre changing rooms that warped to help a patients treatment. He tended to stay away from the room that always put straitjackets on its patients and put them upside down like cocooned caterpillars. Too many memories for his liking once he'd spent one terribly long night there.
The Game Room, once used to help reattach limbs lost in the more bloody croquet games, had been converted into a small lounge for those who could afford it. Which made for very people nowadays, so goods were exchanged instead and favours were bought. Crowded around a small card table and playing endless games of poker were those who had managed to worm their way in through wheeling and dealing.
The Hatter's faithful employee, Dormie, and Leo were two such men in the many that came here. One of the Queen's own Executioners, Fred, had come for a few drinks after his shift spent guarding the displaced Amelia Heart. They were on their fifth round of poker, with Dormie cheating openly and Leo crunching on small corners of toast and treacle to annoy them, when Fred finally spoke.
"Have you two heard that a large section of the desert sunk in?" he offered as he shuffled the cards from hand to hand. Dormie, dozing at his place, jerked upright and twitched his nose. The Executioner's eyes, almost hidden under the semi-permanent half-mask he had to wear because of his line of work, glinted with delight that he'd woken up the Dormouse. "Same thing with Port Town's sister city, Caucaut; all gone and only a few witnesses to what happened."
"I got cousins in Caucaut," Dormie admitted. "They'll be headed in this direction then. Not that I like 'em. My cousin doesn't shut up and then she's always plannin' on marryin the next man she sees. No wonder... she's been... married..."
The words ended on a lull that made them both look at him. His head retreated like a turtle's back into his massive collar and he began to snore. Leo reached over and tweaked his nose hard but the Dormouse was asleep again.
Fred began to deal cards out. "Southern cities are still intact for some reason."
"I've been getting reports about how the South is still stable enough to at least get some product out. But with these storms," Leo began and jumped as there was a loud bang and flash outside their window. The storms had been raging for well over a few days now and there was mass flooding in the lower levels of Wonderland City. It had reduced itself to spotty rainstorms now though but the thunder was erratic enough for it to be startling. Resisting the urge to go close the drapes, he instead looked back at Fred and Dormie. The other man was trying to wake the Dormouse but Dormie was still sleeping deeply.
Leo checked his cards and frowned at the bad hand he'd been dealt.
"You cheatin' at cards?" he asked the Executioner, who gave him a cold look.
"I never cheat."
Leo caught a glimpse of the knife scabbard strapped to the other man's wrist and gave a shaky smile. He didn't mind playing with one of the Heart's servants but he was cautious about it. "'Course not."
"Have you been hearing any other news?" Fred asked as he looked at his cards. He shuffled them around and his jaw twitched at the hand he'd dealt himself. They both exchanged two cards and Leo shrugged.
"Beyond places crumbling to ruins in less than a few days and various members of old resistances being killed on a whim, nothing more than the usual. Old Queen is letting her presence felt, that's for sure. I've not lived here long but makes me unsettled." Leo settled his boots up on a low ottoman and leaned his head back. "Can't even run a decent business thanks to this mess."
"Perhaps if you dealt in more legal objects, you wouldn't have such problems," Fred pointed out.
The businessman gave him an innocent look. "Hey, when the Hatter went into running the more legal side of trade, business was booming for me. Nothing should be able to take that away from a man. I pay taxes, same as everyone." Leo cocked his head on the side. "Plus, I get to hang out with fine upstanding Loyalists to the Queen such as yourself."
Sensing that he was beaten in trying to give Leo some morality, the Executioner sighed and shuffled his cards again. Leo laid his hand on the table, a poor pair of twos, and stared at the other man expectantly. The hand that was laid down was a low straight and Leo blinked in surprise. With a grimace, he gave Dormie a kick under the table. Dormie responded by not really stirring from his sleep and instead just flipping his cards over casually.
A high ten-straight stared back at them and both of men groaned. Dormie cracked open an eye and looked around, then promptly fell back asleep. This time there was a smug smile on his face that neither man missed.
Leo shoved a small pile of tea leaves, which replaced chips for betting, in front of the Dormouse. They'd decided on using it for their currency but he had been tempted into making a cup of tea for himself. He'd been losing badly even since and mostly to Dormie.
"He has gotten better in the last few hands."
Fred snorted. "Comes from too much treacle. According to what I got out of him, the Hatter used to control that but once again he's just a regular junkie for it."
"They say the Hatter's been killed. Which means his tea shop goes under the ownership of the Heart Royalty," Leo grumbled unhappily, tipping his tea cup to see that it was empty. Dormie twitched and stirred, blinking his eyes curiously. He stared with a deliberate expression on his tiny face, for once looking very alert.
"They say the boss is dead but I won't believe it till I see it." Despite his cowardly nature, Dormie thought of himself as loyal.
"He was travelling South," Fred said pointedly, lifting his mask enough to sip his own tea. "And much of the land close to the Farming South is gone, disappeared into darkness. Not just water... just nothingness that is all shadow and the like."
"Strange things happening, even for us," Dormie agreed.
"No word of the Drawling Master? He'd be good to muster forces under if he was willing."
"Not one single word of him, nor of anyone who followed him," Leo admitted. "And I would know."
Both Dormie and Fred looked over at him but he'd resumed a perfectly innocent expression that made it all the more suspicious.
"How is the Trial going anyway? Get to take some heads yet?" Dormie asked the Executioner. When Fred looked at him, his face actually brightened and his nose twitched. "Spare me none of the gory details. I like to hear a good story of maiming and eviscerating."
"There is a Mental Ward here, Dormie," Fred pointed out. "Perhaps we should have them look at you concerning that obsession."
Dormie waved his hand. "Please, that therapy's been done. I've had enough experiences with the strange in my life to frighten any doctor."
Fred's eyes narrowed a bit behind his mask. "I was thinking more of an experiment. They were having people 'volunteer' to see if Emotions could be taken from Wonderlanders temporarily."
The Dormouse squeaked and his head shrunk down into his shoulders. He didn't like the thought of being no more than a drained zombie and the look he was getting made him want to crawl under the table.
Leo cleared his throat. "The Trial? I hear more than a few people from the Guinea-Posh district received notice for jury duty."
"Still a matter of making this all legal. Plus the number of votes will be tricky considering how well liked Amelia Heart is." Fred sounded neutral about it all, the sign of a well-trained soldier. He wasn't about to say a word against his ruler, and especially not to them.
"No word of Jack's heir?" Leo asked and Fred shook his head.
"Not a one and the Queen's got the right to rule if the trial goes poorly for Amelia Heart. Laws from thousands of years ago were never changed."
"We're wordless. How utterly terrible," Dormie muttered, suddenly sad. For all his woebegone expression, he'd been hoping for something to cheer him up.
As if in reverence to his words, they sat in dull silence, the game forgotten on the table. It lasted for some time, Dormie nodding off now that he'd said what he wanted to say and the Executioner flipping the cards over and over again in a mindless shuffle. Leo uncrossed his feet and leaned back in his chair, lighting a water pipe as he did so. He smoked in silence, letting small billows of smoke escape his mouth to almost fill the small room in a soft blue haze.
Fred began to re-deal as the silence between them became too much. He was on his second round of passing the cards when the inner ward alarms blared loudly, sirens shrieking and bells banging away in the hallway. Jerking his head up, he stared at the door and half-expected hundreds of Suits to come flying through and Leo became equally tense as the alarms continued to sound. The Hospital was still home to so many refugees and those hiding from the Queen that there was little chance of guessing what was going on. The Suits had come storming in for a reason and it could be anyone's guess who was going to get taken in for execution.
To his credit, Fred managed to look untroubled about being caught in the company he was keeping.
The door to the Game Room flew open and a youngish man stumbled through, slamming the door behind himself with his foot. They all stared, with even Dormie waking up enough to shriek and hide under the table, and the man stared back. He took them all in, gave a shaky smile as he sucked in a few breaths, and then turned to the door. Behind him, Leo and Fred both glanced at each other in confusion, neither recognizing him.
He was holding an old croquet mallet in one hand, the handle twisting over and over between his fingers and he gave it a brief shake. With a loud cry he swung it hard to the left and promptly smashed it over the lock. The metal gave immediately, the handle and lock flying off the door, and the man stepped back as he clicked a button on its long handle. The mallet folded itself back up into his hands so that it resembled a regular hammer more than a croquet mallet and he slipped it into his green coat.
He turned around with a bit of a whirl and met their confused looks with arched brows.
"Right then, this is all going rather south. Sorry to interrupt your game, gents. I have a very good reason and normally I would stay to explain. But, unfortunately for you, I have to fly," he apologized. He grinned and looked down at his clenched hand as if he was delighted with it.
"Who..." Leo stared and the other man's grin went a bit proud and wild as he looked back up.
"Someone who just outwitted the Queen's treasury guards. Most effective I'd say. Be sure to tell your neighbours about how fantastic I am, because it is true. Feel free to make me sound like a legend." The door on the other side began to be slammed into repeatedly, and there was the voices of men shouting orders. The man pointed to the other door that led out behind Dormie. "Do you mind?"
He was bouncing out the door before anyone could respond, before any of them could warn him that that particular hallway led to nothing more than a dead-end and broom closets. The Executioner stood half-way up from his seat just as the door crashed open, ten black dressed Suits storming through. They were all dressed in the old style, their suits embroidered with their ranks, and one of the Aces paused to look at the confused trio staring back at them.
"You're on off duty, I hope? Either way, you're getting reported for this," he asked Fred, momentarily distracted by his own protocol. The taller man shrugged so casually that the Ace ignored them all after that minor rebuke, knocking their table to one side in his rush to get to the other door. The entire group of Suits slammed through like bulls through a china shop and Dormie cowered behind Leo instead.
The Executioner and Leo followed the Suits to the door and, with a faint whimper of fear, Dormie pressed in between them to watch. They could just make out the shape of the escapee running down the hall he'd stumbled into, and he was slamming open the doors to various closets as he tried to find an escape route. The Suits poured out of the tiny room they'd been in, each pulling either stun guns and regular pistols from their holsters. There was a small group of people, geriatric refugees who'd been woken by the noise, clustering around one of the side doors nearby, staring at the man and the guards with equal worry.
"What's this then?" one of the old men demanded, holding up a brass ear trumpet so that he could hear the answer.
"Stop him! He's stolen the Stone of Wonderland!" the lead Ace shouted and he sent a charge out to hit their quarry. The young man narrowly dodged it and then straightened up again, looking offended at the near miss that had ruffled his dark hair.
"Gents, no offence, but I'm thinking I've got more use for this than any old Queen at the moment. There's not even a mirror to use it with, so what's the harm? Besides that, I'm just borrowing it for a time," the thief said, twirling his croquet mallet again as if preparing for battle. The odds were heavily stacked against him, with ten well-armed Suits all training guns on him.
"Drop your weapon! Or we will shoot to kill" the Ace warned and the thief shook his head.
"I really, really can't do that." He knocked it four times against the one door he'd already checked, an old broom closet, and then turned to them. "But do give her Majesty my coldest possible regards."
He swung the door open and disappeared into the closet, leaving everyone else stunned. He'd just trapped himself, hadn't he? And given them more than a little license to execute him on the spot.
Watching from their doorway, the three gambling men wondered just what sort of insanity they were watching as the Suits crowded around the broom closet. One of them blew the lock and handle off with his pistol, sending a spray of wood and metal up into the air. The Ace kicked the door in with a loud crunch and charged in. Even the geriatrics were listening eagerly, hoping for a bit of a fight to gawk over.
There was only a rattle of pots and pans and cleaning supplies, and the Ace came back out cursing.
"How the hell did he do that?" the Ace shouted.
The Suits all began talking at once, blaming each other. "'Tis a bloody broom closet, not some hallway."
"You should have shot him!"
"She wants any resistance members to be taken alive first, remember?"
"We don't even know who he is!"
Dormie poked his head out further and got a better look. "He's gone. Gone."
Leo looked down at him. "Gone?"
"Only Suits in there and they're all about to start fighting," Dormie explained.
The Executioner pulled back into the room and thought it over to himself, knowing that they'd all be questioned about being in the Hospital of Dreams. A thief had just stolen one of the remaining relics from the Wonderland Looking Glass, one of the ones the Queen had insisted on being guarded better this time around.
Coming back to their poker table, Leo met his eyes and gave a crooked grin.
"Someone is going to be in very, very deep trouble when she finds out about this."