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One Promise Kept: Book 5

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Iplam has changed.

Now, in addition to the self-centered and petty bickering of the chickens and the humdrum dum-di-dum of craftspeople plying their trades, the metallic crashing and clashing of swords rings out across the clearing.

Tarrant Hightopp trips lightly down the steps of the manor house, temporarily abandoning the chaos of his workshop. He sits down on the last step and looks out across the field at the sight before him.

His wife – Alice, Lady Hightopp of Iplam and the White Queen’s Champion – wields a sword with precision and skill. Her student, however...

“Move your feet, Ursa!” Alice commands and the bear attempts to shuffle a bit faster across the packed dirt arena while meeting Alice’s attacks. “Stop focusing on defense” is the next instruction. “Keep your head up” is followed by “watch where I’m leading you!” and then “either attack or knock my sword away, little girl. You’re wasting your efforts!”

In the end, Alice is the one to tear the blade from her student’s paw.

The bear bows her head as Alice leans down and collects the dropped blade from the ground.

To her credit, Alice doesn’t sigh. She doesn’t even lose patience. In a low tone that Tarrant hears only because he is straining to do so, his wife returns the weapon to the young she-bear. “Your grip still isn’t strong enough, Ursa.”

The tawny-colored beast nods. “Maybe I should... I mean... My father’s expecting me to...”

“You will do him proud at the Games,” Alice assures her, rubbing the bear’s sloped shoulder. “We have nearly a fortnight left and you’ve come so far since you came.”

“But why can’t I manage a good attack?”

“Because you are hesitating,” Alice informs her bluntly.

“Maybe I’d fight better if I were angry...”

“No,” Tarrant’s wife replies in the flat tone of unequivocal certainty. “If you get angry you will lose, no matter what. Strategy, Ursalea. Strategy. Now, go find Tabien. And tell him if he hasn’t sharpened that sword he won’t be getting a sparring lesson today, either.”

The bear lopes off and Tarrant watches as Alice – his wife, a warrior without compare – wipes her hands on a grungy cloth. Not so long ago she had been despondent, defeated, desolate and without purpose. Now, with the first Festival of War Games looming just around the proverbial corner, she is the antithesis of all those things. She is Muchy again. Strong. Capable.

For an instant he nearly chokes on the mix of pride and resentment and sorrow and rage.

Alice looks up at that, of course. How could she not? He has been wretched at shielding her from his spikes in emotion and shifts in mood. And his heart line, despite being crippled, has compensated rather too well. He ought to try harder to protect her from the things he feels. To pretend for her.

But, his other Self argues, perhaps ye should prepare her instead.

He knows what that will mean if he does and it breaks his heart to contemplate it.

Summoning a smile, he watches as she strides toward him and the earthenware pitcher of cool water sitting in the shade beside him on the steps. He offers her a ladle-full and when she accepts it, their fingers brush.

“You rushed out of bed again,” she muses before sipping from the lip of the spoon.

“Much to do!” he says with as much joy as he can muster.

“I suppose there is. What are you working on now?”

“Something for Tam,” he answers as Alice pivots around and plops down next to him on the steps. He resists leaning away from her. Nothing would give him more pleasure than to pull her into his arms and kiss her breathless... but if he were to invite her that close she might notice...

“Are you all right?” she says, her dark gaze missing nothing. “You look pale.”

“Haberdashery can do that,” he replies.

“And are those wrinkles?” Alice reaches out a finger to trace the fine crevasses forming in his skin at the corners of his eyes and bracketing his mouth.

He captures her hand before she can confirm her suspicions and forces a grin. This is not the first time she has asked that particular question, nor is this the first time he White Lies in answer. “Laugh lines,” he tells her, kissing her dusty fingertips.

“Hm.” Alice turns her hand in his and grasps his fingers. “There’s gray in your hair,” she observes. “Will you tell me why?”

Why? Do you know how many unbirthdays I’ve had, my Alice?”

“Why do you feel so sad and then so angry sometimes? I don’t understand... Is it something I have done? These students of mine—?”

“No! No, my Alice. I’ve never been more proud of you, nor more proud to be your husband.”

She leans closer and embraces his face with her hands and he cannot shrink back from her without her Noticing so he holds still. “Tell me why you feel so old, Tarrant. Something is aging you. Some worry or stress.”

When he doesn’t answer, simply studies his knees in guilty silence, she presses, “Tam has asked. He noticed and, yes, your son is worried about you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him you weren’t getting much sleep,” she replies with a blithely suggestive grin.

Tarrant barks out a giggle. “I suppose he wasn’t so curious after that.”

“Not particularly, no.”

He sighs happily, loving this moment; laughing with his wife.

“Tarrant...”

He shakes his head. “I’m fine, Raven.”

She sighs. “You’re not. Let me help. Please, Tarrant.”

He clenches his jaw. Oh, how he wants to tell her, to be rid of this burden. But oh, how he doesn’t. He does not think he is strong enough to weather the storm of her rage.

There is nothing that can be done. In fact, nothing must be done. He will not make her miserable with that knowledge.

Her grip is strong; he can feel the warmth of her life in her touch. He closes his eyes and revels even as he rages in silence.

“I can Feel that, you know,” she whispers.

“I know,” he replies on a breath. “I love you, Alice.”

“Your Alice.”

“My Alice.”

“And I love you. More than anything, Tarrant Hightopp.”

She leans forward and the kiss is brief but indescribably sweet. He feels waves of heat unfold within his chest. Love and lust and longing... and if only he had more Time!

He opens his eyes and sees the promise of sensual delights gleaming in her dark eyes and he would love to accept that invitation, except...

Except a lanky young man turns the corner of the house, heading for the small, makeshift arena. With a regret-filled sigh, Alice leans away and pulls her hands from his skin.

“The sword even looks sharp,” he murmurs. “Go and show him how to use it, Raven.”

Alice huffs out a puff of laughter and, with a conspiratorial wink, stands and addresses her approaching student.

“Tabien. How many times do I have to tell you not to hold your sword like a knock-kneed borogove at a croquet match?”

Chuckling, Tarrant moves back toward the house. He pauses at the door and looks over his shoulder at his wife as she demonstrates the proper sword grip. He had taught her that grip. Tarrant remembers daringly reaching out to position her fingers. He had even stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her, nudged her knees with his own, pressed his hips against hers... Teaching her to hold a sword had nearly been the death of him. There had been so many times when he had clung to control with only the most desperate of failing grips. There had been so many times when he had been sure his heart would break for good at the thought of the horrible path she would soon be walking.

If only he had known then what he knows now...

If only he had guessed the sacrifices that she would be required to make, the pain she would have to endure...

If only he could save her from what is coming!

If only things had been different!

If only... if only...!

If only he had more Time!

But, then again, he suspects that no amount of time with his Alice would ever be enough.

*~*~*~*

Alice wakes in a rush of awareness:

She is warm.

The bed is soft.

The room is gray with first light.

Her husband is wrapped around her... again.

Alice frowns in thought and sighs gently. Against her back, he shifts slightly. His arm tightens across her waist. His leg inches up her thigh. His sleepy exhalation is nearly a groan as he nuzzles into the curve of her neck.

Slowly, carefully, Alice turns toward him. The last thing she wants is for him to leap out of bed, jump into his trousers and dash from the room on the pretense of getting a kettle on and then spending a full day in his workshop. Again.

She places her right hand over his and leans back just enough to glimpse his face. The light is dim – dawn has just kissed the horizon good morning – so she counts twice, just to be sure, but concludes that yes... her husband’s face holds more wrinkles now than it had yesterday although they are still fine and easily hid behind a smile. And his skin is much paler now than it had been just a few weeks ago. She had thought perhaps his pallor had been due to the weakening sunlight of the season, but now she’s not so sure. And, yes, there are gray hairs – here and there – winding their way through his long, auburn locks.

What are you hiding from me? she wants to ask. What terrible secret is making you feel so old?

She notes the way he clings to her in his sleep and adds:


What horrible knowledge makes you feel so alone?

Alice closes her eyes and focuses on the heart line. But it tells her nothing new. In his sleep he does not suddenly bloom with rage or plummet into despair. She has lost count of the number of times she has asked him to confide in her, to trust her, to tell her what is wrong. Tarrant is purposefully keeping something from her.

She feels frustration – her own, not her husband’s – burn in her chest and gather in stinging pools in her eyes. Her husband has tried to shield her from his own overwhelming emotions and horrors before... for her Own Good, of course. Now, however, she wonders. With the exception of the night Valereth had died (Alice still knows little more than she’d been run through, presumably with the man’s cane sword), Tarrant has never kept a secret so long from her before. Not since they’d bound their hearts together with the Thrice a-Vow. In fact, she is not sure precisely how long he has been keeping it. Sometime, within the last month, it had slithered into their lives and begun tormenting him, tormenting her, tormenting them.

It had started sometime around the Champions’ Duel that Alice had fought against her former apprentice. Yes, what she had asked Tarrant to do in order to succeed in their plan to circumvent civil unrest had been unforgivable. For several weeks, she had assumed that the cause of his heartache had been just that: he had been struggling to forgive her for asking so much of him, struggling to forgive himself for acquiescing.

But then... earlier this week he had given her the most delightful hat: a Thinking Cap, he’d called it. He had filled it with his thoughts and memories and hopes and she had felt his love, eternal and enduring. They had come together – rather recklessly! – in his workroom. He had been a force of nature, moving over her like a storm that knows it will soon rage itself out. In fact, their lovemaking had been so sudden and overwhelming that they hadn’t even managed to remove their shirts...

Alice glances down at her husband as he frowns in his sleep. His left hand clutches the front of his nightshirt, as if he fears that in letting it go, it will blow away and leave him to some imaginary chill. The gesture reminds her of his most recent habit: time and time again, she has noticed him lift a hand to his chest, slide his fingers beneath his vest and press them against his heart line, massage it even. Why? Has something happened to it? Does it pain him? And, now that she thinks of it, how long has it been since she’d last seen Tarrant’s heart line? She reaches back through her memory and counts the days... weeks...

Startled, she blinks. It has been weeks since she has seen his heart line!

How could she have not missed that until now?

But she knows the answer to that: the Barterment, Tam’s apprenticeship, her duties at Marmoreal, the Festival of War Games... Their days have started early (dressing in near darkness) and ended late (sometimes neglecting to undress at all). Yes, both she and Tarrant have been very busy. Most especially her, and most especially here, at Iplam, since their return.

Alice sighs. Yes, the Barterment had gone well and many of Iplam’s craftspeople are already working on the custom orders they had received. There are still delivery methods to arrange, but life is slowing down for Tarrant, at least. Alice, as the White Queen’s Champion not in-residence... well. When she’d selected members from the White Guard to fulfill her duties to the queen in her absence (standing guard during the audiences the queen holds weekly and so forth), she had not expected... When Leif had gone to Causwick to oversee the earthworks and festival preparations, Alice had thought that perhaps she might be called upon to join him there just before the opening of the festival to ensure the Games proceed safely and as expected, but... she had hardly expected for her skills as an instructor to be sought after.

But they had been. Are.

The seven students she spends her mornings with had arrived in ones and twos. They had come to Iplam seeking instruction from the White Queen’s Champion and they have demanded much of her attention. Augur had been the first to arrive. And, when she had not sent him back to Crimson Harbor – when she had agreed to help him train for the Games that will be held in Causwick Callion before the first snow – Boreal’s daughter, a bear by the name of Ursalea, had come. And then two lads she had seen at the Maigh a few years back: Tabien Leatherway and Malik Goldbrung. Even Lord Hornsaver of Galandonland had permitted his young son – Sir Silveran – to seek out Alice. (She had completely forgotten that the unicorn lord had married some years ago until the nearly-grown colt had arrived with a contingent of guards bearing the Galandonland colors and had announced both himself and his intent to participate in the Games!) The most recent additions to her class of would-be combatants had been none other than Abler Masonmark and a lass named Corea Castlatch.

When Tarrant had called her to the front door to see the pair standing at the bottom of the stairs, she had felt the suspicion and hostility roll off of him in waves. She had placed a hand on his arm, had stopped him from throwing them off their land.

“You’ll sleep with the others in the stables and you’ll help with the harvest and whatever else the people here require in exchange for our hospitality,” Alice had said without preamble.

The two of them had agreed once they’d recovered from their shock at Alice’s directness.

And as she and Tarrant had watched Abler and Corea make their way toward the stables, he had sighed and agreed, “Aye, ’twill be better teh keep an eye on them here.”

Alice hadn’t liked having the young man who had once tried to kill her husband so near them, but she had bowed to the wisdom of the old adage: “Keep your friends close... and your enemies closer.”

She had whispered this, had kissed her husband, and had gone back inside to finish getting ready for a morning spent training Underland’s first War Games gladiators.

She still can’t believe that her life has become so... full. She is still a lady... and yet she is also a Champion. Alice lives a life that happily lies at the intersection between two very different ways of life. Some days she feels as if she has been too fortunate.

Today, however, is not one of them. Today, she wakes up to not only another fine Underlandian day, but the realization that she is allowing the momentum of her new life here – and it is a rather formidable force to reckon with – pull her away from her husband; she had been permitting that momentum to excuse her from fighting Tarrant for the right to know what is hurting him. It had been easy to do. It had been easy to focus on the issues that demand her attention rather than the ones that actively avoid it.

But no longer.

She reaches up and brushes her fingers through Tarrant’s long, subtly graying hair.

What is burning him from within? What is turning his beauty and vibrancy to ash?

She wants to ask, to know, and she will! Despite the fear that locks her throat and silences her voice, she resolves not to leave this bed until he has confessed his secret!

The force of her Determination thunders through her... and wakes him. He stirs. His lashes flutter and he stretches against her. He opens his eyes – the most beautiful green she has ever seen – and gazes into hers and, feeling invigorated with strength and purpose, she smiles for him. She wishes her strength into him... And for a moment he is nearly his former self. The wrinkles fade, his color returns...

But the moment is brief. The color of his irises darkens and muddies as his mind awakens, as whatever malicious thought that is harming him is remembered. Glimpsing that sickening shade of hopeless green before he lowers his gaze, Alice sighs with frustration and pulls him closer.

“Shall I write you a desk or raven you an idea, love?” she whispers.

He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, then lifts his face from her shoulder. “A cup of tea with my wife will suffice in a thrice.”

Laughing, Alice kisses him. “I love your iambic pentameter; nothing else matters.”

The last three words she conveys solemnly, gently combing her fingers through his hair. True, she will not let him leave this bed – not willingly – until he Talks to her, but she will ask once more first...

She winds a lock of gray-streaked auburn around her fingers and waits, breath held for him to respond to her encouragement. He hesitates. Alice impatiently nudges him through their heart line.

“Please. Tell me.”

His hand cups her face briefly before his fingers investigate her frown lines. “I would rather die than see you unhappy for even a moment, Alice. I’m a slurvish man, I know.”

The feeling of his heartache pulsing in her chest pushes tears from her eyes. “No more slurvish than I am controlling,” she answers, acknowledging the fault that endears him to her with her own imperfection.

“Nae,” he argues, leaning forward and pressing his mouth to hers.

She answers his kiss, defies her usual early morning, pre-tea stupor by wrapping an arm around him, hooking her knee around his. In the next moment, she is leaning over him in their bed, her hands tearing at her clothes. The urgency comes from nowhere... or from too many somewheres. She feels as if he is moving away from her... and yet he is here. The heart line aches, as it always does during his every waking moment and it frightens her. She wants to Feel something from him that is not resignation, unhappiness, misery, or anger!

“Alice,” he whispers. It almost sounds like a protest, but she tells herself she must have heard wrong. It is morning and, as usual, he is hard and she wants him now. She needs him to forget – to heal from – whatever causes these fine lines on his face and the fading color of his hair and the indistinct, aimless, ghostly heartache that makes her want to weep one instant and then, in the next, burns her with fury and terrifies her with desolate resignation...

Rather than fight buttons, Alice pulls her nightshirt off, up over her hand and tosses it aside.

She leans over his chest. “I need you,” she murmurs against his neck, her fingers working at the buttons on his shirt. Beneath her, his hips move helplessly, inflaming her further.

Yes, she wants this. She wants it fast and she wants to be overwhelmed and she wants her husband to be reborn from the ashes of their passion. She wants to see his eyes bright and his face unlined and flushed with health and his hair lustrous...

“Alice...!” he whispers urgently. “Alice... stop!

His hands find hers where they are struggling with the third button on his shirt. She freezes, leans back and gapes at him. He is holding her fingers tight enough to hurt her, but she doesn’t care.

“Stop?” she parrots, disbelieving.

He says nothing, simply shifts his gaze away. For a long moment, there is only silence in their room. Silence and the muffled sounds from the settlement beyond and below their window.

“Stop... please,” he finally whispers and her heart is immolated by the emotion he cannot hold back, the torrent that pours over her heart.

She shudders. “No.” He is still hard against her. In a moment of torn cloth he could be inside her and she wants that. She wants him.  “Tell me why.

Resolute, she twists her fingers out of his grip and grasps the sides of his shirt in her hands.

“Alice, stop, please!

Again, he traps her fingers.

“I want to see your heart line,” she declares. And, in a moment of insight, accuses, “Is that what you’re hiding from me?” Her mind races with all the horrors she can imagine. “Is it infected? Have you re-injured it? Show me.”

Alice! I would rather die than...!

With a sudden motion, Alice rotates her wrists, grips his hands and pushes them flat against the bed. She doesn’t ask for permission; she leans down, pinning him against the bed. He struggles briefly. He is bigger than her, heavier. He could probably manage to toss her off the bed and onto the floor, but she knows he won’t. Tarrant would never hurt her. Not to save himself. His half-hearted attempts to stop her last only as long as it takes for her to force the next button to yield to her teeth.

And he quiets but he is not calm. She nuzzles aside his shirt and he sobs.

“Please?” he begs. “Don’t look, Alice. Please.

“I must,” she apologizes. And then she lifts herself up to examine his Heart Mark.

And hears herself gasp even though she does not feel the breath rush down her aching throat.

She stares at the lines that meander over his shoulder, across his pale skin to form the dark red four-pointed star-shaped design over his heart. She shakes her head in disbelief.

“Your scar...” she mouths, horrified.

Tarrant’s scar – the scar from the wound he’d received from Abler Masonmark’s throwing knife in the tunnel between Crims and the Slough – has moved.

“This—is—impossible!” she gasps.

She releases his hands, places her own over his chest which shudders with silent sobs. She frames the flesh with her fingers, measures the distance her husband’s scar has traveled along his heart line, as if flowing on a river’s current...

It is impossible for Tarrant’s scar to have moved three whole inches. It is impossible for his scar to now be so frighteningly close to the Heart Mark... to his heart.

“Many things are possible in Underland,” he whispers. His voice sounds as broken as his heart Feels to her.

“Not this,” she informs him. “You were healed. This should be fading not moving and... what will happen when... is this moving toward your heart? WHY?!

“Alice,” he murmurs roughly, framing her face in his palms as her tears splatter against his skin. “Calm dauwn, luv.”

She refuses. “Is this what you’ve been hiding from me? Tell me why, TARRANT!

His fingers tighten against her jaw and cheeks. His expression hardens.

“The scar is moving,” he admits with almost clinical detachment. It would have been a factual statement had his anger not been the driving force behind the words. “When Masonmark threw that knife, he did so with Intent. He intended for it to strike me in the heart. He missed. But his Intent... Intent... matters.

His fingers trail down to her throat. “It matters,” he repeats, brushing his hands over her newest scar. “That’s why this one took so long to heal. That’s why mine is moving.”

She shakes her head. “No. No, that’s not true! If Intent mattered, then Oshtyer never would have recovered from the wound you gave him... after the Wooing Rites. He never should have been able to...” Yes, Tarrant had been quite clear on precisely where he had struck Oshtyer with one of his throwing knives. And yet the man had somehow – weeks after the fact – been fully interested in utilizing that part of his substandard anatomy to subjugate Alice. Only Jaspien’s intervention had stood in the man’s way, only the prince’s excellent timing and declaration that Alice be left alone the night before the Champions’ Duel had saved her. She does not doubt that – had Oshtyer managed to enter her room – she would have been too far gone with Hafflaffen poisoning to refuse him.

With visible reluctance, Tarrant explains, “He was healed, Alice. Before my Intent to castrate the booly-geber could—!” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “He was healed quickly and completely and then sent on his way.”

“And you weren’t,” Alice realizes. They had run for their lives all night, had struggled through Gummer Slough all morning, had plodded through the wasteland of the Callion to the castle where they’d had to make do with less-than-effective remedies...

Alice lifts her gaze to his, takes in the color of Worry and Defeat in his eyes. “What does this mean?”

He swallows. “We couldnae remove th’ Intent, which I believe was fer tha’ knife teh cleave mae heart.”

“But it’s just a scar,” she argues. “It’s just a scar! So it moves! It can’t hurt you! Not after so much time, after it has healed over!”

“My Alice...” His breath hitches and he pulls her close to him now. “No one can survive a scar this deep running through their heart.”

Alice stares even though she takes no note of what she sees before her.

Tarrant whispers, “Before I gave Tam my pocket watch, I checked the time. My time. I... don’t have much left to give you, Raven. I’m sorry.”

Despite being crushed against his chest, Alice shakes her head, smearing tears and snot against his skin and nightshirt. “No. No...”

His arms stir, tighten. “I’m sae sorry. I should have told ye sooner, but I... I’m a slurvish man.”

Yes, he had confessed as much earlier. He would rather die than see her unhappy.

Were you going to tell me? Or were you simply planning on dropping dead without warning?!” she fairly shouts against him, her hands curling into fists. The fabric of his nightshirt is the only thing that keeps her blunt nails from piercing the skin of her palms.

“Aye,” he admits. “I was slurvish enough teh want teh... teh... teh die,” he whispers on a thread of breath, “withou’ havin’ teh see ye mourn me, Alice.”

“Well, unfortunately, we don’t all get what we wish for!” she grits out, infuriated. “Unless, of course, your name is Abler Masonmark!”

Tarrant’s arms lock around her like bands of warm steel. She fights against him, trying to wedge her arms between them so that she can gain some leverage with which to free herself... so that she can find Abler Masonmark and... and...!

Her husband doesn’t let her.

“Hush, Alice! Stop! ’Tis usal naught teh be—”

“No use?” she echoes. “No use? That bastard wants you to die and you’re just going to let him keep on wishing you into the grave?!”

“Alice! No! The Intent was cast in the moment he threw the knife! ’Tis independent o’ th’ lad’s wishes nauw!” He presses a kiss to her hair, her forehead. She considers biting him in retaliation. “Ye cannae think tha’ boy knew what he was doin’ when he threw tha’ knife... Ye cannae think tha’ after watchin’ ye bleed out on th’ battlefield tha’ he still wants teh kill anyone.”

Alice growls incoherently.

“Ye’ve been trainin’ him these last twine weeks. Ye ken he’s a good lad at heart.”

“Bloody hell. I cannot believe I’m hearing this. From you! That rotten little, miserable excuse for a child has done this to you and you arent even angry with him?!

“I was,” he admits on a sigh. “You felt it even though I wanted to shield you from it...” Yes he had tried to shield her from that anger. He had not always succeeded, obviously. “I was bey-urious, Alice. You know I was.”

“I didn’t know why.”

“Not at the time, no. No, you didn’t.”

She lifts her head and glares at him through her tears. “How can you not be angry now?” she demands.

He gazes into her face. “I am,” he admits softly as he slowly releases the control he wields over his heart. “I didn’t want you to know, Alice. I didn’t want our last days together to be so...”

“These are not our last days, Tarrant Hightopp. We are going to Mirana today for a cure!”

He sighs. “There is none. Please, Alice. Please just put it out of your mind...”

“Out of my mind? Out of my mind?” It takes all of her strength to keep from screaming at him. “How can you be so... so... calm?

“Because,” he replies, loosening his arms and rubbing her back. “You know the truth now. And... it’s nice not to be so alone anymore. Even though I didn’t want to... burden you with this... it... I...”

“Shut up,” she tells him. She reaffirms her grasp on his nightshirt, leans back and tears the garment open. Buttons fly across the room and fall with a rattle-tinkle-and-spin. “Shut up and make love to me.”

He reaches for her, rolls her beneath him and presses his mouth to hers. She opens for him ferociously. It is not so much a kiss as a punishment.

“Shhh...” he murmurs, pulling away before she can bite him hard enough to make him bleed. His lips move to her jaw where they press whispery kisses. “We have time,” he tells her. “There’s time. We have now. An’ there’s nae rush, mae Alice. Mae Raven...”

Alice sobs under his caresses and despairs: she may be his Raven, but she hasn’t the slightest idea of how she’s going to survive a day without him. She never thought she would have to consider it. But now she must.

Tarrant is dying.

He is leaving her and their son, who is not yet fully grown, who is not ready to stand on his own. She knows from her research on the Thrice a-Vow that it is possible for one partner to survive the death of the other. Especially if there is a child...

But Alice remembers Lord Ascot’s soirée, the night Valereth had made his move... the night Tarrant had moved through Time and their heart lines had – briefly – shifted out of alignment. She remembers the sudden nothingness surrounding her heart and the overwhelming, paralyzing Fear and...

Alice does not want to live without her Hatter. She had not misspoken weeks ago when she had told him why she feels she must give her life to the queen despite her love for her husband: Tarrant Hightopp is her Underland.

And wherever he goes, she will follow. Even into death.

But that time is not now. Her husband will not die. It is not his time.

She will make sure of it!