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Monday morning at Gotham Library begins with a return box bulging at the seams from the holiday weekend, a stack of overdue notices to mail out, and Mrs. Cates terrorizing a group of students from the local elementary school.

“Oh, Miss Alice,” a little one with tussled brown curls and hazel eyes wide and pleading hurries over with arms full of books, “please…just for one night. It’s for a school project. PLEASE?”

A paradigm of rules and regulations, Mrs. Cates nonetheless missed the small detail of her application phase which advised that books are in fact permitted to be checked out. “Books belong in a library,” She says, as often as there is anyone around to hear it, “where there shan’t be a chance for sticky fingers and spilled juice and dirt and dust to contaminate the pages.”

A stack of grievances accumulates on the director’s desk every year, but budget cuts being what they are, it’s simply easier to keep Mrs. Cates on staff instead of hiring for a newer model (so to speak). Truthfully, very little is ever done about the grievances against the senior librarian, when the library assistant offsets the problem on a regular basis.

“On one condition, Jordan.” Alice smiles down at him; with a soft rustling of lilac skirts, she kneels and delicately wipes the wet tracks from warm cherub cheeks, “You have to promise there shall be no more tears.”

On cue, his eyes light up with a smile, “I promise!”

“And I expect to see your project when it’s finished.”

“I’ll bring it the very same day!”

It takes so little to make the little ones happy: a warm smile, a kind word, and a tidbit of encouragement always sees the young masses out the door in a far better mood than they otherwise were. And of course, though Alice should never be vain enough to think it herself, the tender beauty and lulling murmur of the young golden-haired assistant is angelic to young eyes: a salvation of sorts after the ominous terror that is Mrs. Cates’ tight-lipped expression and soured tone.

“I suppose you let the little ingrate check every single one of those books out, didn’t you?” Mrs. Cates demands shortly thereafter, “And all his little friends too!”

“I have received their solemn vow to return each and every book by its’ date.” Alice answers, blue eyes blinking calmly at her superior’s thunderous expression. “You know they’ve yet to disappoint me with their promises.”

“I’ll tell you what I know, missy,” Mrs. Cates replies in a rather waspish tone; the florescent bulbs glint off the sharp rim of her glasses: sunlight hitting the vorpal blade before the death strike, “that bleeding heart of yours is going to run you headlong into a world of trouble some time – mark my words!”

The brunette turns on her heel and marches into the back section with the haughty air of the Queen, the Queen of Hearts who possesses none, and Alice quietly sighs. “Consider them marked, your Majesty,” she breathes, a private joke shared with no one, and goes back to her overdue notices.

***

Mother calls at lunch, wherein Alice is otherwise having a blissful affair with Hans Christian Anderson and Earl Grey. “How are you, darling?

“Quite well, Mother. And how are you?”

Oh, alas, you know how this dreary weather affects my mood.” A long sigh thrums against her ear, “But no matter. I simply wished to pay you a gentle reminder as to Margaret Sellinger’s party tomorrow evening.

“Yes, Mother.”

And don’t forget: six o’clock sharp.

“Yes, Mother.”

And wear your pearls.

“Of course, Mother.”

Wonderful. I shall see you tomorrow night, dearest.” Click. The call ends.

“Alice!” Mrs. Cates is the next visitor to her quiet little corner; squaring hands on hips, the Queen overseeing soldiers hard at work painting white roses red, she never wastes time getting the point, “Susanne has called in sick. Again.” The emphatic punctuation perfectly aligns with the sour look of displeasure, “I need you to cover her evening shift, tomorrow night.”

“I would be delighted to do so, Mrs. Cates.” Alice smiles, serene at the half moon beaming down on the crystal lake, and returns to the welcoming bosom of gloss-printed literature.

***

Mrs. Cates goes home exactly at half past five. Alice’s shift will end at eight o’clock. This is the hour of her own little world: where her role as assistant comes to an end and she assumes the role of a page. The library is quiet, and the shelves are trees in a forest which eagerly awaits her evening arrival. She sets each book, one by one, into the comfortable embrace of its fellows: tomes of bound leather, glossed hardback sleeves, and well-worn paper folds, all neatly lined in cradles of polished wood.

The silence is her sanctuary: the books do not pass judgment if Alice hums a little song she made up five minutes ago, or if she sings a sassy rendition of Peggy Lee or Lena Horne up and down the aisles. Most nights, she doesn’t need to fear having an audience.

But there is always an exception.

“Have you, perchance, a ticket to this frabjous concert, Miss Pleasance?”

Alice turns mid-step, a graceful cascade of sunshine-gold tumbling over one shoulder, and meets her admirer with a gentle smile, “You do flatter me, good sir.”

“A compliment, my dear lady,” Mr. Tetch dips into a gentleman’s bow, hat extended in one gloved hand, then straightens with a responsive grin of shyness and quiet admiration, “is naught less than precisely that, and shan’t be mistook for anything but what it is.”

***

In the quiet moments, those wherein Alice is left alone with her thoughts and the musings of her own conscious, she will think of Jervis Tetch as he was when they first met ten months prior to the present date: a most curious gentleman in a long overcoat shielding him from the early biting chill of winter, and beneath its dark blue folds a simple white shirt and checkered bowtie to match his vest. His hair lay ruffled about the ears and askew over the brow: an untidy mass of straw-yellow tumbling from beneath the broad brim of his hat. His hands, broad in the palm and dexterous in the individual digit, were tucked into white gloves, which he would not remove for the duration of that first visit. At first, Alice thought him singularly averse to the possibility of germs; then, when he removed his hat to greet her as a lady, it occurred to her that this fellow would be the first (and perhaps only) gentleman of true breeding she would ever meet in this city.

“I do hope this is not a moment of inconvenience.” He says, the exemplary manners never absent from his person, and withdraws his latest selection from L. Frank Baum’s writings. “A minor interruption kept me late tonight.”

“Hardly an inconvenience.” Alice smiles; with a dainty gesture, she invites him to follow back up to the front desk and officially marks the book as returned. “There is no inconvenience for the library’s most faithful patron.”

“Now who is providing compliments?” it marvels her to recall the early days of their casual interactions in the library: Mr. Tetch, though being of impeccable form and mannerisms, was painfully shy; he rarely made eye contact and stammered over his words. Now, his speech is smooth, unhurried, comfortable; he is (or so she flatters herself to think) at ease with her in a way, perhaps, he simply isn’t, or cannot be, with the rest of the world. Perhaps it is also the library’s purified aura: this hallowed ground of knowledge and learning which quietly collects them in a delicate veil and shields from exterior influences.

“Truth, Mr. Tetch.” Blue eyes sparkle with her smile, “Nothing more. Not an atom less.”

“And I don’t believe there is an atom of meaning in that.”

“Mr. Tetch,” she presses a small hand to her breast, white imprint on purple silk, and draws an offended breath, “I will have you know: I say precisely what I mean, and meant just what I say. Only a rogue would imply contra wise.”

He lifts both hands, an abashed gesture, “And so I must quiet my wagging tongue and beg your humble forgiveness.”

“You are forgiven.” Alice shrugs one shoulder, “But you would do well to mind that tongue, henceforth, my good sir. Lest it might wag its way into some sort of trouble.”

“So I am appropriately chided by my lady fair.” Mr. Tetch bows, yet again, “And now, with a heavy heart, I must take my leave.”

Indeed, he must take his leave, and with his departure the veil lifts once more.

***

Two days after Mrs. Sellinger’s party and Alice’s absence therein, Mother requests her presence in the parlor. The tea is already set out on Great-Grandmother’s china. Mother is wearing her pearls and a quiet look of disappointment.

“I thought you understood the importance of these social affairs, darling.” She says; her eyes watch Alice fix her tea, silently counting the number of sugar lumps. “You have an image to maintain.”

“It was unavoidable, Mother.” Alice speaks demurely and suffocates any terse word in her refreshment. “And I thought you understood the importance of my job.”

“Job.” Mother’s laughter is cold: winter’s first bite on the cheek and nose. “Working day after day in that dreadful old musky building, surrounded by nothing but books and your imagination. Why, that’s where half the trouble starts with you! Now, at the party, Mrs. Sellinger introduced me to…” and there are always introductions made, which Alice will hear about for another week or so until the matter is dropped or another introduction comes to the forefront.

These introductions are, after all, the grand staircase: steps paved in gold and velvet which will ascend Alice to her rightful place in the social hierarchy. It has always been Mother’s greatest ambition, after all: to see her only child, a daughter of golden hair and blue eyes scripted from fairytale desires, on the arm of a debonair bachelor of the highest social standing and old-world wealth. There were rumors, in the early days, of this being Alice’s rightful inheritance: the elite elders made rumors behind gloved hands of Alice being a bastard with the blood of Marcus DeLaine. Mother encouraged the rumors for her own purpose well into her daughter’s formative years, but the proverbial web came unraveled with the DeLaine misfortune and no other validation to the erroneous claim.

“…and, best of all, he is decidedly single.” Mother finishes, with a lit in her voice and a coy smile on painted lips, “A simply charming gentleman, dear. And he is looking very forward to meeting you tomorrow evening, when we are hosting the spring gala.”

'And you will be in attendance' falls unsaid in the pointed gleam to her mother’s eye. “I look forward to it as well, Mother.”

***

The spring gala is hosted on a rotating schedule by the various high society families who have earned a place in this elite circle. With expectations high for an event to outmatch the prior year’s affair, and Mother’s determination to outshine everyone else around her, the Pleasance household is a reckless rush of servants cleaning, gardeners planting fresh blooms, and the poor chef being inched closer to either retirement or an early grave – strictly dependent upon Mother’s hourly demands or criticism of a particular dish.

The rightful role of Queen of Hearts will ever belong to dear Mrs. Cates, but there are days when Mother vies fervently for the throne.

Donning the petal-pink dress which Mother had placed strategically within line of sight, Alice is a vision to compliment her fictional namesake (no, she was not technically named for Carroll’s misplaced heroine, but it is a favorable alternative to the reality: that she was named for a great-aunt long since dead and no one has ever been able to explain just why Alice bears her name in present day). Dainty and childlike, with a white satin headband restraining a tumble of gold, she makes small talk as appropriate with the other girls; smiles and nods as they make gossip behind gloved hands, and thinks of all the other places there are to be.

Young Mr. Sellinger is precisely what was promised: tall and broad-shouldered, with a head of thick black hair and a healthy tan to his skin. He kisses Alice’s hand and gives her a delighted smile – the sort which directly implies she, too, is just what he was promised.

“Mr. Sellinger,” Alice dips into practiced posture, “a pleasure.”

“Please, call me Billy.” His smile widens around the instruction, “And of course, I should call you Alice, yes?”

“I’d rather you not.” Her smile remains, a glossed pink curve on a pale face, but it is plastic and hardened without genuine emotion to soften it; he does not, strictly speaking, bear resemblance to the lizard…but then again, dear Billy the Lizard was not so brash in his conduct, “When we have only just made acquaintance.” She amends, after entertaining a brief thought of how young Mr. Sellinger would look unkindly deposited down the Rabbit’s chimney stack.

“Of course,” he says, though the smile falters just enough to tell Alice that Mr. Sellinger is quite used to the young ladies eagerly agreeing to such informality without care for how long it has or has not been following first introductions, “My apologies, if I have offended you.”

“Quite alright.” She pardons; surely, such conduct would be enough to warrant a trial, if the Queen did not outright order the execution, but Alice has always preferred to think of herself as possessing grace before temper. She catches the eye of no one in particular, across the room, and dips her head in a parting gesture, “Do excuse me.”

The manor has been her playground from the early days of youth, searching for rabbit holes and secret entrances which might take her across the lake and into a lovely little garden; she never quite found a rabbit hole, but she happened upon a secret entrance (or two) which departs her from the dull grey-toned world of lace dresses and plastic smiles to that which mandates something entirely different of her person.

“Miss Alice,” the informality here is welcomed, from the bearded man she knows as Master Hendricks, and the greeting smile she gives in return is true, “and I thought you might not make it tonight.”

“Away with the thought, good sir.” Her mannerisms are the source of Master Hendricks’ fond smile and the occasional chuckle, and he provides both tonight before directing her to an available partner waiting across the hall.

The young man with whom she will be spending her evening is very different from Mr. Sellinger: thinly-built with rowdy copper curls, he is perhaps a few years her senior, but surely not a day more. He greets her with a small smile, grey eyes sharp with focus; she thinks, most likely, he is recalling the necessary steps with a mind determined to not make a misstep.

He, this young man, looks at Alice and sees only another partner – one of many he will have, for however long he chooses to take this path. He does not know she is Alice Pleasance, only child to crumbling wealth and a mother whose ambitions will one day lead to a mimsy fate. He sees Alice, the young lady introduced only by her first name with long blonde hair fastened at the base of her neck and a face which will soon be covered as they begin this dance.

Alice draws the veil of white and grey downward, vision somewhat obscured and yet somehow heightened by the cloud of mesh, and ascends her sword. Here, she wears a new costume of white – and yet this attire feels as natural as the skin into which she was born. The sword in her hand, the garb of white, the mask of mesh, and the cathedral ceilings of the fencing hall: these are her true flesh and this is her home.

Across the hall, Master Hendricks’ voice booms through the silence: “Begin!”

***

“It’s official.” Ms. Fielders proclaims; her smile matches the brilliance of her red hair and the illustrious lime-green hue of her dress, “Beginning the first of next month, we are henceforth known as Wolf Pack Industries!”

The elongated stretch of cherry wood hosts nearly thirty around its oval-shaped perimeter; the room itself is an oasis of light, boasting floor-to-ceiling windows and walls painted a lovely blush shade of rose-pink to compliment to dark wood furnishings.

(Of course, Jervis is no interior decorator – perish the thought! – but he can appreciate aesthetics wherever they are to be appreciated.)

At the table’s northern tip stands Ms. Fielders (though, if rumors are to be believed – and on this matter, Jervis very much believes they deserve due credit – she shall wed one of Gotham’s finest and become known as Mrs. Calvin Steers) to the immediate left of her mistress, mistress to them all; the latter, as always, cuts a striking vision in royal blue with her great mane of velvet-black drawn to the side with a clasp of silver.

“Thank you, Red.” Miss DeLaine—no, no; shame on him to so quickly forget!—Mrs. Zsasz thanks Ms. Fielders with a gracious smile, then considers the rest seated at the table. Jervis, for his part, perpetually feels underdressed for these occasions; owning exactly two suits, both of which must be reserved for formal affairs, he is left only with the option of his tweed blazer when presence is mandated beyond the safety of his four walls. To compare himself to the polished figures surrounding him on all sides is very much like appearing to play croquet with the Queen in his nightdress.

“Given the changes of late, which you all have superbly navigated,” Mrs. Zsasz continues with an inclusive hand gesture to them all, “the time has come to address one final matter: your respective futures with the company – and, by default, myself.”

A low murmur ripples throughout the room. “These past seven years have been, in a word, eventful.” Mrs. Zsasz gives a gracious smile, “And your devotion, collectively speaking, has not left me wanting. However, as we proceed into a new chapter of the book (if you all might pardon the metaphor), I am providing each of you with the opportunity to write your individual chapter in a new book. Should you make this decision, we will depart on amicable terms, and you will receive your full compensation for a job very well done.”

She leans back with blue eyes examining the gathered, and Jervis realizes (though, most likely, he is the last to the proverbial party) she is waiting for someone, anyone, to speak up and proclaim early departure.

No one does, and she smiles without restraint this time, “You all have exactly ten days from today to affirm your decision to leave or stay. You will provide your answer to Ms. Fielders by that time. Take this as friendly notice: should any of you not address the matter with Ms. Fielders within ten days, you will be presumed to stay.” A pause, then she nods and lifts her hands in gentle dismissal, “You may go.”

Jervis, eternally the last to depart (he hates the idea of interrupting someone’s own exit, in the event they are intending to go somewhere far more important than himself), is caught off-guard by Mrs. Zsasz’s voice, directed solely at him, “Mr. Tetch, may I have a private word?”

Something akin to an uncooked biscuit drops in Jervis’ belly and takes up residence – very much without invitation. To his immediate awareness, he cannot pinpoint an exact offense which might warrant execution; even so, he will be the first to admit he is rarely aware of himself when otherwise distracted and it could very well be he was the direct cause of some egregious insult towards his employer which might seal his fate.

“Red informed me of Miss Baker’s abrupt departure yesterday.” Being far more considerate of Father Time than most, Mrs. Zsasz gets to the point as always, and Jervis feels shame color his face to recall Miss Baker (one more in a line of seven assistants to himself) who, with dramatics he personally feels were unnecessary, announced resignation.

He tugs at his tie. “I assume Miss Baker filed some manner of grievance against myself?”

“That statement suggests Miss Baker is familiar enough with the English language to do so, and I believe such gives her undue credit.” Mrs. Zsasz leads him from the conference room into her private office (frankly, a far more comforting atmosphere for Jervis; he has spent many pleasant hours in this office over tea, discussing his projects and expanding young Celeste’s literary knowledge). “However, this does present us with an unexpected vacancy.”

She is, in every sense of it, a good woman to refrain from including any mention that Ms. Baker makes seven assistants he has driven away from the position. “Indeed.” He takes the offered seat and fusses with his cuff, “I…I fear I—” her hand lifts and he quickly sucks lips over his teeth, lest a word make a dastardly escape.

“There will be no implication that you are to blame for this, Jervis.” Mrs. Zsasz speaks with quiet emphasis, then leans back in her seat for a moment’s thought before continuing, “I believe we need to be more selective this time. Despite my best efforts, we have yet to obtain an assistant – male or female – who is a suitable match.” Jervis feels his face warm a bit, thinking improperly of the matchmakers from his native England, “Will you manage in the interim?”

“Quite well, quite well, thank you.” He bobs his head in a nod.

“Excellent.” She smiles at him, “Thank you for your time. Oh – and before I forget, Celeste will be coming by within the next two weeks. She needs your advice for a school project.”

“M-my advice??” he can scarcely think of anyone less qualified to assist in such a noble endeavor!

“Indeed.” She nods, then stands to escort him to the elevator, “I will advise you of the date in advance. Good afternoon, Jervis.”

To say Jervis achieves nothing (or even a bit less) over the next two hours is quite the understated. His head is full with reprimands to himself (‘Driving away another dove, you ninny!’) and private terror as to educating young Celeste with an atom of worth (‘And just what shall you impart upon her, hmm? How to make a good spot of tea? It’s about all you are worth – though it is something, and would serve well in the Queen’s court – unless her Majesty was in a disagreeable mood that day…’). By the time his office clock strikes brillig, Jervis officially abandons the cause. He collects his hat and coat, and retires to a little tea shop not three blocks from his domicile; here, he can take perch under an expansive umbrella and drown sorrows in a cup of Earl Grey.

“Jervis!!”

His head pops up much too fast, and Age invites itself once more into his conscious with an audible creak of neck muscles. Ignoring such an indecent reminder of his poor sense of self-care, he instead focuses on the young lady rapidly approaching across the street: a vision in rose-pink and white lace, with her cascade of gold silk spiraling in curls around her face; blue eyes sparkle with the smile which—

He clears his throat, banishes the impropriety of his thoughts, and quickly stands to withdraw her chair, “Alice,” he smiles, “an unexpected and thoroughly welcome surprise this is.”

“Am I permitted to take my seat at the table, then?” her smile goes coy, just for a minute, “I shouldn’t wish to be impolite.”

“It would, indeed, be the height of rudeness to take your seat without being invited,” he nods, “but there is in fact plenty of room, and your seat awaits.” He gently pushes the chair back to the table, now with her comfortably seated in it, and resumes his seat. “I beg your acceptance of the delay, but your tea shall arrive presently.”

“My patience is infinite today.” Her smile is simply radiant, “And any delay might always be pardoned when spent in your company.”

“Tish tush, my dear Alice,” he waves a hand in hopes of equally banishing the blush across both cheeks, “I hardly believe there is an atom of meaning in that, but I accept the compliment strictly on basis of not offending the lady.”

“There will come a day when I have you accepting compliments strictly on basis of their factual selves.” She sets a light touch to his arm: half a minute, perhaps less, but the soft weight leaves a mark long after she withdraws, “Until then, shall we talk of other things?”

“Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,” he grins, “of cabbages and kings—”

“And why the sea is boiling hot,” Alice finishes, with a smile to outmatch the Cheshire himself, “and whether pigs have wings.”

“And so we shall.” He lifts his tea in a gentleman’s salute, and the conversation continues.

***

Any eager feelings toward the steady approach of a holiday weekend are promptly ruined by the sound of Mrs. Cates ignoring the library’s ‘indoor voice’ policy and shrieking herself hoarse. Alice hears the commotion from her place in Ancient History, where she’s cleaning up an earlier study session by university students; by the time she emerges from the dusty old shelves, the accused has found her and rapidly buries himself in powder-blue skirts. In this moment, she is very much Master Carroll’s Alice: shielding the Duchess from Her Majesty’s wrath. The boy clings to her waist, face making wet impressions on her bodice, but there shan’t be a moment spared for wiping away tears; Mrs. Cates approaches, the Queen calling for the executioner.

“I won’t have it! I WON’T have it!” the brunette bellows, and Alice quietly tucks a protective hand around the boy’s ears, lest he lose them.

“Mrs. Cates, please,” Alice says softly, “you’re upsetting him.”

“Indeed!” the other woman’s nostrils briefly flare, and in that image Alice must only think of the Jabberwock whiffling through the tulgey wood, “I hope you’re pleased with yourself, young lady!” it is only fitting that she too should be cast in with the condemned, “This is precisely what comes of over-indulgence!”

“Did he ask to check out two books instead of one?” her tone is sweet, as is mandated in the Queen’s company (lest an openly-offensive tone expedite the inevitable) but her china-blue eyes are hard, as though they were upon the doll’s porcelain skin instead of living flesh.

As it turns out (or, more accurately, as it was screamed out) the dear boy made request not for two library books but permission to use the copier; ordinarily, such an offense is not worth the dramatics, but it so happened he made the request when Mrs. Cates was otherwise occupied and could not assist him. Being an able-bodied lad, he took it upon himself to not be demanding of others’ time and completed the task (successfully) without incident. Until, of course, Mrs. Cates took notice of his absence and caught wind of an active copier’s low hum.

“Mrs. Cates,” Alice says, when she deems the tirade has reached a pause; the boy remains adhered to her waist, with so fierce a grip that she feels his fear as if her own, “I think you are being a touch ridiculous. The boy did nothing against library policies, and there has been no harm done to any machinery.”

“It is the principle of the matter!” the older woman’s voice thunders in silence, “He was told to wait and outright disobeyed!”

“There is no rule in this library which mandates a ten-year-old cannot operate the copier on his own.” Alice lets her voice descend to a whisper, if only to clearly contrast her superior’s bellowing vocals, “The only rule violated is the one you have put in place of your own whim, and he cannot be faulted for offending the easily-offended.”

Behind her glasses, the brunette’s dark eyes spark aflame and her nostrils flare exceptionally wide this time. “This,” her finger points intrusively close to Alice’s person, “is the final straw, Pleasance. You and your family name can kiss my big toe – I’ll have your job AND your head for this!!”

“I rather think it shall be difficult to kiss any part of your person when my head is absent a body through which it might achieve such a feat.” Alice doesn’t even blink, and while she is quite sure the threat towards her job to be as real as real can be, she can’t carry a care on the matter, “I equally assure you, Mrs. Cates, my mother cannot be inclined to kiss a hair on my head, let alone the unseemly mass that is your big toe. And with that, the hour chimes for me to retire. Good night to you, Mrs. Cates.”

She makes a point to see the boy and his books (and his copies) out of the library herself. She possesses no vehicle, and it seems the young man is equally dependent on public transportation, so she pays for his ticket and claims him as her company for the ride home.

“You were wonderful.” He whispers; his large brown eyes gaze up at her with pure adoration.

“Tish tush,” she waves a hand, “I merely responded to the accusations as set before me and made haste before my head could indeed be separated from its foundations.”

“No, it’s true! You were wonderful!” the conversation pauses, half a minute, while the conductor punches their tickets, then picks up as though there was never a delay, “Why, I’ll bet she’s still standing there without a word to say!”

“Most assuredly, a miracle to be documented.” She gives him a wry smile and wink to match. He giggles, and the conversation settles into comfortable silence.

The young man’s stop is on 13th street, some five blocks from her own domicile, but Alice insists on seeing him to the door. His mother answers and fusses over the trouble.

“Hardly a bit of trouble, my dear lady.” Alice dips into a lady’s pose, then bestows a light kiss to his pale brow, “Rather, a most pleasant sort of company for the evening hour. A good night to you both.”

***

Alice Pleasance is, and always has been, the sort to not intentionally make waves; she can, of course, swim as decent as any girl, but if it might be avoided she takes care to do precisely that – particularly where her mother is concerned. This being very much the fact, she is not without her sense of self and her self simply will not tolerate the notion of being ousted from her position by the rantings of a lady who clearly needs to eat more sweet tarts. The very next day, Alice submits her letter of resignation, effective as of the hour, and cleans out all personal items from her little desk area. She has long since quitted the library grounds before Mrs. Cates ever darkens the door.

She takes a late lunch at her favored shop and begins reviewing the classifieds over tea and Danish. Being eligible to withdraw from her trust is no excuse; in spite of her mother’s horror on the subject, Alice enjoys work, enjoys working. If there is no better reason to quickly return to the world of paid employment, it remains that being employed regularly justifies her absence at social affairs.

She spends an hour or so (perhaps a bit less than one but not a minute more than two) making circles with her favorite blue pen, and finds herself rather mimsy to reflect the waste of both time and ink: there isn’t a single advertisement of her selection worth pursuing.

She sighs, goes home, and tries again the next day.

***

Three weeks have passed, but finally something of interest: an advertising for an assistant in the downtown area.

‘Of interest’ being not entirely synonymous with ‘mandates immediate action’, Alice spends the best part of an hour studying the little section of print with a frown ill-fitted on her soft features. Naturally, she flatters herself to think qualified to assist; after all, she did it for years at the library without a single complaint (that didn’t come from Mrs. Cates). But this is not a position in a library, or even a small office; she’s always fancied herself appropriate for a quaint little bookshop in the Northern district, perhaps owned by an elderly couple, where she would spend her daily hours receiving new additions and seeing each one comfortably into its new residence.

Wolf Pack Industries, formerly DeLaine Towers. Why, it’s practically a world apart from her little bookshop! It’s stuff and nonsense, that she might even consider herself fit to clean the floors in such a place, let alone be of any assistance to any person at any time.

She frantically cobbles together an application, to include a resume (which she has never had to create in nineteen years of life), and mails it off the next day. Then she goes to her fencing class and spends the remaining hours NOT pondering what an utter fool she has become.

***

“Is that…stationary?” Red blinks twice, just to ensure the functionality of her eyes, “Like, legitimate stationary?”

“It is indeed.” Iris’ amusement is abundantly clear, and she leans back in her seat to admire the application with far more intent than she has the prior forty, “And she used a typewriter.”

“They still make typewriters?”

“Of course they do.” She thinks, fondly, of the typewriter she ordered and with which she intends to surprise Edward at his birthday in two weeks, “As with all things, the quality varies, but credible sources still exist.”

Red blinks again, as if to store that little tidbit of information away, then resumes the more important topic of conversation, “I mean, she doesn’t have much in the way of work experience…”

“She is only nineteen, Red.” Iris lifts blue eyes with a smirk playing across her lips, “Not all young ladies can have your impressive resume before they are legally allowed to drink.” Her assistant’s cheeks flush pink to match a shy smile, then Iris continues, “Besides, Jervis did not possess much in the way of work history, when he came to us, and his ethic has been nothing but exemplary.”

“You want me to schedule her for an interview?” the question is answered by a delicate lift of eyebrows to communicate the obvious without words, and Red nods, “Right away, Boss.”

***

It takes Alice, dressed in lavender and lace, exactly five minutes to feel extraordinarily out of place next to the endless row of pencil skirts and pressed silk blouses. She picks at a hem just to do something with her hands, then stops because she’ll unravel a seam. She settles for folding both hands in her lap and locking both in place, lest they misbehave themselves.

“Alice Pleasance?”

Her head jerks up, too fast to be polite, and Alice privately cringes; already a misstep! “Yes?”

The woman is tall, built like a willow tree, with a crown of such brilliant red that it would put the Queen to shame. She takes Alice’s hand in a warm gesture and beckons her away from the crowd into a quiet hall. It very much reminds Alice of the tumble down the rabbit hole, though of course there are no pictures and tables and things with curious little labels greeting her as they suspend along their way.

“It…it was very kind of you to see me so soon.” Her voice sounds terribly meek; praise be Jervis isn’t here to observe her as meek as the Doormouse!

“Mrs. Zsasz was very impressed with your resume.” The other woman answers, and a lump forms in Alice’s throat. Mrs. Zsasz? She assumed this woman, with her brilliant red hair and friendly eyes, was the only one she might need to impress. Now there is another?? “Right through here,” she steers Alice into a small corridor, then through a handsome set of twin doors, “Iris, this is Alice Pleasance.”

The office is half a kingdom itself, and in the center sits the queen of this realm: face like smooth marble framed by velvet-black, with blue eyes glittering so vibrantly in pale daylight that Alice is obliged to think of snow, freshly fallen and aflame in the high sun’s radiance; her figure is slender, every bit refined and not wanting for an old-world sensuality. Alice, once more, is reminded of the childish design to her own clothes and very much would appreciate Time to rescind existence of this moment and return her to a place far-far-far away from this one.

“Miss Pleasance,” the dark-haired empress extends pale hands to clasp Alice’s in a warm gesture at odds with the arctic pallor of flesh, “it is a pleasure to meet you.” The words are astonishingly genuine, though Alice cannot fathom for a moment just why it would please so lovely a creature as this to share company with herself, “Please, sit.”

It shan’t be polite to refuse, though it might be equally impolite to accept and disqualify the chair from privilege to stay in the empress’ presence – by mere association, however short-lived, with Alice herself. But it would be the sort to possess very little in manner and mind to simply stand there, no better than a tree in the wood, so Alice hastily descends into the cradle of cherry wood and plush leather.

“I…I wish to thank you for your time, Ma’am.” Alice whispers, staring at the tips of her toes when she is uncertain of the right to lift eyes to the throne, “I am certain you have far more qualified applicants than myself.”

“Of that, I am not entirely convinced.” There is a sultry undercurrent to Mrs. Zsasz’s voice that Alice finds exceptionally pleasant; she believes it might be of foreign lands, but such language was never her strength in school, “Your resumé, while lacking in extensive experience, offered an old-world practicality which others are extensively lacking.”

Long pale fingers steeple, and the light reflects brilliantly off the rings: on the right, an opal encased in gold and silver; on the left, a tasteful ensemble of diamonds and smaller brightly-colored stones. In a moment, wherein Alice allows her imagination to wander, she envisions the faceless Mr. Zsasz to accompany the Mrs. She paints an image of a cultured man, well-built in form and well-versed in mind and speech; she wonders if he too governs a kingdom of his creation, or if he is the unseen partner to his bride’s empire.

She blinks, and refocuses. Best to let allow the mind to wander too long, lest it get lost and help itself to untrod paths.

“I wish to be frank on two matters, Miss Pleasance.” Mrs. Zsasz continues, “This position has, over the past five years, seen a host of temporary residents. I say ‘temporary’ because, as you might rightly assume, they have since abandoned it to varying degrees of unnecessary dramatics, from which I have no use. You do not strike me as the sort to utilize such juvenile tactics.”

“Most assuredly not, Ma’am.” Alice whispers, feeling a little stronger in spirit, and straightens her posture with embarrassment to note her earlier slouch, “May I ask why they were so quick to resign?”

“Of course,” Mrs. Zsasz smiles at her, “I value transparency from my employees, and make a point to provide it in return. You see, the gentleman for whom this position is posted is an, for want of a better word, acquired taste. I amend this description to include, only those of superior and refined taste will appreciate him in his entirety. He is, of course, not without quirks and – if, again, the term might be pardoned – oddities.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright.” Alice says, drawing encouragement from the other woman’s kindly demeanor, “The best people, after all, are entirely bonkers.”

The red-haired woman stifles a laugh in her palm, and Mrs. Zsasz’s smile widens, “Quite well phrased.” She agrees, then continues, “The second matter on which I will be frank is this: experience is not what I am after in filling this position. The work is admittedly uncomplicated and occasionally menial. My ideal candidate will be able and willing to learn, of course, but there is a sense of compatibility which is imperative above all else. The dear man has suffered the untimely retirement of so many assistants, he is beginning to take the blame for their deficiencies on himself.”

“How terrible!” Alice feels her heart ache for this nameless stranger; obviously, he is held in high regard by his employer, therefore she can’t imagine he can in fact be the sort who would deserve such a dreadful lot in life.

“You understand, then, the necessity for…” the dark-haired woman ponders a moment, then finishes with, “…chemistry.”

“Most assuredly!” Alice leans forward, just to convey earnest agreement, “Why, the very idea that someone might be tossed out on his ear simply for a few oddities is simply absurd. Stuff and nonsense, really! Why, if that were the case, places like Wonderland would cease entirely to exist – the whole of the population would be off the pages!”

Her eyes widen, a flush painting her cheeks, and she stammers, “I…that is…”

“You are well-versed in literature.” Mrs. Zsasz murmurs, without a drop of disapproval, “I can’t imagine that was encouraged in your household.”

Alice swallows, then shakes her head, “Marriage is the only thing encouraged in my household.” She would scarcely dare to speak this way in any public setting, but Mrs. Zsasz speaks as one who empathizes as only one can do when they have lived a life such as this.

“And yet, here you are.” The other woman spread her hands gently, “You completed school and you are actively pursuing employment. That is not to be taken lightly, Alice. May I call you Alice?”

“I very much would like it, Ma’am.” She whispers.

“Turnabout is fair play, Alice.” Mrs. Zsasz speaks fondly, as Alice has never heard another woman address her – save for Grandma Liddell. “Call me Iris.”

“Oh…is that…is that not impolite?” confusion tugs her eyebrows together in a tiny frown.

“My employees are carefully chosen; every one hand-picked and afforded access to many parts of my personal and professional life.” The smile widens as the lady leans back in her seat once more, “I should be a hypocrite to not allow first-name basis.”

“Oh…that’s very kind of you. I—” Alice pauses, the words making more of an imprint on the mind than at first glance, and her eyes widen once again (though this time, startled hope shall be named the cause than shy embarrassment) as she stares across the desk, “…your employees. But I…I’m not an employee.”

“You are as soon as you accept the job offer.” Mrs. Zsasz—Iris answers, with the same air as one might discuss the weather, “And it is officially extended for the taking.”

“Yes!” Alice cries out, forgetting herself entirely; two small hands clap over her mouth in self-chastisement, then she shyly adds, “Yes. Absolutely.” Oh, frabjous day!! Callooh! Callay!

“Excellent. Red will prepare the paperwork and have it ready before you leave.” Taking her cue, the redhead dips into a bow and exits through a small door on the right. “In the meantime, come. I’ll introduce you.”

Trembling with delight, Alice follows with an eager spring in her step – and a sense of awe at herself! To think she should prove herself worthy with such little to offer! – and a hum in the back of her throat. It wouldn’t do to share the song aloud, of course, but it dances across the back of her mind until the moment might be right for her to burst in rapturous melody.

Iris (perhaps Miss Iris? Is that too-terribly contra wise to her instruction?) leads her three stories down, one hallway to the left, and then knocks thrice on a handsome cherry wood door. Apparently this is an announcement, not a quest for invitation, because she opens the door shortly thereafter. Alice follows, mind filled with all manner of appropriate first impressions, and then stops dead in her tracks.

“Jervis?”

The man was holding a stack of notebooks; ‘was’, because as soon as she speaks his name, Jervis leaps nearly half a foot off the floor. The notebooks go flying left and right, and though he executes a most exemplary pirouette in a rescue attempt, his foot catches one of the already-descended books; with that, all hope is lost, and both himself and the remaining volumes make an abrupt descent to the tiled floor.

“Alice! M-Miss Iris…!” his cheeks are rapidly coloring, “I-I…that is…”

“I take you two know each other.” Miss Iris (if Jervis calls her by such a title without reprimand, perhaps it is Alice’s right to do so in turn?) bends forward and assists the poor man off the floor, “I believe any concerns I had over your compatibility have been settled.” She gives Alice a tiny wink to match the amusement on her lips, “I’ll leave you two. Alice, come by my office before you leave tonight, to sign the papers.”

“Of course, Miss Iris.” Alice dips into a hurried curtsy to see her employer (and how lovely to declare such a thing, even in her own head!) out the door, then turns back to Jervis who – let the record reflect – looks just as bewildered as herself, “Jervis, why…why didn’t you tell me you worked for this place?”

“I, well…” he’s tugging at his tie and flushing a handsome shade of red, “The…the subject simply never arose when we were, you know, conversing.” He finally stops fiddling with his tie, lest his asphyxiate himself, but the flush darkens to crimson when he sees Alice on her knees, “Oh, Alice, really—you don’t…!”

“Oh, hush,” she waves the one hand not currently gathering notebooks off the floor, “this is what I’m best at: keeping order. And…” she pauses, lifting her eyes to examine the complete and utter lack thereof around her (papers protruding in an unseemly fashion from between books; shelves fit to burst at the seams with contents of published literature, notebooks, et cetera; a desk littered with pens and half-finished thoughts on scraps of paper in addition to the books lying face-up for examination), and finally concludes with, “…it appears there could be use for some order here.”

Jervis looks quite puzzled with this statement, “Well, of that I am quite certain; but it is hardly your job to…well, mend my mess.”

Alice blinks, then the pieces neatly fall in together to create a perfect picture of understanding. “Jervis,” she stands and sets the notebooks on the first available space she can find, “Silly man, of course it’s my job. I’m your new assistant!”

He stares at her, unblinking, for about two minutes. Then he faints dead away.