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One Promise Kept: Book 2

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Despite his familiarity with this particular ceremonial duty, it never gets any easier for Tarrant Hightopp, the White Queen’s Royal Hatter, to watch the Queen’s Champion fight in a duel. Every bloody time, the wretched, fearsome heartache he’s never been able to conquer catches up to him... even if he escapes up one of the ever-blossoming cherry trees surrounding the battleground. In the boughs of a tree, at the forefront of the assembled crowd... it makes no difference. Every bloody, wretched, torturous time, Tarrant Hightopp has to grapple with his panic and nausea and don’t-you-dare-touch-her-you-vile-excuse-for-a-man-beast-creature! Rage.


Understandably, in the moments preceding one of these duels, Tarrant Hightopp is often asked about his health, and usually by one of the queen’s nosy, gossip-seeking courtiers. On those occasions, Tarrant confesses (with perfectly false embarrassment) to a violent stomach ache and acute bowel distress. That is often more than sufficient to ensure that the source of the unwanted attention relocates his or herself a satisfactory distance away... and up-wind.


Of course he knows the Queen’s Champion is an excellent fighter, a superb duelist, and formidable opponent. He’s fought her himself, after all! Had even been one of those fortunate enough to tutor her. He’d taught her everything he knows, as insufficient as that had been. And she’s surpassed him most gratifyingly. Normally, these assurances would be more than enough to dissuade his persistent heartache from trailing after him like a certain Cheshire Cat after his top hat. However, blessed objectivity is difficult to come by when the Queen’s Champion also happens to be the woman who holds Tarrant Hightopp’s very heart in her callused, scarred, pale, utterly delightful hands.


“Challenger! Queen’s Champion! Choose your weapon!”


Tarrant ignores Nivens as he hops out of the way. In fact, he makes it a point to ignore Nivens completely. The pre-duel speech holds no interest for him and never has.


He watches as Alice unsheathes her sword – still too short to be called a proper broadsword. If only she were just a bit taller and of longer limb, then she’d fit a proper-sized weapon! But, as the queen has told him time and time again, it’s cheating to smuggle a crumb or two of Uplekuchen into Alice’s morning slice of Battenburg... and, besides, it’s entirely possible Alice would notice the change and, therefore, his trickery... well-meaning though it would most certainly be...


Alice tosses her sword’s empty scabbard aside. It lands at Nivens’ feet and the rabbit twitches with surprise. Tarrant glowers. After all the times Alice has discarded un-needful scabbards in such a way, the white rabbit ought to be used to it!


However, Tarrant sets that thought aside and keeps his gaze trained on his blood-bonded lover as she takes her first step toward her opponent. Tarrant doesn’t pay any attention to the booly-geber. They’re all the same, except when they know nothing of dueling and their foolish inexperience risks her life! Or when their tendency toward pride or cruelty turns them into the most abhorrent sort of cowardly cheat imaginable! He’s stood back and watched – helplessly! – as she’s faced all types of challengers.


Glancing briefly at the queen, Tarrant decides, I shall have to have a discussion with Her Majesty about choosing a husband and putting an end to this business once and for all!


If the woman insists on a-gyring and a-gimbling over this for much longer, he shalln’t be held responsible for his actions! Visions of pea-soup green beanies and violently pink bonnets dance through his thoughts. Badly-colored and horridly-styled hats may not be much of a revenge, but, as a hatter, his options are a trifle... limited.


The first clash of metal brings his attention back to whom ought to be the recipient of it. He watches the Champion – his Alice! – sidestep a cutting swing and, with the broad side of her weapon, tap her opponent teasingly on his exposed flank. Tarrant grits his teeth. It never ceases to frustrate him that she allows these pompous twits so many chances to run her through! Does she have to play with them? What sort of queen asks her Champion to put herself in such situations over and over and over and over and over and over...!



CRASH!


Tarrant startles and blinks. Instantly, his rage – righteous though it most assuredly is! – dissipates and Worry, Concern, and Terror take its place. (It’s a bit of tight fit, but they all manage it somehow...)


He watches as Alice dodges a particularly vicious and well-aimed thrust and rolls under her opponent’s arm.


No, you thoughtless lass! Keep your feet!


She doesn’t hear him. She never does. Which is just as well...


Alice is working now. Protecting the queen. Mustn’t interfere...


Helpless, hopeless despair defeats him and Tarrant can only watch as Alice counters a chop, blocks a lunge, executes a few advances of her own, then, as if by mutual agreement, she and the other combatant pause, lower their swords slightly, and begin circling each other once again.


Twenty minutes. Tarrant counts them. Twenty minutes of meaningless posturing and posing until Alice will be permitted to tear that hateful blade from her opponent’s grasp and claim victory for the queen.


He’s never hated Time more than he does now.


Alice meets the opposing sword again, more furiously than before. The sound of metal striking metal occurs too rapidly for Tarrant to flinch in time with it. He forces his eyes to keep from blinking, forces himself to keep watching. As long as he’s watching, nothing bad – nothing very bad – will happen to his Alice. He’d kept his eyes open during the Battle of Frabjous Day – and a good thing, too! or she might’ve been gravely injured by that then-horrible Jabberwock! He’d kept his eyes open when that pathetic, groping, disgusting wastrel had touched his Alice in places that only Tarrant is permitted access to! But he’d kept his eyes open and had been able to direct her to her lost weapon forthwith once she’d struggled loose from that... that... villain’s grasp. In fact, the only time Tarrant hadn’t kept his eyes open, Alice had killed someone: Stayne. Alice had killed Ilosovich Stayne and the resulting guilt – which, in Tarrant’s opinion she should not have felt at all! – had nearly destroyed her, had very nearly pushed her back through the looking glass and into a life far and away from him!


Yes, Tarrant must keep his eyes on her!


Her opponent is taller than her, stronger than her, and wields his broadsword with frightening skill. Again and again, Alice must raise her weapon to counter his slashing attacks. Tarrant fears he sees her arms shaking with fatigue.


Has it not been twenty minutes
yet?!


He dares to glance toward Nivens, toward the queen’s seat, but there is no white rabbit there. Not silver bell on its raised podium. In fact, the soft, green grass of the croquet pitch at Marmoreal is nowhere to be seen, either! The checkered battlefield, with its cracked and weathered stones and clumps of scraggly weeds growing in obnoxious tufts meets his increasingly-panicked gaze.


Tarrant turns to the left and right, searching for the courtiers, Alice’s current tutors, the required contingent of the Queen’s Guard... but only the wind keeps Tarrant company on this desolate plain.



CRASH!


He whips back around, horrified by the fact that his Alice is still fighting!


Tarrant casts about for a silver bell – or any bell, for that matter! Perhaps he has something in his pockets! Perhaps he can fashion one from a thimble and a metal button! He struggles frantically with his pockets which suddenly seem much too small for his fingers to investigate and swears under his breath in Outlandish. He uses words he’s never said in Alice’s presence before, but he doesn’t care!


Without a bell the
fight will not end until someone DIES!


Tarrant fears. He fears for Alice. For, even if she does not die, if she kills again, she will once again consider leaving him, fleeing Underland and her most disturbing memories through the mirror! Tarrant is not sure if he will be able to stop her this time...


And then... there! His fingers manage to gain entrance to his waistcoat pocket – his pocket watch pocket – and Tarrant pulls out a small, silver bell. He waves it in the air and – thank you Fates of Underland!! – its clear, pure tone peals, echoes across the wasteland.



Relief!


Pure, blessed relief floods him. Alice will finish the fight, soon. Soon, she will turn to him and he will put his hands – bandaged and be-thimbled – against her cheeks and lean his forehead – still creased with deep frown lines – against hers and she will smile and say his name as she holds onto him and he will know that she is safe and that she has kept her promise!


And so, the silver bell rings.


And Alice drops her arm.


No, NO, NO!” Tarrant lunges for her, arms and hands reaching. He’ll save her, just as he had before! There’s no mirror between them this time! Nothing to slow him down!


And yet, he is not fast enough.


In the next instant, her opponent’s broadsword thrusts through the air and finds its mark: Alice.


Tarrant doesn’t understand what he sees: Alice, slumped over a the hilt of a sword, her crimson blood gushing in great rivulets from the tip of the blade that emerges from her back, her mouth open and blood dripping from her lips.


NONONONONO!


He reaches her, takes her in his arms, screams her name, forbids her from leaving HIM! But she does not look at him. She does not smile at him. She does not press her palm against his cheek to reassure him. She does nothing at all.


She is... His Alice IS...!!


He feels it then: the madness. It comes to him as it had that Horvendush Day when he’d stood in the center of his clan’s village and surveyed the utter... ruin.


The madness comes and he welcomes it!!


Let this rage be the last thing this vile, repugnant excuse for an Underlander sees,


knows, FEARS!!


Still holding Alice in his arms, Tarrant lifts his gaze and looks upon his Alice’s opponent, her slayer. He looks and...


... and...


... and the madness envelops him.


It comes simply, completely, utterly. It comes not in response to his call for it, but in response to the face he sees looming over the woman lying – dead, lifeless, lost! – in his arms. It comes because the face Tarrant sees – the face of his wife’s killer – is one he knows!


The face of the man who has slain his Alice...


... is his OWN!

 

*~*~*~*

 

Gasping, clawing, screaming, Tarrant erupts from sleep. He turns toward the empty side of the bed, scans the room, lifts the blankets, overturns the pillows, leans over the edge of the mattress – nearly tumbling head-first to the cold, stone floor – and checks under the bed.


No Alice.


He scrambles from the bed, slams out of the apartment, runs down the corridors, nearly falls down the stairs, and keeps running. In her old bedroom, long unused: no Alice. In his workshop: no Alice. On the croquet pitch: no Alice. The sound of voices lures him toward the kitchen.


The door bangs open, startling the room’s occupants. He studies each of them – twice, to be sure! – but...


No Alice.


“HATTER!”


He blinks.


“It’s all right!


At the center of the long, wooden table, Mallymkun holds a soup spoon poised beside a pitcher of cream, as if she plans to smack it in his direction like a croquet ball.


He hears desperate pants and, a moment later, realizes they’re his own breaths. He closes his eyes for the briefest time, clears his throat, and asks in a tone that’s nearly calm, “Where... is Alice?”


Thackery cackles and hides under the bench. Mally brandishes the soup spoon warily. It’s the voice of an invisible cat that answers his question.


“Your dear Alice is fine. She’s in Shuchland with the queen. Today is the eighth day. She’ll be back on the evening of the sixteenth.”


Tarrant twitches at the reminder. “Chess?”


“Yes, I’m here.” The cat appears in the air beside him, holding a dark garment. “And you’re here and Alice will be here in eight days. Although, in the meantime, perhaps you’d consent to wearing a robe?”


He glances down at himself and realizes he’d charged out of bed wearing only his pajama trousers – the ones Alice had asked the Royal Seamstress to make for him after he’d audibly admired hers. He feels his face heat and accepts the robe, tying the belt very securely around his waist. From under the kitchen table, a pair of slippers tumbles out into the open, courtesy of Thackery. Tarrant steps into them and collapses onto the bench seat at the table, his head in his hands.


“Another nightmare?” Mally asks, finally putting down the spoon.


He nods.


“Was this one... any different from...?”


He shakes his head. No, this dream had been exactly the same as all the others: the duel in the croquet pitch with the unnoticed challenger, the disappearance of the audience, the grass, the silver bell... and then, on the checkered battlefield, Alice’s death... at his hands.


Tarrant forces himself to take three deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart, his pounding head, his frantic pulse. He tells himself everything is fine, just fine. Alice is in Shuchland and Bayard would have sent one of his nearly-grown pups with news if anything were wrong although it might take a day – even at a run! – to arrive at Marmoreal from that distant realm and by then Alice could be dead and Tarrant would be too LATE TO SAVE HER AND–!!


“HATTER!”


Belated, Tarrant realizes he’d been shouting at the tabletop, his fingers tangled in his hair.


Once again, he closes his eyes and clears his throat. Removing his hands from his hair, Tarrant takes another deliberate breath, leans back and states, “I’m fine.”


Trump!” Thackery shouts, suddenly.


Tarrant blinks then notices the fact that there are three hands of cards laid out on the table, each lying face-up for all to see.


“We were just passing the time,” Chessur comments.


“Shall we deal you in?” Mally invites.


Tarrant sighs. “Aye. Go on and deal with me.”


Thackery picks up the deck and, bending the stack of cards, shoots an assortment in Tarrant’s direction. Choosing five at random, he places them on the table in front of him.


“You don’t want those!” Mally informs him, scandalized. “Pick up that three by your elbow!”


Indifferently, Tarrant does. He replaces the King of Spades with the Three of Clubs and flicks the extra card at Chessur’s pile.


“I’ll never win with this wretched addition!” the cat bemoans, resentfully sliding the Six of Hearts in Thackery’s direction.


Six!” the March Hare exclaims and pulls his ears frantically.


“Six impossible things before breakfast,” Tarrant muses. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine the six things Alice will choose for today: One...


Crumpets!” Thackery shouts.


“Oh, yes. Would you like one?” Chessur asks solicitously, passing the plate.


Tarrant accepts the dish and tosses it over his shoulder without even glancing at its contents.


Chessur grumbles, “A simple ‘No, thank you’ would have sufficed.”


“No, thank you,” Tarrant says flatly.


Mally giggles hysterically and Thackery knocks over his teacup with his foot.


“Thackery!” Chessur yowls. “You uncivilized leporid! The next time I see even one toe above the tabletop, I’ll take these cards and –!”


Toes!” Thackery enthuses, looking down to give his furry feet a thorough study... below the tabletop.


Chessur, exasperated, sighs.


“Found something unexpected there, have you?” Mally asks, scampering across the table to assist Thackery with his inspection.


Tarrant watches them. He’s too tired to bother with a smile or a pun, but he does appreciate his friends’ attempts to cheer him and –when that fails as it inevitably does – distract him. With the contents of his hat workshop organized alphabetically, by color, age, height, weight, width, delightfulness, and likely-to-be-met-with-Alice’s-approval, he’s running out of ways to keep himself preoccupied. After all, Alice had promised to be back before he knows it. Tarrant is doing his part – admittedly, not all that well, but he’s trying! – to not know it before these sixteen days have passed.


The gentle whisper of the kitchen door opening rouses Tarrant from his deep non-contemplation of his hand of cards. He looks up as Nivens McTwisp hops in... followed by Bayard’s second-eldest pup, Bayto.


Alarmed – for why would Bayard have sent his son if something dreadful hadn’t occurred! – Tarrant stands, knocking over the bench.


“HATTER!” Chessur preempts his rambling, frantic, raging madness. “I’m sure everything is fine. Bayto, perhaps you could put this poor, lovesick fellow out of his considerable misery?”


Nivens gives Tarrant a nervous glance. At his side, Bayto – uselessly! – pants and struggles for breath. “Yes, yes, all is well!” Nivens assures everyone. Then, with another glance at the new arrival, says, “If you don’t mind, Bayto, I’ll do the honors?”


The pup nods wearily, clamors onto the bench next to Chessur, who pushes a cup of tea at him, and then slurps quite rudely at his beverage. Tarrant doesn’t pay any attention when Mally starts scolding him for his poor table manners and Thackery picks up his saucer and begins guzzling his spilt tea with deafening enthusiasm.


“Oh, just listen to what you’ve started, you!” she moans.


“Out with it, McTwisp,” Tarrant growls, not in the mood for any of the tomfoolery he would have greatly enjoyed eight days ago.


Clearing his throat, glancing to Chessur for reassurance (which is provided... if a too-wide, too-toothy grin can be reassuring), and then reaches into his waistcoat pocket. Tarrant watches him remove an envelope and, unable to stop himself, he snatches it from his paw. His hands shake as he gingerly wrestles open the missive and, when he loses patience with trying to urge the folded parchment out of its sheath, rips the envelope wide open and dumps the contents on the tabletop.


The slurping war reaches a cease-fire as various colorful sketches scatter across the table.


“Oh, how lovely!” Mally enthuses, picking up one that depicts gently rolling green fields in soft, morning light. Thackery sniffs another sketch of a sandstone palace with great, gold-capped turrets. Chessur forgets his manners completely and hovers over the table itself, studying each image with the end of his tail in the sugar bowl.


Tarrant unfolds the letter and, as Nivens reluctantly takes a seat in Chessur’s vacated space (rather than sit next to Tarrant!), he checks the signature and, suddenly, everything is all right again!


“It’s from Alice,” he tells them, relaxing. All at once and from all directions, he’s suddenly being prompted to read the message aloud. Tarrant clears his throat and begins:



My dear friends,


“How is everything in Marmoreal? Does the castle still stand? Chessur, mind your tail, now. You know how it gets into trouble when you’re not paying attention...”


“Oh, botheration!” the Cheshire Cat grumbles, noticing its unfortunate location. “My apologies,” he says with a sheepish grin. “Please continue.”


With a half-hearted glare, Tarrant does:



Shuchland is beautiful. The sketches I’ve sent are of places we’ve visited – I mean, the queen, Prince Avendale, Avendale’s Champion, myself, and our guard. (I’m afraid we’ve been rather conspicuous during our tour here!) The Royal Artisan also came with us and produced these wonderful pictures so that we might have a few mementos from our trip.



The first is Palace Avenfaire, home of the royal family –


“Give it here!”


“Mine! Mine! Mine!”


“Silence! I shall hold the picture for all to see!”


“Are they... always like this?” Nivens wonders from behind his teacup, eyeing Mallymkun, Thackery, and Chessur, respectively.


“I sure hope so!” Bayto comments, wolfing down a cucumber sandwich.


A-hem!” Tarrant interjects, once again glaring.


Smiling in apology, Chessur meekly holds aloft the first illustration for all to clearly admire.


Tarrant resumes:



The first is Palace Avenfaire, home of the royal family. Upon our arrival on the second evening of our journey (we stayed overnight at the inn at the Underland Crossroads at the Snud border), we were greeted with a festival atmosphere – dancers and singers and musicians and even a girl with a snake she’d charmed – celebrating our arrival. Prince Avendale and the king and queen met us most considerately at the castle entrance and welcomed us into their home.


“The banquet that night was truly memorable! I wish I could have bottled up a bit of the excitement and sent it on to all of you!


“Should’ve thought to ask the queen how to do that,” Chessur grumbles. “Uplanders!


Tarrant ignores that.



I promise to tell you all about it once we return. And perhaps convince the queen to host a Shuchland-style party at Marmoreal someday so that you will experience it for yourselves!


“The second drawing is of the Shuchland Orash Orchards, where they grow the most fantastic fruit! There’s no Grobben or Wassailin here in Shuchland as everyone drinks Orashlach. It’s a wonderful beverage that warms one from the inside-out but doesn’t leave behind such a horrid aftertaste –”


“Wassailin!” Thackery gags in agreement.



– nor a thunderous headache in the morning.


“Grobbenale is evil!” Mally concurs.



I’ve already packed a few bottles so that we can all sit ‘round the table and sample it together when the queen and I have returned.


“I’m quite looking forward to that!” Chessur announces.



The third image is of the Bay of Light, the harbor near the capital city. It sparkles in the sunlight like diamonds –


“Eh? What’re those?” Mally asks.


“Die a-mond! Die almond! Dyed almonds!” Thackery stares at the displayed artwork. “Ooh. Blue almonds! Pretty...



And the queen experienced her very own madness at the morning market – a brewer’s madness, I’m sure – and we’ve more than compensated for the spaces left in the trunks after we’d presented our gifts to the royal family for their hospitality.


“You made some hats for their majesties, didn’t you, Tarrant?” Chessur ventures.


“Aye,” he says plainly and resumes reading.


“In the final picture – the portrait – you can see the king and queen as well as Prince Avendale and our queen. (But of course, you’d recognize her!) The fellow standing next to me is Avenleif, Prince Avendale’s cousin and his Champion.


“Looks a bit chummy, don’t you think?” Mally asks in a suspicious tone.


Chessur agrees, “He does seem to be standing rather close...”


“Off with his head!” Thackery shouts, then, when every pair of eyes in the room turns in his direction, he twitches and twitters, “Bad idea! Bad idea! Apologies!” And grabbing his ears, dives under the table again, belatedly snatching his brunch plate and pulling it beneath as well.


Tarrant tries not to look at the image, but knowing that he’ll see his Alice there is a siren’s call he can’t fight. When he raises his gaze to the card now on display, he sighs. There is Alice, smiling gently in the portrait, as if she’s truly looking right at him! Alice... alive and well and so lovely it makes his heart ache! Tarrant doesn’t bother with the other figures in the picture and doesn’t have to worry about ignoring one in particular as Chessur had thoughtfully covered the prince’s Champion’s image with his paw.


Feeling even more calm now, Tarrant continues:



They use scimitars here, those wickedly-curved swords, which I’ve been fortunate enough to try my hand at. The skills required are quite different from those needed for the broadsword, but I shalln’t bore you with the details now.


“Everyone here has been hospitable and honestly pleased to make our acquaintance. The people of Shuchland are quite honorable and often humble – is anyone, by chance, considering words that start with the letter H today?


“I hope, one day, all of you will be able to visit this wondrous place and see, smell, taste, hear, and feel it for yourselves!


“All my love,

“Alice


“P. S. I’ve yet to have any decent tea here, so all of you had best save us some for when we return! This Shuchish coffee is rather... lacking.”


“She misses our teas!” Mally exclaims happily.


Tarrant smiles. “Aye, she does.” His happiness only lasts long enough for him to fold the letter and reassemble the scraps of envelope around it, as if wrapping the poor, naked thing in a robe. Once that is done, however, Tarrant frowns: not a single line of that letter had been written to him! It hurts that Alice wouldn’t have written anything especially for his eyes. No: don’t run your fingers through with your sewing machine! No: I haven’t used a drop, dab, or dribble of the Pain Paste! And, most distressingly, no: Hatter, why is a raven like a writing desk? Despairing once again, Tarrant cradles his head in his hands and closes his eyes.


“Ahem...”


Reluctantly, Tarrant opens his eyes again. At his elbow, Nivens fidgets noticeably before retrieving another item from his waistcoat pocket and placing it on the table next to Tarrant’s elbow.


“This is also from Alice,” the white rabbit says.


He stares down at the envelope. His disbelief – Alice had written a whole letter just to him! – melts into hope – the name on the parchment is, without a doubt, his own and written in Alice’s hand! – and that hope twists into delight.


Collecting the envelope with reverence, Tarrant excuses himself – “I beg your forgiveness for reading this letter in private!” – and hies away to their – his and his Alice’s! – apartment. Slamming the door – “Oy, a bit of respect if you don’t mind!” the keyhole grouches – he hurries to the table and takes his customary seat. He’s more careful opening this envelope and gently urging the contents free.


Heart pounding, Tarrant unfolds the letter.


My dearest Tarrant,


All is well here in Shuchland, so please do not worry about me. I’m fine.


Oh, how well she knows him! Of course, her health and happiness is his most paramount concern and she’d very considerately obliged to set his mind at ease right away!


I’m safe and well and, when time permits, keeping up with my training. We have not experienced any unpleasantness at all during this trip so I haven’t even had to open the jar of Pain Paste!


He sighs happily at that.


But, how are


you

? The castle must be very quiet these days. I hope Mally, Thackery, and Chessur are keeping you company. And that they’re not doing too bad a job of it.


I miss you completely, utterly, desperately, and helplessly. Every time I chance to look at my left hand and see our heart line, it makes the ache all the more poignant, for I remember your laughter and kindness and passion and I feel you with me and yet, when I look up, you are nowhere to be seen.


But I will see you very soon! (I must tell myself this, no matter the day or hour, otherwise I might... well, I might go... Hm. I'm considering a word that starts with the letter M...)


My every thought is of you, Tarrant, and of ravens and writing desks.


Yours despite the distance between us,

Alice


Closing his eyes, Tarrant leans back in his chair and smiles. For the first time in days, he feels completely and utterly at peace! For several minutes, he simply relishes the knowledge that she had written to him, and then, when he realizes he cannot remember her exact words, opens his eyes and devours her letter again and again and again!


When his stomach is growling and the sun has risen high enough to demand all of Underland to attend to lunch, Tarrant reluctantly folds the parchment and reaches for the envelope. Picking it up, he blinks at the thickness of it. And perhaps... is it a bit heavier than it ought to be?


Setting aside the letter, Tarrant investigates the inexplicable not-just-an-ordinary-envelope-ness of the envelope. His fingers locate and gently remove a card of thick paper and, turning it over, he nearly gasps. His breath does get turned around in his throat, however, causing his chest to ache. There, in his hands, is Alice. A much-smaller-than-she-ought-to-be Alice, but Alice, nonetheless!


The portrait is breathtaking. His Alice stands on a foreign balcony. He can see the hint of sky and kingdom behind her. She smiles for him – it’s her just-for-Tarrant smile! – and stands with her hand raised – it’s the left one! – and placed against a pillar. Alice poses in what he imagines must be a traditional Shuchish dress: a short top that doesn’t quite reach her belly and a long, straight skirt. Over her shoulder – the right one! – a long, wispy-looking scarf cascades across her body, covering most – but not all! – of her exposed stomach. His eyes follow the curve of her hips – the smallest hint of which is generously revealed above the waist of the skirt – up to her navel and then...


He’d close his eyes and sigh if it wouldn’t deprive him of this vision! Tarrant savors the sight of her heart line, masterfully captured by the Royal Artisan. The blue lines twine up her arm, over her bare shoulder – for the top she’s wearing only secures over the right one! – and arcs over her chest. There, over her heart, Tarrant finds the mark that had begun to emerge only forty-one days ago. There, the delicate knot of blue rests in stark contrast to her skin. Where Tarrant’s own dark red mark is a four-pointed star, Alice’s is an intriguing oval. And even in this rendition of her image, he can see the hint of the intricate design he knows so well.


Alice...


His
Alice!


Tarrant ignores his grumbling, rumbling stomach and spends the afternoon in his robe and slippers and pajama trousers, sitting with his Alice and smiling like a poor, lovesick fool.


And he hopes for three very distinct things:


One, that Alice will return on the sixteenth day, safe and well, as promised.


Two, that she’s permitted to bring that fascinating garment with her!


And, three, that the Shuchland Royal Artisan does not happen to be a man!

 

Chapter Text

On the morning of the eighth day, Alice wakes the same way she’s woken every morning since leaving Marmoreal, since she’d turned away from her lover and ridden off at the queen’s side without once looking back.


Gasping, Alice grasps her night shirt in her hand and tries to control her pounding heart. She takes one deep breath and then another, but – just like all the other mornings – her heart races for nearly fifteen minutes before it calms. Still, Alice doesn’t get up. She waits. And there! A minute or so later, it starts again: the aching, racing, pounding! Her heart has never subjected her to such treatment! It’s almost as if she’s terrified or enraged or panicked, but Alice feels no emotions of the sort whatsoever.


It’s all very... strange.


She waits a bit more, just to be sure another attack doesn’t occur.


The first time it had happened, she’d been quite worried. Is it normal for someone my age to experience heart palpitations? she’d wondered. It had been quite distressing when the panic had lasted so very long and then, after a brief pause, had started again and again and yet again! The first time it had happened – at the Snud Crossroads Inn – Alice had been concerned, and the second time – here at Palace Avenfaire – she’d nearly sought out the Royal Physician! But she’d hesitated, for – as the Queen’s Champion – it would do no good at all for her to appear weak on foreign soil! So she had resolved to wait and see if these occurrences became painful or more intense.


They never have.


Every morning, it is nearly the same experience. The timing differs from day to day, but that is all. And so, Alice has not bothered to mention it to Mirana.


When her heart has been quiet in her chest for several consecutive minutes, Alice dares to swing her legs over the side of the bed and stand. She’s in the midst of dressing for the day when she feels a slight twinge of inexplicable excitement, as if some desperate hope has been answered favorably.


“Curiouser and curiouser,” she murmurs, massaging the flesh over her heart. But her heart isn’t finished; with one final throb it quiets.


Sighing out her relief, Alice buckles her sword belt to her waist and turns toward the queen’s bed. They’ve shared this room since their arrival and Alice is glad. She would have worried constantly if Mirana had been out of her sight all night. Of course, Mirana had protested – “Alice, you needn’t be on your guard here! We’re among friends! And, besides, I’m afraid I have the very bad habit of snoring before I manage to fall asleep...” – but Alice had insisted, and had listened to the queen snore gently every night for thirty minutes before finally quieting, and Alice had stayed.


She checks to make sure Mirana is still sleeping soundly and then Alice wanders over to the window and balcony overlooking the capital city. She selects an Orash from a nearby platter and, indulging in a peaceful breakfast, lets her mind wander.


She wonders how her Hatter is doing. And she hopes Chessur, Mally, and Thackery have taken her request to heart and are looking after him and distracting him until she gets back. She also wonders if Bayto has delivered her letters yet.


Poor Bayto.
Alice sighs. She knows what it feels like to be homesick. Sometimes she still is. There are days when she’d do almost anything to be back in her mother’s house... So, when she’d noticed the poor fellow moping about, she’d asked Bayard if he could spare his son for a mission of “vital correspondence.”


Now there’s just Bayard and his most daring pup, Bayne, to sniff out trouble. And, of course, three noses are better than two but with all the sniffling Bayto had been doing, Alice doubts he would have smelled much anyway.


“Alice...?”


She turns as the queen sits up and squints at Alice’s already-made bed. “Here, Your Majesty. Orash?”


Mirana yawns, stretches, and rises from bed. Her grace is undiminished despite just waking, but she does tend to list a bit too far to one side or the other. Alice hides a smile and makes room for the queen on the balcony bench. Sinking down to admire the view and holding her own Orash, Mirana sighs contentedly. “It’s so lovely, isn’t it?”


“Yes, it is.” Alice keeps her eyes on the cityscape but can’t resist adding, “Almost as lovely as a certain prince, you think?”


“Oh, he is, isn’t he? Why just last evening, at dinner he...” Mirana blinks, finally noticing Alice’s silent chuckles. “Alice! That was not very nice!”


“My apologies, Your Majesty.”


But Mirana suddenly doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the teasing. She simply sighs. “Yes, yes, he’s lovely, too.”


“And will we be seeing him again today or have you made other plans?”


“Oh, well, I thought we might take up Madame Shrava’s invitation this morning.”


In mid-bite of Orash, Alice’s eyes pop open wide. Quickly chewing and swallowing, Alice squeaks, “The court dancer lessons? Are you...?! Wait...” She studies Mirana’s patently innocent face. “You’re just making this up because I teased you just now.”


Mirana giggles. “Yes, you’re right. But she did invite us to her studio for lessons and I’m seriously considering it!” Mirana pauses and it’s not until her next words have left her mouth that Alice realizes the pause had been meant for dramatic effect: “Just think of how much Tarrant will appreciate that present from you!”


Alice groans. “Oh, you’re dangerous. It’s bad enough you had Magenka do my portrait while I was wearing that... that...”


“That divine creation,” Mirana interjects. “You looked lovely in your sarleh, Alice.”


“Another ‘lovely’.”


“It’s my word for the day.”


Lovely.


Mirana laughs and nudges Alice’s shoulder with her own. “Come now, wouldn’t you like to learn something of this culture that doesn’t involve rolling around in the dirt with sharp objects?”


“I never rolled in the dirt!”


“Sand, then.”


“Oh... well, I guess there was a bit of sand that one time.”


Mirana grins and, eyes sparkling, comments in a conspiratorial tone. “Don’t worry Alice, I’ve packed your sarleh all ready.”


“You didn’t! Just leave it here, Mirana! I’ll never wear it!”


“No, no, no!” the queen sing-songs. “It’s already packed and I’ve hidden it so well, you’ll never find it and take it out before we leave!”


“We have six more days,” Alice calculates. “I’m sure I can surprise you.”


“We shall see!”


“You know what I’d like to see...” Alice begins. “I’d like to see exactly where that portrait of me has got to...”


Because Mirana is still a bit groggy and Alice is watching her like a hawk, she catches the brief smile of smug, sneaky triumph.


“Mirana...” Alice warns, feeling decidedly unwell despite the fabulous Orash.


“Well... I knew you’d never appreciate it – honestly, you looked lovely! – so I...”


“You what?


Mirana ducks her head and lifts her fruit, mumbling that sounds suspiciously like “sent-it-on-in-Tarrant’s-letter” but no, Mirana wouldn’t have done that... Wait, would she?


“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty – I think your breakfast impaired my understanding.”


The queen lowers her Orash and says, daringly, “I slipped it into the envelope containing your letter to Tarrant.”


Alice stares at her. “I... don’t believe you!”


“Would I lie to you?”


“That’s not the point! MiraNA!


The queen pats Alice on the knee. “Oh, come now, Alice. Let the poor man have something to tide him over!” She bites her lip and giggles, “So, as I’ve already packed your sarleh and Madame Shrava has invited us to learn the local dances and Tarrant will be most looking forward to seeing everything you’ve... picked up here...”


Alice gapes. “You. Are. Devious!”


“You’re only just now noticing?”


“Apparently...”


Mirana giggles. Alice almost feels sorry for Prince Avendale. Almost.


“Just promise me we won’t be making fools of ourselves at Madame Shrava’s today,” Alice pleads. The idea of learning how to dance like... like that will take a bit of getting used to!


“No, no, not today, I’m afraid. The Royal Apothecary has offered to share some local remedies with me.”


“I see... as I can’t very well protect you from powdered extract of Himoha flower, I’ll be your test subject this morning?”


The queen hesitates. “Well... actually, I thought you might appreciate another opportunity to roll around in the dirt with a few sharp objects while I’m engaged.”


“Sand,” Alice reminds her.


“Pardon me. Sand.


Alice considers that. On the one hand, she could stand around in a musty kitchen watching Mirana and the wizened Royal Potion Maker discuss blending properties and dynamic effects... or she could spend a few hours in the training arena with a borrowed scimitar and her new friend and fellow Champion, Avenleif. “Decisions, decisions,” Alice muses.


The queen shakes her head on a laugh. “I never should have asked Tarrant and the others to show you how to hold a sword!”


“I’m afraid – as proper young ladies go – I’m a bit of a lost cause.”


“That’s all right. Tarrant found you.” Mirana beams. “Things couldn’t have worked out better than that!”

 

*~*~*~*

 

The only time Alice doesn’t think of Tarrant – the only moments when both the bittersweet memories and the yawning, aching dearth of his presence lessen at all – is at times like these.


“You’re holding it like a letter-opener!” Avenleif laughs.


Glancing around the seemingly abandoned training grounds, Alice hisses, “Keep it to a dull roar, would you?”


“Or what?”


“Or I’ll open you!” she threatens with a grin.


Avenleif laughs again and, moving to stand next to her, demonstrates the proper grip on his own weapon.


And then, Alice muses, sometimes – at times like these – she is so suddenly and poignantly reminded of her lover she nearly sobs out loud. For she remembers when Tarrant had taught her to hold a fighting staff and a broadsword. She remembers how he’d never hesitated to touch her hands, manipulate her fingers, even wrap his arms around her to correct her posture. He’d never hesitated to put his hands – she remembers the moment she’d realized how strong his milliner’s hands are! – on her hips or nudge her knee to correct her stance. She remembers...


“Alice? Miss Alice? Miss Alice-y-poo?”


She blinks and glares at Prince Avendale’s Champion. “You did not just call me... what I think you called me.”


“That depends on what it is you think I just called you!” He smirks.


Alice wishes she could do something about that smirk, but she’d promised – oh, botheration! Here come the memories again! – Tarrant that she wouldn’t get into any situations requiring the Pain Paste. Or... had she promised? Maybe not, but she’d hate to disappoint him and he’ll worry if that jar is missing any of its contents when she gets back...


“Are you actually planning on getting anything done today or shall I order some refreshments for a picnic in the arena?” Avenleif says, chuckling. “The view’s a bit boring, but it’s a nice day, so...”


“Stuff it,” Alice mumbles. She demonstrates the up-swinging cut that he’d been trying to teach her. “Like this?”


“Only if you’ve got a letter you need opened.”


Alice sighs.


“Here,” he shows her how to fold her grip around the hilt one finger at a time. Alice forces herself to concentrate – after all, she’s sure Avenleif has much better things to be doing with his time besides giving her lessons! – and copies his grip.


“Much better,” he approves and narrates the necessary motions as he swings the blade up, from right to left. Alice follows his lead, learning the footwork as well for each basic attack.


“You’re a bit slow at picking this up today,” Avenleif comments after showing her the correct way to shift her weight and return thrust for the fifth time. “You’re not worried our old Gribblie is going to poison your queen while he’s got her locked away in his laboratory?”


“What? No, no...”


The he-lion pauses and thoughtfully taps the end of his sword hilt against his chin. “Perhaps you’re famished for tea?”


“Famished for...?” She smiles wistfully. “Maybe just a bit. I suppose you had a hard time going so long without coffee when your prince was visiting Marmoreal?”


He smiles. “And what a torturous experience it was, to go so long without! But I’ve come through the ordeal a stronger warrior for it, so I’ll do you the favor of not telling you where we keep the tea here!”


Alice huffs. “You’ll tell me. Eventually.”


“Oh, ho! So confident are we?”


“Everyone has a weak spot...”


Alice twitches as the memory slams into her: Tarrant leaning over her, his nose just barely touching her neck as they lie on the floor of his workshop. He’d been so strong holding her down – yet he’d never again used that strength against her deliberately and outside of their lessons! – as he’d whispered, “Why aren’t you fighting back? You promised you would...”


The flash of metal startles her and Alice reacts, raising her scimitar and countering the blow before she even has the chance to think about what she’s doing. Avenleif advances, his attack unpredictably timed and executed. And at long last, Alice is able to pull her mind away from Marmoreal and the Outlander waiting for her there.


Some time later – perhaps thirty minutes or so – Avenleif finally disarms her with a practiced maneuver that looks far too simple to work so effectively.


“Halt,” he says.


Braced to dodge, duck, or dive away from his next swing, she halts. With a sigh, she walks over to her fallen, borrowed sword and retrieves it from the packed sand of the arena.


“I suppose that was a bit better than last time,” she allows.


“A bit,” he agrees, his golden eyes studying her. “Too bad I had to go to such dire lengths to get your attention.”


She sighs again, agreeing completely.


“Left part of your mind back in the queen’s castle?” he ventures.


Alice wipes the sand off the blade with a rag to hide the flash of memories and reminders that comment brings up. Avenleif waits for her to reply, but she can’t think of anything to say.


“You’ll be heading back in six days,” he reminds her, his tone a bit... subdued.


“Yes.”


“And then you’ll be able to drink all the tea you want!”


Alice chuckles at his attempt at levity. “Yes, I’m desperately missing my teatime,” she replies, participating in the joke and trying not to visualize Tarrant’s delighted grin over the teapot in too much detail. “But...”


She looks at the prince’s Champion, her new friend. Although each member of the royal family has their own personal Champion, Avenleif is the only one out of the king’s, queen’s, and Avendale’s elder brothers’ and sisters’ Champions who has bothered to be kind to her. She supposes this makes sense: should Mirana and Avendale marry, Avenleif and Alice will be working together quite a lot... at Marmoreal. It only seems reasonable to attempt a good working relationship.


In addition, it only seems reasonable that he’d try to help her hone her skills in battle. After all, he’ll have to rely on Alice to protect the queen just as she’ll have to rely on him to look after Avendale. There might even be occasions – say, in the confusing melee of battle – where they’ll have to use each other’s weapons. So it’s best for all if Alice is familiar with the scimitar and that’s why he’s teaching her how to use it. After all, neither would ever wish to allow anything... unfortunate to happen to their lieges.


So, really, it only makes sense for Avenleif to try to make the best of the situation, but...


“Thank you,” she tells him. “For the lessons... and the... hospitality.”


For a moment, his expression is startlingly open. A little surprised and... something else... something that reminds her of a moment under the boughs of an ever-blossoming cherry tree not so long ago...


Uncomfortable, Alice turns away and mumbles, “Even if you insist on denying me my tea.”


The moment passes when Avenleif laughs. “Trials and tribulations build character, Champion Alice.”


“I’ll try to remember that, Champion Avenleif.”

 

*~*~*~*

 

In the following days, Avenleif proves to be a very good friend, indeed, to Alice.


“It’s not teatime yet,” he warns her whenever he notices her mind wandering. And, with an apologetic smile, she brings her attention back to the arena, or luncheon service, or walking tour. After all, it’s her job to protect the queen – her friend – and Alice had better make sure she does it rather than asking the prince’s Champion to do both their jobs!


“Sorry, thought I smelled some Throeston Blend,” she replies. And, just that simply, she’s forgiven her lapse in attention.


Not only is it frighteningly easy to get caught up in her memories of Tarrant, but it’s also dangerously distracting to see how obviously and utterly Mirana and Avendale are falling in love. Each day, it looks more and more like the prince and his Champion will be accompanying them back to Marmoreal when they depart. Or following very shortly thereafter.


Alice had asked Mirana about that:


“Are you sure he’s the one you want?”


“Oh, yes! He’s... he’s...”


Alice had taken pity on Mirana as the queen had struggled for words. “And the carnivore bit?” After all, that had been a legitimate concern before...


“He says he’s been on a vegan diet for the last four months. He doesn’t mind.”


Impressed, Alice continues, “And his position as prince of a foreign land?”


“Irrelevant. He has two elder brothers and twin sisters ahead of him in line for the throne. He won’t have many obligations tying him here.”


“And... heirs?” Alice had dared to ask.


Mirana had blushed. “I’ve hinted that I’d rather a daughter that resembles my kind... to inherit the throne when I retire. He seemed... pleased.”


And, having looked over the childbearing rites between members of differing species before, Alice knows exactly what Mirana is talking about: when parents of different origins bring descendants into the world, the children must either take after one side of the family or the other but not both. By marrying the White Queen, Avendale would have to concede to his wife’s higher station and give her the heirs she requires: the prince will likely not have any child-cubs to raise. Not with Mirana. It’s a considerable sacrifice to make. For anyone.


“I’m so happy for you,” Alice had said, her questions exhausted and the queen still looking as luminously in-love as ever.


“It’s almost sickening, isn’t it?” Avenleif asks as he and Alice watch over a private picnic in the Royal Orash Grove on the final full day of the visit.


“Not really. Mirana always looks like that. I’m accustomed to it,” Alice replies, scanning the surroundings again out of habit.


Avenleif coughs back a laugh – it would be most impolite to interrupt the whispered conversation just at the base of the knoll. “I was referring to the prince.”


Alice snorts. “Of course you were. Oh, wait, you mean he doesn’t always have that flunderwhapped grin on his face?”


“Hardly. Nor are his whiskers normally trimmed and polished with such care. It’s... painful to watch!”


“Love’s hard on everyone,” Alice informs him and forcibly pushes Tarrant’s image away. I’m working now! “But don’t worry. I won’t interrupt the experience for you. It builds... character.


Avenleif chortles behind a large paw-shaped hand. “When you say things like that, Champion Alice, I truly believe you did slay the Jabberwocky!”


“Fate knows how devastated I’d be if you didn’t credit me with it,” she returns, thinking how talking with Avenleif often resembles a tennis match.


He opens his mouth to reply, but turns to the left when – suddenly – a flock of birds bursts into the air above the small orchard. Alice scans the ground as Avenleif examines the canopy and sky.


“Magenka,” Alice says, spotting the large, magenta butterfly flitting towards them. Alice keeps her eyes on the Royal Artisan’s approach as Avenleif scans the area once more to be sure there are no other surprises.


The butterfly flutters and droops her antennae apologetically. “There’s no harm in keeping us on our toes,” Avenleif tells her without looking away from his survey of the secluded grove.


Alice watches as the butterfly moves toward the picnicking couple, no doubt in order to create another one of those beautiful images she’d been supplying them with all throughout their visit.


“We ought to ask her to do one of us,” Avenleif says suddenly. “To immortalize our camaraderie,” he explains in an oddly gruff tone.


“Sounds painful when you put it like that,” she teases.


He winces and then chuckles. “It does, doesn’t it?”


And speaking of painful things...
Alice dares to ask one question that’s been niggling her ever since she’d arrived in Shuchland but had never felt comfortable enough to ask. She assumes her question is deeply personal as it had never been addressed during Fenruffle’s lectures on Shuchish custom and etiquette.


“Champion Avenleif, why does everyone in your family wear a claw on a string around their neck?”


He looks at her, startled. For a moment, he says nothing and then, glancing down at the small claw displayed around his own neck, above his full, dark mane, he says, “It’s the... totem of the Aven family. As cubs, we’re taught to fight and when we lose our first claw in combat, we keep it.”


Alice winces. “That sounds... painful,” she says, then winces again at how inadequately “painful” would describe such an experience.


“It is, but Gribblie makes a potion that helps us re-grow it, stronger than before. See?” He unsheathes his claws on his left paw and Alice sees how the middle one is pitch black while the others are candle-lit ivory in color.


“And if a cub never loses a claw in a fight?” she inquires.


Avenleif looks sad at this. “Then the cub is not Aven. Never will be.”


Before Alice can protest how horrible that is, he continues, “Many of the court performers and ministers are cousins, uncles, aunts... siblings who couldn’t perform the necessary sacrifice. They are called Oben, but everyone knows they were born Avens.”


“Can their children never be Aven?” Alice thinks to ask after a moment.


“Of course. Or I wouldn’t be the prince’s Champion,” Avenleif declares.


Alice relaxes a bit. At least the children aren’t discriminated against for their parents’ failure...


“The Aven family must be strong,” he continues. “It’s a brutal practice, I suppose, but necessary. This realm has enjoyed the peace and stability that comes from a strong monarchy for generations... because the weaker members of the family are...”


“Removed from power?” Alice supplies.


“Exactly. We’re all equals, bound to the same crown and family. There’s no motive for greed, ambition, or glory, for all of the Avens know being a part of this family is all the success we shall ever need.”


“That’s...”


“Ridiculously sentimental?”


“No,” Alice replies. “I was going to say it’s... beautiful.”


“I’m a poet, didn’t you know?”


Alice chuckles.


“And another poetic thing about the First Claw,” Avenleif volunteers. “The Avens bestow it upon their mate, as a reminder of the other’s devotion and strength and bravery. The actual giving and receiving of it...”


“Yes?” Alice presses, curious.


Avenleif gives her a wry grin. “This is going to sound strange to an Uplander...”


Alice feels an answering wry grin shape her lips. “I think I’m rather accustomed to strange things by now.”


He laughs. “I expect you are. Well, let’s see how you do with this one.” Avenleif grins and tells her, “The giving and receiving of the Frist Claw causes the soul of each partner to become one.


Alice gapes at him.


He chuckles. “And you said you could handle ‘strange’...!”


“Well, that’s a bit... more... than I expected.”


“Obviously.”


Alice shakes her head and marvels at the unlimited impossibilities of this magical place and its inhabitants. The thought reminds her of her own experience with Underlandian magic and she fists her left hand, as always sheathed in the dark glove she wears. Now that she thinks about it, a ritual that binds two souls... how is that any more impossible than a ritual that binds two hearts?


Hesitantly, she persists, “Can it be undone?”


He nods. “Yes, the giver has to willingly acknowledge the refusal of his First Claw. It happens, but it’s rare.”


Alice looks up and glances at the claw around Avenleif’s neck. “And that one’s still your own?”


He nods, his golden eyes studying her. Alice can’t meet his gaze so she looks over the grove again, but there’s nothing to keep her attention; everything is peaceful.


“I wish you the best of luck in finding a... worthy recipient for it,” Alice says, hoping the sentiment comes across despite her lack of experience in Shuchish customs.


“With any luck, I already may have,” he replies levelly.


Alice fists her left hand again and wonders why she has goose bumps on her arms. “I look forward to meeting her... Oh!”


Alice stares at the couple on the picnic blanket as Prince Avendale reaches up and removes what is unmistakably his own First Claw from around his neck... and places it around Mirana’s.


Well, that looks rather... official, then,
Alice thinks and makes a note to check that Mirana understands the significance at the first available opportunity.


Glancing at Avenleif, Alice smiles, feeling bashful and uncertain at having overseen this very private moment. “I hope your intended won’t mind coming to Marmoreal, Champion Avenleif.”


“No,” he says, contemplatively. “I don’t think she will. She even likes the tea there.”


And because Alice has no reply to that odd statement, she gets back to work. Protecting the queen. And her soon-to-be husband.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Please, Alice?”


Alice glares at the shimmering green fabric in Mirana’s hands. “I thought you said you’d hidden that so deep in our trunks I’d never find it?”


“Well, I did hide it, but I never mentioned anything about packing it in a trunk!”


If only she had... Alice sighs, thinking of each and every crate, carton, and case sealed and awaiting transport on the morrow.


“Please wear your sarleh tonight! It’s our last chance to be seen wearing them in public!”


“Our only chance, you mean,” Alice grumbles. Why, oh why, has the queen suddenly gotten over her shyness at wearing local garb now? If only this trip had been scheduled for fifteen days instead of sixteen and then they would have already left... before Mirana had discovered the gumption to wear a sarleh to dinner!


Alice sighs. “You go ahead and wear yours, Your Majesty.”


“Alone, Alice?” Mirana cajoles, “I’d feel so much better if we did this together.”


Just like those blasted dance lessons...


“I shouldn’t.”


“Why-ever not?”


“I won’t be well-prepared to defend you if I wear that thing. It restricts movement.”


“Oh! But it can be wrapped as trousers! See?” She demonstrates, fitting the fabric over Alice’s existing clothing.


“All right...” Alice concedes the point. “But it won’t cover my heart line.”


Mirana smiles. Alice grudgingly allows that the queen’s very familiar with this point of contention. They’ve discussed it... well, daily almost. “Alice... it’s so endearing how you seek to protect Tarrant at all times, but we’re among friends here. I’m sure no one would use that against either of you.”


“Well, yes, but...”


“But you have no more excuses for not wearing your sarleh! Now help me with mine and then I’ll help you with yours!”


And because Mirana looks so delightfully happy, Alice can’t bear to continue arguing with her. “All right...”


An hour later, when she enters the dinning room just behind Mirana, Alice ignores the startled glances and hushed whispers and escorts her queen to the seat beside her dumbstruck prince. Alice supposes he has every right to look dazed and elated. Mirana is resplendent in her pale peach sarleh which glimmers silver with her movements. Around her neck, Avendale’s First Claw is proudly – and knowingly! – displayed. Alice supposes her own appearance is a bit odd, after all, even worn as trousers, a Shuchish woman’s sarleh has never been meant to accommodate an assortment of knives and a broadsword. But not even Mirana’s heartfelt lecture on how friendly everyone has been thus far could make Alice abandon her duties and the means to fulfill them!


Taking her seat, Alice dares a glance around the room. And, yes, several eyes are riveted on the First Claw being worn around Mirana’s neck, but most are staring at Alice. And her heart line. At Tarrant’s mark.


Oh, she’d known this had been a very bad idea!


She looks away and finds herself being studied by one of Avendale’s twin sisters – a lioness who has never given any indication of having noticed Alice before. The she-lion examines Alice’s heart line with a shocked expression.


Alice wonders if it would be rude for a mere Champion to start a conversation with an Aven princess...


“You... you’re a Champion!” the woman hisses. “And yet, you are blood-bonded?”


“Yes...” Alice replies, feeling like she ought to argue against the accusations except... they’re entirely true.


The she-lion places a paw over her mate’s First Claw. Next to her, the princess’s husband watches their conversation with great interest. The she-lion says, “And yet you continue to risk your life for your queen, knowing what you hold in your very hands?


Alice doesn’t like the female’s tone of voice: there’s nothing wrong with having hands that are not large, clawed, or furry! “I do,” she replies simply.


“What an utterly foolish husband you must have if he allows you to do such a thing!”


Losing patience, Alice pulls back her lips and bares her teeth. “That, Princess Avenana, is an issue between my husband and myself. But –” And here Alice inserts a smidgen of Obvious Hostility. “– we thank you for your concern.


Frustration and distaste turn the lioness’s expression into a furious scowl. Luckily, Prince Avendale rises at that moment and offers Mirana his paw.


“If you’ll excuse me,” Alice manages and follows her queen without waiting for a response.


Avendale doesn’t escort Mirana very far, just to one of the gauze-curtained balconies that overlook the city from the banquet hall. Seeing someone friendly and expected – Avenleif – fall into step beside her, Alice feels herself relax a bit.


They don’t follow the queen and her prince out onto the balcony, but take positions on opposite sides of the open doorway. Alice has a clear view of the balcony and wall on Mirana’s side and Avenleif covers the opposite view. The breeze carries murmured words and Alice tries not to listen to what is undoubtedly a private conversation. Between a couple betrothed by way of the Soul Bond.


Alice has to admit she’s worried about Mirana. Had it been a wise decision to accept Avendale’s First Claw so soon? And before the prince will be able to accompany them back to Marmoreal? Alice sighs and resigns herself to trusting Mirana to know what she’s doing. After all, the queen is the one with several ancient tomes on sacred Underlanian rites to her name. Still, it weighs on Alice’s mind.


Noticing the continuing silence despite the fact that she is most definitely not alone in her dutiful vigil, Alice glances in Avenleif’s direction. It’s odd that he hasn’t made a comment yet. Usually, he’s the one who starts their conversations while they’re passing time, keeping an eye out for danger that – thus far – hasn’t made an appearance. And Alice would certainly appreciate a distraction right about now! From Avenana’s inappropriately-voiced opinion, at the very least! But then there’s the journey home to consider and the queen’s betrothal...


Alice looks over at the he-lion who stands opposite her and is startled by the fact that his gaze is not on the balcony and his prince, but on Alice. And she’s startled all over again by the look in his eyes as he stares – unabashedly! – at the mark over her heart. When he notices her regard, he opens his mouth once, twice, and then he shakes his head and says nothing. Nothing at all. For the rest of the night.


 

 

Chapter Text

 When Alice startles awake on the fifteenth day – the morning of their departure – she waits patiently for the odd pounding of her heart to subside, then gets up, dresses, and wakes the queen.


“Oh... is it morning already?” Mirana moans, burrowing into a pillow.


“Yes, and Fenruffle will have all your new brewing utensils for kindling if you put us behind his schedule.”


“Botheration...” she grumbles and reaches a hand out blindly.


Alice grasps it and pulls the queen up into a sitting position. She pours a cup of water for her. “Here, it helps with the muzziness.”


“Thank you...” Mirana drinks in cautious sips. “Please never let me have more than four glasses of Orashlach again.”


“I’ve already made a note of it, Your Majesty,” Alice assures her with a wry grin. She lays out the queen’s traveling clothes and tidies up. Fifteen minutes later, when Fenruffle knocks on their door, they’re both ready to go... more or less. Alice keeps a discreet hand on Mirana’s elbow to keep her from listing a bit too noticeably as they make their way to the grand hall to say their good-byes. As Mirana thanks the king and queen for their hospitality and accepts Avendale’s promise to see her again very soon, Avenleif stands stoically, enduring the proceedings.


Hating to see him like this – We were friends this time yesterday! – Alice searches for something to say to help fix this. All night, she’d blamed herself for not noticing his interest and dealing with it as soon as possible. But it had simply never occurred to her that his kindness and attention and generosity might have been generated by... attraction. Looking back on that day in the Orash grove, Alice realizes he’d more or less proposed to her. Very nearly! And now... and now their lieges will wed and she and Avenleif will be working together every day at Marmoreal and he won’t even look in her direction!


Alice bites her lip, closes her eyes, sighs, and prays for patience.


In the end, as the queen turns away and heads toward the great doors and the procession assembled and awaiting beyond, Alice says only, “Thank you for your kind hospitality, Your Majesties. Champion Avenleif.”


Too little. Far, far too little had been said, but Alice doesn’t have more time in which to say everything she ought. The ride to the Southern Underland Crossroads is very... long. And tiring. Over and over, Alice thinks of every mistake she’d made, how she might have unknowingly encouraged Avendale’s Champion, what she should have said last night at the banquet when she’d had the chance...


And then she resents the fact that this... difficulty has taken her thoughts away from Marmoreal, home, Tarrant! She’s on her way homefinally! – and yet she somehow manages to be weighed down with guilt over it!


“Alice?”


At the sound of the queen’s gentle inquiry, Alice turns and regards her over the Bandersnatch’s furry shoulder. “Yes, Your Majesty?”


“What’s wrong? We’re returning to Marmoreal. I thought that was what you wanted.”


“It is. More than anything. I simply wish Champion Avenleif and I had not experienced a... difference of opinion before we’d left.”


Mirana frowns. “An argument?”


“No. A... misunderstanding.”


Mirana waits, expectant.


Alice sighs and relents. “A misunderstanding which seeing my heart line brought to light. Until then, I hadn’t realized he... that is... he hadn’t known I was... am...”


“Oh...” Mirana says. That, and no more. (Apparently, her mind is still a bit befuddled with Orashlach. Otherwise, Alice is sure she would have had more to say.)


“Yes. ‘Oh’,” Alice agrees grimly. “I hope he can put it out of his mind when Prince Avendale next visits...”


And then Alice remembers the purpose – and the wondrous result! – of this trip and, feeling like an utter insensitive – and, as Tarrant would say – slurivsh nitwit, Alice forces a bright smile.


“Truly... Congratulations, Mirana,” Alice says softly to her friend. “The prince adores you. As your Champion, I completely approve of the match you’ve found for yourself. And, as your friend... I’ve never seen you so beautiful with happiness.”


The queen smiles. “Thank you, Alice. It means a lot to me to hear you say that.” And then Mirana releases a mournful sigh. “I shall miss him...”


Alice hesitates for a moment before deciding that, as it’s a matter of the queen’s well-being, she can’t not ask: “And the First Claw? You’re bound now... aren’t you? Will you be all right so far away?”


Mirana’s smile is tired, but genuine. “In many ways, the bond will make the separation easier for us both. He’s always with me now. It feels as though I’m not alone, but...”


But you are.
Alice finishes the thought in silence. She knows the feeling. Intimately.


“You’ll see him again very soon,” Alice replies.


Mirana nods and reaches for the claw still displayed around her neck. Although curious, Alice cannot bring herself to ask the queen to detail the bonding experience. Unlike the Thrice a-Vow, consummation had not been a component. So, how exactly had that worked? Alice swallows her curiosity. There will be time – after arriving home and seeing Tarrant again and resuming her normal schedule – to investigate the answers to her musings in the queen’s library.


“Yes, very soon,” the queen murmurs. “Still...”


“I know,” Alice says simply, thinking of Tarrant – of his battered hands caressing her face, of his arms tight around her waist, of his brogue (thick with passion and promises and pleasure) whispering in her ear... “I know.”

 

*~*~*~*

 

On the morning of the sixteenth day – the day that Alice is due to return – Tarrant bursts into the kitchen... again. Chessur drapes his robe over his shoulders... again. Thackery tosses his slippers at his feet... again. Mally pushes a cup of strong tea next to his elbow... again.


It all happens – again! – for the fifteenth time! It happens exactly as it has happened every morning since Alice’s departure... and yet... somehow... today, Tarrant feels immeasurably worse.


“Just a bit longer now,” Chessur tells him consolingly. “Perhaps a bath while you wait?”


Tarrant ignores the suggestion.


“Crumpets!” Thackery recommends but no one dares to pass the dish.


“Cucumber sandwich?” Chessur ventures.


Still, Tarrant doesn’t acknowledge the offers.


“A poke in the eye?” Mally suggests, waving her sword threateningly.


Scowling, Tarrant picks up the deck of trump cards and begins rhythmically shredding them into tiny pieces... one after the other. Thackery twitches and blinks as the pile of card confetti grows steadily. Chessur sighs dramatically every time Tarrant selects another victim from the top of the pile. Mally skips around the tea service and – following the utter decimation of every few cards – dives into the pile of rubbish as if plowing into a mound of just-raked autumn leaves.


“You could be doing something productive while you’re waiting,” Chessur tries.


Tarrant tucks his chin in and glares at the reduced stack of cards. Finishing the utter ruin of the one currently in his possession, he reaches for another and slows his shredding speed by half.


“Stubborn Outlander.”


Yes, Tarrant supposes he is stubborn. Someone has to be, otherwise the word wouldn’t exist at all, and words ought to exist. Even words like “stubborn.”


“I’ve decided to
stay , you stubborn milliner!”


Yes, Alice does enjoy calling him stubborn! He can recall the way her eyes had flashed and her cheeks had flushed!


Tarrant closes his eyes and keeps shredding.


Shredding, shredding, shredding...


And when the last card has been turned into inked pulp, Thackery announces, “Card game’s over!”


Mally giggles. “So who won?”


Chessur regards the tattered remains of the set. “Not the cards, apparently.”


Thackery thumps the table with his teaspoon. “There! There!” he hiccups, waving the utensil at the pile of rubbish.


As nothing within arm’s reach is shred-able – and, thus cannot provide an adequate distraction from the unsettling feeling he’s experiencing – Tarrant lowers his head to his hands. Perhaps moving his skull to this slightly lower altitude will alleviate some portion of the dizzying ache that’s taken up residence there...


“Chess, anyone?” the cat asks idly.


“Not anyone! Just one!” Mally replies, chortling.


Thackery agrees, “One game of Chess!”


“Will you be heads or tails?” Mally asks, sending Thackery into spasms of hilarity.


Chessur eyes the March Hare’s foot – which now rests on the tabletop! – with disdain. “Thackery, I clearly recall warning you about putting your overly hairy feet upon the table!”


“I don’t clearly recall nuthin’!” Mally replies, then falls down in a fit of laughter.


“No more trump!” Thackery reminds all at the table, no doubt pointing out that Chessur’s promised method of punishment has evaporated.


If you don’t get that foot out of my sight this instant I shall pluck each, individual hair from it until there is no MORE FOOT!” Chessur roars at him.


Mally beats the table with her tiny fists, gasping for breath. “No... more... FOOT!


“Yea, the hare’s a-foot!” Thackery contributes.


“Callou! Callay!”


“A rhyme!


Tarrant stares at the dormouse, whose laughter looks truly... painful. He winces and presses his palms against his temples.


Yes, painful. Quite painful. Very, extraordinarily, undeniably...


“Hatter?”


The laughter continues, muffled.


... exceptionally, unavoidably, inexplicably...


Hatter?


And silence settles around the kitchen table.


... unbelievably,
excruciatingly, TREMENDOUSLY...


HATTER?!


Tarrant struggles with his gasping breaths, his suddenly pounding heart, the complete and utter abject TERROR driving his pulse.


HATTER!!


He grits his teeth but doesn’t feel the ache. He opens his eyes, but sees nothing.


... INCONCEIVABLY, HEART-STOPPINGLY...


Tarrant’s eyes roll back in his head as, suddenly, the pain stops, his body stops, his mind stops, everything stops! and he tumbles off of the bench. He doesn’t even feel it when he hits the stone floor – he’s already unconscious.

 

*~*~*~*

 

This time Alice wakes up before the odd pounding of her heart can commence. For an instant, she allows herself to wonder if she’s somehow cured herself of that strange ailment. By waking herself up before it had the chance to wake her, Alice wonders if she’s conquered it...


Have I beaten it?
she wonders, and then grins wryly at the thought. Everything’s a battle to me, isn’t it?


She sighs.


I do whatever I must to win,
Alice reminds herself, remembering the promise she’s made time and time again to her lover. And even once to her queen. Even if it means waking up at this ungodly hour.


It’s so early in fact, that she can’t even hear any activity in the yard: no one is feeding the chickens; no one is splitting and hauling firewood; no one is clanking about in the kitchen in the yard. The world is completely silent.


Strange...


Wondering if she dares to take advantage of the oddly peaceful moment, Alice contemplates closing her eyes and getting a bit more sleep before having to worry about getting up and ready for another day – the last day! – of riding. She’s just decided to risk a few more minutes of slumber when something knocks against the roof over her head. Knocks, scrapes, slips, steps, and is silent.


Alice’s eyes snap open. She stares up at the roof, frowning.


Perhaps a bird,
she thinks.


Still... that had sounded like one awfully big bird. Certainly not one of the chickens. Not even the meaty-looking rooster. In fact, the only bird Alice is aware of in Underland large enough to make that much racket against the inn’s wooden shingles is... well, the Jubjub.


But it’s dead...


Alice feels a flicker of unease as a contrary thought occurs to her:


The Jabberwocky hadn’t stayed dead, had it?


No, indeed, it hadn’t. So, could that mean that the Jubjub would rise again as well? Or is there more than one Jubjub bird in Underland? Would roosting on the roofs of inns be considered normal behavior if, in fact, a Jubjub is sitting a mere two arm’s lengths above her head?


Alice shivers. Surely, it’ll take off just as soon as the innkeeper and his family start moving about...


She glances at the tiny window in their attic room and measures the paleness of the silver dawn-light pouring in.


A bit after dawn,
she thinks. Hadn’t their hosts been up and preparing their farewell meals at about this time two weeks ago when they’d passed this way?


She thinks so...


Unsettled now, Alice knows she won’t be able to get back to sleep until she investigates. She glances across the modest room at the queen, who is still sleeping quite peacefully in the other bed. She continues to listen to the utter silence of the inn, which suddenly presses in on her ears menacingly. Reluctantly, Alice pulls back the blankets and, collecting her knife – for the halls of the inn are far too narrow to wield a sword in properly! – she ghosts toward the door of their room. She spares another glance at Mirana, hoping the queen won’t awaken and wonder why Alice is creeping around in her pajamas and boots, holding a knife. Alice would feel decidedly foolish at being caught sneaking up on their own door, but something... something seems... something is...


She presses her ear to a crack that the aged hinges can’t quite manage to close. There’s no sound of water pitchers being carried and set down next to the doors. There are no shuffling footsteps, creaking boards, hushed voices...


Alice leans away from the door, giving it a suspicious look. Dare she open it? Knowing the squeal the hinges are going to give, she hesitates. She opts to inspect the view from the window. Overhead, all is silent again.


Keeping out of sight of the yard below, Alice leans against the wall and glances cautiously outside. At first glance, everything seems quite normal. She can make out Bandy’s furry rump over the low wall of the stables and Mirana’s horse – Alfred – is flicking his tail at flies and dust motes. Alice feels her shoulders start to relax.


But then something moves just within the shadows of the forest that encircles the yard. She squints, not daring to blink, and studies the gloom... And, then...


There!


There!


There!


Alice counts several shadows moving in the trees. More than the innkeeper could possibly employ. More than can be accounted for by wondering if every single member of the Queen’s Guard had decided to play a bit of hide-and-go-seek at daybreak...


Collecting her clothes for the day, Alice crosses to Mirana’s bed and, laying a hand across the queen’s mouth and nose, shakes her awake.


“Mrumph?!”


“Hush,” Alice nearly mouths. “Put these on. Quietly.


Mirana’s startled expression tenses with alarm. “What...?” she mouths back.


“I’m not sure. But I’m not taking any chances. Get dressed.”


As Mirana complies, Alice slips on her gauntlets and buckles her knives around her ankles, then wraps her sword and dirk belts across her hips. She hands the queen a pair of slippers – for stealth – and waits while she puts them on. Then Alice gives the queen her boots, each with a thick stocking stuffed inside, and motions for her to follow.


Again, Alice listens at the door. Wishing she’d brought some oil with her for the hinges, she decides to simply open the door as quickly as possible. Either someone is waiting on the other side – in which case they might be surprised enough to give her an advantage – or there is no imminent danger after all.


Or they’ll hear the squeal of the hinges and come running...


But what other options do they have? The window is far too small to evacuate through easily and the drop is over three meters...


And then the clatter comes again from overhead: claws on the wooden shingles; the susurrus whoosh! of large feathers beating the air.


Beside her, Mirana freezes. Alice glances over her shoulder and the queen mouths, “Jubjub.”


Yes, the last time they’d encountered the Jubjub bird, the occasion had not been an amicable one. Mirana doesn’t look as if she expects this instance to be, either. With a nod, Alice draws her sword – mindful of the narrow halls but unable to choose anything less that her most formidable weapon, especially now that the threat has been confirmed.


Heart pounding, she reaches for the door latch.


Just when her fingers touch the handle, it hits her.


The pounding, racing, screaming! of her heart.


NO, not NOW!


Alice grits her teeth and struggles to calm her inexplicable, daily attack of panic.


“Alice?” Mirana breathes in her ear.


Alice holds up a hand and concentrates on not dropping her sword. She counts off the regular rhythm of her heartbeats in her head, hoping it will have some influence over the thunderous, frantic terror that she doesn’t feel but which somehow forces her body to experience: one... two-three... one... two-three! ONE... TWO-THREE!


A minute passes, perhaps, and the technique seems to be working. Well enough for Alice to think over the rush of her blood and the hammering against her sternum. She swallows back her unease and forces herself to think before she opens the door: If someone is waiting to attack them in the hall – which remains scarily silent – will Alice be capable of defending Mirana?


With a fleeting thought as to what a mad hatter might do in this situation, Alice carefully returns to the queen’s bed and gathers up her billowing white travel dress. Alice returns to the door and, holding the voluminous gown in one hand and her sword in the other, she gulps down another wave of dizziness and nods for Mirana to grab a hold of the door latch.


“As fast as you can,” she whispers. The queen nods.


Taking position on the other side of the door, Alice draws a breath – not too deep or it’ll upset her already rollicking-and-rolling stomach – and nods.


Mirana throws open the door. Alice spares the briefest of thoughts to the minimal squeak that the hinges utter – more like a gasp than a shriek – and then pivots into the hall, flailing the dress before her. If any attackers had been waiting with weapons poised, the sudden movement would have startled them or drawn their immediate attack.


However...


Nothing happens.


Alice gingerly slides into the hall, staying low and surveys the corridor. It’s utterly silent, completely empty.


And, at this hour, with the sunlight beginning to turn a rosy-gold, it shouldn’t be!


Still keeping hold of the dress in her left hand and the sword in her right, Alice once again nods for Mirana, who joins her in the gloomy passageway. Although Alice doesn’t instruct her to, the queen follows her steps as closely as possible, managing to avoid the same creaky boards that Alice does.


At the next door – Fenruffle’s – Alice pauses, listens, then – fitting her sword in the thin crack between the door and its frame – with a twist of her wrist, breaks the lock. She pushes open the door quickly and finds the gryphon sound asleep in his bed. Motioning for Mirana to follow her, they approach the bed. Alice hands Mirana her traveling dress, then pulls the pillow out from under his head and squashes it over his beak.


“Fenruffle! It’s Alice!” she hisses as he thrashes beneath the blankets.


She lifts the pillow when her words calm him.


“What is it?” he hisses back.


“There’s a Jubjub bird on the roof. Neither the innkeeper nor his family have arrived yet. And there’s someone out there in the forest.”


“Someone?” His beady eyes narrow.


“Someones.”


He considers this for a moment, looking over at the queen, in Alice’s garb, and Alice still in her pajamas but now armed to the teeth. “What can I do?”


The foreign panic that makes her heart pound clashes with her own anxiety and Alice struggles with a wave of nausea as it crests like a swelling wave at sea. “Can you fly with Mirana?”


“Not and out-distance a Jubjub,” he replies bluntly.


Alice nods then gestures for the traveling gown. “Then take this, hold it like you’re carrying the queen, fly as fast as you can, try not to follow a straight path. Hopefully, the Jubjub will follow you...”


“And you and the queen?”


Alice grits her teeth against the taste of bile. “I’d rather not say just in case you’re...”


“Captured. I see.” He considers the situation. “In the event that this is a false alarm, where will I meet you?”


“A league back, by the Tumtum grove we passed.”


He nods.


Backing away from the bed, Alice whispers, “Give us ten minutes, then find a place to launch yourself from and go!


“Understood.”


Alice cautiously returns to the hall and proceeds toward the barrack-style room where their guard had been boarded. Again, Alice breaks the lock with her sword and, staying low, pushes open the door. The smell hits her instantly and she can’t hold back the urge to vomit, which she does rather spectacularly all over the wooden floor. She feels a pair of hands on her arm and allows Mirana to drag her back into the hall and away from the open door.


“What...?” Alice gags.


“Essence of Mogra Mushroom,” Mirana says. “A strong sleeping agent.”


As Alice struggles to settle her stomach and get her frantic heartbeat under better control, Mirana thinks aloud, “Last night, you, I, and Fenruffle didn’t touch the Grobbenale. It might have been put in there. The stench only becomes noticeable after reacting with alcohol for several hours, so we wouldn’t have smelled it at dinner...”


Fantastic,
Alice thinks. Someone had intentionally tried to poison the lot of them and had managed to eliminate their main offensive weapon – the Queen’s Guard. And not only that, they’ve managed to surround the inn, waiting for the light to improve before moving in at their leisure and killing every single one of them. Alice closes her eyes and winces, thinking of the soldiers she’s going to have to leave behind to whatever fate befalls them. She cannot protect them all and it is her duty to protect the queen first and foremost.


“Right,” Alice says, pushing against the wall to gain her feet. “Let’s find a way out.” Fenruffle will be making his move soon and Alice had better be ready to take advantage of the distraction.


Alice leads Mirana down the stairs to the first level which is as eerily deserted as the second floor and the kitchen beyond the backdoor. Recalling the existence of a storm cellar door in the yard, Alice leads Mirana to a stand of Grobbenale barrels and motions for her to crouch down. Quickly, Alice inspects the breezeway – empty – and locates the door to the cellar. She stares into the perfect blackness and wishes she had another idea, but she doesn’t. If she tries to escape with the queen out the front door, they’ll be caught before they can make it across the road and into the forest beyond (which may or may not be hosting more mysterious shadows and the bodies that wear them!) but if they venture out the backdoor and into the yard, they’ll attract the attention of the ones that are most definitely waiting in the woods. She thinks of the Bandersnatch but knows she and the queen will never make it to the stables... and then he might be just as drugged useless as the Queen’s Guard!


There are no
good choices! Alice fumes and descends the stairs.


The cellar is nearly completely dark. A few beams of light filter through the cracks in the outside door but Alice senses no one’s gaze, hears no one’s breath, and – miracle of miracles – the smell of the earth around her is starting to settle her stomach.


If only it would do something about her pounding heart!


She inspects the lock and, satisfied that a good chop of her sword will break it, Alice returns, collects the queen, and leads her down the stairs. Crouching beneath the cellar’s outer door, she positions her blade and instructs the queen:


“When we hear Fenruffle take off, I’ll break the lock and push open the doors. You will run as fast as you possibly can and find shelter as soon as you reach the other side of the road.”


Alice glances down and notices that the queen has put her boots on.


“Good,” she says, simply.


“Alice...” Mirana whispers.


“Do not worry about me. Everything will be fine.


The queen nods. Alice positions herself beneath the door. A minute passes... and then another... and then...


CRASH!


Alice doesn’t waste time wondering which window Fenruffle had chosen to knock out. She slashes the lock and throws open the doors just as the horrible spine-shattering shriek of the Jubjub rips through the air. Mirana grabs hold of Alice’s belt and they stumble into the front yard.


Alice reaches back and latches onto Mirana’s wrist with her left hand as they hurtle toward the gloomy woods. She doesn’t see anything moving in the shadowed realm of the forest ahead of them. Dare she hope that their enemy hadn’t bothered to cover this side of the road? Dare she hope they hadn’t expected the queen to attempt escape over such a wide expanse of open ground? Dare she hope that they’ll make it beneath the sheltering boughs unnoticed?


A shout goes up.


The sound of pounding feet join Alice’s pounding heart.


She pulls Mirana across the road, leaps over a Thrambleberry bush, and keeps going. Branches whip against her face, snag her hair, debris tries to trip her feet, but they keep moving. The pace is the only thing that keeps Alice’s dizziness and nausea from catching up to her again as her heart races in earnest, all on its own, with no inexplicable assistance.


Alice evaluates tree after tree, boulder after boulder, searching for a place to defend her queen from, for they cannot run indefinitely! She can hear Mirana’s labored, gasping breaths. The queen stumbles every few steps – despite the lack of skirts and petticoats to get in her way – and Alice has to yank her up again and again.


But there are no good defensible features in the forest! Hating her choices, Alice finally pushes Mirana into another thicket of Thrambleberries and makes the decision to hide above her, in the boughs of a weathered, gnarled beast of a tree.


She swings herself up into the leafy boughs just as something crashes through the forest on her right. Spotting Bayne, she signals for him to get under cover, which – luckily – he does. And then...


In front of her, from the direction they’d just come, a dozen – a dozen! – armed soldiers move through the forest. Alice damns Mirana’s insistence on having every blasted scrap of clothing worn in her presence be made of the palest of colors. Surely, this motley assortment of creatures – tigers, hyenas, bears, and (Is that...?! No...) what even resembles a mad hatter so closely Alice almost calls out to him, but she doesn’t. She watches the beings move through the forest, unnerved at the sight of the first Outlander she’s seen aside from Tarrant, and endeavors to be as unnoticeable as possible.


A rustle deeper in the forest catches their attention.


Who...?
Alice thinks and instant before she catches sight of a long, brown hound’s tail. Her heart sinks as Bayard – for Bayne is still hiding behind her – lures the creatures deeper into the forest and away from Mirana.


Feeling sick to her stomach all over again, Alice surveys the forest, waits for the enemy’s forces to crash off after their prey, then leaps to the ground and pulls Mirana up and out of her hiding place. The queen has two hands cupped over her mouth to silence her panicked gasps.


“What do we do now?” Bayne whines softly, casting a worried gaze in the direction in which his father had disappeared.


“We get out of here,” Alice says. Hoping that Bayard will be leading the rag-tag band of fighters further into the forest, Alice decides to head straight for Marmoreal. “Stay on our flank, out of sight,” she orders Bayne who is far better camouflaged than either Alice or the queen. “If we are surrounded, it will be your responsibility to get back to Marmoreal and raise the Queen’s Army to come to our aid. Understood?”


He nods. “My dad...?”


“You have to trust him to take care of himself,” Alice replies, urging the queen to get moving. “He’s trusting you to do the same.”


And so they move as quickly as they dare, making as little noise as they can. Alice wishes for Bandy – or even that pampered twit of a horse! – but they have neither. Alice only hopes they’re both still alive: perhaps startled awake by the Jubjub and on their way back to Marmoreal or distracting the queen’s foes. But she cannot think about them right now!


Protect the queen!


Getting home to Tarrant is a whisper at the back of her mind, but she squashes it ruthlessly. She cannot allow her attention to be divided or...


Snap!


Alice reacts to the sudden sound behind them. She shoves the queen down to the forest floor, turns – sword raised – and counts them:


One... two... three... four... five...!


And those are only the ones she can see.


Dismayed, Alice realizes she is facing yet another Jabberwocky. Although she had not sought out this battle, she knows it’s not one she can win. The question is: does she fight anyway, knowing both that there is no help coming and that she cannot possibly win on her own?


In her peripheral vision, more creatures step out from behind the trees, encircling them. Alice hopes that Bayne has slipped by; if he doesn’t reach the castle...!


Alice doesn’t shift her pose. She wonders if she can possibly drag this moment out long enough – stop time! – until the army arrives. It’s a crazy idea. Impossible. She wishes she had chosen it as one of her six impossible things today, but she hadn’t.


She struggles to stay calm, to keep her breathing regular and her heartbeat level and steady. But she faces a fear unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. The Jabberwocky had been predictable and mindless in its hostility and efficient in its attempts to kill her. She cannot say the same for these mercenaries.


“Pu’down th’sword, lass,” a tall Outlander says. The brogue – so familiar, yet so utterly wrong – renews her nausea and panic. “Ye cannae win agains’tall o’us.”


“But I can kill at least one,” she growls around her fear. “Who do you nominate?”


A few of the hunters chuckle, but it’s too gloomy under the thick canopy of the aged trees to see their expressions.


“W’d’nae inten’teh’urt ye.”


“But you will, nonetheless,” Alice challenges.


“O’ly if ye insist,” the Outlander replies.


Briefly, Alice considers her options. She wishes she were in a position to demand their word on that! The Fates of Underland would surely punish them if they broke their vow! But they might prefer to rush her and chance the death of one of their own comrades to ensure hers. What she needs is to buy time!


Sending a silent apology to Mirana, still crouched on the forest floor where Alice had thrown her, Alice replies, throat burning with impotent rage, “None of you will touch the queen. I will keep all of my weapons in my possession and we will accompany you peaceably!”


“Tha’ ‘tis all we ask.”


And then, out of the corner of her eye, Alice sees a dark shape arcing toward her, fast – so fast! ­– and, in the one moment she has, Alice realizes that she hadn’t demanded protection for herself.


The pang of regret is fleeting as, in the very next instant, a fist slams into the side of her face. She thinks she keeps her grip on her sword as she falls, but as darkness closes in around her, she can’t be sure.


 


*~*~*~*

 

Late-ish morning light is sharply slanting through the kitchen windows that face Witzend and the west when Tarrant opens his eyes.


“He’s alive!” Thackery jibbers, waving frantically.


“Thank the Fates,” Chessur sighs, appearing over Tarrant’s face. “How are you feeling? Can you stand?”


“Never mind that,” Mally cuts in. “Can you rhyme?


“Aye, make a rhyme for us, Hatter!” Thackery demands.


Tarrant stares dazedly up at the vaulted ceiling and murmurs, “Spring waxes and Iplam waves, the silver flower her hand displays...” He frowns, considering the odd phrase he’d unthinkingly uttered.


“Oh, well done!” the dormouse enthuses. “You’re all right, then!”


Thackery celebrates by sprinkling a fistful of trump card confetti over him.


Slowly, Tarrant sits up and winces at the stiffness in his back – how long had he been lying on the floor? – and the act of wincing brings to his attention a curious throbbing on the left side of his face. Rubbing his cheek, he glares at the table and bench.


Yes, when he’d... well, that is to say, when he’d fallen he must have... yes, against the edge of the table or...


And that’s when he notices the very inconvenient fact that he’s still dressed in his night clothes.


Brangergain i’tall!


Sighing, Tarrant pulls himself up with the aid of the cheek-smashing table edge of dubious loyalty.


“Finally deciding on that bath are you?” Chessur drawls.


Tarrant ignores him, adjusts his bathrobe to drape properly over his chest, and executes a graceful exit. Yes, he thinks, a bath is a good idea. After all, Alice will be back soon and he’d rather not subject her to... well, not that he’d expect her to want to... she’ll be tired after all, from her journey, but just in case... that is, if she’d like... well, what he means is...


Tarrant gives himself an abrupt shake and gets on with it, doing his best to keep Alice’s preferences regarding their reunion completely abstract in his mind.


The very thought of returning to the castle kitchens – again! – makes him nauseous, but where else will he go? If he stays in the apartment much longer, he’ll start wondering if he ought to turn down the bed or put candles out or perhaps some of those Thrambleberries she loves so much...


Right. Kitchen.


Of course, he could go to his workshop, he supposes. And there he could... stare at the bolts of fabric, rolls of ribbon, and spools of thread that resemble the various shades of her hair, her skin, her eyes, her lips...


Kitchen!


“What took you so long?” Mally shouts when he returns, finally dressed for the day despite the fact that it’s well past lunchtime. “Hit your head pretty hard there, Hatter? Lost your way back down?”


“Lost his head!” Thackery agrees.


Calmly, Tarrant wanders over to the bench and gracefully takes a seat.


Chessur grins. “It’s nice to finally see you in all your layers, Tarrant.”


He sniffs, not deigning to reply, and reaches for a crumpet.


The sudden BANG! of a distant door being thrown open startles him. Tarrant pushes himself up off of the bench he’d just sat himself upon and smiles hopefully at the kitchen door. He hears the sounds of movement – of running – drawing nearer and nearer and nearer yet!


Perhaps it’s his Alice! Returned at last!


He dares to hope his Alice has returned but something – some heretofore unidentified sense – insists otherwise. He doesn’t want to listen to it, so he faces the kitchen door (with a wide smile on his face – just in case!) as it’s thrown open.


Tarrant examines the new arrival – twice, just to be sure! – but it’s not Alice. Not of any size! No this creature looks far too much like Bayne, Bayard’s bravest and most responsible son. Remembering why the sight of Bayto had so alarmed him eight days ago, Tarrant feels his smile droop into a fearsome scowl. His hands tremble as he asks in an unsteady lisp, “Where is Alice?”


Panting, Bayne manages, “Gone. Taken. Both she and the queen. Can’t find Dad... Fenruffle was wounded by the Jubjub... And the queen’s soldiers...”


In the doorway, Nivens appears and gapes at the young blood hound.


At the table, Thackery throws the teapot toward the rubbish bin.


On the bench, Mally unsheathes her hatpin and declares war.


From the air, Chessur begins interrogating the breathless messenger.


But Tarrant... Tarrant doesn’t hear anything past: Gone... Taken. And when the madness comes and wraps his mind up in its irresistible, hot embrace, he doesn’t fight it.

 

Chapter Text

 The first thing Alice sees when she opens her eyes is Mirana.


“Alice? Are you all right?”

She squeezes her eyes shut and takes a moment to make sure there aren’t any aches – aside from the obvious ones – waiting to ambush her now that she can properly appreciate them. When none clamor for her attention, Alice nods and slowly rolls over onto her side and gingerly sits up on a surprisingly comfortable bed in an equally surprisingly luxurious room. She raises a hand to her face and wonders how badly it has bruised.


“I was permitted to apply a bit of Pain Paste... inferior though it was. Yes, using Bread-and-butterfly wing dust is more readily available, but it only addresses the numbing properties and...” Mirana gives Alice an apologetic look. “I’m afraid you look...”


“Like a thoroughly thwumpished Champion?” Alice suggests, daring a bit of Outlandish for the occasion.


Mirana nearly laughs. “Precisely.”


“I’m sorry about earlier. I should have –”


“Yes, I would have liked it if you’d included yourself in those to be kept unharmed, but as we are both still alive – and keeping each other company! – I can’t fault you too badly.”


“You’re too generous, Your Majesty,” Alice insists darkly. “It’s a miracle we’re both still alive and speaking to each other at all. I nearly got us both –”


“Do you not believe in impossible things as part of your breakfast regime?”


Alice snorts. “If I’d remembered to do that this morning, I could have believed we’d have made back to –”


“But that wouldn’t have been impossible... under normal circumstances, so you wouldn’t have thought to believe in it.”


“But –”


“Shush, Alice.”


“Will you at least stop interrupting me?” she grumbles.


Mirana manages a lukewarm smile. “Queen’s prerogative.”


Alice huffs. “I suppose it is.” Then she slides a wry glance at the queen. “I notice you don’t bother when I’m agreeing with you.”


And there, Alice finally wrings a helpless, breathy – if slightly hysterical – giggle from her sovereign.


Shaking her head, Mirana sighs. “Oh, Alice. You’re nearly as mad as... Well, not many people would be trying to add humor to our situation.”


“Could do with a bit of humor. To balance out the hopeless depression and angst.” The gurgle of an empty stomach punctuates that observation.


“Have they fed you anything?” Alice asks.


“Well... They left something for us, but...” The glance Mirana sends the tray is significant.


Standing, Alice approaches the bowls of now-congealed stew and sniffs. “Is that... mint?”


“A variety of,” the queen confirms. “Sweet to the taste.”


“And it’s effects?”


Mirana reluctantly replies, “It’s meant to make us more... amiable to suggestion.”


“So... nothing good, in other words.”


The queen tilts her head in agreement. “I thought it best to abstain until we were introduced to our host.”


“You assume it’s a man.”


Mirana glances pointedly around the room. “The view from the window is what I would expect to see were I in the heart of Causwick Callion.”


“Causwick... The swamp that lies near...”


“The western border of Snud. This is the territory under the protection of a certain Prince Jaspien, you may recall?” the queen concludes, her rising intonation inquiring if Alice does, indeed, remember her Underland geography lessons correctly.


“I don’t like the sound of that.”


“That makes two of us.”


Closing her eyes, Alice asks the question that is – perhaps – the most pertinent to their current predicament: “What do you think they want with you?”


Mirana gives Alice a long look. “I do not know, but...” When the queen hesitates for far too long, Alice cannot resist opening her eyes and taking in the worry she sees in Mirana’s gaze. “They did not leave you behind, either. Even though...”


Yes, even though they’d already secured Mirana’s surrender.


The fact that they’d brought Alice along could merely mean they had hoped capture would neutralize her and disable any truly competent rescue attempts on the queen. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Prince Jaspien has some nefarious purpose in mind for her! Still...


Her hands curl into fists and Alice crosses to the room’s single window to take stock of their surroundings. There’s no balcony, no ledge of any kind beneath the opening in the grey, stone wall. And the glass is thick, impure and pebbled with un-dissolved sand. She can barely see anything out there in the twilight. She turns and investigates the room. Aside from the space under the bed, there is nowhere to hide. And, unfortunately, the bed skirt had been removed and the bed itself had been raised on a platform – from the doorway one would clearly be able to see whether or not someone were attempting to hide beneath it.


Alice doesn’t tell Mirana not to worry. She doesn’t say that someone will come for them soon. Unfortunately, Alice can only think of two people who would dare, and she knows Mirana wants to contemplate her prince rushing to face danger just as much as Alice wants to consider her Hatter in the same role.


No, it’s best they don’t try to cheer themselves with thoughts of rescue.


Escape, on the other hand...


“If you have the chance to run, take it,” Alice says.


Mirana slumps down on the rumpled bed. “I heard dogs earlier.”


“Blood hounds?” Alice asks, hopeful in spite of her pessimism. One of those baying calls might have belonged to Bayard, which would mean...


“Dobermans.”


Alice releases the curtain she’d pulled back, giving up on dreams of daylight and freedom. For now.


“How are you, Mirana?” she asks softly, her gaze lingering on the queen’s throat, which is bare. “Where’s...? What’s happened to the...?”


The queen closes her eyes and sighs. “At the inn, presumably. Perhaps my snoring managed to unravel the knot in the cord.” Alice continues staring until the queen opens her eyes and answers her first question. “I can still feel him, a bit, but he’s so far away...”


“Does it hurt you?”


“No. No, I’m fine, Alice. Truly.”


Rather than argue or press for details, Alice says instead, “It’s nearly dinnertime.”


“Yes, I suppose they’ll be back to try to ply us with more Hafflaffen-laced edibles.”


Alice doesn’t look forward to that. But she wonders what might be gained by trying to avoid confronting their captor. On the one hand, any time they can manage to waste before actually being forced to start negotiating their safety might be time well-spent. But, on the other, the longer they remain in this room, the more likely a rescue party will be coming for them and that could end... very badly. Perhaps their best chance is to attempt to secure a promise for their release from the castle’s liege. Still... Alice has so many nightmarish visions of what could happen during that meeting... and with Mirana being utterly unable to raise a hand in her own defense...


She shivers.


“Alice?”


“I could...” Alice bites her lip to stop the words.


“What? What horrible thought are you thinking, my Champion?”


Wincing, Alice says, “If you’d rather put off the conversation that’s probably coming – the victory I-have-you-now! speech, I mean – I could... guarantee that you’re unconscious when someone comes...”


Mirana stares at her for a long moment. “You... would do that?”


“If that’s what you wanted, Your Majesty. I’ve promised to protect you to the best of my abilities. Your vows don’t allow you to defend yourself. If the only defense I can give you is unconsciousness...”


The queen considers the option. “Would you recommend that?”


“I can’t recommend anything knowledgably,” she replies, feeling utterly useless, unnecessary, and unhelpful.


“Would it be easier for you if I were... indisposed?”


Alice forces herself to seriously consider what it would mean for her if that situation were to come to pass and weighs each word of her reply carefully. “Instead of worrying that you were being forced to endure something unpleasant, I would merely hope you would be ignorant to whatever unfortunate things might happen in my absence.” Or inability to interfere. “So... no, it would not be easier. Simply a different set of worries.”


“Still, sometimes it’s advantageous to have a different set... in the event that one grows weary of bearing the same ones over and over again.”


“Is there anything you can offer in exchange for your release or – failing that – your safety?” Alice asks, perhaps a tad bluntly.


Mirana appears to give the question thorough consideration. “There are some assets I would be able to part with – lands and tribute that are within my rights to give away as I see fit. Other things... are bound to my crown and, as such...”


“Would have to be taken by force,” Alice finishes.


“But we do have one advantage,” Mirana rebuts.


Alice raises her eyebrows in question.


“We’re women!” the queen proclaims. “Contrary, indecisive, often-times hesitant, fickle creatures of inexplicable logic!”


Alice snorts. “I think I’m a bit out of practice...”


“Don’t worry,” Mirana replies. “For I, most assuredly, am not!


Alice’s brows raise.


Mirana smiles broadly. “It’s your turn to stand down, my Champion, and let the one who got rather good marks – if I do say so myself – in Resolving Disputes with Temperamental Despots to do her worst!”


Alice chuckles, but her heart isn’t in it. She’s busy thinking about this new game she’ll have to play. The one she’d practiced with the Red Queen: deception. Mirana will do her best, certainly, but a woman like the queen can only affect a heart if the man still carries one in his chest. And Alice has met many in recent years – and a few in recent months – that had appeared to possess no such organ at all.


Only time – and the whims of their captor – will tell if the queen’s strategy will be enough to save them.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Even madness must run its course.


Tarrant knows this highly unfortunate fact. He resents the end of the roaring rage and blessedly blank mind. Only empty chairs, broken teacups, a steady downpour, and guilt-shame-embarrassment-fear-dread! have ever greeted him when he emerges into his own mind again, opens his eyes to the world again, lives again.


Yes, bothersome thing: living. Much to be done, to get done, to have done. So, it’s no surprise he hates that moment of re-awareness even more than he hates the moment that had spawned the madness itself. For, in madness, he might do anything. In fact, he might address the very wrong that had pushed him so far outside himself that he no longer feels pain or pleasure or past or present.


There’s oblivion in that hot darkness. There’s a blind strength, too. The potential to conquer all and then awaken to a once-again-normal reality. One in which only good things exist, where the tea service is intact and in use instead of filling with rainwater, one plinking-plopping-plunking droplet at a time. A reality in which he’s surrounded by friends instead of failure.


But this time... When Tarrant blinks open his eyes and sees what awaits him, the disappointment is immeasurably worse than slowly-filling china cups of rainwater tea. What Tarrant sees is a white rabbit tending to a barely-bandaged and still-bleeding gryphon, a gaggle of still-lanky-limbed blood hounds whining mournfully, Mally ordering the crockery into battle formation and Thackery shouting suggestions in between trying to apply broken corners of scones to the worst of Fenruffle’s scrapes.


And what Tarrant feels are arms – as long as his own, as strong as his own – holding him down in one ruined corner of the kitchen.


Alice’s arms are thinner, weaker, softer
, he thinks.


Tarrant closes his eyes and bites back the utter Blackness that tries to climb out of his chest by way of his throat, for he knows there is no chance of these arms transforming into Alice’s.


Alice is
gone ... Taken .


Tarrant opens his eyes, narrows them, allows the slow, relentless, simmering burn of eternal RAGE! to take over his every fiber of being: someone has his Alice!


And may the Fates pity that
slurking urpal SLACKUSH SCRUM!


Because Tarrant certainly won’t. A hatter, without his Alice knows no bounds, no forgiveness... no mercy.


Tarrant looks down at his hands, fisted and clenched in the plum-colored jacket sleeves of a shape-shifting cat, and examines them quite deliberately: they’re the hands of a future murder. With the addition of another thimble, he thinks they’ll do quite nicely...


“Hatter?”


“Cat-With-Evaporating-Skills?”


Behind him, Chessur releases a relieved breath. “At last! I’ve had a cramp in my left buttock for over ten minutes!”


“Then you’d best deal with it. A cramp in one’s scut is something requiring immediate attention,” Tarrant replies, smiling without any rancor at all.


A moment later, when the teaspoon Mally is trying to balance upright on its end falls over with a resounding clatter, Tarrant realizes that every occupant in the kitchen has gone completely, totally, absolutely silent. Looking up with a puzzled frown, Tarrant finds that each and every pair of eyes in the room are focused on him. Leisurely, he stares back. One frightened face after another passes inspection until Tarrant is sure of it: they are all – each and every one of them – terrified... of him.


And they have reason to be, Tarrant allows. For a normal Hatter would have screamed and raged and thrown things and broken furniture and tried to charge out the door to rescue his Alice. The pleasant, calm, sympathetic man they now find in their midst is a never-before-identified specimen of unpredictability.


Grinning, Tarrant says, “Cup of Throeston Blend, Chessur? It’s helped me on occasion when that particular ailment strikes.” He moves to the table and begins considering the remaining crockery, looking for something to serve as a teapot.


Thackery gulps, quivers, and tries to hide behind the corner of a scone he’s yet to find a home for. Mally dives behind the pitcher of cream. The pups hover behind their mother and eye the door warily. Nivens, bandages in hand, has become a statue of quivering fur. Even Fenruffle – that useless excuse for a feathered hat who has constantly lectured Tarrant on staying away from his Alice WHILE SHE’S WORKING! – hardly dares to breathe.


“Have you tried the crumpets,” Tarrant asks the gryphon solicitously. “They’re Thackery’s specialty.”


“Fates save us...” Nivens whispers hoarsely.


“Aye...” Thackery grunts, a spasm of panic coming and going now and again.


From the middle of the table, Mally raises her hatpin sword and shouts, “WELL?! WHAT’RE WE WAITIN’ FOR? HE AIN’T GETTIN’ ANY MADDER!


Fates of Underland help them all if he does...


“Right,” Bayelle says with characteristic decisiveness. “Climb aboard, Mally. Let us be off to pick up the trail.”


“Ar,” Mally agrees. “Fight first, plan later!” Then launches herself from the still-suspect-of-smashing-perfectly-peaceable-faces table edge and snags the ring on Bayelle’s collar.


Tarrant giggles and tucks a butter knife into his pocket for the journey.


“Er... well, perhaps I’d better... accompany you,” Nivens allows.


“Pishsalver!” Thackery demands, scrambling over to the queen’s hands-paws-whispers-teeth-claws-intentions-OFF! cupboard and ransacks its contents. “Lost it!” he says, tucking a bottle into an inner pocket of his vest. “Nauw we’re ready teh find th’wee bessom!”


“Indeed,” Tarrant muses mildly, “what if Alice were too big to be rescued? How inconvenient that would be!”


“Wrong size Alice!” the March Hare concurs.


“Bad habit, that,” Tarrant remarks.


“Always late for tea!” Thackery adds, expounding on Alice’s faults.


Hesitantly, Nivens whispers aside, “Fenruffle, would you...?”


“The Queen’s Army will be right behind you,” he promises, keeping his dark, beady eyes on Tarrant. “Along with anything else you might be needing.”


Tarrant ignores the suspicious glare and advises his companions, “Pack a tea bag, for we may invent a table and pick some cups along the road! They’re in season, you know.”


“A rhyme!” Thackery sighs, twitching.


And then Bayelle applies her formidable nose to the ground and, baying, leads the charge.

 

*~*~*~*

 

The next morning, when Alice awakens, she wakes to the nightmare she’d fallen asleep to escape. In the perfect gloom of the small, servant’s room, Alice stares up in the general direction of the low, stone ceiling she can’t see in the windowless chamber and fights against her despair. Which only worsens with every recalled memory:


“The fact of the matter is, Queen Mirana, that we – that is, I – require a Champion. And yours is quite... impressive,” Prince Jaspien had announced suddenly over the Mock Turtle soup course.


“Yes, Alice has not only defeated the Jabberwocky, but she’s remained undefeated ever since,” Viscount Valereth had complimented. Despite the praise, the words had turned Alice’s stomach.


“Indeed, poor Stayne. Someone should have warned the blighter you’d go to any lengths to win.” Oshtyer’s voice echoes in Alice’s thoughts. She wishes she could wash out her mind.


Shivering, Alice closes her eyes, knowing the worst is yet to come:


“You... are asking me to release Alice from her vows of fealty?” Mirana had asked, wonderingly.


Despite the utter disaster of an evening it had been, the queen had been utterly brilliant: charming weak smiles and warm-ish glances from Jaspien, making an ally of the taciturn and unimaginative man.


Valereth had been completely unaffected; Alice knows his kind – concerned only with business and, it appears, that Valereth’s business is war.


Oshtyer... No, Mirana had not been able to reach Oshtyer. Alice doubts he can speak a language that’s not laced with domination and hostility.


“Yes, Mirana,” Jaspien had replied. “I would like to offer Alice a position as my Champion. It would be... best for you if you were to release her voluntarily.”


Oshtyer had snickered. “You always insist on ruining a man’s fun... sir.”


“You would force me?” Mirana had asked, disbelieving and looking every bit the lost and frightened heroine.


“No,” Valereth had answered harshly. “We will kill you.” For that would work just as well – Alice would be free of her vows then.


“I would offer you my protection, Mirana, if you were to cooperate with us on this matter,” Jaspien had offered stiffly, but sincerely.


“I... see.”


And, at this point, Alice had gathered her courage and had dared to speak for the first time since the beginning of dinner:


“Your Majesty, you know you don’t have much use for me. It’s been rather... well, dull since that middling excuse for a man crawled his way to Marmoreal and petitioned your hand.”


Mirana had turned and given Alice a searching look. “That’s true...” she’d replied slowly. “And I do know how much you enjoy a fight...”


Alice had smiled and, seeking to secure Mirana’s position with Jaspien – who clearly hoped to win her over – Alice had dared a bit more: “Thank you for conceding to the trip to Shuchland, Your Majesty. Receiving instruction in their...” Alice had glanced across the table and smirked at Oshtyer. “... unique weaponry was quite the opportunity. Perhaps our Prince Jaspien could offer other...” And this glance she’d sent at Valereth. “... profitable lessons.”


For a long moment, the queen and the three former (or perhaps not so former) suitors, had regarded Alice in silence. She had struggled to keep her expression bland, but interested.


“Alice...” the queen had begun.


Oshtyer had interrupted: “You expect us to believe that you’d willingly fight for the prince even with that on your arm?” He’d nodded to her heart line.


And then Alice had done something so unforgivable she’d nearly broken right there.

“This... heart line?” she’d sneered. “As Queen’s Champion, I am required to acquiesce to my liege’s requests.”


“I... am sorry I required it of you, Alice. We simply couldn’t be sure how staying in Underland for so long might affect you...” Mirana had murmured, her eyes shining with sympathetic understanding but Alice had been sure these men would not recognize it. They would think it to be shame or perhaps pity.


“It matters not now,” Alice had replied with a shrug, dismissing the entire ordeal. “That is, if I’m to be a true Champion?”


Valereth had smiled. “Yes, Alice, we will offer you far better opportunities to utilize your skills than wooing duels.”


Alice had grinned, had forced a glimmer of anticipation into her eyes, and then she’d turned to Mirana who, with a look of heartbreaking sorrow, had replied, “If this is what you wish, Alice...?”


Wish?
No. Most certainly not. Alice had wished to be in her bed at Marmoreal in the arms of her Hatter. But that had been an impossibility. So, Alice had chosen to save Mirana’s life, which would now be protected by Prince Jaspien’s vow. Alice had had to betray Tarrant, who would be a target of violence or abduction if either Valereth or Oshtyer thought they could use threats against him to ensure her cooperation. Alice had needed to buy time so that they both might find a way out of this hell. What Alice had wanted – what she had wished – hadn’t mattered. This had been necessary.


“It is,” Alice had told her without hesitation or fear.


“Then... I, Mirana of Marmoreal, do hereby release you, Alice Kingsleigh, from my service... from this moment henceforth.”


And now I am Jaspien’s Champion...


Alice blinks back the rush of hot tears. Crying will accomplish nothing but show weakness. If she shows weakness now, that will be the end of it. She needs these bastards to trust her. She needs these cowardly, pathetic creatures to give her enough rope – enough slack on the leash – so that she might choke them with it!


Her hands fist in the rough linens.


You must
become them.,.


There’s nothing she wants less.


Be strong. Fight. Win.
Survive.


Yes, she must do those things for she had never been released from that promise. Very carefully, she does not think of to whom she had made it. No, in this new horror her life has become, she cannot think of any friends at all. In this new life, she is a woman who has no friends. She is a Champion who lives – breathes! – to fight, to conquer, to...


Alice closes her eyes and forces herself to think the last word:


Kill.


She’d saved the queen, but she isn’t naïve enough to assume that Fate will not demand a life in exchange. Perhaps it will be her own. Perhaps it will be her hand that takes someone else’s.


Be prepared, Alice!


She spends her remaining time in the perfect darkness of the room considering this new person she will be, the motivations that will drive her, the inclinations that will shape her. She builds this new Alice – Jaspien, Valereth, and (she shudders) Oshtyer’s Alice. And, with every breath, she’s thankful that she had never given any indication of her true self – or the object of her affections – during the Wooing Rites. If she had not appeared to be perfectly impartial, distant, and unaffected, then this strategy would have died during the soup course last night.


She has one chance to make this succeed.


She must do whatever necessary to ensure that success.


Fight. Win. Return.


Everything else is irrelevant.


When the sound of footsteps grows louder and louder in the hall beyond her door, Alice gets up from her bed and crosses the murky room. As she’d never gotten undressed the night before, never taken off her weapons, she doesn’t waste time taking up a defensive position beside the door. She draws her sword and waits.


Expecting the light to blind her when the door is opened, Alice squints her eyes and keeps to the wall behind the door. There’s a rattle of keys, the click of a rusty lock, and then torchlight pours into the small chamber. A shadow falls across the floor. Tall, human-looking... An Outlander.


It doesn’t matter. When he steps into the room, her blade is at his throat.


“Well, a’g’mornin’teh ye, lasslin’!” he says, stopping in his tracks and grinning at her.


Alice doesn’t return the greeting. “Not one foot over that threshold,” she informs him. “Now step back, Outlander,” she orders, spitting the last word out with disgust.


He does. His eyes widening. “M’thinks ye d’nae care f’r Outlanders much.”


“Thinking? You can do that, too?” she replies.


He laughs. “Oh, aye. Walk’n’talk a’th’same time’s well.”


Alice lowers her sword a bit now that he’s standing in the hall... alone. “The sort who enjoys a challenge,” she assesses with sarcasm.


He chuckles. “’Twoul’have teh be... teh b’takin’ye on.”


“You’ll take nothing.”


He considers this with an amiable expression. “S’pose ‘twoul’nae b’right f’r me teh be doin’ tha’... leas’no’wi’thou’ givin’ ye me name firs’.”


“You can give it. I won’t promise to take it.”


“Davon,” he says with a grin, showing gaps in his stained, battered teeth. No doubt those missing teeth had been knocked out in one fight or brawl or another. “Tha’s me name. Jus’in case ye’re decidin’teh use it.”


“Forgetting it as I speak,” she replies.


Still grinning, Davon gestures her to proceed him down the hall. Alice draws a knife and re-sheaths her sword. “Oh, no, laddies first,” she invites.


“Ar, ye are a deligh’ful lass, Alice.”


“Thank you.”


She doesn’t ask him to reveal their destination before they arrive – to do so would be to show anxiety and a lack of confidence in her abilities to defend herself. She keeps the knife in her left hand, rather than her right, to show she’s wary but not overly afraid. It’s a wise decision, in the end, for when Davon emerges from the castle into the dirt-packed, rubbish-strewn side yard, Alice’s skills are put to the test at once.


Just as she steps through the doorway and into the pale light of this overcast morning, a whoosh! of air, a streak of motion, the blur of an object whistles in her direction. Alice raises the knife and draws her sword.


The enemy’s sword crashes into her much shorter dagger blade, and Alice sets her jaw, straining against her opponent’s strength. Her broadsword flashes, arcs, and she presses the tip against the figure’s belly and warningly but relentlessly pushes it forward.


With a yelp, the creature – a hyena, she notices – leaps back, lowers his weapon, and rubs his stomach. “Oi, that pinched a bit!” he pouts.


The courtyard erupts in laughter. Stepping outside fully – for to stay in the castle would only show cowardice – Alice gives the assembled motley assortment of mercenaries an imperious stare. And then, glancing at the hyena still rubbing his stomach and, occasionally, checking to see if he’d lost any of his precious pelt, she grins and chuckles.


“Nauw, b’nice, Argur,” the Outlander teases. “I ken ye still rem’mber hauw...”


“Can’t blame me for being curious!” he retorts, eyeing Alice with suspicion. “It be just a slip of a thing...”


Alice stretches her lips into an overly sweet smile. “Well, you’re no Jabberwocky, but if you’d like further demonstrations...” She hefts her broadsword and takes a step toward him.


Davon reaches out a hand and gestures for her to stand down. She halts, but doesn’t relax her guard. He says, “Af’er th’introductions, Alice.”


The crowd chuckles and guffaws. Alice stands up straight and examines the circle of, perhaps, three dozen creatures of all shapes, sizes, and origins. There are tigers, bears, more hyenas, even a badly scarred lion, and several Outlanders, none of which look nearly as friendly as Davon.


“Alice,” the Outlander continues, adopting an obsequious smile and exaggerated pose of a footman charged with announcing the dinner guests. “This charmin’, flea-bitten, filth-ridden beast i’called Argur Frothbreath.”


“Am not,” the hyena spits, a string of drool escaping his grimacing lips.


“I di’nae say ‘twas yer name, but ‘tis whot ye’re called!” Davon explains to the amusement of the crowd.


Argur growls.


“An’ this,” Davon continues, gesturing to Alice, “i’th’prince’s Champion. Alice...?”


She flashes him a dark grin. “I’m sure I’ll earn the rest of my name before the day’s out.”


Her statement is met with whistles and cheers.


Looking mightily entertained, Davon concludes, “W’shall be lookin’ forward teh tha’ then! Nauw, everyone all intr’duced?” When no objections are voiced or growled, the Outlander nods and pulls back his still outstretched hand. “Le’th’fight begin!


Argur’s eyes flash and, in the next instant, he charges Alice. She sidesteps and knocks his sword wide of its mark. The hyena doesn’t lose his grip on it, though, and pivots for the next attack. Attempting to conserve her energy – who knows how many of these wretched introductions she’ll be subjected to! – Alice draws him in and decides to finish this nonsense quickly.


This time, when he charges, Alice not only knocks his arm wide with the flat of her blade, but she kicks viciously at his knee and, spinning, brings both fists slamming against his lower back. Her blade is at his neck and her foot firmly planted just there against his spine at the small of his back, ready to crush the bones beneath her heel. Under normal circumstances, she would never have considered breaking anyone’s back in a fight – she wouldn’t have believed herself capable of generating enough force to do so – but this Alice would not hesitate, would not doubt herself.


“I think I may have broken your knee, Argur,” Alice tells him sweetly as surprised silence surrounds them. “Shall I put you out of your misery?” She applies a bit more pressure to the blade.


The hyena snarls and a few bubbles of froth escape the corner of his mouth.


“’Tis enough o’ tha’!” Davon calls. “Either kill ‘em’r le’im up, Alice.”


With her nose wrinkled in disgust, Alice releases him.


“Aw, ‘twas lookin’ forward teh seein’ tha’lump get ‘is comeuppance,” someone growls.


“I’ve no quarrel with Argur,” Alice replies as the hyena stands and glares at his fellows. “Not yet.


Argur turns toward her and, seeing her playful – if somewhat dark – smile, lets out a bark of screeching laughter. The others join in and Alice forces sounds of mirth from her own mouth, even as her stomach twists, knots, and rolls.


Remember whose Alice you are!


And, if – by chance – the thought forces a tear out of her, she can simply blame it on the laughter.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Just outside the formidable walls of Causwick Castle, Tarrant Hightopp paces. Seven and three-quarters steps, pivot, eight and two-thirds steps, pivot, six and a smidgen steps, pivot...


“You’re making me dizzy!” Mally whispers.


Tarrant barely hears her, for here – on the other side of this cursed wall! – is his Alice. Somewhere!


“Ge’yer useless tail back ‘ere!” he growls. How long does it take to find two women in a bloody medieval fortress? Not long, certainly. Not for a cat with evaporating skills, anyway!


“Stop this, Hatter!” Mally squeaks furiously. “They’ll see us!


No, no they won’t. They might see Tarrant but no one will see Mally. Not from the height of those battlements.


Battlements... ah, yes, he remembers walking with his Alice, looking for the battlements at the White Queen’s castle. That had been on a Saturday, after brillig. Alice had been horridly late for tea and he’d had naught to offer her when she’d arrived except his arm and a smile, which she’d taken. But, he supposes, with her tendency towards tardiness, she can’t afford to be fussy over the state of the tea – cold! – and the scones – stale! – so it’s just as well that—


“Any word?”


Tarrant registers Bayard’s low voice, but continues pacing.


“Nuthin’!” Mally replies.


“Well, it’s only been a short time...”


“What are we going to do when he gets back?” Mally wonders.


“Storm th’bloody castle,” Tarrant growls.


“With a butter knife?” Mally reminds him.


He has to concede, “’Tis no’as good as a powder puff nor a perfume bottle, but I’ve fought wi’less.”


Witless,” Mally corrects, glaring at him.


Perhaps he is. After all, he’s pacing – daring to draw attention to them – along the outer wall of the enemy’s castle armed with an eating utensil small enough to fit into his pocket. And there’s no use thinking of his broadsword – still sheathed and leaning against the wall next to his and Alice’s wardrobe back in Marmoreal...


Despite the unforgivable act that very sword gets up to in his nightmare, Tarrant knows he should have asked the Bandersnatch to fetch it for him. But when they’d arrived at the Crossroads late last night, Tarrant still hadn’t quite emerged from the madness that had been buzzing through him, addling his brain. The still-woozy guards had been sent back to the castle with the crates and trunks. Alfred had stumbled along behind them, complaining of an overly warm stomach. The Bandersnatch, muddled by the same drug that had been used on the guards, had slowly and very grumpily sniffed out Bayard’s trail until the blood hound had caught up with them and informed them of the horrible truth: Alice and the queen have disappeared behind the walls of Causwick Castle.


Tarrant has never liked that Prince Jaspien. Even before the uncoordinated twit had nearly flailed that sword right through his Alice’s middle! But this! This treachery...! This will NOT go unpunished!!


He had sworn to retrieve his Alice before dawn of the seventeenth day, but as dawn had come and gone and Alice had still not arrived – had not returned to him! – he’d stubbornly forsaken sleep. He will not suffer that nightmare again! Not without her lying next to him. Not without having her there when he wakes up!


“Is the army not coming?” Mally whispers to Bayard. “Shouldn’t you be leading them here?”


“The Bandersnatch is taking care of it,” he says. “And Nivens has finally gotten Thackery to agree on a place to wait out the daylight hours. I’ve come to take you there.”


“I’m no’leavin’,” Tarrant announces, still pacing.


“It’s too dangerous to remain!” Mally reminds him. “It’s long past dawn!”


He doesn’t care.


“Chessur will find us when he’s done. He’ll sniff us out. You know he will!”


Tarrant ignores that. He stops pacing, turns to the wall and presses his hands against it. He squints, glaring, as if his very will could drill through the dull stone and, finding Alice, pull her to safety.


“Now is not the time to attack. We’re undoubtedly outnumbered,” Bayard argues in Tarrant’s direction. “We will wait for the army and Chessur’s information.”


“Come away now,” Mally begs him.


Mally doesn’t understand, he knows. She doesn’t realize that he can’t leave. Not without knowing that Alice is alive, safe, and well – at least for the time being – despite what the sickening thuds of his heart are telling him.


His left hand fists against the wall and his eyes squeeze closed. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to just speak to her, to tell her he is here! Right here! If she can only find a way to him...!


Alice...


The thought of her is laced with so much love and desperation and despair and need he feels his heart strain with it. Oh, if only she could feel it! If only she could sense how close he is!


Tarrant startles as he realizes there is a way! How stupid of him to forget about the heart line!


He takes a deep breath, lets it out, tries to focus...


Alice...


“Am I interrupting something?”


Tarrant turns away from the wall and has to stop himself from grabbing Chessur from midair and shaking the information he seeks from him.


“If you’d like to be alone with... the wall, I’m sure we can oblige you...”


Tarrant hears only the lack of Alice’s name, whereabouts, and health. “Tell me. NAUW.”


“Ahem. Yes, well, the queen and Alice are unharmed. I was unable to talk to her majesty as she was having breakfast with Prince Jaspien and...”


“Alice?” Mally interrupts.


“Er, no... Alice is in the side courtyard... training.”


“What? What’s she doin’ trainin’ with this lot! We’re her tutors!” the dormouse huffs.


“I... am not exactly sure, but... it appears that the situation is... complicated.”


“How complicated can it be? Jaspien kidnapped the queen and Alice and is holding them hostage,” Bayard states with a doggy frown.


“Well, it’s... that is... Prince Jaspien does not appear to be acting alone.” Chessur flicks a fearful gaze in Tarrant’s direction.


Tell me!


The cat backs up a bit at the furious demand, but relents: “His associates appear to be Viscount Valereth and... Lord Oshtyer...”


Tarrant’s jaw clenches, he can feel the rage within him burning through every patch of exposed skin: his hands, which clench; his face, which pales; his eyes, which flame. “We’re gettin’er out o’there righ' nauw!


“No, we can’t!


Tarrant ignores that wretched, cowardly, politically-adverse, useless wrapping of sometimes-invisible fur and strides toward the front gates of the castle.


No!


Suddenly, Tarrant finds himself pinned against the wall by his own form. He struggles, damning the blasted cat for his interference and refusal to just bloody forget Tarrant’s shape!


“Hatter! Stop! Even if we were to storm the castle now and find Alice, she would not be able to come with us!


“Ye said she wasnae hurt!” Tarrant grits out between his teeth. “She’s out in th’open, trainin’! ‘Tis our chance!


“No, it’s not! She is bound to this place!”


Mally gasps. “They’ve got her in manacles?! In shackles?! I’ll kill them! I’ll stab their eyes out! I’ll –”


No!” Chessur-as-the-Hatter hisses. “Alice cannot leave because...” Tarrant watches as his own face turns toward him and he feels his heart race at the pitying look he’s given. “Please, Tarrant, let us away. Do not make me tell you this... here.


Tarrant narrows his eyes. “Ye’ll tell me ‘rI’ll shout th’bloody place down an’ don’think I won’do it!”


“Botheration. I know you would. Just to get captured so you can see Alice for yourself. But that would not help her now! She’s...” Chessur pauses. Seems to consider one more attempt at begging Tarrant to come away from the castle before hearing what he has to say.


Continue...” Tarrant demands in a very dangerous tone.


Chessur does. “Alice is no longer the Queen’s Champion.”


“She...? What?!” Mally very nearly shouts. Bayard shushes her.


“I do not know how it happened but... Alice,” he gulps, “has become a Prince’s Champion.”


“Which prince?” Mally wonders, confused. And then with sudden but undoubtedly backward insight, she chatters, “The queen hasn’t... become a... a... boy, has she?!”


“No!” Chessur replies, never taking his too-green gaze off of Tarrant. “Alice belongs to Jaspien now. She’s his Champion!”


The trembling that Tarrant had been fighting in order to remain calm, in order to hear word of his Alice, breaks free. He shudders, shivers, quakes against the wall. The hands on his arms are the only force holding him up. The rage, the madness, the pain, the terror, it is nothing compared to this!


Alice...! His Alice... ! She’s... she is...!


Hatter!” Chessur shakes him roughly and his head knocks soundly against the stones, dazing him. “We will get her back! If the queen can release her from her vows, then so can the prince. We need only find a way to convince him to do it!”


“Oh, bother-an’-all!” Mally grumbles, kicking the dirt. “We’ll have to plan first, then fight!”


“I’m afraid so,” the cat replies. “But, there are times when each and every one of us must do things contrary to our nature.” He gives Tarrant a gentle shake. “Focus, Hatter. Alice needs you. Be rational for her.”


Tarrant takes a slow, steadying breath. “I’d be anything for Alice.”


“Then be the man she needs,” Chessur urges. “Help us find a way to free her, to bring her home.”


He closes his eyes briefly, wills them to a more logically-hued shade, and nods. “Aye,” he agrees. And then he lets the copy of himself pull him away from the castle wall and into the surrounding swamp. He stumbles into the murky, damp forest, numb with disbelief: Never has he done something so contrary to his nature as this!


Not when he’d knelt in that red hall and had seen Alice – improperly sized, again! – seated beside that Bloody Big Head and had pretended not to know her!


Not when he’d charmed the Bloody Big Head and made hats for her!


Not when he’d watched Alice march toward the Jabberwocky, sword in hand, but not a clue as to how to wield it!


Not when he’d stood back and let her leave Underland!


Not when he’d closed his eyes to the mirror – to his first glimpse of her in three bloody years! – and denied the queen her request to allow her to bring Alice back to Underland, to him!


Not when he’d stood by, time and time again, and had watched supposedly well-bred men and beasts try to hurt her for the sake of chivalry!


Not when he’d kept himself a crowded room and a populated dinner table away from her for weeks on end, daring only to touch her with his gaze!


Not when he’d forced himself to leave her be, to not beg her forgiveness for taking such horrible advantage of her and performing the second exchange without her full knowledge and consent!


Not when he’d made himself calm down – despite the utter rage at the thought of her being gone! taken! – and do what he’d had to in order to force his feet-dragging, kerchief-wringing friends to get off their lazy scuts and HELP HIM FIND ALICE!


Tarrant closes his eyes again, briefly, and takes a deep breath. A calming breath. Alice needs him to be calm. Rational. Contrary.


Yes, there comes a time when they must all do something utterly contrary to their natures. Tarrant knows those times – knows them well – for he’s had a great deal of experience with them already.


 


Chapter Text

Mirana manufactures a smile for her breakfast companion and, setting her tea aside, murmurs, “If it wouldn’t be too much to ask, Jaspien, dear, could I perhaps watch your Champion train for a bit this morning?”


The prince looks up from his porridge, his unremarkable gray eyes widening just the slightest bit in surprise. Aside from his customary, bland smile upon escorting her to the first meal of the day, it’s the first emotion she’s seen him exhibit all morning.


“I beg your pardon, Mirana. Did you just express an interest in watching swordplay?”


“Well...” she strives to be as honest as possible lest she be caught out in a lie. “I must admit I am curious as to how she’s getting on. She may not be my Champion any longer, and perhaps we were never the closest of friends –” Forgive me, Alice! “– what with her eagerness to brawl at the slightest provocation, but Alice was quite competent in her duties. It’s difficult to imagine how she might be becoming more proficient under the tutelage of your guard.”


“Hm.” The prince selects a butter knife and tends to his scone. “Valereth assures me she’s coming along just fine. Seems to be enjoying herself, in fact. You need not concern yourself with the particulars.”


“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it!” Mirana replies with a shudder at the very thought of swordplay “particulars.” She sighs. “Still, these last three days have been rather... well, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy your company, sir, for I do! But, understandably, you cannot entertain me every hour of the day. I just thought that perhaps viewing the activity in the courtyard might provide a distraction.”


“Indeed. However, I doubt it would be a sight fit to a queen’s tastes.”


Hiding her frustration behind a self-depreciating sigh, Mirana replies, “Oh, I know. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. This preoccupation with blood sports.” Again, another shudder. “I can’t seem to get my mind off of it. Embroidery, painting, even the magnificent pianoforte you provided – so thoughtful! – can’t sway my mind from it. It’s like a... curse. Or...” She visibly fumbles for the word she’s supposedly searching for. “A poison! Yes, it’s like a poison!”


Jaspien sips his tea – unsweetened, un-creamed – and hums in thoughtful contemplation. Mirana wonders if the man has had any sort of education in the basics of the art of alchemy. For every apothecary – and apothecary’s apprentice, for that matter! – knows the only way to cure an Underlandian poison, is the exposure to more of it!


“I do not enjoy hearing you describe your health in such dire terms,” the prince finally says. Lifting his gaze to hers, he studies her face. Mirana makes herself look upon his thinning, mouse-gray hair, dispassionate expression, and weak chin with fondness. And there! She sees the slight softening of his thin mouth and hopes...!


“Although the thought of you being subjected to the harsh realities of a fortress guard’s lifestyle does not sit well with me, I imagine we can make an exception, just this once.”


Mirana lifts a hand and gently pats his forearm. The gesture makes her skin crawl. “Thank you! When I am cured, I shall request to be taken back to my room at once,” she vows.


Seeming pleased, Jaspien returns to his breakfast and considers a boiled egg. Mirana once more regards to her plate of slightly off-season fruit and tries not to bask too obviously in her victory.


Never before has she has to rely so heavily on her skills in passive deception. Never before has her personal safety been at risk for so long. Never before has she had so much to lose and to gain. It’s nerve wracking... even more so, in fact, than the day of that terrifying attack on Hightopp Village. For, that indescribably horrible experience had occurred and passed far too quickly for Mirana to truly experience it. But this situation crawls by, slithers like a lost snail, permitting Mirana to examine each horridly uncertain hour moment by torturous moment.


Torturous.
Yes, that’s exactly the word to describe her predicament. The Soul Bond aches to bring her closer to her betrothed, to bridge the distance between them and Mirana reprimands herself for acting so rashly – so romantically! – when Dale had proposed. She knows she should have waited until he could follow her back to Marmoreal for good... She had known it, but how could she have refused him in the beautiful, perfect moment that had been completely theirs? Still, a part of her feels strengthened by his presence, distant though it feels and despite the persistent ache caused by their separation.


The queen wishes her discomfort were merely limited to that, but – alas – it is not: Mirana hasn’t had a glimpse of Alice since the young woman had been escorted to her new chambers following that fateful dinner. And although Alice had confessed to worrying whether or not the queen would or could be safe in her absence, Mirana finds herself distracted and overcome with that very concern for her former Champion.


Mirana summons a gentle smile and looks up, intending to ask Prince Jaspien about some mundane aspect of his dreary existence, when the breakfast room door opens and Valereth enters.


“Good morning, Your Majesties,” he murmurs. Mirana hides a wince at the form of address, as if he is speaking to a king and his queen. She does not want to think about that.


“Valereth,” Jaspien says, deciding to dare a bit of the boiled egg after all. “Have they been sent?”


“Yes, Your Majesty. I sent the cheetahs; Hornsaver and the Avens will be receiving them by the end of the day.”


“Splendid.” The prince, however, sounds quite indifferent. “Which do you believe will answer first?”


“The Avens,” Valereth says, taking the seat Jaspien points to with his spoon. “Hornsaver will no doubt wait and hope the King’s Champion will succeed in defeating ours and save them the trouble.”


“Hm. The Shuchland Champion will not be easy to defeat.”


“Yes,” Valereth agrees. “But, as promised, we’ve anticipated that. If you’d care to see for yourself, I believe a demonstration can be arranged...?”


“As it so happens,” Jaspien replies in a bored tone, “the queen has expressed curiosity as to how you and your warriors could have possibly improved Champion Alice’s proficiency. Say, ten o’clock?”


“I’ll arrange it.”


Without a word or glance in Mirana’s direction, Valereth stands and excuses himself from the room.


“You’ve issued Challenges to the other realms?” Mirana asks after a moment. “How very... daring of you, my dear Jaspien!” Oh how she wishes she could wash her mouth out! Mirana takes a sip of tea instead and tries not to gag on it in self-disgust.


“I imagine it seems so, but it’s merely business.”


Mirana replies hesitantly, “Oh... I’m afraid I don’t have much of a head for business. I can’t even imagine what a Champions’ Duel has to do with such a venture.”


Ever patient, Jaspien explains, “I have the fortress, Valereth the warriors, and Oshtyer has the Jubjub bird and...” Here, the prince frowns. “... the particular... bent of mind, shall we say, necessary for these sorts of things. We’ve entered into an arrangement whereby all of us will benefit. Once the other realms fall to my Champion –” Mirana nearly reaches across the table and smacks him across his overly bland face for that remark – his Champion, indeed! Alice will never be his! Not truly! – but she merely refolds the linen napkin across her lap.


“Yes, when the other lands fall to my Champion, Oshtyer will have his Galandonland, Valereth will have his Shuchland, and...”


“Yes? What will you have?” Mirana inquires breathlessly. She would have been breathless regardless at the unsettling knowledge that Lord Hornsaver’s people – such proud and noble countrymen – will be under the sadistic rule of that... creature. And the very thought of beautiful Shuchland being subjected to Valereth’s cruel, callous care nearly makes her weep. She fears, however, she has not heard the worst of their plans.


Prince Jaspien glances toward the windows and Mirana thinks she sees a slight blush in his cheeks. Dread unfurls within her.


He says with gravity, “I shall have Marmoreal and all the lands of the White Realm. And, the White Queen herself, should she consent to ruling by my side.”


When he turns suddenly and regards her expression, Mirana knows she can’t hide her shock. The disgust and horror, though, those she manages to suppress before they can rise to the surface. “Well, that is... quite the proposal,” she manages. “A queen would do well to consider all aspects of that arrangement.”


“I trust you will,” he replies and then returns to slurping his porridge.


Mirana forces herself to eat, her motions automatic and expression arranged very carefully to express burgeoning delight. Inwardly, she’s calculating how long it will take for the challenges to be delivered to the other lands, how long it will take for the Avens to reply and assemble their army, how long she will have to dodge his proposal.


Perhaps two days...


She hopes it’s not more than that, for surely, he will require her answer and, when she gives it, it will, unavoidably, be in the form of a promise.


Her expression is still pleasantly vacant and her mind still uncomfortably full when Mirana is escorted to a narrow balcony overlooking the side courtyard.


“We won’t be going down?” she asks, puzzled.


Prince Jaspien gives her a sidelong glance. “I wouldn’t subject you to the muck of the yard unnecessarily, Mirana. The view from here is quite adequate. You shall indulge in your poison’s cure to your heart’s contentment.”


“Indeed. And I shall be able to retire discreetly should the scene become... disquieting. It’s very thoughtful of you, dear Jaspien.”


His chest puffs out a bit and Mirana turns away to gaze down upon the scene two stories below. Alice and... Mirana leans a bit further over the low wall of the balcony and stifles a gasp. Is that an... Outlander?


It is. Dressed in his ceremonial clothes, no less, reminiscent of Tarrant’s own battle wardrobe on that prophesied Frabjous Day. Mirana hides a wince as snatches of his Outlandish brogue float up to her on the breeze. Were it not for the fact that she knows this man is not her Hatter, she might have assumed otherwise from the sound of his voice alone. Mirana has had no corporeal reminders of Dale – the lion-man she loves – in the time she’s spent here. But, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Alice.


Oh, Alice!


The battle begins and Mirana can scarcely watch, but she forces herself not to look away. She’s seen Alice fight earnestly before. Seven times, to be exact. But this time is like no other. The fury, the calculation, the utter blood-thirst is so foreign, Mirana can barely recognize her former Champion, her closest friend. Alice’s face is pulled into a fierce grimace and the collection of recent and healing bruises there make the expression truly horrible. She thinks she sees hand-sized discolorations around the woman’s neck and around her bare upper arms. Mirana’s heart aches and she wonders how many other bruises there are, concealed beneath the leather armor and trousers she wears.


What has become of you, my Champion?
Mirana despairs. She watches as Alice not only attacks but rages, hunts, devours, destroys her opponent’s defense. In a matter of minutes it’s all over. The Outlander is on his back, his sword is gone, and Alice’s blade is at his throat, and her foot – Mirana winces – Alice’s foot is pressed between the man’s legs. It’s this action – this horribly cruel, merciless, callous action – that destroys what little hope Mirana has for her friend’s sanity. For Alice would never be so... so...


“Well done!”


Mirana startles as Oshtyer applauds from the crowd.


Oshtyer.


“We’ve made a true Champion out of you, Alice,” he praises her.


Mirana expects Alice to spit in the man’s direction. But she steps back, releasing her prey, and gives that cheating sack of filth a knowing smile. “I believe you have, my lord.”


My. Lord.


Mirana wrestles with her tears.


Oh, Alice. What have you become? What have I made you do? What have you
let them do to you?


But the queen knows these answers. She knows what Alice has become, what she’s had to become to survive, to ensure Mirana’s safety, to keep them from searching for Tarrant.


Alice has become a mercenary.

 

*~*~*~*

 

The nightmare never changes.


Alice fights until he finds and then rings the silver bell.


And then she lowers her sword.


And then she dies.


At his hand.


Tarrant gasps awake, heart pounding, fear overwhelming him, panic erasing all higher thought processes.


Alice!


He struggles with the blanket, throwing it off of himself and casting his gaze around the tiny clearing. He forces himself to count them, his companions: One... two-three... one... two-three... Little by little, his heart obeys the rhythm. It slows, quiets, and aches.


One... two-three... And none of them are Alice. It doesn’t matter how many times he checks – just to be sure! – none of them are ever Alice. He listens to Mally’s buzzing snores, muffled beneath one of McTwisps’ white gloves. He hears Thackery’s foot thump against the exposed root of the weeping willow drooping over him. He discerns the White Rabbit’s wispy whispers from his dreams.


No Alice.


Tarrant closes his eyes and reminds himself:


Alice is in Causwick Castle.


Alice is Jaspien’s Champion.


Alice needs Tarrant to be calm. Rational.


Unlike yesterday morning – and the morning before that! – when he’d woken everyone at dawn with his desperate calls and frantic search for Alice among the bedrolls and campfire ashes, today he manages to keep the Terror in check.


But he knows he cannot sit here and do nothing. It’s far too dark to make tea, to start a fire, to rouse his fellow hopeful rescuers. He looks over his shoulder into the dense, murky swamp, through the gnarled, looming willow trees, in the direction of Causwick Castle.


Alice...


Tarrant stands and, after first shaking out his boots, puts them on. It’s a reflex to reach for his broadsword and as his fingers curl around it, he startles.


The sword!


The sword that kills his Alice, his sword... He should not take it with him. He prefers the butter knife, prefers the peace of mind that fits in his pocket with it. The broadsword presses against his mind as it weighs across his back. If he does not take it, he will not find it somehow thrust through his Alice’s armor.


Understandably, Tarrant had not been very enthusiastic – although he should have been, he knows! – when Tweedledum had delivered it to him the day before yesterday as he and his brother had announced the arrival of the Queen’s Army.


For long moments, he stares at the sword, undecided.


And then he sighs and picks it up, swinging the belt over his shoulder and settling the blade against his back.


Alice will not let you hurt her,
he tells himself and believes it. Alice has never let him hurt her. Not when the madness of Loss and Panic had taken him the day she’d stepped through the looking glass. Not when she’d given herself to him after the third exchange and he’d been paralyzed with Fear and Apprehension for her. Alice has never let him hurt her. He trusts her not to let him hurt her.


Hence, the broadsword accompanies him.


Tarrant steps quietly through the trees, sticking to the narrow path he and the others have carved through the sinister wilderness toward the object of their frustration and desperation. He knows he shouldn’t be doing this. He ought to stay in the camp until dawn. Tarrant cannot see as well at night as the others can. He could stumble across one of Jaspien’s Dobermans and lead its nose right back to his companions.


But he has to be closer to Alice. Just a bit closer. Just...


Even the nocturnal creatures of the swamp are quiet now in the hour before sunrise and Tarrant shivers.


Alone...


Abandoned...


Apart...


Assailable...


Is this how his Alice feels?


He pauses along the trail and his eyelids flutter. His fingers dig into the mossy trunk of a tree.


Ache...


Awful...


Acute...


Acidic...


He burns with the need to have her with him again, to keep her, to feel her hold onto him again!


“I’d ask what it is you think you’re doing out here, but I already know the answer,” a familiar drawling voice muses.


Tarrant opens his eyes and glares – albeit a bit weakly – at the Cheshire Cat. “I’m ou’here because I cannae ge’in there.


“As I suspected.”


He sighs. “How is she?”


“She just woke up.” The beat of silence following that statement is significant. Tarrant understands what Chessur means, but the bloody creature can’t resist salting the wound: “I assume because you did.”


“Aye.”


“The same nightmare?”


Tarrant intends to answer, but – at the reminder of that unbearable nightmare – the feeling of dread renews itself and saps his strength, steals his breath, locks his throat.


The cat sighs. “And yet you brought the sword.”


“I trust her.”


“Too much.”


Tarrant turns and studies the cat’s despondent expression. “Tell me.”


Looking relieved to finally do so, Chessur says, “I... do not know how much longer Alice can continue down the path she’s chosen. If we do not have a chance to approach Jaspien soon, we shall have to risk an assault.”


Tarrant’s jaw clenches. “Ye never tell me wha’they’re doin’teh’er... I imagine... I see...” The most horrible, wretched, nauseating things, that’s what he sees, imagines.


“But what do you feel? What does her heart tell you?”


Tarrant takes a deep breath and examines the poignant heartache that follows him everywhere during Alice’s every waking moment. He examines the faint emotions flowing through her blood and into his heart and is thankful once again for the gift of the heart line. “That she’s... surviving.”


Chessur nods. “As I’ve said, she’s training. She’s surviving.”


“Hav’ye spoken teh her?”


“Not yet. It... she’s concentrating very hard on... things.”


“Wha’things?


“Tarrant, do not ask me questions you do not want to hear the answers to.”


He feels his temper flare. “An’ jus’wha’woul’ye know abou’th’answers I d’nae wan’teh hear?”


Chessur meets his angry gaze with one of resignation. “Enough,” he says, finally. “Leave be, Tarrant. Leave be.”


But he can’t. “They... are they... hurting her?” he asks, keeping himself under tight control.


“No.”


The relief is instantaneous and almost painful in its suddenness. He sighs out a breath.


“No,” Chessur continues, negating his assurance with a second. “She is hurting herself. And that is why we must act soon.”


Tarrant assesses the stone fortress, purpose hardening his body, strengthening his limbs. “There’s Outlanders in there... I could...”


“You’d need a helmet to hide your face and hair, but no one wears them. They’d cut you down in an instant.”


He doesn’t care about that. There’s still the smallest chance that he’d be able to...


“Or, worse yet,” Chessur continues, no doubt seeing the stubborn light in Tarrant’s flashing eyes. “They’ll set their Champion on you in a duel. Do you want Alice to have to fight you while surrounded by dozens of hardened mercenaries? When she refuses to kill you, she’ll have a even greater fight on her hands after that...”


Tarrant can imagine it; if Alice shows any weakness, the prince will never trust her beyond the walls of the castle. Perhaps he’ll merely have her killed. But, if – by some miracle – that horror does not come to pass, Alice will not only have to re-earn the trust of her liege but also the respect-born-of-violence from each and every single one of those ruthless mercenaries. And worse yet, Tarrant would be at their mercy, and Alice even more so... through the heart line.


“She’s safe now?” he checks.


“Yes.”


When Chessur doesn’t double his reassurance, Tarrant relents and releases his fantasy of charging the gate in a blaze of mad glory.


“Have you spoken to the queen?”


“No. I’m waiting until we have some good news to offer her.” Chessur sighs. “For now she has hope that we will find a way. I do not want to tell her we haven’t found it yet.”


Tarrant says nothing. He studies the un-ascendable walls, the flickering torches lighting the battlements, the shadows moving along the parapet. He examines every detail of the castle’s visible defenses, cursing each part. After all that he and Alice have overcome – the Jabberwocky, suitors, unanswered questions, unknown consequences – this is what keeps them apart! This mediocre pile of stone and mortar! These money-loving lunatics!


Yes, they can keep him from wrapping his arms around her. They can keep her hands from caressing his face. They can keep her voice from reaching him or his riddles from reaching her. But there is one thing they cannot keep out!


Closing his eyes, Tarrant focuses. He draws upon his immeasurable, depthless, endless, boundless love for her. He gathers it up until he wonders if it might burst his heart. His need for her, his adoration, his hope, his utter devotion to her... And then he wills it through his blood and into her heart.


Feel me, Alice... Send me a writing desk for my raven...


He gasps when a twinge of surprise pulses around his own heart. Then he feels it: a pain of such intensity he can barely comprehend it. If it had been a color, it would have been blindingly white, brighter than any sun of any world in all of the universe. It burns him and, gasping, he places a hand over his chest.


“What is it? Is she...?”


Tarrant shakes his head. “An answer. Her answer,” he manages.


For a moment, Chessur frowns at him in confusion. And then: “You stubborn Outlander. Don’t distract her! The role she must play is hard enough without you reminding her of the price of her failure!”


“The price?” Tarrant narrows his eyes. “No more half-truths, Chessur. Tell me all of it.”


The cat does.


Tarrant listens, his heart breaking bit by bit as Chessur’s account pours into his mind, one miserable phrase at a time:


“... has forsaken the queen and turned to violence...”


“... appears to enjoy the domination of others...”


“... scorns her heart line...”


“... loves no one, laughs at others’ humiliation...”


“... wouldn’t recognize her if you saw her now, Tarrant...”


“... her eyes, so cold now, cruel...”


“... losing herself in this game...”


Leaning heavily against the moss-covered willow, Tarrant presses his hand to the flesh and bone over his heart as if he might find Alice’s hand there, as if he might give her that small comfort. He stares, seeing nothing. Finally, he understands the persistent heartache that Alice gifts him with from sunup to sundown. Finally, he understands that brilliantly agonizing anguish that had been her reply: so much love and desperation and hopelessness and fear and please-come-get-me-can’t-take-more-PLEASE-COME-NOW!


“Don’t remind her that she can still lose you,” Chessur murmurs. “No more heart line messages, Tarrant.”


He turns away and a gasping sob escapes him. His eyes feel hot but he’s not angry. His cheeks feel cold and wet but it’s not raining.


“Go back to the camp,” Chessur urges. “I’ll check in with the queen and Alice and see you –”


The whisper is cut off as, suddenly, a rusty clanking shatters the twilight. In the pale, silvery light of dawn, the sounds of mechanizations shatter the peace of the swamp.


Swallowing down the suffocating torment, Tarrant focuses on the castle gates. “’Tis opening...” He leans forward, calculating the distance. If he runs, could he...?!


No!” Chessur bats his face with a paw.


Tarrant grunts, surprised. He glares. “D’nae tell me no’teh –!”


“Hush! Get behind that tree, damn you! Now!


He does. Chessur vanishes. They both watch as two beasts, sprinting on four legs, become streaks of yellow and black as they tear down the rutted, muddy road. Almost immediately, the gates begin to close.


Tarrant fists his hands. It’s too late to make the distance in time. He fumes as this chance – bad though it had been – shuts in front of his eyes.


“Couriers,” Chessur decides. “I have to –”


“Go,” Tarrant tells him.


“Expect me later. After I learn more.”


Tarrant nods, but Chessur has already disappeared. Feeling once more alone, abandoned, apart, and assailable, Tarrant makes his way back to camp. He walks slowly, as he knows he will find no answers on this path and no relief when he arrives at his destination.


He wishes himself back in time, back to one of those first fifteen days, back to a time when Alice had been away, when she had been safe and well and merely absent from his side. Those days that tortured him with worry and doubt and fear. But they are nothing compared with the pure, undiluted, soul-burning hell he is trapped in, she is trapped in, they are trapped in... separately.


He considers the angle of the early morning sun. Perhaps it’s too late for him to try, she might be among the enemy now, but he needs to...!


Tarrant closes his eyes and lets the emotion fill him up as he thinks, Fight, win, and find me again!


He dares no more than that.


He waits for her reply, for a warming around his own heart or a too sharp reprimand or a thud of despair, but it never comes. And each moment that passes is like dying again and again and again. And yet, Tarrant does not die, which is perhaps the cruelest torture of all. Even worse than the nightmare he cannot escape, even when he’s awake.


He arrives at the small encampment, but seeing no one else awake, collapses on his thin bedroll. At his back, his sword knocks against the ground and rebounds against his shoulder. Startled, Tarrant pulls it off. He’d forgotten he’d been wearing it.


He curls his fingers around the scabbard and wonders about his Alice and he wonders about his dream. Alice dies on this sword every night! Why must the same dream haunt him, plague him, destroy him so relentlessly?! Tarrant shivers in the pre-dawn darkness.


He hesitates to understand what is obviously the truth: Alice has turned away from the White Queen, has changed sides. As it now stands, Tarrant and Alice are no longer allies. Perhaps that is the meaning buried in the dream, warning him that he may have to face his wife across a battlefield, divided by allegiances.


And there is no changing the fact that, at this moment, were it required of her, his Alice would have to fight for the gutless fiends who have taken her away from him!


And what are you going to be doing about it, lad?


The leather scabbard creaks, complains in his grasp.


What will he do?


He grapples with indecision he’s never experienced before when it has come to Alice’s safety. Will he fight – unsheathe this sword – and risk that horrible dream being made real? Will he stand by and do nothing?


He considers, ponders, and frets until someone else in the small camp wakes and distracts him, assists him in forgetting to whom this chronic heartache belongs. Today, it’s Nivens.


“Good morning,” the White Rabbit yawns.


Tarrant eyes his muck-caked feet, dusty and grass-stained fur, and wrinkled ears. “And a very frumious morning to you, McTwisp.”


Plopping down at the edge of the fire ring, Nivens tosses a few sticks into it and – stamping his feet on them too fast for Tarrant’s eyes to catch – starts a fire. “What’s on the agenda today?” McTwisp asks wearily. “Following tea, that is.”


Considering Chessur’s insistence on acting sooner rather than later, Tarrant replies, “Strategy.” He rises and kneels by the fire, reaching for the provisions and tin teapot.


“What sort precisely?”


“The sort Mally will enjoy immensely.


“Oh, dear...”


Tarrant allows himself to think no deeper than those shallow words and this equally shallow moment, and grins.


After a moment of studying him, McTwisp ventures, “This will be the fourth day, since...”


Setting the kettle near the fire, Tarrant dusts off his hands and keeps his smile in place with an act of will.


“And, I must say,” the White Rabbit continues, “your enduring... calm is an inspiration. And a surprise.”


Tarrant’s eyelashes flicker. Calm. Yes, he’s calm because Alice is still alive. Still alive and uninjured. But, no, that’s not true. Her soul is crying out, dying a heartbeat at a time. His Alice is not safe. She is not uninjured. She is nearing the end of her considerable strength and she needs him and here he sits not ten bloody minutes AWAY AND HE CANNOT EVEN—!!


His hands tremble as the Blackness begins to creep up around him.


“Now, now!” McTwisp hurries to reassure him. “As Chessur has said time and time again, she’s fine. The queen is fine. We’ll get them back.”


His fists clench and he forces a deep breath into his lungs. “I have to be calm. For Alice,” Tarrant belatedly explains. “Contrary. Contrary, necessary things. Tea is easier.” He reaches for the tin of tea leaves. Wisely, Nivens refrains from further comment as Tarrant focuses on the mundane task.


“Rattle, rattle, tittle, tattle!” Thackery yawns, stumbling over to the fire. He sniffs, blinks, and holds out a teacup in mute demand for service.


“Did you sleep well?” Nivens asks the hare solicitously.


Thackery’s whiskers twitch. “Tea.”


“Hm. Not so well, perhaps.”


“Two more minutes,” Tarrant tells him, smiling so hard he feels his teeth ache.


Thackery abruptly slumps over his cup – now cradled in his paws on his lap – and begins snoring gently.


“It amazes me how he can just... do that,” McTwisp murmurs, unwilling to wake the hare before the tea has been steeped properly.


“A March Hare trait, I believe,” Tarrant explains, tilting his head and listening to the bit of the steam issuing from the kettle’s spout. “Nearly...” He nods in time with the subtle rhythm of tea leaves soaking in scalding hot water. He often endeavors to make his own rhymes emulate the cadence of frolicking tea leaves. It’s a delicate balance of syllables and stresses. Few appreciate the art.


Alice does...


Tarrant slams that thought shut by pressing his thumb against the side of the tin kettle, receiving a burn for his efforts and a blessedly blank mind.


“Er...”


He glances up at Nivens who studies him with worried, pink eyes. Tarrant resumes his grin. “Mally seems quite fond of your gloves. I can’t say she’ll need both, however, so which one will you be parting with?”


“I suppose I could spare the right one,” he replies slowly, thinking through his answer.


Tarrant nods and checks the resonance of the tea with the tin kettle and determines it to be ready. “Thackery, tea!” he announces and Thackery thrusts out his cup even before he lifts his head and opens his eyes.


He serves the hare and the rabbit, by which time Mally has followed her nose to the campfire and pushes her own cup in Tarrant’s direction. “Lucky Fenruffle thought to bring us provisions!” she mumbles, blowing across the surface of her cup. “Imagine having tea with only a butter knife!


“An adventure for another time, perhaps,” Tarrant allows.


“Speaking of, how do things stand at Causwick today? I believe you mentioned something about strategy being on the agenda for the day?” Nivens wonders aloud, drawing the now-pleasantly-caffeinated gazes of Mally and Thackery.


“Agenda?” Thackery barks with concern.


“Strategy?” Mally enthuses.


“Aye,” Tarrant replies to both. “Four days is quite long enough for our Champion to have formulated and implemented an escape on her own. As she has not, we can therefore assume that she requires assistance. We shall, therefore, be attending to her and the queen’s immediate rescue.”


“So, what are we waiting for?” Mally jumps to her feet.


Thackery rolls his eyes. “Tea!” And silently demands a refill.


“And Chessur,” Tarrant adds. “He’ll be bringing us the latest developments.”


“Hm... but I suppose there’s no harm in planning anyway? To pass the time until he arrives?” Mally inquires, taking her seat and picking up her cup again.


“No, no harm at all,” Tarrant agrees.


Three pots of tea, some tossed scones, a dozen lost sugar cubes, and a smoldering pair of stockings later – how had those ended up in with the provisions? – Tarrant has decided to turn Oshtyer into a dreadfully-hued puce bonnet, Mally has declared her intent to start an eyeball collection, Thackery has determined a bit of heart-of-my-foe tea might be to his liking, and Nivens has passed out exactly four times.


All in all, it had been a rather productive meeting!


That is, until Chessur shows up and delivers the news Tarrant had promised them. At which point, the bonnet, eyeball collection, and still-beating-heart tea ambitions must be pushed aside in the interest of forming a coherent – rather challenging, that! – rescue strategy.


At the apparent loss of her war trophies, Mally looks almost as disappointed as Thackery.


Tarrant pats the hare on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Plenty of time for murder, mayhem, manhandling, maiming, and the molding and manufacturing of marvelous bonnets for Queen Mirana afterwards!


“Callou! Callay!” Thackery cheers.


“’M’s, Hatter!” Mally giggles hysterically.


Tarrant cackles and snorts.


Nivens twitches with distress.


Chessur sighs and gets himself a cup of tea (minus the dusty scones, mud-melted sugar cubes, and blackened stockings). Tarrant laughs harder: the bloody cat has no sense of adventure. Although, he must admit he almost wishes to be in the same room – a grin on the wall! – when the Cheshire Cat informs Her Majesty of the details of their plan. Yes, that would be very satisfying, indeed!


Of course, the most satisfying thing of all would be...


His heart thumps once, painfully, and Tarrant forces his smile not to droop.


Yes, he knows what it is – whose name – he can’t permit himself to think. Not now, not during the day, not when it might interrupt...


Mustn’t bother... Yes... working now...


Other words drift through his mind, words like fight and win and survive! Emotions batter at his heart: anticipation, anxiety, annoyance, adoration, aggravation, affection, apprehension, agitation, and alarm.


Tarrant notices that these things all start with the letter ‘A’. But he maintains his affliction, his ebullient madness. He would be anything for his... Yes, he’d promised to become anyone, and right now, he knows a mad hatter would be appreciated and an aggrieved husband would most definitely not.


He offers Nivens another drop or two of tea and ponders the amazing accruement of ‘A’ words he’s producing this morning... All that he is able to think up, in fact, except the most obvious one.

 

Chapter Text

The instructions on the card Mirana discovers in the bodice of her dress the next morning following her bath are both welcome and puzzling. She burns it in the hearth when the maids leave her to wait for Prince Jaspien to escort her to breakfast. As the flames devour the scrap of parchment, Mirana considers the message, the handwriting, the mysterious method of delivery.


It’s nearly time...!


Which is very good news indeed as Prince Jaspien had given her quite the significant look the night before at the conclusion of dinner. No doubt he’s expecting her answer imminently.


Mirana once again considers the first line of the message and sighs in relief. At least now she’ll have something to offer the man, something to distract him with for just a little longer!


Arrange yourself to be at the prince’s side during the battle.


Yes, Mirana thinks she can manage that. Pausing at the room’s lovingly detailed vanity, Mirana regards her reflection, practices her dreamy smiles and adorably befuddled expressions. When the knock on the door comes, she’s ready.


Rather than call out for him to enter – as she usually does – Mirana floats to the door but, as she nears it, the sound of voices on the other side startle her:


“... is resting, as you requested,” Oshtyer says.


“Excellent. Now, if you’ll excuse me...?”


“Actually, I’d like to reiterate my request to have a bit of... private time with our lovely Champion. Surely you can spare her for an afternoon. I promise not to... damage her on the eve of battle.”


“My answer has not changed since the last time you asked. Need I remind you that it is not only your hopes that rest in that woman’s hands? Valereth has insisted she be rested and ready for battle and I, myself, concur. I’ll not risk failure now. Find yourself another distraction,” Jaspien orders with finality.


“But should she come to me...?”


“Tomorrow we face Shuchland! This is not the time for such trivialities!”


“I see. Only you are allowed your fine distractions?”


There’s a moment of silence and then Oshyter mumbles, “That was uncalled for. I apologize.”


“As you should. This is my castle. My keep. Don’t forget it.”


Shivering, Mirana steps away from the door as quietly as possible and manages to make it all the way to the window when the knock comes again. Grasping the curtain and feigning a daydream, the queen sighs, “Come in!”


“Good morning, Mirana.”


“Jaspien, dear!” Oh, for how much longer is she going to have to play the silly, vacuously-minded twit?! “How are you this beautiful morning?”


He holds out his arm for her as she crosses the room. “I am well. Yourself? Did that unsuitable distraction with blood sports finally leave you be?”


Not particularly,
Mirana thinks and imagines delivering Oshtyer to Tarrant and informing him of the man’s repulsive leanings toward their Alice. Bemusedly, she wonders how much might be left of the foul creature once Tarrant has finished with him.


However, she says, “Oh! Well, yes, I do believe I’m cured.” She places her other hand on his arm as he leads her down the empty corridor. “You were very understanding about that horrible business yesterday,” she simpers.


Jaspien gives her a vague smile. “It was my pleasure, Mirana. Do not hesitate to bring any issue concerning your wellbeing to my attention. I cannot provide adequate protection if I am unaware of your needs.”


Mirana smiles brilliantly as she takes her seat and allows Jaspien to push her chair in. Their breakfast is delivered and the servants depart. Once the prince has slurped half of his porridge, consumed one cup of black tea, and then proceeds to pick up his egg spoon – once again contemplating the boiled egg that was been provided for him – Mirana clears her throat delicately.


“I... well, I do have one other concern...”


“Yes?”


Mirana twists her napkin in her hands. “Well, the Challenges will be coming soon, will they not? And you will be going to the battlefield with your Champion...”


Jaspien sets aside his spoon and gives her his undivided attention. “Shuchland has already answered. The time has been set for brillig tomorrow.”


Mirana dares to hope she will have to endure only one more day of this farce. “Well, I was wondering what would become of me.”


The prince smiles warmly and reaches out to still her hands. “You will be safe, Mirana. I’ll not allow any harm to come to you while you’re under my protection.”


“That is a great relief, sir...”


“Yet it does not settle your nerves?”


Mirana shakes her head and summons up a tear. “I... well, it’s just... anything could happen while you’re away and I’d be here and if... what if... Well, I’ve heard enough war stories from Alice! Armies being outflanked... secret attacks on the absent lord’s keep... I... I fear for my safety, Jaspien,” she admits brokenly.


The prince’s fingers tighten around hers. “Tell me what will set your mind at ease, Mirana.”


“I... that is, could I stand with you? At the battle? I know it’s dangerous, but please, Jaspien! You don’t know what it will mean to me to have my protector beside me, to stand with you across the field from our...” Mirana deliberately lets her voice trail off, wary of turning her ploy into a promise she won’t be able to keep.


She expects an argument – one stronger than that which she’d received the day before when she’d suggested watching Alice’s morning training.


Jaspien smiles, “I would not have you anywhere else but by my side, Mirana.”


And, looking upon his pleased expression, Mirana almost feels a tiny helping of Guilt. Almost. The sense of Victory drowns it quite nicely, however.


Mirana focuses on glowing with relief. Jaspien is – as ever – completely fooled by her deception and returns to his boiled egg.


Breakfast ends and the rest of the day stretches out before her as vast as the oceans of Upland Alice had described to her over one of their companionable teatimes. Oh, how she misses those!


Soon, soon! Alice and I will be home, safe, and this bad dream will be all over and done with.


Mirana fiddles with the pianoforte in the parlor for a bit, making noise to keep the maids from poking their heads in to check on her. The time alone gives her the chance to consider the second instruction on the parchment:


Expect a visit from a cat this evening.


The queen admits to being a bit puzzled over this. Why would Chessur be visiting her on the eve of the battle against Shuchland if not to rescue her? But he must not be, for what would be the purpose of the first line of the message if Mirana is to be freed before dawn?


She turns her attention to painting and then embroidery. The maids occasionally stop by with tea and sweets. Mirana endures their overbearing presence and considers mutilating another classically composed piece with the pianoforte just to drive them away, but she paces instead; she shows them that she’s worried about the coming battle.


“Do you think the Shuchlanders would... well, would they harm Prince Jaspien during the Champions’ Duel? They... wouldn’t cheat, would they?” Mirana asks one of her visitors at one point.


The maid smiles. “I’m sure he will be well-protected. Do not let it worry you, Your Majesty.”


“I shall do my best not to!” she replies gamely.


But worst moments of the day occur during the eternally long dinner Mirana must endure. In recognition of the coming fight, she dines with Jaspien, of course, as well as his two associates and Alice.


Alice sits beside Mirana but nothing of importance can be said in the presence of their captors.


“Prince Jaspien tells me your skills have improved immensely, Alice. Congratulations!” Mirana comments breathlessly as the men argue over Hornsaver’s reaction to their anticipated victory on the morrow.


“Thank you, Your Majesty. It has been a very beneficial experience.”


Mirana suppresses a wince at her friend’s tone. It’s appreciative, yes, but beneath that... dull, wooden, lifeless.


“You’re not eating, Alice. You’re not experiencing any anxiety over the battle tomorrow, are you?” Oshtyer interjects, his dark eyes gleaming with a very unsettling twinkle.


Alice’s smile is quite... feral. “I fight better when I’m... hungry.”


It takes all of her strength to keep from flinching away from the... beast Alice becomes so easily around these men, and Oshtyer in particular.


He laughs and signals for the waiter to fill their flute glasses. Mirana waits until the Wassailin has been poured before reaching for her glass. Oshtyer stands.


“A toast,” he announces to all, “to victory... in all its marvelous forms.” His dark eyes flicker in Alice’s direction and the glass she holds aloft. “To our dear prince’s Champion. To Alice Lassling.”


“To Alice!” Jaspien and Valereth agree. Mirana manages to move her lips in concert, but no sound emerges.


They drink, and as is the custom of Underland toasts, they finish every drop before setting down their glasses. Mirana notices Alice’s wince and feels a twinge of sympathy: Wassailin is not an easy thing to digest on an empty stomach.


“Perhaps we could have the chef prepare something light for you, Alice?” Mirana offers quietly. “To settle your stomach.”


With a shake of her head, Alice reaches for her crystal water glass. “Mint should suffice,” she replies, taking a sip before setting her wine glass back down on the table with an uncharacteristically loud thump! “Mint,” she repeats decisively.


Mirana struggles to keep the horror out of her expression. Dear Fates! Is Alice telling her that she’d just consumed a dose of that horrid Hafflaffen they’d tried to drug both of them with upon their arrival! Of all the foolish, utterly stupid things! Why, there’s no telling how Alice – an Uplander! – will react to such a powerful substance!


But there’s nothing Mirana can do about it, not without giving away her knowledge of their captors’ first, failed attempt at poisoning them, not without incurring doubt in Jaspien regarding her cooperation.


Botheration!


“I’ll stop by the kitchens for some before bed,” Alice comments, indifferently.


“Yes, I do hope you’ll get plenty of rest tonight, Alice. You’ve an exciting day tomorrow!”


“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Alice replies. Mirana watches for the symptoms that come with Hafflaffen poisoning – a waxy complexion, clammy skin, unfocused and dilated eyes. But, of course, if Alice had just consumed it, it’ll take some time to take effect...


“No one will disturb your rest tonight, Alice,” Jaspien promises, slicing his steak into precisely measured pieces. “I shall make sure of it.”


Mirana notices Oshtyer’s sudden grimace of disappointment. Valereth, seated next to him, and Jaspien, focused on the flesh of some poor, dead animal on his plate, do not notice the slip.


Beneath the table, Mirana dares to stretch her foot out and taps her boot against her friend’s shoe. Alice taps back.


Mirana wishes the gesture were reassuring. She wishes she could encourage Alice to eat something, but dares not suggest it aloud. Alice has never fasted so long before a fight and Mirana is sure there must be a reason for her doing so now. The queen decides to investigate.


She picks up her fork and, with a delicate twirl, flips it over the back of her hand and to the floor. Acting startled, she reaches after it and the motion brings her nose much closer to Alice’s untouched plate of sautéed mushrooms and beans.


She very carefully inhales and tightens her lips against the reflexive gag.


Mint...


Mirana actually feels dizzy at the potency of it! Retrieving her fork and then – sheepishly – relinquishing it to the servant who had scrambled forward to take it, she accepts a clean replacement even as she wonders if that monster of a man had ordered every single dish of Alice’s dinner to be doused with the stuff!


She glances across the table as she lifts her new fork. Oshtyer is watching Alice not eating. He looks rather irritated. Mirana can’t decide if it’s because she refuses to fall into his trap or if she had ingested the substance but Oshtyer won’t be able to take advantage of her now that Jaspien has promised her an undisturbed night’s rest.


If the latter is the case, Mirana thinks she could almost kiss the prince for that lucky happenstance! Almost.


When dinner finishes and Jaspien asks Valereth to escort Alice to her rooms and station a guard outside in the hall, Mirana can’t help feeling a bit relieved. Not only for those precautions but for the fact that Alice’s skin is still creamy in color, despite the aged bruises, and her eyes are clear if a bit tired-looking.


Perhaps... perhaps Alice hadn’t consumed any Hafflaffen after all... Perhaps she’d merely been explaining her rationale for skipping dinner.


Mirana allows her maids to dress her for bed and tuck her in. She’s so overwhelmed with worry and doubt and fear and rage – that rotten, selfish, disgusting Oshtyer! – that when a drawling voice whispers in her ear, she nearly cries out!


“I trust you’re expecting me, Your Majesty?”


Mirana flinches, regards Chessur’s apologetic grin, and says, “Yes. I’m sorry, I was just...”


“Don’t worry about Alice, Your Majesty. I’ve already followed Oshtyer to his room where he’s currently indulging in a liquor-aided temper tantrum. And Alice is safe in her room where I plan to look in on her as often as I can.”


Mirana closes her eyes and releases a breath. “Thank you.”


Chessur acknowledges the appreciation with a flick of his tail. “And now, I’m afraid it falls to me to inform you of tomorrow’s schedule.”


“Yes, please!” Mirana whispers, eager for some good news.


“Early tomorrow morning, Japsien’s forces will move out in order to reach the battlefield by brillig. After they depart, you will follow Mallymkun out of the castle where Alfred and Fenruffle and two dozen of your guard will be waiting to escort you back to Marmoreal. You’ll ride hard and should arrive at the castle before nightfall.”


Mirana frowns. “But I’m to stand beside Jaspien at the battle on the morrow, how...?” The queen stops. Her eyes widen and she stares at Chessur, speechless.


The cat shrugs and gives her an apologetic grin. “Yes, I’m afraid so, Your Majesty. The only comfort I can give you is that this was not my idea.”


“But it is the best one,” Mirana has to allow, considering the advantages and opportunities it will afford.


“So it would appear, despite my objections.”


Mirana closes her eyes and sighs. “Very well.” Taking her time opening them, the queen suggests in a steely tone: “Perhaps you’d be so good as to explain exactly how you learn someone’s shape?”


“Ah, yes, of course, Your Majesty...”


It’s the longest night of Mirana’s life. And certainly not the most comfortable. But three things are certain during the entirety of it: Mirana is no longer alone, Alice remains undisturbed in her room, and – in less than a day – this nightmare will finally be over.


The queen draws strength from that knowledge and does what must be done.


And if her face happens to be flaming with mortification the entire time, well, it’s a small price to pay. For freedom, that is.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Mirana hears the knock on the door hopefully for the very last time! Dawn has just begun its entrance over the horizon and all is ready. She presses herself against the wall behind the door and watches as the other White Queen yawns and swings it open with a sleepy smile.


“My dear Jaspien!” Mirana hears her doppelganger sigh.


“Good morning, Mirana. How did you sleep? You look exhausted.” The man actually sounds concerned for her. Mirana once again receives a visit from Guilt.


How can you feel sorry for the man who’s been holding you prisoner?


But he’d also protected her from Valereth’s ambition and Alice from Oshtyer’s aggression...


How can you defend the man who has turned your Alice into a weapon?!


Ah... of course. There is no excuse for that. The guilt evaporates as quickly as it had arrived.


“I’m fine, fine! I was just so worried about today... Did you sleep well, sir?”


“I enjoyed the rest of the soon-to-be-victorious,” he replies with happy confidence. Mirana imagines his face must be the most animated it’s ever been and almost misses seeing that, but she stays pressed against the wall, hidden by the open door.


“Yes, victory...” the queen breathes. “And we’ll be together to see it?”


“Yes, my dear.”


“Then let us be off! I’d like to wish Alice all my best before we depart!”


And then the door closes behind them.


Mirana relaxes against the wall and marvels that the lock hadn’t been turned automatically, as it always had been before! But then, there’s no reason for anyone to think Mirana is not gliding toward the courtyard on the prince’s arm...


If there had been a clock in the room, Mirana would have listened to it, counted the ticks and compared the tocks. But as there is none, the queen counts at whatever pace she likes, pausing to contemplate the drapes – which she’ll never have to pretend interest in again! – and consider the pillow which has seen the last of her tears!


And then – finally! – Mirana hears the scratching of a hatpin against the door. She opens it and Mallymkun saunters in. “Well, good morning, Your Majesty!”


Mirana chuckles. “It is a very good morning,” she agrees.


“If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you down to Alfred now that the yard is clear and you’ll be back at Marmoreal in no time at all!”


“Lead the way, Mally!”


They encounter no one as they exit the castle. Even the maids appear to be enjoying the morning off gossiping in the kitchens (if the echoes of laughter in the first floor halls are to be believed).


“... and then Lassling says, ‘G’on an’touch me ye filthy slithin’ scut-grobbin’, tove egg-suckin’ scrum, but I won’be givin’ tha’hand back teh ye!’”


“No!”


“She didn’t!”


“Aye, she did! Heard it me-self!”


Mally pauses beside the castle door and they share a look. “Alice was a different Alice here, wasn’t she?” the dormouse whispers. “Chessur said so.”


The queen only nods.


“Well, at least she finally learned how to swear!”


And then – when more peals of laughter erupt from the kitchens at the back of the fortress – Mirana pulls open the door and steps outside. They hurry, keeping to the walls and keeping their eyes on the battlements, but the few guards up top are deeply engrossed in what appears to be a card game. There’s a determined nod from Mally and then, in a moment of heart-racing daring, they’ve raced across through the main gates, over the drawbridge, and into the murky swamp where Mirana is suddenly being nuzzled by her very good companion, Alfred d’Mimserlet.


“I missed you terribly, Your Majesty,” the horse wickers. “Had a stomach ailment the entire time!”


“Oh, dear... How is your tummy now, Alfie?” she croons, marveling at how easy her escape had been, in the end.


“Right as rain, Your Majesty,” he insists, gently bussing her cheek.


“Well, well, all right! Let’s not dawdle! And you, Dormouse, have got things to be doing!” Fenruffle reminds them all.


“Aye, aye, sir!” Mally salutes and then scrambles aboard Bayard and grabs his collar. “To battle, hounds of war!” she cries, swishing her sword.


The blood hound rolls his eyes. “There’s only the one of me, Mally.”


“Well, yes, I had noticed that! Figure of speech.”


“And put that thing away before it ends up through my ear.”


“Oh... right. Sorry.” Mally tucks away her hatpin, wraps her arms around the ring in the dog’s collar. “Fairfarren, Your Majesty!”


And with that, they’re off. Mirana watches Bayard dash down the road and disappear around the bend before enjoying a contented sigh.


Turning, Mirana smiles at Fenruffle. He clears his throat and jangles Alfred’s reins meaningfully. She mounts her steed. “Thank you, my friend, for arranging all of this.”


“Me? I’m only following orders,” the gryphon replies stiffly, signaling the guard to move out.


“Oh?”


“Yes, he might be the maddest son of a Witzend woolgatherer, but that Hatter knows a thing or two after all...”


Mirana’s happiness and relief and pride cannot be contained in a mere smile. “Yes,” she agrees. “He certainly does!”


And with a gentle nudge to her steed, they begin the journey home.

 

*~*~*~*

 

The battlefield stretches out before him just on the other side of the line of trees and brambles. The sky is overcast and seems to hang so low that it tempts the scraggly weeds into reaching for it from between the ill-fitting and crumbling cracks of the stone squares. Tarrant fights back his memories of this place – too many to deal with all at once! – and turns toward the young blood hound galumphing out of the depths of the forest.


“How close?” he asks Bayne.


“Another... hour,” he manages before slumping off in search of a water bowl.


Tarrant scans the southern edge of the field where King Aven’s forces have already gathered.


“I still think we should go introduce ourselves,” Nivens asserts.


Tarrant shakes his head. “Nae, ‘tis a proud people, there. Th’willnae accept help from us.


The rabbit glowers and crosses his arms over his vest. “We ought to tell them the plan. They may be willing to assist us.” Grumbling, Nivens adds, “Fate knows we could use a bit.”


“An’jus’who woul’ye suggest we ask, hm?”


Contemplating his feet, Thackery belches something that sounds suspiciously like “Champion!”


“I’m sorry, what was that?” Tarrant politely inquires.


“Avendale’s Champion!” Thackery manages, staring at his feet. “... toes!”


“Oh, yes! Excellent suggestion, Thackery!” Nivens praises. “Why, that fellow had looked rather friendly in the sketch Alice sent. I’m sure he’ll hear us out.”


Tarrant opens his mouth to object but hears himself say only, “I d’nae know what he looks like.”


Nivens gapes. “You never bothered to take note of his face?”


Tarrant clears his throat and calms himself. “Well, actually, you see...”


“Too friendly!” Thackery explains.


“Ah, yes, I wasn’t exactly... encouraged to pay much attention to his image, as, well, the others felt he was a bit...”


“Standing too close to our Alice! Booly-geber!”


Tarrant startles and turns on the hare. “I beg your pardon!


Thackery twitches guiltily.


“Booly-geber?!”
Tarrant parrots. “Ye di’nae tell me th’fellow’as behavin’ inappropr’tly with me WIFE!


Thackery twitches once more, blinks, and inquires, “Feet?”


“Now, now, calm down, Hatter! I’m sure it was just... artistic license or some such arbitrariness and... Wait! Where do you think you’re going?”


Tarrant pushes aside a tangle of branches and strides toward the army already camped on the edge of the battlefield. “I’m goin’teh hav’a few words wi’th’lion who’ad his paws on MY ALICE!”


“Oh, thwimble fumpt!” Nivens swears. “Come along, Earwicket. This was your idea!”


“String?” the hare confirms.


“No.”


“Feet?”


No.


“Toes?”


No!” Nivens growls, “For the love of all Underland, Earwicket, can’t you remember your own suggestions?”


“We’re all late f’r TEA!”


Tarrant can hear the rabbit and the hare struggling through the dense brush of wood after him. But he doesn’t slow down as he charges toward the lines of armed soldiers in the Shuchland livery.


“Hatter! You don’t even know what the beast looks like!”


“I’ll ask f’r directions,” he snarls.


“Madness, madness! All around us!” Thackery insists.


Nivens bounces ahead and manages to block Tarrant’s path. “Don’t you dare walk over me, Hatter! Now, as Thackery has had the best look at the sketch, he and I will go and locate this fellow and have a few words with him. You will stay here and stay out of it!”  With a decisive nod which is no doubt meant to signal the end of the issue, Nivens hooks his paw under Thackery’s quivering elbow and hops away.


For a moment, Tarrant just stands there on the overgrown path, with the fluttering purple banners of the Shuchish Army just barely visible through the brush and branches.


Are you actually going to listen to that twitchy twit, lad?


What? Oh, well... when it’s put that way...


Setting his jaw, Tarrant resumes his mission: find Avendale’s Champion, meet him, and then make him regret ever meeting Alice. Yes, a very nice, clear, non-arbitrary set of objectives. His mind has no trouble whatsoever staying focused on his task.


Tarrant pushes through the brush, heedless of the way the thorns and branches try to grab onto his jacket and pull him back. He doesn’t have to go far before he hears Niven’s squeaky voice and Thackery’s abrupt mumbles.


Not bothering to draw his sword (he’ll only recall putting it on after the fact, actually, much to his regret) Tarrant crashes through the last Thrambleberry bush – not in season, he muses sadly – and then he finally has that despicable booly-geber in his sights.


“... and so, if you could please not kill our Alice for a bit, well, no, that is, we’d rather you didn’t at all! You see, we have –”


“Toes on strings!” Thackery interrupts.


“I... excuse me?” Avendale’s Champion rumbles.


“Be quiet, Earwicket! You did the finding, now I’ll do the explaining so allow me to finish before Tarrant gets tired of waiting and –”


“Follows you maybe?” he can’t resist interjecting.


Nevins squeaks and folds in on himself, ears drooping down his back. Thackery spasms and falls to the ground behind the White Rabbit in a classic duck-and-cover maneuver. Tarrant doesn’t care. He has his eyes – a rather arresting shade of orange, if he’d had to guess – on the warrior in front of him.


Despite the Shuchish armor (which makes him look quite impressive, indeed), Tarrant doesn’t even consider not giving this creature every ounce of hostility he has in his stores. (And he’s been storing up, too!) Looking the lion down and then back up, noting the powerful build and considerable height, the thick mane and golden eyes, Tarrant realizes that he’s never loathed anyone or anything quite this bitterly before. Oh, he’d hated the Bloody Big Head. He’d despised Ilosovich Stayne. But when he’d thought of those two, Tarrant had tasted acidic ash on his tongue, not this bitter, sour, fiery... thing.


“And just who are you?” the Champion demands, his great, furry paw on his scimitar.


Tarrant smiles. “I’m the man in charge of returning Alice to her rightful place in Marmoreal –” And away from you! “– so I’d suggest you hear us out because if you come between us and Alice we will hunt you down and REMOVE YOUR SCARLESS PELT ONE—!”


“HATTER!”


With a great effort, Tarrant bites back the storm of threats. “I’m fine,” he manages with a brief glare at the White Rabbit.


“Relax,” the Champion tells him shortly. “It’s all under control. No one will harm Alice. I’ll take care of her.”


Oh...
RAGE!


Why, hello!
Tarrant thinks in the instant that precedes the wave of burning fury that scorches through him.


There’s a sudden motion, a collision, an abrupt and inexplicable numbness in his hand, the sound of a scuffle, and a muffled exclamation.


When Tarrant blinks next, he sees Avendale’s Champion leaning against a tree, massaging his nose, and glaring at Tarrant. Belatedly, the inexplicable numbness in his right hand becomes explained when an attempt at uncurling his fist heralds a stomach-rolling bout of nauseating pain.


Broken, then
, he muses then dismisses the fact as irrelevant.


“Just who do you think you are, you mad bastard?” the Champion growls, straightening and once more gripping the pommel of his Shuchish sword.


Eyes narrowed, Tarrant tears the glove from his left hand with his teeth and mutely presents the back of it to the he-lion.


Those golden eyes focus on the dark red heart line, then flicker to Tarrant’s still-burning gaze, and finally back to the heart line again.


“I don’t believe this...” he mumbles.


Tarrant removes the glove from between his teeth and clenches his fist so tight around it he feels his entire arm ache. “Believe it’r no’ye’ll nae ge’in th’way o’our bringin’ Alice home.” And while Tarrant has the beast’s undivided attention, he tells him the plan, resists the urge to spit in his mane, and then turns around to head back to the Queen’s Army, waiting silently in the woods.

 

Chapter Text

This should have been harder, Leif muses to himself as King Aven’s Champion stares at him in complete disbelief.


“I don’t think I heard you correctly, Champion Avenleif,” his uncle growls.


“No, I’m sure you did.”


The King’s Champion narrows his eyes. “No, my kinsman and loyal servant of the family of Aven would never ask me to forsake my oath... for a woman.


“I do not ask you to –”


“You ask me to spare her life! In a battle to the death! You ask me to forsake our king!”


“No, only... There is another way...”


His uncle’s lips curls in disgust. “Get out of my tent, nephew. I have a duel to prepare for.”


Even though his uncle turns away from him, Leif doesn’t move. Can’t move.


“I will beg you, Uncle Resh, please...


The older lion suddenly whips around and boxes Leif’s ears. The shame at being treated like a cub speaking out of turn should have eclipsed whatever selfish desire that had made him give voice to it, but it doesn’t.


This ought to be harder,
he thinks as he keeps his eyes open, his head up, his back straight. “Please, spare Alice, uncle. I will do anything in exchange.”


Avenresh’s paws curl into fists. “You dishonor our family with this... request.


“Call it what it is! A plea! I am begging you to spare her life!


“It is not permitted for any other than the victor to live!” Resh growls in his face. “Would you have me throw away our family and our kingdom for the object of your lust?!”


“It’s not lust. Alice is –”


This uncle lifts a paw as if to strike him again, but Leif does not flinch in anticipation of the pain and humiliation.


“She is the Champion of Prince Avendale’s betrothed,” he concludes, striving for a rational tone.


“That’s not what it said on the Issuance of Challenge and you know it, nephew. She belongs to Jaspien now. And she’ll die for him for I will never see our kingdom in the pale, weak, worthless hands of that pretender!


He can’t let the argument go. Not now. Not until he wins. “And how did they threaten her queen to force her obedience? Do not tell me you wouldn’t do the same in the presence of the enemy, in the absence of immediate rescue for your liege!”


“It’s a risk all Champions take, Leif,” Resh says not unkindly. “You know this.” He shakes his head. “Let it go. You cannot save her from her fate.”


Arguments and logic and honor exhausted, Leif sinks to his knees, raises his paws, lowers his head and pleads, “I am begging you, Uncle Resh. Please, please, please...”


His uncle’s roar of frustration is muffled by his efforts to keep the others from hearing it and interrupting this scene. Leif isn’t surprised that his uncle would not want any witnesses to this. He would sooner cut off his own paw than allow any Aven to experience public humiliation.


“Perhaps I should let you go out there and fight her. Let your Alice kill you, you worthless, miserable, shadow of an Aven!” Avenresh turns away. “Get out.”


Leif lowers his arms. Against his thighs, his paws tense.


He cannot go. Not without...


He watches as his claws slowly extend.


Are you honestly going to...?!


Leif looks up, judges the distance between himself and his uncle.


I am,
he answers himself and springs.


The struggle is brief and silent. An elbow across back of his uncle’s skull knocks him out. Leif leans over the unconscious lion and blinks. It had all happened so fast he’s not even winded.


It should have been harder,
he wonders, staring at what he’d done.


Numb, Leif stands and dresses in his uncle’s battle armor. He’s lucky it nearly fits perfectly. With the helmet in place, no one will realize that the lion in the suit of the King’s Champion is a traitor. Leif hopes he doesn’t have to speak before the first clash of swords, hopes the wind doesn’t pick up and blow his scent to the king, for those are the only weaknesses in his plan. Were someone to realize he is not who he appears to be before the duel starts...


You must succeed
, Leif demands of himself. Or Alice will die.


He kneels and secures his uncles arms and legs then silences him with a gag. With that, his betrayal is utterly complete.


They will kill you for this,
he knows.


But it’s too late. For what he has done already, he will be disowned, banished, forgotten. In that order.


Death will be easier.


Still, it shouldn’t have been this easy.


Leif closes his eyes and thinks of her – Alice – the woman for whom he never thought he’d throw away everything that had ever mattered to him. When he’d first seen her at Marmoreal, he had nearly burst out laughing, for this mere child-woman could not have possibly slain the Jabberwocky! Her duels had been lacking in power and finesse – only her resourcefulness and will had saved her from Oshtyer’s malice and Jaspien’s ineptitude. And when she’d arrived at Avenfaire, he’d nearly laughed again for he could not believe this girl playing at warrior could have garroted Ilosovich Stayne! Not with those weak arms!


But then... then he’d seen the scars on her right hand – the sort that come from a cut so deep and precise only a sharp wire could have made them – and he’d started to believe. And once he had, everything else had come after it: wonder, hope, awe, respect, affection, and finally...


There, on the knoll in the Royal Orash Grove, he’d nearly offered her his First Claw. He’d had no reason not to: she’d never spoken of another and, honestly, who else would a Champion mate with besides another Champion? Who else would be able to watch their wife go off to war? It had all seemed so obvious. So obvious that there had been no reason for him not to allow himself to love her, to want her...


But now he knows; there is a reason.


You covet another man’s bond-mate!


Leif lowers his head in shame. He had tried to convince himself that it might still be possible for them... Perhaps the Thrice a-Vow had been a necessity? Alice is not from Underland; perhaps she’d needed a grounding presence to help her here? Perhaps her heart, though held in the hands of another, might still beat for Leif? One day?


With a low growl, he curses himself for this weakness she has created in him. He wishes it made a bit of difference in his regard for her. But it doesn’t. He still wants her. So much that he can’t even feel apologetic about it. There had been no shame when he had begged for her life and, he realizes, he would do it all over again. Gladly. Willingly.


For Alice.


He remembers that moment again, in the orchard. Had the prince not given his First Claw to the White Queen at that moment, it would have been Leif on his knees offering his own to Alice. But, seeing the prince perform that same rite, Leif had paused for he had wanted to offer himself in a moment that belongs to Alice completely. He’d assumed he’d have time, for they’d soon be comrades at Marmoreal. He’d assumed he’d have the rest of his life to find that moment for her. For them.


He closes his eyes and swallows thickly.


No, that moment will never be. The instant he’d seen her heart line, he’d realized it. She’d already... She’s already someone’s...


Someone else’s Alice.


When he opens his eyes and regards his crimes, Leif wonders at himself: It should have been so much harder to destroy himself so completely for a woman he will never have.


He wants to believe it’s possible; she might come to him someday. Her blood-bonded husband might be more of a brother than a lover. He’d have to share her with that man, whoever he is, but perhaps... Leif thinks he might be able to live with that if he were sure of Alice’s affections...


If he cannot have her heart, then, perhaps she might offer him her soul?


No, it’s too much to ask for.


It is. Undoubtedly. But he hopes for it nonetheless. And that is why he’d donned this armor. One way or another, he’s going to get Alice and himself out of this duel alive and well, even if he has to abscond from the battlefield with her slung over his shoulder!


And after that...


Her Champion’s vow to that fiend Jaspien will have to addressed somehow as will Leif’s punishment for betraying his country...


Well, what comes after will come, as it inevitably must.


“Champion Avenleif?” a small voice whispers.


Turning, Leif spots the pale face of a white rabbit at the tent’s curtain. Hesitantly, he nods, wondering what could possibly persuade a small herbivore to venture here.


“Oh, excellent! We have urgent news. It’s about...” He leans back and glances nervously around. “It’s about Alice.


Leif feels a wry smile pull at his mouth. Yes, if Alice could inspire betrayal of one’s kinsmen and homeland, she could certainly inspire a rabbit to risk its life in the company of lions.


“Not here,” Leif says, knowing that the rabbit hasn’t yet seen the form of his uncle which he’d rolled into a murky corner. He dons his uncle’s helmet and steps out of the tent. He checks to be sure, but no one is watching; they’re all respecting the Champion’s right to mentally prepare himself for the upcoming fight.


When he glances down, he’s surprised to see not only a white rabbit valiantly fighting against his instinct to run, but a severely distressed brown hare. “Lead the way,” he invites them and a few moments later, in a secluded break in the trees, holding his helmet under his arm, Leif tries his best to understand their message.


“There is a plan. Everything has been prepared,” the white rabbit begins.


“No string!” the hare insists. “We cannae start wi’out the string!


“We’ll get to that presently, now hush!” The hare quiets under his companion’s glare, and the white rabbit clears his throat and begins to state his request, a request he would never have had to make, a request to not kill Alice. Of course Leif will agree, but why in the world is this mangy rodent going on and on about string?


“Be quiet, Earwicket! You did the finding, now I’ll do the explaining so allow me to finish before Tarrant gets tired of waiting and –”


“Follows you maybe?” a man’s voice suddenly announces.


Leif turns and tenses. The man entering the clearing could engender nothing but extreme caution in a warrior. His wild, orange hair – unkempt and loose around his shoulders – and his burning orange eyes and the gentle, eerie grin on his pale, oddly smudged face are... terrible. Yet, something about this man seems familiar. Yes, Leif has seen him before...


“And just who are you?” Leif says, irritated both that the white rabbit still hasn’t managed to tell him the vital information he’d promised and that he can’t help feeling a thrill of unease in this Outlander’s presence.


The smile widens and threatens. “I’m the man in charge of returning Alice to her rightful place in Marmoreal –” And at this point his eyelids and the skin under his eyes darken to nearly black. “– so I’d suggest you pay attention because if you come between us and Alice we will hunt you down and REMOVE YOUR SCARLESS PELT ONE—!”


Leif has to stop himself from drawing his sword.


“HATTER!” the rabbit and hare cry at the same instant.


Hatter...
Yes, Leif recognizes this man now. One of the artisans in the White Queen’s court. The hat-maker. The mad hatter. But this madness is not what he remembers. Sudden giggles, far-off daydreaming looks, fluttering hands and extravagant gestures... that is what Leif recalls, not this... this... fury.


The man grins tightly and grits through his tea-stained teeth, “I’m fine.


Leif will eat his scimitar if that’s the honest-to-Fate truth! Still, the man had interrupted an important meeting. It’s time to get things rolling again. He has to return to the tent before they call for him otherwise they’ll find Resh unconscious on the floor next to the meditation mat.


He says, “Relax. It’s all under control. No one will kill Alice. I’ll take care of her.”


The man’s eyes flash crimson, his jacket darkens to pitch black, and in the next instant, he’s...!


Too quick for Leif to dodge in the close quarters among the trees, the Hatter strikes him with his fist. White stars burst across Leif’s vision as he staggers back. Noting the presence of the broadsword still slung across Outlander’s back, Leif resists drawing his own weapon and contents himself with keeping the Hatter in his sights.


Leif isn’t sure what to expect after that attack, but the Outlander merely blinks, shakes his head, and with a slight frown, examines his surroundings with eyes that are once again a dark orange.


Wonderful. The fellow’s completely off his head.


But, then again, what else could he expect from the White Queen’s man? It had been obvious that she’d take in anyone, even the mad and un-reformable. Marmoreal had been – and likely still is – a security nightmare.


Leif glances at the Hatter’s right hand, still curled into a fist and hopes the fool had managed to break it.


“Just who do you think you are, you mad bastard?” Leif challenges, standing tall and placing a threatening paw on his weapon.


He watches the Hatter warily as, instead of offering his name, the Outlander tugs his glove off with his teeth and, eyes sparking with victory and challenge and a darkness that could only be possession, obsession, and greed, answers Leif’s question by presenting his heart line.


His heart line.


“I don’t believe this...” Somehow the words come out despite the sickening roll of his sinking stomach.


Surely
Alice would not have permitted herself to be bound to this... this freak! Surely the queen cannot be so fond of this man’s skills as a hat-maker that she’d ask her Champion to anchor his madness with the Thrice a-Vow! Surely this is all some horrid misunderstanding!


“Believe it’r no’ye’ll nae ge’in th’way o’our bringin’ Alice home.


Leif shakes himself. He tries not to imagine Alice’s life with a man this unpredictable and violent. But rescuing Alice from her bonded husband must necessarily come after saving her life. Leif focuses on that.


Glaring, he manages to snarl, “What would you have me do?”


The Hatter tells him. And, as it turns out, it’s a much better plan than Leif’s.


Damn it.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Well, are you happy now, Tarrant?” Nivens demands irritably.


Tarrant grins. “Much.”


The White Rabbit rolls his eyes. “That hand is definitely broken. How are you going to manage to get Alice out of the middle of that battlefield with only one hand, hm?”


Tarrant wanders over to a rook and, tapping it on the shoulder, inquires solicitously, “Would you happen to have a bit of Pain Paste, friend?”


The rook digs a pot out of his emergency rations and hands it over.


“Much obliged.”


“That’s not going to do much,” Nivens insists, shadowing Tarrant.


The Hatter ignores him and, after applying the paste, hands the jar back to the rook then proceeds to wrap his right hand in the violently pink handkerchief he carries in his right jacket pocket.


“Well, at least switch your broadsword to the other shoulder so you can draw it with your left hand!”


“My broadsword...” Tarrant wonders softly. Yes, he’d completely forgotten about it. Which is just as well or Avendale might be in the market for another Champion at the moment and their plan to rescue Alice well and truly thwumpished!


Grumbling at himself, Tarrant maneuvers the sword without the aid of his right hand.


Should’ve hit him with your left!


“Aye.” If he’d thought to choose between a broken right hand and a broken left, well...


Remember that for next time, lad.


Tarrant grins. “Aye.”


“What’s he ‘aye’in’ to his-self over?”


He blinks at the sound of Mally’s voice. “Oh, you’re back! Excellent. How is...?”


“On her way home,” the dormouse replies with confidence. “And by the time they realize they’ve been duped, Oshtyer’s Jubjub won’t have enough daylight left to be hunting her down!”


“Well done, Mally! Well done, Bayard!” Tarrant exclaims, noticing the winded blood hound.


“Not long now,” Bayard pants. “They’ll be coming over that hill soon.”


“Wonderful!” And then he’ll be able to see his Alice! He tells himself not to expect a glowing smile and outstretched arms, for how could he, on this dreadful day, in these dire straights? But he’ll see her again and, very soon, he’ll have her in his arms and they’ll be riding home on the Bandersnatch!


“What happened to your hand?” Mally asks, poking it with the pommel of her hatpin sword.


Tarrant hisses and flinches away from her.


Nivens answers for him: “He got into an altercation with Avendale’s Champion.”


“Oh, Hatter! Why’d you let him break your hand when you’ve got that great, big broadsword of yours?”


Why, indeed...
Tarrant curses himself for not thinking of it. And then he curses himself for considering it at all when doing so would have only worked against their plan to retrieve Alice.


“Gallymoggers,” he mutters.


String!” Thackery insists. “I need me string f’r th’toes, Hatter!”


Nivens groans. “Why are you going on and on about string and toes, you mad March Hare? This situation is serious! Alice and Jaspien’s forces are due to come over the hill any minute and you indulge in this utter... randomness!


“Not!” He twitches. “Not random gallymoggers! You’re LATE!” Thackery shouts back. Then turning to Tarrant, the hare reaches into his jacket pocket and retrieves a small glass bottle. Offering it up, he says, “String, Hatter! Nauw!


Tarrant’s eyes widen and his mouth lifts into a smile. “Oh! Yes, yes, of course! My apologies, Thackery. You’re quite on top of things as usual, aren’t you? Here,” Tarrant rapidly picks loose the ends of the spools of thread slung across his chest. Removing the entire lot from his jacket, he trades them for the bottle of Pishsalver. “And take Mally with you. She’s quite small and fast and that hatpin might come in handy when you’ve a need to start a new stitch.”


“Come, Mally!” Thackery commands, his eyes rolling and a mad grin showing his jagged, tea-stained teeth. “Toes on strings!”


Mally gives Tarrant a dubious glance before dashing after the hare.


“’Tis goin’teh work,” Tarrant murmurs, eyes shining.


Still at his side, Nivens pets his own paws in an effort to calm himself.


Tarrant gives him an encouraging smile. “Go’an’ge’th’Bandersnatch.”


With a nod, Nivens hops off into the woods. At the edge of the battlefield, Tarrant scans the west side of the checkered stones. Soon, the other army will crest over that hill and he wants to be able to see his Alice at the fist available opportunity.


Alice... keep your promise.


For if she does her part, there’s no reason for them to fail.


Still that doesn’t prevent Tarrant’s teeth from aching under the pressure of his tension or his left hand from cramping in its fist.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Ladies’ attire, Chessur decides, is by far the cruelest torture he’s ever undergone. Of course, with his spectacular evaporating skills, he’s never had to endure much in the way of intentionally inflicted torment. And as it’s not in his nature to inflict unpleasantness upon himself – he’s a cat, after all! – of course he’d be uncomfortable in a corset. If only he’d thoroughly considered the purpose of a corset before agreeing to this wretched plan!


And these stockings!
He nearly growls as they rub against the beast’s tack.


Oh, I’m going to have saddle sores! Blast you, Tarrant, and your
brilliant idea!


Thoughts of revenge manage to distract him from his woefully unprotected skin – Why don’t people have a bit of fur to cover them? Highly convenient thing, fur... – and he manages to develop quite the repertoire of torment.


“You’re very quiet, Mirana,” Jaspien says as they approach the last – Thank you, Fates of Underland! – hill.


Chessur forces a nostalgic smile. “I was just remembering my last visit. My sister, you know...”


“Yes. I was very sorry to hear about her death. Stayne got what he deserved,” Jaspien agrees.


Were you
truly sorry to hear of her death? Oh, what Chessur wouldn’t give to be able to ask the question, but he hides it behind a serene smile. Being Mirana of Marmoreal is highly irritating, he acknowledges. In more ways than one.


He shifts his gaze beyond Jaspien to where Alice rides astride a great bear who had, surprisingly enough, not grumbled in the slightest at being forced to bear her on his back. Chessur is dying to ask how Alice had managed to subdue the beast, for he is well aware of how those creatures think, having met one or a dozen in his life, and knows their pride is matched only by that of lions and pompous, self-important courtiers.


A question for another time,
he sighs. Suppressing his natural curiosity is getting rather... painful.


To distract himself, he examines Alice’s profile. Not once during the trip had she bothered to look around her. In fact, the few glimpses he’s gotten of her had revealed nothing of her emotional state or thoughts. Of course, she’d perfected the mask she now wears. She’d had to. Otherwise the whole lot of them would know how wretchedly miserable she is without her Tarrant and how very much she curses her captors to the depths of the vilest pits in all of Underland.


Chessur stops himself from rolling the queen’s dark eyes just in time. Still, he’s thankful that cats don’t fall in love. A thoroughly miserable state of being from start to finish. He’s seen it often enough. It’s, quite frankly, a miracle the other species have managed to survive the self-flagellation.


His wry and sarcastic musings do the trick, passing both the time and the chafing rub of leather against his borrowed body. They come over the crest of the hill and approach the Underland battlefield. Along the southern border, Chessur takes in the well-ordered ranks of the Shuchland Army. He casts his gaze over the much smaller, scruffy, ragtag band of mercenaries Valereth had managed to hire and suppresses a snort. True, these undisciplined creatures might be considerably more... resourceful in a fight – The Grobben blossom Alice had used against Stayne comes to mind! Wonderful survival instincts that girl has! – but even he can see how disciplined and well-prepared the Shuchlanders are. Of course, Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer are betting Alice will prevail over King Aven’s Champion, saving them the trouble of a battle.


Chessur’s characteristic grin makes an appearance before he can think better of it. Luckily, Jaspien and the other two are busy dismounting and no one notices.


With a nauseatingly dreamy smile, Chessur allows Jaspien to help the White Queen from the back of the farm horse he’d been provided for the journey.


“Where shall we watch from?” Chessur wonders aloud. “Not too close, I hope.”


“No, no, of course not, my dear.” However, Jaspien leads her to the front line. “Once the Challenge has been issued and formally accepted, we shall move back,” he explains.


Chessur sighs with relief. “You won’t mind? I’m sure the view won’t be nearly as satisfactory for you...”


“I have no interest in watching. Only in victory.”


Chessur says nothing to that. He again slides his gaze in Alice’s direction. She’d dismounted the bear, who had taken up a position in the front line. Alice now stares blindly across the battlefield. Chessur can’t afford to let himself stare at her – for the queen would never be so rude! – but it puzzles him that the girl hasn’t once acknowledged the attention he’s been paying her.


She ought to be more observant!
he huffs in silence.


Once the hired army has been assembled along the north side of the field, Jaspien pats Chessur’s pale hand and strides toward the center of the stone-cobbled clearing. The cat doesn’t pay any attention to the formalities.


“Alice...” he hisses.


The girl doesn’t even seem to hear him.


“Alice!”


Nothing. Is she even blinking?


Chessur suppresses a groan. Oh, he’d known this was a bad idea! They’d waited too long and now Alice is lost inside her own head, inside the game she’s been playing for days without respite.


Have we lost her already?


Chessur twists a lacy handkerchief and tries to keep his claws from breaking through Mirana’s small, delicate fingertips.


Just a bit longer, Alice.


For a moment, Chessur almost wishes for a heart line with which to send her a bit of hope and a boatload of strength. And then he wonders about Tarrant... Where is that damnable Outlander of hers? Shouldn’t he be the one shoring her up at the moment? Well, a fine job he’s doing of it if this the result. The girl’s practically catatonic on her feet!


“Send forth your Champion!” King Aven roars, lifting a paw and gesturing his chosen fighter to the forefront. Jaspien does likewise.


As Alice moves to take a step forward, Chessur whispers, perhaps, a bit too loudly in Mirana’s soft voice, “Listen well and heed what you hear, Alice!”


There’s the smallest nod of recognition and then Jaspien’s Champion approaches the center of the battlefield and the king’s defender. Returning, Jaspien leads Chessur back behind the assembled forces as promised. The cat notices that neither Oshtyer nor Valereth care to join them. But of course, they wouldn’t. Jaspien already has everything he wants. The future and fortunes on the line now belong to his two associates.


Perfect,
Chessur thinks, taking stock of the fact that every gaze is focused on the pair of Champions now circling each other. Were it not so painful to see the difference in size and quality of armor, Chessur might have been a bit put out at not being able to have a nice, clear view. Despite Tarrant’s insistence to the contrary, Alice really is a pleasure to watch in a duel. Grace and calculation and swiftness and cleverness...


Chessur waits for it – the first clash of swords – and when it comes, he finally allows the mildly worried expression to melt from the queen’s face. He feels his eyes begin to blur behind his closed eyelids. Carefully releasing his right arm from the prince’s elbow – but keeping his left clenched around it tightly – the cat lowers the queen’s thin arm between them, curves it behind the prince and shifts it.


It’s a little frustrating trying to shape-shift just one part of the body. His own eyes and smile tend to come out quite naturally, but borrowed shapes, on the other hand, those take time and a great deal of concentration.


He tries to ignore the fight in the center of the field: each and every series of steps clattering against the stones, each and every crash of swords meeting then softer and equally abrupt hiss as they disengage.


Chessur closes his eyes and struggles with the forms at his disposal. Oh, he’d practiced before, but it had still taken quite a while for him to manage the transformation. This time is no different. However, several minutes later, it’s a very satisfied and smug shape-shifting cat who – for all outward appearances – appears to be the White Queen, but in fact presses a very wickedly sharp Jabberwocky claw between Prince Jaspien’s thighs and against the family jewels.


The man startles and tries to pull away but Chessur’s hold on his arm is quite firm.


“Mirana?” the man asks, glancing sideways at the queen.


Chessur grins the grin of his kind and reveals his luminous, aqua eyes. “I’m afraid not. And, unfortunately, if you don’t do exactly as I instruct you to, I shall have the unmitigated pleasure of hurting you... very badly.


Chessur watches the man’s Adam’s apple bob. Sweat blossoms at the man’s temples and Chessur is forced to admit, despite the corset and the saddle sores, Tarrant’s plan really is quite... rewarding after all.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“What’s taking so long?” Nivens mutters, rubbing his paws so fast Tarrant might have wondered if the obsessive creature might just spontaneously combust if Tarrant’s own attention weren’t completely focused on the combatants on the battlefield and his own impatience weren’t focused on a certain shape-shifting ally.


Tarrant keeps up a continuous heart line message to her – Your promise! Fight and win, Alice! – and does his best not to flinch with each expertly executed attack by that wretched, Alice-lusting guddler’s scut. Although even he can see that Avenleif is not even attempting to tire her, Alice counters with a ferocity Tarrant has never seen in her before. Not even when she’d fought that equally wretched, Alice-groping slackush scrum. Her broadsword – borrowed, he notices, and far longer and heavier than the one the queen had had made for her – slices through the air with frightening precision and force. Each thrust and slash a potential fatal blow. But despite that, the lion keeps his word and draws the fight out, stays out of her way, stretches Time...


“Oh...!” Nivens pulls at his long, white ears before consulting his pocket watch. “How long does it take to shape-shift a bloody paw?”


“Knowin’th’owner o’th’paw’n question, o’ly’slong’s poss’ble,” Tarrant growls.


Alice advances again and again Avenleif sidesteps. Waits.


A quick glance at King Aven assures Tarrant that the deception has been noticed. The king looks furious, but manages to stand tall and contained. On the other side of the field, Valereth and – Tarrant swallows back his burning fury – Oshtyer are unashamedly grinning from ear-to-ear. No, they hadn’t counted on Aven’s Champion having an aversion to killing Alice, but the bastards aren’t about to complain!


And just when Tarrant thinks he can take no more – just when he’s sure the next clash of metal is going to shatter him like the bay window above Mirana’s study – he hears a voice call out very clearly:


“I, Jaspien of Causwick Callion, do hereby release—”


Valereth hisses, gesturing furiously to the mercenaries nearest the prince. They startle and move toward him, but then, inexplicably, trip and fall to the ground before reaching him.


“—Alice Kingsleigh from my service from this moment hence forth!”


Oshtyer swears, then raises his voice and shouts, “Alice! Fight, Alice! Kill him!”


Tarrant turns back to the battle, expecting Alice to step back, drop her sword, and spit in the direction of those spineless slurvish slurking URPAL—!


CRASH!


Startled, Tarrant blinks, for he must be experiencing delusions again – oh, how inconvenient a time for the madness to impose on him! – because Alice is still fighting!


And not only that, but Tarrant feels his entire body tense, his eyes widen as he watches her destroy the Champion’s defense. He gasps at the fury, the speed, the singular purpose of her attack.


Sweet Fates, she’s going to kill him!


For an unforgivably long moment, Tarrant merely gapes, uncomprehending.


But
why is she STILL FIGHTING?!


He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know!


“Tarrant!” Nivens panics.


The Hatter doesn’t take his eyes off of the battle as Alice charges, feints, and nearly takes the lion’s paws off with a nasty backhanded slash. He only just manages to jump back in time.


“Alice!” Avenleif shouts. “Halt! You’re free of your vows! Halt!


But she doesn’t.


“Something’s wrong,” Nivens despairs.


“Definitely,” Chessur agrees, appearing. “I’d say she’s in some sort of trance, but those stupid men don’t know snail spit about Intentional Magic...”


Each thrust Alice executes comes that much closer to finding its mark. Each plea from the lion who falls back and gives ground again and again and again falls on seemingly deaf ears. And Tarrant suddenly knows what’s going to happen:


Alice is going to kill Champion Avenleif.


And then she’ll go back through the looking glass... forever.


“No!”


Tarrant charges out onto the battlefield, pulling his sword over his shoulder, sheath and all! He doesn’t notice Chessur and Niven’s weak attempts to hold him back. He doesn’t notice the ripple of surprise that passes through the assembled armies.


With another skull-cleaving slash, Alice manages to knock Avenleif backward with such suddenness that he stumbles over a broken stone and falls to the ground. His sword arm is down and Alice moves in, raising her broadsword in a furious swing...!


THWACK!


Tarrant winces under the impact of the broadsword against his still-sheathed weapon. Gritting his teeth, he thrusts up, wills his broken hand to comply, and pushes Alice back. She takes two light, retreating strides and regards him, panting.


Ignoring Avenleif as he stands again, Tarrant focuses on his wife, on her wide, frighteningly empty eyes, her pale, sweaty, colorless face, and says, “Alice. Alice, break. It’s over. It’s done. Come home.”


For a moment, all is silent, perfectly still. Frozen.


For a moment, it seems as if she might have heard him.


For a moment, Tarrant hopes...


And then Alice raises her sword and steps toward him!


“Bloody bulloghin’...!” he growls when he awkwardly knocks her blade to the side, clutching his broadsword in his left hand now.


Tarrant barely notices the chaos of movement along the north edge of the battlefield. The lines of mercenaries have turned into a churning mass of arms and hands and paws and swords.


Ah, Thackery and Mally managed it, then,
he barely has time to think before Alice is sending another cutting blow at him – at his knees this time.


Alice! ‘Tis your Hatter! Stop this!


If she understands him, she shows no sign of it.


“Hafflaffen!” Avenleif shouts.


Tarrant twitches, wishing he could send a glare of irritation in the lion’s direction. “What?!


“I smelled mint. She’s been poisoned.”


Tarrant’s heart nearly stops. And then Alice very nearly takes off his head. If not for his regular attendance at Thackery’s tea parties, and his extensive practice in ducking and diving, she very well would have!


“She’s sensitive to suggestion!” Avenleif explains, stepping between Alice and Tarrant to draw her attacks. Although he doesn’t want to feel thankful to that brutish coveting creature, he is grateful, for Tarrant desperately needs to think!


“Suggestion?!” he shouts at no one in particular. What hell sort of bloody sense is that supposed to make? Oshtyer had told her to fight and kill. Avenleif had told her to halt. Tarrant had told her to break and come home! What other suggestion could there possibly be?


“A... vow! Oath! Promise!” Avenleif shouts over the clanging of their swords.


A promise...


Tarrant watches Alice pursue her opponent. She hunts him mercilessly. As if her life depends on it. As if the very Fates of Underland will it to be. As if... As if...


Tarrant startles. His hands choke the scabbard in his grasp. He gapes as the dream comes to him.


Alice, fighting.


The bell ringing.


Alice, falling...


He can see her arms are shaking. She’s long past her strength, yet something gives her the will to continue. Something drives her – is driving her! – to the point of utter exhaustion, to the point of death. She will fight until there is no breath left in her body. And suddenly, Tarrant understands that bloody nightmare. Alice will not fall on his sword! She will fall upon her promise to him to FIGHT AND WIN AT ALL COSTS!


Again, she throws Avenleif back and – again! – he falls!


Discarding his sword, Tarrant leaps for her, grabs her arm, spins her around.


“Alice!”


His heel catches on a clump of weeds and he falls.


“I release ye from yer promise!”


The breath rushes out of him as his back crashes against the stones. Above him, Alice raises the sword.


“Ye d’nae hav’teh fight anymore!”


And the sword falls.


“Nor win! Raven!”


And stops.


Tarrant stares up at her, ignores the cold edge of the blade against his throat. “Alice...” he pleads. For if she does not come back to him now, she may as well kill him. The pain of losing her to this poison, this merciless madness, would be too much to bear.


Her lips move. The barest whisper of sound passes between them. “... hatter...?”


He’s so relieved, he can only gasp and gaze up at her. Her eyes, as black as pitch and struggling to focus, finally – finally see him!


“... why... writing desk... slightest...”


“Let go, Alice. I’ve got you now,” he murmurs.


Her grip on the sword relaxes and it falls away. And then her eyes roll up toward the sky, her knees give out, and she slumps to the ground. Ignoring the throbbing pain in his right hand, Tarrant reaches for her, tries to save her from hurting herself on the stones but merely ends up having the breath forced out of him again as he lands on his back once more.


Tarrant closes his eyes for the briefest moment, inhales Alice’s scent – too minty! – and tightens his arms around her. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to just lie here with her in his arms, but she is not yet safe!


“Bandy!” he calls, struggling to his feet. To his surprise, Avenleif gives him a paw under his arm and another at his back rather than trying to take Alice from him. Tarrant glances at him, puzzled, then takes in the battlefield. The Shuchlanders look shocked and irritated. Jaspien’s mercenaries are just now managing to stand up again, finally having cut through the web of sewing thread Mally and Thackery had strung their feet together with. The Bandersnatch crashes out of the woods.


“Go,” Avenleif says, holding out his battered broadsword. “Get on. I’ll hand her up to you.”


Tarrant gives him a distrustful glance.


“It’s not safe for her here!” the lion snarls and, in his anger, Tarrant sees the beast’s honesty.


Trying his best not to think about what he’s doing, Tarrant passes Alice to the lion, shoulders his broadsword, throws himself upon the Bandersnatch’s back, and reaches back for her. Avenleif passes Alice to him without a moment’s hesitation.


Wrapping his arms around her, gripping the Bandersnatch’s fur in his left hand, Tarrant doesn’t even think to thank the he-lion who had helped him save her, his Alice, his wife, the keeper of his heart.


“GO!” he shouts to the beast that would do anything for Alice, even race across half of Underland in a single evening.


And, it just so happens, that’s precisely what the Bandersnatch does.
 

Chapter Text

Warning: This entry contains semi-explicit sexual content.

 

 

*~*~*~*

 

Mirana believes in being prepared for any potential eventuality. After her horrible mistake just two months ago, when she’d sent her Champion off to defeat the Jabberwocky in utterly preventable ignorance, she had taken to consulting the Oraculum religiously.


Which is why the entire episode – the abduction, the training, the duel – is so utterly baffling. Before their departure, Mirana had indeed gazed upon the Oraculum. She had very nearly taken it with them, but had left it behind in Absolem’s care again instead.


With half of her laboratory now in Alice and Tarrant’s apartment, awaiting the return of her Champion and her Hatter – fearing one or both of them might be seriously injured – Mirana has nothing left to do except... wait. And think about the Oraculum.


She wanders out onto the balcony overlooking the castle gates and peers through the spyglass but nothing moves on the darkening horizon.


A blue butterfly flutters next to her, landing on her shoulder. She very nearly brushes him off in irritation.


“You were supposed to warn us,” she scolds him.


His antennae uncurl, become rigid with irritation.


Mirana arches her brows in disbelief. “Are you telling me you didn’t notice that the events foretold had changed?


His wings beat once, furiously. She can only imagine what he would have said were he still capable of speech. He leaves her shoulder, lands on the balcony railing and begins pacing in agitated steps, his wings held rigidly upright.


Mirana sighs and forces herself to let go of her anger, for it will accomplish nothing. “I’m sorry, Absolem. I know how devoted you are to your position as Steward of the Oraculum.”


He stops pacing, turns to face her and his antennae jab in her direction.


“All right,” she says, meeting his challenge. “How many days ago did you realize Alice and I would be taken?”


Absolem flaps his wings very deliberately once, twice...


Mirana counts them, then counts the days backward. When she arrives at his answer, her eyes widen in disbelief. “Oh! On the fifteenth day of the trip! The day we departed Shuchland...” She frowns, considering the situation. Clearly, the partnership between the three men and the enlistment of the mercenaries had happened at a much earlier time. But why hadn’t the Oraculum foretold their planned attack?


And then Mirana understands: the Oraculum had not foretold it because the day on which it would occur had not been decided yet. And, in fact, the timing of it must not have depended too greatly on the days and events leading up to their departure for Shuchland. So, something must have happened in Shuchland to force their hand.


Something, like... maybe...


She thinks of Dale’s First Claw and, unthinkingly reaches for her neck, but she knows it’s not there. It had been left behind at the inn in the confusion of the impending attack. Sadness and regret steal her breath. She hopes someone has found it, will return it to her...


She sighs and turns her mind back to the mystery of the Oraculum and wonders if the attack had come because Jaspien had heard of her betrothal and had feared Mirana and her realm had been slipping further and further away from him.


Still, she had made no secret of the trip at all before departing. Rumors had been flying across the countryside for weeks beforehand. Many had expected her to leave that land after promising her hand in marriage to the youngest Aven. And yet the Oraculum had not revealed a warning.


“Something must have happened while we were in Shuchland to set all of this in motion,” she finally decides. On the railing, Absolem’s antennae relax into a gentle curl once more. “Although I’m afraid I have no idea what that might be. I shall have to consult with Alice. Perhaps she will have a suggestion...”


Distractedly, Mirana peers once more through the spyglass. Just as she is about to sigh and turn away (again!) a motion catches her attention. She steadies the apparatus with her other hand and gasps as a large, bounding white blur crests over the rise and grows larger and larger in its approach to the castle.


“They’ve returned!” Mirana explains and drifts as quickly as she can down to the main entrance. The Bandersnatch wobbles up the grand, sweeping steps just as the queen swings open the doors. “You’re injured!” Mirana gasps, noting the pink handkerchief stretched taut around Tarrant’s right hand. “And Alice! Alice?!” Mirana reaches forward to help brace Alice against the panting sides of the Bandersnatch when Tarrant lowers her then follows her down in the next instant. All it takes is one whiff of her Champion’s matted hair, one glimpse of the utter pallor of her face, and one touch to her cold, clammy cheeks for Mirana to arrive at a diagnosis.


“Hafflaffen,” she spits out in disgust. “That rotten collection of slime from a listless snail!”


“Your Majesty?” Tarrant asks in a strained tone.


“Later, Tarrant. If you can’t help me get her up to your apartment, then at least help me get her into the kitchen.” She runs her fingers over Alice’s glistening forehead the lifts them to her mouth for a taste. Spitting to clean her mouth, she mutters, “No, not the usual remedy for this... Why must Uplanders be so contrary?!


Mirana fits herself under Alice’s left side as Tarrant pulls her right arm over his shoulders. Together, they drag Alice into the castle. “Pondish, the large bath tub if you please, in the kitchen. Lakerton, heat the water for a very warm bath. Algernon, you may collect my things from Mr. Hightopp and Alice’s apartment and bring them back down here.”


Each creature rushes off to do her bidding. Mirana determinedly puts one foot in front of the other, wishing she had scheduled a bit more exercise into her routine.


“Your Majesty?” Tarrant asks again, his demand to understand slowly eclipsing his exhaustion. At least, that’s what it sounds like. Mirana is glad of it. She’ll need his help.


“Are you otherwise injured, Tarrant? Or is it just your right hand, which, from the swelling, I’d have to say is broken.”


“Aye, ‘tis. And it’s the only thing wrong wi’me.”


“Then I’m afraid it will have to wait until we’ve dealt with Alice.”


“I wouldnae have it any other way.” They take two more steps before Tarrant demands, “Who poisoned her?”


“Are you sure you want to know now?” she asks. “I need you to focus or Alice’s health will be in serious jeopardy.”


He nods once. Mirana notices his jaw is set. “Ye can tell me. I’ll only wonder if ye don’t.”


“Oshtyer,” she informs him, reaching out and pushing open the kitchen door. Pondish had worked fast and Mirana is relieved to see the old, battered bath tub set up beside the stove where several buckets of water are already heating.


“Arms out, straight in front of you, Tarrant,” the queen orders and leans Alice back against his chest with her arms draped over his. Mirana hurriedly works on the buckles of Alice’s leather armor. The bits that resist too much are sawed through with a root knife. Mirana doubts Alice will want to keep the memories that come with the attire anyway. The queen removes every stitch of clothing from Alice before directing Pondish and Lakerton to fill the bath. She checks the water temperature, adds a bit of cool water, mixes it, then reaches for Alice’s knees. Tarrant gently lowers his wife into the bath.


“Up to her neck,” the queen directs, then hands him a cloth.


It’s only when she turns back around with her own cloth in hand that she realizes why he hasn’t spoken for the last ten minutes. Tarrant Hightopp stares at his wife’s nude body, his eyes a burning acidic orange as he catalogues each and every bruise, both fresh and nearly a week old.


“Tha’bloody cat tol’me they werenae hurtin’er...” he growls.


“I don’t think they did,” Mirana assures him, dipping her cloth in a basin of hot water and wiping at Alice’s face then rinsing it out again.


Tarrant gapes at her for a moment before soaking his own cloth in a bucket near his knee and wringing it out over Alice’s hair. He then wipes the rivulets from her slack face. “But look at her!” he whispers fiercely.


“Tarrant, each and every one of these bruises is a mark of victory. Each bruise she received marks each assault she won. Be thankful Oshtyer was not permitted to have his way or I would be truly fearful to find out how much of our Alice might have survived that place.”


“Tha’bastard will pay...” Tarrant promises silently.


Mirana doesn’t doubt it. “More hot water, please, Pondish. Ah, Algernon, the bottle of citrus extract.”


She pours six drops onto the surface of the water and watches as the faint, lavender-blue oil slick that had begun to shimmer on the surface of the water dissolves.


“What is that?” Tarrant asks as he accepts another steaming bucket of water and continues wiping Alice’s face after rinsing her hair.


“A very good guess,” Mirana admits. “Alice’s biology is different from ours. Had she been born in Underland, I’d merely need to dust her skin with Hafflaffen powder to draw out the poison. Unfortunately, it appears as if her body reabsorbs it too easily once it’s perspired. When she cools, she merely takes in the poison again through her skin, doubling her symptoms. I can only guess how long she’s been exposed, but every cycle of her body trying to expel it and the Hafflaffen re-entering it is like receiving dose after dose after dose.”


Mirana looks up at Tarrant. His face is perfectly white, his mercury stains look like streaks left by bloody tears, and his eyes are pale with fear. She can barely see the dark line of his lips where his mouth has compressed tightly.


“Did everything go as plan? Did she fight?” Mirana asks because she cannot believe Alice would have had the strength to manage that portion of the plan.


“No and yes,” her Hatter answers. “She fought... she fought like th’world was ending.” He swishes the cloth in his own bucket of citrus-treated water before collecting more hot water with it and treating Alice’s face again. “My fault,” he whispers. “Chessur did his part. Thackery’n’Mally did theirs... But she di’nae stop fighting... Nearly killed Aven’s Champion.” Tarrant’s eyes flash, but he doesn’t become distracted. “’Twas th’promise she made me that nearly killed her.”


Mirana doesn’t say anything to prompt a full confession. He delivers it nonetheless.


“Alice promised to fight as hard as she must to win. Promised me that on th’second day of her training. And I kept sending her heart line messages to fight an’ to win all through th’battle an’...” Mirana glances away as Tarrant’s face twists into the most horridly miserable grimace she’s ever seen on him. “’Twas I who almost killed her. Alice...”


“Tarrant, you could not have known how that promise would react with Hafflaffen in Alice’s system. No, listen to me!” When Tarrant lifts pale orange eyes of self-loathing to her gaze, Mirana informs him quite firmly, “There was no way to know. None at all. Now, does this water feel cool to you?”


He tests it and nods.


“Lakerton, the other tub, if you could? Pondish? Yes, more water on the stove. Thank you.”


And so the night continues. Mirana and Tarrant haul an unconscious Alice from her current, cooling bath and into another hot one, over and over and over again. Despite Alice’s wrinkling, pink skin, the surface of the water continues to shimmer with the pearlescent gleam of the poison still escaping from her body. Hours later, when Tarrant truly looks as if he’s going to collapse at any moment, Mirana hands her cloth over to a severely uncomfortable Algernon and instructs him to keep rinsing Alice’s hair and face.


“Come here, Tarrant. We must deal with your hand.”


“But, Alice...”


“Is breathing easier and, last I checked, her pupils weren’t so dilated. We have time. Sit.”


He does.


Mirana cuts off the thoroughly soaked handkerchief and regards his swollen hand. “Definitely broken. How did this happen?”


“Oh, um, well...”


“Did Alice do this to you?” Mirana asks suddenly, horrified at the possibility.


Tarrant clears his throat and looks away. “No, I... no.”


“Fine,” the queen huffs. “Don’t tell me. We’ll just never mind the cure and leave it like this.”


Tarrant winces. “I struck Avenleif. In the face.”


“Which part?” Mirana asks with clinical detachment.


“His great, furry nose,” he growls.


“With your fist?”


“Aye.”


“All right. Wait here a moment.” Mirana gets up and considers her stock of remedies then selects one bottle, a jar of powder, and a medicinal compress. Resuming her seat, she takes Tarrant hand in hers and narrates: “One drop of Green Envy for each knuckle, a sprinkling of Vengeance, and a bandage soaked in Rational Thought.” She glances up as she presses the compress to the back of his pale hand. “I’m assuming you found out about Avenleif’s... feelings for Alice and that’s what brought on the sudden urge to break your hand against his nose?”


Tarrant bows his head. “Aye...”


Mirana gently lays his injured hand down on the table and pats his other. “Don’t blame Alice, Tarrant.”


His head snaps up. “What? Why would I? I don’t...”


“Just so,” Mirana replies, seeing the truth in his eyes. “Alice kept her heart line a secret because the dear was driven to distraction wondering if someone might try to harm you while she was away.” Mirana sighs. “I almost wish Stayne could be killed all over again for making her fear for you so much.”


“Ye’re not th’only one who’d like to see him dead all o’er again,” Tarrant agrees.


Mirana continues, “On the last day of our stay, I persuaded Alice to wear... oh, uhm, well, to reveal her heart line as we were among friends. Until then, until Avenleif saw it, Alice had no idea of his intentions. Truthfully, neither had I, but I was... distracted...”


“It’s all right,” Tarrant tells her, surprisingly maintaining his grasp on calm rationality despite his obvious exhaustion. “He knows Alice is mine now.”


Mirana nods and drifts back over to her supply chest. “We’ll have to splint that hand,” she warns him. “I know you won’t like it, but Green Envy is notoriously unreliable when combined with Rational Thought.” Tarrant manfully endures the wrapping of his right hand then helps the queen move Alice again into another tub of steaming water.


When dawn finally peeps in through the Witzend-facing windows, Alice groans a bit in protest when they switch her baths again and the cool air touches her skin. When they settle her into the next tub, she manages to open her eyes for the briefest moment. “Buttered fingers,” she murmurs before falling asleep. Finally.


Mirana sighs with satisfaction. “This might be the last bath,” she dares to tell her Hatter.


“And she’ll wake up cured?”


“Let’s hope so. I’d still recommend a hot bath every other hour whenever she can manage it. We don’t want a relapse occurring.”


He nods. Mirana notices how utterly exhausted he looks – his face is too pale and his hands shake with a fine tremor and his shoulders slouch – but she can’t help but be cheered by the spark of hope in his once-again green eyes.


“I’ll have Algernon make up one of the guestrooms on the ground floor. It’ll be easier to manage the baths she’ll need.”


He merely nods again and, slumping down to the floor, curls his right arm across the back of the tub and gently cradles her flushed face in his left. Brushing his thumb over a the nearly-healed bruise that had been the first of many Alice had had to endure, he rasps, “Could we apply a bit of lotion to these bruises?”


“Not for a few days,” Mirana replies regretfully. “It may interfere with her body’s efforts to push out the poison.”


“I don’t want her to see these. Be reminded,” he explains.


Mirana considers that. “I think she’ll want them. She’ll want to watch her body defeat those memories. After all, we did have the hardest time convincing Alice Underland and all of us were, in fact, real.” Mirana considers her Champion and the man utterly devoted to her and her happiness. “It’d be cruel of us to take that hard-won reality away from her and replace it with shadowy nightmares that she cannot fight.”


Tarrant lowers his forehead until it rests against the side of the tub and sighs.


“Your room will be ready soon,” she promises.


Within the hour, Mirana helps Tarrant tuck Alice into bed before ordering him to lie down with her. As he sits on the edge of the bed and begins removing his shoes, the queen moves to the door, closing it only when she hears both boots hit the floor and the soft sigh of the mattress as he lies down on it.


“No one is to disturb them, Propinton,” she instructs the lock.


“Yes, Your Majesty.”


With a satisfied nod, Mirana heads for the stairs and her own room and a bit of rest before lunch... however, the clamor and clanking of dozens upon dozens of footsteps draws her back to the main entrance.


Seeing her, the Bandersnatch rouses and she pats him. “Alice will be fine; you did well getting her back home so quickly.”


The beast sighs and closes his eyes, immediately falling into a light doze. Mirana wishes she were that lucky. But she waits on the front steps and, smiling, welcomes her army home and announces their success. The celebration will have to wait for another day, but that’s no reason to withhold a well-deserved congratulations for a job well done.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice dreams of floating adrift in a hot sea, of the spray of an ocean that smells like Orashes against her face. She dreams of an armchair that wraps itself around her back and shoulders and a glass of warm soup that tilts against her lips. She dreams of a whispering wind that somehow knows her name and combs her hair. She dreams of the gentle, tickling brush of cherry blossoms against her face.


Tarrant...


Yes, she’d left him under the boughs of one of the cheery trees lining the white stone drive leading to the castle, to Marmoreal, to home...


Just a little further...


She pushes against the Bandersnatch – not now, Bandy! – and throws herself through the so, so soft drooping branches of the trees. The wind sighs to her against her ear. She’ll have to ask Mirana to teach her the tree language they speak; it sounds so heavenly, so familiar... Like the pale line of a man’s jaw, like the dark gap between his two front teeth, like the half-lidded gaze of radiant green she knows to expect just as he wakes from a sound sleep...


Tarrant?


Where is he? Why does he insist on waiting for her under that tree? The tree she’d left him beneath? Why can’t she remember which one it is?


Oh, botheration. This could take
days!


She strains but the warm presence of the Bandersnatch holds her back, slows her down.


“Let go!” she demands. Tarrant?


And just like that, she’s free. Alice experiences an instant of relief, of freedom, before the avenue lined with cherry trees fades before her eyes...


No!


... and a rough hand gently smoothes her hair away from her face.


“Alice? Have you decided to wake up now?”


Her lashes flutter but don’t open. Too heavy. “No,” she groans. “Looking for... Let me look...”


“You’ll have to open your eyes for that, my Alice,” the man’s voice whispers.


She frowns. He sounds concerned and hopeful and does she hear a slight lisp...?


No,
she decides. There is no lisp waiting for her there. After all, she has yet to find Tarrant, and he’s waiting for her somewhere – here! – among the cherry trees.


“Can’t... late...” she murmurs, desperately trying to call back the pearly avenue. “Promised...”


“Hush,” the voice bids her. “You’re fine. Everything’s fine. Open your eyes, now. Come home to me, Alice...”


Home! Tarrant!


She moans and pushes through the darkness. She expects to encounter the hard, linen-like texture of the tree bark, but finds actual linen beneath her hands. Linen and something firm but not so very unyielding as a tree. Something much warmer and alive than even the warmest of sun-kissed patches of bark.


Is this...? Am I...?


She can barely form the thoughts, so afraid of being broken – shattered, destroyed – over them when they turn out to be false, a dream, a delusion...


“Alice...?”


The voice sounds concerned now, dejected, lost. She doesn’t like that sound so much. It calls to her, makes her ache. She turns toward it, inhales, and promptly sobs.


Tarrant!


The scent of him surrounds her and she burrows into it, seeking him, for surely he must be nearby!


Her arm winds around a man’s waist. Her face brushes then presses against the fabric of his shirt. Oh, if this is only a dream it will kill her to wake up!


But it must be, for Alice can remember only the darkness and horror and fear and what-have-I-become?! of Causwick Castle. She recalls a vague sense of traveling, of the wind on her face, and the impression of square stones on her memory, but it’s so dim, so fleeting...


This can’t be real...


“It is. I am. You are. Alice...”


The same rough hand gently brushes against her cheek. The second sob that escapes her is muffled against his chest.


The voice deepens, softens, rumbles, “Open yer eyes an’see what ye smell, lass...”


Alice freezes.


Lass.


Suddenly, she knows she is not dreaming. She is...


Lass!


... inside the cruelest of nightmares...


Lassling!


... and she...


... she...


Don’t touch me you filthy OUTLANDER!” She shoves him away with all her strength, propelling herself backward, tumbling over the edge of something. She strikes the floor and, heart racing, panic cresting like an ocean wave over a tiny vessel, Alice rolls to her feet and grabs the first thing she can find – a water pitcher, which she smashes against the table. It shatters and splashes water over her legs and feet but the handle she still holds is now connected to a large, jagged piece. She turns toward her assailant – how many times has she told them she’s NOT A PLAYTHING?! – and evaluates his weaknesses.


His neck, his belly, his...


Something about the man makes her pause. He’s still lying on the bed (What was I doing in his BED?!) vulnerable, open... Too vulnerable, too open.


Alice is confused. Where is the laughter? The grating cackle of degrading humor? Where are the patently false reassurances?


“Aw, we werenae goin’teh ‘urt ye, Lassling. ‘Twas jus’a’bit o’fun...”


“I’ll show you something I think is fun...” she hisses through her teeth.


“You sure there be a woman under that snarl?”


Alice growls, “If you’re keen to check and you don’t mind a bit of pain, be my guest!”


But no braying laughter echoes in the room. No sudden movements. Alice listens to her own breathing, hating the harsh pants. And her heart... it feels as if the force of its beating ought to shake her apart, knock her off of her feet. She grips the shard of china in her hand and wills herself to focus!


This is not the time for WEAKNESS!


Bit by bit, Alice feels her breaths quiet, her heartbeat calm. Unfortunately, she also begins to feel unbelievably, incredibly weak.


NO! Stay standing, you twit!


“Alice...?”


She shivers, shakes her head, blinks at the broken pitcher in her grasp, the sharp, white fragments scattered on the wet floor.


“Alice...?” Again, that hesitant voice – that torturous lisp – comes again!


“What?” she demands, desperately trying to stay strong, in control! She will not succumb to their trap!


There’s a moment of hesitation and it’s that beat of uncertain silence that rocks her to the core, upsetting her fragile balance. For they have never hesitated. They do not know how to hesitate. It’s not in their nature...


“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”


The shard shakes in her hand but she can’t still it. Her whole being feels like it’s about to crash apart in jagged, razor-sharp pieces.


“... no...” she moans. How had they discovered this? How had they learned of it? And why do they use it against her now? She is one of them! She is strong! SHE HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL IN DECIEVING THEM!


“No, no, no... Stop. Just... just...”


There’s a clatter and the feeling of falling. She thinks she hears a sharp oath and the rustle of cloth and then the floor – wet and jagged in odd places – crashes into her. Her eyes close and she welcomes the darkness before the pain manages to catch up to her.

 

*~*~*~*

 

He expects death, for that is the manner in which his crimes must be atoned in Shuchland and King Aven has never been one to show mercy. Not for treason. Not for betrayal. Not for an Aven who has turned away from the royal family.


Leif closes his eyes.


The king’s anger permeates the nearly empty hall. Only the Aven family’s unfailing pride prevents this trial from being made public. No Aven is ever subjected to public humiliation and ridicule. Leif can’t help but feel relieved at this. Perhaps Alice will never hear of his death, will never know what he’d done, will never guess the reason behind it...


Alice.
He wishes he could have seen her one more time. He wishes she could have seen him one last time so that she might see all that he feels for her, all that had been concealed beneath his shock and disappointment and loss when he’d watched her walk away from him, from Avenfaire, from Shuchland.


If he had known it would end like this, he would have gone after her. He would have confessed his feelings and damned the consequences.


Now... now he will never know if his love might have been enough to bring her to him.


Leif keeps his gaze lowered. He knows he ought to look up and daringly meet the king’s eyes. Death would be instantaneous for that insult. But he allows them to expound on his faults, on his transgressions, on the methods of punishment he has earned. It’s a small comfort that the duel had been a draw, that the rule of Shuchland remains within the capable paws of King Avenglen. There is only one comfort Leif can take from all of this: Alice is free of Jaspien.


But is she alive? Or had the Hafflaffen killed her before she could be cured?


But is she safe? Or is that madman even now loosening his temper upon her?


Leif knows he will die with these questions unanswered.


You did this to yourself.


Yes. Yes, he had.


And now you’ll pay for it.


Yes. He undoubtedly will.


He tries not to listen too closely as Champion Avenresh – Leif’s own uncle – insists on being given the privilege of hacking off his nephew’s mane, carving out his tongue, taking off his hands and feet... All that before allowing Leif to die a coward’s death – a slit throat...


The very idea... Leif grits his teeth to control the convulsion of disgust and horror. But he had known the consequences of his choice... and he’d made it anyway. Not for the first, second, or even hundredth time, he wishes he could be disgusted at himself. Swayed by a woman. A blood-bonded woman, no less!


He tries to shame himself with his actions, but how can he feel shame when he thinks of her? How can he feel shame when there might exist the smallest chance that she still lives? That she will be strong enough to leave that mad bastard and find happiness?


Two fortnights ago, Leif would have spat in the face of any fortune teller who may have predicted the situation he now finds himself in.


It’s just as well I make it a habit to stay clear of those useless mystics.


But still, knowing the future would not have prevented this. He might have insisted on accompanying Alice back to Marmoreal. And if he had, he would have fought to the death to keep her from being taken. Or, he might have locked her away in the castle to keep her away from that hatter. If he had... well, all the roads Leif considers still lead him here, to this moment, to the forfeiture of his life.


Avenresh steps down, having aired his grievance and expounded on the offender’s earned punishments. Leif knows what comes next. The crimes have been counted. The injured party has spoken out. Now, the king will announce the verdict.


Leif grits his teeth and forces himself not to tense up, not to resist.


You’ve earned this. You’ve shamed them. Shamed yourself.


Even if it doesn’t feel that way, he knows it must be true.


As the king moves to stand, there’s a sudden movement. Out of the corner of his eye, Leif thinks he sees his liege stand and take the floor. A blaze of panic bursts from his heart.


No, no, you idiot! Sit back down!


“My King, I request permission to speak before sentencing,” Prince Avendale says in a clear, sure voice.


Leif holds his breath. Shut up, Dale. Don’t you dare...!


The king nods and relaxes back onto his throne.


“I petition that the crimes filled against Leif –”


On his knees on the cold, sandstone floor, Leif flinches. No longer is he a Champion. No longer is he an Aven. He is not even an Oben once more. He is nameless, without a family, lacking even a homeland.


You knew this would happen when they caught you!


Yes, he had. But he couldn’t have run away after that duel. Not with those mercenaries getting to their feet and looking hungrily across the battlefield at Leif’s people. He’d almost hoped for their charge. He’d almost hoped to kill a dozen of them before being cut down himself. But no, it hadn’t happened that way.


You don’t deserve such an honorable death.


He knows.


“ – the crimes Leif has been charged with must be reconsidered,” Avendale continues, “as he was acting in accordance with the wishes of his liege.”


Leif cannot stop his paws from curling into fists on his thighs.


You stupid cub! Say no more! Lie no more for me!


The silence is so heavy with accusation and shock and disappointment, Leif wonders if he might be crushed beneath it before Resh can indulge in his chosen method of torture and execution.


Prince Avendale,” the king finally rumbles in a dangerous tenor, “are you telling this court that you ordered your Champion to interfere with a Champions’ Duel? Are you telling this court that you engineered this betrayal that may have cost your people their sovereign power?”


DENY IT, DALE!


“Yes, I am.”


Leif bites back his roar of frustration and guilt and pain and despair. He knows if he makes a single noise he’ll be put to immediate death and now this stupid, headstrong boy-lion who has yet to grow in a full mane will need him alive for as long as possible, for if there is even the slightest chance of escape, Leif must ensure it for his liege. His vows will not permit him to acquiesce to death for as long as the prince needs him.


Dale, you selfish, idiotic...!
Words fail him.


“It displeases me greatly to hear this,” the king replies.


“I could not allow the Champion of my betrothed to be killed by my family,” he says. That and no more in his own defense.


Leif nearly roars at him: Now I will die defending you from your family and you will earn my punishment!


It’s too horrific to contemplate. The waste of life, of happiness, of a future, makes him feel physically ill.


“I will acquiesce to any and all punishments this court deems acceptable,” the prince says in a soft but firm tone.


For a moment, no one says anything at all. And then the queen speaks:


“You do not regret your actions in the slightest?”


From the resonance of her voice, Leif knows she’s struggling with tears, for she knows as well as Leif what fate will befall her youngest son now, what fate must befall him.


The prince replies, “I regret that I did not accompany the White Queen and her guard to Marmoreal. If I, my Champion, and my guard had done so, this tragedy may have been prevented – the White Queen may not have been captured and her Champion may not have been forced to serve their captors. But there is nothing I can do to make that right. That it happened, however, is my responsibility. I was remiss, overly confident, and thoughtless in my duties toward my betrothed. Perhaps my actions – the return of her Champion – have given some comfort to her despite the fact that she will never be fully compensated for her suffering.” The prince takes a deep breath. “I offer myself to the court and await your verdict.”


And when it comes long moments later, it is not the verdict Leif had expected.


In many ways, it is worse.

 

*~*~*~*

 

The next time Alice’s eyelashes flutter, Tarrant is very deliberately sitting in the armchair beside the bed. He resists the urge to lean closer to her, to touch her, to speak to her. The queen had given him very clear instructions regarding this after she’d come to check on Alice and had found Tarrant in the midst of cleaning up the shattered crockery on the wet floor.


He’d considered lying, rhyming – “Och, ‘twas me. Clumsy...” – but the queen had seen the falsehood forming in his eyes.


“The truth, Hatter,” she’d demanded.


He sighs at the memory. It’s impossible to defy a royal decree from one’s own sovereign. Unfortunately.


“Do not let her wake up next to you,” the queen had declared, her eyes swimming with sudden tears. “Alice has been doing her best to protect herself from men and beasts every minute of the day for nearly a week. Many of whom were Outlanders and spoke as such. Watch your voice with her, Tarrant. If you don’t think you can do that...”


“No, no, I will.


Resisting the urge to lean forward in the armchair to greet his Alice when she opens her eyes, Tarrant’s mouth tightens, his eyes narrow, he nods once.


I will!


He only hopes this will work. He only hopes she will see him this time, understand where she is. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he has to watch that frighteningly desperate, chilling madness take her again...


Tarrant fists his left hand and curses his utterly slurvish weakness, the weakness that had lead him to initiate the Thrice a-Vow with Alice.


My Alice, I never wanted you to know madness...


But she has known it. Her panic and aggression upon wakening, her complete inability to absorb reality, the flickering of amber-colored rage in her ought-to-be-brown eyes is all a testament to what Tarrant has done to her.


Unforgivable mistakes:


The heart line that has opened her mind to sharing his predisposition to madness...


The promise that had nearly driven her to fight until she died of exhaustion...


Tarrant briefly closes his eyes at the thought of that vow. In the dim hours surrounding dawn, he’d carefully considered the implications of that promise. After Alice had made it, she’d become the Queen’s Champion, had killed Ilosovich Stayne, had been forced to twist and mutilate herself into the sort of creature who could survive amongst a band of hardened, blood-thirsty mercenaries.


If this is what comes from a single, kept promise, Tarrant vows to never let her make another to him!


A small gasp startles him and he sits upright, his eyes opening, hope blossoming within him.


“Alice?” he whispers, dreading the reappearance of the madness, frightened for her.


She stares at him, disbelieving. “Am I... Are you real?”


Grinning, he reaches out to her and offers his hand. With the briefest hesitation, she takes it. He swallows thickly at her touch and forces his native Outlandish accent away. It pains him that Alice is in no condition to hear it now. It pains him to know that something that had given her such pleasure before now causes her unbearable pain.


“Feel that?” he asks.


“No bandages,” she notes. “Or thimbles. Strange...”


“Well, I couldn’t very well take them with me on a rescue mission or there’s no telling what sorts of hats they might have gotten up to.”


She chuckles in that soft, breathless way of hers. Tarrant studies her brown eyes, relieved that she’s really here with him. Present and accounted for.


She remembers me this time!


He watches as she shifts a bit uncomfortably and gives him an apologetic smile. “I’d very much like to hear about that rescue mission... just as soon as I use the lavatory.”


“Of course,” he replies and moves to help her up. “Slowly now. You’ve been very busy expelling Hafflaffen.”


“Is that why I feel as if a herd of gryphons have danced the Futterwhacken on me?”


Tarrant cackles despite himself. “Silly, Alice. Everyone knows gryphons Futterwhacken in flocks.


Alice snorts and swings her legs over the side of the bed. Gently, Tarrant pulls her to her feet. She sways for a moment, then finds her balance and looks up at him.


“Are you sure I’m not dreaming?” she wonders aloud.


“I’m sure,” he replies, resisting the urge to fold her into his embrace and keep her safe in his arms for all the days remaining within the Oraculum’s roll of parchment. “And before you ask, I’m fairly certain I’m not dreaming us, either.”


“But how do you know?” she wonders curiously.


“You could pinch me,” he suggests.


“No, I couldn’t.” And then she leans forward and presses her lips to his.


The groan nearly makes its way up his throat and past his vocal chords, but he strangles it in his chest.


Control, lad. Control!


Warily, he lifts his hands from her upper arms and wraps his right arm around her waist. His left hand delves deeply into her hair.


Stay with me, Alice. Don’t let me hurt you, remind you again...


Her arms wind around his shoulders and her hands bury themselves in his hair. Tarrant’s blood heats as she presses closer to him, her breasts so soft against his chest and her hips arching toward him so invitingly. His right hand, due to that damned annoying brace, cannot clench in her nightshirt, so he moves his left hand from where it cradles the back of her head. It trails down from her temple, along her cheek, and then his fingertips feather against her jaw. Tilting her head just a bit, he breathes against her neck, nibbles the underside of her chin, presses daring, biting kisses at the juncture where her pale neck becomes an equally invitingly pale shoulder.


“Tarrant...” she murmurs, moving against him. Her hands fist, one in his hair – still too long, but at times like this he can’t bring himself to mind! – and the other in his shirt. “So quiet...” she muses.


He winces but she does not see it, cannot see it. “If one of us is dreaming,” he murmurs against her skin, “I’d hate to wake us up...”


She sighs in agreement. “I’m afraid we’ll have to risk it regardless. I now urgently need to visit the lavatory.”


“Of course! Forgive me!” He escorts her across the hall to the room she requires then waits until she emerges, managing to catch Algernon’s unblinking eye and whisper a request for a meal service. He then helps Alice – looking much more relaxed and refreshed – back into their borrowed room.


“Why aren’t we in our apartment?” she asks and he feels his entire being fill with warmth at the small, simple phrase: our apartment.


“And why is your hand bandaged? What rescue mission? Why don’t I remember leaving Causwick? Did you say something about Hafflaffen? And do we have any Pain Paste for all these bloody bruises?”


Giggling, Tarrant sits her down on his lap in the armchair. “Let’s see... it’s easier to arrange for frequent hot baths on the first floor; I broke it; probably due to too much Hafflaffen; yes, I did say something about that; and no, not at the moment we don’t.” He taps her nose. “I think your curiosity is starting to catch up to you!”


“It already has,” she says with a breathy laugh. “Now stop being so mysterious and tell me what happened. Everything.”


“I will, Alice, just as soon as the tea service arrives.”


Her sigh is wistful, nostalgic. “Tea...”


He grins. “Aye... um, remember you mentioning something about missing it.” Tarrant resists a wince at the small slip and prays to the Fates that Alice hadn’t noticed...


Her eyes remain warm and dark and lucid. “Tea wasn’t the only thing I missed,” she murmurs. When she leans in to kiss him again, Tarrant opens to her readily at the first brush of her tongue. He can’t help the small, breathy moan as she possesses his mouth.


“Hmm...” she murmurs, leaning back for an agonizing moment. “Better. Say that again, Hatter.”


Her teeth scrape over his lower lip, trap it in her mouth and then she sucks on it just so. Tarrant hears himself indulge her request with helpless abandon. She moves in his lap, rubbing against him. He has to clear his throat to keep the Outlandish from pouring out: “Alice? What can I give you? Tea? An epic account of your rescue? Or...” Dare he hope for... “Myself?”


“All aforementioned necessities,” she breathes, lowering her mouth to his neck and nuzzling just beneath his ear.


“And...” He gulps. Control! “What would be your order of preference?”


“You. Tea. Epic-ness.”


He groans again. “Yes...”


And a moment later, Alice is leaning over him atop the bed, one thigh on either side of his hips, her body rocking against his as they fumble their way through the buttons of each other’s shirts. There’s a moment of breathy laughter as their trousers are dealt with, followed by a moment of breathless moans as he fills his hand with her breast and brushes his callused, rough fingers over her nipple, and then a moment of gasping breaths as she takes him inside her with a move so utterly, breathtakingly demanding that he loses every coherent thought and several half-mad ones.


“...yes... Alice...


She thrusts against him, letting her head fall back and her eyes close. “Tarrant...

He clenches his teeth to keep the Outlandish in check. Luckily, groans and other sounds of pleasure seem to be acceptable and he provides them in abundance. His incapacitated right hand stays at her hip, following and anticipating her movements. His left rises, once again trailing his fingertips over her nipple, the swell of her breast, and then up to that undeniably mesmerizing hollow at the base of her throat. He wants to wrap his fingers around the irresistible column of her neck and measure her thrumming pulse but something stops him, reminds him not to...


“... Alice, please, more...


She moans, tightens her muscles around him in that mind-blankingly, thought-destroyingly amazing way of hers and leaning back, bracing her hands on his thighs, moves.


The sight of her arched, offered, lost to the feeling of him-her-us-mine-yours-YES-NOW-MORE! undoes him.


“Too... too soon! Alice!”


And then he can’t take anymore! In the next breath, he’s above her and her head is now resting on the tangle of blankets at the foot of the bed and her legs are around his waist and he’s moving-seeking-finding-taking! so deep inside of her he expects to be lost forevermore.


Tarrant...!” is the only warning she gives him before she’s tightening around him with maddening intensity. He pants against her collarbone and struggles not to disappoint her. His hips drive against her: in and in and in and in and in and in...


... and then, with a strangled cry, her fists release his hair, her arms slacken and with a muffled whine against her heart line, he joins her in release.


When Tarrant manages to tumble back into his own topsy-turvy mind, he notices Alice’s hands brushing out his eyebrows, trailing down the length of his nose, rubbing against his lips, lingering under his jaw...


He opens his eyes. “Are you...?”


“Fine,” she tells him, smiling that smile. The one that’s for her lover only. The very best reward he could ever receive for pleasing her yet again. “Ravens,” she whispers.


Tarrant sighs as the last of his reservations evaporate: Alice is truly going to be all right! They are going to be all right! “And writing desks, my Alice.” He rubs his lips against hers in a prelude to a kiss.


“No one has the slightest idea why we say that, you know,” she mutters, closing her eyes and mimicking his not-quite-a-kiss ministrations.


“Not true,” he argues. “We do.” He pauses and says against her willing mouth, “A fact that pleases me greatly.


She moans her agreement as his tongue gently enters her mouth and savors her.


It’s a while before Algernon is finally permitted to enter the guestroom with the tray he’d prepared, much to the fish butler’s obvious irritation. Tarrant is surprised the creature doesn’t voice his complaint, though, when the Hatter finally opens the door and accepts the covered dishes and tea tray. But, perhaps, it has something to do with the way Alice is lounging across the rumpled bed, wearing naught but Tarrant’s too-large bathrobe and a very satisfied smile.

 

Chapter Text

“Oh, Alice!


Alice pulls Mirana into a tight embrace and feels the queen lean her cheek against her head. “You’re safe after all,” Alice murmurs. “Tarrant told me but I was afraid to believe it without...”


“Seeing it with your own eyes,” the queen finishes for her. “I know, dear Alice. I know.” With a final squeeze, Mirana pulls back. “Come and sit with me, just the two of us for a bit. Let us put all of that unpleasantness behind us, once and for all. There’s much to be done in the coming days...”


Alice nods and follows Mirana to the sofa in the queen’s tower parlor. They sit but Mirana doesn’t let go of Alice’s hand. Alice smiles at the gesture.


“It’s nice to be able to really look at you again,” she says, shuddering at the memory of manufactured indifference.


“Yes, and it’s wonderful to actually like what I see when do look at my Champion again!”


Alice fidgets. “Well, I’m not actually... that is, Tarrant explained how Chessur, uhm, persuaded Jaspien to release me from his service. So, doesn’t that mean that... I’m no one’s Champion?”


“At the moment, perhaps,” Mirana replies. “And should you chose not to continue on that path, I will understand. Just know that it is open to you should you wish to resume it.”


Alice struggles to swallow around the sudden tension gripping her throat. “Tha... thank you.”


Mirana smiles and brushes an errant curl away from Alice’s eyes. “No, thank you, Alice. Despite my assurances that I could negotiate our way out of that blasted castle, it was you who saved us both.”


Her heart thumps painfully at the reminder. “I didn’t know... I still don’t know how I managed to do... those things. I... I could hear myself – the things I was saying – and yet I just couldn’t believe that was really me... that I was really...”


“You are a woman of most uncommon strength,” Mirana tells her warmly. “And, working together, we managed to hold on long enough for a way out of that horrible place to be shown to us.”


Alice sighs. “I’ve yet to thank everyone. I’ve only seen you and Tarrant so far...”


“Which is fine! The others know you’re recovering and I’m sure Tarrant is with them as we speak, letting them know how you are.”


“Thank you, Your Magesty. For curing me. Tarrant told me about Oshtyer and the Hafflaffen...” Alice sends a wry glance in the queen’s direction. “And I strongly suspect that Mally, Thackery, Chessur, and Tarrant are – at this very moment – actually reviving the Resistance under the guise of afternoon tea.”


Mirana laughs. “I wouldn’t doubt it! Tarrant is quite protective of you. I’ve never seen him so...”


Alice feels a twinge in her chest at the thought of Tarrant worried sick about her. In fact, she might have seen that look on his face when she’d finally woken up yesterday and had found him doing his best to restrain himself to the armchair beside the bed...


“I’m just so glad you’re all right,” Mirana says, squeezing Alice’s fingers.


Alice studies the queen’s face. “And how are you? Did Jaspien keep his word to you? Were you... I mean...”


“I was fine. Completely and utterly fine. Although, I must say, if I ever have to watch that man contemplate a boiled egg or hear him slurp his porridge again, I may go against my vows not to harm a living creature.”


“That sounds... torturous,” Alice replies with a wry but sympathetic grin.


Mirana laughs softly. “Not as much as trying to act like a brainless nitwit of a girl who is easily distracted by shiny things.”


Alice chuckles. “But you fooled him.”


“And you fooled Valereth into thinking you were cooperating out of ambition, and Oshtyer into thinking you were loving it for the violence. I... I’m sorry, Alice. I never could have done that.”


“Despite getting such good marks in Resolving Disputes with Temperamental Despots?”


The queen laughs. “Yes. Despite even that.”


“Would you...” Alice glances away, knowing she has no right to ask but feels compelled to nonetheless. “Would you tell me about it? I’d really like to know exactly what it was like. For you.”


Smiling, Mirana lays an arm across Alice’s shoulders and tells her. She leaves nothing out. Not the battle she’d watched Alice fight in the courtyard, not the grand plan of their captors to divvy up all of Underland between them, and not Oshtyer’s vile scheme to lure Alice into his clutches. Mirana leaves nothing hidden and dabs gently at Alice’s silent tears with her lace handkerchief.


“There, there. It’s over now. They cannot hurt us anymore, for we’ve grown stronger through that trial even though we were already stronger than all three of them put together!”


Alice merely nods and sniffles.


Mirana fetches her a fresh handkerchief and a cup of cooling tea. For several minutes, they simply sit together on the sofa, luxuriating in an act that is so simple and yet had been impossible a mere two days ago.


“And now you, dear Alice,” Mirana coaxes gently. “Will you tell me of your time there? Leaving nothing out?”


Alice looks up, startled. “I...” She frowns. “I...” Her memories swirl like a sea storm through her head. Everything is suddenly there, all at once! She flinches away from the darkness and cruel laughter and pain and heart-tearing anguish.


“Alice? Can you tell me?”


She blinks and studies her friend’s pale, worried face and for an instant her desire to lay all of this pain and darkness at Mirana’s feet is nearly as strong as the sudden panic that warns her not to even consider it.


The queen waits.


Alice struggles to find some way to fulfill her request competently. And without getting sucked into – trapped within! – Causwick Castle again. Even if it is only real in her memories now.


And then there’s a soft knock on the door.


“Come in!” Mirana calls with an apologetic smile.


“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but we’ve guests from Shuchland awaiting an audience with you in the White Hall.”


At the mention of Shuchland, Mirana stands and as her hand is once more wrapped around Alice’s, Alice is pulled to her feet as well. “Prince Avendale?” she asks, already rushing toward the door.


Lakerton bows and holds the door open for her.


Alice marvels at how fast Mirana can run in her white heeled slippers and yet still produce only a whisper of sound and the vaguest impression of haste.


Must make a note to ask her where she learned how to comport herself like that,
Alice thinks as she does her best to keep up. The castle corridors and stairs blur past and it seems only a moment or so later that Pondish and a fellow who Alice thinks is called Marshing open the great doors for the queen and Alice to pass though.


Alice blinks, taking in the pair of figures kneeling before the simple, white throne on its raised dais. For a moment, she doesn’t recognize them.


“Dale!” Mirana gasps, releases Alice’s hand, and rushes toward him.


Alice gapes. The prince doesn’t even turn to look at her. His ear twitches just barely in her direction, but that is all. Alice watches as Mirana sinks to the polished floor in front of him and gathers his paws in her hands.


“What has happened to you?”


Approaching the figure that must be the prince’s Champion, Alice has to struggle not to gasp aloud as the queen had. Both of them are barefoot and she can see dirt and blood and scratches and cuts on the pads of their feet. Their clothes are torn and filthy. Fine tremors run through Champion Avenleif’s body and his arms shake. She hears the faint, despairing gurgle of an empty stomach and, with a glance at the attending frog footman, softly requests meals, baths, and guest quarters to be readied.


“... banished.” Alice hears the prince explain in a lifeless tone. “We are disowned and exiled, Your Majesty. We came here not to seek your protection or mercy, but to assure ourselves that you and your Champion are safe and well before we continue on our way...”


Alice stares, finally noticing the most horrid thing of all – the prince’s mane, his lustrous golden mane, has been completely and brutally hacked off. Mirana is busy inspecting the dark cuts made by a hastily-wielded razor – or dagger – along his neck.


“You will stay with me, here,” Mirana tells him. “And I will treat these wounds and you will re-grow your mane, and when you are able and willing, you may tell me the reason for such an ill fate to have befallen you.”


The prince lowers his head again as Mirana gently strokes his cheeks and ears. Alice sinks down to her knees beside her newest friend and fellow fighter and, remembering the very unfriendly look he had given her as she’d left Avenfaire, she gently lays a hand on his shoulder.


“Do you need to see a physician?” she asks softly.


He shakes his head.


Alice can think of nothing else to say.


When the frog footman returns, she stands and, with a hand under his great, beefy arm, urges him up. “Your rooms are ready as well as baths and something to eat. Your Majesty?” Alice’s tone manages to rouse the queen, who makes an effort to pull the other lion to his feet. She manages it only because the prince does not deny her wordless request.


“Come on,” Alice says, maneuvering Avenleif out of the hall and down the corridors in the frog’s wake. They don’t go far, thankfully. The apartment on the first floor, tucked away in a newer wing of the castle, had obviously been meant for visiting dignitaries.


“No,” Dale says, refusing to enter the fine room. “We cannot stay here. I’m no longer...”


“It doesn’t matter,” Mirana tells him. “I’m afraid one room is much like any other in this castle. You’ll have to suffer with the luxury.”


Alice moves to enter the room behind them, but at her side, the lion refuses to budge. Frowning, she looks up, “Champion Avenlief, I’ll thank you to cooperate with us.”


“Champion Alice,” he rumbles, his eyes so sad, so devoid of light and humor and life. “My liege is no longer a prince, so I can no longer be addressed as a Champion. We are no longer even Avens... I am called Leif now.” He closes his eyes and shudders. “And I am thankful to have that much.”


“I don’t understand,” she admits. “How did this happen?”


“You don’t remember the battle?”


Alice shakes her head. “No, I was told I fought with the Champion from Shuchland, but I can’t...” Frustrated, she shakes her head. “I have no memory of it.”


He lets out a long breath and lays a scratched and grimy paw over her hand which still rests on his arm. “Avenresh – the King’s Champion – wanted to end the duel as quickly as possible to secure victory for Shuchland. He refused to... I couldn’t let him...” His sigh sounds like a soft growl. “Your people needed time to free you from Jaspien’s control before they could take you home.” Alice nods. Tarrant had explained that part of the plan. Leif concludes, “I... I took Avenresh’s place.”


Alice stares at him. “You... I fought you?


“Yes.” And then one side of his mouth tilts upward and a tiny light enters his golden eyes. “You were pretty good with a broadsword, actually.”


“Don’t look so surprised,” she replies in a droll tone.


“Far be it from me to wound the pride of a true Champion,” he says by way of apology, his gaze moving over her with unnerving intensity.


Alice shivers and searches for the way back to their original conversation. “So you took the place of the King’s Champion... but then why...?”


“Without permission, Champion Alice. I acted on my own. I risked the future of the family of Aven, of Shuchland. The penalty for that...” He sighs and glances at the open door. “Dale, the idiot, convinced his father I’d done so on his orders. And for that...”


“They cut off his mane?” Alice wonders aloud, horrified.


“Disowned us, exiled us.” He looks down and turns his paw, collecting Alice’s hand in his much larger one. “We came only to see if you and the queen were safe and well. We have nothing to offer in repayment of any kindness Her Majesty shows us. We cannot stay.”


Alice narrows her eyes. “You will stay. Dale needs you and Mirana needs him. It’s the least you can do.”


“And you, Champion Alice?” Leif asks softly. “Is there no service your require? Nothing you will accept in payment for your hospitality?”


Alice grasps his thick fingers – only two fit in her grasp, but she doesn’t loosen her grip – and informs him, “It’s Alice, just Alice now. And you’ve yet to finish teaching me how to use a scimitar. I’ll be expecting those lessons to continue.”


A small puff of laughter escapes him. “You might have noticed I didn’t bring one with me.”


“I have the one you gave me. And a few others I picked up in the market.”


“Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”


Alice grins. “I’m not sure. But keep trying. I’ll warn you... it could take a while.”


“Days?” he asks.


Alice simply gives him a mysterious smile and playful shove. “Get in there and eat before the complaints from your stomach get so loud I can’t even hear myself think.”


He barks out a laugh. “Yes, just Alice.”


“Oh, keep it to a dull roar, would you?”


He tilts his head in acquiescence and Alice notices faint humor and familiar animation in his features again. It warms her heart to see him looking more like himself. As he turns to enter the room, Alice puts her hand on his arm.


“And Leif... thank you.


Leif turns and looks at her over his shoulder. His eyes flicker briefly in the direction of her left hand and the heart line. “For you, Alice, I could not have done otherwise. No thanks are needed. Or deserved.”


“Let me be the judge of that. Now eat your tofu and mushrooms.”


Leif makes a face. “Yum...”


Alice laughs and pushes him through the door. She moves to follow but a flash of movement stops her. Turning, tense and alert, she scans the pearly corridor. She studies each doorway, but there’s no one and nothing there. She frowns. Perhaps she’d merely experienced a sliver of a memory, something from her time at Causwick... Or a hopeful phantom...? Perhaps it had been...? No, she decides. No, certainly she hadn’t seen a familiar dark suit and top hat just now.


It’s just my imagination... reminding me of how much I miss him already...


Alice considers leaving their guests to their own devices, but knows she can’t. Even though she’s not the Queen’s Champion at the moment, Alice is still Mirana’s friend. And her friend needs her here.


With a sigh, she steps into the apartment and helps Mirana organize the preparation of the baths and medicines their guests will need while the lions eat. Still, she can’t shake the sudden, odd, empty echo in the center of her chest. As if her heart had stopped beating and now only dreams of a memory of having once done so.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Hatter? Where’s Alice?” Mally asks, tossing a sugar cube at Thackery. Turning, she plants her tiny fisted paws on her hips and reminds him, “You said you were bringing her down for tea.”


“You know very well Tarrant cannot just drag Alice away from a private meeting with the queen,” Chessur replies, rolling his eyes.


“Humph. They’ve been up there for an hour! What do they need to talk about anyway?”


Tarrant sinks down into his chair and studies the gilded edge of his teacup.


“Ar, th’queen needs a Champion nauw, don’she?” Thackery replies, twirling his half-full cup around in its saucer with his pinky.


“But Alice is her Champion!”


Chessur, hovering, rolls onto his back and contradicts her: “Not since Her Majesty released her from her vows. Remember? That’s how she was able to swear allegiance to Jaspien.”


“Th’cad!” Thackery reminds them all with a thump on the table.


“So... Alice is retaking her Champion vows?” Mally asks curiously.


“I would imagine so,” Chessur answers her, but Tarrant can feel the cat’s attention on him. “Tarrant, would you know anything about Alice’s intentions to resume her position as the Queen’s Champion?”


Mute, Tarrant shakes his head and tries not to compare the cup’s delicate gold marquee with the pattern of Alice’s heart line.


A beat of silence rolls down the table and over the tea service and party participants. “Tarrant...” Chessur says in a warning tone. “I know that look. This is a tea party. Either leave the self-pity at the door or share it out with your friends and be done with it.”


He sighs and glances around at the expectant faces of his closest – Chessur, too? Odd... – friends and informs them in a low mumble, “Avendale and his Champion are here.”


“Here? Nauw?” Thackery hiccups.


Tarrant nods.


“Well, you’ve got to admit, the Champion was rather... useful in helping us get Alice back,” Chessur dares to suggest.


Tarrant aims a glare at him. “I want him away from my Alice!” he spits out between his teeth, closing his eyes and trying not to remember the rumbling chuckle, the tender tone, the softly spoken confession: “For you, Alice, I could not have done otherwise...”


“Hatter!”


Looking up, Tarrant blinks and then, looking down, notices that both of his hands are curled over his teacup as if he plans to snap it in half right down the middle. He gently returns it to the saucer and clears his throat. However, he does not tell them he’s fine. He is not fine!


“Alice likes him,” he forces himself to explain even though he can’t bring himself to stop glowering at the empty cup.


Again Silence pulls up a chair and keeps them company.


Surprisingly, it’s Thackery who evicts the unwanted guest: “Bu’ye’re th’one she gav’er heart teh!”


“Exactly!” Mally agrees enthusiastically. “You’re being jealous, Hatter. You’re the world to Alice. Why do you think I let her have you?”


Tarrant frowns at her and she covers her mouth with her paws, giggling.


“Jealousy doesn’t suit you,” Chessur tells him, eyeing his jacket which now sports olive green threadwork. “Not that it looks good on anyone. Dreadful color... What if Alice were to walk in and see you like this?”


He twitches and helplessly looks at the door – still closed! – and sighs.


“A weddin’!” Thackery declares. “Marry th’lass, Hatter! That’ll settle it!”


“An excellent suggestion,” Chessur approves. Then, aside, mumbles, “For once.”


Mally gapes. “You haven’t asked Alice to marry you yet?


Tarrant winces. “The Thrice a-Vow...”


“Is no substitute for a wedding!” Mally insists. “No wonder you’re all turned inside-down and upside-out over this!”


“What you need is commitment,” Chessur declares. “Propose to Alice. That will settle your mind on this issue once and for all.”


“Och, a weddin’!” Thackery croons, misty-eyed, to a sugar cube lying on the table.


Tarrant considers his friends’ suggestion. Could it be that simple?


Perhaps... He’d be able to keep Alice, and – more importantly – he’d be sure she would stay with him! Not only that, but that wretched lion would realize that Alice is his once and for all! And Tarrant knows that once Alice has promised herself to him for all time, she’ll keep that...


Promise!


Ah, yes. A wedding vow is a promise, isn’t it?


The warm rush of hope suddenly turns gray and lifeless in his chest. “No, no I can’t ask Alice to make me another promise.”


“There’s no limit to the number of promises one can accept in Underland,” Chessur reminds him, helping himself to more tea.


“It’s not good for Alice to keep making promises to me. The last one...”


“Saved her life!” Mally declares.


“Nearly took her life!”


Chessur sighs. “Ah, now we come to it.”


“Guilt!” Thackery agrees. “Very bad f’r digestion!”


Tarrant sighs. “I cannae ask Alice to marry me.”


“So, don’t ask her to marry you!” Mally nearly shouts in a moment of inspiration. “Ask if you may marry her!


Thackery twitches. “Och... Nauw tha’s... lovely!” He lifts the corner of the tablecloth and dabs his dewy eyes and blows his nose.


“Yes!” Chessur agrees. “It’s not a promise if she chooses you, Tarrant!”


Tarrant blinks, stares, opens his mouth, but nothing emerges.

“Will you invite us to the Choosing?” Mally pleads.


“Will there be tea?” Thackery presses.


“Can I wear your hat?” Chessur begs.


And then the door to the kitchen opens and Alice walks in, smiling. “You’ve already worn this wonderful, lovely hat, Cat,” she says wandering over to Tarrant and running her fingertips along the brim in a very suggestive manner.


Tarrant shivers despite the audience.


Voice husky, Alice tells them, “It’s my turn next.”


Alice takes the seat next to his and Tarrant slides a glance in her direction, feeling his face heat at the very thought of Alice wearing his hat...


He clears his throat, minds his accent, and reaches for her hand under the table. “I might permit you to borrow it... on one or two conditions...”


Alice smiles and raises her brows. “And what might those be?”


“Those... will be discussed... later.” His look is significant.


Alice’s smile is... appreciative.


“Tea, Alice?” Chessur interrupts.


“Thank you,” she replies as she accepts a cup. “And, thank you, all of you, for everything. Most especially, for rescuing the queen and myself.”


“Our pleasure!” Mally insists. “Who knew tying up smelly, hairy toes would be so much fun?”


Toes on strings!” Thackery chortles. He and the dormouse clink their teacups together in a toast.


“Despite the saddle sores, corset, and stockings, I also found it to be a very rewarding experience,” Chessur insists.


Alice sniggers into her tea. Tarrant merely sits and regards her with wonder. For, amazingly, Alice is finally here sitting next to him at tea with their friends, laughing as if the whole nightmare – both Alice’s time at Causwick and Tarrant’s chronic vision of her death – had never happened at all! Why, she’s just exactly like herself! His Alice! Tarrant’s very much muchier Alice!


Perhaps he could... he could ask her if she’d permit him to wed her...


He’s so overcome with the possibility – and the sudden hope that it might be made into reality – that he draws a breath to blurt out his request, right here at tea, surrounded by their friends: Alice, will you choose me to be your husband?


“A prince and a Champion in the castle! We need more tea!” Thackery declares with characteristic abruptness.


And with that, the moment dies. Tarrant deflates a bit and glares at the March Hare across the table.


At Tarrant’s side, Alice nods. His heart aches as her carefree smile dims, fades, and then disappears completely. “Yes, they just arrived.”


“Are they... staying long?” Mally ventures.


“I would imagine so. They’ve no place to go and before we were... er, before we left Shuchland, the queen had every intention of marrying Prin... um, Dale. They’re betrothed you know. In the Shuchish custom.”


Mally lets out a dreamy sigh and reclines against the inner curve of an unused teacup.


“Romance... all around us!” Thackery warns them, his gaze fixed on Tarrant.


“What do you mean, they have no place to go?” Chessur prompts.


Alice sets her cup down and turns just slightly in Tarrant’s direction until her knee is gently pressing just against his. “Well, you all know I fought Aven... er, Dale’s Champion at the battlefield, right? Well... it wasn’t supposed to be him. He... took the place of the King’s Champion without permission... to, uhm, help with your plan.” She closes her eyes and elaborates, “To rescue me. And...”


Tarrant watches as she struggles for a light tone of voice but eventually seems to settle on a factual one. “The prince told his father he’d ordered Leif to do it and so both of them are banished from Shuchland. I’m not sure if we should even call them by their titles or family names anymore. They’ve lost everything...”


In spite of himself, Tarrant can’t help but feel his aggression towards that beast soften at her words. Or perhaps it is simply Alice’s own heartache, reaching him through the heart line. He doesn’t try to untangle the feelings themselves, he simply wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her a bit closer to him on the bench.


Mally sniffles, “They’ve no home now? No names?”


“Only Dale and Leif, if I understand the situation correctly.”


“And the queen!” Thackery insists.


Alice smiles weakly. “Yes, that’s true. They have her as an ally now. The queen is very fond of Dale. I hope... Oh, oh!” Suddenly, Alice pulls away from Tarrant and, grabbing his jacket, gently shakes him. “What if the queen can’t marry him now that he’s not a prince?


“Not an issue,” Chessur replies while Tarrant once again struggles with his natural Outlandish. “The queen can marry whomever she pleases. It’s only those of high birth who can petition for her hand. Which, of course, Prin... er, Dale has already done.”


Alice relaxes again and Tarrant welcomes her weight against his side. “Still, what they did for me... What Leif did for me... I mean, he must have known he would be...” She closes her eyes and Tarrant watches her lips press together and her brows draw downward in pained sorrow. “I’ll never be able to repay him for that. No matter what I do...”


The thought of Alice repaying that lion sparks the darkest corner of Tarrant’s mind to life. Imagining all the ways that creature might like for Tarrant’s Alice to repay him for his noble sacrifice has him opening his mouth and speaking before he even knows what he intends to say:


“’Tis nae yer debt teh be repaid, Alice. ‘Tis mine an’we’ll sort it out jus’as—”


Tarrant breaks off abruptly as Alice, pressed against his side, stiffens.


Oh, no!
NO! What have ye done, lad?!


In his chest, the warmth he’d felt coming from Alice abruptly ceases. He feels nothing from the heart line at all.


“Alice? Alice?” Tarrant lisps firmly, urgently. He gently cradles her face in his hands and turns her toward him. “I’m sorry, Alice. I wasn’t thinking...” He searches her blank gaze for a spark of recognition. “Look at me, Alice. Please...


Alice draws in a slow, controlled breath.


He dares to hope that maybe... perhaps...


“Get your hands off of me, Outlander,” she commands, her voice cold and each word dipped in venom before being spat out at him.


Slowly, he removes them. “I beg your pardon,” he whispers, never meaning those words so literally in his life.


“Now find yourself a seat that’s not next to mine.”


She doesn’t shout at him this time, which is good. And she doesn’t shake with exhaustion, which is also good. But Tarrant can’t help but feel that despite those things, the situation remains very bad, indeed.


He hesitates a little too long and, in the next instant, feels the edge of a cheese knife – why must Thackery always set the table for teatime and dinner? – pressed against his throat.


Move,” Alice orders.


He obeys. Careful not to approach her in anyway – either by shifting his weight or placing his hands between them – he slides backward along the bench until a space two arm-lengths across separates them. Alice, meanwhile, watches him, her entire being radiating with disgust and disdain. When she judges the distance between them to be satisfactory, she smiles – and oh, what a mockery of a smile it is! – and says, “Good boy. I suppose you can be taught after all.”


Tarrant resists fisting his hands in frustration, resists letting his disappointment, desolation, distress, and despair add tension to his body. He struggles to make himself look weak and benign to her.


“Alice! What are you doing?” Mally shrieks at her, the first to find her voice. Chessur and Thackery are still staring, mouths agape.


Alice blinks and focuses on the dormouse. “Hm? Oh, I’m sorry. What were we...?”


And it’s at this moment that Alice seems to notice several things at once: Mally’s disbelief-and-soon-to-be-righteous-rage, Chessur’s wide eyes, Thackery’s utter stillness, the distance between herself and Tarrant, and the cheese knife in her hand, which she abruptly releases onto the table with a clatter.


“What...?” Alice seems to shrink in on herself. “Have I done something?”


Her voice catches on the last syllable and Tarrant pulls himself closer to her and reaches for her.


No! What are you doing?” Mally hisses, alarmed. She draws her sword.


Tarrant ignores her. “Nothing’s wrong, Alice. You’re fine. I’m fine. We’re fine,” he soothes her, speaks into her hair.


“I... don’t think I am,” Alice murmurs, unsettled. “Why...?”


But she never finishes the question.


Tarrant closes his eyes and resists the sudden, hot rush of tears, for he knows what question she had been about to ask but does not want to know the answer to. He doesn’t blame her. The answer frightens him, too.


Before Mally or Chessur or Thackery can volunteer any information, Tarrant briefly opens his eyes and glares them into silence. Mally glares back and opens her mouth to protest but he gestures furiously out of Alice’s sight until she turns away with a huff.


“Hush, Alice, hush,” he begs her. Please, don’t make me tell you the truth!


Tarrant has never shied away from the truth as he does now. For how can he explain her episodes of madness without explaining how the combination of his heart line – the open door to madness – on her skin and the promise he’d evoked from her heart – to persevere by any means necessary – so long ago have made it possible?


Ye did this to her.


Yes, yes, he had.


‘Tis unforgivable!


He knows. So he doesn’t tell her. For if she does not know, then she will not hate him for it, will not leave him because of it.


Choose me, Alice, please!
He’d beg if only he still deserved the right to do so. But Tarrant very much fears he’s lost that.


No, the truth is too horrible, too terrible, too much! And, once again, he pleads for Time to come to his aid. He hoards this moment with Alice, while she knows him, remembers him, sees him, holds him, trusts him! And he struggles not to think about a future in which none of these things may be possible.

 

Chapter Text


Mirana has always been happiest when she’s been permitted time – and an excuse! – to dabble in her laboratory.


Across the expansive room, Thackery bangs around at the stove. It’s soothing, in a way. It keeps her in the here and now. She’d once considered setting up her alchemy tables, cauldrons and cupboards in the rooms that had been built specifically for them. But no... sharing a room with the kitchens is better. It’s more difficult for her to lose herself in the rhythmic simmering, the mesmerizing dance of the flame, the gentle clinking of jars as she proceeds from one step to the next in the ages-old recipes... Yes, it’s much more difficult to forget herself here in this corner of the enormous kitchen with Thackery clanking pans and salt shakers together in the background. And it’s most especially difficult for her to forget herself when she has someone to keep her company while she works.


The last time she’d brewed for an audience, it had been Alice who had knelt at the other side of the table, her Upelkuchen-overindulged head resting on her rather too-capable arms. Today, however, someone with far more whiskers than Mirana’s Champion occupies that seat.


“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that song before.”


The queen pauses and realizes she’d been humming... rather badly off-key. She smiles at the bedraggled-looking lion leaning his elbows against the tabletop. “I’m very much afraid you have.” She sighs, a bit embarrassed. “It’s the Waltz of the Tumtum Tree,” she admits.


He shakes his head. “A classic, to be sure, but – in your voice – as unique as you are, Mirana.”


She arches a brow at him and reaches for, selects, then adds a buttered finger to the mixture simmering between them. “You’ve recovered your charm well. Now all you need is the mane to go with it.”


He shifts, his smile falling. “I know it bothers you to see me like this. I’m sorry.”


Mirana leans over the table and gently cups his whiskery chin. “Do not,” she says sternly, “be sorry for doing what you know is right. I know how important Leif is to you.” Indeed, Dale had told her story after story from his cubhood during her visit to Shuhcland; Leif has always been Dale’s best friend, protector, brother...


He sighs. “It’s true... I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled my tail out of trouble...” Dale lifts his paws as if to rub his neck but he freezes midway and returns them to the table without doing so.


Mirana knows he doesn’t want to be reminded so totally of his humiliation. She can barely conceive of how he’d managed to bear it in the first place. For a lion without his mane is considered the most pathetic and pitiful of creatures. A non-entity. A ghost of a once-mighty beast. Just imagining it being hacked off of him... when she hadn’t even been there to support him... when she hadn’t even known it was happening...! Not for the first time, she wonders at the purpose of the bond they share if it cannot even alert her to his pain and heartache!!


“Mirana... please. Don’t.” She looks up and blinks furiously at the gathering tears. Dale gives her a droll look. “Isn’t it enough I’m letting you salvage my vanity? Don’t make me thank you for it, too.”


Her laughter pushes the tears away. “Absolutely not. No thanks allowed!”


Giving his whiskered chin one last caress, she returns to her task and reaches for a bowl of freshly ground spite nettles. “I would have done the same for Alice,” she says softly, needing him to grasp the depth of her understanding and empathy.


“I don’t doubt it, Mi-sh’rya.”


Mirana looks up at the alteration of her name.


Dale’s grin is endearingly nervous. “Mirana,” he corrects himself.


“That’s not the first time you’ve Shuchished my name. Care to tell me what it means?”


She catches the gleam of one of his dagger-like teeth before he smothers his smile. “It means – were your father alive – he’d be within his rights to toss me out on my left ear. I really shouldn’t have used it so freely.”


“Well, until you tell me what it means, I won’t possibly be able to agree with you on that, will I?”


“I suppose not,” he replies, finally allowing the wide smile to reveal itself.


Mirana gives him a devious glace. “Or, I suppose I could consult Leif. Do you suppose he’d tell me?”


“Only after boxing my ears,” he chuckles ruefully.


“Oh, dear. Now you’ve really got me wondering...”


“Well,” he counters, clearing his throat. “Never accuse me of ruining a good mystery.”


Mirana laughs. “And why would you bother with mysteries at all? Perhaps I prefer poetry or sonnets...?”


Dale regards her with his golden eyes which sometimes seem so young and sometimes so sagely. “More often than not, we like the very things that we are.”


“Are you saying I’m a mystery?” she muses, her eyes now on her work.


“The most intriguing one I’ve had the pleasure to meet,” he confirms.


Mirana tilts her head to the side and contemplates his charming rejoinder. “And what will you do when you’ve unpuzzled the puzzle?”


He considers his answer. “I suppose I’ll have to ask you for a Forgetfulness Draught, so that I can rediscover the answer all over again.”


She smiles. “Dangerous things, Forgetfulness Draughts, for you never know what it is you’ll forget, and once you’ve forgotten it...” With a tiny smile, she teases, “And besides, you might very well forget me.”


“And then you would have to introduce yourself, charm me, and watch me fall in love with you all over again,” he rumbles quietly, humor dancing in his eyes.


“I suppose I would, wouldn’t I? Can’t leave you in such a state of forgetfullish-ness.”


“But, please, don’t let me inconvenience you, Your Magesty.”


“No, please, inconvenience me,” she murmurs back, playing along as she adds two fork tines of silken sunshine.


“That’s what I appear to be attempting at the moment. How am I doing?”


Mirana sighs dramatically. “Amateurishly, I’m afraid.


He coughs out a laugh. “I suppose I could practice elsewhere until I manage to improve to an acceptable level of proficiency. Could you suggest a volunteer?”


She waves a wooden spoon at him. “All right, now you’re inconveniencing me.”


“Have I graduated, then?”


“Only to Novice.”


“Is the lesson over yet?”


“Not at all.”


“Then I shall endeavor to reach Sufficient before I concede.”


“You may begin at any time, sir.”


Grinning, Dale stands and, bracing his paws against the table, leans over the assortment of jars and bottles and pots and containers and Mirana feels his whiskers tickle her cheek and neck.


“You smell of happiness, Mi-sh’rya,” he purrs.


With a delightful shiver, Mirana turns her face toward his and...


BANG!


She startles, her hand flying to her heart – which suddenly remembers to start beating again and commences with making up for the lost beats with extreme haste! Across the table, Dale had leapt over the bench and now places himself between Mirana and the door.


Alice?!


Mirana sighs, leans around Dale’s shoulder and smiles apologetically at a very disorganized-looking Royal Hatter. “I’m afraid not, Tarrant. Has she misplaced herself?”


“Yes, I fear so...” he replies, kneeling down to scan under the tables. “Thackery, have you a shrunken Alice in your pinafore pocket?”


No Pishsalver!” he grunts, whisking something in a bowl with a carrot peeler.


“Try the training field,” Dale suggests just as Tarrant dives for the kitchen door, having evidently used up his kitchen’s worth allotment of patience.


Tarrant pauses, hand on the door, and turns. “The... training field?” Mirana finds herself receiving an apprehensive yellow-green glance over Dale’s shoulder.


“Yes, she and Leif have a appointment with a pair of scimitars, I believe—”


Tarrant barrels out of the kitchen. Mirana is not far behind him.


Oh, no. Oh, dear. Alice fighting with a lion...! And only three days after being released from Jaspien’s service! Only days after being surrounded by men and beasts with weapons...! Only...


“Mirana?”


“I’m afraid this is rather urgent,” she tells Dale over her shoulder. The hallway is already empty when she pushes past the still-swinging door. She picks up her skirts and hurriedly prances her way toward the croquet pitch. Even before she arrives, panting – really, Mirana! You ought to schedule more exercise into your plans for the day! – she can hear Tarrant’s shout.


“Orgal!”


CRASH!


“Noge!”


Mirana emerges into the sunlit yard and gasps. Leif wields his scimitar with his left hand and his right arm hangs limply at his side. Mirana has to turn her head away from the sight of the bloody gash running from mid-bicep to his wrist.


Tarrant scoops up a scimitar with his left hand and steps forward to draw Alice’s attacks.


“No!” Leif hisses. “You won’t need that.”


Reluctantly, Tarrant tosses the sword aside and stays two paces behind Alice, shadowing her. Mirana expects the woman to turn and run the Hatter through at any moment, but she’s completely and utterly – even mindlessly – focused on Leif.


In a series of neat moves, Leif manages to tie up Alice’s sword and flips it out of her grasp. With her weapon gone, Alice immediately moves into a crouch and her fingers reach for the hidden pocket in her belt.


No!” Mirana gasps just as Tarrant takes two flying steps and manages to tackle Alice to the pitch.


The fight should have stopped there.


But Alice is beyond stopping, beyond reason, beyond Marmoreal. Alice is in Causwick Castle.


Alice!” Mirana shouts, rushing forward despite Dale’s frantic whispers. “Stop, Alice, please.


A throwing knife clutched in one hand and the other pinned beneath her torso, Alice stiffens.


“Can you hear me, Alice?” Mirana asks, coming closer. She leans down and notes Alice’s eyes: brown. There is no glimmer of golden aggression nor is there the flat black of nothingness. Alice opens her fist and Mirana gently retrieves the knife.


Alice says nothing. She closes her eyes and lowers her head to the grass. Still seated gingerly over her back, Tarrant releases her wrist.


“Alice?” he lisps on a whisper of breath.


She sighs. Or perhaps it’s a sob. It’s difficult to tell as the sound is muffled by the grass.


“Leif, if you’ll follow Dale back to the kitchens, Thackery will show you where the bandages and cleansing solution are located.” She doesn’t take her attention off of Alice. “Alice, dear, please talk to me.”


“I’m fine, Your Magesty,” Alice mumbles woodenly.  “I’m fine.”


Mirana frowns. She glances at Tarrant. His pleading stare steals the breath from her. For a moment, she thinks she can nearly feel the depth and intensity of his pain. When she turns back to Alice, she tells her friend gently, “No, Alice, you are not fine.”


Oddly, Alice doesn’t argue... which means she is already starting to suspect that there is something deeply wrong within her own mind.


“Do not overwhelm her, Tarrant,” the queen advises him. “And remember to trust your Alice. The rest I leave to you.” Be careful, she thinks before handing him the small throwing knife and heading back to the kitchen. Upon arriving, she notes that Dale has already begun patching up his former Champion, so she returns to her laboratory table and regards the potion she’d so abruptly abandoned. She stares at it, but, for the life of her, she can’t seem to decide if it’s salvageable or not.


“Leif,” she finally says, giving into the thoughts that are distracting her.


“Yes, Your Magesty?”


“Did she do permanent damage to your arm?”


“Not with that pathetic lunge. No, Your Majesty. Of course not.”


She sighs in relief. She leans forward to sniff the contents of the small cauldron, but another thought occurs to her.


“Leif...”


“Yes?”


“What happened? Did you speak Outlandish to her?”


There’s a short pause and Mirana looks over to see a worried frown on his face. “No. I laughed.”


Mirana sinks down onto the bench and puts her head in her hands. She does not cry, but once, she thinks she hears an odd sort of hiccup echo in the room. Luckily, no one remarks on it.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Oh! How could he have let this HAPPEN?!


Alice. Mad.


And now she knows it!


Tarrant struggles with his emotions. He must be calm. Rational. Contrary.


Yes, contrary: now is not the time to let loose the anguish emoting his heart. Alice needs him to explain. Tarrant needs for himself to explain, to make sense of this horror, to reassure her, to ask – beg, plead, implore! – her forgiveness. Although he does not expect, deserve, or even hope for it to be given.


Tarrant knows exactly how very close he is to losing his Alice.


But, even if she does not leave him today, or in five minutes, or following afternoon tea, how long will he be able to keep her? Soon – too soon! – she will be aware of each and every injury Tarrant has inflicted upon her through his unforgivable slurvishness!


Ye d’nae deserve her...


He knows.


Ye cannae keep her...


He expects not.


Ye have teh tell her the truth, lad. Tell her what ye’ve done teh th’lass.


“She’ll never forgive me.”


Tarrant closes the apartment door – “Oh, no slamming this time? How fortunate I am!” the keyhole snipes. Tarrant barely hears it. – and stares at their home. Their home:


T
here is Alice’s chair where she usually sits with her knee pressed against his beneath the table. And there is the writing desk where he keeps her letter from Shuchland and the portrait of her that is now too lovely for him to contemplate without feeling the inexcusable need to tear it to shreds. And there is the sofa where she’d first invited him to sit next to her, right before she’d placed her hand over his heart and told him she is his secret. And there, through the open bedroom door, is the armchair upon which she’d laid her borrowed blue dress and then offered her heart-line finger to him along with a simple – too simple for the gravity of the ritual! – fabric pin.


The memories take him, like the madness, but there’s no familiar, numbing heat that accompanies them. He feels each and every moment of those memories with exquisite pain.


And it will only hurt so much more when she leaves him. And she will. For how could she – how could anyone – forgive him? Especially when he cannot offer an honest apology for most of it. Fate help him, but if he’d had it all to do again, he would have done nothing differently. For if he had, perhaps he never would have had Alice, however short that time had been, however briefly he’d managed to keep her.


It will kill him if she leaves.


But how can he not let her go?


“What won’t I forgive?”


Her voice and the touch on his arm startle him.


“Tarrant?”


He looks down at her hand, focuses on it, tries to etch the image of it into his malleable, ever-shifting mind. And, for once, he’s thankful the hand that draws his attention is not the left one.


“Tell me. Please,” she whispers. “What happened? Why did I...?”


Tarrant feels his love-pain-need-loss-want-failure! rush together, blending into one torrential cascade of despair, and slice through him. He opens his mouth to reply, feels his eyes burn from the inside out, and then – remember: CONTROL! – he clears his throat.


As evenly as possible, considering the circumstances, he says, “It’s my fault your ship broke and those men died. It’s my fault you became a Champion and killed Stayne. It’s my fault you almost killed Avendale’s Champion and then nearly died yourself on the battlefield. It’s my fault you’re mad, Alice.”


For a long moment, Alice just stares at him. “No. No, none of those things are your fault.”


He moves to reach for her but forces himself to take a step back instead.


Ye don’deserve teh touch her, lad!


“They are. Each and every one of them.”


Alice’s frown is so fierce he shivers. “No, they’re not.” She follows him when he shakes his head and retreats, then presses her hands against his face. The touch destroys him in ways he cannot even begin to understand. “Stop behaving like this, please. Why would you even think to say those things?”


“Because they’re true. I’ve hurt you far, far too much to be permitted to keep you, Alice.”


“No, you haven’t. The ship... the Fates...”


“Would not have sunk it if I’d only let the queen bring you back to us sooner.”


Alice’s jaw clenches. “Contrariwise, it never would have sunk if I’d never set foot on it.”


Tarrant looks away, refuses her words.


So she argues the next point: “I chose to become a Champion.”


“After I’d made you promise to fight and never give up until you win. Don’t you see, Alice? Your promise... a Champion’s promise... I made you that way.”


She shakes her head. Her hands still cradle his jaw and cheeks. “Stayne was not...”


“He was never going to give up. You promised to fight and win. Only death could have defeated him. I made you do that, Alice.”


She stares at him for a moment, her expression disbelieving. “Are you next going to tell me that I honestly nearly killed Leif in the battle?”


Tarrant nods. “I intervened to stay your hand.” His throat moves, but he doesn’t actually manage to swallow anything; he still feels... empty. “I’m sorry.”


“And how did I nearly die during the duel?”


She’s beginning to believe him. He can see the wariness in her eyes. It burns, but he doesn’t disrespect her by turning away. This may be the last conversation he has with her, the last private moment they share. Even a miserable Alice is better than... the emptiness.


“You fought so hard. Beyond anything you’ve ever done. You had no strength left and yet you didn’t stop. Could not stop. When I released you from your promise... to fight and win... you fell.”


She shakes her head. “No, that was the Hafflaffen, not...”


“The promise. It was the promise, Alice.” Torn, Tarrant wishes she would believe him, stop torturing him with the detailing of his failures; but, equally, he wishes she would never understand, for if she does not then she will not go. He confesses, “Just one promise, but it was too... too much to ask of you. Too much to accept. To keep.”


Alice still doesn’t release him. “If you’re right, that promise kept me going until you could come for me. In Causwick. That promise saved me.


Tarrant shakes his head. He can’t believe that. Won’t believe it. She’s trying to save him again, but she cannot free him from a prison built by his own will and selfishness.


“And, worst of all, Alice...” He lifts his right hand and collects her left. “With that promise, through this heart line, I’ve offered you up to the madness...”


 She scowls, but Tarrant sees only dread in her eyes, hears it in her voice: “What... madness? I’m not mad!”


Tears gather in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Alice. You are.”

“No... no!” she denies frantically. He watches her struggle to ignore the truth of her memories. “What are you talking about? I’m fine! I’m—”


Ye’re nae able teh hear me speak Outlandish, lass! D’ye nae see what I’ve taken from ye?!


And there... there it is. Tarrant watches and sees the precise moment when his Alice falls away into some secret corner of her own mind and the mercenary takes her over. Like before, she calls him the most horrible, heart-rending names. Like before, she pushes away from him, but this time he holds on to her hands. She fights him.


He lasts only a few seconds before he’s unable to bear the sight of what he’s done to her. He closes his eyes and lets her wrists slip through his fingers. There’s a moment of heat against his cheek before he steps away from her and lowers his arms. He doesn’t speak. Unlike his madness, the sound of a familiar voice – his voice – will not pull Alice back to him. His silence and lack of aggression unsettle her, jar with her memories, make her hesitate. So he waits.


When her panting breaths strangle on a sob, he dares to open his eyes. Alice stands only a few feet away from him, cradling her left hand in her right, her fingertips blue with blood. Tarrant feels a warm trickle slide down his cheek where she’d gouged him with her nails.


If she’d had a knife in her hand at that moment, just after he’d evoked the madness, he’s sure she would have slit his throat. As it is, he’s lucky she hadn’t remembered the garrote still hidden in her belt.


As calmly as he can manage, he holds out a bright orange handkerchief to her. “I’m sorry, Alice.”


For an instant, he thinks she’s going to run, but no, no of course she doesn’t. Not with all that muchness of hers. She takes the handkerchief and suddenly steps toward him, raising her hand.


He can’t help the slight flinch and damns himself for it. The confusion in her expression disappears at the helpless movement and is replaced with resignation. Acceptance.


A heartache blossoms hotly in his chest: he’s lost her.


Alice presses the handkerchief to his face to stop the blood. She swallows once, twice, but never manages to make a sound. She leads him to the bedroom, sits him on the bed in a move that’s reminiscent of their first time together: the third exchange of the Thrice a-Vow. He waits and wonders if, despite all that he’s done, all the unfathomable ways he’s hurt her, she might kiss him, forgive him, love him still.


But, more likely, it will all end where it had begun. Here. With blood in the air and uncertainty between them.


She washes the cuts on his cheek with soap and water, then reaches for a small jar of the queen’s mild injury remedy. He watches as she warms the ointment in her palm before gently applying it to his face. The guilt and sorrow in her expression unravel him. He feels his hands begin to shake, his breaths turn shallow, his muscles tremble.


Don’t leave, Alice...!


“I broke my promise,” she whispers finally, leaning forward to kiss each raw mark on his face.


He closes his eyes and leans into the touch.


Please, stay. Choose me even though I’ll never deserve it...


“I swore not to hurt you.”


He says nothing. It’s impossible for him to confess to the same failure when his heart is dissolving in the center of his throat.


“I don’t deserve you, Tarrant Hightopp.”


When she leans away, he reaches for her – he can’t let her walk away from him now! Not like this! Not when she still doesn’t understand! – and folds her into his arms. She stumbles and falls with a soft exclamation into his lap.


“Never say that, Alice. Never say that. It’s I who... who cannot... I never should have...” He closes his eyes and struggles to assemble his jumbled thoughts. “I should let you go, but I... I...” He growls. He tries to make his arms release her, but they won’t.


Alice looks up at him and he feels the rush of hot tears again at the utter desolation and hopelessness in her face. “Tell me what to do. Tell me what you want. Tell me how to make amends for this,” she begs, her eyes seeing only the silly, inconsequential scratches on his face.


She looks so... lost.


“Your... your muchness, Alice,” he whispers brokenly, grasping at the first thought that might reach her. “You had it a moment ago. Where is it now?”


For some time, she doesn’t say anything. Her eyes unfocus and he fears she’s falling again into that dark place that holds her prisoner and warps her soul.


He swallows.


The movement of his Adam’s apple seems to wake her from her daze. Lying in his arms, surrendering in a way that makes him nauseous, Alice replies slowly, “It was never my muchness, Tarrant. It’s yours. It’s always been yours. Why else would I cross the bloody moat at Salazem Grum – one floating, decomposing head at a time – to give you back your hat? Why else would I fight the Jabberwocky that destroyed Iplam and drove you into madness? Why else would I become a mercenary and pretend allegiance to the most foul creatures in all of Underland just to stay alive long enough to make it back to you?” She closes her eyes and turns her face away. “It’s your muchness, Tarrant. I just... borrowed it for a while.”


Unable to speak, he shakes his head furiously and holds her tighter.


“You know I can’t stay,” she whispers.


He watches those damnable silent tears spill over the edge of her lashes. “No, don’t go. If you go, you’ll take me with you, but I’ll be here. Alone! And all the muchness. All gone. Gone, Alice!


She closes her eyes. He watches her throat tense. She says thickly, “I think it already is, Tarrant.”


The shock – is this how it ends? – weakens his arms and leaves him too lethargic to move. Alice picks herself up and moves to the wardrobe. He hears drawers sliding open and doors swinging on squeaky hinges. A moment later – or perhaps it’s a day, a week, a month! – he feels Alice’s hand on his uninjured cheek. He looks up and meets her gaze. She looks oddly blurry from this angle.


Forgive me
, he desperately wants to say.


Choose me.


Raven?


But the words never make it past the odd blockage in his throat.


“I can’t stay,” she mouths. “I can’t.


And then she turns and, gathering a bulging satchel, walks out the door.

 

Chapter Text

Alice meanders down the glimmering white castle drive, past the susurrus calls carried on the light breeze through the ever-blossoming cherry trees, and considers her heart line, her promise, and the consequences of both.


How could a heart line open one up to madness? She hadn’t asked. She should have. It just hadn’t seemed like the best time to go into the details. If she’d had to look into Tarrant’s utterly pale, hopeless eyes for one more moment, she would have... would have...


Alice shudders.


She turns her mind away from the chill – but the sun is shining! – and considers what she remembers from Mirana’s text on Underlandian rites. She supposes it’s only logical that if a heart line can help stabilize one partner’s madness, it would also have the power to evoke it in the other.


But a promise...? How could a promise meant to keep her alive and safe possibly turn her into a Champion? A murderer? A lying, deceiving, callous, cold-hearted, sadistic mercenary?


It’s only a promise!!


But, in Underland, promises are real in ways Alice had never before imagined they could be. And, here – in Underland – Alice has become things she’d never thought she could be: a fighter, a lover, a killer.


A killer.


Of course. How could Tarrant want her? He’d made her into a Champion and she’d used that gift – the power of that promise – and twisted it into something so repulsive, so revolting, that it’s no wonder he...


Midway down the drive, she has to stop, close her eyes, and take a deep breath before she can continue onward.


Tarrant had done her a tremendous favor, she realizes, in releasing her from that promise. True, she’s lost all that she’d gained – her purpose, her Hatter... But that only means the last four months have been erased, doesn’t it? She’s just Alice again. Whoever that is. Whoever that will be now that she’s... free.


Free.
She tries – and fails – to think of a more miserable word.


Alice reaches the main gate and stops, considering the world before her. It’s difficult to know where to go. Someplace where there are no Outlanders, no mercenaries, no laughing beasts. No one for her to attack or hurt or kill...


For a moment, her thoughts conjure up the image of a looking glass. But even as lost as she is, she can’t bring herself to seriously consider locating one and fleeing to her mother’s bedroom through it. She will not run away. She will make a choice.


Only, which one ought she make?


Alice sighs. “I feel like a little girl again.” And much less muchier. Muchless.


There’s a slight breeze against her nose an instant before a brilliantly blue butterfly flutters in front of her eyes. Alice flinches back and makes a face. Of course, with all of the things she has to deal with – and can’t deal with at the moment – naturally, Absolem would show up to remind her just how stupid she is. How not hardly Alice she is.


“You have no idea how glad I am you can’t talk anymore,” she informs him.


His antennae twitch irritably. He flutters to the right, along the outside of the castle wall, wandering at a languid pace. Alice watches him for a moment, but then he stops, alights on the white stone wall, turns toward her and waves her closer with an odd curling motion of his antennae.


With no other options at the moment, she does as he requests. “I hope you’re not going to get me into trouble. I’m dangerous now, you know. Mad. A mercenary. A murderer.”


All of which start with the letter ‘M’, she thinks idly.


Absolem doesn’t appear to care, however.


Twice, she stops, just to see if he really is trying to get her to follow him somewhere. And each time he lands on the wall and motions her to continue. When she rounds the corner, she blinks at the sight of Absolem just touching down on the Bandersnatch’s head, next to his ear which twitches. The beast turns his great head toward Alice and seems to be both listening to Absolem’s inaudible whisper and considering Alice.


“Grrrrb?” he asks her, waddling closer.


Alice just smiles and scratches his nose and the bony place between his eyes. He relishes the attention until Absolem flaps his wings impatiently, tickling the Bandersnatch’s floppy ear.


Huffing, he informs Alice, “Gr. Gr. Grrrrt!” And moves up next to her until it only requires a single, small leap to throw herself onto his back.


She hesitates and considers Absolem, watching her and somehow looking thoroughly put out from the top of one furry ear. “And just where do you think I need to be right now?” she asks him, knowing he can’t possibly answer. “Perhaps you’ve found another Jabberwocky for me to slay?” she half-jokes, half-accuses.


Absolem flutters into the air and hovers over the Bandersnatch’s head. If he’d had his hookah, he would have been tapping the mouthpiece against one of his many feet in irritation.


Alice sighs and considers the Bandersnatch.


Well, she thinks, why not? It hurts too much to stay in Marmoreal. Perhaps Absolem is right; perhaps what she needs is a different place. A place with no memories of the Queen’s Champion.


“Bandy,” she says, stroking his fur. “Don’t you let me hurt anyone. Sometimes I lose my temper and...” Her hand fists in his shaggy pelt.


“Grrb grrrr.”


Wondering if that solemn-sounding purr can be considered a promise, Alice climbs onto his back, settles herself between his shoulder blades and holds on. She doesn’t look back at Marmoreal this time, either. Not because she thinks she’ll see the Tarrant Hightopp standing – waiting for her – under the boughs of the cheery trees, but because she secretly fears that, were she to give in and look back, she would find the castle, its occupants, and all hope... gone. A dream, a figment of her imagination, she can live with, but one more nightmare will destroy her.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Sometimes, Chessur almost hates Tarrant Hightopp.


The foolish, self-absorbed, angsting twit!


Had he not distinctly heard the queen order him to not overwhelm Alice?


Chessur rolls his eyes. Perhaps he hadn’t. That hatter’s bloody madness. Nothing good comes of it anymore. True, it had been quite useful during the reign of the Red Queen. Chessur had even admired him – just the tiniest bit – for it. It had certainly served the Hatter, his political proclivities, and Alice well enough during Stayne’s merciless interrogation in the dungeons of Salazen Grum. More than once, Chessur had found himself averting his invisible eyes. But Tarrant Hightopp... Oh, that man had locked himself up in his madness and laughed through the pain.


He’s not laughing now,
Chessur admits, remembering the look on Tarrant’s face as he’d sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the back of his left hand – his heart line.


Stupid, slurvish, idiotic, dense, irritating idiot!


For a man with a legitimate claim to utter, mad genius, he has a rather bad habit of making mistakes: overwhelming Alice with his guilt over that ridiculous promise, shoving the madness in her face, allowing her to injure him – Honestly, what had the man expected to happen after that? Even Chessur knows Alice well enough to imagine the remorse she’d feel from harming him, no matter the circumstances! – ignoring her own confessions of pain, and finally – worst of all! – letting her walk away!


Yes, Chessur is very glad he’s a cat and, as such, immune the ailment of love.


“You’re lucky I’m smarter than you, Tarrant,” Chessur drawls, hovering – invisible – above the outer wall of the castle. He watches Alice swing herself up onto the Bandersnatch, which lumbers forward two steps before galloping after Absolem.


Curious, Chessur follows. He floats through the woods, twisting and twirling through the treetops, keeping the massive speckled body of the Bandersnatch in his sights as he can’t see Absolem very clearly though the canopy and shadow-dappled realm below.


Hmm, yes... Absolem...


His
presence had been a surprise. The butterfly hardly ever bothers with living creatures any more. Apparently, the loss of the Oraculum following the Battle of Frabjous Day had made him even more surly. Not that Chessur had cared one way or the other. Those who seek out Absolem’s counsel seek their own futures; they seek the knowledge that the keeper of the Oraculum possesses. Chessur is a cat and cats do not have any interest in changing the future. No, certainly not! Cats are smart enough to stay out of the way of Jabberwockies and prophecies and dungeons and everything else associated with politics!


Underlanders could stand to learn a thing or two from cats, Chessur thinks.


Too bad they’re too stupid to realize even that much.


Perhaps he’s being uncharitable. But, after all, he’s a cat.


I am what I am,
he muses with a grin.


When the wilderness deepens and they pass into Tulgey Wood, Chessur feels a slight frown pull at his brow. Certainly, Absolem wouldn’t take Alice to the abandoned tea party at the March Hare’s rundown windmill... would he? An hour passes, as does the small trail leading to that once-dreary clearing where he’d led a much smaller maybe-Alice over three years ago. Chessur lets out a sigh of relief, which turns into confusion when the Bandersnatch follows a path that hasn’t been used for years. Not since...


A trifle concerned now – and resenting it! – Chessur continues his silent pursuit through the gathering twilight, the tangled branches, and the rising mist. Why would Absolem lead anyone – let alone Alice! – to this cursed place?


As the living trees fall further and further behind them, and the mist deepens and swirls in the night breeze, Chessur thinks his perfect eyes must be playing tricks on him. After all, there is no way there could be a white-green-blue light up ahead. There’s no such phenomenon in all of Underland. And Chessur should know. He’s seen nearly every corner of it. And several he wishes he hadn’t. But the light does not fade and disappear when he wills it to. Inexplicably, it’s real.


From the depths of the mist-engulfed clearing, Alice’s voice floats back to him on the breeze.


“I... I don’t believe this...!”


And, a moment later, when the mist thins enough for Chessur to take in the sight for himself, he finds himself agreeing with her. He barely listens as two voices converse – one pitched with shock and awe and the other weighted with countless years and sorrows. It’s not until the Bandersnatch turns in Chessur’s direction, sniffs the air, and scans the mist with his beady, yellowed eyes that the cat takes his leave. After all, Alice is safe with Absolem and the Bandersnatch. And Chessur is quite sure it’s gotten late enough for Alice to be missed at Marmoreal.


And, of course, he’s right.


When he arrives, the entire castle is lit with torches and bustling with soldiers searching behind drapes, under armchairs, and in wardrobes. Chessur doesn’t bother to interrupt them. He takes his information directly to the queen. Well, the queen and whomever she happens to be speaking with at the moment, which just happens to be...


I di’nae care i’they’ve found NAUGHT! SEND TH’BLOODY GUARD OUT FURTHER!!


The queen doesn’t flinch away from the force of his temper. “I’m sure Leif wouldn’t mind tracking her if—”


Tarrant doesn’t let her finish that thought. In a deadly, dangerously, quiet voice, the Hatter informs her, “Ye’ll send tha’creature out after Alice o’er my dead, lifeless body. Yer Majesty.


Chessur sighs. It looks like it’s time to intercede before the fool says something he’ll have to be Pardoned for later. Clearing his throat, Chessur dares to make himself visible without invitation and informs them, “Alice is fine. She’s with Absolem and the Bandersnatch.”


Tarrant’s eyes narrow. “Th’Bandersnatch!” He turns back to the queen. “Send out Bayard again an’tell’im Alice’s scent is bein’ obscured by that frumious beast.”


The queen narrows her eyes at him and ignores the order. Turning to Chessur, she asks, “Where is she?”


Chessur hesitates and does his damnedest not to glance at Tarrant and give away his reason for hesitating. “I’d rather not say. She seems to need time... away.”


An inarticulate growl vibrates out from between Tarrant’s clenched teeth. “Ye saw her leave, followed her and yet ye di’nae try teh stop her!


“Neither did you!” Chessur hisses. “Foolish, ridiculous, dimwitted man! Tell Alice she’s not really a Champion, tell her you made her into a murderer and a mercenary! Show her she’s utterly mad and then just let her leave! What were you THINKING?!


Out of the corner of his eye, Chessur notices a movement: the White Queen buries her face in her hands and sighs with frustration.


Tarrant’s fists clench, drawing Chessur’s full attention.


Ye... were listenin’ when Alice an’ I were...?


“When you were completely and utterly botching your explanation?” the cat supplies spitefully. “Yes, I’m afraid I was. A fine moment, Tarrant. Truly. I dare say, one of your very best. Only you would be capable of such utter shukm!


“Gentlemen,” the queen softly interjects. “If it is an argument you’d like to indulge in at this point, please do so outside. The croquet pitch is open all hours. Do your worst to each other and be done with this unpleasantness once and for all.”


Chessur blinks. “I... beg your pardon, Your Majesty?”


The queen looks up and he finally realizes how utterly exhausted she must be. “Chessur, I thank you for keeping an eye on Alice, but I must ask you and Tarrant to remove your disagreement from this office. As Alice is safe and well at the moment, and representatives from Shuchland and Galandonland will be arriving to discuss the situation with Jaspien and his hired army on the morrow and I’ve yet to prepare for that meeting,” she gives them both a stern look, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to mediate your dispute. Good night.”


Chessur takes the hint and evaporates into the hallway beyond. A moment later, there’s a muffled protest from Tarrant that filters through the door and then the portal opens and is slammed shut behind a furious Royal Hatter.


“A bit gentler on the handling, if you don’t mind!” the doorknob remarks. “I’m an original fixture!”


Neither Chessur nor the Hatter reply. They stare at each other. Chessur finds himself wishing he could still see the scrapes Alice had given him on his face. That remedy of the queen’s works a bit too well, he muses.


“Is that what you want, Tarrant? A fight?”


Something flashes in the man’s eyes. “Maybe I do. But ye’ll ne’er figh’fair, ye slurvish, cheatin’—”


Chessur draws himself up. “I’ll make you the same bargain I made Alice during her training. I’ll not evaporate.” He grins tightly. “I’ll even take your shape, Tarrant, so you can fight both me and yourself at the same time.”


Ye...


Chessur takes in the man’s flashing eyes and taut muscles. “I live to accommodate you, yes, I know. You don’t have to thank me for it.”


With a snarl, Tarrant turns on his heel and marches down the hall and in the general direction of the hat workshop. Chessur watches him go and muses at the odd twinge of disappointment.


How very strange... if Chessur hadn’t known himself better – if he hadn’t known he were a cat through and true! – he would have to believe that he regrets the lost opportunity to fight Tarrant Hightopp.


But, of course, Chessur does know himself better – much better! – than that. Chin held high and tail straight, he marches off to find a bit of torchlight to bask in.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“I know this place,” Alice says, turning in a slow circle. In the darkening dusk, she studies the meadow and distant trees. “But it looks so different now... This is...?”


She looks over at her companion.


The creature lowers its great, crested head and nods. “Iplam,” it replies.


“Krystoval,” she continues, addressing the Jabberwocky. “Why did you come back here?”


“To heal, Alice,” it replies gravely.


Alice reaches out a places a hand on the Jabberwocky’s reptilian shoulder. It blinks at the gesture, glances at her hand but does not seem particularly bothered by it. “It’s lonely here,” she murmurs, her heart aching with the thought of this creature confronting its past and engaging in such a huge undertaking all alone.


“It will not always be so,” the creature rumbles quietly. “People and animals will return here someday and rebuild. Then the circle will be complete.”


“Have you thought about what you will do when you’re done here?”


“I have,” it replies solemnly. “But, for now, it is impossible.”


Alice pats the smooth scales under her hand. “When the time is right, you’ll find a way. I’m sure of it.”


Krystoval studies her face with its dawn-colored eyes. “I’m sure you are,” it agrees and Alice feels her lips curve into a smile. “May I ask what brought you here, Alice?” it asks after a moment.


Alice nods in the direction of the Bandersnatch – curled up by the line of trees and the trailhead – and the blue butterfly resting on its nose.


“The Bandersnatch, with a wise butterfly leading the way.”


“And why did you follow?”


Alice returns her attention to the Jabberwocky. “I... well, it’s a long story. To put it bluntly, I’m not really a Champion after all. But I have killed someone. And I became a mercenary. And I also seem to be rather... mad.”


“Ah...” Krystoval sighs and sinks down into a comfortable crouch, curling its tail around its body and nodding for Alice to make herself comfortable on it. “Welcome to the Fields of Iplam, then, Alice.”


Settling herself in the juncture of the Jabberwocky’s thigh and stomach, with her legs draped over its tail, she muses, “You know what I’m referring to?”


It nods. “I do. Like any path, yours leads two ways, Alice. Here... or there.


She frowns. “What’s there?


“Madness. Guilt. Fear. Darkness,” it replies softly. And then, surprisingly, asks, “How fares the last of the Hightopps?”


Alice gasps as an epiphany slams into her in the wake of the Jabberwocky’s pointed inquiry.


She closes her eyes.


Tarrant...


Oh, how stupid she is!


For a moment, there are too many thoughts collecting together inside her head for her to understand them all, but then they condense into two facts:


Tarrant is mad... he followed this path
there... to the pain and guilt and madness.


And:


He would have understood if I’d bothered to tell him... if I’d been strong enough to let go of the fear and the darkness and the memories of Causwick.


But it’s too late to go back to him now. And it’s not safe. Perhaps Tarrant can understand the darkness and pain within her. But Alice still has no control over it and she knows she can’t trust him to stop her from hurting him. Not when his own guilt and pain drives him to accept whatever punishment – intentional and not – that she might deal out upon him.


No, she cannot go back to him. Not until...


Alice takes a deep breath and opens her eyes. It’s nearly completely dark out. Above the bare branches of the burnt trees, the moon is rising.


“Tarrant is not well,” she replies.


Krystoval rumbles, acknowledging the information.


“Tell me about... here,” she asks.


“Here...” the Jabberwocky muses quietly. “This is the place in which one opens oneself to the past, faces the mistakes and memories, burns through the regret, and creates life.”


Alice closes her eyes against a hot rush of tears. “What’s the first step?” she asks.


“You’ve arrived. You’ve asked the question. You’ve found the willingness,” he replies, listing three. “Now you must remember.”


From Krystoval’s tone, Alice understands exactly what it is she must remember: everything that has driven her away from her life at Marmoreal. Throat suddenly tense and tight, Alice swallows. “Do you mind if I... talk for a bit?”


“Not at all, Alice. You may talk, and I may listen. If you talk too quietly, I may even snore.”


Alice releases a breathless laugh and feels quite a bit of her tension expell with it. “Not long ago, I accompanied the White Queen to Shuchland where we met the king and queen and a prince named Avendale and his Champion named Avenleif...”


She watches the moon rise as she speaks, narrating the entire tale, leaving nothing out, no matter how irrelevant to the painful times that follow. And follow they do:


“... an Outlander by the name of Davon was my handler. His voice and his Outlandish reminded me of Tarrant. There’s even a certain similarity in their height and build... Davon had a sense of humor, darker than Tarrant’s, but the smile was so alike somehow and yet he was the enemy...”


“...’Alice Lassling’ is what they called me. A joke. I suppose they thought it was funny that someone my size, my age, wouldn’t hesitate to rip them apart with only my teeth. I think I was... mad even then...”


“... so alone, and yet I could feel him so close. The emotions would invade my heart and I’d know it wasn’t me feeling them, so it must have been him but that would only remind me of what I’d done, what I was still doing, what I might yet have to do.”


Alice lets the memories pause there. The agony of reliving it is too powerful to be pushed aside or rushed. Behind her, Krystoval shifts a bit.


“May I see it? Your heart line?” it asks.


By the light of the moon, Alice pulls off her shirt and reveals the markings on her skin.


“I’ve never seen a darker, more beautiful Bonding Mark,” the Jabberwocky informs her. “And I’ve seen a fair share in my time.”


“I suppose you have.” She shrugs back into her garment.


“The Heart Mark has a meaning, you know,” it continues, musing. “Each is completely unique.”


“Tarrant’s is a four-pointed star.”


“No, you make it a four-pointed star. Just as he makes yours that charming ellipse.”


Alice frowns, puzzled. “What do the shapes mean?”


Krystoval chuckles. “You already know, Alice. The shape – and thus, the meaning – comes from within you.”


She considers that for a moment.


“Tell me more about the mercenaries,” Krystoval invites softly.


Alice takes a deep breath, realizes that – somehow – she’d shed a layer of pain and sorrow during that brief interlude, and begins to speak.


The moon wanders across the sky and Krystoval continues asking her about Causwick, about the things she’d done, the things she’d said, the things she’d forced herself to believe in order to do what had had to be done. She marvels at how... well, not easy – for recalling and talking of these things is anything but easy – but she marvels at how possible it is now. Perhaps she had simply needed the right audience.


“So, I never was a Champion,” she concludes. “I don’t really know what to do with myself now, to be honest.”


Krystoval sighs. “Alice, you are under a misapprehension.”


“Which is?”


It turns its rose-then-peach-and-gold eyes to her and says, “I know a Champion when I see one, Alice. And I see one now. No promise could make you into something you are not. It might give you a small measure of strength to help you achieve it, but that is all.”


Alice considers that. “If that’s true then... it didn’t make me kill Stayne. That was me.”


“It was. Can you think of no motivation for why you would have felt it necessary to kill him?”


Alice can think of several. “He’d tortured Tarrant. When I arrived three years ago,” she clarifies. “And I knew he’d never give up trying to get to the queen. To do that, he’d have to get through me. And to do that, he’d have to...” Alice swallows. “He’d have to get through Tarrant. I couldn’t let him be hurt by that... beast anymore.”


Krystoval waits, expectant.


Alice forces herself to say it: “I killed Stayne for Tarrant.”


She takes a deep breath and feels a lightening sensation somewhere deep within her chest.


“And now tell me why you forsook your beloved, scorned your heart line, became a mercenary.”


Alice smiles, “For Tarrant.”


“And why do you fight, Alice?”


“For Tarrant. For my home. For the goodness of the White Queen. For Underland and all the creatures in it who call it home and make it what it is.”


Krystoval leans its head against hers briefly. “Welcome back, Champion Alice.”


Alice smiles. The moon blurs as if the world has suddenly been flipped upside down and Alice is studying its reflection on the surface of calm, ocean waves. “Thank you, Krystoval.”


“None are needed,” it says, looking up at the sky. “Giver of the Vorpal Sword.”


They watch the moon shimmer across the sky until Alice asks the Jabberwocky to tell her its story and it does. And when dawn comes, a new purpose, a new hope arrives with it... for a Champion and a Jabberwocky lying in the Fields of Iplam.

 

Chapter Text

When Alice opens her eyes, she smiles and remains leaning against the Jabberwocky’s stomach, counting the gentle exhalations and inhalations of its breath. She glances up and smiles wider at the wing thrown over her to shield her from the sun. When she stirs, the wing lifts, letting the mid-afternoon sunlight pour down on her.


“Well, look who finally decided to wake up...”


Squinting, Alice turns and shakes her head with wry amusement. “Hello, Chessur. Are you the rescue party?”


He grins. “It’s not a party without sweets and tea, Alice,” he chides her. “And I don’t believe you need rescuing any longer, do you?”


“No,” she admits slowly. “I don’t think I do.”


“That’s just as well. The Queen could use her Champion back.” He consults the sun and estimates, “The allies of the White Crown have no doubt arrived by now and are currently arguing over how best to dispose of a prince, a viscount, and a lord I believe you’re acquainted with.”


Alice sighs.


“Leave Alice be for a bit longer, Cat-With-Evaporating-Skills. The rest will benefit more than just her,” the Jabberwocky scolds him without rancor.


Alice turns, intending to ask Krystoval if Chessur had properly introduced himself, but the scene spread out before her makes her forget the thought.


“Oh, my...” Last night, in the shadowy light of the setting sun, she’d gotten the faintest impression of new grass and stubby, scrawny bushes, but now...!


Iplam is a field again, a sea of waving, thick green grass. Surrounding the meadow, the trees are budding and the mosses and ivy are lush again. Utterly flunderwhapped, Alice turns toward Krystoval and watches as the Jabberwocky gently breathes a glowing, white-aqua mist at a tiny plant sprouting in front of it. She watches as with each breath, the leaves pulse with life and vitality and health, unfurling and reaching for the sun. In the next breath, a small bud pokes up through the stalk. It takes two more breaths before the blossom opens completely and Alice stares at the most beautiful flower she’s ever seen. It’s simple and yet so elegant. It resembles a five-fingered hand. The petals are a familiar pale gold with tiny brown freckles down the center lengthwise. But that warm color fades and blends into the most stunning aqua at the center where an emerald green stamen rises, awaiting a visit from a honeybee.


“Krystoval, that’s...” Words fail her.


“The first of an entire field full,” the Jabberwocky replies and Alice marvels at the pure happiness in its tone, in its expression.


Alice slides off of the Jabberwocky’s tail and approaches the creation. Gently tickling the flower under one petal – to which the flower snuggles a bit closer with a giggle – Alice asks, “What’s it called?”


“I haven’t decided yet,” it replies and Alice looks up, startled. This is a new flower? And the Jabberwocky had created this with its fire? With a warm glance, it says, “But, I’m seriously considering calling it the ‘Champion’s Blossom’... or perhaps the ‘Alice Flower’... or maybe both.”


“It’s... amazing,” she manages, honored beyond words that something has been created and named for her.


“Only insofar as its inspiration is,” the Jabberwocky tells her with a gentle smile.


Alice smiles back and gingerly cups the blossom in her hands. The petals startle before fluffing up a bit as the flower preens and glows with the attention. She looks down at it and has to choke back tears. Balls, parties, medals, titles, finery... none of it compares to this gift, this recognition of her contribution to this world.


“Thank you, Krystoval.”


“And thank you, Alice. For, I do believe you finished healing an old Jabberwocky last night.”


Fear and hesitation long gone, Alice reaches out and strokes the colorful scales along Krystoval’s brow. Alice still feels there is something left unsaid, something more she ought to offer to help acknowledge the gift Krystoval had created for Underland in her name. “If you ever feel the need, do not hesitate to call upon me,” she murmurs.


“Likewise, Champion of the White Queen and the Hightopp Clan.”


Alice sighs. “I’m not a Champion,” she reminds it. And then she winks. “Not yet!”


Krystoval chuckles warmly. “Then you best get back to it and leave me to my work.”


Impulsively, Alice presses a kiss just above the Jabberwocky’s whisker and then she heads across the field. The Bandersnatch looks up as she approaches and shuffles to his feet. Perched on his ear, the blue butterfly flutters his wings with slow relish, basking in his own cleverness. Alice shakes her head and grins. Butterflies truly are the vainest, most prideful creatures, she thinks.


She says, “Thank you, Absolem.”


And then, turning to the Bandersnatch, Alice asks, “Are you ready to go home?”


He huffs enthusiastically and Alice swings herself onto his back. She takes one last look over her shoulder as the Jabberwocky – with Chessur leaning over its shoulder, watching – gently breathes against the swaying grass... and, just before the Bandersnatch galumphs off into the woods, she thinks she sees another flower join the first.


I’ll come back,
she promises herself as the meadow is veiled by the trees. Yes, later, after everything is over and done with, she’ll return to this place just to see what other miracles Krystoval’s magic has wrought.


With a sigh, she focuses on the path a head of her. She knows exactly where she’s going this time: back to Marmoreal, to the queen, to the life and the man she’d thought she’d lost.


Tarrant...
Oh, how she wants to see him, to be with him, but... Her heart thumps out a languid, painful pulse. Alice swallows and takes a deep breath. Yes, she wants to go home to him. More than anything. But she can’t. Not yet. Not quite yet.


First, she must finish what has been started. First, she must help the queen deal with the issue of Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer’s nefarious allegiance. As the Bandersnatch thunders through Tulgey Wood, Alice turns the problem over and over in her mind and bit by bit, a possible solution comes to her.


By the time Chessur decides to catch up with them, Alice is more than ready to see him.


“You’re late,” she informs him with a knowing smile as he appears beside her.


The cat blinks. “I do beg your pardon, Alice?”


She laughs. “Now that’s something I never thought I’d hear coming from you.


“Hmm. Well, what did you expect? It’s quite rude to inform someone of their own tardiness.”


“Tarrant’s done it once or twice to me,” she replies.


“My point exactly.


Alice glances at Chessur as she evaluates his tone. “Something’s happened. You were on better terms with Tarrant the day before yesterday.”


“He hadn’t been such an utter fumptwat the day before yesterday.”


Alice snorts. “A fumptwat? That’s a new one.”


Chessur clears his throat. “Ah... and perhaps it’s best if you forget hearing that.”


“It’s not a term of endearment, I take it?”


“Not hardly.”


Alice decides to change the subject while there’s still time for small talk... and before she gets offended on Tarrant’s behalf. “So, you’ll be keeping an eye on the Jabberwocky, I suppose?”


“Hm? Oh, well, I could. I wouldn’t mind.” Chessur grins to himself. “Krystoval’s a rather interesting conversationalist, you know.”


Alice aims her wide, wise smile at the Bandersnatch’s ear. “Yes, I had noticed that.” Clearing her throat, she inquires lightly, “So, if I had a message that needed to be delivered to the Jabberwocky, you wouldn’t mind terribly being the one to give it, would you?”


“Oh, no,” Chessur assures her, still with an air of distraction. “Marvelous sense of humor Krystoval has. Droll, wry, witty...”


Alice turns her laugh into a cough. “Quite,” she agrees.


Chessur continues grinning.


Absolem continues fluttering ahead.


The Bandersnatch continues huffing with each galumphing stride.


And Alice knows she can’t put it off any longer. Soon, they’ll arrive at Marmoreal and she will have to be ready for that. She goes over the plan again...


“I know that look, Champion Alice.”


Alice gives Chessur a sheepish grin. “Yes, I suppose you’ve seen it before.”


“Precisely twice,” he informs her and she knows which occasions exactly he’s referring to: the Trial of Threes, as she’d worked out the puzzle of the Jabberwocky and the Vorpal Sword; and then on the eve of her duel against Stayne. Chessur continues, “I know the look of Uplander logic when I see it. What are you contemplating now?”


“You’ll find out soon enough,” Alice promises. “If the queen approves.”


“Well, best of luck to you,” he grumbles. “Explaining the convoluted way your Uplander mind works.”


Alice chuckles.


“So, you’ll be speaking to the queen. Will that be happening before or after you deal with Tarrant?”


Alice winces and struggles not to notice the aching of her heart too much. “I...”


“Don’t have to do a blasted thing about him if you don’t want to. It would serve him right to spend a week or two in... introspection.”


With a rueful shake of her head, Alice replies, “What I want or don’t want doesn’t matter just at the moment.” She hides a grimace at the memory of that first, fateful dinner in Causwick when she’d thought much the same thing, although far more desperately. “There’s no time. We have to respond to Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer or the queen is never going to be safe. They might even grow confident enough to risk an attack within our borders!”


“And you’ve already devised a strategy to counter the threat, haven’t you, dear Alice?” Chessur purrs with curiosity.


She tilts her head a bit, conceding the point. “It requires a lot of coordination and a fair bit of luck and even a shape-shifting cat with evaporating skills, but, yes, there’s a way to finish this. For good.”


“You’ll need my help, Alice?”


Alice sends a sidelong glance at the chuffed creature and chuckles. “Most definitely, Chess. Most definitely.” Again, Alice takes a moment to run through the sequence of events that will have to happen. “Keep up with me when we get to the castle,” she tells him. “A lot of things are going to have to happen awfully fast for this to work...”


Chessur sighs. “I’m constantly disappointed with the fact that you never saw my performance at the chopping block for the Red Queen. I was quite fast!”


“I’m very sorry I missed that.”


She twitches when Chessur tickles her ear with his tail. “You would have squeezed your eyes shut at the critical moment anyway.”


Alice barks out a laugh. Not because the comment had been humorous, but because it had been so absolutely true. “Yes, watching a man swing an axe over Tarrant’s neck is not something I ever want to see.”


“Even after all that he’s done?”


“I... what?”


Chessur rolls his eyes. “The man is so afraid of losing you he doesn’t even notice that it’s he himself who throws you away. He’s such a fool.”


Alice considers that, damns the horrid timing of this personal crisis, and muses, “I suppose love does that. To everyone.”


“Humph. Not to cats, I’ll have you know. We don’t speak the language.”


“Good for you,” she replies, but thinking of a certain droll, wry, witty Jabberwocky, can’t resist a grin.


The rest of the journey is accomplished in silence. It’s just past brillig when they thunder up the castle drive and the Bandersnatch peddles to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. True to her word, Alice slides down off the Bandersnatch and hits the ground running. Chessur follows her through the main doors.


“Where to first?”


“The armory,” Alice tells him, sprinting for it. She knows this route – perhaps not the most direct – will cause her to pass by the hat workshop. Oddly enough, Chessur doesn’t comment on that fact, for which Alice is deeply grateful.


And she races down the hall, nearing the hat workshop, she notes the door – slightly ajar! – and wonders if Tarrant is within, if he’s working on creating – or destroying – another beautiful hat...


A moment later, as she passes by, her musings are answered.


Alice?!


She turns, still moving quickly in the direction of the army store room, and assures him, “Yes, I’m fine. But I must to talk to the queen.”


She glimpses his confused frown. “You’re going the wrong way,” he replies.


And then she hears his footsteps, racing in counterpoint to hers as he attempts to close the gap between them. Alice speeds up a bit, for if Tarrant were to catch up with her here in this very public and echoing hallway, things will become even more complicated than they already are...


With a sigh of relief, Alice barrels into the armory, throws down her satchel and proceeds to grab and test the weight of a broadsword and several knives. The door just manages to close behind her when it’s thrown open again by Tarrant.


She half expects him to race up to her, grab her arms and... be himself: rambling with eyes flashing and his mind wandering, his impassioned brogue making her heart race and her blood heat even as he says something that she fully expects to disagree with.


But... he doesn’t.


“What are you doing?” he asks, merely watching from just inside the door as Alice starts pulling off her boots.


“I should think that’s obvious,” Chessur drawls, averting his eyes. “Mannerless buffoon,” the cat grumbles and flicks his tail.


Alice hurriedly gets changed into a set of clean clothes. There’s no time to wash up, but at least she won’t be covered in Bandersnatch hair when she makes an appearance in the queen’s office.


Despite Tarrant’s simple inquiry, Alice can’t bring herself to answer. She knows he doesn’t want her to do what she’s preparing to do. She knows it’ll hurt him to hear her say the words. She knows it’ll hurt him to learn that she’s putting the queen before him and their life and their future.


But Alice doesn’t have a choice!


Deal with the threat before you deal with the fallout, she tells herself. It’s hard advice to follow, even if it is her own, especially with the man she loves standing, watching, hoping just a few paces away.


She reaches for the borrowed weapons, wishing for the gauntlets Tarrant had fashioned for her and the sword the queen had requested made for her – all lost within Causwick Castle.


“No,” he whispers on a strangled-sounding breath. “Please, Alice, you can’t!


She bites back the reassurances that struggle up her throat. She must stick to her plan! “I can. I will. I am.


She turns just in time to see Tarrant’s left hand curl into a first – his right is still in a splint – and shake his head vigorously.


Before he can argue, she strides over to him and takes his face in her hands. She only has a moment, so she makes the most of it. She kisses him hard, once. “The queen needs her Champion,” she reminds him. “I have to.”


He blinks. And when he comprehends her words, he shakes his head furiously. “But your... the madness, Alice. I can’t lose... No, no, I’ve already lost... Am I lost, Alice?”


No,” she replies firmly. “All is not lost. But we don’t have time. Please. Trust me.”


She waits until his fingertips touch her hands, until he takes a deep breath and the disturbing yellow of stress and urgency fades from his eyes, until he nods.


“Thank you,” she says, sparing one more instant to brush her thumbs over his cheekbones. And then she knows she must go.


“Meet me on the solarium terrace after sunset, all right?”


She waits long enough to see him nod and then she darts around him for the door. There’s a queen to save, a plan to explain, a strategy to implement, and one more thing to do before any of that can be addressed.


Botheration!
She’d nearly forgotten!


“Chess,” she pants, hurrying down the corridor again, “do you have any idea where—”


“Champion Alice?!”


At the sound of that familiar voice, Alice pulls herself up, turns, and regards the obviously startled and irritated-looking, dark-maned lion.


“Never mind,” Alice says. She steps toward Leif, gently pushes him into the nearest available room and sets her most immediate objective in motion.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Hats. Hats have always been Tarrant’s salvation. Or rather, the attention they require – his attention – has always been his salvation. The blend of necessary tasks and creative license has somehow always had the power to calm him, focus him, push the madness back.


Yes, hat-making has saved him numerous times before.


Unfortunately, it seems to have lost its magic.

 

He had thought of nothing but Alice’s farewell – “I don’t deserve you, Tarrant Hightopp... I can’t stay. I can’t. – and Chessur’s accusations – “Show her she’s utterly mad and then just let her leave!” – and, at some point during the night, he’d made a very belated discovery:


Despite all of the mistakes he’s made and all of the pain he’s inflicted upon Alice, he
cannot live without her!


Yes, he
knows he doesn’t deserve another chance. He’s aware that what he’s done is unforgivable. But that doesn’t change the fact that he will do whatever he must to win her back!


He’d very nearly set his tools down and had gone to find her in that very moment, but then he’d remembered:
Alice is gone. Left. And he’d realized that there is nothing to do but wait. He must wait for Alice to come back. He had forfeited any control he may have had over that when he’d ruthlessly cut her down and then had not stopped her from walking away.

He’d tried – he really had! – to distract himself from Alice’s sudden absence. He’d spent all night working on... well, on something! It’s very odd that he can’t recall so much as a detail of it now. Had it been a cloche? A snood? A barboosh? He can’t recall. In fact, the only memory his mind seems to care to recall at the moment is the instant Alice had returned:


Tarrant had hardly dared to hope when he’d heard hurried steps approaching from down the corridor. The rhythm of the gait had been as familiar as his own. With each thudding footstep, he’d felt his disbelief melt away and his heart race faster: That’s the sound of two Alice-feet! He’d know the sound of her anywhere!


For an instant, his heart had leapt and his cravat had fluffed – Is she racing... here? To speak to... me? – and, for an instant, he could almost imagine their reunion, her forgiveness, their future...!

And then she’d raced right past the open doorway!


Alice?!” In the next instant, Tarrant had thrown the door open completely and charged into the hallway.


He’d stared as she hadn’t even slowed. “Yes, I’m fine. But I must to talk to the queen,” she’d called over her shoulder.


For a moment, Tarrant had wondered if he were in the middle of another delusion, but Chessur’s snide grin had assured him of the reality of Alice here! Returned!


Ignoring the bloody beast he’d never allow to invade his delusions, Tarrant had latched onto Alice’s odd non sequitur – shouldn’t she be... with him? She’s his wife, after all, but then again he still hasn’t actually asked her permission to be her husband! – and had heard himself muse aloud, “You’re going the wrong way.”


The sound of his own voice – Is that all ye have to say, lad?! – had startled him and he’d raced after her, charging through the door she’d just disappeared behind. For a moment, he could only look at her: she’s safe and well and whole and her eyes contain not a pinch of lostness, not an ounce of misery, not a smidgen of guilt...


Alice has re-found her muchness!


And that’s when he’d noticed the borrowed broadsword on the bench, the knives she'd intended to strap to her ankles, and the garrote destined to be coiled and slipped into the pocket of a clean tunic. Watching her lean down to remove her boots, he’d taken in the assortment of weapons – a Champion’s weapons – and had demanded, “What are you doing?”


Tarrant had ignored that bloody cat’s contemptuous remark and had stood numb as Alice’s intentions had become clear, very clear, too clear. When she’d stood and had buckled the broadsword into place at her hip, he’d finally found his voice:


“No... Please, Alice, you can’t!


Well, of course not! Alice is mad, after all. She might... She could... And if she does, she will...


Tarrant hadn’t been able to bear thinking the Thought.


Alice had merely adjusted the sword and had informed him: “I can. I will. I am.” She’d approached him, then, and he’d hoped... His worry and fear had receded as she’d touched his face, as she’d leaned in and kissed him. She’d kissed him!


Could this mean...? Does this mean she forgives...?
he’d wondered frantically.


But then she’d said, “The queen needs her Champion. I have to.”


No, no, no, no,
no, no, NO...!


Somehow, he’d managed to locate the words, if not the proper grammatical functions necessary for expressing them: “But your... the madness, Alice. I can’t lose... No, no, I’ve already lost... Am I lost, Alice?”


No.” And her voice had been as firm and as comforting as the warm palms against his cheeks. “All is not lost. But we don’t have time. Please. Trust me.”


Trust her?
Of course Tarrant trusts her! Whom else would he trust? Alice could never hide from him – the heart line would never permit deception between them! She might hide what she feels, but Tarrant knows she would never intentionally... No, not his Alice!


But
is she your Alice, lad?


He’s not sure. But maybe... maybe if he can wait just a little longer, be a little stronger, maybe she will...


He’d reached for her hands but had forced himself not to grasp them. He’d felt her holding onto him, had allowed it to calm him. Alice had needed him to be calm, to be all right...


And when he’d finally nodded, his reward had been her beautifully whispered thanks, the sweet brush of her thumbs over his cheekbones, and an invitation:


“Meet me on the solarium terrace after sunset, all right?”


It had hurt to watch her spin away from him and disappear out the door. He’d been so close... She’d been so close...!


Tarrant opens his eyes and regards the view from the solarium terrace. He’s early, but he couldn’t have forced himself to arrive any later. Alice will be meeting him here at sunset and maybe then she will... they will... she might...!


He glares at the sun where it hovers just over the forests of Queast and wills it to sink faster!


“Hatter. What are you doing here?”


Tarrant stiffens and turns. His nose wrinkles in disgust as he regards that... that... “Leif. You’re intruding on a private meeting,” Tarrant informs him, doing his best to keep the Outlandish out of his voice and his tone civil, just in case Alice is in earshot.


The lion leans against one of the stone horse heads surrounding the terrace railing. “Actually, I’ve an appointment to meet someone here shortly, so that would make you the unwelcome party.”


Tarrant’s left hand fists at the accusation. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see which of us will be asked to leave, although, I highly doubt my wife will have much to say to you.


“Your wife?” Leif asks with a sardonic lift of his brows. “Oh, you mean Champion Alice? Funny you should mention her, for it was she who invited me to meet her here before sunset.”


Tarrant, showing far too many teeth for the gesture to be considered a smile, refuses to believe it.


“And another thing,” Leif continues. “It’s pretty presumptuous for you to call her your wife, isn’t it? No one around here seems to remember an actual wedding taking place.” The lion glances down at Tarrant’s left hand – still fisted – and huffs a derisive snort. “Or was the Thrice a-Vow supposed to compensate for that? It doesn’t, you know. Not on this side of the Outland mountains.”


Tarrant can feel the madness creeping over him, burning him from the inside out. “You’ll stay away from her, cat. Alice is mine.


The he-lion doesn’t so much as shift in his pose, the perfect picture of ease. “Alice can make up her own mind about that,” he replies lightly.


Tarrant clenches his jaw and locks his body in place to keep himself from—doing something—verybad—to that... that...!


“Shall we have tea on terrace?” the queen’s voice drifts over to them on the breeze.


Tarrant twitches, his gaze flitting from his rival, to the doorway, to the shadowy room beyond and then back to the terrace, his own fisted left hand, and the lion’s befuddled expression.


“There’s a lovely view from here, if you’ll just follow me, sirs...”


And then the White Queen steps through the doors, pushing aside the gauzy curtains, and ushers a lion and a horse onto the terrace. At the sight of Tarrant and Leif, the queen freezes, her eyes widening. Tarrant barely notices, for following in her wake is Alice.


The sight of her soothes him in a way that is unique and absolute. He forgets about the queen, the visiting dignitaries, the shukm-lickering toadie...


What is the meaning of this!” the lion at the queen’s side roars, his golden eyes glaring at Leif. He turns his back on the former Champion and addresses the queen: “You... Your Magesty, tell me you have not granted these... this traitor or his former liege amnesty!”


Looking very pale and quite upset, the queen turns to the ambassador and explains, “I’m afraid I have, Sir Avendon. Both Leif and the former Prince Avendale are here at my invitation.”


A moment of utter silence wraps the balcony and its occupants up in its suffocating embrace. And then:


“You claimed to be a friend of Shuchland, Mirana of Marmoreal...”


Alice steps closer to the queen, coming between the snarling lion and her queen.


Lifting her chin, the queen replies, “The Aven family have my full support.”


“If that were true, you would not be harboring two betrayers to their crown.”


“I would not punish them for remaining loyal to the spirit of our alliance, sir.”


Alice places a hand on the hilt of her broadsword and Tarrant tenses, leans toward her, calculates how long it might take him to reach that pompous creature before her, determines the angle and force necessary for utilizing the pair of embroidery scissors in his pocket as he had with Stayne...


The lion replies, his tone marinated in disgust, “It disturbs me to learn this, Queen Mirana.” He sends a single, searing, golden glare in Leif’s direction. “I’m afraid this changes things. Shuchland will not be able to assist you with your challenge against Causwick Callion after all.”


“Sir Avendon...”


The dignitary does not linger. Turning on his heel, he marches back into the castle, no doubt to collect his retainers and begin the long journey home. Tarrant watches as Mirana forces a sympathetic smile and turns toward the horse.


“Chief Minister Mogrimon...”


The creature sighs and shakes his mane. “I’m also sorry it has come to this, Your Majesty. As I mentioned earlier, Galandonland is only prepared to play a supportive role and then only in the event that you have guaranteed the assistance of Shuchland. I regret that Lord Hornsaver’s army will decline to stand beside your own on the battlefield.”


Looking truly anxious now, Mirana asks on a whisper of sound, “But, if things were to change and Shuchland chose to join us...?”


The horse tilts his large head to the side. “We will reconsider your proposal, of course.”


“Of course,” Mirana manages. Tarrant feels a moment of heart-freezing panic at the defeat in the queen’s expression. “You are welcome to stay the night, if you’d like...”


“Unfortunately, I will be following Sir Avendon’s example, Your Majesty. Were word to reach Shuchland that I had lingered here in spite of the... political difficulties...”


“I understand. Of course. Allow me to assist you in your preparations to leave, in that case,” Mirana manages on a wavering breath.


Tarrant watches the queen and the Galandonland diplomat retreat into the shadows of the castle. Alice, however, lingers.


“Champion Alice, I am so sorry... I had no idea Avendon would see me here,” Leif begins, his paws curled into great, hairy fists. “I’ve lost you the support of Shuchland and Galandonland! I—”


Alice takes one step further out onto the terrace and tells him quietly, “You are precisely where I asked you to be, at precisely the time I asked you to be here. The fault for this is entirely mine.”


“Alice,” Tarrant says, staring at her, his gaze moving over her, his mind cataloging all of the oddities about her: despite her bowed head, she does not look defeated; despite the quite tone, she does not seem disappointed; despite the events that have taken place, she does not even appear to be surprised by this latest turn of events.


He turns his chin slightly away from her, his eyes narrowing, as a suspicion occurs to him. However, he knows he must not speak it! For, if Alice wishes it to be spoken of, she will inform them of it... but she says nothing.


“Alice,” he says again now that her attention is focused on him. “The White Queen has issued a Champions’ Duel?”


“Yes,” she replies. Still standing against the stone sculpture, Leif stiffens. “She dispatched the message just after I returned. If it is accepted, we will be facing Prince Jaspien at the battlefield within three days.”


Three days!


“No,” Tarrant commands automatically, his suspicions momentarily forgotten, his vow to trust her disregarded. “You cannot fight! The poison... the promise... the—”


“I’m the Queen’s Champion,” she reminds him. “I’ve already renewed my vows.” Her expression softens. “And I’m fine. Truly.”


Knowing this is not the time, the place, or – most especially – the company in which to speak of all the reasons Alice should not duel in three days’ time, Tarrant is frozen in place. Only his hands move, his right twitching and his left opening and then recurling into a fist at erratic intervals.


Alice regards both of them for a moment and then announces, “I will fight Jaspien’s new Champion, whichever mercenary he manages to convince to do it. And, I would like it if I could count on both of you to stand with me.” Then, she pointedly glances between them, measuring the wide distance they’ve put between themselves. “If you can bear to stand side-by-side for the sake of a greater good, that is.”


The very thought of voluntarily and peaceably standing in close proximity to that... that... that makes Tarrant’s stomach heave.


“And if we can’t?” he hears himself ask, his tone dropping and darkening with just the smallest hint of brogue.


Alice replies evenly, “Then you won’t be going anywhere in three days’ time. Either of you.”


Leif gapes. “You can’t just leave us here like a couple of old widows to their knitting!”


Pulling her lips back into a very frightening smile, Alice informs that blasted lion, “I am the Queen’s Champion. I assure you, I can and if necessary I will make sure you’re left here with your knitting on the day of the duel.”


Tarrant knows better than to argue. Luckily, Leif doesn’t. He opens his great mouth but Alice cuts him off. “One more word of protest from you and I’ll restrict this offer to Tarrant only.”


Tarrant certainly wouldn’t mind! But, well, of course he’d still mind the bit about Alice fighting in a duel when her health is still precarious and her mind still broken and the trauma of the last week still so fresh...


“Alice,” he whispers, breaking the staring contest between his wife and the creature who covets her. “What can I do? Tell me what you need.”


She turns toward him again and the anger leaves her expression. He studies her lovingly – the softness of her eyes, the gentle smile curving her lips, the disappearance of the scowl lines from her brow... Yes, yes, this is how he will win her back! He will be the man she needs! After all, he’ll do anything, go anywhere, become anyone for Alice...


“If you wouldn’t mind,” she tells him and then glances at his right hand, “and if you think you can manage it, I’d like to meet you on the croquet pitch tomorrow after lunch.”


His eyes flash at the request. He doesn’t want to fight her, but...


Alice needs to prepare for battle, lad. Will you let that great, frumious beast do the honors?


No, no, of course he won’t.


Tarrant nods once, accepting the invitation.


“Bring your broadsword, please,” Alice adds.


“I... would also like to offer my services, Champion Alice, if you have need of them,” Leif interrupts.


Tarrant feels his face twist into a mute snarl when the animal’s offer takes Alice’s attention away from him.


“Yes, thank you, Leif. I’ll expect you on the croquet pitch tomorrow morning. We’ll use the scimitar.”


Leif nods.


“Thank you.” She looks from the lion to Tarrant. “Both of you.”


The next moment follows silently but Alice doesn’t turn around and leave. Tarrant resists glancing at the Shuchlander and struggles for something to say. True, he does not want to have a private discussion here with him watching, but if he says nothing what will Alice think of him?!


Tarrant clears his throat and speaks in a rush, before Leif can beat him to it: “I’m so very glad you’re back, Alice. Chessur wouldn’t tell anyone where you were, but he said you were... safe...”


“I was,” Alice answers quietly. “I was perfectly fine. Absolem, in his infinite, annoyingly smug wisdom, knew exactly where I needed to be last night.”


Swallowing around the rock that had magically grown – well, of course it had grown magically! How else would a rock come to be in such an odd place? – in his throat, Tarrant nods and attempts a smile.


Why did you leave Marmoreal?
he wants to ask. What can I do to make all these mistakes right? Will you come home with me? Will you hold onto me, Alice? Forgive me? Choose me?


“Raven,” he says.


Alice’s expression softens. He holds his breath...


And then...


“Alice! There you are!”


Tarrant startles as a large, gray cat materializes beside Alice’s shoulder. Tarrant’s eyes narrow but he somehow manages to swallow the poisonous hiss rising up – burning, acidic – in his throat: Chessur...!


“Did everything go all right?” Alice asks him quietly.


“Of course. How can you doubt my powers of persuasion?”


She gives him a wry smile. “Despite the inconvenience it must have been, I’m sure. So, there were no objections to...?”


“None whatsoever.”


She sighs, relieved. “Thank you.”


Chessur grins. “The night’s still young and, if I’m not mistaken, you’re still in need of me...?”


Alice nods, her face tightening with determination. “Meet me—”


“In the usual place,” Chessur drawls. “Although I won’t wait long so you’d best finish up here.”


As Chessur evaporates, Leif is quick to ask, “Champion Alice? What is going on? What are you up to?”


“My job,” she replies evenly. And then a very interesting smirk forms on her lips.  Glancing between Leif and Tarrant, she says haltingly, as if consulting a distant memory, “Now, come, come. It’s time to forgive and forget... or forget and forgive, whichever comes first or is most convenient.”


Tarrant twitches as the words tug at his memory... the tea party on Gribling, when Alice had arrived and had awakened not only Tarrant, but the fire within him. Why, he’d never felt so giddy in all his life! Oh, how he’d rambled on and on and on and on and... Why, it had been a miracle she’d consented to riding on his hat!


“Yes, yes,” he lisps in answer, “We must commence with the slaying and such!”


Alice chuckles and, turning, bids them good night. Tarrant – and, out of the corner of his eye, he notices Leif as well – watches Alice as she trots down the terrace steps and makes her way across the croquet field and then disappears into the ever-blossoming cherry orchard.


Once she is out of sight, Leif stirs, reminding Tarrant of his unwanted companion. He slides a vicious glare in the cat’s direction.


“For Alice’s sake,” the creature rumbles. “I’m willing to forget... for now.”


Grinning too widely, Tarrant replies, “Aye, beast. Ye go on an’do tha’ – we’ll be continuin’ our discussion jus’as soon as tha’ trio o’lickspittle guddlers’ scut ha’been taken care of.”


The lion nods once and then heads back inside the castle. Tarrant watches him go and then returns to the view from the terrace. He studies the forest and listens, but despite the hours he waits, there is no sign of Alice nor of what she’s doing with Chessur somewhere out there on the grounds.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Your Majesty?”


Mirana turns away from the view of the moonlit grounds and smiles. “Alice, Champion Alice! What do I have to do to get you to call me ‘Mirana’ once and for all?”


“Hmm...” Alice appears to give the inquiry serious consideration. “How about both of us get kidnapped and held hostage in a foreign land by greedy megalomaniacs?”


Mirana feels an incredulous smile pull at her lips.


“Oh, wait...” Alice muses. “We’ve already done that, haven’t we, Mirana?”


The queen laughs, delighted. “Yes, I do believe we have, Alice.”


Alice gently bumps the queen’s shoulder and laughs softly. Nodding to the spyglass mounted on the balcony, Alice says jokingly, “You weren’t using that thing to keep an eye on me, were you?”


“Darling,” Mirana sighs, “when a broadsword-wielding mad woman wanders off with a morally questionable cat with evaporating skills, it’s always prudent to keep an eye on things!”


Alice laughs. “I can always depend on you, Mirana.”


“I’m glad to hear it, Alice.”


After a moment of companionable silence, Alice muses, “What shall we attempt for our next adventure, you think?”


“Something more adventurous than a perfectly, wonderfully, utterly mad plan to remove said megalomaniacs from power for good?”


“Oh, yes. Somehow that had slipped my mind.”


Mirana waggles a finger at her. “Ah-ah-ah! No forgetting your own plan, Alice. It’s not. Allowed.”


“I’m sorry? I came up with a plan of some sort?”


This time Mirana bumps Alice’s shoulder. “What a perfectly disturbing sense of humor you have, dear. It’s enough to give a queen a stress-injury.”


“Whoops. My apologies.”


Again, they allow the quiet of the very, very late evening to settle between them.


“I trust Chessur was... accommodating?” the queen ventures after a moment.


Alice smiles. “Yes. Very.”


“So, should a man speak Outlandish or a beast let loose a laugh on the battlefield...?”


“I’ll be fine.”


The queen is very glad to hear it. And even more glad to have a resource like Chessur on their side. Truly, a shape-shifting cat is a very useful fellow to have on hand!


“How did it happen?” Alice asks, suddenly. “When did the Oraculum change?”


Mirana feels immeasurable gratitude for that evidence of Alice’s depthless trust in Mirana’s abilities and good sense. Not: Why weren’t you keeping an eye on things? But: When did things change? “I asked Absolem when I returned. He indicated it was sometime during the fifteenth day. I expect, by the time he learned of it, it was too late to act to prevent it from happening.”


Alice nods. “Do you think it was your betrothal that...?”


“I’ve considered it,” Mirana replies, her hand moving the leather thong around her neck. She will be eternally grateful that Fenruffle had insisted on returning to the inn to personally search the place from top to bottom in order to locate Dale’s first claw. Perhaps she’ll knight him for his efforts on her behalf...


“However,” the queen continues, “when a monarch deigns to leave her lands to visit a suitor, a betrothal is not... an unexpected occurrence.”


“So, something unexpected must have caused it...” Alice speculates. After a moment, her eyes narrow and she asks, “How long would it take word of my heart line to reach the other lands?”


Mirana blinks, startled. “Well, I...”


“We’re expecting word of both Shuchland and Galandonland’s withdrawal of aid to reach Jaspien by dawn, yes?” she continues.


“Alice, whatever is going on inside that Uplandian head of yours?” Despite asking, Mirana is not sure she wants to know.


“I think Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer have been planning to take over all of Underland for a long time. I think they participated in the Wooing Rites to discover who you might choose and to see just how good your Champion was... I don’t know what their original plan may have been, but learning of my heart line would have been too good of an opportunity to let pass.”


Alice coughs out a humorless chuckle. “It’s not as if they could pay anyone enough to stand against both the White Queen’s Champion and King Aven’s. Mercenaries fight for money, true, but it takes a special kind of madness to someone for be a Champion, pick up a sword, fight an honorable battle to the death in the name of someone else, for the sake of someone else. Mercenaries don’t mind fighting, but dying... that’s something else all together.”


Alice shakes her head. “And there I was, outside the protection of Marmoreal, a Champion with a heart line...” Alice’s brows lift in droll counterpoint to her musings.


Mirana sighs. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand, Alice...” Logic makes her head spin especially when she’s enjoying a view from a sixth story balcony!


“Oshtyer and the others didn’t look very surprised to see that I had one. And... I think they might have considered threatening Tarrant, that is, if they could torture his identity out of me and manage to kidnap him. If that had happened, I would have done anything they asked.  Or perhaps the ruse would have been much simpler: maybe they would have tried to hurt him through me.” Alice considers her heart line. “In all honesty, I know so very little about this. Still.”


Mirana lays a hand on Alice’s arm. “No one can hurt Tarrant physically through you... not in the way you’re thinking. But he would have felt every emotion that passed through your heart. Unless you’d thought to shield him from it.”


“I’m sorry?”


Mirana smiles. “I shall have to fetch my resource on Underlandian rites for you to read more thoroughly. Suffice it to say that you and Tarrant can communicate your feelings to each other.”


“Unintentionally?” Alice wonders after a long moment.


“Well, yes, I imagine so. If you were panicked or suddenly overjoyed or felt something equally overwhelming.” Mirana considers Alice’s expression. “Why do you ask?”


Her gaze continues to examine the heart line on her hand – which she turns this way and that in the moonlight. Alice reluctantly says, “Nearly every day we were gone, the same inexplicable panic gripped me, waking me in the morning. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t have single bad dream the entire time we were gone, but... it felt as if I had.”


Mirana sighs and nods. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarrant holds the answer to that riddle.”


Alice nods. “I shall have to ask him... after all this is over.”


“Why the delay?” Mirana considers the coming duel. “If something were to happen to you, or him, wouldn’t it be better to be with him now?”


Alice closes her eyes. Her voice is husky when she says, “If I go down there now – go down to him – there’ll be no way I’ll be able to prepare for the duel.” Alice sighs. “And then there’s the fact that if I go to him without giving both of us time to really think about what’s happened, it’s always going to be there. This question hanging in the air over us.”


“If it wouldn’t be too personal to ask, what question is that, Alice?”


Alice glances at Mirana. “Trust. It’s a question of trust. Can I trust him not to let me hurt him? Can he trust himself not to let me hurt myself with another promise?”


“Alice, you don’t seriously believe that one little promise could make you do the things you did?”


“No, I don’t.”


Mirana is relieved to hear complete certainty in Alice’s tone.


“But Tarrant believes it.”


“Oh, botheration.”


“Exactly.”


“I see what you mean about waiting.”


“Yes, neither of us will be able to concentrate if I... if we...” Alice sighs. “I never thought having too much to say would be such a confounding conundrum.”


Mirana lays an arm across Alice’s shoulders. “It’s always the unexpected troubles that are the most overwhelming.”


When Alice doesn’t say anything for a moment, Mirana says, “I’m so sorry, Alice.”


“About what?”


The queen smiles sadly; it’s truly unbelievable how innocently surprised Alice is by her apology. “If it was... that is, if revealing you heart line truly caused Jaspien to act...”


“Mirana...”


“No, no, let me say this.” She draws a deep breath. “I should have listened to you, Alice. I’m so very sorry I insisted on us both wearing those silly dresses.”


“Stop, Mirana. Stop.”


Alice gathers the queen’s hands in her own and meets her uncertain gaze. “Look at us. Where are we? In Marmoreal. And we’re both well and alive. If I hadn’t revealed my heart line at the banquet, who knows what might have happened. Both Tarrant and I might have been captured at some other time. You might have had to elect a Champion to fight against me. I might have been killed; Tarrant might have been tortured; you might have been killed and Marmoreal might be in the hands of—”


“I see your point.”


Alice huffs. “Interrupting, again.”


“A queen’s prerogative, dearest Alice.”


They share a smile on the balcony, watch the clouds float across the moon, absorb teaspoon after teaspoon of moonlight through their skin...


On the balcony, two figures lean against each other’s shoulders against the backdrop of a midnight sky: a queen and her Champion.


Two women.


Two friends.


Two indomitable hearts.

 

Chapter Text

He knows.


Tarrant stands beside the queen on the terrace overlooking the croquet pitch.  His eyes – very rarely blinking – stay focused on the two figures below. When Alice stumbles, he deliberately curls his hands – now both free and splint-less! – into fists against the stone railing. When she exclaims in frustration, he narrows his eyes. When she drops her arm too early, her body shaking with fatigue and her breaths panting, Tarrant mutters in Outlandish.


Beside him, the queen watches the duel with unusual intensity. It is her presence here, actually, that had convinced him of it; he’d suspected last night, but now he knows it’s true: Alice has a Plan.


And, apparently, the queen must also participate in it, for certainly, she would not be here otherwise. The White Queen has never shown any interest in the daily requirements of Alice’s training and duties, but now she shows that and so much more.


The queen looks... Concerned.


On the field, Alice once again stumbles under Leif’s advance. She cries out when she falls back, but manages to keep the scimitar up. Barely.


The muscles along his jaw tense. His lips form the shape of her name and his breath hisses between his teeth.


Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the queen turn in his direction.


“Halt, Alice,” Leif commands in a clear tone.


“No,” she argues. Tarrant hides a smile; the title the Queen’s Champion is a euphemism for stubborn. “I can do this.”


“No, you can’t.”


“I can.


“Well, you’re not,” he growls. “I’m... frankly... mystified as to how you think you’re actually going to be fit enough to face whatever creature Jaspien elects to Champion the day after tomorrow.”


Even from this distance, Tarrant knows Alice’s determined scowl when he sees it. “With practice. Again.


Tarrant tenses all over as they resume the fight, circling each other on the pitch.


“Tarrant...” the queen breathes out, her tone weighted with compassion.


Luckily, at that moment, Alice attempts a very ill-timed attack. “Don’t!” he snaps, his eyes touching upon the queen’s for the merest of moments.


“Let Alice do what she must,” he murmurs just loud enough for the breeze to carry to the queen’s ears and no further. “Our Champion appears to be a bit rusty,” he continues in a louder, more jovial tone. “Do not worry, Your Majesty. I shall do my part to assist her in her preparations for the coming battle.”


“I... thank you, Tarrant,” she replies carefully. Her dark eyes narrow slightly with speculation, but Tarrant doesn’t dare give her any further indication of his thoughts. This is not the time for reassurance. Not if Alice’s Plan is to work. And how does Tarrant know this? The queen’s silence tells him. She does not attempt to reassure him, not with a gesture or a smile or a word. Nor does she attempt to make things right with a decree or a suggestion or a solution.


This is the time for caution and deception and roles. Alice and the queen have not said as much, not in so many words, but they’ve spoken to him in other ways:


Alice’s horridly-timed arrangements the evening before.


Her obviously sub-standard performance during today’s morning training practice.


The queen’s newfound obsession with Alice’s abilities.


And the silence. The utter and complete avoidance of explanations.


Yes, there is a Plan. Tarrant can feel it.


And if ye’re merely deluding yerself tha’there is one, lad?


Well, if that’s the case... then pretending otherwise might actually be beneficial. Despite his outward calm, Tarrant knows he’s but one more tragedy away from crumbling. He forces himself to ignore the history of pain between himself and his wife...


Yer
lover , ye mean. Never did get ‘round teh asking f'r Alice’s hand, did ye?


This time, when Tarrant fists his hands and tenses his jaw, the actions are not forced.


Yes, yes, he knows he’s failed her. He should have asked her...


He should have accepted a promise that would have made her better, safer, happier!


Ye slurvish, undeserving, slithy-shrifty greizin’-grommer! Ye’re no better than th’those booly-gebers after the queen, more’n happy teh lift a sword agains’th’Champion if it means getting’wha’ye want!


“Tarrant!”


At the sound of Mirana’s urgent whisper, he shakes himself, blinks, glances at her and summons up a tight smile. “I’m fine.”


“It’ll be over soon,” she tries to comfort him, her gaze returning to the field. “It’s nearly time for lunch.”


He relaxes. Yes, yes, he just has to focus on that goal: the end of this deception, the ultimate safety of Marmoreal and Alice herself. And then...


And then...!


The sound of metal clashing from below draws his gaze. He takes a moment to evaluate Alice and when she seems... well, not fine but barely competent, he feels his expression draw into a scowl as he considers his rival for Alice’s affections.


Tarrant knows she’s fond of the creature. And the son a flea-bitten, squimberry-sucking feline has the added advantage of not having hurt Alice as... thoroughly as Tarrant has.


I never meant to hurt her...


The very thought of having done so pains him. He clenches his left fist tighter to keep a grip on the emotion, to keep Alice from suffering from it through the heart line.


Ye never mean’teh, but ye did’urt her. Badly.


Yes, yes, he had.


She won’trust ye after that.


She might.


She won’choose ye.


He could still ask.


Ye’re a fool, lad.


Yes, he’s quite certain he is. Always has been. Always will be. But just for Alice. Only for Alice.


On the field, Alice and the lion lower their scimitars.


“You’re going to get yourself killed, Champion Alice,” the lion growls at her before stalking into the castle. Tarrant watches Alice clean the handle of her Shuchish sword with a rag, her head bowed, and aches to go to her. But he knows he can’t. That is not his role now. His role is to help her, and to do that best, he must not be near her any more frequently than she allows, for if he were to let loose everything he feels, needs to say, must confess, cannot help but plead for...


No. No, Alice is working now and he must not interfere!


Tarrant eats lunch in the kitchen with Thackery banging around on the stove behind him, but he might as well be alone. He wonders if Alice is as well, if she’s enjoying the over-salted stew the March Hare had prepared. He wonders if she can barely bring herself to notice the taste of it. He wonders if that might be because she’s too busy thinking about him, too.


“Ge’out o’my kitchen, Hatter, ye lovesick fool!” Thackery announces, tossing a soggy paw-full of potato peelings at him.


Tarrant twitches out of the way in time and heads upstairs. He tries not to notice the rooms he enters. He merely fetches the broadsword and leaves. He tells himself he hadn’t noticed the too tidy chair where Alice hasn’t thrown her night shirt and pajama trousers. He reminds himself that it’s normal for her boots to not be by the door. He consoles himself that her hair brush and pot of healing ointment have been tucked away in the drawer and not taken away.


No, no one is going to take away his Alice again.


And when he finds himself on the croquet field rather than above it, when he finds himself facing off against his Alice rather than watching over her, when he has to swallow back the words that would remind her that he has left his heart in her keeping – Alice, why is a raven like a writing desk? – when he lifts his sword against her and uses all of his strength to drive her back, to push her, to test her, when his heart breaks with every manufactured moment of this staged duel, when his greatest desire is to throw away their weapons and feel her hold onto him as he begs her forgiveness, Tarrant Hightopp merely smiles.


He does not trust himself to dare more than that without bringing everything crashing down around them. And he would rather suffer the madness, locked in the depths of the dungeons of Crims for every moment remaining in his existence, than hurt Alice again, risk her Plan, lose what is left of her trust.


Alice, I trust you,
he says with his silence.


Alice, come back to me,
he begs with every arcing thrust of the broadsword.


Alice, choose
us, he pleads with every step he takes away from the croquet pitch, away from her.


With all that he does not – cannot! – say, he wonders if there’s any chance that she hears him nonetheless.

 

*~*~*~*

 

It’s confirmed: Alice hates secrets. Even when they’re her own.


If the day she’d returned from Iplam had been difficult, the one following it had been torturous. Leif had scoffed at her, growled at her sudden lack of skill. She had wondered at his disgust – has she perhaps succeeded too well in this deception?


Where has my friend gone?
she wonders but forbids herself to speak the truth or to show it in her expression.


And, even worse, she’d faced the Hatter’s silent protest, his resignation despite his cooperation. And yet... there had been something about him. Something...


His eyes!
she’d realized as he’d sheathed his broadsword and bid her a good day following their training exercise.


“Please feel free to call upon me if you should need further assistance, Champion,” he’d mumbled, lisped. And then he’d glanced at her and his eyes had flickered from grass-green to rich aqua.


And, at that moment, she’d realized how very much she’s underestimated him.


He knows.


But of course he does! This is the man who had sacrificed himself to capture in order to draw the Red Knights away from her. This is the man who, upon seeing her – absurdly oversized – in the throne room at Salazen Grum, had hatched a scheme to make himself more available to her, in order to assist her, to further the Resistance. This is the man who had choked back his own madness in order to make hats for his sworn enemy so that he wouldn’t be tossed back into the dungeon where he would be useless to Alice. This is the man who had, shackled and with little more than a powder puff and a bottle of perfume, fought Stayne when he’d come to arrest Alice for that ridiculous allegation of unlawful seduction! This is the man who had stepped forward and stabbed the Jabberwocky’s tail to give her a few extra seconds during battle to gather herself and the Vorpal Sword.


“I’m an idiot,” she murmurs to herself, closing the door to her old bedroom and leaning back against it. Of course, Tarrant would figure it out, see past her pretenses. She has never met anyone who sees further, more clearly, truly than him, mad though he is at times. But then, it’s that madness that has always made him so very special to her. And, she believes, special in his own right.


Fate, how she misses him!


Soon...
she tells herself. Soon.


Soon, the moment of battle will be upon them and, in that moment, Alice will no longer have to act the part of the broken, stubborn, unreasonable and utterly defeatable Queen’s Champion. Just a little longer, she thinks. Word travels fast in Underland. Surely, by now, Jaspien and the others have heard about my incompetence, have assumed I haven’t recovered from my collapse, are feeling smug and overconfident about the Challenge...


And with everything to gain and nothing to lose, with an easy victory practically guaranteed, there should be nothing preventing one of the mercenaries from standing as Jaspien’s Champion.


Yes, soon – and gossipmongers enabling – the White Realm will be safe once and for all. But, in the meantime...


Alice sighs and reaffirms her decision to follow through with her plans. The plans Tarrant also seems to know something about...


Somehow, the next day is worse now that she knows he knows, for she cannot trust herself to smile or wink or even reach for his hand without cracking entirely. If she removes the mask, everything else will be exposed as well.


I miss you.


I want you.


Let me come home...


She endures Leif’s disapproval. And then, later that afternoon, she suffers through Tarrant’s barely-hidden acceptance, pride, and gently glowing support. The only comfort she can give herself is that no one but her is close enough to him to be able to see these things as easily as she can.


“With your permission, Champion?” he lisps, lowering his sword after an utterly unproductive hour spent on the field.


Alice nods, sheathing her own. “I suppose I’m only marginally more proficient at this than the queen’s writing desk would be,” she muses, her heart thumping painfully. You shouldn’t have said that, Alice! It’s too soon! One of you will do something or say something foolish and give the secret away! Someone could be watching, listening, sending word to Jaspien! Yes, the prince of Causwick Callion must not be made aware of the true nature of this game: of Alice’s intentions and abilities, of the queen’s resources, of the—


“I haven’t the slightest idea why you’d say such a thing, Champion,” Tarrant replies, scowling at her but regarding her with eyes that have deepened in color past aqua to indigo. “Of course, you mustn’t forget your muchness on the morrow.”


“I won’t,” she replies, strangling all emotion from her tone. Still, she feels oddly... accomplished – satisfied, content! – at having finally been able to answer Tarrant’s “Raven...” from two nights ago.


His gaze lingers on her for a moment. Were there no spies to fear or gossips to be wary of, Alice would have kissed him. That is, if he wouldn’t have given in to the impulse first. The fact that the desire is there, vibrating in the air between them and yet he doesn’t so much as twitch his fingers toward her, reminds her of the task she has set out to do.


“I have no doubt, Champion,” he lisps in response to her vow. And with an odd salute-like nod, he turns and heads back into the castle. Alice forces herself not to watch him go. She turns toward the trees and places a hand on the nearest one.


“I’m so tired of this,” she tells it in a whisper. And then she wonders if anyone might have heard that confession... and if the words are even now on their way to Causwick Callion.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Spies are everywhere,” Mirana had disclosed. “We must assume so, even if it is not true. Caution is of utmost and paramount importance at this point.”


“In that case,” Alice had replied, Uplandian logic flickering in the depths of her eyes and making her look rather... devious. “I have a suggestion for somewhere... isolated we might speak.” And with that, Alice had opened the vanity mirror to a very odd, stuffy-looking room.


“Alice... are you sure?”


“It’s just gone lunch, it looks like,” the Champion had estimated with a measuring glance at the sunlit windows through the glass. “And no one has used this room since my father died. We won’t be bothered.” And then Chessur had watched as Alice, Sir Avendon, Chief Minister Mogrimon, and the queen had sipped Pishsalver and had stepped through the looking glass. Chessur had been unable to hear the discussion, but he had watched, had stayed behind to keep the looking glass open. He’d waited – bit impatiently, he must admit – until the queen and the dignitaries had returned and indulged in a corner of Upelkuchen.


“Alice would like to speak with you now, Chessur,” she’d informed him.


He’d practically purred with self-importance. Chessur had swum through the mirror and drawled, “And just why would the Alice wish to see me on this side of the looking glass?”


Alice had smiled and told him her plan. Her fantastically, breathtakingly, wonderfully mad plan.


Tarrant is going to be very sorry he’d missed this,
Chessur had mused as he’d followed Alice back to Underland and then set off on his own mission. A mission that has contributed in a small but necessary way to bring them all here and now: to this battlefield.


The late morning sun peeks out from behind a wispy cloud as Chessur takes in the lines of menacing, scarred, battle-hardened mercenaries standing with Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer. He waits for the moment of unease he usually feels in such... political situations, but it doesn’t come.


Yes, Alice’s plan is that good.


Chessur turns and grins at Alice. “Well, here we are, Champion Alice.”


“Yes,” she agrees, grinning back in relief. “I think we managed it, Chess.”


“Oh, I know we have. And now...” He smirks at the two men standing on either side of and a pace behind the Queen’s Champion. “Now the question is are you going to ruin the surprise for everyone... or not?”


Tarrant grins at him, his eyes flashing a deep, confident green. “The only surprise, Chess, is that you never guessed I already knew there was supposed to be one!”


Chessur looks down his nose at the man. “I’m sure you think you do, however...”


“What don’t we know?” the Shuchlander interrupts.


Chessur enjoys the sly look Alice gives the lion over her shoulder. Yes, he enjoys that look very much. Then she turns back to Chessur, arches a brow and announces, “That Chessur has someplace and something he needs to be at the moment.”


He sighs at the reminder; the mission he’d performed at Alice’s request will be for naught if he doesn’t get to it. “Right you are, Alice,” he admits and disappears. It’s a shame he’ll miss hearing the lion’s protests and the image of a puffed up Tarrant would have been rather amusing, but Alice is correct: Chessur has a battle – and a bit of bullying – to prepare for.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice has been waiting for this moment since the day the queen’s suitors had first stepped inside Marmoreal Castle.


She’s a little startled to realize this, for how could she have known then that she’d desire vengeance so passionately now? At the time, she hadn’t even realized the vague discomfort she’d felt at seeing these men pass through the castle gates would grow and twist into such utter disgust. She despises them.


How dare they even think of approaching, laying eyes on, or threatening her queen!


“Alice?”


Tarrant’s soft whisper calls her back from the edge of her mounting fury. She blinks, huffs out a breath of laughter, and says, “Thank you. I’m fine.”


On the two-tone, cracked and shifted square stones, Nivens does the honors of announcing the particulars of the conflict. Again. Mirana tries to convince Jaspien to forfeit. She appeals to his vanity, his pride, but without a heart, there’s no way she can succeed, so Alice isn’t surprised when he turns on his heel and marches back to his army, leaving the queen’s plea unanswered.


It’s to be a fight, then. Which is just as well. All this planning and preparation would have been for naught otherwise. Mirana and Alice share a long look as the queen returns to this edge of the field. With a slight nod, Alice acknowledges the permission she’s been given.


It’s her turn now.


When the queen is once again standing surrounded by the White Guard, Alice shifts her weight and directs her voice to the Outlander and the lion.


“Step out with me.”


Leif looks at her. “What? It’s not permitted for anyone other than the Champion
to—”


“You won’t be fighting anyone,” Alice tells him confidently. “But you’ll give them pause while I make a proposition.”


“A what?”


“A proposition,” she repeats. “How else should one deal with an army of creatures who specialize in enlightened self-interest? Do you honestly think they want to fight us? To risk dying?”


“And you believe they don’t?”


“I know they don’t. I know them.” Alice glances out across the battlefield. Jaspien’s Champion has yet to step forward. He’s waiting for Alice to make the first move. She says, “I know what they really want. Even if they don’t know it themselves... yet.”


Tarrant giggles and Alice turns and gives him a beatific smile.


“Had you figured that part out yet?” she asks.


He shakes his head. “Alice, you will never cease to utterly overwhelm me.” His broad grin gentles. “Why is a raven—”


“—like a writing desk?” she finishes. “I haven’t—”


“—the slightest idea,” he murmurs with a luminous smile.


Alice smiles back. “Come on, then. Let’s get this over and done with.” And then she strides out toward the center of the worn and weathered clearing. She can hear Tarrant on her left, her weaker side, and Leif on the other. Across the way, an Outlander Alice instantly recognizes steps forward flanked by a hyena and a bear. They cut quite the imposing figures as they stride, lope, and lumber toward her.


“Ah, Lassling! Does be-giddy me’eart teh clamp eyes on ye again!” the Outlander announces.


“Davon. You’re looking well,” Alice replies, her left hand on her scimitar.


“Och! An’ye be rememb’rin’ me name!” The brash man wags a finger at her. “Ye tol’me ye’d done f’rgotten it alr’dy!”


Alice sighs. “I tried.” She shrugs.


Davon laughs. “Ye lied, ye canny lass! Ye even‘ad us all thinkin’ ye’ad somma’ agains’Outlanders.”


“What makes you think I don’t?” she counters.


He replies in a mocking whisper, “M’be ye hav’nae noticed, but that lad there–” He nods in Tarrant’s direction. “–he’s an Outlander sure’s I am me-self.”


“Truly? I never realized.”


Davon laughs again. “Ar, ye’re still a deligh’Alice!” He sobers suddenly. “’Tis too bad I’ll hav’teh be killin’ ye.”


And with that, he draws his sword, swinging it upward in a motion meant to cleave her from thigh to chin. But Alice knows this man. She’s fought him... and she’s survived him. The scimitar is in her hands before she can even form the thought to draw it. She dodges the blade, strikes the underside of it as it swoops upward, sends it flying across the battlefield, and then employs the sort of rotten, cheating, dirty, underhanded tricks Davon and his kind respect.


A kick to the knee, a knee to the groin, a fist to the kidney, and then using the grip on his wrist to twist him around and down to the ground, Alice finds herself leaning over the man. She has his arm in the sort of grip she’d used on Tarrant months ago when the madness had consumed him after he’d discovered that she’d gone through the looking glass without him. Davon kneels on the stone tiles with Alice’s knee pressed against his back and her blade at his throat. She keeps him there, arm twisted up against his back and his weight precariously balanced upon his knees, his neck pressing just slightly against the sword’s edge.


Before he forces her to kill him, she plays her cards.


“I, Alice Kingsleigh, Champion of the White Queen, do hereby offer amnesty to all those willing to throw down their weapons and accept the gift of land and property within the lands of Queen Mirana!”


Her voice carries across the echoingly silent plain.


And then someone laughs.


Alice doesn’t take her eyes off of Davon. “Is something funny, Argur? You’re not tired of living day-to-day with naught but two or three iron coins clinking in your pocket?”


“Don’t got any pockets, Lassling!” he counters between brays.


Alice smiles. “Of course! What would you need them for? Not for riches, certainly.” Ignoring his helpless, hiccupping chuckles, she raises her voice, “None of you will ever see a single gold coin as long as you follow this path. Why do you fight?!


Her challenge rings out like the pealing of a silver bell.


WHY DO YOU FIGHT IF NOT FOR SOMETHING BETTER THAN WHAT YOU HAVE NOW? WHICH IS WHAT?


No one answers her, for she already knows their answer. She’s seen it in the hard flash of humor in their resigned gaze; she’s heard it in their hallow, shallow laughter; she’s felt it in the hate and disgust they pour into every charge, every attack, every swipe of a blade or club or paw: nothing. These creatures have nothing. Nothing to lose and now everything to gain!


“Those of you who fight for a better future for your families, for yourselves, I offer it to you freely!” Still, she doesn’t dare take her eyes off of the Outlander on the ground before her. “And those of you who fight in hopes of meeting Death itself...” Her smile is dark and vicious. Even if they can’t see it clearly at that distance, she knows they’ll hear it. “... I’m more than willing to oblige you. Here. Today.”


And with that, Alice whistles. From the depths of the woods surrounding the battlefield, the red and gold livery of Galandonland’s Army steps forth, taking their place on the west flank of the White Army. To the east, the royal blue colors of Shuchland step forward. But that’s not all. From within the queen’s forces come two terrifying beasts: the frumious Bandersnatch and the nightmarish Jabberwocky.


“Keep your weapons and flee,” Alice invites them. “Keep your weapons and die. Or throw down your weapons and swear allegiance to the White Queen, vow to lift a weapon only in defense of your queen and family and your own life and we will welcome you into our lands, into your land, where your city is waiting to be built. You have my word – the word of Alice Kingsleigh of Marmoreal, the word of Alice Lassling! – that I speak the truth!”


Finally, she releases Davon. She removes the scimitar and – knowing she cannot afford to give ground now – gently shoves him away from her. She watches him warily, waiting to see if he’ll draw one of his many, sharp-edged throwing stars.


Although she knows no one man or beast leads this rabble, she knows they all listen to this Outlander. Many times, he’d been the one to come between Alice and one bad-tempered beast or another. She doesn’t trust him – no one trusts each other in this company of mismatched, money-loving monsters – but she knows he’s the one she’ll have to win over first.


She watches as he stands, his back to her. She trusts Tarrant and Leif to keep Argur and Boreal out of her way.


“What say you to my offer, Davon Irondirk?”


Slowly, he turns. She notes his hands are held in front of him, palms up. He smiles, revealing his crooked, chipped, stained teeth and tells her, “Aye, Lassling. I say aye teh yer offer.”


Alice nods, accepting his answer.


“A city, you say?” Argur muses in his off-note, screechy voice.


“Yes.”


He tosses his battered short sword aside. Boreal follows suit. The sounds of weapons clattering against the stones is nearly deafening. Even the Jubjub bird, with its ghostly, ghastly eyes on the grinning Jabberwocky, stands down.


No!” Valereth screams. “You’ve made a vow to me! You will fight or face the consequences of breaking it!”


Davon shouts back, “If ye’ll r’call, Mister Valereth, we signed on teh work f’r a wage, no’teh die in a battle.”


Alice grins and adds to Valereth, Oshtyer, and Jaspien's general misery with relish: “Step forward Prince Jaspien, Viscount Valereth, and Lord Oshtyer to receive justice!”


“And if we don’t?” Oshtyer sneers. “You’ll have your new pets do your bidding?” Clearly, he’s referring to the surrendered mercenaries.


Alice laughs. “Why would I impose upon them when I have other pets who are already looking forward to sinking their teeth and claws into your hide, my lord?” She raises a hand and gestures the Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky closer. Their steps thunder against the stones, shaking the ground as they advance snarling. The disarmed mercenaries hastily move aside until it is only Jaspien, his cohorts, and their most loyal stewards who remain, alone and abandoned and on the rather unpleasant receiving end of the hungry and untamed attention of Alice’s... pets.


“What’s it to be, gentlemen?” she asks. “Will you come forth? Or will you be dinner?”


The Jabberwocky lets loose a hungry rumbling growl that makes the hair on the back of Alice’s neck stand on end, even though she knows she has nothing to fear from this twitching, dark-as-a-starless-night, starved-looking creature.


The Bandersnatch snarls and roars eagerly, licking his face in anticipation.


Alice keeps her arm up, keeps them in check, and waits for the men across the field to make their decision.


Oshtyer retreats one step... and then another... and then he turns and takes two frantic running steps toward the wood before he realizes he has nowhere to go. While he and his cohorts had been focused on Alice’s speech and the sudden appearance of the White Queen’s allies, the former army of the Red Queen had moved in behind them, cutting off their retreat.


Oshtyer, Valereth, and Jaspien stare at the spear-wielding line of red-armored fighters, and relent:


Jaspien, resigned and defeated, steps forward first.  “I surrender,” he announces, his face blank.


Valereth joins him but cannot bring himself to say the words.


Oshtyer reluctantly complies as well.


And then Alice steps back and allows the White Queen, King Aven, and Lord Hornsaver to pronounce their verdicts:


Jaspien is confined to his castle and marshlands for the remainder of his life.


Valereth’s wealth and property are seized as compensation for his disloyalty to his king and his homeland. He is banished from Shuchland and all the realms of the Underland Allegiance.


Oshtyer’s meager land holdings are re-taken by Galandonland and he joins the former viscount in exile.


The men are forced to remove their weapons and their shoes and then they are marched from the battlefield.


It’s over...!


Alice smiles, takes a deep breath, and sighs. Now, all there is left to do is go home.

 

Chapter Text


Preparing for the return journey takes longer than preparing for the march to the battlefield had. The White and Red Armies collect the discarded weapons, and the mercenaries – now loyal subjects of the White Queen – allow it with only a few longing glances and half-hearted growls.


“Your things will be returned to you upon completing a formal vow of fealty,” Alice informs them, and after that, there are no more grumbles or snarls.


The soft puff of breath against her neck warns her an instant before Tarrant murmurs over her shoulder and in her ear, “You’ve quite a gift for handling the masses.”


She bites back a smile.


“I’ve always known you were splendidly talented. But this is a wonderful surprise,” he continues and Alice has to hide a shiver of lust at the heat of his breath and the tender possession in his tone.


“Champion Alice? I believe everyone is ready to return,” Fenruffle announces, emerging from the lines of soldiers. Alice watches the queen bid farewell to Lord Hornsaver and accept his congratulations on her betrothal. Even King Aven speaks softly and warmly to her. Alice cannot hear his words, but she imagines, from the look in his eyes, that he is thanking Mirana for rescuing his son from the consequences of his actions.


Alice marvels at how... beautifully everything has worked out.


“Once again, wonderful use of that Uplandian mind of yours, dear Alice,” Chessur whispers, still wearing the Jabberwocky’s frightening form.


“And, once again, wonderful use of your shape-shifting abilities, Chessur,” she replies quietly. “And your powers of persuasion. Not just anyone could have convinced the Jabberwocky to let them borrow its shape... again.”


He preens. “Yes, I did do rather well with that, didn’t I? Although, I imagine someone has a few questions about the entire affair...” His bright green cat eyes pass over Tarrant and Leif.


Tarrant giggles and then, shaking his head, sighs with contentment.


Leif glances at Alice and says slowly, “You planned for Avendon to see me there on the balcony.”


“I did,” she admits. “And he was prepared for seeing you there.”


“So it was all planned? Shuchland and Galandonland withdrawing their aid...?”


Alice nods. “Yes. It was planned in secret and done in public so that, after word reached Jaspien about it, he would have no reason not accept the challenge.”


Tarrant claps his hands in glee. “Yes, yes, a necessary challenge it was! For how else were you going to petition the mercenaries to turn against them and force their surrender?”


“Exactly,” Alice replies.


“Only... there is one thing I’m curious about,” Tarrant continues, his expression reforming into one of serious contemplation and puzzlement. “Which lands and city were you speaking of?”


“The city you already know,” she tells him. “It’s been abandoned for years now.”


“Ah... Salazen Grum. Yes, yes, they tore the castle down after the Battle of Frabjous Day.”


“Yes, and there’s a harbor that needs a wharf and a town and fishermen and shopkeepers and tradesmen to fill it up.”


Tarrant smiles, nods, then wonders, “And the land?”


Alice nods in agreement with his implied observation; the lands surrounding Salazen Grum are certainly not ideal farmland, at least not for the produce that has always been grown in the White Realm. “Actually, during our trip in Shuchland, there were several local plants that seemed to grow quite well in a rocky, arid clime like the one at Salazen Grum. But, you’re right, there are other places that need populating.”


“And where might those be?” he wonders curiously.


Alice just smiles. “In Snud, in Queast, in Witzend... all over really.” An idea occurs to her and she offers, “I’ll take you to see my favorite one sometime soon.”


Tarrant’s smile is gleeful and Alice can’t help but return it.


“I’m sorry, Champion Alice,” Leif interrupts gently.


“For what?” Alice asks, puzzled. “You played your part extremely well, Leif. Thank you.”


He shakes his head and sighs but says nothing further.


Despite the long day and the longer journey, the mood is festive. The newest citizens of the White Realm bicker and joke about their future occupations:


“Ha! If’n ye try teh catch a fish wi’tha’ ugly face, ye’ll scare e’en th’sea beasties away!”


“Aye, ye’d better stick teh carrot farmin’.”


“Or potatoes.”


“No’p’tatoes! Them‘as eyes, ye ken? Won’b’able teh beg ‘em teh come up outeh th’ground!”


Laughter – both harsh and heartfelt – is heard periodically throughout the journey. Alice can feel the attentions of both Tarrant and Leif on her during those moments of spoken Outlandish and rough humor, but not once does she lose herself to the memories they had previously called forth.


The new citizens are settled in the town of Marmoreal for the night and the Queen declares that on the day after tomorrow, after the former mercenaries have accepted their vows of fealty, a grand, three-day celebration will be held. Alice listens with only half an ear and sighs, knowing she’ll have to attend to guard the queen when she’d rather spend the rest of the week elsewhere...


She glances at Tarrant and finds his gaze already upon her. The look in his eyes makes her heart beat faster.


Yes, she’d rather spend the whole time behind closed doors. Isolated, but most definitely not alone. They will have tonight, she knows, but after the long march and the adrenaline of the confrontation, Alice is beyond tired. No, tonight she expects she’ll be doing naught but sleeping.


Tomorrow morning, however...
Yes, there’s nothing to stop her from spending the night with Tarrant, waking up next to him in the morning, and then showing him how very much she’s missed him.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen quite that way...

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Thank you, Hatter.”


Tarrant returns the queen’s appreciation with a tired smile. “You are most welcome, Your Majesty. It was my—”


“No,” she interjects gently, “no it was most certainly not your pleasure, but I thank you for everything you’ve done for me, for Marmoreal, and for Alice.”


Tarrant twitches a bit at the mention of his wife’s name.


The queen gives him a knowing look and he glances away, shifting uncomfortably. That one glance tells him that Mirana already knows exactly why he’d participated in the deception Alice had orchestrated... and his main motivation had had very little to do with Marmoreal or its queen.


“I also thank you, Sir Hatter,” a rumbling voice says.


Tarrant glances up, surprised at being addressed by none other than the queen’s betrothed. He takes in the he-lion’s new mane and kind expression and feels even less worthy of the attention. “If there’s ever a way I can be of service again...” he lisps in a rush.


The queen once more interrupts him (very bad habit that!) and suggests, “But not for some time, Hatter. I believe you have other duties to attend to...?” Her dark eyes glance toward the castle drive where courtiers are milling about with the queen’s generals, demanding every last detail from the day’s confrontation. Tarrant spies Alice standing with Fenruffle, organizing the weapons that had been given up by the mercenaries. Fenruffle scribbles furiously, recording each item and its owner’s name as Alice waves each pawn in through the normally-well-concealed castle side entrance and toward the armory on the second floor.


He barely notices when the queen and Dale move away, disappearing amongst the milling crowd, and Thackery joins him on the steps, clutching a wooden ladle.


“Mally says I missed all th’excitement!” the hare announces.


Tarrant feels a wry smile tug at his mouth. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m afraid our dear Mally has been exaggerating again. There was very little excitement and certainly no occasion for tying up toes with string,” he replies.


“Well, I coulda tol’ye that,” Thackery sniffs. “Cannae use th’same trick twice ‘r shame on ye when it d’snae work!” He waves the wooden ladle in the air for emphasis. “Soup...


“I’m afraid I’m not very hungry at the moment,” Tarrant apologizes. “Will it keep until tomorrow?”


“Aye, ‘twill, but don’be expectin’ there teh be any Thrambleberries left!”


“Wouldn’t dream of it.”


Again, Tarrant is left alone on the steps. He does his best to keep Alice in sight at all times, but every now and then his gaze drifts off to Dale’s fellow exile. And every time he notices the blighter, he feels a scowl pull his pleasant, relieved smile relentlessly downward.


No, Tarrant has not forgotten the he-lion’s vow to woo away Tarrant’s Alice. He knows, despite the battle between the White Realm and the alliance of Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer being over, that he has yet another fight on his hands. Although he is calmer and more focused now than he had been just a few days ago and although Alice seems receptive to his overtures of affection, he is very much aware of the fact that very little has been resolved between them and nothing at all has been said of their future.


“Hatter! What you doin’ out here?”


Tarrant startles and realizes that he’d been neglecting his watch over Alice in favor of glaring at that... that...!


“Mally,” he says, scanning the dispersing crowd for a woman in battle armor. “You’ve been sharing tales with Thackery again.”


She harrumphs. “There’s no need to be swappin’ tails as mine suits me just fine, thank you very much!”


Tarrant continues scanning the remains of the assembled welcoming party: lingering soldiers and a smattering of courtiers but no be-armored Alice.


Mally pokes him in the ankle with her sword. When he hisses and looks down, she swishes it at him. “Lookin’ for Alice, are you? Well, that’ll teach you to spend all your time glaring at that other fellow!”


“Where is she?”


“And why should I tell you, you great, jealous lump?”


Tarrant closes his eyes, takes a deep, calming breath and, looking at her again, breathes, “Please, Mally.”


“Oh... all right. Went inside a while ago. Looked right knackered, she did, so don’t you be going and bothering—Oi, Hatter!


Tarrant marches into the castle and heads directly for her old room, where he knows she’s been sleeping since her return to Marmoreal. He knocks softly on the door, but when – after a minute or so – there’s no answer, he knocks firmly. And then, moments later, pounds on the door. He knows he oughtn’t but he’s unable to stop himself.


He’s just opened his mouth to call her name when the doorknob across the hall informs him, “She’s stepped out, young man. Maybe moved out. Again.” The fixture sighs. “Never seen a lady so unable to make up her own mind about her sleeping arrangements!”


“Where did she go?”


“How should I know? I’m just a doorknob, for the love of brass polish!” The doorknob pauses, and then says consideringly, “Which is quite possibly one of the things I love best...”


Gritting his teeth and thinking uncharitable thoughts of vain and useless sentient brass door handles, Tarrant heads back down to the first floor. Perhaps she’d returned to the room they’d borrowed in order to bathe out the Hafflaffen from her system? But no, the latch on that door insists no one’s been in or out since the room had been cleaned a few days ago. He tries the kitchen, the libraries, the armory and – with great hesitance – his own hat workshop. Still, no Alice. Reluctantly, he decides she must have gone up to the queen’s tower parlor to sleep on the sofa there.


When there’s nowhere left to search, he admits defeat and forces his exhausted, aching body up the steps and down the corridor to his room. Disappointment makes each step more difficult than he could have imagined.


He’d hoped... foolishly, yes, but he’d hoped that Alice might have spoken to him about coming home tonight. He’d doubted she would agree, but he’d been prepared to ask – beg, plead, bargain! – about that very issue. He’d formulated all manner of excuses and concessions just to ensure that she’d be with him in some sense of the word so that he wouldn’t have to wonder if that gutless, slithy, shukm-peddling booly-geber might be calling on her, charming her, claiming her affections...


Tarrant growls and reaches out to wrench open the door to his apartment.


“I’ll thank you to treat me a bit more kindly from now on,” the lock orders him, “or I’ll not be telling you who’s been by in your absence!”


Tarrant pauses, blinks, and addresses the fixture. “Who has been by?”


“A bit of trust is required for me to divulge that,” the useless, opinionated jumble of scrap metal rebukes. “But I will say this: you are, without a doubt, the luckiest son of a Witzend wild-man I’ve ever had the misfortune to be manhandled by!”


Tarrant opens his mouth to argue his father’s sophistication. Imagine a Hightopp begin called a “wild-man”! The insult!


But the lock’s next proclamation distracts him. “Don’t botch it this time!”


And with that, the door swings open of its own accord.


Suddenly nervous as he recalls similar words from Chessur regarding his handling of Alice’s madness, he steps into the room. The first thing he notices is the woman slumped against the sofa cushions in her pajamas. For a moment, he’s sure he’s imagining things. So he checks: shoes that look like Alice’s are sitting by the door; an Alice-sized vest is draped across the armchair in the bedroom and... yes, the shirt and trousers she’d worn beneath her armor today seem to be in the laundry basket; a jar of ointment, a hair brush and various other Alice-y odds and ends are cluttering the top of the dresser. Tarrant blinks back the odd burning (but not from madness!) sensation in his eyes and smiles.


Confident now that he is not imagining Alice dozing on their sofa, he wanders back into the living room. As he approaches her, she doesn’t stir and he takes a moment to simply look at her. She looks tired, certainly, but she also looks well.


Oh, how he’s missed her!


He reaches out to gently brush a curl away from the corner of her eye, but stops himself. No, she hasn’t given him permission to touch her again. Not yet. He mustn’t until she does.


Sighing, he pulls his hand back and that’s when he notices the item lying on the sofa cushion next to her. His smile returns as he leans over and collects the small portrait of her. Kneeling at her feet, he cradles the thick parchment in his hands and reminds himself to thank Alice for sending this to him.


“You’re late,” she whispers suddenly.


Tarrant looks up and meets her bleary gaze. His heart thrills at the sight of her tired yet endearing smile.


“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”


She blinks and her smile widens. She looks down at the drawing in his hands. “I just about throttled Mirana when she told me she’d tucked that in with my letter to you.”


“Why?” he asks, drawing the small portrait closer to his chest protectively.


Her gaze tracks the movement. “Mostly, I was embarrassed by it. It’s very...”


“Ensnaring, enrapturing, sensual, scintillating, sultry, seductive, passionate, pleasurable, pleasing—!”


“Hatter...”


He giggles. “I’m fine.” Glancing at the portrait once more, he murmurs, “And, while it was not my most preferred way to keep you with me, it... helped nonetheless. Despite how very far away your were, I could hold you in my hands again. It was... yes. Yes, it was.” Setting the portrait aside gently, he turns his attention back to her. “Alice?”


“Is it all right that I’m here?” she asks worriedly. “I promise I’m fine. I won’t hurt you again. I mean, like I did. The... madness is... I control it now. That’s what Chessur and I were doing in the evenings. Testing my mind... I’ve faced it,” she says solemnly. “I won’t let it hurt us anymore.”


Tarrant feels his heart throb at the incredible strength his Alice has.


She takes a steadying breath. “So... can I stay?”


“Alice,” he says, slowly reaching for her hands and smiling broadly when she allows him to collect them in his own. “Alice, I don’t care about the madness. Where else would I rather have you than here? In our home? ... with me?


And she releases the breath she’d drawn in a long exhalation. “Thank you.”


“Hush,” he replies, caressing the back of her hands with his thumbs.


When Alice opens her eyes, his hopeful smile is waiting for her. “Having a shape-shifting, Outlandish-speaking cat around was very useful, but... I miss your Outlandish,” she murmurs.


He huffs out a breath of wry laughter. “I miss watching you as I speak it.” He leans closer, examining her face. “Your eyes soften and your mouth opens just the smallest bit and, if I’m very lucky, I can watch your tongue wet your lower lip... yes... just like that...”


He stares at her mouth until her fingers squeeze his. “Outlandish, please,” she implores.


And because he will give Alice anything she asks for, he complies, “Aye. Yer eyes b’come th’softest, deepest color o’warm dark tea an’yer lips open f’r me an’I’ll do anythin’teh taste ye. An’ yer breaths b’come pants tha’draw me in an’ I cannae deny th’need teh touch ye, teh have ye, teh give ye wha’e’er ye ask o’me...”


Alice closes her eyes and shivers. “Yes,” she moans-whispers-pleads softly. “I’ve missed that.” She opens her eyes. “I’ve missed you.”


Daringly, Tarrant leans forward and touches his forehead to hers. “I’ve missed us, Alice.”


She nods, her eyes tightly closed. And then she kisses him. His entire body sings at the soft touch. Her lips move languidly against his, lacking the purpose of passion that often drives her and then captivates him.


Stop, lad! Alice is exhausted.


Yes, yes, of course. “Thank you,” he whispers, pulling back.


Her smile is a bit wobbly, but it is a smile.


“I know it’s not... That is, you’re very tired, Alice, but I have to... I mean, I’d like to say that... I’m sorry.”


“For what?” she asks.


“The promise, the Thrice a-Vow, the horridly slurvish way I spoke to you when you trusted me for answers and all I gave you was me own guilt an’ fear an’ I WAS SO AFRAID I’D LOSE YE, ALICE!”


Shhh...” she croons after pressing a hand against his cheek. “Everything’s fine. It’s fine.”


“I’m sorry,” he says again. “You’re tired and I’m... so slurvish! I ne’er learn!” Tarrant shakes himself as he stands. “Com’on, Alice, inteh bed wi’ye.”


She allows him to pull her from the sofa and tuck her against his side. He ushers her into the bedroom and settles her down for the night. After tucking her in, he moves away, but her fingers reach for him and graze his wrist.


“Stay...” she breathes. “Missed you...”


Remembering the last time she’d woken up beside him, he hesitates. “Are ye sure?”


“Stay...”


Tarrant quickly disrobes then slides into the bed with her and wraps her up in his arms. He can feel her warm breath puffing against his chest and the weight of her body as she relaxes into sleep.


Tarrant forces himself to stay awake just a while longer in order to relish the feel of her. Here. In his arms. Finally!


“No one will take ye away from me again,” he mouths into her hair.


And with that vow, he knows exactly what he has to do. First thing in the morning, Tarrant Hightopp is going to do right by Alice Kingsleigh. If she chooses him in the light of day, with a clear mind and an open heart, he’ll have a ring for her and a promise of his own.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice’s grand plans for a memorable reunion with her husband are completely and utterly scuppered when she opens her eyes to the late morning sunshine and notices a very conspicuous lack of Tarrant-noise in the too-silent apartment.


Groaning, she rolls over, buries her nose in his pillow, and swears. Of course she’d forgotten one very obvious fact yesterday evening when she’d daringly promised herself a passionate lie-in with Tarrant... Like the fact that he’s the Royal Hatter and the following day will be the first of a massive celebration.


Not for the first time, Alice damns the greed of the White Queen’s courtiers.


She wishes she could merely close her eyes, roll over, and wish him into bed with her, but she knows it won’t work. Grumbling, Alice throws back the covers, summons a frog footman and requests a bath and, following that, tea.


Once she’s presentable and the tea service is on its way, Alice indulges in a moment to consider her heart line. She really ought to consult that tome of Mirana’s about it. She vaguely remembers Mirana saying something about being able to use it to communicate with one’s blood-bonded spouse and is utterly frustrated at her inability to recall reading that. Of course, at the time, she’d been more focused on what they’d done to each other rather than how it could be used to benefit both of them.


“I shall have to rectify that today,” she whispers to the bay window. And, at that moment, the tea service arrives. Alice rises and opens the door, then blinks down at not only Marshing but a certain hatpin-swishing dormouse with twinkling, secret-filled eyes.


Alice thanks the frog then, as he enters to place his burden on the table, she points her finger at Mally. “Whatever it is you know that I don’t had better be something you’re planning on telling me if I invite you to tea.”


Mally cackles. “Oh, well, you know I’d tell you if I could, but as it’s not my secret...”


“Uh huh. Thanks for stopping by, Mally,” Alice says, moving to close the door.


“Now, just hold on a minute, Alice!” The persistent dormouse’s voice squeaks through the tiny crack between the door and the jamb caused by the insertion of her hatpin. “I said I couldn’t tell you, but there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with you guessin’...”


Alice sighs and opens the door again.


“Thanks, luv,” Mally says, strutting inside and heading for the table. “I do enjoy a cup of Throeston Blend!”


Alice sees Marshing out and, with an exasperated sigh and a fond smile, joins Mally at the table. Seating herself, she pours them each a cup of tea and tosses Mally some Battenburg.


“That was quite the speech yesterday,” Mally says by way of opening.


“Thank you,” Alice replies. “Does this secret you know – but I don’t – have anything to do with Tarrant?” With that delightfully, determinedly devious light in the dormouse’s eyes, Tarrant is always a good place to start guessing...


“Could be,” Mally answers, then fires off, “How’d you know they’d go for it?”


Alice shrugs. “It made sense they would.”


“Made sense to you, you mean.”


“Is Tarrant planning to Futterwhacken at the celebration?” Alice guesses while it’s her turn.


Mally considers that. “If you asked him to, I’m sure he would.” The dormouse leans forward eagerly. “Are you going to ask him to? I haven’t seen him Futterwhacken since the Battle of Frabjous Day!”


“I’ll think about it,” Alice replies.


“So, how come you ain’t gallymoggers anymore, Alice?” Mally accuses.


Alice’s brows arch. “Are you disappointed I’m not?”


“’Course I am! Suppose you think you’re too good for us now!”


Mally!” Alice huffs.


The dormouse giggles. “Oh, you know I don’t mean nuthin’ by it, Alice. You don’t have to be mad as the rest o’ us if you don’t want to.”


“Thank you for understanding,” Alice replies, happy to avoid telling Mally exactly why she’d chosen to purge herself of that madness. No, if Alice were to tell Mally that she’d hurt Tarrant, that she’d made him bleed, the dormouse wouldn’t rest until she’d exacted revenge.


“So, how’d you do it? De-mad yourself?”


Alice waits until Mally has taken another noisy sip of her tea. “Well, as it was mainly Outlandish and... um, male laughter that triggered it, I asked Chess to shape-shift into the Hatter and...” Alice shrugs.


“Oooh...!” Mally places both paws on the rim of her cup and leans so far over the edge, she’s only a soft breeze away from drowning herself in it. “Did you get in a few good swipes?” she demands excitedly.


Frowning, Alice opens her mouth to reply.


Knock knock!


Mally turns to look at the door as Alice focuses on it over her head.


“Were you expecting someone for tea?” Mally wonders aloud, oddly suspicious.


“No,” Alice replies bluntly. “But I suppose the queen would like a word...”


Yesterday, Mirana had gently pulled her aside and confessed her desire to hold her and Dale’s wedding as soon as possible – on the third day of the celebration, to be exact. Alice winces at the thought of all the hullabaloo that will cause, but can’t deny her happiness for the queen. After all that she and her former prince have been through recently, after the strain they’d been under through their bond (courtesy of the First Claw Dale had given her and she’d accepted), Alice can understand perfectly why they’d rather not wait any longer to finalize their vows and begin the rest of their lives together.


Alice rises from the table, strides over to the door, pulls it open and blinks at the creature on the other side of it.


“Leif...” Frowning, Alice asks, “Is everything all right?” She spares a brief thought for her broadsword in the other room.


The lion draws a breath and rumbles softly, “Could I come in?”


From the table, Mally shouts, “Don’t let that booly-geber in here! Get out, you! This is the Hatter and Alice’s place and you’re not welcome here!”


Turning, Alice hisses, “Mally! What’s gotten into you?”


“You just tell him to go away, Alice,” the dormouse orders.


But, feeling rather contrary today, Alice ignores her. “What is it?” she asks Leif instead.


His voice is still feather-soft when he requests, “Could you accompany me for a moment?”


“We’re in the middle of tea,” Mally points out in a hostile tone.


Alice grits her teeth.


“Never mind,” Leif says. “I came here to give you this. It’s yours.”


He hands Alice a small, silk pouch and then, with a flick of his tail, turns and stalks down the hall. Confused, Alice watches him go. Then she steps back and closes the door.


“What is it?” Mally asks with what sounds like apprehension.


“I don’t know...” Turning, Alice fiddles with the stings of the pouch and upends it over her palm.


A tangle of leather cord and a single ivory-colored claw lands in her hand.


Mally gasps.


Alice gapes.


“Oh... oh no, Alice. Did you... just accept... that? From him?


Alice looks up at Mally’s horrified expression. She feels her own face pulling into a frightful scowl. Without another word, Alice pivots on her heel and charges out the door, automatically slamming it shut behind her and ignoring the keyhole’s shout of protest.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Overall, it had been a rather productive morning. He’d awakened just after dawn from the dream of the most delightful ring on Alice’s heart-line finger. Recognizing the design, he’d carefully extracted himself from bed and rushed down to his workshop. Rather than start working on it right away, however, he’d forced himself to attend to several of the hat orders he’d received overnight. (Easily a dozen missives had been slid under the door at some point, each detailing a particular accessory for the queen’s victory celebration.)


As he’d worked on more familiar tasks, his mind had been busy considering the unfamiliar venture that had come to him in the dream...


I shall need a hammer...


No, no, don’t want scratches, so a cloth of some sort, a barrier...


Perhaps heating would assist in...


Yes. Shall have to see about that. A candle?


No, scorching. Don’t want scorching on...


And on and on it had gone until he’d convinced himself that he’d determined the best method and then had set about practicing with a bit of scrap – chortling in delight at his success – before attempting the final version.


Tarrant’s right hand dips into one of his many jacket pockets and his scraped, blistered, and raw fingertips brush against the small object within. He marvels at its diminutive size, for how can such a small thing truly represent his love for Alice?


He hears himself whistling softly as he strides toward the apartment. He’s later than he’d expected, unfortunately. He regrets that his proposal will be a luncheon one rather than an as-she-first-opens-her-eyes one. But perhaps that’s for the best; Alice tends to be a bit drowsy and out of sorts before her first cup of tea anyway...


Allowing the scene he’s planned and prepared for to play out in his mind, Tarrant feels his chest tighten with anticipation and joy. He wonders at the odd sensation. And he giggles at the thought of surprising Alice... He hasn’t had the opportunity to give her many pleasant surprises. Oh, he does hope she’ll like this one!


“About time you got back,” the keyhole grouches.


In too pleasant a mood to be bothered, he merely opens the door.


“Oh, dear. Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh dear!


Tarrant feels his elation deflate as the door swings open and he sees not Alice but Mally, who is pacing back and forth over the table – which had been set for morning tea – and quite obviously fretting.


“Mally?” Tarrant asks, glancing around. “Is Alice here?”


“No! No, she isn’t and we haven’t a moment to lose!” Mally shouts, clamoring down from the table and racing toward him. Tarrant scoops her up in his palm and sets her down on his shoulder.


“What is it? What’s happened? Where’s Alice?!


“I don’t know!” Mally wails. “I was doing just as you asked – keeping Alice busy until you came back with the... you-know-what... but then that lion showed up and he...! And he...!”


Tarrant clenches his jaw and struggles to keep the encroaching madness at bay. “He what?” he demands, picturing all sorts of horrible things: Alice taken again! Alice in the paws of that... that... that...!


“He gave her his First Claw, Hatter!”


The anger chokes him. He hears an odd sort of wheezing snarl and it takes a poke in the shoulder from Mally’s hatpin sword to distract him from the Blackness. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and – striding for the still-open door – asks, “D’she accept it?”


“He didn’t give her a choice, that rotten blighter! Gave it to her in a pouch an’ when she opened it up and turned it over the claw fell right into her hand! Oh, Hatter!


Tarrant races down the stairs, his heart pounding but not from exertion, his mind a chaotic mass of denial.


No, no, no, NO, NO,
NO, NO, NO—!


How could that bloody lion have
done this?! WHY?


I’ll nae let tha’bastard
take MY ALICE!!


“Does she know?” Tarrant growls. “Does she know what this means?”


Mally, grasping the hatpin which she’d stabbed through his jacket’s shoulder seam to keep herself from tumbling off, shrieks, “I’ve no idea! Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?!”


“If she d’snea know...”


“Won’t make a bit of difference unless she can convince him to take it back. Willingly.


Later, Tarrant will wonder how he’d managed to make it down all those stairs without managing to kill both himself and Mally as he’d skidded and slipped around corners and crashed into walls. Later, Tarrant will marvel at the fact that he hadn’t actually allowed the madness to engulf him despite feeling it pulsing beneath his skin, crouching just beyond the periphery of his vision. Later, Tarrant will wonder if giving in to it might have been more merciful.


But at the moment, he struggles to remember everything he knows about the First Claw. He vaguely remembers that the exchange initiates the bonding of two souls and, although the bond is stronger if each creature gives its First Claw to the other, only one is actually necessary. He also recalls that once the claw passes from its owner and touches the skin of the intended recipient, it cannot be returned. Not without the owner allowing it and intending to release the recipient from the merging of their souls.


And with every minute that passes following the exchange, the process becomes more and more difficult to reverse, for with every minute that passes, the two souls move – little by little – each toward the other until...


D’nae think it, lad! FIND ALICE!


Yes, yes, he must find Alice and tell her... tell her before it’s too late!


He can see the door  – standing open – to that frumious, dirt-snuffling, shukm-lickering bastard’s rooms just ahead!


Nearly there!


Hatter! STOP! What are you going to say?!


He doesn’t answer because the answer doesn’t matter. All that matters is Alice and he’ll do and say whatever he must to keep her!

 

Chapter Text

Warning: This chapter contains sexual situations which feature SEXUAL AGGRESSION. 

However, it IS CONSENSUAL.

 

*~*~*~*
 

 

Alice doesn’t bother to knock.


In the wake of the absolutely wretched violation of her will, she doesn’t particularly think Leif deserves to have his privacy respected.


The door bangs open and rebounds off the wall with a thunderous boom! as Alice strides over the threshold. She lifts the leather cord – careful not to touch the claw any more than she already has – and demands, “What do you think you’re DOING?


“Alice,” Leif says from the middle of the room. “Please hear me out.”


“Of course. After you TAKE THIS BACK!


He shakes his head. “I can’t do that.”


“Why won’t you?” she growls. “Do you even care that I don’t WANT THIS?


He winces. “I’m doing this for you. Please, don’t make this any harder than it already is.”


“Any harder...” she muses in stunned disbelief. “You’re coming between a husband and wife and you ask me not to make this ANY HARDER?!


Leif dares to take a step toward her and Alice’s right hand reaches for her sword... right before she remembers that she’d charged out of the apartment without bothering to arm herself. “Alice,” he murmurs. “You’re not actually married to him.”


“I beg your pardon?!”


“The Thrice a-Vow, it’s not a marriage vow.”


Through gritted teeth, Alice manages, “I. Don’t. Care.”


“You don’t have to stay with him!”


“That doesn’t mean I should be with you!” she tosses back.


Leif winces. “I’ll never hurt you, Alice.”


“Neither would he,” she rebuts, for the moment deciding not to mention either the gross injustice Leif has done her – forcing a Soul Bond upon her by offering her his First Claw in such a slithy, underhanded manner! – or Tarrant’s well-meaning mistakes. But, of the two, there’s no doubt in her mind as to which she prefers.


The lion’s golden eyes narrow. “You’re wrong. He’s dangerous, Alice. You ought to keep away from him.”


“Whether or not I do is my choice! Release me from this vow!


Leif merely shakes his mane and says one word, “No.”


Alice’s fist clenches around the leather cord until her short nails dig into her palm. “Why?”


“I already—”


“No. You haven’t. Two days ago you couldn’t stand to look at me. And now – suddenly you’ve decided to save me?


He sighs. “You don’t understand. I didn’t understand. I thought you were stubbornly throwing your life away after Dale and I had given up everything to spare it!”


Although Alice hates repeating herself, she finds that, in this situation, the words still apply: “That would have been my CHOICE!


And sometimes the people who love you should take that choice AWAY!


Alice scoffs. “Are you saying you love me, Leif?”


“I am. I do. More than anything. Please, Alice,” he beckons.


Unbelievably, Alice feels herself sway toward him. No, no! She grits her teeth and keeps herself from taking the step closer to him that something within her yearns for.


“You don’t love me. You don’t even know me.


His eyes narrow. “I think I do.”


Alice glares. “The woman you met in Shuchland was half of herself! The entire time she was there, she was thinking of home and she was thinking of her Hatter!” She studies him for any signs of weakness. Quietly, she continues, “Every time you had to repeat a question, every time you had to restate an observation, every time you had to remind me of my duties... every single time, I was thinking of him. Missing him.


Leif shakes his head. “He’s a dangerous, jealous man, Alice. What you were feeling was from the heart line—”


In a frighteningly calm tone, Alice interrupts, “How dare you tell me what I was or wasn’t feeling. I spent three years in Upland waiting to see him again! I do know my own mind, Leif!”


And finally, there’s a flicker of doubt in his expression.


“Three years, I waited for him. Three years, I did my duty to my family and my father’s memory,” she elaborates, fisting her right hand as well and fighting against the magnetic pull that urges her closer to him. “Three years, of missing the man who’d endured capture and torture for me, who’d forfeited his own life to save mine, who’d stepped up against the Jabberwocky when I’d fallen, who’d asked me to stay in Underland rather than go back to the petty, superficial torture of my old life and do you have any idea how hard it was to LEAVE HIM?!” Alice forces herself to take a deep, cleansing breath.


Into the sudden silence, Leif says with quiet compassion, “I think I do. Alice...” He moves toward her and Alice makes herself take a step back toward the corridor. “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to know you’re with him and wonder what his jealousy and madness could do to you?”


“You underestimate me. Again,” she informs him. “I have faced Tarrant’s madness before. He has never hurt me. I won’t allow him to hurt me.”


“You shouldn’t have to face that AT ALL! NOT FROM YOUR HUSBAND!”


“I shouldn’t have to face BETRAYAL FROM MY FRIEND!”


Alice takes another step back, away from him. “You claim to know me so well – or, well enough to love me, in any case – but how can that be when you misunderstand me so easily?” She shakes her head, frustrated almost beyond words.


Leif pauses. “What have I misunderstood?”


Alice inhales deeply, opens her mouth, and... “Ahhh!


She stumbles as the unmistakable acidic burn of Tarrant’s rage bursts and burns from the Heart Mark. Her hand rises, clutches at her shirt.


Oh, dear Fates... Tarrant
knows!


“Alice? Alice?! Are you all right?”


She opens her eyes and, gasping, flinches away from Leif’s paw as he reaches for her. Separating herself from him makes her entire being ache, as if she’s trying to lift a weight too heavy for her body to bear. “Do. Not. Touch me.”


Alice pulls herself up with the help of the doorjamb and knows she has very little time left. Tarrant will be here any moment and – armed or not – she doubts he’ll be satisfied with simply removing her from Leif’s presence. No, she’s relatively sure Tarrant will kill him. Or at least give it his very best effort. And in a battle of brute strength, she doesn’t doubt who is most likely to be injured... or killed.


Brangergain i’tall!” she curses, her mind working furiously.


“Alice?” Leif queries.


From the end of the hall, running footsteps echo nearer, nearer, nearer still...!


She knows she’s out of time. And the only way clear of this mess she can see is unbearable, but at least Tarrant will be alive and safe and still innocent of the crimes of which Alice has learned she herself is undeniably capable.


Tarrant’s pounding steps are closer now. She only has a few moments left.


Alice looks up at Leif, who hovers over her, and glares.


“I don’t think I’m capable of ever forgiving you for this,” she informs him.


And then, standing, Alice places herself between the man she loves and the lion she cannot allow him to confront.

 

*~*~*~*

 

He still has absolutely no idea of what he’ll say – nor has he started caring in the last two seconds since Mally had asked – when he grasps the open doorjamb with his bandaged fingers and scrambles to a halt. On his shoulder, Mally’s small body bounces with the sudden stop and she squeaks in fright.


Tarrant can’t bring himself to care at the moment. For in front of him is Alice.


Alice.


His Alice.


And around her neck is Leif’s First Claw.


For a moment, he simply stares, unable – unwilling! – to understand...


It’s Mally’s gasp that assures him what he’s seeing is real. This is not a nightmare, not a daymare, not an illusion, delusion, or mirage despite the fact that it illustrates – embodies, manifests! – his greatest fear, his most insurmountable terror, his deepest and darkest horror.


“Alice?” he hears himself ask, breathless with panic, physical exertion, and disbelief. His Alice would not have acquiesced to the Soul Bond! Never!


She closes her eyes and sighs. “I’m sorry.”


Tarrant regards her warily, his chin twitching to the side and his brows drawing together. “No...”


Alice opens her eyes and repeats those two words that defeat him: “I’m sorry.”


“No, no, no, NO, NO, NO, NO!”  Tarrant directs his attention to the bastard who had done this unforgivable thing, who had stolen away his Alice's soul! Ye slurvish slurking urpal SLACKUSH SCRUM!! he screams.


HATTER!” Mally hollers in his ear.


He doesn’t heed her.


Alice can make up her OWN MIND about who she is’r isnae married teh!” he quotes the lion. “YER WORDS, YE GUTLESS, SHRIFTY, GUDDLER’S SHUKM-LICKERING—!


Hatter!


This
voice Tarrant responds to, can’t help but respond to. He blinks and notices he’d crossed the room, stalking closer and closer to that... that... that...!


Hatter.


He clenches his jaw, takes a deliberate breath, wrangles the rage, and looks down into calm, brown eyes.


“Alice,” he whispers. “Don’t... I can’t... Raven, please!


She stands close enough for him to embrace. So close. So very, very close. But her hands are braced against his shoulders, holding him back. Holding him back from attacking the creature who has taken her from him. Holding him back from the creature she stands with now.


“No, no...” He shakes his head and raises his hands, reaches for her wrists. But because he’s not sure what he’ll do when he grasps her, he stops himself, his fingers twitching and curling in the open air. “Alice, choose me,” he begs around the fist in his throat, choking him more effectively than Stayne had ever done. “I must keep you, Alice. Please let me...”


He asks for the impossible, he knows. But if anyone can fight the absolute power of a Soul Bond, it is his Alice!

And, for a moment, it seems as if she might, she will, she is...!


And then Alice gently pushes him away.


“I’m sorry,” she says.


Just those two hateful words. That and no more.


Tarrant feels his jaw unhinge in shock. So quickly, so easily, he’s lost her.


Numb, he allows Alice to shove him backward toward the open door, over the threshold, and into the hall.


“Look after him, Mally,” he hears Alice whisper but the words don’t make any sense. Why would Mally take care of him? Why Mally when it’s Alice who will... who has always... who he’d prefer... who he needs...?


And then Alice steps back into the room and shuts the door.


The sound echoes in the hallway until silence returns.


Silence and nothingness.


Perhaps he ought to follow Mally’s insistent urging to go and see Mirana. Perhaps he ought to go back upstairs to the apartment and hide Alice’s things. Perhaps he ought to start breathing again. Perhaps he ought to allow his heart to start beating again. Perhaps, but what would be the point?


He pulls Mally from his shoulder, sets her down on the pale, gleaming floor, and does something he most definitely ought not to do:


He goes to the hat workshop to begin the task of destroying what is left of his life.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Gasping, Alice struggles with the pain, Tarrant’s pain, the pain she’d caused him, the pain Leif had made possible with his utterly stupid, heroically short-sighted rush to save her from the man she loves.


“Alice...?”


“Not. A. Word,” she demands, tearing the leather thong from around her neck and fighting with the self-disgust and nausea she knows has nothing to do with Tarrant and everything to do with the games of deception she’s gotten so very good at playing.


For long moments, Leif simply watches her. And when Alice finally manages to stand upright on her own, he asks, “Why did you do that if you don’t intent to accept—?”


Her laughter is cruel and humorless and she feels the darkness of her own brand of madness wrap its hot tentacles around her. “Why do you think?” she grates out. “To keep him safe.”


She looks at him, finally, and she can see that he still doesn’t understand. “Do you think I want Tarrant to live with the fact that he’d killed someone – even you – in a fit of madness? Do you think I’d allow you to injure him while defending yourself? Do you think I’d tolerate you touching him?”


Leif flinches.


“And now,” Alice continues, “that we have more time to spend on our discussion, I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen next. I’m going to walk out that door, find Tarrant, and beg him to forgive me for hurting him. I’m going back to him and there are one of two things you can choose to do about it.” Alice takes a menacing step toward him. Her entire being bursts with joy and delight at the shortened distance between them. Despite that, she persists, “You can do the right thing and release me by accepting your First Claw back. Or, you can try to stop me and find out exactly what sorts of things I’ve learned from those mercenaries, and I’ll warn you, mercy isn’t one of them.”


The lion gapes at her. “Alice, don’t you... The Soul Bond, don’t you feel it?” he asks, clearly stunned by her continuing resistance.


Hating it, but being unable to deny the truth, Alice acknowledges, “You can take my soul and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I’m not letting you take Tarrant away from me, too.”


And, with that, Leif finally sees her. She stares into his golden eyes and watches the understanding, resignation, and acceptance dull their color. His shoulders droop as he reaches out and accepts the claw and its leather string from Alice’s offered fist.


“Champion Alice,” he begins, “I...”


“Will stay here for the time being,” Alice instructs him. “Dale still needs you.”


He opens his mouth, closes it, looks away, and says, “Is there nothing I can do to make this right?”


“Perhaps,” Alice muses. “In a few days, you might consider giving Tarrant a heartfelt apology. At the very least.” And then, considering her husband’s temper, Alice adds, “I’ll let you know if I think that’s wise.”


He nods and, gaining control of his emotions, regards her once more. “I’d go with you if I thought it would help. Despite my... error in judgment, the last thing I want to see is you hurt.”


“If you’re worried about Tarrant hurting me, then you’re wasting your time.”


Alice doesn’t stay to debate the issue. She strides toward the door, relishing the fact that she can move away from the lion without feeling the strain of separation, and steps out into the hall.


Alice!


Startled, Alice glances down at a frantic-looking Mally.


“What are you doing here?! I asked you to—!”


“I know!” Mally despairs. “He wouldn’t take me with him!”


“Where’s he gone?”


“He was mumbling about some fez or other...”


Alice closes her eyes and knows precisely where he is: in the hat workshop. She tells Mally to go and find him there. “Come and find me in the alchemy library if he’s not there or it sounds as if he’s hurting himself.”


The dormouse glowers up at her. “You’re not comin’ to set this right?!”


“I am. I will. But I can’t just rush in there blindly!


“Oh, yes, you can!”


Alice raises her left hand and fists it. “I need every weapon I have for sorting this out,” she tells her. “And I still don’t know how to use this one!”


The dormouse snorts. “What’s to know? You concentrate on what you feel then send it to him along your heart line and will it into his. Easy as pilgar pie!”


Alice narrows her eyes. “Are you sure?


“Yes,” Mally says.


And when Alice waits but the dormouse says nothing further, simply holds her ground and glares back, Alice nods. “All right. Then I’ll be in the hat workshop.”


“Wait!” Mally cries as Alice straightens. “I’m coming, too!”


Alice shakes her head. “No, Mally.” And then Alice sprints for the other side of the castle. She feels an instant of faint guilt at leaving her friend behind, but the fewer witnesses to Tarrant’s madness and the darkness within him, the better. Alice doesn’t expect she’ll get out of this coming confrontation unscathed, but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else see what Tarrant is capable of.


The very thought of what those strong hands could do to her should frighten her, should made her pause and consider her actions, formulate a plan. But taking the cautious road has never been her style. And, by the time she maps out her strategy and rediscovers her courage it might be too late.


She will not allow it to be too late for Tarrant, for her, for them.


Alice passes frog footmen and fish butlers, courtiers and guards. If they call out to her, she does not notice. Her intent is focused on one place, one man. And when she arrives at her destination, winded from racing up the stairs, she pauses at the door and listens to the ruckus coming from within.


Tarrant is lost within the madness. The persistent burning emanating from the Heart Mark confirms it.


Alice takes a deep breath and reaches for the latch.


And, seeing her heart line, she pauses.


She presses her right hand over the Heart Mark, Tarrant’s mark. Krystoval had told her that she already knows the meaning of both this shape and the one marking Tarrant’s chest, caging his heart in her blood, but she thinks she understands far more than that now. In fact, she can no longer deny that she does understand it. The knowing comes from somewhere within her as if it has wrapped around her bones and drifted into her blood; she understands the Thrice a-Vow inexplicably, totally.


She remembers thinking Krystoval’s flower had been the very best gift she’d ever received, but now, looking at Tarrant’s heart line, sensing – knowing – what it truly means, she realizes she’d been wrong. Very wrong.


This mark... this evidence of absolute trust... this is the most precious of gifts.


Tarrant had, quite literally, given his heart into her keeping.


And she holds it in the palm of her hand.


Please do not let me break it,
she begs of the Fates, of the gods, of the magic of Underland, of whatever power may be listening.


And then she opens the door.


She gasps at the utter, complete, and total ruin of the room: benches have been overturned; scattered bolts fabric lie torn and twisted; buttons, ribbons, and sewing implements litter the floor...


Tarrant leans over a table that had been carefully arranged with the hats he’d prepared for the celebration on the morrow and, with a reckless swipe of his arm, sends them flying across the room.


Knowing further hesitation will merely delay the inevitable, Alice steps forward and says his name.


He freezes and glares at the bare tabletop before him, his expression twitching with confusion, uncertainty, and something so frightening Alice very nearly makes for the door.


But no. No, she will not. Leave. Him. Again.


No matter what.


“Alice?” he growls, a terrifyingly toothy grin revealing itself from between his dark lips. Once again, his eyes are shadowed by the sooty hue that comes with deep madness.


“I’m here,” she replies, closing the door and moving forward. He doesn’t move, doesn’t twitch a muscle, as she approaches. Her instincts scream at her to keep the bare table between them, but in the end she can’t bring herself to force even that minuscule distance upon him. Stopping beside him, she places a hand on his arm and waits.


His gaze flickers briefly in her direction, too fast for her to catch the exact color of his eyes.


“Where is it?” he demands in a gruff, deep tone.


She shivers at the voice of this madness. This is a side of him she’s never seen or heard before. And it scares her.


“Where is what?” she asks, her voice barely a whisper of breath from a dry mouth and a tense throat.


His nostrils flare and Alice imagines he’s catching the scent of her fear...


His manic grin twitches and then...


... and then!


Alice gasps as she’s thrown bodily onto the bare tabletop. Her arms windmill for a moment before her palms connect with the wood behind her. Tarrant grasps her knees, pulls them wide, steps between them then reaches up to her tunic and tears the neckline open.


“Where is it?” he repeats on a snarl and looks into her eyes.


Alice can only stare at his irises – not red, not violet, but a frightening mix of both: magenta.


Sensing a single whisper, a single motion will result in something unavoidably disastrous, Alice remains perfectly still. Tarrant smiles again and lowers his nose to her throat. Snuffling, he works his way downward to the space just between her breasts.


“I smell it on you,” he rasps. “Where is it?”


Heart pounding, Alice searches for her voice. It evades her.


“Have you hidden it? Hidden that piece of him? Or has he marked you?” Tarrant leans back just enough to look into her eyes and inform her, “I’ve marked you. Marked you first. You’re mine, Alice. He won’t have you until I’m done with you.” He leans closer, closer until Alice can feel his chest pressing against hers. His teeth nip at her ear. He warns her, “I’m not done with you yet.”


She bites her lip to keep the shiver under control. It doesn’t work. He undoubtedly feels it as he’s pressed so tightly against her. He chuckles.


“You shouldn’t have come here, Alice,” he informs her in that deep tone, each word perfectly and properly enunciated. Alice does her best not to panic at the sound of those non-lisped, non-Outlandish-ized words. Who are you? she wants to ask, but doesn’t.


She knows who this is. This is Tarrant. Her husband. Pushed beyond all reason and even madness. She wishes she could feel relieved at finally meeting his Darkness face-to-face.


“Do you know why you should have stayed away?” he muses aloud.


Mute, she shakes her head.


His magenta eyes focus on her throat, on her pulse which must be shuddering wildly beneath her skin. He glances up at her through his brows. “Then I’ll show you...”


Oh, dear—!


Her silent plea remains unvoiced and incompletely conceived. Tarrant reaffirms his grip behind her knees and drags her toward him. His hips – still clothed – fit against her pelvis and Alice experiences a sudden and all encompassing flash of heat at the feel of him, so hard against her softness. She has no delusions as to how the next few seconds might very well have played out had she been wearing naught but a skirt and flimsy underthings.


The idea nearly makes her eyes roll back in her head. The fear and uncertainty and his power and her need and his aggression and her want are a heady mixture in her mind, in her blood.


Yes...” she tells him. Yes, anything you want. Yes, everything I want. Even though it terrifies her. Yes, she tells him, accepts him: “ Tarrant...


His mouth and hands are suddenly – roughly – moving over her: her neck, her breasts, her back, her hips, her thighs. She gasps at his strength. He’s never been so dominating, so utterly intoxicating... She’d treasured his gentle-and-hesitant then frantic-and-impassioned lovemaking, but this... this... she’s craved for far too long.


She’s craved this since he’d pinned her down on the croquet pitch with his body and she’d wrapped her legs around his torso and had tried to compress his ribs painfully enough to force his surrender.


She’s needed this since he’d pinned her down in this very room when she’d dared to attempt an attack on him with a ridiculously inadequate cheese knife.


She’s dreamed of this since that first glimpse of violet in his eyes after she’d administered ointment to his bruised side under the boughs of the trees beside the pitch.


She’s wanted this since he’d knocked the fighting staff from her hands and had spun her around, trapping her against his chest, then had dared her to fight back.


She’s desired this ever since he’d silently watched her drink that thrice-damned Jabberwocky blood instead of grabbing the vial from her hand then shaking her soundly before pulling her into his arms and forcing her lips open with his own and claiming her mouth!


No, that moment of possession – of ownership – hadn’t happened then.


It is happening now.


“Mine,” he growls against her Heart Mark, his teeth scraping over her breast.


Alice wraps her legs around his waist and pulls him closer.


Yours...” she agrees, her fingers curling against the table’s surface. She commands herself not to reach for him.


“I can do anything I want with you,” he murmurs darkly.


Alice opens her eyes and shivers at the look he gives her: that unsettlingly aggressive magenta stare through his brows.


“And you’ll let me, won’t you, my Alice?”


She nods.


“If I wanted you on your hands and knees on the croquet pitch...” he purrs.


Alice gasps her agreement.


“If I wanted you spread open for me over the queen’s throne with her courtiers looking on...”


Oooh...
Yes...


“If I wanted you to crawl to me before opening your mouth and closing your soft lips around me–” He thrusts himself against the cradle of her hips and she cannot possibly misunderstand his meaning.


“I would,” she agrees, helplessly. “I would.


He grins. “I believe you.” His gaze rakes down her hungrily. “However, just at the moment, I’ve something else in mind.”


Alice isn’t sure how much more of this she can take – the fear, the desire, the unbelievable volatile heat-violence-virility of him – before she breaks.


“Yes,” she agrees blindly.


Tarrant raises his palm and gently cups her cheek. “Good girl, Alice. It’s best to accept these things, for no amount of protestations will stop me from having you however I like.”


She closes her eyes and leans into his hand, knowing what she’s doing is dangerous. She’s participating in the Darkness – welcoming it, prolonging it – instead of calling him back into the light, but she can’t stop herself. “Then take what you want,” she whispers, opening her eyes and giving in to him.


A flash of a smile is all she sees before his mouth is on her neck, biting and sucking the flesh with uncompromising hunger. She feels his hands on her, one on the small of her back, pressing, arching her toward him and the other opening one thigh wider. Then, in a flurry of effort, he pulls her to the very edge of the table, raises her knees up, unbalances her so that she has to lean back on her elbows, helpless and open. He kneels between her thighs and with another of those meltingly intense gazes, opens his mouth and scrapes his teeth over her fabric-clad crotch.


Ahhh!” She spares a brief thought for passersby and the unlocked door... and that just so happens to be the last thought she is capable of sparing for some time.


His hands splay open over the junctures of her thighs and pelvis and she braces her feet on his shoulders, offering herself to his will. His thumbs press against her center and she can feel him just there. Just barely inside her – and he would have been if not for these damn trousers! – and it makes her mindless with need.


Please, please, please, please...” she begs. The litany trips off her tongue as necessary as her next breath. She surrenders over and over again with each rough swipe of his teeth over the fabric, with every wave of vibrations that tease and torment her and every hot breath she imagines she feels against her core.


Time stops, she’s sure. But no, Tarrant had. When no further stimulation is forthcoming, she opens her eyes and, panting, looks down the length of her body at him. Those striking eyes are watching her expression as he opens his mouth. His tongue appears and she stares as he applies it directly to the cloth over her most sensitive place.


He licks, breathes, bites, scrapes, nuzzles, and sucks viciously.


She comes.


She hears herself scream his name, feels her entire body flame, gives in to the white-star-studded blackness that erupts behind her closed eyelids. The pounding of her heart swallows her whole and some innumerable breaths later, Alice realizes that Tarrant has... stopped.


With the exception of her own panting exhalations and the ticking of the clock, the room is very, very silent.


“Tarrant?” she asks, dazed.


“A... Alice?”


She smiles at the sound of the familiar lisp. Forcing her rubbery limbs to obey, she sits up. Still kneeling, Tarrant’s expression oscillates between confusion, apprehension, and terror. She reaches for him, urging him to stand and then she leans her forehead against his shoulder and wraps her arms around his trembling body.


“Did I...? Did I...? Alice?”


“Hmmm...” she manages. “I’m considering things that begin with the letter ‘M’,” she muses against his jacket. “Marvelous. Magnificent. Monumental.” She rubs herself against the bulge still straining against his trouser front.


He gasps. “I don’t... understand. I... You are...”


Before Alice can attempt a reassuring response, he steps back and grasps Alice’s upper arms. “Alice? Are you really here?”


“Yes.” She presses her hand against his cheek and his eyes – now green – drift nearly closed in relief.


“I think I dreamed you here, but it was a nightmare because of the things I said and I did and I wanted so very badly to do such very bad things to you, but it wasn’t me, couldn’t be me because I would never want to do those sorts of things to you, to make you hurt and make you feel afraid of me... I don’t want you to be afraid of me, Alice.”


Again, she opens her mouth to reply but he rushes on.


“I couldn’t bear it if you were afraid of me! Please don’t be afraid. I’ll never think those things again. I promise, I swear, I vow, I... I...” He leans his forehead against her shoulder and shudders. “I need you to choose me, Alice. I shouldn’t ask you, but will you? Will you choose me? I don’t deserve it – I’ve hurt you in so many ways. Too many promises. No more promises! And madness, I gave you to the madness and you didn’t know me and I think dying would be easier than to see you look at me and yet not know me! And I need you, Alice, please!


Tarrant leans back, the mercury-stained skin surrounding his eyes glistening like bloody scrapes beneath his messy tears.


“Choose me, not him.


Before he can start again, Alice captures his jaw in her hands and brushes her thumbs over his lips. “I do. I choose you. I choose you, Tarrant Hightopp. My Hatter. My Mad Hatter. I choose you.”


A tremulous smile twitches his lips. His eyes, full of equal measures of anxiety and hope, mesmerize her. “Did you... Are you... The First Claw? Alice? Was that a nightmare, too?”


She shakes her head and puts his mind at ease, “I convinced him to release me. I’m yours now. Just yours.”


Ngh!” Tarrant wraps his arms around her and buries his face in her neck. Alice returns the unbreakable embrace and listens to his laughing sobs of relief. But long minutes later, when he lifts his head, he regards her with a worried expression.


“Alice...?”


“Yes?”


“Someday, not today, but someday, I might ask you... might... might ask... about the Blackness and if it... if I frightened you... but I...”


Alice combs her fingers through his shoulder-length hair. She replies, “And someday, I’ll tell you that it frightened me in the most spectacularly thrilling way. And I’ll cherish the memory of it forever.”


And with that, she focuses on everything she feels for this passionate, caring, scarred, devoted madman. She thinks of their past and their future. She thinks of their passion and their friendship. She thinks of time spent in his arms and at his side with her knee pressed against his beneath a table set for afternoon tea. She thinks of everything they have been, everything they are, and everything they could be together...


And, consciously using the heart line for the first time, she then wills all that she feels along the twisting blue mark from her heart and into his.


This time, when Tarrant gasps, chokes on a sob, and clutches her tighter, she knows it’s not in response to crushing fear or overwhelming relief, but in total surrender. For now, there is no dark corner of his mind Alice has not seen.


And she has never loved him more.


 

Chapter Text

 

“There. You look stunning, Mirana,” Alice informs her, gently smoothing the shimmering skirt of the sarleh into place. Smiling, she continues, “I hope you’re not expecting sweet nothings in your ear because, if I’m not mistaken, you’re going to stun poor Dale speechless.”


Mirana laughs, despite her obvious nerves... or, perhaps, because of them. “I... I...”


Alice pets the queen’s lustrous, white hair. “How can you be nervous now when the hard part’s over with?” Indeed the celebrations and the ceremony, the planning and the preparations, the dinners and the dancing, the tea and the toasts, the hors d’oeuvres and the Orashlach... Those things are all little more than memories now. The rosy light of sunset illuminates the queen’s tower bedroom through the Queast-facing windows.


“I suppose I am nervous,” Mirana admits. “On this night of all nights, I think I’m entitled, though. Even considering the Soul Bond.”


Alice hesitates a moment before laying her arm across the queen’s shoulders. “Would you... like some advice? From one who knows what it’s like?”


“Yes, please!”


Feeling unaccountably shy and unsettled – how odd it seems to be giving Mirana advice of the heart! – Alice gently wraps her arms around Mirana so that each might both hide their embarrassment from the other. “Expect pleasure,” Alice whispers, recalling her own experience with Tarrant on their first night together. “And unless the Soul Bond allows you to read each other’s minds, you’re going to have to show him what you like, what you need. He’ll be nervous, too, because he’ll want to please you, but he won’t be sure how. Be strong for him. Guide him. Don’t let hesitance make this night anything less than it could be.”


Alice steps back and, giving Mirana a comforting smile, says, “You’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with him. Begin as you mean to go.”


The queen returns Alice’s smile and nods. “Thank you, Alice.”


“It’s the least I can do, Mirana.” She collects her friend’s hands and gives her arms a good shake, loosening the muscles. “Deep breath, now,” she orders.


Mirana closes her eyes and obeys.


“Now imagine his smile, his eyes: what exact shade of gold are they when he smiles just for you?”


Alice continues prompting the queen’s memories of her beloved until a soft knock sounds against the door. And when Mirana opens her eyes, Alice sees only lingering traces of her anxiety. Mostly, the woman looks... luminous. With one more reassuring squeeze to her hands, Alice turns and opens the door. She waits for Dale to enter and then bows herself out, careful not to intrude on any portion of the moment. Her feet carry her down the curving stairs to the tower parlor where Mally is waiting.


“You make that tunic into a very intimidating garment,” Alice compliments her.


The dormouse grins and struts a bit. “I do, don’t I? Never thought blue to be my color, but...”


“You suit it quite well,” she finishes.


“Ha! You said it, Alice!” Mally heads over the small dinner table that had been set up beside the front door and climbs up the lace tablecloth.


With a smile, Alice continues, “Thank you for this, Mally. It means a lot to us...”


“Aw, go on with you!” the dormouse insists. “After this week, you an’ the Hatter ought to get away for a bit.”


“We’ll be back tomorrow,” Alice promises. “And, in the meantime...” She glances over Mally’s head at the other guard assigned to watch over the new king and the queen on their wedding night. “Try not to impress Chessur too badly.”


The cat grins. “I should very much like to see her try,” he drawls.


Mally cackles. “Oh, there’s not much that ol’ Chess can do that I can’t do better!” she replies.


“Oh? Have you suddenly developed evaporating skills?”


“When it comes to a pot of Throeston Blend, I certainly have!” She giggles.


Even Alice has to admit Mally has very impressive skills when it comes to tea consumption. “You most definitely do and someday I’ll get you to tell me where you put it all.”


Mally claps her paws together with glee. “After you and the Hatter get back, we’ll sit down and work out a little bargain on that!”


“Oh, er, right,” Alice manages and moves toward the door. “Now, play nice, you two, and get the king and queen whatever they need.”


“We know, Alice,” Chessur replies, rolling his great eyes.


“Nuthin’ more dangerous than a pack of trump cards for tonight.” Turning, she nearly hollers at him, “An’ it won’t be my fault if you give yourself a paper cut!”


Alice bites back a laugh as Chessur tries to block her from reaching the stack of cards with the end of his tail. “Not until we’ve settled on the rules!” he insists.


“What rules?!” Mally retorts. “There’s only one way to play a game of Snud-done Snitzer!”


“Good night!” Alice calls, letting herself out of the room and heading down to the base of the tower. She nods to the knight and bishop on either side of the main entrance and bids them a good evening as well. Passing by a balcony overlooking the courtyard, she hears the sounds of tents being dismantled and tables cleared. Alice sighs. She’s very happy to have an excuse to avoid the clean-up. Helping Marshing, Lakerton, and Pondish erect over a dozen voluminous white tents – who in their right mind had decided to assign three frogs that task? – earlier that morning had been harder than her regular Champion’s training!


She feels a smile pull at her lips as she recalls the surprisingly adept serenade Thackery had produced for the newlyweds – with the help of a bit of Orashlach, that is! The Tweedles had performed a rather spectacular tap dance duet – or so it had seemed to Alice. Perhaps it had actually been their own unique brand of Futterwhacken.


Futterwhacken. Yes, she’d timidly asked Tarrant if he wouldn’t mind dancing for her again and Mally had been beside herself with joy. And Alice hadn’t been unaffected, either.


Must remember to ask Tarrant how that dance is even
possible!


But, then again, he’d probably just chuckle, smile his gap-toothed grin and remind her in a soft lisp, “It’s only impossible if you believe it is!”


Shaking her head, she heads downstairs to the hat workshop. She might have been excused from helping everyone clean up outside, but she knows her husband’s workshop is still in shambles from the other day. And, as that’s largely due to her, she feels it’s only fair to ask him if she can help set it to rights.


Alice still can’t believe he’d forgiven her for that inconceivably painful deception:


“What would have happened if you’d charged into that room and I’d flown into your arms?”


His eyes had flashed when she’d asked that question. “I wouldae killed th’creature!”


And she’d smiled then stroked his cheeks until the fire in his eyes had subsided. “Exactly,” she’d said. “And I’d do it again to spare you from crossing that line, Hatter. My Hatter...”


His eyes had narrowed then. “D’nae say tha’Alice, I cannae... I shouldnae... I know I frightened ye in me workshop...”


“And if you apologize for it, it will break my heart.”


His hands had reached for her, then had abruptly stopped and fisted. “What can I do, then, Alice?”


“Forgive me for hurting you? For making you believe I wasn’t yours anymore?” She still hates herself for asking no matter how much she’d needed to hear the words, see the absolution in his mismatched eyes. She knows she’ll never have the right to ask, but she couldn’t not.


He had shaken his head at her. “Ye never need teh ask me fer f’rgiveness, lass.”


“Please?” She’d only mouthed the word, but he’d read it from her lips.


“Ye need this...” he’d murmured to himself and then he’d smiled; he’d given her that absolution through aqua-colored eyes. “I f’rgave ye the momen’ye opened tha’door.”


Alice had goggled at him. “But... how did you know to forgive me just from that?”


Tarrant had finally reached out to her and had pulled her close. She’d listened to him sniff and nuzzle her hair, her ear, her temple...


“Alice... mine or no’ye ne’er would’ave come teh me in tha’moment w’thout th’intention o’savin’ me. An’ I knew I still had a chance teh’ave ye again...” His arms had tightened around her. “An’ then I lost control teh th’ Blackness... desperate, dangerous, overwhelmingly unforgivably—”


Raven,” Alice had commanded, kissing him. And, amazingly enough, that had been the end of it. Alice marvels at his capacity to forgive. (Although, considering the grudge-filled glances he’s been exchanging with Chessur recently, perhaps she ought to admit that his generosity doesn’t seem to extend to everyone.)


She wonders now how things will be here in the castle what with Leif remaining and her and Tarrant living here... Alice rubs her fingers over her forehead and sighs. Truly, she doesn’t know what to do about that slithy tove’s nest of bitter awkwardness, but she’ll have to do something. Now that Dale is, in fact, King Dale of Marmoreal, Leif will be his Champion once more, which means she’ll be working with him, training with him, relying on him every day for the foreseeable future.


No doubt, Tarrant will not – is not? Has this occurred to him yet? – be happy about that. But she has confidence that they’ll arrive at some sort of solution. She loves him too much to allow their home to be invaded by anger and resentment.


Mind obviously occupied, Alice doesn’t realize she’s arrived at the hat workshop until she’s there, standing in the open doorway and gaping at the sight before her.


Leif.


Leif is standing in Tarrant’s workroom.


And Tarrant...


Tarrant is clasping the lion’s paw in...


Alice struggles to comprehend the scene, for that can’t be a genuine smile curling Tarrant’s lips. Nor can that be a look of relief on Leif’s face...!


What in the name of Underland is going on here?


But the question never manages to make it past her lips. She watches as the two of them shake – hand and paw – firmly and without rancor. Then, with a respectful nod, Leif turns toward the door, obviously intending to take his leave, when they both spot Alice standing there. No doubt she very closely resembles a landed codfish.


“Alice!” Tarrant declares, delighted. Oddly, he doesn’t move toward her.


Leif, however, does.


Despite her shock, she tenses. Her right hand moves to the pommel of her sword and Leif stops his advance immediately. Alice neglects to note that he’ll have to get through her in order to actually leave – she’s blocking the doorway, after all! – and glances from the lion’s repentant expression to Tarrant’s bright green eyes.


And then Tarrant gives her an imploring look and very deliberately nods in Leif’s direction. She gawks at him over the lion’s shoulder.


“Champion Alice,” Leif murmurs in a reserved tone.


Alice gives herself a slight shake and returns her attention to him. “Yes?”


“I’ve come to apologize. Formally. For my error in judgment and my behavior. And, also,” he continues, “to beg your endorsement.”


She frowns in confusion.


“King Dale has asked me to resume my post as his Champion, but I will not do so without your – and your husband’s – agreement.”


Alice blinks. “I...” Unable to help herself, even though she can feel the warmth of Tarrant’s support through the heart line, she glances over Leif’s shoulder again and is struck breathless by the utterly charming smile of open confidence on her Hatter’s face.


Trust me
, he seems to say.


And because she does – without reservation – she lets his smile call forth her own. Turning back to Leif, she says, “We accept your apology and wish you all the best in your new post as Champion.”


And she’s silently surprised to realize that she means those words. She does wish him the best. Because... because...


Because I’ve missed my friend,
she admits to her audience of one.


The lion releases a long breath. “Thank you, Champion Alice.”


She nods and steps past him and into the room. As he moves toward the door, she hears herself say, “I’ll see you on the pitch.”


“After breakfast?” he asks, a friendly grin lighting his eyes.


“Yes, but not tomorrow. The day after. I’ve plans for tomorrow.”


“Until then, Champion Alice.”


“Champion Leif.”


His grin is broad and exactly the way she remembers it. After he goes, Alice closes the door and – still stunned by what had just happened – she turns around slowly. When she looks up Tarrant is already there, standing before her with his arms open.


She steps into them on a bubble of laughter.


“What just happened here?” she asks into the locks of his long, wavy hair.


“Didn’t you hear?” he replies jovially. “Leif apologized and asked for our permission to stay at Marmoreal.”


Alice opens her mouth to correct him, then stops herself. Despite Leif merely asking for their permission to resume his post, Tarrant had of course looked past that to the truth of the matter: Leif had really been requesting their permission to stay. Of course, Tarrant had seen it. His specialty is the truth, after all. She sighs and feels incredibly lucky to have a man so gifted.


“And you accepted his apology and gave him your permission,” she summarizes. “Why? Why did we do that?” For, really, the decision to do so hadn’t been hers but theirs. And, honestly, it had been mostly his for she never would have forgiven Leif without Tarrant’s full support.


“He told me why he did it,” Tarrant replies softly. “Out of respect and love for a Champion. To keep you safe.” He leans back until Alice finds her gaze captured in his. “I can hardly fault him for loving you, for doing whatever he must to keep you safe...” He brushes his thimbled and scraped fingers over her cheek. “I’d be the most intolerable sort of hypocrite to blame him for feeling the very things that I also feel for you, Alice.”


The words are more than she’d ever expected to hear and yet they ring true. So true that they resonate with something even deeper within her. A twinge of intuition:


“Ye need this...”
he’d said when she’d asked for forgiveness and so he’d given it to her.


And when her fellow Champion and foolish friend had asked to be allowed to stay in Marmoreal, to be part of their lives, Tarrant had known that this is another thing that Alice – despite her pique and frustration and temper – would need...


Tarrant had known Alice would need this. Even before she had herself.


Her heart feels as if it’s melting within her chest. Swallowing, Alice takes a moment to focus on the feeling and share it with Tarrant. When he inhales sharply, she knows it’s worked.


“But you forgave him so easily...” she mutters when she finally can, hardly daring to believe that he could do – but he had done! – something like this just for her.


Tarrant shakes his head, his irises fading into a deeper and deeper blue as he speaks. “’Twas nae easy, but I coul’see that’ th’lad willnae come b’tween us again. He respects an’ loves ye tae much.”


Alice blinks, perplexed. “And that... doesn’t concern you?”


He giggles. “Alice, how can ye no’see it? He loves a Champion. He’s no’in love with Alice.”


She smiles. “Your Alice,” she corrects him.


“Aye,” he answers, his eyes closing in a expression of utter bliss. “My Alice.”


His kiss is so sweet she thinks the very tenderness of it makes it taste of caramels and bergamot, but no, that’s simply her memory of Tarrant’s blood and their first tentative kiss. She sighs as his natural flavor mingles with those achingly sweet memories and it’s only the lack of distracting passion that allows her to really experience the taste.


Yet, even as content as she is now, in this gentle moment, she shivers as thoughts of his overwhelming domination from just a few days ago rush to the forefront of her mind.


“What?” he whispers.


“I love kissing you,” she replies, sighing again, “but I’ll miss the way you were the other day.”


Opening her eyes, she’s a little surprised to see nothing more than a contemplative gleam in his ever-changing gaze.


“Yes?”


He shakes his head wonderingly. “You’ve just answered my question.”


“Which was?”


“How you could have forgiven me for that... display, for scaring you...”


Alice traces the edge of his jaw with her fingertips. “There was never anything to forgive.”


This time, when he kisses her, she doesn’t taste caramel and bergamot. She tastes Tarrant. She tastes his strength.


She moans into his mouth as his tongue surges over hers. She’s vaguely aware of something – the wall? – pressing against her back and shoulders, holding her up. His hands move to her hips and pull them tightly against his own. His lips leave hers and he proceeds to mark his way down her neck. Alice’s hands flutter weakly at his shoulders, oddly indecisive. She feels that she ought to do a bit more, participate a bit more, but when she begins to gather her thoughts and the impetus to move, he suddenly collects both her wrists in his right hand and pins them against the wall above her head.


“None o’tha’nauw, Alice,” he warns her gently.


The sudden heat his voice releases within her blood makes her shudder. His left hand reaches down and, grasping her under her knee, hooks her leg over his hip.


Hmmm...ngh!” she hears herself moan as he presses against her, already so hard...


“Las’ chance, Alice,” he murmurs against her throat. She feels the tip of his tongue press against her pulse. “Tell me teh stop an’ I will. I still can...”


Her breath shivers out of her. She closes her eyes, leans her head against the wall and gives in: “More.


And, with a hot glance from his now-violet eyes, he obliges.

 

*~*~*~*

 

It’s well past nightfall when Alice manages to drag Tarrant away from the new mess they’d made in his workshop. She considers apologizing, but glancing at Tarrant’s knowingly sexy look, decides against it.


“Where are you taking me, Alice?” he murmurs as she pulls him by the hand toward the armory.


Walking backwards, she smiles. “And ruin the surprise?”


His eyes widen and his smile brightens. This man had just had her at his mercy against a wall, had knelt at her feet and petted her with his tongue until she’d screamed, had taken her on a jumble of torn fabric meant for the bin, had handled and possessed her in the most carnal sense, and yet she can’t mistake the total innocence and boyish delight of his smile. He lisps, “You’re going to surprise me, Alice?”


“Yes, I think so.”


“Is it a good surprise?”


She hesitates. Is it? “It’s something you have to see for yourself,” she hedges.


His right eye twitches, but the smile doesn’t change. “Then I will follow wherever you lead.”


Alice escorts him through the armory which is no longer full-to-bursting with weapons. The once-was-mercenaries had collected their things after vowing fealty to the queen two days ago. She doesn’t linger here, however. She leads Tarrant down the hall lined with cabinets and racks of broadswords, spears, and bows, past the various suits of armor that mark the history of Marmoreal’s Champions. She gently pulls him toward the exit at the other end, takes him down the stairs and pushes open the well-concealed side entrance of the White Castle.


Outside, dozing in the moonlight, the Bandersnatch twitches in response to the soft squeak of protest from the hinges.


“Sorry,” Alice apologizes to the door’s machinery. “I know it’s late.”


There’s a bit of a grumble – incoherent with drowsiness – and then the door settles back into its seamless frame, blending in with the blocks of white granite once more.


“Grrr-grrl,” the Bandersnatch grumbles.


Alice winces and scratches his ear. “We’re late. I know.”


Tarrant giggles and, when she glances over her shoulder at him, informs her, “I believe I’m beginning to acquire some of you bad habits, Raven.”


With a saucy grin, she reaches up and caresses the brim of his hat, “Then maybe I should borrow a few of yours.”


His eyes widen, narrow, and simmer. “Ask and give,” he replies.


She raises her brows at him.


He explains, “You wanted to know the conditions I’d require were you to borrow my hat.”


“Ask and give.”
She can guess what question she’d have to ask and what he’d require her to give. Alice grits her teeth to keep from pushing him up against a cherry tree and ripping his waistcoat and shirt buttons off in her haste to...


Taking a deep breath, she collects herself. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She mounts the Bandersnatch before the creature can fall back asleep.


Tarrant takes her outstretched hand and swings himself up behind her. He wraps his arms around her waist and smiles against her neck. “Alice... you’ve made a rhyme.”


“Have I?”


“As in ‘mine’,” he replies nonsensically.


Alice considers that as the Bandersnatch moves through the garden toward the main drive. “’Stipulations twine and the hat will be mine; I’ll keep that in mind?’” she tries, using the Outlandish word for the number two to build on his suggestion.


He sighs happily. “You’ve listened to the tea steeping before, haven’t you?”


She laughs. “I have,” she replies honestly, yet she’s still delightfully confused.


“Shush and hush they brush, lest the best be rest, hiss and kiss, lips from cup sip,” he whispers and Alice marvels at the sound – like the white noise of very hot water, like the susurrations of leaves brushing against each other, like steam issuing from the spout of a kettle, like the moment of silence during the first taste of tea.


She closes her eyes and leans back against him, utterly charmed. “Do you know another one?”


“Aye... The sigh in her eyes cannae decide the tide, for shall all abide then none fly, mark the maigh.”


“Maigh?” Alice asks.


“May, Mayfair, the moment spring arrives in Underland and the clans gather.”


She smiles. “Maigh... beautiful word.”


“Outlandish has many beautiful words, mogh’linyae Alice.”


“And a beautiful man who speaks it; lucky Outlandish.”


He giggles and squeezes her. “Another rhyme!”


Alice laughs.


And then the Bandersnatch strolls through the main gate. All of Underland lies before them. “You know the way, Bandy,” Alice says.


With a grunt, the creature takes off and Alice allows his galumphing stride to press her back against Tarrant’s warmth. The rhythm of the Bandersnatch’s stride makes it almost impossible to make more rhymes, so they travel through Tulgey Wood in relative silence. After some time, however, Tarrant muses, “This surprise, Alice?”


“Yes?”


“Is it a tea party at Thackery’s windmill?”


“While that would be lovely on a night like tonight, no, it isn’t.”


She feels Tarrant’s chin lift from her shoulder and she senses he’s looking up through the boughs of the Tumtum trees to glimpse the full moon.


More minutes pass before he asks with reluctance, “This... is a good surprise, Alice?”


She slides her left hand beneath his, grasps it, raises it to her mouth and brushes a kiss over his heart line. He threads his fingers between hers, lowers his chin to her shoulder, and seems to contemplate their joined hands. She feels a twinge around her heart and knows he’s guessed their destination. Her silence confirms it and she struggles for something to distract him from the memories of his past.


“You owe me one free answer to one of my questions,” she reminds him, recalling the bargain they’d made at tea not long before the third exchange.


He startles a bit. “I do, don’t I? And which question will you have me answer?”


Alice sifts through her options and, reluctantly, settles on one that she needs to know the answer to but will probably never bring herself to ask if she doesn’t utter it now.


“What woke you every morning while I was in Shuchland?” she whispers.


His free arm tightens around her waist; their still-clasped hands press against her chest; his face turns toward her hair. She feels his lips against her temple and a breathed apology for waking her every morning during her absence. They rock and sway in time with Bandy’s galloping stride until he’s ready to answer. “The Nightmare,” he replies finally.


“Tell me?”


He does. Alice listens to the horror he details and her hands tighten on his forearm and in his grasp. She listens and realizes he hadn’t misspoken when he’d called it The Nightmare. It frightens her with its consistency, its epic terror, its eerie resemblance to reality.


“You know what it means, don’t you?” he murmurs then clears his throat.


She replies, “I should resign from my post. Being Mirana’s Champion... it’s not fair to you. At any moment, for any reason, I could—”


“You could, but you won’t,” he interrupts decisively.


“Tarrant, I promise—


No!” he whispers harshly, pulling her roughly back against his chest. “No more promises, Alice. Too dangerous. So, so dangerous! That was what The Nightmare tried to tell me. ‘Twasnae my sword tha’woul’kill ye, but yer promise teh me. Th’ sword is th’ promise...”


Alice shivers. “All right. I won’t promise.” But she doesn’t like that solution, either. Perhaps there’s another way, another tactic they might employ to keep her safe and him sane... or, rather, sane enough to wait for her, to trust her to return to him once her duties are done.


“Tell me about Causwick?” he barely breathes. She can feel him tense around her, waiting for her to refuse or ignore the request or pretend he’d never asked. She does none of those things. She tells him and he listens and, sometimes, he even shares his own tortures with her.


“I don’t remember that time clearly,” he admits when she hesitantly asks him what Stanye had done to him in the Red Queen’s dungeon. “Except that I thought something was uproariously funny. I think it was Chess. He was there, you see, but he couldn’t bring himself to watch. Even being invisible wasn’t enough for him.” She senses his frown. “It doesn’t seem so amusing now... strange. Perhaps I’ve forgotten the joke...”


Chasing after the first thought to cross her mind that doesn’t include manacles and chains and Tarrant in a dark and dingy cell with that beast, Alice blurts, “If a Champion could have a Champion, you’d be mine.”


He seems to still at that. “You would... choose me to be the Alice’s Champion?”


“Your Alice,” she corrects him again and he sighs, relaxing.


“Aye, an’ I look after wha’s mine.”


Alice says nothing in reply. Why bother when he speaks for her, too? Why bother when the events of this last week have shown quite clearly that Alice looks after what is hers?


They doze on the back of the Bandersnatch until he breaks rhythm and inelegantly lumbers to a halt. Exhausted from the trip and the preceding days of merriment, Alice slides down beside Tarrant. She has enough energy to dig out the bedroll and blanket from her satchel, spread them out and curl up beside him. His nose finds its way to her hair and his knee to the back of hers. She pulls his arm across her side and mumbles, “Writing desk...”


“Slightest idea, Raven” she hears just before sleep gently closes her mind to the wind and the trees and the grass and warm body of her husband lying beside her.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“This is impossible...”


The whisper wakes Alice. “Mmm,” she replies, burrowing into a warm, Hatter-scented chest. “Only if you believe it is,” she slurs sleepily.


“Alice... Are we... awake?”


“No,” she groans, hiding her face in his armpit to block out the light. “Sleeping.”


He giggles and twitches, which only serves to wake Alice further. But since she’s enjoying his sounds of mirth, she nudges her nose against his inner arm, releasing another round of furious giggles. Sometimes she can’t resist playing with his oversensitive skin.


“Ticklish!” he gasps.


“Say that in Outlandish,” she mutters, burrowing again.


Merri’anglin’!” he shouts between screaming giggles... or would they be gigglish screams? She always forgets the difference... “Merri’anglin’! Merri’anglin’! Merri’anglin’!


Showing mercy, she rolls away and listens to him gasp for breath. When she dares to open her eyes to the soft glow of morning, the first thing she sees is a drowsy-looking Champion Flower nodding in her direction. Sitting up, Alice stares at the meadow spread out before her as the warming light of dawn illuminates it.


“Is this the surprise?” Tarrant asks a bit breathlessly from behind her.


She nods. Gentle, callused fingers touch her jaw and Alice looks away from the sea of sleepy blossoms amongst the bluest of green grass.


“Are we awake now?” Tarrant whispers and Alice isn’t sure if he’s serious or not. Perhaps he is and he isn’t. Both at the same time. Within his fascinating mind, any given contradiction could exist at any given time.


“Yes. We are.” To prove it to him, she kisses him on the underside of his chin.


He sighs. “Alice, I’d like to answer another of your questions now.”


Leaning back, Alice opens her mouth but he presses a finger against her lips and shakes his head. “I shall answer and you shall ask the question.”


Her lips purse and she kisses his fingertip before agreeing, “All right.”


Smiling, Tarrant pulls her into his lap. With his arms around her waist and his chin once more resting on her shoulder, he says, “Iplam has never looked quite like this before, you know. Even when I was just a wee lad no higher than me Fa’s knee.” He sighs. “It’s better now. New again. When I’d known it, it had been a bit worn about the edges, a bit frayed but still in good repair. The Hightopps always kept it so. We keep all our things in good working order... except for my pocket watch, of course, but, well, you can’t very well expect a hatter to know much about the inner workings of Time, now can you?”


Alice shakes her head.


“I remember two occasions,” he continues, “when the Hightopps hosted the Maigh.


“The gathering of the clans?”


“Aye. Th’first, I was still jus’ a lad.” He clears his throat and when he speaks again Alice knows he’s pushed away the deeper emotions that had brought out his Outlandish accent. “My Fa wanted me to try my hand at the cobbler’s craft.”


Alice struggles to imagine a version of Tarrant Hightopp who makes shoes instead of hats.


“Cobblers don’t lose their heads as hatters do,” he says. “True, they often lose their feet, but with a bit of searching, they manage to find themselves again.”


She smiles at the image.


“And when the Master Cobbler asked me to go back to his home in Galandonland and work for him, I... well, I refused. Absolutely. Embarrassed myself a bit, actually. Was rather upset with my Fa over it, too. He’d approached the cobbler first, you see. On my behalf. That’s how those things are done.”


He shifts. “Were done? Was done? Would be? In any case, I refused and told my Fa I wanted to be a hatter and if he wouldn’t teach me, I’d run away to be a juggler.”


Alice snorts, imagining Tarrant as a boy giving his father the what-for and making his own path.


“I refused to go to the other Clan Gatherings.” He tilts his head to the side. “In all truth, it wasn’t necessary for me to. I was an apprentice to my Fa, busy learning the trade. And happily, too. What would I do with another? I simply hadn’t had Time in those days...


“So, much later, when he’d retired from his post at Marmoreal and I’d taken his place and the hatter’s madness began to come upon me... Yes, suddenly, it was very important for me to think about the next Clan Gathering. My Fa had already sent word that the Hightopps would host it again, that he had a son, a hatter, who would need a... a wife for the Thrice a-Vow.”


Alice feels his chest expand against her back as he takes a deep breath. “I was... quite not happy, to tell you the truth. Furious, actually. Beyond furious. Bey-urious! Of course, I knew I’d have to... to... well, it would have to be done soon or I wouldn’t be fit to be anyone’s husband. Ever and forever and more.


“If I’d agreed to go to other Clan Gatherings, I might have met a lass who was agreeable to becoming a Hightopp, but I hadn’t gone, so I hadn’t met anyone and then suddenly, there I was, a grown man in need of a wife. And my Fa had taken it upon himself to summon one for me. Host the Maigh...”


He shakes his head. “I couldn’t refuse to go, but oh I was in a mood most foul. The queen chose to accompany me, to meet with the other clans while the opportunity presented itself, and my humiliation was complete: my employer – the queen – would see me, a court-employed hatter, being bartered over by clansmen fathers with eligible daughters.


“I stood there and smiled my most mad-some grin and, with my thoughts, damned them all... and then the Jabberwock came...”


Alice gently strokes his hands and waits.


“The Jabberwock slew them. The daughters, the fathers, my Fa... Alice?”


“Yes?”


“Do you think some thoughts – some very bad thoughts – can become real?”


No,” she answers immediately, absolutely.


He presses a kiss to her cheek. Drawing another breath, he continues, “The White Queen was banished to Marmoreal. I joined the Resistance against the Bluddy Behg Hid. Time passed. I stopped making hats and started making war. The madness... became madder. It was too late for me, then. There would never be a lass in all of Underland willing to accept this poisoned, mad heart and the mind and the man along with it.”


Tarrant rubs his cheek against her hair. “And then you dreamed me, a half-mad hatter. But you were already half-mad yourself having dreamed me in the first place. I hadn’t been able to bear the thought of you waking up... Sometimes I still think you might. Your dreams are frightful sometimes, Alice, but there is such beauty in them it makes my stomach ache to think it could all end...”


“It won’t end,” she tells him. “I’m not going to wake up.”


They sit on the bedroll at the edge of the field and watch the flowers stretch upward toward the morning sun. Just when Alice is starting to think about reaching for her satchel and pulling out the provisions she’d packed for breakfast, Tarrant asks:


“Have you found your question yet?”


Alice considers all that he’d said. Before she can allow doubt to interfere with the idea forming in response, she says, “The question you answered... was the one I most wanted the answer to.”


“Hm,” he replies on a breathy chuckle. “The end.” With the conclusion of his story, Tarrant reaches for and balances her fingertips on top of his own. She senses then that his mood has suddenly turned pensive. She waits.


Eventually, he wonders aloud, “Have you truly forgiven me, Alice?”


“There was never anything for me to forgive,” she replies.


“The madness... the Blackness...?”


She turns in his arms and meets his worried gaze. “Is not a shameful thing, Hatter. It is a part of you. I only ask that you never hide it from me.”


He traces the bridge of her nose with one finger, smiling. “Perhaps I shall never have to. And perhaps you will never again see it. I feel... healed, Alice.”


She wraps her arms around his shoulders. “These fields have that effect on people.”


He shakes his head very slowly. “Nae... ‘tis you. Ye’ve healed me, Alice.”


Alice presses her forehead against his shoulder and, when she feels too overwhelmed by her emotions to bear them alone, she shares them with him.


“Hatter?” she asks when she’s sure she can manage the words and he can manage to hear them.


“Aye?”


She whispers, “Tell me another rhyme?”


He giggles, clears his throat and says, “Mae greatest dream, yer husband teh be; choose me?”


Iambic pentameter,
she thinks in the instant before the meaning catches up to her. Alice feels her heart perform an odd little skip-jump-hiccup when it does. She leans back, startled, and sees a small silver flower held aloft between his thumb and forefinger. The charm looks familiar, very familiar...


Studying it, she realizes it’s not just a silver flower with a blue crystal set in its center, but it’s a ring. Thin bands of silver had been coiled and soldered together beneath it to form the band itself.


“It’s a ring,” she blurts.


“... aye...”


“It’s...” She frowns at it, struggling to remember where she’s seen it before. “It’s...”


And then her gaze flies up to his top hat and she counts the pins. One, two, three, four... Only four!


The fifth one is missing. Well, actually, it hadn’t been the fifth one, but the third. The silver daisy that had always dipped and bobbed with his movements flanked by two other hatpins on either side. Yes, that little silver daisy hatpin is missing... Or rather, not missing but removed, re-formed, remade.


She blinks at the ring still held between his fingers. “You made this from your hatpin?”


“... aye...”


“Tarrant...”


“It’s not much, I know. I know I haven’t much to offer you, Alice. The Alice. My... my... maybe it’s not... that is... bad idea! I’m sor—”


Alice presses a hand over his mouth. She wraps the fingers of her other hand around his, stopping him from closing his hand around the silver ring. His eyes, a frantic yellow-green, flicker between her, the hatpin ring, and the hand over his lips and back again.


“Tell me the rhyme again?” she asks, slowly removing her hand.


He blinks.


She prompts, “Iambic pentameter?”


He takes a deep breath and rasps nervously, “My greatest dream, your husband to be; choose me?”


“I choose you,” she answers immediately, as she should have done the first time he’d asked!


“You... do?”


“Yes.”


“Choose... me?”


“Yes.”


He frowns slightly and seems compelled to confirm once more, “Alice, you are choosing me to be your husband?”


“Yes.”


His lips begin to curve upward in a hesitant smile. “Then... may I be your husband, Alice?”


“Tarrant,” she replies, cradling his face in her hands as she’d done years ago in the Red Queen’s makeshift hat workshop. “You already are.” Perhaps he had been even that far back...


His grin is so wide and his eyes so jovial he seems nearly mad with happiness. Apparently unable to speak through his elation, he silently removes Alice’s left hand from his cheek and reverently slides the hatpin ring onto her heart-line finger. Alice knows she shouldn’t be surprised that it fits so well. If he knows her well enough to realize her broken friendship with Leif had – and would continue to – hurt her very badly, it’s a small matter to check the size of her finger.


All of these small things he does for her... and all of the monumentally thoughtful things he does for her... awes her. If only he would accept one more promise, for she would promise – and quite happily! – to be with him until the end of their days!


And then Alice realizes there is something she can offer him in place of a vow, a promise, or an oath.


“Tarrant?”


He looks up from admiring the silver flower on her hand.


She smiles, bites her lip, chokes back her nervousness, and whispers, “May I be your wife?”


The sensations that break through his control and flood her heart steal her breath. There’s so much surrounding her, churning within her...!


How can he breathe around this?!


“Alice,” he manages in an uneven, rasping voice. “I believe... I believe you always have been... my Alice.”


Then he’s gasping at her own heart line message and their arms tighten around each other and they’re panting breathless kisses against each other’s lips. And perhaps the swaying flowers and budding trees object, but Alice doesn’t think they do.


Maigh...” she thinks she hears the sunshine-warmed flowers whisper.


Yes, she agrees. The opening of spring. For this is, she realizes, the springtime of their life together. They’d made it through the doubt and the fear of the long winter and had somehow never lost each other in the storms.


The occasion deserves more, Alice decides, sliding her hands beneath his shirt. If Tarrant won’t risk a promise, perhaps... yes, perhaps a decision...


Leaning in toward his neck, she nuzzles behind his ear, waits for him to shiver as he always does when she breathes just so, just there.


“I choose us.”


He shudders again. “Us,” he replies. “A raven...”


“... and a writing desk.”

 

Chapter Text


Wednesday mornings are one of his favorite times of the week. (Not counting the Alice times, of course, like early mornings and afternoon tea and dinnertime and late evenings and the delightfully sensual occasions that follow afterwards! Although, Wednesday mornings are nearly as enjoyable, if for vastly different reasons. Still, just because the reason is different does not make it any less of a reason at all. No, not... yes, still a good... very much so. Exactly!)


The kitchen is full to bursting with noise. Very enjoyable noise. Surprisingly enjoyable noise considering the fact that Tarrant normally complains of crowded places and such... well, unless there’s the opportunity to Futterwhacken, for Alice always and unfailingly requests to see the dance. And even though it makes him feel like a bit of a twiterpated Dodo showing off for his mate, Alice never withholds the smile of pure satisfaction and delight which is – in his opinion – the epitome of all conceivable rewards. Well, with the exception of perhaps...


Tarrant shakes himself briefly and does his best not to think about... about... hm, yes, very wonderful Alice times...


Futterwhacken
! He reminds himself sternly.


And although Tarrant is quite enjoying himself, now is not the time for a bit of Futterwhacken. No, not now. Perhaps in a few years the queen might permit him... Yes, perhaps then... But no, not at the present time. At the present time, the twin girls currently flinging spoonfuls of Upelkuchen batter at each other are still a bit young to be thinking about Futterwhackening.


Alicibeth, Tarranya... what I have I told you about looking after magical substances?” the queen asks in a gently chiding tone.


Alicibeth replies dutifully – just as a perfect Princess of the White Realm would! “Magical things have a mind of their own. Don’t let them wander off.”


Tarranya sticks her tongue out at her twin sister’s perfect answer.


“Precisely,” Mirana replies, bending carefully – mindful of her swollen belly – and attempts to coax Thackery out from under the long table.


“The crisis is over, Thackery,” the queen urges. “Come out now.”


“No! No! No! No' lookin', Yer Majesty! No‘til th’ Upelkuchen faeries arrive an’ clean i’tall up!” the hare insists.


Sighing, Mirana abandons Thackery to his pot of tea, assortment of yet-to-be-broken teacups and plate of crumpets. Unwrapping one arm from around the warm, wiggling weight against his chest, Tarrant pours the queen a fresh cup of tea and slides the plate of tomato sandwiches in her direction.


“Jam?” he asks solicitously.


“Hm. Thrambleberry, please,” she replies, accepts the jar, then drops a dollop onto a tomato sandwich.


He giggles. Watching the queen eat through a very creative combination of foodstuffs is also quite amusing. And yet another reason why he enjoys Wednesday mornings so much!


After consuming the condiment-adorned sandwich, Mirana dabs her mouth with a snowy white napkin and holds out her arms in his direction. “Thank you, Tarrant. I can take Thacie now.”


“It’s no trouble! Trouble, trouble, ‘twon’t be double!” he sing-songs at the baby girl. He wiggles his rather distinctive eyebrows and the infant chortles and waves her arms toward his vibrant hair.


He feels his hat shift at a rather decisive tug on the sash dangling down his back. Turning, he grins at the toddler who only has eyes for the swaying length of fabric. “Hat! Hat!” she exclaims.


“Hello, there, Princess Amallya. You’d like a hat?” he inquires. “Or would that be a hat-hat? As in two hats? For two different days of the week or would you like them stackable? A stacking hat? Stack, hack, sack, sat?” He reaches out and tickles her chin and neck with his bandaged fingers.


She squeals and races pell-mell over to her mother and hides behind the queen’s voluminous, shimmering skirt. The queen pets her daughter’s hair. In Tarrant’s arms, Thacie begins to fuss so he dips his un-bandaged and non-scratched pinkie into the small pitcher of cream before easing it into the baby’s mouth.


“Hatter,” the queen says. When he looks up, he can’t help but smile in reply to her gentle, relieved grin. “You are a miracle,” she informs him.


He giggles. “That’s the second contradictory statement you’ve made today, Your Majesty. I can’t be a hatter and a miracle, both.”


“Oh, I don’t know...” she muses with a thoughtful expression. “Alice might provide quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.”


Tarrant grins, delighted and amused at the idea.


“What was my first contradictory statement today?” she presses, lifting Amallya up into her lap when the girl begins to climb up the queen’s knees.


He feels himself frown at the now-dozing infant. He wants to be happy. He wants to giggle and make rhymes and play peek-a-boo with the queen’s children, but the thought he’s experiencing is far too much for him to fit both it and frivolity in his head at the same time.


He says tentatively, “That I’m a good father.”


“And how is that contradictory?”


“I’m not a father. Won’t be... Can’t be...” Shouldn’t be?  Alice has never asked me to be...


The queen sighs, visibly upset with... something. “It was simply a remark on your enduring patience and caring nature, Tarrant. Don’t let me upset you.”


“Yes, Your Majesty.” Somehow, he finds his smile again. And just in time for the frontal assault he receives from a suddenly not-so-shy Princess Amallya.


“Och! Ye’ve caught me!” he burrs in a dramatic whisper.


She ducks under the bench and Tarrant waits for what he knows must be coming and... there! Another tug on his top hat’s dangling sash. He’s about to remind her that his hat is much too large for an Amallya head and she’ll tumble into it and get lost if she keeps this up when, suddenly, the hat is not pulled but lifted from his head.


Looking up, he grins. Alice smiles back then leans down to press a kiss to his cheek. “Having fun?” she asks.


“Always!” he declares, squashing the twinge of disappointment when he realizes he hadn’t even heard the door open or his wife’s footsteps.  His gaze drops to the hat Alice holds in her hands. He watches as her fingertips brush over the fabric in little unconscious motions. “Are ye goin’teh keep it safe f’r me?” he asks her.


“I suppose I ought to,” she answers, sitting down next to him. “That’s what I do.”


And finally his giggle finds him, too. “A Champion of hats!”


“Just one hat,” she amends.


He watches as she lifts it and aligns it with her head.


“Ask an’ give!” he reminds her.


Alice merely smiles and places his top hat on her head.


Tarrant feels his heart skip a beat. He’s pretty sure it’s from Delight, but there’s also Possession and a good deal of Anticipation thrown in.


“Alice?” the queen gently interjects.


“Hm?”


Mirana clears her throat. “About that discussion we had a... while ago?”


Alice frowns, blinks, and then – oddly enough – looks abashed. “Er, what about it?”


“I thought you were intending to...”


“Ah, right, well. I thought I’d just wait a bit and see what the Oraculum had to say about it.”


The queen sighs, sounding vaguely exasperated. “Alice, I’ve promised to tell you if either Absolem or I have found any indication of... future unfortunate events.”


“I... I know. I’m just...” She huffs out a sigh. “Sorry.”


“Hm,” the queen says. That and no more. She glances down at Thackery and Amallya’s tea party under the table before standing and wandering over to the stove. “Time to put them to bed in their pans, dears,” Mirana instructs her daughters after inspecting the contents of their mixing bowls.


“Alice?” Tarrant whispers.


She turns and focuses her attention on him. “Yes?”


“Why were you consulting the Oraculum?” His arms tense but do not tighten as he considers the possibility of another battle, or worse – Alice departing for Upland. Surely, she must miss her world at times! Perhaps he could go with her... Yes, it’s true the thought of Up There is a terrifying one, but he much prefers it to letting her leave him behind again!


Baby Thacie whimpers and Alice reaches out to smooth the little girl’s feather-soft hair. “Everything’s fine,” she assures him. “I suppose I’m just worried about the future. Life has been so peaceful and perfect and...”


“Yes,” he agrees. Their life has been peaceful and perfect – as well as passionate and playful and, in addition, he believes it will continue to be promising! – and he still awakens in the morning and marvels at the fact that his Alice is with him, that she has allowed him to stay beside her all these years! He thinks about those years, years he’d thought he’d forfeited to the Blackness. How had Alice managed to not only forgive him for scaring her so badly, but love him for it?


His wife boggles his mind.


Yes, my Alice has quite the talent for that,
he admits.


The kitchen door swings open and the king enters. Having just put the Upelkuchen in the oven, Alicibeth races over to him with a squeal of “Papu!” Dale picks her up and swings her about as if she weighs no more than a Thrambleberry branch.


“Are we almost ready for luncheon?” he asks.


“Hungry day in court?” the queen replies, lifting her face for a kiss.


Dale rumbles a chuckle. “Dispute over the location of the new Orash orchards by Salazen Grum. You know how much I miss...”


“Quite,” she replies with a wide grin as his empty stomach gurgles loud enough for everyone to hear. Tarranya giggles and pokes his belly with a finger.


Mirana observes, “Just thinking about Shuchish food makes your stomach rumble! Lunch will be served as soon as Leif brings—”


“We’re here!”


Leif strides into the room with a squirming boy slung over his shoulder.


“Sorry to keep you waiting, Your Majesties, but a certain someone was having trouble finding his ears while washing up!”


“My ears’re ticklish!” the boy whines as Leif sets him down.


With a gleam in his eye, Leif replies, “I’m sure the Hatter has a handkerchief I can borrow so I scrub them a bit more. I think you missed a spot right...” He leans down to point it out.


The young prince claps his hands over his ears and dashes behind his elder sister, Tarranya. “There, there, Chestor. I won’t let him wash you.”


Alice snorts into her teacup.


“I take it he was as enthusiastic in his fencing lessons as ever?” Dale muses in a dry tone.


“How a boy can get dirty from just whining I’ll never know,” Leif grumbles and the king laughs.


“Leif, will you be joining us for luncheon?” the queen asks. She reaches out to Tarrant again and he reluctantly hands over Thacie. Already his arms feel empty, airy, listless...


They wouldn’t be if...


No, no! This mad hatter is not thinking it!


But you’ve never asked Alice if...


Still not thinking it!!


Maybe she wants to but thinks you...


La-la la la!!!


“Yes!”


Tarrant blinks at Tarranya’s declaration. He looks up and notices both of her small hands are clutching Leif’s larger one, a delighted smile on her face that leaves no room for refusal.


“I want you to sit next to me. I’m hungry! What’s for lunch? Are we eating outside? Are we having Upelkuchen for dessert? How big will I get if I eat this much?” she rambles, gesticulating with one hand.


With a bemused grin, Leif allows the princess to haul him over to her parents and siblings. Mirana invites Alice and Tarrant, but Alice waves them off. Enjoying the flunderwhapped expression on the furry face of the King’s Champion, Tarrant chortles and forgets about the emptiness of his arms momentarily.


“What?” Alice murmurs at him, mindful of their audience: Thackery had come out of hiding now that the royal family has gone and is in the midst of counting the Upelkuchen splatters on the cupboard doors... backwards... even numbers first.


Tarrant turns toward her and gently traces the side of her face with his fingertips. He remembers seeing her for the first time, a precocious and incorrigibly curious girl of six for whom he’d poured tea and rhymed riddles. He recalls watching her approach Thackery's tea table for the second time, even smaller than she’d been at six, but undeniably grown up. In that moment of giddy relief and exaltation, he very nearly hadn’t noticed something Very Important...


“Tarranya has a Leif,” he replies, smiling.


Alice raises a brow, which disappears beneath the brim of his hat. “Does she? And what does that mean for Leif?”


Giggling, Tarrant collects Alice’s left hand, deliberately brushing his fingers over the silver flower she still wears.


“No...” Alice replies, shocked and amused and a dozen other things he can easily identify because of each and every day she’s given him, each and every day she’s chosen him.


“Oh, most definitely yes,” he argues.


Her eyes narrow. “And how would you know that?”


“Hm,” he muses. “Perhaps I’ve had a similar experience.”


Alice gapes at him, which he enjoys immensely. “I was six years old!


He smiles. “A truly magical age, it seems,” he agrees, thinking of the crown princesses’ recent birthday. “Yes, you were merely a child, but even then, I was utterly yours for the having, my Alice.” He lifts her hand to his mouth and breathes against her heart line. “I’m so very happy you decided to grow up, Alice. You could have kept me waiting a lot longer, you know.”


Smiling, she shakes her head. “No, I don’t think I could have.”


Completely overjoyed to be sitting next to his Alice, who is all grown up and the right, proper size and who loves him and is wearing his hat and displaying his ring on her finger and showing his mark on her skin, Tarrant leans forward, ducks beneath the brim of his hat, and kisses her.


“Och! None o’ tha’nauw!” Thackery scolds them and Tarrant is hit in the chest with a soggy crumpet. “This room’s f’r eatin’ no’sweetin’! Ge’off wi’ye!”


Laughing breathlessly, Alice pulls him up from the bench and – still holding his hand – leads him back to their apartment. Smiling, he gladly allows his wife to seat him at their dinner table and then giggles when she seats herself on his lap.


Oh, he loves it when she does this! In fact, he’d be hard-pressed to say which he loves more... watching her perform the Shuchish dance she’d learned so long ago while wearing that incomparably delightful garment she’d brought back with her or having her sitting here, across his thighs, touching his face, kissing his jaw and whispering in his ear...


Oh! Yes, whispering!


Tarrant makes an effort to focus on what she’s saying.


“... the queen alluded to earlier. Checking the Oraculum. There was... or, there is a reason...”


“A reason, Raven?” he asks, smoothing his palm up the outside of her thigh to her hip.


“Yes.” Alice leans back and, regarding him with a grin that shows him quite clearly that his wife is oddly nervous and looking forward to something with great anticipation... all at the same time, she says, “I’ve reacquainted myself with the Underlandian childbearing rites between partners of differing origins and... I was wondering what your thoughts were on starting a family?”


There is no clock in their rooms, so – at the moment – there is only perfect silence. Silence, and Alice’s very amused smile.


“Alice... is this...? Am I...? Are you...?  Dream?”


“No,” she says. “I’m not dreaming and neither are you.”


“And... did you just...? That is, did you just ask...? A family, Alice?”


“Yes, I did.”


He stares into her dark eyes, lit with amusement but warm with promise and hope and a bit of nervousness thrown in. And then Tarrant realizes he truly hadn’t just dreamed those words. And when he does, he remembers to breathe. And then close his mouth. And then tighten his arms around Alice. And then...


... and then...


... and then he’s laughing. Great bellows of laughter echo in the room and he hears his own voice shouting, “Writing desk! Writing desk! Writing desk! Writing—!


And then Alice is kissing him and he’s kissing her back and he can’t contain himself for the joy and he’s going to be a father! A wee lad or lass’s Fa...! Maybe not today...


No, no, of course not today!


Nor tomorrow, but he will be! And Alice will be both his wife and the mother of his child and she will be... They will be...! And their life will be...!


Together.


Perfect.


Everything.


“Alice...” he gasps into her mouth, wondering how this day – this life – could be any better.


And that’s when he notices something else that’s Very Important:


“Alice,” he murmurs, his voice deepening, his blood racing, his temperature climbing. “Ye’re still wearin’ m’hat...”


She smiles that most secretest of secret smiles – the one only Tarrant has ever seen – and replies, “I am, aren’t I?” And then she Asks: “What do you think ought to be done about it?”


And so he Gives her his answer.


And everything is... perfect. Together.

 

 

*~*~*~* The End *~*~*~*