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Down and Out in Underland

Chapter Text

He would have been loathe to admit it, but Hamish Ascot had never stopped wondering what Alice Kingsleigh had been up to on his estate all of three years ago, the afternoon she had rejected his marriage proposal. Now that she had sent word to her family that she would not be returning to England for anything more than an occasional short visit, this question was becoming something of an obsession. Which explains why he was poking about with his cane in the garden on a bright summer morning, barely caring that he was getting the hems of his trousers wet.

“Dratted girl,” he muttered under his breath. “There's nothing here except flowers and trees. Whatever could have been so strange as to pull her away for hours and send her back more eccentric than ever?”

Reaching a large oak tree with protruding roots, Hamish peered down to see if there might be anything of interest among them. “Just a rabbit hole,” he said to himself. “But certainly a large one. I wonder if it houses a family of the creatures?”

Curious despite himself, he knelt down carefully and poked his head into the rabbit hole. And suddenly the earth beneath his knees was crumbling away and he was pitching forward into the darkness...sliding...falling...

And how the devil could he still be falling? And what was that—it looked for all the world like a candelabra. And a bed? Surely not. Bloody hell—his walking stick had just caught on a tangle of what looked for all the world like chair legs. He pulled at it, but to no avail. He kept falling, leaving behind a very nice cane that he had been quite proud of. Bugger. But still. This had to be one of those dreams where one is falling and wakes up before hitting the bottom, he thought.

Until he hit the bottom with quite a jar, finding himself on the floor of a very strange round room full of doors.

Now he was beginning to feel quite alarmed, although he would never admit it, even to himself. He circled the room, trying door after door but finding none unlocked, until he came to the one that stood only knee-high. He couldn't even get his shoulders through that one. If he'd had his cane, he would have thrashed the door in frustration, he thought.

This was making him tired, and he slumped to the floor next to a glass table in the center of the room, bumping it as he did so and knocking its contents onto the floor. This was of minor importance to him, though, once he saw the little blown-glass bottle sitting on the floor next to him. “That tag must be a label of ingredients,” he thought, but discovered that it read only “Drink Me.”

The first thought in his mind was poison. But then he reasoned that no one would really be that obvious if trying to get someone to drink poison. And what would be the point in poisoning a stranger? Besides, if he was really stuck in this room, he would die of starvation eventually anyway, so poison would merely speed up the process. Mostly, though, he was thirsty, and a nice liqueur would not be amiss.

“Sweet, almost too sweet,” he thought as he took a sip, and then his only thoughts were of the gobsmacked variety as he seemed to be shrinking, with a feeling of vertigo possibly worse than that which he had felt during his fall through the rabbit hole, leaving him in puddle of the clothes he had been wearing.

That was absurd, of course. This had to be a dream, he thought, even if dream logic didn't normally lend itself to solutions to problems, such as the fact that he now seemed to be the right size to fit through the small door, and was wearing a not-unattractive pair of tan trousers and daycoat. And that tiny gold key on the floor, which had fallen from the table when he bumped it—it seemed to be the key that fit that door. A small round cake had landed on the floor as well, and he absently stuffed both it and the cordial bottle (for such it must be) into his pockets. Even in dreams, one might enjoy refreshments, he thought.

And thus went Hamish Ascot into Underland, items in his pockets of whose significance he could not even begin to imagine, wearing magical clothing, into adventures that he would be hard-pressed to believe.

Chapter Text

Mirana hadn't meant to interrupt Casiphia and Ilosovic, but it was hard to do otherwise. Their romance hadn't flagged in the slightest since he had become part of the household at the White Castle, and it seemed at any moment not given over to official court duty they were either offering snarky commentary on whatever was happening around them, or nestled together somewhere. The Queen thought this was a good solution to the problem of keeping Stayne contained, rather than making other residents of the castle nervous, and of course she was delighted to see her lady-in-waiting so content.

This time she found them in the library, where she was sitting in his lap while they looked at a book of paintings.

“Ahem. My dears,” Mirana said. “Have you seen Alice? There has been, um, an incident, and I believe she is the one who can best address it.”

“I haven't seen her since breakfast, Your Majesty,” Casiphia said, trying pointlessly to sit up straighter and smooth out her dress. “Have you tried the millinery?”

“I have, and Tarrant is there without her,” the queen said. “It all becomes more perplexing by the moment.”

“Shall we help find her?” Casiphia turned to Stayne, who tried to hide a sigh.

“Certainly, my love, we will do what we can,” he said, setting the book aside with perhaps a louder thump than was strictly warranted.

“The book will be still be here,” Casiphia whispered. “I'm certain we will be able to find our place again.”

“Of course,” he said, planting a kiss on top of her head to remind himself why exactly it was he was jumping to the whims of Mirana. Not that she wasn't an immeasurable improvement over her sister in all ways, but he would never feel quite comfortable being at the whims of royalty ever again. Casiphia was a different story—she regularly brought out the most chivalrous side of him—and besides, she had ways of thanking him for his services that were more than appreciated.

But there was no time to consider any of that now, as Mirana was already flitting down the hallway and they had to scramble to catch up with her. As they passed the doorway to the kitchens, Nivens McTwisp, dapper as always in a blue-checked waistcoat, popped his head out and joined the procession.

Alice, as it turned out, was in the armoury, talking with the weapons master as he ground even sharper the fine edge of the Vorpal sword.

The queen and Alice embraced, and Mirana said, “I am glad to find you doing this, my dear. I have a problem—or something that might become a problem—and you are just the person to assist me with it.”

Looking curiously at the group, Alice said, “Of course, Mirana. And the rest of you. I hope this hasn't anything to do with loyalties in the kingdom.”

“Nothing like that,” Mirana said. “I don't believe. Come, let us settle in a room somewhere and discuss this like the civilized persons we are.”

Soon the six of them were seated in a comfortable sitting room with cups of tea (there were always cups of tea), and while Casiphia was disappointed at losing her place in Ilosovic's lap, she sat next to him on a divan and pressed her leg as close to his as she was able. Meanwhile Tarrant was looking longingly at Alice, separated from him by the arms of their chairs, and Nivens was looking uncomfortable at all of this expressed affection. Mirana arranged her skirts about her, causing her chair to disappear almost completely beneath them, and began her explanation.

Chapter Text

It was a good thing Hamish knew this was a dream, otherwise he would have been most alarmed at the giant world he seemed to have fallen into. The flowers towering above him, and the trees—he assumed they were trees—disappeared altogether into the hazy sky. The rocks all seemed to be enormous boulders, and some creature that resembled a rocking horse with wings had taken an interest in him that he found quite unsettling.

It was this that led him to climb the wheel of the wagon and take cover under its canvas top. Naturally it was only a matter of moments before the vehicle began to move, but again, there was no risk in adventure in dreams. Real life was another consideration altogether. But why not enjoy this excursion for now?

Of course now that he had been on board this wagon for what felt like at least a week and a half, he was beginning to regret that decision. How he could feel this bruised and knocked about in a dream was beyond him, but sure enough, that was the case.

When the wagon began splashing through a river crossing, thoroughly dampening both his clothes and his spirits, he decided this was entirely enough. The moment the wagon stopped, he was disembarking.

And so he did, finding himself in what appeared for all the world to be a stony wasteland. He stood atop one of those ubiquitous boulders, surveying a plain that seemed to be nothing but stone and alkali, wondering what was supposed to happen next. He thrust his hands into his pockets and found the cake he had stowed there earlier, withdrawing it and absently taking a bite.

What in the blue blazes was this? Now he was becoming a giant?

Or...was he? He had to admit things around him did seem to have become more of what he considered a normal size, and he could see the wagon stopped not far from him, looking of a size to wagons he was familiar with in his real life.

Of course now he realized he was dressed in the ragged remains of what he had been wearing before. Appalled and filled with shame, Hamish decided his first order of business was finding some decently-fitting clothes. Dream or not, he was not going to walk about like this.

Chapter Text

The map room was exactly as its name implied, its walls hung with maps of all descriptions, from ancient parchment to new and brightly colored. But it took Mirana to fully utilize its most helpful feature.

Standing at the head of a white marble table, the queen took a pinch of black powder from a small jar and sprinkled it on the clean surface. And there appeared a detailed map of the route from Marmoreal to the Outlands.

“You will want to ride from the south of Marmoreal and directly west through Snud to Grampus Arch. I know Casiphia will want to avoid Witzend because of her enemyx besides which, that would take you into the mountains of the Outlands and there is no reason to subject yourselves to that. Unless Hamish manages to lose himself in the mountains, of course,” Mirana mused.

Alice and the Hatter looked dubiously at each other as Mirana blew a few more grains of powder onto the table. “There,” she pointed at some tiny buildings that now appeared on the map. “There is a tavern just as you leave Marmoreal, where you can find a decent meal, and there are two taverns in Snud that will be along your way. You will have no trouble finding the latter two, as there is only the one road to travel.

“However, after the second Snud tavern, the road ends and you will find it necessary to camp at night. You can follow the Unnamed River through the Outlands so that you will have a water supply and something to mark your way; also, I would expect Hamish to be sensible enough to stay near the river as well, once he discovers it.”

Alice looked closely at the map. “The river runs east to west?”

“Of course it does.” Tarrant looked puzzled. “What other way could it run?”

Mirana continued. “I am sending you with two pack horses, who will be carrying tents and blankets and teapots and all the other accoutrements you may need. Alice and Casiphia are going to find this quite a change from the way they are accustomed to living. I trust that you, Tarrant, Ilosovic, will do what you can to ensure their comfort.”

“I think we will manage,” Ilosovic said.

“And remember,” Mirana added, “don't take any looking glasses. We do not want anything, er, unwelcome traveling from Outland to Marmoreal, or the other way around.”

“I'm looking forward to this,” Casiphia said. “Even if nothing exciting happens during our travels, this will be an adventure.”

“What do you think, Tarrant?” Alice smiled at her consort. “Do you think we are up to the challenge?”

“Indisputably,” the Hatter replied. “And I happen to have a few culinary tricks that I've learned from Thackery to ease our camping.”

A knock at the door heralded the arrival of Nivens. “You'd best be on your way if you want to make it to the Boar and Biscuit before dark,” he said, referring to a large pocket watch. “Hurry, you don't want to be late.”

As the party left the map room, Tarrant stopped Alice and Casiphia. “This won't do, it will never do,” he mumbled to himself as he plucked the wide-brimmed straw hats off their heads and sat down on the floor with them. He looked through one of his bags and withdrew a selection of ribbons and silk flowers, and before long he had beautifully-ornamented chapeaus ready for the ladies.

“It's lovely,” Casiphia said, examining the white satin ribbons and tulle that sprang from the back of her hat. “And Alice's too, of course.” That one sported a playful blue bow and a spray of silk delphinium. And with this last bit of preparation, the four took their places upon their mounts.

They were an odd and colorful group as they rode away from the White Castle, Casiphia in gray linen with her father's old green cloak, Stayne in his usual black, Alice in one of the tunic-and-trousers outfits she favored—blue as expected, and Tarrant in a brilliant scarlet coat, green trousers, and purple and blue striped shirt, with his usual top hat pressed firmly onto his shock of orange hair to keep it in place.

Four white horses, one bay, and one enormous black stallion carried the travelers and their provisions along the streets of Marmoreal, where townspeople poured out of buildings to see the procession. They waved and smiled at Alice and Tarrant while looking nervously at Stayne and Casiphia from the corners of their eyes. Alice had chosen to ride a horse rather than the Bandersnatch because the creature tended to make horses nervous, but she was especially glad of that decision now. Waving and smiling townspeople were so much more pleasant to see than screaming, fleeing ones.

Chapter Text

Snud was largely agricultural, and the four rode past farmsteads and great wide fields of wheat and barley and orchards of ripe apples and pears. Ilosovic reached up and plucked a pear from one of those trees for Casiphia, who bit into it gratefully, the sight of the ripened fruit having made her hungry for some time. She hadn't wanted to complain, but Stayne knew her well enough to see when she was flagging and could generally make a reasonable guess as to why.

Shadows were growing long across the fields when the tavern they were to stop at came into view. It was large and well-maintained, and they could tell as soon as they left their horses at the stables and walked inside that they would be able to procure a good meal indeed.

It was clear that the woman who came to the door recognized at least the Hatter and Stayne, for her eyes grew wide and it took her several tries to get her words out.

“Welcome to the Boar and Biscuit,” she managed to say. “And what can I do for you this fine evening?”

“We need rooms for the night,” Alice said, and then realized she didn't know how many to ask for. She raised her eyebrows questioningly as she looked from one person to the other.

Tarrant stepped in. “We have two ways of approaching this,” he said. “We can split up as boys and girls or as couples.”

Alice and Casiphia looked at each other. “You know that I'd prefer as couples,” Casiphia said.

“And I will be perfectly all right with that arrangement.” Alice smiled at Tarrant, and the two held a long gaze

Snapping herself back to attention, Alice addressed the tavern keeper. “Ma'am, we would like to let two rooms for the night, and I believe we are all looking forward to sampling the cooking here.”

“Of course, of course,” the woman said, fumbling in her apron pocket for a ring of keys. “These two rooms are clean and large, and I think you will be pleased with them.”

“Alice,” said Casiphia, “Why don't you and Tarrant go and see the rooms, and Ilosovic and I will see to ordering dinner?”

Casiphia and Ilosovic found a table for four at the far end of the room, out of the blinding sunlight that was still streaming through the wide windows near the door. The smell of wood and ale and cooking smoke permeated the room, and Casiphia thought nothing had ever seemed more welcoming, even if she had never before been in a place such as this.

“Your first tavern?” Ilosovic said, picking up her thoughts.

“Yes. But I think I understand why people frequent them.”

“Well, don't think that this is representative of them all,” he said. “Think of a smaller, darker, dirtier place filled with loud men, and you'll have an idea of what most of the taverns I've been in are like.”

“Enticing as that sounds, I believe I'll be content with this one,” Casiphia said, waving as she saw Alice and Tarrant reentering the room.

“The rooms are quite nice,” Alice said. “Clean linens, large windows, washroom down the hall but that's no matter. I think Mirana has chosen quite well for us.”

“Especially given that there are so few taverns in Snud to start with,” Tarrant said, wincing slightly as Alice kicked his leg.

Dinner did not disappoint. Platters of roast grouse were accompanied by a wheel of cheese, a basket of fresh, warm bread, and of course a selection of fruit. The ale was crisp and delicious, although it perhaps led to an earlier ending to the evening than they might have planned. The meal was scarcely over when the travelers found themselves yawning, and it seemed wise to adjourn to their rooms before they found themselves drowsing at the table and toppling to the floor.

Chapter Text

Casiphia was partly undressed for bed when she noticed something among Stayne's belongings.

“I didn't know you still had this,” she said, drawing the coiled whip from his saddle bag and fingering the supple leather.

“Something I found discarded at Saluzen Grum,” he said. “I take it you like it.”

Casiphia shrugged and smiled, then laughed with glee as he gauged the dimensions of the room and gave the whip a mighty snap, nearly striking the far wall.

But his lady became serious and intent as Ilosovic wound the end of the lash around her wrist.

“No, first,” he said, fingering her shift. “This needs to go.” He unwound the whip with a smirk.

“If you insist,” Casiphia said, pulling the light garment over her head and dropping it to the floor. “And now, sir?”

“Now, this,” Ilosovic said, pulling her wrists to him and wrapping the whip end around them several times deftly. “And this.” He wedged the handle between the slats of the headboard, thereby binding her securely to the bed.

“And this,” he said, voice growing husky as he knelt beside the bed and began pleasuring her with his tongue in all the ways she liked best. He teased her, bringing her to the brink and then backing off, leaving her writhing and gasping with desire and frustration.

Grinning, he finally escalated the flicking and tasting until she crashed into climax, twice, rapidly, and lay back trying to catch her breath and indulging in the sensations crashing though her body.

Seeing her there, wet and glistening and breathless with the pleasure he had just brought her, Ilosovic could hold himself back no longer. His trousers were quickly discarded on the floor, and he though he leaned over her in some discomfort, he raised his eyebrows at her in a question, and waited for her “aah...yes” before he drove into her. After a few strokes he reached up and freed her wrists with a few tugs of the whip. Casiphia threw her arms around him and drew her nails down his back with increasing pressure, causing him to climax almost immediately with a great cry.

Roughly he pulled her to him, and they held tight to each other as their breathing began to slow and their heart rates return to something approaching a normal rate.

“I hope that will do you till we return to Marmoreal,” he said at length. “Tomorrow's tavern may not be as conducive to certain activities, and then we will be in tents.”

“It will have to do, then,” Casiphia said with a mischievous smile. “Although I cannot promise not to torment you if given the opportunity.”

“Nor would I ask you too,” Ilosovic said. His kiss was interrupted by a loud bang from the room next door and the sounds of what had to be furniture sliding across the floor.

“Are we next door to--” Casiphia began.

“I think we must be,” Stayne said. “I am trying my best not to picture what must be going on over there.”

“But think what they just heard from our room,” Casiphia said. “And if they only knew the whole of it...”

Ilosovic buried his face in his pillow, but Casiphia could still hear his muffled laughter. “We are all going to be red-faced in the morning, aren't we?” she said.

“I won't,” Stayne said, turning his head to look at her. “And you may all just as well get used to it.”

“It's a small, small price to pay,” Casiphia considered. She wrapped a leg over her consort's legs and pulled him closer. “I have no regrets.”

Chapter Text

Casiphia woke the next morning to find Ilosovic lying on his side and watching her intently.

“You are my wife,” he said.

“So I am told,” she said, stifling a laugh. “Have you just now realized this?”

“It crept up on us, you see. One day we weren't married and the next we were, and it happened with so little fanfare.”

“Are you saying that now you wish we'd had a ceremony?”

“No, nothing like that,” Ilosovic said. “That might have made the transition more dramatic, but somehow I doubt it would have changed much of anything.”

“Sort of like becoming a knight, I would imagine,” Casiphia said. “Although I imagine that had a decent amount of fanfare involved with it.”

“Oh, it did that,” he said. “But yes, something of the same feeling. It's a good comparison. Becoming seen as a different category of person overnight, without fully feeling the change.”

“You are not a different person,” Casiphia said. “And neither am I. Perhaps there are those who might wish otherwise, but I doubt it will ever be.”

“I would be most disappointed if you were to turn into someone else,” Ilosovic said.

“As would I in the converse situation,” Casiphia said. “Love, married just means it's harder for anyone to separate us. That can only be a good thing.”

She pulled him close and stroked his hair and his face, and they dozed for a bit until realizing it was high time they rose and washed and prepared for the day ahead.

Casiphia and Stayne were downstairs at one of the long board tables when Tarrant and Alice entered the room. Alice immediately went over to join them, but Tarrant halted, looking uncertain. Casiphia noted the look of uncertainty on the Hatter's face, as well as the smirk on Stayne's—and when she heard Alice snicker, she lost control and laughed uncontrollably, head down on the table, gasping for air. This set Alice off, and soon the Hatter was the only person not joining in the merriment. He stood off to the side looking confused, finally sitting down at the table and pulling an ornate map out of a pocket somewhere in his scarlet coat.

This brought the other three back to the matter at hand, and they shifted their attention to the map.

“This be the road we take,” Tarrant said. “And this be the second tavern. We should be able to make it easily by sundown, should nothing untoward happen along the way.”

“Thereby guaranteeing that something shall,” Stayne said.

“Either way, let's order breakfast,” Alice said. “I'm starving.”

Ilosovic slipped Casiphia a sly look, but said nothing, signaling instead for the tavern owner. She hurried over, took their order for eggs and muffins and tea, and disappeared into the kitchen.

It did not take long to finish this repast, and soon they were on the road, traveling in the young sunlight of a new day. “This isn't a time of day I see often, and certainly not on the road.” Casiphia took a deep breath of the crisp early autumn air.

“I can wake you early from now on,” Ilosovic offered.

“Thank you, no,” Casiphia said. “How are you two?”

“Just fine,” Alice called.

“Right as the proverbial rain,” said the Hatter.

Casiphia pointed down the road. “Who are those strange characters by the fence?” she wondered.

“I—I think I remember them,” Alice said. “The Gryphon and–yes—the Mock Turtle. Oh dear, he's going to keep us for hours telling us his woes. We should take a different route to avoid them.”

But it was too late, as the two had noticed the travelers.

Chapter Text

“Why look! It's Alice!” the Gryphon said from his perch.

“By Jove, you're right,” the Mock Turtle agreed, leaning back against the fence as well as his rounded shell would allow. “And what a curious array of characters she brings with her.”

Alice steeled herself for the conversation that was sure to follow and began formal introductions of her fellow travelers.

“I was a real turtle once,” the Mock Turtle said to Casiphia, his large bovine eyes morose.

“I'm sure you were,” Casiphia said, at a loss.

“Off to the Outlands, then, are you?” said the Gryphon. Tarrant nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off.

“What a sad place the Outlands are,” the Mock Turtle said. “No lobsters to speak of.”

“No lobsters at all,” the Gryphon said.

“While I'm sure that is very sad indeed—“ Alice began.

“Shall we sing you a song?” the Mock Turtle asked.

“”Yes, let's,” the Gryphon said. “No one should travel without being sent off with a song.”

Casiphia bit her lip to hide a smile while Stayne drummed his heels against Brautigan's sides with impatience. Only when Brautigan turned his head to snap his teeth at his rider did he stop with a sigh to listen to the song.

“Will you ride a little faster
If you have somewhere to go
For it's getting close to Christmas
And tomorrow it may snow

And if you must go slowly
Will you have a cup of tea?
We can serve you some on horseback
And send you out to sea.

But if you see a lobster
Will you kindly send him home?
For it isn't very light yet
And there's nowhere he can roam.”

The two had linked arms by now and were processing in a slow circle as they sang. So preoccupied were they with their musical performance that the Marmorean horses were able to walk away slowly and softly without drawing attention, with Alice looking back only once to see the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon still turning, turning.

Chapter Text

“Good heavens!” Hamish hadn't meant to exclaim aloud, but it didn't seem that anyone had heard him anyway. Even for a dream, this market was passing strange, and the din it produced was positively staggering.

From where he stood, Hamish could see two long rows of stalls, none manned (a term he realized he had to use loosely) by a human being. What appeared to be an elephant was trumpeting, “Flowers for sale!” from a stall adorned with ribbons and flags, and a frog in a perfectly-tied ascot rang a large bell to attract customers to the pastries he was selling. Fish, of all things, dressed in bright frocks, offered vegetables to shoppers, all of whom appeared to be non-human as well.

“Fish breathing air,” he chuckled to himself, feeling rather impressed with the brain that had produced such a dream.

But even in a dream, Hamish could not bear the thought of walking around less than properly clothed, so he set about finding a stall that sold apparel. He would settle for something that fit him reasonably well and had no holes or tears, he thought, hoping he would be able to find such a thing.

Eventually he came to a stall where a blue-feathered bird approximately the same height as Hamish was vending coats and trousers and skirts. The counter looked fairly clean, and Hamish approached cautiously. But no amount of care would have prepared him for the bird's reaction to him.

“Sir! Oh, sir!” the creature gasped, snapping upright, its beak gaping comically as it took in Hamish's bedraggled appearance.

“It isn't my fault I look like this,” Hamish grumbled. “And a proper gentleman would not point out my shortcomings in public.”

But the bird either did not hear, or did not care. “Sir, that is the most splendid suit of clothing I have ever seen! It is regal, it is magnificent, it is resplendent!”

Hamish did not like being mocked, and he was about to stalk away when the bird's next sentence stopped him. “Sir, might I—I mean, perhaps, could I—oh sir, you are not looking to sell that marvelous suit, are you?”

Hamish looked suspiciously at the bird, but saw nothing more than hope and excitement upon its feathered face. (Although how he was able to make out expressions on a bird's face, he did not quite know, but he pushed that thought aside for another time.)

“What would you, er, offer me for this?” he asked cautiously.

“I have—oh, what have I here—feathers or beads or straw, or this suit, but you wouldn't possibly want that...”

“No, let me see the suit,” Hamish said, leaning forward to examine the garments the bird produced. Medium blue, decent wool, of a size that wouldn't make him appear too ridiculous...

“Might you be willing to make a trade?” he asked. “My suit for this one?”

The bird's eyes grew larger and darker, if such a thing were possible. “Sir, you cannot mean—why would you make such an offer?”

“This is something I can use,” Hamish said. “But I suppose my current garb is too disreputable for a trade. I might have a few coins...”

In answer the bird scuttled around the cart, placing a wing on Hamish's shoulder and pulling him behind a nearby fence. He tossed the blue suit at Hamish and darted back around the fence, leaving Hamish to change from his rags into the new garments and then return to the cart carrying his old clothes.

The bird was nearly weeping with joy. “You, sir, have made this the most wondrous day I have had in some time. If there is anything else I can do for you, anything at all...”

“I am a bit hungry,” Hamish ventured.

“Then you shall eat! What would you like, sir? Pastries? Fruit? Leaves?”

Hamish was now being pushed down the rows of stalls by the bird's large wings, and he looked from side to side rapidly as they progressed. He pointed to a cart where a stoat sold pies stuffed with apples and nuts, hoping to get the bird's attention before they had gone too far past it, and succeeding. The bird and the stoat had a quick whispered conversation, and the bird returned with a sack containing at least half a dozen of the pies.

“Well done, sir!” Hamish said to the bird. “This will do nicely. And could you point me to a tavern or an inn?”

“Of course, sir! If you take the road you can see beyond the market to the top of that hill, and follow it all the way down, you will come across the one and only tavern in all of Outland.”

By now Hamish was feeling quite overwhelmed by the noise and bustle and strangeness, and aside from the procurement of pies and directions, would have been happy to have left some time before now. Still, it did not do to be rude, particularly around personages who could likely do him some real harm should they feel it necessary. “I thank you for your help. But really, I must be on my way now.”

Looking disappointed but not arguing, the bird escorted Hamish to the far end of the market and made him a surprisingly graceful bow. “It has been an exquisite pleasure to make your acquaintance,” it said to him. “If you should find yourself in need of anything during your travels, ask anyone you see for Tall Charles. The news will reach me and I will fly to your aid.”

Hamish hadn't seen the bird do anything that resembled flying, but he kept that thought to himself. “Thank you, sir, and good day to you.”

“Good day, good day!” called the bird after Hamish. “May all your journeys be good ones! May the sun...” Its voice gradually faded as Hamish started the walk up the steep hill, wondering how long it would take him to find the tavern.

Chapter Text

Once the group had made it past the fence where Alice's old acquaintances were passing the time, the second day of travel was much like the first, with the exception of a group of Snuddites who had caught word that persons from Marmoreal were passing through and were excited to see this for themselves. Lining themselves up along the sides of the road for a good distance, they waved and cheered and threw flower petals and pages of books and feathers at the travelers.

This was all a bit like the parades after she had killed the Jabberwock, Alice thought, except for the strange things the Snuddites tossed in their honor. She had to admit it was quite fun to be honored in such a way, even if part of her still wondered if she really deserved it. Ilosovic, for his part, was bemused. Joyful crowds cheering his passage were certainly not part of his past experience.

Tarrant and Casiphia were accustomed to such events from their years at court, but they enjoyed the attention as well, waving and smiling back at the jubilant crowd.

Then they were past the inhabited parts of Snud, where farmland gradually gave way to tufted meadows and overgrown fields. Clearly even sheep did not venture here, which had the benefit of leaving hundreds of colorful wildflowers intact.

As the sun grew lower, they entered a small forest, surprisingly dark for the number of trees it contained. And there in a clearing, they found the second tavern of Snud.

No one was in attendance at the stables, but the four took the liberty of getting their horses settled for the night and feeding them from the supply of oats and hay they found there. Quill sighed—she had been hoping for an apple or two—but she determined to make the best of the situation.

The humans were looking forward to getting settled themselves, and thus approached the tavern with anticipation.

This one was much smaller than the previous, and very few lights shone from its windows. Ilosovic looked at the others, and then knocked on the iron-barred door. No one answered, and he knocked again, and yet again. Finally the door opened a crack and a suspicious eye peered out. “Whadda ye want?” a voice whined.

“Rooms for the night. Two of them,” Ilosovic said, trying to hold on to his what little patience he still had.

“Two rooms and dinner and breakfast.” Alice stepped up to the door,, in hopes that reinforcing Stayne's request would speed matters along.

“Alice? Are ye the Alice? It's Alice!” the old man asked. “Are you here because there is danger nearby?”

“No, not at all,” Alice said. “We're on, er, an adventure. Can you help us?”

“Hrmmm...I suppose,” the old man said, stepping back and opening the door enough for the traveling party to enter.

The tavern's great hall was empty save for one man, a pedlar by the pack next to him, and the only light was a lantern lit near him as he hunched over a plate.

“You have a great deal of room tonight,” Casiphia said.

“I have a lot of room every night,” the old man said. “Except when there is trouble. Are ye certain there is no trouble about?”

“No trouble,” Alice said. “We are merely rescuing a, er, friend of mine who has wandered into the Outlands.”

“Wandered into the Outlands?” the man cackled. “Well then, I wish ye luck.”

And with that he vanished into the kitchen at the back of the room, without an introduction or any instructions, leaving the travelers standing there helplessly with their packs.

“Have a seat,” Ilosovic said. “Pretend that you have had a formal invitation to do so from the owner, whatever his name may be. I will step into the kitchen for a moment and see if I can rouse some hospitality.”

He strode across the room as the other three tentatively took their seats on one of the long wooden benches. “I see more and more why his company is useful,” Alice said in a quiet voice to Casiphia.

“There's more to him than that,” Casiphia protested. “But yes, I suppose there are some benefits to his reputation, curiously enough.”

In a moment Stayne was back, looking satisfied, and a moment after that a young woman scuttled out of the kitchen bearing a tray, which she deposited almost gently before darting back to her refuge.

“I must say, this looks surprisingly edible,” Tarrant said, sorting through the items on the tray. “Fresh fruit, decent-enough bread, a cheese of impressive provenance.”

“Now if we could get something to drink,” Casiphia said. “Like tea. I don't want beer or wine here, I want to keep all my wits about me.”

“Someone should.” Ilosovic smirked at the Hatter, who rolled his eyes in response.

The travelers ate quickly and silently for a bit, still alone in the room but for the pedlar, who seemed to have fallen asleep at his table. Ilosovic shrugged and got up again to visit the kitchen. He returned dragging the reluctant landlord with him by the sleeve, and managed to convince the man to let them two rooms for the night, handing over the keys to them on the spot.

The rooms were small and dark, with few gaslights, but the bed seemed reasonably comfortable and the linens clean. “Keeping up the inn must keep those two busy while they refuse to take customers,” Ilosovic said.

Casiphia was already lying down on the bed with only her boots removed.

“Milady?” Ilosovic asked, bemused.

“While I may have been hoping for one last romantic evening before we reach the Outlands, after arriving here I do not want to be any more vulnerable than is strictly necessary,” she said.

“Understandable,” Stayne said, sitting down on the bed and pulling off his own boots. “However...would I be right to guess that you've got your sword under your bed and Henrietta in her customary place?”

“You would be correct,” she said.

“My dear, forgive me, but I am not lying down in a bed next to a woman with a loaded gun in a thigh holster. You can put her under your pillow—hell, you can put her under mine—but I hope you can see my point.”

Abashed, Casiphia grumbled but agreed that he might be right, and slipped Henrietta just under the edge of the bed, next to her sword.

“My sword is under my side of the bed, by the way, my love,” Ilosovic said. “Because I do not think your precautions are unreasonable.” With that, he pulled her against him, her back against his chest, and the two did their best to get a refreshing night of sleep.

This action was complicated by a series of noises throughout the night—a rattling in the walls, the sound of rain when they knew the skies were clear, footsteps moving up and down the stairs.

“Rats,” Casiphia said. “I am going to believe all of these sounds are made by rats.” She did not add whether she thought the rats to be friendly or malevolent.

Alice and Tarrant had heard the same noises, it turned out when they met at the stables the next morning. Casiphia was glad to know none of them were any madder than usual, but it was unsettling to wonder what might have been prowling the tavern.

“An almost complete lack of service, so little lighting one must stumble everywhere one goes, and now the ruddy place is haunted,” Stayne grumbled. “I will be more than glad to get back on the road, regardless of the mission we have been sent on.”

Tarrant, who had clearly dressed hurriedly if his mismatched stockings were any indication, was unrolling his ornate map, and held it up for the party to see. “We are almost to the border,” he said. “See? In a few hours we should reach Grampus Bluffs and cross over into Outland. And from there, I suppose we search.”

Alice heaved a sigh. “Only Hamish. But I have enjoyed seeing more of Underland, and I'm sure this will be interesting as well.”

“Depends on what you consider interesting,” Stayne muttered, looking a bit green at the prospect of seeing his former place of exile.

“We will be home before you know it,” Casiphia promised him. “You will be teaching boys how not to mangle themselves with swords, and complaining about them to me, and I will sit in your lap and kiss your annoyances away.”

Ilosovic gave her a look that could almost be construed as grateful, then mounted Brautigan and wheeled the horse towards the west and Grampus Bluffs, the others following suit.

Chapter Text

As the arch of rock that marked the border of Outland came into sight in the distance, Stayne began to look more and more unhappy. Casiphia whispered to Quill, who moved closer to Brautigan so that Casiphia could take her consort's hand.

“It may not be the most practical way to ride,” she said. “But I feel better this way, and I hope you do too.”

Ilosovic took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it through its kid leather glove. “I haven't the words to say,” he replied. “So I hope you will accept this as a token of my appreciation.”

Outland's perimeter was marked by its famous natural arch which stretched far above, sun-bleached stone bright against the autumn blue of the sky. All that lay beyond was flat desert, with shimmers against the horizon of mountain and greenery, promising but far, far away.

“It's so—grey,” Alice said.

“It is indeed, love,” Tarrant said, looking less than enchanted by the view.

Ilosovic pushed away the memories that were trying to gnaw at him, of Iracebeth screaming at him and the mountains and Outland in general until her voice wore completely away, and of the silence he kept, knowing anything else would be useless. Only a day they had been there, shackled together, and the thought that he might have spent years that way, with the former Red Queen growing madder by the day...

Stayne felt his heart rate quicken despite himself. Casiphia felt this, even through their gloves. “Notice, if you will,” she continued. “You are here upon your own horse, accompanied by your own wife with whom you live at Marmoreal. With the full acceptance of the White Queen. Alice and Tarrant are with us. This could hardly be more different than the circumstances under which you were last here.”

Ilosovic suddenly edged Brautigan even closer to Quill and pulled him to a halt.Turning to grip Casiphia's shoulders, Stayne pulled her to him and kissed her roughly, a gesture she returned in kind.

“Different circumstances. Yes,” he said after catching his breath.

Tarrant, who had watched this exchange with curiosity, said quietly, “I never would have thought.”

“Thought what?” said Alice.

“Thought—well, that,” the Hatter said. “It seems there is more to the old boy than I previously believed.”

“I'm still glad you're here to mediate between us,” Alice said. “He and I together without anyone else around...surely that could not end well.”

“You might be surprised,” Tarrant said. “I was. Am. Expect that I will be in the future as well.”

“You two grew up together, did you not?” Alice asked.

“Not together, precisely—oh, you mean we were boys in the same village. Yes, that is so.”

“What was Ilosovic Stayne like then?” she asked. “Arrogant?”

“Yes, rather,” Tarrant said.

“Ill-tempered?”

“At times. Mostly I remember how competitive he was,” the Hatter said. “If there was a game or task that he didn't excel at, he would work at it until he did. He was always rather intense. Of course, after his parents died, he was off to the castle to request sword training as if it were the only trade he cared to turn his hand to. He turned out to be good enough at that, as we all know.”

“I'm still trying to understand what makes him the way he is,” Alice said. “I will try to remember those things; perhaps it will help. Although I'm glad Casiphia is also along to keep the peace.”

The lady-in-waiting in question, meanwhile, was gazing at Stayne as if she were watching the sun rise for the first time. “I believe I am going to enjoy this journey,” she told him. “And I hope you will too.”

“Stranger things have happened,” he replied. “They keep happening, for that matter.”

Alice's own white stallion was dancing with impatience, and the girl called out, “Hadn't we better be on our way? I do not know if it will be easy to find Hamish in this landscape, so we should get started.”

The other three recalled that this was, in fact, the reason they were in the Outlands at all, and could not argue the point. So they set off across the pale stone and sand of the outer edge of the Outlands, watching for a lost red-haired man and wondering what dangers they might encounter on their way.

They rode carefully, with an eye out for creatures that might pose a threat. The sun was high but the air merely pleasantly warm, and Alice hoped they might see some picturesque Outlands vegetation before much more time had passed.

Chapter Text

Hamish Ascot was surprised to wake up surrounded by tall green plants, but quickly remembered why. He knew that he would be ruined in society if it was ever known that he had slept in a field, but since he was dreaming, it couldn't be quite as bad as all that. Still, he was bruised from a couple of rocks he hadn't noticed when he had lain down and sore in various muscles from the hard ground, plus he seemed to have bits of cornstalk in his hair.

Why he couldn't find this tavern he had been told of he couldn't say, but he supposed he had no other recourse than to continue looking for it. This dream seemed to have some curious parameters—why could he not just fly out of this countryside and go home? But he had tried that, and gotten only dusty for his trouble.

Hell's bells, but this landscape was boring—farmland had never been his preferred environment—and he longed for some conversation to break up the tedium. He didn't really expect that wish to be answered.

“Greeeeeetings,” came a voice from down low, and Hamish swore quietly. He hadn't expected to start talking to himself quite so soon, and he hadn't expected to hear an actual voice replying back, certainly not one so close to the ground. Moreover, he did not expect to find himself conversing with a sheep.

“Are you loooooost?” the creature bleated.

“I—am, yes,” Hamish replied cautiously.

“Perhaps I can help yoooou,” the sheep said, getting to its hind legs and leaning on the fence they were walking alongside. “What is it you are hooooping to fiiiiind?”

“A tavern,” Hamish said. He decided against arguing or declaiming, as that was a waste of time in a dream. “A tavern I was told lay nearby, but which I have seen no sign of whatsoever.”

“Hhhhmmm,” the sheep pondered. “Thaaaaat can only be Squire Haaaaaawthorne's plaaaaace, and you are going in the ooooooopposite direction from it. Could it beeeee that you are looking for another place entiiiiiiirely?”

“Very doubtful,” said Hamish. “Unless there is more than one tavern along this godforsaken, unpopulated road.”

“No, only one taaaaaavern,” said the sheep. “You will have to turn around, then. Unless you want to traaaavel straight ahead for a great distance, which will take you in a circle, in which case you will eventually paaaaass everything you passed before and can paaaaay more attention to what you seeeee.”

Hamish wiped at his brow. He was too hungry and hot for that to make sense, or maybe it didn't make sense anyway. By now he couldn't tell. “If I turn around and go back the other way, I should find the tavern?”

“You should find it, although wheeeeether you will, I certainly could not saaaay,” the sheep replied.

“Oh, enough of this,” Hamish snapped, ready to end this conversation and make another stab at locating Squire Hawthorne's. However many taverns there might be, that one at least seemed to have a known name and location, and that was good enough for him at this point. “Thank you, sir sheep, and may your all your travels be productive.”

“What a horrible thing to say,” the sheep scowled, dropping to all fours and galloping away down the lane.

Chapter Text

As the sun moved overhead, Tarrant suggested they stop for a brief luncheon, an idea applauded by the others. “I was thinking we could have hard rolls and a good sharp cheddar, if no one objects,” the Hatter said, “and we all have fresh water, I believe.”

Any place seemed as good as any other to stop, so they decided upon a spot with a number of soft-edged boulders strewn about that they could use as seats. Casiphia slid from Quill's back and regarded her consort for a moment, then pointed at one of the rocks and ordered, “Sit.”

With a crooked smile, Ilosovic did so. Casiphia drew a comb from her saddle bag and stood behind him, putting his black curls in order. “If we look anything like the two of them, you will be glad I am doing this,” she whispered in his ear.

After she finished this task, she handed Stayne the comb and pulled the ribbon off her long braid, perching next to him on the boulder to comb out the plaits with her fingers, saying, “Would you?”

“Of course,” he said, and began carefully combing out the tangles.

“Would you recommend I try braiding my hair?” Alice wondered, realizing she could not run her fingers through it due to the knots that had formed overnight .

“Well, it certainly does make it—ow! No, keep going, please—easier to keep it under control when you don't feel like contending with it. Tarrant can probably help you with it, or I can once we finish here. Ow.”

As if to punctuate that statement, Ilosovic handed Casiphia a large knot of tangled brown hair.

“How did I manage that with my hair braided overnight?” she said. “It confirms my theory about the rats at the tavern, that's what I think.”

“If this keeps up, I will almost wish Mallymkun were here to cut out the tangles,” Stayne said.

“No one is cutting at my hair,” Casiphia said. “Not you, not I, and not dormice who are not even present to comment.”

Evidently this was a cue too perfect to resist, as a tiny “ahem” was heard and a small white head popped out of Tarrant's travel pouch—none other than the dormouse herself, looking shamefaced.

“Have you been there this whole time?” the Hatter asked her, eyebrows raised.

“I have indeed,” Mally said. “Ever since I crawled into your bag to catch a nap in that wool scarf you have at the bottom of it. I stayed quiet at first so you wouldn't feel obligated to take me back and have to start your little quest over again. And there was no way on this green earth I was going to come out of hiding in that second tavern we were at.”

“I guess you are coming along with us, then,” said Casiphia, bemused.

“Please tell me you do not mean that,” Stayne grumbled. “Traveling all this way with her along? She and I are hardly two that anyone would choose to be travel companions.”

“Mally,” Casiphia said sternly. “No injuring Ilosovic, do you hear?”

Mallymkun's hand went to the handle of the sharpened embroidery-scissor blade Casiphia had given her to use as a weapon not so long ago. “Yes, yes, I know. Don't injure Ilosovic. Don't criticize Alice. Don't nibble on Hatter's digestive biscuits.”

“Did you?” Tarrant said.

She ducked her head as she replied. “Sorry, Tarrant, but I was in there for two days and I 'ad to eat something.”

“You must be terribly thirsty by now,” Alice said, filling the top of her water skin and holding it for Mally to drink from.

“Thank ye,” she muttered before downing the entire contents.

“Mally, would you like to ride with me?” Casiphia asked the dormouse. They had always gotten along well, and this seemed a good way to lighten the tension that was threatening to build to uncomfortable levels.

“Thank ye, I would,” Mally replied, looking balefully at the remainder of the traveling party before she climbed up the strap of the bag, scrambled onto the back of Tarrant's white horse, slid down the stallion's tail, and marched proudly over to Quill.

The white mare obligingly lowered her head for Mally to climb aboard, and Casiphia made sure the dormouse was securely tucked into Quill's forelock.

“I am sure once we have traveled for a bit she will be happy to travel with Tarrant again,” Casiphia reassured Stayne, seeing something like thunder shadowing his face. “I like being able to talk to you without outside commentary; I won't give that up for long, I promise.”

Chapter Text

It was not until evening, when the group stopped for the night, that Mallymkun deigned to speak to Tarrant and Alice. The flat hard-packed space where the Hatter had chosen to camp was marked with occasional sparse prickly trees, the first they had seen up close, and nothing else.

“This doesn't look like a very nice place to spend the night,” Alice said quietly.

“I ask you not to despair quite yet,” Tarrant said. “You have some companions with some expertise in making camp, and you may be pleased with your habitation yet.”

With that, he and Stayne set to slinging sacks and bundles down from the horses' backs and unpacking them, handing various objects to Alice and Casiphia to hold as they did so.

“It's as much a mystery to me as to you,” Casiphia said to Alice as Ilosovic gave his wife what seemed to be nothing more than a long, smooth-whittled stick. “It looks like nothing more than a set of curtains and some sticks to me.”

“And chairs,” Alice put it. “I do believe those folded-up square things are some type of chair.”

“And—pots? Utensils? I hope we are not expected to do anything with those. I have hardly been prepared for that prospect in my life, and I doubt you have, either.”

Tarrant, overhearing this, stopped to reassure the women. “Remember, I have learned a few useful tricks from Thackery in my time,” he said, “and I believe you will have no reason for concern.”

Casiphia and Alice exchanged glances but gave no additional voice to their questions, realizing they would likely receive no helpful answers. Instead they continued to help in whatever way they were requested—Casiphia finding herself holding tent poles in place and Alice gathering stones for a fire circle.

Before long two saffron-colored tents stood rippling in a light wind, and camp chairs circled the fire pit. A designated teacup was even provided for Mallymkun's comfort.

By now the sky was streaked with purple and orange, setting off the tents. “Those are rather impressive,” Casiphia said. “I hope they will be as comfortable as they are lovely.”

“Mirana has provided us with some very soft bedding,” Ilosovic assured her. “Our greatest challenge may be prying ourselves out of bed in the morning.”

“I have trouble getting out of bed every morning,” Casiphia half-joked. “And it doesn't help when you're there with me.”

Ilosovic squeezed her shoulders and laughed. “Then I shall get up before you so you will have to follow.”

“You think that, do you?” she said, but was distracted from their banter by the array of utensils and ingredients that Tarrant was lining up by the fire he had just touched off in the circle of stones.

“That is impressive too,” Alice said, kneeling down next to the Hatter to watch his progress. Deftly he measured spices in one hand, added them to a pot of water, and followed that with chopped vegetables.

“You could do that,” Casiphia said to Ilosovic. “Didn't my mother teach you how to chop carrots?”

“No, I wouldn't ruin a good knife on that,” he returned. “Besides, Tarrant seems to have matters well in hand.”

A pot of stew was now simmering merrily on the flames, and Tarrant was in the process of filling a teapot from a water skin. “We also have cake,” he said, looking up. “We may as well eat it tonight as let it get stale.”

“No, no, we mustn't let the cake get stale,” Casiphia said as Stayne eyed the food pack with renewed interest.

As had happened before, little conversation took place as the travelers realized just how hungry they were. Afterwards they relaxed around the fire with cups of tea (even in the midst of the Outlands, Tarrant manages to have tea, Stayne observed), and finally enjoyed the cake.

Distracted by the novelty of dining out of doors in an unfamiliar country, Casiphia didn't notice the state of her food until Alice tapped her shoulder.

“Oh,” Casiphia said, looking sadly at the chunk of cake that had fallen into her tea.

“Now, my dear,” Tarrant said, taking the cup from her. “That doesn't need to be a problem.” He picked up a spoon and scooped up a bit of the sodden cake. “Delicious! Give it a try?”

Keeping her doubts to herself, Casiphia picked up her own spoon and took a small bite of the accidental concoction. She was able to turn away from the others quickly enough to avoid splattering them when she spat out her mouthful and gasped, “Oh, Tarrant, that's dreadful.”

“You think?” the Hatter said. With a shrug, he continued eating the tea-sodden cake, not in the least bothered by the unconventional combination. Ilosovic, however, laughed briefly and cut Casiphia another piece of cake, with a kitchen knife, a corner of which she passed along to Mally.

With the advent of twilight, the travelers became unable to ignore how tired and sore they were from the day's ride. It was bedtime, they agreed, time for some to lay out their soft bedding and collapse for the night and others to sleep at the edge of camp, unburdened with packs or riders, refreshing themselves for the day ahead.

“Excuse me!” came a small, offended voice.

“Oh, Mally!” Tarrant said. “We haven't forgotten you, I promise.”

“Indeed,” muttered the dormouse. “Where, I ask you, am I to sleep?”

“Would you be averse to sleeping in my pack?” Tarrant said. “I mean, you found it comfortable enough before, am I right?”

“Well, I'm certainly not going to sleep in either one of your tents and risk seeing things I do not care to see,” Mally said. “Your pack will have to do.”

Tarrant carried her over to the pack that lay near the horses and let her settle herself inside. “You could leave some of those biscuits,” she called from its depths. In a moment a digestive biscuit found its way inside the pack and silence fell, only the sound of quiet nibbling emanating from within it.

Casiphia and Stayne undressed in the dark and snuggled down together into the layers of feather mattress and warm blankets that made up their bed for the night. Next to them they could see the other tent glowing golden from within from the small lantern that remained lit. At the sight of a wild-haired shadow removing his shirt and folding it before setting it aside, Casiphia said, “Should we tell them how visible they are from here?”

“We should,” said Ilosovic. “Otherwise we might get more of a show than we care to have.

“Some people might want to remember to extinguish their lights,” he called loudly. A rustling and surprised murmurs ensued, and the light next door went suddenly out, leaving Casiphia and her consort to snicker as they snuggled together and prepared to sleep.

Casiphia awakened in the dark, and was surprised to find herself alone in the tent. Pulling her cloak around her and slipping on her boots, she left the pavilion quietly to see where Stayne had gone. She found him standing in the center of the clearing, looking up at a myriad stars she had never seen shining so bright. Slipping a hand into his, she looked at him questioningly.

“I have missed this,” he said softly. “The best thing about being in the field was looking up at the stars on clear nights like this.”

“I understand why, now,” Casiphia said. “I had no idea how beautiful they were. Maybe we should try to be outdoors at night more often.”

“You and me and a sky full of stars,” Ilosovic said. “Yes, I think that will do nicely.”

Silently they stood looking at the twinkling lights above, until Casiphia began to grow chilled and became restless. “Do you want to stay out here by yourself a while longer?” she asked him.

“No,” he said. “I would rather go back with you. I trust this experience is already as complete as it is going to be.”

Smiling, Casiphia took his hand, and together they walked back slowly to their tent.

Chapter Text

The tents grew so bright with the appearance of the sun that waking early turned out to be no problem.

Ilosovic and Casiphia walked to the edge of a rocky bluff, looking for the river they were to use as their guide, talking idly about the day to come—a conversation which came abruptly to an end when Ilosovic unbuttoned his pants to relieve himself.

Alice and Tarrant looked up in surprise when they saw Casiphia stomping back to camp, shouting, “Ilosovic, there are some things I do not need to see!”

Stayne, of course, was unable to chase after her until he had finished the task at hand. Choking back laughter as he caught up with Casiphia, he seized her shoulders to stop her progress and said in her ear, “My dear, you knew I was a soldier when you met me.”

“And that means you cannot show some respect for your delicate, gently born consort?”

“Gently born you may be, but you are no more delicate than I,” Ilosovic said.

“Nevertheless,” Casiphia huffed.

“Surely this is not the same woman who lay with the stable boy when she was fifteen.”

“The stable boy always treated me with the utmost respect,” she sniffed.

“Is that something we should pretend we didn't hear?” Alice whispered to the Hatter.

“No, I wouldn't say so,” he replied. “She and the stable boy both mooned about so blatantly that it would have been hard not to know about their liaisons. And soon enough the flame of ardor burned itself out, and all went back to life as it had been before.”

“Tarrant,” Stayne called. “Am I not in the right here?”

“I wouldn't take a liberty like that in front of Alice,” the Hatter shrugged.

“And for that I thank you,” Alice said.

“Ha!” Casiphia stalked off to talk to Quill, who had had many years of practice placating her mistress and had learned how to do so efficiently.

“What did I do?” Stayne said, genuinely puzzled.

“She is probably worried that you don't respect her,” Alice said.

“And your apology was more in the way of an argument,” Tarrant said.

“Fine,” Ilosovic snarled. “I'm reduced to taking romantic advice from you two. And now I've got to resolve this.”

Crossing the clearing to where Casiphia stood with Quill, he stood behind Casiphia and slipped one arm over her shoulder. As soon as she acknowledged his presence, he dropped to one knee in front of her. “Forgive me, please, milady.”

“You're being obsequious, and you know I hate that,” she said. “Get up.”

He did so as she crossed her arms and glared at him. Quill whickered, or perhaps snickered—it was always hard to tell with a horse.

“What is it that you want, milady?” Ilosovic said, realizing that this was an answer he was not going to reach on his own.

“An apology,” she said. “A real one.”

Placing a hand on each of her shoulders, Ilosovic looked into Casiphia's eyes. “I apologize, milady. I did not mean to offend. Please know that I have utmost respect for you and this is not something that will change.”

“Very astute,” Casiphia said. “Did you arrive at this insight on your own?”

“None of you are going to let me live this down, are they?”

“Nor should we,” Casiphia said with the barest glint of a twinkle in her eye. “Now, am I to expect a repeat of what we may now refer to as the particular incident?”

“Only in an emergency, is that acceptable?”

“If you give me ample warning beforehand,” she said tartly.

“Done, milady, done.”

“You know I hate you,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“Kiss and make up!” came a shout from Alice.

“Annoying, that,” Stayne said.

“Good advice nonetheless,” Casiphia said, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

Hamish arrived at the top of a steep hill, out of breath from the exertion, and saw to his great pleasure a half-timbered building that could only be a tavern. The road to it was made easy not only by dint of being downhill but by holding the promise of rest and refreshment at its end. And so he sped up his pace and reached it gratefully

The tavern was thick with not only the expected odor of beer soaked into wood, but with an underlay of some spice he did not recognize. The long tables and benches, as well as the bar at the back, were of familiar design. But that was the end of what was familiar.

All manner of strange beings populated the large room. The humans were dressed outlandishly, and the animals there, while dressed respectably, were—animals. Frogs and badgers and stoats and pigs, all mingled with men in patchwork frock coats and a few women in low-cut bodices that caused Hamish to look away and blush.

Feeling more thirsty than uncomfortable, which was saying something, Hamish made his way through the colorful crowd to the bar. “I would like, er, a nice single stout,” he said to the tavern maid behind the bar. “

“This, sir,” she said, pouring him a tankard. “I believe you will like this.”

Hamish took a sip and nodded. “Yes, very nice,” he said. He dug in his pocket, somehow finding an Overworld coin that had survived his travels, and handed it to the bartender.

“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “I have never seen aught like this. It must be very valuable. Thank ye much, sir, and come find me when you need a refill.” She winked a deep blue eye at Hamish, who suddenly noticed she was quite lovely, even if her black hair were unruly to the point of creating a veritable storm cloud about her head, and her garments odd and strangely-colored

Distraction proved problematic for Hamish, though, as he moved to the side without heeding anyone next to him. Suddenly someone was shouting, “You, sir! Please remove your foot from my tail!”

“The stranger's hurting Bill!” someone else shouted, and Hamish pressed his back against the bar and called out, “I didn't do anything of the sort! I don't even know Bill!”

“Bill the lizard!” a large man yelled, taking a swing at Hamish that he somehow managed to dodge. “Without Bill, we can't get nothing fixed around here. Ye gotta be polite to Bill!”

Hamish's further protests were drowned out as patrons of the bar began throwing punches, not just at Hamish but at each other, until the bar was thrown into an outright melee.

Just as Hamish had nearly decided he was going to die in a dream, and most unpleasantly at that, the attractive barmaid seized his arm, hustling him out a side door and up a flight of narrow, dark stairs to a hallway lined with doors. Throwing open one of them, she pushed Hamish into the room beyond. “Stay here with the lights off for a bit,” she cautioned him. “No one saw where you went in all the chaos. I'll tell them you ran off toward the market.”

Some hours later she tapped on his door and, when he peered through the keyhole to see who was there, indicated that she had brought him dinner. Hamish was impressed despite himself, both with the quality of the turnover and cider and with her remembering that he was there and might appreciate a meal.

Rising early the next morning, Hamish was ready to leave the tavern and its argumentative patrons immediately. However, the barmaid was also awake, and followed after him as he made his way through the postern yard to insist upon accompanying him.

“I'm tired enough, I am, of taking care of this crowd every night. My father will have to hire a barmaid now, and pay her a decent wage, which is only fair. Besides, I'm bored with this place and everyone who passes through it, and I would love an adventure. I think you would be a splendid one to have an adventure with.”

“Miss, I don't even know your name,” Hamish stuttered.

“Idorea. Idorea Hawthorne. No time for more talk, we must away!”

“Surely you don't really intend...”

“Of course I do. Quickly, finish whatever you need to do and let us go!”

Hamish tried to think of a reason Idorea should stay behind, rather than accompany him, but in his befuddlement, he could not think of a thing. And thus it was that he crept quietly down the back stairs of Squire Hawthorne's establishment accompanied by the man's daughter, who carried two large packs over her shoulders and seemed to have no intention of returning home any time soon.

Chapter Text

The second day of travel was less than inspiring, as it took place in the same flat, gray expanse that they had already found uninspiring the day before. However, by late afternoon, they discovered the river, which raised their spirits considerably.

One by one the next morning the travelers made their way to the bank to wash in the cold, fresh water, wrapping themselves warmly in bedclothes on the way to and from.

Ilosovic, as usual, was awake and active long before Casiphia. She didn't wake until he was back in the tent after his bath, fully dressed and combing his wet hair.

“Well, good morning. I didn't know you'd brought the leather pants,” Casiphia said from deep within her blankets.

“Tough and good for travel,” he said. “But if you appreciate them, then so much the better.”

“I don't know how we're going to get your boots off tonight,” she said, “but I will certainly enjoy watching you during the day.”

He grinned at her with pride, and finished dressing. His final action every morning was an eyepatch, but today he looked down at the eyepatch in his hand as Casiphia watched his face.

“It seems a bit ridiculous trying to keep up appearances under the circumstances,” he said.

“You hardly need to wear that on my account, I hope you realize.”

Ilosovic sat down beside Casiphia, took her face in his hands, and gave her a kiss. “Of course I do. And you may have some idea how much I appreciate that. But the others...”

“You should not have to worry about appearances when you're just going outside for a cup of tea. I'm sure Alice can handle the sight of your injury, even if it was inflicted by the Jabberwock.”

“Alice isn't the one I'm worried about.”

“Oh, Tarrant,” Casiphia said. “Well. Maybe it's time he sees your life hasn't been quite as easy as he may believe.”

“Or he will look at me with disgust from now on,” Stayne sighed. “And while it's hardly a matter of great importance, it has been rather nice being freed of that particular concern. But still. Until we're likely to run across habitation, I would prefer not to worry about this thing.”

“Then don't,” Casiphia declared, plucking the eyepatch from his hand and dropping it down the front of her shift.

“I know you know better than to think that will stop me from retrieving it.” The corner of his mouth twitched.

“That's all I had to work with for the moment,” Casiphia said. “Now go get me a cup of tea along with your own and I'll have this decently hidden by the time you return.”

Ilosovic gave her a sardonic little nod and exited the tent.

“Oh—Ilosovic—I--oh,” was all Alice managed to get out at the sight of Stayne's face.

“Just a little Jabberwock injury, m'dear,” he said, crouching to select a couple of cups from a basket and pouring steaming tea into each.

“You mean I fought...” Alice's voice trailed away, and she looked a little pale as Tarrant came up behind her and slipped his arms around her.

“Yes, you did,” the Hatter said. “Come now, you fought and slayed the beast, surely it does not surprise you to see the kind of damage it could do.”

“Perhaps it shouldn't, but...” Alice shuddered. “I am certainly glad I didn't have a better idea of what I was walking into.”

“You should feel confident now that you will have no problem with anything we meet along this journey,” Ilosovic said, standing up. “We might encounter a, oh, a JubJub bird, but surely nothing more threatening than that.”

“Such a comfort,” Alice murmured.

As Stayne returned to the tent, Casiphia, by now mostly dressed, whispered to him, “You didn't tell her that we don't know everything that lurks in the Outlands.”

“Certainly not,” he said, handing her a cup of tea. “I try not to think of that myself. You might do well to do the same.”

He leaned back and regarded her. “So. Tonight do we get to play 'hunt the eyepatch'?”

“I certainly hope so,” Casiphia said. “I am considering it my reward as well as yours for a good day's worth of travel.”

“You are so much more fun to travel with than Iracebeth's soldiers. Or for that matter, Iracebeth.”

“I certainly hope so,” said Casiphia acidly. “That is hardly a challenge.”

“And yet you meet it with aplomb,” Ilosovic returned. “Come on, now, we should finish preparing for the day's ride. That will give the other two a few moments to get used to the idea of having to see this disfigurement every day.”

“It will be good for them,” Casiphia declared. She reached for his hands and added, “Of course I think you in general are good for anyone, but that may be a minority opinion.”

“Just as long as it's your opinion, I don't care about the rest,” Ilosovic said.

Chapter Text

Queen Mirana unrolled the rest of the Oraculum while Nivens McTwisp held down the other end for her.

“I see them right here,” she said. “But I don't know what they're riding towards. It is utterly new to me."

“Let's hope it isn't anything dangerous,” the rabbit said.

 

The wind was coming from the south, whipping Stayne's black curls into his face as he rode, making him wonder if he should not have foregone the eyepatch. He would have to have Casiphia tie his hair back for him the next time they stopped, he thought.

Somehow the Hatter managed to keep his top hat on, although he had pressed it further down on his puff of hair than normal. Mally lay on her belly on the neck of his stallion, clutching as hard as she could to his mane to keep from flying away. Twinkly as they might be, she was not a bat, and no point pretending otherwise.

The travelers could see the green of a band of trees and other vegetation in the near distancexx, and soon saw that these bordered another branch of the river.

“Do you think Hamish could have crossed that?” Alice wondered. “It doesn't look like it would be that easy to get over.”

“I don't believe it's too deep or dangerous or deadly or anything else starting with a 'D', for that matter,” Tarrant said. “Look, you can see the rocks at the bottom all the way across. The current is a bit fast, but I am certain our horses will have no trouble with it.”

To prove his point, he rode into the water at the foot of a low bank. The horse balked at first, but then decided that this was not so difficult a task and besides, would be over soon if he raised his speed to a trot.

The others followed, Alice first. Quill picked her way delicately down the bank into the water, while Brautigan walked quickly and with determination, barely looking down. Because of this, he was the first to see the trails in the water heading their direction.

“Ilosovic,” he said, and Stayne looked where the horse was gesturing with his nose.

“Tarrant?” he called. “Do you think--”

What he was going to ask was never to be known, as the Hatter shouted, “Snake boys!” and kicked his horse into a gallop.

“What?” Alice shouted, following suit.

“Snake boys?” Casiphia said uncertainly as Quill's long legs quickly brought her up even with the others. Brautigan was ahead of them all, almost reaching the other side of the river, when the snake boys were upon them.

Alice had thought she was used to the surprises and dangers of Underland, that nothing would surprise her too much ever again. But she lost her breath suddenly at the sight of half a dozen creatures with the torsos of human boys, albeit scaled, and the tails of green snakes, heads a horrifying combination of both. Worse still were the long knives each snake boy carried, and the rapidity with which they traveled.

With a piercing war cry, Tarrant drew his halbert and took a mighty swing at a snake boy who was reaching for the reins of his horse. The sword struck home and the snake boy dropped into the river, dead. And the others turned upon the Hatter with a loud and vicious hissing.

Casiphia had her sword out instantly, as did Stayne, and Alice the vorpal. Mally brandished her own blade in the event that a snake boy swam close enough for her to strike. The humans swung with precision at the snake boys, who had had clearly not anticipated that their quarry would be so well-armed and so well-trained.. Two more fell before the others made a retreat down the river, using the current to enhance their intrinsic speed. As they fled, Ilosovic drew his long crooked knife and threw it at one of the fleeing enemy. It hit home and stuck, but the snake boy did not falter and continued to make his escape.

Stayne pulled Brautigan to a halt and watched as the snake boys disappeared down river. “I liked that knife,” he grumbled. The others, however, had finished their gallop to the opposite bank, getting themselves out of the water and away from any further snake boy attacks with alacrity.

“What the--” Alice's breath still came fast. “What--”

“Snake boys,” said Tarrant grimly. “The snake people in general are dangerous and best avoided, but their boys are the hunters. Hunting to them doesn't just mean dinner, it means removing any sort of life from their lands that they don't approve of.”

“In other words, us,” Casiphia said.

“In other words, us,” Tarrant agreed. “We would be well advised to get ourselves clear of this section of the river immediately. We can rejoin it further on to find civilization.”

“Why does he know all this?” Alice mouthed to Casiphia, who shook her head, no less puzzled than she.

Chapter Text

The travelers stopped to make camp early that night, as much because a storm was pending as because they were still rattled from the snake boy attack—although Stayne, as one would expect, seemed to recover from the incident the fastest.

Tarrant made a simple dinner of cheese toast and they drank their tea quickly, watching dark clouds knit themselves together overhead. An occasional streak of lightning and crack of thunder told them that a storm was near, and just as they were packing up the dinner supplies, the rain began.

Two saffron-colored tents were soon the only instance of color and life in a strip of tall, dessicated grasses now soaked with rain. Mirana had thought of this eventuality too, weaving a waterproof spell into the fabric of the tents. The two couples, along with Mallymkun, at first both squeezed into Tarrant's tent for conversation, it being too early for anyone to be consider actually sleeping, but it wasn't long before the rain pattering on the silk began to lull everyone into what might accurately be described as a stupor.

Casiphia carried Mally to the Hatter's saddlebag and made sure that it was watertight. Settling for the night in their own tent, Casiphia and Ilosovic lay upon their bedroll fully clothed, too comfortable to get up and get ready for bed. Casiphia managed to take her hair out of its braid, but then fell back onto the covers.

“Mm, leather trousers,” she murmured, resting her head on Stayne's thigh.

Ilosovic could only resist for a moment. “My dear, since you are already down there...”

“Whatever could you mean by that?” she teased. She blew out their light before unbuttoning the trousers she found so delectable and taking his organ into her mouth. Ilosovic wrapped one hand in her hair and wound it tightly in his grip as if to prevent her from stopping, and she reveled in the force with which he did so. Breathing out heavily, he dropped his head back, luxuriating in the sensation of his lady's tongue—until she did stop suddenly, leaning her head back and looking at him sternly.

“I don't know how you are going to get these off quickly, but you need to figure it out and do so immediately,” she ordered.

“Yes, milady,” Stayne said in mock obedience. “Help me with my boots, if you would.”

She did so, and he managed to peel off the trousers with far less difficulty than she had predicted.

“Now,” she said, pushing him back on the bedroll and stretching out atop him. “I believe I would like to do this now.” She guided him inside her, and they took advantage of the sound of rain and wind to let their breathing come fast and hard, keeping their cries low in their throats, quiet but certainly not silent in their passion.

He watched her with a smile as she draped her limp body over his with a long sigh. With a low growl, he wrapped his arms around her tightly and rolled them both over, so that he was now on top. Only a few more thrusts and he climaxed as well, now as satiated as she. Damp and drowsy, they pulled blankets over themselves and were quickly asleep,

Chapter Text

The next day was uneventful day, much to the relief of the party as a whole. The air was so fresh and cool after the night's rain that even the endless grey of the landscape was not discouraging, and at times a small drift of vegetation appeared along the river bank. The flowers were like nothing any of them, with the exception of Ilosovic, had seen before, and occasionally a strange small animal popped its head out in surprise at their passage.

They made a brief stop for a simple luncheon, the women making sure their hats were in place as the sun moved higher and the air grew warmer.

Alice's attention was caught by the movement of silvery, wavering shapes somewhat like translucent birds overhead. “What are those?”

Tarrant looked upward at the shimmering, shifting forms. “Winged thoughts,” he said. “On their way to someone who has been inspired.”

“They're lovely,” she said. “Do they visit you?”

“From time to time.” He smiled at her. “More often since you returned here to stay.”

 

Alice pulled Tarrant aside as the travelers packed up again to resume the journey. “You don't have to answer this, but why is that you know so much about the Outlands?” she asked the Hatter, who sighed and sat down heavily on a boulder.

“You recall your Underland history,” he began. “How the resistance against the Red Queen was centered here in the Outlands?” Alice nodded. “That was for two reasons. One, because Outland has never been ruled by kings and queens outside its borders—or within them, for that matter.

Two, some generations ago, several members of the Hightopp clan were—well, not exiled, in so many words—but strongly encouraged to make this their home. Knowing that I had relations here made a natural place to set up a base. Outlanders may not swear fealty to anyone, but Hightopps are always loyal to their family.”

“So it's more impressive than I realized that you are milliner to the Queen,” Alice said.

“It did take some years to convince the parents of Mirana and Iracebeth that despite the actions of a few, the remainder of the Hightopps were devoted to their reign. Luckily, we had some skilled fighters and craftspeople who dedicated their talents to the Spades regime, and we were restored to an honored place before too long.

“Nevertheless, it is not something I am proud of, to have that as part of my history and to know that there are still descendants of the original traitors living here. I will always be wondering if they are planning to cause trouble and paint me guilty by association.”

“That is difficult,” Alice mused. “But if they have not already done so, do you have reason to believe they might now?”

“Nothing, really,” the Hatter said. “Just a worry, a concern, a gnawing feeling that I must be prepared.”

“Tarrant, in Underland, does it not always behoove one to be prepared?”

“I suppose you are right,” Tarrant said, brightening. “A JubJub bird could land on the castle balconies at any moment! Or lightning strike the turrets.”

“Or snake people return to avenge their sons.” Casiphia rode up on Quill, not wanting to interrupt the conversation, but even less willing to be caught unprepared by danger.

“True enough,” Tarrant said. “Off we go, then.” He adjusted his hat so that it sat firmly on his head, and went off to find his horse.

Chapter Text

The road that Hamish and Idorea took away from Squire Hawthorne's pub followed closely by the river. The sound of the rushing water brought thoughts to Hamish's mind of baths and fresh linens. Not that the accomodations at the tavern hadn't seemed clean enough to endure at least for one night, but he hadn't had a chance to wash before Idorea rushed him away, and that lack was beginning to concern him. But what to do about this girl?

“Erm,” he began tentatively. “The river looks most refreshing.”

“A bit on the chill side,” Idorea said, “but pleasant enough.”

“Might one be able to, well, wash in it?”

“Of course. We're in no hurry, we have no destination, and I would not mind a dip in yon river,” was her response.

“Erm...” How to preserve his modesty in front of this woman who seemed to have little of her own?

Luckily Idorea made up for in perception what she lacked in modesty. “Although I did have a nice bath this morning. Perhaps you did not? Would you like to do that now? I will sit here under this tree and perhaps doze in the sun for a bit.”

With gratitude, Hamish made a small bow to her and crunched through the bracken hurriedly to the river. If Idorea perhaps did not doze the entire time, and possibly looked over to the river when she heard a mighty splash, and stifled laughter at the tumble Hamish had taken—well, she was subtle in her actions and he knew nothing of them.

When he had dressed again (it might be time to think about procuring some more clothes, he thought) and combed his wet orange hair as best he could with his fingers, he returned to the tree, under which Idorea was now standing.

“You need a bit of help, love,” she said, rearranging a few strands of his hair. “There. That's better.”

Finding that bit of contact surprisingly pleasant, Hamish could think of nothing to say except “Let us be on our way.” It was a good thing this was a dream—wandering about with a strange woman and having no set destination to head towards would have been foolish and possibly dangerous in the waking world.

They traveled at a comfortable pace (no reason to hurry along, after all), and just as Hamish was starting to regret missing breakfast (Idorea, of course, had not missed hers), she suggested they stop for a luncheon. One of the bags she carried over her shoulders turned out to contain fresh bread, cheese, some slices of meat which Hamish did not recognize but which were quite delicious, and wine. It must have been the warm sun that made the wine go so quickly to his head, he thought, although that was rather absurdly logical for a dream. Then again, the entire dream had been nothing but absurd.

Idorea and Hamish continued walking throughout the afternoon, following the river, Idorea tactfully choosing to stop to examine a wildflower or tree whenever Hamish looked as though he needed a rest. Tall grasses brushed against their knees and an owl followed them from tree to tree looking entirely unperturbed by the sunlight. Fruit-laden branches swayed overhead, and the ground was dappled by the light through their leaves.

Most curious of all was the din of what sounded like dozens of high-pitched voices, a sound that grew in volume as they approached a field of wildflowers. It gave Hamish quite a start when he realized it was the flowers that were singing.

“Of course they're singing, silly,” Idorea said. “It will be fall soon and they need to exercise their voices before they go to sleep for the winter.”

“They're not very good,” he murmured.

“No, they're not, are they?” Idorea said, clutching Hamish's arm as she burst into quiet laughter, hoping not to offend the poor flowers.

As twilight began to fall, Hamish grew nervous. “What are we to do?” he said, forgetting that this was all supposed to be a dream. “Won't it be dangerous? What if it gets cold?”

“Ye should trust yer companion,” Idorea said, dropping onto the grass and opening her pack. Somehow she had managed to stuff it with canvas and some short poles, as well as a soft blanket, matches, and dishware. It took her only a moment to have a small tent erected and a fire started, and she speared a couple of pieces of fruit on branches, handing one to Hamish.

“'Tis a small dinner, but I reckon we can make that up tomorrow.”

“Where are we going tomorrow?” Hamish said, doing his best to grill an apple evenly without dropping it into the fire. He managed to achieve a baked fruit with a burned spot and a few uncooked bits, but it was better than he had expected to do, and surprisingly tasty besides.

“We'll still be in Outland, silly,” Idorea said, blowing on her apple and taking a bite. “But I have cheese and bread in my pack, and we can gather greens and find some eggs. We'll be reaching desert soon enough, so you'll want to fortify yourself. Tonight we eat light so as to save our provisions for that.”

Hamish wasn't overjoyed at the thought of returning to the desert he had seen from underneath the tarpaulin on the cart that had brought him into the Outlands. “What is our destination then?” he asked.

“Snud or Marmoreal or Witzend, whichever we reach first, of course.”

“Of course,” he said. Whatever the blue blazes those might be, he thought, but kept that to himself.

It was a long night for Hamish, who had never slept in close proximity with anyone, much less a young woman in her shift. Thoughts he was ashamed of tormented him until he was finally too tired to entertain them any longer, and he fell to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Well, I am completely helpless when it comes to this sort of thing,” Casiphia said, flinging down the flint she had been using to unsuccessfully start a fire.

Ilosovic, kneeling not very helpfully by the fire circle, leaned forward and seized her wrists. “I rather like the idea of you being helpless,” he whispered in her ear.

“Now you're just being cruel,” she said, “knowing that there isn't much we can do about that right now. Go stand over there so when I throw something at you, it makes a greater impact.”

“I've been thinking,” he said. “There might be a way to, er, entertain particular urges.”

“Not unless you keep your hand over my mouth,” Casiphia said. “You know I'm unlikely to be able to stay silent.”

“An idea which aligns quite nicely with mine,” Ilosovic said, releasing her. “But for the moment, we had best continue our efforts towards dinner.”

Casiphia took a deep breath and returned her attention to matters at hand. “Someone needs to come start this fire,” she called. “If you wait on me to do it, we will be having a cold dinner.”

Ilosovic, a small smile playing around the edges of his mouth, knelt down and picked up the flint. “All you had to do was ask, milady.”

“You distracted me,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

 

Dinner was braised quail and fresh greens and bread that Tarrant had somehow mixed up and baked in a low pan over the coals. It had been a long day, and the travelers were content to eat quietly and watch banners of cloud change from gold to crimson to violet as the sun set.

“Bedtime?” Casiphia said as the first stars began to appear.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Alice said with a yawn. “If I'm this tired now, it's not likely to get better if I stay up.”

The couples adjourned to their tents, where Alice and Tarrant were soon snuggled into their warm bedrolls and fast asleep.

Stayne blew out the light beside the bedroll and disrobed, discovering Casiphia already between the sheets and blankets, fully unclothed. “You seem to be ready for something,” he whispered.

“I have been ready since we talked at the campfire,” she said.

“Ah, milady,” he groaned softly, straddling her, pinning her wrists above her head with one strong hand and holding the other firmly over her mouth. As she twisted in his grip, he nipped at her ears and neck and nipples, grinning at her undulations and the tiny sounds she made in her throat.

Now he slipped a hand between her legs, catching his breath as he realized how very ready she was. Forgetting for a moment that they were trying to be silent, he let loose a groan that was not likely to be unheard.

“What are you doing over there?” a female voice called from the tent next door.

“Playing 'find the eyepatch',” he called back.

Casiphia used the distraction to extricate one of her hands from his grasp, using it to hold his hand more securely to her mouth. Her eyes twinkled with her effort not to giggle.

Returning to the matter at hand, Ilosovic entered his lady with a powerful thrust, doing his best to remain silent as her warmth enveloped him. This became increasingly difficult when Casiphia, caught in her own response, bit down upon the two center fingers of his hand.

With a ferocious grin, he began moving in concert with his lady, her hips rising to meet his and her back arching with the rising sensations he sent through her body. He climaxed with a great exhalation of breath, and she followed immediately behind, a moan caught deep in her throat.

Softly he rolled off of her, investigating his hand in the dim light. He held it above them so she could see that she had drawn blood, and she pulled it to her mouth, tonguing off the blood and challenging him with her eyes to continue to remain silent.

“We are going to play 'find the eyepatch' again in more conducive surroundings,” he whispered in her ear. “And you are not going to be quiet.”

“Good,” she replied. “I am not certain I could manage that again.”

Chapter Text

Ilosovic and Casiphia slept late the next morning, but as they had no set schedule or sure destination, this seemed unimportant. When at last they did exit their tent, ready for a wash in the river, they found Alice and the Hatter busily engaged in baking a savory pie over a banked fire.

“Impressive,” Stayne conceded.

“Please tell me that is for now and not dinner,” Casiphia said. It was, in fact, and after bathing in the brisk waters of the river and enjoying a satisying meal, she wanted nothing more than to crawl back into the tent and sleep for the afternoon.

Although Casiphia was reluctant to resume her travels, Quill was eager to get back on the road. The horse had never been on such a long journey, and she was finding it much to her liking. To please Quill, Casiphia did not beg the others to rest for the day, but climbed into the saddle wearily and followed the others as they set off for the day.

Aside from the river at their right and the hazy mountains beyond it, the geography of this part of Outland was again flat and gray, the bright blue autumn sky serving only to emphasize its blandness. The only geographical feature to break the monotony was a distant blur of color that might have been farmland or a large body of water.

“Och, Tarrant, will there be an end to this?” Mally complained from the Hatter's saddlebag, where she had finally managed to convince him to let her take up occupation. Repeated beseeching had its uses.

It seemed a long day indeed, and before much longer, all conversation had given way to a quiet determination to cover as much ground as possible. If Hamish had been anywhere along this at all, he would have been impossible to overlook, so they could only conclude that this was unlikely to be the day they accomplished their quest.

The sun was drawing low in the sky with only the barest tinge of gold when the group spied farmland at the horizon.

“Do I see farmland, or am I hallucinating from boredom?” Mally inquired.

“You do,” Tarrant said. “This is where grain is grown for all of Underland.”

“Who lives here?” Alice wondered.

“Here, in this part of the country, farmers and townspeople such as you'd find anywhere else. Although with their own customs and manner of dress,” the Hatter explained. “Also a good half the townspeople are of species other than human.”

“Then we will be able to ask them if they have encountered Hamish,” Alice said with relief. “Surely these people will have news of other parts of Underland.”

“Particularly the people there,” the Hatter said, pointing to a building at the crest of a small hill. “If that isn't a tavern, I'll eat my hat.”

“I'd dearly love to see that,” Mally said. Tarrant ignored her.

“What do you ladies think?” he said. “It might be a bit of a rough crowd...”

Casiphia, with dramatic air, looked ostentatiously over her shoulder at the land they had just traversed, and Alice sighed. “Honestly, Tarrant, even as well-provisioned as we are, I'd sleep at the top of a tree if it held a real bed.”

Tarrant looked thoughtful for a moment, then dismissive. “I see no trees anywhere near, not even one strong enough to hold Mally. I am sorry, Alice, but there will be no sleeping in trees tonight.”

Alice started to speak, then subsided.

“Wise choice,” Casiphia whispered to her.

Coaxing the horses up the hill to the building and turning them over to what seemed to be a most efficient team of stable boys, the weary travelers crossed the yard to the open front door of the tavern, hearing laughter and singing as they approached, and feeling more cheered themselves at the mere sight and sound.

“Ahh,” Casiphia sighed as she sank onto a long plank bench. “I may have been riding all my life, but I have been finding myself sore and weary by the end of the day. This is a lovely change, rough crowd or otherwise.”

“Refreshments now,” Tarrant said, signaling to the barmaid he saw across the large room. As she approached their table, her face split in a wide smile. “Tarrant Hightopp, as I live and breathe! What brings you here—visiting your family?”

“Not exactly,” Tarrant said. “Lucilda, meet my fellow travelers.” He made introductions all around, and Lucilda shook each person's hand in turn, including a gentle squeeze of Mally's paw. She seemed a bit startled to meet Ilosovic, and smiled even more widely at being introduced to Alice.

“Wait here,” she said with a wink. “I might have somethin' nice for ye.”

“Someone else you know,” Alice said to Tarrant.

“Lucilda is an old acquaintance,” he said. “She's a good sort and she may be able to help us with our search.”

The barmaid was back in an instant with a tray of tankards and a pitcher. “The best ale in the house,” she announced. “And I'll have some food out to ye in a moment.”

“Food first,” said Ilosovic. “Then questions about Hamish.” No one had any argument with that, and they eagerly tucked into the spicy stew and fresh bread that Lucilda brought them.

When they tried to pay Lucilda at the close of their meal, she would have none of it. “Seein' ye, Tarrant, is worth any amount of food and drink. Of course the Squire would not agree with me, so we shall keep this a secret, aye?”

They all nodded yes, and then Alice spoke. “We are looking for a man I used to know above ground. Not too tall, bright red hair, possibly in very far over his head.”

Lucilda pondered this. “To be frank, I have been working here just a few days. I haven't seen yer friend, but I'll ask the squire. He will know better than I.”

The man who came over to the table to see why Lucilda was waving at him wildly was an imposing figure, stout in the manner of the well-to-do, graying dark hair pushed back behind his ears.

“Greetings! I am Squire Hawthorne, proprietor of this establishment, and I hope you are enjoying your visit to my humble place of business. A Hightopp and a hero and a lady-in-waiting, and you—“ he pointed at Ilosovic. “I certainly didn't expect to see you in my tavern, Mr. Stayne, and with a new lady.”

“Iracebeth wasn't my lady,” Stayne muttered, and “Ilosovic has a title,” Casiphia put in, but Hawthorne wasn't listening. Casiphia took Ilosovic's hand as Alice spoke to the squire about Hamish.

“I most certainly do remember him,” he said, face darkening. “He came here, started a fight, and then disappeared with my daughter. If ye find them, might ye send my daughter back? I will be a beggar in no time havin' to pay a barmaid.” Lucilda scowled upon hearing this.

That particular outcome seemed unlikely, given the number of patrons crowding the room, but they murmured something that could be construed as agreement if one were not listening too closely, and changed the subject neatly by ordering another round of ale.

A bit too much ale (including a few drops in the cap of a flask for Mallymkun), and exhaustion fell upon the travelers like a leaden blanket. Leaning upon each other, they gladly followed Lucilda to rooms on the second floor, and toppled into their beds with barely a “good night.”
Tiny snores filtered out from underneath Tarrant and Alice's bed as Mally slept, too tired to insist upon being taken back out to her saddlebag.

Chapter Text

“Mornin', love,” Idorea said.

Hamish opened one eye and then the other, starting a bit when he saw Idorea sitting up next to him, yanking a comb through her curly mass of hair. He had “woken up” in this place several times now, and this woman seemed to be part of every new awakening. With great reluctance, Hamish Ascot began to consider the idea that this was not a dream.

She was pleasant enough company, he had to admit, and there was at last some colorful scenery to attract his interest. Of course, he would have enjoyed the green meadows of Outland more if they had not been so blasted odd.

There were more of the noisy wildflowers along their way, singing lustily as they considered the advent of winter. Hamish and Idorea stuffed their ears with bits of cotton from her pack as they passed through the meadow, which helped quite a bit with the dissonance.

All too soon the greenery had given way to flat, gray desert, and Hamish began to feel most put-upon as he and Idorea trudged along its what seemed an endless waste. Luckily the river provided a guide for them to follow, but only the barest hints of scrub grew along its banks. Even the river could not cultivate life in these surroundings.

At length they came to a bluff where they could look down upon the river from a height of several feet. Upon a sandy patch at the river's edge several creatures of exceptionally odd mien slept—they seemed for all the world to be gigantic green snakes, but with the torsos of young boys and faces that were an odd hybrid of the two, the whole covered in green scales.

“Snake boys,” Idorea whispered. “Do not wake them! They are the hunters of the snake people, and they will also kill for practice or simply entertainment.”

“Snake people!” Hamish exclaimed. “What kind of country is this?”

“Sshh!” Idorea hissed, but it was too late. The snake boys were stirring, having woken at the sound of his voice, and they looked about for the source of the sound. Spying Hamish looking down at them from the bluff, they gave a loud hissing sound, and one—the leader of the group, apparently—approached the rocks with a great looping lash of his tail. Hamish wouldn't have thought any kind of snake could climb, but this was clearly not true of snake boys. This one was rapidly making his way up the rocks, hissing like a furious teakettle and glaring at them with narrow green eyes.

Hamish was transfixed by this advance, which was not conducive to his survival. But he jolted back to awareness as a small stone hit his shoulder.

“Help me,” Idorea puffed. Hamish turned to see her leaning on a giant boulder with her back and pushing it as hard as she could, able to mov\e it only incrementally until he ran over and pushed against it with his shoulder, adding his strength.

Together they rolled the stone to the edge of the bluff and stood tensely as it toppled slowly off, bouncing once or twice before it crashed into the threatening snake boy and rolled to the ground with its victim pressed underneath. Looking down after it, they saw one arm and the tail of the snake boy protruding from beneath the rock, and the rest of the group fleeing down the river, choosing not to brave the unknown danger above them.

Idorea and Hamish looked at each other in delight. “Let us see if he carries anything we can use,” she said, hoisting her skirts to a scandalous height and scurrying around the bluff to where the expired snake boy lay.

Not certain which he found more shocking, Idorea's ankles or her desire to ransack the body, Hamish followed slowly.

“Not much for us,” Idorea said, already riffling through the snake boy's pack. “Some food that I wouldn't eat, or recommend that you do, a light blanket—we can use that—and a very large knife indeed.”

Holding up the weapon, she let the overcast sky strike a blurry spark off its waved blade. “Sharp, too,” she grimaced, rubbing her bleeding hand against her skirt.

“Give me that,” Hamish said. Idorea, unaccustomed to being told what to do by anyone but her father (whom she had long since learned to ignore), handed it to him in surprise.

“I'm wrapping it up and putting it in my pack,” he said. “Why it doesn't have a sheath, I cannot say. But if anyone is going to suffer further injury from it, it will be I.”

Impressed with this example of chivalry (something Idorea had encountered rarely in her life, and that mostly among travelers who stayed at the tavern and then took their leave), she appreciated the gesture too much to argue. “I shan't press the point. So to speak,” she said, giggling at her own joke.

Hamish sighed and closed his pack with the knife securely tucked inside. “Do you know how much more of this desert we must traverse?”

“Hm, the rest of today, no doubt. Probably tomorrow. Then there will be some green, so I am told.”

Hamish's face brightened. “And then more desert.” His face fell. “But then we will be near the borders of the other countries, and they are all green and lush and crossed with roads. Or so I hear.”

Doing his best not to entertain thoughts of dying in a strange desert in a strange country with a very strange girl, Hamish threw some river water in his face and resumed his ablutions, Idorea singing softly under her breath beside him.

Chapter Text

“This is the closest we've come to finding your friend,” Ilosovic said to Alice, ignoring the protest evident in her expression at the word “friend.” “If we can get more information from our host, we will at least have a clear direction to go.”

“Good luck,” said Casiphia, draining the last of a large cup of tea—not as good as Tarrant's brew, but warm and strong with refills easy to come by.

“I volunteer Alice,” Mallymkun said, resting her chin on the edge of the wooden cup she had been lounging in. “She knows what to ask and she's got a persuasive way about her.”

“And I don't?” Casiphia said, injured, but conceding that Alice probably was in fact the best person for the job.

Several moments later they saw Squire Hawthorne enter his tavern, and Tarrant waved him over to their table.

“Will you have a seat with us?” Alice said, moving a bag to the side to make more space on the long wooden bench.

“Fine, and good mornin' to ye,” the Squire said, wedging himself between the bench and the table and looking about for someone to bring him breakfast.

“We have found Outland to be most interesting,” Alice began, only to be interrupted.

“Lucilda!” the squire shouted across the room. “Breakfast for me, please!”

“One more place setting coming up, sir,” Lucilda said, although seeming in no hurry to arrange for that.

“Outland is most interesting,” Alice began again. “But we are realizing how very difficult it is to find one person in a country this vast. We would appreciate it greatly if you could tell us more about the red-haired man who absconded with your daughter.”

“More likely she absconded with him, to be completely honest,” Hawthorne grumbled. “But she wouldn't have done it if he hadn't agreed!”

“He probably didn't realize he had agreed,” Alice said.

“What an odd man,” the squire observed. “Well then. My wayward daughter has always complained about wanting to see more of Underland. I would expect her to have headed towards Snud or Witzend or even Marmoreal.”

“That narrows it down.” Ilosovic tapped a knife against the table as if curious to see how far in he could drive it. Casiphia, used to this sort of experiment by now, took the knife neatly away from him and placed it far on her other side.

“When did they leave, do you know?” Alice asked.

“Early mornin', for certain, as she was not here for the morning customers and I had to handle the serving m'self,” Hawthorne said, disgruntled. “She's not one for livin' rough, though, so if there's an easy passage back east, they took it.”

“The way we came, in other words,” Mally said, slumping back down in her cup.

“Now we know there is something at the end of our search,” Alice said, betraying the uncertainty she had been keeping to herself about this entire endeavor. “We just need to retrace our steps, and stay alert. He can't be that far away yet, can he?”

“Off we go,” Tarrant said, and the travelers said farewell, leaving Squire Hawthorne sitting alone at the table, still waiting on his breakfast.

“We should keep following the river,” Stayne said. “Anyone who tried to travel through Outland without that as a guide would be a fool.” Alice looked as if she were tempted to say something about her old acquaintance from up above, but did not.

“If they are trying to reach Snud or somesuch,” Stayne continued, “they would have to travel upriver. I presume that Hawthorne's daughter, at least, knows which direction she wants to go, even if Hamish does not.” Alice looked relieved.

And so the travelers resumed their journey, now reversing their direction. More than once in the past few days Mally had regretted her initial decision to bed down in the Hatter's pack, but now that they were headed back in the general direction of Marmoreal, she was cheered. In her case, “cheered” meant singing drinking songs at the top of her lungs, which were mighty though small. The Hatter was forced before long to stuff her back into his pack and close the flap to dampen the noise.

Chapter Text

Enthusiasm and the snap in the air of a bright fall day encouraged the horses to gallop across the meadow until they pulled up short, having nearly run down a sheep who rose to his hind legs and berated them. “You're as bad as those snaaaaaake boys.”

“Snake boys?” Ilosovic said, suddenly taking an interest.

“They caaaaame through the maaaaarket yesterday and friiiiightened everyone awaaaaaay,” the sheep said. “How can a decent sheeeeeep make a liiiiiving under these condiiiiitions?”

“That must have been after we encountered them and before we made it to town,” Casiphia said. “They travel fast, don't they?”

“They do,” Ilosovic said. “At the river, you say? Then we are taking a detour.”

“Thank you!” Alice called back to the sheep, who gave a formal bow before dropping to all fours and trotting away.

Casiphia eyed the river with longing as they approached its banks, but knew there were more important priorities than her second bath in a day.

Stayne was well ahead of the others when he reached the apparent former camp of the snake boys beside the river, where he dismounted and began searching the site.

“Blast,” he said as the others drew close. “No sign of my knife.”

“We can get you a new one,” Casiphia said in consolation. She interrupted his protests with, “I know, it is not the same as the one you are accustomed to. But you will certainly not need to go without one altogether.”

Ilosovic grumbled, but climbed back into his saddle, muttering in a voice so low that only Brautigan could hear, and only the twitch of his ears gave that away.

That night they made camp in the desert—while they could see greenery in the distance, there was no way to reach it before it grew dark, and there was no reason to risk injury to the horses in the rough terrain.

It should have been a cheerful camp, with their renewed sense of purpose after learning that they were finally on Hamish's trail, but the travelers were tired in both body and spirit after trekking through the same desert they had been so glad to see the end of.

Mally crawled into her saddle bag before the sun had even set, and after some discussion Alice and Tarrant also withdrew for the night. Ilosovic began to make preparations for sleep, but soon began wondering if he were going to spend the night alone.

He found Casiphia not far away, sitting on the ground beside the embers of the campfire, knees pulled up to her chin.

“You are looking sad, milady,” Ilosovic said, dropping to the ground beside her.

“It's just—oh, Ilosovic. I trust that you would have survived out here, but exile here was a death sentence for Iracebeth. I love Mirana with all my heart, but I cannot help but think she showed a certain cruelty, even if it was derived from strong emotion. Leaving her sister to die could hardly be considered 'harming no living thing.' And she knew it was most likely illness that caused Iracebeth's behavior...”

“I wondered when you would think of that,” Ilosovic said. “Your loyalty is commendable, milady, but I am accustomed to you seeing things as they are, and not being shy about calling them to attention.”

“This is something I did not want to think of,” Casiphia said. “But I have seen too much of Outland now to be able to ignore my misgivings.”

“Still, you acted as you believed right, and did not let your affection for your queen sway your actions,” Ilosovic said. “I'd never seen anything like it, frankly.”

At this Casiphia turned to look at Stayne, then leant her head upon his shoulder and let him hold her close, rocking her slightly in front of the dying fire.

Chapter Text

The vegetation grew sparser as Hamish and Idorea strode alongside the river. But there were still yellow wildflowers, and singing birds—and something like a odorous, rotund green pig scuttling through tall dry grasses.

“Just a rath,” Idorea said. “They can be delicious if prepared right.”

Hamish swallowed, feeling a bit green himself at the thought. He was grateful that they were unlikely to be able to capture a rath on foot and with a minimum of weaponry. Still he kept a watchful eye on Idorea, lest she decide to make an attempt anyway.

He was relieved when she suggested that they stop early for the night. “We can have a fire for cooking even if it's still light,” she said. “Would ye like to start that for us?”

Hamish had done nothing like this in his life, but he could manage to build the circle, at least. Then he took Idorea's flint and did his best to do as she had asked. But the flint remained stubborn and the circle cold.

“Ye're doin' it wrong,” Idorea said, taking the flint from him and showing him how to strike the spark. Handing it back to him, she watched as he succeeded in starting a small flame and fanning it into a respectable fire.

“Ye're sure yer not hungry?” Idorea said. Hamish, still feeling ill from the thought of eating rath, shook his head. “All right, then,” she said, beginning to munch on nuts from a small brown bag.

“I will take some water, though,” he said, and she scooted closer to him to hand him the waterskin. As he drank from it, she snuggled closer still and ended by putting her head on his shoulder. Startled by this familiarity, Hamish had to admit that it was still rather nice. After a moment, he put his arm around her. There was no one near to see and disapprove, and Idorea didn't seem to have any objection to this intimacy.

After a few minutes she sat up and looked at him. “Where are ye goin' after we leave the Outlands?”

“I—really could not say,” Hamish replied. “I have seen no way to get back to my home, so I suppose I shall attempt to find one.”

“Tell me about your home,” Idorea said, sitting up cross-legged and folding her hands in her lap. “Is it far away?”

“It must be,” Hamish said. “Although I really do not know how I got here.” He described to her his tumble down the rabbit hole and subsequent arrival in Outland.

“So ye must be from above,” Idorea said. “Overland. Upworld. What is it like?”

Hamish, deciding he might as well get comfortable, stretched out on his side and propped his cheek on one hand. He told Idorea of his estate, of his mother's social circles and his father's journeys, of London streets and English weather. Idorea watched his face, fascinated, imagining these wonders for herself.

“I don't suppose ye'd, well,” she said slowly, her words then tumbling out in a rush. “I'd love to see your world as well as the rest of mine,” she said. “All I've ever wanted was to travel, and I certainly never dreamed I'd have the chance—I mean, if I do have the chance—“

“You'd be interested in my world?” Hamish said, surprised. “I can't imagine—everything seems so much more intriguing and, er, colorful here.”

“It isn't strange when ye're used to it,” she said sternly. “I've seen all manner of people come through m' father's tavern. But I've never met a man who owns ships, or a woman who plans dinner parties for dozens, or streets filled with tall houses. Although there may be some of those in Underland, for all I know.”

Her perspective made sense, Hamish thought. He took a deep breath, and a chance. “If I find a way to return to my home, I would be honored if you would accompany me.”

He had to smile at her delighted squeal. Next she was flying forward and throwing her arms about him, and when she pulled back to look into his face, her expression changed, her eyes darkening and her lips parting. Not quite believing he was doing this, Hamish bent forward and touched her mouth gently with his own. She returned his embrace eagerly, then sat back down on the grass, her eyes bright and her mouth grinning. “There is more to ye than is first apparent, Hamish Ascot.”

Hamish Ascot was thoroughly flustered by this, but in a way that felt curiously nice.

“I think I'm hungry now,” he said, reaching for the bag of nuts. Idorea caught it up first, picking out one and popping it into her mouth, then tossing him the bag.

“I've got a nice cheese in here,” she said, picking up her pack and feeling around inside it. “And we can toast some bread now, and there might be some sweets too.”

Lying back on the grass and looking up at the sky, where clouds that looked as though they had been stippled by a dry paintbrush stuttering across a canvas were beginning to turn to a pale gold. Cheese and toast sounded wonderful, as did sweets. So did everything at that moment, he realized.

Chapter Text

After the long day previous, Casiphia and her companions were relieved to see that they were making visible progress. Gray flat land gave way to rocky plains, which in turn began to sprout scrub and low bushes. And then they were back in meadowland, where even the bellowing of hundreds of out-of-tune wildflowers could not dampen their spirits.

Towards evening they stopped to reconnoiter. “We are about a day away from the Grampus Arch,” Tarrant said, somehow managing to keep his seat upon his horse while he unfolded his map and studied it. “The ground is mostly flat until we reach the barrier mountains, so we should not have too much difficulty spotting other travelers.”

“Should we make it an early night, or continue on for a while?” Alice wondered.

“I think we should find out who is over there,” Mally said from her location atop Tarrant's hat, drawing the others' attention to a spot not far away where a tendril of smoke was barely visible against the evening sky.

“Wouldn't it be splendid if we were to find our wanderer tonight?” Alice said. “I never thought I'd be so eager to set eyes on Hamish Ascot, but I would dearly love to find him soon so we can get back home.”

“Tired of journeying?” the Hatter said.

“Tired of journeying here,” Alice said. “I would love to see more of Underland, but I think I've seen enough of the Outlands.”

“Indeed,” Ilosovic murmured. Casiphia caught his eye.

“Home,” she mouthed. “Soon.”

“Not soon enough for me,” he said, kicking Brautigan into a canter and forcing the others to speed up to follow him.

As they approached the faint smudge of smoke, they saw seated by a small fire a red-haired man with his knees drawn up and his chin resting upon them, listening as a woman with a nimbus of black curls spoke animatedly to him. Seeing from the corner of his eye the party approaching, the man stood up quickly to greet them, wondering aloud what type of personages he was about to meet.

Upon recognizing Alice, his old acwell-quaintance and near-fiancee from the lands above, his mouth fell open. And as the group halted and the riders dismounted, he stared up at the impossibly tall, horribly scarred, armed figure of Ilosovic Stayne, and the woman beside him who was entirely too tall for her sex and wore a sword of her own—and promptly slumped to the ground in a faint.

Idorea tried to divide her attention between fanning Hamish back to consciousness and managing introductions, succeeding not too badly. As Hamish stirred, she motioned to the travelers to be seated, thinking he might find them less alarming at a lower height. Unfortunately, as he was lying prone on the ground looking up at them, this did not alter matters much.

Having halfway expected this, Alice took over, slapping her former near-fiance gently on both stubbled cheeks, calling his name softly. Eventually his blue eyes opened and met her brown ones, and she sat back on her heels.

“Alice?”

“Yes, Hamish, it's I. And I was at least as surprised to hear that you were in Underland as you are to find me here now.”

“It does explain rather a lot,” Hamish said, sitting up gently and probing to make sure his head was still on his shoulders.

Meanwhile, “They have the same hair color.” Casiphia pointed to Hamish and then to Tarrant. Stayne, possibly less concerned than the others with propriety in such an occasion, nevertheless humored his lady and choked back a laugh, emitting something akin to a honk instead and causing everyone else to look at him.

“Back to the matter at hand,” he said, annoyed, waving a hand at the others.

“We might as well do introductions,” Hamish said, reverting to his etiquette training as he tended to do in times of anxiety. As the greetings continued, he gradually realized that this group was not here by chance, but specifically to find him. Humiliated, he wondered if it was too late to save face.

“I say we take advantage of this fire and continue this conversation, this confab, this communion over some cookery,” Tarrant said, betraying his awareness of the growing tension with alliteration.

“Ooh, yes!” Idorea said. “I would dearly love a hot meal, I would. I would even help if it would make it arrive faster.” Tarrant handed her the pack with the cooking items and food, and she joyfully began to rummage through it. As they waited for the Hatter to concoct a quick stew with Idorea handing him ingredients and utensils, all gathered around the cookfire. They were short two camp chairs now, but Casiphia had no qualms about sitting on a blanket on the ground, and Ilosovic sighed and joined her.

Idorea was about to swallow a mouthful of water from a skin when it occurred to her that the Alice seated next to her was, in fact, the Alice. She coughed as the water went down the wrong way, as well as all down the front of her dress, and was patted on the back by Tarrant, whom she suddenly realized was in fact the Hatter.

Which meant that she was now sharing about to share a meal with the notorious Ilosovic Stayne. She felt a little dizzy at this realization.

But maybe that wasn't so bad, because wasn't his consort a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mirana? And did that mean there might, somehow, sometime, be a way she could at least say hello to the queen?

“Yes, I believe that can be arranged,” Casiphia laughed. She never failed to be surprised and amused at the reaction Mirana's name produced in persons who lived outside Marmoreal.

Tarrant gestured for Alice to join him and she did so, curious. “Do you want to take this opportunity to speak with Hamish about your life now as well as his?” the Hatter asked her.

“Not particularly,” she said. “But I suppose I should.”

And thus she learned that Lord Ascot was concentrating on the import of fine silks from Asia, being one of the few traders who was comfortable with the sea journey. Lady Ascot was the same as always, if possibly pestering her son a bit more than before about finding a suitable wife. It seemed Hamish had met no other young woman that he could envision as his wife. Alice looked towards Idorea with a raised eyebrow, but neither party picked up the hint.

Hamish, meanwhile, was wondering about the nature of the relationship between Alice and the Hatter, but could not think of a way to tactfully ask any of the persons assembled there, particularly Alice.

“There!” Tarrant announced. He waved a spatula grandly in the air and gestured to the fire. “If you will all be seated, dinner is ready.”

How he had come up with a nicely-seasoned stew this time was another mystery, but Alice knew by this time she would not get an answer from Tarrant that provided her with any actual information. Hamish, however, did not know this, and was quickly entangled in a conversation about the best cheese from the best sheep, a conversation which gave him no facts about the provisions whatsoever.

Idorea, meanwhile, was digging in Hamish's pack. The knife she produced with was a fearsome sort with a long wavy blade and worn hilt, and all fell silent as they saw it.

“My knife!” Ilosovic exclaimed. “How is this? Did you wrest it from a snake boy?”

“In a manner of speakin',” she shrugged. “A dead snake boy, but he was dead 'cause we dropped a rock on him.”

“Well done!” said Mally from inside Tarrant's inverted hat. “I hated those snake boys, I did. If I'd had another chance at 'em—“

Alice looked startled at this new bit of information, but didn't have a chance to remark upon it.

“You were not going to use it to cut cheese,” Stayne said in horror.

“It's sharper than the kitchen knife I brought,” Idorea said as if this were obvious. “It cuts finer slices.”

“I would like that back, if you please,” Stayne said, fixing Idorea with a look that would have caused most villagers to quail.

He held out his hand and Idorea gave him the weapon, looking sheepish. “It's not like I could know it was yers, ye know,” she muttered.

“It's good to have you back,” he said to the knife, holding it up and examining it to see if it had sustained any damage. He caught Casiphia watching him, a small smile playing about her lips as she watched him talking to his knife, and he slipped it back into its sheath. “As if you never talk to Henrietta,” he said.

She patted the gun at her thigh. “And I even bothered to give her a name beforehand.”

“There will be no naming of this knife, particularly by you, as I know you too well to allow that to happen,” Ilosovic said. “Although there will need to be a decent bit of cleaning and sharpening of it, I can see. Ah, still, it is very good to have this back. I will not let anyone abscond with it again.”

By now the Hatter and Idorea had discovered that each had brought along a bottle or two of wine. Drawing out a mismatched selection of glasses and a thimble for Mally, Tarrant began pouring a drink for everyone, which Idorea distributed. “Who better than a barmaid? Er, former barmaid?” she said.

Chapter Text

Twilight sifted through the air, and a crescent moon began its ascent from the horizon. Content with the the near accomplishment of their quest and slowly growing drowsy with wine, the party seated about the campfire spoke quietly, conversations gradually becoming more personal.

“I am quite certain you are not the tallest man in the world,” Hamish said. “In fact, I am sure there is a man taller than you living in London.”

Ilosovic thought for a moment. “I don't know if I'm offended or relieved.”

“I'd like to think this means we wouldn't be conspicuous if we traveled in Overland after all,” Casiphia said, “but judging by this poor man's reaction when he first saw you, that isn't likely to be the case.”

“Remember, darling, there seems to be no need for you to go seeking adventure,” Ilosovic said.

“True enough,” Casiphia said with a quirk of her lip.

“So what do you think of your new companions?” Alice said quietly to Hamish.

He thought for a minute. “I like the dormouse.”

“He likes the dormouse!” Mallymkun crowed, overhearing this, and capered about with her scissors blade drawn until Casiphia bade her stop before she damaged something, or someone.

“Quite the day it's been,” Tarrant said, picking up Mally and setting her atop the hat that rested near his feet. “I have to say things seem to be working out rather well.”

“I would have to agree,” Alice said. Suddenly she was stricken with a yawn. “And I think it is time for bed.”

Idorea looked disappointed, which Casiphia personally understood, but the others stood up, stretched, and began setting up camp.

Hamish looked forlornly at the saffron tents. “I suppose we can make do with our own tent,” he said. “The small one.”

“Certainly not,” Tarrant said. He produced from deep in his pack a length of indigo silk (“Do ye ever tire of watching him do that?” Idorea asked Alice. “I wouldn't.”) which he soon had draped into a reasonably sized tent, held up with sticks he had apparently gathered up as they rode along the river. “It wouldn't do to have you two sleep without shelter,” he smiled.

Hamish began to formally thank the Hatter, but was cut off when Idorea seized him by the hand and pulled him into the tent, saying, “What a cunning wee tent, Mr. Tarrant! And so nice to sleep on blankets, not that the grass wasn't soft enough, but this is so nice, oh yes, it is!”

Discovering that the blankets were in fact every bit as soft as Idorea said, Hamish found that he was too sleepy to protest the improper sleeping arrangements. Besides which, mores seemed to be quite different here, and the only person he really knew was Alice, and she was no more proper than the rest of them now. Not that this was surprising.

The next morning he crawled out of the makeshift tent to find the others taking turns bathing just past a nearby bend in the river, and helping themselves to tea and scones.

“Scones, no less,” Hamish murmured as he found an empty plate. Tarrant and Alice sat near the remains of the campfire from the night before, wet hair neatly combed, and Mally groomed herself with her paws, her fur standing up in wet spikes that she tried in vain to flatten.

Ilosovic and Casiphia returned from the river shortly thereafter, looking refreshed from the brisk moving water of their bath, if a bit rumpled in clothes that had clearly not been washed or ironed in some time. Casiphia sat cross-legged on the ground beside the fire circle and poured herself a cup of tea, while Stayne knelt behind her to comb out her hair.

As he finished by deftly plaiting the heavy mass of her brown hair into a braid, Hamish heard himself remark, ”He is rather good at that, isn't he?”

“He is rather good at any number of things.” Casiphia glanced over her shoulder at her consort, who returned the compliment with a salacious grin.

“Most of which I suspect I'd rather not know about,” Hamish said under his breath.

“You would be correct in that,” Alice said, overhearing him. “Really, it is better not to ask.”

Chapter Text

“Nivens, look at this,” Mirana said, holding down the edges of the Oraculum as they threatened to roll back into their customary form. “I believe our travelers are on their way home—but who is this woman?”

“I couldn't even begin to say, Your Majesty,” the rabbit said. “She certainly does have a great deal of hair, doesn't she?”

 

The journey back to Marmoreal the next day did not begin smoothly. The two packhorses provided transport for Hamish and Idorea, but Idorea had not ridden more than a few times in her life and kept finding excuses not to mount her horse. Hamish watched this uneasily, not feeling as though he would have much luck persuading Idorea to do anything. Finally Alice stepped in and promised to ride beside the former barmaid at a slow pace and inform her of anything vis a vis riding that she might need to know.

“I suppose it's time for the eyepatch again,” Ilosovic said to Casiphia, who was about to swing herself into Quill's saddle.

“Come and get it,” she said, gesturing to the front of her bodice.

“You really have been keeping it there?” He slid his hand inside chemise to retrieve the patch, being sure to squeeze a breast and rub its nipple between his fingers as he did so.

“Mm,” she said, distracted for a moment. “Sometimes there, sometimes other places, just in case you did take it upon yourself to look.”

“I'm sorry I missed the opportunity now,” Ilosovic said.

“You might get another chance,” she said. “Assuming you deserve one.”

He gave her a stern look, which she answered with a kiss.

“Are they always like that?” Hamish asked Alice.

“Every time I've seen them,” Alice sighed.

 

No one was particularly eager to cross the river again, but Tarrant assured the rest of the travelers that the place he had chosen for them to ford would be safer than the last one.

“See how shallow it is? Nothing swimming can attack us here. Well, nothing large and swimming. Something small and swimming could, but I don't know of anything like that. Well, except for—“

Alice managed to catch his attention, shaking her head and mouthing “no” at him. The Hatter looked puzzled for a moment, but then seemed to understand what she was saying.

And not a bit too soon, as Idorea had enough trouble fording the river on horseback without worrying about attacks of any sort. Time and again she started to enter the water and then turned back, as if more afraid of the water than of any snake boy or other attack. At length Hamish set her on his own horse, in front of him and holding onto its mane, and carried her across, splashing across the river on foot afterwards to retrieve her mount.

Seated again on her horse and turning to watch the sunlight sparkling on the green-brown river water, Idorea grinned. “I think it's pretty now, I do. And I thank ye, Mr. Ascot.”

Hamish sketched a little bow from his own horse, and gave himself a mental pat on the back for handling the situation as well as he had.

 

“Gray. Again,” Casiphia said mournfully.

“It matches your eyes,” Stayne said, somehow thinking this to be complimentary. Casiphia threw the crust of a slice of bread she had been nibbling on at him, bouncing it off his shoulder, and ordered Quill to the front of the group where she could talk to Tarrant and Mally, figuring this would make her point. Ilosovic looked puzzled for a moment, then shrugged and conversed with Brautigan until Casiphia realized her communication had failed, and returned to his side.

Once the party began to make progress crossing the dull Outland desert, spirits lifted. The relaxed speed at which they traveled allowed for conversations and quiet thinking, and the steady pace of the horses provided a soothing rhythm against which to engage in both.

It didn't take long for them to fall into a comfortable routine, which made the trip surprisingly pleasant. Even though Tarrant was beginning to run out of culinary surprises, they found it easy to make the best of things. Knowing they were getting closer to civilization and its comforts with every mile was a help in that regard.

By the time they had passed back under Grampus Arch, its span reaching enormous and pale above them (Idorea sustained a cramp in her neck while looking up at it that Hamish was cajoled into massaging that evening) and reached the border of Snud, the travelers felt the camaraderie that came with a long, slow ride and the opportunity for much conversation. Hamish, in particular, was showing signs of initiative and adventurousness—even, yes, muchness—that surprised Alice, and even impressed her.

“You're sure you aren't—that you don't—that—“ Tarrant said to her that night as they bedded down in their saffron tent.

“Oh, Tarrant, for heaven's sake,” Alice said, taking his hands in hers. “Don't even think such a thing. I've found who I want—a curious, brilliant, inventive, gentle, brave mad milliner to a queen.”

The Hatter thought for a moment to make certain that she was indeed referring to him, then seized her by the shoulders and crushed her in a fierce embrace.

“Tarrant! Tarrant!” Alice gasped, between his grip and her laughter having a terrible time getting a breath.

Chapter Text

As one, all those who had stayed at the second tavern in Snud turned their horses to ride past it. “We would all rather camp than risk that again,” Alice said.

“That bad?” Idorea asked Hamish, who shrugged.

“Depends on how you feel about ghosts,” Tarrant said, riding past her. “And rude help.”

“Well, ghosts I would dearly love to—“ Idorea began, but was hushed by the entire group.

“Trust us, a nice tent is far better than that disaster of a place,” Mally pronounced. “How it stays in business is beyond me.”

“Word must not travel easily or quickly out here,” was Stayne's guess.

The last night of camping was filled with both excitement and a bit of sadness. As challenging as parts of the journey had been, and as ready as they all were to sleep in real beds, eat at actual tables, and bathe in heated water, it had been an adventure, as Alice said. There was value in new experiences, she added. “We can always set out on a new adventure once we're rested up,” she said.

The others looked around at their companions, deciding that it might be a while before they were ready for that after all.

Morning seemed to come earlier than usual, and the travelers were soon on their way after a quick breakfast and cup of tea. Idorea was so excited at the prospect of seeing the White Castle and meeting Mirana that she became speechless, thus surprising them all.

Even Ilosovic was feeling the need to be on the road, if his hasty shaving job that morning was any indication.

“What do you expect, with no looking glass to help me?” he said to Casiphia as she scratched the stubbly patch on the side of his jaw with her fingernails. She didn't say aloud that he'd done quite well up till that point, as she knew he'd not care to have his eagerness pointed out to the others.

The horses, on the other hand, all seemed especially talkative that morning. Casiphia was ready to feed Quill anything she could find in the food packs just to quiet her mount. “What happened to the horse who wanted only to continue the adventure?” she challenged, but Quill's only reaction to that was to flick her ears in Casiphia's direction.

“Adventure is all well and good for a time,” Brautigan put in. “But there comes a time when a roof and a good dinner of oats holds more appeal.”

“I can certainly appreciate that,” Casiphia said.

But Marmoreal was not far now, and anything seemed endurable under that condition.

* * *

“It will be today, Nivens!” Mirana exclaimed. “They are all returning sometime today, Hamish included. And the mysterious woman—I cannot wait to find out who she is.”

Nivens drew out his pocket watch and polished the face. “I wish we had more of an idea exactly when,” he fretted. “I shall organize everything as quickly as I possibly can and hope that we are in time.”

 

Even now, Alice expected to see the trees lining the road to the White Castle laden with pale blossoms, not bright with red and gold leaves. A few of those skirled down as the travelers approached, one settling in the mane of Alice's white horse like a hair ornament.

The sentries at the highest towers of the castle caught sight of the group as it processed down the road, and soon people began shouting out the windows at them and pouring across the drawbridge to greet them. It was such a relief still to have something cheerful to celebrate that no one wanted to lose the opportunity to do so.

As they reached the grand entryway, the crowd parted and Queen Mirana herself ran out the door, silver and white skirts billowing behind her, hair flying loose from the jeweled clips she had set into it that morning. “My dears! Welcome home! You must tell me everything!”

Alice laughed, as she always did upon seeing Mirana's joy. “There is much to tell,” she said. “But first, you must meet the person who was the reason for all of this excitement.” She turned to Hamish and gestured. “Introduce yourself!”

Hamish gathered his wits and all his training in proper etiquette and gave the queen as formal a bow as he could from atop a horse. “Hamish Ascot, Your Majesty.”

The Queen took his hand and gave him a brilliant smile. “We are pleased to have you safely with us, and out of the Outlands.

“And who is this accompanying you?” she continued, nodding at Idorea, who was so overcome with excitement and awe that she nearly tipped herself off her horse attempting to perform some sort of mounted curtsey.

Hamish stepped in to rescue her, first steadying her on the horse and then doing the introduction. “This is Idorea Hawthorne, daughter of Squire Hawthorne who owns the tavern in the farmlands of Outland.”

Mirana looked impressed, both at Hamish's chivalry and his knowledge of the country that will still so mysterious to the inhabitants of the rest of Underworld. “I suppose I have heard tell of that tavern, from the ministers who have traveled there to make arrangements for deliveries,” she said. “I trust they treated you well?”

“We were treated well by everyone,” Alice said. “Well, except for the second tavern in Snud and the snake boys.”

The queen's eyes widened. “So it was snake boys you encountered! I am certainly glad to see that you have returned safely from that horrible attack.”

“Mirana,” the Hatter said quietly.

“Yes, Tarrant?”

“Might we come inside?”

“Oh! My goodness!” Mirana exclaimed with a laugh. “Of course! Of course! The stable hands will take your horses now, and there are rooms made ready for you if you would like to rest. Or if you would rather visit...”

“Resting would be nice, and a proper wash-up, with real soap,” Alice said, looking at the others, who nodded.

The weary travelers were finally able to slide from their horses and hand their packs off to a brace of weasels, except for Tarrant who held onto his. In a crowd of servants and courtiers and well-wishers of all sorts, they finally made their way into the castle proper.

“Where is Casiphia?” Idorea said, looking in vain for the lady-in-waiting. “Surely she hasn't gone back to work already.”

“I think I know,” Ilosovic said. Sure enough, once he was able to make his way clear of the crowd (a task which both his height and reputation made fairly easy), he returned to their quarters and found her submerged in their white marble bathtub, head tilted back on the rim and eyes closed.

“You have missed this, I see,” he said. “As I have missed these.”

“Mm, cherry tarts,” she said, reaching a hand out of the soapy water to take one from the plate he held and leaning over the edge of the tub so as not to drop crumbs in the water. “Delicious. Thank you.”

“Would you care to meet me in our bed once you're finished there?” Ilosovic said gallantly.

“Of course,” said Casiphia, mumbling through a mouthful of cherry tart.

“Meet me there” turned out to mean Ilosovic was asleep before Casiphia made it to bed, and she had only enough time to tuck her head into the dip of his shoulder before she was insensate as well. It seemed their quarters were now truly a comfortable home for them both, and it was certainly nice to be back there, no matter how novel and educational their adventure might have been.

It was harder than usual the next morning for Ilosovic to pry Casiphia out of bed, particularly when she pulled him back down with her and fitted her body against his, breathing in his warmth while combing his hair with her fingers. At last he bribed her with the thought of seeing how Hamish and Idorea interacted with the rest of the castle. This was indeed something not to be missed, they agreed.

Chapter Text

Mirana had requested a small room to be set up for a small group—only the five travelers, herself, and Nivens McTwisp. Hamish, seated between Idorea and Tarrant, could not stop swiveling his head to look around the room at the white marble walls and the pale furnishings, not to mention the smartly attired animals who served tea and pastries.

Idorea, hair pinned back almost neatly and dressed in a gown of a violent cerise, was concentrating on food and only that. “You'd think I'd be used to eatin' good food,” she said with her mouth full, “but most of the really good dishes go to tavern guests. If it's burned or undercooked, we got it. And I was hardly inclined to fight the kitchen staff for control of the oven, even if I did know how to cook.”

“You don't—cook?” Hamish said.

Idorea swallowed her mouthful of morning bun. “I could, of course, if I wanted to. It's a matter of me wantin' to, ye see.” She chuckled at the sight of Hamish's face. “I could be persuaded if someone were to ask me nicely. And I could provide a lesson or two as well.”

This last proposal made Hamish look even more uncomfortable, but he decided that was a matter better left for another time.

Nivens, meanwhile, examined his reflection in a spoon, shifting his gaze between the upside-down image and Hamish.

“Your Majesty,” he whispered to Mirana, “I have to say you were right. He is awfully rabbity for a human. I believe he may be more rabbity than I.”

Mirana winked at Nivens, then turned to Hamish. “Do tell me all about your adventures,” she said, dark eyes shining with curiousity.

And so they did, from the ride through Snud to the encounter with the snake boys to the finding of Hamish and Idorea.

“And were you planning to remain in Underland?” the queen asked Hamish.

He did his best to be polite, but found it hard not to exclaim, “Certainly not!” As it was, he stammered something about family and business obligations, and perhaps he could visit again someday, but for the time being it were best he return to the world above.

Alice could not help feeling relief at this, as she couldn't imagine Hamish being other than a disruption, no matter how many fine traits he were to develop.

Idorea, meanwhile, was tugging at Hamish's sleeve. “And Idorea has expressed a wish to accompany me,” he added.

Alice, who quite liked Idorea, wondered for a moment if this was a plan to which she should put a quick stop. But on further reflection, she concluded that Idorea might be the woman who could win Mrs. Ascot over. If she didn't, she was hardly likely to care what Hamish's mother thought of her. And Hamish's association with her had already resulted in the growth of some backbone, which would also help.

Besides which, thoughts of Mrs. Ascot meeting Idorea were most entertaining.

Soon they had all finished their breakfast and were dismissed by the queen. “Oh my goodness, I nearly forgot,” Nivens said, tapping Hamish on the arm as the Overworlder reached the doorway. “Wait one moment.”

With a quick hop, Nivens returned to his chair and slid something out from underneath it.

“Here you are, sir,” he said, handing the object to Hamish, whose eyes widened as he saw the walking stick he had lost on his entry into Underland. “What—but where—how?” he stammered.

“You left it in my house when you were passing through,” Nivens said. “At least I assumed it must be yours, and it seems I was right.”

“Er...thank you,” Hamish managed.

“Of course, sir. Of course,” Nivens said with dignity, stepping back to allow Hamish to exit. He did so with a twirl of his walking stick, wondering if he had merely forgotten how it felt in his hand, or if indeed it was a bit lighter and a bit easier to handle with panache.

Chapter Text

“Why are we doing this again?” Ilosovic wondered as Casiphia made a few last adjustments to her snowy court wig and fluffed her pale lavender skirts yet again.

“Because Mirana is so enchanted with the notion of Hamish and Idorea that she wants to have a formal farewell ceremony for them.”

“I can't say I understand that reasoning,” Ilosovic said.

“To be honest, I don't quite see it myself,” Casiphia said. “I suppose it has to do with Hamish being part of the reason Alice came back when she did, and the symmetry of an Overworld woman living here and an Underland woman up above.”

“Or she simply likes ceremony.”

“That is possible as well,” Casiphia allowed. “But come now, the sun is high and it must be near time for the festivities to begin.”

The ceremony was to take place on the grassy area just inside the great gates of the White Castle. The day was bright and warm enough that coats and wraps of any sort were not needed—perhaps the last day of the year in which that would be the case.

The courtiers stood in their customary row, in full court regalia, Ilosovic Stayne at the far side beside his lady.

“White does suit you,” Casiphia told Stayne. “I know you don't care for it, and I understand your reasons, but it goes well with your coloring.”

“And what about mine?” Mallymkun said from her place atop a low garden column, turning to display to Casiphia the elaborate tunic she wore, pale blue embroidery the only feature that kept the fabric from disappearing against her fur.

“Very nice,” Stayne said. “How long will it be before you drop strawberry jam on it?”

Mally's hand went to her scissor-blade hilt, and Casiphia's elbow found her consort's ribs.

“Ow,” Ilosovic said. “Merely commenting on prior occurrences.”

Perhaps fortunately, the conversation was interrupted by a bugle call as Queen Mirana swept to a dais from which she could address those assembled.

“Friends of Marmoreal—“ she paused for the cheers and applause that were still inevitable when she spoke or even appeared publicly, “we have been honored recently with a visit from another person from Overworld, a friend of Alice's, no less.”

More applause rose as a footman gently pushed Hamish forward so that he could climb the dais and stand next to Mirana.

“And this person, Hamish Ascot, has made the acquaintance of one of our own, Idorea Hawthorne.” Idorea, who did not have the inherent modesty of Hamish, waved exuberantly to the crowd as she took her place next to Hamish. More applause, of course, greeted this action.

“Now the two of them are about to make their way above to Hamish's home. Idorea will get to see something of his world, and perhaps the two of them will find lasting happiness together.” Hamish blushed a deep red, but Idorea merely grinned widely and squeezed her eyes shut in delight.

“Alice?” the queen said, and her champion approached the dais. She and Idorea hugged, and then Alice took Hamish's hand.

“You're really happy here?” he asked her.

“I really am,” she smiled. “And I hope the same for you.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek for old time's sake and stepped back.

Hamish had refused outright to return home via rabbit hole if there were any other way at all he could do so. The large looking glass the Queen now ordered to be brought out was a better solution, he felt, although he did not expect it to be without its unpleasantness.

The surface of the glass rippled as Mirana waved a hand down it, and an image slowly formed in its depths. Hamish felt a surge of joy as he saw his estate appear, strong enough to overcome the flip his stomach did as he entered the mirror. A moment of disorientation and a swimmy head, and he was through, followed by Idorea.

The assembled crowd cheered as they saw the two turn and wave from inside the mirror, before the image blurred and disappeared, leaving only the reflection of the gardens and the White Castle.

“I can't think of anything I would have found stranger than the past few weeks,” Alice said as she found Tarrant at the front of the crowd.

“We shall have to try harder, then,” the Hatter said, puzzling over the possibilities.

“Not now, we shan't,” Alice grinned, taking him by the arm and marching him through the crowd to join their friends.

* * *

Casiphia had poured herself a glass of wine and was continuing the task of sorting embroidery threads on the surface of the small table in her sitting room when Stayne joined her.

Picking up her glass and downing its contents—ignoring the look she shot him—he threw himself into the chair across from her and dropped his head into his hands.

“Idiots, they're all idiots,” he groaned. “I pray that I wasn't that bad when I first arrived here for sword training.”

“I wouldn't know,” Casiphia said, retrieving her glass and refilling it. “I was in a completely separate wing of the castle, studying history and learning how to curtsey to visiting diplomats.”

“Do you ever wonder what might have happened had we met each other then?” Ilosovic asked.

“It has crossed my mind. It might have saved many people a great deal of woe,” Casiphia said with a rueful smile.

“Unless you had decided I was an idiot and dismissed me out of hand,” he said.

“Indeed a possibility,” Casiphia said, withholding her wink for just a second. Then she picked up a needle and thread and reached across the table. “Since you're here, I can check these colors. Hold still.”

Bemused, he watched as she deftly embroidered a tiny purple posy on the cuff of his black silk shirt.

“Don't unpick that,” she cautioned, rethreading her needle with a light blue.

“No, no,” he said, leaving out the fact that he had no intention of unpicking her stitching, either now or later. “I don't suppose you're going to tell me what this is for.”

“You'll find out soon enough. You always do,” she said, thinking of the cravats and waistcoats she had adorned for him in the past. “But do you know, I've been thinking I'd like to embroider a tapestry for our wall. That's one I won't be able to keep secret very easily.”

“Oh, do try,” he said. “I enjoy a challenge.”

“I have noticed this,” she said. “Luckily your life seems to provide them in abundance.”

“But you're my favorite,” he said, standing and leaning across the table for a kiss, ignoring the glass that he knocked over onto the floor in the process and the wine disappearing into the carpet beneath their feet.

 

~fin~

Chapter Text

“Why are we doing this again?” Ilosovic wondered as Casiphia made a few last adjustments to her snowy court wig and fluffed her pale lavender skirts yet again.

“Because Mirana is so enchanted with the notion of Hamish and Idorea that she wants to have a formal farewell ceremony for them.”

“I can't say I understand that reasoning,” Ilosovic said.

“To be honest, I don't quite see it myself,” Casiphia said. “I suppose it has to do with Hamish being part of the reason Alice came back when she did, and the symmetry of an Overworld woman living here and an Underland woman up above.”

“Or she simply likes ceremony.”

“That is possible as well,” Casiphia allowed. “But come now, the sun is high and it must be near time for the festivities to begin.”

The ceremony was to take place on the grassy area just inside the great gates of the White Castle. The day was bright and warm enough that coats and wraps of any sort were not needed—perhaps the last day of the year in which that would be the case.

The courtiers stood in their customary row, in full court regalia, Ilosovic Stayne at the far side beside his lady.

“White does suit you,” Casiphia told Stayne. “I know you don't care for it, and I understand your reasons, but it goes well with your coloring.”

“And what about mine?” Mallymkun said from her place atop a low garden column, turning to display to Casiphia the elaborate tunic she wore, pale blue embroidery the only feature that kept the fabric from disappearing against her fur.

“Very nice,” Stayne said. “How long will it be before you drop strawberry jam on it?”

Mally's hand went to her scissor-blade hilt, and Casiphia's elbow found her consort's ribs.

“Ow,” Ilosovic said. “Merely commenting on prior occurrences.”

Perhaps fortunately, the conversation was interrupted by a bugle call as Queen Mirana swept to a dais from which she could address those assembled.

“Friends of Marmoreal—“ she paused for the cheers and applause that were still inevitable when she spoke or even appeared publicly, “we have been honored recently with a visit from another person from Overworld, a friend of Alice's, no less.”

More applause rose as a footman gently pushed Hamish forward so that he could climb the dais and stand next to Mirana.

“And this person, Hamish Ascot, has made the acquaintance of one of our own, Idorea Hawthorne.” Idorea, who did not have the inherent modesty of Hamish, waved exuberantly to the crowd as she took her place next to Hamish. More applause, of course, greeted this action.

“Now the two of them are about to make their way above to Hamish's home. Idorea will get to see something of his world, and perhaps the two of them will find lasting happiness together.” Hamish blushed a deep red, but Idorea merely grinned widely and squeezed her eyes shut in delight.

“Alice?” the queen said, and her champion approached the dais. She and Idorea hugged, and then Alice took Hamish's hand.

“You're really happy here?” he asked her.

“I really am,” she smiled. “And I hope the same for you.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek for old time's sake and stepped back.

Hamish had refused outright to return home via rabbit hole if there were any other way at all he could do so. The large looking glass the Queen now ordered to be brought out was a better solution, he felt, although he did not expect it to be without its unpleasantness.

The surface of the glass rippled as Mirana waved a hand down it, and an image slowly formed in its depths. Hamish felt a surge of joy as he saw his estate appear, strong enough to overcome the flip his stomach did as he entered the mirror. A moment of disorientation and a swimmy head, and he was through, followed by Idorea.

The assembled crowd cheered as they saw the two turn and wave from inside the mirror, before the image blurred and disappeared, leaving only the reflection of the gardens and the White Castle.

“I can't think of anything I would have found stranger than the past few weeks,” Alice said as she found Tarrant at the front of the crowd.

“We shall have to try harder, then,” the Hatter said, puzzling over the possibilities.

“Not now, we shan't,” Alice grinned, taking him by the arm and marching him through the crowd to join their friends.

* * *

Casiphia had poured herself a glass of wine and was continuing the task of sorting embroidery threads on the surface of the small table in her sitting room when Stayne joined her.

Picking up her glass and downing its contents—ignoring the look she shot him—he threw himself into the chair across from her and dropped his head into his hands.

“Idiots, they're all idiots,” he groaned. “I pray that I wasn't that bad when I first arrived here for sword training.”

“I wouldn't know,” Casiphia said, retrieving her glass and refilling it. “I was in a completely separate wing of the castle, studying history and learning how to curtsey to visiting diplomats.”

“Do you ever wonder what might have happened had we met each other then?” Ilosovic asked.

“It has crossed my mind. It might have saved many people a great deal of woe,” Casiphia said with a rueful smile.

“Unless you had decided I was an idiot and dismissed me out of hand,” he said.

“Indeed a possibility,” Casiphia said, withholding her wink for just a second. Then she picked up a needle and thread and reached across the table. “Since you're here, I can check these colors. Hold still.”

Bemused, he watched as she deftly embroidered a tiny purple posy on the cuff of his black silk shirt.

“Don't unpick that,” she cautioned, rethreading her needle with a light blue.

“No, no,” he said, leaving out the fact that he had no intention of unpicking her stitching, either now or later. “I don't suppose you're going to tell me what this is for.”

“You'll find out soon enough. You always do,” she said, thinking of the cravats and waistcoats she had adorned for him in the past. “But do you know, I've been thinking I'd like to embroider a tapestry for our wall. That's one I won't be able to keep secret very easily.”

“Oh, do try,” he said. “I enjoy a challenge.”

“I have noticed this,” she said. “Luckily your life seems to provide them in abundance.”

“But you're my favorite,” he said, standing and leaning across the table for a kiss, ignoring the glass that he knocked over onto the floor in the process and the wine disappearing into the carpet beneath their feet.

 

~fin~