“How can it be?” she breathed, because all of the portals were shrinking, the tower puddle already half its former size when she leapt for it, closing her eyes and sucking in her breath, anticipating the swift watery descent through portal waters, the reverse pull of the Pool of Tears, the—
Knees jarring, she landed on pavement. The portal had evaporated.
Alyss Heart, the rightful queen of Wonderland, was stranded on Earth.
IBWIT HARTE, most learned albino in the land, tutor and adviser to four generations of Heart queens, bustled along a path on the grounds of Heart Palace. The flowers and shrubs he passed riffled their blooms and called out in respectful greeting.
“Good evening, Mr. Harte!” said a purple sunflower.
“We trust you’re well, Mr. Harte!” cried the blossoms of a hollizalea shrub.
The tutor returned their well-wishes, though more than a few tulips found it strange he didn’t say more; Mr. Harte rarely missed an opportunity to chat. Stranger still, the royal tutor didn’t even chat with himself as he approached a hedge indistinguishable from those around it. His bald head glistening like a second moon in the evening’s light, his large ears—twice the size of an ordinary Wonderlander’s— pivoting to catch any sound that might indicate the return of expected friends, he stepped into the hedge. Its roots shifted, unlocking a hatch, and he descended through the opening.
On a platform halfway to the floor of the subterranean chamber stood Queen Alyss, dressed in an ankle-length dress of shimmering, opalescent white. Her long, black hair elegantly dusting her shoulders, she held her bejeweled royal scepter in one hand while her other was extended toward the Heart Crystal’s unsteady pulse as if trying to physically draw inspiration from it.
A new moon had come and gone since a web of caterpillar thread spanning the sky over Wonderland—WILMA, King Arch’s Weapon of Inconceivable Loss and Massive Annihilation—had reduced the Heart Crystal to what it was now: a sputtering, blinking, useless thing. The imaginative source for all creation, the means through which Wonderland’s most ingenious inventions passed to Earth and other worlds, had become little more than a font of frustration.
“Shouldn’t the effects be wearing off by now?”Alyss asked as Bibwit stepped down beside her. “I can’t conjure so much as a tiny opal.”
“You could enlist the help of an imagination enabler, Queen Alyss,” said General Doppelgänger, who sat monitoring the viewing screens at a control desk. “Someone residing outside Wondertropolis and not so affected by King Arch’s Weapon.”
Bibwit’s ears quivered, his scholar’s robe swished at his bare feet. “It is indeed horrible for all imaginationists within Wondertropolis to have lost their imaginations on account of King Arch. And although we may find some relief in the fact that those in rural quadrants, while weaker in imagination than before, have not been left completely bereft—a circumstance I ascribe to the web of caterpillar thread having been more tightly knit over our capital city; what I mean to say, in short—”
Alyss laughed. When had Bibwit ever given a short speech instead of a long one?
,” the tutor continued, “while it is possible for us to send for an imagination enabler, I don’t think we should let more Wonderlanders know of the queen’s loss than is absolutely necessary. An imagination enabler cannot help matters. The queen’s powers
is sure of it,” Alyss said.
“My dear Alyss,” Bibwit bowed, “in this world I can be sure of nothing so much as my own wisdom.”
It was strange, Alyss thought, that she should seem more concerned about her loss than Bibwit and the general. True, it was
imagination, but hadn’t they always urged her to exploit it for the queendom’s benefit and for the glory of White Imagination? She had felt such freedom upon first discovering the absence of her gift and already, here she was, worrying enough for the three of them.
Because my responsibilities as queen haven’t disappeared along with my imagination.
Whatever freedom she’d felt had been illusory. It wasn’t just
imagination, after all. Being sovereign of the people, she was not at leisure to be sovereign of her own actions, doing what she liked whenever she pleased, no matter how much she might wish for it. Love, justice, duty to the populace—the guiding principles of the Heart dynasty and of White Imagination were a part of her. She would defend what she thought best for the queendom as long as she occupied the throne.
“Club soldiers are amassing in Rocking Horse Lane,” General Doppelgänger reported into his desk’s talkback module. “Repeat: Club soldiers in Rocking Horse Lane. Decks one and three converge.”
Lack of imagination throughout the realm had given rise to new problems. These in turn had brought her here, to the Heart Chamber, to try and coax a hint of her former power from the Crystal.
“We’d do well to remember, Alyss,” Bibwit said, “that when the Crystal Continuum was contaminated by—what shall I call it?—by Homburg Molly’s mishap, yes, any imaginationist traveling inside of it at the time found herself without her abilities. Much as imaginationists now suffer as a result of King Arch’s attack on Wondertropolis and the Heart Crystal. In the case of Molly’s mishap, the effects wore off, and the continuum is now perfectly functioning. I therefore assume the effects of WILMA will similarly wear off.”
“Unless, of course, they don’t,” Alyss said. “I’m no stronger now than when the weapon first detonated.”
Bibwit shared a quick glance with General Doppelgänger. “We obviously have longer to wait than we did with the continuum incident, the power of WILMA being much greater.”
Alyss again turned her energies toward the Heart Crystal, envisioning a smooth polished rock of clear agate at her feet. The Crystal fizzed and crackled, but no agate materialized.
“It’s not as if Arch’s caterpillar thread is still radiating its power!” she cried. “It disintegrated!”
Nor had it ever unleashed the full extent of its paralyzing energy. She and Hatter Madigan had seen to that.
“By now,” General Doppelgänger said, his eyes on the control desk, monitoring the movement of his card soldiers, “Redd might know that Queen Alyss is without imagination.”
“And the only reason she continues to retreat is because she’s lost
,” Bibwit agreed. “A confrontation at this juncture would be nothing more than brute force against brute force. Redd cannot be so sure of victory without her imagination. We should start incorporating into our military the new weapons made before WILMA’s detonation, in case we find ourselves having to cope with both Redd’s army and the Clubs.”
Alyss lowered her scepter and turned from the Heart Crystal. “During her attack, Redd couldn’t have known about WILMA or its effect on imagination. If she had, she never would have entered Wondertropolis and made herself vulnerable to it.”
Bibwit nodded. The veins visible beneath his head’s translucent skin pulsed, keeping time to his thoughts. “There’s a question I’ve much been puzzling over,” he admitted at last. “Where did Arch get so much caterpillar thread and the knowledge of how to use it to create WILMA? As aged as I am, Alyss, I have never before seen the thread of all six caterpillar-oracles together in one place.” Then, with a flourish of his robe, as if this could wipe away all stress and uncertainty from the land, he added, “But enough of unsettling topics. I originally came here to tell you, my dear, that I’ve received word we should expect Hatter and Molly before the next eclipse.”
“Yes,” General Doppelgänger brooded, “because we’ll need all the bodies we can get. The Clubs are growing—”
The general’s desk rattled with the sound of a distant explosion, he split into the twin figures of Doppel and Gänger, and both of them shouted to the card soldiers converging on Rocking Horse Lane, to the chessmen patrolling the outskirts of Wondertropolis, to anyone anywhere who could help:
OR AS long as anyone could remember, imaginationists had mingled with ordinary Wonderlanders throughout the queendom, living in the same residential complexes, working at the same firms, shopping at the same stores, and educating their children at the same schools. If, in the rugged resort towns of Outerwilderbeastia or the scrubland communities between the Everlasting Forest and the Chessboard Desert, there was a higher concentration of ordinary Wonderlanders, it was owing to nothing more sinister than a group of them having settled there long before; over the years, their families had prospered. Just as there was nothing ominous about the Croquet Court Lofts in Rocking Horse Lane being home to a high concentration of imaginationists. Writers, architects, scientists, painters, sculptors, inventors, White Imagination enthusiasts—these and more had taken up residence at the Lofts, bound together by the alternating elation and melancholy, the moments of inspiration offset by self-doubt and dissatisfaction, that came with all imaginative endeavors. Lately, however, the dissatisfactions had been more poignant than usual, the bouts of inspiration less frequent, and Croquet Court’s imaginationists gathered to complain in the building’s lobby at the close of each day, much as they used to gather to brag of what they’d accomplished when their imaginations had been ripe with ideas.
“I think I almost had a thought today,” a writer said.
“That’s more than I had,” grumbled a sculptor.
“There!” a stymied inventor blurted to an architect, pulling a clump of hair from his head and holding it in his palm. “I’ve just now invented this ball of hair!”
In a corner of the room, not wanting to admit she’d suffered another clutch of unproductive hours, a painter stood before a canvas decorated with three hesitant lines, one for each of the days she’d spent with her brush poised to capture the likeness of . . . anything.
“Can I go play yet?” the painter’s daughter asked, posed before her as if in punishment.
“Just a little while longer.”
the lobby door blasted off its hinges, the room filled with dust, and several hands of card soldiers stormed in with weapons drawn. Not the oft-seen soldiers of Alyss Heart’s army: With their angular helmets, their shields shaped like the suit symbols laser-etched into their breastplates, shoulderplates and kneeplates, these were soldiers from the Club decks.
“You have till my shield stops spinning to gather your families and your belongings and board the transports outside!” a Four of Clubs commanded, stabbing the bottom point of his shield into the floor and, with a heavy push of his arm, setting it in motion.
The imaginationists were too shocked to move.
“Why should we go anywhere?” a playwright finally managed. “You have no authority over us.”
The Four of Clubs aimed a fist at the fellow and—
shink shink shink!
—skin-splitting club emblems shot out from a slot in the armor of his forearm and lodged in the playwright’s vitals. The Four of Clubs looked at his spinning shield. “Until it stops!” he announced again. “Not a moment more!”
Under guard, the imaginationists hurried to their lofts, gathering their clothes and valuables, trying to comfort the confused murmurings of wives and husbands, to hush the protests of children forced to leave prized possessions behind, until—
A muted thunder, as of an orb generator exploding underground. The floors trembled. Outside, a fountain of shattered glass rose five stories into the air.
In the Croquet Courts lobby, the Four of Clubs muttered, “Heart soldiers,” and grabbed his spinning shield. “Time’s up! Everybody out! Move! Move!”
Throughout the building, Club soldiers cocked their heads, receiving the order, and in the crush caused by their impatience to herd the imaginationists outside, children were separated from parents, husbands from wives. Had the prisoners eyes for anything but their own fear as they walked to the waiting smail transports, they would have seen—at the nearest intersection, where Heart soldiers battled Clubs and Spades—a hand of Heart Cards emptying the ammo cartridges of their AD52s at the enemy and a fiery orb tearing through the sky toward them, bringing the bright light of midday and death.