Unless she was punishing herself anew, letting this Alyss/not-Alyss serve as reminder of how much she had disappointed the queen’s hopes for her, and of how far she’d fallen from the standards she had set for herself. She didn’t feel she deserved to be forgiven yet she wanted to ask forgiveness. And weirdest of all: she wanted to ask it of Alyss/ not-Alyss.
Miss Liddell and her sister regularly visited a tea shop on St. Aldate’s. Wanting to observe her more closely, Molly had started to place herself in the shop so that she would be there before the ladies entered. Several tables usually separated them, but today Alice and Edith Liddell came in and sat at the table directly next to her.
“Excuse me,” Alice said to Molly after the waiter had taken her order. “You were here yesterday, weren’t you?”
The voice was
, Alyss Heart’s. Molly couldn’t find words to answer and kept her eyes on the tea getting cold in her cup.
“I’m sorry,” Alice Liddell said, “I don’t mean to be intrusive. I simply wanted to tell you that I admire your coat. It’s so . . . unique. I think I saw its kind in Amsterdam a few years ago. Wherever did you get it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
The waiter returned with the sisters’ tea. Alice Liddell’s lightly pursed lips moved to the rim of the cup and Molly wanted to reach out and touch them, to confirm that they were genuine,
“I don’t mind your asking,” she finally managed.
“Oh, I’m so glad! But if you don’t mind that, I don’t suppose you’ll object to our introducing ourselves. I’m Alice Liddell and this is my sister Edith.”
Both sisters held out their hands. Molly extended hers, felt cool flesh against the damp heat of her own. Alice Liddell was real. “Molly.”
“Your accent isn’t familiar to me,” Edith said. “Are you visiting from somewhere?”
Awkward question, that. “Uh-huh. Far away.”
“Quite right!” Alice laughed, appreciative. “Serves us right for asking so many questions in the first place. I hope you’ll forgive us? Our unfortunate tendency to rudeness comes from living sheltered lives; we’re so interested in others. It does afford us vicarious adventures, but in addition—and I’m sure this sounds perfectly awful—it also gives us something to do.”
The Liddells had finished their tea and were preparing to leave.
“Well, Molly, we thank you for humoring our imposition, and apologize for now rushing off, but we’ve a family engagement. I hope we can see each other again soon.”
“Me too,” Molly said, sure that they would.
She took a tortuous way back to the quad. If she ran into Miss Liddell, she wanted it to seem a coincidence—the two of them living so close to each other. She found Dodgson in his rooms, bent over the desk. He’d been mumbling about feeling a return of his creative powers and was spending an increasing amount of time working in his notebooks. He turned to Molly when she entered but didn’t ask where she’d been. He had learned by now: She would just rebuff him. But Molly was in the best mood she’d been in since before her mother died and, evincing an inclination not to be so incommunicative, she stepped up behind him and looked over his shoulder at his notebook:
“Five and a half, six and a half, seven, four and a half, three and an half,” she said.
It was, to Dodgson’s astonishment, the correct answer.
ATCHING THE Lord and Lady of Clubs partake of roasted gryphon wing in his dining room, Arch thought he should just call off his attempt to lure Redd and Alyss from hiding and do away with them for all time. Without further delay, he should bag the Heart Crystal, encase it in the cocoon of interwoven caterpillar silk he’d had made and thereby choke off its power—snuffing imagination forever. Why not let Redd and Alyss flounder in the underground like any pair of ineffective rebels? How could they ever be a threat to him without imagination?
“Honestly, Your Highness,” said the Lord of Clubs, “I’ve never tasted anything like this before. Gryphon wing, roasted, you said it was?”
Arch nodded. “A distinctive dish of Boarderland’s Scabbler tribe. My chef was born a Scabbler, but obviously he became one of mine, a Doomsine.”
“Obviously,” agreed the Lady of Clubs.
Arch smiled at the space between his guests. It was never pleasant for him to share his table with a female, especially one harboring pretensions to governing, but with an increase in land and subjects and power came certain compromises. At least until he wrung what use he could from the Clubs and was able to ignore them without harm to his interests.
“What I’m not sure I understand, Your Highness,” the lady said, continuing an earlier conversation, “is why you don’t just void the Heart Crystal now. My husband and I would very much applaud the action, as you know, and we’ve primed the citizens for it.”
“My good lady,” Arch replied, displeased that he and this creature had been thinking along similar lines, “just a moment ago, I was asking myself the very same question. I believe I’ve told you that I need the Crystal to radiate for a short time yet, so as to do away with your two most recent queens, Redd and Alyss Heart?”
“You have, sire,” said the lord. “But you’ve not disclosed how leaving the Crystal functioning as it presently is will accomplish this.”
“Nor will I. But it isn’t just Redd and Alyss I’m thinking of. I need the Crystal to do away with their followers as well.”
“Ah,” the lord said, not understanding.
“I see,” said the lady, not seeing in the least.
Arch, a master of subterfuge coping with slow students, directed a humorous glance at Ripkins and Blister, who were standing against the wall. “So long as Alyss and Redd live, or are believed to live, their followers will desire a regime change and be on the watch for opportunities to bring it about. They will remain loyal to Redd and Alyss whereas I want them loyal to yours truly. If I merely inform them that the Heart Crystal and imagination are no more and Redd and Alyss dead, they can too easily cling to hope that one of these former queens might nonetheless lead a revolt. But let the Heart Crystal and imagination be
snuffed out, let Redd’s and Alyss’ deaths take place in full view of the citizenry, and what loyalists they boast will have a harder time of it. For these loyalists will then be witnesses to the truth: imagination, Black or White, can have no part in a regime change because not only has the Heart Crystal been eliminated, but so have the two Wonderlanders most gifted with its powers.”
“But Your Highness,” said the lord, “I submit that a segment of the population may still remain unconvinced and choose to live in delusion.”
“Perhaps,” said Arch, “but it will be a modest group, much more easily controllable than otherwise.”
“My liege.” An intel minister had come into the room and was standing at the king’s elbow. “I beg pardon for the interruption, but you have a visitor. I believe he wishes to speak to you about a matter of considerable urgency.”
“I’m at a loss to know whose importance can justify excusing me from dinner with the eminent Lord and Lady of Clubs,” Arch said.
The minister bowed in understanding, then pressed his arms to his sides, thrust his head out on his neck, and shuffled forward in quick little steps. Receiving no royal reaction, he did it a second time—thrust out his head and shuffled forward.
“What. Are. You. Doing?” the king asked.
The minister formed an “O” with his mouth, motioned as if he were holding a hose to his lips, and inhaled. He crossed his eyes and removed the invisible hose from his mouth and exhaled.
“I’m losing patience,” Arch said.
Ripkins and Blister stepped forward. The minister gave up his charade and glanced at the Clubs, unsure.
“The green caterpillar,” he said quick and low.
Arch rose from his chair. “Why didn’t you say so, fool?”
“I didn’t know if you wanted . . .” The minister tilted his head toward the ranking couple.
“I have no secrets from the House of Clubs.” Arch was already leaving the room with Ripkins and Blister in tow. “Please excuse me, milord and milady. These large worms are a nuisance, but so early in my reign I think it prudent to humor them.”
The balcony doors of Arch’s bedroom were open, the green caterpillar on the threshold, shoving the last of a tarty tart into his mouth while he admired the view of Wondertropolis’ skyline, its sleek towers, moon-reflecting minarets and residential buildings with marbled quartz façades. Arch instructed Ripkins and Blister to wait in the hall, passed into his private rooms and—
“If the king believes he can woo Wonderland’s oracles with treats,” Green said, not turning round, “he is correct!” The oracle plucked three tarty tarts from the creases of his segmented belly and tossed them into his mouth.
“I’m glad to see you enjoy the tributes I sent,” Arch said, “but—”
“No, I haven’t,” Green snuffled.
The corner of Arch’s mouth slanted up; he’d been about to say that he assumed the oracle hadn’t come to thank him for the tarty tarts.
“You are having trouble luring Alyss and Redd Heart into the open,” Green observed.
“It’s taking longer than I’d like, but I wouldn’t call it troublesome.”
“And yet you’re thinking of employing a different tactic.”
Arch stepped on to the balcony, where the city lights winked at him in the night air. He frequently came out here to ponder this new city of his. Depending on his mood, he sometimes thought the lights were winking
him, con spiratorial, as he secured his reign of Wonderland. But other times—now, for instance—the lights seemed to wink in mockery of his efforts, his vanity.
“Redd Heart will compromise herself from lack of self-discipline,” Green said. “But Alyss Heart, she will need . . . assistance. It is known that Alyss Heart allows her softer emotions to get the better of her.”
“A fact I might put to good use, eh?”
“A fact you may put to good use.”
Green was puffing on a hookah he’d produced from nowhere Arch had seen. A fog of smoke gathered over the balcony, in which images of a couple and two young ladies flickered, all of whom were wearing old-fashioned clothes—coats and dresses and collared shirts so long out of date that Arch was only familiar with them because of the study materials recently provided to him by Bibwit, the chronicles of distant Wonderland history he’d read to educate himself about the queendom’s oracles.
“Those,” the caterpillar said, “are the Liddells, with whom Alyss Heart lived for many years.”
“On Earth,” the king murmured.
The caterpillar nodded. “Oxford, England, to be precise. Alyss Heart has strong feelings for the Liddells, the only family she has remaining anywhere.”
“And if something were to threaten them . . .” Arch said.
The caterpillar’s face wrinkled with pleasure; Arch’s brain worked with admirable speed. “The king may not know where Alyss Heart
,” Green said, “but were someone to threaten the Liddells, he can know where she
“You are trying to use me, caterpillar.”
“We use each other,” Green corrected.
Arch listened to the sound of the oracle’s lips working at his pipe, the burbling water. “And if someone endangered this Liddell family,” he asked, “how would Alyss Heart know of it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that!”
Arch grabbed the caterpillar, a muscled hand tight around one of the legs closest to the oracle’s mouth. “Tell me where she is. Where they both are. Redd and Alyss. You
Green giggled and slipped easily free of the king’s grasp, went on giggling as he floated from the balcony and out over palace grounds. Arch stared after the worm a moment, then turned and went back inside to rejoin the Clubs in the dining room, where he sat distractedly slugging down his wine while Ripkins and Blister took up their positions against the wall.