Read ArchEnemy Online

Authors: Frank Beddor

ArchEnemy (4 page)

Alyss had tucked her shoulder-length black hair beneath a wig of blond curls. By means of a dye-pen, she had given herself freckled cheeks, and her smock—a dull, rough fibered affair—must have been padded on the inside because her slim figure was gone and she appeared thick-waisted, her body shapeless.
Bibwit’s brow took on the look of lined papyrus. “Being an ancient specimen lacking in melanin, forgive the question, but why are Wonderland’s queen and the leader of her palace guard dressed in this manner?”
“Because we have a meeting to attend, Mr. Harte,” Alyss said.
“A meeting? But I wasn’t notified. Why wasn’t I notified? Were
notified?” Bibwit asked General Doppelgänger, who shook his head. “Why weren’t the general and I informed of this so-called meeting? Why were we not at the top of the list of attendees, or at least—”
Dodge pulled a dull gray rock from his pocket and handed it to the tutor.
“A lump of dolomite is to explain our lack of an invitation?”
“Rub the smooth side of it.”
Bibwit, so accustomed to being the instructor, did as he was instructed.
Brumalia salvage lot, Plattnerite Quadrant, Wondertropolis
glowed briefly on the rock’s flat surface, along with the date and the symbol of the upcoming hour. He understood at once: Alyss and Dodge were going to a Clubs’ anti-imagination rally.
“You must not attend, Alyss. There’s too great a chance you’ll be recognized.”
“I’ve already tried to convince her,” Dodge mumbled.
“You’re at your most vulnerable, my queen,” said General Doppelgänger. “I will unshuffle a deck of soldiers to prevent the meeting.”
“No!” Alyss’ vehemence took everyone aback—herself not least of all. “One founding family has already fallen into disgrace,” she said, “and at this precarious time in Wonderland’s history, we do
need to lose another if we can avoid it. You all know that I don’t care for them personally, but the Lord and Lady of Clubs have too much influence politically and economically to be arrested without absolute proof.”
“Let me go alone,” Dodge said. “
will bring you proof.”
Alyss turned an exasperated eye on the Heart Crystal and its blinkered, apprehensive glow. “The reason I’m queen has been taken from me. The three of you should consider the likelihood that without my powers, I’m not so important to Wonderland, or to White Imagination. As for attending this meeting,” she turned to Bibwit and the general, hooked an arm under Dodge’s, “I have this brave guardsman to protect me. As for the meeting itself . . . we cannot prevent Wonderlanders from gathering, simply because we don’t like what they’ve gathered to hear; they must first break laws. Nor are the innocent to suffer with the guilty. General, you’re to deal the decks, if and only if you receive communication from Dodge.” She handed her royal scepter to Bibwit. “Please hold on to this while I’m gone.”
The queen and her guardsman were at the top of the stairs to the outside world and no longer in sight when the tutor blinked at the scepter, surprised to find it in his hand.
“This is not a good idea!” he called.
Alyss, knowing she didn’t have to raise her voice for him to hear, watched the chamber hatch slide open to reveal a blood-dark sky speckled with stars, and murmured, “The best ideas rarely are, Bibwit.”
LYSS AND Dodge were required to surrender the dolomite, the Two of Clubs at the salvage lot entrance reaching for it and scraping the guardsman’s palm with the sharp-angled steel of his gauntlet. Citizens from all strata of Wonderland society had shown up for the rally: kitchen workers in their splatterproof wear, on breaks from nearby restaurants; upright gentlemen sporting the collar-pins that signified them as law court arbiters; traveling merchants with their cases of goods; shop owners handing out advertisement crystals for their establishments; entire families come as if for a night’s picnic. There was even, as Dodge indicated to Alyss with a jut of his chin, a trio of off-duty palace guards-men.
Alyss held Dodge’s hand as the crowd carried them to a space cleared amid the old transports in various stages of disrepair, the heaps of bent and broken hovercycles.
“This is my fourth time at one of these,” a Wonderlander next to Alyss confessed. “I don’t agree with
they say, but they
make sense on a number of points. And sometimes they serve mostly toasted oaties afterward.”
Alyss smiled politely, not daring to speak in case her voice gave her away.
“So many people,” another said. “A half-moon ago, the audience wouldn’t have filled a space half so big.”
Amid the old transports in various stages of disrepair, the heaps of bent and broken hovercycles, there couldn’t have been more than a few hundred Wonderlanders: not the largest gathering Alyss or Dodge had ever been to, but not the smallest either.
And if their numbers are growing . . .
“I know what it’s like to deceive myself!”
The amplified voice seemed to come from all sides simultaneously, echoing off the hard surfaces of ruined vehicles and causing the fire crystals along the perimeter to gutter as if from the force of jabberwocky breath.
“I know what it’s like to lie to myself!” the voice boomed.
“Over there!”
A matronly woman pointed to the Lady of Clubs standing atop a stack of flattened hovercycles with her husband and several Wonderlanders Alyss didn’t recognize. Club soldiers—twos and threes and a pair of fives—took up position around the makeshift stage, facing the crowd.
“I know what it’s like to hate myself!” the Lady of Clubs announced.
Dodge squeezed Alyss’ hand and gave her a questioning look.
Why couldn’t it have been a renegade general instead of the Clubs themselves? For Wonderland’s sake? wondered Alyss. It would be best to take the lord and lady into custody when no audience was present. Don’t want to turn them into martyrs. Arresting them now might provoke their followers.
Alyss shook her head. Dodge should not yet signal for troops.
“I used to pretend I had a powerful imagination,” the Lady of Clubs was preaching, “that I could rival Alyss Heart in any show of imaginative strength! I did this because I couldn’t bear to admit I possessed none of what Wonderland has, for too long, valued above all else! But I no longer have to lie to myself!” The lady spread out her arms and turned her face to the heavens. “I HAVE NEVER BEEN GIFTED WITH IMAGINATION!”
The murmuring crowd went silent. Elsewhere, in limbo coops that were broadcasting the lady’s speech, imaginationists had stopped complaining of their sudden imprisonment to listen.
The Lady of Clubs let her pronouncement hang in the air, then went on in a calmer voice. “A Wonderland devoid of imagination is cause for celebration. No longer need we feel like lesser citizens because we cannot invent anything worthy of passing into the Heart Crystal. No longer must shame be our constant companion because we cannot conjure silly objects. The time of our suffering is at an end. I belong to one of Wonderland’s founding families and yet I stand here,” with a turn of her hand, she indicated the Wonderlanders next to her husband, “sharing the stage with a family of salvagers. Because where imagination is concerned, no one is superior to anybody else—not founding families and not Queen Alyss.”
Some in the crowd were nodding, muttering agreement.
“We have an opportunity, the first of its kind in Wonderland’s history, to rise up against those who’ve made us feel bad about ourselves for so long. My fellow unimaginative citizens, let us not squander this momentous occasion! Let us unite to topple ‘our’ queen, whose family has flaunted their imagination over us with . . . yes?”
In the crowd, a squat little fellow with mutton-chop sideburns had raised his hand. “But doesn’t it take imagination to have thought of what you’re proposing? And isn’t imagination required for us to organize and, to use your words, ‘rise up’ against Queen Alyss’ administration?”
“Interesting,” the Lady of Clubs said, flashing a look at her Five Cards. “I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on this matter in private. Kindly accompany my representatives to the smail waiting outside.”
Club soldiers roughly escorted the man from the premises.
“I trust no one else believes that I or my husband have any imagination whatsoever?” the Lady of Clubs asked the silent crowd. “Good. What you choose to do tonight can reverberate throughout history. For your future welfare, for the welfare of your children and grandchildren, every one of you must etch your names into what will be the foundation of a new government in Wonderland: the Pledge of the Unimaginative!”
The Clubs stepped from the stage and the audience heaved, sympathetic Wonderlanders clamoring for a word from the wealthy couple or pushing to be among the first to add their names to the Pledge: an edifice of marbled dolomite sculpted to resemble an oversized
In Queendom Speramus
—the tome that for generations had provided the foundation of a queen’s education. In the commotion, Alyss’ hand was yanked from Dodge’s.
Her freckles smearing, she struggled to reach him again, to be free of the pressing bodies, while he bumped people out of his way, clearing a path toward her as—
A news tweaker noticed the struggling Wonderlander with the stained cheeks. Something about her struck him as familiar. Then a stray arm knocked her wig askew. “Queen Alyss?” he breathed. He tugged at those around him, pointing. “The queen! Queen Alyss is here!”
His cries attracted the Clubs’ attention. Soldiers forced their way through the crowd, closing in fast on Wonderland’s sovereign and finding—
A dirty wig on the pavement.
“Block the exits!” a Five Card ordered.
Access to and from the lot was immediately cut off, blockaded by Club soldiers, and somewhere within the gathering of suddenly nervous anti-imaginationists, amid all that scrap Wonderland steel: Alyss Heart and Dodge Anders trapped.
HEY COULD not remain at Talon’s Point, the highest peak in the Snark Mountains, as oblivious to the world below as the Wonderlander they mourned. Hatter Madigan had said this more times than he remembered, trying to convince himself as much as his daughter. Yet they were still here.
“We can’t stay,” he said again.
Homburg Molly merely stared at the faded glow of fire crystals in the pit. Since the last new moon, they had ventured from the cave only to forage for winglefruit lower on the mountain. They spent nights sitting in meditative quiet beside Weaver’s grave, Molly fingering her mother’s crushed Millinery ID chip, which hung from a strip of flugelberry vine she wore around her neck, while Hatter ran his fingertips over the formulas in Weaver’s alchemy notebooks. The formulas themselves were meaningless to him. But Weaver had entered them into the books. Weaver, with her precise, delicate hands. He would have to learn to live with her absence. Molly too. Leaving Talon’s Point would not make it easier.
“She should have a Hereafter Plant,” Molly said, getting to her feet.
Hatter wasn’t at all sure the plant would grow in the shadowy atmosphere of the cave. “We’ll bring a seed on our next visit.”
In a moody silence, Molly packed blankets, along with her mother’s notebooks and diary, into the satchel left in the cave years earlier. She had allowed herself to watch the diary, once and only once . . .
Hatter pressed the covers of what resembled a pocket-sized hardback from Earth in every particular except that, splayed open, it projected on to the air an animated holograph of Weaver. Molly flinched when she saw her: Weaver concerned over what had become of the queendom under Redd, for the toddler daughter she’d left at the Alyssian camp in the Everlasting Forest. Everyone else supposed Hatter dead or lost to Earth forever, but not Weaver. She’d wanted to leave him word—at Talon’s Point, where the two of them had, in better times, made a refuge for themselves—of the daughter he didn’t know existed. Hatter said he hoped the diary would help explain things, but afterward, Molly was quiet and she never asked to view it again.
She stood at her mother’s grave with her head lowered while Hatter stepped to the hollow in which he’d stowed his Millinery gear: his top hat and wrist-blades; his belt that could flick out sabers with a punch of its buckle; his backpack with its seemingly endless supply of body-puncturing weaponry. Not long ago, Molly wouldn’t have been able to leave the gear alone, wanting to prove her combat skills. But since her mother’s death, she pretended not to see it.
Hatter brushed his top hat clean of dust, held it by the brim and with a quick sideways jerk of his wrist flattened it into a coptering fan of S-shaped blades connected by a common axis-bolt. He sent the weapon slicing through the air toward the mouth of the cave. It boomeranged back to him and he caught it effortlessly, returned it to its conventional hat shape and flipped it on to his head. Molly was watching him.
“Seems to be working all right,” he said. “When we get back to Wondertropolis, we’ll have a new homburg made for you.”
Her lack of concern for her lost homburg, her disinterest in all things Millinery, were more troubling than her insolence had been back when Hatter naively thought her untrustworthy because she was a halfer. Locking his Milliner bracelets into place, he squeezed his hands into fists to activate first one set of blades, then the other: deadly steel spun at the outside of his wrists. Relaxing his hands and forearms, the blades retracted and the bracelets clicked shut.
“I’d better contact Bibwit to tell him we’re on our way,” he said. “The communicator doesn’t get reception in here, so . . .” He gestured at the open mouth of the cave. “Would you make sure my backpack works? All this dust, its inner mechanics might be gunked up.”
By the time he was on the ridge outside, slyly peering into the cave, Molly had set down her mother’s satchel and strapped the backpack over her shoulders. She shrugged, unenthused, and a host of daggers snapped to the ready. With a second shoulder twitch, the weapons sank into the backpack. Another annoyed little shrug and knives and spear-points again pushed out of the backpack, but Molly made no move to reach for one, to pretend she was mid battle, as she used to do. She shrugged; the weapons folded away.

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