“It works!” she said loudly. So she knew he’d been spying.
He stepped into the cave and, taking the backpack from her, cupped her chin in his hand and lifted her face to his. He wanted to tell her what he’d told her countless times already—that Weaver had left her at the Alyssian camp out of love, not the opposite; that Weaver had intended to return to the camp until she became afraid of Queen Redd discovering that Hatter Madigan had a daughter—Queen Redd, who was intent on wiping out the Milliner breed. He wanted to tell her what he’d told her two nights earlier, as they stood at the cave entrance watching the setting suns—that, yes, King Arch had used her to satisfy his own ambitions. But if it hadn’t been Molly, he would have found another way. Lives would have been lost no matter what. The responsibility lay with Arch, not with her.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, meaning Weaver, everything.
Molly didn’t look as if she believed it. He kissed her forehead, reminding himself not for the first time that he probably couldn’t underestimate the effect her years as an orphan had had on her.
They shared a solemn moment together at Weaver’s grave, then started down, hiking the passage Hatter had tunneled through the mountain with his wrist-blades a lifetime ago. At day’s end they emerged from the passage on to the lower slope, the velvet-petaled daphnedews shivering in the coolness of oncoming night. Molly tramped on, a good ten paces in front of Hatter, and she almost didn’t realize it when he stopped, tense and staring at a bushel of shady greens. A sort of spicy licorice smell laced the air, her nostrils tingled, and out from behind the bushel’s thick, broad fronds a blue caterpillar four times her size floated on a cloud of hookah smoke, his lipless mouth puffing at his waterpipe as if this were propelling him forward. Molly had read about caterpillar-oracles in her classes at the Millinery. But here was the first she’d ever seen, sailing straight for her, and it was all she could do to remain motionless as he drifted to within arm’s length of her, exhaling three blasts of hookah smoke that spelled out, in letters shivery with foreboding, Y-O-U.
OARDERLAND: WONDERLAND’S largest, most powerful neighbor, consisting wholly of nomadic towns and cities, any one of which might be situated amid the sandy dunes of Duneraria one week but spread out alongside Bookie River the next; an uncultivated, expansive place where itinerant settlements had always been separated by large tracts of unpopulated, rugged terrain; a land where, except for clashes, tribes used to keep to themselves, allowed to observe their own customs and rituals so long as they submitted to Arch as king of
But that was before Arch had been reunited with an old friend and his practice of perpetuating hostilities among the tribes revealed for what it was: the method by which he maintained his authority, stoking animosities so that the Astacans and Maldoids and others wouldn’t unite to form an army his own could not hope to rival.
That was before Redd Heart.
activated as she should’ve been, but I recognize her effects,” the former king whispered to one of his intel ministers, who was crouched behind an orb cannon to avoid notice. “I’m willing to bet Redd is without her powers. We wouldn’t be returning to Boarderland if she had them.”
“You don’t know for sure she’s without imagination, my liege.”
“Not yet. But I will.”
The military caravan had halted in Outerwilderbeastia before the final push back into Boarderland. With the prospect of it before him, the country Arch had so recently ruled suddenly seemed inhospitable and miserly, a dusty landscape of wind-battered tenements and few natural resources. It had never been enough. He didn’t want to be king again, not if it meant being king of Boarderland alone.
“Nor can you know if such a loss of imagination is permanent,” the intel minister said.
Arch looked off to where Redd lounged beneath a canopy at the edge of the sparring arena, an open space surrounded by tribal warriors and Earth mercenaries. Sitting with Mistress Heart in the shade along with the rest of her top military rank was The Cat—half feline, half Wonderlander, total assassin; and Vollrath, that member of the tutor species devoted to Black Imagination. All unengaged troops had been ordered to gather for a series of brawls. It was supposed to be entertainment.
“You see how Redd pretends to give no thought to the fact that even now,” Arch said to his minister, “both in front of us and behind, her recruits are fighting Alyss’ forces? She’s overacting. With this leisurely retreat of ours, she’s trying to prove that clashes with her niece’s armies are nothing and she can go where she likes, Wonderland is as good as hers. I don’t believe it.”
Arch knew Redd’s impatience too well: In taking back the crown, in putting an end to Alyss Heart, Redd would never have been leisurely if she could help it.
“Had WILMA wreaked what she was supposed to,” the minister said, “Boarderland and Wonderland would already be yours, my liege.”
Arch nodded. “If Redd’s without her imagination, so is Queen Alyss. I have to take a chance and make my move while they’re without their powers.”
Shouts rose from the troops around the sparring arena. Hoofs and fists pumped the air. The first brawl had begun.
“Arch!” Redd’s voice cut through the cheers and cat-calls, her eyes on the former king.
Arch dipped his head, the closest he would ever come to a bow. “Coming, Your Imperial Viciousness!” Turning away to take his position at Redd’s side, keeping his lips as still as possible, he told his minister, “You’re going to pay a visit to the Glass Eyes’ tent and you’re going to do and say exactly as I instruct . . .”
It could not have been going worse for her niece, chessmen succumbing to slashing blades, card soldiers falling a pack at a time under a barrage of orb generators and cannonball spiders. How invigorated Her Imperial Viciousness had felt, watching Alyss’ pathetic defensive maneuvers as Boarderland’s twenty-one tribes, under
command, stormed into Outerwilderbeastia, each tribe wielding the weapons they most favored: gossamer shots (Awr), mind riders (Maldoids), kill-quills (Scabbler), death-balls (Gnobi), knobkerries (Astacans), and the crude tools of less developed tribes hardly worth her notice. No, her attack on Wonderland couldn’t have been going better. Her Boarderlanders and Earth recruits had laid flat shuffle after shuffle of Heart soldiers, rampaging through Outerwilderbeastia into the Everlasting Forest and the Chessboard Desert, converging on Wondertropolis. How she had frowned with appreciation as The Cat swiped claws across the chests of Six Cards and swatted down pawns! How she had grimaced with pride as her foremost military rank, the most gifted of her Earth recruits, proved their worth: Sacrenoir, who raised the bones of the dead into skeleton-zombies desperate to satisfy their insatiable hunger for live flesh; Siren Hecht, unhinging her jaw to release high-pitched screams that sent platoons squirming to the ground in pain; Alistaire Poole, the surgeon/undertaker who conducted autopsies on living card soldiers; and Mr. Van de Skülle, dexterously lashing chessmen with his spike-tipped whip.
And at last she’d been making her way down Heart Boulevard, toward Heart Palace and a final victory over her presumptuous upstart of a niece! But that’s when things had gone instantly, horribly—
She awoke, lying in the middle of the boulevard, her head hazy, her soldiers splayed about in various stages of unconsciousness. She had tried to view Alyss with her imagination’s eye but saw only blackness. Whether or not her niece had harnassed some sort of reserve power from the Heart Crystal, as Arch had suggested, Redd didn’t know. The infusion of strength she’d experienced when nearing the Heart Crystal had gone in a moment. She’d been barren of imagination ever since.
“Not bad,” she said, applauding listlessly as Ripkins dragged a defeated Glass Eye from the sparring arena.
She had called for the fights in order to boost morale. The tribes were fitful, having never remained in such proximity to one another for any length of time and not understanding why they hadn’t stormed Heart Palace when they had been so close. But she couldn’t have risked entering the palace when Alyss might have had her powers while she . . . no, she hated to admit it even to herself. Besides giving her an opportunity to observe what Arch’s bodyguards were capable of, the sparring matches would distract the troops from their unease.
Redd nodded in Blister’s direction. “Your turn.”
The bodyguard stepped into the sparring arena, pulled off his elbow-length gloves and placed them neatly in his pocket. Her Imperial Viciousness glared out at the troops.
“Anyone wishing to earn my special regard, which should be every one of you, will step forward and earn it!”
Blister waited for an adversary, but none came forward.
“Are this Doomsine’s talents so great that you’d all risk
wrath as cowards?”
“Let me fight him.”
The Cat’s words had come out as a growl. He was standing between Redd and Arch in humanoid form, erect on two heavily muscled legs, his strong arms reaching down past his waist, his paws unsheathing claws sharp and long enough to run through an average-sized Wonderlander. His fangs showed beneath his flat pink nose, his twitching whiskers.
“You’ve only one life left,” Redd reminded him.
“And it’s worthless if I don’t risk it doing what I do best.”
“I like your rashness, feline. Take your position.”
The Cat leapt into the sparring arena. He and Blister eyed each other, unmoving.
“Is this supposed to be impressive?” Redd snorted.
Like one warming up for more strenuous exercise, Blister tossed a whipsnake grenade, but The Cat easily sidestepped its slithering, snapping electric coils. Blister would try to work his way in close, The Cat knew. Every swipe of a paw could prove as deadly to himself as to Blister. He should be careful. But he wasn’t here to be careful, so he ran straight at his adversary, his powerful legs carrying him forward with such thrust and purpose that anyone else would have tried to flee, but Blister merely remained where he was.
The Cat pounced—a low, perfectly horizontal leap forward. He morphed into a kitten in mid-air, ducking Blister’s outstretched hands, and transformed back into a humanoid as he passed, raking his claws across Blister’s shin. He came to a stop three spirit-dane lengths away, a full-formed assassin again.
Blister showed no sign of feeling the bloody gash in his leg. He produced an AD52 from somewhere beneath his coat and held down its trigger, shooting a full deck of razor-cards at The Cat and stalking after it. The Cat avoided what projectiles he could and batted down others, smacking the tops of them without touching their sharp edges, but Blister was able to get within arm’s reach and—
The Cat hissed, leapt back. Blister had grazed his shoulder with a finger. The fur immediately swelled; the skin underneath it bubbled. The Cat popped the swelling with a claw and spat.
Beneath Redd’s canopy, Arch leaned toward his mistress, smiling and flirtatious.
“You’re looking particularly grim, Your Imperial Viciousness.”
going to woo you with lies, Redd, but I have to say, the blurriness that’s been part of you and The Cat since your return to our world—”
“What of it?”
“I know you said something about its being the result of your unprecedented journey through the Heart Crystal, but . . . well, it’s pretty much gone.”
Redd crinkled her nose in what was supposed to be a teasing manner. “Again I ask: What of it, Archy? Does it surprise you that I used my powerful imagination to rid myself of a loathsome blurriness? It’s just taken longer than I’d liked. What the Heart Crystal gives isn’t so easily done away with . . . even for me.”
“Hm,” Arch said.
Blister and The Cat stood breathing heavily in the middle of the sparring arena, each waiting for the other to make the next move. Blister’s clothes were shredded, thin lines of blood showing where The Cat’s claws had dragged across his chest, back, leg, and arms. The Cat’s shoulder and forearms were leaking—wherever Blister had even lightly touched him, yellow pus dribbled from popped bubbles of skin.
“Caterpillar,” Vollrath noted, his ashen finger pointing at a series of green smoke rings drifting out from behind a fried dormouse hawker’s stall.
In the sparring arena, Blister threw a dagger at The Cat. The feline dropped into a crouch, about to spring forward.
“Enough!” Redd shouted. “As much as we’re all dying to see the outcome of this little dalliance, I may still have use for
Though she’d always deemed caterpillar-oracles to be ugly, annoying creatures, Her Imperial Viciousness stomped toward the dormouse hawker’s stall, leaving Blister and The Cat to believe they had lost their sole chance to prove which of them was the greater fighter. They couldn’t know there would soon be another.