“I have enough,” she said, and bent into the focused glass.
He stepped into the continuum after her and, rushing headlong through the vein of ethereal glitter and shine, couldn’t help being impressed. Molly traveled well, without any show of concentration on her destination, without any of the stuttering forward motions typical of less experienced travelers who visibly struggled against the pull of entrance portals, near which the body fought hardest to be reflected back out into the world.
Midway to Genevieve Square, Hatter and Molly relaxed, as if floating in water, and let the gravity of its exit glass pull them onward.
Every hour of every day in Genevieve Square, business-folk, shoppers, tourists, entertainment seekers, and countless more stepped from the Crystal Continuum on to the pavement without attracting a second glance from passersby. But Hatter Madigan emerging from a looking glass portal was no common occurrence. Hardly had he and Molly stepped to the pavement before Wonderlanders were pointing and calling out to the Millinery’s most famous graduate. Hatter didn’t appreciate being the center of public attention. Aware that Molly was watching him, he tipped his top hat to fans and well-wishers, thinking he could not arrive at Gimble Lane fast enough, not near fast enough. But finally—
“I guess this is it,” he said, squinting up at the beryl slab of a building in Gimble Lane. “We’re on the top floor.”
One of the Millinery’s attendants had arranged for the rental of the flat, outfitted it with necessary furnishings and bedding, and transferred Hatter’s few belongings to its sleek, spacious rooms. No doubt a large number of Wonderlanders would have been happy to live there, with its expansive view of the city, its automatic bedmakers and self-cleaning kitchen and bathrooms. But that was part of the problem. Entering the flat, glancing round at the gleaming sterility of floors and countertops and crystal hearth, at the pristine furniture the Millinery attendant had chosen and the walls barren of decoration, it didn’t strike Hatter as a home for a father and daughter. Where a conventional family might have had an entertainment matrix containing thousands of programs and games: a collection of training manuals, delineating decades’ worth of the Millinery’s pedagogical techniques. On a shelf where holo-crystals etched during family outings might have been arrayed: the bottled cleaning solutions Hatter used on his top hat, wrist-blades, and belt saber. Aside from a scarf and the other little presents Weaver had given him, everything Hatter owned had come from the Millinery.
“You like that?” he asked, because Molly had run excitedly up to a purple dog flower, which was wagging its petals and barking happily under her touch.
The girl tensed, as if ashamed by her sudden eagerness. “It’s OK,” she shrugged and, without another word, loped off to explore the bedrooms.
A note crystal was leaning against the flowerpot. Hatter cracked it open. The dog flower was a housewarming present from the Millinery attendant. Moving from entry hall to kitchen, Hatter passed a square of translucent rock embedded in the wall, activating the flat’s message retrieval system. A recorded hologram of Bibwit projected on to the air:
“Hatter, Molly, I apologize for intruding upon you so soon after your return. You have my sympathy as you cope with your recent loss, but unfortunate developments require your immediate presence at the palace. National security prevents me from disclosing more in this message. Please hurry.”
Hatter found Molly sitting on the edge of the sleep-pod in her room.
“What are you doing?”
Here was an enemy against which his blades were useless: his daughter’s pain and resentment, her confusion. “I’m sorry, Molly.”
“For what,” she snorted, “doing your Millinery duty?”
He felt a spike of temper. “You’re not the only one . . . with feelings. Bibwit has requested us at the palace.”
“I don’t feel like going.”
her go, as a father demanding obedience? She would have to see Alyss sometime, but maybe it was best that she stayed in the flat. For now. Because whatever Blue’s historic visitation meant, the queen had to be informed. Bibwit Harte and General Doppelgänger had to be informed. And Hatter was pretty sure he preferred Molly not being there to hear it. She’d seen more violence and suffered more heartache than any Wonderlander ever should, but—as he guessed from Blue’s prophecy—she was due to see and suffer yet more.
Because he hadn’t lied. He just hadn’t admitted the entire truth: Caterpillars
always act so weird; but when they did, it was never good.
EDD STOMPED toward the green smoke rings that funneled out from behind the dormouse hawker’s stall, The Cat and others following at a short distance while Arch and Vollrath hurried to keep pace with her.
Arch, and all his coy talk about her blurriness.
He never flirted without an ulterior motive, Redd knew. He’d been trying to lull her into complacency, to disarm with soothing words in order to extract information he might find useful. She usually admired his deviousness, even when practiced upon her, but something in his tone . . . he’d been goading her. As if he knew something she didn’t. As if . . .
Could he have guessed she was without imagination?
Every other stride, she jabbed her rusty scepter topped with shriveled gray heart into the ground. Doubly irksome was the subject of Arch’s flirtatious babbles. She had noticed it too—the edges of her body and The Cat’s gradually becoming more distinct. She and her assassin now looked as they used to, before they had passed through the Heart Crystal and an amateur painter birthed them on Earth with his soft, smeary palette. Maybe the longer she and The Cat lived in actual flesh and blood, the less dependent they were on the imagination from which they had sprung? What did she care, so long as she’d gotten her old hard-edged self back?
She stepped behind the hawker’s stall. The green caterpillar was alternating nibbles of double-fried dormouse snout with tokes from his hookah.
“Not a tarty tart,” he said, his mouth full of crunchy bits, “but it’ll have to do.”
Arch showed neither surprise nor awe at being so close to an enormous larva. Vollrath, however, bowed.
“You honor us with your appearance, all-seeing oracle.”
The tutor sneaked a glance at his mistress, knowing how much she disliked the creatures, but she seemed hardly aware of him, her jaw squared, her eyelids half closed in suspicion and ill-concealed disgust.
The caterpillar motioned toward Redd’s scepter with a front leg and the legs immediately behind it mirrored the gesture. “I see you navigated your Looking Glass Maze and retrieved your scepter.”
“A great, wise oracle has come to point out the obvious, has he?”
The Cat, Sacrenoir, and the rest of Redd’s most senior military rank were gathering round. Boarderland’s tribal leaders moved closer to listen while the common troops lingered at the sparring arena, curious to witness this meeting between Her Imperial Viciousness and an oracle.
“You must be feeling particularly
,” the caterpillar said, sucking deep at his hookah and letting the sentence hang in the air.
Redd would have lashed out at this smoking-obsessed mushroom-hugger if she hadn’t remembered what Vollrath once told her: that caterpillars could see all things past, present, and future; there were no secrets from caterpillars. Which meant that this slinking annoyance before her knew she was without imagination.
What if, in his wormy wisdom, he revealed her lack to Arch or the tribal leaders? To Vollrath and her Earth mercenaries? She couldn’t allow it. And if he knew what she was thinking right now? Let him know. Let him understand: Oracle or not, if he dared speak a single word of her loss . . .
He was circling her, making a show of looking her up, down, all around. “I notice you’re without Wonderland’s crown.”
“You’re nothing but a glorified worm,” she spat, each word like a burst of crystal shard from a muzzle.
“More ‘glorified’ than ‘worm,’ I should think,” said the caterpillar, tossing the last of the dormouse into his mouth. “You might want to think so too, since I’m willing to help you reclaim Wonderland’s diadem.”
Redd’s eyelid twitched. She breathed slowly, evenly, trying to control her temper. “Why aren’t you speaking in riddles, worm? Why no indecipherable symbols in a fog of sickening hookah smoke?”
The caterpillar shrugged, which surprised everybody since he didn’t have shoulders.
“O wise and slithering one,” Vollrath said, his ears genuflecting, “while I would never speak for Her Imperial Viciousness, who doesn’t require help from anyone on account of her formidable imagination, I’m nonetheless sure she recognizes the privilege you do her by offering aid. But . . .” the caterpillar, with a bored look on his face, mouthed the tutor’s words as he said them, “. . . doesn’t
In Queendom Speramus
state that caterpillars don’t interfere in the workings of government, nor involve themselves in rivalries—whether blood or strictly political—unless it’s to ensure the Heart Crystal’s safety? And even then, but rarely?”
The caterpillar grumbled and said, “Have you considered, tutor, that by helping your mistress to reclaim the throne, I
ensuring the safety of the Crystal?”
Vollrath had not considered it; his ears did a little embarrassed dance atop his head.
“I do as I have always done—what Everqueen requires if she is to reign,” the caterpillar said.
Vollrath had never heard the term and silently turned it over in his mind. Her Imperial Viciousness, meanwhile, brooded . . .
The Heart Crystal safer with her on the throne instead of Alyss? Of course it was safer! A nation suffused with White Imagination was weak, exposed. For long-term strength and security, the queendom’s future had to be Black. And of course
was the Everqueen!
been born into the line of succession, not her niece. No edict from a mere monarch—not even if it had been her mother, Theodora—could change that. Alyss Heart: neverqueen, the never-should-have-been queen.
“What’s that interesting thing over yonder?” the caterpillar asked, gazing at something behind them.
Redd, Arch, Vollrath, The Cat, and the other militants turned to look, but there was only the sky over Outerwilderbeastia. When they turned back, the caterpillar had gone.
All were silent, contemplative.
A ripple of movement passed through the troops nearest the Glass Eyes’ tent, where what was left of that assassin force—cloned by Arch from Redd’s originals—were being readied for combat. One of them had bolted out of the tent, startling the troops, and was speeding toward Mr. Van de Skülle. The Dutchman firmed himself for attack, his spiked whip gripped in his fist. But the Glass Eye raced past. Daggers appeared in its hands and it launched itself at Redd, who did not seem in the least put out as—
Her scepter protruded from the Glass Eye’s chest. The assassin staggered, sparks sprayed from its wound. Mr. Van de Skülle stepped forward and put an end to it with a well-placed lash of his whip. Pulling the scepter out of the Glass Eye, he wiped it clean and presented it to Redd, and she held its spear-like butt-end to Arch’s throat.
“Tell me, Archy. Why would I be ambushed by a Glass Eye programed to recognize
as its master?”
With an amused expression, Arch pushed the scepter from his jugular. “I gave orders for it to be done, Redd.”
“Call it a test. To confirm what I suspected. You’re without imagination.”
“And you’ll be without a head!”
She swung her scepter at him, but Arch ducked.
The Cat, Sacrenoir, Ripkins, Blister—everyone was stilled by uncertainty.
“My thinking,” Arch said, thrusting his knobkerrie vertically in front of him as—
—Redd’s scepter clashed against it, “was that if you had imagination, you would have conjured something to do away with that Glass Eye. But instead, you defended yourself as any one of us would have done. And—”
“—now you’re swinging your ugly stick at me like an uncontrollable shrew instead of imagining me—”
She ran at him, her scepter a deadly javelin. Arch held his knobkerrie at both ends to deflect the attack, leaving himself vulnerable, and Redd kicked him in the chest, slamming him backward. Before he recovered his balance, she charged him again, but this time he managed to swing first. Knobkerrie smashed against scepter. Redd lost a handle on her weapon, retreated a short distance to readjust.
“You’ve relied too much on your imaginative powers,” Arch smirked. “Your everyday combat skills have suffered, Rose, if you’ll allow me to say so.”
He snatched a second knobkerrie from the sash of an Astacan warrior and, one in each hand, twirled them baton-like as he advanced, driving Redd back on her heels and raising his voice to address the surrounding army.