“What about Redd?” the rook asked.
“If we’re lucky,” Dodge said, “Arch put an end to her.”
“My queen.” Seeing that Alyss was about to sign off, Hatter had risen from his chair.
The Milliner bowed, then: “Earlier, as Homburg Molly and I were returning to Wondertropolis, the blue caterpillar made himself known to us.”
Alyss and her advisers didn’t need to be told that such a visit from an oracle was unprecedented.
“Did he speak?” Alyss asked.
“He spelled a word in smoke. As a prediction, a warning, perhaps both. And it was directed not to me, but to Molly. The word was ‘you’—y, o, u.”
Alyss sighed. “I’ve been thinking it strange that Blue showed me a vision of how to sabotage WILMA but hasn’t appeared to me since, when the Heart Crystal hardly seems less threatened. And now he presents himself to Molly?”
“The oracles, whatever their value, are nothing if not strange,” Dodge said, putting an arm around her.
Alyss nodded, but not in happy agreement.
Why, just once, couldn’t the caterpillars be perfectly intelligible?
Molly?” she asked.
Hatter hesitated, unsure how to answer.
The queen seemed to understand his silence. “Please tell her, despite all that’s happened, despite all that’s currently happening, I look forward to seeing her. I can think of no one I’d rather have as a bodyguard.”
“I will, my queen.”
Hatter again bowed, knowing that momentous events, the stuff of a nation’s history, were sometimes dependent on individuals commonly thought the least likely to set them in motion. He prayed his daughter would not be one of them.
S IT wise, my liege, to scheme against a caterpillar-oracle?” a minister asked.
King Arch sat beneath the same canopy under which Redd had recently shaded herself during the sparring matches. The lights of Wondertropolis shone in the near distance. Shooting out of the surrounding country dark, where Doomsines were battling a deck of Heart soldiers, cries of enemy wounded vied with war whoops from tribesmen.
“Is it wise to scheme against a caterpillar?” Arch repeated to himself as—
An orb generator exploded over a stand of gobbygrape trees, momentarily turning night into day and revealing the king encamped in an untilled field, Ripkins and Blister standing behind his folding chair, one on each side, and his intel ministers gathered before him.
“It probably is
wise,” Arch admitted, “but I’m not convinced I am scheming against a caterpillar. I’m inclined to think I’m scheming
one. And whoever among you wants to keep your position as ‘intel’ minister during my new reign, now is the time to remind me of your intelligence. How is it I could believe I’m scheming with the green caterpillar?”
The ministers huddled together.
“Because the oracle, who must know Redd is without imagination, didn’t tell her about WILMA,” said one.
“Nor did he tell her that the loss of her imagination was, in part, your doing,” said another.
“And he might have done this before you exposed her,” said yet another.
“Seeing all time as an oracle can,” said a fourth, “the green caterpillar could have warned you that WILMA’s ultimate strength would be compromised, but he didn’t.”
“Excellent.” Arch smiled—he had chosen his ministers well. “The caterpillar did not warn me of sabotage, or reveal the truth to Redd, because
is plotting something that apparently requires me and Redd still to be pitted against each other. The caterpillar knew if he gave me an opening, I’d take it. The question becomes: How long does he believe I will continue to be a bit player in his subterfuge, whatever it is?”
“But, my liege, what of this Everqueen he mentioned?” a minister asked.
“The caterpillar will say what he must to manipulate Redd.”
“Your Majesty,” another minister whispered, “don’t you think the oracle knows of this conversation?”
Arch waved off the question. He assumed the caterpillar was aware of everything he said. He was counting on it. “The tribes have arrived at the various coordinates I assigned for the siege?” he asked.
“They have, Your Highness.”
“And Redd’s old rabble?”
“They couldn’t be more obedient if you’d recruited them yourself.”
Arch stood, thrust his head and arms into a coat of armor resembling reptilian skin, its scales medallion-sized plates impenetrable to blade and crystal shot, to whipsnake grenade and spikejack tumbler. He strapped on his leg armor and hefted his knobkerrie.
“Ripkins, Blister, stay close to me throughout, but if we should cross with Redd or Alyss in any of the fighting, you have my leave to stray. They’re to be shown no mercy. The same goes for Hatter Madigan and that daughter of his—absolutely
“No mercy, no problem,” Ripkins said, flexing his fingerprint sawteeth.
“More like a pleasure,” Blister muttered, pulling off his gloves.
The bodyguards followed Arch into the Doomsine battle, and all along the perimeter of Wondertropolis, Boarderland’s twenty other tribes—each with two platoons’ worth of Redd’s mercenaries mingled among them—marched out from their various locations to storm Wonderland’s capital city.
HEIR NUMBERS were greatly diminished. Thousands strong not half a lunar hour before, Redd’s minions now amounted to no more than her top military rank. Vollrath, The Cat, Sacrenoir, Siren Hecht, Mr. Van de Skülle, Alistaire Poole—with their mistress, they had paused deep in the Antic Arbor to catch their breath, none yet venturing a word aloud, as if waiting for Redd to deny she was without imagination. But each of them knew: If Mistress Heart had her powers, they would not now be in the arbor, nor so few.
Trees spat and snarled. A claw-like branch scraped across Alistaire Poole’s shoulders. A vine slithered wet against Siren Hecht’s arm, leaving a trail of sludge; another coiled briefly around Sacrenoir’s foot before slinking into the underbrush.
“This place is gross,” Siren said.
The others grunted, nodded in agreement, but Redd was too preoccupied to care about her immediate surrroundings. How had Arch known she was without imagination? Why would it ever have occurred to him to think of it? She’d not been dumb enough to betray the fact by her behavior.
“How do you think he knew?” The green caterpillar glided out from the arbor’s darkest depths, an impenetrable weave of vines untying itself to let him pass.
Redd’s voice quavered with rage. “
“Ah,” said the caterpillar, his face spreading with a grin, “I might have supplied the king with a wealth of silk, which the other oracles and I produced. I might even have informed the king what effects certain combinations and patterns of this woven silk would have—if roughly positioned over the Heart Crystal—on imagination in general. But I cannot take credit for what he did not need me to tell him.”
did this to me?”
“With my guidance.”
Redd lurched at the great worm, but he vanished before she could so much as aim the deadly end of her scepter at his soft belly.
“Behind you!” Sacrenoir pointed.
At her back, the caterpillar was calmly smoking his hookah. Redd tried to catch him unaware and whipped her scepter-wielding arm around without turning her head, but—
Alistaire pointed toward the arbor’s uppermost branches, where the caterpillar hovered out of reach.
“Your Imperial Viciousness,” Vollrath interposed. “Might not the present state of our affairs—to say nothing of your alleged condition—suggest to you the justice of listening to this rather plain-speaking oracle?”
“You forget whom you address, tutor. I have an underdeveloped notion of justice.”
“Do you?” Vollrath’s brow leapt up, then contracted. His ears fidgeted. “But Your Imperial Viciousness, you’ve frequently complained of being unjustly removed from succession to Wonderland’s throne, and you cannot be so embittered by what is
if you haven’t a strong conception of what is
Redd stepped close to the albino and, in a voice of quiet menace, asked, “Are you trying to teach me something, tutor?”
“No, Your Imperial Viciousness. By no means.”
Vollrath bowed his way out of arm’s reach, and Redd turned a challenging eye on what was left of her army, silently daring them to engage in
g they wouldn’t have dared to do when she had imagination. The Cat, Sacrenoir, Mr. Van de Skülle, Siren Hecht, Alistaire Poole—in the steady steam of Redd’s fury, it didn’t occur to her that the caterpillar’s presence had assured these assassins’ continued support and allegiance; because although not anywhere near as strong as she used to be, a caterpillar would not have been courting her if she was to remain forever weak, defeated.
“You are about to ask why I provided guidance to King Arch,” the slinking wise one said, alighting on the tiniest of branches above her head.
“I have already answered this. Everything I do is to ensure the safety of the Heart Crystal. For Everqueen.”
But how was that possible? Redd questioned. Hadn’t the oracle previously told her the Crystal would be safe only after she had regained her throne?
“You showed Arch how to take away my imagination so as to help me reclaim Wonderland’s crown?”
The caterpillar sucked on his hookah pipe, exhaled three puffs of smoke: y-e-s.
“And your coming to tell me this—that you instructed Arch in how to rid me of imagination—this too is to help me reclaim Wonderland’s crown?”
The caterpillar again let three clouds of hookah smoke do the talking: y-e-s.
“Inscrutable, infuriating worm!” Redd shouted, not understanding.
“It is supposed that power corrupts,” the caterpillar said in a voice as untroubled as time itself. “Yet the powerful are often corrupt
they are powerful. In fact, I find that they too often become powerful
corrupt. Whether real or perceived, a lack of power can also corrupt.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Your imagination will return in all its strength, Redd Heart. What you do then will determine everything.”
“Since you know so much,” Her Imperial Viciousness scorned, “why don’t you tell me what I’m going to do?”
“Mistress,” said the caterpillar, exhaling a fog that left Redd and her assassins unconscious almost before he finished speaking, “your understanding of the future is naïve.”
T WAS her fault and nothing Hatter could say would convince her otherwise.
During the new palace’s inaugural gala, Molly had attended a meeting between Queen Alyss and King Arch; the king had snickered upon hearing she was the queen’s bodyguard and she let pride and resentment get the better of her. Untamed emotion, lack of self-discipline—the internal enemies of every Milliner—had left her susceptible to cheap manipulation, the Lady of Diamonds gulling her with an exquisitely carved chest supposedly meant for the queen. If she had had any control over herself, she never would have corrupted the Crystal Continuum with the chest’s contents, she never would have become Arch’s prisoner, and her mother would still be alive.
Or so Hatter’s daughter believed as she wandered the flat in Gimble Lane, absently petting the furry leaves of the dog flower whose pot she cradled in the crook of an arm. Yes,
was to blame. The fault was
. The desire to prove herself as capable and trustworthy as a full-blooded Milliner had proved, beyond any doubt, that she was
as capable and trustworthy as full-bloods.
“But who’s to blame for me being a halfer, a worthless halfer unfit for honorable service in the queendom?” she asked aloud.
Hatter and her mother, that’s who. Hatter, especially. Because he was supposed to know better, to
better. A halfer might be expected to make the mistakes she’d made, bad as they were. But not him . . .
“Can’t help thinking of him as Hatter,” she mulled, gazing out the living room’s picture window at the city.
Almost from the time she could walk, she had known him as a public figure, an icon, the hero of innumerable programs for portable Interactive Crystal Entertainment Devices, which somehow, even in the absence of luxury that had defined life at the Alyssian HQ, one child or another always managed to have. Molly had been as enthralled by the ICED programs as anybody—more so, since she hadn’t just watched them for amusement but studied them, the foundation of her self-training. The great Hatter Madigan hadn’t belonged to her any more than he had to other Alyssians, and now she was supposed to put aside the experience of living through those years and call him “father”?
The dog flower whined as she set it on the floor. She took her mother’s notebooks out of the satchel she’d carried from Talon’s Point, untied the flugelberry vine that bound them, and thumbed through the most care-worn, examining the formulae it contained as if they might reveal a secret about their author. Then she tied up the notebooks again and removed her mother’s diary from the satchel. She pressed its sides; its covers popped open and a 3-D image of her mother took shape before her. She scrolled through the diary’s final entry, past Weaver’s description of Redd-controlled Wonderland and the genocidal treatment of Milliners.
“I understand that our relationship was difficult for you, Hatter,” Weaver’s image said as Molly slowed the recording to normal speed. “I know that despite how thoughtful and loving you always were to me, a part of you was angry with yourself for succumbing to your feelings for anyone, let alone a civilian. You thought your feelings a mark against you, an indication of weakness.”