Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 1

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 10 of 13

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Things do indeed look different in the morning. From Alice’s point of view, they have become unavoidably worse: Tarrant – no, the Hatter now, for there is no trace of the warmth and caring she’d become accustomed to in the man – is not at breakfast. He refuses to meet her eyes when she stops by his workshop for lunch and Alice ends up retreating to the courtyard with a bit of whatever Thackery had given her. And, even worse, the Hatter had been wearing gloves. All day long.

Alice knows she ought to apologize. And she will. She will. She just... just needs a bit more time to... to get used to the idea of... of what she’d done and figure out how to... to... to fix it.

Only, there is no way to fix this!

Safe inside her room after she’d taken out her frustration on an inexperienced pawn on the croquet field, she buries her face in her hands and cries.

Any way she looks at it, the Hatter will have to complete the vow with her. Surely he can’t think that the pain and resulting – permanent! – madness are an acceptable option! Within eighty-seven days, she decides, one way or another, they’ll complete the third exchange and... what comes after. And then Tarrant need not spend another moment with her. His mind will be as well as she can make it. That’s all she can ask for, really. All she can expect.

The book had been quite clear on the consequences of trying to cheat the vow: the death of one of the participants would change nothing, merely initiate the excruciatingly painful withdrawal of the blood that had begun to bind with the body. Nor would one of the participants attempting to overwrite the vow by bonding with another have any less detrimental effects. There exist no antidotes, no numbing agents strong enough to counteract the effects.

Alice can’t think of anything else to try. And, even if death or another vow could have relieved their situation, Alice wouldn’t have entertained the possibility of either. She’d promised not to let Tarrant be hurt. Admittedly, she isn’t doing a very good job of it, but that’s no reason to say brangergain i’tall! and do her worst!

And so, with no solution on the horizon, and the Hatter more distant than she’s ever seen him, the week is painfully long. It’s only Alice’s established routine – minus the lunch and teatime in the hat workshop – that gets her through it. She marvels miserably as time and time again, she sees the Hatter in the distance and thinks: The Trial of Threes is over, the suitors are gone... we ought to be happy!

Of course, with thoughts like that floating around in her head constantly, something else would go wrong...


“You’re being miserable!” Chessur yowls over his untouched cup of tea. “Why are you making yourself so ridiculous?!”

Tarrant stares at his own teacup, held delicately between his bare fingertips and fabric-swathed hands, and frowns. How utterly catty of Chessur to waste properly prepared hot tea by insulting him! Tarrant shifts his gaze to his ungrateful visitor and glares. It’s been days – a week, actually... – since he’s given a thought to the color of his eyes, but he suddenly hopes Chessur gets a view of his most unsettling toxic-yellow fury.

“Why do I bother to waste my time?! I might as well be talking to a Tumtum tree!” Tail and head held high – although Tarrant finds it maliciously amusing that Chessur’s tail rises far higher than his chin could ever hope to! – the cat abandons his full teacup and plate of thoughtfully-provided edibles and saunters to the door.

“I’ve had enough of your pity parties, Tarrant. Let me know when you start serving tea again!”

With that, he evaporates, bit by bit through the door. Tarrant sits for a minute. Or perhaps two. Actually, it could be twenty... And then he picks up the ends of the tablecloth and, folding it all together – teapot, cups, dishes, sandwiches, scones, biscuits, silverware! – he hauls the dripping mass to the door of his workshop, intending to throw the door open and leave the mess in the hall for whomever is charged with cleaning it up.

His intentions, however, change when he throws open the door – as planned! – and sees not an empty hall, but Alice standing there. The corners of the tablecloth slip through his numb fingers and the bundle crashes to the floor. He barely hears the ruckus. Nor does Alice appear to take note of it.

With a start, Tarrant realizes Alice has come to see him! And he might be Mad, utterly Miserable, and a complete Moron – he’s considering “M” words today – but he does know his Manners!

“Come in.” He marvels at how amazingly calm he sounds.

Alice – ever the Champion! – doesn’t hesitate. As she enters, the breeze carries her scent and he finds himself gripping the door tightly to keep himself standing upright. Oh, how he’s missed her! And he busies himself with putting out the tablecloth and tea things – as he’d intended! – before turning around.

She stands – why isn’t she sitting in her usual chair? – in the workroom, not far from the door. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, but that’s fine. Tarrant studies her left hand. The bright blue heart line has progressed up to her wrist and disappears under her shirt cuff, just as his be-gloved red one does.

“This is my fault,” she says, suddenly. “I promised not to let you be hurt and then I injured you myself... worse than ever.” He watches her throat work – oh, to be near that throat again! He remembers massaging salve into it that night after the duel with that gutless, spineless, groping cheat! He remembers pressing his nose against it after the second excha—! Tarrant stops that thought right there.

“I’ve injured you. Grievously.”

He frowns. This is the part where he should be apologizing to her, not...

“I realize you must not have known, or you would have said something... Or you had known, but you were too much of a gentleman to deny me when I...” She takes a deliberate breath here. “... asked you to...” And another. “... perform the second exchange on the night before the Trial of Threes.”

Tarrant feels his jaw drop.

“I care for you... very much,” she continues, closing her eyes.

Why does she do that?

He doesn’t know.

“And although the damage to our friendship may be irreparable, I will not let you suffer because of me.”

Still gaping, Tarrant watches as she opens her eyes – not a tear in sight, but plenty of determination!

She announces, “At your convenience, I’ll perform the third exchange and... finalize the vow.”

The queen’s clock marks the seconds as they pass in utter silence.

Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!

“That’s all I came to say,” she concludes.

When the door closes behind her, the sound startles him into action. He leaps for it and throws it open. Forgetting the mess in the hall, he loses several precious seconds negotiating the now-slippery, shard-strewn floor. But in those seconds two things become perfectly clear: One, Alice is not angry with him! And, two, she still cares for him! Certainly, with these two facts in place, they can mend this misunderstanding – how can she think this situation is her fault?! – and sit down and discuss things properly!

Tarrant races after her, her name pressing against the back of his teeth. He turns the corner – slipping again... perhaps his shoes will have to be resoled – and stumbles down the stairs in the direction of voices. Tarrant uses his grip on the balustrade to slingshot himself around toward the main hall –

– and scrambles to a halt. For there, in the middle of the Castle of Mamoreal’s main foyer, stands Ilosovich Stayne.

“... here to court Her Majesty, the queen,” the knave informs his audience.

Alice, standing at the forefront of the queen’s guards, regards Stayne with a look Tarrant sincerely hopes to never, ever earn for himself. “I shall alert the queen to your petition. As your true alliances cannot be verified at the present time, you will stay in the quarters proved for you until called for.” A spark of hostility flames in her eyes. “Unless you’d prefer to turn around and crawl back to wherever it is you’ve come from.”

“I think I’ll stay,” he murmurs in that groveling tone Tarrant had often heard the man use with the Big Head.

Alice is not impressed.

Tarrant watches Alice watch the guards march Stayne off to a secure room. When she looks up – oh, she must have noticed his attention! Well, he had been thinking about her awfully hard – their gazes meet. He thinks he sees her expression soften, just the smallest increment, and then, with a tiny, reassuring smile, she turns away.

Hands fisting – how odd it feels to fist one’s hand in gloves, even with the tips of the fingersleeves removed! – Tarrant lets her go. After all, she’s the Queen’s Champion.

Alice is working now. Mustn’t interfere...

But, oh, how he wants to! How he desperately, emphatically, would-do-anything-if-only-he-could! wants to!


“You must be able to do something?!

Mirana sighs and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Alice,” she tells her befuddled Champion. “I wish I could, but Stayne is, unfortunately, of acceptable lineage. His being banished doesn’t apply in this situation.”

“Then we’ll invent a reason! He won’t know the difference!”

The queen leans her forehead in her hand. “No, he will. Stayne grew up with these laws, just as Iracebeth and I did. He knows them. Well.”

“Announce your decision to marry someone else!”

Mirana closes her eyes. “Were I to do that, my chosen spouse would be required to challenge Stayne directly. I can’t risk inciting a war by dragging another monarchy or lordship into this.”

Long moments pass. And then: “So he’s staying.”

“Yes, he’ll have to. I can’t refuse him hospitality until the duel is completed.”

“Then let’s not waste time,” Alice surprises her by saying. “I’ll chaperone your... meeting with him on the croquet pitch, with your guard in attendance. I’ll interview him before dinner and then it’ll just be the duel tomorrow. There’s no need to let him get too comfortable here.” Alice’s eyes flash and the queen is started when she thinks she sees a glint of gold there... “I don’t trust him.”

“Nor do I,” Mirana admits. “Are you rested? Truly rested, Alice? I’ll not have you at a disadvantage, not for any reason.”

“I’m fine. I’m ready.” Alice finally accepts the seat Mirana had offered her. “But what of your sister? He came alone.”

Mirana presses her fists to her eyes and struggles to push the tears of rage and frustration back. “I... consulted the Oraculum. Her fate was... recorded.”

“I’m so sorry, Mirana.”

The queen tries not to think about that horrid illustration: the chain with which she’d ordered those two traitors to be shackled together... that chain around her sister’s throat and the frightening smile on Stayne’s face...

Mirana shakes her head and takes a deep breath. “I shall summon the courtiers. We’ll need witnesses to the duel, at least.”

Alice nods. “Have your guard in attendance, in the event that...”

“Of course.” If Stayne really could murder his former mistress – and not just threaten to in order to perform a bit of grandstanding on the battlefield in hopes of earning himself a lighter sentence – then the man truly could and would do anything to achieve his goals.

“He’s going to cheat, you know.”

Mirana nods. “I’m sure he will.”

“If it gets bad, I want you to leave the field, Your Majesty.” It’s not Mirana’s imagination this time – Alice’s eyes do seem to be... burning from the inside. “I’ll not risk your life.”

Mirana reaches out and settles her hand over her Champion’s. “You use whatever you must to defeat him. Do not limit yourself as you did with Oshtyer, Alice.” Her Champion nods. “I’ll not risk your life,” Mirana explains, “unnecessarily.”

“If you mean that, Your Majesty, perhaps the duel won’t be required at all...” Alice muses, a hard look in her eyes.

Mirana glances down at Alice’s fingers which are moving over the hidden pocket of her belt. The one with the garrote – the assassin’s weapon.

“No, Alice. It must be done in the open.”

“But I must win, at any cost?”


Alice lets out a blustery sigh. “Well, let’s get Bandy out there on patrols, then. I want to be sure no one dares to come to the bastard’s assistance before this wretched business is finished.”


They pass a few moments in contemplative silence, putting off things that ought to be addressed urgently rather than at their leisure. Then, Alice shifts in her chair and Mirana notices she’s studying her own left hand. “I told Tarrant I’d finish it.” She looks up and gives Mirana a wry grin. “I just thought you might be interested in hearing that.”

“Indeed I am! That’s the best news I’ve heard all week! Have you set the date?”

“No, he hasn’t agreed yet... but I think he will. No matter how he feels about me now, I can’t imagine he’d wish pain and a broken mind on me.”

“No, Tarrant would never wish that for you, but, Alice, don’t you know how much he... that is... he...”

“He’s angry with me, I know. But you’re right: he cares. He cares.” She nods and exhales sharply. “It’s enough.”

Mirana holds her tongue despite the fact that she’d love to set Alice straight on a thing or two, but no: it is up to Tarrant to fix this. He will. Mirana knows he will.

“I’m happy for you nonetheless,” Mirana tells her.

Alice’s smile is sad.

“Are you not happy?” the queen asks before she can stop herself.

Her Champion shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m hoping that’ll come later.”

Wisely, Mirana says nothing to that. After all, Alice has a meeting and an interview to prepare for and additional security measures to implement before either event takes place. Mirana shudders at the thought of being so near that slimy, murdering, sadistic, groveling twit. But it’ll all be over soon, Mirana reminds herself, reaching for her parchment and quill. As she quickly pens invitations to a dozen of her courtiers, Mirana begins to relax: by this time tomorrow, it will be over and done with.


When the interview has finally reached its end, Alice watches the guard escort Stayne back to his room and desperately wishes for a hot bath for herself. Just being in the same room with him has made her feel unclean.

Her hands fist at the memory of his suggestive comments:

“A heart line, Alice? To whom have you...? Oh, yes, of course. The Hatter. I should have seen it earlier. He always did... pant after you... a bit like a poor, stupid dog. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun together, making him fetch and carry...”

Alice grits her teeth to keep the scream of disgust and rage from eking out. Her skin crawls just as it had when Oshtyer had dared to touch her, had dared to attack her on such a horridly personal level. She allows herself a shudder before opening the parlor door. She’s careful to keep her eyes open in the corridor. It seems unlikely that Stayne could escape twelve members of the guard, but his conspirators – if they exist – might have entered the castle. Alice keeps her knife close.

As she passes by the next door, a hand reaches out, grabs her arm and pulls her into the Royal Library of Alchemy. She uses her attacker’s momentum to swing him around and against a bookshelf. Her knife is at his throat before she recognizes him.

“Hatter?” she asks, mortified, panicked, frightened. “Don’t grab me like that!

“Champion,” he replies with a proud smile. “Excellent reflexes. You’ll need them tomorrow.”

Alice lowers the knife. “I know.”

She looks into his eyes. The irises are aqua-blue and Alice feels almost weak-kneed at the sight of that much-missed color.

The Hatter’s hands hover on either side of her face, as if he can’t quite decide whether or not to touch her.

Alice ventures, “I know you’re upset with me and I am sorry, but could we just forget about it for a moment and...?” She leans toward his left hand and closes her eyes as his rough skin – He’s taken off the gloves! – brushes against her cheek.

“Yes,” he whispers and then his hands are there. His thumbs stroke her cheeks and his fingers thread into her hair. He leans his forehead against hers and Alice thinks she can feel him shivering, too. “Alice... Alice... I’m not angry, Alice... I... I...”

Alice waits, but he never finishes the thought aloud. After a moment, he inhales deeply and leans back. In the gloom of the library, Alice studies his eyes. There’s just enough light for her to discern the cobalt blue there.

“Ye keep yer promise. Fight hard...”

“As hard as I must.”

“Do wha’ever ye must...”

“To win. I promise.” Alice reaches across the brief space between them and intertwines her left hand with his, turning it so he can see her heart line. “I promise.”

He does shiver then, undoubtedly.

Alice can’t bear to let this moment end. Not yet. But she can think of nothing else to say. In the end, she says nothing. She keeps her grip tight on his hand and just holds on for one more minute.


This time, for this duel, Tarrant refuses to be pushed back and up into a tree. Even if it means that bloody stomach ache of his has an easier time of finding him. He damns the courtiers – let them find out Alice is his! He doesn’t care. She’s already promised to bind his heart with her blood as his blood will bind hers. In the face of that, there is nothing these pathetic, petty, posturing nitwits can do.

Alice steps forward from between a rook and a bishop and it seems as if both she and Tarrant are of the same mind about the courtiers. She sweeps the crowd with her gaze until she finds him. And then she gives him a rather obvious and sincere smile.

Some nearby courtiers twitter behind their hands and send sideways glances at Tarrant. He doesn’t take his attention off of his betrothed, not even when Stayne emerges from the opposite end to reluctant but polite applause. Tarrant feels his grin become strained. He wants to smack the lot of them across their powdered, painted faces. All they care about is not offending the challenger, in the event that he’s chosen by the queen... or manages to slaughter her Champion.

Alice... your promise!

She faces Stayne now and the pair of them go through the ritual of removing the weapons they won’t be using during the fight. Tarrant focuses on Stayne as the man removes a pair of daggers – one from his chest and another from his waist. A dirk strapped to his arm is removed by a knight and two pawns attend to his ankles. A quick glance assures that Alice is being subjecting to the same examination. An uncomfortable murmur goes through the hastily-gathered audience as weapon after weapon is removed from both the challenger and the Champion. Never before has such attention been paid to the removal of disallowed weapons!

When they both stand there in only shirtsleeves, trousers, and shoes, Nivens hops forward nervously. “Challenger! Queen’s Champion! Choose your weapon!”

With bland smile, Stayne selects a broadsword. Tarrant tenses. He knows that Alice’s arms are much shorter and her center of gravity is much lower than Stayne’s, so her broadsword is a lot closer to being a short-sword than not. But Alice doesn’t seem perturbed in the slightest. In fact, she seems to be almost looking forward to the fight.

Tarrant tries to borrow a bit of her confidence and tranquility – not enough that she’d notice, of course! Just to keep him from pulling the throwing knives from his gauntlets and taking care of Ilosovich Stayne... permanently.

He keeps his fisted hands at his sides as Alice and Stayne don’t bow exactly... more like incline their heads briefly. No, Alice certainly doesn’t trust him and she’s let Stayne know it.

“The duel begins!” McTwisp announces shrilly, ringing the silver bell.

Tarrant tenses further, despite the bit of confidence and the tad of tranquility he’d gathered unbeknownst from Alice. With each perfectly executed stab or thrust and each successful block, Tarrant has to remind himself not to move. He cannot – must not! – interfere with this fight, no matter how intense his desire to do just that. He watches his betrothed face the man Tarrant could have – should have – killed three years ago on the Battle of Frabjous Day. So, close... Stayne’s life had been there for the taking and Tarrant had let his disgust at the death of the Jabberwock stay his hand.

Killing Ilosovich Stayne: of all the immeasurably stupid things to have not done!

The duel proceeds with perfectly-executed precision swordsmanship. Indeed, Tarrant has to admit, Alice has improved quite a lot since he’d last seen her fight with the sword. Her footwork is impeccable and her arms truly are strong enough to wield the weapon she holds.

Still... Tarrant can’t help being suspicious: Stayne isn’t even trying to tire her. Does the man honestly think he’ll be able to persuade the queen to accept his offer, or, failing that, allow him to return from exile?

The minutes wind and spin away despite the insistence of Tarrant’s pocket watch to the contrary. He remains tense, however. Something is not right here. Something he should know...

Just as Nivens raises the silver bell to announce the end of required time, Stayne makes his move. Tarrant gasps as the man thrusts his blade directly at Alice’s heart!

She brings up her own sword and twists her torso. Each motion is just enough to save her life. Although it’s not enough to save her shirt. Several courtiers giggle and look away as the fabric gapes open over Alice’s chest. Tarrant stares at the unmarred flesh exposed over her heart and shoulder and upper arm until he’s sure her lack of injury is not a hopeful delusion. He even sees the hint of the wrappings across her bust, but – thankfully – he does not see any blood.

Tarrant’s traitorous body begins to relax.

Nivens rings the silver bell.

Alice, uncaring of her state of dress, turns back to a smiling Ilosovich Stayne.

It’s the smile that reminds Tarrant that this contest is not over yet. A slow drumbeat of dread thuds against his breastbone and stomps his stomach against his spine.

Careful, Alice! Watch him!

She does. Unlike the previous duels, Alice does not charge him and finish the fight in a flurry of swordplay. She feels it too, then, he surmises. The bastard is Planning something...

“Tired, Alice?” Stayne wonders aloud.

She gives him a tight-lipped smile. Lifting her sword, they begin circling again. Tarrant notices her grip on the hilt: her knuckles are white. He glances up at her posture and notes, with relief, that she hasn’t tensed up.

Just a bit longer, Alice. Draw him in and finish it...

She does. A thrust, and then another, and then she has the blade of her sword under Stayne’s weapon. It will only take a sharp jerk to disarm him, send the blade flying over his arms and into the grass. Tarrant watches the disarming motion. In fact, he’s so intent on Alice he almost misses the added momentum Stayne intentionally gives the sword. With a lurch of his shoulder and twist of his wrist... faster than it ought, the sword slices through the air like a spear...

... directly at Tarrant.

It happens too fast for screams, gasps, or winces.

One instant, Stayne’s sword is tangled with Alice’s and the next the Knave has used Alice’s thrust and a calculated motion of his arm to send it hurtling at Tarrant’s chest. The events occur too fast for Tarrant’s mind to truly comprehend and, suddenly, he feels something hard at his back, knocking the air out of him as he falls. The flash of silver is the last thing he sees before darkness replaces everything.


Mirana’s gasp is as belated as everyone else’s. They all stare at the Royal Hatter, flat on the ground under the boughs of a cherry tree. In shock, Mirana doesn’t immediately notice that her Champion and the challenger are still locked in combat.

Nivens’ urgent order – “Challenger, stand down!” – gets her attention. On the pitch, Mirana watches as Stayne attempts to rip the broadsword from Alice’s hands, but she holds on and kicks him rather soundly in a very... sensitive location.

With a snarl of rage, Stayne manages to tear the sword from Alice’s grasp, but she gives it a bit of a nudge at the last moment, sending it spinning uselessly beyond his reach – and hers, too! – and across the pitch. Rather than fetch it, Stayne takes more direct action and grabs Alice’s throat in his long-fingered hands.

“Guard!” the queen calls, frantically. But it’s going to be too late. In the next instant, Stayne will snap her neck and toss her body aside...

But, strangely enough, it doesn’t happen that way.

Alice grins through her teeth and some sort of liquid shoots out of her mouth and strikes the man in his remaining eye. He howls and scrabbles at his face. Alice has the garrote around his neck in the next instant and with a sharp twist of her hands and jerk of her shoulders...

It’s over.

Stayne’s body slumps to the pitch.

Mirana can only stare – it had all happened so fast, she hadn’t even had a moment to consider flinching away from the sight of it.

The silence on the croquet pitch is unprecedented. Alice moves first. She gingerly unwraps her hands, now bloody, from the garrote which had sliced through her unprotected skin and spits something onto the grass. From where Mirana sits – and now stands – it looks very much like a much-chewed Grobben blossom. Abstractly, her knowledge of alchemy catalogs it: When distilled, a highly intoxicating beverage, but when mashed raw and added with a warm solution, especially salt water, it creates an acidic blend that must not make contact with the eyes...


Alice’s shout snaps Mirana out of her daze. Picking up her skirts, the queen rushes toward the break in the spectators – to the place where Tarrant had fallen. Arriving, Miaran sees several courtiers picking themselves up as Bayard, his wife and pups apologize for any injuries they might have caused when they’d knocked Mirana’s guests to safety.

“You near gave me a heart failure!” one shouts at a nearly-grown pup.

It’s a pity she hadn’t, Mirana thinks, before stopping short. She stares at Tarrant, flat on the ground, his eyes open and glazed.

“Look at me, you stubborn milliner!” Alice snarls, ignoring the wet towel Algernon is insistently offering, her bloody hands ripping open Tarrant’s cravat. “The sword never even touched you!”

Startled, Mirana notices that’s entirely true. Stayne’s sword is quivering in the breeze right where it had cleaved the tree that Tarrant had been standing in front of. Calculating the height and depth of the strike, Mirana realizes Tarrant would not have survived if he hadn’t fallen to the ground.

“Bayard, what’s happened to him?” Mirana asks, struggling to find her bearings.

“Not sure, Your Majesty. The Hatter was Chessur’s charge.”

Mirana opens her mouth but Chessur appears before she can call for him. “No need to shout. I’m here, Your Majesty. The twit knocked his head against the tree when I pushed him down.”

“You’d better hope you haven’t damaged him... any more than he already is,” Alice grumbles, having opened Tarrant’s collar button and is now feeling his scalp through his bright hair. The queen notices she’d finally taken advantage of the towel and some healing ointment, but not before utterly ruining Tarrant’s poor cravat.

“That’d be a difficult task, indeed, if you ask me,” the cat drawls.

“I didn’t.”

A movement draws Mirana’s eyes. She exhales a relieved breath as Tarrant’s hand twitches and he blinks.

“... Alice?” It’s not so much a word as a gasp.

“Right here. You’re fine.”

“... you?”

“I’m fine.” She holds up her half-healed hands for him to inspect.

“... the garrote?” A faint smile twitches at the corners of his lips. “That’s my Alice...”

Alice nods. “Yes. Stayne won’t trouble us again.”

His gaze un-focuses and his eyelashes flutter. “... ah... what can ye never catch but always get inteh?”

“Trouble,” Alice answers, petting his hair.

Satisfied that there’s no immediate emergency, Mirana straightens and waves to the courtiers. “Thank you all for coming today. If you’d like to stay for luncheon, Pondish and Lakerton are waiting to show you to the sunroom!” Glancing over her shoulder at the pitch and Stayne’s body, Mirana is doubly glad that she hadn’t ordered lunch to be served on the solarium terrace...

As the crowd moves off at the insistence of Bayard, Bayelle, and their pups, Mirana remains for a moment.

“You’ve got quite the bump back there,” Alice tells the man still gazing up at her, dazed. “Just rest for a bit...”

“... Alice... we’re under the cherry trees...”

“Yes, we are.”

“... something I wanted to tell you under the cherry trees...”

“Well, what is it?”

Breathlessly, he murmurs, “We’re betrothed. It’s called the Thrice a-Vow. The Hightopp clan has used it for generations to control the hatter’s madness. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before...” Mirana knows she should turn away; Tarrant’s gaze has become frantic, a bit crazed... vulnerable. “So slurvish...” he continues. “Didn’t want to hear you say ‘no’... You’re so young... beautiful... amazing, Alice... can’t want... an old... mad hatter... like me... Do you... forgive...?”

Alice smiles into his still-not-quite-focused eyes. “Hatter?” she asks.

He swallows thickly. “Yes, Champion?”

Alice grasps Tarrant’s left hand in hers and Mirana thinks she hears Alice whisper, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

But no, Alice couldn’t have said that, Mirana decides, turning away with a shake of her head. There’s no reason at all for Tarrant’s face to light up or his eyes to sparkle with delight or his lips to stretch into a wide grin at such a very odd phrase. Why, the man looks as if Alice has just professed her undying love.

Yes, for certain, Mirana had simply misheard that whispered confession.

“Has our resident mad hatter finally allowed his good sense to find him?”

Mirana resists glancing over her shoulder at the pair of will-be-lovers. She smiles at the cat perched above her head instead. “Either that or Alice has stumbled into his madness.”

“Humph! I should hardly believe the latter. That girl’s footwork is something to contend with. She can outmaneuver madness any day.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Mirana allows. Chessur follows her from tree to tree until, with a sudden thought, Mirana stops. “Chessur... what exactly was all that about? Knocking people over the instant Stayne’s sword left his hand?”

Chessur – grining, of course – puffs up his furry chest. “That’s our Alice, you know. During her interview with the knave he noticed her heart line and commented on it. Figured out she was betrothed to Tarrant. Until then, Alice had thought he’d merely try to kill her...”

“And not me?” This is a bit of a surprise.

“Oh, no. He’d force you to wed him first to legitimize his claim to the throne so no one would protest when you suddenly...” The Cheshire Cat clears his throat delicately.

“I see. So, Stayne was intending to kill Alice... but why throw his sword at Tarrant and make it look like Alice had disarmed him so... poorly?”

“The Thrice a-Vow, Your Majesty.”

Mirana frowns.

“Just before the end of the duel, Stayne cut away her shirt.”

She wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Yes...”

“He cut it over her heart, where the heart line would have reached and developed if she and Tarrant had completed all three exchanges.”

“But they hadn’t...”

“And therefore, Alice was still vulnerable through Tarrant.”

Mirana sighs. “I’m afraid I still don’t see the logic of that.”

Chessur chuckles. “I’m merely repeating Alice’s argument. I’m afraid I don’t understand it entirely myself. Uplanders,” he sighs. “Something about how Stayne would have to try to kill Tarrant first since it would drive Alice mad and give him the upper hand...” The Cheshire Cat rubs his ear, thinking. “And then there was something about Tarrant having thrown sharp things at Stayne once or twice before.  As Tarrant would be able to see an attack coming, and with him not being bound to the rules of conduct for duels, Stayne would be worried about Tarrant attacking him before he could properly slay Alice.  And so Stayne would have to kill Tarrant first, in order to make dispatching Alice and forcing your hand in marriage feasible.”

“Ah!” Mirana smiles. “Yes, of course! Silly of me not to see it sooner. Tarrant would not have hesitated to interfere in the duel if the attack hadn’t been a complete surprise. In addition, if Stayne had so much as sneezed on Alice, Tarrant would have killed him with one of those little knives he keeps on his person. Duel or no duel.” Perhaps I’m getting the hang of this Uplandian logic! the queen muses. Confidently, she concludes, “Tarrant would never let anyone kill his Alice.”

Chessur smiles back. “Just so, Your Majesty. He never has, and I dare say he never will.”

One Promise Kept: Book 1

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 10 of 13

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