Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 1

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 5 of 13

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Ye’ve done WHAT?!

The entire castle seems to wince in the wake of the thunderous shout. Luckily, it doesn’t have any adverse effects on the recipient.

Alice determinedly repeats herself, “I told the queen I’d do it. I know about the Trial of Threes. There must be another option. We’ll find it.”

The Hatter glares at her. “Another option,” he parrots. “Aye, there is one; ye can go back teh Upland!”

“I’m not going back! I’ve decided to stay, you stubborn milliner!”

Alice tenses, waiting for the next volley. She can’t say this conversation has gone very well, but it’s gone better than she’d expected... so far.

“Ye’re... stayin’?”

His hopeful expression and blue-green eyes invite her closer. “Yes,” Alice says, taking a step nearer.

The Hatter shakes himself suddenly. “Nae! Ye shoul’nae! If ye stay, ye’ll die.”

“Die?” Even for a –  mostly –  mad hatter, that seems a bit of an over-reaction.

He struggles with his thoughts or perhaps his temper or maybe both. “The Jabberwock will remember you. You cannae –” Alice resists a wince as his control unravels... again.“ – stand by and let it kill ye while ye’re tryin’ teh negotiate!

“You’re absolutely right.”

“I –! ... Alice?”

“It’ll try to kill me. If we can’t find any middle ground, I’ll kill the blasted beast. Every three and a third years if I have to!”

The Hatter stares at her, his eyes wide, fearful.

“You think I can’t guess what it would do to you to know that... that thing was allowed to live? Under Mirana’s protection, no less?” Alice finally crosses the distance between them and stands toe-to-toe with him. “I don’t want to slay anything.” Alice daringly reaches for his hands. “But I will not let you be hurt.”

She feels a slight tremor in his fingers. Alice tightens her grasp.

In a sudden move, the Hatter curls his unsteady fingers around her wrists and pulls them up. He steps closer until her fingertips brush against his lapels. “I will not let you be hurt.”

His gaze burns. Alice tells herself not to let herself feel complacent in this apparent cease-fire. There’s still quite a lot of time between now and the resurrection of the Jabberwocky for the Hatter to get... prickly and unreasonable again.

Alice smiles. “Then, on this point, I suppose we’ll just have to agree to... agree.”

The Hatter grins and giggles. “I think you’ve made a rhyme.”


Tarrant stares out at the assembly. He fidgets with the lace on his cuffs and tugs at his lapels. He decides he hates new suits. Too stiff. He also hates new-suit-occasions. Too obsequious . With too-bright eyes and a toothy smile, Tarrant scans the sea of Outland princes, lords, vassals, and dignitaries until his gaze alights on a woman with short, tangled blond hair in a slivery blue vest, white shirtsleeves and trousers.


His gaze lingers on her hair, short now. Short enough to stay out of her way when she fights. His fingers curl into a fist as he remembers what that hair had felt like when it had been longer. The one time he’d touched it. He’s glad he has the memory. It’s a good one. Tarrant doesn’t have many good ones.


Tarrant blinks and turns toward the attending frog. “Ah, thank you, Pondish.”

Tarrant lifts the slender, crystal glass and studies the pale blue, bubbling beverage. He hates Wassailin with a passion. But he’d noticed that the color very nearly matches the blue of Alice’s vest. And it precisely matches the sword and knife scabbards slung on straps of leather crisscrossing her hips.

One of Pondish’s fellows – Lakerton, perhaps; it’s difficult to be sure at this distance – maneuvers through the crowd and offers the queen and her Champion a beverage from his tray. The queen accepts. Alice does not.

In truth, this is the first time Tarrant has seen her in four days. Four unbelievably long days! And then it was just at dinner with the queen, Fenruffle, and an assortment of giddy courtiers who had demanded new hats for this very occasion. She’d looked tired then, but had smiled at him down the table. Unfortunately, the Royal Hatter’s chair is quite far from the head of the table when so many guests are present. She’d still had long hair then. But, oddly enough, he’s starting to appreciate this much shorter style. Of course that has nothing whatsoever to do with the clear, unobstructed view of her neck when she tilts her head just so or stretches up her chin to scan the crowd.

He giggles as she performs that very move for his enjoyment.

“Enjoying the Wassailin?” a cultured voice drawls at his shoulder.

Tarrant doesn’t take his eyes off of Alice. The Alice. His Alice! He murmurs, “And just how did you merit an invitation, Chessur?”

He doesn’t see the grin, but Tarrant knows it’s there. “Special security. Are you going to drink that or stare through it at Alice all night?”

“Stare, of course. Alice looks lovely in blue, don’t you think?”

Chessur purrs out a speculative hum. “There’s something different about you, Tarrant...”

“You smell it, too?” he asks, fingering the over-starched lapel with his free hand.

“Yes... You seem... quite pleased with yourself. And do I detect a certain Uplander scent on you now?”

“If you do, would you be so kind as to direct my nose to it? I haven’t had a whiff of Alice yet this evening.”

“You would if you’d go over there and talk to her.”

Tarrant’s grin wilts. “She’s working. Protecting the queen. Mustn’t get in the way of that.”

“Fenruffle, that useless excuse for a feathered hat,” Chessur growls with surprising irritation. “Are you letting him bully you away from your Alice?”

That catches Tarrant’s attention. With a frown, he turns to his odd feline friend.

Chessur leans closer and sniffs the air delicately. “Ah... Do I smell the first promise of the Thrice a-Vow, Hatter?”

Tarrant stares at him blankly.

The Chesire Cat grins wickedly. “Oh, my, goodness. That is what it is! That... newness about you. Congratulations, Tarrant. However did you manage to convince her to do it?”

Unsettled by these astute observations, Tarrant turns away, his eyes shifting guiltily. “Perhaps she’s the one who convinced me.”

“Oh, I would have loved to have been a grin on the wall for that.”

The idea, understandably, is not a comforting one for Tarrant.

“Speaking of things I love, where is your precious hat, dear Hatter?”

Tarrant turns back to the Cheshire Cat and glares.

“New suit, new top hat... you’re looking as sparkling as the royal drapes in that dove gray, but where oh ‘wear’ has your beautiful hat got to?”

“It’s quite safe and you’ll leave it right wear it is if you know what’s good for you.”

Chessur twirls in the air, mischievous grin present and accounted for. “And on that note, back to work...”

Before he has finished evaporating, Tarrant is scanning the crowd again, hunting for and – there! – recapturing the sight of her. He tenses as one of the visiting prince’s retainers sidles up beside Alice, more than a bit too close. Evidently, Alice agrees. Keeping the queen in her line of sight, she gives the encroaching booly-geber a well placed pointed toe, tripping him into an older woman with a rather unfortunately large bosom. Tarrant giggles. His Alice has turned out to be quite talented with her feet.

Although he does consider pushing his way through the crush of bodies to smell her, talk to her, watch her meet his gaze, he knows he won’t. He’ll behave.

Yes, it’s quite frustrating to have a room between them when, a mere ten days ago, there’d been nothing between them but clothing and buttons. He feels his grin stretch into something that might be a bit more... predatory. Yes, with enough time to reflect, Tarrant can’t find anything worthy of regret in that kiss, the sealing of their first exchange. The first of three. After all, that’s why it’s called the Thrice a-Vow.

He’s also had time to get used to the idea that Alice makes a rather excellent Queen’s Champion. The issue with that bloody Jabberwocky notwithstanding, the only thing Tarrant would like to change about his life is to integrate a bit more Alice-time into it.

He sighs. A look down the length of a dinner table and, days before that, a smile through the open door of his workshop and, days before that, tea with the queen and Fenruffle and Alice’s other instructors to discuss who her next battle-skills and etiquette tutors were to be had certainly not been enough time. Not enough by half!

A slight commotion in the queen’s – and, thus, Alice’s – general vicinity brings Tarrant’s full attention back around. What appears to be a pair of dignitaries are shoving at each other, working up to a good shouting match. Tarrant keeps his eyes on Alice, who plucks a flute of Wassailin off of a passing waiter’s tray and flings the contents in their precise direction. He supposes those knife throwing lessons had been useful after all...

A shocked gasp reverberates through the crowd and Tarrant giggles in the wake.

“Take your dispute outside next time,” Alice informs them without bothering to glance in their direction. Her calm, authoritative tone carries easily in the hushed gathering. Tarrant claps his hand over his mouth to keep from cheering.

Must not interfere. Alice is working now.

The deeply offended pair of lords are ushered out to get cleaned up by an apologetic Fenruffle and conversation starts again in drips and drabs.

“That’s my Alice,” Tarrant muses.

If she’s your Alice, why is she all the way over there and you’re all the way over here?

“Alice is working. Mustn’t get in the way,” he reminds himself.

And, perhaps she’d heard his murmurings because, at that exact moment, when the queen is animatedly chatting with a short, fat man in a very poorly made bowler hat, Alice looks up, across the sea of powdered wigs, coquettishly pinned hats, and swaying feathers right into Tarrant’s eyes.

She smiles.

Tarrant takes that smile – that heartfelt, revealing, glowing smile – and tucks it away in a pocket for safe keeping. Not his pocket watch pocket, of course. The one responsibility he had ever assigned it - the care of his pocket watch - it had failed miserably! Not that the pocket itself is entirely to blame, what with Time being so utterly devoted to grudge-keeping! Still he’d entrusted the pocket with his one and only pocket watch and the blasted thing has never been safe there, that’s for sure!  And he’s not about to subject something as precious as an Alice-smile to so irresponsible a keeper!

In less than a moment, it’s over. Alice is working again. He sighs.

A smile over the heads of the wealthy, greedy, and zealous is not very much. Not nearly enough. But it is a little more.

Smiling, Tarrant pours half of his Wassailin onto a potted tree. “One of us ought to enjoy the refreshments,” he explains, then leans back against the balustrade of the curving, marble staircase and, hand weaving through the air in time with the orchestra, ignores the over-starched, non-Alice scent of his new, poorly-hued suit and watches his promised one handle the crowd.


“What are you still doing here, Alice?”

Alice turns away from the clear, starlit night. Her hand drops from the curtain. “I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?”

Mirana removes her earrings and hat, setting them on her dresser. “The party’s over. It’s late. Go to bed.”

Alice nods, but she doesn’t want to go to bed. Not yet. “Do you think I was rude enough?”

The queen smiles. “Tripping people and dousing them with beverages? I think you were perfect, Alice.”

“Let’s hope it was enough to dissuade any of your visitors from causing trouble during their stay.”

“I’m sure it will be.” Mirana removes her bracelets and places each in its velvet box, one by one. “You’ve grasped the concept of the Queen’s Champion quite well. Do not worry.”

She nods. “All right, I’ll let you get some sleep, Your Majesty. There don’t appear to be any assassins hiding behind your drapes.”

“I should hope not!”

“Good night, Your Majesty,”

“Good night, Alice. I’ll see you at brunch.”

Brunch, yes. A lovely tea party with each of the queen’s five suitors and one of their ministers. Splendid. Closing the door behind her, Alice sighs. She takes the winding stairs down the castle tower which houses the queen’s chambers, her mind off on its own.

Well, not quite on its own. A vision of the Hatter, looking oddly contained in his silvery suit and top hat stays with her. His hair had been a bit less wild tonight although no less vivid. He eyes had looked blue again, but at that distance, it had been hard to tell for sure.

Alice shakes herself. Focus, Alice. There are guests in the castle. Yes, now is really not the best time to be wandering about in a daze.

She reaches the bottom of the staircase, nods to the rook and bishop guarding the entrance to the queen’s tower, and turns left. Another turn and she finds herself walking in the direction of the Hatter’s rooms.

You shouldn’t be here, she tells herself even as she notices the faint glow of light escaping from under the door. He might be busy... She tries not to think in too great detail about the personal routines that might prevent him from answering the door were she to knock...

“Well, are you going in or will you be staring at a doorknob all night?” the keyhole asks snootily.

“Was I staring?” she asks.



A slight pause follows and then: “Staring again!”

“Oh, all right. I’ll go in.”

She raises a fist to knock but the door swings open at the same instant. Soft, yellow light from the oil lamps spills out into the corridor. Alice regards the Hatter in his shirtsleeves, vest unbuttoned and cravat hanging loosely around his neck.


“It’s late, I know. I just... had a moment and I haven’t seen you in days...”

He invites her in with a step to the side and a tiny bow. Closing the door behind her, the Hatter says, “But you did see me this evening... didn’t you?”

“I did, but –”

“But you meant you haven’t smelled me in days,” he finishes for her.

Alice smiles. “That’s one way to look at it.”

“Are we back to looking?”

Alice’s lips twitch with humor at the teasing light in his eyes. Blue eyes. Definitely blue. “Yes,” she tells him. “I thought you’d looked moonstruck at the party earlier. Now I’m sure of it.”

“You hair’s shorter,” the Hatter says suddenly.

Alice resists raising a hand to it. “I know. It feels strange. Too light.”

“I like it. It suits you.”

Why am I blushing? Alice despairs, mortified. She can think of nothing to say in reply.

“Would you care for a chair?”

Alice follows his gesture and chooses not one of the armchairs, but the small sofa. She unbuckles her sword and sits on the right side. With a slight hesitation, the Hatter joins her. She can’t help but notice his rigid posture.

Collecting his hand – the one nearest to her – she asks, “What are you thinking, Hatter?”

“You called me by my given name before,” he points out softly.

Alice remembers. “You don’t mind?”


“All right.” She takes a steadying breath. “What are you thinking, Tarrant?”

He relaxes and finally turns toward her completely. His tension seems to have miraculously disappeared. Or evaporated.

“I was thinking, Alice, that I like it when you say my name. I also like it that you came to visit me. Not that I’d only like you to visit now, that is to say, at this moment. I dare say I’d like you to visit anytime you were so inclined, and what I mean by that is, well, that is, I... I...”

“Tarrant,” Alice says, squeezing his hand. “I’ve missed you, too.”

The Hatter leans his shoulder against the sofa cushion and gives her a tremulous smile. For a moment, he says nothing. His eyes move as he studies her intently. Alice watches his expressions change, his eye color shift from blue into pale green.

“I’m worried about you,” he says, sounding a little surprised by his own revelation.

Alice assures him, “I was more worried this morning, before I’d seen them. The queen’s suitors, I mean. Now that I have seen them. Well, I think that Prince Avendale might be... well. I don’t know what to think of a...”

“A lion.”

Alice nods, but Avendale is not just a lion. Although she’d never seen a live one in England, she’s pretty sure it’s impossible for lions to walk upright as Avendale does. Nor do they have long-fingered paws. Nor do they wear a rather intimidating-looking scimitar at their side.

“And then there’s the unicorn – Lord Hornsaver.” Again, an upright-walking creature with hands more closely resembling a man’s than a horse’s hooves. Despite their alien-ness, Alice doesn’t think they’re the ones to be worrying about. “The other three – Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer – are more like what I’d expected.” She glances at the Hatter’s expression. “But maybe not as heartless and cutthroat as you’d thought they might be.”

“Alice... ‘twas only the opening banquet...”

“I know. It’s too soon to be making character judgments.”

“Judge them all you like, but keep yer hand on yer sword.”

She nods. “The order of the interviews and duels will be decided tomorrow after brunch,” Alice says. “The interviews will be closed to observation, but the duels won’t. Will you be attending?”

“I would be most honored to see you fight, Alice.”

She releases a long breath. “Thank you. I’d like for you to be there.” After what he’d done to help her during the battle on Frabjous Day, Alice can’t help wanting him there, just in case. And then, knowing that he’s watching, she’ll be properly motivated not to disappoint anyone. Especially him.

“When will the duels commence?”

“Next week. After I chaperone the queen’s meetings with each of her suitors.”

They stop speaking then. Sitting together, her left hand clasping his right, Alice can find nothing else to say, and oddly enough she doesn’t feel the need to. Long minutes pass before Alice reminds herself that she has to get some sleep.

“I should go.”

The Hatter nods. Standing, he holds out a hand to help her up. He waits as Alice re-buckles the sword scabbard to her waist, then escorts her to the door.

“Alice,” he says quietly.


The Hatter smiles. “Please let me know if you are in need of any riddles for the interviews.”

Imagining how entertaining it could be to conduct those interviews as if she were as mad as a hatter, Alice laughs. “What an idea! Thank you.”

He smile fades as he watches her. “Alice, why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Alice squeezes his hand one last time. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

With an oddly melancholy grin, the Hatter says, “I shall escort you to your room.”

“No, please, don’t.” When his expression sinks into sadness, she hurries to say, “Not tonight. When the queen’s suitors have gone...”

For a moment, she watches him consider that. Perhaps he’s remembering the interest that obnoxious vassal had shown in her. Perhaps he’d noticed how Lord Oshtyer had kept Alice in his sights all night. She wonders if he’d seen her smile at the Hatter. If there’s one thing she will do anything to avoid, it’s drawing the Hatter into the political games of the court. If they’re anything like dealing with the Chattaways and their ilk, Alice would rather avoid the entire experience. For now, it’s best to keep her attachment to him a secret.

The Hatter still seems confused, so Alice raises a hand and places it daringly in the center of his chest. Rather than explain her logic and fears, she settles on saying something he can keep with him in the coming weeks. “I’m your secret, Tarrant.” She’d drawn his attention at the simple touch, but now she sees his eyes widen in pleasant surprise. “Do you want the courtiers to know?”

“I d’nae care one way ‘r th’other,” he murmurs warmly, placing a hand over hers.

“Courtiers...” Alice struggles for words, for focus. “They like secrets. They like the games they can play with them...”

The Hatter’s eyes darken. “This i’snae a game.”

“Not a game.” Although Alice isn’t sure where this is going, she knows she’s quite committed to seeing it through.

“Ye’re my secret.”


And he keeps it. In public, the Hatter is courteous, as always. He does not seek her out. He does not approach her. Sometimes she feels his stare on her, but remembering the speculative gleam in Oshtyer’s shrewd, black eyes, she forces herself to merely acknowledge the Hatter’s attention. Acknowledge, as any decent Champion would, and then dismiss him.

Keeping secrets, Alice muses as she trails behind Mirana and Prince Jaspien, hurts. She tries not to remember navigating this very orchard path with the Hatter that first Saturday after she’d returned. After he’d saved her from...

Alice stops her thoughts there. It will do no good to dwell on the things she cannot change.

The week drags, yet, somehow Alice doesn’t have the opportunity to visit the Hatter. Just as the princes and lords turn on the charm, vying for the queen’s attention, Alice finds herself dodging overly ambitious vassals and ministers, able to escape their simpering only when she’s performing her morning excises with volunteers from the queen’s army, behind closed doors with Mirana herself, or slamming her own bedroom door shut in their smiling faces.

As she does now.

Alice glares at her bedroom door. Despite Mirana’s offer, Alice had never accepted a suite of rooms in the castle. Thinking of how convenient it would be to be able to have a cup of tea without being swarmed, Alice regrets declining.

With a blustery sigh, she turns the key in the lock and marches over to her dresser to begin the arduous task of disrobing. She unbuttons her shirt cuffs and removes the gauntlets and the small throwing knives the Hatter had given her. She hadn’t asked, but she strongly suspects he’d made the gauntlets himself. Next, she pulls the coiled length of garrote from a hidden pocket along her belt. Then the sword and the knife are unbuckled and laid down. Taking a seat, Alice lifts her pant legs and unbuckles the knife sheathes around her ankles.

As she undresses, she finds herself thankful for not having to deal with stockings and petticoats and corsets on top of everything else. She doesn’t even have to worry about stiff jackets, not with being permitted to wear only shirtsleeves and a vest. No, she doesn’t miss the clothes she’d grown up wearing at all.

Alice had made one request from the Royal Seamstress: trouser pajamas. At first, it had seemed odd to sleep with pants on, but what sort of Champion would she be if the queen needs her urgently in the middle of the night and she manages to trip over the hem of her nightdress in the midst of an urgent situation?

Now as comfortable as she can be considering her duties on the morrow, Alice sits down at her desk and looks over the series of interview questions she’d compiled from various historical sources as well as from the queen. The idea of conducting these interviews like a mad hatter still hasn’t left her. She grins and reaches for her quill.

Perhaps just one or two riddles, then...


At precisely two o’clock, Tarrant Hightopp strides through the castle, keeping an eye out for witnesses. Luckily, with it being teatime, no one is out and about. Except for the Royal Hatter, of course.

Following the way Chessur had shown him just that morning, Tarrant ducks into the queen’s library of alchemy resource materials, ghosts into her unused supply cupboard and, leaning against the far wall, does his best to be as silent as he can.

From the other side of the thin wood, the sounds of tea being served and chairs adjusted drifts through. The mundane noises continue for so long that Tarrant wonders if he’s trying to eavesdrop on the wrong room. Or perhaps this is Chessur’s idea of a joke. A clever little joke – let’s tell Tarrant his Alice is in the parlor that shares a rather thin wall with the old potions supply cupboard where he’ll be able to overhear her every word...

“Do you take butter in your tea, Lord Hornsaver?”

Tarrant grins with both relief – it’s not a joke after all! ­– and delight as Alice’s voice comes through loud and clear. And then he bites back a giggle as he comprehends her question.

“I... I beg your pardon, madam?”

“Butter. In your tea? No? Jam?”

“Er, well, that is, no... thank you.”

Tarrant hears the unmistakable sound of someone fixing their tea. Perhaps with butter and jam.

“Impress me, then, Lord Hornsaver.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, dear, that’s not a good start at all,” Alice says. “I’d rather been hoping to hear a convoluted and obviously embellished story about your achievements and personal qualities. Ah well, let’s move on to the important questions, shall we?”

“Oh... yes. Let’s.”

“Lord Hornsaver, can you tell me why a bread-and-butterfly cannot sit on the head of a pin?”

Tarrant has to clap his hands over his mouth and nose to keep his laughter silent. And that’s a simple one! he chortles as the unicorn blusters and bumbles in the other room.

“Well, would it be because, well, it’s quite obvious that a bread-and-butterfly cannot sit at all.”

“Hm... Are you quite sure? Have you asked one if it couldn’t?”

“Oh, well, no...”

“I see.”

“Well, then, madam! Why can’t a bread-and-butterfly sit on the head of a pin?”

“Because the head of a pin does not allow sufficient space for a chair to be placed upon it, of course.”

Throughout the interview, Tarrant has to dab at his tearing eyes with a handkerchief and bite his knuckles to keep silent.

“Are you quite sure you would like to work for the peace of all Underland and well-being of all of its creatures?” Alice confirms the unicorn’s response to an inquiry regarding his grandest dream.

“Oh, well, yes, of course I’m sure.”

“An odd sort of dream.”

“Is it?”

“Certainly. Dreams – especially the grandest ones – tend to be quite random and fanciful. Not about the future. It is, after all, a product of your subconscious mind.”

“I... see.”

The interview lasts for a highly entertaining hour and a half. At the end of it, Hornsaver snorts and stomps from the room. Tarrant waits a moment before leaving his hiding place. He hopes to slip into the hall and congratulate Alice on her masterful interviewing technique, but is startled by the commotion in the corridor. Frowning, he regards the ruckus from the crack between the door and the frame. Why, it appears as if every single castle occupant is pressing against each other, shouting at the unicorn to divulge the details of the interview.

Resigned, Tarrant closes the door and takes a seat in the alchemy library to wait for the fuss to die down. And, after a while, it does. Or at least the hallway is clear. He realizes, shortly thereafter, that the fuss has migrated to the dinning room where Alice is blithely ignoring any and all attempts to draw her into conversation. She sits stoically at the queen’s side, at attention.

Tarrant wishes there were a secret doorway leading to the wall behind the head of the table. Perhaps something hidden behind a tapestry... but there is no tapestry.

Perhaps I shall make a suggestion to the queen about that...

Even without the installation of a secret door, a tapestry or a screen would not go amiss, certainly, but it would require a great deal of time spent hiding behind it – entering the room well before dinner when it’s empty and waiting for hours!

With a sigh, Tarrant wishes for evaporating skills.

He considers ducking back out into the hall and begging a bowl of stew from the servants’ kitchen but thinks of Alice. Would she like for him to stay? Oh, why hadn’t he asked her for her preferences on this point last week when she’d come by to see him?

The thought actually cheers Tarrant considerably: there’s no reason he can’t sit in his customary, absurdly-distant-from-his-Alice seat while he daydreams about her visit, now can he? Humming to himself, Tarrant slips into his chair and is happily ignored by the less popular courtiers who have earned seats at this end of the table. He nods to the Royal Seamstress before beginning a careful examination of his dessert fork. Of course, he’s not terribly interested in his silverware. But it serves to keep people from trying to speak to him which allows him a plethora of opportunities to glance in Alice’s direction every few minutes.

Oh, how they must be annoying her! He can only imagine.

She’s bearing it well, though... Perhaps that had been included in her etiquette lessons two weeks ago, the lessons that Tarrant hadn’t been permitted to teach her. Of course, he knows even less about etiquette than Mally does...

Frowning, Tarrant tries to dispel the stab of jealousy. Yes, Mally and Chessur and the Tweedles had been permitted to continue to tutor her in swordplay and whatnot. Unfortunately, due to the never-ending greed of the royal court for newer, shinier baubles to wear on their heads, Tarrant had been duty-bound to his workroom.

Placing the dessert fork in his water glass, Tarrant picks up a soup spoon and holds it parallel to the table with two hands. Idly, he glances at his heart-line finger, the finger Alice had...

Now’s not the time to think of that!

Right, yes. Not the time at all!

Tarrant clears his throat and regards the small, blue dot on the pad of his finger. Staring yet doing his best not to remember, Tarrant turns his left hand over and blinks at a rather interesting development. There, circling the base of his heart-line finger is the lightest band of orange-y-pink. For the tiniest moment, he wonders at the odd color. Usually, Thrice a-Vow rings are light blue, slowly emerging after the first...

Oh! But Alice’s blood isn’t blue, is it?

Tarrant grins at his left hand.

It’s working! The vow accepts Alice even though she’s not an Underlander!

He had been wondering about that.

But in the next instant, Tarrant feels a twinge of panic.

It shouldn’t have worked quite so well...

What will Alice think when she realizes there’s a light blue band circling her finger? What will he tell her? How will he explain? Of all the ridiculous accidents...!

Had it been an accident?

Tarrant decides it’s best not to think about that. And anyway, he won’t perform the second exchange. No, absolutely not. ... Well, not without Alice’s consent. Surely, she has no idea... And if she did, she wouldn’t want to...

No, of course not.

And there’s the unfortunate possibility that she might not be pleased with learning what they’d done... and Tarrant would really rather she not be furious with him again, despite how lovely she’d looked: disheveled, glaring, flushed...

Time to examine another utensil, Tarrant decides.

Dinner arrives but the fuss doesn’t die down any less despite the consumption of food and drink. Tarrant fidgets with his napkin in his lap and tries not to admire the salmon-y colored stripe circling his finger... too often.

He can hardly sleep that night, so tied up in so many different thoughts. The excitement he feels cannot be contained. It ought to be shared! He puts on his top hat and strides to the door countless times without actually leaving his rooms. At the last moment, he always reminds himself that Alice might not be happy about their vow. And besides, Alice is working now! Tarrant cannot distract the Queen’s Champion now. Not with the first duel taking place on the morrow!

No, no, it wouldn’t do for him to tell her now.

But ye will tell her!

Yes, of course. After the foreign guests have departed... When the castle is quiet again and she’ll be able to sit with him in his workshop or he’ll be able to sit with her under the trees near the croquet pitch... Yes, that would be much, much better.

Eventually, Tarrant does fall asleep, but when he opens his eyes he realizes he’s slumped over his tea table, having never made it to bed. Blearily, he consults his useless pocket watch – perhaps it’s due for another buttering...? – and unsteadily gets to his feet and washes up.

It’s not until he arrives at his workshop – without encountering anyone in the halls – and glances at a properly functioning clock that Tarrant realizes what time it is.

In the next instant, Tarrant slams the workshop door behind him and sprints to the courtyard, slipping on polished floors as he attempts to turn sharp corners and tripping over disgruntled rugs...

When he arrives at the courtyard, of course all of the best places for viewing the duel have been taken. Tarrant moves through the trees, looking for one that won’t mind him climbing it. After a few moments, he spots a rather energetic-looking fellow with substantial branches and pulls himself up. As he settles himself on a bough and searches the clearing for any sign that the duel is about to start, a very distinct, cat-scented breeze swirls beside him.

“I was wondering when you’d arrive,” Chessur says with a lazy blink.

“Have I missed anything?”

“Gossip, sniping, back-handed compliments, figurative back-stabbing, and more gossip,” he lists dispassionately.

“Ah, excellent.” Perhaps his timing hadn’t been so bad after all.

He continues scanning the crowd, searching for the unicorn and Alice. When a furry paw presses against the back of his hand, Tarrant realizes he’s twisting his handkerchief in his hands rather... vigorously.

“She’s going to be fine. Better than fine. Wonderful. Extraordinary. Spectacular,” Chessur says with confidence.

Tarrant’s mouth is too dry to manage a word in agreement and his neck is too stiff to nod.

“Nice promise-ring, by the way.”

Tarrant growls, “Trust you to notice that with your great, greedy eyes.”

“I’m curious as to the color. Perhaps I will ask Alice to see hers...”

“No! I... I mean, well...”

Chessur smirks. “Very well then. I’ll let you leave Alice in the dark for a bit longer.”

Tarrant feels guilt well up within him at the subtle threat. But, at that moment, Lord Hornsaver and Alice appear at opposite ends of the clearing. Tarrant’s stomach lurches at the sound of polite applause. It seems as if his odd stomachache has found him again. And in a tree, no less.

Nivens McTwisp, recruited especially for administering the duels, makes a very long announcement that Tarrant doesn’t pay a bit of attention to. He’s busy examining Alice. His Alice. In vain, he drops his gaze to her pale hand, but, of course, he’s too far away to see if there’s a light blue line around her finger.

“Queen’s Champion! Challenger! Choose your weapon!”

Peripherally, Tarrant is aware of Nivens hopping back to the edge of the field to crouch beside the queen. Hornsaver unsheathes the broadsword slung across his back. Alice unbuckles the belt holding her sword scabbard, pulls her own blade out and tosses the now-useless leather off to the side. Nivens twitches as it lands just inches from him.

Tarrant curls his hands around the nearest branches as the unicorn takes a step forward and bows. Alice reciprocates and then they begin circling each other. Despite his worry, with each measured, graceful, controlled step Alice takes, Tarrant feels the warmth of excitement and anticipation build within him.

The unicorn lunges and Alice neatly steps aside, arcing her sword and smacking him in the shoulder with the flat side of it. The crowd twitters in appreciation.

Turning, Hornsaver regards the Queen’s Champion with a flat expression. He lowers his chin just a bit, his horn glimmering in the sunlight. The fight is on. Tarrant can’t close his eyes, can’t blink as Alice and the unicorn exchange blows.

“He’s testing the strength of your arm, Alice. Don’t let him wear you down!” he whispers urgently.

The crowd gasps when Hornsaver attacks, suddenly, and rather than run backwards, Alice drops and rolls past him.

“You’re faster than that,” Tarrant muses.

Again, the metal of their swords collide in the courtyard. The unicorn executes a bit of fancy footwork and the insipid audience sighs and gasps their appreciation. Alice doesn’t bother with fancy footwork. Nor does she bother with fancy twirls or twists. She takes her turn charging the unicorn.

Tarrant bites his knuckle. “No, no! He’s drawing you in!”

Suddenly, Alice backs off. She tilts her head to the side and swings her sword casually through the air as if inviting the unicorn to take his best shot. And he does give it his best. Tarrant knows the unicorn’s form is perfect. Perhaps too perfect. It’s obvious the creature’s never fought on a battlefield before. Tarrant tries not to hold that against him. No, the fact that Hornsaver is wielding a sword against his Alice is more than enough to damn him in Tarrant’s opinion.

The unicorn gets his blade underneath Alice’s and Tarrant tenses.

“D’nae let go o’ tha’ sword!” he growls.

She doesn’t. She goes with the motion – allowing the unicorn’s attempt at disarming her to pull her toward his unprotected flank – and slams her shoulder into him. Hornsaver stumbles, giving her the one instant she needs to regain control of her weapon. Again, they begin circling.

Again, Alice is a bit slower than Tarrant knows her to be.

“Smart girl,” Chessur muses. “She has four more duels. It won’t do to give away all her secrets this early.”

“’Twon’ be smart if she gets herself run through!”

Another clash of swords echoes in the courtyard before Chessur replies: “She won’t.”

As the duel progresses with periodic lulls during which Alice and the unicorn circle each other, Tarrant realizes Alice is not drawing out this tournament to torture him. She remains calm, in control. She’s doing her job. She’s giving that pompous puff ball the chance to show of his battle skills.

When a small silver bell rings out after perhaps the longest twenty minutes of Tarrant’s life, Alice’s demeanor changes immediately. Reluctantly, it seems, the unicorn steps down as she charges. With a flurry of lunges, parries, and thrusts, Alice – quick as a scorpion strike – knocks Hornsaver’s sword aside.

That should have been the end of it.

The audience begins to applaud.

Hornsaver lowers his chin and Tarrant feels his stomachache freeze rock-solid in his chest. The sunlight glimmers off of his horn in the instant before he grabs Alice’s wrist, immobilizing her sword. Tarrant watches that horn descend toward her face, his own shout of warning lost somewhere in the frozen wasteland of his throat. The crowd gasps in alarm, but Tarrant doesn’t hear them.

Alice’s left fist slams up into the unicorn’s chin and a glint of metal appears between her fingers as she presses a throwing knife to Hornsaver’s throat.

Tarrant watches, the ice in his chest shattering under the fury of his rage, as the unicorn lord takes his time releasing Alice’s right wrist and stepping back. Tarrant barely sees the bow Alice and her opponent execute to each other and the audience before Hornsaver leaves the field.

Alice approaches the queen and, re-sheathing and donning her sword, takes her place at the queen’s shoulder, her face expressionless despite her victory.

McTwisp hops forward to conclude the ceremony, but Tarrant’s too enraged to pay attention.

“I told you she’d be fine,” Chessur purrs. “You were an excellent teacher, Tarrant. And the rest of us aren’t so bad if I do say so myself.”

“If...” Tarrant replies, glancing in the cat’s direction, “you think that’s goin’ teh stop me from rippin’ out that foul, back-stabbin’, underhanded, CHEATIN’ –”


Tarrant succeeds in swallowing back the tail-end of his rage. “I’m fine.”

“Indeed. Keep it together until you’re away from the gossipmongers, would you?”

He does. Tarrant keeps his rage and temper in check until he makes it back to his workroom. And there he doesn’t so much as lose his temper as he becomes lost in his rage. A great number of hats do not survive the following hour.

And, as a final insult, Tarrant is once again separated from Alice, forced to watch her from across the crowded ball room as they celebrate Hornsaver’s valiant fight. Alice’s contributions are mentioned in passing. The unicorn’s dishonorable cheating ignored. This time, he doesn’t bother to accept a glass of Wassailin, not even for viewing Alice through.

Tarrant stands rigidly in his new, still-stiff, still-starch-smelling suit and watches the proceedings with yellow eyes. He watches his Alice endure the festivities. And she does endure them. Despite the reassuring smile Alice gives the queen, Tarrant knows her well enough to see that she’s tired.

So is he.

He’s tired of this game they have to play. He wants to march over there and take her in his arms and feel her hold onto him again. Nothing could be more real, more perfect than that. His want is immeasurable, but he behaves.

Alice is working. Mustn’t get in the way.

But oh, how he wants to!

He glares at the powdered, primped, pompous people in the ballroom and counts them: four. Four more duels. Four more threats against Alice’s life. Four more days exactly like this one – except perhaps worse, depending on the challenger’s skills and tendency toward cruelty or, in the unicorn’s case, pride – before Tarrant will be able to breathe around this bloody stomachache again.

“Remember your promise, Alice. You fight as hard has you must to win. No less. Never any less.”

Perhaps she hears him.

Perhaps she doesn’t.

Tarrant just hopes she keeps her promise. This one is far more important than any of the others. The promise silently circling the third finger on his left hand included.

One Promise Kept: Book 1

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 5 of 13

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