Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 2

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 12 of 17

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When Alice opens her eyes, she smiles and remains leaning against the Jabberwocky’s stomach, counting the gentle exhalations and inhalations of its breath. She glances up and smiles wider at the wing thrown over her to shield her from the sun. When she stirs, the wing lifts, letting the mid-afternoon sunlight pour down on her.

“Well, look who finally decided to wake up...”

Squinting, Alice turns and shakes her head with wry amusement. “Hello, Chessur. Are you the rescue party?”

He grins. “It’s not a party without sweets and tea, Alice,” he chides her. “And I don’t believe you need rescuing any longer, do you?”

“No,” she admits slowly. “I don’t think I do.”

“That’s just as well. The Queen could use her Champion back.” He consults the sun and estimates, “The allies of the White Crown have no doubt arrived by now and are currently arguing over how best to dispose of a prince, a viscount, and a lord I believe you’re acquainted with.”

Alice sighs.

“Leave Alice be for a bit longer, Cat-With-Evaporating-Skills. The rest will benefit more than just her,” the Jabberwocky scolds him without rancor.

Alice turns, intending to ask Krystoval if Chessur had properly introduced himself, but the scene spread out before her makes her forget the thought.

“Oh, my...” Last night, in the shadowy light of the setting sun, she’d gotten the faintest impression of new grass and stubby, scrawny bushes, but now...!

Iplam is a field again, a sea of waving, thick green grass. Surrounding the meadow, the trees are budding and the mosses and ivy are lush again. Utterly flunderwhapped, Alice turns toward Krystoval and watches as the Jabberwocky gently breathes a glowing, white-aqua mist at a tiny plant sprouting in front of it. She watches as with each breath, the leaves pulse with life and vitality and health, unfurling and reaching for the sun. In the next breath, a small bud pokes up through the stalk. It takes two more breaths before the blossom opens completely and Alice stares at the most beautiful flower she has ever seen. It’s simple and yet so elegant. It resembles a five-fingered hand. The petals are a familiar pale gold with tiny brown freckles down the center lengthwise. But that warm color fades and blends into the most stunning aqua at the center where an emerald green stamen rises, awaiting a visit from a honeybee.

“Krystoval, that’s...” Words fail her.

“The first of an entire field full,” the Jabberwocky replies and Alice marvels at the pure happiness in its tone, in its expression.

Alice slides off of the Jabberwocky’s tail and approaches the creation. Gently tickling the flower under one petal – in response, the flower snuggles a bit closer with a giggle – Alice asks, “What’s it called?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” it replies and Alice looks up, startled. This is a new flower? And the Jabberwocky had created this with its fire? With a warm glance, it says, “But, I’m seriously considering calling it the ‘Champion’s Blossom’... or perhaps the ‘Alice Flower’... or maybe both.”

“It’s... amazing,” she manages, honored beyond words that something has been created and named for her.

“Only insofar as its inspiration is,” the Jabberwocky tells her with a gentle smile.

Alice smiles back and gingerly cups the blossom in her hands. The petals startle before fluffing up a bit as the flower preens and glows with the attention. She looks down at it and has to choke back tears. Balls, parties, medals, titles, finery... none of it compares to this gift, this recognition of her contribution to this world.

“Thank you, Krystoval.”

“And thank you, Alice. For, I do believe you finished healing an old Jabberwocky last night.”

Fear and hesitation long gone, Alice reaches out and strokes the colorful scales along Krystoval’s brow. Alice still feels there is something left unsaid, something more she ought to offer to help acknowledge the gift Krystoval had created for Underland in her name. “If you ever feel the need, do not hesitate to call upon me,” she murmurs.

“Likewise, Champion of the White Queen and the Hightopp Clan.”

Alice sighs. “I’m not a Champion,” she reminds it. And then she winks. “Not yet!”

Krystoval chuckles warmly. “Then you best get back to it and leave me to my work.”

Impulsively, Alice presses a kiss just above the Jabberwocky’s whisker and then she heads across the field. The Bandersnatch looks up as she approaches and shuffles to his feet. Perched on his ear, the blue butterfly flutters his wings with slow relish, basking in his own cleverness. Alice shakes her head and grins. Butterflies truly are the vainest, most prideful creatures, she thinks.

She says, “Thank you, Absolem.”

And then, turning to the Bandersnatch, Alice asks, “Are you ready to go home?”

He huffs enthusiastically and Alice swings herself onto his back. She takes one last look over her shoulder as the Jabberwocky – with Chessur leaning over its shoulder, watching – gently breathes against the swaying grass... and, just before the Bandersnatch galumphs off into the woods, she thinks she sees another flower join the first.

I’ll come back, she promises herself as the meadow is veiled by the trees. Yes, later, after everything is over and done with, she’ll return to this place just to see what other miracles Krystoval’s magic has wrought.

With a sigh, she focuses on the path a head of her. She knows exactly where she’s going this time: back to Mamoreal, to the queen, to the life and the man she’d thought she’d lost.

Tarrant... Oh, how she wants to see him, to be with him, but... Her heart thumps out a languid, painful pulse. Alice swallows and takes a deep breath. Yes, she wants to go home to him. More than anything. But she can’t. Not yet. Not quite yet.

First, she must finish what has been started. First, she must help the queen deal with the issue of Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer’s nefarious allegiance. As the Bandersnatch thunders through Tulgey Wood, Alice turns the problem over and over in her mind and bit by bit, a possible solution comes to her.

By the time Chessur decides to catch up with them, Alice is more than ready to see him.

“You’re late,” she informs him with a knowing smile as he appears beside her.

The cat blinks. “I do beg your pardon, Alice?”

She laughs. “Now that’s something I never thought I’d hear coming from you.

“Hmm. Well, what did you expect? It’s quite rude to inform someone of their own tardiness.”

“Tarrant’s done it once or twice to me,” she replies.

“My point exactly.

Alice glances at Chessur as she evaluates his tone. “Something’s happened. You were on better terms with Tarrant the day before yesterday.”

“He hadn’t been such an utter fumptwat the day before yesterday.”

Alice snorts. “A fumptwat? That’s a new one.”

Chessur clears his throat. “Ah... and perhaps it would be for the best if you forget hearing that.”

“It’s not a term of endearment, I take it?”

“Not hardly.”

Alice decides to change the subject while there’s still time for small talk... and before she gets offended on Tarrant’s behalf. “So, you’ll be keeping an eye on the Jabberwocky, I suppose?”

“Hm? Oh, well, I could. I wouldn’t mind.” Chessur grins to himself. “Krystoval’s a rather interesting conversationalist, you know.”

Alice aims her wide, wise smile at the Bandersnatch’s ear. “Yes, I had noticed that.” Clearing her throat, she inquires lightly, “So, if I had a message that needed to be delivered to the Jabberwocky, you wouldn’t mind terribly being the one to give it, would you?”

“Oh, no,” Chessur assures her, still with an air of distraction. “Marvelous sense of humor Krystoval has. Droll, wry, witty...”

Alice turns her laugh into a cough. “Quite,” she agrees.

Chessur continues grinning.

Absolem continues fluttering ahead.

The Bandersnatch continues huffing with each galumphing stride.

And Alice knows she can’t put it off any longer. Soon, they’ll arrive at Mamoreal and she will have to be ready for that. She goes over the plan again...

“I know that look, Champion Alice.”

Alice gives Chessur a sheepish grin. “Yes, I suppose you’ve seen it before.”

“Precisely twice,” he informs her and she knows which occasions exactly he’s referring to: the Trial of Threes, as she’d worked out the puzzle of the Jabberwocky and the Vorpal Sword; and then on the eve of her duel against Stayne. Chessur continues, “I know the look of Uplander logic when I see it. What are you contemplating now?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Alice promises. “If the queen approves.”

“Well, best of luck to you,” he grumbles. “Explaining the convoluted way your Uplander mind works.”

Alice chuckles.

“So, you’ll be speaking to the queen. Will that be happening before or after you deal with Tarrant?”

Alice winces and struggles not to notice the aching of her heart too much. “I...”

“Don’t have to do a blasted thing about him if you don’t want to. It would serve him right to spend a week or two in... introspection.”

With a rueful shake of her head, Alice replies, “What I want or don’t want doesn’t matter just at the moment.” She hides a grimace at the memory of that first, fateful dinner in Causwick when she’d thought much the same thing, although far more desperately. “There’s no time. We have to respond to Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer or the queen is never going to be safe. They might even grow confident enough to risk an attack within our borders!”

“And you’ve already devised a strategy to counter the threat, haven’t you, dear Alice?” Chessur purrs with curiosity.

She tilts her head a bit, conceding the point. “It requires a lot of coordination and a fair bit of luck and even a shape-shifting cat with evaporating skills, but, yes, there’s a way to finish this. For good.”

“You’ll need my help, Alice?”

Alice sends a sidelong glance at the chuffed creature and chuckles. “Most definitely, Chess. Most definitely.” Again, Alice takes a moment to run through the sequence of events that will have to happen. “Keep up with me when we get to the castle,” she tells him. “A lot of things are going to have to happen awfully fast for this to work...”

Chessur sighs. “I’m constantly disappointed with the fact that you never saw my performance at the chopping block for the Red Queen. I was quite fast!”

“I’m very sorry I missed that.”

She twitches when Chessur tickles her ear with his tail. “You would have squeezed your eyes shut at the critical moment anyway.”

Alice barks out a laugh. Not because the comment had been humorous, but because it had been so absolutely true. “Yes, watching a man swing an axe over Tarrant’s neck is not something I ever want to see.”

“Even after all that he’s done?”

“I... what?”

Chessur rolls his eyes. “The man is so afraid of losing you he doesn’t even notice that it’s he himself who throwsyou away. He’s such a fool.”

Alice considers that, damns the horrid timing of this personal crisis, and muses, “I suppose love does that. To everyone.”

“Humph. Not to cats, I’ll have you know. We don’t speak the language.”

“Good for you,” she replies, but thinking of a certain droll, wry, witty Jabberwocky, can’t resist a grin.

The rest of the journey is accomplished in silence. It’s just past brillig when they thunder up the castle drive and the Bandersnatch peddles to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. True to her word, Alice slides down off the Bandersnatch and hits the ground running. Chessur follows her through the main doors.

“Where to first?”

“The armory,” Alice tells him, sprinting for it. She knows this route – perhaps not the most direct – will cause her to pass by the hat workshop. Oddly enough, Chessur doesn’t comment on that fact, for which Alice is deeply grateful.

And she races down the hall, nearing the hat workshop, she notes the door – slightly ajar! – and wonders if Tarrant is within, if he’s working on creating – or destroying – another beautiful hat...

A moment later, as she passes by, her musings are answered.


She turns, still moving quickly in the direction of the army store room, and assures him, “Yes, I’m fine. But I must to talk to the queen.”

She glimpses his confused frown. “You’re going the wrong way,” he replies.

And then she hears his footsteps, racing in counterpoint to hers as he attempts to close the gap between them. Alice speeds up a bit, for if Tarrant were to catch up with her here in this very public and echoing hallway, things will become even more complicated than they already are...

With a sigh of relief, Alice barrels into the armory, throws down her satchel and proceeds to grab and test the weight of a broadsword and several knives. The door just manages to close behind her when it’s thrown open again by Tarrant.

She half expects him to race up to her, grab her arms and... be himself: rambling with eyes flashing and his mind wandering, his impassioned brogue making her heart race and her blood heat even as he says something that she fully expects to disagree with.

But... he doesn’t.

“What are you doing?” he asks, merely watching from just inside the door as Alice starts pulling off her boots.

“I should think that’s obvious,” Chessur drawls, averting his eyes. “Mannerless buffoon,” the cat grumbles and flicks his tail.

Alice hurriedly gets changed into a set of clean clothes. There’s no time to wash up, but at least she won’t be covered in Bandersnatch hair when she makes an appearance in the queen’s office.

Despite Tarrant’s simple inquiry, Alice can’t bring herself to answer. She knows he doesn’t want her to do what she’s preparing to do. She knows it’ll hurt him to hear her say the words. She knows it’ll hurt him to learn that she’s putting the queen before him and their life and their future.

But Alice doesn’t have a choice!

Deal with the threat before you deal with the fallout, she tells herself. It’s hard advice to follow, even if it is her own, especially with the man she loves standing, watching, hoping just a few paces away.

She reaches for the borrowed weapons, wishing for the gauntlets Tarrant had fashioned for her and the sword the queen had requested made for her – all lost within Causwick Castle.

“No,” he whispers on a strangled-sounding breath. “Please, Alice, you can’t!

She bites back the reassurances that struggle up her throat. She must stick to her plan! “I can. I will. I am.

She turns just in time to see Tarrant’s left hand curl into a first – his right is still in a splint – and shake his head vigorously.

Before he can argue, she strides over to him and takes his face in her hands. She only has a moment, so she makes the most of it. She kisses him hard, once. “The queen needs her Champion,” she reminds him. “I have to.”

He blinks. And when he comprehends her words, he shakes his head furiously. “But your... the madness, Alice. I can’t lose... No, no, I’ve already lost... Am I lost, Alice?”

No,” she replies firmly. “All is not lost. But we don’t have time. Please. Trust me.”

She waits until his fingertips touch her hands, until he takes a deep breath and the disturbing yellow of stress and urgency fades from his eyes, until he nods.

“Thank you,” she says, sparing one more instant to brush her thumbs over his cheekbones. And then she knows she must go.

“Meet me on the solarium terrace after sunset, all right?”

She waits long enough to see him nod and then she darts around him for the door. There’s a queen to save, a plan to explain, a strategy to implement, and one more thing to do before any of that can be addressed.

Botheration! She’d nearly forgotten!

“Chess,” she pants, hurrying down the corridor again, “do you have any idea where—”

“Champion Alice?!”

At the sound of that familiar voice, Alice pulls herself up, turns, and regards the obviously startled and irritated-looking, dark-maned lion.

“Never mind,” Alice says. She steps toward Leif, gently pushes him into the nearest available room and sets her most immediate objective in motion.


Hats. Hats have always been Tarrant’s salvation. Or rather, the attention they require – his attention – has always been his salvation. The blend of necessary tasks and creative license has somehow always had the power to calm him, focus him, push the madness back.

Yes, hat-making has saved him numerous times before.

Unfortunately, it seems to have lost its magic.


He had thought of nothing but Alice’s farewell – “I don’t deserve you, Tarrant Hightopp... I can’t stay. I can’t. – and Chessur’s accusations – “Show her she’s utterly mad and then just let her leave!” – and, at some point during the night, he’d made a very belated discovery:

Despite all of the mistakes he has made and all of the pain he has inflicted upon Alice, he cannot live without her!

Yes, he knows he doesn’t deserve another chance. He’s aware that what he’s done is unforgivable. But that doesn’t change the fact that he will do whatever he must to win her back!

He’d very nearly set his tools down and had gone to find her in that very moment, but then he’d remembered: Alice is gone. Left. And he’d realized that there is nothing to do but wait. He must wait for Alice to come back. He had forfeited any control he may have had over that when he’d ruthlessly cut her down and then had not stopped her from walking away. He’d tried – he really had! – to distract himself from Alice’s sudden absence. He’d spent all night working on... well, on something! It’s very odd that he can’t recall so much as a detail of it now. Had it been a cloche? A snood? A barboosh? He can’t remember. In fact, the only memory his mind seems to care to recall at the moment is the instant Alice had returned:

Tarrant had hardly dared to hope when he’d heard hurried steps approaching from down the corridor. The rhythm of the gait had been as familiar as his own. With each thudding footstep, he’d felt his disbelief melt away and his heart race faster: That’s the sound of two Alice-feet! He’d know the sound of her anywhere!

For an instant, his heart had lept and his cravat had fluffed – Is she racing... here? To speak to... me? – and, for an instant, he could almost imagine their reunion, her forgiveness, their future...! And then she’d raced right past the open doorway!

Alice?!” In the next instant, Tarrant had thrown the door open completely and charged into the hallway.

He’d stared as she hadn’t even slowed. “Yes, I’m fine. But I must to talk to the queen,” she’d called over her shoulder.

For a moment, Tarrant had wondered if he were in the middle of another delusion, but Chessur’s snide grin had assured him of the reality of Alice here! Returned!

Ignoring the bloody beast he’d never allowto invade his delusions, Tarrant had latched onto Alice’s odd non sequitur – shouldn’t she be... with him? She’s his wife, after all, but then again he still hasn’t actually asked her permission to be her husband! – and had heard himself muse aloud, “You’re going the wrong way.”

The sound of his own voice – Is that all ye have to say, lad?! – had startled him and he’d raced after her, charging through the door she’d just disappeared behind. For a moment, he could only look at her: she’s safe and well and whole and her eyes contain not a pinch of lostness, not an ounce of misery, not a smidgen of guilt...

Alice has re-found her muchness!

And that’s when he’d noticed the borrowed broadsword on the bench, the knives she'd intended to strap to her ankles, and the garrote destined to be coiled and slipped into the pocket of a clean tunic. Watching her lean down to remove her boots, he’d taken in the assortment of weapons – a Champion’s weapons – and had demanded, “What are you doing?”

Tarrant had ignored that bloody cat’s contemptuous remark and had stood numb as Alice’s intentions had become clear, very clear, too clear. When she’d stood and had buckled the broadsword into place at her hip, he’d finally found his voice:

“No... Please, Alice, you can’t!

Well, of course not! Alice is mad, after all. She might... She could... And if she does, she will...

Tarrant hadn’t been able to bear thinking the Thought.

Alice had merely adjusted the sword and had informed him: “I can. I will. I am.” She’d approached him, then, and he’d hoped... His worry and fear had receded as she’d touched his face, as she’d leaned in and kissed him. She’d kissed him!

Could this mean...? Does this mean she forgives...? he’d wondered frantically.

But then she’d said, “The queen needs her Champion. I have to.”

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO...!

Somehow, he’d managed to locate the words, if not the proper grammatical functions necessary for expressing them: “But your... the madness, Alice. I can’t lose... No, no, I’ve already lost... Am I lost, Alice?”

No.” And her voice had been as firm and as comforting as the warm palms against his cheeks. “All is not lost. But we don’t have time. Please. Trust me.”

Trust her? Of course Tarrant trusts her! Whom else would he trust? Alice could never hide from him – the heart line would never permit deception between them! She might hide what she feels, but Tarrant knows she would never intentionally... No, not his Alice!

But is she your Alice, lad?

He’s not sure. But maybe... maybe if he can wait just a little longer, be just a little stronger, maybe she will...

He’d reached for her hands but had forced himself not to grasp them. He’d felt her holding onto him, had allowed it to calm him. Alice had needed him to be calm, to be all right...

And when he’d finally nodded, his reward had been her beautifully whispered thanks, the sweet brush of her thumbs over his cheekbones, and an invitation:

“Meet me on the solarium terrace after sunset, all right?”

It had hurt to watch her spin away from him and disappear out the door. He’d been so close... She’d been so close...!

Tarrant opens his eyes and regards the view from the solarium terrace. He’s early, but he couldn’t have forced himself to arrive any later. Alice will be meeting him here at sunset and maybe then she will... they will... she might...!

He glares at the sun where it hovers just over the forests of Queast and wills it to sink faster!

“Hatter. What are you doing here?”

Tarrant stiffens and turns. His nose wrinkles in disgust as he regards that... that... “Leif. You’re intruding on a private meeting,” Tarrant informs him, doing his best to keep the Outlandish out of his voice and his tone civil, just in case Alice is in earshot.

The lion leans against one of the stone horse heads surrounding the terrace railing. “Actually, I’ve an appointment to meet someone here shortly, so that would make you the unwelcome party.”

Tarrant’s left hand fists at the accusation. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see which of us will be asked to leave, although, I highly doubt my wife will have much to say to you.

“Your wife?” Leif asks with a sardonic lift of his brows. “Oh, you mean Champion Alice? Funny you should mention her, for it was she who invited me to meet her here before sunset.”

Tarrant, showing far too many teeth for the gesture to be considered a smile, refuses to believe it.

“And another thing,” Leif continues. “It’s pretty presumptuous for you to call her your wife, isn’t it? No one around here seems to remember an actual wedding taking place.” The lion glances down at Tarrant’s left hand – still fisted – and huffs a derisive snort. “Or was the Thrice a-Vow supposed to compensate for that? It doesn’t, you know. Not on this side of the Outland mountains.”

Tarrant can feel the madness creeping over him, burning him from the inside out. “You’ll stay away from her, Cat. Alice is mine.

The he-lion doesn’t so much as shift in his pose, the perfect picture of ease. “Alice can make up her own mind about that,” he replies lightly.

Tarrant clenches his jaw and locks his body in place to keep himself from—doing something—verybad—to that... that...!

“Shall we have tea on the terrace?” the queen’s voice drifts over to them on the breeze.

Tarrant twitches, his gaze flitting from his rival, to the doorway, to the shadowy room beyond and then back to the terrace, his own fisted left hand, and the lion’s befuddled expression.

“There’s a lovely view from here, if you’ll just follow me, sirs...”

And then the White Queen steps through the doors, pushing aside the gauzy curtains, and ushers a lion and a horse onto the terrace. At the sight of Tarrant and Leif, the queen freezes, her eyes widening. Tarrant barely notices, for following in her wake is Alice.

The sight of her soothes him in a way that is unique and absolute. He forgets about the queen, the visiting dignitaries, the shukm-lickering toadie...

What is the meaning of this!” the lion at the queen’s side roars, his golden eyes glaring at Leif. He turns his back on the former Champion and addresses the queen: “You... Your Majesty, tell me you have not granted these... this traitor or his former liege amnesty!”

Looking very pale and quite upset, the queen turns to the ambassador and explains, “I’m afraid I have, Sir Avendon. Both Leif and the former Prince Avendale are here at my invitation.”

A moment of utter silence wraps the balcony and its occupants up in its suffocating embrace. And then:

“You claimed to be a friend of Shuchland, Mirana of Mamoreal...”

Alice steps closer to the queen, coming between the snarling lion and her queen.

Lifting her chin, the queen replies, “The Aven family have my full support.”

“If that were true, you would not be harboring two betrayers to their crown.”

“I would not punish them for remaining loyal to the spirit of our alliance, sir.”

Alice places a hand on the hilt of her broadsword and Tarrant tenses, leans toward her, calculates how long it might take him to reach that pompous creature before her, determines the angle and force necessary for utilizing the pair of embroidery scissors in his pocket as he had with Stayne...

The lion replies, his tone marinated in disgust, “It disturbs me to learn this, Queen Mirana.” He sends a single, searing, golden glare in Leif’s direction. “I’m afraid this changes things. Shuchland will not be able to assist you with your challenge against Causwick Callion after all.”

“Sir Avendon...”

The dignitary does not linger. Turning on his heel, he marches back into the castle, no doubt to collect his retainers and begin the long journey home. Tarrant watches as Mirana forces a sympathetic smile and turns toward the horse.

“Chief Minister Mogrimon...”

The creature sighs and shakes his mane. “I’m also sorry it has come to this, Your Majesty. As I mentioned earlier, Galandonland is only prepared to play a supportive role and then only in the event that you have guaranteed the assistance of Shuchland. I regret that Lord Hornsaver’s army will decline to stand beside your own on the battlefield.”

Looking truly anxious now, Mirana asks on a whisper of sound, “But, if things were to change and Shuchland chose to join us...?”

The horse tilts his large head to the side. “We would reconsider your proposal, of course.”

“Of course,” Mirana manages. Tarrant feels a moment of heart-freezing panic at the defeat in the queen’s expression. “You are welcome to stay the night, if you’d like...”

“Unfortunately, I will be following Sir Avendon’s example, Your Majesty. Were word to reach Shuchland that I had lingered here in spite of the... political difficulties...”

“I understand. Of course. Allow me to assist you in your preparations to leave, in that case,” Mirana manages on a wavering breath.

Tarrant watches the queen and the Galandonland diplomat retreat into the shadows of the castle. Alice, however, lingers.

“Champion Alice, I am so sorry... I had no idea Avendon would see me here,” Leif begins, his paws curled into great, hairy fists. “I’ve lost you the support of Shuchland and Galandonland! I—”

Alice takes one step further out onto the terrace and tells him quietly, “You are precisely where I asked you to be, at precisely the time I asked you to be here. The fault for this is entirely mine.”

“Alice,” Tarrant says, staring at her, his gaze moving over her, his mind cataloging all of the oddities about her: despite her bowed head, she does not look defeated; despite the quite tone, she does not seem disappointed; despite the events that have taken place, she does not even appear to be surprised by this latest turn of events.

He turns his chin slightly away from her, his eyes narrowing, as a suspicion occurs to him. However, he knows he must not speak it! For, if Alice wishes it to be spoken of, she will inform them of it... but she says nothing.

“Alice,” he says again now that her attention is focused on him. “The White Queen has issued a Champions’ Duel?”

“Yes,” she replies. Still standing against the stone sculpture, Leif stiffens. “She dispatched the message just after I returned. If it is accepted, we will be facing Prince Jaspien at the battlefield within three days.”

Three days!

“No,” Tarrant commands automatically, his suspicions momentarily forgotten, his vow to trust her disregarded. “You cannot fight! The poison... the promise... the—”

“I’m the Queen’s Champion,” she reminds him. “I’ve already renewed my vows.” Her expression softens. “And I’m fine. Truly.”

Knowing this is not the time, the place, or – most especially – the company in which to speak of all the reasons Alice should not duel in three days’ time, Tarrant is frozen in place. Only his hands move, his right twitching and his left opening and then recurling into a fist at erratic intervals.

Alice regards both of them for a moment and then announces, “I will fight Jaspien’s new Champion, whichever mercenary he manages to convince to do it. And, I would like it if I could count on both of you to stand with me.” Then, she pointedly glances between them, measuring the wide distance they’ve put between themselves. “If you can bear to stand side-by-side for the sake of a greater good, that is.”

The very thought of voluntarily and peaceably standing in close proximity to that... that... that makes Tarrant’s stomach heave.

“And if we can’t?” he hears himself ask, his tone dropping and darkening with just the smallest hint of brogue.

Alice replies evenly, “Then you won’t be going anywhere in three days’ time. Either of you.”

Leif gapes. “You can’t just leave us here like a couple of old widows to their knitting!”

Pulling her lips back into a very frightening smile, Alice informs that blasted lion, “I am the Queen’s Champion. I assure you, I can and if necessary I will make sure you’re left here with your knitting on the day of the duel.”

Tarrant knows better than to argue. Luckily, Leif doesn’t. He opens his great mouth but Alice cuts him off. “One more word of protest from you and I’ll restrict this offer to Tarrant only.”

Tarrant certainly wouldn’t mind! But, well, of course he’d still mind the bit about Alice fighting in a duel when her health is still precarious and her mind still broken and the trauma of the last week still so fresh...

“Alice,” he whispers, breaking the staring contest between his wife and the creature who covets her. “What can I do? Tell me what you need.”

She turns toward him again and the anger leaves her expression. He studies her lovingly – the softness of her eyes, the gentle smile curving her lips, the disappearance of the scowl lines from her brow... Yes, yes, this is how he will win her back! He will be the man she needs! After all, he’ll do anything, go anywhere, become anyone for Alice...

“If you wouldn’t mind,” she tells him and then glances at his right hand, “and if you think you can manage it, I’d like to meet you on the croquet pitch tomorrow after lunch.”

His eyes flash at the request. He doesn’t want to fight her, but...

Alice needs to prepare for battle, lad. Will you let that great, frumious beast do the honors?

No, no, of course he won’t.

Tarrant nods once, accepting the invitation.

“Bring your broadsword, please,” Alice adds.

“I... would also like to offer my services, Champion Alice, if you have need of them,” Leif interrupts.

Tarrant feels his face twist into a mute snarl when the animal’s offer takes Alice’s attention away from him.

“Yes, thank you, Leif. I’ll expect you on the croquet pitch tomorrow morning. We’ll use the scimitar.”

Leif nods.

“Thank you.” She looks from the lion to Tarrant. “Both of you.”

The next moment follows silently but Alice doesn’t turn around and leave. Tarrant resists glancing at the Shuchlander and struggles for something to say. True, he does not want to have a private discussion here with him watching, but if he says nothing what will Alice think of him?!

Tarrant clears his throat and speaks in a rush, before Leif can beat him to it: “I’m so very glad you’re back, Alice. Chessur wouldn’t tell anyone where you were, but he said you were... safe...”

“I was,” Alice answers quietly. “I was perfectly fine. Absolem, in his infinite, annoyingly smug wisdom, knew exactly where I needed to be last night.”

Swallowing around the rock that had magically grown – well, of course it had grown magically! How else would a rock come to be in such an odd place? – in his throat, Tarrant nods and attempts a smile.

Why did you leave Mamoreal? he wants to ask. What can I do to make all these mistakes right? Will you come home with me? Will you hold onto me, Alice? Forgive me? Choose me?

“Raven,” he says.

Alice’s expression softens. He holds his breath...

And then...

“Alice! There you are!”

Tarrant startles as a large, gray cat materializes beside Alice’s shoulder. Tarrant’s eyes narrow but he somehow manages to swallow the poisonous hiss rising up – burning, acidic – in his throat: Chessur...!

“Did everything go all right?” Alice asks him quietly.

“Of course. How can you doubt my powers of persuasion?”

She gives him a wry smile. “Despite the inconvenience it must have been, I’m sure. So, there were no objections to...?”

“None whatsoever.”

She sighs, relieved. “Thank you.”

Chessur grins. “The night’s still young and, if I’m not mistaken, you’re still in need of me...?”

Alice nods, her face tightening with determination. “Meet me—”

“In the usual place,” Chessur drawls. “Although I won’t wait long so you’d best finish up here.”

As Chessur evaporates, Leif is quick to ask, “Champion Alice? What is going on? What are you up to?”

“My job,” she replies evenly. And then a very interesting smirk forms on her lips.  Glancing between Leif and Tarrant, she says haltingly, as if consulting a distant memory, “Now, come, come. It’s time to forgive and forget... or forget and forgive, whichever comes first or is most convenient.”

Tarrant twitches as the words tug at his memory... the tea party on Gribling, when Alice had arrived and had awakened not only Tarrant, but the fire within him. Why, he’d never felt so giddy in all his life! Oh, how he’d rambled on and on and on and on and... Why, it had been a miracle she’d consented to riding on his hat at all!

“Yes, yes,” he lisps in answer, “We must commence with the slaying and such!”

Alice chuckles and, turning, bids them good night. Tarrant – and, out of the corner of his eye, he notices Leif as well – watches Alice as she trots down the terrace steps and makes her way across the croquet field and then disappears into the ever-blossoming cherry orchard.

Once she is out of sight, Leif stirs, reminding Tarrant of his unwanted companion. He slides a vicious glare in the cat’s direction.

“For Alice’s sake,” the creature rumbles. “I’m willing to forget... for now.”

Grinning too widely, Tarrant replies, “Aye, beast. Ye go on an’do tha’ – we’ll be continuin’ auwr discussion jus’as soon as tha’ trio o’lickspittle guddlers’ scut ha’been taken care of.”

The lion nods once and then heads back inside the castle. Tarrant watches him go and then returns to the view from the terrace. He studies the forest and listens, but despite the hours he waits, there is no sign of Alice nor of what she’s doing with Chessur somewhere out there on the grounds.


“Your Majesty?”

Mirana turns away from the view of the moonlit grounds and smiles. “Alice, Champion Alice! What do I have to do to get you to call me ‘Mirana’ once and for all?”

“Hmm...” Alice appears to give the inquiry serious consideration. “How about both of us get kidnapped and held hostage in a foreign land by greedy megalomaniacs?”

Mirana feels an incredulous smile pull at her lips.

“Oh, wait...” Alice muses. “We’ve already done that, haven’t we, Mirana?”

The queen laughs, delighted. “Yes, I do believe we have, Alice.”

Alice gently bumps the queen’s shoulder and laughs softly. Nodding to the spyglass mounted on the balcony, Alice says jokingly, “You weren’t using that thing to keep an eye on me, were you?”

“Darling,” Mirana sighs, “when a broadsword-wielding mad woman wanders off with a morally questionable cat with evaporating skills, it’s always prudent to keep an eye on things!”

Alice laughs. “I can always depend on you, Mirana.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Alice.”

After a moment of companionable silence, Alice muses, “What shall we attempt for our next adventure, you think?”

“Something more adventurous than a perfectly, wonderfully, utterly mad plan to remove said megalomaniacs from power for good?”

“Oh, yes. Somehow that had slipped my mind.”

Mirana waggles a finger at her. “Ah-ah-ah! No forgetting your own plan, Alice. It’s not. Allowed.”

“I’m sorry? I came up with a plan of some sort?”

This time Mirana bumps Alice’s shoulder. “What a perfectly disturbing sense of humor you have, dear. It’s enough to give a queen a stress-injury.”

“Whoops. My apologies.”

Again, they allow the quiet of the very, very late evening to settle between them.

“I trust Chessur was... accommodating?” the queen ventures after a moment.

Alice smiles. “Yes. Very.”

“So, should a man speak Outlandish or a beast let loose a laugh on the battlefield...?”

“I’ll be fine.”

The queen is very glad to hear it. And even more glad to have a resource like Chessur on their side. Truly, a shape-shifting cat is a very useful fellow to have on hand!

“How did it happen?” Alice asks, suddenly. “When did the Oraculum change?”

Mirana feels immeasurable gratitude for that evidence of Alice’s depthless trust in Mirana’s abilities and good sense. Not: Why weren’t you keeping an eye on things? But: When did things change? “I asked Absolem when I returned. He indicated it was sometime during the fifteenth day. I expect, by the time he learned of it, it was too late to act to prevent it from happening.”

Alice nods. “Do you think it was your betrothal that...?”

“I’ve considered it,” Mirana replies, her hand moving the leather thong around her neck. She will be eternally grateful that Fenruffle had insisted on returning to the inn to personally search the place from top to bottom in order to locate Dale’s first claw. Perhaps she’ll knight him for his efforts on her behalf...

“However,” the queen continues, “when a monarch deigns to leave her lands to visit a suitor, a betrothal is not... an unexpected occurrence.”

“So, something unexpected must have caused it...” Alice speculates. After a moment, her eyes narrow and she asks, “How long would it take word of my heart line to reach the other lands?”

Mirana blinks, startled. “Well, I...”

“We’re expecting word of both Shuchland and Galandonland’s withdrawal of aid to reach Jaspien by dawn, yes?” she continues.

“Alice, whatever is going on inside that Uplandian head of yours?” Despite asking, Mirana is not sure she wants to know.

“I think Jaspien, Valereth, and Oshtyer have been planning to take over all of Underland for a long time. I think they participated in the Wooing Rites to discover who you might choose and to see just how good your Champion was... I don’t know what their original plan may have been, but learning of my heart line would have been too good of an opportunity to let pass.”

Alice coughs out a humorless chuckle. “It’s not as if they could pay anyone enough to stand against both the White Queen’s Champion and King Aven’s. Mercenaries fight for money, true, but it takes a special kind of madness for someone to be a Champion, pick up a sword, fight an honorable battle to the death in the name of someone else, for the sake of someone else. Mercenaries don’t mind fighting, but dying... that’s something else altogether.”

Alice shakes her head. “And there I was, outside the protection of Mamoreal, a Champion with a heart line...” Alice’s brows lift in droll counterpoint to her musings.

Mirana sighs. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand, Alice...” Logic makes her head spin especially when she’s enjoying a view from a sixth story balcony!

“Oshtyer and the others didn’t look very surprised to see that I had one. And... I think they might have considered threatening Tarrant, that is, if they could torture his identity out of me and manage to kidnap him. If that had happened, I would have done anything they asked.  Or perhaps the ruse would have been much simpler: maybe they would have tried to hurt him through me.” Alice considers her heart line. “In all honesty, I know so very little about this. Still.”

Mirana lays a hand on Alice’s arm. “No one can hurt Tarrant physically through you... not in the way you’re thinking. But he would have felt every emotion that passed through your heart. Unless you’d thought to shield him from it.”

“I’m sorry?”

Mirana smiles. “I shall have to fetch my resource on Underlandian rites for you to read more thoroughly. Suffice it to say that you and Tarrant can communicate your feelings to each other.”

“Unintentionally?” Alice wonders after a long moment.

“Well, yes, I imagine so. If you were panicked or suddenly overjoyed or felt something equally overwhelming.” Mirana considers Alice’s expression. “Why do you ask?”

Her gaze continues to examine the heart line on her hand – which she turns this way and that in the moonlight. Alice reluctantly says, “Nearly every day we were gone, the same inexplicable panic gripped me, waking me in the morning. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t have single bad dream the entire time we were gone, but... it felt as if I had.”

Mirana sighs and nods. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarrant holds the answer to that riddle.”

Alice nods. “I shall have to ask him... after all this is over.”

“Why the delay?” Mirana considers the coming duel. “If something were to happen to you, or him, wouldn’t it be better to be with him now?”

Alice closes her eyes. Her voice is husky when she says, “If I go down there now – go down to him – there’ll be no way I’ll be able to prepare for the duel.” Alice sighs. “And then there’s the fact that if I go to him without giving both of us time to really think about what has happened, it’s always going to be there. This question hanging in the air over us.”

“If it wouldn’t be too personal to ask, what question is that, Alice?”

Alice glances at Mirana. “Trust. It’s a question of trust. Can I trust him not to let me hurt him? Can he trust himself not to let me hurt myself with another promise?”

“Alice, you don’t seriously believe that one little promise could make you do the things you did?”

“No, I don’t.”

Mirana is relieved to hear complete certainty in Alice’s tone.

“But Tarrant believes it.”

“Oh, botheration.”


“I see what you mean about waiting.”

“Yes, neither of us will be able to concentrate if I... if we...” Alice sighs. “I never thought having too much to say would be such a confounding conundrum.”

Mirana lays an arm across Alice’s shoulders. “It’s always the unexpected troubles that are the most overwhelming.”

When Alice doesn’t say anything for a moment, Mirana dares to whisper, “I’m so sorry, Alice.”

“About what?”

The queen smiles sadly; it’s truly unbelievable how innocently surprised Alice is by her apology. “If it was... that is, if revealing you heart line truly caused Jaspien to act...”


“No, no, let me say this.” She draws a deep breath. “I should have listened to you, Alice. I’m so very sorry I insisted on us both wearing those silly dresses.”

“Stop, Mirana. Stop.”

Alice gathers the queen’s hands in her own and meets her uncertain gaze. “Look at us. Where are we? In Mamoreal. And we’re both well and alive. If I hadn’t revealed my heart line at the banquet, who knows what might have happened. Both Tarrant and I might have been captured at some other time. You might have had to elect a Champion to fight against me. I might have been killed; Tarrant might have been tortured; you might have been killed and Mamoreal might be in the hands of—”

“I see your point.”

Alice huffs. “Interrupting, again.”

“A queen’s prerogative, dearest Alice.”

They share a smile on the balcony, watch the clouds float across the moon, absorb teaspoon after teaspoon of moonlight through their skin...

On the balcony, two figures lean against each other’s shoulders against the backdrop of a midnight sky: a queen and her Champion.

Two women.

Two friends.

Two indomitable hearts.

One Promise Kept: Book 2

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 12 of 17

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