Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 12 of 22

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The joint presentation Mr. Barlow and Mr. Greathead conduct regarding the tunnel shielding they had recently patented is going to be a success.

At least it seems likely at the moment.

Not that Alice is capable of truly paying attention.

She’s pretty sure Hamish had botched the introduction she’d written for the engineers’ speech and had mutilated her arguments in favor of the new system, but she can’t be bothered to give a thought to that now. Not with that wretched wastrel Valereth – oh, no, it’s Mr. Valerey Rethbourne now! – sitting across the long table and three seats down.

Oh, what Alice wouldn’t give for even one of her throwing knives. Right. Now!

But no. No!

Kill him here and now and what happens to the negotiations? Kill him here and now, with no way to send his body back to Underland and no way to communicate with Mirana, and how will you know if you do Maevyn any good at all?!

Alice forces herself to take a deep breath. Calm. She must be calm!

But knowing she must and actually managing it are two very different things!

In response to her desperate, disjointed thoughts, Tarrant Reaches for her. She can feel him. The heart line warms, simmers. He’s anxious. She’s frustrated; oh, how she wishes should just speak to him with words! How can she possibly explain this situation? Here she is, in the same boardroom as Valereth with no acceptable way of disposing of him ONCE AND FOR ALL!

Calm, Alice! she scolds herself as Tarrant’s anxiety heats to true Worry.

She takes another deliberate breath. She thinks of the revolver – for the thirty-times-third time! – and forces herself to leave it where it is. She considers Calling Tarrant; she can imagine him at this precise moment, properly hatted and standing on the stoop of her mother’s house, watching the cabs roll past, wavering, waffling, wondering if he ought to be hailing one and...!

Tarrant gives her a Pinch and Alice feels a measure of control return to her, meager though it is.

She knows he’s worried, but she doesn’t Call him. There is nothing he can do here except bury that finely crafted example of Irondirk excellence in Valereth’s gut. And that would be the end of the negotiations. And perhaps the end of Underland.

But if she doesn’t Call him... when he learns of Valereth’s presence – here, in this room, at this meeting! – he will be furious! Beyond furious! Bey-urious!

Alice examines her options once more: it’s not possible to withhold the fact that she’s found Valereth from him – it wouldn’t be safe to do so – which leaves her with telling him. If she tells him after the meeting has ended and Valereth has slunk off to wherever it is he’d come from... that would be... Bad. Very Bad. But if she Calls him now... it could be Worse. Worse for Underland, anyway.

She fists her left hand. It’s time to make a decision. The presentation is winding down which means luncheon will be starting soon and then there will be the panel discussion which might take thirty minutes or three hours depending on the young engineers’ abilities to thwart concerns and counter troublesome questions. And with London’s traffic being what it is, it might take nearly an hour for Tarrant to get here... If she’s going to Call him, now would be the moment to do it.

She bites back a sigh.

It all comes down to Trust.

You named him as your Champion, she reminds herself.

Indeed, she had. And now, when he ought to be here, she will instead keep him away? How can he keep his promise to her and their child if she doesn’t allow him to?

Their child...

Does Tarrant not have equal responsibility in protecting their child as Alice? Is that not one of his duties, as a father, just as it is hers, as a mother? Would she really deny him that?

But nothing can be DONE!

A voice that sounds very much like Tarrant’s rebukes her: He can be there, Alice. That’s not “nothing.”

No, she supposes it isn’t. Still...

Why are you a-gyrin’ and a-gimblin’ over this? Didn’t you already have this discussion with Tarrant? Before you left Underland?

Yes, yes, she had. The subject had been screamed, shouted, discussed, and decided. Which leaves Alice with only one un-regrettable choice.

Before she can change her mind, Alice briefly closes her eyes, focuses, and Calls: please-need-come-soon-fear-rage-hopeless-frustration-trust!

His Answer is immediate and final: strength-love-resolution-now!

She’s a little startled by how... simple that had been. How quickly he’d replied.

He’s coming.

She just hopes her faith in him will be enough to keep the Worst from happening.

You still underestimate him, you know.

Yes, she does.

He’s more than a mad hatter.

Yes, he is. It is that more, however, that has her worried. Tarrant is a husband, a will-be-father, and a warrior of incomparable skill, resourcefulness, and passion. Despite the fact that the stain of murder does not mark him as it does Alice, she doubts he’ll bother to restrain himself as he has in the past!

Alice answers his periodic, whisperingly soft inquiries with reassurance. She knows he’s trying not to distract her, interrupt her meeting, but she knows he needs this connection. As does she.

“Are ye still all righ’?” she can Feel against her heart.

“I’m fine; please come,” she Sends. There is no impatience or irritation in these answering messages, not like there had been at the Maigh when – in the midst of her bath – Tarrant had Called her not once but twice! She’d been a bit offended then that he’d worried over what sort of trouble she might find at a festival of all things! But now she can’t find a single spark of aggravation within her at his overprotective tendencies. (A distinction she’s sure he’s noticed as well.) Now he calls every other minute and she cannot thank him enough to his diligence and attention.

Mr. Barlow concludes the presentation. There’s a polite round of applause. A few questions are posed to clarify various points that had been mentioned in the presentation itself. And then luncheon is announced.

Downstairs, in a very fine dining room with high windows and lace curtains that somehow make the coal-stained dreary day beyond a bit more cheerful, Alice locates her seat, noticing that the name card on the place setting to her left is Hamish’s and the name card to her right... is a Mr. Rethbourne’s. Gritting her teeth to keep herself from screaming her frustration and rage at Tarrant, she allows one of the servers to seat her.

She’s not foolish enough to ignore Valereth what with him sitting so very close, but she does not engage him in conversation. Or, at least, she tries not to...

“Although I must confess, I am confused as to why a new tunneling method is necessary. Has the current one not sufficiently met the expectations of the company and its investors?” Valereth directs the question to the table in general once the cold soup course has been cleared away.

Hamish counters with typical pomp and circumstance, “I believe Misters Barlow and Greathead will be kind enough to describe both the financial benefits and efficacy of their new method this afternoon.”

A bit further down the table, both engineers nod in agreement, confirming Hamish’s assumption.

“However,” he continues, “those advantages aside, there are those who are concerned for the preservation of our historic city. The integrity of London’s fine, upstanding neighborhoods must be considered.”

“I agree most ardently on that point. London’s fine institutions must be left untouched by progress,” Valereth replies in a droll tone. “However, no one is suggesting constructing tunnels beneath the queen’s palace!”

“Well. I should hope not!” Hamish blusters. “Still, it’s the idea, sir. If we can so easily destroy and replace on a whim, we fall into a practice that does not bode well for the future. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a concern.”

“Hm,” Valereth counters. “I admit to wondering who these numerous concerned citizens are aside from yourself and the senior Lord Ascot. I was under the impression that many quite enjoyed the show of the demolition.”

Alice cannot stop herself from addressing him directly: “And in the days of ancient Rome, the citizens gathered to watch criminals and traitors being eaten by lions and other beasts for entertainment. Are you suggesting we might consider reinstituting those practices as well? For the enjoyment of the masses?”

In response to her barbed rejoinder, Valereth’s lips curl into the semblance of a smile, however there is no mirth in the gesture at all. “What an interesting suggestion, madam.”

“’Interesting’ is not the word I would have chosen in this instance, sir.”

His smile widens, grates on her nerves.

“Alice? All righ’?” Tarrant queries again.

She composes her answer from uneasiness. “I... I’m trying to be.”

His replying urgency is both gratifying and frightening. A rush of strength, of courage, fills her heart. She can clearly remember the times in her life when she’s felt his strength so intimately: Frabjous Day – although how she’d managed it that time, without the aid of the heart line, she doesn’t know! – and again, on several occasions, within Causwick Castle. Once more, Alice finds herself borrowing her husband’s considerable muchness. And not a moment too soon.

Valereth turns his attention toward her and Alice curses herself for rising to the bait he’d set; she’d opened the air between them, so to speak, invited continued conversation...

He says in a flat, inflectionless tone, “I’ve been wondering when I’d be given the honor of meeting Charles Kingsleigh’s daughter... I’m very gratified to have my patience rewarded at long last, Lady Hightopp.”

“Have I kept you waiting, sir?” she answers, gathering herself and Tarrant’s muchness for a battle of wits. “If that is the case, I must apologize for the... oversight on my part.” Oh, how she wishes she hadn’t overlooked him all this time! How she wishes she’d let Bandy tear him limb from limb on the battlefield!


She replies to Tarrant’s frantic worry with forced calm flavored with anxiety: “I can do this.” And she can. She will. She must. Later, she will marvel at her reaction to this confrontation. Later, she will wonder when and how she had come to depend so completely on Tarrant. Later, she will muse if she’s lost her ability to be a true Champion over the years of peace. But, in all fairness, Alice knows she no longer fights for only the White Queen and there is so much more she can lose now besides her home, her friends, Underland... Her hand fists in her lap, over the linen napkin, in close proximity to her belly and the life within.

Tarrant’s response to her determination is too jumbled for her to truly translate, but she imagines he must be trying to reassure her that he’s drawing closer...

Valereth continues, “Ah, it so pleases me to hear your reassurance, madam, that you would not have kept me waiting intentionally. However, I have found that many things are all the sweeter for the wait one must endure beforehand.”

“And what might one of those things be, sir?”

He appears to consider his response carefully. Alice doesn’t believe the display for a moment: she knows this man, had struggled under the oppressive weight of his iron control and chilling ambition, had escaped him, had turned against him, had outwitted him. She knows that this fight – on this battlefield (the city of London) – will be a hundred times harder to win than the last. Valereth is not a man who falls flat on his face and yet does not take careful notice of the errors that had lead him to that ignominious position. She knows he’s studied his strategy, mastered his mistakes, become a pupil of perfection. His plan, whatever it is now, is as close to unconquerable as is possible.

I’m still undefeated, she reminds herself.

Still, that’s no reason to relax her guard.

She waits for his answer: What is best enjoyed after a long, arduous wait?

And, his dark eyes gleaming maliciously, he says in a tone carefully voided of emotion, “Oysters. Yes, one mustn’t... harvest them before it’s advantageous to do so.”

Alice narrows her eyes. Oysters or a certain Oshtyer? she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t have to. She suddenly suspects that she’s conversing with a murderer at this very moment. The fact that, were they to both reach for the salt at the same moment, their elbows would brush is not a comforting one.

She says, “I’m sure I wouldn’t know. But I shall keep you in mind, sir, should I come across that particular issue in the future.” Is there any point in trying to deny her knowledge of Oshtyer’s sudden return to Underland? She doesn’t know, but it can’t hurt to try...

“I doubt you will,” he answers, his lips curling into a brief, satisfied sneer. “I’m sure a lady of your considerable talents would have already realized that.”

With those two obscure sentences, she knows it had been Valereth who had inflicted that knife wound on Oshtyer’s chest. Had perhaps even pushed the man down the hole and back to Underland. Why? But, no, that thought must be considered later!

Alice answers as best she can: “Then I should think we won’t meet again.”

“But, I’m sure we will, madam. After all, I’ve merely named one of the finer things best savored slowly.” He inclines his head in her direction, a gesture of respect if not for the decidedly nasty grin curling his thin lips. “I’m sure there will be an occasion for me to introduce you to one more. At the very least.”

“I shall be on my guard until then,” she replies, unable to choke back the steely quality of her tone. “But, a man of your disposition should not discount the possibility that I may yet teach you my own answer to that conundrum.”

His eyebrows arch and he smiles, conceding the war of words... for now. “I shall look forward to it, Lady Hightopp.”

Alice leans to the side as a server places the next dish in front of her. She can smell it, see it, but it doesn’t seem real even though her stomach rolls in response to it. She’s on the verge of excusing herself from the table when Tarrant Speaks to her again. This time the prevailing emotion is satisfaction.

She struggles not to sigh in relief. She waits as Tarrant wrestles with impatience and then a server leans between her and Valereth.

“Lady Hightopp?”


He offers her a small, folded note upon a tray. “From a... gentlemen who has just arrived.”

“Thank you.” She takes the note, flicks it open and reads the single line that had been hastily scribbled on the fine stationary:

I’m here.

Alice folds the note and nods to the server.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I must see to this. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen?” she murmurs at her dining companions. Alice doesn’t wait for their permission. She’s out of her seat and out of the room before they can reply. She struggles not to pick up her skirts and run toward the parlor, where visitors of the railway office are accommodated until they can be seen.

Now Alice wonders at her sudden and strong reaction to discovering the very man she and Tarrant would have been hunting had the fate of Underland not demanded their complete attention. She tries to justify her reaction: she had not expected Valereth to be an active member of the Subway committee; she had not anticipated having to be civil to him; she had not imagined having to sit in such close proximity to the man; she had not anticipated the possibility that he’d intended to murder and then had tossed Oshtyer down the hole and back to Underland. And, as for his reasons for doing that, for admitting to it, and for hinting that he’s been waiting for her... No, Alice’s initial deductions in response to that information are not encouraging at all!

“Alice!” Tarrant whispers, stopping in mid-pace as she slides open the door.

She manages to close it behind her before he sweeps her into his arms. “Tell me,” he says and his tone is Commanding.

She does: “Valereth is here.”

His reaction is as disturbing as she’d anticipated. “Here? Nauw?

Alice tells her husband, the man who is her Champion, “Yes. He’s a member of the committee. In charge of logistics, I believe.”

She doubts Tarrant had even heard that last bit of information. She doubts he’d heard anything past the word “yes.”

Where is he?

Alice takes in the furious orange of his irises, the blackening eyelids and shadows beneath his eyes, and grasps his upper arms. “Stop,” she replies in a firm, low voice. “You can’t. I can’t.”

Why. Not?

Alice confronts the utter fury in her husband’s eyes and struggles to keep both him and herself calm. She places her hand over the place where she knows his Heart Mark to be and says, “We’re so close to getting the committee to agree to the new tunneling method. We can’t throw that away now. Please...

She watches as he raises his hands to grasp hers, closes his burning eyes and takes a deep breath.

“Of course. Of course. You are entirely correct, Alice,” he lisps.

Her elation at his calm, controlled reply is dashed, however, when he frowns suddenly. Tarrant opens his eyes, but the verdant green she’d been hoping for is still a distant dream. He studies her and she can see his mind working.

“Ye di’nae Call me righ’away,” he states. His eyes burn through yellow and approach orange again.

“I know,” she answers. Really, what else can she say to the truth? “It won’t happen again.” And because he can read the Promise she offers him in her open expression, his anger and frustration and fury subside.

“Bu’ ye did Call me,” he continues, his voice softening with forgiveness.

“I promised I would,” she replies.

And before she can object, he leans down and kisses her soundly on the lips. “Thank you, my Alice.”

She shakes her head. “I named you my Champion,” she replies on a breath, wary of who might be on the other side of the thin doors, listening. “And I meant it. I’m just sorry there’s nothing to be done at the moment.”

“There’s plenty to be done,” he argues, brushing his fingertips through her hair. “Watching, waiting, listening...” At this point, he spears her with a meaningful look.

She nods. “I will Tell you immediately if he behaves in a suspicious manner.”

Like hinting at murder and mayhem? In response to the reminder, Alice bites her lip and, of course, Tarrant notices. His fingers tighten around her gloved hands.

“Tell me,” he directs.

She shakes her head. “Not here. Later. I promise I will. Later.” This is not the Place to be delving into Valereth’s motives, machinations, and misdeeds.

“Has he threatened you?” he whispers, cutting to the heart of the matter.

“No.” She forces herself not to add to that, to negate the reassurance with too much justification.

Tarrant relaxes. Marginally. “I cannae accompany you,” he burrs out of frustration. “Bu’ tell me where ye’ll be so I can find ye as hastenly as possible, should ye call f’r me.”

Alice describes the locations of the dining room and the boardroom. “Tarrant...” she says, struggles for words, strives to describe how infuriated she is that she cannot fulfill her duties as Queen’s Champion today and be done with it all!

Still holding her hands in his own, he lays them against his chest, pressing her palms against his jacket. Even through all the layers of fabric she thinks she can feel his warmth, the rhythm of his heartbeats...


She takes a deep breath. “I don’t... I don’t like feeling scared, powerless, frustrated.”

His expression softens despite the bright, anxious peridot green of his eyes. “I know.”

Yes, she imagines he does. Every time she’s picked up a sword in the name of the queen, she imagines this is how he’d felt. Feeling utterly wretched, Alice blinks back sudden tears.

Tarrant gently tilts her face up to his with a gloved knuckle. “Alice, my Alice, you are a Champion... an’ I wouldnae change tha’ f’r anythin’.”

She smiles, overwhelmed. He leans down again, brushes a kiss against her cheek and Alice leans into the touch. The moment is interrupted, however, by the sound of the door sliding open. Luckily, the uninvited guest is merely Hamish.

“Alice, what in the world...?” Hamish stops short at the sight of Tarrant in the parlor. Alice can see the confusion and curiosity in his blue eyes, but he manfully refrains from demanding an explanation. Instead, he announces, “Lunch is nearly over. Will you be returning to the meeting or shall I make your excuses?”

“I’ll be there. Just one more moment, please, Hamish.”

“Very well.” He nods in Tarrant’s direction. “Hightopp.”


Alice watches him turn on his heel and quit the room. “That reminds me: I’m curious as to how you managed to charm Hamish of all people...” Is there anyone he can’t charm?

Lady Ascot comes to mind.

“I promise to explain in detail as soon as circumstances permit.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“Ye b’careful, Alice. I’ll b’expectin’ ye teh b’fully capable o’ holdin’ me teh more th’n jus’ an expl’nation later.”

“I will.”

She does. The latter half of the meeting goes as she’d expected: budget concerns and time schedules are smartly addressed and the committee adjourns with the intention of reviewing the complete report provided by the young and enterprising engineers. Alice shakes hands and imparts Lord Ascot’s hopes and best wishes for a more advantageous direction in the construction of the Earl’s Court tunnel and station.

Alice is the first to excuse herself. She glances at Hamish, who nods once, agreeing to be his father’s eyes and ears in her stead. After all, she doubts she’ll be invited into the drawing room for cigars and brandy, where Serious discussions are inevitably held. Despite the desire to see this thing through to the end, to the moment when an agreement is reached and a contract signed, Alice knows that will not be possible. Not for a woman. Not in this World. Her role in this business is nearly over. Were the circumstances different, she might have actually let that bother her.

Not now, however.

Tarrant meets her in the hall as she opens the door and escorts her from the building. He hails a cab, helps her into it, and wraps her up in his arms. Alice takes his hand and, wordlessly, presses it over her stomach beneath her own. For a long moment, neither of them speaks.

“I wish we could have him followed,” she muses aloud.

Tarrant shakes his head and presses his cheek against the top of her hat. “He won’t be going anywhere. He’s built a life here. He’ll fight for it.”

Alice leans away and looks up at him. His yellow-green eyes are narrowed as he stares at the ribbons of light that sway with the imperfectly drawn curtains.

“You’re right; he’s not going anywhere, but not for that reason...”

“What did he say to you?”

Now that Alice has Tarrant’s undivided attention and they’re surrounded by convenient noise – rather than a silent house wherein her mother or those under her employ might be listening – Alice says: “I believe he injured Oshtyer and sent him down the hole himself.”

“And?” he prompts when she pauses to give him a moment to consider the implications.

“And I can’t help thinking how easy it was to get us to come here: the jacket with the London tailor’s mark, the quid in Oshtyer’s pocket...” She wonders about the gun. Why would Valereth have permitted them a gun from the outset of this game?

Tarrant’s arm tightens. “And?”

Alice wishes she could soothe his impatience and worry in this instance, but she finds herself afflicted with the same emotions. “And he did not seem surprised to see me. Or even to see me there. At the meeting. He hinted that... he’s been waiting for our arrival.”

For a long moment, Tarrant’s body is tense, a solid figure carved from stone wrapped around her.

Finally, he states, “The bastard planned this. All of it.”

“It would seem so. And he’s in favor of continuing to use dynamite in the construction of future underground lines.”

Tarrant nods. “I expect he would be.” He pauses. She watches his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “Alice...”

“I know.” Her hands tighten on his arm and thigh. “I know.

Their quest has become... no, has twisted into so much more. Now they realize they’re playing a game – a deadly game – with a man who has masterfully drawn them into a labyrinth of his own design.

And they have only two options open to them: flee to another, safer, part of Upland, or fight their way through, play by his rules, master his game.

But, in the end, Alice knows there is no choice:

There will be no retreat to Underland, for they have chosen exile in the hopes that they might change the future, save their world. Even now, with Valereth actively working to destroy the world Down There, they cannot even withdraw to the British countryside. They must stay. They must fight. And they must quickly find a way to win... before the maze becomes too convoluted and leads them to the end that Valereth has no doubt prepared for them with painstaking attention to detail.

Yes, if things go the way Valereth hopes for, Alice will no longer be a Champion for Underland. And then there will be nothing standing in the man’s way. Nothing to stop him from wreaking destruction and vengeance upon the lands and people who have cursed him to the half-life of exile.

Alice shivers.

Tarrant’s arms tighten.

They don’t speak of Valereth or his plans again. They don’t have to. They’re both well aware of what his goals are and what he will do to accomplish them. They’re both well aware that there is nothing to be done except try to stop him. They’re both well aware that they’ve trapped themselves Up Here and there is no way out... except Through.


The remaining days of the week are utterly nerve-wracking in their insufferable tedium. Alice resents being forced to apply valuable time and resources to preparing for the soiree she’d advised Ascot to host and regrets the suggestion most heartedly now!

“Alice is coming with us,” Tarrant announces to Hamish when the man shows up to escort him to a reputable gentleman’s tailor.

“Hightopp, you won’t need your wife to help you choose fabrics. I assure you the man I use has the latest fashions well in hand.”

“She’s coming with us, Ascot.” And Alice has to hide a smile: that tone could only belong to The Hightopp. She finds it a rather satisfying experience to be meeting him at long last.

At the tailor’s Alice relinquishes the pounds and shillings required in payment for Tarrant’s evening wear and rush service. In silence, she regards a display of bland top hats as Tarrant replaces his vest and jacket once the measurements have been taken and despairs at their dwindling funds. There’s no possibility of having her own dress made (and most especially not in the few days that remain before the soiree!) with the money that remains. In fact, she’s still not sure how long she and Tarrant will be staying in London nor what sorts of resources they’ll have to use against Valereth or what those might cost! In the end, there’s only one thing she can do: Alice appeals to Margaret for a dress. Luckily, her sister comes through for her.

“Alice, are you sure you wouldn’t rather have your own dress made?” Margaret checks. “I would be happy to put it on my account at Madame Millister’s...”

Alice hides a cringe at the thought. No, if she goes to a London tailor’s she’ll end up trussed up in a corset and stockings and while she might find the fortitude to suffer through an evening in stockings, she is not subjecting the child she carries to a corset!

“I’m sure. I just hope you don’t want the gown back. I’m afraid it’ll be altered beyond recognition by the time we’re done with it.”


Oh, botheration! She hadn’t meant to let that slip! Since her return, she’s managed to keep Tarrant’s means of earning an income out of the conversations she has had with her mother and sister. Thus far, she’s let everyone assume that he supports the both of them through his lands and other family holdings, like the lords of Britain do. Now, however...

Alice does her best to salvage the situation with misdirecting truths: “I meant the tailor, of course.” Which Tarrant is! “I’ll just take it into town –” Where her mother lives! “– to have it altered and...”

Margaret narrows her eyes and Alice curses her childhood tendency toward telling creative truths. “No, you didn’t,” her sister accuses. “Who’s going to help you with this dress, Alice?”

She sighs. “Tarrant,” she admits, giving up. Hopefully, they won’t have to remain in London too much longer... “He’s a milliner by trade.”

“Oh. I... see.” Margaret’s stiff tone speaks far more eloquently than any words could have. “Well. I imagine his skills will come in quite useful in this instance.”

Alice has no illusions about her mother remaining uninformed of this fact, so she doesn’t hesitate to show Tarrant to the sewing room in her mother’s house where she puts on the too-large, too-long gown and models it for him later that evening.

Tarrant examines the piece with a critical eye. “Well, the color’s not a total loss,” he says referring to the soft violet hue. Unfortunately, that’s the only complimentary comment he pays the garment. Alice can’t help thinking that it’s a good thing the neckline manages to cover the Heart Mark, but lets the observation go unvoiced.

“I’m sorry,” she says, brushing his hair back over his shoulder as he kneels to get a better look at the stitching at the waist of the gown. “I know it’s a lot of work for you. If we had more time...” And more money...

Tarrant smiles up at her. “Don’t be sorry, my Alice. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to make you a dress? Admittedly, this is not how I’d envisioned going about doing so, but it has been on my mind for... a long time.”

Alice bites back another apology – how many times has her stubborn self-reliance hurt him in all their years of marriage? – and summons a smile. “First hats, now dresses? What’s next, Hatter? My very own chaise lounge?”

He giggles. “Don’t be silly, Alice. If it’s furniture you desire, I shall have to commission something from the Setteesons!”

Alice tilts her head to the side and squints. “Would Master Setteeson be the one with the blond beard and the eye patch?”

“Yes, he would.”

“Is it a very dangerous occupation? Furniture making?”

“Not at all!”

“Then how did he lose his eye?”

“His eye? Well, as far as I know, he still has both of them!”

“But the eye patch...?”

Tarrant shakes his head. “The fool thinks it makes him look roguish.”

“Hm,” Alice replies, considering. “The button nose and that round belly of his tend to ruin the effect, I think.”

Tarrant giggles. “As do I, my Alice.” He places his hands on her hips and, clearing his throat, asks, “Now, what are your requests with regards to this spiritless garment?”

“No corset.”

“Well,” he replies, his hands moving over her lower stomach, “that goes without saying.”

“Then do as you will with it,” Alice replies and is rewarded with a bright grin and an even brighter pair of green eyes.

“And I shall!” he promises.

Alice keeps him company as he snips and sews. She sits on the other side of the wide sewing table dressed only in her underwear and a dressing gown she’d snuck out of her old room. She wiggles her ankles in time with his humming and, occasionally teaches him a song from her own childhood. They’ve moved on to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat” before Tarrant declares the dress ready for another fitting.

She dons it again and lets Tarrant fuss a bit more over the improvements to it.

“Could use a bit of embroidering here and here,” he mumbles. “Ribbon trimming...” Alice holds various spools of thread and bits of ribbons that he’d unearthed from the depths of the sewing cabinet and smiles as he works out the conundrum that the dress presents to him. Finally, his plan of action set, Tarrant empties her hands and, kneeling, begins fiddling with the too-long hem.

Perhaps, considering Valereth’s appearance and the threat he presents, Alice shouldn’t be enjoying something so frivolous as watching Tarrant tear apart and remake a dress that had probably cost Lowell a tidy sum. But, considering the fact that it’s Lowell’s money they’re snubbing, perhaps Alice ought to enjoy the experience!

Her bare fingers move through his hair when he’s kneeling within reach and he tilts his head into her touch. She wonders if he does so on purpose or if it’s an unconscious gesture. Her mind is occupied with this highly important debate when, suddenly, the door opens.

“What on Earth... Alice?! What are you doing in here? And... Tarrant?!”

“Good evening, mother,” Alice replies for both of them. “Is it time for dinner already?”

Her mother ignores the question and gapes at Tarrant who is still kneeling, although no longer pinning away at the hem of the dress. “Tarrant, what are you doing?”

He reaches up to remove the pins from between his lips and Helen gasps.

“Your hand!” Rushing forward, she frets, “Here! Let me see that! Oh, dear! You’re going to bleed all over that dress! How did you manage to do that to your... self...”

Tarrant looks up at Alice just as she looks down at him. Helen stands with Tarrant’s left hand in her grasp, gaping at the blood-red heart line stretching across his skin.

“What... is this?”

Alice pulls her left arm behind her back as unobtrusively as possible. Oh, the one time they’d taken their gloves off outside their room would be the one time her mother would barge in and see...!

“Mother, it’s fine. I’m sure I mentioned that the... customs are different where Tarrant comes from.”

“But... this...”

“Tattoo, mother,” Alice supplies, her heart breaking at the gross over-simplification. “Don’t worry; no one else has seen it. Tarrant has been very careful.”

Her mother allows Tarrant to remove his hand from her grasp. Self consciously, he tucks it behind his back and, moving to stand in front of Alice’s left side, clears his throat. “It’s my understanding,” he lisps a bit desperately, “that Margaret has given Alice this dress for the Ascots’ soiree. I was merely attempting to make it suit Alice’s tastes.”

Despite the answer to Helen’s original question, Alice’s mother doesn’t appear to take any interest in it or Tarrant’s role in the proceedings. “Yes,” she replies slowly. “You’ve always worn gloves, haven’t you?” And then the Unthinkable happens: Helen focuses her shrewd, blue eyes on Alice. “As have you!”

Tarrant does an admirable job of discreetly blocking Helen from grabbing her daughter’s arm, but Alice recognizes the futility of the exercise from the outset.

“Stop,” she Sends along the heart line and, laying a hand on his arm, gently holds him still. Alice steps out from behind him and, with a sigh, extends her left arm.

“Yes, I have one, too.”

Helen gapes at the dark blue heart line and pushes the flared, violet lace up to Alice’s elbow, where the fitted sleeve ends and the trimming begins. “Dear Lord...” she gasps. Alice winces as her horrified gaze lifts from the twisting design. “How far does this... this... abomination reach, ALICE?!”

“Mother! Stop it!” Alice pulls her arm out of her mother’s grasp.

“Did he make you do that to yourself?!”

“No, Tarrant has never forced me to do a single thing!” Alice ignores his guilty fidget; after seven years he should have already forgiven himself for initiating the Thrice a-Vow without her consent! “This was my choice.” “Your choice,” Helen echoes. “Of course it was. Only you would so foolishly defile your body with something so outrageous!”

“How is this any different from a wedding ring, mother? Those are also meant to be permanent, are they not?”

Her mother throws up her hands. “I don’t know why I bother to try to reason with you! You’ve never paid attention to the conventions that don’t fit your preferences. Do as you will. Have ink work done on your face, if you like! It’s not as if I’ll be able to stop you!”

Alice watches her mother storm out of the room. Tarrant’s hands settle on her shoulders and she leans back against his chest.

“Bloody bulloghin’ brangergain!” she sighs.

“I’m so very, very sorry, Alice,” he whispers, kissing her ear. “Perhaps if we explain...”

“Explain that you’re a hatter by trade? Half-mad to boot? That without this mark hat-making would eventually rot your mind? That I bound myself to you knowingly, despite that? That our hearts are tied each to the other for all time?” Alice takes a deep breath. “Yes, I’m sure that would make things much better. Let’s lay our secrets bare because, of course, my mother will be willing to believe in the magic of a place she has no idea exists at all!”


She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I...”

Tarrant circles around to stand in front of her. His hands are warm on her arms. He waits for her explanation.

“I just... this isn’t a good time for more complications. I’d hoped we could get through this without...” Alice shakes her head. “Never mind. We’ll wear our gloves and she’ll pretend she’d never seen our heart lines and everything will be... fine. We won’t be staying much longer anyway. Any day now, Mirana will open the mirror and we’ll be able to go home.” Alice doesn’t add that the journey home will only be possible with Valereth in their custody. She doesn’t have to. She knows that Tarrant understands.

“Alice, my Raven,” he murmurs against her ear. He collects her hand and presses it over his Heart Mark. “My Calm.”

She leans her forehead against his shoulder and fights back tears. Yes, that four-pointed star on his chest is the symbol of all that she Gives to him through the heart line: calm and control.

She reaches for his hand and places his palm against the somewhat wobbly ellipse that decorates her chest.

“Tarrant, my Writing Desk,” she replies, her lips brushing his throat. “My Courage.” Yes, her courage and muchness and more.

She thinks of her mother, the soiree, the subway, Valereth and his nefarious plans... And Alice has the distinct feeling that both she and Tarrant are going to be in desperate need of these qualities before all of this is finally over.

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 12 of 22

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