Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 9 of 22

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The office looks precisely as she recalls. In fact, the moment she steps over the threshold, the scent and sight of it crashes into her, stopping her in her tracks with a wave of recollection so complete she despairs of bursting into tears on this very spot.

“Lord and Lady Hightopp, I presume?” a familiar – but unexpected! – voice drawls from the left.

Alice tears her gaze away from the map-lined walls and assortment of smartly-displayed brass nautical instruments and stares at the man sitting in Lord Townsend Ascot’s Italian leather chair.

Hamish?” And, without a doubt, it is him! That long, pale face and soft chin and red hair and blue eyes and... yes! That look! She knows that look. Condescending, superior, pompous, lordly—!

“Hamish Ascot, Esquire,” he corrects her stiffly and somehow manages to look down his nose at the pair of them despite the fact that his bum is still firmly planted in that overpriced chair.

“Reginald indicated that you have information to share regarding the disappearance of Alice Kingsleigh.” His gaze sweeps over them, taking in their well-made but hardly remarkable clothing then lingering first on her distinctive hat and then her husband’s careworn and battle-ravaged one. “It is my regret to inform you that the reward for information regarding Miss Kingsleigh’s whereabouts has been withdrawn.”

He turns away and reaches for a bit of paperwork, clearly attempting to look far too busy to be bothered with them. “I’m terribly sorry you’ve come all this way for nothing,” he continues, blithely. “Reginald will escort you out and hail you a cab.”

Alice’s right hand fists. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to be within striking distance of him! “Hamish Ascot,” she says, each syllable weighed carefully before it leaves her mouth. “Haven’t you ever imagined what it would be like to fly?”

He pauses, frowns, looks up at them again. “I beg your...”

“Or what women would look like in trousers and men in dresses?” As she speaks, Alice reaches up and removes her hat. She can’t stop the smirk of satisfaction stretching her lips and lifting her brows. In fact, she doesn’t even try.

“... pardon...” he breathes, openly gaping.

Alice refrains from speaking not because she’s being generous and allowing him to pull himself together and apologize for his rudeness but because she’s enjoying his flabbergasted astonishment far too much to end it.

“You’re...” Words, apparently, have escaped him.

“In London,” she finishes for him.

Alive,” he differs.

“Yes, I had noticed that.”

He scowls. “Indeed.” With sudden purpose, Hamish stands and begins to move around the desk toward them. “And just where on Earth have you been for the last two years?!”

Alice feels Tarrant’s arm across her back. His right hand settles over her right hip, ready to pull or twist her away from Hamish’s blustering indignation.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Alice informs him and she’s relieved that, for now, she is still able to speak truthfully. Oh, she knows the lies and half-truths will come. They must. But for now...

“You’re not—at—!” The man visibly gropes for the words with which his vastly overpriced and privileged education had supposedly equipped him. “No!” he shouts suddenly. “No, Alice Kingsleigh, I’m afraid you must find the liberty to say because I’ll be damned by Lucifer himself if I let you just waltz your way back into this city without so much as a by-your-leave! Not after what your disappearance –” He sneers the word. “– has done to my father!”

Despite the tightening of Tarrant’s fingers against her hip and her own rising indignation, Alice freezes. “Lord Ascot...” she chokes out around the fist crushing her heart. “What’s happened to him?”

Hamish arcs a brow. “Oh, so do care after all? How kind of you to inquire!”

“Cease this infantile behavior at once!” she replies through her teeth.

“Infantile?” he echoes, his blue eyes narrowing. “Oh, I suppose it’s infantile of me to actually expect you to follow through with one single thing in your life?”

In the midst of drawing a breath to rebut, Alice stops, pauses, and glares. She realizes he is not talking about her un-completed apprenticeship. This discussion has grown... personal.

Of all the ridiculous...! It’s been years since she’d refused his proposal! And she’d done him a favor in refusing! Why, he...!! Alice is a heartbeat away from opening her mouth and accusing him of something far worse than infantile behavior when she Remembers:

No, Alice, do not let him destroy your plans, she chastises herself. Alice closes her eyes and takes a deep, burning breath. When she opens them, her pride is a seething mass of indignation in her gut. “Hamish, I will apologize at length and at your convenience for... that, but will you please tell me what has become of your father?”

He relents marginally. With a sniff, he draws himself up to his full height and informs her, “Father suffered a non-fatal episode of apoplexy after learning of the loss of the ship, the crew... and you.”

It’s painfully obvious that Hamish despises the implication that his father had valued Alice so highly. She doesn’t permit herself to dwell on that. “Has he... Is it possible for him to fully recover?”

“For the most part, he has. As much as he ever will, in any case. However, his constitution is much weaker than it had been. He stays at the country manor on the physician’s recommendation.”

With a sigh, Alice leans back against the arm still resting across her back. “I’m truly sorry, Hamish.”

He lifts his non-existent chin. “Yes, well. It was quite some time ago.”

It’s the closest thing to an apology this son of a lord will ever give her for his unseemly outburst and irrational anger.

Only... Alice knows his anger isn’t irrational: I could have come back – or at least sent a letter! – and reassured everyone that I was alive.

Yes, she could have. But she hadn’t.

Think on it later, Alice! Focus now!

She clears her throat and announces into the strained silence, “Lord Ascot, please allow me to introduce my husband, Tarrant Hightopp, Esquire.”

The introductions are fully as awkward as possible. She can see that Tarrant has put all the puzzle pieces together – Hamish’s bruised pride and resentment and the derisive, dismissive once-over he gives Tarrant – and has realized that Alice and Hamish have some considerable shared History. The smile Tarrant offers over their brusque handshake is one she’s fairly certain he’s Borrowed from the Bandersnatch.

Brangergain i’tall, she swears. As if she needs yet another thing to explain to him about her past!

The meeting becomes dominated by civility – painful civility. There are offers of comfortable chairs in the sitting area (which is not bisected by a massive mahogany desk). There are offers of tea and luncheon. Before Hamish can move on to tastefully inquire if they are in need of funds, Alice interjects.

“We’ve only just arrived and I’d be much obliged if you would consider explaining our arrival to my mother... if she’s... that is...” The pained expression on her face is entirely sincere, if for a slightly different reason than the one she gives. “If she’s still... in good health.”

For the first time since their arrival, Hamish’s expression reveals the briefest flicker of compassion. “Yes, she is well. She keeps in touch with my father and mother. Last I heard she was keeping herself busy organizing a charity for young, career-minded ladies, much to the consternation of several prominent figures in Society.”

Alice squeezes her eyes shut and takes a calming breath. The thoughts – all sorts of thoughts – very nearly choke her: Why would her mother start such a charity? Had she changed? Is this the result of regret at not being more supportive of Alice’s dreams? Is this her way of dealing with the grief?

Oh, Alice! Why did you decide to let her believe you’d died? How could that have been the right decision?!

Tarrant's fingers brush against her elbow and she’s reminded of why she’d done what she had, but still...

Later, Alice!

“I wouldn’t want to... shock her with our arrival,” Alice whispers roughly. “I realize it’s an inconvenience, but would you mind terribly explaining the situation to her?”

Hamish considers her request, petulance dripping from his features. “Would that I actually knew what the situation is.”

“It’s not a tale I particularly relish in telling,” she says flatly, already exhausted by the weight of her own guilt. “If you must know, then you’re welcome to stay and hear it when I tell my mother.”

And, with that bargain struck, Hamish agrees to accompany them to Helen Kingsleigh’s residence. He leaves to request the carriage be readied and brought around, and in those moments – alone in Lord Ascot’s office – Tarrant turns to her and studies her carefully. He doesn’t ask her about the past. He doesn’t even ask her what she’s going to say in explanation to her mother. He withdraws his handkerchief – bright blue! – from his pocket to dab under her teary eyes.

“Later,” he assures her. “Tell me later.”

“I will.”

After the briefest hesitation, he continues, “And, in the meantime, Alice, could you please remember one thing?”

She tilts her head to the side in inquiry.

Underland needs you, she imagines he says.

I need you, she reads in his green eyes.

Our littlin’ needs you, his fingertips express where they rest against her side and his thumb brushes just within the curve of her hipbone.

“Us,” he finally whispers and, somehow, all of those things are encapsulated in that single word.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she whispers back on a smile.

And when the heart line warms and throbs once along her skin, she knows that he believes her.

Alice shamelessly accepts the strength in the gesture and uses it to comport herself (as a woman of her station ought) from the office to the carriage. The horse’s shod hooves clatter and the coach sways through the bustling midday streets. She forces herself not to think about how very much she’d like to be sitting beside Tarrant at the moment. (How odd that she’d been the one to throw convention out the window in order to comfort him but now, when it’s she who craves his presence, she does not dare invite him to take the empty seat beside her!) In fact, she’s relatively sure that with the merest twinge along the heart line, Tarrant would climb over Hamish, who is stiffly seated beside him, and take his usual place at her side!

The image amuses her, bouys her, and she is able to endure the isolation. She focuses on the gentle brush of his knees and shins against her skirt.

The journey lasts for an eternal afternoon, and yet is over with startling brevity. As the carriage rolls to a gentle stop, Hamish leans toward the door. “Wait a few minutes before you come in. I shall make sure your mother hears the news gently and comfortably.”

“Thank you, Hamish.” And, for that consideration, for that evidence of the fact that there does exist a gentleman beneath the spoilt disposition of a rich man’s son, she might have embraced him.

The instant Hamish steps out of the carriage, Alice moves from her bench seat and settles next to her husband. His arm has already been lifted and outstretched; Tarrant is waiting for her when she seats herself beside him. The house they’d arrived within only yesterday afternoon stares at them through the carriage window, through the nearly-drawn curtains, and Alice shivers.

“I never thought I’d be here again. Like this. I thought...” I thought this life was over, she doesn’t say. She’d said her good-byes, she’d closed the mirror to this world. In the last seven years, of course she’d wanted to check on her family, but she hadn’t. Really, what could she have done for them if they’d needed her? She’d sworn herself to Underland, to the White Queen, to Tarrant, to their future. And she’d quickly realized that it would not have been fair to live half her life in one world and half in the other. Alice had not known how to divide herself between two lives, two Alices.

Oh, she’d hidden behind reason after reason, both valid and invalid: her mother never would have approved of Alice’s lifestyle or Tarrant; she wouldn’t have believed in Underland and her daughter’s place in it; Alice would only have been delaying the inevitable break between them; it had been better to leave her mother with the impression that she’d died on some glorious adventure rather than force the woman to wonder where her daughter was and if she was safe... The list goes on. And on.

And now, here she is: moments away from a reunion with her mother and, undoubtedly soon thereafter, her sister and now all of the fears and reasons and doubts that have kept Alice so firmly entrenched in Underland will be churned up and if she’s not ready to swim through them, she may just drown.

“Alice,” Tarrant whispers and his breath causes the veil to flutter against her face.

She swallows. “This is harder than suffering through that damned wedding proposal.”


Oh, brangergain i’tall, why had she just said that? Irritated with herself, she explains, “Just before Nivens found me and brought me back to slay the Jabberwocky, Hamish proposed.”

Given the sudden, icy sensation emanating from her Heart Mark, Alice reflects that perhaps now hadn’t been the best of times to mention that bit of ancient history.

“I turned him down,” she hurriedly says. “I told him he wasn’t the right man for me.”

“Di’ye?” Tarrant rumbles.

Alice reaches up and presses a hand to his cheek, turning his face toward hers. With a frustrated huff, she pushes her hat back. “Yes, at the time, I’d already had a certain Outlander in mind.”

And his eyes – sparking with orange temper – fade back into green. “That was –” he begins. “– a rhyme,” she finishes with a wry grin. Unfortunately, she doesn't earn a delighted giggle for her efforts.  “I’m sorry, Alice. I shouldn’t be... that is, I’m supposed to be assisting you...

“You are.” She leans forward and kisses him gently, brushing his parted lips with her tongue and he reciprocates with a delicate, hot touch.

“What’s going to happen now?” he murmurs.

Alice sighs and toys with his still-straight cravat. “A lot of tears, more explanations...”

“And... after we’ve done what we’ve come here – to this Upland London – to do?” he asks with obvious reluctance.

Alice frowns. “We’ll go home, of course.” Seeing the relief in his face, she scolds him, “Hatter, don’t tell me you were worried that I’d prefer this to our life in Mamoreal?”

“Prefer? No, no, but I thought... you are a very duty-ous woman, Alice...”

“I am,” she confirms. “And I choose us.”

She’d almost like to feel angry with him over his lack of faith in her, but she knows that’s not the issue at hand. Here sits a man who has lost everything that he has ever held dear. Everything and everyone... gone in the blink of an eye, in the span of a nightmare. Here sits a man she had left behind on the battlefield after he’d interceded on her behalf – distracted the Jabberwocky – and after he’d Futterwhackened and opened his heart and unveiled his soul and asked her to stay and had accepted her refusal and watched her disappear. Here sits a man for whom pain is not an occasional inconvenience, but a way of life. How can she allow herself to lose her temper over that?

He leans his forehead against hers on a sigh, their hats falling away. “Forgive me for worrying.”

“Never,” she replies with heat and kisses him again, forcefully this time.

His arms tighten around her and his mouth counters her. Her gloved hands bury themselves in his hair as he slants his head and his breath rushes over her cheek, hot and urgent and she wonders if she truly dares to defile the Ascot town carriage with an interlude with her husband, her wonderful, beautiful, giving, passionate husband...

He decides for them; gently, Tarrant pulls away.

“Mayhap we should go in?” he murmurs.

“Yes,” she replies on a gusty sigh. “We should.”

She holds still while he replaces her hat upon her head and then reaches for his own. They descend the carriage and once again find themselves crossing a very Significant stretch of sidewalk.

“Everything will be a’right,” he whispers and if the front door hadn’t opened at that precise moment, she very likely would have kissed him yet again for that.

“Lord Ascot said to expect you,” Mr. Brown, the Kingsleigh’s lifelong butler, intones as he steps back and allows them into the house.

“Your hat, sir? Madam?” the man continues, holding out his hand.

Tarrant glances down at it as if Brown’s hand is encased in jabberwocky droppings and not pristine Egyptian cotton. And Tarrant mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “greizin’-guddler” to Alice’s ears.

“We’ll keep them for now, thank you,” she manages through a – thankfully – veiled smile.

“Very well. If you’ll follow me?”

Brown opens the door with a flourish and then, after they’ve moved within, closes it in a manner he no doubt believes to be unobtrusive. Both Alice and Tarrant look over their shoulders in the direction they’d come.

“You know him,” Tarrant murmurs on a frown. “And yet he did not recognize your voice?”

“Perhaps if Mr. Brown were known for his imagination he might have made the connection,” she replies quietly.

Tarrant sighs and Alice steps closer to him. He lifts his hands to her arms and gently rubs his thumbs back and forth over the drab fabric.

“I don’t think I’m ready for this,” she tells him.

“Neither am I,” he admits. “But Underland needs us...”

And they don’t have much time.

And this is the path they’ve chosen.

And it’s too late to turn back now.

And everything is about to Change...

Alice holds still as Tarrant lifts his hands to her hat. With the flash of a small pair of silver scissors and a flurry of too-nimble fingertips, first the left side of the veil and then the right (along with the collection of draping ribbons) are lifted away. Alice watches him tuck the sheer fabric away in his pocket. His expression is tense. She fears her own is even more so...

The sound of the door slamming open startles them both. Looking over at the door, Alice sees her mother pushing her way into the parlor, her pale face drawn with hope and fear and worry and disbelief.

She has but a moment to reassure Tarrant, but he manages to surprise her.

He gently cups her elbow in his hand and, tightening his fingers, murmurs, “Together, Raven.”

And then Helen Kingsleigh is there, her thin hands curling around Alice’s arms, and she bursts into tears at the sight of her daughter.

“Alice!” she gasps between sobs.

Smiling, Alice returns the embrace despite the uncomfortable interference of her mother’s stiff and layered dress. Alice closes her eyes and savors the scent of her mother’s perfume.

“You’re home!”

Alice blinks through her tears; now the untruths and evasions will begin, for – even though she should – Alice doesn’t have the heart to correct her.


Tarrant cannot recall the last time he’s seen Alice shed so many tears. There’d been their Argument not so very long ago – has it only been three days since then? – and he recalls the moment at the Maigh, when she’d realized that one day they’ll be kissing and embracing the parents of their son or daughter’s new spouse... But those tears had been brief and the cousins that had attempted to follow them had been easily coaxed back into their hidey holes, wherever those might be. (Presumably somewhere on the other side of his Alice’s beautiful eyes. He can only speculate!) But today, the tears slide and leak and drip and fall and Tarrant is very glad he’d thought to wrap the two vials of jabberwocky blood in yet another handkerchief or he might be caught in an awkward and kerchief-less position otherwise!

He watches as Alice sits on the sofa beside her sister and occasionally tickles her nephew (who is seated but wiggling with impatience on Margaret Manchester’s lap). His bright blue handkerchief is an even darker – damper! – shade than it had been in the parlor (and it had begun dampening then!) and Tarrant allows himself a moment of Contentment despite Alice’s continuing tears: even though he is not seated beside her – he has gotten the Distinct Impression that being in close proximity to one’s wife in the presence of Others is not Done here – something of his is with her, being held onto in her gloved hand.

A bark of laughter draws Tarrant’s attention to the sideboard where Lowell Manchester (Alice’s brother-in-law) is indulging himself with more of that foul-smelling concoction. (Although, really, with a name like “Brandy” it’s hard to imagine the liquor being any more pleasant than the frumious and similarly-named Bandersnatch!) Lowell and that enpuffed, boggletog-ish fumptwat Hamish Ascot are apparently engrossed in a discussion of Tarrant’s shortcomings. Well, more accurately, Lowell is engrossed (if that cruel gleam in his eyes is any indication) and Hamish is manfully enduring the lecture provided by his inebriated conversation partner. And, for that very reason, Tarrant finds he cannot loathe Alice’s former Intended nearly as much as he’d like.

Tarrant allows his eyes to narrow, to simmer with hostility at the useless excuse for a member of the male gender (that is, at Lowell!) before he turns pointedly toward the bookcases lining the study, giving Alice as much time as she needs to be with her sister and mother.

A Compendium of Surgery, he reads then moves on to: Anatomae, A Guide to Biological Systems, and Common Remedies for the Home. He briefly toys with the idea of asking Alice if they might give the latter volume to the queen as a sort of souvenir. He’s sure she’d be most interested in Uplandish remedies...

“Lord Hightopp?”

Tarrant turns and inclines his head. The gesture allows him to hide his surprise at the fact that Alice’s mother has crossed the room with the specific purpose of speaking to him! “Madam Kingsleigh,” he lisps nervously. “You have a lovely home.”

He almost winces at the triteness of the comment but Alice’s mother seems pleased.

“Thank you, young man. The interiors are a bit out of style now,” she comments factually, “as I’ve yet to bring myself to change anything since Charles – my husband – passed.”

Tarrant’s heart throbs at the Thought of living in a world though which Alice has... passed. Never to return. “Some say Change is unavoidable, but I rather enjoy avoiding Him as much as possible,” he replies.

Mrs. Kingsleigh looks a bit startled by this, but her expression softens quickly. “If it wouldn’t be too forward of me to make an observation, Lord Hightopp...”

“Tarrant, madam, please... If it pleases you.”

Her pale lips, so often weighted at the corners with the long-term companionship of Grief, lift a bit. “Tarrant, you have the most charming way of speaking. Very odd, of course, but... something about you reminds me of my late husband.”

Tarrant smiles. “Perhaps he might have also felt a bit like a sugar cube in the cream pitcher in this Up—ah, city of London?”

Her smile strengthens. “Yes, I think he often did. A fish out of water, we say.”

He considers that. “A very dangerous position for a fish to be in.”

“Quite,” she agrees. “I much prefer your proverb.”

“Thank you, madam.”

“Helen,” she insists. “Call me Helen, Tarrant.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“I have an observation I wish to share with you, Tarrant,” she continues abruptly. “And I would very much appreciate your honesty in return.”

Rather than promise to comply, he nods for her to continue.

“Alice has always had an... alarmingly active imagination, which has gotten her into a fair number of inexplicably odd circumstances in her youth. Unfortunately, when asked about those circumstances, she has never been very forthcoming with details.”

Tarrant waits.

“What Alice spoke of... Your countrymen finding her and taking her back to your country, her role in assisting the rightful queen in returning to the throne... Although I do not doubt her... sincerity despite the fantastical nature of such an adventure, I sense there is a great deal my daughter is not telling me.”

Tarrant feels his brows arc upward with incredulity and his eyes dart toward Alice. Suddenly, he’s very nervous about where this conversation is leading. Oh, he’d never been more proud of Alice for bending and blending the truth together in such a way that could be believed and accepted by her family, but it’s been years – since that moment of heart-shattering panic! on his knees before the Bluddy Behg Hid! – since he’s had to weave and twist words in such a way!

“I’m sorry, Helen, what is it you would like to know?” Best to confront this hat-on or he’ll reveal too much! His tension and anxiety, when coupled with words and sentences and fleeting thoughts, has often landed him in Trouble’s Territory, which is a decidedly Unpleasant place to be!

Bluntly, she asks, “Did my daughter participate in a war?”

And, seeing no way around that question, Tarrant replies, “Yes, she did.”

How could you – or anyone for that matter – have permitted that? Alice is no soldier!”

He almost giggles right in her face. Almost. “That’s true, she isn’t.” No, she’s a Champion! “And, as for the why... well, I’m afraid things are quite different in our—er, in my land. There was a prophecy, you see...” Oh, a rhyme! “And my countrymen are very... devoted to our prophecies. Alice’s coming gave us all the hope and strength we needed to continue with the Resistance.”

“And did you participate in the fighting, as well?”

“I did,” he says, and feeling daring, continues, “And when others would have called upon Alice to take up arms, I stepped forward in her stead. Despite the prophecy, I could not in all conscience...”

He lets the sentence fall away. It’s true, if horribly misleading.

“So, you see,” he continues, “despite the circumstances, there is no need for you to worry over the past. Although, as her mother, I fully acknowledge that you have that Right.”

Helen sighs. “Yes.” Her tone is stiff but not with irritation and anger. Perhaps with other Strong emotions. “And I’m exceedingly good at it.”

“I can see that! Our Alice does tend to uncover Trouble in the most unlikely of places, does she not?”

“She does. Which leads me to another issue I shall also require a frank answer to.”

Again, Tarrant nods in acquiescence.

“Are you, in fact, fully capable of looking after my daughter? Have you the means to ensure her future is a happy and comfortable one, Lord Hightopp?”

The question is oddly unexpected. Of course, he should have anticipated this, for he would demand the same of any spouse he and his Alice’s child would choose – will choose! Might choose? Could choose. He feels his cordial expression slowly dim and he knows he cannot circumvent the Truth. Not to his wife’s mother. Not about this.

“The title,” he begins quietly. “Should not be mine. Would not be mine had my family not been killed by the Ja—um, in the war. Hightopp Village was destroyed and although the land has recovered, it is uninhabited. Through the grace of the queen, I have been permitted to begin rebuilding although I do not expect to enjoy prosperity there for... some time.”

Helen frowns. “And how do you support my daughter if not through your lands?”

“I apprenticed in a trade, as a boy. Now I’m Hatter to the queen. Alice and I reside in the palace...” Tarrant stops, sighs. He feels his shoulders droop with defeat. “I know it’s not much. I know that I don’t have much to give Alice. Her ring even...”

“Yes,” Helen says. “I had noticed. A bit of an unconventional design, isn’t it?”

He nods. “It was fashioned from a hat pin my mother had made.” Tarrant’s eyes flicker briefly in the direction of his hat, which he’d sat upon a chair next to Alice’s. “When I say I have nothing, Mrs. Kingsleigh, I speak the truth. As a reward for my loyalty and service during the war – and also for my hat-making services now – the queen provides for us.”

She sighs. “It does not please me to hear this, Tarrant. I would much rather you were a man of your own means and wealth. However...” At this point, Alice’s mother places her hand on Tarrant’s arm, nearly startling him. “I trust my daughter to choose well. And I can see that she has.”

Tarrant feels a smile wobble its way onto his lips. “I most wholeheartedly thank you, Mrs. Kingsleigh.”

She gives his arm a firm squeeze and replies, “I believe I asked you to call me Helen.”

“So you did. My apologies.”

“And you will tell me if my daughter ever wants for anything?”

“I most assuredly shall,” he agrees, happy to make this promise. “And, likewise, should she express a desire for anything at all to you, if you would encourage her to speak of it to me, I shall do all that I can to make it so.”

“I believe you would.”

Tarrant exchanges a relieved smile with her.

“Mother? What are you two whispering about?” Alice asks, as she crosses the room.

“You, of course,” Tarrant replies at the exact same moment that her mother says, “An Alice of our mutual acquaintance.”

Startled and charmed, he glances at Helen, who gives him a brief, humor-filled smile.

“Oh, botheration. Margaret decides to gossip at me for fifteen minutes and the two of you have already formed the Committee for the Regulation of Mad Alices.”

“Oh, Alice, you are not mad,” her mother huffs with fond exasperation.

“I must also object,” Tarrant replies. “There’s only one of me so there shall only be one Alice whom I intend to care for, be she wonderfully mad or regrettably sane.”

Alice laughs. “Well, now that we’ve got that all sorted out...”

With a startled jerk of her chin, Helen regards the clock. “Oh, goodness. It’s nearly time for dinner and the three of us aren’t dressed yet... Hamish, dear, you’re welcome to stay for dinner if you like,” she offers from across the room.

“Thank you, Mrs. Kingsleigh, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. I’ve a standing engagement at the country estate.”

“Oh, very well, then. A safe journey to you and I hope to see you again soon,” Helen says, moving toward him to give him a motherly pat on the shoulder.

Tarrant smiles at the gesture. He can see where Alice gets her warm nature from. Her curiosity and wondrous logic, however, he assumes are from her father.

“Alice,” Hamish says upon bidding Margaret and Lowell farewell, “might I have a word?”

“Of course. I’ll see you out.”

Tarrant brushes his gloved fingertips across her spine as she passes in front of him. Yes, he Knows she’s his wife, but still...

“I’m sure your things have been brought from the hotel by now if you’d like to get freshened up?” Helen says. “I’ll show you upstairs to the guest room.”

Tarrant nearly asks if Alice will be joining him there, but bites his tongue. Surely, that is not A Question to be asking the mother of one’s wife! He climbs the stairs and pushes open the door Helen indicates and then sighs with relief at the sight of both the small truck and Alice’s valise sitting beside the door.

“Dinner is at seven. Alice will show you where everything is, but of course you can ring for Brown if you require assistance with dressing.”

“Thank you,” he replies and then – with the soft sound of the door settling back into its frame – he’s alone.

Tarrant glances around the boringly comfortable room before choosing the best place to rest their hats (which he’d brought up from downstairs) for the evening and then sits down on the edge of the bed. But then, noticing that the windows of the room overlook the street, Tarrant stands and strides over to one. He pulls back the curtain and looks down but can see neither his wife nor that Hamish fellow from this angle. The carriage is waiting, though – the one they’d taken from the trading company earlier in the day – so he knows the creature hasn’t left yet.

And then, just as he thinks the thought, Hamish trots down the steps – alone! – and swings himself into the carriage.

Tarrant lets out the breath he’d been holding.

No, he hadn’t expected or thought or even dreaded that Alice would go somewhere without him – or go somewhere with that fellow. In fact, he’s not sure why he’d been so tense and now so relieved.

But... then again, yer mad, aren’ye, lad? A bit o’ oddness is teh b’expected!

He imagines so.

Tarrant turns as the door opens and Alice enters. “What did he want?” Tarrant hears himself grumble.

“To ask if we’re free to visit his parents tomorrow for afternoon tea. I hope you don’t mind that I accepted. I really do need to speak with Lord Ascot...”

“It’s fine.”

Alice smiles. “Thank you.”

He approaches her and brushes a kiss against her cheek. “For what?” he asks in her ear.

“Many things,” she replies, teasing him with the memory of that interlude in Mamoreal, of the request for a hat, of the passion that had followed it. “But, at the moment, I’m thanking you for charming my mother.”

He leans back and regards her with surprise. “You didn’t think I could?”

“No, I was certain she wouldn’t permit you to, but she did and she likes you and everything’s fine.”

The sparkly sensation of Prideful Accomplishment twinkles under his skin and on his fingertips before the Future revisits him with a mournful crash! “Aye, e’rythin’s fine ‘til ye’re ready teh leave... an’ then wha’will yer mam do?”

Alice lays her cheek against his shoulder and sighs. “She already knows we can’t stay.”

Arms wrapped around his wife, Tarrant inquires, “An’ jus’ how d’she know tha’?

“I introduced you as Lord Tarrant Hightopp. Lords have responsibilities to their sovereigns and lands and – in some cases – companies and investors. She knows you can’t stay here.”

“B’tha’ d’snae mean she won’ ask ye teh—”

“No,” Alice tells him. Firmly. “She would never ask me to leave the man I love, so put it out of your mind.”

He presses a kiss to her tousled curls and endeavors to comply with her directions.

After a moment more of soaking up the warmth and security of the embrace, Alice takes a deep breath and reaches for her valise. “I should check to see if Mirana has contacted us.”

Tarrant turns toward their trunk and begins searching for a fluffier and more elaborate cravat to wear to dinner. As he only has the one suit, he resigns himself to enduring it for the rest of the evening.

Just as he stands, cravat in hand, and turns, Alice’s gasp echoes in the room.

“What’s happened?” And in an instant, he’s there, sitting on the bed beside her with his knee pressing against hers and the unmistakable roll of Sheafment parchment between them. She holds it out to him and he reads:

My dearest Champions,

I’m afraid I have some worrisome news. The first is that nothing helpful shall be forthcoming from Oshtyer; he passed yesterday without ever regaining consciousness. I am sorry this resource, however dubious, has been lost to you.

Also, I have spoken with the Masters and they have been unable to predict when Underland will be safe from these disturbances you’ve reported. Perhaps a fortnight will be sufficient, perhaps not. The only way we will know for certain is if the Oraculum once again permits itself to be opened to reveal future predictions.

This leaves me in a quandary. I’m sure you know that once a pair of looking glasses, one in each world have been connected, Time matches Time. With our correspondence mirrors open, Underland will only have a fortnight to prepare for the next attack. I fear Underland will need more time to protect itself from this threat, which would mean closing the mirror and hoping we might use several days and nights together to stretch Time. I do not wish to close this mirror, for if I do all correspondence must necessarily stop. You will still be able to return to Underland using the blood of the Jabberwocky, however, so you will not be abandoned completely.

Before you make a decision with regards to this, I must also mention one other issue which pertains to Maevyn. As you know, the little one is ill and has felt so for some time. Maevyn’s illness became more pronounced following the earth-quaking and Krystoval believes the cause has made itself apparent: the moment you arrived in Upland, Alice, Krystoval also began to feel very unpleasantly. We believe this is due to the fact that, as guardians of the earth, jabberwockies are very sensitive to the land in which they reside, and as you, Alice, have ingested Krystoval’s blood before and are now walking about in a world where the land is ill-treated and ill-cared for Krystoval is affected. Krystoval, as a mature jabberwocky and as a recent sufferer of this affliction, can function sufficiently well despite the discomfort. However, we fear that Maevyn, exposed for so long through Valereth and Oshtyer’s presence in Upland, will weaken further if Valereth is not found and returned to Underland as soon as possible.

I am sorry for such somber news, my Champions. I wish there were more Time to consider our options, but I fear a decision must be made soon. The mirrors must be closed as quickly as possible. I know it is too soon to hope that you have discovered a solution or implemented a plan to stop future attacks from occurring. It saddens me greatly to think that Krystoval and I will have to ask you to remain Up There, alone, so I will not ask. Alice, I release you from this task. Should you decide to be on this side of the looking glass when it is closed tonight, please know that I will welcome both of you home. Both of you have served me with loyalty and passion that surpasses all expectations and I will not ask this unforgivably difficult thing of you. Come home and we shall prepare Underland for the next assault as best we can. It will be enough. I have faith in that. Please do not feel bound to do this; we will protect Underland first and, after that, we will open the mirrors and seek out Valereth for Maevyn’s sake.

Please send your replies as soon as you can.

Your devoted queen and friend,


Tarrant leans against Alice, numb.

“What are we going to do?” she asks quietly.

Tarrant closes his eyes at the sound of the Strength in her voice. Her Champion’s voice.

“The Masters need time. Maevyn needs to be cured...”

He nods, rubs his cheek against her hair.

“If we return, it still might not be enough time. Maevyn might weaken and die...”

Yes, he knows. He’s already experienced those thoughts himself.

“But if we stay...”

Yes, if they stay, they are trapped, imprisoned, confined, isolated, alone! If they stay, they will not be able to use the Jabberwocky’s blood to return. They will have to wait until the queen can open the mirror again. And there is no way to know when that will happen.

Yes, he’s frightened. So, very, very frightened.

But he thinks of Underland, Mamoreal, the queen and her little ones, his and Alice’s life together, their child's future...

This is the hardest decision he’s ever... no, he and Alice have ever had to make. The greatest risk they’ve ever taken. There are no guarantees, no vanishing Cheshire Cats to hoodwink the enemy, no mystical swords with which to slay the beast. If they stay... No, Tarrant cannot even Think of the horrors that might befall his Alice and their littlin’ here. But if they leave... What guarantee do they have that Underland will survive the next demolition? And the one after that? And the one after that?

The world is crumbling around them when only a few weeks ago it had be bright and blossoming with Promise.

“Alice,” he whispers. “I love you.”

Her fingers, resting against his forearm which is draped across her belly, curl tighter. “And I love you. More than anything.

Tarrant squeezes his eyes even more tightly closed to stop the tears, for he knows she means it. She Means it. And if he were to ask her to go back to Underland right now, she would. She would do that. And not because he’d asked her to, but because she loves him more than anything!

They’re the hardest words he’s ever spoken and even as he speaks them he can’t believe his own ears:

“We’ll stay.”

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 9 of 22

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