Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 1 of 15

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One Promise Kept: Book 4

Dawn comes with a whisper and a kiss to Iplam. The light from the rising sun is a gray, gloaming glow within the mist. The Champion Blossoms stir a bit and when the light is too dim to inspire them to awaken, they resume dozing, drenched in dew.

Alice watches this from the front steps of the manor house. Blades of grass are ticklishly cool and then warmed from her own body beneath the soles of her bare feet. Droplets of condensation soak into the hem of her breeches and her tunic is collecting dust from the often-trod wooden steps. When she stands, she’ll have dirt lines across her rear. Again.

She sighs and lifts her gaze from the still-sleeping flowers that dot the wide clearing. Through the mist and morning muzziness of the land, she makes out the lines of shops and cottages and large-ish homes ringing the widely curving, cobblestone circle drive. The windows of each shadowy residence and humble establishment are dark now, but they won’t remain so for long. Soon, the residents of Iplam will awaken, prepare for the day, open their shops, get to work on their crafts. Soon, this place will be thrumming with life and the living.

So why is it that she – Lady Hightopp of Iplam – feels so very... lifeless?

Alice lifts her hands from where they grip the edge of the stairs (as if she’ll dissolve into the mist if she doesn’t Hold On Tightly!) and regards her palms and fingertips. Her calluses have begun peeling; as each day passes without her having lifted a sword or answered a challenge with a staff, her hands heal.

She doesn’t want them to. In fact, she has been Avoiding this very thing ever since she’d agreed to stay in Upland until Tam had been born. She’d lost her calluses then, but she’d known she would one day have them back where they belong. But, in the back of her mind, she’d known that one day – when it is finally time for her to be a Lady – she would have to let them flake off and fade for good.

It’s too soon! she thinks, swallowing against the sensation of her heart hardening with despair.

And yet here she is: her calluses are leaving her. She can insist on wearing her usual tunic and breeches or shirtsleeves, vest, and trousers, but she cannot stop the Healing that she is not ready for.

It doesn’t matter, for Iplam is ready for her, is ready for its laird and lady. And Alice has had enough experience with both responsibility and the stubbornness of Underland to know when she’s facing Inevitability.

“’Morn,” Tarrant observes softly, his bare feet descending the steps until he can sit beside her on the dusty planks with his toes in the grass.

Alice nods and accepts the cup of tea her husband offers her. She sips and waits for the heat of it and the strength of the brew to dissolve her melancholy. Perhaps after that she’ll be able to return the observation.

‘Morn. Tarrant had said. It is not a greeting or a hope for a new day, but an observation of the time. Or perhaps it’s not morning he’s declaring but mourning. Perhaps he’s giving her permission to continue grieving for her old life.

“’Morn,” he says when he finds her here. (Or perhaps: “Mourn.”) Not: Gehd mornin’, my Alice. He has not said “Gehd mornin’, my Alice” in weeks. Alice wishes she could find it in her to miss that. She can’t.

Not so long ago, when she’d still been a Champion and an instructor of the queen’s children in the necessities of self defense, she’d been so sure she could do this. She’d been sure she’d been ready for it, had made peace with herself over it. She’d had plenty of time to do so. Arguably too much time. And Tarrant had waited for her.

More than once Alice had caught her husband looking out over Mamoreal at dusk, his attention turned away from the sunset over Queast and toward Witzend with a wistful look on his face and an ache in his heart that he hadn’t been able to keep back. She’d known what he’d been thinking of: Iplam. Hightopp Village.

She’d known he’d been ready to return. To rebuild. To be a Hightopp again rather than a hatter.

It hadn’t been a reason for Alice to agree to train her successor.

But it had been a reason to not say “No.”

But, she wonders, if perhaps she should have.

Just as Tarrant knows she’s... not happy here, she knows she’s ruining their new life. This is what Tarrant wants, needs, must do, she knows. These are the duties she’d accepted when she’d wed him. And this is her life now that the White Queen does not need her to be a Champion any longer. Or, at the very least, Alice is not needed now. Still, she worries that perhaps this temporary retirement will become permanent; she worries that her time as Champion has passed.

Even the tea can do nothing to move that thought full of rocks.

She feels Tarrant shift closer to her until his shoulder presses against hers. Their hands may be occupied, but he can give her this: his warmth, his solidity, his empathy.

“Batten blossom,” she observes on a choked whisper as she stares into her cup of herbal tea.

“From the garden,” he answers.

“It’s good.”

“It’ll be a good harvest.”

Alice nods and despairs for words, for Things of Importance to say. Recently, there is a dearth of both. She clears her throat. “Is Tam awake yet?”


They both pause, think, and struggle against Alice’s aching heart and burning heart line.

“The party is the day after tomorrow,” she finally says. She knows Tarrant is aware of this. He’d been sitting right beside her at Margaret’s tea table when they’d received the invitation last month. But it’s something to say. Even if it’s not a particularly interesting or even a worthwhile Something.

“Aye. I’ve finished Tam’s suit.”

At the thought of suits and tailorings, she turns toward him and studies his profile as he frowns into his tea. She only has a moment before he looks up but it shows her what she Feels: her misery is making him miserable as well.

You’re a Lady now, Alice. Try to act the part.

She forces away the ache as best she can and smiles. “You wouldn’t be needing any assistance with checking to see if your old tailcoat still fits, would you?”

Her teasing is a bit flat – she can hear it in her own voice – but she’s Trying. Tarrant answers her efforts with a slow, if subdued, smile. “I might. You wouldn’t happen to have the time for something like that, would you?”

“We’ll Make Time,” she answers, her confidence growing.

“I’ve already Made It,” he tells her, collecting her nearly-empty tea cup and setting it aside with his own. He then reaches behind him and Alice follows his arm until she sees a very familiar wooden case sitting on the porch. “However,” Tarrant continues, unlocking the lid, “I haven’t Made It for suit fittings.”

Alice accepts the foil her husband hands her, leans into the kiss he presses against her temple. It hurts to hold a weapon she has no business with now, but she doesn’t let go. Can’t let go. She needs this. And, bless him, Tarrant is Trying even harder than she is to make this new life of theirs Work. All he needs is a little help from her to manage it.

She stands and holds out a hand to him. His stained fingers slide across her palm before he grasps her wrist. She braces herself as he stands, pulling just a bit against her for leverage.

“Best out of three?” she asks, taking her stance.

“Be-twix five,” Tarrant replies, gifting her with more Time to be woman she had been, when she’d been a Champion. For a little while, there’s Time for her to pretend that she has not stepped aside, that she has not become obsolete, useless, trapped.

She blinks back the sting behind her eyes, takes a deep breath... and lunges. Tarrant meets her attack, greets her pain, her need, her dream. The hiss and kiss of metal, the hush and shush of clothing as it brushes together, the pitter and patter of footsteps muffled in the grass mingle in the morning mist.

The blossoms sleep and Iplam waits. With silver foils, Champions play.


“Being a Champion is supposed to be more exciting than this,” Tarranya of Mamoreal grumbles loudly enough for the words to echo in the corridor.

Mirana’s serene smile doesn’t so much as twitch. Nor does her graceful stride falter. “Perhaps Champion Alice mentioned the tedium involved with the position?” she inquires airily.

“Well, yes, but...”

“You are aware that it’s the Champion’s responsibility to accompany the queen when she has audiences scheduled with the residents within her borders,” Mirana gently inquires.

“Yes, but...”

“And that today is Wednesday and several meetings have been arranged. Meetings which these visitors have traveled hours, perhaps days, to attend.”

“Yes, but...”

“And it is the Champion’s job to not interfere with the Queen’s duties unless a threat arises.”


Mirana allows a heartbeat of hesitant silence to pass between them. “But...?” she prompts.

Tarra sighs gustily. “It’s so boring.

“Be thankful it is, Miss Tarranya.”

This is not the first time Mirana has voiced this particular sentiment. Her daughter has yet to grasp the nuance of it, however. Breaking the pattern of their usual argument – no, no, discussion! – Tarra juts out her chin and demands, “And when are you going to let me take my vows? You already accepted Bethie’s!”

Mirana regards her most stubborn child’s most intimidatingly petulant glare. “Crown Princess Alicibeth has made a vow against harming any and all living things. Do not attempt to convince me that the Champion’s Vow is as innocuous.”

“But that’s just it!” Tarranya’s expression is triumphant. “Now Bethie can’t even protect herself! That vow’s dangerous without a Champion to back it up!” She concludes, “You should have accepted my vow when you did hers. It’s only fair.”

Summoning patience on a wave of caffeine-added control, Mirana replies, “You may argue your point until you are as blue as Batten in the face, Miss Tarranya, but the fact remains that I managed just fine without a Champion for years. This is a time of peace and the crown princess is quite safe for the moment.”

Remarkably, Tarra does not jump to refute this.

“Now,” Mirana concludes, “will you consent to be a substitute for the Queen’s Champion today or shall I call for Alice to resume her post?”

She can hear her daughter gritting her teeth. “I apologize for delaying you, Your Majesty. Shall we attend to your guests?”

“Yes, thank you, Miss Tarranya. Let’s.”

As they continue along the corridor, Mirana allows herself a moment to wonder if her obstinate daughter will change her mind. Yes, Tarranya is well-suited to the fighting arts. Yes, Tarranya had been trained by the very best Queen’s Champion in the history of the White Realm. But the realities of the job, which Alice had borne so well, are very clearly wearing on her protégé.

“She won’t like the day-to-day tedium,” Alice had predicted this time last year when Tarra had declared her intent to become a Champion one day.

“No, I don’t expect she will.”

“It will frustrate her and she’ll lose focus. That would be inexcusable.”

“What do you propose?”

Alice had grinned. “If we give her exactly what she says she wants, perhaps she’ll change her mind.”

“Permit her to become a Champion?” Mirana still recalls her utter shock at the proposal.

“Permit her to experience the job, but don’t accept her vow. So long as she does not kill in your name...”

“Yes, I see what you mean, Alice.” She’d sighed. “I suppose it’s our only option. And I’m aware you have other duties that require your attention as well.”

“Yes. Hightopp Village is nearly finished. Tarrant and I will have to... we should...” Mirana had watched Alice scowl out at the office balcony. “We have a responsibility to see it restored. That was what Krystoval intended after healing the land. And that’s what Tarrant’s family would have wanted. And... we owe it to the other clans who lost loved ones that day to start anew, to offer... a place for the next generation to ply their crafts. Settle down. Open the trade post along the route between Witzend and Mamoreal and Crimson Harbor again.”

Mirana had noticed Alice’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea, but she had not commiserated with her over it. She had not observed aloud that Alice must do this. She had not attempted to soothe her Champion with empty reassurances. There had been no guarantee the queen could make that would have... helped in this instance.

“And after your duties at Iplam are completed, perhaps...”

Alice had laughed. “Yes, when Tam is of age, perhaps he’ll replace us, but... Tarrant wants this. His own shop. Something small. He wants to invent, he says. He wants harvests and plantings and his people around him. Amallya, despite being so young, has been ready for months to take over here. He’s waiting for me to say I’ll go with him.”

“Then tell him you will. Once Tarra turns eighteen, we’ll permit her to try the role of Queen’s Champion on for size.” Perhaps the position will not suit her at all...

Alice had nodded and they had been in reluctant agreement.

And now, Mirana wonders what will happen. As they’d anticipated she would, Tarra complains of the job’s ill fit. And yet she is too stubborn to quit. Mirana wishes she could have her first Champion back, but Alice is tied to Iplam and the blossoming village there. For an instant, she daydreams about that past. Alice, standing silent and solid at her side, taking tea together, leaning on each other’s shoulders on a balcony as they discuss things that concern two women who have known each other for a Long Time. Oh, how Mirana wishes her daughter back to childhood and her friend back to Mamoreal. True, she could release Tarranya from her service; she could call Alice back to the castle... But Tarrant would most likely not be able to accompany her, not with the new residents still settling in at Hightopp Village. Yes, Tarrant would remain at Iplam and Alice would be hours away in Mamoreal and what would become of her and Tarrant’s marriage, in that case?

No, Mirana cannot ask her Champion to return. Not to ease her own loneliness. Not even to relieve her daughter of a tremendous and terrifying path.

Mirana does not wish to think about this now, so she doesn’t. She pushes these thoughts aside as she sweeps into the throne room and takes her seat.

The day progresses quite normally. As the White Realm has no official currency, many of its residents travel to the castle when they need provisions but can find no one with which to barter. Or when one requires the materials necessary for building a home or shop. Mirana approves various tributes in exchange for cuts of timbre – from the Stoic Forest, of course, as those trees are the only ones truly suited to holding up a roof for any length of time. She consents to loaning out members of her guard for journeys to Shuchland and Galandonland. She orders bridge and wharf repairs to be carried out upon hearing politely-worded and thoroughly researched complaints.

Yes, a very normal day.

Tarranya stands beside the throne and stifles one yawn after another.

The audiences are finally concluded and Mirana sets aside the last page of her schedule. Beside her, her daughter takes a deep, cleansing breath. No doubt, she’s congratulating herself on having survived another unbearably boring day.

“Your Majesty...”

Mirana looks up as Champion Leif enters the room. “Good...” She consults the rays of sunlight streaming in through the high windows. “... afternoon.”

He nods to her as he closes the door behind him. He does not nod to Tarranya. Mirana notices this, as she always does. As she’s sure Tarranya always does. No, Leif had not liked the idea of a princess becoming a Champion. He had not liked it at all. And, apparently, he still doesn’t.

Although Leif treats her daughter with a chill disapproval now – when she is dressed as a Champion and standing in for Alice – Mirana knows the lion man easily laughs with Tarranya when she is a princess once again, at the end of the day. She worries about this duality. Worries what it will drive Tarranya to think, to do.

She thinks again of that one page in the Oraculum. That one moment in the future that is Coming. Although Absolem refuses to reveal anything else, that image he permits her to see whenever she requests to view it. In the last year-and-then-some, nothing has occurred to change that future. One day, her daughter will share a Soul Bond with this lion man. One day, they will be wed.

But, when that day will be, Mirana still does not know.

“You Majesty,” Leif murmurs, approaching the throne. “You’ve an unscheduled visitor. A furniture maker who has traveled from Crimson Harbor. He says it’s urgent.”

“Is it?” she inquires mildly.

Leif’s golden eyes deliver a solemn gaze. His expression is aggressive with anxiety. “I believe it may be.”

“Then please see him in.”

Mirana retakes her seat and Tarranya sighs. Leif pivots on his heel and retraces his steps down the length of the white hall to the massive doors. He ushers in a short, round-ish, jolly-looking man with an embroidered eye patch.

“Master Symon Setteeson,” Leif announces.

Mirana smiles at the blond, heavyset man but he speaks before she does.

“Yer Majesty. ‘Tis been tae laung since I’ve had th’pleasure.”

Yes, he should have permitted the queen to address him first, but Mirana ignores the man’s lack of throne room etiquette. After all, most of the White Realm’s citizens never see the inside of this room, so how can they be expected to know What Not To Do? “Master Setteeson. I recall our meeting. It was when you crafted this very seat for me, was it not?”

“Oh, aye!” he remarks with a start, as if noticing her throne for the first time. “Still, ‘twas mostly m’Fa’s handimade. An’it looks teh b’ taken gehd be-well o’ye, Yer Majesty. Suits ye.”

“Thank you,” Mirana acknowledges the compliment. “I was very sorry to hear of his death.” The senior Setteeson had been yet another victim to Iracebeth’s incandescent rage. Something about an inappropriately tasseled set of sofa cushions...

“Yer Majesty’s tae kenfull.”

“What brings you to Mamoreal, sir?”

“Well, th’brevin kenment teh tha’ t’would be: a muttermongin’, Yer Majesty.”

“Indeed? And a worrisome one by the look of you,” she muses with atypical directness. But as Outlanders praise plain speaking above tact, she does not hesitate to adopt their customs in that manner. The man smiles with relief at her plain speech. Yes, he’s traveled far and appears tired not only from the journey but from whatever is weighing on his mind so heavily.

“Come with me, sir, Tarranya, Leif. Let’s adjourn to a more private venue.”

And with that, Mirana stands and ushers her visitor out of the echoing throne room.


A muttermongin’, Setteeson had said.

And a muttermongin’ is right!

Even now, her ears are still ringing with it. Even now her head is still spinning at her mother’s agreement on the action to be taken. Even now her heart is pounding at the thought of herself – Champion Tarra of Mamoreal – Out There.

She claps one hand over the broadsword at her hip, throws the other wide and, grinning up at the ceiling in her room, spins until she’s dizzy and breathless.

Her first task as Champion!

She is gloriously overwhelmed by the thought of it! So what if Leif had grumbled and grouched and glared through the entire discussion. So what if he’d insisted she lacks experience and finesse for something like this. So what if he’d roared that she isn’t strong enough to handle her own sword in a real fight. So what if he’d been a right bastard about the whole thing instead of congratulating her.

So. What.

The king and queen and the head of the guard had all agreed: Tarra will be responsible for discovering the truth behind these rumors, this gossip Master Craftsman Setteeson had brought them.

They had all agreed on who will investigate these whisperings: Tarra.

Champion Tarra.

She is barely able to contain her shout of triumph. But contain it, she does. For now, anyway.

Where to go? What to do?

Sleep is impossible. Totally impossible. All she can think of is where she’ll be this time tomorrow and the role she’ll be playing and the disguise she’ll be wearing and the task she’ll be responsible for and it will be her Moment!

And she’s going to take it!

This is an opportunity beyond even her wildest dreams. Tarra won’t be proving herself here at Mamoreal with one of her sister’s suitors on the pitch, as she’d always expected. No, her first test will be a Real one. Out There.

And then there will be no reason at all for her mother to refuse to hear her vows.

Tarra is pure jubilation.

She wishes she could share this with someone, but her mother had only grudgingly agreed and her father had smiled serenely and reminded her that this assignment must be kept Confidential. And besides, she is to gather information only.

“This is a secret, not a battle, squimkin,” her father had said and she hadn’t even minded the childhood nickname in the wake of their Royal Decree. She’d been too numb with shock to object or even wince. As her mind had begun to absorb the gravity of the task before her, she’d smiled; she’d turned toward Leif; and she’d meet a hard mask of disapproval.

“Blasted, bothersome, boy-lion!” she growls to the four walls of her room. Why couldn’t he have been happy for her? Why couldn’t he have congratulated her? He should have! He’s her friend, curse it all! Or, he had been... until Mistress Alice had started training her to be a Champion.

What had happened? Why had he suddenly changed?

Tarra is tired of wondering about that.

She’s tired of thinking about it.

She’s sick of waiting for him to flibbin’ grow UP!

He insists that she’s not ready for this job. He still thinks of her as a child with nothing more important to do with her time than climb trees, talk to wooden swords, and host tea parties barefoot!

“I’m a grown woman,” Tarra says, catching her reflection in the mirror. “I’m more grown up than you are.” She’s proud of her sneer. It looks intimidating. It looks like Mistress Alice’s.

Mistress Alice. Yes. What would her mentor do on the eve of a monumentally epic task like this? Would she stand around in her Champion’s uniform, thinking about a stupid male and sneering at a looking glass?

No. She wouldn’t. Definitely not!

Why, as Muchy as Mistress Alice is, she’d march right over to Leif’s room and she’d...! She’d...!

Tarra scowls at her reflection. “She’d do... Something.”

Oh, undoubtedly.

“You’re leaving tomorrow,” she reminds herself. “Don’t know when you’ll be back. Anything could happen in the meantime...”

Anything at all!

Tarra pivots on her heel and strides for the door. She passes only one frog footman – Marshing – on the way and then, arriving at the door to Leif’s rooms, her breath puffing in slight pants from her determination, she lifts her fist and bangs on the door.

It opens after only a moment and Leif’s worried frown lifts into a delighted smile. And then, as he takes in the fact that she stands before him as a Champion, he scowls.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed, princess?” he growls.

She grits her teeth. “I figured I’d give you one more chance to pull you head out from the hole under your tail and congratulate me. Maybe even wish me luck.”

“Luck?” he snarls, leaning toward her and giving her the Grin of his kind, sharp incisors and all. “If you’ve any skill at all – which I doubt – you won’t need luck.

“You rotten, insufferable kitten,” she sneers, glad that she’d practiced it earlier. “I’m the Queen’s Champion!”

He leans back, towers over her, looks down his furry nose at her, and shakes his head. Sighs. “You’re a princess, Tarranya. It’s time you stopped playing dress up and accepted that.”

She’s mad enough to kick him. She considers it. Then decides that while it would be really satisfying, she won’t. She won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her all riled up. She calls upon the control Mistress Alice had taught her and informs him, “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but these aren’t Champion Alice’s clothes. They’re mine. This is my uniform now. I know you’re old and set in your ways but you could make an effort to get used to it.”

“And why would I do that? You realize this is a farce, don’t you? The queen is never going to permit you to take your vows. She’s just giving you what you think you want, showing you the reality of it and, yes, the reality is boring and monotonous!”

“And exciting and heroic!” she shouts back. “You can’t lie to me – I know you’ve fought before and I know Mistress Alice has fought lots of times!”

Leif considers her. “Yes, we’ve both fought. And Lady Hightopp has even killed. Did she ever tell you what that’s like? To take a life? Did she ever tell you what it feels like to offer up your own life for your king or queen? Did she ever explain those things to you?”

She had, but Tarra doesn’t want to hear it all again. That’s not why she’s here. She snorts. “Yes. And I understood every word—”

“I doubt that.

“—but you’re the one who just doesn’t get it, Leif,” she continues, blithely poking him in his furry, muscular chest. “I will do this. You and your temper tantrums can’t stop me.”

“Temper tantrums? You’re one to talk.” His gaze flickers down to the sword at her hip. “Carrying that around with you like it’s the steel incarnation of Barnaby the Blade.”

She strikes out. Surprisingly, it’s not a slap she delivers to his cheek nor a fist to his jaw. No, Tarra surprises herself by thrusting her hand into his mane and pulling herself up until she presses her lips against his snarl.

And then, in the next instant, she is so furious she can’t not step back and smack him.

The sound of the blow echoes down the corridor. She barely notices his startled and furious expression.

“You kit of a bald Bandersnatch,” she curses him. Damn him for making their first kiss happen like this! Damn him for ruining it! “I’m leaving in the morning. If I’m as incompetent as you think, this’ll be the last time you ever see me. Because I’m foolish enough to get myself killed, aren’t I?” She damns herself as her vision heats and his image blurs. Damn it, she will not cry!

She’d like to say more, but she can’t.

With a shake of her head, she turns away. She doesn’t even feel the need to tell him good-bye. Somehow she knows it just wouldn’t be... right. Maybe because she doesn’t know who she’d be saying good-bye to. Her friend – her Leif – had disappeared months and months ago, damn him.


The sound of her name whispers against the cool stones. A strong, furry hand curls around her arm, turns her around. She fights him: he is not allowed to see her cry!

“Le—! Let—mego!” she coughs around an army of tears.

“Damn you, Tarra,” he growls. “Why are you doing this?”

She gapes at him, at the utter nonsense of the question.

He closes his beautiful, golden eyes, leans toward her and presses a whispery, whiskery kiss to her forehead. Just as he had done when she was younger, a little girl sitting on his knee or being swung around in his arms or being tickled under her chin...

“Damn you,” she hisses, jerking back. “I am not a child!” With rough motions, she shrugs off his hands. “I’m a grown woman, Leif, and I don’t need you trying to protect me anymore. Not from the monsters in the wardrobe. Not from an opponent on the battlefield.”

She struggles not to unleash the full extent of her fury and confusion and disappointment upon him. These things are hers and she’ll keep them. He doesn’t deserve them. Besides, she fights better on a full temper.

“I’ve grown up,” she reminds him. “Get. Used. To. It.”

And with that, she quits. She quits his doorway, his corridor, him.

She storms back the way she’d come, fuming. Leif is never going to see her as she is. He’s never going to not see a little girl with wrinkled ribbons and blades of grass in her long, pale hair. He’s never going to see her with her shoes on and breeches in the place of petticoats and a sharpened blade in the place of a wooden sword at her side.

To Leif, she’s nothing but a foolish little girl.

And she’s tired of trying to prove that she’s not.

One day, he’ll realize the truth.

Yes, one day, he’ll see.

Of course, when that day comes, it’ll be too late.

Because she’s already given up on him.

One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 1 of 15

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