Sadde's dawdling. That's what she's doing. But that's what she does every day, anyway, and she's sure her father doesn't want to see her any more than she wants to see him.
So she dawdles, and makes her way down London's city streets.
London isn't generally the sort of place one might expect to see a rabbit wandering around, let alone one wearing a bonnet and apron. And yet, there it is. The rabbit is white and fluffy, and dressed in blue and pink. It is also hopping on its hind legs, with apparent urgency, across Sadde's path.
This is a relatively quiet street, and the few other people around don't seem to have noticed the rabbit. However, if anyone happened to be paying attention, and to be in the habit of seeing and hearing what was there, rather than what they expected, one might hear a small voice repeating, "Oh no! Oh dear! I'm going to be late!"
The rabbit doesn't seem to be aware that she's following. It bounds away down a side street, fishing a large golden pocket-watch out of its apron and gasping in horror when it sees the time. "Oh dear oh dear oh dear!" it squeaks, speeding up a little.
It is in such a hurry, in fact, that when its bonnet flies right off its head, it doesn't even seem to notice, let alone go back for it.
Then she'll see the rabbit, now hatless, reach the alley it's looking for and jump down a fairly large hole in the ground. It's almost manhole-sized, but seems to have been dug by animals rather than humans. Sadde could almost certainly fit down it if she wanted to.
The stream of nervous babble fades away as the rabbit falls out of hearing range.
And trips over an uneven patch at the edge of the hole, stumbling straight in before she has a chance to catch herself.
On the plus side, she doesn't land in a sewer. On the other hand, she doesn't seem to be landing any time soon. The hole she's sliding down becomes a spiral, allowing an occasional glimpse of the rabbit somewhere below. Strangely, it doesn't seem to be particularly dark.
The rabbit doesn't appear to answer, but it might be hard to tell, because the slide-like spiral abruptly drops her into freefall. She's not falling very fast, and has plenty of time to look around and notice that the hole is opening out into something wider.
The rabbit takes a parasol from...somewhere...and opens it, slowing its own fall to let Sadde catch up.
"Hello," it says, clinging nervously to the handle of its parasol. "How did you - oh, is that my bonnet? Thank you!" The voice, now she's hearing it up close, sounds distinctly feminine. "Oh, I'm so sorry! Were you trying to give it back? That's so thoughtful..."
This does not seem to be a happy thought. In fact, if anything, the rabbit seems more distressed than it did a minute ago.
"Um. What?" The rabbit blinks her pink eyes several times. "You were...expecting to be somewhere else? That would turn you to mush? Is this a surface-worlder thing?"
She gestures around them with the paw now holding her bonnet. "This is Wonderland. Well, an entrance to it, really. And...I don't really understand the rest of your questions. I'm sorry!"
"When we fall we're subjected to a constant acceleration, which means we should be speeding up, even with your little parasol, until the air pressure below us and the friction with the air around us was enough to counter this acceleration and we reached a constant speed. As for heat, the Earth is a ball of rock with magma at its core, if we fell this much for this long we should be reaching it soon. And. We aren't. Instead we're going to a place you called Wonderland."
"That sounds uncomfortable!" the rabbit exclaims. "And dangerous. It's probably a good thing you're here instead."
She gasps. "Oh, but the Queen might not think so! That could be bad." The next few sentences are unintelligible muttering, of which the only audible word is "heart".
"Oh! It, um, it was nothing. Not important."
That is one nervous rabbit. "Oh look we're almost there."
She points downwards, where they are indeed rapidly approaching something like solid ground. It looks like a giant chessboard, with alternating darker and lighter squares. In the centre of the board rises a shining palace, surrounded by a dense labyrinth. As they get closer, the borders between squares resolve into hedges, fences and ditches, while the squares themselves reveal more variation. They seem to be landing closer to the middle than to the edge, but well outside the labyrinth.
The rabbit giggles. "Of course not! Oh, but you'll have to be careful once we land." Her ears twitch.
"The Queen doesn't like intruders, and if her guards found you - " She cuts herself off, shivering. "You're too nice for that. You were just trying to give me back my bonnet and it's all my fault!" The bunny sniffles, nose twitching.
"Oh, I know that! But rules are rules as far as the Hearts are concerned." She winces a little at the word hearts. "You aren't supposed to be here, so you must be an intruder." This seems to make her terribly sad for some reason.
"Will you tell me your name? Just in case - " She breaks off again and starts to sob. The ground is steadily approaching.
"Oh, no, don't worry about me." The rabbit pulls a frilly handkerchief out of her apron pocket and blows her nose loudly. "We - we need to make sure the Queen's guards don't see you, which means you can't come with me."
They are now getting quite close to the ground. Sadde's feet are just above the tops of the trees.
"If you want to get home again, you'll need to ask the Raven, or maybe the Wandering Seer, to tell you the way. But I'm afraid I don't know where to look for either of them." She twists the handkerchief between her paws. "Oh, I'm so sorry to have landed you in this mess!"
The rabbit stares at her in shock as they drift the last few metres to the ground. "...Um. You should be careful who you tell that to," she says at last. "I won't tell anyone! You should definitely talk to the Raven - I have to go now - good luck - goodbye!"
As soon as her feet touch the floor, a few seconds after Sadde's, the little rabbit snaps her parasol shut and dashes off in the direction of the palace.
And she is not squished by her velocity. Okay she'll just - not question it. Either she's dreaming or hallucinating very vividly, or she's in a magic land of some sort, and the response to all of these situations is the same: entertain the premise. She dusts herself and looks around.
She is in a forest! It's a very quiet forest, and the trees are big and close enough that they mostly block the view of anything beyond them. She's standing in something that only counts as a clearing in comparison to the rest.
There's no apparent indication of which way to go, other than the palace which can be faintly glimpsed through the trees.
"Well, if you want the Raven, you should go that way," says the cat, waving a paw, "or if you want the Wandering Seer, you should go...hm, that way." Other paw.
Neither direction is towards the palace; in fact, they both seem to be pointed slightly away from it. Other than that, they're almost completely opposite directions.
The cat is silent for a few seconds, sitting motionless except for the agitated lashing of its tail. "I don't know," it says at last. "You can call me the Cheshire Cat. There's only one of those in Wonderland, so no-one will be confused by it."
"If you're going to see Everless, I might see you there," it continues. "Then again, you might not see me..." The last sentence drifts off into nothing as the Cheshire Cat itself slowly vanishes, starting with its tail and ending with its eyes. The latter stay hanging in the air for a full second after the rest of the cat has disappeared, then blink and vanish.
The forest in this direction seems pretty much the same as where she started, at first. After a few minutes of walking, though, there is very definitely a path under her feet, pointing in the direction she wants to go.
A few minutes later, it splits in two. At the fork, there is a signpost. One arm, pointing in a direction that is probably towards the castle, says "This way!" and the other, pointing down the second path, says "That way!"
The path begins to twist and turn once she's out of sight of the fork, but keeps heading in roughly the right direction as far as she can tell. The trees start to press closer together at the sides, forming a nearly-solid wall along the edge of the path. Overhead, the interlocking branches block out any glimpse of the sky.
About the time the way straightens out again, Sadde might notice that it seems more like a corridor than a path. The ground beneath her feet has turned into a floor while she wasn't looking, tiled green and white.
That gets another burst of harsh laughter.
There's an empty picture frame on the wall, which wasn't there before and seems to also be a hole through into another room. A large raven is perching in the frame, watching Sadde.
"Riddles, yes," the raven says, "or rhymes. Roses, not especially." She tilts her head to look at Sadde out of the other eye. "Who are you?" she asks.
"What kind of rabbits are you used to? Why were you talking to the White Rabbit?" Everless fires off the questions one after the other, not pausing long enough for Sadde to answer.
"Why did she think you should talk to me? You are very interesting, but I'm sure that never crossed her mind as a reason."
"This is the most interesting conversation I have had in years; I shall have to thank her," the raven remarks.
"You don't have to keep secrets from me," she continues. "I like secrets. I shall share them with no-one who does not need to know. And besides," she points out, "there's hardly any point in talking to me about something if you won't talk about it."
"That...is probably sensible," Everless agrees reluctantly. "But I think I would have noticed if the walls sprouted ears. Close that door, and lock it, and there will be no-one to listen."
She thinks for a moment, ruffling her feathers and twitching them back into place. "Why don't you tell me how you came to be in Wonderland," she suggests, "and then I might be able to guess what you need to know."
She closes the door "- but given this place's tendency to sprout new doors and whatnot at random I wouldn't trust it. Anyway, like I said, where I'm from rabbits don't talk, so I followed one when I saw her talking, and then fell down a hole and she said the Queen would kill me or something similarly unpleasant."
"You have not met the Queen, or any of her servants save the Rabbit who directed you to me," she reasons. "You describe yourself as a visitor mistaken for an intruder," she continues with an uncannily accurate mimicry of Sadde's voice, "and have opinions or goals which you have been warned against sharing, and are therefore likely to be subversive.
"As for the issue of 'bugs' - I am a bird, although an unusually intelligent one. Bugs do not survive long around most avians, and ravens are no exception. Listening devices too small to be detected...possible, in principle, but if the Queen had those, there would be no Resistance by now."
"Scattered though he may be these days, Chess is an excellent judge of character," Everless responds. "I do not believe he would have sent you here, were you a threat to me or the Resistance. And you could not have known unless you spoke with him that he has the ability to find me."
She gives the impression that she might be smiling, were it physically possible. "Incidentally, do you trust me enough to reveal the rest of your conversation with the Rabbit yet?"
"Oh, that isn't the hard part." The raven is still laughing, but it fades away as she continues, "The hard part is being in the Resistance. Planning and trying and failing over and over. Going into hiding and not knowing how many others have made it. Years upon years where we do nothing but wait. Wait for the Queen to make a mistake, for an opportunity, for a new advantage."
Everless hops forward, then flaps suddenly up onto Sadde's shoulder. "Have we been waiting for you, I wonder?"
"Not unless you are inclined to assign cosmic significance to the insane ramblings of a formerly-brilliant madman," she says in a dry tone. "The Wandering Seer sometimes reveals glimpses of the future, to those who pay attention. But they do not seem to be consistent with each other, let alone paint enough of a picture to be useful."
"I see the logic." Everless nods approvingly. "I would be happy to assist in any way I can with your efforts to confirm or disprove said hypothesis; however, believing myself to be real, I must request that you continue to act as though you were not in fact hallucinating until such time as you can be certain."
"That is...a fair description." Everless shudders, fluffing her feathers and hunching down between her wings. "The Queen...has some way of stealing people's hearts. They continue to walk around as they always did, but - changed." She seems to be at a loss for how to describe it.
"The Wandering Seer is one of her victims. Before, he was the Red King's most trusted adviser, and accounted the wisest in the land. Now, he can't keep in the same time for more than five minutes."
"People call them 'hearts' because, when removed, they look like red heart-shaped jewels a little smaller than a fist. A closer approximation of their apparent function would be...'soul', I suppose," she clarifies.
"The Seer has always been capable of perceiving the past and the future. When he lost his heart, he lost his anchor to the present. He can no longer reliably tell it apart from the other few dozen points in time he is experiencing at any given moment."
Everless nods approvingly. "It may be possible in principle, but, as only the Queen knows how to remove hearts, only she would know how to restore them."
She sighs. "Even were it possible, we would first need to recover the hearts themselves. They are kept guarded in a secret location, worn by the Queen personally, or decorating the chests of her most favoured - and most loyal - courtiers, the Hearts." The capital letter is audible.
The corridor fades back into a forest, this time bright and sunlit. Everless leads the way confidently, circling back every so often to make sure Sadde is still following.
"We are going to meet the Mad Hatter," she explains. "He will be able to put you in contact with the leaders of the Resistance, and his house is a safer place for me to explain the political situation."
"Haven't you ever heard the saying 'as mad as a hatter'? I suppose it might have gone out of fashion," Everless remarks. "You see, the traditional method of hat-making involved the use of mercury, which..."
Her voice fades away as she flies off, forgetting to slow down for Sadde as she gets caught up in explaining.
No matter how fast Sadde runs, she can't seem to catch up with Everless, and she quickly loses sight of the raven.
She finds herself in a strange forest, where the trees grow in odd shapes and the grass is varying shades of blue, yellow and purple. There is a path visible a few feet away through the trees.
The path continues to be a path through a forest, which might be almost surprising at this point. The grass continues to be multicoloured, although there begin to be fewer blues and yellows, and more purples and reds.
A little way down, she comes upon a hill to her left. It is perfectly round, treeless, and covered entirely in red grass. A figure in black armour is just barely visible around one side.
As she rounds the side of the hill, another black-armoured figure becomes visible. They appear to be standing on either side of a doorway leading into the hill. Each bears a long spear, held upright and resting on the ground. Both have their visors down, and they appear to be mirror images of each other. Neither of them move or respond.
Chess yawns, stretching himself out to his full length. "And do you want to see the Mad Hatter?" he asks.
"If you go that way, you'll meet up with Everless again," he adds, waving a paw in the appropriate direction, "but if you go that way, you'll end up at the Mad Hatter's before she does." He's pointing with his tail this time.
"Because of nerves connecting them to my head plus several years of constant, continuous feedback that turns into a subconscious body map and proprioception - although this has been in slight disarray these past few years because adolescence sorta messes with body plan and it takes a while for the brain to get used to it again."
"No, Everless isn't cut out to be a leader," the cat agrees, "which is why she isn't. I'm afraid I cannot give a very detailed recommendation of the Hatter," he continues, "other than to confirm that he is indeed mad. But then again, so is anyone else you'll meet in Wonderland."
And she walks through perfectly normal woods, meeting nobody and hearing nothing except the rustle of leaves and the trill of distant birdsong, until she comes upon a small house sitting all by itself in a clearing.
The roof is in the vague shape of a hat, and handwritten signs in the windows advertise the prices of various items of headgear.
"Just a minute!" calls a distant voice from inside the house.
And indeed, a minute later the door opens to reveal the first human-looking person Sadde has met since she arrived, unless one counts the helmeted guards. He's holding a teacup rather carelessly in one hand, and some of his tea sloshes over the brim as he moves.
"Good afternoon. How may I help you...miss?"
He seems to finally notice what's going on. "Ah, my tea! Thank you."
Inside, the house seems relatively normal, if old-fashioned, apart from the large and varied collection of hats hanging from everything that could conceivably hold one, stacked at least three deep on every flat surface, and piled in heaps on the floor.
"I do apologise for the mess; it's my work, you see."
Setting his tea down carefully on a clear patch of an end-table, the Hatter goes darting this way and that through the house.
"Now where did I see... Ah, here we are!"
He returns, triumphant, bearing a large, salmon-pink top hat. It's decorated with an oversized bow, a fluffy white feather, and, inexplicably, a peach. It's probably made of wax rather than actual fruit.
He holds it above Sadde's head, experimentally. "What do you think?"
The Hatter fakes a gasp. "Your Highness!" he exclaims in mock-horror, taking off his hat and sweeping it to the side as he bows.
He sets his hat firmly back on his head once he's upright, and returns to sobriety.
"If true, that would be the best news the Resistance has had in years. But how do you know this?"
"I asked Everless if there was some prophecy - because it was narratively fitting, you see - and she mentioned the Wandering Seer and observed that he couldn't decide whether you'd have a King or a Queen, after. I observed my gender identity is not consistent in time, which seems to explain stuff. Also I'm still more than half-convinced this is an incredibly elaborate dream of some sort, but still, who doesn't want to be Queen even if just in a dream?"
"Hello again, Everless. Bit of advice, next time you're leading someone somewhere, make sure they can actually keep up." And back to the Hatter: "Wonderland looks and acts a lot like it's fictional, so if someone's writing a story, I want to be the smart, sensible character the readers won't be frustrated with."
Everless speaks up.
"We need to put Sadde in touch with the coordinators. They'll know how she is best used. Meanwhile, your house is the most secure location to which I had easy access, and seemed a sensible place to begin instructing our newest member on the history of the Resistance."
"Long ago," Everless begins, "Wonderland was divided into two kingdoms ruled by two kings, the Red and the White. For many years, they fought each other over the border between their kingdoms, until finally, mounting a great offensive, the Red King defeated the White and united Wonderland under his own rule.
"But his armies were overstretched, spread too thin across his newly enlarged kingdom. There were not enough guards assigned to protect the King while he slept in his palace, and so, with the help of two traitors among the Red Knights, Marcella was able to steal into his chamber and pluck the heart from his chest where he lay.
"The rest of the court quickly followed. The Red Queen was long dead, assassinated by a White Knight some years before, and Marcella killed or stole the hearts of the Bishops and Rooks. The King's young son disappeared that night, and some say Marcella took him to raise as her own. Some say, further, that he was the boy who became the Ace of Hearts, and who now serves the Queen as her devoted right hand. Personally, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to support such rumours.
"The Red King never woke, and sleeps still, guarded by his two traitorous Knights. Marcella has ruled ever since, unopposed save by a small handful." She gestures to herself and Hatter with one wing. "Any questions so far?"
"Interesting," Everless pronounces this. "A different person, he said? I wonder..."
She shakes herself, feathers ruffling up. "But let us return to politics. Marcella's court is composed of the ten Hearts, along with her husband and son, plus her lesser servants, the Spades and Clubs. Spades are domestic servants, while Clubs are guards. Neither pose any great threat to us; it is the Hearts one must worry about.
"Each Heart has a number representing his or her rank in the Queen's favour, with Two being the lowest and Ten being the highest - the Ace seems to be outside of this ranking system. This can also be used as a rough estimate of their relative power levels, both politically and magically. The Ace's capabilities are unknown, and may even be variable.
"The Hearts are each tasked with the oversight of one particular aspect of Wonderland. Eight has control of the labyrinth and its monsters; Five is in charge of propaganda and censorship; Four oversees exploration beyond Wonderland's borders; Six is the head of the Inquisition. The latter is our main concern; he is tasked with searching out the Resistance."
The Hatter snorts. "A map? You've been wandering around this place for a while now; does it seem like it has consistent geography to you?"
He shakes his head. "Once you've lived here a while, you develop a certain feel for how to navigate it - but the Cheshire Cat is the only one who can get you where you need to go every time, without fail."
"There are rules," Everless agrees. "But even I do not know exactly what they are, not to the degree required for a map to be useful. It's far more practical to simply memorise a series of routes or contingencies for travelling between a small number of locations, and to ask for directions from someone who has memorised a slightly different set.
"Or, if one is unusually lucky, from Chess," she adds.
Everless sighs. "You know as much as I do about the Cheshire Cat, at this point." She does not seem pleased about this.
"Now, I believe you asked about magic? Unfortunately, our knowledge there is also somewhat limited, since the most relevant, and potentially useful, magic system is in the hands of the Queen and the Hearts. None of the Resistance have any magic to speak of, unless one counts Chess as both magic and as a member (both of which are debatable), with the exception of the Wandering Seer."
Hatter takes over the explanation. "Our leaders are Queen Araminta, called the Queen of Diamonds or the queen without a court, and her consort, King Faramund. Queen Araminta is currently in hiding, but can be reached if necessary, and King Faramund is undercover in the Court of Hearts as a minor noble of little consequence."
A wry smile. "He has cultivated the appearance of an eccentric fashion sense which requires that he purchase a new hat every two weeks or so."
"Because the Queen and King of Diamonds are remnants of a defeated royal line which no longer has any claim to Wonderland. The Red King's son, if he indeed lives, is the true heir - and the Red King himself would rule if he could be woken," the Hatter explains.
"If the prince cannot be found and the King cannot be woken, the next in line would be the King's daughter, who was a baby when Marcella took power. Unfortunately, she also vanished. There are rumours that one of her nursemaids was instructed to take the child somewhere safe, but no-one knows where that might be."
He sighs. "So you see, it is all quite up in the air. I have no trouble believing that you might be able to take the throne, in the absence of anyone with a better claim."
"I...suppose it's possible that she might have been taken to the surface world?"
He frowns, and counts on his fingers. "No, it would be too long ago, I think. I'm not sure exactly how many years it's been, but certainly at least thirty. I hesitate to ask your age, but I feel reasonably confident in guessing you are under twenty?"
"It has been long enough," Everless comments, "that you could possibly be her daughter. But how to test it..."
She shakes her head. "Let us return to more urgent matters. Hatter, you should contact our royals and make arrangements for Sadde to meet them. Meanwhile, I believe we should find somewhere for her to sleep before too much longer - and perhaps provide food as well."
"You provide a fresh perspective that may be more valuable than you know," Everless says.
"You seem to know certain pieces of the puzzle before they are explained to you, although you describe them strangely; perhaps your knowledge will be the key to defeating Marcella."
She starts counting on fingers. "The Power of Love and Friendship's been falling out of style lately, but it's still pretty common. Greed and overconfidence are typically failures that bring villains down, pretty often in the form of a trusted subordinate who betrays them because they're too evil. Sometimes the Power of Love and Friendship is combined with that and a trusted subordinate betrays the evil leader after befriending one of the Good Guys and Seeing The Light. Hmmm... this is also a fantastical scenario, so perhaps she has a mystical weakness she protects at all costs, the source of her power or something like that, and it's guarded by riddles and mystical barriers only the Heroes can beat."
"Hmm," is Everless' first response to this.
"We know the source of the Queen's power, at the least," she offers. "It is the stolen hearts of Wonderlanders which enable her and her underlings to perform magic. She makes sure to keep more for herself than she gives out to any one person, which means she carries at least eleven at any one time. However, there is no reason for all of them to be on display, and she may very well keep still more hidden beneath her clothing or in her hair."
She huffs in what might be amusement or frustration. "As to the possibility of turning one of her own against her...I believe it unlikely. The Hearts, the only ones who might stand a chance against her, are chosen and promoted for their loyalty, which is then further ensured when she removes their own hearts. Those, I would expect that she always keeps personally, and would certainly never return to their original bearers."
"I'm still not totally clear on how that heart magic works and what exactly is entailed by 'taking someone's heart,' and I'll eventually want to write these things down with itemised lists of known strengths and weaknesses and other traits of everyone and resources and such."
"Questions about the capabilities of the Resistance are best answered by Queen Araminta, and King Faramund is best placed to comment on the capabilities of the Hearts," Everless diagnoses.
"I can attempt to answer questions about heart magic, but my knowledge is limited by the fact that no-one has seen it done without having been a victim, and the heartless are invariably disinclined or unable to share information. However..."
She flaps about the room and starts moving hats around, uncovering a small writing-desk tucked in one corner. "One thing I can offer is writing materials. This is mine, and you are free to use anything from it."
"...Yes? Look, the fact that I happen to be a different shape than most of the people you are no doubt accustomed to, does not make me any less of a person, or any less capable of wanting to do the things which people do."
This is clearly something of a practised rant.
Everless laughs, so loudly that Hatter comes rushing through from some other part of the house to see what's wrong.
"He asks everyone the same question," she explains once she's calm enough to get out a full sentence. "And he collects all the different answers to give to me. No-one has ever guessed correctly in the...is it ten years you have spent doing this?" she asks Hatter.
"I am not always a raven," she explains. "This is merely my preferred form, since I enjoy the relative visual acuity and the ability to fly. It is also adequate for turning pages," she concedes.
"My other common form, which I will be happy to demonstrate to you if Hatter can provide a berry, is a raccoon, and quite capable of writing with a raven-feather quill."
"Not just any fruit," Everless clarifies. "Different foods have different effects. For example, the bottle of sparkling juice that was on the table where we met would have changed your size in alternating directions if you drank it. Blackberries, when I eat them, turn me from a raven into a raccoon and back again. Hatter, would you...?"
Hatter obligingly goes to fetch some berries.
"I am not entirely sure what, if anything, would happen if you ate one. Thankfully, with discrete foods like berries it is trivial to avoid unwanted effects by eating them two at a time."
"Most foods here do something. The majority only have very small effects, such as changing your height a little, or the colour of your eyes or hair. Others can accomplish more dramatic changes. But yes, the same food eaten by the same person will always have the same effect, and the same food eaten by different people will have a similar effect."
...and feels a very curious sensation take hold. Sadde's body shifts and reshapes itself into a new form, one never before experienced but somehow quite familiar.
The whole thing only takes a few seconds, leaving her standing there with clothes which fit rather differently than they did a moment ago.
"Not prohibitively so, but if I bought a bunch a day it would only take a month or so to severely deplete Wonderland's supply of them. They don't grow terribly well in this climate, you know, so it all has to be greenhouses."
He frowns. "I'm not entirely sure what distinction you're drawing, there...Everless, what's the difference?"
"It is a distinction between food originating from Wonderland, and food currently in Wonderland," Everless answers. "And the answer is, unfortunately, that I do not know. I have never left Wonderland, nor do I know anyone who has done so and returned, and all of our food originates here."
"Well. That's...probably good for him. I'd hate to think of your parents sitting at home thinking you dead or worse, when you're perfectly fine and discovering the wonders of grapes."
He leads her through to the kitchen and begins preparing a more substantial meal for the three of them.
"Now, the trick to eating Wonderland food without any unwanted changes is in the numbers. With grapes, it's easy: just eat a second one to reverse the change. With foods you can't eat in one bite, it gets a little harder, but the rule is still the same: even numbers of bites. Think you can remember that?"
The changes revert. Hatter snorts.
"That one was fairly safe, but I'd advise against doing the same thing with the beef," he says. "Starts turning you into a cow, which is fine except for the part where cows aren't so great at eating meat."
Everless flies in and perches on the back of a chair so she can reach her food.
These foods have the stated effects!
The beans feel like being squished narrower, rather than like weight loss. All of the changes are trivially reversible, assuming she heeds the warning about the beef, and she can even use different sized bites of potato to customise her nail length if she wants.
In that case, she will not end up with green hair or black and white spots at the end of the meal.
"It's getting late," Hatter says when they have finished eating. "You should get some sleep, Sadde. I've arranged a lot of meetings for tomorrow."
He shows her the room he has cleared out, which is small and sparsely furnished, but adequate. There are still a few hatboxes stacked in the corners. "I don't get many visitors," he apologises. "I hope it will do."
The cat does not appear to care.
"You're welcome," he replies, already starting to disappear - in patches, this time. Left leg first, then right ear...
"They're waiting downstairs..." is his last contribution before his mouth vanishes.
The last thing to go is his nose, which hangs in the air for a second or two after the rest has disappeared.
The Mad Hatter is waiting outside the room.
"Good morning, Sadde." He doesn't seem particularly surprised; perhaps he was the one who provided the grapes.
"I can find you some better clothes if you like, but it'll have to wait until after breakfast. Queen Araminta wants to meet you."
"I'm glad you approve. It would be terrible to finally get to be a boy and then discover your nose wasn't right," Hatter jokes. He declines to comment on Sadde's attractiveness beyond this remark.
He leads Sadde through to the breakfast-room, where a table is laid with options including buttered toast, tea, coffee, porridge, and various kinds of fruit.
"My goals are to not have an Evil Queen harassing this place anymore, my capabilities are those of an extremely intelligent baseline human plus having ever read a fantasy book in my life, and I don't need anything other than perhaps clothes that aren't, ah, suits." He glances at the Hatter. "No offence." Back at the Queen. "All joking aside, I'm not sure I'm an extremely important asset except for the fact that this place seems to be acting like I'm the Chosen One or something."
"It's a trope in certain genres of fiction where I'm from. The basic format is that there's some great evil - might be dormant, might be active, might not be recognised as properly evil in-universe - and no one has been able to vanquish it completely, and then someone, chosen by the fates or a prophecy or chance, who is typically not particularly skilled or special in any way but may have interesting personality traits, like being very empathetic or courageous or selfless or something, shows up and via narratively contrived happenstances gets the tools needed to vanquish this evil once and for all."
"Well. Marcella certainly counts as an evil in need of 'vanquishing'." She sighs, looking much older and very tired for a moment.
"You describe yourself as extremely intelligent; would you say that fulfils the requirement for an 'interesting personality trait', or do you have other relevant qualities?"
"Maybe? I'm glossing over a lot here, but the personality thing usually has two parts. One is that the hero should be relatable - it's often some random schmoe with no special qualities exactly because the readers are by and large random schmoes with no special qualities so it's easier to put oneself in their shoes. That part's fulfilled by my not even being from here. Then there's the extra thing they have that makes them not-quite-so-random-but-still-in-the-realm-of-possibility, which is something the reader can aspire to be. In my case, I'm not sure being very intelligent is the thing; I think it's more likely to be the, mm, the way I think about things, if anything? Here I'm abandoning all pretense at humility, but I think I'm pretty good at strategising and planning and coming up with contingencies and things like that."
"Well, that will be useful in its own right if nothing else," she says, nodding in approval.
"I try, but there is only so much a single person can achieve, and I am further constrained by the inability to show my face in public. You do not, yet, have the particular disadvantage of being a confirmed Resistance member, although I doubt that will remain the case for long."
She laughs, rather unexpectedly.
"I doubt anyone but the Hearts knows more about magic than Everless. But the rest, I am better placed to answer.
"The Resistance controls no territory outright, with the exception of this house and one safehouse whose location I am unwilling to disclose at this time. Weapons are similarly limited, mostly due to the fact that carrying a weapon without the correct authorisation is a crime."
"I am reluctant to give out exact numbers for the composition of the Resistance," Araminta says, "even in a safe place and to one I have no reason to believe would willingly betray us.
"On the side of the Queen, there are the ten Hearts, each of whom has several underlings, with the exception of the Ace, who works alone. In total, the Hearts and their subordinates number one hundred and eighteen, although far from all are combatants. This count does not include the Queen, King, Prince, or other miscellaneous courtiers, only those servants who are unshakably loyal to Marcella, and are missing their hearts."
She shakes her head. "As you have no doubt guessed, the two qualities appear to be somewhat correlated."
"I understand, but I do not have permission from every Resistance member to share their names, and it is widely acknowledged that the more people who know a secret, the greater the chance that it will be revealed," she explains.
"In the ideal case, a victory for the Resistance would be Marcella dead or otherwise removed from any possibility of regaining power, the stolen hearts restored to their rightful owners, and the Red King or one of his direct heirs on the throne of Wonderland. Those are Prince Lionel, now the Ace of Hearts, and - apparently - you yourself, if it is true that you are the child of Lionel's sister."
"Wonderland is quite small, only around twenty-five square miles. There are four villages, the palace, and various loners such as Hatter, who lives in the middle of the woods away from everyone else," she enumerates.
"You must have seen Wonderland from the air when you arrived; how large were you imagining it to be?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," she admits.
"Our history goes back through thirty-five years of Marcella's rule, five of the Red King reigning uncontested, and three hundred of intermittent war between Red and White. Before that, we have only rumour and legend. But Wonderland certainly existed and was inhabited long before that time."
"Several, each more ridiculous than the last. If you wish to be regaled with the various beliefs of credulous folk regarding the origin of Wonderland, I suggest you ask Everless," she says primly.
"Now, may we return to the current strategic situation, or do you require further information on our more recent history?"
"So far as I am aware, Marcella has no 'tragic backstory', although that information comes with the caveat that I know very little about her life at all before her coup. There have been three attempts by the Resistance to oust her from power over the past three decades, all of which, evidently, failed."
She pauses in thought. "Although I have not heard of any attempts by other agencies, it is possible that they were covered up by the Five of Hearts, as our less spectacular efforts were."
"A year or so after the original coup, a small group of the Red King's former advisers attempted to break into the palace and liberate Prince Lionel. However, he had already been indoctrinated to regard them as the enemy, and fought them off until Marcella arrived to deal with them."
She looks grim. "All but one were caught, and offered a choice between execution and heartlessness. They chose execution, to a man."
She pauses in case Sadde has any questions.
"The second attempt came after ten years of preparation and gathering of resources," she continues when it is clear that Sadde has nothing to add, "and its failure is the reason I can no longer travel openly in Wonderland."
She explains, "I had secured a minor place in Marcella's court, along with several other agents, while Faramund amassed an army to attack the palace from without. The plan was that Marcella would be caught between the two groups, but one of our inside agents turned traitor and revealed the plan to the Queen. When our agents began to be arrested one by one, I and several others left the palace and fled across the border. Without anyone left inside to sabotage the defenses, Faramund's army was not capable of meaningfully besieging the palace, and was driven back."
"There was not precisely an opportunity to interrogate them afterwards," she says dryly.
"One might have any number of reasons: fear of Marcella; a belief that our effort was doomed to fail regardless, and that they might as well be on the winning side; a genuine belief that her side is the right one; perhaps blackmail or similar..."
She looks old, and world-weary, as she enumerates the possibilities.
She sighs, too. "Thank you."
Moving swiftly on, she continues, "The third and most recent attempt was only a few years ago, and was aimed purely at assassinating Marcella. We chose a time at which she would be away from the palace and lightly guarded, then sent a highly-trained agent in to shoot her. He knew from the outset that there would be no chance of survival if he failed, and little even if he succeeded.
"Marcella saw the shot coming and raised a magical barrier to protect herself, then blasted the shooter with a second spell. We never found all the pieces."
"If they have, the news has not reached my ears," she replies.
"I suspect it would be a waste of both our time for you to describe guns to me, so I will leave that to Everless and others with more technical expertise. I assume from context that they are projectile weapons superior to crossbows, and that is all the detail I require."
"That is unfortunate. Vastly superior weaponry would be a significant asset to our cause."
She sighs. "If we had a route out of Wonderland that would not be guarded, I could send an agent or two to purchase guns and bring them back. But, to my knowledge, no such route is known."
"Oh, there are ways into and out of Wonderland," Araminta clarifies. "But they are controlled by Marcella and the Hearts."
She considers. "Everless might know of an unwatched route, if such exists, and so might the Wandering Seer - although it would be something of a chore to extract such information from the latter."
"Oh, no - she is merely one of the more soft-hearted of the Queen's servants, and has managed to stay beneath Marcella's notice to the extent required to keep her heart," she diagnoses.
"The rabbit is not even aware of the Resistance, since we do not believe that either her compassion or her license would stretch so far as to participate in concealing its continued existence."
"Everless has a reputation of handing out knowledge to all comers, regardless of their intentions for it," Araminta explains.
"Said reputation is...not entirely deserved, but certainly accurate in the broad strokes. As for the Seer, he is one of the few Heartless not to serve Marcella, and his powers of foresight, aside from being very useful if properly directed, indicate that Marcella will not always be Queen of Wonderland. This, in itself, is seen by many as seditious."
"He is simply never in the wrong place at the wrong time," she says with a laugh.
"Much of his time is spent on the borders of Wonderland, or beyond, where the reach of the Hearts is less certain. They have tried, many times, to arrest him and bring him to justice, but have failed."
She gives the question some serious thought.
"Unfortunately, very little is known about Marcella's past before she defeated the Red King and took the throne. Most of those who knew her beforehand are now dead, either from old age or various mildly suspicious causes. You may be correct in thinking that there is something which she is trying to hide."
"They may as well be the same thing, if one goes far enough back," Everless grumbles.
"History becomes less certain once you get more than three hundred years into the past, since the war between the Red and White armies destroyed so many records, and Marcella destroyed or confiscated the rest on her ascension. As a result, much of Wonderland's ancient history is speculative, and would be better described as legend or myth. The origins of Wonderland itself have become almost completely lost to the mists of time, and there are multiple competing versions of the story."
"One version," she begins, "says that Wonderland has existed forever, and that the struggle between Red and White has been eternal. I do not find this either believable or interesting, but it is popularly believed, especially by those who would see the Red King return. Such people also believe that the White monarchy will re-emerge to continue the fight, which I find far less likely than that our efforts will succeed."
She pauses, to consider which story should come next.
"The next most popular account of Wonderland's origins is the one which claims that all of this is someone's dream, and that if they ever wake up, Wonderland will cease to exist except in their memory."
"It is absolutely no use at all unless one knows the identity of the dreamer," Everless agrees.
"The only purpose it serves is to push the question of origin one step further away, while the first does away with it entirely."
She continues, "Another in the same vein proposes that time is circular, and that eventually it will loop back around to the beginning; our lack of history is because we cannot be allowed to remember previous iterations. This is not only unlikely but impractical considering the existence of a surface world with, presumably, many more than three hundred years of history since you mentioned this as strange."
"Personally? Never. In fact, I do not believe anyone in this house has done so," Everless says stiffly.
"Also, I am not certain that the three-hundred-year mark is intended to be the beginning of the cycle, or that we are supposed to have started with a population of any particular magnitude. Shall we move on to a marginally less ludicrous theory?"
"This next one is, actually, vaguely coherent, although it does still assume the existence of beings outside of Wonderland," Everless says.
"There is a belief - falling out of fashion, these days - that the world was created by two gods, the Black and the White, each of whom created exactly half of Wonderland. Because of this, Wonderland is more perfect than other places, which may have been created by one god rather than the other, and did not benefit from their collaboration."
The air-quotes around 'perfect' are practically audible.
"That is true, but bear in mind that for the majority of Wonderland's history there was no evidence of any such outside world," Everless reminds him.
"Even once discovered, it was only known to the elite, and not to those who came up with such stories. Also, given that you are not accustomed to magic, I would be surprised to find that your world contains anything with the kind of power attributed to the gods of the stories."
"Well, there is the way you came in," Everless begins.
"It is known as the Rabbit's Hole, since it is primarily used by the White Rabbit. She uses it to gather rare materials and resources on Marcella's behalf."
She continues, "Passage in and out is not consistently controlled, but the only way up is by flying or floating, and its location is even less consistent than most of Wonderland. Only a few know how to find it, and most of them work for Marcella."
"Actually, the first one was discovered back in the days of the Red King," Everless corrects.
"But they close up, after a while. That one was closed within a month of Marcella's coronation, and hasn't returned since. It was one of the few at ground level, as well. I don't believe there are any of that type open at present."
"No," Everless says instantly.
"I attempted to determine the existence of such a pattern around seven years ago, and concluded that the discovery of a path between the worlds is impossible to predict before its first appearance. Once it has been discovered, its movements can be tracked and turned into an algorithm for predicting its future location, but there is no such consistency between different paths."
"Yeah, kinda," she agrees. "But - were any relevant to interesting things that happened? Like, if one was used to bring my - mum - upside then that's plot relevant, did that one appear shortly before that? Or do any appear right after or before anything historically important happens, or suspiciously conveniently..."
Everless is fascinated.
"Yes, I can see how this would be relevant," she says after a while. "The war between Red and White was a chess game, and Marcella turned it into a card game."
She nudges Hatter. "Go find a checkers board, or a map of Wonderland, so Sadde can teach us chess properly."
They have to improvise game pieces, since there isn't an actual chess set, but checkers work quite well, especially once Hatter thinks to mark them with the names of the pieces.
Everless turns out to be a slow but methodical player, and has soon mastered the ability to think several moves ahead, although she frequently needs to stop and recalculate her strategy when Sadde makes an unexpected move.
"I think I can see how the two metaphors have mixed," she remarks between games. "The Queen is clearly the most powerful piece, here, whereas I think you said the King is the highest, in cards?"
"No, the Diamond family predates the coup," Hatter says. "I think they're distantly related to the White monarchs, actually." He casts a glance through the closed door in the direction of Queen Araminta.
"But Heart is Marcella's line, and Clubs and Spades are just the two main divisions of her servants - soldiers and domestics."
"Hmm. That's unbalanced, that she has three suits and we only have one. And if I were to guess how the metaphor would play out, we'd get Spades - old story about the domestic servant who betrays their evil master. But still, it sounds - weird that we have chess and cards all over the place and I don't know in what direction things should go but it feels like it's something other than what we have right now."
"On a practical level, while we wait for King Faramund, I should tell Everless everything I know about guns, which are a form of projectile weapon far superior to crossbows. And after talking to him I think it might be a good idea to go for a stroll, see if I don't stumble upon anything interesting again, or find the Cheshire Cat - who was the one to wake me up this morning, by the way, I think he likes me and I want to talk to him more and also isn't it curious that his nickname is 'Chess'?" Pause. "- and more mundanely I'd love other clothes than these," he finishes, gesturing at himself.
"I can take you to the nearest village to get some clothes, which should also count as a 'stroll'," he suggests.
"I can't guarantee that you'll meet Chess, though - he's a law unto himself. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't show up at all, now you want to see him."