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Generated: Apr 26, 2018 10:08 PM
Post last updated: Aug 21, 2017 9:08 PM
just dropping in
Sadde in Wonderland
Permalink Eye

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.

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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!" 

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What.

She follows the rabbit.

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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. 

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Okay she'll grab it and continue running after it.

(What.)

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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. 

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She walks up to it and looks down into it.

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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.

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Okay fuck it. "Hey! Rabbit! What the fuck!" she calls.

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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.

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"Erm. Hi."

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"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.

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She hands her the bonnet. "Where are we, why aren't we accelerating further, this is nowhere near terminal velocity and we should be turned to mush by the heat."

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"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!" 

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"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."

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"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". 

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"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

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"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. 

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"...okay so are we going to die when we reach the ground or...?"

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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. 

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"To be fair, I was mostly trying to figure out why there was a talking rabbit and where she was going. And I think I hardly count as an intruder, given that there was a hole in the middle of a street without any signs near it."

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"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.

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"- I'm Sadde Baldwin. Hey, what's wrong?"

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"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!"

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"- yeah I think I might want to overthrow your Queen. Good luck with whatever?"

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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So she can go in a different way than that, how about.

"Raven? Is there a Raven here?"

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Leaves rustling. Birds tweeting in the distance. Cat purring in the tree above her head. Sunlight peeking through the leaves from...somewhere. 

Nothing responds, including the guards that supposedly exist. 

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Cat? She looks up.

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There is a large ginger cat sitting on the branch of a tree, looking down at her. It meets her gaze solemnly, still purring. 

After a moment, it stands up and begins delicately picking its way to a different branch, around Sadde's eye level.

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"...hello."

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"Heellooo," says the cat, stretching out the word into a long purr. "I haven't seen you before. Are you new around these parts?" It seems to be smiling, in the way that some cats have.

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"In a sense. Where I'm from most cats don't talk. Most rabbits don't, either."

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It pads closer. "Maybe you weren't listening," it suggests. "Or it might just be that they don't talk to you." The last word turns into a yawn, accompanied by a full-body stretch. The branch bobs up and down with the motion. 

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"- no, I'm pretty sure they're, like, unable to talk."

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"Suit yourself." The talking cat settles itself back down on the branch, tail-tip waving slightly. 

"Where are you going?"

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"Somewhere other than the palace. The rabbit mentioned I should look for the Raven or the Wandering Seer, so I'm looking."

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"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. 

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"Well the rabbit did suggest Raven twice. What's your name, by the way?"

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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.

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Okay whatever. Raven-wards.

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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!"

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That way it is.

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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.

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...okay whatever sure. She adjusts her estimate that this is an elaborate hallucination upwards.

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She now appears to be walking down a long hall lined with doors on both sides. All the doors are shut and unmarked, and they show no consistency in colour, size, or shape. The top of one door barely comes up to her knees. 

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How queer. She tries to open one.

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It's locked. In fact, if she tried more doors, they are all locked. The keyholes show the same variation as the doors they are attached to. 

When she looks away from the door again, there's a small, round table in the middle of the corridor. It wasn't there a moment ago.

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...she walks up to it.

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On the glass surface are two objects. One is a tiny, antique golden key. The other is a small bottle labelled "Drink Me". It's filled with a slightly bubbly coloured liquid. 

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Yeah she's not drinking that.

Does the tiny golden key fit any door?

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Yes, actually. It fits the teeny tiny door that's about a foot high.

If she opens the door and looks through, she'll see a sunlit garden full of brightly-coloured flowers. It's hard to tell, but it looks like the garden matches its door in scale.

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Huh.

"Hello!" she calls through the door.

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There's no reply except a peal of tinkling laughter. Is it coming from that clump of bluebells? 

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"Hi?" she tries again. "Is there a raven anywhere?"

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This time, the laughter is sudden, loud and raucous. And it's coming from behind her, in the hall. 

"Why are you looking for a raven in a rose garden?" a croaking voice asks. 

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"She might like roses," Sadde shrugs, turning around.

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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.

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"A visitor mistaken for an intruder. You may call me Sadde."

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"Interesting," the raven says, hopping onto the table to get a closer look. Her claws scrape noisily on the glass.

"I am Everless. Why were you looking for me?"

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"A rabbit, one much more concerned with time than I'm used to, suggested I do that."

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"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."

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"Ones that were created by natural selection and thus cannot speak, because she was the first person I saw here, and she said I shouldn't say it out loud."

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"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."

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"I might like to get to know you better before deciding whether the rabbit was pulling my leg, however little did she seem the type. Besides, the walls have ears."

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"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."

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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."

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The raven scoffs. "Oh, no, she wouldn't kill you. That would be far too nice." One might get the impression that Everless does not have a high opinion of the Queen.

"Go on?"

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"She was very distressed about my untimely demise and told me to look for you. I found a cat who pointed me here. I came here. Here I am."

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"You met Chess? And he helped you?" Everless exclaims.

"Perhaps you caught him on one of his good days," she muses. "Did he introduce himself? Tell you anything else useful?" Her feathers puff up again in agitation.

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"He said he had no name but could be called Cheshire Cat. He pointed the way to you or the Wandering Seer and then disappeared being all mysterious-like."

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"Yes, that sounds like Chess." Everless bobs her head in an approximation of a nod. "I don't suppose he told you how he knew where to find either of us? Wonderland's geography is not terribly consistent, and the Wandering Seer... well, wanders."

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"You're telling me," she snorts. "No, he did not say how he knew that."

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"That's a pity. I would have liked to find out; it might be useful for coordinating Resistance meetings, or for avoiding the Hearts." She sighs. "Well, we have managed for this long." 

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"Resistance? Don't you know the Queen will do terrible things if you want to Resist her?"

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"Which would be why I mentioned hiding from the Hearts, yes." Everless shudders, resettling her wings fussily. "I have no particular desire to join their ranks, and even less for the secrets which I have collected to be used against my compatriots."

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"How do you know I'm not working for the Queen? Or perhaps she has bugs - er, listening devices, or magic, I guess - in this room."

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"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."

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"I could have lied," she reasons, "about who I am and what I've experienced."

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"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?"

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"The only part I omitted was my desire to overthrow the Queen," she says casually.

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Everless laughs, loud and cackling. "Welcome to the Resistance!" 

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"Sounds a bit too easy."

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"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?"

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"Please tell me there's a prophecy."

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"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."

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"There totally is a prophecy! Tell me."

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Everless sighs. "As I said, the Seer's words are neither clear nor consistent. He cannot even seem to decide from one day to the next whether our new ruler, once we have overthrown Marcella, will be a King or a Queen."

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She smirks. "Isn't it curious that I can't seem to decide whether I'm a girl or a boy from one day to the next?"

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The raven hops back onto the table, the better to peer at Sadde's face with each eye in turn.

"Well. That could explain quite a few mysteries."

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"This is kinda more evidence for the 'vivid hallucination' hypothesis."

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"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."

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"Yeah that's the winning strategy, nothing to lose if it's a hallucination and good otherwise."

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"Excellent! Now, I should really introduce you to the rest of the Resistance," Everless declares, "and fill you in on what you need to know. To begin with, has anyone told you exactly what the Queen does to those who break the law?"

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"Nope. You seemed to imply it was a fate worse than death."

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"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."

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"See, where I come from a heart is a muscle that pumps blood, but I somehow don't think this is what you mean here. I'm also not sure what 'keep in the same time' is supposed to mean."

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"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."

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"...I see. Can a heart be restored?"

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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.

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"Is this the best location for us to talk about this stuff?"

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"Good point. Follow me!" Everless takes off flapping down the hall. Unless Sadde has gotten turned around - which is possible - they seem to be heading back the way she came. 

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Yeah she's not really paying attention anymore, this is too insane. She'll just follow.

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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." 

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"Oh, there's a hatter who's also mad, of course there is."

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"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.  

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She runs after her!

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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. 

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This was presumably intended, and if not, she'll need to have Words with this Raven at a later date.

She follows the path.

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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. 

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...black armour sounds ominous. She tentatively approaches them. "Hello?"

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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. 

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"Erm, excuse me?" she tries again. "I'm somewhat lost and this place took me here. I don't suppose this would be where I'm supposed to be?"

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"We are the guardians of the Red King," they intone in unison. "None shall disturb his slumber."

 

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"Oh. Fair enough. 'Bye."

Back to the road.

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The path is, surprisingly, still there. As she continues along down it, the grass goes from red to purple to blue and back to green. However, the trees now have blue leaves and yellow bark. 

This tree has quiet purring coming from somewhere in its branches. 

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...is the Cheshire Cat there, by any chance?

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A particularly orange patch of bark uncurls itself into a ginger cat.

"Hello again," he purrs. "Did you find the Raven?" 

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"I did! And then she was leading me somewhere and flew ahead too fast and the path changed on me. You wouldn't know if that was intended, would you?"

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"Hmmmm. Did it lead you anywhere interesting?" Chess stands up and begins pacing along his branch, tail lashing to help him balance.

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"Oh it was definitely foreshadowing. Perhaps I was supposed to challenge the guards or something but I'm not some tabletop RPG character, I'm sure it'll become a relevant plot point later and then I'll get to it."

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"Guards, hmm? Yes, that sounds like foreshadowing to me," the cat agrees.

"Where were you going with Everless?"

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"To see the Mad Hatter."

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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. 

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"How do you know these directions?" she wonders.

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"How do you know where your feet are in relation to your head?" the cat responds.

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"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."

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"...Fair enough. Anyway, it feels like I know how to find people in Wonderland the same way I know how to find my tail." Chess waves said tail illustratively. 

"So, do you wish to meet the Mad Hatter, or to find Everless? Or perhaps someone else?"

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"I wish to join their little merry band. I do not know the Hatter, and Everless has left a less-than-stellar impression of her executive skills after disappearing when she was supposed to be leading me."

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"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." 

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"I am coming to the same conclusion, yes, which does leave me in a bit of a pickle. The Hatter does seem to be my best bet but if you have suggestions..."

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"I do not," he says. "But that's probably because I'm mad, too." He doesn't seem overly upset by this, but he no longer appears to be smiling. 

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"I wonder if that's curable."

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"I'm not sure I'd like to be cured," Chess muses. "I'd be a different person, you see."

He shakes himself. "Have you decided which way to go yet?"

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"I'll go look for the Hatter."

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"Then you want - hm, that direction," he tells her, pointing a completely different way to where he first indicated. "Good luck."

He's beginning to fade away again, in stripes this time.

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...well then. In that direction she goes.

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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. 

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Oh this must be it.

She walks up to the door and knocks.

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"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?"

Permalink Eye

"I was told by a raven I should find you."

Permalink Eye

"Ah." He sighs. "A raven. Of course it was a raven."

The Hatter peers at her. "Do you know," he asks, in a perfectly serious tone, "why a raven is like a writing-desk?"

Permalink Eye

"I'm pretty sure it's not."

Permalink Eye

"Is that so?" He laughs. "That's one I haven't heard before. Come in, come in!"

He turns and heads back into the house, spilling more tea in the process.

Permalink Eye

She walks in, avoiding the spilt tea. "Are you quite certain you don't mind spilling all this tea?"

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"Yes, I see," she says, smiling wryly.

Permalink Eye

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?"

Permalink Eye

She sporfles. "Oh my god this is gorgeous I love it!"

Permalink Eye

"Excellent! It's yours." He drops it on her head; it's a little too big, and slides down to cover one eye. 

"Now then," he says, leaning in, "what did Everless tell you?"

Permalink Eye

She giggles. "I'm still not sure what the appropriate level of paranoia here is," she remarks, "but I dislike the Queen and there may or may not be a person who sometimes lives in the future and who may have suggested I'll become the new Queen."

Permalink Eye

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?"

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"That would explain a few things, yes. Narratively fitting?"

Before Sadde can answer, there's a loud tapping at the window. Everless is perched on the sill, and is tapping on the glass with her beak.

"Ah, there she is." The Hatter gets up and goes to let her in.

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

Everless ignores this, or at least chooses not to respond to it.

She hops through the window onto the Hatter's arm, and from there goes to perch on the back of a threadbare armchair. 

 

Permalink Eye

"An admirable goal. Has this method served you well so far?"

He rummages in a sideboard, and produces two teacups. "More tea?"

Permalink Eye

"I think it has. And I have not actually had any tea, so sure."

Permalink Eye

"Well, it's easy to have more if you haven't had any," Hatter argues. "It would be difficult to have less!"

He pours tea for Sadde and Everless, refilling his own cup at the same time. 

"Now, what can this humble milliner do for the Resistance and their new hope?"

Permalink Eye

"I have no idea and was hoping you'd answer a symmetrical question, as a matter of fact."

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds like a lovely idea." She sits and prepares for Exposition.

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh I ran into the Red King on my way here."

Permalink Eye

Everless almost falls off her perch. "You...what? Tell me everything!"

Permalink Eye

So she relates the encounter with the knights and her decision not to bother the King, and her second meeting with the Cheshire Cat.

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"I think it would be very interesting to know more about this place's magic. And also geography - is there a map?"

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"Conceptual map? Magic map that changes with the geography? It can't be completely inconsistent otherwise no one would be able to develop this certain feel you mention. And she did say there were borders."

Permalink Eye

"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.

Permalink Eye

"What's his deal, exactly? What does he want?"

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"- I see. That sounds suboptimal." Pause. "Who else is in this Resistance?"

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"Smart. But if you already have a Queen and King then how's succession after Marcella's deposed in question?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"I could be the long lost baby! That'd explain why I'm nothing like my father."

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"I am in fact sixteen," she nods. "Alas, I guess I'm not that many levels of Chosen One."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds useful, yeah. And then I'd like to know what I can actually, you know, help with. Power trips are fun but I don't have any skills applicable to a rebellion I don't think."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Pieces of the puzzle? Like what?"

Permalink Eye

"You guessed at the existence of a prophecy, for one, and turned out to be right that it likely refers to you. I will grant that we do not yet have confirmation, but it does fit with what we know."

Permalink Eye

"Ah. Well... it's mostly that this world seems to run on story logic. So I'm trying to follow story logic and figure out what the next interesting plot point will be before the authors make it obvious."

Permalink Eye

"You see? This is information we natives do not possess." She sounds envious.

"Does story logic provide any hints for how an evil queen might be defeated?"

Hatter has quietly left the room, presumably to contact the leaders of the Resistance.

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"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." 

Permalink Eye

"- you seriously have a writing desk."

Permalink Eye

 

"...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. 

Permalink Eye

"No that's not it, the Hatter asked me what a raven and a writing desk had in common and I said that I didn't think there was anything but I guess I was wrong!"

Permalink Eye

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.

Permalink Eye

"Twelve. And I do tend to get a lot of the same wrong answers," he says with a pout.

"Anyway, I've sent letters to both the King and the Queen. We'll hear back by tomorrow, hopefully. And I cleared out a room for you, Sadde."

Permalink Eye

"Thank you, you're much too kind. And, Everless, I'm afraid most people don't guess ravens can write because they assume opposable thumbs are needed - how do you write?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, that's cool. - wait, you can change shapes by eating fruit?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"How curious. Can any food do that? As in, is there a pattern?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"...I wanna try some. Spoilers: there'll be one that changes my biological sex."

Permalink Eye

Everless tilts her head to one side and thinks for a minute.

"...Grapes," she pronounces eventually. 

The Hatter, sighing melodramatically, turns right around and goes to fetch some. 

Permalink Eye

She giggles. "I like you."

Permalink Eye

Everless bursts into her cackling laugh. "I like you too!" 

When she has calmed down a little, she explains that she very rarely hears that, and even more rarely from someone whom she also likes.

Permalink Eye

Grin.

Permalink Eye

Hatter returns carrying a bunch of purple grapes arranged on a silver platter, which he presents to Sadde with a flourish.

"Your grapes, my liege!" he intones.

Permalink Eye

She giggles and takes one -

Permalink Eye

...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. 

Permalink Eye

- and she's grinning. "Wow this is amazing I want like a million grapes."

Permalink Eye

"Perhaps not a million," Hatter says wryly. "I'm a hatter, not a duke. 

"Those are yours for now, and I can get you a similar number probably every few days if necessary, although I'd rather not dig too deep into the reserve fund."

Permalink Eye

"Are grapes particularly rare and expensive? And is this magic a property of Wonderland food or of food in Wonderland?"

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"We can test it later. And no, several a day won't be necessary, I tend to spend a few days feeling like one thing or another. And today I'm very much a girl so -" In she pops another grape.

Permalink Eye

The same sensation results, but somehow in reverse. Again, it's over in two or three seconds, and then Sadde is back to how she started. 

"...Oh," the Hatter says. "So you could maybe take it home - if you end up going home, that is."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah, although honestly I'm not sure I wanna go home anytime soon, I might have higher leverage to help people here than back home, and maybe I can export things that will be very useful once I've spent long enough here to understand the place."

Permalink Eye

"Help people," he echoes.

"An admirable goal."

He shakes himself, and is cheerful again. "Anyway, it's getting late. You should eat something less magical and more filling, and then sleep."

Permalink Eye

"Fair enough." Then she giggles. "Oh dear, my father will be so annoyed that I disappeared."

Permalink Eye

"Annoyed? Not worried?"

One might get the impression that the Hatter does not think highly of anyone whose first reaction to their child's disappearance is annoyance.

Permalink Eye

"Oh he won't get worried at all, no."

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"My parents aren't because my mother is dead," she says approximately matter-of-factly. "And I can remember to only take even numbers of bites of everything but - shouldn't it be obvious? If something changes, I eat another bite of whatever."

Permalink Eye

"My condolences. And yes, most of the time it is obvious, but you don't want to get down to the last bit and realise you should have eaten that in two bites instead of one because now you don't have any left," he explains.

Permalink Eye

"Is there a minimum bite size?"

Permalink Eye

"No, I don't think so?" he says uncertainly.

"I've never really tested it."

Dinner is apparently ready; he sets an array of dishes on the table and calls Everless. 

Permalink Eye

...she picks one and takes one bite.

Permalink Eye

Nothing immediately obvious happens.

"Might not want to do that," Hatter remarks calmly, digging into his own food. 

He gestures at her hair, which is turning green and growing rapidly. 

Permalink Eye

She giggles and takes another bite.

Permalink Eye

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.

Permalink Eye

"Any other hazards like that or can I experiment to my heart's content with everything else?"

Permalink Eye

"Potatoes will make your fingernails grow, apparently," Everless contributes. "I wouldn't know, since I don't have any. The carrots, you have tried, and I believe the beans make one thinner."

She rips off a chunk of beef and holds it in her claws to munch at.

Permalink Eye

Well she'll try everything!

Permalink Eye

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.

Permalink Eye

Her nail length's fine, thanks. And this is way fun!

Permalink Eye

If Wonderland were aware of her sentiments, it might be flattered that she's enjoying its features.

Hopefully not so much that she forgets to be careful when she gets down to the last few bites, though.

Permalink Eye

Oh she only experiments once per food, after that she counts her bites.

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"It'll do just fine. Thank you very much for your hospitality."

Permalink Eye

"You are very welcome," he assures her.

"Do you need anything else before you sleep, or shall I see you in the morning?"

Permalink Eye

"I believe that will be all, thank you very much, kind sir." And to punctuate it she curtsies.

Permalink Eye

He laughs, bows extravagantly, and departs.

Permalink Eye

Well. Sleep it is, then.

Permalink Eye

In the morning, Sadde is woken up by the weight of a cat climbing all over the bed. 

"Wake uuupp," a familiar voice meows. 

Permalink Eye

He opens his eyes and blinks. "Good morning, Chess. How are you doing?"

Permalink Eye

Chess kneads the blanket and purrs.

"Good morning, Sadde. Araminta wants to meet you."

He doesn't seem inclined to let Sadde get up, though, curling up and settling down on top of him.

Permalink Eye

"I do need you to get off me so I can get up," he says when that becomes clear. "Could you bring me a grape?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh, I suppose," he concedes, jumping off the bed and padding out of the room.

He's back a few minutes later with a small bunch of grapes, held in his mouth by the stalk, which he deposits on the nightstand. 

"This was the easiest way to carry them," he explains.

Permalink Eye

"Thank you," he says, and in pops a grape and -

Permalink Eye

- well, he's naked, so although the changes are not immediate they are obvious.

Permalink Eye

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. 

Permalink Eye

...he wants to find a mirror.

Permalink Eye

There does not appear to be one in this room.

Maybe he should ask Hatter, but he might want to get dressed first. Clothes he was wearing last night, or hunt around in this wardrobe that looks like it belongs in a museum?

Permalink Eye

Wardrobe, why not.

Permalink Eye

The wardrobe contains clothes in the same style as the Hatter's: old-fashioned suits, waistcoats, and shirts with mildly ridiculous sleeves. 

Would he like a black, grey, or blue suit? And a green, purple or red waistcoat?

Permalink Eye

Aaargh. He'll wear yesterday's clothes.

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"I'd love that, thank you, and I'd also, ah, love to find a mirror."

Permalink Eye

"That can be arranged."

A mirror is found. Sadde can study his new face while Hatter makes him some breakfast. 

Permalink Eye

Oh wow he's pretty. He giggles at this reflection. "I'm gonna declare this whole 'falling into a hole' thing a stroke of luck."

Permalink Eye

"I'm glad you're enjoying it!" Hatter calls from the kitchen.

"Come and have breakfast."

Permalink Eye

"I make for a very hot boy," he announces when he hands the Hatter the mirror.

Permalink Eye

"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.

Permalink Eye

In the breakfast-room, a stern-faced woman with strawberry blonde hair is seated at the table, drinking a cup of tea.

"Good morning," she says. "Sadde, I presume? I am Araminta; you may address me as 'your ladyship' or 'ma'am'."

Permalink Eye

May he?

"Good morning. It is a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

Permalink Eye

"And the same to you."

She gestures imperiously for him to take a seat.

"Let us get straight to business. What are your goals, what are your capabilities, and what do you need from the Diamond Court?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"The 'Chosen One'?" she repeats, carefully pronouncing the capital letters.

"What a strange concept, although I can see how it might be useful. Can you elaborate? What should we expect to result from your status?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Are there not berries that change one's face?"

Permalink Eye

"An excellent thought," she agrees.

"However, some of the Inquisitors have the ability to track by scent, and other attributes which are less easily changed." 

Permalink Eye

"Ah. Yeah then it's a limited resource, and I'm not sure how to best use it. I also don't have a very complete strategic picture of the whole thing."

Permalink Eye

"What do you wish to know?" she asks, setting her teacup down to fold her hands in front of her.

"I will share with you what I can, although some information must be more closely guarded, for an array of reasons."

Permalink Eye

"If you know more about magic than Everless, that helps. Other than that, what resources you have access to, in the form of personnel and tools and weapons and territory and knowledge..."

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"How many people are there? And for that matter how many people are there in the whole kingdom, and working for her? And what's the social organisation like?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"With the Wandering Seer as the exception.

"I'm somewhat constrained in my ability to plan without knowing what resources are at our disposal, but anyway. What would a victory look like?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"You said one hundred eighteen - how many people are there in Wonderland?"

Permalink Eye

"Approximately two thousand, although the Two of Hearts could provide you with more accurate figures," she says ruefully.

"A census is taken every few years for the purposes of tax collection, but the results are never published."

Permalink Eye

He chokes on his own spit. "Two thousand? That's, like, how many people live in my neighbourhood."

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"I had been imagining what I saw not to be the whole of Wonderland. How long has Wonderland been around?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Before as in hundreds or thousands or millions of years?"

Permalink Eye

"Perhaps not millions. But I really don't know." She sounds rather put out by this. 

"Are you entirely certain this is relevant to our strategy, or are you merely indulging curiosity?"

Permalink Eye

"Mostly indulging my curiosity, partly trying to figure this place out and 'has no history past three hundred years ago' says something about the genre we're in. Are there creation myths?"

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"Is there any information on your more recent history you think would be useful for me to have? Perhaps other attempts on the throne, the Queen's tragic backstory, something like that..."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"With a population as small as Wonderland's, I wouldn't be surprised if this was the only bit of resistance. What were the attempts and how did they fail?"

Permalink Eye

"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.

 

Permalink Eye

...okay yikes. He has no questions.

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

He frowns. "Do you know why they betrayed you?"

Permalink Eye

"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. 

Permalink Eye

He sighs. "I'm sorry."

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"- what was he shooting her with?"

Permalink Eye

"A crossbow. We knew that there was not a great chance of success with purely mundane weaponry," she admits, "but, not having access to magic ourselves, our options are limited."

She reaches for the teapot to refill her cup, but finds it empty. 

Permalink Eye

"...so guns haven't been invented here?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Vastly superior, yes, although I unfortunately don't know in detail how they're made, only in general lines."

Permalink Eye

"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." 

Permalink Eye

"How did the White Rabbit get out?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Is the White Rabbit not an agent of yours, then? She did not seem very fond of Marcella."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"She did know to indicate I seek Everless or the Seer if I was keen on overthrowing the Queen."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"How is the Seer still - free, then?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Ha. Clever."

Permalink Eye

"Indeed. Now, do you have any further questions?" she asks, bringing the conversation back to business.

Permalink Eye

"Not at the moment. Something tells me the next plot point is asking Everless about some of the things we talked about but that may just be my curiosity."

Permalink Eye

The queen nods.

"Everless has a greater chance than I of understanding much of which you speak. We should speak again later, though."

And that seems to be a dismissal; she pulls out paper and pen to begin writing a report of some kind, utterly ignoring Sadde.

Permalink Eye

Alright then. Where's Everless?

Permalink Eye

Everless is in the kitchen, ranting to Hatter about something. Hatter sees Sadde coming and motions for her to stop talking.

"Sadde! I see you survived," he says brightly.

"What can we do for you?"

Permalink Eye

"I did survive! I had a bunch of questions that the two of you might be able to answer that Queen Araminta couldn't."

Permalink Eye

"Ask, and I will answer those I can," Everless encourages him. 

"Araminta is a very effective leader, but does not seek out knowledge to the same extent that I do."

Permalink Eye

"Okay, so, do you know much about Marcella's past, and specifically anything that could count as a tragic backstory?"

Permalink Eye

"Hmm..."

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."

Permalink Eye

He nods. "Let's hope that's a plot point, then. For that matter I think the White Rabbit is one, as is the whole chess and card game theme going on, but I'll explore that later. Creation myths, and ancient history, what do you have on those?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"I'm all ears, if none of them is true I'll at least know more."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds terrifying. And doesn't let me make many new predictions unless I know who is dreaming. First one's more promising as a genre marker."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Well, it can't really be circular unless I don't count as part of your history. But yes that's strange - my species is thousands of years old, my planet millions, my universe billions."

Permalink Eye

"I did warn you, did I not, that these were only stories?" Everless reminds him.

"If I am honest, I do not expect any of them to be correct."

Permalink Eye

"It's just - three hundred years, and a population of two thousand - how often do you reproduce?"

Permalink Eye

"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?"

Permalink Eye

"Do let's, although do understand that from the perspective of a magicless world neither of these theories is meaningfully more ludicrous than the other."

Permalink Eye

"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. 

Permalink Eye

"I think assuming the existence of beings outside of Wonderland seems reasonable, given. Me."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Well, given the state of historical records it's also not unthinkable that you might have had more evidence of outside worlds that's been lost to time except in the form of stories, and two is an unprincipled number for the quantity of worlds."

Permalink Eye

She blinks.

"That is a good point. I never thought of it in those terms before, but I suppose if one starts with the premise that there are multiple worlds, there is no particular reason that there should be exactly two."

Permalink Eye

Hatter, who has been busily clearing up breakfast around Sadde and Everless, hums thoughtfully.

"I wonder if there might be some way of contacting these other worlds. Perhaps they could help us defeat Marcella."

Permalink Eye

"What sorts of ways to Earth are there, who knows of them, and what are they used for?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"And were they discovered only very recently, then? And how does the Rabbit float up there?"

Permalink Eye

"...Oh, I suppose you wouldn't have bubble cakes," Everless realises. 

"And yes, the Rabbit Hole in particular was only discovered last year," she continues. "The one in use before that was a little easier to find, but only just big enough for a rabbit."

Permalink Eye

"How are they discovered? Do people just end up - floating up to them?"

Permalink Eye

"Something falls through, usually," Hatter contributes in between washing dishes. 

"For this one, I think it was a badger?" 

Everless nods. 

Permalink Eye

"And this started happening only recently?"

Permalink Eye

"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." 

Permalink Eye

"Is there a pattern to when they appear, and to whom?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"Not even a pattern of the plotty type? Like, someone needed rescue, or someone was wandering the woods and it'd be interesting, or it would make the grand arc of Wonderland become more evocatively beautiful or something?"

Permalink Eye

 

"...Hmm. I had not thought to look for that sort of pattern, no," she admits. 

"Those would be more difficult to determine, anyway, since they are so subjective."

Permalink Eye

"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..."

Permalink Eye

"It might be considered suspiciously convenient - or inconvenient, depending on one's perspective - how quickly that first one vanished after the coup," Hatter contributes.  

"I can't think of any other examples, though."

Permalink Eye

"Shame." She shrugs. "Okay and there's the metaphors, I expect you don't have playing cards and chess?"

...Chess. Huh.

Permalink Eye

"Can't say I've heard of either of those as concepts."

Everless shakes her head as well. 

"Something from your world?" Hatter asks. 

Permalink Eye

"Yyyeah. Okay so playing cards..." He explains the concept, as well as chess, in some detail.

Permalink Eye

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."

Permalink Eye

"As you command, oh noblest of birds." 

He tips his everpresent hat to her, and heads off into the warren of his house to find the requested materials. 

Permalink Eye

"You can tell me how well the concepts map after I teach you it." Which he does once materials are provided.

Permalink Eye

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?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. There might be some games where the Queen is higher but I don't know of any, and I know one where the order actually goes Queen, Jack, King."

Permalink Eye

"And yet, in both the Red Court and the Diamond Court, the Queens rule," she muses, and leans over the board to move a pawn. 

Permalink Eye

"As entertaining as this is," Hatter says after a while, "I think we may have extracted all of the potential strategic value from this game now?"

Everless huffs, but agrees. 

"Now, Sadde, I think you still had a few questions left unanswered?" 

Permalink Eye

"Actually I think that was all the specific questions I had. I'm getting a feel for this place's logic but nothing more concrete. My vague feelings point in the direction of straightening up our metaphors being something that could work to our advantage."

Permalink Eye

"Straightening up how?" Everless wants to know.

"In which direction?"

Permalink Eye

"I mean - there's the chess and the cards metaphors and I don't know which one is right - there didn't used to be suits, before? Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades? That was all Marcella?"

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

"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."

Permalink Eye

Everless nods.

"The question, then, is whether we play Marcella at her own game and shift the metaphor in the direction of being card-based, or try to restore the old chess pattern." 

Permalink Eye

"Or we integrate them somehow. In a way that makes more sense than what we currently have, that is."

Permalink Eye

"On a practical level, what do you intend to do now?" Hatter asks. 

"Metaphors are all very well, but you can't defeat real magic with grand ideas." 

Permalink Eye

"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.

Permalink Eye

Hatter snorts.

"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."

Permalink Eye

"In the meantime, I would be happy to learn about 'guns'," Everless adds.

"I doubt that I will be able to use one myself, but I can almost certainly arrange for one to be constructed and tested." 

Permalink Eye

"Nearest village is a good idea," he says, grinning. "As for guns - do you have, er, powder - it's called gunpowder where I'm from but if you don't have guns I'm not sure what it'd be called, it's a chemical explosive -"

Permalink Eye

It turns out they do, although it's a controlled substance in Wonderland and only used for mining on a very small scale. 

"Such materials are more readily available outside of Wonderland's borders," Everless says. "The trick is getting across them." 

Permalink Eye

"Well, then, the principle behind guns is using that in sufficient quantities to cause small metal projectiles to shoot out at large speeds at your target. Much better than bow and arrow."