Dodge Anders—son of Sir Justice Anders, head guardsman of Wonderland’s Heart Palace—was a commoner who lived amid great privilege, having the splendors of his father’s workplace for his playground. He idolized his father, and the direction of his life had been known ever since the age of three, when he toddled into the coat of Sir Justice’s uniform and saluted.
His dedication to following his father’s path was apparent in much of his childhood play with his best friend, Princess Alyss Heart, (Alice in Wonderland). He and Alyss were essentially growing up together, and though a few years the princess’s elder, Dodge couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been his partner in adventure. Countless afternoons, pretending to be leader of the palace guard while Alyss played a queen in peril, Dodge would brandish a dull sword and rescue Alyss from her evil aunt Redd—to them, a mythical figure.
Redd (Red Queen) had been removed from succession for reasons they were still too young to understand (Dodge not yet being ten, Alyss six). They knew that Redd, angry that she wouldn’t be queen, had killed her own mother, Queen Theodora. They knew that she had plunged Wonderland into a bloody civil war in a failed attempt to take the crown from her sister Genevieve (Alyss’s mother, the White Queen), and then been banished from the realm before their births. Redd’s ruthlessness was legendary. If Dodge was intent on impressing a young royal with his bravery and gallantry, he couldn’t have done better than fight against Redd.
The love Dodge and Alyss shared was no secret at the palace. On her bedside table, the princess kept a holographic crystal that showed the guardsman’s son, at four years old, kissing her cheek as she sat in a baby carriage while officers of the court frowned in the background. Dodge often became embarrassed—lowering his flushed face, kicking the toe of his shoe against the floor— whenever Alyss showed him this particular holo-crystal, so she showed it to him often.
But it wasn’t his affection for her that embarrassed him. It was because he knew why the court officers were frowning: the importance of class distinctions, of consorting with one’s own kind. Sir Justice had explained to Dodge that part of being a successful guardsman meant abiding by what was considered proper and not allowing his affections for anybody to compromise his duty.
“You can never marry the princess, Dodge,” Sir Justice had explained, sympathetic, even a little proud that Alyss had such obvious affection for his son. “She will one day be your queen. You can show your feelings by serving her to the best of your ability, but she must marry someone from a suit family. I’m sorry, Dodge, but you and the princess . . . it’s not in the cards.”
“I understand, Father.”
But this had been only half true; Dodge’s head understood, his heart did not.
On Alyss’s seventh birthday, ten-year-old Dodge stood at attention in a certain hall of Heart Palace. He was wearing a guardsman’s uniform, complete with fleur-de-lis badge on his right breast. He knew that Alyss would pass his way sooner or later, but maintaining a professional pose—facing forward, chin parallel to the ground, arms stiff at his side—he looked as if he might wait for her all his life if necessary.
Then came the sound of frolicking feet. No doubt Alyss was running from someone she’d just pranked, Dodge assumed; she was always using her powerful imagination for such things, conjuring squiggling gwormmies to appear in her tutor’s food, for instance.
Alyss rounded a corner into view, and he stepped to the middle of the hall and presented her with a small box tied with a rainbow-colored ribbon.
“Happy birthday, Princess,” he said with a bow.
“Cut it out.”
She didn’t like him bowing to her or calling her “princess.” She was, by this age, aware of the class difference between them, but she hated to be reminded of it . . . especially by Dodge himself.
“Jabberwock tooth,” he said when, with eager fingers, Alyss opened her present: a sharp, triangular-shaped tooth resting on a bed of puff.
“You didn’t kill the beast yourself; I hope?”
Jabberwocky were huge, ferocious creatures living in The Volcanic Plains—a land of active volcanoes, lava rivers, and geysers of noxious gas, extremely dangerous for any Wonderlander to enter. It says something about Dodge that his best friend thought that he might have faced off against a jabberwock.
“No, I bought that in a shop,” he admitted.
Alyss thanked him—she would treasure the gift forever, she said—and slipped the tooth onto her necklace, giving him a mischievous look. “Don’t you have to practice any military exercises?”
“I can always use more practice, my princess.”
“Stop calling me that. You know I don’t like it.”
“I can never forget who and what you are, my princess.”
Alyss clicked her tongue—a sign, Dodge knew, that she was finding his seriousness tiresome.
“I have a new military exercise for you,” she said. “We must pretend we’re enjoying ourselves at my party later this afternoon. Music is playing, there are platters of tarty tarts to enjoy, and you and I begin to dance.”
She held out her hand. Dodge hesitated.
“Come on now.”
He put an arm around Alyss’s waist and moved with her in gentle circles. He had never touched the princess before—not like this. She smelled of sweet earth and powder. It was a clean, delicate smell. Did all girls smell like this or only princesses? A potted sunflower in the hall began to serenade them.
“This isn’t a military exercise,” he said, making a weak attempt to free himself.
“I order you not to go anywhere. While we’re dancing, Redd and her soldiers crash into the room. It’s a surprise attack. People are screaming and running. People are dying. But you stay calm. You promise to protect me.”
“You know I’d protect you, Alyss.” He felt warm all over and a little dizzy. He was holding the princess close. He could feel her breath on his neck. He was the luckiest boy in the queendom.
“And then you battle Redd and her soldiers.”
He didn’t want to let her go, but he did, wielding his sword. He jousted this way and that with his imaginary foes, spinning and ducking.
“After many close calls,” Alyss narrated, “your life in danger every second, you defeat the soldiers and stab your sword into Redd.”
Dodge looked the picture of intensity as he plunged his sword into the air where he envisioned Redd to be. He made a show of eyeing his handiwork, his vanquished foes littered on the ground before him. He returned his sword to its scabbard.
“I’m saved,” Alyss continued, “but I’m shaken by what I’ve just witnessed. You calm my nerves by dancing with me.”
The sunflower again began to serenade. Without hesitation this time, Dodge took Alyss and spun her about the hall. He had loosened up despite himself.
“Will you be my king, Dodge?”
“If it pleases you,” he said, his rebellious heart for the moment not caring what his father would think of his behavior, reveling in feelings he should never have allowed himself, and unaware of how prescient the more menacing aspects of Alyss’s make-believe would prove.
Dodge snuck the princess off palace grounds and brought her to a cliff at the edge of The Whispering Woods. They stood looking down at a body of water surrounded by a crystal barrier.
“It’s called The Pool of Tears,” Dodge explained. “They say it takes you out of Wonderland, but no one knows for sure. People have gone in, but nobody’s ever come back.”
“Gone in? “Alyss said. “Did they fall or jump?”
“Both. Those hoping for their return sometimes stand here and cry, letting their tears drop into the water. That’s how the pool got its name. We’d better get back to the palace or we’ll miss your party.”
They were making their way along the row of glorious fountains that led to the palace’s front gate when Alyss befriended a kitten that seemed intended as a birthday present for her, though from whom was a mystery. She carried the animal inside. He jumped from her arms and ran off as if he had an appointment to keep. Which he did: in the Security Oversight Room.
Dodge and Alyss weren’t long at the birthday celebrations, everyone enjoying tea, before the kitten reappeared and transformed into a humanoid figure with massive lethal claws, and—
A wall exploded, the force of the detonation knocking Dodge from his chair. Coughing from dust and debris, he saw innocent courtiers and civilians attacked by a mob of card soldiers. Queen Genevieve’s chessmen and her famed bodyguard Hatter Madigan (the Mad Hatter) leaped into action. Amid the rubble and confusion stood a woman Dodge knew well, though he’d never had the displeasure of meeting her.
Her dress of writhing vines with toothy roses opening and closing for a bite of flesh; her scraggle of flame-colored hair: it was Redd Heart.
“No!” a voice near Dodge yelled.
He crawled to where she’d fallen, put a hand over her mouth, and pulled her under a table with him.
“We must keep quiet, or they’ll get us, too. Don’t move.”
Something slammed against the tabletop.
“Don’t move, don’t move,” he whispered, squeezing Alyss tight against him.
She buried her face in his shoulder, but he kept his eyes open to the surrounding carnage. There was his father, Sir Justice, slashing at invading card soldiers with all the expertise at his command, then rescuing a couple of chessmen who had been momentarily overpowered by a band of Two Cards. And there again—Sir Justice, sword poised to strike, charging toward the humanoid feline who had taken out a board’s worth of palace chessmen by himself.
“Watch this,” Dodge whispered to Alyss, pride in his father getting the better of his judgment.
Alyss did watch. It was horrid. With the back of his paw, The Cat knocked Sir Justice to the ground. The man’s sword went skittering across the floor and out of reach. The Cat picked up Sir Justice and gouged him to death.
“Noooo!” Dodge wailed, bolting out from under the table, snatching up his father’s sword and attacking The Cat, who merely grinned, knocking him to the ground with a light blow.
Six chessmen converged on the assassin.
Dodge, his right cheek bleeding from the four parallel cuts left by The Cat’s claws, crawled over to his father’s body and knelt there, sobbing.
It was some time before he realized that Alyss was no longer in the room, nor Queen Genevieve, Hatter Madigan, Redd, and The Cat (Cheshire Cat). All around him were fallen bodies, chessmen fighting against card soldiers. It didn’t look good for the queen’s forces. Redd’s mercenaries were going to win, and with an instinct he didn’t know he had, Dodge worked his way to the door, hiding behind toppled furniture, inert pawns, and rooks, until he successfully made his escape.
Later, struggling to comprehend the loss of his father, he heard of Genevieve’s and Alyss’s deaths along with the rest of Wonderland: when Redd announced herself the new queen. Was it really true? Would he never more see lively, sweet-smelling Alyss? Never again confide to her his dreams of soldier-fame? What good were dreams now?
His father. Alyss. Where the two greatest loves of his life had been, Dodge was faced with nothing, blankness.
An idea suddenly blazed in his brain, the resolve to carry it through firm. It was too late to do anything for Alyss, but there was still something he could do for his father. Sir Justice deserved a burial proper to his station, and Dodge was going to give it to him.
In the weeks following Redd’s coup, the capital city of Wondertropolis seemed largely deserted. Small clans of Redd’s soldiers lolled outside abandoned cafés, drunk on flugelberry wine, harassing the few citizens who braved the streets and hurried to their destinations with lowered heads.
Dodge made it to Heart Palace without incident, surprised to find it unguarded, unmanned, but not quite unoccupied. A figure laden with goblets and dishes ran past him and was gone. Then another, carrying a music box. Throughout the palace’s darkened salons and banquet halls looters moved about in silent hurry, helping themselves to souvenirs of the former ruling family. Several Redd’s soldiers were passed out on tables and other furniture, but there was no sign of Redd or The Cat.
In the dining room where Sir Justice had lost his life, the scene was ghastly.
Dodge managed to get his father’s body out to the garden, and to dig a grave using a broken chair back as shovel. He laid Sir Justice carefully, respectfully in the earth, and with unsteady hands began to cover the body with soil. A cry burst out of him. He threw his makeshift shovel to the ground. How could he live? Why should he live when those he held most dear did not? He became quiet, subdued. How to live? Why? These were questions to be answered. The only questions.
The grave filled; Dodge planted a Hereafter Seed at its head. Instantly, the seed took root and up grew a bouquet of flowers, the arrangement of which formed Sir Justice’s likeness, a living memorial. Had anyone been watching Dodge at that moment, they would not have seen tears on his cheeks. His eyes hard and unblinking, his jaw clenched, he looked more angry than sad.
“This is a good man’s reward in Wonderland now,” he murmured.
Years passed. Wonderland became a bastion of Dark Imagination—a hive of paranoia, deceit, and violence. Redd demanded absolute loyalty from every citizen, but not every citizen gave it. The rebels called themselves Alyssians, in honor of the young princess who’d been killed to prevent her from ever ascending to her rightful throne. Princess Alyss Heart: not alive in flesh and blood, but very much alive as a symbol of more innocent though still imperfect times, an icon of hope for peace’s return.
Among the Alyssians, one particular soldier had made a name for himself with his military prowess and suicidal bravery—Dodge Anders, twenty-three years old, the four parallel scars on his right cheek serving as needless reminder that his greatest enemy wasn’t Redd but the beast who’d killed his father.
Sending and retrieving sensitive Alyssian intelligence required portal runners, those who traversed The Crystal Continuum, a network of byways that enabled Wonderlanders to enter through a given looking glass and exit from another. But Redd’s spies were everywhere and being a portal runner meant dying sooner rather than later. Dodge Anders was the best portal runner the Alyssians had, and he always volunteered for the most dangerous missions.
Sometimes, after a run, he visited the cliff overlooking The Pool of Tears, remembering that fateful day when he had stood there with seven-year-old Alyss Heart. He was starting to doubt her death, having heard whispers that Redd hadn’t been able to locate Alyss’s body in her imagination’s eye.
If Alyss is alive . . .
He soon convinced himself that she lived. And he would never stop believing, never give up on a love seeded in childhood that, despite poor soil, despite uncertain light and watering, might yet have a chance to blossom.
Alyss is alive.
She had to be. The future of Wonderland depended on it.