The Cat (or the Cheshire Cat as some may wrongly know him), a shape-shifting creature born of Redd Heart’s imagination—part human, part feline, all assassin—assumed his most innocent incarnation: that of a cute kitten with golden fur. He was lucky to come across seven-year-old Princess Alyss Heart (Alice in Wonderland) just outside the palace gates on her birthday; it meant he wouldn’t have to transform himself to do away with the outer guards and risk their sounding an alarm.
He rubbed himself against the princess’s leg and let her pick him up to read the card attached to the ribbon around his neck. Happy Birthday, Alyss! He began to purr, a remnant of inclinations Redd hadn’t quite eliminated from his genetic makeup, and one that he didn’t like, but he wanted the princess herself to carry him into the palace, mistakenly thinking him a loving gift from an anonymous admirer.
As soon as Redd’s assassin was within the palace walls, he bounded out of Princess Alyss’s arms and ran, still a kitten, along heart-shaped halls, past posts where guardsmen said, “What a cute little cat,” and “Here, kitty, kitty,” all of which annoyed him so much that he almost stopped to end their lives. —
It was always the hardest part of appearing in such an innocuous guise: that he had to tolerate everyone talking to him as if he were an unthinking fur ball instead of Redd Heart’s newly dubbed Minister of Extermination.
The Cat approached the palace’s Security Oversight Room and transformed himself, his limbs stretching and expanding until he stood on two muscled legs. His forelegs became two lean and powerful arms and his front paws weaponized, with claws as sharp and long and wide as butcher’s knives. His face remained catlike, with a flat pink nose, whiskers, fangs.
Smashing through the locked door of the Security Oversight Room, The Cat surprised the five guards lounging by the controls and monitoring crystals, and quickly left them slumped and bleeding on the floor. He ripped the master key from the waistband of the highest-ranking guard and inserted it into the security console. He turned the key and flipped release switch after release switch; all over Heart Palace bolts unlocked, doors and gates swung open, and Redd’s troops stormed in.
Shifting back into a golden-furred kitty, the assassin bounded toward the South Dining Room, where—
“My cat!” Princess Alyss cried.
“Your—?” Queen Genevieve (the White Queen) said, but that was all she got out before The Cat again morphed into his deadliest (and he thought best) self, and an explosion shook the palace, goblets and chandeliers trembled, and Redd’s mercenary soldiers stampeded into the room, blades unsheathed, crystal shooters firing.
Behind them, making a grand entrance, as if she were the featured guest at a ball, Redd herself appeared (The Red Queen). She had, The Cat knew, been anticipating this moment for a long time.
“Off with their heads!” she shrieked.
Innocent courtiers and civilians lost their lives in the fighting. Queen Genevieve’s chessmen might have stood a better chance against Redd’s mercenaries if The Cat hadn’t been so talented, poking fatal holes in knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns as if he were an army unto himself, working his way through the welter of blood to where the famed Milliner Hatter Madigan (Mad Hatter) was being annoyingly impressive, subduing five of Redd’s troops.
If The Cat had a rival here, it was Hatter Madigan.
A big if, The Cat thought as a palace guard rushed at him, sword raised to strike. He allowed himself a condescending grin, then gutted the fellow, only to find himself attacked by—
A ten-year-old who had picked up the guardsman’s sword. With a swipe of his paw, The Cat knocked the youngster to the floor, his claws slashing four lines of blood on the boy’s cherubic cheek. He didn’t know that the guardsman he’d killed was Sir Justice Anders or that the ten-year-old was Dodge Anders, Sir Justice’s son, and princess Alyss’s best friend. —
He wouldn’t have cared. He was here to fulfill his promise as Minister of Extermination, and if not for being suddenly engaged against six chessmen, he would have finished off Dodge.
Gruesomely disposing of the six chessmen, The Cat spun around intending to cause further carnage when he saw Redd holding Princess Alyss aloft by her hair. Queen Genevieve was there, begging for her daughter’s life. But then Alyss did something— she must have; The Cat didn’t see what—because Redd’s resting grimace-face intensified and she dropped the princess.
Mother and daughter raced to the queen’s private rooms. The Cat sprinted after them, cornering them, about to wrest them from the living world when he heard a whirring sound and felt the cold stab of a blade—it belonged to Hatter Madigan—slice into his chest. He fell.
Being dead, The Cat couldn’t have said what happened immediately after that; all was black and silent until the wound in his chest healed and he opened his eyes and saw Queen Genevieve standing amid the shards of a shattered looking glass, facing Redd.
With a hiss, The Cat leaped at the queen, though he later realized that he probably should have waited another breath or two, because so soon after being dead, all of his speed and agility hadn’t yet returned. Genevieve conjured a white bolt of energy from her imagination and thrust it into him, killing him a second time.
Again, The Cat couldn’t have said what immediately followed. He didn’t know how much time had passed before he felt . . . a foot, was it? Kicking him? Then he heard Redd’s voice:
“Get up! You still have seven more lives.”
The Cat’s eyes fluttered open. Genevieve’s head was no longer attached to her body and Redd was wearing the crown.
“Find Alyss and kill her.”
Redd waved her hand, and the shattered looking glass was once again whole. The Cat jumped into it, emerging at a run in The Whispering Woods.
He ducked to avoid a blade that whistled past.
A Milliner’s blade.
So Princess Alyss was in Hatter Madigan’s protection.
Whiskers twitching, The Cat sprinted faster, lusting to get the better of the Milliner and avenge his own first death, as it were. As Hatter and Alyss reached a cliff overlooking The Pool
of Tears—a rumored portal to other worlds—The Cat sprang at them, his arms extended. He snagged the sleeve of the princess’s birthday dress, tearing it off with his claws, but that was all he got. Alyss Heart, holding tight to Hatter Madigan, plummeted to the water below.
At the cliff’s edge, The Cat stared down at the foaming, rippling pool. If there was one thing he didn’t like, it was water. Rain, showers, baths, it didn’t matter which; he hated getting wet. He turned and stalked back into The Whispering Woods with the scrap of Alyss’s dress in his fist.
Returning to Heart Palace, The Cat knew better than to admit failure to Redd. He held up the shred of Alyss’s dress. “This is all that’s left of them. I’m sorry, Your Highness. I couldn’t
“It’s unwise to control yourself in a situation like that,” Redd said. “Well done.”
The Cat had no idea that Redd, wanting to be sure of Alyss’s death, searched for the princess in her imagination’s eye. But fortunately for the Minister of Extermination, imagination couldn’t penetrate The Pool of Tears.
At a mere five months old, The Cat—though already dead twice—was new to life, having first opened his eyes in one of Redd’s engendering rooms at Mt. Isolation, where she had lived in exile before the coup, and where she would choose to remain as Wonderland’s queen, lest she forget.
An engendering room was part science lab, part incubator for imaginative play. In Wonderland, imagination was a force capable of creating tangible things—sometimes in an instant, as if by magic, while other times an imaginatively gifted Wonderlander was more like an inventor at her desk, experimenting, working through trial and error to bring a vision to actuality.
Redd, with her extraordinary talent, could invent inorganic, mechanical contraptions by conjuring—spontaneous creations she imagined into being. She could also create life, bringing organic (and semi-organic) creatures such as The Cat into existence by imagining customizations to natural evolutionary processes.
Designer babies? Not for Redd. She preferred designer assassins, spies, etc.
Before The Cat, she had created what she deemed lesser versions of a feline assassin—each compromised by some lack or other: one, for example, had been too frisky, easily distracted from its purpose of killing. But Redd would brook no compromise^ if she could help it. The Cat would be as formidable an assassin as she could fathom him—the ultimate assassin, she dared to believe.
The Cat opened his eyes for the first time, saw his creator standing over him, and knew certain things as if he’d been programmed: the only lust he had was for blood and nothing gave him so much pleasure as killing; he could shape-shift; he had nine lives; he loved Redd Heart, liked all things string, and despised water.
Redd impatiently began training him, forcing him to complete what amounted to a series of obstacle courses for a murderer. The Cat sneaked and stalked his way through built environments, assassinating targets of increasing martial skill (Redd sacrificed a bunch of her followers in this manner)—card soldiers, chessmen of higher and higher rank, and ultimately a few ex-Milliners, deserters from Wonderland’s elite military corps.
As The Cat stood over the lifeless Milliners, licking himself clean, Redd decided that he was ready. She dubbed him Minister of Extermination. With his help, she wouldn’t fail to usurp Wonderland’s crown from her younger sister.
For thirteen years, Redd ruled Wonderland without a care save for those that plague every merciless, paranoid, vengeful queen. The governance of Light Imagination—guided by love, principles of social and economic justice—had been supplanted by Dark Imagination. There were labor camps, executions, and citizens everywhere were encouraged, via propaganda, to inform on neighbors, friends, family for any sign of disloyalty to Her Imperial Viciousness, as it now amused Queen Redd to be called.
No one was more loyal to Her Imperial Viciousness than The Cat. Whenever some mercenary started to garner Redd’s special attention, he saw that mercenary as a rival and found ways for him to go missing. To please Her Imperial Viciousness, The Cat hunted rebels and ingrates daily—especially the former, a militia that called themselves Alyssians in honor of the young princess who (so everyone believed) had been killed. —
Princess Alyss Heart might no longer have been flesh and blood, but she was very much alive as an icon of hope for peace’s return. And Dodge Anders, Alyss’s childhood friend, four parallel scars marring his otherwise handsome cheek, was growing up to be a leading member of the Alyssians.
Unaware that, in Dodge Anders, he’d made an enemy to last all of his lifetimes, The Cat was personally responsible for the Alyssians’ ever-dwindling numbers, and Redd trusted her Minister of Extermination as much as she trusted any living thing, which admittedly wasn’t a lot. —
She knew that The Cat was flawed—she hadn’t been able to rid him of all his feline inclinations—and perhaps she believed that the flaws represented her own failure of imagination in creating him. She would never have admitted this to herself, but it might account for why, now, thirteen years into reign, after infuriating intel comes her way, she doesn’t murder The Cat seven times and add him to the trash heap of her failed creations.
“Tell me again,” she says, “how you tore Alyss Heart into little fleshy bits and hurled them into The Pool of Tears all those years ago.”
The Cat can smell that something’s wrong, but he repeats his lie that he killed Princess Alyss and Hatter Madigan the day of the coup.
Redd’s left hand forms into a cat’s paw. She spears him through the stomach with the claws of her index and middle fingers, waits for him to regain life, then—
“It is of course all right for you to lie, Cat, so long as you never lie to me. I have learned that Alyss Heart is alive on Earth, the world at the bottom of The Pool of Tears. You will enter the pool.”
The Cat hisses and spits—an instinctive reaction when contact with detestable water looms. Redd moves as if to spear him in the stomach again, but stops. It’s the only self-restraint she has ever exhibited, as far as The Cat knows. But his hatred of water, the very thing that had allowed Hatter and Alyss to escape—whose fault is that? It might be this question that gives Redd pause. Flaws and all, The Cat is still the best assassin she has at her disposal.
“You will find my niece and you will rip, chop, or twist off her head,” she commands. “I don’t care which so long as her head comes off. You will bring this head to me. If you return without it, or if you don’t return at all out of fear of what I will do to you, I will assume that Alyss is alive, and I will do far worse to you than if you presented yourself to me and begged for my nonexistent mercy.”
The Cat bows. “I will not fail you this time, Your Imperial Viciousness.”
“No, I don’t suppose you will.”
Briefly suppressing his hatred of water, The Cat jumps into The Pool of Tears, emerging in our world, on the hunt for Princess Alyss Heart of Wonderland. And whether Her Imperial Viciousness wants to believe it or not, even the most powerful imagination, in creating a living being, cannot get the better of natural processes that have taken eons to evolve. —
Independent of Redd for the first time, the more the feline assassin interacts with Earthlings (to whom he considers himself superior), the more tenuous becomes the thread tying him to his maker— and to the creature she had programmed him to be. Using his shape-shifting powers, he discovers that he can lead many more lives than the six he has remaining.
Unfortunately for us, Earth is The Cat’s new playground.