Dalton Madigan had worked hard to be a Milliner for the ages, and his skillset—that of a ninja, US Army Ranger, Navy Seal, MI6 agent, and KGB operative rolled into one—now surpassed his instructors’ expectations, their estimates of his potential, as high as they had been, having proven too conservative. Yet technically, Dalton was still a student, a cadet at the academy where generations of select Wonderlanders had trained in hopes of becoming members of the queendom’s most accomplished security force.
The morning of his graduation, Dalton spent his last hours on campus walking the grounds in quiet contemplation, every sight a touchstone to memory. There, next to the sprit-dane topiary, was where he’d tended wounds that his younger brother Hatter had suffered while toying with a wrist-blade. —
There was the patch of grass inside the service gate, which Dalton had frequently used as his own private training area, spending countless hours perfecting hand-to-hand combat fundamentals. And there—the curving path to the kitchens that he and Hatter had first taken eight years earlier, when they had been brought to the Millinery to live as its wards after their parents Belmore and Lydia were killed on a mission.
“He’s so little!” Cook exclaimed of Hatter.
Dalton placed a protective hand on his brother’s shoulder. “He’s the son of two of the greatest Milliners in history.”
“Of course!” Cook said and gave them each a plate piled high with jollyjelly scones.
Dalton strolled on, past the banquet hall and the Wonderground practice field. The Millinery had, unsurprisingly, become more than just an institution to him; it was home. But everybody had to leave home some time.
At only twenty years old, Top Cadet in his class, Dalton Madigan had been awarded the post of Queen Theodora’s personal bodyguard, the highest possible honor a Milliner could receive in Wonderland.
Carrying a dusty old box, Dalton found Hatter (aka the Mad Hatter) in his newly assigned dorm room. It was a small, minimally furnished space, but a decided improvement over the basement apartment where he, too, had lived before formally beginning his education.
“I might not have a chance to see you alone again before I go,” he said.
Hatter merely nodded, shy around the queen’s new bodyguard.
Say something about how you’re going to miss him, Dalton prodded himself. Tell him you’d rather not leave the only family you still have.
Dalton pulled a battered stovepipe hat from the box he was carrying. “It belonged to Dad,” he said, offering the hat to his brother. “It’s the first one he ever wore as a Milliner. I was waiting to give it to you until you started your education.”
“Dad’s?” Hatter faintly echoed, his lips twisting in either perplexity or displeasure, Dalton couldn’t tell which; and belatedly, the older Madigan realized: unimpressive as the hat was, it was nothing if not a stinging reminder of their parents’ absence.
Dalton opened his mouth to say—what? That the stovepipe might inspire Hatter to accomplish great things, as it had inspired him? It felt like a lie. The hat had inspired him, but more from negative connotations than positive ones. The brothers hadn’t resided long at the Millinery before Dalton started hearing rumors that Belmore and Lydia had compromised themselves somehow, not only abandoning Millinery procedures, failing to perform up to the level of its least impressive graduates, but possibly engaging in treason.
Dalton, just twelve at the time, might have imagined worse than the truth. But since he never learned the truth, throughout his teen years he waffled between missing his parents, revering them as he had when they’d been alive, and being angry with them for having, by their deaths, abandoned him and Hatter— though not before compromising the Madigan reputation.
And Dalton’s worst assumptions were still with him. Which was why he’d worked so hard to excel at the Millinery Academy, to ensure that the Madigan name would again reverberate in people’s heads with respect, awe.
He must know the rumors, Dalton thought, watching Hatter wipe dust from the crown of their father’s hat. They hadn’t talked about it, but . . . he must know.
“I wish I could be around for you,” Dalton offered.
The words sounded false to his ears. Like many such orphaned siblings before him, he had tried to be everything to his younger brother—mother and father, all while keeping on top of his studies. An impossibility. No doubt he hadn’t always been around when Hatter had needed him, and here he was, pretending he could make up for earlier neglect with a futile comment about the future.
“I wish . . . ” Dalton started again, but his voice petered out.
He knew that everyone at the academy thought him as emotive as a quartz slab. Not infrequently, he longed to bust free of the rigid exoskeleton under which he stowed all feeling.
Stepping forward, Dalton awkwardly put an arm across Hatter’s shoulders, unable to remember the last time he had touched his brother with more than a handshake.
It would be his last act as a cadet: to impress upon the incoming Millinery class a sense of what they might accomplish if they put in the effort.
Outfitted with his full complement of gear, Dalton stood in the open space of the academy’s Holographic and Transmutative Base of Extremecombat, a state-of-the-art training arena commonly called the HATBOX.
Floor, walls, ceiling: all were checkerboards of large blue and white tiles. Temporary bleachers had been erected at one end of the otherwise barren room, and the new cadets—Hatter among them—took their seats and waited in anxious silence for . . . they didn’t know what. Expressionless, immobile, Dalton also didn’t know what he was waiting for— not exactly. He had asked not to be told in advance, wanting to react instinctively to adversaries.
A sound like escaping steam came from the bleachers, the audience gasping in near unison as—
Fourteen white floor tiles flipped to reveal a platoon of card soldiers from the Diamond Deck. The soldiers charged Dalton, and he shrugged to activate his Millinery backpack; it sprouted an array of blades—C-blades, J-blades, daggers, corkscrews— all of which he put to excellent use. —
Succumbing to Dalton’s weapons, soldiers folded in on themselves. Only two were left. Leaping over the Four Card, midair, Dalton threw a dagger into its vitals. Landing, he dodged left to avoid the sword of the Three Card, whose life he deftly ended with a J-blade to the heart.
Breathing heavily, Dalton stood in the ringing silence, no longer aware of the bleachers’ worth of cadets holding their collective breath. He was alive only to his own survival.
The tiles supporting the dead card soldiers flipped; up came a set of white chessmen—pawns, knights, and rooks—and they raged toward Dalton. In a single fluid motion, he snatched the top hat off his head and flicked it flat into spinning rotary blades, which he sent slicing into the nearest pawn. The blades took out two more pawns and a rook while—
Dalton defended himself against a pair of knights, the wrist-blades of one hand activated—a centrifugal blur of Wonderland steel that served as a shield against the knights’ thrusts. He lifted his free hand to catch his spinning hat blades as they boomeranged back to him.
A cannonball dropped from the ceiling—so close that it took out one of the knights. Dalton staggered backward, unable regain solid footing before the ball doubled in size, morphing. Nodules protruded. Panels retracted. Eight long mechanical legs unfolded. Dalton found himself backed toward a wall by what we on Earth might describe as a giant steampunkish arachnid. Like all cannonball spiders, this one had pincers capable of severing a Milliner in half.
Dalton slashed his way through a converging scrum of chessmen and ran to meet the advancing spider, diving head first between its legs and taking up position underneath its “belly.” The spider scuttled about, trying to get out of its own way, as it were, its pincers clacking air.
More cannonball spiders dropped from the ceiling. A projectile the size and shape of an ordinary playing card whizzed past Dalton’s head, shot from a rook’s AD-52—an automatic dealer capable of shooting razor-cards at the rate of fifty-two per second. Dalton pulled a tab on his backpack’s shoulder strap; a complex of rods and blades telescoped up and out of the pack, arranging themselves into a horizontal propeller that whirred over his head, lifting him into the air.
It wasn’t the smoothest liftoff, ascending through the body of a cannonball spider. The propeller jammed more than once. Dalton veered at chest height amid chessmen, kicking at them to get free. A spider’s pincers tore off half a trouser leg, but then . . . up, up he went, pulling his knees close to his chest, extending his arms below, and flexing his fists to activate his wrist-blades as shields from the chessmen’s razor-cards and crystal shot.
The cannonball spiders started to climb the walls. Dalton, nearing the ceiling. deactivated his wrist-blades, and a hand again went to his shoulder strap. The propeller retracted, his backpack returned to its everyday innocuous appearance, and he punched his belt buckle to open the sabers at his midsection; the longest blades he possessed flicked out out from all sides of him.
He let himself drop, spinning like a blender into the chessmen below.
Swink, swink, swink, swink!
Pieces of pawns, rooks, and nights lay all around him. AD52s and crystal shooters littered the floor.
The cannonball spiders jumped from the walls as Dalton armed himself with an AD52 in one hand and a crystal shooter in the other. He aimed between their pincers, sending missiles down their mechanical gullets. Most of the spiders burst into pieces. Some wobbled, then folded their legs, forever inert.
Dalton again stood, out of breath, in a ringing silence.
The HATBOX floor tiles flipped, clearing the arena. The exhibition was over. Every cadet in the audience, having ducked or crouched to avoid cannonball spider shrapnel, now sat with their eyes wide and their mouths hanging open, the name Madigan reverberating in their heads with respect, awe.
The life of a queen’s bodyguard: constant vigilance, but so far, for Dalton at least, no combat. He told himself that he wasn’t getting soft, that just because he spent his days amid the splendors of Heart Palace, where royals sipped tea and strolled in gardens while Queen Theodora occupied herself with diplomacy—none of this meant that he was falling out of top Milliner shape, physically or mentally.
He wasn’t entirely convinced.
More and more, as he stood discreetly within sight of the queen while she confabbed with the Lords and Ladies of the Diamond, Club, and Spade families, Dalton would be flanked by the Heart princesses, Rose and Genevieve. Was he always so stiff and somber? Rose would tease. She was a constant flirt and decidedly less conventional than her sister.
“How can you effectively fight against Dark Imagination if you don’t know what it feels like?” she asked one time.
“I don’t need to be a criminal to thwart a criminal,” Dalton answered. “An assassin to thwart a murder—
“But you are an assassin when called upon to be one, aren’t you?” Rose laughed.
His brain always went fuzzy in her company. He tried not to notice the way her tongue poked out deliciously from between her teeth when she was privately amused. He tried not to notice the curves of her body, so tauntingly outlined by the tight dresses of jabberwock-hide she favored. But he couldn’t help it; his head, his thoughts, kept turning in Rose Heart’s direction.
It wasn’t instantaneous but a gradual wearing down of his resolve. Dalton came to feel that he didn’t have much choice; he surrendered to Rose and let himself be seduced. Having an affair with the princess, the daughter of the queen he’d sworn to protect: he could be expelled from the Millinery for such a breach of ethics.
He had no intention of being like his parents, sabotaging his reputation, and he vowed to himself to end the relationship. But every time Rose called for him, he went to her, and he soon discovered that he liked secretly breaking the rules. As long as no one found out, he wouldn’t be like his parents.
He knew that Rose dabbled in Dark Imagination, and more than once, as he guarded Queen Theodora’s rooms at night, she messaged him, asking him to retrieve her from some illegal establishment that she’d sneaked off to visit, too far gone on artificial crystal to make it back to Heart Palace on her own. The more wild Rose became, the more he liked her. She was so unabashed, so disregardful of etiquette, norms, expectations, so unafraid to just be. He “liked” her? No, he loved her.
Then something happened. Queen Theodora quarantined her eldest daughter. It wasn’t like Rose to tolerate such treatment, but Dalton couldn’t get any information out of Genevieve as to the reason for the quarantine or for Rose’s tolerance of it. When, after what felt like an excruciatingly long time, he saw Rose again, he didn’t know that she had given birth to a girl, allegedly stillborn. But along with everyone else in Wonderland, he did know that, on account of Rose’s rebellious behavior, Queen Theodora had removed her from succession to the throne.
“How are you?” he asked tenderly.
“Glad I won’t have the burden of ruling,” she said with seeming nonchalance.
A few nights later she messaged him, needing him to bring her home from an artificial crystal den. As always, he didn’t ask for a palace guard to cover his post because this would have been a public admission that he was shirking his responsibilities. He secreted himself off to the crystal den, but Rose wasn’t there, and he very soon discovered why: she’d used his absence to sneak into Theodora’s rooms and murder the queen, swearing that she would wear the crown.
With shock, anger, dismay, Dalton understood that he’d been an accomplice in the queen’s death—unwitting, but an accomplice, nonetheless.
He didn’t say goodbye to anyone—not to Rose, whom he couldn’t help loving despite all, and not to his brother Hatter. He jumped into The Pool of Tears, a portal presumed to take those who entered its waters to other worlds, though no one had ever returned to verify it.
Dalton’s impulse to run, his unwillingness to face the consequences of his actions, surprised him. But he refused to live with his disgrace reflected in every Wonderland eye that deigned to look at him.
Earth is a gray and primitive place compared to Wonderland. But Dalton, going through his days as if serving a prison term, thinks it appropriate; he doesn’t deserve better. He has spent years working as a mercenary for the unscrupulous and power-mad. His self-hatred and constant proximity to corruption have smashed what was left of his moral compass. Now, unknown to him, Wonderland suffers a violent convulsion, and his younger brother jumps into The Pool of Tears.
Now, not one but two Madigans wander the earth; each lost to themselves, they might yet find each other.