For Wonderland’s Queen Genevieve, (White Queen) even the most festive occasions could be clouded by the less savory aspects of governing. Her daughter Alyss (Alice) celebrating a seventh birthday party at Heart Palace was, by contrast, making all economic worries, political concerns, and military threats feel more acute.
Especially the military threats.
Unconfirmed reports suggested that Redd (Red Queen) was growing more powerful, in the final stages of outfitting troops for an attack, and Genevieve was no longer sure that her forces could provide adequate defense.
Needing a moment of solitude, she slipped away to her private rooms, leaving the guests to their entertainments. In a salon filled with overstuffed couches and giant pillows, she studied her reflection in a looking glass. It wasn’t just the political machinations and constant military strategizing that was bothering her. Alyss’s birthday had made her feel old.
She saw lines at the corners of her eyes and framing her mouth. In the not too distant future, Alyss might also find herself prematurely aged by the responsibilities of being a sovereign, although Genevieve hoped not. She wanted to believe that her daughter would handle the crown better than she ever could—she who, at Alyss’s age, and for a good many years after, had never supposed that she would be queen. Her older sister, Rose, was to have ruled Wonderland. And if only Rose—now known as Redd, for her proclivity to bloodshed, hadn’t been so—
A plume of blue smoke passed between Genevieve and her reflection, interrupting her thoughts. She smelled a familiar spicy-sweet aroma and turned to see a giant blue caterpillar coiled dreamily around his hookah. Ordinarily, Genevieve would have been annoyed to discover anyone in her private sanctuary without having been invited, but this outsize larva wasn’t just anybody.
He was one of Wonderland’s eight caterpillar-oracles who kept watch over the Heart Crystal—the power source for all creation. Whatever passed into the crystal went out into the universe to inspire imaginations in other worlds. An unexpected visit from an oracle was rarely a good thing, but Genevieve wanted to believe that this was one such exception.
“Your presence is an honor,” she said. “Princess Alyss will be so pleased that you could attend her party.”
“Ahem hum hum,” grumbled the blue caterpillar, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
The smoke formed the shape of a butterfly with extended wings, then metamorphosed into a confusion of scenes. Genevieve saw a large cat grooming itself. She saw what looked like a lightning bolt. She saw Redd’s face. Then the smoke again formed the shape of a butterfly, which folded its wings, and Genevieve awoke on a couch with the smell of tobacco in her nostrils. The caterpillar was gone. Her bodyguard Hatter Madigan and a walrus in a tuxedo jacket were standing over her.
“You must have fainted, madam,” said the walrus. “I will get you some water.”
The walrus hurried out of the room. The queen remained silent for several moments.
“The blue caterpillar was here,” she said finally. “I’m not quite sure what he showed me.”
“I’ll inform General Doppelgänger and the Millinery,” Hatter said. “We’ll be on alert for whatever’s coming.”
Just once, Queen Genevieve would have liked to relax the watchful vigilance she was forced to maintain every hour of every day to ensure Wonderland’s safety. The caterpillars’ prophecies were always so vague. Sometimes their visions reflected only possibilities, the dark wishes of those who never planned to carry them out. But she couldn’t take a chance, not when it concerned Redd.
“Make sure not to alarm our guests,” she said.
It might have been better to end the birthday celebration, however, and had Genevieve lived, she undoubtedly would have scolded herself for not doing so.
The partygoers were enjoying tea and wondercrumpets in the South Dining Room when a kitten (you might know as the Cheshire Cat) trotted into the room and transformed into a muscled humanoid with a feline head and claws as long and glinting as any blade from Hatter Madigan’s arsenal. The room shook from an explosion, and Redd sashayed in amid a welter of dust and rubble, followed by a mob of rejects from the Wonderland Decks—the platoons of card soldiers that made up a large portion of the queendom’s military.
General Doppelgänger ran behind a curtain and pulled a lever attached to a crank half buried in the floor; the black floor tiles of the room flipped over to reveal a cadre of chessmen—knights, rooks, bishops, pawns—who faced off against the invading card soldiers, blades swinging and bodies falling.
With a flick of his wrist, Hatter Madigan (the Mad Hatter) flattened his top hat into a series of S-shaped rotary blades, which he sent slicing through the enemy, while Queen Genevieve—out of her chair, sword drawn as soon as she saw The Cat—engaged against Redd’s soldiers two and three at a time, conjuring knives, sabers, and spiked clubs for herself whenever one was knocked from her grip. —
She was always armed with four weapons at once, her imagination swinging two of them, to fend off attacks from behind. If, solely by the power of her imagination, Genevieve could have imagined the invaders dead, piled in a heap in the center of the room—her sister included—she would have. But by imagination alone, nobody could kill a creature that had the will to live.
Which was too bad, because Redd, unharmed in the midst of battle, lifted Princess Alyss out from under a table, held the girl aloft by her hair, and wrinkled her already wrinkled face as if she were clutching some detestable pest.
“Let her go,” Genevieve said, stalling, knowing that Redd wouldn’t. “Please.”
Redd scoffed and spat out words that Genevieve hardly heard, alert for the slightest opportunity to free Alyss, but then Redd conjured a scene—silent, moving phantoms on a screen of red smoke: Genevieve’s husband King Nolan, on his way home from negotiations with neighboring Boarderland, had been ambushed and killed by Redd.
Genevieve lost control of herself. She imagined eighteen dagger-sharp cones into existence and directed them toward Redd; she imagined double-edged spears cartwheeling toward Redd: all of which her sister easily relegated to dust.
Redd had always been the more imaginatively gifted, as Genevieve well knew.
Redd dropped Alyss, who had stabbed her forearm with something on her necklace.
Genevieve grabbed her daughter’s hand and ran to her private rooms, knowing that she wouldn’t survive but also that she didn’t need to—not for Wonderland’s sake—if Alyss could be kept alive.
The humanoid feline pounced at them, seeming to come out of nowhere, but before he could swipe them with a single claw— thwip! — he fell to the floor, a blade in his chest.
Hatter Madigan stepped up to the fallen assassin and pulled his top hat blades free of the mortal wound.
“Take Alyss and go,” Genevieve said to him, pointing at a looking glass. “As far away as possible. You must keep the princess safe until she’s old enough to rule. She’s the only chance Wonderland has to survive.”
Genevieve knelt in front of Alyss. “No matter what happens, I will always be near you, sweetheart. On the other side of the looking glass. And never forget who you are. Do you understand?”
“I want to stay with you.”
“I know. I love you.”
“No! I’m staying!’
Alyss threw her arms around her mother.
A wall crashed down and there stood Redd, a platoon of card soldiers at her back. “Aw, how sweet. Let’s have a group hug,” she said, hardly looking like the hugging type.
Hatter picked up Alyss and jumped into the looking glass. Genevieve smashed the glass and turned to face Redd, unable to believe it when, in her peripheral vision, she saw The Cat, on the floor with a gaping hole in his chest, open his eyes. His wound healed and he sprang at her. She conjured a white bolt of energy from her imagination and thrust it into him, killing him a second time.
Redd laughed derisively and pulled the jagged bolt out of The Cat. The bolt turned crimson in her hand, and she slammed it into the floor; dozens of black roses sprouted from the point of impact, their thorny stems wrapping themselves around Genevieve, pricking and binding her.
“Well, Gen, what can I say?” Redd seethed. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m tickled to see you go.”
Pulling the energy bolt out of the floor, she swung it at her sister’s neck.
Genevieve’s headless body slumped to the floor, her crown rolling along the polished stone tiles like a dropped coin.
Princesses Genevieve and Rose Heart had once been inseparable, their different temperaments complementing each other. Where Redd was opinionated, undisciplined, and flirtatious, Genevieve was quiet, studious, and proper. Both were intelligent. Both were gifted with powerful imaginations, though Redd’s was stronger, and it required little effort for her to imagine into existence what Genevieve had to regularly practice.
Genevieve naturally looked up to her charismatic older sister. She didn’t agree with everything Rose did, but she often wished to be more like her—freer, publicly confident, treating life as if it were a game she’d already deservedly won.
But Rose was heir to the throne, and as the time for her accession drew nearer, the differences that had once brought the sisters together began to push them apart. She became increasingly arrogant and contemptuous. Her lack of discipline, which had seemed like a cavalier disregard for stuffy conventions, evolved into a general unruliness that included more than just dabbling in illegalities.
Again and again, Genevieve found herself trying to defend her sister’s behavior to their mother, Queen Theodora, (Queen of Wonderland). Again and again, she made excuses for Rose’s non-appearance at royal functions, lying for her sister, saying that Rose was sick in bed when she was actually out with sleazy characters, lolling in some artificial crystal den (an opium den of Wonderland).
She frequently tried talking Rose out of her bad behavior.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t doubt Mother in front of her advisers,” she once said. “It comes off as if you’re questioning the queen’s authority, which many see as undermining it.”
“If she makes a dumb decision, I’m supposed to let her?” Rose had answered. “I should just sit back and be quiet and let her compromise my inheritance? Our inheritance, I should say,
although you won’t have the burden of running the queendom.”
She’s spoiled, Genevieve thought, wondering how Rose came to be that way when she herself wasn’t. Their parents hadn’t been particularly indulgent, had sought to instill in them a reverence for Light Imagination, the principles of which were guided by love, a sense of justice and duty to the well-being of others. Genevieve and her sister had grown up surrounded by wealth and privilege, but Genevieve could not help thinking of those less fortunate, whereas Rose seemed to take wealth, privilege, and authority as her due.
Quietly disappointed in her sister, Genevieve still never expected Rose to be removed from succession. Nor did she long for it. She wasn’t grasping or envious; she had no desire to be queen. Yet Genevieve considered it the responsible thing, appropriate to her title and station, to be schooled in swordplay and all things martial.
Besides, it couldn’t hurt for a woman to know how to defend herself.
So, she trained as warrior queens of earlier generations had done, and exercised her imagination daily, gaining impressive control and nuance in her conjuring’s.
Then things worsened: Rose was pregnant and refused to identify the father.
Embarrassed by such disdain for social norms, for the well-being of a child born out of wedlock, Genevieve was ashamed of her sister. But she felt protective, too; Rose—with child, physically sensitive, hormonally wrought—was at her most vulnerable.
Rose gave birth to a healthy girl, but Queen Theodora, enlisting Genevieve in the subterfuge, convinced her that the baby hadn’t survived. Genevieve, who felt guilty about lying to her sister, hoped that the “loss” of the child would induce Rose to improve her behavior. And it’s possible, though doubtful, that it would have, if Theodora hadn’t done what she did next. Genevieve found out only afterward, Rose raging, her voice echoing throughout the palace.
The eldest Heart daughter had been removed from succession, replaced by the younger.
Rose burst into Genevieve’s rooms and accused her of having connived for the crown all along.
Denying this, Genevieve said, “I want the best for you, Rose. I always have. Do I wish that you’d be less stubborn in your refusal to abide by anyone’s rules but your own? Yes, but—”
Rose swore vengeance.
“Your inclination for vengeance is part of the problem,” Genevieve tried, but too late; her sister was stalking out of the rooms.
She did want the best for Rose and believed that she always would, but all scrap of sisterly love disintegrated after Rose sneaked into Theodora’s bedchamber one night and placed a fatal mushroom on her tongue.
For the good of the queendom, Genevieve was coronated. Furious, Rose threw off her given name in favor of “Redd,” promising that unbridled bloodshed would splatter the doorstep of every Wonderlander. Both sisters gathered their followers and Wonderland succumbed to civil war, during which Redd lived up to her promise. Genevieve proved victorious only because of the superiority of her army. She banished Redd from the realm, and the daily life of Wonderland returned to what might be called “normal.”
Queen Genevieve ruled judiciously, guided by the precepts of Light Imagination, but never for a second—and especially not after she gave birth to Alyss—did she forget that dark forces were at work in The Chessboard Desert, where Redd had ensconced herself in a bleak fortress dubbed Mt. Isolation. Sooner or later, Genevieve knew, Redd would attack the queendom, and it would require all of her imaginative powers and then some to ensure its survival… and Alyss’s.