Rose Heart (Redd), The Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland (Queen of Hearts), elder sister of Queen Genevieve the White Queen, and once heir to Wonderland’s throne, stood on the jagged promontory of Mount Isolation in The Chessboard Desert. Stretching in all directions, acres of icy snow alternated with acres of tar and black rock, forming what looked like a giant chessboard. Immediately below: a military pieced together out of deserters from Wonderland, mercenaries from neighboring Boarderland.
By the force of her vindictive will, as much as the training these soldiers had endured for ten hours of every lunar cycle, Redd’s army was at last ready. She had picked this day to attack— the seventh birthday of her niece, Princess Alyss Heart—for symbolic reasons. Wonderland would be celebrating its future queen. What better time to take revenge on Genevieve and wrench back her rightful crown?
Redd spread out her arms as if to embrace all that was bad, and threw her voice into the wind:
“Years ago, I was removed from the power to which I’d been born! All of you have had to leave your homes for one reason or another, and together we have suffered through our lives in this barren land! No more! Today, we return to our birthplace and remake it in my image! Today, I make history!”
Redd and her army fought their way into the capital city of Wondertropolis, trailing blood, and Redd entered Heart Palace for the first time since she was a teenager—the palace in which she’d been born and spent most of her young life. Her palace.
Her removal from succession to the throne and its immediate aftermath came back to her with heart-stopping gall...
“It’s your own fault, Rose,” her mother Queen Theodora said. “I can’t allow you to become queen. You won’t listen to anyone’s counsel, and you insist on being undisciplined and reckless, disregarding the most basic principles of Light Imagination.”
Light Imagination: guided by love, justice, a sense of duty to the well-being of others.
“Perhaps I have discipline in other things,” Rose fumed.
“The queendom needs stability,” Theodora said, “a monarch whose inclination is to calmly engage in statecraft and the administration of policy. Not one whose self-interests would—sooner rather than later, I’m sure—compromise the queendom politically, strategically; or perhaps worse, cause her to abandon her responsibilities altogether in favor of any momentary pleasure that came along.”
Genevieve was to be monarch. Rose’s features twisted and sharpened, so potent was the fury within her. Her younger sister, queen? Abandoning herself to wrath, Rose slipped late at night into her mother’s bedroom.
“Even you can’t take away what is mine by birthright,” she snarled and placed a deadly pink mushroom on her mother’s tongue. Fed by the queen’s saliva, the roots of the fungus worked their way down the sleeping sovereign’s throat and strangled her heart.
As for her father, a weak and useless man, Rose let him live. But then Genevieve actually seemed to believe that she should be queen!
The sisters each gathered their followers. The two sides clashed. Many Wonderlanders died. Homes were destroyed. Rose’s imaginative gifts were greater than Genevieve’s (to an Earthling, imaginative Wonderlanders would seem like superheroes, capable of extraordinary strength as well as feats of magic), but her forces were outnumbered. She was banished to Mount Isolation, where she dubbed herself Redd for the blood she would one day spill, gave herself over entirely to Dark Imagination, and nursed her outrage until . . .
Seething with anger, Redd strode toward Heart Palace’s South Dining Room, paying no attention to the explosions going off to the left and right of her, the palace guardsmen falling dead at the hands of her soldiers. Without slowing her pace, without a flinch, she walked through the smoke and flames, unharmed.
It gave her no small pride to see The Cat (Cheshire cat) performing so well in battle, spilling the innards of Genevieve’s soldiers with ease. She had dispatched her top assassin to the palace in advance of her attack. He’d infiltrated it as a cute kitten, but once inside, he had transformed himself (as he could do at will), his limbs stretching and expanding until he stood on two muscled legs, his forelegs becoming lean and powerful arms and his front paws thick, with claws as sharp and long and wide as butcher’s knives. His face had remained feline, with a flat pink nose, whiskers, slobbery fangs.
The Cat was standing over a dead palace guard and swatting away some kid in a pretend guardsman’s uniform when Redd passed him and bent down to look under a dining table. There, crying, huddled the birthday girl, Alyss Heart.
Redd lifted the princess out from under the table by her long black hair, the mayhem of battle intensifying around them.
“So you were to be queen, were you?” Redd snorted, unimpressed.
“Let her go.” It was Genevieve.
“The time for you giving orders is over, sister,” Redd sneered. “You must know that, for reasons of succession,” this last she said with particular venom, “I can’t afford to leave any Hearts alive—except myself, obviously. Which reminds me. If you’re still expecting your husband, King Nolan, to return from his recent negotiations with Boarderland, I have the privilege of informing you that he won’t. Ever.”
With her imagination, Redd conjured the scene for all to see: King Nolan and his men ambushed as they approached Heart Palace, Redd marching up to the king and killing him with her sharp, pointed scepter.
Oh, how it pleased Redd to hear Princess Alyss cry out as she saw her father die! How it amused Redd that a gasping, distraught Genevieve imagined forth a pitiful arsenal of missiles to bear down on her, which she sent clattering to the floor with a brief lowering of her eyelids.
Alyss stabbed Redd’s forearm with a jabberwock tooth that had been hanging on her necklace.
Redd dropped Alyss, who ran with her mother down a hall. The Cat bounded after them. Redd followed with haughty nonchalance, entering Genevieve’s private rooms to see her feline assassin limp on the floor with a fatal wound in his chest. Hatter Madigan (Mad Hatter), who’d taken the place of his older brother Dalton as royal bodyguard and held Princess Alyss in his arms, was stepping into a looking glass.
Genevieve smashed the glass and turned to face Redd. The Cat, still on the floor, opened his eyes. His wound healed and, with a hiss, he jumped at Genevieve, who conjured a white bolt of energy from her imagination and thrust it into him, killing him again.
Laughing, Redd yanked the jagged bolt out of The Cat and twirled it like a baton. It turned red in her hand. She slammed the bolt into the floor; dozens of black roses sprouted from the point of impact, their thorny stems wrapping themselves around Genevieve, pricking her skin and binding her fast. The rose petals opened and closed, toothy mouths eager for a bite of royal flesh.
“Off with your head,” Redd ordered, pulling the energy bolt out of the floor.
She swung the bolt like a sword. Genevieve’s head went one way, her body another, and her crown clattered to the stone tiles. Redd picked up the crown and put it on her own head, then kicked at The Cat where he lay, tongue lolling in his mouth, the picture of death.
“Get up! You still have seven more lives.”
The Cat’s eyes fluttered open.
“Find Alyss and kill her.”
Redd waved her hand; the looking glass that Hatter Madigan had entered was again whole. The Cat jumped through, in pursuit of the only living Heart besides Redd.
He almost caught her, too. He emerged from a looking glass in The Whispering Woods and stalked Hatter Madigan to a cliff overlooking The Pool of Tears, a portal that allegedly carried those who entered it out of Wonderland. But then Hatter, clutching Alyss tightly, jumped from the cliff, plummeting into the pool’s roiling waters, and The Cat only managed to snag a sleeve off of the Princess’s birthday dress.
“Well?” Redd said when The Cat returned to Heart Palace. “Where is her head?”
One didn’t admit failure to Redd and get away with it without suffering pain or worse. The Cat held up the shred of Alyss’s dress. “This is all that’s left. I’m sorry, Your Highness. I couldn’t control myself.”
A scheming, dishonest mind such as Redd’s always suspected others of scheming and dishonesty. She tried to see Alyss in her imagination’s eye, to discover the truth for herself: nothing. Imagination couldn’t penetrate The Pool of Tears, which was lucky for The Cat.
Redd Heart, queen of Wonderland, believed Alyss to be dead.
Some Wonderlanders were born evil. Others were made evil, all goodness bludgeoned out of them by repeated misfortune. But Rose Heart? Although she wasn’t wired like most Wonderlanders, she hadn’t been born completely bad. Misfortunes, or what she perceived as misfortunes, buffeted her again and again until, as if to defend herself against a misunderstanding world, she let her less decent tendencies flower into much worse, and she became the personification of evil.
From an early age, Rose had never liked to be told what to do. She often disregarded her parents’ admonitions and the strictures of polite society. Not from a sense of entitlement so much as from an impulsive, easily bored nature. As she grew into a teen, she of course presumed to know more than everybody else, the natural arrogance of her youth exacerbated by the fact that she was gifted with superior imaginative powers and intellect.
She started experimenting with artificial crystal and imagination stimulants (the opioids of Wonderland), and when it came to sex, she was no prude. She wasn’t even modest. She would strut around the palace and courts in skin-tight dresses made of red jabberwock-hide, taking particular pleasure in teasing the royal bodyguard Dalton Madigan, who’d graduated as Top Cadet from the Millinery, where Wonderland’s elite military trained.
“Your Highness, my loyalty is to you and you alone,” Dalton swore, his eyes speaking his infatuation, his love.
As a Milliner, Rose knew, his loyalty should be to the queendom. But Dalton’s breach only made her happier: she privately reveled in the power she had over him. Was she in love? She never asked herself this question. Dalton was handsome, sure, but he was also highly placed and respected, supremely talented in combat, and so he might one day prove useful.
Rose liked Wonderlanders to be useful to her, even if she didn’t always know, when she collected them under her sway, what they might be useful for. Inevitably, once a person had served his or her purposes, she would toss them aside. But more than a few of those she’d so unceremoniously dropped cherished the whole thing—being used and tossed aside. It gave them bragging rights over those who had never interacted with Rose Heart, the flamboyant, charismatic heir to the throne.
In her late teens, Rose began to publicly challenge her mother’s political choices in front of others. She scoffed and complained. Her mother, she clearly thought, was a feckless queen, too easily manipulated by neighboring governments.
At one point, ignored and dismissed by her mother, Rose determined to reset Wonderland’s political machinations to her liking by subterfuge. The details of her scheme, what Rose specifically hoped to accomplish, aren’t important here, but it involved staging her own abduction from Wonderland, with help from King Arch, the nomadic overlord of neighboring Boarderland.
Arch epitomized Boarderland. Wild and rugged, he was a sovereign who, when not sating his addiction to pleasure (preferably laced with danger), was prone to impulsive violence. He and Rose Heart . . . well, if Dalton Madigan had known what the two of them were doing while she pretended to be a prisoner, he would not have been happy. But again, Rose did not ask herself if what she felt was love. Only later, once matters of state kept her and Arch apart for an extended period, did she occasionally feel stabs of . . . the most she would admit to herself was that she felt something lay unfinished between them.
From her earliest teen years, Rose had been a dabbler in the practices of Dark Imagination, using her creative gift for small deceptions, for illusions that fostered petty discord among those in her orbit. That Dark Imagination was outlawed in Wonderland didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, by the time of her faked abduction, Rose thought the outlawing of Dark Imagination misguided. She was convinced that a queen like her mother, who practiced Light Imagination alone, could not defend Wonderland from the unscrupulous maneuverings of other nations.
And so, while a “prisoner” of Arch’s in Boarderland, Rose worked to become a master of Dark Imagination.
It’s possible that Rose would have one day tried to convince her mother that a sovereign equally masterful in both Dark and Light Imagination was superior to a queen who’d only mastered Light. And maybe Theodora would have given her eldest daughter the benefit of the doubt and not punished her for breaking the law, and Rose Heart would have grown into a sober, thoughtful adult who, everyone agreed, would make a fabulous queen.
We’ll never know.
Because soon after Rose returned to Wonderland after being a “prisoner” (which Theodora never learned was faked, and which did not produce the political results Rose had hoped for), it was discovered that she was pregnant.
Theodora wept and railed. Genevieve sat quietly by, perhaps embarrassed for her sister.
“Who is the child’s father?” Theodora demanded.
Rose wouldn’t tell, but she also couldn’t: she didn’t know. It might have been Dalton Madigan or King Arch. Neither prospect would have calmed her mother. And anyway, Dalton was no longer at the palace. Rumor had it that he’d jumped into The Pool of Tears, and Rose could only guess at his reasons.
Not knowing of her relations with Arch, Dalton no doubt believed the child to be his. He’d broken the Millinery code in a big way, by letting himself get more than just emotionally entangled with one he had sworn to protect—and a royal, at that. He might have been ashamed, thought himself incapable of living in Wonderland, the one-time star of the Millinery now disgraced, demoted to an ordinary civilian.
Theodora, seemingly resigned to the unfortunate choices her eldest daughter had made, did what she could to keep the pregnancy a secret. But after Rose gave birth, while she was delirious and exhausted from pain, Theodora tricked her into believing that the child, a girl, had been stillborn. And as soon as Rose recovered, Theodora gave her the news: she would not be, could not ever be, queen of Wonderland.
Had Rose discovered that her mother lied to her and that her daughter was alive, who knows how bad things might have gotten. As it was, it seemed they could hardly have been worse— being removed from succession enough to spur her rage and vengeance. None was more selfish, more vindictive than Redd Heart. None more mercilessly violent, more dismissive of others’ suffering.
Which was why, when she at last took the place of honor in Heart Palace’s throne room and summoned the suit families into her presence, she found them admirably sycophantic. The Clubs, Spades, Diamonds. Along with the Hearts, they were Wonderland’s ranking families, serving as a kind of parliament or advisory to the sovereign.
Redd announced that she would have no need of their input. that she demanded absolute loyalty. And one by one, the lords and ladies of each suit family got down on their knees and swore undying fealty to Redd Heart.
It was good to be the queen.