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Allison and the Torrid Tea Party: Chapter 7

The Ball Of Broken Hearts And Stolen Tarts

I wake the morning of the ball to find a pirate standing over my bed.

‘Lory?’ I choke out, scrambling to sit up and swiping the drool from my face. My increasingly bright rainbow hair is stuck to the corner of my mouth. Oh, I must really look like the future Queen of Hearts now, huh? I’m hungover, slightly confused as to where I am or what’s going on, and now sporting a brand new tattoo on my freaking thigh—a tattoo made of skin. ‘What are you doing here?!’

‘I invited her to the ball,’ Dee says, sitting up, his hair scruffy but somehow still cute. Wish I could wake up with a playful pink in my cheeks and a mischievous grin hovering around my full, delicious mouth … fuck. I’ve been up all of two seconds and I’m ogling Dee again. Before I forget, I lean over and give him a quick kiss on the lips, freeing his wings from their cursed prison. He grins at me as I sit back, refocusing on Lory and blinking to clear the sleepy cobwebs from my vision. ‘Anyone from the Kingdom of Hearts is allowed to attend anyway.’

‘They wouldn’t give me a visa for Eaglet,’ Lory says with a loose shrug of her shoulders, and I remember vaguely the bandanna covered in diamonds he was wearing on The Long Tale. ‘Border control is tight right now.’ Lory adjusts her black tricorne hat—that’s what a pirate hat is called, you know—and then plants her hands on her hips.

Tee is standing behind and to the right of her, so I figure he’s the one that let her in. Stretching, I lift my arms above my head, and curl my toes against a soft, fuzzy pillow tucked under the blankets. Wait.

‘Chesh!’ I admonish, lifting up the covers to find the black and white striped cat purring and kneading the sheets near my toes. Before I can escape his reach, he flicks his little pink tongue out and licks my toes. ‘Shoo,’ I growl, pretending he’s Dinah and grabbing his scruff. My little black asshole cat likes to sleep in my blankets and then attack me when I climb into bed. I’m used to this maneuver.

I pull Chesh out by the scruff, but he shifts back into human form just as I’m dragging him from the blankets, landing on top of me with all of his beautiful muscles and that delicious fresh honey and black tea scent of his.

‘What the …’ I start, but I find the words stuck in my throat, heart thundering like a herd of wild bandersnatch. That is, if bandersnatch even run in herds? I have no fucking clue. ‘Get off of me,’ I breathe, but the words don’t come as bitchy or forceful as I intend them to. I haven’t forgotten that I almost killed this guy a few days ago. Or that last night was a serious clusterfuck.

‘Yes, mistress,’ he purrs, the tags on his collar jangling as he leans in and licks the side of my face.

‘Should I go wait in the hall?’ Lory asks, flicking some of her brunette braids over one shoulder. ‘You about to get it on in here?’

‘No, no,’ I snarl, scrambling out of bed and rubbing at my sleepy face with the heel of one hand. Looking around, I notice most of the men are missing. It’s just me, Chesh, and the twins left now. I suppose they’re all out preparing for the ball. I’d almost forgotten that tonight’s the night. ‘What time is it?’

‘Time to be up and about,’ she declares, dressed in brown breeches, a red peasant blouse, and black boots. Reminds me … I move over to my satchel, hanging on the hook near the door, and reluctantly pull out the outfit she lent me: corset and knives and all. ‘You lazy assholes better start getting ready. Guests are already arriving.’

‘Here,’ I offer up my borrowed clothes, but Lory waves them away with a hand covered in gold rings. They make a pretty contrast against her ebony skin.

‘Keep ’em. We got paid handsomely by the King to bring the best tea in the kingdom down the river. I can afford new ones.’ She grins at me with white-white teeth. ‘Plus, I got an in with the Queen. That makes me pretty special, don’t you think?’

‘I’m not the Queen just yet. I won’t ever be if I have to spend much time around Brennin Red. I’m as liable to murder as marry him,’ I start as Tee offers up a cup of coffee and a muffin. Our hands brush together and we exchange a look. It very clearly says I know what you did in the dark, and I smile. If I close my eyes, I can still feel him sliding inside of me last night. Other than that, the night is pretty much a blur.

Yet,’ Lory repeats, turning, her long hair swaying against the backs of her calves. She moves over to the refreshments table and gets herself an EAT ME cookie, tucking it into her belt. There’s a small wooden cabinet there as well that she opens, revealing several tiny glass bottles with FUCKING DRINK ME tags dangling off of them. Lory pockets two, and then turns back to face me, leaning her butt on the edge of the table. ‘You’re not the Queen yet, but you will be.’

‘So you already know I’m the …’ I stop talking and she throws her head back with a raucous laugh. It’s nice though, to hear someone so free and unrestrained. Sitting in this palace, I’m starting to feel fucking stifled.

‘The whole kingdom knows you’re the Alice now,’ she says as Dee stumbles out of bed and knocks over a table with his wings. I don’t think he’s quite used to having them out all the time. Our eyes meet across the room as he flushes and does his best to fix it. Too bad the legs are broken into several pieces. I just smile, thinking of last night, the way he oh so carefully tucked me into bed.

Lory snaps her fingers in front of my face, and I groan. I’m doing it again, the stupid teenager daydreaming thing. After last night’s nightmare, don’t I deserve it though?

‘Although I suspected when I first met you. Why do you think I had you come down to the ship so early? Coulda let y’all sleep in while we loaded cargo, but I wanted to get a good look at ya.’ She grins at me, pulls a knife from her belt, and promptly picks her teeth with it. ‘So, where’s your dress then?’

‘My dress?’ I ask, because in the excitement of the last few days, I realize I haven’t actually seen the damn thing. Got measured and fondled and caressed by Rab, but I never picked out fabric or anything. I don’t even know what style of dress it is that I’ll be getting. My bet is … that it’s gonna be red which is fine by me. Just so long as it’s not pink. ‘Good question.’

‘The dress will be delivered in …’ Rab starts, stepping out of the painting on my right, the one with a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat. He’s shirtless again, running his hands down his body in a way that just can’t be accidental. He points to one of his clock tats. ‘About two minutes.’

‘Perfect,’ Lory says, settling herself into a wingback chair in the corner. ‘I’ll wait and you can try it on for me.’

“We’ll have a fashion show,” I say with a smile, sitting down on the bench at the end of the bed to eat my muffin and drink my coffee. “I’ll show you mine; you show me yours.”

“Bloody can’t stand dresses,” Lory says, shaking her head and sending her braids flying. “Makes me sick to my stomach; I’ll be wearing my military uniform. You’re more likely to see Dodo in a dress than me.” She slides her knife back in its sheath and grabs a muffin. “Hear you lot got into trouble last night.”

“And who’s spreading that rumor?” Tee asks, hanging up a pair of identical outfits on a hook. Must be for him and his brother. Really, they’re just nicer, more frilly versions of what they usually wear. Red military style coats, white button-ups, ruffled cravats, and black boots. The matching hats have giant red feathers sticking out of them.

“It’s all over the castle. Nobody’s stupid enough to miss the card servants scurrying to the hole in the back wall.” Lory glances over at Rab as he lays out the stack of clothes draped over his arm on my rumpled bedspread. Chesh leans over to sniff the items and wrinkles his nose. He doesn’t appear to have any intention of dressing up for the ball.

Fuck, I don’t even know if he’s invited.

Then again, he did practice dancing the quintrille with us, so maybe the King isn’t as he stupid as pretends to be? If he excludes Chesh, I’ll be pissed.

“Yes, well, we had some late-night visitors,” Rab says, popping behind the bathroom curtain and stripping down. Lory barely glances his direction, grabbing an apple and peeling it with her knife. The motion of her hand on the blade reminds of me of March, of the two Rabbits shifting into bandersnatch form to face the enemy. “But that’s been taken care of.”

“The Knave looks to have her knickers in a wad this morning,” Lory says as Dee picks candied insects off the pastry selection on the refreshments table. “Guess she’s finally realized she’s never getting Brennin Red’s dick, eh?”

“That’s about right,” Dee says with a yawn, turning around to see me scratching at my new tattoo with a chipped fingernail. When Rab comes out from behind the curtain, running a gloved hand over his white ears and dark hair, he pauses and grins at me.

“You like what you see, Sonny?” he purrs, and I raise an eyebrow. This is some gorgeous ink, but I cannot get over how it came to be. I look at the empty spot on Rab’s arm, and then back down at the lacey cameo of my new tattoo.

“Getting this … was one of the weirdest experiences of my life,” I say, tapping my fingertips against the tattoo and making a mental note to myself: during visits home, I need to cover my moving clock tattoo with pants or a long skirt. Not sure how I’d explain this fresh ink to my father.

Not sure how I’ll explain my two week long absence either.

My throat gets tight, and I push that thought aside. I just need to get through this stupid ball, and this stupid dance, and then I’ll figure out how to get into the Looking-Glass. Lord knows I’m no chess champion. Fuck, I barely know the names of the damn pieces.

“I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself,” Rab purrs as I stuff the rest of the muffin in my mouth. He moves over to stand beside me, cracks his knuckles, twitches his ears. His body starts to shrink, his ears get round, his nose flushes pink. Within a few seconds, Rab is sitting on the carpet in his mouse form, looking up at me with red eyes. “I’ll be with you the entire night,” he promises, climbing up the leg of the bench to sit beside me.

“Oh, how delicious,” Chesh purrs, clawing at the air above Rab’s head. “I could just eat you right up.”

Do, and see what happens when I become a bandersnatch in your belly,” Rab teases, whiskers twitching. I will not forget what he said last night, twisted up into a magic induced conundrum. Royal blood, huh? I need to know what this third form is; it’s killing me.

“Put some nice clothes on; you’re dancing the quintrille tonight in front of the whole court.” Tee lays out an outfit for Chesh, too, and the cat’s ears go back in frustration. He obliges, stripping down and changing right there in front of Lory. She raises her eyebrows but doesn’t ogle. Guess she knows cat’s don’t give a shit about nudity; they will literally put their buttholes right in your face while asking for pets. Thankfully, Chesh hasn’t done that to me … yet.

There’s a knock on the door, and we all pause. Dee moves to open it, accepting a big red garment bag and four different sized boxes from a card servant’s creepy human hands. He slams the door in its face, and spins around, the bag dangling from his fingers. He hands off the towering stack of boxes to his brother.

“Excited, Allison-who-isn’t-Alice?” he asks, smiling from ear to ear.

“More like terrified out of my fucking mind.” I put my coffee aside and stand up, unzipping the bag and trying not to cringe at the amount of poof and lace that explodes out. “Oh dear,” I mumble, pushing the garment bag back to get a good look at what’s inside.

There’s a dress, a short coat, and a corset. And from the looks of the boxes in Tee’s arms, I would guess jewelry, hat, shoes, and … undergarments.

“Hmm.” I pull the items out, handing the coat and corset to Chesh while I lift the dress up for examination.

It’s a red ball gown with a satin bodice and a heavy skirt comprised of yards of flouncy, lacy fabric. It literally bounces when I shake it, and I narrow my eyes. I was hoping for something more modern, like the bat dress I wore last night.

“This is positively medieval,” I murmur, and Dee chuckles. The dress has off-the-shoulder sleeves, a heart-shaped neckline, and a deep V where the satin bodice dips into the skirt. I hang it up on another hook, cringing a bit when the hook reaches out to assist me, scooping up the wooden hanger from my hands. I take the black and white striped corset with the gold buttons out next and hold it up, imagining it layered over the dress.

Things are starting to look up.

“Okay, I can work with this,” I say as I take the velvet coat and add that to the ensemble. It has three-quarter length sleeves, epaulettes, fringe, and long coattails in the back. The front of the jacket should hit me at about mid-waist.

Tee sets the boxes down on the bench and removes my coffee cup before it gets a chance to spill.

Dee’s like a kid at Christmas, tearing open the top box and pulling out a garter belt and thigh-highs.

‘Oh Hearts on a card,’ he groans, rubbing the garments against his cheek. I snatch them from his hand and sigh.

‘I’m not wearing these,’ I say, chucking them onto the bed where Chesh bats at them playfully. ‘I’ll wear plain cotton panties, thank you very much.’ I shove the lingerie box aside and check out the hat box instead.

Inside, there’s a crown.

A fucking crown.

It looks like the King’s, gold with big red diamonds, sharp points pricking my fingers as I run a fingertip along the top rim. The bottom is padded with white fur speckled with black spots, big roses—real roses—clustered on one side.

When I place it on my head, I feel it seal to my scalp the way the Mad Hatter’s top hat did last night. A spell. Which reminds me …

I take the crown off and hand it over to Tee.

‘Take a look at this,’ I tell him, wondering where Lar is. I could use his help checking over the spells in my new clothing. Like I said, I’m not stupid: I don’t trust the Knave for shit. Moving over to the nightstand on the left side of the bed, I pull out a wooden box filled with the March Hare’s test kits.

I’m going to use every single one of them.

The door to the room opens and I feel a huge shock of relief when the Caterpillar waltzes in, dressed in red and looking fucking scrumptious in his new outfit. Of course, he’s wearing a half-shirt under his red jacket which is a little weird, but I can see his beautifully taut stomach muscles, so I’m not complaining.

‘You’re here,’ I say, glad to see that Lar’s recovered fairly well after last night. When the vision in his wings shattered, and that dust went floating everywhere … fuck, I was worried. He smiles at me from across the room, his red earrings catching the light.

‘I wouldn’t miss your dress delivery, Sunshine,’ he says, turning to the red monstrosity and drawing a sigil in glowing gold over it. I move up beside him and open the first kit. I’m going to test several spots on this damn thing, just to be sure. ‘How are you feeling this morning?’

‘Like total crap. Yourself?’ Lar smiles, but he doesn’t respond for a minute, drawing the same sigil over the corset and then the jacket. Nothing happens, and he doesn’t say anything, so I’m assuming there’s nothing wrong with the outfit.

When my first few test kits come up clean, I start to get annoyed.

I was almost hoping the idiot Knave would do something like poison or spell my dress, just so we could catch her embroiled in bullshit. My instincts are still screaming that something is wrong with that woman. You don’t just lust after a position of power your whole life, and then roll over and take it when someone steals it from you.

No freaking way.

‘Sleeping next to you, that revived me,’ Lar says, and I can’t tell if he’s joking, flirting, or being totally serious. He turns to glance at Lory, giving her a small nod of acknowledgement before he tests my new high-heeled boots, my jewelry, and even my stupid lingerie. ‘It’s all clean,’ he says, but he defers to Tee for a moment. ‘Look it over yourself, too, see if there’s anything I might’ve missed.’

‘Who are we distrustful of?’ Lory asks as Tee touches the clothing with his fingers, rubbing the fabric together between like he’s searching for residue or something. I don’t know anything about angel powers, so I have to assume he knows what he’s doing. Then again, assumptions make an ass out of you and shins, and …

Jesus Christ.

I’m mad, completely and utterly mad—and loving it.

‘The Knave,’ I say with tight lips, and Lory nods her head.

‘Good on you. I wouldn’t trust that crazy bitch for nothing. She was the one who vetoed the King when he wanted to send food down the river. She let whole cities starve and then burn.’

Well.

That’s new information.

I wait for Tee to finish his inspection, and then raise an eyebrow.

‘Everything looks legitimate,’ he tells me, trying for a smile. ‘But that doesn’t surprise me. The Knave is smart. If she were to try something, it’d be more subtle than tampering with your dress.’

‘You’re probably right,’ I say with a sigh, rubbing at my forehead. ‘This world is just making me paranoid.’

‘This world makes everyone paranoid,’ Chesh purrs, lying on his back and looking at me from eyes the color of a wild storm. I take the dress off the hanger and give it a long, lingering look. ‘Well, I suppose I could do worse for my first official ball. I wore jeans and a wifebeater to junior prom. This’ll be a new experience.’

I whisk myself off into the bathroom to shower and change into my outfit—which, of course, just has to include the white breastplate gifted to me from the White Knight. It’s supposed to give me courage, right? And tonight, I am going to need that shit in spades. Err, in hearts? Anyway, you know what I mean.

Tonight, Allison and the Alice, they’ll be one in the same.

Wonder how the Knave will like that?


The ballroom looks completely different with the double doors thrown open, hordes of people moving between the foyer and the dance floor. Their outfits create a sea of shimmering red, white, and black, the fabrics shining under the flickering flames of the chandeliers.

I feel completely fine with the way the day is going until I’m standing outside those doors, starting to notice the ripple in the crowd as people turn to stare at me. This breastplate is supposed to give me courage? I call bullshit. I feel like the Cowardly Lion.

‘We’ve got you,’ Dee whispers, giving my hand a squeeze. He’s got his elbow through mine while Tee takes up a similar position on my other side. The cat is on my shoulders, lounging and probably napping, while Rab-mouse sits in the pocket of my velvet jacket. My makeup is done thanks to Tee because I have little to no makeup skills of my own; my rainbow hair is coiffed, this time thanks to Dee because … well, you get the drift. Lar stands just behind and to the left of me, like I really am a Queen and in need an escort. Hell, maybe I do because the White Knight stands opposite him, flanking me.

Wonder if someone will try to kill me tonight?

My panties are dry, my weapons are strapped in place, and my heart is pounding like I’ve just run a triathlon.

‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper as my throat closes up and I find that my feet have ceased to move. ‘I don’t want to do this.’

‘Do crowds frighten you so?’ a cool voice asks from behind me.

I don’t need to turn around to know that it’s the King.

Fuck.

I steel myself and glance casually over my shoulder, like I just can’t be bothered.

But oh. Oh. Ooooooh.

The King looks good, wearing his lazy crown, his red and white robes framing his lean but muscular frame, a decorative sword hanging at his hip. He’s got a huge, furred cloak on, too, and I get the weirdest urge to wrap myself up in it. Or … let the King wrap me up in it. When he moves, I notice the pants beneath his robes are black and white striped, very matchy-matchy to the corset beneath my breastplate.

Ugh.

‘I’m fine,’ I say, turning back to look at the sea of unfamiliar faces. ‘I just don’t care for parties.’

‘Oh, you don’t?’ Red drawls, swaggering up to stand beside me. ‘That’s too bad. You’ll just have to suffer through this one.’ He snaps his fingers and several very human guards clear the crowds away from the doors, unrolling a red runner and sprinkling it with bloodied rose petals.

Like, really?

We’re going to do the whole song and dance routine?

A Rabbit wearing the Castle Heart emblem—a broken heart intersected by a sword—on his surcoat, runs up the aisle with a trumpet. When he puts it to his lips and blows, every single person in that room goes silent.

‘I hope you weren’t thinking to make an entrance without us?’ Raiden asks, appearing on my other side. While the King is dressed in luscious red and white robes, Raiden is drenched in black, save the single rose decorating his massive, wilting velvet top hat. He’s got on a pair of leather pants, a ruffled top, and a white tie covered in black bats. The March Hare is dressed similarly, except his tie has little brown rabbits all over it and his shirt is white. He’s also wearing a much smaller hat … and eating a pear. Plus, he’s got a whole series of glowing vials around his neck that I can only guess contain poison of some sort.

He flicks an ear in my direction as he takes a bite of the fruit, spattering his beautiful lips with juice.

I look away, toward the ballroom.

There’s a set of steps that lead inside, and at the bottom of them, I see the Knave and her husbands waiting.

Fantastic.

Usually we enter the ballroom from the downstairs entrance, so I’ve never actually come in this way. Maybe that’s why I never really noticed how fucking cavernous this place is? I mean, I knew it was big, but standing up at the top of these steps, it looks like a football stadium, full of judgmental courtiers and women dressed in military uniforms decorated in badges. Each of them is surrounded by clouds of men, and none of them look very happy to see me.

The general population, however, people like Dodo and Lory who are waving at me from the center of the room, seemed thrilled.

‘I’m going to puke,’ I whisper, no longer giving a shit that the King is standing right next to Tee. The elder twin grudgingly steps aside, ruffling his feathers in annoyance, so that Brennin Red can take my arm, pulling me ahead of Dee and giving the cat a glare so intense, I swear it makes me sweat. Or maybe that’s the three hundred pounds of lace and tulle I’m dragging around? Or perhaps it’s the thousands upon thousands of stares from the Court of Hearts?

‘Please wait until after the quintrille, then you can be sick all you want in the privacy of your own room.’ Brennin pauses as the Duke strides up to us, wearing red breeches, a white shirt with tiny heart buttons, and the most ridiculous hat known to man. When he pauses next to me, he sweeps the hat off from between his dark horns and takes a ridiculous bow, tail trashing behind him.

“My mate, the gorgeous Allison Pleasance Liddell, the Duke of Northumbria awaits to accompany you to the ball.” I smile as North stands up straight and replaces his stupid hat with the giant cluster of feathers. His gold eyes sparkle as he takes me in and licks his lips appreciatively. The King simply rolls his eyes at our exchange.

“Fashionably late, as usual, North,” he says, letting the Duke take up on my other side. “Thank you so fucking much for joining us.”

“Anytime, Your Majesty,” he purrs as the King parades us over to the top of the stairs where the trumpet-wielding Rabbit is waiting. He lifts the instrument to his lips, gives three sharp blasts, and then unrolls a parchment scroll to read from.

‘His Majesty, the King of Hearts, would like to formally present his future Queen of Hearts, the Alice, to the court. Make your judgments, state your intents, and if you should protest, now’s the fucking time. For tonight only, all executions are stayed!’

The crowd cheers as I go pale and give the King a scathing look.

‘Awfully presumptuous of you, isn’t it?’ I snarl. ‘Introducing me as your queen already?’

‘You said it yourself: marriage for political gain. I’ve accepted it.’ Brennin ignores me as we start down the stairs to cheers and whispers and gasps. I’m sure I’ve been the topic of polite conversation all week.

So what do these people think of me, this little blonde girl with rainbow streaks in her hair?

I feel like a fraud.

‘Alice, you’re going to change the whole world, aren’t you?” Dee’s words ring in my head, and I close my eyes, taking a deep breath and trying to gather my courage together.

I tumbled down the Rabbit-Hole, fired a flintlock pistol at a giant monster bird, haggled my way out of a kidnapping by Underland’s most infamous mercenary, and learned to fight with my hands. I have magic, a sharp tongue, and the will to make things better. I … survived an abusive relationship, found my brother’s body, watched my mom get convicted in court.

This crowd, or the Knave, or the Hatter or the King … how can I let them intimidate me now?

The answer is: I won’t.

I open my eyes as we pause next to the Knave, the Lion, and the Unicorn.

‘Good evening, Alice,’ she says, her strange voice ruffling my metaphorical feathers. A quick glance at Dee shows me she does quite literally ruffle his actual feathers.

‘Ines,’ I reply coolly, using her name instead of her title on purpose. Now whose feathers are ruffled?

The King quickly sweeps us past her, taking us down a row of glittering aristocrats and military personnel. There’s no way I’ll remember any of their names, so I don’t bother to try. Instead, I focus on keeping my chin up, my shoulders back, my steps slow and confident. The Duke takes care of all polite conversation for me, thank God.

We make several rounds through the ballroom before Brennin finally releases me, letting go of my arm and watching me like he thinks I’m going to make a run for it.

The only thing I make a run for is the table piled with food. What can I say? I’m a comfort eater.

It’s all the usual weirdness I’m starting to love about Underland: candied flowers, bowls of crickets covered in chocolate sauce, slabs of purple meat, and salads that are as colorful as a spring rainbow. There are toadstools, cupcakes, lollipops, and plenty of tea.

So much fucking tea.

I pick through the food, reaching absently into my pocket to stroke Rab’s tiny head.

‘If you’re going to eat something,’ March says from beside me, sliding a test kit from the pocket of his leather pants. ‘Please test it first.’

‘I tested my dress,’ I whisper as he moves up to stand shoulder to shoulder with me. Well, arm to shoulder, I guess. I’m not nearly tall enough to reach his. I’m not the only one people are staring at. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare have quite the audience as well. ‘There’s no poison.’

‘Nothing that shows up immediately,’ he drawls which, of course, makes me paranoid.

‘You’re a dick,’ I say as the March Hare tests some fizzy grapefruit infused water, and then passes it over to me. ‘Are you sure I should drink this? Or am I going to drop dead later from one of the nine less common poisons?’

‘Guess we’ll know by next week if the vial changes color, won’t we?’ he drawls, giving me a saucy little look as I sip my drink.

‘You’re awfully concerned about poison,’ the King says, still standing far too close to me for comfort. I half-expected him to wander off into the crowd, but it looks like he plans on shadowing me instead. How lucky am I?

I grab a fruit tart off a tray. After all, this is the Ball of Broken Hearts and Stolen Tarts, right? In the original book, it was the Knave that was suspected of stealing the Queen’s tarts. Tonight, the Knave isn’t stealing anything from me, not if I can help it.

The music tonight is played by a live orchestra, situated in the corner of the room and made up entirely of card servants. They’re quite good actually, and I have to wonder how it’s possible that the King managed to find an entire orchestra worth of criminals to curse.

I glance over at the Knave, still watching me from across the room. She’s not subtle about it either. It could’ve been her, couldn’t it? She’s the official curseworker for the Kingdom of Hearts, right? I would not put it past someone like that to frame a horde of musicians for her own amusement.

“I couldn’t get a read on anything else regarding tonight,” Lar whispers, and I’m not sure if he’s talking to the King or to me. Maybe both of us? “The Mocking Turtle ripped me in half, metaphysically speaking. I’m still healing.” He sets an empty teacup down hard on the table, and I notice the tea leaves sitting on the bottom. “You’re on your own tonight, Your Majesty.”

“No matter,” Brennin says, but his dark eyes won’t stop scanning the room. It’s as if I’m not the only one looking for trouble tonight … He notices me watching him and lifts his chin haughtily, turning away in a swirl of robes.

“Sorry to say,” I tell Chevalier as she stands guard beside me, “but your Breastplate of Courage doesn’t seem to be working. I’m scared out of my mind.” The White Knight just smiles at me, and I notice she’s wearing her shark shields or whatever the fuck they’re called. Maybe she is just a kook?

“It’s working,” she says, still smiling at me. I quirk an eyebrow, but I’m not about to argue. If it is working, then it’s not working very well. I mean, I’m putting on a good show, but I’ll be relieved as fuck when this is over. “Just give it time.”

“Her inventions never work; she’s a nutcase,” North says with a sniff, and clearly, he’s also on edge tonight. It’s either because of last night, or because of whatever’s been going on inside the castle. For the most part, these men, as nonsensical as they are, have been pretty open with me. The only thing they seem to be holding back on is who or what they’re nervous of inside the palace walls.

I wonder why?

“You’ll see,” the White Knight repeats, entirely unaffected by the Duke’s insult. She sweeps long, blonde hair over her shoulder and maintains vigil on the room.

Unfortunately, when the Knave approaches from behind, nobody stops her. After all, she’s a good guy, right? About as pure and innocent as Jafar from the movie Aladdin. I just hope she’s not the King’s ‘most trusted advisor’.

The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, all on a summer day; the Knave of Hearts, she stole those tarts, and took them quite away!” I turn around to meet the Knave’s green-eyed stare as she chuckles politely with her hand over her mouth. I see that she’s donned a gown of her own for the occasion, one that’s made up of yards of black satin and lace. A half-veil covers her pretty face as she looks me over with disdain. “Have you heard that one before, the Alice?”

“What do you suppose that means?” I ask her as the twins move up close on either side of me. At least I know their wings are out, and that each rustle of those beautiful feathers is like a stab to her broken, shriveled little heart.

“I’ve never been much for interpreting prophecy,” she says, glancing over at Lar for a moment. “What do you think, soothsayer, what does it mean?” The Caterpillar gives her a bored stare right back, removing a pipe from the pocket on his red coat and lighting up. He smokes it for a moment and then shrugs his shoulders.

“I only repeat prophecies; I don’t claim to understand them.”

The Knave’s husbands remain behind her, as stoic as statues, their gazes focused on me. I have no idea what their purpose is in this game, but I get the idea that they haven’t made their moves yet—not even close. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

“How … useful,” she says, moving past Dee and purposely hitting him with her shoulder.

Very mature.

“I hope she trips and breaks her face,” I grumble, and notice Lar smiling at me from behind his pipe. He passes it over to me, and I take a hit, recognizing the very distinct scent of the whiting, like lavender and chai tea. Aaaand, now I’m starting to wonder why I didn’t follow my own advice and put on plain cotton knickers like I’d planned. When we start floating during the quintrille, the whole court’s going to get an eyeful of my lingerie. I knew I shouldn’t have worn it! Damn my weak, curious little heart.

“She’ll get hers one day.” The Duke waves his hand lazily before taking the pipe from me, looking far more excited than any sane person ought to at a function like this. I get the idea that he enjoys politics and intrigue. That’s sort of his thing. “Besides, seeing us dance the quintrille is likely to ruin the rest of the evening for her. She’s always dreamed of being center stage in court.”

“It is?” I ask, perking up substantially. “She has?” The cat bats at one of my earrings with a furred paw, and I swat him away. “Shall we dance it now then?”

“It’s generally polite to make conversation with the courtiers first,” the King says, but I’m already rolling my eyes. I pull the Rab-mouse from my pocket and set him on the table. The Cheshire cat gets put on the floor, and I hook my arm with the King’s. I notice the Knave watching me again, and throw her this horribly triumphant look. It stinks of smug, but I just can’t seem to help myself. I’m petty sometimes, so sue me; we all have our faults.

Brennin’s eyes widen in surprise as I drag him toward the center of the room, and the gold medallion design on the floor that I was admiring the other day. This time, I can see it’s the quintrille, laid out step by step around the outer circle. In the center, a King and Queen dance the night away. How fitting.

As soon as our feet hit that medallion, the music stops briefly and a hush falls over the crowd.

“This is entirely unorthodox; the quintrille requires an announcement.” I put the King’s hand on my hip, and his fingers tighten around me, making me gasp. His black eyes gaze down at me from that severe but handsome face of his. He’s a dark horse, this King of Hearts.

“And you’re the King. Try setting the rules instead of following them.” His mouth twitches as the other men slowly gather around us, just like we practiced. The card servant orchestra starts up again with the dark, haunting notes of a cello. Above us, the lights dim until we’ve got nothing but moonlight to see by.

I put my hand on the King’s shoulder, underneath the folds of his cloak, and I try not to notice how warm his body is, how intense his stare. If I let myself, I bet I could drown in his darkness. I would die with wetness in my lungs, but intrigue in my heart.

“Will you, won’t you join the dance?” the King asks, his voice booming above the music, echoing around the ballroom. It’s loud enough to project above the cello’s desperate moans.

“What matters it how far we go?” I whisper, just before the other men begin to move, dancing around us, like river water around rocks.

There is nothing we have to say to one another, so the King and I simply stand there, staring at each other. There’s an intensity to that stare, and it makes me want to fidget. Or run. Instead, I meet him dead-on, waiting for our turn.

As I’d thought, when we begin to move, my dress swishes around my legs, the fabric as bright as the King’s hair, as red as blood.

Our feet begin to lift off the floor, carrying us above the crowd.

I swear though, I don’t see anything but Brennin Red in that moment. It’s as if he’s put me under a spell. The way his hair falls over his brow, the slight gap in the buttons of his robes and the peek of his white shirt beneath them … I literally cannot stop staring. That is, until the pace of the music changes and he breaks his grip on my hand.

“You seem awfully interested,” the Duke purrs as he switches places with the King, twirling me around in the air and teasing my ankle with his tail. I won’t soon forget that he recently fucked me with it. Or that I loved it. Or that I’ll do it again first chance I get. “Decided you like the King now?”

“I never said that,” I whisper back as the music intensifies, the viola singing her notes in a high-pitched wail that brings goose bumps up on my skin.

“No, you never did,” the Duke replies, “but I can see it in your eyes.”

“Bullshit,” I snort, frowning as he kisses me on the cheek, finishing our round before he switches with the Mad Hatter. Of course, they’re both good dancers, but they’re nothing like Lar or the King. I decide to tell Raiden Walker that, and see what happens.

“The King’s a better dancer,” I tease as he holds me in strong arms and manages to catch me before I mess up one of the steps. “What do you think about that?”

“Credit where credit is due, I always say,” he purrs, flashing fang. My neck throbs and aches, but I refuse to touch it. When I showered this morning and went to scrub some of the crusted blood off, I almost fucking came. “Such as last night, when you stood up to me. I liked that.” He leans down and puts his mouth near my right ear. “Although I still plan on making you beg.”

“Fat chance of that ever happening.” I break away from him, falling into Rab’s arms next and loving the way he tosses a challenging glance in the March Hare’s direction. There’s something about their rivalry that interests me. Two Rabbits, two sidekicks to two powerful men. But they’re both much more than just sidekicks. It’s not impossible for me to think of them overcoming the rulers they’re supposed to serve.

“What are you all watching out for?” I ask as his cold hand embraces mine, sparking an intense heat.

“What ever do you mean?” Rab drawls, not even bothering to hide his wicked smile. “You don’t think you’re the only one who’s worried about the Knave, do you?”

My mouth tightens into a thin line.

“If you’re all so worried about her, why doesn’t the King lock her up? Have her questioned at his famous weekly Trial?” I raise a brow, but the White Rabbit doesn’t look like he has any intention of answering me, marching us in a circle around the other men and trading me off to my next partner.

The quintrille … it’s a lot of fucking work.

“Well, hello there, Doll,” March says, sweeping me rather close to him. Much closer than the steps in the dance call for. “Did you miss me?”

“How can I miss you when first off, I don’t even like you. And second, you never go away?” The March Hare laughs at me, flattening his brown ears against his head and causing his small top hat to slide forward until it’s leaning at a rather precarious angle.

“Admit it: you don’t want me to leave.” He smirks at me, but I’m not about to dignify that response with an answer. No point in it anyway because he’s soon handing me off to Tee. This dance, when performed at its proper pace, is breakneck. I feel like I can barely breathe, like I’m as high as I was last night, the edges of the room flickering in psychedelically brilliant hues.

Our eyes lock as we come together in the center of the room, the literal freaking center of the room, halfway between the floor and the domed glass ceiling. In the silver moonlight, the purple streaks in Tee’s hair are twice as bright. I reach up to finger a stray strand and he smiles at me.

“Wondering how I managed to move up from last place?” he asks as I lean into him, breathing in that fresh mountain air scent of his.

“You drew straws?”

I can feel Tee smile against my hair as he spreads his wings wide, letting the full thirty-foot length of his wingspan shine its glory for the entire crowd. And it is fucking magnificent. The purple feathers catch the light the same way his hair does. I can just imagine the Knave, standing down there in the crowd and fuming.

“We drew sugar cubes,” Tee says, and I lift my head away from his chest to give him a questioning look. Of course, then we’re switching partners yet again, and I end up with Dee, grinning his magnanimous grin at me.

“What does drawing sugar cubes entail?” I ask, and he laughs, throwing his head back. The sound echoes around the room, this joyously infectious chortle that makes me smile.

“You pick a cube from the sugar dish, and whoever has the most granules goes first. The person with the least goes last, and everyone else in between.”

“How do you know how many granules are in each cube?” I ask, and Dee squints at me.

“You count them, silly.” Oh, right, of course. Excuse me.

“Does the King have the power to investigate the Knave? Have her locked up or something?” Dee’s smile fades slightly and he tucks his wings in tight, like just the mention of the cursed witch is upsetting to him.

“Not at all,” he says, licking his lower lip and then looking away from me. “Not unless there’s a Queen of Hearts on the throne who agrees to the same punishment. You’ll have to have an official wedding ceremony with the King first, but we can only hold that once the Knave approves.”

“Which will be never?” I manage to grind out between my teeth. This bitch is becoming a silent thorn in my side. I’ve barely spoken a handful of sentences to her and yet, she seems to be around every metaphorical corner I turn.

“She’s only allowed to delay the King’s proposed date twice, and even then only by sixty days. He, of course, proposed you get married either the day you arrived or the day after.”

Shocker.

Dee smiles at me one last time and then spins me to face the Cheshire Cat, looking ridiculously debonair in the suit that Tee picked out for him. It’s a full ensemble—coat, tie, cufflinks in the shape of paw prints. I’m surprised the angel prince actually convinced him to wear it. Since I first met the fucker, he’s been shoeless, mostly shirtless, painted into leather pants.

“I look a fool, don’t I?” he says, flattening his ears against his skull and stumbling over the steps of the dance twice as badly as I am. We must make quite a pair, me and him. Actually, I don’t remember him being as bad of a dancer as this when we practiced. “I feel so constrained, like I can barely move.”

I chuckle at his melancholy expression, remembering the last Halloween before Fred died, when we dressed Dinah up in a tiny hot dog costume. She collapsed to the floor and acted like she couldn’t possibly walk around in it. Oh, cats sure are amusing creatures, aren’t they?

“You look stupid handsome,” I say, giving his collar a tug. He’s still wearing it, along with the tag that has my name on it. He’s got all his piercings in, too, which gives a nice contrast with the crispness of the suit. “If I found you as a stray, I’d most certainly take you home with me.”

One black and white striped ear perks up, but then we both stumble again, and Lar is there to catch us. He steps in a few seconds early and helps correct my form, passing the cat off to the Duke to watch over.

His pale blue-blonde hair makes a nice contrast against the red of his suit jacket.

He’s definitely the best dancer of the group, hands down, even when paired against the King.

“Keep your eyes out tonight,” he whispers, putting his mouth against my ear and making me shiver. “The only prophecy I’ve seen since last night was a broken image in the bathtub. And it was of you, covered head to toe in blood.”

Lar leans back and for just a split second, the confidence in his face is gone, replaced with concern and just a hint of fear.

No wonder everyone’s acting so sketchy.

Before I can think of how to respond to that statement, Lar is cupping my face with his hand and leaning in toward me. He leaves the moment up to me, lets me decide if I want to close that gap or not. I decide to go for it, lifting up on my toes to kiss the Caterpillar’s full mouth.

That asshole of a king interrupts me, cutting into our sequence far before it’s his turn again.

“What the hell was that for?!” I ask, giving him a little shove and hoping like hell he tumbles out of the air and breaks a leg. Instead his hand tightens around mine, his fingers digging into my hip possessively. The look on his face is pure, carnal hell.

“I won a bet during our croquet game, remember?” he growls, and my cheeks flush with a mixture of frustration, embarrassment … and lust. The music comes to an end, and Brennin Red tucks his gloved fingers under my chin, lifting my face toward his. I knew it! I just knew it! He would wait until this moment to collect, wouldn’t he?!

My eyes slide closed of their own accord, just before I feel the hot heat of his lips on mine. His tongue isn’t far behind, invading my mouth and drawing a groan from me that echoes around the quiet ballroom. I’m not even sure if I’m still floating at that point, or if our feet have finally made contact with the floor.

The King does one better and sweeps me up in his arms, crushing me against his much larger frame, holding me like I really am his queen.

My arms go around his neck, and I find myself on my tiptoes, straining for more, desperate for it.

So it’s true: you’re a whore in both worlds.”

That voice … it shatters my blissful little cocoon, and I end up breaking away from the King and stumbling. I spin around, trying to find the source of the voice. It sounds like the Mocking Turtle, but it can’t possibly be, right?

“What is it?” Brennin asks, and in less than a second I’m literally surrounded by all nine men and the White Knight.

If you’d just done what you did with the King, with Liam and his friends, your mother would be free. Your father wouldn’t be broken. And your sister, Edith … oh, what a delicious little tart she is.”

“You leave my sister alone!” I snap, putting my hands on the sides of my heads. How can I hear the Mocking Turtle if he’s not even here? He can’t get inside the walls, remember?

“The Turtle,” Tee says, taking one look at me and catching onto the problem. Perceptive, as usual. He would’ve made an amazing king to his own people. “You shouldn’t have let her look at him so long.”

“Me?” Dee asks, but he’s busy looking around the room as the rest of the men whisper.

“He’s not doing this on his own,” March says, tapping a knife against the palm of one hand. “If she’s hearing him in her head, then he’s got an accomplice in here somewhere.”

My eyes fall on the Knave, frowning at me from the edges of the crowd.

I’m going to go after Edith, and I’m going to have a little taste—the same sort of taste that Liam wanted.” I fucking snap when I hear that, shoving past Chesh and Lar and moving over to the Knave. I don’t even bother to be nice about it. I just grab her by the front of her dress and get in her face.

“You’re doing this, aren’t you?” I choke out, feeling like my skull’s about to explode. “You brought him in here somehow.”

“I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” Ines says, lifting up a hand when her husbands move forward to disengage me. What she does do is smile, which only pisses me off more. “But please, continue. Show the entire court what a useless waste of life you are.”

Oh, please do. Then they’ll lock you up, and Edith will be all mine to snack on.” The Mocking Turtle’s voice drives me up the bloody fucking wall, like nails on a chalkboard, that screeching sound trapped inside my skull where nobody else can hear, nobody else can take the burden off of his awful words.

Shoving my skirt up, I whip the Vorpal Blade out of its sheath and press the mirrored blade against the Knave’s neck. It’s at that point when she actually has the grace to look scared.

Whispers break out amongst the crowd as they all peer at my weapon in wonder.

The Lion is there an instant, swinging his fist right at my goddamn face. To be fair, I do have a knife to his wife’s throat, but I honestly don’t expect it. Brennin Red moves in the flash of an instant, getting between us, but he does end up taking a fist to the face.

The court lets out a collective gasp as blood drips from the King’s mouth, and he reaches up white-gloved fingers to touch the blood, staring at his fingertips for a moment before he gives the Lion a look that the other man won’t soon forget. Me, I’m still standing there holding the Vorpal Blade and wondering what it is that I’ve just gone and done.

“You fool,” the King hisses, turning around and snatching my wrist before tearing the weapon from my hand. He slips the blade back into the sheath, yanks me in the direction of a small door, and charges forward as the crowd parts for him like the Red fucking Sea.


The King of Hearts drags me down a hallway, his white-gloved hand squeezing too tightly on my tender wrist. He throws me against the wall and then slams his palm into the stones near my head.

‘Are you an idiot?!’ he snarls out, his teeth gritted in anger, a muscle ticking in his jaw. He’s panting, his chest rising and falling, speckles of blood decorating his cheeks and lips. There’s just enough light from a flickering torch for me to see the scar that runs from the right corner of his lip and down, slicing right across his throat.

His father … he actively tried to behead him.

Those words echo in my mind as I swallow hard and squeeze my left hand tighter around the hilt of the Vorpal Blade. I shouldn’t have taken it out here; the King warned me as much last night. But I just … got so goddamn pissed. The Mocking Turtle is digging up my worst fears and spattering them around inside my skull like so much carnage. That, and last night was such a blur, it slipped my mind and …

‘Do you want to meet the Anti-Alice today?’ he growls, his ebon eyes flashing as he turns away from me with a scowl. It’s awfully dark back here, and the King smells awfully good. I hate how much I like it, and I hate how I can even notice something like that at a time like this. But I know logically that the Mocking Turtle cannot get to Edith; she’s safe on the other side of the Looking-Glass. I won’t let his words get to me. ‘You just risked everything, and for what?’

‘My pride and dignity,’ I grind out, sniffling and then reaching up with my left hand to rub away some of the King’s blood from my face. I hadn’t realized so much had spattered when he took that punch. ‘I figured at least you would understand that?’

‘Some things are more important,’ he snaps at me, slamming his gloved palm into the wall again for emphasis. I’m just suddenly desperate to know what’s under there. What’s he hiding anyway? Brennin leans in and puts his mouth deliciously close to my ear, his breath warm against my skin. ‘Like the fate of Underland. Not that you give a shit.’

‘You don’t know that!’ I snap back at him, turning my face so fast that our mouths brush together.

There’s this … weird, tense moment between us. It stretches hot and strange, our hatred boiling out and over, tainting the air with pretty poison.

Red’s mouth slams into mine, his hands going to my waist and pushing me back against the wall. He crushes me to it with his body, his gloved hands squeezing my corseted waist tight as he slips them beneath my breastplate. With our matching clothes, and this frightening level of passion, it really does feel like I could be his Queen of Hearts.

He bites my lower lip, sucking it into his mouth, and stealing a groan from my throat at the same time. I think this man is a piece of human garbage, but oh my ears and whiskers, as Rab might say, this is too much. It feels too good, burns too hot, sears my inhibitions away along with my rationality.

The fingers of my right hand fist in his bloodred hair as our mouths work to fire up these sparks into a raging flame. I’m making sounds right now I didn’t even know I was capable of, curling my left hand around the nape of the King’s neck. He’s already soaked in sweat, and I love it. Pretty sure his mouth is dripping blood all over my dress, but it’s already red so who would know? Besides, in that moment, I can’t find it in myself to care about anything but this ardent heat. I need to seek it out to its natural end.

Brennin Red tangles his hands in my full skirts, pushing them up and out of his way. His fingers brush the Vorpal Blade’s sheath as he slides his palm up my inner thigh, over the thigh-highs and garter belt I said I wasn’t going to wear but did anyway. When his fingers brush over the dampness on the front of my panties, my knees buckle and the King puts one of his between them to keep me standing upright.

My only wish right now … is that he keeps his fucking mouth shut.

I keep kissing him with the sole intention of making that happen. Yeah, uh, no, I’m not at all interested in kissing the bastard for any reason other than this. The stupid crown on my head tilts to one side, but doesn’t fall off. Guess that is a useful spell, even if the Knave did cast it.

I move my right hand from Red’s hair to the clasps on the front of his pants, buried underneath his robes. These are not freaking jeans, people. There are way too many buttons, so many that I end up tearing them just to get access to what’s inside.

My fingers slip into Red’s pants and … brush across a hard, metal object.

‘The hell is …’ I start, pushing him back just a bit so I can see what it is that I’m groping. I was aiming for dick and ended up with a bejeweled codpiece?! ‘What on earth …’

‘These are in fashion,’ the King snaps at me, just before he rips his codpiece off and chucks it aside. In case you were wondering what, exactly, a codpiece is, I’ll tell you. It’s a fancy dick cup that was worn by men in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because ladies, dick measuring contests have been around since the dawn of time.

My next kiss cuts off whatever else he was going to say. Frankly, I don’t care. If he keeps talking, I’ll stop wanting to fuck him. And right now, that’s all I want to do.

At least underneath the codpiece is nothing but warm, velvety skin. My fingers curl around the slick length of him, using his sweat as lube. Red growls against my mouth and kisses his way across my jaw and over to my ear, biting my lobe as he teases my clit through my panties. I want them inside now, but I also don’t want to speed the moment along. No, I want to enjoy it. For just a minute, I want to pretend that I am going to marry the King of Hearts and be his Queen, take nine husbands and rule over Underland.

But … why can’t I?

What’s stopping me?

I can just let myself stay here, see if I can finally find out what happiness feels like, tastes like, fucks like.

But back home, I have Edy and Dad and Mom waiting for me.

My heart stutters and cracks, and I open my mouth to ask the King about the Looking-Glass. If I can jump back and forth, then … then this could work. Surely, he’d be willing to compromise?

But then his gloved fingers slip under the fabric of my panties, pushing into the hot slickness of my core and teasing me with crooked motions. He knows all the right places to press to turn my body to jelly.

In response, I tighten my hand on Red’s cock, squeezing hard enough that he makes some accidental noises of his own, too close to animal sounds to be faked. I love it. Running my thumb over the tip of his cock, I feel his hips buck against my hand.

The King moves his mouth back to mine, hovering his lips just out of reach. I try though, leaning up on my tiptoes for his kiss. Because he might be a total fucking prick, but he’s an amazing kisser.

‘My Queen,’ he says, thrusting his fingers deeper inside of me at the same moment he leans down and starts to kiss and lick and nip at my throat. Oh Hearts and Diamonds, I curse inside my own head. Because there’s just no way in hell I can talk aloud right now. The only noises that seem able to escape past the torrid confines of my lips are groans, moans, and whimpers. ‘My Alice.’

Brennin sucks on my skin hard enough that I just know I’m going to have a major hickey, but also just hard enough that I don’t give a shit. With my left arm, I pull him closer, encouraging him to push this up a notch, join our bodies, break this tension.

Guess the King of Hearts is no idiot because he gets the hint, removing his hand from my panties as I extract my own from his pants. He lifts me up against the wall with one arm, my legs automatically wrapping his waist. There’s so much skirt fluff, but he shoves it out of our way with a growl, locking his ebon-dark eyes on my pale blue ones.

There’s nothing to be said, so neither of us bothers.

Instead, the King uses his right hand to push aside my panties, and guides himself to the throbbing heat between my thighs.

Keeping our gazes locked, he thrusts inside of me so hard that I let out a small scream. It feels so good, but he’s so big, and the sensation of him is so foreign. When I try to bury my face in his neck to stifle my sounds of pleasure, he cups my face with one gloved hand and forces me to keep looking at him, pumping his hips in a hard, fast, frenzy. It’s so quiet down this hallway, with just the two of us, that all I can hear is the wet sound of our joining.

My eyes get half-lidded, and my mouth parts for his, letting him slide his tongue in against mine, letting him claim me and loving every second of it. This is so different from North’s animal instincts, from Dee’s loving nature, Tee’s reserved confidence. This is … probably seriously fucking unhealthy. And yet, I’ve never felt such a rush before.

I’m completely flooded by passionate hate, and craving ardent ire.

“I hate you so much,” I manage to choke out, and the King makes a sound, kissing me hard enough to bruise. He fucks my ass into that wall so roughly that I know I’m going to be scratched and bruised, and yet, I find myself losing control, my muscles clamping down around him. I’m freaking coming before he does, wiggling and fighting against his movements as pleasure destroys me.

The King comes with this angry, frustrated sound that soon finds its way to this horrid superiority and triumph that I so desperately want to punch off of his face. He finishes inside of me and then collapses against the wall, crushing our bodies together.

What. The. Fuck. Have I just done?


‘Your majesty,’ Tee says from the end of the hallway. As soon as I hear his voice, strained and tense, it’s like a bucket of cold water’s been thrown over my face. The King separates us and fixes his pants before setting me down.

I’m panting and soaked in sweat, but suddenly ice-cold.

I push my skirts down and turn to face Tee with guilt riding heavy on my shoulders. I’m supposed to ask the other members of my, uh, harem before taking a new guy, right? Did I just … cheat? God, I have no idea how this whole thing works.

‘Yes?’ the King asks, his voice that deep, annoying know-it-all baritone that made me want to stab him with the Vorpal Blade the first moment I met him. But the way he looks at Tee, it’s not like a King looking at his servant. It’s an alpha male sizing up a threat.

‘We have two dead guards in the kitchen, and no idea what or who is in the castle with us. The White Rabbit says he doesn’t sense anything else out of the ordinary, but clearly, something’s going on.’ Tee bites this last part off the end of his tongue, flicking his amethyst eyes to one side. He’s not mad at me … he’s fucking terrified.

I listen for the Mocking Turtle’s voice inside my head, but it’s gone. At least for right now. Or maybe I just couldn’t hear it over our furious grunting and groaning? Gross. A hot flush fills my face. There’s a strange silence in the hallway, broken only by the music from the ballroom which is still playing. Surely, if something nefarious was going on, the music would stop?

‘Bring me the Du—’ Red starts, cutting off abruptly and yanking what I thought was a decorative sword from his belt. He spins just in time to intercept the Gryphon’s blade, looking boss as hell even with his robes gaping open and several buttons missing on the front of his pants. The King raises a boot and kicks his opponent in the stomach, knocking him back several feet.

Tee’s at my side, tearing out the Vorpal Blade and putting it back in my hand.

I give him a look, but he just shakes his head.

‘It’s too late now; come with me,’ he says, but the Gryphon is using the tight space to his advantage, filling the hallway with his wings and using the extra appendages to attack the King. Now, I’m not sure I even like the prick, but he’s one of the few threads holding Underland together. Snap that, and everything falls apart.

I break away from Tee’s grip and head for the battle, intending to step in with the Vorpal Blade … or maybe a little bit of magic, and turn the tide. But I’m not faster than a fallen angel prince. He cuts me off by thrusting one of his wings in front of me and yanking me back.

‘We need to go now,’ he snaps, gritting his teeth and pleading at me with his eyes to listen. ‘Where do you think all the guards are? Clearly not on their way here. The Mocking Turtle must be in the castle somewhere.’ He yanks me back and I stumble, watching as he moves his black and blue feathers out of the way to reveal the King struggling in his fight with the Gryphon. It looks like the two men are pretty evenly matched. If this were to play out to the finish line, well, I wouldn’t be making bets on a winner.

We need to get help for the King, but I see Tee’s point.

If I die, there’s not just a paltry thirty-five percent chance to save Underland … there’s nothing at all.

I let Tee pull me down the hallway, but when we reach a T-shaped intersection, both sides are littered with the bodies of card servants, and the Mocking Turtle is waiting for us.

‘Hello Alice,’ he says, whistling a tune under his breath as he leans against the wall, hands tucked into his pockets. He lifts his dark eyes to mine, their murky, swampy color making my stomach churn. ‘You really have saved a lot of lives today—we were going to slaughter everyone inside the ballroom to get to you. But popping down to the catacombs for a fuck? Brilliant.’

Tee puts me behind him, spreading his wings to block off the hallway, as he removes his knife from his belt. I push his feathers out of my way, so I can see what’s happening. Behind me, the King continues to struggle with the Gryphon, the clank of their blades echoing against the stone.

Whipping my attention back to M.T., I catch sight of his eyes flicking briefly up to the ceiling and then back down to Tee just a split-second before he launches an attack, yanking out a knife of his own.

But it’s that quick flick of the eyes that saves me.

I spin around just in time to see a girl fall from the ceiling.

She doesn’t come from a secret hatch in the wall though, no, it looks like she was simply clinging to the stone like a spider.

When she does land, she twists her body in a way that I just know isn’t natural. If I were to move like that, my spine would break.

I adjust my grip on the Vorpal Blade and take a deep breath, waiting for the girl to lift her face and look at me. She smells like death, but not the sickly sweetness of fresh death, more like cobwebs and dust and forgotten tombs. When she lifts her head, I recognize her and almost choke.

‘Edy?’ I whisper, because for the briefest of moments, the woman—if you can even call her a woman—looks just like my little sister. Or me. Fuck, she looks like me. But this is no dark version of Allison Liddell; this is someone else entirely. And this is a someone else I feel I should recognize, but don’t.

Her mouth is black, her skin gray, her hair as white as bones, but her eyes are as blue as my own.

I take a step back, an icy shiver working its way through my blood. Moments ago, I was gettin’ hot and sweaty with the King of Hearts. Now, I’m staring at something that could very well be my own corpse.

The Anti-Alice.

This is the Anti-Alice.

I move my feet apart into a fighting stance. Because I know for fucking sure I’m going to have to fight right now; there’s no way around it. All those lessons with North, I hold them close to my heart and take a deep breath. If I’m good at anything, it’s reacting well to a stressful situation. Well, at least good at reacting. Like how I chased Rab after he shot Brandon. I mean, it’s better than freezing up, right? Even if I do make mistakes.

The Anti-Alice is wearing a ratty pink bow on her head. It’s rotted away at the ends and riddled with holes, but somehow seems important. It’s the only thing on her entire body that’s in color. She’s literally a color study in black, gray, and white. And she’s wearing a dress that’s eerily similar to the one Edith gifted me, with a skirt that goes to the knees, short sleeves, and a dirty white apron. It’s black and white striped, like an old prison uniform, but it’s pretty, in a morbid dishabille sort of way.

Well, okay, so I lied about the pink ribbon being the only color on her body … that white apron is spattered in blood.

She stares me down for what feels like hours, but what I know can only be seconds.

There are wounds all over her body, rough and scarred over but clearly visible against the ashy gray of her skin. Her nails are black and chipped at the ends, but far too long and sharp for any normal person. I can’t take my eyes off of them as they curl around a curved sickle blade that looks like it’s made of bone.

She doesn’t say anything, but the way she looks at me says it all: I’m going to consume you, Alice.

There’s a—how should I put this—lack of energy in the air around her, like she’s sucking the color from the world. I can feel her disturbing lack of power as strongly as I can sense the blood flowing through my veins. Whatever she … it … is, it isn’t human.

When the girl runs her black tongue over her lower lip, I know I’m in trouble.

This is going to hurt, I think, seconds before she throws herself at me like a rag doll or a zombie, like she has no bones and exists as simply as ashes in the wind. I barely manage to stumble out of the way of her weapon. It crashes into the wall next to my face, shattering the stone into pieces. Shards rain down on the back of my head as I roll out of the way, narrowly avoiding a second blow that slams into the floor inches from my face. Some rainbow strands of hair flutter away as they’re sliced off.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, I think as I struggle and fail to get to my feet, slipping on the shards of debris and thanking whatever spirits or gods are listening that I’m wearing thick-soled boots instead of regular heels.

My skirts wrap around my legs as I fall on my ass with a grunt, keeping my hand wrapped around the hilt of the Vorpal Blade only with serious effort on my part. All I have to do is stab her, but there’s no chance for it. She’s on top of me before I can even think about lifting up the blade. Her sickle sword comes down at me with a speed that’ll probably sever my head from my neck.

I have just long enough to recognize that fact, but not enough time to do a damn thing about it.

The Mad Hatter’s cane whips down and deflects the blade, sparing my head. Arms go under my pits and drag me to my feet—it’s March—and then haul me out of harm’s way, trading places with Raiden Walker.

He flips off his black top hat with his cane, and pulls out a revolver from underneath it, leveling it on the undead girl’s face and pulling the trigger. Instead of sparks and gunpowder, the weapon releases a net that drags the Anti-Alice to the ground with a wicked screech. It’s ten fucking times worse than the jabberwocky noises, and I feel hot crimson liquid draining from my ears.

‘Let’s go,’ March says, hoisting me up and holding me in his arms like a baby. Not my favorite position, but I’ll take this over decapitation.

‘Tee!’ I scream because the Anti-Alice is already clawing her way out of the net, and the Hatter is already on his way back over to us, leaving the angel prince alone with two enemies instead of one.

The King is still fighting the Gryphon, but now there are men in black armor, decorated with clubs. Soldiers sent by the King of Clubs, aka the Carpenter. Fuck. Brennin’s outnumbered almost ten to one.

‘Oh, get on with it, would you, Your Majesty?’ Raiden rumbles, but even he sounds stressed.

The vampire mercenary badass that the fucking dragon doesn’t think he can beat … is nervous.

As I watch, the King rips off one of his gloves and reveals a palm as red as his outfit. He slams it into the chest of the nearest man. The effect is instantaneous. Blood begins to pour from the guard’s mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. And his screams, they echo like nightmares in the skulls of the insane.

The guard’s head twists around in a circle … and then his neck splits, decapitating him.

What. The. Fuck?!

Red does the same to the next guard, and the next, and the next.

There’s so much fucking blood. No wonder his name is friggin’ Red—he’s painting the roses red, that’s for sure.

‘We have to save Tee,’ I scream, fighting my way from March’s arms, so that I’m standing on the stone floor again. I’m penned in between him and the Hatter, and neither of them look all that interested in giving into my request.

Actually, they’re not looking at me at all.

‘Do we take her to the Looking-Glass?’ Raiden asks, staring instead at the King. Red manages to take out the guards, but the Gryphon is another matter entirely. I notice Red doesn’t even try his magic hand technique on his sparring partner.

‘The entire palace is overrun with Clubs,’ March says, looking up. His ears twitch and he bares his teeth in a snarl. As if in response to his statement, the sounds of pounding boots echoes from overhead.

‘Are they here?’ the Hatter asks, his question sharp and jagged as it rolls off of his tongue. They? Who’s they? The Gryphon and the Mocking Turtle are already here. He doesn’t mean … the Walrus and the Carpenter, does he?

‘If the Anti-Alice is here, it’s safe to assume they’re nearby,’ March says, turning at the sound of shattering stone behind us. The wall caves in from the right and a jabberwock head snakes through with a hiss.

And this jabberwock is not the Duke of Northumbria, I can tell you that.

The face is all wrong, and the eyes are black, not gold. It screams at us and continues to dig and scrabble at the stone. If we don’t hurry, it’ll block our way completely and we’ll be trapped in here.

While Raiden and March are distracted, I turn and run in Tee’s direction.

The Anti-Alice is already coming at me, her skirts catching on her legs as she sprints full-tilt down the hallway, shattering the glass sconces on the wall as she passes. She doesn’t even have to touch anything to bring destruction.

I stop suddenly, my full skirts billowing around me as I feel the tingle of my own magic. I can’t use it on her, but I can make an assist, right? Using what little power I can summon on short notice, I chuck the Vorpal Blade as hard as I can. It embeds itself in the Anti-Alice’s throat, and she stops dead in her tracks, choking on blood. It pours out of her mouth and down her throat in a crimson waterfall. But I’m already running again, shoving past her and pulling out the knife March gave me. The poison sparkles on the edge like glitter.

‘Tee!’ I scream, but he’s too locked up in the fight to turn and face me. Doesn’t matter. I can’t leave him here to die. There are Club soldiers streaming down the halls on both sides. Tee’s holding his own against M.T., but it’s only a matter of time before he’s overrun.

I move up beside him and stab the small blade into the Mocking Turtle’s shoulder. Because of their violent struggle, it’s the only place I can aim for that I know I won’t hit the angel, too.

The Mocking Turtle barely acknowledges that I’ve stabbed him, not at first. But then I figure the poison must be setting in because he’s shoving Tee away and stumbling back into the onslaught of soldiers.

I snatch Tee’s hand and take off.

‘What a stupid move,’ Raiden says, but he picks me up and throws me over his shoulder while Tee follows along behind us. On our way past the King, Raiden tosses his gun to March, and the man fires off another net, pinning the Gryphon just long enough for Brennin to join us.

I notice then that the Vorpal Blade is in March’s other hand, and the Anti-Alice is nowhere to be seen. So where the fuck did she go?!

Now we’re all running down the hallway, slipping past the jabberwock before she—because this just has to be a she—cuts off our exit completely.

Red leads the way, taking us up a set of narrow stairs and into what I’m assuming is a servant’s hallway.

This is where Tee showed me the Looking-Glass, I think as we round the corner and run straight into Dee. He’s holding his cell phone in his hand and smiling tightly.

‘Thanks for the text,’ he says, blood spattered across the front of his new shirt. It’s sticky and glossy, making the fabric cling to the hard planes of his chest. ‘I might’ve gone down the main hall and gotten myself killed.’

Dee pushes past us, opens up the main screen on his phone … and hits the bomb icon.

With a whistle, he chucks it back in the direction we came. It lands on the floor with the sound of shattering glass, cogs and wheels scattering across the stones.

‘Go!’ Dee screams as our ragtag little group pushes around the corner seconds before the jabberwock scrambles up the hall behind us. There’s the distinct smell of sulfur in the air and then … boom.

The phone explodes with so much force that we’re thrown forward. The Mad Hatter manages to keep me in his arms as he rolls, shielding me from any injury. When he stands up, he sets me down and then steps aside for the King, watching as the man unlocks the door with a simple wave of his hand. He doesn’t even need the key that Tee stole.

‘What about North?’ I ask, panting and choking on the smell of smoke. There are spatters of blood and gore on the walls behind us, the heat of the flames chasing along the tapestries and carpets in our direction. ‘Lar? Chesh? Rab?’

‘Not our problem,’ Raiden grinds out as Brennin opens the door and steps aside to let us in.

‘Not your problem, you mean,’ I scream, shoving him away from me, feeling this frantic energy clawing at the inside of my throat. I put my palm against my chest, feeling my heartbeat fighting to escape my skin. ‘The prophecy says the Alice has nine husbands, right? So what happens if four of them die here today?!’

Ugh, I’m overreaching like crazy, I think as the five men in the room stare at me like I’ve completely and utterly lost the plot, as North might say.

Sapphire, amethyst, ebon, chocolate, and marmalade. Those are the colors blinking back at me with disbelief and anger and frustration. And like, there’s no way in hell I’m committing to all these guys, but I’m also too invested in them to let them die. Lory’s in there, too, somewhere with Dodo and Eaglet, and if I can, I’ll find her, too. Oh, fuck, and the White Knight! I can’t leave them all behind.

I move to the leave the room, and the King steps in front of me, looking down at me with this wild expression on his face that both turns me on and infuriates me at the same time.

‘Get in the Looking-Glass, Alice,’ he whispers, low and dangerous. I glare at him as the March Hare slides up beside me and forcibly curls my fingers around the hilt of the Vorpal Blade.

‘Go to hell,’ I growl out, but Red is grabbing me by the arm so hard that I let out a small scream. He shoves me back and into Tee and Dee and they wrap their arms around either one of mine. ‘Fucking traitors!’ I scream, thrashing against their grips.

With another wave of his red palm, the King orders the giant chess pieces aside as if they’re as harmless as puppies.

‘Take her Topside and don’t come back until I send for you,’ Red says, moving toward the door and pausing to put his glove back on. Now that I know what he can do with his hands—in more ways than one—I’m even more terrified and turned-on by him. Not a healthy combination, is it?

As he moves away, he gives me a dark look, curses under his breath and slams the door behind him. I hear several locks slide into place.

Is he going back for the others?

There’s no way to find out because the twins are turning me around and leaving me to face my own reflection. Now that the mirror’s magic has been … enabled, or whatever, it’s as wild as a storm. The silver surface stirs up my image, creating a disturbing mess of color that’s supposed to be me.

The gold and silver nightmare leans against the wall, like a wonky melted caricature of a real mirror. The edges are inlaid with carvings of all four suits, and there’s a single red heart at the top. It’d be a pretty mirror, if I had time to fucking admire such things.

As it were, Tee’s putting his mouth close to my ear and whispering in a tense, low voice, ‘I’m sorry, Allison,’ and then he and Dee are shoving me forward and into my own messy reflection. There’s no time for me to scream or wonder if this is going to work. I slip straight through the liquid silver, my hands and arms blurring to a bright silvery mist as I start to fall. Much like the Rabbit-Hole, there’s this sense that I’ve reached a new reality, like I’ll just be falling forever and ever and I should get used to it.

This fall, however, doesn’t last nearly as long.

For a few seconds there, I’m suspended in a silver liquid, falling and drowning at the same time. In the next instant, I’m tumbling out of the mirror above the living room fireplace and landing in a messy heap on the carpet.

Dinah arches her back, hissing at me, while my little sister Edith rises to her feet … and starts to scream.


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