Those puffy white clouds that had gathered early that late afternoon had culminated into dark cumulonimbus clouds during the evening. However, the Red Queen did not pay any attention to the approaching storm. She could not be bothered. More urgent matters were pressing on her and the only storm that worried her was the one called Alice.

"Someone must know something," began the Red Queen, as she unraveled the Oraculum.

Standing back, Stayne listened to his queen as he set aside a red rose. He wasn't happy either; Alice had eluded him. Since Um entered his life, he would have much preferred to stay at Salazas Grums. However, until the elusive Alice was captured, he really could not pursue Um. The Red Queen would look to him to lead more search parties to find Alice.

"She cannot remain hidden without some one giving her aid. If you find her conspirators, you can draw her out," said the Red Queen as she paced in her chambers. "And if you must tear up Underland to find her then do it. I don't care what you have to do, just find her. We cannot let her succeed."

"Majesty, I will do what it takes," he said almost automatically.

After setting aside the care-worn parchment scroll on a coffee table, Iracebeth wondered what compelled Alice to want to come back to Underland in the first place let alone to want to slay her dear Jabberwocky. What was drawing her back? What puzzled her though was what happened after that day. While this mysterious scroll showed events that would happened in the future, it somehow did not show beyond Frabjous day. It was perplexing and disturbing.

Iracebeth had never been an avid believer that fate was determined by outside influence nor was it firmly fixed in writing. She thought that was nonsense. Instead, she believed in making her own future and did not especially buy into the notion that her destiny was dictated by an ancient scroll. However, she did believe in seizing the moment. Still seeing Alice confronting her Jabberwocky did not bode well with her as portrayed on the ancient parchment. Alice looked like an avenging angel attacking her pet. It unnerved her but Iracebeth vowed she would fight this to the end.

"You must find Alice, Stayne," continued the Red Queen anxiously, as she resumed her nervous pacing in her chambers.

Then the Red Queen had a horrible thought wondering if Alice was at Mamoreal but she dismiss that thought. There wasn't proof that she was; her spies had not given her indication that Alice was with her sister.

So long as her beloved Jabber-baby-wocky was alive, her rule was cemented. She had learned that fear backed up with force was the way to keep her in power. It never occurred to Iracebeth until now that her rule could hinge on her favorite pet. Her one and only ferocious pet. She had never had concerned herself but then again she didn't pay attention to the ancient parchment. Why should she? She had her Knave, her soldiers, and other pets. Once this crisis was over she would entertain other options but for now, she had only one.

"Without the Jabberwocky, my sister's followers will surely rise against me," she added ominously.

Stayne had learned enough to discern Iracebeth emotions whether they were subtle or overt. His existence depended on it. You didn't become a Knave of Hearts by being a white hat. He knew that Iracebeth was not one to be overly frightened but seeing her anxiously pace about made him inwardly concerned and he began to ponder his options.

Yet this wasn't the first time he had seen her overly fretful. The discovery of her husband's infidelity had emboldened her to take action and he had been on her side almost immediately without hesitation. This time though he was cautious as he took what the Oraculum illustrated seriously.

"My ugly little sister," she said in disgust and slightly shook her head in dismay. "Why do they adore her but not me?" said Iracebeth somewhat miserable as she walked to her balcony.

"I cannot fathom it, you are far superior," said Stayne as he stood by. "You always are . . ." Stayne bit back when he almost said 'were'.

At her small balcony, Iracebeth took a breath of fresh air waiting for the impending storm.

Lately, so much was on her mind that it weighed heavily on her small shoulders. Looking down at the moat, she imagined her dilemma to be a rock or a parcel that she could simply jettison over the balcony and be free of her troubles. She longed to be free of this crushing burden. If it only could be that easy as she smiled wryly.

"Mirana can make anyone fall in love with her," began the Red Queen despondently. "Men . . . Women . . ."

Glancing back at her chamber for a moment, she looked at her furnishing hearing a few grunts and squeaks. A pink flamingo, her newest acquisition, stood still next to her other furniture.

"Even the furniture. . ."

"And even my parents . . ." she murmured to herself and looked back at the menacing evening sky.

To this day, Iracebeth could not understand what people really saw in Mirana. All her little sister had to do was to flutter her eyelashes and twirl her hands, and whorl about thereby compelling her intended audience to do her bidding. It wasn't fair as Iracebeth looked out into the night sky watching the lighting bolts flash by. She could give out just as much love too. Moreover, it was galling that her parents had fallen for that time after time and had given Mirana the crown.

"Even the King," Stayne added, as he stood near Iracebeth and peered out of the balcony.

Glancing below at the moat again, she saw heads floating. Always floating but never sinking as they bobbed about. As a very sore topic, she wished that it would submerge deep down in her subconscious or better yet vanish. However, those thoughts and feelings came bubbling up and surfaced back up into her consciousness, which served as a constant reminder.

"Had to do it, he would have left me," said Iracebeth, gloomily, as she braced herself and held tightly to the balcony ledge.

Unseen from Stayne her face betrayed a mixture of anguish, remorse and sadness. It had pained her deeply that it had come to this.

She had no choice, though. It was a matter of survival; in fact, it was a tactical decision. Not only would her husband would have left her but she also would have been the one eliminated, if not beheaded on some pretext. After all beheading did not arise from her rule nor did she invent it. She'd been aware of this gruesome form of punishment from her parents and her husband. As soon as Iracebeth had concrete evidence, she acted swiftly not only to punish him but more to protect her own her life.

On a different level, she was immensely hurt at his betrayal. Not prone to violence Iracebeth was more of a passionate woman who had the propensity to be emotionally heated and expressed her feelings vocally. However, when someone she sincerely trusted had deceived her heart, she suffered profoundly and she responded with intense ferociousness. It surprised her that she reacted this way but her sense of pride had been wounded. While she wanted to safeguard her own life, she wasn't about to be treated as a castoff nor she was going to let her ugly little sister have her husband.

Seeing Iracebeth's shoulders slightly sag, Stayne knew better than to press her any further. Still he was concerned for her. The Red Queen had hardly spoken about it and thus he never pushed her too much. He knew better. Yet, he couldn't help wonder lately if her more than usual amount of outbursts and unreasonable orders were somewhat connected. Somewhat protective and slightly possessive of her, he came closer to her within an arm length but gave her enough space for privacy. From experience, he also knew better than to invade her space and respected her solitude.

"Majesty is not better to be feared than to be loved," he asked gravely.

"Not certain anymore," she said slowly, as she gazed at the thunderstorm. She suddenly wished it would rain. The nighttime air felt so oppressive.

"How would you answer that question?" asked Iracebeth without looking back.

"Majesty, my opinion does not count in this matter. I'm a just a Knave."

Iracebeth wasn't too surprise at the answer and didn't berate him. He wasn't in the position to rule but she did value his inputs and she always liked to hear his thoughts. These moments were most lonely and she was glad that Stayne was near by but at the same time not too close. She did not need another emotional breakdown; she had to remain in control.

"Stayne, you don't have to tip toe around. Your opinion does matter to me," she pressed.

As a man torn several directions, he could barely think straight. Lately, he seemed to react more on emotions and his heart was dictating his actions. It was as if his heart was muddling his brain and was taking over the thinking process. This wasn't like him to behave so rash. He used to have such a cool head with a warm heart; however, that changed the moment when Um came into his life.

His heart now tugged in two directions. While he understood and respected fear, all he could think now was love. He rather Iracebeth think about fear as he thought about love. While he searched his mind for something to say, he chose his words carefully. Love clouded his mind as he stood beside his queen.

"It depends on the situation," he said after several moments.

She agreed. It really depended on what the conditions were. Still she wasn't sure of anything anymore either and this vexed her. Even more frustrating, she would vacillate between fear and love. When it came to being a monarch, she wasn't sure which applied and which for which moment as she ruled. She wondered how parents in particular her father managed. At the time, she never really fully appreciated or took note of his style.

Iracebeth naturally assumed she was going to rule but that changed when the crown bypassed her. With her husband, she'd come to realize he was an unflappable idiot: totally useless when he 'ruled'. He won the respect or more like fear by default; the kingdom was backed by her father's soldiers. Her husband had been a mere figurehead and had no more power than a king chess piece.

She wondered if there was any answer at all.

In fact, the moment she became the sole ruler of Crims it was never the same. She had never considered the responsibilities that she suddenly that fell on her lap. While she delegated those responsibilities, she was still aware. She never wanted to be feared. She much preferred to be loved like her sister. As a monarch, she strived to be a ruler without employing too much fear but now she was having doubts. It was a delicate if not difficult balance to effectively rule. What irked her was how her sister could instill loyalty with her brand of kindness without using fear. As far as she could remember However, she quickly turned around to her Knave.

Looking into his eyes, being queen suddenly seemed less important and everything became very clear. If it came down to choosing between her crown and her Knave of Hearts, Iracebeth knew what she would pick as she approached him.

"Let her have the rabble. I don't need them," said the Red Queen gently and threw her arms around him. "I have you."

Burying her face in his torso, she savored him while feeling a sense of security. She wanted to forget, especially her burdens. Suddenly, she wanted him and pressed closer to him hoping he would get the hint.

"Yes, I have you and that's all I want right now," she murmured after several moments burying her head in his chest. "We have each other and that's all that matters."

For once Stayne stiffen and inwardly flinched at her touch. Normally he would oblige her and would happily carry her to her bed. However, for the first time he had no love for her. It wasn't that he despised her but rather the love was simple gone and in its place was emptiness. His thoughts were now with the mysterious woman, Um.

On a different note, he had known Iracebeth for so long that it did not feel like love that he once desired. It didn't feel fresh and intimate anymore. To him it felt like friends having sex. Before Um step into the picture he'd put up with the Red Queen and sensed that it was time to part ways. He no longer wanted the Red Queen nor did he want to be her lover. The desire was gone. The selfish side of him was ready for a change. At this point, she was nothing but an anchor that weighed him down.

Somewhat of a military man, he could see the writing on the wall. Her rule was in peril. Not really a pious man, Stayne did take prophecies seriously and he firmly believed in this particular prediction. However, he promised to be loyal to the Red Queen as long as he could until the moment it became disadvantageous for him. As Knave of Hearts, he owed her that much. But as a man he had to look out for himself.

He held his breath as she continued to hug him. Hoping that it did not lead to anything else tonight, he braced himself and began to think of an excuse to extricate himself without upsetting her.

Sensing her lover's reluctance, Iracebeth looked up at him and searched his eyes trying to engage him. Somewhat detached, he appeared preoccupied and exhausted. She guessed he was concerned with her plight and her well-being, and backed away slightly. Or maybe he was still upset when she let the mad man be her hatter. She wanted to hold him but she wanted to be held as well. However, she was not going to beg.

"Ilosovic," began Iracebeth softly. "Don't worry about that mad man, my heart belongs to you. I may have behaved somewhat silly but it's you I want."

Saying nothing, Stayne attentively looked at Iracebeth. He thought it was ironic, almost amusing at the turn of events. If Um had not shown up he would have cared but now he didn't. If fact, he wished Iracebeth would chase after this lunatic. It would make things easier for him; he did not want Iracebeth's heart anymore. He wanted Um. His heart ached for Um but yet he had a twinge of guilt as he stood with Iracebeth. How do you say no to the Red Queen of Hearts without breaking her heart?

"My love go and rest," she said after several moments. "We'll spend quality time together another time."

"Majesty," he bowed and quickly turned on his heel.

Iracebeth stood there watching Stayne leave and had sinking feeling of dread. Usually, when he left she was missing him terribly. For some inexplicable reason she felt she was losing him.