Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.
Author's Note: I'm semi-back! I say semi because the inspiration for this chapter hit me rather suddenly, so I can't guarantee that I'm back for good. I'm afraid if I do, what just came before this update will happen again, so - I'm afraid, at the moment, to make promises. But I still remember where this story is going, and even came up with a new twist (yes, I know, another one), so there is still hope. Thank you all so much for your patience during my hiatus, I really appreciate how understanding and kind you all were. I really hope this chapter was worth the wait, and thank you all again from the bottom of my heart!
Alice became so lost in her thoughts after Mirana's revelation that she nearly missed dinner. She had only enough time to throw on the first dress her hand fell upon and slide her feet into velvet slippers; even at that, she had to rush to arrive at the informal dining hall in time.
To her relief, she and Nivens McTwisp arrived at the same time. As usual, he was grasping his pocket watch and muttering frantically about being late, which wasn't very inspiring, but at least Alice was not the only person to arrive last.
Tarrant popped to his feet when he saw her, smiling as he held out her chair for her to slip into. She smiled up at him as he pushed her chair in, then resumed his own. "Everything all right?" he asked her quietly.
"Yes." It was a Lie, through and through, but she couldn't tell him the truth. Not yet.
Outside, thunder rumbled ominously as wind and rain pelted the castle's stone walls.
At the head of the table, Mirana talked, laughed, generally acted like there was nothing wrong. But beneath the veneer of her royal mask, they could all see how concerned she was about what was going on. She'd solved one major problem, but half a dozen others had popped up in its place. She had no idea where to begin to take care of these.
Alice spread her napkin on her lap before reaching for her teacup. She was a reasonable distance down the table from the Queen, so she felt safe asking Tarrant about something that had been nagging at her for a while. "Tarrant? Have storms like these ever struck Marmoreal before?"
His light green eyes flashed briefly toward the White Queen, then away just as quickly. "Aye. Once."
That didn't look good. "What caused it?" she pressed. Alice had to force herself to pick up her fork so she could eat. She couldn't let anyone else at the table know something was amiss.
Tarrant cleared his throat. "I was training to be Royal Hatter at the time," he admitted in a low voice. "The White Queen was still the White Princess at the time, in training to become the sole ruler of Underland. Now you must understand that you are not the only Otherlander to visit. There have been others, and not all have been Alices. There was one who came…" His eyes darkened, and he sighed deeply. Once more, his gaze slid to the queen.
Alice wondered what memories were going through his mind. Leaning a little closer, she took his cue to keep her voice low as she whispered, "What? What happened?" Had the Otherlander tried to hurt the then-princess?
"Being one of the rarest of Visitors from Otherland, he was naturally welcomed into the Court with all the circumstance and hails that are to be expected of such an Esteemed Visitor. It was there he first encountered the White Princess, and their attraction was immediate. Queen Mirana and the Visitor - we do not say his name, for fear of the Bad Time coming around again, you see - courted for a while. They were very much in love."
Though Underland was generally a place of Happy Endings, Alice was beginning to get the feeling that this story did not have a happy ending. "It ended badly, didn't it?" She could barely get the question past her throat, which had seized a bit in dread.
Sighing, Tarrant nodded. "Aye. The Red Princess was so jealous of her sister's suitor - because, you see, he wouldn't even look at her, let alone fall in love with her - that she poisoned their father's mind against him. Queen Mirana managed to convince her father not to kill him, but he was forced to leave Underland and told that if he ever returned, he would be killed immediately."
It took great control not to look at Mirana, who had trilled a laugh at that moment, blissfully ignorant of Alice and Tarrant's dark conversation. "But surely after - well, after her coronation, and she became queen-?"
Her Hatter's eyes had faded to a pale grey. "Time moves very differently in Underland and Otherland, Alice. By the time Mirana gained the throne, her suitor - forced back into a place where Time moves much faster - was long dead. She sent scouts into Otherland to make sure, on the desperate hope that he might still live, but…" He looked down at his plate, which was still mostly full. "She swore to never take another Suitor again in her life."
Alice had to blink back the tears that had immediately gathered in her eyes. "That is horrible," she whispered. "Not the part about her not taking another Suitor - I understand that part. But about her father forcing them apart, making him return to Otherland, knowing he would die before Queen Mirana could see him again."
"Aye. The day her Suitor was forced out of Underland, she was so angry, so heartbroken, that a storm the likes of which we had never seen before - and haven't seen again, till now - overtook the Queendom for a long while. Underland, while of a mind of her own, will shift to match the moods of Important Persons, such as a Royal. Particularly if that Person's emotion is one as powerful as Heartbreak."
Alice once more looked toward the head of the table. Now she understood a little more about the Queen, who always seemed so sad beneath her outward appearance of peace and happiness. In her eyes there had always been pain, even on the day she'd gotten her crown back from her sister. At the time Alice had thought it was because she'd had to banish Iracebeth, and perhaps that had been part of it. But now she wondered if Mirana had been thinking about and missing her lost love.
Outside, wind continued to whistle past the windows, driving sheets of rain against the glass. It almost seemed as if night had come early, but it was just that cloudy outside. Night and day blended into one in the storm. It showed no signs of stopping any time soon.
Staring down at her plate, she halfheartedly pushed the food around to make it look like she'd eaten more than she had. Thackery was a wonderful cook, but she just couldn't build up the appetite to do the feast justice. A single thought kept churning in her mind, growing by the minute. "Tarrant?" she said quietly.
He looked up from where he'd been lackadaisically rearranging his own food. "Yes?" he looked desperate for something, anything, to talk about.
However, Alice had a feeling he wouldn't like what she had to say. "I was just thinking about something. Is it possible that this storm is a cover for something, or maybe a distraction?"
Tarrant sighed, the brightness fading from his clothes a bit. "The same thought had occurred to me," he said gloomily. "I was hoping it was just me."
"And I was hoping it was just me." Alice dropped her fork, deciding she would just sip at her tea. "Isn't there anything we, or the Queen, can do to stop this? If not what's coming, at least the storm?"
"I think she's been trying. You can see how well that went." Tarrant hesitated for a long moment, eyes shifting rapidly between blue and grey. "The truth is, I don't know if she can stop it. Whoever is controlling the weather is very powerful. They would have to be."
Alice bit her lower lip, remembering what Mirana had said earlier about her sister. "Could it be the Bluddy Begh Hid?" she asked, unconsciously using the Outlandish name the Red Queen had earned.
Suddenly Hatter's face looked very haggard. "The White Queen said something to you, didn't she?"
Reluctantly, Alice nodded. "Yes, she did. She's dropped several hints that she thinks that might be behind all this. That that might be one of the reasons I had to return to Underland."
"Aye. Underland is not the same without an Alice to defend it. And with you being The Alice, things flourish so much better when you're around. The world is balanced again."
Alice shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not that important," she muttered. "I slew a Jabberwocky. Surely Underland doesn't depend on me that much."
Tarrant shook his head. "Ye don' understan' ye own importance, luv. Underlan' woul' 'ave been destroyed 'ad ye no' come an' destroyed the Jabberwock. Or, if nae destroyed, a' leas' a very 'orrible place tae be livin'. Even more than it already was. Nae, it's bes' ye're 'ere. Jus' in case."
"I think her being here is more than just a precautionary measure by now, Tarrant," Chessur drawled from his place across the table. "Pardon my rudeness, but I could not help but overhear the conversation. You have not seen the Oraculum lately, have you?"
"Of course not," Hatter scoffed. "That Parchment is only for Absolem and the Queen to see."
"And other Distinguished Citizens," Chess corrected. Lifting one paw, he studied his claws with keen turquoise eyes. "There's a reason she's here. Some might even say-" he lowered his voice, eyes shooting toward the head of the table, then back "-for treasonous reasons."
Eyes glowing orange, Tarrant growled low in his throat. "An' Ah think yer th' treasonous one, Cat. Ah ought tae make a hat outta ya!" His hands curled into fists around the tablecloth.
"Hatter!" Alice grasped his sleeve, shaking it slightly to get his attention.
Blinking twice, he turned back to her with an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
Chessur sighed. "I didn't want to offend you, Tarrant. Or you, Alice. All I'm saying is that there are reasons beyond the obvious." His luminescent eyes turned on her. "You know precisely what I'm saying, don't you, poppet?"
The black background, streaked with red, with Alice in the foreground wearing a crown of Underland. Yes, she knew precisely what the Cat was talking about. "Yes." She cat her eyes downward uncomfortably.
Tarrant stared openly at her. "A-Alice?" he asked uncertainly. "Wha'-?"
"Not here, not now," Alice said softly. "Besides, the Queen told me the fewer people who know about it, the better."
Tarrant scowled. "If you're in danger-"
"I'm not," she interrupted. "Please, Tarrant. This is not the time or place."
He stared at her, his eyes full of hurt. "Will there be a time or place?"
Alice hesitated. To be honest, she wasn't entirely sure there would be, at least until everything - whatever everything entailed - was over. "Yes," she said. "There will be. Later."
Nodding reluctantly, as if conceding that that would have to be good enough for now, Tarrant turned back to his plate as Alice morosely contemplated her own.
If something was coming for her, Alice wished it would just hurry up and get there.
Unsurprisingly, Chessur followed Alice back to her rooms. Since the infuriating feline would follow her in one way or another, she really had no choice but to let him in.
"What do you want, Chess?" Alice asked as soon as she closed the door behind them. She did not invite him to make himself comfortable.
The Cat, naturally, did so even without the invitation. Curling up on the divan, he purred and curled his tail around his tucked paws, resting his chin on its tip. "Alice, darling, what's to say I'm not just in the mood for your company?"
Alice crossed her arms, scowling. "Because I know you, Chessur. What were you thinking at dinner, baiting Tarrant like that? The Queen told me it was best to keep what's in the Oraculum quiet, at least for now. Announcing it at the dinner table wasn't your wisest move."
Chessur rolled his eyes. "Just because you show up in the Oraculum more than any other person in Underland doesn't mean you're the only one to do so," he said. "Apparently it never occurred to you that you're not the only one with a duty to Underland and her people."
Immediately her anger evaporated. "What do you mean? What's happened?"
"To be honest, I have no idea. Which is a truly frightening concept, because I usually know more about what's going on in Underland than anyone else, other than Absolem. And he only knows because he's Keeper of the Oraculum." Chess sighed, tail twitching unhappily. "I saw several things when I looked at the Oraculum. I saw what has the Queen so concerned, plus a few things that have even me unsettled. It seems several beings more powerful than I are working together to keep me in the dark. Please believe me, Alice, I would give you any important information needed to help you - if I had it."
Alice tilted her head to the side. "But earlier, you acted like you knew so much."
"Cats are not the most notoriously honest creatures around. If you have not learned that by now, poppet, I fear we're more in trouble than ever. Most of us are in this only for ourselves, and I admit that in certain situations, that applies to me as well. But, I digress. I still am hoping to be of some help to you - after all, if Underland goes, I go with it."
Chess's speech was so inspiring. "Then you can tell me everything you do know, because I'm not entirely convinced that you don't know anything." Alice took a few steps forward but did not ease her stance, deciding that some intimidation might still be beneficial.
"An excellent idea, my dear." Chessur stretched lazily, his teeth appearing in one of his familiar grins. "I fear I don't know much. All I know that there is something stirring in the Outlands - an ancient Magic I thought had been lost many years ago."
"Iracebeth of Crims and her Knave?" Alice guessed.
"Perhaps. I didn't dare venture out further than I did to find out."
"Is that all you found out?" She finally condescended to perch on the arm of the nearest chair.
Grin fading, Chessur sighed gustily and lowered his head again. "Alice, I…"
Alice felt her insides twist. "What, Chess? What's going to happen?"
His eyes darted away from hers guiltily. "I fear someone is going to have to die for Underland to go on," he admitted quietly.
As you can see, it's been about 3 years since I last updated this story. I really do hate to say this, but my inspiration has moved on to other things, and I just cannot see myself finishing this story. Even if I do get the urge to finish it, I've grown so much as a writer that whatever I come up with probably won't match the cadence and style of the rest of it. But so many of you have been so nice, and mentioned that you love what I have posted, that I feel horrible just taking the story down. So I'm going to mark it as complete, on permanent hiatus, and leave it here. That leaves it open just in case my inspiration does return, and I can finish this story. But to be honest, I cannot promise that will happen. I am hopeful - but doubtful. (And, to be completely honest, it's been so long I have forgotten most of the ideas I had about where I was taking this story.) Again, I am so, so very sorry to end this where I did, but I appreciate all of you so much for your support for myself and this story. I treasure every single one of your reviews and re-read them often. Thank you.