Disclaimer: Alice and Tin Man don't belong to me, they belong to SyFy. The craziness, however, is all me.
Az knew that she was being irrational. It would be wise to stop and let Jeb catch up to her. He would talk her down and convince her to speak to Jack Heart when she calm and less inclined to say or do something to the detriment of their mission. Wise and logical.
It was a shame then, that she was feeling neither wise nor logical. This was a game that she was not willing to play. She had had enough of prophecies and fate. If her experiences since the Double Eclipse had taught her anything, it was that she would make her own choices and that she would fight anyone who dared take that from her.
Especially some jumped-up Heart who fancied himself a king.
It was easy enough to fire off a simple tracking spell. The more she used magic, the less it fought her – but only to a certain point. Up, up, up she went, winding through dusty, deserted corridors and crumbling staircases, seeing firsthand the parts of the palace that Jack had neither the money nor the time to repair. It brought back memories of the Northern Palace, covered in ice, and of Finaqua, lost to the forests.
This was not the first time that she saw the parallels in their situations. If she had more time, if she was sure of his motives…but there was no time for sympathy, only answers.
She emerged in a domed hallway lined with columns carved from the same sandy-colored stone as the rest of the palace. The ceiling was a masterpiece of inlaid metalwork, its lines and curves telling a story from the bloodier pages of the country's history, a reminder how it constantly had to fight to maintain its freedom and independence. The smiths of Wonderland, both old and new, were truly masters of their craft. Their work was everywhere, an amalgamation of function and style that was utterly representative of the country and its people.
Jack Heart stood at the end of the corridor, facing a massive, magnificent wrought iron door. Az frowned as she approached, wondering if the shapes embedded within it were truly-
"It's the Eye Room – the true one, not the poor imitation my mother put in the casino," Jack remarked. It was only through supreme force of will that Az did not jump. "It is how the best and the worst are judged here in Wonderland. Once inside, the room searches within the deepest corners of your soul. It discovers who you truly are and puts it on display for everyone to see."
"You sound as though you dread such a thing," she said neutrally, drawing forward to examine the metalwork.
"Don't you?" Then, almost as if to himself, he murmured. "I do not always like what I see in the mirror."
She glanced at him sharply. Those were sentiments that had echoed within her own heart often enough. Was he playing another game, or was he genuine? "You sentenced your mother to this room."
"It is our way."
"It drove her mad."
"It did." At the end, she could not face the weight of accusation and the price of her greed. The Queen of Hearts would never leave the secure isolation ward of Wonderland City Hospital. The wing had been built for the dangerously insane – and those who failed the test of the Eye Room.
Az wondered what it took to subject one's own mother to such a punishment, tyrant or no. How much of it was justice, and how much was hatred? She reached out and placed a hand against the curious door. Memories raced through Az's mind, as vivid and real as the moment she'd lived them.
A doll spinning in the air. Hands joined in the forest, glowing warm and bright. The tightness of her chest as the air rushed from her lungs while darkness consumed her. Draining the life from the small, pale figure stretched out on the bed before her. Marching on the Northern Palace with an army at her back. Pure power roaring through her, tinged sickly green. DG's hand, eyes wide and pleading. The feeling of being able to breathe once more. Shards of mirror glass, cold and sharp, mingling with the warmth of her blood. The desert breeze, scented with spices. The cave, no longer dark and forbidding. Flying over the Pertha Hills with Freeheart.
Jeb's heart beating beneath her hands.
Az's eyes opened. The cave in Finaqua had been her ordeal, the mirror that showed her true self. The Eye Room only reinforced what she already knew: that she was not the witch. She was Azkadellia Gale, broken but remade, victim of the darkness but champion of the Light.
"What did you see?" There was a deep sort of curiosity in Jack's eyes, and something else she could not identify.
She shrugged delicately. "Nothing that I did not know before." But something about the experience niggled at her. The way the Eye Room worked, the way it interacted with her, felt all too familiar. "I thought Wonderland did not use magic."
Jack's expression smoothed out as his gaze settled back on the doors. "This is a relic from the past, something that the dragons gifted to our ancestors. If the magic ever leaves it…it will be a sad day indeed." The smile he now turned on her was all charm and aching hollowness. It was a stark change from the candor of the last few minutes. It made her realize that none of her interactions with the king of Wonderland had been genuine. "But I assume that you didn't come here to speak of magic rooms. How may I assist you, Your Highness?"
So, they were back to stiff formality and veiled, diplomatic answers. She had neither the time nor patience for such things, and this was no longer a diplomatic situation. Perhaps it was time to be straightforward.
Once again, purple magic billowed outwards. Jack eyed its progress fearlessly. "Fascinating."
"I don't believe that anyone is listening, but it is best to be cautious, don't you agree?" She folded her hands and stared at him passively. "I would like to be perfectly honest. I expect the same courtesy from you."
"I always try to be honest."
A corner of her mouth quirked meaningfully. "Do you, Your Majesty? Very well. Why do you believe that I am the key to this prophecy of yours?"
He was suddenly tense, as though every muscle had coiled tight in his body and was ready to spring. Because she was so close to him, Az was suddenly aware of the fact that Jack was a big man – bigger than Jeb, but smaller than Jem. Still, there was nothing soft about the body hidden beneath those monotonous black suits. Jack Heart was not the urbane, sanguine bureaucrat he made himself out to be. There was something almost wild and untamed at the core of him, something that she had somehow managed to overlook.
Az had the uneasy feeling that so far, she'd only seen what Jack Heart allowed her to see. And wasn't that disconcerting? "There's no use in denying it," she stated, watching every subtle flicker of his facial muscles. "'Amidst crumbled towers and circles broken' is how it begins, does it not?"
"Who told you?" Oh. That was the true meaning of ice. Az could almost feel the chill skating over her skin. Whilst that exterior was genuine enough, that strange undercurrent remained. The ice was very thin and beneath it was boiling water. Was this the famous emotional volatility of Wonderland's citizens?
"Does it matter?" She barreled on before he could respond. "What game are you playing?"
"This is not a game," he bit out. There was no one else to act as a distraction between them, allowing Az to appreciate the extent of his acting skills. The only outward clue to his vexation was the subtle clenching of his jaw. If she had not caught on to his mood only seconds earlier, she would have thought he was merely closed off.
"I sincerely hope not, Your Majesty, for I am not in the mood to oblige. My reasons for being in Wonderland do not include aiding you in some farcical quest, no matter how beautifully worded it is." Somewhere, her mother and Glitch were probably throwing their hands up in despair but she could not be bothered in the least. It was exhilarating to finally speak plainly to him in some way.
"I don't recall asking for your help, Your Highness."
Az could not help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all. The man was lying to himself. "Oh? Can you truly tell me that my magic is not the means to some nebulous end of yours? Can you tell me that you haven't been building up to some grand request, something that will almost certainly require a certain skill set of mine? Well, I can assure you that magic is not the solution."
Something came very close to snapping inside of him. Az could almost see the change begin in his eyes, a subtle darkening of that frigid blue, before he seized control of his demons and fought them down. "And what if it is the only solution?" he inquired. "What if it is the only thing that can save your country? You cannot tell me that you would not fight for such a thing if you did not have it."
"Are your land and your people so doomed that you would place all your faith on my power?" Az countered, unconvinced. "We are not friends, and I am not certain that we are even allies."
"It grieves me to hear such a thing." Jack glanced away and then back. "We are not doomed." His voice was quiet. "Not yet."
"You are basing this feeling off a prophecy?" she scoffed.
His eyes flashed at her scornful tone. "I do not need a prophecy to confirm that my country is falling apart, Your Highness. All I need to do is look around me. Half of my subjects are hopelessly addicted and only half of them have the rehabilitation they need. The other half is listless or hopelessly corrupt. The Diamonds are all but extinct whilst the rest of the clans are barely hanging on. This city was once the envy of the continent but now? It is a city of bones." Light slanted harshly through the windows, throwing the planes and angles of his face into stark relief. "So no, I don't need it for that. What I do need is the hope it provides."
The desperation in his statement rang true enough. Az had been there, but she'd had the support of her entire family and most of the burden of rebuilding had fallen on her parents. "I understand the need for hope," she responded. "But you're placing it on the wrong person, Your Majesty. You're the king. Wonderland is your responsibility, not mine."
"And part of that responsibility is asking for help when it is needed."
"You have not asked for help." Not in so many words, at least.
Jack paused. "Would you provide help if I asked plainly?"
A corner of her mouth quirked at his acknowledgment. At least he knew that they had been dancing around the main issues for days, wasting valuable time. "Do you have proof?" she asked. "I require more than the fancy words of a prophecy."
"Proof of what would tear my world in two?" She nodded, noting the way that he paraphrased one of the verses. "Would you truly help if I acquired it?"
"I would consider it," Az conceded reluctantly after some thought. She couldn't throw all diplomacy to the wind, even if she had in all likelihood gone in too deep at this point. "Especially if you were to consider my request."
"Access to the Great Library." He looked at her thoughtfully. "You want dragon texts, don't you, Your Highness?"
It was now Az's turn to seize up and shut down. She glared at him and wondered how he could have possibly figured it out.
Jack continued when it was clear that she would not speak. "I had wondered what we could possibly have that would interest you so much. Your reputation as a scholar is well known, but it had to be more than that. Dragon texts contain treatises on magic. Your magic is amongst the strongest of your line, and as far as rumor goes, the most volatile. It was not difficult to make the connection."
The truth hit a little too close to home for Az to be comfortable. "Yet another reason not to be dependent on magic," she said curtly. "You never know what it will do."
"Perhaps." He said nothing about the golden glow that wreathed her body. "So, do we have a deal? Concrete evidence as well as access to the Great Library in exchange for your help?"
She had to consider this. There was too much of an imbalance. He was offering her exactly what she wanted, leaving her with a rather open-ended promise of help. Mother would surely have words for her. And yet, she had come this far already. "If this threat turns out to be real. And only if we have explored all of the possibilities beforehand. All magic has a price, Your Majesty. I know that better than most."
Jack's eyes narrowed but he knew better than to ask if she was referring to Commander Cain's supposed resurrection. "Then what would you suggest, Your Highness?"
"Prophecies are ambiguous at best and subject to interpretation. There may be other answers."
"Elisa, Ten, and I have been over it," he began.
"Well, it is good that you have a fresh pair of eyes, isn't it?" she said briskly, raising an eyebrow.
He was beginning to think that she was more formidable than he'd initially though, and damned if he did not respect her for it. "Point taken."
"I'm glad we are in agreement." She folded her hands. "Now, what of this proof?"
"I will let the Duchess know that you wish to speak to her."
Well. It seemed as though Jeb's information hadn't been too far off the mark. Wouldn't it be interesting if the Duchess served the same capacity as the Shadow Man? She had to admit that it was the perfect cover. "I look forward to speaking to her."
That was not the exact truth, but if it meant that she had a better understanding of what was going on, well that was a sacrifice she was willing to make.
"Come, Your Highness." Jack offered his arm. "I believe our business is concluded. We have a ball to attend."
Of course. Az had almost forgotten about the event that had been arranged in her honor. "I believe we do." She dispersed the spell with a wave of her hand and took the offered arm.
She would get her dragon texts – but at what price?
Duchess didn't like the rumors that were circulating around the city. She had expected that the more salacious aspects of Azkadellia's turn as a sorceress would get around – juicy gossip was juicy gossip, after all. But the fervor had not died down and the whispers were becoming darker, more insidious. It was as though someone was keen to keep the fire burning until everyone was suspicious and on edge.
There was a small and petty part of her that was tempted to leave things as they were. Her current relationship with Azkadellia was nothing if not combative. She took a certain amount of pride in deliberately provoking her. That serenity and poise simply could not be real. Still, Duchess was doing her no real harm when she tested the limits of what she could say without being utterly and completely insubordinate. These rumors, on the other hand, could spell ruin for the alliance that Jack was so desperate to broker.
And that was reason enough to try and counter them. If asked about the princess (and she was, often), her answer was simple and clear: Azkadellia was the epitome of diplomacy and grace and no, she did not appear to suffer from any lingering wickedness. It was galling to do so but she knew her duty.
One of those duties was discovering who was behind the whispers. Duchess had no doubt that it was Lucan Spade, for who else had motive to discredit Wonderland's biggest potential ally besides Merry Land and Quox? But unlike his dealings with the envoys she had no clear way to substantiate her instinct. She was chasing rumors and shadows, nothing that revealed a clear path to the leader of the Spades as the source.
It was enough to drive her politely insane. She longed for her forest getaway with surprising fierceness. She wanted nothing more than to sink into the warm waters of her tub and disappear for a few hours.
But there were roles to play and obligations to fill. Duchess fluttered from group to group in the ballroom, playing the part of hostess to the hilt. She kept careful tabs on who was likely to cause trouble over the Azkadellia situation and on those who were sympathetic. The work was tedious and the company less than perfect but there was no knowing when such information would prove useful. And so she smiled, paid compliments, and most of all, listened.
The hum of conversation quieted and there was no need to turn around to know who stood behind her.
"Duchess." Azkadellia's voice was warm and courteous. "I have not had the pleasure of your company since the ball began. Would your companions mind terribly if I monopolized your time for a moment?"
Duchess turned and met the princess' smile with one of her own. "I am sure that they would not, Your Highness." She made her apologies and the two of them began a leisurely turn around the ballroom. Though her presence did not appear to make the princess any more approachable, this worked to the pair's advantage as the other attendees kept a respectful distance.
"What a lovely dress," Az commented. "I have never seen anything quite like it in the Outer Zone."
"Nor would you, Your Highness. It is something of an Other Side design." It was perhaps the most provocative of all of Duchess' dresses, but she did love it. Swathes of black lace and satin draped lovingly around her curves, leaving one shoulder and most of one leg bare. A great deal of skin was revealed beneath the lace, with only a few strategic clusters of lace and the satin to keep her decent. It certainly had tongues wagging, which led to the desired effect – the attendees gossiped about her as much as they did about the princess.
It had also rendered Jack somewhat speechless, which pleased her greatly.
"Is it? My sister would be interested to hear of it. I know she misses certain things from the Other Side."
"They are certainly ingenious. You look wonderful as well, Your Highness." Azkadellia's dress was altogether too flowing and princess-like for Duchess' taste, but she had to admit that she looked ethereal in the long dress and high-necked cape that shimmered like sheets of hammered gold. Azkadellia looked particularly magnificent when she danced with Commander Cain in the first dance of the night.
It was with a slight pang that Duchess acknowledged how wonderful a couple they seemed. They were so in love that they looked nearly stupid with it. She could scoff at it all she liked but the fact remained that part of her wanted that very badly. Even now she could tell that Commander Cain's eyes never strayed from the princess for very long.
"Thank you." Azkadellia paused. "I assume that your fiancé told you to expect some type of overture from me."
"He did." Jack had informed her of his conversation with Azkadellia earlier in the day. He'd been shrewd to tell her just before they entered the ballroom so that she could not question him, damn the man. He knew that she would have objected and said that they were giving too much away too soon.
Still, they did have something of a deadline. They had to make a move before Lucan Spade decided to call the combined power of Merry Land and Quox down upon their heads.
"I hope I am not intruding too much-"
Duchess shook her head and smiled once more, patting the other woman's hand. The gesture felt entirely unnatural. "How may I be of assistance?"
Azkadellia glanced at her from out of the corner of her eye. "We must have a long chat, you and I. Might I call upon you for afternoon tea?" Her expression was one of wry amusement. "Of the non-addictive sort of course."
Her lips twitched despite herself. "I am at your service, Your Highness."
Cheshire save her. Tea with Azkadellia in her personal quarters, where they were likely to be left alone to discuss sensitive matters? Duchess would have preferred being locked in the Eye Room. Or sent on a fool's quest with Charlie.
"Wonderful." There was a slight dryness to the word, as though Azkadellia knew exactly what Duchess was thinking and thought the same thing as well. The impression was fleeting, however, and the princess was soon smiling quite widely. "Do tell me more of the suovnas, Duchess," she said, pitching her voice slightly louder for the benefit of those close by. "They provide such a truly unique experience. We have no such thing in the Outer Zone."
And that was how the Duchess found herself explaining suovna lore and etiquette to Azkadellia whilst pondering just how she was going to survive the upcoming experience. She could only thank Cheshire that the princess hadn't proposed meeting in a suovna instead.
"Ladies." Duchess allowed herself a small moment of pure female appreciation as Jack and Commander Cain approached. Commander Cain looked every inch the young hero in the same green velvet doublet and gold cape he'd worn on his arrival. As for Jack – well. She had yet to meet anyone who could wear a suit better. "May we interrupt you for more dancing?"
Azkadellia's eyes sparkled as she took her lover's offered hand. "I always welcome dancing." And with that they were off as the orchestra began a sweeping, romantic tune.
"Shall we?" Jack asked, raising an eyebrow as he offered his own hand.
"Of course. Do I need to act as besotted as those two?"
The corner of his mouth twitched briefly upwards. "It would not go amiss. The public has not seen the two of us together in several days."
She threw her head back and laughed, loud and full-throated, as though he had said something truly amusing. "That is true. And we wouldn't want the two of them to give a better show than the two of us, now would we?" Never mind that the other two had the advantage of real feelings.
"I daresay we wouldn't," he agreed, allowing a smile to cross his usually stern visage.
She loved his smile. They were so rare that even in this false context they were precious to her. She hoarded them the way a miser hoarded his money, cherishing each and every one in the privacy of her mind.
"Did the princess approach you about the matter we discussed earlier?"
Business as usual. Duchess couldn't even find it in herself to be disappointed. "Yes, she did. The princess is coming to my apartment for tea." She simply could not picture the two of them making inane conversation over delicately scented tea and fine china.
"Be nice," he chided, picking up on the subtle undertones.
"Oh Jack," she purred. "Her Highness certainly does not need me to coddle her." She could be delicate – exquisitely so, even – but only when the situation called for it. Azkadellia gave as good at she got and was infuriatingly gracious and polite about it, to boot. "Your conversation with her today proved that quite handily."
He inclined his head in agreement. "That is true. I apologize, it is second nature-" He cut himself off.
"To think badly of me? I am aware." Her tone was light and teasing, the perfect way to mask the bitterness of the sentiment.
"Duchess." Jack pulled her closer. To those watching, it appeared as though he was savoring her presence, but Duchess knew better. "Don't do this now, darling." The endearment was a warning.
"On the contrary, I cannot think of a better time." He couldn't walk away from her now, not without causing a scene.
"Don't push me." His breath skated over the bare curve between neck and shoulder. Duchess gritted her teeth, summoning all her control so that she did not do something so telling as to tremble.
"Push?" she echoed after the briefest of pauses. "And who will push you Jack, if not for me?"
His response was to spin her out. By the time she returned his expression was schooled into one of fond exasperation. "I don't recall asking for that, Duchess."
"That's the beauty of it, Jack," she breathed, tracing the line of his jaw with her fingers. She pressed her lips to his ear, fighting back a smirk as he tensed and relaxed, all within the space of a moment. "You don't need to."
She couldn't have timed it better if she tried. The orchestra stopped and Duchess stepped back, waving coyly at him whilst the onlookers laughed indulgently at her antics.
It was only fair if she threw him off balance. She was only returning the favor.
"What lovely quarters," Az murmured, taking in every detail of the sumptuous setting around her. The outside of the building was nothing special – one crumbling façade amongst many in the city – but the inside was a very different story. Duchess' apartments boasted floor to ceiling windows that flooded the rooms with light, an abundance of straight, clean lines, rich fabrics, and bright splashes of red and gold against white.
Duchess lowered a tray of tea onto the low, square coffee table that sat in the middle of the living area. "Thank you, Your Highness, though I am sure that you are only saying that to be polite." She, after all, hated the place. It was cold and lifeless compared to her little haven on Lake Mirana.
"I will admit that it is not to my taste," she allowed. Wonderland City was mainly composed of straight lines and exuded modernity. Az liked things that were a bit more old-fashioned and fussy. She'd loved the elegance of the Diamond City and wondered how the two places could be so very different.
"It is expected," Duchess replied. She began pouring the tea and realized that her companion had been silent too long. She looked up to find Azkadellia staring at her from the window with a speculative look on her face. She reviewed what she'd said and wondered. She could not have possibly given herself away so easily. "Tea?"
"Of course." The princess paused and decided that now was not the time to ponder that enigmatic statement. There were other, more pressing matters to attend to. "It would be best to speak privately. May I?" She waved her fingers in the air significantly.
Duchess shrugged. "I sweep my quarters every day, Your Highness, but if it eases your mind you may do so."
The blonde merely blinked placidly as a wave of purple magic rolled over her and spread throughout her quarters. "I hope you've not added some other sort of nasty spell to that," she observed idly, raising a cup to her lips. "I would hate to be caught unaware."
Az mirrored her movements. "You would know."
There was something of a stalemate as the two women eyed one another, realizing that they were, for all intents and purposes, equal. "Touché," Duchess said, raising her teacup in a wry salute.
"Mmm." The tea was interesting, scented with citrus and some other fruit that she could not identify. "I've been informed that you're the one with all of the information regarding Merry Land and Quox's movements."
"Call it a pet project of mine – one that I am rather reluctant to share with you." Her gaze was unapologetic. "I believe that Jack puts too much stock in your power."
"In that we are in agreement. However, I am loathe to make any decision without being well-informed."
Duchess sighed and acquiesced, reporting as coldly and precisely as when she came to Jack and Giacomo. By the time she finished her throat was dry and the pot of tea had gone cold. She rose to heat another pot and to allow her companion to gather her thoughts. The silence was stifling when she returned and poured fresh cups.
"I do not doubt your information, Duchess." The evidence certainly seemed to corroborate what Jeb was getting from the Shadow Man's spies. "Indeed I admit that both countries pose a legitimate threat. It is not, however, as dire as that prophecy that your fiancé seems to be holding so dear…frankly, I am not sure what use I am at this point."
Duchess set her cup into its saucer with an audible clink. Her movements were exquisitely controlled as she set them down on the table. "What prophecy?"
Az frowned. "The prophecy. The one Elisa Club claims was slipped into her possession, the-" Her eyes widened in understanding, then narrowed in speculation. "He has not told you."
Duchess couldn't even form the words. Her mind was awhirl with this new information, assembling and disassembling until she arrived at the logical conclusion: Jack still didn't trust her. How else could she explain the fact that Princess Azkadellia had known about this before her?
Useless. After all the she had done, everything she discovered, he still couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the fact that she had changed.
Waves of self-loathing and despair threatened to wash over her. But the emotions, so strong and unfamiliar, triggered something else inside of her. No. She would not let anyone, not even Jack Heart, bring her to this. Not for another second, not for a lifetime.
When she finally raised her head, her eyes were clear. Azkadellia was looking back at her with something akin to compassion in her gaze. Duchess neither needed nor wanted it.
"Your relationship is not as it seems," she observed.
"It is complicated and that is all I will say on the matter."
"That is your right." Az heaved a sigh and wondered how situations had become so much more complicated. She hadn't expected this side of the Duchess, one that was ruthlessly efficient and likely a match for her father in her skill in espionage. She certainly hadn't expected the vulnerability. Jack was her sore spot and Az understood that better than most.
This wasn't supposed to happen. She had already conceded far too much. "I might as well return the favor and tell you of the prophecy. It is always better to have multiple perspectives."
"Thank you. Perhaps we will be able to determine if there is an alternative to whatever desperate solution Jack seeks." Thank Cheshire that she had not pressed and instead offered an opportunity to focus her mind on something else. Duchess felt oddly grateful.
"Perhaps we will," Az murmured.
Wonderland was certainly full of surprises.
I'm so sorry, the wait was inexcusable! I thought I'd write like mad over the holiday break but no dice. I think I was too happy to just sit and read fun books (as opposed to my usual diet of academic texts). But here's a nice, slightly longer chapter! I have to admit that this political intrigue is rather difficult to write. I want some action!
Oh! Splinters received some lovely fanart, courtesy of the fabulous Shahrezad1! Go over to my profile page for the link, and show her some love! Thanks, dearie!