Queen of Darkness, Queen of Dawn
by Lady Norbert
A/N: A few of you may recognize this, in part. I started this story two years ago, when the movie was new and I was completely absorbed by it. The first few bits were posted on LiveJournal (under the title "Queen's Gambit") and were well received, but I abandoned the story in the wake of a personal crisis. For some reason, lately I've been itching to revisit the story and finish it. This is another grand example of my brain trying to spackle plotholes, as I like to call it, and explain all the things that weren't explained by the source material. I hope you enjoy it.
Contains spoilers for the movie, in case that wasn't clear.
Chapter One: The Two Princesses of Underland
In the days following the downfall of Iracebeth, Red Queen of Hearts and despot of Underland, an attempt was made by a well-meaning historian to accurately document the life of her sister and successor, Mirana, White Queen of Marmoreal. This, then, is the result of many hours spent interviewing Underlandian residents, most particularly the Queen Herself. However, like all residents of Underland, the historian was naturally prejudiced in the White Queen's favor, and it must be acknowledged that the information contained herein may be somewhat biased. Nevertheless, it is true and correct to the best of the historian's ability to present.
Underland, it must first be understood, has always been ruled by Queens.
There have, at various times, been Kings, married to the reigning Queen and sharing to various degrees in her authority. But the crown has always descended from mother to daughter, for reasons that no one (except, perhaps, the Keeper of the Oraculum) really remembers anymore. Happily, the royal birth rate tends to be shockingly low, and it's rare for a Queen regnant to have more than one child.
It happened to come to pass that Her Glorious Majesty, Queen Ellabelle of Crims, and her King-Consort Milquesop were among the rare royal pairs who had more than one child. Those Underlandians who are old enough to remember the years of these kindly but ill-fated sovereigns shall be forever and fervently grateful that they, by some lucky chance, were blessed with two.
Iracebeth had been first, crimson-haired and temperamental, cursed with a mild speech impediment and a peculiarly large head. Even as a toddler she was cross and demanding, and took sadistic delight in lording her status as Heiress Presumptive over anyone and anything in her path. When she was followed four years later by the sweeter, paler Mirana, the kingdom quietly rejoiced and wondered how things might be arranged that this benevolent creature would someday rule over them instead of her sister. She was almost unnaturally perfect, with her shining white ringlets and sugary disposition, and the animals would trail after her through the courtyard of Tulgey Wood Palace.
The one saving grace of Iracebeth's nature was that she, too, appeared to dote on her little sister. When they were together, she became more congenial, less prone to lashing out.
Mirana would remember those days, later, and wonder if they had only been a dream.
The younger Princess was just thirteen when she made a shocking discovery.
She was in the palace kitchen with her mother, dutifully attending to lessons in potion-making and herbalism. "Three coins from a dead man's pocket," she repeated, committing to memory the recipe for the potion that could counteract the effects of both upelkuchen and pishalver. "Two teaspoons of wishful thinking. Mamma, why doesn't Racie learn these things too? She's to be Queen someday; shouldn't she know how?"
"She should." Ellabelle's face was clouded. "She has no interest."
"Her only interest seems to be that horrid Jabberwock." Mirana shuddered slightly. "It obeys her. Racie said, 'Mirana, you like all sorts of wretched little creatures, why don't you like my darling Jabberwocky?' But I just can't, Mamma. I tried, I did. It doesn't like me."
"It is rare, but you will come across the occasional being who is immune to you, Ranie."
"Immune to me?"
Ellabelle put down her mortar and gazed fixedly, though lovingly, at her daughter. "It's a hereditary gift, my child, and one to which not all of us are born. I suspected it when first I held you in my arms as an infant, and the older you get the more evident it becomes."
"What gift, Mamma?" Mirana felt slightly afraid.
"You have a heart of gold. They're rare, but they have been known to happen - my grandmother was the last one in our line, before you were born."
"A heart of gold?" the Princess repeated. "But - isn't that just an expression?"
"Usually, yes. In your case, my love, it is the exact and literal truth. Your heart, the very heart that beats in your breast, is made of gold." The Queen patted her cheek. "Nearly everyone and everything you meet will love you in an instant. They can't help it; a heart of gold is irresistible."
"But not to the Jabberwock."
"No, not to the Jabberwock." Ellabelle frowned. "Nor to Iracebeth."
Mirana's dark eyes widened with alarm. "But...Racie loves me," she insisted. "Doesn't she?"
"I don't know, darling. I'm... honestly not certain your sister has the capacity to love. If she can love anyone, I'm sure it's you, but..." The Queen looked around, as though concerned she might be overheard by her elder child. "Racie's temperament is hereditary as well; she takes after my father, poor man. She could be loved by the people, but she would rather hold dominion over them. By the same token, my dearest girl, you must step carefully as you get older. More than one heart of gold has been tarnished by greed or rage. Racie stands at a precipice, which leads to a darkened path; you must not follow her."
"I will try, Mamma, but... is it such a bad thing, to have a heart of gold?"
"If you are not careful, it can be." Ellabelle sighed. "Love is a strange thing, you know. In the right hands it can be a tool for good, but in the wrong hands, it can be twisted."
The Princess looked grave. "The people love me," she said slowly, "and so... they would do anything for me, wouldn't they?"
"Anything." Ellabelle's expression mirrored her daughter's. "Even die. Even kill. Anything you desire would be done in a moment. Let not your desires lead the people to ruin, Ranie."
The white head bent; the shoulders under the mass of lace and tulle sagged with the weight of a newly-felt burden. "I never knew it was hard to be good," she murmured.
Ellabelle reached out and put a gentle hand under Mirana's chin, tilting the pale face up until their eyes met. "There is nothing in the world more difficult, sometimes," she said softly. "But if you can do it, you will be far stronger than Iracebeth has ever dreamed."
"Come and play cards with me." The imperious demand echoed lightly off the courtyard walls.
Mirana looked up at her sister. "Racie, you know I'm no good at your card games."
"You don't practice. Card games are the easiest things in the world - I love cards, don't you?" Iracebeth's lips curled in a mild smirk. "Oh, no, you'd rather play chess, wouldn't you? Daddy loves that, I'm sure, playing chess with his little girl."
"Chess teaches patience. And strategy. You should try it."
"I'd rather play cards. Easier to cheat." Iracebeth laughed. "Besides, didn't they tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
Iracebeth's smile was triumphant. "Daddy's been negotiating for me to be married."
"Married! To who, Racie?"
"The King of Hearts. So you see, I simply have to play cards; it's what they do, in the Heart kingdom. Now come and play with me."
"You're only seventeen." Mirana got up and followed Iracebeth indoors. "Surely that's too young?
"I'm almost eighteen. Plenty old enough to be the Queen of Hearts." Iracebeth shooed Mirana into a chair and started shuffling her favorite deck - the one, Mirana suspected, which included a few extra aces.
"Will you still live here?"
"In this drafty old castle? Heavens, no, Ranie, use your little head. Daddy's building us our own palace in Salazen Grum." Cards began to land face down on the table. "Lots of red trim all over the place, and hearts carved into the stones. And it's right on the seashore, so when we want a holiday from all this we can sail to our other kingdom to pay them a visit. I think when I'm Queen I'll have this place torn down," Iracebeth added conversationally. "I've never liked it. Stupid checkerboard lawn. There are lots of places I want to tear down, actually, but I'll start with this."
Carefully, Mirana lifted her eyes, and gave her sister a pleading look. "What will I do, then, if you tear down the castle?"
"Oh, they'll probably make over that white dungeon where Daddy grew up for you." Iracebeth arranged the cards in her hand and studied them thoughtfully.
"White dungeon? You mean Marmoreal?"
"Yes, that. Nasty place. No color at all. But that suits you, doesn't it, little ghost? Ha!" Iracebeth put her cards on the table with an air of satisfaction. "I win!"
"You don't even know what I have in my hand," Mirana protested.
"It doesn't matter. I win. I always win, Ranie." Iracebeth's smile was dangerously sweet. "The sooner people understand that, the better."
Iracebeth, somewhat to Mirana's surprise, had been entirely correct about the old palace of Marmoreal, though it was almost a year later that the renovations were completed and she was informed of the plan.
"Another year or two and you'll be old enough to form your own court," her father told her. "Marmoreal is ideal for you. I even had it decorated in that chess theme you seem to like so much."
"Daddy..." She hesitated. She hated what she was about to do - but the older Iracebeth grew, the more afraid of her Mirana became. And if she, possibly the one person her sister had ever even remotely loved, had reason to fear her, then the people of Underland would certainly be doomed under such a Queen. For their sake, she had to try. "Daddy...do you really think Racie will be a good Queen?"
"What do you mean, sweetheart?"
"I mean... she's not very... nice. I think it's her head, you know, I believe she might honestly be ill. There might be something in there that ought not to be, and it presses on her brain and makes her treat other people less than kindly. I'm sure it's not her fault, Daddy, and she wouldn't be that way if she could help it, but..." She blinked at him hopefully. "I just think Underland would be... safer... if it weren't left in her hands."
"I see." King Milquesop looked at her as though slightly transfixed. "I hadn't thought of it quite that way. You may have a point...I should discuss it with your mother."
"Of course." Mirana felt a flash of triumph, and she immediately strove to fight it off. It's not a victory for you, she reminded herself sternly. It's for the good of your people. Not you. Them.
"We haven't taken any steps to arrange your marriage," said her father, almost vaguely. "We thought you too young. And of course... well, your mother says you have the heart of gold, so I'm sure there won't be a shortage of offers. But it seemed the more immediate need to arrange things for Racie."
"I understand," she assured him. "There's no rush for me, Daddy. Has the King of Hearts made an official offer for Racie's hand, then?"
"He has, and she's formally accepted him. We expect him to arrive in another month, with his entourage; Salazen Grum is ready for them. I think you'll like being her maid of honor, won't you?"
"I shall like it of all things. But Daddy... does the King know about her..." Mirana gestured, cringing slightly. "...head?"
"It's a funny thing," Milquesop said with a chuckle. "Apparently, large appendages are considered quite the sign of beauty in the Heart Kingdom. In that regard, it seems to be a perfect match."