by Serena W. Sorrell

  The university classrooms were housed in eight wings. It would have been an exhausting challenge to find her way back to the classroom she had spent only an hour and some minutes in if she had not developed a knack for finding her way through mazes with something of a supernatural sense. In hardly any time at all, and only one wrong turn, she managed to traverse two wings and five staircases, find the proper corridor and pick out the correct classroom on the first try. Solving a puzzle so quickly would usually fill her with a sated feeling of accomplishment, but nothing was going to dislodge her nerves. Jyvis could only protect her so much. And even if Kain did keep her secret Professor Bloomfield and Dustin, not to mention the revived Bedelia, had all heard the lines. She did not regret bringing the girl back to life. She only wished she’d erased everyone’s memories as well. But her mana only stretched so far and only so much soma could travel so thin a thread.

  “Miss Blackwyne! Thank goodness you’re well.”

  An immediate greeting hit her upon entering the classroom. Professor Bloomfield sat at the abandoned desk where paper, pencil, and shoes waited. It was almost as though the woman guarded them as sacred relics. Now the professor looked upon her with the same reverence. The soles of her bare feet itched and she very much wished to shrink away from sight. That gaze meant Professor Bloomfield had indeed been attentive during the lines resuscitating Bedelia.

  “You have no need to wear so grim a face,” a kind smile accompanied the professor’s words. “I am glad to see you so recovered. You left us in rather a state of fright. Poor Mister Whittling blamed himself for the terrible ordeal; I am to pass you his heartfelt gratitude and an oath of loyalty. You have mine as well. So, please, don’t fret.”

  When she failed to make some reply the professor stood; the gray streak of her hair had freed itself and hung in a soft curl. Looking at Louise Bloomfield, crow’s feet at her eyes as she offered a conspiratorial smile, she seemed a trustworthy sort. But so many had. Would it be wise to take such a risk? What choice did she have though…

  “I can’t very well give you no credit for today as I see here you followed the lecture and board work in meticulous detail. Furthermore your exemplary performance under distress. Although your particular recitations did not incorporate the studied material it is clear from your notes that you comprehend the theories.”

  “Thank you, but I need no such accommodation, Professor. The fact remains that I attended without the required tools or textbook; as for my lines I ask for no leniency, today or onward. I did what I could. Any able person would do the same. It’s the most logical conclusion.”

  The professor was the one to stare in silence now. Not insulted by the refusal, but pity pooled behind her eyes and words of comfort threatened to pour from her vermilion tinted lips.

  “I must be going. I intend to be fully prepared for your lesson tomorrow. Please excuse me.”

  Before anything more could be said she took paper and pencil in one hand, and hooked her sock stuffed brogues by two fingers in the other. With Jyvis going after the supplies she could rest easy that they would at least make them to the campus. Whether they wandered off on the way to and from classes was another matter entirely. She would have to redouble her efforts to be attentive to stop any further disruptions to her university life.

***

The girl’s dormitory was a grand old building on the west of the campus green. Its eight floors housed all four grades of the university’s attending ladies; just as the eastern building did for the gentlemen. The ground floor housed the live-in staff. First and second floor were the rooms for grade four; each successive year took up two more. All the way up to the freshmen floors up seven or eight flights of stairs. It was a way to build up their lung endurance for extended line reading the university said anytime a student complained, a frequent occurrence. The truth of the matter was they didn’t want to bother with the inconvenience or cost of installing elevators or even rising stairs.

  She would have to conquer the eight floors at least twice a day, most likely triple that. At least the view from her room would be spectacular. She imagined from so high she would be afforded a wonderful sight of the whole campus and surrounding landscape. And the stars—oh, she was looking forward to seeing them tonight. With lights out being at ten, enforced campus‑wide, there would be an ocean of stars to wish her pleasant dreams nightly. A heartening thought indeed, and one that pushed her up the final flight of stairs. She was in Suite 813. She found the door about halfway down the corridor and facing the green. What luck to have things as she hoped for once.

  “Lira Elsie Rossetti.”

  The name slapped her across the face as soon as she stepped into the suite. Her name. Hearing it knocked the air out of her lungs and set her ears ringing.

  Checkmate.

  Game over.

  “It’s really her?”

  Her suitemates sat in the shared living room. Seven pairs of eyes all on her. Words seized in her constricted throat. She had no defense. Jyvis wouldn’t have told anyone who she was. If Kain, Professor Bloomfield, and Dustin were to be believed they aimed to keep her identity a secret. Lira had allowed herself to feel secure in her lie as Vera Blackwyne. She had not expected her name to stab her so quick.

  “Don’t be silly. They’d never let a Wonderlander roam free.”

  There was the sentencing she had feared. Wonderlander. A cursed abomination that didn’t belong in this world.

  “Look at her,” the girl who had announced her commanded, “she’s shaking.”

  “I still say it can’t be her.”

  “Why not? If anyone wanted to sabotage UMO it’d be a Wonderlander.”

  The five girls sitting on the sofas bickered back and forth over whether or not Lira was Lira or Vera. At the communal holo screen and type keys a sixth clacked away; slender, dark fingers typed in her name letter by letter. And there she was. A photo from her tenth birthday. It had been taken only a week before she was. The black girl read the article out loud to all.

  In what can only be described as a miracle for one family Wonderland has lost a victim. A symptom of the Wonderland Formulae has seen centuries of children stolen. Every year thirteen sons and daughters taken, all between six to twelve years old. Not one has ever returned. Until now.

  “Kidnapped at ten by the Mad Hatter himself, Lira Elsie Rossetti was restored to her family after three years in Wonderland. Since her return a month ago the girl has been wordless. Doctors fear a  lingering trauma from her time in Wonderland, and several officials insist on gathering any information on the scourge of our world, Wonderland, while others suggest the girl ought to be locked away.

  “Despite the air of fear and doubt cast on young Lira her parents expect she will be able to rejoin society in time. Perhaps this case will lead to the return of more children, or is a sign of Wonderland’s grip on our world fading. Only time will tell.

  Again all eyes fell upon Lira. They looked between the photo of the grinning ten year old girl with plaits of dark brown to their eighteen year old classmate. Her head wrap tucked tight around her face showed no familiarity to the child on the screen. Yet, whatever doubts the girls harbored about her identity waned. They had decided it was true. And it was true. Even if Lira could no longer smile like the photo of her younger self she had been to Wonderland and made it out.

  “What did they do to you there?”

  She could only answer the questions as she did every time someone asked.

  “I don’t remember.”

  Wide‑eyed and slack jawed the girls gaped at this confession  as though Lira had just admitted to murder.

  “Well, how’d you get out?” The leader, an amber haired girl whose name escaped Lira, regained her poise and flung the barbed words.

  Lira felt every thorn as the girl intended. Still, “I don’t remember,” was all she said.

  A hard scoff came out of the blue eyed girl beside the leader; “Maybe she was returned as a faulty product?”

  The six girls tittered, though some more nervously than the leader and her lackey. The only other girl in the room stood at the half open window; her golden hair fluttered in the scant breeze that made its way inside. It was Bedelia. Even facing away from her Lira knew it was. Had she been the one to out Lira’s identity?

  “So what do you remember, or are you under Wonderlander oath to lie?”

  Lira’s eyes flitted to the accuser. A girl with an air of relief of not being the bottom of the pecking order flinched at Lira’s emotionless gaze. She made no answer this time. Unease filled the room instead. The tension escalated with every passing second. The ticking from Lira’s pocket watch audible in the silence.

  “You must’ve misheard, Charlotte.”

  The leader stood, breaking the quiet and mood. She spoke down to her cohort, Charlotte. She’d been the one who started the Wonderland conversation on the bus that morning, which made the girl with amber hair Georgiana.

  “I’m telling the truth!” Charlotte said, “I was at the back of the crowd, practically the last one out since you ran without me.” She shifted her eyes to Lira, disgust and fear knotted up in those sky blue eyes, “She was twirling and speaking free form lines. It did something to the tether, and—well…I ran out of the lecture room before I saw or heard anything else. I was more frightened of her than the tether.”

  “Ghastly,” the black girl at the holo sat with her arms wrapped around her. “Just imagining hearing free form lines gives me the heebie-jeebies. I mean, lines straight from Wonderland? Here? I thought UMO was the base of Wonderland resistance.”

  “That’s why I’m saying she can’t be the Rossetti girl. The board would never endanger the university or students like that.”

  “Well,” Georgiana said in singsong sweetness, “only one way to find out.”

  Georgiana closed the short space between them faster than Lira could react. Her head wrap was ripped off with a shriek of pain. Horrified gasps and lines for protection filled Lira’s ears and tears filled her eyes. Worse by far than the pain or the tears or their fear was the sight of her own locks as the spilled down from where Lira had pinned her hair. Hair the color of roses; the color of a heart, the color of blood. Georgiana recoiled. The black head wrap dropped to the floor; a chunk of red hair tangled with pins clung to the fabric.

  “Disgusting.”

  Terror in her eyes Georgiana stepped back from Lira. Lira, so clearly branded by the three years she’d been lost…so clearly marked a Wonderlander.

(part one) (part two) (part three) (the end)

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