by Serena W. Sorrell

  “That’s enough!” Bedelia crossed to stand in front of Lira, shielding her from the hateful eyes. “Touch her again and I will personally see to your destruction myself. And when I’m done no one, from our world or Wonderland, will be able to put you back together.”

  “You can’t really be defending this monster, Bedelia!”

  “Of course she is. She was tainted by the Wonderlander’s lines.”

  One of the girls weeping cut the argument short. Thick tears ran in rivers over puffy cheeks and a quivering chin.

  “She…she’s supposed to be my roommate…”

  “Shhh, there there,” another girl comforted Lira’s assigned roommate, “no one expects you to board with that.”

  “Too right,” Georgiana looked at Bedelia through a spiteful glare. “Tenniel, if you like the Wonderlander so much why don’t you room with her. Lucy, you’ll trade won’t you?”

  “Of course!” The girl who’d found Lira’s article was all too keen on the swap. “I don’t think I could ever room with a Wonderlander defender.”

  A round of approving voices went around the room. And just as quickly as it had all started, it ended. Three pairs of girls retired to their rooms with muttered curses and the living quarters were empty. Bedelia turned to Lira at last. Her eyes wandered over the waves of unnaturally red. If Bedelia regretted her actions she shared nothing of it. Instead she picked up the trampled head wrap. She didn’t hesitate to touch the red hairs caught in the mess of pins as even Lira’s own mother still did. Bedelia folded the head wrap with care and folded the pins inside before handing the bundle over to Lira.

  “Did she hurt you terribly?”

  Lira shook her head to the question though she very much expected there was real blood on her scalp hidden by her atrocious hair.

  “I heard from Professor Bloomfield that you had to be taken to hospitus…I was, that is to say…” Words were failing Bedelia as Lira never would have guessed they could.

  “Your pencil.” Lira held it out for Bedelia.

  “Oh, bother my pencil!” Bedelia clasped her hands around Lira’s. “Thank you, Lira, Vera, whatever you want to be called. I owe you my life and my soma. I don’t give a spit about your past; you proved beyond a doubt that you are courageous and quick thinking. Tenniels value such traits above all others. Do say you’ll be my roommate, please?”

  Lira could only nod to the request. Never, not in a hundred thousand years, did she guess someone might actually want her near after discovering her; and today she had met four such people, not including Jyvis.

  “Excelsior! Oh, I do hope we become friends, my debt to you aside; and call me Delia, won’t you?” Bedelia…Delia opened the door to their room and pressed a hand to Lira’s back guiding her inside. “I will be a fierce ally and a loyal friend.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Oh, listen to you. Thank me? I wouldn’t even be me now if you hadn’t used your lines. They were beautiful. I always believed hearing free form lines caused excruciating pain, and how unstable and chaotic it is…but listening to them, feeling them, it was like being touched by joy itself.”

  The shadow of a smile tugged at the corner of Lira’s lips. She had recited lines only once before since her return from Wonderland, and that time had earned her scorn and pain. That someone would describe her lines such. Lira almost felt relief. Delia had become a veritable chatterbox and showed no signs of slowing, but it was not nervous chatter as her family used to pretend everything was normal, or that they weren’t frightened of their own. Bedelia spoke true wishes of friendship, which frightened Lira.

  “Lira,” Delia offered her a stool by the reflecting disc, mirrors long ago banned, “let me brush your hair before bed. I always enjoy it so when someone brushes my hair for me, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” no one had done such a thing for Lira since she had returned, wonder‑touched, “shall I brush yours after?”

  “That’d be delightful,” Delia brushed the candy apple hair with long, gentle strokes. “You know, Lira, I was curious if you knew what kind of lines you were able to do before Wonderland? Had your soma bonded yet?”

  “It had. They took it.”

  Delia’s hands stopped midstroke. Lira was grateful she couldn’t see a clear reflection of Delia in the polished obsidian disc. It was horrid enough having to see the garish red reflected back at her.

  “The sun and moon, Dee and Dum, fed my soma to a great black crow.”

  Lira let her mind wander back to that first day she’d been taken to Wonderland. The pain of having her soma torn away had been almost the worst experience there.

  “Dee and Dum said they’d get the crow to spit it up if I could answer one riddle before the end of the day. They were such terrible roundabout riddles I had no chance at first. But after a year I understood them and became more clever. Every day I thought ‘Today is the day I get it right!’ But as soon as the answer came into my head they’d switch places, end the day, and tell me to try again tomorrow…”

  Delia’s hands fumbled with the brush. Lira hadn’t told anyone anything of what happened in Wonderland. Putting someone back together created a kind of bond she supposed; and she desperately wanted to tell Delia at least one true thing.

  When Delia finished plaiting Lira’s hair they traded places in quiet, but not a smothering kind. It was contemplative for both girls. At least standing behind Delia and brushing her hair made it more difficult for Lira to overhear any rambling thoughts or unspoken words. Another gift from Wonderland and the source of the wide rift between Lira and her reunited family. When your returned kidnapped child hears everything you want to say but won’t…it puts a strain on staying near them. It had taken her first two years back to differentiate what people were saying and what they wanted to say. Eventually she stopped replying to the unspoken words and assured her parents it had merely been a temporary side effect of her time spent away. Away. They always referred to the time Lira had gone away. They never said Wonderland, just as they never voiced their fears, disgust, regrets, and relief she was, once again, going away.

  Lira was just beginning the ninth link in a French plait thinking how pretty Delia would be with rippling golden tresses when the quiet was breached.

  “I’m going to help you get it back, Lira,” the determination in Delia’s voice was tangible, “your soma, I mean. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but this is the best place to study and find a way. And, well, two heads are better than one. I’ll do whatever I can. I promise.”

  Lira tied the plait and kissed the top of Delia’s head. She didn’t know what she was promising, but Lira did. Stolen items were seldom returned, even to the girl who had escaped Wonderland. But it was a kind and brave promise. Even more, Delia had made the oath with both her voices. Lira appreciated the honesty. Delia’s foolish heart almost brought a blush of shame to Lira. She did not like returning such honesty with deceit. The girls went to their beds and the lights went out at precisely ten o’clock. Lira stared out the window, the black ocean of stars she had awaited blinking back at her.

  When had she become so adept at telling lies?

  Little, lost Lira, the girl Wonderland spat back, remembered everything. The day Jyvis had stormed away from her annoying him with wanting to have a tea party out in the garden. How he had told her playing with a child was humiliating, even at the request of his father. She had stifled her own tears and poured the tea herself. She had spoken to invisible guests. And then one answered.

  She remembered the brown top hat that popped out of thin air and the long legs and smiling dandy that flowed down from the hat and sat in the chair. The Mad Hatter introduced himself as a tea party connoisseur and adamantly insisted that hers was the single best tea party he had ever attended. Since her sixth birthday the dangers her age put her in had been impressed upon Lira. She recalled the silver chain and whistle around her neck. How her grandfather had insisted she keep it on her persons despite there being no wells or holes to fall down; they had all been filled in long before his time. Their manse even had a safety room with blank walls, nothing reflective, that locked by lines and not key. Despite all of that when the Hatter asked her to take a turn about the garden with him she rose and put her hand in his. She had been as powerless as a doll being taken from a shelf.

  She remembered entering Wonderland that first time, the colors and fanfare that had made her dizzy with excitement. It wasn’t the terrible place she had been warned about at all. It was truly, splendidly, and absolutely wonderful.

  Then the Mad Hatter turned her over to the Queen of Hearts. She had been the final child taken in her year. The others had already become loyal subjects of Wonderland; their somas chopped away by choice. Lira too was shown the wonders of Wonderland, but she would not offer up her soma. She remembered the day the Queen of Hearts announced henceforth Lira would become her daughter, a reward for being so strong willed. And the queen took her heart for the royal garden.

  The Hatter was also rewarded. To him, the queen promised the princess’s hand when she came of thirteen and one half. How terrified Lira had been until she came to learn Wonderland’s way with words. They never meant one thing entirely. Thirteen plus one half made twenty and a half years old.

  The clock was ticking on Lira’s freedom.

  She had less than three years to reclaim her heart and soma from Wonderland or be tied to it by the queen’s decree. Nothing and no one could break the queen’s decree. Lira had tried relentlessly for three years. She remembered every cheat and scam she had tried. Wonderland had made Lira a liar through necessity. She remained one in her world to survive it. Both held their dangers and Lira was not truly safe in either so long as she remained in pieces.

  She had lied also about the way to Wonderland. Lira knew all the ways in and out of Wonderland, which was to say tens of thousands and one. Going to Wonderland was as simple as walking into a dark room and falling up. Lira, however, preferred falling in sleep. The cool duvet held her like an embrace and cleared her head. On the other side of the room Delia breathed deep and even. What a blessing it would be to sleep soundly.

  There was a sharp tug at the place Lira’s heart once lived. They were getting impatient. Typical. Eyes closed, Lira evened her own breathing and whispered they key.

  “Cut a deck of fifty-two, now say if they halve or double?”

***

“Good mornevening, Lira, my sugar cube,” the Hatter was already waiting at the gate. He was always waiting when she traveled to Wonderland. “And a frabjous unbirthday, dearest. I’ve already steeped your favorite tea. Shall we?”

  “I’ve no time for niceties, jam, tea, or you, Mad.”

  “No time? Oh, I see,” nodding he doffed his hat and made a sweeping bow, “but a gentleman always offers. I’ll escort you to the castle.” He took her hand as he had the first day, though he hadn’t aged a day since and she had a great many aging days. He pressed a small kiss to her knuckles and smiled in his maddening way, “After all, I can wait. It’s only a bit longer until we can share enchanting tea parties every day.”

  Lira knew better than to refuse—or worse, call for help. Mad wore one of his better hats; and he always made a concentrated effort to understand her Otherworld habits and phrases. Under normal circumstances he might even be the sort of gentleman who would have caught her eye. In Wonderland though no one stayed the same for long. She needed his hat to endure until the castle.

  “Will you have time before you leave?” A hint of hope lingered in his voice though he kept his eyes on the path. “Perchance?”

  “Perhaps.” Lying was like blinking to Lira now. “But you know very well I must attend to business first.”

  “Yes,” he said with more melancholy than she was used to, “of course, darling heart.”

  Mad wouldn’t sway her, not like he once could with such ease. Lies were her air. And in Wonderland no one heard second voices whispering deceit and falsehoods. In Wonderland they only spoke in riddles with very few exceptions. Lira had learned early how similar riddles were to lies. She learned the ways to twist words in either world. She would not be lost, taken, forgotten, or commanded ever again; not by anyone in Wonderland or Otherworld.

  As they neared the castle gate Mad’s squeezed Lira’s hand. And when at last they had walked under the arch of cards and past the royal garden he paused instead of releasing her hand immediately. Something he had never done before. She chanced a look at her betrothed through an arranged marriage, his gloomy expression cleared the instant their eyes met. That had been his game. To make her look, show concern. This time he did let go of her hand, but not before his lips brushed the back of her hand again.

  “I’ll wait for you to finish. Our time together is less these days and I do so miss you when you’re gone.”

  Lira gave him a kiss on the cheek to cheer him and without a second glance went inside the castle of the Queen of Hearts. The path to the throne room was so familiar Lira could walk it blindfolded, and had several times for the court’s amusement. She did not begrudge the Wonderlander sense of humor, for they never truly meant to harm. It was merely a side effect of their company.

  The Ace announced her arrival upon entering the gaudy red and silver and gold and ivory throne room. The Queen of Hearts, ever perfectly painted and stunning, jumped to her feet at once. She sprang upon Lira, still curtsying, and wrapped her up in crimson sleeves and rouge kisses on her forehead.

  “Hello mother,” Lira smiled and melted into the scent of cinnamon and roses, “I’ve much to report on the Otherworlders progress.”

  “Silly goose,” the queen tapped Lira on the nose with a single finger, “all of that can wait. I’ve missed you so terribly. Let me untie this hideous plait and brush your hair. I want to hear all about how you’ve been, my sweet girl.”

  Lira gave her Wonderland mother a happy smile. The pulse of her soma gave her strength. It was not very far away. Closer though, her heart beat. Her emotions were stronger here too. In the Otherworld with her heart and soma both gone she was tired easily and her emotions dulled by distance.

  Play the game. Move the pieces. Remember your lies.

  “I’ve missed you too.”

(part one) (part two) (part three) (part four)

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