Divided: A Tale of Wonderland

By Bethany R. Lindell All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

The Cacophony

The Cacophony met among the Red Pillars, an auditorium from ancient times. It was carved directly into a hill of white marble webbed with lacy veins of red velvet. Rings upon rings of seats descended into the pit carved at the center of the pillars, the ancient stage sitting at the bottom in the round. The pillars themselves, polished by the harsh wind that swept up and over the stone hill, stood at the top of the auditorium in a ring, rising like burnished maroon trunks. If they had ever held a roof, it had long since crumbled into dust, leaving the some eighty-seven people sitting on the second-lowest ring open to the elements. None of them minded, except perhaps the Fiori family, who were touched by flickering, fickle, flames, and disliked the cold of the autumn air.

Aamira found that a pall usually hung over the place — undoubtedly cast by her infernal majesty after she used it as a judgment hall during the Red Reign — but it was different today. Not good different either, just another shade of gloom. The only reason they still used it was because it had the best acoustics in all the Red.

The better to carry their natterings all the way to the border stone.

She took in her fellow high cards with outwardly cool eyes, leaning on her elbow resting on the arm of her stone seat. The rest of her was draped artfully over the Cataran seat of power, a miniature throne like all the others lining the two bottom most rows. Carved straight into the white stone of the auditorium, each had been made to reflect the family song of the owner — a perfect-cut gem for the Duchess of Diamonds, a stylized flame at the back of Fiori senior. Aamira’s own was the wind itself frozen into stone, the marble carved so expertly it appeared to swirl around her like a tame cyclone.

Looks like everybody’s here… she thought as she took in the stiff fancy clothes, the fingers weighed down by bright gemstones, the ornate hair that too often looked like stylized bird’s nests. The Duchess of Diamonds - the highest card among them still tied by blood to the deceased King and Queen of Diamonds - sat in her seat of power at the far end of the circle, the rest of the Diamond cards situated around her. The Hearts’ side was far weedier, only a few willing or unable to avoid their heritage.

Aamira shifted in her chair, crossing one leg over the other and trying to to ignore the way her shoes made her toes claustrophobic. So what is taking them so long to start?

“Can we get on with it?” Lord Fiori echoed Aamira’s sentiments.

The Duchess’s wrinkles jiggled on her scrawny chicken neck, her head and the elaborate headdress and veil perched upon it shook like a top heavy tree about to topple. Her old woman’s voice was shrill and carried far, piercing Aamira’s head like a nail. “We will ‘get on with it’ when I say,” she intoned with what she imagined was regal splendor.

A round of groans and grumbles swept the other cards, even Aamira rolling her eyes and propping her chin on the knuckles of her left hand. By all the songs in Underland… She sighed in exasperation.

“Just spit it out Di,” the equally elderly Count du Charme, spindly and white haired (all of which sprouted from his ears), said before flinging out a shaking gnarled finger at the man in white standing beneath the Duchess’s station. “And who’s the whiting windrush? He’s been gawking like a fish since he come up. What’s the matter boy?” The Count demanded, leaning over the wall that set the stage area apart and scowling like the old curmudgeon he was. “Ain’t you never heard a Cacophony before?”

“Oh sit down you old coot,” the Duchess grumbled at him before raising her voice. “All of you! Sit down and let the whiting speak!” She settled back in her stone seat, hardly softened by the red cushions, and grumbled so low even the auditorium couldn’t make it completely clear, “The sooner he speaks, the sooner he leaves and I can get back to my precious Piggy-Pie.”

They ignored her, her ‘precious Piggy-Pie’ being an actual little pink pig she doted on like other people doted on only children.

The stranger among them stepped on to the round stage, his hands fussing nervously in the wide cuffs of his travel-spotted robes. His face was round and youthful and very pale. His nervous twitching made him look even younger than he already did, like a boy playing at knight.

Young as he was, he still had the sense to wait for the Duchess’s approval.

The old woman eyed him, faded black veil fluttering in a faint breeze behind her encumbered head. The White fidgeted under her drill-like stare, feet shifting, and then stumbled sideways when she abruptly turned her head. She waved a hand imperiously at the little butler standing in the walkway directly beneath her.

Aamira shook her head. Theatrics.

The butler straightened, the buttons at his waist threatening to burst. “The Cacophony will now hear from the White Bishop, Tipple of the Frewish Valley. The Bishop will now spe-eak!”

His voice cracked uproariously. Usually Aamira would have had a hard time holding back the giggles, but today her attention was fixed on the White. Hers and everyone elses. She could feel them all leaning forward in their seats. With a start she realized so was she.

I’ve never seen a White in person before. Won’t Mother wish she’d come now?

The young bishop fidgeted under so many eyes. He cleared his throat three times, the sound chasing itself, before he finally remembered what he had come to say.

“I-” He spoke in a voice barely less pubescent than the butler’s voice crack. “-am Bishop Tipple.”

A snort overrode his words. “Yes, we know all that, whiting.” It was Count Grumpus again. “Now what do you want?”

He was silenced by a round of violent shushing. They all leaned forward even more.

“And I-” Tipple continued. “-come with a message for the Cacophony.”

Their collective breath paused. Eyes narrowed and stared at him askance. If this is another berating about her infernal highness being a Red, I will have the wind toss him off the top of the highest pillar. The wind shifted eagerly against her fingers, knowing her thoughts.

He wet his lips and continued in a stronger voice. “One of our honorable number has seen a vision of terrible import. Of Wonderland fractured-”

The Count snorted. “It's already fractured whiting. And that's how we like it!” He tossed his head and scowled. "No one bothering anybody else or getting in anybody else's way. On a good day I forget everyone else exists." He leaned his bulbous nose precariously in the air. "It's downright wonderful."

Aamira slanted a smile. It took more than eighty years, but finally the Count speaks wisdom, she thought, falling into an artful slouch to watch the opening act unfold.

A wave of murmuring agreements swept the auditorium, mutterings that the White ignored as he practically shouted at their thick skulls, “-and burned down to its foundations!”

Now this was a worry. Except for the Fioris, they were all quite flammable. They all leaned back in their seats, a twitter of nervous whispers sweeping through them. Aamira narrowed her eyes at the young man. His eyes were wide and easy to read as they flicked around the different faces in the auditorium, matching the quick flick of his tongue running over dry lips.

She leaned back as well, arms resting on the rests, hands falling off the ends. No… she thought, no something is not quite right…

The Duchess either realized this as well or was just naturally suspicious. She scowled down her sharp nose at the bishop with narrowed eyes. “And why were we all burning?”

“Was it all together?” asked the Archduke of Affection.

“Or did the Fioris light us all up separately?” asked the Countess Consideraté with a sidelong look at the lean man that was her neighbor, his black goatee streaked with gray.

He scowled at her. “I resent the notion that this is all our fault!”

“Well you would, wouldn’t you?” said Sultana Sapphira. “The guilty ones are always the most indignant.”

Fiori the Younger shot to his feet, a gloved hand gripping the hilt of his sword. “I protest!”

“Me too!”

“And me!”

“All of you shut up!”

Silence was shocked into visitors as the Duchess’s scream echoed in the air above the auditorium. She was on her feet — so short her head barely came to the top of her throne even all dressed up as it was — and her fingers were curled into bony fists at the sides of her full white skirt accented in a red diamond pattern.

The high cards all stared at her, then carefully reclaimed their seats, Fiori the Younger needing a good pull at his haughty half cape and a stern look from his father before following their lead, until only the bishop remained standing. His face was pale now and his hands were clutched tight together half hidden in the wide sleeves of his robe. Aamira thought she saw him quaking a little.

She leaned over to Delphine standing next to her. “I think we’ve frightened the little bishop,” she murmured to her friend. Delphine only nodded.

The Duchess gave them all a good scowl, her chicken skin jiggling with temper, before she finally sat again. She arranged the folds of her full skirt, diamonds flashing, and was still a moment. Then, she swept an impatient hand at the bishop.

It took him a moment to find his voice. “My counterpart assures me this is not the fault of anyone in Wonderland,” he told them.

Fiori Senior gave a sharp nod at the Countess, arms crossed high over his chest. “There, see? We did nothing.”

“Says the liar,” the Countess muttered.

A sharp look from the Duchess had them looking down at their shoes.

“And where, pray tell,” she asked the bishop, “did your counterpart say this fire will come from?”

He blinked large cow-eyes at her. “You- you know it’s not a literal fire, right?”

The old woman’s scowl threatened to set him alight if he did not answer her question.

Bishop Tipple gave a little squeak and stuttered, “Ou-ou-outlanders! Strangers from beyond the Board of Battle, where my predecessors defeated the Black Army long ago. They will bring the fire and our destruction with it.”

Aamira’s eyebrows rose high on her forehead. Outlanders? Here? Ha! Wonderland had been cut off from the other worlds long ago, drifted away from their borders and shores like a bottle at sea. Queen Alice had been the last and she had closed the queen's way to protect them from others who would not understand their peculiar ways. There was simply no possible path left for outlanders to come by.

Everyone knows that.

Except, apparently, Bishop Tipple. He stood there, openly shaking now as the Duchess stared at him, letting him stew.

Eventually she leaned sideways and propped her weighted head upon a fist and arm that looked too spindly to support her. “And I presume you are here because your counterpart has an answer for this…” She pointedly looked around them at the clear sky, the pleasantly warm sun shining through the sweet autumn air. Somewhere a bird was singing “Oh My Bonnie Babe the Snail.”

She raised a highly tweezed eyebrow at Tipple. “Impending disaster?”

The Bishop looked down at the toes of his shoes peeking out from beneath his robes. Obviously he had just as much difficulty believing this ‘honorable number’ as the rest of them assembled.

“Bishop Acrimena is far wiser than I,” he told them, face still turned away. If not for the extraordinary properties of the auditorium they would not have heard him. “If she says that we must unite to avoid this dire future, then so it must be.”

Already suspicious eyes turned outright wary. Ah, at last, Aamira thought. We come to the catch.

“Unite?” the Duchess repeated. “How?”

Tipple seemed to be regaining his footing. “A marriage, between two royal cards. One Red. One Black. Acrimena tells me that if we stack the deck against this threat, we will save ourselves.”

The Duchess was not impressed. “A marriage. Of course. Not like I’ve never heard that one before.”

Her sarcasm caught the young Bishop by surprise. He blinked at her slowly. “But…I’m serious.”

“You’re always serious,” Count Grumpus grumbled, even though the young White hadn’t been talking more than ten minutes. “Just like we now seriously think you’re a pawn that stole his master’s robes and ran over a hundred leagues for a big joke. Of course the Blacks want a union with us. We are the better suits.”

He sat as straight as he could, shoulders still bowed beyond hope, and Aamira rolled her eyes. She saw Delphine cover her mouth with her fingertips to try and hide her grin. Hotheads and gemstones, she thought, mostly serious. What’s not to love?

The Duchess and the Count were starting to get into one of their little bickering matches, ignoring the Bishop, who was standing there, one finger held in the air as he muttered incoherent nonsense as if that could possibly get their attention.

Not even the acoustics can work that miracle, Aamira thought with a wry smile.

“He’d better find a way to break this up quick before they really get going,” Delphine murmured next to her. Aamira snorted her agreement.

“Acrimena-” he was saying now, voice rising with each attempt. “Acrimena- she-” Carrot-colored brows furrowed together. “Would you old timers shut it for five seconds?”

Every eye in the place blinked. Aamira drew back slightly, half a smile on her face. She shared a look with Delphine, who looked just as surprised. “Well that seemed to do it.”

“You wouldn’t think he’d have it in him just looking at him,” Delphine agreed.

The blush that spread across Bishop Tipple’s face could have landed a Jubjub bird halfway between here and the sun, but he straightened his robes and pressed on. Aamira could see him wrestling with the apology trying to worm its way out of his mouth.

He cleared his throat. His voice was noticeably tighter than before.

“Acrimena herself has gone to deliver this same message to the Blackish Council. She is confident she will persuade them of the necessity of this union.”

The Duchess huffed. “And she has the same confidence in you, whiting? If you think we’re going to be out-stubborned by a bunch of forest folk you’ve got another thing coming.” She crossed her scrawny arms over her chest and turned her head again. “No. No we don’t accept. We’ve heard your message, now go away.”

Tipple stared at her. “Buh-buh-but-”

She refused to look at him. “No buts. We’ve already refused you. Go on now.” She flapped a hand at him like a limp flag. “Shoo.”

Tipple jerked back. “Wh-what?”

But the Duchess was stoutly ignoring him. Little pockets of conversation had broken out, the cards murmuring amongst their entourages. Some had stood. They were starting to leave.

Aamira decided to join them. She leaned back in her throne with a sigh. “Well, that was fun,” she said, looking over at Delphine. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Mam packed lunch right?”

Delphine opened her little mouth to answer and a deep booming voice erupted in Aamira’s ears. She startled, nearly falling out of her chair, for a moment unable to comprehend why her friend’s voice had changed so…dramatically.

It hadn’t of course, but the truth was even more unnerving.

It was Tipple.

“You idiot cards will listen to me!” he boomed. Aamira looked around wildly, trying to find the source of the noise and finally finding the scrawny White still standing in the center of the theater. The travel stains on his robes had become darker, or perhaps the whiteness of his robes had become whiter, and his face and hands were glowing even in the bright light of the noon sun. “I am not some pawn proclaiming disaster for my own amusement. THIS. IS. REAL.”

And suddenly it was real. Too real! Aamira heard half a scream escape her as she forced herself back as far in her throne as she could go. She was surrounded by flames of every color trying to lick the skin right off her bones. She couldn’t see any of the other cards, not even Delphine sitting right next to her.

But there were bodies. Lots of bodies, littering the burning fields like a bloodied carpet. Men and women, Blacks and Reds. Bodies too tiny to be adults. Bodies too furry to be Reds…

And in the distance a figure, the only one standing over the fields of prismatic destruction. It was black, face unfathomable in contradicting shadow. Its hands ended in sharp points that dripped the chaotic colors of the wildfire. The shadowed body threw its head back, pointed crown never sliding from its scalp, and let loose a terrifying roar that threatened to break Aamira’s bones to bits.

Aamira backpedaled, tripped over the body of a sightless black, the black ears of the fox lying limp against his skull. She felt the raw scream build in her throat, making it burn. She scrabbled for something familiar, for the wind that had never left her side, but it was gone. The air was perfectly still.

As dead as everyone else.

Her eyes roved wild, unable to escape the horror. She reached farther. Where was it. Where was her friend?

And then suddenly it was gone - the fire, the figure, all of it. They were back in the auditorium, the red pillars towering above their heads. The air was still pleasant. The sky once again blue. The bird had switched over to “My Favorite Bonnet Is Full of Carrots”.

Aamira’s heart was racing, a double time march in her chest. Her fingers clutched the arms as if the cyclone would become real and take off with her. At her side she could hear Delphine’s breath approaching the speed of flight. “Wha-” She had to wet her lips and focus on the words like a toddler still learning to speak. “What was that?”

Tipple answered her. ”That is what will become of you if you do nothing,” he told them, voice booming with an otherworldly power rare even here. “Divided, Wonderland will die. And you will all bear the blame for it.”

For the first time in history, the entire Cacophony had nothing to say. They stared at the Bishop with wide eyes, more than Aamira’s fingers clutching at their seats. The wind wrapped around her in gentle currents, asking what was wrong. It carried the faint smell of singed fabric to her. Probably from the rattled Fioris.

Aamira was even more glad that she didn’t sit next to the firesingers now. “My lady?” a high, strained voice whispered next to her. She barely recognized it as Delphine's. “Aamira, what kind of song was that? I’ve never seen it before.”

The force they knew as ‘song’ was a powerful one in the Realm of Red. It was a tie, a connection, between them and the world they lived in. Some could hear the flowers singing, like Aamira’s mother, others could hear gems whispering far beneath the ground, like the Duchess, while still others could hear the songs of living things so well that they could mimic the tune, like Delphine and her animals. Aamira heard the song in the wind, the one hidden beneath the roar and bluster it put on for others.

But only the Reds shared this gift. The Blacks had their other forms, their snouts and paws and claws and tails. And the Whites…well there were too many stories for Aamira to be certain what the truth really was.

“White’s don’t sing,” Aamira told Delphine. “Except in the shower, maybe. But they don’t hear anything like we do.”

The small beast tamer’s eyes grew wide. “How terrible,” she whispered. “It must be like being deaf from birth. They’ll never know what they’re missing out on.”

Aamira didn’t share in her sympathy. “They have their own gifts,” she told her, knowing how much Delphine relied upon the tie she had with the unthinking beasts that lived alongside the thinking ones down in Wonderland. “Ones I no longer want to contemplate.”

Delphine fell silent on the matter, probably afraid of what it was that could rattle a woman like Aamira.

Down below, Bishop Tipple was still watching them, eyes turning from one face to another around the whole of the Cacophony. Aamira felt a nervous thrill when his light eyes found hers. He did not look so young and foolish to her now.

He moved on quickly and only stopped once he had turned in a complete circle, his eyes finding the Duchess again. She tilted her head at him in the slightest sign of curiosity, rather than the fear that Aamira felt circling in her stomach. It was only an illusion, she told herself. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been real. Such destruction- it couldn’t.

Her brain wasn’t able to twist around the possibility. And, what was worse, if it somehow was real, then how did the Whites know?

Could they- they can’t actually see the future, Aamira’s mind balked, then hesitated.

Can they?

Her eyelids fluttered as she swallowed past constricted throat muscles. It’s just a story. Something Mother told me before bed.

Bishop Tipple cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was back to its usual boyish pitch.

“Who will you send?”

They all looked to the Duchess. This was no longer a question of if they believed him or not — that ship had sailed with Tipple’s display of carnage — but was now a question of what they were going to do about it. Which meant they had to chose.

Who will be our sacrificial tove?

Aamira slid her eyes to either side. They were all high cards here, but even they had their ranks. The Duchess’s family would be the most desirable, naturally, but even though all her children were married, they were either at that young newlywed stage where they had no children or they did and their children were too young. That left them safe, along with most of the Heart cards that still remained. By their nature they had lots of children, but they were also known for their quick tempers, and they still carried the stigma of the Queen.

That casts the Fiori daughter out of the running, Aamira thought with a glance at the ebony haired woman sitting behind her father, pale under her olive skin. And probably the Sultana’s son as well. Everyone knows he’s a bit of a hothead, but he does have a younger sister…

That left perhaps a dozen and half or so eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. Personally, Aamira thought the Blacks would want the cream rather than the milk. This is a big deal. The first time the Reds and Blacks are united? They’ll want a royal through and through. A king or queen or-

“I would speak.”

Aamira felt her heart twist in her chest. Or a prince, she finished her thought.

Everyone stilled at the appearance of the somber voice. Then, as one, they all turned to the pariah in their midst, the one card they could never shuffle off. No matter how hard they tried.

The Prince of Hearts sat upon his broken throne directly opposite the Duchess, the silver inside of his cape - the color of remembrance - clearly seen wrapped around his shoulders before trailing down his arm and over the side of his marble seat. He sat away from the others, his great-great grandmother having smashed all the surrounding neighbors during her Red Reign.

Like the rest of them he wore red, but it looked burnt compared to the rest of the Cacophony’s bright shades, and was accompanied by an alarming amount of black. Black gloves over maroon sleeves. Black boots rising as high as his knees. Even the small heart embroidered on his tunic was black.

Somber colors matched an equally somber face. Bane of Hearts was the last of his family, and given his unmarried state Aamira thought sourly that it would stay that way until the day he died.

And it will all be his own fault, Aamira thought bitterly.

Bane rose to his feet gravely, the silver lining of his cape flashing. There was an idea forming in his head, Aamira saw, a stupid one. Stubborn fool, she growled, glaring daggers at him and willing him to sit down and shut up. Stay quiet before you hang yourself by your own hand!

He even spoke gravely. “If a union is what is required to save all Reds from the unforgiving extermination we just witnessed, then I will save the Cacophony a difficult choice and volunteer myself.”

Aamira groaned and hung her head. “Too late,” she moaned.

His words were met with mixed results. Most of the younger cards — Aamira not included — looked relieved, but the older generation…

“You sneaking, conniving slithy tove!” Count du Charme exploded out of his chair, his scrawny body shaking like a twiggy branch in autumn wind. “You think we finally got rid of your rotten, big-headed gran just so you could take us over without a fight? Someone hold him down so I kick his a-ah-AH!”

He fell over the heads of the cards in the row below him, his spindly legs kicking in the air like an upended stork. He was still shouting at Bane, but his words were muffled in the skirt of the poor Baroness Beryl, who shrieked so loud at the indignity that no one could understand him.

The intent was clear enough though, and echoed by the Duchess given the shade of red her face had turned. Aamira wasn’t surprised. The Hearts’ song was the most dangerous and Bane had it in full. Like his infamous grandmother, Bane could play others’ emotions like an instrument. It was how she’d persuaded the other cards not to dethrone her after the first head went rolling down the palace steps.

You little idiot, Aamira thought, her own heart sinking in her chest. Did you really think they’d put you on a throne willingly? They’d rather face the Bandersnatch one by one!

Before things could get even more out of hand, Bishop Tipple raised his hands. The Cacophony flinched as a whole, afraid he would glow again.

They weren’t and he seemed surprised by the way they all ducked. “Calm yourselves. This is all unnecessary! Acrimena has already informed me the Blackish Council has chosen the Prince of Spades as the groom. That just leaves the bride.”

The uproar died down at that. “Wah?” the upside down count tried to shout his way past layers of skirt. “Wah id he eh?”

“He said-” His great niece bent over the Ruby Marchioness’s head to shout. “-that they want a lady, Uncle!”

The leg-kicking paused. And then a surprised little, “Oh. Well dat’s al’ight denn.”

They got the old man flipped upside right again, the Baroness slapping the top of his bald head before storming off to a safe distance. Count du Charme held the top of his head and stood toddling on his feet, his entire head red from all the blood. His niece scrambled down to steady him. “Right,” he said patting her hand, then jerking his thumb at the Bishop. “You heard the whiting, Pearl. Go and get married. Sorry I couldn’t make it. I’m sure it was a lovely ceremony.”

Niece Pearl pursed her lips at him and stepped back, letting him fall hard into one of the little stone seats next to the Marchioness.

Bane was gawking now. “But- but I can do this!” he insisted, emotion actually breaking past his ennui. “I can fix this for you.” He turned to the White. “Can’t the Blacks just change their minds?” he demanded.

Bishop Tipple shook his head, carrot-colored hair swiping across his eyes. “Acrimena was most insistent. We need a bride. A princess would be best,” he told them, then ducked his head to the side. “But seeing as his highness has no sisters and the Diamonds had too many daughters for their family’s good and they all took different names, I’m sure one of the other fine ladies will do just as well-”

One of those fine ladies shot to her feet. “That’s not true!” she cried from the row above Aamira and twelve thrones down — Eglantine, daughter of the Earl of Erstwhile. “There are three princesses among us, not to mention the Duchess’s own Daisy! She’s related through her mother-”

Distantly related,” the Duchess all but shrieked.

Eglantine ignored her, the whites showing all around her eyes. “We have a whole flock of princesses. Pick one of them!”

Aamira glowered in her direction, the wind picking up in little eddies at her sides. Yes, it made sense, but she didn’t have to go blabbing it to the entire Cacophony!

I suppose I shouldn’t blame her, Aamira thought acidly. Marrying some furball would get in the way of her engagement. Cloudy eyes found the pale face of the young man sitting at Eglantine’s right side. Their hands clutched tight together so that their knuckles had turned white.

“Oh,” the Bishop mumbled. “Oh, well who are they?”

The Duchess swiped a hand at her butler and he croaked out, “When your name is called, please rise!”

Aamira’s stomach clenched.

“Princess Star of Sapphire.”

The Sultana’s daughter, she thought clenching her fingers.

“Princess Peridot of Pinerin.”

A throwback line to the time before Alice. Her throat tightened.

“Princess Aamira of Cataran.”

She felt like she was going to be sick. Her legs were shaking so badly she wasn’t sure she would make it to her feet. She shot Bane a look. This. Is all. Your. Fault, she thought vehemently at him.

From the way his throat worked as he watched her, she thought he understood her perfectly.

“Wait! Wait! You forgot Daisy!” cried Peridot’s mother, half risen from her chair and clutching her daughter’s hand.

The Duchess scowled at her, eyes white hot at the mention of her oldest granddaughter.

Lady Pinerin scowled back. “Don’t give me that look Duchess. If my girl’s going up the aisle so is yours!”

“My Daisy’s only sixteen!” she shrieked.

“Fair is fair, Duchess! She’s old enough.”

Barely, thought Aamira. And it’s not like anyone is going to choose Daisy with the Duchess here. She’ll break them like a china plate. Which doesn’t exactly help my odds any…

Bishop Tippel was looking between the three standing women. “How do we pick?” he asked, looking very young again. “Am I supposed to chose or-?”

The Duchess snorted. “Don’t be daft. We will decide this in the most logical, forward thinking way possible.” She waved a hand at their official caller.

He slammed his gavel on the forearm of his chair. “We will now take the vote!”

The cards got their ballots out.

“Remember, all answers are final. No refunds, substitutions, or erasures. Please see Ralph for a receipt after the dismissal. Ready? Set?” There was a last hurry of scribbling. “And cast!”

Aamira’s stomach plummeted as the cards shuffled their ballots inward to the caller. Aamira tried to read the ones that came to Delphine before she passed them on, but they were all flipped over.

She did not have high hopes. Oh, why did I have to offend so many of them last snark hunting day? she asked herself.

She waited with her hands at her side, the wind picking up on her anxiety and playing with her hair to try and cheer her up. She gave it a swat and told it to stop. Now is not the time!

The air stilled, and then sunk down to her feet like a kicked scriff.

The butler now had all the ballots and had sat cross legged on the ground to sort them out. Aamira watched him as he divied them into three piles with careful slowness. Wait, four, although one card hardly amounted to a pile. Peridot’s mother’s proverbial slap to the Duchess no doubt.

He still wasn’t done. I could have blown them into order faster! Aamira shrieked in her head. From the looks of things, Peridot and Star would pass out before he put them out of their misery.

He finally ran out of ballots and went to murmur the decision into the caller’s ear. One of the piles was noticeably taller than the other three.

The caller nodded his head, powdered white wig slipping down slightly over his eyes.

“We now have a new Red Queen,” he announced.

Aamira bit her lip, her fingers digging into her hip. Please please please please-

“All hail Princess Aamira of Cataran, future queen of Wonderland!”

The other two girls wilted into their seats, Peridot openly sobbing in relief on her fiance’s shoulder, Star grinning for all she was worth, as the Cacophony took up the stiff cheer of, “All hail! All hail!”

Aamira stared out at them, a sea of red on white. She could no longer feel her feet.

“Oh uff,” she muttered.

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