Divided: A Tale of Wonderland

By Bethany R. Lindell All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

The Prince of Hearts

Bane caught up with Aamira in the halls that ran throughout the marble hill, so that visitors may reach their seats without climbing over one another.

“Aamira! Aamira wait!”

She stopped against her better judgment, Delphine following her example and looking over her shoulder to see who it was. “Do you want me to stay?” she asked in a voice he couldn’t hear.

Aamira narrowed her eyes at the Heart, then shook her head, red ringlets falling across her shoulders. “No. No I’ll be fine. Go see your beasties. They’re probably getting restless in that stone pit.”

Delphine’s eyes flicked back to the Prince as he slowed to a walk, but nodded her head. “All right.” But Aamira noticed she walked away at a very, very slow pace. She’d probably only reach the corner by the time she was done chewing out the other redhead.

Aamira straightened where she stood in front of an open archway that silhouetted her in fading afternoon light, propping one hand on her hip as Bane approached. She narrowed her eyes at him.

He didn’t try to giver her one of those smiles she remembered from their growing up together, and she saw that he approached her rather warily, like he would one of Delphine’s overgrown beasties.

“I’m surprised you waited,” he said.

So was Aamira, but she didn’t tell him that. Just narrowed her eyes more and gave him her best high card stare. Out of everything that had just happened — including the sudden uprootment of her life by even the Cacophony’s very invasive standards — he was the one she was most angry with.

She raised her other hand and tried not to let her temper burst out like a cyclone. “Come to talk me out of it? ‘You deserve better Aamira so run away with me despite everything I did to you’? We haven’t spoken in four years but today seems like a fine day to break our final agreement, doesn’t it? Or maybe you’re hear because you still have some wedding gifts you’d like to pawn off? Oh no no no, wait.” She waved her hands out in front of him like he had actually been about to try and break her monologue. “I know. You’ve come to apologize. You know how I know that? Because this.” She jabbed a finger at the black buttons of his tunic. “Is. All. Your. Fault.”

Her hands went up. She had to remind herself not to pace out the window because then he wouldn’t be able to hear her. “Why-why couldn’t you have just kept quiet in there? If you had then they wouldn’t have remembered the Reds still had princesses.”

“That was Peridot,” he finally stepped in. “And it’s been five years since we stopped talking.”

That actually made her stop. Five years. Inseparable since thirteen and we haven’t spoken in five years, she thought. Feels like longer.

“And I am sorry, Aamira,” he told her in a voice that was almost like his old one. “I thought they would agree just so they could finally be rid of me.” He ducked his head to the side and, for the shake of a Cheshire’s tail, she saw the old Bane resurface — the slightly awkward, gangly teenager that had once shoved her off the top of the Diamond Falls because she’d boasted she could fly, and then when she made it down with only her hairdo ruined, jumped after her and laughed when he got off with only a broken leg. “I mean, it’s not like anyone cares enough to want me around.”

Her eyes were furious, even more insulted. The words I care you nimrod! jumped into her mouth, but she managed to keep them there. It had been five years after all. It was unseemly to care at this point.

With effort, she closed her eyes and let her temper boil down. “Well you thought wrong. They care very much about keeping you away from power. And yes, you should have realized that before you opened your big, fat mouth.”

It was something she would have said if they were still friends, but she couldn’t resist, even if she regretted the words as soon as she couldn’t take them back. They stood there, their relationship too broken to fix, but unable to let go of it entirely.

She shook herself. “Now if you’re done with your sorries-” Although I have my doubts about that. “-I have to go pack.”

She turned around, so it was only through their long childhood together that she could imagine the way he scrubbed at his face with both hands as he sighed loudly. She did not expect him to try again. She did not expect him to lay a hand on her shoulder, almost like the Bane she knew had come back.

“Aamira-” he started, but she jerked his hand off and held up a hand, startled by the contact.

“Don’t,” she told him. “You can’t keep changing your mind on me so don’t.”

She felt Bane’s hand hovering over her shoulder, felt the weight of their silence between them.He dropped his hand. His voice was low. “I don’t like this,” he told her. “The Whites aren’t telling us everything.”

Aamira snorted a laugh. “We're all going to die unless I bite the tigerlily by the tail. What else do we need to know?"

“That doesn’t reassure me. The point is that they are pushing this for a reason. And I’d feel a lot better for you if I knew what that reason was.” She felt his disgruntled look on her ear, wondered if he would try and talk her out of something she saw no reason to go through the effort of avoiding. “I know I lost the right to ask-”

“Lost?” she repeated, anger sparking up again as she whirled on him, poking him in the chest with a finger. “You didn’t lose it Bane. You gave it up, and for no reason.”

“I had my reasons for breaking our engagement off-” he tried.

“None that you ever bothered to tell me!”

“A-hem.”

The small sound reminded them that ‘alone’ was a relative term in an auditorium. Aamira turned her head just enough to see Delphine standing a few yards away. Not the time or the place, Aamira reminded herself.

She straightened up and forced her eyes closed. She suddenly felt tired, like she’d had this same argument for days.

“Look,” she told Bane as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “We always knew that if I didn’t marry you, then only a sheer force of nature could get me to an alter, and the Whites are about as close as we'll ever get.” She raised bright red eyebrows at him in mock hope. “Unless you’ve changed your mind…?”

Bane only looked away.

A giant hand squeezed her chest. “Yeah,” she murmured. “That’s what I thought.”

She turned on her heel, quickly catching up with Delphine still walking away at her crawl. “Come on Delphine. We need to prepare Mam before Woodwind is invaded by Whites on flying ponies or whatever it is they ride.”

She left. Bane didn’t call her back, and she wouldn’t have stopped if he had.


The silence of the ride back was a relief after talking with Bane. Delphine, riding her flamingo as naturally as Aamira talked to the wind, didn’t pry. She was a good friend that way.

Aamira didn’t sit so nicely on her own. Riding was such a bumpy way of traveling, she preferred to walk or ask the wind if she had to go father than her legs could carry her. That and her beasties never like me much.

As if to prove her point, the bird tossed its narrow head and tried to sidle sideways. Aamira tried to pull it back on the path, but it only sidled faster.

“Oh come on you birdbrain!” She tried prodding its pink underbelly with her heels, but all they found was fluff.

“Hie!” Delphine called out.

The flamingo squawked and immediately traveled sideways on long-toed feet back into place next to the woman that had called him.

Aamira dropped the long straps that served as reigns and crossed her arms over her chest, nose in the air, and let the bird follow Delphine’s. “That’s it. I give up!” she declared. “No one is listening to me today so there’s no point in saying anything!”

Delphine managed a small smile. She held her own reigns loosely in one hand, but she hardly needed them. Her own bird carried her gladly, unlike Aamira’s, who sulked and let its serpentine neck hang low to the ground. “Don’t take it out on Dorcus when you’re really mad at the Cacophony.”

“But that’s the thing, I’m not mad at the Cacophony," Aamira insisted. "I always knew they were barking mad, nosy, and a pain.” She gave an exaggerated shrug. “So why should I bother with surprise when I already know what they are?”

“And the…union?”

Aamira let her head roll back on her shoulders. “Don’t beat the bush, Delphi. It’s just a marriage, you can say the word. It isn’t something to fear.”

The smaller woman raised fawn colored eyebrows. “Isn’t it?” she asked.

Aamira shrugged and screwed up her face. “Eh.”

Delphine shook her head in amazement. “I can’t say I’d feel the same if it was me,” she murmured.

“Of course not. You’re a hopeless romantic.” Aamira stretched her arms high above her head, pulling the muscles in her back until the ache of riding had lessened somewhat.

She laughed, a sound that reminded Aamira of the dogs kept at the Hall. “If I’m hopeless then you must be lost and given up. You’re twice as bad as I am.” She barked another laugh, more subdued than the first. “That’s why I’m so surprised you’re taking this so…quietly.”

Aamira made a noise in her straight nose. “I could, you know." She felt the need to defend her reaction. "Fight it. Buck off their decision like Dorcus here would me.” She patted the beastie’s neck and jerked back when it craned its head around, beak wide open to bite her hand. “But honestly, what’s the point? I knew-” Her throat tried to squeeze shut, but she forced the words through. “I knew as soon as Bane broke it off that if I married at all then my husband would be found for me.”

I just didn’t count on him being a Black.

She didn’t say it, afraid of worrying Delphine. Despite their shared country, the Reds hadn’t so much as spoken to the people of the Blue Forest since before Aamira’s parents had been born. The fact that they were trying to fix things now — and with someone like her — it made her stomach feel like it was full of chilled water.

She didn’t tell Delphine that either.

“Where do you think they’ll want us to live?” Aamira asked after a few miles of being lost in her own head.

Delphine sighed loudly. “I don’t know. Not here I’m sure, and not there. Castle in the clouds maybe? Above the board and looking down?”

Aamira’s mouth thinned, her eyes wide as she thought about it. “That doesn’t sound so bad. I’d always have an escape when my husband dearest gets too loud.”

Delphine laughed again, this time sounding like a goose honking. “We’ll be able to hear him all the way down here if he’s louder than you!”

Aamira shot her a look. “Ha ha,” she grumbled, but then turned serious. “You’ll come with me, wherever it is, won’t you?”

Delphine looked over at her with her very large eyes. “You even have to ask?”

The tightness in Aamira’s chest softened just a little before Delphine added, “You really think I’ll leave my poor pets in your tender care, Aamira? They’ll be running into walls in a week.”

She shook her head, red hair caught up in the wind as it laughed along with Delphine. “Such fine friends you two are,” she grumbled.

Delphine’s laughter trailed off into chuckles. “I bet your mother starts planning the wedding before the moon is out.”

“Ha!” Aamira gave a laugh of her own. “That long? I bet it’ll be before dinner. And, best of all, she’ll have it all planned out before I even leave. I won’t have to lift a finger.”

“Lazy bride.”

Aamira pretended indignation. “Insults and bereavements! You’ll make a terrible bride’s maid, Delphi.”

“That’s okay. I plan to to fob it off on Dorcus. Just imagine how beautiful you’ll look next to her.”

She laughed again imagining the scrawny, stick-legged bird in a satin gown of hideous peach and a crown of singing flowers falling over one beady eye. “Right. It’s all decided. That just leaves one question left.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Delphine asked, still thinking they were playing the game.

Aamira exhaled long and slow, her face turning down into genuine misery. “How will I explain this to Zephyr?”

And for that, neither Delphine nor the wind had any good answer.

They rode the rest of the way back to Woodwind Hall in silence.

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