Center of the Board
The Blue Forest was much larger than its name belied, spreading over leagues and leagues of hills and valleys, clearings and thickets, spreading like a blue-green carpet from the White Cliffs to the north down to the southern edge of the Tulgey Wood that separated Wonderland from the other-worlds beyond.
It did not peter out into the plains of the Realm of Red, the tall trunks giving way to their newer fresher offspring. It just stopped, like a blue-shadowed wall that appeared impenetrable to all but the most slinking, sneaking types of creatures.
If he expects me to live in there, he’s got another thing coming, Aamira thought as she surveyed the tree line from afar, their great towering sentinels hemming her in even from a distance, isolating her from her song.
She sighed and turned her back to the forest, leaning a shoulder against the Red side of the roughly hewn stone boulder that decried the official border between the Realm of Red and the Blue Forest. It was inscribed with the names of a dozen different high cards and other people of power and not even the Queen of Hearts had been able to destroy it. She had tried, of course, but it grew back every time, names and all, so she had settled for writing her own name across both sides as big as she possibly could. The straight lines cut in the stone dug into the skin of Aamira’s arm, leaving behind strange patterns.
“Crazy decapitating nightmare,” Aamira muttered with a sour look up at the little crown chiseled over the ‘e’ and ‘a’ of her suit. “This is all your fault, you know. If you hadn’t gone ballistic then the suits would never have fallen apart, and then the Whites wouldn’t be all for this touchy-feely, ‘let’s reunite and be stronger for it’ nonsense.” She paused. “And when the royal historian asks me for my opinion on when the world went to the crabbits, I’m going to say, ‘I blame the Queen.’ So there.”
If the Queen heard her from beyond the grave, she gave no sign. Probably for the best, Aamira thought. She already had her chance to ruin everything. She sighed deeply. Now it’s my turn.
She pushed off the boundary stone and scowled in the general direction of the two Whites standing farther away talking, one on each side of the boundary line. Tipple stood with his back to her, on the Red side, but she could see the face of the woman he was talking to. She was older than Tipple, middle aged judging by the lines engraved into her face. She had a square head and sternly defined jaw line, with a flat mouth and eyes that were the same shade as the stone, like she’d chipped them off and put them in herself.
“He’s late,” Aamira shouted at them pointedly.
“You’re impatient,” the woman Aamira didn’t know shouted back, and then went back to speaking with her younger counterpart.
Aamira rolled her eyes and decided it wasn’t worth the effort of dragging answers out of either of them. Instead she rejoined her own party standing a little ways away from the border, well away from the shadow of the forest.
“Whites,” she grumbled to Delphine when she was close enough to hear. “They drag us all the way out here and then don’t tell us anything. It’s like they’re going out of their way to annoy us.”
Delphine gave a little shrug where she slowly stroked the fine fur of her horsehare’s eagerly twitching nose. Aamira was glad they hadn’t taken the flamingos. Horsehares, at least, were quiet. “You know what they say about Whites, my lady. Always five moves ahead. I’m sure they’ll tells us when they’re ready.”
Aamira snorted. “Or they just don’t want to go through the bother of talking down to us flightly, easily distracted Reds.”
The little beast tamer had no answer. “What do you think he’ll be like?” she asked, her dark eyes sliding to the edge of the Blue Forest even as her hand continued its automatic travels down the short, wiry fur of her large friends.
Aamira didn’t care to follow her gaze. Unlike her, Delphine could enjoy her curiosity.
Hers isn’t about to be ruined by truth, after all.
She gave an exaggerated sigh. “I don’t know. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll find out at all. We’ve been waiting here forever!”
Delphine’s mouth twitched up as she pulled a carrot out for the horsehare. It nibbled the top off and spit the orange part out to the ground, its nose twitching in delight. “Only if forever is ten minutes shy of an hour.”
Aamira hung her head back and groaned. “I thought the Blacks had already made their decision.”
“That’s what Tipple said.”
The red-head leaned heavily against the horsehare, barely rocking the rabbit-like beast. “Then why are we still waiting, Delphi?” she demanded.
The smaller woman exhaled in a silent plea for patience. “I don’t know, Aamira. Why don’t you go and ask?”
That shut her up. Aamira pouted and looked sideways at the ground near her slippers, sapphire colored this time, the color of sky and bluebonnets. They matched the silver-white of the riding gown her mother had in-sis-ted she wear to meet her opposite, real rubies glinting at her shoulder to declare her wealth as well as her official suit. I don’t need to do this, they told the world, but I will because-
Aamira hadn’t quite made out what followed that because.
She waited another small eternity against the gray-blue horsehare, the toe of her foot not propping her up jiggling restlessly against her opposite ankle, realizing it was only minutes passing rather than hours.
She looked over at the Forest to see if anything happened and saw that even the Whites were sitting down now, each propped against the rock that bisected the border.
“Oh, come now!” Aamira cried, coming to her feet and crossing the grass with the long, hard steps of someone ready for a tirade. “Why are you just sitting there? I mean-” She stopped next to Tipple and leaned over him, fists propped on her hips as she eyed him. “Did your prince agree to this union or not?”
She fully expected the woman to glower at her and politely order her quiet again, but she and Tipple shared such a nervous look that Aamira’s eyes widened in realization. She drew back, face slack.
“He didn’t, did he?” she realized. And then, angrily, she shouted for all of Wonderland to hear. “You dragged me all the way out here declaring this the best idea ever under the surface and you couldn’t even convince him to show up?” She huffed a disbelieving laugh. “Well isn’t this a momerath in your way? You don’t even know if he’s coming, do you? He’s not even going to reject me to my face, is he?” She didn’t give them time to answer as she twisted around, a tight smile on her face. “Did you hear that, Delphi? I’ve been left at the alter before I even got my ring! Isn’t that fan-tas-tic?”
“I’ll arrange a party, your highness,” she called out. But her eyes flicked from side to side, taking in the unease that rippled through the gathered cards.
Oh, they’ll be more than uneasy by the time I’m done here! Wasting our time like this. It’s made me late! I don’t know for what, but I could have been doing anything else in this time so now I’m very late for everything.
Angry words ran through her head, building up steam. The wind started to run around her, picking up her hair, the edges of her loose clothes. She turned to give those Whites a tongue lashing they would not soon forget-
-when a noise made both Whites turn.
Aamire hadn’t heard it, but she followed the turn of their heads, sure it was just the wind trying to match her temper.
Nope, it lazily trickled through her hair, bravado gone as instantly as it had come on. It’s not I.
Aamira ignored the half-hearted fingers lifting the ends of her scarlet hair, and stared intently at the edge of the Forest, eyebrows steadily lowering over her eyes as she did. She could hear something just under the tuneless humming of her constant companion. A snap, then silence, then the smallest sounds of something passing through the underbrush.
Footsteps, Aamira realized.
But even knowing what they meant, she barely heard them. If it had been her in there there would be no end to the callumping and crashing and furious swearing as she extracted herself from all that wild-ness.
Even Mam couldn’t tame that vegetation, even with the softest beds under the surface.
The soft sounds ceased, but no one stepped out into the gray area of the board. Aamira waited, frowning harder to try and see past the murk of the trees, but it was no good. Every nameless shape looked like a person. Every shadow a waiting animal. She had no idea of how many were in there, one or one thousand.
She could feel them watching though, their eyes hot like a noon sunbeam on the top of her head. Aamira straightened, body loose, eyes guarded. Let them see they would not frighten her!
Torvin sat at the edge of his homeland, letting the full brush screen him from the Reds waiting, mercifully, on their side of the board. The only one in Black territory was Acrimena, and he would have thrown her out in an instant if he could.
She wasn’t the only one standing near the Queen Stone. Two others, another White and a Red woman, stood just shy of the border as well, watching them. The other Bishop was young and nervous, his fear so strong that Torvin could smell it from here. But the woman…
She was watching them so intently that he almost thought she could see him, see all of them watching from bush and limb and treetop at his back, but then he saw the faint flick of her eyes as she scanned the tree line, the almost imperceptible twist to her mouth.
The small spark of hope that had raised its head turned in a circle and went back to sleep.
Just another Red, he told himself, resignation growing. Nothing special.
Nothing changed. Minutes passed and her already thin patience became see-through. Aamira looked to the Whites, but they obviously weren’t going to do anything. Behind her, Delphine and the rest of the suits watched with the kind of curiosity reserved for campfire stories.
Aamira rolled her eyes and strode forward, stopping so that she just toed the line that separated them. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, felt the wind pick up with its own eagerness to see something happen.
“Well?” she called as loud as she could, the wind carrying her voice to the tree line. “I feel you in there, Black! Come out before I tire of your spying!”
His tongue fell out the side of his mouth without his realizing. She was funny, for a Red. What could she do to them in here after all? Scream some more? Ha!
He stayed where he was though, just another sun dappled shadow amid the trunks. He could feel the others that had come to see the spectacle waiting tensely behind him. The Council was nearest, their guards there just as much to ensure Torvin didn’t bolt as escort their leaders, followed by the kings and queens of the suits with their offspring behind, including all of Torvin’s brothers and sisters and cousins and great-nieces and nephews. Behind them came the other high cards — the efficient predators like the hawks and the wolves — and then the less efficient, and then the herbivores, and so on and so forth.
There were only three exceptions to this highly ordered classification. Nocturne, watched closely by Fennec, sat at the edge of the Council, accorded the honorable position by aspect of being Torvin's kin. The last was a dainty white rabbit with long silky ears sitting on his son’s other side, letting his kit lean hard against her side, fur even blacker against her whiteness as he panted in anxiety and wriggled to try and get a better look at his father’s new spouse.
Turning his attention back to the Red woman, he couldn’t help but wonder how her boldness would affect his boy, and if it would do more harm then help.
Aamira heard Tipple strangle off a noise behind her shoulder, but the woman Bishop merely watched her. Aamira saw her questioning the Red’s choice of ‘best’.
Let her, she thought with temper. If she wanted someone quieter then she shouldn’t have been so picky!
Aamira waited, arms barred across her chest, chin held defiantly high.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then, bracing himself, Torvin gave into upright reasoning, and stepped out of the Forest.
Aamira narrowed her eyes and tilted her head at the man that stepped out of the trees like a player from a curtain. He was nothing like the fussy Red cards she had always known, always clamoring all over each other to be noticed in the riot, but whether that was normal for the Forest folk or not she of course had no way of knowing.
The Red looked little different in the light, but as he drew closer her sense of self became undeniable. She was a windstorm in a bottle, a hurricane barely contained by slender figure. Even as he watched, he saw her control slip a half dozen times — her temper, her impatience, her obvious irritation with staying in one place for so short a time — but she always pulled it back. She breathed out an even breath, shifted her weight and flexed her fingers, fought her impractical Red nature.
And through it all, she watched him, her eyes silver-gray lights in her darker face, like marsh lights in twilight.
He certainly had presence though. He was a man you couldn’t help but see, no matter how many jesters stood in the way. Physically he was lean, carrying nothing with him that was not essential to his survival. His features were sharp, with a long, straight nose set beneath narrow, angled eyes. His skin was moon pale, his hair jet black. His eyes were a piercing amber color.
But his most obvious bizarrity were his ears. He did not have ears like hers, small and soft and pink that clung to the side of her head, but the furred ears of a black fox. They stood upright from his skull, the insides a dark gray, and tuned to the Reds gathered on the other side of the border.
She was tan and small, as if someone had scrunched her down to pygmy proportions, but if that was true it had not weakened her, rather compacted her musculature like iron folded in on itself. She wore the usual Red frivolity — largely white, a highly impractical color in the Forest — and her eyes either lacked color or were one of the unimportant ones - blue or green or yellow that most of the Black folk could not see.
But it was her hair that caught and held his attention. It was a tumbled scarlet crown on her head, bright and vivid even to his limited vision, a mane worthy even of a Black. A lively wind had picked up and tossed it to and fro across her shoulders, over her face, leaving only her eyes to watch him without flinching.
In the Forest, color had a hierarchy as strict as their predatory chain. Blue and green were the lowest threat, an interchangeable background they moved through. Sky and land, land and sky. What was the difference so long as one did not fall on you and the other did not swallow you? But red…red had an entirely different meaning.
Red meant danger.
His clothes were accented in a blue so dark they threatened to disappear into the black fields of his tunic. For a brief second Aamira wasn’t sure if he was the prince or one of his attendants. She paused. Did Black princes have attendants? Or were they those woodsy, grounded, do-it-yourself kind of princes she’d never met in person and doubted even existed? Or did they-
Sunlight flashed across the front of his tunic, highlighting an emblem hidden by its dark-on-dark nature. What looked like an upside down heart perched atop a triangular stem.
Prince of Spades.
Torvin stopped before her, toeing the line as she did. This close her diminutive stature was even more obvious. Her crown didn’t even reach the underside of his chin. A design he hadn’t noticed before, with her arms crossed over her chest as they were, glinted near her shoulder - three small sparkling stones cut into a perfect shape never found in the Blue Forest.
Princess of Diamonds.
Aamira had to crane her head back to meet his eyes, but she didn’t want to give him the pleasure of backing down first. If he felt pleasure. Or anything. His expression hadn’t changed from reserved study since he’d stepped into view.
“Red,” he said to her in a peculiar sort of low, rolling voice.
Not to be outdone, she raised her eyebrows at him and replied in a soft voice, strange as music, “Black.”
Aamira raised her eyebrows at him. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming,” she told him with cheek.
Amber eyes flicked to her. “I almost didn’t. I don’t believe in encouraging the delusional, and these-” He turned with the same articulation he spoke with, as if every move had to be contemplated, planned, and approved. “-Whites are clearly unable to see the borogrove in the bush.”
She was so delighted that someone else thought so she smiled and leaned up on one sapphire-slippered toe, pointing at the Black with her index fingers. “Did you hear that whitings? I’m not the only one that thinks so! This is all ridiculous and he agrees with me!”
“Good,” said the woman as she rose to her feet and dusted leaves off her robes. “You have so much in common. Now-” She cleared her throat and planted her top-heavy staff into the soft ground so that it could stand without her help. Hands now free, she held one out to Tipple, who had produced a large leather-bound book from somewhere. He handed it to her and she opened it to a middling page before looking at them over the top of the book. “Shall we get on with this?”
Aamira stared at her, palms suddenly wet and icy. “You’re going to marry us now?” she squeaked. Her head whipped around the crowd, at the Reds in their reluctant finery, the animals in their shining furs and feathers now poking their different appendages out of tree and bush. At every eye watching them. Is that why they were here? Is that why they had followed them out into the literal middle of nowhere?
Face burning as bright as her hair, she looked down at herself, at the grass stains on the hem of her pants and the blue-white-red patterns that were supposed to make her look like a proper card, thinking that even she would have picked out something nicer if she’d known they wanted them married now.
“Don’t be daft,” the woman said in her bored voice. “You want to conduct the most important event in our history since her infernal majesty was banished in that?” She pointedly looked Aamira up and down, much to her annoyance (Like you look so fine in that shapeless robe? I bet you haven’t even washed it since you came off your mountain!)
”No,” the woman continued dully, running a finger down the page of her book until she found the one she wanted. “These are merely the prerequisites.”
Aamira made a face. ‘Prerequisites’ was a surface term for ‘signing forms until your fingers bled’.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, she thought as the Prince of Spades took the quill Tipple offered and the frowny-faced Bishop held the book, pages out, to him. Large ornate words at the top decried it as Marriage Contract of Torvin of the Nightfur Clan, Prince of Spades, and Aamira of Cataran, Princess of Diamonds.
Torvin, huh? she thought with a sideways glance at him. Blacks must have very unusual names if their princes are named things like ‘Torvin’.
She watched as he ran the quill nib along the inside of his palm, leaving behind a thick stroke of black ink that stretched from the ball of his thumb to the base of his pinkie. The black ink bled into the fine lines of his hand, forming little branches that reminded Aamira of a sapling’s root network.
Before the ink dried, he pressed his hand against the blank page, leaving behind a print of the line, offshoots and all.
As distinctive as a name, Aamira thought as she did the same to her right palm in bright red ink and laid it across his, the two together making an x that served as binding signature, the center point a muddled sort of burnt-red color where the inks seeped into each other.
That was the most interesting of the ‘prerequisites’. All the rest of the afternoon was filled by signing line after line and initialing here and agreeing that Party A would not snore past two in the morning or Party B would be within their rights to hold their nose until they woke, bearing in mind that Party A could retaliate in the form of pillow stealing, restless leg movement, and general blanket hogging, etc., etc.
By the time they finally came to the end of the contract, Aamira’s hand hurt so bad that she could no longer uncurl her fingers around the quill.
She dropped the thing spitefully back in its pot and tried anyway, hissing at the stretch of cramped muscles.
The Black prince must have noticed because she caught him watching her. He made a small sound in the back of his throat. “Whites complicate everything.”
Aamira rolled her eyes and flexed her aching fingers. “Tell me about it,” she grumbled.
He did not.
And then the Bishops went on to read the contract. Every. Single. Line. Aamira had to stand there, taking it like a sunburn. She tried to tune them out, recite all those little things she learned in school about bees and crocodiles just to keep herself sane, but the woman’s words started to meld with the rhythm of the poem so that instead of welcoming little fishes in, the crocodile began to drone about the combined economics of the deck during shucking season.
She had just started to feed the Bishop to the crocodile, feet first, when an elbow jabbed into her side, causing her to start. Aamira shot Torvin a look, but he stared astutely ahead at a spot above the Bishop woman’s head. She was just saying, “-who will be made rulers of all Wonderland upon fulfillment of said contract.”
Then she snapped the book shut like it was light reading, and it was over.
Aamira heaved a sigh of exhaustion as the woman gestured for them to turn and face their joined population. “That was the most exhausting afternoon of my life,” she muttered under her breath as people politely clapped, sounding as exhausted as Aamira, and they were all sitting. “You’d think she wanted a war instead and planned to kill us with boredom when she didn't get one.”
He made a small sound in agreement, almost the start of a bark. But then perhaps she imagined it, it was so soft.
The Bishop woman had now walked a few yards before them, walking the boundary line like a tightrope, with Tipple a few feet behind, hands tucked into the overlarge sleeves of his robes. At the end she turned so that she was facing Aamira and Torvin still standing side by side. Tipple stopped before her, startled, before scurrying to his place behind her.
She made a weighty pause as she looked at the two sides come together.
“Today we celebrate a great occasion,” she announced, the same boom in her voice that Tipple had used to shake sense into the Cacophony. “For with the union of the Prince of Spades-” She inclined her head to the furred folk now lining the Forest’s edge. “-and the Princess of Diamonds-” The Reds all cheered before she could so much as look their way. “-we are made strong again. No-” She paused, waiting for the noisome Reds to notice. “-not strong. Whole, in a way we have never been whole before. Not even under Queen Alice.”
A slight murmur ran through the crowd at that statement, wondering softly if a Bishop had ever be so wrong before.
The woman spread her arms, sleeves falling like bell-shaped wings as she took in the space they had gathered to. “This is the exact center of Wonderland,” she announced, as if they hadn’t already known. “And on this very spot, the Prince and Princess have decided to build a city unlike any other. One not alloted to one family or one suit or one color, but for every creature in Wonderland, whether furred or clothed, small or great, paper or flesh. And at the heart of this city they will rule with the strength and reasoning that Queen Alice herself showed us in our madness-”
Aamira leaned in slightly to the man next to her. “Isn’t it remarkable how ‘we’ decided to do all this so quickly?” she murmured in dry humor.
To her great surprise, he actually answered back. “Yes, sometimes I find myself waking from a nap to find I’ve planned my entire day.”
Aamira chuckled. “It’s a pity your nap prevents you from actually pursuing your plans.”
She caught a rumble in his chest; laughter.
The Bishop suddenly turned around and Aamira straightened up, afraid they’d be called out for interrupting. But no. She was still rambling on in her overly-sanctified tones.
Aamira listened with half an ear as she touted on and on about oneness and strength and wholeness (the meaning soon sucked from the word with the mind-hammering repetition), and even though these could all be said to be good things, Aamira had trouble believing them when it was quite obvious to her that Acrimena herself was getting something out of this as well.
“You know,” Aamira leaned over again to murmur, “I don’t think I like that woman.”
She looked up in time to see the surprise in Torvin’s eyes as he reevaluated her.
Soon he looked away again. “That speaks volumes of your capacity for common sense,” he murmured.
As applause broke out around them, signaling the end of Acrimena’s speech, Aamira smiled, choosing to take that as the highest form of flattery.