Aamira spent that night staring up at the ceiling of her tent. She was lying on her travel bed, blankets twisted up to either side, with her wrist resting on her forehead. Delphi was where she usually retreated when their upright world grew too much for her, with her beasties, leaving Aamira alone in the spacious shelter set up for her. The wind sighed along its nocturnal ramblings, billowing the sides of the tent so that Aamira felt it breathing all around her.
She sighed, adding a breath of her own to it. She tried to close her eyes, blocking out the sleepy snufflings and whufflings of so many people in an unfamiliar space, but they only sprung open again, like they were on spring-loaded hinges.
So this is what it feels like to be engaged twice.
She sighed again, louder now, and curled upright to sit upon the mattress. She swung her feet over the side, bare soles finding the cold ground, and stood up, grabbing her wrap and pulling it on before ducking out of the tent.
The dewy grass was cold underfoot, but she ignored its bite as she looked around. The field holding the Queen’s Stone was empty now, almost beautiful in its loneliness. The clouds had scuttled aside, letting the moon reach down with softly glowing fingers, casting a sense of melancholy beauty on those she touched. It was Alice that shone brightest tonight — the largest and brightest of Wonderland’s three satellites, touched with a faint golden hue and named for the obvious reasons — her two smaller, dimmer, sisters just slivers on either side. The dusky glow of the Rose, the red moon, was easier to see than the blue moon, known as the Veil.
Not wanting to return to her breathing walls or walk deeper into the mess of decorated canvas that had sprung up like mushrooms in the hour before sundown, Aamira left the other Reds behind her and walked toward the border, pulling the wrap close over her sleeping ware.
It feels different than before, she thought, meaning her engagement again. With Bane I could not sleep for sheer excitement. And here- She frowned slightly as she navigated a small downward slope. Here I don’t know what to feel. Bane was- well he was everything I ever wanted. He was impetuous and daring and quick witted. And, oh my, he was handsome. Even when he started brooding about his family madness he was beautiful. Although that’s lost its charm now that he never stops. She rolled her eyes and tossed her bangs out of her eyes. But I do miss his smile…
She felt herself begin the slow slip into nostalgia and immediately gave herself a shake. Her steps had slowed as she remembered, but she snapped them up again, striding towards the stone with purpose, however feigned.
But this man — Torvin- She rolled her eyes again. -he didn’t even tell me his name himself before running back to his trees. Even from a perfect stranger that stings a bit.
She remembered his curt acknowledgment of her presence before leaving once the focus had left them earlier that afternoon, and her face burned as bright as the Rose. And he’s got a tail! Her mental voice was a squeak. I mean a real tail, fur and everything! What am I supposed to do about that?
Delphine had only laughed when she’d taken her aside and told her. “Well of course he’s got a tail, Mira. What do you expect from a fox?”
About as little as a fox expects from me, probably.
She stepped into the shadow of the stone and shivered when the air chilled a few degrees more. Aamira tilted her head back, staring up at the Red side of the stone, its list of rulers going back to the time of the Mirror Wars — but then not much was remembered from before that — and then dominated by the unsightly scar left by her infernal majesty.
The Duchess’s name was there at the bottom, writ small beneath Aventurine of the Sunsoaked Shores, the last Prince of Diamonds. Above him was his grandmother, Queen Amythyst, their last true and proper Queen.
She died near fifty years ago now, Aamira realized in surprise. She frowned. No, that can’t be right.
But it was.
A sense of stillness descended on her, a truly rare thing for Aamira.
We haven’t had a proper queen in generations. I didn’t realize…
Was that what the Whites were so worried over? The subtext she had sensed beneath Acrimena’s words earlier about being whole again? This slow degrading and fracturing amongst themselves, so subtle that Aamira hadn’t even noticed it until now. So slow that the others didn’t even realize what was happening to them. Was this what they were trying to save them from?
Ourselves, and nothing more?
Aamira had the sudden desire to see if the Blacks were having the same problem. She tip-toed to the far side of the stone and leaned as far over the border as she could without causing an incident by falling flat on her face.
But then if you’re going to make a scene, it should be by doing what comes naturally, she thought as she went to the other side to see if it afforded a better view of the far side. It did not. She still could only see unreadable abstract lines.
Then again… The thought crept into her head quite stealthily. Is it really a scene to visit your fiance’s native land? And if it is, well, Reds are well known rule breakers. They really should expect nothing less.
Despite her logical thinking, Aamira cast her eyes about, but the only one up at this hour appeared to be her.
Not a single guard. They must not be bothered by a little trespassing.
She looked from side to side, wiggling her fingers in quick succession, and then jumped over the unmarked line into Black domain.
She landed with both feet close together, like a child playing hop’em, then waited a moment, listening.
But there were no alarms, no sounds of startled waking, so she lightly traipsed round to the far side for a look.
She made a face at the names carved there. Hawk of the Thin Air Clan? Dane the Great of Fleetfoot? Aamira huffed softly through her nose. Who knew I was getting off easy with Torvin? At least I won’t feel like I’m calling a dog every time I lose sight of him.
There were no titles attached that she understood, and without knowing the names Aamira had no idea if the Blacks were facing the same problems as them.
She kept looking up anyway, curiosity driving her. She took an involuntary step back when she realized she did, in fact, know one name cut above all the rest with unforgiving precision.
QUEEN OF HEARTS
Surly anger quickly overrode her surprise. “So she tried that shortcut here too,” she muttered. “Infernal majesty.”
“My grandfather knew her, you know.”
Aamira spun around at the voice. For a split second, she expected to see her new fiance standing behind her — it was almost required after all, all this moonlight and quiet just begging to be broken by even potential lovers — but then her brain caught up with her and she realized the voice was female.
The woman standing a few feet behind her was, to Aamira’s mind, everything a Black should not be. She was moonlight made real, so perfectly white all over that Aamira wondered she was not a ghost. Her skin was milky white, her hair soft and snowy where it was folded over itself at the base of her long neck. She wore a pale gray tunic over long pants that cinched tight at the ankles well above her long, powerful rabbit’s feet. Twin white ears draped over the crown of her head, swept back and bound like braids. The only color on her were her eyes, which were reddish-pink, and the insides of her ears, similar to her eyes but softer and paler.
Aamira’s eyes widened. A white rabbit! She gasped. A real world hopper! I never thought I would ever see one for myself…
The newcomer stepped gingerly forward and Aamira quickly looked away so as not to be caught staring at her oddly animal feet. She watched form the corner of her eye as the pale woman stepped up beside her and tilted her head back so that her eyes fell upon the Queen’s name as well.
“Technically he was my great-great-great-great grandfather,” she clarified. “The Queen found out he was the white of his generation and had him always running errands for her.”
Her infernal majesty’s personal White Rabbit… “The one that brought Queen Alice to Wonderland?”
The woman nodded. “She was just a girl then. But he said he knew at once when he saw her that her heart lay under the surface. So when she followed him home, he never bothered to take her back.”
“That, and she ousted her infernal majesty, taking her place as queen of all, and reshuffled us back into some kind of order,” Aamira added dryly.
The white rabbit inclined her head gracefully. Lengths of silver-white hair fell over her shoulder and one of her long ears gave an itching sort of twitch.
“I hope I’m not intruding on your silence, but I saw you walking about from the forest and thought perhaps you were looking for Master Torvin. I’m afraid he had to depart once the ceremonies were completed. However he said he would return before the sun awakes.”
“Oh,” Aamira said, not sure what else to say since she hadn’t been looking for him at all. She flicked a hand at the stone before them. “I was actually just looking at your side of the rock. I couldn’t sleep and thought a little heavy reading might settle my mind.”
If she understood Aamira was trying to be humorous, the woman gave no sign. Her red-pink eyes flicked down the rest of the names engraved there. “Yes, you’ve never seen our history before, have you?”
She tried again with a more obvious attempt. “Just as many times as you’ve seen the Red’s.”
The rabbit just gave a noncommittal hum.
Aamira looked up at the Black's history again, feeling it was rude not to for some reason. But after a brief span of quiet she gave voice to the question now deeply rooted in her brain. “Rabbit-” she started only to be stopped by the woman’s voice, firm despite its softness.
Aamira paused long enough to blink. “Huh?” she said with her usual tact.
If the woman felt anything — derision or fateful resignation at having to explain — her eyes didn’t show it. They never faltered in their watching. “My name is Bunny. Rabbit is what I am and it is very rude to call me by it. How would you like it if I called you Girl everyday?”
Aamira forced herself to ignore the 'girl' comment and stayed very still. “Your name is…Bunny?”
The woman nodded. “Bunny the White Rabbit if you want to be formal.”
How unfortunate, Aamira thought, but had at least that much sense not to say aloud although she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep it in. “Ah,” was the only sound that escaped her mouth.
Bunny watched her. She seemed to be waiting for something.
“You-” she finally said, raising pale eyebrows at Aamira, “-had a question, I believe?”
“Oh!” She was right. “Yes, I, um- I mean do you-” She stopped, gathered her thoughts and then made herself continue, politeness be hanged.
She turned to face Bunny head on. She didn’t flinch away from Aamira’s boldness.
“Do you know him yourself?” Aamira asked her. “The prince?”
Bunny blinked reddish-pink eyes at her, her egg-shaped face tilting ever so slightly to one side. “Torvin? Yes, of course. I have served his family since I was just a kitten.”
Aamira didn’t know enough about Black banter, or even if they played the game at all, to know if she was having her on.
She decided to play anyway, not wanting the woman to think she was as brainless as a dodo. “Isn’t that a hare young to serve anybody?” she asked, lifting her eyebrows in a challenge that would have set any decently clever Red on the verbal warpath.
Bunny merely looked up at the list of names above them on the stone, quiet despite the cracks her infernal majesty’s stamp had put into them. “Not for a White Rabbit,” she informed her. “There are so few of us, and so very spread apart, that the high cards don’t like us to waste time on growing up.”
Aamira snickered, some very un-grown up mockery dancing through her head about the nature of such a decision, but a calm look from Bunny had her swallowing her jokes.
“I do not understand why that amuses you. But then-” she added as Aamira opened her mouth. “-I do not understand much of what you Reds do. You are so…” A line appeared between her eyes. “Frivolous. Perhaps it has to do with where you live. Obviously the Blue Forest is far more dangerous than your open-hearted country.” She gestured minutely with pale fingers in the beginning of a dismissive shrug that became a sweep of her hand over her hair to ensure her fur was all in place. “We simply do not have the luxury of playing silly games even when we are young.”
Aamira’s frown became more pronounced the more words spilled from Bunny’s mouth. It occurred to her that she only said such things because she honestly expected such behavior from them, but that only made Aamira’s temper hotter. “Frivolous? Obvious?” she repeated. “The only thing obvious to me is that for a woman with such keen eyesight you are pathetically blind. Life in your forest must be very blue indeed if you can’t appreciate the art of the game.”
“Ah yes,” Bunny said with the kind of knowing that made Aamira’s nose itch. “The almighty game. I forgot how deeply entrenched you Reds are in your little world. Even living underground you have your heads in the clouds.”
“Better in the clouds than in the sand,” Aamira retorted. “When’s the last time any of you left your forest? Even on a day as strange and momentous as this, I saw not one whisker past the tree line. I feared your prince would refuse to leave and I would appear as though I were betrothed to a bush!”
“And what do you know of fear?” Bunny snapped, somehow managing it without raising her voice or giving any other outward sign of what she felt. “You, who run away from every problem that presents itself? Even when it is your own to begin with?”
Aamira knew exactly what she referred to. She could feel the Queen’s name hovering over their heads as surely as her executioner’s ax. She fisted one hand and jabbed the other’s index at the taller woman, so furious that she forgot the game entirely. “I knew one of you would bring her up!” she accused. “I’m honestly surprised it took you all day to wait to throw that back in our faces. She killed and tormented us too, remember? You furred folk weren’t the only ones that suffered."
“Just the only ones that remember apparently,” Bunny sniped. “Or should we pretend it never happened as you do, so that it may all happen again?”
Even the wandering wind fell still as Aamira fumed. She could feel the pressure of her temper rising like mercury in a thermometer inside her head and knew if she did not remove herself from the situation immediately it would explode out of her as surely as steam from a tea kettle.
Despite knowing the wisest path, Aamira could not resist one final shot.
“I think I preferred it when the Blacks kept to their side and we to ours. Obviously this has been one very large mistake.”
She turned on her heel and left, not particularly caring if Bunny had anything left to add.
She found Delphine in their tent, only just returning from her beasties and pulling the pins out of her long hair so that they wouldn’t poke her scalp as she slept. Did a double take when she saw the tension of her friend's shoulders, the fists clenched at Aamira’s sides. The furious tint to her eyes that promised nothing good.
“What happened?” she asked, eyes growing slightly as she turned from the travel-sized looking glass to see Aamira directly. “What’s wrong?”
“All of it!” Aamira bit out. “We were fools to let those Whites play us as they did. And if those Blacks are intent on blaming us for one hothead then let them! But I refuse to stand by and listen. We’re leaving tomorrow at first light. We are far better off on our own!”