Loyalties Old and New
“Well that was easy.”
Bunny turned after the Red had left, smoothing the lines in her face and clearing her expression into one of neutral pleasantness that would not offend those cards above her, which was practically all of them. She was not surprised to see Fennec at this hour — being more nocturnal than most — however to find him so far from his charge while Torvin was away…
He must have seen the barest hint of concern floating to the surface of her eyes. “I’ve left young Nocturne with his cousins under her majesty’s watchful eye. His grand dame would not take a refusal.”
The concern only grew stronger, but Bunny pushed it down. There were very few that could refuse Queen Vixen of Spades in anything, and Fennec was hardly one of them. Bunny reminded herself the queen loved her grand kit, even if she did not know what he was capable of. Hopefully, if Nocturne slept at all, it would be peacefully. Please don't let him give himself away...
“If you meant to chase her off, you did a masterful job of it,” Fennec continued as Bunny soothed herself as best she could. “But I doubt Torvin will be pleased with you when he returns.”
“If he returns,” Bunny murmured, knowing where her master was and what he hunted.
Fennec made no answer, his loyalty to Torvin battling with his ingrained belief in the oldest law of the Blue Forest - even the greatest predator has a death cry.
“It’s not like she’s any good for him.” Bunny realized she had more to say. “We’ve all just escaped the final snap of teeth and you know it.” She was so irritated that her neutrality slipped, her true feelings showing around the edges of her eyes.
“Of course we have,” Fennec agreed. “But the only people Torvin holds in lower esteem than the Reds are the Whites.” His dark brown eyes pierced her fur. “He will not be a happy lord when he finds Acrimena camping out before his den demanding to know why he has foiled all her plans. You know this.”
Bunny resisted her natural urge to cower under Fennec’s predator’s stare. “Acrimena is a fool if she thinks this will work.” She pointed a paw at the foremost Red tent. “That woman has the Queen’s temper, Fennec. I saw it with my own eyes. We let her rise to power and it will be the Red Misery all over again!”
The sand fox was not so easily convinced. “Don’t turn all sanctimonious on me, Rabbit, or you’ll be as bad as the Bish. I know you are not all flat teeth and fluffy tail. You can be just as much a terror as the rest of us when it suits you. I heard you goad her with my own ears and I know full well you meant to do it.”
Bunny kept herself still, feet shivering beneath her fur with the urge to run. “What of it?” she demanded, neither admitting nor denying his observations. “She should have realized that herself and hid her true self better.”
Fennec’s left ear flicked in a show of rising frustration. “She’s a Red,” he said as if that excused her gaping ignorance of survival. “They take a perverse pride in flaunting what they would be wise to keep hidden. You should know that better than any of us, Rabbit.”
She should and she did. But for all she had observed of the Reds during her little jaunts across the boundary line, she still could no more comprehend why they took such victory in openly displaying their true selves then she could imagine the taste of meat.
Her stubborn streak broke before the reasoning of Fennec’s words. She moved her head, fingers restlessly smoothing down her ears. “Well what would you have me do, Fennec?” she demanded crossly. “Cross into foreign land as she did and give her my throat?”
Dark eyes narrowed. “You have crossed before with much Blacker motives behind you,” he reminded her. “And I suggest you fix this before Torvin returns with the light of tomorrow.” He made to turn away, but stopped and clarified with force, “In a way she will understand, Rabbit.”
Bunny met his eyes from beneath fine silvery-white lashes. She dipped her head in a nod, looking away.
When she looked up again, he had left, the tip of his sandy tail only just disappearing into the underbrush of the Blue Forest.
She released a tight exhalation, nose twitching now that the air was free of the scent of predator. Alone again, her eyes found the mass of tents on the other side of the Head of Council Stone, their obnoxious colors turned gray by the moon’s leeching light. She knew what language the Red’s understood, how they apologized with trinkets and pretty words, but Bunny kept no trinkets as the magpies did, and it was her words that had gotten her into this nettle bush, so she dare not rely upon them now.
There was one custom that even a Red should understand — one she believed Fennec had already thought of — that would balance their accounts, but it was a permanent tether. One she would take no pleasure in tying.
But apologies are not meant for pleasure, only peace, Bunny reminded herself with an aching sigh.
And in the name of peace — even if it was only Torvin’s from the Whites and not Wonderland’s as a whole — she could do this much at least.
Aamira woke the next morning to crystalline sunlight slicing through her eyelids.
She moaned and lifted her head from her flattened pillow. “Wa u do’n?” she tried to demand without any kind of authority whatsoever.
“Waking you up, like you told me to,” Delphine answered as she finished tying back the tent flaps, letting in even more of the obnoxious butter-yellow light.
She glowered at her friend’s back. Even at this hour she looked put together — hair combed, face washed, clothes put on in the socially acceptable fashion. No pajama shirts put on inside-out with tangles of hair caught between her teeth like Aamira.
She spit the hair out of her mouth. “Don’t sound like me,” she grumbled.
“You said we were to leave at first light,” Delphine informed her.
Aamira goggled at her. “And you believed me?”
“No,” Delphine said as she finished her straightening and pre-day fussing. “But you have a visitor waiting outside and she says she won’t leave until she sees you.” Aamira raised her head to scowl again only to find a wad of clothes tossed into her face. “So you’d better get up and start thinking on your own again.”
Aamira pulled the offered tunic away from her face and scowled harder.
Delphine only smiled at her as she left. “Better hurry. She looks impatient.”
She ducked out of the tent just before one of the sapphire slippers went sailing through after her.
Aamira dressed automatically, leaving it more to luck that she got her head through the proper hole and shoes on the correct feet rather than critical thinking. She stumbled out of the tent and stopped with a snarl as the wind sprang up to greet her, whipping too-bright light into unprotected eyes.
Good morning! Good morning! it whistled at her, nipping at her nose like a puppy. I’ve never seen you out of bed so early. It’s still the middle of your night. She could feel it grinning as it wound itself around her and scrunched up her flyaway hair. You look a mess!
Aamira grumbled under her breath and swatted at it with a limp hand, disturbing its currents and sending it spiraling away in a manic little tizzy. “Yes, yes, so good to see you too at this dreadfully cheery hour.”
“I wasn’t aware I was expected,” came a voice. “Or that a woman like you would object to a little extra cheer.”
Aamira gave a little start, the small motion distracting her from the wind long enough that she took a gust full in the face, her hair blinding her another handful of seconds.
She wrestled it away. “Lay off you tove!” she snapped, lack of sleep making her grouchy.
She felt rather than saw her visitor’s indignation. “If this is how you take apologies-” she started to say.
Aamira shaded her eyes and scowled past the sunny light, finally making out the form of Bunny kneeling on the grass in front of her, just starting to rise.
A faint sense of shame rose up under her general irritation. “I was not talking to you,” Aamira clarified, perhaps more sharply than was wise. She felt her eyebrows draw closer together as some of her higher thinking finally rolled out of bed after her. “And what are you doing here anyway? You made your opinions of us clear enough last night, Rabbit, as I made mine. Now if you’ll excuse me-” she drawled, “-I have to pack.”
Bunny remained kneeling, looking not one bit sorry, but refusing to rise. “And the rest of your suit?” she asked pointedly.
Aamira did not turn her head to look at the solidly pitched tents, the dozing animals. She could hear the overpowering snores of more than one occupant.
She stuck her nose in the air. “They’re already finished. We’ll all be leaving as soon as I’m finished. Which might take all day.”
Bunny’s pink eyes remained flat and unconvinced, but she was polite enough to only murmur, “Mm-hmm…”
Aamira crossed her arms over her mis-buttoned blouse and scowled at her unwanted guest. “And what do you want?” she demanded, somewhat rudely.
Bunny’s eyes narrowed. There was a tension in her slender frame that Aamira did not understand, but set her on edge.
“I-” She closed her eyes and worked her mouth as if they pained her to speak. “I have come to- apologize for my behavior last night.”
Aamira raised an eyebrow at her. “Your prince put you up to this, didn’t he?”
She gave a tight sigh. “He honestly doesn’t know I’m here.”
The other eyebrow joined the first. “Didn’t tell him?”
From the look she gave her, this was obviously a very stupid question.
“Hm, I guess we do share some things,” she muttered. She circled a hand at the pale woman. “Right let’s get this over with. I want to go back to sleep and if I wait much longer I won’t bother moving from this spot to do it.”
A kind of resigned I-should-have-expected-no-better-from-her look settled in her eyes that had Aamira grinding her teeth. And then to her great horror, the woman pulled out a knife from the back of her belt.
“W-what are you doing?” Aamira stammered, eyes glued to the shine of the blade where the sun hit it as cheerily as it had impaired her vision.
Bunny ignored her and brought the knife close to her face. She reached behind her, pulling free the binding on her ears and letting them fall forward around her face with a smattering of white hair. She flexed her ears, pulling one and several hairs forward with one hand, bringing up the knife with the other.
Aamira’s face paled. “Wait! Stop! I accept your apology, just stop!”
Bunny shot her another ‘don’t-be-stupid’ look and ignored her. Then, quite efficiently, she cut a long lock of hair and fur from her ear and twisted them together.
Aamira stared, not sure what to feel, as Bunny put the knife back where she’d found it and tied the shorter furs with a few of the strands, so that it looked like a little bleached hay bale.
Not sure what else to do, Aamira held out her hand.
Every line filled with resignation, Bunny dropped it into her palm. It was a recognizable enough ceremony, although she could no believe Bunny was doing it for her, so Aamira already knew what she was going to say. It was a good thing too, because the White Rabbit spoke so quickly and mumbled so badly that otherwise she was indecipherable.
Aamira couldn’t resist. “Sorry, what?” She managed to keep herself from cupping a hand around an ear, but the amused disbelief was plain enough.
“I said my life is yours!” Bunny all but shouted through clenched teeth. "And with it and in all things my loyalty." She scowled, as if the words had physically harmed her when she uttered them. "Just don't expect me to do it gladly," she said with a most un-rabbit like growl of her voice.
Aamira stared at the woman, then the offering of hair, through a haze of shock. Here is finally proof, she thought fuzzily, that the world has indeed gone mad.
And that Bunny would uphold every word she had so grudgingly muttered until she breathed her last. There was much that had come between the suits, but a woman’s pride in her hair was the same regardless of color, suit, and shape. To cut it and give it away there were only two reasons - love and duty. And Bunny obviously had no love to lose for an upstart Red like her.
She does this for her prince, of course, Aamira thought, eyes narrowing slightly as Bunny finished the last few words of undying loyalty and all that expected nonsense. But why does she do it for him? Love or duty?
Bunny finished speaking and stood without waiting for Aamira’s formal response. She straightened her pale tunic, folded her short fingers together before her waist, and looked her dead in the eye.
Aamira watched her in turn, unnerved by her not-knowing. But what was there to know now but nothing had changed from last night except Bunny’s grudging acceptance of what Aamira had only just started to understand? That Wonderland was broken…but not past repair quite yet.
She jerked her head in a nod and folded her hand around the offering. She would have Delphine store it in the Remembering Box later. “I accept your loyalty,” she intoned as gravely as she was able. “And...I am grateful for it.”
Bunny’s eyebrows twitched at the break from traditional form. Feeling the need to explain Aamira added, not quite meeting those strangely colored eyes, “There are times — not all the time mind you — that I talk myself into corners I can’t get out of. Last night was one of them.”
It was a hard thing to admit, but then faults generally are. Bunny, for her part, took this rather gracefully. “That is one small fault, at least, that we share,” she murmured.
Aamira laughed wryly. “I disagree, White Rabbit. You showed up this morning. I would have left and not come back no matter how big a mistake I knew I was making.”
From the look on her face, Aamira knew she’d managed to surprise her. She took a small note of pride in that. “I thought Reds did not make mistakes,” she observed with a challenging raise of her eyebrow.
“Not within other people’s hearing,” Aamira told her with a toss of her head. “But I hear rabbits are very quiet creatures so I’m willing to take the risk this one time.”
She held up a finger as if she had a limit that must be strictly adhered to, but an un-delicate snort of laughter quickly stifled by pale fingers told her Bunny looked forward to many, many exceptions.
“I admit to great surprise,” Bunny said after a moment of somber thought. “That you would call abandoning this..." Hard eyes swept the sea of red tents. "...pursuit a mistake.”
A line appeared between Aamira’s eyebrows. Had she said that? Oh, uff, she had.
Bunny continued. “It’s not like you would have lost anything. We hold your kind in such low esteem I do not think it can sink much lower, and the same is for you to us.”
Aamira’s eyes took her in with a sideways glance. “And how are you so familiar with what we think?”
Bunny stared ahead of her, walking tiptoe with one long foot in front of the other. She did not answer.
Deciding one was not necessary for the immediate future, Aamira did not press her and turned to her own answer instead. “Have you ever broken something, and then stepped on the pieces and cut yourself? And you feel like a total scribb the moment you do because it’s all your own fault for being clumsy or lazy or blind?”
Bunny gave a small sound to show she understood the feeling well enough.
The wind sprang up and Aamira turned her face to it, letting it brush her hair back away from her face and neck. “We’ve been breaking a long time, though I didn’t notice until last night when I was staring up at that stupid rock. And if something doesn’t change then we’re going to cut ourselves to ribbons. I simply meant that letting that happen, once I knew it was, would be a mistake. Not-" She flapped a hand and made a face. "-leaving your prince to take care of his own fur coat."
Bunny thought about this, her eyes shrewd and thoughtful. “I think you are right,” she murmured, lowering her voice and casting her eyes about as if she worried they would be overheard. Aamira noticed her eyes landed on the Whites’ tent, pitched so that it straddled the middle of the board. She did not see anything moving inside herself. “But it’s not as though we’ve never been split apart before. With the Queen-”
“Alice saved us from the Queen,” Aamira interrupted, watching the tent now as well, half formed questions swirling in her head, undefined and infuriating her with their vagueness. “And Alice isn’t here anymore. This time we need to clean up our own mess, or by the time a girl like Alice comes down again there won’t be anything left for her to put back together.”
It all made perfect, logical, Alician sense, but Aamira was far from appeased by her own logic. From the lining creasing the skin between her eyes, Bunny was as well.
“Well then I only have two questions left.”
Aamira looked over at her. “And they are?”
Bunny’s eyes were still fixed on the Whites’ tent. “Why now, and-” Her eyes flicked to Aamira, not rude or demanding, but curious in their intensity. “-why you?”
Before Aamira could tell her she had no idea of the answer to that herself, a terrible kerfuffle gathered her attention.
She frowned at what she saw, feeling in her bones that it was far, far too early for such a sight.
“What is all that?” Bunny gawked.
Aamira only gave an exhausted sigh. “That’s three questions,” she reminded her and then strode off to meet the brightly colored hubbub parading toward them.