Of Roses and Kings

By Melissa Marr

In this dark, skewed take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is now the Red Queen, and her maid must tread the fine line between favor and blame in this strange world.

“To the dungeon.” Those were the last words she said to me, and the reasons for them should be what I ponder. Instead all I can think about is the way her mouth curved, the tip of her tongue between her parted lips as she spoke.

The Red Queen controls everything. Such is the power of money, of influence, of her lovely, lying lips.

“It’s not my fault,” I protest, even as I step outside the palace into the dusk.

My escort, one lone guard, glances at me curiously.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeat.

He shoves me, hand between my shoulder blades. “Keep moving.”

“I’m not guilty.”

He doesn’t answer. I could kill him if I had a mind to, but I don’t. He’s just doing his job. It’s not personal. I’m accused of . . . well, honestly, I don’t know the list of charges this time. All I know is that I was in the Red Queen’s chambers, and now I’m in custody.

“I’m not innocent, but neither am I guilty,” I explain, more to myself than him.

He keeps silent as I follow him through the garden. My shoes are gone, and the road we follow is anything but soft. Knowing her, I wouldn’t be shocked if she had extra rocks or shards of glass carted in to cover the path. She’s always quick to remind me she’s in charge.

I lift my gaze from the path at a soft chuff of laughter to my left. The guard doesn’t notice the sound, but he’s not paid enough to notice. Or maybe he’s simply one of the rare Wonderland-born people. They never find the oddities worth noting, not the way those of us who came from the Original World do.

I stare into the wild foliage. There, nestled among rose blossoms as big as a child’s head, is Tom. With his dark skin, the garden, and the flowers, all I see is his eerily wide smile. No one else has such a grin, though, so there’s no mistaking him.

“Who goes there?” he calls out, official-like, as if he has the authority to question my transportation. Perhaps he might. Politics are a peculiar thing in any world, including this one.

The guard halts and peers into the greenery. “Guard 39, sir.”

Tom steps out with a bit of a pounce. He always gives the impression of something feral, grinning as he does, popping out of unexpected shadows more often than not.

If I were to like a man, I suspect it would be him.

“Ahhh, you have Rose.” Tom looks me up and down.

“Beatrice,” the guard corrects.

“But a rose by any other name is . . . If you are not a rose, what does that make you?”

The guard scrunches up his face in a most unflattering way. “This is Beatrice, the Red Queen’s maid.”

“Today.” Tom’s grin vanishes. “There are tomorrows and yesterdays, though. Are any of us both who were then and now?”

The guard nods as if this makes sense. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, it does. Once, a very long while ago, my name was not Beatrice. Before that, in the Original World, it was something else entirely.

Tom sidles up next to the guard and takes the keys from where they hang at the guard’s hip. The guard watches him, as do I. Who can resist such a being? Tom moves the way the loveliest music comes into being, as if it’s suddenly woven from nothing into something remarkable. Tom is like that—except he knows things in a way that makes me suspect he’s sometimes here when he’s not.

“I shall take Rose,” he pronounces.

Guard 39 looks perplexed at this. “Did the queen change the orders?”

Tom’s wide grin flashes back into being, and we all three undoubtedly know that whatever comes next is not the whole truth.

“Ah, does she ever not change them?” Tom asks.

The guard hands me over with no more than a cursory glance at the castle. Tom, for all his deceits, is trusted as few beings ever are in Wonderland. He is not in her employ, but he is not her enemy. Truthfully, I think he’s as much in charge as she is.

As the guard leaves, I feel Tom beside me, nearly vibrating with the difficulty of stillness. We stand there, watching Guard 39 return along the path we’ve traveled. I’m not sure if he’s going to the castle to ask for clarity or simply resuming whatever task he should’ve been attending if not for my sudden arrest.

Once the guard turns a bend in the garden path, Tom extends an elbow to me. “Come, my dear Rose. We shall walk a while.”

He doesn’t unshackle me, so linking my arm with his is not possible. I rattle my restraints slightly in answer.

“I see.”

Instead of removing the manacles, he twines his arm around mine, and we perambulate through the jungle-like growth. Tendrils seemingly reach out, snagging my hair and skirt. There’s a wildness here that suits me.

After several quiet moments, I tell him, “I never lied to her. I need you to believe me. I need someone to trust me.”

Tom’s toothy grin flashes in the dark. “Shall I admit I don’t care, dear Rose?”

“Why did you stop him from taking me to the dungeon, then?”

“That, my dear one, is a fine question.” He pats my arm as if I have earned a point in a game I didn’t realize we’d begun. Unlike me, unlike Alice, Tom is a native of this peculiar world. In the best of moods, he seems to consider if you’re worth toying with for a while or if you’re beneath his notice. Neither seems particularly pleasant.

“Do you believe me?” I ask.

He laughs, mouth stretching wider than human mouths ought to stretch.

“Alice would not like it if I believed you,” he says, bluntly getting to the lone truth of things. “Of course, she would not like it if I doubted you either.”

“I serve her best interests,” I tell him. “Whatever name you call me, or she calls me, I serve Alice.”

This is the truth that has left me here, chained in the garden, plucked from her room. It is also, apparently, the answer Tom sought. He peers at me, and then he reaches out. I don’t flinch—although any man reaching toward me is cause for discomfort. The side of his hand grazes my face as he plucks a dripping rose from a wild tangle of vines and thorns. A good third of the petals rain over me as he frees the blossom and weaves it into my hair.

“I serve Wonderland, Rose. Not this Red Queen. Not the last. Not the one before her . . . or the one who will follow Alice some day.”

“She trusts you.” It’s all I can say as we follow the sinuous path toward the dungeon—where, apparently, I am still going.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/04/27/of-roses-and-kings-melissa-marr/

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