❯ More than Alice – More than Alice ( Chapter 1 )
More than Alice
Alice closed her eyes and enjoyed the salty air as the ship left port. Even after 10 years, the feel of the deck beneath her feet brought a surge of adrenaline. She allowed herself to shake off the tedium of her brief stay on land and enjoy her chosen home. Here she was a part of the world, not an oddity to be stared at. Her chosen profession � indeed the fact that she had a profession instead of seven babies � marked her as a freak more than her imagination had when she was younger. Some of her countrymen took great offense to her liberalism. The Queen had actively snubbed her at court, but that didn�t trouble Alice. She�d been snubbed by a Queen before.
She heard two of the sailors whispering behind her. Unfortunately for them, she had excellent hearing. A stack of crates stood between Alice and the sailors, and she eavesdropped without shame. Alice did almost everything without shame.
�Did you hear she�s on board?� asked a man with a thick cockney brogue. He sounded frightened.
�Aye. We�ll have good winds sure this trip.� She heard a deep snort and a spit. �I signed up just because she�ll be here.�
�Women ain�t got no place on ships. She�ll wreck us is what she�ll do.�
The other man actually growled. �Don�t you be saying anythin� agin� Miss. Kingsley. She�s a right angel, and a demon too. There�s some as say she�s a sea goddess. She�s our luck though. I know that.�
�You sailed with her before?� He sounded hopeful.
�Four times,� her supporter said proudly. �She spoke to me once, called me by name she did! She says to me, Hutchins, fetch me a glass of water.�
�They say a tiger marked her on the arm,� her doubter said. Alice smiled. She had actually hinted at that rumor herself, as well as several stories. Once the tiger story started, she knew the man would be one her side. No sailor could resist the idea of a woman who faced down a tiger and lived, or fought an Oriental who wielded a three-bladed sword, or lived through an elephant attack in India � depending on which rumor they�d heard.
�She killed it with a knife, they say. The Colonel hisself said she�s the toughest woman he�s ever known. I know for true she killed a man on the last trip because he touched her person.�
Alice frowned at the memory. That last part was true. The sailor had slipped in a storm and accidentally touched her breast. She had pulled her ever-present sword and cleanly sliced off his head, hearing the Red Queen�s voice in her head the entire time yelling, �off with his head!� It was regrettable, but it couldn�t be helped. Her position as a woman aboard ship was perilous, and she could allow no liberties to be taken with her person.
She slipped away quietly to her cabin to freshen up. Just because she lived a rough life was no excuse for sloppiness. There usually came a time in every voyage where the niceties slipped and the captain and officers finally became grubby, but they held it off as long as possible. She knew from experience that the proper appearance of authority was crucial in maintaining discipline among the ranks.
She washed her face and noticed as she was combing her hair that she had the beginnings of crow�s feet. The sun hadn�t done her skin any favors besides giving her a dark tan that scandalized other Englishmen. Her mother had told her many times that a lady should be the color of porcelain, not walnuts. Alice always smiled and kissed her mother. She would promise to do better about protecting her skin on the next trip, and promptly forget as soon as she stepped aboard the ship. One the worst days she would occasionally remember her parasol, but she enjoyed the feel of nature on her face too much to heed her mother�s wishes.
She brushed her tangled hair, noticing the gray streaks that had been forming for at least a year now. She refused to color them. It would cost her a great deal of respect from the men to indulge in what they would consider a womanly weakness.
This last visit home had been one of the most nerve wracking she could remember. She visited her sister on her vast estate. Unfortunately, Lowell was at home, and was forced to perform his duties as host. They glared at each other the entire time, barely able to maintain civilities as her unobservant sister prattled away about the children and how proud she was of Lowell. Alice never forgave Lowell for his indiscretion, and he never forgave her for knowing about it.
After dinner, Alice and her sister took a walk through the gardens. As they stood overlooking a small duck pond, her sister took a lock of Alice�s hair in her hand and made a disapproving sound. �Alice, you�re turning grey before your time. You really should see about choosing a husband. Major Knowles would have you, and I�ve even heard Lord Tarrant has inquired about you.�
Alice resisted the urge to snap at her sweet, dim-witted sister. She only meant the best, even though her idea of marital bliss was Alice�s idea of prison. She had a mental picture of herself in chains, followed by a memory of the Hatter tearing madly at his chains in the Red Queen�s castle. She remembered the hot feel of his feverish pale skin as she held his face to calm him; his frightened eyes that still tore at her heart, eyes that begged her to help him find some sanity in his ruined world. And she had abandoned him to his insanity, something she�d always regretted, even if it was a necessary course of action. She had been so young; perhaps if she had been older she would have realized what a selfish path she was choosing.
�Alice, pay attention. This is important,� her sister said.
�I�m sorry. It�s just, none of the men that have been interested in me have been the right man. I�ll find him when it�s time, I promise.�
If he was even interested in her. They�d never spoken words of love to each other. She couldn�t return to Wonderland yet anyway. She hadn�t done what she�d intended when she came back yet. Her father had made a modest fortune, but he�d never achieved the respect Alice felt he deserved. She felt it was her duty to make the name Kingsley a respected name around the world.
She�d almost accomplished her task. Regardless of the Queen�s moody snub, she had announced publicly that if Alice returned from China with a trade agreement she would be knighted. Lady Alice Kingsley would finally be able to return to Wonderland, content that she had raised her father�s name to its deserved status. Hatter probably wouldn�t even want her anymore. She hadn�t even spent enough time with him to remember his real name, but she had to see him. It was an idea that had persisted for ten years, through countless dangers, illnesses, and other men.
He had permanently ruined her capacity for a long-term relationship with a man. They always fell short, somehow. She had turned down a marriage offer from Colonel Reginald Haven, for no other reason than she felt he lacked �muchness�. He was a highly decorated officer with a great deal of wealth, and she lost a great deal materially by refusing him. Other men lacked valor, humor, pathos, or had hair too dark or too light, or eyes too small or too blue. She wasn�t naïve, she just couldn�t get over the idea that she�d had everything she ever wanted in a man right in front of her, and she�d left him.
This would be the time to cement the trade agreement; she was sure of it. She�d been working for years to earn the trust of the Emperor, and she had some spectacular gifts for him. She had spent a fortune on exotic animals and fine gold jewelry. She had arranged for an exquisite carving of the Emperor in jade with a tiger at his feet. The finest robes and most expensive French perfumes were on board her ship, The White Rabbit, as well as several high quality diamonds and a number of less expensive but still impressive gifts.
The trip was uneventful, and when they disembarked in Hong Kong she went about making the necessary arrangements for an audience with the Emperor. There were a great many formalities to be met, and she was exhausted by the end of the day. She walked back to her quarters, followed closely by Hutchins. She had thought it wise to make him her personal body-guard after overhearing him speak of his devotion to her, and he followed her like an adoring puppy. She had no doubt he would take a saber-thrust meant for her in a heart�s beat.
Her meeting wasn�t as successful as she hoped, and she returned to England without the coveted agreement. The Emperor was a sage man, and he had a list of changes he wanted made before he would sign the papers. They were reasonable requests, and Alice was fairly certain the Queen would accept them.
She wandered the Colonel�s estate, slightly depressed. It would be another year to prepare to return to China. If the Emperor decided to accept the Queen�s proposals, it would still be far too long before Alice could return to England and leave this tired world for Wonderland. As she walked and sulked her attention was drawn by a scurrying sound in the hedge near her. She hoped it was a rabbit. She�d always like rabbits, especially since they reminded her so much of Wonderland.
It was a rabbit. He jumped out of the hedge and stood staring at her, nose twitching nervously. Alice rubbed her eyes and blinked several times to make sure she was actually seeing what she thought she was seeing.
�McTwisp?� she asked. The White Rabbit stood before her.
�Alice?� he asked. �You are Alice, aren�t you? You look so different.�
�I�ve lived an odd life,� she said. �What are you doing here?�
�The Hatter�s sick. He�s been asking for you,� the rabbit said.
Alice looked toward the Colonel�s mansion. She could almost physically feel the weight of her duty upon her. She turned her back on the mansion, and ten years of work. She looked toward the sky. �Sorry father,� she said. �I can�t do it anymore. I hope you understand.�
She turned to the rabbit. �Take me to him,� she commanded. She did things right this time, taking the key before drinking the potion, and then taking the cake through the door and eating almost the right amount. She ended up a few inches taller than she should be, but in her haste to get to the Hatter she wasn�t concerned with a few inches more or less. The landscape was different. It had been cared for since the White Queen had returned to power, and it looked like a proper countryside now. Alice and McTwisp ran along the path, but when she saw the old table in the clearing she slowed and stopped, suddenly afraid. What would he say to her? Would he be angry? Did he hate her? Was he even capable of hate toward anyone other than the Red Queen?
He sat at the end of the table with his head bowed and shoulders hunched. He was dressed much the same as when she saw him before, with the same hat, but his clothes were obviously new. Someone was looking after him. It was probably Mallyumkin, who was urging him to take some tea.
�Please Hatter,� he said. �You have to eat something. You won�t get well otherwise.�
He coughed thickly and took a sip of tea. He pushed the saucer and cup away from him. �What�s the point?� he asked.
Mallyumkin pulled a blanket around the Hatter�s shoulders. �It�s too cold out here. At least come back to the castle.�
�I have to stay here. She won�t know where to find me.�
Mallyumkin stamped his small foot. �Hatter, it�s been ten years to the day since that good-for-nothing Alice left. She�s not coming back.�
Alice heard what might have been a muffled sob. Enough of this, she thought, and stepped forward.
Mallyumkin saw her and drew his sword. �And just who are you then?� he demanded.
�It�s me, Alice,� she said.
The Hatter�s head jerked up, and she could see the red splotches of fever on his cheeks. He stood and moved toward her. �Alice is it really you?� He touched the scars on her arm. �Could it really be you? I�ve seen you a great many times, but whenever I touched you you�d always disappear. It could really be you, or it couldn�t. I�m not sure, but I�ve never been sure of much, even though I was sure of you; I was sure you�d come back, if it�s really you.
She placed her hands around his face, just like last time. �Hatter,� she said quietly.
He started nervously and then smiled. �I�m ok now,� he said.
�Are you?� she asked.
�I will be,� he said. His smile faded, and his eyes took that sad, frightened look she had seen in the Red Queen�s palace. �Will you leave again?�
�Never,� she said, and kissed him. He wrapped his arms around her, the only arms she�d ever really wanted to be held by. Time passes oddly in Wonderland, and their kiss seemed to last an eternity.
When they were finished they stood in silence, looking into each other�s eyes. The absolute trust in his eyes wrenched at her heart. She swore to herself never to betray him again.
�Alice?� he asked.
�Why is a raven like a writing desk?�
Alice smiled. She�d prepared for this long ago. She�d had ten years to think of an answer. �Because they can both produce a few notes, tho they are very flat, and they are never backward.�
They returned to the castle, and Alice moved into his spacious apartments with him after a brief struggle with her Victorian age�s morals. The rest of the world be damned, she decided. She had her Hatter. It was all she cared about. The White Queen had provided him with excellently furnished apartments, complete with a well appointed chamber for him to practice his trade.
Alice quickly nursed him back to health, and then ten years after they met they finally made love. She awoke to find him watching her with his eyes still glossy from sleep. She played with the thatch of shockingly orange hair.
�I�ve been considering words that begin with the letter L,� he said. �Lifetime, longing, love. Mostly love.�
�Love is a good word to consider,� she said.