Once upon a time, there was a little short story about Wonderland. It was conceived as part of a challenge, and despite the best intentions, it didn’t remain little. It grew up. First as a rather longer short story. Then as a novellette. Finally, it became a fine, strapping novella of nearly 30,000 words.
It is still growing.
Currently, it looks like ending up as a fat little thing at 35,000 words or so. This is unfortunate, since I wanted to have it ready to send out to my mailing list in February’s newsletter.
The good news for you is that since I will be postponing the sending out until March’s newsletter, you still have a chance to sign up to my mailing list and get not only MASQUE for free, but PLAYING HEARTS for free when it comes out in March. Newsletter subscribers will get PLAYING HEARTS on March 1st, and it will shortly be on preorder for everyone else for a March 10th release.
In the meantime, here is an excerpt for your delectation!
Once you know, it’s like leaping worlds every time you step over a puddle. In a way, it is leaping worlds. It’s not just puddles, either: Alice got in through a looking-glass, and I’ve heard of a boy who gets in through windows. I’ve always liked puddles, though. Splashy and bright and exciting– and at first that’s how Underland seems. It feels like anything is possible.
Mind you, Underland is only my name for it. Other people know it by other names: Mirror World; Wonderland; Looking Glass World. It’s all the same in the end. The same Underland. A whole, upside down world under the puddles.
I don’t remember much about my first journey to Underland. I was three at the time, and until I was seven I was convinced it had all been a dream. I was by myself in the hedge, hiding from the other children because it was there and I could, and because it was fun to watch people passing the Home. They never saw me.
But this time, someone did. I was curled up on one of the branches, my bare feet scratched and brown, and the first I knew was an eye looking at me through a gap in the hedge.
“You’re invited,” said the eye. It blinked, then disappeared. In its place a hand appeared, a card between its forefinger and middle finger. I took it without understanding what it was or what the voice meant by what it said.
“It’s a very important date. Don’t be late.”
I put the card in my already bulging pockets and forgot about it during the afternoon. And later I was too busy with milk and biscuits and getting out of brushing my teeth in the rush before bed to remember the card crumpled in my pocket.
That night, she sent the card sharks after me.
I didn’t know that’s what they were– well, I didn’t even know who she was. Not then. Midnight woke me, all silver and cool and snowy, and they were already by my bed, one on either side. Thin—no, flat—figures, inky black against the off-white walls, their flat, heavy feet shuffling against the carpet. They didn’t speak; they simply made a soft click-click of noise. I found out later that this was their sharp teeth snapping open and shut.
“You’re not allowed in here,” I said, my voice very quiet against the clicking of pointed teeth. The Home was clear about men and bedrooms. If there was a man in the bedroom, I was supposed to scream. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew it was Very Important.
I wasn’t exactly certain these were men, but I wanted them to know that I wasn’t afraid.
I was stubbornly Not Afraid when they clicked their teeth at me without speaking and threw a velvet sack over my head. I yelled and fought, but the velvet muffled my cries, and when at last the sack was thrown down on something soft and scented, they left me to fight my own way out of it.
I emerged, ruffled and panting, in a high-ceilinged boudoir. The cloying scent of jasmine was in the air and in the settee beneath me: it made me sneeze and rub my nose on the back of my hand. Behind the settee was a high, curtained bed in majestic black and red.
There was a boy on the settee next to me, watching me wriggle from the sack with a kind of narrow-eyed curiosity. He was dressed in red velvet and gold lace, a thin, pale boy with a sharp, aristocratic nose and a pale gold fringe of hair swept to one side.
He looked me up and down, lingering curiously on my bright green socks, and arched one light gold brow. He said: “You’re a funny looking little thing.”
I gave him a perplexed look and sat on a fat velvet footstool. “I’m hungry.”
“Have some tarts,” he said, offering me a tray.
“I’m not allowed,” I said. That was another of the Home’s rules. No sweet things between meals. “Why are you awake? You should be in bed.”
“That’s no fun!” he said scornfully. “Why are you so small, little girl? I thought you’d be bigger.”
“I’m only three,” I said. I felt slightly resentful. I couldn’t help being so small.
The boy made an unconvinced noise, but sat down beside me. “I suppose there must be something to you, if she chose you. We’re to be engaged. Do you understand that?”
I only blinked at him. I had no idea what the words meant, but I did know that the boy’s lofty tones were annoying.
“Are you afraid of needles?”
“I’ve had my measles shot,” I said, but I felt my lip tremble. I very much disliked needles.
“It’s all right,” he said, with a sigh. “I’ll hold your hand. You’re not to cry.”
“I don’t cry,” I told him, but I let him take my hand anyway.
He said coolly: “I’m Jack. They didn’t tell me your name.”
“I’m Mabel. What– who were those men?”
“They’re not men,” said Jack. He was just a little paler, and his voice had dropped to a whisper. “They’re card sharks. Stay away from them. They bite.”
I opened my mouth to say that men didn’t bite, but just then there was a commotion from behind a set of colourfully lacquered double doors, and Jack’s fingers pinched mine.
“Don’t speak to her,” he said in a whisper. “Just nod. And don’t look her in the eyes. She doesn’t like that. Hold out your hand when she asks for it, and don’t cry.”
“I don’t cry,” I said again.
Jack slipped from the settee and helped me down gravely, then stood beside me with his hand around mine, his back very straight and stiff. We were just in time: the doors flung open with a sharp crack against the golden boudoir walls, surprising a small squeak out of me. Jack didn’t say anything, but he pinched me again.
Through the open doors a vast, velvet mountain of a woman swept, her crown high and sharp. Since the only person I knew with a crown was the Queen of England, it seemed obvious that this must be she. I would have asked her if she was, but I could feel Jack’s fingers curled around mine, warm and tight, and remembered that I wasn’t supposed to speak. I fixed my eyes on her belt buckle instead, and gripped Jack’s velvet sleeve with my free hand.
“Hah!” said a voice as sharp as the crown. “Here it is at last! Give me your hand, child!”
I did as I was told, my gaze still on her belt buckle, and something sharp pierced my finger. I instinctively tried to pull my hand away but her fingers pinched harder than Jack’s, cruel and strong. I saw a huge drop of blood well up on the tip of my finger, as richly velvet as the queen’s frock.
Beside me, Jack offered one narrow, white hand without being told. I looked up once through my lashes, and saw the exulting, cruel smile on the queen’s face as she pricked his finger too. Jack took it without a sound and reached for my bloodied hand with his own, but that smile made me feel odd and squishy in a way that the meeting of our bloodied hands didn’t.
“Done!” said the queen, in her harsh voice. “Bound by blood, in life as in death. Take your fiancée in to the garden, Jack: her thin little face irritates me. Send her back when you’ve finished playing with her.”
She spun in a heavy swirl of velvet and left the boudoir. Beyond her I caught a fleeting look at a desk and office settings, and got a better view of the card sharks in the light before the doors swung closed on the room again. I wasn’t sorry to lose sight of the sharks.
The tickle of something wet dripping down my injured hand reminded me of my wrongs. I held it up to my face: now that the worst of the pain was over it was interesting to watch the trickles of blood as they made crimson channels down my hand.
“Come along,” said Jack, pulling me out of contemplation by my uninjured hand. I was towed toward another set of double-doors that were outlined in impossible golden sunshine.
Both of the doors hand an elegant red-lacquered doorknob, but Jack didn’t touch them. Instead, he pushed them open with his injured hand, very deliberately leaving a bloody handprint on the paintwork above the doorknob.
“She won’t like it,” he said, when he saw me looking at it; “But it’s not against the rules, so she can’t do anything about it.”
I found myself walking out into a garden that was bathed in bright sunshine, my green socks picking up late autumn leaves as I trailed after Jack in the grass.
“Why is the sun out? It’s night.”
“Mother made him come out. He didn’t want to, but she’s queen after all.”
“Where’s the moon, then?”
“She’s up there too, but she’s sulking. She doesn’t like it when the sun comes out during the night. She’s a feminist and she doesn’t believe in being eclipsed by a male. Sit down here.”
Here was the brick side of a fountain. I did as I was told and Jack sat down beside me, scooping water in his gory hand.
“Sorry about the blood,” he said. He washed my hand quickly and competently: I got the impression, young as I was, that he’d done it many times before. “She likes the old rituals. It’ll heal quickly.”
“Why did she prick me with a needle?”
“Do you only ever ask questions?”
I gazed at him silently until he gave a small sniff of laughter.
“It’s meant to bind us together. It’s all very old-fashioned and pointless, and it amounts to the fact that we’re to be married.”
“I’m too young to marry,” I said. “And I don’t have any nice clothes.”
Jack rinsed his own hand carelessly and flicked bloody drops of water on the grass. I didn’t understand the look in his eyes, but his voice sounded rather harsh when he said: “We won’t be married until I’m twenty-five. That’s sixteen years to buy nice clothes. Or to do an awful lot of running.”
I don’t remember much else from that day, but I must have fallen asleep at some stage, there in the sunlit night. When I woke the next day I found myself lying on top of all the bedcovers, my finger still sore. The tiny scar vanished in a day or two, and as young as I was, it wasn’t long before I came to believe that I had dreamed it all. But every now and then I was certain that I caught sight of a flash of red in my dressing table mirror, and once the pair of black-flecked eyes I saw gazing back at me from a window at school were not my own.