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Of Roses and Kings

Melissa Marr

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  “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’s no one. His opinion means less than nothing.

  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.

  “More’s the pity,” he says.

  We drift to silence then, broken only when he opens my cell door. The clank of it seems welcoming. Tom’s company has become oppressive.

  I p
ull it closed. The keys clatter as he locks the cell and then reaches in to unshackle my wrists and attach the manacle to my ankle.

  “Never unchain a killer unless you must,” he says cheerily.

  “I serve the queen,” I repeat.

  “No one with a bit of sense doubts that. They might not admit they realize it, and you will likely still lose your pretty head, Rose, but those of us who pay attention have always known where your loyalty belongs.” He pats my cheek and grins as he backs away, white teeth gleaming out of the shadows.

  And then he’s gone.

  * * *

  The first time I stood before the queen, I knew she was why I’d fallen into Wonderland. She is my reason. I was meant for her.

  I’d been here for four months, not entirely sure where here was or if being here was to last forever. Nothing made sense some days, but I’d been keeping my head down and had taken a position as a maid. It wasn’t much, but it kept me in tea and jam.

  The day that changed my life was a Wednesday. Admittedly, most days here are Wednesday, but still, I noted it. Details matter when the queen is rumored to be a litigious sort.

  “You, there.” A guard stood over me, close enough that I briefly considered mopping his shiny black boots. “Stand up.”

  That part was easy enough—welcome, even. Being on my knees wasn’t a natural position, especially not before a man. Don’t mistake me: I’m not a misandrist. I dislike most people, men and women both. I maybe just dislike men a touch more.

  “The queen needs you to clean the throne room,” he ordered.


  He stared at me as if I were daft. “Of course, now. Everything she orders is now.”

  Months later, I’d understand, but I hadn’t yet learned that the Red Queen had made it a habit to lack patience. It was part of the illusion she crafted. No one thought her capable of the ruses she set into motion because her carefully constructed persona was that of an impatient, slightly mad, entirely indulgent woman.

  But I digress.

  The Red Queen had summoned me, and so I went to the throne room. It was a marvel of black and white tile, an elaborate game board where pawns maneuvered for power. She sat like a goddess on high, watching the courtiers seeking her attention and pointedly refusing them. The king, for all that he existed, was a shell of a man. He nodded and spoke as if she crafted lines for him at night and glancing at her with such hunger and fear that I pitied him almost as much as I envied him.

  (I know now that this was the moment of my demise. She knew somehow, before I realized it, before I could hide. She knew I was hers to use and discard.)

  When she turned to look at me, my fate was sealed. Golden ringlets framed a face that sculptors have carved and painters have captured. Her lips tilted into the smile that Helen once used to launch a war. I knew then that Lucifer fell for the same reason Adam did—because she willed it.

  So, when she crooked her finger, I did what any sane woman would do: I turned and walked out of the room.

  That was the first time she had me tossed in the dungeon. I wonder if today will be the last.

  * * *

  It’s midnight when she visits me. I know she’s here before the guard slips out of the small side door into a courtyard. Like I said, everyone knows she’s deadly, but no one else is mad enough to cross her.

  It’s an honor I don’t have to share.

  “Hello, Ally,” I murmur as she approaches out of the shadows. She’s an angel deigning to walk into the muck, illuminated by the candle she holds just so. It casts light onto her perfect face and bare throat.

  “You never learn.”

  I shrug. She’s not wrong. I’m not any more likely to change than she is. I was what I am when I arrived in Wonderland, formed into the raw stuff that landed me here in her domain. No one knows exactly why some people fall into this fantastic world, but we all know there are only two ways to get here—be born to it or fall into it. Those born here cannot leave. The rest of us must constantly worry that we’ll break the wrong rule and wake up in the Original World.

  “Treason,” my queen adds, “is a very serious crime.”

  “I wondered what the charge was this time,” I admit. “One never knows with you.”

  She presses her lips together, and I see that they’re glossy with fresh lip-stain. I’m fool enough to be glad she still finds me worthy of painting those dangerous lips. The words that slide through them can condemn me to death; in fact, I suspect they have already done so if I’m charged with treason. I’d still sell a small country or two to have the Red Queen’s lips touch mine again.

  “I must protect the crown,” she says, as if I don’t understand.

  “He was a blight, Ally. Killing him was a gift.”

  She tilts her head, looking at me curiously, and very softly says, “Well, of course, it was. You know that, and I know that.”

  The Red Queen lifts a hand, summoning the constantly accessible ladies-in-waiting. Then she glances at the ground behind her. A chair—ivory with beautiful carved legs—materializes out of the shadows. Hands are all I see. The light of the queen’s candle doesn’t extend to the servants. Another woman reaches out of the shadows and places a matching footstool in front of the chair. Hands settle her skirts.

  Alice sits without looking.

  The chair, the stool, the dress, it will all be consigned to the fire by morning. The proof that she was here in the filth will be burned up like so many other things. My beloved is clever and cautious, despite what the people think.

  I glance at Alice’s shoes. When she became queen, Alice adopted a madness that seems to be bound to her role in this world, as if being queen meant some level of madness was inevitable. She is her office in ways, but in the heart of the madness, Alice still exists. The last Red Queen had no such shoes, but Alice wears strange, lovely ones that defy logic. Today’s have a cut-out heel featuring teeth.

  “Tell me.”


  “Tell me,” she repeats.

  I sigh. I want to resist her, but I can’t. Maybe in the Original World, maybe if we were both back there, I could resist her charm. Here? Everything in me wants to resist, but I still give in.

  “I love you,” I begin.


  “There is nothing I would deny you, Alice. Nothing.” I settle into the hard bunk of my dungeon cell. Briefly, I attempt to cross my legs, but am stopped by the clank of shackles. I stare at her through the bars and profess, “You are my world.”

  “And?” Her voice is different now. Softer. Hopeful.

  “So, I killed him. For you, Ally. I murdered him because you wanted him to die.”

  The Red Queen smiles at me in a way that makes me forget the filthy cell where I live now. I know then that I’d do it all again—and so much more—for the joy in her expression. She knows it, too. I suspect she knew before I did. She picked me. She groomed me to be the red hands of the queen.

  “I never wanted the king to die, Beatrice,” she lies. “He was my husband, ordained so by Wonderland.”

  And in her lie is the crux of the problem. The truth is that Alice wanted the crown. She won it from the last Red Queen, and so she became heir. She was the new queen, taking the throne, the power, the crown jewels—and the king. It was one almost perfect package.

  The king, unfortunately, adored the Red Queen. Not Alice. Not the last queen. Not the one before her. He adored the queen—whichever one she was.

  * * *

  My time at the Red Castle was illuminating in ways I couldn’t explain. I went from nameless maid, ordered about by every guard and courtier in the palace, to her maid. She chose me.

  That was the result of my first foray into the dungeon: She released me, renamed me, and I was New. I was hired as the Queen’s Personal Maid as if I were new to the castle. The head of the maids gave me a tour—including the very same rooms I’d cleaned the past four months.

  My new name was Beatrice. I cannot recall th
e old name. It no longer matters.

  As Beatrice I would wear a dress befitting the Queen’s Personal Maid. I hate dresses, but the pay was great. I signed my new name on the form presented to me, and so it was to be.

  On my second day as Beatrice I arrived to work, and I prepared to clean her royal chambers. I assumed that would require tidying her sitting room, possibly waiting to fetch her tea or her beloved tiny cakes. The queen, for all of her airs and etiquette, was fond of the hallucinogenic bakery—so much so that she’d burned it down and offered the bakers positions in the palace as Royal Bakers.

  I was wrong, of course. I arrived to find my employer naked and pacing. The room itself would take half a day to clean. Dresses, stockings, and jewelry were strewn everywhere as if she had thrown them in frustration.

  “How am I to dress without my maid?” She stomped her foot, frowned at it as if it ought to make a noise even though she wore no shoe and stood on thick carpet. She picked up a book and tossed it at the wall as she stomped again. When the book made an apparently satisfying noise, she smiled at her foot.

  My mouth gaped open in confusion.

  “We’re all a little mad here, Beatrice,” she explained conspiratorially.

  I nodded. What else was I to do?

  “I need cleaning and dressing.” Alice gestured with her left hand.

  Women appeared from behind curtains. They all stared at her feet as they glided forward. Each woman was laden down with some sort of bathing supply: buckets, sponges, soaps, and towels. Several slid a large tub toward the windows. None spoke.

  They left after depositing the mound of supplies alongside the tub. Once they’d gone, the queen stared at me expectantly. She looked at the tub. She looked back at me. Surely, she didn’t require aid to climb into a tub.

  “Your Highness?”

  The Red Queen looked at me, as if my speaking was a shock.

  “Shall I come back or clean now?” I gestured around the room. The clothing and jewelry that were everywhere—except in the path the tub had traveled—should have been my task as a maid.