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A Crimson Game
I looked across at my sixteen black chessmen, the largest of whom was twice as tall as myself. A single white pawn sat out in the open in the center of courtyard.
“You!” I yelled, pointing to a nearby black knight. “Sicilian Defense.” The knight gave a strained nod and ordered a black pawn forwards. The pawn balked a moment and then hesitantly moved into the square ahead of him. On the far side of the chessboard, a second white pawn had to be shoved forward to his fellow teammate, who was by this point a sniveling white ball on his square.
“An excellent idea, Ruby,” purred a voice from my left. I turned to face my friend the Duchess. “You know how Pearl hates having to go on the offensive,” she remarked. “Although it hardly matters. She’s bound to lose miserably either way.”
I chuckled my agreement and peered across the chessboard to where my twin sister lay on a mound of white pillows. All around her, lovesick noblemen and adoring ladies in waiting gave forced laughs at some pathetic thing she appeared to have said. From the time she was three, she had had every dim-witted creature in the palace wrapped around her finger. And her obsession with cream, ghastly. As if she were still trying to convince herself that she was nothing more than an innocent princess. I’ve always considered red far more fascinating. After all, nothing is more sacred than blood.
“Undoubtedly,” I murmured with a smile. “Chessmen! I want checkmate in five moves. Start with that one over there.” I pointing to the white pawn cowering in the center. The black knight nodded and swept across the board to the pawn before turning to me. The courtyard became deathly silent. Only the sobs of the white pawn remained.
“Permission to kill?” he asked in a deep, grating voice.
The knight raised his stone sword and brought it crashing down on the pawn’s head. The pawn shattered into pieces, reduced to nothing more than a pile of broken pottery.
“Excellent blow!” the Duchess cackled beside me. “Well played Ruby.” I inclined my head to acknowledge the compliment and smiled.
“Footmen!” I ordered. Two frog footmen dressed in red livery and carrying a broom and dustpan scrambled to my feet. “Take him to Re-Assembly.”
“Certainly, Princess Ruby” they croaked. They hopped from square to square until they reached the pawn. In mere seconds they had swept the chessman’s remains into a neat pile before carting off his remains into the palace.
I glanced over at my sister to see her reaction. Pearl sat perched in her seat of honor, casting adoring looks at one suitor while holding the hand of another, yet carrying on a conversation with the third. It was as if the carnage that had happened mere feet away from her had been nothing more than a passing fancy.
I turned to the Duchess who was by this point stuffing her face with some delicious wonder-berry tarts. “What do you say we go on a walk?” I asked her with a grin. She looked up at me, cheeks bulging hideously like a toad’s.
“Revolting,” I muttered under my breath. I walked across the chessboard, my heels clipping against the marble squares. As I approached the party the conversation stopped immediately. The three suitors suddenly became less interested in Pearl and more fascinated by their shiny leather shoes.
“Would you prefer to resign now or be checkmated later?” I asked in what I hoped was a supercilious voice. My sister batted her eyes at me and pursed her shimmering lips.
“Oh Ruby! I quite forgot you were here! Well now of course!” she giggled. “But you know, Chess is so unfashionable these days. No refinement whatsoever! Don’t you think so my little fluff ball?” She turned her attention to stroking her pet rabbit, all while calling him pet names. The other courtiers all fawned over the sniveling bunny, in agreement with their leader as always. “Chessmen!” she called across the courtyard. “You are dismissed!” The chessmen slumped with relief and began to drag themselves off the chessboard in various states of exhaustion.
“If you think,” I began but was interrupted by the sound of a trumpet. There was a puff of grey-blue smoke, and an azure caterpillar appeared lounging on Pearl’s lap. She shrieked and stood up, sending the caterpillar tumbling to the ground. Luckily, his cloud of smoke caught him just before impact.
“Most undignified for a Caterpillar Oracle,” he grumbled in an unusual deep voice for such a small creature. Pearl was still screaming and several of the female courtiers had fainted. “Stop this racket!” he demanded. The screaming stopped at once. The caterpillar pulled out a pipe and began to slowly send smoke rings into the air in a way that undoubtedly only came with his centuries of practice.
“For hundreds of years,” he intoned, “the Wonder-Crown has been passed to the eldest of the Royal family. But never has the previous Royal family produced a pair of twins, such as yourselves. In light of this event, the Order of the Oracles has determined that a Royal Duel must be held to determine the next Crown-Bearer of Wonderland.”
At this Pearl let out a gasp and sank onto her cushions in a mock faint. “A duel,” she whispered. “But I’m the oldest by three minutes! I have the right of succession!”
The caterpillar blew a puff of cobalt smoke into her face. “The Order of the Oracles has determined that a span of three minutes does not qualify a Royal as the rightful Crown-Bearer. In fact, the duel will take place one hour from now in the Maze of Hearts. The winner will be determined by an elected caterpillar jury. As for rules, anything goes.” With another gust of Wonder-berry scented smoke the caterpillar disappeared. With shaking hands, I smoothed down my scarlet satin gown.
Pearl chose that moment to moan pathetically. Her handmaidens fluttered over her like an anxious flock of geese and her suitors resumed adoring her. “My kingdom!” she cried. “Everything I care about in this world has been taken from me.” She gave a melodramatic swoon to murmurs of sympathy from her courtiers. I clenched my fists in agitation.
“I take it you forfeit your claim as Crown-Bearer then? It would save you the trouble of a duel.” “You!” she snapped. “You know I’m the rightful Crown-Bearer. I can’t even bear to look at you.”
“Oh but you’ll have to when I’m wearing the Wonder-Crown.” I smirked and whirled off across the chessboard to where the duchess was lying on the crimson sofa, a line of drool escaping her mouth in her sleep. I snorted in disgust and climbed a nearby marble staircase to my room. On my way up I was forced to look at the dreadful looking-glasses Pearl insisted on lining the walls of the palace with. She loved to admire herself wherever she went.
The person staring back at me was tall and well muscled with clear ivory skin and red lips. Her soot black hair flowed over one shoulder. I brushed back my hair and she copied my movements. I was standing there staring at my reflection when I felt an unusual presence of Wonder fill the room. My reflection suddenly raised one arm and began to write one word on the glass. YKCOWREBBAJ. It’s nonsense I thought. Then it hit me. I knew how I was going to defeat my sister.
I sprinted through the palace at a breakneck speed, heading towards the heart of the palace. I emerged from the Hall of Royals into the Wishing Well Sanctuary. I tiptoed into the room. Nowhere else in Wonderland was the flow of Wonder so strong. The Wishing Well Sanctuary was so powerful that some years before my great-grandfather’s birth, it was set up as a portal for the exclusive use of the Royal family. Tradition has it that it can send one to any place in Wonderland, a theory I intend to test one day. I approached the well and filled my mind with images of the Garden of Hearts. Then I dove.
* * *
A bubbly sensation across my whole body.
And then light.
* * *
I opened my eyes to find myself standing in a heart shaped cobblestone plaza. All around me, grew grotesque hedges, thicker than a man was tall. Three curving arches were cut into the centermost hedge. I was just pondering what to do if no one came when I noticed a smell like tarts baking. I turned around to see seven caterpillar oracles, each a different color of the rainbow.
“Cutting it a bit close are you?” the yellow one said while munching on a tart.
“Another minute and you would have been forced to forfeit,” the green caterpillar smirked.
“Anyways, down to business,” said an orange one.
“Your sister has been placed at a random location within this maze,” the purple caterpillar ventured while pulling out his pipe.
“Your task; find her and defeat her.” the blue caterpillar drawled.” Like I said before, anything goes.”
“The duel starts...” the red caterpillar announced.
“Now,” they said in unison. The caterpillars vanished in puffs of smoke that were quickly lost in the fog. The maze was eerily silent. I approached the three entrances and didn’t so much as hesitate before entering the third passageway. Even the smallest tadpole in Wonderland knows three is a lucky number. As I swept through the third entrance I heard a rustling noise. I whirled around just in time to see the branches of the third entrance weave themselves shut. Trapped like a dormouse in a teapot, I thought. I continued forward until I came to another opening in the maze, exactly like the one I had just come from.
“You finally made it,” a voice purred from off to my left. I whirled around to see the speaker. It was Pearl. “A little late are we?” she gave a Cheshire grin and waltzed towards me. She closed her eyes and screwed up her face in concentration. I realised what she was about to do a split second too late. She was manipulating the Wonder. The Wonder is the lifeblood of the Wonderland. Only a Royal can manipulate the Wonder, a gift that’s been passed down for centuries.
An ice cage came crashing down around me. For a moment I couldn’t help but be impressed. An object that large would have been very difficult to control. But I hadn’t time for such thoughts. I closed my eyes and pictured the web of Wonder in front of me. I pulled it together into a rough sphere and imagined hurling it at the bars of the cage. A fire tempest swirled out of my hand and weakened the cage enough for me to smash through the melting ice. Pearl looked at me furiously. There was nothing even remotely beautiful in her face now.
“You never could use the Wonder as well as I,” she taunted me. “You know I was the favorite child. You could never best me at anything. Prettier, stronger, and more powerful. I can see why they never liked a little thing like you. Admit it, you’re outmatched.” She hurled a second ball of wonder at a nearby hedge. Half a dozen vines uncurled themselves from the hedge and started to slither towards me. One latched onto my ankle and I fell to the ground. NO! I couldn’t lose now. I thrust my other hand against the cobblestone ground and pulled the Wonder in the place to me. It kept flowing, seeping from the stones around me until it formed a pool that flooded the clearing.
“I, Princess Ruby of the line of Hearts, call upon the Creature of the Borrow Groves as is the privilege of a Royal,” I shouted. Pearl turned white with fear.
“Are you out of you mind? Do you know what kind of havoc this creature will wreak?” she shrieked. I turned and smiled at her. The Wonder at my feet glowed silver. There was a brilliant flash of light and the Jabberwocky stood before me. It had the body of a lizard with bat like wings and the head of a gorgon. It bowed it scaly neck to me and spoke.
“So you are the one who called me,” it hissed. It turned its beady eyes towards Pearl. “Well, well. Another one of Royal blood. Delicious and rare. Do I have your permission to kill?”
I hesitated for a moment before responding, “Permission-”
“Stop!” yelled seven voices at once. I turned around to find the caterpillar oracles crouched behind me in terror. “The duel is finished. Princess Ruby shall be declared the winner.”
The yellow caterpillar gulped nervously, “And Crown-Bearer of Wonderland.”
I looked at my sister laying sobbing in the ground. “Don’t,” she managed between sniffles. “Send the horrid thing away.”
I walked over to my sister and placed my hand on her shoulder. “It would seem our parents were wrong. But seeing as that I am a rather gracious person, I believe I’ll lower the sentence. Banishment seems appropriate don’t you think? You spent your whole life making me unwelcome in my world so now, you can see just how it feels.” I smiled and turned back to the Jabberwocky. “You may take her away. The Outer-Lands seem a fitting place.” The Jabberwocky snatched Pearl up and flew off with her dangling it its claws.
“The Red Queen, it has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?” I murmured.
* * *
Several months after my coronation, I sat lounging in my favorite throneroom. Life in a palace seems so dull after a while. Not even a single execution this morning. It’s nearly time a servant displeased me. I’d long since gotten rid of the fish footmen. Disgusting, slimy things.
I was still musing about the best way to acquire a new prisoner worthy of death when a frog footman dressed in scarlet livery hopped across the throne room.
“What is it this time,” I snapped, displeased.
“Pardon me your majesty,” it croaked. “But you appear to have a visitor. She calls herself Alice.” Alice, nasty common name really. Yet I was in need of some entertainment.
“Show her in.”