The Queen of Hearts’ chambers were empty and she was not in her bed. A cold thick tension hung in the air. There were three hearts in various parts of the room cleaning profusely and in silence. One looked up at them then fiercely returned to her work.
“It seems the Queen has gotten well.” The Cheshire Cat said and bounded to the door opening it for the Jack. “Come along my friend. Your lady is probably waiting for you.”
The Jack blushed a bit and began to look nervous. He hesitantly moved to the door. In the halls there were more cards working franticly at laborious tasks cleaning, dusting. One section was being completely repainted all in silent concentration. When they noticed the Jack of all Trades and the Cheshire Cat some halted, some blushed, but all looked frightened.
The two reached the balcony above the ballroom where they found much of the castle was situated. The queen was not hard to spot. She sat on her father’s throne with Megette standing right beside her and looking just as frightened as the others. Guards stood at the exits barring anyone from leaving.
The Queen of Hearts had come out of her catatonia and was very animated. “Come forward,” she said to the back of the line. She had a large bold smile, but a desperate coldness in her eyes.
Guards forced the woman to move forward down the line.
Khamet recognized April Showers, a friend of the queen he met at the ball.
“Come come dear,” the Queen’s jaw twitched. Her cold eyes were dark and lost. She did not look well. She looked haggard. Fear and frown wrinkles were visible now and she only bore a vague resemblance to her former self.
Megette looked frightened as April Showers made her way down the line with two guards escorting her. She had already begun to cry a heavy river of tears that ran down too her ankles leaving a trail of liquid as she went.
“No my dear there is no reason to cry.” The queen cooed.
April Showers tried to stop the river, but was having trouble. She sniffled.
“I said, STOP THAT CRYING!” The Queen of Hearts boomed. Her words resonated so loudly many of the people standing about cringed.
Khamet looked confused, “What is this?”
“Something’s wrong,” the Jack of all Trades muttered.
April Showers straightened her back and suddenly stood erect and firm. She pursed her lips, widened her eyes and held her breath as the corners of her mouth twitched.
“That’s better my dear.” The Queen of Hearts said so sweetly it could not have been the one who screamed just a moment ago. “Now on the night in question, why did you not save me?”
April Showers squeaked trying to hold back her tears.
“My… my lady.” She sniffled while giving a slight curtsey. “I was like the June Bride. It was all so fast and the guards…” she sounded excited. “Yes, the guards had us all blocked with the fight and…”
“OFF WITH HER HEAD!” The Queen of Hearts screamed.
“No!” April Showers pleaded as several hearts moved in. “Please! Your majesty! If I could have! I swear! Please…” They dragged her out as he sobbed and cried. A great river of liquid trailed the floor as the cards moved her towards the far corner of the room where Khamet just noticed a guillotine had been erected.
April was a type of sentient so there was no sound of ripping, but the guillotine was brought up slowly as April cried. Khamet stood still. Something in his head said do something, stop this, save her, but his green eyes were fixed. He was in shock. This couldn’t really be happening. The heavy clamp that held the blade came up. The handle struck the top. The clamp came together, opened the pliers and released the blade to fall in one fatal chop that silenced April Showers and stopped her tears falling forever.
Khamet was horrified, “What is this!” he screamed suddenly.
The entire crowd looked to the balcony. An audible “Ah,” sounded and then mutterings of, “Cheshire Cat, Cheshire, The Cheshire Cat.” Megette smiled though she still looked afraid.
“It’s them,” The Queen of Hearts screamed. “THEM!!! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!!”
Guards hit the walls and made a fast stairway as the others ran up to the second floor.
Khamet did not wait. He leapt off the ledge, vanished and reappeared right before the Queen of Hearts. “What is this, my lady?” he asked. “Why are you doing this? These people care for you and we worked very hard to find and rescue you.”
The guards moved in and Khamet vanished and reappeared on one of the guard’s head. “My queen.” He vanished and reappeared on the corner of the chair. “Why are you doing this?”
On the second floor the Jack of all Trades was fighting hard with Megette’s sword against several guards.
Megette watched worried and felt helpless.
“You are all betrayers to the crown! You allowed me to be kidnapped and my father to be murdered. Off with your heads. Of with your heads.”
“My lady!” Khamet cried out. “We have went to the ends of the earth to find and rescue you. The Jack…”
Megette leaned in and whispered something to the queen.
“Silence!” The Queen of Hearts screamed at her.
There was a cry and three cards a six and two sevens all struck at the Jack at the same moment. Two of the blows connected and he stumbled backwards falling of the ledge and down to the floor below. Khamet appeared in the air halfway down to catch the Jack, swipe the air and open a portal, which opened right in front of the queen where the Jack landed.
The Queen of Hearts looked down on the Jack. Her face changed from fury to suddenly calm at the sight of the Jack of all Trades and something in her remembered. He was to be her Jack.
Slowly he rose and she began to smile.
“My lady,” the Jack said dropping to one knee. “I live only to know you are safe.”
The Queen’s smile twitched a bit as if it was not used to this type of expression.
“My life has been set to enlist the help I needed to track you down and rescue you from my father the Ace of Spades.”
Megette seemed saddened at watching this.
The Queen’s smile twitched then stiffened and her eyes shifted. Suddenly they were no longer smiling with her. She was staring down intently at the Jack.
“Your Father?” She half mumbled the smile drying up as the words came out. “Your father was responsible for all this?” Her eyes seemed to ponder for a moment, “Yes. Yes, I remember he spoke to me of you. His son. The infiltrator. You… DECIEVER! Infiltrate the castle and at attack from the inside. Yes! Traitor! OFF WITH YOUR…”
Megette seemed desperate and she leaned in to whisper in the queen’s ear.
“Really.” she said in shock and wonder. “You and he and…” she turned. “The Cheshire Cat? All of you in league together.”
“No majesty,” Megette suddenly began pleading. “We were trying to rescue…”
The Queen of Hearts reached around and grabbed Megette and flung the card into the crowd before her, “GUARDS! ALLL OF THEM! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!!”
The Jack parried with his baton and tossed Megette her sword. She caught it with ease and parried as well. On this level there were many more guards than were on the top level. Khamet crouched and bore a fierce grin. The three of them, spread out.
“Any sort of escape plan my Cheshire Cat,” the Jack said.
“Thinking,” Khamet said.
“Attaaaack!” a tiny, but fierce voice called. From all the windows swarms of beetleworps, flywasps, teeverbees, and vespa beetles flew into the great chamber to annoy and attack the cards. In the center of the room flying in circles and screaming at the tops of his tiny lungs was Frob. “ATTACK!” People began to scream and the cards began swatting.
The Jack smiled at Khamet and Megette and the three began fighting through the crowd to get to the Queen’s captors and set them free as well. “Open a door to somewhere.” The Jack called to Khamet, “We will get them out of here.”
Khamet nodded and shot to the far wall. He grabbed a tapestry and pulled it down to reveal a huge glowing portal. “Come on!”
The Queen of Hearts saw this and screamed, “They are trying to escape! Stop them! Stop them all! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”
Megette and the Jack were trying not to harm any of the cards, but some were getting injured badly.
“My lady,” Frob called down to Megette.
“It is good to see you master beetle.” Megette smiled and swung her sword using the blunt end to clear the cards away stomping on them as she moved forward. “Come on!” She called directing the captors to the portal and the crowd began moving towards the opening made by the Cheshire Cat.
The Jack was fighting and knocking cards left and right avoiding the diamond and heart blades that were swinging at him.
“Stop them!” the Queen of Hearts called, her face a picture of fury and rage with no trace of the sweetness she once held. “Stop them!” She scanned the crowd and her eyes fell on the Jack of all Trades. Again something deep in her awoke and the corners of her face twitched into a smile. Something she remembered.
The Jack of all Trades spun and knocked heads with his baton. He scooped up cards and threw them on other cards. There was a smile on his face. He was in peril, but he was alive.
The Queen’s face turned to a full smile and she remembered sitting atop Noipmahc and in the distance saw the vagrant. She urged the great beast forward slowly and stared as they came upon a man in quite colorful garb eating a tomato with such ecstasy it seemed as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He brought his other hand up and took a bite of an apple as well. It was with such abandon and contentment that for a moment she felt jealous. Then something she had never felt before stirred in the base of her stomach. She watched his hands, his mouth, and his teeth as he bit and chewed and was suddenly very aware of the Sphinx’s great body beneath her and she flushed. She took several breaths to calm herself before she got up the nerve to speak up in the most official sounding voice she could muster.
She remembered wondering what her father would say and how she would possibly explain this to him. How would she make it okay? But there was no father now. It was okay. The smile grew until there was no one left in the room, but she and her Jack, the vagrant she had caught stealing and had fallen in love with in a moment. She saw a union and he, yes he, holding her father’s scepter and with that vision she rose.
The Queen of Hearts moved down the steps towards the Jack. The flies and beetles didn’t bother her and the crowd parted as she moved through the chaos, hopeful. She was daring something now, what would her father think. There was no father, it was only her, and it would be only him. She was queen now. She could make the rules.
Megette continued ushering people through the portal. “Come on! Quickly!”
An older man and a woman tugging a child behind them stepped up. Each wore a hat. The man wore a fancy black one that had 11/6 the woman a lovely green, “Hello my dear we are the Belfry’s this is my husband the hatter and this is my son.”
Megette looked down at the child that had an extremely large head for one so young. His hat was red with a 9/6. “Cute.” Megette said without any emotion and ushered them through the portal. “That’s all!” she cried through the fray.
The Jack still fighting nodded and began making his way towards the portal. He spun knocking down two cards a Three and a Seven and stopped as he was suddenly face to face with the Queen of Hearts. Their eyes met and locked and the Jack of all Trades lowered his baton and smiled. “My lady.”
“Jack.” The Queen muttered with tears in her weary eyes.
“My Queen,” the Jack said. “My lady.” The Jack half bowed and moved towards the Queen of Hearts who moved towards him. He stopped and his eyes suddenly went large and he halted.
“There he is!” A voice cried out from behind.
The Jack dropped his baton as Megette screamed from the portal, “JACK!”
The Jack’s eyes and face went slack with several blades in his back. Another heart blade slashed high and the queen lurched in shock as before her eyes she watched the Jack’s head tumble away from his body and strike the floor.
Khamet’s ears dropped flat at the sight of the Jack’s body tumbling to the ground.
“JACK!” Megette began moving away from the portal.
The smile on the Queen’s face faded to dark as a cloud seemed to invade her eyes. She stared at the heart who stood triumphantly where the Jack had been.
“OFF WITH HIS HEAD!” She screamed pointing at the heart that had taken the head off the Jack of all Trades. The heart tried to run, but he was caught and the sentence carried out right then.
Khamet grabbed Megette who had her sword raised and she made ready to charge the Queen. “No!” he called and before the cards could converge on them to defend their queen, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Heart’s Lady in Waiting tumbled through the portal and vanished.
“Retreat!” Frob called and all the flying insects made for the windows and were gone.
The queen stared down at the body of the Jack of all Trades with such a look of longing and remembrance. She sunk to the ground sobbing in rage and fury. Slowly she raised her head and looked around at what remained of her subjects. Her soldiers all surrounded her, awaiting orders.
Megette was shocked when they appeared in front of the house. She looked around and began to scream, “No! Jack! No!” she dropped to her knees jabbing the blade of her sword down into the ground and collapsing against the hilt as she wept. Khamet stood beside her, his head bowed to the grass as well letting the emotions take him as he too cried for his friend.
“What happened to her?”
Megette pulled her self together. “She woke up, but there was something different about her. Her eyes were, almost dead. She smiled cheerfully, but the smile never reached her eyes. She demanded the ballroom be set up and she would address her subjects. One by one she was sentencing everyone to be beheaded… It was frightening. And the Jack.” The tears came and she started again.
“All that time in the dungeon watching her subjects…” He sighed. “The Tarot was correct. There was no saving her.”
The day was beautiful and calm. With the sun shining brightly in the sky, it only made the entire situation seem worse. Their sobs subsided, then were suddenly cut short by a tiny voice.
“Excuse me, Mary Ann, but I can’t have you putting on such a display in front of the house like this. What will the neighbors think?”
They both looked up to see a white rabbit standing at the door to the house.
“What?” The Eight of Hearts said reaching for her sword and adding the challenge to her anger.
“Oh I am sorry,” the rabbit said noticing Khamet. “The Cheshire Cat, well that’s a horse of a different color. This is an honor.”
“Come, come Mary Ann don’t act like that in front of our guest.”
Megette’s anger turned to confusion and The Cheshire Cat grinned through his tears. Megette motioned to the rabbit and he shook his head.
“Tea, we must have tea.” The rabbit said.
“I am sorry Mr. Rabbit,” Khamet said. “But I cannot stay for tea. We are here to simply use the looking glass in your bedroom if we may?”
“Oh? Oh certainly. The Cheshire Cat using my mirror.” The rabbit snapped to attention. “But I must be off myself. I hear we have a new queen and I am applying for the position of Herald.”
“Really?” The Cheshire Cat said fanning excitement. “Well if I may,” he lowered his voice.
The rabbit crouched with interest.
“Flattery, compliments and grandiose supplication and gestures for the queen is always good and should serve you just right.” The Cheshire Cat finished and gave him a wink.
“Absolutely Mr. Cat, thank you so much. Look at the time I have got to get moving, I’m so very late. Lock up when you’re done. Thank you again.” The rabbit said and was out his gate and moving off down the road.
The Cheshire Cat led the way up the front walk.
“The bedroom looking glass?” Megette asked still sniffling through the tears which continued to fall.
“Yes.” The front door was still open and The Cheshire Cat made his way inside.
Megette held the sword and followed him to the bedroom.
The Cheshire Cat entered and moved to the looking glass in the corner and sat staring at it.
Megette peered from the doorway, “What is it?”
“Come and see.”
Megette had to crouch a bit. She sat in front of the mirror and stared. “Okay.”
“What do you see?”
“Well I see a room and…” It took a moment to realize that the mirror didn’t reflect the Cheshire Cat at all. She could only see herself in it.
“Keep watching,” Khamet said and scratched the mirror so that his claws squeaked on the glass. Megette watched as her image began to shimmy and fade as well. “Now what do you see.”
“It is the same room.”
“Not exactly.” The Cheshire Cat said turning to her. “Yonderland is there. I believe our queen is no longer our lady and if you stay I fear she will try to harm you.”
Megette took the meaning. She sat on the bed and wept loudly. “I don’t want to leave. This is my home and I have no way of…” she stopped and stared at the sword, then at the cat sitting beside her.
The Cheshire Cat nuzzled her arm, “And if that isn’t enough there is another reason…”
Megette nodded and didn’t speak. She simply touched her belly that now had the slightest hint of a pouch to it. “All that time in the Delirium… I was in love with him… And I thought he was, well at least it looked like he was falling in love with me.” She rubbed the belly part of her card that had swollen just a bit. “But I am a card and over there I…”
“You won’t be a card in Yonderland. I don’t even think you could exist, you will be a sentient.”
“And how will I…” she didn’t need to speak anymore. She was strong. A brave look came across her face, she nodded and stood, taking up the sword. She looked down at the cat then dropped suddenly and threw her arms to wrap him up in her card. The Cheshire Cat began to cry as well now and he purred, nuzzling her neck as he did so. Megette let go and stood facing the mirror. She reached forward with her hand. The surface of the mirror dissolved like liquid and she stepped forward ducking as she went through.
The Cheshire Cat watched with tears running down his fur as his friend disappeared into the looking glass. A lovely woman in a white dress with eight red hearts on it stood and looked back a moment. Then she walked away and the image faded until the Cheshire Cat saw no reflection at all.