“If the pawn attacks here, with the bishop as backup, then Red would be foolish to risk a counter-attack with the knight.”
“Granted,” said Alice, leaning over the schematic diagram of the city and examining it. “But Your Majesty has forgotten that Your scouts sighted the Red bishop here.” She pointed to the outer courtyard of the White Kingdom. “In which case, if Your Majesty takes the Red pawn, the Red bishop can easily move in here–” she traced a diagonal line across the battle map, showing a smooth and almost entirely unobstucted path between the positions of the White defenders, which ended nearly at the palace steps, “–and place You back on the defense.”
The White Queen frowned. She was tall and angular, with sharp features practically chistled from stone – which, actually, Alice realized, was the truth. They certainly weren’t wood or plastic, at least. The Queen’s sculpted gown was likewise rigid, despite the illusion of flowing lines, and her skin was as cold and pale as marble.
There were other possibilities on the grid, of course: a knight here, a pawn there, capture or feint or supply reinforcements. To the denizens of the White and Red Kingdoms, it was war; for them it had always been war, and always would be. At first Alice had found it amusing to watch these animated pieces play out their lives in deadly earnest, but a few years in Wonderland had made her more sympathetic to the local way of things. For her it might have been a game, but she’d seen how the pawns and rooks came back cracked and shattered, missing limbs and dripping black blood. She’d seen at least one White Queen beheaded, only to be replaced by courageous pawn who’d infiltrated the Red ranks. Similar atrocities doubtlessly took place in the Red Kingdom as well, but she had a hard time feeling sorry for anything red. There was still bad blood there, and Alice always played White.
The White Queen moved a few of the chess pieces on the board, calculating moves three or four rounds in advance, testing consequences and follow-throughs. She did this every day for hours on end, spending her life trying to out-guess her counterpart in the Red Kingdom. Finally she seemed satisified.
“Pawn to C5!”
The timbre of the command echoed throughout the room and somewhere, somehow, the rest of the kingdom would hear it. There was something magical in the words, as was so often the case in Wonderland: some special power of language that changed the reality it described. One lone pawn would soon move, take another, and likely be taken in return: a necessary sacrifice of war.
“Thank you, Alice,” the White Queen said. “Your advice has been quite valuable.”
Only because I know the rules, she thought to herself. Despite living in the game – or perhaps because of it – none of the Chessmen realized that their moves were restricted to simple geometrical patterns: straight lines, diagonals, a few steps or just one. To them it was life, and they fancied themselves as having free will as much as Alice fancied that she herself did. But if there were a giant hand above somewhere, moving her along a series of squares and circles, would she know it? Could she be merely a piece in a game, playing games with the pieces of her own small entertainments? Stranger things could happen – and had happened – in Wonderland. It was bad for one’s sanity.
Alice bowed low, taking the pleats of her blue dress and curtseying. “An honor, Your Majesty.”
“Dismissed. Rook, the doors!”
Dismissed, as always. No matter how many times she visited, no matter how many Queens she advised, nor how many wars came and went, it would always be the same. The Chessmen weren’t capable of altering their behavior any more than the Mad Hatter could choose to be sane. It was built into their nature, and as long as Wonderland lasted, it would always be the same. Alice would grow old and grey, and yet still the Queen would dismiss her in exactly the same tone, every time. Was it even possible to grow old here? She hadn’t thought about it.
The thick brick form of the rook slid forward, moving without legs, its face set in a perpetual glower. It was built like Titan, all muscles and brawn, dwarfing most other Chessmen in terms of sheer size. It glided up to the double doors which sealed the Royal Chamber and placed its hands on them, opening them both with a single, massive push.
“Thank you,” Alice told it as she walked past. It grunted in response. She’d never heard a rook talk.
Outside, the Ace of Spades was waiting for her. She was leaning against one of the huge white pillars with her arms folded across her chest and one leg bent at the knee, resting her foot against the stone. She arched an eyebrow at Alice as she exited and as the rook pulled the doors shut behind her.
“About bloody time.”
Most Cardsmen were flat, two-dimensional creatures, with rectangular bodies and heads the shape of their parent suits; only the Face Cards were anything resembling human. How human, exactly, varied on suit and value. The black suits were the most normal; the red suits the least; and the higher the card, the more typically Wonderland-warped they were. Aces were Face Cards in this world, and they were the most human on the bunch. Jokers were Face Cards as well, but their appearance and temperament tended to be… unstable.
“You didn’t have to wait for me,” Alice reminded her.
Ace shrugged and pushed herself away from the pillar. “Where would I go?”
It was a good question. There were no restaurants, no parks — the Chessmen didn’t eat and had no concept of leisure time. Of all the realms of Wonderland, the Chessboards were the most boring.
“I’d like to go back to our room,” Alice said. “I’m tired, and dreadfully hungry.”
“Is that all you ever do? Eat and sleep?”
“It’s a biological necessity,” Alice said, arching one eyebrow in challenge at the tone.
“You humans and your biology.” The Ace of Spades rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “It’s disgusting, you know, all those… things that you do.”
“Then it’s a good thing I do the most of them in private,” Alice answered with a small smirk.
“Most of them,” Ace agreed as they began to walk back to their chambers. “But eating – worse, chewing! How did humans ever come up with that?”
“It’s just necessary,” Alice stated again. “One can’t swallow one’s food without chewing.”
“You don’t chew water,” Ace pointed out.
“Water is a drink, not a food.”
“You don’t chew pudding.”
“How do you know, then, if you have to chew or not?”
“Trial and error, I suppose. One gets a feel for it after a while, honestly.”
Ace made a small sound of disbelief. “Strange.”
The guest chambers of the White Kingdom were Spartan and plain by most standards, although they’d been outfitted with beds and chairs as a concession to Alice’s frailer, fleshy form. Still, there were no windows; there was no heating, no warmth, no carpet, no flowers. What little furniture there was was crafted from bare stone. The rooms and everything in them were solid white. It wasn’t hard to imagine the same arrangement on the other side of the Chessboard, where doubtlessly everything was carved of red instead.
Alice sat on edge of the bed, derriere cushioned somewhat by the makeshift padding of cloth and down. The Ace of Spades sat across from her, also on the bed, with her legs crossed and leaning forward with interest. The object of her captivation was the bowl of chocolate pudding that Alice was now eating by dipping her finger in and then licking the cream off. A small carrot and a handful of edible mushrooms had served as the main course.
“That’s so strange,” Ace repeated, watching with fascination. “Your breath goes here—” she placed her hand to her own chest “—your food here, and your voice out of here.” Her hand went to her stomach and then her throat, indicating each area in turn. “Yet everything goes through your mouth. But you can’t eat breath or speak pudding.”
Humanity, in Wonderland, was rare. Worse, it was contagious. Creatures and beings that were around Alice too frequently or too long tended to change: flowers began to move on their own; animals began talking. Some did that anyways, of course, but animals that earlier talked now wore clothes; things that had worn clothes now engaged in drinking tea and playing croquet. Whether or not the changes were permanent was yet to be seen, but the fear that they were was the driving force behind the Queen of Hearts’ war against the small human girl. She didn’t so much hate Alice as much as love Wonderland – but for many who saw the encroach of humanity as a threat to their way of being, the latter implied the former.
The Ace of Spades had been one of Alice’s first real friends in Wonderland, and had traveled with her, officially as an ambassador and babysitter, for nearly six months now. She’d changed considerably in the time, both physically and mentally. As a Face Card, Ace had always been at least nominally human-ish: having a real face, a human figure, wearing clothes. But over time her two-dimensional figure had filled out into three; her skin had become soft and supple, although it remained a pale, off-white hue. Her hair had grown down almost to her shoulders and was the typical Spadish black, often covered by a loose black cap that she tugged down over her bangs. Even her clothing had been transformed by the infection: black denim pants instead of fancy hose, and a sleeveless white cotton shirt with a single Spade emblazoned on the chest. It looked, Alice thought, decidedly non-English.
For Ace, though, the internal changes were more disturbing, despite being fewer and slower in developing. She grew tired now, and had to sleep – something uninfected Cardsmen never did. She felt emotions now that had been foreign to her before. Her questions to Alice about it were frequent and charming in their innocence, stemming from a genuine fear and desire to know. Perhaps one day she would grow hungry, and have to learn the art of eating. What went in must come out, though, and Alice was not looking forward to that explanation, should it come.
“Would you like to try some?” Alice offered, holding out the bowl.
“Oh, no, no.” The Ace shook her head, warding off the strange utensil with her hands. “I wouldn’t even know how to start.”
“Just a bit.” Alice withdrew the bowl, dipped her finger back into the scant remaining chocolate, and held that forth instead. Perhaps not-so-much would be not-so-threatening, even though the bowl was nearly empty. “You’ll likely have to eat eventually, you know.”
“Eventually isn’t now,” Ace pointed out. “And what if I should breathe in pudding?”
“That’s impos—” She stopped and corrected herself. Nothing in Wonderland was impossible. “That’s very unlikely.”
The Ace eyed Alice’s finger warily, then slowly leaned forward and hesitantly took it between her lips.
“Don’t bite,” Alice added hastily as the Cardsman’s teeth met her skin. “One doesn’t chew pudding.”
Ace nodded, or tried to. Her tongue replaced the edge of her teeth as she gingerly sampled the thick, dark substance. Alice watched the curious expression on her face with a smile.
“And?” she asked as the other girl finally pulled away.
The Spade licked her lips experimentally. “Strange. Different. And that’s chocolate?”
Alice nodded. She scooped up another dollop with her finger. “A bit more?”
The Ace was less hesitant this time, now at least partially assured that it was safe. Her pale lips closed around Alice’s finger, followed by the soft warmth of her tongue. She suckled it, running her tongue over the tip, then pulled away with a smile.
“I think I like it!”
Alice bit her lip. The small spark of warmth that had just blossomed in her stomach made her think she liked it, too. “Ah—well, then, of course you can have the rest.”
The Spade reached out and took the bowl, running the tip of her finger around the inside, gathering up the last of the mixture, and then licking it off. After three attempts and three very small rewards, the bowl was completely empty.
“Sorry,” Alice said. “Next time you can have–”
The words were cut off abruptly as Ace leaned forward, cupping the human’s face in her hands, and kissed her full on the lips. Alice froze in shock. The Wonderland girl’s lips moved over hers with awkward softness, followed by the caress of her tongue. Where had the Cardsman learned to do that?
It was over as suddenly as it had begun. Ace pulled away and tugged her cap back down over her straight, black hair. She still wore her characteristic askew smile, but it seemed a bit less steady than normal. She licked her lips slowly. Alice watched the movement with stunned fascination.
“I– that tasted…” The Ace’s words trailed off. She bit her lip, looking at Alice with confusion in her dark eyes, and then leaned forward and kissed her human counterpart once more. It was less awkward this time, but more cautious. Alice felt the Ace’s lips smooth and warm against her own. It was softer than any kiss she’d ever had, not that she’d had many, and certainly none from another girl. The small warm feeling in her stomach started to tingle again and burst into a fire when the Ace pulled her closer and touched her tongue to Alice’s own.
When Ace pulled away the second time, her smile was completely gone. Her eyes were wide and dark, her pale skin flushed, her breath slightly quicker.
“You taste better than chocolate,” she murmurred.