January 20th, 18–
Mr. Dodgson was upstairs when they arrived at the hat shop. His face split into a wide grin as he saw the three. “Doc! How are you?” he said, going over to shake hands with the older man.
“Just fine, Richard,” Doc replied, beaming. “How have you been doing?”
“Oh, business could be better, but I came up with this fantastic idea for a hat that doubles as a house. Hello, Marty. And Master Van Dort, how nice to see you too.”
“Hello, Mr. Dodgson,” Victor said, shaking hands. It was rather odd to feel what was obviously wood and metal under the glove, but he did his best to ignore it. “It’s nice to see you again as well.”
“What brings you by?” Mr. Dodgson said, looking back at Doc. “Need a new hat? I’ve been thinking that you could really do well with a fedora--”
“Actually, we’re here to take tea,” Doc said, quickly cutting him off.
“Ah, Master Van Dort taking advantage of his invitation,” Mr. Dodgson said, grinning at the young man. “Well, the tea table is always open! Come, we’re just about ready.”
He led the way through the door in the back, down a flight of stairs, and through a small hallway that opened up into an enormous room. The walls here were just like the one at the back of the shop – white and covered with Mr. Dodgson’s small handwriting. The floor was a black and white checkerboard, the ceiling a mass of iron beams. Machinery was scattered all over in various states of completion, and various clocks decorated the walls. Some ran normally, while others moved to a rhythm all their own, hands twisting and turning with no apparent rhyme or reason. It reminded Victor a bit of E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services – no wonder Doc and Mr. Dodgson got along so well.
In the middle of the room was the tea table itself – an absurdly long, dark wooden table with lion’s feet and elaborate carvings along the side. It was piled high with a variety of cakes, biscuits, sandwiches, fruit, and other finger foods – anything one could possibly wish to eat at a tea party. There were also multiple teapots, ranging from a simple round yellow and white striped porcelain teapot to a large silver teapot on a multi-legged stand. Victor thought he saw a teapot shaped like a top hat mixed in with all the various cake stands and sugar bowls, which was only appropriate. The chairs around the table were a mix – no two seemed to be alike. A couple of them were already filled – Mr. Lewis Carroll sat in a purple wingback chair, the Cheshire Cat perched himself on a brown stool, Alice Liddell sat in a dining chair with a green-cushioned seat, a large white rabbit with a black waistcoat, a top hat, and a watch muttered nervously to himself while in a plush orange armchair (Victor guessed him to be the White Rabbit Alice had mentioned a few days before), and the March Hare was seated at the head of the table on a blue ottoman. He greeted the newcomers with launched sugar cubes. “You are late!”
Startled, Victor checked his watch. “I thought we were early,” he commented. “Doesn’t tea start at six?”
“You are late for yesterday’s tea, then,” the March Hare said stubbornly.
“Late, late, why is everyone and everything always late,” the rabbit muttered, nose twitching. “Time shall be so angry with us all. . . .”
“Sit down, sit down,” Mr. Dodgson said, gesturing to the free chairs with his cane. “Plenty of room.”
“So long as they want you here,” Alice said, giving the boys a smirk. “Otherwise there’s no room at all.”
“It’s our tea table, and we’ll decide how much room there is,” the March Hare declared. “As it is, I do believe we can seat our three guests. Come, pick chairs, before the tea grows cold.”
The boys hurried to do as they were told. Victor picked a comfy-looking blue armchair next to Alice, only to discover that it was already occupied by what appeared to be a large dormouse. The animal was curled up on the seat, fast asleep. “Er--”
“You can move Dormy, he won’t mind,” Alice said. “He probably won’t even notice. March and Richard have tried to fit him into some of the larger teapots before, and he’s never woken up.”
“You have to pinch his whiskers many times before he even stirs,” Mr. Carroll said, frowning down at the Dormouse. “It’s my fault, really – I’d forgotten dormice were nocturnal when I made him.”
Victor carefully slipped his hands under the sleeping Dormouse’s body and lifted him. The Dormouse murmured something in his sleep, but didn’t stir. As Victor carefully transferred him to the yellow-spotted chair next to the armchair, he noticed that the Dormouse’s tail was partially metal. “What happened to his tail?” he asked automatically.
Mr. Dodgson, sitting down on a green-cushioned chair with box-like legs, suddenly looked a bit awkward. “Dormy had a bit of an accident with one of my early hat-making devices,” he said, fiddling with the top of his cane. “I had to replace what got cut off.”
“Poor Dormy,” the March Hare added. “He just had to flip his tail to the left at that moment. He’s lucky he only lost three inches.”
Victor felt a wave of sympathy for the poor animal slumbering away, and gently petted him. “Poor Dormouse,” he agreed.
“Those sorts of things don’t happen often,” Mr. Dodgson continued, looking worried his guests would think he was some sort of careless idiot. “I’m generally much more careful in the lab. Wouldn’t do to have to rebuild one’s best friends.”
Victor nodded as he sank into his seat. “Of course not. Or one’s customers,” he said in what he hoped was an appropriately joking manner.
“Exactly! Now then, shall we start our tea?”
“We should have started ten seconds ago!” the rabbit cried, ears quivering as he checked his watch yet again. “Twelve now! No, thirteen!”
“Rabbit, must you always be so obsessed with the time?” Alice asked, leaning across the table.
“If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be Rabbit,” the Cheshire Cat commented, licking a paw. “Just a rabbit.”
“Sometimes I think I would prefer just being a rabbit,” the White Rabbit shot back. “Then at least I wouldn’t always be so aware of how late I am.”
“It’s sad, really,” Alice remarked to Victor in a whisper. “The White Rabbit is the fastest runner out of all the Fabricated animals Lewis has made. Yet he’s so constantly worried about the time that he always delays himself looking at his watch. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Well, if Rabbit says we ought to start our tea, then we ought to start our tea,” the March Hare declared. “Help yourselves, everyone, there’s plenty for all. Unless we run out.”
Everyone began loading up their plates and filling their cups. Victor was tempted to grab some of the tarts with bright red jam closest to him first, but forced himself to look down the table a bit to one of the trays of sandwiches. “May I ask what fillings those are?” he asked the March Hare.
“You may, no one’s stopping you,” the March Hare replied, buttering a scone.
Oh, that was right – Alice had told them they tended to be overly literal. “In that case, what are they?” Victor quickly followed up.
“Well,” the March Hare said, picking up the tray. “These are just bread and butter, these here are watercress, and these – oh, you would like these! Fish paste and lettuce!” He promptly tried to pile some on Victor’s plate. “I’m not sure what kind of fish, but you can tell us once you’ve had a taste, correct?”
Victor held up his hands against the incoming sandwiches. “Wait, please! I d-don’t want any fish!”
The assembled guests stopped and stared at him for a moment. “Don’t want any fish?” Mr. Carroll repeated. “What’s wrong with fish?”
“I just – I d-don’t care much for it,” Victor said. He knew he was probably being a bit rude, but he really didn’t want any of those sandwiches.
“But your family’s the fish people!” Marty protested, one eyebrow raised. “Your dad owns that cannery!”
“Yes. That’s – that’s actually sort of the problem.”
“I don’t get it.”
“My father’s owned that c-cannery since I was small,” Victor explained, feeling very awkward. “I’ve grown up around f-fish all my life. As in s-smelling it, seeing it, and most importantly, t-tasting it. You see, Father would o-often bring home some of w-whatever fish they’d gotten that day, and if w-we weren’t having company, we’d often have it for the main course. . . .”
Understanding dawned first in Doc’s eyes. “You’ve been eating fish almost every day for nineteen years, then?”
Victor nodded, glad to see that someone got it. “Any kind and every kind. I’ve had practically anything you can catch from saltwater and freshwater.” He paused, looked at the assembled company, and decided to risk it. “If I m-may be blunt – sometimes I felt like I’d kill for a steak.”
A ripple of laughter went through the room. “Well, I suppose that’s normal enough if you’ve been overexposed to something,” Doc agreed.
“No fish paste, then,” the March Hare said, putting the sandwiches back. “Have you anything against watercress?”
“Nothing at all,” Victor said, happily taking a couple of those. “I know I was being rude there, but--”
“Don’t worry, they can be much worse,” Alice said, taking a few sandwiches for herself.
“I am the epitome of the perfect host!” the March Hare began, then started staring at the spoon clutched in his paw. “Spoon.”
Victor somehow managed to choke down his laughter, turning it into a cough. “How have you all been, then?” he asked, picking up one of the teapots and pouring himself a cup.
“Just fine,” Mr. Carroll said, before biting into a scone. “Though I had to break up a fight between the Spades and the Diamonds before coming here. The Diamonds think the Spades are below them, you see, since the Spades do much of the gardening work for me.”
“I – assume you’re not talking about gemstones and shovels,” Victor said, a bit lost.
“Oh, no, no, I’m talking about the cards! The suits!”
“Oh! Yes, Alice mentioned you’d made living cards,” Victor recalled. “You have them work for you?”
“Yes, doing odd jobs to earn their keep,” Mr. Carroll confirmed. “The Spades do much of the gardening, as I said. The Clubs work as soldiers of a sort – you wouldn’t believe the undesirables that try to sneak in. I won’t begrudge anyone a warm place to stay the night, if that’s all they want, but so many of them want to steal something! The times I’ve caught people trying to dig up some of my flowers. . . .” Mr. Carroll’s eyes narrowed, and he took a vicious bite out of his scone. “Let them invent their own wonders,” he grumbled, voice dark and Creative.
“Don’t get upset, Lewis,” Mr. Dodgson said, adding a lump of sugar to his tea. He pulled a little vial out of his sleeve and added a silvery liquid to the cup as well. “This isn’t the sort of tea party we want people upset at.”
“Quite right,” Mr. Carroll nodded, perking up again. “So yes, Clubs are soldiers. Diamonds are courtiers – they act as my personal assistants around the house. And Hearts take care of Wonderland on a wider basis – they help me with my inventions, figure out the best places to place new plants and animals. . . .” He chuckles. “They joke that they’re the royal family of the realm. That Wonderland is more or less their kingdom.”
“You think they’d consider you their king,” Victor commented, adding sugar to his own tea.
“Oh, I think I’m a little higher up on the ranking to them,” Mr. Carroll said, a wicked gleam in his eye.
“Only to them,” the Cheshire Cat said, lapping at his cup of tea and earning himself a look from Mr. Carroll. “Don’t take it personally, cats don’t believe in gods in general.”
“That’s because you have such a high opinion of yourselves that you can’t imagine anything being better than you,” the White Rabbit claimed, nibbling on some carrot sticks that had been provided.
“Something like that, yes.”
“You have the oddest friends,” Victor remarked quietly to Alice.
“Says the young man who decided to stay in Secundus and work for a Touched after knowing him, what, five minutes?” Alice retorted with one of her trademark smirks.
“It was ten, at the least,” Victor replied with his own smirk.
“How have you been doing?” Mr. Dodgson asked, sipping his tea. “Has Master Van Dort been earning his keep?”
“Very much so,” Doc assured them, sampling a cupcake. “He’s a very eager worker.”
“Yeah – with his help, we finally got the pancake maker working,” Marty said, making Victor blush a little. “He’s actually got a bit of a knack for this stuff.”
“I don’t know why, mechanics has never been a particular interest of mine,” Victor said, trying one of the watercress sandwiches. It proved to be very tasty. “Though I am finding it rather fun now.”
“Ye-es,” Mr. Carroll said, regarding him thoughtfully. “You’re an entomologist, aren’t you? That excitement you displayed over my insects proves it.”
“It’s just a hobby with me,” Victor said, feeling a bit shy all of a sudden. How could he talk science with these people? Three of them were certified geniuses, and the others had been living with their Inventions (or else were their Inventions) for some time. His own small forays into the world of insect studying must seem absolutely trivial to them. “S-stemmed from a boyhood love of b-butterflies.”
“Why butterflies?” the White Rabbit asked.
“Excuse me? Er, I mean, what do you mean by that?” he hastily corrected himself as the White Rabbit started to speak again.
“You should say what you mean first off,” Mr. Dodgson said, draining his cup. “And don’t try to confuse me with this ‘mean what you say’ business. I know it isn’t the same thing at all.” Suddenly standing, he added, “All right, I want a clean cup! Everyone move down!”
“What?” Victor said, looking around in utter bafflement as everyone stood up.
“Just go with it,” Marty said, picking up the slumbering Dormouse.
“Clean cup, move down!” the March Hare added, glaring at him.
Still absolutely baffled, Victor slowly got to his feet and moved into the yellow chair the Dormouse had recently vacated. Everyone else moved down one as well. “I mean, what is so special about butterflies?” the White Rabbit said, settling himself into his new seat. “They’re lazy little creatures. Never care about the time at all.”
Victor frowned at that, slightly annoyed. “I’ve always found them to be beautiful,” he said, absently lifting his new cup to his lips. “And I admire their ability to fly. I’ve always wanted to do that. . . .”
“Well, you have now, haven’t you?” the Cheshire Cat commented. “One cannot claim dangling from a steam train that’s miles up in the air as anything but some sort of flight.”
“It’s not the same as butterfly flight, though,” Victor said, biting his lower lip for a moment as he remembered his ride. Goodness, had it only been a week ago? It felt like months, with all that had happened. “Flying via rope ladder under a steam train is rather less pleasant.”
“You should have yelled or something,” Marty said. “We would have let you up.”
“I was far too frightened,” Victor said, sipping the tea. He made a face as he realized the Dormouse’s tea hadn’t been sweetened at all. (Who on earth had poured the Dormouse tea anyway? The dear animal wasn’t even awake to enjoy it.) Hurriedly adding sugar to his new cup, he continued, “And my ankle was still caught in the rope. I’m a-actually fortunate in that I w-was able to avoid making the trip upside-down.”
“I don’t think you could have made the trip like that,” Mr. Dodgson said thoughtfully, adding more of the silver liquid to his new teacup. “More likely your leg would have been ripped off and you would have plummeted to the ground.”
Victor suddenly found himself rather off his food. “Y-yes, that’s true,” he said softly, putting down his cup.
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about legs being ripped off while people are eating?” Marty suggested, looking a little ill.
“What should we talk about then?”
“I move that someone should tell a story,” the March Hare said. “Someone wake Dormy – perhaps he’ll finally finish his tale of the three little girls in the well.”
“It’s been years,” Alice said. “I doubt he remembers the ending now. If there ever was one in the first place.
“You never know until you ask.” The March Hare jumped onto the table and made his way over to the Dormouse, upsetting various plates and sending food all over the place. “Wake up, Dormy!” he cried, pouring hot tea on the Dormouse’s nose.
The Dormouse stirred, then opened his eyes with a yawn. “I heard everything you said,” he declared, then looked up at Victor. “Who’s this then?”
“This is Master Van Dort,” the March Hare said with a sweeping gesture. “He’s new to the city.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Victor said, doing his best to be polite.
The Dormouse nodded with another yawn. “You’re very pale,” he commented. “Are you a ghost?”
“No, flesh and blood – and bone,” Victor added, giving the March Hare a sideways glance. “I’m just naturally like this, I’m afraid.”
“Just like you’re naturally always asleep,” Mr. Dodgson said.
“I did hear everything you said,” the Dormouse insisted, blinking his eyes blearily.
“Of course you did,” Alice said ingratiatingly.
“Tell us a story, Dormy!” the March Hare said, finally returning to his seat. “And do be quick about it, or you’ll be asleep again before it’s over.”
“Once upon a time, there were three girls named Lacie, Elsie, and Tillie,” the Dormouse began. “And they lived in a well.”
“Why did they live in a well?” Victor couldn’t help asking.
“Because they were well in,” the Dormouse replied, as it that made all the sense in the world. And quite possibly it did, to him. “And they lived on treacle.”
“It’s a treacle well, you see,” Mr. Carroll provided. “I’ve been trying to make one for Wonderland. I’ve gotten the well part settled properly, but I can’t actually get any out. The bucket keeps getting stuck.”
“If you already know the story, why – yawn – are you asking me to tell it?” the Dormouse asked, a little sulkily.
“Because you only get as far as the little girls learning to draw everything that begins with an M, and then you fall asleep,” Alice said. “We’re hoping at some point to hear what happens to them afterward.”
“They drew everything that began with an M,” the Dormouse nodded, rubbing his eyes. “The moon, and mouse-traps, and memory, and – yaaawn – muchness. . .and. . . .”
The Dormouse, who had appeared to be on the point of dozing off again, sat up, blinking in surprise. “What?”
“Not what, marmalade,” the March Hare said, looking in surprise at Victor. “What doesn’t start with an M.”
Victor fiddled with his tie, feeling a bit uncomfortable at the staring. “I – I’m s-sorry if it wasn’t permissible to join in--”
“Monkeys,” Alice said, saving him from further embarrassment.
“Mandolins,” Marty added, smiling.
“May,” Doc suggested.
“March!” the March Hare said promptly, waving his cup.
“Multitudes,” the White Rabbit suggested.
“Marriage,” Mr. Carroll said, taking a tart.
“Melancholy,” the Cheshire Cat said, his tail flicking from side to side.
“Madness,” Mr. Dodgson smirked.
“Yes, all of those things and more,” the Dormouse said, temporarily energized by the interest in his tale. “They drew and drew, and the paper filled the well until they were at the top and could climb out. And now they were well out.” His eyelids began to droop again. “So they chose to draw things starting with the letter W.”
“Why W?” Marty asked.
“Because it’s the opposite of what they were doing at the bottom of the well.”
“M upside-down,” Victor murmured, with a little smile. “So they drew things like – waistcoats?”
“And whales, and – yawn – wimples,” the Dormouse nodded, leaning back in his chair. “And windows, and. . .wishes. . . .”
And just like that, he was out again. There was a very soft round of applause. “About time we learned what happened to those girls,” Mr. Dodgson commented. “Thank you very much for the help, Victor.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Victor said, then registered that he wasn’t being called “Master Van Dort” anymore. He blinked, startled. Had he just – he looked back at Mr. Dodgson. Mr. Dodgson just smiled and nodded. Victor smiled back. “Very welcome – Richard.”
Richard grinned, then got to his feet again. “Clean cup! Move down!”
This time Victor was prepared, and helped move Dormy to the next seat down. He was much more forgiving of this move than the last as well – the plate at what had once been Marty’s seat happened to be piled high with sweets of all sorts. Victor picked up one of the tarts. “Is this strawberry or raspberry?” he asked, curious. He planned to eat it either way, he just wanted to be sure of the taste he would be receiving.
“Neither – it’s squimberry,” March said, grabbing more carrots for himself.
“One of mine,” Mr. Carroll said proudly. “Bright red berries just as big as a marble. Go ahead and try it.”
Victor, his curiosity piqued, bit into the tart. The flavor that spread across his tongue in response was incredible – like all the best parts of strawberries, blueberries, and apples, with just a touch of extra sweetness. Paired with the deliciously light tart, it was almost more than his tastebuds could handle. He had no idea how he kept himself from just shoving the rest of the tart into his mouth. “Oooohhh. . . .”
“Good, isn’t it?” Mr. Carroll grinned.
“It’s – I don’t even know how to describe it.” Victor polished it off as quick as he could while still being at least nominally polite. “You should work with Mr. Wonka.”
“Oh, I’ve sent him a sample,” Mr. Carroll said, rolling his eyes and leaning one elbow on the table. “He says it’s wonderful, but he refuses to accept outside influences. Silly man.”
“He’s just worried about more spies,” Doc said, taking a scone and slathering it with jam. “You know they nearly ruined him before.”
“Yes, but now that he’s gotten that workforce from darkest Africa or South America or wherever he located them, he should be fine! No one’s actually been inside the factory for years!”
“The average man considers paranoia a mental illness,” Cheshire said, taking some of the cold meat from its tray. “The wise man considers it a survival trait.”
“And his being a Touched can’t help,” Doc agreed. “I think some of us understand the more anti-social tendencies of that mind.”
Victor looked between the three Touched at the table, then back at Doc with one eyebrow lifted. “Yes, I know I’m saying this at a tea party, but it’s true. We’re not exactly known for our social skills.”
“That’s true enough,” Victor allowed. “Is that another thing that most often happens to Severely Touched?”
“Oh yes,” Doc said, taking a big bite out of his scone. “The more Creative you are, the worse you are at socializing with Regulars, or so the common trend seems to go.”
“More information courtesy of Mistress Narbon,” Mr. Carroll – Lewis – noted. “She’s making her career out of studying the Touched mind. It’s slightly disconcerting at times. You read her reports, and you keep wondering if she snuck into your house in the middle of the night and did experiments on you.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her if she was really determined,” Doc noted, apparently unaware he was threatening to give Victor nightmares. “Though that sort of behavior is really more suited to Doctor Narbon.”
“May she remain dead for some years hence,” Richard said quickly, taking a few nervous gulps of tea.
“Do I want to know?” Victor asked, half-sure he really didn’t.
“Doctor Narbon is basically every horror story you’ve ever heard about a Touched given life,” Doc said seriously. “The woman is very seriously disturbed. Nothing is too extreme for her when it comes to her experiments. And no matter how many times angry villagers tear her apart, she always seems to come back.”
“Mistress Narbon is her daughter,” Lewis said, swirling his tea in his cup. “Though the younger Helen Narbon is nowhere near as bad as her mother. She proclaims to be evil herself, but her experiments never seem to cause the havoc Doctor Narbon’s do.”
“Doctor Narbon’s been missing for a few years now, and trust us, we’re all glad of the quiet,” Doc continued. “The older Helen Narbon is not someone you would want within five miles of you. Not to mention she’d probably ignore the number one rule of Secundus.”
“I was u-unfamiliar with the fact Secundus had rules at all,” Victor said, a little surprised.
“We have laws, but people bend them all the time,” Marty commented. “Except for the one big one. Secundus is neutral ground.”
“Neutral ground? What exactly does that mean?”
“There’s no getting around the fact that some Touched will fight,” Doc explained, gesturing with his half-eaten scone for emphasis. “Little personal squabbles aren’t covered by that. The rule is for those morons who decide that they want to take over Secundus. It’s happened before – some Touched, or sometimes even a Regular, will get an overinflated ego and decide that the city would work better if they conquered it.”
“None of the rest of us will stand for it,” Richard said, banging on the table for emphasis. “We like having a place we can call our own. You let any one person take over like that, and soon we’ll start being exiled from our own city!”
“Hear hear!” March cried, raising his cup in a toast.
“So – what do you do if someone does try such an act?” Victor asked slowly.
“Most of them back down the instant they see every Touched and Igor in the city going for their weapons,” Alice said with a dangerous smirk.
“Yes – it may be hard for Touched to collaborate sometimes, but when it comes to keeping our city safe and free, there’s no stopping us,” Doc said, with a slightly unbalanced smile of his own.
Victor thought about that for a moment. “But – but surely the city must have some form of government,” he said, sipping his tea (this one was adequately sweetened, he was pleased to discover).
“Yes, but it’s a democratically elected mayor,” Doc said. “Some Touched make candidates of their own, admittedly, but popular vote is what decides who makes the laws. It seems to work.”
“It works well enough,” Richard said. “I’d rather have a pompous mayor complaining about the steam coming from my roof than some idiot with a giant monster smashing the roof in and ruining all my hats.” He eyed the bottom of his teacup. “Clean cup, move down!”
Victor reluctantly surrendered his seat to Alice. “Why do you keep having us change seats?” he couldn’t help asking.
“Well, it’s the only way to manage everything getting used up,” Richard claimed, flavoring his latest cup of tea with the silver liquid.
“But what happens when you come back around to the beginning?”
“Never gotten that far yet,” March said cheerfully. “Something always comes up.”
“Of course it does,” Rabbit said despondently. “Otherwise you might be early to your party for a change. Time does hate people being early.”
“Well, of course he does,” Richard said. “Being early generally means you have to wait, and thus you have to waste him, and he does hate that.” He took a sip of tea, frowned, then added more silver. Another sip yielded a smile. “Ahh, much better.”
“What is that you’re using?” Victor asked, unable to quell his curiosity any longer.
“Mercury,” Richard replied with a grin. “Helps keep everything inside running smoothly. I also like a bit of arsenic or belladonna if I can get it. Gives it a real kick.”
“I’ll, ah, take your word for it,” Victor said slowly.
“Yes, yes, I know, you’re all organic, inside and out,” Richard said. “It’s a shame, really. You miss out on so many interesting flavors.”
“I’m quite content with the likes of Wonka chocolate and squimberry, thank you,” Victor replied with a tiny smile.
“As long as you’re happy,” Richard nodded. “And since I can tell you’re quite eager to know, yes, this was intentional.”
“I – what?”
Richard waved a hand up and down his body. “This. All clockwork and gears and wood and metal and mercury and oil. I meant to do it to myself. My old body wasn’t up to the task of running a hatting business. The mercury was playing havoc with my organs. So I thought it easier to replace them.” He chuckled. “Of course, it wasn’t until I’d replaced nearly everything that I came up with the idea of using machines to do the actual hat-making work.”
Victor was astonished at how casual Richard was being about the idea of replacing his own body with wood and clockwork mechanisms. Then again, he is Touched. . . . “I – er – ‘I’m very sorry’ somehow d-doesn’t seem quite right to say,” he admitted awkwardly.
“Don’t be sorry – it’s hardly your fault hatting can make one sick. And I knew what I was doing. Or at least I thought I knew. It worked, and that’s the main thing. Now, do you have any idea why a raven is like a writing desk?”
“I – I think you’ve already asked me that.”
“No, I asked you why a raven is like a writing desk before. Now I’m asking if you have any idea why.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Why are you afraid of not having the answer?” March asked. “Do you believe we’ll descend upon you and rip you to pieces for not knowing?”
“Perhaps he’s afraid that not having the answer will force him to look it up and make him late,” Rabbit suggested.
“It is my opinion that our dear Master Van Dort thinks he is secretly afraid of everything,” Cheshire said with a lazy smile.
“Oh, come on,” Marty said disbelievingly. “The guy hangs onto the bottom of our train all the way into Secundus and then decides to live with us rather than run screaming back home? That’s gotta qualify as brave.” Victor felt a small swell of embarrassed pride – he couldn’t recall anyone calling him brave before.
“You didn’t listen. I said Master Van Dort thinks he is secretly afraid of everything. It is my opinion that Victor is in fact as mad as any of us and mistook his discomfort around those oppressively normal as fear.”
Victor opened his mouth to protest – though he wasn’t sure why, being thought of as mad appeared to be helping his social life immensely – then paused. “I can think of nothing to say in reply that doesn’t sound like an insult to myself,” he confessed.
“Then don’t and take it as the compliment it is,” Cheshire said, idly pawing at one of the forks.
“He’s right,” Lewis agreed, with a slightly crooked smile. “You need to be a little mad to see the world properly. Nothing wrong with it in small doses. Or large doses, come to think of it.”
“That depends on what kind of madness it is, and whether or not you can master it,” Alice said, looking down at her plate with sudden somberness.
Lewis looked stricken. “Oh, dear Alice, I didn’t mean – you know I didn’t – see, Dr. Brown was right, lack of social skills,” he babbled.
“No, it’s all right,” Alice said, fiddling with a piece of bread. “I know you didn’t mean the madness of the asylum.” She glanced over at Victor, looking a bit nervous. “I really am better. I may be a bit off, but – not like that, anymore.”
“I believe you,” Victor said, not wanting her to be ill at ease.
“You do? Most people don’t. According to them, being in Rutledge is something you never really recover from.” Alice picked up her butter knife and looked at her reflection in it. “Perhaps they’re right.”
Victor debated with what he wanted to say next. Finally, he went ahead and took the plunge. “Perhaps t-they should be w-wondering why the asylum admitted a s-seven year old.”
Alice looked up from her knife, blinking. “What do you mean?”
“I – do f-forgive me if this is r-rude or forward, but – why would R-Rutledge, or any other a-asylum, admit a child into bedlam?”
Alice frowned in a way that said she had never thought of that particular question before. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Perhaps they didn’t know what to do with me – I was catatonic. And Rutledge did have other children. Maybe going mad as a child isn’t as uncommon as you might think.”
“I still don’t think it’s right,” Victor said, poking at the sandwich on his latest plate.
“They were very nice to me in there – from what little I recall of the real world,” Alice said, tapping one foot beneath her seat. “Dr. Wilson was always there to watch over me, and so was Nurse Darling.” She abruptly scowled. “The only complaint I had there was with the superintendent’s two nephews.”
“Really? That was your only complaint?” Rabbit asked, sounding baffled. “Not being in there in the first place?”
“I think being in there in the first place falls under a different category when it comes to complaining,” Alice replied.
“What about the superintendent’s two nephews?” Victor asked, sure he wasn’t going to like the story but wanting to hear it anyway.
“They worked as orderlies there, and they seemed to take all their pleasure from teasing and tormenting the patients,” Alice said, eyes hard. “They tried to provoke a response out of me dozens of times, I’ve heard. Threatening me with leather straps and the like.”
“Oh, she paid them back,” Cheshire said, teeth gleaming. “The one time they did get a response, they quickly regretted it.”
“They were spooning my gruel all over my toy bunny,” Alice explained, looking just a touch embarrassed. “I took offense and attacked them with the spoon. Caused a permanent scar to the older one’s cheek.”
“With a spoon?” Victor wasn’t sure if he was frightened or impressed.
Alice lowered her eyes slightly. “You’d be surprised at how effective they can be at causing harm,” she said softly, rubbing her wrists.
Victor almost asked, then decided he knew enough. He watched her for a moment. She seemed an entirely different person every time she talked about the asylum. Someone who was infinitely sadder, and who looked like she felt quite alone in the world. “You have my deepest sympathies,” he said slowly. “It’s – it’s terrible, what h-happened to you.”
“I know,” Alice said, giving him a tiny smile. “Thank you.”
“I think we’ve spent enough time on this particularly depressing subject,” Richard declared, holding up a point-making finger. “I vote that we all take a clean cup in hopes it will improve the conversation.”
Victor had a sudden idea as they all rose to change places again. “Wait a moment – why don’t we try the other way? Just for a change?”
“Oh, that sounds amusing! All right then, clockwise everyone!” Everyone shifted back a place, most of them looking a bit puzzled. “Now then – hey, wait a moment!”
Both Marty and Alice burst into laughter. “Did you just pull a fast one on him?” Marty asked between snickers.
“If that means the same as playing a trick,” Victor said, cheerfully sitting back down in front of the plate of sweets.
“You are most definitely one of us,” Alice giggled.
Richard sulked a bit, slumped in his chair. “I don’t see what’s so funny about it,” he muttered. “Now I have to use a dirty cup.”
“It won’t kill you,” Doc told him, sounding like a father scolding his son. “Besides, none of us can use your teacups after you’re through with them. Not without risking mercury poisoning anyway.”
“You pull these sorts of tricks on me all the time,” Alice agreed, still chuckling. “Turn about is fair play.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with this. Did you?” Richard added, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Have you been planning with Victor behind our backs?” March added, picking up a roll and readying it for launch.
“I think she would have been too distracted with having staring contests with him,” Cheshire commented, looking deeply amused by everything.
“Staring contests?” Rabbit repeated, tilting his head and looking at the two of them. “How is that any way to pass the time?”
“Ignore him,” Alice said, giving Cheshire a bit of a look. The cat ignored her, as any cat would do. “And no, we haven’t been secretly planning how to trick you into going in the opposite direction. I didn’t have the slightest thing to do with his little prank.”
“I am sorry I upset you,” Victor said, feeling a stab of guilt. This was why he usually didn’t try to joke around with others – he was so afraid of offending them. “I j-just thought it would be funny.”
“And let you eat all those tarts and cupcakes I picked out,” Marty said with a smirk.
“A very nice bonus, to be sure,” Victor admitted, blushing and fiddling just a bit with his tie. “And I t-thought it m-might cheer Alice up as well.”
Richard finally sat up straight again. “That at least is a noble cause,” he allowed. “After such gloomy talk.”
“It helped a lot,” Alice assured him, smiling one of her genuine smiles.
Victor found himself blushing harder. “I’m glad. I like seeing you smile. Er, I l-like seeing anyone smile, but you have a p-particularly nice one--” Oh, damn, he was starting to fall apart again. He quickly filled his mouth with cupcake to stop it from speaking.
Alice looked simultaneously pleased and embarrassed. “Well – thank you,” she said, quickly picking up her cup of tea. “Yours is quite pleasant too, if we’re giving those sorts of compliments.”
Victor swallowed his bit of cake. “Oh. Ah – thank you.”
“You guys are really hitting it off, aren’t you?” Marty noted with a little grin. “When I first met you, Alice, I was half-certain you didn’t like anybody.”
“It very much depends on the person,” Alice said, sipping her tea. “It’s very hard not to like someone who, upon hearing you were committed after your parents died, immediately expresses his sympathy for their death.”
Victor nearly choked on his second bite of cupcake. “Wait – people don’t say that?” he demanded, shocked.
“Some people do,” Alice said. “But the vast majority act as if I’m going to cut them open and eat their livers with fava beans and a nice glass of wine.”
Victor couldn’t help his eyes flicking to the Vorpal Blade. Alice noticed the motion and looked down at it. “Yes, I suppose that doesn’t help,” she admitted with a sigh. “But I swear to you, I’ve never raised it against another human.”
“We can vouch for her,” Lewis said, frowning at Victor. “Alice is merely excellent at killing monsters, not people.”
“And we’ve had hours of fun designing her weapons,” Richard said with a particularly Creative grin.
“There’s more than just the Vorpal Blade?” Victor said.
“Oh yes! There’s the Cards, the Jacks, the Jackbomb, the Ice Wand, the Croquet Mallet. . . .” Richard listed off on his fingers.
“The Vorpal Blade is the only one I carry with me regularly,” Alice said, looking embarrassed again. “I only take the others if I’m expecting trouble.”
“Or if you want to play a particularly dangerous game of Solitaire,” Cheshire added, lapping up more tea.
“I’ve given that up, I kept cutting my fingers on the edges of the cards,” Alice admitted. “They are excellent for building card houses, though.”
Victor looked at her for a long moment. “You are just so different from the young women back home,” he said, picking up a tart. Then he smiled. “I think I like it.”
“Really?” Alice said, sounding a bit disbelieving. “Weapons and all?”
“Weapons and all,” Victor said, amazed at himself. He was learning all sorts of odd things about his personality these days. Such as the fact that he apparently adapted very well to living with mad people. “You’re so much more – vital than most of them. It’s – it’s refreshing.”
“You mean I don’t spend my days talking about clothes and doing samplers, I’m assuming,” Alice said, smirking. “That would be a change of pace.”
“Most of them actually talked about dancing, but perhaps that’s because I really only ever talked to them at parties,” Victor confessed. “I d-don’t think I’ve spoken this openly with a girl – with anyone, really,” he amended, looking around, “in years.”
“We’re glad to provide such excellent conversation,” March said, throwing his roll at the Dormouse. It bounced off without Dormy noticing.
“I think you’re right, Cheshire,” Marty said. “He belongs here with the rest of us crazies.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m a cat.”
“You’re a pompous old tom who takes delight in confusing people,” Alice said, though in loving tones.
“That also comes with being one of my species, I believe,” Cheshire replied, unoffended.
“I think it’s time for a fresh cup of tea and some riddles,” Richard announced, getting up. “Everyone should move down two places to make up for the one we lost – and if you really must have that plate, Victor, I suppose you may take it--”
There was the sound of a door opening from upstairs. “Hello?” an unfamiliar voice called.
“Customer!” Richard dashed out of the room and up the stairs.
Victor watched him go, then looked at the others. “Do we wait, or is this where the tea parties usually end?”
“Fork!” March declared.
“No, that’s a spoon,” Alice said. “And yes, we do generally stop here. Though you can finish your food first.” Jokingly, she added, “It’ll save your employer the bother of feeding you later.”
“No it won’t,” Doc said good-naturedly. “This young man has some sort of black hole for a stomach.” March suddenly looked nervous and scooted his chair away from Victor. “Metaphorically speaking, March.”
“You’re all welcome to share the cupcakes,” Victor said, pushing the pastry-laden plate closer to the middle. “But if no one minds, I’ll be taking a few of the squimberry tarts home.”
“Take all you want – we can always make more,” Lewis said, snagging a cupcake. “It’s a joy to see them so liked.” He paused, as if just thinking of something. “And if no one has done so yet, allow me to be the first to truly welcome you to Secundus.”
Victor smiled at him. “Thank you, Lewis,” he said. “I’m truly glad to be here.”