February 27th, 18–
Things weren’t quite working out the way Lewis had hoped.
The girl, who’d taken the name “Susie” (“Not Susan,” she’d said emphatically when he’d commented, “Susie.”), was much different than he’d thought she would be. Of course, he’d been expecting a full-on clone of Alice. Someone who was sarcastic, a bit brash, occasionally rude, occasionally almost nasty, but with a soft heart of gold. (One might argue that that didn’t make sense, but Lewis would simply point out that gold was fairly soft for a metal.) Susie, on the other hand. . .well, it was like she’d gotten all the negative bits and none of the positive ones. She was rude, arrogant, demanding, and prone to throwing fits if she didn’t get her way. Rather violent fits – Lewis had already had to replace a good portion of his glassware. She seemed to see him as a plaything, a subject of hers, rather than an equal and potential partner.
Still, Lewis wasn’t going to give up hope. Susie was still very new to the world, after all. Perhaps she was just going through a version of the “terrible twos” he’d heard the parents of toddlers talking about. (Generally while they were explaining to him why said toddler had tried to yank some of the talking flowers out of the ground, or had thrown a fit when they couldn’t bring “kitty” home with them.) Surely she’d calm down a little once she’d acclimatized herself more. And no matter what happened, she was his responsibility. He owed it to her to give her the nicest life possible. Maybe I could at least convince her to take out her frustrations on the Jabberspawn? Make life a little easier for Alice?
“Lewis!” Susie’s voice cut through the air of the lab. “The cards are refusing to let me play with them again!”
Lewis shook his head and got up from his seat. “Perhaps they don’t feel like being played with right now,” he said as he joined her by the fireside, where the cards were frowning up at the red-haired, red-eyed girl.
“They should feel it an honor to be played with by me,” Susie said, voice cold. “Perhaps I should name myself their queen. I rather like the title ‘Queen.’”
“They’ve got a queen – four of them,” Lewis said. “But if you want, we could name you queen of something else.”
“I want to be their queen. And the queen of the Chess people. I want them to be my loyal subjects and crush my enemies.”
“You haven’t any enemies.”
“That rose said some very cruel things to me the other day.”
“She says things like that to everyone. And that’s still only one.”
“Then get me some more! I want enemies to crush!”
Lewis couldn’t help an amused grin. For all her faults, Susie was sometimes fun to be around. Mad as the rest of them – and I love her simply for that, he thought. “Well, there are the Jabberspawn. . . .”
“You know, when I rushed out the door this morning, I didn’t see the point in Aunt Susan telling me to take the hairbrush.”
“Well, Richard doesn’t usually care about the state of my hair, and we’ve had a rush of orders lately, so I didn’t think I’d get the chance to brush it.”
“You still haven’t,” March pointed out, watching them as he nibbled on a scone.
“Haven’t, haven, shaven,” Dormy mumbled drowsily by his side.
Alice laughed. “No, I guess I haven’t,” she agreed. “Having fun back there, Victor?”
“Oh, yes,” Victor said cheerfully, running the brush through her dark locks again. “You have such beautiful hair. . . .”
“I think you like it a little more than is natural,” Alice teased. “Not that I’m complaining about having a personal grooming assistant.”
Victor blushed. “I can’t help it. I’ve always favored long hair on women.” He took a moment to run his fingers through the shining strands. “I’m glad you don’t wear yours up in a bun.”
“Doesn’t suit me,” Alice said. “I know, because Aunt Susan tried it one day. You seemed to like the ponytail, though.”
“It did suit your--”
The door suddenly burst open, causing Victor to drop the hairbrush on his foot. “Fire! Plague! Breakfast!” Dormy yelled, startled into temporary wakefulness. “The pancakes are on the attack!”
“It’s far worse than that!”
“Victoria?” Victor gasped, astonished. His friend was looking rather disheveled, hair flying out of her bun and skirts muddied. “Goodness, we haven’t seen you in days! What is it?”
“Yes, what has got you in this state?” Alice agreed, staring. “You look like me after a bad day.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where else to turn! I had to go out the window to escape!”
“Go out the – your parents have been keeping you locked up?!”
“They said it was for my own good,” Victoria said, looking near tears. “And today they – they – I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“Neither do we,” March said, frowning.
“Calm down, Victoria, what’s happened?” Victor said, pulling out his handkerchief in case it was needed.
There was a moment of confused silence. “I’m sorry, but what?” Victor asked, baffled.
“They’re marrying me off! Again! And this time, it’s not someone I can even hope to like!”
“Oh, they actually let you meet the fellow this time?” Alice said, just a bit sarcastically.
“I didn’t have a choice – he was there when Hildegarde brought me back the first time. And he is horrible! Arrogant, selfish, sharp-tongued, and all-around mean! But he can be charming when he wishes to be, and he convinced my parents that. . . .” Victoria shook her head wildly. “I don’t want to be Lady Bittern! I’m in love with Christopher!”
“Lady Bittern?” Victor repeated, a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Yes! Do you know the name?”
Victor put his face in his hand. “I met Lord Bittern on the street shortly before I came to the hat shop that day. I’m the one who told him where your parents were.”
“Victor! How could you?” Victoria demanded, wringing her hands.
“I didn’t know! I thought he merely wanted to make an acquaintance, not demand your hand in marriage!”
“Oh, I know it’s not your fault, it’s just--” Victoria put her face in her hands. “I’m so mixed up! I love Christopher, and I so desperately want to stay here, and yet I feel terrible for disobeying my parents – but I just can’t marry Lord Bittern!”
“Nobody can make you marry anybody,” Alice said, coming around the counter to try and comfort her friend. “Your parents can’t really force you into a wedding.”
“Oh yes they can. I told you I had to go out the window to come here. Once they find me, they’ll probably take me straight to the nearest church.” Victoria sniffled. “What a day. . . .”
“Victoria, I’m so sorry,” Victor said, going over and putting a hand on her shoulder. “There must be something we can do.”
“Distract them with scones and smuggle Miss Everglot out,” March said promptly.
“Throw them down a treacle well,” Dormy suggested with a yawn.
“I’d rather not drown my parents in molasses,” Victoria said, looking a little disturbed.
“Wouldn’t drown – they would just get stuck. Then you could marry Christopher at your leisure.”
“It’s a thought,” Alice said. “We distract them long enough for you to find him and get to the First Church of Steam. . . .”
Victoria shook her head. “Oh, I don’t know if I could do it. It probably sounds silly to you, but I’ve been dreaming about my wedding day since I was small. What amounts to an elopement without even a proper dress. . . . And don’t we need witnesses? And a ring?”
“I believe the Lady Heterodyne was once proposed to with a brass gas line connector,” Alice said. “Christopher probably has something similar in one of his pockets.”
Victoria let out a laugh that seemed to end as more of a sob. “Oh, if only things were that simple. . . .”
Victor nearly jumped out of his skin. All eyes turned toward the door, and the imposing figure of Maudeline Everglot. Finis Everglot was by her side, glaring at everyone with his small, toadlike eyes. “How dare you leave your room! And to come to a place like – like this, no less! How can you stand to associate with people such as these?”
“Why hello, would you like some pastry?” March said, obviously hoping to smooth things over quickly.
“I am touching nothing made by the likes of you,” Maudeline replied, barely even glancing at March.
“It’s very good pastry,” March said, undeterred. “You don’t know it was made by me.”
Finis glowered at him. “Rabbits are for shooting, not for lounging about in hat shops with pastry,” he snapped.
March bristled. “I am a hare, good sir,” he said, putting his nose in the air. “A quite different animal, I assure you.”
“I don’t think it makes any difference to my musket.”
“Father, please!” Victoria pleaded. “The March Hare’s only trying to be friendly.”
“Good Lord, you know its name? This place is addling your mind.”
“Quite,” Maudeline said. “All the more reason to get you home and married to Lord Bittern.”
“But Mother, Father, I do not love him!” Victoria said, wringing her hands. “You cannot make me do this!”
“Really, now, am I such a horrible choice?”
Another man walked out from behind Maudeline. Victor recognized him instantly as the man he’d met on the street before. Lord Bittern smirked at the group. “It’s certainly better than the son of a fishmonger, isn’t it?” he continued. “Were you really so eager to take up a deboning knife?”
“Victor is a kind and gentle man, and if he hadn’t fallen in love with someone else, I would have been glad to marry him,” Victoria said. “As it is, he has his own love, and I have mine.”
“What you have is a delusion,” Maudeline said coldly. “I don’t care how famous Sir Lloyd is. I am not having a Touched for a son-in-law.”
“Of course not,” Finis agreed. “The shame would be unbelievable.”
“Sir Christopher’s a hero! I do believe that his reputation would at least balance out his tendencies toward mad science, if not eliminate them entirely,” Alice said.
“We have got to get you out of this city before you end up as horribly warped as Master Van Dort,” Maudeline continued, ignoring Alice entirely. “To think we arranged a marriage with an Igor. . . .”
“It is a shame, isn’t it?” Lord Bittern agreed, voice oily. “A young man like that, throwing his life away over perverted science, tossing poor Victoria to the side like so much chattel. . .as I told you before, if I had a woman like your daughter on my arm, I would lavish her with riches befitting royalty.”
“It’s not perverted science!” Victoria said, frowning. “And Victor’s a perfectly nice young man.”
“Oh? You say this after he so cruelly rejected you?”
“He wasn’t cruel about it in the least!”
“Sir,” Victor started, not sure why he was trying to intervene but feeling he should do so for Victoria’s sake at least.
Lord Bittern gave him a look. “Oh, you again. Why am I not surprised to see the likes of you in a place like this?”
“Exactly! Can’t trust fishmongers’ sons,” Finis nodded.
“Not at – wait. Fishmongers?” Lord Bittern looked back up at Victor. “You’re Master Van Dort?”
“Yes, hello,” Victor said, letting just a bit of sarcasm edge his words.
“. . .Why’d you direct me to the Everglots?” Lord Bittern asked, sounding confused.
“I merely thought you wanted to make their acquaintance. I had no idea you wanted Victoria’s hand in marriage.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t have done it had I known.”
“Think you can keep the poor girl dangling while you tamper in God’s domain, then?” Lord Bittern said, regaining his equilibrium. “How cruel of you, Master Van Dort, toying with Miss Everglot’s affections.”
“I’m not toying with anyone’s affections!” Victor said, starting to get truly angry. God, it was so easy to hate this man, with his smug smile and ugly words. The way he strutted around like he owned the place, the way he didn’t seem to give a damn about poor Victoria’s feelings. . . . Victor found himself wanting to wipe that smirk off Bittern’s face. Though he didn’t dare take a swing at him. . .but who needed to take a swing he could do something infinitely better infinitely classier and then he’d see they’d all see he’d SHOW THEM –
Victor almost dropped to his knees as the pain lanced through his head. “Victor?” Alice’s arms were around him in a moment, helping to support him. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“I – I’m not sure,” Victor admitted, rubbing his forehead. “I was – I felt so angry, and then. . . .” And then his thoughts had twisted in a rather peculiar way, before. . . . What had he been thinking? He couldn’t figure out where that line of thought had been trying to go. Besides getting Bittern to stop being an arse, of course. “I’m – I’m all right now.”
Alice kept a hold of him, frowning. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, fine.” Victor straightened, taking a deep breath as he steadied himself.
The others were watching him with varying degrees of concern and confusion. “Perhaps Master Van Dort has been exposing himself to too much mercury in this horrible place?” Bittern finally commented, arching an eyebrow.
“I highly doubt it, considering all the hats are made by machine,” Alice said, glaring at him.
“Hmph. The only proper way to make hats is by hand,” Maudeline proclaimed. “Now, Victoria, you will come home with us this instant, or I will--”
“Now what is all this racket?”
Richard appeared at the basement door, Emily close behind. “Here I am, trying to fix up a new remote-controlled hand with my dearly beloved’s help and I--” He paused, taking in the scene. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that these people are customers. Remember when we had those? I do, it was yesterday.”
“You mean ‘like it was yesterday,’” Bittern said, recovering nicely from the shock of seeing an absurdly tall, green-faced, mostly-mechanical man with an equally tall hat appear.
“I say what I mean, and we had customers yesterday,” Richard said, frowning at him. “Now who are you?”
“It doesn’t matter – we’re merely here to collect our daughter,” Maudeline said, looking at Richard like he personally offended her just by existing. Which was actually very probable, considering the sort of person she was. “Victoria, come along!”
“Will you please just listen to me?” Victoria pleaded.
“Oh, you’re the elder Everglots?” Richard looked between them and Victoria. “Christopher was right in saying you look nothing like her. Is she adopted?”
“No,” Maudeline said shortly. “And you’re friends with that man?”
“Lady Everglot, surely you’re not surprised?” Bittern said, all oily charm. “They all gather together here, like flies to – well, that is far too crude an analogy to use in front of ladies. But accurate.”
“Now see here, you continue on that way and you won’t get one blasted scone out of me,” the March Hare said, shaking a scolding finger at Bittern.
“I wouldn’t eat anything baked by a rabbit anyway.”
“I’m a HARE! Look, longer ears!”
“What you are, besides an abomination of science, makes no nevermind to--”
The entire shop fell silent and turned to Emily, who was staring at Bittern with wide eyes. Victor suddenly felt his stomach twist into a knot. The look on her face. . .no, he couldn’t be. . . .
Bittern stared back at her, looking confused. Then his eyes widened. “. . .Emily?” he breathed.
Emily’s eyes narrowed. “You!”
Victor turned to Bittern, feeling the beginnings of true hatred stirring in his heart. “Lord Bittern,” he whispered. “Lord Barkis Bittern?”
“You – know this woman?” Maudeline said, looking unbalanced.
“He’s my former fiancé,” Emily said, face twisting up in anger.
“I – you – I left you,” Lord Bittern – Barkis – breathed.
Emily nodded once. “For dead.”
Richard stared between them for a moment. “He’s the one?” he said, in the most dangerous voice Victor had ever heard.
“This woman is obviously delusional,” Barkis said, trying to get the situation back under control. “Yes, I knew her when she was – alive – but really, murdering her? That’s not like me at all.”
“It is! You tricked me into eloping with you just so you could rob me!” Emily said, stepping forward. “If Sally hadn’t seen my hand sticking out of the ground--”
“You must have me confused with someone else. Why would I murder my own fiancee?” He grinned smarmily at Victoria. “You don’t believe I’d do such a thing, do you my dear?”
Victoria backed up, glaring. “I’m more inclined to believe her word than yours.”
“The word of a Reanimated over a living man? I’m hurt.” He looked back at her parents. “Lord and Lady Everglot, surely you don’t put any stock in this nonsense?”
To Victor’s surprise and joy, the Everglots looked unsure. “She’s an abomination of science, I’ll grant you,” Finis said slowly. “But. . .I would assume she’d know who murdered her. . . .”
“You leech,” Alice growled. “Destroying a young lady’s hopes and killing her just for the sake of gold and jewels.”
“There’s no use trying to pretend, we all know what you are,” Richard added.
“None of you know a thing,” Barkis said, drawing himself up and glaring. “This – corpse doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I am no murderer. I am just an eager suitor for Miss Everglot’s hand. I heard about what was transpiring and thought she deserved better than a fish merchant’s son. Especially now that Master Van Dort has thrown her by the wayside.”
Victor frowned as something occurred to him. If Barkis was really the gold-digger Emily had made him out to be. . . . “So you came to Secundus for the express purpose of marrying Victoria?”
“Of course. I don’t know why her family ever thought of joining to yours in the first place.”
Ahh – here was his chance to expose Barkis for what he truly was. “Do excuse me for bringing this up, Lord and Lady Everglot, but the reason was monetary. They’re, quite unfortunately, broke.”
The way Barkis’s eyes widened in sudden horror said it all. “B-b-”
“Yes,” Victoria said, pressing their advantage. “It’s my marriage to you that will save us from the poorhouse.”
“The poorhouse?!” Barkis looked like he was about to have a heart attack. “But – they’re descended from grand dukes – you’re lying! Tell me that you’re lying!”
Now Maudeline and Finis were looking suspicious. “You don’t mean to say you don’t have any money?” Finis said, starting to sound rather horrified himself.
“Spent my family gold and jewels that quickly?” Emily added coldly, folding her arms.
“You stay out of this!”
“Given that she’s the one you murdered, I think she has every right to be a part of this,” Richard said, glaring daggers at Barkis.
“What about you? Do you think you have a right to be a part of this?”
“Well, considering I’m her new boyfriend. . . .”
“You’re what?” Barkis looked between them. “Emily, really, you could do better than – that.”
“Richard is a wonderful, caring, kind man who has more intelligence and soul than you’ll ever possess,” Emily snarled. “I can’t believe I ever fell in love with you. I was such a fool.”
“Answer the question, Bittern! Do you or do you not have a fortune of your own?” Finis snapped.
“Are you even a real lord?” Maudeline added.
“Of course I’m a real lord!” Barkis yelled. “My father was a count! I know it’s not as prestigious as being descended from a grand duke, but I’m still of noble blood!”
“Noble, rather poor blood,” Alice noted with a smirk. “And you can take that any way you wish.”
“Silence, girl! What would you know about this?”
“Enough to discern you’re a horrible person,” Alice replied coolly. “Who wouldn’t deserve Victoria even if you wanted her for more than just her nonexistent fortune.”
Barkis glared, then marched over and grabbed her arm. “If you know what’s good for you, girl, you’ll keep your mouth shut,” he said, raising one hand threateningly.
Victor immediately started to move forward, not sure what he was going to do but determined to get that bastard’s hands off Alice. Alice herself beat him to the punch, however, yanking out her knife and pressing it against his chest. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” she growled. “You haven’t a friend in this place, you know. Even the Everglots seem rather soured on you.”
“Well, I’m soured on them!” Barkis snapped. “What sort of grand duke has no money to speak of?”
“It’s hardly our fault,” Maudeline said, frowning severely. “And it’s impolite to talk about such things in society.”
“Ha! You just didn’t want me to know! I go along setting up this careful plan to marry your daughter, and first you’re in this godforsaken city, and then you don’t even have the decency to tell me you’re broke!”
“Much as I hate to say it, I agree with him ever so slightly on the last part,” Victoria said, arms folded. “If you’d told him we hadn’t any money beforehand, we wouldn’t be here having this ugly conversation.”
“On the other hand, he’d be off preying on some other innocent girl then, so maybe it’s for the best things turned out as they did,” Alice commented, pressing her knife a little harder into Barkis’s chest. “Going to let go of me anytime soon, dear sir?”
“Where I come from, a woman knows her place!”
“Her place is behind that counter, and yours is in a jail cell somewhere, at the very least,” Richard said, eyes narrowed. “I’d ask you to let go of her, but I’m afraid that would deny me the opportunity to hit you with some of my Kaboom Tea.”
“Kaboom Tea. It’s highly explosive, hence the name. Very tasty too – at least you’ll be scalded by something you’ll enjoy. Care for a sample? I always keep some in my hat.”
“You even think about throwing anything at me, you disgrace to the race of men, and I’ll smash your shop assistant’s head in,” Barkis threatened.
“I rather think she’d stab you before that,” Richard said calmly. “Either that or Victor will leap on you and attempt to separate you from her.”
“I’m just barely resisting the urge now,” Victor said, fists clenched tightly. “Take. Your hands. Off her.”
“Will you really challenge me for this girl?” Barkis said, sneering at Victor.
“If I have to,” Victor said, stepping forward. “Granted, she can take care of herself, but I certainly wouldn’t mind fighting for her honor.”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t have to,” Alice said, poking Barkis with her knife again. “I’d hate for you to get hurt on my account.”
“Listen to the woman – I’d mop the floor with you,” Barkis said.
“You don’t know that for sure,” Victor said, figuring he had nothing to lose by bluffing. Hell, he probably could get in a good hit or two if it came to that. (Though he really was hoping it wouldn’t. Not because he didn’t want to hit Barkis, but because he thought the Everglots would be scared away from Secundus all the faster by witnessing a fistfight in a hat shop.)
“Nonsense! Look at you, all spindly arms and legs! Emily probably put up a better fight than you co--”
Barkis stopped dead, turning white as he realized what he’d just inadvertently admitted. Emily grinned smugly, crossing her arms. “And so the truth comes out. And that was a vicious insult to Victor, by the way, considering you snuck up behind me, you coward. I barely had time to scream.”
“How many other girls have you victimized, Lord Barkis?” Alice asked coldly.
Barkis’s response was to shove her backwards and make for the door. Victor lunged forward and grabbed his coat, but Barkis shrugged out of it and bolted for freedom. “You won’t get away!” Richard yelled, running to the door and opening his hat. A teacup filled with a green liquid came flying out and exploded on Barkis’s heels. The wayward lord just ran all the faster. “The police here take catching murderers very seriously! March, get the station on the telephonic, tell them Emily’s just found the bastard who killed her.”
“Right away!” March leapt over to the telephonic and began fiddling with the knobs.
Victor dropped Barkis’s coat on the floor and rushed to Alice’s side. “Are you all right?”
“Back’s a bit sore from where it hit the counter, but I’m really fine,” Alice said, putting an arm around him. “Keep his coat, the police might find a use for it. I hear they can do fantastic things with DNA these days.”
Maudeline shook her head, looking more miserable than usual. “Oh, Finis, what shall we do?”
“We need to get out of this mad city as soon as possible,” Finis snapped, eyes narrowed.
“Oh, don’t you blame Barkis on Secundus,” Alice said, pointing at him. “He would have tracked you down no matter where you went. In fact, I think the lot of us just saved your daughter’s life. Not that I expect a thank you for that or anything.”
“I’ll gladly say thank you,” Victoria said gratefully. “I owe you a debt.” Looking at her parents, she added, “Please, Mother, Father – I know I’ll never convince you this city isn’t half as bad as you make it out to be. But won’t you consider giving Sir Lloyd another chance? You know his intentions are noble.”
“Do we? How do we know that he isn’t planning on strapping you to a laboratory table to turn you into some horrible Frankensteinian creature?” Maudeline shot back.
“He’s not that sort of Touched at all,” Richard said. “Not evil, and not much of a biologist, either. He concentrates his efforts on thinking.” He laughed, suddenly. “He thinks about thinking! How delightfully recursive. Another reason to like him!”
“Not by our standards,” Maudeline said, nose in the air. “This city poisons one’s mind. If your parents had had any sense, Master Van Dort, they would have simply dragged you home the instant they found you, despite your objections.”
“I think Victor’s grateful they don’t have any sense, then,” Alice said, though Victor felt her grip on him tighten slightly. “And what does that say about you, then? Did anyone force you to stay?”
“That dratted Mr. Van Dort practically did,” Finis replied coldly. “As soon as we can find the funds for a train ticket, we’re leaving this place and never returning.” Shooting Victoria a look, he added, “And hopefully we can still find someone acceptable to marry you. The only thing worse than an addled daughter is an addled spinster daughter.”
“Insert argument about how she has someone willing to marry her here,” Alice groaned. “Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Victoria, you’ll accompany us back to the hotel. And if we catch you sneaking out the window again. . . .”
“You’ll try to marry her to another murderer?” Emily said coolly.
Finis glared at her. “This doesn’t concern Lord Bittern, so it doesn’t concern you.” He shook his fat head. “This horrid city should just burn to the ground.”
Victor was very impressed with Alice for not immediately throwing her knife at his head. As it was, her grip on him tightened almost painfully. “You probably should just leave,” she said, voice like ice.
“Something we agree on, at last. Come along, Victoria,” Maudeline commanded, turning to go.
Victoria looked back at her friends. For a moment, she looked ready to keep arguing. Then she sighed and shook her head. “Yes Mother,” she said quietly. Looking around, though, she mouthed, “I’ll try to get back.”
The group nodded their acknowledgment. Victoria smiled weakly and fell into step behind her parents as they left the shop. “Just as I remember her, really,” Emily commented as they disappeared around the corner.
“Remember who?” March said. “The police will be here shortly, by the way. They’re eager to learn all they can about Barkis.”
“I’ll gladly tell them all I know,” Emily said. “And Victoria’s mother, Maudeline. She’s certainly gotten older, but her personality’s as horrible as it ever was. How someone like her ever produced Victoria. . . .”
“That adoption hypothesis we have looks more and more viable,” Richard said. “Alice, I do believe you’re close to crushing Victor.”
Alice released her boyfriend, looking embarrassed. “Sorry,” she said. “What he said--”
“I understand,” Victor said, ignoring the slight pain around his middle from where she’d been squeezing him. He put his arms around her. “I commend you for not deciding to show him just how good your aim is.”
Alice sighed. “He wasn’t worth the trouble, really. Not for that. Now, for rescuing poor Victoria. . . .”
“She can rescue herself, it looks like,” Richard said encouragingly. “She got out of there today, didn’t she?”
“I suspect she’ll be rather severely punished for that,” Emily said with a wince. “Though perhaps finding out about Barkis will distract them for the time being. Ugh, how they ever could – no, I can’t say that. I was taken in by his charms too.” Her face dropped, making her suddenly look ten years older. “Seeing him here, today – it was like being stabbed all over again. Especially when I heard he was trying to marry Victoria.”
Richard pulled her close. “He’s never touching you again,” he said, that dangerous note back in his voice. “Or Victoria. Or any other young lady, if I have my way about it. I should have gone after him and exploded him properly,” he continued, more to himself. “Or just done it in the shop. Holding back for the Everglots’ sake was pure foolishness. They’re never going to like any of us for any reason.”
“No, they’re not, are they?” Emily agreed, sighing. “I hate feeling so helpless. I want to help Victoria, help her find the happiness I never got when I was alive, but I don’t know--” She turned suddenly and hugged Richard hard. “He was going to kill her,” she whispered, barely audible. “The same bastard who got me nearly got her.”
“But he didn’t,” Victor quickly pointed out, hating seeing Emily like this. “We helped save her – you helped save her. And now you can help the police make sure he’ll never do what he did to you to anyone else.”
“And if the police don’t, I will,” Richard said, rubbing her back. “As for Victoria, we’ll figure something out. The next time she escapes, maybe we can hide her. I could easily build a secret room down in the lab. Stock it with tea things and a bed, and she could live there for weeks unnoticed!”
“Don’t know if that would work out they way you hope, but you’re right in that we’ll figure something out,” Alice said firmly. “I’ve grown to rather like having friends, and I don’t want one taken away to a life of misery.”
“Me either,” Victor agreed. “At least I’m sure this is the worst it’ll get for any of us.”
The next time I think I have a brilliant idea, I’m going to smack myself in the head with the nearest heavy object!
Lewis skittered across the floor, looking for a fresh source of cover. Behind him, he could hear Susie’s enraged roars. “WORM! FILTH! OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!” A tentacle scythed through the air nearby, sending books and equipment topping to the ground with a crash.
Lewis winced. He supposed he could understand a bit of Susie’s rage – finding out that you were originally created to be a clone of someone else probably played havoc with your sense of self. But she hadn’t even given him a chance to explain, a chance to tell her that he’d come to see her as her own person. A chance to tell her that he cared about her as Susie, not as Alice the Second. No, she’d just stormed in with his journal in hand and immediately started screaming about how she wasn’t some plaything for him to pretend with, that she was no Alice, she was THE QUEEN and she didn’t need him anymore. And now he was running for his life in his own laboratory.
It was his own fault, he knew. He should have never left that journal where Susie could find it. In fact, he should have been more careful with Susie in general. Something had obviously gone wrong in the tube if she was this dangerously unstable, and since he was the scientist. . . . I wish I could help you, he thought, even as he dodged another tentacle slamming into the floor scant inches from his foot. Calm you down, balance your mind, give you a reason to smile. . . .
“You will die for your insolence!” he heard her scream. “I am no mere girl! I AM THE QUEEN OF WONDERLAND! All will bow before me or perish! I will rework this entire land to my liking, and no one will stop me!”
Lewis felt the first flickerings of genuine anger in his heart. Threatening him was one thing – he felt he rather deserved all this. But threatening his Wonderland? That was going a bit far. “It’s not your Wonderland, Susie!” he yelled, despite the danger. “It already has queens!”
“Then I will slay them!” Susie snarled, flicking a tentacle at him. Lewis just barely dodged in time. “I deserve to rule this park!” She paused a moment, eyes glittering with madness and fury. “No,” she continued, a bit more quietly. “I deserve to rule the world.”
Damn. Damn damn damn. She was that meglomanic? This was not going to end well. “The world?” he repeated, fixing his glasses as they threatened to slip away from him.
“Yes,” Susie replied, grinning – or, at the very least, she bared her teeth and lifted her lips. “Your dear Alice never had ambitions like that, did she? Pathetic, weak thing – I’ll be sure to destroy her. Sure to show her who is the superior being.”
Oh God. “Is that what this is all about?” Lewis demanded, finding a broken piece of glassware. “Proving you’re better than your donor?”
“No!” Another tentacle lashed at him. “It’s about proving myself better than every– OW!”
Lewis scrambled away as Susie yanked the shattered pipette from her limb. “I should make you watch as I destroy her!” she yelled, picking up a table and throwing it at him. Lewis dropped and rolled under it, but still managed to get hit in the head with one of the legs. “String you up so you can see all of Secundus fall to me! Everyone will bow before their new Queen! All shall love me and despair!”
Lewis shook his head, then realized that really didn’t help the dizziness. This was horrible. Susie was completely mad, and not in any of the good ways. No, this was the sort of madness that would hurt people, that would destroy everything he held dear. He had to stop her, right here and right now. I’m sorry, he thought, getting to his feet and running as the tentacles crashed down behind him. But I can’t let you do this. Maybe – maybe I can fix you and Reanimate you, and things will be better. . . .
He crashed against the opposite wall, but his hands found what he was looking for – the ax. The one he’d kept in the lab ever since he’d that unfortunate incident with the first Jabberspawn. His fingers closed around the handle, and he spun around, holding it up defensively. “You’re not doing it!” he said, voice shaking. “I won’t let you!”
“You dare threaten me?” Susie – no, the Queen – responded. “Off with your head!”
“Off with yours first!” He took off toward her at a run, ax poised for the killing swing, dodging and weaving and jumping wildly to avoid the obstacles. He had to stop her he had to stop her he had to –
He nearly did. He was just close enough to swing when one of her tentacles finally found its mark. The ax dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers, just inches away from her neck. Stupidly he looked down at the writhing limb protruding from his chest. No. . .no, I was so close. . . .
He forced himself to look back up, even as his strength faded and his vision darkened. The Queen grinned at him – a smile that promised everyone and everything he cared about would suffer. He closed his eyes, tears running down his cheeks. Please God, he thought with his final bit of strength. Whatever else happens – spare my friends. Don’t let them die for my mistake. Especially Victor. . .and. . .Alice. . . .
Moments later, he knew no more.