Shall We Dance?
“At last! Here we are, folks! Morteburg!”
The group looked around as they rode into town. This place stood in stark contrast to their last stop. While Burtonsville had been dull and grey, Morteburg was almost an explosion of color. There were bright purples, greens, and reds everywhere. The people were friendlier too – most of them politely tipped their hats to the newcomers, and almost everyone wore a smile. “Such a pleasant place,” Victoria commented. “Why does it have such a depressing name?”
“Well, from what I’ve heard, the people here aren’t particularly afraid of death,” Doc said. “Their philosophy is, ‘it’s inescapable, so why despair?’ Funerals tend to be more like celebrations here. Not to say they treat it completely irreverently – murderers and the like are punished. They just don’t mourn like most people.”
“Obviously none of them have ever met the Reaper,” Victor muttered, eying the nearby buildings suspiciously.
“I like it,” Marty said, grinning. “Maybe these people will actually understand me.”
“Did you want to go straight to the Count and ask for his help?” Alice said, nodding at a passing woman. The woman gave her a friendly wave back.
“Not right away. Let’s find some food and lodgings first. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m a little sick of camping in the woods at this point.”
“Trust me, Doc, you’re not alone,” Jennifer said. “Do you think we could stay here for a little while? We’re always in and out of towns so fast!”
“Depends on when the ball’s being thrown,” Doc told her. “But we’ll probably stay here a couple of nights at the least.” Glancing back, he added, “If only to make sure Victoria’s properly settled.”
Victoria blushed. “You’re too kind. I’m so grateful you all let me stay with you.”
“We could hardly let someone in need suffer,” Victor said, patting her shoulder.
“Of course not,” Marty agreed. “We’ve all had too much shit piled on ourselves to let anybody else deal with it.”
“Marty, you could have put that a bit more genteelly.”
“What? Hearing ‘shit’ won’t kill her.”
“We hope not, anyway,” Alice joked. Victoria gave them both a bit of a look.
It didn’t take them long to find an inn. What took them longer was finding an inn that wasn’t full. Apparently people were coming from all over for this ball. “What’s so special about a silly dance?” Alice groused as they were turned away from yet another place.
“Count Bonejangles is renowned for throwing only the best parties. Naturally people would want to attend them,” Doc said, though there was a bit of frustration leaking into his voice.
“Don’t you like parties?” Victoria asked Alice, frowning.
“Not usually,” Alice answered honestly, only glancing at her. “Granted, I haven’t been to many. But the few I did attend as a girl I found very boring. I don’t see why this one would be any different.”
“Don’t judge until we actually attend,” Jennifer said. “Balls can be plenty of fun if they’re hosted by the right people. And I doubt everyone in the country would be risking their lives on the road coming here if it wasn’t a truly wonderful event.” Alice just grunted, unconvinced.
Finally, they came across a place that still had two empty rooms. Doc and Marty promptly reserved them. “How long until this party, anyhow?” Marty asked as the innkeeper led them upstairs.
“Just three days,” the man replied with a smile. “It promises to be the largest yet. The count is quite intent on lifting everyone’s spirits.”
“The Queen doesn’t have anything to say about this?” Alice asked, idly rubbing a thumb along her knife’s handle. “I was under the impression she hated fun.”
“Perhaps she thinks we’re allowed a bit of merriment, as she knows she’ll win in the end,” the innkeeper said, with a rather fatalistic shrug. “We won’t pay her any mind unless she brings her nasty tentacles to us.”
“Don’t worry – if she does, we’ll be there to cut them off,” Marty said cheerfully. The innkeeper lifted an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.
The two rooms were at the end of a short hall, across from each other. They were both a little longer than they were wide, and each contained two beds, a night table, a pitcher of water, and a small table with two chairs. “Any extra beds?” Marty asked as the others examined the objects.
“I’m afraid not,” the innkeeper said with a sigh. “I do have a few spare blankets, if you would like those.”
“Thanks,” Doc said, pulling out his watch. “I think we can make do with this. Ladies, which room would you like?”
The girls glanced between them. “They’re exactly the same – does it matter?” Alice shrugged.
“I know, but in case any of you had a preference. . . .”
“Left’s fine with me,” Jennifer said with a little shrug of her own.
“I have no objections,” Alice said.
“Left it is then,” Victoria nodded.
“All right, and we’ll take the right,” Doc said.
“Very good,” the innkeeper said. “I’ll be right back with the blankets.” He hurried off.
“What are we going to do about the bed situation?” Victoria asked, frowning at the two in the girls’ room.
“We could surrender one of our beds to you,” Victor offered. “I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”
“No need, Victor. I’ve still got my wish for today,” Doc told them. “Getting two extra beds should be a snap.”
“I just hope the innkeeper doesn’t notice,” Jennifer said.
“That’s easily taken care of too – I wish we had an extra bed in each room, that only we can see,” Doc said. There was a flash from the watch, then an answering flash in each room. “There – technically invisible beds.”
“Awesome,” Marty said, admiring Doc’s handiwork. “Though, you know, you could have wished up a whole house for us.”
“Maybe, but I really don’t like doing that anymore,” Doc says. “Big wishes like that seem to get one into trouble.”
The innkeeper came back with the blankets then. “Here you are,” he said, handing them to Doc. “Breakfast is served at seven, lunch at noon, and dinner at six. I hope you have a good stay.”
“Thanks, I’m sure we will,” Marty told him.
The innkeeper nodded and went on his way. Doc divided the blankets between the two groups, then they split up to rest and get their rooms the way they wanted them. As the girls settled in, Victoria moved a little closer to Jennifer. “Can I ask you something?” she whispered.
“Do – do you think Alice doesn’t like me?”
Jennifer blinked and looked at her. “What?”
Victoria bit her lip and looked at the floor. “I don’t think she wants me in your group,” she said softly. “She’s been nothing but polite, of course, but – she seems a little distant.”
“She’s a little distant from everyone,” Jennifer tried to reassure her. “I don’t think she dislikes you in particular. It could be that you remind her of Burtonsville. She was pretty upset about the way the villagers treated Victor.”
Victoria nodded. “Yes, I know.” She glanced over at Alice, who was putting her bunny on the bed she’d claimed. “I just don’t want to upset any of you. You’ve all been more than kind to me.”
“That’s just the way we are,” Jennifer said with a smile. “Look, why don’t you talk to her about this?”
“Well, I am a little afraid the answer will be ‘yes, I don’t like you, get out of my sight,’” Victoria confessed. “And if the answer’s no, I’ll look like a fool.”
“I can ask for you, if you like.”
“Oh, I don’t know--”
“What are you two talking about over there?” Alice asked, frowning at them.
Jennifer and Victoria exchanged a look – Victoria a nervous one, Jennifer a determined one. Victoria took a deep breath and let it out. “Alice, do you n-not like me?” she said, not quite meeting the other girl’s eyes.
Alice was silent for a moment. “I like you fine,” she finally said, looking away herself. “You’re a very nice person, Victoria. Though how you turned out that way with such apparently horrible parents is a mystery to me.”
Victoria looked relieved for a moment, then frowned in suspicion. “But something about me does bother you then?”
“It’s – it’s not you, it’s me,” Alice said with a sigh. “I shouldn’t feel like I do – it’s not your fault.”
“Is it because she’s from Burtonsville?” Jennifer asked, frowning.
“Not exactly,” Alice said, eyes roaming the ceiling. “Look, it’s just me being silly and stupid. I didn’t mean to cause you distress, Victoria.”
“No, it’s all right,” Victoria said gently. “I was worried I was causing you distress. I am sorry for whatever feelings I’m inspiring.”
“Like I said, not your fault.” Alice made for the door. “I’m going to go wash up a little – be right back.”
“Please, Alice, just tell me,” Victoria pleaded before she could slip outside. “It can’t be that horrible, can it?”
“Maybe you and Victor getting all chummy is bothering her,” Jennifer joked, trying to ease the awkwardness.
Alice stiffened. “That’s – that’s not it at all,” she said, too quickly.
Jennifer and Victoria stared at the other girl’s back. Something about the way Alice’s voice had trembled. . .and the way she was standing now, spine ramrod straight, hands clenched at her sides. . . . “Alice,” Victoria began, “you do know Victor and I are just friends--”
“I need to wash up,” Alice cut her off, not turning to look at them. Before either of them could say a word, she was out the door.
There was a moment of silence in the room. Then Jennifer said, “That was unexpected.”
Victoria put her face in her hands. “Oh no. . .well, if she liked me before, she certainly doesn’t now,” she mumbled. “I never realized that she--” She looked up at Jennifer. “Did you have any idea?”
“Not a bit,” Jennifer admitted. “I mean, I knew she liked him as a friend, but I never thought. . . . They’re so different!”
“Opposites attract, or so I’ve heard,” Victoria said. She sat down heavily on her bed. “And now we’ve gone and upset her.”
“Yeah. We’re probably going to be on the wrong end of some dirty looks at the very least.” Jennifer sat down next to Victoria. “I thought that she was just annoyed that you came from the same town that decided Victor wasn’t fit to live.” She paused. “What did you think of him before? I mean, you two seem friendly enough now. . . .”
“I really couldn’t form much of an opinion – I never met him in person,” Victoria said, fiddling with the folds of her dress. “My parents told me he was little better than a commoner, but his family had money we needed, so. . . . The servants, who had more of a chance to see him in public, told me he appeared to be very shy, but polite and gentle enough.” She sighed. “Of course, that was before the madness. When he started wandering about, talking about death, everyone considered him cursed. Mother and Father were horrified that the Van Dorts would attempt to marry off their mad son to us and called off the wedding. I – I actually felt a bit of relief at that, I’m ashamed to say. I really didn’t want to marry someone I didn’t know, even if he did sound like someone I could grow to at least like.” She looked down at her skirt. “I wonder what might have happened if they hadn’t. Would I have been able to help him?”
“Maybe,” Jennifer said. “You can snap him out of that state. Alice managed it once, right after they rescued me. I first met him when he was overwhelmed by death, actually. He – didn’t make a good first impression.”
Victoria chuckled. “I’m sure he didn’t.” She turned serious again. “I never believed the stories that he was a witch. Cursed, I could understand. But he never seemed – evil, to me. Just lost and confused. It’s very hard to imagine him intentionally killing people by causing horrible accidents.”
“You’re telling me,” Jennifer agreed. “So – what do you think of him now?” She hesitated, then added, “Are there any – feelings?”
Victoria shook her head. “I like him fine, but I think the chances of romance passed long ago,” she said. “I think it has to do with our previous arranged marriage. Maybe if I’d married him when I was supposed to, I could have fallen in love with him. Now, though, the thought just reminds me unpleasantly of my parents, and how easily they would have forced me into a potentially loveless match. I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt the same.”
Jennifer nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yeah. . .though now I’m wondering – does he have any idea about how Alice feels about him?”
“So, what do you think of the place so far?”
Doc looked out the window onto the town. “I like it,” he said. “It’s much more welcoming than our previous stop.” He glanced toward Victor. “No offense.”
“Believe me, none taken,” Victor assured him, unpacking his things.
“Yeah, Doc, why would he take offense? He knows better than any of us what a shitty place Burtonsville is,” Marty agreed. “I like Morteburg loads better. The party the Count’s throwing sounds like it’s going to be a blast.”
“It’s probably going to be more like a carnival,” Doc said. “He pulls out all the stops when it comes to entertainment. I hear he even has his own band that he sings with.”
“Really? That’s pretty cool.”
“He’s renowned for his dances,” Victor said. “At least in this section of the country. People would trickle through Burtonsville on their way to and from the event. They always described it as a feast for the senses.”
“Bet you were jealous you never got to go,” Marty said with a grin. “Unless you’re holding out on us about some of your history.”
Victor fiddled with his tie. “No, I never got to go,” he said. “Mother never quite approved of the kind of balls the Count holds. Too many commoners for her tastes. But you’re wrong about my being jealous. I’m like Alice – I’m not p-particularly fond of parties.”
“Why not?” Marty asked, tilting his head.
“Too many people, really. I’m n-no good in crowds. And I’m a horrible dancer. I mean, I can go through the steps, but usually not without treading on someone’s toes.”
“Natural grace shining through, eh?” Marty nodded.
Doc rolled his eyes. “Before you learn fear, you might want to learn tact, kid.”
“What? He knows it. I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
“No harm done,” Victor said with a little wave. “He is right. You know I can be clumsy.”
“Not nearly as much as you think you are,” Doc said firmly, putting an extra blanket on his bed. “You need a little self-confidence, kid.”
“Perhaps, but I do tend to trip over my own feet when I’m nervous, and crowds make me exceedingly nervous.”
“Well, you don’t have to go to the ball,” Marty said with a shrug. “You and Alice can stay behind and keep each other company.” He suddenly gave Victor a rather smarmy grin. “I’m sure she’d like that.”
Victor colored. “Marty! Alice is n-not that kind of girl!”
“Maybe not with anybody else. But she’s been making goo-goo eyes at you for a while. And I don’t think she’s exactly a fan of you and Victoria getting chummy.”
“She’s been – making what eyes at me?”
“You want it clearer? Fine – she likes you!”
“Well, of course, we’re friends.”
“Not that kind of like. You know – like.”
“. . .You’ve lost me.”
“Marty’s using imprecise terminology,” Doc said, holding up a point-making finger. “What he means to say is that Alice loves you. Or, at the very least, has a crush on you.”
Victor’s eyes went wide. “L-l-lll--”
“What’s with you?” Marty asked, confused. “Love’s a good thing!”
“I – I – you think--”
Victor suddenly shook his head firmly. “No. You must be mistaken. Alice couldn’t l-l-like me. We’re just friends, nothing more.”
“Oh, come on,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve been watching you two together. She’s sweet on you, buddy.”
“I’m inclined to agree with Marty,” Doc admitted. “She certainly seems to favor your company over ours, at any rate. And she was the first to realize you were in distress back at Jennifer’s castle, and the first to volunteer to lead you back through the thorns. I think she’s the first to jump to your defense in general, actually.”
Victor shook his head again. “I’m sure that’s not the case. And even if it is, it’s hardly proof of – affection. She could just realize I’m the w-weakest member of our g-group and I n-need protecting.”
“No, I think it’s more than that – though you definitely need protecting,” Marty said.
“Marty!” Doc slapped a hand to his face. “Don’t go proclaiming yourself useless either, Victor. I will admit that your fighting skills still need work. But you’ve managed to hold your own in a couple of battles, and I don’t know what we’d do without your ability to heal anyone of anything via that potion.”
Victor blushed and looked at his feet. “You’re too kind, really.”
“No, we’re not,” Marty said. “You’re our friend, Victor, and friends stick by each other.” He rolled his neck, then tilted his head at Victor. “Is the reason you don’t want to admit Alice likes you because of you deciding you like Victoria better? I mean, you guys were engaged to be married before.”
“No, it’s not like that,” Victor said, fiddling with his tie. “Our w-wedding was planned without us ever meeting, remember? William and Nell probably planned it that way so I wouldn’t do or say anything to embarrass them. Not that it worked. . . .” He sighed. “I’ve grown fond of Victoria over the past few days, yes. We have more in common than I would have ever thought. But – I don’t l-lo-I don’t like her like that. Perhaps because thinking about her in that light reminds me of the arranged m-marriage, and that reminds me of all the trouble that happened before. . . . Maybe if we’d met when we were supposed to, I could have made a life with her. Right now, however, I’m perfectly content with friendship.”
“Okay then,” Marty said easily. “So what’s the problem with you and Alice?”
“There is no problem. I simply don’t believe she could possibly l-like me like you suggest.”
“Because – because we’re too different. Alice would n-never be happy with s-someone like me.”
“How do you know?”
“Marty,” Doc said, putting a hand on the teen’s shoulder. “We shouldn’t push it.”
“I’m just curious. It seems obvious to me she’s got a thing for him.”
“She can’t,” Victor said firmly, starting to look annoyed. “Alice would never – could never – c-care for me in that way. Why on earth would she fall for someone like me?”
“Why not?” Marty said, in what he felt was a reasonable tone.
“Because – because she deserves better!”
Victor’s mind seemed to catch up with his mouth a moment too late. Looking shocked, he turned and fled from the room, leaving his friends to stare after him. After a moment, a frustrated Marty grumbled, “I’m gonna go and I’m gonna shake the self-loathing out of him.”
Doc lightly squeezed Marty’s shoulder. “Oh, Marty,” he sighed. “If only it were that simple. . . .”
Victor grimaced as he paced the hallway. Oh, why had he said that to them? He really hadn’t meant to – it had just slipped out. Now Doc and Marty were going to be worried about him. Well, Doc would be – Marty might just consider it all a joke. Either that or be mad at him. He sighed. “Just another way for me to prove I’m nothing but a burden on the others,” he muttered. “At least the girls weren’t present for--”
“Victor? Are you all right?”
Victor froze as Alice appeared at the end of the hall. She was looking at him with obvious concern, hands in the pockets of her apron. “Oh! Alice! I’m f-fine,” he said, hoping he didn’t look as flustered as he felt.
Alice frowned. “You don’t seem fine,” she said. “What happened?”
“Just a s-small argument between m-myself and M-Marty,” he said. “Nothing to w-worry about.” Oh please, oh please, don’t ask me what about. . . .
“Argument?” Alice shook her head. “What about?”
Victor tried to think up a lie, but came up empty. “Nothing, really,” he finally said. “Just one of those things he doesn’t q-quite understand on a-account of being fearless.”
“Oooh, one of those,” Alice nodded understandingly. “Nothing to worry about then. I’m sure you’ll patch it up.”
Victor smiled. “I’m sure we will too. What brings you out here?”
“Just washing up.” Alice fiddled with her pockets for a moment. “What do you think of the inn?”
“Comfortable enough,” Victor said. “It’s c-certainly much nicer than s-sleeping on the ground all the time.”
“Yes, it’s nice to have an actual bed again.” Alice pulled her hands out of her pockets and rocked on her heels, looking like she was searching for something to say. “Are you looking forward to this ball everyone keeps going on about?” she suddenly asked. “I’m sure Doc wouldn’t have any objections to attending. You could escort Victoria, if you so chose.”
Oh, the party again. “I’m really not much of one for dancing,” Victor admitted to her, pulling at his tie. “I-I’d go if the others went, but I don’t know. . . .” He shook his head. “Marty m-made a rather crude comment about us staying behind and k-keeping each other c-company,” he added without thinking.
Alice’s eyes widened. “Did he?”
Victor winced. “He didn’t mean – you know how he is,” he babbled, eyes darting around the hallway. “And I would n-never--”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Alice cut him off. “And yes, I know how Marty is. Doubtless he didn’t mean anything bad by it.”
“Of course not,” Victor said, blinking. Was it just him, or did Alice sound a bit – sad?
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. “I should be getting back to my room,” Alice finally said, moving to walk past him.
“Alice, I-I wouldn’t m-mind sitting out the party in your company,” Victor blurted, still trying to puzzle out the slightly unhappy expression she had. “I like you.”
Alice stopped and looked back at him. “That’s very kind of you,” she said. “I like you too.” She smiled at him. “I’m glad we met.”
Victor smiled back, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. When exactly had those started? When exactly had he realized that –
He pushed the thought away. Nothing good could come of dwelling on it. He and Alice were friends, nothing more. It was really all he could ask for. Even if some small part of him desperately wanted more. “So am I.”
Alice nodded and went back into the girls’ room. Victor watched the door close, then wondered if he should return to Doc and Marty. He was feeling a little better about the silly fight they’d had. . . .
Then nature issued him an urgent call. Victor set off in search of the toilets. A few extra minutes outside wouldn’t hurt him. And hopefully, when he got back, his friends would be distracted by something else, and they could forget the entire conversation ever happened.
Fortunately for both Alice and Victor, there was something to distract their friends quite readily – the issue of going to see Count Bonejangles and asking for his help in their quest against the Queen of Hearts. They made some plans over dinner that night, and the next morning, set out to his manor house to see about getting an audience.
The guards at the manor house greeted the group with, “I’m sorry, but His Lordship refuses to take any more requests on the music. He’s going to play what he wants to play, and that’s final.”
“We’re not here to talk about the music,” Doc informed the guard, trying and failing to hide his smile.
“Oh, you’re not?” The guard looked relieved. “You’re the first in three days! What are you here for, then?”
“A matter of grave importance – we’re on a rather dangerous quest, and we were hoping the count could help us.”
“Hmm. I’ll go ask if he’s willing to see you. Wait here.” The guard proceeded into the house, leaving the group to wait on the front stoop.
“Do you think he’ll give us a hand?” Marty asked, tapping his foot idly.
“We don’t exactly have the best track record with getting people behind our cause,” Jennifer added, looking worried.
“I know, but we have to take every chance we get,” Doc said. “You never know – we may get lucky.”
“One can only hope,” Alice said, rocking back and forth on her heels.
The guard returned after a few minutes. “He’s willing to grant you a brief audience. You’ll have to be quick, though – he’s very busy with the preparations for the party.”
“We’ll talk fast,” Marty grinned. “Thanks.”
The guard nodded and led them into the house, through a hallway and into what appeared to be the count’s study. The count himself sat at a desk, reading something while leaning back in his chair. He was a fairly tallish man in his early 30s, with a very strong chin. An eyepatch covered one eye, and a bowler hat his hair. “Your guests, My Lord,” the guard said, bowing.
“Thanks.” The Count sat up straight and gave the group a grin. “Hello, and welcome to my patch of the kingdom! Chauncey here tells me you need my help with something?”
“If you’ll give it,” Victor said with a slight bow.
“Yes, and we’ll understand if you’d prefer to stay uninvolved,” Doc added. “Our quest is to rid our kingdom of the Queen of Hearts.”
Count Bonejangles’s eyebrows shot up. “Tall order,” he said. “Where’d you get that idea?”
“It’s really my quest,” Marty said. “I’ve got this problem with trying to figure out what fear is. Everybody seems so petrified of this gal, I figure I have to learn what it is after facing her. And it helps everybody else too, if I manage to kill her.”
“We manage to kill her,” Alice corrected him. “We’re all in this together.”
“Precisely,” Doc said. “But I’m sure you realize five people have rather poor chances against our beloved monarch. So we’re hoping for a little military backup.” He held up his hands. “As I said, we’ll understand if you prefer to remain uninvolved. We can’t force anyone to risk their lives, especially in a fight like this. But any assistance you’d care to render would be greatly appreciated.”
Bonejangles rubbed his chin for a moment. “Well, I can’t deny that the Queen has got to go,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, if she hears about everybody mobilizing against her, she’s gonna start torching towns left and right. We don’t have anything against death here, but we’re pretty keen on life too.” He got up and came around his desk. “Tell you what – you’re headed to her palace, right?”
“Yes, that’s the general direction of our wanderings.”
“Then let’s try and take her by surprise. Once you get close to Queensland, send word back to me, and I’ll send a couple of battalions to go and help you out. All you gotta do is sit tight until they get there. Sound good?”
“Sounds great,” Doc said with a relieved smile. “We can use all the help we can get. Do you think anyone else would agree to a plan like that?”
“Eh – they might, they might not. Depends. But you might be able to convince a couple of people. God knows the monarch ain’t that popular.” Bonejangles grinned at Doc. “Why don’t you ask at the party? You are coming, right?”
“If it means a chance to mingle and possibly get more assistance, yes.”
“Terrific! Just look for me, and I’ll get you chatting with all the military types.”
Doc grinned back. “Thank you very much, Count Bonejangles. You have no idea how much we appreciate this.”
“Hey, if this works out, everybody wins! In the meantime, you kids stick around and have fun, ya hear?” Bonejangles patted Doc on the shoulder. “Life’s not worth living without a bit of fun.”
“Hear hear,” Marty said. “We’ll stick around long enough for the ball, at least. I’m really curious to see what it’s like.”
“Oh, you’re in for a treat,” Bonejangles assured him. “Though speaking of which, I’m still kinda busy with the preparations. . . .”
“Of course,” Doc nodded. “Our apologies for taking up so much of your time.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bonejangles said with a little wave of his hand. “I’m really hoping this works out for you. It’d be a relief not to have to deal with Her Royal Craziness.”
“I’m sure it would,” Victor said. “We’ll see you at the ball then.”
“Right. Have fun exploring the town! Show ‘em out, Chauncey.”
“Yes, sir.” Chauncey led the group out. “I think you’re a little nuts myself,” he admitted as they reached the front door. “But as he said, if you win, everybody wins. So, best of luck to you.”
“Thank you – we’ll need every bit of it,” Doc nodded.
They headed out the door and back onto their horses. “Well, that went well,” Jennifer commented as they rode away.
“Better than I expected,” Doc agreed. “And that’s a good plan – we can’t exactly go around with an army stomping after us. Better to use all the stealth we can.”
“I’m just glad someone is finally offering to help us,” Alice said. “Though – do we all have to go to the ball?”
“Oh, Alice, it’ll do you good to get out and about,” Jennifer scolded.
“No one’s going to force you, but I do wish you’d come,” Victoria added. “They really can be fun if you give them a chance.”
Alice looked between the two girls, then sighed in the manner of one who has realized that refusing an activity means possible severe guilt. “Do I have to dance?”
“Not if you don’t want to,” Jennifer said immediately.
“Then I suppose I’ll come. Though I’m sure I’ll lack for conversational partners.”
“There must be other people who don’t dance,” Marty said casually.
“Yes, but that’s no guarantee of them being sparkling wits, either,” Alice replied.
“I – I don’t dance,” Victor blurted. “I could keep you company.”
Alice glanced back at him, a surprised and almost nervous look on her face. “That – would be very kind of you,” she finally said, turning around again.
Marty grinned. “Yeah, I’m all in favor of that,” he said, winking at Victor, who scowled at him. “So, where are we gonna get the right clothes and stuff? I’m not an expert on balls, but I don’t think our everyday stuff’s gonna cut it.”
“Count Bonejangles is more casual than most when it comes to dressing up,” Doc told him. “We probably will need somewhat-fancier clothing, but that’s easily taken care of with my watch.”
“You don’t think we’ll be wasting our wish on that, will you?” Jennifer asked.
“We rarely stop to have fun. I think we can afford to give up one.”
“I just hope we won’t need it later,” Alice murmured pessimistically.
“Oh, relax, will ya? It’s just a dance,” Marty told her. “Now, anybody up for lunch?”
The day of the dance dawned clear and bright. The entire town was abuzz with activity as the people readied the streets for the celebration. The group watched it all with an interested eye. “They really do get excited, don’t they?” Victoria commented. “Back in Burtonsville, no one showed the least bit excitement about balls.”
“I can’t say I blame them on that count,” Alice muttered, eating her porridge.
“You will have a good time,” Jennifer said firmly.
“You get us our clothes yet, Doc?” Marty asked, scraping the last of his breakfast out of his bowl.
“Not yet – I’ll do so a bit later in the afternoon,” Doc told him. “In the meantime, anyone fancy a walk?”
“In these crowds? We’d be crushed,” Victor noted.
“A walk in the woods then. I could use some fresh air.”
“Me too,” Alice said. “All this civilization is beginning to wear on my nerves.”
“You’ve been living alone in that cottage for too long,” Marty commented, not noticing Doc’s sigh of frustration.
Alice, however, took it in stride. “I probably have, but there’s nothing for that now. All I know is that I’d love to spend some time around trees and bushes again.”
“I’m up for a walk,” Jennifer said, reaching over to take Marty’s hand. Winking at him, she added, “If you don’t mind us wandering off for a bit.”
Marty grinned. “I know I don’t mind.”
“Well, if the rest of you are going, we ought to go too,” Victoria said, indicating herself and Victor. “I don’t want to spend the entire day stuck up in here myself.”
“If you don’t mind me bringing my sketchbook,” Victor qualified. “I’m sure there will be something worth drawing out there.”
“Not at all. We’ll leave in a hour, how’s that?”
This plan met with general agreement, and a hour later, they made their way through the busy streets to the woods. The shadowy trees provided a welcome respite from the crowds and noise in town. The group wandered around for a bit, taking in the scenery and enjoying the warmth of the day. “Man, he really couldn’t have picked a better--”
Marty’s statement was cut off by a loud yowl. Startled, everyone turned in the direction of the noise. “What on earth was that?” Victoria said, hands clutching her skirt.
“Sounded like a cat,” Alice said. A second yowl sliced through the air, this one accompanied by a larger, more ferocious-sounding growl. “One in trouble.” She promptly set off toward the source of the noise, drawing her blade.
“You want to go rescue a cat?” Marty said in confusion, blinking.
“My favorite pets when I was a child were the household cats – Dinah, Kitty, and Snowdrop,” Alice said as she plowed through the underbrush. “I lost them all in the fire that killed my parents. I’ll be damned if I let another innocent cat suffer.”
The others watched her for a moment as she threatened to disappear from sight. Then they set off in pursuit, Marty speaking for everyone as he said, “Hell, why not? We’re the heroes.”
The sounds led them to a river gushing through the wood. Sitting on a rock in said river was a very wet and miserable-looking cat. It was a rather mangy feline, with fur so short it looked like it was barely there, and so thin you could count all of its ribs. One side sported a set of bleeding claw wounds. Where they had come from was quickly apparent – the cat was facing down a rather large black bear, teeth and claws bared. As everyone arrived on the scene, it made another swipe at the cat, who barely managed to dodge. As it was, the cat nearly fell in the river – one paw and the tail hit the water as the cat scrambled for purchase on the rock. “Damn, that tom’s seen better days,” Marty muttered.
“How do you know it’s a boy?” Victoria asked.
“Fur’s thin enough that I got a pretty good look at its back end when it nearly fell,” Marty explained candidly. Turning to Alice, he asked, “Got any plans?”
“Just one, but it should work,” Alice said, gripping her knife tightly. “I just need someone to get the bear’s attention. So long as it’s not looking at me. . . .”
“Okay then. Hey, ugly!” Marty yelled, waving his sword as he walked forward a few paces.
The bear turned at the noise. It snarled at Marty, foam dripping from its maw, its eyes red and crazed. “Ugh – I think it’s rabid,” Marty called back to his friends, wrinkling his nose. “Killing it would probably be putting it out of its misery.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” Alice said, throwing her knife straight at the bear’s throat.
The bear howled as the blade lodged in its neck. Blood gushed from the wound. Unfortunately, this only seemed to annoy the bear further – it swiped its wicked claws at Marty, obviously intending to fight until the bitter end. Marty nimbly sidestepped the paw and hit the bear over the head with his sword, creating another large gash on the bear’s forehead. “Better get out the axe, Alice!” he yelled, utterly unconcerned about the crazed creature in front of him.
“He’s almost scarier than the bear, with how calm he is,” Victoria murmured as Alice pulled out her axe and went to help Marty finish the creature off.
“Yes, but he’s invaluable to have on your side in a fight,” Doc noted. “Now, who wants to try and get the cat?”
“I’ll go,” Victor said, watching as the bear slowed as the blood poured from its wounds. “I don’t mind particularly about getting scratched. And I might be the only one who can reach the poor thing without wading into the water.” He edged his way around the small battle and to the edge of the river. “Here, puss?” he said, stretching out his arms toward the bedraggled cat.
The cat regarded him for a moment. It had a most peculiar face, Victor noted – the mouth was stretched across the face in what looked to be a grin. And the black markings on its body didn’t look like normal stripes, now that he looked closer. . . . Then the cat leaped into his arms, and Victor was distracted by the feel of wet feline against his shirt. “Yes, poor cat,” he said, stroking the creature’s ragged ears. “We’ll soon have you warm and dry.”
The cat favored him with a soft purr. Victor brought it over to his friends – Doc had already removed his coat, and together they carefully wrapped the cat up and dried it as best they could. The cat bore it with incredible patience, not even trying to claw them. “He must be someone’s old pet,” Jennifer commented, scratching it behind the ears.
The cat seemed to give her a look at that. “One thing you should learn about cats,” Alice said as she and Marty came up to join them. “They consider us the pets.”
Victoria looked at the blood on Alice’s dress and Marty’s shirt. “I see the poor bear is finally dead.”
“Alice hit it with her axe, and it went down,” Marty confirmed, wiping his sword off on the grass. “Kind of sad, honestly. Not its fault it got sick.”
“Death is better than letting it roam free, threatening both innocent people and innocent cats,” Alice said, kneeling down to pet the cat. “How are you feeling, puss?”
“Much better now that your gentlemen friends have gotten the water out of my fur.”
Everyone froze. Even Marty looked surprised. “Oookay then, cat talks.”
“Are you a cat?” Victor blurted without really thinking.
A subtle change came over the cat’s appearance. Although it remained as thin as ever, with overlarge paws and head, its sparse fur changed from greyish to blue, with the stripes becoming odd symbols and patterns that seemed to shift fluidly against its skin. The grin became even more pronounced, and the gold eyes seemed to glow. “I’m a Cheshire Cat,” it introduced itself. “Perhaps not a breed you’re familiar with, but I am a cat.”
“A Cheshire cat?” Jennifer repeated. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of them.”
“They sell cheese in the shape of a grinning cat’s face over in Cheshire,” Alice said, tilting her head.
The Cat grinned brighter. “Oh, so they’ve kept on with that lovely tradition! I’m glad to hear it. I did do them a rather large favor back in the day.” He licked a paw. “A rat infestation, as I’m sure you’re all wondering.”
“You’re a Fae cat,” Victoria murmured, eyes wide.
“If you prefer to think of me that way. Cats never really bother much with that sort of classification. We know who we are, and we make sure everyone else knows it too.”
“If you’re a magical cat, what happened with the bear?” Marty asked, genuinely curious. “Couldn’t you have just taken him down with one swipe of your mighty claws or something?”
The Cat looked like he would have scowled if he could. As it was, his grin lessened and became a little less friendly-looking as his eyes narrowed. “I do hate to admit to limitations. But as you obviously don’t fear asking one of mine about our weaknesses – a rare gift in humans – I’ll deign to answer. I wouldn’t have needed any assistance had that foul beast not caught me in the river.”
“Is it enchanted?”
“No, simply wet. That’s all it takes for a cat.”
Marty frowned thoughtfully. “Not getting it.”
“Your family never owned a cat, did they?” Jennifer said. “Ours did. They hate getting wet. Cats despise any water that they don’t drink.”
“And if you’re a Fae creature, or at least related to them in some way,” Doc said, making the connection, “perhaps this dislike of water in normal cats gets amplified for you? Into a power nullifier, perhaps?”
“Amazing – you actually figured it out,” the Cat said, sounding impressed. “Have you had dealings with my kind before?”
“Perhaps – do you know the King of Snakes? I received a boon from him once for helping his son.”
“No, but I’ve heard his name.” The Cat groomed himself a bit more. “Speaking of boons, I believe I owe your little group here one. Cats don’t normally acknowledge the concept of a debt, but even one such as me ought to acknowledge when his life has been most likely saved. So I will.” His tail flipped back and forth. “Ask for something, and I shall do whatever is in my power to grant it.”
The six members of the group stared at each other. “We can ask for anything?” Victor asked.
“Yes, though that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get it. I’m powerful enough in my own right, but even I have limitations. I’m not going to shift the planet’s axis for you, to take an example at random.”
“Hmmm,” Marty said, frowning thoughtfully and rubbing his chin. “One for each of us, or one for the whole group?”
“The group – I know you humans are an argumentative lot, but I would think you could agree on something for a magical wish. Or am I being, for once, too optimistic?”
“No – it’s just my friend Doc already has a magic watch that lets him wish on it once per day. I dunno about the rest of you, but now I’m not sure what to wish for.”
“It was my gift from the King of Snakes,” Doc explained, as the Cat looked at him in what appeared to be surprise (it was a bit hard to read his emotions with that permanent grin). “But I’m sure we can think of something. Just think of it as getting a free extra wish on the watch.”
“Maybe – could the watch shift the planet’s axis?”
“I don’t know, and I’m not going to try and find out,” Doc informed Marty with a frown.
“There must be something you want,” the Cat said, rolling its eyes slightly. “Even something small. I thought humans liked wasting wishes on tiny things.”
“Yeah, well, the only big thing I can think of is asking you to help us kill the Queen of Hearts,” Marty said, “and I doubt you’d go for that.”
“The Queen?! I have as much curiosity as any cat, but the reason I’ve lasted so long is because it’s tempered with caution,” the Cat informed him, eyes wide. “I’d prefer to leave our most terrific monarch to her own fate. Choose something else.”
“Terrific?” Jennifer murmured.
“Think of the old meaning,” the Cat told her. “The word does come from ‘terror.’”
“Ooh, I see. . . .”
“Well, what’s a small thing we’d all like?” Victoria said. “Surely we’re allowed to treat ourselves every once in a while.”
Jennifer snapped her fingers. “Hey, what about the ball?”
“What about it?” Victor asked in confusion.
“Well, if we ask the Cheshire Cat to help outfit us for a great night, that means a wish on the watch we don’t have to use. That means we can save it for something more important if we need it.”
“Ah, yes, the Count Bonejangles’s great party,” the Cat said, amused. “And you’re all attending?”
“Some of us under duress, but yes,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“We told you that it’ll be fun,” Jennifer said firmly. “Don’t you like dressing up?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“Please, Alice, it really will be a nice night,” Victoria begged. “And if the Cat here chooses to help us, even you should enjoy yourself.”
“I think you’re asking a bit much of him, even for a Fae cat.”
“Oh, no, I like a challenge,” the Cat replied, chuckling. “What exactly is it you want for this great ball?”
“I’d say nice outfits, but a guaranteed good time would work better,” Jennifer said, looking thoughtful. “You can pull that off, right?”
“Hmmm. Perhaps not for the whole night – the chaos the Count’s festival brings can rival even a Fae. But I should be able to give you until midnight,” the Cat said, tilting his head this way and that. “And I’ll even throw your lovely clothes into the bargain.” He got up and wound around Alice’s legs. “I could even make your friend here the belle of the ball.”
“I’d prefer not to be,” Alice told him. “If you’re going to grant that gift, I’d give it to Victoria. She’s had a hard time of it lately and deserves it more than I do.”
Victoria blushed. “I don’t want to be a bother. . . .”
“No bother,” the Cat assured her. “I can certainly guarantee you some extra interest, if that’s what you want.”
She blushed harder. “Well – ah – I wouldn’t mind,” she confessed, twisting her hands in guilty glee.
“Any other special requests?” the Cat asked, looking around. “Or shall I tally up your bill, so to speak?”
Marty glanced at Alice and Victor, then knelt down by the Cat and whispered in his ear. The Cat’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Oh, one of those,” he said in a knowing voice. “Yes, I can fix that too – though I make no promises about it taking. Those sorts of emotions are naturally resistant to such meddling.”
Marty grinned. “Whatever you can do,” he said, ignoring the others’ confused looks as he straightened up.
“Is that all, then?” the Cat asked, turning his glowing eyes to each person in turn.
The others all glanced at each other. “I believe so,” Doc said. “No other special requests?” Everyone else shook their heads. “Then we’re all set.”
“Good,” the Cat purred. “You’ll find the clothes you wanted in your room when you get back. Feel free to enjoy yourselves tonight – but remember, after midnight, I can no longer promise a perfect night.”
“Til midnight is more than fair,” Victor said gratefully.
“I certainly hope you think so.” With that, the Cat faded away, until only his grin was left. “Do have a lovely time – and I wish you all the best with your greater quest,” he said before it vanished.
The group stared at the spot where it had been for a moment. “Well, that was odd,” Victoria commented.
“A nice stroke of luck, though,” Jennifer said. “It’s not often you get a boon from a Fae.” She grinned. “Come on, let’s get back to the inn! I’d like to see what he got for us!”
“In my case, it’s probably a straitjacket,” Alice muttered.
“Be nice – he promised us all a good evening.”
“What did you whisper to him, Marty?” Victor asked as they started on their way back.
“You couldn’t have been asking him to give you fear – that would have been an entirely separate wish,” Doc noted. “Frankly, I’ve surprised you’ve never asked such a boon from my watch.”
“It wouldn’t feel right,” Marty said. “I want to earn my knowledge of fear, not have it just plonked on me. And I was just asking him to lend a little extra help in making the night perfect for a couple of us.” He grinned and winked.
Doc grinned back. “Oh, I think I see. Young couple in love?”
“You could say that, yeah.” Marty walked faster to catch up with Jennifer.
Victor smiled after him. “That was nice, to think about making everything perfect for his girlfriend.”
“Indeed,” Doc agreed. “I just hope midnight doesn’t screw everything up for us.”
“Me too,” Victor said. “I think we’ve earned a night off.”