The Brave Hatter
“Come on, Victor!”
“I’m – I’m just scared I’ll hurt you!”
“Isn’t that kind of the point?”
Victor shot Marty a look. “Hey, just saying,” Marty said, holding up his hands. “It is weapons training and all.”
“I was raised never to lift a hand toward a woman,” Victor replied, looking back at Alice. “And I would never attack a friend.”
“This friend is asking you to attack her,” Alice shot back, shaking her head. “Victor, I know you’re worried about hurting me, but trust me – I’m going to be fine. We’re not going to get anywhere if you refuse to practice!”
The group was in a field near the edges of the kingdom, resting for a bit after lunch. Or, at least, most of them were resting – Alice had roped Victor into another round of practice with his new weapon. The pair had been having sessions on and off for the past fortnight, and Victor hadn’t been making a lot of progress. Mostly because he balked at actually trying to hit anyone. Judging by the expression on Alice’s face, such reticence was starting to wear on her nerves. “You don’t have to try and hit me hard. I just want you to learn the moves.”
Victor turned the mallet he now owned (on the advice of the clerk of the weapons store they’d visited after telling the town’s sheriff about Barkis and his unfortunate brides – “If he’s clumsy, best not to get him anything with a sharp edge. A good, stout mallet will do the same job with enough force, and it’s a might lot harder to wound yourself with it.”) around in his hands. “Why can’t I practice on some sort of dummy?” he asked, looking up at Alice. “Like a scarecrow or something?”
“I think it’s better if you practice on a living person,” Alice said. “Dummies generally don’t move. A fellow fighter will.”
“Want to try going up against me?” Marty offered. “I’m not a girl.”
“I – I--” Victor’s eyes darted around. “I’m not sure I could, even with you being the s-same sex as me. . . .”
Alice shook her head again. “All right, we’re getting nowhere like this,” she said, sheathing her knife. “Let’s try something else. Put down the hammer, we’re going to do a bit of wrestling.”
“Wrestling?” Victor’s head started to turn a bit pink. “Um – why?”
“Because, at the absolute least, you should be able to break out of the grip of anyone trying to grab you. Actually, Victoria, Emily, Jennifer, you should pay attention too. This will come in handy for all of you.”
“Oh sure, single out the girls,” Jennifer said, though she smirked at Alice to show she wasn’t wholly serious. “Why not Doc and Marty?”
“Can I help it if most of the men are more experienced? They’re welcome to watch if they think they’ll learn anything new.” Alice regarded Victor coolly for a moment, head tilted to one side. Then she lunged.
Victor yelped and fell over, accidentally tripping Alice in the process. The young woman landed on him with a thump and an “ooof!” They looked at each other. “Sorry,” Victor said, closing his eyes.
“You gotta admit, Alice, that would work,” Marty couldn’t help pointing out.
“Yes, but it’s not exactly something you want to rely on,” Alice said, fighting back a smile. “Though tripping is a good way to buy yourself some time. Think you could trip me deliberately?”
“I – I could try,” Victor confessed, opening his eyes. “I don’t think I’d be able to resist the urge to try and catch you, though.”
“Well, I don’t particularly want to fall flat on my face, so. . . .” Alice shrugged. “Just so long as you don’t give into the urge to catch any real combatants.”
“Right.” Victor waited as Alice pushed herself up, then got back to his feet. “So--”
He yelped again as Alice grabbed him, trying to force his arms behind his back. Squirming mightily, he kicked at her ankle. Alice dodged and managed to subdue him. “At least you tried,” she told him, smirking.
“You didn’t even give me a chance to prepare,” Victor complained.
“And a real fighter would? Trust me, in a scrap, it’s down and dirty all the way.” Alice released him and backed up a few steps, dusting off her dress. “Or do you think that last angry mob we ran from was going to give us time to get ourselves settled?”
“No buts,” Alice interrupted. “Here, let me show you something. . .Marty, could you come over here and help for a minute?”
“Sure.” Marty got up from his seat. “What do you need?”
“Someone to put in a choke hold, if you don’t mind,” Alice said. “Turn around please. . . .” She looped her arms carefully around Marty’s neck. “See how this works? Of course, if I was really trying to hurt him, I’d be putting as much pressure on his windpipe as possible.”
“Oh, you can tighten it up for a minute, I don’t mind,” Marty assured her.
“All right. . . .” Alice did so. “Like this. Trust me, it’s useful.”
Marty abruptly elbowed her hard in the gut, ducking his head as she stumbled backward. “And if you get caught in something like that yourself, that’s how you get out!” he said with a smile. “Always aim for the middle of the guts, right below the ribs. Shoves the breath right out of them.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Victor said, watching Alice with worried eyes as she held a hand to her abdomen.
Marty looked too, his smile lessening. “Oh – sorry, I was just trying to show him. . . . Is that why you didn’t want to fight me?” he asked, turning to Victor.
“The thought did cross my mind,” Victor admitted. “It’s nothing personal, Marty, but – if you don’t fear hurting us. . . .”
“Yeah, I can see how that’s a big problem,” Marty agreed, frowning at Alice. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’ll be fine,” Alice assured him. “Just need a moment to catch my breath.” She managed a smile. “And for what it’s worth, it was a good demonstration.”
Victor fidgeted, twisting his fingers together. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to manage,” he confessed quietly.
“You never know unless you try,” Alice replied as she got her breath back. “Those long limbs of yours could be a real advantage in a fight. You just have to learn how to put them to good use.” She brushed some hair out of her eyes. “Come on, try that hold on me.”
Rather reluctantly, Victor went over and wrapped his hands around Alice’s neck, trying to copy the position she’d held Marty in. “Like this?”
“Yes, only you’re supposed to be squeezing.”
Victor forced himself to apply a little pressure. “More like this, t-then?” he asked.
“Closer. . . .” Alice jabbed her elbow back into his gut, sending stumbling backward. “We’ll have to think of a counter for that, though.”
Victor nodded, rubbing the area. “Y-yes.” He looked up at her as she contemplated her next move, then attempted a clumsy lunge.
She stepped out of the way easily, leaving him to get a faceful of dirt. “I appreciate your initiative,” she said with a grin, giving him a hand up. “Finally taking this seriously, are we?”
Victor’s response was to pull her down with him. “Perhaps,” he said with a mischievous smile.
“I think that’s what he really needed – you to hit him,” Jennifer laughed. “Now he’s got a mind for revenge.”
“Good! Revenge fuels anger,” Alice said, rolling over and pinning Victor down. “But it can also lead to stupid decisions. Try to balance your revenge with pragmatism.”
“I’ll do my best to remember that,” Victor replied, managing to flip them over so he was the one pinning her down. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a poor pupil,” he added, more seriously. “I just – l-like I said, I was raised never to hit a girl. . .and I’ve always r-responded to conflict by trying to run away. It irritates me to no end, yes, but – it’s how I’ve always dealt with things.”
“Understandable – why change a winning formula?” Alice grabbed his shoulders, bent her knees, pushed off with her feet, and managed to flip him over her head, sending them somersaulting. “But you said it yourself – you don’t want to feel like a useless lump anymore. I’m just doing my best to make that desire come true.” She leaned down into his face. “Besides, I believe I mentioned at one point I did not want to see you dead because you didn’t know how to fight?”
Victor stared up at her, looking somehow paler than his wont. “You – you did,” he stammered, sounding oddly breathless. “Have I mentioned lately how bright your eyes are?”
Alice blinked, taken off guard by the compliment. “Um – no,” she said, then shook her head. “And this really isn’t the time.”
“I know, I know, it’s just – you really are p-pretty, you know,” Victor whispered, averting his eyes.
Alice blushed. “Even when I’m tossing you about like a rag doll to try and teach you how to fight properly?”
“Even then,” Victor said, looking back at her.
There was a long moment of silence as they just stared at each other. Emily took Victoria’s hand, and they shared a hopeful look. Nearby, Marty crossed his fingers behind his back. Come on, come on. . . .
Hooves thundering down the nearby road broke the spell. Alice hurriedly got off Victor and started brushing off her dress. Victor did the same with his suit. Emily, Victoria, and Marty all looked at each other grumpily. God damn it, Marty thought, frustrated beyond belief. So close! “All right, who the hell is coming?” he asked, in a nastier tone than he’d meant.
Doc peered down the road, then turned to them with a deep frown. “Trouble,” he said. “It’s some of the Queen’s guard.”
“What?” Emily said, getting to her feet. “The famous Card Guard?”
“Yes. Judging from their pikes, they look like Clubs, but we shouldn’t dismiss them. The main trouble is, there’s nowhere for us to hide should they be looking for fresh victims for the Queen.”
“I think we can take care of a few Cards, Doc,” Marty said, rolling his eyes as he picked up his sword. “Especially if they’re just Clubs.”
“Never underestimate the Queen’s forces, Marty,” Doc scolded. “You never know who will be the most dangerous to you when.”
“Should we try to move on?” Jennifer asked.
“No, I think it’s too late. Best bet is to stay here and hope they ignore us.”
The group of riders came up beside them a moment later. It was indeed a contingent of Club Guards – a Seven, a Six, a Four, and a Two. They stopped their horses as they noticed the group sitting on the grass. “Here now, what are you doing?” Seven said, his lumpy face twisted into a scowl.
“We’ve just finished our lunch,” Alice replied, gazing back at him steadily. “We’re simply enjoying the sunshine at the moment.”
“And why are you out here enjoying the sunshine?”
“Because it’s nice out?”
“We’re on a pleasure trip around this area,” Doc said, hoping to counter Alice’s sarcasm.
“Ah. Have you seen any subversives about?”
“Subversives?” Marty echoed.
“A group of rebels causing the Queen quite a bit of distress,” Four said. “I haven’t seen her this mad since Two brought tulip roots to the cook instead of onions.”
“The former Two,” Two said, as if afraid of being accused of a crime he hadn’t committed.
“They’ve been stirring up trouble – trying to gather forces to overthrow the Queen,” Seven continued. “We’re under orders to find them, torture them, and drag them before Her Majesty for execution.”
“Heavy,” Marty remarked.
“I hope they’re not – it’ll make them a pain to drag otherwise.”
“We haven’t seen anyone who looks like that recently,” Jennifer said, with what she hoped was an ingratiating smile. “But of course we’ll tell you immediately if we do.”
“Of course you will,” Seven said, although he did crack a small smile. “But it’s good fo find people who are so cooperative. Most citizens you have to threaten multiple times before they’ll give you anything to work with.”
“Heh,” Victor said weakly.
“Well, we hope to remain in good standing with Her Majesty,” Doc said with a little nod. “Good luck on your journeys.”
“Thank you.” Seven put his heels to his horse, and the four rode on, their bodies flapping a bit in the breeze.
There was silence for a long moment. Then Victor slumped to the ground. “What do we do now?” he asked. “Sooner or later someone’s going to realize we’re the rebels and have us dragged to meet the Queen!”
“Yeah, I’d prefer a chance at a sneak attack myself,” Marty said. “Good thing that third of a suit was pretty dumb.”
“That and they may not have a good description of us yet,” Doc said. “But it’s definitely something to worry about. I don’t think we’ll be able to count on being that lucky again.”
“So what do we do?” Victor repeated.
“I picked up a new map at our last stop,” Doc said, digging among his packs. “Where is it – aha!” He spread it out on the ground, weighed the corners down with a couple of rocks, then studied the kingdom as it was laid out in ink and paper. “All right, we are roughly here,” he said, tapping a finger near the edge of kingdom’s borders. “According to this, we’re not far from where our land butts up against the Pale Kingdom.”
Victoria’s face lit up. “That’s where Sir Christopher is from! He told me he was here as an ambassador.”
“Right – the Pale Kingdom are allies of ours. I think largely because they’re worried about what Her Majesty might do to them if they weren’t. However, I have it on good intelligence that they harbor refugees from our kingdom and help them pass on into other lands. And they’ve signed an agreement with the Queen saying that, unless it’s on official ambassador business – like your Sir Christopher, Victoria – neither royal family can interfere with the workings of the other.” He looked up at his friends. “So it might be within our best interest to go into the Pale Kingdom for a while. We can lie low while traveling along the borders of the lands and worry less about being caught by Her Majesty’s monsters.” Smiling at Victoria, he added, “And perhaps we’ll finally be able to reunite you with Sir Christopher.”
“That would be lovely,” Victoria whispered, clutching her hands to her breast. “I’ve so missed him.”
“Sounds like a plan, Doc,” Marty nodded. “I know I’m not really in any mood to fight Card Guards if I don’t have to. Which way to the Pale Kingdom.”
“That way,” Doc said, pointing behind Marty and to the left. “We should make it over the border before nightfall.”
“Will there be any signs telling us that we’ve arrived?” Victor asked, getting up again.
“I don’t know, but from what I’ve heard, it’s very easy to tell when you’ve entered the kingdom. Something about unusual grass. . . .” Doc shrugged. “We’ll find out. Let’s pack up and get moving before we encounter any more Card Guards.”
Supplies were put away, weapons holstered, and horses mounted. The group of seven rode hard toward the edges of their kingdom, Doc in the lead, Alice in the rear. They kept a close eye out for curious onlookers and fabulous monsters alike, doing their best not to attract any unwanted attention. Fortunately for them, the closest thing that came to threatening them was a squirrel that chattered angrily as they passed its tree.
They rode hard all the afternoon, stopping only twice to allow Victor and Marty to relieve themselves. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, they paused a moment to debate the merits of stopping for dinner versus keeping going and looking for an inn. “We really have no idea how close we are--” Jennifer started.
“Yes we do,” Emily said, staring at the ground.
“Huh?” Jennifer followed the corpse bride’s line of sight.
And blinked. “What the--”
“Unusual grass indeed,” Doc commented, leaning forward.
In the fading light of day, the seven were able to distinguish a distinct line in the ground not far ahead of them, with grass so dark that it was almost black. Past that line, the grass was divided into large square plots of dark and light green. The plots alternated in a checkered pattern, giving the ground the appearance of a large chessboard. “I wonder what magical effects are inherent to the land to make the grass grow like that,” Doc continued, shielding his eyes against the glare of the setting sun.
“Christopher told me the entire kingdom has the theme of a chess game, and it’s been like that since anyone can remember,” Victoria provided, riding up a little closer to the older man. “He’s one of two official White Knights – the other soldiers are the Pawns or Rooks, depending on their rank. The King and Queen wear crowns patterned after those you might find on a chess piece, and it’s the same with the regalia of the bishops and the armor of the soldiers.”
“So if we see any people with helmets like horse heads, we’ve got a fifty percent chance of it being the guy we’re looking for?” Marty asked.
Victoria smiled. “I suppose. He told me that they call our kingdom the Crimson Kingdom because of the Queen’s love for red.”
“Makes sense. And I guess we can’t say anything about them loving chess, if our Queen’s got living – and undead – cards under her command.”
“The human Pawns of this realm should be much better company, yes,” Doc agreed. “Does everyone agree we should ride on now?”
There was a choruses of “yeses,” and the group spurred their horses onward, past the line and onto the checkered grass. After about another hour’s worth of riding, they came across a checkered road of white and black cobbles. Following this led them to a little town. The cobbles here continued the theme of the road, while the buildings were either a shiny white or a glossy black. “It’s like being in a photograph that’s come to life,” Victoria murmured, looking around. “Not a bit of color anywhere.”
“Almost,” Marty said, pointing to a shop. While the walls and door were the same brilliant white as half the others, the sign – shaped like an oversized top hat – fairly popped with bright green and pink. Written on it in gold lettering was “Mad Hatter Haberdashery.” “Looks like somebody didn’t get the proclamation about what colors are acceptable in a chess world. Or lack of same.”
“I like it,” Emily said, smiling at the sign. “It’s unusual. And it adds a little more life to this place.”
“Certainly easy to see against the rest of the town,” Alice agreed.
They located a little inn, wrapped Emily up in a long cloak to hide the most obvious marks of decay (Emily herself had suggested this after nearly frightening the life out of the sheriff they’d told about Barkis’s evil deeds, and narrowly avoiding getting a few extra bullet wounds in her from his deputy) and headed inside. The walls and ceilings of the inn were all white – even the flames of the torches looked oddly pale. The floor was checkered, as they’d come to expect, and the tables were white surrounded by black chairs and covered with checkered tablecloths. Doc found the innkeeper wiping down the bar and asked about rooms. “We’ve only got two open at the moment,” the innkeeper told them, looking over the large group. “I don’t know if there’s room for all of you.”
“We’ll find room,” Doc assured the man. “We just need a place to rest our heads.”
“All right – I’m not one to refuse business.” Money was exchanged, and the group went to find their quarters. They were indeed small, but a wish from Doc’s watch provided everyone with enough room to sleep. They unloaded their things, then headed back into the front room for dinner.
The innkeeper came around to get them some drinks, and Marty took the opportunity to ask a question. “Who’s the guy with the really colorful sign? Sticks out like a sore thumb in all this black and white.”
“Oh, that would be the local hatter, Richard Dodgson,” the innkeeper said with a fond smile. “Mad as a March hare, and not always the most tactful of people, but he’s got a good heart. If any of you are in the mood to have a hat made, he’s your man. Or if you’re looking for the best cup of tea you’ll ever have,” he added with a chuckle. “Hats, tea, and time – those are his reigning passions.”
“Sounds like an interesting guy,” Marty said. “Maybe we’ll pay him a visit. He could fix up your veil a little, Emily.”
“Maybe,” Emily said, though she looked dubious. “You’ll have to forgive me for being a little reluctant to have anyone else touch it. It was my mother’s, after all.”
“We’ll see what sort of person he is – and whether he’s as good at his job as they claim,” Doc nodded.
After filling up on stew, bread, and cider, the group broke up for the night and headed into their separate rooms. “I feel safer already, being here,” Victoria said, fluffing up the pillow on her bed (which had a checkered blanket of black and white, of course). “It’s a little monochrome, granted, but I’ll take a lack of color over feeling like I have to run for my life any day.”
“Same here,” Jennifer said. “After all our worried time on the road, this is going to feel like a vacation.”
“Don’t speak too soon,” Alice cautioned. “We thought the ball was going to be a pleasant distraction, and that didn’t exactly turn out for the best, did it?”
“No, but we still got a few good days out of it, didn’t we? Can’t I hope for the same here?”
“I suppose,” Alice allowed. “But I’ll be on the lookout for trouble all the same.”
“Here’s hoping it’ll give us a day or two to get settled first,” Jennifer said, shaking her head.
The next morning, after breakfast, the group took a walk around the town. Despite the lack of color, it seemed to be like any other town one might come across in their own kingdom. The butcher had his slabs of meat out for sale (the bright reds and pinks popping out against the white of his shop); the woodworker was crafting some table legs for all to see; the greengrocer hung baskets of onions and carrots from his black awning. “Feels like home, almost,” Marty said with a smile.
“Feels calmer than a lot of the places we’ve been visiting lately,” Alice murmured. “There’s an unspoken tension in the air in our kingdom. Here there’s none.”
“Comes from having royals who don’t like to consort with demons,” Doc said.
They came across the hat shop with the colorful sign they’d seen the day before. In the bright light of day, the group could now see the front window of the shop was filled with hats of all styles, each just as colorful as the sign. The door was also made of glass, revealing a shop interior with green carpet and brass walls. It made the little store shine among its neighbors. “Shall we go in and see what’s what?” Alice said, putting her hand on the door’s handle.
“Hey, I’m intrigued,” Marty said. “Let’s find stuff out.”
With that, they went inside. The inside of the shop was lined with many shelves, all bearing hats. Every one looked unique – there wasn’t a single copycat hat among them. There were also some armchairs and a little glass table, presumably for customers to sit and relax at while their headgear was being made, and a mysterious machine set up near the left side of the room. It seemed to be all levers and gears and strange springs. Marty peered into a vat of silver liquid set into the middle of it all. “What’s this stuff?” he asked, reaching out to touch.
Doc caught his arm. “Mercury,” he said, pulling the teenager away. “And it’s dangerous. Does bad things to the brain if you’re exposed to it for long enough. It’s the reason for the saying ‘mad as a hatter.’”
“Oh. Why do they use the stuff if it’s so dangerous?” Marty asked, all curiosity.
“I believe it’s some sort of stiffening agent. I’m no expert on hatting, so I can’t be sure.”
“I’d wager that whoever runs the shop certainly is,” Alice said, touching a delicate lace bonnet with just the tips of her fingers. “He seems to have a real talent for the work.”
“Look at the walls!” Emily said, extending her fleshed hand to touch one. “It’s not brass paint – it’s a whole bunch of melted gears and cogs and things.”
“So it is!” Doc said, surprised. “Odd decorative choice for a hatter.” He glanced back at the machine. “Then again, he seems to have a mechanical bent. . . .”
Everyone’s eyes turned toward the floor. Standing by a door in the back of the shop was – well, it looked like a large silver teapot. With eight spidery legs. It gave another whistle and scurried away, disappearing through the door and leaving it slightly ajar. “. . .Was that what I thought it was?” Victoria finally asked.
“We’re sure this isn’t a hat shop run by some other version of you?” Marty said, although it was clear he wasn’t quite joking. “Because after Sir Christopher, I’m ready to believe anything.”
“At this point, so am I,” Doc admitted, thrown for a loop.
“Customers?” a high, nasally voice came from the back room. Moments later, what everyone assumed to be the owner emerged, smiling. “Hello there, my fine people! And so many of you at once – are you all here to buy, or does someone need assistance in picking out something?”
Nobody could answer for a moment, too surprised by his appearance. The hatter did not look like Doc, but neither did he look like a normal human. For one thing, his face was a brilliant green color, right down to his neck. He also had the largest nose any of them had seen on a human face. The mouth, with yellowed buck teeth, was dwarfed by it. Above it were two small yellowish eyes. He didn’t seem to have any hair on his head, but that hardly mattered, as he wore such a tall top hat that no one would have noticed any hair he did have. It had to add at least a foot to his height, and that was with a little bend in it near the top, and was checked in black and white, with various alchemical symbols scattered over it – with the most prominent one being the symbol for Mercury etched in red in the front. The man’s shirt was equally strange, with a variety of buckles and straps belting the figure into the white cloth, and a long thin bit of fabric dangling from the wrist of each sleeve. In comparison, the man’s black pants and black shoes with white spats seemed inappropriately pedestrian.
“Ah, newcomers,” the man said, breaking them out of their staring. “They always need a moment to take me in.”
Alice pointed to his shirt with a deep brown. “Is it just me, or is that a repurposed straitjacket?”
“The latter – and really, that’s the first thing you ask about?” the hatter said, looking both surprised and amused. “It’s almost always the green face that gets them first.”
“I would have asked, but she beat me to it,” Marty admitted, with a tiny grin. “So long as you’ve brought it up, though. . . .”
The man chuckled. “The mercury. Horrible, wonderful stuff that it is. Wouldn’t have a trade without it. And yet I wouldn’t have this without it either.” He shrugged, then tipped his hat. “Richard Dodgson, delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“Dr. Emmett Brown, Marty McFly, Jennifer Parker, Alice Liddell, Victor Van Dort, Victoria Everglot, and Emily Cartwell,” Doc introduced everyone. Each person waved as their name was said.
Richard nodded at each, though his gaze lingered on Emily. “Well well. . .seems you were rather rude in staring, given your friend here,” he said, although it was clear he didn’t really mean it as a scold.
Emily smiled weakly. “Skin condition,” she said. “Not from mercury, but. . .you might say I’ve been ill.”
“I might indeed. Though I rather like the color on you.”
Emily blinked, then giggled, ducking her head in a way that suggested she’d blush if she had the ability. “Thank you.”
“She’s kind of the reason we’re here,” Marty said, leaning against a shelf. “Do you do repairs as well as make hats?”
“I can, I can. You need a hat fixed, then?”
“A veil, actually,” Jennifer said.
“My mother’s wedding veil,” Emily explained, curling her fingers in her blue hair. “I was – going to elope with someone, but he – proved himself a scoundrel. We had a bit of a scuffle, and the veil was torn.” She smiled awkwardly. “When we heard about you, Marty said I should ask if you might repair it.”
“Seems like he meant he should ask on your behalf, but no matter,” Richard said, waving a hand. “I’d have to see it first, but I think I should be able to fix it. How about the rest of you – any hats for you lot?”
“I suppose we could buy a couple,” Marty said. “We should have enough spare cash.”
“More than enough, I’m sure,” Victor murmured, picking up a black top hat and examining it.
“No, no, that wouldn’t do for you,” Richard said, taking it from him. “The fabric would blend with your hair. You’re not exactly one for bright colors though either, at least not all over. Something in a soft grey would be better, with perhaps a blue band for color.”
Victor looked up at him in astonishment. “I – um – you think so?”
“I’ve been doing this for years – I think you can trust my judgement,” Richard replied. “Besides, you don’t seem the type who is familiar with hats anyway.”
“I’m admittedly not. . .only wear them for special occasions. . . .”
“Okay, sorry, I gotta ask,” Marty interrupted then, frowning at Richard’s back. “Is that really a giant gear shoved into your spine?”
“It’s not shoved in,” Richard responded. “It’s a necessary part of my internal workings. Even if it is partially external.”
“Why would you need something like that in your back?” Jennifer asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh, they didn’t tell you anything, did they? Normally it’s one of the first things they warn visitors about. . .” Richard turned down his collar a bit to reveal metal rollers. “I’m, ah – well, it was getting the point where I couldn’t do my job anymore. . . .”
“Wait – do you mean to say you’ve replaced almost all of your body with mechanical parts?” Doc said, eyes wide.
“Not all of it, there’s still a few squishy bits left. . .it was the mercury. I was getting very sick, and I thought, ‘wood and metal don’t get ill. . . .’” He pushed up a sleeve to reveal a wooden dowel for a wrist, and another little gear sticking out from his elbow. “So I started cutting and building and – here we are!”
“Didn’t that – hurt?” Victoria said, clearly lost as to anything better to say.
“Some, but mercury poisoning hurts worse. I was worried I might have to replace everything eventually, and doing my head would be – problematic. . .but fortunately before it came to that, I realized I could mechanize the process of making hats!” He waved a hand proudly at the machine Marty had been investigating before. “No fumes, no mess, no fuss!”
“So that’s what it’s for,” Marty said, regarding it with new interest. “I was wondering.”
“Wonder no more! Care for a demonstration? I could have a hat for your friend there done in under five minutes.”
Marty looked back at Victor. “Well? What do you say?”
Victor shrugged and smiled. “Why not? I’m not sure where I’d wear it, but. . . .”
“Oh, you never know when you might need a hat!” Richard produced a roll of grey felt from behind the counter in the back. The tip of one of his fingers flipped back, and out extended a small, scalpel-like blade, which he used to cut off a couple of yards. “One of the advantages to being mostly mechanical,” he said with a grin, taking a roll of light blue ribbon and doing the same to it. “I’ve also got a tranquilizer gun.”
“Whatever for?” Alice said, looking amused.
“Runaway livestock, unruly customers, indecent Barbary macaques. . .I could name a thousand situations.” He lay the fabric next to the machine, then produced a tape measure from inside his sleeve (or possible his arm). “I am going to need a few measurements. . . .”
Victor stood still and allowed the hatter to wind the tape around his head a few different waves. “Aha! Yes, that should be fine!” He went over to the machine and twisted a few dials that seemed to serve as a control panel of sorts. Then he placed the end of the felt into a pair of rollers at start of the machine, the ribbon into a different pair of rollers near the end, and pulled a lever. “Watch as progress marches forth!”
The machine sputtered to life with a lot of clanking and a hiss of steam. The rollers pulled the fabric forward into the path of some automated scissors, which cut a pattern. Mechanical hands got a hat block ready, which the fabric was placed on and shaped, with copious amounts of steam billowing about. More scissors were used to trim and shape the product, and a different hand with an eye in its palm examined the fabric. “What’s that for?” Marty asked, watching closely as the hand patted the slowly forming hat.
“Making sure the felt’s properly cured,” Richard replied. “That’s what the mercury tub is for – if it needs some extra curing, I can give it a dip. That usually means having to wait an extra day while it dries and I treat it with some other solutions. Wouldn’t want mercury leaking into your hair, would you?”
“No thanks,” Marty nodded, as Victor grimaced and rubbed his head.
The hand finished its task and gave a thumbs up. The scissors finished their shaping, then automated sewing needles moved in, rapidly stitching everything together. The hat then went into a little chamber near the end – through a porthole, one could see hot lamps and small irons drying and shaping the hat to its final form. After a couple of minutes, the hat emerged, dry and almost ready to wear. A mechanical brush gave it a good, thorough brushing as the ribbon was run through the rollers and snipped to the correct length and width. Another mechanical hand wound the ribbon around the hat, fastened it in place, then presented the completed product to Richard. Richard turned and gave it to Victor. “And there you are!”
“And in four minutes, 48 seconds,” Doc said, checking his watch.
“What did I tell you?” Richard grinned at Marty. “Impressed?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” Marty nodded, grinning back. “I’ll have to think of a hat I’d like to have made. In the meantime, what’s the damage for Victor’s?”
“Er–” Richard frowned. “I don’t recall anyone breaking anything. . . .”
“He means how much he needs to pay,” Doc translated.
“Oh! Ten shillings, six pence. That’s average price for a hat like that.”
Marty pulled out a handful of coins and regarded them. “Yeah, we’re from the next kingdom over, so – what’s that in our money?” he asked, showing the coins to Richard.
“Ah, you’re some of hers,” Richard said, sounding distinctly disgusted as he said “hers.” “Running away from her tyranny, I take it?”
“Actually, we’re hoping to kill her,” Marty said with a smile.
Richard, who’d been examining the money, froze for a moment. Slowly, his eyes lifted to meet Marty’s. “What?”
“It’s a bit of a long story – the short version is, he doesn’t know what fear is, and he’s decided only the most drastic measures will do,” Alice said, smirking with amusement. “Well, that and he’s a generally kind-hearted young man who’s killed monsters before. Myself, Victor, and Doc joined up with him to assist him, since we’re no fans of the Queen ourselves. Jennifer’s here because Marty rescued her from eternal sleep.”
“Hey, I want to help too,” Jennifer protested.
“I know, but that is how you joined the group. And Victoria and Emily are tagging along for now because we rescued them from some distress.”
“Don’t you mean we helped somebody who thought they were in distress from Emily?” Marty said.
“Why would anyone think such a beautiful young lady meant them harm?” Richard said, turning to face her. “Blue skin isn’t that terrifying to people in the Crimson Kingdom, is it?”
“It’s not really the blue skin,” Emily said, biting her lip. “It’s – well, if people around here are used to seeing a man that’s almost all gears and metal walking around, maybe I can take a chance at showing what I really look like.” With a hesitant smile, she extended her skeletal hand from under her cloak.
Richard regarded it for a long moment, then looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. “You know, death isn’t an illness most people recover from.”
“I get the feeling we’re going to have to tell him the long version,” Marty said to his friends.
“You are indeed – you can’t just drop things like this on me and not expect me to be curious,” Richard nodded. “But you needn’t stand around like this! Come and we’ll have a cup of tea.” He turned again to the back room. “Burnie! Hot water!”
“Burnie?” Emily echoed as they followed him around to the back.
“The teapot – did you see him? He saw you.”
“That teapot was rather hard to miss,” Victor admitted with a chuckle. “Why does it have legs?”
“It’s far more convenient to have the teapot come to me than for me to go to the teapot,” Richard said, opening the back door. “In, in! I need to put up the sign on the door.”
The group funneled in. Behind the shop was another large room, this one a combination of kitchen and dining room. The dominant piece of furniture was a huge tea table, made of dark wood and polished to an almost mirror sheen. Surrounding it was a mishmash of various chairs – regular table chairs, armchairs, folding chairs, even a couple of stools. On the left were the counters and cupboards one usually found in the kitchen, done in black and white. There was also a silver faucet extending out from the wall, which Burnie was standing under. Pressing a pedal with one of its long legs, it filled itself with water, then scampered up a nearby ramp and onto the stove to heat itself. “Fascinating,” Doc said, smiling. “Simply fascinating.”
“Go on, sit down,” Richard encouraged, reappearing on the scene. “It won’t be long til we have tea, and in the meantime there’s always plenty to eat.”
“You still have a stomach then?” Marty asked as they all found acceptable chairs.
“Something along the same lines – I rather like food and I didn’t want to give it up just because I was going to be less organic than I previously was.” Richard set out plates and cups, then got a tiered cake platter and started loading it with little meringue cookies, ladyfingers, chocolate cookies, and tiny round cakes. On different plates went cucumber and tomato sandwiches, a load of scones, and a pile of rolls. “Granted, I don’t have to eat as often as I used to, but this works well enough for me.”
“I think it’s going to work quite well for us too,” Alice said, licking her lips as the food was brought over.
“Excellent! It’s good when it works for everyone. Now then – Darjeeling? Earl Grey? A spot of green tea, with lemon and honey? Or lemon or honey? Or neither? A cup of Liver Disaster, perhaps?”
“Just Earl – wait, what was that last one?” Jennifer said, blinking.
“It comes with hops and barley like one would use to brew beer. A most unusual flavor, but I find it quite nice with a little dash of mercury.”
“All yours,” Jennifer said, waving a hand. “I think Earl Grey will do for the rest of us.” The rest of the table nodded quickly in agreement.
“Earl Grey it is.” Richard fetched the appropriate blend and got it ready in the warmed Burnie. “Now then,” he said, bringing the teapot over to the table, “what is your quest? Start at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop.”
“Well,” Marty began, “we’re not quite at the end yet. . . .”
As it turned out, the entire story took over a hour and a half to tell, between sips of tea and bites of food. Richard was an attentive and interested listener, if a bit impatient in spots. He marveled at all the adventures they’d had, laughed whenever there was a funny bit, and agreed with them that it was very odd that they kept finding old houses and suchlike just stuck into the woods. “Very untidy. No offense, Princess Parker.”
“Oh, please, Jennifer,” Jennifer told him. “I don’t think I want to be associated with the royal family. Unless you’re an asshole from Burtonsville.”
“Undoubtably. I’m sorry about your situations, Victor and Victoria. It sounds an awful place to live.”
“It wasn’t too bad when we were growing up,” Victor replied, then sighed. “But I was certainly happy to see the back of it.”
“Me too,” Victoria said. “I’m really hoping I can make this kingdom my home.”
“Well, we’re not too far a trip from White Castle,” Richard told her. “That’s where the White Knights live, along with the royal family. A couple of days’ ride, and you could see your beloved Sir Christopher again. Though I must admit, we haven’t seen him for a while ourselves.”
“Haven’t you?” Victor looked around the table nervously. “Oh dear. . .I hope he hasn’t run into trouble.”
“He slew the Jabberwock – the most terrifying beast to stalk either of these kingdoms,” Richard said, all confidence. “I’m sure he can take whatever your Queen may throw at him.”
“Our Queen can throw a lot of things at him,” Jennifer said dubiously.
“All we can do is hope for the best,” Doc said. He stood up. “Thank you for a lovely meal, but I fear we’ve kept you away from your customers for too long.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that – they’re used to me working odd hours. Thank you for such an interesting tale! And I wish you all the best of luck in your journey. Someone’s got to stop that wretched woman from making a mess of her kingdom. And it probably won’t be long before she sets her sights on us.”
“We’ll do whatever we can,” Marty said. “I don’t think I ever paid you for Victor’s hat. . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” Richard said kindly. “For such a brave group, I can afford to give away something for free. And you don’t have to worry about paying for Emily’s veil either, when she brings it in.”
“Oh, it’s really no trouble,” Emily started.
“Charge such a lovely lady such as yourself? I shudder at the notion.” Richard turned more serious. “Besides, it’s the least I can do after hearing your story. What a horrible way to die – and then to meet the man again, and discover he’s gotten rich off murdering practically every young lady he comes across! I’m glad you put him in the ground, where he belongs.”
“I bet that group of ghosts was happy about that too,” Marty nodded.
“Happier than any one of us, I’m sure.” Richard gently patted Emily’s skeletal hand. “You’re a lovely young lady, and deserve every happiness.”
Emily looked again like she wanted to blush. She settled for dropping her eyes and smiling shyly. “You’re – you’re too good to me, Mr. Dodgson.”
“I doubt that. And, um, Richard’s fine,” he added with a shy smile of his own.
Emily fluttered her eyelashes at him. “All right – Richard.”
Richard blushed himself then, and accidentally stuck his elbow into his teacup. “Ah – well, I should let you get going,” he admitted, standing up and freeing the china from his arm. “Er – how long are you staying in town?”
“We’ll be here tomorrow, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Marty said with a sly smile. “We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep in real beds.”
“Ah, good. Good.” Richard opened the door. “So yes, I’ll see you--”
A loud buzzing interrupted his farewells. Richard glared as something black darted across their vision. “Horrible things! I thought I chased them all out!”
“Fly problem?” Alice asked, rocking on her heels. “I can related. Wretched creatures, aren’t they?”
“Why they come in here is a mystery to me – as is why the colder weather hasn’t killed off the lot of them,” Richard said with a scowl, watching another fly zip across his shop. His fingertip snapped open again, revealing the barrel of a tiny gun. “Well, I’m not putting up with it!” He aimed and fired.
Something shaped like a tiny rocket with a long spiky tip shot out and ricocheted a few times around the shop. It finally landed in the middle of the floor, tiny black fly bodies speared on its tip. Richard ran up and counted. “Seven!” he announced proudly, grinning back at the others. “Can you believe it? Seven in one shot!”
“Nice,” Marty said, as the others provided some applause. “You’ve got one hell of an aim.”
“And quite a bit of luck,” Alice added.
“Indeed! Impressive, isn’t it? I’ll have to tell the other customers,” Richard said, placing the rocket on his counter. “Maybe next time I can try for eight!”
“Good luck with that,” Marty said. “We’ll see you tomorrow with Emily’s veil.”
“It’ll be a pleasure. Have a good stay!”
“Thanks! Been great so far!”
With that, he headed outside, the rest of his friends following him. “He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?” Marty asked them.
“A bit of a literalist, and the innkeeper was right to say he’s not always the best with tact – but yes, good company,” Alice nodded. “And an excellent chef.”
“I know,” Victor said, rubbing his stomach. “Perhaps we can ask him for a few of those cakes to take with us.”
“I’m all for that,” Jennifer giggled. “And Emily. . . .”
“I know,” Emily said, glancing over her shoulder with a grin. “He’s so sweet. . .I’ll admit he’s not what I pictured when I thought of Prince Charming, but – then again, what I did picture when I thought of Prince Charming turned out to be anything but, so. . . .” She looked around the town. “I – I may decide to stay. Depending on how tomorrow goes. I don’t want to rush into anything, but still. . . .”
“You follow your heart, Emily,” Victoria said, looking excited for her friend. “I think it would be perfect if he were the one.”
“Yeah – the mechanical hatter and the corpse bride,” Marty nodded. “Sounds like a good match to me. We’ll see for sure when we bring your veil in tomorrow.”
“I suppose we will.” Emily bounced in place. “Oooh, I don’t know if I can stand the wait!”
“I don’t think waiting one evening will change matters much,” Doc assured her with a laugh, patting her shoulder. “Right now, I think it’s a good time to buy some new clothes. The ones we’ve got are nearly worn out.” He pointed down the checkered street. “To the tailor, my friends.”