Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

Advertisement

Fiction

The Jaws That Bite, The Claws That Catch

Mist flowed through the Tulgey Wood like treacle, slow and thick and unyielding. Squeaks and muffled chitters came from the underbrush as rabbits, foxes, and adolescent toves that hadn’t sensed the weather changing were caught and drowned in the gray-white mire. It would clear by noon, burnt off by the sun, and then the scavengers would come, making a feast of the small mist-struck creatures. By nightfall, nothing would be left to show that anything had died here, not even the bones. The Tulgey Wood concealed its own.

It couldn’t protect us if we let ourselves be seen.

I hung from the strongest branch on the tum-tum tree, watching the mist flowing beneath me. A jubjub bird flew by, wings shockingly bright against the gray. The mist threw up a tendril, trying to grab the bird’s leg and drag it down. I acted without thought, reaching down and snatching the bird by the tail, flinging it upward. It screeched indignation but didn’t bite at me. No creature living in the Tulgey Wood could fail to understand the danger represented by mist, or snow, or—worst of all—the dreaded, all-too-frequent rain. Jubjubs aren’t smart. It still knew that it had just been saved, even if it couldn’t understand the how or why of it.

A single brightly colored feather drifted from the branches overhead. The mist snatched it and sucked it down, burbling discontent. I watched it for a moment more, and then resumed my climb through the trees, swinging hand over hand as I moved toward the distant, terrifying light that filtered through the trees at wood’s end. Like most of my family, I had lived all the days of my life within the shadows and treachery of the Tulgey Wood. I had no interest in leaving.

No interest save for one: my youngest sister, who needed me, and who had been taken from us by the terrible creatures who lived outside our borders. Someone had to save her. Someone had to bring her home. “Someone” is a serpent of a word. It has fangs, and it can bite. It had bitten me, and now I had to go.

“Come home safely,” whispered my mother’s ghost from the canopy above.

“I’ll try,” I said. The trees had carried me as far as they could. From here, the branches were too thin to support my weight, and more, I had things to leave behind. Releasing my hold on the limb that bore me up, I allowed myself to fall into the mist.

• • • •

On the ground, with the mist flowing hard around me, pushing me back, it took the better part of the day for me to walk to the edge of the wood. It tingled and burnt as it played across my skin, stripping away everything that would tell the terrible outsiders who and what I was. There are things in the wood that the mist cannot digest. My family and I are among them. Rocks, bones, and us: the inedible heart of the Tulgey Wood. But the mist is greedy, like the outsiders. The mist always tries to take as much as it can, and so it took scales and fur and traceries of blood, leaving skin exposed and aching in the light. I shivered and shuddered and walked on. When one becomes someone, there is always a price to be paid.

The wood cut off as cleanly as a knife stroke. There were no singular trees, no orphans to confuse the demarcation between in and out; one moment I was in the wood, and the next, I was standing on open ground, with the trees to my back. Even the mist didn’t violate the tree line. Sometimes outsiders nailed signs to the trees, saying things like “Be Warned” and “Be Wary” and “Shun the Wood.” We always took them down. They were unattractive, and the trees didn’t like them, and we had better uses for the nails.

A jubjub flew by overhead, shrieking its mournful cry to the sky above. Maybe it was the bird I’d saved. That would be nice. I had kept it from the mist, and now it would remember me, even if I didn’t make it home. My family would remember me no matter what I did, but families are broken mirrors: I would only ever be a dutiful daughter in the reflection they would cast for me. The jubjub and the mist and the trees would be more accurate, even if they never spoke a word.

Fat, white-spotted mushrooms with bloody caps grew in the median between wood and world. I walked along the tree line until I found a mushroom that looked large enough to be my size. Plucking it from the loam, I whispered my name into the gills of its fleshy underside, and smashed it against the nearest tree. The nut-brown heart of the fungus fell to the ground and rolled to my bare feet, where it cracked open, revealing a bundle of fabric. I bent, picking through it. There were black leather shoes, and undergarments, and a dress made of stitched-together triangles in black and white and red. It was cunningly made, especially considering that it had been made by a mushroom, and would show allegiance to no specific suit or house. I could walk all the way to the City of Hearts in this dress, and no one would be able to claim me for their own.

I dressed, covering my exposed skin anew, this time with the stretch of cotton and the weight of cobbling. My feet, unaccustomed to shoes, protested. I scuffed my toes against the ground, bruising them just enough to numb them. The wood was a silent scream behind me, beckoning me home, begging me not to go. But someone’s venom was in my veins; I had no choice. I had a sister in need of saving.

I began to walk.

When I was very small, no more than a comma of a creature compared to the pages and paragraphs of my parents, they used to tell me stories of the world outside the wood. “It’s terrible there,” said my mother, shivering. “Their sense is nonsense, and their nonsense is sense. You can trust nothing outside the wood. Nothing. All of it waits only to destroy you.”

“It’s terrible there,” said my father, with eyes like chips of ice, so cold that they burned. “Their truths are lies, and their lies are truth. You can believe nothing outside the wood. Nothing. All of it waits only to disprove you.”

I had promised them then, and a hundred times after that, that I would never leave the wood, never dash open the mushrooms that peppered the tree line, never walk the road that led toward the City and away from the green. I had promised them. Breaking my promise burned, even though I was half-sure that promises didn’t really bind once the person who had been promised was gone. Mother had been dead for years, her body thrown to the mist by the soldiers who’d killed her for the crime of refusing to let them enter the wood. Father had only been gone for the space of a season. We were still adjusting to the weight of a world without him. With them gone, I was the eldest, and no promise could be enough to keep me from doing my duty by the family.

The road that led toward the City was hard-packed dirt, brown and smooth and scrolling out like a ribbon toward a distant, alien horizon. I prodded it cautiously with my toe, waiting for it to ripple like molasses and pull me under. It remained solid and unyielding. Gingerly, I stepped onto it, and was reassured when it bore my weight. Maybe not everything about the world outside the wood was treacherous and waiting for the chance to kill me.

My temporary relief faded. Not everything was waiting for the chance to kill me, but enough was. I would forget that at my peril. Worse, at my sister’s peril.

“I am the heart of my family,” I whispered, ducking my head until my chin brushed my breastbone. “I am the soul of my forest. I will bring my people home.”

The road said nothing, only bore me up, and waited to see what I would do next.

Next, I began to walk.

• • • •

The distance between the Tulgey Wood and the City of Hearts is always the same. When the city grows beyond its current borders, the road will stretch like the finest taffy, carrying it farther from the tree line, and keeping the people of both places safe. All the cities and sites in Wonderland are balanced in the same perfect, equitable way, preventing us from being shuffled atop each other like common cards. Those who live in the cities say that the wood moves to keep them safe, because they can’t comprehend how anyone who lives in the shadow of the trees and the circumference of the thorns could ever yearn for safety.

If I thought there was a chance they would listen to me, those jam-fed city dwellers, with their silver teaspoons and their sugar-crusted scones, this is what I would say to them:

“We wish for safety as much as you do. We want to go to bed knowing that our children and elders are safe. We want to see our parents grow old in comfort. We want to take lovers and take our time falling in love, to know that we have time available to us, time like a spool of diamond thread, time to raise our children and see them taking lovers of their own. We wish for safety and security and serenity—all the things you would deny us, all the things you would use us to deny yourselves. The cities move to protect the wood. Not the other way around.”

But they would never listen to me. What was I but a daughter of the Tulgey Wood, meant to be the monster at the end of their stories, meant to stand silently by while they came into my place, took what was most precious, and left? Monsters didn’t have homes to defend or sisters they loved more than life itself. That would make us too much like them, and then we would be less effective as excuses for the things they did to themselves. The patrols and the rules and the soldiers in their gleaming armor, blazoned with the suits of the cities—hearts and diamonds, clubs and spades—coming to challenge the borders of the wood, because at least then their rulers could pretend that there was a war to be fought.

We had never been at war with the cities. We only wanted to be left alone.

Day twisted into afternoon, the sky shifting shades above me until it began to darken into blackcurrant twilight. I kept walking. There was no telling how long my sister had, or how far the road had stretched since the last time a member of my family had been called upon to walk it. My feet ached. The dress the mushroom had made for me constricted my waist until it felt like I would suffocate. That was almost a good thing. I hadn’t eaten since I’d made up my mind to go, and the pain outside distracted from the pain inside. None of this was familiar. None of this was safe.

When I have her back, I am never leaving the wood again, I thought, and it was such a good thought that I repeated it to myself over and over again as I walked on.

“Halt!”

The voice was harsh as breaking crockery, filled with sharp edges. I halted, balling my sweaty palms into fists around the fabric of my skirt as the man stepped out of the shadows. He wore the sigil of the City of Hearts above his breast; he carried a sword. Perhaps his face was fair, and perhaps his form was fine, but I couldn’t tell. All I could perceive was terror.

“Who are you, walking the road after the sun goes down? Don’t you know that this road extends to the Tulgey Wood? There are things there, things with jaws that bite and claws that catch. Things that would think nothing of making a meal of a pretty thing like you.” He took a step forward.

I took a step back. “This is the only road,” I said, and my voice shook, and my heart pounded under its blanket of red and black and white triangles. “I have to get to the city. This seemed safer than striking out across the fields.” That was a lie. I would have felt infinitely safer among the brush and the wabe. But without the road to guide me, I didn’t trust myself to get there. The cities outside the wood had a way of moving when they felt like they were overly exposed, or like there were monsters coming. The wood had no such protections.

“You should come with me,” he said, and took another step forward. “I can lead you straight to the gates.”

“My father told me never to go walking with strange men I met on the road.” That wasn’t quite true—he had used different words—but the message remained the same. Father told me never to go walking with anyone I met outside the wood. Not to trust them, because they wouldn’t trust me. Not if they saw me with their eyes closed.

“Your father wouldn’t see me as a strange man,” countered the guard. He continued toward me. “I’m a knight in service to the City of Hearts. The Queen herself approved my appointment. Your father would tell you to get down on your knees and thank the great Alice for your luck, if he were here.”

“My father is dead.” The words were cold, naked things: They fell between us, lying slaughtered on the hard-packed ground.

The guard hesitated for only a moment. Then he smiled, and took another step, and said, “If your father is dead, it doesn’t matter what he said to you, now, does it? All that matters is the moonlight on your hair, and the starlight in my eyes. You’re very beautiful, you know.”

“I have to get to the city.”

“I can take you there in the morning. I can show you the way.”

It would have been so easy to let him take another step, so easy to let him have what he thought he wanted. It would have dulled the fire in my belly and salved the burning in my heart. And I might never reach the city, and might never bring my sister home. I took a step backward.

“I’m sworn to the White Rabbit,” I said. “I can’t be late.”

The guard’s face fell. To swear to the White Rabbit was to invoke one of the principal protections of Wonderland—and to risk a terrible punishment for failure. The Rabbit looked kindly on those who kept their time accurately and well. But the Rabbit had little patience for those who were late, and the Rabbit had teeth, even if most chose to forget them. Sometimes the Rabbit punished those who broke their oaths. More often, the Rabbit punished those who caused those oaths to be broken.

Everything that lives can have jaws that bite and claws that catch, if the need is dire enough.

“Go, then,” he said, voice suddenly harsh with loathing and fear. “The city isn’t so much further. You should make it with time to spare.”

“I thank you,” I said, and bobbed a quick curtsey, hands still buried in the fabric of my skirt, so he wouldn’t see them shaking. “Do you know if they’ve changed the password since yesterday eve? Only I’ve been on the road all this time, and I don’t want to be delayed.”

He had stopped me on the road for no good reason beyond his own amusement. If I was late—if I was really under the White Rabbit’s protection—he could be held responsible. He probably wouldn’t enjoy that. “Quiche and crumpets,” he said. “Now go. Don’t be late.”

“Thank you,” I said, and started down the road again. This time, no one appeared to stop me.

• • • •

The edge of the sky was the yellow-gold of quince marmalade when I reached the City of Hearts. The jam-colored light washed across the spires and structures of the city, setting them to glittering. I didn’t pause to admire it. If the sun was rising, the password would be changing soon, and I didn’t want to waste the morning waiting for someone to slip and speak it loudly enough to be overheard.

The gates were locked. I rapped my knuckles against them, and waited, impatient, until the heart-shaped hatch at the center of the gate swung open, and a guard peered suspiciously out at me.

“What do you feed a Duchess when she’s tired of summerwine and mockingbird pie?” he asked.

“Quiche and crumpets,” I said.

The heart-shaped hatch closed. The gate opened, and the City of Hearts was exposed to me.

As with all card cities, the suit was reflected everywhere: in the architecture, in the negative space between buildings, in the fashions of the few citizens who were already out and about, getting the streets prepared for the day to come. The cobblestones were shaped like true hearts, the kind hunters ripped, wet and beating, from the chests of the beasts they killed. I wondered, as I stepped onto those cobblestones, how many of the citizens knew what they walked upon. It would be easy to only see the stylized, artistic hearts, and miss the darker, bloody ones. But both were there. Some were blatant and others tucked away, but both were there.

I walked through the streets of the city as the sky bled from quince to lavender, and no one looked at me twice, or questioned my presence. I walked until I reached the fence that stood around the palace. It was wrought iron, painted red and taller than even the tallest trees in the Tulgey Wood. More of those odd, flattened heart shapes blunted the tops of the metal spikes that made it, but even blunt, they would be enough to make climbing over difficult—and I was sure the edges would be razor sharp, ready to cut anyone who dared to risk the walls.

My shoulders ached under the confining fabric of my dress. I wanted to rip it away, to stand free in this alien street. I didn’t move. I didn’t dare. Anything could betray me now, and I was so close to finding my sister. I was so close to bringing her home.

A girl in a white dress patterned with large, cheerful hearts stopped on the street, looking from me to the fence and back to me again before she asked, “Do you have business with the Queen?” There was a note of disapproval in her voice—but not, I guessed, aimed at me. The Queen of Hearts had a reputation in Wonderland. All the Queens did. The Queen of Diamonds was known for Beauty; the Queen of Clubs for Wisdom; the Queen of Spades for Kindness. With those ideals to match herself against, the Queen of Hearts could have chosen anything.

She’d chosen Cruelty. Hers was the Kingdom into which the Alice had fallen, all those days and all those darks ago, and the Queen of Hearts had defined her rule around what the Alice was not.

The girl in the red and white dress looked nervous enough to trust. “My sister,” I said. “They took her three days ago. I came here to get her back. I think . . . I think that if she’s anywhere, she’ll be inside the palace. But I’ve never been here before. I don’t know how to get inside.”

“No one gets inside unless the Queen wants them there,” said the girl. “What does your sister look like?”

“Like me, but shorter.” I held a hand at the level of my chest. “Hair like mine. Eyes like mine.”

“Golden hair.” The girl’s face fell. “They took her because she looked like an Alice.”

“I suppose.”

You look like an Alice. Almost. You’re too old for the keyhole to mistake you for her.”

I stared at her. “You saw the Alice?”

“No. But I’ve seen pictures. How were you not taken? Your family should have lost you years ago. The Queen wants the door open. She wants the things from the Alice’s side of the mirror, the weapons she’s heard about, the poisons you can’t mix here.” The girl shook her head. “You should be dust and bones by now.”

“If I can’t get my sister back, I might as well be.” I looked past her to the palace walls. “I have to find a way inside. I have to save her.”

The girl was quiet for a moment before she said, “I know a way. Come with me.”

I hadn’t known her half long enough to trust her. I didn’t have any better ideas. The sun was rising, and I was in the middle of the City of Hearts, where my mushroom-made dress would stand out sooner or later. Someone would ask my name, where I was from, where I was going, and then . . . “All right,” I said. “Please. Help me save her.”

The girl in the heart-patterned dress beckoned for me to follow her down a narrow alley running along the fence line, into the shadows. Lungs like lead, I did exactly that.

• • • •

The alley wound, serpentine, around the backside of the palace, slipping out of sight of street or soldier. The girl waited until we were concealed by the bulk of the palace itself to stop, kneel, and pull up a portion of the cobblestone road, revealing a hatch that led down into the darkness under the city. “This entrance was intended to be used by the Queen, if the City of Diamonds ever marched upon us,” she said. “That was long ago. We have other enemies now.”

“The Alices,” I guessed.

“Those, and the creatures from the Tulgey Wood,” she said. She looked at me, and I knew she knew: there was no other explanation for the darkness in her eyes. “The House of Hearts doesn’t fight the other suits, because the House of Hearts is set against enemies that can’t be defeated—maybe shouldn’t be defeated. So the Queen never needs her escape routes, and the tunnels go unused.”

“I see,” I said carefully. “My sister . . . ?”

“The sun is up. The rites will begin soon. The Queen no longer tells anyone when she thinks she has a candidate; too many people afraid for their own daughters.” She reached up and touched her raspberry hair with one hand. “Too many girls with hair like corn. She’s afraid she’ll be overthrown if she frightens them again, but she can’t stop herself.”

“That explains why she came as far as us.”

The girl’s mouth twisted. “She sends soldiers as far as Diamonds. We’ll be marched on by all Wonderland, if she doesn’t find some self-control.”

None of this was getting us any closer to my sister. I squirmed in my heavy, pinching shoes, and asked, “Where does she take them?”

“Follow me.” The girl—who hadn’t offered her name, I realized; then again, neither had I—turned and dropped through the hatch, into the narrow tunnel beneath. I squeezed through right behind her, trying to shove my anxiety down. I needed to keep control of myself. This near to the end . . . I needed to keep control.

The tunnel was winding and narrow, paved in cobblestones, and ended at a door with a stylized heart at its center. The girl produced a key and unlocked it, pushing it open to reveal a gilded room dripping with pink lace, white pearls, and red ruby hearts. The girl continued onward, and I followed, through a succession of doors—each unlocked with that same golden key—and a succession of rooms, each more opulent than the last. One was filled with garnets in every color of the rainbow; another dripped with pearls, and the air was filled with bubbles, which popped as we moved through them, clinging to our skins in gleaming films. The girl with the raspberry hair never paused, never faltered. She moved through the palace as surely as I moved through the Tulgey Wood. This was her home ground. She was a predator, as much as I was.

I realized I respected her for that.

I realized I was afraid.

Finally, we came to a door made of pitch and coal and night-colored stone, with fragments of mirror driven deep into the frame. The knob was studded with longer shards of mirror. Anyone who opened that door carelessly would bleed for the privilege of whatever waited on the other side. The girl set her hand on it without looking, trusting that her fingers would find the spaces between the jagged edges. She turned enough to glance over her shoulder, looking at me through the curtain of her hair. Everything must have been the color of blood, when she viewed it through that hair.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

She knew, I knew she knew. So much knowing that it lost all meaning in its cycling repetition. I was a riddle, and she held the answer. Maybe she had always known, even before she spoke to me; maybe she had been born knowing, or had been taught to look for the small, subtle signs, the things we couldn’t change or control, no matter how hard we tried.

I reached for the button at the collar of my dress, the one that held it closed, held the fabric tight across my chest. I undid it, and the garment fell away, leaving me naked, save for the sturdy, confining shoes that still pinched at my feet. She didn’t look away. That was when I knew, too; when I saw the small, subtle signs, the ones she couldn’t change or control. The ones she wasn’t even bothering to hide.

“I’m ready,” I said, and the Princess of Hearts opened the door.

• • • •

They say that when the Alice tumbled through the Keyhole between Wonderland and whatever strange country she called home, she fell through all the long years of our history, seeing and judging and changing everything she touched.

They say that when the Alice dealt the cards, no Suit held the upper hand; that they were mixed and mingled like common riffraff, unable to hold themselves properly apart.

They say that when the Alice comes back to us—which she will, she will; everyone agrees that she will, from allies to enemies, from dearest friends to direst foes—whoever controls her will control all of Wonderland. Break her heart and yours will beat forever. Bleed her dry and never die. A kingdom without equal, a dynasty without end. And all you have to do is murder a little girl.

We stepped through the black and mirrored door and into a chamber filled with light. Mirrors coated the walls, bouncing our reflections back and forth between them until we became an infinity. Soldiers in the livery of Hearts stood at the edges of the room, spears at the ready, while at the center of the room knelt my youngest sister, golden-haired, pale-skinned, and terrified. She was wearing a white dress, white as cobwebs, white as bone, and she was weeping.

I would have been weeping too, if the Queen of Hearts had been standing over me with a mirrored dagger in her hand, ready to slash my throat.

“Mother, stop,” said the girl. She didn’t shout. She didn’t need to shout. Her voice carried like a declaration of war, and the mirrors that had bounced our images around the room bounced it back and forth as well, turning it into a wall of sound that would not, did not, could not be silenced. “That isn’t the Alice. You’ve stolen another girl who’s done nothing to deserve it. This ends.”

“No,” said the Queen of Hearts. “This ends when the Alice is dead.”

“She isn’t the Alice,” I said, stepping past the girl—past the Princess—and into the chamber. My shoes clumped against the floor. The mirrors dazzled my eyes. My sister, still crying, raised her head and stared at me, frozen with hope, and with fear. “She’s my sister. I’ve come to take her home.”

“The Alice has a sister,” snarled the Queen. “This is the Alice.”

“Many people have sisters,” I said. “Let her go.”

“No,” said the Queen, and raised her blade.

We learn camouflage early, we creatures of the Tulgey Wood, for while nothing can guarantee survival, knowing how to hide can at least make it more likely. So we mimic our own larval forms, which are soft and small and human, and we put on faces we no longer own in order to fool the eyes of Wonderland into thinking us a community of fools, who would voluntarily live so near to where the monsters are. They come to us muttering of jaws that bite and claws that catch, and we say we don’t know what they’re talking about while we fold our wings under our skins and mantle our eyes in irises.

My sister was still larval. She would pupate in a year, emerge glorious and strong and dangerous. But until then, she had no natural defenses. She couldn’t save herself.

I took a step forward, and the shoes on my feet shredded as my claws grew long and sharp. I took another step, and my wings brushed the sides of the room. I took a third step, and heard a guard shout, “Jabberwock!” before my jaws closed over the Queen’s head. Her blood filled my mouth, bitter as blackcurrant, bright as strawberry, and then her body was falling, falling, falling like the Alice, down the tunnel that has no end. My sister leapt to her feet and slung her arms around my neck, which had grown long and serpentine.

The Princess of Hearts—now Queen, I supposed—was still standing calmly in the doorway when I turned and looked back at her. She met my eyes without flinching, although the flames there must have burned her.

“Go,” she said. “I will not avenge my mother.”

I struck my wings against the air and my back against the ceiling, which shattered and fell away as I rose, my sister bundled to my scaly breast, into the Wonderland sky. There were miles between us and the Tulgey Wood. Our siblings would be waiting, terrified that I would return to them alone, or not at all. I would call to them when we reached the border, and they would come to us through the trees, flowing through the treacle mist with eyes of fire, and they would burble as they came.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares a crumbling old farmhouse with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.