Ariana buttoned her jacket as she left the house, her boots making quick precise steps as she headed to the train station. Of course her sister's train would arrive in the early hours of the morning, before the sun had even risen. And heaven forbid she walk home herself, no Ariana had been sent to fetch her. Her day had been bad enough as it was without having to wake up in the middle of the night to greet her sister, who was coming home from college. The skirts of her dress rustled as she walked and she tugged at it, she hated wearing layered skirts like this one, but her mother had insisted she look nice to greet her older sister.
So a ribbon was tied in her dirty blonde hair and she was done up pretty. But no fancy dress could dress up her frown or the tired anger in her blue eyes. She swung her arms as she walked, her head held high despite her fatigue. The streetlamps lit her way down the long sidewalk and she hardly noticed the cold air. Blowing a lock of her hair out of her face she approached the train station.
The ticket booth was all locked up, and the lights shone a warm yellow light down on the platform. The cold tracks stretched out past the light's reach. Ariana had expected to be alone but there was a man pacing the platform frantically. She raised one light eyebrow at his antics and checked the large watch on the station wall, it was a good thirty minutes until her sister's train was supposed to arrive and she knew that it was the next train.
The man was short and rotund, his large belly stretched out in front of him. His short arms swung at his sides and one grabbed at a pocket watch, flipping it open and checking the time. He threw his arms up into the air and resumed his pacing. His gait was strange, a quick hobble, almost like he was hopping. Spectacles balanced on his nose and watery blue eyes hid behind them. Thick white hair sprouted on his head but he didn't look old enough to have white hair.
He glanced down at his pocket watch as if he could make time go faster by checking it often, "Cruse these daft locomotives, never on time, never on time! I'll be late, and with such an important meeting."
Ariana looked at him in surprise, late? But the next train wasn't even due yet. She decided not to contradict him and sat down on one of the benches, waiting for Lydia. She clasped her hand and laid them in her lap, sitting up straight as her mother always harked at her to do.
The man paused in his pacing hop to look at her, he frowned and then turned back to the tracks with a sigh. "Seems like nothing is ever on time anymore, eh child?"
Ariana only shrugged, "I suppose, but that all depends on whose clock you're looking at."
He smiled, "Very clever." He tucked his hands into his pockets and leaned forward, peering out into the night. "Here's that blasted train at last." Ariana stood up, taking a few steps forward, she was surprised to see that there was indeed a light coming quickly their way along with the sound of the train.
But it was still not due, rarely did trains here run early, still it was not impossible so she just remained standing, waiting as the steam engine screeched to a halt. What a strange looking train, thought Ariana. As it was not the typical locomotive she was used to seeing.
The shape was mostly the same except that the cattle guard belled out so that it was almost spherical and the smoke stack was shaped odd. But the black train was decorated with gold trim, curling handles on the doors and tea cups were carved into the metal.
She stepped closer tracing one of the tea cups with her finger, "How curious," she murmured under her breath.
The pudgy man paused halfway in to the door of the train. "Are you getting on lass?"
"I'm waiting for someone to get off," Ariana replied, hastily stepping back from the train.
The man smiled, "No one is getting off here." He looked at his pocket watch. "Well no time for pleasantries, goodbye young lady." He pushed his glasses up on his nose and closed the door behind him.
Ariana stood there staring at the train. There must be some mistake, Lydia was supposed to be on the only train that would pass by here tonight. So she had to be on THIS train. Hesitantly she opened the door and stepped onto the train herself.
The compartments were mostly empty and most of the people who occupied the train were asleep. She started calling for her sister, "Lydia? Lydia where are you, it's time to get off the train." She searched each car but to no avail, her sister was not on the train. Had she missed her train back in the city?
She turned around ready to give up when the train began to move. "Oh no," Ariana reached for the door but it wouldn't open, she ran to the next one as the locomotive slowly began to pick up speed but none of the doors would budge. She entered one of the empty compartments and pressed her hand to the glass. She could see her town passing by, quicker and quicker. Her stomach lurched as the scenery began to blur. She had never ridden a train but she didn't ever imagine that they could move so fast.
Ariana sat down in the compartment, afraid and panicking. This whole adventure was something like a dream. Her eyes widened in realization, yes that was it, a dream. She looked around, what an odd dream it was. Not her normal taste. She must still be asleep in bed, or maybe she fell asleep at the train station.
Now that she was sure this was only a dream she had calmed down considerably. She straightened her coat and leaned back. A cup on the table caught her attention. It was a tea cup but the contents didn't look like tea. The liquid was too clear, and an odd maroon color. Sitting under the cup was a napkin and written in neat curling script was "Drink Me". She looked around but there was no one anywhere close to her that could have left the cup on the table.
"How foolish would a person have to be to trust a napkin," she commented. She picked the cup up and swirled the contents around, "This could very well be poison, or drugged." She started to put the drink down but paused, the cup only an inch from the table. "And yet, this is a dream, if there was a place where you could take such a risk it would be here."
She placed the porcelain to her lips and drank. The drink was cool and had an odd tang to it that lingered on her tongue. When she had drained the cup she set it back down on the table. Her head began swimming and her eyes grew tired. She leaned against the window her eyelids drooping. "Perhaps it was poisoned. Or perhaps I'm just tired. Can you sleep in a dream? All of this is very peculiar."
When she opened her eyes again the train was coming to a stop. A speaker above her crackled to life. "This is the last stop, all passengers off." Ariana stood, trying to gather her bearings. Stepping off the train she found herself alone once again. The train left and she found herself standing on a small platform. All around her was a forest; the tall trees stretching up and hanging from their branches were strange blue flowers that let off a soft glow. They hung off thick rope-like vines that dripped from tree branches. The result was as if someone had hung lanterns in the forest.
She took a few steps forward but stopped on the edge of the platform. "If I wander into a dark forest at night then I may run into any unpleasant thing. But if I was to remain here…"
A soft voice interrupted her. "Who are you?" Airana turned around, surprised to hear another person. A young man stood in front of her with the strangest blue-green eyes she had ever seen. He smiled widely at her. "Talking to one's self is often associated with madness."
Ariana blinked, "I'm not mad. I was merely considering the best course of action."
The strange young man had blue-black hair and was wearing a white dress shirt with a black vest over it, and black pants. He tilted his head, regarding her as if she were the strange thing. "But of course you are, everyone is." His gaze reminded her of the way her cat looked at a bird that had perched too close.
"That's preposterous; if everyone was mad then the world would fall into chaos." She crossed her arms, glaring at the stranger.
"Define chaos, for many people it can be different, just like madness I suppose. It's all in your perspective." He pointed out walking closer. Ariana took a step back, she mentally berated herself, this is just a dream, she thought, so don't be a ninny. "You have not yet answered my question."
"I'm Ariana," she replied. "And who are you?"
He smiled again, "I am no one of little consequence."
Ariana scowled, "Don't speak in riddle, it's tedious." She grumbled, glaring at the strange youth. Was she ever going to meet a normal person in this dream? She glared down at her dress as well, because couldn't she at least be in something more comfortable for this silly dream?
She decided to ignore the strange boy for now and turned back towards the woods. "Where should I go now?" She wondered aloud.
"Anywhere you wish," the boy replied. "Perhaps that way, out towards the sea, or maybe off to the city to meet the queen." He raised his eyebrows, "Or maybe you would like to follow that path, and see where it might lead?" He pointed straight out where she had just been looking. Ariana followed his point and saw that there was indeed a path winding through the lit trees.
She frowned, "I could have sworn that wasn't there before…" She glanced back at him, "Why are you here?"
"Because you're here, the lost little girl," He said, leaning towards her and grinning madly. It was no wonder he thought everyone was mad, she thought, for he seemed quite off his rocker himself. "Shall we go?"
As strange as he was Ariana didn't want to walk through the woods alone so she nodded at him and stepped off the platform, the dark-haired youth walking behind her. The grass was soft beneath her shoes and the heady fragrance of the flowers hung on the air.
She took a deep sniff, inhaling the wonderful scent. "What kind of flower is that anyhow?" She asked, looking up at the hanging blue plants.
The boy barely spared them a glance, "Those flowers are called Angel Tears." He clasped his hands behind his back as they walked. "What goes around the world, but stays in a corner?"
"Riddles again?" She questioned. "If you're so desperate to talk, couldn't you at least tell me your name?"
"What if I don't have one?" He questioned. "And the answer is a stamp by the way."
"Everyone has to have a name, what do people call you if you don't have a name?" She glanced back at him, looking forward just in time to see the strangest creature she had ever seen hop across the trail. It had legs shaped like a frog's but a long furred body and large eyes. She gaped at it and watched as it disappeared into the grass on the other side of the trail.
"No one calls me anything as I am rarely seen." He watched the frog creature with disinterest, clearly such a sight was no unusual occurrence for him.
"Do you live out here by yourself?" She took in his attire, he didn't look like someone who lived in the forest alone with little contact with others.
He laughed, "You misunderstand, few people can actually see me. I live wherever I like, I once stayed with a duchess but she was much too loud for my comfort, always yelling and with a screaming baby as well."
"Well what did she call you?"
"Nothing, if you must call me something, call me whatever you like," He said, pulling a pocket watch out of his pocket. Ariana glanced down to see the time but the hands on the clock were spinning around swiftly never stopping.
"I think your watch is broken," She pointed out. He didn't say anything to that, she wasn't sure if he was ignoring her or if he just had no comment.
"I was once called Chester, if you really can't think of anything else." He came to a stop staring ahead of them. "How interesting that the path would lead here this time."
Ariana looked to see that they were coming upon a small town. "What do you mean this time? It's not as if the path moved."
"Why would a path lead to the same place every time, that would be boring." Chester replied and he started walking again.
She spluttered, "Boring? That would make sense, how are you supposed to get anywhere if the path keeps changing?" She demanded, following after him.
Chester turned so that he was walking backwards, facing her. "You will always get somewhere, so long as you walk long enough. It's impossible not to get somewhere." She started to say something but as much as she wanted to rebuke his point, it was true.
They town they were walking through was empty, storefront windows had knocked over and discarded displays. "Where is everyone?"
"The queen decreed that no one live in this town, as there was a rebellion group forming here."
"What happened to them? It doesn't seem like making them move would do much," She supposed that might depend on where they were moved to but still.
"The rebels were beheaded of course, as is custom for traitors to the crown." Chester didn't seem bothered by this morbid fact. Ariana pressed her hand to her neck. Chester saw her actions and smiled, "I make you weak at the worst of times, I keep you strong, keep you fine. I make you hands sweat and your heart grow cold, I visit the weak but seldom the bold, what am I?"
She frowned, thinking, "Fear," she whispered, dropping her hand. "Is it common practice to behead people where you live?"
"The queen is not to be contradicted; she has much power and is quick to use it. She often calls for beheadings when any oppose her," He nodded to the empty town, "This is a perfect example of that power. Where do you wish to go now?"
Ariana sat down on a broken bench. This place was beginning to be a bit much, "I want to go home."
"I do not know how to get there," Chester admitted sitting next to her, "Although I can go anywhere I wish, but I might know who would." He looked up gazing pointedly at a small store across the way.
Ariana followed his gaze, the shop was a bookstore, the windows were dark and some of the glass was smashed. Hanging above the door was a rotting wooden sign that read Tweedle's books. "In there, but I thought you said that there wasn't anyone here anymore." He just got up and walked over to the store, she followed a little reluctantly.
The store was dark and the books covered in a fine layer of dust. She followed Chester to the back of the store, stepping over piles of books. There was a small couch beside the register and she started when she saw what was on it. For a moment she thought that they were real children, sitting on the couch, not breathing. But then she saw the small seams that ran across their joints. The fine hair that gleamed like copper in the dim lighting actually was thin copper wires arranged carefully into a hairstyle. Tailored clothes fit their small frames and their eyes were closed, long curling copper eyelashes. They looked as if they were sleeping.
"What… what are they?" At the sound of her voice the eyes opened and the two sat up, Bright glass eyes shining.
"Dolls," Chester answered, "They are an advanced doll customer service and inventory." He gestured to two pinned name tags on the front of their jackets, "But they are known as Dee and Dum. If any knows a way back to wherever it is you came from, it would be these two."
"A customer!" The first cried, sitting up suddenly. Ariana was amazed at the expression on the doll's face as the child's likeness beamed up at her.
"It's been so long since we've had a customer!" The second doll chimed, smiling at her as well. She blinked, very thrown off by the sight of them, they looked so real, so alive it was almost frightening.
"Welcome to our store," They said together, leaning towards her.
Chester smiled at her reaction to the dolls. "Do they not have such wonders in your boring world where a path always leads to the same place?"
Ariana hesitantly reached out and felt one of the boy's face, whatever was used for skin was a very good imitation. His cheek was soft and allowed for multiple facial expressions but she could feel something harder than muscle and bone beneath the skin, metal parts, cogs and gears whirring to keep this doll alive. "I should say not, I've never seen anything like them."
"I think that was a compliment brother," Dee said with a grin. Their outfits were mirror opposites of each other. Each wore a fitted suit, Dee's was black with a white shirt and black pants, a black top hat with a white ribbon around it.
"Oh I do believe it was," Dum replied. His suit was white with a black shirt and a white top hat with a black ribbon.
"Thank you pretty lady, we've never seen anything like you either," they replied in unison.
She laughed, "Oh you're both positively adorable." She stood up straight, setting her mind back on task. "Do either of you know how I can get back to where I came from?"
The smiles fell from their faces and the dolls exchanged solemn looks. They leaned in and whispered to one another for a moment. "You cannot go back the way you came," Dum began.
"No you cannot back track, there is no turning around now," Dee agreed nodding.
"But there might be another way," They sing-songed. "You could ask the queen, she may have a way." Chester scowled, it was the first time Ariana had seen any expression aside from a smile on his face.
"I will not bring her to the queen," Chester said decidedly, he was glaring at the dolls as if they had offended him with the suggestion. They shrank back, eyes downcast.
"Perhaps the hatter then?" Dum suggested.
"Yes the hatter," Dee spoke louder, "He may have something that could get her away from here."
"Why would a hatter have such a thing?" Ariana asked, furrowing her eyebrows. She suddenly wondered why she was pursing this cause to begin with, she would go home when she woke up wouldn't she? "I really don't need a way back, this is just a dream after all. I am bound to awaken sometime."
Chester gave her an odd look as if she had said something out of turn. "Oh no, you can't just up and leave any time," Dee and Dum said. "You have to play the game."
"What are you talking about?" She fiddled with the buttons on her jacket.
"Everyone in this world lives with restrictions, pretty lady" Dee clarified, tipping the small top hat on his head. "You have to live by the rules."
"Except for the cat," Dum took off his hat, his copper made hair shining. "He lives with no rules, going where ever he wishes."
"But the cat cannot go somewhere he hasn't been before brother," Dee argued.
"Well how do I find this cat then?" Ariana asked, putting her hands on her hips.
The dolls looked at her in surprise and then their eyes strayed to Chester, "She does not know brother?" One asked.
"It would seem not," his duplicate replied.
"We will go to the hatter, maybe he will be a little clearer of head than when we last spoke." Chester decided, his smile returning. "Are you ready to walk some more Ariana?"
She started when he said her name, jolted from her thoughts. "Oh, I suppose." She glanced at the dolls. Their faces had fallen into a sad expression. They didn't want to be left alone again she realized. "Can't Dee and Dum come with us?"
If anything this only made them look sadder. "The pretty lady is so nice, but she doesn't understand," Dee said.
"We cannot leave the shop, we are programmed to stay here and wait on the customers."They sighed.
"But there are no customers," Ariana argued.
"It doesn't matter, they cannot go against their programming." Chester explained.
"Can't the lady stay and play with us?" The asked Chester.
He shook his head, "We need to get to the hatter's perhaps she can come back and play with you another day?" They smiled and sat back down on the couch. They put the hats back on their heads and clasped their hands.
"Thank you for shopping at Tweedle's books, and have a good day!" They chimed and their eyes shut, their gears whirring loudly under the words. They sagged against the couch and the store was silent again.
Ariana almost felt as if she had watched them die, going to sleep, maybe never to awaken again. Her heart broke for the little dolls. She followed Chester out of the store and they walked through the village. There was another path waiting for them at the other side. The flowers hung closer to the ground now if she were to reach up she could almost touch one.
She wanted to believe that they were wrong and that she would wake up eventually regardless of what happened in this dream. But their words rang true in her ears, and somehow she knew that there would be no simply waking from this slumber.
They walked in silence for awhile. She heard Chester humming something as they went a typical grin on his face. They had been walking for awhile when she first heard it, the slight whisper.
She caught pieces of words, "…strange isn't she…" "…what is the cat doing…" She looked around, spinning and searching between the trees.
Chester stopped and watched her, "What are you doing?"
"You don't hear that whispering? I don't know where it's coming from!" She whispered.
The boy laughed at her, his bright eyes shining. "All of this fuss over the flowers?"
She turned and looked at him, confusion clouding her features, "The flowers?"
"Quite the gossips, aren't they?" She stopped and looked up at the flowers, they glowed blue, illuminating the trees.
"They… talk? The flowers talk." She put her hand to her head. "This place is going to drive me right mad," she muttered. At this she heard whispered laughter. She glared upwards, "Now the flowers are laughing at me too."
When they reached the next town Chester smiled, "Not much longer now, his shop is just down the street. I must warn you he is quite insane, much more so than any you have met so far."
"Delightful," she muttered, looking around. This town was full of signs of life. Lights were on in windows and there were a few people on the streets. A group of children was huddled around a corner playing games. They turned and looked at Ariana their gaze curious. None of them looked at Chester. "Can they see you?"
"No, none of them can. But I suppose that the hatter will be able to," he tucked his hands into his pockets, "He always has before, and here we are." He opened the door for her, "Ladies first."
There was a plush armchair just inside the door and a girl curled up in it. At first Ariana thought that she was a doll like Dee and Dum but then she heard the girl's snores. Chester stood beside her looking down at the girl. "That little mouse has been asleep for three years now, no telling when she'll wake up. But she always gets hysterical when I come into the shop anyhow." He walked into the next room.
The back room was overflowing with hats of all styles, sizes, and colors. Ariana looked around, amazed by the workmanship on each hat. A trembling voice caught her attention.
"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."
She turned around and saw an old man sitting at a table, a tall hat perched on his head. Pins of all sizes were tucked into his collar and ribbons hung from his belt. His gray hair stuck up in strange directions from the side of his hat and he had thick glasses on.
"Hatter, I have something to ask of you," Chester called, picking up a hat and trying it on.
The man looked up, blinking through his glasses. "Well if it isn't the old cat come to see me. Have you found out how they are alike yet?" His eyes strayed to Ariana. "And you've brought someone to see me! Who are you dear girl?"
"Ariana," She said politely. "You have beautiful work sir."
"Why thank you Alice!" The hatter took his hat off.
"Ah no my name is Ariana," she corrected gently.
"Well of course it is, that's what I said isn't it Alice?" he turned back to Chester, "Now tell me what is it you have to ask of me?"
"We need a way to get her back to where she comes from. A place where nothing makes much sense if you ask me," he added, arms crossed. The hat he had tried on was still on his head, a price tag dangling from the brim.
"What kind of hat would you like?" he asked, leaning towards them as if he had misheard.
"No, not a hat, a way back." Chester clarified, looking a little annoyed.
"All I have is hats, top hats, paperboy hats, bonnets, hats upon hats upon hats!" He threw his hands up in the air and laughed. "No one buys hats anymore, do they March?"
Another man leaning in the door joined them. "Would you like some tea?" he offered Ariana a tea cup with the bottom broken out of it.
"No thank you," She said, stepping back.
"We should be going, thank you for your help. And in answer I still have not found how a raven is like a writing desk, perhaps next time." Chester grasped her shoulder in a firm grip and led her out of the store. "As you can see he's quite mad, and was no help at all. It is upsetting what the queen has done to this land, driving the hatter off of the edge and more."
"I suppose I have to go to the queen now?" Ariana said.
"If you are going to the queen I will point the way but I will not accompany you," Chester said suddenly.
She stared at him, wondering for a moment how she looked, talking to air in the middle of the street. "I have to find a way home… which way do I go?" She felt almost sad that he wouldn't be coming with her.
He nodded behind her. She turned to see a large arch way at the end of the street. "Walk that way and you will find yourself at the castle." She turned back to thank him but there was no one there.
"Well how's that for a goodbye?" She fussed. Shaking her head, she began walking, she was not tired and her feet didn't hurt, so there was no use in delaying her trip. There were no flowers on this path but the white path was easy to see even in the dark.
"What will Lydia say when I tell her of this?" She mused to herself. "Probably that I've been reading too many books. And mother will just scold me for falling asleep at the station no doubt. That is assuming I'm even at the station. Maybe I'm at home and I missed picking Lydia up altogether." She straightened her jacket. "I hope mother remembered to let Dinah inside, she hates cold nights and it was definitely chilly when I left." As she walked she realized that without Chester these woods seemed very lonely and she supposed she did talk to herself quite a bit. A strange bird whose beak was much too large and had huge eyes squawked at her.
"What do you want?" She asked the bird, suddenly growing cross. This dream was more confusing than any she had ever had and she was more than ready to wake up from it. The bird squawked again and flew off, revealing that it had four wings instead of two along its body.
When she grew more tired than she could stand she stepped off of the path and to her surprise found a large group of mushrooms. The mushrooms were taller than she was and as big around as an automobile. "One might as well make the best of things, and these look much more comfortable than the ground." She climbed up on one and curled up dozing off. "This is the second time now that I've slept in a dream," she smiled at this as she fell asleep.
When she woke up the forest was still dark around her and the pungent smell of smoke stung her nostrils. She sat up to see a man sitting cross-legged on one of the other mushrooms, a hooka sitting in front of him. He took another deep drag of it and glared at her. "Who are you?" She asked, sliding off of the mushroom. She looked back up at the man.
"No the question is, who are you? I live here and you have no right to question my presence or identity. I however have every right." He spoke quickly and assuredly.
She narrowed her eyes at him, that was a little rude in her opinion. "I'm Ariana, and I'm just trying to find my way to the palace so I can speak to the queen."
"Why would you want to go there?" He asked, making a face as if he had eaten something sour.
"I just told you, because I need to get to the queen." She was getting exasperated.
"And why," he drug the word out for a moment, "would you want to see her?"
"Because I want to go home," She replied.
The man expelled a mouthful of smoke, "Then go home."
"It isn't that simple!" She argued.
He raised one eyebrow, "Isn't it?"
Ariana opened her mouth but then stopped and sighed. "I don't know really…"
"Yes well you don't know much do you?" He quipped, looking down on her. Anger flushed her cheeks and Ariana stomped off, heading back to the path. "Goodbye, and good riddance," the man called after her.
As she walked she passed a large tree that had signs hanging from it, but the directions were nonsense to her so she just stayed straight. The trees grew closer and closer together until they formed a wall on either side of her. Ahead she saw where the trees grew together, and she could see a light filtering through the low branches. She had to push her way through them, one cut her face and another tore at her dress. One branch snagged the ribbon in her hair, pulling it out.
But when she got through to the other side, she was surprised to find herself in a garden, in the middle of the day. She glanced back through the trees and saw that it was still night in the forest. "Curious," she whispered before standing up straight and walking further into the garden.
Something gleamed in the sunlight, just past an orchard of fruit trees. Ariana cleared the orchard and gaped at what she saw. A huge airship the likes of which she had never seen was resting in the grass, tethered down with many ropes. Gatling guns and bombs hung from its belly. The airship gleamed white in the sunlight but along the bottom a group of soldiers were hastily smearing red paint over the ship. Written in curling scrip on the side was the vessel's name Briar Rose. Ariana thought it was a pretty name for something that was clearly meant for destruction. She walked up to the soldiers their uniforms were very peculiar; on the backs was a number and a suit as in a deck of cards. "What are you doing?" She asked, emboldened by the fact that this was her dream after all.
One of the soldiers glanced over his shoulder at her. "We don't' have time to talk girl, we're trying to paint the Rose red before the queen sees. She'll be ever so furious if she realizes we got the wrong color."
Ariana had to smile at the silliness of the situation. "How on earth are you going to paint a whole airship red? It will take days, when is the queen coming to see it."
"Any moment now, run off and leave us alone." She frowned at the harshness of his tone.
"No need to be rude about it," she huffed. A trumpet blared behind her and she heard the clank of metal on metal as someone stepped by her.
"What is this!" A high-pitched scream accompanied the woman. She was tall with curling black hair that was piled upon her head. She was very skinny and had a plain face, a crooked nose and a small mole on her chin. Her face would have been very unmemorable except for the terrifying angry look in her eyes that seemed to sear you with a glance.
Her dress was entirely made of metal, the thin sliced corset shone gold. And silver cogs intertwined to make the skirt. It clanked and clinked as she walked. A crown made entirely of clockwork, with a pocket watch set in the middle instead of a jewel adorned her head. So this was the queen.
"You highness, we were merely making sure that the queen's airship was the proper color. We apologize deeply-"
"Off with his head!" She screamed, "All of them off with their heads." More soldiers seized those holding the paintbrushes and hauled them away, screaming for their lives to be spared. Ariana paled, wishing she could disappear into the flowers.
The queen scowled up at the airship. "Positively horrendous, this is a disgrace. How am I supposed to be seen in this now?"
"Oh yes heaven forbid the lady doesn't look fashionable when bombing her own country," a cutting voice interjected. Ariana was surprised when the queen didn't react to the words it was as if she hadn't heard them. The girl looked around but it didn't seem that any of the soldiers had spoken. "What do you think of this horrid contraption Ariana?" She looked up at the warship and was surprised to see Chester, lounging across the front of it, just in front of the windshield.
"What are you doing here, you told me you wouldn't come!" She was glad to see him, despite his own strangeness, at least he was a constant.
The queen whirled around, cold brown eyes fixed on her. "Who are you girl, what are you doing in my garden?"
Ariana curtsied low, eager not to anger the queen. "My name is Ariana your majesty, and I have come seeking council from your highness." She glanced back at the airship but Chester was gone.
"Come here girl," The queen gestured with her left hand. Ariana stared at the hand as it was made of metal, rods moving in her wrist to allow the fingers to move.
"Crude isn't it?" Chester's hands were on her shoulders and his voice was in her ear. "Her hand was taken off by a bandersnatch when she was a child."
She gulped, trying not to look at the mechanical hand. She walked over to the queen, trying to hide her fear. Dream or no, she didn't want to experience a beheading. "How old are you child?" The queen asked, looking down at her.
"I am sixteen years old your majesty," Ariana said, keeping her eyes downcast, she wasn't sure what would offend this woman. She glanced up at her crown, admiring the twisting pieces holding the pocket watch in place.
"I see, accompany to my palace, and there you can tell me what troubles you dear girl," She smiled and patted Ariana on the head as if she were a child. Ariana resisted the urge to flinch. She grabbed her hand and pulled her along. The guards looked thankful that she had caused a distraction.
"This should become interesting," Chester whispered to her.
"Be quiet," She whispered to back.
"What was that?" The queen asked, still holding onto Ariana's hand in her metallic grasp. The metal was freezing cold, sucking the warmth from her hand.
"Nothing your majesty," she assured her.
Chester laughed, keeping pace with her, "They're going to think you're talking to yourself if you keep this up." He winked at her. The soldiers flanked them and Chester knocked one of their helmets off. He looked around befuddled but did not see the snickering young man standing directly behind him. Ariana shook her head at his antics, trying to ignore him.
The palace loomed before them, tall oak doors decoratively carved. They swung inward and the entry hall was revealed. Ariana thought she should be used to the shocks of this world, but what she saw here threw her off again.
They were walking on the ceiling and when she looked up she could see tables and chairs on the floor, high above her head. "Curiouser and curiouser." She muttered. They had to walk around the chandelier, its flames flickering down. She marveled at this as they passed but the queen did not slow enough for her to truly examine the strange room.
They walked on to the throne room. Chester was lounging in the high-backed throne, the queen went to sit. Just before she sat on him he dissolved, gone in a flash. Ariana let out a strangled sound of surprise which earned her an odd look from the queen. "Are you well child?"
"Yes are you well Ariana?" Chester asked, one arm thrown around her shoulders. He grinned at her, showing his teeth.
"Y-yes your highness, you have a lovely palace." She gave another small curtsey for good measure. The queen smiled, clearly pleased with the flattery.
"Now tell me what it was that you came here to speak with me about." She said with a pleasant smile. She took a deep breath and yelled, "Someone get the girl a chair, do you think she is just going to stand there all day, you idiots?" Ariana jumped.
Ariana sat down hastily on the chair that the soldiers were tripping over themselves to get. "I-"
"Don't ask her for a way home," Chester whispered in her ear. "Ask simply for a place to stay for the night. Say that you are on a long trip and need a night's rest."
She blinked, not sure why the sudden change in plans. Did she trust him? She had known him longest of anyone in this dream but that didn't mean much, "I humbly ask for a place to stay for the night your majesty, for I am journeying to see my family."
"Of course darling girl, you may eat with me and I will see to it that you have one of the royal guests rooms set up for you." She glared at one of the soldiers and they rushed off to secure a room presumably. "I did always want a child of my own you know, but that deplorable king can't give me a child." She sneered as she said this.
"If you don't mind my asking your majesty, why is it that you need an airship?"
"There are people in my lands that would oppose me dear, and I can't have that. So I will use force if I must." Her voice sounded upset as she said this but a wide smile split her face. Ariana was disturbed that she would be so jovial about killing her own people.
"There isn't some other way to solve this?" she questioned.
"No!" The queen screamed, slamming her fists down on the armchairs of the throne in a sudden rage. Her eyes alight with fury Ariana shrunk back but as quick as it was there her anger was gone. "Come you must be hungry, let's eat you will sit at the seat of honor." Ariana's stomach growled and she realized that she was hungry indeed.
The food was no less strange than the place itself but it was all delicious and the tea was brewed to just the right strength. Ariana ate her fill, ignoring the political talk of those around her unless someone asked her a question.
There was no sign of Chester during the dinner or when she was led up to her room. The bed was the largest she had ever seen, with a thick comforter and more pillows than she knew what to do with. Most of the room was done up in blue, which was her favorite color. She imagined living in a place like this. Draperies hung to the floor in thick folds and a shelf with more books than she had read stood against the wall. A night gown had been laid out for her. She picked it up and felt the material. It was silky and cool to the touch.
"Cute, but not much your style I think," Chester commented.
She dropped the nightgown in surprise. "Stop scaring me like that," she snapped, glaring at him.
"I just thought you might want to know that I found your way out, and it's in the palace." He grinned, eyes shining in the dark. She fell silent, not wanting to get her hopes up. "But you aren't going to like it."
"Why not?" The room was dark and his blue-green eyes seemed to shine in the darkness, like a cat's eyes. Ariana faced him, waiting for the blow that was coming.
"You have to get the pocket watch from the queen's crown, and wind it." He said, leaning back against a dresser. Her face paled. "I told you that you wouldn't like it."
"How did you find that out?" She frowned; surely there was a way that didn't mean imminent beheading? The clock in the room ticked loudly as if to remind her of what she had to do.
"I managed to get the hatter a little more lucid and ask him the right questions." Chester replied, toying with his own pocket watch, watching the hands spin around the face of the clock, never pausing on a time. She wondered why he kept it at all. "I never was, am always to be. No one ever saw me, nor will anyone ever. And yet I am the confidence of all, to live and breathe on this terrestrial ball. What am I?"
She thought for a moment, the ticking of the clocks picking at her nerves. "I don't know," she admitted. "What are you?"
He smiled at her, "The future."
"It's just a dream, it's not like she can really hurt me… right?" He didn't say anything, but she could tell he didn't look very convinced by this. She sighed, tugging at the skirt of her dress."Let's steal the crown."
They waited until it was much later and the queen was sure to have retired. They slipped silently down the hall, Chester leading the way. He put a finger to his lips, motioning for her to remain silent, and stopped them. He leaned close and whispered in her ear in case by chance any of the guards could hear him. "I will go on and distract the guards, wait until I've caused a disturbance then get in. I'll meet you inside. The crown is on a pedestal in the first room. There are no guards in her inner rooms, so just make sure to stay quiet so you don't wake the queen. Or else," he slid his thumb across his neck in a slicing motion and then was gone.
Ariana pressed herself against the wall and waited. Her heart was pounding and her palms had begun to sweat. She kept telling herself that there was nothing to be afraid of because this was just a dream. But the scratches on her face had felt extremely real. They were still burning, the blood dried to small red lines of scabs long ago.
Just as she began to wonder where Chester had gone off to she heard a loud crash. She leaned around the wall in time to see the two guards run off to see what it was. She moved quickly, skittering across the hall and tugging on the doors. They were heavy and she was afraid they might creak but they opened silently. She slipped in and closed the door behind her. She leaned on the door for a moment to catch her breath.
She turned around and surveyed the room. It was a sitting room, a cold fireplace on the wall, pictures hung upside down. Heart shaped furniture filled the room, all made of metal pipes and gears. Even the curtains were heavy chain link. Flowing like water to the floor. A model glider hung from the ceiling and out on the balcony she could see the finished product.
A small circular table was in the middle of the room. She stepped towards it, the shape of the crown visible from here. It was clearly a showcase made to show off the piece, as the room was practically built around it. A glint of metal caught her eye and she gasped, stepping back. A scream rose in her throat at the sight of the queen's metal dress.
A hand quickly covered her mouth, "Relax, it's on the frame, she's not there." Chester pulled his hand away once he was sure she wasn't going to scream. She looked again and a second glance confirmed his words. Taking a deep breath her attention went back to the crown.
Chester had stepped closer to it, lifting the curved glass cover from it. "Take the watch from the crown," He instructed. Ariana picked the crown up, it was heavy in her hands and the metal cool to the touch. The wires and cogs had been carefully arrange to hug the timepiece and keep it in place. She pulled at the seams, determined to pry it off. The pocket watch popped off into her hand with a soft sound. The crown grew lighter and she put it back on the table, Chester returned the glass.
She stared down at the pocket watch in her hands; suddenly her escape from this mad world was tangible. "I can go home now," she looked up to find that Chester was watching her. "I guess this is goodbye then."
He smiled at her, "Only for now, I'm the cat remember? I can go wherever I wish to. I imagine I'll see you again soon." Ariana didn't argue with him. But he was only a figment of her imagination, there was no way she would see him after this. She almost wished that what he said was true, but someone like him didn't belong in a world like hers.
"Until then," she said and wound the clock. She let go and they both waited, she wondered if she would just disappear or what would happen. But as the moments passed nothing happened. The hands on the clock did not move despite being wound up. "It's broken?" All of that work for nothing? "How will I ever get home now?"
Chester put a hand on her shoulder, "Maybe we can fix it?"
"What is this?" The queen stood in the doorway, a crazed look in her eyes. Worst of all, Ariana saw that her hand was not on, and there was an angry red stump at the end of her arm. "Theif! Guards, off with her head," she screamed.
"Uh oh, time to go," Chester grinned, disappearing. Ariana took this as a good cue and started running. The queen started running after her, still screaming for guards to take off her head. She ran out of the queen's rooms, four guards hot in pursuit. Chester appeared on the windowsill and pulled down a curtain, dropping the heavy folds on them and successfully impeding their progress.
The queen continued to scream at the guards to grab her but with Chester's help she evaded them every time they got close. Finally he toppled a huge armory case and blocked the hallway. Ariana paused to catch her breath while they were trapped on the other side.
She heard the queen through the case, "That is it! Release the Jabberwocky!"
"What is a Jabberwocky?" Ariana gasped.
Chester only smiled, "Uh, oh, now you're really in trouble." He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the hall. "We need to get out of here, and fast." They ran into the throne room, it was empty, a straight shot through to the entry way and then out to the garden.
In the middle of the room was a circular pattern made up of gears. They started turning and drawing back from the floor, leaving a chasm. Ariana almost fell but Chester pulled her back. "Get against the walls quick."
Rising out of the hole in the floor was a monster of a machine. A huge metal head with large glowing red eyes glared down at them. Its mouth was full of rotating rows of teeth. "That is the Jabberwocky, once upon a time it was a living creature but it died, so the queen had a mechanical one made."
The floor creaked from its weight as it lunged for them. They dodged its snapping jaws and it took a huge chunk out of the wall, the room shuddering as pieces of the wall fell to the floor, nearly crushing Ariana. Claws swiped down towards them, nearly slicing into Chester, but he disappeared before they touched him; reappearing on her other side. "Come on keep going, we're almost there."
The creature's thick metal tail swept towards them. Chester pushed her down, and she expected to see him disappear, but instead the tail slammed into him and smashing him against the wall. Ariana scrambled up, looking from the door to the fallen boy. The jabberwocky crawled closer, pulling its large iron bulk towards Chester. Stuffing the pocket watch into her jacket she ran towards him. She grabbed onto his vest and began pulling him across the floor. His eyes were closed and a thin line of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. "Chester? Wake up!"
Blue-green eyes fluttered open hardly seeing. "Hold on," he groaned. Ariana's stomach twisted and the next thing she knew they were out in the garden. "Run," He whispered.
"But I can't just leave you here," she said quickly. There were soldiers running at them from various directions.
"I'll be fine, they can't even see me, you however, need to go." He grinned, blood shining on his teeth. "If you break me I don't stop working. If you touch me I may be snared. If you lose me nothing will matter, what am I? Answer quick."
"No more riddles, you know I don't like them," She said with a smile.
"I'm a heart. Now run quick," he said, pushing her away. Ariana turned and sprinted through the garden. The moonlight lit the path and she managed to keep ahead of the guards. But she didn't even know where to go. Into the forest? No, the branches would slow her down too much and they'd catch her for sure. The airship gleamed at her in the dark like an answer. "Maybe, I can get it running?" It was the only chance she had right now.
The soldiers got closer and the airship still seemed like a long way away. She forced herself to go faster even though her legs were aching.
She ran up the ramp, her boots clanking loudly on the metal. The door had a large latch on it. She threw her weight on it, trying to get the door open. The handle moved less than an inch. "Please open," she pleaded, her arms shaking from the effort. Unbeknownst to her the pocket watch in her jacket started ticking, the second hand moving. Finally the door creaked open and she fell into the airship.
Slamming into the floor she clutched at her head. "Ow…" She scrambled up, looking around. The inside of the airship was not what she imagined it would be. But then she realized that she was on the floor of the train station. She stood up patting at her jacket the pocket watch was gone. "I… woke up?"
The walk home was long and despite waking up she was exhausted. When she opened the door she was nearly tackled. "Ariana, where on earth have you been?" Lydia held her out at arm's length. "Mom's been looking everywhere for you!"
"Why didn't you wake me up when you got here?" Ariana demanded, angry at her sister for leaving her there. She glared at her, eyes as furious as the queen's.
"Wake you up? Ari, I've been home for two days, there was no sign of you at the train station when I got here." Lydia looked hurt by her accusing tone. Ariana stared at her, that couldn't be true, if she wasn't asleep then… what was that place? "It doesn't matter where you were, so long as you're okay now."
Ariana put her hands on her head. "Perhaps I need to lie down. I had the strangest dream." Lydia led her back to her room.
"Don't' worry I'll calm mother down and figure something out to tell her." She ruffled her little sister's hair and left her to sleep. Ariana lay awake for awhile. The ravings of a mad hatter, talking dolls, and wide smiles running through her head.
Four days later found them sitting in the living room. Ariana was reading, while her sister worked on her studies. She was still a little dazed from her strange "dream". She hoped that Chester had made it out okay, he had looked pretty bad after that jabberwocky had hit him.
She looked around the room, she thought of the entry hall in the palace with its upside down chandeliers and tables on the ceilings. "What if the floor was up in here and we were standing on the ceiling?"
Lydia laughed her bright blue eyes lit up. "That's not possible Ari, the laws of gravity prevent such from happening." She pushed her hair back behind her shoulders. Her reading glasses were perched on the end of her nose.
Ariana just sighed. "Yeah I guess so. Do you think it's boring that a road will always lead to the same place?"
"Ariana what's wrong with you, you've been acting so peculiar lately. If the world was like you keep saying, it would be insane." She laughed.
"Right, I'm sorry," she looked back down at her book. The door opened and a shadow fell over them. Lydia looked up a frown on her face.
"Who are you, what are you doing here?" the neighbors often stopped by to see her mother, Ariana knew it was most likely just someone to see her.
When they introduced themselves she dropped the book in her hands. She could hear the smile in the words, "I am no one of little consequence."
A/n: One of my friends is having and Alice in Wonderland Birthday and I'm not going to be able to make it. So I wrote this story for her. I would really appreciate feedback. I feel like I could have done better with more time, but I'm leaving tomorrow and I had to have it finished before then. Review please : )