Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

Shay Sheridan - Reality

Chapter 28 - Rhyme

Agatha Shnecken frowned and grunted as she slipped one hand under the armpit of her ancient charge and hoisted the old woman into an armchair. Agatha wrinkled her nose. The aged woman had that musty "old person" smell, and now was settling into the chair with a disgustingly phlegmy wheeze.

On the other side of the chair, Agatha's mirror image, her twin sister Ermentrude, rolled her eyes and mimed stabbing the old woman in the back with an invisible dagger. Agatha swallowed a wicked giggle. The old lady for whom they acted as ladies-in-waiting, nursemaids and slops bearers was cranky, spiteful and stubborn as an old mule. As an employer she was a nightmare.

She was also, however, one of the most beautiful women in the Nine Kingdoms. The ancient wheezer in the chair was Queen Cinderella, the last of the Five Women Who Changed History.

Agatha surveyed the glittering crowd as one by one they approached to curtsy, bow, genuflect or grovel before the chair. Pah! It was bad enough being the step grand-niece of Cinderella on a normal day; on occasions like this one, Prince Wendell's Coronation Ball, it was very nearly intolerable.

For about the eight-millionth time in her unattractive life, Agatha cursed her maternal great-grandmother. So what if Gisela van der Vlox had been one of Cinderella's step-sisters; did Agatha and Ermentrude have to suffer for it so many years later?

Well, Agatha reasoned, wrinkling her over-large nose in disgust again and squinting her undersized eyes at the back of Cinderella's head, this life of servitude can't last forever! Cinderella was one hundred ninety-eight years old (though publicly she only admitted to one hundred sixty-seven) surely she'd have to kick the bucket sometime soon!

In the meantime, Agatha folded her fleshy arms and sighed again. It just wasn't fair that the old hag still looked to be about forty years of age and remained as glamorous, flirtatious and powerful as ever. Well, her past gave her the power, but Cinderella's lustrous red hair was a wig, her figure was courtesy of an intricate series of corsets, and her face, well, that only proved the power of a keeping a good wrinkle wizard on the payroll. Agatha leaned over to Ermentrude and cackled, "I hope her teeth fall out when she bows to Wendell!"

"What? What's that?"

Damn. Cinderella's hearing was pretty sharp for an old bag. "Nothing, Your Majesty. We were just, ah, chuckling over the Emperor.

"Humph," Cinderella wheezed, her still acute eyesight picking out the naked man surrounded by servants and huge feather fans. "I remember his grandfather. Now there was a man who should be naked. This one looks like ten pounds of lard in a fifty-pound pig's bladder. Mwahahah -- ackkk."

Agatha and Ermentrude gagged as Cinderella coughed up a particularly large glob of phlegm. Ermentrude held out a handkerchief and looked away as the queen spit into it.

Agatha shuddered.

"Where's Wendell?" Cinderella asked crankily, wrinkling her perfectly smooth brow.

~*~*~

Rupert was in his element. He stood at the top of the entrance staircase, awaiting the next arrival, and gazed about the ballroom with pride. The mirrors, with their silvery glow, had added just the right touch to complete the decorations. He stifled a giggle. Wendell would be so pleased!

There was a fanfare, and he snapped out of his ecstatic reverie as the next arrival appeared at his elbow. Rupert glanced at the tall figure in the dark blue uniform and smiled at a fellow member of Wendell's Privy Council. "Viscount Gregor Lansky!" he announced. There was mild applause in response.

The other man bowed to the crowd but didn't descend the stairs. Instead, he grabbed Rupert's arm and pulled him to the side. "She's here, Rupert!." he said angrily.

Rupert pursed his lips. "'She?' Oh, Queen Cinderella --oh, yes! There she is, over --"

Lansky frowned. "No--Wendell's step-mother. The Lord Chancellor told me Wendell brought her here. What on earth was he thinking?"

"I know. Wendell told me. Really, Gregor." Rupert laughed at the other man's stern countenance. "They've kissed and made up."

"It's hardly a laughing matter, Rupert. The woman is dangerous!"

"Don't be silly. Wendell has her well in hand."

"Does he, indeed? I wonder... who is in the palm of whose hand?"

Rupert flicked an invisible speck from his lilac uniform jacket, then brushed Lansky's golden epaulets. "Tush, Gregor. Fuss, fuss, fuss! You're always imagining the worst. Relax! Have some punch! Have fun! Wendell's going to be king tonight!" And with that merry pronouncement, Rupert sailed away to greet Young King Cole as he made his entrance.

Lansky stood silently a moment, his eyes on the empty throne across the room. "Will he, indeed, be king?" he wondered aloud. "Or will someone else be pulling his strings?"

Within a draped doorway on the other side of the ballroom, the queen watched the scowling man in blue, her eyes considering him shrewdly. She turned to the man by her side. "That one must be killed, straightaway."

"If that is what you wish, Your Majesty," the huntsman said, with a little bow. "But perhaps we should wait."

"Indeed? Waiting is very difficult."

"Patience is a virtue, my lady. I assure you, none shall escape." To bring home the point he patted the bow hanging over his shoulder.

She flashed her eyes at him. "See that they don't."

~*~*~

"Lord Anthony, Viscount of the Western Mountains, and his daughter, the Lady Virginia!"

Rupert's voice rang from the staircase and Gigi stepped out next to her father. A murmur of voices greeted them. Next to her, her father beamed and waved at the crowd. He was loving this, the recognition. He'd even insisted that they enter fashionably late --he had no idea that arriving SO much after Cinderella was an enormous faux pas. Her father was clueless, Gigi realized with sadness tinged with scorn, and would be so for his entire life.

The ballroom was packed with the cream of the nobility: elfin princesses, dwarf barons, assorted kings, queens, ambassadors and dignitaries from the farthest reaches of the Nine Kingdoms. Gigi looked around. She had been to several fancy balls before, but now she felt as she imagined Cinderella must have on that fateful night, perched in her glass slippers out of place, masquerading as one of them, but secretly wondering if anyone would see through her disguise.

There'd been a time when she would have played her part docilely, not acknowledging that there were any other choices to made for her life. But the events of the day, and her experiences over the last few weeks, had stripped away the last illusions that she was meant for a life as a member of the idle rich. People lived and died and suffered and experienced real joys and vicissitudes outside these walls, while inside the insulated nobility danced their lives away. This life was no longer one she could abide. To her it would not be living at all.

Anthony hadn't spoken to his daughter since their argument, but he held her arm tightly now. He would steer her to her destiny, whether she liked it or not, and he'd never give her the opportunity to run away again. As they descended the staircase, Gigi let her eyes roam around the room, seeking Wolf. She couldn't see him, though there were plenty of others clad in the livery of the palace. What do I do, Wolf? When do you appear?

When will it be time to act?

~*~*~

Time. Time. Time. Wolf's heart began to pump a little faster. Time to go, time to be a hero, time to rescue everyone, foil the queen's plans, save the Nine Kingdoms -- Cripes! Anything else? No wonder he was nervous.

In the hallway outside the ballroom he slipped on the velvet coat and picked up the gloves that would complete his servant's disguise. The queen's silk scarf still bound his hand, and he began to unwind it. Hopefully the cut had stopped bleeding by now...

What's this? He stared at his palm. Nothing, no cut or wound of any kind. But, but. he'd felt the cut pull against the scarf as the blood had dried. He'd definitely experienced a sting in his palm while he'd polished all that silver; so how could it be completely healed so soon?

It was a mystery, all right, but a minor one, in the vast scheme of things. Destiny awaited. He pulled on the gloves.

Wolf rolled the cart to the entrance to the ballroom, awaiting his cue. His eyes sought out the sparkling mirrors on the balcony above the stairs. The glass, the traveling mirror, that was what he should be concentrating on. He'd better establish which one was the correct mirror, because he'd had enough of close encounters with other mirrors to last him a lifetime.

He looked around. Snow White would be a welcome sight just about now.

She failed to materialize, however. Instead, a fanfare sounded, followed by the pear-shaped tones of Wendell's majordomo announcing the arrival of a very special guest.

"Ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies, we all know of the Five Women Who Changed History: His Highness' grandmother Snow White, the Lady Rapunzel, Gretel the Great, Sleeping Beauty -- and now I present to you the last living of those Five Women, The Dancing Queen herself, the Slipper Supreme -- Queen Cinnnnnderella!"

From his vantage point across the room, Wolf watched as a beautiful red-haired woman appeared at the top landing and opened her arms to the crowd, who went mad with cheering and applause. Well, he thought, it IS pretty amazing. She must be two hundred, if she's a day, and she's still pretty tasty looking! Imagine; the last of the Five Women--

Wait. What had Lord Rupert said? Snow White, Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty?

"Huff-puff, Sleeping Beauty? That's not right!" Wolf exclaimed. "That's wrong! Sleeping Beauty wasn't one of the Five Women! What about Red Riding Hood?"

He'd spoken louder than he'd intended, and a chubby little elf with scissors on a ribbon around her neck clucked next to him and interjected, "Red Riding Hood? That's a name I haven't heard in a while. Why would she be one of the Five Women?"

"Well," Wolf said, somewhat at a loss to explain, "She was queen of the Second Kingdom --"

"What a silly thing to say! She abdicated her throne, didn't she, must be over a hundred years ago. Left the place in chaos."

"No, she..." Wolf trailed off, confused. He cast his sharp eye around the room. There was no honey-blonde ice queen dressed all in red. No sign of the current descendant of the famous -- or infamous, in his opinion -- Riding Hood. "But...what about Riding Hood III? She should be here--"

The elf chuckled. "Riding Hood III? Don't be daft! That old kingdom's under the protection of Prince Wendell." She looked at him carefully. "Are you new here?"

"No. . .well, yes. Not really. Maybe. I don't know..."

"You don't know?" Wolf shrugged helplessly, his mind back on Wendell. The elf moved away, looking warily over her shoulder.

The coronation seemed to be going extremely smoothly for Wendell. He faced his noble associates calmly, if a little dispassionately, and answered by the book the first two questions put to him. Wolf found his attention wandering, as the elf queen posed a challenge and Wendell proclaimed his wisdom by greeting his visitors in five languages and quoting the wise deeds of Snow White. There was no talk of bones, and that made sense, Wolf concluded; Wendell hadn't been a dog all that long, had he?

And then Queen Briar Rose III was roused from her beauty sleep to challenge Wendell on his valor. Wolf looked with interest at the young woman, a dark-haired lovely who yawned hugely through her question. No Riding Hood III, eh? Well, thought Wolf, that's no detriment to society. Meanwhile Wendell was addressing the question of his bravery by reciting chapter and verse of his military studies, and describing his prowess as a hunter. Wolf suddenly was all ears. Wendell's speech was not remarkable for what he said, but for what he didn't say.

He didn't say he'd killed the troll king.

Wolf felt his attention snap towards the throne again. He hadn't fought the troll king... because the trolls were not at war with the Fourth Kingdom!

"Huff-PUFF, what's happening?" Wolf said to himself, scratching madly at his temple. Yet another example of how things were different this time. He fought a wave of panic. How different were things going to get? Could he trust the potion he'd concocted? Maybe he was about to murder a hundred members of the nobility! "Calm down, calm down, Wolf," he cautioned himself, fighting the urge to hyperventilate. Okayokayokay; so things were different. So the trolls weren't at war. So much the better. So Wendell hadn't been a dog very long -- lucky Wendell. What did it matter if there were no Red Riding Hood, if Acorn hadn't recognized him, if Gigi and Lord Anthony hadn't existed before, if Virginia had never come through the glass--

Sweat broke out on his forehead. What did it MATTER?! It mattered a great deal! The total sum of these alterations to history proved that more was wrong here, more changed, than could be accounted for by mild variations in timing and coincidence. Basic, fundamental things were different this time--

--or was it that they were different in this PLACE?

Wolf came to a complete stop; panting, scratching, twitching, muttering, all of it ceased at once. Only his mind percolated on. Of course. Of course. Now that he considered it, it was astonishing to him that he had not concluded the obvious truth the first time history had diverged. He was not back where he had started. He was somewhere else, in some other Nine Kingdoms, populated by another Wendell, Cinderella, Acorn, Riding Hood, troll king, evil queen--

But how could that be? How had he found his way here? Did he even know if he was who he thought himself to be?

The question induced dizziness and Wolf leaned on the cart, trying to reason it out. I must be. I remember Virginia. My Virginia--

Oh no! He felt in imminent danger of returning to the desperate thoughts he'd entertained outside the prison, when he'd wondered if Virginia had been a dream.

All right, all right, Wolf thought feverishly, staring into the punch bowl but seeing only the images in his mind. Let's assume I am who I am, but that this is not my Nine Kingdoms. How did I get here, and how do I get out? How do I find Virginia? And why am I here in the first place?

Crushing doubts filled him. Did it really matter now that he had saved the boy wolf, the future hero, if Bedros was not going to save his wolves, Wolf's people in his own reality?

//Yes.//

The voice was outside his brain, and Wolf whirled. Snow White shimmered in front of him. "Am I sleeping?" He didn't think he was, but events were making him doubt his own consciousness.

She smiled at him. "You are quite awake. And it did matter. Just as what you do next will also matter."

"And what's that?" He wasn't being a smart-aleck; he really was at a loss.

"Remember what I told you."

Damn this enigmatic commentary. "I need a little more direction, here."

She shook her head. It was disconcerting, Wolf thought, to be able to see the ballroom through Snow White. Finally she spoke. "Wolf -- perhaps by your actions you can gather the fragments and make them one again. I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"I'm hopeful."

"Well, can't you fix it? I mean, if you know how to do it--"

"I'm insubstantial, Wolf. I exist between the reflections--" She stopped herself and sighed. "I can't tell you any more. My time is running out." She gestured down at herself and Wolf realized she was more tenuous than ever, more transparent. "But whatever happens, you must finish what you came here to do."

"Can you be a little more specific?" Wolf hopped from foot to foot with nervous frustration. "Is it the same as last time?"

"Just remember your pasts." And with that she faded away.

Wolf gaped at the empty space where she had been, able to see quite clearly the congratulatory throng swarming about Wendell as he successfully completed his answer. "Remember my past?" He tugged at his hair. No, wait -- she'd said his pasts, plural. What had she meant?

//The sound of wind-chimes and splintering glass//

Splinters... seeing himself reflected over and over in an infinite variety of lives--

His eyes went again to the huge mirrors on the balcony. Perhaps by your actions you can gather the fragments...

But whatever was required, there was no time to do it right now. The music swelled for the Cinderella Waltz -- Wolf's cue. He wheeled the cart into the ballroom, and began to hand out goblets filled with very special punch.

~*~*~

The song ended. The ancient but beautiful Cinderella wobbled back to her throne and was seated by two hideous women in puffy silver wigs. Wolf retreated to the base of the steps to wait for the toast. Okay, here's the plan, Wolf: drug everybody, then in the chaos rescue Gigi, grab Wendell and smack some sense into him (he really liked that part of the plan!) throw the queen in chains, disarm the huntsman, turn them over to Wendell and his lords, then head for the mirrors, before anyone can stop you. Simple.

He frowned. Not much of a plan. Besides, it didn't address the fact that he really had no idea if Virginia were on the other side of the traveling mirror or not. And Gigi -- what was he to do with her?

The Lord Chancellor pounded his staff. "Ladies and Gentlemen, honored guests, I give you His Majesty, King Wendell Winston Walter White!" The crown encircled the curly blond locks. The crowd cheered. Wendell stood and waved to the crowd. Wolf crossed to him and pressed a goblet into his hand, a very specific goblet, for it alone was not filled with the punch, but with innocent wine. Wolf nodded but couldn't help winking at the king. Wendell ignored him.

"Let's have the toast!" someone cried.

"Yes! Yes! Let's have the toast!" the crowd bellowed.

"One moment."

A hundred pairs of eyes snapped to the king as he put up a hand to stop their cheers. "Dear friends," Wendell said, sounding smooth and assured, and every inch the king he now was officially, "before the toast, I ask your indulgence."

Uh oh, Wolf thought.

"My fellow nobles, brother and sister royals, let me use this occasion to share with you my great joy. For tonight marks not only my ascension to the throne of the Fourth Kingdom, but also my betrothal to the fairest in the land, the very noble Lady Virginia of the Western mountains, who has agreed to become my wife!"

There was a buzz of voices and an explosion of delighted applause, as the woman in question was pushed forward to stand next to her intended. Wolf stared, quite overcome by the sight of her and feeling strangely jealous. Gigi looked flushed and embarrassed as the king took her hand. Gigi looked around the room, everywhere except at Wendell. Her eyes caught Wolf's and rested there a moment before passing on. Lord Anthony was making a bit of a spectacle of himself, glad-handing everyone in his path as he pushed his way towards the platform. He stood beaming at the crowd, waving and posturing, though no one was actually paying him any attention.

"A toast to the bride and groom!" a man naked except for his crown shouted. Glasses were raised again, and this time the king raised his own. Gigi was holding a goblet, too, but seemed unaware that it was in her hand. She looked beautiful, Wolf thought, but rather as if she were about to cry.

"A health to our king and his bride, King Wendell and Queen Virginia!" cheered Rupert.

"King Wendell and Queen Virginia!" the crowd cried in response.

And then there was silence as a hundred people hoisted their punch and drank it down.

"My, that was tasty," the naked man said, and promptly collapsed to the ground.

Suddenly all around the ballroom people were choking, collapsing, twitching a little and becoming still. Wolf closed his eyes and shivered; the sight of so many people seemingly dying because of his actions was something he didn't need to watch again, even though he knew they would recover. He could hear the thumps as the royal guests hit the floor. Somewhere above the main level a flute squeaked once and trailed away as the flautist collapsed. And then, finally, the room became quite silent.

After a moment Wolf opened his eyes and looked over at Gigi. She gazed with horror at the sight of all the bodies, her eyes huge, and dropped her untasted punch as if it were a goblet of spiders. "Wolf," she breathed, her voice scarcely audible, "what have you done?"

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," Lord Anthony said, looking quite miffed, "I didn't get any punch."

"Father," Gigi said, "Do shut up. Don't you see what's happened here?"

On the dais, Wendell's head was tipped back as he savored the last drops of his wine. He smacked his lips and blinked, regarding the bodies stacked up all around him. "Oh," he murmured, his brow wrinkling a little.

"Anyone for seconds?"

Wolf felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. Some things might be different here, but the queen was as frightening as ever. She stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at the bodies around her. Evidently she'd come to gloat, but a cloud crossed her eyes as she flicked from Gigi to Wendell. "Oh dear," she said. "Why aren't you dead?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," Gigi said, sticking out her chin, her hands planted on her hips. Wolf's gaze flicked nervously from one woman to the other.

"Well, yes, I am a little disappointed, but that's easily remedied." Her hand went up a fraction of an inch and the huntsman materialized at her side. His bow was off his shoulder and he held it loosely but at the ready. Wolf ducked his head a little, looking around slowly, moving only his eyes. The queen wasn't paying him the slightest bit of attention. If he ran up the stairs, perhaps he could get at the huntsman before--

No such luck. He got a noseful of eau de troll just as two pairs of large and extremely strong hands grabbed him from behind and dragged him to the foot of the stairs.

"That's him," the huntsman said. "Your Majesty, that's the wolf that attacked me in the gypsy camp."

"What a disappointment," the queen said mildly, and sighed. "I do wish you'd told me sooner."

"Sorry," the huntsman replied smoothly. "It took a while to place him."

"Hmmmph. Pity, too. I had such hopes."

"We're having a bonfire tonight," a female troll breathed in his ear. "Feel like being part of it?" The stench of the troll's breath nearly made Wolf vomit, but the thought of fire was worse. He fought against them but one kicked him in the back of the leg and he collapsed to his knees.

"Wolf!" Gigi shouted, then whirled on the queen. "Stop this! You want me? fine, but leave him alone! I'll marry Wendell, I'll do whatever you want."

"Oh, my dear." The queen smiled and started to descend, her black cloak crawling behind her like a velvet shadow. "I don't need you anymore. You were just a distraction for Wendell. A focus for me to use to hold his attention from what was really happening."

"So you made him think he loved me. I knew it!"

"Not really. He cares for you, my dear. Didn't you know? I just made him need you."

Gigi fell silent and looked at Wendell, who flashed her a woozy smile. "Hullo, my love. June wedding?"

She ignored him. "Then let me go. Let us go."

The queen hesitated. Interesting, Wolf thought. She came abreast of Gigi and studied her face. "Perhaps if you give me a reason..."

"I mean nothing to you."

"Nothing..." the queen said, her eyes playing over Gigi's features. "When I saw you, I thought, she reminds me of myself. She has the power to rule, and I have no daughter..." Her eyes narrowed, her face hardening. "You would kill me. You are a threat to me!"

"I'm no threat. I don't want anything you have!" Gigi cried desperately.

"Oh, girl, your very existence is a threat! I will have no one fairer than me in my kingdom..." She giggled and gestured, her gloved hands describing a circle around her. "Or should I say, 'kingdoms?' They're all mine now." Her smile faded. "All that remains of the Fourth Kingdom is Wendell... and you." She turned to the huntsman and he came down the stairs to join her. The silver bow was in his hands.

"No!" Near the king, a tall man in a dark blue uniform was staggering to his feet, clearly fighting against the drug in the punch. "I am Viscount Lansky, and I declare myself the King's Protector!" He held a silver dagger in his hand, and it was pointed at the queen. "You shall not touch a hair of His Majesty's head!"

The huntsman released an arrow and Lansky fell in a heap at Wendell's feet, a startled look on his dead face.

"Well," the huntsman said admiringly. "You were right about him, Your Majesty."

"The girl next," the queen said. Wolf struggled but the hands held him fast. The queen tsked at Gigi, who stared in horror at the dead man. Wendell stood in unmoving silence, but his eyes had strayed to his dead courtier and a line creased his forehead. The queen took a step away from Gigi. "What a pity you didn't drink the punch, my dear. I'm afraid this will be much more painful."

"Good gracious!" said another voice, from an unexpected quarter, as Lord Anthony apparently noticed his plans going awry. "Oh, dear! You've killed a man! A member of the nobility! Your Majesty, I hope this does not mean that the wedding is definitely off? Because I had hoped that--"

"Silence!" The queen whirled on him, her face furious.

"Of course, I will be silent," Lord Anthony nattered on, unfazed. "Silent as the grave. I just wanted to clarify the actual arrangements, because Wendell has, in fact, made the announcem--"

He stopped, because an arrow was sticking out of his chest. He opened his mouth as if to complete the sentence, then toppled wordlessly to the floor. Gigi shrieked and ran to him, but it was already too late. Lord Anthony, clueless Viscount of the Western Mountains, had died as he had lived: never comprehending the obvious.

There was no time left, none at all. Wolf kicked backwards and heard a satisfying shriek from one troll, then sank his teeth into the female's hand. The trolls released him and hopped away, whining and moaning dramatically. The huntsman was before him, and he slammed into the man, knocking him to the floor. He could feel his teeth ache -- no doubt they were lengthening as his anger and need to protect Gigi grew. The two men struggled as they had in the woods; the huntsman older but immensely strong, Wolf quicker and more agile. He wrestled the bow away and brought it down on the huntsman's cranium with a resounding thud, then staggered to his feet just in time to use it again on the smaller troll's jaw and to jab the blunt end into the female's mid-section. He heard another noise behind him and turned to see a third troll. Wolf stepped under the huge troll's punch, yanked him by his nose ring and brought his chin down hard against the marble floor. The troll joined his siblings in unconsciousness. Wolf panted and leaned across the balustrade.

"You're very good at doing unexpected things," the queen's voice said. "Unfortunately, so am I."

Wolf looked up. The queen had Gigi around the throat, and in her other hand was Viscount Lansky's dagger.

He growled at her, eyes narrowing. He wanted to pull Gigi from her grasp and then kill the queen, rip her throat out, push her down a flight of stairs--

Remember what I have told you

A memory suddenly of Virginia crouched over her mother's dead body, the look of sadness on his mate's face, the tears of despair, the exhaustion as she slept, trying to bury herself in unconsciousness to forget all she'd lost. Wolf was confused. Why was he remembering that, at a time like this?

Remember everything I told you

"You're finished here, Your Majesty," Wolf said, forcing his voice into a soothing tone. "The guests aren't dead -- just unconscious with troll dust."

"Another traitor!" She clutched Gigi more tightly about the neck. Gigi gasped.

"They'll be waking up soon. It's best for you to release her. It will be taken into account--"

"--You want to kill me!"

"No," Wolf said, though his aching teeth and slightly glowing eyes said otherwise. "I want to help you."

The queen was dragging Gigi up the steps, backwards. Heading -- where? Wolf started to move up the steps, following them. "Don't move or I'll kill her." The queen squeezed her arm against Gigi's throat a little more tightly and continued to ascend the stairs.

"There's nowhere to go."

"Isn't there?" Her eyes glittered with madness but also secret amusement, and Wolf realized with a thrill of alarm, she's going to the mirror. She's going to escape through it.

Gigi clawed at the queen's arm, but couldn't get a grip. Her other hand flailed uselessly in the air behind her, but the queen merely moved her head and laughed.

Wolf looked towards Wendell, but the king was still staring blankly as if listening to something only he could hear. Lord Anthony and the other viscount were dead. There was no one left to save Gigi but himself. How could he save Gigi, while she was held captive in this way? How could he--

Captive.

Remember everything

A rhyme came into his head, the fragment of Snow White's enigmatic rhyme. It seemed so long ago that she'd said it to him; he'd nearly forgotten it...

"What's done must be undone,
A stolen life regained,
A struggle to be won,
A captive soul unchained."

a captive soul...

Wolf looked again at Wendell. The young king was standing perfectly still, still in thrall to the queen, staring at nothing in particular. Wolf's eyes shifted to the queen. She was nearly at the traveling mirror. There was a look of mingled triumph and fear on her face -- a ghastly expression that twisted her beautiful face into something horrible and inhuman. Something--

--soulless.

"Not everyone ended happily," Snow White had said to him.

"I gave away my soul..." the queen had said as she died.

Tumblers fell into place in Wolf's mind, unlocking the rhyme. A captive soul. Not Gigi. Not Wendell...

So that was the point of it all!

"Your Majesty," he started to say, but in that instant Gigi's loose hand connected with the queen's hair and fell on the bejeweled comb. The queen felt it, too. With a curse she released Gigi from her grasp and clutched at her hair. Gigi flung her arm in a wide swipe just meant to ward off the other woman.

Too late, Wolf realized what was about to happen. "No, Gigi, don't!"

His frantic cry went unheard. He watched as, almost in slow-motion, the comb's teeth grazed the queen across the cheek. She stepped back, putting one gloved hand to her face. Wolf had a dizzying flash of deja vu as he watched her stagger a little and heard her say, "You've drawn blood."

"Well, you tried to kill me," Gigi said, not understanding. She looked anxious but not particularly worried, relieved, perhaps, at being freed. She rubbed her neck.

Behind Wolf one of the trolls said "Uh-oh!" in a sing-song voice from the floor. The queen turned her back on Gigi and walked shakily down the rest of the steps, then collapsed to her knees.

"Hello, what's happened?" Wendell said suddenly. He shook himself much as a dog might, and staggered from the dais, staring dazedly at the bodies of Lord Anthony and Viscount Lansky, at the unconscious huntsman and the three trolls. "By the Five Women, Are we under attack?"

"What's... what's wrong with her?" Gigi was saying, a note of alarm now creeping into her voice.

"Poison." Wolf crossed to kneel down where the queen had fallen. His hands were moving over her gloves, feeling for the silver ring he'd pried from the desiccated finger in the Swamp Witch's cave. "Don't worry," he said to the woman who had tried to kill him, Gigi, Virginia, Wendell and a roomful of nobles. She was finding it hard to breathe. Her eyes were wide and terrified; clearly she could feel herself slipping.

"What are you doing?" Gigi said. He didn't answer, and Gigi turned away, seeking her father's crumpled form. Wolf watched her out of the corner of his eye, understanding. The queen meant nothing to her. Nothing to Gigi.

There! He felt the ring on the queen's finger; he could feel it under the gloves--

Under the gloves. She was already wearing the ring, the ring that Snow White had said would keep her from succumbing to death. But she was clearly dying! It wasn't working! It was supposed to, Snow White had said--

No, no, Wolf remembered, what she'd said, what she'd literally said was he would find a prize kept by a dead queen that kept her from yielding to death. But the Swamp Witch had died because he'd removed her ring--

No. Not the ring. She'd never said it was a ring. Wolf looked at his hand and remembered the cut that had healed miraculously, that had been there when he started to dress in livery, but which was gone afterwards. After he'd remembered who he was. After he'd looked in the--

"Mirror!" he shouted, batting feverishly at his pockets. There it was, the round shape of the gold mirror, and he pulled it out, ripping fabric in his haste. The queen was nearly gone; merely the faintest wisp of breath remained and it rattled in her chest. He reached under her head, propping her up, while the other hand raised the mirror to her face. "Your Majesty," Wolf said, then stopped. "Christine Lewis! Remember who you are."

At first he thought it was too late. The woman's cheeks had paled to a bloodless hue and she felt limp in his arms. But then the eyes opened a little, as if with great effort. "I... am... the... queen..."

"Look. Look at yourself."

Her eyes fluttered a little, flicking to Wolf before focusing on the image before her. To Wolf it seemed as if a light suddenly reflected from a nearby torch, or perhaps it was the shine off a suit of armor. Perhaps it came from the mirror itself. Whatever the source, it filled the tiny mirror with a great radiance that illuminated the queen's face. He squinted his eyes at the brightness, and when he opened them again the queen was lying silently, her eyes closed. Too late. Have I been too late?

Muffled scraping and muttering began all around him. People were starting to wake up.

Gigi looked up from where she knelt by her father's body. "They're not dead!" she said, wonder in her voice. Then she looked again at her father and lowered her head, but slowly enough that Wolf saw the streak of tears down her white cheeks.

"I switched the poison for troll dust," Wolf told her, once again feeling an almost visceral wave of deja vu. He looked around the room as the nobles began to grunt and right themselves.

"What -- what happened?" King Wendell was staring at him. "You , servant! What happened?"

Wolf ignored him, because the woman, whoever she was, was blinking at him, looking blankly around the room. The scratches were gone from her cheek. She was alive! Wolf smiled at her and rose, offering her his hand. She sat up very tentatively and looked down at her gown, her expression confused. "What on earth am I wearing?"

Gigi had risen, too, and crossed to them. "It's a long story," Wolf said. "But after everything is cleared up, we'll have a nice talk."

The older woman blinked at Gigi. "Are you... no. No. Who are you?" She stopped. "Who am I?"

"We'll explain everything..." Wolf said, wondering how on earth he was going to do that. He turned to Gigi and gave her a little squeeze. "I'm sorry about your father."

Gigi bit her lip. Her eyes were wet, but her voice was strong. "I'm sorry, too. About a lot of things. I'm sorry he didn't, that we never..." She put her head against Wolf's chest and snuffled a little. He held her for a few moments until she looked up again, and he wiped away the tear smudges from her face. Gigi studied the mass of confused nobility. "What do we do now?"

"Well," Wolf said. He felt tired, tired in every sinew and every bone. "Wendell has his throne back. I'm going home." He gestured at the traveling mirror. Just leaving this way seemed a terrible anticlimax, somehow. "Wendell." He turned to the king, "You'd better arrest that man on the floor. He killed two of your nobles. And those three trolls -- you might want to hold them hostage in case their father declares war on you. Just a suggestion."

"You're going home?" Gigi looked away. "I thought you might...you might..."

"I can't," he said softly. "I have to go find Virginia." He looked around, hoping Snow White would make another appearance. "I'm not even sure she's there."

"I see."

"Gigi..."

"I guess I'm not sure what to do now." She looked around bleakly.

Wolf considered his words. "I don't suppose you might actually want to be queen...?" He dropped his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. "Wendell's a little dull, but he's essentially a good guy. I mean, he's no wolf, but he seems to like you." At her shocked expression he laughed.

"Are you kidding? He was under a spell or something!"

They turned to Wendell, who was being given a thorough going-over by a physician and several of his courtiers. He happened to look up and smiled at Gigi. "See?" said Wolf. "It looks like something's still there, Gigi."

"Maybe, but..." Her expression said it all; she wasn't ready to settle for Wendell, even if it meant being queen. Wolf considered her appraisingly, thinking about all they had been through together. She was, in truth, resourceful, stubborn and completely, deliciously desirable. She was also somewhat more adventurous than Virginia. He found that both appealing and terrifying. Just as well that he was leaving.

"Well, I guess I should be going," Wolf said, at a loss of what else to say. He offered a hand to the evil queen -- well, Christine Lewis. She still looked somewhat dazed. Together Gigi and Wolf helped the red-haired woman up the stairs toward the traveling mirror. Wolf found the switch and turned it. His reflection shuddered and wavered, then disappeared. He heard gasps behind him as the skyline of New York came into view, the image swirling dizzyingly to come to rest in a green area surrounded by trees. "That's the Tenth Kingdom," Wolf said, as much to himself as anyone. "Good-bye, Gigi. I'm... I'm sorry you didn't find your prince."

"Wolf. I want to go."

"Gigi, I don't think that's a good idea--"

"--Why not?" She searched his face. "Look. I'm not asking you for anything. You want to find her, your Virginia, and I understand. I'd never be able to stand you for long, anyway, you know."

"Yeah. I actually have my own opinions."

"Right." Gigi smiled wickedly. "We'd kill each other." Then her expression softened and she looked again at the image in the glass. "I won't bother you, unless you want me to. I just want to go... there. It looks like a good place for new adventures." She clutched Wolf's arms. "I'll leave you alone, but I can't stay here, Wolf. Nothing about it seems real to me anymore." She looked up at him with round blue eyes that could never fail to turn him into jelly. "Please?"

Wolf wondered for a moment if the Tenth Kingdom could survive two Virginias. He sighed, looking at the determined line of Gigi's mouth, and gave up.

"All right." Something else I'll have to explain to Virginia.

Gigi squealed with delight and hugged him. "Do we just go through?"

"Yes. But there's something I think I have to do first." He turned and considered the other mirrors. He walked along the semicircle of reflections, seeing his image repeated over and over. Splinters, Wolf thought. Fractures of reality.

He came to the last mirror and put his hand on the frame.

"You -- you're a wolf!"

Wolf spun around. Wendell was on his feet, staring at him from the foot of the staircase, his face angry. "Wendell?"

"That's King Wendell, you inferior creature! Speak to me with respect!" Wendell pointed and Wolf, shocked beyond words, realized his tail had come out in the struggles and Wendell was gesturing at it.

"Yeah, I'm a wolf, Wendell, and you were a dog, remember? What's wrong with you?" He was beginning to get annoyed, but turned back to the mirror.

"Treason! Disgusting, filthy--"

"--Okay!" Wolf had had enough. "I get the point, but I'm leaving, so you can bark at me all you like." He turned to Gigi. "Huff-PUFF! This, after I save his kingdom for him! I take back what I said. You're way too good for him. I'm glad to take you with me."

Ugly emotions contorted Wendell's face as he sputtered angrily. "Where are you going with my bride?"

Gigi whirled on him. "I'm not your bride, Wendell. I'm nobody's bride. Cut it out!"

Wendell's demeanor darkened into threat. "You've corrupted her, you filthy animal. She's not going anywhere with the likes of you. She belongs to me!"

"I do not! What's wrong with you? You don't really want me!"

"That's immaterial. I'm not letting that beast put his hands on you! Defiling a human woman -- he should have been shot the moment he entered my kingdom. There's no place for his kind here!"

Wolf took a step away from the mirror to stare at the king. Fury boiled up inside him, yet more than anything he felt hurt. "You know what, Wendy? I was right all along. You're an ass and a bigot, and I wouldn't stay in your miserable kingdom for all the bacon in it."

"How dare you!!"

"--and furthermore, it's too bad you weren't a dog longer, because it might have taught you better manners. Frankly, Your Pompous Majesty, I liked you better as a dog, and I didn't care for you then!" Bedros, Wolf thought, you'd better hurry and grow up. The wolves of this kingdom are really gonna need you.

He pushed the mirror and it began to topple slowly towards the next one.

"Stop!"

Wolf turned at the command, ready to tell Wendell to shove his scepter right up his royal behind. But Wendell was holding something now, something silver and pointed and dangerous, with the face and ruby eyes of a hawk.

The huntsman's bow.

"Filthy animal," Wendell hissed, bringing the bow to his eye.

"Gigi! Go now!" Wolf shouted and started to run. Behind him the first mirror crashed into the second, exploding into quicksilver and dust. And then the second was falling, ever so slowly, towards the next fragile domino in the line.

Gigi stared open-mouthed at Wendell, the man she'd thought dull but harmless. Her heart pounded. She took a deep breath and flung herself through the mirror. As the glass took her she heard the second and third mirrors crash to the ground.

"You're dead, wolf." Wendell squeezed one eye shut.

The sound of breaking glass was all Wolf could hear, and inside the sound he thought he heard moaning coming from the mirrors. He shut his ears to the cries as he reached the traveling mirror.

Wendell Winston Walter White, grandson of the great Snow White, King of the Fourth Kingdom, doomed from this moment forth to be known as Wendell the Huntsman, tightened his finger and loosed the silver arrow.

Virginia, Wolf thought. He flung himself across the frame as the arrow reached him. He had the sensation of ice and fire all at once, and looked dully at the arrow in his chest as he toppled backwards into Christine, the woman he'd traveled so far to save, the captive soul he had unchained. As they fell into the mirror, his last sight as his consciousness began to fade was of the final mirror shattering. It let loose a shrill scream as it exploded into nothingness. The mirrors, save the traveling mirror, were dead.

But Wolf was already gone.

table of contents | replace on shelf | site map | next page