As the Queen Wishes
Those who had been summoned to the briefing room entered two or three at a time, except for in the case of General Doppelgänger, who entered six at a time and entirely by himself. He cast an anxious look around at the room's other occupants and, realizing he was quite beside himself and that the room could get crowded, melded back into the twin figures of Generals Doppel and Ganger.
Hatter Madigan allowed Molly to enter first and slipped between the two generals to join his daughter in the room's corner. He was admittedly surprised by the queen's chosen venue, but was pleased with the promptness all had shown in arriving. If there was trouble stirring in the queendom this was the place to deal with it, and these were undoubtedly the people.
To any other than those gathered, they would have appeared a motley group of individuals, certainly not the instrumental force responsible for governing the queendom of Wonderland.
In and of themselves, each was something of a celebrity. The learned albino Bibwit Harte, the aged member of the tutor species, was a well known player in three generations of royal history and an expert on many more than that.
The Generals Doppel and Ganger were chief of the country's military forces and card soldiers. They oversaw safety and security in the queendom and had been doing so even from a time when their assets consisted solely of a few decks of soldiers and a handful of weapons.
The white knight was the General's counterpart in charge of the queen's chessmen. Beside him stood the white rook, his signature carefree expression marking his face with a smile. Hatter had seen that expression harden in concentration and the heat of battle on many occasions. The rook's fighting prowess and incredible luck were legend, and he was arguably one of Wonderland's most fearless soldiers.
Then there were the Madigans themselves. Hatter was aware that his had been a household name for decades, even before his daring jump into the Pool of Tears and his ceaseless quest for the missing princess. He glanced briefly at his daughter beside him. The way Molly fought at the age of fourteen, it would not be long before she shared her father's prestige.
Dodge Anders, too, was one whose career had begun early. His dedication to the crown was renowned, and his dedication to the queen was well known even outside of this gathering. He stood beside her now as Alyss gazed happily at the group she'd assembled.
Alyss Heart. All other fame paled in comparison to Wonderland's queen. The missing princess they'd fought for, the mighty warrior they'd championed, and the sovereign leader they followed.
Only the Walrus butler was exempt from fame of his own. He remained more than content to bask in that of his queen.
"Thank you for coming," Alyss greeted them. Her happiness was unmistakable in the way she smiled. With some effort, Hatter allowed his eyes to convey his pleasure and curiosity. It was good to see Alyss happy. She had earned every happiness.
Still, the Milliner wondered what sort of crisis had emerged that would warrant the impromptu meeting of the queendom's top minds and warriors. He could tell by the way Molly's eyes narrowed slightly that she was entertaining the same questions.
"You needn't worry, General," the queen told the head of her military who was pacing in twice the time. "We are not gathered here to discuss threats or concerns as we have so frequently and recently." General Doppel and General Ganger melded back into one and refrained from movement.
"Not only are each of you my most trusted advisors, you are each my dearest friends. Each of you is like family to me," Alyss continued. "And it is due to each of these roles that I am informing you first. Your queen is going to break tradition."
Alyss' audience stood captive before her. Hatter, for one, trusted her judgment completely. She had unfailingly done what was right for the queendom he served.
The queen studied the faces of her friends. "I have decided to take a king, and he will not be a member of a ruling suit family. Blood has nothing to do with this decision: neither the nobility he was born into, nor the amount spilled doing battle for White Imagination." She smiled again. "I am going to marry one able to fight beside me, my best friend, and the only man I've ever loved."
She was staring now up at Dodge, and the guardsman's face mirrored hers for happiness. Taking her hand in his, he addressed the group. "Suffice it to say, when she asked me, I said yes."
The briefing room erupted with congratulatory shouts. "Bravo!" Bibwit exclaimed, patting the happy couple on the shoulders excitedly.
"At last!" General Doppelgänger yelled, and unable to contain such joy in one body, he split and then split again, each general adding their shout to the occasion and insisting on shaking the couple's hands.
The white knight clapped, and the rook shouldered his way through the celebrating generals to give Dodge a slap on the back.
Molly bounded up to the queen, grinning ear to ear. The sometimes reserved girl didn't appear uncomfortable at all when Alyss hugged her.
The walrus butler was crying tears of pure happiness, frantically exclaiming at all the work he had to begin on the wedding.
Hatter remained where he was, but watched the smiling couple with definite satisfaction. He caught Alyss peering at him over Molly's head, and he was surprised at the ease with which the smile came to his lips.
Wonderland had a queen of which to be proud, and soon she would have a king to partner with her. Alyss bore the burden of leadership with dignity, but having someone with whom she could fully share it would make the already strong queen stronger. Dodge Anders was a lucky man, indeed.
The celebration continued to vibrate the room, heedless of Hatter's rare smile. He smiled anyway, surrounded by such happiness and an unquenchable hope for the future.
It was some time after Alyss had announced her engagement that she sought out the Milliner for a private conference. "Could I speak with you a moment?" she queried when she met him coming down the hallway. She was accompanied by his daughter, her bodyguard.
Hatter had inclined his head in affirmation, and Molly, too, had nodded in understanding. Alyss led the way to the palace gardens, and the girl had remained at the door, giving the queen a moment alone with the head of the Millinery.
There had been a time when Molly would have loudly protested at being excluded from adult conversation. She had since grown more comfortable in her identity and role as protector of the queen. Hatter was proud of her.
They walked in silence for a time, the only sound that of flowers shuffling their petals to give leafy bows and singing out greetings in melodic voices. "I have a request to make of you, Hatter," his queen said to him.
"I shall do whatever you require, Your Majesty." And so he would. His duty to his queen had always been his priority. Only once had he disobeyed her, and it had been to save his daughter. He trusted Alyss enough to know she wouldn't ask him to choose between them.
Alyss Heart shook her head, her dark locks brushing her fair skin. "This isn't an order, Hatter. It isn't made in an official capacity. I'm asking not as your queen, but as a friend."
He said nothing, his silence indicating that she should ask. Alyss sighed, a sound of hopelessness he hated to hear from her. "I'm getting married," she said unnecessarily to the plants around them. Turning back to face him, her dark eyes fixed on his. "I wanted to know," she said slowly, "if you would walk me down the aisle."
The Milliner used his considerable self control to keep his facial features in check. Of all the things his queen might have asked him, he'd not anticipated this.
"It's only a request," Alyss hastened to remind him.
Hatter was silent for yet another moment. This was unprecedented. It was true that his role as royal bodyguard had brought him close to the royal family. It was equally true that he was closer to Alyss Heart than he'd been to any other queen. He'd spent a good portion of his life desperate to keep her from harm. He cared for her, perhaps more than was strictly required. But who was he to be considered for this honor?
"Why?" he managed to ask at last.
Alyss, who'd been studying his face for an answer, mulled over the question. "My father," she said quietly, her eyes drifting to the Hereafter plant molded to the dead king's features, "is gone. And circumstances being what they are, even my adopted father from Earth is unable to give me away.
"I meant what I said about considering you family. You've been there for me, even when they could not be. I understand much of that is due to circumstance, but I thank you for all the effort and sacrifice you've made on my behalf. Your protection and care have meant the world to me."
Hatter would not have interrupted her for anything. "It's not as though I'm choosing you third. I have met many who are fatherless; I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have had three such men in my life." She smiled then, even though she spoke with all seriousness. "Whatever you answer, know that I understand and am grateful."
How could he give her any but the answer she sought? He did it not out of misplaced pride in himself and what he could gain from the position, but because he genuinely cared for the young woman before him, and she deserved any happiness he could give her.
"I will, Your Majesty."
His queen beamed at him. She had a profound dignity even as she hugged him joyfully. "Thank you, Hatter."
At first he stiffened at the extreme impropriety of being seen hugging the queen. In his life far removed from human touch, any contact sent his instincts reeling. He'd been taught to avoid it, to fortify himself against human weakness, but he slowly fought this training. Once there had been a woman who taught him how to feel.
He tapped into the place Weaver had unlocked, allowing himself to experience his great affection for this woman who regarded him as a father. Slowly, so slowly, he returned the hug.
"And please stop this 'Your Majesty' business. Call me Alyss. There are no titles between friends."
Had he been a different man, a small smile would have flitted across his lips as he answered. "As you wish, Queen Alyss." Small steps; he couldn't overhaul his complete training in one day.
She laughed outright as she pulled away, and though it was a ridiculous notion for one with his disposition, he hoped he could someday make her laugh again. He hoped he could someday make Molly laugh.
"Thank you again," she said. "And besides," the queen inserted a friendly jab of her own, "it will be good practice."
His jaw set itself as though he was staring down innumerable foes. Hatter Madigan, the man who feared nothing, could almost feel his face pale. It was only the smallest of consolations that he could again hear his queen laughing.
Hatter mentioned the queen's request with his usual nonchalance to his daughter that night. The two of them had retired to their adjoining quarters within the palace grounds, close at hand in case of imminent threat or national emergency.
"Alyss asked me to walk her down the aisle," he said, carefully polishing his top hat blades. He peered over his weapon to where Molly sat across from him, methodically shining her homburg. This was a nightly activity for the Madigan family, and while it might have seemed strange to the rest of Wonderland's citizens, the ritual offered a comforting familiarity to father and daughter.
The girl glanced up from her own work, but her eyes gave nothing away. "What did you say?" she asked him.
The Milliner gave his top hat blades a practice spin. "I said yes." He set the headwear aside and reached for his wrist blades. Sitting here without his signature coat and weapons, Hatter knew he more resembled an ordinary human. Weaver had often reminded him of that fact, making him believe that he could occasionally behave like an ordinary human. This understanding of his appearance and what it symbolized gave outlet to his internal musings. "I only don't understand why she chose me."
Molly continued to work her rag over the smooth shield of her hat. She shrugged. "Makes sense to me. Alyss said Bibwit is performing the ceremony since he's the only one familiar with the royal wedding text. He can't do both jobs, and walking down the aisle with a battalion of General Doppels and Gangers might be tricky."
She grinned at him, undoubtedly imagining just that. Hatter gave her a small smile in return, grateful that Molly's humor was returning to her. "You probably have a point."
The pair worked in silence for another few minutes. Hatter moved on to cleaning his belt sabers and Molly began work on her own set of wrist blades. It was a companionable quiet, each enjoying the novelty of another's company.
"Or maybe," Molly said quietly, "she just saw what a good dad you can be."
It was the greatest compliment of his life. Hatter looked up to meet her brown eyed gaze. "I hope so," he said with heartfelt sincerity. Molly ducked her head, embarrassed, but the smile stayed on her lips.
The evening passed swiftly, and as Molly prepared for bed, she gifted him with a tight hug. The father returned the embrace and pressed a kiss to her hair. "Good-night," he said softly.
In a universe only slightly different, Hatter could imagine Alyss Heart as the daughter he never had. He cared for her enormously, and come her wedding day he would be walking her down the aisle. But he would never cease to be amazed that fortune had seen fit to give him a daughter of his own. And he would never cease to be grateful.
The day of the much anticipated royal wedding arrived, and Hatter resigned himself to the task at hand. It was a mission the equal of which he'd never undertaken, and failure was not an option.
The ceremony would take place in the throne room, the only of the palace's rooms capable of entertaining the hundreds of guests in attendance. These guests of varying status crammed into the high ceilinged room and countless citizens mingled in the courtyards and street, watching their queen's wedding on massive viewing screens.
Alyss was being attended in an adjoining room, adding the finishing touches to her gown. Hatter waited with the rest of the wedding party, his mind cleared but for the job ahead of him.
He wore a newer version of his traditional millinery coat. Made of a fabric far softer than the familiar cracked leather, it was better suited to an occasion of this magnitude and prestige. It was dark colored and stood out against the white much of the group wore. His top hat was polished to a gleam and carried under his arm.
The wedding party was small when compared to what a queen's marriage could demand. Bibwit and Dodge had already taken their leave and made their way to the front of the throne room, leaving Hatter and two others.
The white rook fairly glowed in his dress whites and his smiling countenance. He'd elbowed Dodge in the side on his way out the door and given the future king a wink. It was clear that the rook was pleased with his position as groomsman and truly happy for his friend.
The walrus butler stood fussing over Molly's dress. She put up with a surprising amount of his efforts but eventually brushed his flippers away and smoothed the skirt for herself. Her bridesmaid's dress was white as well, swirling to a stop somewhere above her ankles. The dress moved with her, and she looked more comfortable than Hatter would have supposed. It was the first time he'd seen her in a dress, and he thought his daughter was absolutely beautiful.
He also happened to know that the white flower clipped into her hair concealed a small, but deadly weapon. Since her return to Wonderland, Molly had been experimenting with Weaver's formulae. She was developing her latent talent, and it gave Hatter great joy to see her work.
These thoughts of pride coupled with the image of her beauty coaxed a smile out of him. As Molly caught him looking, her face reddened in a blush. She smiled back, and he was struck yet again by how her smile resembled her mother's.
The doors to the adjoining room slid open, and Wonderland's queen brushed softly in. Her dress was made of the nation's finest silks, shimmering in the room's bright light and casting an untraceable glow over everything it encountered. The gown was a feat of fashion magic, capturing Alyss' contours with dignified beauty.
But it was the queen's beaming countenance that would enrapture all of Wonderland. Alyss Heart's happiness was glorious to behold.
Though Molly also wore a dress of white, there would be no doubt about which was the bride. As Alyss moved across the room towards him, her shimmering silk gown glistened. Her smile dazzled, and Hatter felt even his Millinery control slipping. He allowed a smile similar to the one he'd shown his daughter to grace the queen.
Hatter was not the only one bewitched by Alyss' appearance. The white rook stared in respectful awe, silently considering his best friend a lucky man indeed. Molly's lips parted in reverence, wonderstruck by her friend's beauty. The walrus butler blubbered afresh, tears of pure happiness cascading down his cheeks.
The Milliner retained his traditional silence, but was certain the queen could tell he was as affected as the others in the wedding party. When she reached him, he bowed low, and daring to meet her eyes, he was rewarded with the bright twinkle he found there.
She gestured to the marvelous gown trailing out behind her and asked, almost shyly, "How do I look?"
It seemed that the question was specifically directed at him, and that it was up to Hatter to answer. He was momentarily at a loss. He had only ever attempted to compliment two women in his life, and with Molly he still had very little practice.
Still, his reply came naturally, and though he could not recall thinking of it, he could not deny its truth. "You look perfect."
If possible, Alyss' smile widened. Then her gaze turned to the solid wooden doors before them, as if to look through them at the man standing in wait for her. For all Hatter knew, she could have been using her considerable imaginative powers to do just that.
Hatter offered his arm, and the queen gracefully looped hers in his. With lingering smiles, Molly and the rook lined up in front of them. With hardly stifled sobs, the walrus butler pushed the doors open.
A full orchestra complete with every musical instrument Wonderland had to offer began to play, announcing their entrance. The rook and Molly began walking slowly down the aisle.
"Thank you," Alyss said softly as their entrance neared. And Hatter could tell that she was speaking for more than just his compliment. The Milliner turned to face her and smiled. If anyone other than his queen had seen him today they would be convinced he was a fraud. Never had Hatter Madigan been seen to smile so much.
The processional cued them, and Hatter embarked on the most crucial mission of his career. He focused himself on the task ahead and took deliberately timed steps down the aisle. Alyss Heart floated beside him.
Citizens of Wonderland all stood respectfully, their eyes never leaving the radiant bride who was also their queen. Hatter allowed his smile to remain in place knowing anyone watching would completely fail to notice it, being so thoroughly entranced by the royal beside him.
Even as the masses stared, Hatter noticed the immediate destination of Alyss' gaze. Her eyes rushed to the front of the throne room where a tall and exceedingly pale member of the tutor species waited with the captain of the royal guardsmen.
Bibwit Harte wore appropriately festive formal robes of deep purple. These billowed around the albino and made his skin appear even paler.
Dodge Anders was dressed in traditional guardsman finery with a few tasteful embellishments. Instead of the dark coloring of a standard uniform, Dodge's tunic was white to match the colors of the wedding and the Imagination he supported. His father's sword hung proudly at his side, but for once it was purely for decoration as no one anticipated any untoward activity. On the left shoulder of his coat was emblazoned the white heart decal, just as on the Alyssian uniforms of old.
The young man unswervingly returned his love's gaze. He looked confident and blissfully happy, but to Hatter's trained eye, a single twitching finger betrayed his nerves at such a public occasion.
The Milliner himself understood. Though there'd been no formal ceremony for him and Weaver, not even a small gathering of friends with which to share their love, it was one of the few times in his life he'd experienced true nervousness.
He'd been certain of his decision to pledge undying commitment. He'd been secure in his newly uncovered, yet powerful feelings of love and devotion. And yet, as he'd uttered his vow, Hatter had still experienced the unfamiliar feeling of nervous agitation. And that was without the hundred guests required to see the marriage of their ruler.
Their measured strides ate up the distance to the platform on which Dodge and Bibwit waited. Pausing before ascending the stairs that would take her to her groom, Alyss turned back to the famous Milliner. The smile had not left her face, and she folded her arms around him in a grateful hug.
Not caring that the eyes of Wonderland might remember this action, Hatter hugged her back. "You're welcome … Alyss."