Venus licked her thumb and turned the page, enjoying her illustrated adventure through Alice’s fantasy, the afternoon sun lighting the tome as she read, back laid comfortably against a large round tree trunk. She’d been here quite awhile as she noted how tired the summer sun seemed to make her. She laid her book to the side and closed her eyes for a brief moment.
When she opened them, it was clear the moment had not been quite so brief, as the sun was going down on the horizon.
“I need to get home,” she muttered, standing up.
She turned to pick up her book, and found it not where she left it. She walked around the tree, which was rather thick in diameter, and found her book on the other side, resting precariously on the edge of what looked like a deep hole inside the redwood. She stepped into the hollow of the tree and reached for her book, snatching it up and turning to go, only to slip and fall back into the hole.
She shouted, startled, and tried to hold on to something, anything, and ended up holding her book tight against her chest, it being the only thing she could reach.
She kept falling. And falling. And… falling?
She opened her eyes. The walls were smooth and decorated with lovely artwork and what in the world…? She kept falling. Did she hit her head? She’s seeing the rabbit hole now.
She fell for an indeterminate amount of time, and when she landed, she found herself in a corridor of doors, with no way of going back the way she came. She walked down the corridor briskly, knowing from having read the book that the doors were most certainly locked, and found herself at a glass table with a fan and a key. She took the key and walked to the curtain, unlocking the tiny door behind the long red curtain. Then she pocketed the key and picked up the fan, fanning herself until she felt herself shrink.
Shrinking is a strange sensation, she remarked, watching your extremities get smaller and smaller and seeing everything around you shoot up until you’re no higher than three inches tall and you clutch your now tiny possessions to your chest- how does that work? She decided not to question it, and was glad she wasn’t crushed by what would have been her very large book. She kept a firm hold of her book and walked through the door.
On the other side, there was a marvelous garden with lovely flowers, but Venus didn’t linger. She kept walking through the garden, much like a forest now, to be fair, and came upon a large mushroom, as tall as Venus was high.
“Hello?” She called, climbing up on a smaller mushroom to get onto the large one.
Seated on the mushroom was a large blue caterpillar, who took his hookah out of his mouth only long enough to blow the smoke in Venus' face. The brunette ducked, and popped back up only after the smoke cleared.
“You’re the caterpillar,” She said dumbly, not sure what else to say.
“And you are?” He inquired.
“That’s a plant, not a person.”
“It’s my name.”
He hummed disapprovingly, like her very existence disturbed him. She shook her head and looked at the mushroom he was seated on.
“Does your mushroom make you change size?” She asked him bluntly.
“Yes. What else would it do?”
“May I have some?”
“Of course. If you can recite-”
Venus cut him off and repeated the poem as she knew he wanted it. He looked at her frustratedly, but nodded, turning away.
“Very well.” He said. “Take as much as you’d like.”
Venus, knowing full well how much she might need it, took two large pieces from either side, which barely fit in her pockets. She then thanked the caterpillar and walked away.
“You might want to be a bit more patient!” He called after her.
She just kept walking until he was out of sight when she looked over her shoulder to check. She pulled one of each piece of mushroom and took a bite out of one nervously.
Growing, she figured, was much like shrinking, and yet so completely different. Everything around you gets smaller and smaller, while you become big and gangly. Her book could now never have fit in her arms as small as she used to be.
Deciding that this was much too great a height, she bit the other piece and proceeded to shrink again. She repeated the process of growing and shrinking until she felt roughly right, and put the mushroom pieces away in her pockets again and kept walking.
Soon Venus' arms grew tired from carrying her book as she walked, and her feet grew tired from walking. She sat on her book, beneath a large tree and laid back, seeing a crescent moon in the sky above her, remarkably clear for midday. She looked at it intently until two yellow eyes appeared above it and it grinned at her. She sat up abruptly. Why, it wasn’t the moon at all! It was a Cheshire, and it made itself comfortable on the branch by her head.
“Hello,” She said tentatively. “Who are you?”
“Isn’t it painfully obvious?” The cat crooned, a boy cat by the tone of its low, smooth voice.
“Well you’re a cat.” She said. “Maybe I should have asked what you were doing here.”
“That book looks awfully heavy to be carrying for a long distance,” He said, ignoring her statement. “Would you perhaps like a place to-” He pushed a knot in the tree and a door opened, “Put it?”
Inside the small cabinet was a leather satchel, which Venus took gratefully. She picked up her book and stuck it under her arm to open the satchel, inside which there seemed to be an endless library of books.
“Goodness!” She cried, “What all’s in here?”
“Why, the prince’s personal private library of course.”
“The prince’s- Oh no, I can’t take this. It’ll be off with my head for sure.” She tried to put it away, but as she did, her own tome fell into the depths of the bag.
“Oh no!” She lamented. She reached in after it, but found it to be of no use.
“I should have told you. Anyone can put a book in, but only the prince can take anything out.”
Venus rolled her eyes. She should have known better than to trust a Cheshire. She sadly put the bag away and closed the door, walking down the path.
Some time later, she saw something white off to the side of the path. She came over to inspect the bushes and found the white rabbit! Or a white rabbit. It wasn’t wearing a waistcoat, and it didn’t have a watch. It was dressed in a soft pink dress with white lace around the collar and little sleeves. Startled as she pulled back the leaves to look at it, the rabbit leapt up, landing in Venus' arms. Venus cradled the squirming creature, whispering soothing words until it calmed.
“You’re alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” She said, petting gently at the base of it’s ears.
“The Queen!” It shrieked, “Must tell the Queen!”
“In a minute,” Venus said gently. “Take a breath.”
The rabbit, eager to be set down, took a few deep breaths.
“There, isn’t that better?” Venus pointed out.
“Why- Why yes, it is,” The rabbit said thoughtfully. “Thank you!”
“Your welcome. My name is Venus. What’s yours?”
“Why, I’m Cottontail. It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
“You too!” Venus smiled. “Now you can get on your way not quite so frantic.”
“Thank you, Miss Venus!” Cottontail cheered as the girl set her down again. “Now I must really be off to the Queen!”
Venus smiled and waved her off as the little rabbit disappeared into the woodland. She kept on the path and even as her feet ached from walking, she kept going in search of shelter.
On her search, sometime much later after Cottontail had fled, there was a horrible screech as a creature approached her, almost rooting her feet to the ground in fear.
As the hideous thing reared to slice her, there was a shout from her left.
A girl with dark skin the color of rich earth and deep green markings that looked like vines slid across the dirt, slicing the beast’s head clean off with a rather wicked looking sword. Its body dropped and she stepped back, wiping the blade clean on its fur.
“You should be more careful,” She said to Venus, running a hand through her dark blue curls, brushing them away from her verdant emerald green eyes.
“Thanks for saving me.” Venus told her. “Where’d you get that sword?”
“I got it from a friend. I got connections. I’m Delphi. You are?”
“Nice to meet you. See you around.” Dephi waved and sheathed her blade, turning to go.
Venus stopped her.
“Wait,” She called, “You’re just going to leave? What if there are more of those things?”
“They’re called Jabberwocks, Venus. But don’t worry about it. That’s probably the only one for miles. You must’ve been important, or the Queen wouldn’t have let it out.”
“Red Queen, yeah. Y’know, ‘off with your head’ whole deal? She gets it from her mom. Word off the vine is her kids are alright though.”
“Delphi?” A boy’s voice called. “Delphi, are you alright?”
“I’m over here Marcus.” She turned and called over her shoulder.
“There’s a Jabberwock over there, Delphinium! I’m not going over there!”
“Marc, you’re a coward. I killed it already and there’s this very nice girl I’m talking to now. Wouldn’t you like to meet her?”
Mumbling was heard and a boy with soft golden hair and chestnut eyes came out of what had seemed to be the hollow of a nearby tree, which Venus wondered might have been awful hard to escape from, but didn’t say so. He came over and stood nervously behind Delphi.
“Delphi, what if another one comes?” He asked. “What if the Queen sends another, what then?”
“Then I’ll kill it too. Stop being a baby, Marcus. Do you wanna turn into a pig?”
“Then don’t start crying on me, kid.”
He nodded solemnly.
“Am I missing something here?” Venus asked.
“Marcus turns into a pig when he cries.” Delphinium shrugged.
“You mean like his face scrunches up or-”
“No, like he turns into a pig. Literally.”
Venus looked at her with wide eyes. Delphi stared back, unfazed.
“You want me to show you?” She asked, raising a hand. “He’s a baby, he’ll cry at anything-”
“I am not!”
“Watch-” Delphi raised her hand and swatted him on the cheek.
Much to her surprise, Venus' confusion, and Marcus’ pride, he didn’t cry. He sniffled and for a moment, his nose looked an awful lot like a snout, but he didn’t cry, and for that both he and Venus were grateful.
They talked for a short while, and Dephi warned that heading North would take her in the direction the Jabberwock had come, and that she’d best be careful if she intended to continue that way. Venus nodded and thanked her for her advice, but kept going in that direction, explaining that she had already explored the south, and might as well keep going. Delphinium and Marcus nodded and let her go her way, retreating back the way they had come.
The day was bright, but chilly. Venus remembered when she was young and her mother her told her in the winter it got colder when there was no cloud cover to trap the heat. As she slowly shivered and wished for a coat, Venus silently agreed.
“You’ll catch cold out here.” A voice called to her.
The brunette turned. Standing just behind her on the path was a red haired girl with bushy curls and lively grey eyes. Her skin was peppered in freckles, not just on her face, which was round and kind with pointed features. She wore a crisp button down shirt in a soft baby blue, and a long coat over it in the same color with large brown buttons. Both articles hung close to her wiry frame. Atop her head sat a muted flat yellow cap.
“Who are you?” Venus asked her.
“I’m Caroline Suzanna.” The girl said brightly, picking a small twig from her hair. “You can call me Suzie if you want to.”
“I’m Venus. You can call me that, because, well, I don’t know what else you’d call me.”
Caroline Suzanna wrinkled her nose.
“Why why wouldn’t I call you Venus?” She asked.
“Then why’d you say I should call you ‘that’?”
“No, I meant-” Venus sighed and shook her head. It wasn’t worth the trouble of arguing.
Caroline Suzanna shrugged and reached into her pocket. She pulled out a pincushion, but that was clearly not what she was looking for. She put it in her opposite pocket and reached in again. This time, she pulled out a small pink and yellow pastry, brushing it off and taking a bite. Venus watched worriedly, thinking the girl would grow or shrink, but found her perfectly fine. The red head noticed her staring.
“You didn’t change size,” Venus said slowly.
“No. Why, does that happen to you?” She popped the rest of the small treat in her mouth.
“Yes.” Venus replied.
“You must not be from around here.”
“No. Not in the slightest.”
“I’m sure my grandfather will have something safe for you to eat. C’mon, our house is this way.”
“What?” Caroline Suzanna looked at her confusedly.
“I don’t know if I can trust you.” Venus said.
“Why wouldn't you?’
“I don’t know you.”
“So?” When Venus had no response to that, Caroline Suzanna took her by the hand and led her away from the path, towards a small white gate and a little stone house with a birch wood door. Suzie pushed the door open gently and led Venus inside, through a small yet cozy kitchen into what must have once been the parlour or living room.
“Grandfather?” Caroline Suzanna called as Venus followed her into the room.
It was cluttered, covered in hats and various tea sets. The walls were panelled with a beige wood and had shelves overflowing with boxes. Some of the boxes themselves overflowed, bags of tea, dried up tea leaves, sewing tools, the works, all popped out the tops of boxes, leaving one to wonder what was in those that stayed neatly closed in the corner.
“Hmm?” The man in question looked up at her, continuing to work on the hat in his hands as he watched the girls enter the room.
“Grandfather, this is my new friend Venus.” Caroline Suzanna told him.
“Pleasure, Miss Venus. Would you like some tea?” He took off his hat and handed her the steaming teacup beneath it.
Seeing it prudent not to refuse, Venus took the cup and tried to take a sip. The tea was a remarkably pleasant temperature, and tasted like sweet mint and honey.
“This is great,” she told the older gentleman.
“It’s one of Suzie’s recipes. I always keep it on hand.” He smiled and pulled a second cup for himself from the depths of the hat. After a brief sip, he set the cup down and continued working on the hat.
“What are you working on, sir?”
“Sir?!” He cried, “Good gracious child, I don’t look quite so ancient, do I?”
He didn’t, to be fair. His hair was the same vibrant red orange as his granddaughter’s, and his own blue-green eyes twinkled with life. The pallor of his skin was a little on the pale side and he did carry a decent amount of wrinkles, but old looking he was not.
“Well no,” she admitted, “But-”
He pressed a finger to the side of his nose, tapping knowingly.
“Say what you mean, and do what you say, dear.”
“What are you making then?” She asked again.
“A gift!” He cheered. “It’s the very merry unbirthday of the princess tomorrow, and I must have a gift!”
He showed her the round hat, covered in golden roses with jewels in the center of each blossom. The blossoms twinkled in the sunlight of the room, and he smiled proudly.
“It’s… unique,” Venus said slowly, “I’m sure the princess will love it.” She turned to Caroline Suzanna. “What did you make?”
“Oh, it’s nothing special.” She shook her head.
“I’m sure it is,” Venus insisted. “May I at least see?”
Caroline Suzanna shook her head again.
“No. I want the princess to be the first one to see it.”
“I understand.” She assured the other girl. “Is that it?” She pointed to a delicately wrapped parcel on the shelf by a soft mustard colored honeypot.
“Uh huh.” Caroline Suzanna affirmed. Her eyes lit up with excitement. “You need to make a gift too!”
“Why?” Venus asked.
“It’s the princess !” Caroline Suzanna replied, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. She brought Venus over to the worktable and set out some tools in front of her, and supplies down on her right and left. “Make something!” She urged. “I’m sure you can do it!”
Venus' hand hovered over the needle and thread, then over some fabric, unsure of what to do. She reached over to a yellow rose that sat towards the edge of the pile and picked it up. She held it in her fingers gently a moment, imagining a hat like the one the hatter had made, adorned with similar roses. The stem of the rose sprouted, growing up her arm like a vine, and in her momentary fright, Venus dropped it. When it hit the ground, there lay a perfectly round flower crown of soft pastel yellow and pink roses with tiny chirping bluebirds that leapt off the headpiece and flew out the hatter’s open window.
Caroline Suzanna and her grandfather clapped.
“See, I told you so!” She beamed.
“A worthy creation.” The hatter smiled. “I tip off my hat to you, Miss Venus.”
“Did I do that? It just- happened !” Venus marveled.
“Of course you did it, silly! Who else would have?” Caroline Suzanna giggled.
“I didn’t know I could do that!” Venus replied, still in surprise and awe of her creation, which she had now picked up and was inspecting.
As the last rays of sun fell outside the window, the hatter set down his masterpiece and looked to the girls.
“It’s getting late,” He said, “Would you like to stay for biscuits, Miss Venus?”
She looked out the window in surprise.
“I would have sworn it was just midday!” She cried.
“That’s just the sun doing as he does.” The hatter shrugged. “Father Time must be in a rush for it to be tomorrow.” He sipped his tea thoughtfully and shook his sleeve, a handful of snickerdoodles falling out as he did, onto a plate by his left. “Would care for some?” He offered them to the girls.
Caroline Suzanna took two and ate one whole in a very unladylike fashion, and Venus took one herself, taking a tentative bite.
It was warm and chewy and, unlike the mushroom pieces in her pocket, didn’t change her size, which she appreciated.
When they had finished their cookies and a half cup of tea each, the hatter sent them off to bed, Venus remarking that for such a small snack, her stomach felt remarkably full.
The next morning the hatter roused them gently to waking with the smell of hotcakes filling the house, and when they came into the kitchen, they were greeted with the hotcakes and whipped cream, with fresh fruit in bowls on the side. The fruit was unlike anything Venus had ever seen, but when she bit into it, she found it to be pleasantly sweet, like a cherry, but not quite the same, more tart, like a cranberry.
The hatter sat with them at the table, dressed in a fine brown coat with a colorful handkerchief that Venus swore changed color every time she looked away. As they ate, he smiled at them and made pleasant conversation. When they were finished, Venus set her dishes by the stove, and Caroline Suzanna moved them into the pot of water that was washing itself.
Caroline Suzanna took Venus back into the bedroom, insisting that she must have appropriate clothes for an unbirthday party, because her jeans and grey tee shirt were not going to cut the royal dress code. They tried on several looks, but ended finally with Caroline Suzanna in a strapless white dress with little yellow roses on it, a yellow shrug with poofy sleeves, yellow socks, light grey shoes with heels that made her almost as tall as Venus, and her flat yellow cap; and Venus in a light blue dress with an asymmetrical layered skirt, each layer more blue than the last, white polka dotted leggings, and black flats. She didn’t need to be any taller. She hadn’t quite managed to get back to exactly five foot eight the last time she tried, and evened out at about five eleven from her most recent mushroom aided size change.
“There you go!” Caroline Suzanna praised. “You look perfect!”
Venus smiled. It was nice, if she was being honest. It was the most herself she’d felt in a long while.
“Are you quite finished?” The hatter called, knocking on the door.
“Yes Mr. Hatter.” Venus replied.
“Mr. Hatter…” He chuckled. “I don’t believe I’ve heard that one. You can call me Grandfather, as Caroline does.”
“Thank you, Grandfather.” She smiled. The title passed freely from her lips easily and brought her thoughts off for a second, remembering her mother’s father, whom her mother loved to tell stories about.
He smiled kindly and they departed from the house, walking along the path until they came upon a large garden of hedges.
“Now Venus,” He told her, “You must stay very close to me, or you may find yourself lost very easily.”
“Yes Grandfather.” She nodded.
He extended an arm for each of them, and Venus and Caroline Suzanna each linked one of their own through them. They walked through what Venus soon realised was a hedge maze. She kept close to the hatter and Caroline, coming up out of the maze much later in a garden of lovely red rose bushes trimmed to the shape of card suits. There were a handful of people there, including a boy with brown hair and round glasses, off to the side, buried in a book; a girl in a gorgeous red gown with flowing golden hair who was clearly the princess, though she looked rather uncomfortable to be frank; and a stout woman with a bright red curly wig and copious makeup, definitely the queen.
The hatter led the girls up to the queen and the princess, and bowed deeply. Caroline Suzanna curtsied, and Venus followed suit. The queen looked down at them disdainfully, but the princess smiled brightly, especially when her soft blue eyes met with Caroline’s sweet grey ones.
“It’s a pleasure to be invited to your unbirthday, your Highness,” The hatter said kindly, tipping his hat to the girl.
The girl smiled and inclined her head.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Hatter.”
“Twice in one day!” He marveled. “My, what a day.” He extended her a wrapped box, covered in golden paper. “For you, your Highness.”
She took it from him gently.
“Thank you.” She murmured, “You’re very kind.”
The two other girls extended their gifts as well.
“Oh!” The princess exclaimed, “How thoughtful! Thank you very much.”
“Open them!” Caroline urged.
“You do not order the princess!” The queen growled. “Off with your-”
“Mother!” The princess scolded. “It wasn’t an order. She only wanted me to see the gifts. Her head shall stay firmly attached to her shoulders.”
Caroline Suzanna looked greatly relieved. Venus looked rather horrified that the queen would order the red head beheaded simply for her enthusiasm, but then recalled this was the Red Queen.
The princess opened the hatter’s gift first and marveled at the lovely and very ornate hat. The queen remarked that it was rather revolting, but the princess was simply enchanted. Second, she opened Venus' crown. She delicately placed it atop her head and smiled.
“It’s a lovely gift,” she told Venus, who also smiled.
“I’m just glad you like it,” the brunette replied.
Finally, she opened Caroline Suzanna’s gift, which Venus and the hatter were most anxious to see. It was a little red cap made of soft wool with white roses embroidered on it and a small brim at the front. The princess gingerly removed Venus' flower crown and slipped on the beanie style hat, tucking her golden locks up inside it.
“I love it!” She exclaimed. “Where on earth did you find such a marvelous idea?”
“I made it.” Caroline blushed. “I didn’t truly think you’d like it. Your praise is greatly appreciated, your Highness.”
“Please, call me Aurellia.” The princess insisted.
“Pleasure, Aurellia.” Caroline replied.
The princess’ eyes sparkled as they crinkled with her smile. Venus became distracted by the mumbles and frantic note taking of the brown haired boy she’d seen when she came in. She excused herself from the royals as Caroline Suzanna and Princess Aurellia made pleasant conversation.
“Pardon me,” She said, coming up to the boy.
Startled, his pencil fell from his teeth and he looked up at her, correcting his glasses.
“Oh, hello.” He replied, “Can I help you?”
“I was just curious what you were writing,” She said, “It seems to be awful important.”
“I found this book in my bag that I’d never seen before, documenting our kingdom as what it once was through the eyes of an outsider. It’s fascinating!”
“Wait- It wouldn’t happen to be called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , would it?”
He looked dumbstruck.
“You’ve read it?”
“It belongs to me!” She told him. “The cat made me drop it into the prince’s library bag when I- wait- If you have my book, then you’re the prince!”
“Yes, yes, I’m the prince.” He nodded, “But this is your book? You brought it here?”
“Fantastic!” He opened the book and soon engaged Venus in an elightenting description of Wonderland as it once was, according to the royal archives and her book. She listened to him talk, finding herself remarkably engaged. He didn’t stop talking a mile a minute until he looked up from his notes and saw Venus standing there, attentive as ever. He adjusted his glasses and his face flushed.
“Wow. No one ever listens to me this long…” He said. “They usually leave while I’m distracted.”
“I would never, your Highness.” Venus held up her hands.
“Please, call me Andrew.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Prince Andrew.”
“Please, just Andrew is fine, Miss…?”
“What a lovely name.” He smiled softly.
He opened his mouth to say something else when the queen called him over and he sighed.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Venus. I do hope we can come together again soon.”
“Of course, your Highness.” He gave her a look and she revised herself. “Andrew.”
“Andrew, come here at once!” The queen called.
“I have to go-”
“Venus, we’re heading out!”
“So do I.” She looked abashed. “I hope I’ll see you again, Andrew.”
“Yes, I hope so.”
“ Andrew !”
The two teenagers voices overlapped each other: “Goodbye!”
Venus left with the hatter, she and Caroline Suzanna looking over their shoulders at the royals, Caroline’s eyes catching the princess’ gaze and Venus trying not to blush as she saw the prince adjust his glasses and smile.
Back home they went to the hatter’s cottage, Grandfather’s cottage. It was strange to call it home, but it came with a warm pleasant feeling she hadn’t felt in a long while nonetheless.
“What did you talk to the prince about?” Caroline Suzanna asked as they changed out of their unbirthday clothes.
“He had my book. Oh, I meant to ask for it back!”
“You can get it from him tomorrow when he and Aurellia come for tea!”
“He and Aurellia are coming for tea tomorrow?” Venus asked, surprised.
“Well, I invited them. I don’t know if they’ll come.” Caroline Suzanna shrugged.
“It’d be awful rude of them not to come.” Venus pointed out.
“Yes, but they are royalty. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had more important royal things to do.”
“You’re important, Caroline!” Venus insisted.
The redhead shrugged.
“I’m glad you think so, but you never know what other people are thinking, Venus.”
The taller girl nodded absently and wiggled out of her shoes, getting ready for bed. The hatter came and bid them goodnight, then blew out the candle and set them off to sleep.
Venus and Caroline Suzanna woke the next morning and the hatter had made them breakfast again, which they ate slowly to savor the time, while they waited for the royals to come. For some reason, Venus seemed more convinced than Caroline Suzanna that their guests would even show up, even though it had been the redhead who extended the invitation.
They were out on the patio setting up when two heads appeared by the gate.
“Caroline? Venus? Mr. Hatter? Are you there?” Aurellia called.
Caroline Suzanna cheered brightly and called back, “Here, in the garden!”
Aurellia and her brother walked through the gate and into the patio area, Aurellia and Caroline sharing a none too brief hug and Venus and Andrew an awkward handshake. The four of them chatted genially, before Venus and Andrew separated from the party, wandering into the woods a small ways from the hatter’s home.
“So…” Venus drawled. “Prince and all. Must be something.”
“It... It has its moments.” He shrugged. “What about you? I never did get to ask how you got that book.”
“I meant to ask for that back, you know.”
“Do you want it? I can go fetch it from my satchel-”
“No, it’s alright. It does more good to you than me,” She said.
The grove around them was bright and lovely, teeming with life. Andrew looked around, eyes falling on Venus as she gazed upwards through the crowns of the trees at the bread and butterflies and all the tall flowers of various sizes.
“It’s beautiful…” She murmured.
His eyes never moved.
“Gorgeous.” He replied.
She didn’t see him, walking forward towards what looked like a cave like thicket with blossoming blue flowers on it.
“Venus, where are you going?”
“Over there, isn’t it pretty?” She told him, grabbing his hand to pull him along to follow her.
“Venus?” A familiar voice asked from within the thicket.
Delphi emerged from the leaves, and her eyes widened as she saw them and the foliage around them.
“Holy moly…” She whistled. “This is… Did you do this?” She asked.
“Do what?” Venus asked.
“This! This part of the wood has been dead since my grandflowers were alive.”
“Grandflowers- You’re a flower?”
“Well yeah, I’m a Larkspur, commonly, but don’t let me catch you calling me that. I’m a Delphinium, you hear?”
“Yes ma’am.” Venus chuckled.
“Who’s your friend?” Delphi asked.
“This is Andrew.”
“Like Prince Andrew?” Delphi clarified, unimpressed.
“Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Delphinium.” He said.
“Yeah, whatever, royal. Venus, about the woods-”
Andrew looked confused, but not necessarily offended.
“You said they were dead, but all the places I’ve seen were perfectly healthy.” Venus cut in. “And you think I have something to do with it?”
She thought of the flower crown and how the rose had reacted to her.
“The only places that still grow are the Golden Afternoon Garden and the queen’s palace.” Delphi told her.
“So you think-”
“I think you made the woods bloom. I think you’re doing it right now.”
“But… I don’t know… I don’t know how I do it, Delphi, the first time, it just happened and now you’re saying-”
“Hold up girl, the first time? What was the first time?”
“Well Caroline wanted me to make a gift for Aurellia’s unbirthday, so she gave me the stuff to make a hat, but I didn’t know what to do with any of it, so I reached for this rose on the edge of all the stuff and I picked it up and it magically turned into a flower crown. I dropped it, but like, it made itself.”
“You didn’t mention that before.” Andrew said thoughtfully.
“You didn’t ask.” Venus shrugged. “It wasn’t relevant to the conversation.”
“Of course it was, I was telling you all about the dilapidation of Wonderland and you just- Were you just nodding to appease me or something?”
“No, I told you, from what I knew, Wonderland was great! You didn’t ask me to elaborate or contradict me.”
“Sorry,” He said. “I shouldn’t have jumped to a conclusion.”
“Thank you very much, Andrew. Now Delphi, if you’re right, if I am doing this, how can we be sure?”
Delphinium crossed her arms and thought for a moment.
“You said a flower reacted to you, right?”
Delphi grabbed her by the wrist and brought her hand over to a partial branch of the flowers, not quite in bloom.
“Make this bloom.”
“I don’t know how!”
“Sure you do, Venus.” Andrew urged. “Just think about it. Focus.”
Venus closed her eyes and pictured the flower blooming. Her energy seemed to warm, but when she opened her eyes, nothing happened.
“Andrew,” She said slowly. “Can you talk about something? Anything, just- talk.”
Surprised by the request, the boy started to recite some knowledge from the library. She focused not on the flower, but on her feelings. How her face got hot when the prince’s hand brushed her elbow, how crisp the air around them was. Everything seemed to slow and dull. This kind of magic was more controlled, less sudden. The flower bloomed.
“You did it.” Delphi awed. “Wow.”
“That’s… amazing.” Andrew breathed.
“I’m glad you think so.”
“What was it like?” He asked.
“Warm. And kinda… fuzzy. Like the whole world was covered in a thick blanket and suddenly it was just me and whatever energy flowed through me in that moment,” She said softly. “It was… otherworldly.”
Andrew wrote what she said down in a small notebook to be transferred to his larger one. Delphi whistled.
“That was some trick, Venus.”
“Thanks. It felt good, honestly.”
“This has exponential resources for the kingdom!” Andrew marveled.
“That is, if when she leaves everything doesn’t wither.” Delphi pointed out. “We need a way to keep everything blooming when she leaves.”
“You’re leaving?” Andrew turned to Venus.
“Well, I can’t stay here forever, can I?”
He looked… disappointed, somehow. He shook it off and corrected his glasses.
“I just mean it would be difficult to maintain the kingdom without your magic-”
“Sure it is.” Delphi snorted. “But that’s how we’ve lived for decades, why stop now?”
“We finally have a chance to bring the kingdom back to its former glory and you want to let it die? I thought flowers were all about saving nature.”
“Hey, thank you very much, I’m a weed. No garden here, bucko.”
“But your-” Venus pointed to the thicket.
“Hey, shelter is one thing, but having a real garden like the Golden Afternoon is something else.”
“The Golden Afternoon?” Venus repeated.
“It’s a prestigious garden. I grew there, but they kicked me out for being in someone else's bed.”
Venus looked confused, but she didn’t press. The tone of Delphi’s voice was tight. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it further. They changed topics, discussing Venus’ newfound ability, or at least the newfound ability to demonstrate a modicum of control. They brought Delphi and Marcus, who they discovered was within Delphi’s overgrown shelter, back to the tea party, where Aurellia and Caroline Suzanna looked to be enjoying themselves.
“Oh, you brought friends!” Caroline Suzanna cheered. She pulled teacups for them from a discarded hat of her grandfather’s that was sitting in the center of the table as a centerpiece.
Aurellia was introduced to Delphi and Marcus, as Andrew had been.
Their company stayed until nightfall approached and the hatter walked everyone back to their respective homes with parting waves and a bright smile.
Venus and Caroline Suzanna dressed for bed and just like the previous two nights, the hatter blew out the candle and a peaceful sleep claimed them.
When Venus opened her eyes, and the room was covered in branches. Strong, think branches of an apple tree, laden with everything from leaves to blossoms to fruit.
Caroline Suzanna was nowhere to be found, and as Venus opened their bedroom door to find her, she stepped into a room she had never seen before. The walls were smooth, covered in apple blossoms and ripe red fruit hung from the ceiling. The air was sweet and the room seemed to welcome her. She stepped inside and the doorway sealed itself behind her. She reached up and plucked an apple from the roof, biting into it. It was deliciously sweet and rich, like the center was made of caramel, though when she looked, she found it to be all fruit. She quickly finished it and set the stem aside on one of the benches around the circumference of the room.
A voice swept through the room, like a warm breeze of the wind over coals, stirring the sweet scent up into Venus’ senses.
“Hello? Who’s there?” She asked it.
The voice was neither decidedly masculine or feminine. It was gentle and warm, and soothed any anxieties Venus might have had about where she was and what was happening.
“You have a magic embedded deep in this kingdom. Use it wisely. The heart is a door. Be careful who you let through. A day will come when the answer will not be what you think. Choose the impossible to save the kingdom.”
“The heart?” She echoed. “What heart?”
“Be at ease, child. All will make sense in time.”
Venus sat upright in bed. The moon was still out and Caroline Suzanna snored peacefully on her bed. The brunette got out of bed and tiptoed down the hall into the kitchen.
“Tea, Venus?” The hatter asked.
She turned and saw him sitting in the dark of the parlour, the only light coming from his tools as he worked, a subtle glow of the magic he wove into each piece of fabric.
She came over and sat with him silently in the dark.
“Did you have a nightmare?” He asked her.
“No. It was wonderful. Just… confusing.”
He nodded, and she could only tell by the faint ringing of the bells on his hat and how they glowed when they chimed. They sat there a while longer and she drank her tea before she laid her head on the hatter’s shoulder and fell asleep to the soft sound of humming and bells.
Many nights continued in a similar fashion, though she didn’t get out of bed. Often she rolled over and stared out the window, watching the stars shoot across Wonderland’s sky as they always did.
Unlike the stars she was used to seeing at home, seemingly stagnant, endlessly bright; the stars in Wonderland twinkled and moved, looking as if you were only gazing at the reflection of the stars on the surface of a lagoon, but the waves disturbed and scattered the stars into a soup of sky that made you so drunk with it all that you didn’t even question why there were two moons.
On the eighth such night, she arose from her bed and walked out into the hall, going into the kitchen and getting a cup of tea, for there was a never ending supply of warm tea and clean teacups. She heard the hatter’s voice come gently from the workroom parlour.
“This is not the first time you’ve been out of bed at a late hour, Venus.” The hatter stayed quiet. “Another such dream?”
“I keep dreaming about a room. And things that happen in the room and…” She trailed off.
“What sorts of things?”
“Have you ever loved someone?” She asked, changing the subject.
“Yes.” He replied. “I have loved several people, you among them. But I don’t think that’s what you want to ask me.”
“Have you ever loved someone- in the sense that… you wanted to marry them and love them for the rest of your life?”
“Yes, I have. I married a lovely woman.” He nodded, his hands moving easily with the fabric.
“What was she like?”
“She was beautiful. Her name was Rosemary.”
“Was she a flower?”
“No.” He chuckled. “But she was every bit as beautiful. And spirited too.”
“What happened to her?”
“She passed away a number of years ago. Fell ill and just couldn’t seem to get over it.”
“Don’t be, child. We had a number of wonderful years together, and my time of mourning is long since passed. I love her dearly to this day, but I honor her memory by living my remaining years to the fullest.”
“Did you ever move on?”
“If you’re asking if I ever loved someone else as much, the answer is both yes and no. I began to love someone else after her passing with equal intensity, but in a different way.”
He set down the hat and smiled at her.
“Another time, child.” His eyes twinkled.
The way he said it, he sounded like time itself was what he’d grown to love, and yet his eyes twinkled with such mirth that Venus found herself not even willing to question. She understood, from the way her dreams had been, that when his eyes sparkled like that, the feelings he had could not be expressed. The face of a man from her dreams had looked at her like that. She smiled as she thought of it, and sipped her tea down to the dregs before her grandfather took the cup and sent her off to bed with a gentle pat on her head and a soft push on her back to send her to sleep.
The next morning, when the sun shone through the window, Venus woke slowly, the light not blinding or uncomfortable, but soft and welcoming her to wakefulness.
She rose from bed and got dressed, walking into the parlour to find the hatter and Caroline Suzanna reading a parchment addressed in large cursive script.
“What is it?” Venus asked.
“There’s going to be a beheading today. All those within distance of the castle must attend.” The hatter said solemnly.
“I don’t want to go.” Caroline objected. “It’s a terribly gruesome affair, and often the person is innocent. The queen is just malicious.”
Venus felt sick to her stomach.
“Does it say who it is?”
“No.” The hatter frowned. “Grab a hat and a peach scone, dear. It’s in an hour. We’ll have a proper meal when we come home.”
Venus grabbed a light grey hat and tucked it on her head, then popped the scone in her mouth to hold it as she slipped into a coat.
The three of them walked the path to the castle, where a large crowd was already formed. Venus spotted the familiar faces of Andrew and Aurellia next to the queen and her cards. But much to Venus’ horror, kneeling by a stump next to a card with a very large axe, was Delphi. The knave stepped forward and began to read off of a parchment similar in size to the one the hatter had received that morning.
“For the crime of slaying the Jabberwock of Her Majesty the Red Queen, the flower-”
“Weed! Knave,” The queen called, “She’s a weed.”
“For the crime of slaying the Jabberwock of Her Majesty the Red Queen, the weed Delpinimum is to be beheaded, on the orders of her royal majesty the Red Queen.”
The crowd leaned in with anticipation as the executioner raised his blade. Andrew and Aurellia held each other’s hands. Caroline Suzanna removed her hat in preemptive mourning. Venus couldn’t take it.
All eyes turned to the brunette stranger. Andrew’s mouth grew dry, he couldn’t speak. She wouldn’t-
“What?” The queen asked, annoyed.
“She’s your subject.” Venus said slowly. “You want your subjects to respect you, not fear you. You want them to appreciate you, right? Because a queen without love from her people is nothing. The people could overthrow you if they don’t like you. You want them to like you, and beheading them will make them dislike you. People fall out of public favor quickly. Imagine what they would do to you .”
The queen looked stricken. No one had ever spoken to her this way.
“H-How dare you!” Her voice trembled. “Bring her here! Off with her head!”
The cards slid through the crowd and grabbed Venus by both arms, bringing her to the stump where Delphi had been. As she knelt and laid her head against the wood, she felt a wave of calm hit her. Suddenly, she wasn’t frightened.
The same could not be said for the crowd, so paralyzed by fear a pin dropping could be heard through their silence as the axe was raised. It came down, and just before it touched the skin of her neck, the tree stump began to grow around her, protecting her from the blade. The queen and her court gasped, and the air became tense in the commoner audience.
A large apple tree grew around the girl until it was so large that people had to start backing away. Delphi freed herself from the cards as Venus was swallowed within the wood.
When the tree stopped growing, the queen ordered her men to chop it down. Only one brave card stepped forward, the executioner, and swung his axe. It shattered against the trunk.
He stepped back.
The queen shouted in fury. Andrew approached the tree slowly.
“Andrew Carlile, step away from that- that thing!”
Andrew looked back for a half second and made eye contact with his infuriated mother. The tree split and a doorway appeared. He looked at it.
“Don’t you dare-”
Andrew stepped inside and it closed around him.
The area inside looked spacious and cozy with long benches along the circumference of the room and apples hanging from the ceiling. Venus was standing in the center of the floor.
“Andrew,” She said, looking at him. “How do you get in here?”
“It let me in.”
“The heart is a door.” She murmured.
“What?” He asked.
“I had a dream, and I saw this room, and I met with someone here. Well, at least, I heard their voice. ‘The heart is a door. Be careful who you let through.’ They told me. This place, I think it’s the heart.”
“The heart of what?”
“The heart of Wonderland?” He repeated, astounded.
“Can’t you feel it?”
He held still, trying to feel whatever she was describing. The air was stuffy, and his royal clothes felt stiff. He looked at her.
“Uh, feel what exactly?”
She came over and took him by the hands, pulling him deeper into the center of the room. The minute their hands connected, his vision shifted. The room was covered in tiny pink and white apple blossoms, and the air was warm and smelled sweetly of apples and the energy was so distinctly, so completely, so totally Venus .
He blinked and his breath caught in his chest.
“This isn’t the heart.” He breathed.
“Venus, you- You’re the heart.”
“Come again?” She let go and all the feelings faded. He grabbed her hand.
“ You’re the heart, Venus Walker .” He looked deep into her eyes. “You tried to describe to me what the heart felt like, but I couldn’t feel it until you took my hands in yours, and suddenly, I felt everything. Every acute, beautiful detail.” He brushed her hair behind her ear as apple blossoms sprouted along her widow’s peak, like a diadem across her brow.
For a moment, time was frozen. They weren’t sure how long they were in there, but it must have been some time, because when they came out, their eyes held a certain understanding in them. Something older than they could ever possibly have shared in the mere minutes they seemed to be gone.
They gripped each other’s hands and the queen shrieked in rage.
“Away from my son, you- you vile strange girl!”
“I’m going to stay where I am.” Venus said calmly.
The queen was outraged.
“Off with her- her head! Off with it! Now!” She repeated, trying to get her cards to move. None did.
Venus pointed to the tree.
“You think that’s going to work?”
The queen stammered and blustered, at a loss for words.
“Your Majesty,” Venus stated. “I’m afraid your time is up.”
“Mother, you can surrender the kingdom now and avoid an uprising. Aurellia doesn’t want to rule, and I don’t want riches. I just want to keep Wonderland bright. Bright and full of all the magic Venus can give to it.” He looked at her with love in his eyes. There was most certainly something special shared while they were hidden away. Something no one else would ever understand. “I’m taking the throne, mother. It’s time you step down.”
“Never!” She shrieked. “This is my kingdom!”
“A kingdom you’ve let die out while you live in luxury.” Venus pointed out.
No one moved.
“You’ve let Wonderland crumble, mother. The people follow you out of fear. But if you look,” He gestured to the cards, who still hadn’t moved, “You’re not in charge anymore.”
“I’ll have off with your heads, all of your heads!” The queen shouted.
“Cards,” Andrew addressed them, “If you do not obey her, she can do nothing to you.”
“People of Wonderland,” Venus turned to the crowd, “The choice is yours. Do you want to live in fear for the rest of your lives? Do you want to spend your days praying your head is not next to fall? Or would you like to see your kingdom flourish? To have your forests rich with life? Make your choice. Take the queen, or have a strong king.”
Delphi raised her hand.
“I say crown Andrew! Long live King Andrew!”
Caroline Suzanna picked up the cry.
“Long live King Andrew!”
Aurellia came forward.
“And Queen Venus.”
Venus looked over and smiled. Aurellia saw the look in the brunette’s eyes. Her gaze was steady and sure, something older and clearer.
Caroline Suzanna raised her hat.
“To the new King and Queen, may Wonderland have life!”
The crowd started mumbling in agreement.
“But what about the queen?” A flower asked.
“Down with the queen!” One brave spade cried.
The crowd again began to agree, this suggestion becoming even more popular than the last.
“Off with her head!”
The crowd erupted, repeating the cry. Caroline Suzanna tried to calm those nearest her, but failed. Her grandfather pulled her out of the fray and she gripped his coat tightly, fear in her eyes as the crowd quickly became a mob, shouting and pushing.
“Who needs the royals?” Someone shouted.
“Off with all their heads!”
Venus put herself protectively in front of Andrew, who, having seen that chaos, had looked to her for guidance. Delphi drew her sword and came in front of the two, keeping the hoarde back. Marcus shouted at her to come back.
“Delphi, you could get killed!” He cried out, eyes wide like a deer, staring down the hunter moments before the shot.
Delphi looked back at Venus and Andrew, her cool expression fractured by nervousness.
“Do something!” She urged.
Venus closed her eyes. The roaring sound of the mob. The feeling of Andrew close to her, having moved even closer, wrapped tightly in her arms. The way his breath staggered in worry. Her own heartbeat. An apple fell from the tree. She heard it’s thud echo distantly. Another fell. Then another.
“Look!” Someone cried.
The tree was shedding fruit and the blossoms of would-be apples floated through the air, distracting the mob from their rampant demands for blood. They stilled and Andrew parted from Venus, taking her hand and standing tall before the crowd.
“Blood is not justice,” He said firmly. “You do not need to end the royal family to end my mother’s reign of terror. If you had us all beheaded, you’d be just like the queens of the past, tyrannical and maniacal, ruling in fear.”
“But what will you do with her?” The flower asked.
“The queen will be removed from the throne and kept on house arrest in the castle.” Andrew replied.
The queen opened her mouth wide to protest when Delphi tossed an apple that lodged itself in the woman’s mouth to keep her quiet while the discussion continued. By the time she had removed it, Delphi had another one in her hand and was was tossing it from one hand to the other menacingly, so the queen reluctantly stayed silent.
“What will you do, King?” A card called.
“I will take the unjust laws of our kingdom and rewrite them for the benefit of the people I will govern. For all of you.”
“And what of you, Queen?”
The Red Queen almost answered, but Venus was faster.
“I will restore the beauty of the kingdom through tender service. Gardens will flourish, springs will flow. It’s time to restore what once was, with the proper alterations to prevent history from repeating itself.”
The former queen crossed her arms, face contorted in anger. The crowd nodded, clearly becoming swayed. Aurellia stepped up.
“As the firstborn, the right to rule the kingdom falls to me as my mother steps down,” she said, “But we can all agree that my brother is a more competent ruler. I don’t want to take the throne. I relinquish the title of crown heir to Andrew.”
Andrew smiled at her and nodded.
“I accept.” Andrew turned to the cards nearest to his mother, who was silently fuming, furious that she could say nothing in her defence, and slightly fearful of Delphi and her well aimed apples. “Ace, Two, Three, please escort my mother to her quarters and keep her there.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The cards took the queen gingerly by the arms, still clearly intimidated, but more willing to obey Andrew than her. They led her away into the castle. Andrew and Venus answered further queries from the crowd until they all seemed sufficiently satisfied and started to disperse. It was nearing nightfall when finally the only ones who remained were Andrew and Venus, Caroline Suzanna and her grandfather, Delphi and Marcus, and Aurellia.
“Well, that was something else.” Delphi remarked, her arm slung around Marcus’ shoulders, the petite blonde boy now much more relaxed than he had been earlier in the day.
“It was more draining than I expected, to be fair.” Venus admitted.
“You performed amiably under the pressure, Venus.” Andrew assured her.
“The same could be said for you.” She replied.
“So tell us,” Marcus pried, “What happened in the tree? It felt like Andrew went in, grabbed you, and came back out. But everything about you seems so much more… different.”
Venus glanced at Andrew before giving Marcus a small coy smile.
“That’s between us, Marcus. All I’ll tell you is it wasn’t quite that brief.”
Marcus looked at them, trying to decipher what they meant. Delphi nudged him, and his gaze shifted to her. She shook her head. He nodded.
Reforming the kingdom become a monumental task. Delphi was appointed the head of the royal guard, Marcus part of the newly implemented advisory body to the king, and Venus went on diplomatic missions throughout the kingdom, restoring nature and peace and establishing the physical aspects of Andrew’s laws, such as schools and higher institutions. Caroline Suzanna and Aurellia were really the only ones whose lives didn’t have such a drastic change. The princess moved into the hatter family home and they lived out their lives peaceably, making hats, having tea, and offering occasional advice to Venus and Andrew.
After several years, Venus came to the palace after one such long mission and was greeted by Caroline Suzanna and Aurellia, both of whom she’d come to see as sisters, who quickly ushered her out to the courtyard, to the area affectionately known as the “Liberty Tree Lawn”. Andrew was standing there with Delphi and Marcus. When their eyes met, it was clear why they were here.
They had drifted apart, not allowed each other a minute to breathe as they’d been apart for so long, now into their twenties, him busy ruling the kingdom and her busy building it. Delphi spoke up.
“You need to spend a moment just together. You’ve been running around like rabbits with your heads cut off, and you need to breathe. It’s been four years.”
Venus’ eyes fell on his figure. He was taller, yet still as thin as he ever was. His brown eyes were warm and welcoming. She could tell his gaze was on her, from her own mahogany eyes to her coffee colored hair, the cupid's bow of her soft pink lips raised as her lips parted in a soft smile.
“It’s been too long.”
Their friends and family left them to themselves. Venus took the first steps towards him, closing the distance in five rapid strides. His arm slid to its place around her waist like the perfect fit it had been all those years ago. She looked up at him. It was strange to be the shorter of their pair now. He smiled, his round glasses accentuating his hazelnut orbs.
“So,” he said.
“So indeed, King Andrew.”
“You say that like it’s news.” He chuckled.
“You look at me like I didn’t know you for-”
“I know. I’m just thinking of how we lost touch for four years, after all that time.”
She turned to look at the tree. It split open and she cocked her head. She looked up at him.
“What’s five minutes?” She suggested. “Five minutes to get to know each other again.”
He smiled and they walked into the tree together.