Alice recalled a young nurserymaid had once taken her on an outing to the docks, but only after obtaining Alice’s solemn promise that she would not speak of the incident to her parents. Alice was very small at the time, perhaps three or four, and was so excited by the prospect that she promised immediately, would have promised anything to be allowed to go.
Her mother always scrupulously avoided that part of the New City, sniffing that it was “full of common people.” Alice’s nurserymaid dragged the gawping child through the masses of burly, sweaty men, reeking of salt and fish and whiskey and tobacco smoke, their teeth and clothes stained, their arms and faces so brown from the sun that they looked like visitors from some exotic Eastern land.
Everywhere there was noise and movement—men shouting, carrying barrels of goods, old sailors mending nets or sails, docks being scrubbed and supplies carted aboard for the next sailing.
There were a few people like Alice’s father, dressed in suits, speaking intently to captains. There were men who invested in ship’s concerns and kept scrupulous track of those investments.
There were others from the upper echelons of the New City, wrinkling their noses as they were led to ship’s quarters for a sea voyage. It would be lovely, she thought, to sail on a ship to a faraway country.
Her nursemaid halted before one of the smaller fishing boats, where she was hailed by a grinning young man with hair so pale it could not be called yellow and eyes of startling blue.
His name was Mathias, and he had a strange accent. He told Alice he was from a country of ice and snow, a place where there was barely anything green and the land was filled with white bears twice the size of a man.
Alice could hardly credit this, but Mathias said it was true. Then he put her on his knee and fed her some very strange dried fish that tasted mostly of salt and told her a story of a woman who fell in love with one of these great white bears, who was actually a prince in disguise.
This story so thrilled Alice that she wanted to go with Mathias back to his home, so that she too might marry a bear and live in a palace made of ice. He laughed and kissed her cheek and set her down. Then he and the nurserymaid (Why can I not recall her name? I remember his but not hers) had sat close on overturned barrels, holding hands and murmuring to each other while Alice played a game collecting odd things she found on the dock. A ripped bit of netting, an interesting rock, a tarnished coin from someplace far from the City. She ran to and fro, gathering things in a pile at their feet.
After a time she’d found everything within easy reach and strayed farther and farther in search of something interesting. Suddenly she looked up, and realized she could not see Mathias’ boat, and all around were the dizzying tall masts of ships and a busy crush of people who did not notice her.
She wanted to burst into tears but instead took one or two hesitant steps, hoping the movement would reveal the fishing boat nearby. But there was nothing familiar.
Alice felt her insides shrinking and all she wanted then was to be at home. It was nearly teatime, she was sure, and her stomach growled and her hands shook and she wanted her mother, wanted the sweet scent of roses to envelop her.
Then there was a man before her, a man clothed in the respectable suit and top hat of the New City, a man with a kind voice and hard, hungry eyes, offering to help her and pulling a sweet from his pocket.
She reached for it, forgetting her fear, forgetting the need to find her nurserymaid, and the man’s other hand reached out for her, to close around her.
RED QUEEN available July 12th!
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