Dirty, wet, stinking trash built into walls, bits of forgotten wood and metal forming narrow, crooked lanes, like little streets down in the dark places, where respectable people did not go.
A pale flicker, dirty bare feet and a ragged gray hem, that is all I had to follow, like a pale tongue of flame playing hide and seek in burning wood. I chased her on quick feet, dodging grabbing hands and kicking boots. A group of boys took up chasing me, filthy fingers swinging for my tail until I turned, girl-face snarling and fists striking jaw and gut. They flinched away from my fury, melting into the chaos of the underground city, disappearing between rusted sheets of tin and splintered bits of rotting planks.
A few more corners and I caught a glimpse of a skinny leg sliding behind a ragged tarp cast over a low heap of broken wood.
I paused, one hand smoothing silvery waves back from my sweaty face, heart hammering; if there was going to be a trap laid here, this was a good place. No-one would lift a finger. If paid enough silver, they might even help. There is no desire for honor when you are starving.
Then I ducked into the dim damp under that tarp, eyes searching for the tripwire to bring the cage door slamming shut.
There was no girl. At first, I thought the small space was empty of all but the eye stinging scent of urine and rotted things. Then a small heap of blankets cast into a corner shifted. Ratty, straggling gray hair, skin like paper, milky eyes that stared up at me as if they could still see. “Alice?” she rasped.
A thousand Londons. A million fates. Do any of us know how many possible shadows flicker, dancing around the existence of our names? Some dead, some alive. Some in Oxford, some in Paris, some in Not-London’s shadowed underbelly, who knew how many Alice’s there had been.
She fell back, trembling hand trailing over wrinkled, sunken cheeks, a woman who might still be somewhat young. But tragedy had aged her, made her elderly and infirm. Her filmed eyes never left me.
“What is it?” I asked her. The old woman, the way she looked at me, it reminded me of our mad, Red Queen, the way she had looked just before, eyes glittering with a different sort just before, eyes glittering with a different sort of madness, mouth a red frown unlike her usual, puckered fury.
“Never more than this,” she had said. “Never more than right now.” And the old woman in her heap of ancient blankets echoed that strange and painful sentiment. The worst part of Story’s bonds and chains is that you can never be other than what you are. A hero is always a hero. A villain is always a villain. Unless you are Hook. But even he is feared beyond the seven seas and all the Londons that ever were – and a few that weren’t – and always there is a sense of villainy. Even he can’t escape what Story wants him to be.
“Trapped,” the old woman whispered. “Right here. In this moment.” And all the pain and all the sorrow is forever. I remembered the Red Queen, perched upon her throne, face pale and eyes gleaming with some sort of shock, as if she’d been hit with a weight she couldn’t quite assimilate. “He told me. He told me. Never to see my sweet Alice again except in dreams.” And a chill ran twisting fingers up my spine and I shrank, fur stiffening, teeth barred. It felt too much like a prophecy. Too much like a grim portent spoken by the grayed lips of Fate herself.
It was a relief to hear the whispered exclamations of fear. To hear the name running through the undercity like a wave of black water. Hook. Hook. Hook. It was welcome to hear the breaking of wood and the cursing of a man who had only one hope and had lost sight of it.
I backed away from the woman, from her empty eyes and clenching fingers. “Find Alice,” she hissed, reaching out and dragging ragged nails over firm, girl arms. “Find Alice and find what you need.”
I jerked away with a cry; the Alice she spoke of was dust and spider webs. The Alice she spoke of was more grave than grace. And it felt like asking for trouble, it felt like accepting the death I had taken my name to fight.
I stumbled out of that dimness that stank of grief and resignation, eyes burning, blinking in the low torchlight because even that was bright compared to the narrow enclave behind me. Witch, gypsy, fortune-teller, never did a happy Story fold them into the Words. And Hook caught me. Sword roughened hands around thin wrists, periwinkle eyes shining without a fleck of crimson in sight. Kneeling down, mustache ticking fast, fast, fast. A father. A man with a softness for little girl tears, arms to hold and hands that knew what it was to soothe away midnight fears.
Hook. The pirate, the villain, the father. He hugged me to him so that I could smell the sea salt ingrained in his skin, so that it was easy to forget that he wasn’t my father, the Cheshire, who hugged me just so and grinned until I knew no gray coated man with a cage would ever get past his flashing teeth and quicksilver claws, until I remembered that Mother would eat such an intruder, swallow him down into the black universe of her belly where his soul would never, ever find the way out.
“There,” Hook said, patting my back. Men without children are awkward and tense, possessing none of the natural grace every girl learns with her plastic babies and painted dolls. But men with daughters speak a different language, learn a gentleness and ease to soothe away frightened tears and shredded nerves. “There, now.” And he picked me up and walked away. When I looked back, the shelter was gray with webs and dust, a tattered curtain of spider silk hanging over the open mouth of the door, not a tarp, and there was a cat sized hole torn right through. Nothing else moved there. Nothing else breathed. And no living flesh had walked there before me for a very long time.
I could almost envy Wendy; no mother, perhaps, only fierce pirate captain whose black temper was well feared, but never had I felt safer than when he picked the dust and webs off me with quick fingers while he sang a low pirate tune.
“Do you ever feel trapped?” I asked him when he was quiet again. “Shackeled to the will of Story?” The questions we don’t ask. The things we don’t talk about. But Hook does not and never did care about the rules.
“Once.” He leaned back. The strange and jumbled city was silent. Not empty, just quiet. Full of fear; none would wish the wrath of the mad sea captain. “One story is never enough for the wild spirit.” His smile had no edges and, for the first time since that night outside a lamplit window, I saw a different Hook, a kinder Hook. The protective father, not the black hearted pirate. “But I have a thousand names and each one its own story to tell.”
“But what about the rest of us?” I asked him.
His smile never faltered. “No-one has just one story,” he whispered. Our names are many. You are only trapped if you believe it so. If you don’t remember all the rest.”
I laid my head on his shoulder. “We have to find Alice,” I whispered. Then understood; Alice is herself and any name she bears, she is still just Alice, Wonderland Alice. “Not-Alice, I amended. It didn’t make me feel less frightened to tell myself that, just like London or Oxford, there were other Alice’s that weren’t her, but their own thing with their own Stories to obey. But it did still my grief. Not-Alice might be dust, but my Alice still lived and needed me to save her.
“Where do you think we will find her?” Hook asked.
“Wherever they take the un-wanted dead,” I replied.
Tick, tick, tick. Then: “The catacombs under the church.”