I don’t believe it.
How idiotic, stupid, and pointless was that! All that running, that fear, that uncertainty, all to lead Antoinette back to the exact place they started from.
She is back at the top of the steps, staring down at the dancing crowd. It is as if nothing had occurred, as if it had all been some elaborate prank played on her.
Mother is standing with Lily at the dessert table, fanning herself as she looks on, bored. There is no madman, no guards, no sign that anything had happened at all in the last five minutes. Filled with righteous anger, Antoinette marches down the golden steps, straight to her mother to do some yelling. The crowd parts to let her through, and only a man stands in her way now.
He is odd looking. His coat is tattered on the sleeves and along the back, and so are his pants’ legs. He wears a top hat that stretches taller than she’s ever seen one stretch, and he wears white gloves.
“Sir,” she says politely. “Could you please move?”
He is talking with some gentlemen and takes no notice of her.
“Sir,” she says a little bit louder. He turns to her. He is shuffling a deck of cards.
“Have you got an Ace of Spades?” he asks, and she quirks an eyebrow.
“No, sir,” she answers.
“Queen of Diamonds?”
“Jack of Hearts?”
“As you can see, I am ill equipped for a card game at this moment, sir. If you could just move.”
He shrugs and complies, holding out a card to her. It is a joker. A funny joke.
“In the long run,” he mutters more to himself than to anyone else. “You’ll need a pass to get on the train.”
She doesn’t know what to do with the card and places it in the breast pocket of her vest. Her mother is a foot away, and she feels like slapping someone.
And then she realizes Rose hasn’t followed her.
Antoinette scans for a crowd of men. Nothing. No blond curls or wedding cake dress, just dancers. Dancing.
Something is wrong.
The dancers look like wind up toys, just following a simple motion back and forth. Lily isn’t eating the cake, just holding it half-eaten on a plate, crumbs dotting her chin. Mother’s fan isn’t even moving, just placed in front of her face like a shield. There is only simplicity here, no subtle art or hidden treasures as all court dances prove to hold.
“So you’ve seen through the illusion.”
Antoinette jumps. A ring of three men, all wearing the tall top hats, are smiling at her.
“Your sister escaped the illusion,” one says. “Smart girl that.”
“We’re here to help you,” says the middle one, the one that had handed her the card.
“You’ve still got the Joker?”
Antoinette touches her breast pocket and nods. “You aren’t… madmen, are you? You aren’t trying to kill me?”
They shake their heads. “That was the Jack of Spades,” one says.
“He’s not very bright, but good with his knives,” says another.
“Your guards are keeping him busy,” says the last.
The middle one holds out his hand. “Follow us, then.”
Antoinette thinks she hasn’t got much of a choice.
She clasps her hand in his and watches as the champagne colored room cracks and splinters. It crumbles into shards of sharp glass, and she can see the swirling skirts reflected in it, as if it were still going on around her.
“Will you answer my questions?” she asks. Rose hadn’t. Where is Rose? She wants to know.
“In due time,” one answers.
They pull off their top hats and seem to fiddle with them for a moment. The middle one pulls her closer.
“It looks as if we’ll have to share,” he says, and then the hat grows taller than they are, almost tall enough to reach the ceiling of the ball room. Pressed so close to him, she takes in his scent.
He smells like my father.
The thought is so calm and so sudden she has no time to take it in before the top hat closes over them, leaving her in the dark.
Antoinette does not know when she wakes up, but she imagines it is some time later. The sheets are warm, and she thinks that it was all a dream, and she probably passed out in the ballroom, spreading shock and disapproval but good gossip for the next few weeks.
She doesn’t open her eyes, just in case.
There is something by the side of her face, tapping her with a steady motion. It flicks her cheek for a few minutes, and she wants to roll over as to keep it away. Then it hits her nose, and she rises up, grabbing the offending article. She is greeted with a harsh cry from a cat, and immediately the furry thing jumps up and runs to the other side of the room, practicing it claws on a loose bag lying there.
Sadly, Antoinette realizes that opening her eyes had been the worst mistake. She is not in her room at home, instead of what seemed to be a large tent. Her bed is a cot covered in warm quilts, and she recognizes the pattern on one them. It is similar to the one she has at home, the one she’d received on her fifth birthday, her father’s smile the best part as he handed it to her, wrapped in a pretty pink bow, and it felt so good as she curled up in it, but now it doesn’t cover her feet, and she must hide it in her dresser in fear Mother will throw it out…
She bunches the blanket in her arms and buries her face in it. It felt as if years had passed between this moment and the last, and tears fell onto the soft cloth.
The cat has seemingly forgiven her now as it climbs back onto the bed, curling up in her lap. Antoinette sits back, wondering if this is still a dream, or if she is merely going crazy.
Am I going to die? she wonders. Are they going to kill me?
“Absolutely not,” answers a voice, and she sits up, looking around.
“Who said that?”
“A smart girl like you’d ought to be able to tell,” says the voice again, and with an odd sense of wonder she realizes it’s the cat talking!
She picks it up carefully beneath its front legs, holding it in front of her face. “I’m sorry… Did you…?”
“Speak?” says the cat in an irritated voice. “Certainly. You aren’t a crazy person, are you?”
“I—I don’t think so…”
“Then obviously I’m not in your head. If you would please put me down…”
Antoinette has to make sure she doesn’t drop the tender thing, setting it on her knee. “I’m not used to cats talking to me. Do you… have a name?”
The cat licks its paws and rubs it on its forehead. “Dinah,” it answers.
“You’re a girl cat?”
“Cats have genders too, you know,” it—she—mutters, flicking its tail. “And, yes, I am. I assume you’re a girl human.”
“Er, yes. I suppose I am.”
If possible, the cat—Dinah—raised an eyebrow. (Do cats raise eyebrows? Do they have eyebrows?) “You suppose you are? Where are we unsure?”
Antoinette pushes the cat away. “Is there anyone else here?”
Dinah scoffs and jumps off the bed, running out the opening to the tent before anymore can be said. In a moment’s time someone new is standing there, looking very much pleased with himself. He is tall, dressed in a pinstripe suit, carrying a cane and a top hat that he flips expertly on top of his head. His whole body radiates an aura of darkness, but it is upset by the luscious golden locks falling around him, and if you don’t look carefully, you might mistake him for an angel.
“Hello there!” he greets her warmly, like a long lost brother. “Glad to see you’re awake. I see Dinah took care of things.”
“Yes, the talking cat,” she murmurs, because he talks as if the cat weren’t a cat at all but an actual person.
“Dinah is very talented,” the man responds. “Does fortunes.”
“A cat does fortunes?”
“Well, yes.” The man winks at her. “Which fortune teller is more reliable: the human or the cat?”
Antoinette doesn’t completely get it, but she doesn’t really try either. “Where am I?”
“You’re home, of course! Must say, it took you long enough. Thought you’d never make it.”
“Home?” No, that’s wrong. She isn’t home at all. She is somewhere where no one will give her a straight answer. She is somewhere that scares her. She wants to go home, her real home, and she wants that now.
“We should get you dressed,” the man says, ripping the covers from her legs. She sees her boots are gone.
“I’m fine with what I have on,” she answers, glancing around for a mirror. There is one on the far wall, and her makeup has been washed off.
“Not around here.” He grabs her hand and pulls her along, sitting her down in front of the mirror. “You’ll need the proper dress to be allowed to walk around. I’ll get my wife, and we’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
But the man has escaped out the same opening Dinah had. This time Antoinette scrambles after him, not wanting her chance at answers to escape quite so easily. She bursts from the tent.
All around her there are people. She doesn’t know how she couldn’t see it before. They are so noisy, and everywhere. Two men are even leaning up against the tent wall! They’re all dressed in black, whites, and reds, and as if ready for a ball. There is a row of tents behind her, some with displays in the front, each with a large sign advertising what’s inside. An ogre of a man is singing a coarse song outside one, a scantily clad woman is beckoning people forward, and a dark pot boils suspiciously, set just at the right angle so that everyone could see what was inside. It is easy to tell customers from shops people, as they wear brightly colored cloths or dark capes, as if they are costumed for the affair. In front of the line of tents is a wall—no, a maze, the sign says, promising dangerous creatures and a lovely reward for he who navigates it successfully.
Antoinette has lost track of the strange man that awoke her, and there is no Dinah in sight. The tent she arrived from has completely disappeared, lost in a collection of the world’s strangest.
She wonders along the row of tents. The signs are either brightly colored or dark-toned, promising sweets and terrors and surprises of all kinds.
AS THE WORLD’S ONLY CAPTURED WEREWOLF AND VAMPYRE FIGHT IT OUT!
LEST YOU WITNESS THE TERROR THAT IS…
THE SNAKE BOY!
WHAT DO WITCHES TRULY HIDE?
GLIMPSE A REAL LIFE’S WITCH HUMBLE HOME, AND THE TERROR WITHIN.
ENTER, IF YOU DARE!
She peeks into each, finding each sign held truth. Two peacocks turn into humans and back again; a winged-man flies across the room; three tiny women dance so wildly fast that Antoinette cannot turn away until they are done.
She is nearing the end of the row, but has only found sideshows. She glances at the sign of one of the final tents before popping inside.
<center>THIS DARKESET TERROR
AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
ALL BUT ABANDONED
SHE SEEKS HER VENGEANCE
BUT IS LOCKED IN THE CHAINS
OF HER OWN REMORSE</center>
Antoinette wonders what on earth it could mean. She stands on her tip toes, peeking over heads and hats, seeing only a closed curtain. A hush falls over the crowd, and slowly, the curtain lifts, revealing only a small girl, locked in chains twice the width of her body. She is hunched forward, covered in grime, staring defiantly forward, hands gripping what at first looks like a large staff. Antoinette gets a closer look and sees dark wood carved into a flamingo’s body. The beak of it turns into the wide blade of a scythe, covered in dark stains.
Antoinette gasps, falling back down below the crowd.
A voice fills the room. “My dear Dreamers, of all the horrors you have witnessed today, nothing is quite as evil, as twisted, or as dark as this creation here.”
The girl attempts to lift her head up to find the voice. Antoinette does as well.
“This is evil incarnate.”
The crowd holds in a breath as the girl struggles to lift up her scythe.
“This is what comes when Heaven and Hell have a child.”
Antoinette wonders how such a small thing can lift the huge chains above her head.
“All she knows is suffering.”
Like a wild animal is the look the girl gives the room.
“All she knows is sin.”
There is a noise, like metal hitting metal, and suddenly the chains fall forward with a crash.
“All she knows is death.”
And for the second time that day, Antoinette finds someone is trying to kill her.