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Authors: Heather Lyons

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The Collectors' Society 01 (29 page)

BOOK: The Collectors' Society 01
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My face flames. This woman really is too much. “What activities?”

She tsks. “Your inability to act demure has always been one of your downfalls.” A red button is pushed on the turquoise old-fashioned phone on her desk. “Tea it is. Oolong will do. Now, where were we?”

Sticking noses where they do not belong
, I think sourly. “You were about to tell me what the catalyst for my Timeline is.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. I feel terribly annoyed with myself that it took so long to determine, but things have been a bit hectic lately. It’s your crown, naturally.”

It’s also a swift strike to my belly.

“You’ll have to tell him, you know. I know you think you don’t, but you really should.”

I’ve had more than enough of her creepiness. “Stop talking in riddles.”

“How can I be talking in riddles,” she says calmly, “when you know exactly what I mean?”

Fine. I’ll play. “If any of the people here at the Institute have read my books, then they will know I was crowned as a child. My stories do take place when I was a child, correct?”

“Stories,” she says, smiling patiently, “are subject to interpretation, author voice, and embellishments. Yes, the books associated with 1865/71CAR-AWLG cover two trips to Wonderland when you were a child. But they are whimsical and surprisingly loaded with mathematical secrets. One book even has you moving through the story via chess moves.”

“Chess moves!”

She shrugs. “Authors take liberties. What can I say? They tell a story in the way that they like. Your author liked chess and math.” The Librarian leans forward, her nails clicking against her shiny, lacquered desk. “There is a game that people talk about here called Telephone. One person whispers a secret into an ear, then that person whispers it into another ear, and then so on and so forth. By the end, elements of the original secret still remain, but many of the details have been altered due to interpretation. Authors do this, too.”

“I thought the events in books
couldn’t
be changed. Timelines, yes. But not the actual books.”

“Yes,” she says simply.

I’m even more annoyingly confused.

And she’s amused. “No story is uninfluenced by the voice it’s told in. Lewis Carroll had many delightful, absurd things to say about your time in Wonderland. Children for generations have come to view it as magical and whimsical. But you and I know it’s not entirely like that, don’t we?”

My lips thin as I give her a tight nod.

“Now, you’ve wondered if the members here knew you were crowned. Those who perused your story in our quest to find you did know that. However, it comes across in the story as a chess move. To them, it was part of a game, which you eventually won. You went back to England. That was that. The board reset for another game to be played. None of them actually know you are a true Wonderlandian queen.”

Frabjous. Simply frabjous.

A knock on the door sounds. The Librarian calls out, “Come in!”

The A.D. is there, with a small golden tray filled with a tea pot and two cups.

“Give it to Alice, Jack. And then go tell Brom we’ll be there within the half hour.”

I expect the A.D. to make a snide comment, or at least a perverted one. But he merely nods, hands me the tray, and leaves without another word.

“What have you done to him?” I ask suspiciously.

Her laughter tinkles in the closed room. “Jack is a dear boy. Misguided, but dear. He and I have an understanding—much like you and I do.”

“We,” I stress, “understand nothing. You don’t know me.”

“Oh,” she says lightly, “but I do. I’ll let you pour. Hurry now, and don’t spill. We’ll want to go down and talk to everyone so you can begin the preparations to return to your Timeline. The clock is ticking.”

As there is nowhere else to set the tray, I balance it on my thighs as I pour our cups.

“Now, about your crown. Any ideas where it might be at the moment?”

“You seem to know an extraordinarily large amount about my past.” The tray wobbles, forcing my legs to spread a little wider to stabilize it. “So why don’t
you
tell
me?”

“I have no idea, to be honest.” She takes the cup I offer. “Do you?”

Tea splashes out of my cup, given the force I use to shove sugar cubes in. “I gave it to a friend for safe keeping.”

“Your affections for steadfast, honorable men are admirable.”

I suck in a frustrated breath.

“I suppose it would be pointless for me to remind you to be careful and watch your head.”

“Oh, ha ha. You’re quite the comedienne, aren’t you?”

“No,” she says thoughtfully. “I’m a realist.”

As am I, unfortunately.

Thankfully, she does not accompany me to the conference room. But as I make my way there, taking the long route via the back stairs, I can’t help but wonder about what she’s said—and of how certain she was that none new of my royal status. Granted, nobody had teased me of it, or even mentioned it, but it was assumed once many admitted to skimming my books that this was a well-known fact.

Suddenly, the trip to Wonderland feels all the more dangerous.

Oh, bloody hell. She was right. I’m going to have to tell them, aren’t I?

FINN SITS TO MY
right at the long conference table and it’s torture. There’s no production of us being here together, no hint to the others that anything has shifted, but I feel it.

He does, too.

Underneath the table, for the teeniest of moments while Van Brunt is talking to the group, Finn’s fingers find mine. Just brushes, really, our digits lacing in and out of each other without truly knotting, but I’m positive the electricity in my body these small motions generate is enough to power the entire building.

Wendy has brought in her laptop and is showing off the pictures we’d taken in Ex Libris’ attic. Multiple laptops are open up and down the table, and worried, angry people are skimming through them, desperate to find their own stories or those from beloved friends and family. Finn has his laptop, too, and since it wasn’t even a consideration for me to bring mine, I’m forced to share his while the discussion around us rages.

People are scared.

We go over in excruciating detail everything we saw and did last night—well, sans inappropriately timed kissing in an armoire. Questions are asked, some more than once. Finn and I, just as frustrated as the rest, do our best to answer each query patiently and thoroughly. I share my beliefs that Todd and Rosemary are not the real Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, but instead some kind of sycophant copycats. I point out details in the photograph that support my hypothesis.

Jenkins, though, remains a mystery to us all.

“The solution is easy,” Mr. Holgrave says. I haven’t seen him much since that first day, but here he is, and in full possession of all information. “We simply assassinate these fiends. If they’re not alive, then there’s no way they can continue collection catalysts.”

A good deal of the crowd smooshed into the room nod their heads in agreement. Members flocked to the conference room to hear the details, and many are forced to stand due to a chair shortage. The A.D. has been wheeling them in from other offices, but even then, even in a large room such as this, there simply isn’t enough space.

“The dead,” the Librarian says from the doorway, “cannot answer questions, I’m afraid.” And then her eyes find me, and she smiles indulgently, like we’ve been sharing girlish secrets.

She’s maddening, that one.

“The Librarian is right,” Van Brunt says. He’s at the head of the table, looking like he hasn’t slept a wink. “Right now, we need answers. We need to know how they’re editing into Timelines. From Finn and Ms. Reeve’s accounts they appear to have our technology. How is that? We need to also know if the collection of suspects are at two, three, or even more. Are there more—even sleeper cells to consider?” He shakes his head. “The best course is to capture them for interrogation. We can discuss more permanent solutions further on down the road.”

Despite my past, I shiver at his coldly voice words.

“Our current needs are two-fold,” Van Brunt continues. “FK Jenkins, S. Todd, and Rosemary are to be apprehended as quickly as possible. Current surveillance of the Ex Libris Bookshop shows no activity, which is worrisome. A team will be organized to hunt them down; I personally will head it. We will have movement on this front by the evening.”

To be honest, I would find it fascinating to watch Van Brunt in action.

“There is also a dire need to obtain the catalyst for 1865/71CAR-AWLG. Comments made last night by Todd and Rosemary indicate that this is a top priority for them. We cannot afford to let them gain one more deletion. Within twenty-four hours, a team will enter 1865/71CAR-AWLG to retrieve the catalyst.” Van Brunt turns to the Librarian, who has been hovering by the wall off to the side. “Has it been identified?”

She passes Wendy a small blue rectangle. “Yes.”

Wendy flips open the rectangle and sticks it into the side of her laptop. After a moment, a new picture appears, one of a young, blonde girl in a blue and white dress sitting between two life-sized chess players. All three wear golden crowns. And for a moment, as I stare at this picture, I’m stunned, but then a sharp bark of a laugh escapes me.

This
is how they see the Red and White Queens?

“What’s wrong?” Finn asks me.

I don’t even know how to start with this. How to let them know how bitterly wrong this illustration is, how . . .
innocent
it looks.

The Librarian spares me, though, because she angles a slim silver tube toward the screen on the wall. A red dot appears right in the center of the crown on top of the young girl’s head. “The catalyst is the Queen of Diamond’s crown.”

The room falls silent. Every pair of eyes angles toward me, yet I refuse to meet any. I simply continue to stare at the illustration, agog at how such a momentous occasion could be pared down into a cartoon, and utterly livid that the Librarian dared to force my hand.

She had no right to tell them my secrets. None. Anger surges up in my throat.

A few people cough. Chairs shift. Outside of standing up and leaving, they’re expecting something from me. I do my best to ensure my teeth aren’t too gritted as I speak. “I know whom to contact about the crown, so at least that part won’t be too much of a problem.”

“You’re a queen?”

This comes from Mary. She’s sitting across the table, gaping at me as if I were a stranger. They are all like this, though. Judging me, when they have no clue about what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen, or what I’ve done.

“Yes.”

The silence continues. Coming from my right, it’s especially unnerving. All it serves is to do is send my body into defensive mode.

Mary keeps on going. “Like, a
real
queen?”

My answer is cool. “Yes.”

“Did you rule part of Wonderland?” Her eyes are wide as saucers.

“Yes.”

“And you
left?”

Once more, much more flatly, “Yes.”

The woman I’ve come to consider a friend tears her gaze away from mine to stare upon the glowing illustration upon the wall. And then she looks back at me, and there’s hurt in her eyes that don’t belong there.

I don’t owe her my past. I don’t owe any of them my secrets. I didn’t seek out the Collectors’ Society. They sought
me
.

“You were found at an asylum,” Victor says. He’s at the far end of the table, as he and Mary are still on the outs.

“I was,” I confirm. I can practically feel ice crystals peppering my skin, I’m so furious.

“But—”

My impulse is to stand up and walk out of the room, but too many years of formality are engrained in me. I sit perfectly still, practically daring him—or anyone—to follow that up. I haven’t hidden that I was at an asylum, so for them to throw it back at me now?

I turn to look squarely at the Librarian, and it’s like she knew I would, because she’s already focused on me. She’s smiling that damn smile that would make the Cheshire-Cat want to pat her on the back, it’s so smug.

Van Brunt clears his throat. Says, “You said that it would be easy to get the catalyst. Do—”

“Not easy,” I clarify, and, miraculously, the Librarian looks away first. “I said I know who has it, and that at least we wouldn’t have to search for clues. There will be no part of a trip to Wonderland that will be easy. None.”

Someone whose name I don’t remember asks, “Why?”

“Because I left for a reason, and it was expected by all parties involved that I was not to come back. If I am caught doing so, my life is forfeit.” The removal of this long-worn splinter is not an easy one. “Anybody with me would be held to the same fate. But that is only one of many concerns.”

“How so?” another nameless person asks.

“The food and water in Wonderland are, for lack of a better word, addictive to those past puberty. They will lead a non-native Wonderlander to madness and an inability to leave. You will cease being able to determine the extraordinary from the ordinary. You will no longer utilize logic as you once have—if you try, it will be distorted. Madness is more than just the stereotypical person who laughs and eats plates. Madness is leaving behind your realities and inhibitions and embracing impossible ones.”

Van Brunt must have never shared this tidbit with the rest, because now everyone is horrified. Good. They’re learning.

“If I am to go back to Wonderland, I’ll need to bring a supply of my own rations. Even the tiniest bit will alter a person.”

“And yet,” Finn says quietly, “you managed to leave.”

I won’t look at him when I say, “I paid a hefty price to do so.”

“Is that why your life is forfeit?” Victor asks. “Because you managed to escape?”

“No.” I take a deep breath. Force myself to stay the course, to remain calm. “I left because, had I not, I would have been the cause of countless deaths.” My nails dig into my palms. It’s a piss-poor summation, but there it is. “There are prophecies in Wonderland, as silly as that may sound. And it just so happened I was the subject of one.” I finally stand up. “That said, it is best that I go alone. I refuse to risk any of you, either. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I had better start preparing myself for the trip.”

BOOK: The Collectors' Society 01
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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