The small child named Oz carried a tray of dough buns over to his mother. “I got them ready, Mama! What we do next?”
“Put them in the oven, slowly,” she instructed. Her lips held a smile as warm as the sun. “Go on. I already preheated it.”
Carefully, little Oz slid the tray into the oven. His gray eyes lit up with delight watching as the oven heat worked its magic on the dough. Soon, there would be cream-filled buns ready to eat. His most favorite treat!
“I wanna be a great baker like you, Mama,” he said.
She chuckled, the sound filling him with warmth, her embrace filling him with love.
“I will always love you, Oz. No matter what happens, no matter where I am.” Her eyes, shimmering like stars, took him in. “You’ll remember that, won’t you?”
Little Oz gazed up into her fair face.
“My love for you will never die…”
Her face faded from his vision.
The words echoed into the distance, into the dark void…
Oz’s eyelids fluttered open, waking him up to reality and leaving the distant, old memory behind.
He straightened on his perch on an oak’s high limb. He hadn’t come all the way here from Wonderland just to relive past memories. He rubbed his temples, waking himself up. He’d come here to observe the event that was now taking place below him.
Cheshire had called for a meeting in the world known as Earth, here on this odd island, Oswick, where both worlds touched—holding the meeting in an isolated spot in one of the humans’ large parks.
The cat was going to announce something today, and that something was most likely who the next Madness Solver would be.
A smirk spread across Oz’s lips. The job would naturally fall to him. He was the Red King’s son. No one else was more worthy of the position!
Yes, this would be a triumphant day for Oz. He would soon have the power that came with being the Madness Solver, and with that power he would be able to find her…the person most dear to him, Mother, who had vanished one day from his life without a trace.
All he needed was that power.
“Today, I come before you all to announce whom I have selected,” Cheshire spoke before the gathering of Wonderlanders, which wasn’t all that big, “the person who will take up the position as Wonderland’s next peacekeeper, the Madness Solver. It’s a big job, and one that is highly necessary. I am pleased to have the role filled once again.”
Oz waited expectantly from his perch. The Wonderlanders leaned forward in anticipation.
“Without further ado, may I now present to you the chosen person…” Cheshire waved his paws for dramatic effect. “Come forth, Madnes Hatter!”
Oz almost fell out of the tree.
A boy the same age as himself, and wearing the most ridiculous top hat Oz had ever seen, was brought before the crowd. Cheshire made Madnes stand on the platform as the assembly evaluated their new Madness Solver.
Some cheered, some grumbled, and others were unsure of what to think. Through it all, the human boy sweated.
Oz quickly ducked down and hid out of sight before Madnes could see him.
Another Hatter? Oz stared, dumbfounded. “He’s the next one? Not me?” he mouthed silently to himself. “How…” His fists clenched. “How can it not be me? And why him, of all people?”
That runt. That no-good son of the Hatter family.
Black feathers swirled as Oz spread his crow-like wings. He leaped off the branch and took flight in the opposite direction, leaving the park and meeting behind.
Oz stood still before the throne and tried desperately to keep a rein on his nerves. He folded his black feathered wings against his back and bowed formally. “Forgive me, Father. I have disappointed you,” he spoke.
The Red King, built like a Viking from legends, leaned his thickly bearded chin on a fist, his features cold as ice. He regarded the boy bowing before his grand throne dais.
“More than disappointed,” the king agreed, and Oz stilled. The red robe draped about the king’s shoulders shimmered like a waterfall of blood down the giant chess pieces which made up his throne. “I spoke with Cheshire. And while I am furious with his decision, and have always hated the cat, he is the Selector. He gives the power to whom he chooses, and no one else may have a say in the matter.” He shifted to steeple his fingers in a displeased manner. “In view of your potential, I was hoping that Cheshire might abandon the Hatter family and come to us. However…you apparently were not worthy enough, Oz.”
“Not worthy…? But Father,” Oz stammered, “I’ve done nothing but train. I’ve worked for years to be fit for the position! How can anyone call me unworthy?” The temper in Oz’s voice rose, but one glance at the king and it subsided.
Father was angry—he was dangerous when he was angry. Oz shoved his own emotions aside and attempted to appease him. “Perhaps I can change Cheshire’s mind. I will make him see that he has chosen wrongly.”
“Hm. I hope so, for your sake,” the Red King replied. Light from a partially draped window cast distorted shadows around the throne. “A useless son has no place in this kingdom.”
A useless son has no place…
Oz kept the hood of his cloak up. He thought back to the dream he’d had earlier: the memory of his mother’s embrace.
‘Mother, what happened to you?’
The mystery of her disappearance had tormented Oz for years.
He stuffed down a cream-filled bun, seated at a pristine café just outside the palace castle.
What had happened, and was she still alive? There was only one way left to find out, after all the many ways which he’d already tried. But for that, he needed the special power of the Madness Solver to solve this dark mystery.
Nothing, and no one, would get in the way of his goal. Especially not this Madnes Hatter.
It was time for him to pay a visit.
“Did you hear the announcement?” A girl was chatting with her friend at another table. “Prince Oz wasn’t chosen as Madness Solver. Can you believe it?”
“I know, right? Total shock!”
“He’s handsome on the outside, but a total loser inside, I guess.”
“I’m curious about that new Hatter boy, though. They say he’s easy on the eyes.”
Both girls giggled.
Oz furiously stuffed down two more buns.
“That was humiliating,” Madnes stated as he left the meeting of Wonderlanders, his face feeling red enough to explode.
“It’s just standing before the people whose livelihood and wellbeing now rests in your hands. You’ll get used to it,” said Cheshire cheerfully.
Madnes wanted to groan and look skyward.
“You’ll do splendidly.” Cheshire’s paws patted his hand reassuringly. “Now, go and rest up! I’ll be seeing you shortly to begin your training!”
Training. Great. He was already dreading what all that would entail.
The cat strolled off, at first on two legs then bounding away on all fours before disappearing from sight.
Madnes sighed heavily and headed home.
The next morning came, followed by school, and he kept thinking back to Cheshire’s words and reliving the moment of seeing all those Wonderlander faces focused on him, watching his every movement on the stage. Some hopeful, some quietly laughing at him.
He couldn’t do this. He was an introvert at heart! He couldn’t…
“Your cousin is here!” called out Mom suddenly, the moment he stepped through the door, back home.
“What?!” Madnes exclaimed. But his mom just smiled down at him with that not-a-care-in-the-world expression on her face.
“I invited your cousin over for tea. He’s out back in the garden. I already set the tea and buns out on the table for you,” she said, and reached down to pinch his nose between her fingers. “Go on and say hi. You two used to be marvelous friends when you were little! Maybe you can rekindle that bond?”
Madnes pried her fingers off. “What for?” he grumbled.
Mom gave a carefree shrug. “You’re both the same age, and he’s back in town. So, why not? It would do you good to have more than two friends. Consider this a lesson in developing your social skills.”
He shook his head irritably. “Maybe I don’t want any social skills.”
“Go on! Or does this dragon have to gnaw on your noggin?” She held up a hat in the shape of a dragon’s head, its jaws open, and charged at him.
“Okay, okay!” Madnes bolted for the backyard door. “Sheesh. Why do I have to have such a weird mom?”
He stepped out into the backyard’s garden area. The late afternoon light cast shadows about the trimmed bushes and overflowing flower beds and the single lattice table, which was nicely set up for two.
Tea for two, what was Mom thinking? He steeled his nerves and approached the figure already there waiting. His cousin turned his head slowly, one arm reclining across the back of a chair. Gray eyes and a face that had not smiled in years met him.
“Cousin Oz.” Madnes tried to keep his voice from wobbling as he greeted him.
Oz’s skin was fair where it showed around a fine suit and cravat, his layered blond hair slicked back. He resembled every inch the son of a wealthy family.
As children they had been friends, despite being two very different people from very different backgrounds. But a change had overcome Oz, like a vine of ice creeping through his soul and choking out the kinder person that he used to be, and that friendship had come to a bitter end. Whatever had caused the change was still a painful mystery to Madnes. Sitting here, he could feel the hate pouring out of Oz even now.
Madnes awkwardly searched for something to say. “It’s been a long time,” was all he finally managed.
One perfect eyebrow rose—the only greeting Madnes was going to get from Oz.
Madnes sat hesitantly in the opposite floral wicker chair. Oz took a sip from one of two teacups, fine china with hand-painted yellow roses.
“Quite,” Oz said. “And how has life been treating you, Madnes?” He bit off half of a cream-filled bun. Madnes watched the white cream slowly drip out. “Has anything interesting happened lately?”
The way he said it—it made the hair at the nape of Madnes’s neck stand on edge. Did he…know something?
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