“Oz, dear?”

The small child carried a tray of soggy dough buns over to his mother. “I got them ready, Mama! What we do next?”

“Put them in the oven,” she instructed. Her lips held a smile as warm as the moon. “Go on. I already preheated it.”

Carefully, little Oz placed the tray inside 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 like shimmering 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…”

Never die

The words echoed into the distance.

Oz’s eyelids fluttered open, waking up to reality once more, leaving the distant old memory behind. He straightened his perch on the oak’s high thick limb. He hadn’t come here to daydream—he rubbed his temples, waking up—he’d come to observe the scene which was now playing out before him:

Cheshire had called for a meeting in the world known as Earth, here on this odd island Okinala, where both worlds met. Meeting in an isolated spot in a human park. The cat was going to announce something—and that something was more than likely to be who the next Madness Solver was.

A smirk spread across Oz’s lips. The job would naturally fall to him. He was the Red King’s son; no one was more worthy of the position than himself. 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, who had vanished from his life long ago.

“Today I come before you to announce to you the person I have chosen, who will take up the position as Wonderland’s next peacekeeper, the Madness Solver,” Cheshire spoke before the assembly of Wonderlanders, which wasn’t all that big. Oz waited from his perch. “May I present to you, now: Madnes Hatter!”

Oz almost fell out of the tree.

A red haired boy, same age as himself, and wearing the most lame top hat he’d ever seen, was brought before the crowd. Cheshire made Madnes stand on the platform as the assembly stared and 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 stared, dumbfounded. “He’s…the next one?” Oz mouthed. “Not me? Why…” 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 wings and took flight into the cloudless sky.

***

Standing before the throne, Oz tried desperately to keep a rein on his nerves and keep sweat drops at bay. He folded his black feathered wings against his back, and bowed formally. “I am sorry, Father. I have disappointed you.”

The Red King, built like a Viking, leaned his rough bearded chin on a fist, his features cold ice as he regarded the boy down before his throne dais. “More than disappointed,” he agreed, and Oz stilled. The red robe draped along the King’s shoulders shone like blood. “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. “With your potential, I was hoping Cheshire might abandon the Hatter family and come to us. However…you apparently were not worthy, Oz.”

“Not worthy…? But, Father,” Oz stammered, “I’ve done nothing but train. I’ve worked for years for this! 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 attempted to appease him and shoved his own emotions aside. “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 shadows about the gilded throne. “A useless son has no place in this kingdom.”

***

‘Mother, where are you?’ The thought tormented Oz as he stuffed down a second cream-filled bun, sitting in the café outside the palace.

He would discover what had happened to her, and if she was still alive. And for that, he needed the special power of the Madness Solver. Nothing, and no one, would get in the way of his goal. Especially this Madnes Hatter.

It was time for him to pay a visit.

“Did you hear the announcement?” A girl was chatting with her friend, nearby. “Prince Oz wasn’t chosen. 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.”

They laughed.

Oz furiously stuffed down two more buns.

***

“You did what?!” Madnes balked, but his mom just smiled down at him with that not-a-care-in-the-world expression she often wore.

“I invited your cousin over for tea. He’s out back in the garden. I already set the tea and buns out on the picnic table for you,” she said, and reached down and pinched his nose between her fingers. “Go on and say hi. You used to be marvelous friends when you were little. Maybe you can rekindle that bond?”

Madnes pried her fingers off. “What for?” he mumbled.

Mom gave a carefree shrug. “You’re both the same age, and he was in town. So why not? It would do you good to have more than two friends. Consider this a lesson in social skills.”

“Huh?” His head shook. “Mom, you have the weirdest ideas.”

“Go on! Or does this dragon hat have to gnaw on your noggin?” She held up a hat in the shape of a dragon’s head, jaws open, and charged at him.

“Okay, okay!” Madnes bolted for the backyard door. “Why do moms have to be so weird?” He grumbled, then came out into the yard’s garden area. The late afternoon light cast shadows about the trimmed bushes and overflowing flowers and the single lattice table, 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 face slowly, one arm lounging on the back of the 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 the boy, layered blonde hair slicked back, his skin fair where it showed around a fine suit and cravat. Oz resembled every inch the son of a wealthy family.

As children they’d been friends, despite being two very different people with very different families. But a change overcame Oz, like a vine of ice creeping through his inner being and chocking out the kinder person he used to be, and that friendship came to a bitter end. Whatever had caused the change was still a painful mystery for 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.”

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 finally. “And how has life been treating you, Madnes?” He bit off half of a cream-filled bun. Madnes watched the white cream slowly dripping out. “Has anything interesting happened, lately?”

The way he said it—it made Madnes’s skin crawl.

NEXT CHAPTER

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