Alice peered into the door before glancing back at Oliver one last time. He was fighting a losing battle with the butterfly, which had very obviously fallen in love with him. It was a silly thing to do, talking to butterflies. Falling in love was their favorite way to pass the time.
Alice stepped one foot into the box and nearly screamed.
“Why on earth is it wet?” she shouted, panicking. She tried to pull her foot free but it was now stuck inside the door. “Why didn’t you tell me it would be wet—?”
Alice didn’t have a chance to protest before Oliver grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her up. He said, “It’s wet because it’s water, you silly girl,” and dropped her in.
THIS MIGHT BE MY FAVORITE PART
Alice fell very far.
She fell back for a bit and then slightly to the left, and then up for a very long while until she finally fell down with a plop, soaking wet and sinking fast.
She tried to scream but spoke only in bubbles, blinking around at the sea she was drowning in. She was scared and she was mad, but mostly she was mad. Oliver had not told her she’d have to swim in these heavy clothes, and now she would die and it would be all his fault and she wouldn’t even be able to tell him so, and that made her even madder and so she kicked and kicked at the water, her delicate headpiece and ankle bracelets slipping off in the process. Horrified, she finally accepted that she could only survive if she untied her cumbersome skirts—and, oh, how it broke her heart to watch them go—but it was then, just as she was thinking of how best to kill Oliver Newbanks, that he was tugging on her arm.
As soon as her head broke the surface, she could hear what he was saying.
“What in heavens are you doing?” he shouted, red in the face and shaking. “Why didn’t you come out of the water? Were you trying to kill yourself?”
“What?” She spat water out of her mouth and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “Me? Kill myself? What are you talking about? I was only drowning, no thanks to—”
“Drowning?” he said, flabbergasted. “Alice, the water is only knee-deep!”
That would explain how she was currently standing.
Alice looked down and around herself and spotted her skirts floating only a few feet away. She cleared her throat and said, “If you’ll please excuse me,” before making her way toward the clothes.
The water was clear and the color of turquoise. It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t hot but it was very wet and Alice was looking forward to being out of it. Once she’d secured her skirts and made her way back to Oliver, he gave her a very round look and seemed to think it best not to comment any further.
“Well?” she said, head held high as she shivered in the breeze. “Where from here?”
“Straight ahead,” he said, nodding toward the shore.
Land was just a faint line in the distance, but she could see it, so she told him so. She followed Oliver as he went and asked no additional questions outside of the five questions she did ask, and paused only to sneeze when her nose required it.
She was just in the middle of a sneeze, in fact, when she noticed the wet carpet under her feet. They were very close to the shore now, and she could see straight to the end: There were tens of dozens of ancient rugs laid out along and up the sand, cutting a vertical line to land. Each rug was a rich red, but woven with threads of gold and violet and sea-foam green into intricate, abstract, faded floral patterns.
It all felt very proper.
Furthermore was welcoming them, and suddenly Alice was glad to have arrived. Suddenly she wasn’t cold or wet at all. In fact, suddenly she was warm and her skirts were toasty and her hair was dry and her bare feet were walking on the thick, plush Persian rugs that had been laid straight across the beach. They were heading nowhere as far as she could tell, but she didn’t mind. The sky was very pink and the clouds were very blue and the air was sweet as lemonpearl and she felt very cozy and very lazy and very this and very that and very—
Oliver tugged on her arm and she heard it snap. Not her arm, no. But something. Something snapped. Suddenly they were on the sand and not the beautiful rugs and she felt very cold and very worried and very hungry and very—
Oliver was snapping his fingers in front of her face. “Alice? Alice. Alice.”
“What?” she said, frowning. “What is it? What is the matter?”
“You musn’t stay on the rugs for long,” he said urgently. “Furthermore can be tricky when you’re not paying attention.” He pulled her to her feet. Only then did she realize she’d sat down.
“Where are we?” she asked, looking around. Oliver had nudged them back onto the beach, but that didn’t change what she saw. It was a barren landscape, nothing but sand and sea, not a person in sight.
“We are at the beginning,” he said, and that was all.
They stood in the sun and said nothing more, and Alice was so confused she couldn’t even remember how to say so. Besides, she was distracted. Oliver was holding her hand now and, though she tried to shake him off, he wouldn’t let her.
“You need to be careful,” he said to her. “We are currently at the entry of Slumber, which is just one of the sixty-eight villages we must travel through, and each village has its own very specific rules. We cannot break a single one if we are to find your father.”
“Not a single rule!” she said. “In sixty-eight villages!”
“Not a single rule,” he said. “In sixty-eight villages.”
“But how will we know all the rules?” she asked.
“I will teach them to you as we go. I lived in Furthermore for an entire year,” Oliver said, “so this is all very common to me now, but I imagine it must be very strange for you.”