Prologue: 4 July 1862 Folly Bridge, Oxford, England

Dearest Alice, my great-grandniece to be,

I pray these books survive undisturbed until your arrival so many years from now. I will explain all when we meet, for meet we must. I entrust my safety to you. Everything you need to know is hidden in these books, penned as childish tales of distraction. The books hold the key to finding me. Forgive their cryptic conceits; I have to protect access to this peculiar world from dark hearts who are set on destroying it.

Dear child, please find me. More is at stake than my survival or I would not send this bottle across the tide of years to your future shore.

With hope and affection,
your great-aunt, Alice

4 JULY 1862


She felt a little nervous about this;
‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice,
‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’

Thunder rolled in the distance, a summer storm brewing off to the west. They would have to finish the picnic and leave, but Alice wasn’t ready. This would be their last outing together and she had to make them understand. Everything depended on it.
 ‘Sit down, Alice. It was a wonderful tale, but you’ve not had a single bite since you began.’ Emily pushed a plate of sandwiches towards her. Alice looked at her friend and their chaperones, the Reverend Thomas and Mr Dodgson.
 ‘Sorry,’ she said, and sat down on the blanket. Alice had been pacing as she’d read the story to her small audience. They all seemed engaged, yet none grasped the purpose of the story, how it was more than a tall tale constructed for their amusement. How could they?
 ‘I liked the tea party best,’ said Emily, ‘though all that business about time getting stuck at teatime was a bit odd, don’t you think?’
 ‘It might appear so on first reading,’ said Alice. She looked across the river to the meadow beyond. The simplicity of the setting, the normality of it, tore at her heart. Could she really keep all this safe? Was she prepared for the price it would exact? Summer light was casting dappled gold on the world around her, on the towpath, the arched bridge and the distant church. She scanned it all, her back straight, her neck stretched, like a creature of prey on high alert. Nothing caught her eye. Yet she knew they’d be coming for her. The Men of the Rose.
 ‘I will eat if you make me a promise,’ she said, taking a cheese sandwich.
 ‘Name it,’ said Emily.
 Alice fixed her attention on the bespectacled writer, Mr Dodgson. ‘I want you to arrange for the book’s publication.’
 ‘Yes, and exactly as I have written it here, Mr Dodgson. Not one word can be changed. Not for any reason. Can I rely on you? Please?’
 The group seemed a little stunned by the request.
 ‘Alice,’ said Mr Dodgson, ‘the tale is engaging, certainly. Imaginative, quite definitely. But no publisher would commit to such a flight of fancy, not one penned by a young and unproven writer, no matter how talented.’
 ‘I quite agree,’ replied Alice, ‘which is why you shall publish it under your own name.’
 ‘Me?’ Dodgson appeared flattered and confused in equal measure. ‘If it is to be published, it must be in your name. You must take full credit.’
 ‘Then use a nom-de-plume, some blend of us both. My middle name would do – you could write as Mr Carol.’
 Alice had been reading her story from four thick school- books, every page covered in her own meticulous writing. She stood and placed the volumes into Mr Dodgson’s hands.
 ‘Mr Dodgson. As you rightfully point out, my age would be a barrier. So, I entrust this to your care. There are a few pages of instruction at the back. But please, not one single word of change. The text has been constructed to both mask and to reveal. There are keys buried within anagrams. There are riddles designed to obfuscate and there are entire phrases where the number of letters themselves will guide the reader on how to step through these puzzles. So not one word of change, Mister Dodgson. May I rely on you?’
 ‘I will do my best, young lady. That, at least, I can promise.’ Alice knew this would have to do. For safety, she had made three handwritten copies, but having it published was far safer; there would be multiple copies, hiding the secrets in plain sight. Others would need it one day if she was ever to be rescued.
 It began to rain, and they scrambled for cover.

The downpour obscured everything as the carriage pulled up. A bolt of lightning cracked and lit the face of the manor house as Alice stepped down and raced for the front door. She glanced back up the driveway and saw no sign of pursuit. For three weeks, she had sensed the Men of the Rose closing in, and last weekend her encounter in a small Charing Cross Road bookshop allowed for only one explanation – they knew her identity. She had turned over too many stones in her search for the true history of the young boys. How cruel that an act of charity might lead to their deaths. Yet she might still save them, even at this late hour – two innocent boys and all the melancholy folk she had come to love.
 Stepping into the hall, Alice shook the rain from her cloak. She must go tonight, without any farewells. It would be unforgivably cruel on her parents, but if she looked at their loving faces, her resolve might crumble.
 ‘Alice?’ Her mother had been waiting. Of course she had. There would be supper laid out. They would want to hear about her picnic, and there would be cards and laughter. The little things that made life so precious.
 ‘Hello, mother. What a storm!’
 ‘Straight from the Old Testament. The puppies have tun- nelled under the hearth rug.’ Light from the library spilled into the hallway behind her mother, a theatrical backlight that made her seem ethereal, almost translucent, as if Alice’s decision to leave was already draining her life.
 ‘We’re taking supper in the library. You’re soaked!’
 ‘A little. We were a band of pirates keeping ahead of a storm. Mr Dodgson was all but spent at the oars when we finally made it to the boathouse.’
 ‘Splendid!’ Her mother clapped her hands in delight. ‘Come and tell us all about it and with as much embellishment as possible. Your father had a testing day in the city and would welcome the distraction.’
 It was too much. Alice ran forward and threw her arms around her mother.
 ‘Goodness, what’s this about?’ Her mother returned the embrace, but her body had stiffened. Alice looked into her eyes; there was nothing but love there, loved wrapped in the steel of a woman ready to absorb whatever bad news her daughter might deliver.
 ‘You know I love you. And Father. You know that, don’t you?’ ‘Well, of course. And we love you. Unconditionally. Do we need him here or is this a conversation best kept between women?’
 ‘If you’ve fallen for the ancient Mr Dodgson, no amount of brandy would brace your father for that news.’ Alice almost exploded with laughter.
 ‘Mother! That is beyond naughty – how dare you.’ ‘Then what?’
 ‘I just wanted to tell you, that’s all. I love you both more than you will ever know. Whatever happens, you must remember that.’
 ‘Whatever happens? This is very theatrical, even for you.’
 A violent crash of thunder shook the house, rattling the windows and toppling a vase from its stand near the front door. They turned to see it strike the tiled floor, but Alice hardly noticed – she’d seen movement through the glass panels, the distorted image of a black carriage pulling up outside.
 She ran up the stairs without another word.
 ‘Alice!’ Her mother followed, alarmed now, as a bolt of lightning struck an ancient oak that towered three stories high in front of the house. The tree ignited like a torch, its light shivering on the faces of three men as they stepped from the carriage. They wore long black coats and sported white roses in their lapels. They had put the pieces together. They had come for her.
 Alice took the stairs two at her time, cursing herself for leaving it so late. She ran to her room and slammed the door behind her. Her mother reached the bedroom door a moment later and hesitated.
 ‘My darling, what is it? Please tell me. Whatever it is, we’ll face it together.’ She opened the door and pushed inside, her heart beating in her throat.
 The room was awash with light from the tree burning outside. There was no sign of her daughter. Then her eyes settled on the large antique dresser they had bought for Alice’s tenth birthday.
 There was Alice, in its mirror, waving goodbye; her face wet with tears, her image fading even as her mother reached out to it.

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