Splintered Page 49

Jeb curses and tries to turn me to him, but I can’t look away. The liquid must be some kind of formaldehyde. Why would Morpheus have a pickled head in a pewter hatbox? What kind of psycho is he?

“Wake up, fair one,” Morpheus whispers, a strained tenderness to the request. I watch, mortified, as he taps a finger along the glass, tracing the face’s closed, crystallized lashes. When the eyes flip open, I almost jump out of my skin.

The thing’s alive.

Recognition dawns on me from the chess piece reenactment. It’s the Ivory Queen, even more beautiful than her jade counterpart, as delicate and pale as moonlight. Black tattoolike marks line both temples in a network of veins, as if dragonfly wings were pressed onto a stamp pad, then transferred to the skin. Her eyes are so light blue, they’re almost colorless; long lashes curl upward on each blink. They’re just like her eyebrows, silvery and crystalline as if coated with ice. At the outer corners, two black lines dip down to her cheekbones and end in teardrop shapes; it’s like she’s weeping ink. Pale pink lips—as curved and lovely as a heart—open to an adoring smile as her gaze falls on Morpheus. She tries to talk.

He leans close, sweeping his gloved palm lovingly across her encased cheek. She tries to talk again but can’t be heard through the liquid and glass.

Jeb and I stand there, imprisoned in our own silence.

Morpheus breaks the hush. “This is a jabberlock box. It can hold an entire being within, though only the face appears. You’ve heard the saying, ‘Off with their heads,’ from the book you carry?”

I glance at my gloved palms, thinking about my scars. That’s not the only place I’ve heard the words, and Morpheus knows it. Is this what Alison meant, when she said she didn’t want me to lose my head?

“Well, this is the origin of that phrase,” Morpheus finishes. “Little Alice took it much too literally. It used to be a standard punishment here in Wonderland. Though it’s now considered barbaric. It’s worse than any prison, for its occupant can be seen but not heard. Their jabbers are locked away.”

The box shakes under Morpheus’s hands. The queen’s features change from adoring to desperate. She thrashes back and forth, and bubbles churn the surface. Her hair swirls like albino sea grass. Morpheus wraps his arms around the box to keep it from bouncing off the table. When her mouth stretches in a muted scream, he slams the lid shut. His complexion pales. He rewraps the box in the bag before I can see the inscription again.

Smoothing his cuffs over his gloves with trembling fingers, he sighs. “I didn’t wish to upset her. She’s at peace when she’s left alone. But if she’s not freed soon, all her memories will be lost forever.”

“You care about her,” I say with an unexpected twang of envy. In my long-lost memories of us as children, it was always just the two of us. We “got” each other on every level. Morpheus made me feel adored, special, important. I never considered him doing the same for someone else as a man. “Morpheus, what is she to you?”

He doesn’t answer. Not aloud, anyway. His expression is hazy and troubled, and the jewels around his eyes twinkle from silver to black, like stars peering down on a storm-swept night. Alice’s confession from the trial comes back to me: “Ivory was, in fact, very fond of Mr. Caterpillar.” Judging by how Morpheus looked at the queen just now, by how she looked at him, he returned to her castle after his metamorphosis.

I imagine his elegant fingers tracing her skin, his soft lips on hers. That stab of envy evolves to something much uglier—a covetous twist of emotion I can’t even put a name to. What’s wrong with me? Why should I care about Morpheus’s love life, when I’ve finally kissed Jeb after all these years?

Morpheus’s wings flap wide, then close again. The dreamlike fog draping his features is replaced by suppressed rage. “In this realm, the mirrors are gateways. But the hall in which we stand leads only to other parts of Wonderland. The gateways back to your world are inside the White and Red castles, and they are connected to the queens. Ivory’s portal is frozen due to her state and will remain so until she’s freed by the person who put her into this box. That leaves only the Red castle’s portal. I understand you’ve already met Rabid White.”

I gulp and nod.

“So you know how well received you would be in the Red province. Set foot there, and you could end up in a box just like this.”

An image of me or Jeb locked in dark liquid flashes into my mind. Jeb must feel my shiver, because his grip on my shoulders tightens. “So who put Ivory in there?” he asks.

Morpheus removes his hat and sets it next to the bag, leaving his hair a mass of glowing blue tangles. “After Queen Red was exiled to the wilds, she was never seen again. Her stepsister, Grenadine, married the king and became Queen—a woman so forgetful, she could never handle wearing the crown. And now her king wants to give her two.” Morpheus drags a glittering diamond tiara from the bag. “I’ve a spy stationed in the Red castle. When the White Court came to me with news of Ivory’s fate some weeks ago, I sent word for my contact to steal the jabberlock box. I’m harboring Ivory here, along with her crown, to keep them safe from Grenadine and King Red. If they control both the Red and White portals, good luck ever getting home.” He tucks the tiara away again. “All this will be ameliorated once Alyssa finds the vorpal sword. It’s the most powerful weapon in Wonderland. I can use it to force them to grant Ivory’s freedom. Her portal will be open to you then.”

Jeb levels his gaze at Morpheus. “Let me get this straight. You lured us down here with promises to save Al’s mother, knowing all along we’d have no way home until we freed your freaking girlfriend.”

Morpheus lifts a finger. “Seeing as we’re laying out the facts, let’s not forget that you weren’t invited to begin with. If this is too much for your delicate constitution, mortal dreg, you’re welcome to stay safely tucked away in my guest room until it all blows over.”

“I go where Al goes, dances-with-bugs. And just so you know, if anything happens to her, I’ll pin you by your wings to a corkboard and use you for dart practice.”

Jeb and Morpheus’s standoff is only background noise. I’m here to break the curse for Alison—that’s all that matters.

Only, I should never have dragged Jeb into this. If I could just have an instant replay.

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