Splintered Page 51

After a smattering of applause from our guests, Morpheus hands his hat off to Gossamer and several other sprites. They hang it on the chair’s arm as Morpheus sits, folding his wings over the back like a cloak. Gossamer perches on his shoulder and everyone else resituates with a creak of wood and a rustle of fur and fabrics. Chatter resumes, along with smacks, gulps, and slurps.

“Have a taste, luv.” Morpheus motions to my plate. Then he turns to have a hushed conversation with a green piggish beast who sits at his left across the table from me. The pig wears a gray pinstriped suit complete with fur cuffs. His sleeves stretch down, barely covering lobster claws. He smiles, and I cringe at his teeth—black and round like peppercorns.

On my plate, a handful of goldfish flap around the center, gasping.

“Twinkle?” the ferret next to me says in a flute-like voice. He points a clawed finger at the fish.

“Are we supposed to eat these raw?” I ask him. “I’ve never been a fan of sushi.”

“Sue-she?” he asks.

“Never mind.” I turn from the goldfish to him, grateful for the distraction. “So, your name is Twinkle?”

He tilts his head, his shiny helmet glinting as he gestures to the fish skeletons on his plate. “Twinkle.”

Nauseated, I stare again at my own thrashing dinner.

Their fish eyes sag in their sockets, looking right at me. Pity and revulsion twist in my stomach. I can’t even imagine my pet eels out of water and unable to breathe. Do the moths and bugs I use in my mosaics suffer like this when they die? Why have I never cared enough to ask?

“Twinkle,” the creature next to me repeats. He lifts a silver spoon almost as big as himself, stands in his chair, and proceeds to thwack several of my fish on their heads, knocking them dead. “Twinkle them, see?” His forked tongue flits past his lips.

“Oh, no! Please . . .” On impulse, I reach for my goblet to pour liquid over the remaining live fish so they can breathe again. The mixture oozes out slowly, coating the fish in a gritty glob that smells of cinnamon and apple juice. Desperate, I dig the smothered fish out of the mess, getting the goop under my fingernails and into the weave of my gloves.

Everyone’s looking at me again, but I’m too disgusted to care.

“What is this?” I snap at Morpheus.

His eyes gleam. “Do you not put sand in the cider where you’re from?” He smirks. I remember seeing that same teasing smile in dreams as a child, how it used to mean we were about to do something daring and fun. But now there’s an edge of malice behind it. What could’ve happened to change him from the playful boy to the troubled man he is today?

“Would you rather try the wine?” he asks.

At the other end of the table, the primate netherlings are capturing the wine bottles, which float in midair, and stuffing bits of wool from their lamblike heads into the bottle necks to weigh them down. They then pass the wine around for toasts.

Crinkling my nose, I refuse the offer.

“Ah, poor, delicate little blossom.” Morpheus takes a napkin, gently grasping my left hand. “Let us clean you up, aye?” Gossamer lights on the table next to my right hand and proceeds to help with unnecessary roughness, yanking at my gloves and pinching my knuckles while grimacing at me. In contrast, Morpheus smooths the sandy mixture from my fingertips. Heat flares from the contact.

There’s heat behind me, too, from Jeb’s gaze. I don’t have to see it. I sense it. He warned Morpheus not to touch me during the feast.

“Pity we were so preoccupied in the Hall of Mirrors earlier and missed the appetizer,” Morpheus says as he glances at Jeb smugly. “You would’ve loved the spider soup, being so adept at wounding insects.”

I wince.

“Even more a pity”—he leans in and whispers low so only I can hear—“that you would waste your kisses on a man who fantasizes about other girls. Little Gossamer can see inside people’s minds as they’re sleeping. The beautiful young woman in Jeb’s dreams was not you. Interesting, that he chooses now to act on ‘hidden’ feelings. Down here, away from all the others, when he wants so desperately to talk you out of your quest.”

A sharp-edged shadow passes through my chest, slicing like a knife.

“Oh, but of course he’s sincere,” Morpheus continues to taunt. “It’s not as if he’s ever kept anything from you. He’s always been honest.”

Jeb’s move to London with Taelor fills my mind, leaving me as sullen as the dark clouds behind our host’s eyes.

Watching my reaction, Morpheus smiles. “Yes. A man who never lies will never break your heart.” Planting a kiss atop the back of my glove, he tosses down the napkin and releases me.

Gossamer glowers at me before she flits back to his shoulder.

Tears build behind my eyes. I will them not to fall but can’t will away the sick ache in my stomach. Morpheus must be right. Jeb’s never mentioned having feelings for me in our real lives. He’s still with Taelor up there and dreaming of her down here.

Morpheus stands and returns his hat to his head, all business now. “Enough playing with these bland morsels. Waiters, bring out the main course!”

Some movement along the walls provides a momentary distraction from my heartache. It’s as if pieces of the plaster are sprouting legs. Only when they peel from their places and slink off to one of the adjoining rooms do I realize they’re a band of human-size chameleons with suctioned toes.

When the zebra-striped lizards return, bulbous eyes twisting in every direction, they carry a platter garnished with dried fruit and something that resembles a duck. It’s plucked and roasted but still has its head intact. A warm, herbal scent tickles my nose. At least it’s cooked.

“May I introduce you all to the main course?” Morpheus spreads out an arm with dramatic flair. “Dinner, meet your worthy adversaries, the hungry guests.”

My tongue dries to sandpaper as the bird’s eyes pop open, and it hobbles to stand on webbed feet, flesh brown and glistening with glaze and oil. There’s a bell hung around its neck, and it jingles as the duck bows to greet everyone.

This cannot be happening.

Every nerve in my body jumps, urging me to turn to Jeb. But I can’t.

Morpheus drags the heavy mallet from beside his chair and pounds it on the table like a judge’s gavel. “Now that we’re all acquainted, let the walloping begin.”

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