Splintered Page 53

Morpheus lifts my chin and tilts my face from side to side, like a physician conducting a checkup. “You are fortunate he liked you, little plum. The Mustela netherlings are notorious for their tempers, and they have the venom of a thousand asps in one snap of their canines. Their heads are soft and vulnerable. Had you touched him anywhere but his ears, he would’ve taken it as a threat. You would be writhing on the floor right now, choking on your last, excruciating breath.”

I try to speak but can’t. The sadness grows steadily stronger. Each beat of my heart sucks against my rib cage like a leech. I want to slide to the floor, curl into a ball, and cry forever. But I’m frozen in place.

“You sat her next to that deadly thing on purpose, didn’t you?” Jeb asks, though it’s more of a shout. “To punish her for kissing me! You sick son of a—” He attacks Morpheus, spinning him into his wings and slamming his back onto the tabletop. Plates and utensils shake at the impact. Forearm pressed across our host’s larynx, Jeb holds him down. “Fix. Her. Now.”

“There’s nothing to fix. He gave her a gift.” Morpheus grunts as Jeb’s arm grinds into his throat. He tries to break free, but Jeb has him wrapped so tightly in his wings, he can’t move. “If you’ll let me up”—he grits out the words—“I shall show you.”

Snarling, Jeb pulls away and kneels beside me again, taking my limp hand. He curls each of my fingers through his. “C’mon, skater girl. Stay with me, okay? Whatever’s going on inside your head, don’t let it win.”

The worry pinching his features piles onto my already weighted chest and suffocates me. He needs me to answer him. But if I open my mouth to respond, I’ll wail like a banshee until I’m an empty husk.

“Give me some room.” Morpheus crouches down and Jeb eases back while keeping our fingers laced. Morpheus holds a cloth napkin close to my face. “Let it out, luv. I know it feels like a dam will burst, but I assure you, one tear, and you’ll be right as raindrops.”

It isn’t possible. One tear will never be enough. I double over. A keening cry erupts from my throat, so deep it strains my vocal cords and hollows my abdomen. The cry ends in a sob. And then one single tear streams down my left cheek.

Just like that, I’m myself again. I squeeze Jeb’s hand.

Morpheus ties the napkin around what looks like a clear glass marble, though it’s soft and pliant like a bath oil bead. “This is yours.”

“That’s my tear?” I ask.

“It’s a wish. Your new little friend has the gift of invocation. They only give out one in their lifetime, and he chose you. I shall keep it safe for now. You’re not quite ready to wield this much power.” Tucking the napkin into his jacket, our host starts to stand, but Jeb grabs his elbow and stalls him on one knee.

“No way. You give it to her now. Give it to her, and she can use it to wish us both home.”

Morpheus pulls free. “And leave the curse unbroken? Besides, I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple. For this can only be used for her and her alone. She must be the subject of the wish, for she’s the one who cried it. No one else can ride its power. So it cannot carry you home, as well. If you’re both to get back, the portals are your only chance.”

Jeb and I exchange frowns.

“I’ll wish for more wishes,” I offer.

Morpheus laughs. “Oh, of course you would. Just like Alice did. She asked for an endless supply of wishes. Then her tears wouldn’t stop falling. That’s how the ocean was born in the first place. We almost never got that fountain stopped. If you try to outsmart magic, there’s always a price to be paid.” Morpheus pushes to his feet.

I catch his wrist. “You had me sitting next to him for a reason. You wanted me to get this wish. Why?”

Silent, he loosens the cravat tied around his neck in a relaxed gesture while holding my gaze. The left side of his mouth tweaks into a half smile.

“Hey . . .” Jeb raises our joined hands and presses his thumb against my sternum to get my attention. My heart beats against the pressure, remembering his caresses in the mirrored hall. “You were turning blue, Al. That same ferret-snake could’ve just as easily killed you. This creep took a chance with your life purely for his entertainment. He didn’t have any noble motives.”

“The Mustela netherlings are exceptional judges of character,” Morpheus intones. “I knew Alyssa would rise to the occasion. I’ve complete faith that she can fend for herself. You, on the other hand, can’t seem to grasp that concept.”

Jeb helps me up from the chair and pulls me in for a hug. It feels good to be in his arms, even if I’m unsure of his motives.

Our host settles his hat into place. “Bless me that I didn’t eat; elsewise, I’d be qualmish at such a nauseating display.”

Jeb kisses my forehead to spite Morpheus. I pull back, because I’d rather he kiss me for myself.

“The pig.” I offer up a change of conversation; I’m in no mood to play referee to any more of their wrestling matches.

“Yes,” Morpheus answers without breaking his scowling match with Jeb. “The pig is in fact a hobgoblin, born to the duchess.”

Bits and pieces of Lewis Carroll’s story drop into place. Someone was making soup for the duchess with lots of spices. That’s why the fan and gloves smelled like pepper. And she had a baby that became a pig. “So, what did he give you in exchange for the gloves and fan?”

Morpheus holds up the small white bag. “The key for waking Herman Hattington at the tea party—free of charge.” He hands it to me, and Jeb starts to work at the ribbon.

Morpheus’s thumb flattens on the bow. “You don’t want to do that. It is the most potent and priceless black pepper this side of the nether-realm. And you’ve only enough for one dose.”

Jeb’s forehead wrinkles. “Black pepper. What kind of subpar magic is that?”

Before Morpheus can answer, a horde of sprites floods the dining hall, fluttering in from the main door.

“Master, we have company,” Gossamer cries. “Bad company!” “Go,” Morpheus says to Jeb, bending down to grab a mallet.

Jeb tucks the bag of pepper into his pocket, then takes my hand. We’ve only taken two steps toward the secret exit when a deck of cards—each one complete with six sticklike legs and arms—marches through the main door. The card guards keep pouring in until the walls are lined with them.

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