Splintered Page 62

“Even though she hoped with all her heart you would never come here, she still prepared you, just the same. And thus far, you’ve proven yourself gloriously capable. How proud she would’ve been of your antics upon the table earlier.”

A blush creeps hotly into my cheeks. Did he see my dance? Or maybe he’s referring to my barbaric race to eat the Door Mouse. Either possibility is equally unsettling. “You were watching?”

“By the by . . .” He glances at Jeb’s back and leans closer, murmuring low. “Tumtum juice alters a person’s inhibitions, magnifies their hunger. But it’s not hunger for food. It’s experiences they crave. Had it been me instead of your toy soldier, I would’ve found a means to slake your ravenous hunger without resorting to berries.”

His arrogance simmers my blood. “You don’t have the equipment to satisfy anything. Moth. Remember?”

He laughs, dark and soft, under his breath. “I am a man in every way that counts. Just like you are a woman, even if some people believe you’re nothing more than a scared little girl in constant need of saving.”

I ignore the barb. “Of course. You’re an expert on women.” Ivory’s lovesick ogling from behind the glass plane bobs to the surface of my thoughts. That strange, possessive pang follows, but I suppress it.

“Do I sense jealousy?”

“As if.”

He smiles, dragging a wing over his shoulder to preen it. “I’ve been in this form for some time. I had to get some practice in. But only one lady is my equal in every way. Intellectually, physically, magically.”

“It’s all about her, isn’t it?” My envy is almost palpable. “You’d endanger anyone to have her in your arms.”

“Absolutely, I would.”

“I hate you.”

“Only because of the way I make you feel.”

My fingernails eat into my palms. “Only because you bring out the worst in me.”

“Oh no, luv. I bring out the life in you.” His intense gaze pulls me in. The lullaby trills through my blood, carrying my pulse on its rhythm: “Little blossom in peach and gray, grew up strong and found your way; two things more yet to be seen, until at last you’ll . . .”

The ending to his verse—that final puzzle piece—still drifts just out of my reach. I squeeze my temples to shake him from my head. My fingertip grazes my hairpin, and it pinches. “Just stop it!” I snap at him. “Where is the cemetery?”

Gossamer comes back to light on Morpheus’s shoulder as he points down. “After the abyss . . . just there.”

He indicates a drop in the chessboard sands at the edge of the dune, not too far from where Jeb’s standing. It’s hard to make out from here, but it appears to be a fissure in the earth.

“There’s an abyss?” I ask, more doubtful by the second.

“It separates the desert from the valley—a bit too wide for a mortal to leap across. The cemetery is on the other side. It’s cloaked in a thicket of vines and ivy that protects the spirits from sunlight.”

My courage does an about-face at the thought of trudging through some dark thicket filled with ghosts—netherling or otherwise—but I rein in my fears. Jeb will be there; I won’t be alone. “Unless you can find a way across the chasm,” Morpheus continues, “you will have to hike on foot. Take the upper ridge that winds around it.”

The ridge’s sands seem to stretch on forever. If we go around, it could take a day. Maybe two. We don’t have that kind of time if we’re going to stop Alison’s treatments.

I’m about to object when the Door Mouse shouts out: “Jubjub birds!”

Gossamer tunnels into Morpheus’s hair as he flaps his wings hard, taking to the sky. The back draft rushes through me on a licorice-scented gust. The tea party crew scrambles into the hare’s cottage and slams the door shut. Puffs of black-and-white dust rise in the distance.

The dust clouds clear to reveal an army of card guards riding birds. Huge ones, built like ostriches with peacock tails and the heads and wings of giant grasshoppers. Although the birds can’t seem to fly, their long legs cover the distance between us with ease. It’s like a swarm of mutant grasshoppers coming to devour us. I’ll never kill another bug as long as I live . . .

Heart striking my ribs like a gong, I yell up at Morpheus, “Help us!”

“Beware the shifting sands,” he shouts back. “Use the flute if you need to gain ground. Assuming you make it to the valley, head straight for the cemetery gate. The army won’t follow you within.” He swoops away in the opposite direction of our attackers. Gone. Just like that.

Assuming we make it? I’m so outraged, my eyes burn. “You swore you wouldn’t leave me again! Your wings are going to shrivel up, you coward!” I scream.

But you aren’t hurt . . . yet.

It’s his voice, though I’m not sure if it’s from my memory or if he’s still in my head. Either way, I’d forgotten about the stipulation to his life-magic vow. He’s the master of technicalities.

A hammering shatters the air. I turn to see Jeb pounding the wooden tea wagon against the tree trunk. Before it even registers what he’s doing, he’s separated two of the shelves from the frame. He pushes his bangs out of his face and flips the boards over to study the bottoms. They’re smooth and seamless with a slight upward curve on the ends.

He holds one out to me. “Let’s go!”

I take the piece of wood, confused.

Jeb shoulders the backpack, sprints to the edge of the dune a few feet away, and places his shelf on the ground at the border where the sandy slope begins. With one shoe on the wood to tilt it downward, he turns to me. “Now, skater girl!”

I run to him, arms trembling as I settle my board into place. He expects us to ride down on the boards—like sand surfing. But doesn’t he see the chasm between the desert and the valley?

The end of the slope slants upward, like a launch ramp. He can’t possibly expect us to . . .

“Today you master an ollie,” Jeb says, finishing my thought.

My pulse drums in my neck. “No way.”

“No choice.” He reaches out his hand. “If we start to fall, use your magic trick. Make the boards float across the chasm.”

“What if I can’t? I broke the curse, fixed all of Alice’s mistakes. Maybe I’m me again.”

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