Splintered Page 71

“She’s of no consequence to you.” Sister One slides her grasp to my wrist, whipping around turns through the maze with such speed, I can barely keep up. “The queen’s always been trouble. I’m glad to be done with her. My sister is responsible now. She’ll capture the restless soul and contain her—permanently.”

The wails and laments from Sister Two’s lair fade with the distance. “Why are there so many unhappy souls in Wonderland?” I ask. “Some had unfinished business or lost loves. But the unhappiest died imprisoned by the curse of their name being spoken.” “But I’ve said Morpheus’s name many times.”

She laughs, and it sounds like the warble of a songbird. “Morpheus is not his true name. He is glory and deprecation—sunlight and shadows—the scuttle of a scorpion and the melody of a nightingale. The breath of the sea and the cannonade of a storm. Can you relay birdsong, or the sound of wind, or the scurry of a creature across the sand? For the proper names of netherlings are made up of the life forces defining them. Can you speak these things with your tongue?”

A blur of green hedges rushes by. I pump my legs to keep up. My feet, which had been washed clean by the snow, gather more grass stains by the minute. “Can anyone?” I ask.

“Only a netherling at the end of his or her life can speak the language necessary. It must be spoken upon a dying breath.” “Language . . .” The description on the back of Alice’s lab report. “Deathspeak,” I whisper, unbalanced and confused.

“Aye, it is a volatile thing,” Sister One answers. “The victim utters Deathspeak along with a challenge that the one who wronged her must meet. Any netherling who dies under the Deathspeak curse, unable to meet the challenge, is left as a broken spirit, eternally unhappy and seeking escape. Until Sister Two puts a stop to it.” I cringe, thinking of how close I came to being stuck inside one of her toys. “How can an empty plaything hold a spirit? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Contrariwise. It makes the rightest sense of all. Only toys from the human realm be chosen, and only the most beloved of the lot. Those accustomed to being filled with hopes and dreams and all the affections their children pour into them. For that is the essence of a soul. Hopes and dreams and love. When the most cherished toys are abandoned in junkyards and trash heaps, they become deprived of those things that once filled and warmed them. They become lonely and greedy and crave the essence of the life they once had. So we send our pixie slaves through the portals to carry the toys down for us, and my sister fills them with what they want most—souls. Like thirsty sponges, they hold on to them with every portion of their strength and will.”

Straitjackets for spirits. So disturbed by the image, I don’t utter another word until we come upon a small house surrounded by hedges and ivy on all sides. It appears to be made of leaves. “Come in, warm your toes, and eat,” Sister One insists. “Then I’ll give you what you came for and send you on your way.” “I’m in a rush.” I have a headache from all the confusion. Food might help but not the kind they serve in Wonderland. “You will have tea first, at the very least.”

How can I argue? She has a looking glass hidden somewhere, and a key around her neck. Until she’s ready to send me through the portal, I’m her hostage.

Inside, there’s only one room—furnished like a kitchen except everything is upholstered in cushiony fabric, even the appliances. A puffy white sink, table, and chairs, and a fluffy stove of the same hue, all arranged on a plush white floor that’s springy and warm beneath my wet feet, like a marshmallow. There’s a tall pantry with stuffed velvet doors, also white. Along all four pillowed walls are circular windows with milky curtains. Odd to have windows when there’s nothing to look out at but leaves.

The sterility of the room reminds me so much of a padded cell, I want to run away again. But I can’t miss the chance to use Sister One’s portal and find Jeb.

The most vivid splash of color in the room is a bowl of bright red apples on the table alongside a silver and red chessboard. “Are you waiting for tea, too?” Sister One asks, directing her query to a large egg-shaped creature sitting in a chair. I jump when he moves. He blends into the background so well, I would’ve missed him if not for his yolk-yellow eyes, red nose, and wide mouth. A band of fabric wraps around his widest end, under his mouth, and just above spindly arms and legs that are hinged and green like a praying mantis’s appendages. Two triangular flaps of blue gingham serve as a makeshift collar. An orange scrap of linen takes up the space where a necktie might’ve been.

“It is hardly clever to ask if one is waiting for tea,” he says, “when he’s sitting at a table set with teacups and sporting a napkin tucked within his collar.” His mouth takes on a sour slant as he polishes a spoon with his napkin’s corner.

Humpty Dumpty? This whole thing keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Draping my wings over the back of a chair, I drop into the seat opposite the egg-man, mesmerized by the hairline fractures across his pearly shell.

He averts his eyes. “Some people have no business attending a dignified tea. Gawking as if I belong in a zoo, when they’re the ones who have all the manners and fashion sense of a monkey.” “Sorry.” I smooth my ragged clothes and reach for an apple the size of a plum. I’m starving but still nervous about the food. “What will this do? Make me invisible? Or maybe make me sprout a stem and some leaves?”

“Ungrateful little twit.” The egg-man scowls at me. “Looking a gift spider in the fangs. See if you’re invited to tea again.” Sister One smiles. “I do not play games with my food . . . unless it’s wrapped within my web,” she says.

I cringe at what I hope is her attempt at a joke, then bite into the crisp fruit and chew while glancing down at my grass-stained feet.

It’s only a matter of seconds before my gaze creeps upward again. I can’t resist. “So, you’re Humpty, right?”

“Humphrey.” He sneers. “Youth these days. Can’t even manage a proper introduction.”

I take another nibble of fruit, encouraged that it tastes like the apples in my world. “Your shell. Did you fall from the—” “Wall?” Humphrey snaps the ending to my question. “No, actually. That was the first time. I tripped over Chessie’s rolling head the second. Kind Queen Grenadine glued me together again, when all the king’s horses and men failed. And if there be any other questions on the subject, I would bid you ask them with a mouth less filled with apple.”

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