Splintered Page 77

“I’m not going to be queen,” I grumble.

“Perhaps not forever, but you will be temporarily. It is the condition of Red’s Deathspeak. You must be crowned with the ruby tiara. Oh, and did I mention it’s the only way to free your mortal knight?” My chest constricts, the guilt overwhelming. Jeb.

“Take me to him. Now.” I start to stand, but my wings refuse to cooperate. My tired muscles prove no match for their weight, which is suddenly overwhelming. I plop down in resignation and groan. Morpheus clasps his hands in his lap. “You need a warm bath and some rest. As I said earlier, your pseudo elf is safe. How long he stays that way, however, depends entirely upon your performance tonight.”

“You can’t touch him!” The only things keeping me from tearing off those flashing jewels on his eye patches are my deadweight wings. “You made a vow you wouldn’t hurt him. A vow. If you break it, you’ll lose your wings, your dream manipulation . . . everything that makes you who you are.”

“True. Wouldn’t wish to lose my powers at such a precarious juncture.” Firelight blinks across his clothes in swathes of orange and purple, intensifying the gangster circus-freak image. “But there was a stipulation, was there not? That I wouldn’t hurt him as long as he stayed loyal to your worthy cause. Well, he proved himself an obstacle. He and I discussed your destiny a bit ago, and he has no desire to see you become queen. In fact, he became rather unmanageable at the suggestion.” Morpheus lifts the hair at his forehead, displaying a goose-egg-size bruise. “Imagine that . . . most men would leap at the chance to be in bed with royalty.”

“Shut up.” A sob catches in my windpipe.

Be tough, Alyssa Victoria Gardner. I can almost hear Jeb’s voice, can almost see the sincere faith in his green eyes. I’m not going to let him down again.

Patting the bear’s mustard-scented fur, I take a steadying breath. “You said I could just be queen temporarily. Explain.”

Morpheus relaxes, elbows on knees. “I want the vorpal sword to free my friends. But we need to crown you as queen to fulfill my Deathspeak. As luck would have it, King Red has the frumious bandersnatch guarding both sword and crown because his absentminded queen kept misplacing her bloody tiara. So for us to get them, you must subdue the creature.”

The jade chess piece with the wide, snapping mouth and spiked tail scrapes along my memory. It struck terror into my heart as a child, and that was just a plaything. Frumious. Anything that inspires its own adjectives is a force to be feared. “Wait. No. Since you have control of this castle and the cooperation of the card guards, why can’t you just force the king at swordpoint to get the items for us?”

“Grenadine is the only one who has the command the bandersnatch was trained to obey. It’s a word passed down from queen to queen. But in the confusion of our takeover, Grenadine lost the ribbon that held that secret.”

I bite my inner cheek, determined there has to be some way for us to skip this step. “Okay, but if Chessie’s smile can tame the beast, then we can just cut him out of the toy here and release Chessie into the bandersnatch’s lair. We can all wait out of danger until the bandersnatch is subdued.”

“Ideally, yes.” Morpheus drags the teddy bear out of my lap. Straining, he yanks the stitches apart. Before I can blink, the threads mend themselves, closing the gap. “You see?” he explains. “Because Sister Two’s toys harbor the residue of a child’s innocent love, the world’s most binding magic, the only tool that can permanently sever these stitches is—”

“The vorpal sword itself,” I mumble, rubbing the knot in my stomach. I take the teddy bear back and trace the pits where it once had eyes. “What happens if . . . after I tame the beast?”

“The White army has agreed to leave this castle upon the condition that the Red Court crowns a new queen and frees Ivory. Both courts will accept you as the rightful heir once you’ve fulfilled the final test and harnessed the power of the smile.” An arrogant smirk crosses his lips. “I suspect King Red originally penned that with a knack for diplomacy in mind. But this interpretation hits all the high points. No one can argue that.”

Apprehension snakes through me at the thought of standing before both courts. “So, I’ll get crowned. Then Jeb and I can leave?”

“Once you’re queen, you can force King Red and Grenadine to free Ivory. Wonderland will be in balance once more. Both portals will be open to you. And then”—Morpheus runs a finger along the bridge of his hat—“you may use your wish to cleanse your blood of netherling traits, which in turn will save your mum, and your children thereafter. The Red Court will appoint a new queen once you and your toy soldier return to the human realm.”

Something about that last step doesn’t sit right. First off, who else would they crown as queen? Second, how exactly would half of me—the netherling half—just disappear? Would I be wiped clean by some magical eraser?

Before I can air my reservations, Morpheus hits me with the only words that could cause me to forget everything else: “Would you like to see your mortal knight now?”

I’m at the edge of my seat, about to get up, but Morpheus kneels in front of me, ever the obstacle in my path.

“No need to stand, plum. You can see him from where you sit.” Next to my right leg, he shoves his hand between the chair’s cushion and frame. The nerve endings in my thigh sizzle. Eyes locked to mine, Morpheus drags out a small handheld mirror, its frame embossed with shimmery silver. He flips the glass side to me.

In some dank, dark place, Jeb bangs his head against prison bars. Blood trickles down into his face, and he totters backward, dazed.

My heart breaks in half—a pain so acute, it could launch a thousand wishes and fill a sea of tears. “Jeb, stop . . .”

“For reference”—Morpheus studies my reaction—“that is a birdcage. Our pseudo elf is the size of a sparrow. Upon word from me, the guards will feed him to Queen Grenadine’s notoriously hungry cat, Dinah.”

“No!” I skim my fingers over the cold glass and the image vanishes. I’m faced with only my reflection. The girl whose selfish desires brought Jeb into this journey to begin with. All because I wanted him to myself. But I never wanted this.

The sob I’ve been holding back rips loose. I was delusional to think I could sway this game to my favor. The checkmate’s already been played. Morpheus has won.

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