Splintered Page 80

Chessie still hasn’t emerged from his prison of stuffing. Tucking the bear into my bodice, I grab the cello bow and vorpal sword, then flap my wings and take to the air. I don’t even care how high I am. Hovering over the snarling mass of monster, I shout down at Morpheus, “Catch!” I balance the sword just over his raised hand and drop it.

With lightning reflexes, he snags the handle and slashes the blade in three sweeps, slicing the head off one tongue. The creature bellows and releases Morpheus, who joins me in midair. Below, our attacker slinks back to its pen, howling.

Hair a mess and clothes slimed and rumpled, Morpheus tucks the vorpal sword into his lapel and nods his gratitude. Together, we descend. My feet have barely touched ground when the teddy bear in my bodice jerks against me, dragging me toward the beast’s pen.

“Chessie’s trying to get to his other half!” Morpheus shouts.

It’s as if someone has caught me on a fishing line and is reeling me in. Morpheus tries to grab me, but it’s too late. I’m shuffled into the pen to face the bandersnatch. My knees start to give as he circles me, looming and snarling, his incapacitated tongue dragging on the floor and dripping green blood.

“Free the smile, Alyssa!” Morpheus swoops into the pen to distract the beast.

Shaking all over, I slide the toy from my bodice and drop it. An orange glow drifts up from the torn seam. The bandersnatch softens its growls, mesmerized by the light.

Cello bow clenched in my hand, I wait and wonder . . .

The orange glow grows from the size and shape of a penny to that of a football. Emerald green eyes with slitted pupils appear, and a bulbous nose follows in the center. Lastly, a smile bursts into view—glaring white like Nurse Poppins’s at the asylum—with whiskers stretched above either side.

Another orange light answers from inside the bandersnatch’s stomach. It illuminates the creature’s undigested victims. The silhouettes of winged beings, big and small, flutter inside like a morbid baby mobile, casting shadows on the wall of his gut.

The beast holds his head low in silence, somehow aware of the change going on inside him. Chessie’s orange head flips around to face me and morphs into an hourglass shape, whiskers stretching vertically over his teeth to form bow strings.

A cello . . .

“Be the bridge,” Morpheus instructs me. “Subdue the beast.”

I reach up for the floating orange instrument and coax it down. Leaning against a wall, I drag the bow over the whiskers, choosing a simple song we used to play in band to warm up. But it’s not my notes that come out of the smile. Chessie’s voice sings a melody, melancholy and contagious, and soon I find myself humming as I continue to accompany him—though I’ve never heard the tune.

The bandersnatch’s eyes grow heavy. His legs bend, no longer able to hold his weight. With a loud, sloughing sound, he rolls onto his side, snoring. The light inside his stomach ascends through his esophagus, leaving the fluttering silhouettes to their prison.

Morpheus lands on the ground and drapes an arm around me. Still asleep, the bandersnatch hiccups, releasing the glowing orange bubble. My “cello” breaks free to unite with its other half, and when the bubble bursts, Chessie is in one piece, hovering in midair. He shifts into a tiny creature with orange and gray stripes—more a mix between a raccoon and a hummingbird than a cat. The smile on his face widens as he winks at me, nods to Morpheus, then vanishes with one swish of a striped furry tail.

My legs are weak, and my body is numb all over. Morpheus escorts me out of the sleeping bandersnatch’s pen, shutting and bolting the gate to hold the chained creature within. “After such a battle with magic, he should sleep until morning, I would think.”

The surviving guards and knights applaud.

Morpheus turns to them, one arm supporting my waist. “See to your wounded. Leave the dead for now. I shall ready Alyssa and the crown. Gather the courts and witnesses in the throne room. We will have the coronation shortly.”

The able-bodied drag away the injured and close the door, leaving us in the domed room with their dead. I can’t look at the bodies, sickened that they had to die for me.

Sensing my frayed emotions, Morpheus opens his arms. Without hesitation, I turn into his embrace and hug him in the moonlight. The vorpal sword’s handle presses against my ribs under his jacket, and I battle the temptation to slide it out and cut his throat. But I can’t. Not after what he did.

“You jumped in front of me,” I whisper. “You could’ve died.”

“You saved me back. So we’re even.” He says the last word in his most humble voice, just like when I used to beat him at games when we were little.

I clench his jacket and pull him hard against me, nose buried in his chest. I don’t know how to put into words what I’m feeling. Fury for what he’s done to Jeb and me all twisted and gnarled around the affection my child-self harbors for him. Except I’m no longer convinced it’s just the child in me who’s attached.

“I hate you,” I say, the sentiment muffled against his heart, hoping to make it true.

“And I love you,” he answers without hesitation, voice resolved and raw as he holds me tighter so I can’t break away and react. “A crossroads, my beautiful princess, that was unavoidable—given our situations.”

That cuts me, and I don’t even know why. I’m adrift in confusion and disbelief over everything: our kiss, his confession, my standoff with the bandersnatch; most of all, that Jeb and I are about to go home.

Stretching to hold me at arm’s length, Morpheus stares at my face, silent.

“So, now you crown me,” I venture, needing to break the intense magnetism between us. “And I’m done.”

He glances down at his shoes. “Yes. Then you’re done.” Without another word, he lights several torches along the wall, brightening the room. Then he retrieves his hat and settles it into place on his head.

His clothes are in a shambles, just like mine. I cast a glance at the sleeping bandersnatch locked inside the pen. Why did Morpheus have me wear my coronation dress to something that would leave it crumpled and ruined? A niggling of suspicion is reborn as he returns with the ruby crown in hand.

“If you like,” he says, “I could crown you here and now—privately. No more performances. This can all be over in a matter of minutes.”

His words shoot down my suspicions. He doesn’t sound very convincing, but I like the part about doing this without all of Wonderland watching. “Yes.”

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