Splintered Page 37

“Taught you things, rather. Oh, but we made time for recreation as well. I shall have to see that we continue that tradition.” Morpheus hands off his hookah to some sprites with his pale, elegant fingers. I close my eyes, remembering glimpses of us as children, leaping across rocks as Morpheus took flight and lifted me under my arms— a gentle security. When my eyes open again, I blush, remembering how different his touch felt in my bedroom last night. He stands up on the mushroom, wings draped in a flowing arch behind him as he steeples his hands beneath his chin.

“Hospitality Hat!” he shouts, completely off topic.

Several of his attendants flutter over with a black velvet cowboy hat and place it on his head. He tilts it cockeyed. The velvet is accented with a band of decomposing white moths, making him appear both suave and savage.

“She had no right to interfere.” He runs a long forefinger across the hat’s brim. Lengthy wisps of blue hair touch his shoulders. “It wasn’t her place.”

It takes me a minute to realize he’s on the subject of Alison again. “You knew her?”

“Yes. Of all the other candidates, of all of your ancestors, her mind was the most receptive to me. We connected when she heard the nether-call at age thirteen. But she turned her back on her responsibility the moment she met Tommy-toes.” He sneers at my father’s nickname. Then he composes himself, smoothing his jacket. “Never mind all that. I see you wore the gloves. Did you bring the fan, as well?”

“Along with everything else she had stashed away.”

“And she thought her buried treasures would keep you from coming. Too bad the words in the margins were indecipherable, aye? Perhaps she should’ve kept her mouth shut and played with her carnations.”

Carnations? Indecipherable words? Understanding creeps over me. “It was you. You smeared her notes so I couldn’t read them. And at the asylum . . . you’re the one who almost killed her!”

“I admit to nothing. Other than that she was out of control. She needed to calm down for her own safety.”

“Of course she was out of control! You messed with her mind half her life!” I clench my jaw. “It’s your fault she’s in that place.”

Morpheus spreads his satiny wings—a move that blocks the glowing sprites from my view and casts me into shadow. “You have yourself to thank for that. She was handling things fine until you came along. Just ask your father. She never talked back to the bugs and plants before you were born. At least, not in front of anyone.”

“No,” I whisper.

“Don’t listen to him, Al.” Jeb tries to comfort me. “Your mom loves you.”

Morpheus raises his palms over his head and applauds. “Bravo, Gentleman Knight. Did you all see that?” The sprites join the false praise, bouncing around the mushroom, all except Gossamer, who sits on the hookah, observing in dignified silence.

“True nobility,” Morpheus continues, strutting atop the mushroom. “Bound and incapacitated, yet his only thought is for the maiden’s tender sensibilities. And I must admit, he’s right.” The sprites silence their mock accolades, confused. With one flap of his wings, Morpheus glides down and lands gracefully in front of me— looming and beautiful. “Your mum does love you. Very, very much.”

My legs quiver, but I lift my gaze to his, disdain burning behind my eyes.

“Stay away from her.” Jeb thrusts a fist through the net and grazes our host’s leg.

Morpheus sidesteps him. “Ah, ah, ah.” He coaxes the smoke to merge so the net disappears, leaving Jeb’s wrists, ankles, and neck in manacles attached to the mushroom’s base. “If you’re to behave like a trained monkey, you shall be treated as one.”

“Jerk!” I lunge with an open palm, but Morpheus catches my wrist in midair. The impact rattles my bones and shakes my bruises.

“There’s that fire.” Morpheus cocks his head, the expression on his face somewhere between amused and impressed. “Nice to see it still burns.”

“Hands off, you son of a bug!” Jeb struggles against the smoky cuffs, face turning red as he growls with the effort to get to us.

Chuckling, our captor bends low over me, keeping hold of my wrist. “Oh, I do like him,” he murmurs. “Such a wordsmith.” He’s so close that his smoke-tinged breath seeps inside me—sweet as honey and binding as spider’s silk—a comfort from my childhood. “As for you . . . is that any way to treat an old friend? After all we shared? Tsk-tsk.”

I’m tempted to lean closer, to seek more of the seductive sensations. But the desire is not mine. He’s manipulating me somehow. He has to be.

I thrash against him. His fingernails dig into my glove, making my wrist throb.

Black eyes glitter, frigid and harsh, behind his mask. “Stop fighting and listen. Your mum didn’t have to turn her back on me. She didn’t have to go to the loon-house to protect you.”

“Wait.” An alarm goes off inside me. “You’re saying she chose to go there?”

“All she needed was a few miles of distance between you. She could’ve arranged a divorce, moved to the other side of town, given your father full custody. But she loved you both too intensely to hurt you like that. She wanted to be a part of your lives . . . yet still keep you safe. So she sacrificed her life. That is the purest of loves.”

“You’re lying.” My accusation comes out on a wisp of air.

“Am I? You’re the only one I’ve ever reached quite so young. You and your mum had a bond, stronger than any I’d ever encountered. I was able to use her dreams as a conduit into yours. When she realized what I was doing, she went mad. But that was only temporary insanity. Let there be no doubt—the Alice costume, the tea party obsession, the tongue clucks, talking aloud to the bugs and flowers—every tic she developed was orchestrated by her, so she would be kept away from you. Out of respect for her sacrifice, I vowed not to approach you myself again.”

“You broke your word, then,” I whisper.

“No. There was a loophole, you see.” The knuckles on his free hand graze my temple. His touch is warm and delicate. “You found me. Since you were the one to seek me out first, you released me of the bonds of the promise. Clever, clever girl. Now you’re here to set things straight, aren’t you, little plum? To fix what Alice put wrong. Make Wonderland right again, and you’ll break the curse that’s on your family name. The talking bugs and flowers . . . the ties to this realm. You will no longer be under their spell. At last, your mum can stop pretending to be a raving lunatic, because I’ll have no more need for any of your lineage.”

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