Splintered Page 52

Gossamer launches from Morpheus’s shoulder and leaves the room with the other sprites as mass confusion erupts. All the guests leap to their feet, mallets in hand, to chase the jingling duck around the table.

He’s surprisingly agile and bobs out of the way, maneuvering among serving platters, dishes, and silverware.

“What are you doing?” I ask Morpheus. “I’ve never seen anything so savage!”

“‘Savage’?” The green pig snorts an answer for him. “You act as if we’re a bunch of animals.” His peppercorn teeth form a sneer.

“Stop thinking with your head, Alyssa.” Morpheus leans low across the table, his blue hair swinging forward at his shoulders. “Think with this, instead.” He taps a finger above my naval. It’s a good thing Jeb can’t see from his angle, or he’d break Morpheus’s hand off.

“My stomach?” I barely breathe the question.

“Your gut. Instinct. The deepest part of you knows that this”—he motions to the chaos around us—“is how it should be. That same part of you that prompted you to look for me and step through the mirror. The same part that gave you the power to animate your mosaic at home.”

His words send me back to that moment in my hallway when the crickets’ dead legs kicked and the glass beads glowed. Is he saying my curse-magic caused that, too?

“You understand the logic behind the illogical, Alyssa. It’s in your nature to find tranquility amid the madness. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re giving our food a fighting chance.” He winks at me. “Now, if you’ll pardon us, my comrade and I have some bartering to do.” He and the pig leave the table. Morpheus bends down to keep their heads together as they stroll to the far wall.

“Twinkle!” the white ferret shouts. He scrambles onto the table with spoon in hand, only to get toppled by the roasted duck. I catch my furry companion before he falls headfirst off the edge. His spoon jangles to the floor beside his helmet. With his cap gone, his bald scalp is revealed—the skin so thin, his brain shows through. He doesn’t even have a skull.

He snuggles in my lap. “Datum. Datum very much, angel light!” Beady pink eyes study me, soft with morbid adoration. I’m so captivated by the strangeness of the creature, I don’t realize a mob is coming our way, flailing their mallets in a chaotic rush for the prize.

Jeb jerks my chair from the table to save me from getting pounded while the ferret holds on to my tunic for dear life. Then Jeb sidesteps to the corner diagonally across from me, maintaining our distance. His expression strains with the effort not to make eye contact.

“Ye know the rulessss!” a serpentine wolf hisses in midpummel, just missing the duck as it hurtles across a dinner plate. “Firsssst to ring hissss bell getssss to carve!”

A bloodcurdling howl breaks the chaos as someone rips off one of the duck’s legs. It drags itself free while several of the pursuers gnaw on the ripped drumstick.

The duck climbs atop a hovering wine bottle and takes to the air, all the while giggling deliriously. He taunts the others to catch him by tearing off and dropping pieces of his flesh.

He wants to be eaten.

A sick twinge spasms in my belly, tempting me to join in, teasing me with the thrill of the chase. My legs twitch in their desire to jump up. I suppress the impulse.

Any creatures capable of flight follow with mallets in hand, floating over everyone else. The grounded ones scuttle to the tabletop or rush along the floor, tumbling over dishes and chairs in hopes someone will knock the main course down to their level.

I cover my mouth to keep from screaming or laughing hysterically. It could go either way at this point. I’m beginning to enjoy the madness.

That’s not good. Not at all.

My new ferret friend pats my fingers, his tiny pink pads soft against my skin.

“Hale be angel light,” his flutelike voice soothes. “Hale and agreeable. Sort and sing. Be royal smiles for me.” He grins, his sharp teeth glimmering beneath the chandelier’s glow. His canines are as long as a rattlesnake’s fangs.

My instinct stirs, and I do what Morpheus suggested—I follow it. I tickle the creature’s left ear like I would a puppy’s. He purrs in response.

I shut out everything—the pursuit of dinner, the crazy hoots and laughter from the animated guests, the affectionate, furry creature in my lap—as I watch Morpheus pass the fan and gloves to the pig.

In exchange, the pig slips Morpheus a small white bag tied with a black ribbon. Then the pig snatches up his mallet and waddles off to join the festivities, which have moved to the kitchen. The clang of pots and pans in the other room echoes loudly in the sudden hush of the abandoned dining hall.

I startle as the ferret grasps both sides of my face. “Dust-sweet, angel light.” He licks my chin with his cold, forked tongue, then drops to the floor, snagging his spoon and helmet. “Twinkle. Gust and begone!” With that, he returns his helmet to his head and runs into the kitchen.

Once he disappears, only Jeb, Morpheus, and I remain in the room. Free of prying eyes, I look at Jeb from my seat and he stares back from against the wall, neither of us moving.

A strange pressure starts to penetrate my chin where the ferret’s snaky tongue left a wet mark. It worms into my skin and winds into my mouth, both warm and cold at once. I swallow the taste of it—bitter yet sweet, like a confection made of tears.

The sensation doesn’t stop there. It flows into my throat, then my chest, pinching with a deep, profound sadness. At first, I hurt for myself and Jeb, for how there’s still so much between us to work out. Then I hurt for Alison and Dad and their lost years together. I hurt for Queen Red and her broken heart, and for Ivory, who’s always suffered in solitude, now locked alone in the prison hatbox. The sadness escalates, as if all the grief of the world converges in one spot, just above my heart. I ache to cry . . . ache so much, it takes my breath away.

Jeb rushes to me, crouching at my feet. “Al, it’s all right. It’s over.” He feels my forehead. “You’re so cold. Say something, please.”

I can’t respond for fear I’ll start to weep uncontrollably.

“She’s turning blue!” Jeb shouts at Morpheus. “That ferret freak did something to her!”

“Tut. Don’t get yourself worked into a snit, pseudo-elf.” Morpheus tosses his hat onto a chair and joins us. He bends over me. Jeb reluctantly inches aside to give him space.

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