Splintered Page 54

On closer examination, these guards have bugs’ faces with trembling antennae, and their paper-thin torsos are actually flattened shells, jagged at the edges and painted red and black to resemble suits of cards. With their oddly jointed limbs and piercing mouthparts crisscrossed at their mandibles, they look more like insects than cardboard.

All these years I’ve been killing bugs, and now karma’s here to make me pay, in spades.

The bugs separate into suits: five hearts and five clubs on one side, five spades and five diamonds on the other, with Rabid White in their center. The sprites, tiny and helpless, look down on the situation from where they’re gathered around the chandelier.

A red waistcoat and matching gloves hang off Rabid’s short, skeletal frame. One hand holds a trumpet and the other a rolled-up scroll. He tilts his antlered head to blow three loud blasts from the instrument. Then, with a flick of his wrist and a rattle of bones, he throws open the parchment.

“Alyssa Gardner of the human court is hereby beckoned to the presence of Queen Grenadine of the Red Court.” His glittery pink eyes turn up, locking on me. A shock of terror races through me.

Both Jeb and Morpheus shove me behind them. So much for fending for myself . . .

“She’s going nowhere with you, Rabid.” Morpheus raises his mallet.

“Otherwise, Queen Grenadine says.” Froth slathers around Rabid’s mouth, and his eyes glow like lit coals, red with fire. “Otherwise, her army commands.”

On his signal, the cards against the wall shuffle together and leap toward us, as if dealt by an invisible hand.

The sprites drop from above, trying to run interference. Morpheus spreads his wings wide to block me and Jeb from the attack. Spears hit his wings, stretching them but not breaking through. My palms flatten against Morpheus’s back, absorbing the shock as his muscles strain with every swing of his mallet. His grunts drown out the clatter of guards hitting the floor.

“Get her out of here!” he shouts over his shoulder as he backs us toward the secret exit to the mirrored room, still using his wings as a barrier.

Jeb grips my elbow and drags me over the threshold.

“No!” I wrestle against him. “We can’t just leave him to fight alone. There are too many!”

Gritting his teeth, Jeb scoops me up over his shoulder. “He’s handling them. And you’re all that matters.” His arm locks around my thighs, my head and torso hanging upside down across his back. The winding black marble stairway bounces by beneath us, and blood races to my head.

I squeeze my eyes closed, listening to the battle in the dining hall grow farther and farther away.

The memory of how Morpheus and I played in our childhood, of the way he healed my bruises today, the sound of his beautiful lullaby—all of it boils over in a confusing brew of emotion. I think of the wish tucked within his jacket . . . the wish he wanted me to have for some reason. If I had it now, I’d wish to be in the dining hall, helping Morpheus fight.

I’m just about to make an escape attempt when I hear the sound of pots and pans clanging.

“Twinkle! Twinkle them all!”

Next there’s a rush of screeches and roars—the same bestial voices I heard at the feast. The beasts have returned from their chase, and Morpheus is no longer alone in his fight.

Jeb and I slip through the secret passageway leading up another flight of stairs. Soon, we’re far enough away that the only sound is his boots pounding the mirrored floor.

“You can put me down now,” I grump.

“I don’t know. It’s a lot easier to save your ass when I have it riding on my shoulder.”

“You don’t need to save me.”

Jeb barks a sarcastic laugh. “I don’t have much choice when you keep running headfirst into risky situations for this crusade of yours. Now you’ve gone and dropped us smack into the middle of a magical war.”

I pound him. Right between the shoulder blades.

“Hey . . .” He eases my feet to the floor so we’re facing each other and rubs his back. In spite of his frown, he looks impressed.

My knuckles are throbbing. The guy could put a boulder to shame. “I already feel bad enough for bringing you into this. Okay? If I had it to do over, you wouldn’t be here at all.” I shake out my fingers. Gossamer hasn’t come yet to open the mirror portal, and an urgency to get to the tea party jitters through me.

Jeb lifts my aching knuckles and presses his lips across them. “I’d still want to be here with you, even if we had do-overs. But if we’re going to make it out of this, you need to stop taking moth man at his word like he’s some kind of saint.”

“His name is Morpheus.” My throat clenches as I’m reminded of what’s happening some three flights down. “Do you think he’s losing in there? You think they’ll hurt him?”

“Why are you so worried about him?”

“I grew up with him. I care.”

“That makes no sense. It was in your dreams. Your friendship wasn’t real.”

“It feels real. Because he believes in me. He lets me take chances and learn from them. That’s something a friend does.” Clenching my jaw, I glare at Jeb.

His features darken, as if a shadow falls across his face. “So, because the freak boosts your ego, you’re willing to overlook all his lies? He hasn’t told the truth about anything since we’ve arrived.”

“Then he fits in well with you, seeing as you’re both liars.” I hate the accusation in my voice but can’t seem to contain it. I break our handhold, noticing the bag on the table—the one containing the jabberlock box. “Why’s this still here?”

Frowning, Jeb steps up next to me as I unwrap the box. “Probably the safest place. You shouldn’t mess with it.”

“I want another look at the inscription.” I’d like another look at the queen, too. What is it about her that holds Morpheus so enthralled?

Jeb covers the lid with his palm. “You know, you can’t just call someone a liar and let it drop. Maybe I wasn’t honest about London. But you lied, too.”

The moth spirits skim by in my peripheral vision, as if riding my racing pulse. “Not about my feelings. You waited until we came down here to own up to your so-called crush on me. Back in the real world, where it counts, you chose Taelor.”

He forces me to face him, pushing the hatbox to the back of the table. “Where’s this coming from? Has that cockroach been swimming inside your brain again?”

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