Splintered Page 56

If I screw this up, I screw it up for everybody.

Jeb—still behind me—offers a napkin. I wipe my face and mumble, “Why didn’t you land at the other end of the table?”

“It was occupied.” Jeb turns me around.

I nearly choke at the sight of the tea party guests—Herman Hattington, March Hairless, and Door Mouse—all seated at the far corner and frozen solid beneath thick, glittering sheets of bluish gray ice.

“Mothra has a twisted definition of asleep,” Jeb says.

Morpheus has a twisted definition of everything. Shaking my head, I start toward them. As I step over the teapot’s spout, steam licks my calf, dampening my leggings. Hattington and his crew are suspended like glaciers, but the food looks fresh and the tea’s still hot.

“Where’s that pepper?” I hold out my hand. It’s awkward playing at teamwork. My family’s been in upheaval mode since I can remember, but at least over the last few years, I’ve had Jeb’s friendship to count on. Now it’s hanging by some weird emotional thread; I don’t know whether to believe him or Morpheus. It was easier to be mad up in the real world, when I knew for sure that he’d chosen Taelor.

Jeb digs the bag from his pocket. I loosen the ribbon while breathing through my mouth. I won’t chance inhaling any of it. Just the faded scent of the pepper on the fans and gloves was enough to make me almost sneeze.

Sneeze . . .

That must be what Morpheus intended with this little bag of spice.

“You’re not going to waste it on trying to make the hat guy sneeze, are you?” Jeb asks. “He’s an ice sculpture. There’s not even an opening where his nostrils should be. And there’s only enough pepper for one dose. We have to be sure.”

It’s uncanny how well he reads me at times, yet is so oblivious at others.

Tying the bag shut, I hand it back. He’s right. We’ll never be able to wake Hattington with pepper. He doesn’t even have a nose. I edge closer. He’s holding up a cup of steaming tea, as if he was in the middle of punctuating a point with it.

“Jeb, something’s not right with his face. It’s just a blank space of nothing.” The glittery, bluish gray void reflects my likeness, more unsettling than a stranger’s frozen snarl would be.

“Maybe the ice is so thick, it covers his features,” Jeb tries to reason.

“I don’t know. But check out that hat.” It could be a medieval torture device—part top hat/part cage—made of metal pins with a hinged flap at the crown that’s open like a lid. On second glance, the metal’s actually growing out of his head like bones. The cage pokes through holes in his flesh, just like the chess piece in Morpheus’s room.

“A conformateur,” Jeb says, his voice tense. “He’s got a conformateur sprouting out of his head.”

Most people wouldn’t know about a nineteenth-century tool used for customizing hats to fit specific head shapes, but Jenara has one in her room. Persephone ran across it at an estate sale once and, knowing Jen’s love for anything fashion related, bid low on it and just happened to win because no one there knew the value of the artifact.

The ribbed metal frame molds around a customer’s head where a hat brim would sit, and the pins conform to the ridges and bumps of the skull. An oval of cardboard is inserted into the hinged lid and pressed into place at the crown, causing the pins to punch holes in the shape of the head. It forms a pattern the hatmaker can use to custom-fit a hat to that individual.

Why this one is physically attached to Herman’s skull is beyond me, and I don’t even want to imagine how he uses it in his craft.

I force my attention from his reflective face and turn to the “hare,” who is twelve kinds of hideous. Mostly because he seems to be turned inside out—no fur, only gaunt flesh. It’s like looking at a skinned rabbit. But at least he has a face. His expression is demented, with a wild glint in his white eyes. A teacup balances atop a pastry on his plate. His paw is tucked into the cup from his wrist down, as if he’s dunking something.

Of the three guests, the mouse is the only one that looks normal. If a mouse wearing a doorman’s jacket could be considered normal.

“I don’t know how to solve this,” I say. “They’re all frozen, so how do we make them all sneeze with one dash of pepper?”

Jeb shakes his head. “Let’s look at the book.” He wades through place settings and steps from the table to an empty chair. Pushing aside a rickety, three-tiered tea wagon, he drops to the grass. “Come here,” he says, urging me to take his hand as he sits at the table and settles the backpack next to him.

I let him help me down but pull free the instant my feet hit the ground. Blotting the remaining berry juice off my face with a cloth napkin, I check my clothes to make sure they’re clean. “I’m hungry.” An understatement. I’m famished. And I can’t remember the last time I ate something.

“Well, we shouldn’t eat this stuff.” Jeb gestures to the tea party spread. “Who knows what it might do to us?” He finds an energy bar in the backpack and hands me half. He motions to an empty chair next his. Instead, I take another one two places down. He stares hard at me while we eat; the only sounds are the rattling wrapper, the birds, and the breeze.

Avoiding his gaze, I count the peach and gray stripes in my leggings. My legs are starting to remind me of peppermint sticks. Tasty, curvy peppermint sticks.

My mouth waters.

What’s wrong with me? I need to be helping Jeb figure things out, but all I can think of is food.

After I wolf down the last of my bar, the hunger still hasn’t abated. I remember how good that purple stuff tasted and wish I’d never fallen into that pie to begin with.

On the other hand, it must’ve been hilarious to watch. I picture myself tumbling into the pastry and snicker out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Jeb asks. He has the Wonderland novel open on his lap and drops the last of his snack into his mouth.

“Nothing.” Another bout of giggles tickles me. This wave is so strong, I bite my inner cheeks to keep from giving in.

Oblivious, Jeb flips a few pages. “It says in chapter seven that the Dormouse kept falling asleep at the party, and the Hatter poured hot tea on its nose to wake it. The passage is underlined, so maybe that’s a hint. What do you think?”

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