Splintered Page 60

Jeb’s entire body visibly tenses. “‘Misinformed’? You sent Al out here, into danger, on misinformation?”

I clamber off the table, fingertips resting on his bunched-up back muscles to calm him.

Morpheus grins again from his perch atop the tree—regal and pompous with his wings spread high, a backdrop of sleek satin shading his pale complexion from the sun. “It was foolish, I know. Taking hearsay for fact. I was in my cocoon when little Alice escaped with the sword. I didn’t see for myself what happened. I’d heard through the rumor mill that she came here with it. But now I’ve learned the truth. The sword has been hidden all this time in the Red castle itself . . . guarded by the bandersnatch.”

“Right.” Jeb’s voice is choked with strained self-control. “And we’re just supposed to take your word for that.”

“My spy only learned of it today. Alyssa believes me, don’t you?” Morpheus trains his gaze on me.

I don’t answer. Truth is, I don’t trust him.

“Take her silence as a no, bug for brains.” Jeb stays focused on the canopy.

“Neither of you is even curious about the battle I waged to keep you safe? Pity the ingratitude.” Morpheus straightens his gloves while Gossamer flutters around his jacket, checking for snags. His clothes are rumpled and ravaged, even sooty in places. He’s lost his hat and his hair’s a shock of wild waves. “Had to torch the dining hall to smoke them all out. But they’ll soon be spreading over Wonderland in search of you. Queen Grenadine has a dinner party planned, and she’s determined to unveil a new pet to entertain her guests.”

Jeb’s shoulder blades fidget beneath my palm. “Pet?”

“Grenadine has wanted a replacement for Alice for decades. A caged bird, as it were.” Having dropped that bomb, Morpheus takes a graceful leap and glides to the tabletop, landing next to Hattington and crew. “Good to see you fellows again. How was the nap?”

The three netherlings greet Morpheus with hugs and handshakes.

I grab Jeb’s hand, my pulse racing. “Do you remember the psych report? Alice told the therapist she’d been in a birdcage for seventyfive years in Wonderland. But she must’ve come back. She got married and had a family. Or else I wouldn’t exist. Right?”

He pulls me close. “I don’t know what’s happening. But we need to get you out of here quick.”

“Now that the curse is broken,” I say, although I don’t feel any different.

Morpheus seems oblivious to our urgency. He pats Hattington’s conformateur. The blank-faced little man comes only to his thigh. “Splendid to have you back among the living, Herman. I’m in dire need of a new Cajolery Hat.”

“Can do!” The lid flips closed on the hatmaker’s contraption. His bone structure and skull contort and crack into place as the metal pins squeak and mold around his head until he and Morpheus look like a matched set of nesting dolls.

That’s why he’s the best hatmaker in the realm. He becomes his subject’s head and face until he finishes a project, making for the perfect fit. What would that be like? To never have an identity of your own? No wonder they call him mad.

“Mayhap you’d like a derby style?” Hattington says as he feels his temporary cheekbones. “I have some fine red felt back home.”

“Hmm . . .” Morpheus brushes soot off his lapel. “I was thinking one of buckram might be nice.”

“Hey!” Jeb slams a fist on our end of the table. The group turns to us. “Al’s in danger of becoming someone’s human parakeet. She’s finished what she came to do. Fulfilled the requirements to break the curse. Now we need to get back to our world. Like yesterday.”

“Yesterday, you say?” the hatmaker warbles in his bouncing timbre. “Yesterday is doable.”

Guffawing, the hare slaps a knee and adds, “Although two yesterdays would be impossible.”

The Door Mouse snickers, slipping back into his uniform. “No, no! You can retrogress as many yesterdays as you please. Simply walk backward the rest of your life.”

They all bend at the waist, holding their ribs as they laugh hysterically. Their lack of sobriety stuns me, and Jeb looks like he might snap at any minute.

With a flick of his wings, Morpheus lands on the grass beside us. Gossamer nestles in his hair. “There’s more bad news, as per your leaving here.”

Jeb narrows his gaze. “How can it get any worse?”

“When the Red army raided my home, they found the jabberlock box and stole it back again. It is no longer under my protection, and without the Ivory Queen, her portal will remain closed. That makes it ever more imperative we get the sword and defeat Grenadine and her king.”

Jeb inches closer to Morpheus. “And how do you propose we defeat them when the sword is at their castle under the keep of some mutant watchdog?”

I grip his shoulder from behind, reminding him to use restraint. Morpheus is our only ally, however infuriating his tactics are.

“All is not lost,” Morpheus says. “Chessie can subdue the bandersnatch since his other half resides within.” He tickles his sprite’s tiny swinging feet with his finger. “You will get Chessie’s head for me. He’ll have full control, and I can steal the sword and defeat Grenadine, then send you both home via whichever portal you like, Red or White.”

“No!” Jeb lunges in a move so swift, it almost jerks my arm out of its socket. He catches Morpheus by his lacy shirt and lifts him onto tiptoe so his wings drag on the ground. Gossamer dangles from a strand of blue hair. “This is all a ploy to get Al to do another ‘task.’ Right? Another test. What I want to know is what she’s being tested for. What happens when she passes them all?”

Smug, Morpheus taps Jeb’s fingers, one by one, as if he were playing a flute. “Ah. Gossamer’s been running her little pretty mouth again, aye? Jealous little nymph.” The sprite scrambles off his shoulder and flitters into the tree overhead. “You know, you should never trust a woman with green skin. Just ask any man who’s had a hangover from absinthe.” Morpheus gazes at me. “All I’ve ever wanted is to free Alyssa and return her to her proper place.”

“And where would that be?” Jeb moves his head in front of me so Morpheus has to look at him.

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