Splintered Page 72

I swallow my bite. “The king tried to help you? I thought he was a greedy dictator.”

“Greedy?” Sister One clucks her tongue, cinching an apron around her waist, then pulling a pan of fragrant cookies out from the stove. “Utterly ridiculous. He’s very sympathetic. He brought this one to me so I could keep him in cushions to prevent further cracking, in case the glue doesn’t stick. We can’t have Humphrey’s spirit leaking out to wreak havoc in Wonderland’s commons.” Wonderland and common . . . two words that should never be in the same sentence.

“So, Humphrey’s here because he’s partly dead,” I say after finishing the rest of the apple. “Partly dead like Chessie.”

“Yes.” Sister One scrapes the cookies onto a plate. “In fact, Grenadine herself brought Chessie’s head here. Many years ago, when her stepsister, Red, was on her bloody rampage. But she’s no doubt forgotten by now that he’s here.”

Wait. Morpheus made it sound as if Chessie came to this place on his own . . . found solace here. He never mentioned that Grenadine tried to help keep the cat alive. I dab my mouth with my napkin.

“Partly dead . . .” I mumble, mind whirling in confusion. “What business is it of yours how much dead I am?” In a fit of temper, Humphrey slams his spoon to the cushioned floor. The utensil bounces back like a boomerang and thumps his side. Following a crackling sound, the fissures in his shell branch out to form new ones. Slimy, clear liquid drizzles from the fissures. His cheeks turn a deep pink and he glowers at me. The slime starts to sizzle and harden to cooked egg whites.

“You’re hard-boiling your innards again,” Sister One scolds. “Now you’ve gone and done it!” Humphrey aims the accusation at me. “What glory is there to be had in bettering an egg, hmm? Will you make of me a soufflé or perhaps have me coddled?” “Coddled?” I ask, confused. “You mean like a parent coddles a child?”

He wriggles in the chair until his short legs almost dangle over the edge, causing the new cracks to stretch farther yet. “Coddled in water, you speck. Cooked just below boiling until my brains are scrambled. What sort of empty-headed rot are you? Do you not have a proper vocabulary? And why are you even here? Don’t see any cracks in your shell.”

Sister One clucks her tongue again and reaches into her apron pocket, proffering a tube of glue. “You should be gracious to her.

She’s the One.” She gestures her chin toward me as she helps him apply the adhesive. “She woke the dead.”

He stares, wide mouth gaping almost to the floor.

I can’t stop the blush rising through my face. “Morpheus said that the king is bad. That he wants the crowns to both kingdoms for his wife, Grenadine, and will do anything to get them.” “Ha!” Humphrey says. “As seen through the eyes of a murderer.” “A murderer?”

“There’s no proof of that,” Sister One says, patting down Humphrey’s shell to adhere it to the glue. “Morpheus carried Red’s corpse to me many years after her banishment. But he shared nothing about the circumstances surrounding her demise, or where he found her. I’m not surprised he’s lashing out at Grenadine and her king. He’s always held a grudge about what happened to Alice after Grenadine hid her. The queen’s intentions were good, to keep the child safe until they could capture Red. But after Red was banished to the wilds, Grenadine lost the ribbon into which she’d whispered Alice’s whereabouts and so forgot where she’d put her. Alice became a cautionary tale told to netherling children as they were tucked into bed. The real child was forgotten. By all but Morpheus. Seventy-five years in a cocoon, and he still remembered her upon waking.” “Wait.” I grip the table, fingernails puckering the cushiony top.

“None of this makes sense. Alice went back into her world. My world. She had to . . .”

“Oh, no. She was here. Upon his metamorphosis, Morpheus left no sandbar unturned in his search for her. He found her hidden away in the caves of the highest cliffs of Wonderland. She’d been captured and kept in a cage by a reclusive old bird, Mr. Dodo. But Morpheus’s precious friend was no longer a child. She was a sad, confused, old woman by that time.”

Panic chokes back any response. If Alice really did spend her life in a birdcage here, how am I alive? How are any of the Liddell descendants alive?

Scuttling to the stove, Sister One produces water out of thin air from a spoutless sink and fills a kettle. “Would one of you be so kind as to move the red queen to the next square on the game board?” Humphrey minds the request, pink cheeks ballooned in concentration. “One more left to go,” he whispers, thumping the last remaining silver square with his clawlike hand.

The game board has sixty-four squares, half of them red and half silver, with pawns, bishops, and rooks in positions that make no sense for real chess. Their arrangement reminds me of the board in Morpheus’s room.

Out of the thirty-two silver squares, a diagonal line of seven glow like burnished metal—the one on which Humphrey centered the red queen, along with six others that lead up to it. On each glowing square, a script appears in floating, curvy letters—again, just like on Morpheus’s chessboard.

This time, nothing stops me from reading them:

Burst through Stone with a Feather; Cross a Forest in One Step; Hold an Ocean in Her Palm; Alter the Future with Her Fingertip; Defeat an Invisible Enemy; Trample an Army beneath Her Feet; Wake the Dead. There’s one silver square left in the back row, waiting to be illuminated. I suspect that until that happens, the final words will remain hidden. “Do you know what the last one is?”

“Harness the Power of a Smile,” Humphrey answers, surprisingly cooperative.

“I don’t understand,” I say, feeling weaker by the minute. “Don’t you see?” Sister One carries over a tray with the kettle and pours three cups of tea. A soothing, lemony fragrance rises on the steam. “’Tis a record of all you’ve completed. The tests you’ve passed.”

“‘Tests’?” I look at them again, unable to find a tie to anything I’ve done, aside from waking the dead.

Then I remember what Morpheus said in his room moments before I animated the chess pieces: “It’s all in the interpretation.” Illumination comes to me, flowing slowly into my mind:

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