Splintered Page 73

I’m sitting beside Morpheus on the giant mushroom where I found him after Jeb and I drained the ocean, but I’m a tiny child of four. My seven-year-old guide positions a picture book in front of me. He’s teaching me to decipher riddles.

“This,” he says, pointing to a picture of a woman with puffed-out cheeks. “Something you can hold but cannot keep.” He reads the words under the picture.

I shouldn’t be able to understand them. I’m a toddler. But it doesn’t matter. Because each time I visit him in dreams, I feel older somehow. Wiser. Gifted.

“ You know the answer,” Morpheus says, his young voice scolding.

“ You’re the best of both worlds.”

He takes a deep breath and holds it in his lungs. Lifting my palm to his mouth, he lets it out slowly, closing my fingers around the warm air.

When I open my hand again, nothing’s there.

“Breath!” I smile and clap.

Morpheus smiles and nods, pride shining in his inky eyes. “ Yes. We can hold it but always have to set it free.”

Back in the present, understanding blinds me, like a flash of sunlight across pupils accustomed only to darkness, dilating my perceptions to perfect clarity: I’m the best of both worlds . . . Netherling logic awakened, I see my accomplishments imprinted

on the board next to their summaries, like a checklist:

1. Burst through Stone with a Feather—Used a quill to shove the sundial statue aside and open up the rabbit hole.

2. Cross a Forest in One Step—Rode on Jeb’s shoulders as he stepped over the flower-garden “forest.”

3. Hold an Ocean in Her Palm—Balanced the sponge in my hand after it had absorbed Alice’s tears.

4. Alter the Future with Her Fingertip—Jump-started the tea party crew’s futures by drying and resetting the pocket watch’s hands.

5. Defeat an Invisible Enemy—Faced my darker side and suppressed it with the help of Tumtum Tree berries.

6. Trample an Army beneath Her Feet—Rode across the card guards on a wave of clams.

7. Wake the Dead—No explanation necessary . . .

My dark side is thrilled at what I’ve accomplished, and pride swells my chest.

Then my other side takes the lead. “No,” I say aloud to myself. “Not my accomplishments. Morpheus’s.” Dread winds itself around my heart, deflating me.

Jeb was right all along. The things I’ve been doing weren’t to fix my great-great-great-grandmother’s messes. They were elaborate tests. Why didn’t I listen to him?

“What am I being tested for?” I take my teacup and hold it in trembling palms, willing the heat to seep inside me and stave off the chill in my heart.

Humphrey meets Sister One’s gaze as she hands him a cookie dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

“That list represents the criteria for a queen,” she answers. “The requirements were written after Grenadine took the throne. King Red heard rumors that his former wife had escaped Wonderland’s wilds and remarried. Fearing the possibility of female offspring, he insisted that if anyone was to ever step forward as Red’s lineage and try to take the crown from Grenadine, she would first have to pass eight impossible tests to prove her worth. The Red Court agreed to make the tests a royal decree. You are the first to ever pass them . . . well, almost all of them. Of course, you are the first of Queen Red’s offspring to come forward and try.”

I’m about to object, to say that it’s impossible because I’m not of royal lineage. I’m about to stand on my chair and stomp like a two-year-old, to refuse to believe that any of this is real . . .

Until Morpheus’s lullabies trickle through my mind, complete at last: “Little blossom in white and red, resting now your tiny head; grow and thrive, be strong and keen, for you will one day be their queen . . . Little blossom in peach and gray, grew up strong and found your way; two things more yet to be seen, until at last you’ll be their queen.”

Shivers run like icy drizzle through my wings. “No, no, no. I’m not—I didn’t actually pass anything,” I say to my hostess. “I stumbled into accomplishing each one . . . by accident, really.”

She and Humphrey have no comment. They’re too busy counting squares and sipping their brew.

They know, just like me, that nothing I did was by accident. Morpheus orchestrated all of it—set up familiar Wonderland scenarios by using Lewis Carroll’s book and soliciting the help of other netherling natives, then stood back and watched as I completed each “test.”

At the tea party he said he wanted to return me to my proper place, my home. Which realm does he consider home for me? Gritty discomfort fills my throat, as if I’ve swallowed the entire desert. I gulp down half my tea.

Jeb . . .

I need him to put his arms around me and promise it will be okay; I need him to make me feel human again.

“I want to use the looking glass to find my boyfriend.” I stand so fast, one of my wings hits the table and tips the kettle of tea.

Humphrey pats the spill with his napkin before the steaming puddle can reach his lap. “I was right! You do mean to coddle me!”

Sister One leads me to the tall pantry and opens the left door, revealing a looking glass. “Your mortal escort is already where you’re going. My pixies were in the chasm gathering Grenadine’s dead army when they saw your mortal leave in chains with Morpheus and the elfin knights. Thanks to your help defeating the card guards, the White army successfully raided and took control of the Red castle tonight in search of their Ivory Queen.”

The beat in my chest almost comes to a halt. “Morpheus has Jeb imprisoned at the Red castle?”

She pats my hand without answering. “You’ll need this.” From one of the pantry shelves, she pulls down a tattered teddy bear. She doesn’t have to explain. I already know it holds the part of Chessie that will somehow be my final test—his smile—although I’ve no idea how I’m supposed to harness it.

“Remind Morpheus that my end of the bargain is met,” Sister One says as she waves her hand across the looking glass. It crackles like ice, revealing a chamber in a castle with lush red carpets and curtains of gold. There’s a canopied bed and a fireplace; a tall Victorian parlor chair, with its back to me, faces the hearth. A silver fedora trimmed in red moths hangs from one arm of the chair. Smoke rises into the air and a gloved hand stretches into view, a hookah’s hose perched elegantly between two fingers.

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