Splintered Page 75

I twist one of the teddy bear’s ears. Filthy toes rooted into the carpet for support, I unleash the theory that came to me when I saw Sister One’s chessboard. “The website. It said some netherlings take on the appearance of existing mortals. After Queen Red was exiled, she snuck through the Red castle’s portal into the human realm.” “Pray tell, how did she manage that?” His voice is teasing, meant to goad me.

“She shares my magic . . . she found a way to distract the card guards. She coaxed the ribbon off Grenadine’s hand by animating it—the ribbon that held a reminder of Alice’s whereabouts. Then Red stepped into the mortal realm as the child. She grew up as Alice, fell in love with a mortal man as Alice, married and had children as Alice. Half-magical, half-human children, and heirs to her lost throne. The netherling characteristics only pass to the females, because Wonderland is ruled by queens.” I’m hugging the bear now, so tightly I can feel Chessie’s essence clawing for escape . . . begging to be free. Or maybe it’s my own.

“Tell me more. You hold a captive audience.” Morpheus’s voice has changed, the teasing edge replaced by something ravenous and exposed.

I can’t bring myself to watch his enthralled features, so I look at the fire’s flames instead. “Red came back to Wonderland, a few months before the real Alice died. Somehow they traded places again. That’s why the older Alice in the picture had no birthmark,when the younger one did. That’s why she remembered nothing of her mortal life. It was stolen from her. She had no childhood, just like you said.” My chest constricts with sadness almost as potent as when I cried out my wish. “Poor Alice.”

“Yes. Poor, dear little Alice.”

I search his expression. His reverence seems sincere. A pained, poignant tenderness warms his eyes. “I tried to return her home, in her old age. I thought I was doing right by her, letting her die among her own. I stole into the Liddell house late one night, hoping to convince Red it was the right thing to do . . . hoping that with her family asleep in other rooms, we could make the switch undetected. Red was compliant, said she was tired of being old and feeble.” A soft smile lifts one side of his mouth. “I tucked Alice into the bed where she would awaken among those who should’ve been her family all along. They were strangers to her, so I tried to prepare her, but her mind was too far gone to grasp it all. I held her hand until she nodded off, then left with Red for Wonderland. Upon our arrival at the rabbit hole’s opening, the wretch changed her mind and turned on me, refusing to leave her family behind. She intended to murder Alice, then drag all the Liddells to Wonderland. To use her lineage to win back the throne she’d lost.”

Morpheus regards the flames, the corners of his mouth tugging down. “I wouldn’t let her go. We fought on the ground beside the sundial, then on wing in the trees. Red had me pinned to the uppermost branches of one, meaning to snap my neck. I cast her off, and she landed hard, impaled by the iron fence just below us.

The metal went straight through her heart and poisoned her blood.

I carried her down into the rabbit hole. I attempted an apology. But she would not forgive me. And she made sure I could never forgive myself as she took her last breath.”

“Deathspeak,” I whisper.

His gaze snaps to me, shock apparent on his face. Flickering exposes the remorse in his eyes

I turn to the hearth again. “That’s why you dragged me here. It was never about saving your friend Chessie. It wasn’t even about Ivory being trapped. You’re the one who’s cursed. You need me to save your spirit from an eternity as a worm-eaten toy in Sister Two’s lair.”

“You judge too harshly. I do want to save my friends. It just happens that I can save myself in the process. I’ve been enslaved for too many years, racing against a ticking clock. Now, at last, I can make the hands stop. I can dethrone Grenadine and set the rightful heir in her place.”

“Even if the heir is unwilling.”

A heavy silence hangs between us.

Gently, Morpheus captures my chin, shifting my gaze to him. “What of the book I used as my storyboard, that one by the mortal bard Carroll. What are your thoughts on that?”

He’s relentless, leading me deeper into a place of both darkness and light. “Carroll came up with the story. But Wonderland, the place, the characters and names . . . I think that Red, as little Alice, inspired him with the half-truths she used to explain her short absence. Her family all assumed she’d wandered off to have a dream beneath a tree.” I frown. “Red became a child in every way, just like you once did. Her mind was innocent again. It’s a good thing her little-girl’s imagination took over. If she’d been completely honest about the dark, twisted creatures here, she would’ve been locked up in an asylum on her first day as a human.” My attempt at sarcasm is wasted because I’m one of those dark, twisted creatures. I always have been. Only now I look the part.

“Splendidly told,” Morpheus says. “And every bit of it, exactly as it was.” He taps my nose. “Do you wonder how the details come to you with such ease?”

My answers were more than lucky guesses. It’s as if the words were scripted on my tongue. Mentally, I thumb through each dream spent with Morpheus to see if he ever told me, but he didn’t.

Morpheus draws me closer to the fireplace, studying my hairpin in the light. He brushes his thumb across it. “Anything of particular interest happen in the cemetery, other than your retrieval of Chessie’s smile?”

I touch my hairpin, recalling my encounter with the rose. “Queen Red’s spirit . . . it flashed through my veins before escaping into the garden. She must’ve imprinted some of her memories on me! That was part of the Deathspeak, wasn’t it? You had to set her free, and you used me to do it.”

With a sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh, Morpheus pulls me into his arms and strokes my hair. His scent enfolds me, his chest solid and warm. As a child, his touch used to make me feel secure when he’d hold me under my arms during flying lessons. But not now. I stiffen for an instant before realizing I’m face-toface with his lapel. Nothing but a layer of silver and black pinstripes stands between me and my wish. Instead of pushing away, I snuggle closer—drawing my hands up between us.

A tremor travels the length of his body in response, fingers weaving through the braids at my nape. “Lovely Alyssa. What a grand pupil you were,” he mumbles, his mouth on the top of my head. “Yet you taught me more than I taught you. You are far more worthy to wear the crown than any other. Courage, compassion, and wisdom. The triad of majesties. You have something I could see even through the eyes of a child. You have the heart of a queen.” His voice cracks on the end of his statement, as if he’s saddened by it.

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