Splintered Page 78

“What will it be, Alyssa?”

The fire crackles behind me, a cat-o’-nine-tails whipping harsh tongues of light across his ruthless expression. I wipe my tears and level my gaze on his. There’s no need for another word between us, because he already knows.

I’ll do anything he asks of me now.



Morpheus escorts me down a long, dim corridor on the first floor. Candles in brass sconces light the glittery red walls. The lace and bustled skirts of my coronation dress sweep the black marble beneath my feet. This is exactly why I didn’t want to go to prom. I hate being on display, especially in something I would never choose to wear on my own.

From my hands to my feet, I’m dripping crimson velvet, ivory lace, and ruby jewels. The elbow-length sleeves and floor-length skirt pouf out like the princesses’ ball gowns in the picture books I used to read as a kid, and the gloves are made of stretchy velveteen.

My hair’s dressed up, too; long curls pile atop my head, studded with jeweled barrettes that flank my great-great-great-grandmother’s hairpin. Morpheus instructed my sprite attendants that Queen Red’s ornament should remain the focal point.

I’m the epitome of royalty. I even smell royal—perfumed with sandalwood, roses, and a hint of amber. But I’d rather be Sister One, awash in the scent of dusty sunlight and hiding spinnerets beneath my skirt, so I could wrap Morpheus in a web and leave him to hang.

As if intuiting my thoughts, he squeezes my velvety palm to his satin one, locking our fingers tighter. His jaw is set in the same severe expression he wore earlier—just after the sprites put me on display for his approval—when I told him how much I despised even looking at him.

He seemed hurt by that. I wouldn’t think he’d care. I’m only his pawn, after all.

Our wings accidentally brush, and I reposition the bear tucked beneath my arm to subdue my anger.

Five card guards from the Red court lead the way, and five elfin knights from the White court follow closely, their military boots imprinting echoes on my eardrums. I can’t keep from staring at the red jewels that sparkle in pinprick designs on their temples and chins, the same color as Jeb’s labret. Other than the pointed ears, they do bear an uncanny resemblance to him, size and coloring-wise. Almost human but for their lack of emotion.

They’ve all come to offer protection and to report back to their respective parties after bearing witness to my final test. Just like Morpheus said, the Red Court has agreed to let me be crowned, but they can’t just hand the honor over. I have to prove myself worthy.

Harness the Power of a Smile: Subdue the bandersnatch with Chessie’s head.

When my legs turn to jelly at the thought, all it takes is the memory of Jeb bleeding in his birdcage, trying to get to me, and my strength returns. I will do this—for him and Alison and Dad. I will put an end to this crazy nightmare and win our passage home.

My entourage and I take a right turn, arriving at an arched wooden door painted red and fitted with brass fixtures in the shapes of card suits: diamonds, spades, hearts, and clubs.

Before opening the door, Morpheus turns. He takes both my hands in his. His fedora’s brim casts a crescent of shade across the upper half of his face. “We must keep the chamber dark. The bandersnatch’s weak vision is to our advantage. He will be slow on the uptake but swift on instinct. In turn, we shall be stealthy and expedient. We’ll have only a matter of minutes before the beast registers us with his other senses. He attacks with his tongues . . . like a frog would capture its prey. You will need to stay behind me, and that’s easier done if you’re grounded, so resist the urge to take flight.”

Maybe it should flatter me that he’s so protective. But my safety is an afterthought. He just doesn’t want his hand trumped.

“Once we get the vorpal sword, you can free Chessie’s head. After that, ready the cello’s bow. Chessie will guide you on what to do. Are you clear on our strategy, Alyssa?”

I don’t answer, refusing to look him in the eye. I’ve welcomed my darker side over the last few hours, embraced it, because it’s taught me how to manipulate Morpheus. Indifference affects him more than anger. Too bad I didn’t figure that out earlier.

Hindsight is for losers.

“Please look at me . . .” His voice is pleading.

And again, he falls into my trap—too little too late.

“I want this to be over just as much as you do,” he says with a sweet sincerity that could melt all of Greenland. Lifting my chin so I have to meet his gaze, he takes the cello’s bow offered him by an elfin knight and holds it out to me. “A trade for the toy?”

I flash both the knight and him an acidic glare, then take the bow and hand off the bear. The first time I ever held a bow, Alison was kneeling behind me, supporting a cello that was three times my size. She held my wrist to guide the bow across the strings. The instrument wailed beautifully, the most resonant and heartbreaking sound I’d ever heard. That was only a few days before the incident that sent Alison away to the asylum. Thanks to Morpheus.

“Our plan will work,” Morpheus promises as he traces his knuckles down my temple, disregarding our escorts. He must sense the sadness in me, because he’s very gentle. “Chessie’s body wants to be reunited. You’re simply enabling that to happen. Think of yourself as the bridge.”

I don’t answer. I give the bow my full attention. It’s wider and has a larger arch than mine at home. I turn the screw to increase the tension, then tap it once on the floor and meet Morpheus’s expectant gaze. “Ready.”

My hands are sweating inside my gloves, and I’m barely able to ward off the tremors in every muscle. I grab Morpheus’s wrist before he turns the key in the latch. “My wish?”

He pats his pants pocket, the residue of a hungry smile hovering over his lips. He’s remembering our kiss, and my mind flees in the opposite direction, desperate not to fall into the memory alongside him.

“You’ll give it to me?” I ask.

“I vow on my life-magic. When the time is right.”

I move behind him. In response to Morpheus’s hand signal, the soldiers spread out in a V-formation on my left and right sides.

The door creaks open, slicing the darkness with light. A humid stench slaps us, as if someone baked an oyster and sauerkraut casserole inside a sweaty sauna. The definition of frumious is vividly clear. Hand over my nose, I stifle a gag.

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