Splintered Page 82

“But now he is,” I mumble. Jeb watches me through the liquid. Pain pierces my heart—as if the organ is being pecked by ravenous birds.

An ocean red from bonds of love, and paint the roses’ hearts thereof . . . It was Jeb’s love for me that opened the box. The same love that’s so bright in his eyes, it reaches through all the barriers between us—breaking through the dark water and glass to remind me of his faith: “ You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Even if things get screwed up, you’ll still find a way to help me.”

He’s right. It won’t end like this. I won’t let it.

The clear bead sparkles in my palm. My wish can’t be used directly for him, but it can still save him.

I glare through my tears at Morpheus. “You once told me if I helped you, I’d be helping myself. Setting things right in Wonderland would free me and my family, forever.”

He nudges the caterpillar carving with a finger. It spins on the marble floor. “Have you never heard the saying, ‘The truth shall set you free’? I gave you that. A glimpse of the real you.”

He doesn’t care that I can’t hear Jeb’s voice. That I can’t touch his skin. He doesn’t care that Jeb’s terrified of losing control of his life but he gave up all control just to save me.

What’s worse, soon enough, Jeb won’t remember me. He won’t even remember himself.

Morpheus doesn’t care about any of that. All he cares about is carrying out Queen Red’s Deathspeak challenge.

I bend down, level with his ear. “If I could, I’d make you take his place.”

Morpheus’s jaw clenches. “The magic is final. Your mortal knight saw to that. One trade of souls will shut the door, and blood shall seal it, evermore.”

Every muscle in my body tenses, holding me back from attacking him. Instead, I touch the red flocked roses. “I could join him. The wish can be used to put me inside.”

“I’ll not allow it!” Morpheus tries to stand, but the knights place their sword tips at his sternum.

“It will be a wasted wish.” Gossamer lights on my shoulder. “Only one soul will fit in the box at a time. Besides, the portal will never open again—in or out.”

Jeb mimes the words, “Go home.”

Regret claws at me, juxtaposed with overwhelming anger. He had no right to make this sacrifice. No right to give up his life for me. No right to leave me here alone.

I stroke the glass above his face, memorizing every line. If I wish that we never came, neither of us will have been here for this to happen.

Morpheus struggles against his captors, still on his knees, reminding me why I came here to begin with. If I put everything back as it was, he’ll be free again, too. Free to torment my family until someone stops him once and for all.

There’s only one solution, and it’s as clear as the blue sky when Jeb and I flew across the chasm on floating boards.

I kiss the cold, hard glass separating us, remembering his lips like they were in the Hall of Mirrors. Soft, warm, giving, and alive. Those first kisses will be our last.

“What you gave up for me,” I tell him. “Everything you’ve done while we’ve been here is amazing. If I make it back home, I’ll spend my life thanking you.”

Jeb’s mouth drops open. He shakes his head, forcing bubbles to churn all around him. His hair swirls like black moss floating on water.

“No, Alyssa!” Morpheus’s screams are strangely synchronized with Jeb’s silent ones. But it’s too late. I’ve squeezed the tear, and the liquid drizzles down my wrist, warm with the scent of brine and longing.

In my mind, I send up my heart’s deepest desire: that I had never answered the door on prom night when Jeb first came knocking, that I had stepped into that mirror alone.

Behind my closed eyes, a giant pocket watch spins, its hands turning counterclockwise. Everything happens in reverse: my wings sinking back into my skin; our ride on the clams shuffling us upward onto the crumpled chessboard, which levels to a smooth, sandy slant; surfing up instead of down and jumping backward onto March Hairless’s table, face-to-face with icy statues; the kisses in the mirrored hall, all of them taken back—slipped away into a pocket of time never to be remembered by anyone but me; I see the ocean refilling, us leaping into the rowboat, then the octobenus sliding back into the water while we fall asleep once more, only to awaken on the white sandy beaches; me riding atop Jeb’s shoulder as he walks backward, shrinking down to my size as we battle the flowers, then backtrack to the tiny door. Into the rabbit hole, then up, up, up to face the sunshine. Until at last, Jeb’s gone, and I’m falling down the rabbit hole—me and no one else.

My lungs wheeze as if I’ve been dragged underwater. I open my eyes.

All the memories remain, and everything’s the same: Morpheus pinned in place by knights’ swords; the queens, side by side; the guards looking on in anticipation; and Gossamer on my shoulder.

Worst of all . . . the jabberlock box. The roses are still red. Ivory holds the pewter cube in her hands. I’m about to scream, because the wish didn’t work, and I failed.

The tears in Queen Grenadine’s eyes stop me.

I step closer to the box. On the other side of the opened lid, King Red stares back through black water. Without Jeb here to make the sacrifice, the king used his love for Grenadine to trade places with Ivory, saving both kingdoms. Maybe in some small way, that redeems him for breaking my great-great-great-grandmother’s heart all those years ago.

I wonder if anyone remembers Jeb. The confusion in their eyes tells me they don’t. But I’d bet my life Morpheus does. He’s always been able to get into my mind.

“Foolhardy choice,” he says, confirming my suspicion. “By being the martyr, you’ll never see your family again. How do you think fragile little Mumsy will feel about that?”

“Oh, I’ll see them,” I answer. “It was never the netherling traits that were my family’s curse. You were the curse. Today, I’m breaking you. I’m queen now. The portals are open for me. So I’m going back home, and my family will finally be free.”

He glances down at his shoes, his jewels blinking black and blue, like bruises. “Such pretty delusions, little luv. Almost pretty enough for a fairy tale.” A hoarseness scrapes his voice, tingeing it with remorse.

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