Splintered Page 83

Tired of his mind games, I start to lift off Grenadine’s crown.

My fingers lock up at the base of the rubies, unable to move. Underneath Queen Red’s hairpin, my scalp flames. White-hot tendrils reach down from my skull into my spine, nailing my entire body into place.

The sensation migrates to my arms, setting my veins on fire. They glow green again, like in the spirit garden, sprouting into ivy. The same sensation runs up my legs beneath the wide skirt. This time, the vines don’t recede into my skin. They grow larger, expand with my breath—a living, breathing plant growing out of me.

I scream as the vines strike like leafy snakes, snapping Gossamer from my shoulder and lashing out at everyone around me.

“What is happening?” Grenadine wails, the ribbons on her fingers all whispering at once.

“Your husband’s sacrifice was for naught!” Ivory screams. “Red’s spirit was in the hairpin . . . she’s united with the girl . . . they are one being!”

The knights and guards, fearing for their queens, turn their weapons on me.

Morpheus uses the distraction to whip his wings closed around his chest, knocking the remaining knights off him. With a turn of his heels, he maneuvers behind Ivory and catches her around the waist, vorpal sword at her throat. “Step away from Queen Alyssa, or I slice Ivory in twain and awaken the bandersnatch for a feeding.”

Everyone freezes. Even Gossamer hovers in midair. I want to make a run for the door, but I can’t move. Queen Red is fighting for control of my body, and it takes every last drop of concentration and strength to keep her contained.

“All of you”—Morpheus gestures toward the door—“get out. This is between the three of us now. Or the four of us, if you count the queen you stabbed in the back a lifetime ago.”

Gossamer’s the first to leave, her green shoulders drooping. Grenadine takes the jabberlock box from Ivory and walks backward toward the entrance along with her guards, nearly tripping over some of the dead soldiers on their way out. The elfin knights stand at the ready, waiting for a command from Ivory.

“Do not test me.” Morpheus spreads his wings high and presses the blade to her jugular until a puckered indentation appears.

“Go,” she rasps.

A wave of frustration ripples through the knights as they back to the doorway, swords lowered, but the emotion can only be felt, not seen. Their faces remain impassive. The door slams shut behind them.

Dragging Ivory with him, Morpheus locks and bars the door, then turns to me, narrowing his eyes at the crown on my head. “My part is done, wretched witch. I am now free of you.”

“Well enough . . .” Red’s answer rings through my head and forces its way from my mouth on a gust of air. “But I have expanded my expectations. Being imprisoned for so long, I deserve retribution. Bring your captive closer. I want her crown-magic as well. Do it, and I’ll offer you a position at my side as king, ruling over all of Wonderland.”

Ivory struggles, but Morpheus holds the blade steady at her throat. Locking my gaze with his, he grimaces miserably. “Why didn’t you listen?” he asks, voice pinched. “The wish I gave you . . . if you had used it as I instructed . . . it would’ve saved you from this end. My challenge was for you to sit on the throne with Red possessing your body. I tried to offer you a way out.”

If the queen wasn’t holding me up, I’d faint dead away. My fate is to be a vessel—only one-half myself—tethered to Wonderland for all eternity? I want to tell him again that I hate him, to really mean it this time. I want to spit at him and scream that he’s a coward in the worst way, to sacrifice me for his own worthless soul.

I avert my eyes instead, using that ploy that worked so well earlier so I can bring him to his knees. Because he’s the only one with the power to free me now.

“Please, you must understand.” His voice takes on that pleading quality, and my heart—the one part of my body that I’ll never let Red have—picks up a beat, hopeful. “I’m not a coward.” He tries to convince me, as if I’d already called him the name. “It wasn’t the fear of death that drove me . . . it was captivity. Like you, I cannot be a spirit contained. I must be free. You understand, don’t you?”

I suppress any response, wincing from the effort of fighting Red. “Would you hurry and get over here, you fool? I need the added power of Ivory’s crown to fight the girl. She’s very powerful, this one.” There’s a hint of pride in the statement, which only feeds my resolve to beat her. Forget family ties. I’m not hers to be proud of.

Morpheus steps forward a few feet with his hostage. Red throws out a vine like a striking snake. It topples the crown from Ivory’s head; she screams and faints.

Slowing her fall, Morpheus lays her out of the way, his toe on the diamond-encrusted crown. Red’s vine rope tries to reach again but can’t get any closer without me stepping forward. I refuse to budge.

Red manipulates the connection between her ivy strands and my veins like puppet strings. I bite against the tearing pain, jaw almost cracked from grinding my teeth so hard. Still, I don’t relent.

“It was to be so perfect!” Morpheus all but cries the words, concentrating solely on me. “Your mortal suitor has already forgotten this journey. But you and I, we share memories of a childhood that I will never forget. You are the lady of my heart. My match in every way. I would’ve stayed at your side once we banished Queen Red, never left you to rule alone. We could’ve danced every night in the stars above your kingdom. For you, I would’ve given up my solitary life . . . been your loyal footman and cherished you eternally.”

Red forces my face in his direction, but I keep my gaze on the floor.

“I should make you my footstool with that admission of heresy. But I’m giving you one last chance. Bring the crown if you wish to have any part of her. I’m sharing one-half of her mind. I can offer you her body, force her to surrender to your desires. Use her as you will. Wed her, bed her. Be her mate. Just let me have Ivory’s crown.”

The sole of his shoe scrapes the jeweled circlet along the floor toward her. Rethinking, he moves it back even farther out of her reach.

An ember of hope stirs inside me, until I look up. He’s deep in thought, actually considering her proposition.

She can’t do that, can she? Force my body to her will? As if in answer, my hair escapes several of its pins and thrashes around me, the strands no longer platinum blond but flame red. They reach toward Morpheus, taunting him like beckoning arms.

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