Page 19

 A.G. Howard

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My windpipe tightens, making it difficult to breathe. “Didn’t you learn anything with Alice? You can’t just take him away from the ones who care about him. There will be ripples, consequences.”
Morpheus taps the leather braid at his neck thoughtfully. “I chose carefully. He has no one who loves him. I did him a favor. Possibly even saved his life.”
My temples pound. “No, no, no. You don’t get to make that call. He has a life he’s supposed to live here, no matter how miserable it turns out. Something could’ve been about to change, to bring him out of his slump. You’ve taken away his chance to redeem himself …”
“One damaged soul in exchange for thousands of netherling lives. It’s a fair trade.”
My frown deepens. As much as I despise his nonchalance and underhanded tactics, I understand his loyalty to Wonderland and his friends there. So why can’t he sympathize with my loyalties to this world?
“Stop worrying about Fin,” he says, his voice softening. “The boy’s being well tended to. I gave him to the Ivory Queen for a plaything.”
This sets my teeth on edge. “Ivory wouldn’t do that.”
“Wouldn’t she? Have you forgotten how she yearns for a companion? I told her his situation—that he was dying of loneliness in the human realm. That he needed love to heal him. Once you know someone’s weakness, they’re easy to manipulate. You’re intimately familiar with this strategy, are you not?”
Remembering my dream in the hospital—Jeb’s screams ringing in my head—I wince.
Morpheus steps closer. “One does what one has to do to protect what they love.” His expression is sincere, and something unreadable lurks behind his inky gaze. There’s more to that statement than a Wonderland reference. Unfortunately I’m too distracted by his looming presence to analyze it.
I brace my hand against his chest: a barrier. “Look, if you’re going to be in my world, there are social guidelines you need to follow. First, there’s a thing called personal space. So everyone you encounter, including me, you need to imagine them in an impenetrable box.” I gesture invisible lines around me with my free hand. “You don’t get any closer than the box’s boundaries. Are we clear?”
His chest muscles twitch under my palm; then he steps back, his cowboy boots scraping on the gritty floor. “Apparently, your giggly friends forgot to wear their boxes today.”
I shoot him a disgusted glare. “They aren’t my friends. And that stunt you pulled out there? Showing your true form for the whole world to see? That is not okay. I don’t know how they missed it, but you can’t do that again!”
He huffs. “Aw, bless, Alyssa. Only you could see that side of me.” He catches the strap of my backpack on the floor with his toe and drags it closer. I try to snatch it back, but he’s too fast. Unzipping the bag, Morpheus digs through my books and papers. “Had you been studying the fundamentals of Wonderland instead of this pointless mortal brain-rot, you would know how a glamour works.” He slides my AP biology book out and flips through several pages, coming to a diagram of the human body. He turns it to face me. “In order for me to become Fin, I had to imprint his form over my own before stepping through the portal into this world. It takes most of my power to hold this mask in place. Were I to let go of the glamour, even for an instant, it would be gone until I could visit Fin again for another imprint.” He snaps the book shut with one hand. “But you? There are moments you can make out glimpses of truth, penetrate the chinks in my mask and see me for what I am. Because you have learned to look through netherling lenses.”
I wish it was that easy to see him for what he is, instead of constantly wondering what he’s up to. “Let’s just get this over with. I’m tired of the games.”
He tilts his head, like a puppy trying to understand its master’s wishes. “I haven’t been playing any games.”
“Right.” I consider bringing up the clown, but there’s no point in wasting time with his denials. Better to get him off my back by pretending to cooperate. “How, exactly, am I supposed to help with Queen Red so you can return Finley”—I stare him up and down—“back to his life?”
The bell rings, rattling through my bones. Chatter and laughter filter through the window. Moving shadows blink at the bottom of the door as people pass by.
Morpheus tucks away my book and closes the backpack. “I have a lunch date. We’ll talk tomorrow. Same place, same time. You have until then to gather your wits and your mosaics. There is something they’re trying to tell you, and, with a little magical aid, I can help you decipher it. Then after that we’re off to Wonderland.”
Twenty-four hours to say good-bye to everyone and everything I love? Not happening. “Wait, Morpheus. We need to talk about this.”
“M,” he corrects. “And there’s nothing to talk about.”
I shake my head, annoyed not only with his dismissiveness but with the stupid name he insists on using. “Why didn’t you use Fin’s name?”
“And chance someone knowing him?”
“Aha!” I point at his nose. “So he does have family.”
He snatches my wrist. “Everyone has family in your world, Alyssa. Unfortunately for Fin, his no longer cares where he is. But a fellow like him is bound to have enemies. I don’t need trouble. So I took only his image. Not his identity.”
“I don’t need trouble, either.” I jerk out of his hold, grab my bag, and head for the door. “I’m not ready to go back to Wonderland. I have things here to do.”
Unconcerned, he turns to adjust his hat in the mirror. “Ah, so you’re busy. Perhaps whilst you find time for Wonderland, I shall entertain myself with the lovely little Jen of the pink hair and sparkling green eyes.” His voice is low and suggestive. “Eyes so like her brother’s.”
Apprehension knots at the base of my throat, and I whip around, casting my backpack to the side. “You stay away from the people I love. Do you hear me?”
When he doesn’t answer, I grip his elbow to force him to face me.
Before I can react, he catches my waist and sets my butt on the cold edge of the sink. Face-to-face with his chest, I squirm. He pins me in place with his body, gripping the porcelain behind me—entirely too close for comfort.