Ensnared Page 73

I knit my fingers nervously. “It was all innocent . . . playing . . . training. It takes time for a human to grow into that kind of commitment. It takes a trial by fire.”

“Ah. We will have our trial by fire. ’Tis a netherling tradition for the couple to walk through a circle of flames, to burn away the tethers of their past and start life anew, pristine. Like purifying precious metal.”

The image of us in the midst of Wonderland’s sun revisits: waltzing barefoot as our clothes catch sparks and burn away, embracing one another with no reservations.

A tingle of anticipation races through me, but I suppress it. “No. Not literal, symbolic. Giving and taking. Learning to understand and trust one another through any situation. I’ve had that with Jeb, for six years. I’m only starting to have it with you.”

Morpheus grunts, low in his chest. “I am not going to wait around and play second fiddle to Jebediah while your mortal side grows to understand and trust me.”

“You’re not second best. You and I get to have forever. Forever. Jeb has one life. It’s only fair I spend it with him.” I dance around the truth, as close as I’m willing to get.

“Fair? All this time, he’s been with you during your waking hours. I’ve ever only had you in your dreams. I want you in reality. I’ve waited for what feels like a thousand years already. It is time for our forever to begin.”

He’s not thinking this through. “Do you really want to start our life together while I’m harboring Red’s spirit?”

“We both knew you’d be carrying her out of this world.” The statement is matter-of-fact, but compassion softens his voice. “And you will still defeat her. The only thing that’s changed is she wants assurance you aren’t to abandon your royal responsibilities again. She knows if we’re wed, you’ll ne’er leave Wonderland. It was the one way I could get her to agree to hand over the medallion. And she refuses to make the exchange until the marriage is official. Surely you can see I had no choice.”

Ivory’s vision clambers through my mind with the sound of a toddler’s footfalls, knocking my worst fear loose: Red’s found a way to get everything she ever wanted. To have me marry the only netherling who can give her access to a dream-child, and to be ringside in my body as it happens. She’s planning to use our offspring for her revenge. But how?

I get to my feet and back away. “I thought that for once you had no ulterior motives. You’re no longer under Deathspeak. No longer trying to prevent Red’s destructive tide across the nether-realm. Your only motivation was to leave AnyElsewhere, repair Wonderland, and have me beside you there.”

“That is my only motivation.” His bejeweled eye markings are the sincerest shade of crystal, like human tears.

I back up more, my boots dragging on the shag carpet.

He stands cautiously, as if I were a wild animal he’s trying not to spook. “Alyssa, we’re shut inside a room with four walls. It’s not as if you can run from me, or whatever this is you’re accusing me of.”

I groan. “The reason Red lured Alice into the rabbit hole was to change the very foundation on which Wonderland is built. She wanted to introduce dreams and imagination into the bloodline, so netherlings would no longer have to depend on the human realm for them.”

By his shocked expression, it’s obvious this is the first he’s heard of her plan. “That’s a far nobler quest than I ever thought her capable of.”

“Not noble. There’s no way she’ll let the dreams be free, let them be accessible to everyone. She wants to control that power so she’ll be the most feared and dreaded queen of all time. Yes. Yes, that’s got to be it.” I shiver from head to toe, too horrified to even consider what I’m saying next. “I won’t let her use him like that.”

“Him?” The question slips from Morpheus’s mouth on a shaky breath.

Panic sluices through me—a rush of cold and hot. It’s too late to take back what I said. I hold my breath, waiting to see if I feel different . . . if there’s a physical drain as my powers fade away.

But nothing happens. With just a thought, I coax the papers on the easel to flip and flutter in place. It hits me that I haven’t broken the vow; I didn’t specify our child in my statement. Him is anonymous. Netherling vows are all about technicalities in the wording.

In fact, come to think of it, I promised Ivory never to tell anyone about the vision she shared, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t show anyone.

I stop beside the easel. We’ve already ruined the Queen of Hearts’ pastries. What’s a few opened paint containers?

Morpheus moves behind me to look over my wings, close enough that his clothes snag on my dress’s tiers with tiny popping sounds. I can feel the tension coming off him.

I remove my gloves. After opening three colors—red, blue, and black—I plunge my finger into one, letting the cold goo cover the tip. I work in mosaics. It’s not easy to portray what I’ve seen in my head using paint and paper. I don’t have Jeb’s skill, his light strokes, the ability to translate inner shapes and lines of gravity. But I do my best, sketching a rough image of me in my monarch dress, Morpheus in his suit, and a tiny boy with my eyes, his daddy’s blue hair, and wings.

Before I’ve even drawn the finishing touch of crowns on our heads, Morpheus backs up and drops into the chair where he laid his hat and gloves, crushing them. For the first time, he doesn’t seem to care.

The gems on his temples and cheeks glimmer a deep royal blue, as if he’s moonstruck. “You’ve seen him,” he whispers.

I don’t answer.

“When? How?” he asks.

I tighten my lips more.

By the resigned set of his jaw, it’s clear he understands I’m teetering on the slippery slope of a life-magic vow.

“Oh, Alyssa,” he murmurs. “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long. I feared it would frighten you. He’s the most special of all children. He’s going to save our world. Going to teach everyone how to imagine and dream.” That whimsical countenance returns to his face—a glow of euphoria. “I’ve a list of names for him. And there are so many games we can use to guide his skills.”

“I want him to be happy, Morpheus. Above everything else. To have a childhood.”

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