Untamed Page 27

“Late, I be,” he croaks an apology.

I try to nod in reassurance, but fail.

His entire face comes into view over me. “Fix you, Highness. Take you home, at long last.”

Home. The word waltzes through my mind, filled with promise and hope. I imagine myself flying with Morpheus over Wonderland’s bizarre, winding terrains. How lovely it will be to belong once more. To belong, and never have to leave anyone again.

Rabid’s bony arm reaches inside and pours something from a bright red bottle down my throat. The faintest hint of berries mixed with menthol tickles my tongue. My heart jumps to life, pounding so hard against my sternum, I gasp. In moments, I’m able to squint without any help from the sprites. They disperse with jingly giggles and hover around the sleeping crematory operator where he’s slumped on the gray cement floor.

I blink—hard and fast. My tear ducts reactivate and my eyes water. The saltiness stings and itches.

Next, my toes and fingers wiggle, then my muscles reawaken, sluggish and resistant, like overextended rubber bands. As I pull myself to a sitting position, my old ligaments pop and snap.

Rabid perches on the edge of the incline and grips the casket, keeping him eye level with me. “Forgive Rabid of White. Forever-evermore, be at your side.”

I pat his soft head. “No forgiveness necessary. What matters is you’re here now. Did anyone see you coming out of the bathroom?”

Rabid shakes his head. “The fly on the wall kept an eye on the hall.” He snickers at his rhyme and points to the top quarter of the door, which harbors the only window in the room. The housefly skitters across the glass on the other side in demonstration of its steadfast devotion.

Rabid offers the sly, frothy grin I’ve come to adore as his skeletal hand gives me a small backpack. I look inside and everything’s there: my ruby-tipped key necklace, my wedding ring, the simulacrum suits, a bag of ash and splintered bits of bone, a change of clothes, a box knife, and three keepsakes from my human life that are the only things I’m taking with me across the border of Wonderland.

First, I pull on my necklace and press the key to my chest, savoring the power it holds.

The crematory operator snores from the floor. He looks cold and uncomfortable, but I know better. His dreams are warm and sensuous. The sprites flutter around him, tufted wings swishing at the speed of hummingbirds as they release particles like dandelion fuzz filled with pheromones. The seeds snow across the man’s smiling face, coaxing his subconscious to envision his most carnal fantasies. I crinkle my nose, embarrassed even to conjecture what they might be. He’s probably going to have a dream hangover for a week.

Although he won’t suffer any lasting physical effects, the sprites are exploiting his private thoughts. When I was younger, I might’ve regretted using him as a pawn. Not anymore. When he wakes up in an hour or so, his splitting headache will prevent him from questioning how he managed to cremate me in his sleep. All he’ll want is an aspirin and his nice soft bed at home.

The end justifies the means.

I use the box knife to cut a flap in the casket’s side and swing my legs out, slow and careful. I can’t move as fast as I once did. My bare feet meet the cold floor, paper gown swishing around me. Rabid turns his back as I peel off the gown and toss it into the box, then pull on a gray sweat suit and boots—the most comfortable and inconspicuous clothes from my closet. I kick myself for forgetting underclothes, but it doesn’t matter what I wear now because in Wonderland, Morpheus has filled all the castle’s armoires with lace-trimmed, satin and velvet gowns and lingerie—a wardrobe worthy of a queen.

Today, the simulacrum suit will hide my pedestrian outfit. I step into the enchanted fabric. All I have to do is pull on the hood, then concentrate on the surroundings, and I’ll become like a chameleon, my body reflecting the background.

But first . . .

Rabid hands off the bag of ash and bone and my wedding ring without my even asking. I study the ring. Jeb made it for me when he had the magical ability to paint things and bring them to life. When his muse had become a living entity. It had served as both my engagement and wedding ring, and was indestructible. Or so we had thought. The only time it lost one of its twelve tiny diamonds was due to backlash from my own magic when I was practicing.

I had been standing outside our country cottage, coaxing the weeping willow to dance, when the diamond fell into the grass. We searched and searched, but never found it. Within a week, it showed up again, sprouting from the ground in the form of a glistening, glass-like flower. It was as if the diamond was a seed, holding within it a burst of Jeb’s creation magic.

The scent of soil from the memory fades to the scent of the furnace’s propane. I open the bag’s drawstring and dump the ash and bones into the casket, keeping my movements methodical and precise so nostalgia won’t overtake me again.

Upon emptying the bag, I kiss my ring and lay it atop the dusty pile. “Rabid, melt it with your magic.”

My royal advisor hops over, peers through the opened flap, and sharpens his glowing irises until they radiate red heat. As he concentrates, the silver band melts, releasing the eleven diamonds into the ashes.

I place the identification tag within the casket and read what’s etched into the steel: Alyssa Victoria Gardner Holt. A lump rises in my throat. It’s the last time my human name will define me.

Repositioning the lid, I command the door’s springs to retract and release. I squint against heat and flaring flames as the hatch swings up long enough for me to shove the casket down the incline, then slams shut. It seals so tightly, not even an orange glow can be seen from within.

Only a few seconds more and I would’ve been locked inside. Now, after the cardboard burns away, it will look as if I was. The shiny metal shelves along the wall house a multitude of small cardboard cubes. Inside are the remains of the bodies that came before me and are now waiting to be transferred to their urns.

But my “remains” are unique. Jeb’s diamonds wait inside—little magical seeds. When these ashes are sprinkled where his have been absorbed into the earth beneath our willow tree, flowers will sprout there, a part of him and me. Uniting what’s left of our shared humanness, in one final tribute to all the beauty he created throughout his life.

I grit my teeth against crying, and gather up my backpack as Rabid puts on the other simulacrum suit. It shrinks to fit his bunny-size form, and I send the housefly a mental query to see if the hall is clear.

It whispers back:

All is well, Queen Alyssa . . .

The other humans have gone. Nothing but a few lowly silverfish skittering about.

No need to be invisible quite yet, then.

“Nikki,” I whisper, and the little sprite shakes her wings for good measure, releasing a final dose of fairy dust across the sleeping man. Then she gathers her spriteling companions and follows us out the door. The bathroom is only a few steps across the dim, long hallway. I hobble along, careful not to crush the silverfish skimming around my and Rabid’s feet. I smile as the insects are joined by a long line of roaches, beetles, and spiders.

Queen Alyssa! Queen Alyssa! So sad to see you go . . .

The fly buzzes around my head, adding his good-byes to the mix.

“I’ll miss you all, too,” I say, fighting a swell of wistfulness. It’s the last conversation I’ll have with earthly bugs. The last time I’ll hear their fuzzy, buzzy greetings. In Wonderland, the insects are . . . very different. Less innocuous and kind. Some are vicious and deadly, and far from small. But I know all their secrets, and all their weaknesses—thanks to Wonderland’s wisdom keeper.

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