Ensnared Page 17

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My shoulders tense. Even though it’s not the first time I’ve stepped into otherworldly unrest, this news catches me off guard. “I thought I’d be the only one who could use magic.”

“Yeah. Me, too.” Dad drops a crescent-shaped piece of bread into his mouth and chews while unutterable fears move across his face like storm clouds.

“What if it’s Red?” I blurt.

“Using her magic? How?”

“I don’t know. But the timing has to be more than a coincidence. Maybe she’s immune to the iron since technically she’s using the zombie flower’s body.” I shut my eyes against the image. I won’t back down. I’m done running from her, from my destiny and my mistakes. One way or another, her reign of terror is about to come to an end.

Dad grabs my hand. I open my eyes to find his eyelid twitching.

“You still haven’t told me why you were in a room on the train with her name etched on a plaque.” His fingers tighten around mine. “I don’t want you stirring up trouble. She’s been dealt justice. She’s where she belongs. We’re going to go in, get Jeb, and go out the Wonderland gate. No interactions with anyone or anything other than that. And for sure no getting sidetracked with revenge or old debts. Okay?”

The diary on my neck feels as heavy as a brick in spite of its teensy size. There’s more to this mission. We’re rescuing someone else, too. I’m not leaving AnyElsewhere without three things: Morpheus, Jeb, and the total annihilation of Red.

Dad swallows the last of the water. “Allie, give me an answer. We need to be straight with one anoth—”

A clatter of dishes stops Dad in mid-statement as Hubert sets down our steaming food along with water and a cup of coffee for Dad. The netherling glares at me before starting toward the kitchen.

“Great tableside manner, Eggbert,” I say, louder than I should.

Dad grimaces as our host stops mid-step and totters around, his white shell warming to red beneath his beaded bedazzlements.

“Next I see you”—Hubert points his tray at me—“you’ll either be in a coffin, or be banished from your kingdom for your irresponsible actions. Enjoy your last meal here as the reigning Red Queen, either way.”

He leaves Dad and me to eat in the abandoned dining room, the metallic clang of swordplay from the pit hanging between us like a razor-sharp death knell.

While Dad goes with Uncle Bernie to collect weapons and practice a few more fencing moves, I wander the halls in search of Chessie.

I’m afraid to call his name aloud, considering Hubert’s reaction to me and how so many netherling guests share his prejudice. Instead, I call to Chessie in my mind, hoping I have the ability like Morpheus does. Hoping it’s a netherling talent I can master.

A door opens and I duck into the shadows. A maid comes out, pushing a cleaning cart. Ski-shaped runners provide momentum in place of wheels, so the cart moves smoothly over the cushioned floor. A combination of ground pepper and cleaning products stings my nostrils as she passes by.

The maid’s profile reminds me of a bulldog—complete with a flat, wet muzzle that causes her to snort with each breath. Her body resembles a pig’s, aside from her lobster-claw hands. Tufts of fur speckle her greenish cheeks, elbows, and knees from beneath a short-aproned uniform.

On her cart, three transparent hooded coveralls are crumpled in a pile, revealing subtle folds and pleats that disrupt the atmosphere. It looks like Bill the Lizard is sending his simulacrum suits out for cleaning.

“It connects with the wearer’s mind and reflects their surroundings. Observers are deluded into seeing only the body parts that are bared. . . . Comes in handier than you’d think.”

Yeah, I bet it does, Hubert. If Dad and I were invisible, it would be easy to smuggle us into AnyElsewhere’s gate. And since we’re going into a war zone, we could use some camouflage.

I fall into line behind the maid, debating how to get the suits. I might have to resort to magic.

“Excuse me,” I say softly.

She turns, snarling. Embossed letters glimmer on her brassy name tag: Duchess. Come to think of it, she does favor the duchess sketch from my mom’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland book. I’m not sure why a duchess is cleaning rooms at an inn. Unless I got her stuck here, too. In which case it’s better not to introduce myself.

“What do you want?” Her question is more of a growl. Her teeth remind me of peppercorns, just like those of the piggish creature I met at the Feast of Beasts last year: the duchess’s son. He gave us the pepper to wake the tea party guests. The family resemblance is unmistakable.

“I could use some clean towels,” I say. While she’s distracted with the lower shelf, I’ll snag the suits from the top and run.

“These are velvet robes, not towels. Complimentary to our most valued customers. The boss keeps count of them. If any go missing, they come out of my paycheck.” She waves me away with her feather duster.

I catch the feathers and she clamps the handle, engaging in a tug-of-war.

“Your boss wouldn’t mind if you give me one,” I insist. “We’ve become fast friends.” The lie sounds as stale as it tastes on my tongue, but it doesn’t matter because a cloud of orange, glittery mist appears behind the maid’s shoulder—silent and stealthy. Before Chessie’s body even materializes, I know it’s him.

I bite back a smile. He did hear me.

I send a silent explanation of what I’m after and Chessie bows, grinning that wide, mischievous smile. He’s always ready to leap into the thick of things without question, just for the fun of it. No wonder Morpheus considers him a worthy sidekick.

“About the robes,” I say to the piggish maid. “I only need one. You can just tell Hubert it sprouted legs and walked away.” I give Chessie a subtle nod. With a swish of orange and gray stripes, he tunnels into the pile of folded velvet robes on the corner of her cart.

“Do I look asleep to you?” the duchess asks me.

“No. Why?”

“Because the saying goes, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ Well, I’m not asleep, so I don’t intend to lie.” She jerks the feather duster from my grasp. “Now, off with you.”

The instant the “off with you” escapes her mashed-in muzzle, a velvety robe scurries across the floor, long sleeves draped behind. The maid yelps, her orange eyes bouncing from me to the escaping robe.

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