Ensnared Page 69


Confused by her command, I beat my wings harder to stay adrift and out of reach.

The queen motions to her guards. Two new ivy appendages slip free from her sleeves and latch onto both her wrists.

“The girl is to be left intact,” Red hisses, wrapping her vines around Hart’s arms until they’re bound to her waist.

The queen fights with the vines and her hair flashes—from bright red to burgundy. The guards shuffle their feet, unsure which queen to listen to. Even Manti appears confused. It’s as if they’ve learned the hard way that whichever queen gains control of the body should have their loyalty.

“The girl came of her own volition,” Red reasons, “just as Morpheus predicted she would. Her body is not to be harmed. She’s here for the ceremony, and this grim assemblage will serve as witnesses.” At this, all of the queen’s hair changes to crimson.

Ceremony. Morpheus must’ve laid out our proposition for Red to inhabit my body and leave this world. I’m assuming they’ve talked Hart into it somehow.

But what’s a ceremony have to do with it?

“I wasn’t aware we’d need witnesses,” I shout, hovering higher.

Movement stirs behind the queen. Her subjects and attendants part to make way and Morpheus steps through. At first glance, I’m thrilled to see him unchained and unhurt. Then I notice how he’s dressed, and how at home he seems standing in the midst of the royal party.

Looking up at me, he takes off a tall, checkered red and burgundy top hat that complements his burgundy pinstriped suit, black shirt, and red tie. His jeweled eye markings blink darkest purple, and he offers his most scintillating smile. “Come down, luv. Don’t be shy. Every wedding ceremony needs witnesses. Why should mine and yours be any different?”

The Queen of Hearts’s hair flip-flops from one shade to the other as she accompanies us to a room in the castle. Three of her guards follow behind. It reminds me of when I was forced to stroll down a corridor in the Red castle with Morpheus a year ago, only minutes away from sure death at the snarling mouth of a bandersnatch.

A death he saved me from, I remind myself.

I clench my jaw as he holds my hand, fingers woven through mine. I’ve postponed unleashing my magic and the deadly dress. I’m going along with the engagement charade for three reasons:

One: Jeb is somewhere in this castle, and I have to keep my cool long enough to locate him.

Two: I’m so relieved that Morpheus’s heart isn’t on the chopping block, I can’t find it in my own heart to strangle him yet.

And three: Morpheus’s expression promises answers and begs cooperation. There’s more to this than he’s letting on.

I’ll finesse the truth out of him once he and I are alone, which must be what he had in mind when he requested we have a moment to ourselves before the ceremony. Red agreed, but each step I take becomes more weighted. I suspect she was compliant because we’re going somewhere private to transfer her spirit.

Without the lifeline of the diary, I may as well be drowning. I tighten my fingers through Morpheus’s as waves of insecurity roll over me. Holding my gaze, he lifts my hand and kisses my gloved knuckles. He’s genuinely glad to see me.

That would change in a blink, were he to hear about my life-magic vow to Jeb. Even though the human side of me has always belonged to Jeb, even though somewhere in Morpheus’s heart he’s always known it, he’s going to be furious. Both guys may have learned to coexist in this world, but if Jeb stands in the way of some master plan, things could change in a heartbeat. I won’t tell Morpheus while we’re in this castle. His jealous, feral side is too unpredictable when it comes to Wonderland or me.

After climbing two flights of winding stairs, we walk through a marble hallway. Hundreds of shadow boxes line the walls, boasting a selection of hearts—different sizes and shapes—that pump wildly in their compartments. With each thump, blurs of red smear the glass lids, as if the organs are knocking on the doors of their prisons. A coppery, meaty stench curdles my stomach.

I try not to compare the bugs I killed and hung on the walls at home to what Hart has done, but the parallel is striking. Collecting must be in my blood. I don’t dare speculate what else might be . . .

The guards open a set of double doors and usher us into a chamber with black shag carpet and burgundy tiled walls. The queen accompanies us inside against her will. It’s apparent by her crimson hair that Red has taken over again. After we’re safely inside, the guards step out into the hall and close the door behind them.

“Welcome to Hart’s playroom.” Red’s breathy murmur slithers into my personal space.

Her presence pricks that frangible place behind my sternum where she left her mark. I crush my fur-lined bodice against my skin in an effort not to be paralyzed by the climate of terror and oppression that surrounds her in any form. I have to be stronger than her.

I familiarize myself with the room, seeking out possible weapons. An assortment of gold velvet parlor chairs and chaise lounges lines the walls. Stolen hearts provide the decor: picture and mirror frames utilize the throbbing organs in grisly albeit creative ways; throw rugs ornament the carpet, tasseled with sprite-size thumping beads like the ones on the queen’s sleeves.

The most intricate and morbid display is a giant brass chandelier at the center of the domed ceiling, tipped with the pulsating organs. Impaled with light bulbs, they glow from within, casting veined luminaries along the white ceiling. The contractions of hollow muscles and the rush of blood circulate in an eternal loop, as if projected onto a screen. With the discordant vibration of heartbeats and the strange, pulsing lights, the room feels like a conscious thing—and we are the prey, trapped inside its rib cage.

Is this what Morpheus felt like, being swallowed by the bandersnatch?

Disoriented, I catch his elbow. In response, one of his wings enfolds both of mine, snuggling me into his side in unwavering support. His scent surrounds me.

“The one thing Hart asks,” Red says, her vines wrestling the queen’s hands to maintain control, “is that you not touch her paints or her tarts.”

A table is set with pastries along with a glass of white liquid that looks like milk. On the wall above it hangs an easel filled with blank papers held in place by a clip. A set of finger paints in small containers waits to be used. The sight of them makes me think of Jeb, and I gasp against the shortness of breath that has come to accompany the knifelike stab behind my breastbone. Dizziness blurs my vision.

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