Once Upon A Nightmare

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merrymount

Donovan contacts me the next morning as promised. A letter appears as I pace before the Crooked Books'n'Nooks display window. Donovan's outside, waiting at a corner. A whole day, that's how long it's been. Alexander had his chance to apologize. Not that he really could, since I commanded him to leave me alone. Still, I doubt it's been that hard on him. I hear Gloom descending the stairs and I rip up the letter as if he's coming to personally interrogate me for the crime I'm about to commit.

"How are you feeling?" he asks.

"Better."

He begins sorting books on his mismatched shelves. "Oh—I meant to ask you. Did you pull out this history book yesterday?" He holds up the thick book Donovan and I read together.

"Um—yeah. That was me."

"I saw it open to Queen Hina's history." He shakes his head. "Those were dark times. Sometimes I wonder if these Dreams fighting against Jack even remember what it was like under her rule . . ." He replaces the book.

"So, I'm going out," I say as if I can't hear him. I've made my decision, regardless of any historical nuances. Desperate measures, and all that.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, to uh . . . you know. Patch things up with Alexander."

"That's an excellent plan." Gloom's unexpected encouragement and wide smile of relief make me feel guilty (and also suspicious of his loyalty to my Hate-Alexander-Forever cause), but I don't dare tell him. If this really is a bad decision, I don't want to know yet.

"Have I ever told you what my power is, Violet?"

That catches me off guard. "No," I say. I smile. "Is it the ability to read really fast? Because that would be my power."

He returns my smile. "No, though I do read fast." He walks over to me and puts a hand on my shoulder. The gesture is so quietly affectionate, I almost crack, but I keep it in, pressing my lips together. I can't lose my nerve. "As the love of gothic literature, I can see anyone's darkest story."

Understanding stiffens my spine. "Oh."

"I know Prince Alexander has hurt you, Violet," he continues softly. "But he has his own share of hurt to deal with. He wants to help you."

"Okay." My smile is totally fake, and I think Gloom sees that, but he doesn't stop me. He lets go of my shoulder and I meet Donovan outside on the street.

Maybe Gloom can see Alexander's darkest story, but that doesn't mean he can see Alexander's character. He's still a lying, self-centered jerk who would be only too happy if I vanished forever.

. . . . . . . . .

Donovan nods his acknowledgement and together we go to Merrymount—in a carriage, no less. It's old-fashioned, straight out of a Stoker novel, and doesn't stand out too much in Chimera, but probably won't draw unwanted attention in the Dream city either.

The little I've seen of the Isle of Morpheus's other side has been in Alexander's dreams and I'm expecting something like the Woodland Pastures—rolling fields, giant cotton candy oaks, and jelly-bean plants. The actual Merrymount is a bright, gaudy metropolis. It's not as cramped and aggressive as Chimera—sort of spacious and melodic—but my eyes water trying to take in all the sparkly goodness.

Through the carriage window, I swear I can hear something, like itty-bitty bells inside the air tinkling with the breeze. It's vaguely creepy, and I glance back at Donovan. He doesn't seem any more comfortable than I do.

As we turn a corner, a building flashes violently into view. Nothing around it comes close in size or magnificence. Pure white and sparkling like a diamond, it spirals up into the sky, its peak nearly touching the clouds.

"What is that?" I ask.

"Hina's old palace."

And also our destination, as it turns out. The carriage drops us off near a set of open, double doors. Donovan pays the driver and as I watch Dreams filtering in and out, he walks inside without so much as a glance or a 'follow-me' signal. I keep close behind him as we venture into the mass of people. Despite the crowds, he manages to keep his three foot radius of space. People hold on to each other to keep from stumbling into the sacred circle around his feet.

Inside, it's a giant, marketplace extravaganza—half mall, half glitter flea market. I see dozens of posters with slogans like, Dreams Against Famished Nightmares! Protect Your Children From Bloodthirsty Monsters! If Our "King" Starves, Where Does That Leave Us?

Unlike Chimera, there's no shortage of vitality here. And why not? They don't even have to work for humans to have nice dreams. The joy is manufactured for them.

"Magic wands!"

"Caramel apples!"

"Fairy dust!"

"This place?" I ask Donovan loudly. If I leaned in closer, he could probably hear me at a normal pitch, but I'd feel safer giving a cobra a butterfly kiss.

"Trust me."

The plan, as he explained it to me, is simple. I send Alexander a letter telling him I'm stranded in Merrymount. Gloom helped me get here, but then I lost him. When Alexander comes to help, Donovan's Dream buddies will surround him. I command him to come with us and we leave to find the Stitch in Time, where I will jump through a loose thread to safety and then whatever happens to Alexander . . . happens.

I'm trying not to think about that part.

In the center of the marketplace, we stop at wide fountain, its high-arching water every color of the rainbow. Donovan hands me a paper and a postage pen.

"Write the letter," he instructs.

I sit on the edge of the fountain and hold the tip of the pen against the paper. Last chance to back out. Darling Alexander, I write, and the pleasure of sarcasm drives away any lingering doubts I have.

When Gloom talked about how nice Merrymount was, I decided to go cheer myself up, but now I'm lost. I can't ask Gloom because he gets harassed here (since he looks like a Nightmare). Any chance of a princely taxi? I imagine they'll be too scared to harass you.

Violet

P.S. Don't be smug.

I show it to Donovan, who reads over it and nods his acceptance. After folding the paper, I write Alexander's name on the side. Less than a minute after sending it, another paper materializes in front of me. Donovan takes it. He scans the contents and then rolls his eyes, handing the letter to me.

"It's him," he says, turning. The crowd swallows him up moments after he leaves.

I hope they try. Why did you go to Merrymount to cheer yourself up? It's like you need me to remind you of your personality and what would actually be successful in cheering you up. Where are you, exactly?

P.S. As smug as you are imagining me right now, I am in fact smugger than that. I'm saving the choreographed victory dance so you can see it in person.

A half laugh escapes. How easy we fall into the normal banter—even after the 'I hate you's. I pause, suddenly missing when we simply played together, but then I remember—it was fake. All of it. He was counting his days until the gods would sweep me out of his life forever.

The marketplace. You know, where you went to get Enna a flower for Valentine's Day?

Okay, that was a little mean. Maybe I should have waited until after the surge of bitterness had passed.

It takes forever for a reply to come back.

I remember. Wait there. Try not to cause any more trouble.

I tear the letter in half, angry at him for not responding as the jerk he was supposed to be. The pieces drop from my fingers into the brightly colored pool beside me. I look around, trying to spot Donovan or any of the supposed Dreams in their given positions. If they're there, they're well hidden.

I draw my knees up and rest my chin on them, letting out a long breath. Alexander is right. All this sparkle and pizzazz isn't my style. This place would never cheer me up on a bad day; it's depressing me now. Or maybe it's the whole 'betraying-Alexander-to-his-enemy' thing.

No . . . it's definitely the pizzazz. I close my eyes.

And besides, I'm not betraying him. I'm merely enlisting his involuntary help to help myself. Then he'll go back to his royal, charming life.

I'm not sure how long I sit there with my eyes shut, but after a while my skin prickles with the sensation of someone watching me. I turn, straightening a little, but see no one in the kiosks around the fountain.

"Violet! Is that you?"

I nearly fall backward into the water.

Genn looks at me, parasol propped against her shoulder. Her knee-length dress is off the shoulder and dark green; her hair straight and glossy down her neck.

"Genn?" I frown. "Why are you—did Alexander send you?"

"No." She raises an eyebrow. "I'm shopping." She points at a small group of girls—all pretty and dressed up, but none even close to as beautiful as Genn. "The best shopping is in Merrymount. Not that I don't look good in black—because of course I do—but it's nice to have some variety. What are you doing here?"

"Oh, um . . . same." Really, her dark hair is the only Nightmarish thing about her. Unlike Gloom, who actually is a Dream, Genn's pretty face fits right in. "Genn—whatkind of fear are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I just can't imagine you scaring anyone. Ever."

She laughs in surprise. "Oh. That. Well, I'm not like Alexander, scaring the hell out of everyone and everything—pun intended." She winks. "But I do all right. I'm the fear of beauty."

Now it's my turn to laugh. "The fear of beauty? Who's scared of beauty?"

"Like I said, my pool of victims may be smaller, but it's a very painful, personal fear for some people." She sits next to me, closing her parasol and setting it in her lap. "I heard about your fight with Alexander."

"He told you?"

"Yes. I mean—I made him tell me when he wanted some extra clothes for you."

"Wait—he sent the clothes and food?"

She blinks at my outburst. "I assume?"

I groan. "Why is he so stupid?"

"You've lost me, honey."

I sigh and stiffen as I see Donovan stalking toward us. "Genn—" I grab her arm and force her to her feet. I'm not dragging her into this, too. "Your friends are calling you."

She looks over her shoulder. "I didn't hear anything."

"They are. They waved. I saw them." I push her and she stumbles a bit.

"Okay. No need to get physical." She shoots me a sullen look, but turns toward the group of foot-tapping girls.

Halfway to the fountain, Donovan stops and watches her leave. I exhale in relief. My skin tightens again. Someone is watching me—and not Donovan. Not Genn, either; it's the same presence from before.

"Violet."

I'm sure someone whispers my name, but by the time I look, Donovan has reached me.

"It's been too long," he says. "Alexander is smart. He knows we're here. Saw us."

Was it him I felt? Why didn't my inner flame act up?

"Must be waiting." Donovan nods in Genn's direction. "We can use the princess."

"No!"

His eyes narrow.

"You can't," I say, quieter.

As if summoned from air, a dagger rotates in his hand. He points the tip at my throat. "If not her, you." The tip touches the soft skin of my neck and even that light pressure punctures. I wince, stuttering unsuccessfully to remind him he doesn't need the dagger on me—I volunteered my services.

I feel heat on my skin, radiating from the blade.

Donovan hisses and drops the dagger. It clatters to the floor, warped and glistening as if pulled from a fire pit. I look up.

"Don't touch her," Alexander says. His face is remarkably impassive. Where did he come from? My flame is still only a flicker, instead of dancing with excitement like it usually does when Alexander is anywhere close to me.

Donovan doesn't move, doesn't speak. His eyes dart to different areas of the marketplace. The Dreams are closing in.

I rub my neck, the tiny line of blood slick beneath my fingers. I have to warn him. But as I turn and open my mouth, he meets my eyes and I see he already knows. "You planned this," he says quietly. There's no anger or blame in his voice. Just acknowledgment. It makes it worse.

His eyes flash. The next thing I know, someone screams and a chain of fire throws a green-skinned Dream into the fountain. The small crowd around the fountain jolts, looking for the source, but Alexander hasn't moved—not even a finger—though he's clearly the one who attacked the Dream. He's so . . . controlled. It's weird.

"Go," Donovan says.

He isn't talking to me. From within the crowd, more Dreams converge on Alexander. The shoppers around them cry out as Alexander at last moves to defend himself, giving him a wide berth of space. Vendors scramble to get their wares out of range. At the Masquerade, Alexander was an explosion of destructive power, like fire. This time he's precise, contained, and deliberate—as if he actually cares if he hurts an innocent bystander. Instead of blasting the three Dreams around him, he deals with them at close range, drawing them into tight, hand to hand combat. He only uses fire at the end to trip the last Dream. More are coming, I see them pushing through the crowds, but Alexander doesn't wait to see if his odds will hold up—he's trying to get away.

Donovan curses. "Lana, now."

A girl with long red hair suddenly screams in pain, holding the side of her face. "Tyrant," she yells, her voice tortured. "You use your power to oppress the Dreams—not rule them!"

That draws some of the shoppers out from behind their barricades. I understand why Donovan needed the marketplace. Everyone is looking at Alexander, who looks a little too much like Jack for his own good. Resentment swells in the crowd like a unified heartbeat. Alexander is only standing there, but it doesn't matter. The wounds are old and his presence picks at them, causing fresh bleeding.

I haven't moved, totally useless, half-wanting to defend him, but knowing it wouldn't help if I did.

"She's faking!" Genn comes from nowhere and pokes Lana hard in the stomach with the end of her parasol. Lana gasps and grabs her middle in surprise. Her face is fine, as Genn proves, but it's too late. The crowd of Dreams doesn't see a group of organized renegades framing the Prince of Nightmares for violence. They see two members of the royal family attacking Dreams on their land for no apparent reason. It's the tipping point.

A shout of anger ripples through the marketplace like a wave. I rush toward Genn, but Donovan grabs my shoulder. I struggle to get out of his hold, but his grip only loosens when he passes me to the red-haired Dream, Lana.

"Come on, human," she says.

"Let—go!" Being the only one who doesn't have any battle skills is getting old.

"Stop it! You can't do anything else to help us." Using me almost like a shield, she pushes us out the door. I don't want to help them, I want to help Alexander and Genn. Three bizarre pod-looking things are parked outside Hina's palace, and Lana leads me to the farthest one. They're silver, oddly high-tech looking in a world I've found to be mostly antique.

"Mo," Lana calls to a Dream leaning against the pod door. He raises an eyebrow. He's dark-skinned and his brown hair is perfectly coifed on his head, almost like plastic. As we get close, I catch a heavy scent of chocolate.

"Is zis Alexandair's human girl?"

"Don't let her go anywhere. I'll be right back."

"Mais oui." He grins. "Ne'er fear, cheri. Ze human ladies . . . zey love me."

The rich, cocoa mousse smell is mildly intoxicating. "You're the love of chocolate," I guess.

"Oui."

Like most Dreams, he isn't terribly scary. I'm debating on how much physical force I need to get away from him, when his eyes widen and he grabs my arm. "Sacré bleu. Time to go, mamzelle."

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