Behind His Mask

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Chapter 11 - He Wore Bells

Chapter Eleven

He Wore Bells

The next day was Friday and I got a special call from Emi asking if I could watch Paisley that night. Apparently, Vincent was flying in and since she hadn’t seen him in weeks, she wanted me to babysit so she could have a date with him. So, I found myself sitting at their kitchen table at ten-thirty that night looking at my math homework with dismay and waiting anxiously for either Emi and Vincent or Evander to get home.

Eleven o’clock chimed on the clock. No one had come and I still didn’t understand my homework. I was about to close my textbooks when Evander came sauntering in.

“Thank Heaven,” I said weakly when he strode through the door.

For a second, it looked like he didn’t understand why I was there and then he suddenly seemed to clue in. “Emi’s not home. Paisley’s asleep and you’re waiting for me so you can go home,” he deduced like he was Sherlock Holmes.

“Brilliant deduction,” I said as I heaved my backpack onto the table.

He picked up my math textbook. “I remember this one. Are you getting good grades?”

I stuck out my tongue, took it away from him, and stowed it in my bag. “Not so much.”

“I did well in that class. Do you want me to help you?” he suddenly volunteered.

I hesitated. My brain felt like tapioca and he wanted to turn it into a functioning circuit board? It seemed impossible.

“Besides,” he continued. “It would be better to wait for Vincent and Emi to get home anyway. Then I could drive you.”

I didn’t feel like doing any more homework. I wouldn’t be able to understand two words he spoke together if one of them was hypotenuse, but whatever. Even if I ended up looking stupid, one of my fantasies had come true. I nodded. I set my books back on the table and he started going over the problems I had struggled with, which had been pretty much all of them.

I wanted to get through his tutoring by smiling and nodding and saying, “Oh, that’s how that works?” But he wouldn’t let me. He made me pay attention. He asked me questions and explained it sensibly until even my fried brain cells were forced to comply.

When we had finished four problems, he stopped and said, “Let’s take a break. You look exhausted.”

“I am. I already worked on this stuff for hours before you rescued me. You’re really good at it. What are you taking in college?”

He got up and took one of Emi’s flavored water drinks out of the fridge. He offered me one and opened the lid of his. “I’m not taking anything.”

“Really? I thought you were.”

“I’m enrolled in classes, if that’s what you mean, and I go. If I keep going, I’ll end up an architect.”

“So enthusiastic!” I beamed sarcastically.

He favored me with a half-smile. “I know. I just haven’t figured out what life has to offer me.”

I stared at him. “What does that mean?”

He looked at me wistfully, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘start with the end in mind?’”

“It’s all over my high school.”

“Yeah. I can’t get it out of my head. I like to write and whenever I write a story, the ending is the most important part. At every moment of the story, I’m driving toward the endpoint—the final moment. The problem is when I think of my own life and make myself the protagonist, I can’t figure out where I want to go.” He laughed. “I can’t even imagine myself being old. What about you? Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?”

“I have a few ideas.”

“Like what?”

“I think I’d like to go to a foreign country like Korea or Japan and teach English. Then there’s a big part of me that would like to take cooking and learn to make buttery pastries, but in the back of my mind, I think I’ll never break away from wiping runny noses. I can always get a job in a daycare.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Not as much as you’d think. I like getting hugs and it makes me feel good to be the one who cares about a kid when they’re having trouble getting love.”

His face fell.

Did I say something wrong? Surprisingly, I didn’t feel like asking. Instead, I just pretended I didn’t notice something was bothering him. “What high school did you go to? Maybe I’m going to the same one?”

“No,” Evander said quickly. “I grew up in Vancouver.”

“You must have really wanted to come to Edmonton for school then. The weather here is crappy compared to the coast.”

He exhaled impatiently. “I don’t care about any of that. Actually, Emi and Vincent came for my high school graduation and after the ceremony, Emi asked me about my plans. I told her and she was so… infuriated with me that she basically kidnapped me.”

“What?” I gasped. “That sounds—”

“Unbelievable. I know.”

“I was going to say, it sounds like her. What were your plans?”

His eyes were steady and his voice bland as he answered. “To get drunk off my ass and drive my car into the harbor.”

I didn’t move a muscle. He wasn’t joking. I gulped in my breath and asked bravely, “You couldn’t think of one thing that was worth living for?”

“No. I still can’t.”

“But you’re so smart and…” I stammered. It sounded inadequate.

He put up his hand. “Spare me. Emi tries to pump me up like that all the time. I’m so smart. I’m so handsome. I’m such a nice guy. Those kinds of things don’t make the dagger that hangs over my head disappear. The truth is I’m demented. Can’t you tell? And if you can, then why on earth did you agree to go on a date with me?”

I got up from the table and with slow even steps, I brought myself beside him. “I wanted to go with you.”

“Right,” he snorted, turning his head away. “You didn’t know it was me calling that night you accidentally teased me. When you found out it was me, you must have felt like you would be out of a job if you refused.”

“I didn’t feel like that.”

He scoffed, “Sure you didn’t.”

I felt like a bomb was fizzing in my stomach and either the fuse would fizzle or there would be an explosion in my gut. Could I let the moment go? Sorely tempted, though I was, I could just prattle off the same things Emi did. That would be the easy way out, but if I wanted to take the easy way out then why did I keep reading his book when it put me in the emergency room? It was easier in the book. There I could say anything. But what was the difference? In the real world, I could say anything. That was the truth.

My heart beat like furiously beating wings and I let the words loose like a cage full of doves—they would go where they were meant to go. “You know, I’m not less attracted to you because of what you’ve told me tonight.”

“You should be. Self-destructive guys shouldn’t be attractive to you. You should know better than that.”

I rolled my eyes and grabbed his shoulder. “I didn’t say I was more attracted to you. If you think it’s a big secret that you’re depressed, you’re wrong. I already knew.”

He shook off my hand and walked away.

I turned my back to him and put my hands on the edge of the kitchen sink. I took the stainless steel edge in my hand and stretched my back. Had I made a mistake? It had taken such courage to say what I said and there was no reward. Shouldn’t we have bonded? I felt further away from him than before. What had I done wrong?

I stood up straight and looked into the backyard. Then I felt something brush my ear and something pressed into the back pocket of my jeans. Evander’s lips were by my ear and he was whispering. “Take this,” he said. “I really want you to have it.”

Then, for the briefest of seconds, he wrapped his arm around my waist and rested his cheek on the back of my head. My heart fluttered and then he pulled away. I heard him on the stairs, going back down to his lair.

From my back pocket, I retrieved Evander’s green iPod and out the back window, the garage light came on. Emi and Vincent were back.

***

Kalavan pressed tirelessly through the woods in pursuit. He knew how fast Valance liked to ride and keeping pace on foot through the foliage was quite a task. Kalavan anathematized himself every step of the way. Why hadn’t he realized Serissa was following him when he left the hut? Standing beside her was like standing in the midst of the rose maze enigma. She was scented like a rose. Her mother hadn’t sought to alienate her by making her smell like stink-weed, probably because it was impossible. And him? Ha! He thought he had seen through her mother’s spells and seen the mystery behind them. He had seen nothing. He only saw that glamor was there. He hadn’t even envisioned what she would be like if it were gone—totally vulnerable. Beautiful? Yes... but fragile like spun glass. And he hadn’t protected her!

Crystal ball, in my hand

Whose love will I demand?

Whose love will be most grand?

Whose got red in every strand?

Who no charm can withstand?

Who armies cannot command

And disappear like blowing sand.

Kalavan finally understood what the charm he had recited to gain focus really meant. The poem had a hint about his reward if he pursued his fate without fault. The poem had so few hints as to where to find her, but there was the color red. The daughter of the Red Thorn. She was a woman who couldn’t be won by a crown, or military might, who was precious and elusive. He had foolishly left her because he believed her fate in the capital would be too difficult for her to bear. All he thought as he slipped away that morning was that he would return for her when everything was finished, but he realized he had been tricked. She was his love—his reward if he embraced his destiny fearlessly. And he had let her slip through his grasp like falling sand.

He ran after them and watched her red hair like a flag to lead him onward, through the sharp branches and across the uneven ground.

The capital loomed ahead. Everything was clear, Valance planned to take her to the feast that night. Kalavan winced. His performance was obligatory. Conquest always required him and his mouth was full of poison, but he could not spit it out. The time wasn’t right.

I paused. What did he mean? His mouth was full of poison? That man had better mean metaphorically, or else! Wait. I suddenly realized that pausing in my reading always took me away from the printed page and into the story.

I was suddenly striding down a corridor filled with many women dressed in their finest robes. I noticed a distinct contrast between what they were wearing and what I was wearing. Their clothes were white linen that had been decorated in brightly colored floss and ribbon. Mine was deep red, such a deep wine color that it was almost purple. I stared down at it. Did they even have dye to make purple in the dark ages? On my head was a metal circlet with jewels stringing down and mingling with my hair. And on my middle finger was one of the hugest and shiniest gemstones I had ever seen. It was even heavy.

Within a moment I was walking into the courtyard and into the midst of an outdoor feast. Valance found me immediately and though he was not wearing full armor any longer, he still wore a black breastplate and a sword at his side. Upon my arrival, he grasped my waist and crushed me to his side. Then I was indiscreetly manhandled and placed at a seat of obvious importance by Valance’s side with only him between me and the King. I tried to remember what Kalavan had told me about King Pevinore. He wasn’t the real one. He was only a Duke who had been left unsupervised so long he started calling himself King. Valance sat at his right side. He must be his most honored knight or his son. I didn’t know.

The chair I sat in was high-backed and beautifully carved out of dark wood. I allowed myself to sink into it and catch my breath. It was then I realized everyone had their eyes fixed on me. Everyone at my table stared at me. In fact, everyone was staring at me: people speaking in tight knots, those lingering behind tables, those occupying lines of tables below, even servants dashing left and right. All of them were staring at me. Instantly, I straightened my back.

Valance was speaking to the King and I overheard him say, “Can you believe they were going to burn her as a witch?”

The King looked at me. I was appalled at the way his eyes lingered primarily on my chest, which I noticed (to my horror) wasn’t covered as I would have liked. “Would have been a shame,” he said, practically licking his lips.

I felt like retching, but I realized something about him and the distraction helped me tame my gag reflex. He had dark brown hair. He had a beard that was quite long and the crown on his head had jewels in it the size of Easter eggs, but under it all—he looked strikingly like Vincent and Evander together. He was older. His face looked worn and slightly haggard, but there it was.

At his side, I saw a woman. She had stringy blonde hair, faded blue eyes, and zillions of pucker marks around her mouth like she’d been smoking since she was eight. Her skin was gray and her expression was a mixture of fatigue and boredom. She didn’t acknowledge King Pevinore’s lustful gaze in my direction, though I was sure she had noticed his indiscretion. Instead, she ordered around the serving boys and instructed lamps lit and fires nourished. Then I saw something strange. She spat something black into a white cloth. That was what Hilda had done in the last story.

Kalavan said his mouth was full of poison, but he couldn’t spit it out yet. Were the two things related?

Food was served shortly thereafter. Valance was served a goose drumstick that appeared to have been smothered and roasted in fat. I was served one too, but it looked undercooked with blood leaking onto the plate. I took a pear from a large serving bowl and started eating while Valance tore his meat from the bone. A gob of fatty skin got stuck to his stubbly cheek and gravity worked on it until it had almost fallen off the edge of his chin.

Disgusted, I wondered if that was the best entertainment they had in the dark ages, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kalavan. He was sitting on the edge of the largest of the bonfires, tuning a lute. He wore the oddest outfit. A diamond pattern crossed his chest and arms. It was green and gold and very tight. So tight, you could see every contour of his calf and thigh muscles. He wore a tunic over-top that went mid-thigh, which was lucky because I didn’t think his tights could have concealed much. His arms were covered with that same green and gold check. It was a jester costume. His hair was long in the front and the caramel strands fell down his cheek to his chin cutting across his eyes, so his nose and mouth peeked out of the curtain of his hair. I never realized Evander had such a beautiful nose. It almost tilted up at the end. I wondered too how I had never noticed how handsome his lips were. They were slightly open for breath, soft and supplicating above his freshly shaven chin.

A woman should not be attracted to a jester rather than a knight—understandably. Women have been famous for wanting men with power, but after witnessing the glutton beside me, Kalavan looked positively civilized and not like a fool at all. Once he started to perform my opinion would probably change. I didn’t like it when people did self-deprecating things. It either made me feel sorry for them or it made me want to slap them and force them to salvage their pride.

I noticed his eyes on me. Our eyes met and locked. For a second I wondered if he were using magic like he had with the gold dust. A longing for him was growing in the base of my stomach and I knew my fantasies could no longer consist of him sitting next to me on the bus. Evander’s book was warping my mind.

He didn’t break eye contact, but he set down his instrument and put on his hat. It was made of donkey hide, and in a second I realized that it had three donkey ears. Each one had a bell on the end and dangled over his face. When he got up I saw he had more bells jangling on his ankles and another set in a loop hanging from his belt. He came before the King to perform.

I was positively bewildered when he started to sing nursery rhymes and even more lost when Valance beside me started to tap his foot and sing along between mouthfuls of meat. They were singing A Song of Sixpence. He went on for about a dozen songs before the King got up and silenced Kalavan. He turned to me and practically roared, “Don’t you like our songs?”

I sputtered. “They’re wonderful.”

“Then why do you have that look on your face?”

“I... uh... I …”

“Are you a songstress as well as a witch?”

I glanced at the knight beside me to see if he would defend me. He showed no such inclination. My eyes sought out Kalavan, but to my surprise, he was picking berries off someone’s plate and throwing them up in the air to catch them in his mouth. Such was the lot of a jester! He didn’t even stop to listen to the King and from everyone’s expressions, it didn’t even look like he was expected to.

“My apologies if I seemed bored,” I said with more pluck than was possible in the real world. “I was raised on these tunes. They are old fashioned to me.”

“My jester wrote that one last autumn,” King Pevinore barked.

I smirked. Like hell he did.

“Fine, little witch. Impress me. Join the fool and entertain us. Sing something we’ve never heard before. If you can, I’ll give you this jewel,” he said, taking a ring off the pinky finger of his own wife and tossing it on the table.

“And if I can’t?”

“We’ll try you for witchcraft,” he threatened.

I got up and went to the middle of the floor and stood by Kalavan. “What’s a witchcraft trial like?” I hissed as quietly as possible.

“I can’t tell you,” he murmured.

“Why not?’ I asked, pretending to buy time by rearranging the folds of my skirt.

“It would ruin your performance. Sing well. I’ll try to accompany you.”

I stood there for a second and thought hard. I didn’t know any songs that might appeal to the crowd. I was sure they would curse me for singing anything with a hip hop beat, and if I sang almost anything contemporary the sensual undertones would sound like an open invitation to any man who was listening. Those men didn’t seem to possess a great deal of self-control in my view. Then out of the dark recesses of my brain, I remembered the score to The Last Unicorn. Granted that was more seventies-style than anything else, but the lyrics might lend some appeal. So I hummed a little to get the melody and then I started singing the title track.

The King and the others looked mystified. My voice bounced around on the stone walls of the castle and vibrated down into the heart of everyone who listened. I could tell I was a great success. Kalavan brushed the strings of his instrument in time and though it didn’t sound the same as the movie soundtrack, it sounded excellent. I let the last note linger and then abruptly cut my voice. Then I stood perfectly still and waited for the King’s answer.

“Fool,” he called. “Take her the ring and put it on her finger.”

The Queen looked mildly annoyed, but possessing great internal strength, she turned and spat into her handkerchief. Then it came to me. She didn’t care what he did. She was dying and she knew it.

Kalavan took the ring and bounced like he was made of rubber to my side where he clutched my hand and whispered in my ear, “Don’t wear this ring and don’t let Pevinore see you barehanded. Cover your hands with your sleeves each time you see him.”

I nodded and stuffed my hands up my sleeves with the ring pressed into my left palm. Then I went back to Valance’s side.

“Are you sure you’re not a witch?” Valance said bending toward me and practically sticking his tongue in my ear.

“I’m not a witch,” I answered calmly, stifling the urge to dry my ear. Truly, the knight was nauseating and my only ray of light was a fool.

The rest of Kalavan’s performance was more interesting than the first half. Once people finished eating, they began drinking and Kalavan had changed his costume. Now he wore a black fitted outfit that was very much like his green and gold one, but with one marked difference. The new one had a section attached to the back that he could pull over his head and around his waist in two swift movements. The first movement pulled a wig over his head and the next gave him a skirt. With his costume, he played both the male and the female lead of a one-act play. For the woman’s character, he raised the pitch of this voice a couple of octaves and twirled his wig. For the male character, he acted exactly like Valance, which I thought should have earned him jail time (mocking a knight so), but he was only laughed at. When what I thought was a comedy ended in tragedy (his wig and skirt lay “dying” on one side of the hall and he on the other side, dying his own death and grieving over his dead love), the King rocked with laughter and was first to lead the applause.

Then Valance leaned over to me again and said, “Tomorrow the friar will marry us.”

I winced. Why would he want to marry me? I could be burned as a witch at any moment. But I refused to be stupid. He didn’t care if I died. He had rescued me simply to blackmail me into having a sexual relationship with him and if I died some unspecified time after the wedding, it was no skin off his nose. As long as he got to haul me off to his bed, he didn’t care what happened afterward.

I turned to him and said shyly, “I need tomorrow to get rid of my mother’s things.”

“What things?” he asked rudely.

“You told me to abandon my mother’s things relating to witchcraft. Give me tomorrow to do it.”

He nodded and then said, “Don’t burn them in your room. Find somewhere else to do it.”

“I will.”

I leaned back in my chair and wondered if I would be safe in my room that night. Valance might leave me alone until after the wedding, which I planned never to attend, but I had an icky feeling that the King wouldn’t. According to Valance, there was only one night where I would be sleeping alone, so it was the perfect chance for the King to make his move. Since I couldn’t exit the book anytime I wanted, I had to come up with a plan.

When I was taken back to my room, I bolted the door as carefully as possible, but who knew if it would hold if Pevinore wanted entrance. He might know another way into the room, or perhaps he knew a trick to unlatch the bolt. I felt unsafe just standing there. After thinking it over for a while, I took two of the blankets and a pillow off the bed and climbed the bedpost until I was on top. My guess was right. The canopy of the bed was solid wood and definitely strong enough to support my weight. I pulled the bed curtains shut from the top to make it look like I was asleep inside, and then settled myself somewhat uncomfortably in the alcove. The edges of the canopy were tall enough to hide me. Hopefully, it would be enough.

I tried to wind down and sleep. I kept telling myself over and over again that nothing could be as bad as the night I tried to sleep on the boat with the dead capricorn rotting outside. I groaned. Who was I kidding? The wooden canopy was like a bike rack, with bikes in it, and I was lying on top.

I had no idea what time it was when I heard stone scratched against stone. I peeked over the side in the darkness. The light from the window illuminated the door. It hadn’t moved. From the darkness, in the corner of my room, the King came creeping. I put my head down. I thought I could hear him licking his lips again. He parted the bed curtain.

My heartbeat and breath seemed so loud, especially the blood gushing in and out of my ears. I had to steady myself. He couldn’t hear them.

“Serissa,” his voice came. “Where are you?” He sounded like one of those nursery rhymes. When the bed was empty, he stamped his foot and flew into a rage. “Where are you?” he howled. He checked the chest at the end of my bed. He tore my bed to pieces, making a mess of the bedclothes until I saw white feathers rise up into the air. Then he scrambled to the corner where my washing stand was. Angry, he disappeared back down the hole he crawled up from.

I didn’t leave my perch, and when I woke up, I was in the real world.

__________________

Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading! Come check out the goodies on my website! https://tigrix1.wixsite.com/stephanievanorman

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