Behind His Mask

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Chapter 12 - Path of Empty Roses

That Sunday, Rachel came over. She was wearing a short ash blonde wig with bangs and a little upturn in the back. In actuality, it looked more like her own hair than anything I’d seen her wear since she left home.

I walked in and put my hand on her head. “Can I try it on?”

She flicked my hand away and turned the page of her magazine. “Next time. I only got it yesterday.”

I sat on the couch beside her feet and looked at the cover of what she was reading. It was a magazine on crocheting hats and the only price I could see on it was listed in British pounds. “Do you know how to do that?” I asked.

“Nope, but I’m gonna learn.”

Mom came into the living room and collected her keys and purse. “I’m going to work,” she said as she waved to us. “Bye.”

As soon as she was gone and the sound of her footsteps faded, Rachel closed her magazine and announced, “I got a phone call from Carly.”

I gasped. We hadn’t heard from her in months. “Is she okay?”

“I’m not sure. She told me she’s staying in Vancouver and she wants me to gather some of her stuff together and send it to her on the Greyhound.”

“Don’t send her anything!” I shrieked. “Tell her to come home.”

“I already tried that. She won’t budge. She says she’s in love.”

I groaned. “With who?”

Rachel set her jaw. “Sarah, you can’t tell mom any of this. Not even that Carly is in Vancouver. You promise you won’t tell her a thing?”

“Yeah, but why?”

“I think the guy is married. From the sounds of it, he’s old enough to have a kid older than you.”

I gasped again.

“So, I’m going to Vancouver,” she continued. “I’m getting on a bus this afternoon, and I’m going to bring her back—kicking and screaming—whatever.”

“Why don’t you want me to tell mom?”

“Because,” Rachel said, “she’d want to come, but I think having her there would just make things worse. But even if I’m going to go do this by myself, I still want someone to know where I’m going and what I’m doing in case I have any trouble. I should be able to meet her at the bus station when she goes to pick up her package. I’ll have my cell phone with me.”

“Okay.” I nodded.

“Get her bed ready. I’m bringing her back.” Rachel got up and put her shoes on.

I stood there, stunned. No one in our family had ever done anything remotely brave before. My mom had never gone hunting for Carly when she didn’t come home. At least, not any further than going to 118 Avenue to stop her from acting like a streetwalker. Rachel was going to a province she’d never been to before, to a city she’d never been to before, just to pick her up.

I hugged my oldest sister tightly and said goodbye. “Phone me a lot.”

“I will. Promise to put your book down when I call. When you read that thing, you’re like a zombie.”

“I’ll only read after ten o’clock,” I promised, thinking of the dangers of being comatose when Rachel called with news.

She nodded and left. I couldn’t get over how impressed I was with her. I wanted to be like that too. What would it be like to be the kind of person who would put themselves out on a limb for a person they loved? What would that be like? Could I ever be like that?

***

After my mother got home and I was confident I had the time to spare, I picked up the book to read again.

Word spread that Valance Marr was going to wed Serissa Red Thorn. Kalavan felt melancholy and sickly as he donned his ridiculous costume for the day. The only fortunate outcome he could latch onto was the fact that Valance wouldn’t give King Pevinore access to his wife, so in that way, she would be safe, but in another way, she would be in more danger. How could being that bloody knight’s wife be an improvement to her situation? It was lust that inspired Valance and what would happen when that lust was quenched? She would burn as a witch.

Kalavan should have stayed in her house with her in the midst of those rose bushes. He should have stayed with her and abandoned his quest—his right. The taunting cry ‘bastard’ didn’t even sound in his ears anymore. It was only when faced with the reality of losing Serissa, did past ridicule lose its sting.

Kalavan looked at himself in his mirror. His face was gray because he felt ill. He didn’t want to show his face to anyone that day. Beside his mirror was a piece of gnarled wood that had foreign branches grafted in. Different varieties of branches stuck into the main trunk that had been stripped of its bark ages before. Protruding from it was a birch branch, an oak branch, a poplar branch, a beech branch, one that had been cut from an apple tree, and another one that had been cut from a tree Kalavan did not know. From each of them hung a different mask. Three were white. One smiled, one frowned, and the last one had a beak. Another one was a facade made to impersonate a knight’s visor. Yet another one was painted half gold and half white with red lips. He used it sometimes to make himself into a woman when he performed. But the last one was his favorite. It was metallic red with cardinal feathers. It was for playing Mephisto—the Devil. But he hadn’t used it, yet. The performance to which it belonged hadn’t happened and thus far it had never been seen by the court. It hung from the unknown branch.

Understanding his mood, Kalavan took the white smiling face. To him, it smiled so broadly it was grotesque. Nevertheless, he tied it on so that the strap hung on his ears, put on his hat, grabbed his lute, and went out to find his master. At least when he played the fool he could hide his face.

I woke up on top of the bed frame achy and uncomfortable. The morning sun shone through the stained glass window. What was beautiful yesterday was disconcerting today. I let myself down the bedpost. When I had my feet on the floor, I went to the chest and lifted the lid. Searching, I found a dress that seemed less conspicuous than the one I had unwittingly worn the night before. It was plain black velvet with a golden rope for the belt. I put it on but found myself distinctly uncomfortable in the clothes. Why were they even available? Were they just sitting in the guest room, waiting for Valance to choose a bride? I shook off the thought, picked up my hammock, and went out of the room in search of Kalavan.

There weren’t many people mingling in the corridors that morning, and I found myself almost entirely alone making my way through the castle. I went down the main staircase, where I had already walked three times, but since I didn’t find Kalavan, I had to keep looking. I went down a hallway and then down another and found myself in a private garden. It was empty. I moved on. Then I scaled up one staircase and then thundered down another one. Before half an hour was up, I was desperately lost.

But then, I spotted someone. Sitting on a strange stone ledge on the far side of a sunken garden full of orange rose bushes was a man dressed in ridiculous mustard-colored trousers. Turning my head, I saw the rest of his outfit. It had to be him. If only I could get to him, but there weren’t any entrances, and even though I could see him all the time across the courtyard, I couldn’t get there. I found myself a floor up, but no closer to him. I looked down at him from the gallery above.

Finally, I lost my cool and shouted, “Kalavan, how do I get to you?”

His face jerked up, and I saw he was still wearing the white smiling mask.

He didn’t reply, but instead, put his hands up like a mime. He made a crazy sign beside his head with his fingers and then made a little walking gesture on his palm. He didn’t need to talk. According to him, I was crazy and all I needed to do was walk to him.

“Don’t mime at me in that tone of voice!” I yelled.

He made signs as if to say, “Come over here and we’ll fight about it.”

I was getting frustrated and after a minute of walking, I found myself exactly where I was when I found him the first time. He was still sitting in the exact same place picking out a tune on the strings of his lute like he didn’t care about anything, especially time. I had had enough.

Looking down at the courtyard, I could easily see it wasn’t a place where people walked or where they were meant to go. It didn’t even look like the dirt the plants were growing in was on the ground. Instead, it looked like the castle had been built and someone brought in the dirt to turn a tiny break in the turrets into a big flower pot or window box. What was growing in it wasn’t overly pleasant either. It looked like it was built with exactly the kind of magic Surrey would have liked. There were no footpaths. Mazes of thorny apricot-colored roses grew and reached toward heaven. In the center of the thick bushes was a fountain that spread out like a flower with five points. Rising up from the middle was the statue of a man. It was only his torso and arms; his head was gone. In one hand was a golden trumpet. I stared. Somehow the horn looked significant because it didn’t match the stone of the carving.

I shook my head. It didn’t matter. I dropped my bag on the granite floor and threw my leg over the balcony. I could get through the rose bushes. It was the only way I could get to Kalavan.

When he finally took notice of what I was doing, I had already got my other leg over and was about to jump feet first into the thorny mess. Immediately, he took off his mask and broke his silence. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“None of your business,” I snapped. “You wouldn’t help me when I asked. Now I’ll do things my way.”

“But it’s enchanted,” he pointed out stupidly. At least I thought he sounded stupid.

“Yeah, and being the daughter of a witch who specialized in this sort of thing wouldn’t help me in the least?” I dropped down and he lost sight of me, but I could still see him perfectly through the thorny stems.

He was freaking out. It was really adorable to watch. I had fallen through a clearing and hadn’t even snagged my dress, but he was pacing back and forth like a madman. Within a minute he was raking at his hair. Then I realized something I hadn’t before. I thought that his hair was intentionally cut in a wedge. He had done nothing of the sort. His hair had been long and tied into a low ponytail, like Tremor’s in the last story. It looked like he had taken a knife to it and cut it off close to his neck. It seemed more like an act of self-mutilation than an actual haircut.

I shook my head. It was another symptom of how depressed Evander was. He couldn’t live like that in reality—butcher his hair. It would raise attention he didn’t want, so instead of acting out in real life, he wrote it out in his book. I had to change his mind. I had to figure out what was bothering him and help him.

Reaching out, I touched one of the silky blossoms. Men hated flowers as gifts, but there was nothing else nearby to give him to show him my sincerity. I broke one off at the stem and the stem broke instantly when I picked the rose. There were thorns, but I didn’t feel them. Stepping forward, I picked another one and another one. Somehow there was enough room for me to step forward again and again, even though the bushes appeared too dense. It was magic.

The thorny stalks arched over my head and covered me from Kalavan’s view. I could still see him, but it was obvious from the way his eyes searched that he couldn’t see me.

“Are you really all right down there?” he called expectantly.

“I’m fine,” I called back, trying hard to make my voice sound merry. “So, tell me. Why did you cut your hair?

He gawked in disbelief. “You’re asking me about that now?”

“Why not now?”

“It doesn’t seem right.” He wrung his hands. “Do you even know where you are?”

“I’m in the rose garden.”

“If only it were that simple. You are in the midst of the King’s private rose garden. It’s forbidden for anyone to come here. That is why there is no way in and it’s too overgrown for a person to walk through. I can’t believe you are actually making progress. Are you bleeding?”

“Not yet. Why is it forbidden?”

“Because our King is not really the King. This Kingdom is a Dukedom and the lands technically belong to King Author. We are meant to be ruled by him, but our Duke was greedy and when there was a lapse in communication, he took over and crowned himself King Pevinore.”

“That doesn’t explain why this place is off-limits.” I had so many blossoms in my hand at that point, it was hard to hold them all.

“The trumpet the statue holds is Duke Pevinore’s method of communication with King Author. It was fashioned by the Great Wizard Berlin himself. If someone were to blow that, the King’s armies would come instantly.”

“So, the trumpet is protected from use by these magical roses?”

“Exactly.”

“Hmmm…” I said as I suddenly found myself at the half-way point through the courtyard and standing exactly in front of the fountain and the statue. “Should I blow it?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Maybe if I called King Author’s whole army and told him what the traitorous Duke Pevinore is doing, he’ll reward me and I won’t have to marry Valance. Do you think that will work?”

“No,” Kalavan said frankly. “I don’t.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated, and even though there was a clearing in the bushes and he could see me, he wasn’t looking at me. Then his eyes met mine across the distance. His expression was miserable and his lips were dry. “Because even if he would save you from Valance… the King… the King Author has no queen.”

I wanted to answer him and say something self-deprecating about how King Author wouldn’t want me, but it wouldn’t work. Kalavan wouldn’t laugh. He wouldn’t add a faint insult to mine by saying there was no accounting for taste or even make an unrelated joke to diffuse the tension. He believed that every man who saw me would want me and if he rigged this world to operate that way, I just had to take it as part of the story. So, I didn’t degrade myself but only looked at him intently, taking everything he said seriously.

He continued. “Don’t blow the horn. If you don’t want to marry Valance, I’ll figure out a way to stop it from happening.”

“How?” I asked as I added another rose to my bouquet and took another step closer to him.

He shook his head wearily. “I’ll think of something.”

It was quiet as I continued through the thicket of thatched thorns. Then I thought I would try again. “Did you cut your own hair or did someone do it for you?”

I watched him as he let his head fall back against the stone pillar in a gesture of pure misery. Then his lethargic hand stopped its strumming and he pulled his ghoulishly smiling mask over his face, but I heard his voice clearly. “Someone else cut it the first time. I have done it myself since then. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for someone else.”

“I would,” I said candidly.

He didn’t move. “Then I’ll dress you up like someone else and take you out of the castle.”

“Where will you take me?” I asked as I took the final step up to the wall to stand directly beneath him.

Kalavan turned and let his hand fall down as if to help me up. “Back where you came from.”

I withdrew my hand. “I don’t want to go back there.”

“Would you rather marry Valance?”

“No, but…”

“There aren’t a lot of choices here,” he said dryly. He turned and looked at me. I could see his eyes through the slits in the porcelain. They were shrouded in darkness.

“This was more fun when you were in love with me,” I said wickedly. “What happened?”

His mouth stalled, but his eyes regarded me gravely. When he finally did speak, his words made his breathing become ragged. “When haven’t I been in love with you? I’m just not free to act on it.”

I grabbed his hand and pulled him clean off the wall and into the rose bushes with me. He fell with a thud. The grass didn’t grow thick since the roses blocked the sun. We both went tumbling down in the black dirt. When we were finally still, I had his head on my lap, which was quite soft with all my petticoats. He gazed upward at the canopy of roses. I didn’t take off his mask, but instead brought his head close to mine and whispered in his ear. “Who cut your hair?”

With the mask on his inhibitions withered away and he answered me. “Valance.”

“Why?”

“He did it the day he had me declared a bastard. Eventually, his mother became the new Duchess. Fat lot of good it will do him though. His mother is dying.”

I hesitated. It sounded an awful lot like the situation from the last story. “Your mother was the Duchess?”

“Yes, and now I am nothing.” He crushed the material of my skirt in his fist. “Cloth like this isn’t common here. How do you like my mother’s dress?”

“This belonged to her?” I cried, pulling the mask off his face.

He was wroth. “Who else has clothes like these?”

“How should I know? I didn’t know it belonged to her. Here, I’ll take it off.” I reached for one of the ties when he put his hand on mine.

“You don’t need to go that far. Your feelings are enough.” He sat up. His fingers touched my neck and collarbone for a moment before he brought his lips down on mine.

At that moment, a bell went off that at first sounded like an alarm bell, like Kalavan and I had been caught in the forbidden garden. Then I realized he didn’t hear it. His lips kissed mine fast like he had to kiss every bit of my mouth. The sound was from the real world. In the next second, I was in my own bed listening to the phone ring beside my ear. For some reason, the ringing hadn’t woken my mother, but it woke me. I snatched it up.

It was Rachel. “Sarah, it’s me.”

“Thank goodness. Is everything okay?”

“Sort of. I made it to Vancouver safely and all that, and Carly came to get her package just like she was supposed to. She’s staying in a hostel, so I’m going to sleep there tonight. There’s just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

Rachel’s voice sounded scratchy on the other end of the line. “She says she won’t come home.”

___________

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading. It's been a tough week, probably for all of us. Be well, ink drinkers!

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