Behind His Mask

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Chapter 13 - Behind His Mask

After that, I didn’t have much chance to read. My schoolwork was suffering and for once, I couldn’t blame my inability to pay attention entirely on Evander. I was tied up in knots thinking about Rachel in Vancouver. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been worried about Carly before, because no matter what mess she used to make for herself, she was always invincible. Bullets used to bounce off her.

Carly was three years older than me and would have graduated from high school the same year as Evander. When I was a kid, I looked up to her. It was easy to look up to her. She was courageous, beautiful, powerful, and completely unstoppable. It was a blow when I finally figured out she was crazy and help was the last thing she wanted. Sometimes she slept on soggy mattresses completely unsheltered in the river valley in the summer. Once in a while, she even wheeled a grocery cart around the city like a homeless person. She had friends who looked and acted even crazier than she did. I didn’t understand her relationship with those people. Were they her friends? Were they her drug dealers? I wouldn’t have put anything past Carly. She would try anything and have the nerve to laugh about it afterward like everything was a joke—even if she got burned.

Then she disappeared. In some ways, it was easier to have her gone. When Carly lived with us she fought with my mom on repeat about the same things over and over again until I felt like my brain would explode just listening. There wasn’t anywhere to hide in a single bedroom apartment.

“Finish high school!” my mom would scream.

“It’s boring,” Carly would answer, before taking a drag on her smoke.

My mom would snatch the cigarette out of her mouth and smother it in a nearby supper dish.

Carly got some kind of buzz from arguing with mom. It wasn’t like it did her any good. It wasn’t like mom had unreasonable rules or set unreachable standards. She even didn’t care if Carly smoked as long as it was outside the apartment. It was like Carly wanted to break herself against a wall and the truth was my mother didn’t have the energy to be the barrier that held her in.

“I don’t care what you do anymore,” mom said weakly after a fight that lasted until three in the morning.

A week later Carly disappeared. We told the police. It was on the news a few times before one of Carly’s friends got in touch with us (not to tell us where she went) but to tell us that she wasn’t dead. She just didn’t want to talk to us. I thought it was because she was secretly disappointed mom gave in.

And me? I worried Rachel would be forced to leave Vancouver without her because she might. If Rachel stayed too long, she could lose her job. Rachel was a saint for going to save her, but her sacrifice did not mean Carly would realize her error. Rachel might get bit, and like a dog, Carly would come home when she was ready.

One night when I was babysitting Paisley, I couldn’t calm her down. I sat in her room rocking her back and forth until I thought my job required earplugs when Evander came in. He noticed there was a problem when the crying wouldn’t stop. He called Emi, asked her what to do, and came bearing Tylenol. A half an hour later, Paisley fell asleep, so I watched TV with Evander until Emi came home.

On Thursday night, he asked me for a date for that Saturday. Then he helped me with my math homework. I was in heaven.

That Friday night, I finally got a chance to read again.

Kalavan took Serissa’s hand and together they walked back through the bushes to the place where Serissa had fallen into the garden. He heaved her up on his shoulders and put her back up on the wall. It had been his intent to go back to collect his lute from his perch, but as he turned toward the bushes, the path was completely sealed up. There was no parting in the vines for him to pass through. Since he had no choice, he turned back to Serissa and took her extended hand, preparing for all that would follow. The consequences might be unbearable, but he would stand by her. He even wished there would be no escape, if only they could be together.

Once he was on the wall he hefted her hammock-bag on his shoulder and the secret roses inside scratched him with their thorns through the loose weave. Then he took her hand and led her through strange concealed corridors to fetch his lute. He showed her that without his help, she never would have made it to him through the castle without passing through the forbidden rose garden. Lute retrieved, they traversed the long path to his chamber. He had no idea where else to take her. She said she needed to be rid of her mother’s books. Well, he knew what to do with those.

Inside his room, they didn’t talk. She lay down on his bed and seemed to fall asleep almost immediately. The previous night could not have been easy for her if she could sleep like that. Had someone kept her awake? He wondered.

He turned his back to her. With his crystal ball in one hand and one of the Red Thorn’s texts in the other, he set to work.

I didn’t mean to stop paying attention. I always liked the chapter openers where I got a peek into Evander’s character, but I was happy as I found my eyes fluttering open in the late afternoon light. The bed was soft and my frame was light resting on it. The mattress felt like it was made entirely from feathers, like a giant pillow. The linen under me was coarse but clean and comfortable. Sleep rested heavy on my eyes, but I blinked them in search of Kalavan.

Lying on my back, I looked at the room. It was much like the one I had been given, except smaller with clothing strewn all over the place. I saw the mask tree Evander had described earlier. That wasn’t all he had for costumes: there were hats and wigs thrown randomly around the room, even dangling off the bedposts. Against the wall, there were many shelves with dozens of tiny bottles and jars lined up of every color. Some were made of glass and you could see the variegated colored liquids contained inside. There were pewter jars and silver tubs of unknown substances. It was intriguing. I longed to ask Kalavan about them, but when I saw him, he seemed foreign to me.

He sat with his back to me, bent over a table with his hair in his eyes. He was studying with such intensity it seemed like he had gone mad.

“What’s wrong?” I asked quietly.

He swung around but his eyes refused to focus on me. His breath stirred without rhythm like he was in the middle of a panic attack. “She lied,” he finally gasped.

Feeling desperately helpless, I waited for a moment for him to continue, but instead, he held a fist to his chest like he was being strangled.

“Who lied?” I tried, quietly.

He fell to his knees and put his head and shoulders on the bed beside me. For a time, he rested there wordlessly and merely breathed. I put my hand on his head and tried to smooth his hair off his forehead. At length, he spoke. “Long ago, I went to a fortune teller to inquire about my crossed fate. The wizard Berlin warned me not to go. His words on the subject of my future were this; ‘Death is an end you cannot bear.’ He always talks in riddles. Death is an end no one can bear, so how could that be specific advice meant only for me? One of the pagan soothsayers seemed to be more reliable, so I went to one of them. The woman gave me a rhyme and I believed the words meant that if I accomplished the desires of my heart—Valance and the Duke’s demise—then not only would I avenge my wailing ghost of a mother, but I would also be victorious in another way.”

“What way? The crown? Do you want to take the Duke’s place?”

“No,” Kalavan whispered. “I gave that up long ago. No. All I wanted was a life after revenge. I wanted something sweet to drink after the cup of wrath. With my glass, I can read the Red Thorn’s writings. She says the opposite of my soothsayer. She says my reward after the end of my war will be robbed from me.”

“What?”

“It says that if I take my revenge, there will be no sweet cup to drink afterward,” he said bleakly.

I grabbed his shoulders. “Then don’t take revenge. Forget about the Duke and Valance. Leave!” I paused before I added, “I’ll come with you.”

“But what if nothing tastes sweet again because of the poison festering on my tongue? The injustice I must swallow daily ruins everything.”

His eyes were desperate, but I had nothing to say. Finally, I conjured up some words. I was about to ask him what he would be giving up when suddenly there was a knock at the door.

Without a word, Kalavan put one arm into the middle of the bed and pushed down on me with his free hand. Much to my surprise, I somehow fell through the bed and onto another mattress underneath. Looking up through the hole, I saw Kalavan had his index finger to his lips. I covered my mouth with my hands and he dropped the flap, hiding me.

I studied where I was. I had been on his bed. He had opened a trap door in the mattress, and then he pushed me through it. Under his bed, there was another bed made up, so I had landed on a second mattress. The bed frame went to the floor. No one could look under the bed without beating in the bed frame. The air was stale and the mattress was musty. The stained-glass window beside his bed was very tall and went all the way to the floor. There was a small hinge attached to one of the facets in the glass and I realized it flipped open to allow the occupant of the bed to breathe fresh air. It opened noiselessly and my lungs filled with sweet mountain air.

In the room, I heard Kalavan open the door and invite the intruder inside.

“Did you hear what happened, Fool?” came the gruff voice of the King Pevinore.

“I hear many things, but sometimes I cannot hear a whisper,” Kalavan jested mildly.

“Valance’s bride disappeared,” the King’s booming voice sounded. “That witch! I think she left sometime during the night. Maybe right after the feast.”

“The dream worm glows in the night, takes miraculous form, and with the breaking sun—sudden flight,” Kalavan commented.

The King laughed and clapped his hand on Kalavan’s shoulder. “You must know the type. Well, Valance isn’t easily put down. He’s already arranged for another bride. It’s that noblewoman who has been visiting from the high court. She’s dressing now. I want you to perform something impressive in her honor.”

“Lord, the time is late, the case too great. Wouldn’t it be better to stuff it with cake?”

“Come now, Kalavan. You knew yesterday there would be a wedding tonight. What does it matter which woman happens to be the bride? Get your act together and get downstairs.”

Those last words stung me like nettles. Why did he have to rub in Kalavan’s fall from nobility in that cutting way? Monster.

The door slammed shut.

Silence hung for ten full seconds before Kalavan whispered, “You can come out now.”

I closed the little window and pushed the trap door up with my knees. “So, Valance found someone else to marry? What a relief!”

“Hardly,” Kalavan said bitterly. “If they find you, they’ll burn you.”

“Can’t you disguise me?”

“What?”

“Can’t you disguise me so no one will recognize me like my mother did?”

“I could,” he mumbled as he scoured the recesses of his brain. “But I can’t make you look the way your mother made you look with bumps all over you. I will have to take a different approach.”

I kept my mouth shut as he got up and scoured his cabinet. He looked at one bottle and then another. He scratched his head. Then he turned to me and said, “Would you like to perform with me tonight?”

“At the wedding?” I gasped.

“Yes. I need the help and absolutely no one would guess it was you. What do you say?”

I nodded vigorously. “Yeah.”

First, he sat me down in a chair then he took a pair of scissors and cut off a lock of my hair.

“What’s that for?”

He took the long strand of red hair between two fingers and placed it on his table. “I’m going to make your eyebrows thicker. Yours are too thin.”

“Thicker eyebrows? Are you crazy?”

“No. I’m going to make you look like a man and for that disguise to work, I need to thicken your eyebrows.”

It made sense. Girls weren’t performers in those days. If I was going to perform with him, even if I was playing a girl, I needed to look like a boy.

I watched Kalavan cut my hair into smaller lengths like someone cutting macaroni noodles. I had to sit ridiculously still while he glued them to my face. Then he trimmed them.

“What next?” I asked, looking at the colorful caterpillars above my eyes in the mirror.

“You’re going to get freckles. How can you be a redhead and have no spots whatsoever on your nose? It looks unnatural.”

He dabbed a strange smelling orange liquid on my face with an applicator finer than the liquid eyeliner I used at home. Then he painted my lips a flesh color and powdered my whole face to tone down the freckles. When he was done, I had to admit that aside from my hair, I looked remarkably non-feminine. Actually, it kind of hurt my feelings. I had no idea I was so close to looking like a not-so-cute boy.

“What are we going to do with my hair?”

“Chop it off,” he replied, getting the scissors.

I pulled back. “You’ve got to be joking. I can’t cut this hair off. Even my mother didn’t include hacking my hair off as part of my disguise.”

He drew his eyebrows together. “Do you want to be burned as a witch?”

“No,” I mumbled.

“Then let me do it.”

In real life, I would have resisted such an action. Back when Rachel and Carly lived at home, they used to play hairdresser. They cut my hair twice without my permission before I got wise to their tricks. But then again, Evander’s story was not real life. It wasn’t my real hair, and my hesitation was gumming up the works.

I closed my eyes and sunk deep into the chair he had done my makeup in. I heard the scissors open and then felt them close on that beautiful red hair. CHOMP! My stomach rolled over. What a sickening sound!

Then suddenly, I was smacked in the face with my own ponytail. I opened my eyes and saw the handful of hair Kalavan was holding.

“Are you done?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I looked in the mirror. My hair was cut in a shoulder-length bob. For some reason, I had expected him to cut off all my hair, but then I realized that hardly any of the men I had seen in town or in the castle had short hair.

Abruptly, he gathered all my hair together and put it into a miniature ponytail at the nape of my neck.

“Now, do you think you can get dressed on your own? I’m dressing you as a bride tonight, so you don’t have to do anything to hide your figure. Everyone will just think I put padding on you anyway. Here’s the dress. It’s ridiculously modest. Here are the boots. Here are the gloves, the wig, and the mask.”

“If I’m going to wear a mask and a wig then why did you bother painting my face cutting off my hair?”

“What if someone pulls them off? Then where would we be?”

He gathered his own things together and went off behind the wardrobe to get changed. “Oh and by the way, if someone asks you, your name is Windrin.”

I put a forbidden orange rose in my teeth and looked in Kalavan’s slanted mirror. Could that person really be me? I took the rose out of my mouth and stroked the side of my cheek with the bloom. I supposed I could remember to answer to a fourth name, especially if Evander could.

***

When Kalavan told me what he planned to do for the performance after the wedding, I thought he had more audacity than sense.

“So, let me get this straight,” I said walking at an easy pace behind him toward the central courtyard where the wedding feast was being held. “You want me to pull my veil over my face like a gentle virgin and then when your back is turned, you want me to pinch your butt?”

“Ass,” he corrected.

“That seems awfully rude,” I said since that wasn’t the only thing he’d asked me to do. That was only the beginning.

“It’s because we can’t make fun of Valance tonight,” Kalavan explained. “The Du…King won’t stand for it. Valance is too angry about your jilting him to put up with my taunting tonight. Jesters are almost never punished, no matter what they do, but I have a bad feeling tonight would be the exception. But I have to make fun of someone important. The court expects it and thinks higher of the nobility and royalty that can handle it.”

“So we’re going to make sport of the over-anxious bride?”

“We have no other choice. Just remember, whatever you do, don’t take off my shield. I’m hiding a prop inside it.”

“Got it,” I said as we stepped out into the middle of the room and both bowed to the head table.

They all clapped and cheered for us as we acted out the opening part of the courtship. He was dressed like a knight while I was dressed like a bride. He wore his knight mask and I wore his lady mask. He knelt to propose to me and I acted delighted. We did a pretend wedding march and faked kneeling in front of the friar. Then his mask kissed each of my hands and then we delicately tapped the mouth shapes of our masks together in a slightly ridiculous kiss.

In that second we were so close I whispered, “Is it always this hot behind a mask?”

“It’s about to get hotter.”

Then we went about blowing kisses to the court while they threw scraps and bones at us, not exactly in mockery, but like rice or flower petals as a couple leaves a church. Anyway, they seemed pretty happy about it.

I walked up to the real bride and gave her a flower—one of the roses from the forbidden garden. She took it and looked remarkably happy. I had to do something nice for her before Kalavan and I ruined her wedding feast.

While I was near King Pevinore at the head table, I noticed something strange. The queen was not there and in her place sat a girl. She was scarcely older than me. I was dumbfounded. She looked exactly like Carly. I walked around the table to get a better look at her, sauntering and taking my sweet time, but it didn’t matter what angle I looked at her, she still looked like Carly. What was she doing in Evander’s book?

By that time, I knew Kalavan wanted to get on with the next portion of the performance. I went to the middle of the courtyard and stood next to him. He waved to the head table. I waved too and then smacked his bum. I couldn’t believe how high he jumped. He took my offending hand and turned me toward the guest tables. Then he let go of it to wave to them and I smacked his bum again. He jumped again. I couldn’t believe my hand had actually touched Kalavan’s butt. I wanted to die, but it was only going to get worse.

He held my hands together and scolded me using hugely exaggerated finger-wagging. I freed myself from his grasp and unbuckled the belt around his waist that held his sword and scabbard. Clenching them to my chest, I ran away and he chased me.

The crowd found us intensely amusing and rocked with laughter until some of them cried. The chase went on and on until Kalavan signaled to proceed with the next part of the play. Behind a pillar, down one of the hallways, I placed the belt and the sword where Kalavan instructed me to hide the props. Then I went back to the courtyard where Kalavan was scratching his helmeted head.

Like he wanted, he still had his shield. The next piece of clothing I was to get from him was another belt. It was the one that kept his tunic in place. I snatched it while he was pretending to get his imaginary horse ready and a similar scene ensued.

When I came back to the courtyard, Valance’s new bride looked a good deal less happy than earlier. Beside her, Carly’s doppelganger was sitting on the King’s lap.

Off came Kalavan’s tunic after that. It was while he pretended to take a nap next to a pillar. I hadn’t left much on him. He wore his mask, helmet, chain mail, tunic, gauntlets, leggings, and boots. His shield was still clamped to his forearm. The crowd laughed till their sides were sore as I outwitted him out of all his clothes except his mask, his shield, and his last layer of underwear.

The last thing I was supposed to remove from him was his undershirt. By that point, sweat was pouring down my sides and I felt like the makeup Kalavan had put on my face must have rubbed on the inside of the mask. I licked my lips. They were salty and caked in powder. It was the last thing he wanted me to do. I couldn’t do it, but I had to. It was absolutely the last thing. He told me he would take care of the rest of the performance from there and I only had to react to whatever he did. He promised me if I just stood there, that would be enough.

He wanted me to rip his shirt down the middle—an open display of lust—to mock the bride. The shirt was a loose white weave like cheesecloth. It would be easy to tear, but my nerves were failing me. I crept up behind him. Then it occurred to me that he didn’t say which middle he wanted me to rip down. I didn’t have to rip down the front. I could rip down the back. That would be much easier for me.

I grasped his collar from behind and pulled it as hard as I could. It ripped and the sound pierced the night. Everyone was silent. Kalavan’s shoulders fell and his whole torso bent forward like he was going to fall to his knees. CLATTER! The mask he was wearing fell to the ground. The shield fell and landed with a BANG! His shirt slid off his arms and landed between the mask and the shield.

Then slowly, like a marionette on strings, he turned around to face me. He was wearing the red mask—Mephisto—the Devil.

The courtyard was as quiet as a crypt.

I screamed. I didn’t scream because I was afraid. I screamed because he hadn’t backed down from taking his revenge. He had decided to poke at Valance after all and he had used the red mask as his tool, saying Valance was nothing more than a devil.

I wound up and slapped his face. The mask went flying and when it hit cobblestones, it shattered. He said I could react any way I wanted.

For a moment, his features were set. Then as the moment passed, he bent and picked up his discarded knight mask. He put it on. Then he drew me into his arms and put our masks together like we were kissing.

I heard him whisper, “Very well done. Bow.”

We broke apart and bowed to the crowd. The applause was so loud, it was almost deafening. I glanced at the bride, who looked touched instead of embarrassed. I was so relieved to know Kalavan’s style of entertainment was acceptable to her in the end.

We must have bowed fifteen times each before Kalavan picked up his props, even putting his ruined shirt back on and we left the courtyard with the blessing of the King (which I was surprised to get). We picked up the pieces of his costume I had hidden and sauntered back to his room.

“You can take your mask off,” he said. “No one will follow us.”

I slid it off my face. “Does my makeup still look good?”

“Of course it does. I did it. It’s perfect, but I’ll have to remove it tonight before you go to sleep. My magic isn’t as good as your mother’s and mine will give you real bumps if you leave it on too long.”

“So, does that mean we’re done for the night?”

“You are. I’m taking you back to put you to bed.”

“Am I a little girl?”

“Certainly not!” he exclaimed, glancing over his shoulder like someone might be listening to us. “I have to return to the feast and do a juggling act and a few tumbling routines for them. Most of them aren’t even drunk yet. We didn’t entertain them for longer than an hour and the party will go on until halfway through the night, but there’s no reason to keep you up that long. Will you sit awake listlessly after your nap this afternoon?”

“No, I’ll sleep.”

Back in his room, he sat me down again, and with water, he dissolved the glue that kept my extra eyebrows on. It was a relief we hadn’t needed the second disguise. He wiped my freckles off before he went behind the wardrobe while I stripped to my underwear (once again it was unbelievably modest). I wasn’t sure if he would have made the pretense of giving me privacy if he hadn’t been changing back into his green diamond uniform. Then he gave me a pillow and a blanket and opened the secret bed for me to get inside.

“Who else have you hidden in here?” I asked playfully as I slunk inside with my face beaming.

“No one else but me. I sometimes hide here when I don’t want to perform, so you see, no one knows about it but the two of us. It’s our secret.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” He put on his donkey hat with the bells and they tinkled, but it seemed to me that their tinkling was abnormally loud.

It was a second before I realized it was the ringing of a phone in the real world. I picked it up. It was Rachel.

“Hey Sarah,” she said huskily. She sounded exhausted.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I finally made some progress. I’m bringing Carly back tomorrow. She ran out of money and so did I. I’ve got to make it back by for my shift the night after tomorrow night anyway or I’ll lose my job, so we’re coming.”

“That’s great,” I said, expelling a sigh of relief.

“If only that were the whole story. I can’t get her to promise to stay with you and mom. She’ll only come back with me if she can stay with me in my apartment.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Not really. I can take her. That’s really not what I’m worried about. You know my place is like a dry bone. There’s nothing to steal. What’s the worst trouble she could get into there? All she can do is empty the fridge and it would be a relief. You should see her. She’s totally anorexic. I’m worried because I think she has a reason why she wants to come back and I don’t think I’m going to like it.”

“Does it have to do with the guy she’s seeing?” I asked, thinking of her strange appearance in Evander’s story.

“I think so.”

“Can I tell mom that she’s coming?”

“Not yet. That’s another condition. She doesn’t want mom to know until she shows up.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk. Sheesh. I’ll come see you when we get back to Edmonton.”

“Thanks.”

“All right. See ya when I get there.”

“Bye.”

____________

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading! I'm blowing love and kisses to all of you!

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