Behind His Mask

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Chapter 14 - My Aching Feet

On Saturday morning, I got a phone call from Emi. I had a date with Evander that evening and was happily humming about it as I put my toast in the toaster.

“Hi, Sarah. I was wondering if it would be possible for you to babysit for me next Saturday afternoon.” Emi’s voice was always so cute. “Can you do it? I know you’re always swamped on Saturdays.”

“Well, I’m not swamped today. The lady I usually babysit for has the flu and next Saturday is her day off, so I’m available. Why? Is Vincent going to be in town?”

“Yes, but that isn’t why I want you to come.” Emi explained that Evander’s family had not come to Edmonton to visit him since he had moved. Apparently, they had been scheduled to come a few times and it had always fallen through. They had missed Thanksgiving and now Emi was having them for Remembrance Day. She said she was making a Thanksgiving dinner for them, but wanted me to come to look after Paisley while she prepared it.

I agreed to do it, but I found the whole situation kind of weird. Wouldn’t there be other people there to care for Paisley? Didn’t Evander’s family like babies? In my family, everyone loved babies. I even had to swat away Carly, who also wanted to hold any baby who might be visiting.

We made the final arrangements. Then I sat back and thought about what Emi’s offer meant. I would get to meet Evander’s family. I couldn’t help being curious, especially after reading what he wrote about his family in his stories. The brothers he wrote about were awful and the way he portrayed his father was flat out disgusting. I took a contemplative breath. I was going to meet the real thing. Would they be anything like the families he wrote about?

I had my toast and then a shower. After I dried and straightened my hair, I braided a little strand from behind my bangs and pinned it. Picking clothes was always annoying, so I put on a classic white shirt and jeans. Simple is best. Then I did my makeup.

Actually, Evander had asked me to go on a date with him that night, hence the white shirt. White shirts didn’t last long in my world. They always got stained, so wearing one on a date was a double treat for me.

When I was finished getting ready, it was still the middle of the afternoon and I wasn’t expecting Evander until dinner time, so I went to my bed and got out his book. Surely I would pop out of it before he rang the bell. Besides, I always came out when there was a bell. At least, I had so far...

I opened the book and began to read.

Kalavan returned to his chamber after a hard night of entertaining and wearily tugged off his tights by the light of the moon. His muscles ached as he worked off the rest of his clothing and pulled on a nightshirt that fell to his knees. As he crawled onto his unmade bed, he thought about the girl sleeping under his mattress. He didn’t want to wake Serissa, but a tiny part of his mind panicked at the thought that if he lifted the flap in his bed, she might be gone. He tried to set his concerns aside, but it was impossible. He knew that his heart wouldn’t stop racing until he found out for sure. Cautiously, he lifted the flap. She was directly beneath him. All he could see was her delicate wrist and hand that lay carelessly splayed out to her side.

He sighed contentedly as he closed the flap. Then he pulled a blanket over himself and tried to sleep. He thought his heart would set an even pace if he confirmed she slept under his bead, but a secret pleasure burned in his chest. She was there and he couldn’t untie the knots she put him in.

He wasn’t even aware of the evil she had done.

I gawked. What evil had I done?

I suddenly sat up straight and hit my forehead on the underside of Kalavan’s bed. I had forgotten that I was in a bunk bed that was much lower than the one I slept in at home. I rubbed my face.

What had I done wrong? I couldn’t think. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Kalavan knocked on the sideboard beside my head and asked, “All right down there?”

“I’m fine. I’m just stupid.”

“Did you have a bad dream?”

“No. Yes. Something like that.”

His voice was quiet, but I could still hear him through the boards and feathers that blocked the way between us. “What did you dream about?” he asked.

“I dreamed I made a mistake.”

“What kind?”

“I don’t know. It was vague.”

“Want me to do a card reading for you?” he offered.

Just at that moment, a knock came at the door. Kalavan didn’t even get a chance to answer it before I heard the door swing open and slam against the wall.

“Valance,” Kalavan said stonily. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Do you know what this is?” the knight spat.

There was a moment before Kalavan answered. “Is this a trick question? It’s a rose. A very pretty one.”

“What the devil is that?” Valance exclaimed. “You’ve got a whole bouquet in here?”

“So? What of it?”

“No one can pick those roses. I mean... no one.”

“Oh! So that’s what the problem is. Well, I’m a magician. I did it.”

“What for?”

“For… fun.” He answered lamely.

“Really?” Valance asked disbelievingly. “Get up. The King wants to see you.”

“Where?” Kalavan asked. I felt his weight rise off the bed.

“In the rose garden. If you really picked those, the King will want to see you do it again.”

I heard Kalavan rummage around the room, presumably searching for clothes to wear. Two minutes later, the door shut and I knew I was alone in the room. I lifted the flap and tried to figure out what to do. This was all my fault. I should not have given Valance’s bride one of the apricot roses. Should I put on a disguise and follow them? I didn’t know if Kalavan would be able to pick the roses. When we were in the rose garden, the path didn’t open for him.

Then from down the hallway, I heard footsteps racing back toward the room. I jumped into the bed and shut the flap with an unfortunate bang.

“Serissa,” Kalavan’s voice hissed as he shut the door behind him.

“What?” I whispered. “You’re in trouble because of the rose I gave that woman, aren’t you?”

“Don’t worry about that. Listen. Get dressed in my clothes and meet me by the front gate. Wear one of my masks if you can’t do a convincing makeup job. I might be with King Pevinore all day, but when I am free, I’ll meet you there and take you away from here.”

“Back to my mother’s?”

“Anywhere.”

I popped open the flap and looked into his eyes. They were desperate, excited even. “Aren’t you worried about what the King will do?”

“He won’t do anything much. I’m his son.”

I nodded.

He put his hands on the mattress and bent down to kiss me. His kiss was so like Tremor’s like that love had suddenly reappeared and become part of the love affair I was having now. Once again there was that same spice of exhilaration that made it impossible for me to think. I had just gotten into the kiss when he pulled away.

“Valance is waiting for me.”

“Don’t let them keep you long.”

“Then get dressed quickly.”

He picked up the bouquet of forbidden roses, ran out the door, closed it gently behind him, and shouted down the hallway to his brother, “Keep your gauntlets on.”

I got out of the bed and found an outfit of Kalavan’s that would do. I put on a pair of his black tights and then a tunic that came halfway down my thigh. It was half white and half black. Then I tied a black belt around my waist and put on a pair of his white shoes. They were thin, but there was nothing better to wear. To disguise my hair, I tied it in a low ponytail like I had the night before. I chose one of his masks, the one with the beak, and tied it behind my head. I finished the look by pulling the hood of the tunic over my head.

I wanted to hurry to the front gate, so I picked up his lute and my hammock bag and set out.

Instead of worrying about speed, I should have worried about sense. I didn’t know how to get where I was going. I went around corners, down staircases, and through dramatic archways. I got lost three times before I found my way to the front hall. Even then, I was only a third of the way to our meeting place. Crossing the main hall was difficult at best. I planned to play a mime, like Kalavan had, whenever someone stopped me. I imagined the jester wasn’t bothered much by the courtiers. After all, he was the private entertainer of the King, wasn’t he?

I was wrong.

I took one step into the courtyard when suddenly a man passing me threw an apple at me. It hit me in the chest and fell to the ground.

“Oi, what are you doing?” the man said grouchily, “letting good fruit fall.”

I winced. He had expected me to catch it. Trying to play the part, I bowed, picked up the apple, polished it on my sleeve, and gave it back to the man.

He took it from me and shook his head.

I tried to let the incident slide off me, but in less than a minute, I was confronted by two little boys carrying tomatoes. Just like the man, they threw them at me. One hit me on the white half of my tunic and left a gory stain and the other hit me in the side of the head. Both the fruits were ruined as they slid off my body.

I tried to just continue on my way, but one of them jumped on my back like I was supposed to carry him. “Why didn’t you catch them? Are you feeling sick today, Jester?”

What if it got too rough and my mask fell off? Or what if I couldn’t do the things Kalavan could and they realized something was wrong with me? I had to get the kid off me.

I sunk to my knees and let the boy put his feet on the ground. Then I turned to them and tried my mime routine. Silently, I rubbed my stomach and held my head like I was in pain. As I stood up, I got an onion in the back of the head. The rotten vegetable made a sickening sound. THUNK! I turned around.

“Kalavan!” someone below my beak bellowed. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be with the King. Trying to make a run for it? Scoundrel! Come with me.”

I tilted my head so I could see who was speaking through the slits in the mask. It was the short knight… squire—Welvington. In an instant, my elbow was taken in a death grip and I was marched back into the confines of the castle. I tried to struggle as soon as we were away from the crowd, but it didn’t do me any good. He was strong even if he was half a foot shorter than me. Not to mention I never had any arm muscles to begin with. But still, I kept quiet and waited for my chance to escape.

Five minutes later we stood on the edge of the inner courtyard I had visited with Kalavan the day before. Welvington and I stood aloof at the edge of the scene. The King and Queen peered down at Kalavan who had evidently been thrown into the rose garden. He had landed unharmed, which had impressed the King. I was surprised Carly was not on his arm. Where was she? Had I really seen her at the wedding banquet?

“Now take a rose,” King Pevinore ordered.

I could just see the tip of Kalavan’s head through the leaves and petals. Welvington was looking too, apparently unsure of whether or not he should interrupt. So instead of making a fuss, he kept his hold on my arm and miraculously held his tongue at the same time.

Below, in the garden, I could hear Kalavan trying to pick a rose. It wasn’t working. I could hear him try to break a stem, but instead of the snap, I heard him suck in his breath in response to an angry thorn. He wasn’t going to be able to do it as I had. Did he have a plan?

“I’m waiting!” Pevinore bellowed after several minutes had passed.

“I’ll have one in a moment, my Lord King,” said Kalavan’s strained voice.

“Pull him out of there,” Valance interrupted. “He didn’t pick those roses. He doesn’t have the power. He’s just a trickster. There’s only one person who could have picked those flowers.”

“Who?” asked the Queen.

“Who else could it be other than that witch? Wasn’t this garden planted by the Red Thorn herself, by order of King Author?”

The monarch stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It could have been Serissa, but where is she that we can accuse her? I thought she disappeared.”

“Your majesty, if we think about this logically, the roses were in Kalavan’s room. The rose was presented to my wife by the person who assisted Kalavan in his performance last night. Wouldn’t they be the same person?”

It was at that moment that both Valance and King Pevinore seemed to notice Welvington and me standing by the corner of the rose garden.

Welvington seemed to gather their meaning as well, and slowly, he reached to pull the mask off my face. In the same instant, my face became visible, the foolish squire let go of my arm. I slammed my body into him and he went flying over the railing, smack on the rose bushes.

“Kalavan! Run!” I hollered.

The roses, thorns, and vines together immediately parted and made a straight path for him to the other side where I had met him the day before. His hands were bloody. The cuts ran all the way up to his shoulders, but he took to his feet and ran right for the fountain, where he jumped up and pulled the horn out of the statue’s hand.

Fingers clasped around my forearms and I was taken down.

But even though my view was completely blocked, I heard Pevinore scream, “Stop!” and the sound of the horn was so loud it felt like the very stone of the castle would crack. My captors let go of me to cover their ears. They fell to their knees. Amid the confusion, I got up and fled several feet away from the fallen guards.

I stopped at the doorway just in time to see the horn shot out of Kalavan’s hand by one of Valance’s arrows. Kalavan cried out in anguish.

I tried to jump over the railing myself, but Valance’s voice stopped me. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” His arrow was pointed directly at my heart. In the second I hesitated, the King’s guard caught hold of me and I was once again powerless.

The King and knight approached me. “Time for a trial,” the King said pleasantly, rubbing his hands together.

“Don’t try her!” Kalavan screamed, lowering himself from the fountain.

“Burn her!” the Queen blurted, suddenly coming forward. “We all saw her work her witchcraft in front of our very eyes. Burn her tonight. Nay, burn her now.”

King Pevinore looked troubled, but soon his expression cleared as he settled on a course. “Take him,” he said, pointing to his oldest son, “to the dungeon. I’ll forgive him his minor trespasses after he’s spent a few weeks in chains. As for this witch…” His voice lingered on the word ‘witch’ unpleasantly. “Have her stripped and searched for the mark.”

I felt sick. That was what Kalavan meant when he said he couldn’t tell me what they did to witches. It was too horrible for him to say because they degraded the woman by stripping off her clothing in public searching for the mark before they burned her. It was just a cruel technicality. Every woman had a mole or a scar or a birthmark they could call ‘a mark’ and probably so did everyone observing. It was just an excuse to humiliate and abuse her for their own amusement.

“No,” the Queen interrupted. She moved to my side and crossed herself. “We already saw her work her infernal enchantment and according to the law of the church, there is no need for further witness against her. She will be burnt and that is all.”

The King looked truly disappointed, but he waved his hand in assent. “Have the pyre prepared!”

Then I was hauled off.

Kalavan was carried five steps behind me down innumerable stairs until it felt like we were further down into the earth than where the capricorns had lived. There were no windows and the air smelled of sweat and piss. I was gagged and chained. Kalavan was nearby. From my cell, I could not see his face, but I could see his scratched arms that he stretched through the bars of his cell and hear his breath that came in ragged huffs. The guards evidently had to go prepare my pyre, so they left us alone in one corner of the sickeningly damp, stone hell.

Once we were alone, he explained, “They don’t want you whispering any spells. That’s why you’re gagged.”

I couldn’t answer him so and the time ticked by unaided by the tension.

Finally, Kalavan’s tongue loosened and he began to talk. “Wasn’t that amazing of the Queen? I can’t explain my surprise. I suppose she’s grown a conscience since she’s realized foul play doesn’t actually get you what you want.”

After that, Kalavan didn’t care to distract me further with single-sided dialogue, but the guards were quick, and just before midday, they came to loose me. I was unshackled and hauled up the stairs out into the courtyard, where a tall spike was erected with kindling stacked around its base. I was forced up the top and tied with vicious cords to the stake.

Truly, I hadn’t been very worried until that moment. Then I started to panic. I remembered my leg that had suddenly stopped working when I left the last story. What would happen if I died in Evander’s world? And how had the story turned so wrong? If the story was a choose-your-own-adventure, what turn did I take that brought me to the bad ending? I couldn’t pick a defining moment. It felt like I had been threatened with a burning since the opening no matter what they said about the rose on the banquet table.

Valance strode up to the pyre. He was about fifty meters ahead of the royal party, who were actually going to sit in a stand on thrones and cushions like my burning was entertainment. He climbed the ladder up to me and took the gag out of my mouth.

“You know, I was always going to offer you a way out. There’s something about watching your creamy skin burn that rubs me the wrong way. Nothing as beautiful as you should die like this, but then you pushed Welvington into the rose bushes, and… he’s not all right. The priest has been with him since you attacked him. They say he’s going to die.”

My gag was gone. I could have said something if I wanted to, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had no regret for what I had done to Welvington, so I couldn’t even apologize, and I didn’t have anything I could trade with Valance for my freedom and even if the option to marry him was still open, I didn’t want it.

There wasn’t much ceremony, other than the stand that was set up to hold the royal family and the church officials. A priest approached me and began reading my last rights. I could barely hear him, but I saw Kalavan coming toward me across the cobblestones as clear as day.

I should have known he would do something to save me. After all, it was his book.

As he walked he was approached by a guard, Kalavan stuck his hand out as fast as lightning and jabbed the man in the throat. The guard desperately sucked in for breath, while Kalavan walked on like nothing had happened.

The next guard opposed Kalavan with a spear in hand. Kalavan relieved him of it with hardly any effort, knocking him over the head and stepping over his fallen body.

Valance was the next person to try to stop him. “Stop it. She’s a witch. She has to be burned.”

“Move. I want to talk to my father.”

“He’s not your father,” Valance said smugly. “Didn’t you know your mother was a whore?”

Kalavan glanced at the Queen like he wanted to make a similar remark about Valance’s mother, but he kept his jaw wired shut and instead tried to pass Valance. The knight drew his sword. I stared at Kalavan. His grip on the spear was weak. It was slick from his blood. The cuts from the rose bushes seeped and fell in droplets on the rocks.

Kalavan’s eye twitched. Neither of them had struck a blow yet. “I want to take her place on the pyre. If you must burn someone, burn me instead of her.”

Valance barked out a scornful laugh. “You must be joking. Why?”

“She hasn’t done anything wrong. I disobeyed the law. I blew the horn. Burn me.”

“Preposterous!”

Suddenly, King Pevinore rose and shouted, “Valance, put down your sword. Both of you come here.” Kalavan and Valance went forward, both of them falling to one knee in front of the King. “Kalavan, though that horn is a treasure given to us as a gift by the High King Author, I do not believe it actually works, so there is no crime done. His army will not come and you have done no wrong.”

Kalavan took in a deep painful breath. It seemed like his brain was breaking, when he snapped, “Why don’t you let her go? Banish her! She doesn’t want to be here. She only ended up being picked up by Valance in that little town because she was following me.”

“Is that what she told you?” Valance scoffed.

“It’s no lie. I went to the house of the Red Thorn to learn her magic. I wanted to cross the rose garden to get the horn.”

“Treason!” Valance shouted.

“The punishment for treason isn’t fire. It’s hanging,” the King said loftily.

“Then he must be hanged!” Valance bellowed, getting to his feet. “He plotted against your majesty. He aided a witch, escaped from prison, and felled two of your personal guards just now. He is not to be forgiven. Hang him!”

The King shrugged his shoulders heartlessly. “Then I suppose I must. I thought it was enough to disinherit him and make him my fool. There are some people who just can’t learn their place. Hang him.”

“Will you let Serissa go?”

“Of course not,” the King replied scornfully.

Kalavan stood up, and without missing a beat thrust his spear into Valance’s ankle. The knight fell. Then the fool broke into a run and his feet beat the ground until he came to the ladder laid up against my pyre.

“Light it!” the King commanded frantically and one of the guards standing by immediately threw his torch into the kindling.

Kalavan’s hands were at my bonds and he was tearing ferociously at the ones around my feet. The smoke rose up in white clouds at first and then as the wood began to burn, it turned black. My feet were free, but the heat beneath them was so intense, it was terrible! I panicked and screamed. Kalavan supported himself on the top rung of the ladder and lifted my body up until the knots came clear over the stake. He threw me off the pyre onto the courtyard stones and I landed with a thud on my side. One of the guards laughed and pulled the ladder away. Kalavan lost his balance and fell into the bonfire.

Valance screamed for the guards. “Surround the fire. Don’t let the traitor out!”

For a moment, everyone had forgotten about me. I pulled the bonds off my hands and dropped the ropes on the stones. I should have run. No one was watching me. I should have escaped, but there was nowhere to go. I stared at the fire transfixed. Something about the whole thing, the water that swallowed Murmur and the fire that surrounded Kalavan, was real. It represented something real, and even if it was only in Evander’s mind that he burned, I couldn’t leave him to burn alone.

I pushed between the guards and stepped onto a burning log. Kalavan’s thin-soled boots on my feet caught fire. Sweat poured down my neck as I tried to distract myself from the pain by looking at Kalavan. I could hardly see his shape through the smoke.

“What are you doing?” one of the guards shrieked. He tried to pull me back, but I evaded his grasp by taking another two quick, excruciating steps into the fire.

Kalavan was at the center, trying to hold onto the stake to keep himself up and breathing hard through the dense smoke. It was making me cough. I reached out my hand and touched the crisping flesh on his shoulder. When he felt my touch, he let go of the stake and instead held onto me for support. With his head cradled next to my chest, I heard him say, “I trust you.”

And the world disappeared.

***

I should have guessed things would be the same as when I woke up from the last story, except with different injuries. I immediately felt that my feet were horribly burnt, especially my soles. Examining them, they were charred. They hurt too much to walk, so I crawled to the bathroom and filled up the tub with cold water. As soon as it was deep enough to cover my feet, I turned off the tap and put my feet in. It was unbelievably painful. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from howling until slowly the water made my burns hurt less. Finally, I could breathe normally and dry the tears that somehow came down my cheeks.

I had been sitting there for probably fifteen minutes when the apartment buzzer went off. Who could be at my door? My mom was at work. Rachel and Carly couldn’t have made it back yet. It was too early for Evander to pick me up for our date, so I wasn’t expecting him either. Well, whoever it was, they couldn’t be more important than my feet. I ignored it.

But the buzzer kept ringing.

Eventually, I pulled my feet out of the water, and immediately, they started hurting violently. I crawled on my knees to the buzzer and from a kneeling position, I answered the buzz.

“Who is it?” I croaked.

“It’s me. Evander.”

I buzzed him in and unlocked the door. Why had he come at that exact moment? I didn’t care. I couldn’t stand the pain any longer and crawled back to the bathtub. That was where he found me when he came in.

“What are you doing?” he asked, staring at me curiously from the bathroom doorway.

I didn’t know what to say. I groaned internally and stayed silent, but he could see the panic on my red face.

“You’re hurt, aren’t you?” he said, coming toward me and looking in the bathwater. “What have you done to your feet?”

I looked at them in the water. They were red, but it didn’t look like the skin was coming off and the pain wasn’t so bad that I was still crying, so I figured I was okay. “It’s nothing,” I said. “I just need to keep them in the water for an hour or so and then I’ll be ready to go on our date.”

He spoke like he hadn’t heard me. “What were you doing?”

“I wasn’t doing anything.”

“Let me take a look.”

I pulled out my foot and showed it to him.

“It looks like you were walking on hot coals. You’ve got a few blisters coming. I knew something bad had happened to you.”

“Is that why you came early?” I asked as I immersed my foot in the water again.

“I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“Oh, please don’t. I’m fine. It hurts a lot, but I’d be better off just to keep them in the water here. If you want to help, please just keep me company.”

“No. You need to go to the hospital. If you won’t take your feet out of the water, I’ll get a bucket and put it in the passenger seat.”

“It’ll soak your car.”

“I don’t care about my car.”

Without my permission, he found a square Rubbermaid container in the kitchen, emptied whatever was in it, filled it up with water, and took it down to the street. Then he came into the bathroom and wrapped my winter coat around my shoulders.

“This is a dumb idea,” I said to him as he literally shoved my arms through the holes. “I’m fine.”

“Okay then, tell me what happened. How did you end up like this? If it’s no big deal then how come you won’t tell me what you were doing?”

I couldn’t answer him.

“Were you walking on the stove?”

I shook my head.

“What ridiculous thing were you doing that you don’t want to admit to?”

I twitched.

“Why can’t you tell me?”

“Because what happened is unbelievable.”

“Try me,” he said stiffly.

“I was reading in my room and I happened to fall asleep and when I woke up, my feet were burnt.”

“Did your heating pad go berserk or something?”

My eyes widened. I hadn’t thought of a lie like that. “Whoa, look at that. You did understand.”

“Well, that’s not too unbelievable. Let’s go to the hospital just in case and you should throw away that heating pad.”

“Will do!” I promised heartily.

But that still didn’t stop him from carrying me down to his car like a princess.

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