Behind His Mask

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Chapter 2 - The Lord of the Capricorns

It was Friday and I hated everybody. I was in the first semester of grade eleven and I hated everybody. My teacher? Yeah, I hated him. He was telling us why we had to study like we’d never studied before if we wanted to do well on the midterm. The lunch lady? Yeah, I hated her, too. I had to buy my lunch that day and the prices were so high. The kid who had the locker next to me? Yeah, I hated him, too. We hadn’t even had our lockers for two months yet and something inside his was starting to smell. The girl who texted me in the middle of math class? Yep, I utterly despised her.

I only had one spare that day and it was during the second to last period. It wasn’t until then that I got a chance to crack open Evander’s book. I went to the library, found a cozy spot in the corner on one of the couches, and pulled it out of my bag. The book itself smelled great. It looked great too, just like one of those beautifully bound books on the shelf of a nineteenth-century library. I was excited as I flipped open the cover and found the title of the first part. It was called The Lord of the Capricorns.

Insert girlish scream—which was immediately squelched by the grouchy librarian’s glare.

I started reading.

Once upon a time, there was a land of greenness unlike any other. It bordered no seashore, no desert, and no mountains. It was a land touched by the grace of the goddess of rain. There, the sun shone golden, covering the land in light and beauty. It was a place of peace where the fields had not absorbed the blood of war and where dead warriors were not buried. Flowers were as valuable as gemstones. Images reflected on a clear lake’s surface were more prized than those on foreign mirrors.

The kingdom was known as Lilikeen. In the center of all gracefulness and goodness was their greatest prize, Princess Sarafina. Her beauty caused aches of longing throughout all the neighboring countries. Her head was blessed with soft, sunlit, curls that fell in voluminous waves to her slender waist. When she wore rings on her fingers, the rings seemed enormous and made her fingers more elegant. Her eyes were green like the green that unfolds in the curve of a newborn leaf.

Love for her was inevitable.

Reading it made me hate Evander, too. Of course, he liked that kind of girl. It sounded like a female version of him, except for the green eyes. But even after having my fears about him confirmed, my disgust didn’t negate my interest in what he had to say, so I kept reading.

At the age of fourteen, she stood in her personal library. It was a beautiful room designed with enormous panels of glass in the ceiling to let in the light for the weightless vines that clung to the bookshelves, adding color and freshness. She was meant to entertain a prince, but not just any prince. The youth invited was the second prince of the Kingdom of Bellique—a country with a strong political hold on Lilikeen.

Bellique lay to the south. It was a great arching country that covered the entire continental coast and cradled a multitude of small kingdoms in its arc. It was the shape of a crescent moon and Lilikeen was like a star dangling from the top corner of it. Bellique sat in a rather difficult position, for it was constantly under invasion from the countries across the sea. It was stained in blood until the earth was red, and if Lilikeen and her neighbors wished to keep their lands pure from warfare, they had to pay a heavy tribute. The money kept Bellique’s soldiers paid, their weapons sharp, and their boats afloat. Each and every citizen of Lilikeen paid some of their income to keep Bellique’s war machine ticking.

The morning Sarafina entertained Prince Murmur of Bellique, the Queen of Lilikeen watched with great interest from a balcony above.

Murmur entered. Sarafina stood by an empty fireplace with nothing on her mind particularly. She had already learned she did not need to exert herself, particularly when dealing with prospective suitors. She did not need to think of witty conversation. They were happy enough to talk about themselves and the time would soon pass.

For Murmur, the effect of her beauty was devastating. Because she did not speak much, she opened his imagination up for what she could be instead of exactly what she was, which was bored, underdeveloped, and childish. He didn’t know this. The combination of her obvious acceptance of him and her outward perfection made him believe, even though he was too young to marry her then, that he could have no one else as his wife.

The next day he was carried away back to Bellique’s impenetrable capital, but two months later a very royal missive was received by the King and Queen of Lilikeen. It was an official request for a betrothal. An excellent offer it was too, for it offered to have the tribute sent to Bellique reduced by half during each year Sarafina was married to Murmur. However, the King and Queen did not accept it. The Queen knew what their kingdom had—they had a daughter capable of mystifying a prince in one afternoon. From that moment on, the Queen began plotting for a better marriage for Sarafina. What good was Prince Murmur? He was not the Crown Prince. He would never be a king. Instead, she set her heart on his older brother, Prince Tremor.

Tremor was a legend. It was not Murmur who protected the entire continent from the threat across the sea, but the Crown Prince. If Sarafina could have the tribute halved by marrying a prince who would never be a king, how much could she have it reduced if she married the man who would be? Tremor was an unmarried soldier, a general, and a prince who would be a king.

The Queen wrote a letter inviting Tremor to Lilikeen. There was no response for over six months and when the epistle was received, it was opened to uncover his refusal. He could not leave his fortress at Sealoch to go courting. To the Queen, it was a minor setback. This was a different kind of warfare, one for which a queen was well equipped. She would have her daughter married to the Lord of Sealoch!

I sat back and thought about that for a second. If the story were a window into Evander’s life—did he fear his aunt and uncle would tell him who to marry? Or could he not have the girl he wanted? I tapped my toe thoughtfully when the rustling of my skirt caught my attention. I stopped, stunned, I hadn’t worn a skirt to school that day.

Taking my eyes off Evander’s book, I saw I was wearing a yellow gown and I was not in the school library anymore. Getting up, I realized I was standing in a round room with stone walls. Going to a window, I stared out at a breathtaking green prairie that seemed to stretch forever. A castle spread out beneath me too, just like the dress had. I was standing in a turret room. I could see other towers, courtyards inside the gates, people walking about in fine apparel, stone archways, and beauty everywhere.

Looking around the room, I saw a bed with the curtains tied back, a huge armoire, a dressing table with silver brushes, and a mirror propped up on it. Moving closer, I saw my reflection in it. I looked like the girl in the story. It wasn’t that my face was different. It was the same, but my hair was vibrant blonde with glorious curls. In the sunlight, my face had radiant color—something I never saw when I did my makeup in the cheap fluorescent light in my bathroom back home. Was it really me?

A second later there was a tap on the door and a young girl around twelve years old came in. “I’ve come to get you ready, Princess Sarafina,” she chirped.

I stood there for a second. My name was Sarah, not Sarafina. “Excuse me,” I said kindly. “What’s your name?”

“Tripsy.”

“Okay, Tripsy. How did I get here?”

She looked around the room like she didn’t understand.

Then I said, “I’m not from this place. I was reading a book in my school library.”

She froze completely, like a statue. She had stopped breathing. Every muscle in her body seemed paralyzed.

I went up to her and waved my hand in front of her eyes, but she didn’t even blink. Then I yelled at her, “Wake up, Tripsy!”

She came to life again. “What would you like to wear to the ball tonight?” she asked, opening two of the armoire doors. She started pulling out gowns of all different colors and varieties. I had never seen anything like it in my life—not even when I skulked into bridal shops to peek at what the girls who had money bought.

Even though it would have been fun to simply put on a dress and run downstairs to a ball, everything was too weird. Wasn’t I in the library at school? Wasn’t everything I saw and felt a fantasy my brain cooked up to go along with Evander’s story? What if the castle was in my brain and my body was still at school? If that were the case, I couldn’t just take my clothes off and start putting on imaginary ones. I was already going to be sent to the funny farm for talking out loud to make-believe Tripsy with everyone in the library hearing me.

I grabbed the back of the chair, hoping it was really the couch in the library and I was plum crazy. I looked around for Evander’s book, but it was nowhere to be seen. Did I set it down? I looked all over the room, but it was gone.

Tripsy was holding a ball gown in each hand, waiting for me to make a decision.

Getting desperate, I pinched myself. It hurt, but nothing happened. Crap! What was I supposed to do? Listen to a puffed-up personification of my imagination and strip? I closed my eyes, wound up, and slapped myself across the cheek. It hurt, but when I opened my eyes again, nothing had changed.

Tripsy’s expression didn’t seem to register that anything was weird with my behavior. Somehow for her, it looked like everything was normal.

So at the risk of sounding crazy, I tried another tactic. I started screaming. Well, not really screaming, but calling out with a bit of volume to the air around me. “Whoever is watching me make a fool of myself, please stop me. Take me to the office. I’m not feeling well. Give me a ride home. I need to rest. But please don’t smack me across the cheek. I already tried that and it didn’t do anything. Help me. Please!”

Nothing happened.

I tried again. “Really! I’m crazy! I need professional help!”

That time Tripsy came over and touched my arm. “Why don’t you rest a minute, Your Highness? You can tell me which ones you like from where you’re sitting.”

I frowned miserably. I felt like I was about to play a make-believe princess game in front of half my school. If only I could keep my public transgression to talking in my sleep. That wouldn’t be so bad, except, I didn’t feel like I was dreaming. Besides, I never fell asleep anywhere other than my bed. The vision in front of me had more clarity and detail than any dream I’d had before. The only other conclusion I could draw was that I was completely nuts. Delusions! And if that were true, then it would be better if I were found out sooner, so that someone could get me some help! For the time being, I let my overactive imagination take the reins.

I looked at the dresses Tripsy was presenting. At least, it was a good fantasy so far (although if I were going to fantasize in public I would not have chosen a princess theme). The dresses were interesting. I’d never seen a dress show before. There were pink silky ones, navy ones with jewels sewn all over them, orange ones with embroidered flowers, coral-colored ones with thousands of beads sewn on, purple ones with long transparent overlays. I was at a complete loss of which one to choose or what to do.

“Which one would you like to wear tonight?” Tripsy asked again. “They’re expecting you downstairs in half an hour.”

“Well, they’ll have to wait,” I said, as I picked up the coral colored one. “I’m not sure which one to choose. As soon as I start stripping in the library, I’m sure to get hauled off to the loony bin.”

Tripsy didn’t remark. She didn’t hear me.

It was at that moment that the Queen paraded in. She had to be the Queen. She couldn’t be anyone else with a three-tiered crown on her head. She was a vision. Her dress was black with green fringes running down the side and across the bodice. She looked like the Queen of Hearts. No, she looked more like the Queen of Shamrocks, since she was wearing green.

“What are you doing?” she hissed at me. “Didn’t I tell you Prince Murmur is attending tonight? You’re supposed to be downstairs. Tripsy, get out. I’ll finish getting the Princess ready myself.”

Tripsy ran for her life and shut the door behind her.

“You can’t wear that!” The monarch scoffed at the yellow dress I had been so hesitant to take off.

“Why not?” I asked, as I suddenly felt that was a brilliant defense. Then I wouldn’t have to change into anything.

She scowled at me. “I’m not in the mood for jokes,” she pronounced noisily. “Choose a gown at once.”

I grabbed a white one.

“No,” the Queen said, and snatched it out of my hand. “That’s for your wedding.”

“All right,” I said and reached for a pink one.

“No. Not that one either. Really Darling, where did your sense go? This one,” she said, as she pulled one from the bottom of the pile.

The dress had a tight white bodice and a spring green skirt that flared out to infinity. The bodice had a pattern of beautifully arranged beads. Stepping into it, I wondered if princesses felt like they were going to die of embarrassment when they changed outfits. I thought I could feel the eyes of thirty invisible teenage boys staring at me in the library. If only I could wake up.

“Of course you couldn’t wear pink,” the Queen huffed. “This is a national celebration.”

“What are we celebrating?” I asked. She tightened the corset strings. I yelped.

She didn’t skip a beat. “Your letter from Tremor, of course. Finally, after all these years of waiting, he’s agreed to marry you. Just thinking about it fills me with triumph. Mind you don’t flirt with Murmur tonight, dear. If you do, he won’t like to see you as his sister-in-law and the future queen of Bellique. He’ll be miserable.”

“I’m going to marry Prince Tremor, then?” I asked uneasily as I remembered the opening paragraphs of Evander’s book.

“Of course.”

“Is Tremor downstairs, too?”

“Of course not! He’s with the soldiers in Sealoch. Why would he be here? You’ll go to him tomorrow. I can just imagine you, standing on the balcony of the castle at Sealoch.” She shoved me into a chair and started pinning my hair into an elaborate up-do. “You’ll wear red then, the color of Bellique, and all the soldiers will salute you and think of your beauty as they throw their bodies into the fray for your sake.”

“My sake!” I gasped.

“For the sake of us all,” she corrected. “And after the battles, you’ll go down to the encampment with a flock of servants and see to the medical needs of the brave men that fight for our freedom. It will be glorious and you, my love, will be the most famous beauty in history.”

I thought about that. “Lowly teenager from a one-bedroom apartment becomes The Most Famous Beauty in History.” I’d never imagined being like Cleopatra or Pocahontas. It didn’t seem possible. I’d only wanted to stop being so wretchedly inferior to Evander. The most I’d ever wished was for him to like me.

Then something occurred to me. “Does Prince Tremor love me?”

“Love you? He’s never even met you, but that doesn’t matter. The fame of your beauty has reached his ears,” she said as she corrected the direction I was looking with both her hands on either side of my head. “He must be very interested in you to declare that he wants to marry you. Don’t worry about his stipulations and go right ahead.”

“Stipulations? What stipulations?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said, sticking a final sparkling adornment in my hair. “Nothing. He just wants you to take a boat down the river to Sealoch. It’ll be easy, just a little ferry ride. My brave princess can easily manage it.”

“Right,” I said as the Queen pronounced me ready and elegantly hauled me down the curving stairway.

We descended the tower stairs and down a long hallway onto a balcony that overlooked the ballroom. It was a lovely room with tall, graceful, archways, and six crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There were beautiful wooden beams put together in a jigsaw pattern on the ceiling with the centers of each pattern like a rose painted green. There were cream and emerald tiling on the floor. At one end, there were harpists playing. At the other end, people danced.

Everyone stopped what they were doing when the Queen and I came in and immediately a man dressed in a strange green and yellow coat stepped into place next to me. From there he announced, “Queen Rosary the Fourth and Princess Sarafina.”

I felt kind of important despite my awkwardness as everyone else in the room bowed. Then the Queen led me down another staircase and onto the ballroom floor. Upon my arrival, at least a dozen people moved to speak to me, either to offer their congratulations or to tell me how much they would miss me after I went to Sealoch. Then suddenly, the crowd parted and made way for one man.

At first, I didn’t know who he was. He was older, had a thick beard, and wore a gold ring around his head. Then it became clear to me. It was the king—Sarafina’s father.

He took my hand in a firm grip and kissed both my cheeks. Unfortunately, I took a step backward. I had played along with my incredibly vivid daydream, but I couldn’t act normal in that situation. He had a beard. I’d never been kissed by a man or a boy and starting me off with kissing an older man with hair on his face was a little much for me. Luckily, he didn’t seem put off by it. Actually, he seemed amused and grabbed my elbow to help me steady myself.

“I knew my darling girl would secure our country’s future,” he said joyfully. His eyes were wet and droplets of water settled in his eyelashes.

I was horrified. “Why are you crying?”

He wiped his face with the heel of his hand and said, “Sealoch is a faraway land and Tremor has been very specific that we are never to travel to the battlefield. If you marry him, you’ll have to stay there with him unless he permits you to go to the capital. I don’t know when we will meet again.”

I stared. That was another stipulation, I supposed. I was about to pipe up with, “Then why send me?” when I remembered what I read in the book. It said they were hoping to lower the tribute Lilikeen had to pay to Bellique to keep their army in place on the seaside. Well, if you compared the two, keeping your daughter at home with you instead of lowering every citizen’s taxes did seem incredibly selfish for a monarch. I smiled at him. I couldn’t believe I was watching someone other than my mother get worked up over the thought of never seeing me again.

The next thing I knew, another man was approaching me. He looked closer to my age. His hair was dark and straight. It fell over his forehead and into his brown eyes. For a second I thought he looked a little like Evander, but the feeling departed when he started talking. He was nothing like Evander.

“Do you remember me?” he asked angrily, as he ground his lower lip into his teeth with his hand.

I didn’t know what to say. How was I supposed to know who he was? But then I remembered the Queen said Prince Murmur was waiting downstairs—my future brother-in-law. I took a stab in the dark and tried to sound like the Queen. “Of course I remember you, Murmur. How long has it been?”

“About three years,” he said crossly.

I remembered reading that he wanted to marry Sarafina. He looked fit to be tied, or rather; he ought to have been tied. He was going to start a fight, and I shouldn’t have thought it was incredibly amusing, but I did. The idea of any guy eating his heart out over me was totally enjoyable. I had to give it to Evander. He really knew how to write a book.

“I remember,” I said in my prettiest voice, enjoying the situation. Maybe he would relax if I paid some attention to him. Except, the Queen told me not to flirt.

“Do you know what a capricorn is?” he asked, his words coming out quickly.

“No,” I answered hurriedly in an effort to keep up with him. “Isn’t it a sign of the zodiac? But I wouldn’t know. My sign is—“

“They’re monsters of the sea,” he interrupted in a louder voice. “Lilikeen is landlocked. It’s no wonder you haven’t heard of them.”

I cleared my throat and asked. “Are there many of them in the water around Sealoch?”

“Thousands of them!” he exclaimed, breathing a little boozy breath on me. “Some of them grow to be five times as tall as a man and they have eyes as big as serving plates. Yellow.”

“What’s yellow?”

“Their eyes. Monsters, I tell you—monsters. And they’re all up the river.”

“What?”

“The river Tremor is having you travel by tomorrow; they have nests all the way up.” The way he said it had a distinctly nasty edge. “Mostly just the little ones still live in the river, but sometimes you meet a mother. She might think you’re invading her territory just by being there.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me to look him in the eye. “You shouldn’t go. You should refuse him.” He paused for effect. “And marry me instead. I’ll make sure you get the tax reduction your people need. Trust me.”

With one glance at Murmur, I could tell he wasn’t the hero of the story. Sarafina wasn’t supposed to marry him and move to the capital of Bellique where she could see her parents more often. She was supposed to meet Tremor. He was the hero.

I shook him off, flipped open my fan, and quipped. “Someday I may be a widow.”

After Murmur had processed that, I heard someone shouting, “Sarah Reagan! Sarah Reagan!”

Thank goodness! I turned my head and before I realized what was going on, I was sitting back in the school library. One of the librarians was standing over me saying, “Are you really supposed to sleep through the last two periods of school? If you’re going to do that, then you might as well go home.”

I gazed up at her like she was an angel of mercy. “Thank you so much for waking me up!” Then I whispered, “Did I do anything funny while I was asleep?”

She narrowed her eyes quizzically. “Like what?”

“Talking? Walking? Make a ruckus?”

“No,” she said matter-of-factually. Then she did a double-take. “There’s drool on your chin.”

I wiped it away with ease. It could have been so much worse. Thank heaven I didn’t take my clothes off in public! But if I didn’t, then that must mean that his book was a story where I could play one of the characters instead of just read. It was a lot to absorb, but I was the sort of person who never forgot where she was supposed to be.

The clock on the wall said school only had ten minutes left. I followed the librarian to the checkout desk. “Why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”

“Do I look like an alarm clock to you? Don’t you sleep at night?”

“I do. This was the first time I have ever fallen asleep at school.”

“It’s too late to bother about excuses now. Which class were you supposed to be in? I’ll call your teacher and tell them you were here.”

“Thanks,” I said to the librarian as I flipped open Evander’s book to see how far I had gotten.

I had finished chapter one. The last thing written on the page was:

Sarafina opened her white lace fan with a snap. Looking Murmur in the eye she said evenly, “Someday I may be a widow.”

I didn’t understand, but at least I didn’t do anything embarrassing in the library.

I glanced at chapter two and saw a mass of text. There was still a lot more to read and from the width of the spine, I hadn’t gotten very far in at all. I put a bookmark between the pages and closed the book. What just happened was probably a one-time deal. I probably fell asleep after finishing the chapter and made up all that extra nonsense. All the same, Evander’s book was going to be more interesting than anything I’d ever experienced.

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