Behind His Mask

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Chapter 3 - The River to Sealoch

It was a Friday, and I had no babysitting job arranged for that night, so as I got on the bus to go home, I pulled out my latest blank notebook. I went to a fresh page and started writing out my plans for the day.

I wrote down my plans for the afternoon. First, I’d make myself a snack of popcorn and chocolate milk when I got home. Then I planned to curl up in bed and read Evander’s book.

That was as far as I got before I slipped back into thinking about what happened in the school library. I was still battling the idea that what happened was a hallucination. It didn’t feel like I’d fallen asleep—though it looked that way to the librarian. Then when I reread the last line of chapter one, I was positive it had been my own idea to make that comment about becoming a widow. Evander’s book had to be magical. Maybe it was bad, an evil book that would turn out like a horror movie with me running away from a maniac with a knife. Maybe I shouldn’t read the second chapter. I didn’t know enough about what happened when my consciousness entered the book, but I really wanted to find out what happened next.

Back at home, I pulled my pitiful little bed curtains closed, shoved a handful of popcorn in my mouth, and started reading. Chapter two began with a letter.

My Dearest Princess,

On the evening of the thirteenth of Millend, there will be a boat docked at the river Uliss. On board is everything you will need to travel freely and lightly down the river to where it empties—Sealoch. As the craft is not designed to carry much weight, please do not over-pack. I assure you I have made meticulous preparations for your journey and once you arrive, you will want for nothing. Please do not fear because I have asked you to travel alone to meet me. It is my belief that if a princess cannot handle the journey to Sealoch, she cannot handle life on the battlefront. Nevertheless, the boat will be watched and if you should decide that the unpleasantness of the voyage makes marrying me less desirable, simply call out. You will immediately be met, escorted to civilization and my offer of marriage shall be retracted.

I look forward to meeting you in person and hearing you recount your voyage since it will likely be an eventful one.

Your Loving Fiancé,

Tremor Halfheart

Looking up from the book, I thought about the letter. It sounded like something Evander would write—short and threatening. It was as if he was daring me to ride the boat alone.

As I looked around my bed, I saw I hadn’t gone anywhere, so I took a swig of chocolate milk and reached for the popcorn.

It was then that I heard a man’s voice outside my bedcurtains. A shiver ran up my spine. He sounded like he was standing right beside my bed. Totally paralyzed, I sat still and listened.

“He wants her to do this on her own?” a low voice asked. “Is Prince Tremor trying to kill her? Doesn’t he know that she was practically raised in a glass box? There’s no way she can go down the length of the river by herself. She’ll die.”

The skin on the back of my neck prickled. It sounded like dialogue from the book. I opened the curtain and didn’t see the bedroom, but a stretching prairie dotted with leafy trees. Then the bed started bumping and swaying. My legs fell through the bed and my feet hit the floor. The bed became a bench. Suddenly, I was in a padded carriage that was being led by two white horses. There was a coachman driving my carriage and there were two other men in green and black army tunics riding alongside on brown mounts.

Somehow I was inside Evander’s book and I was Princess Sarafina again. That meant it must have been one of the army men I heard whispering about me. I felt cross at the man I heard talking about me. A glass box! Well, maybe Princess Sarafina had grown up in a glass box, but I hadn’t. I could handle a little boat ride. Thinking about the bloodstain in my apartment building, I knew I could.

I leaned back, forgetting momentarily about the impending trial, and immediately started praising whoever invented shocks in modern vehicles. Not even Edmonton city buses bumped as much as the carriage did. I didn’t even realize the irony of placing those two thoughts right beside each other. I could handle anything—except ancient carriages with no shocks.

Then I saw the sparkling river and the boat that had been sent for me. It looked like an oversized canoe with a white tent on it. When I got closer, I saw that it had runners that extended on either side to make it more stable. No matter how wild the river water got, it probably wouldn’t capsize. There was no mast, no sails, and from what I could see—no paddles. It looked to have enough room for a person to lie down in it. Other than that, the boat was empty. Whoever Tremor had sent to watch me, I wasn’t going to get to meet them before setting out.

As I got out of the carriage with my one little bag, I was met by as many people as had been at the ball. The King and Queen stood tall off to one side in their green attire and watched the crowd. One of the Lilikeen soldiers got on board the little boat to check it. When he came back his report was gloomy. “There’s enough food and water for you to make the trip, my Princess, but nothing to steer the boat with. There are no weapons, no compass, and no anchor. The only thing I found was this note.”

I took it. It read; “You can still marry Murmur if you want to—Tremor.” I crumpled it up angrily in my fist and straightened my back. Who would want to marry Murmur? He might look kind of like Evander, but from my meeting with him, I could already tell his insides were rotten. Not only that, but he had told me all that garbage about monsters in the river. Then it dawned on me, he had called the monsters capricorns and the story was called The Lord of the Capricorns. Crap! What Murmur said was probably true and I didn’t know how to stop reading.

Looking into the river, I knew I was unprepared for whatever lay ahead. I had always lived in a city where you simply looked at the river, you didn’t swim in it or sail on it. I was trying to be tough, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stop reading the book, and I couldn’t go back to the castle or back to my room. There was only one thing I could do. I had to banish my fears and get aboard the boat.

With the dignity of a princess, I stepped into the boat. The bottom swayed under my feet. It was more like a canoe than I thought. One of the soldiers hefted my bag to me and I nearly fell in the water trying to catch it. Then with remarkably little ceremony, they untied the rope and sent me on my way.

“How long will it take to get there?” I called to the soldier who then threw me the rope.

He shook his head like there was a weight attached to his chin. “We don’t know exactly, Highness. None of us has ever gone that far down the river before.”

I waved goodbye to the tense cluster of citizens that had come to see me on my way. The King covered his eyes with his hand in pain and the Queen stroked the side of his arm, comforting him. Triumph glowed in her face. She waved to me and shook her fist once. I supposed that was her cheering for me in her own way. I watched them all pack up and leave with not even one soul staying until I drifted out of sight. When I saw how quickly they all left, I had to do something to pick myself up, otherwise, I might have started to cry.

I sat down and started pawing through my bag for something more appropriate to wear. I was dressed in princess finery similar to the yellow gown I had found myself wearing when I came into the book before. The dress I was wearing was light green, but I couldn’t move around in it. In my bag, I found three more dresses (one of them was clearly my wedding gown), two nightgowns, and some unfortunate looking underclothes. What was there looked the same as what I was wearing, so I opted to spoil the dress I already had on, closed the bag, and set it inside the tent.

The weather was quite nice, and I watched the water and the lush green prairie slip by on either side of the boat.

Then I started thinking about what Tremor said in his letter. If a princess couldn’t handle the journey, then she couldn’t handle life there… or something like that. What was life there going to be like? I suddenly got the shivers. It was clearly a fantasy novel Evander had written. Who knew what sorts of monsters and evils lurked under that quiet facade of his? To start with, there was a war waging in Sealoch. Was I going to the front? I shivered. Who knew what kinds of inhumanity I might witness when I got there? After all, the novel seemed pretty real. There could be fields of blood-soaked men and stinking hospitals. Those fears were more real to me than what Murmur said about sea creatures.

I shook my head. I wasn’t going to think about capricorns or monsters, and instead I went to see what food Tremor had sent me. The packages were really simple. I looked inside the first bundle. It had a small loaf of bread and three smoked fish with the bones still inside. I counted out three meals for each day and saw that he had sent me enough food to last five days.

Was the voyage really going to take five days? I was shocked. Was I really supposed to stay passed out on my bed for five days! I had a babysitting job the next day, and I really needed the money. If I didn’t show up, I might not get hired again.

I thought about screaming out, but if I did that, Sarafina might lose her chance to marry Tremor and screaming hadn’t worked to get me out of the book the last time.

I told myself to calm down. I just needed to think about it logically. Argh! Why had I jumped back into the book again so recklessly? Stop. Logically. Think logically. The last time I woke up when the librarian woke me, so all I needed was for my mother to wake me up in the morning, which she would probably do. I just needed to calm down.

I picked a strip of meat off one of the fishes and gave it a taste. Wow. Not bad. Practicing eating around the bones was a good exercise… in calming down.

I ate the bread, drank some water, and watched the sunset. It was pretty in Evander’s book. The sky was bright orange and the sun shone through the river grasses and cattails. I waited until the last second to close the tent flaps, work my way out of my corset, and settle down for the night. It was getting cold, but Tremor had left me a softish mattress to rest on and plenty of blankets.

I let myself get rocked to sleep to the swaying beat of the river.

When I woke up in the morning, I expected to wake up in my bedroom awake and alert and ready to watch someone’s kids, but I was still in Evander’s book. Couldn’t my mom wake me up?

I pulled back the tent flap and looked out at the world. I had traveled a long way during the night. I woke up in a completely different place. The river ran through a forest, except there were no leaves or needles on the trees. There were only burnt skeletons of trees. It looked like a forest fire had ruined the place ages ago and nothing had been able to grow since.

Later that morning I passed a city. The buildings were made of logs and mud, and looked quite different from the castle. The greenness of Lilikeen had disappeared overnight and been replaced with only the occasional patch of grass and wild clusters of trees.

That whole day, I sat nibbling on loaves of bread and wondering what would happen if no one woke me up in my room. What if they couldn’t wake me up? What if my mother had tried and tried and eventually she hadn’t known what to do, so she called for an ambulance and I was in some rarely visited wing of the hospital on life support because I was actually in a coma?

What if my mom woke up, but didn’t look in on me and just went about her day thinking I had already gone to my job?

I didn’t know and I drove myself crazy until the sun went down for the second time.

That time, however, when I was poking around in the supplies Tremor had left me, I found a different looking package with Sarafina’s name on it. I opened it up and found a dress. It was white with a drawstring neckline, short sleeves, a light billowing skirt, and what looked like half a corset sewn into the dress, but it allowed me to do it up in the front. The weave of the fabric was like one of those ancient flour sacks my mother still used to mop up spills. I pried myself out of my dress and replaced it with Tremor’s gift. It was far more practical since it was getting hotter as I traveled further south.

Then I remembered what the Queen had said about men saluting me while I wore a black and red gown. Life in Sealoch probably wasn’t anything like she imagined. No one from Lilikeen had been there before. Most likely, she had no idea to what circumstances she was sending her daughter.

On the third day, I saw only one person and he motioned for me not to go any further. The whole exchange really freaked me out—no exaggeration.

The man paddled up to me in his rowboat and said, “Girl, don’t go that way. There is nothing that way. Come with me. I will guide you to shore.”

I felt like caving in and going with him, but I had to stick with the plan. That was how the story went. “I can’t,” I said regretfully.

“You must. That way only leads to Sealoch, the water monsters, and the war. Come with me.”

“That’s where I’m going,” I insisted.

He didn’t listen to me and prepared to throw a rope over to my helm when something under the water caught his attention. “Don’t move! A capricorn is under your boat.”

I wanted to dispel my ignorance as quickly as possible since the monsters could be like sea lions or something else I understood. I closed my eyes for a moment in preparation. Then I opened them up again and stuck my head over the water even though I was afraid. I didn’t see anything at all.

“What’s a monster like that doing this far north?” the man gasped. “It’s not natural.”

“I don’t see anything,” I said, staring into the water.

“You see the black?” the man questioned.

“It all looks black to me,” I scoffed. I still couldn’t see anything. I gave the man a dirty look, withdrew into the tent, and closed the flap.

“Girl, catch my rope!” I heard the man yell.

“I’m going to see Prince Tremor. Leave me alone.”

After I said that, I didn’t hear anything else. I guessed the man was leaving me alone since I didn’t stick my head out of the tent again that day. I was hungry because I was bored and lying in the rocking boat made me sleepy.

I thought of my body in the hospital. Surely I wouldn’t get fired from a babysitting job for being in a coma. That thought cheered me up and soon I was sleeping again.

The day after that, the river and the land were different yet again. The river was wider and the land even more desolate. There were only rocks and odd stretches of bare yellow earth on the river banks. The sun was hotter too, and I became grateful for the tent that shielded me from the heat.

I couldn’t help thinking about what the man had said the day before, but I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a temptation to keep my curtain shut all day so that I wouldn’t see the depressing landscape, or catch a glimpse of anything that might be in the water. That was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t because the heat was oppressive, and if there was a breeze I wanted to catch it.

In the end, my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself staring over the edge of the boat from time to time. The river moved slowly and sometimes I dared to stick my fingers or toes in the water just to cool down. The water seemed really deep, not like it had where I picked up the boat. There it seemed little more than a stream. It had become green and black. Its depth seemed fathomless. Yet, when I stared directly down, I thought I saw tiny yellow lights under the surface. It was almost like the sunlight was reflecting on bits of metal. Maybe they were shells. I sighed. Actually, I just wanted to jump in. I was a good swimmer, but I was too scared. What if I lost the boat? I had to content myself with dipping my feet in.

I put my foot in the water and suddenly I saw an eye. All at once all the ease and boredom I had been experiencing vanished. It was just as Murmur had described. I saw a huge yellow eye looking at me from just under the surface of the water. At first, I thought it was a piece of garbage that had floated downstream, but as I reached out to see if I could grab it, it blinked. I recoiled in absolute horror. Its pupil wasn’t a circle, but long and round like a frog’s. Then I saw its hide flutter the water’s surface as it swam past me. Its skin was onyx black. For a moment I thought I saw sticky strands of hair, but when I looked again, I clearly saw scales. Then the monster dived further beneath the water and I couldn’t tell where its body ended.

I shut the curtain and tied it. I was rigid and hot with sweat. I had never seen anything like that in my whole life. I was supposed to find the capricorns amusing and beautiful, like a nature film on walruses. Instead, I was trembling from head to foot, praying, and crying. Why couldn’t I wake up back home in my own bed? Afterward, I didn’t open the curtains again and every time I felt the boat rock a little harder than usual, I imagined I was getting knocked around by a monster under the water.

That night I didn’t sleep. The sun went down but I stayed awake in the darkness. Then, in the midnight hours, my boat hit something and with some scary rocking, it stopped moving. I had been praying I would reach Sealoch soon and that Tremor would take me away, but no one came on board. Had I made it? Then the stench came. What was that smell? The fear in my heart was incredible, and I couldn’t make myself take a look until I figured out what was making that smell. What could it be?

Then something rammed the boat underwater. It was a capricorn!

RAM!

I screamed.

RAM!

I jumped and covered my mouth.

RAM!

I had to shut up and calm down. I was only afraid because I didn’t know exactly what was out there. I crossed myself even though I wasn’t Catholic and braced myself. I came out of the tent and onto the bow of the boat. Turning around I nearly tripped and took a nosedive into the giant yellow eye of a decaying capricorn. I glanced down at its body, the flesh around the monster’s torso had been eaten away and I could see its ribs and guts shining in the moonlight. I hardly registered the monster’s true form. It was too dark. The only thing that I understood was that the capricorn was beached and my boat had snagged itself on its rotting carcass. In my scramble to get away, I fell backward into the river.

My whole body was immersed in the dark water and I fought against my dress and the current to get my face up to the surface. In those seconds, I had been carried beyond the boat and I couldn’t swim back to it. The water was moving too fast for me. I would only be able to make it back to the boat if I was able to get on the shore. Desperately, I tried to fight against the water to make it to the right shore, but even when I got there; the sides of the river were high and rocky. How was I supposed to get up on the rocks and back to the boat?

The water was moving fast and I was getting pulled under when a black slippery thing pushed me waist-high out of the water. I screamed. It felt like there was a wet horse under me. It stayed under me for a few seconds before disappearing, but I got all the breath I needed to last a few more minutes before I was dropped back into the water. I fought hard to keep my head above the surface, but my dress was weighing me down. The water horse came under me again and threw my body up in the air long enough for me to get two breaths. I pulled the tie on the bottom of my bodice and then the drawstring on the neckline. The dress came loose and just fell off me. Then it was easier to stay afloat. When the riverbank smoothed out a fraction, I grabbed hold of a rock and pulled myself on shore.

I sat in my underwear, the unflattering, lacy shorts, and button-up-the-front slip shirt, staring at the moonlit water. Looking down the course of the river, I couldn’t see my boat or the dead capricorn. I couldn’t see anything but the white ripples in the water and what looked like broken sticks floating away. The sparse bear surroundings suddenly looked so peaceful compared to the danger of the water, I was lucky I didn’t drown. Unhappily, I was on the wrong side of the river to get to my boat. Even if I could get to it, how could I approach the rotten sea monster to get the craft dislodged? I couldn’t do it by myself.

Even though the day had been hot, the night wasn’t. I sat on the rocks, my heart rate finally slowing as the cold set in. Then I started to tremble. I pushed myself to walk. If I walked down the riverbank, eventually I would come to Sealoch. Granted, I wasn’t supposed to arrive in my underwear, on foot with no shoes, but there was nothing else for it. If I stayed still I would freeze so I had to find help.

I walked all night but saw no towns, no houses—nothing. Eventually, I dried out and felt warmer, but not comfortable.

In my desperation, I acknowledged things could have been worse. The stones underfoot were weather-worn and no worse than walking on smooth pavement. That didn’t cure my hunger, or my thirst, or the cold.

When the morning came, I saw something white lying in a curve of the river. I went to inspect it, though I was half afraid it was another animal carcass. As I got closer, I recognized it. It was my dress.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was my dress? How? What was it doing there? I bent down and scooped it up in my hands. It wasn’t dry, but there it was. I almost cried I was so happy. With it, I could at least go to the castle clothed. How excellent!

When the sun got higher that morning, I saw something else—the castle.

The castle at Sealoch was placed on a piece of jutting rock that stretched slightly over the ocean near the mouth of the river. It was made of white square slabs of rock and had one round turret that reached up five levels high. However, the floors didn’t go on top of each other like a skyscraper. Instead, each floor was smaller as one traveled upwards. The top of the tower was ridged with archery notches and four tall flagpoles raised the black and red flags. The fourth level had a separate little room that clung to the tower. The lower floors were hidden by walls and foliage.

As I walked closer I saw the winding trail that led upward to the castle and alongside the soldier encampment. There seemed to be thousands of tiny huts sprawled across the land under the castle. The roofs were made of twigs or sod and the walls were made of rock.

I slid my dress on over my head and retied the drawstring and the bodice. The air around me was warm enough that I didn’t care that the many folds in the skirt had not yet completely dried. I was just happy to have found an actual road by which I could walk. Hopefully, someone would see me and give me a ride (something I regularly daydreamed about in the city).

It was further than it looked. I marched onward and my soft, city feet took a beating they didn’t deserve.

As the sun came down, I found myself at the bottom of the hill with the castle right in front of me. The sun dipped behind its walls and I sat on the ground to rest a bit. It was a relief to me that I would be at the castle before nightfall. I didn’t think I could manage another night outside. I was downright exhausted as it was.

Then I saw someone come out of a large black door in the white stone wall. He was half as tall as the door, but he walked with a determination I had never seen in a human being before. I got to my feet to greet him since it didn’t seem right to meet someone important crumpled in a sniveling heap on the ground. I would have been more poised, except it wasn’t easy to stand up again after I had sat down. I stood up and forced my back to be straight. I was a princess after all.

As the man got closer, my breathing and heartbeat became funny. Somewhere in the back of my head, I had been expecting it, but that didn’t stop me from being surprised when I actually saw it.

Walking toward me was Evander. His hair was completely straight and tied back in a low ponytail. It was Evander, except that he looked strange. The expression on his face wasn’t boredom or mild irritation; it was furious indignation. Toward me? What for? I didn’t do anything wrong. I stumbled two steps backward before he stopped in front of me. I grabbed the folds of my skirt and half prepared to curtsy.

He wore a dark brown leather vest, done up with bronze buckles, and dark wool trousers with heavy boots showing under them. His arms were wrapped in bandages that seemed to be made out of the same material as my dress. They covered both his forearms and his left shoulder. His skin was super brown by contrast, but the Evander I knew always had a tan.

He was angry and it seemed to grow with each passing second. That was why I was so surprised by what he said. “I’m Tremor,” he said – leaving the ‘prince’ part out entirely. “And I want you to know that what happened to you was not part of my plan.”

“How do you know what happened to me?” I rasped. I couldn’t help rasping. My throat was dry.

“I wrote in my letter that I sent someone to follow you. Did you see anyone?”

“No,” I whispered. “But someone rescued my dress and brought it back for me. I guess they left though, not wanting to embarrass me by seeing me…” I trailed off. I couldn’t finish that sentence.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, suddenly closing in on me. “The real question is whether or not you still want to marry me after all you’ve been through for my sake?”

I stared. If I had known he was the prize at the end of the journey, I would have been willing to go through it again. “I want to,” I said, quietly.

After that he didn’t say another word, he simply swung me into his arms and happily off my aching feet. I rested my head on his chest and closed my eyes as he carried me up that last road to the castle.

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