Behind His Mask

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Chapter 4 - When it's just a Story

“Sarah! Sarah! Get off your duff and get moving!”

That was my mother. I blinked three times and realized I was finally back in my room. It was morning. I was wearing yesterday’s clothes and I was snuggling yesterday’s empty popcorn bowl. If I’d been asleep for more than one night, surely my mom would have taken the empty bowl away from me, right?

I got out of bed and found my mom brushing her teeth in the bathroom. “Hey, mom. What day is it?”

“What day is it?” she repeated frostily before spitting a giant glop of minty foam down the drain. “It’s Saturday.”

“Is it? It just feels like I’ve been asleep for days.”

She laughed. “I’m not surprised. You slept like the dead. Do you even remember Rachel coming over?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “She was here?”

“She bought you a bag of clothes. It’s in the corner. Say, what time do you need to be out the door? It’s almost nine.”

Luckily, there was still plenty of time to see what Rachel had brought me. I grabbed the pink plastic bag. Rachel bringing me clothes was the kind of event that was second only to Christmas in my world. I opened the bag. There were three pairs of jeans that didn’t have unfashionable holes in the knees or frayed cuffs. They were still frayed, but not unfashionably. That was the key. There was a black and gray striped sweater, a hopelessly skin-revealing dress of tight shininess I would never have the courage or occasion to wear, and two pairs of ballet shoes. How grateful I was to be the same shoe size as my big sister.

I put on a pair of the jeans and the sweater. It was too exciting to have new clothes not to wear them right away.

I brushed my teeth and ran out the door. I was actually going to be on time for my babysitting gig. Delightful!

All that day, I dealt with screaming children and thought about what happened in the story. There were a few strange ideas ricocheting around in my head. They ricocheted because I didn’t understand them. I thought Evander made Sarafina blonde with ringlets because that was the kind of woman he wanted—a woman who was beautiful because she looked like him. Then when I saw Tremor, that theory became void, because the first thing he changed about himself was his hair. Weird.

Then I thought about the clothes. I had also been harboring the notion that he wanted a girl of the same financial status, which was why he made his heroine a princess. Once again, my theory was blown out of the water. It didn’t seem like he was going to marry her based on whether or not she was a princess, but instead whether or not she was tough enough to manage his life.

The truth was… I didn’t know anything about Evander.

At the end of the day, I had finished six hours of babysitting and made fifty bucks, which was well below minimum wage. I thanked the ragged mother and went out into the hallway of her apartment complex, shoving the bills in my pocket. How was I ever supposed to save up for college with such small wages?

That evening I went to the Stanley Milner library and used one of the computers to look for a part-time job. There were just so many things I couldn’t do or wasn’t good at. I’d already tried working fast food. The time on my feet was unbearable. It was true. I could walk forever, but asking me to stand still was just too hard. Staring at the screen, I tried to focus on the job postings, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do, except one thing, find out what would have happened if I hadn’t blacked out when Tremor was carrying me.

As I peeked over the edge of the desk, I could see the spine of Evander’s book sitting in my bag. Actually, part of the reason I went to the library in the first place was because I thought that if I read the book there, then the library staff would wake me up at closing time.

Giving in to temptation, I picked up my bag and slid into one of the armchairs at the end of the aisle in full view of everyone.

Tremor carried Princess Sarafina up the winding trail and into the castle yard. She was light as a feather to his arms that were used to lifting the vast bodies of his soldiers. He carried her up flights of stairs, aiming to house her as far away from the basement as possible. His castle had its secrets and he wanted her distant from them.

He placed her head on the pillow of the bed that had been prepared for her and left her with the elderly maid he had invited from the capital to care for her.

After he saw her settled, he stormed down the steps to the barred doors that led to the under-floors. His mind reeled as he removed the barricade. He had seen it himself—the capricorn corpse chained to the shore. Tremor only knew of one person capable of something like that. The problem was, he couldn’t believe they’d dared it.

I let my eyes close dreamily for a moment before opening them fully and once again I found myself in the world Evander had created. The armchair gently reclined and the city library melted away leaving me lying on a soft bed. I had been in the real world for a whole day and my real body did not suffer from the effects of having walked barefoot on rock all night and then all day. Once I was back in the book, however, my body didn’t feel well. My limbs and feet ached as much as they had by the end of the previous chapter.

Then I heard a sound at the other end of the room and I realized I wasn’t alone. The window curtains were drawn and the only view to the outside world came from a door that split in two—the bottom of the door stayed closed and the top let in the evening air. There was a tiny white table on the right side of the bed. On it was a silver candlestick with a flickering candle and a crystal goblet filled with sparkling water. In the corner sat a white wardrobe with beautiful blue roses and vines stenciled down the sides. There were also two gilt chairs with white upholstery. In one of them was an old lady knitting something white.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Hilda. I’ll be your lady-in-waiting.”

She looked like she was seventy-years-old if she was a day. She was wearing a dress that looked similar to something Queen Elizabeth the First would have worn and her hair was braided into a low coil almost like a bun. Her eyes were sharp as she stared at me from across the room.

“Before coming here, I used to serve the Queen, Tremor’s step-mother,” the old lady said severely.

“Oh, really? What is she like?”

“Nothing like you,” she said darkly. “Coming to the castle barefoot, with no hat—unthinkable. It’s exactly the way Tremor’s mother used to behave. You’re sunburned. Did you know? Just like she always was.”

I nodded my head. “Right. Well, she sounds cute. Does she come here often?”

“Never.” The old lady spat something black into a handkerchief. “She’s dead.”

I stared. It was on the tip of my tongue to say something sympathetic, but the fact was that the woman wasn’t actually mourning anyone. Instead, a few silent minutes passed before she spat again and I had to ask, “Are you chewing tobacco?”

She didn’t answer, but instead let out a huff full of haughtiness before getting up and scurrying out of the room, closing the half-door behind her.

It was night, so I stayed still and much to my surprise, I fell asleep between the linen sheets in Evander’s imaginary castle.

When I woke up the next morning still in the book, I was surprised. I thought someone would have come along and woken me up in the real world as soon as there was a decent lull in the story. No one did. Even though it was only yesterday, I had completely forgotten about all those days I lived in the story world while only one night passed in the real world. I smiled. Probably only a couple of minutes had passed in the city library. I had plenty of time.

I noticed a tray beside my bed. The plate was covered with a metal cover. Leaning over, I popped it off. Then I stared. I had never had a salad for breakfast before, but there was one on the tray. It looked like an ordinary green salad except that it had two fried eggs on top. I usually ate Cheerios. There was a little dish of dressing on the tray and I quickly doused the whole thing. When I speared some up and took a bite, my watering mouth was not disappointed—delicious.

I had just finished eating when there was a knock on my door and Tremor came in. He was wearing practically the same clothes as the day before, except for one very noticeable difference. There were a great many more bandages on his arms. He was covered from shoulder to wrist on both sides.

He was carrying a tray. “Good morning.”

I was instantly embarrassed. “They already brought me breakfast.”

He smiled kindly and sat down on a chair next to the bed. “This isn’t food. They’re medical supplies. I came to change your bandages.”

I hadn’t even realized my feet were bandaged. I had to put a hand under the covers to make sure it was true. “You’re going to do it yourself?” I asked cautiously.

“Relax. I’m good at treating injuries. Stick your foot out and I’ll take a look at it.”

The wrappings on his arms recommended him, so I pulled my leg out from under the covers and rested my ankle on his knee.

Gently, he peeled away the bandages on my right foot and started cleaning them with a strong-smelling liquid from a little green bottle. “Before we get married tonight, I need to talk to you.”

“Yes,” I said, looking at my lacerations. The wounds on my foot looked and felt real as his fingers on my less-than-pedicured foot. I wanted to hide it under the covers, but he was already at work, and he was saying something I couldn’t ignore.

“Why do you want to marry me?”

“Huh?” I asked, looking into his eyes. Actually, I had never really looked into Evander’s eyes before. There were black speckles in them. Had he always had those or was it specifically for his story?

Then I realized I was spacing out while he waited for an answer, so I rattled off what I had been told in Lilikeen about how marrying him would help lower the taxes of the people.

A corner of Tremor’s lip curled up in a melancholy half-smile. “You’re a very brave girl. Would you mind if I asked you something direct?”

I shook my head.

“Was a marriage with Murmur impossible for some reason?”

“What do you mean? I met him in Lilikeen. It seemed like he wanted to marry me, but my parents were set on you.”

“Why? You would have been able to get a much better reduction for your people if you married him instead.”

I sat up. “Really? Why?”

He looked a little dumbfounded. Then he put one limp hand in the air for a second and swayed it horizontally like he was cutting the air in half. “Because I will never be king.”

“I don’t understand,” I said quietly. Why was he being robbed of his throne in his own book? “Aren’t you the crown prince?”

“Yes, but it means very little. I live here to guard the shore against the invaders across the sea and it is believed that I will die in the process. However, I understand the general hope of the royal family is that I will father a bastard before I go. You know the type; a child they can use to further the war effort, but without having a legitimate right to be an heir. To put it shortly, they want my blood, but they don’t want to have to pay for it.”

I stared at him with mouth agape. I would never have imagined Evander opening up to me. I realized the problems were imaginary, but my brain computed they represented troubles Evander really had.

Then he looked me in the eye and said, “If you marry me, you will never be queen. Even if we have children together, when I die, the royal family will find some way to make our union illegitimate—like it never happened.”

I started to get angry on his behalf. “Why are they like that?”

He didn’t answer me exactly but continued talking like he had been planning his speech for days and he was finally delivering it without deviation. “I think I didn’t explain the situation properly. Let me try again. If you married Murmur instead of me, not only would you get the adoration of millions and eventually become queen, but you could also get the taxes on your people done away with—maybe forever.”

“Why?”

“He’s the one who has influence in the capital—not me. I’ve never even visited there. I’ve always lived here because my mother wasn’t good enough to crown queen and not foolish enough to go to bed with a king without every legal loophole filled. I wish I could offer you the same protection, but if Murmur wants you for himself, his wrath won’t subside easily, and… you’ll be in trouble when I die.”

“Why are you going to die?” I whispered.

“They may come and kill me themselves once I’ve fathered an heir, which is why I haven’t thus far.”

The atmosphere that surrounded us lay thin and empty like all the fun I was hoping to have was being chased away. It was as if real-life Evander was telling me that being with him wouldn’t be a good time. “So, what exactly is wrong with you in the eyes of the royal family?”

“Dirty blood.”

“Which they want anyway?”

“It’s valuable blood even if it is dirty.” He expertly wrapped my foot and clipped the edge of the bandage down so it wouldn’t unroll. Then he set it on the bed and reached for my other foot. “Do you still want to marry me?”

I rested my head on my hand and regarded him sideways while he worked on my other foot. “I would be a really selfish person to marry you instead of Murmur, wouldn’t I? The way you tell it, if I went with him I’d be a hero to the people of Lilikeen and be the golden girl of the continent. After years of intimacy with Murmur and his parents, eventually, I would probably even be in the room when they arranged for your untimely death.”

He shrugged. “That’s not what I meant. If you go with Murmur, I’ll probably live longer because he would have what he wants—you. Some of the motive would be gone.”

I rolled my eyes. “Let me ask you. Who would want to marry a guy who would murder his brother for a woman? Unless you’re trying to scare me off by making all this up.”

“I wouldn’t know how to do that.”

“Really?” I scoffed. “I bet you do. For example, were you hoping to frighten me by sending me down the river alone?”

He put up his hand. “I already said that your boat getting snagged on that rotting capricorn was not my plan.”

I didn’t want to fight with him on that ground. I had already read the opening paragraphs of the chapter. I knew he didn’t have anything to do with it. So I stared him down and asked clearly, “Do you want me to marry Murmur instead?”

Tremor’s expression became thoughtful. Finally, he spoke and when he did, he sent my heart racing. “The idea of having you here with me is extraordinarily enticing. The rumors about you are mere shadows of you, but just because I’m impressed by your looks and the courage you showed on the river doesn’t mean I know you.”

“You could get to know me,” I suggested candidly.

“Indeed. I only mean I cannot force you to make a decision about being my wife when you clearly don’t know all the facts. I’m merely telling you the situation so you understand what a union with me will actually be. It will be neither glamorous nor prestigious, and it will have its moments of gore and horror. I would be more than a monster if I didn’t tell you the truth before we got married.”

“Then tell me the truth. Would you be able to get any sort of tax reduction for the people of Lilikeen?”

He sighed. “I have some sympathizers in the capital. I could get you something, but nothing like what Murmur could get you.”

I nodded my head. “I’m satisfied. I’ll marry you.”

“Tonight?”

“Right now, if you want.”

His face was unreadable as he finished the bandage on my other foot. “Not right now. Your boat was untangled from the dead Capricorn and it should be here soon. I need to oversee its delivery. Since I’ll be at sea, I’ll bring back something wonderful for our wedding feast. It’ll be something you’ve never tasted before.”

“That will be nice.” I smiled.

He gently placed my foot back on the bed and got to his feet. “Hilda brought you a wedding dress as a gift from my step-mother. I’ll see you in time for the ceremony. Probably close to midnight, so be sure to sleep this afternoon when everyone else does.” Then he took my hand in his and bending, he kissed it.

I jumped a little from the shock and he rubbed the spot his lips touched with his thumb. He smiled the smile I found irresistible and went out.

Then I melted in the bed. He was mouth-watering. If no one woke me up in the library, then I would be married to him by the end of the day. After I thought about that I couldn’t make myself think straight. I’d never even really been kissed before, and if I didn’t wake up, I’d get the complete works of Evander Cheney that night. My innards were tied in knots. I put a hand over my mouth. Maybe Evander’s writing was too much for me.

I was on my second attempt to get out of bed when Hilda came in. She carried a long, cloth bag.

“Is that the wedding dress?” I asked.

She nodded and placed it on the bed. Then she unfolded the bag and showed me the gown inside. Upon seeing it, I was a little stunned.

“It’s not white,” I said.

“No. It’s not,” she answered briskly.

“It’s not pretty,” I said.

Hilda pulled her eyebrows together in angry dismay.

“It’s not my size,” I said.

She puckered her lips unpleasantly. “Do you want me to make adjustments?”

“They couldn’t be done in time. I’m marrying Tremor tonight.”

“Tonight!” she hissed. “Why so soon?”

I looked her in the eye. “Why wait?”

She averted her eyes hastily and spat into her handkerchief again.

I opened the wardrobe and took a look inside. There was nothing but fifteen or so white dresses. They were the same as the one Tremor left on the boat. “I’ll have to wear one of these.”

“No,” Hilda snapped as she slammed the wardrobe shut. “I’ll send for another dress from the capital. Wait until it gets here to get married. Here, I’ll measure you.” While she spoke, she rooted around in a pouch at her waist and soon she brought out a measuring tape.

I pushed her away as she tried to force the measuring on me. “It isn’t important how I dress. If I had been well when I arrived yesterday, I would have married him then.”

“So unladylike!” Hilda raged, her pupils became pricks of black in her pale blue irises.

“Who cares if I’m ladylike here? This is a war zone!”

“The Queen would be mortified if she saw you. Wait for another dress to come—whore.”

Even though my feet hurt, I made myself stand up straight. “Watch your mouth—hag. Tonight is when Tremor wants me to marry him.”

“Then you’ll wear that,” she shrieked, grabbing the dress off the bed and holding it up against my body.

I pushed the dress away. “That dress wasn’t made for a person. It was made for a whale. Even if I weighed three hundred pounds, it would still be too big. What kind of a weird joke is this? Were you given this dress and told to try to stall the wedding using it as an excuse? Well, let me tell you: I would marry him in my underwear, which is a heck of a whole lot more modest than last year’s soccer uniforms, so stop it already!”

Without thinking, I put up my hand to flick her between the eyes and then I realized what I was doing. She cowered like she thought I would hit her. I put my hand down and I rolled my eyes in frustration. “Whatever.”

Then, I bent down to scavenge from the drawer in the bottom of the wardrobe. I found sandals and hairpins and out of the corner of my eye I saw Hilda try to make for the door.

“Stop,” I said, getting up. “I need a bath. Take me to the bathroom or whatever.”

Resigned, she opened the door and beckoned for me to follow her. Outside was a terrace. My room was a little, crescent-shaped room that clung to the curve of the tower. She opened the terrace door and led me down a winding staircase. We went down three revolutions of stairs before she opened another entryway and brought me into the main part of the castle.

I expected to see busy people, but the place was barren.

“So, the closest bathroom is three floors down?” I muttered, keeping close behind her.

“There is a chamber pot under your bed,” she huffed and brought me into a room that was clearly not normally used for bathing. It was the laundry room. There were two women scrubbing away in two enormous tubs.

“Excuse me. This girl wants to bathe,” Hilda announced crossly.

The older of the two women set aside her washing and wiped her hands on her apron. She looked to be about forty. Her hair was dark auburn and her disposition was pleasant. “Hello. My name is Gretchen and I’m the housekeeper. Wonderful news about your boat, wasn’t it? It should be here before dark, so if there’s anything on board that you need for the wedding, it will surely be here by then.”

“Wonderful,” I said appreciatively. I wished I’d realized my things would be delivered to me before I had my dog fight with Hilda.

“You’re much more beautiful than the rumors, Princess,” Gretchen said before showing me to a huge washbasin. “We normally bathe in the hot springs, but we expected that neither you nor your maid would be used to that, so we had this prepared. It takes a long time to heat, I’m afraid, but it’ll be ready soon.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Then without any further explanation, Gretchen went back to her work and left me standing there with Hilda feeling quite stupid. With nothing else to do, I stepped up and looked at the giant tub.

“Can a princess really bathe in such a place?” Hilda asked with her voice all up in her nose, like she couldn’t stand to breathe the air.

To me, it looked a good deal nicer than the tub in my apartment. For one thing, it was sparkling clean. For another, it was huge. The only thing that worried me was that Hilda or someone else would want to help me bathe or some other privacy reducing nonsense.

“It’ll be fine. I’ll stay here. Why don’t you go put that dress away and save your arm?”

“You won’t accept the present from her Majesty? Some day you may need it.”

“You say rude stuff like that and I’m unladylike? Really! Is Tremor going to feed me until I’m big enough to fit into that?”

She shrunk down and said acidly, “Who knows what may happen out here? We’re on the battlefront.” Then she wobbled to the door.

Then I had a bath with real sunlight reflecting on the bathwater.

***

It turned out that my trunk from the boat was brought up in time and I retrieved the wedding dresses the Queen of Lilikeen had sent me, which was a huge improvement over any other option. Actually, even if I were getting married in real life, I don’t think I could have done much better for myself. It was an off-the-shoulder with a super-tight bodice and beautiful ivory material sweeping through the skirt. The neckline was decorated with tiny jewels and little gathers of fabric that made flowers.

Hilda did my hair, though she made it clear she hated me more every other minute. “Your hair is so curly,” she said distastefully. “To give it some order, we’ll have to braid it.”

“Okay.” I held up a hand mirror and looked at my reflection. “I should really dye my hair blonde when I get home. This looks great.”

Hilda didn’t say anything about the oddness of my sentence. Whenever I mentioned the real world, everyone acted like I hadn’t said anything.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Start by doing a tiny braid with this section and then do another one with this section.”

“Ugly,” she rasped.

I stuck out my tongue halfway. “I don’t care what you think. Then let this part fall over my forehead. Pin these braids over my left ear. Leave a couple tendrils free on either side and then pin the rest of the curls behind my head—artfully.”

She had no enthusiasm, but with curls as good as mine, she couldn’t deliberately spoil it and by the time I was due to go downstairs, it looked exactly how I wanted it.

There was no chapel for the wedding. It was going to take place in the front hall. I had to walk down a zillion steps to get there with Hilda padding morosely behind me holding my train. When we finally stood at the top of the steps that swept down to the front hall, I saw Tremor standing in the midst of a small procession of people. There were three women and I counted thirty men standing in three tiers with Tremor and a priest standing at the top. It was a sad looking group. The only one who looked remotely happy was Tremor. Everyone else gritted their teeth like they were attending a funeral and I was the murderer. They thought I’d be his undoing for sure.

As I got closer, I saw how beautiful Tremor looked. He wore a white long-sleeved shirt, with a dark brown leather vest that came up to a high collar. His pants were leather of the same color and on his head was a golden crown. He wore no flower on his breast, but the red military badge of Bellique. He was the most handsome man in the world.

Hilda whispered in my ear. “It’s not too late to wait. We could have this wedding next week with a few members of the court in attendance.”

I shot her a dirty look. “I don’t care about that.”

“You should.”

I shook my head and finished descending the stairs with the most grace I could summon. Once I reached the floor, someone began playing the flute and I made my way through the ranks to Tremor’s side.

Right there and then, he married me in front of all those people without the slightest hesitation. His expression was devoid of worry and his speech was clear as a bell as he promised to love only me until the day he died. The wedding ring he put on my finger was a wide band of white gold with diamonds scattered all over it. It looked like stars forming a constellation.

“It was my mother’s,” he said softly. “The one the King gave her. It’s the only thing I can give you to help you prove you married the Crown Prince.”

When it was over, he kissed me on the lips and I tried not to act completely swept off my feet in front of all those people. Actually, my knees felt like they were going to buckle under me, but I wouldn’t have fallen because he held on to me.

Then, he led the entire company into the dining room where we were served crab, which was something I had never tasted before. He dipped it in garlic butter for me and I thought I was in heaven. It worried me that he didn’t talk much. It was clear he had no regrets, but it seemed like he was uncomfortable in his own skin, for lack of a better description. He kept scratching his wrist. He was still bandaged. I could see them peeking out of his sleeves.

“What happened?” I asked, touching the edge of one.

“Nothing,” he whispered and moved his hand out of my reach.

Afterward, he led me to the foot of the stairs, bid everyone a good night, and lifted me up in his arms. He started to climb the stairs and soon the bumping up and down made me feel ill.

“Hey, can you put me down, please?”

He didn’t answer.

“I’m getting sick. I can walk up by myself, so you don’t have to carry me.”

“There is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to carry you, missy. Get up!” That wasn’t Tremor’s voice.

I shook my head and the fluorescent lights entered my awareness. I was back in the city library and a security guard was frowning down at me and pointing his thumb toward the exit.

“Was I asleep?” I asked him as I numbly got my things together.

“Asleep? Were you asleep? It looked to me like you were just reading and ignoring me.” He gave me a disapproving stare and went on his way.

I felt like cursing and stomping as I made my way to the exit. Why did I have to get kicked out just at that second? Really? Just when it was getting really good?

I stepped out onto the early October street and looked to see if there was a bus coming. Then I saw him. There, standing by the curb, was Evander. I went up to him, but he had his headphones on and was staring at his cell phone screen. I stood one step away from him and looked at him unwaveringly, hoping he would notice me.

I mean, in the book, he had sworn he would love only me. That felt like five minutes ago and before that, he had praised me, saying how brave I was. In the light of reality, I seemed no more important to him than a stranger. Well, maybe he really hadn’t noticed me, so I had to pluck up some courage and let him know.

“Hey Evander,” I said, smacking him lightly on the back of his legs with my bookbag.

“Hi,” he said. Then he turned his back to me and continued what he was doing.

That was it, then. I was just reading a story that had nothing to do with real-life at all. He didn’t care about me. It was just part of the story. I was sure that anyone who read the book would get sucked in like I did and get carried up the stairs by him. I nodded my head like I was in a trance and repeated, “It’s just a story. It’s just a story.”

__________

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading!

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