Behind His Mask

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Chapter 5 - The Chains Across the Door

After seeing Evander at the bus stop, I clued in to why the impending love scene got cut off in his book. He didn’t love me so I had no right to experience what he was actually like in bed or what his body looked like below the belt or anything. He was already showing so much; intentionally seeking any more seemed unpardonably intrusive, so I accepted what he was willing to show the reader. After all, the book wasn’t written especially for me.

However, that conclusion didn’t stop me from feeling weird. When I picked up the book, I remembered the blank, bored look Evander gave me whenever he saw me. Contrariwise, when I went to Emi’s to babysit Paisley I saw him and remembered how light his fingers felt on the soles of my feet, a sick feeling spread through me. The side of him that wrote the book was none of my business.

I felt like giving the book back to Emi, but a tiny, nagging part of me said that wasn’t what I needed. I kept hearing the word ‘closure’ in my head until I realized I had to finish the story before I could let my crush on Evander go. After all, he could never love me in real life. I was nothing more than hired help.

I broke down on Wednesday night and started reading within the curtains of my bed.

Morning broke, and sunlight came in slender streams across the bedding of the bridal chamber. Prince Tremor had not slumbered as a spent groom should have and instead spent the night watching his bride sleep. Her delicate features were unlined by worry. He had managed to keep his secret from her, leaving the crucial one untold. With so much unsaid, Sarafina had opened her heart to him, given him everything, but he had kept his truth locked tightly away from her.

Running his fingertips down her bare arm and tracing the bones on the back of her hand, he reflected how much she must trust him. But why? When had there been time to win her over? Why had her love been ready for him? It had been immediate upon their meeting and filled a hole inside him he knew was gaping. How much he had wanted love and it had come to him!

In the morning light, he saw the black returning to his arm. It was a relief to let the skin stay black without worrying about how it looked.

The tan of his arm had returned by the time she awoke, a smile in her eyes and a perfumed kiss on her lips.

An hour later, Tremor sat with Sarafina at the grand breakfast table. She sat at the table with the rest of the occupants of the castle and ate like she had eaten her meals there all her life. He was so pleased, just to look at her. She ate what was offered without complaint and with an appetite. She wore the same type of dress the other women around the table wore and chatted to the housekeeper. She belonged.

Tremor’s back stiffened. The muscles in his wrist were getting tired. He put his hands under the table. Then, without looking, he tugged a clean bandage from his pocket and tied his wrist—anywhere that felt weak—until his black scaly forearm was covered in white. He sighed. He felt weak more often than not.

Glancing at Sarafina, he felt sorry. He wanted to acquaint her with his reality, but necessity forced him back to the sea. He’d already sent several of his soldiers to the site where Sarafina’s boat had been stuck, but they hadn’t been able to get the dead capricorn back into the water. Tremor had deduced what had happened, but he didn’t know how to fight it. Maybe he didn’t need to fight it. Sarafina was his wife, so perhaps it was already too late.

Then I smelled the aroma of grilled salmon. It was so delicious that I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply to get a better sample of it. When I opened my eyes, I was sitting at Tremor’s right hand at the long dining room table. Hilda sat next to me and Gretchen sat beside her.

“I’ll take you on a tour of the castle today. We don’t want you to get lost.” Gretchen’s eyes twinkled knowingly. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long. You’ll be back with Tremor in no time.”

It was a jibe about our honeymoon phase and it made me uncomfortable. I shifted my position uneasily while Tremor interrupted, “Take all the time you like. I have to go to sea for at least a week.”

“You won’t be back for supper?” Gretchen asked.

“No,” he said morosely. “I should already be on my way.”

Then I focused on the bandages on his arm. He had been wearing them since he first came to meet me. What exactly was he hiding under them?

After breakfast, Gretchen took me through the castle. There were five levels to the castle. The main level contained the front hall, the dining room, the kitchens, the laundry room, and two private meeting rooms. The only major point of interest was the archway containing two large doors that had nothing to do with the exits outside. There were two heavy chains wrapped around the long steel handles.

“Where does this door lead?”

“Under-floors,” Gretchen replied.

“What’s down there?”

“I don’t know,” she said breezily, straightening a few picture frames that didn’t need straightening. “Only Tremor goes down there.”

Something else occurred to me. “You don’t call him ‘Prince Tremor?’ Just Tremor?”

“I’m sorry if it offends you. It just takes too long to be that formal all the time. I’ve known him since he was born. We don’t call the Generals by their titles either.”

“It’s all right. I understand.”

Afterward, she hustled me away from the doors and took me to the second floor. It was where the high ranking military men slept. The third floor was considerably smaller and it was occupied by the servants like Gretchen and Hilda. The fourth floor was my room and then the tower spiraled upwards.

“Where does Tremor normally sleep?” I asked, thinking that the room I slept in could hardly be his. It was decorated to suit a woman.

“Under-floors,” she said like she didn’t want to admit it. Then she took me outside.

Surrounding the castle, I saw hundreds of little houses. After all, Sealoch was a military encampment, so there should have been soldiers, but I didn’t see any. Finally, after we passed five huts that seemed completely deserted, I got up the nerve to ask why.

Gretchen looked at the ground nervously. “Bellique hasn’t repelled an invasion in four and a half years.”

“So, there’s no army stationed here?” I asked, astonished.

“The army comes in the summer to train. They’re coming in five weeks. It’s our busiest time of year.”

“So, what you mean to tell me is that Lilikeen pays taxes to defend a coast that hasn’t been attacked for almost five years? We’re being swindled!”

“Calm down, dearie,” she said easily. “The fact is that Tremor keeps the enemy fleet at bay all by himself. If he dies, then the government will need that money to raise an army immediately. Don’t forget, if there is a war, Bellique will suffer the worst during it. And those blood-thirsty cannibals could descend on us at any moment. Try to understand. The protection of this country might become too much for Tremor to bear alone. He needs to know that if something happens to him, then the country will go on. It’s his duty as the prince.”

I shook my head, and she left me to think whatever I wanted to as she led me down to the water.

The castle itself stood on a jutting cliff, but there were pathways that led downward to the rocky shore. We walked along and she spoke about points of interest like a tour guide, showing me where famous invasions had taken place and how many of the enemy men had been drowned at sea.

“The animals in the water have tasted human blood for centuries,” she explained in hushed tones.

“Like the capricorn?”

“Yes. They have been known to kill humans if they smell blood in the water. I have to warn you not to go into the water if you are bleeding. You probably wouldn’t get attacked if you did, but it’s better not to take the chance. Some of them come dangerously close to the land. Sometimes, they even get beached.”

“You don’t let them die, do you? I mean, soldiers come and push them back into the water, right?”

She nodded and exhaled sharply. “I’m so glad to hear you have that point of view. I wasn’t sure how you would feel after your encounter with one. New people who come here don’t always understand why we need to do that. The first time the Queen came, one was beached on the rocks and she wondered why we didn’t carve it up and eat it at a banquet that night.”

I thought about that. The Queen’s perspective seemed brutal, but the story was set in another time, so maybe it wasn’t as wicked as I thought… just a different perspective from someone who was used to pretty much every kind of animal being on the endangered species list. “May I see a picture of a capricorn, please? The only capricorn I saw clearly was the one that…” I trailed off. Seeing that monster in my head was almost too much for me. It was terrifying, but I knew I would relax once I learned more about them. After all, ordinary people even liked to watch sharks by locking themselves in cages, didn’t they?

Gretchen nodded and led me back into the castle. “I’m afraid I can’t show you them myself, but I understand Tremor has such things among his personal belongings. And if he can’t find them, I’m sure he can tell you a lot about them himself. He has seen them many times at sea.”

As we made our way up the shore road, Gretchen stopped and pointed. There were horses, thundering toward the castle. The horses were galloping, but at that distance, they seemed to move at an incredibly slow pace.

“It’s Murmur,” Gretchen said.

“What’s he doing here? I thought no one from the royal family would come after the wedding.”

Gretchen snorted. “How are they supposed to know you were married last night? It is unfortunate Tremor is gone, but we’ll do the best we can. We’ll go to the hall and greet him. Do you want to change your clothes into something a little more formal? I can stall him.”

“Should I?”

She looked at me quizzically. “You should look your best in front of Prince Murmur, so he doesn’t make any strange assumptions.”

So I was hurried up the stairs to change into another of the dresses I was beginning to think of as ‘ridiculously restrictive evening wear’ regardless of their beauty. That day’s dress was buttercream yellow adorned with black flowers, leaves, and vines. My favorite part of the dress was the incredibly shiny black sash that I tied at the side of my waist. Hilda was nowhere to be found, so I had to do my best with my braids and curls leftover from the wedding.

I thought I was pitifully slow getting dolled up again, but when I went out onto the terrace, I saw that the party on horseback was still not at the castle gates.

“Man, horses are slow.” I tucked a curl behind my ear and headed down the stairs fuming. “If they were driving cars, they would already have been waiting for me for half an hour.”

Maybe they weren’t as far away as I thought because just then I heard Murmur stomping through the front door before I saw him.

“Brother, I’ve come to see you.” Murmur’s voice rang through the rafters.

I rounded the corner. There he was—dripping with sweat and taut with fatigue. As I alighted at the bottom of the stairs I had a sensation that he was a wolf salivating over his prey; he had traveled hundreds of miles for a meal and I was it. I shivered. In the real world, I had never been the basis of anyone’s lust.

He approached and I gave a little curtsy.

“Princess Sarafina, how was your trip down the river? Interesting? Scary?”

I narrowed my eyes. In the parts of the book I read before I came into the book, Tremor had said that the dead capricorn I nearly fell onto was chained to the shore. Was that Murmur’s doing? Was he trying to sabotage Tremor’s test? I gawked at him distastefully for a second before I got a grip on myself and opted not to say anything insulting. Pig!

“I’m fine. It’s so nice of my brother-in-law to be so worried about me.” My voice was sticky sweet.

“You’re not my sister-in-law yet.”

“Oh, yes I am. Tremor and I were married last night.” I flipped my hand and showed him my wedding ring.

He snatched up my hand and stared at the ring. “You mean to tell me that after that hellish trip and finding yourself in the middle of nowhere with no one here for company, other than my shrieking brother and those damn water demons, you decided to get married immediately without waiting for anything?”

“There was nothing to wait for,” I said, deliberately insulting.

His exhale displayed bitter disappointment. He pushed my hand away. Then he turned his back to me. “And you know all about Tremor and you still want him?”

“I don’t know all about him,” I scoffed. “Some things are just right. It’s instinctive.”

“Instinctive? Has he told you about that?” Murmur pointed to the door to the basement with the chains across it.

“Not yet.”

“You don’t think he’s hiding something from you?”

“I have only been here for two days. A person needs time to reveal themselves slowly to another person. You know, like when you pull a flower apart petal by petal and eventually you get to the center.”

“With an attitude like that, you’ll be the flower that is pulled apart and when all the petals are gone, there will be no way for you to come back to me. I won’t want you. He’ll have turned you into a husk!”

I took a step back. It was absolutely unrealistic to see a man losing his mind over me. I was having trouble keeping up. Then for a split second, I saw my reflection in the shaded window. What was I thinking of? From what I saw, I was exactly the kind of woman who would drive a man insane. I couldn’t help smiling. Evander wrote good books.

Murmur reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a key.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a key to my brother’s lair. Don’t you want to see inside?”

I shook my head. “I’m sure he’ll show me when he’s ready.”

“It’s better not to wait.” Murmur stood before the chained door and picking through several metal strands, he found the huge lock that hung at the bottom. “Let’s just see what he’s hiding, shall we?”

“Don’t open it.”

“After you see this maybe I’ll let you get your marriage annulled, but only if you beg me.”

“You can’t get it annulled.”

Murmur slid the key into the lock, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he turned to me fuming. “What do you mean you can’t get it annulled? Are you saying you…”

I looked away. Awkward.

From the other end of the room, Tremor approached. “Murmur!” he barked jovially. “What are you doing here during my honeymoon?”

My heart jumped up in my chest. I tried to hide my relief, but it was impossible. I could feel myself glowing.

“I didn’t know the wedding would be over,” Murmur said roughly.

Tremor stood beside me and took my hand. He kissed the back of it. Then he seemed to realize that Murmur actually had a key in the lock of his door. “That won’t work. I’ve changed the lock.” He was smooth as silk as he continued. “By the way, I don’t have room to house you and your men. I saw them outside with the horses. Tonight your men will have to make do with the huts outdoors. Since Sarafina and Hilda came, I only have one room left to offer you on the second floor and it’s hardly for guests. I hope you remember I don’t have servants to attend to you. Try to enjoy your visit.”

“Who’s in the state guestroom?”

“Sarafina.”

“Why isn’t she below floors with you?” Murmur grumbled.

Tremor laughed and pulled my hand so that I was right in front of the door. “Because you’re standing in the way. Aren’t you here to wish us well and now you’re standing between us and my bedroom?”

Murmur shuddered. “So you’ll rub it in my face by having her right in front of me?”

Tremor’s gaze sharpened. “I didn’t invite you downstairs. Get out of the way.”

Murmur obliged and stepped aside. Tremor undid the lock with his own key and opened the door. He lifted the chains from around the handle and laid them inside the door. Then he took my hand and led me into the darkness. Once inside, he closed the door and barred it shut. We were plunged into complete blackness.

“Don’t move,” he whispered.

The first thing I noticed was the moisture in the air. It was very humid and warm like I had just stepped into a room with a pool. Then he struck a match and lit five candles of a candelabra. In the flickering light, I could see I was standing at the top of a long staircase that wound around the outside of a spacious cavern. If he hadn’t warned me, I would have fallen down the stairs.

“Are you scared?” he asked tenderly.

“No.” My gaze lingered on his bandages. “Please tell me what happened to your arm.”

“Nothing happened to it. Sometimes it’s like this. I’m not bleeding,” he reassured me. “I’m just built a little differently than other people.”

When we got to the bottom of the stairs we came around a corner and we stood in front of a huge aquarium; or rather, a window to the sea. Sunlight shone through the water and illuminated seaweed, blackfish, and fish greener than the green sea.

“This is your room?” I asked, looking around at my surroundings. When my eyes adjusted to the light, slowly, slowly, I was able to see a barred door that led to an underwater exit like a dark tunnel going nowhere. The rest of the room was a nook that contained quite normal bedroom-like things. There was a bed. It was shaped strangely, like a giant eye cut into the floor, with at least a dozen pillows covering it. There were a few chests stacked and a couple of wardrobe-like cupboards standing side by side.

Tremor kicked off his boots and he reached for me and pulled me onto the bed. I got nervous. Why was he pulling me onto his bed if his book had parameters? What was going to happen? I couldn’t help feeling a little scared. I fell down on top of him and he laughed and moved me aside. From that position, he helped me take my shoes off, and then he placed me next to him in the crook of his arm facing the sea.

I looked at him rather expectantly.

“What?” he asked roguishly. “You told Gretchen you wanted to see what a capricorn looks like. True, I have pictures, but why bother with any of that when you can just see the show from here. One will probably swim by any minute.”

“Really?”

We sat there and watched the veins of light reflecting on the cavern walls and through the water. At first, I wasn’t comfortable. Even if he was supposed to be Tremor, I couldn’t stop thinking of him as a version of Evander. Sitting beside him made my belly ache. I’d never had my stomach tied up in so many knots. My blood was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t even think.

He tried to make small talk with me to thin the air out. “Do you like to eat fish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you ever had roe?”

“Probably not. I have no idea what that even is.”

His tanned Adam’s apple moved as he breathed in and spoke. It was mesmerizing. “They’re fish eggs.”

Suddenly I was saying, “Do you know how much I like you?”

He stopped and turned his brown eyes toward me.

I said it so bravely, but there was a part of me that didn’t think he would hear me. I was mostly talking about Evander and whenever I mentioned anything from the real world the character in the story simply wouldn’t hear what I said.

“Why would you like me? I still don’t understand why you would want to marry me. I thought you’d opt for Murmur. Obviously, he thought so too and that’s why he’s here now. He probably planned to take you home to the capital with him today. Doubtless, he’s furious. Even still, I reasoned that if you didn’t want him, then I’d have to send you home to Lilikeen. Didn’t the dead capricorn scare you? Why do you want to live in a place where they breed like rabbits and where your husband is practically one of them?”

“How are you practically one of them?”

“Let’s wait for one of them to appear before we have that conversation.”

I sat there and tried to feel the rhythm of his body over the sound of my heartbeat pulsing noisily up to my brain. At that moment, I wasn’t interested in the story, I wanted to talk to Evander when he would actually listen to me. “I don’t know why I like you. You cut yourself off from me more than any other person I have ever met. Your aloofness doesn’t make me stop liking you. If you would only let me in a little bit—“

“I’m trying to let you in. Look, there’s a capricorn!” He pointed and I saw one swim directly toward us.

Looking at the creature through the glass, it was no longer difficult to describe, just hard to believe. It looked like a chimera of two creatures I was already familiar with—a goat and a fish. It had the upper body of a goat, but much larger. Its fur was white and long and not as dense as a mountain goat. Instead, it waved in the current like mermaid hair. I could see its veins through the fur going in strange little blue lines down its front legs and up its muscular neck. The horns on its brow were long and curved slightly backward. Behind the horns was a longish mane that curled in waves and went all the way down the capricorn’s back. The mane even continued past its fur and into the part of its body covered in scales—around the middle. The scales were gray and white by turns. Obviously, the animal had only front legs and instead of hind legs, the remainder of its body ended in a powerful tail with a long white fin.

It was majestic if you didn’t look carefully at the animal’s face. The capricorn had a beard of white hair that hung down and swayed. Its mouth was shockingly wide and when it was opened, I could see it wasn’t filled with flat herbivore teeth, but sharp meat-eating fangs. Two of its bottom teeth were even too long for its mouth and they stuck out like a warthog’s. Its eyes were the part that was really unsettling. The pupils were not circular but long and flat like a minus sign or a frog’s eyes. The irises were bright yellow.

I tensed in Tremor’s arms. “Well, that is about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.” I laughed to shake off my fear, but when I turned to Tremor his expression was vacant.

“You think it’s creepy?”

“Well, it’s huge,” I said defensively. “Look at the size of those jaws. That guy could swallow me whole. Gretchen told me they eat people.”

He scoffed angrily. “So what if they eat people? They’re just another link in the food chain. They have things that hunt them, too.”

“There’s something bigger than them in the ocean? I am never going out on a boat!”

“No, there isn’t any animal around here that would dare hunt an adult capricorn, but the babies and the elderly get pecked off easily enough by smaller meat-eaters. I’m thinking of the enemy across the sea. They hunt them and eat them as often as they can.”

I felt deflated. Of course, Man had to be the capricorn’s largest threat. I didn’t know what I was thinking. “Sorry. I’ve never seen anything like that. It seems larger than life. And that dead one I almost fell into has left me a little bit shaken.”

His arm came tightly around me. “But you feel safe with me?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

His eyes were deep and penetrating. “Because I’m a monster.”

The moment stretched out while I thought up a response for him. Thinking was hard when he looked at me like that. Finally, I said, “You can’t stop my feelings for you by saying things like that.”

He didn’t answer me.

“Do you still think I’m brave, or have you decided I’m stupid?”

He chuckled. “Probably a little bit of both. Here, I’ll take you back upstairs. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to spend the night with you above floors. I still haven’t gone out to sea. Gretchen caught me before I left, but I’ll be back in the morning to make sure you’re safe from my fiendish brother. No doubt he’s already made havoc up there. Let’s go assess the damage.”

Once we were back in the front hall, Gretchen and Hilda saw us and came across the floor to us hastily.

“What happened?” Tremor asked.

Gretchen pointed an angry finger at Hilda. “She didn’t even try to stop him. He told her what he wanted and she just went ahead and did it.”

“Did what?”

“Repacked all of Princess Sarafina’s clothes and emptied the wardrobe.”

Tremor stuck his tongue in his cheek. “Why did Murmur order that?”

“He says he wants to stay in the state guest room and since you are married to her now, there’s no reason for her not to move downstairs with you right away,” Gretchen reported shrilly.

Tremor listened patiently and scratched his collarbone. “Sarafina, he’s doing this to make you uncomfortable. What would you like me to do? If you want Murmur out of the guestroom, I’ll certainly see that he gets thrown out. I already told him to stay on the second floor.”

“Leave him where he is. I’ll stay downstairs.”

Tremor did a double-take. “Really?” He put his mouth close to my ear and whispered privately, “Are you sure you want to do that? My room is quite different at night and I won’t be there.”

“It’s fine,” I reassured him.

His eyes sparkled with excitement and my breath caught in my throat. At that moment, it was incredibly fun to be partners in crime with him. I never wanted to wake up.

“What’s fine?” a voice in my ear asked noisily.

I winced at the sound and when I opened my eyes again I was in my bedroom and my mother was making fun of me and my ‘sleep-talking.’

I rubbed my forehead painfully. I had a headache and I couldn’t even find the voice to describe how much I didn’t want to face a day at school. When I went to the mirror, I looked like I had been up most of the night and was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. I had to read in smaller increments. I splashed my face with water and tried to cheer myself. After all, the next time I read Evander’s book, I would be sleeping in his bed.

________

Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in me and my work, please come check out my website! https://tigrix1.wixsite.com/stephanievanorman

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