Behind His Mask

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Chapter 6 - Under Floors

Math class was boring. Social studies was the worst. Partway through that class, I took Evander’s book out of my bookbag and put it on my lap. I had no intention of opening it, but at the same time, just touching it practically made me squeal with anticipation. After social studies, I had another two classes before lunch and it seemed like the clock ticked backward.

When the lunch bell finally rang, I didn’t even bother with food. Who cared? Instead, I went to the library and found a cozy spot. If I fell asleep during the afternoon classes like I did before, I couldn’t have cared less. I sat down on the couch humming and found the beginning of the next chapter.

Tremor carried Sarafina’s bag down the stairs to the lowest level and sighed. In his first letter to her, he had requested that she travel light. Her bag was so weightless, it felt empty.

He leaned against the stone wall and let Sarafina’s packed clothes fall to the floor. A pain shot through his heart. It was pain that was not due to come yet, but he knew it must arrive speedily. In all his life as a prince, he had never been allowed to feel joy. The Queen or Murmur were always there to snatch any good feeling he might have had before it sprouted.

He felt a perfect fool. The wedding with Sarafina was not sanctioned by the Queen. The Queen would now want his head on a pike, or perhaps his body hanging from a tree, or his legs and arms in different corners of the castle courtyard. Such would be her wrath for taking Murmur’s would-be wife for himself.

The Queen’s fury had not come down to Sealoch yet. Only Murmur had come and Tremor knew something of the not-so intricate methods of his half-brother’s mind. His pride was paramount. Before involving the King or Queen, he would try to find a way to untangle Sarafina’s union with Tremor.

Murmur had to be kicking himself for the way things had turned in Tremor’s favor.

Tremor had put the pieces of the puzzle together. The first piece was the King and Queen of Lilikeen. For years, they had requested a marriage between him and Sarafina. Tremor didn’t understand why any request for him as a marriage partner was being brought up. Even though he was technically a member of the royal family, he knew his father was not planning on using him as a tool to create an alliance with a neighboring country. He wanted to keep the credit of defending the shoreline for himself which meant not involving other nations. The second piece was a visit Tremor had from Murmur. Tremor was surprised when Murmur came to him and said he ought to give Sarafina a test to see if she was a fit wife for a man who lived on the front lines. The second prince was the one who suggested she go down the river and when she failed, Tremor could send her home. Tremor had done as Murmur wanted, not only to get his wicked half-brother out of his castle but also because he was curious. The plan had the Queen’s consent. Perhaps that was the third piece of the puzzle. It all led to one truth. Murmur was the one who had chained the dead capricorn to the shore because he believed it would scare Sarafina witless. Under such a threat, she would gladly change her target from Tremor to Murmur and marry him instead.

Tremor reached down to recover her bag. In the dark, he missed the straps and pulled up a piece of her clothing, soft and perfumed.

Murmur’s plan had failed. Sarafina had been afraid on the river. Tremor could still recall the timber of her screams. He rubbed the cloth in his hand between his fingers. She was made of stronger stuff, but was it enough for what he had not revealed to her about himself?

The situation felt impossible to him, like a dream he had once while sleeping in the sea. He shoved the thoughts away. The Princess didn’t really know what she’d promised herself to. Murmur’s plan to end their marriage might work once she’d slept under the stairs.

Tremor tightened the bandages covering his arm, retrieved her bag, and slid further into the darkness.

The timing was excellent. I woke up sitting at the dining room table, with a beautiful plate of grilled fish covered in hot nectarine slices and herbs. And I was going to have reheated pizza from the school cafeteria? Ha! Not today. I tucked in and mentally thanked Evander for knowing something about food.

Then I realized I was sitting across from Murmur and he was watching me devour my meal with his nose wrinkled in disdain. “There’s more in the kitchen. Haven’t they been feeding you?”

I laughed at him openly. If only he would stop liking me, then I was sure the story would go more smoothly. Also, we were the only ones at the table, so I reasoned it was okay to act like myself, which probably didn’t even border his ideas on proper conduct. The real me didn’t attract men anyway. “Doesn’t the sea air make you hungry? Doesn’t it make things taste better?” I asked before I shoveled in another mouthful dripping with butter.

“Nothing tastes good,” he said mournfully as he looked away from me and took the barest of sips from his goblet.

“Why not?”

He glared at me. “You know why. I just don’t fathom why you, the most beautiful princess in the world, can be content living here now that you’ve seen what it’s like. This place is not romantic. The food is revolting. It’s a military training ground. You belong in the capital with beauty and art and… Bloody Hell! What are you doing here?” He raked his hands through his hair. “Tremor is an outcast.”

“You should maybe let the rest of the world know that. My parents thought he was the crown prince.”

“He is.”

“But that doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”

I’m going to be king,” Murmur said firmly.

“Yes, I know,” I said, talking down to him and trying my best to be infuriating. Actually, I didn’t even know I could be infuriating. I must have been naturally good at it all along. “It’s just that when I look at the bigger picture, sure, going with you and being queen seems to make the most sense within the confines of this story.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tremor already explained everything to me, about how you could give my people a better tax cut than him—et cetera, et cetera—but I’m not interested in making the Queen and King of Lilikeen happy. Their approval or disapproval doesn’t mean anything to me. The citizens whose taxes I would lower are just a blur in my head. They aren’t real people.”

Murmur stared at me like I was insane.

“Even you don’t seem real to me,” I continued. “To me, the only thing real here is Tremor, and you have no idea how much I like him.”

“What?” Murmur exploded.

“It’s true. I like him.”

“Why him and not me?”

“You’re not real,” I answered him levelly. “This is just a game and I’d rather play with him.”

Murmur slammed his napkin down and got up from the table. “I’ve had it. Tonight I am going to make you beg me to approve your divorce from Tremor. Beg!”

As he said beg, a little speck of spit flew across the space between us and landed on my face. I wiped it away and said, “Gross.”

He threw his hands up in the air and stalked across the hall toward the staircase with the demeanor of an angry giant who was just a few feet too small.

I didn’t care. It was a relief to eat without him. When I finished the fish, Gretchen came in with a blackberry tart and I couldn’t have been happier.

“Wow,” I cheered. “It looks delicious.”

The serving woman looked worried. “Actually, I’m supposed to get you to eat it in Tremor’s room. He’s anxious to get away and, since Murmur stormed off, he wants to get you inside before he barricades the door.”

“Okay,” I said. As we walked across the hall I asked conversationally, “What does he do when he goes out to sea?”

Gretchen looked uncomfortable. Finally, she answered with the words, “Not be here.”

“Is that all? Is being here that unpleasant for him?”

“Well, the troops that are trained here are not prepared for marine battles. If we were attacked, then the first line of defense would be entirely up to Tremor. We would only need the soldiers if the enemy got past him to shore, so he has a lot of work to do at sea to keep the first line of defense at the ready.”

“I don’t get it. How can he do all that by himself?”

Gretchen smiled stiffly. She knocked twice and then opened the door to the basement for me. “He manages.” She handed me the tart and walked away.

I watched her go. Then I took that first step into the cavern. The darkness was so intense that when the door swung shut behind me, I couldn’t see a thing.

“Sarafina, put your hand on my shoulder and I’ll help you down the stairs,” Tremor said as he swung the locks into place.

“I can’t see your shoulder,” I said, reaching into the void. My hand fell on his back… or was it his chest?

“It’s a little further up.” He laughed.

I felt my way to his shoulder. I had grabbed his chest. “Why is it so dark in here, anyway?”

“Are you scared?”

“Not of anything worse than falling down the stairs.”

I could feel the warmth of his hand on the small of my back. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall.”

He didn’t talk as we felt our way through the blackness.

At the bottom of the stairs, he said warmly, “Someday you’ll have to tell me exactly why you were willing to go through with this. Here’s the bed.”

“I can’t see a thing,” I complained. “How am I supposed to eat this? Or change into my pajamas or even find them? Can we light a candle?”

“Not yet,” he said softly.

“Why not?”

He didn’t answer me. “Let me take that from you.” The plate came out of my hand and he helped me lower myself onto the bed.

“Tremor,” I said seriously, feeling my cheeks change color with the awkwardness of what I had to say. Luckily, he couldn’t see me turn red in the dark. “I can’t sleep in this outfit. The corset stays are murdering me. If we can’t turn on the light, can you at least get me out of this thing?”

“Uh,” he said hesitantly. “I can’t do that either. I’m going to go out the gate to the sea cavern entrance. Once I’m out there, I’ll get a light set up for you. Can you please wait for me?”

I was shocked. I had just given him permission to undress me and he was going to leave? Something had to be wrong, but I had no idea what. “Why do you have to leave before turning on the light? What happened to the candles you lit before?”

“They’re still here. I’m going now.” He bent and kissed me on the cheek. “Goodnight.” His kiss felt funny.

Then he was gone. I heard his footsteps move away from me. Then a clank sounded as he unlocked the gate. I heard the echo of him moving down the cavern, and then the slam of another set of gates.

I tried to stay calm during the time I waited for him to turn on the lights, but it was tiring. I tried counting to make myself feel better and to measure the time. I got to around one hundred and sixty before my saliva stuck in my throat and I lost count. I waited a minute, hoping he would come before I started counting again. The second time, I only got to about eighty. Then I found his blanket and pulled it over my thighs. The quiet was grating and he was taking forever.

In the next second, a light flickered on above the glass window that looked into the sea. The light traveled in a direct line along the top of the glass and was inexplicably blue in color. It would have been a relief, but there was a black capricorn just on the other side of the glass and it was close. I nearly screamed when I saw it since Tremor wasn’t there to hold me. Instead, I put a hand to my chest and ordered myself to calm down. They were just sea creatures. Sharks sometimes attacked people, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have a place in the world. Besides, there was nothing to be afraid of. The monster was on the other side. It couldn’t get to me.

I stood up, but the capricorn didn’t go. Its weird eyes followed me as I moved across the room to the trunk my things were in. Its yellow eyes were huge as it watched me. I leafed through my luggage until I found a nightgown. I turned my back to it and worked my way out of my dress and corset, hoping it would get bored of the pretty blue light and leave.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I finally did turn around and there were two more of them floating on the other side of the window. One looked like the white one I had seen earlier. The other one was mostly white, but it had a few gray stripes on its face and down its sides. It looked ferocious, except it wasn’t scarier than the black one since I couldn’t see its features well—only its yellow eyes.

To calm down, I rolled my knotted shoulders on my way to the bed, picked up my tart, and crawled in under Tremor’s blankets.

If only the capricorns would leave. I was supposed to be in the book, skipping school and enjoying the fact that I had the chance to sprawl out on Evander’s… I mean... Tremor’s bed. Instead, I felt like I had accidentally flipped a page of National Geographic too fast and got a full spread of a scorpion. It wasn’t their bodies that made the capricorns terrifying, it was their huge expressionless eyes—like fish—unblinking all the time. Weren’t manatee eyes the size of marbles? Why were the creature’s eyes so big? Plus, it looked like they might be strong enough to break through the window in front of me if they had half a mind to do it. Their horns looked like excellent battering rams and their muscles rippled.

So I munched on the best dessert I had ever eaten, sat in the bed of my crush, and watched the unearthly monsters stare at me with no possible way of turning the light off. Two more capricorns even arrived while I was eating and pushed their eyes up against the glass.

I didn’t understand what was happening. How did the situation apply in the real world? Some of the other things that had happened made sense, but this?

I put the dish down on the floor and pulled Tremor’s blankets up to my chin. Then I shifted onto my side and faced the wall. The sheets smelled like sea salt and citrus. If it wasn’t for the capricorns on the other side of the window—I would have been in heaven.

***

When I woke up, I expected to be back in the school library with some grouchy teacher quizzing me on why I had fallen asleep at school and missed my afternoon classes. Instead, I woke up in the blueness of Tremor’s room with strong hands gripping my waist.

“Tremor?” I asked. My voice was ragged and uneasy.

“No, sweetie. I’m not your husband.”

In the blue light, I could see Murmur maneuvering the blankets behind me.

I jumped out of the bed as fast as I could and sprinted toward the staircase. “How did you get in here?”

“The big door with the chains isn’t the only portal to Hell,” he said evenly. “Tremor just didn’t think I’d be crazy enough to take the other route.”

“Which is?”

“An iron pole that runs down a shaft from the top tower. See?” he said, pointing to what I had dismissed as a bathroom door. “It stops there.”

“Are you crazy? From the top that must be six levels high. What if you fell?”

Murmur scoffed. “Tremor takes it all the time. You really must not think I’m as good as my brother.”

“Well, he doesn’t freak the hell out of me by jumping on me in the middle of the night.”

“He doesn’t? His loss, I’m sure.” Murmur gave me a dirty look before prowling over to my trunk and pulling out one of my coats.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded.

“I’m here to show you why I’m better than he is. You seem to have deluded yourself into believing he’s the pick of the litter and I’m here to show you why he isn’t. Now, are you going to come with me, or am I going to have to make you?”

I shuddered and started at a dead run up the stairs. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”

I thought I had a good head start, but Murmur was fast like a demon and I didn’t even make it up the first turn of the steps before he had my hair in a death grip and he was hauling me back down the stairs like a mangy kitten.

“Put that coat on,” he ordered, throwing me to the floor.

I tried to make another break for it, but he caught me and threw me to the floor painfully.

“It’s for your own good,” he said heartlessly. “It’s going to be cold out there.”

I glared at him before I picked up the coat and tossed it over my shoulders. He waited while I did up all the buttons.

“Put on some shoes too.”

When I was dressed to his satisfaction. He went up to the first gate and pulled out his royal key ring. I was surprised when his key worked. Cruelly, he yanked me by my hair all the way down toward the second gate.

“Tremor’s not what you think he is,” Murmur hissed angrily as he dragged me up the passage that led above sea level. There was plenty of time for him to say whatever he wanted, right in my ear. “He’s a monster,” Murmur spat. “He’s a wicked creature of the sea. He’s the leader of an army of capricorns and whenever the lunatics on the other side of the water make a plan to try to invade us, his capricorns stop them from landing here by drowning them, or worse—eating them. No doubt he’s fed you some pitiful story about how he’s the poor disinherited prince who no one ever cared about. He’s feasted on human flesh. You would dishonor me and take that monster to be your husband? Foolish girl!”

To all that, I couldn’t even answer. All I could do was yelp and bawl as he lurched my head around for his pleasure. Once we were through the second gate, he took my wrists and bound them behind my back. It was still night time and the gloom and spray of the sea were so penetrating, it felt like it was crawling under my hair.

“That way,” he muttered, pushing me toward the water.

It was a minute before I saw it, but there was a small sailboat tied there. Murmur shoved me on board, pushing my face painfully on the deck of the boat. I couldn’t get myself up for a minute and he used that minute to board and untie the rope. Finally, I was sitting at the prow of the boat, spitting out strands of my blonde curly hair while Murmur unfurled the sail.

I looked up into the sky. It was the same sky that hung overhead when I went down the river. Something about the two situations was the same. Maybe I would be in Evander’s world for days before finally waking up.

Well, one thing was clear. Murmur was trying to scare me. There was just one problem. There was nothing he could do to make me change my mind about Tremor. Tremor was like Evander, but better. He was Evander without the walls of reservation. It didn’t matter what Murmur did. I wouldn’t give up on Tremor.

_____

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading!

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