Proving moderately competent among Scarlemagne’s pets had its advantages. For one, Isla got sent out on missions more often, which meant less time wearing the movement-restricting, breath-denying monstrosity that was standard dress for the human females under Scarlemagne’s watch. Isla had once and only once seen him try to send one of the women on some errand without having her change into a proper riding uniform (or really, anything else) first. The poor lady had fallen on her face and broken her mask in two. Scarlemagne never admitted to doing anything wrong, but his expression as he realized just how physically impossible his request had been was about the closest he’d ever come.
Isla’s scouting uniform consisted of a knee-length slit skirt over brick-red slacks. The edge of the bright red fabric had a lace trim to give the feel of her regular dress without being nearly as infuriating. Around her waist, she tied a small pack with a day’s worth of rations. The human they were seeking was supposedly a loner–he either never had a group to begin with or had been separated from them. He’d been spotted once not far from Fitness Raccoon territory and then twice more closer to Scarlemagne’s court. Tarsier had noticed him; of course, she noticed everything. She was probably the member of Scarlemagne’s nobles Isla feared the most. For every time Isla thought of just making a break for it, Tarsier’s bulbous green eyes blazed in her mind, and she thought the better of it. There was something on the masks as well that deterred her. A small black spot that wouldn’t come off. Isla didn’t understand it completely, but Scarlemagne did have some access to old human technology. She’d overheard him call the tiny device embedded in the mask a “tracker bug” once–though it didn’t really look like a bug to her. As best she’d been able to surmise, the device wouldn’t tell him exactly where she was, but it would alert him if she left his territory without permission or removed the mask during waking hours.
If it is a bug, it’s a brainless bug, Wren informed her. Nothing yummy coming out of it at all.
I see. How terrible for you. As much as Isla wanted to share in the tragedy that was Wren not getting an extra snack, she had other things to focus on. Scarlemagne had selected two other humans to go on the mission, with Isla as the leader, along with directions to scout out the various points the human had been spotted at. The trio, clad in their bright red uniforms, took off on three equally bright pink flamingos. Scarlemagne’s maniacal laughter took a long time to fade behind them.
Riding the birds had certainly taken some getting used to at first. Their soft, smooth feathers were both comfortable to sit on and very easy to slide off of when the bird was in flight. Until Scarlemagne invested in proper saddles, Isla just focused on sitting as straight and balanced as possible.
“Where to first?” the man flying to her left asked, shouting to be heard through his mask. The wind in their faces as they flew through the air didn’t really help his communication efforts. Isla released one hand from the veins and signaled where the man was to head first.
After carefully reviewing the human’s most obvious tracks, her plan was to send her two brainwashed comrades traveling the least-likely-to-be-successful directions. Meanwhile, she would follow the human’s strongest trail. She watched the other two flamingos flap out of sight and smiled beneath her mask. So far so good.
She found her quarry within a few hours–a small encampment set against a high rockface about a mile out of Scarlemagne’s territory. Okay, perhaps “encampment” was a generous term. A sheet of metal (probably dragged from the dump) leaned against the rockface, and a small file sparked and smoldered nearby it. Isla gave a flick of the reins and brought the flamingo in to land. From the sky, she had seen the human milling about his meager fire. As she descended, he quickly tossed dirt on the flames and attempted to gather his few belongings to run.
Silly human, Wren giggled. Should have just ran. You would have ran. You’re a smart human.
Aww…you flatter me, Isla thought back as she dismounted.
The man found this action utterly terrifying, dropped all his belongings with a clang and a clatter, and tried to run away. “Try” being the operative word. He stumbled over his own feet and fell onto his knees.
“It’s okay,” Isla said, lifting the mask so it rested on her head. She raised her hands, keeping the flamingo’s reins loose between her fingers. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The flamingo hissed and clacked its beaks as if to say, I, on the other hand, will bite your head off if given the opportunity. Isla tied its reins to a metal post embedded in the dirt and produced a pouch of feed from the pack around her waist. She poured the contents onto the ground and motioned for the flamingo to help itself. The bird’s dual heads took turns eating but both still eyed the human with disdain.
He was a broad-shouldered man with thin blond hair and frightened blue eyes. He whimpered and stood. Slowly he backed up as Isla approached, though with the rocks behind him, he didn’t have much of anywhere to back up to.
“It’s okay,” Isla repeated. “I’m a friend.”
The man paused. “A-a friend?”
“Yes. But there are others looking for you. It’s probably not wise to camp in such an open place.” The mask began to slip, and she carefully readjusted it. The last thing she needed was for it to fall off and let Scarlemagne know exactly where she was. “Do you have other humans you could stay with? You’d be safer in a group than out here on your own.”
The man frowned at this. Then he reached a shaking hand into his pocket and withdrew something, holding it out to Isla. She cupped her hands to receive it.
It was a photograph. The picture showed the man with fuller hair, alongside a brown-haired woman. Other people stood in the background, but the myriad of creases made it difficult to distinguish them. The photo was so worn, it felt like a thin piece of fabric in her fingers. She handed it back carefully. “Your…wife?” Isla guessed.
The man laughed. It sounded rough, like his vocal chords weren’t used to making the sound. “No, no. My sister. We lived in a small burrow. A shelter, really. Not enough people and not enough know-how to build a full life underground. So we’d take turns coming to the surface to scout for food and supplies. It was my turn, and…” He chocked up a bit. “I thought I heard some mutes coming my way, and I didn’t think…I just ran. Got lost. Days, maybe weeks. By the time I found my way back home, everyone had moved on.” He sniffled a bit and slumped down against the rock. The worn photo he tucked carefully back into his shirt pocket.
Isla sat down as well, not too close for fear of scaring him off. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Frank,” he answered. Then cautiously, he extended a hand.
She shook her head. “Probably best not to get your scent on me. But it’s nice to meet you, Frank. My name’s Isla.”
“Isla…” He mulled over the name as he looked her up and down. “You must come from a really fancy burrow, dressed like that.” He crossed his arms over his own strained and tattered shirt.
Now it was her turn to laugh. And it sounded equally awkward. “Trust me, the place I’m from…the nice clothes aren’t worth it.”
Frank rubbed the back of his neck and looked over his encampment. His belongings–a compass, some packaged snacks, and utensils, were scattered in the dirt. The embers of his fire still glowed warm and bright. In his rush, he hadn’t exactly aimed the clumps of dirt well. “Does the place you’re from let you have meals with strangers?”
Did he say meal? Wren asked.
He was not speaking to you! Isla mentally replied. To Frank, she simply said, “It’s permitted as far as I know.” She opened the pack around her waist and pulled out her rations. Then the two of them stoked the fire until the flames burned strong once again.
It had been a while since Isla enjoyed a meal without Scarlemagne barging in and demanding the diners dance upon the table. The food might have tasted like salty clay, but enjoying it in pseudo freedom made it an absolute delight. She and Frank did not talk too much more about each other, preferring instead to sit on opposite ends of the fire watching the dancing flames cast patterns of light on their faces. The sun was low but it was not yet dusk. She’d have to leave soon.
“I’ll show you which paths are watched the least,” she told Frank. “If you follow them, you should find yourself back in the safety of the city dump. Stay there and don’t come back this direction again. You understand?”
Frank grimaced but nodded. Isla looked around them. The soft ground was peppered with footprints. She had assumed them to be Frank’s and her own. But the boots of her uniform made a distinct pattern, leaving pricks in the ground where the thin heels touched. Her prints were quite few. Frank’s were more numerous, but a few tracks had been made by someone with rather small feet (or at least smaller than Isla’s). She looked at Frank’s worn-down sneakers, covering feet that were distinctly larger than hers.
She pointed to the strange prints. “There’s more humans here?” she asked out of curiosity, then immediately regretted bringing up the question.
Frank made a wavering kinda-sorta motion with his hand. “I’ve seen this girl a few times, but I don’t know who she is. She’s crazy quick, wears some kinda furry blue cape–“
Isla help up a hand. “You know what? Never mind. I don’t need to know.” She ate the last of her food, but the moment she swallowed, a sickening sound echoed in the distance. The screech of a flamingo. No…several of them.
Wren shivered, retreating to the back of Isla’s mind. He’s coming! We’re in so much trouble! He’s going to find me and kick me out! He’s coming!
Isla wanted to be afraid along with Wren. But all she could think about was her failure. She hadn’t helped Frank. She’d led Scarlemagne right to him. And if she didn’t stand and play the part of his captor, turning him over immediately, they were both doomed.