Kipo

Behind the Mask: Chapter 7

After three hours of dancing, Isla fell asleep utterly exhausted. The night had been a haze of Wren constantly relaying orders amid the fog of perfume. When she awoke the next morning, she felt roughly like Scarlemagne had ended the evening by dropping his piano on her head. She sat up and stood very slowly, making her way to the corner of the room, where a lone water pitcher sat on a dented table.

“About time you got up,” one of the other noblewomen said. Gertrude–that was her name. Isla had barely noticed anyone standing there. Not that she’d thought she’d been alone, but…

Yeah, I ate a lot last night…you might be a bit wobbly today. Wren sounded like an overstuffed mod frog. Wonderful. Well, that explained the headache.

“Really,” Gertrude said, the teasing gone and a bit of genuine concern in her voice. “If you slept any longer, we thought we’d have to call for help waking you.”

Isla shuddered. Well, at least she’d been lucky enough that Scarlemange had left them to their own devices this morning. What had happened with the Wolf Girl, though? Had she gotten away safely?

Isla sipped the water slowly, despite a desire to gulp it all at once. “There haven’t been any reports of new humans roaming around, have there?”

“Hmm?” Gertrude cocked her head. “No, I don’t believe so. Why?”

It was tricky to hide Isla’s sigh of relief. “Curiosity, is all.” She finished off the glass of water and quickly changed into the constricting red explosion of a dress. So began another typical day it seemed. At least until Isla and Wren caught the sound of approaching footsteps. They echoed over the stone floor, reaching the height of volume as Francis burst into the room.

“Gertrude! Isla! Come, you have to see this!”

“Francis!” Gertrude snapped. “This is the women’s quarters!”

Wren giggled drunkenly. While Gertrude’s statement might have been technically accurate, the men’s and women’s quarters were separated only a slim slab of marble. Nevertheless Scarlemange had ordered them to display great offense when someone from the other side came in unannounced.

“I–I– That is…” Francis stammered. Scarlemange’s brainwashing had done nothing to ease his jumpiness. The poor man took a few deep breaths before pointing behind him while averting his gaze. “There’s something I found…strange pictures…beside the wall outside.”

Pictures? Now this was curious. Or at least it promised some break from the monotony. “All right,” Isla said soothingly. “We’ll be right out to come see.”

Gertrude gave a little gasp of surprise. She wasn’t used to going beyond the palace wall, even if it was just walking along the outside. Nor did she argue the point, either. Scarlemange’s nobles did not argue in general.

The two women began to follow Francis when he stopped short. “Isla!” he said, shocked and pointing above her bed. “You left your mask!”

“Hmm? Ah, yes, how silly of me!” Isla said, running back and grabbing the awful thing. Wren let out another fit of giggles. Oh, do hush up, Isla thought before joining Gertrude and Francis outside.

#

The three nobles cocked their heads at the drawings etched into the dirt. The ground here was hard and not very conducive to sketches. But these had been drawn with something sharp and resilient. A particularly pointy rock, perhaps. Or the end of a deathstalker’s tail.

“What does it mean?” Gertrude asked for the third time.

Isla didn’t reply. The drawing showed four things: a deathstalker’s stinger, two intersecting, perpendicular arrows, a rising sun, and a campfire. Isla narrowed her eyes. Was the sun rising or setting? If the arrows were a compass, the sun was next to the arrow indicating west. So…a sunset, then. Wolf Girl wants to meet at Fran…at Frank’s camp at sunset.

“I haven’t a clue what it means,” Francis said, fascinated. “That’s why I called you two.”

Isla looked over the drawings one more time, nudging the compass with the toe of her shoe and smudging it. If she feigned complete ignorance, Francis and Gertrude would simply ask someone else. She couldn’t afford that. “It means there’s other humans nearby,” she said. “I’ll speak to Scarlemange at once for permission to scout for them.”

#

“Another scouting mission?” Scarlemange eyed Isla with suspension. “Isla, darling, didn’t you return from one recently?”

“I-I…yes, sire,” she said. Not good. The fully-controlled nobles never stuttered unless they were completely exhausted. Even then, it was out of a physical inability to speak while nearly passing out, not any inner debate about their words. Isla’s palms began to sweat, a scent she felt sure Scarlemange could detect. The mute narrowed his eyes at her, staring through the gaps in her mask as she struggled to keep her breathing steady.

Finally, Scarlemange burst into laughter. “Well, then, this one had better be a success, hadn’t it? Off you go!” And he waved her off, happy as ever. At least, Isla thought he looked happy. The random bursts of maniacal laughter made it difficult to discern between his happiness and his fits of utter insanity.

The trek out to the campsite was almost starting to feel routine to Isla now.

Maybe if we ever get free, I could come live out here, she joked with Wren.

You can live in a volcano for all I care, as long as you feed me, Wren replied.

Isla cocked her head as the flamingo began its decent. What’s a volcano?

If you ever get free, I’ll tell you.

The flamingo landed before Isla had a chance to argue the point. She dismounted and tied it to stake in the ground as usual. It clacked its beak at her in return.

Isla looked around. The sun was about halfway through its decent on the horizon, throwing the landscape into shades of red and orange. The smoking smell of Frank’s extinguished fire had long since faded, and the supplies around the site was noticeably thinner.

“Where…?” Isla scanned the area and spotted a small silhouette against the lowering sun. The Wolf Girl wasn’t exactly at Frank’s campsite; instead she sat perched on a rock within eyesight of it. Not the best hiding job, but then again, Isla wouldn’t have found her otherwise. She left the campsite and started towards her. The ground in this direction was a strange mix of loose, sandy earth and pockets of standing water. And of course, Isla’s riding outfit only came with fancy high-heeled boots.

“So you did come.” Wolf Girl was almost smiling as Isla approached. Probably not a good sign, Wren reminded her. Isla couldn’t help but agree. She took several more cautious steps forward.

All at once, the ground gave out underneath her. Isla let out a cry of surprise. She tried to catch her footing, but no matter where she stepped, her feet sunk deeper. The sandy earth felt like it went from solid to liquid in seconds. Before Isla had a full grasp of what was happening, she was sitting waist-deep in sand, her outfit no doubt ruined, and her feet most incapable of dislodging themselves without help.

“What the–?” she gasped. “What is this stuff?”

“Relax. You won’t drown in it,” Wolf Girl reassured her, jumping down from her post and taking care to step on more solid ground. “You find patches like these around sometimes. You can’t sink deeper than your waist. It’s tough, but you can get out with help.”

Isla held her arms out, though she quickly found there was nothing to brace herself on. At least, as Wolf Girl said, she wasn’t sinking any deeper. “Are…you going to help me?”

“Sure,” Wolf Girl replied. Isla almost breathed a sigh of relief until her follow-up: “After you answer some questions.”

If Isla could actually reach one of her boots right now, she might be using it as a weapon. “This is how you repay me for warning you about Scarlemagne?”

“I don’t owe you anything,” Wolf Girl said with a shrug. “I was fine on my own, and then you came poking around, insisting I had to leave.”

“I–” Isla started to argue, until she realized the Wolf Girl had made a fair point. “Well, you wouldn’t have been fine if Scarlemange had found you.”

“Agreed. So help me out here. Tell me what’s protecting you from that mute perfume.”

A shiver ran down the back of Isla’s neck. “You could tell?”

“You kind of said as much when we first met, but yeah, I could tell. You don’t dance quite the same as the others. You look like you still have control.”

Now Wren mirrored Isla’s shivering. If she can tell, it’s only a matter of time before Scarlemange can tell, too.

“Yes, thank you for that obvious statement,” Isla muttered. Not quietly enough apparently.

Wolf Girl raised an eyebrow. “If it’s such an obvious statement, why don’t you try being a better actress?”

Isla groaned. if she wished to hide Wren’s existence, speaking aloud to her surely wasn’t the approach. “I understand why you’d want some form of immunity,” she said. “But this isn’t something I can share, and I don’t think you’d want it if I could.”

“Try me,” Wolf Girl said, crossing her arms.

Isla tried to pull her leg up just a little bit in the sandy muck. It stayed submerged. Isla only succeeded in filling her boot with extra goop. For all the frustrations she’d had so far the past several days, this really shouldn’t have phased her. But with Francis’s constant reminders of her failure to help him, Scarlemange’s roused suspicions, and exhaustion nibbling away at her best judgment, she finally broke down. “Oh, my mistake. I was under the impression you would dislike having a mute living inside your skull. Perhaps it intrigues you, hmm? Perhaps it sounds like fun?”

Wolf Girl’s eyes grew wide, and her jaw slackened. She quickly regained her composure, looking over Isla with deep skepticism. “Hang on. You’re telling me you’ve got a mute inside your brain who protects you from that crazy perfume?”

Isla nodded.

“And you expect me to believe you?”

“Well,” Isla shrugged, “I was right about the mind-controlling mandrill, wasn’t I?”

Wolf Girl made no change in expression over this, and Isla was starting to worry that she might simply get up and leave.

If she does, you can always throw your mask off, Wren suggested. The nobles will be on this place and rescue you in no time.

I’d really rather not resort to that, Isla mentally replied. It was bad enough she’d ruined the riding uniform. She didn’t want to know what would happen if she needed to be plucked from a mucky sand pit on top of it. As she shuddered over the possibilities, something prodded her in the side of the head–the non-poisonous end of the deathstalker staff.

“Are you grabbing on or what?” Wolf Girl asked.

“Oh! Um, thanks.” Isla got as good a grip as she could manage, and Wolf Girl braced the staff against a rock, using the leverage to get Isla free enough to crawl the rest of the way. It was exhausting work for both of them, and they lay on their backs, catching their breaths and gazing at the specks of stars beginning to emerge in the sky. After a while, they made some quiet conversation: Isla on how Wren relayed directions to her and Wolf on the places she’d seen across Las Vistas (and how most all of them contained creatures that wanted to kill her). By the time they’d drifted off these oh-so-comfortable topics, the sky had grown dark, and they stared in awe at the fully visible array of stars.

“Sorry,” Wolf Girl suddenly said, breaking the silence.

“Huh?” Isla sat up, surprised. She wanted to ask, For which offense? but instead settled on, “You mean for trapping me in a sand pit?”

“Nah. If I don’t trust someone, better to trap them in a sand pit until I do.”

“Okay…” Isla pulled her boot off and poured the now-dry sand into a pile on the dirt.

“But I could have trusted you earlier, so…sorry about that.” She stood and walked towards the abandoned camp. Isla followed, anxious to get to the flamingo before it learned how to gnaw through its rope.

“Anything I can do to help you get out of this?” Wolf asked. There was hesitation in her voice, more like the question came out of obligation. She might do something small, but she wasn’t going to risk her own neck, either.

And neither would Isla expect her to. “I don’t think so. But you could help keep other humans away from here.”

“How so?” Wolf Girl rooted around the supplies left in the camp, found a large cloth sack and began gathering items into it.

“I don’t know. Can’t you…start a rumor or something? Discourage people from coming out here?”

“Start a rumor? I’m not exactly a social butterfly.” She pulled the sack over her shoulder and looked around. The camp was now picked clean of anything useful. Which meant she had no more reason to stay and would be heading out soon. After carefully lifting and lowering the bag a few times to test its weight, she sat it on the ground and extended a hand to Isla. “I’ll do the best I can, though.”

Isla smiled and accepted the handshake. Another human she could genuinely call a friend? Today might have been a downright miracle. “Do you have a name? I mean, besides ‘Wolf Girl’? Because that’s what I keep calling you in my mind.”

“You can shorten it to Wolf, if you want.” Wolf broke the handshake and picked up her sack of supplies. It was rather bulky and didn’t quite look like she could run easily with it. But then again, maybe “travel safely” had taken on a new meaning for the girl these past few days.

Isla smiled as she mounted the flamingo. “Wolf it is then. Best of luck to you.”

“You too, Isla.”

And with that, the flamingo took flight, and the two parted ways. The cool night air chilled Isla’s skin as the bird picked up speed.

I liked her…Wolf, Wren mused. I hope we see her again. And if we do, maybe…maybe I could…

The muscles around Isla’s forehead tensed. Her eyebrows furrowed as if in immense concentration, yet she wasn’t focused on anything in particular. A sudden fear seized her mind. Wren’s fear.

Oh, no, the little mute thought into her mind. No-no-no-no-no!

Wren? Wren, what’s wrong?

No immediate answer. Wren was getting frantic. Finally, she managed to put some cohesive sentences together. I…I was thinking about how maybe I could try to split for that Wolf girl…maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, and–and–

And what? The thought of doing something nice made you panic?

No! I’m panicked because it doesn’t feel like I can split anymore! It doesn’t feel like I can leave your head at all!

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