Isla took several deep breaths, though it sounded to her more like she was hyperventilating: in-and-out-in-and-out. It was bad enough trying to calm herself down. Trying to calm down Wren too was a painful double duty. The little mute rarely panicked, rarely even worried. But the real possibility of getting caught sent her into a frenzy.
Quick, Wren commanded. Stand up! Grab his arms! Hold him still! Make that super-angry-face you make. And pull your mask down!
“What’s the point of making any face with my mask down?” Isla hissed, only to realize she’d spoken to Wren aloud this time.
Frank cocked his head at her. “Huh?”
“Nothing,” Isla replied. She had to think fast. It couldn’t be over in a–she was loathe to use the phrase–snap like this. Surely she had some resource she hadn’t thought of.
Isla paused from her anxious fidgeting as the silhouettes of the flamingos grew on the horizon. She wanted to slap herself. Of course she had a resource. She had one of the greatest resources against Scarlemagne in Las Vistas.
She crouched down, trying to look like she was cowering, just in case she slipped and spoke aloud again. Wren, listen to me! I need you to split up!
A wave of confusion passed through Isla’s mind as Wren tried to contemplate the demand.
Split up? Oh, no, no, no. I do not think so.
You have to! Frank needs you–at least part of you–to stay safe!
Except…I only need one human. Not two. Split up? Never happening.
Another caw from the approaching flamingo. Isla’s own flamingo screeched back as if to beckon it closer. Isla could hear the flapping of wings now. Frank hid behind a rock slightly smaller than he was and whimpered.
We’re almost out of time! If you don’t split, I’ll–I spit you out right now! She couldn’t believe she’d actually thought the words. She’d never tried to reject Wren before, but simply the fact that she could feel the mute in her mind and was aware of her abilities seemed to clue in her body’s natural defenses. If she were to mentally classify Wren as a parasite rather than a symbiotic partner, out she would go.
Wren made an audible gasp in Isla’s mind, but the little mute soon became surprisingly calm. No, you won’t. Because you know what will happen without me.
I-I… Even in her own mind, Isla struggled to form words.
I’m already small, Wren continued. Compared to other mutes, I am teeny-weeny-itty-bitty. It’s not fair for you to ask me to go half-size so you can save a human and feel better.
Isla wanted to argue that this wasn’t about her feeling better. That she really did care about Frank and had his best interests at heart. But Wren’s words rang too true for that argument. She felt guilty. Guilty for being the one with a defense.
If it means so much to you, I’ll go over to him, Wren said. I’ll migrate for you. Is that what you want?
“No!” Isla said aloud and covered her mouth, her hands shaking. She could tell from the proximity of the flapping–she had to either stand and put on a show or give up entirely. Nothing had made her give herself up before.
And, it seemed, nothing would now, either. Isla got to her feet.
“Isla?” Frank asked in a confused whisper. “What are you doing? Get down! We should hide!”
Isla turned to face the flamingos, wind whipping her hair back as she brought her mask down. “There’s no hiding from this,” she said solemnly. Then she lowered her head. “I’m sorry. I really am. I wanted to help you get away. But just know…you would have been caught whether I found you or another noble did.”
She expected Frank to argue with her, to scream in rage at her for betraying him. But instead, as the two flamingos landed and their riders dismounted, he stood up and held up his hands. “I think…I see your point there,” he said, his voice deep in defeat.
Isla led the flight back to Scarlemagne’s palace. What else was she to do? Her two companions praised her quick and effective tracking skills while one of Scarlemagne’s monkey nobles brought their catch to see the crazed mandrill himself.
Scarlemagne was in the music hall (where he almost always was), plucking a few keys experimentally when Isla, Frank, and Frank’s monkey guard arrived. He slammed on the keys in irritation at being interrupted, but his mood changed quickly when he saw who had entered.
“Back already?” he said, clapping his hands. “Delightful!” He walked over to Francis, licking his lips like he was assessing a fine dessert. “You will do very nicely. Very nicely, indeed. What do you call yourself, human? Is it a name worthy of one of my nobles?”
Frank’s knees were quaking so much, he could barely stand. The guard hoisted him upright. “F-F-Frank!” he managed to squeak out.
“Frank?” Scarlemagne spat out. “I’m sorry…Frank? Did your parents name you after processed logs of meat? Did they think that highly of you, Frank?”
“I-I…they…” Frank stuttered.
Scarlemagne backhanded him. “Don’t speak when I’m speaking! Your name is Francis now. You understand? Nod if you understand, Francis!”
He nodded emphatically.
Scarlemagne grinned. “You see how kind I am? How generous? I give you a place to stay, food to eat, and I even give you a better name.” He pinched his newest pet’s cheek. “You’ll need dance lessons, of course. But we’ll get there. If you behave, I’ll even teach you the can-can. Wouldn’t you like that, Francis?”
Before Frank could answer, Scarlemagne brought out his perfume bottle, attempting to spray a dab directly into Frank’s eyes. The man tensed seeing the object come at his face so quickly, but only a sprinkle actually landed on him.
Scarlemagne frowned. “Who forgot to refill this?” he growled then broke into his signature giggle. “Oh, right. It was me! Because if any of you humans touched this, I would eviscerate you. Be right back, Francis. Don’t move!”
Francis stiffened at the command. He might not have taken a big enough hit to be fully under Scarlemagne’s control, but neither was he completely free from it. Once Scarlemagne had skipped out of earshot, Isla stepped in front of Frank one more time, their gazes meeting. Her eyes burned with the threat of tears she didn’t dare release. “I’m sorry…” she whispered. “I really did want to help you. Instead…” She forced the words down.
“It’s okay.” Frank managed a smile. “I believe you. Really, it’s okay.”
It wasn’t okay. Nothing about any of this was okay. But there was no more time. At the sound of Scarlemagne’s returning footsteps, Isla returned to her position and straightened back to attention. Frank got a full whiff of the pungent perfume; his quivering expression turned to a forced, distorted grin. “Yes, sire!” he squeaked. “I would love to learn the can-can!”
“Much better,” Scarlemagne said with a grin. “Another job well done,” he added, turning to Isla. “You’re impressively capable for a human. Now show Francis the baths so he can clean himself up and get one of the tailors to measure him. He’ll join us for the dance tonight.”
“Of course,” Isla said with a bow. “This way, Francis.” Frank said nothing but kept right on eerily grinning as he followed her. She wasn’t sure if the fully-controlled humans remembered their old names or not. She wouldn’t forget, though. Until the time came he could remember on his own, she would remember for him. And the next time…
Isla swallowed hard. She’d had a perfect opportunity to help Frank. But she hadn’t been willing to take it. Not at such a risk to herself. She hated how she always defaulted to her own safety. Her own security. What was the point of having a free mind if she never used it?
It’s settled then, she decided. The next time a free human crossed her path, she wouldn’t let her cowardice overtake her. She would help them, no matter what it cost.
Right… Wren teased in her mind. You go right on telling yourself that.