By the time the vision stopped flashing in front of her, calling up one miserable memory after another, Isla felt ready to be sick. Wren shared that feeling to a certain point. Unlike Isla, however, she wasn’t quite so shocked at the appalling behavior of the humans in Scarlemagne’s memories.
Well, I can see why he doesn’t like you, she sighed. The little mute had retreated to the back of Isla’s mind once again, giving her control over their shared mental space. How long the truce would last was anyone’s guess.
“Me?” Isla asked. “I didn’t do anything to him.”
Ugh. This is the one thing you humans don’t get. Mutes don’t see individuals so much. They see groups. If one member of your group insults or attacks another, it’s the same as if everyone in that group had attacked.
“But that’s not fair,” Isla objected. She got an image of Wren shrugging. For as much as the little mute could shrug.
Fair or not, it’s how things are out here. So now we need to make a decision.
“Indeed,” Isla muttered. She still didn’t like the idea of laying all their cards on the table in front of the very mute she’d been hiding from all this time. But perhaps if he saw the two of them as a single entity–not quite mute and not quite human–they might stand a chance of gaining his respect? With the army Scarlemagne was amassing, having a bit of his respect could be extremely valuable…
She held her head. “No! We’re not negotiating with him. Not after everything he’s done!”
Wren huffed but did not argue. Not yet anyway. But Isla had the uneasy feeling the mute was simply biding her time.
We’re “not negotiating” with him? Yeah, right. You mean you’re not negotiating with him. I didn’t get any say at all! If Isla heard Wren’s frustrated musings, she didn’t respond to them. And it was just as well, really. Wren had been putting a lot of thought into this new and unprecedented situation the two of them had found themselves in. If they tried to compromise on every little thing, life was going to end up being a constant struggle. No firm decisions would be made on anything; everything they didn’t agree on would have to be a middle-of-the-road solution. And what kind of life was that?
No life at all, Wren decided. Which was why she had to take a bold move. With just the right timing, she could make life much better for both of them.
As per his usual, Scarlemagne called all of his humans out onto the ballroom floor that evening. His fingers flew across the piano keys, playing an old tune that started deceptively slow. In truth, it would end as one of his fastest pieces. Which meant Isla would have to concentrate hard not to miss any steps.
Which, in turn, meant Wren had much more opportunity to catch her off guard.
Wren let Isla dance as normal for the first half of the song. Then, after a minute, the tempo picked up, and Wren made her move. She put all her focus into gaining control of this body. Isla’s foot stepped backwards when it was supposed to step forwards. Left when it meant to go right. It took all of the human’s efforts not to trip over herself and collapse.
Stop. Stop…doing this! Isla mentally screamed. Two more missteps. Several humans had slowed to watch the strange display.
Agree to strike a deal with Scarlemagne, and I will.
Isla wasn’t even dancing anymore. Yet sweat dripped down her arms and forehead as her inner struggle continued. Strike a deal with him? Yeah, right. Over my bruised and battered body!
The humans circled around them now. The music had stopped. Isla was gasping for breath.
Wren didn’t want to take things this far. But what other choice did Isla leave her? Fine. If you insist. The human’s limbs stiffened, refusing to move, caught in a mental tug of war between two wills. The strain was painful, and Wren guessed even Isla’s muscular body would not put up with it for much longer. And, as usual, she was right.
Scarlemagne usually didn’t think too much of it when his nobles passed out. It was a natural consequence of their human weakness, after all. But when he stepped up to Isla, locking eyes with her right before she slipped out of consciousness, he was struck by the fear and panic in her eyes. There was certainly no smiling as there was from the other nobles. And he knew he’d given her a healthy dose of pheromones before the dance. No, whatever was going on with her, it was stronger than his compulsion. The concept both intrigued and unnerved him.
He ordered Isla’s cot brought out by the piano, so he could keep an eye on her while composing some tunes. He dismissed the rest of the nobles, gathered the sweat he’d built up thus far, and experimented with a few chords.
It was an hour later, perhaps two, when Isla finally came to. Scarlemagne watched curiously as his prized noble sat up and looked around disoriented. With a trembling hand, she pressed her fingers against her throat as if to feel her own vocal chords move while she spoke. “Look, I’m sorry I took over, all right? But you left me no choice. I don’t want to just be a voice in your head forever!”
Scarlemagne startled; something even he had to admit he did not do easily. Isla’s sharp high-pitched tone was nothing like the way she usually spoke. Curious, he continued to watch the strange conversation with herself play out.
“I’m not asking you to!” she shouted in her more normal voice. “But you can’t take over and speak through me whenever you feel like it!”
“So I can only speak when you feel like it?” The high-pitched tone again. “Isn’t that convenient for you? But if I can’t leave and your body is the one with the voice, how else am I supposed to talk?”
“We’ll think of something, okay? Just…stop!”
“You mean be quiet and let you be in charge but still do all the good stuff like protect your mind? Ugh, I should have known better than to get involved with a human!”
His interest piqued, Scarlemagne finally decided to step into the conversation. “Do pardon me,” he said, assuming she would catch onto his facetious tone. Really, the way she barely noticed he was there was already quite rude. Or perhaps thinking of Isla in the plural was more appropriate? There did seem to be multiple entities in question here.
“I don’t mean to interrupt this little disagreement you seem to be having with yourself, Isla…” he smiled. “…or is it with someone else? I feel as if I’m left out of something. Care to enlighten me?” He held up one of his perfume bottles, but Isla (or whatever was speaking through her), turned up her nose.
“Aren’t you running low on that stuff, your highness? Are you sure you want to use it on me when it won’t even work?”
Scarlmagne narrowed his eyes. “Explain yourself.”
Isla forced a laugh and got to her feet. “It only works on primates, corrects? Isla might fit that description, but I’m afraid I don’t quite qualify.”
Scarlemagne lowered the bottle, his hand shaking slightly, though he hid it well. “What are you?” he demanded.
Isla’s laugh morphed into a rough cough. “I don’t think either of us know right now. I am a mute, and Isla is a human, and now we’re stuck in the same body.”
It was ridiculous. The entire concept. Scarlemagne should be backhanding his noble for concocting such an insane story. Except…he knew all too well all the strange things that could happen in this world. He’d gone from being a stupid animal to the de facto ruler of Las Vistas. He’d begun life as little more than a pet and now he was poised to rule over everything. Was the idea of a mute and a human sharing a single mind really so farfetched in comparison? “I see,” he finally said, setting the perfume bottle back on the piano. “You may accept my mildly sincere condolences. So you are immune to my powers, then? I’m surprised you don’t attack me, after everything I’ve put you through.”
“Hmm. A fair point. Though you could say we’ve become a bit sympathetic.” Isla–or whoever Scarlemagne was now speaking to–lowered her head. “We must apologize. We saw some of your old memories. Tad Mulholland gave them to us.”
“Tad Ma–” Rage filled Scarlemagne in an instant. Not a sensation he was unfamiliar with, but the frustration this time was all the greater. He remembered the strange mute he’d encountered all those years ago. And he also remembered the fact that the creature would forever remain one of the few in Las Vistas he held no sway over. So now not only was he angry, he couldn’t even direct his fury properly. He’d have to take it out on Gerard later.
“The memories were scary…” the voice speaking for Isla went on. “…because they reminded me of when humans hurt me, too. They wouldn’t let me eat…I almost starved…even Isla only let me in so I could protect her. And I know she still wishes I wasn’t here.”
For a moment, Scarlemagne stiffened. There were so few around him who knew of his humble beginnings–how he’d fought and crawled his way to the top after his supposed family had abandoned him. In a way, he wanted someone else to know. He wanted another to share in his frustrations, his fury, to confirm what he’d learned the hard way–that humans were incapable of seeing mutes as superior or even equal. They would always fight for their own and no one else. One day, he would share all this with someone. But it wouldn’t be some random human. His adopted sister…she was the only one who would understand. Until the day he found her, those memories would stay locked away. “Be that as it may,” he said with a forced calm. “You would do well never to speak of any memories of mine you saw.”
Isla bowed. “I understand. But tell me, what’s your plan when you take over? What will our home look like?”
“I…” Scarlemagne was taken aback. This mute speaking through Isla certainly liked to jump around topic. “I believe I’ve given a speech or two about it in the past. My utopia for mutes. A golden city of dreams and what have you.” He raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to be part of it. I want to keep being a noble, Scarlemagne. And I think, deep down, Isla wants it, too.”
“You say Isla is separate from you. What do I call you, then?” Scarlemagne motioned to the very human-shaped body the little voice was coming out of. She curtsied properly this time.
“My name is Wren, sire. And I’m looking forward to working with you.”
“She’s a bit in denial, but at the end of the day, we more or less want the same thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“To be close to power.”
By the time Isla regained some control once again, the deal was already struck. Scarlemagne would continue to let her and Wren stay in the palace as one of his higher-ranked nobles. If Lemieux or Gerard balked at the idea, well…they really didn’t have any say in the matter, now did they? And when Isla had calmed down enough to consider their situation…a place to stay, good food, and even a sliver of authority, she couldn’t deny she had things much better than she did before. All it had cost her was a tiny bit of turning her back on humanity. And as Wren had been so quick to point out, she wasn’t exactly fully human anymore.
Isla couldn’t quite tell if these thoughts were entirely her own or if her views and Wren’s had begun to blend together. No matter. They shared this body now and all its decisions, both good and bad. Whatever the future held, they were in it together.