“What kind of a choice is that?”
The gold-coated mod frogs did not please Kipo in the way Scarlemagne had hoped. He frowned at the look on her face when he presented her with his gift. “Let me try again,” he offered. “This time I’ll let you make the choice. I’ll let everyone go. Only those who want to follow me will stay. I will give up everything I’ve worked for, for you. But I need to know that you’re willing to give something up for me. Kipo, I want you to gild your father.”
Cold struck Kipo to her core as she turned and looked at her father, standing hypnotized and helpless. The horror of Scarlemagne’s suggestion made her whole body tremble with rage.
Which was why she promptly slapped her adopted brother across the face.
Scarlemagne staggered back, eyes wide with shock. “Wha–what the blazes was that?”
“Did you not hear me, like, ten seconds ago?” Kipo snapped. “Do you know get how choices work?”
“I–” Scarlemagne began, but Kipo interrupted him with a hard poke to the chest.
“No, you clearly don’t! Because if you did, you wouldn’t be asking mutes to either follow you or drown themselves in melted gold! So, we’re gonna start this over from the beginning, mister! You’re gonna offer everyone some actual choices or they’re gonna see you get beat up by your baby sister!”
Scarlemagne laughed loudly. Perhaps a bit too loudly, even for him. “You destroy me? Really? Who has the army here, Kipo? That’s right. It’s me.”
Kipo huffed and crossed her arms. “Do I look like I can bluff to you?”
“Well, actually, you bluffed rather well in Corn Dog Ki–”
Again with the chest-poking. “I am a terrible liar! Hey, dad! Scarlemagne wants to know what a terrible liar I am.”
“It’s true,” Lio said in his dazed and not-altogether-there voice. “Kipo is quite possibly the worst liar I have ever encountered in my life. Once she tried to tell me that space slugs had eaten her homework. I couldn’t bring myself to punish her because it was so very laughable.”
Scarlemagne gritted his teeth. His gaze darted between the massive, and understandably confused crowd below, waiting to see what would happen, and the incredibly demanding half-mute human in front of him. He’d get this settled soon enough, he decided, but not with everyone watching. This was his big day after all. “A-hem! Lio. Tell everyone how wonderful I am for a few moments while I consult with your daughter.”
“No problem!” Lio replied, grinning and stepping forward while Scarlemagne and Kipo stepped back out of the view of the crowd.
“He wants everyone to know how much he loves board games,” Kipo whispered as they walked past. “Tell them about that.”
“I will definitely tell them about that!” Lio said, then proceeded to fill the crowd in about how only a leader as thoughtful and down-to-earth as Scarlemagne could possibly love board games so very much.
“That is not the dignified image I was going for,” Scarlemagne hissed as they backed against the wooden maroon doors which had led them out to the arena’s overlook in the first place.
“Yeah, maybe,” Kipo said with a shrug. “But you really should cultivate that down-to-earth image. You’re gonna need it.”
Scarlemagne pounded his fist into the wall, just missing her face. The wood at her back shook with the force. “You have ten seconds to explain what you’re babbling on about,” he growled. “Otherwise, the next order your father gets is his last!”
“Oh, right to the point, then. Gotcha. So, here’s the deal. See, my dad’s not under your control anymore.” She reached into the way-too-many massive folds of her red dress, pulled out a canteen and tossed it haphazardly behind her. The lid popped open the moment it made contact with the hard floor, and Scarlemagne watched a strange blue liquid spill out. The liquid immediately took on a life of its own, scurrying up Lio’s back, then hurling itself into his mouth. Lio coughed briefly, and when his eyes met Scarlemange’s, he could see the pupils had widened back to their normal size. His expression was surprised but aware of his surroundings.
As Kipo had claimed, she wasn’t lying. Lio was fully in control of himself once again.
Sweat beaded on the back of Scarlemagne’s furry neck, but he did not bother to collect it or even wipe it off. His power…immobilized. He looked in the direction of the open arena. “And…all of them down there?”
“Yep. Totally immune to your powers right now,” Kipo said. “See, I’m doing you a big favor and saving you face here. You’ve gotta admit as much. Oo, Dad–” She turned to her father. “Could you just keep talking about Scarlemagne to everyone for another minute? We’re working out a deal here.”
“Um…sure, but…” Lio rubbed his head. “Are you…sure you’re okay, sweetheart?”
“One hundred percent okay. You keep everyone busy for a bit.”
Lio still didn’t look completely convinced, but for the moment, he went along with Kipo’s plan and turned back to the bewildered audience. This time, he regaled them with the tale of how when Scarlemagne was a mere child, he invented his very own board game using only bottle caps and dental floss.
“Look, you went through a lot of work to get mutes to respect you. I get it,” said Kipo, trying her best to sound sympathetic without trivializing the whole kidnapping-and-brainwishing thing. “But if you keep this up, they aren’t going to respect you. They’re just going to be looking for their first chance to stab you in the back! Erm, figuratively. Probably figuratively.”
Nervous laughter filled the arena below as Lio had somehow managed to transition from talking about Scarlemagne’s childhood to tossing out science-based puns. At least the Newton Wolves seemed to be enjoying it.
Scarlemagne looked either ready to kill someone or bury himself in a hole. Likely both. “Then what do you propose I do?” he asked, his fists clenched. “I brought the humans out here specifically for a show of force. It’s not much force-showing if they all just wander off.”
Kipo had to admit, she was impressed he managed to keep his voice down. It clearly took everything in him not to explode in a massive burst of anger. Of course, he was only angry because he couldn’t have a mind-controlled human army. But baby steps and all that. For now, she’d do her best to keep up the charade that they were merely having a small chat up here and not deciding the future of his empire. “All right, Scarlemagne, I’m going to offer you a choice. A real choice. We can have this fight if you really want to have it. Pretty sure I’ll kick your butt, but hey, your prerogative. Oo, Dad! You hear how well I used the word ‘prerogative’?”
“Nice job,” Lio replied quietly. “I retract the C+ I gave you on your last vocabulary test.” He turned back to the audience and resumed his announcer-level volume. “Now, did any of you ever hear the one about the black hole and the all-you-can-eat buffet?”
“Choice number two,” Kipo went on as if the diversion had never happened. “I help you get through this coronation without threatening anybody, and we work together to build your empire.”
Scarlemagne narrowed his eyes at her. “You’ll help me build a place where mutes rule over humans?” he whispered. “I know you said you were a bad liar, Kipo, but you must admit this is hard to swallow.”
“I…” Kipo bit her lip. Maybe she hadn’t thought this through as well as she’d hoped. Or maybe her instincts had led her in the completely wrong direction again. Or maybe…
Or maybe I need to trust myself, she thought and took a deep breath before whispering back, “If mutes can come together and stop fighting with each other, I think that’s a good thing. I’m hoping they can stop the fighting with humans, too. But let’s just say we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“I’m not building a bridge,” Scarlemagne said, looking genuinely confused. “I’m creating a city of golden buildings. Do you think we need a bridge? What would it even go over?”
“Grr! You know what I mean!” Kipo now found it very tricky to keep her own voice low. Back in the arena, the confused crowd had started to grow restless. Except for the wolves, no one seemed to like (or even understand) Lio’s humor. Something–or someone–had to give…and soon.
Scarlemagne hung his head, giggling. “I think I will enjoy undermining humanity and crushing your naivete in the process. Very well, then, Kipo. Tell me how you plan for us to proceed.”