Kipo stepped forward and held up her hands to silence the crowd. Half of them had drifted off during Lio’s jokes, and the rest were eager to hear what was actually happening, so the “silencing” part was pretty easy. “A-hem! As you can see, the great Scarlemagne has, um…a very great army here. Of humans. That you can see. But that’s not the only reason he asked you all out there!” Her voice carried impressively well over the arena. Maybe it was part of the mega jaguar in her. She glanced back at Scarlemagne, who had his arms crossed and a look of pure amusement on his face. She didn’t trust for a second that he was willing to let her have full control here. But as long as she kept entertaining him with her fumbling speech and complete inability to ad-lib, he was at least holding off murdering her and everyone she loved. Kipo always did pride herself on her positivity. She took a deep breath and continued,
“You see, the golden city of Aurum isn’t just for Scarlemagne and his primatey nobles! It is for all mutes! For the Scooter Skunks! For the Glam Rock Hamsters! For the Umlaut Snäkes! For the Mo–” She grimaced as she glanced sideways at the statue of Mrs. Satori, Harris, and Kwat. It was still really, really awful to look at. But…Dave came back from death plenty of times, so maybe they could, too? Somehow? “–most excellent of all mutes everywhere!” she finally finished.
She was hoping there’d be cheering or at least mild applause. She got one clap.
“I thought we were gonna see the humans all fight each other!” one of the Humming Bombers yelled, to the agreement of her surrounding comrades.
Kipo gritted her teeth and whirled around to face Scarlemagne. “You were going to have the humans fight each other?” she asked in a harsh whisper.
Scarlemagne shrugged. “Just a few gladiator-style deaths for the show of it. You know how power-hungry overlords like myself work.”
“Okay, we are so having a talk later!” She turned back to the crowd, finding it a little trickier to get everyone’s attention this time around, as they had all started muttering among themselves.
Cotton from the Umlaut Snäkes reared up and gave a loud hiss, silencing (for the moment at least) those nearest her. “If Scarlemagne is so interested in making a city for us, why didn’t he say so instead of tying us up and dragging us to his s-s-silly coronation?”
He was kidnapping mutes, too? How much of this mandrill’s nonsense do I have to explain away here?
“The, um, coronation…is of course, very important to Scarlemagne,” Kipo answered. “He…realizes he might have been a bit too forceful in some of his invitations, and he…uh…really, really regrets that.”
“No, he doesn’t!” one of the Fitness Raccoons said, pointing. It was a bit tricky to see exactly where he was pointing given the distance between them, but Kipo assumed it was at the giggling mandrill behind her. “He’s doing that evil laugh thing he does!” the raccoon continued. “Fact: no one evil laughs and regrets at the same time!”
“Definitely a fact!” Good Billions chimed in from the wolf section.
A drop of sweat trickled down the back of Kipo’s neck. “He’s a recovering evil overlord, okay? Cut him some slack here. Also, anyone who wants to have a say in how Aurum is going to be designed, built, and governed, please select a representative from your mute group and meet us in the…the, um…what’s the place that used to be a food court?”
“King Scarlemagne calleth that the grand foyer,” Gerard offered.
“Right. Meet us in the grand foyer in thirty minutes! The flamingos will show you the way. Oh, and if someone could find the TheaOtters and bring them here, too, that’d be helpful. That is all!” And before any of the mutes had a chance to argue, she quickly ducked out of sight and hurried through one of the doors back inside the palace. Gerard stuttered in confusion as Scarlemagne followed behind her, fuming.
“What did you just tell them?”
Kipo turned to face Scarlemagne while walking backwards, smiling the whole way. “Huh? Oh, you mean the part where the mutes you want living in your golden city of dreams actually have a say in what dreams they’re living there? I figured it was self-explanatory.” She clapped her hands together. “Man, my vocab is on fire today!” She resisted the temptation to hum a parody version of her favorite karaoke song as Lio hurried to catch up with them. It sounded like Gerard was still outside arguing with someone. Probably Lemieux about the color of the curtains or something.
“You know I think you’re amazing, sweetheart,” Lio said to his daughter. “But you need to understand there are really old grudges between some of these mutes. There’s a reason they haven’t gotten along for two centuries.”
“Relax, Dad,” Kipo said. “I already got the Timber Cats and the Umlaut Snäkes to make friends. Well, maybe not friend friends, exactly. Maybe like…person-I-pass-in-the-burrow-sometimes friends?”
A pounding of footsteps down the palace corridor interrupted her unconvincing argument. Kipo’s heart felt ten times lighter as Wolf, Benson, Mandu, and Dave (currently in teenage form) sprinted into view, with Gerard puffing and panting behind them. Oddly enough, Wolf was unarmed. That made Kipo a little uneasy. Wolf was never unarmed.
“And who are these?” Scarlemagne asked in disgust.
Gerard stopped and saluted. “I letteth them in, sire! They hath claimed to be friends of Princess Kipo!”
“You’re a princess?” Wolf raised a suspicious eyebrow.
“No. Maybe? I’ll explain later. For now, just assume we don’t have to hurt anyone.”
“That’s a weird assumption with Scarlemagne right next to you.” She pointed, her opposite hand gripping the empty air. Either Stalky had broken or Wolf had found a way to make it invisible. Both scenarios deserved a serious Stalky talk later.
“Yeah,” Kipo sighed. “It’s been a crazy day.”
Scarlemagne coughed loudly. Kipo could only assume it was his way of drawing attention. The mandrill tended to demand a lot of attention.
“Scarlemagne, these are my friends,” she explained as she pointed to each of them. “See, Benson and Wolf here are, um, going to represent the humans at the Aurum negotiations table.”
“We are?” Benson asked in surprise.
Wolf elbowed him and with a reluctant huff, she removed her signature cape. “Yes, we are,” she said confidently.
Kipo smiled and continued, “Mandu is here representing the non-speaking mutes. And Dave is representing, um…Dave, I guess. Yeah, he’s representing Dave.”
“Yeah,” Teenage Dave said in his usual whiny tone. “Kingdom Dave is the best, and don’t you ever forget it!” He pointed at Scarlemagne, but the force of his declaration caused him to molt, turning him back into Adult Dave once again. “Huh…Kingdom Dave,” he mused to himself, stepping back. “I like it. Teenage me has some good ideas.”
Scarlemange remained unimpressed. “And you, Kipo? I presume you represent the mega-mutes, then?”
“Huh? Me?” Kipo looked around the room, but she didn’t see any random mega-mutes wandering the palace halls. “Oh, no. I’m not part of this. I mean, I am part of this, but I’m just the negotiator person, you know?”
A maniacal grin spread across Scarlemagne’s face. Finding a topic that made Kipo uncomfortable seemed to be the highlight of his day. He placed his hands behind his back and began pacing in a circle around the group. “Song was never able to turn back into a human,” he observed. “Yet I heard reports you can shift in and out of the mega jaguar at will. How is that exactly?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Dave said with a grin. “See, we’ve got an anchor for Kipo. And as long as Kipo has this anchor–” He reached into Benson’s backpack and pulled out the photo of Kipo and her parents, waving it teasingly in front of Scarlemagne’s face and stopping the mandrill in his pacing tracks. “–this very anchor you see right here? Then she can mega jaguar all over the place and go right back to Kipo-ing with no problem at–”
Scarlemagne snatched the photo from Dave’s disappointingly loose grip.
“–all?” Dave squeaked.
Wolf slapped herself in the face.
Kipo stepped forward. “Scarlemagne? We’re playing nice now, remember? So, seriously, can you give that back?” She tried to sound as optimistic as she could. After all, how were they going to establish trust between them otherwise? But she couldn’t say she was shocked when Scarlemagne tucked the photo into his jacket pocket.
“Oh, no. I think I’ll hold onto this for now. Sentimental reasons and all. I never did have a photo of our parents and I together. Isn’t that just too sad?”
“Very sad,” Wolf muttered, still glaring at Dave.
“Extremely sad,” Dave agreed, oblivious. “I say we get Kipo’s mom and dad…and you and Kipo all together for a nice picture, and make all the sadness go away!”
No one responded.
Scarlemagne turned to Kipo. “I’m sure becoming a permanent mute would be the ultimate punishment for a human, wouldn’t it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Kipo replied, her resolve building. “Mutes are great!”
“Really? If being a mute is ‘great’,” he made air quotes to emphasize his point, “why is this so-called anchor important to you?”
“Because humans are great, too,” Kipo said, her words coming faster and her confidence building. They were still standing in this hallway while meanwhile the mute representatives were on their way into the palace. “And because I’m not just a mute, and I’m not just a human. I’m both.”
“Hmph,” Scarlemagne replied. “The war between humans and mutes has gone on for far longer than you’ve been alive, Kipo. There is no taking a middle ground here.” He patted his pocket. “Sooner or later, you’ll have to pick a side. I suggest the winning one. But that’s up to you.” He giggled to himself as he trotted down the hall towards the–well, it still looked like an old food court to Kipo, but the “grand foyer” for now. Whatever it was called, several mutes were already heading inside, waiting to talk. A pair of flamingos stood at the entrance, looking over the strangers in confusion. All Kipo’s hopes and dreams for peace were riding on the conversation she and her friends were about to have with the guy who’d been their sworn enemy a few hours ago. One talk to start an era of peace between groups of creatures that had been fighting between themselves for decades.
Right. No pressure or anything. Time for some mega jaguar levels of negotiation.