Scarlemagne paused at the entrance to the grand foyer. The distant, uneasy mutterings from the mutes inside could already be heard. He made some attempt to dust himself off first, which made Kipo, Benson, and Wolf do the same…
…which reminded Wolf she really, really needed to remove the pelt she was wearing if they were going to sit in front of a group of mutes and not look like unhinged murderers. She quickly pulled it off and tossed it behind one of the thick curtains nearby.
“Ugh. This will never come clean,” Scarlemagne mumbled. As if in reply to his complaint, a woman clad in a red dress and wearing a mask appeared beside them, offering his normal coat in place of the royal robes he’d gotten mussed up in his fight with Kipo. He growled and threw off his tattered garment, grabbing the new one and shoving his arms into the sleeves with a good bit of complaint.
Benson nudged Kipo and pointed. “Didn’t you say all the humans were free now?” he whispered.
“They’re…supposed to be,” Kipo replied, unable to take her eyes off the strange woman, who bowed and walked away without a word. “Maybe Tad can only concentrate on so many humans at a time. Or maybe part of him is taking a nap right now. Or…or…”
“I can hear you, you know,” Scarlemagne muttered as he tied the jacket’s bow. “What? You thought that every single human was only here because I compelled them? It never occurred to you that at least one of them might be here of their own free will?”
Kipo crossed her arms. “Honestly? No, that thought really didn’t occur to me.”
“Why would it?” Wolf added on. “All you’ve ever done is enslave humans.”
Scarlemagne pounded his fist into the wall, making Dave, Mandu, and the flamingos guarding the door jump. “They enslaved me first,” he growled. “They enslaved all of us first. And if given a chance, they’d do it again.” He turned to Kipo. “You’re the one who first suggested my followers should be voluntary. You seemed to think, given the choice, some might actually like me. Do you still believe that?”
Kipo felt the weight of Benson, Wolf, Dave, and Mandu’s collective skeptical stares.
“Um…I-I…” She fidgeted with her dress. “Well, you have hurt a lot of people. Mutes, too. It might take some time to, y’know…rebuild some trust there.”
Scarlemagne chuckled at the word “trust” but made no comment about it and stepped into the foyer. Wolf, meanwhile, watched the noblewoman walk away until she had disappeared around the corner. “I just can’t believe it. She wouldn’t…no human would agree to work with you.”
Scarlemagne straightened his jacket. “Our meeting is about to start,” he called. “If you have any grievances, I suggest you bring them up in here.” He motioned the group inside. “Kipo, you’ll sit beside me.”
The grand foyer was pretty nice. Scarlemagne’s piano had been moved and three wide dining tables, placed end-to-end, now stood in its place. The mute representatives all sat eyeing each other suspiciously, with a good deal of growling, hissing, and barely concealed under-the-breath insults. When Kipo and her friends entered, the only seats still available were a cluster between Scarlemagne at the head of the table and the Newton Wolves representatives (Billions and Billions, from the looks of it) about halfway down the right side. The friends all took their seats, moving their chairs as close to each other as possible. Kipo made a mental note not to pull out her giant jaguar paw, no matter how tempting. In this cramped space, she’d probably break the table and possibly someone’s limb. She folded her hands tightly together and looked around. The space was empty of nobles, except for Gerard, Lemeux, and a few others. No humans in sight. She breathed a sigh of relief for this tiny bit of good news. Everyone seemed to be safe for the moment.
Scarlemagne snapped his fingers, which summoned Gerard over, clutching a large illustration of the plans for Aurum. He attempted to unfurl the paper and pin it up on what appeared to be a music stand fused with a bulletin board. The paper did not cooperate.
As Gerard continued to struggle, Dave cleared his throat. “I, President Dave, speaking on behalf of all Dave-kind, would like to call this meeting to order.”
The conversation did pause, though Wolf suspected that was less out of respect for Dave and more out of bafflement that Dave thought they would listen to him.
“Our first, and might I add, only order of business…” Scarlemagne announced, easily drawing the attention of everyone present. “…is the layout of Aurum. A haven for mutes–” He paused to glance at Kipo, then added in very quickly, “–and-maybe-some-humans-squeezed-in-there-depending-on-our-collective-generosity.”
Whispers circulated around the table. Kipo could only imagine what Scarlemagne had been saying about humans up until this point. Even the hastily shoved-in suggestion that they might actually share living space with the mutes no doubt caused more than a little confusion. She hoped confusion was all it caused and not an all-out argument.
Bad Billions stood at his place. “First we need to know who will be building this city.” He gestured to the massive illustration Gerard had finally managed to display at the head of the table. Then he retook his seat, with Good Billions nodding his emphatic agreement.
Molly Yarnchopper raised her ax. “The Timbercats may offer our vast expertise…provided our living space is far away from–and much better than–whatever the Umlaut Snäkes have.”
Camille reared up and hissed at this insult, an action which sent the Glam Rock Hamster representative squealing and hiding under the table. He scurried around, looking for the safest place to hide, bumping the feet, paws, and claws of every mute and human along the way.
“Ick!” Jamack nearly tumbled into one of the Hummingbombers. He waved his arms wildly in order to regain his balance and not fall headfirst into a fragile glass tube of explosive nectar. When he was sitting upright again, blasts avoided, he straightened his jacket and cleared his throat. “Hey, um…I’m only here because one of these crazy birds said Kipo needed me.” He gestured to the bird in question, then to Kipo at head of the table. “I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to represent the Mod Frogs. I mean, maybe some of you don’t have any concept of a hierarchy in your little gangs, but we have an established leader, and she’s not me.”
This brought an odd silence to the group. Benson and Wolf winced. Dave coughed into his fist much too purposefully.
Jamack’s gaze traveled around the table. “Yeah, I get the feeling there’s something I’m missing here.”
To Kipo’s surprise, Scarlemagne looked genuinely uneasy at this turn in the conversation. Did he actually feel guilty about what he had done to the Mod Frogs? She wanted to believe it, but then again, she’d been accused of being overly optimistic before. This could totally be one of those Kipo’s-too-positive times.
Dave coughed again, and Mandu rubbed his back with two of her hooves.
Molly raised her paw. Still with the ax in it. “Moving on. The Timbercats want to know if there will be a ridiculously large scratching post in this Aurum place.”
Carton raised both her paws. “The Fitness Raccoons want to know if there’ll be a gym. With a sauna. Oh, and a rock garden. Oh, and a trash garden.”
“What’s a trash garden?” Benson asked, lifting an eyebrow.
Carton grinned. “It’s like a rock garden but with trash in it. Very nice for meditation.”
“The Newton Wolves will not live in garbage!” Good Billions growled, fists on the table.
“Or meditate in it,” Bad Billions added on.
“Whoa, whoa!” Kipo said, waving her non-furry, normal-sized arm for attention. “No one’s asking anyone to do anything. This place isn’t going to be built overnight, and there’s bound to be disagreements. But if we at least hear out each others’ ideas–”
“You stay out of this, human,” Good Billions growled.
“She’s not human,” Dave objected. “She’s the mega-mute rep!”
“Looks human to me,” said the Glam Rock hamster, finally returning to his seat.
“She looked like a giant jaguar when she fought off those nasty nobles,” Puck countered. “The TheaOtters would welcome her input.”
“Oh, really? Let the record show that we Newton Wolves detest felines and humans, and therefore, our point stands!”
“The nobles would liketh to state that we art not nasty!” Gerard bellowed.
One of the Scooter Skunks, rather than watching the chaos unfold at the table, kept her sharp eyes on Scarlemagne. His hands gripped the tablecloth, looking about ready to tear it in two. His jaw was set in a silent snarl of frustration. And still he didn’t take any action. The skunk narrowed her eyes.
“Hey,” she said, leaning in towards him. “This ain’t like you…letting things get all crazy. Why don’t you get more of your nobles in here to calm the place down?”
If I could do that, I would have right from the start. It took everything in Scarlemagne’s power not to flip the table in his rage. Before Kipo ruined everything, his mere thought that the situation needed some control would have brought dozens of brainwashed humans hurrying to this place, crossbows at the ready. Before Kipo…
No. he wouldn’t turn his anger against her. After all, she’d merely attacked in an attempt to save her own. Did he want his sister to be weak? She’d found an opening in his defense, and she’d exploited it perfectly. His defeat was on his own shoulders.
Somehow that fact made his fury more intense, not less.
“–so which is it, then?” Camille was demanding of Kipo when Scarlemagne decided to stop brooding and listen to the conversation again. “Mute or human?”
“I-I…I’m neither. Or both, I think?” Kipo rubbed the back of her head.
“Not asking what you are. I’m asking which side you’re taking.” She tilted her scaly head towards Wolf and Benson. “If your friends there and these wolves started fighting, and you couldn’t tell who started it, who would you stand in front of? Who’s your real band?”
Scarlemagne watched his little sister with intense curiosity. He could tell from her face she had an answer but didn’t want to say it. Well, he knew her answer. She’d grown up around humans. She spent most of her life thinking she was human. It was only natural she would identify with them. But her hesitation was only getting the mutes around her more riled up. Scarlemagne had taken quite a bit of this nonsense. He would have order here in his own palace. He demanded order.
So he stood and slammed both hands down on the table. For the moment, at least, it quieted everyone. All eyes turned to him.
“We will take a short recess,” he announced on the spot. “Aferwards, we shall reconvene and discuss only the most pressing matters about basic construction and housing layouts, not future amenities.”
“But…we’ve barely been meeting for ten minutes,” Bad Billions objected.
“Short. Recess,” Scarlemagne snapped before storming out the door. A set of footsteps–Kipo’s, no doubt–scurried after him. He did not turn around. His patience was wearing thin as it was and re-explaining to his little sister what a terrible idea this all was wouldn’t help matters.
Thankfully, she only walked beside him, waiting for him to start the conversation. With focus, he brought his quick, angered breathing to a reasonable pace. The tense muscles in his shoulders and neck relaxed a smidgen, even though his forehead remained damp with sweat. Out of habit, his first thought was to grab a perfume bottle to collect it. Then he remembered he had no use for such things anymore. Well, at least he could do with a nice handkerchief. Someone should really bring him one.
The moment his mind settled on the thought, the barely-audible sounds of Lemeux’s soft paws against the marble floor came up behind him. One paw held the tiny cloth he’d wanted. Scarlemagne took it, mopped his brow, and sighed. Lemeux scurried back out of view.
Apparently, Kipo found this fascinating. “Wait…what? How?” She pointed a shaking finger at the curtains the little primate had gone behind. The shock on her face was utterly confusing. What had baffled her so? Humans did understand that things still existed even when they couldn’t be seen, didn’t they? “How do you do that?” she finally got out.
“Do what? Give orders?” The question caught Scarlemagne off-guard for a moment. He held the handkerchief out to the empty air, and within seconds, Lemeux reappeared to take it from him.
“Yes! That right there! You gave orders without even talking! Are you telepathic or something?”
“Obviously,” Scarlemagne said as Lemeux ducked out of sight once again. “You saw my nobles act on my behalf without me yelling at them several times.”
“That’s an amazing power! Seriously!” She rubbed her chin. “I mean, it’d be nice if you didn’t use it to order people around, but still…”
“What do you suggest I do with it, then? Send little messages to my friends?”
“Yes! Doesn’t that sound awesome?”
He couldn’t tell if he wanted to shout at her for being so naive or burst into laughter. His power was the thing that made him strong. It was what Lio and all the other humans feared. And with its strength, he’d made all the mutes fear him as well. No one liked what he could do. The first thing Lio had told him was never to use it.
Kipo rubbed her chin, apparently deep in thought. “Hang on…why do you yell at Gerard all the time if you can tell him what you need through telepathy?”
“Why do you think? It’s fun.” Scarlemagne gave a chuckle, but Kipo frowned. No appreciation for his sense of humor, it seemed.
Kipo looked back behind them towards the foyer. There were no explosions happening, so that bode well. Still, if the two of them didn’t get back in and call this meeting to order, there might soon not be a foyer left to meet in.
“I confess…this is difficult for me,” Scarlemagne said quietly. “Relying on others has never brought me much success. I much prefer relying on myself. Yet thanks to you, I can no longer do so.” He narrowed his eyes at her. Right now would be the time any rational human would back away and run.
Of course Kipo wasn’t rational. Nor, as he himself had pointed out, was she exactly human.
“So we have to work together,” Kipo concluded. “Not the end of the world, is it?”
Scarlemagne couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Not for you, perhaps.”
“Not for anybody,” Kipo declared, grinning. Then she extended her hand. “We’ll get through this, okay? You, me, and all the others. Let’s try again. For real this time. Okay?”
Scarlemagne looked at his sister’s outstretched hand. He hated this. Hated all of it. Looking weak. Having to bluff about the strength of his influence as opposed to…well, actually having influence. And yet…Kipo herself had influence, did she not? True, perhaps not as solid as his had been. Yet she had befriended multiple groups of different mutes who were normally natural enemies. Whether or not she could get them to work in unison was truly anyone’s guess.
Yet, as she had said, what other options were on the table except to try? He took her hand and shook it politely. Then, without another word, the two of them turned to face the future. Together.