With Many Faces: Part Five
The next days blurred together. I did what Marlene asked me to: I used many sheets of scratch paper to plot out potential scenarios and what could be done to change them, and I read many, many books she brought back from the magic shop.
We started feeding the King hope. It came in bits and pieces, but we pretended we were closer and closer to the solution, and he was often in a good mood. It didn't stop his guards from losing themselves to the curse. That one servant was gone, and he had a mere three guards remaining.
I hoped I would be one of the last to go. It was inevitable, at this point. The wizard had cursed every last one of us. It's odd, how I had the whole spectrum of time in my hands, and my own time was running out.
Deep in thought, I missed the mutant Korbat enter my room.
I jumped back and nearly screamed. She had haunted me for so much of my life, and now she was here, back from the dungeon or wherever she was supposed to be. I had all my places and times confused, with no idea what was going on where and when.
She rolled her eyes at me. "What are you so jumpy for?"
"Marlene?" I blinked. "Why'd you change into that? You going somewhere?"
"Trenn," she said with a sigh, "it's time."
I shivered. Those words were uncomfortably familiar to me. "Time for what?"
"Time to go get help from a wizard. I'm going to go to the magic shop, a few years ago, back when the wizard was still running it. He's a friendly enough guy, from what I remember. He'll be willing to help." She smiled a little.
Something felt off. That smile, the way she fluttered her Korbat wings off-beat.
"O-okay." I stiffened. Stay calm. She's going. She's losing it. You wouldn't want her around anyway. "Sounds like a good idea."
"See you in a few, Trenn. I'll try to get it right this time." She cranked back the Time Box.
I watched, a sense of finality spreading over me like a blanket. "You're a good friend, Marl. I've always appreciated that about you."
"Sounds like you're saying goodbye." Marlene giggled.
This was the end, the last time I would ever see Marlene. Apparently, I spent three years locked in a dungeon cell with her.
"Maybe. Good luck."
And then, she was gone.
On the off-chance that she would come back, I waited. The King became impatient, wondering where Marlene had gone to. I made up some fib about her being ill. To stop him from barging in there, I had to lock the door to her room.
The lack of the Time Box itched at me. Even though I had the travel watch, I didn't want to use up my last chance to move forward or back. If there was any way of fixing this mess, it had to be with the Time Box, and with carefully calculated decisions.
No new information popped up. The King only had one guard left.
"It's done for, isn't it?" he asked as he fanned himself in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. "The kingdom is already gone. There was never any hope."
"No, I—I've found something," I lied.
He perked up, though just barely. The bags under his eyes covered most of his face, and that's only a slight exaggeration. "What? What did you find?"
"There's this amulet thing. The cursee stole it from the curser. I discovered that. I'll just get it back from the cursee and return it to the curser, and then the curse will be lifted. It'll be like it was never stolen."
The King nodded. "I suppose you'll be using the Time Box, then."
That itchy feeling of not having something you're used to having returned. It was like missing an arm. "Yes, I will."
"I was wondering if I could use it, too."
My heart pounded in my chest unbearably, but I forced myself to stand straight and confident for the King. Just like the mentor had told me to do. Make it feel like you belonged there, in the same way I was making it seem like the lie belonged there. "What would you use it for, Your Majesty? It's very tricky to get down right. I don't know if you should try. Could be risky."
"I just want to evaluate the situation for myself," the Mynci said. "Perhaps, if you and Marlene cannot do it, I can. I have been leading this kingdom for quite some time, after all. I have certain acquired people skills to work my way around things."
"If I fail this time, Your Majesty, I will teach you how to use it." My mind raced. How was I going to stall him? Was there any way of getting the Time Box back from Marlene, in the past?
The brooch. I put the brooch under the bed in the past, and found it in the present. If Marlene had gone mad in the magic shop before traveling to the Castle somehow, then the Time Box would be in the magic shop.
I left the King alone in the Castle with his last guard and set out for the magic shop. It was late. If I hummed loudly, I could pretend that everyone was just in their homes, sleeping.
And if I didn't hum, I could almost hear them babbling nonsense at each other from the dungeon. I hurried.
My cloak was pulled over my head, in spite of the sweltering heat. I didn't want to use any more Morphing Potions. This form had a new meaning to me. But I couldn't risk running into someone, if there was anyone left at this point.
The plaza had once been filled with life, almost 24 hours a day. I'd seen it before, empty like this, a while back. It was still horrible to me, and it left a feeling like someone had carved out my insides.
The magic shop stank. Some green smoke was coming from one of the shattered windows, but I knew it wasn't from anyone living there. A potion must have expired or something. I entered warily. Just a few days ago, Marlene had been trekking from this place to the Castle, carrying more books than someone should be able to. I remembered with embarrassment that I had been hogging the Time Box and she wasn't using it to just transport herself there and back. She was tough.
The mentor had been tough, too. They were both in the dungeon now.
Shelves lined the walls of the magic shop, containing intricate-looking, overpriced magical objects. They resembled the shelves in the starry Kau's hut. I shuddered to think of what the potions and vials could do.
The Time Box wasn't hard to find. At the counter where the wizard who owned the shop would have stood, it sat poised there. The wizard probably kept it close to him until he went mad, too. I wondered what a mad wizard would be like, if he'd still be able to do magic. I didn't want to think about it.
Something felt wrong, as I left the shop toting the Time Box. It wasn't just the emptiness of the place. Some unseen force weighed down on my shoulders. It was like that feeling you get when someone's watching you. I ran because of it, as fast as I could, in the direction of the Castle. I checked behind me frequently. It was irrational, I knew.
A dark figure smacked into me with full force. I fell, crushed by his massive weight. The Time Box flew from my hands. Pathetically, I whimpered. The figure, that of some colored Grarrl, dashed away into the bakery.
I knew what would happen next, and it made me frantic. If the past me took the Time Box back to the mentor, then I wouldn't be able to get it back. I pounded on the door of that bakery until my claws were raw and sore. "Give it back!" I whimpered. "Give it back!"
He was already gone. I had to stop myself from curling into a ball and having a breakdown. The past Trenn had stolen what the current Trenn needed desperately.
Dejectedly, I walked back to the Castle.
The Time Box's disappearance had a bigger impact on me than either the mentor or Marlene's absences did. They were still around, at least, even if they were mad. The Time Box was gone forever.
"I couldn't steal the amulet," I said to the King. "It was too hard to get from the one who stole it first. He's a strong fighter. I was unable to stop him." I bowed. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty."
"That's fine," he said. I thought that maybe he'd given up on my help a long time ago. It made me a little uneasy. "I'll just have to use the Time Box myself."
"Yes, of course. Marlene has it right now, though, and she's off in the Marshland." I swallowed. That excuse would only work for so long. Marlene never calculated the times exactly, true, but if I used this excuse to put it off for more than a day, he would get suspicious.
"I was wondering, Trenn, if we could use it to see the future."
"Yes, let's take it forward, say, five years. Let's see where the kingdom has come to, then. Surely, if we fix it now, the kingdom in the future will be the same as it once was."
"I don't know about that, sir. If we don't change anything in the past, then I don't think the future will change, either."
The time was messing him up, too. I'd almost forgotten that this was the past I was living in now, with the King. He was dead, in the time I came from. I stopped trying to calculate the actual "present" time when I realized it really didn't make a difference.
"Ah. Well, send for the Time Box the second it returns. And tell Marlene I'm glad she recovered from her illness."
Lying to the King hardly gave me guilt anymore. It just gave me a sense of uneasiness. We chatted for several hours on potential scenarios, and I flogged down every one of them with some logical counter. There was nothing left for us to do.
Two days later, his last guard went mad. I told him Marlene must be stuck in whatever time she'd gotten herself into, and that she wasn't coming back. It was only a partial lie.
"So, we don't have a Time Box," he murmured. "We don't have anything."
"No, sir." I hadn't called him "Your Majesty" since I apologized for my fake failure to get the fake amulet. "All that's left is to wait."
"Wait," he scoffed. "Wait for what, Trenn? Is there anything else to wait for?" The King paced back and forth, the length of the entire balcony. I waited for him somewhere in the middle and caught onto snippets of his words as he passed.
That last sliver of hope, even in him, had gone.
He forced me to read the piles and piles of books in his own personal library. Even when I offered to get books from the magic shop, he refused. I suppose he was lonely, and didn't want me to leave his side. The man was used to being surrounded and adored constantly. Not having that made him uncomfortable.
I played along. I pretended to read books for him, while I wondered how much time I had before I went like the others. The books, though few of them had to do with magic, seemed a small comfort to the King. They occupied him and took his mind off of the impending doom of his country.
Without the Time Box, I felt trapped. The slow ticking of regular time was suffocating me. I was tempted to use the travel watch to take myself hundreds of years into the future and escape from it all, but I wouldn't allow myself to use it until it was an absolute emergency.
Perhaps I'd go mad before then.
I felt, rather than saw, the King's paranoia. It grew every day as we sat there in silence in his room, flipping through useless books. I could sense his eyes trained on my back. I pretended not to notice. We played this game for days. He suspected me of something, and I would sit there and hope he didn't see through my many lies.
Two weeks, we danced around it for. They were the slowest weeks of my life. The monotony of silence, the King's paranoia, and the worry of suddenly breaking into madness built up to an almost unbearable amount of everything. It felt like I couldn't breathe in the midst of it all, like time was choking me slowly but surely.
And on the fourteenth day of the paranoia game, the King spoke up. "The Time Box," he uttered. That was it. Just "the Time Box."
"What about it?" I asked. We were far, far past formalities: a king couldn't be a king with only one person to rule.
"It's not gone," he said. "It can't be gone."
"It is. There's nothing we can do about it. I've told this to you so many times. I wish you'd just listen," I said in an exasperated voice. If this was what he'd been dancing around all these days, he needed to be more realistic.
"You have it somewhere," he said. The bags in his eyes made him look crazed. By now, I knew that this was the normal kind of crazed, and not the curse-induced one. "You're keeping it somewhere, aren't you? In a safe place, where I can't get it? You don't trust me with it, I know you don't."
"No, I don't trust you with it. And if I had it, I'd be long gone." It was the most honest thing I'd spoken to him in a while.
The King scoffed at me with his wide eyes. "That's a nice story. You sit around for two weeks—you think it's long enough to make me believe you're stuck. Then, at the most opportune moment, you run away to a different time and place and start a new life."
If only I could have come up with that, I would have. But I wouldn't tell him that, or he'd really think I was trying to trick him.
I stood from the balcony, taking the higher ground. "What kind of idiot would stick around and read books with you all day if they could just leave at any moment?"
He glared up at me, then stood as well. His nostrils flared. "You would never have talked to me like that a month ago."
"Circumstances have changed. People have changed."
"I won't idly sit around waiting to lose my mind," the King stated firmly.
"What would you call this, then?" I asked, and I had to stop myself from laughing for fear he'd think I already lost mine. "Hard work? What is reading a book about the art of knitting going to do to this curse?"
"I want that Box," he growled. It was out of character. He was on edge.
"I don't have your stupid box. Marlene took it, then she lost her marbles, and now it's stuck in time." I backed away from him. He was leaning forward as I spoke.
The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back. The breath was knocked out of me. For a Mynci, he had quite the kick. We wrestled. It wasn't much of a match. He was short and furry, and I was decently tall and scaly. Not to mention, he'd lived a life of fine foods and sitting. My life consisted of running.
I knocked him over, and he went wheeling toward the window at a ridiculous speed. The Orange Mynci smashed through the glass, and with a yell, went plunging to the ground.
I suspected that he landed somewhere in his dead strawberry field.
There wasn't any sympathy left in me to feel bad for the King. He wasn't the King any longer.
I descended the balcony steps into the ballroom below. Empty, like the rest of the kingdom must have been. I had a creeping feeling that if I ran to another place, the madness would follow me there. Once a citizen, always a citizen.
My feet slopped noisily against the marble floors as I entered the ballroom. Such a pretty place. It was a shame that I would be the only one to appreciate it, at least until my time was up.
Maybe being the cursee made me immune. It wouldn't make sense, though, for the wizard to curse the entire kingdom and exclude me when I was the wrongdoer.
I came to a halt, but the sound of footsteps continued. Hope blossomed in my empty stomach. There was someone else in the Castle.
It was hard to restrain myself from shoving the ballroom doors open in my excitement. I puffed out my chest with the new confidence that poured in. I wasn't alone.
The foyer was dark enough where I couldn't see who waited before me. I squinted, trying to get a better look. "Come closer," I ordered him.
He did. I saw his form become clearer with every step. The outline of a Grarrl. A spotted Grarrl.
I knew, now, how much time I had left.
"Trenn." I tried and failed to make my voice strong. "You've come to me."