Caution clawed her way out of the folds of Creep’s robes, met his eyes and glared. “What the hell, Creep?”
Creep said nothing, and Caution wondered if he’d ever had an emotion in his life.
“You can’t just go wrapping your clothes around people. It’s just weird, okay? And besides that… it’s… totally… Creep, where the hell are we?”
Caution’s eyes glazed over. “… How?”
“It is not important.”
Mr. Creep held his arm out, and before Caution could ask why, an extremely large bird had perched itself on it. Creep pulled a piece of paper out of his robe and tied it to the bird’s leg. The bird took off and Creep began walking without a word.
“What was that about?” Caution asked, running to catch up.
“I sent a message to the castle, informing them of our arrival.”
“Oh. Good… wait—what?”
“We should begin walking.”
“We are walking. Why are we walking so fast?”
“I wish to reach the forest before dark.”
Caution was vaguely aware that there was something amiss about the situation, but her ability to question the validity of her surroundings seemed to have abandoned her, along with her will to complain about the distance to the unseen forest. She was tired and dizzy and the only thing she trusted was that as long as she did everything Creep said, she would eventually wake up.
The sun beat down hard on Caution’s back. She couldn’t decide if it was the heat or the shock making her feel sick, but the last thing she wanted to do was seem like a spoiled princess, so she said nothing and plod on. Eventually she found that she couldn’t help thinking of being sick, and so tried to distract herself with more serious matters.
“Creep,” she said, slowing only slightly in her pace, “we came here for my protection, right?”
“But… didn’t you say there’ll be more of those guys here—the ones that tried to kill me?”
Caution sprinted forward to get level with him then grabbed onto his arm and spun him to face her. “Then why did we come here?”
“The Imperial Guard will be charged with your safety. They number in the thousands.”
“And they’re all as good as you—at fighting I mean. Thank God.”
“Oh.” Caution sat down on the grass. “It’s just before, when I asked you—”
“I was not entirely forthcoming. I was trained by the Imperial Guard, but my chief instruction was at the hands of my mentor, another Chonti.” He offered his hand to her. “We cannot afford to stop yet.”
Caution took his hand and pulled herself up. “What’s a Chonti?”
“It is… a designation of character.”
“It is not important.”
Caution’s head dropped. “Okay.” She waited a few minutes then said, “Creep, what I said before, about you not watching me when you should have—I was just freaked out. I didn’t really mean it.”
“You have said so before.”
“Yeah, but it’s not just that. I’m sorry about the other stuff: the not believing you and the calling the police and all that.”
Creep nodded and continued walking.
“So, we’re, uh, really going in there?” Caution asked as they approached the edge of the forest. It was the first either of them had spoken in some time.
Caution stared at the dead trees and the swarms of insects around them. She couldn’t hear any bird songs or animal calls and she couldn’t decide if she found that comforting or disturbing. There was a clear path, but it looked like it hadn’t been used in the better part of a decade. On the whole, it seemed an awful waste to have spent the entire day trying to get there.
“It’s safer than the hills,” Mr. Creep said, as if he’d been reading her mind.
“If you say so.”
She stepped over the threshold, and almost immediately cut her foot on a twig. She’d been carrying her shoes for the better part of an hour, and the sweat on her feet was making the dirt stick.
After about fifteen minutes, she stopped to put her shoes back on and Creep took the opportunity to rest against a tree.
“This… isn’t right,” Caution said, waving one of her shoes vaguely at her surroundings. “I mean, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to girls like me. It happens to those other girls—you know, the ones with the long auburn hair and the improbable A name.”
“I am not certain I understand.”
“You know, Adrianna, Ariel, something like that. The loner type who’s just had her heart broken by some guy who you just know is nowhere near as good looking as the prince. I used to read so much of that stuff when I was, like, fourteen.”
“Fiction. You are speaking of fiction.” There was an edge to Creep’s voice that Caution had not heard before—but then, a monotone always seems either angry or apathetic.
“Um, kind of,” Caution admitted. She made fast work of putting her shoes on.
“This place is not fiction. It is truth. It is fact.”
Caution did her best to sound cute. “So, uh, no prince, then?”
“Of course there is a prince.”
“He is riding to meet us.”
Caution had to smile, but she did her best to hide it. When she could keep her face straight, she said, “So, Creep, is there anything to eat around this place?”
Creep nodded and removed two sketchy-looking pieces of fruit from a tree that Caution had thought was dead. He handed one to Caution.
She examined it with as much nonchalance as she could muster, then took a bite, reasoning that if Creep wanted her dead, she’d be there already. It wasn’t bad, as tasteless fruits go. It wasn’t quite like anything she’d ever eaten, but it definitely lacked in the deliciousness that the fantasy novels of her youth had promised.
“So,” Caution said between bites, “how long until the prince meats up with us?”
“We should meet with him tomorrow, before mid-day.”
“So we’re going to sleep…”
“In the forest, yes.”
“Oh. Couldn’t you just whoosh us to the castle? I mean, the way you got us here from my driveway.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“I would rather not. It takes a great deal of energy.”
“Oh. Alright… So, when I meet the prince, do I have to act all regal and stuff?”
“Act as though you are… less.”
“Less than a queen.”
Caution looked at the nameless fruit juice that she’d dripped down the front of her shirt. “Somehow I don’t see that being a problem.”
Creep said nothing.
“So… we just, uh, set up camp?” Caution asked after a while.
“That was my intention.”
“If you wish.”
Caution was not accustomed to sleeping anywhere that wasn’t either a trailer on a movie set or a down-filled mattress next to an en-suite bathroom. Sleeping outside was something that method actors and homeless people did. Even so, arguing with Creep was something stupid people did. “Will you build a fire?”
“If you wish.”
Mr. Creep cleared some ground, set up a pit for the fire, and carried a log over for Caution to sit on. Caution’s only contribution to the camp was her cigarette lighter, which was useful, if not entirely necessary. Then they sat.
A silence with Mr. Creep was never as awkward as when he was talking. Nonetheless, sitting in the dark, dead woods, listening to nothing but the crackling of the fire and the buzzing of the insects was not Caution’s idea of a good time.
“You started to tell me where you learned to fight like that,” Caution said after a while.
“I trained with the Imperial Guard,” Creep said.
Caution was sure he’d said something about a mentor as well, but it didn’t seem like something he wanted brought up. “Do they all get that kind of training?” she asked finally.
“No. I was trained as your protector.”
“Okay, I realize I may not want to know the answer to this one, but how long have you been watching me?”
“Oh God. I have to sit down.” Caution looked for a log to sit on, and realized she was already sitting on it.
“I apologize if you feel it was an invasion of your privacy. I had to be certain that you were the one from the prophecy—that is, the king needed sufficient evidence, which I had to collect on his behalf; I never doubted the fact.”
Caution blinked. “Whoa. Is that, like, the longest you’ve ever talked?”
“Oh. So, uh, what’d you do before you started stalking me?”
“Yeah, but before that… I mean, you can’t have spent fourteen years just training to protect me.” Caution suppressed a shudder.
“I could have, but I did not.” He took off his cape and dropped it around Caution’s shoulders. I spent much of my time in my vocation as sorcerer.”
Caution looked up at him. “Oh, thanks. Wait—this place has sorcerers?”
“At least one,” Mr. Creep said, sitting down beside her.
Caution gasped. “Did you just make a joke?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
Caution smirked. “Oh, I think you did.”
For a split second, a half-smile flashed across Creep’s face.
Caution did not remark on it. Instead, she dug around in her purse until she located a squashed, melted chocolate bar. It had been in there forever, it seemed, one of the constants of he purse, a long-time friend of her cherry lip gloss and her Kermit the Frog pen. “Do you want some?” she asked, unwrapping it carefully. “It’s like a million years old, but chocolate doesn’t go bad, really. I’m more or less sure there’s nothing too wrong with it.” She broke a piece off and handed it to Mr. Creep.
He took it, examined it and ate it without a word. After a while, when he realized he was supposed to say something, he said, “Thank you,” then went back to not talking.
“Your welcome,” Caution said. She took a deep breath and muttered “Five years. Just to prove it was me you were looking for.”
“I was protecting you also,” Creep muttered, almost inaudibly, but still maintaining his monotone.
“A number of people began harassing you. I… dealt with them.”
“You… the stalkers? All those times those guys just vanished into thin air… and the police thought I was making it up, but it was… you were… you… God.”
“You are upset. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Some of those guys were real whack jobs. How did you deal with—never mind. I don’t want to know, do I?”
“I imagine not.”
“Right. Don’t tell me. It doesn’t matter. It’s over now… Well, I think that’s it for me. I’m going to head for bed and God willing, I’ll wake up in a ditch somewhere and all this will have been a dream.”
Creep nodded, stood up and pulled off his robes, revealing a pair of loose fitting slacks and a shirt that looked something like a burlap turtleneck. He laid his robes out on the ground and indicated to Caution that she was welcome to sleep there.
“Thanks,” Caution said, standing up from the log. “But where’re you going to sleep?”
“I do not plan to sleep. I will stay awake to ensure your safety.”
“Creep, you don’t have to do that.”
“Yes I do. Please go to sleep.”
“Okay. Are you sure. I could stay up with you, if you want.”
“That will not be necessary.”
Caution lay down on Creep’s robes. They were thick and rough like his cape and she began to wonder how he’d walked so far wearing them in the heat of the day. She pulled his cape around her shoulders. “Creep?” she said, after a while.
“Dream or not, you’re the best stalker I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you. Sleep now.”
Caution woke up in her bed with a terrible headache. “So it was all a dream,” she muttered to herself. “Thank God.”
“What was?” Marylin asked from the end of her bed.
“The dream I just had,” Caution said plainly.
“What day is it?” Caution asked, realizing that every day she could remember was as fuzzy to her as the dream seemed now.
“Thursday,” Marylin said. “We’re going to escape from Parliment.”
“Oh… wait, what?”
“With Abraham Lincoln. He’s going to help us. And we’ve got the Smurfs on standby, just in case.”
Caution tried to sit up. “Mare, what’re you talking about?”
“The circus. It’s coming, you know.”
Caution sat up suddenly. The sun had come up and the dead branches of the trees were casting long shadows on the ground. Mr. Creep was standing a few feet away, watching her.
“Wait, was that the dream, or is this?” Caution asked shakily. She pinched her arm, hard.
“You are not dreaming now,” Mr. Creep said flatly. “That is as much as I can tell you.”
“I thought—I thought it wasn’t real. I thought I was back home.”
“I am sorry that you are disappointed,” Creep said. “Perhaps you will get there yet.”
“Perhaps,” Caution repeated stupidly. “As in, maybe someday.”
Creep said nothing.
Caution took a deep breath. “Creep.”