Chapter 2: Dye My Hair

1929 Words
A constant breeze carried a scent like pine trees and a freshwater spring, yet I lay upon a soft bed of sand - the sort you'd expect from a high-end beach. I opened my eyes. I didn't see stars, but it was night. I couldn't see trees. I couldn't see anything. I sat up, thankful I could see myself and the sand beneath me—then realized this didn't help my situation in the slightest. “Hello?" I called, panic spiking my voice as I stood. The void didn't respond. 'I'm dead,' I thought. 'There's no Ivory Kingdom, or Heaven or Hell, just death.' My breaths felt shallow and fast, and I saw no point in keeping calm. “But I'm conscious," I said, needing to feel the vibration of my voice in my throat. I strode through the sand, then took off my gold heels to walk faster—minimally so. “Hello!" I cried louder. “Can anyone hear me?" The terrain was exhausting. I couldn't tell my progress. It could've been thirty minutes. It could've been two hours. Three. Four. Nothing changed. This was my life now. I stopped walking and screamed, long and loud, and kept screaming. I couldn't place any specific emotion to it. Horror, anguish, rage, grief, rage again - Tulip's face flashed in my mind. That last moment we locked eyes. The memory of her screaming my name… “Tulip," I croaked, crumbling to my knees, sand caught in my dress and sticking to my skin. I screamed again, not caring that I was already hoarse. The roar of an engine neared, and my scream jumped an octave when, from the darkness, an unmistakable skoolie emerged - a short bus without the signs, painted in bright weather-faded colors, and converted for life on the road. I scrambled out of its path, unsure if I was ever in danger to begin with. The skoolie slid across the sand to stop many yards away. Silence hung between us. It felt like dream - like I still should've been sad and afraid, but this, now, was too absurd to take seriously. The skoolie door folded open, too far away for me to see the driver. One boot clad foot emerged onto the steps. Then another. The rest of him spilled out in a languid slink, his long legs moving comically fast to maintain balance beneath his body. A sword hung at his hip. The left side of his slim black button-down was done one button lower than the right, adding to his disheveled air and leaving his chest more open than the design would otherwise allow. The winds picked up and he pulled his thick red cape tight over his shoulders. His wild brown gaze locked on mine and he strode toward me with purpose, diagonally, like a human leaning tower of Pisa. I stepped backward a few paces, unsure if he was meant to hurt me or save me. Atop his head of curly black hair sat a crown. Rubies with gold fixtures and an intricately woven black-gold band. However unnerved, I held my ground until he stood directly before me, wide-eyed. His gaze flicked toward my red locks, which floated in the wind. He cleared his throat. “I like your hair," he said, sounding confident and refined. “Were you looking for me?" I didn't know how to answer. “Are…you…?" “Rowan, the Crimson King." I couldn't believe it, yet I didn't think he was lying. He had the crown, and jewels on all his fingers. I had been around money long enough to know authentic jewelry when I saw it, and his was the real deal. He was more handsome than I expected, with eyes that seemed kinder than what I was told. He was also younger than I expected. Notably younger than Prince Albus, though I still got the sense he was a little older than me. He watched me, awaiting some sort of response, but I had nothing. “Hm," he muttered, never breaking eye contact. “And no sense to bow. That's bad. Night got to you." “What?" He pointed his chin and spoke more directly. “As your king, I should clarify that I'm not ordering you to do anything. Now, come with me if you wish to keep what's left of your wits." He turned away and adjusted his balance as if to set himself upright. He remained a differently angled diagonal as he painstakingly led the way back to his bus, his steps awkwardly finding their place on the sand, which sank with each step. Emotionally numb, I followed. He extended a hand to assist me up the bus steps. “Is your name Ruby?" I accepted his aid in one hand, my gold heels dangling from the other. “It isn't," I answered as I ascended the steps. “Garnet?" He released me to half-sit in the driver's seat and swing the lever so the door folded shut behind me. I shook my head. “Ginger?" Squinting and wondering how long this list was, I shook my head. Rowan frowned in thought, gazing out the windshield. “Well, it seems a slew of red-haired, red-named women have been searching for me, and I haven't found any of them. Is your name also red?" However unsure if it was a smart idea, given this new information, I defaulted to the name the Ivory King had suggested. “Scarlet." Rowan's eyes lit up and he looked at me as if he was a child and I'd just told him it was Christmas. “Good! I found one of you. Oh, but were you looking for me?" Avoiding the question, I wandered deeper into the skoolie, slowly, as if it had distracted me. The king had no subjects present, that I could see. The skoolie didn't look like something one would expect of royalty, but it had all the necessary features that not every conversion project had. I knew because, despite the fate my blood had thrusted upon me, I fantasized about running away and leading my own life on the road. No tether to obligation or responsibility - just freedom. A bed with plush, unmade sheets and several pillows sat in a cozy nook in the back, partially obscured behind the tiled kitchen wall and the chalkboard-black walls of - what I assumed was - the bathroom, which was big enough to include a standing shower. Closer to me was a booth, seemingly straight from a retro diner, with bright red cushions and a dull steel support, the aesthetic echoed in its table, both flush with the wall to allow ample space to walk past it. At my lack of response, Rowan nodded like he understood an unfortunate truth. “Ah, night got to you, of course. Not to worry. It gets to me, too, but I know how to navigate it." “Where are we?" I asked. “The Land of Night," he answered, facing forward and starting the engine. “I don't know how you got so deep and can still sentence together a string." He squinted, muttering his last few words back to himself. “No, that's right," he decided. Nodding, he began the drive. “What does that mean?" I asked, still standing. “Night makes people crazy?" I held his seat for balance. “That's a fair blanket word, I suppose," he musically sighed. “But when you're in it long enough, you see how it all makes sense. It's about what's in here." He pointed at his head with a long ring-clad finger. “If you're not afraid to face what's in here, you won't resort to distractions or quick fixes, which seem sensible at the time, but…" He trailed off, eyes widening at a figure in the distance. “Another one." He slowed the bus a safe distance away from the stranger. Unsure what to do with myself, I stayed put as he opened the door and jogged down the steps - no longer with his odd lean. The stranger was a woman with long matted brown hair. The anguish in her face made her age hard to guess, though she couldn't have been older than forty-five. Rowan exchanged some words with her as he approached. I couldn't hear anything specific, but he sprinted back to the bus as she started screaming obscenities at him. “What did you say to her?" I asked, concerned he was just going to leave her there now. He dove past me into the driver's seat, fumbling with the lever to push the door closed. “She doesn't like being checked on, but I have to do it. One of these times she might just be ready to trust a stranger and come back to society." He started the engine and began the drive once more. “But you can't help the ones who don't want it." Through the window I watched the woman throw sand our direction as we drove away. I sat in the booth. “How long has she been here?" “It's hard to say." He glanced at me through the wide rearview mirror. He seemed curious - maybe even suspicious. Though, perhaps I was being paranoid. “Where are you from?" he asked. Knowing I couldn't entirely ignore his questions forever, I answered, “I don't know how to explain." “Try." “I was…there. And now I'm here." I hoped this sounded like the sort of thing a person losing their wits might say. “You don't remember?" “I don't." “Hm." His eyes stayed fixed on the stretch of sand ahead. I still couldn't tell if he was suspicious of me or not. He enthusiastically pulled over for the following three strangers we found. Each of them had wildly different reactions. The first was a middle aged man who seemed deeply confused, nonverbal as he ascended the bus steps. He found my gaze as he passed, then quickly looked away, continuing to the cozy bed nook in the back. There he stayed, silent. Sleeping, I assumed. “Is he okay?" I asked Rowan. The king nodded. “Sometimes they go nonverbal. Sometimes they stay that way, sometimes they were already that way, and sometimes they find their voice again. But none of this means 'okay,' does it?" I didn't think this answered my question. In his squint out the window, I got the impression he had introduced a question to himself that he didn't really know the answer to, either. “What did you ask me?" he asked. I shook my head. It wasn't that important. The second stranger we found was a smiling young woman, who, like the king, walked like a diagonal. She spoke loudly, so I heard her from the bus. “Your highness!" she said, bowing deeply but quickly, narrowly avoiding tipping over. “This is an honor, truly - Oh! Oh, I'm fine out here, just looking for myself. The big journey inward, you know how they say. Gol-LY, the Crimson King! This is real, right?" As Rowan elegantly replied in few words I couldn't hear, he removed the ring from his thumb and handed it to the stranger, whose eyes turned wide as she laughed in disbelief. “Proof!" she cried. “A grounding object! You really do get how this madness works! Thank you, Your Highness!" They hugged. I couldn't imagine the Ivory King hugging a commoner. Things took a darker turn with the following stranger.
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