It was a dark night in Masque Kingdom. The moon had her shining face turned away from Earth, as if she couldn't stand to look at it any longer. The stars seemed to glow brighter now that their matriarch was looking back at them; like siblings in a church house who had previously been blowing raspberries and pulling at their faces to contort them in myriad expressions, the stars snapped to attention once their mother glared at them and shone brighter than they ever had before in an over exaggerated attempt to appear as if they had never been goofing off. However, try as they might, those little stars could never shine as bright as the moon, and so the quiet, abandoned streets of Masque lay in darkness.
It was the perfect night for sneaking out.
Lifting the unlatched and oiled window with careful fingers, I placed one boot-covered foot on the sill. I listened for any noise that might indicate that my parents were awake, or that the Night Guards were patrolling nearby. Nothing but a lone dog's forlorn howling in the distance met my ears. Pleased by this near-silence, I brought my other foot up onto the sill and let my rear end hang out in space behind me for a second or so before I flung myself outside. I fell to the landing a yard below on silent feet. My boots were specially made for me by my uncle out of soft, black leather and rubber soles. I had broken them in long ago, so they bent easily and never squeaked.
They were the perfect shoes for sneaking out.
I turned to face the wall, my back to the empty space of the alleyway behind my house. I got down on my stomach and pushed my feet over the edge of the landing, preparing to make the short jump to the concrete below. I made sure my gloved hands gripped the landing firmly. I let my body slide backwards this way until my stomach was over the edge, and my legs hung freely. Just as I was about to let myself fall, a loud crashing noise came up out of the darkness below. I gasped, my grip loosening, and I fell exactly the way I had been trying to avoid, landing hard in my behind.
Dazed for a few moments, I bit down hard on my lip to keep from cursing. Once I had blinked away the tears brought on by the pain, I got up onto one knee, the opposite hand automatically rubbing the sight of impact. I looked around in all directions for what had caused the noise, fearing a surprise patrol by the Night Guards. What I found was a devilish black cat grinning at me from behind a heap of fallen trash bins. The cat, like all cats, appeared to be nearly human, except for the large, fuzzy ears atop its head and the long tail.
"Damn cat! You could have killed me!" I hissed furiously at it. I got to my feet, still wincing in pain. The cat stood with me, only coming up to my chest in height. It stepped around the wreckage it had made on graceful bare feet, stepping within inches of me. Brave, for a cat.
"I couldn't have helped it, knocking over those bins," it replied, it's chartreuse eyes glowing in the darkness, "You gave me quite a shock there! Here was I, mindin' my own business, when I sees what looks like a monkey scaling down the wall. What was I to do but jump in surprise, thus knockin' them bins over?" It tilted it's dark head, its shining white fangs gleaming in its smiling mouth, "Besides, I was hungry. How else is a stray supposed to get food 'round here?"
"What a load!" I argued, forgetting to keep my voice low, "You just wanted to make trouble, and you know it!"
"Careful now, keep your voice down. Don't want no Papers comin' to get you," the cat waved a clawed finger and tutted.
I tensed at the mention of Papers. The term "Papers" was slang for "Paper Dolls" which was in turn an informal nickname for the Royal Guard, not to be confused with the Night and Day Guards, who were only human. No, the Royal Guards were King Jocose's very own creations, dangerous creatures built with a heightened sense of awareness and speed.
A moment passed before I came to my senses. I laughed off the cat's statement, even though it still bothered me, "Don't be silly. Papers only show up if an opposer to the King shows up," I paraphrased from memory. They drilled this sort of thing into your head at school, "They wouldn't bother with me," I concluded.
"Wouldn't be bothered with some snot-nosed kid who thinks he's bein' rebellious by climbing out his window at night?" I opened my mouth to object to this abuse, but the cat continued, "Maybe not, but that don't mean that someone won't catch you."
As if on cue, a Night Guard's whistle blew nearby. I jumped, panicked. I whipped around, looking for a place to hide. There was no way I was getting caught now! I hadn't even gone anywhere yet! The bins that the cat had tipped over before caught my eye, I and quickly made my way to them. The cat nimbly leaped out of my way, not bothered in the least. Of course it wasn't, there wasn't a curfew set for cats!
I scrambled to set the bins upright, not bothering to shove the trash back inside them, because really, how disgusting! I practically threw myself behind them once they were up, and just in time, too. I second later, a tall figure came barreling around the corner, obviously on the run from the Night Guards. I sunk lower to the ground, trying to cover the white mask on my face with my hands. The mask was the one flaw in my sneaking attire. It stuck out like a sore thumb in the dark. It was too bad I couldn't take it off...
The running figure was close now, his shoes slapping loudly against the concrete. He should have worn shoes with softer soles. That way, the Night Guards couldn't hear him running about. At this rate, it was like listening to an elephant stomp around on dead leaves. Behind the figure, the Night Guards' flashlight beams were bouncing around the corner. The cat suddenly jumped onto the bins in front of me, nearly knocking them over again, then leaped up onto the landing below my window. It peered over the edge curiously, its tail whipping through the air.
Apparently, the noise made by the bins had caught the runner's attention, as he was now deviating from his path and heading straight at me! He dived down behind them just as the Night Guards turned the corner. I tried to shuffle over a little bit, but he hit me anyway, and I nearly fell. I heard him inhale sharply when I realized he wasn't alone. I couldn't tell what his expression was due to the fact that he wore his own white mask, but I was betting he was surprised. A split second passed and then he was on me, holding me to his chest and covering my mouth with a hand to stop me from speaking. This sort of annoyed me, because I thought it was obvious that I was hiding from the Night Guards as well, so why would I talk? Ah, well, he had good intentions at least.
In the long seconds that ticked by as the Night Guards scanned the alleyway for movement, I pondered about the boy holding me to himself. His mask was white like mine, which meant he was a minor and a student. He seemed about my age, so he was probably a high schooler. He seemed to be taller than me, and I caught a glimpse of curly hair on his head. I couldn't figure much else out about him, since I had only seen him for a few seconds, and I couldn't turn around and look at him in our position. I let my mind wander a bit to the lessons on the masks that were taught in school.
Everyone was required to wear a mask. If they didn't, they would be arrested and put on trial. Different groups of people wore different color masks. Minors wore white; adult bachelors wore green; married couples wore pale blue; criminals wore orange; Night and Day Guards wore black; court officials wore gray; royalty wore purple. That's right, even the king wore a mask! The mask law was his idea, after all. He was so strict about this law, that he even made his own son, Prince Chalcedony, wear one all the time. Only the king and the prince wore their masks constantly. Everyone else could take them off in private, and only to family, not friends.
My attention was brought back to the present as one of the Night Guards spoke, "Hey, you! Did you see anyone run by here just now?" He was talking to the cat. I felt the boy behind me look up at the cat; he hadn't noticed it before.
The cat blinking sleepily in the flashlight's beam aimed at its face. It rubbed a dark hand over its bright eyes and put on an irritated expression before answering, "I may have seen someone, I may not have. Who knows? I was taking a nice little cat nap before you chumps came running by so loud," it grinned petulantly. Cats were infamous for making everything difficult.
"Are you absolutely sure you-?"
"Oh, yes. You humans all look the same to me, so I couldn't be much help in finding one in a million. Maybe if you took of the stupid masks, I'd be able-"
"These masks are a required accessory given to us by our sovereign, King Jocose-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've heard all that jazz before. Can I go back to sleep now?" it yawned for emphasis. The Night Guard grunted and turned on his heel, and he and his partner marched away. After the sound of their footsteps faded away, the cat rolled onto its back and looked down at the two of us upside down.
"You're welcome," it said sarcastically. The boy holding me gave a start, and let go of me, asking, "You know it?" His voice was soft. Kind, but authoritative.
I turned around to give him a good look, "Not exactly," I answered. I had been right about him having curly hair. It was also blonde, a strange color not often found in Masque Kingdom. Straight and brown like mine was more commonly found here.
"Okay," he didn't seem convinced, but he let it go, "Hey, sorry about grabbing you like that..."
"S'all right," I waved it off. I noticed now that he wore dark clothing like I did, "What were they after you for?" I asked as I stood up, dusting myself off. He got up also. His movements were smooth and easy. In fact, everything about him gave off an air being casual.
"Out after hours," he answered simply.
"Doing what?" I asked.
He shrugged, "What else? Sneaking around. Why are you out?"
"Uh, sneaking around. Or I was about to, anyway," I laughed awkwardly.
He laughed to, clasping my shoulder, "A kindred spirit, eh? Hey, you want to sneak around together?"
I paused, considering it, "Are you always so nonchalant with strangers?"
"You're pretty nonchalant yourself," he retorted.
"True...," I thought some more. On the one hand, I knew it would be bad of me to go off into the night with some guy I just met, but on the other hand I was excited to have met a fellow minor that dared go out at night. I already felt an irrational affection for him for being chased by Night Guards, so I saw no harm in it, "Sure, I'll go. What's your name?"
"Wow, really? That's cool," it seemed as if he really hadn't expected me to consent, but was glad I did. He held out his had to me and said, "The name's GG. And yours?"
I took his hand and answered, "It's Bingo."
"And my name's Theron, if anyone cares," came the cat's voice from up above. I had forgotten that it was there. GG looked up at the cat and said, "I care a whole lot. Thanks for not saying that you saw me."
"Saw who?" the cat said mysteriously. It stretched, got up and jumped away into the night.
GG laughed and looked at me, "You ready to go, Bingo?"
"I was born ready."