The children shoved and pushed to get a better look at him.
He suffered their gawking, considering it a test of what was to come. He’d never been considered charming. Charm didn’t have much use where he was from, but if his plan was to work, he’d need to cultivate it, quickly.
She placed him on a stone bench in the courtyard off the kitchens, which was trampled hard dirt, pocked by stubborn spike grass and the occasional dandelion. Scullery maids and cooks came to the well to draw water, but ignored the children for the most part. And yet, while he meant to practice beguiling the children, he was too stunned by the motley mix of them. The children of nobles and peasants allowed to play freely together within the palace walls? The customs of the south were far removed from his own. It was no wonder Caoinlin had been given to such wild imaginings when she’d been granted so much freedom to begin with.
“Say something more frog,” the pudgy one called Tadhag said.
“My name is Fee,” he said.
They all gasped again, though he’d already spoken to them each in turn as they demanded. Owen, a freckled, potato-faced boy, elbowed Tadhag in his soft side.
“Lets me have a look at him!”
“You’ve seen him already,” Tulla, a soft mound of a girl said.
Beyond this rabble, Fee caught sight of a strange thing. Caoinlin and Begley were one moment grinning as any child would and then, their comportments altered without transition. They looked at each other with an adult expression of seriousness. They stood on guard with sticks for swords. And then, they began to spar.
“Clear off, ruffians,” Fee said. “Give me audience.”
“Huh?” Owen said.
“He means move so he can see,” Tadhg said, pushing Owen. Owen pushed back.
Soon, the two tangled and rolled away as they wrestled. The other children followed them, hollering and urging Owen to wallop Tadhg, all except the meek girl with the skin the color of blue milk. She sat down next to Fee and smoothed her skirts.
“Would you like me to lift you up so can see?” Scoth asked.
She held her tiny hand out to him. With some hesitation he climbed up. Her hand was as soft and silken as the pillow he’d slept the last couple evenings. She cradled him with great care and drifted over to the well, where she leaned and he had a better view of Caoinlin and Begley.
Begley, considering his height and weight disadvantage, held his own against Caoinlin who moved her body with little acknowledgement of where her “weapon” was in relation. This left her open to attack. Had Begley been trained, this would have enabled him to defeat her easily. But what captured his attention most were the moments in which both children displayed surprising skill.
They’d obviously watched and practiced, much of what they were able to accomplish was clear mimicry of training tactics, but no one had corrected them. Caoinlin’s elbow and shoulder dropped when she should’ve held them up. And Begley’s footwork was nothing short of atrocious. Neither child had any sense of what it meant to hold an actual sword, how would have its own balance and pivot point, nor any notion of a blade’s rotational capabilities. They moved with greater speed and less control than they would’ve otherwise.
That considered, Begley was enthusiastic and effectively evasive. He anticipated nearly every strike and defended accordingly. And that was half the battle, though it was not hard to see why he had come to posses this much skill.
Caoinlin was aggressive. Nine times out of ten she didn’t give Begley the opportunity to move to offense. She was quick when she needed to be and appeared to possess an innate caution that allowed her to remain in control of the fight. Though she left herself open, both because of her unchecked education and the occasional bout of over-zealous attack, Begley was not capable enough to exploit these weaknesses. And Fee began to suspect that had Begley recognized how to take advantage of these openings, Caoinlin would have corrected instinctively, without needed to be told. She was unconsciously aware. Her body language was like that of a predator, a big cat stalking a stag. She knew Begley was a better fighter than even he realized and because of this, she won.
When Begley was toppled onto his back with her stick at his throat and the fight was over, their demeanors instantly returned to one of friendly children. She helped him up and they talked with great animation about what the other had done well and what they might try the next time.
Though Scoth’s hand was one of the most comfortable spots he had yet to sit upon, he moved from one edge to the next, unable to sit still.
“Happy birthday Princess,” Fee said when she opened her eyes.
“What’s happy about it?”
His frog body bulged, in the way it did when he sighed.
“Can’t someone simply wish you a happy birthday?”
“Wishing for it won’t make it so,” she replied flatly.
She heaved back the blankets and scooped him from the pillow. She set him on the edge of the wash bowl. She poured some water in and splashed her face. He slipped down the smooth, rounded edge and swam lazy circles over an idyllic scene painted at the bottom of the bowl. A young man and woman reposed under a olive tree abundant. Behind them rolled a lush vineyard, where more indistinct figures filled their baskets. She wanted to smash that bowl, but Fee turned on his back and spit water up at her face and she was forced to laugh.
She pulled her expression tight again. “It won’t work. I’m not going to be happy today. Not at all.”
She went to the wardrobe and glared at the dress that her mother had hung out for her. If it had been anyone else she might’ve wadded it up and trampled it on it with her dirtiest shoes, but instead all she could do was sneer at it.
Ceara entered, carrying a breakfast tray.
“Happy birthday, my lady,” she said in her usual high-pitched chirp.
Caoinlin snorted. Ceara slid the tray onto the table by the window. She tucked her mousy brown hair back under her blue cap.
“Would you like to eat first or should I brush your hair?”
“I don’t care.” Caoinlin held her hand out in passing as she went by the wash basin and Fee leapt onto her palm. She plopped down in the chair at the table and he climbed to the edge of her plate. She spooned a bit of blueberry preserves near the edge. He licked at it.
“Me and some of the other maids have made you a gift, if you’d accept it,” Ceara said.
Caoinlin let her foul mood relent for a moment.
“Of course I will,” Caoinlin said.
Ceara smiled and held out a small white silk purse.
“Evin saved the silk from one of your ruined stockings and I sewed it into a pouch and Noinin made the cord, it’s for your pet,” Ceara said. “You can tie it around your neck or about your waist and then you shan’t have to carry him all the time.”
“Thank you,” she said, truly happy, despite herself. “That’s very thoughtful.”
“What do you think, Fee?” Caoinlin held open the small pouch so that he could see it.
“That was kind,” he said.
Caoinlin got up and hugged Ceara around her waist. “Please tell Evin and Noinin thank you for me, in case I don’t get a chance today.”
Ceara smiled. “You’d best eat and be dressed before your grandmother forgets how vexed she is and comes to find you. I heard her tell her lady-in-waiting that she shall not stray far from you for the whole of the week, frog or not.”
Caoinlin’s moment of light vanished in a black fog. She slouched into her chair again.
“I’m not hungry. Brush my hair now and I’ll dress myself.”
“You should eat something,” Fee shuffled to the edge of the table as Ceara brushed out the thick tangles of Caoinlin’s raven-black hair.
“I haven’t any appetite.”
“If you don’t eat, I will not give you my gift,” he said.
“Gift?” Caoinlin leaned forward and received a yank from Ceara.
Fee leapt down, onto her lap. She could hardly feel his weight on her leg. “I will give it to you at the end of the day, if you’ve managed to behave and not offend your father’s guest.”
“What’s it to you, what I do?”
“You’re not helping yourself,” he told her bluntly. “This childish impertinence and defiance. It’s not getting you what you want.” He hopped down onto the floor, toward the balcony where he went to relieve himself. “Sometimes, in order to provoke the change we seek, we must appear to maintain the status quo.”
Caoinlin gawped after him. “What does that mean?”
“All I ask, is that you do as your father would wish. Treat Adohan’s family with the respect they deserve as guests in your father’s house. Dare I say, even be nice to them?”
Caoinlin scowled. “What are you up to?”
“If you want my gift, you’ll play your part,” he said.
“What gift could you have to give me?” she asked.
“You won’t find out if you don’t behave as you’re asked to.”
Caoinlin crossed her arms. “I don’t care about your gift. I’ll behave as I like.” But in truth, she was curious and growing more curious by the second. The last two weeks with Fee had taught her that he was a frog of his word and as magical as his ability to speak was, when he spoke, he was usually quite serious. So she believed he really did have a gift for her of some kind. What it was, she couldn’t imagine. He knew how she felt about the week’s festivities, so for him to ask her to behave as though she enjoyed what was happening meant that he must have thought his gift very special.
Her arms fell away from her chest. “I’ll consider it,” she said grudgingly, “for you.”
Ceara snorted as she yanked the brush through Caoinlin’s hair. “Never in my life, did I think it would be a frog who convinced you to act the part, my lady. Never in my life.”