“You never said anything about dancing!” Begley focused his accusation at Fee, who rested comfortably on the arm of Saorla’s chair.
The Queen muffled a laugh behind her hand. A cherried rub smudged her olive-hued cheeks. Her laugh was a subdued melody. In the golden glow of her presence, Fee forgot he was a frog.
Caoinlin grabbed Begley’s arm and muttered something close to his ear. Now that the boy was clean, he appeared to have lost weight, as if the dirt had fattened him. Without the coats of dust, he looked even more like a starved fox kit. Tufts of reddish-gold hair stuck out at every angle and his hands constantly scratched at his mangy scruff as if he had fleas. Which was possible, though his copper-hued skin showed no evidence of being bitten, in fact, it was looked smooth and unused, a tiny idol straight from under the sculpture’s buffing rag.
The boy tugged at his new linen shirt and kicked the toe of his new boots against the polished marble floor, as if trying to scuff both. When Caoinlin shoved him away, resignation plagued the boy’s face yet again. There didn’t seem anything that Caoinlin couldn’t convince Begley to do, which at the moment worked toward Fee’s intentions.
The two children followed Lioch, Soarla’s suffering lady-in-waiting cum dance instructor, as best they could. This exercise was more to Begley’s benefit than Caoinlin’s. She possessed inherent grace, her footwork, instinctive. Begley would need to work at both if he was ever to have any hope of testing Caoinlin as a sparring partner.
Fee settled back and monitored their movements, noting what needed improvement and how it might be done. When the queen spoke, her words had as smooth golden-sheen as though dipped in olive oil.
“An interesting choice you made,” she said to him.
He shifted so he could look fully up at her breath-taking profile.
“Enlisting the stableboy into Caoinlin’s lessons,” she said. “Clever. You’ve come to understand my daughter, haven’t you?”
He bowed his head. “I only hope to see her improve.”
Saorla’s fingertips ran along the edge of her lower lip. Her faded honey-colored eyes followed the children as they stumbled around the room. “My daughter is unlike anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I believe she is unlike anyone born before her.”
A corner of a smile plucked at her mouth, then faded. “I fear for her.”
Fee bowed his head. “As do I.”
Her attention settled heavily upon him again. “Speak true.” She hunched in her chair, lowering her voice to a whisper. “She has the ability to be great, hasn’t she? Her heart is set on fighting, and so I know she will find a way to do so, but will she survive? Could she ride into battle and win?”
“Why would you think I should know the answer to such a question, Your Majesty?”
She leaned back in her chair again, that subtle smile playing over her lips once more.
“Has Caoinlin told you about the passageways, through the castle? There is one in her room. They are meant as a means of escape during a siege. She knows where they lead. She used to play in them before she found Begley. They wind through the heart and bowels of the palace, to rooms never used. The old armory, for example. I don’t think anyone has been down there in a century.”
Fee was beginning to understand where Caoinlin had inherited her canniness. “Your Highness?”
Saorla ran her finger over her lip distractedly again. “When she has her heart set on something, she will see it through. She’s my only, Fee. The whole of my hopes and dreams. Whatever may come, she must be prepared. Don’t you agree?”
Fee inclined his head, his affection for the queen expanding to the realms of highest respect. “Preparation is the first step to victory.”
She smiled. And though she may not have seen it, he smiled too.