Fee didn’t mention the passageways to Caoinlin, not during the winter. She was already too anxious and he didn’t want to spark her enthusiasm with the notion of an entire room full of waiting armaments. At least, not until he felt assured of her commitment to his instruction. Or perhaps he was the one who needed reassurance. Not a day went by that he didn’t question his own sanity. Becoming a frog had diminished him in ways in couldn’t have explained even if the curse had allowed him to speak of his former life. His thoughts and feelings simply felt lesser than they had, as though the walls of his mind had all been moved inward by yards. They did not stretch as far or as deep as they once had. Though he didn’t quite know what he had lost, he knew that he had lost, and that was enough to set his tiny heart fluttering like hummingbird wings.
But even his panic was blunted. It could take him so far. His amphibian body simply didn’t posses the capacity to experience the fullness of his human emotions. Whenever he allowed his feelings too much of his thoughts, his body became overwhelmed and he simply froze, unable to move or speak or think anything at all. Caoinlin took this to mean that she’d done something wrong and that he was ignoring her as punishment. He might’ve corrected her, but her reaction resulted in her giving greater attention to him once he was able to speak again. In the meantime, she’d manage to identify fault or error in her previous lesson. As a result of this self-reflection, she improved by leaps and bounds, in ways that he could never have anticipated. So he never corrected her presumption and, in that single winter, watched with mingled pride and shock as she truly began to harness her talents.
Draigen was suspicious of Caoinlin’s sudden compliance to her many tedious lessons in being a proper lady. She certainly disapproved of Begley’s presence in the household, but as long as Saorla was well, there was little she could say against it. And since Caoinlin’s behavior was so markedly improved, there was even less for her to argue over.
By the end of winter, Caoinlin had cultivated an admirable level of control over her rasher tendencies. And she was beginning to exhibit some of more princess-like qualities when required. But most important to Fee, she trusted him. She no longer demanded that he explain every order he gave.
Begley, too, seemed to be changing in nearly every respect. He grew three inches over the winter and put on weight. His birthday came around the same time as the last winter freeze and by then, he was nearly as tall as Caoinlin and as healthy in appearance. As the boy’s health improved, so did his confidence. He could be found testing Caoinlin in ways that Fee had no need to test her, though he would watch her reactions with keen interest nonetheless. Most of the time, Caoinlin only needed to give Begley a certain look to cow him, but every so often she would simply shut him out, much the way that she supposed Fee was doing to her, and not respond in any way until the boy relented and did as she wanted. Her patience was given a true test with Begley, who surprised Fee by bucking at every new task. This was particularly true when Caoinlin set out to teach him to read and write. Not an endeavor Fee had suggested, but once she’d started he tried to be encouraging and helped where he could, though Caoinlin took the project on with her trademark determination. It seemed that she was succeeding, as the boy was able to sound out the words she put before him by the end of the winter, though his writing was still in need of fearful improving.
Caoinlin and Begley sat at the long rectangular table in the library. Saorla had stepped out and a footman stood, disinterested, outside the open door. Caoinlin had propped up a book for Fee to read.
He was entranced by the history of the Easternlands, written by a monk who’d gone two centuries before to try to convert the savage countries. Some of what the monk had written seemed so fantastical it was difficult to discern where truth met storytelling mixed. The great cities he described, populated by peoples so rich in variety that everyone seemed to have their own personal god, and every encounter with them was steeped in rich, spiced magic. Creatures of unheard of size and ferocity, capable of leveling entire villages with one breath . . . Fee had trouble imagining how cities of dense populous could thrive at all, but particularly if there were monsters roving about able to destroy hundreds on a whim.
As the day waned, Caoinlin had that hungry look about her. As the days grew longer and the weather warmer, she’d taken up pacing, which she left the table to do. The caracoling movement distracted Begley. The boy gave up on his writing lesson to follow her progress around the room. After some time, she caught him watching her.
“Have you done?” she asked.
He frowned. “No.”
“Well, what?” He thumped his pencil down and crossed his arms. “I’m tired. My eyes hurt. It’s too dark in here.”
She lit a lamp and plunked it down beside his papers. “There. Look, it’s not even half done.”
“What’s the point of this anyhow?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You should want to learn to write.”
The silent treatment came in a sudden gust. She plopped down at the end of the table, her face wiping blank. Her gaze turned out the window to the violet mist of spring twilight. Begley’s chin, which seemed to be getting stronger every day, jutted and he continued to stare at her, waiting.
After ten minutes of this standoff, she turned and said, “You’re not writing.”
He picked up the pencil and tapped it on the paper. For a second it seemed he might give in, but then his straight brow curled down and in.
“I’m never going to get any better, Cao. There isn’t any point. I ought to give up.”
A dark flash flickered on her face. She shoved her chair back and rose like a thunderhead. She stormed to Begley’s side and glared down at him as if he’d slapped her and she was daring him to do it again. The boy sank into his chair. Even Fee sank a bit, though his belly always touched the surface beneath him.
“Give up?” She repeated the words as if they hurt to speak.
And then her spine straightened and a strange look came over her features, as though a mask had been dropped over her face, an unemotive metallic shroud. It was worse than her silent treatment face, because it was not simply ignoring Begley, but shutting him out and locking the doors. It was banishing him to a faraway, forgotten place.
A shiver rippled over Fee’s thin, frog skin. It reminded him of the old ones, the warriors with twisted scars stitching every limb and shuttered eyes. Those who had fought their entire lives and kept fighting, because the blood and the violence was their language now, one they knew better than those of family and love and kindness. The ones who knew what it was to feel more animal than human. It scared him so much that he wondered if perhaps the girl wasn’t as cursed as him.
The poor boy was more than cowed, he was crushed. Hastily, he bent over his paper, his hand shook a bit and he seemed unable to write, even if he’d wanted to.
A burn of fury filled Fee, a nearly paralytic rush of emotion. Before it locked his limbs, he hopped up onto the stack his book was propped up against.
“Caoinlin, I must speak to you, now, in private.”
Caoinlin’s mask dissolved and she turned to him, a perplexed furrow in her brow. Scooping him up, she carried him out onto the balcony. A chill hung in the air, but the sun lingered longer now over the forest on the far horizon.
“Put me down,” he said. She held him to the balustrade. He leapt down and he rounded on her. “You haven’t any right to treat that boy in such a . . . in that fashion.”
Her face creased. “What do you mean? What fashion?”
She really didn’t understand. And Fee had momentarily forgotten that he was speaking to an eleven-year-old girl. What he’d seen had been such an adult moment, it was difficult to explain in child’s terms.
“You—” Fee took a deep breath, “Begley has great respect and admiration for you. He is your friend. You must learn to accept that he has his own mind and respect that.”
“But isn’t it good that he should learn to write?”
“That’s not at question,” Fee said. “It’s your behavior. You can be . . . manipulative.”
She stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,”—Fee searched for what he meant and what he could say without falling victim to the curse’s rules—“I mean, that when someone cares for you, it is particularly untoward to use that affection against them in order to get what you want.”
Her hands balled at her sides. “What do you mean, use it against him? How did I?”
Fee gave careful deliberation to what he said next, and still felt uncomfortable. “Imagine that you love someone very much,” he said, “more than anyone else. And now imagine what it would feel like if that person left, simply disappeared, and never returned. Can you?”
Her scowl dug in and she shrugged.
“Now imagine if that person didn’t leave, but only threatened to leave, all the time, whenever you didn’t do what they wanted you to do. How do you think you would feel?”
A raw gleam came into her eyes, as though he had clawed away the top layers with his fingernails.
“If you really loved this person,” he went on, despite the warning jolt in his heart, “then you might do what they wanted, even though it wasn’t something you really wanted to do, but because you loved them and you didn’t want to lose them, you’d do it.”
“That’s stupid,” she spat.
He winced, tensing. “Yes, well, love makes one act stupidly.”
“Maybe it makes you act stupidly,” she said.
“Maybe it does,” he acknowledged. “But that is not at issue at the moment. You must understand, you are not simply his friend, one day, you will be his sovereign. Though it may be easy for you to forget, it is not so for him. It’s your responsibility to offer him respect. He has no power to take it on his own. Not without risking everything.”
She huffed, half-turning away. “And I don’t know what you mean, about all this. And I don’t like it. I hadn’t any intention of—” She shook her head violently. “He’s not—”
The chilled stone beneath Fee’s thin webbed feet was getting colder. Caoinlin was rigid as the stone pillars running along the side of the Palace. A pained expression twisted her face and Fee felt his heart mimic the motion. Then she fixed upon him and he saw her again. All of her. It terrified him.
“I never threaten,” she growled. “Anyone foolish enough to love me should know that.” Tears ran down her face though she didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t care about love. If someone should try to make me, then they are the ones manipulating themselves. I shouldn’t have any friends or family, if they should only worry of losing me. This is not a game, Fee.” Suddenly, hurt shone in her eyes. “I thought you understood.”
He searched for his voice, but it was lost to him. Emotion seized his vocal cords.
“But now you’ve ruined everything,” she said, miserable and furious. “You’ve changed everything.”
She rushed through the doors back into the library and out.
A few moments later, Begley crept onto the balcony. He picked up Fee and carried him back to the table.
Without a word, they both returned to their tasks with unblinking concentration.