Later that evening, Fee finally was able to crawl out of the pouch that Caoinlin had placed him in on the table.
“I’m sorry,” she said from the shadows of deep, soft chair she’d been meditating in since after dinner. “That must’ve been difficult for you.”
Fee slipped into the dish of water she’d set on the able and watched her through his translucent eyelids.
Her hand was curled by her mouth. The balcony doors were open to a cool, tranquil evening. Her features were set in the manner of a marble statue, expressive of deep thought and vague sadness.
Quietly, the secret panel in the corner of the room, between the massive dresser and side table, popped open.
Caoinlin surged to her feet, rigid.
Begley emerged from the shaft of darkness, though the shadows linger over his face in wedges.
Caoinlin’s shoulders dropped slightly, she turned obliquely from him.
Begley came to the other side of the bed and touched the bed post lightly. It was evident from his working jaw that he had a great many things he wanted to say and perhaps shout, but he couldn’t get them sorted long enough to spit them out.
Resting her hands on the back of a chair, she stared down at the table.
“What do you want?” she said finally.
Begley’s hand twisted around the bedpost, his knuckles bleaching. Caoinlin’s breathing sped up, Fee could see her chest heaving. She closed her eyes a moment and seemed to be feeling some kind of pain and then, she opened them and Fee could tell, she’d made some sort of decision.
Had he known what it was and why, he would’ve tried to stop her.
She turned to Begley and fixed him with a gaze that neither Begley or Fee had ever seen before and so neither of them knew how to react to it.
Her footfalls were silent. She stood in front of Begley for a second. Perhaps the boy knew what was coming, perhaps not, it was difficult to tell.
Caoinlin lifted up her chin and kissed her oldest friend. It was filled with caution and after a lingering moment, she pulled back and neither of them seemed to know what to do. But Fee knew what to do, he crawled out of the dish, trying desperately to close his outer eyelids, but they wouldn’t shut.
So he saw Begley lean in and kiss Caoinlin back. He saw the boy’s arms circle around her and Caoinlin’s back arch toward him.
Fee crawled up the wall and onto the molding and tucked himself into a crevice where the joints had pulled away from each other over the centuries. From there, he saw everything. All the while, willing his eyes to close, but instead he grew ever more stiff and cold, until he was convinced that his his frog body had finally died and his spirit trapped inside its corpse for all eternity.
Caoinlin woke to find Begley weighing her down. His head on her chest. His arm limp over her stomach, his thigh deadening her calf. She was afraid to move, afraid to wake him, afraid of what it would be like to look at him in the light, after what had happened.
She closed her eyes and felt him breathing soundly against her.
Not that what had happened had been unpleasant. A bit awkward. But she was surprised at how readily her body had responded to his. Though she probably shouldn’t have been. She’d trained her arms to wield sword and shield. Taught her legs to take stance and knock a staff from a man’s hands. But this, her body had simply seemed to know what to do.
In the faint morning light, she could imagine how it might be better, the next time. And she could imagine wanting there to be a next time. She touched the tight pink scar on Begley’s forearm, the brand, only just healed. He was a servant of the house of Redthorn, until his death.
He shifted and his arm tightened around her. She saw what their future could be, had heard enough stories to know it happened often. A queen, a knight, an obedient court that looked the other way. A king who spent much of his time elsewhere, with someone else.
Caoinlin pushed at Begley’s shoulder. He’d changed so much, had become a man, and she hadn’t noticed. Now she saw all too well.
“Wake up,” she said.
“Hm? What?” Begley shot up, blinking blearily. He looked down at Caoinlin and his expression almost broke her heart. “I thought that was a dream.”
She couldn’t help it, she smiled.
And then he kissed her again. She let him. There was something familiar and comforting in the feel and taste of him. After all, she was the one who’d instigated this. And the next time was better.
Afterward, she let him hold her and kiss her. Because Fee had been right, Begley did love her.
She put her hands to Begley’s chest and halted him. She twisted away and sat up, a little dizzy. She snatched her dressing gown from the chair and wrapped it around her.
“Fee?” she called, searching the table, the dish of water, the pouch. All empty.
Begley sat up and scowled after.
“He probably left, Cao.”
She spun around. “Left?”
Begley shrugged. “Do you think he wanted to watch?”
Caoinlin didn’t know what to say to this. “You should go. It’s near dawn.”
Begley glanced toward the balcony and cursed. He leapt out of the bed and gathered his clothes. He dressed and kissed Caoinlin once more and then dashed into the secret passageway.
Caoinlin resumed her search of the room.
The longer she searched the harder her heart began to pound. Soon tears were streaming down her face and she had no idea why other than she needed to find Fee and she couldn’t. She looked under and on top of every piece of furniture, on the balcony, in the drawers, she moved all the chairs.
“Fee? Please, talk to me—” She hung in the middle of the room and wiped the tears from her face, helpless, trembling with worry. “I’m sorry.”
But there was no response. She dressed before Ceara had come in with breakfast.
“Your Highness is up early,” Ceara said and then halted when she saw Caoinlin’s face. The teacup rattled upon its saucer. “What’s wrong?” She practically threw the tray onto the table and rushed to Caoinlin.
“I can’t find Fee,” Caoinlin told her. “Help me look.”
Ceara nodded and followed Caoinlin out of the room. Along the way they enlisted two footman and three more maids.
By nightfall, the entire palace proper had been combed over. Caoinlin even had them unlock the actual door to the old armory where she searched through dusty helmets and behind battered shields. Finally, as night grew deep, Ruairi tracked down his daughter, who was on her hands and knees in the garden courtyard off the Great Hall.
“This is absurd,” he told her, “you have the entire staff searching for a frog.”
Caoinlin glared up at her father, her eyes tearing again. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d cried as much as this. Not even when her grandmother had whipped her with scraps of wet silk.
“He’s not just a frog.”
Ruairi knelt beside her. His disgruntled expression softening.
“You’re right,” he said, “he’s not a pet. If he’s gone missing, I’m sure it is with purpose.”
Her heart gave a guilty thump. She’d had the same thought, but hadn’t wanted to believe it. But if Fee had left intentionally, she feared she knew why.
When she worked her voice through the clench in her throat, she whispered, “But what if something happened to him?”
Ruairi grasped Caoinlin’s arm and coaxed her to her feet.
“In that unlikely circumstance, there is probably nothing you can do.”
Caoinlin’s stomach twisted, her chest constricted around her lungs.
Her father rested his hand on her shoulder. A kindness in his eyes that she had not seen in many years, not since her mother had grown so ill. “But I’m sure that he is fine.”
Caoinlin shook her head. “It’s my fault.”
Ruairi, for the first time in many years, hugged his daughter.
“How is it your fault?”
Caoinlin buried her face in his chest. Ruairi guided his daughter back to her room and sat with her. She slept.