“What in the heavens!” Draigen leapt up from her chair and away from the table. “You evil child, have you lost what little sense you possess?”
Fee settled on the grandly appointed table, in the shadows of silver goblets and gilt chandeliers, where Caoinlin had laid him. For a child with such badly treated hands, she’d been surprisingly gentle as she’d carried him through the forest and into the palace.
The Queen, a lovely woman with thick, black hair, Saorla raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Fee. Her reaction markedly different from that of her mother-in-law. He bowed to Caoinlin’s mother, though it was difficult to know if she understood the gesture.
Standing by her chair, Caoinlin stared back at her grandmother obstinately. He could see why she might be slapped and often, showing a face like that to those in authority.
“Caoinlin, my love, why have you brought a frog to the dinner table?” Saorla asked, putting down her utensils and resting her hands in her lap.
“Well, you see—”
Just then, the King entered.
His sizeable presence was a relief to Fee. Even though Caoinlin had passed into the Palace and approached the royal table without impediment, Fee could not help but harbor doubts about this strange girl actually being a princess. Ruairi thumped down in the chair beside his wife and immediately began to tuck in, not noticing his mother’s purpling face or the frog seated beside his daughter’s gold-rimmed charger.
“My lord son, please instruct your vulgar daughter to remove that filthy beast from the table at once!” the grandmother demanded from where she still stood behind the shield of her high-backed chair.
Ruairi glanced up at his mother and to Caoinlin and then along the table until his heavy gaze fell on Fee.
Fee bowed again.
The king sighed heavily. “What is the meaning of this?” He had the tired cadence of a man with too many things on his mind.
Caoinlin squared her shoulders and in another brief flash of nobility stated proudly, “He is my companion. I have promised to make him such and so I will not break a promise.”
“Promised?” Draigen repeated, her thin face taut with suppressed anger. “How can you promise a toad any such thing?”
“He’s not a toad, he’s a frog. And why don’t you ask him yourself?” Caoinlin held her hand out flat and Fee crawled up into it reluctantly.
She held him up at eye level before Ruairi.
“This is Fee. Fee, this is my father, King Ruairi and my mother, Queen Saorla.”
“My most humble greetings, Your Highness.” He lowered his head to Ruairi. “Your Majesty.” He bowed to Saorla.
Saorla and Ruairi gawked.
With great care, which Fee had to appreciate from such an obviously reckless child, she moved him around to face Draigen, who had lost all the vivid colors of her rage.
“And this is my grandmother, Lady Draigen.”
“Your Ladyship,” he said with another bow.
Draigen backed up, her hands clenched in her skirts, her gray eyes bulging in fright.
“Caoinlin,” Saorla said as cool as before. Caoinlin set Fee back onto the table. “Where did you find . . . Fee, was it?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Fee noticed the footmen at each end of the table watching him wide-eyed.
Ruairi’s fork dropped to the table with a clatter, making everyone jump, even Fee. He almost landed in the bread pudding, which smelled too sweet and delicious for him describe. He only hoped he would be able to eat it.
“I found him in Clearspring. You see I was . . .” Caoinlin trailed off, her eyes dropped.
Fee crept back closer.
“Do permit me to explain, Your Highnesses,” he said. “Your daughter was playing with that most precious golden sphere you gifted to her and it got away from her and became lost in the deep rushes of my pond. I offered to retrieve it for her on the condition that she promise to make me her constant companion and permit me to eat from her plate and sleep on her pillow and to take me with her everywhere she goes. You see, living in a pond is fine and well for most frogs, but as you can plainly tell, I am not like most frogs. And given the fact that the orb was clearly quite valuable, it seemed a fair agreement. Your daughter accepted, as she did not want to garner any disfavor for her carelessness.”
“It is some sort of wicked spirit,” Draigen growled. “A cursed creature.”
“I assure you, dear lady,” Fee replied, prepared for such an indictment, “I have no ill-intent, either toward your daughter or the most honorable House of Redthorn.”
Draigen leaned down, hissing. “Are you a wizard? What malevolent force has made thee thus? We shall put you to torment until you reveal your true purpose.”
Caoinlin scooped Fee up and cradled him close to her chest.
“Fee isn’t evil, he’s just a frog. And if you so much as speak to him like that again, I’ll put you to torment!”
In a flash, Draigen slapped Caoinlin. The girl’s hands squeezed tightly around him for a moment, he could feel her heart leap into a deafening gallop that made him dizzy. Caoinlin held him away from her and as if her own face were flaring with pain, asked,
“I’m sorry, Fee, are you hurt?”
“Caoinlin!” Ruairi’s voice boomed as a King’s should. “You will not threaten your grandmother.”
Caoinlin stood. “Would you have me break my promise to Fee?”
“Darling, he is a frog,” Saorla rose form her chair and came to kneel beside her daughter, stroking Caoinlin’s reddening cheek and flashing a furious glance at her mother-in-law, though Fee might’ve been the only one who saw it.
“Does that matter?” Caoinlin said. “A promise is a promise, isn’t that true?”
Ruairi’s wide shoulders heaved. “Bring the creature before me.”
Caoinlin moved past her mother to her father’s side.
She held Fee toward her father, in both hands, her fingers curled around him as though she might snatch him back if her father moved to harm him. Fee had to be grateful for this much. Caoinlin was not like any sort of princess he’d ever encountered, but that might have been the only reason he had made it into the palace at all. Surely, no other princess would be so willing to defy her elders so brazenly, let alone take a frog as a companion and fight so intractably to keep her promise. Fee met the King’s inquiring gaze.
“Tell me, frog,” the king asked, “are you a wizard?”
“No, Your Highness.”
“And how is it that you should speak and with such refinement?”
“I came by my speech in a fashion that is usual for those to whom speech comes naturally,” Fee replied. And seeing that Ruairi was rightly suspicious of this cagey response, he quickly added, “I was born with the ability to speak, Your Highness, and so I must. And since I must, then it is to my benefit to speak as well as anyone, better if I may. For it is ungrateful to not seek the apex of our aptitudes, when we are fortunate enough to be granted them.”
Ruairi ran his hand over his beard. “Have you cast a spell upon my daughter, was this arrangement made through deception?”
“No,” Fee said.
“The thing would not admit it if it were,” Draigen said.
Fee was forming a rather unfavorable opinion of the old queen.
“No, I don’t suppose he would,” Ruairi’s steely gaze lifted to his daughter’s face. Fee could see the conflict on the king’s features. He did not envy the man, having such a daughter, but then again, he was grateful for it. This was his best hope, perhaps the only chance he would ever have.
“But . . .” the king said after a time, “a promise has been made.”
Draigen inhaled sharply. “You must be—”
“Mother, you do me disrespect,” Ruairi interjected. “Caoinlin, is it true? Did you promise this creature that which he stated?”
Ruairi raised a hand. “Then I will not ask my daughter to break her promise, if it was given freely.”
“It was, Father.”
“Then the creature will live as your companion and I would not see him harmed while he is under my daughter’s care and in my household,” the king pronounced.
A rush of warmth flooded Fee.
“I am honored,” Fee said. “I swear to you, in the time I am here, you will find no more loyal and stalwart proponent of Your Majesty, man or otherwise.”
“Yes, but you must see how your presence might prove detrimental to my daughter’s standing in court,” Ruairi remarked.
Fee nodded. “I do, my lord. Might I suggest that you present me as a novelty, acquired through difficult and costly means and given as a gift to your daughter? In this way, the members of your court might view me with greater fascination than disgust and your daughter might be considered, rather than odd, the benefactress of your generous devotion and love. Moreover, I will do all I can to impress and entertain the young nobility, to show them how rare and unique I am among all creatures. Given this opportunity, I feel confident that Caoinlin’s presence will be sought after more than any other princess in the whole of the country.”
Ruari’s bushy dark brows lofted. “You are clever, aren’t you? Do you not wish to admit that you are truly a wizard?”
“I assure you, I am no wizard,” Fee said. “If I were, why on earth would I be a frog? If my intent were to befriend your daughter and enter into your household with ill-intent, would not a kitten or a dog have been a more appealing form? No doubt, greeted with much less suspicion? No, Your Highness, I am not a wizard. How I wish I were, so that I might know the means to take some other shape, less an affront to every civil being I encounter.”
“Yes, you are quite clever,” Ruairi said thoughtfully. “Very well then, Fee, you may reside here under my daughter’s care and with her consent, but should I suspect any malintent I will see that you are dispatched, do we understand each other?”
Draigen turned on her heel and stormed out of the room. Ruairi watched her leave without remark. When she was gone, he lifted his fork again.
“Now can we eat, please?”