“Keep that mask off!” Nevan ordered, yet again. “You don’t give that salve time to work!”
“If you weren’t blind you’d know that I haven’t touched the damned mask!” Caoinlin barked back.
“It’s a good thing I am blind,” Nevan snapped. As he stirred the stew, beads of sweat dripped off the end of his long, bulbous nose and dropped into the pot. “Else I’d have to look at your pus-ridden face!”
“Pus-ridden,” Caoinlin muttered.
“That’s right!” Nevan responded, hearing her though he was ten yards away. “Those wounds will never heal if you don’t give them air.”
Caoinlin finished wrapping her chest, though her skin was still wet from the pond. She hadn’t been able to really swim, her arms were too stiff and sore from the slashing wounds Begley had left there three days earlier.
Once the coarse cloth was knotted firmly around her, she dropped her chin to her knee.
Far from the firelight and well-shadowed from the fat moon by the trees, she was no less chary of being seen. Killeen had strict orders not to allow anyone into the hunting grounds and guards were posted around the nearest tree line, there was a chance someone could slip by when a guard was looking the other way.
Someone, of course, meant Begley.
She would’ve been content to stay in her pavilion, amongst her men, but Nevan insisted that she take off the mask and leave it off.
Since late spring, the heat and sweat had caused the calluses on her face to soften and rub open, turning them raw and red and goopy. There was only so much she could do.
They’d held off from Redthorn all winter. She’d managed to lay a convincing argument that they needed to wait until reinforcements arrived and until everything was well in hand in Whiteplain, the truth was that she’d been dreading it.
More than anything, the dread terrified her.
She hadn’t felt fear in years. Not real fear.
But ever since she’d separated Brogan from his head last summer, emotions had begun to emerge like ghosts rising out of a ruin.
Conlan didn’t feel these things. Conlan didn’t feel anything.
But in the last year, she found herself lying awake at night, fighting back tears and shaking uncontrollably, begging Fee to make it stop, to take Caoinlin away, some place far away where she could never come back.
To her entreaties, Fee was obstinate, telling her more and more that it was time for her to fulfill her promise to him. Asking her why she’d left him, and demanding that she return. He’d started to speak to her as Caoinlin, and that’s when she’d grown the most afraid.
She couldn’t be Conlan and Caoinlin at once.
Caoinlin was too hurt, too vulnerable, too eager to tear away the cloth from her chest. She was dangerous.
For the last five years, there’d been no one but Conlan. Dispassionate, single-minded, unerring, Conlan. The great and undefeated Mhasc Caoin. Conlan was easy. He didn’t need anything. Didn’t keep or want anything. His only purpose was to serve, and that he did, unflinchingly. There were no tears, no fear, no hesitation. Most people considered him unearthly, something other than human, and they were right, that was why Conlan had come to be in the first place. Conlan didn’t have memories of love or grief, he felt no pain. Caoinlin absorbed it all and as long as there was Conlan at the forefront, Caoinlin’s suffering went unfelt.
And then they’d begun the southern campaign. Accents started to ring familiar and the view, the landscape. And then there had been Brogan, hacking toward her with his pale eyes and hair. She’d taken pleasure in killing him, pleasure she hadn’t even felt when she’d killed Arthor. After, she’d fought the tears more fiercely than she’d fought any man. She fought back the emotions, willing Conlan to keep hold, but Conlan had no will. He was as thin and frail as the mask he wore.
It was then that she realized that Caoinlin was fighting herself, willing herself not to be and it was ridiculous and absurd and she broke down and sobbed, stifling the sounds of it into her arm, biting down as hard as she could, bringing blood.
She’d known it would be Begley, before she’d given Killeen the order.
But Caoinlin didn’t want Redthorn to fall under Tireachan’s reign. Tireachan who thought of Conlan as his son, who’d treated him as good as and stamped down his own grief with Conlan’s victories. Tireachan, who’d never wanted to conquer Redsun, but had little choice, when they’d allied with Birchwater and begun building fortifications along the western border of Blackstone.
After that, the rise of the Empire had happened so quickly and seemed just as inevitable, because Conlan was undeniable.
Begley had been so stupid.
Caoinlin had planned on letting him win, but he’d wanted to prove himself. So Caoinlin had backed down and let the Mhasc Caoin give Begley the chance to win on his own, even though she knew he wouldn’t. Not because he wasn’t a great warrior. He was. But because she’d always been better and that hadn’t changed. And because Begley cared about her.
The Mhasc Caoin didn’t care about anyone.
But in the ring, Begley had met them both.
The separation between the Mhasc Caoin and Caoinlin was thinner than ever and she’d been there, fighting, as much as the mask. She was angry at Begley, but wasn’t ready to think about why that was.
And then there was her father. She hadn’t been able to look at him, fearful that he would see through the mask as easily as Begley had. Not that she needed to look at him fully, to see that he’d changed. To see that he looked grim and ill and barely resembled the man she’d left behind all those years ago. She was angry at him too. Angry at him for placing matters of state ahead of his daughter, for trying to make her into someone that she could never be and thus, forcing her to leave, forcing her to become someone else entirely.
Someone who was capable of taking Ruairi’s kingdom from him because the Mhasc Caoin’s loyalty lay with a king over a thousand miles away, king who’d never asked Caoinlin to take off her mask, who’d never even asked why she wore it in the first place. A king who preferred the mask, because then he could imagine the face of his dead son behind it. In a way, Caoinlin thought that the Mhasc Caoin was as much a ghost of Fiachrin as it was a part of her. Without Fee, without his presence in her mind, there never would’ve been a Mhasc Caoin in the first place. Conlan had done everything that Fiachrin should’ve done, might’ve done. But even though she’d looked on his portrait for years, she’d never been able to firmly associate her Fee with the face of the prince. The warroom portrait was nothing but a picture of a dead prince. In her mind, Fee, the frog, still lived. She needed to him to live, so that she could survive.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, mo ghrà,” Fee said.
“Why should I be thinking anything?” Caoinlin murmured.
“Because you always are,” he said.
“What’s that?” Nevan called from by the fire, scrambling to his feet, brandishing the wooden soup spoon held out before him. “Who’s there?”
Caoinlin glanced at Nevan with amusement. Usually, she held her conversations with Fee in her head, but occasionally, they slipped out. She must have spoken aloud.
“Who are you talking to?” Nevan asked.
“I wasn’t talking—”
“To me,” Fee answered.
Caoinlin’s throat closed, her heart stopped.
Slowly, her gaze searched the darkness. Moonshine caught in one of his black eyes and on the ripples in the pond as he swam to the shore and climbing out.
Tears stung her eyes. Her mouth worked, failing to get any words out. She scrambled to her hands and knees and dipped her head down to meet him, hardly believing what she saw. That big glistening toad in the grasses.
Finally, a word worked free from her clenched throat. “Fee?”
“Yes, mo ghrà.”
The tears broke forth in a torrent, burning the salve-smeared wounds on her cheeks and along her jawline.
Hands trembling, she cupped them before her. With cold wet limbs, he climbed into her palms. She lifted him to her face.
“It’s really you,” she choked out. “You’re alive.”
“Did you think you were speaking to a ghost?”
Caoinlin bowed her head, waiting for the hitching in her chest subside, resting her hands with Fee, wet and real within them, upon her bent knees. “I’ve heard you so long, in my head—” Her shaking fingers curled around him. “I thought you were dead. When I couldn’t find you—”
Fee took a step forward, his own webbed hand tightening around the heel of her hand. “And I’m ashamed to say that I believed you dead as well.”
“I would’ve been, if not for you. I wanted to die, Fee. The things I saw. What I did. What happened . . . but you there. You protected Caoinlin, so the Mhasc Caoin could go on.” She laughed weakly through her tears. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”
“No, mo ghrà,” he said, gently.
At this, the sobs deepened and shook her whole body, but she steadied her hands, drew them close to her chest and held Fee there, one hand gently folded over him until the tears lessened and her breath smoothed. Fee had come back and brought Caoinlin with him. She returned fully, taking possession of her wounded and scarred body like an refugee returning to a pillaged and half-burnt home, full of painful memories and overwhelming emotions and relief, at finally, finally being home. And because he was there, she could bear it. As long as he was with her, there was someone who understood, someone who knew her, all of her and still accepted and loved her. She’d needed that, even if it had been nothing more than an echo in her head, it was the remembrance of something that had been so real that it was enough to sustain her through the horror and doubt. He’d done what no one else had the courage to do—he’d believed in her. She didn’t know if Fiachrin would have done the same, but as a frog, Fee had been a better man than any of the others. He’d trusted her. Whatever his reasons, she loved him for that.
She lifted him to her face and said, in his native tongue,
“Tapadh leat mo ghrà.”
Thank you, my love.
And she kissed him.