Aodhan was a white-haired duck. His belly stuck out over his bird legs and his voice burst like an over-ripe melon every time he spoke, spittle spraying from his purplish, fleshy lips especially when he laughed, which was often and over anything, even if it wasn’t funny. His wife, Clady, was a walking-stick, with as much overt personality and grace. Her hair was the same pale yellow as her skin and even her eyes had a washed out yellow-hue to them. She trailed behind her husband at all times as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to get within reach. Somehow, this pair had managed to produce five fairly attractive and apparently good-natured children.
Caoinlin gave Brogan the most proper of greetings and stole glimpses of him in snatches. His teeth were straight and he smiled often. He had an easy, light-hearted laugh. He teased his younger sisters, Sheelin and Ormlai, who were as fair-haired as he and had the same loose, swinging gait. They all had their mother’s oblong face, but their father’s wide features, in various combinations end up most flattering on the eldest girl, Dara, who was in attendance with her husband, Duke Cathal. She shared her dark auburn hair with the youngest boy, Altan, who was Caoinlin’s age and who inspected her with the same dubious expression that she inspected him.
Draigen hovered at Caoinlin’s back the entire time they received the Whiteplain family, despite the fact that Fee was nestled into the purse around her waist, his little green head and marble black eyes peeking out from atop.
“Perhaps you’d like to rest—” her father offered.
“Not hardly.” Aodhan slapped Ruairi on the back. “Let’s eat and drink. Have you any musicians? I do like entertainment while I eat, har-har-har.”
The Whiteplain family traveled with an impressive entourage of lords and ladies and all their respective servants. Caoinlin couldn’t comprehend where they’d all be housed. She followed behind the Kings and the Queens and Brogan and his sisters and the Duke, her head down and her face set as they moved from the Receiving Hall, to the Great Hall for a midday meal.
“Have you got a toy frog?” Altan asked in a derisive tone.
“He’s not a toy,” Caoinlin plucked Fee from the pouch and pushed him toward Altan’s face. “He’s real.”
Sheelin squealed and her arms bunched up to her chest. The procession stalled.
“She has a toad!”
Altan seemed to enjoy this reaction from his sister. And when Ormlai mimicked her sister’s reaction, Altan broke into a wicked grin.
“He’s not a toad, he’s a frog,” Caoinlin corrected.
Draigen bared her teeth. “Put that thing away.”
“He’s not a thing, either,” Caoinlin pointed out.
Brogan flipped a limp spray of straight hair out of his eyes and smirked. He grabbed hold of Sheelin’s tight shoulders and pushed her toward Caoinlin. Sheelin stumbled, half-shrieking half-laughing and then whipped around and pushed him playfully back. Altan rolled his eyes.
“What’s wrong? Afraid he’ll want a kiss?” Brogan teased.
“Ew!” Sheelin swatted at him.
“Har-har-har!” Aodhan pushed by his children and bent before Caoinlin. “Let me get a look at that. I had a pet frog as child and two turtles and doves and a pack of dogs. Ah, he’s a good specimen that one! Look at that fine black belly. I say, that is strange. You’re a sprite of a child, aren’t you now?”
He plucked at Caoinlin’s chin and smiled. He didn’t seem to notice that Caoinlin wasn’t smiling. In the next moment, he’d herded his family toward the great hall.
Caoinlin drifted in their wake, unsure of what to think, and sat through the meal in silence. Aodhan and his wife tossed off three glasses of wine each before the food was served. The Whiteplain children threw grapes at one another and seemed to snicker non-stop.
Caoinlin felt a frown fix firmly to her face. Seated between her mother and Draigen, she was glad to not be caught in the midst of the Whiteplain children’s bizarre antics. She might’ve found it refreshing, that they weren’t stiff and formal. She should’ve been glad that her grandmother’s face was puckered at them and not at Caoinlin, which meant she found the Whiteplain family as distasteful as Fee, maybe more so because she didn’t even notice when Caoinlin set Fee beside her plate.
“You should eat,” Fee told her.
Aodhan slammed his fist down one the table, a few goblets toppled over.
“By Saints’ fingers! Did that creature speak?”
Ruairi retold the story that Fee had proposed he tell. That he’d gone to great pains to procure Fee for her. The Whiteplain family were duly impressed. They demanded Fee hop around the table and speak to each of them. Which he appeared to do with great enthusiasm. They asked him many questions and laughed a great deal. Fee was practically hopping to the ceiling to entertain them.
Eventually, the meal over, Caoinlin pushed up from the table and slid away, out onto the balcony, tired of listening to Fee wax eloquent about any topic suggested to him and the Whiteplain family “ooh” and “ahh” over him.
Outside, the day was drowsy, a crisp breeze shuffled through the dried leaves and bare bushes of the garden. A hollow rustle filled the world, though winter wouldn’t arrive for another two months at least.
Caoinlin leaned on the wide balustrade and pressed her cheek flat to the cold marble. Another round of delighted laughter from inside made her teeth set.
“Your pet is interesting,” Brogan remarked.
She’d heard his feathery footsteps approach and sensed his sinuous form displacing the air near her, but she’d wanted to ignore him. That seemingly impossible, she lifted her head and looked him square in the eye. Her gaze ripped through the layers of halcyon blue in his to see what she could find. It was like tearing away the stratum of sky. Beyond the clouds and the atmosphere the air disappeared and there was nothing but emptiness.
He glanced away, gaze skipping over the drooping brown gardens. He chuckled, a curt brittle noise unlike his previous light-hearted laughter. She felt satisfied that she’d seen what he was made of and that he knew it, but that didn’t prepare her for his reaction.
“Let us be plain with one another, shall we?”
She didn’t respond, but continued to watch him. Her chin jutted out, harder and sharper than ever.
His short coat was designed to make him look broad in the chest and shoulders, and narrow at the waist, but he didn’t require embellishment. He was near fully grown, though perhaps thinner than he would be when he was done. She imagined that there were many ladies who spent their days competing for his attention and he looked the sort to spend his days letting them. He wore a sword, but it was thin and short, another embellishment. Her thumbs rubbed her forefingers anxiously. Did her father truly expect her to marry a man who wore his sword the same way he wore the sapphire rings on his fingers.
“I know you’re young,” he said, “but you’re not wholly innocent, are you?”
Her neck itched, listening to his voice grow more detached with each word.
“We won’t ever love each other. That’s not the purpose of our engagement, you know that, don’t you?”
Of course, she knew that, but hearing him say it made her face warm and her heart harden.
“You’re a strange girl,” he said. “I feel as though you might as soon slit my throat as marry me.”
He was, at least, perceptive.
“Perhaps it is best if you get your stubborn little cheek used to this thought now, before you let that frigidity settle any deeper,” he said. “I will be king. I will be sovereign. And I will be your master. If you have any hope of retaining a peck of this independence to which you are so clearly accustomed, then you might wish to spend the next few years contemplating how it is a woman might make a man content enough that he should allow her such a luxury.”
A fevered buzz filled her ears.
“I can see that you haven’t the faintest notion of how to be woman, have you? You haven’t given it a moment’s consideration. But I’m sure there are ladies willing to explain to you . . . the nuances of it.”
The world turned wavery and then, suddenly, quite clear.
“I expect that when we are married, you’ll have loosened this iron-plated temperament and adjusted your constitution in such a way that is more agreeable and yielding. I can’t say that I will ever find you beautiful or even desire you in the way that a man desires a woman, but I expect I’ll make use of you as I’m expected, though you’ll need to learn to ingratiate yourself if you wish to be valued in that way. Otherwise, a king has other means of accommodation—”
She sprang at him. The heels of hands struck his chest.
He huffed, his face stretched in surprise. Reeling, he stumbled back.
Before he could regain balance, she punched him across the face.
He sprawled to the ground. His false sword clattering uselessly against the stone.
But the fury had her now. He was not her master. He would never be. If either of them were going to learn anything tonight, she was going to teach him this fact.
Her foot slammed into his gut. He wheezed and gasped.
She kicked him again and again.
Then when he was sobbing and begging for her stop. She reached down, snagged the hard leather grip of his sword and yanked it free.
At this same instant, one of the girls shrieked. The music stopped abruptly. Overlapping shouts of dismay and alarm rang through the Great Hall. But to Caoinlin, they were like the faraway coos of doves in the ears of a king wolf whose prey was thick in his snout.
She held the blade inches from his throat. She could see his pulse through the pale film of skin on his neck. His eye was swelling. His lips were red and wet and trembling. He thought she was going to kill him.
Do it now, a cold voice growled from within the depths of her.
Her breath caught and she froze, torn between the desire to finish this fool who thought he could speak to her as if she were nothing, no one, and the horror of that thought, the terror creeping through her at the revelation that she could kill him.
She took a step back before her father reached her.
Grabbing her arm, he wrenched her around. The sword dropped from her hand and clanged against the stone.
When he struck her, she felt it like she’d never felt any blow.
It hurt, but it was like the pain of a first breath after being saved from drowning. Tears came and cheek burned, but at the same time, it was all faraway. She was far, far away.
She looked through her father’s eyes, into his mind, through his soul.
He faltered before he struck her again, harder and then again, harder still, and again, until she fell in a crumple.
The guards dragged her up to her room and tied her with silk cords to the bed posts, though Caoinlin did not struggle.
Her grandmother stripped off Caoinlin’s clothes.
The old queen then ripped a strip of silk from her own skirt, twisted it, and dipped it in water.
Face set in a fierce clamp, she lashed Caoinlin until each exposed part of her was red and swollen. Her back, her calves, her arms. Caoinlin muffled her sobs in her mattress, but they sprang, not so much from the beating, as that stopped hurting soon after it began.
It was that Caoinlin knew who she was now. She had looked into her father’s soul and had pinpointed his weaknesses. She knew what would hurt him, what would torture him, what would break him, what would kill him. And he had no idea of what she was capable, though he feared he knew, he didn’t, and that was his greatest weakness.
Eventually, Draigen left, exhausted. Caoinlin remained, naked and bloodied, tied to the bed. Slowly, she began to work herself free of the silk cords that bound her.
It took him two hours to reach Caoinlin’s bed chamber. And that was only after two hours of attempting to get someone to notice him in all the commotion.
By the time he squeezed under her door, his feet hurt from jumping upon the hard, dry surfaces of marble tile. That was how he felt inside, too, hard and dry.
The bedchamber was dark. His eyes adjusted quickly to the lack of light. He spotted her face down on her bed. She seemed to be breathing in heavy swells.
She went still.
He dragged himself across the room, to the floor by her bed. Only then did he notice she was not dressed and that her ankle was tied to the bed post. It took him another moment to make out that the dark shadows on along her legs and back were not created by a trick of light.
His meticulously prepared lecture crumbled in his mind and he was left speechless.
She peered over edge of the bed. Her eyes wet, her face stained by tears. “Fee?”
He would’ve turned and run, or hopped, away from her, had he any energy for it.
There was something horrible on her blotchy, puffy face, besides the large bruise left by her father’s hand. Something terrifying. And then, her eyes closed and she was just a little girl again, beaten and left alone in the dark.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice rasped like steel against a grindstone. “I didn’t mean to leave you. Don’t think I broke my promise.”
He blinked, stunned. How, in this moment, could she be concerned that she’d broken her word, to him, of all creatures? What manner of child was this? That would apologize to a frog after being beaten and humiliated? That was no bemoaning her own situation?
Her welted arm dropped over the side of the bed. He crawled into her cupped hand. With painful slowness she lifted him up. Bringing him close to her face, she uncapped her hand.
If he’d been able to cry, he would’ve.
The whole left side of her face was blackened, her eye not yet completely swollen shut. Her finger ran over the top his head, in gentle strokes.
“You need water,” she said, sounding as though she were the one who needed water, far more than he.
Though it tried to flee from him, he found it and strengthened his voice, “If you thought as much of yourself as you do of me you wouldn’t be in this . . . situation.”
“I’ll get you water, once I’ve got my foot free,” she said.
It was then that he saw her ankle twisting against her fetter. And then he realized she’d already worked her arms free, somehow.
“It’s almost free,” she told him. “I worked my other hand loose, but my back’s too stiff to bend around to untie my feet.”
He stared at her, speechless.
At last, he said, “And what you will you do then? Once you are free?”
“I’ll leave,” she said, as he knew she would.
He inhaled, feeling his throat swell in a way that had once tormented him. But in these last weeks, with Caoinlin, he’d been less disgusted by his loathsome state. Only because Caoinlin didn’t make him feel as though he should feel ashamed. She didn’t know what he was, truly, but he knew that whatever he’d been, she would’ve treated him just the same. At this realization, he was ashamed. Because he knew that had he met her, as he truly was, as he had been, he would not have treated her well. In all likelihood he wouldn’t even have acknowledged her. She would have been of no interest to him whatsoever—a mad little girl of a foreign king.
“You attacked the prince,” he said, careful to measure his tone. Not to inject the judgment and anger that had driven him up here. The harsh, scolding attitude. Who was he to scold her, after all? She’d given him food and care and kindness.
Her tone, on the other hand, was black as soot. “You should’ve heard what he said.”
Those eyes of hers . . . they were shields. He fought not to be petrified by their implacable resolve, by the fierceness of them. She was a child, but . . . she wasn’t mad. Unbelievable as her actions had been. He’d seen Brogan. The boy had been bloodied and limping. Beaten by an eleven-year-old girl.
Again, he kept his tone level. “What he said should make no difference,” he told her. “You would be the better one to exercise caution when provoked. I know you’re capable of it. It’s only a matter of discipline.” He gulped barely believing his own words. What was he saying? “You cannot succeed in this way. Look at you.”
It took everything left in him to be stern with her and as soon as he mustered it, it disintegrated and he found himself wanting to comfort her again.
Her eyes slipped shut and she swallowed hard.
He sighed again, deeper.
Her eyes cracked open and then he saw it, the breach, and what was behind the shield.
At that moment, all his plans dissolved, like his old life, vanishing from his grasp.
He’d intended to pass himself on to one of the Whiteplain daughters, of trying to convince Ormlai to take him as her pet, of leaving this impossible girl and her troublesome eyes. Of reclaiming his life soon. As soon as he could. After entertaining the Whiteplain children, he’d been certain he could manage it. That they would’ve gladly stowed him away when their carriages rattled away.
But looking into her eyes, all his well-drawn plots were shredded like thin vellum left out in a winter gale.
Never had he seen such eyes.
Never had he met anyone like her.
What would she be?
If he left, if there was no one here to see her through this, to aid her? If everyone around her simply believed she was mad, as he had.
And they would. After what had happened. He’d heard them talking, the rumors swirling. They said she was untamed, unstable, ungovernable. That would only be the beginning. The rumors would spread. And she would run away. As she was, undisciplined, untrained, she’d meet the blade one way or the other. She was fierce, but kind, honorable. There were wolves out in the world who had no honor. No kindness.
“I’m tired, Fee,” she said. “I’m not sure I can work this last one free right now. I just need to sleep a little. Then I’ll get your water.”
His heart sank. “Oh, mo ghrà.” He settled down upon the sweat- and tear-damp sheets. “Don’t worry about me.”
Her breathing slowed and she slept.
She was still a child, he knew, and that was good, because she was not as intractable as she appeared.
He would wait. And while he did, he would do what he could to help her.
It would easy, he realized in a startling flash, because he would not try to teach her anything she did not want to learn.
He saw then, with brutal clarity, how everyone in her life, though so many of them meant well, had failed her. They’d tried to instruct her to be someone else.
But he would succeed, she would listen to him, because he would teach her only to be herself. Her full self.
Even if the thought terrified him.
And if he called her mo ghrà, whatever it had meant or would mean, when he was human, for now, he was only frog and she, a child. For now, all it meant was that he had come to accept the truth, even if it led to him losing everything.
He belonged to her.
That was why he was here and that was why he would stay.