Soon after an ice storm that had everyone locked inside for two days, the weather turned warm. There was a perpetual dripping sound, no matter how deep inside the Caiseal one was hidden.
Caoinlin, since being forced to clandestinely resume some of her former duties, had withdrawn even further into her role of proper lady. Nevan’s health improved. He was able to move out of the bed for long spells and sit with Caoinlin. She would read to him, poetry mostly. Nevan’s presence, along with that of the nurse’s, kept Fiachrin from pressing Caoinlin on matters other than those of state.
He regularly put papers into her hands and while this action brought small smiles from the nurse, whose name was Fina, there was nothing within the sheaves of papers but reports and lists. More than once he thought to write to her, in another way, about another matter, but whenever he sat down to do so, the words simply would not come. Nor did the opportunity arise to speak to her in private, not without making a display as he had done previously. Since she had made him feel guilty about his bullying and chastised him for his thoughtlessness and left him feeling slightly stupid for not thinking to write her about these matters in the first place, he had reined in his more impulsive and aggressive tendencies. He thought it strange that prior to becoming a frog he had been renowned for his cool head and calm temperament. In the last months he grew increasingly frustrated and irascible. But at least he knew what the cause was.
A thunderstorm had been building for the better part of the morning, which had been distinctly warm, and by mid-afternoon, the sky was dark as night. The air was heavy and crackling and everyone seemed to be on edge.
Fiachrin had forgone his usual meetings and spent the morning sparring, hoping that the physical exertion would burn away the growling, prickly feeling that had plagued him from the moment he had woken.
When the blackest of the clouds were piling up overhead and the grumbles of thunder in the distance began to shake into his core, he retreated into the Caiseal, soaked in sweat and weak-limbed. But by the time he was bathed and dressed, his energies were no less slackened. As the rain started tapping against the windows, he was unable to eat, feeling more tightly-wound than he had before.
Finally, he sent for her.
She arrived shortly after and when he dismissed the footman, she did not scoff.
The door closed behind her and she stood by it, hands clasped.
She had given up the black gown for a pale lavender one, which made her eyes all more like flint. The scars on her face were losing their flaring hues and fading to dimmer pinks. Her posture was less like a man’s, but hardly that of a lady’s either. It was stiff, without the demure grace of a noblewoman.
He sat for a long time, on the other side of his sitting room, near the tall, narrow window, watching the rain strengthen and the lightning come closer. His mind was altogether focused on her—what she wore, how she stood, her expression, and most of all, what she would say. He had pondered this moment for months—in vaguer ways, years—but when the time arrived, he found that he was still uncertain.
He could not imagine taking the sentimental approach. Expressing his feelings in poetic fashion would make both of them uncomfortable. Then again, he did not want to come right out in the bluntest, utilitarian terms and scrape the moment clean of all feeling. Not when the depth of his emotions were such that he was overwhelmed by their profundity.
She remained near the door, allowing her gaze to trace the edges of things, never seeming to look directly at him.
He took a deep breath and got to his feet.
“In a month,” he said, “My father will leave Teamair.”
She cocked her head, meeting his eyes, concern in them.
“Is that so?” she asked.
“He will take the Broad Road and spend the next year and a half touring the lands of his empire.”
Her brow pinched.
Fiachrin edged past the furniture that sat between them.
“I take it,” he said, “that you find this scheme as badly formed as I.”
Her chin lifted and hardened. “What I think is of little consequence.”
“You know that’s untrue.”
She sighed, her shoulders drooped. “I can understand his way of thinking,” she said, “Though, if circumstances were different, I would not advise him to take such action.”
“What would you advise?”
He came to a halt, not far from her, almost within reach. He folded his arms and studied the patches of light and shadow interplaying on her face. A flash of lightning was followed closely by a rattling grumble of thunder.
“Under the current circumstances?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow, waiting.
“I would tell him,” she said, “to send his son.”
“Does that not pose its own risks?” he countered.
“I would also advise him,” she said, “to be married again.”
Fiachrin forced himself to remain impassive. “Is that so?”
“He should have remarried long ago,” she said, her voice tight, her eyes guarded. “No man of power should put all his faith in one person only.”
Fiachrin’s palms sweated. “Does that mean you fear I am under some threat?”
“You are the sole heir to the Blackstone Empire,” she said.
“Then perhaps I am the one who should be married,” he said without pause, knowing that if he gave it a second’s thought, he might not be able to say it at all.
Her gaze flicked away and her shoulders stiffened as if he had brought up a well-worn point of contention. Perhaps he had, perhaps they had been tugging on this rope for many months. But it hurt him to see her resist the notion so clearly.
His throat felt raw and his head started to pound.
“Is that not what you would advise?” he said as flatly as he was able.
She straightened her posture and continued to stare hard at the back of the couch before her.
“After all,” he pressed on, “my health is far better than my father’s and I doubt his constitution would bear the aggravation a woman invariably brings a man.”
Turning swiftly, she reached for the handle of the door. He rushed forward and slammed his hand flat against the door, bearing close to her back, smelling the heat off her neck.
“What do you want, Caoinlin?” he asked. “What would you have me do?”
She pressed her forehead to the door.
“Let me go,” she said, her voice breaking.
“I let you go once,” he said. “And I’ve regretted nothing more in my entire life.” He took her arm and turned her shoulder into his chest. “You can’t believe that I would let you go again.”
She closed her eyes. The rain picked up intensity, rushing against the window panes as though trying to break through the glass. The force of his desire joined with the pain of her apparent opposition and dashed hard upon his fragile patience.
“Fee,” she said. “Please. I’m not ready.”
He let his hand off the door and slipped it around her waist; she winced as though the closer he pulled her, the more it hurt.
He turned her toward him. “You want me to wait.”
“Fee, you don’t understand,” she said, her voice small.
“Why would I want to understand anything that’s going to keep you from me?” he said.
“You don’t understand me,” she said, gathering up some fire. “That’s what you don’t understand.”
“I thought I understood you better than anyone.”
She was unforgiving. “You’re not who you used to be.”
“You’re right,” he admitted, passing over the sting of her words. “I’m not a frog anymore. I’m not relegated to standing by and watching, helplessly.”
When she started to look away, he caught her chin and kissed her, hard and searchingly. And he was searching. He was searching for the part of Caoinlin that he knew felt this as strongly as he did. The tight resistance of her lips infuriated him and made him push harder, crushing her between the door and his body.
Despite his passion, despite his desire, her mouth did not respond to his, her body was stony in his grasp.
It clawed at him, to be refused and rejected; to be made to feel as though she felt nothing of what he did.
Unable to take it anymore, he broke from her, turning away.
Though she’d been the one to deliver the blow, she reached for him, apologetic. “Fee, I told you—”
He wrested his lashing fury and faced her again.
“I heard you,” he growled. “And you’re wrong.”
Her face darkened. Her mouth, reddened from his assault, pressed firm.
“I do understand you,” he said. “I understand that you think that you’re not ready. Not ready to be wholly who you are. All this time. All this fighting. And you’re still afraid.”
The color blanched from her cheeks as if she’d been slapped; the scars on her face all the more livid. “I am not afraid,” she said through tight lips.
“Then trust me,” he said, pleading. “Trust me like you always have.”
“It’s not about that,” she said, miserably.
She looked away, chin trembling.
“I think you’d prefer it if I were still a frog,” he said, the pain of rejection turning his words venomous.
“That’s not true—”
“If I were, you’d be able to put me aside whenever it suited you.” His words tasted as bitter as they sounded. “And then you could’ve gone on, wearing the mask. Keeping people away. Pretending you’re not human. You could’ve gone on killing Caoinlin, little by little.”
Her rage burst forth in a deluge. “I’ve done everything you wanted me to do! From beginning to end. I would never have put on the mask if not for you! And I only took it off for you! But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I do wish you were still a frog. I knew who he was. I trusted him! I don’t know you, Your Highness! I don’t know what kind of man you are.”
A splintering crack of light struck somewhere near the Caiseal and a rattling growl of thunder shook the walls around them.
“You want to tell yourself that you don’t know me,” he said when the thunder faded. “You want to believe that. But you know it’s not true. I have only ever been honest with you, Caoinlin. The only thing that’s changed is how I appear to you. But that’s what’s always gotten in your way, isn’t it? That’s why you needed to run away. That’s why you needed the mask.”
Her fists clenched. “I needed the mask because no one would’ve accepted me--”
“I accept you, Caoinlin,” he said. “I trained you. I gave you my sword.”
“And I used it,” she said. “Would you rather I had not? After all I’ve done?”
“I gave you my sword so that you could fight,” he said. “Not so you could fall upon it.”
“And if you had been a man?” She squared her shoulders to him. “Would you have trained me then? Would you have given me your sword then? Would you have believed, for a moment, that I could do what I’ve done?”
“That’s not fair, Caoinlin.”
“Fair?” She threw the word back in his face. “What is fair? That I, who as more capable than any, man or woman, should have to hide my face to save my people? You make it sound as though I enjoyed living behind the mask. I made a choice. I chose to be the Mhasc Caoin. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t suffer for it. That I’m not still suffering for it. I’m sorry that you’ve had to wait. That I cannot be everything for—”
“No,” he cut in. “You will not do this with me. I’m not asking you to be more or less than human. I’m not asking you to stop suffering. To stop feeling. I’m asking you to start. You think you’re in pain now? You’re not. You haven’t even begun. You’re still hiding. You’re the one who wants to be everything. Who wants to do everything. I don’t want that from you. I don’t need that. All I need is for you to trust me. All I need is…” --his hands fell open at his sides as he lost the words—“is you, Caoinlin.”
She ran her hand over her face, along her brow, as if outlining the path of a headache.
“Tell me what you need, ask anything of me,” he said, “but do not expect me to let you go. I can’t. Not again. You might as well ask me to stop breathing.”
Her fingers trembled at her temple. Her expression was taut and brutal, like ice covering a drowning face.
“I’m cursed, you know,” she said, bitter and distant. “Liobhan, the sorceress, cursed me when I killed her.”
As much as Fiachrin would have liked to dismiss this, his ten years as an amphibian kept him from it. He strengthened his jaw and waited.
“She knew I was a woman,” Caoinlin said, “She looked into my eyes and reached into my mind and…” She swallowed, shaking her head.
“Whatever it is—”
“You’re right,” she interjected. “I have not yet begun to suffer for the things I’ve done. For whom I’ve been. For the choices I’ve made. My sacrifices, still, do not balance the weight of what I’ve taken—”
His head started to shake before he knew it.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said.
“I have nothing for you, Fee,” she said, “I have nothing to give but misery and death.”
“Fine,” he said.
She gazed at him like he had suddenly turned into a frog again.
“If that’s what you want to think,” he said, “then I’m not going to argue with you about it right now. Even though I know you’re wrong. And I know that you know it, too. You don’t see it yet. You don’t see that there’s nothing you can do, do you? You don’t see that you don’t control me. That I’m not going to go away. No matter how many masks you wear or swords you carry: I don’t understand, I’m not who I once was, I shouldn’t want to suffer . . . it’s not going to work.”
“I’m telling you the truth,” she said, sharp.
“Good,” he said. “But the truth doesn’t scare me.”
He approached her, and she recoiled, but he took her arms and held her before him.
“I love you, Caoinlin,” he said, “And I know that you love me.”
Her eyes were stone.
“I don’t,” she said.
He let go of her, shaking his head and reeling from the sting. His teeth ground together, biting through the last cords of his composure.
“If that were true,” his teeth remained tightly locked together, “Then I wouldn’t be here as I am. I would still be a frog.”
“Things change,” she said, unflinching.
“Enough!” He spun round and away. “I’m done listening to you lie! Bad enough that you do it to yourself, but to do it push me away—”
“I’ve told you what I need,” she said, gruffly.
“And I said enough!”
He glowered at her.
“We will be married,” he said, a thrumming vehemence in his voice beating out the steady sound of the rain outside, “Before month’s end.”
“You can’t do this—”
“You know what you truly need, Mhasc Caoin?” He broached her storm-filled radius again, glaring into her eye. “You need to be defeated.”