Caoinlin did not see it, because her eyes were dutifully lowered during her apology, but Brogan recoiled from her as she lowered before him.
From the safety of his pouch, Fee watched the prince’s eyes dilate as his panic rose. Or one eye, as it were. The other was too puffy and blackened to be of much use to him. While Fee didn’t approve of Caoinlin wasting her energies or ruining her reputation on the likes of anyone unworthy, he could not help but feel a dim satisfaction at the prince’s reaction. Caoinlin hadn’t told Fee what the little coxcomb had said to her, but Fee felt certain that the boy had earned his beating, far more than Caoinlin had earned hers.
As Caoinlin recited the contrite speech Fee had devised for her, the rest of the Whiteplain family looked on, wearing grim and fearful expressions to match Brogan’s. All except Aodhan, who pumped his leg and drummed his fingers upon his gut, nodding encouragingly at Caoinlin’s every other word. The king was eager to accept the apology, as Fee suspected he would be.
Aodhan needed Ruairi’s support against Gaibrial and if his pride was wounded by an ornery eleven-year-old girl, then he’d simply have to work around it to get what he needed.
“Yes, well, children will have misunderstandings, won’t they?” Aodhan rushed to declare when Caoinlin was done. “I suspect we’ll all laugh about this in years to come. Won’t we, Brogan? Accept the princess’s apology, boy.”
Brogan’s lip curled, but he did as he was told. “You’re forgiven.”
“Excellent,” Aodhan said. “You know what they say about the couple who fights passionately, yes? Har-har!”
“Caoinlin, you may return to your chamber,” Ruairi said wearily.
With slow, pained effort, Caoinlin climbed to her feet. She didn’t lift her eyes even then. So she did not see her father, as gray-gilled as Brogan, as though he had not slept or ate since the incident. The queen was not in attendance.
This was unsurprising. They’d finally been forced to confront the hard truth.
The danger that had been fermenting in their midst. The little girl who was becoming as wild and ferocious as a northern wolf.
No, it was not surprising that the king and queen were stricken by this revelation. Fee would’ve liked to offer the king reassurance, but while he faced many northern wolves on the moors and high plains, he had never attempted to train one. At the prospect, he might’ve appreciated a little reassurance himself.
“Fee, when?” Caoinlin asked again.
“It’s your own doing,” he said. “We’re not sneaking out. And I can’t drag a sword all that distance by myself. You’ll just have to wait until you’re allowed out again.”
Caoinlin slouched in her chair.
“Sit up,” he ordered. “Queen to D2.”
Caoinlin plucked his queen from the board and stalled before setting it down. The piece hovered above the board.
“Checkmate,” he pronounced.
She thunked the piece down on the table.
“This is a stupid game,” she grumbled.
“I sure you won’t say that after you’ve won,” he replied. “Now, look over your notes and tell me where you went wrong.”
She picked up the piece of paper, where she’d written each of their moves in turn, but after a few moments of blank staring, her gaze drifted toward the balcony doors again.
A light rain had turned into a thick sleet. The wind had gained strength as the morning wound toward the afternoon, raking icy fingers at the glass. A vague white glow in the muted gray sky was the only sign that it was still day.
In the fireplace, fruit wood hissed and growled, filling Caoinlin’s bed chamber with the tart sweet aroma of cherry.
Fee wanted to tell her how grateful she should be. Where he came from, they burned peat, which had little appeal besides providing heat. In his homeland, winter would’ve have set in a month ago and been far more bitter.
But he couldn’t tell her any of this, because anytime he even accidently attempted to say something relating to his home or his past or who he was, his voice seized and he was stuck, left speechless for hours. Worse, he could feel the frog instincts become more overwhelming, so that all he wished to do was swim and croak and eat bugs.
Instead, he was struck with another idea. “Tonight, you’ll put out the fire.”
She scowled across the table at him. “I will?”
“Yes. And open the balcony doors. You’ll sleep like that tonight and every night until I’m satisfied.”
At this, she finally sat up straight, her eyes widening. “It’s freezing out there.”
He frowned, though he wasn’t sure she could tell. “During war, you’ll sleep on the ground, outside, more often then you’ll find a barn or a house to take you in. And do not forget, it’s colder in the rest of the country than here.”
As he’d expected, this got her attention. All the defiance melted away into a speculative, considering look. She examined the fireplace for a brief moment, a conflicted tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“Ceara will wonder—”
“You’ll rebuilt the fire every morning,” he stated. “You’ll wake before the servants. No more sleeping in. There is far more to survival weapons and tactics. Unless you’ve changed your mind . . .”
She drew her shoulders back, that pointed chin of her lifting. “Not at all.”
Before he could determine if he was disappointed or proud, a riotous commotion in the hall made them both jump. She scooped him from the table and hurried to the door.
Saorla was finally well enough to be out of bed, after almost a month. She suppressed a smile when Caoinlin opened the door. Fee felt his heart leap. Had he been who he truly was, Saorla would have been won his affections easily.
“I think you might need to speak to him,” Saorla said. She stepped aside and revealed Begley at the opposite end of the hall, cornered by two footmen.
Caoinlin slipped Fee into his pouch slung at her hip and practically skipped to the other end of the hall. She clasped her hands behind her back and filled in the gap between the two footmen. Begley scowled at her furiously.
“This is your doing isn’t it?” He pointed a dirty finger at her and then snatched it back as if he were afraid the devious footmen might grab hold of it.
“Why? Whatever is the matter?” Caoinlin swung cheerfully from side to side. Fee didn’t have to see her face to know the grin that was planted there.
“You know what!” Begley pressed his thin body back into the corner as far as he could. “They’d have me drown.”
Caoinlin laughed deep in her belly. “They’re not going to drown you. They only want to give you a bath.”
“That’s what I said!” The bright bronze flecks in his eyes bounced from each footman. “How I’m supposed to get any respect if I’m all washed like some . . . Tadhg?”
“That’s a good point,” Caoinlin acceded.
“And what about my health? Winter’s coming, I’ll come ill if you scrub me open. I need that dirt. It’s cold out there!”
“You won’t be sleeping in the stable this winter,” Caoinlin told him. Begley looked as if he’d been slapped.
“Fee? You did this to me?” Begley swiped at the footman who tried to reach for him again. “I thought we were friends. This will kill me!”
“It will do no such thing,” Fee informed him. “Here, you men, stand away!”
The footmen exchanged uncertain glances.
“You heard him.” Caoinlin put her hands on her hips. At once, the men backed off, positioning themselves between Begley and the nearest doors.
“Hand me to Begley,” Fee said with a sigh. He hated having to ask such things, not that his pride could suffer any deeper damage.
He jumped into Caoinlin’s waiting hand. She thrust him toward Begley, who didn’t move. After a moment though, he stretched out his hand. Fee leapt over to the boy.
“Hold me up to your ear,” Fee said.
Chary, and still jeering at Caoinlin, he lifted Fee to his ear.
Fee spoke softly. “I have promised Caoinlin to train her in swordsmanship, in order to do so, I will have to train you as well. What do you think of that?”
Begley’s mouth fell open. “Really?”
“Yes, but if I am to do so then you must fall into line. You will do whatever I say, when I say, understand?”
“But what’s that got to do with washing?”
“The Queen would not agree to allow you into palace unless you’re clean. It’s a small price to pay, I should think, for being able to sleep off the kitchen, where it’s warm and you will be well-fed and under no one’s hand but Her Majesty’s and the household staff.”
Begley lowered Fee, a dubious expression on his grimy face. After a few moments, he held Fee back out to Caoinlin.
She smiled and Begley’s resentment abated.
“It won’t be so bad,” Caoinlin told him. “You might even like it.”
Begley grumbled something indistinct, though Fee was certain he heard a choice curse word.
Nevertheless, he peeled himself out of the corner and allowed the footmen to lead him away. Fee watched, a warm swell of satisfaction growing in his belly.
If they weren’t careful, these children might actually become just what they always dreamed of.