((Author's Note: Gyah! This chapter took way too long to complete. But seriously, it was giving me the worst case of writer's block. Everything had to be so carefully worded, it was holding me up. Hopefully the next chapter won't take as long to get out.))
Much Ado About Lucca
Chapter 10: The Dance of Fools
Frog shifted from one foot to another, feeling more uncomfortable than normal. The Chancellor was circling him like a crow over carrion. His bushy eyebrows were drawn together in a scowl, but the knight couldn't be certain if the old man were angry or just thinking deeply.
Frog twisted his knobby green fingers together. "Um…My Lord Chancellor…"
The old man stopped his inspection for a moment and stroked his long beard. "Well, it will have to do, I suppose. I'm only human. I can't be expected to work miracles." Taking hold of Frog's shoulders, he turned the amphibian towards a full-length mirror that had been set up in his room. "Have a look at yourself."
This was, of course, the last thing Frog wanted to do. He kept his eyes averted. "Art thou certain that this attire is necessary?" When the Chancellor glared at him, he sighed. "Very well."
The sight that greeted him made him want to fall on his sword out of sheer embarrassment. The form that Magus had given him was awkward at best, and finding clothing that fit him was quite near impossible. After much searching through the castle storage rooms, the Chancellor had finally found one article of clothing that didn't stretch at odd angles over Frog's ungainly body: a clown costume left over from the Millennial Fair. The outfit was the same shade as the innards of a grapefruit, and white polka dots speckled the surface. Stiff white lace encircled his wrists and ankles and formed a frothy collar around Frog's large neck. The last insulting touch was the bright yellow shoes that curled up at the toes and hid his webbed feet from view. The entire outfit was baggy, and it covered any unsightly bulges that his unnatural body might otherwise display.
Frog shuddered at his reflection. "'Tis awful."
"'Tis perfect," the Chancellor corrected. "No one will be the wiser about you."
The knight looked at himself again and felt the urge to gag. "I pray thee, my lord, is there naught thou canst do with yon garments?" He waved at the pile of discarded clothing that he'd tried on, but hadn't been able to fit into well enough for the Chancellor's tastes. "I wouldst pay thee thy weight in gold to avoid being seen in this travesty."
The old man crossed his arms over his thin chest. "What do I look like, your personal tailor? You'll wear the damn thing and like it!" In calmer tones, he said, "This outfit isn't meant to make you look dashing. It's a disguise, remember? If anyone were to realize that you really are a frog, and not a human in a costume, it would create a panic amongst the guests. Maybe people are used to frogs gallivanting around the countryside where you come from, but in our time period, such a thing is completely unheard of. Do you want to be responsible for ruining the King's banquet by making a scene?"
Frog shook his head. "Nay… But surely thy guests shall see through this subterfuge? T'would seem to me, I wouldst draw even more attention unto myself with this garb."
"By pretending to be tonight's entertainment, no one will think twice about seeing a frog-headed clown wandering around the castle. But perhaps there is a way to make you even more anonymous." Turning around, the Chancellor fished about in the dusty trunk that used to house the costume. "If I remember right, there was a rather gaudy mask in here. I think it would be just the right thing to- Ha! Here we go!"
He pulled out a large paper mask. It was painted black and white with a string to tie it in place. It was probably the biggest mask Frog had ever seen. He almost doubted that a normal human could wear it without possessing a watermelon for a head.
The Chancellor held it out for Frog to take. "If we put some new holes in this, it should fit over your face just fine. Does that ease your doubts?"
"How dost thou expect me to woo the fair Lucca if I be dressed like the King's fool?" Frog slapped the mask out of the old man's hand in disgust and turned his back on the mirror. "On my honor as a knight, I canst not wear this carnival garb! T'would be an affront to my dignity." He started squirming about, trying to reach the laces of the costume so he could take it off.
The Chancellor narrowed his eyes. "Either you wear it, or you'll be staying here in your room all night." When he saw Frog's stricken face, he took pity on the amphibian. "You worry too much, Sir Knight. Love, they say, is blind. If Lucca truly likes you, she'll accept you no matter what you look like. Am I wrong?"
Frog paused in his escape. "Mayhap thou art a little correct. Wouldst not the heart see truer than the eyes?" Then he shook his head. "But look at me! Love wouldst have to be deaf as well as blind. I have never seen a louder garment."
Picking up the mask from the floor, the Chancellor dusted it off and handed it back to Frog. "Consider it a way to leave her with a lasting impression of you."
Frog accepted the mask this time, his mind full of misgivings. He held the flimsy paper and examined it. "I do not think that this plan of yours will work. I know nothing of entertaining nobles. Besides which, with this arm of mine, I canst not think of any way to perform short of aggravating my wound." Even the simple act of getting clothes on and off was painfull, and the doctors had said he shouldn't move his injured arm around too much.
"Hmm." The Chancellor stroked his beard again, staring down at the floor. He appeared to be having a debate with himself. Finally, he came to a conclusion of sorts and gave Frog a shrewed look. "There might be a way for you to perform without being in any pain."
Frog blinked. "Really, my lord?"
The old man nodded. He looked about the room as if afraid of being seen by someone, even though it was only the two of them present. From one of his voluminous sleeves he produced a stoppered bottle. Opening the top, he shook out two white pills, each about the size of a kernel of corn, into the palm of his free hand.
"Being an old man, I'm often troubled by my joints. Arthritis and all that. So, I sometimes have to take medicine for the discomfort." He gave Frog a hard look as if daring him to contradict that statement. When the knight just nodded, he went on. "These pills are very potent and will take away your pain for several hours at the least. If you'd like, I'll share these with you so you don't have to worry about being infirmed tonight."
Frog looked down at the offered pills resting in the Chancellor's palm. "I was drinking a tea that the local chirurgeon gave to me. It tasted foul, to be sure, but it didst keep the pain at bay for a time."
The Chancellor laughed. "Trust me, these are far stronger than any mere tea!" He took Frog's good hand and handed him the medicine. "Now, be warned: this won't cure you. Your arm might feel better, but you'll still be injured. So don't get carried away, understand?"
Frog nodded and set the pills onto one of the bedside tables. "Still, I am at a loss. I do not know of any tricks or feats that wouldst convince even the meanest street cur that I am a clown. What shall I do?"
"I'm sure you'll come up with something. Failing that, they'll think you're the most boring clown ever to grace these halls and ignore you." The old man shrugged. "Either way, the purpose for this disguise was achieved. In the end, that's all that really matters to me."
Using a pair of scissors, they poked new holes into the mask so that it would fit over Frog's bulbous eyes. Once they had made sure that mask wouldn't come off at an inopportune moment, the Chancellor nodded his head in satisfaction.
"That should do the trick. Now, I really must be going." He made his way to the door of Frog's temporary quarters. "I left the Princess and Crono to mingle with the guests. I'd better make sure they aren't ruffling too many feathers. They don't seem to understand that Guardia's aristocracy is rooted in tradition. No one wants to hear about their 'progressive' thinking."
Frog rallied to his friends' defense. "Mayhap it is time that people unstopped their ears and heard such words. They couldst stand to learn a lesson or two from Crono and Princess Nadia, lest the downtrodden rise up against thee."
The Chancellor gave a condescending laugh. "And what does a knight know of such things? We live by the letter of the law. All of us. The common folk have no reason to 'rise up', as you say. They know their place." He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "Things are much different now then they were back in 600 A.D., my friend."
As the door shut behind the Chancellor, Frog allowed himself a slightly bitter smile. "Aye, in some ways they are. And in others, my lord, things have yet to change at all."
But there was really nothing he could do about it short of starting a rebellion himself. His family had been of the gentry, wealthy land owners who weren't quite like nobles but still well-bred enough to be considered of gentle birth. This had allowed him an easier time of being accepted into the knighthood, while those of common birth, like Cyrus, had to fight tooth and nail against the rigid caste system. It had always seemed terribly unfair to judge a man by his blood. Frog had seen enough people talk of honor and righteousness without possessing a shred of it themselves.
Oh yes, by god, he had.
With a sigh, he examined himself one more time in the mirror. He still looked like an idiot, but the mask did add a little something extra to the costume, making the disguise seem more complete. No one would believe that he was merely a frog now.
Even I have a hard time acknowledging that this creature be me, he thought to himself. But if this be the only way to get close to Lucca, so be it. I shall do whatever I must, and bare my heart to her. The hand of Lady Lucca shall belong to me alone!
The pitcher by the wash basin was empty, so he had to choke down the pills with a dry throat. They tasted awful, and left a powdery residue on his tongue.
"'Tis a property of all medicines to taste insufferable," he commented with a pained expression. But the Chancellor had been correct. The pills took effect almost immediately, and soon he was able to move his injured arm about with almost no discomfort whatsoever. Whatever else might happen this evening, at least he wouldn't be suffering from a handicap.
Finding his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the castle wasn't hard, and Frog sent a silent prayer of thanks to the architects who had decided not to change much of anything between his time and Crono's.
His shoes made comical squishy sounds as he walked, and the desire to kill himself and save his honor was high as he made his way out into the throne room.
He hesitated in the archway. There were so many people! Far more now than when he had first arrived.
'Tis a feast, after all, he reminded himself sternly. What were thy expectations?
Well in truth, he had been hoping that he wouldn't have to be seen by much of anyone. Seeing all the swirling dresses, the flash of rings and the white undersides of long-tailed frock coats made him feel sick to his stomach. He had never been one for large gatherings. He mingled with the nobility of Guardia only when his duties as a Knight required him to come in contact, not out of any sense of kinship with them. And even then, he'd always had Cyrus by his side for moral support.
But now, here he was being forced to not only interact with them, but to entertain them as well.
Perhaps I might slip by unnoticed. If I find the fair Lucca in haste, mayhap I might speak with her alone, and discard these ignoble trappings. Though seeing how tightly packed the room was, he seriously doubted success with that plan.
There was no help for it. He would just have to plow right on in and hope he didn't embarrass himself too much.
At first, no one seemed to even notice him. His warrior's reflexes allowed him to weave in and out between people without so much as brushing their sleeves. He kept his ears open, listening for the melodic sound of Lucca's voice.
"You, there! Jester!"
Frog froze in mid-step, a cold sweat breaking out under his frivolous attire. Please, do not let them be speaking to me!
A heavy hand fell on his shoulder, spinning him around. He found himself staring up into the eyes of a much taller, dark-haired man. He was accompanied by two giggling young women. If asked later what these women looked like, Frog could only respond that the one on the right was brunette, the other with hair as deep a red as Crono's. As it was, his mind went blank, and words slipped from his grasp. He could only stare at the nobles with horror, desperately thinking of what to say and how to act.
"Thank goodness," the nobleman went on, draping his arms around the shoulders of his companions. "I was dying of boredom, here! At least his Majesty thought to provide us with some entertainment."
"Yes, dancing takes too much effort. My poor little feet will be quite sore and swollen in the morning," said the red-headed woman under the man's left arm. She jabbed her closed fan in Frog's direction. "Well, don't just stand there like a dullard. Do something funny for us."
"I think he's funny enough as it is," replied the woman on the right. She leaned closer and squinted her eyes. "What exactly are you supposed to be? Some sort of festive lizard?"
"I am a frog, madam, not a lizard," Frog answered somewhat stiffly.
"Oh, yes! I see it now!" Though, he wasn't sure if she really did see it, or if she were just agreeing with him. "So, do some tricks for us!"
"Uh…" Frog glanced around helplessly at the nobles. They were all looking at him, expecting him to do something breathtaking or comedic. Playing for time, he asked, "What didst thou have in mind?"
The women gave a delighted murmur, and though he wasn't sure why, they applauded.
"Marvelous!" the nobleman crowed. "How long did it take you to learn to speak like that?"
Taken aback, Frog blinked a few times, trying to comprehend what exactly was going on. "Since I was first able to speak, my lord."
The brunette fanned herself with a plume of colorful feathers. "Ah, what an actor won't do for his craft! I have heard that some theater troupes train in the art of stage performance from a young age." From the way she said it, it was apparent that she was trying to sound knowledgeable about the subject.
Frog wasn't sure how to react to all of this. I see. They think that my speech is but a facet of this character they believe me to be playing. For their part, they know me as nothing more than a buffoon in a silly costume.
"Enough talking," pouted the red-head. She snuggled closer to the nobleman, and batted her eyelashes at him. "I'm still bored. Make the clown turn somersaults or something."
Under his mask, Frog blanched. He really didn't want to go springing all over the place. Even before his days as a frog, he knew he was clumsy at best. The last thing he wanted was to back-flip right into the punch bowl, or accidentally land on a dancing couple.
"No, that's stupid!" declared the brunette. She also batted her eyelashes at the nobleman, and hugged his arm tightly. "Make the clown do some juggling for us!"
The nobleman looked between his two "dates", then to Frog. "Well, Master Clown? Can you do any tricks to satisfy my ladies' desires?"
"Well, I…um…" Frog wracked his brain. Think, you fool! There must be something that thou canst do to entertain them?
And then it hit him. It wasn't the best trick in the world, but maybe it would satisfy them enough to go away.
Putting his hands together, Frog concentrated his powers. A shiny turquoise bubble the size of an orange appeared between his palms. Quickly, he made two more and began to juggle them. Though he was in no way adept at juggling clubs or knives, bubbles were lighter than a handkerchief and much easier to catch. He spun them about, making the bubbles dance through the air and roll off his shoulders and the backs of his knuckles to the delight of his audience.
Drawn by the appreciative applause that followed, more guests soon crowded around him to watch the show.
He made more bubbles, setting them to spinning on their own through the air creating patterns and fantastical shapes. He even went so far as to decorate the nobleman's ladies with gem-like spheres of water that glittered in their hair and across their necks like a string of sapphires.
"How did you do that?" the red-head demanded. She touched the bubbles in her hair, pulling one of them free. She held it in her palm and squeezed it as hard as her delicate white fingers could manage. "It's amazing! They don't break!"
"T'is a simple feat," Frog replied, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Nothing more than a parlor trick." He tossed the bubbles in the air one last time. "However, a good performer never divulges his secrets. And as fast as they appear-" He popped the bubbles one at a time with the tip of a finger.
"Aww!" The red-head pouted again as her bubbles and those of the brunette burst in a fine spray of blue mist and were gone. "That's no fun! I wanted to keep mine."
The nobleman laughed and hugged his ladies closer. "Now, why would you want to do that? If it's shiny blue baubles you want, I'll buy you a barrel full of them!" The women squealed in excitement as he led them away, Frog and his bubbles already out of their minds.
Seeing that his tricks were through for the moment, the crowd dispersed as well.
The amphibian breathed a sigh of relief. All of a sudden, his legs felt like they would collapse out from under him. The whole ordeal had left him more than a little shaken. He didn't even want to consider the reaction if the nobles hadn't enjoyed his show.
What he needed was a glass of punch. That would calm his nerves.
Making his way around through the crowd was even easier the second time around. Nobody accosted him for tricks. In fact, nobody spared him more than a second glance.
Lucca had to admit one thing to herself as Magus waltzed with her across the ballroom floor. For all of his power, for all of his dark mystery and condescension, the prince of Zeal was a lousy dancer. He didn't step on her toes, which was a blessing, but he kept missing steps every few beats and would stumble to keep up.
"You know," she began after his third consecutive stumble, "I thought you'd be better at this."
Stony silence greeted her, but she had expected a response like that. Magus only talked when he had something snide to say.
The girl raised an eyebrow at him. "Maybe if you stopped rubbernecking and paid attention to the music, you wouldn't be having this problem."
Magus finally looked at her, and his expression was irritated. "Do you have to talk so much? Can't you just enjoy the dance?"
"I'd enjoy it a lot more if you didn't wobble all over the place like a marionette."
"And I'd enjoy it if I didn't have to listen to another complaint."
Lucca turned her nose up at him. "Fine. I won't say another word."
"That'll be the day."
He's so rude, she thought. Still, he seemed done with whatever it was he had been doing, as he focused more on her and the dance. This made things go much more smoothly.
"So, what were you looking for?"
Magus rolled his eyes. "I thought we had agreed on dancing in silence?"
Lucca cocked her head to one side. "Don't you think that's kind of abnormal? I mean, look at everyone else. They're managing okay. Or can't you talk and dance at the same time?" She giggled. "Imagine that. The mighty Magus doesn't have the coordination to—"
"You're so annoying!" He gave her a dip for the hell of it and was gratified to hear her squeak of protest. He wasn't so happy about her nails digging into his arms as she fought to remain upright.
"Don't do that without warning me first!"
"I'm here on a mission. Dancing with you is the last thing on my mind right now." He pulled her upright again. "Better?"
She glared at him, a bit out of breath from the sudden motion. "I thought for sure you'd drop me."
"Don't tempt me."
Magus's reply was a lazy, wordless smirk as he continued to awkwardly twirl her about the dance floor. Somehow, his lack of verbal response was more irritating than if he'd actually said something rude, and it bothered Lucca to no end that everyone else in the room seemed to have a decent conversationalist as a dance partner. Why, oh why, had she agreed to dance with this arrogant bastard?
Almost makes me wish for the plant again, Lucca huffed to herself. At least it knew what not to say.
The dance finally came to an end with all couples bowing or curtsying to each other. Lucca half expected Magus to cut and run as soon as the last strains of the violin died away, but surprisingly enough, he took her arm and steered her back to the outskirts of the room.
"Thank you," she muttered, but he wasn't paying attention to her again. He was watching the lords and ladies as they evacuated the dance floor and began heading towards the banquet hall to be seated for the feast.
Seeing the wizard's serious expression, however blurry, she bit her lower lip. "I guess I owe you an apology."
"Now that I think about it, I can understand why you're preoccupied. This isn't really your fight. You, or Frog, for that matter. You both have your own lives to live now. Crono shouldn't have gotten you guys involved."
Magus shook his head. "You just can't shut up for five minutes, can you?"
"Don't change the subject!" Lucca lowered her voice. "I already know what's going on, so don't treat me like I'm dumb, all right?"
There was bored contempt in Magus's voice as he asked, "And just what is it that you think you know?"
"Oh, come on! Give me a little credit, here. It's obvious what your 'mission' is. Crono's been acting strange for the past few days. I finally asked him what was going on, and he told me."
Magus shrugged. "I have my own reasons for being here. If helping Crono will further my agenda, then I'm not adverse to being thrown into situations I'd otherwise avoid. As for Froggy, I think we all know his reasons for helping out." His lip curled in a sneer at the mere mention of the irritating knight.
Lucca felt a little dizzy. She swallowed and took a deep breath to steady herself. "Maybe I underestimated how serious this could get."
Magus rolled his eyes. "If you're so worried about what might happen, then don't get involved. Let Crono handle things by himself. It's not your problem, anyway."
"Are you kidding? I could never abandon Crono when he needs me the most! That's not what friends do. You stick together, even if you have to put your life on the line or do something you'd rather not do."
Magus rolled his eyes. "Your devotion to your friend is touching. I think I may gag. I'm going to dinner before you make me lose my appetite."
Lucca gave him her patented "glare of death". "Yeah, you do that. I hope you choke on a chicken bone."
"You and Frog, both. Speaking of which, head over towards that garish blob of colors by the punch bowl." He pointed off to one side of the room. "Your green knight in shining armor is trying to get your attention." Raising his voice, he called, "Your turn." Then, without any further words he spun about on his heel, and followed the last few stragglers into the banquet hall without waiting to see if she would do as he said or not.
"What are you talking about?" The inventor looked about. Sure enough, there was a vastly distorted blur of colors waving about. It didn't look anything like Frog. It had to be some sort of party decoration. Flashbacks of the gently swaying plant filled her mind and she turned red.
"That's not funny!" she shouted at the warlock's retreating back. "I can't believe you'd say something like that! I've already had enough of looking like an idiot for one night, thank you very much." Stomping her foot, Lucca trailed after him, fuming.
He'd watched them dancing and felt the hard knot of jealousy rocking back and forth in his stomach. Oh, how he'd wanted to just walk over there, all smooth and confident, and say, "Dost thou mind if I cut in?"
But Frog knew that would never work. For one thing, he couldn't dance very well. Certainly better than Magus, he liked to think, but he was also much shorter than Lucca. It didn't seem proper for his eyes to be--and here he blushed--chest high.
Besides which, Lucca looked so beautiful in her gown and he looked ridiculous in his own attire. They would have made a mismatched pair, so much so that every eye in the room would have been leveled on them, and he couldn't bring such shame or embarrassment to her.
So, he'd waited. Waited and watched while Magus, his most hated enemy, got to put his hand on Lucca's slender waist and held her hand, palm to palm, in his other. The warlock danced inelegantly, and that was some small comfort to the amphibian. But it was so bitterly unfair that Magus, of all people, should be able to share that brief intimacy with the lavender-haired inventor instead of him.
The waltz had seemed to go on forever, but when it was done, Magus had noticed him standing all alone by the punch bowl, waving to try to get Lucca's attention. Their eyes had locked, and Frog hoped that he didn't look as forlorn as he felt.
"Your turn," the warlock had called, and the bastard had sounded so…indifferent about it. As if he'd already won.
Well, thou art sadly mistaken. The other guests have departed and now I shall bare my heart to fair Lucca.
This was it! She was looking his way! Any moment, she would begin walking closer to him and then he could tell her--
"I've already had enough of looking like an idiot for one night, thank you very much." Lucca had said this vehemently, and followed Magus without a backwards glance in his direction.
Frog felt like a black hole had opened up under him and he was falling into it, spiraling down into a despair of the deepest black.
Standing alone while servants began to file in to clear away the refreshments, the discontented knight plucked at the front of his clothes. "'Tis the outfit," he muttered to no one in particular. "I am quite sure of it."