Much Ado About Lucca
Chapter 11: The Maid and the Stranger
"Lucca! Over here!"
She hovered in the doorway to the banquet hall, trying to determine where Marle's voice was coming from. Lucca could tell that there were several long tables that had been set up in an inverted "U" shape, but aside from that, there was no possible way for her to distinguish one person from another. They were all moving colors with no discernible differences between them.
A liveried servant asked if she needed some assistance, but before she could reply, she was rescued by Crono. He placed a hand on her upper arm. "Don't worry," he told the servant. "I'll show her to her seat."
As he gently steered her toward her chair, she said, "Thank you. Magus ditched me and I couldn't tell where I was supposed to go."
"Yeah, I saw him come in without you, but I figured you'd be with Frog. When you entered alone, I knew I should probably come help you out."
They arrived at the top table, and from the look of the blurry forms seated there, this was the area designated for King Guardia and the rest of the royal family. This seemed to include the Chancellor, who was seated to the monarch's right, while Marle was sitting on her father's left.
"I'm sitting next to Marle," Crono explained. "But you're sitting next to me on my other side." He pulled out Lucca's chair for her-just as his mother had taught him-and helped her get situated. "Frog will sit next to you, if he ever shows up."
She could hear Crono's grin, even if she couldn't see it very well. "The other side of the Chancellor, which was as far away from you and Frog as I could manage to seat him without being too obvious."
Lucca giggled. "Perfect."
The feast was brought in swiftly by servants carrying huge platters and tureens of food. There was a glazed ham, a turkey, several cuts of beef ranging from well-done to bloody rare, salad, cooked greens, boiled and baked potatoes, onion soup, chicken soup, and lamb stew. Fresh baked breads and creamy whipped butter were placed between every other guest for sharing, and maids poured wine, water, and juice copiously, making sure everyone's glass stayed full.
Lucca did her best not to wolf down her food, but it was all so darn good that it was hard not to. She kept the servants busy as they fetched her refills and cleaned away the growing stack of dirty dishes.
"It's nice to know your appetite hasn't changed," Crono laughed.
"Shuh-uhp," Lucca said around a drumstick. "Lev meh arone."
From the other side of Crono, Marle laughed, too. "Don't get filled up yet! There's still dessert." Then she frowned at the still vacant chair at Lucca's side. "Hasn't Frog come to dinner yet?"
Lucca swallowed her food and shook her head. "I haven't seen him all evening."
"Well, that's not like him." The princess poked her father in the arm. "Daddy, Frog is missing. Send someone to go look for him, won't you?"
King Guardia nodded. "Of course. Chancellor, hop to it."
The old man scowled. He didn't really like to be sent on menial tasks, especially during dinner. "Your Majesty," he began, "I'm sure that our wayward green friend has only been delayed. He's sure to arrive at any moment."
"It's way past overdue for him to get here," Marle countered. "And if he misses all this great food, he's sure to be upset."
Magus smirked to himself. He severely doubted that Frog would lose sleep over a missed meal. After all, the amphibian had to have been surviving on whatever he could scrounge up out in the woods. Flies are a good source of protein, I hear. He gave a dark chuckle as he cut into his steak.
Marle heard him and frowned. "What's so funny?"
His smile was anything but innocent as he said, "Nothing. Private joke."
"Your Majesty," the Chancellor wheedled. "I'm sure if we just wait a little longer, Sir Frog will wander in on his own."
"Even so, I should like everyone to be present and accounted for." Leaning over, he added in a low voice, "Just do it for my sake, won't you? You know that my daughter will throw a fit if she doesn't get her way."
The old man glanced over at Princess Nadia. She wore a determined look, the one she usually got whenever she'd been told she couldn't do something she wanted to do. The next step would be screaming her frustration at the top of her lungs, regardless of where she was. And failing that, she'd take matters into her own hands. Woe to anyone who got in her way. Even the royal guards wouldn't be able to restrain her, a lesson he'd learned first-hand.
"But why do I have to go?" The Chancellor put on a pained expression and rubbed his knees under the table. "Sire, I'm not as spry as I used to be. These old bones begin to feel their age once the sun sets. Couldn't we send one of the staff to go look for Sir Frog instead?"
But King Guardia shook his head. "You are more efficient than any mere servant, which is why I value your assistance. I know that you'll find him and bring him back in a timely manner."
The Chancellor couldn't argue in the face of such a compliment. Helplessly, he stared at his liege for a second or two, trying to find something, anything he could say to get out of running around the castle looking for brightly-dressed amphibians.
At last, he grumbled, "Very well, your Majesty. I'll try to be quick."
They hadn't let him into the banquet hall.
"And where do you think you're going, Mr. Clown?" one of the guards had asked, blocking Frog's way with an outstretched arm. "Servants have to dine in the kitchen."
"I am not a servant," Frog protested stiffly. "I am a guest invited by his Majesty."
The guard gave a dry laugh. "Nice try, friend. Save your jokes for a real audience. I saw you juggling those bubbles, earlier. I know you're not on the guest list."
Frog blinked. "Guest list?"
"See? You didn't even know about that. How could you be invited when-"
But Frog interrupted. "Wait, prithee, and check thy list for a Sir Glenn."
The guard sighed. "I'll humor you." He picked a clipboard up from off one of the refreshment tables and flipped through the pages. His eyes widened a little at what he saw.
Frog grinned. "Well?"
The guard squinted at him as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "I find it very hard to believe that you are this Sir Glenn." Suddenly, his look and voice took on a hostile edge. "In fact, I'd even go so far as to think that you're trying to impersonate some knight just to get into the feast!"
Frog didn't like the way this conversation was heading. "Thou must believe me! I was invited, I swear it! Ask his Majesty. Or, better still, her Highness, Princess Marle- er, Nadia. She shall vouch for me, of a surety."
The guard became aghast at such a suggestion. "Bother the royalty with such a trifle? I'd like to keep my job, thank you very much!" He pointed out of the room. "I'll let you off the hook this time, Mr. Clown, provided you don't get into any more mischief. If you follow the other servants wandering about, they'll lead you right to the kitchen. You can ask for directions if you think you'll get lost. Now, off with you, before I have to clap you in irons."
Frog looked at the man helplessly, but he could tell that the guard wasn't going to budge in his decision. At last, he sighed, "Very well."
He didn't have to follow anyone in order to find his way to the kitchen. It was in relatively the same place as it was back in his time.
He waited while servers bearing trays laden with food passed by. The tantalizing aromas set his mouth to watering, and he realized that the nervousness of the evening had been replaced with intense hunger. His stomach growled so loud, he had to put a hand over his gut for fear someone would mistake the sound for an animal under his costume.
The kitchen was filled with servants and other staff members, as could be expected. It was quite warm as he descended the stairs, not to mention noisy. No one seemed to be speaking any quieter than a shout, but that was only to be able to be heard over the sounds of cooking, clinking dishes and glasses, and good-natured laughter. Additional tables and chairs had been brought in, so space was limited. Frog had to press his back against the wall several times in order for people to move around him.
He found an empty seat at the end of one of the extra tables in a corner and sat down. No sooner had his rump touched the chair when a freckled young woman with a braid dashed up to him. "You're him, aren't you? The famous entertainer who impressed all the nobles with his magic act!"
Frog blinked. "Er, I wouldst hardly call myself 'famous'."
"Everyone's talking about it, even the staff. They said you made jewels out of water and made them fly through the air. I wish I could have seen it," the girl went on, a dreamy expression coming over her face. "I had to stay and help out here, so I missed it. Will you be performing again, tonight?"
"I do not think I shall," Frog replied with a nervous laugh. "One performance should suffice, lest the splendor of the act be made dull by repetition."
The servant's face fell. "Oh. I guess that's true." She recovered a second later and gave him a half-hearted smile. "I bet you're hungry. Let me find you something to eat and drink, and maybe you could tell me about what it's like to work in show business."
Before he could say anything, the girl scampered back into the crowd.
Frog bit his lower lip in worry. He hadn't expected his little show to garner that much attention. The nobles had seemed momentarily diverted by it, but not nearly as impressed as the girl would have him believe. And if the staff were speaking of it, too, what then? He wasn't really a performer.
This charade is spiraling out of control, methinks.
Maybe it would be for the best if he skipped dinner for now, came back when things had settled down and he would be less likely to have to answer uncomfortable questions with lies and half-truths.
Just as he was getting to his feet, the girl reappeared with a large serving tray. On it, she balanced a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, sliced turkey, some sort of garden salad, and a tankard of dark, foamy beer. A basket of brown bread and a small dish of-what had they called it again?-eyes-cream was situated off to the side. All of this, she set down in front of him.
"I didn't know what you might want, so I brought a little of everything. And there's plenty more where that came from, too." She brushed the back of one arm against her forehead, wiping off a sheen of sweat. "The nobles are so wasteful! They throw such lavish parties, but only eat a little of what we make for them. Thank goodness they let us eat the leftovers around here, or else we'd be throwing half of it away. I mean, there's almost an entire turkey back there that no one touched before we had to remove it because it had gotten cold. Why do they insist on having us cook so much if they don't plan to eat it all?"
"'Tis the way of the aristocracy, I fear. Privilege tends to spawn waste."
Frog absently rubbed his broken arm as he looked over the fare. His stomach growled again and his mouth began to water. He glanced up at the young woman. She was hugging the tray to her chest and giving him an expectant, hopeful look.
He sighed and reluctantly sat back down. There was no way he could leave now, not after she'd served him all this food.
"I thank thee," he told her with a weak smile, and awkwardly picked up his fork with his off hand.
"My name's Lily, by the way," she said, and sat down in the chair across from him. "And you are…?"
She giggled. "Is that what they call a 'stage name'?"
"'Tis the one for which I am known the best for."
"But you have a real name, too, don't you?"
"Assuredly. However, time has erased it from the minds of most who knew me. I doubt very highly if thou couldst find any such man or woman who could dredge to mind my former countenance. A frog am I, so Frog I shall be."
The turkey was proving tougher to cut than expected. The meat was a bit dry and refused to separate into a smaller portion, no matter how much he sawed at it with the side of his fork. Frustration made his motions sloppy, and he accidentally spilled gravy over the edge of the plate.
"Oh, it's okay." Lily quickly pulled a rag from her pocket and handed it to him. "Use this." As he mopped up the spill, she asked, "Is something wrong with your other hand?"
"A minor injury to mine arm. Prithee, pay it no mind."
"Here, I can help." Before he could protest, Lily pulled his plate in front of herself and began cutting the meat into manageable chunks.
Frog would have felt mortified that he had to have his food managed for him like an infant had the girl's earnest expression not stilled him. She seemed genuinely eager to help him out. How long had it been since another person had shown honest concern for him?
"I thank you," he said sincerely as she pushed the plate back over to him.
She smiled. "No problem. So, how long have you been performing?"
Frog took his time chewing before replying, "Not as long as you might believe."
"You wouldn't happen to be looking for a bunny-girl, would you?"
Frog nearly choked. Only a quick mouthful of beer saved him from coughing all over the place. "A wh-what?!"
The girl cocked her head. "You know, a bunny-girl. A magician's assistant. They're always getting stuffed in boxes and sawed in half and stuff. They wear those leotards and leggings with the rabbit ears and tail. My mother calls those outfits scandalous, but I think they look cute, don't you?"
Frog made a noncommittal sound and drank more beer to hide his blush. Back in his time, girls with loose morals were considered rabbit-like in their promiscuity. Now that he knew what she really meant, he felt silly and a bit embarrassed for having jumped to conclusions.
"I've always wanted to be on the stage," Lily went on, getting that dreamy look on her face again. "There's just something so thrilling about getting up in front of dozens of people and making them laugh, or cry, or gasp in awe. You can pretend to be anything you want to be. And you get to travel the world and see new places… Acting gives you freedom."
Frog used a chunk of bread to soak up the last of the gravy. As he popped it into his mouth he said, "Aye, acting does impart some small measure of freedom, 'tis true. However, I speak with experience when I say that the longer the charade, the more difficult it is to return to thy true self."
Lily frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Only that with every role played, some part of thy soul is lost. One day, the reflection in the mirror is unknown to thee. 'Who is this?' you ask. The mask thou hast created for thyself has become thy real face, and you canst nary recall who thou wert before. 'Twas if your old life were the charade and this mask the reality."
He thought about the long, bitter years since he'd been turned into a frog. At first, he'd dreamed every night of being normal, of being human again. He couldn't stand the horrified looks the villagers gave him. He wanted his old body back. And yet, as the years wore on, he found that he dreamed less and less about the past. Soon, he couldn't remember what his face had looked like. His human name was forgotten by those who used to know him. Glenn, the childhood friend and companion of Sir Cyrus faded away as if he'd never existed and only Frog, the chivalrous freak-of-nature who inhabited the Haunted Woods, remained.
Lily looked thoughtful. "I suppose I hadn't thought about it like that." Then she brightened a bit. "Of course, the other way of looking at it is this: when you're not much to begin with, it can be a real escape to become someone else. When I look in the mirror, all I see is a plain girl with freckles. It might be nice to see someone else reflected in the glass for a change."
She sounded so wistful that Frog felt like he should say something encouraging. As he struggled to come up with something appropriate, the Chancellor appeared at the top of the stairs.
"There you are! Did you forget where the banquet hall is? How in the world did you end up down here?" he demanded.
Frog quickly stood. "Through no fault of mine, I assure thee. That guard-"
"Never mind," the old man interrupted. "I don't really care, anyway. The point is, I found you, and now we can return to his Majesty." He shot a dirty look at Lily. "And just what do you think you're doing?! Why are you sitting there like a sack of flour, slacking off? Don't you have cooking to do, or something?"
The girl paled a little as she also jumped to her feet. "Yes, of course." Turning to Frog she said, "I hope we can talk again soon." She quickly gathered up his dishes back on her tray before darting into the sea of servants yet again. In a second, she was lost to his view.
Frog glowered at the Chancellor as he ascended the stairs to meet him. "Twas quite rude of thee to say such a thing to her," he snapped, heedless that he was telling this to someone who was supposedly his social better. "That young woman-"
"Was being lazy," the old man interrupted again. "Why can she take a break when everyone around her is obviously hard at work?" He snorted. "The younger generation just doesn't understand the importance of a good work ethic."
Frog bristled even more. "Tis not the case! If thy man at the banquet hall had not turned me away, I shouldst have dined with thee rather than here. Lily didst do me a kindness, serving me food despite being so busy. I would thank thee to cease thy abuse of her character, for she does not deserve it."
The Chancellor stroked his beard. "I think I know my staff a little better than you do, Sir Knight. But we'll speak no more of the matter. Come along, now. His Majesty awaits, and I wish to return before they begin serving dessert." He spun about and began to leave.
Frog hesitated. He looked back over the servants milling about, but he couldn't see any sign of Lily. Reluctantly, he trailed after the Chancellor.
"I do hope they're serving those cream-filled pastry horns tonight," the old man was muttering to himself. He was smiling at a sight only he could see. "Or those delightful butter cookies!"
Frog shook his head in disgust. The old man had no doubt scared and humiliated Lily and he had already put the entire incident from his mind. Once again Frog was reminded just how stark the class differences could be, and how vile nobles could treat fellow humans.
He was so caught up in thinking that he almost failed to see the man hurrying down the hall ahead of them. He was walking quickly, and a large sack dangled from his right hand. That was all Frog could see from that distance.
The knight narrowed his eyes and stopped the Chancellor with a tap on his shoulder. Something about that person just didn't seem right. "Prithee, who might that be?" He pointed in the stranger's direction.
"Eh?" The Chancellor squinted. "Some…man? A guest, perhaps? Why?"
Rather than explain, Frog hurried forward. "I say, hello there! Stop, good sir! I would have words with thee!"
But instead of stopping, the stranger broke into a run. As he did, a silver candlestick holder jostled out of the bag he was carrying and rolled across the hallway carpet.
"Thief!" Frog shouted.
"What? Impossible! A thief in the castle?" The Chancellor sounded and looked horrified by the very idea.
"Sound the alert! Call the guards!" Frog yelled before taking off in full pursuit. His clown shoes squeaked with every frantic step.
Though he wasn't always able to maintain visual contact, there were precious few places for the thief to go along this corridor. The hallway would eventually lead to several flights of stairs that would take them to some storage rooms and end in a sitting room at the top of one of the castle towers. There would be nowhere to run after that.
Frog pounded up the stairs, pausing momentarily to scan each of the open storage areas. Most were empty and the ones that weren't held items that were incapable of hiding someone behind them.
The tower, then.
Frog threw open the door at the top of the stairs, mildly surprised to find it wasn't locked. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see, but this wasn't it. The man was dressed in black clothing from his neck to his feet. He wore a black knit hat over his hair and a black domino mask over his face. He sported a bushy mustache above a smug grin as he adjusted the weird copper backpack he'd secured over his shoulders.
"Hold, knave!" Frog ordered. "Thou hast nowhere left to run! Return thy ill-gotten goods and surrender peaceably!"
The man laughed boisterously and held up the bag he was carrying. "Rob from the rich and give to myself, I always say! You'll never stop me!" He moved to the single window and tossed open the shutters. Leaping onto the sill, he was treated to a breathtaking view of the forest surrounding the castle far, far below. He whistled. "Wow. That's some drop."
"As I hath said, no escape. Not unless thou didst plan to become a bird and fly." Frog felt very pleased with himself. Catching a thief in the act of burglary would surely win him points, not just with King Guardia but with Lucca, too. She'd have to see, then, that he was so much better in every way than Magus.
"A bird, huh?" The stranger sounded thoughtful. He began to lean out the window.
Frog stared in shock. "Wait! What art thou-"
The man sprung off the sill and out into open air. Frog ran to the window with a shout. He expected to see the thief plummeting to his doom, but instead, the copper backpack he was wearing sputtered some smoke out of the bottom as two large bat-like wings unfurled from the sides. They seemed to be fashioned of leather stretched over a wireframe skeleton. The backpack coughed some more smoke before something happened and the inside of the pipe began to glow brightly. The air shimmered below it as if from heat.
The thief rose into the air and hovered just out of Frog's reach.
"You're a millennium too young if you think you've got what it takes to best the greatest thief in the world!" he boasted.
Reaching into a pocket in his pants, the man withdrew a piece of paper which he flicked in Frog's direction. The amphibian knight had to grasp desperately in the air to catch it before it fell beyond his grasp. He made the mistake of reaching for it with his bad arm and hissed through clenched teeth at the pain. The piece of paper crumpled in his agonized fist.
"That's my calling card," the thief explained. "Give it to the castle guards, as I'm sure they'll be having their hands full trying to apprehend me in the near future. I want to make sure they know what sort of genius they're up against. And now, farewell!" He gave Frog a mock salute as his mechanical wings began flapping. Soon, he was winging his way into the starlit sky. Frog tried to track the thief with his eyes, but between the moon's glow and the darkness it was quickly impossible.
"I saw them running this way!" came the Chancellor's voice from down the stairs.
"Don't worry, my lord! We'll handle this!" someone replied. Not too long later, several guards burst into the room. They were armed with billy-clubs.
"Freeze, you pajamas-wearing lunatic!" one man shouted, and waved his weapon at Frog. "No funny moves, I'm warning you!"
"But…he's a clown," another guardsman whispered with a barely suppressed snicker. "Isn't he supposed to make funny moves?"
"Shut up, private, or you'll be scrubbing latrines for a week!" the first guard warned. He poked his club at Frog's chest. "Now, come along quietly."
This garb hast caused me more trouble than I couldst ever have imagined! Frog held up his hands in surrender as the guards began advancing on him with a pair of manacles. "Wait! Thou art mistaken! The culprit hast already fled out yon window!"
"Sure he did. He just grew wings and flew away. Nice try, jester, but I'm not falling for it. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back."
Frog struggled against the strong hands that grabbed him and attempted to spin him around. "I say again, thou art mistaken!" He grit his teeth against the pain surging sharply along the length of his bad arm as a guard attempted to wrest it behind his back.
"Stop, stop, stop!" The Chancellor appeared, huffing and puffing, behind the guards. He gripped the doorframe in both hands as he tried to recover from walking up all those stairs. "You have…the wrong…person!" he wheezed.
The guards looked between each other in confusion. "My lord?"
"Oh, you idiots are all useless!" The Chancellor staggered to a chair and just about collapsed into it. He glared at them. "Go find out where that thief broke in at. If I find out one of you has been lax in securing the castle, I'll have you thrown in the dungeon!"
The guards released Frog, bowed to the Chancellor, and hurried back down the stairs.
Frog hugged his throbbing arm close to his chest. He felt tired and sick and never so glad to see the cranky old man in his life. "I thank thee for clearing that up," he said.
The Chancellor waved away his words. "Don't thank me. Those morons would have taken you into custody instead of searching for the real burglar, who's long gone by now. Still, they might be able to find out how he got inside, and then we can work on tightening security." He gestured at the open window. "Did I hear you correctly just now? The thief escaped that way?"
Frog nodded. "He had a…device. I lack words to describe it better. It allowed him to fly." Remembering the paper, he unclenched his hand and used his fingers to smooth out the wrinkles.
"What's that you're holding?"
"He called it his 'calling card.' 'Tis but a paper with a word inscribed on it." Frog handed it to the Chancellor.
The old man frowned at it. "Natab? Is that his name, or an organization, or…" He trailed off, looking up at the amphibian questioningly.
"Like you, I fear I am at a loss. He told me nothing, only offered taunts. He called himself 'the world's greatest thief.'" Another throb of pain almost made Frog gag. "Milord, extend my regrets to the others, but this exertion hast worn me out, and I fear thy medication has greatly diminished. I should like to return to my room to rest."
"Here." The Chancellor pulled out his medicine bottle again and sprinkled six pills into his palm. He handed them to Frog. "Take two when you get back to your room, and you can take one every three hours through the night and tomorrow morning."
Frog held them close like precious gems. The way his arm felt right now, he longed for the earlier relief the little white pills had offered him. "I thank thee again."
"Consider it an apology for your distressing evening. It certainly didn't go the way I'd intended."
"On that, my lord, I believe we can agree."
Frog returned to his quarters with the full intention of getting undressed, taking his pills, and laying down. Part of him felt dejected that he hadn't been able to spend any time with Lucca this evening, but another part was supremely glad he hadn't. After her reaction in the ballroom, he wondered if the stupid costume had ruined everything for him before he'd even had a serious chance.
Mayhap the costume is cursed? he mused idly as he entered his room. He wouldn't have been surprised to learn it was. It seemed like everything had just gone badly, tonight.
Laying the pills on the bedside table, he suddenly remembered he didn't have anything to swallow them with.
He really didn't want to walk all the way back to the kitchen in order to get something to drink. His arm felt bad enough to where he was starting to think it might be less painful to chop it off with the Masamune.
A knock resounded in his tiny room.
He glanced at the door. "Yes?" When no one answered, he pressed his ear against the wood. "Hello?" Still nothing. Cautiously, he opened the door.
On the floor was a small serving tray with a wooden goblet and a bottle of chilled white wine. Condensation had gathered along the sides making it drip onto a folded note. He looked up and down the hall but didn't see anyone.
It was difficult picking up the tray one handed, but somehow he managed and shut the door behind him. He set the tray on the bed and unfolded the note:
Dear Mr. Frog,
I hope you don't mind. I found out which room you were staying in. I just wanted to say 'thank you' for talking with me. You are a fascinating person, and I would like to speak with you again soon. I hope this wine is to your liking. Have a good evening.
Frog set aside the note and poured himself a glass of the wine. He tossed two of the pills into his mouth and quickly washed them down. The liquid was cool and sweet, obviously a dessert wine. He finished that glass and poured himself a second one.
On the morrow, I shall find Miss Lily and offer apology. 'Twas my fault she was scolded, and I need make amends. A sudden thought came to him, and he smiled. Perhaps I could show her the 'magic' she so wished to see, a private performance only for her sake. Mayhap that will right things between us.
He peeled off the clown costume, balled it up, and threw it on the floor at the foot of his bed. He slipped the mask off his face and tossed it on top of the offensive garments. Then he sprawled on his bed. His body felt warm and heavy as the pills began to kick in. He drank the second glass of wine and could barely get the goblet back on the bedside table by the time he was through. He could hardly move and felt so very tired. At least the pain in his arm had been reduced back to tolerable levels.
His last conscious thought before blacking out was, The wine…stronger than…I expected…