Chapter 9: Having a Ball

It had been two months since Konstantin had last seen his daughter, and he was beginning to be anxious. Not for her, certainly, for her safety was something he cared as little about as that of his late wife. No, his concern was all for himself. For if Lissa was among mortals, then the secret that he guarded so jealously, the secret she had learned almost by accident, could slip out. And if that were to happen... His concern was amplified by the rumours he heard from the wind, which was a terrible gossip, about a nearby kingdom and its recently-acquired frog princess. He did not dare investigate yet, for if Lissa had indeed married, she was untouchable, protected by the loophole in his own magic that granted an escape clause for the curse of frog-hood he had placed upon her. And if one more month passed, she would be human again and escape his grasp forever. This could not be.

Konstantin, despite his violent dislike of the bunch, understood humans very well. He had to time the thing properly, of course, give Lissa that bit of hope, and then snatch it so cruelly away. He liked cruelty, after all. The mere thought of a grieving prince or a suitably punished daughter gave him a warm sensation where his heart used to be, before he had transfigured it into something that would make him invulnerable.

'Father, what's on your mind?' Matthew asked, coming in from outside, where he had been gathering firewood. The pathetic sticks in his arms were not going to do, and Konstantin thought with satisfaction of the fact that within a month, Lissa would be back to do the chores and all would be as it should be. Except this time, she would never escape again. He looked at his son, and began to devise the best way for the boy to construct his sister's demise. He'd have to send him to the kingdom, a thought he didn't like at all. Still, let him prove himself.

'You're going to take a little trip, Matty,' his father told him, and the warm feeling that accompanied an evil plan rose in him once again. 'Sit down, and let me tell you a thing or two about kings and ambition.'

XXX

The beautiful tunic had been made and was lying ready for presentation to the king. Irving looked at it morosely. Lissa's mood had not improved over the last month. He knew he could have apologized and things might have gone back to as normal as things could be when you were married to a frog, but he avoided her, feeling guilty and cowardly. She hated him, he thought, and at the same time, felt indignant that a frog should hate him, a prince. And then, the little voice in the back of his hand that some might call a conscience would correct him. Not a frog, but Lissa. His own dear Lissa, who had accomplished so much for him, and all because she was kind. Because she was friendly and actually cared about him. He saw her kindness in sharp relief against Amelia's tantrums and Isabeaux's sulks, and still he avoided her.

But today, the tunic would be presented and its maker would have to be there for the unveiling. He would ensure that no harm came to her, of course, and wondered whether the superstitious court would try any funny business again. King Dorian's edict had silenced the strongest protestors among the nobles, but the servants still chattered about the strangeness of their frog princess. Irving wondered idly whether he would have to endure a contest of some kind every month for the rest of his life. Better get it over with. Maybe he could just take Lissa and run away?

'Prince Irving?'

Well, speak of the devil, he thought.

'Come in, it's not locked!' he called, before mentally smacking himself.

'Yes, I can't actually, but I guess you've forgotten. It has been so long since you last saw me, maybe you've forgotten your wife is a frog,' Lissa stated drily. Her own regard for the prince had not waned, but she was angry at his reticence towards her and his avoidance of her after she had given him the tunic. Her guards were up again, and it would take a great deal more than an apology or an explanation to bring them down.

As she finished talking, the door opened. Irving stood there, looking down at Lissa and marvelling at how small she was, sitting on the floor. She shouldn't be left alone, he thought. I shouldn't have left her alone.

'I'm an idiot,' he told her immediately, scooping her up from the floor.

Lissa's stomach lurched at the rapid movement, but she met his eye as he raised her in front of his face.

'I'd heard. You probably don't want to say it too loudly, though, the walls have ears,' she replied frostily.

'Lissa, I am so sorry. I've been avoiding you because... I don't actually know why I've been avoiding you. Call it my stupidity. Call it whatever you want, but please don't look at me like that anymore!' The last was delivered almost as a moan, because even as a frog, Lissa's expression was enough to cause deep anguish for the boy.

Lissa continued to stare, and finally said, 'I forgive you. I know why you've been avoiding me, nobody wants to be married to a frog. No, let me finish!' she exclaimed, because he had been about to interrupt. 'Ving, I don't want your pity, I don't want your sympathy and I certainly don't want you to act as though I've killed your favourite puppy because I'm not being chummy. I was hoping we could be friends, but clearly, that was too much to hope for. Don't worry, though, I'll be out of your hair soon enough,' she finished.

Ving gaped for a moment. Then he asked weakly, 'What can I do to prove my friendship?'

Lissa thought for a long while. This last month had been one long pity party. She had allowed herself, nestled in warm sheets and wearing pretty clothes, to feel as indulged as she could, and she had often turned Michael away, telling him she just wanted to be alone. She understood now that she had been looking for a sign that her husband could see beyond the fact that she was a frog. A stupid thing, really, primarily because she was a frog. He didn't know otherwise and, what was more, she didn't want him to know otherwise.

And that's when she'd decided that she would make it simple for herself. Once the next month was up and she would never have to don the frog skin again, she would just leave. Maybe she'd leave Ving a note about how she hoped he would be happy but she wanted to go back to the swamp or something. But she couldn't stay in the castle as a human. She'd never be more than a thing to him that way, and she would hate her husband for something that would not be his fault. Sure, he'd be overjoyed to find out she was not a frog, but a girl, and maybe he'd even make an effort to reconnect or win her friendship, maybe even her love. But her humanity, her pretty face would always stand in the way of her caring for him. So she'd leave, and be free, just as planned.

All this whirled through Lissa's head as Ving waited for his answer.

'I don't think you can prove that to me,' Lissa finally said quietly. 'I think the time for friendship is over.'

Irving nodded slowly. Well, if that was how she felt about it, then so be it. He'd find a way to win her over again. And he'd get rid of this sinking feeling in his gut, that left him wanting to punch Eric, Daniel and himself, all simultaneously. Really, mostly himself.

'Time to go,' Lissa reminded him. 'Try and pay attention, we still don't know why your father persists in setting himself up for failure by putting on these competitions that I will always win.'

XXX

The truth was, Dorian himself did not know. He wanted to be rid of the frog, and Irving, but he couldn't do so without danger to himself, so he was stalling. And hopefully getting some magical gifts in the process. The tapestry was beyond repair, true, but he wanted to see what the frog made of his tunic idea. Next he'd ask for some armour, he thought, though it would hardly be a fair contest for Amelia and Isabeaux, who weren't exactly trained as smiths.

Just as the very funny and satisfying picture of the shriek-prone Amelia bent over an anvil, accidentally striking her finger with a hot poker, crossed his mind, someone entered his field of vision. This was surprising, as he was locked in his private study, and nobody would have been able to enter, let alone so soundlessly. Yet here was this boy, youngish and dark, very dark.

'King Dorian?' he asked meekly. The kid looked terrified, as if he was going against every impulse by being here. Good, thought Dorian. I'll have him in the stocks for a week for intruding. He opened his mouth to bellow to the guards, but found himself completely voiceless. This was an unexpected development.

'No, no, we don't want any of that,' the kid told him, nervously darting his eyes to the door and then back to the rapidly-reddening face of the king. 'I'm here to help you, and if I have to kill your soldiers while trying to do so, you'll doubt my motive.'

More magic, thought Dorian. Well, maybe he could take advantage of the situation and find out from the kid, once he got his voice back, how to get rid of a frog and an unfortunately lucky son.

'Your problem is also my problem, you see,' the kid continued. 'You've got a frog you need to get rid of, and I happen to need the same frog.'

Dorian was beginning to calm down, liking the way this conversation was going.

'So I'm going to tell you what you do. You're going to throw a very big ball in a month and make sure every one of your son's wives attends. All of them. On pain of death, if you have to. Yes,' he added, seeing the king mouth 'frog', 'the frog, too. I'll take care of the rest, don't you worry.'

Dorian wondered at how a ball would solve anyone's problems, apart from the merchants who would benefit in pecuniary ways from a grand royal ball. So he said so, and found his voice was back.

'I don't see how that helps anyone.'

Before he could say more, the kid had narrowed his mean little eyes and was glaring at him.

'I didn't ask you to insert your views, mortal,' he menaced, much of the fear leaving him as he realized that he was far more powerful than this fat man who could only threaten other mortals. 'I told you what you're going to do. Do it well, and everyone is happy.'

'What about my son?' Dorian asked impulsively, surprised at himself for caring about Ving's well-being all of a sudden.

'You do this right,' the boy responded with a wicked smile, misunderstanding the question based on what his father had told him about the king's opinion of his youngest, 'I can make your son go away if you want. Maybe he can come live in a pond with his wife, what do you think?'

Dorian nodded dumbly. What a creep, he thought inwardly. No, he wouldn't be crossing him, and it would probably benefit him, getting the frog and Irving out of the way. A ball it would be.