I won't blather on for long, but I do have something important to say, for once. I'm looking for a beta. As you can tell if you read this story or any others, I make a lot of mistakes. Well, that's fine, since I'm writing to get better. But if there's no one to point out the mistakes, it's much harder to fix them. So if anyone knows/is/has/would enslave/etc someone willing to correct my terrible sentence structure, distressing tendency to overuse ellipses, bad spelling and overall sloppy writing, I would be most grateful. Now, on to the story.
Warnings: Older siblings. Never mind the slash and the swearing, the siblings are what you've got to watch out for. I should know: I am one. Other than that, there is both heterosexuality and male homosexuality described here so if either/both of those disturb you...well, that kind of sucks because your life must be hard.
Disclaimer: Again, as far as I know the fairy tale from which this was adapted (The Frog Princess, known under several different names and permutations) isn't attributed to anyone in particular. I like these Russian stories--they're fun to play with--but they're not mine. Or yours. Just like this story isn't yours, so don't steal. What this story is is a gift for Nara Merald, because she's a great writer and because I promised to write her something forever ago and only just now finished it. Go read her stuff.
Most of his problems in life, Kay judged, stemmed out of being born the youngest of four. Everyone knew that three was the number for anything, and that once you got past three children you weren't supposed to stop until you got upwards of ten or so. Somehow, his father had missed the message, and consigned him to a thoroughly un-fairytale-like life.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if his father had been a miller, or a farmer or something. Numbers didn't matter quite so much then, at least as long as no one went out to seek his or her fortune. But when your father was a king? You were pretty much doomed.
"Hello? Helllooooo?" Kay let out a very un-princely growl/whine hybrid and batted away the fist that was knocking none-too-gently on his forehead. That was the other thing about being the youngest of four: you were the youngest. Three older siblings were curse enough even without all the extra baggage. His sister raised her fist to knock again, and Kay quickly scooted backwards, scowling. "Allie. What."
Princess Alicia sighed tolerantly—the special kind of 'tolerant' that older siblings have perfected over the centuries—and tucked a piece of strawberry-golden hair behind one ear. The adjective was important; Kay had called her hair 'red' once and had never quite slept easy again after what she had put in his bed. "You weren't listening to me."
Judging from how narrowed her eyes were, she'd been talking for a while, too. Kay scooted back a bit further just to be on the safe side, and then flashed a charming grin.
"Of course I was!"
Blue eyes narrowed further and Kay debated the merits of staying where he was, or scooting back father and falling off of his bed. Which, he noted, his sister had now completely colonized; her skirts took up almost all the available room while she drove him further and further towards the edge. He wondered if she did it on purpose. She did make an amazingly picturesque sight right then; her hair spread out in ringlets around her, blue eyes bright with anger, pale skin flushed a slight pink (also with anger) and complementing marvelously not only the red gown she wore but also Kay's purple bedspread.
"You're so beautiful, Allie."
A surprised blush tinted her cheeks even more and Kay's hands twitched—he wanted to paint this, but his restless sister would never stay still long enough. Never mind the fact that she'd been only momentarily distracted from her annoyance with him.
"You're not getting out of this. You say you've been listening this entire time?"
"How could you assume otherwise?"
"So, you know that father has arranged for us all to marry zombies after first shooting them?" Kay almost fell off the bed at that statement. His sister smirked triumphantly. "That's what I thought."
"All right, I wasn't listening. Happy? Now tell me."
And Allie told him.
As far as Kay understood, it went something like this: his father the king needed an heir. For whatever reason, the tried and true method of passing the crown down to the eldest child wasn't good enough, and so they'd fallen back on the less tried and much less true but much more dramatic method of a good old-fashioned quest. Which apparently consisted of shooting arrows in random directions, and then going to find said arrows.
"It's…amazingly stupid, actually. Apparently we climb to the highest tower of the palace, shoot one arrow in whatever direction we choose, and then go and find the arrow. If it hasn't gotten lodged in a tree or fallen into a pond or smashed into pieces or been eaten by something or SHOT someone which is incidentally where the zombie part came from—"
"I get it; it's stupid. Keep going."
"And then we…well, we're supposed to marry whoever lives in the place our arrow lands." The last sentence was expelled in a rush of words, as though she didn't want them in her mouth any longer than necessary.
"See, that's what I said too."
After his sister had left, Kat sat in silence for a while, trying to digest the news. He understood his father's motivation, or he thought he did. The king was old. His first wife was long dead, his second had eloped with the gardener and his third hadn't even been his wife a year before she perished in childbirth. He wanted grandchildren and so far, none of his four children had obliged him. He was likely considering abdication as well...and yet none of his three sons (Allie could not inherit the throne unless all three of her brothers declined it) had made any sort of claim on the crown. He was desperate and was trying to spur them into action.
The problem, Kay reflected as he hopped to his feet and made his way to a door next to his wardrobe, was that he personally didn't want to be spurred to action. He certainly didn't want to get married, although of course he probably would have to at some point. But he'd imagined that day to be years from now…the only upside of having three beautiful, talented, intelligent and all-around amazing older siblings was that no one was even going to consider Kay while they were around. So he'd thought he had at least three years before someone pushed for him to wed.
Apparently not. But at least it wasn't a sure thing (and really, what were the chances of his arrow actually landing somewhere inhabited? Slim to none, especially if he aimed carefully) and so the prince resolved to forget it, at least for the next few hours.
Kay shut the door behind him and surveyed his painting room. The wide windows flooded it with light, spilling over window seat liberally covered with cushions and several easels, all but two displaying almost-finished works. He'd left the room in slight disarray from this morning, and with a sigh at his own messiness the prince bent to retrieve his palette from the floor where it had fallen. It had added another stain of paint to an already much-stained carpet, but Kay didn't really mind. He liked that the room proclaimed loud and clear that he didn't just keep it there for show. He wasn't just dabbling in a hobby to fill his spare time…he had something he loved, something he was good at. His older siblings were all amazing at anything they turned their hands to, with few exceptions. Kay wasn't, but at least he had this.
Smiling more serenely than he had all morning, the prince scooped up a brush and began to re-create his sister on the canvas.
"Tristan, you do realize how completely stupid this is?" The eldest prince grinned at his sister as they climbed the winding stairs of the tower. They made quite a picture together, with their vibrant blue eyes, tanned skin and bright hair, though the prince's was a trifle more gold. Truly, the only difference at first glance was the scowl on the princess's face, and of course the long skirts of her dress, which she hiked up in annoyance as she stomped up the stairs.
"What? Where's your sense of adventure? I think it's fun."
From behind him, the middle prince Darren snorted in a mixture of exasperation and amusement, flicking the ends of his gold-brown hair over his shoulders. His sister sent him a quelling glance and snapped "Do you want me to tell you both where you can shove your sense of—"
She broke off as they rounded the last turn and were confronted with a large portion of her father's court, who were waiting to see the beginning of the quest. And who, thankfully, hadn't heard the beginnings of a rather rude suggestion. Fans waved lazily and a low-grade mutter seemed a permanent feature of he crowd. In these days of the king's decline the court found its entertainment where it could; gossip was not the most edifying pastime, but it kept the nobles from being even more troublesome. The crowd parted to allow the princes and princess through, and they joined their youngest sibling and father at the balcony.
It was easy to see traces of the king in all of his children. His bright gold hair was reflected in his eldest two, while his younger two possessed his startlingly green eyes. Now, however, the gold was liberally streaked with silver, and the green was starting to cloud with age. Rich robes and bright jewels only partially drew attention from his frail frame, bent back and unsteady hands, and the crown seemed too heavy for his head.
"My children. I cannot believe that this moment has come so soon…and yet, I feel that you three are ready, are strong enough for this most vital step."
"…three?" It was almost a chorus, confusion strong in all four voices. Surely the king wasn't far gone enough to forget how many children he had? And indeed, he looked rather taken aback at their incredulity.
"Well, I had assumed that it would…be only my three…sons…" The silence that his voice trailed off to hung for a moment as all eyes turned to Princess Alicia; everyone knew her views on being excluded from things on account of her gender. The ornamental fan that she held delicately in her hand, in keeping with the current fashion, snapped closed with a sound like a gunshot.
"Ah…that is…I mean. I-I had assumed that it would only be my three eldest! Since Kayton is of course not marriageable age! But of course if he wishes to compete he is most welcome…"
"Er…that's all right, father. Thank you for the offer." Kay breathed a sigh of relief. He would be 'marriageable age' within a few weeks but really, he didn't find it necessary to call that fact to anyone's attention. He'd sidestepped disaster and was properly grateful for it.
The king recovered his equilibrium slowly. "I…yes, I, I believe you are ready for this most vital step. Remember that where your arrow lands, there will be your bride…er, or of course husband in your case my dear. Return within a month to show us your brides! And husband. The bride…or husband…whom I find most worthy will become queen…or king…at your sides…" Obviously giving up on the rest of his prepared speech, defeated by the unexpected addition of his daughter to the contest, he simply stepped back and motioned Tristan forwards to the edge of the balcony. The eldest prince flashed his ever-present grin again (the ladies of the court sighed and fluttered their fans slightly spastically) then drew his longbow and without appearing to aim at all, shot. The arrow soared up, arced, and landed. There was a general rush for the railing to see where it had gone, and in the confusion no one seemed to have actually seen it land, much less the prince. There were several minutes of chaos before Tristan was hauled none-too-gently down to his shorter sister's level by a handful of hair, and Allie whispered very quickly into his ear. His brow creased in confusion and then cleared, at which point he straightened up and declared that he knew where his arrow had fallen…before whirling to begin his quest instantly. It was quite a bit longer before order was restored, at which point the second prince stepped up to take his turn.
Darren was less of a celebrity figure among the socialites of the palace, not because his long, golden-brown hair, pale skin and bright green eyes were any less attractive, but because he spent most of his time in conference with his father and the Council of Advisors. As famous as the eldest prince was for his good humor and the princess for her temper, so the middle prince was famed for his sharp mind and political instincts. He took longer to aim than his brother had, and when the arrow left his bow it flew straight and fast, not in a lazy arc. The prince barely stopped to see it land in the vicinity of the nearby village—he was already bowing to the king and setting off down the steps.
Bows and one arrow each had been provided for the princes…now Alicia looked around to discover that only Kay's bow and arrow were left for her to use. "Could someone fetch my…?"
"I don't mind, Allie—go ahead. It's not as though it makes a difference, really." His sister shot him a smile and did as requested, drawing his bow with the ease of long practice and innate skill, and setting an arrow to the string. She appeared at a loss for where to shoot, and paused a moment in indecision before simply letting it fly. The court watched incredulously as it soared straight and true…and disappeared into the very middle of a thick patch of forest.
Dim light filtered through the trees, only a few struggling rays actually making their way to the forest floor. The sun was setting and the shadows lengthened, creeping over the thick carpet of fallen leaves and lapping at the edges of the small pool of light shed by a flickering fire. Two figures sat huddled around it, leaning into its warmth.
"I hate forests."
"No, you don't." Kay fed another stick to the fire then looked up at his sister, struggling to keep amusement out of his face and voice. "You just hate this particular forest. Which, admittedly, is the only one you've ever been in. But really, you've no call to hate ALL forests just because this one seems to hate you."
"Kay. Stop talking."
Three weeks, they'd been wandering on this foolish quest. Looking for an arrow in a forest…a needle in a haystack would have been preferable, if only because haystacks didn't have beasts, poisonous plants, and streams that seemed to attract wayward princesses. Speaking of which, Allie scooted closer to the fire and glowered as her damp clothes began to steam. It was about an hour before she was reasonably dry and Kay deemed it safe to speak again.
"…I think there's a lake nearby."
"Oh GOOD. I can FALL IN THERE TOO, is that what you're saying?!?"
"Uh, I was actually suggesting that we could get water from there instead of the stream, but your suggestion works too…"
Allie glowered at him for a moment before rising to her feet and shaking out her water-heavy skirts with dignity. "Give me the damn bucket and I'll go collect water." Kay did so happily and watched her stamp off. He breathed a sigh of relief, enjoying a brief moment of peace—traveling with one's siblings is always stressful, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding—before the silence was broken by his sister's shriek.
"Allie?!" Kay was on his feet in a moment and rushing towards the lake, one hand reaching for the dagger at his waist. If something sought to hurt his sister it would regret it. However, when he arrived he found his sister unharmed, with the bucket overturned and water once again soaking her skirts. "Allie, what…?" She just pointed one trembling hand at the shore of the lake, where there sat a large green frog with an almost comically shocked expression, holding a very familiar arrow in its mouth.
The entire court was buzzing with it. Prince Tristan had returned to the palace within days, bringing with him no less but the baron's daughter—the arrow had landed in her private garden. Prince Darren had returned within two weeks, with a village girl of common breeding but whose sweet temper and clever wit were loved by all. And Princess Alicia and Prince Kayton had returned two days before the month was up…bearing with them a frog.
And now the two of them, the frog between them on a cushion, were trying to put off the inevitable. The month was up, they had been summoned to their father…and it looked very much like in a few short hours, Allie was going to be engaged to an amphibian.
"I can't! I can't I can't I WON'T! It's impossible! This entire thing was stupid from the start…I REFUSE to be HUMILIATED like this!" Kay lay on his bed staring at the frog as though it would give him some sort of inspiration, while Allie raged around the room. "I…I'll just say it was a joke. A stupid joke and that we couldn't find the arrow at all. Then everything will be fine, right? Gods, why didn't we think of this before?"
Kay sighed and sat up. "We didn't think of this before because it won't work. If we wanted to do that, we should have just left the frog in the forest and thrown the arrow back into the pond. We've got to go through with it, Allie. A royal's word is their bond; if people see you backing out of this…besides, quests and oaths aren't good things to lie about in the first place. Even if we got away with saying it was a joke, I think it would do more harm in the long run."
"OKAY, just STOP!" The princess practically shrieked, and they both fell silent again. Then the sound of bells rang through the hallways summoning all before the king, and they both stood up, Kay picking up the cushion and frog as they made their way to the throne room.
Everyone stared at them as they entered—or, not precisely at them, but at the frog in Kay's hands. He shot a glance at Allie and then quickly looked away again—her head was held high and proud and her step even and stately, and he doubted anyone but him noticed the tightness of her mouth and brightness in her eyes that meant she was holding back tears. His sister hated crying in public.
They made it to the dais on which the thrones sat—only the king's was occupied, his queens long gone. Their father watched them approach, and his eyes too were fixed on the small green frog. With the attention of the entire court on it, the poor animal was looking rather uncomfortable, and even though this entire mess could be blamed on it, Kay was instead feeling rather sorry for it. After all, it hadn't exactly asked to be in this situation either.
"Ah…well…Tristan. Tristan, my eldest son, have you found your bride?" The king finally managed to tear his eyes away from his daughter, and smiled as the baron's daughter curtsied to him gracefully, golden curls and milky-white skin shining in the lights. She took Tristan's arm as she rose, and it was obvious that she, like the rest of the court, was smitten with the prince's charm. And Tristan himself did not look too unhappy, for no one would argue that the baroness was anything but stunningly beautiful. Darren's bride curtsied next to the king, perhaps with slightly less finesse and grace, but the sparkle in her eyes and the happiness of her smile made her beauty equal if not more.
And then it was Allie's turn.
"Give me the…that thing." She whispered violently, reaching her hands out to take the cushion the frog rested on but glaring at it with the full force of her fury. Kay was surprised the animal didn't explode into pieces on the spot, and tried to shield it from the force of the glare with one hand.
"Don't be like that, Allie. I'll carry him."
"'Him'. Oh lovely."
Together they approached the throne, and Allie curtsied in a mockery of her older brothers' brides-to-be. "My father, I have completed the quest you set for me. There is the…person…who lives where my arrow landed." Whispers exploded everywhere, and Kay twitched uncomfortably, never happy with the rumour-and-gossip mill that was the court. Once again all eyes were fixed on the frog…which to Kay's astonishment sat up a little straighter and, with a remarkably human voice, said apologetically "I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to make things difficult for anyone."
Kay, staring at the frog in shock, expected everything to explode into chaos at once. But it seemed that the amphibian had managed to impossible; it had shocked the court into silence. Finally the king found his voice and, rather as though he couldn't believe what he was saying, managed to ask "…you…er, sir frog, you can speak?"
"Ah, yes. Just 'sir' is fine, though. Or Lionel, but I'm not sure we're on a first-name basis yet."
"…how exactly can you speak?"
"Rather the same way you can, I'd assume."
The king looked like he didn't know whether to be offended or intrigued, and lapsed back into speechlessness. Allie, however, had recovered her voice.
"But this changes everything! Just refuse to marry me! As long as father doesn't make it a royal order," a glare at the king informed him he wouldn't if he knew what was good for him "you're allowed to refuse and then everything's fine!"
Her voice was breathless and full of sudden hope, but the frog looked both uncomfortable and apologetic. "I'm really very sorry…but I can't."
"Why NOT." Oh, bad tone of voice. Kay winced a bit, but the frog just carried on explaining.
"You see, I'm unfortunately under a curse. With some very specific parameters, that of course I can't tell anyone or in any way make known, etc etc…in any case, I'm afraid it's fixated a bit on this quest and sort of…included it in the curse too."
"I'm CURSED now?!?"
Kay winced again, this time because his sister's voice was reaching dangerously shrill tones. The court appeared to be recovering as well…murmuring was starting, gasps of disbelief and—Kay frowned—delight. This was more entertainment than people had had in years and what did they care that his sister was suffering? She was their princess, but far be it from them to give her the respect she deserved! His rising anger was distracted when the frog spoke again, but wasn't dispelled.
"…not really. Or, well, a bit. But all you have to do is go through with the quest, and you'll be fine."
The unspoken assumption that she wouldn't be fine if she didn't go through with it hung heavy in the air, and Kay could tell that Allie knew it. She looked so completely miserable, so desolate, that Kay really couldn't stand it anymore. He might be the youngest, but that didn't mean he didn't feel protective of his siblings too, sometimes. He was speaking before he even really knew what he was saying.
"No, she doesn't." Every eye in the hall turned to him now, and for a moment Kay was sure he could hear his brain clanking and creaking as it tried to reverse and figure out what had just happened. Because he was fairly sure he'd done something stupid again…but by the way Allie's face brightened with desperate hope, he knew he couldn't take it back. And then suddenly the solution was right there, in his mind, crystal clear and so simple.
"It wasn't her quest in the first place; it was mine. Father meant it to be me, and we both went in search of the arrow, and we both found it. So this curse should apply to either of us, right?" Kay waited apprehensively for comprehension to dawn and the objections that were sure to come, but the frog spoke first.
"Wait…whose arrow, exactly, was it?"
"Mine." Allie began but Kay jumped in "No, it was mine, remember? My arrow, shot from my bow and found by you and me."
"…so it was your arrow." The frog couldn't twist to look at him the way the courtiers were, so it hopped around on the cushion until it was facing Kay and could peer up at him.
"Well, it seems fairly simple then, doesn't it?"
"I certainly think so, yes."
Allie's eyes were widening in sudden understanding and from the corner of his eyes Kay saw Darren whispering something very quickly to his bride (gods only knew what that was about), but the rest of the court and the king especially still seemed lost.
"Kayton…exactly what are you suggesting?"
Even with the 'what the hells am I doing?!' that was resounding inside his head, Kay found time to be amused by the fact that a talking frog understood what he was getting at better than his own father. He answered the suspicious question mildly, as though it were the most obvious and logical thing ever, with his carefully perfected 'innocent' face and voice.
"He should just marry me instead."
And then the chaos that Kay had predicted earlier finally rose up and swamped the court.
The youngest prince sighed and turned to see who was talking to him this time. He'd been accosted so many times in the past few hours…but he blinked in surprise when it turned out to be his brother. Darren looked harried, as the entire royal family did in the aftermath of the day's events, but he also looked very, very unhappy. His grip on his brother's arm was tight as he drew him into a side hall.
"Kay, I'm so sorry."
Kay didn't know how to respond to that. Darren was looking miserable and guilty and really, he had no idea why. After all, it wasn't so bad was it? And it certainly wasn't his brother's fault. Poor Allie had refused to accept that it wasn't her fault, so Kay had left her being miserable in her room and was going to try again tomorrow. But Darren…
"…er, you don't have to be…really…"
"No, but I do." His brother ran a hand through his hair and explained unhappily "You see, I was the one who gave father the idea for the quest in the first place."
He shot a glance at Kay's stunned face, winced, and continued. "I…you know we all have different strengths. None of us is truly suited to rule on our own, so whoever the official heir is, chances are the other three will still be playing quite a large role in politics. Including making alliances."
"Dar, I know all this. You informed us of this when you were twelve years old. You had our futures all planned out, extremely intricately."
"…I've revised it a bit since then."
"Good, I'm glad. Get to the point."
"Well…alliances include politically advantageous marriages, of course. But I…well, I…" For the first time in several years at least, the normally composed prince appeared to be struggling for words. Kay grinned and let him flounder around a little longer before taking pity on him.
"Let me guess. You already had someone in mind, someone who wasn't exactly 'politically advantageous'?"
"That's the gist of it, yes."
"Awwwwww." Darren glared at him, but Kay was having too much fun to be cowed. It was practically his duty as a younger sibling. "That's so sweet. Is she your True Love, Dar?"
"Is she? Did you sweep her off her feet? Did you propose at all, or did you just show up? 'Hi, remember me? Yeah, we're getting married now because I shot an arrow into your backyard, isn't it great?'"
"Kayton. You are rapidly eroding my sympathy for the difficult position I've put you in." Kay subsided reluctantly, still sniggering. "And for your information, she helped me come up with this plan and I did ask first, you brat." He glared a moment longer, then continued.
"So, you understand. No one is going to argue with the marriage now, not when it's part of a quest…everyone accepts that the normal rules don't apply. And I knew that if they just gave her a chance, she'd be able to prove herself…Kay, you have to meet her, really you do. You'll love her."
"Does 'she' have a name?"
"Ella. Eleanor, really." Darren's face and voice were taking on a distinctly dreamy tone, and Kay couldn't help sniggering loudly. His brother snapped back to reality again, looking torn between annoyance and embarrassment.
"In any case. I assumed you other three wouldn't find your arrows at all, or would just explain to whoever lived there and have them politely decline the match." Darren sighed, then smiled a bit. "I didn't count on Tristan being quite so smart—I know where his arrow landed, it was nowhere near the baron's estates. The baroness, though…she's a wonderful political match. Our brother is smarter than we give him credit for." Kay blinked a bit and decided to keep quiet about the role he suspected his sister might have played in the proceedings. "So really, you're the only one who's suffered from all this, Kay. I never dreamt this would end up in you have to-to marry a toad."
"I think he's a frog, actually. And he says his name is Lionel."
"…where is it now, by the way?"
"He is in my room. People kept trying to poke at him." Kay saw Darren's incredulous expression, and shrugged. "It's not really that big of a deal, Dar. He's a talking frog, for one thing; a sentient creature, not just an animal. He seems quite intelligent and so far, he's been very polite to me. And you know I wasn't going to marry anyways, not by my own free will at least. This saves me from giving some countess or princess false impressions." He'd confided to Darren and Darren only his distaste for all that marriage to a woman offered. Tristan wouldn't understand and Allie…well, she was volatile enough that Kay didn't know how she would react. Darren always took things calmly, or almost always. Right now he was looking rather distressed.
"We could have found you someone, Kay. Maybe not to marry, but a companion at least? It's not unheard of for princes, especially younger sons, not to marry. You could spend your life with the man of your choice; isn't there anyone who's caught your eye? But now…it's a frog, Kay. A frog."
"He's a frog; he's intelligent and he can talk, that makes him a person so stop calling him 'it'. And no, there's no one. Dar, honestly; I don't mind. At least now that I'm officially 'taken', I won't have to deal with matchmaking mothers or any of that, and I'll have more time for my duties and for painting. Look at it this way; I'll be the first prince ever to marry a man. Or, well, a male at least."
"If you're sure…"
"I'm sure. So stop looking so dour; marrying your One True Love is not an occasion where you should be unhappy. Shouldn't you go find her, by the way? I'm sure she'll be pining for you."
"…brat." But the middle prince obeyed.
Kay waited until he could no longer hear his brother's footsteps before he let his smile fade from almost manically reassuring. There was something not right about seeing Darren disquieted and worried like that, the same way that he hated seeing Allie cry.
On the upside, Darren was obviously smitten. Which was hilarious. Kay couldn't wait to tell Allie…their brother was never going to hear the end of this, ever. Kay grinned again, turning to head back to his own room, but his smile dropped off of his face completely when he remembered what was waiting for him there. The frog. Lionel. His betrothed. This was going to be uncomfortable.
"This is awkward."
"Just a bit."
Kay sat cross-legged on his bed, his elbows resting on his knees and his chin on his hands. Brown hair hung down on either side of his wrists, just long enough to brush his neck—he lacked his siblings' vibrant colours as well as Allie's curls. All his hair managed was a half-hearted wave. The frog sat on a cushion on his bedside table, and blinked at him with its wide eyes. Kay fished around for something to say.
"Uh…sorry about all the being poked at and manhandled and stuff. We'll let people know not to do that."
"Thank you, Your Highness."
More awkward silence. Kay was good at silence when he was being ignored or ignoring other people, but silence like this just sort of staring at each other…nope, not enough patience for it.
"Argh! Okay, to hell with the awkwardness! I'm Kay, due to an unfortunate conjunction of circumstances we are now engaged, and we are going to talk about something interesting!"
"…I'm Lionel, it is rather unfortunate but you're taking it quite well, and did you know that the trolls believe time goes backwards?"
"…wait, really?" Kay stared wide-eyed for a moment, not expecting that sort of response in the slightest. He gaped for a moment, then seemed to recover his powers of speech and instantly demanded, "Hold on, explain that. Backwards?"
"Yes. That the end of the world has already happened, and now we're working our way back towards creation. It gives them a very unique outlook."
"…I would imagine so." Kay agreed, trying to wrap his mind around that. "How do you know that? I've never read anything like that about trolls…"
"You wouldn't have; they're not so much in favor of written information. You have to hear about most things for yourself, by word of mouth…and I know because—" The frog broke off suddenly, bulbous eyes widening even further as his words became guttural, fast-paced croaks. Kay blinked once or twice, especially when the croaks abated and Lionel's voice returned, swearing furiously in several different languages. "—and all gods great and small strike down this hells-damned CURSE!"
"…are you all right?" There was a pause while the frog got himself back under control.
"Yes. There are things the curse prevents me from talking about, and that is apparently one of them. I apologize, Your Highness."
"Oh, don't, please call me Kay. I'm not affected by that part of the curse, am I?"
"I'm not sure. Try talking about your past, or your childhood."
"…all right. My name is Kayton D'rei, fourth son of the Royal House D'rei, born to the king and his Queen Consort. I am eighteen years old as of…the day we met, actually. That's odd. I have three older siblings and they make my life hell. Er…is that enough?"
Lionel croaked with laughter at the part about his siblings, but prompted "Try some personal details. What you do, what your role as prince is…"
"This is very strange. I keep waiting for my voice to stop working." Kay complained, but obliged. "Tristan, my eldest brother, oversees the military and the more public aspects of ruling. He helps some with diplomacy but father decided he wasn't suited. Darren is in charge of the Council of Advisors, which takes care of almost everything related to trade, foreign affairs, science and magic research…things like that. Allie—you should call her Alicia until she gives you leave to shorten it—is at the moment in charge of the justice courts which means she settles internal disputes, mostly over land and honour among the nobles. I tend to meet with merchants and artisans and to oversee the upkeep of the castle in matters not related to its defense—defense is Tristan's job. All of our duties were suspended for the duration of the quest, however, which means we'll all be dealing with a rats' nest of problems before too long."
"What do you do for yourself?"
"Oh." Kay shrugged self-deprecatingly. "I paint, mostly. Not very well. But it's soothing. That's why I'm in charge of the artisans; I suppose I can relate, a bit." A moment of silence followed that comment. "I think it's safe to say the curse isn't affecting my ability to speak." Kay concluded, and Lionel gave a little half-hop that Kay thought translated as a nod.
There was another long pause of silence, neither one really sure where to take the conversation next, and then Kay grinned slightly hesitantly. "So…can I paint you?"
One week later
Weren't family dinners supposed to be friendly? Or at least not amazingly uncomfortable? Kay sighed, shifting in his seat slightly and wishing he was just back in his room. He loved his family, really he did. But this was awkward. If it was just him and Lionel in his room, he could pretend the whole 'marriage' thing didn't exist, and just be glad that he had a friend he related so well to. Now he had to look at Tristan's bride-to-be—what was her name again?—and Darren's Ella and feel all out of place.
"Oh yes, so far the palace has been wonderful! And everyone has been so kind and welcoming. I wish there was a way to get to know everyone, all at once!" Tristan's bride smiled brightly and the king laughed.
"Imagine that! That brings me very neatly to the reason I called this meeting. My children, you did wonderfully on the first stage of the quest…so I anticipate your bride's success on the next three tests with utmost confidence. The test will be to weave a cloth fit for a royal bed, to bake a loaf fit for the royal table, and to comport yourself at the banquet in three day's time with behavior fit for a member of the royal family."
"Tests? Father, I—er, you never said anything about tests!" Darren looked outraged, and only calmed when his bride rested a hand on his shoulder. Kay glanced at Allie and mouthed a sarcastic but silent 'awww', which Lionel caught and the rest of the group missed. The king looked taken aback by his middle son's objections.
"Well, yes, but really Darren it's all in good fun. You know this won't really determine who takes the crown…this is just a way to show off your brides to the court and the kingdom."
"I don't see the problem either…what's wrong with that?" Tristan inquired, only to be smacked across the back of the head by his sister.
"What about Kay, huh?"
"Oh. Right. Sorry Kay."
Tristan smiled sheepishly at his brother, who shrugged. The king winced at the mention of his youngest son, his eyes flicking to Lionel quickly and then away again. "W-well, obviously Kay wouldn't be competing…" the king mumbled, and almost jumped when Lionel spoke.
"Well, yes, I had the impression that none of the royal family would. However, if you meant that I wouldn't, I don't see why not."
"But you…you can't…" The king trailed off, unable to find a tactful way to phrase it. Kay decided to take pity on their father.
"Lionel, I hate to say it, but I'm rather confused as well. The first task is to weave a cloth…how can you possibly use a loom? Your fingers don't have joints, and you're too small in any case…" The frog just gave him a look. "What? It's a reasonable question."
"It is…and if you trust me, I'll explain later." Kay shrugged, and gave in.
"If you say so."
Later, in their favourite spots in Kay's room—Kay on the bed, Lionel on his cushion—Kay asked again how exactly the frog was intending to complete the task.
"I told you not to worry about it, Kay."
"Yes, well, I'm not so much worried as…I suppose it's a mixture of curious and apprehensive. What is it you're not telling me that makes you so sure you can do this?" Kay gestured to the loom in the corner, set up that afternoon by the palace staff who cast dubious but polite glances at Lionel the entire time.
"You know I can't talk about anything to do with the curse."
"…would you tell me if you could?"
Lionel looked up in surprise, and Kay's bright green eyes caught his slightly bulbous ones. There was a long silence, each one lost in his own thoughts.
"…I'm not sure." The frog decided at last, and Kay nodded.
"Fair enough." He dropped the subject for now, not sure what that answer meant to him. Kay rolled off the bed and went to his closet, pausing a moment before shaking his head at himself. He was still embarrassed to change into his nightclothes in front of a frog? A frog he was going to be married to, no less. Really, now. Kay quickly stripped and tugged on his nightclothes, burrowing into his covers with a sigh.
"Tell me something interesting?"
A croaking laugh from the darkness beside his bed, where Kay knew the frog would be comfortably resting on the cushion. Over the past few days that had been a constant refrain, ever since the frog had broken the ice by explaining how trolls thought about time. Kay still didn't know how his husband-to-be knew everything he did, since any attempt to talk about it triggered the curse's silencing clause, but he was happy enough to just be fed random tidbits of information.
"There's a particular bird in the southern tropics that…" Kay smiled and let the voice wash over him as he slowly fell asleep.
"…well, now I feel like an idiot for questioning you. How did you…? No, of course, you can't tell me." Kay ran his hands over the bolt of cloth again, stroking the soft surface in amazement. "This is so pretty…I can't make something like this…" He glanced up to see Lionel looking uncomfortable, or as uncomfortable as a frog can look, and dropped the subject.
"Anyways, let's go see father…serves him right for being rude to you. Really, there's no cause for that kind of behavior." The prince folded the cloth over one arm and carefully scooped up Lionel's cushion, edging the door open (not an easy feat without hands, and it had required some tricky maneuvering) and making his way to the throne room. Allie joined them, mostly over her dislike of Lionel by now, and was more than happy to carry the cloth.
"…is it just me, or are you getting sick of the hush that falls whenever we walk into a room?" Kay grumbled in a whisper, resisting the urge to shrink into himself or glare at everyone. Of course as a prince he was used to a small amount of scrutiny…but this was just plain rude! Lionel was now a prince in his own right by virtue of marriage, and deserved respect instead of stares and gossip!
Lionel hopped a little on his cushion, turning to face Kay. "Of course I am…but there's nothing you can do about it but ignore it."
"Not true—I can yell at everyone until they treat you like a person."
"And that would accomplish what, exactly?"
"It would make me feel better?"
Kay sighed. He was out-of-sorts already and had been all day; he'd had an odd dream last night that he couldn't quite remember, just a shadowy figure and whispered words whose meanings he didn't know. He'd woken up that morning trying to re-capture the dream, and his failure to do so had been nagging him all day.
That and the stares were really, really annoying him. But Lionel was right—there really wasn't anything he could do about it. Kay knelt to his father and gestured towards the cloth that Allie held with his free hand. "Father. My husband's entry for the first task." More buzzing, more staring as the cloth was laid next to the ones from the other wives. How exactly the king was going to judge their relative merit Kay wasn't sure, but he didn't particularly want to stick around to find out, not with the whispers and stares and really couldn't they find something else to look at?!
"Calm down, Kay. It's fine. It makes no difference to anything important. Anyways, did you know that there are thirteen words in Elvish for 'mother'?"
Kay made an inarticulate sound of annoyance, but allowed the subject to be changed.
It didn't get any better when he presented the second task; a loaf of bread, of all things. Where was his father getting these ideas? Kay was fairly certain that Allie had no idea how to bake bread. Obviously Darren's bride did, since she didn't have cooks and servants and things of that nature, but the baroness had looked completely lost and confused at the announcement. Lionel had, of course, somehow produced a very passable loaf of bread. Kay didn't even bother asking how. The dream had been back again last night, and even now he thought he could feel the echoes of the phantom touch on his face. It was unnerving him.
At least there was only one more task—that damn number three again, making Kay's life hard—and the court was waiting impatiently for the king to announce it. Finally, the old man stood, and even as annoyed as Kay was by this entire production he couldn't help noticing how excited his father looked, much more like himself than he had in ages. He just wished it didn't come at the expense of his privacy and dignity.
"My sons. I'm so proud of you all…you have grown into such fine young men. And your brides are beautiful; both are truly worthy to be queen at your sides. This last task is not so much a task as a chance to show off your lovely spouses to the court; tomorrow night we will hold a ball, at the end of which I will announce who will become king after me. I love you all, my children." He beamed at them as the court applauded heartily. It wasn't as if it was even suspenseful; everyone who mattered knew that Tristan would be king but Darren would be the one really in charge of making sure the kingdom worked.
"Kay…you're growling." Lionel's voice was distinctly amused; Kay's wasn't.
"He's ignoring you! Completely!"
"Yes, he is rather. Although not very subtly, I have to say."
"Lionel, don't you mind?!" The frog let out a croaky little laugh.
"As cute as you trying to be protective of me is, I'd rather you just not worry about it."
Kay looked down at the cushion in his hands in surprise, and learned something new: frogs are apparently masters of the poker face.
Kay fidgeted surreptitiously, a veteran of balls and other uncomfortable social events but not really a fan of them. He tapped out a short rhythm on one of the buttons on his jacket; they were black, to match the trim and offset the deep green of the fabric, bringing out a matching shade in his eyes. Or so Allie had informed him. All Kay knew was that it was the kind of clothing with starkly pressed lines and a severe cut that forced his posture ramrod-straight.
"Your Highness! You look so handsome…oh, but where's your frog? I so wanted to…meet…him." The cloud of lace and ruffles masquerading as a woman barely managed to get the statement out with a straight face, and her fan quickly flicked up to her face to screen her laughing mouth. Kay bowed politely but his voice could have frozen flames.
"Lionel will be slightly late. He asked me to apologize on his behalf; he had some important matters to attend to."
"Yes, really." Kay snapped, and turned away, indicating firmly that the conversation was done. He drifted through the crowds, avoiding conversations when he could and ending them quickly when he couldn't and told himself firmly that he wasn't sulking. Sure, he felt just the tiniest bit abandoned. And maybe he couldn't understand why Lionel had told him to go on ahead without him to the ball…because while Kay knew it couldn't be comfortable, the scrutiny and mutters and laughter, hadn't Lionel insisted that it didn't bother him and Kay should ignore it?
Well, it was a lot damn harder to ignore it when he was on his own.
"Kay! KaykaykaykaykayKAY!" There were arms around his neck, constricting his airway quite a bit, and Kay couldn't see a thing thanks to the red-gold hair in his face.
"…good evening, my darling sister. Might I possibly have some air and some personal space?" He laughed as Allie disentangled herself from him. Her hair was loose, bound only at the sides with jeweled pins, and fell down her shoulders in a cascade of curls. Those shoulders were fashionably bare, although as a protective younger brother Kay would have had to object if the neckline of her wine-red dress dipped any lower. Ruby jewelry sparkled at her wrists and neck and Kay knew the exact combination of paints he would use to bring out her flesh tone. Really, he was blessed to have such beautiful siblings, and the whispers that said he should be jealous or resentful were stupid.
"By all the gods, thank you for using his name!" Kay managed to control the volume of the outburst, at least, so no heads turned at the pure exasperation in his voice. Allie sighed.
"Kay…I know I've said it before but I feel horrible that you had to do that for me…" Kay rolled his eyes.
"And I've said that it's really no hardship. I like Lionel. I dislike the thought of marrying anyone else almost as much as I dislike the way the court treats him. You and Darren can feel as guilty as you want but there's no cause for it."
"…if you say so." Allie conceded reluctantly, then returned to her original question. "So? Where is your husband and why isn't he here?"
"He said to go on ahead without him." Kay grumbled. No, he wasn't pouting…he was just doing something remarkably similar to it. Really, if he had to endure the stares and the whispers and the dancing was it too much to ask for someone to make sarcastic comments with, at least?!
"Aww." Allie hugged him again. "Don't worry. There will be other balls, and you can't really blame him for not wanting to be at this one."
"But at least he could have let me skip out with him."
Allie laughed, and released him with one last squeeze around his windpipe. "It'll be over in a couple of hours. Now I've got to go; your suit clashes with my hair." An 'affectionate' rap on the top of his head with her fan and she was gone into the sea of people, almost instantly converged upon by a crowd of admirers.
Kay sighed and returned to being anti-social, hoping to at least avoid dancing with anyone. Although he supposed that if anyone asked he could say it wouldn't be proper to dance with anyone but his betrothed. There; Lionel could be good for something after all, even if he'd abandoned him! Kay laughed quietly to himself, then frowned as the sound rang out louder than it should have. Why had it gone so quiet all of a sudden? He glanced around and found that everyone seemed to be staring in the direction of the doors, struck dumb by whatever they saw there. Was there a late-arriving guest attracting attention? Curiosity getting the better of his desire to sulk, Kay wriggled through the crowd until he was at the front and able to see what everyone was staring at…at which point he too stopped and gaped.
This man was most definitely new to the palace...an ambassador, maybe, or a messenger from a foreign land at least. Kay would have remembered seeing anyone like him before; his sheer exotic-ness was probably what was holding everyone so spellbound. The hair was the first thing Kay noticed. A multitude of tiny braids (no wider than Kay's finger) tumbled down the man's neck and over his shoulders in a mess of dark honey-gold, like nothing else the prince had ever seen. Two or three braids on each side of the face were pulled back to keep the rest of them under control, but for the most part the locks of hair were free to swing with the man's movement.
The clothing was equally strange: in contrast to the sharp, formal suits favoured by the men of the court, this man's clothes seemed to be designed not to restrict but to flow. A loose, sleeveless tunic that fell to mid-thigh, cinched around the waist with a belt, was layered over a long-sleeved shirt that billowed out at the elbows only to be gathered in again at the wrists. Both were in shades of blue, the tunic several shades darker than the shirt and matching the equally loose pants that brushed the ankles of black leather boots.
Blown away as he was by the sheer strangeness of the newcomer, Kay still reflected with relief that the man was not exactly the commonly accepted definition of 'handsome'. Striking, certainly, but though his features were fine his eyes were a muddy hazel-blue-green colour that was completely unremarkable, and though he carried himself with confidence his walk and build were that of a scholar, not a warrior. It was reassuring, for some reason, and Kay felt less intimidated (especially as the man drew nearer and he realized he was a good head taller than Kay).
People were recovering their dignity and breaking off their stares by now, and 'who the hells is that?' conversations were beginning all over the ballroom. Kay was scanning the room for one of his siblings to see if they knew anything…and if so, if they could arrange an introduction for him. Shyness was secondary at this point; Kay wanted to paint the newcomer. And wouldn't rest until he had…his hands were already twitching to pick up a brush, and his brain was frantically trying to memorize every possible detail. But it he could get the man to sit for a portrait…
Distracted as he was, Kay didn't noticed the person approaching him until suddenly there was blue and yellow-gold in his peripheral vision and he turned to see the stranger right in front of him.
"Kay. I'm sorry I'm so late."
Kay's mouth fell open. It wasn't dignified and it probably didn't befit a prince of the D'rei line, but it was the most appropriate response he could come up with. "Lionel?!"
The voice was different (less croaky) and the face was of course completely changed…but the intonation, the way he said and emphasized the words was the same. And only his siblings and Lionel called him Kay; to his father and other relatives he was 'Kayton' and to the rest of the palace he was 'Your Highness' (the nobles) or 'm'lord' (everyone else).
The man smiled and it only confused Kay more. He'd never seen Lionel smile (he wasn't sure frogs could) and he was still trying to figure out if this was some sort of elaborate joke. It would have to be very elaborate.
"You look so confused." He was still being smiled gently at, and it annoyed him. Kay glared.
"That would be because I am confused. Explain yourself, whoever you are, now, or—"
"Dance with me?" Maybe-Lionel-But-Possibly-Not held out a hand still with that same infuriating calm—and Kay was trying not to remember that frog-Lionel had also had the same calmness in the face of everything and anything.
"Dance with me." The man repeated patiently, and when Kay hesitantly surrendered his hand—more out of confusion than anything—he found himself pulled gently out onto the ballroom floor. The music in the background slowly registered inside Kay's head and he followed the steps of a slow waltz almost subconsciously, noting absently that he was in the female partner's position and resolving to be offended about that when his brain wasn't so full.
"There. Now at least people are staring less…you're always so concerned over that." And indeed, the stares were abating or at least becoming less obvious. Men danced together in one of two circumstances: if the climate of the court swung towards accepting same-sex partnerships, or if they were concluding business together and didn't want to be overheard. Either way, it was rude to stare.
The comment from his dance partner seemed to snap Kay out of his paralysis at last.
"…what am I doing?! I don't even know you!"
"Yes, you do."
"Prove it." Kay glared challengingly, although the effect was spoiled slightly by how much shorter he was. They danced a few more steps in silence before Maybe-Lionel flicked a braid over his shoulder with a toss of his head and replied "You painted two portraits of me; one in the pond with the arrow in my mouth, and one on my cushion. The pond gave you a lot of trouble because you couldn't remember where the light had been coming from, and everything you tried seemed wrong, but you got it right eventually. I wasn't helpful, either: I distracted you by telling you about Mermish eating habits and you threatened to bring me back to the pond and leave me there." Kay's eyes narrowed and they danced in silence once more, the nobles of the court all around them and trying to seem as if they weren't staring. Kay contemplated for a moment, then the hand that rested on the taller man's shoulder balled into a fist and he hit him, surreptitiously but not very gently.
"You bastard! You were human this entire time and didn't tell me?!" Apparently, he was convinced. Lionel seemed torn between relief and amusement.
"Did you somehow miss the part where I starting croaking every time I tried?"
"You could have made it clear somehow!" Kay sulked for a moment, then another realization hit him and his eyes widened in horror. "I changed in front of you!"
This time the amusement was clear in Lionel's voice; in fact, he was trying very hard not to laugh. "That's what you're worried about? May I remind you that I was naked the entire time?"
"You were a frog!"
"Oh, thank you, I hadn't realized." The familiar wry humour in that comment made Kay hastily muffle laughter, and Lionel's smile widened. "So, you're not truly angry with me?"
"I don't see how I can be, as this whole scenario is manifestly not your fault." Kay sighed as the dance came to an end and Lionel bowed over his hand. And least he had the sense not to actually kiss Kay's fingertips, which would have resulted in a smacked nose and they both knew it. However, when Kay's hand was not surrendered and Lionel began to pull him off the dance floor and towards his father's throne, Kay balked. "Oh, no. No, you're going to do something embarrassing and attention-attracting and I want no part in it."
"Kay, it would be better to…"
"Don't even try it. You will do nothing publicly until I get a complete explanation of what exactly is going on here." Kay tugged his hand back and crossed his arms stubbornly, which always made his younger siblings sigh about childishness. Lionel laughed.
"Well, when you ask so nicely how can I refuse?" He captured Kay's hand again with seemingly no difficulty, and while Kay was still wondering how he had managed that feat he found himself led over to one of the cushioned seats lining the ballroom. He sat, still trying to ignore the people pretending not to stare at them.
"Would you like the long version or the short version?"
That made Kay pause a moment in indecision before he finally decided "Short."
"I was cursed. I got better." There was a beat of silence and then Kay smacked Lionel's shoulder again, which got another soft laugh. Kay found himself listening intently to it—it rose and fell exactly the same way the fog's croaky laugh had but the throat that made it was completely different and the tone now was soft and warm, not deep and gutteral. It was odd. "Sorry. I used to be a diplomat—an ambassador. I traveled all over the land to discuss various matters with various people and races. I come from the southwest, I think, although I'm not quite sure where here is…?"
"We'll find you a map later." Kay promised at the questioning look Lionel sent him, and the other nodded and continued.
"In any case, I was trying to work out a trade agreement but got mixed up in some nasty court politics. Someone—I have a few suspects but I'm not exactly sure who—hired a wizard and cursed me, and the next thing I knew I was small and croaky. They dropped me in that pond and left me there, and then your sister almost hit me with an arrow. The end." He executed a little half-bow with a flourish.
"That is a lot simpler than I expected it to be." Kay frowned. "How did the curse get broken, then?"
"It isn't, actually." Lionel sighed, looking weary. "When I was first cursed I was a frog all the time. Now that the curse got tangled up in your quest, it's warped; for the past three nights I've become human again, and tonight the restrictions on talking about the curse have vanished or at least loosened. I'm not sure why. But I'm fairly certain that it will break for good once we're married."
Kay's eyes widened as he remembered that they were, in fact, engaged and a horrified look swept over his face. "Oh no…"
"….what is it?"
"You…I'm so sorry!" Kay drew back a little farther on the bench and Lionel frowned as the prince buried his head in his hands. His next words came out muffled. "I switched places with Allie thinking you were a frog but you're human…you could have married Allie and instead you're going to be tied to me for the rest of your life! Gods, Lionel, I've done the both of you a disservice…maybe we can switch back before it's too late. I'm so terribly sorry—I thought I was helping, honestly I did! We'll fix this. Tonight, if you want."
Lionel's frown deepened and he opened his mouth to say something, but the bell beside the throne rang out and all the sound in the room ceased. All heads turned towards the king. "My sons! Come forward with your brides, please, to receive my official blessing for your weddings tomorrow." Kay winced at the implication. He wasn't welcome, not with a frog husband. But soon Lionel would marry Allie and then everything would be all right again...and why wasn't that thought as happy and reassuring as it should be?
"Come on." Kay felt himself being tugged to his feet and he blinked in surprise. "Didn't you hear?"
"…he's obviously not talking about us." Kay pointed out, slightly sulkily. He didn't like being ignored by his father.
"He said 'sons'. You're his son and deserve just as much recognition." Lionel pointed out, and although his voice was as calm and reasonable as ever Kay thought he detected a bit of tightness around his lips. Was he actually angry? That thought was so new and foreign that Kay was almost in front of his father by the time he realized they were moving. Darren's eyebrows shot up when he saw who was dragging Kay forwards and he shot his younger brother a look that said rather eloquently 'who is this, what is going on and why didn't you tell me about it?' The rest of his family just looked confused. And now that everyone was staring at him Kay couldn't just hide like he wanted to so he cleared his throat and managed a fairly dignified drawl.
"Father…my betrothed, Lionel." And really, the expressions on their faces were worth all the chaos that was sure to follow.
"Kayton…what…how…?" His father regained his powers of speech only slowly and Kay bit his lip. He felt rather bad now—his father was old, he didn't need shocks like that.
"He was cursed with the frog's form, Father. Apparently the curse is weakening, and will be dispelled completely tomorrow at-at the wedding." There was a beat of stunned silence as everyone processed that.
"…but of course, you're not going to marry him, Kayton." Kay started to nod but Lionel beat him to a response.
"…sir, I don't know where you come from but here we have standards of decency!"
"Would you have me consigned to a frog's life forever just to satisfy your sense of propriety?" Lionel's tone was still mild but his expression was incredulous and rather angry.
"Of course not." The king looked rather taken aback that Lionel would think so. "You'll just switch again, back to Alicia. That is, if it's all right with you, my dear." Allie blinked several times as the attention rapidly shifted to her, but recovered quickly. Kay saw the thoughts flashing in her eyes—she knew Lionel's personality, knew that she and him were fairly compatible, and he wasn't at all hard on the eyes, besides which this was pretty much inevitable. He knew the exact moment when she decided not to object.
"…of course, Father. I certainly would not have you remain a frog, sir. But will it satisfy the curse?"
"I…believe it will." Lionel looked as if the words were being dragged out of him, and Kay wasn't sure why. This fixed everything so neatly—it was the best possible solution, like something that would happen in a fairy tale. And of course the fourth child didn't have a place in the story, but that thought was unnecessarily self-pitying so Kay dismissed it. For a brief moment he wondered what it would have been like if Lionel had said no, it didn't satisfy the curse. If there were no alternative but for he and Kay to marry. Oh, he knew that that would ruin the fairy tale and he didn't want to force Lionel into something like that anyways, but it was nice to wonder. Just for a moment.
"Well, that settled everything quite neatly." The king smiled happily and the court was beginning to relax, slightly disappointed at the lack of further gossip but sensing the conclusion of the story and loving a happy ending just like everyone did. "Lionel, if you will simply renounce your betrothal to Kayton and pledge yourself to Alicia instead…"
"No thank you, sir."
The machines of Happily Ever After ground to a stop.
"I said, no thank you." Lionel's tone was still mild, his posture still relaxed. He looked as if he set the world on its head every day. "Kay was the one who made the engagement and Kay should be the one to break it off."
"Ah, I see, well that's very…good attention to detail…Kay, if you would?" The king tried to regain his momentum, and glared when Lionel cut Kay off before he could even open his mouth.
Yes, that's me, good job. Kay wanted to say, but didn't. He utterly confused by now and when he was confused he got snippy, but Lionel was doing the 'this is serious' voice so Kay would restrain himself.
"We were betrothed before because of circumstances and a curse. Now that that is no longer necessary, such a burden is obviously intolerable and should be lifted. If you wish to dissolve our engagement, considering that it was made against our wills, please do so."
Well, when he put it like that, what was Kay supposed to say? It was the truth, after all. But as Kay nodded and murmured "I dissolve my engagement to you peaceably and with no ill will" he couldn't help a twinge of loss. Well, damn it, in human form no one would deny that Lionel was handsome. And he'd been nice, and fun to talk to, and had sat for hours for paintings without complaining, and had told Kay interesting things.
Damn it all.
"Good, now we can—"
"Just a moment, sir, if you please." Lionel cut the king off smoothly, seemingly oblivious to the furious glare he earned. Kay would be embarrassed by his behavior but really, after almost a month of the king completely ignoring his existence, he was pretty sure his father deserved it.
Lionel knelt on the ballroom floor and Kay suppressed a groan. It seemed he was going to do this by the book and propose to Allie the traditional way.
…so why was he looking at Kay?
"Kayton D'rei. I certify that I am pledged to no one, have no debts, am in good standing with the law and have committed no crimes with which I can be charged." Through the rising haze of 'oh no he isn't' Kay thought he heard Lionel mumble "In this country at least…" before he continued. "Knowing all that and knowing that this is my earnest will and desire, uninfluenced by the curse or anything else, would you consent to marry me?"
Stunned silence again settled over the ballroom. Everyone seemed to be frozen and it would probably be really, really funny if this were happening to someone else. Kay gaped for a moment, mouth opening and shutting uselessly, before he managed to choke out a "What? Why?"
"Because you're beautiful and intelligent and talented and completely oblivious to all of that, and because you put other people before yourself as a matter of course and shouldn't. And I want to marry you. Not your sister. No offense intended of course, my lady." Lionel explained calmly. There was a low-level buzz in Kay's ears and at first he thought it was a symptom of his own panic and confusion, but he then realized that the court had recovered their powers of speech at last. As the buzz steadily built to a roar he tried to think but he couldn't seem to break through the disbelief and the persistent chant of this is not happening I am dreaming I am going to wake up any moment now to focus.
And he couldn't think with all these people talking and really could they just give him a minute? It was his decision, not theirs, and he would appreciate very much if they would let him make it in peace!
"Would you all just SHUT UP for one GODS DAMNED SECOND? I can't hear myself THINK over your thrice-cursed NOISE!"
As shocked silence fell, he realized that that shout had come from him.
…well, at least he could think now.
Lionel was still kneeling patiently, a slight smirk on his face the only reaction to Kay's outburst.
Why was he hesitating? Hadn't he been wishing for this exact scenario (if perhaps slightly less dramatic and a lot less public) only moments before? But…it was all so much more complicated now that it was real. The court. They'd never stop talking about this, ever. And it would be the malicious kind of talk, too, because this wasn't supposed to happen and yet it was. And although he could probably deal with the court disliking him—he wasn't in contact with them that much in any case—if the merchants and artisans he dealt with on a daily basis lost respect for him then it would hurt his duties. And his few friends among the servants and the various minor country lords, would they shun him too? Was this really worth all of that?
It frightened him that at the moment, the answer was probably yes.
His father…well, Kay didn't really see him often enough for his disapproval to make a major impact. It would hurt, yes, but Kay rather thought this might be worth it, if everything else worked out. But his siblings…if they hated him, he wouldn't be able to bear it. His eyes slid towards where they stood almost without his consent, since the majority of his brain was still too scared to look at them. Darren grinned from where he stood with his arm around Ella's waist, his approval obvious and unconditional. But he had known already….Kay's eyes flicked to Tristan, who was blinking a bit, his face woefully confused. Even as Kay watched, though, his lips moved silently as he appeared to figure something out and his face cleared with an almost comical 'oh! I get it!' expression. He looked at Kay and scanned his face for a moment then nodded, seemingly satisfied with what he saw there since he broke into a grin almost identical to Darren's. That was…unexpected.
Last, Allie. Kay steeled himself to see her looking betrayed or angry and was completely stunned when her grin mirrored his brothers'. "What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?" she mouthed, rolling her eyes. Kay managed to shoot her a tremulous smile before turning back to Lionel, who was still waiting patiently despite the fact that that position had to be fairly uncomfortable by now.
Kay took a deep breath.
"You are a complete bastard for springing this on me in public, without warning. And for not somehow making it clear that you were human before now. And for being so damned dramatic about everything." He fixed Lionel with a glare, which the man acknowledged with a slight bow of his head. "Keeping in mind those facts…" one more deep breath and he could see Lionel looking impatient now and it served him right, the bastard "Yes, I will consent to marry you." Lionel broke into a blinding smile and, ignoring the roar of outrage from the throne, rose to his feet and pulled Kay into an enthusiastic kiss.
When they parted Kay was blinking with confusion, because as nice as that had been it had also felt…odd. He thought he knew why, too. "Is that what it feels like when a curse breaks?" he murmured, still only about an inch away from Lionel's lips.
"Yes. Don't tell your father it broke, though; it's what's ensuring that we're actually allowed to get married." came the reply before Kay's mouth was captured in another kiss, this time without the oddness and leaving only the nice.
The outside world began to exist again when Kay became aware of an odd sound. It was clapping…Darren, Ella and Allie first quickly followed by Tristan and his bride and then, although Kay could barely believe it, fully a third of the nobles in the crowd followed suit. There were still gasps and exclamations of outrage but people were actually clapping, and if that didn't make the whole thing all that much more unreal Kay didn't know what did.
"This is all your fault for making such a production of it. You turned us into a fairy tale." he grumbled to Lionel, who laughed softly and tugged him closer.
"Are you complaining?"
As the clapping and the happy faces and the warmth of Lionel against him all blurred together into what was looking suspiciously like a Happy Ending, Kay decided that no, he really wasn't.