Henrik adjusted the silken robes sticking to his lanky frame. He hated the elaborately decorated silks he was forced to wear in the imperial palace of Chienhu. The wools and leathers of his native Rikenvatten would have been more comfortable, were it not for the oppressive heat and humidity of this foreign country. Servants walking in the hallway bowed to him as protocol required. He tried to ignore the strange looks and suppressed whispers as he passed. He thought after a couple of months the novelty of a Rikenvatten in Chienhu would have decreased. A crash down the hall caused all heads to turn. A young maid in soiled robes desperately collected the now-empty bowls and food rolling away from her silver tray. Above her, Grand Secretary Li yelled about her clumsy nature.
This was not the first time Henrik had seen the Grand Secretary lash out at servants when there were problems. The louder his shouts, the more likely it was his fault. By his overreaction, it was more likely his failing eyesight that led to the accident and not the maid.
Henrik quickly stepped into a smaller side hallway to escape. Pressed against the red wall behind one of the large golden pillars, Henrik watched the Grand Secretary shuffle past, brushing crumbs off his sleeves. Henrik avoided the Grand Secretary as much as possible. The Grand Secretary’s distrust of foreigners was well known—and Henrik struggled to hide his disdain towards him.
“Hiding from the Grand Secretary again, Henrik?”
Henrik turned to find the princess sitting on a padded bench, playing with two golden meditation balls in her hand. His heart skipped a beat at her warm smile. He quickly bowed to hide the color rushing to his cheeks. “Good morning, Princess Jing.”
She leaned forward and whispered, “I don’t blame you. I try to avoid the old dragon whenever I can as well.”
“I apologize, Princess, I meant no disrespect to the Grand Secretary.”
“He enjoys finding reasons to complain where none exist. Anything new needs extra scrutiny. You and your horses are as new as they come. He prefers to be carried in his litter, no matter how slow his porters are.”
She paused, and Henrik looked up. Once they locked eyes, she continued, “I’m glad that Father likes new things. I have him to thank for our meeting.”
Henrik bowed again. “I’m honored by your words, Princess.”
“Please, I’ve told you to call me Jing when my father is not around.”
Henrik’s heart gave another leap. “I don’t know if that would be appropriate, Princess.” It was Henrik’s turn to lean in and whisper. She leaned forward to accept it. “The walls have ears.”
Princess Jing laughed and stood. “And that’s why I’m going out to the pagoda by the lake. Would you care to escort me?”
“I wish I could, Princess. I am to prepare the horses and carriage to collect Lady Nevena for tonight’s banquet.”
She clasped her hands with excitement. “How wonderful! Do you know why she is coming?”
“I do not. A member of the Fairy Council may request anything of any royal across the realms without explanation.”
Jing pulled on her long black hair flowing down the front of her white and gold silk robes. “It is wonderful when she comes but her aura wreaks havoc on my hair.”
“Your hair has always looks nice.” Henrik fumbled the words while studying the patterns stitched on his shoes.
Jing smiled as she tilted her face to keep viewing Henrik’s. “Have you met other fairies? Maybe some from Rikenvatten?”
The smile left Henrik’s face. “Yes, I’ve met my share of fairies. More than I care to remember.”
Princess Jing tilted her head. “I would love to hear that story, if you would like to share it.”
“Maybe another time, Princess.”
Henrik held the lead horse’s bridle after securing the last of the equipment attaching them to the carriage. Everything was ready for its departure. He brushed the hair of the lead horse to pass the time. His mind wandered to Jing’s perfect hair.
Jing was often on his mind. She alone did not treat him as foreign trash who was disrupting honored traditions with these horses. Many in Chienhu had never seen a horse before, but Jing, like her father the emperor, was excited about the benefits horses could bring to their empire. Henrik was grateful that the people of Rikenvatten had a reputation of excellent horsemanship. It made his rapid accession in the ranks of servants smooth, but there were many who resented a foreigner given so much honor and respect.
After weeks of watching the emperor and crown prince receive riding lessons from afar, Jing came close enough to ask questions about the horses. The princess confessed she thought he and the horses were oddities. Henrik was quickly smitten with her beauty. Her raven-colored hair was common in Chienhu but rarely seen in Rikenvatten.
Henrik’s thoughts were shattered when Jing appeared, fleeing from the bamboo forest, clutching her hands to her chest and running as fast as her silk slippers could carry her. Their eyes met, and Henrik saw the terror within. She stopped as if to take a step toward Henrik but then continued her panicked flight to the palace.
“Oh, no,” Henrik whispered. He had a feeling he knew what scared Jing but hoped he was wrong.
Henrik could not leave his position with the horses until the carriage left to collect Lady Nevena. He watched the palace closely for any sign of what had happened to Jing. After what felt like an empty eternity, the carriage left, and Henrik hurried along the path through the bamboo forest.
The path led to a small pagoda on the edge of a beautiful koi pond. The shade of the pagoda softened the heat as Henrik crossed underneath it. It had been built as a retreat from the summer sun, but the pagoda’s true shelter was from the bustle of palace activity. It was easy to understand why Jing chose to spend so much time here.
Henrik approached the edge of the pond on the far side of the pagoda. A few feet away, a large flat rock barely broke through the water. He sighed as he ran his fingers through his light-yellow hair. Once he made sure he was alone, he carefully called out, “Frederik?”
A large ugly toad broke through the surface and landed on the rock. Water slowly drained off its wart-covered brown skin.
“The princess ran out of the forest terrified.” Henrik sat down on a bench staring at the toad. “Would you care to share anything?”
The toad’s small raspy voice scratched through the heat. “I saw an opportunity to break my curse. I was so close to getting us back home.”
“That doesn’t tell me what happened.”
“The princess had some noisy balls and was trying to juggle them. They kept dropping and eventually one fell in. I only asked if I could retrieve it for her.”
Henrik leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You actually talked to her? Oh, I’m sure that went over fantastically.”
“Well, no,” Frederik admitted. “She screamed.”
Henrik sat up. “Of course, she screamed. She is terrified of the Cursed. Her father has filled her with horror stories about creatures like you. One word and she’d know exactly what you are.”
“I’m tired of waiting in this sad insect-ridden excuse of a pond. Scaring her is better than doing nothing.” Frederik stretched out his tiny legs and mumbled. “I had to try something.”
“You’ve exposed yourself as Cursed to a member of the royal family. The emperor hates the Cursed. He’ll send soldiers to hunt you down.”
“I don’t think she’s going to tell anyone about me. If she does, she’ll have to tell them about her promise.”
“What promise?” Henrik slowly asked.
“I said I would get the ball for her if she promised to have me as a companion and friend in the palace, let me sit with her at the dining table, eat from her plate. . . .”
“Are you crazy? Do you really think the princess is going to bring one of the Cursed into the palace as a dinner companion? You’d be lucky if the chef doesn’t make you for dinner. What in the name of the fairies possessed you to bargain with her?”
“Since scaring her didn’t work, I was hoping my request would make her angry enough.”
“Obviously it didn’t.”
“True, but she agreed. She said the ball was precious to her, and she promised me everything I said and more. I figured that when I’m in the palace I could get her really angry and then—POOF—I’m human!”
“She was probably too scared talking with one of the Cursed to think straight.” Henrik said mostly to himself.
“Well it doesn’t matter now. After I retrieved the ball, she snatched it, and ran away. I would have followed her, but I worried a crane—or worse, the palace children—would snatch me up before I got to her.”
Henrik’s mind spun with the complications this made in the plans to free his brother. Frederik’s croak broke the silence. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check on Jing and see if she’s told anyone.”
“Oh, is she Jing now? When did this development occur?” The toad’s croak took the teasing tone Frederik’s had before the Curse. Henrik was glad to hear it but was not going to respond to the inquiry.
“You stay put while I survey the damage.”
“I won’t go anywhere.” The teasing tone was replaced by something much more bitter. “Just don’t forget about me while you enjoy yourself at the palace.” The toad disappeared under the water before Henrik could respond.
After he had bathed the smell of horses away and was again wearing his uncomfortable silk robes, he started wandering the halls hoping to run into Jing. A nervous excitement in the servants allowed him to pass by without the normal stares. He presumed it was due to Lady Nevena’s arrival. Finally, there was someone in the palace more foreign than he.
Of course, the banquet! Henrik quickened his pace until he reached the open doors to the hall. Servants lined the red walls as the royal family ate at the large circular table in the middle. Henrik slid next to one of the golden support columns for a better view. He hoped to remain hidden and wait for an opportunity to talk with Jing when she left.
Lady Nevena, the Fairy Council member who oversaw Chienhu, sat between the Emperor and Empress, the highest honor bestowed to a guest. She could have passed for a beautiful dignitary in a simple blue silk robe, were it not for the soft but visible glow from her personage. The only symbol of her Fairy Council position was the simple silver diadem encrusted with aquamarine gems that rested on her head.
The crown prince was next to his father. Jing was next to her mother, looking unsettled as she swished her utensils through her soup. Henrik wondered how much her promise to Frederik ruined her meal.
Jing looked up to find Henrik behind the servants. She tilted her head in an unasked question. Henrik had never been in the banquet hall while the royal family dined, and he guessed she was a little surprised. A small smile crossed her lips, but the concern did not leave her eyes.
Grand Secretary Li entered the hall and approached the aged emperor, failing to keep his hurried pace composed. He gently tapped the emperor’s shoulder and quietly relayed a message into his ear.
The emperor whispered intensely, “A what?” The emperor’s eyes darted to Jing, who avoided his gaze by sinking lower into her chair. The emperor stiffened into an angry resolve. He nodded, and the Grand Secretary motioned to a servant, who swung the door open. There on the threshold was the visitor, a large brown toad.
By this time, the whole hall had fallen silent. The only noise in the room came from the toad’s approach to the circular table. The tension rose as the emperor stood.
“Stop.” The emperor raised his hand. “Are you Kith or Cursed?”
“Sire, with great humility, I am one of the Cursed.” A murmur spread through the hall. The toad strained to keep his voice heard. “I assure you, gracious Emperor, I am innocent and mean you neither harm nor disrespect—”
“Your assurances mean nothing. All Cursed claim to be innocent.” The emperor’s sharp response dripped with hatred. His response dropped to an intense whisper. “What do you want, toad?”
Henrik’s muscles tensed. His brother may have caused the required royal anger, but he feared he may not survive long enough for the curse to be broken.
“Your Majesty, I come to collect on a promise from your daughter.”
All eyes of the chamber swung to Jing, who ferociously explored her wensi tofu soup.
The emperor turned his head back to the toad. “Explain.”
“Earlier today, your gentle daughter was juggling her golden meditation balls at the pagoda in the bamboo forest. One ball fell into the pond, and I retrieved it for her.”
“And what did she promise you?”
“She promised that I would be her constant companion.”
The emperor turned to the princess. “Is that so?”
Jing’s flushed face was near tears as she nodded. The face of the emperor became redder, the silk fan of the empress waved faster, and Jing tried harder to disappear in her chair. Again, Henrik expected to see his brother transform at any moment.
The emperor turned to the Lady Nevena. “My Lady, I would appreciate your counsel in this matter. Is this Cursed to be trusted or executed?”
Nevena’s fingers traced small, intricate patterns in the air close to her lap. Soon, the fairy stopped and smiled. “Your Majesty, the toad you see before you was once an honorable man. A moment of gallantry against those of ill intent caused him to be cursed. He can be trusted.”
“Thank you, my Lady.” The emperor turned his attention back to Frederik. “You shall become my daughter’s companion.” Jing let out an involuntary squeal in protest. The emperor tensed as he continued, “You may enter the palace, but you are not, under any circumstances, to enter her chambers.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” The toad shifted toward the fairy. “Thank you, my Lady. Your benevolence is greatly appreciated.”
Lady Nevena nodded.
The emperor swept his hand from Jing to the toad. “Well?”
“He helped you in your time of need. You are duty bound to do as you promised.”
“But, Father!” He raised his hand to silence her. Jing’s eyes swept across the hall, desperately searching for help. “Father, may I request a servant to help care for my new companion?”