The Maiden's Request (Part 3)

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.