The Maiden's Request (Part 4)

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.   Nothing happened.   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?”   “Father, no!”   “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?”   The emperor thought for a moment. “You may. Who?”   “Henrik, the horse master.”