The Maiden's Request (Part 5)

The old lotus seat cushion Henrik carried down the palace hallway provided little padding. It was difficult to see the warty toad resting on its dusty brown surface. No one could have found a more insulting vessel to carry the newest royal companion, and Henrik was sure the emperor tried.   The princess and her attendant slowly walked in front of Henrik. Jing stopped at a bench and sat. “Please go and prepare my chambers for the night and wait for me there.”   The attendant bowed and left them alone. Jing put her face in her hands and let out a groan of frustration. “Henrik, what am I supposed to do?”   “Princess, I—”   Her face shot up out of her hands, and she yelled, “I forbid you from calling me Princess ever again!” The flash of anger was gone as quickly as it came, replaced by a resigned sadness. It hung between them like a heavy curtain. After a moment, she gently patted the open space next to her. “Please sit with me.”   Henrik sat, subtly turning the cushion and the toad away from her view. No matter how he turned the cushion, the toad shifted to look at the princess.   “My father is furious with the shame I’ve brought to the palace. That”—pointing at the toad—“is the first Cursed to enter the palace since my father banished the previous Grand Secretary for treachery. He loved him as a son and trusted him like a brother. When the betrayal was discovered, Lady Nevena cursed him to be a golden tree snake, fast enough to flee, but too weak to harm humans.” Jing leaned her head back against the wall. “I was young at the time, but I still remember my father’s hurt and anger. I never wanted to be the cause of something like that. And that is what I have done tonight.”   Her eyes filled with tears as they sat together in extended silence. She reached out and gently took Henrik’s hand. She smiled as they looked at each other. “Thanks for listening.”   The toad said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”   “You want to help?” Jing leaped from the bench as her tears returned. “Leave! Leave this palace and never look at me again!”