The boat pushed off from the dock right at sundown, the sky to the west still blazing like molten gold. But it was the moon rising in the east that held the attention of the boat’s passengers, a swollen disk of silver rising into the twilit sky, casting its enchantment on this midsummer night.
Gliding with the river’s swift current, the hired boatmen barely had to lift their oars out of the water at all. With experienced hands, they guided the sleek vessel along the curves of the river, maneuvering it neatly under bridges and past glowing beacons that marked a safe course through the crowded waterways.
The Frog sat in the prow of the boat, leaning out over the water, eager for the first glimpse of their downstream destination. Every so often, when it caught a rill of choppy current, the boat dipped down low and water splashed him with its cool fingers, making him laugh.
“Be careful, Pash,” the Princess said from behind him. “Your father will kill me if you fall in.”
He turned his head to grin at her, but of course she couldn’t see him, because of the mask, so he went ahead and stuck out his tongue, too, something he would never have dared at home. Not that she would have cared, but his father would have given him a whack with his biggest spoon if he’d caught him at it. It was just one of the reasons he loved the sculpted paper mask, with its bulging eyes and pink tongue lolling out the side of the too-wide mouth. It had been a birthday present, just two days past. You had to be thirteen to go to the Triennial masquerade, and he’d made it just under the beam. He couldn’t wait to discover all the delightful entertainments the ball had waiting for him.
Despite her words of warning, the Princess looked just as excited as he was. She was dressed in an old-fashioned looking warrior’s outfit, with a sweeping surcoat of blue, tall boots, and bits of armor strapped onto her arms and shoulders. She even had a sword at her side, which was okay for tonight, since she was supposed to be Daena and it wasn’t a real sword anyway. Her mask was an intricate fretwork of gold wire winding over the upper half of her face before spreading out in two wings that wrapped around her head.
“If he falls in, he can just swim the rest of the way,” said the Ghost from further back in the boat. “Like a good little tadpole.
“I’m a frog!” the Frog snapped back, and emphasized his point by hopping, frog-like, where he crouched on the prow. The whole boat rocked forward when he did it, alarming all the passengers, but especially the Ghost, who grabbed at the gunwale with an oath.
“Enough of that!” one of the boatmen called out from the rear. “Everyone stay in their seats, if you please.”
“Come and sit with us, Pash,” the Barbarian offered, sliding to one side on the bench. “There’s room over here.”
If anyone else had asked it of him, he would have refused, but the Barbarian had a strange pull on the Frog that he was only just beginning to understand. He didn’t care much for the mask he was wearing—the leather was shaped like some kind of animal skull, with a crest of spiky feathers and embedded metal thorns instead of teeth. But it was paired with a sleeveless leather tunic that showed off his long, tan arms, lean with muscle from hours practicing with a sword. He succumbed to temptation, and scrambled back to the benches to take the offered seat.
The Ghost was still glowering at him. “Are we going to have to babysit this tadpole all night?” he asked.
“I’m a frog!” he protested again, and sprang to his feet. Or at least, tried to. The Barbarian and the Bull each caught him by a shoulder and forced him back to the bench before he could make the boat rock again.
“Stop provoking him, Romeric,” the Bull said sternly. “Pash can take care of himself at the ball. All we have to do is make sure he gets back in the boat at the end of the night. Right?” Even through the the eyes of his mask, the Frog could feel the weight of the Bull’s gaze weighing on him, full of expectation, and he nodded his head quickly. Of all the older boys’ costumes, he liked the Bull’s the best. The stern countenance of the bull was shaped in deep brown velvet, and the horns set with chips of obsidian that glittered in the silver moonlight. The clothes he’d chosen to go with it were almost ordinary in cut and style, except that they were made of brown velvet, too, and covered with embroidery, a colorful, swirling pattern of vines and flowers that was sumptuous and ornate, a design that drew the eye with its intricate complexity.
“Let’s just all relax,” the Princess said. She reached over and nudged the Ghost in the arm. “Try and have a good time.”
The Ghost rolled his eyes. He hadn’t even bothered to wear a mask. Instead, a slash of black paint crossed his face right at the eyes, looking kind of like a mask, but not really. He was dressed in plain white, without even his usual jewelry for adornment. The Frog wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to be. When he’d asked earlier, he’d only curled his lip in response and said, “Respectable.”
“Is there really going to be a fight tonight?” he asked, turning away from the surly Ghost.
The Bull tilted his horned head slightly. “Who told you that?”
The Frog shrugged, but didn’t say anything. The truth was he’d overheard his father the cook talking about it with one of the housekeepers, who had overheard the older boys talking about it a few days beforehand. But you weren’t supposed to gossip about people in the House, no matter what role they served. He wasn’t going to get anyone in trouble for talking.
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess said. “There will be too many people there for anyone to make trouble.” She said it convincingly, but all the same, he saw each of the three older boys furtively reach for their swords, as if checking to see that they were still there. The Frog did not have a sword—he knew a little swordsmanship, but he was too young to carry one of his own. Anyway, he wanted to be a musician, not a swordsman when he grew up. His other birthday present, along with the mask, had been a second-hand viol, and you couldn’t be a great viol player if your hands were callused from wielding a sword. All the same…
“If there is a fight,” he said, lifting his chin up boldly, “then I’ll fight with you.”
“What do you mean, Pash?” The Barbarian pushed his mask up off his face to look at him with a concerned expression. “You can’t be serious.”
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess reiterated. “And if there was, you certainly can’t…”
“You don’t even have a weapon,” the Bull pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter.” The Frog felt a little bullheaded himself just now. “I’m a member of Fleuracy House, too. I have a right to defend the house’s honor. I can use my fists. Or, I don’t know, kick ‘em in the nuts.”
The Ghost burst out with a startled laugh. “You’ve got spirit, tadpole,” he said, and punched him in the shoulder.
The Barbarian smiled at him approvingly. “That’s really brave, Pash. But Neda’s right. Probably nothing is going to happen.”
“But if it does, promise you won’t leave me out of it.” He looked between the four faces surrounding him, saw the others turn, expectantly, to the Bull. The Frog fixed his gaze on him too. “Promise?”
There was a long moment where everyone was quiet, and then the Bull nodded. “All right. Just try not to get yourself killed.”
The Frog beamed under his mask. The Ghost clouted him in the arm again, and then the Barbarian tossed an arm companionably around his shoulders. His face flushed hot and he was even more glad of the mask then he was before. He was just thinking that maybe he wasn’t in such a rush to get to the masquerade after all, when one of the boatmen called out, “Palace Bridge” and, ahead of them on the river, a fantastic panorama of lights and colors hove into view.
They had arrived.