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art by Liz Clarke


Melissa Mead is a member of Codex and the Carpe Libris writers group: carpelibris.wordpress.com Check the archive for more of her stories. Or get thee to www.dailysciencefiction.com.

The frog basked in the sun. Settled in the soft muck of his pond, he didn't notice the princess until she scooped him up and pressed her hot mouth to his skin.
He kicked out with his strong back legs, and tumbled into the water again. Safe!
But he wasn't. Something was wrong. His body twisted and writhed. At first he thought he was shedding his skin, but the change went deeper. Something stretched and pulled him, warped and reshaped him. This body sitting in the mud wasn't his. It was large and hairy, and far too dry.
The frog blinked at the mammals watching him. He couldn't see properly. The black-and-white world changed. Distances and depths shifted. There were predators all around, maybe even above him, where his vision no longer reached. He couldn't see where to leap. The one who had touched the frog twittered and pointed a hand at him. Its pale skin changed to match the setting sun. The frog tried to burrow into the mud.
More mammals, with what looked like heron beaks at the ends of their arms, surrounded the frog. They grabbed hold of him. He struggled and kicked, but they dug their claws in harder. His legs wouldn't work right, wouldn't fold for a jump. In a frog's last defense, he emptied his bladder. They bellowed, but didn't let go.
The mammals didn't eat him. They wrapped him in some sort of net and carried him away from his pond, to a stone place that smelled of dust. A thin gray man in a sparkling skin pressed his hand down on the frog's head and spoke. The frog's head throbbed. The heron-beak men carried him to a smaller stone place and left him there.
Predators were watching him--the first mammal and another, wrinkled like a toad. The first mammal was pale again. Perhaps it had sipped some of his blood before, and wanted more. The frog held perfectly still while the mammals twittered. The throbbing faded from his head, and words slipped in.
"But he's supposed to be a prince!"
"And perhaps he is among frogs, my lamb. Right now he's just a frightened wild critter." The toad-woman came closer to him. "You poor thing. Not an idea in your head about what's happened to you, I'll wager."
The frog tried to leap away from her. His misshapen body sprawled on the stones. He gathered himself up and crawled into a corner, panting.
"What's the matter with him?"
"He doesn't know how to move in a man's body." The toad-woman shook her head. "You know I love you, child, but this is wrong. You're tormenting the poor creature."
"I didn't mean to." The young one came to look at him. Water leaked from her eyes. The frog wondered if she felt as parched as he did, trapped in this dry skin.
"I'm sorry. I thought it would be like in the stories. I thought you'd be glad to be human, and we'd fall in love… Don't look so frightened, Mr. Frog. I don't want to hurt you. I'll ask Cato Magus to change you back."
"No," said the old woman, shaking her head. "Changing twice so soon would kill him--if he were lucky. Besides, Cato Magus won't want to admit that his experiment turned out less than perfectly."
"But what can we do for him?" The young one sounded distressed. The frog wished he could communicate with her, but air wouldn't stay in his transformed throat. It went down inside and hurt him.
"Can you talk, Mr. Frog? I'm Princess Laura. Do you have a name?"
The frog opened his mouth. The sound that came out wasn't a proper croak, but it was reassuringly loud, and his insides felt better afterward.
"Oh dear," said Princess Laura.
The old woman, chuckling, pulled on a dangling cord. More people came. They brought a round wooden thing, and filled it with water to make an artificial pond. The frog's interest perked up, and when the old woman shooed away all the strangers he crawled over to investigate. The sides were half the mammals' height. Half his size, now. This strange, big body could jump that far, if he could only make it work.
"Wait," said the princess. "Put your hands on the edge. Hands. Here. Now stand. Like this. See?"
The frog pulled away from her touch, climbing, stretching out his hind legs.
"Very good!" said the princess. The frog lurched over the side of the tub and into the water, where he hunkered on the bottom until he had to come up for air. The mammals sat watching him.
They didn't hurt him. When his belly rumbled, speaking more eloquently than he could, they brought him bits of meat and watched him lick them from the plate.
"You really are still a frog inside, aren't you?" said the princess. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frog."
The frog blinked at her, watching the movements of her mouth as intently as he'd watch a flying insect.
"Rrrogg," he said.
Princess Laura looked happy when he spoke. The frog liked to make Laura happy. Laura was gentle, and moved slowly around him. Her laugh sounded like the ripple of water. Her eyes sparkled when she smiled, and she smiled whenever he learned something new, so he learned everything he could. Words. How to drink water through his mouth, not his skin. How to wear extra skins. How to walk on two legs. How to smile back. He couldn't tell if the older woman, whom Laura called Nurse, was happy when he acted like a man or not.
Laura was always supposed to be "Princess Laura," but "princess" was very difficult for a frog to say. The mammals called him Prince Robert. "Rob" wasn't too different from Frog, not too hard to say. He rather liked having a name.
"Ora!" he called when the princess entered his room. "'Lo, Ora! Thwim me? Eyde day."
She laughed, but Robert could see that she was distracted. "No, Robert, I'm not going swimming with you, even if it is a nice day. I need to tell you something serious."
He dropped into a squat at once, all his attention on her. "Tell, Ora."
"Cato Magus says that it's been long enough that he can try changing you back.
Robert caught his breath. He could have his right shape back, sleek and strong. He could return to his pond, and sing in the warm spring evenings. Sing to the females…
The sound he made was neither a frog's croak nor a human's sob. "No."
Laura looked startled, almost afraid. "Why not?"
"No Ora," he said.
Laura's eyes filled with tears. "Robert, I'm so sorry."
He reached out to touch the water that spilled down her cheek. "Don' gry, Ora."
"I was afraid of this," said a dry voice. Robert turned to see Nurse and a wrinkled gray man in glittering robes standing in the doorway. The man looked toward Robert, not quite at him. "He's too far gone."
"Stop talking about Robert as though he were spoiled meat, Cato Magus!" snapped Nurse. "You're the one who got him into this fix to begin with.
The gray man looked affronted. "I merely followed Their Majesties' commands."
Nurse snorted and bustled into the room to pat Robert on the arm. "You poor boy. You can't stay stuck between one thing and the other all your life."
"I'll concur with you on that," said the Court Wizard, somewhat sulkily. "If he's to fulfill the purpose for which he was summoned, his interior transformation must keep pace with the exterior. It will be a challenge, but I'd be more than willing to assist."
Robert stood in front of Cato Magus, his feet planted wide apart and his hands on his hips. Cato Magus liked to puff himself up with words, but Robert was bigger in body, and not about to back down. "What you thay?"
The wizard chuckled. "If you won't let me make you into a frog again, I'll make a man of you."
Not just a man, a prince. Robert soon learned that the second was much harder. It wasn't enough to speak in full sentences and use silverware at the table. Cato Magus, in every one of his endless, demanding lessons, made that clear.
"Princes, by virtue of their God-given status, have responsibilities beyond those of ordinary men," the wizard intoned.
"You make me prince, Magus," Robert retorted. "That make you God?"
For once, the wizard was speechless. When he spoke again it was with poisonous words, as though Robert had bitten him.
"I'm a man who knows my duty to Their Majesties. Perhaps you just can't grasp such abstract concepts."
Robert shook his head. "Frog has duty. Live. Not get eaten. Make tads. More frogs live. You stop me doing that."
The wizard looked amused, not angry. "At least you understand the importance of begetting heirs. That's a start."
Robert sat up straight, feeling like he'd been pithed. "Ora want to make tads… with me?"
Cato Magus smiled one of his dry smiles. "In some ways, the duties of royalty and frogs are not dissimilar. But in this case, Her Highness is genuinely fond of you. My duty is to make you an acceptable heir to the kingdom as well."
"Ging and Gween?" Robert had been presented to Their Majesties--an unsettling experience for all concerned. He hadn't seen them since.
"And the people of the kingdom. You have much to learn."
"I learn," said Robert. "If Ora teach, I will learn."
"'Thee thells shee sells…' Laura, you know I hate these, don't you?"
She smiled. "Say that one perfectly and I'll go swimming with you."
Robert groaned. "And it's not fair that the word for a thing as wonderful as swimming is sho hard to shay!"
Laura just laughed that wonderful, musical laugh of hers. Nurse, who had been singing tunelessly while she dusted the furniture, smiled. Robert looked her way, and grinned.
"Ora," he said, trying to look beseeching, "the way I say it, does it matter?"
"What do you mean?"
Robert took a deep breath and sang, in a bass that shook the flagstones, "She sells… sea shells… by the sea shorrre!"
This time Nurse laughed too, as they ran for the promised swim.
He practiced, and when the wedding came he said his vows perfectly. And a few months later, when Nurse explained why Laura was ill in the mornings, he could give full vent to his shock and enthusiasm.
"We're going to have tads, my Ora?" he said, bouncing in place. "Lots and lots of little tads?"
She laughed. "Just one, I hope. That will be plenty."
"Only one?" he said, perturbed. "What if something eats it?"
Nurse answered, since Laura was laughing too hard to speak. "It's different for humans, Robert. Nothing's going to eat the baby. And you're not going to swim off and leave my lamb once it's born, either."
Robert took his wife's hand in his. "Never," he said. "Not my Ora."
It was different for humans. There was only one baby. It came too soon. And there was blood. Too much blood. Laura was screaming. Then she was crying quietly in his arms. Then she was silent and still, and for once Robert didn't worry that she felt too warm, because she was too cool. As cold as a frog. As cold as the half-made little creature with webbed fingers and a human face who had taken her life.
"Ora!" Robert sobbed, words slipping away in his grief. "Stay. I stay for you. Shtay."
He looked to Nurse for comfort, but the old woman's face was a mask. She gathered up the bundle by Laura's side, hiding the tiny webbed hands.
"They'll blame you," she said. "The king and queen, the people." One tear slid down the old woman's face. "Go."
Laura had taught him to kiss. He kissed her still, cold face, and ran to Cato Magus' suite."
"Change me back," he demanded. "Now."
The wizard turned, and looked him up and down. "It's far too late. You're a prince now."
"I'm not a prince! I'm a frog. You changed me, and Laura died. Change me back. Now."
The wizard went pale. "It's not that simple. You have duties. The kingdom expects you to be more than a dumb beast."
"You expect. You want to say, 'Look what I made!' You didn't make me, Cato Magus. You changed me. You call me prince? I order you: Take your words. Take it all. Change me back before I hurt more."
The old man muttered and grumbled. Robert couldn't make out the words. Candlelight dazzled his eyes, filled his vision. Spicy powder made him sneeze. He was falling, and the world was growing, colors fading…
Then he was crawling out of a pile of clothing, blinking at the man who towered over him.
Cato Magus left him at an unfamiliar pond, in another kingdom. "I wouldn't want to be a local frog for the next few months," he muttered as he left.
And Robert understood him. The words were still in his head. He hadn't forgotten, couldn't forget, even if he could no longer shape words with his frog's mouth. Most words.
"You're still a man inside, aren't you? I'm sorry."
Robert woke from his dream with a start, and fell off the log. He thrashed for a moment, then stopped and laughed inwardly at himself.
A frog, afraid of drowning? He wasn't a frog any more. Frogs didn't dream in color, yet! They didn't choke down flies while remembering an apple split in two and shared. They didn't grieve. They didn't talk to the rushes for hours, forcing their mouths to form words that frogs didn't even understand.
"I'm sorry, my Ora," the frog rumbled in his throat.
Nurse had been right. He couldn't stay stuck between one thing and another. But he could no longer be a frog, and he knew only one way to become a man.
He swam against the current to a hidden garden, and watched its occupant. A girl, soon to be no longer a child. Today she was playing with a golden ball, tossing and catching it with clumsy hands.
He'd watched this girl, this princess, before. Yes, she was clumsy--and rather spoiled, too. But from the games she made up he could see that she was clever, and resourceful, and determined.
He'd been clumsy himself. He could hardly hold that against her. And spoiled-well, the Queen here had died. He could see loneliness in her eyes. He understood lonely. Any frog grown to adulthood understood about surviving when the others were gone. A frog's duty was to survive. A Prince's duty was to marry a Princess. He could no longer be a frog. He had to become a prince--to shed his frog-self, both inside and out, so as to not endanger this girl. A princess might be able to change his outside, if he could be a prince inside.
He hoped Laura would want that.
He heard a cry, and looked up just as the golden ball splashed into the water beside him and sank. The princess stumbled through the trees in search of it, sounding more and more distressed.
Robert shaped his words as carefully as he could.
"Princess," he said, "I'll get the ball for you, but you must promise to take me home."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Author Comments

So many fairy tales, cartoons, etc have a frog declaring, "Kiss me and I'll turn into a handsome prince!" But I wondered if this is really what an ordinary frog would want.

- Melissa Mead
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