“Cousin! Dear cousin, you mustn’t fly so–”
Mercedes made no sound other than a rustle of skirts when she bounced off the palace wall and went tumbling backwards in the air, her wings fluttering furiously in an attempt to keep her balance. Melvin rolled his eyes heavenward for a moment, then rushed after her, managing somehow to catch her before she actually hit the ground.
In his arms the princess weighs less than a baby sparrow. She blinked several times and then made an indignant sound. “That hurt!”
Melvin just barely resisted the urge to sigh. He knelt and placed her on the ground; almost immediately, she rose to her toes again, wings spreading for balance. It was growing nigh-impossible to keep the princess on the ground, and — accidents like the previous nonwithstanding — she was far more graceful in the air. “Princess Mercedes,” he said, “you mustn’t simply go dashing off like that. You’ll ruin your fine new dress, and then your mother will scold.”
“Oh.” Mercedes looked down at herself, tiny mouth pursed. It was similiar in cut and design to the flowing dress his lady aunt favored in court, with a trailing leaf-green skirt and a vee of snow-white silk at the bodice. The sleeves were fashioned from pale yellow rose petals, cut so that they would not completely swallow her skinny little-girl arms. She patted the folds of her skirt, then looked up at him. “I do not like this dress,” she said. “I would much rather dress like Mother’s archers. That seems much more practical.”
Melvin bit the inside of his cheek. “That is hardly appropriate for the Crown Princess,” he told her sternly. He reached into his pocket and produced a handkerchief, wiping a smudge from her pink cheeks. “You must hold yourself with more dignity, my dear cousin. We will be recieving a diplomatic envoy from Titania today, and we cannot have you dashing about like a commoner.”
Mercedes tolerated his fussing with poor humor. Her cheeks puffed out in a pout. “It hardly seems fair,” she protested. “I want to go frog-hunting with you, Melvin. I heard you speaking with Grandfather. You were going to leave me behind, weren’t you?”
He drew back slightly. His hands, already moving, completed the motion of smoothing her golden hair back. “I meant to go frog-hunting today, yes,” he said. It was a popular sport among the younger nobles, and Melvin prided himself on his steady arm and keen eye. “It’s hardly a sport fit for a princess, though.”
“But you are a prince,” she said. “And if I am to be Queen one day, I shall have to learn to use Mother’s bow properly.” Her lip trembled, though she held herself together remarkably well. “It is not fair that you might go chasing frogs, and I have to stay inside.” She fisted her tiny hands in her skirt, wrinkling it. Melvin gently untangled them.
“My plans have already changed,” he said. “I am the Queen’s nephew, am I not? It would be impolite if I did not attend to my dear aunt and darling cousin. Of all our people, am I not the one who has spent the most time among humans?”
She screwed up her tiny face for a moment, lost in thought. “That was when I was very young,” she said. “You don’t leave Ringford any more.”
“Because I have many responsibilities here,” he said. He adjusted the crown of flowers in her hair. “I have my cousin to look out for.”
Mercedes tipped her face to him. He was struck again by how tiny she was: even on her toes and him kneeling, the top of her head did not even reach his chin. She drew herself up in mimicry of how her mother conducted herself. “Then you’ll be there today, when Mother has her audience?”
“I will,” he said. He put a hand over his heart and bowed his head; it seemed to please her, from the way she smiled. “Whatever makes you happy, dear cousin.”
“Oh,” she said, and then again, more pleased, “Oh. In that case. You will stay here today for the Titanian audience, and when it is over …” She lifted her chin, imperity and fragile bird-bones; it would be many, many years before she would grow into her mother’s stature and gravity. It seemed impossible that the weight of Ringford would one day rest upon those tiny shoulders. “When it is over, you shall take me frog-hunting with you.”
In spite of himself he felt his mouth curl into a smile. He bowed low. “As my lady wishes.”