Hank could not believe she would do this. To staple a gold paper crown to his head and drop him down a well was one thing. To leave him down here with half a pack of Newport Lights and one match was unconscionable. It's for the good of humanity, she told him, and it's your own fault. Contributing to the delinquency of minors is MY purview, NOT yours. You're going to sit down there and consider your wrongness. In the meantime, I'm putting a sign up. Do you want to know what it says?
Probably not, but you're going to tell me anyway.
Damn straight. The sign reads, ahem: Frog King Prison
That's it. That's all it's going to take, I think. You know perfectly well that thousands of little girls make their annual pilgrimage to this dank hole in the ground, specifically in search of a Frog Prince to kiss. Unfortunately, most of them can't tell the difference between a frog and a toad and end up kissing the wrong species. One kiss is all it takes; the next thing you know, an entire generation of small women are out here licking the backs of any reptile slow enough to get itself caught. They don't have methadone clinics for addictive hallucinogens. Have you considered the implications of an entire generation of women running around licking toads? It's enough to throw us back to the dark ages of rank husbands, chastity belts, lost keys, and a life expectancy of twenty-six. I won't have it.
You are not.
Yelena hammered the sign into the ground, turned on her heel, and walked away.
She turned back and peered down the hole. What?
I don't understand. They've come here in search of a frog prince and you've put a toad in the hole. Then you post a sign that reads: Frog King Prison. Don't you think that's going to send them right down to my little puddle?
No. It won't do anything of the sort. The word 'frog' is one thing but the words, 'king' and 'prison' should be enough to send any little girl running.
I'm not following.
Of course you aren't. I'll explain using very small words. Little girls want a prince. They do not want a king. A king in search of a little girl is called a pedophile and their mommies and daddies have been quite clear about those sort of monsters. They are even less interested in felonious pedophiles. They want a nice young prince they can kiss and take home to mother.
You're a real piece of work, you know that, right?
I know that, Hank, and that's just the sort of thing that gets a felonious pedophile thrown down a well.
I heard that.
Hank was alone and the staples were starting to hurt.
The girls showed up with their expectations pinned to their chests. They came alone, in pairs, and sometimes with an entire herd. Hank came to the realization that The Frog King Prison had been incorporated into several of the more pricey forest tours. Expensive little girls stared down at his paper crown and turned away in disappointment. It wasn't the signage so much as the pathetic attempt at exuding wealth. Also, he smoked. Expensive little girls had come to the conclusion that socially and financially established mature men made better husbands in the long run. Hank contemplated soaking the top of his head in the puddle until the thing melted, but thought better of it. After all, a crown is a crown and would eventually appeal to someone.
Hank didn't lack for company or conversation, but he was getting lonely out here in the forest by himself. He missed his family and he missed his friends. Unfortunately, he also missed his mother. Missing Mother could be catastrophic. She was sure to hear of it, and if she was having a pointy side up day, he'd likely be smote into oblivion just because she could. He was also losing weight, which he believed would increase his attractiveness but get him nailed to the bottom of the well. Despondent, he slid halfway into the puddle and sucked on an old butt.
Tabitha showed up about six months into his penance. He'd met her once at the start of the 21st Century. She was sitting at the Piano Bar waiting for the piano dueling to commence. Showing absolutely zero self-preservation, he hopped up on the seat next to her. He noticed she'd been given a wide berth.
Hi. I'm Hank and I'm with Yelena's crew. I'm not always a toad. Last year I was a Hans My Hedgehog, but I got a little too friendly with one of her familiars and got myself demoted to Swamp Turtle.
You don't look like a Swamp Turtle.
Oh, I'm not. As of last week I was promoted to Forest Toad.
Well, that's interesting. Do you get licked a lot?
Ehhhh, yuh. Now and then. I'm not supposed to allow it though.
I should think not! We're just now coming into the culture of consent and that sort of thing's not allowed anymore. You can file a complaint, you know.
To whom?! The God of HR? Do you have any idea what my mother would do to me?
Ohhhh... You're one of Yelena's kids.
You got it.
You know, Yelena and I used to be pretty close. I should try to find her before this thing wraps up. I hear tomorrow's going to be a bit dicey.
You been out of the forest in the last century?
Yeah, now and then. I even did a stint as a human from birth until she sent a goat to fetch me home. There might have been some linear time folding, but I'm pretty sure I passed through a couple of decades.
So. Right. A lot of things have changed in the last hundred years, but our job descriptions have not kept up with the current cultural requirements.
I wouldn't know about that. Yelena seems to have a pretty good idea of what's going on. They don't even bother sending job descriptions to the forest; she just tears them up and sends them back.
The conversation ended at 'huh' because the dueling pianos and the sudden roar of the crowd drowned out everything but the music. They sat and drank until another Rusalka slid into the seat beside her. Tabitha looked startled. The Rusalka, doing her best impression of a Harpy, shrieked across the bar:
You all might want to vacate the premises. Some asshole's taken Kali's tiger swimming in the dolphin fountain.
Tabitha leaned forward and vomited eight shots of tequila onto the bar. Hank bolted. He had a very weak stomach and the start of a migraine.
Hank stared up at Tabitha, hoping she remembered him fondly and had failed to note his departure. He wasn't sure what 'Yelena and I used to be pretty close' entailed, but was willing to gamble. So! Good to see you, Tabs! Whatcha been up to?
Do not call me Tabs. Ever.
Right, sorry. Tabitha, how are you? I haven't seen you since the Dolphin & Swan Debacle.
I'm fine, my hangover passed but that collective migraine was a bitch. It took a solid decade and several human sacrifices to beat it down.
In who's honor does one sacrifice when trying to cure a migraine?
Generally one appeals directly to the source, but the Chief Turtle hasn't acknowledged a sacrifice in his honor since the 17th Century. These days it's best to go directly to Kali. You're never going to get direct acknowledgement, but somehow the fact of the sacrifice, with the request firmly stapled to the last corpse lands at the top of her pile of paperwork every morning. She gets those out of the way pretty quick.
Does she really eat them?
Of course she does! That, and fertility, are two of her primary pillars.
She's pretty scary.
You know, she really isn't. Try this out, OK? Make Kali a he instead of a her in your head and then playback the last couple of centuries. Who do we all love? We love Odin, right? Make her be Odin in your head and tell me what happens.
HOLY CRAP STOP DOING THAT TO ME!
I mean, seriously, is that sort of thing even in your job description?
It depends on the century, but, yeah, it kinda is. So what's the problem?
I saw Odin in battle and he was awesome and fierce and he was taking them down by the thousands. Gods, it was gory! That's one God that shows almost zero mercy.
So what's the problem.
What's the problem?! Mid-battle cry he turned into Kali and I nearly shat myself.
Um. OK. So, I just wanted to stop by and say hello. Looks like you're hanging in there, haven't taken off that demented crown yet so I'd say you're still in relatively good spirits. Would you like some advice before I go?
Lady, I'll take any lifeline I can find at this point.
About a week later, a fine young lady appeared at his well. She didn't seem to notice him, and as instructed, he chose not to notice her. She sat at the edge of the well and he wondered if she meant to throw herself in. She pulled a long string of beads over her head and broke the string. One by one, she dropped the beads into his puddle. He skulked back against a dry wall and cowered. The beads didn't fill his puddle, but they did displace a bit of water. He risked another look. She was removing shiny bands from her fingers. Some of them were shiny and sort of plain, others had colorful stones all around the band, and one looked like it was made of knots until she threw it down, and then it was just a tangle. The last band she pulled from her finger was terrifying. He wouldn't have been terrified if he wasn't aware of the almost foregone conclusion. The band itself was covered in smallish clear stones that made rainbows when they caught the light. At the top of the band was the mother of all clear rainbow stones. It had to be the size of a robin's egg, except not blue. It wasn't smooth at all. It had all sorts of angles that caught the light and sent it back out, stronger and fierce like.
She was going to throw that ring and chances were very good she was going to throw it as hard as she could. Hank was pretty sure it was going to make direct contact with his toad skull. A toad skull cannot survive a rock that size traveling at high velocity. He rolled himself into the smallest possible ball and whimpered. The floor of the well was littered with bright shiny things and he risked a quick look. Having raised his head just a bit, he could also hear her. She seemed to be muttering some sort of incantation. He lifted his head up a little higher, and finally resorted to standing up on his legs, arms splayed for balance. He threw his head back and dropped his jaw; what he was hearing was inconceivable.
The fine young lady was leaning over the well. She looked angrier than any pissed off woman he'd ever seen, including his mother. He didn't catch the entire incantation but he heard enough. Her intention was to throw the stone hard enough to shatter it against the wall. If she succeeded, her husband would die a horribly painful and extended death. He would not pass peacefully into the next world. He would hang, inverted, from the city gates, doomed to experience his death over and over until his corpse rotted and his bones fell to the ground. When that process was complete, she intended to dig a shallow grave for his bones, salt them heavily, and then light them on fire. This would end him entirely. There can be no after life if the bones are salted and burned.
He stood with his toad mouth wide open and looked up in terror.
He didn't mean to swallow it, but for a toad, swallowing whatever's in your mouth is pure reflex. He gagged a bit when it lodged in his throat, but that only served to push it all the way to his belly. He tried to sit, but could not. The damn thing bulged from his gut and it wasn't round, not at all round. It was full of points. So many points. Later she told him the rock was made up of 2,000 points; 100 for each carat. The damn thing was so uncomfortable he failed to notice the band which was firmly attached to the stone.
The fine young lady burst into tears.
Hank had never been able to cope with tears, not even his own. His sympathetic upset was so great that he hopped right out of the well and sat beside her.
Move over, thief.
Hank scooched a bit.
The other direction, idiot.
Hank was starting to feel a little queasy and said, if you don't mind, I'm not going to risk rupture by moving again just yet.
Listen, Fine Young Lady, I don't know what's got you so worked up, but your ire has put a very large something into my belly which seems to have reduced you to tears. Were you anticipating its return?
No. I was not anticipating its return. I was anticipating reducing it to dust. If I throw you at the wall hard enough, do you suppose it could still happen?
No. No. Absolutely not. I'm squishy. I'd pop. It would drop, unharmed, to the bottom of the well. So let's not go there, OK? Maybe you can tell me what's going on? In case you hadn't noticed, I am a king.
Yeah, it also reads 'Frog', which is a lie, and 'Prison', which is probably the truth.
Signs lie, people lie, witches lie, even Fine Young Ladies lie. So why don't you give it a shot, Mother may have locked me up but she didn't demote me to anything without magic.
The Fine Young Lady started with her name, which was, Jennifer, an Americanized version of Guinevere. But call me, Jenny; it's accurate for either version.
Jenny had recently become the second wife of a Socially & Financially Established Mature Man. She didn't really want to be married, but it was expected. If she failed to do so, in a timely manner, she would be cut from her own social circles. Had she been the first wife of an S&FEMM, she would have been expected to continue developing her career right alongside him. She would do this until she was in her early thirties at which point she would have a baby and never look back.
Jenny wasn't inclined to give up her practice.
Another option was to be the third and hopefully final wife of an S&FEMM. That was a crapshoot. If there was issue from marriage one AND marriage two, she would be off the hook. The problem was a matter of inventory. She was running out of time and settled on having to produce a baby or two before she got herself out of the mess. She was hoping to produce two, back to back, or maybe even an in-vitro process to bring two or three out all at once. With any luck, he'd be out of her life by the time they were two and she could spend a few years restoring her own self-respect.
So what's the problem? You're thirty-five, you've a well established private practice, and you can probably in-vitro-ize yourself. What's stopping you? More importantly, why the magic act?
Do you know Loki?
Whoa! Back the truck up, babe. You bet I know Loki.
Don't worry, I'm not married to Loki.
Oh, thank the Gods...
I'm married to one of the executives at Loki's law firm.
Loki has a law firm. Of course he does. OK. And?
What kind of men do you think Loki hires?
You have no idea.
The resolution was very simple. The Fine Young Lady was married to an Addict. Introducing a Hallucinogenic Toad would be like presenting a new type of whip to the Marquis de Sade. All they had to do was put Hank on her pillow with a note. Hank would wait patiently until the S&FEMM came to bed, at which point he would toe the note close enough to get the jerk's attention, and then present his back. The Fine Young Lady would be hiding in the closet. When the jerk was too stoned to move, she would light the candles and begin the revised incantation. They were a little concerned about the volatility of the stone in Hank's belly, but it wasn't show stopper.
Rusalka Local 322 was in attendance at the Salting and Burning Ceremony, just in case.
Yelena let Hank out of the hole, but made him wear the stone around his neck for the next twenty years.