I don't remember the rest of it. I know that the Beast left first, smoothly as though he were sliding on the air itself, his huge huge body weaving around the piles and piles of gold before he disappeared behind them. I know that after that, the old woman and the fox spirit helped me up from the chair and walked me through the maze of twists and turns back to my room.
All I know is that when I wake up, I'm face-to-face with a frog. A familiar blue frog, in fact, with many eyes.
The pink tongue smacks my nose again.
This time, I yell, my knee jerks, my arm slips out from the blanket, and I accidentally slap the frog with my palm. My skin hits against its own--surprisingly soft and slimy--in horror at how easily its small body gives way to the impact. Except it doesn't get hurt or land badly. Instead, the frog blows its cheeks up and its belly. It expands into a huge ball and bounces off the floor in a speedy ricochet.
Deflating back to its normal size, the frog lands perfectly on the wall, webbed toes latching on. "That's rude! I'm very delicate, you know! Much more than you!"
Taken aback, all I can feel is shame as I sit up, never mind bewildered confusion. "I'm so sorry."
It doesn't respond at first. Just ribbits, big eyes squinting suspiciously at me. "You're awake again," the frog says, accusing.
I've never known frogs to be anything like this, but maybe even in the other realm, they're the voice of reason. "Was...I not supposed to?"
"You were sleeping for three days."
This surprises me. "Three days?" I think back to the dinner I was supposed to have every night with the dragon. Well, at least I'm not dead yet.
"The Old Lady said it was because humans take some time to get used to the spiritual food." Ribbit, ribbit. Its eyes swiveled this way and that.
This is surprising. "She said that?" I was under the impression that the servants couldn't tell me anything else outside of the curse, but it seemed more and more likely that the old woman and this...frog knew more than I would ever know. "Is spiritual food good for you?" Was it going to grant me some sort of power? Was it something I could use as a bargaining tool, keeping up my strength?
"No," the frog says, "it kills humans slowly because they're meant to eat earthly foods."
"Oh," I say, at a loss. Yikes. "So if it's not the Beast, then it's the food that'll kill me?"
"No," the frog says, as if I'm stupid. "It'd be Yu Yin."
"Who's Yu Yin?"
Because I've made no move, maybe it feels safer. It hops onto the ground and then lands on my nightstand, right next to an empty bowl and pitcher of water. Its chest puffs up with pride, even though all the eyes on its body makes it an uneasy sight to look at. "Yu Yin is a fox spirit. She was known for her mischief in the other realm and the terrible ways she'd torture humans. She's the one next to the Old Lady that keeps visiting you."
It's hard to put together that description with the proud-looking, but then blank-faced girl who asked me to lift a curse I didn't even know about. Is that really her reputation? "She'll kill me? Is that because the Beast will order her to?"
"Yu Yin hasn't killed you yet." The frog doesn't answer me, squinting. "The Master hasn't killed you either."
Helpless, all I can do is shrug. I'm not sure what this frog wants from me, or if it can give me any helpful information I can use. "Are you going to tell everyone I'm awake now?" That's what I remember it did last time. Maybe it was a messenger of some sort.
The frog humpths and ribbits crossly, cheeks bulging out like an annoyed child. It's almost weirdly cute the way it swishes its head to the side as if it doesn't want to look at me. "Of course not! If you're not dead yet, you're ready for it now!"
"Ready for dying?" I ask, flummoxed.
"For exploring the manor," the frog says, irritated. "What else?"
Exploring the manor leads me to think about the old woman's warning not to step out of the path. And the fact that my own two feet won't keep me up. "But I can't walk alone. I need help."
"You can walk," the frog says, ribbiting. It hops down to the polished floor, and pushes its hind-legs so that it leaps higher and lands on the edge of the silk screen. Its padded fingers curl onto the lacquered wood frame. "You can walk because this servant says you can walk."
For some reason, I believe it. Something compelling in those words that causes me to push the blankets off my legs and swing them over the edge.
"You can walk," the frog says again. "Follow me."
It hops out of view, ribbiting, as I push myself off the bed.
My feet hold my weight. I feel no pain.
Slowly, I take my first step in what feels like a long time, and then a second.