The walk back to New Orleans from the bayou is treacherous. Not really dangerous – Shadowman’s gone, taken his shadows with him – but Tiana’s wearing a puffball of a dress Charlotte would swoon over. Meaning it’s big, ridiculous, and she can’t see her feet. She wobbles over stones and branches, always caught by Naveen before she even realises she’s falling. The third time it happens, they’re both giggling when he sets her straight.
‘So eager to fall into my arms at last!’
She straightens up and slips out of his fingers, brushing at the wide green skirts. ‘Oh hush, you.’
‘Married not more than a few hours and already being told to be quiet. Is this the rest of my life?’
‘It won’t be if you listen.’ Tiana smiles when she says it all the same. The rest of my life.
‘We should have been met,’ Naveen begins slowly, ‘by a car. Or a carriage, if you like. Drawn by white horses. A royal guard. Everything you deserve. Rather than walking through a swamp on foot.’
They emerge – finally – onto something resembling a street. Tiana stops with a hand on her hip, gazing upwards. She lets him draw even with her and tucks her other hand into the crook of his arm. The Crescent City gleams ahead, she can smell spice and sugar and home and Evangeline and Ray blink down from on high.
Naveen’s pulse beats under her fingers.
‘Really? I think this is pretty good.’
He bends to kiss her. He’s smiling as he does it. They continue in silence for another minute with her head resting along the top of his arm. There’s a wind snapping trees overhead, but otherwise the night is bright and quiet. He’s the one to finally break it.
‘There will be a question. Of why I want to marry you.’
‘Well, from what I gathered you never were one for commitment.’
‘Ye-es, but they will think I am...doing the honourable thing.’
There's a long pause as she blinks up at him, an his curiously embarrassed face. ‘Doing the-Naveen! How many people are going to ask if you’ve gotten me pregnant?’
‘Well, maybe more than a few. You are far too good for me, is what they will think.’
‘Don’t try and silver-tongue your way out of this one, Naveen. You can explain everything to your family.’
‘Everything. Well, maybe not the frog part. Or the Shadowman. Or Louis. Probably not Ray either. Okay then, I took care of you out of pity and turned you into a responsible human being, how about that?’
‘I was very responsible before we met! How about I took care of you?’
‘Right, When I’m myself again I want just the life I had, a great big party every night...’
‘Ti-a-na, do you know what it’s like to be the life of the party? With everyone hanging on your every word?’
‘My poor baby,’ she laughs, just because she can’t not. He looks too affronted, half-torn between laughter and annoyance as well. Things can wait, she’s learnt. They’ll boil well and you can leave them be until you’re ready to dip in like any good food. All at your own speed.
Tiana tears down the street, skirts hitched up, head thrown back, laughing under a night sky that’s dressed up like a Southern belle. In richest midnight, and strewn with diamonds.
‘We must have a grand courtship!’
Tiana’s let Naveen invade her kitchen while her mother’s away in town, even letting him near the knives provided he puts them down before saying anything. Big gestures make for lost eyes. She’s teaching him the trick to quick chopping when he comes out with it. She takes the knife, sets in down carefully on the side – well out of the way, Naveen waves a lot when excited and she’s kind of fond of his hands – before she speaks.
‘Naveen, we’re already married. I think we missed the courtship part by quite a long way.’
‘The rest of the world doesn’t know that. We spent the last few days as frogs, and frogs are not known for romance. No matter what the Froggi Prutto says. We must make up for lost time.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Music! Dancing! Mincing.’ He says it with just enough of a leer that heat travels up the back of Tiana’s neck.
‘And you are still a stick in the mud.’
‘I am a very busy stick in the mud. I have no time for dancing, or mincing.’ She adds, slapping at his arms when he reaches for her. He sighs, grabs her hands and takes three steps back so quickly the only choice she has is follow or fall over. She falls against him, feet braced against his. She scowls. He grins.
‘Dance, Tiana. I know you can.’
He sets a blistering pace around her tiny kitchen, quick feet and clever hands and kissing her whenever he can and still steering clear of any obstacles with a completely unself-conscious grace she knows she’ll never have. Well, if he can learn to mince, she can learn to swing.
It’s easier said than done.
She paces from her room to the front door, circling the house in ever-deeper thought. She worries about the restaurant; she worries about what people will think when they find out, she worries what her mother will think.
She has no idea what to do. So she cooks.
‘The roux’s the important thing, honey. Make a bad one and that’s the whole meal done for. A good one, and everything slides into place easy as. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.’
Daddy’s right. Even when he’s not here.
She slices onions, bell peppers and celery with the constant quick movement hard-earned by sliced fingers and nicked palms. She waits for the roux to turn the colour of an old penny and remembers the constant debates raging from porch to porch over whether you should actually use a roux for étoufée. She stirs the sauce with a round twist of her wrist that sets it to a slow burning ache. The sweet sharp smell of the cayenne. Thick garlic. Warm bay. The bite of Tabasco. Home.
Someone knocks at the door, and she just has enough time to wonder who it is before jazz starts being tapped out against the doorframe. Naveen.
He’s whistling along to the sound of a fiddle when she pulls the door open, they both listen to it turn from a slow sweet waltz to a bright bouncing dance.
‘The music here is very good.’
‘Course it is. You can listen to it in theatres up in town all you like but this is where it was born. It’s always the most beautiful here.’
‘You’re just saying that because I’m not green and slimy anymore.’
‘Mucous, Tiana. Mucous.’
‘Well, if it’s romance you wanted...’ Naveen proffers up the bottle he had been carrying half-tucked into his jacket. Tiana blinks in surprise.
‘And just where did you get hold of wine in this country?’
‘I have many mysterious ways and wonderful talents. Finding good wine is one of them.’
She turns the bottle in her hand, eyebrows jumping up at the name and date printed under her fingers. ‘Do I even want to know how much this cost?’ Naveen just laughs. ‘Right. Mama! Guest!’
‘I am a guest now, am I?’
His fingers find her waist as she turns, sliding down to tap his fingers against her hipbones. She slaps at him with a cloth. ‘You keep your hands to yourself while Mama’s here.’
He grins when she glares at him over her shoulder.
‘I’m just amazed you didn’t do anything more ridiculous than a bottle of wine that’s probably older than I am.’ She pauses, and then says accusingly, ‘You asked Lottie.’
‘Miss la Bouff was very detailed. Very thorough. There were many daring feats you would probably consider...hm, ridicules. But then she decided you would want good wine for a good dinner, and a good man for good company. Was she wrong?’
Lottie’s dizzy little body drove a big mouth and an even bigger heart.
‘You, a good man? That boat has long since sailed, Naveen.’
‘I made an honest woman of you!’
‘I think it was the other way round.’ She smiles, finally, at his pout. I married a child. Tiana. Married. Baby in the body of a Prince. Lord, girl, you don’t do things in moderation, do you?
I’ve got to hand it to you Tiana, when you dream, you dream big.
She shakes the memory away. ‘Get yourself inside, you. Introduce yourself to Mama.’
‘Introduce who to me?’ Mama steps into the hall, rubbing at her fingers and then at the bridge of her nose, leftover pains from working too hard in too little light.
Naveen steps up to her mother and bends down, kissing her knuckles with the kind of manners she never reckoned he’d have, or bother with. Naveen’s identity as a Prince is remote when you’ve seen him chase after flies and tied up with his own tongue. All for her mother, a woman most folks would never look twice at.
And her mother does something Tiana has never seen her do before. She giggles a little and rolls her shoulders up in the way that says she’s flattered and more than a bit embarrassed.
‘Please, I’m Eudora. And you are?’
‘Tiana? Something you want to tell me?’
Tiana looks from her mother to Naveen, who is stood with his head tilted, smiling as if he has no idea what he’s just done. He’s doomed her to an interrogation. He’s treated her mother with probably more respect than he’d give a queen.
‘Mama, you might want to sit down. This is going to take a while.’
Her mother listens, and ponders, and finally gives up on her hard-headed daughter – ‘when I said I wanted grandkids, I didn’t expect you to listen’ – after determining that yes, Tiana does know what she’s doing. She huffs and blusters but kisses Naveen’s cheek when he leaves and tells him to visit tomorrow.
They wash the dishes together, shoulder to shoulder, moving together in perfect silence. Tiana’s drying the last cup when he mother remarks idly: ‘You know, even if I did think you had made it all up, I don’t think anyone can dream up the Shadowman.’
‘You’ve seen him?’
‘Once, I think. I don’t think you can be unhappy in this town without seeing him at least once. He has a way of finding misery.’
Tiana doesn’t ask further, and her Mama doesn’t add any more. So many secrets and old ways, New Orleans. So many backs broken in the making of it.
Peace reigns for a while.
‘Tia! Tia Tia Tia!’
But not for very long.
The next day Charlotte’s on her doorstep, bouncing with the kind of energy nobody should have at seven in the morning. Tiana has time to answer the door and say ‘Ch-’ before she’s heaved down the steps and down the lane. Charlotte’s rose-coloured dress bounces in time with her hair as she spins on her heels to call back to the house.
‘Morning Ms Eudora! I promise I’ll bring her back safe and sound!’
Her mother just shakes her head and waves as Charlotte drags Tiana away with a surprisingly strong grip. She isn’t allowed to get a word in edgeways between Charlotte’s exited wittering and the noise of the rush hour trams, so Tiana just sits back and tries to listen as the la Bouff’s driver weaves his way through New Orleans traffic.
They drag some stools into Charlotte’s kitchen – she had offered her room, but Charlotte likes pink in inhuman quantities, and her kitchen’s as vast as a manor and her servants are quiet. It still smells of coffee and bread, breakfast smells, and Tiana breathes it in, writing over the swamp-stench she swore she was still clinging to her hair.
Charlotte’s almost rocking in place, smiling so widely it looks almost painful. ‘Well? What happened? Prince Naveen told me a whole lot but I’m not sure I get it.’
So Tiana starts from the beginning, the party, the kiss, Doctor Facilier, the bayou, Mardi Gras and deciding she’d rather be a happy frog than an unhappy human.
Charlotte’s sobbing by the time she finishes. The violently magenta handkerchief scrunched in one hand isn’t helping.
‘Come on, Lottie. It’s not anything to cry over.’
‘But it’s so wonderful!’ Through the hiccups and tears Tiana manages to make out ‘happy’, ‘dream’ and ‘prince’. Though that might have been ‘price’. Another few minutes and Charlotte’s sniffing happily and patting delicately at her nose with her handkerchief.
‘Now he wants to court me before we have to get married again because it’s not like a bayou wedding’s legal. I’ve got too much to do. Let people think what they want.’
‘It’s annoying, Lottie. We’re past courting. We’ve skipped straight to true love’s kiss.’
‘Bless you, honey, but courtin’ isn’t all for you. It’s for other people. You have to show ‘em you’re taken. That you mean what you’re doing and you’re not jumping into things blind.’
‘Naveen did say that people would wonder if there was another reason why I was marrying him, if we just went for it.’
‘See? Take advantage, Tia! You’re going to be all tied up in your restaurant soon, you got to have fun for once.’
‘I could.’ Tiana says. ‘Couldn’t I?’
Trust Naveen to get everything backwards. A kiss from a frog turns him human. Marriage and then courtship. The pair they were going to make.
Of course, then Charlotte starts to talk about royal weddings with the kind of force reserved for railroad crashes, and Tiana has to stop thinking about Naveen in order to convince Charlotte that much lace really wasn’t mandatory.
‘How do you feel about a little breaking and entering?’
Naveen blinks at her over the rim of his cup. He’s sat on her tiny porch, drinking black coffee and picking at the C string on the ukulele he’s managed to procure from somewhere.
‘I am sure, since it’s you; that you have absolutely perfect and justified reasons for wanting to do so.’
She grins. ‘Good answer. Come on, I need your help with something.’
They head down to the old sugarmill together, Naveen playing bits of whatever dances across his mind, bits of folk, jazz, something that must be Maldonian and stupidly romantic from the parts he decides to translate. She needs to get him to teach her, otherwise he’ll run circles around her and she won’t even know it.
Fenner and Fenner have the key, but Tiana’s been getting into this sugarmill since she was old enough to wander about town alone. She has to the force the window open on its rusty, breaking hinges, causing some pigeons that had been roosting in the timbers to take off in a cloud of down feathers.
‘This is your restaurant?’
‘Once I remind the Fenners that a deal’s a deal, it will be.’
‘There should be a band! Right there.’ He points to a spot at the back wall, next to a shattered window and half-hidden by a torn dust sheet.
‘It’d cover the kitchen sounds alright, I suppose.’
‘And when people turn to look, they will see the bright lights on the river. All lit up like the Fourth of July, remember.’
She flushes. ‘You remember that? You listened to me babbling on about this place a lot, didn’t you?’
‘Well, you listened to me babble on about my many good qualities. While I never exaggerate,’ she snorts, ‘perhaps I should have been more modest.’
He nods, smiling. ‘Just a little.’
They walk across the floor together, her hand resting on the wrist of the hand tucked into his pocket. She can feel his pulse steady fluttering, the bones and muscles moving slightly under her grip.
‘A lot of the time you want to be courtin’ will be spent here, you know.’
‘Well, if we cannot love each other when we are filthy and exhausted, when can we?’ She isn’t looking at his face, but she knows he’s smiling. She can feel it through his skin. When she does glance at him he’s watching the place where her fingers rest against his arm. He catches her eye, smiles suddenly, and draws her along by her hand to the centre on the building.
‘If we have little time we must start now, yes?’
He leads her into a slow tango, forehead tilted down to press it against hers. He’s humming, she can feel it where they’re pressed together, tip to toe. They leave footprints in the dust, each set never more than a few centimetres apart.
She closes her eyes. Their legs brush together lightly. His humming sometimes turns into snatches of random Maldonian, French, English. His heart beats against hers. His feet move in some pattern only known to him and hers can only follow. It’s completely made up. It’s perfect.
When he drops her into a dip she opens them again, blinking up at him. Lit from behind by the light from the hole in the roof. Lit from within by the mad ridiculous energy that came from being Naveen. A gyroscope set loose and pulling everyone along with it. It’s not so terrible a way to go.
‘See? Courtship is good, yes?’
She’s laughing again as he sets up back up onto her feet. ‘Fine, my Prince. But this time I lead.’