In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 8 - A Box of Apples

John has one more task to complete with regards to the treasury, but this one has to be done in secret – even from himself.

The tax problem was well-settled, written notices had been hand-delivered to everyone who was to begin paying what was owed on their properties back to the kingdom, and a more general notice had been sent out about the new schedule on which the taxes were to be paid. A few people had not been happy, of course, but for the most part the subjects of Adam’s pretty but nameless kingdom had formed a very favorable impression of their heretofore seldom-seen prince. An impression colored with a healthy amount of reluctance to make him angry, but as this stemmed from them having actually seen him get angry rather than just fearing him on general principles, John and Cogsworth had convinced Adam that it was a good thing and nothing he should worry about. And the village’s opinion of their prince only increased when Florette, the mother of Gaston’s son, was given possession of the presumed-dead hunter’s land – land which had been cleared and was now occupied by a small but sturdy cottage suitable for the young woman and her son to live in. Not to mention that Jaçon had ended up doing very well at the ice house, which success was universally attributed to John as well as Adam although John was not fully aware of that fact.

In truth, once everything had been set in order for the coming of the next quarterly tax, John had been consumed with a different project – one he didn’t dare share with anyone else in the castle – which he felt required completion sooner rather than later. He worked on it diligently, and then once it was complete he had to figure out how to implement it without the curse striking him dead. He finally came up with something, but it ended up being a very near thing in spite of the precautions he’d taken. He was still holding his aching head in his hands when Adam came into the office that afternoon and at once guessed at what had happened. “John, you didn’t…”

John shook his head, gingerly. “I had to…I had to secure the apple-shaped rubies, Your Highness. Their value is pretty much incalculable at this point and they shouldn’t be mixed in with the other contents of the treasury. So until we can find out more about them, I made a box and put them in it for…for safekeeping.” He sucked in a breath. “It’s…marked, so if someone is specifically looking for the rubies they shouldn’t have any trouble.”

“And we won’t have any trouble going into the treasury?” Adam guessed, and received another very delicate nod in response. “I take it you thought that was going to become a problem?”

“It…already was. I had them piled on one end of the counting table, they were the first thing I saw every time I walked in.”

Adam was frowning. “So why didn’t you just have someone else pack them up rather than risking yourself – which I believe I did tell you not to do?”

His tone had been more than a little sharp, so he was surprised when John offered him a wan, apologetic smile. “By law, Your Highness, only you and I are allowed into the treasury.”

“Oh bother.” Adam dropped into his usual chair, frown becoming a scowl. “It’s just one thing after another, isn’t it?”

“Usually, yes.” John sat back in his chair; he didn’t have his glasses on, and his brown eyes were bloodshot, red-rimmed and slightly unfocused. “But that’s one we won’t have to think about now – and no one else will be able to just stumble upon it, either.”

“Point. I still don’t like it that you risked yourself.”

John just blinked at him. “It was either me or you, Your Highness – and I’m replaceable, you’re not.”

The scowl came back. “I don’t like that.”

“Good.” John picked up the mug that was sitting on the desk and took a cautious sip, making a face at the bitterness of the now-cold tea. “If you didn’t care about it, you’d be a horrible ruler – a horrible person, in fact.” Adam’s blue eyes narrowed, and John put the tea back down with another sigh. “Princess Elsa’s grandfather was an excellent ruler, from what my father told me. And according to our histories, we’d had good rulers for generation upon generation before him, all the way back to the days when the kingdom was founded by the captain of a ship which took shelter in the bay and discovered that it would make an excellent protected harbor. Good rulers are men like you, Prince Adam, men who care about their people – experience isn’t what matters most, intentions are. Do you think I’d still have the princess here if you weren’t a good example for her? If you were…well, anything like I’ve been given to understand her parents were, we’d have ridden back out just as soon as I’d gotten your books back in order.”

Adam just stared at him, the candidly spoken words echoing in his ears. And perhaps a bit deeper than that, although it was a sensation he wasn’t sure how to describe and wouldn’t have tried to as it felt so very…personal. He blinked and shook his head. “I…John, I don’t know what to say.”

John shrugged. “Say ‘thank you’, like any man does when he receives a compliment. A simple response is always preferable, and less likely to be misunderstood.”

“Thank you, then.” Adam considered the situation, aware for the first time…well, ever, of the idea that the loyalty his servants afforded him might not just be because of his lineage. It had simply never occurred to him that they might actually respect and care for him as a person, not merely tolerate him as a hereditary nuisance. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t thought of himself that way, in fact. And of course the current problem with Belle wasn’t doing anything to dispel that mindset, even though she’d been less dissatisfied with everything since she’d taken charge of Princess Elsa. Belle tended to be happiest when she had a project to work on; Adam knew this quite well, as he’d been her last one.

He didn’t realize that he’d wandered off in his own thoughts until the side door opening startled him out of them and Elsa stuck her head in. “John, are you…oh, Adam! I was just seeing if John was busy, I wanted to ask him a question.”

“He’s not busy,” Adam assured her. “In fact, I’m about to make him go up to bed. He’s not feeling well.”

“I’m…” Adam raised a dark blond eyebrow, and John sighed and slumped back in the chair. “Yes of course, Your Highness. What did you want to ask me, Princess?”

Elsa glided around the side of the chair, frowning down at him. “I was going to ask you about something I saw in a book Belle gave me to read, but now I’m going to ask you why you were doing something with the curse when you’ve been told not to.”

“He had to, Elsa,” Adam put in before his shocked bookkeeper could say anything; her tone had been more than a little scolding – she’d sounded quite like Mrs. Potts, in fact. “It was something only he could do, because of the way the rules for the royal treasury are set up. I am rather upset that he didn’t tell me what was going on, but I understand why he felt he couldn’t.”

Her expression said that wasn’t quite a good enough answer, and John shook his head – which made him wince, which had the effect of making her frown deepen. “You aren’t supposed to allow your ruler to come to harm if you can at all prevent it, sweetheart,” he told her. “That’s what it means to be in service to someone, it means you give them your loyalty and you do everything in your power to protect them.”

Adam was relatively certain John would not have put it quite that way when speaking to his princess if he’d been capable of clear thought right then, and he moved quickly to head off that new train of thought before Elsa could start wondering what that meant about John’s loyalty to her personally. “He’s been trotting out all kinds of startling statements like that – I believe his head is hurting so much just now that he can’t think clearly, so he’s speaking much more freely than he normally would. I’m about to send him to his room to sleep it off.”

John sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “That isn’t necessary, really. The pain does go away after a time, you know it does.”

Elsa asked before Adam could. “How long has it been this time?”

To Adam’s surprise, the question seemed to startle the bookkeeper, who squinted at the light coming in through the window and then frowned at the mug of cold tea sitting on his desk. “I…I’m not sure, really. I just made my way back in here when I was done. I knew it would wear off eventually, and I have other things I need to do today.”

The prince considered that, then stood up. “Elsa, please fetch Lumiere for me, if you would. I may need his help getting John safely upstairs – we don’t dare let him try them on his own, he might fall.”

That got him a scowl from John. “I would not…”

“You might.” Elsa took hold of John’s arm and pulled, making him stand up. “Go to bed, John. I can ask you my question tomorrow – or I can ask Adam, he might know.”

“If I don’t, we’ll ask Cogsworth,” Adam agreed. “Now come along, John, before I decide we need Mrs. Potts to make this party complete.”

As he’d expected, the mention of sending for Mrs. Potts caused John no little alarm, and he stopped putting up any resistance at all to being made to leave his office. Elsa all but ran to find Lumiere, who ended up meeting them at the foot of the stairs. “Ze princess, she said some assistance would be appreciated?”

“I’m making sure he doesn’t lose his balance on the stairs, his head is hurting just that badly right now,” Adam told him. “He was finishing up something to do with the treasury and it ran him afoul of the curse.”

“Ah, so zat is what you have been doing all this month,” Lumiere told John, who winced, this time not from the pain in his head. The butler smiled. “I did not think you had told His Highness all of it. He has been working on it in small doses,” he explained before Adam could say anything. “Verry carefully, from what I could tell. It is finished now?”

“Finally, yes.” John started to nod, stopped himself. “It’s…rather difficult to…create something while trying not to think about it at the same time, you know.” He nearly missed a step, raised a hand to his head. “Ow.”

Adam huffed and put his arm around the smaller man’s waist, making sure he wouldn’t fall; he thought it said something that John didn’t seem to notice the extra support. “Still thinking it’s better you than me?”

The emphatic nod surprised him, although it probably shouldn’t have. “I wouldn’t wish this headache on anyone, honestly. Well, except maybe the Chief Councilor of Arendelle, he deserves this and all the more anyone could give him.”

Much as Adam would have loved to pursue that comment – and he could tell Lumiere would as well – he realized now was not the best time. Elsa might turn up again at any moment, and they’d already had one close call from that direction. So instead he just made an agreeable noise and kept going until they had reached John’s room. The bookkeeper went to bed without further protest and was asleep even before they could close the door behind them, by which time even Lumiere was frowning. “I would say perhaps we should send for the Royal Physician, but we do not have one since the curse it first struck.”

Adam made a face. The Royal Physician had been off visiting his sister when the curse had fallen and most likely was still there, unable to remember where it was he’d originally come from. “Even if we did have one, I doubt there would be much he could do – this is magic, not an illness. Since the effect usually passes on its own, though, I would expect he’ll be fine by the time he wakes up.”

“Most likely,” Lumiere agreed. “I will come up and check on him later, Your Highness.”

“Thank you, Lumiere, I’d appreciate that.” Cogsworth came bustling up, meeting them on the stairs. “He’s fine, he’s sleeping it off. It was something he had to attend to that had to do with the curse.”

The older man huffed. “Oh, that. Did he finally get it finished, or should I wait outside the treasury door next time to be sure he makes it back out?”

The prince stopped dead on the landing. “Did everyone know about this except me?!”

Cogsworth shrugged. “Only Lumiere and I, Your Highness. Young John was commendably careful.”

“I’m not sure I want to call that commendable,” Adam did not quite snap back. “It may well be, but it’s not a behavior I want to encourage. Just because I’m your prince shouldn’t mean my life has more value than any of yours, that’s…” He threw his hands in the air, frustrated. “It’s just wrong, Cogsworth. It’s wrong. I don’t want someone’s loyalty to me to lead to…well, situations like this! Or the one last month with the outlaw Adel, where John put himself between me and the business end of a blunderbuss and told me to run if something happened.”

Lumiere and Cogsworth exchanged a look Adam didn’t understand. “It iz good you do not want it, but zat will not stop it from happening, my prince,” the butler told him, then bowed. He almost seemed to have tears in his eyes. “I must get back to ze kitchen, there are…things I must do.”

He hurried off, leaving a mystified prince behind him as well as a steward who was also inexplicably swiping at his eyes. “Cogsworth, what…”

The older man shook his head, sniffing just a little. “That was just…unexpected, Your Highness, although I dare say it shouldn’t have been. But to hear you say it like that, to know you came to that opinion all on your own…”

“I don’t understand.”

Cogsworth sighed, shaking his head again. “This is a discussion we’ve perhaps put off a little too long, I suppose – but one which definitely shouldn’t take place on the stairs. If you’ll come with me, I’ll try to explain.”

“About what?”

“About your father, Prince Adam. And…other things.” They went back downstairs to Cogsworth’s own comfortable office, closing the door behind them. Cogsworth moved to stand in front of the fire, his hands clasped behind his back, looking thoughtful. “I’m not sure where to begin, except to say that none of us were sure we ever wanted to tell you…well, certain things.”

“About my father.”

“About your father.” The steward looked him in the eye. “There’s no easy way to say this, Prince Adam, but King Hector wasn’t a good king. He wasn’t a tyrant or cruel or anything like that, he just simply didn’t care about running the kingdom. Or staying in it most of the time, for that matter – a great traveler, your father, although his travels were entirely for his own amusement and he never brought back anything from them except your mother.” That startled Adam considerably, and Cogsworth did not quite smile. “Possibly I could have worded that better, but it is the truth. He just came riding back into the kingdom with her one day, the youngest daughter of some Northern king, I believe. I wasn’t the steward then, of course, old Monsieur Tremblay was, and the old man was reportedly none too amused to be presented with a new queen out of nowhere and told to arrange a wedding at once. They can’t be, you know,” he explained. “Weddings require a good deal of planning, and royal weddings at least double that. Tremblay managed it, though, and he had hopes your father would settle down to run things after that…but he didn’t, and just so soon as the queen had recovered from having you he was off again and took her with him. The second time it happened Tremblay left, just took a horse and rode down the mountain and never came back, and after that I was in charge. Of the staff and the castle and most of the running of the kingdom. And of seeing that you were raised properly, as your parents were rarely here. And that’s why hearing you upstairs just now was such a wondrous thing, Your Highness. Because a good king doesn’t want his people to die for him, but that’s not an attitude one can teach, if you understand what I’m saying – it’s something you’re supposed to learn by example, except even if your father had been here he’d not have set that kind of example for you to learn from, believe me, and your mother most definitely would have told you just the opposite. So for you to come to that realization all on your own…” He swiped at his eyes. “It’s just a wondrous thing, Your Highness. A wondrous, marvelous thing, and a fine sign for the future of our kingdom.”

Realization had dawned. “You’re proud of me.”

“Very. As is Lumiere, and Mrs. Potts as well. We did our best to teach you what we could…but it was you who took it the rest of the way, and decided what kind of man you were going to be. And that even after growing up in a way that was, shall we say, less than optimal.” Cogsworth shook his head. “The crown doesn’t matter, Prince Adam. It’s a hunk of metal, it means nothing save as a way for people to tell who the king is at a distance. But the man you are…that’s what makes a ruler good or bad or indifferent, do you understand?”

“I…I believe so.” Adam considered that, aware that considering it felt like a weight had been placed on him, although he wasn’t sure why. “So my parents were…”

“I never understood them, Your Highness. Nor did anyone else here. We were loyal to the kingdom during your father’s reign, not to the man himself.”

Adam nodded slowly. “Thank you, Cogsworth. What you’ve told me does explain…a lot of things I’d been wondering about. I think I’ll go ride for a while now, unless there’s something else I need to be doing.”

“Not a thing today, Your Highness,” the steward assured him. He waited until his prince had left the room, then sank into the nearest chair, frowning into the fire. There were more things he could have told his prince, of course, but he truly didn’t want to. Because how do you tell a boy that the fairy who cursed him had been paying secretive visits to his parents before it happened? Or that you suspect those selfsame parents had less ‘disappeared’ than just left without planning to come back?


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