In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 11 - Asher

They’d only stopped at the Kingdom of Asher to make inquiries…but it was ball season.


The nearest kingdom to Adam’s on Cogsworth’s old maps was called Asher, and as it seemed likely that Adam’s travel-loving parents might have passed through there at some point – and possibly even have known that country’s king and queen – it was decided that Asher would be their first destination. Luck was with them in that although the map had been old, the roads were in good repair once they’d gotten fairly out into the countryside, and the spring rains had mostly ended so the weather was pleasant enough for camping not to be too much of a hardship. They had seen very few people so far, but enough that John and Adam had decided they should leave off the royal honorifics when speaking to each other so that anyone who might stumble onto them would think them regular travelers and hopefully not try to rob them. A plan which had ended up working even better than might have been expected, as when they’d stopped at the one rather rough little outpost of a village they’d come across, the coins they’d paid for their supplies with had been immediately recognized as being usually only seen in the hands of rather desperate and dangerous men; as a result, no one had been of a mind to ask them too many questions or interfere with them in any way, which had relieved Adam and John to no end.

Elsa, however, was finding herself none too pleased with their manner of travel. Not because it was, as Adam had genteelly put it, ‘a bit rough’; she and John had traveled and camped much the same way after leaving Arendelle to begin their quest, after all, and with far fewer supplies on hand to ensure their comfort. No, what was annoying her was having to ride Sven by herself while John rode the mare Mr. Fabron had named Buttercup. Not that she didn’t like riding Sven, because she very much did, but she had liked riding behind John! She wasn’t even able to talk to him now, because the road wasn’t very wide and they were having to go single-file in most places. Adam was riding in front, as he had the map, and John was riding behind. Every time she looked back he smiled at her, but Sven didn’t like it when she looked back because he thought that meant he should turn around, and she could tell in spite of the smile that John was worrying again. And somewhat afraid as well, just as he had been when they’d left Arendelle. Elsa didn’t like that. John hadn’t looked that way in quite some time, and she did not like seeing it again.

Adam eventually looked back and saw her growing scowl. He at once stopped riding. “Elsa, what’s wrong?”

“Elsa?” John quickly caught up as well, his brown eyes widening when he saw the thick layer of frost on Sven’s reins. “Sweetheart, what is it?”

Up close he was somewhat red-eyed, although now the worry was all for her. Elsa’s blue eyes narrowed; the last time she’d seen John with red eyes… “You’re thinking about the curse!”

John rolled his eyes, although it made him wince just a little. “Not exactly. I noticed the effect of the curse kicking in not long after we rounded Adel’s Hill, I began to have trouble remembering how we’d gotten there. So I started trying to fix the landmarks in my memory…”

“So we could find our way back if we needed to.” Adam nodded, then pointed at him. “Elsa, snowball please.” She obligingly hit John in the face with a rather large one – she was annoyed, after all – and the way he spluttered was entirely satisfactory. “Stop trying to remember the route, John,” Adam ordered. “I won’t deny I’d hoped that part of the curse wouldn’t affect you, since you’d found your way to my kingdom once already, but whatever immunity you had to it has apparently gone off. It’s all right, all that means is we can’t get back until we’ve found a way to break it.”

“You might want to go back before that, Adam.”

Elsa cocked her head. “But you said we couldn’t go back to Arendelle until we’d found my parents.”

“Different situation,” John disclaimed quickly. “Your sister is still in Arendelle, so there’s still a member of the royal family in residence if something is needed. There’s only one of Prince Adam.”

“True,” Adam agreed. “But we already know that fighting the curse doesn’t work – and you, especially, know what happens when you push it too far, John. If you’d kept on doing that out here you’d have fallen off your horse.” He turned his attention back to Elsa. “Was there something else bothering you, Elsa?”

“I don’t like riding like this. We can’t talk to each other, and John is worried and frightened again.”

John sighed and nudged Buttercup closer, leaning over to cover Elsa’s cold hands with his warm one, melting some of the frost. “Of course I am, sweetheart. We needed to go on this quest, yes, but it’s still dangerous to be out here on our own like this. Why do you think we put you in the middle?” He saw that she didn’t understand. “Remember the men at the inn at the foot of the mountains?”

Her eyes widened. “There are bad men like that out here?”

“There are bad men like that everywhere. There were even some in Adam’s kingdom, but he ran the last of them out. I called the hill the road curves around Adel’s Hill because the last one’s name was Adel and that was the last place I saw him.” She hit him with another snowball. “Elsa, stop that!”

“No remembering landmarks,” she scolded. Adam was laughing now, so for good measure she hit him with a snowball too. “If it’s that dangerous I should be riding with you, John, not riding in the middle while you’re behind me worrying. I don’t like it when you worry. If I’m riding with you, I can make you stop.”

John sighed. “No, you can’t,” he said very plainly, swiping snow off his glasses. “Because your safety is my responsibility and so is Adam’s. And as I just said, being out here is dangerous even though it is necessary.”

“I’d be safer riding with you.”

Adam stepped back in before John could continue the argument. “She’s actually right,” he pointed out. “She would be safer riding with you, and then we could ride beside each other. I admit, I’m having far too much time to think about unpleasant things riding up at the front by myself.” Which was true, but he’d also come to the very unwelcome conclusion that John was doubtless planning to use his solitary status on the horse to put himself between them and any danger that might approach; he wouldn’t be able to do that if Elsa was riding with him. “So it’s settled, we’ll stop here, put all our supplies on Buttercup, and then let her walk on a lead rein behind us. And that will also let us have a fresher horse to switch off to if one of the others goes lame.”

It was rather obvious John did not think much of that plan, but he didn’t argue with it and dutifully followed when Adam nudged his own horse off the side of the road. There was thick green grass there, and the horses were glad to eat some of it while their riders shifted packs and bundles around. “We’ll have to switch back when we get to Asher,” John warned Elsa and Adam both. “It wouldn’t look proper for the princess and I to be riding double then.”

“We can switch back before we get there,” Adam agreed. He noticed something. “John, is that a knife in your boot?”

“Yes, Cogsworth gave it to me before we left—it’s in a little sheath that fits down inside. And then Lumiere gave me one for the other boot, he said he knew I’d be missing my usual blade.” He’d been giving Adam a look that said he knew where all the teasing about his letter opener had started, but then he burst out laughing in spite of himself when a sizable snowball struck Adam in the face just as the prince was opening his mouth to defend himself. “Thank you, Elsa.”

 

Another week of riding saw them arriving at the Kingdom of Asher, which was much, much larger than Adam’s kingdom with vast fields and farms and a bustling town surrounding a huge castle with soaring white stone towers and blue-tiled roofs. There were more people about than Adam had ever seen in his life, a good many of them looking to be wealthy travelers – so many travelers, in fact, that John kept Elsa on the horse with him instead of switching back to riding singly as he’d said they should. They found the inn easily enough as it was swarming with people and horses and carriages, and John left Elsa and Adam with the horses while he went in to see if there were any rooms available. He came back out with an odd look on his face. “Well, I was able to get us a room, Your Highness, although we’ve probably got the last one for miles,” he announced formally and somewhat loudly, much to Adam and Elsa’s surprise. “Apparently all this crush of people is because the King is about to host a very large ball – the third one in a row, in fact –– because he’s trying to marry off his only son. We needn’t worry about the princess, though,” he added quickly. “The prince is said to have found the woman he’d like to keep, but she’s an elusive creature and only appears when there’s a party.”

“So they keep having them.” Adam shrugged. “It’s all the same to me, John – not like we were here for that purpose or anything like it. Is there someone about I might talk to about getting a few minutes of the king’s time?”

“The innkeeper said there was, he’s sending him out…oh, this must be him.” Rather obviously it was, as the man was dressed in such a way that he could hardly be anything but some sort of royal servant. John waved him over. “His Highness, Prince Adam.”

The servant bowed, but it was a short one. “What kingdom do you come from, my lord?”

“Good question,” Adam told him. “Pity I can’t answer it –– that’s half the reason we’re on a quest, and the entire reason I stopped here to see about speaking to your king. We’re seeking information, I merely wanted to inquire in case he’d heard anything. We’ve got a kingdom without a name and two sets of missing royal parents – and then my wife fell under some horrid curse, which is quite likely connected to the rest of it. So you see, I’ve no interest in fancy parties at present.”

“Of course not, my lord.” The servant bowed more respectfully this time. “You may come with me now, if you like, and I’ll get you in to speak with His Majesty forthwith. You’ll pardon my saying it, but he could use the distraction from…other matters right now.”

“I will come with you,” Adam agreed, ignoring the offer of palace gossip as was proper. “John, see the princess settled, please. And I want the two of you to stay inside and safe, we’ve no way of knowing who among all this crowd may be something other than what they seem.”

John nodded, and the servant bowed again. “They should be quite safe here, my lord. We’ve no such goings-on in this kingdom as they do in some others I’ve heard about. Supposedly there’s one to the north ruled by a murderous witch who buried her entire country in ice and snow.” Elsa squeaked in distress at that and covered her face with her hands, and John quickly moved to comfort her. The servant quailed before the look Adam was giving him. “So sorry, my lady, I did not mean to frighten you. But we’ve none of that sort of magic here.”

“I’d not be so quick to say so,” John remarked under his breath. He had Elsa’s hands in his now, hiding them from view as he used the warmth of his own to melt the frost which had sprouted from her gloves. “I’ll stay with her, it will be fine, Your Highness,” he told Adam in a louder voice. “Come along now, Princess, let us get you up to the room and I’ll fetch a hot drink. Your hands are like ice…”

Adam coughed into his hand, vowing to get John back later for trying to make him laugh. The sternness the effort lent to his face had a wonderful effect on the servant, though, who stopped being chatty and got on with escorting him. Adam recovered himself enough to ask questions about the kingdom and the balls on the ride to the palace, and found out a good deal which put paid to the servant’s claim that there was no magic in their kingdom. They had a disappearing mystery of a princess who wore impossibly beautiful dresses and rode in a sparkling white and gold carriage drawn by exquisite white horses with diamond-studded golden harnesses, the like of which had never been seen before by anyone. And she always disappeared before the clock struck midnight. But no magic, oh no. That would just be unthinkable.

 

The castle of Asher was even lovelier up close, and Adam thought he would definitely make sure Elsa got to see it before they left. It was also buzzing like a beehive, however, and he wasn’t much surprised when a dark-haired young man about his own age came striding up when he and the servant rode into the courtyard. “Your Highness, this is Prince Adam,” the servant introduced quickly, as the man looked like he was about to have something to say about bringing one more person into the current chaos. “He and his companions are on a quest and stopped to seek information; I told him a distraction would probably be welcome.”

“And you weren’t wrong.” The young man gave a short bow. “A pleasure, Prince Adam; I’m Prince Charming. I’d be happy to help if I can.”

Adam bowed back the same way. “I appreciate that. I can see that you’re busy, so I’ll try not to take up too much of your time…”

“Oh please, take up as much of it as you can,” Charming cut him off, leading him away from the avidly listening servant. “I’ll drive myself crazy waiting for tonight if I’ve not got something else to occupy my mind with. Hopefully I’ll be more use solving your mystery than I have been mine.”

“The disappearing princess?”

“No idea if she’s a princess, but at this point I don’t really much care – any woman can put on a pretty dress, but most of them don’t possess a nature of equal loveliness to go with it. If I have to marry, it’s going to be someone kind and gentle whose company I can actually stand.”

Adam smiled. “That sounds a wise decision to me, Charming.” A much smaller, rounder man than the prince came stomping up to them, and he swept a deeper bow. “You must be his majesty King Rupert. Prince Adam, at your service.”

The king raised a white eyebrow. “Prince Adam of where?”

Adam sighed. “I wish I knew, Your Majesty. Our kingdom fell under a curse over a decade ago and as part of that the name of it was stricken from everyone’s memory. Even attempts to give it a new name have failed, although the main part of the curse was broken some two years past. And then my wife began to be affected more and more strongly, so I’m out seeking information to try to bring an end to it once and for all. We suspect it may be connected to the disappearance of my parents prior to the curse being cast, and possibly that to the similar disappearance of another set of royal parents from a northern kingdom in a similar fashion. I had hopes that someone in your kingdom might recall something which could be of help to me on my quest – or that you yourself might have known my parents, as I’m told they traveled widely and often and may have paid you a visit at some point.”

“It’s possible, I suppose.” The eyebrow was still up. “You’ve got a pretty lady with you, I’m told. And a man you left behind at the inn as well?”

So the servant had offered gossip as a means of extracting information to feed to his king, interesting. “Princess Elsa, the daughter of the other missing set of parents. She’s under my protection at present, as she was already on a quest of her own to find them when I met her. The man who is with us is my Royal Bookkeeper and was in the princess’s employ as the same; I would trust him with my life or hers any day. I left him at the inn to guard her, there are…a great many people about just now, and we are strangers here.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Charming assured him. “Come, Adam, we’ll go into the conservatory to talk – it’s about the only place all this fuss hasn’t reached yet.”

“Because it makes the flowers wilt,” the king added. “So I told all the servants that they weren’t to go through it unless they had business in there to begin with.” He somewhat grumpily led the way to the conservatory, catching a servant along the way and instructing them to bring refreshments. The servant scurried away, scattering more servants as he went, and Adam saw Charming roll his eyes.

The conservatory was a beautiful glass-walled and -ceilinged room filled with flowers and vines and small trees in large pots, and in the center of all this greenery was a comfortable sitting area. The king took a woven chair whose well-worn cushions told Adam he sat there often, and when he indicated another chair Adam sat down as well while Charming took a seat of his own on a padded bench. A servant came hurrying in with a large flat book, which was handed to the king with a bow; this servant also scurried off as quickly as possible, and Adam decided he would have to ask John if it was normal for servants in a larger kingdom to act that way around their king.

King Rupert placed the book on a low table, flipping it open; it was a finely illustrated atlas. “You say your kingdom doesn’t have a name, but it must have a location,” the older man observed gruffly. “I dare say you wouldn’t have left if you didn’t know how to get back to it, so show me where it is.”

“We actually did leave knowing we might not be able to find our way back without the curse being broken,” Adam corrected, leaning forward to look at the map. “I had hopes John might be able to find his way back if nothing else, as he found his way into my kingdom once before; but within a day of leaving even trying to remember landmarks was causing him pain and the princess and I ordered him to stop doing it.” He indicated the place where they had entered the town, traced a line back north and westward. “This is how we came, it was just over a week’s travel from my kingdom to yours. Is there a map which shows more of the countryside? My castle is set with its back to some very steep mountains, surrounded by them on three sides, and our village is in the valley at the mountains’ foot.”

“Hmm.” The king flipped more pages, finally arriving at a spread which showed less detail but more area. He tapped a mountain range that stretched out for a good distance along the top edge of the pages. “These are the only mountains within a week’s ride, but there’s no kingdom there.”

“I promise you, there is,” Adam told him. He traced the general area where the road had been with his finger, ignoring the growing pressure behind his eyes and the pain he could feel coming with it. “This is the approximate location of the road. There was a rather rough village we stopped at for supplies about here, I think – they recognized the stamp of the coins we had as something they’d seen before, so we thought it likely others who had left my kingdom had passed through that way. And to get there we came through some hilly country…” He tried to keep tracing the path of the road they’d been on, but before he could get even as far as the hills a sharp spike of pain made him sit back in his chair rather abruptly, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Dammit, I’d forgotten how much that hurts. I had hoped that since I can look at maps when I’m home I’d be able to do it elsewhere as well. And it’s not like I didn’t use one to get us here.” He fished it out of his jacket and held it out blindly, nodding when it was taken. “Perhaps if you compare it to your map?”

He heard Charming get up and the rolled map being spread out. “There’s the road, it leads into the hills. Maybe over in this direction…” He let out a sudden hiss, as did the king, and the map snapped closed again. “Well that certainly wasn’t pleasant. The curse?”

“Apparently protects itself everywhere and not just at home.” Adam forced his eyes open, trying not to squint against the light. “I do apologize, I didn’t think it would do that to somebody else or I wouldn’t have…”

“No need to apologize, my boy.” King Rupert looked a good deal less cranky and more thoughtful than he had only moments earlier, and he didn’t sound nearly as gruff. “I asked you to show me, and you did. The effect passes?”

Adam nodded. “Usually as soon as you stop thinking about it, yes.”

“Stop thinking about it,” the king ordered, albeit mildly. “I know you’re telling the truth now. I had to be sure, though. As you noticed, we’re overflowing with strangers right now, and you’d not believe some of the stories I’ve heard told of late by people who should know better.”

“I understand completely, Your Majesty,” Adam assured him, although he wasn’t entirely sure he did; another thing to ask John about later, he supposed. He tucked the map back inside his jacket with a sigh. “Well, this is going to make finding things out rather more difficult. If you’ve been hearing wild stories, though…you’ve probably heard of the Castle of the Beast?”

King Rupert snorted. “That one’s been going around for years…” And then he stopped, raising a surprised eyebrow; Adam colored up a bit, but nodded. “Well well, that’s one I hadn’t thought had any truth to it at all – I can remember stories about The Beast being told when I was a boy.”

Adam shrugged. “I suppose it’s possible the fairy who cursed me and mine had done it before. My curse was broken two years ago by the woman who became my wife, Lady Belle. That freed myself and my servants from the castle grounds – and me from being a Beast, of course – but it didn’t give us back the name of our kingdom or allow anyone who passed the kingdom’s borders to be able to return. I saw that part of it in action with my own eyes last autumn when I had to banish a man who fancied himself an outlaw. We watched him walk down the road, but then he reached a certain point and the way he started looking around told us that he’d just become unsure of where it was he’d come from. I didn’t want the man in my kingdom anymore, but even still it was somewhat horrible to watch the effect take hold of him that way.”

“I’d think so, yes.” Charming had sat back down. “So your wife…”

“We’re hoping it’s part of the old curse and not something new,” Adam told him – which was the truth, part of him really was hoping that. “I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for a solution if it was.”

“No, bad enough the only trail you have is more than a decade old.” King Rupert waved in the servants who were hovering near the door with a tray. “I can’t recall anyone visiting from somewhere so near right off the top of my head, but I’ll think on it. In the meantime, tell us what you can about your kingdom, it might jog my memory. And it certainly won’t hurt Charming to have something new to think about other than tonight’s appearance by his mysterious princess. I suppose you already heard about the current situation?”

Adam nodded. “Your man who brought me here did mention it, yes. It certainly explained why there were so many people at the inn – John said we’d likely gotten the last available room for miles.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. Annoying as this whole thing has been for me, it’s been a tremendous boon for the townsfolk – not just the lodging-houses but also the dressmakers, tailors, milliners and shoemakers.” He chuckled. “I understand every goodwife who can ply a needle has gold to tuck away for the winter now.”

“And some who can’t as well,” Charming observed. “I’ve seen more than a few atrocities on the ballroom floor lately, it’s either that or someone’s gotten the idea that making me stare in horror is a good way to get my attention. Not that I’d care so much about the way they dress if any of them could open their mouths without making me wish they hadn’t, but apparently no one’s been raising any of them to be anything but ornamental.”

“And some of them can’t even manage that,” the king agreed. “I think perhaps I need to start emphasizing education more.”

“My wife did that in our kingdom,” Adam told him. “We made literacy mandatory – took a bit of doing to set it all up, and of course there were some who didn’t like being dictated to, but I believe it’s going to be nothing but good for our kingdom in the long run.”

King Rupert and Charming both wanted to know more about that, and Adam was happy to spend time conversing about something he and his wife had done during the time before the ‘curse’ had taken her from him. He’d always been proud of Belle’s intelligence, and although he knew – thanks to Cogsworth – that there were some who didn’t think it ‘proper’ for her to outshine her husband in that area, Adam himself had never had a problem with it.

Evening came upon them rather suddenly, and the king insisted that Adam join he and Charming for dinner and then kept him afterwards that they might continue their conversation while the ball was going on. “I do not dance,” he maintained. “And if I go out there all the widowed mothers of these ornamental girls start making cow eyes at me, hoping to bag the bigger crown if their daughters can’t land the smaller one.” He huffed. “Like any of them could hold a candle to Charming’s mother, and it offends me that they feel emboldened to try.”

“It would offend me too, I think,” Adam agreed. “And it seems quite rude of them.”

That made the king smile; curse or no curse, someone had apparently raised this boy not only to have manners, but to expect that it was unusual for everyone else not to have them too. This nameless kingdom of his must be a lovely little place indeed.

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