In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 26 - Back to the Sea

This hasn’t been an easy journey – for anyone.


It had taken them just over four days to travel from King Triton’s domain to the fairy’s marble palace by the sea, but it took them nearer to seven to reach that place again and they quickly made camp in the same spot as before. ‘They’ being Adam and Elsa, as it was doubtful John had even realized they’d stopped riding by that point; the rigors of the journey had been far too much for him in his still-weakened state, and he had been so deeply sunk in exhaustion by the time Adam helped him down from the horse – which, honestly, he’d only still been on because Elsa had been holding him there – that he couldn’t be roused at all until nearly noon the next day. At which point he’d been encouraged to eat and drink and had immediately thereafter fallen asleep again.

Elsa had already let the mermaids know they were back, politely requesting permission to camp on the beach for a time by way of a note encased in ice dropped down into the water. Her friends had appeared shortly thereafter, and Adam had been witness to quite a lot of squealing and hugging from his re-claimed driftwood seat on the rise. He sighed, knowing what part of the delighted squealing was about and only wishing he wasn’t now fearing he’d made a promise to his sister which he wouldn’t be able to keep. He wasn’t sure exactly what was going to happen once they made it back to Valeureux. Which he could now claim kingship of, thanks to finding his father’s signet and crown jumbled in with the man’s hoard of ornaments in the fairy’s palace. Proof that the former king of Valeureux, pre-curse, had been found and was no longer living, although still contestable if someone decided to say Adam had killed him. Possible accusations of patricide aside, though, he was unsure about exactly what he, as king, was and was not allowed to do, and it was worrying him.

Elsa came dancing up the beach some time later and, to his surprise, shooed him out of his comfortable seat. “King Triton wants to talk to you, Adam. I’ll sit here with John.”

Her hair was once again braided with pearls, but this time as a coronet which contained the waterfall of white gold so that it only fell down her back. He found a smile and kissed her forehead, then walked down the beach to the rocks where they’d met the king before. Triton got there about the same time he did, and Adam bowed. “Your Majesty, Princess Elsa said you wished to speak with me?”

“My daughters told me your quest had come to an end.” Triton gave him a long look, then moved to the top of the rock and waved him closer. “Come, sit, we’ll talk. I can already see the weight of it on you.” Adam gave him a confused look. “The crown, my boy, the crown. Let me guess, suddenly you’re worrying about things you hadn’t given a thought to before?”

Adam sat down on the rock, dangling his feet in the water; Triton’s tail was in the water, so he felt it wouldn’t be rude to do so. “I’m suddenly worrying about things I didn’t even realize were things before,” he admitted, running a hand through his hair. “I feel like I did back when the curse was first ended, only about ten times stupider. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Triton patted his shoulder. “We all feel that way sometimes, but especially at first. It helps if you have people who you can trust, people who can advise you when you aren’t sure about something – people who can call you on it if you start to do something stupid.” He waved a large hand at the ridge. “You’ve got one of those already.”

“I would have, if the fairy who started all this hadn’t nearly killed him, yes.” Adam snorted. “Right now I’m not entirely sure he even knows where he is. He’d been coming back from it, slowly but he was, and then we realized the palace my parents had been living in was being held together with the bad fairy’s magic, it nearly collapsed on top of us. John actually saved my life when the windows started to fall and shatter, he shoved me out of the way.”

“Have you decided what to give him for that?”

Adam was startled, and it showed. “What?”

Triton smiled. “One of the more pleasant – but sometimes more abused – duties of a king: If one of your subjects does something special for you, you get to reward them however you like. Raising their rank, handing out a medal, giving them a more important job, letting them marry your sister…” He laughed when Adam’s eyes went wide. “Thought so. Worried someone will say you shouldn’t have done it?”

“I know someone will probably have something to say about it, yes.” Adam dropped his head into his hands. “She loves him. He loves her. She’s my sister and he’s my best friend and he’d probably make a better king than I will, but…”

“But nothing,” Triton interrupted, startling him again. “A king’s word is his bond, and more than that it’s the law. You told your sister she could have him, so she can. If you’re not liking the precedent you might set by letting her marry a commoner, give him rank according to the service he did for you. What’s your life worth, Adam? Not just to you, but to your people?”

“I’m…I’m the only heir.” Adam straightened up a little. “Without me they don’t have a ruler, and Valeureux has no protection.”

“Exactly right,” Triton approved. “So nobody can say anything about it. And even if they do that carries no more weight than you’re willing to give it, because you’re the king and who you choose to favor is your own business – your people may understand being ruled, but they don’t know the first thing about ruling, remember that.” He swished his tail in the water. “What made you decide he’d be a good king?”

“His feeling for his people, and for mine. I’d seen it before on multiple occasions, of course, but there was this one time…we’d stopped to camp in a forest, and we were attacked by ghosts who thought we were knowingly trespassing. They brought some of our worst fears and memories to life, it was horrible. For John, it was having to watch the people of Arendelle kill Elsa – in reality he smuggled her out of the kingdom before that could happen – while his own father held him back, berating him about his responsibility being to the books.” Adam swallowed. “He finally tore himself free and screamed at the man that his responsibility was to his kingdom…and for a moment, everything just stopped. I felt those words vibrate through me, I’m not sure why. I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

Triton was nodding. “It could have been a sign, a foreshadowing of things to come. Or it could have been because his words called the same up in you, sort of woke you up to it. Those are the words of a man who has the right feeling in him for the job, though – whether that job be ruler or advisor to one,” he said. “Blood doesn’t matter if a man is a king where it counts.”

“No, that it shouldn’t, should it?” Adam frowned at the placid waves; Cogsworth had said much the same thing to him once. It seemed like a lifetime ago. “Sometimes I just don’t know how to navigate this web of protocol my ancestors wove – that all our ancestors wove, I suppose. It all seems so silly and…and cruel sometimes.”

“Sometimes it is,” Triton agreed. “In which case it’s your job as king to fix it, whether by rule or by example.” He chuckled. “The rule in Atlantea for generations was that sirens were to be driven from the kingdom or even killed because their use of the magic in their beautiful voices could cause us to be hunted. As a boy I thought that was cruel in the extreme, and I spoke to my father about it; he began to doubt the wisdom of that custom, and after some checking with his advisors he realized it had never been a law, only a practice of the people which had been allowed to go on for generations. He couldn’t change the custom, so he made a law that only the king had the power to exile anyone.” He smiled. “And then he instituted widespread music classes by professing a deep interest in the subject, which meant the sirens quickly became valuable for their beautiful voices – they’re only a danger to human men, you see, and then only if they want to be.”

Adam blinked at him. “Didn’t you say your wife was a siren?”

Triton chuckled. “Yes. The first time I saw her, she was exploring a reef. She looked very much like Ariel does now, just much, much wilder and bolder than any of our daughters will probably ever be – thank goodness! Those traits were exciting to me then, whereas now as a father myself I find them utterly terrifying. Still, though, she had a sweet nature and an inquisitive mind, and she was so very beautiful. And then I heard her sing…well, that was when I knew I loved her, that I never wanted to be parted from her. Some of the people were not pleased, they said such horrible things that I began to doubt myself. But one of my advisors told me what I just told you, that those sentiments had nothing to do with them being ruled, only with their personal opinions – and as I was their king, their opinions only had as much weight as I was willing to give them. So I ignored the gossip, married my wild little love, and she filled our palace with beautiful princesses for me.” He sighed then. “She was killed while we were swimming through a kelp forest, a maddened shark attacked her – they get that way sometimes and you normally just stay out of their way until it passes. We didn’t see that one until it was too late. I still miss her every day, it seems, especially when Ariel is flitting around getting into things the way she used to, or singing to the fish.” He slanted a look at the young king, who was looking very much affected by this story. “Your wife, my boy?”

Adam sighed, shaking his head. “All but lost to me, even though she still lives. I met her, if you can call it that, when she came to beg for her father’s life. I was a Beast at the time, thanks to the bad fairy’s curse,” he explained. “I couldn’t leave the castle and grounds, all of the servants were enchanted, and we’d been that way for nearly ten years. I’d never had either the desire or the means to harm her father once he was out of my sight, but I had threatened him and so she’d come. I put her in the dungeon, but the servants let her back out again – they were bored, you see, and wanted the curse to be ended.” He laughed, a raw sound. “I’d lost hope that the curse ever would be broken, I just couldn’t see it. Who would love a Beast? Even the servants were afraid of me and they’d known me all my life, and of course I hated myself all the more for that. But she stayed, and I started to get used to her. Belle was quick and clever, she was interested in everything and she seemed to see wonder all around her. She devoured seemingly every book in the library, she played in the snow in the garden, she swished around the castle like she was dancing to music only she could hear. I was still horrid and cranky most of the time, of course, but she just kept pushing – and the servants kept pushing her at me. And I started to have feelings for her, feelings I didn’t understand.”

“You fell in love with her.”

“I fell in love with her. So when she begged to be allowed to go save her father from the furor someone had stirred up among the villagers, I couldn’t tell her no. It turned out to all be a plot by some drunken idiot who wanted her for himself, and fancied that he’d like to have my head as a trophy – which was of course what he wanted Belle for as well, he really was like no kind of person I’d ever imagined. He and his equally drunken louts of friends attacked the castle, trying to kill all the servants simply because they were enchanted, but Gaston came straight for me. He…the way he spoke about having Belle enraged me, he’d no thought or care for the person she was, he’d no remorse for having her father chained up and imprisoned for being insane – also the fault of the curse – he just wanted to hunt her down and possess her, and her continued insistence that she wanted nothing to do with him had only fired his hunter’s blood. If it had only been for myself, I might have let him kill me,” he admitted heavily. “But I couldn’t let him destroy my servants, I couldn’t let him force Belle to marry him, to be his chattel for the rest of her no doubt not-very-long life…so I fought back as best I could. I wasn’t very good at it, fighting, and I just wanted to stop him; he was trying to kill me, and he almost succeeded. I managed to push him out a window and he fell…well, there’s a cliff on that side, they never found his body that I know of. I was dying, the last petal had fallen off the magical rose which signified the curse’s deadline…and then Belle came and she was crying and she said I couldn’t die because she loved me, and everything exploded. I woke up on the floor feeling cold for the first time in ten years, with her sobbing on my chest, and the castle back to normal all around so far as I could see. It took her a while to get used to me not being a Beast,” he said. “I thought she had, though. She helped me learn all the things I needed to know, she flitted about the castle and then the kingdom doing project after project. But then she started to get restless, she seemed displeased with me and with our marriage, she said it wasn’t exciting any more. And then…”

Triton rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. He could guess what sort of thing must have happened, but the boy needed to tell someone. “And then?”

Adam swallowed hard. “She’d been…indicating that she’d rather have kept the Beast, that she missed him, even before John and Elsa came to live at the castle. They’d been with us nearly a year when Elsa came rushing down one day in a panic saying Belle was acting strange, and the story she had to tell…Belle had tricked her into creating an ice sculpture of the Beast.” He flushed all the way to the tips of his ears. “It…wasn’t meant to be ornamental, she’d drawn pictures of the…feature she wanted it to have to suit the use she planned to put it to. Poor Elsa of course had no idea what that was, or what it was for; she thought Belle was cursed. John and I had our doubts about that, of course, but I decided that the only way to salvage the situation and stop the worst of the gossip was to pretend it was true and go off on a quest to ‘find a cure’. I thought perhaps to at least find some trace of my parents, to clear up the uncertainty regarding my being able to take the throne…”

“And you hoped your being gone for a time might bring her to her senses.”

“Yes, I had hope. The bad fairy confirmed that the situation had in fact been caused by the curse, but she said whatever happened after it ended was Belle’s own problem. She seemed to think it was quite funny.”

Triton hmm’d over that for a moment. “What does your advisor think?”

“He thinks it was partly the fault of the curse and partly her being spoiled, but he says he also doesn’t think that’s her fault. The curse ripped all knowledge of our kingdom from everyone, down to the name of the place, and Belle’s father had been the Royal Historian. We know that had to be the reason the man went insane, and Belle had been his caretaker ever since. She was a child of eight when it happened.”

“Yes, that would explain it – she would have been accustomed to having always had things the way she wanted them, and so the subtleties of the curse could very well have magnified that to an unreasonable degree. Even when that sort of magic ends, it can leave behind strong, lingering effects.” Triton cocked a bushy eyebrow. “Do you still love her?” Adam’s eyes filled with tears, and the king sighed and patted his back. “Of course you do, my boy, of course you do. And no one can say you shouldn’t.”

Adam sniffed. “There was this dead seaman…”

Triton shook his head. “He’d have pitched her overboard, I’m sure. But then, she’d have never saved him from a curse, either, so they’d have been even and they’d both have gone on to find other bedpartners. Seamen are loud,” he explained when Adam looked up at him with curious, wet eyes. “I’ve heard them many a time when a ship was becalmed in my waters. Not always bad men, but not always the best men either. They’ve a hard life, and hard is the way they live it.” Then he thought about that for a second. “Wait, a dead seaman? How in the world did you manage to hear the opinion of one of those?”

“More than one,” Adam corrected. He sat up a little straighter, wiping at his eyes. “They were the ghosts who attacked us in the forest because they thought we were trespassing. They learned otherwise, and then they asked us to bring their…well, I’m guessing it was their souls, down to the sea that they might be at rest. He was one of them, but there were at least fifty, if not quite as many as a hundred.”

The sea king got a very intense look on his face. “And did you bring them? Did they go in?”

Adam nodded. “Elsa made an ice ball for them to be carried in, and once we reached the coast she made a path of ice to walk out over the waves on and threw the ball into the sea the way they’d told her to.” He smiled in spite of himself. “They all flew off immediately except one that stayed to say goodbye to her before leaving.” The look on the sea king’s face had become rather alarming, and Adam blinked. “What…shouldn’t we have done that? We didn’t like to leave them as they were in the forest, but there was no way John and I could have buried them all.”

Triton closed his dropped-open mouth with an effort. “No, you didn’t do wrong,” he said. “In fact…my boy, you’re going to be a truly fine king. If you were mine, I’d be exploding with pride over you; your father was an idiot who didn’t deserve to be king of a cracked rock. He’s dead?”

“Well, he’s sealed in a gigantic block of ice along with our mother and the bad fairy. Elsa was…extremely provoked, let’s put it that way. The bad fairy threw John and I out into the middle of a storm. I had just come bursting back into the palace in my Beast form – which none of us had known I could change back into – and I was carrying John, who looked more dead than alive. We showed up while the fairy was trying get Elsa to start something called Ragnarok…”

Ragnarok?!

“Yes, that’s what she called it – the end of the world by means of ice and snow, she said, and seemed quite put out that none of us had ever heard of it. Our parents had been in the plot with her for their own selfish reasons.” He made a face. “Our mother told Elsa that being a ruler is hard and not much fun, as though that could excuse them for everything they’d done.”

The other king shook his head. “Idiots.” This time the pejorative was more menacing. He squeezed Adam’s shoulder and then let go. “My boy, go back to your sister and your brother…” Adam’s eyebrows went up, and Triton ruffled his hair affectionately. “He’s become your brother as much as she’s your sister, my boy. If you hadn’t loved him that much, you’d both be dead and so would she – love broke your curse, and love called it back as a blessing. Now go back up the beach and relax, and let me deal with the one piece of protocol you actually will need another king’s help to sort out.”

And with that he dove back into the water, a splash of his powerful tail showering Adam with salty droplets. Adam smiled ruefully as he stood up, wiping water off his face – he was sure the splash had been on purpose – and walked back up to the ridge. Elsa almost knocked him over hugging him, which made him laugh. “No, I’m…I really am all right. He wanted to talk about things – he wanted to know what had been happening, so I told him.”

She stepped back to look into his eyes. “About Belle?”

He nodded, wincing just slightly; thinking about her hurt, still. He wasn’t sure it ever wouldn’t. “About Belle and other things. And he said there was ‘one piece of protocol’ I actually could use another king’s help to sort out, and he’s apparently looking into that for me although he didn’t tell me what it was. He said I should come back up here to you and John and relax.” He reclaimed his seat. “He called John my brother.”

Elsa ruffled his hair much the way Triton just had. “He might as well be. Are you still worried you won’t be able to keep your promise?” His mouth dropped open, and she smiled and shook her head, sitting back down in a place where she could run her fingers through John’s hair while he slept. “Adam, Arendelle’s councilors tried to marry me off to a man who’d already tried to kill my sister and I both, and that when I didn’t even understand…what a marriage actually entails. I know how those sort of people think, and you aren’t as good at keeping your feelings hidden as I think you want to be.” She raised an eyebrow. “The girls said you were being silly, because now that you’re king you could raise John’s rank any time you wanted to. They even went and asked their oldest sister about it – she’s heir to the throne, and very serious – and she said the same. In fact, she said if you didn’t raise his rank you’d quite possibly cause a scandal and your people would think you weren’t grateful for the service and loyalty you were given.”

Adam had to laugh. “Tell the girls thank you, and that’s exactly what their father said I should do. So, Lord Kepperson, do you think?”

John snorted softly, although he didn’t open his eyes. “My father was a ‘Sir’.”

“Your father didn’t save his king’s life,” Adam told him, knowing he wasn’t really fully awake. “Sleep, John, I won’t need your help with this until later.”

John muttered something that sounded like ‘you say that now’, but he did fall back into a deeper sleep.

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