In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 33 - Invitations

Three of the wedding invitations had to be specially delivered.

Valeureux was gracefully descending into a glorious crimson and gold autumn, her fields and orchards bursting with the fruits of a bounteous harvest the like of which the valley’s old-timers said hadn’t been seen in a decade at least. A simple yet comfortable inn had been constructed at the southern end of the village, and travelers were beginning to trickle in as word spread that the legendary Rubis Marché had been reborn. Although in truth  just as many were coming to satisfy a much baser curiosity, wishing to see the kingdom which had been cursed and hoping to catch a glimpse of its formerly bestial king.

And Adam obliged them, although not entirely intentionally. He was much occupied with restoring Valeureux to what it had been before the curse, and to seeing it become even better if possible, so he could often be encountered on the roads or in the village as he went about his business and more than one traveler extended their stay in hopes of meeting him. Whispered rumors from the market became tales which were told around travelers’ fires and distant hearths alike, tales of a gracious, handsome young king ruling a beautiful little jewel of a kingdom at the foot of the gray granite mountains…but ruling it all alone, as his headstrong but much-beloved wife had been ripped from him by fairy magic while he was yet on a quest to deliver her from a horrible curse of her own. More rumors had him trapped in his kingdom by that same magic, unable to leave it to search for her; yet others said that he was awaiting her return as she must return to him on her own in order for the curse to be broken.

Far away in Asher, King Rupert took in these stories with a roll of his eyes, suspecting that the truth lay somewhere in between them. He didn’t doubt their own interfering fairy might have taken it upon herself to meddle in Valeureux as well – she’d apparently quite liked the boy, after all – but he doubted very much that Adam was constrained from going to search for his wife and instead guessed that, having no idea where to begin searching, he was just attending to business in his recovering kingdom and hoping that she would either be returned to him or that some sign would be given as to her fate. Asher’s king kept this opinion to himself, however, as he didn’t care to add to the growing pile of conjecture currently being bandied about. He was much more interested in the other stories which had been carried back to him, wild tales of haunted woods, mysterious royal travelers, and a glacier which had enveloped an entire palace in ice in some stormy northern cove – stories he might have dismissed as pure fantasy had he not been host to the mysterious royal travelers himself for a fortnight and had some idea of the route they’d planned on taking after leaving his kingdom. And in all honesty, he was just happy they’d all three made it back to Valeureux alive – quests were dangerous business even for experienced adventurers, much less two sheltered royals and their bookkeeper.

The wedding invitation had come as something of a surprise to him, as the royal rumor-mill had only told him Adam’s sister was betrothed to a much-loved lord in the area called the Comte de Valeureux – it hadn’t passed along that the sister was Princess Elsa of Arendelle, or that the comte had formerly been the bookkeeper. Although technically that was the job of a comte, to collect the tax and oversee the treasury, so the new title made a certain amount of sense. Assuming the title had been new, that was. He’d spoken to his steward about the bookkeeper, and been told that the boy had been far more comfortable with formality than his master, and that he’d had the bearing and mannerisms of an appointed royal servant rather than a hired one – so possibly he’d already been titled, but hiding it. There could have been a hundred different reasons for that, of course, but as he’d been ‘on a quest’ with the heir to the throne of Arendelle when they’d run into then-Prince Adam, only two of those reasons were likely: Either the two of them had run off together – which was what Rupert suspected – or some sort of coup had taken place in Arendelle and the boy had whisked his princess away before she could be imprisoned or worse. The latter was the theory Rupert’s steward subscribed to, and his son as well.

Charming had rolled his eyes over the speculation, in fact. “I know it amuses you to dissect the gossip, Father, but Princess Elsa told my wife that the comte whisked her away on ‘an urgent quest’ to find her parents. In the middle of the night, on one horse, without letting anyone know they were going. Those stories about the evil ice queen in the North who punished her people by burying them in endless winter? That was supposedly Princess Elsa. One has to wonder if they made those stories up so someone else could have a clearer path to take the throne. And Cinderella has told me that some of the things Elsa said to her while she was here made it sound like she grew up locked away from people in the depths of her own castle.”

King Rupert nodded slowly. That made sense. His daughter-in-law was good at seeing to the heart of people, and she’d spent more time with the princess than he had – although even he would have sworn that the child didn’t have an evil bone in her body, magic or no magic. “Well, I suppose you’ll find out the real story from Adam before the wedding,” he said, raising his glass to admire the deep ruby hue of the liquid within; the invitation had been presented along with several bottles of rich wine from Valeureux, and he hadn’t been able to resist sampling it while he composed a suitable response. It was every bit as good as it looked, and it was making him more than a little sorry that he’d grown too old to travel and couldn’t attend the wedding himself that he might sample more of it. “I think I’ll go down to the old armory later, there’s a fine sword in there which I believe would make a good wedding present for the comte and pair of matching jeweled knives to go with it for his bride – they might have need of them if they decide to return to Arendelle. Not to mention, after tasting this I know it would be an insult to send wine.”

Charming’s response to this was to take the glass from him to taste it himself, after which he immediately went to find another glass so he could have his own share of the bottle’s contents. He’d no doubt they had a royalty-worthy sword and knives down in the armory which had been crafted as a matched set for some long-ago ancestor and his wife – Asher hadn’t always been a peaceful kingdom, and at some points in their history the political intrigues had gotten more than a little bloody. Perhaps he’d gift the Comte de Valeureux with a fine copy of one of their history books about those times, as it could only help him decide how to deal with whatever intrigues he and the princess had fled in Arendelle. Because although he also hadn’t had much contact with Adam’s bookkeeper while they’d been in Asher, he did remember the air of quiet strength about the man quite well. There was no doubt in his mind that Lord Kepperson and Princess Elsa would be returning to Arendelle to retake her throne just as soon as they’d decided on the best way to do it.

*  *  *

An older man with a graying beard led his horse along the beach, enjoying the balmy salt breeze which was coming off the sea. It had taken him some little time to get this far. He’d ridden out of Valeureux with a younger messenger bound for the kingdom of Asher, and that was where they’d parted ways. His further route had taken him through beautiful, empty valleys whose wide-open meadows were golden with stiffening grasses and distantly fringed with autumn-painted trees. He’d found the falling-down heap of a hut he’d been told to look for beside that lonely road, left a token on the grave beside it, and continued on to the place where a dark and horrible forest should have been standing. It hadn’t been, though; a large swath of it had apparently been destroyed by fire. He’d still made sure he crossed that area in full daylight, just in case, and he’d seen far too many white bones on the ground amid the drifts of ashes that lay between the burned and blackened stumps on either side of the road.

Reaching the sea had been a relief, after that. He’d wound his way through little fishing villages, leaving thanks and small gifts sent with him for just that purpose, and finally he’d ended up in this cove which was his final destination. It was still daylight, the sun several hand-spans from the distant horizon, so he tethered his horse on the verge and then went down to what he’d been told was the King’s Rock with a well-wrapped bundle under his arm and a little sack of heavy glass marbles in his pocket. The marbles were swirled with ruby and burgundy, the colors of Valeureux and Arendelle respectively, and at the heart of each one was a golden starburst – the glassmaker in Valeureux had a marvelous talent. He peered out over the water, marking the locations where rocks were lurking beneath the surface, and then carefully began tossing the marbles into locations he thought would afford them the best chance of sinking down into the depths.

Five marbles later, there was a disturbance in the water and a dark-tressed head crowned by a dainty circlet of pearls and shells rose out of the waves shortly thereafter to give him a wary yet curious look. He smiled and bowed. This was one reason King Adam had sent an older man with this message; a younger one might have been carried away and drowned himself or worse trying to claim such loveliness for his own. “”My lady,” he called out respectfully. “I was sent by King Adam of Valeureux, I bring a gift and news for your king.”

Her pretty eyes widened. She opened her mouth as though to speak and then apparently thought better of it, nodding instead and vanishing beneath the waves again, her blue-green tail flicking up above the surface so the sun’s rays could make a rainbow of it as she dove. He stopped himself from shuddering; the impossibly beautiful mermaid, although at first glance very similar to a young human girl, had possessed a mouthful of teeth like tiny ivory daggers. He filed that away as a correction which needed to be made to some of the old tales, as quite obviously mer-people were not merely human on top and fish on the bottom but rather some other type of creature entirely. His king and the princess had assured him that the mer-people were friendly, and he believed them, but he had also received praise from the comte for pointing out that in lore they were not known to be friendly to all who encountered them. “We did King Triton a service,” Lord Kepperson had confirmed. “And the princess befriended his daughters, so we were occupying a position of great trust while we were there. You should certainly take precautions to ensure your own safety until they know who sent you to speak with them.”

Although Simon had been one of the people who had been unsure about returning ranks to Valeureux, he couldn’t deny that Lord Kepperson was more than worthy of the position he’d been given.

After a time, a larger disturbance in the water heralded the appearance of a much larger head attached to broad shoulders, a bearded man wearing a crown of gold and pearls, and he moved back off the rock and bowed again, lower this time. “King Triton? King Adam of Valeureux sent me. He knows you would not be able to attend the wedding of his sister to Lord Kepperson, but he wished to send you a token of his regard that you might know he was thinking of you. And he has sent gifts for your daughters as well, and instructed me to give you what news there is from Valeureux if you wish  to hear it.”

The sea king nodded and jumped up onto the rock – using it as a land-throne, apparently. He was a massive merman bearing a trident in his hand which looked to be made of gold, as were the heavy chain around his neck and the medallion which depended from it. “I should have expected something like this,” he said in a deep, amused voice. “Your king is a very thoughtful man, to seek to let his friends know how he and his are faring even in a situation such as this one. You are?”

“Simon Chastain, Your Majesty.” He cleared his throat. “I am a scribe, and newly named the Royal Historian of Valeureux. I have retraced the path taken by my king and his companions on their highly successful quest in order to record the details for the kingdom’s records…but I have been told that I am not to set down this leg of my journey, or my meeting with yourself, save in the most general and unidentifying of terms. Because people can be stupid about things which they do not understand, especially when magic may be involved.”

That made Triton chuckle. “The Comte de Valeureux is a wise man.” He smiled when Simon started. “I knew those words must be his – magic and stupidity were what caused him to spirit his princess out of their natal kingdom, after all. He has recovered from the events of their journey?”

“Mostly, Your Majesty. I have seen a good deal of him of late, and he’s still quite a bit thinner than when they left but otherwise seems well enough. If he were not, I believe the princess would be fussing a good deal more than she currently has been.”

“True enough,” Triton agreed. “And King Adam? Was his wife brought to her senses by the breaking of the curse?”

Simon swallowed. “The Lady Belle disappeared before his return, Your Majesty, it was believed to have been done by magic – she vanished from her rooms, and a servant who was outside her door that evening saw a flash of light immediately beforehand. King Adam has told our people that he suspects it may have been a good fairy they met on their quest who merely sought to help.”

The sea king frowned. “Do you think he believes that?”

“I think he hopes it’s true,” Simon temporized. “Especially as he says he cannot search for her because magic has no boundaries and she could be anywhere.”

“Fairies,” Triton said, the word sounding like a curse. Waves slapped against the rock , gray-tinged and angry, the sea mirroring its lord’s feelings. “This is news others will need to hear sooner and not later.”

Simon bowed again. “In that case, Your Majesty, I shall conclude our business quickly, that you may attend to more important matters.” He unwound the bundle, revealing a large and finely-made glass ball which he presented to the sea king with a great deal of care – it was quite heavy. The ball itself was clear glass with a tint of red, and at its center was a message engraved in golden letters and embellished with gold tracery and small rubies:

King Triton,
Please accept this small token of my gratitude
For all that you did for me and mine.
Should it ever be within your power
To journey to my kingdom,
You will be most welcome.
Your Friend, Adam de Valeureux

As the sea king read this the waves lost a little of their anger, and his chuckle was warm and fond. “And the boy was afraid he didn’t know how to be a king,” he mused, and then smiled a little wider when Simon’s eyes widened. “Most of us go through it, feeling unsure of ourselves under the onus of such a great responsibility,” he explained. “And I’ll tell you, as I told him: If I were his father, I would be bursting with pride over having a son such as he. Please add that to your account of his travels, that his descendants might know he was held in high regard.”

“It shall be my pleasure to record your words, King Triton.” Simon extracted a smaller package from the unwound wrappings and handed that over as well. “From Princess Elsa, for your daughters. She sends them her love and all wishes for their happiness.”

The waves went back to azure, sparkling in the sunlight. “Tell her they miss her,” was Triton’s response. “But they will be happy to know she thinks of them even in the midst of preparing for her wedding.” He cocked a bushy eyebrow. “You look like there’s something else. Just say it, Scribe of Valeureux.”

Simon cleared his throat. “Only one thing more, Your Majesty. That missive,” he gestured to the glass ball, “is not just a pretty sentiment; under the laws of Valeureux, as it is signed by the king, it is therefore also a binding treaty. King Adam had it signed into the Record, with myself and Lord Kepperson as witnesses in your absence. So long as you and yours have it in your possession, no matter how long that may be, Valeureux is not just your friend…she is your sworn ally.”

To his surprise, the sea king actually started. He held the ball up to the sun’s light, a questioning look upon his face, and as if in response a faint golden glow appeared to emanate from it. Triton tucked the ball under his arm along with the package of ornaments the princess had sent for his daughters, and aimed a large finger at the surprised messenger. “Stay right there,” he ordered, and then dove into the water.

Simon stayed. He thought he might have even if he hadn’t been ordered to, honestly, because the sight of the sea king diving through the sunlight into the azure water had been so spectacular he felt stunned into immobility. No wonder the old tales said mortal men were prone to fall under the spell of the mer-people – such beauty, grace and power was not to be seen on dry land, or on two legs. He found it easy to believe now that these seldom-seen sea creatures were in truth the favored descendants of long-lost Poseidon.

He didn’t notice how much time may have passed while he waited, so caught up was he in thinking about how best to convey with written words the wonder he had seen and felt in the presence of King Triton, Lord of the Southern Waters, and so he was almost startled when a new head broke the surface of the water. This one was a grave-looking young woman, not a girl, and the spiky golden crown she was wearing told him she was doubtless one of the king’s elder daughters. “Simon Chastain of Valeureux,” she said in a clear, musical voice. “I am Attina, eldest daughter of King Triton. My father requested that I bring you something for your journey. Will you accept a gift from Atlantea?”

Simon bowed to her. “I should be honored beyond measure to do so, my lady. Shall I come to the water’s edge?”

“No need.” She dove and surfaced again, closer to the shore, and then walked up onto the beach on two legs. There was a shimmering sort of robe which looked almost like woven water draped over one of her shoulders and falling in liquid waves down to her knees. “Father has been making me practice,” she told him. “We can’t remain on the land for very long, but sometimes it is necessary.” She held out a thin chain from which depended what looked like a small silvery shell, and he bent his head when she indicated that she wished to put it around his neck. “For your safe journey home,” she told him. “No harm shall befall you on your travels. The magic shall last until you enter your king’s presence, and then you will have this token as a memento of your visit.”

Simon wrapped his hand over the shell and bowed even lower. “My thanks, Princess Attina. I shall always remember this day.”

That made her smile, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth, and then she turned, walked to the water’s edge…and jumped, turning back into a mermaid clothed only in orange-gold scales and re-entering the water with a glorious splash of sparkling droplets. Simon squeezed the shell so tightly it almost cut his hand. “I’m not sure written words have the power to convey such wonder,” he said to himself, then turned and walked back to his horse on shaking legs. He would be thankful to King Adam for the rest of his days for choosing him as the messenger to deliver this particular invitation.

* * *

The messenger who arrived in the kingdom of Arendelle, unlike most others who had been sent out to deliver invitations to the royal wedding, had been specially chosen only after long consultation between Sir Andrew and Sir Martin, who had known him all his life and had suggested him as the best person to send. He had some experience as a courier, but more than that he was quick-thinking and not at all easily confounded. The king had told him to give the invitation into Queen Anna’s hand and then run for his life; Sir Andrew had rolled his eyes at that, but had agreed that all was not right in Arendelle and possibly not in the Kingdom of the Rock Trolls either, and cautioned that he shouldn’t stay to await an answer to either the invitation or the letter which was bundled up with it, even if he was asked to do so. “Best that you aren’t there when the invitation is read, my boy,” Sir Andrew had told him. “But we’re trusting your judgment on finding your way out without making it look like you think you’re running for your life. Caution is one thing, causing an incident is another.”

And so here he was, in the small stone palace where the King and Queen of the Rock Trolls lived, mentally rehearsing the words he hoped would get him back to his horse and out of harm’s way before the invitation could be opened. It was sealed with the king’s seal, folded into an envelope and then sealed again, and for good measure he’d tied it with a piece of ribbon as well just to buy himself a moment or so more for getting clear of the audience room at least. He was doing his best not to appear nervous, but he still nearly jumped when Queen Anna came hurrying in. She was younger than he’d expected, and didn’t look all that much like her pale, ethereal sister…although he did think he could see some little resemblance to King Adam. He bowed to her, holding out the envelope. “Your Majesty, with my king’s compliments, I was told to deliver this invitation from his hand to yours.”

Her eyes went wide. “Invitation? To what?”

“A royal wedding in his kingdom of Valeureux, Your Majesty.” He used straightening from his bow to move himself a step back, not allowing himself to breathe a sigh of relief when she couldn’t untie the ribbon – because he’d knotted it, of course. “My apologies, Your Majesty, I may have secured it a bit too well. Allow me to fetch scissors for you.” He bowed again, retreated to the door, and told the servant waiting outside that the queen required scissors or a sharp knife to open the invitation…and then he went straight out to his horse, mounted up and rode away as quickly as he could without looking too suspicious.

Inside the castle, the servant brought scissors and Anna carefully removed the ribbon from the envelope – it was a very pretty deep red color and she wanted to keep as much of it as she could. She used the blade of the scissors to prise up the wax seal, which was also red and bore the gold imprint of a branch with leaves and fruit. The identical seal inside the envelope was removed in the same way, allowing her to unfold the heavy parchment on which the invitation was printed. Which also revealed several folded pages of finer paper which had been tucked inside. A letter? She took the pages out and looked at the invitation. “King Adam of Valeureux cordially invites you to attend the wedding of Lord John Kepperson, Comte de Valeureux, to his sister, Crown Princess Elsa of Arendelle…”

Anna screamed. Outside, the rock trolls quickly finished blowing snow over the tracks the messenger had left as he’d ridden out of the courtyard, obliterating all signs that might allow anyone to follow him. If they were snickering, no one who wasn’t a rock troll was present to hear them.


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