In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 41 - More Work To Be Done

There’s still a lot to be dealt with, but they’re going to have some help.


Per’s mother had come, and she had indeed screamed when she’d seen the state of not just the royal wing but also most of the rest of the castle as well. She and Elsa had put their heads together and then had Jor gather the staff for them, and once they’d both gotten done being horrified over how few people were actually there to do the work they’d set about deciding on how many more would be needed. Mrs. Jaspersson thought she could have most of their final tally filled by the next morning; she knew people who were trustworthy and would be happy to have a job at the castle working for the new king and queen – they wouldn’t be living there, just working there, as the castle’s servants’ quarters were poor indeed and Elsa had insisted that they were not fit to bring new people into. “I am ashamed that I didn’t know you were living in such conditions,” she told her assembled housekeeping staff, which consisted of Jor, the cook, two kitchen maids and two maids-of-all-work. “And it won’t be allowed to go on any longer. We need rooms for everyone to sleep in tonight, of course, and I’ll show you which ones I want prepared, but while you do that I’ll be going over the servants’ quarters again with Jor to decide what is needed immediately and what can wait until Lord Kepperson has had a chance to examine the treasury.”

“That shouldn’t take him long,” the cook observed with a roll of her eyes. “We’ve been told often enough that it’s empty.” She fended off the glare Jor gave her with a flap of her hand. “No, she ought to know! Not like it wasn’t going on before she ran off, leaving the councilors to run things as they pleased while she frolicked with her lover in another kingdom!”

Dead silence. Mrs. Jaspersson’s mouth had dropped open, Jor looked somewhere between furious and ashamed and the maids were wide-eyed and cringing, but Elsa merely cocked her head, looking thoughtful. In truth, she was thinking of Mrs. Potts, and what the older woman would have made of such an outburst. Mrs. Potts could be quite familiar with Adam, of course, but there was a reason for that. “In my brother’s kingdom, his cook sometimes speaks to him in a very familiar way,” she finally said. “But that’s because she helped raise him, you see – she’s like a mother to him, so certain liberties are permissible. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before today.” She turned to the butler. “Jor, please see that this woman is allowed to gather her belongings and then escorted off of the castle grounds. How many years has she worked here?”

The old man swallowed. “Some fifteen years, Your Highness.”

Elsa nodded. “And for how many of those years has she not been paid for her work?”

He thought about it. “Five years, Your Highness. That was when the rest of us were stricken from the books.” She nodded again. “You knew?”

“My husband told me; I was more than horrified,” was her answer. “He also told me that the councilors insisted he keep paying them, though.” Jor nodded, grimacing. “Very well, please add up how much everyone should have gotten over the past five years and then give me the list and I’ll see that it’s taken out of Chief Councilor Tarben’s holdings – I’m sure he has gold squirreled away somewhere. We’ll not make the cook wait for hers, though, because I don’t want her back in the castle.” She pulled a little pouch out of a pocket in her skirt and rooted around in it for a moment. “Jor, is there someone in town who can change gems?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Good.” She pulled out a blue stone about the size of the first joint of her index finger, held it up to the light to check it for flaws, and then held it out to the red-faced, openmouthed cook. “This should do for both back pay and a bit of pension as well – fifteen years of service deserves something, whether you made a bad end of it or not. I do hope you remember your place better in your next job.” The cook reached out to take the blue stone, but no sooner had her fingers touched it than dainty ice claws wrapped around her wrist, imprisoning her hand. The woman shrieked and the other servants drew back, but Elsa remained unmoved. “I am sure there have been all kinds of wild rumors flying around over the last two years…but you must have been here that night, and as he grew up in the castle you had to have known my husband, so you definitely knew better than what you just said to me.” She leaned forward, looking the now-terrified woman in the eye. “Your personal opinions of myself and my husband aside, I am still your ruler; eldest daughter of King Hector and Queen Astrid, sister to both King Adam de Valeureux and Queen Anna of the Rock Trolls, and all of us blood descendants of the founding ruler of Arendelle. You and the others have been badly used, yes – but that was not my doing, and your lack of respect for the line if nothing else is unacceptable. If you ever seek to enter the castle gates again, I’ll see you working for your passage on the next ship leaving the dock, do you understand?” The cook whimpered. “I said: Do. You. Understand?”

“Yyyess, Your…Your Highness!”

And the claws contracted, closing the woman’s fingers around the blue gem before dissolving into a fall of snowflakes. Elsa stepped back. “Jor, please also make sure whichever guard is sent with her escorts her to the gem dealer and from there to whatever place she chooses to go. I wouldn’t like someone to take advantage of her upset state to rob her.”

“I’ll see that it’s done exactly as you ask, Your Highness.”

Jor bowed to her, then took the shaking cook’s arm and pulled her out of the room, and Elsa was please to see that although he was quite obviously angry, he was not being overly rough in his handling of the woman. She turned to Per’s mother. “Mrs. Jaspersson, do you know of anyone who might be able to manage the castle’s kitchen? I’m not bad at cooking over a camp’s fire, but I’m afraid my skills in the kitchen are limited to doing the dishes, making tea, and making sure there’s a basket of apples set near the door for John and Adam.”

Mrs. Jaspersson hid a smile. She hadn’t been sure, when her son had come running to fetch her, just what sort of situation she might encounter; while the castle was in far worse straits than she’d hoped, their young queen was much better trained than she’d had any reason to expect. “I do that for my husband and son as well,” she said. “It keeps them from stealing the baking when my back is turned. And I do know someone, and she can start this very hour if you’ll permit me to go fetch her, Your Highness. Her name is Maiken Andorsdottir, she’s the sister of Per’s captain of the guard, and I taught her myself so I know she’s up to the task. She’s been helping me in Per’s kitchen, but there’s not nearly enough work for the both of us.”

Elsa smiled. “If you’re sure you can spare her, she sounds perfect. Is Per waiting, or should I send someone with you?”

Oh yes, this one was a good girl. “I’m sure my son is waiting, Your Highness. With your leave, we can go fetch Maiken and have her here to take charge of things within the hour – and I can scoop up a few others along the way.”

“That would be wonderful, thank you,” Elsa told her. “And in the meantime, the kitchen maids can see to cleaning up the old cook’s room for her.”

The two girls so named nodded just short of violently, bobbing quick curtseys and then scurrying off when Elsa nodded to them; Per’s mother dropped a curtsey of her own and left as well, only just able to hold her smile back until she was out of the room. Her waiting son raised a questioning eyebrow. “Something amusing happen?”

She took his offered arm. “We’re going to go fetch Maiken, she’s to be the castle’s new cook. The princess just sent the old one off – with back pay and pension, no less, and with a good scare besides as payment for her impertinence. And then she set the kitchen maids to cleaning up the old cook’s room for Maiken; they nodded so hard I thought their heads might bob off.”

Per smiled. “I told you you’d like the princess, Mother. Just wait until you meet Lord Kepperson…”

 

John and Adam came back from their errand in good spirits, but when they went to see how Elsa was getting on they found a very disapproving Councilor Fritjof there attempting to convince her of how improperly everything was being handled. “I realize you left the castle during something of a bad situation,” he was saying. “But really, Princess, you can’t just come storming back into the kingdom you abandoned and start changing things to suit whatever whim has taken you…”

“Oh, but I can,” she assured him sweetly. “And you still haven’t explained to me why you don’t think I should have let the cook go, Councilor.”

The little man drew himself up. “It was ill-considered, Your Highness! She was merely overwrought, what with all that’s gone on today. She would have apologized if you’d only been patient and made allowance…”

“Absolutely not,” Elsa cut him off. “And she wasn’t overwrought, Councilor, she was completely disrespectful – not only to myself, but also to Jor.” Then she smiled over his shoulder and waved. “Oh good, you’re back! Councilor Fritjof was just trying to explain to me why I shouldn’t have let the cook go, but I’m afraid I simply don’t understand the point he’s trying to make.”

Fritjof colored up when he realized they were no longer alone. “Well I…that is to say…”

“Oh, I’d love to hear you say it,” John told him, changing their angle of approach so that he and Adam were obliquely blocking the man’s avenue of escape. “The cook, you said, Elsa? I’m sure he felt he couldn’t just put the thing plainly in your presence; we men rather shy away from those topics around women, you know.”

The councilor’s mouth fell open. “I…”

John rolled his eyes. “Oh come now, you’ve had an ‘arrangement’ with the cook for how long, Councilor? It’s not like everyone in the castle didn’t know about it. What did she do, forget her station again?”

Elsa made a face. “Oh John, you don’t mean she’s done that before, do you?”

“All the time,” he assured her. “You sent her packing for it?”

She nodded. “I gave her something for back pay and pension, since she’d been here for so long – I’d never seen her before myself, but Jor said she’d been here fifteen years.”

“Yes, Father told me she was brought in to take the old cook’s place, although he never told me why that one left,” John agreed. “He did mention that Councilor Fritjof here recommended her for the position, though, and that we were lucky she could actually cook.”

Now Fritjof was really red. “I…you…that is highly inappropriate!”

This time Adam rolled his eyes. “Really, Councilor, we’re all adults here. But to quote our father: This is what happens when you consort with the upper servants. How rude was she, Elsa?”

Elsa pretended a frown. “She said I’d been off ‘frolicking with my lover in another kingdom’. And I’ll have you know,” she told Councilor Fritjof sternly, “I didn’t even know what ‘frolicking’ entailed until last spring. Imagine how horrified I was when someone finally explained to me exactly what Chief Councilor Tarben had really been asking me to do with Prince Hans!”

The councilor went from red to white just that quickly. “I…um, Your Highness, I…was not a part of that decision, I assure you.”

“Of course you weren’t,” she allowed. “Now, if you’re done making your complaint – and I’d have understood why you were upset much sooner if you’d just come right out and told me about your ‘arrangement’ with the cook – I have matters to discuss with my husband and my brother while we wait for the new staff to be brought in.”

“Oh, I…of course, Your Highness, of course. I’ll make time to speak with you later.”

Fritjoff made a short bow to her, managing to include Adam in the gesture but not John, and then left the room as quickly as he could without running. Everyone managed not to laugh until he was gone, and John kissed his wife. “So, we’re getting a new cook?”

“Mrs. Jaspersson knew just the person,” she told him, returning the kiss. “And a few others besides, although the rest of them will only be coming in to do the day-work – the servants’ quarters are in an absolutely shameful state, and most of the rooms we should have for guests aren’t that much better. So I have them cleaning up the king’s and queen’s rooms for the three of us, and I’m still trying to figure out where we’re going to put Claude. Possibly the councilors’ sitting room if nothing else.”

“I’d already had an idea about that,” John told her. “Claude, you can sleep in Chief Councilor Tarben’s rooms for the time being – they’re already clean, and that way the other two can’t sneak in there to remove anything.”

Claude raised an eyebrow. “Wealth or evidence of wrongdoing?”

John shrugged. “Both, honestly, and they’re nearly the same thing at this point. Tarben had expensive tastes, and I’m considering it all forfeit to the Crown because that’s whose money he used to get most of it. We’ll pack up a small traveling bag with basic necessities for him, and any personal mementos he might have, but that’s all he gets to take when he goes.”

Claude nodded. “I can pack a bag for him, my lord. Clothing too?”

“No, just an extra set of underclothes and socks,” John said. “I’ll let him change clothes before the coronation, but he’s not taking his wardrobe with him – we’ll pick out which velvet robe he gets to keep later. Right now Adam and I need to go sort out his office…oh, and I’ll need you to deliver a formal invitation to one Captain Dezhnev down at the docks later, Claude. He’ll probably ask you all sorts of questions, and you’re to feel free to tell him anything about Valeureux you think is appropriate.” He smiled. “He and his crew are Northmen, and they’ll be here as witnesses for their ruler, Tzar Ivan of the Empire of Rasseeyah. With any luck he’ll be willing to ally with us to get one up on the Danes, and for access to our harbor and our markets.”

Claude couldn’t imagine that Tzar Ivan would be at all reluctant to ally himself with Arendelle, and by the time he’d delivered the invitation and answered all of the captain’s questions he was sure of it. Captain Dezhnev was a shrewd man, and Claude was certain he was well aware of just who it was that had signed the invitation. Comeuppance and trade aside, no ruler in his right mind was going to refuse an alliance with the so-called Ice Queen of Arendelle.

There had been questions about that too, of course, and Claude had gladly told him about the comtesse keeping Valerueux’s ice houses full and about the traps she’d laid around their camp to keep back bandits – he even described the ice sentry she’d created which had broken the outlaw’s knife, and the large ice spider which had frightened the man back to the inn. Captain Dezhnev had been outwardly quite amused by that story, as had those of his men who’d been blatantly eavesdropping, but his dark eyes had been thoughtful and he had given Claude a nod which indicated that the intended message had been received: The soon to be crowned again Queen of Arendelle used her power to care for and protect those people who deserved such consideration, as her own kingdom for a time perhaps had not.

Afternoon was turning to evening once Claude finally made his way back to the castle, and he took note of some pointed looks he received on his way back and duly reported them. “There’s apparently been enough gossip from the castle that they know the look of our clothes now,” he told Lord Kepperson and King Adam, who were still digging through the piles of papers and books in the imprisoned councilor’s office to find out just how deep his treachery had gone – quite deep already, if the expressions on their faces were any indication. “You won’t be able to go into the town unguarded again, my lords, it wouldn’t be safe.”

“Most likely not,” John agreed with a sigh. “The castle gates will be locked tonight as usual and the remaining guards are loyal, but we’ll all brace our doors after we turn in for the night, just in case.” He put down the letter he’d been frowning over and stood up. “All right, that’s it – I’m so tired I’m seeing double and all I want to do is stomp down to the dungeons and wring Tarben’s treacherous neck. Instead, though, I think we’ll all go down to dinner and then call it a night.”

“An excellent plan,” Adam agreed, putting aside the book whose leaves he’d been checking through – they’d already found a good many notes and missives tucked away in the former chief councilor’s bookshelves, and even a few books which had been hollowed out to hold all in a manner of foreign currencies, jewels, and rich trinkets. He stood up and stretched. “I don’t want to go to bed too early, though. You did say those lights in the sky would be much clearer from the castle than they were up in the mountains.”

“Yes, the fog was hiding them,” John said. “I didn’t realize they were only seen here in the north, you know, until we’d been in Valeureux for a while and I realized you didn’t have them – and at first I attributed that to the curse. We’re lucky we got here in time for you to see them, they’re only this bright through the beginning of spring, and then we won’t see them as well again until winter comes.” He slapped Adam’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a book that talks about them somewhere in the library, or maybe a painting we can send back with you so you won’t have to try to explain them to Queen Belle.”

Adam just laughed. “She’ll tear our library apart to find out about them regardless, I’m sure. So the new cook says there’s food?”

“The councilors were eating quite well,” John pointed out, letting them precede him out of the room so he could lock the door behind them. “And it won’t be up to your standards of course, Adam – or yours either, Claude – but I’m told there’s even wine.”

That made Adam laugh out loud, and Claude fell into step behind them as they made their way down the stone corridor, chuckling.

 

Early in the morning of the day after their arrival in Arendelle, John left his wife asleep in the large, richly-appointed bed which had once belonged to her father and made his way down to the kitchen to get himself some tea, and then he went up to the old counting room, grabbing a full lamp as he went. But at the door he hesitated, steeling himself. He’d devoted his entire life to maintaining the contents of this room, as had his father before him, and although he didn’t regret the choice he’d made that awful night he couldn’t deny that there had been many, many times after that he’d been pained by the thought of what was probably happening to the books in Arendelle in his absence. Councilor Erling had said they were in a ‘state’, as was the treasury. Would he even be able to fix them? Arendelle wasn’t Valeureux, with its simple ledgers and equally simple agreements: Arendelle was a long-established kingdom on the trade routes, with income based in dozens of agreements and alliances, all of which had to be carefully monitored and the flows of gold and goods just as carefully recorded. A lapse in those records could spell disaster for the castle, for the town, for the entire kingdom.

He opened the door, swinging it wide…and almost dropped the lamp onto the flagstones.

Adam found him in the counting room some time later, his head down on the large worktable which dominated the center of the windowless, comfortless room. Heavy shelves loaded with thick old books and leather-bound ledgers covered the walls, and stacks of both were piled on the table. One lay open, as though to let the ink dry, and atop it was a scrap of foolscap laid in the pages’ crease in a manner quite familiar to Adam, and on that scrap was a message in handwriting that was unfamiliar but which matched that of the ledger’s entries. The man who would be king has more pressing matters to deal with than the books, it read. I am so proud of you, my son.

The hair stood up on the back of Adam’s neck. “He…”

“Fixed it.” John sniffed and raised his head; his eyes were red from crying, his glasses lying by the lamp. “He…he fixed it all, Adam. The books are caught up and correct…right up to yesterday. He…he even noted the value of the stone Elsa gave the cook, and assigned it in parts to back pay and pension.” A rough laugh forced its way out of his throat. “Rather less than…the woman probably thought it would be.”

“My sister wouldn’t have been too generous with her, no.” Adam put a hand on his shoulder, then thought better of it and sat down on the wooden bench beside him, pulling his friend into a comforting embrace. “The ghosts weren’t reflecting his feelings, John…they were reflecting your own fears. I think he must always have been proud of you. How could he not be? It’s not every man who can do all that you’ve done, and especially not in such a short time as you’ve managed to do it.”

He felt John nod against his shoulder, although when his friend straightened away from him he didn’t let go. “I was…afraid of that, yes,” John said, pulling out an already damp handkerchief – one of the ones Mrs. Potts and Annette had embroidered for him – and swiping at the few tears that were still leaking. “I never would have thought…he’d do this, though. Or even that he could.” Another raw laugh, although this one held more good humor than the last had. “Although I probably should have. If anyone would…come back from the dead to set the books to rights…it would be my father.”

“There was a reason he had a title,” Adam reminded him, then patted his shoulder and stood back up. “Come on, I was sent to bring you to breakfast. We’ll stop at your room along the way so you can freshen up.”

“A good idea,” John agreed, letting his friend help him up. He sniffed again, then shook his head and reached for the scrap of foolscap, removing it from the book and tucking it into the pocket that had held the handkerchief. “I’ll carry this with me,” he announced to the room at large, to the shade who might be listening. “I’ll carry it during the coronation so that I’ll have a part of you there, Father.”

He put his glasses back on and left the room quickly, and Adam took the lamp and followed; but at the doorway, the King of Valeureux turned back. “You’re right to be proud of him, and he deserves the crown,” he said softly. “He taught me what it meant to be a king, after all.”

Nothing answered him, something he was mostly glad of, and he closed the door and hurried to catch up with John. They still had a great deal of work to do today…but thankfully the books were no longer a part of it.

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