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Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 10

It’s been a very strange week in the Kingdom of Arendelle…and it’s about to get even stranger.


A week passed – a very long, strange week in the Kingdom of Arendelle. The king’s guards went about with grim looks upon their faces, the Watch was being kept both from its own tower and from a parapet high atop the castle, and down by the docks five bodies dangled like rotting fruit from vines of coarse hemp. This had caused a good deal of talk, as no one had been executed for treason in Arendelle for thirty years or more, but the matter of the royal children’s nurse had proved even more of a scandal than that. From the tales the recovered maids had told of Ragna trapping them with magic to the account Lord Frodesson had related of what he had witnessed in the throne room, stories of the wicked nurse who could turn into a poisonous bird were being embellished upon in every corner of the city and Ragna was well on her way to becoming a cautionary fireside tale. If some of these stories were more sympathetic to the girl than others, it could easily be put down to the relative social distance between the tale-teller and Gunter’s family. Ragna’s family had consisted only of her mother, whose own sour, grasping demeanor was such that she was well on her way to being cast in more than one story as the reason her daughter had been so easily swayed by the empty promises of a wife-stealing traitor and an evil fairy.

Other equally made-up stories were being whispered, very quietly, regarding the return of the queen. If she would return, when she would return, and what would happen to the kingdom either way. It would not have been a shock to John that his subjects felt they might have been in considerable danger if their queen had returned to find either he or the children dead, but he would have been more than a little surprised to hear that his subjects’ confidence in his ability to rule the kingdom by himself had increased tenfold – fireside stories were already being spun about him as well, and about Claude and even Kristoff, as small as the King of the Rock Trolls’ part in the events had been. John had not heard most of these stories, however. Both kingdom and castle were in disarray, and he was much more concerned with preventing Arendelle’s current problems from growing larger than he was with the growth of his own legend. Not to mention that in the absence of either nurse or maids or extra guards he’d taken the care of his children almost entirely into his own hands, which were in consequence rather more full than most kings’ hands were expected to be at any given time – literally as well as figuratively, as William still required a good deal of reassurance from him and probably would for some time to come.

And so it was that when Queen Elsa and Captain Dezhnev returned, many things were not as they had been when they’d left – and not just because the state of the ship as she blew into port was such that a good many workers on or near the docks hid themselves in fear, thinking it a ghost ship bearing the dead. This had displeased Elsa greatly, but Dezhnev had been more than a little amused; Nasim, for his part, had been both, and when no one had dared to so much as even set foot onto the dock he in something of a huff had used his power unasked to move all hands off of the ship as well as all of their belongings, and then transferred all else that was salvageable into neat piles nearby, leaving a skeleton ship made of ice behind on the water. If some of the weathered oaken timbers in the process became finely carved teak and cedar, and paint became jewels and plate, he did not mention it – he’d grown more than a little fond of his temporary master over the course of their journey, and he did not wish Dezhnev or his men to be left in bad straits owing to the loss of the ship. Dezhnev himself did not notice this transformation, as he was handing out both gold and instructions to his crew, and Elsa was more concerned with calling out the people who were still hesitating to approach them. “Come here!” she ordered. “How else would you expect me to hold a broken ship together, with string and a cut-up petticoat?” She waved her hand, and the ice skeleton crumbled into the water with a great splash. People hesitantly began to approach, and she at once put them to work. “You, you, and you – yes, you! – move the cargo and the salvage into the royal warehouse for safekeeping. And I want guards kept on it, at least two.”

One man bowed, shaking. “Your Majesty…we have no guards to spare.” He waved a hand toward the gallows on the verge. “The old guard-captain and three others were found out as traitors…”

“I gathered that someone had been, since they were hung with their backs to the sea,” she said, somewhat impatiently. “Very well. Captain! I’m sorry, but your men will have to stand watch over what’s left from the ship, we’re apparently short of guards.”

“I had feared that might be the case, when I saw the fruit of treason dangling from its tree,” he said, striding over to her. He nodded to the man. “Is there any news we should know before we go to the king?” The man did not appear to know how to answer this, and Dezhnev rolled his eyes. “Very well, I will ask him myself.” He offered Elsa his arm. “Your Majesty, shall we?”

She took the offered arm with a smile. “Of course, Captain. Nasim, you are coming with us, right? I wanted John to meet you.”

“I am coming, my lady,” Nasim said. “I am desirous of meeting your king as well.” He raised an eyebrow at the wide-eyed, shaking man. “You should have more bravery than this, I do not know what to make of you. And you do not even offer your queen transport, you would let her walk the streets like a merchant’s daughter!” He snapped his fingers and a pretty jeweled palanquin with tracings of gold and silver appeared, curtained with fine white silk; four blank-faced figures which were more than a little obviously not alive appeared at a second snap, standing ready by the poles. “Queen Elsa, please accept this unworthy transport.”

Dezhnev thought the quaking dock worker was going to faint dead away, and he concealed his laughter with some difficulty as he handed Elsa into the box and saw her settled on the richly embroidered blue cushions. He waved to his men, who were also making something of a show of their respect for the Queen of Arendelle with deep bows and doffing of caps, and then the doll-servants picked up the poles and began to walk. The captain waited until they were away from the docks to nod to Nasim. “I should have warned you before we docked that not all of the men of Arendelle would be counted as such in our own countries.”

“A lot of them are afraid of me,” Elsa concurred. “I’m used to it, but it upsets John. I didn’t realize it bothered you as well, Captain.”

Dezhnev shrugged. “We have different standards for the measure of manhood in Rasseeyah. It is a much…harsher place than Arendelle, both in climate and in temper.”

“As it is in my own country,” Nasim agreed. “But where you are cold we are hot, and where you have snow we have sand.” And in his own country, a man who had stammered and shaken instead of serving his ruler as the one on the docks had done would have been flogged by the royal guards for displaying such impertinence, but he did not say so; Queen Elsa, for all her power, had a soft heart, and while he knew her to be a strong woman he also recognized that the harshness of his people’s laws was distressing to her. He thought the good captain had most likely avoided telling her of how heavy the hand of the tzars could be for the same reason.

People stared as they walked by, but much to the displeasure of both Dezhnev and Nasim none ventured to offer their queen either welcome or obeisance. Elsa just ignored them, trying to keep her worry under control, completely unaware that the effort was making her look more than a little displeased herself and also decorating the road with a carpet of frost and snow. The castle gates opened for them at once, however, and Finn was waiting in the courtyard just beyond to offer his queen a deep bow and his hand for exiting the palanquin. She cocked a white-gold eyebrow at him…and then she smiled. “You’re our new guard-captain now, Finn?”

Finn drew himself up and nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty. Captain Agarsson was…well, I’m sure you saw him coming in. He’s the one with all the…um, holes.”

“I’m sure he deserved them,” she said. “John is…”

“In the throne room waiting for you, with the prince and princess,” he told her. “He told me to bring Captain Dezhnev and whoever else might be with you,” here he offered Nasim a polite nod, which was returned, “in directly.” He frowned at the less than human bearers of the palanquin, which were just standing there. “Are these…?”

“A convenience only,” Nasim said, and with a wave of his hand they disappeared. The palanquin remained, however, and Elsa gave him a look. “I am proud of my handiwork,” he disclaimed. “But if you do not like it…”

“You’re impossible,” she told him. “Of course I like it – it’s beautiful, just like everything else you make. But I’m not sure what I’d do with it, because we use horses to move things, not people.”

In a blink, the pretty box had become a pretty little sledge, and a pure white pony of thick coat and sturdy build was in the traces. “A gift for the royal children, then,” Nasim said with a bow. “It is my understanding that this kingdom has an unlimited supply of snow.”

Finn hid a smile. He had no idea who this magical giant of a man might be, but it was good to hear the queen laugh.

 

Inside the castle, the entryway was filled with people waiting for an audience, and a few who had apparently just been denied one and were more than a little displeased. One man, in fact, was holding forth quite loudly about it, but a small fall of snowflakes spun him around and the look on his queen’s face apparently froze the rest of his words in his mouth. “Go home,” Elsa told him. “Everyone else is being polite, and waiting their turn.” His mouth opened. “No, you know the rules. If you’re rude you have to wait until everyone else is done. And by the time that happens, it will be too late for you. You can come back tomorrow, hopefully in a better mood.”

The man hesitated, and this time Dezhnev rather meaningfully laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “Try me,” he said. “We have just returned from a long and tiring voyage; I have little patience left, and none at all for a such as yourself.”

Finn put himself obliquely between them. “Master Hedegaard, please leave at once or the guards will bar you from entering the castle for three days – the way they did last time.” He did not quite roll his eyes when the man flounced off. “I apologize, Your Majesty. We should have cleared him from the area before you arrived.”

“I have no problem with you giving him the opportunity to behave like a grown man and not a child,” Elsa said. Not at all quietly, which set a few of the other townsmen assembled to straightening themselves and their demeanors accordingly. She noticed this, of course, and offered a disarmingly sweet smile. “If you think you’ll grow tired of waiting – we do have much news to discuss with the king – you may come back tomorrow and have your audience just as soon as any official business has been attended to. Master Hedgaard will just have to wait until you’re all done.”

As Øyvind Hedgaard was not well-liked by his fellows, this queen-sanctioned opportunity to get ahead of him was too good to pass up for many of the assembled and they departed with bows and murmured declarations of happiness that their queen had returned home safely. The few who remained held their ground but looked uncomfortable, which she acknowledged with a nod. “If it’s that important, you may have to wait but we’ll make time for you,” she said, sweeping past them with a nod. “Finn, I’ll want you to come in with us. Some of this is news you’ll need to hear.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” He gave one of the remaining men a meaningful look – he knew what that ‘important’ matter was, and knew it was neither important nor anything that truly mattered, and then hurried ahead to get the door for his queen and company.

Inside the throne room, their entrance was greeted with a glad cry of “Mama!”, and then Prince William was toddling toward his mother as fast as his short legs could take him. She was more than happy to sweep him up into her arms and kiss his rosy cheek. “Mama missed you too, William. Were you waiting for me?”

“We all were.” John had come down off the dais to meet them, first embracing his wife and then, to Dezhnev’s surprise, offering him a similarly heartfelt greeting. The young king of Arendelle looked as though he had aged ten years in their absence. “I would ask how your voyage went,” he said, stepping back, “but word of the state of your ship was brought to me the moment she came within view. Were any men lost?”

Dezhnev shook his head. “Thanks to the efforts of the queen, all hands survived the storm in safety, Your Majesty. And thanks to the efforts of the djinn known as Nasim, who created a strong but gentle wind to fill our mended sails, we returned with more speed than I would have thought possible.”

Nasim took this as his cue to prostrate himself. “King of Arendelle. For my error in aiding their enemy, I was ordered to serve your queen and this good captain until they were safely returned to port. And as they were both under your aegis, I owe you reparation as well as apology for the danger they were placed in by my actions. Any one thing you may desire in all the world, I will provide for you.”

“Any one…” John’s eyes widened, and his hand went to the breast of his coat. “Rise, Nasim. There is a task I urgently need to have accomplished, but it is…complicated.”

He motioned for the djinn to follow him back up onto the dais, where a table covered with papers was sitting beside the curtains, speaking to him urgently in a voice too low for any other ears to hear. Nasim listened intently, and examined the papers John produced from inside his coat. His demeanor grew very grim, and he nodded. “You speak truly of the urgency of this matter, King of Arendelle. This I will do for you, and with pleasure. I will return.”

He disappeared, leaving behind a gust of wind that smelled of spices and hot sand, and John retrieved a sleepy Annabelle from the crib behind her mother’s throne before coming back down to them. “There are…a lot of things going on at present,” he said. “Not just here in Arendelle, everywhere. But I would prefer to wait until he comes back before I say any more.”

Dezhnev felt a stirring of alarm, especially when he noticed how wide the queen’s eyes were. “John, why are the children in the throne room?”

“Because I don’t dare let them out of my sight.” John rubbed his eyes. “Like I said, it’s a long story. But, in short, Fritjof tried to stage a coup with help from the Blue Fairy and our former guard-captain. Ragna had also been working for the Blue Fairy, we can’t be sure for how long. She drugged the children in preparation for Fritjof’s arrival, and when that didn’t happen she bided her time and then tried to kill me.” He raised his free hand when frost scattered across the floor. “She’s dead, I killed her myself and her body is sealed in stone in the North Garden due to it still being filled with deadly poison. But if you happen to see any more birds with a blue breast flitting about, kill them immediately.”

“The maids…”

“Ragna trapped them in a room, then hid the door both inside and out with magic – they weren’t found for days, and even then only because the rock trolls had joined the search. Only two of them have recovered enough to come back, but they refuse to stay in the castle, they’re escorted home each evening by one of the guards.” Annabelle cooed, and he kissed her forehead. “We’ve been doing fine. Some of the more self-important bastards who come for audience have had a problem with the children being present, but after I had those removed from the castle the rest of them fell into line.”

“I almost pulled my sword on one just before we came in,” Dezhnev admitted. “And the ‘men’ at the docks are lucky Nasim did not feel free to punish them for their lack of respect – I could tell he wanted to.”

“I could too,” Elsa said. “But that wouldn’t have cured their cowardice, so it would have been a wasted effort.”

In spite of himself, Dezhnev laughed. “You are not wrong, Your Majesty. But even so, it would have been satisfying to both Nasim and myself to do so.” He nodded to John. “He was approached by one of the fairy folk and tasked with stirring up a storm against my ship. King Sel was not amused, nor was his own master, hence the manacles he wears and his penalty of servitude. Queen Elsa objected to the slave’s clothing he had been made to wear, however, and ordered him to don garments more suitable to her tastes.”

“He was barely wearing anything.” Elsa waved it off. “I understand he was being punished, but the Northern seas are much colder than the deserts of his homeland, that was just cruel.”

A wind rushed through the chamber just then, rifling the heavy curtains, and Nasim reappeared. He bowed to John. “It was as you feared,” he said. “But I was in time.”

“Thank goodness for that.” John approached the frightened woman and children who had appeared with the djinn. “My lady, you are safe now,” he told her. “I am so sorry I had no means by which I could remove you from that situation sooner.” He waved his free hand. “Your husband is here, and he will be as safe as I can make him, you have my word.”

Dezhnev started violently, but before he could have a further reaction the woman – his wife! – had spun around with a cry and rushed into his arms, and his children were clinging to the both of them. “Marta…Your Majesty?!”

John shook his head. “Ivan has fallen, Gregor,” he said, shocking Dezhnev all over again with the use of his given name. “Not to death, but to deceit. I received a missive from him breaking our alliance and declaring you a traitor. His reasons were nonsense and lies…but what’s done is done, and I’ve been wracking my brain ever since to come up with a way to save your family.” He inclined his head to Nasim. “I know it was your duty, but thank you just the same.”

Nasim bowed. “It was my pleasure to perform this task,” he rumbled. “You were not wrong about the cause. The Daughters of Circe have been there, and their webs are woven deep and strong.” That made Dezhnev gasp, and the djinn nodded gravely. “He is lost to you, Captain; and were you to attempt to regain the former trust of your kinship he would doubtless kill you without a second thought. Your men may return home, so long as they do so quietly and speak not your name where any can hear…but you may not.”

“Which means your home is now in Arendelle,” John said before Dezhnev could say anything. “And as you’re without a ship, and soon to be without your crew, that also means some adjustments need to be made.” He handed Annabelle to Finn and drew his sword, not quite managing not to wince. “Captain Gregor Dezhnev, formerly in the service of Tzar Ivan of Rasseeyah…kneel.” Dezhnev dropped to one knee as much out of shock as obedience. “You have been a good friend to us,” John announced. “And you served your kinsman with honor and loyalty. As you are now without a place because of the friendship between us, I feel it is my responsibility to see to it that you and your family are provided for.” He touched the flat of the sword to  Dezhnev’s shoulder. “Rise, Sir Gregor,” he intoned, and pale golden light spread out across the flagstones. “You are hereby appointed Minister of Trade of the Kingdom of Arendelle, a position for which I believe you are uniquely well-suited.”

Dezhnev climbed back to his feet in something of a daze. “Your Majesty…I do not know what to say.”

“Neither do I,” John admitted, managing with no little difficulty to re-sheath his sword; it did not escape Dezhnev’s notice that both Finn and the guard on duty and the throne room seemed as though they would have liked to stop him from trying. “Except that I am so sorry for your losses – of your cousin, your livelihood, and your homeland. You and your family will of course live here in the castle, for safety’s sake as well as convenience. And once we’ve found a nurse who isn’t trying to help overthrow the kingdom just to get a pretty dress, your children may stay in the nursery with William and Annabelle.”

That brought the captain’s wife out of her shock. “The children have no nurse? Who has been taking care of them?”

“I have,” John told her. “At present we only have our cook, two maids, my huntsman and the guards. Which we’re also a bit short on,” he told Dezhnev apologetically, and seemed relieved when the older man merely nodded. “I think we’ve routed all of the traitors for the time being…but still, I go armed around the castle now and so should you. The rock trolls have added to the safeguards against fairy magic which we already had, but that has no effect on regular people. And the remaining guards can’t be everywhere at once.”

Elsa was frowning. “Where is Claude? I’d have expected him to be shadowing your every step, John.”

“He’s shadowing Maiken’s every step instead, partly of his own accord and partly because I ordered him to,” John told her, taking Annabelle back from Finn. “Part of Gunter’s deal with Fritjof was that he would get Maiken for himself. Before Claude got back with the children, one of Per’s men was guarding her.” Her eyebrows went up, and he smiled. “I told you it was a long story.”

“As is the one she and the good captain have to tell,” Nasim said with a bow. “Permit me to aid you in sharing your tales in comfort.” He waved one black-nailed and richly beringed hand – wrist rather conspicuously missing its manacle – and a heavy table appeared, its tile-patterned surface laden with dome-covered dishes and heaped, steaming platters, surrounded by cushioned benches and with a finely carved and cushioned chair at both head and foot. He bowed again, very low, to Elsa, then to Dezhnev…and then he vanished in a golden swirl of wind that spiraled up into nothingness.

Finn counted the place settings, then nodded to his astonished king. “I’ll just be getting Claude and Maiken, Your Majesty. And then I’ll let those waiting know you won’t be available for audience for…two hours, I think, and advise them to return tomorrow.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” was John’s response; he had also been counting plates. “And then come back yourself and join us, Finn – he made a place for you as well.”

“Your Majesty…?!”

“I know we haven’t been standing on ceremony lately, but you’re captain of the royal guard, Finn,” John reminded him. “You have rank now, of course you’ll be eating with us. Is Lord Pettersson out there?” Finn nodded, and John rather unceremoniously gave Annabelle back to him. “All right, I’ll go take care of that myself – I know what his issue is, and it’s not a matter I care to involve myself in. And he knows it, so me yelling at him should send the rest of them scurrying as well.” That made William clap his little hands in delight, and John rolled his eyes. “You’re going to grow up to be a tyrant, I just know it,” he said…but he still held out his arms, taking the boy back from his mother and making tracks for the doors. “Very well, we’ll chase them out together. But in return I expect not to be splashed quite so much when you have your bath tonight…”

Elsa took Annabelle from Finn, raising an eyebrow. “There was no one who could take Ragna’s place?”

He shook his head. “No one willing to stay in the castle, Your Majesty. And having the children in here has kept the level of civility a bit higher than it might have been otherwise.” He pulled out her chair for her – and it was obviously her chair, as the carved back was surmounted with an alabaster-inlaid snowflake centered on a thumb-sized sapphire – and then hurried out the kitchen entrance to fetch the Royal Huntsman and his wife. It was going to be an interesting evening…

 

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