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Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 11

In which some people are too worried to sleep, and the Lord of the Desert Wind finds much to be concerned about.


That night, after a delicious if exotic dinner and a great deal of discussion, everyone retired to their rooms. Nasim had, not surprisingly, prepared appropriate rooms for Dezhnev and his family and furnished them with many of their possessions which had been confiscated by Ivan, and so they found settling in to be much easier than might have been expected. Marta waited until their children were well asleep before speaking her fears to her husband. “Are we safe here? The arm of the Tzar is long…”

“He will not stretch it out to this kingdom,” Dezhnev assured her, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Even in his current madness, he must still know the power Queen Elsa wields. She imprisoned one of the wicked feya, Marta – sealed the bitch in blue ice, which is now buried in a glacier. And as she is now…disappointed in Ivan,” so Elsa had said at dinner, “she would be most likely to send his grasping fingers back to him in a box, resting on a pillow of snow and tied with a pretty ribbon.” He tightened his hold, as much to reassure himself as her – he had come so close to losing her! “It will be well for us here, I promise. Their ways are different, but they are good people. Before the madness was brought upon him, even Ivan had expressed his approval.”

She rested her head on his shoulder, staring at the fine blue-and-white tiled stove which had been their wedding gift from her uncle, a pechnik of some renown who had been dead for many years now. She had thought never to see it again when the tzar’s soldiers had come for her and the children, dragging them from their comfortable home to be imprisoned under heavy guard within the palace. He had known, Ivan, that her husband would come for them regardless of the threat to himself. He had been counting on it. “Ivan meant to kill us, Gregor. The look in his eyes when he had us brought to him…he is mad. I fear for the tzarina now, and their children.”

“She knows to be wary of him when the wolf in his nature is at the fore,” he soothed. Or at least, he hoped she did – this was a new kind of madness, a different wolf than had been there before. “I am sure he tried to tell you I was doing many improper things, most likely with the queen?”

Marta snorted softly. “He tried, I did not believe him – I know my husband. And now that I have seen and spoken to this queen, and her king, I wonder that even in madness he would tell such a lie. They are barely more than children, the both of them!”

That made him laugh outright. “Compared to us, and to Ivan, yes,” he agreed. “There is strength in them, though, and wisdom beyond their years. I will tell you a tale from our voyage, one I had intended to share with Ivan for his amusement: When the djinn Nasim appeared aboard my ship, the queen did not know what he was and I was forced to come to his aid…”

~*~

In the royal wing of the Castle of Arendelle, Elsa was also feeling somewhat restless and not yet ready to go to sleep in spite of being quite tired. John had planned to stay up to talk with her, but not long after putting the children to bed he had fallen asleep and she had decided to let him rest, moving to a chair in front of the fire so she wouldn’t disturb him. They would have time in the morning to discuss more of what had happened, and time every day to follow…her eyes were drawn to the back of his nightshirt, and she shivered. She’d almost screamed when he’d taken off his shirt and she’d seen the nearly foot-long stitched wound which angled across his back; the wound’s tail on the back of his arm was just a red and white line now, but the larger slash was not healing so quickly. Because he kept pulling the stitches, he’d explained, as the guards weren’t able to help him when anyone else was around. “Any sign of weakness now would be a very bad thing,” he’d told her. “Most of the unrest has settled – dangling corpses by the docks tend to have that effect on would-be traitors – but we didn’t want to embolden any other ambitious ones by letting them think they could take me down easily.” Her rush into his arms had made him smile, but he’d held her tightly all the same, nuzzling her hair. “I missed you so much. But it’s all right, really. It’s at least partly my own fault it happened, because it simply never occurred to me that Fritjof would bring his lover back to the castle with him. If I hadn’t failed to check the kitchen entrance, she wouldn’t have been able to sneak up on me like that. And Per’s father says I’m healing well, even if I do keep disordering all his good work and making it heal to a worse scar than it had to. He comes every few days to check, on the pretense of escorting his wife so she can check on Maiken. Speaking of which, we’ll need to decide what we’re going to do for a cook when she has the baby – which will be sooner and not later, I think.”

“Oh, definitely. I can’t believe how far along she’s gotten while I was gone.” She’d snuggled into him tighter, letting his warmth seep through her. “I can do at least some of the cooking. And I had Nasim teach me how to make some of the dishes his people enjoy.”

That had made him chuckle. “Oh, the scandal.”

She’d laughed too. “Nasim was rather scandalized himself, when he found out I’d been cooking for Gregor’s crew – not that they knew what to think of it either, but after I threatened to make the man who complained eat last they all kept their thoughts to themselves.”

He’d pushed her back and kissed her at that. “Lucky thing I wasn’t there then, I suppose. They might have died of shock when I pitched in to help you.”

She’d kissed him back. “You’re very good at doing the dishes. Even Belle said so.”

That had made him sigh, and he’d sat down on the side of the bed as though the thought he’d just had was too much to stand up under. “I have to find a way to warn Adam about what’s going on. But we can’t spare any of the guards, and neither of us can leave right now either. Not that I think we should, in fact I suspect that if we did we’d be playing right into the Blue Fairy’s hands. There have been…rumors, from a few of the ships that came into port,” he’d said, very quietly. “Rumors of a closed port in the southern waters, with black flags flying from the watchtower.” She’d gasped, and he’d shaken his head. “So far, it’s just rumors – no one has come to the castle to report anything. I’m still afraid of what could happen, though, because the people of Valeureux won’t have heard those rumors and their trade is still booming so they think nothing of seeing new wagons come in from parts unknown. Adam needs to be warned, a week ago he needed to be. But I just couldn’t leave Gregor’s wife and children to be executed by Tzar Ivan.”

“No, you couldn’t,” she’d assured him, sitting beside him to wrap her arms around him again, letting him feel her acceptance of the terrible decision he’d been forced to make – one of many, while she’d been gone, but perhaps none so close to his heart. “And of course Claude can’t go.”

“No, of course not.” He’d relaxed into her arms, into her understanding, with another and much more tired sigh. “We almost had an argument about it, but he knows he needs to be here for Maiken. I’m not sure he’ll be as…accepting of the decision I made today, though.”

To be honest, although she hadn’t told John so, Elsa wasn’t sure either. It was one of the things keeping her awake, in fact. And so when she saw a blue flicker out of the corner of her eye, she welcomed the distraction. “Who’s there?”

Ari slid out of the shadows and offered her a bow. “You know, your husband has been sitting in that chair staring into the fire just like that almost every night.”

She raised a white-gold eyebrow. “He’s been talking to you? Are you the ‘watchful eye’ Lord Sel has in the castle?”

“Yes. And John talked to me – and I to him – because there was no one else he could freely speak with about the things which were worrying him.” Ari considered for a moment, then ‘sat’ on nothing to put himself at eye-level with her. He was family, and a shade besides, so the apparent liberty was really no such thing. “I believe you understand why, correct?”

Elsa nodded. “I understand, I just don’t like it. And I’m trying not to be angry with Claude.”

“You shouldn’t be angry with Claude,” Ari told her. “He trusted his king enough to leave his child-heavy wife here while he escaped into the mountains with the royal children, and that is a good deal more trust than most men will ever have placed in them. But he also knows now that there are stories he’s not being told, information which is not being shared, and I believe he is beginning to wonder if his trust is no longer returned to the extent that it once was – and if that is due to his own situation having changed, and with it his king’s opinion of his priorities. Claude is having doubts about his value in John’s eyes, Elsa, nothing more.”

“You’ve talked to him too?”

Ari shook his head. “Someone else did.” ‘Someone else’ having been Flavio, who had noticed the problem on his way out, so to speak, and decided to take care of it himself. The Royal Huntsman would doubtless speak to John first thing the next morning and set things between them back to rights, most likely without mentioning the long talk the mercenary captain’s shade had seen fit to have with him. That was Claude’s own business, however, and Ari did not feel he needed to share it. “So what else keeps you awake this night?”

She clasped her hands in her lap, looking to the fire rather than him. “I started this,” she said quietly. “Lord Sel told me not to blame myself…but I can’t seem to help it. If I hadn’t frozen the Fairy Marguerite…”

“Then your husband and brother would be dead and the world would have ended.” Ari shrugged. “You couldn’t have predicted her wand-sisters would react this way, Elsa. And what else could you have done? You had no knowledge of the game that was being played, no one did.”

“No one did,” John echoed, making her jump. He put his arms around her, and the little circle of frost which had formed at her feet in spite of the fire’s warmth melted away. “Sweetheart, if it was anyone’s fault this all went the way it did other than that of arrogant meddling fairies, it was mine. I whisked you away in the middle of the night, remember? I lied to get you to come with me, and put the idea in your head that we needed to find your parents. If I hadn’t done that…”

“Then I would have frozen the entire kingdom solid and gone back to my ice castle?” She looked up at him. “Aren’t you hurting yourself, bending over like this?”

He kissed her. “It hurt me more to hear you blame yourself for the evil other people have done, my love. Now come on, come to bed. I’ve been missing my wife, and all this worrying is keeping her from me…”

Ari quietly faded out of the room, chuckling to himself. John had inherited his silver tongue along with his appearance, apparently.

~*~

When Nasim reappeared in his king’s presence, the Lord of the Desert Wind raised a white eyebrow at him; the heavy manacles the djinn had been wearing were lying at the lord’s feet. “Your return took longer than necessary, but yet your task did not take so long as I had expected.”

Nasim shrugged. “They wanted very little, my king. I kept the watch that a man might sleep, and managed the winds that they might not tear the sails. And the queen requested that I tell her of our homeland, our people, and that I help her with the cooking for Captain Dezhnev and his crew.” That got both eyebrows up, and he did not quite smile. “She is a very unusual woman. She told me she somewhat missed cooking over the camp fire, as she and her brother did when they were seeking their parents. So to please her, I showed her how to prepare spiced meats for cooking on a brazier, as well as how to boil rice and change its flavor to suit her needs.” He shook his head. “I…my king, I know the time was short, but my remorse is truly felt. She Who Holds the Key to the World’s End is the most lovely and gracious of women, and her husband the most honest and just of men. He proved his kingly spurs in her absence by besting the ones who, with that same fairy’s aid, sought to overthrow him and use his children as hostages to guarantee his obedience.”

“And what did he do to earn your respect? Because I can see and hear it.”

“Presented with the choice to have any thing in all the world he might desire, instead of carrying a most dire warning to the man who is as a brother to him, he chose to have me confirm that the harsh missive he had received from Tzar Ivan had been truly sent, and to rescue the family of Captain Dezhnev from Rasseeyah if that were the case.” He nodded when his king’s eyes widened. “The tzar sits blinded by the deceits of the Daughters of Circe, seeing only a web of betrayal which does not truly exist. But there is more. I slowed my return that I might know if their hands were at work in other lands as well. And that is how I know that sickness like a starving jackal creeps in places where it should not be stirring.”

The Lord of the Desert Wind rose to pace the floor, scowling; outside, wind tossed the tall, plume-crowned trees fretfully. “So the fairy folk have broken the seals and stirred the plagues of mortal men once again.”

“Yes, my king. I have seen it.”

“Then your earlier foolishness must have been fated, else we would not have known until it was too late – not even a breath of this news had reached my ears until this moment.” He shook his head. “While you were paying your penance on the sea, the stone-kings sent out a warning of their own: The Daughters of Circe seek to break the power of all who might oppose them. They began with the Lord of the Northern Seas, but it is only a matter of time before they cast their greedy eyes on the other sea lords and from there to the rest of us as well.” He went to the window, frowning at the cloud of sand which was rising beneath the tossing trees, and he reined in his anger to settle it. “This is a war they should know they cannot win…unless they plan to call the Deep Magic.” Behind him, Nasim gasped. “Plans must be made, and you will be the one to help me – this knowledge must be kept close until our own lands and peoples have been secured. We will save what we can, and trust that the Lords of the Seas have plans of their own.”

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