Author's Note: This is a long one, guys—almost 8,000 words. So sit tight, and please enjoy the ride.
Read previous chapters of Winter's End
Chapter 4: The Arrival
Gerda lightly shook her, her tone urgent.
"Your Majesty," she said quietly, "I'm sorry to wake you, but . . ."
Elsa groggily shifted in the bed, her eyes half-closed in slumber.
"We . . . we're . . . wait, what?"
Gerda held back a giggle at the confused, embarrassed look that suddenly appeared on the queen's tired features.
"Don't worry, Your Majesty—we still have an hour before we make landing," she assured her, giving Elsa a hand as she struggled to get up. "I wanted to give us enough time to get you ready before then."
Elsa nodded lightly, not quite comprehending the situation. It felt as though she had been asleep for days instead of just forty minutes—if the clock on the wall was telling the truth, that is.
When did I even fall asleep? she wondered in bemused silence as the other three ladies-in-waiting entered the room, carrying between them a dress and shoes, makeup, and a washing basin, respectively.
She allowed them, in her half-awake state, to wash and prepare her without complaint, as she needed the time to bring herself, mentally, back to the world of the living. They made quicker work of her than usual, and Elsa had to admit that she was impressed by how soon she had been slipped into the official arrival dress, a lilac-coloured, long-sleeved gown with deep blue panels on the bodice (and the same colour gloves to match).
Nevertheless, it felt unbearably hot to be wearing that garment on such a warm day, and Elsa continually took great pains to cool herself down without damaging the dress itself.
Once the main portion of the process had been completed, Gerda dismissed the others, attending to the queen's hair. Elsa watched with some distaste as her long braid—which she had kept for the majority of the journey there, since it was more comfortable—was undone and then pinned up into a regal bun, the look bearing an unfortunate resemblance to the one she wore on the day of her coronation.
"Gerda, can you—" Elsa began, unable to look into the mirror any longer, "can you . . . change it, slightly?"
Gerda glanced at the queen's aggrieved reflection, and then at her handiwork—and she promptly took out the pins in Elsa's hair, looking mortified.
"I'm so sorry, Your Majesty, I—I really didn't mean to—"
"It's fine," Elsa interrupted, half-smiling to reassure her. "I'm just being fussy."
The older woman frowned at this, and gripped Elsa's shoulder affectionately. "No, my Queen—your request is perfectly reasonable," she said firmly, rearranging the white locks. "I should have known better. Forgive me."
Elsa smiled more genuinely at this. "There's nothing to forgive," she said quietly, and touched Gerda's hand softly. "Nothing at all."
Gerda smiled after a moment as well before focusing on her hair again, holding a chunk of it against Elsa's head briefly.
"I'm sorry to press on you like this, Queen Elsa," she said apologetically, "but I'd like to try something new, here, and it may require a bit more effort than usual."
Elsa felt contented again despite the heaviness of the hair against her skull. "I'm sure it will look wonderful."
"It will be fabulous."
She was surprised by how many of the common people were waiting at the port of Strande Island—and equally by their raucous, enthusiastic reception of the Snow Queen to their warmer shores.
"Queen Elsa, bless you!"
"Long live the Queen of Arendelle!"
"Good health and good tidings to you, Queen Elsa!"
She smiled despite her general feeling of trepidation as she was escorted down the plank onto the dock by her guards, waving good-naturedly to the people on all sides. Leif, Gerda and the other ladies-in-waiting looked similarly dumbfounded by the overwhelmingly earnest greeting, though they, too, were soon smiling and bowing their heads shyly at the attention.
Still, Elsa had to fight the urge to touch her hair, her hand flexing mid-air.
It really is fabulous.
Gerda had done a beautiful twist on her favourite style—a simple braid—by starting it on the top of her head and then working its way down to frame the left side of her face in a flattering, feminine manner. Just thinking about how wonderful it looked when she had seen it in the mirror a few minutes before made Elsa glow with unusual pride.
"Your Majesty," a man came forward from the front of the crowd, bowing deeply before Elsa, "allow me to introduce myself. I am Prince Ivar of the Southern Isles, serving as a diplomat at the pleasure of Their Royal Majesties King Oskar and Queen Therese." His head remained bowed as he continued: "It's an honour to finally make your acquaintance."
He was the same height as the only other prince she'd met from the Isles, and wore the same white, ceremonial suit that he had worn on the night of her coronation ball, though almost nothing else about him reminded her of the traitor.
His hair, for one, was a dark red—nearly brown—and his eyes, though green, were a few shades duskier as well. Between this and the fact that he sported an impressive full beard, spectacles, and a bit of a pot belly, she actually felt somewhat reassured that, of all the King and Queen's progeny to greet her first, it had been him.
She bowed her head gently to the prince, but did not offer her hand—the lack of this gesture, however, did not seem to surprise nor bother him as he regarded her with a neutral stare.
"Likewise," she answered, if somewhat stiffly, adding: "And I am sorry for the delay to our arrival. The sea was . . . unkind to us, I'm afraid."
The prince's mouth twitched. "Unfortunately it happens all too often, Your Majesty," he said with the barest hint of sympathy, unsettling her a little. "There's nothing to apologise for, as we always plan for such delays." His back straightened. "Anyway, it's a good thing you arrived today, as it appears that the sea is due to be unquiet for a few more days yet."
Her heart seized a little at this information.
"Unquiet?" she asked, concerned.
Will my letters get back home to Anna?
He nodded, though he didn't seem to understand why she looked so worried.
"Yes, Your Majesty," he repeated, "but with any luck, they should calm down again by next week."
She swallowed at this, wanting to press further; but then, seeing how the prince stared at her impatiently, she simply assented with a nod of her own.
I'll worry about it later.
"Then I am grateful for arriving today as well," she said quickly, and gestured to her side. "Prince Ivar, this is my adviser, Sir Leif. He will be accompanying me on all official business while I am in the Isles."
Ivar nodded, and Leif bowed—but not as deeply, perhaps, as he should have in the presence of foreign royalty.
"Your Highness," he said in an even harder tone than Elsa's, making the prince's eyebrow raise briefly in question.
Elsa shot her adviser a warning look and quickly plastered on a smile, which the prince reciprocated in just as dishonest a manner.
"A pleasure to meet you as well, Sir Leif," he drawled, and motioned to the small welcoming party from whence he had approached them. "Your Majesty, if you don't mind," he said, maintaining his smiling mask, "there are a few other people I'd like to introduce you to before we proceed to the palace."
She nodded, trying not to become distracted by the cheering crowds around her.
He led her to the four other men standing nearby—all dressed identically in the same, white suits—and they introduced themselves, one by one.
The first looked remarkably like Ivar, at least in hair and eye colour and general facial features—but he was leaner and fitter, and sported only a moustache.
"Prince Anders of the Southern Isles," he said, and her eyes widened as she looked between him and Ivar with a quirked brow.
"You two are . . ."
"Twins," they said together, and glared at each other in the next moment; this tension, however, only elicited some muffled chuckles from the other men.
"I see," she said, and couldn't help but smile.
I wonder if they drew straws to decide which one of them would be able to greet me at the docks first.
The second man broke in shortly after. "Prince Kristian," he said informally, and added (after receiving a sharp glare from his older brothers): "Of the Southern Isles, as you might have already guessed."
Her lip twitched in amusement at this remark, though it earned the prince nothing but irritated looks from the others. Comparing him to them, she wondered if he looked more like the King with his light blue eyes, slight physique, and plain, shaggy, long brown hair tied back into a ponytail.
"A pleasure," she replied promptly, nodding.
"Tor—it's your turn, now," Kristian said, nudging the man by his side.
The third looked up through his long, red-brown bangs, bored—apparently, staring at his feet had been more interesting than properly greeting the Queen of Arendelle—and he managed a slight bow, mumbling moodily:
"Prince Tor. Southern Isles."
"Why did we bring him along, again?" Kristian remarked dryly, and received dagger-like stares from the rest of his brothers in return. He glanced up at Elsa at this, and reddened. "Apologies, Your Majesty."
She shook her head, meaning to reassure him that she didn't mind—but was interrupted when the fourth coughed, obviously trying to draw attention away from the previous "disappointing" brothers.
"Your Majesty," he said reverently, and bowed the deepest of all the princes thus far, "I am Prince Adrian of the Southern Isles and a member of the Royal Guard, and it is my great honour to meet you here today."
She regarded this last brother with the most interest, if only because he looked so different from all the others before him—and because of how forward he had been in his introduction compared to the rest.
He's . . . handsome.
He was, objectively, beautiful: tall, with an athletic physique, short, strawberry-blonde hair a few shades lighter than Anna's, and sea-green eyes that swirled and drew her in like the ocean itself. Combining these features with his bolder manner, it seemed likely to her that he was popular with the ladies at court.
Somehow, Elsa felt comfortable in acknowledging that he was an attractive man; she supposed it was because he was attractive in a way that was entirely different from the way that his unfortunate youngest brother was.
. . . the paternity of the King's sons.
Kai's words suddenly rang in her head as she regarded the prince, and she only hoped that the glimmer of realisation that had flashed across her eyes had not been seen by the man before her.
"Your Highness," she acknowledged, and nodded.
He continued after a slightly dramatic pause, meeting her gaze. "I wanted to offer you, in person, my deepest apologies on behalf of our youngest brother, who disgraced our family and this great country with his crimes. Please be assured," he said, his tone serious, "that he is now paying the price for them."
Elsa wanted to frown at the reminder, having just been able to forget, if only for a moment, about the thirteenth son in observing the dynamic between the princes—but she forced herself to be polite.
"Thank you," she said, her voice betraying her discomfort. "I appreciate that."
Noticing her unease, the prince sought to change the topic—quickly.
"I don't mean to be rude, but, I must say, Your Majesty," he started again, his eyes magnetic, "you are even more beautiful in person than I could have ever imagined."
Elsa might have reddened at this compliment, drawn in by his unwavering stare as she was; but Anders cleared his throat suddenly and glowered at Adrian before turning to Elsa, his expression all business.
"Your Majesty," he spoke as formally as he could to contrast his younger brother, "if you don't mind, I think it would be best if we continued on to the palace."
When she glanced back out of the corner of her eye at the ship from whence she'd arrived, he continued:
"Not to worry, Your Majesty—our men will assist your crew in unloading the luggage from the ship, and deliver it to the palace shortly after we arrive there."
She nodded and repeated "Of course" for what felt like the thirtieth time that day, and then followed the brothers and their accompanying protection—a group of Royal Guardsmen, she presumed—to the carriages that awaited them at the entrance to the port.
Elsa waved and smiled gently to the crowd as she moved across the dock, though the heat of the Isles' sun made her want to do nothing more than encase herself in a block of ice. Even on the hottest of summer days in Arendelle, it never became like this, and she suddenly understood—and secretly envied—how some of the men in the crowd could go without shirts.
I'd do anything to at least take off these gloves.
After what seemed like an eternity, she felt herself take one of her men's hands and step into an open-air carriage, sitting with a small sigh of relief.
To her surprise, then, something—or, rather, someone—suddenly nudged her in the side, and she looked down, blinking.
Gerda stared back up at her, handing her a fan. "It's not much, my Queen, but since we're travelling separately, I thought it best to—"
"Thank you, Gerda," Elsa said appreciatively and carefully opened the fan. "I assure you it will be put to good use, and I'll see you again once we reach the palace."
Gerda smiled tiredly and nodded before trudging off to the carriage prepared for her and the other girls. Elsa looked after her with some concern, knowing that the older woman probably wasn't handling the heat very well herself.
"Always plans ahead, that Gerda," Leif remarked as he took his seat next to her, his forehead sweating. He turned to Prince Ivar as the man boarded the carriage, sitting across from the Queen. "How far to the palace, Your Highness?"
Ivar took a pocket-watch out from his jacket, glancing at it briefly. "No more than twenty minutes, Sir Leif," he said quickly, eyeing the man's obvious discomfort expressionlessly.
Leif nodded, looking relieved. "That's good to hear."
Anders climbed in last, sitting across from Leif, and exchanged a look that Elsa didn't quite understand with his twin brother.
"Are we ready to leave?"
Ivar eyed the line of carriages behind them—and then at the one next to theirs, carrying the rest of the princes—and nodded curtly, tapping the driver once on the shoulder.
Elsa jumped a little in her seat as the ride began bumpily, transitioning between the wooden planks of the docks to the stone road leading to the palace. She couldn't complain, however, about the bit of breeze that swept by her, and Leif seemed positively blithe with happiness at the brief respite from the incessant heat.
Anders, seeing the adviser's weariness, pulled out a small fan from inside of his jacket.
"Please, use mine," he offered, his smile small and tight. "I'm used to the heat."
Leif hesitated for a moment, staring at the fan uncertainly. It wasn't until his queen gave him a slight nod of reassurance that he finally accepted it, and thanked the prince quietly for the gesture.
In truth, Elsa was silently observing the interactions between the brothers with a cold kind of fascination, her curiosity unexpectedly piqued by the quirks she had noticed about each one so far—and, more generally, by the fact that none of them seemed bothered by the intense heat in spite of the fact that they were dressed in full suits.
Ivar, for one, seemed to be the most imperious of the five she had met, with little desire to engage in the kinds of pleasantries which she would have assumed his occupation normally called for. That much had been obvious, anyway, from the way in which he had not offered his fan—which she was sure he had stowed away in the exact same place as his brother's had been—to Leif.
The thought made her gaze flutter over to Prince Anders, who quickly averted his eyes from hers out of respect; and that gesture, though fleeting, had the strange effect of endearing him more to her than his snobbish twin.
Perhaps he's one I can trust.
She dismissed the idea just as soon as it had come to mind, realising that such a judgment was far too premature.
Still—he did offer Leif that fan.
She frowned behind her own fan, and flapped it more rapidly against her heated face.
And he saved you from the duke's men before later attempting to cut your head off.
Her frown deepened.
Kindness is merely a means to an end for these people.
She moved on to the carriage they shared the wide, stone path with, and assessed—as subtly as she could—the other three (whose names she was already forgetting).
"The brown-haired one is Kristian," Anders said suddenly, "the red-haired one Tor, and the blonde Adrian." His small smile returned as she stared at him in surprise. "I thought I saw confusion in your look, Your Majesty," he explained. "Forgive me for being presumptuous."
So they're watching me in the same way, she mused, and paused in her fanning, placing the instrument in her lap with a matching, tiny smile.
"Your instincts were correct—and I thank you for the reminder, Prince Anders."
Ivar's lip curled ever-so-slightly in irritation at this exchange, but Elsa ignored him, turning her gaze instead to the wide-open countryside surrounding them, green as far as the eye could see with bright flowers scattered throughout the fields. It reminded her of the forests at the foot of the mountains in Arendelle, but it had a fragrance about it—an aroma—that intoxicatingly filled the humid air.
"It's beautiful," she said gently, and closed her eyes when a breeze came by, the scent filling her senses.
"But hot," added Kristian from the other carriage, and she looked up, taken aback by the comment.
He grinned sheepishly at her. "Too hot."
Tor—the moody one from earlier, if Elsa was remembering it correctly—frowned at his brother.
"No one's laughing, Kristian," he remarked sourly. "So just be silent, for once."
"Tor," Adrian rebuked him with a glare, "you're in the presence of the Queen."
The young man went quiet again, though he sulked at being shut up. Adrian, likewise, seemed unhappy—no doubt because he had been sat with his brothers instead of next to the Queen he was so blatantly trying to charm.
She held back a smirk at the display, and her gaze returned to greet Anders's.
"If you don't mind me asking," she said inquisitively, "why specifically were the five of you sent to greet me at port?"
Ivar answered before Anders had even opened his mouth to speak, obviously annoyed that the Queen had given his twin so much of her attention.
"Anders and I are the two top trade officials in the kingdom, and so it was natural for Their Majesties to call upon us for our services in this instance," he replied succinctly. "As for the others," he began with a frown (and Elsa somehow enjoyed seeing this rare display of emotion from him), "there are . . . various reasons."
Anders filled in the blanks. "Prince Adrian is here as a representative of the Royal Guard, as he mentioned," he said, "and—though it may not seem like it—Princes Kristian and Tor are serving on behalf of the Royal Navy and Army, respectively."
Elsa nodded, and suddenly—undoubtedly—she saw what they were trying to do.
They want me to see that they're not like him, she thought, just barely maintaining her placid expression. That they're all dutifully employed at home, and have no intention of going off to foreign lands and attempting to conquer them and kill their princesses and queens—
"And the other princes?" she asked, quelling the dizziness that had temporarily taken hold of her. "Will I be meeting them at the palace?"
Anders nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty, along with the King and Queen."
She smiled rigidly.
"Good. I'm looking forward to that."
Leif sent her a quizzical look from the side, but she didn't meet it.
She couldn't let these princes, his brothers, see even the smallest pressure point in her.
They sat for the remainder of the journey in silence, and she was determined to enjoy the quiet while it lasted, taking in the sights. Soon enough, they were near the city limits, but the carriages didn't pause as they neared the gates, since the guardsmen had been notified well in advance of Queen Elsa's arrival and were already raising them.
As the carriages proceeded onto the main, bumpier street of the capitol, Elsa found it more difficult to maintain a pleasant look; the cheering, long lines of people lining the road, however, made it impossible for her not to at least try.
"They knew we would be arriving today, even with the delay?" Leif asked curiously, smiling on-and-off at the crowds.
"Prince Kristian made a correct estimate of your arrival date based on his observations out at sea a few days ago," Ivar answered disinterestedly. "Their Majesties thus timed the welcoming festivities according to his prediction."
Leif looked mildly impressed by this. "He is the one in the Navy, yes?"
"Correct," Ivar said dryly, looking out impassively onto the throngs of people.
The prince's tone, if nothing else, ended the conversation at that point.
Elsa had been too busy trying to absorb the look of the city to pay much attention to the exchange, her eyes distracted by all the colourful shop stalls and welcome banners they hung in her honour, and her nose by the multitude of (mostly) good smells which emanated from them. The capitol seemed so different from Arendelle's, and yet not all at once: the style of dress was lighter and looser with brighter colours on account of the hotter weather, but the people looked fundamentally similar. The architecture of the buildings was likewise not so different from home, though everything seemed far more cramped and pushed together than in the spacious, quaint villages she was accustomed to seeing in her own kingdom.
I'm sure it only makes it hotter than it already is, she thought, noting how drenched most of the people looked, even in their thin clothes.
The princes in their carriages, too—indomitable to the heat as they had made themselves appear, at first—were all beginning to look extremely uncomfortable with the higher temperature inside the city walls, though all refused to be the first to take out their fans.
She cooled her skin just enough not to raise suspicion from the other passengers, affixing a diplomatic smile in place just in time to greet the last of the crowds en route to the palace.
Her eyes widened as she set her eyes on it from afar, unable to help but admire the structure.
It was nestled atop a verdant hill overlooking the city below, a smooth, paved path leading to its gates, and its exterior was constructed of an equally smooth, beautiful white stone, the colour nearly blinding her under the clear, cloudless sky above.
It's so . . . clean compared to the town.
She supposed that shouldn't have surprised her, knowing what little she did about the Isles and their history. From the books she had read and from her own experience with certain residents, it seemed appropriate that those polished, brazenly bright walls could—and probably did—hide dark secrets within them.
They say that she—that she killed someone close to her: a brother, sister . . . even her mother or father.
She clenched her jaw to keep from shuddering as they passed through the gates, and as they reached the shadow of the castle, her heart thumped with dread.
"Your Majesty," Ivar interrupted her anxious thoughts, holding out his hand, "we've arrived."
She blinked at him before realising that the carriage had stopped.
When did that happen?
She looked up to take in the sight of the impossibly high ceiling above the main entrance, and found herself wondering how men could have gotten up there and built the structure (not to mention how they had managed to attach the fabulously sparkling, ornate glass chandelier which hung from it); and as her eyes travelled the length of the room, she marvelled at its wide expanse, and speculated, distractedly, on just how far down the hallways on either side of her extended.
Nonetheless, Elsa soon returned to form and took the prince's gloved hand without another second's hesitation, stepping down as gracefully as was expected of her. From there, he allowed Leif to take over, and she gratefully glanced at her adviser, who nodded tiredly in return, too worn out from the heat to say anything.
I guess this power does come in handy from time to time, she thought as she chilled herself again, tucking her arm gently in his.
She glanced to the side to see, with relief, that the others had made it to the castle safely as well, and she noted—with faint amusement—that the three brothers travelling in the other carriage all looked close to collapsing as a result of their stubbornness.
Serves them right.
By comparison, Gerda and her other ladies-in-waiting seemed to be coping as best as they could, though thankfully, Elsa's guardsmen had shooed them away from the incoming luggage, insisting that the women take a breather. And although Gerda had protested this at first, she was soon too preoccupied with gawking at the palace—along with the other girls—to put up much of a fight.
Elsa only allowed herself the briefest glimpses of her surroundings as her back straightened, determined to appear as regal and poised as possible before she met the rest of the ruling family. She similarly set her expression into a stoic façade as she and Leif proceeded to meet Anders in the centre of the hall, ignoring the hustle and bustle about them.
"Your Majesty—if you'll follow me," he said politely, and gestured ahead, "I will show you to the King and Queen."
She just barely suppressed a grin as she nodded in courteous understanding.
So one of the twins gets to meet me at the ship, and the other gets to introduce me to the King and Queen? She glanced at Anders at her right side, but made sure not to look too long. Perhaps he didn't draw the short straw after all.
It wasn't a long walk before they reached the grand, oaken doors to the throne room, and in fact, Elsa found herself biting back a frown, since she'd hardly had the time she'd been hoping for to prepare herself for that moment.
I thought it would take at least five minutes.
She looked down briefly in surprise when she felt a soft squeeze on her arm from Leif—and she realized, with some dismay, that her hands were ice cold within the gloves.
He sent her a reassuring look, but it was a hard one, and suddenly Elsa was glad that she had chosen him, of all her advisers, to accompany her exclusively on this trip. He wasn't the easiest man to get along with—nor the most compromising, when he really believed in doing things a certain way—but he had a conviction about his every action and gesture which she strove to imitate under such trying circumstances.
And in that moment, as the guards opened the doors and revealed the entire court of the Southern Isles filling the sides of the room—and King Oskar, Queen Therese, and the rest of the princes at the head—she was more thankful than ever for Leif's heavy arm secured around hers.
Lend me your strength.
"Your Royal Majesties," Prince Anders declared in a booming tone, "it is my honour to present to you: Queen Elsa of Arendelle!"
A chorus of cheers and claps from the surrounding courtiers accompanied this announcement, and Elsa gently withdrew her arm from her councillor's, taking a few paces forward to stand alone, silent and proud, in the middle of the long, dark blue carpet leading to the King and Queen, now standing from their thrones to greet her.
Her ice-blue eyes set in a steely fashion on the front of the room, and she wore a cool, tactful smile.
Conceal, don't feel.
In spite of its ignominious origins, it seemed that that particular mantra did have the unique effect of calming her down; and as she automatically slid her hand primly into Anders's, it repeated itself over and over again in her head until she felt the corners of her lips begin to stiffen.
Conceal, don't feel.
Conceal, don't feel.
Conceal, don't fee—
She locked stares with the Queen—and the Queen's eyes, they were . . .
She held back a shudder.
His emerald eyes.
She wore a long, ceremonial white gown with natural motifs of flowers and leaves embroidered throughout with a pale green thread, and the light colours were a stark contrast to her burnished, almost glittering auburn hair. It was collected neatly behind her head in a large, complex, braided bun, but Elsa supposed, when unbound, that it could swallow the world whole.
The woman and her husband curtsied and bowed deeply, and at length—deeper and longer, she guessed, than they would have done for any other visiting monarch—and Elsa repaid the gesture, though for a far shorter time . . . and in a far shallower manner.
"Your Majesties," she returned, looking between the two, "thank you for receiving me."
The King bowed again, and the Queen nodded. "It is our honour to receive you, Your Majesty," he said in a gravelly voice, "and we are so very grateful for your visit."
The King was dressed in much the same outfit as his sons, though with a few more flourishes—some military ribbons and medallions pinned to his chest here, a gold watch and crown there—but he did not cut anywhere near as striking a figure as his much younger wife, his advanced age clearly showing in his wrinkled, tired, and sallow features.
Nevertheless, there was a genuineness to his gratitude that she had not detected in some of the other members of the royal family with whom she'd had the pleasure of meeting so far (the Princes Ivar and Tor came to mind), and Elsa couldn't help but appreciate it.
She nodded to the King, her lips relaxing. "I apologise for my delay in arriving."
The Queen answered this time, and her voice was smooth—dulcet, even—in comparison to her husband's.
"We feared you might be late in coming after our son, Prince Kristian, returned with the report on the turbulent sea," she said sympathetically, nodding in Kristian's direction, "so it is we who should apologise for the delay, Your Majesty—not you."
Elsa smiled a little at this remark—whether because she had to for propriety's sake, or because she was entertained by the farcicalness of the entire exchange, she wasn't sure—and her eyes betrayed a hint of mirth.
"Neither of us can control the weather, Your Majesty," she quipped lightly. "We can only be thankful when it does not prevent us from reaching our destinations."
The Queen's eyes gleamed with unbidden interest, and Elsa's hands tensed.
Those eyes. His eyes.
"You're quite right, Your Majesty," she said, "and so I am thankful that through storm, wind, and rain, you have arrived safely at our door." She glanced briefly behind Elsa. "And who, may I ask, is this fine gentleman accompanying you?"
Elsa gestured for Leif to draw closer. "This is Sir Leif of Arendelle," she introduced civilly. "He is here to advise me on all official matters which we may discuss during this visit."
Leif bowed, and he seemed genuinely taken in by the beauty of the Queen.
"Your Majesties," he said, and his voice rumbled in his chest.
The King and Queen nodded in a friendly manner. "Sir Leif," she acknowledged with a small smile, though her look suddenly grew serious, and—upon seeing the change in mood—the King likewise shifted entirely in countenance, and bowed his head gravely.
"Before we can proceed any further, Your Majesty, I'm afraid there is something we must address."
Elsa's heart clenched.
Him. They have to address him, don't they?
"It is, of course, the matter of our son—the traitor Hans, formerly a Prince of these Southern Isles—and the grievous wrongs which he committed against you, your family, and your great country of Arendelle," the Queen recited, the speech practiced but oddly heartfelt. She paused for effect before continuing, and finally met Elsa's detached gaze. "As you know, Your Majesty," she spoke slowly, giving each word due weight, "the traitor's crimes were such that, under our laws, the punishment would have been a lifetime of imprisonment in the palace dungeons.
However," she continued—and Elsa noticed, interestedly, that there was the smallest hint of . . . respect? in the Queen's eyes, "we received a request from Her Majesty, Queen Elsa of Arendelle, to alter the sentence to exile and hard labour, and so the traitor was sent to Vollan Island, our kingdom's harshest penal camp, to live out the rest of his days in respect of the Queen's wishes."
Elsa remained rigid and watchful as the King picked up where his wife left off—did they practice this? They must have, she guessed—though he did not raise his eyes to hers as the Queen had.
"And as we have communicated in our correspondence with you, Your Majesty," he said austerely, "the traitor remains on that island at present, with no opportunity for escape or vengeance. Therefore," he concluded with a heavy voice, "while we cannot ever hope to make up for his crimes against you and your people, we hope that you may at least rest assured that he does not pose any threat to you during your stay here—and that, unlike the traitor, we harbour no ill intentions towards you, nor would we dare to disrespect or cause you discomfort in any way."
She bowed her head lightly at this reassurance. "I thank you for that, Your Majesties," she acknowledged, "and I hope that, during my visit, we may be able to move past this and build a better future together."
The reply brought with it rousing applause from the surrounding crowds, and the Queen looked suitably impressed as well, curtsying in thanks.
Not that I care what she thinks, Elsa thought stubbornly, plastering on a polite smile.
She's just his mother, after all.
"And so we shall strive to make this visit as productive and enjoyable for you as we can, Your Majesty," she returned with her own smile—a charming one, albeit with shades of grey. "I hope you'll find that we've provided you with a full schedule whilst you are here, with no time left to linger on the past."
Elsa only managed a nod at this, for although the remark was meant to be good-spirited—and, indeed, the Queen's tone had been unusually inspired in delivering it—there was something about it that made Elsa's stomach turn.
. . . with no time left to linger on the past.
It sounded so foreboding, when she it replayed in her mind—almost like a warning.
Don't mention it, Your Majesty—don't even think about it.
Her lips pursed in unease.
The past is in the past.
"Please, let me formally introduce our sons to you, Your Majesty," the King cut through her thoughts, guiding her to the line of men standing by the Queen. "First is our oldest, Prince Magnus, General of the Royal Army of the Southern Isles and a member of my Council."
Magnus bowed stiffly.
"Your Majesty," he said quietly.
Light brown hair. Blue eyes. Bearded. Tall. Serious-looking.
We shouldn't linger, Elsa.
"Next is our second-oldest, Prince Fredrik, Captain of the Royal Guard."
Fredrik bowed, and his eyes looked sharply down on her.
Dark blonde hair. Blue-green eyes. Taller than Magnus. Clean, but arrogant-looking. Possibly . . . illegitimate.
You may rest assured, Your Majesty, that he does not pose any threat to you during your stay here.
"Third and fourth here are Princes Ivar and Anders, our kingdom's two best diplomats and also two of my brightest councillors—you've been acquainted with them already, I believe?"
"Yes," she replied, and she wondered if she was smiling like she was supposed to be as the Princes bowed in unison.
He can't hurt you; don't be troubled.
"Fifth is Prince Mathias, a captain in the Royal Army where he serves alongside his brother, Magnus."
Mathias bowed, and his brow was dark.
Black hair. Brown eyes. Lightly bearded. Doesn't want to be here. Most certainly illegitimate.
We harbour no ill intentions towards you—we wouldn't dare to cause you discomfort.
"Our sixth is Prince Harald, who left us to live on Flakstad Island with his Annette," the King noted with some faux disappointment, a note of fondness in his voice.
"I didn't leave you, Father," Harald corrected him lightly, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips. He turned to Elsa with a bow. "Annette is my wife, Your Majesty. You will meet her later this evening, I'm sure."
Brown hair. Hazel eyes. Shorter than the others; rounder, too. But also pleasanter.
She nodded, and was confident that she looked agreeable this time.
"I'd be happy to meet her."
Why do they think I'm still so afraid?
The King smiled at the exchange before moving on. "And again, you've met the seventh, Prince Kristian," he said, and patted his son's shoulder gently. "A very capable shipbuilder, though he's trained as a naval engineer."
Kristian reddened at the compliment, looking bashful. "Father, you'll make the others look bad if you tell the Queen that they only know one trade," he remarked, and glanced at Elsa with a grin, bowing. "Your Majesty."
Elsa observed the barely-held back (or, in some cases, fully on display) scowls of the other princes, though she hardly cared for their rivalries then.
Do they think I'm weak?
"My eighth and ninth are also twins—Princes Emil and Henrik," the King continued, and to these two he seemed the most partial thus far. "They're serving as the Royal Chaplains."
The two, like Ivar and Anders before them, bowed simultaneously.
"Your Majesty," they said at the same time, earning some sniggers from up and down the line.
Dark brown hair. Blue eyes. Tall, pretty. Clean-cut. Their father's spitting image(s). Likely popular with girls at court.
She nodded to both in turn.
Leave it behind, Elsa. Don't try and stir up bad memories.
The King sounded tired by this point, and after nine sons, Elsa couldn't blame him.
"You've met our tenth," he said, "Prince Adrian, in the Royal Guard alongside Fredrik."
Adrian bowed deeply—again, the deepest of any of his brothers—and his eyes were just as arresting as before.
"Your Majesty," he said, and looked as if he were fighting the urge to take her hand and kiss it (as she was sure he was wont to do).
Again, definitely illegitimate.
This time, there was no hint of a blush in her cheeks.
"Sir," she replied, though her mind was elsewhere.
There's no need to worry yourself over it.
"And, finally," the King concluded, "Princes Tor and Johannes, Army private and Naval officer, respectively."
Johannes looked offended at the King's sudden foregoing of individual introductions—or perhaps he was more upset at being lumped in with Tor, whose listless expression showed no sign of caring one way or the other about how he was being introduced nor who was doing the introducing—but he bowed nonetheless.
"Your Majesty," he ground out, annoyance lacing his tone, and he elbowed Tor, who bowed and mumbled something—probably "Your Majesty," too, but she couldn't be sure—under his breath.
The self-centred one with blonde hair and brown eyes . . . probably illegitimate, too.
She nodded again to both, but said nothing.
What's done is done, Your Majesty.
Her jaw locked.
Then why doesn't it feel that way?
"Well, now that's settled," the Queen suddenly cut in, directing Elsa's attention away from the end of the line with a thinly-concealed glare at her youngest sons, "how about we continue with a tour of the palace? That will give the servants plenty of time to set up your accommodations in the meantime. Ivar, Anders, if you would," she gestured for the twins to come over, "join us at the lead. Fredrik, Adrian, direct the Royal Guard accordingly. And as for the rest of you," she said, a slight edge to her tone, "please, follow us through to the—"
Why are you always so afraid?
The Queen and King and all their sons stared; the courtiers stared; everyone stared.
What are you afraid of?
"I—Your Majesties," she began, though her throat felt as if it were closing, "I have a . . . request to make, if you would allow it."
What are you doing, Your Majesty?
The Queen raised a curious, auburn eyebrow, and the King his grey one.
"Anything, Your Majesty," he said after a moment, and she swallowed.
Don't you understand, Elsa? What's done is done.
What are you thinking?
"I . . . I would like to—"
What are you saying?
Stop this, Elsa. Stop this now.
"—that the traitor, formerly Prince Hans—"
The bad memories, Elsa, don't you remember how bad they were—
"—be permitted to return to Strande Island—"
The sword, the swing, the blizzard, his grin—
"—for the duration of my visit to the Southern Isles."
A flurry of gasps, and then silence.
Deep, heavy, silence.
If only there was someone out there who loved you, Elsa.
The King was the first to speak, and even then, his voice was hushed in shock.
"But—but—Your Majesty, I don't understand . . ."
Elsa stood straight as an arrow, her hairs on end.
"If he remains in exile during my visit," she said coolly, hardly aware that her hands had gone numb, "then I believe it will have been a missed opportunity to fully come to terms with the past."
Never give in, Elsa.
Her lip trembled, but only for a second. "I believe it is imperative that he return—not only so that I may see that he has understood his misdeeds and is contrite for them, but also—" she paused, and looked straight at the Queen, "but also so that I may personally be able to put his actions behind me, and move forward with confidence."
I'm not afraid.
She was conscious enough to pause the trails of ice that travelled up the lengths of her arms beneath the dress, and to hold the Queen's stare all the while in the choking silence.
"I understand your wishes, Your Majesty, truly I do," the King broke in finally, his expression distraught, "but I really must dissuade you from this idea. It may prove unwise . . ."
The flame-haired woman softly glided over until she was by her old husband's side again; once there, she pressed his decrepit hand expertly in hers, and he gazed at her as if for guidance, trailing off mid-sentence. She sent him a reassuring smile back, and her thumb traced a slow circle over his gloved hand.
And it was there, in that tiny circle, that Elsa saw her influence for the first time—her real, palpable power—and it made her shudder.
"Forgive us, Your Majesty," she said in her most humble of tones, "for we do not mean to question your motives, nor to deny any request that you should make at court."
Her gaze tightened in concern, but Elsa detected something else behind it—a hidden nod of acknowledgment, perhaps, that she wished for Elsa to dissuade them from dissuading her.
"But my husband, the King, expresses, I think, the concerns of all of us here today that this particular request may cause you undue distress."
Let sleeping dogs lie, Your Majesty.
Elsa's eyes never dropped from hers. "And I respect those concerns wholeheartedly," she said, though she doubted her own sincerity. "But I must make this unreasonable request of you all nonetheless, to put my own mind at ease."
I won't live in fear of him.
Thick, impenetrable, silence.
"We understand," the King said after a time, but his disappointment was profound. "And we will comply with your wishes, to the best of our abilities."
Elsa's smile was thin.
"Thank you, Your Majesties," she said, "and I trust that, when the traitor is returned to the main island," she added, "he will be kept under constant supervision—not only in my presence, but at all other times as well."
The Queen's look was sobering. "We would not dream of allowing him to set foot in the palace under any other circumstances."
Elsa nodded, and this time, her curtsy was deep—and long.
"Thank you," she replied, and her blue eyes finally closed.
I'm not afraid of you, Hans.