Author's Note: Based on an anon prompt for a betrothed Helsa piece and written for Day 4 of Helsa Week on Tumblr: "It's complicated."
Special, special thanks to yumi-michiyo for suffering through the torturous process of writing and re-writing this piece over the course of two days. I think it turned out well, and all because of her patience and excellent concrit.
"I don't want her."
"Nor does anyone else," his brother, the king, replies. "But repeating yourself isn't going to change anything, Hans."
"She's a monster," the prince snaps, scowling. "A freak of nature."
The king sighs. "A freak of nature with a sizeable dowry," he reminds him, frowning. "One that could get us out of the many debts our dearest father left the kingdom in."
"It's—" he pauses, grinding his teeth, "it's not fair."
His brother's brow rises. "Fair?" He laughs, short and harsh. "You're a prince, Hans, and you have certain duties that you must fulfil—this has nothing to do with being 'fair.'"
"I'll be laughed at," he returns more quietly, "I'll be mocked."
The king sighs again and pats his youngest brother's shoulder, though there's no affection in the gesture.
"You're already laughed at," he says dryly, "and you're already mocked."
The king waves him away after that, as if he's little more than a servant—and he might as well be, as the thirteenth in line to a throne he'll never have—and the prince bows perfunctorily, keeping his head ducked as he walks out.
He knows by now when he's not wanted.
"Your Highness," the steward, a portly man, bows to him in greeting. "Welcome to Arendelle."
He nods back politely, though he doesn't want to; the voyage across the choppy North Sea wasn't a pleasant one, and he'd rather just be shown to his rooms and not see anyone else for the rest of the day.
(Or, better yet, he'd rather go back on the ship, and set sail for somewhere far from that place—and far from home.)
"I'll give you a short tour of the castle, and then show you to your rooms," the man continues, and he follows him through the gates, creaking and heaving as if they haven't been opened in years. "I'll have your luggage unloaded in the meantime."
The steward's courtesy is refreshing after suffering through the rumours and gossip that have followed him here. He can't decide, looking back on them, which were worse: the ones pitying him for his tragic fortune, or those jeering at the betrothal of the unlucky thirteenth and the ill-fated firstborn.
He holds in a frown, determining that they're equally irritating.
On the first step to the main doors, tall and imposing and dark, he pauses, finding his voice.
"And when am I to meet the Princess, sir?"
The man freezes, almost as if a cold wind has passed by him, but it's a warm, bright summer's day.
"After dinner, Your Highness," he replies finally, plastering on a smile, and quickly changes topics to the history of Arendelle and its ice trade.
The prince isn't listening.
"So, you're … from the Southern Isles? What's it like, there?"
He's having dinner with the younger princess—Anna, the normal one (or at least as normal as someone can be after being shut away from the world behind those thick, heavy gates)—and up until then, they'd been sitting in awkward silence, he cutting through his food as properly as he could, she picking at hers and anxiously glancing at him between small bites.
"It's …" he stops, and for a second, he can feel the shadow of his brother, the king, hovering over his shoulder.
He forces himself to breathe, and then to speak. "It's warm," he says at last; seeing the slight look of disappointment she wears, he attempts a smile. "Warmer than here."
"Anywhere's warmer than here," she mumbles bitterly, and her gaze returns to her plate as she suddenly shudders, a chill seeming to wash over her.
This time, he feels it too.
As promised, he's led to her quarters—or perhaps it's her prison—after dinner ends.
Had that not been the destination, he supposes he might've been relieved to go, if only to escape the suffocating conversation he'd been forced to have with the other princess.
Things being as they are, however, he follows the head housekeeper as she guides him to that room on the second floor of the castle, her hand unsteady as it grips the lantern, and he wonders at how horrible this creature he's been betrothed to must be to instil so much terror in the hearts of her own servants.
(And in the hearts of her own parents who'd kept her locked away all these years, he remembers, before their tragic passing at sea.)
They reach the doors, tall and white with floral patterns, though the paint on them is chipping.
"Your Highness," the housekeeper calls with a shaking voice as she knocks on the doors, "Prince Hans is here to see you."
The princess doesn't reply.
"He's come all the way from the Southern Isles, Your Highness," the housekeeper reminds her, though her hands are visibly trembling, now. "He's come just to see you."
There's no answer to that, either, and he expected as much, sighing.
"It's all right," he says tiredly, "I can come back another day—"
There's a croak of a whisper from beyond the door—let him in—and for a moment he thinks he's imagining it until the older woman turns to him and nods, cautiously opening the doors, and allows him inside.
He almost doesn't go in, intimidated by the surprisingly wide expanse of the room, but he's over the threshold before he knows it, and the doors are closed behind him.
He doesn't find her straightaway, because he's taken aback—taken aback at how well-lit the place is, not at all dark and dank and putrid like he thought it would be, after all the stories he's heard and been told—and there's the distinct smell of fresh lilacs filling his senses, rendering him speechless.
"You're … Prince Hans?"
The small voice finally brings his attention to her—Her Royal Highness, Elsa of Arendelle, the Snow Princess—and he's once again stunned as he regards the young woman by the window with white-blonde hair, blue eyes, and skin kissed by moonlight.
The young woman, he thinks, who resembles Winter itself.
The young woman who doesn't look like a monster at all.
"Yes," he manages, and bows stiffly, "Your Highness. Of the Southern Isles."
She nods back imperceptibly, saying nothing, and seems to shrink into the background.
"We're to be married in a fortnight," he states dumbly, not knowing what else to say.
"Yes," she says, "so I've been informed."
There's silence again but for the sound of their breathing, and she stares at him in a way that's slightly unsettling. "You're the youngest of thirteen princes, they say."
His lip curls. "And you're—" cursed, he almost sneers, but corrects himself, "—to become queen, they say."
She's obviously uncomfortable at the reminder, because the temperature in the room drops; if something as small as this can set her on edge, he muses, it's no wonder that her servants are terrified.
"So they say," she echoes him after a while, though it's still cold, and he can't help but shiver. She retreats further against the wall by the window, her figure half-cloaked by shadow, and she isn't looking at him anymore. "And you're to be my king."
That title—my king—should please him more than it does, should make him feel like more than just the unlucky thirteenth, should make him smile at the thought of proving his brothers wrong, of proving everyone wrong.
The hollow expression on her face, however, quickly sucks dry whatever triumphs or ambitions he might've had; and when she turns her head just enough for the night sky to illuminate the dull glow of her eyes—
His resolve withers, too.
There are other visits in the days that follow, and always in the evening, after dinner—after he's attempted to be civil with the younger princess (Anna, he remembers) and with the staff, learning their names, thinking how they'll be his staff soon, too—but it never gets any easier.
There's always something stilted about their conversations, the phrases coming out half-formed, the sentences never reaching their natural conclusions. As a man who's used to knowing the right words and when and how to say them, it's endlessly frustrating to be in her company.
It doesn't help that time is never of the essence when he's with her, in that room, minutes turning into hours into days; that doesn't stop it, though, from marching on, slowly, like one of the vines creeping up the castle's walls, until finally it's the night before they're to be wed, and he still doesn't really know, nor understand, the strange creature with whom he is meant to share a bed for the rest of his days after that.
He has some insights into her character, of course: she's more perceptive than she lets on, and blunter with her opinions than a princess—no, a future queen, he amends—ought to be.
Somehow, he prefers it that way.
"You don't want me."
She says it with such a dull inflection that he thinks he might've misheard her, at first.
"I—what? Your Highness, I—"
He pauses, looking at her, and he knows there's no point in lying. "No. I don't," he admits; eyeing her curiously, he adds: "Do you? Want me, that is."
"It's not about what I 'want'—what either of us 'want.'" She stares at him pointedly. "Isn't that what they told you, too?"
He swallows. "Yes. It is."
She looks away. "And so they sent you away," she says knowingly. "Sent you here, because you're the only one who'd have me."
I wouldn't, he almost says, but he knows he doesn't need to. She can already see the words forming in his throat, in the way his Adam's apple bobs uncomfortably at her look.
She seems to hold back a sigh.
"I'm sorry for you," she says.
He doesn't reply, but as he gazes upon her, reclined in her window seat, tracing patterns of frost on the glass separating her from the outside, he allows himself to exhale.
He's sorry for both of them.
The wedding is a sombre occasion, which is fitting enough, given the circumstances.
Only the princess's closest relations are in attendance—namely, her sister, who's wearing an expression so plaintive it's better-suited to a funeral—as well as the Council members and the higher-ranking domestic staff.
On his side, there's a lone envoy from the Southern Isles—a tall, thin man with a thick beard and a perpetually bored look—and it doesn't surprise him that his brother sent someone he'd never even met before that day.
Towards the back, there is the public—seated on the outskirts or waiting with bated breath outside of the chapel, curious to finally see the Hidden Princess of Arendelle, the Bane of Winter—and he's suddenly discomfited by their gestures and whispers and looks as they gawk at him, the foreign prince to whom their future queen has been promised. It's more attention than he's ever been paid before, and he's unused to that sea of eyes.
Unused to anyone looking at him with anything but bitter disappointment or derisive dismissiveness.
(He wonders, absently, if she's felt like this, too.)
"Her Royal Highness, Princess Elsa of Arendelle!"
There are no cheers or cries of good fortune accompanying the arrival of the princess, dressed in white, her pale face draped with a long veil, as would have been the custom elsewhere.
Instead, it's only the whispers following her down the aisle—the aisle that she's walking down alone, her gloved hands shaking even though they hold no flowers.
He supposes he'd find her beautiful, if he could see her without the trappings of that setting, and that audience. But he's too distracted by the way she keeps her head bowed as she ascends the stairs to the altar, stands opposite him, and fixes her eyes to the floor.
She's so different, now, from the quiet but assertive young woman he's become acquainted with on long nights spent in shared silence, and even more different still from the monster who once only instilled fear and revulsion in his heart from afar.
The latter of those has never seemed further away than it does as he regards her then, ignoring the droning of the chaplain, the rest of the world fading away into nothing.
In the stillness, she finally raises her gaze to his, and he freezes.
"You don't want me," she says so only he can hear, and he can see her lips trembling through the veil that covers them. "No one does."
She looks down again, and he breathes—but it's a shuddering breath, a cold breath, because now he understands, and he sees.
He sees, in her, the same fear that once pulsed through him in his childhood; the same hesitation that once plagued his every step; the same self-loathing that he still possesses, and that's still crushing him under its weight.
She's a mirror, he realises, tasting nothing but the stale air of the chapel as he swallows, but not the sort of mirror he's accustomed to—the sort that reflects his image in plain, certain terms.
Instead, he looks distorted—rotten—and all that's reflected is his own emptiness.
He's even uglier than he imagined.