Chapter 14: The Apology
Anna's cheek rolled slightly against her palm, her lips parted in repose.
She mumbled something unintelligible under her breath, her eyes fluttering open and shut.
They opened again, though they remained half-lidded; she was only awake enough to wipe the small trail of drool from her mouth. "Did we receive any letters from Elsa this morning?" she asked sleepily, trying—and failing—to cover her yawn.
Kai pinked in embarrassment. "It's only been four days, Your Highness," he reminded her. "Too soon for letters, I'm afraid."
Anna's nose twitched at the information, processing it slowly. "Don't they have carrier pigeons, or something? Mm . . . maybe they don't have pigeons, 'cause they're an island . . ." she trailed off, massaging her face with her hand as she drifted in and out of drowsiness. "Or, maybe . . . carrier whales? But those would take a while . . ."
Somewhere, in the midst of her mutterings, her gaze finally focused again, taking in her surroundings; when she realised where she was, her eyes grew as large as saucers.
"Oh, um—hi," she greeted the mixture of curious and disapproving looks shot at her by the Council members, and she tried not to swallow too audibly as she dabbed away any remaining traces of drool from her lips. "So, uh . . . where were we?"
Kai sent her a gently chiding look. "The state of our ice exports to Madris."
She nodded, attempting a serious expression. "Ice exports. Madris. Right."
The older man seemed to hold back a sigh as he continued the conversation from whence it had left off, and as the eyes of the Council turned away from her again, she slumped lightly in her chair at the head of the table, casting a longing glance towards the sun outside of the tall windows.
It's only been four days, Kai had said, as if that were supposed to be a comforting thing—but four days had already been too many for the Princess Regent, now unused to the absence of her sister for longer than a few hours. They'd spent too many years apart and too little together to make up for the current separation, brief as it may have seemed to everyone else.
It didn't help that she'd been kept busy, way too busy, Anna thought, with Elsa gone only four days so far. Now she was the one seeing petitioners, reading minor trade agreements (nothing too serious compared to what Elsa had to read, she supposed, but still far too dense for her tastes), and attending Council meetings.
Needless to say, the tedium of the routine was getting to her.
Taking on those responsibilities, she marvelled all the more at her sister's graces and patience . . . and was, perhaps, slightly envious that she hadn't inherited any of them.
She was thankful, at least, that Kai had given her some free time away from it all (more than he'd allowed her in the weeks leading up to Elsa's departure, anyway). Given the opportunity, she'd immediately run to Kristoff when he returned from the mountains, tackling him and complaining to him about the sundry tasks of court life while he reminded her of how she was a princess, after all. When he wasn't there, she'd taken to poking fun at the various Councillors with Olaf, who had grown quite good at impersonating some of them.
It all felt strange, though, without Elsa there, and stranger still not to at least see her familiar, icy seal pressed against paper with her beautiful handwriting scrawled inside of it.
But it really only had been four days, just as Kai had said, so she resigned herself to the knowledge that something would show up, eventually.
And soon after that, Elsa would be home.
"Is it . . . is it true that you constructed an entire palace made of ice, Your Majesty?" Emil asked timidly, looking down. "Forgive me for being so forward, I simply—"
"It's true," Elsa answered the prince at her side, smiling. She glanced up at the roof of the palace chapel above them, briefly; then, she frowned slightly. "Though I haven't been there, since . . ."
She trailed off as she thought of the structure, and the joy she felt in making it made the smile return to her face. "I wonder if it's still there."
The twin princes relaxed on either side of her simultaneously, observing that calmer expression, and Henrik gestured to the simple, stone altar at the front of the chapel. "I suppose you didn't build it for a . . . religious purpose, though?" he ventured, and she held back a grin, shaking her head.
"No, not really," she said, "and, if I'm being honest . . . it was more an exercise in self-indulgence than anything else." She reddened a little. "It was quite gaudy, compared to this."
"Even this chapel is a bit . . . ornate for our tastes," Emil remarked, sighing as he touched the intricate woodwork and leaf patterns carved into the end of one of the pews. "But it's been around for hundreds of years, so it would be impossible to request any kind of modifications."
"Mothe—The Queen would never allow for that," Henrik added, correcting himself with a cough. "She's quite insistent on preserving it for its . . . historic value."
Outside of this room, there is no place in this palace that escapes the eyes and ears of the Queen.
She didn't know why she was remembering that then, when she was actually enjoying herself, for once, on that private tour of the chapel. The memory of Hans's wary, knowing look, however, was enough to turn her stomach.
Elsa swallowed uncomfortably. "Well, it is very beautiful," she said finally.
The brothers continued on in their lecture about the history of the building, the religious wars that were once fought, long ago, between the Southern Isles and Odens, the hidden stories behind certain features unique to that chapel—but, as usual, her mind was already somewhere else.
You don't trust anyone here—and you shouldn't.
She'd hoped, despite another near-sleepless night, that the promise of a morning tour of the chapel with two of the seemingly "nicer" princes would distract her (or at least convince her otherwise about the mysterious, "bad" intentions of their family). After all, it had been King Oskar himself who had suggested the short trip to the chapel after noticing how she'd looked admiringly upon the marble work inside the palace; surely, she'd thought, that must have been evidence of the fact that not all of their underlying motivations came from some evil place.
In fact, she'd even enjoyed the lecture, much to her own surprise, until then. (And considering that the twins had been appallingly boring on the two other occasions during which she'd spoken with them, that had been a delight in and of itself.) Knowing she only had Council meetings and negotiations to look forward to for the rest of the afternoon, that early hour of ambling about the chapel was probably going to be the sole, bright spot of her day.
And he ruined this, too.
The silence he had initially offered her in response to her question—don't you regret it?—rang shrilly in her head as she nodded at whatever one of the twins (Henrik, she guessed, recognising the dusting of freckles across his cheeks where Emil had none) was saying, hoping that they wouldn't catch on to her sudden turn of mood.
And . . . how would I deliver such an apology to you, if not in public?
Her face heated, and she bit down on her cheek.
I shouldn't have given him that option.
She'd regretted saying it nearly as soon as the words had left her lips, though she supposed, in retrospect, that she'd said as much based on the same suspicions which he proceeded to confirm with that unnervingly warning tone.
I don't think you really understand the exact position you're in, do you, Queen Elsa?
She knew he was right, in that cynical, dismal part of her that she'd never been able to completely let go of in spite of all the hours spent under Anna's indomitable ray of sunshine. She'd heard enough rumours, and seen enough questionable behaviour, to understand, as it were, that she was being kept under close watch.
What she didn't understand, then, was how her room—well, his room—was any different, nor how the Queen, in her "infinite" knowledge, had not yet found out the passage by which her disgraced son had been skulking about the palace unseen.
Do what you will with the information, but . . . it would really be such a shame, I think, to close off the passageway.
He's probably lying, she mused with a frown, just so he can get into the room.
If that were the case, however . . . why did he insist on returning there in the first place?
She didn't want to consider the idea that he had been telling the truth about the room, and the Queen's ignorance, if only because it was so out of step with everything else he had told her (and everything else she had seen for herself).
And so, with that option removed, only one remained.
He's trying to intimidate me.
It seemed logical enough, she thought. He only had two weeks there, and with no chance of redemption—nor for forgiveness, if she was just going by his behaviour towards her thus far—Hans had probably figured that he might as well make the "best" of his time back in court by being as irritating as humanly possible.
(That much had been apparent when she found her books on her shelves rearranged in a strange order that morning; looking inside, she silently fumed at the sight of his scribbles correcting her notes on the coronation of King Tomas VI.)
Well, Hans, if that's your aim, then I'll make sure you don't succeed.
It was resolved, then: she would simply inform the Queen that there was a loose floorboard in the room, have it mended, and never have to see his face in there again.
Once the Queen has you in her grasp—
Her fingers curled together tightly as his words ran unbidden across her thoughts, and she might've cursed aloud had the current setting not restrained her tongue. There was no one to trust except herself and her own instincts in this matter; however, considering how poorly the latter had served her in recent days, she felt wretched at her lack of options.
And none of them are simple.
"Queen Elsa," a voice interrupted her thoughts from behind her, and she turned to greet Fredrik's stern face at the door to the chapel, "the King and Queen are requesting your presence in the Council room."
She sucked in a breath. "Ah, of course," she answered politely, and nodded to the twins in farewell.
"We'll see you at dinner, Your Majesty," Henrik said as he rose from his bow.
Emil smiled. "It was truly a pleasure to have you with us this morning," he added.
They were different enough from their younger brother to allow her to appreciate how kind and handsome they looked then, regarding her warmly. Nonetheless, as soon as she turned back to Fredrik—his brow furrowed, his lips set in a straight, no-nonsense line—she had to hold back a sigh.
"Until then," she said quietly, joining the Captain of the Guard. Unsurprisingly, when she glanced a little beyond him, his younger, more charismatic brother was there as well, eyeing her interestedly.
He moved to stand by her as they proceeded to the Council room. "I hope the twins weren't too dull, Your Grace?" he inquired with a little, knowing grin—one that reminded her far too much of another that she would've liked to forget.
Her hands tightened.
This is going to be a long walk.
She was trained for this.
A whole life of wise lessons behind closed doors given by her father, frequent but more casual advice offered by Leif and Gerda, the patient counsel of her mother, when Elsa had allowed it—and yet, it never seemed to get any easier.
She thought it might have, after all she had been through over the past year: compensating visiting dignitaries and their home countries for losses incurred during the Great Freeze (ships, various equipment, trade goods, and weapons); hosting said dignitaries, their accompanying family members, and their attendants while their ships were mended and/or others arrived to collect them from Arendelle; explaining her and Anna's long isolation inside the castle to the Council and to her people; trying to keep her powers in check while learning how to be a queen in practice, not just in theory; and, most aggravating of all, batting away the advances of several suitors, including the particularly persistent Prince Diego of Madris.
It had all been practically unmanageable at first, if only because everything came as a shock to her system. Even then, as she looked down at the reams of documents sitting on the Council table in front of her, it felt overwhelming.
At least Leif is here, she reassured herself a little, glancing at the man sitting by her side, his dark brow creasing and uncreasing as he listened intently to the proposals offered by Prince Ivar during his long speech. With him at her side, she thought they projected a bit more confident of an image than she would have by her lonesome.
We can't look vulnerable in front of them, she thought, her lips pursed as her eyes ran over the familiar faces seated around the table—Ivar and Anders, Magnus, King Oskar and Queen Therese—as well as the less familiar ones (though she recognised, absently, the same Sir Anton to whom she'd been so strangely introduced by Leif sitting by the Queen's side, actively scribbling down notes).
As much as she didn't like Therese's insistence on strength, it was fitting enough for the occasion.
"From what I understand," Leif began in his deep bass hardly a moment after Ivar had finished his speech, "the Southern Isles are in want of our ice, lumber, and fur?"
Elsa hid a smirk as Ivar's moustache twitched in irritation. Blunt as always, Leif.
"Yes, well," Anders cut in before his portlier twin could comment, "they've been in shorter supply since our ties to your kingdom were . . . unfortunately diminished by the incident involving the traitor."
She felt a slight sprig of worry grow when she saw the traces of a scowl cross Leif's features at the reminder of Hans's actions; luckily, the older man was quick to cover it with a neutral expression.
"I'm sure we could come to agreeable terms on those products," Elsa offered with a small smile.
Leif nodded after a moment, eyeing the documents. "Yes—in return for several of yours," he added, and his finger tapped against a line on the top page of his stack. "The lords and ladies in Arendelle are particularly fond of your . . . how do you call it? Akvita?"
Magnus bristled at the question from the head of the long table, seated at his father's right side. "That poison isn't fit to be consumed by anyone, Your Majesty—let alone a queen."
Elsa and Leif blinked in surprise at the sudden comment—the Crown Prince had been silent for most of the proceedings, until then—but the Queen was quick to wave it away, a slight edge of exasperation lacing her tone.
"Please excuse Prince Magnus, Queen Elsa," she said, ignoring the dark look her son shot her. "He abstains from drink, you see."
The eldest prince scowled. "If I had my way, that vile liquid would be banned entirely," he muttered bitterly.
Ivar snorted lightly after exchanging a knowing look with Anders. "If that were the case, then the prisoners on Vollan would have nothing to do, Your Highness."
The diplomat's comments drew some laughter from around the table, though, Elsa noted, none from Anders, nor the King. Her brows knitted as she wondered if she knew that name from somewhere—Vollan—as her fingers drummed against her knees beneath the table, and she—
Furthermore, as requested by Her Majesty Queen Elsa, the traitor remains in exile on Vollan Island far to the South, where he endures hard labour daily—
Her breath caught in her throat.
That's where Hans was sent.
As the laughter died down and she realised the connection, a strange thrumming of guilt pulsed through her at the idea of importing alcohol made by prisoners. It didn't matter, really, that Hans was one of them; rather, she thought of the stories she'd been told by Kai of the Queen's "enemies" at court, and how they sometimes "disappeared."
Who knows if the other men forced to make that drink are really guilty or not?
The recollection of his impertinence, however, and his unrepentance, enabled her to dismiss her misgivings. "We'd still very much like to include the akvita as one of the items under discussion," she said, and added more gently: "Even if I, myself, won't partake."
Magnus barely hid a look of contempt at the remark as Oskar clapped his hands together weakly, standing from his seat. "Very good, Your Majesty," he nodded at Elsa, "let's discuss the specifics at a later time, hmm? For now, I think it would be best to pause here for lunch."
"A splendid idea, dear," Therese praised, helping her husband to his feet. Her eyes set on Elsa not a moment later. "Would you join me for a tour of the gardens, Queen Elsa?"
Elsa, following their leads, rose from her seat as well. Against her inclination to retire to her room, she tiredly agreed. "That would be lovely, Your Majesty."
Therese smiled. "Excellent. I'll have tea and lunch brought out to us there."
"And would Sir Leif do me the honour of dining with me?" Sir Anton asked Elsa's adviser suddenly, and the older man nodded immediately.
"Of course—it would be my pleasure," he replied.
Oskar was gripping Therese's arm more tightly than Elsa realised as he spoke again. "Good. As for the rest of you, we'll continue in about two hours' time."
The remaining councillors—including the princes—thus rose and quickly dispersed from the room, leaving Elsa alone with the King, Queen, and their guardsmen.
"Elsa," Oskar said suddenly, and she nearly jolted in surprised, unused to hearing him address her so informally, "regarding tonight's dinner, would you allow the traitor to . . .?"
Her tongue was heavy in her mouth, and she struggled to wrap her mind around the question.
Dinner . . . tonight?
"No," she took herself aback, her expression crumpling with a frown. "Not tonight, I don't think."
Not after last night.
The King and Queen regarded her in slightly stunned silence; it was the first time, after all, that she'd refused his attendance.
Therese cleared her throat after a beat, plastering on a serious look. "You're right, Elsa," she said, nodding. "We've already been allowing the traitor far too many privileges already, and considering his poor comportment so far, well," she continued, her lip curling, "I doubt we'll miss him at dinner."
Elsa's nose wrinkled at the comment.
That felt forced, she thought, even for her.
She allowed the frown to melt away, standing straighter. "Therese, shall we . . . ?" she gestured to the doors, and the Southern Queen glanced in that direction, patting her husband's arm.
"Yes, of course," she said, guiding Oskar to Fredrik. Once the three were together, she murmured something to the king, and then to her second-oldest son; she exchanged a strange look with the latter afterwards, and watched as the Captain guided away the clearly-hobbling king, the elderly man's shoulders fairly shaking with a wheezing cough.
"Is he—is he all right?" Elsa asked, concerned.
Therese sighed as she led the young queen down a different hallway towards the gardens. "He'll be fine, once he takes some rest," she assured Elsa, though her words were hardly convincing. "These long Council meetings are just very draining on him, as you might imagine."
Elsa's hands knitted together in front of her, her tone genuinely sympathetic. "They would be on anyone."
"He's not the spry young king he once was," Therese said as they reached the doors to the gardens, pausing on the threshold with a weary smile. "Though he'll never admit it."
Elsa matched the smile with her own, more cautious one, though her question was teasing. "And are you just as . . . 'spry' now as you once were, Therese?"
The Queen's lips slipped into a set line. "Elsa, my dear—when you've given birth to as many sons as I have, seen as much as I have, lived as long as I have," she replied, "it's not about being 'spry.'"
She gestured for the guards to open the doors, and outside, Elsa's eyes trained on the wide expanse of beautifully-manicured hedges and bushes of rose and azalea—an entirely different view from the one she'd seen a few nights before, sauntering by the same Queen's side.
Therese regarded the landscape with a steely look. "It's about being shrewd."
Elsa drew her gaze away from the gardens, curious at the word choice. "Shrewd?"
"Yes," Therese murmured as they descended the short steps to the path through the gardens, her light green dress swaying around her legs. "By the time you reach my age, you'll understand it better, but . . . keeping your wits sharp is the most important thing you can do as a queen."
She paused by a bush of pink roses. "And as a woman."
Elsa stared at the flowers, feeling a touch of longing in her breast at the sight of them; for a moment, she let Therese's cold pragmatism slide from her mind.
Anna would love these.
The Queen glanced at her coyly. "But I don't need to tell you that, do I, Elsa?"
The younger woman blinked, tearing her eyes from the flowers. "What do you mean?"
Therese continued walking, gesturing for Elsa to follow. "I was referring to your earlier decision regarding the traitor," she explained. "A wise one, no doubt."
Elsa tried to look as unaffected by the reminder as possible. "I thought so," she said simply.
The Queen paused, her brow rising. "He didn't . . . offend you too terribly during the fete, I hope?" she inquired, side-stepping an overgrown branch of an apple tree. "I had the feeling he might've said something inappropriate, which is why I sent him back early."
Elsa swallowed, averting her gaze. "No, nothing like that," she lied, though there was a hitch in her voice as she spoke. "I simply . . . didn't think that his presence would be appropriate at dinner, I suppose."
Therese nodded as they came to a more open area—a circular space with a large alabaster fountain in the centre, dark green hedges and rose bushes surrounding them—and gestured for Elsa to sit on a bench nearby.
"I shouldn't have suggested it in the first place," she agreed succinctly as they sat together. "He doesn't deserve the honour of your company, after all."
The slight edge to that word did not go unnoticed by the Snow Queen, though she wasn't sure how to respond to it—nor how to interpret it, since it sounded neither overwhelmingly condescending nor flattering—but she chose to ignore it for the sake of politeness.
"It wasn't about that, really," Elsa replied, shifting uncomfortably. "It was more . . ." she paused, and sighed. "I just need to get used to seeing him again, that's all," she said finally, "and having him attend events as well as dinners is perhaps too much for me, right now."
And so is having him show up in my room unannounced, she thought, her forehead crinkling.
The Queen looked sympathetic. "No, of course, you're right, Elsa—these things take time," she reassured her. "And especially after everything that happened, well," she continued more cautiously, "I certainly can't blame you for feeling this way. Nor could anyone, really."
Elsa's hands curled in her lap. "It's been a . . . difficult past few months, yes."
Therese knew better than to press the conversation further after that stiff reply; instead, she plucked a small, pink flower from a bush nearby, showing it to Elsa. "I'm sure you have these in Arendelle, no?" she asked gently, catching the younger woman off-guard.
Elsa nodded lightly. "Yes, though wildflowers are more common."
"I can have some cut and brought to your room," Therese continued, "since—well, that doesn't matter."
Elsa blinked, glanced down at her gloved hands, and blushed.
That fact alone made her want to tell the Queen, then, about everything that had happened—about Hans, his comments, his lies,his stupid smirk—but somehow, Therese's own words stopped her short.
You have to be shrewd, Elsa.
As much as she wanted to confide in that woman, with her confidence and poise and seemingly sage advice, she didn't have any reason to do so that wasn't entirely superficial.
And she's nothing like Mama.
From the way she carried herself, calm and cool, to the mischievous glint in her emerald eyes, to the strange ease with which she could shift in expression, there was something indescribably . . . inauthentic about the woman, compared to her own mother.
And yet, I—I want to trust her.
Her lips pursed as she thought on what to say, her hands hanging resignedly at her sides. "I would like that," she said at last, forcing herself to smile. "Thank you, Therese."
The Queen smiled in return. "Anything for you, Elsa."
She was reminded, suddenly, of the desperately sad look her mother had worn whenever she would shrink from her touch, or tell her to leave for fear that she wouldn't be able to keep the ice from spreading—and her heart raced painfully, not understanding why it had all suddenly come to the surface, after so many years suppressed.
"Elsa? Are you—"
Elsa found, to her horror, that frost was spiralling out from under her feet, reaching the roots of a nearby rose bush, tinging the flowers on it an icy blue; she exhaled deeply, taking a step back, and the ice retreated with her. "I'm sorry," she said quietly, her hands finding each other with desperate speed. "I don't know what's gotten into me."
Therese leaned over, as if to touch her—but, at the last moment, she refrained. "It's all right," she said, her voice warmer than Elsa could ever remember hearing it. "It's all right, Elsa."
She noticed, then, how much the Queen used her name—Elsa, Elsa, Elsa—and though it might have bothered her at first, she found it reassuring then, even comforting.
Because she's treating you as if you were her dau—
She stopped the thought cold in its tracks, and collected herself.
That doesn't matter.
"You've been very kind to me, Therese," she said softly. "Thank you."
. . . does it?
The Queen's eyes were patient, understanding. "You deserve kindness, after all you've been through," she returned. "It's the least I can do."
Had she been with Anna then, or Gerda, or even Kai, Elsa might've let go of the pain that constricted around her heart then, and cried. Things being as they were, though, she merely let out a shuddering breath, and tried to carry on as if the thought of her mother didn't make her feel ill with guilt.
(As if it didn't make her feel anything at all.)
He wouldn't admit it, but Hans was . . . slightly annoyed that he hadn't been invited to dinner.
It made sense, of course, that Elsa wouldn't want to see him after the night before. Thinking back on it, he really couldn't blame her for being upset with him.
At least, I think she's upset with me.
That seemed a safe assumption when he remembered the disappointment in her eyes, the wariness in her furrowed brow, and the thinness of her pressed lips.
I'm not a monster.
She'd looked so vulnerable when she'd uttered those words, her face soft and pale, the snow caught still around her—and yet, he recalled better than anything else the dull thump of his heart in his chest at the sight of her.
It made his throat feel oddly tight as he awaited her arrival, again, in his old room, and it sucked dry whatever desire he might've held to tinker further with her books and other belongings.
Not that there's any time for that, he reminded himself, looking over his outfit for the evening. He wore a dark blue suit that had been given to him earlier in the day, intended for the dinner. It resembled, he noted absently, the one he wore when he'd first run into Anna a year ago . . . minus his treasured epaulettes.
(It had felt strange to him at first, going without them; but, as with everything else, exile had quickly stripped Hans of feeling anything but what was most necessary to survive.)
The formal guise was well-suited to the task he had in mind, and he smoothed out his gloves, jacket lapels, and hair out of habit, briefly examining his appearance in the mirror nearby.
I have to look perfect for this.
He'd actually planned out his little "visit" to her well this time, he thought—taken what he would say into consideration, calculated, schemed like he used to—and when he heard footsteps moving down the hall towards the door, he quickly concealed himself again.
He had to calm himself, after all, lest he give away the game.
Unlike the night before, however, her servants did enter the room—but they lingered only for a few minutes, fussing with her hair and tiara and shoes before the Snow Queen requested her solitude.
His brow lifted curiously.
Perhaps she's not expecting me.
That was possible, considering the bite of their last encounter, and her order for him not to return until he had "something" to say. When she sighed and slumped forward against her desk, that belief was reaffirmed.
Thus he stepped out from his place in the shadows, his hands folded politely behind his back, and—
"I thought I told you not to come back until you had an answer to my question."
He paused mid-step, blinking in surprise; once again, he had underestimated her.
He let his expression become a little softer than usual as she stood and faced him, daggers in her stare. "But I do have one, Your Majesty."
Her brow creased in bemusement. "You do?"
He took two more steps towards her, and paused there. "Yes, I—I couldn't give you one before, because I—well, to be honest," he looked down, "I was surprised."
Her lips pursed. "Surprised," she repeated disbelievingly.
He kept his eyes trained to the floor. "Like I said before, I thought—I thought that you would want me to kneel before you publicly, and apologise in front of everyone. I wasn't expecting you to ask that question . . ." he trailed off, glancing around the room, and finally met her stare again, "here."
She regarded him in silence, compelling him to continue in his plaintive manner. "But I've known for a long time now, Queen Elsa, how I feel about the things I've done, and what I've wanted—no, needed to say to you."
He dropped down to one knee before her, his head bowed; secretly, he wished he could see the look of shock on her features. "I am sorry, Your Majesty—I'm sorry for the lies, for hurting you and Anna, for trying to take your throne, for being foolish enough to ever think you weren't fit for it—for everything."
That should do it.
His words hung in the air, in the dead quiet—and her silence was suffocating.
"Get up, Hans."
He felt heavy, suddenly . . . too heavy to move a finger, let alone to stand.
Still, he forced himself to look up, to look at her, and her blue eyes, he thought, resembled two hard, cold blue diamonds.
He swallowed. "But, Your Majesty, I—"
"Did you really think it would be that easy?" she hissed at him, scowling. "That you could just stroll in here through that 'secret passage,' kneel before me, give a nice speech, and then . . . what? I would believe your apology? Forgive you?" Her gaze narrowed at him. "Or did you think that I might kindly ask your mother and father to remove you from exile?"
The young queen's voice in that moment, he realised, sounded just like his mother's—and he nearly shuddered, his mask slipping.
"Oh—you're calling me just Elsa now, as well?" she cut him off, and he grimaced as snow began to swirl around them, the sight becoming too familiar. She crossed her arms tightly. "You told me yourself that you're not to be trusted—or have you already forgotten that, Hans?"
The wind was too strong, and his thoughts too muddled by surprise, to form an adequate reply.
You should have been satisfied with what you had, Hans.
Her teeth snapped together. "Just stop this game, already; there's nothing for you to gain from it."
You've brought this on yourself.
Finally, he rose from the ground—stiffly, formally—and he kept his eyes fixed on her, even as she turned away from him to look out the window.
He kept his distance, but the façade was gone. "If you don't trust me," he began cautiously, watching as the hairs on the back of her neck rose at the sound of his voice, "then why didn't you have the passageway boarded up?"
Her arms dropped to her sides, and the snow dissipated.
". . . I don't know," Elsa answered at length. "Maybe I—maybe I was hoping that you wouldn't do something like this," she admitted, an edge to her tone, "and that you would only return when you had something meaningful to say."
The line of her back, visible even from beneath her blue dress, beguiled him—but he held fast to his position behind her.
"And even if I came to you on the day of my scheduled return to exile, kneeling before you, weeping, begging for forgiveness . . . would you have believed it then?" he asked, his brow rising in curiosity.
She sighed. "Probably not."
He breathed lightly through his nose. "Well, then—better to have tried it at least once, knowing that it would never have worked."
"That's not true," she said suddenly.
He blinked. "What?"
She turned around, glaring at him sharply. "I wouldn't believe you if you grovelled, and wept, because that's not you—that's not the man who lies with a smile, who seduces with a knife behind his back, who comforts a desperate woman with the promise of death," she sneered, and he fought the urge to shrink from her. "No—that man would never beg."
He held back a grimace, though he couldn't stop his muscles from going rigid.
". . . and am I still 'that man,' Elsa?" he ventured, his hands curled tightly around one another behind his back.
Her gaze relaxed, but her eyes held onto their wariness—and onto their disappointment.
"I don't know, Hans," she said, "but . . . for your own sake, I hope not."