It was a year after the Queen's coronation when the mute girl appeared on the shores of Arendelle.
She came up out of the mists of the mountains at the south of town one morning, carrying nothing but a rough canvas bag. Her clothes had once been fine, but they were worn and torn from heavy travel. But still, her bearing was noble, and the people of the kingdom who met her were impressed.
So was Princess Anna, who was that very morning making the rounds with Kristoff, her not-quite-fiance. Well, she was quite impressed how the girl managed to recover after being hit by a reindeer.
"Sorry! Sorry! Oh, so sorry, we didn't see you, Sven is usually a lot better at avoiding people--" Anna babbled as she climbed down and helped the girl to her feet.
The girl made an apologetic gesture and brushed herself off, then guiltily picked up her bag and clutched it to her chest. Beside her, the large waterfowl who was keeping pace with her squawked in alarm and beat his wings.
"Oh, you have a... goose!" Anna said, as the bird made one too many flaps and fell over.
Kristoff cleared his throat. "That's a swan."
Anna looked skeptical as the bird picked himself up and the girl nodded sheepishly. "That's a swan? That is the least graceful swan I have ever--"
"Honk!" The swan said, and righted himself.
"He looks so... fuzzy!" Anna cooed, getting down on her knees. The swan ducked behind the girl's back. "What's his name?"
The girl opened her mouth, then made a few feeble gestures.
"You can't talk?"
The girl shook her head and shrugged.
"Oh." Anna pulled back and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry."
Girl shrugged again and patted her swan on the neck. The swan honked and looked abashed.
"You should come back with us to the castle!" Anna said.
"Yeah," Kristoff agreed after a moment. "You can get a hot meal, get your bearings, maybe some pen and paper?"
The girl laughed, which was startling after her silence, and nodded, shyly.
The swan honked in alarm, but nobody was listening to him.
Queen Elsa was reviewing the royal horses when her sister got back. She actually liked going out to the stables, now that she wasn't terrified of accidentally freezing the horses to death. So the first time she met the mysterious girl she was wearing one of her least best dresses, was missing her shawl, had dragged her hem through the mud, and one of the horses had nibbled on her hair, leaving her plait sticky and gross.
And then across the yard walked her sister and her sister's boyfriend with this... woman.
She was tall, and graceful, and radiant, with glossy red hair in bangs and pointy strands coming down to frame her sweetheart face. For a moment, all Elsa could do was stare.
Then her training kicked in and she found herself moving across the yard without thinking. "Hello," she said, feeling as though she was squeaking. "I'm Queen Elsa of Arendelle. What's your name?"
The woman winced and grimaced apologetically, and Anna stepped in. "She can't talk, unfortunately. But we worked out her name's Helena." Anna giggled. "And her swan is named Hans!"
Elsa blinked, and looked down. There at the woman's feet was indeed a swan, who honked pitifully.
"We had a Hans through her a year ago," Elsa said, "But he was a prince, and a badly behaved one at that."
Helena nodded and gestured at Anna. "I told her!" Anna explained. "But this guy is nothing like Prince Hans was. I'm surprised he can even land on his feet!"
Hans the swan honked in something like derision, and Helena nudged him with her leg.
"Well." Elsa blinked a few times. "Helena. Please. The hospitality of Arendelle is yours. If you need somewhere to stay... a rest... new clothes, we can take your things up to a room, I mean, I can have a room prepared..." she was babbling. She took a deep breath and started over. "Please join us for supper?"
Helena bit her lip and nodded shyly, which just made Elsa want to wrap her up in furs and put her on a sleigh and ride with her through a picturesque landscape with cups of steaming hot chocolate on hand.
Shaking herself a bit to clear the sudden and vivid mental image, Elsa gestured to a servant. "Please take miss Helena to a spare room and get her anything she requires," she ordered.
"Yes, Your Majesty," he said, and offered to take Helena's bag. Helena shook her head and clutched the bag to her chest, and followed the servant inside, Hans-the-swan clucking at her heels.
"So!" Anna said when the woman had gone. "She seems nice!"
"Yes," Elsa said, feeling a strange kind of vertigo. "Where did you meet her?"
"Sven nearly ran her over," Kristoff said. Sven lowed.
"And then we helped her up and she looked like she was having a hard time, but she had a sense of humor about it, and there's just something about her, something... you know," Anna continued. "Something I want to get to the bottom of."
"Yes," Elsa agreed, more enthusiastically this time. "I wonder what her story is?"
"I'm sure we'll find out," Kristoff said. "Especially if we can get her a pen."
Elsa turned back to the horses, but found that she couldn't keep anything straight in her mind. "I'm... going to change for supper," she said. "We'll have it in the small hall." She froze, then turned to Anna for support. "Wait. Will she be insulted if it's the small hall? Should we open the great hall? Or would that be too much? I mean, she could be overwhelmed. But I don't know, I mean, we could light the chandelier and the candlesticks and it wouldn't be so cold in there--"
"The small hall," Anna said calmly, "is appropriate for small parties and anything from an informal family dinner to a visiting king. It's perfect."
"Oh, good." Elsa said, smiling hard. Too hard, she could feel her face hurting. "That's just what I want, perfect. I'm going. To go. Clean up." She turned, then turned back and waved. "Um, see you at supper."
"Bye, sis," Anna said. Elsa nodded, then bolted.
Supper was delicious. Helena hadn't had a warm meal since she'd left her father's palace. Queen Elsa had been as good as her word--better, even. Helena had found her room stocked with a robe and a hot bath, and when she'd scrubbed herself clean, a dressmaker had arrived with a sample made from the measurements of her old dress. She'd been assigned a maid to help with her hair and brush her cheeks with a bit of rouge, and she'd been given new shoes that squeaked when she walked the first hundred steps. It felt like she was in a story, dizzyingly; she'd arrived a beggar and been turned out as a princess.
"It's a pity about your hands, dear," the maid Inge said. "So many blisters! We'll get you some rest and they'll be fine."
Helena winced and tried not to think about how nice rest sounded. She could rest when she was done.
But the food was lovely, and since her vow of silence had robbed her of the ability to converse, she was able to relax and listen to the happy chatter around the table. She wished she'd had a sister growing up; Princess Anna and Queen Elsa seemed so happy together, so radiant.
And Kristoff... there was a puzzle. He didn't seem like he'd been raised to royalty; his table manners, for one, spoke of quick and hearty meals instead of daintily picking through decorated feasts. There was a trick to removing whole cloves from your meat without looking like you were putting any effort into it, and Kristoff had never learned it. But it was clear that Anna adored him, and vice versa.
She sighed silently, but not unobtrusively enough. The queen caught her eye and put her glass down. "Oh dear, we're boring you," she said apologetically.
Helena shook her head quickly. She wasn't bored! She was just... mute.
"I'm so sorry," Queen Elsa said. She hesitated, then tried, "You must have had a long journey to get here?"
"Anna said you were coming from the south... is that where you're from? South of here?"
Helena nodded again and took a sip of wine. It was good, light and delicate.
Elsa flicked her gaze to Helena's wine and back to her eyes. "You seem familiar with palaces."
She nodded again, then shrugged. It came with being a princess.
"Well, I... hope you'll find it a comfortable stay here," Queen Elsa said. "Are you traveling further north?"
Helena opened her mouth, closed it, and shrugged again. She hadn't planned on it, but then, she hadn't really planned anything that had happened. She'd been in her stepmother's stores, where she wasn't allowed. She'd gotten frustrated with her brothers' teasing, which she should have been old enough to ignore. And she'd grabbed the nearest thing at hand and accidentally turned all of her brothers into birds, and the only way to undo it was a ridiculous magical craft project that she had to undertake without speaking.
None of that particularly meant that she needed to keep moving north. They'd crossed several borders; her stepmother probably couldn't find her here, and neither could her father's creepy, terrifying, paranoia-inducing new adviser. And she so wanted a night's sleep in a real bed.
All of that was a sentiment too complicated for her rudimentary sign language. She eventually just shook her head.
"Well," Elsa said, sounding relieved, "you are welcome to stay with us for as long as you need."
Helena hoped that was true.
"All right," the queen announced as the servants brought out a final dish, "Who wants ice cream?"
"Oooh, me!" Kristoff and Anna both exclaimed. Helena raised her head in interest, looking at the tray. Ice cream was a treat her father called "a waste of good ice" except in winter, when it was really too cold to eat it. She supposed they had more ice available this far north, and thus even in the early autumn were able to freeze the cream necessary...
The queen raised her hand and concentrated, and a burst of frost ran over the silver dish. The cream inside bubbled and foamed with ice crystals, until finally it crystallized into a small mountain of brightly-colored sugar.
Helena felt her jaw drop.
"Oh!" Elsa said, pushing back from the table, eyes wide. "I'm sorry, I forgot that you don't know, didn't--"
Helena shook her head and held up her hands. She wasn't scared.
"Did I frighten you? Oh, what a stupid mistake, I should have known--"
Helena shook her head again and waved her hands. When Elsa stopped her recriminations, she pointed at the dish of cream and made hopeful scooping motions.
"Oh," Elsa said in a small voice. "Oh, of course. Um. Anna..."
"Here you go!" Anna said cheerfully, scooping out a generous portion of dessert into a dish and handing it over. Helena tucked in gratefully, hiding her startled reaction in sugar. It was really very good, smooth and creamy, not at all grainy or rough like it sometimes was at home. And Elsa's magic powers, which she'd only heard about secondhand... those were amazing.
It was only slightly awkward when she motioned her goodbyes after supper. She wanted to get back to her room. Everything was fine until Queen Elsa exclaimed over her hands, "Those blisters! You should have those seen to. I'll send someone--"
Helena waved her hands and smiled.
"No, that looks horribly painful. You should have something... I'll send a doctor," Elsa promised.
Right now, all she wanted was sleep. But sleep was for those without curses to break. She managed to get away from Elsa's solicitousness and get to her chamber, close the door, and sigh against it.
"Seriously," Hans said from her bed. "I don't understand how we even came here."
Helena opened her eyes and glared at him.
Hans, her twin brother, thirteenth prince of the Southern Isles, human again now that the sun had gone down, was sprawled on her duvet and raising his eyebrows at her. "Don't look at me, I was trying to steer us to Weaseltown," he said. "They don't like magic there, but it's not, y'know, the kingdom I accidentally tried to steal."
The frustrated look she sent him encompassed both "I don't believe it's actually called Weaseltown" and "Accidentally?"
"Well, okay," he admitted, "Weselton, and I did kinda do it on purpose. But it's not my fault!"
Helena snorted and crossed the chamber to her bag. Opening it, she gently pulled out the first shirt she'd finished, and lay it reverently on a table. It was followed by two others, the product of weeks of hard labor.
Underneath was the remainder of her supply of nettles. She drew out the plant stalks, hissing as the spines dug into her blisters.
Hans was by her side in an instant, taking her hands in his. "I hate to watch you do this," he said quietly. "Are you sure you have to?"
Helena rolled her eyes. Unless Hans and the rest of their brothers wanted to turn into swans permanently come winter, she was kind of stuck.
"Okay, fine," he said. "But you know this isn't your fault."
Her bathwater was still standing in the tub. She cast the rest of the nettle stalks in, pushing them down to start them retting. When she looked up, Hans was watching her. She sighed and gestured at herself, then made a casting motion. I was the one who threw that damn birdseed. She shrugged and gestured at the nettles, and at the nettle shirts she'd made. It's my job to fix things while there's still time.
"Ugh," Hans said, agreeing with her. "But do we have to do it here? You heard what they said about me."
What they'd said had matched up with what the French ambassador had said when he'd delivered Hans back to the palace. And with the severely edited version of events Hans had finally admitted to, for that matter.
"Right," he finally said as she went back to pushing the stalks around with her fingers. "But I am not the bad guy here. Okay, so I was ambitious."
Helena raised her eyebrows and dipped her head toward the doors.
"I tried to execute the queen," he corrected her, "after she covered everything with ice. And Anna? You've met her! She's a naive airhead who had nearly gotten herself killed. I was doing her a favor by telling her the truth."
Helena rolled her eyes.
"Right, right, you're right." He slumped gracefully to the floor. "But c'mon, you remember all those stories that dad told about having to kill his uncle Claudius to get the throne?"
Execute, Helena mouthed.
"Exactly," Hans said, pointing at her. "He wanted to keep everything out of the hands of outsiders. And you bet our stepmom didn't want to become queen for dad's good looks; she wanted power as much as he did. Whether or not she actually used magic to get it..."
She looked up and waved her hands, then made an emphatic thumbs-down gesture. One shouldn't spread rumors about witches, no matter how true they probably were.
Hans rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine, but my point is that the kingdom turned out okay, until you-know-who showed up. People get hurt in long struggles for power. It's better to get everything over with quickly."
Helena personally thought Hans had learned the wrong lesson from dad's old stories.
"Maybe I did." He sighed. "Maybe I should have just waited. Heck, even ten minutes would probably have done it..."
Helena sighed and pushed the nettles further underwater. Hans had never been the patient type. She'd understood, at least a little bit, when they were little; being the youngest children of King Johan meant being reminded daily by older siblings exactly where one's place in the world was. In Hans' case, it was "superfluous offspring," in hers, "marriage material."
Hans had never been satisfied with that, and neither had she. Except now, unless her curse-breaking worked, she'd be relegated to the role of "only child of King Johan", and "marriage material" would be her full-time job. She wondered if Queen Elsa had to deal with that kind of pressure.
Someone knocked at the door.
Hans froze, then dived behind the bed. Helena stood, dried her fingers off, and went to open the door.
On the other side was Queen Elsa herself, looking both regal and concerned. Helena couldn't keep from staring for a moment, then recovered and curtseyed.
"Oh, no, it's... it's fine," Elsa said, then held out her hands, clutching a pair of fine blue-green gloves. "I just brought you these. I thought... for your hands."
Helena gasped silently, then gingerly reached out and fingered the edge of one. They were made of fine wool, bouncy and soft, expertly dyed.
"I used to wear them, when... back before I had control of my powers," Elsa explained. "So I thought they might be nice. Because they always made me feel better. I... please take them."
Helena opened her hands, and Elsa pressed the gloves gently into her grasp. Then the queen turned and left with the tinkling sound of icicles and the cold breeze of a night-time sleigh ride.
She gently shut the door, then turned and glared at her brother.
"What?" he asked.
She glared stronger.
Hans made a incredulous sound. "She'd frozen the entire kingdom."
Helena threw up her hands and stalked back to her bath.
"And it wasn't like she was going to marry me," he continued. "Talk about an ice queen, huh?"
Helena pointed angrily at him, then threw up her hands again. It wasn't worth it. She had nettle yarn to make.
Anna woke the next morning and bounced out of bed. There was something about having new people around that was incredibly exciting. It was probably leftover from when the castle had been cold and empty and dark, and the only time she'd seen new people was when she was allowed to go under strict guard to the square. Having people over was still a thrill of getting away with something.
Maybe they should have a party while Helena was staying with them. It would be fun, even if she couldn't talk. Anna wondered if Helena liked parties as much as she did. Everyone liked parties, didn't they? There was something for everyone, dancing and socializing and chocolate...
Which reminded her, she had actual princess duties soon that had to do with chocolate. Elsa was meeting with a trader from Holland, Mr. Lorentz, and he was going to be in Arendelle the next day with his new cocoa supplier from the New World. Anna still needed to practice saying his name; she'd seen it spelled out and had heard it once, it was Chequazok or Chexashok or something like that. She didn't want to get it wrong and make a bad impression on someone who had traveled over a whole ocean to get there.
She wondered if Check-she-was-going-to-pronounce-it-right-if-it-took-all-day-ok was going to be cold in Arendelle. It wasn't even winter for another couple weeks, but apparently he was coming from really far south. Ooh, she wondered if Helena was cold.
She wondered if Helena was up yet. Well, she thought as she dressed and let Inge tuck her hair up, it was late enough to check, right?
"You know, if your guest will need her own maid," Inge said as she finished the thought, "I have a cousin down the fjord who would do well for her..."
"Is Helena up yet?" Anna said. "Oh, and yes, of course, your cousin can come, she sounds great."
"She was already up at dawn when I went to check on her," Inge said, sounding slightly smug. "And her poor hands! The girl's been spinning nettle yarn and I think she was scutching the stalks by hand."
Anna blinked. "What's... scutching?"
"Oh, you take nettles, dear, and you soak them in water to make them soft--that's retting. And then you break them apart to get the fibers out, and you break the woody pieces out--that's scutching."
"Ouch." Anna grimaced. "That doesn't sound very pleasant."
"No, and the girl was obviously raised in noble company, so I don't know what she's doing with such things," Inge said. "But she's got fine handwork."
"Maybe I should go check on her," Anna said, intrigued. She'd never been one for making things with her hands, but she had taken up embroidery one summer, until she'd decorated her sheets so thoroughly they were too scratchy to sleep on and her mother had gently suggested picking another hobby. Maybe she should get back into that.
Anna nipped down to breakfast and kissed Kristoff on the cheek. Her sister was sitting at the other end of the hall, nibbling on a roll and drumming her fingers on the table. Little snowflakes were fluttering in the air over her hand and her coffee had iced over.
"I'm going to go take some breakfast up to Helena," Anna announced after she'd stuffed a roll in her mouth. "Inge says she's making nettle yarn."
Elsa frowned curiously. "What's nettle yarn? Is she all right? Does she not want to come eat with us?"
"Sounds like she just got distracted," Anna soothed her. "Handcrafts can do that to you. I once spent a day embroidering a tablecloth and missed lunch and supper."
"Oh." It didn't completely calm Elsa down and she got a mouthful of ice cube when she tried to take a sip of coffee, but she stopped making it snow onto the table.
Anna grinned at her sister and her boyfriend--fiance? They hadn't decided yet--and scooped some toast, marmalade, butter, scones, bacon, trout, honey, and coffee onto a tray and carried it upstairs. Halfway there she let one of the burlier servants take it from her, because she was tired and had nearly missed a step.
"Helena?" she asked, rapping on the door. "It's Princess Anna. I brought breakfast?"
There was a pause, then footsteps, then Helena opened the door and gestured her inside. Anna took the tray back from Tobias and brought it in with her.
Helena had been busy. She'd filled the bathtub with some kind of plant, and by the window where there was light she'd gathered a bunch of strands of greenish fiber. She had a drop spindle next to her chair with a good bunch of yarn on it, and on the table was a crochet hook.
"Oh, hey, Inge said you were making yarn," Anna said, intrigued. "Can I look?"
Helena took a sip of coffee and nodded approval. Anna skipped over to the yarn and looked over the crocheting Helena had finished. "Oh, you're making shirts," she said. "Are you making them for anyone in particular?"
Helena was suddenly at her elbow, smoothing a hand over the shirts. She had a piece of toast in her mouth. "Oh," Anna said, backing up. "Sorry."
She waved her hand gently and finished off her toast. Then she picked up her yarn and gave the spindle a brush with her leg, setting it winding again.
"Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt," Anna apologized. "Actually... I've been thinking of picking up embroidery again. Would you mind if I worked with you?"
Helena smiled and nodded in invitation. Anna clapped her hands and turned for the door. Then she stopped. On the bedside table was a pair of green gloves. "Oh," she said. "Those are Elsa's gloves."
Helena stepped gingerly over to the gloves and touched them, then nodded. She looked up at Anna and made a gesture like she was handing something over.
"Elsa gave them to you?"
Helena nodded again.
"Wow," Anna said. She looked over at the gloves again. "You know, she wore these gloves every time I saw her... when I saw her. I mean, before what happened on her coronation, I almost never saw her out of her room." She cleared her throat. "Um, you know, we have... stuff that can help, I'm sure, maybe some machinery for helping with the... scutching, and stuff? Or spinning? I'm sure we have a spinning wheel here somewhere?"
This time Helena shook her head. She kicked the spindle again and ran her fingers along the yarn, then wandered back to the window to pick up more plant.
"Okay!" Anna said. "Well, uh, when I have a minute, I'll come back, and we can work, and... that'll be nice!" She looked around and finally spotted Hans the swan, who was mostly hiding behind Helena's bed. "Oh, hi, Hans!"
"Honk," Hans honked unenthusiastically.
"Oh, he's not feeling well?" Anna asked. Helena shrugged. "Well, if he wants some fresh air, I'm sure he could go swim in the garden pond, right buddy?"
"Honk," Hans said dubiously. Anna gave both of them another wave and skipped out.
She was caught quickly by her sister, who said, "How is she?" and "Never mind, we have to talk about this trade deal," and then, "But is she all right?"
"She seems okay," Anna said, "She doesn't seem to want any help with her, er, crocheting. I was going to work on embroidery with her later."
"Oh," Elsa said, looking intently at the door. She then shook herself and turned back to Anna. "Can you even say the Mexica trader's name?"
Anna grimaced. "Er... Check-wa-sok? And you should go say hi to her, if you want to."
"Chac Uyab Xoc," Elsa corrected her, with a lilt that sounded like she'd been practicing for days, which was totally not fair. "She sounds like she's busy. It's fine."
"Chak... kwaya... shok," Anna tried. "Say hi if you want to. It's your castle."
"Chac Uy-AB Xoc," Elsa said, then made a face. "I think. And she's our guest, she deserves some privacy if she wants it."
"OOof, international trade is hard," Anna complained. "Embroidery would be easier. You could join us."
"Trade is what keeps Arendelle thriving," Elsa said. "You'll understand if you're ever queen. And I don't do embroidery."
"Heh," Anna laughed unenthusiastically. "Well, what about if you practice magic?"
Elsa looked guiltily at Helena's door, then took Anna's elbow and steered her down the stairs. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"I just... don't," Elsa said. "Anyway. I am going to talk to Mr. Lorentz and Chac Uayab Xoc about details, you are going to talk anyone else they brought along into telling us everything they know. Okay? Divide and conquer."
"Divide and conquer," Anna said. "Right."
"Argh!" she said to Kristoff five minutes later, when she'd ducked away from her sister and into the part of the grounds where he and Sven usually relaxed. "Why do I have to learn all this trading and sneakiness stuff?"
Kristoff shrugged. "I dunno. Didn't you learn about trading and sneakiness during your princess lessons?"
"Princess lessons were mostly about dancing and finding a husband," Anna said. "And about remembering to invite all the relevant landowners in the kingdom to your wedding. Noblemen hate being left out of that stuff."
"Practical tips for everyday life," Kristoff said blandly.
"Augh," Anna said again, and threw her arms around him. "I want to run off and live in the woods."
There was a long pause. "Really?" Kristoff said, voice rumbling in his chest under her cheek.
She sighed. "No," she said, and she could feel his shoulders slump in disappointment. "I have to be a princess. Especially if my sister never gets married."
Anna stood up straight. "Well, think about it," she said. "If Elsa never has children, then I have to be Queen of Arendelle after her, and my children after me."
"Oh." Kristoff was turning slightly green around the gills. "Right. Uh... I guess that's a lot of pressure on whoever you get married to, huh."
Anna hugged him. "It's not that bad. Being a prince is just... different."
"Heh, different," he said. "Different and not me."
Anna frowned and put her hands on Kristoff's shoulders. "It's not anything to be scared of."
"I'm not scared," he said nervously. "I'm just not sure I'm ready. Or will ever be ready. I just sell ice."
Anna sighed and hugged him again. "Well, how about you come along and see this chocolate deal thing? You can watch and figure out what it's all about."
Kristoff hesitated. "Are you sure I should be there? I mean--"
"You're with me, silly," Anna said. It hurt, sometimes, that Kristoff wouldn't just trust her, but she knew it was hard to adjust. He even chafed a bit at the job of Royal Ice Master, worrying that it was a sinecure created for the princess' boyfriend. If she couldn't even convince Kristoff that he deserved a job (that he was good at!) as a reward for services performed for the Queen, how was she going to get anywhere with this international diplomacy nonsense?
Finally she just sighed and gave him another hug. "You don't have to be a better prince than I am a princess. We can learn at the same time."
"You have a few years' head start, I think," he said sheepishly.
"And you're still no worse than I am," she muttered. She squeezed him again and took his hand. "C'mon, we can both practice at lunch."
Helena remembered herself well enough to stop working before lunch and give her hands a rest. Apparently the queen had hired her a new maid, Inga's cousin Signe, who had proved to be enthusiastic about helping her keep things clean. At least, she'd hauled buckets of water around, changed out the water in the bath to help the nettles soak through properly, and brought her a dish of rosewater and dandelions which she claimed would help bring down the stinging. It helped a little, and Signe rubbed her hands gently with calamine lotion before pulling her gloves on. "Now, dear, get yourself something to eat," Signe instructed, managing to sound like Helena's stepmother despite being a freckled young maid.
Helena stepped out the door just in time to see Hans pelting up the stairs, being chased by... a snowman.
"Hey! Hey buddy, it's okay, I just wanted to say... hi!" The snowman drew himself--itself? No, definitely himself--up to his full height and stretched out his stick arms. "Hi there! My name is Olaf, and I like warm hugs!"
The snowman wasn't melting. Helena looked up, and there was a small cloud over his head, from which drifted a gentle drizzle of snow. Magic, then? A magic snowman?
"Um... hi?" Olaf said again. Helena waved. "Oh... can't you talk?"
Helena shrugged and shook her head. She was going to have to make some kind of nametag. Hello, my name is Helena, and I can't speak. Or Hi, my name is Helena, and I took a vow of silence to make sure my curse-breaking crocheting actually works. Something pithy.
"Did you get cursed by a witch?" Olaf asked.
Helena blinked a few times, then shook her head slowly.
"Oh, okay. I just wondered."
Olaf didn't seem to be melting on the stair, which was nice. Hans stuck his head out from behind her legs and honked.
"Hi again, little guy! I'm sorry I startled you in the pond. I do that sometimes. Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" Olaf stepped forward and peered at Hans, then up at Helena. "You look familiar somehow. Like maybe a family resemblance? Or something?"
The happy smile and soft voice almost made Helena miss the danger. Selfishly, she didn't want Queen Elsa or anyone else to know who she was related to. She didn't want to get thrown out of the castle, and--she winced as she felt the mental betrayal of her brother--she didn't want Queen Elsa to think badly of her. She'd been so nice, and Helena wanted to stay friends with her. To be friends with her. If that was even possible when Helena had to spend all her spare time trying to break a curse.
The snowman was still staring at her. Carefully, she shrugged and gestured wildly.
"Oh, right," Olaf said after a second. "Can't talk. Well, okay. It's nice to meet you!" He held up a hand. "I'll see you around the castle sometime?"
Helena nodded, and the snowman turned and headed off down the stairs.
She looked down at Hans. "Honk," he said irritably.
Helena jerked her head at the staircase, then waved her hands in a magic-ing way and snapped her fingers, then raised her eyebrows queryingly.
Hans shook his head. "Honk," he said, "Honk honk honk--*honk*."
He'd been too busy to notice a magic snowman even if he had been around last time. Right. Helena shrugged again and started down the stairs.
This meal, the sisters were talking trade, and chocolate. "Okay," Kristoff said, "Try me again. The chocolate merchant from Tlatel... Tlatel..."
"Tlatelolco," Elsa finished.
"The chocolate merchant from Tlatelolco, on Lake Texcoco," Kristoff repeated.
"Good so far," Anna encouraged him.
"He's selling raw ingredients for chocolate, which you can't eat."
Elsa shrugged. "Apparently they make a drink out of it, like... cold coffee without cream."
"Eugh." Kristoff made a face. "Why would you drink that?"
Elsa frowned at him. "I like my coffee cold..."
"Heh," Kristoff said, smiling abashedly. "Moving... rapidly on... they sell to the chocolate makers over here, and they make it into eating chocolate. Only Lorentz and this guy Chak... Kwaya..."
"Chac Uayab Xoc," Elsa said, then smirked. "If I keep correcting the both of you, I'm going to be a natural by tomorrow."
"Right," Kristoff said, "See, I'm helping. So, these guys figure they can go into business together and undercut the other guys?"
"That's their plan," Anna said. "And in the meantime, we get so much chocolate."
Well, Helena considered, taking a bite of fish, she certainly wasn't going to tell anyone about their plans. Elsa met her eyes across the table and she smiled back, suddenly feeling warm.
"Soooo," Kristoff said, toying with his fork, "Why is this your business? Our," he corrected himself. "Why is it our business instead of the town council or the... chocolate shops or something?"
Trade treaties, Helena filled in and suppressed saying out loud.
"Trade treaties," Elsa said. "If they can actually deliver, great, if not, we don't want to renegotiate our agreements with Belgium on a whim."
Helena grinned and thought about a life without Belgian chocolate. Worse than death. Elsa met her eyes across the table and giggled, probably thinking the same thing.
After lunch, more work. Her spinning was coming along nicely. She already had enough nettle yarn to make another shirt. However, as she examined her stash she realized she was going to run out of raw material sooner than she thought.
"Honk?" Hans asked.
Helena sighed and nodded. That night she was going to need to sneak out.
"Don't worry," Hans whispered that evening as he led her down the hallway. "I got to see a lot of this place last time I was here."
Helena fought to keep from rolling her eyes, and concentrated on keeping an eye out for guards or servants. She was wearing her old dress, now repaired, and her cloak, and had her empty bag tucked under her arm. Hans was far less clumsy as a human than as a swan, an irony that she was grateful for at the moment.
The moon was a thin sliver in the night, hidden behind a silky cloud. They stalked catlike down the halls to the kitchen, and slipped out a side door.
"Okay," he said quietly. "You need to go to the garden?"
She shook her head and gestured out a cross shape with her fingers. According to her instructions, curse-breaking nettles were kind of touchy about where they grew.
Hans frowned, confused. "A... church? Or... a graveyard?"
She nodded and waved her hand back and forth. Either one would do.
"Right," he said, looking around. "Well, the royal graveyard is just up over that hill."
It looked far more deserted and quiet than any other direction they could go, so she followed her brother out into the night and up through the grass. When they crossed the border into the consecrated ground, she could almost feel the change in the air.
"Okay," Hans said, gesturing at the rows of great stones, each carved with the name of one of Arendelle's ruling family, "Here we are. I don't see any nettles, though..."
Helena handed him the bag and reached out her hands.
Her own magic was usually quiet, dormant, like seeds deep in the earth. She hadn't even known it was there until recently, until the curse and the escape and the dream that told her what she needed to know. But now she could recognize her own power, and she was grateful for it. She reached down into the earth, took a deep breath, and pulled.
Around her feet, a thatch of stinging nettles grew. Magically, they stretched toward the wan moonlight, bursting up from the ground to reach her fingertips. She stepped forward, and more nettles grew, and more, until the soft gray-green thatch of them spread out further than she could reach.
She let the power go and turned to look at Hans, standing at the gate with her empty sack. "Uh," he said. "I didn't know you could do that."
"Okay, so..." he gestured with the sack. "Do you want some help?"
She shook her head and started picking stalks. This was something she had to do alone.
No, she reconsidered as Hans stepped around the thicket and stood next to her, not alone. But with her own hands.
The traders came the next day; Karl Lorentz and a small party of Dutchmen, and Chac Uayab Xoc and a small party of Mexica. The Dutchmen were all pale and blond and arrayed in greens and golds, and the Mexica were tall and bronzed and inky-haired, wearing bright colors and absolutely beautiful gold jewelry. Anna stood next to her sister and Kristoff in the great hall and listened to the introductions and smiled and tried to remember all the names.
They retired to the red receiving room to taste samples, sip drinks, and have a quieter discussion. The Mexica shed their cloaks in the warmth of the fireplace, and Anna took a moment to admire the fabric. "It looks so soft," she said wonderingly. "And such pretty colors!"
"The wool is from much further south, where they have very cold winters," Chac Uayab Xoc told her. "The finest wool is only for the kings and the royal family, while the rest they trade."
"Wow," Anna said. She gingerly reached out and touched it. It was like petting a cloud. "It's amazing."
"It's too bad we're specializing in chocolate," Lorentz said from next to the fireplace.
"Oh, I'm definitely impressed with your chocolate," Anna said. "There are so many wonderful things coming from your country, Mr--" she took what she hoped was a discreet breath "Chac Uayab Xoc."
He smiled, and bowed over her hand. "And so many beautiful things in your country, princess... Annia..." He stopped and winced slightly. "Anna."
She smiled sympathetically. "I spent," she said softly, "All day yesterday practicing."
That caused him to laugh. "I practiced the Queen's name until I thought my tongue was twisting," he confessed in a mock-whisper. "I don't understand how your people can have such difficult names!"
"But they're so short!" she said. "Anna and Elsa and Inge and Gerta..."
"Delicate," he responded, "All oohs and aahs."
"What are women called in your country?" she asked.
"Many things," Chac Uayab Xoc said. "Atl, and Izel, and Xochiyotl, and Miyaoaxochitl, and... Sacnite, like my wife," he finished, putting his arm around his wife's waist.
"A pleasure to meet you," Anna said, curtseying. She'd been admiring the woman's hairdo--a kind of loopy braided thing that curled up from her forehead like a tiara--but she suddenly had an odd feeling about her. She couldn't put her finger on it.
"We are seeking commitment," Lorentz was saying, "And exclusivity. We have the backing to start this venture, but to continue to provide, we need a guarantee of funding."
"And you're offering... what, unfinished chocolate?"
"Coverture," Lorentz clarified. "It is the raw material for confectioneries. With the sugar already mixed in."
"It's so sweet that way," Sacnite murmured to Anna. She had a lovely dulcet voice, with only a trace of an accent. "I don't know how you can eat more than a little."
"Practice?" Anna said.
"But you want us to sign an agreement saying we won't buy any chocolate from Belgium?" Elsa was asking.
Lorentz hesitated. "They are our main competitors right now, and as a sign of good faith..."
Elsa shook her head. "We have trade agreements with them that we cannot unilaterally break."
Anna bit her lip and took another sip of cordial. This could take a while. "How are you finding Europe?" she asked Sacnite, who looked similarly enthusiastic about the discussion.
"Beautiful," Sacnite said. "Colder... different."
They chatted about the climate while Elsa and Lorentz waltzed around each other on trade. In the end, they agreed that the Arendelle royal choclatier would buy only Lorentz' coverture for a year.
Once that was concluded, Sacnite nodded knowingly at Anna and stepped back into the action. "I was wondering about that lovely purple color of your cloaks," she said. "Is the dye local?"
Elsa smoothed her hand over her cape. She was arrayed in full Arendelle colors for the trade meeting, and it was one of her nicer cloaks. "This is," she said, "Though we are importing some from France."
"I've seen the new French and Scottish dye," Sacnite said, "But it's not as rich as this."
Elsa raised an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting a new market?"
"I'm suggesting," Sacnite's eyes were glittering, "if you don't have an exclusive agreement with anyone, that people in my city pay handsomely for rarity."
Elsa grinned, and that kicked off another round of discussions and an invitation to meet the dyemaker's guild, but eventually everyone shook hands and parted happy. Anna chewed her lip and wondered if she'd ever figure out how to spot people who were working more than one angle. So much for her job getting them to tell her everything.
"Well, that went well," Kristoff said when their guests had filed out and the three of them were left alone with a copy of the royal order.
"Good job, everyone," Elsa said. Anna grinned to cover up her embarrassment. How could she expect to teach Kristoff about being a prince when she was barely managing herself with Elsa's help?
It was time to call it a day on princessing. She gave Kristoff and her sister a hug, ran and picked up her bag of embroidery from her room, and headed up to visit Helena. "Whoof!" she said once she was surrounded by nettles and yarn and lack of responsibility. "That took a long time just to buy chocolate. I hope you've had more success."
Helena smiled and held up another shirt.
"Wow!" Anna said. "You do that fast. What's that, four so far?"
Helena nodded and held up her crochet hook again. She'd already started on the collar for a fifth.
"Wow," Anna said again. She pulled out the pillowcase she was working on and her purple thread. She held it up to the light briefly, wondering if it was that special purple dye they'd been talking about. How did you tell?
Too complex a question for that afternoon. "So," she asked as she started stitching, "How many of those are you making?"
Helena held up both her hands, then three fingers.
"Thirteen?" Anna whistled. "Wow. Any particular reason?"
Helena gave her a look.
"Right. Um..." Anna chewed on her lip in thought for a moment. "Are they meant for someone you know?"
Helena nodded, bent over her crocheting again.
Anna shrugged to herself and started working on her pattern. Helena's hands were so blistered she had trouble writing, so it was probably easier to wait until she was done with her shirts and had some time to let her fingers heal up before asking her any questions that required complete sentences.
The traders were staying overnight, so they all had supper in the small hall together. Kristoff and one of Lorentz' staff, Frans, got into a lively discussion about snowshoeing. Elsa and Helena spent the meal quietly trading smiles across the table.
After dinner, Anna found herself going back to her quarters at the same time as Sacnite. In the hallway, she gathered her courage enough to say, "I don't want to be rude, but I was wondering...."
Sacnite laughed. "Everywhere in Europe, I haven't seen anyone else like me. And everywhere, these questions."
"I'm sorry!" Anna said. "I don't want to--"
"Let me see if I can explain," Sacnite said gently. "In my country, if when you grow up you realize that you have been given the body of a boy but wish to be a woman, or vice versa, we let people choose. You perform the ceremonies and eat of the herbs and the special roots of the camotli. And then we grow up," she raised her hands, "Like this."
"Wow," Anna said. "You're right, I've never heard of that before."
"Maybe you don't have the right herbs over here," Sacnite said kindly. "Everything tastes different."
Anna nodded. "And you don't have any trouble getting married, or finding love?"
"No, no trouble," she replied, smiling. "You just have to find the right man."
"Yeah," Anna agreed. "Someone who will love you for who you are, and not just sweep you off your feet in order to try and maneuver to usurp the throne of your kingdom." She noticed Sacnite staring at her and cleared her throat awkwardly. "Er... for example."
Sacnite chuckled. "For example," she said. "Your man Kristoff, he seems good for you."
"Oh, yes," Anna said happily. A thought occurred to her, suddenly. "Say, Sacnite... Do two people who grow up to be men, or two people who grow up to be women, ever marry each other back in your homeland?"
That actually surprised her for a second. "I have not heard of this," she said. Then she smiled. "But it is a big world out there. I'm sure it happens somewhere."
Anna smiled. "I'm sure you're right. Thank you, Sacnite."
"Good night, Princess Anna," Sacnite said, and retired to her own room.
Helena watched the trade delegation leave the next day from her window. The clearly hungover Dutchmen and the brightly-clad Mexica trooped down to their ship and bid Arendelle farewell.
For the next few days, Helena worked steadily. She ran out of her supply of nettles again, but had enough spun yarn to get her through another three shirts. That made seven, halfway done.
Hans left that Friday to meet their brothers on the south beach where they'd dropped her off. Helena sent him with her blessing, then turned to her lonely work.
It was surprisingly easy to fall into a rhythm. Working in a castle with a servant to see to her needs had a lot to recommend it over stitching while on the run, carried in a makeshift basket or lying in a ditch out of sight of the road. She was getting most of a shirt made in a day, when she had enough yarn spun. If she could continue at this rate, she'd have everything done well before winter started...
Oh, no, she couldn't think about deadlines.
The night passed as nights tended to do, and the next day Hans winged his way back. She spent an increasingly irritated afternoon until sunset, listening to Princess Anna talk and occasionally swear when she jammed her finger with the embroidery needle.
Anna left to get ready for supper only shortly before sundown. Helena sighed in relief, gestured to Signe that she would be all right without her, and locked her door.
The sun slipped over the horizon, leaving only twilight in its wake. Hans seemed to shiver, then to stretch, grey and thin with magic, until he was a man again, stepping forward to put his hands on her shoulders. "Thank goodness. I--"
Helena jerked her head at the door and held up her fingers, close together.
"Oh," he said. "Right. No time. Yefimovich has left the court!"
Her jaw dropped.
"Yes, he has! We don't know where he went, but--" He paused to watch her gesturing. "No, no, they didn't see father. Or our stepmother. They couldn't get in, not in time. I..." He stepped back. "There's more. But... supper."
She nodded, then swiftly hugged him before darting downstairs.
She barely tasted dinner. She had seven and a half shirts made so far. And the end of autumn was only nine days away now. And instead of being back at their father's court, Gregor Yefimovich was... somewhere.
That thought terrified her more than she'd realized. Helena was sure that Yefimovich was the one who had turned her stepmother against her and her brothers. Her father had been acting strange ever since the man had come to court. And the look in Yefimovich's eyes when he'd looked her way had made her skin crawl. Why had he left? Where was he? Had he come after them?
She hurried back to her room and shut the door on the rest of the castle.
"... Hey," Hans said.
Helena took a deep breath and tried to keep from tearing up. It didn't work.
"Oh, no," Hans said, and bundled her into a hug. "Oh no, sis."
She wanted to scream and cry and harangue him, but she bit her tongue and just buried her face in his neck until she stopped shaking.
"Okay," he said when she'd calmed down. "So... more news?"
Helena took a couple deep breaths and crossed to her desk to pick up her crochet hook. She gestured to Hans to talk while she worked.
"Right." He took a seat on her bed. "Martin and Michael went back home to see what was going on. They found everything in chaos. They heard that Yefimovich had left from a couple of guards, but they couldn't find out what happened to our parents."
Helena nodded and busily started stitching on the first sleeve.
"Christian and Carl went to Lord Borge, but nobody would let them in after dark--in fact, that's the story all around. Leif and Lars, Thomas and Torben, Niels and Nik... Erik and Egon tried going east, to see if they could find some word on breaking the curse in the mountains, but no dice."
Helena scowled at him and held up the shirt, shaking it.
"Yes, I know, I told them that." He scowled. "For some reason they didn't believe me when I said you already had the solution sent to you in a dream. We're all trying to be helpful."
She sighed and went back to stitching. "Anyway," Hans continued, "Lars took Leif and Niels and Nik and they went out looking for Yefimovich. And Thomas, Torben, Martin and Michael went to look for dad and our stepmother."
Helena actually squeaked at that. She clapped her hand over her mouth, then frantically waved the shirt at him again.
Hans looked confused. "But..."
Helena put down the shirt and made a sweeping, collecting gesture, then mimed throwing things.
"Um, not getting it, sis."
Frustrated, she held up all her fingers, then three more, then made a casting gesture, then pointed at the clock.
His expression slowly changed from confusion to uncomfortable realization. "You have to uncurse all of us at the same time."
She nodded frantically. Then she held up nine fingers and pointed at the window.
"And you have nine..."
"Nine days?" it clicked behind his eyes. "We only have nine more days?"
She nodded angrily.
"Well, I didn't know!" he snapped. "How was I supposed to tell everyone if I didn't know?"
Helena wiped her eyes again and picked up the shirt. She had to keep working.
"Listen. Helena." He knelt at her feet and took her hands. "I promise, I swear on our mother's grave, I will fix this. I will find them and I will bring them here. If I have to drag them in that stupid net we made to carry you, I'll do it, Helena. Okay?"
She met his eyes, then reached up and brushed his hair out of his eyes. It was getting long. She put her hand on his face and tried to smile.
"Okay," he said. "You just keep working, sis. I'll go tonight. I'll be back soon."
He climbed out over her balcony railing and down the side of the castle. Helena closed the door to keep out the mounting autumn chill, and sat down to work.
Seven and three-quarter shirts, with this arm done. She tied off the yarn and started the next sleeve.
"We'll have to do something special for the start of winter festival," Anna said during breakfast. "It's only four days away."
Elsa smiled fondly at her sister. "What, the ice skating and the fireworks and the bonfire aren't enough?"
"Oh, but maybe something special," Anna said. "Like some sort of competition where we give out prizes to the fastest skater or the person who can jump the farthest on the toboggan run."
Elsa chuckled. "Well, if you want to set it up, go and put it together and announce it in town. You can have posters drawn up."
"Sounds good. Kristoff, you want to help me come up with events?"
"Sure thing," he said. "What about reindeer slalom?"
"Have... you seen Helena today?" Elsa asked before they got too carried away.
Anna shook her head. "No, she's probably still working. She's been on a tear with those shirts she's knitting. Er. Crocheting. One needle, not two."
Elsa didn't care if it used one needle or six. "Well... make sure she knows about the carnival," she said weakly.
"Sure! In fact, I'll tell her about it when I take her breakfast." Anna shoved a muffin in her mouth and started loading up a tray. "Mmf ff fmf mmmm," swallow, "Kristoff can help me with planning."
"Sounds great," Elsa said.
She wondered if she should go visit Helena. She really hadn't seen her these last weeks except for meals, and maybe she was neglecting her guest. But Helena really seemed content to stay in her room and work. On whatever she was working on. It seemed important. And Elsa really had no head for handicrafts or needlework or even small talk. Going up there to bother her just seemed... rude, honestly. And terrifying.
She shook herself and took another sip of coffee.
The morning was spent checking the carnival preparations, then a quick lunch, and then open court. Elsa was surprised at how much she liked having court in session, listening to everyone's concerns, meeting various dignitaries and visitors to Arendelle, or even just amusing everyone with an impromptu snowstorm when arguments got too heated. They'd solved at least two territory disputes with a snowball fight so far.
It was a few hours after lunch when her majordomo stepped forward and said, "Pardon me, your majesty, but the Dutch ship Queen Wilhelmina apparently encountered a storm on their voyage and have returned to Arendelle."
Elsa sat up. "That's Mr. Lorentz' ship, isn't it?"
"Yes, your majesty."
"Is everyone all right?"
Kai hesitated. "As I understand it, no one was killed, but Mr. Lorentz's leg is broken and he has been advised not to leave his cabin."
"Send him my regards and let him know I hope he heals up quickly," Elsa said. "And if they wish to convalesce here..."
"Begging your pardon, your majesty, but that was not the entire reason I brought this to your attention," he said. "They came across three men who had been shipwrecked by the storm, and their leader asked to speak with you. He says he's an adviser to King Johan of the Southern Isles."
Elsa frowned and sat up straighter. "Correct me if I'm wrong," she said, "But since my father's death, the first contact we've had from their kingdom was Prince Hans, who tried to kill me, and the second was an apology for Prince Hans' behavior. And that's been it."
"That is all we have recorded, your majesty," Kai agreed.
She tapped her fingers on the arm of her throne. "Well," she said, "We owe them the hospitality due any stranded travelers, at least. Send them in."
Her footmen ushered Chac Uayab Xoc and Sacnite forward, joined by three strange and somewhat bedraggled men. Two of them were footmen in the colors of King Johan's court, dingier for the time spent at sea. But the third...
He was wearing a great black fur cloak, and under it, a robe like a monk's in faded browns. His hair was straight and black, not like jet, but like basalt, greyed and lifeless. But it was his eyes, deep and dark like wells in a craggy face, that caught Elsa's gaze and chilled her to her core.
Elsa sat back in her throne and stared him down. She was comfortable with cold. "Welcome to Arendelle," she said. "Chac Uayab Xoc, Sacnite, in other circumstances it would be good to see you again so soon. I'm sorry for your distress."
Chac Uayab Xoc bowed. "We are used to trials and delays in our business, your majesty," he said. "And without the storm, we would not have found these three men, and they may have starved on that spit of land."
For the first time the tall man spoke, and his voice was like a deep well. "A man will die of thirst much sooner than of hunger."
Charming. The Mexica were slightly taken aback. "Ah," Chac Uayab Xoc said. "Indeed. This is..." he hesitated.
Kai rescued him. "Gregor Yefimovich, of the Southern Isles."
Yefimovich nodded slightly. "Adviser of King Johan," he corrected. "My homeland is to the East."
Kai stared cooly. "Indeed."
"Thank you," Elsa said. "See to it that our guests have everything they need." She waited as Chac Uayab Xoc and Sacnite left with Kai, then asked, "How can Arendelle assist you, Mr. Yefimovich?" And hopefully assist him home soon after. The man was starting to give her the creeps.
He bowed, more formally than he had before. "Your majesty. I advise King Johan on some particular matters. Especially on matters of magic."
A murmur went around the hall. Elsa raised a hand for quiet. "We're pretty familiar with magic here in Arendelle," she said. "Surely you've heard."
"I have heard stories of your own great abilities, your majesty," he said. "But none of the stories told me if you were familiar with the difference between one who is born with magic, and one who seeks to acquire it through treachery."
Elsa frowned. "Treachery?"
"Yes," he said. He straightened up, and for the first time Elsa noticed how tall he was. Very tall. "Your majesty, I am seeking a woman, not too much younger than yourself, who caused a great disturbance in our kingdom. We believe she may have come here. Tell me, have you seen such a young woman? Fine red hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, and the manners and bearing of a princess?"
For a moment, all she could do was stare. Then she narrowed her eyes and stood. "I think we should talk in private," she said, and swept across the hall to the receiving room.
Yefimovich followed her but left his footmen outside. "What is all this about?" Elsa asked after he had shut the door behind him.
"Your majesty has seen this girl?"
"Who is she?" Elsa demanded.
He hesitated, then began, "You must understand, our kingdom is sometimes isolated by deep fog, and the land is not always healthy for outsiders. The people of the isles, they are used to it, but King Johan has always married foreign women."
Elsa raised an eyebrow. "Always?"
"He has had four wives," Yefimovich explained. "The first bore him seven sons, strong woman! Until the marsh sickness took her. The second, five more sons, before dying in childbirth. His third wife, a delicate woman from Ireland with the most beautiful red hair..."
"That's where Hans got it from," Elsa, who had been counting, said. "We had the pleasure of making his acquaintance last year."
Yefimovich paused, then said, "She bore him twins, your majesty. A boy and a girl."
Elsa's heart thudded in her chest. "... Helena?"
"So you have seen her," he said. "Did she not tell you?"
"I..." It was suddenly hard to breathe, stuffy in the tiny room. "No, she hasn't spoken a word since I met her. Anna said she doesn't talk..."
"That's strange," Yefimovich said. "She was always just as talkative as her brother at court..."
As her brother. Hans and Helena were brother and sister--twin brother and sister. How close were they? How much did Hans know about his sister being here? How far was she in league with him? What was she doing?
"Helena has been studying magic on her own," Yefimovich was continuing. "We found evidence after she fled. We believe she may be plotting something, against your kingdom or ours."
Elsa took a deep breath and forced her rising panic down. "Helena has done nothing to anyone in the entire time she's been here," she said. "She's just stayed in her room and... knit things."
That, surprisingly, brought Yefimovich to silence. "Knit with what?" he finally asked.
"With what material is she knitting?"
Elsa shook her head in thought. "Uh... nettles, Anna said. Nettle yarn."
He inhaled sharply, then closed his eyes and bent his head in an attitude of sadness. "Your majesty, I believe I can prove to you this woman's ill intentions. If you will wait until tonight, and keep her from finding out I am here."
Still in shock, she nodded agreement. She went to the door and summoned Kai again. "Court is over for the day," she told him. "Please find Gregor Yefimovich and his men a comfortable place to wait. And don't let Helena find out he's here. I want them kept separate."
"Yes, your majesty."
Answers. She'd wanted answers for weeks, now; who Helena really was, why she'd come here, what she was doing. And now that she had part of the story and was on the brink of the rest, she was terrified.
Night couldn't fall fast enough. Elsa took supper in her room. She didn't want to face Helena, didn't want to face her sister's questions. She didn't think she was that good at lying.
Shortly after dark, there was a knock on her door. "Yes?"
"It's your sister," Anna said through the door. "Kristoff and I are going to visit his family to see if they have any ideas better than reindeer slalom. Are you feeling any better?"
Elsa cracked the door slightly. "I'm fine," she said. "Just a headache."
"Okay," Anna said, and grinned. "Rest up, you don't want to be sick for the carnival!"
"I will," she promised, and closed the door again. So she was capable of lying to her sister. Great.
Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door and Kai announced, "Your majesty, Gregor Yefimovich has asked if you will join him downstairs."
"Yes," she answered. "One moment." She gathered up her courage and her skirt, and opened the door.
Yefimovich was waiting at the front door. He'd drawn his cloak around his shoulders and the bristling black fur made him look like a bear. "We must be quiet," he said. "Is there a place we can watch comings and goings unobserved?"
"From her room?"
"From the castle."
Elsa thought it over and then led him to the open square, where they had a view of both causeways. They stepped into the shadows behind one of the carnival booths and watched.
It took twenty minutes in the autumn air, but as they watched, a figure climbed over the balcony of Helena's room and made its way down to the ground below. The person looked around, then threw a hood on and crept down the other causeway.
Elsa looked at Yefimovich. "We should follow her, your majesty," he said.
Helena led them into the hills. The moon was almost full, but they could duck into the trees whenever Helena looked around. She was skittish, but eventually came to the royal graveyard and opened the gate.
Elsa's heart felt as though it was beating double-time. She crept forward, heedless now of Yefimovich trailing her, to watch as Helena threw back her hood and lay an empty sack on the ground. Then the red-headed girl looked up at the moon, closed her eyes, and began humming.
The sound was so shocking after hearing only silence that for long seconds Elsa could only watch as the stinging nettles burst forth from the ground. Pushing up from the grass and covering the ground, the weeds grew thick and fast wherever Helena stood. She cris-crossed the graveyard, more and more plants covering the turf, until she reached the headstones of Elsa's parents.
"Stop!" Elsa found herself staggering forward. Helena whirled around and stopped humming, and the plants rustled in the breeze. "What are you doing?" Elsa cried.
Helena held up her hands and shook her head, still mute.
"Why are you doing this?" Elsa demanded, her eyes blurring with tears. She tried to stomp through the mass of nettles, but they caught her dress, stopping her. Angrily, she blasted the ones closest to her with ice, and they let go.
Helena squeaked in alarm. Elsa grabbed her dress to come around the thicket, but she stopped as Yefimovich stepped into view at the gate. "Princess Helena," he addressed her. "It is time to come home."
The sight of Yefimovich made Helena stumble backwards until she was braced against the tombstone, her feet still pushing at the soft earth. "Princess," Yefmiovich addressed her again. "Come now, it is time to set things right."
"Helena, please," Elsa said, moving around the other side of the nettle thicket. "Please, if you can just... if you can just explain..."
Helena held up her hands together and made a snapping motion, like breaking a twig. Then she drew her fingers in the air, like a wave, or like...
"To break a spell?" Elsa asked, and Helena nodded. "You're doing this to break a spell?"
"That is a strange thing," Yefimovich said. He was towering over Helena now, and she was shrinking away from him like a mouse cornered by a cat. "Wasn't it you, Princess, that cast the spell that cursed your brothers and turned them into swans?"
Elsa stared as Helena looked between her and Yefimovich, and finally closed her eyes and nodded.
"Your majesty," Yefimovich said, turning to Elsa and bowing slightly. "I suggest that she be put under close guard until we can make sail for home."
Elsa couldn't understand why there were tears in her own eyes as she nodded. "I concur," she said. "Princess Helena... please come with us back to the castle."
The whole castle was dark when Anna and Kristoff got back. There wasn't even a light burning in Helena's room, which was strange. She was usually up late working.
It wasn't until they passed Helena's door in the hallway and Anna heard a thud that she felt compelled to check it out. "Helena?" she asked, and jiggled the latch. "Hey, everything okay?"
The door opened under her hand, and the room inside was dark, and empty--
Except for the man face-down on the floor, trying to inch toward the bed, but clearly outlined in the moonlight.
"Kristoff--" Anna said, and the man barely had a moment to look up before Kristoff tackled him. Anna kept one eye on the struggle while she lit the lamp on the bedside table.
Kristoff had the man pinned to the floor and was sitting on his lower back. He'd gotten the man's left arm twisted up and back and was holding him steady.
Anna held up the light to see better, then nearly dropped it in shock. "Hans?"
Hans looked up from the floor and glared at her. "Where's my sister?"
"Sister?" Anna stared at him, then put two and two together. "Oh. Oh. Helena's your sister?"
"Yes," he said. "She's not here. What happened to her?"
"Hang on a minute." Anna set the lamp back down and knelt down to glare at him. "What are you doing here? Didn't you do enough damage last time?"
"I'm sorry about that," Hans said, sounding sincere enough. "We came here by accident. I didn't want to--"
"Waaaaaiiit," Anna said, and took another look at him. He looked a lot more roughed up than the last time she'd seen him, and the last time she'd seen him she'd punched him in the face. "You came here with your sister? You mean... Hans the swan?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, that was me. We're under a curse."
Anna frowned. "You're going to have to explain. Kristoff, let him up, but you can punch him if he does anything."
"Hey," Hans said as Kristoff shrugged and let go his arm. "C'mon."
"I want an explanation," Anna said. "And I don't trust you."
"I want an explanation too," Hans said. "What happened to Helena?"
She sighed shortly. "I don't know," she said. "When we left this evening she was right here. Now. What are you two doing in Arendelle?"
Hans stood up and looked like he was going to start pacing, but he caught sight of Kristoff's expression and stood still with his hands behind his back instead. "Like I said, we didn't mean to come here. We left home in kind of a hurry, after Helena accidentally cast that curse on us."
"Curse?" Anna asked, and Kristoff chimed in, "Us?"
"The swan thing," Hans said. "She turned all my brothers and me into swans."
"But it wore off?" Anna asked, gesturing at his lack of feathers.
"No," he said, "we're only swans during the day. We turn back after sunset. Helena had some kind of dream about a way to fix it that involved knitting these shirts out of nettles..."
"Thirteen shirts for thirteen brothers," Anna realized. "Of course."
"You have twelve brothers?" Kristoff asked.
"Twelve older brothers," Hans said, smiling at him. "Yeah."
"Ah-ah," Anna said. "Stop trying to be charming. Why did you have to leave? Why couldn't you stay down in the Southern Isles and do the knitting there?"
Hans shook his head. "It's this guy. This Russian, Gregor Yefimovich. He showed up, and all of a sudden, father's different. Yefimovich convinced our father that Helena was trying to put a curse on him. So when she cast the spell, and then Yefimovich showed up, and he said he was going to throw Helena in a dungeon, we all kind of... panicked."
Anna crossed her arms over her chest. "And why should I trust you?"
He stared at her. "This is my sister we're talking about!"
She scowled. "You never even told me you had a sister."
That set him back. "No... no. I didn't." He sighed and looked out the window. "Honest? We'd had a fight before I came up here. A big one. See..." he looked back at her, and for a moment she felt a wave of dizzying sincerity. "The short version is that she's the good twin and I'm the bad twin. She's never hurt anyone in her life. She's never wanted to."
"While you try to usurp other people's thrones via subterfuge and regicide," Anna said, trying to make her voice as icy as her sister's. She didn't succeed, but she thought she did a pretty good job.
"What I did was wrong," Hans said forcefully. "And I'm sorry. And I'm especially sorry because now I know what it's like, when your sister does something huge and magical and personally inconvenient that ruins everything, and some jerk comes out of nowhere and starts manipulating everyone to give himself all the power, and if you can't fix it in time your entire kingdom and all the responsibilities that your parents have been telling you about and preparing you for your whole life will be in the hands of someone who doesn't care if you live or die and you have to do something, anything to try and stop it."
Anna stared at him. Hans' voice had risen toward the end of his speech, and now he was taking deep breaths and looking between her and Kristoff, who was looking a little impressed despite himself. Slowly, Hans drew himself up and laced his fingers together. "So," he continued. "That's ironic."
"I still can't believe you never mentioned your twin sister," Anna muttered.
"Is there any reason Helena would have left on her own?" Kristoff asked.
Hans frowned and started looking around the room. "She runs out of nettles sometimes," he said. He looked under her pile of yarn and in the bathtub. "There aren't any plants here, and her bag's missing. Maybe she went to get more."
"Where would she go?" Anna asked.
"Graveyard," Hans said. "Or... maybe the churchyard? She can't grow them in normal ground."
Anna blinked. "She... grows them?"
"Yeah," Hans said. "She has magic." He walked over to the window and poked his head out, then flinched back. "When did he get here?"
"Who?" Anna went to the window and looked.
Down on the causeway her sister was leading two figures. Right behind her was a woman, clearly Helena, head bowed and shoulders hunched. Behind Helena walked a tall man, one of the tallest Anna had ever seen. His back was straight and his hair was black and his cloak was dark and shaggy fur.
"Who is that?" she asked. "I've never seen him before."
"That's Yefimovich," Hans said, and Anna had never heard that mixture of fear and hatred in his voice before. "He's got my sister."
"I don't care who he is or where he came from," Anna said, "He's not King of Arendelle. Elsa has your sister, and Elsa can be reasoned with." She scowled, suddenly furious again. "If I even want to reason with her. Why do I care if you stay a bird for a while?"
Hans held up his hands. "Okay. I know that we're not friends. And we'll probably never be. All I'm asking for is a truce. Not for my sake, but for my sister." He hesitated. "And also, because if she doesn't get us un-cursed by the beginning of winter, we all have to stay swans forever. And maybe you think I deserve that, but at least some of my brothers are nicer than I am."
Anna stared at him. "The beginning of winter. That's... three days away, now."
Hans went to Helena's desk and went through the pile of shirts. "She has... eleven here." He laughed, slightly strained. "Well, that's just me and Egon who are left... sorry, Egon."
Kristoff was looking out the door and frowning. "That's weird," he said. "They're not coming this way. It looks like they're going down to the cellars."
Hans and Anna exchanged a look. "Or... the dungeon?" Anna suggested.
"Yefimovich," Hans said. "He must have convinced her..."
"Okay," Anna said. "Here's what we're going to do." She turned and blew out the lamp again. "Hans, you are going to stay put. I don't trust you wandering around. Kristoff, you stay here and make sure."
"Gotcha," Kristoff said, crossing his arms and looking imposing.
"I am going to talk to my sister."
"Has that plan ever worked?" Hans asked.
Anna scowled at him. "Kristoff, you get to hit him anytime he says anything nasty."
"Sorry!" Hans said, flinching, before Kristoff could do anything. "Seriously, though, are you sure?"
"I'm sure that the first step is talking to her, before racing around half-baked with no idea what's really going on," Anna said. "I want to know what she's heard."
Hans stepped back. He looked at Kristoff, then back at her. "Don't trust Yefimovich," he finally said. "Helena wouldn't hurt anyone."
"That's what I told you about Elsa," Anna reminded him.
"I know," Hans said.
Anna frowned peevishly at him. "Kristoff," she asked, "you gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine," Kristoff said. "You go talk to Elsa."
Anna snuck out the door and started down the stairs. She nearly ran into Elsa on the way up. "Oh, hey, sis," Anna said, trying to hide her nervousness. "I was hoping I could talk to you."
"Not now, Anna," Elsa said. "I'm very tired."
Elsa did look tired, Anna thought as she fell into step beside her sister. She looked more than tired, she looked upset and distressed and almost like she'd been crying. "Well... do you want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?" Elsa said, but she looked guilty.
"Uh..." Anna shrugged. "I don't know, but you seem kind of upset about something."
"I..." Elsa shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it, no. I want to go to sleep."
Anna followed her up a few more steps. "Is it about Helena?"
"What? Why would you think that?"
"I dunno," Anna said. "You just always seemed interested in her, so..."
Elsa was quiet for a few more steps. "I don't want to upset you," she said.
"I won't be upset," Anna said. "I promise."
Elsa shook her head and stopped on the stairs. "Helena," she said quietly, "Is Hans' twin sister. Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who tried to kill both of us. I'm sure you remember."
It took Anna a moment to remember this was supposed to be a surprise. "Oh, I remember," she said. "She's his sister? No wonder I thought she seemed familiar... but she's nothing like him."
"Anna, what do we really know about her?" Elsa said. "She's quiet, she sits in her room and knits... we never found out anything else."
"Well, she couldn't talk," Anna said. "But she always seemed nice, and she liked my company..."
"I saw her tonight," Elsa said. "I followed her. She was in the graveyard. She was standing on our father's grave."
Anna waited, then prompted, "And?"
"And!" Elsa waved her hand, trailing tiny ice crystals. "And she was growing those... those plants! With magic!"
Anna tilted her head sideways. "But... that's not hurting anyone, is it?"
"Magic, Anna," Elsa argued. "She was... she was..."
"But you have magic, sis," Anna said, taking her sister's hand. "It's not anything to be afraid of. And so what if she grew some plants in the graveyard?"
Elsa shook her head. "But there's a difference between magic you're born with and magic that you study out of greed or desire for power."
"Really?" Anna asked dubiously. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Uh..." Elsa pulled back. "This man, this adviser... to King Johan. Gregor Yefimovich."
Anna tilted her head. "Adviser to King Johan of the Southern Isles?"
"Yes," Elsa said.
"So why are you trusting him if--"
"She's been lying to us," Elsa said. "She put a curse on her own family. She turned all her brothers into swans." She hesitated. "Including Hans, which means that she's actually brought him inside this castle."
"Maybe she couldn't help it," Anna said. "Maybe the magic got away from her, and maybe she's trying to help."
"We can't take that risk, Anna." Elsa shook her head. "We're responsible for our entire kingdom. If she's working with her brother--her twin brother--to undermine us? We need to take care of it. No matter how much we like her."
"I don't want to talk about this any more!" Elsa snapped.
Anna stepped back, startled. Elsa put her head in her hands. "I just want to go to bed," Elsa said quietly. "We'll talk about this in the morning."
Anna waited until her sister had vanished into her own room, then tiptoed back to Helena's room and slipped inside.
Hans had been sitting on the bed and Kristoff leaning on the desk, but they both jumped to attention when she got back. "Well?" Hans asked.
For a moment, Anna considered things from her sister's perspective. Here she was, having confirmed that Helena had let her dangerous, manipulative, evil twin brother into the castle and was working with him... and she was considering helping him instead of throwing him in the dungeon with his sister where he belonged.
Maybe she should cut out this princessing business and go live in the woods with Kristoff. It certainly had less of a fate-of-the-kingdom feel to it.
Instead, she took a deep breath and said, "Well, Yefimovich seems to have told Elsa basically everything you told us, only... he made it sound different."
Hans nodded. "He's manipulative, he's not stupid."
She paused. "I'm just gonna let that one go. The only thing I don't get is that Elsa said something about there being a difference between magic you're born with and magic you learn. And I've never heard anything about that."
"What?" Hans said. "Uh... I wouldn't know, I don't know anything about magic."
"What we need," Kristoff said, "Is a magic expert."
Hans turned to him and frowned doubtfully. "And do you happen to know a magic expert?"
"Actually," Kristoff said smugly, "I do."
A few minutes later, they were outside the royal stables, and Hans was looking appalled. "A reindeer? Why can't we just take horses?"
"Because Sven won't tell on us," Kristoff said, offering Sven a carrot and then taking a bite of the remaining end. Hans looked slightly ill. "Right, buddy?"
"Huff," Sven agreed.
"Yeah, but..." Hans grimaced. "Are we all going to fit?"
"Sure," Anna said, vaulting up to Sven's shoulders. Kristoff climbed on behind her and wrapped his arms around her to reach the reins.
Hans stared. "Why do I have to sit in back?"
"Stop complaining," Kristoff said. "Or we're never going to get there before dawn, and you'll have to fly back."
"Point taken," Hans said, and climbed aboard.
The autumn air was turning colder and the wind nipped at their faces. Anna hunched over as the trees whipped past.
The familiar mossy rocks and steam vents were soon in view. They'd only left an hour ago, and here they were again. Anna hoped Kristoff's family didn't mind frequent guests.
What was she thinking. She'd met them. They loved guests. She found herself hoping, perversely or not, that they wouldn't love Hans. She felt like the trolls were her people now, in some way; them welcoming Hans would almost be a betrayal.
They dismounted and headed into the clearing. The trolls had balled back up into their snooze mode. "Hey, guys," Kristoff said. "We, uh, we had to come back. It's kind of important."
Hans was looking around as confused as she'd been her first time here. "What am I looking for?" he murmured to her.
"Just wait," she said. Then, louder, "Hey, everyone!"
The little ones were the quickest to wake up. "Kristoff and Anna are back!"
And then it was a rockslide, just as though they'd been gone for several days instead of a couple hours. "Kristoff! Anna! Did you miss us?"
"Trolls," Hans said, sounding relieved. "Okay, good, thought you were talking to rocks for a moment, there."
"Do you have trolls in the Southern Isles?" Anna asked, curious.
"No, we have nixies," Hans said. "I mean, I hear about the nixies, I've never actually met any."
"And who is this?" someone asked, grabbing Hans' pant leg. Anna still had trouble telling the trolls apart, she was embarrassed to admit. Part of her was convinced they enjoyed confusing her.
"This," Kristoff said, "Is Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles."
Tiny stone hands grabbed and pushed, and suddenly Kristoff and Anna found themselves in a ring of trolls, all of whom were staring at Hans. "The guy who was mean to Anna?" one of them asked.
"Yeah," Anna said. "Same guy."
She couldn't see their expressions, but something made Hans go even paler than he normally was. "Uh, hello," he said carefully.
There was a general muttering, and Anna could pick out the words "Sticks," "stones," and "buried alive."
"Guys," she said firmly. "Be polite. He's here as our guest."
"Well, well," said the one troll voice that Anna could pick out clearly. "What have we here?"
"Grandpabbie!" Kristoff said, relived. "We need your help."
"You certainly do," the elder troll said. "Bring him here."
Hans was, rather unceremoniously, picked up by a wave of trolls and dumped at Pabbie's feet. Hans scrambled gracefully up to one knee and inclined his head politely. "I'm Prince Hans of the Southern Isles," he said, "And my brothers and I have been put under--"
"A rather powerful curse," Pabbie finished for him. "One which is causing some problems with your natural magic, might I add."
"Yes, and we need your--what?" Hans pulled back and frowned. "What do you mean, natural magic? I don't have any magic. You're thinking of my sister."
"Your sister probably has magic, too. You're twins, aren't you?"
"Yes..." Hans looked, confused, back at Anna and Kristoff. "How do you know?"
"Certain things leave their signs. And you do have magic. You were born with it."
Hans shook his head. "No. Look, Queen Elsa makes it snow. My sister grows plants. I know what magic looks like, and I don't have any."
Pabbie raised an eyebrow. "Not even a particular talent for convincing people?"
"That's..." Hans scowled. "That's not magic, that's diplomacy. That's something you learn in prince school."
"Or always knowing what to say, and how to say it?"
"Charm," Hans countered.
"Finishing people's sentences?"
"I--" Hans frowned again. "That's rapport, not mind reading!"
"And you're only ever clumsy when it works to your advantage, or you believe it will," Pabbie finished.
Anna gasped. "Like that first time we met, on the boat," she said.
"Hey, that was just an accident," Hans said, standing up. "You're not taking his side?"
"Of course I'm taking his side," Anna said. "That makes so much sense."
"It does not!"
Pabbie sighed. "It is a power, and it is one you must learn to control, or it will destroy you."
"What?" Hans threw up his hands. "Okay, wait, even if this is magic, why should I need to control it? I can make people like me and convince them of anything I want? That sounds great."
The elder troll looked grim. "But you know in your heart it isn't true."
"So, you know very well that none of the people who like you like you for yourself, but only for the mask you put on for them. And you cannot like someone who treats you like your own shadow. The only thing that follows is contempt. Hatred for others, and hatred for yourself."
Pabbie was quiet for a few seconds, and Anna could almost see what he'd said sinking in on Hans' face. It didn't look like a pleasant realization. "Of course," Pabbie continued, "Your power won't work on anyone with their own magic. Queen Elsa, for example. Or your sister."
"Okay, that's something we wanted to ask about," Anna said. "This guy, Yefimovich, said that there's a difference between people who are born with magic and people who study magic later."
"Oh no, not materially," Pabbie said. "Except that those born with it cannot ignore their powers, while those who study on their own can stop any time."
"Okay, so that's good to know," Anna said. "Even though it sounds like her powers are inborn. Right, Hans?"
"Huh?" he said, looking up. "Oh, right."
Anna frowned at him, and turned back to Pabbie. "So is there a way to break the curse?"
"I'm afraid you will not have enough time," Pabbie said. "Under a vow of silence, someone must take stinging nettles, the kind that grow on consecrated ground--"
"My sister, Helena," Hans said dully. "She's been working for weeks."
"Oh, good," Pabbie said. "She has worked the nettles into yarn with her own hands, and knit them into shirts, or cassocks?"
"Yeah," Anna said. "Well, crocheted, not knit. She's made eleven of them so far."
"She must finish them by the last day of autumn," Pabbie said "When winter dawns, it will be too late, and they will be turned into swans forever."
"Eeesh," Anna said. "Well, thanks for your help. That... confirms everything we know, I guess." She turned to Hans, who was still studying his boots. "I'm sorry we didn't learn anything that could help."
Hans looked up at her and blinked. "Huh? Oh, sorry, I was just... I'm sorry, sir," he said, kneeling again, "But you said... she has to work the nettles with her own hands. Does that mean she doesn't have to pick them herself?"
"Yes, that's right," Pabbie said. "Just the breaking and the spinning and the knitting."
"And the retting and the scutching," Anna said, remembering.
"What's scutching?" Hans asked, then, "Never mind. Can I ask a favor?"
Anna raised an eyebrow. "You may..."
"Can we stop at the graveyard on the way back?"
"I don't see why not," Anna said, turning to Kristoff. He shrugged.
"Dawn is approaching," Pabbie said. "You had best be on your way."
The royal graveyard was on a hill overlooking the sea. Anna had been there several times since her parents had died, on anniversaries, to stop and remember, to put up flowers. It was a peaceful place. Now it was half-covered in a thicket of nettles.
Sven cantered to a stop and started sniffing at the plants. "Woah," Kristoff said, looking at the thicket.
"No wonder Elsa was upset," Anna said. "This does look kinda bad."
"They're just plants," Hans said, jumping down. "Tell your reindeer not to eat them."
"Sven, no," Kristoff said forcefully as Sven opened his mouth. "They'll give your mouth blisters."
Hans bent down at the gate and picked up an empty sack--the same one Helena had been carrying when they'd first met, Anna recognized. "Are you going to pick all of those?" she asked as he reached for the stalks.
He looked back at her. "I'm going to try," he said, and grabbed some of the plants. He let go just as quickly. "Ow!"
"I guess that's why they're called stinging nettles," she said, jumping down from Sven's back and coming over to look. Hans' hand already had a few pinpricks of blood on it. "Eeeesh."
Hans frowned at her and reached back to yank the stalks out of the ground. "I've never seen stings that bad," Anna said.
"They're magic, I think," he replied, stuffing the plants into the bag and grabbing more.
Anna thought about trying to help, but Hans... looked like he had it in hand. "So," she said. "You think this will be enough?"
"I hope so," he said.
A thought occurred to her. "Hey," she said. "What happens if she doesn't finish all the shirts? I mean, what if she only gets halfway through one when time runs out? Does someone have to stay half a swan forever?"
"I don't know," Hans said. "And I hope I don't have to find out."
Anna bit her lip and worried it between her teeth for a moment as she watched Hans pull up more plants. "Why were you so mean to me?" she finally blurted.
Hans looked up from his cursing. "What?"
"I was going to die anyway," she said, "And you were going to kill Elsa, I know that. But why did you have to be so nasty?"
He looked baffled for a moment, then looked down at his hands. When he looked back at her his eyes were wide and doleful, like a puppy or a reindeer. "It was like, suddenly, we were all characters in a story," he said. "Like everything was long ago and far away and not quite real--"
"Okay, you know what, stop," Anna said, holding up her hands. "I literally just learned that you have the magic power of telling me what I want to hear, so if you're not going to tell me the truth, just forget it."
Hans' expression turned closed and irritated. "Fine," he said, and grabbed another handful of nettles and stuffed them into the bag. "Ow. Fine, I said that because I'd really started to hate you."
Anna stared. "Hate me? What did I ever do to you? We'd only known each other one day!"
"You fell in love with me in the same amount of time," he pointed out, completely unfairly.
"Yes, but..." Anna shook her head. "Apparently you were just magically lying the whole time, so that doesn't even count."
"Exactly," he snapped. "I mean... we spent hours talking about Flemish painting."
"And French Rococo," Anna corrected him.
Hans glared at her. "I don't even like Rococo," he said. "We talked about painting for two hours and I was bored out of my skull."
"So why didn't you change the subject?" she asked.
He sighed sharply and grabbed another handful of nettles. "Ow. Because I knew you wanted to talk about it, because I could read you like a book, and by that time I was just seeing if you'd fall for my line. I had been hoping you'd be smart enough to see through it, but nobody ever has been before--"
"You've pulled this thing before?" she said disgustedly.
"Never with a kingdom on the line." He smirked at her. "That was new."
"Ugh." Anna threw up her hands. "You were mad at me because I believed your magically-enhanced flirting. Why did you even care? You came to Arendelle specifically to cheat me and marry me and kill me, so what did it matter?"
"Because I hoped it would be different this time!" Hans snapped, and dumped his handful of nettles on the ground. "Ow!"
Anna stared at him as he clenched and unclenched his fingers a few times. "You... wait, what?"
Hans sighed and bent to pick up the nettles. "What I was trying to explain to my sister," he said, "Was that the plan was always 'get on the throne', not 'show up and murder everyone.'"
Anna looked at Kristoff to see if he was following this. "Um," Kristoff interjected, "Wouldn't getting on the throne at minimum mean having two people die?"
Hans was clearly trying not to look contemptuous, but it wasn't working. "Eventually," he finally said, "But originally that was a long-term plan. The point was to start off closer than my current end-of-the-line position. The whole--" he grabbed another fistful of plants and winced. "The whole emergency, ice storm, princess dying of magic... that was an opportunity."
Anna bit her lip in thought. "Let me put this together," she said, wondering for a moment that she was so calmly discussing how close she and her sister had come to death. "You took the 'opportunity' to try and sieze the throne... because you hated me, because I fell for you, because you used magic on me--"
"I now realize," Hans interjected darkly.
"And," she continued, "because you thought... things might be 'different'?" She held up her hands and gestured faintly.
"Yes!" Hans ran a hand through his hair, leaving a couple streaks of blood on his temple. Anna winced in involuntary sympathy. "Yes, I thought... maybe? Maybe we'd like each other?"
Anna blinked. "Maybe we'd like each other."
"Yes? I mean, hey, hooray, here's the princess of Arendelle, turns out she's gorgeous and unpretentious and we seem to have an actual thing for each other, great." Hans still wasn't looking at her. He waved vaguely in her direction and went back to plant-harvesting. "Except... you were just as easy to manipulate as anyone else. As everyone always is. Because, apparently, of magic."
Anna took a few shallow breaths and then one deep one, trying to figure out how Hans' interpretation of what had happened meshed with her own. She'd figured out how to be comfortable knowing that Hans had never liked her and had been lying to her because she was a princess. And now? "That's actually worse," she said out loud.
He looked up at that. "It's worse that I actually liked you?"
"Yes!" She scowled. "How can that not be worse, that apparently I failed to live up to your stupid lying test, that you played on me despite actually liking me? You don't test people that you want to fall in love with!"
Hans shrugged helplessly. "I do."
"And that's why you don't have any friends," Anna said vindictively, and went to go sit next to Sven and Kristoff.
Hans stared at her for a second, then turned to Kristoff. "Is she right about that?"
Kristoff considered for a second. "Think so."
"Hunh." Hans looked down at the plants in his hand. "Good to know."
The thicket was cleared by the time the rosy fingers of dawn started creeping over the horizon, and Hans seemed to have worked out some of his aggression. He stuffed the last of the nettles into the bag and carried the bulging sack over to where Anna and Kristoff were waiting.
"Feeling better?" Anna asked.
Hans wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. "Do you care?"
"Uhhh..." Anna said. "Nope, not really."
"Then yes." He set the bag down and sighed. "Thanks for... yeah. Thanks."
"Sure," Anna said. She picked up the bag. "Now we just have to figure out how to get this to Helena."
"I need to figure out how to get all my brothers in to see her," Hans said. "We all have to be there at the same time for the spell to get broken." He looked up as the sunlight broke over the sky, and said quickly, "Tell her that I--"
He didn't finish the sentence before a whoosh of magic covered him, and when Anna opened her eyes again in front of her was a swan.
"That," she said, "was trying a little too hard."
Hans fluffed his feathers and honked apologetically.
"Okay," Kristoff said, hauling the bag of nettles to Sven's back. "How are we going to get these past the guards and into the cell so Helena can turn them into yarn?"
"I have an idea," Anna said.
Helena probably should have spent the night after being captured by Yefimovich weeping, or banging at the door of her cell, or something to let off her frustration and helpless anger. Her emotions were pitching and rolling like a ship on a storm-tossed ocean, from hurt and betrayal to fury to despair and self-recrimination, and she felt ready to burst from the turmoil. But when the door locked she felt her strength leave her, and she staggered to the narrow bed and fell asleep as soon as she lay down.
She didn't wake until late the next morning when someone knocked on her cell door. "Princess Helena?"
Helena rubbed her eyes and sat up, momentarily confused. Then the events of last night came back to her and she shrank in horror. Yefimovich. And Queen Elsa. He'd poisoned Elsa's mind just like he'd poisoned her father's.
She sniffed at a sudden prickle of tears and ignored the noises in the hallway. She'd been so stupid. Queen Elsa had been kind and generous and compassionate, and Princess Anna had been welcoming and sweet and sisterly, and instead of somehow explaining her situation she'd pretended everything was going to be fine and lied by omission. And now Yefimovich had revealed who she was in the worst way possible.
She hadn't wanted this. In some corner of her mind she'd hoped, somehow, that she could un-curse her brothers and just... sneak away from them, stay in Arendelle forever with Elsa, forget she was a princess, forget she was related to Hans, just live here and spend her evenings curled up by the fire eating ice cream with the Queen. Or something. It was a stupid childish fantasy and she wished more than anything she'd just fessed up and written it out and let Elsa start hating her before she got her hopes up.
Instead she was going to fail her family. Again.
The image of Elsa's betrayed expression flashed in front of her eyes, and Helena put her head in her hands and wished she had the strength to cry.
"And I said let me in!" a familiar voice, obviously tired of arguing at a reasonable volume, demanded.
Helena lowered her hands and frowned at the door. That was... Signe?
"Ma'am, I can't... she's in there by orders of the Queen!"
"And you can leave her in there, but I have orders from the Princess to make sure she gets a hot bath and a change of clothing," Signe said forcefully. "Now are you going to open the door? I'm sure you can keep one frail girl from escaping a dungeon!"
"Er, yes," the guard said, and then the door clanged open.
Signe was carrying a washtub full of a bundle of towels and blankets, and Inge was behind her with buckets of water. "Now, dear," Signe said as she set the tub down. "We'll get you started here and then I'll get you some more water, so you can wash, all right? Imagine, spending the night down here in the cold." She heaved the bundle out of the tub and onto the bed, an when the guard wasn't looking she winked in Helena's direction.
Helena couldn't figure out what was going on. Inge poured the buckets into the tub and said, "Wash up now, Signe will be back if you need anything." And then with a bustle of skirts, they were gone.
The room seemed colder without them. Helena reached for one of the blankets on the bundle and it rustled under her hand.
She jerked her hand back, then pushed the blankets off the pile. Wrapped up in towels were the shirts she'd finished, her remaining yarn, her crochet hook and spindle... and her bag, stuffed full of freshly-picked nettles.
For a moment she could only stare in surprise, and then she upended the entire bag into her bath. She only had three more days, and she wasn't going to fail her brothers now.
Anna managed to wake up in time for lunch. Normally Elsa would have teased her for sleeping in so late, but today the queen was looking definitely un-regal, slouched in her chair and staring into her soup. Anna tasted hers and thought it was fairly good soup, but certainly nothing great as far as a conversational partner. And she'd spent her childhood years talking to paintings.
"Hey, sis," she finally said. "You want to talk?"
Elsa looked up as if surprised to find her sister at the table, then stared back into her soup. "I... not really," she said.
Anna took another sip of soup and tried not to let her disappointment show. Not that Elsa was looking at her. "Well... what's going to happen to Helena?"
Elsa shook herself and picked up her soup spoon. "She's being kept under guard, for now," she said. "I told the guards to shoo away any swans they see. Cursed or not, I don't want Prince Hans getting back into our home."
Anna tried not to grimace guiltily. "Ah, right."
"And Gregor Yefimovich is going to take Helena back with him to the Southern Isles the day after tomorrow."
"So soon?" Anna yelped.
"It would be sooner, but he said he had some supplies he needed to purchase in town," Elsa said harshly. "I can't believe that she's actually... I thought..."
"She seems nice," Anna said.
"Hans seemed nice," Elsa pointed out crossly. "At least nice enough for you."
"Hey, low blow," Anna said. "You saw right through him."
Elsa shook her head. "No, I didn't. I was anxious, and upset, and scared at the thought of having a lot of people in the castle for a royal wedding. And now here's Helena, who seems so innocent and nice and polite and refined and hardworking and beautiful and kind and... and it turns out that she's been keeping all this a secret."
"She can't talk," Anna pointed out. "It's hard to explain things when you can only really say yes or no."
"I just..." Elsa took a deep breath. "I think it'll be better for everyone concerned if she goes home."
"No buts, Anna."
Anna closed her mouth, then took another spoonful of soup. "Well... is there a reason she has to stay in the dungeon instead of in her room?"
"She can escape from her room," Elsa said. "The dungeon's fine, Anna. I spent a day in that dungeon when Hans locked me in. It's not that uncomfortable."
Anna ate the rest of her soup in silence.
After that she ducked down to the dungeon and wheedled her way in to see Helena. Hans' sister was busy spinning a length of yarn, though she tucked the spindle behind her leg when the door opened.
"I saw your brother," Anna said when the guards had shut the door. Helena looked at her, startled, then made a hesitant gesture. "Yes, I'm still mad at him," Anna explained, "But he told us what's going on--me and Kristoff. We asked... our friend, who's an expert on magic, and he said it was fine if someone else picked them."
Helena mimed wiping her forehead in relief. The resemblance to her brother was uncanny, and Anna tried to forget it. "Uh, yeah. So... Elsa said that Yefimovich wants to take you back to the Southern Isles day after tomorrow."
Helena's hand flew to her mouth and she almost stopped spinning in surprise. "I know," Anna said. "We'll just have to make sure you have everything you need. Do you need more water? Or... anything?"
Helena shook her head, then put her hand on Anna's arm and squeezed thanks.
"Don't thank me yet," Anna said. "Thank me when you're out of here and all your brothers don't have feathers."
Helena nodded and gave her spindle another kick.
That day and the next passed slowly. Occasionally Anna would drift down to the docks, where she saw Gregor Yefimovich directing men to load a ship with provisions, big crates of things packed in straw. It was on one of these trips that she bumped into Sacnite again.
"I didn't realize," she said after Sacnite had filled her in on the storm and finding the shipwrecked survivors. "So you're sailing tomorrow? You'll miss the carnival!"
Sacnite chuckled and took Anna's hands in hers. "No matter when we sail, it will be too soon. We'll be back, Princess. At least we were able to use the excuse to conduct more business."
"That's good," Anna said. She watched as another crate got loaded onto their ship. "I hope at least some of that is for you. Yefimovich has been buying a lot."
"Yes, he kept talking with the traders from Joseon and Zhongguo." Sacnite's eyes glittered and she grinned. "And I kept wondering what he was buying, but he wouldn't answer me."
"Probably fireworks," Anna said. "That's mostly what they bring with them. We have such long nights in winter, at the solstice we have a huge fireworks festival that lasts for hours. People buy so many that it's worth it for them to come all the way up here themselves." She grinned and wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "We'll have a show after the winter carnival, if you want to see them for yourself..."
"Don't tempt me!" Sacnite said, laughing. "I have enough to sell back at home already. I'll say goodbye tomorrow, Princess, and we'll be back in the spring with more chocolate."
That afternoon Anna watched as the guards shooed away a trio of swans circling by the south gate. After their third attempt, she grabbed her cloak and snuck out the door.
The guards missed her, but one of the swans spotted her and honked to the others. They spiraled up, up, until they were white dots on the breeze.
Anna made her way south through town, down to the edge of the fjord. The swans flew lower and led her down to the beach as it neared sundown.
It was odd to see a party of swans on the sand, but that was what awaited her when she got down to the water. The three who had been leading her landed and joined the rest, and there was a honking, squawking caucus to which she wasn't privy. She frowned, guessed it would be another couple minutes until sundown, and tried to count. She lost track three times before she finally made it to thirteen.
Thirteen brothers. Whoof. Anna wondered if they were all this loud when they were human.
Suddenly, she got to find out. The sunlight blinked out and all the swans resumed human shape. They were quiet for a moment, then continued talking as if nothing had happened.
"Um... excuse me?" she asked.
"AHEM," Hans said, waving his arms. He was surprisingly easy to pick out of the crowd. Most of his brothers were taller than he was, and he was the only one with red hair. "As I was trying to say..."
"Sorry," the tallest man there said, "You're kind of hard to understand in swan."
Hans glared for a moment. "As I was trying to say, I'd like to introduce Princess Anna of Arendelle."
The man he'd been talking to looked impressed for a moment, then came over and knelt in the sand at Anna's feet. He was broad-shouldered and had thick black hair and deep brown skin, and dreamy eyes, which suggested which side of the family Hans had inherited them from. "Princess," he said, "I'm Prince Martin. Thank you for helping us. I'm glad our little brother here didn't completely ruin your attitude toward our kingdom and its citizens."
"Uh, you're welcome," Anna said, sparing a glance at Hans who was rolling his eyes. "I just don't think anyone deserves to get trapped by a curse, and that Yefimovich guy creeps me out."
"So he is here, then," Martin said.
"I told you that," Hans said peevishly.
"Elsa is sending Helena home with him tomorrow," Anna said. "They'll be taking her to the ship Queen Wilhelmina. That'll get her out of the castle and in the open where you can get to her."
"If she's done with all the shirts by then," Hans muttered. "Or Egon and I--"
"Or just you," a blonde, fair-skinned man who might have been Egon said.
"Right," Hans said, "Or Egon and I will be left out in the cold."
"Do you know when they'll be leaving?" Martin asked, ignoring his brothers with what Anna assumed was long practice.
"No," Anna said, "I don't. I'll try to delay them, but I don't know how much I can do."
"You've already done so much," Martin said. "Thank you."
Anna felt obscurely charmed, then caught Hans' eye and felt obscurely irritated. "All right. I have to get back to the castle so my sister doesn't miss me."
"Yeah, thanks for visiting," Hans said, "Run while you still can."
Anna gave him a sardonic smile, shook Martin's hand, and headed back to the castle.
The last day of autumn dawned cold and crisp. Elsa rose early, bathed, and had breakfast in her room. She drew on her dress, pinned her hair up in her crown, and headed downstairs.
Gregor Yefimovich was waiting in the audience chamber. Elsa felt a strange darkness when he looked at her, nothing like the bright chill of winter waiting in the air.
Elsa forced down her unease and met his gaze. "Mr. Yefimovich. I thought you would leave on the morning tide."
"There was one last delivery I was waiting for," Yefimovich said. "Now that it is aboard, we can move the princess there and leave later today."
Elsa nodded. "That sounds... good."
"And then we will trouble you no longer," Yefimovich said.
Elsa drew herself up and smiled regally. "You've been no trouble at all," she said.
She didn't want to watch what happened next, but Helena was her guest... prisoner. Her responsibility. Helena didn't want to leave her cell, especially not with Yefimovich. They had to load her into a cart just to get her to leave the gates.
It was only after the cart was clattering along the causeway toward the docks that Elsa saw that tucked among her skirts Helena had kept her yarn and her knitting, and she was busily stitching something in her lap.
Well, it wasn't her problem any more. Let Helena work her magic on the Southern Isles; she wasn't going to be a part of Arendelle any more.
"C'mon, sis," Anna said, and Elsa realized she'd been standing at the window staring for minutes. "C'mon, if you're going to watch, we should actually see them off."
"I... suppose you're right," Elsa said, and followed her sister down the stairs to the front door.
Helena wouldn't leave the cart. The footmen cajoled and implored and threatened her, but eventually they just pushed the cart onto the deck and left it. The Queen Wilhelmina's sailors didn't seem to mind the additional cargo on deck, and moved in practiced rhythm to get the ship under weigh.
Elsa watched the ship drift away from the dock with an increasing melancholy. She should be happy, she told herself. Helena had lied, and now she was leaving, and Elsa could get back to thinking about something else. Anything else.
"Wait," Anna said, "Did you see Yefimovich's men get back on board?"
"Hm?" Elsa asked.
"I was watching," Anna said, jumping up onto the retaining wall and looking around, "And I thought I saw them get off the ship but not back on. Did you see them?"
"I... wasn't looking," Elsa admitted, that strange foreign coldness growing in her stomach again. "Something's not right." She walked forward to the railing and stared out at the boat. "Do you see Yefimovich anywhere?"
Anna leaned out over the water, holding on by a lamp post, and frowned. "No... he could be below deck, though. Checking his cargo." Anna suddenly jerked back. "His explosive cargo... he wouldn't."
"What?" Elsa demanded.
"Sacnite said... she said that Yefimovich was spending a lot of time buying fireworks."
"A wise investment," Yefimovich said from behind her.
Elsa spun around, shocked. "Why are you still here?" she said. "Why aren't you on the ship taking Helena home?"
"Don't worry, your majesty," Yefimovich said. "Soon, all our troubles will be over."
The noise hit her first, the rush of a dozen pairs of wings. Then the tiny figures on board the ship were surrounded by white, twelve-and-one swans diving for the deck.
"There are innocent people on that ship!" Anna yelled over the noise. "Those are my friends!"
Anna lunged at Yefimovich's head, but he grabbed her wrists and stopped her in the air, holding her struggling at arm's length. "Now!" he cried.
Elsa turned in time to see one of the footmen raise a bow nocked with a flaming arrow and let fly.
"No," she whispered, as the arrow shot through the air.
"No," she demanded as it hissed and thunked into the side of the ship, and between one breath and the next was the roar of flame. "NO!"
She gathered up her powers and pushed, and all the heat and noise and fire that had blasted its way out of the hull was replaced by the icy jaws of Winter, cold and fierce and solid. She rode the wind of her power and skipped over the water, up the side of the boat, past the sailors and the white wings and the dizzying green as Helena threw something over her head, until she was in the cart and her hands were pressed to Helena's face. "Are you all right?"
Helena stared up at her, coughed, and said, "Yes... yes, I'm okay."
Helena's voice was scratchy but firm, and Elsa felt she could just lie down in relief. "Thank goodness," she said.
Helena was talking, she suddenly realized. That was new.
"Oh, uh, uhm. That's..." a familiar voice said from behind her.
"Guess it's just you, little brother," someone she didn't recognize said.
Elsa was suddenly aware of being surrounded by people--people who hadn't been there a moment before. She drew back and stood up. The swans that had been diving for the deck had been replaced by a group of men, each of them wearing one of the green nettle sweaters that Helena had been busy knitting. Crocheting. The men were laughing and clapping each other on the back, and one of the blonde ones leaned down to give Helena's shoulder a grateful pat. "Good job, sis!"
Of course. Helena had been telling the truth the entire time. Elsa felt faint. "I am so, so sorry for everything that happened," she blurted.
"It's all right," Helena said, standing up and brushing herself off. "I'm sorry I couldn't explain, and I know that Yefimovich is a convincing talker."
"Yes..." Elsa turned and looked back toward shore. Several guards were giving Yefimovich and his cohort a very firm lesson on mandhandling a member of the royal family and firing weapons into the harbor. "Yes, we'll have to deal with him. Still, you were my guest..." she turned back to Helena. "You... are my guest, if you'll forgive me this..."
"Of course," Helena said. "I understand, completely, and this--"
"Hey, Helena," one of Helena's blonder brothers said, hauling Hans forward. "You missed a spot."
They really did look alike, Elsa noticed as Helena stepped over to her twin. Except that Hans was wearing one of those green shirts... most of one. Hans' left arm was missing a sleeve, and also was a lot more feathery than it had been last she'd seen.
"Oh no," Helena said, and it sounded like her heart was breaking. "Oh, no, Hans, I'm so sorry--"
"Hey, it's okay," he said, flexing his wing out and shaking it. "It's all right, it's only one arm. And it's not even the one I use for stuff."
"But..." Helena wavered on her feet, then collapsed bodily into Hans' arms. Arm. Hans struggled for a moment, then got his shoulder under her weight.
Elsa looked around at the deck. The sailors of the Queen Wilhelmina were trying to put some order to their new passengers. Chac Uayab Xoc and Sacnite had appeared from their cabin below and were exclaiming at the icicle stuck in the stern. After a moment, Chac Uayab Xoc looked up and came over to join the throng while his wife ducked below to check on their stores.
"Excuse me," said a new voice. Elsa looked up, startled. She was going to have to figure out some way of telling the siblings apart, besides grouping them into "Tall, dark, and black-haired," "short, pale, and blonde," and "Hans and Helena." This particular brother of the first sort bowed over her hand and introduced himself, "Prince Martin, your majesty. Pardon me, but the hold of this ship is apparently packed with flammables and explosives. Perhaps we should move to somewhere less... ah..."
Elsa stamped her foot, and every board of the ship suddenly glittered with frost.
"... ah," Martin concluded. "Well, I suppose that will do just as well."
"Your majesty," Chac Uayab Xoc was suddenly at her side, bowing. "I suppose this means our departure will be delayed once more. Please forgive us for calling on your hospitality again?"
"Please forgive me," Elsa said, "For not having that dangerous, mendacious toad arrested on sight. You can tell Mr. Lorentz and the captain that I'll have his ship seen to by the royal shipwrights."
Chac Uayab Xoc smiled and bowed over her hand. "Thank you," he said. He leaned over and looked at Helena. "And the young woman?"
Elsa turned around to see Hans still balancing his exhausted sister. "We should get Helena back to the castle," Elsa said. "She's... she's had a trying few days."
"She's had a trying few weeks," Hans interjected.
Elsa drew herself straighter. "Arendelle will do our best to make up this lapse in our hospitality," she said formally, and Hans looked as though he was considering jumping overboard.
It was the simplest thing in the world to freeze and unfreeze the water around them and push the boat back to the harbor. The sailors, now muttering imprecations against tide and flaming arrows alike, secured the boat again as Helena came back to her senses.
"What... happened?" Helena asked.
"You fainted," Hans said helpfully.
"Hans, your arm," Helena said softly. "I'm so sorry, I should have worked faster, I almost had the last shirt finished in time..."
"Sis," Hans said firmly, "Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have worked as hard or as fast as you did. You did great."
"You did great," Martin echoed. "When we had given up hope, you found it. I can't believe you managed all of this by yourself, little sister."
Helena was about to object again when Anna skipped aboard, given a helping hand by one of the other brothers. "Hey! Helena, you did it!" She skidded to a stop on the icy deck and clapped her hands to her mouth. "Er... sorry, Hans."
"Your majesty," one of the soldiers on the dock cried. "There's another ship coming into the harbor."
Elsa turned to look. White sails billowed on the wind, and from the deck a man and a woman were alternating peering into a spyglass and waving.
"It's father!" Martin shouted. Elsa looked up at the sails again and this time saw the royal sigil of the Southern Isles flying proudly on the breeze.
"Oh," she said.
As she mentally reviewed the list of things Arendelle was currently lacking for a royal reception, the new ship pulled up to the dock and its crew fixed it there. Then the man and women they'd seen ran most un-royally down the gangplank and back up again to the crowded deck of the Queen Wilhelmina. Elsa twitched her heel and removed the layer of frost from the deck in hopes it would keep them from slipping.
King Johan was like some of his sons tall, like some of them blond, and had a craggy nose that the unluckier half of his chidren had inherited. And though he was wearing his circlet and had on a vibrant turquoise-and-white robe, he also didn't stand much for ceremony. "My boys!" he cried, hugging the nearest four of them. "And my girl, where's my Helena?"
"Here, father," Helena said, pulling herself out of Hans' embrace and running to him. "I'm here!"
"There she is!" Johan grabbed her into a tight hug. "Goodness, girl, you've got skinny! What have you been doing all this time?"
"She didn't stop knitting to eat," Hans said.
"Crocheting," Helena corrected him.
"Gracious me, Hans," Johan said, frowning, "What's happened to your arm?"
"Johan," the woman who'd come on board with him said pointedly, "That's the Queen of Arendelle you're ignoring."
Elsa was suddenly the focus of King Johan's attention. "Your majesty!" he said, opening his arms wide, and for a moment Elsa was terrified she'd be crushed in a bear hug, too. But Johan only grabbed his robe for a sweeping bow. "Thank you for seeing to my boys. And my girl."
"It... was no trouble, your majesty," Elsa said, "Though I think this is a story that could do with some telling... and some explanations."
"Yes indeed," Johan said, "I only got part of it. Please, allow me to introduce my wife, Queen Serafina." The Queen bowed. She was shorter than Elsa, dark-haired and plump and slightly incongruous in white and green, but she looked strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the king. Elsa didn't envy her the job.
"The witch!" Yefimovich suddenly yelled from the dock. "The foul, faithless witch!"
Queen Serafina sighed. "Pardon me for a moment," she said, and walked toward the prow of the ship. When she got there, she frowned down at Yefimovich on the deck below. "Yes," she said, and waved a hand.
With a rush of air and magic, Yefimovich collapsed in on himself and emerged from his robes as a small gray toad. "I'll turn him back when we reach home," Serafina remarked as she strolled back toward them. "Probably."
"Ha!" King Johan said. "Too good for 'im."
"So..." Helena said nervously to her stepmother, "You're not angry with me?"
Elsa swallowed, suddenly very aware of what an angry Queen Serafina would mean. But the sorceress just smiled and held out her arms. "I was never angry," she said. "And I'm too relieved to be upset now. I could send you instructions on how to break the curse, but only you could do it."
Helena looked confused, then her eyes widened in amazement. "That dream... that was you?"
"Of course, dear." Serafina smiled. "I couldn't just watch you run off with a curse like that on your conscience. My word." She looked over at Hans and frowned thoughtfully. "Yes, enough on your conscience as it is."
Johan, obviously not following the conversation, cleared his throat and cocked his head in Elsa's direction. "Well, your majesty, I hate to impose, but it's getting late in the day, and these poor lads shouldn't spend their first day back crammed in the hold. Can we join you for the night?"
"We'll have supper laid out for everyone," Elsa said carefully, "And we're having a festival for the first day of winter tomorrow, which you're all invited to."
"Excellent!" Johan said. "Come on, boys, let the queen through. Hans!" he bellowed suddenly, catching sight of his youngest son again. "What happened there?"
"It's my fault, father," Helena said.
"No," Hans interjected, "No, it isn't. If anything, you should blame Yefimovich for trying to blow up the boat. You did great, sis, and it's fine."
King Johan frowned. "It doesn't look fine, it's got feathers."
"Johan," Serafina said quietly.
Hans drew himself up to his full height, which meant he was maybe three inches short of looking his father in the eye. "Father, men with only one arm have served the world with great distinction before. Now, I have my faults..." he stumbled a bit as he saw Elsa and Anna watching him. "I may be overly ambitious and a bit of a rake, but I am still a prince of our kingdom, and it'll take more than this to inconvenience me."
"Hear hear," Martin said. "Now come on, father, let's get ourselves into order, shall we?"
Elsa caught Hans rolling his eyes as she passed him. She decided not to mention it to anyone. When they got down to the dock, she turned to Anna, who was craning her neck to look back at the ship, where Helena was being hugged by each of her brothers in turn.
"Thirteen of them," Elsa commented.
"And Helena," Anna agreed, "And those two."
"Their majesties," Elsa corrected her. "And Mr. Lorentz, Chac Uayab Xoc, and Sacnite."
"Great hall, I think, this time," Elsa said, and Anna nodded.
There were people everywhere.
Anna was thrilled. The servants were less thrilled, she could tell by the grumbling that went quiet whenever she got in the way, but they were making everything happen beautifully. The great hall was opened and dinnerware set out, supper was being prepared and smelled delicious, and Elsa had gone to change into a formal dress befitting the Queen of Arendelle welcoming a visiting king. Anna was going to get dressed up too, but she'd lent poor Helena both Inge and Signe to help get her straightened out after that shock.
She eventually had to go outside and visit Kristoff and Sven and Olaf just to keep from breaking more than two wineglasses in her excitement. Kristoff was a little leery when she told him about the dinner.
"With thirteen princes and a king?" he asked. "I don't think I'll fit in."
"Fooey," Anna said, "You're invited. Come if you want to. I'd like you there for moral support. And you'll finally get to have a conversation with Helena after weeks of carefully-framed yes or no questions."
"I think you're more excited about that than I am," Kristoff said.
"Come to talk me out of doing Hans another injury," Anna said. "I don't want to hit a guy with one arm."
"Okay, feistypants," Kristoff agreed. "I'll keep you from accidentally starting a war with Hans' brothers."
"Do you think they'll miss being birds?" Olaf asked.
Anna started to answer, then frowned in thought. "You know, I hadn't thought about that," she said.
"I've always wondered what it would be like to fly," Olaf said. "I think it would be kind of like falling, but slower."
"I think I've done enough falling for one lifetime," Kristoff said.
"Amen," Anna agreed.
Then Inge came to get her and she was whisked into her dress, her hair was put up, and she went down to mingle with their guests before dinner.
None of the brothers made a strong impression on her. Martin was stately and sober and would probably make a better but less interesting king than his father. Michael was funny and helpful, but obviously viewed her as a child. Christian was the first of the brothers to get married and bragged about it constantly. Carl really liked hunting. Leif and Lars were both scholarly, but that just meant she had a hard time remembering which one was which.
Thomas and Torben were apparently inseparable despite the fact that they looked almost nothing alike. They'd both inherited their father's nose and his sense of humor. Niels was anxious in crowds, Nik was really interested in sailing, Erik was a romantic poet of the most banal type, and Egon was an idiot. A jerk and an idiot.
She compared notes with Kristoff before they had to go sit down. "So these are princes," he muttered.
"Yup," she agreed.
"Do we have to talk with these guys all night?"
"Just some of them," Anna reassured him. "We're at the head table with my sister, the King and Queen, Martin, and Hans and Helena."
"Ugh," Kristoff said, "What's Hans doing there?"
"For Helena," Anna said. "She's had a rough few weeks."
"And Helena's there..."
"So we have as many girls as boys," Anna said.
"Oh." Kristoff frowned around the room. "And I'm there..."
Anna kissed him on the cheek. "Because I love you, that's why. C'mon, it's time to eat!"
Dinner was delicious. Kristoff was nervous, she could tell, but King Johan and Queen Serafina were too busy being happy that their children were back to say anything, and Elsa was too busy staring at Helena with a kind of faraway expression on her face to care about any faux pas, and Hans was too busy trying to not knock anything over with his new wing to notice anyone else at the table.
After dinner the party broke up into smaller pieces as people took their drinks and moved to more intimate quarters for conversation. Most of the high table wound up in the red reception room, though Helena and Hans got flagged by one of their brothers on the way. Anna wasn't even bothering to keep track any more, as long as she could avoid Egon.
"I feel as though I should apologize for even putting Princess Helena and the rest in that situation," Elsa was saying.
"Yefimovich did a good job confounding us as well," King Johan said sympathetically. "The man had a mania, an air about him, made it seem like he knew what he was talking about. And he knew just how to make me mad."
"Yes," Elsa agreed, "He was particularly good at that."
"And aside from that, I think we all owe you a debt of gratitude for all you've done for Helena here... er, there," Johan said. "The boys especially, given the curse. You're not married, is that right?"
Elsa had been taking a sip of champagne, and she froze the glass in startlement. "I... no?"
"Well, you can have one of my boys, if you like," Johan said, waving out at the great hall where a few of them could be seen congregating. "Any of 'em you want! Hell, take two, I have enough extras."
"Father," Martin said gently. "Christian is married."
"So he'll divorce her," Johan said. "She's only Duchess of Burgundy, show a little spine."
"That won't be necessary," Elsa said quickly.
"Anyway," Anna chimed in, since this seemed as good an opportunity as she was going to get, "I don't think it's one of your sons that Elsa's interested in marrying."
Anna was standing right next to her sister, so she noticed as the temperature directly to her left dropped twenty degrees. Johan stared at her in confusion for a moment, then said, "Oh, you want to marry Helena? Well, it's a bit irregular, but I don't see why not."
"She has schooling to finish, Johan," Queen Serafina interjected. "I don't want to send an inexperienced sorceress out of my care until I'm sure she's ready."
Johan scoffed. "Well, we can work around that..."
"Anna, can I talk with you for a moment?" Elsa said, and grabbed Anna's elbow. She led her a few feet away into the corner, looked around, and hissed, "Are you crazy?"
"What," Anna said, "Don't you want to marry her?"
Elsa blinked a few times as though Anna had sprouted wings. "I... don't you think she'd want to marry a man?"
"Have you asked her?" Anna said reasonably.
"HELENA!" Johan shouted. "Get in here, the queen has something to ask you!"
Elsa let go Anna's arm and straightened up as Helena, and Hans behind her, answered her father's summons. "Yes, father? Mother?"
"Not me, dear," Queen Serafina said, "Queen Elsa."
Helena turned to Elsa, who was suddenly the focus of everyone in the room. "Er..."
"What is it?" Helena asked. "If I can do anything..."
"I was hoping," Elsa said, then stopped. She turned to Anna, who gave her an encouraging smile, then back at Helena. "I was hoping you would consider marrying me."
Helena stared at her. Hans' jaw dropped.
Elsa looked around again, quickly, and took an audible breath. "Please," she said quietly.
"Yes," Helena said, "Yes, of course, yes!"
Elsa shoved her glass into Anna's hand and stepped forward until she and Helena were locked in a clinch, kissing passionately as though nobody else was in the room.
Anna stepped over to Kristoff and handed him the ice-cold glass. "Called that one," she said.
"Yeah. Ow!" he said, breaking his stare to notice the cold. "Uh, nice work?"
Hans cleared his throat from Kristoff's other side. "Is this a thing that happens up here?"
Anna shrugged. "It is now."
"Hunh." Hans finished his glass and set it down, and Kristoff handed him the frozen one. "Ow!"
"Now, your majesty, Helena dear," Queen Serafina said when the two had pulled apart to breathe. "Both of you need to continue your studies of magic, and I suggest I stay and tutor you here."
"Hans too?" Anna said without thinking, then winced and looked over at him. He met her eyes and then looked over at his father.
"Hans too? What's this?" King Johan said.
"Uh... yeah," Hans said. "Some of, uh, Kristoff's friends figured out that some of what I've been doing has been magic."
"This young man's friends?" Johan asked.
Hans interjected before Kristoff could say anything, "They're magic experts."
"Oh, well, that's all right," Johan said. "Sure, you should stay too."
Kristoff and Anna and Elsa all exchanged a quick glance, then looked at Helena and Hans, who had done the same. "Lovely," Elsa said, in a tone brooking no argument. "I know how much you two mean to each other, it seems cruel to separate you now that you've just gotten each other back."
"Thank you, your majesty," Hans said in his most polite voice. He handed the frozen glass of champagne back to Kristoff and said, "If you'll excuse me for a minute?"
Helena took both of Elsa's hands and said quietly, "Thank you."
"We'll get everything settled later," Elsa said. "Tonight and tomorrow I want you to be able to relax and spend time with your family. I know how important that is."
Helena smiled again, glowingly happy, and leaned forward to give Elsa another kiss. Then she excused herself and followed her brother.
Anna lifted the frozen champagne from Kristoff and handed it to Elsa. Elsa unfroze it and drained it.
"Right," Johan said as Serafina nudged him. "I'm going to go see to the rest of the boys. Martin?"
"Right, father," Martin said. He gave Elsa a conspiratorial grin as he passed her. Elsa raised her chin and looked regally bewildered.
Serafina sighed and looked down at her hands. "You know better than I that Hans really is that bad," she said bluntly. "But his sister is a good influence on him."
"I hope so," Elsa said. "Even with that, he might not find it comfortable here."
"That will have to serve as a lesson to him," Serafina said calmly. Then she brightened up. "Your own lessons will start as soon as you can call on me, your majesty. I've only heard reports of your powers; I'm curious to see what you can do."
"Do you really think you'll be able to teach me?" Elsa asked.
"I should be able to teach you something, my dear, though what it will look like I don't know yet." She smiled at Elsa, then at Kristoff. "And if you don't mind, I'd like to meet these friends of yours some day."
"They're... very welcoming," Kristoff said awkwardly.
"Lovely," Serafina said. "Well, it's getting late. I'll leave you young things to it, I need all the rest I can get. Your majesty."
"Majesty," Elsa said, bowing slightly. Serafina glided out the door and into the hall.
"So," Kristoff said when the room was just them. "That's royalty, huh?"
"That's royalty," Anna agreed. "Congratulations, sis!"
Elsa suddenly blinked and held her hands up to her mouth. "Did that really happen?"
"That happened," Kristoff said. "Nice going!"
"But do you think she really meant to say yes? Or did I just convince her..."
Anna put her hand on Elsa's shoulder. "Sis. We both saw that kiss. That was real."
"Oh," Elsa said, hugging herself. "Good. I... should mingle." She took a deep breath, then reached over and gave Anna a hug. "Thank you."
"Hey, you knew what you wanted to do," Anna said. "I just gave you a push."
Elsa smiled and squeezed her arm. "Push," she said, and nodded at Kristoff. "Good night."
"'Night," Kristoff said, then looked at Anna awkwardly when they were alone.
"So," Anna said, "Still worried about fitting in with royalty?"
"A bit," he admitted.
"You can't make a worse prince than Egon," Anna reassured him.
Kristoff laughed. "I guess that's true."
"No, I mean, given the component parts, or like, a few pieces of wood and a hammer, you could not construct a worse prince than Egon with your own two hands," Anna clarified. "You'd do too good of a job. You'd have to."
Kristoff looked slightly nervous, and she reminded herself to pull back the intensity a little. "The weirdly sexual redhead jokes kinda got to you, huh?"
"The fact that he was making them while standing next to me, Hans, and his sister," Anna said. "Yeah, that was uncomfortable."
Kristoff stepped forward, put his arms around her, and kissed her on the forehead. "And what about you, and your princessing?"
Anna leaned into him and sighed. "Well, as far as making good, responsible decisions goes... I'm a fraud. I trusted Hans, for crying out loud."
"Yeah, that did seem weird," Kristoff said.
"But the thing was, I was right about Helena," Anna said. "I could tell she liked Elsa, I could tell she was trustworthy--and I waited until I hadn't just met her," she pointed out quickly. "So my insticts were good."
"So score one for princessing by instinct?" Kristoff said.
Anna nodded firmly. "I think that's how it's got to be."
"So..." Kristoff said, tilting his head a bit. "I guess we should try this royalty-by-instinct thing... together?"
Anna grinned. "Is that you proposing to marry me?"
He smiled sheepishly. "I guess? I mean, yes. Yes, I propose you marry me. Sometime after your sister gets married, because I don't even want to think about trying to upstage that wedding--"
"It's going to be amazing," Anna agreed. "And probably this spring."
"So... is that a yes?" Kristoff said.
Anna stood on tiptoe to kiss him. "I was just waiting for you," she said. "When you're ready, so am I."
Helena found her brother in the library, sitting on a sofa and staring into the fire. He'd managed to grab a full tray of champagne glasses from a servant on the way in, and had one of them in his hand.
"How many of those are you planning to drink?" she asked, coming around next to him.
Hans looked up and shrugged. "I figure it's probably too much effort to go chasing another tray, so..."
He had sprawled out on the sofa, his legs stretched out toward the fire and his wing draped over the backrest. It was the first time she'd had a chance to actually look at her brother, really, without other people crowding around them--her other siblings' unconstrained happiness at the broken curse was starting to wear on both of them.
He looked up and saw her watching, raised his glass and lifted the top of his wing over the back of the sofa. "You can look."
"Hans," she said, sitting down next to him. "I..."
"I really don't want to hear another apology," he said. He took another sip of champagne and sighed. "You're my sister, and I love you. And we can talk about it later, okay?"
Helena nodded. She reached out and gently put her hand on his shoulder, then trailed her fingers down to the joint where his feathers started. The sleeve of his jacket had vanished with the curse, and someone had sewed up the seam neatly. Hans held himself perfectly still as she smoothed her palm across the feathers of what had been his upper arm.
"Is that okay?" she asked when he didn't so much as breathe.
"Uh, yeah," he said. "It's fine, I'm not going to break." He shrugged and sipped his wine again. "I mean, when they were getting me cleaned up for dinner, they had to call an extra two servants in to get all my feathers dried and, like, oiled, since it turns out it's much harder to do that yourself when you don't have a beak, so I've actually been manhandled a bit."
Helena smiled and put her hand back down. "I just wanted to find you and thank you."
"Thank me?" He raised an eyebrow and met her eyes briefly, then went back to staring at the fire. "What for?"
"For being there for me," she said. "And for taking care of me." She smiled as he finally looked at her again. "So thanks, big brother."
That got him to smile. He retrieved a glass of champagne for her, and clinked it gently with his. "And congratulations to my little sister on your engagement."
She grinned, and drank, and giggled. "With the day I've had, this is going to put me right to sleep."
"Go ahead, you've earned it."
She drained the glass and set it on the floor. "Wow. I can't believe that actually happened."
"Yes!" She shook her head. "I'm going to marry Queen Elsa of Arendelle." It didn't sound quite real. It sounded like something from a dream. Something she'd never known she was allowed to want had just happened and she never wanted to let it go.
Hans grinned at her. "Just remember, I saw her first."
"I saw her better," she rebutted.
"Obviously, she didn't ask to marry me."
"Mmmm." Helena tucked her feet under her and leaned into her brother's side. "You'll be nice to her?"
"Sure," he promised.
"And Anna?" It was nice and warm in front of the fire. Maybe she'd just close her eyes. "And Kristoff?"
"I'll be as nice as I can be, considering," he said. "Promise."
She was warm and safe and didn't have anything urgent to do for the first time in what felt like a year. She was just going to close her eyes for a moment.
There was a buzzing, tickling feeling in her head as she heard Hans saying, "... you're stuck with me for a while."
"Yes, we are." Helena dimly recognized Elsa's voice, as though from a distance.
"... I don't know that there is anything I could do to make up for what I did," Hans said. "I mean... there's no reason for you to believe me, and no reason you should let me try, but I can't even think where I could start."
"Mmm," Elsa said. There was silence for a moment, then she continued, "The truth is... I think I could forgive you, one day, for what you did to me. But not for what you did to Anna."
Hans sighed. "Right."
"You know, after what happened, I thought you didn't care about anyone except yourself," Elsa said after a minute.
Hans shifted, and Helena realized that what she'd thought was a blanket draped over her shoulders was actually his wing. "Yeah..."
"You never mentioned your sister when you were here last."
Hans shifted again. "We'd had an argument. I'd told her what I was planning, she yelled at me."
"So she's the good twin."
"Yeah. And... I didn't want anyone to know."
There was a long pause where Helena considered moving, then Elsa said gently, "We're incredibly vulnerable to the people we love, aren't we."
"Yeah," Hans said wistfully. "Yeah. I know you'll take good care of her. But she's my little sister. I worry about her."
Helena rubbed her eye and sat up, then poked Hans in his side. "And you're my little brother, so who's going to take care of you?"
"Ow, hey," he said, "I'm still older than you are."
"Hey," Elsa said, cutting the argument off. "How are you doing?"
Helena stood up. "I'm good, tired, happy," she said, and Elsa smiled at her in a way that made her want to walk over and kiss her. Then she remembered that they were engaged to be married, and she could. So she did.
Hans cleared his throat when they finished kissing, and she turned to look at him. He looked sheepish. "I'm going to take my leave... goodnight, Your Majesty. Sis."
"G'nite, Hans," Helena said.
"Good night," Elsa echoed.
Hans nodded and left, and then they were alone.
"Thanks again," Helena said awkwardly. "I know it's for my sake, but thanks."
"I think he'll stay out of trouble this time," Elsa said. She smiled and reached up to stroke Helena's cheek. "I just want you to be happy. Here. With me."
Helena smiled and kissed Elsa again. "I will be. Thank you for everything."
"You were the one who did all the work," Elsa said. Then, concerned, she said, "And you look like you've done it all in the last few hours. I shouldn't keep you up."
"Especially not with the carnival tomorrow." Helena hesitated. "How long do I have to brace myself before our wedding?"
Elsa blinked. Then she looked a mix of shocked and horrified. "Um," she said, and looked around the room, as if trying to find an escape route. "Maybe we can elope?"
Helena laughed. "Anything you want," she promised. "As long as we do it together."
The first day of winter dawned bright and cold. Anna woke slowly, then the smell of festival food starting to cook in the courtyard drifted into her nose.
"Carnival!" she crowed, jumping out of bed.
She dressed warmly and flew down the stairs. Breakfast had been set out in the great hall, and she squeezed between Helena's brothers and loaded a plate with food. Kristoff was nowhere to be found inside, but when she'd finished her breakfast and headed outside she saw him putting a new harness on Sven, covered in bright ribbons and bells.
"Reindeer slalom?" she asked.
He grinned at her. "Reigning champs."
"I have to admit something." She frowned and stepped closer. "I'm still not entirely sure what reindeer slalom is."
Kristoff hugged her. "Don't worry. We're starting from the north hill in a couple hours, and you can come cheer me on then."
"Promise," she said, and kissed him.
There had already been a light natural snowfall overnight, but Elsa was out and about adding a little magical snow, just enough to be decorative. Anna had found at least ten people interested in racing on skates, so later in the day they were going to turn the causeways into ice rinks. Merchants in the square were already selling delicious-smelling fried dough, sparkly treasures, and sweets. Wood for the bonfire was piled high in the center of the courtyard and the fireworks display was ready and waiting.
Anna ran around looking at everything. There was flavored snow in cups! There were paper snowflake crowns! It was shaping up to be the second best winter festival in Anna's life, after last winter when Elsa showed up for the first time.
Sacnite and Chac Uayab Xoc were recovering from their latest adventure and selling drinking chocolate, which was just sweet enough for Anna's sweet tooth and spicy enough to keep out the cold. The fireworks merchants had managed to recover some of their stock from the Queen Wilhelmina's hold, and were happily selling the same fireworks to more responsible customers.
Even the rest of Helena's brothers were getting into the spirit of things. Anna saw Carl and Nik packing Egon into a snowman and gave them a wave and a grin.
She helped Olaf judge the snowman-making contest, cheered Kristoff and Sven in reindeer slalom where they took first place without making the rules of the sport any more clear, and ice skated with first Elsa and then Helena across the courtyard.
She was having so much fun she actually kind of forgot that Hans was still around, until the fireworks were going off and the bonfire was burning off the last of the ice in front of the castle. He was at the edge of the dancing, leaning against a column and watching the celebration. He'd thrown a cape over his left shoulder and looked a lot less anxious than he had the previous evening.
Until Anna nearly tripped over him and he had to catch her. "Er, oops," she said. "... Hi, Hans."
"Your highness," Hans said politely, and pulled her back to her feet. "We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Yyyyeah," she agreed, "We really do."
He smiled awkwardly and looked away. She followed his gaze back to the couples and individuals dancing around the fire. "Not joining in?"
"No," he said, then shrugged and waved at the dancing with his wing. "It's kind of hard to lead with no left hand."
"Hunh," she said. "Hadn't thought of that."
He flipped his cape back into place. "And I keep hitting things when I gesture. I need more practice."
"Lost some of your smoothness, huh?"
"And some of my fingers," he said. "Tying laces? Much more challenging."
"That didn't even occur to me," Anna said. She looked at him, and frowned, and tried to say something and caught herself and started over. "Look, I'm not going to say you deserved it. Because you didn't. But..."
He raised his eyebrows.
Anna gestured irritably. "I mean, it would have been less tragic if it'd happened to Egon."
Hans laughed, startled. "He is awful, isn't he?"
"He's so awful!"
He shook his head. "I don't know how I wound up with an annoying younger brother who's two years older than me."
Anna took a deep breath. "But you... I spent the past year hoping that bad things would happen to you, and I don't feel sorry about any of it."
He winced. "... Yeah. I was pretty awful to you."
"To me? You tried to kill my sister."
"Uh... yeah." He scratched the back of his neck with his hand. "Helena was not amused."
"So... are you really trying to be nice? Or are you just doing this because of your sister?"
"Does it matter?" He looked honestly surprised. "I won't do anything to hurt Helena. You can trust that."
Anna scowled. "So you really don't care about me or my feelings at all. That's good to know, I guess."
He looked guilty at that. "Maybe... it's just easier if we don't try to be friends."
"Fine," she said, and stuck out her hand. "Truce?"
Hans looked at her hand for a long moment, then reached out and shook. "I don't think I ever got to thank you for looking after my sister," he said. "So thanks."
"I didn't do it for you," Anna pointed out, "But you're welcome."
He smiled. "Fair enough."
Anna crossed her arms, considered him for a few seconds, then said, "Okay, I just want to get one thing straight."
"Shoot," he said, wary.
"You said you were disappointed in me because I fell for your line about marriage," she said. "Because you managed to talk me into it. But you were going to marry me just like that yourself."
Hans looked confused. "Yes, but I had an agenda."
"And I didn't?" At his baffled look, she sighed. "Look, I'm not saying I would have married anyone who asked. But I'd been stuck in that castle all my life. For the last three years we hadn't even had birthday parties or receptions for guests or anything. And okay, maybe I'm not as sneaky as you and I certainly wasn't lying or playing a double game, but I wasn't just angling for your handsomeness and charm. I was trying to get a life."
Hans stared at her for a long moment. "Hunh," he said slowly. "Hadn't thought of that."
"You just thought I was desperate?"
He grinned. "Uh, that description still sounded desperate to me."
She rolled her eyes. "But not just swooning over a pretty face."
"But so pretty," he said, then "Ow!" as she punched him in the arm. "You're right, that was unfair. Truce?"
"Truce," she said, and stepped back toward the crowd. "Enjoy your stay in Arendelle, Prince Hans. I hope it's less eventful than your last one."
She found Kristoff and Sven and Olaf by the fire. "Hey," Kristoff said as she leaned into his side. He wrapped his arm around her. "Everything okay?"
Anna looked around the square. The snow was starting to fall again, the smell of smoke and pine needles was in the air, and the people of Arendelle and their guests alike were joined around the fire, toasting snacks or making wishes. And over nearest the castle stood Elsa and Helena, arms around each other, crowned with wreaths that Helena had woven. Anna could just make out that in defiance of the cold, the twigs had sprouted leaves and were covered with tiny white flowers.
Anna leaned her head on Kristoff's chest and smiled. "Yeah," she said. "Everything's turned out okay."