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In the Land of Ever After

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It had been not quite two months since the kingdom of Arendelle had been released from endless winter when Princess Elsa – formerly known as the Ice Queen of Arendelle – was startled awake by someone shaking her and hissing in her ear; if the someone hadn’t ducked, they’d have been an ice statue she could observe at her leisure. John Kepperson, the Royal Bookkeeper and more recently the person helping Elsa bring her kingdom back from the effects of the endless winter she herself had caused, had known to duck, though. “Princess, you have to get up,” he insisted, the intensity of his expression even in the dim light of the lamp he carried more than making up for the quietness of his voice. “You have to get up at once, we have to…we have to go on an urgent quest.”

She sat up, frost crackling under her fingers where they gripped the edge of the heavy down coverlet. “A quest? But it’s night…”

“Urgent means there’s no time to lose and we must start off at once,” John explained. “You have to get up and get dressed right now, Your Highness. This minute.” He stepped away from the bed, giving her room to get up. “Warm clothes, like your sister wears. And a cloak with a hood. It’s a secret quest, very important, and we mustn’t attract attention.”

Elsa threw back the coverlet and slid out of bed, the nightgown she’d made from ice crystals and snowflakes shimmering in the dim light, and he averted his eyes before turning away to give her privacy. For some reason that displeased her, but she wasn’t sure why so she put the thought aside for later consideration and went to her little-used wardrobe to pick out clothes to go on an urgent quest in. An urgent secret quest. Secret meant hiding, so she chose a dress of dark blue wool decorated with black braid and simple embroidery, a black cloak, and long blue gloves embroidered with vines. Up went her braid into a coil, and after a moment’s consideration she dug out a black kerchief to tie over her hair the way her sister Anna did. She carried her boots and stockings over to a little stool and sat down to put them on. “Is Anna coming with us?”

John glanced over his shoulder, saw that she was dressed, and shook his head, drawing nearer again. He was wearing the same clothes she usually saw him in under a dark brown cloak. “No, she has to stay here – she’s the one who’ll have to run the kingdom until we come back.”

“She knows about the quest?”

“She’ll know why you had to leave, yes.”

“What about Olaf?”

“He can’t come either, but he knows…even better than your sister why you have to go so quickly,” John assured her, stooping to tie up a dangling lace on one of her boots. “All right, cloak on, hood up, and follow me as closely and silently as you can. We have to sneak out, your subjects would…feel the need to stop you from leaving. I’m going to put out the lantern, and then you’ll take my hand and we’ll be on our way. I’ll explain everything once we’re safely away, I promise.”

It was a promise he had no intention of keeping – not truthfully, anyway, at least not any time soon – but Elsa had no way of knowing that. He extinguished the lamp and then took her hand and led her to the door and out into the darkness of the sleeping castle. He was wearing gloves, but his grip was sure and he led her unerringly through side passages and half-forgotten stairwells until they reached a small door which let out into a little-used garden.

The moonlight was blue on the snow, glittering prettily in places, but he gave her no time to admire it. Through the garden they plunged, hugging the shadows, and then they were going through a rusty-hinged gate and a horse was standing there under a tree, stamping one black hoof against the snowy ground as though admonishing them for making him wait. John helped her to mount and swung up in front of her, and then at a click of his tongue the horse walked them away from the castle and off toward the woods.

 

They rode all through that night, and by the time false dawn was beginning to brighten the sharp edges of the mountains they were already a long way from the castle of Arendelle. John had said little in all that time, but finally he pulled the horse to a stop and dismounted, lifting Elsa down after him. There was a rough little hut there, with a crooked rock chimney snaking up one side as though it had grown from the natural stone the hut was nestled up against. Off to one side a different stone building nearly hidden by the trees appeared to be a rough stable. “We’ll stop here so the horse can rest – and so we can too,” he said. “We’re actually past the boundaries of the kingdom now, and this is a place where couriers often stop to rest so nobody will think anything about it if they see smoke coming from the chimney.” She blinked at him, and he smiled and shook his head. “No, Princess, I know you don’t need a fire – but I do, and we’ll want something to melt snow with to water the horse. Now go on inside while I put him up, I’ll be in shortly.”

Elsa went to the door of the little hut and looked inside. It was dark, like a cave, but she called a little ice-light into her hand and then she could see. The hut’s floor was bare packed earth, and the stone hearth filled one end of the tiny space; there was a crude bench at the other end, but other than that there was no furniture or even a window. Couriers, John had said, couriers stopped here to rest. She looked around again. In spite of how crude the hut seemed, the walls were thick and the roof looked solid – the door seemed solid too, and she saw that it had iron loops so that it could be barred shut from the inside. Which John did once he’d brought in his bag and an armful of wood to burn, pushing a thick branch through the loops and giving a hard shake to test its strength. He smiled at the ice light, which Elsa was still holding in her hand. “That’s a useful thing – I’ll be able to spare the lamp oil, in case we need it later. All right, you can have the bench, Princess, and I’ll bed down by the fire once I’ve got it started.”

She nodded and retreated to the bench, sitting down to watch him make the fire. He put a little pot full of snow on the hearth once he was done. “What is that for?”

“Water.” He was spreading his cloak out on the floor. “I already gave the horse what was in the skin I brought, so this will refill the skin. You can’t give a horse icy cold water to drink after it’s had exercise,” he explained. “That’s not good for a horse, it can even kill it.”

Elsa put that new piece of information aside for later wondering about why horses would be so much different from reindeer in that respect – reindeer drank water from frozen ponds and streams when they were thirsty and it didn’t hurt them a bit. “What’s our horse’s name?”

“I have absolutely no idea.” John sat down and stretched. “It’s one of the horses that came with Prince Hans, they’ve been taking care of it in the royal stables because nobody ever came for it. So if you’d like for it to have a name, pick one and that’s what we’ll call it.”

“I’ll think of a name,” she promised. She put out the ice light and laid down on the bench, watching from beneath lowered lids as he took off his glasses, wrapped himself in his cloak and went to sleep. He looked younger when he was asleep, and without his glasses, she decided – and he also looked a lot less worried, something she hadn’t realized until now. John had been worried, very worried – possibly he’d even been afraid. That someone would come after them from Arendelle, try to stop them going on the quest? Maybe.

Elsa closed her eyes, shutting out the distraction of watching John sleep in front of the flickering fire even though she didn’t really want to – she had never watched someone sleep before, and it was making her feel warm and comfortable inside. Another thing to think about later. Still, though, she felt like she was missing something, like there was something about this urgent quest that she really ought to know. John had promised that he’d explain later…but when would it be later? Elsa fell asleep wondering.

 

That afternoon when John woke up, there were many things to do before they could be on their way again and he was happy to explain the hows and whys of all of them, so Elsa forgot to ask him when later would be. Once they were back on the road she did remember to ask how he’d known where the hut was and that couriers used it. Had John been a courier? That question made him laugh. “No, not hardly. I’m a bookkeeper, I do accounts – lots of math in books that keeps the kingdom running,” he explained good-naturedly. “But when my father…got older, and he couldn’t do it anymore, I’d ride out with the courier in his place to make sure whatever important or valuable thing we were sending actually made it to the person who was supposed to get it. I usually spent my nights in these little huts sleeping on top of whatever we were delivering, actually, even though we’d barred the door. There are thieves who watch the courier routes, but the easiest way to get what’s being carried is to just bribe the courier who has it so they’ll hand it over.”

“Bribe…”

“Giving someone money to do something for you which they shouldn’t be doing in the first place.”

“Hmm.” She thought about that. “So you were afraid the courier would be bribed and take the valuable thing while you were asleep? Were the couriers bad?”

He chuckled. “No, but most of them are young and poor, and a clever thief can talk someone who’s inexperienced or just plain greedy into doing things they shouldn’t. That’s why my father or I went with them, you see – because thieves can be tricky and we knew how not to get tricked.”

“Your father taught you?”

“He did. It was part of his trade.” He answered the question before she could ask. “A trade is the set of skills that go with your job, what you do to support yourself and your family.”

Elsa frowned at the trees beside the road; one of them grew an icicle, so she stopped. “Do I have a trade?”

John was silent for a moment. “Well, no. You’re supposed to, but no one taught you.”

“Why not?”

He patted her arm where it was curled around his waist. “I don’t know, Princess. But if we can find your parents…you can be sure I’m going to ask them.”

She sat up a little straighter. It was later! “We’re looking for my parents? Aren’t they dead?”

“Nobody knows what they are,” was his reply. “They just went away one day on a trip and never came back; the ship they’d been on disappeared and was presumed lost at sea, and after a certain amount of time had passed the councilors declared them dead.”

“Why?”

“Because a king who isn’t there can’t run a kingdom, but if the king is coming back no one else can run it until he does. Things have to be done to keep a kingdom running,” John explained patiently. “Taxes have to be assessed, trade agreements have to be negotiated or re-negotiated, laws have to be passed, problems have to be solved. You can get away with not doing some of those things for a while – and Arendelle always had, because the king was often away – but past a certain point you really do have to start doing everything officially for the good of your people.” He patted her arm again. “That was why they tried to rush your coronation, even though you didn’t know how to run a kingdom and they knew it. And also why they were so willing to allow Prince Hans to step in and run things afterward.”

“But Hans…”

“Yes, they chose poorly,” he confirmed. “He was a terrible person, from what I understand, and he’d have made a terrible king. They didn’t know that when he…expressed his interest in doing it, though. He was a very good liar.”

Elsa rested her cheek against his shoulder, the wool of his cloak rough against her skin; beside the road, several trees turned white with frost. “He was a very bad liar.”

“I meant he was good at doing it,” John clarified. “A person can be good at doing something even if the thing they’re doing is bad.”

She pouted. “That’s confusing.”

“Some things are, Princess. The thing to do if you’re confused by something is to ask for clarification – ask someone to explain it in a simpler way.”

“Like I ask you?”

He nodded his head. “Yes, like you ask me.”