Happy October Everyone! The witching month is back and so am I. So, full disclosure, this chapter has a lot of exposition and dialogue, plus it introduces a lot of secondary and supporting characters. Hopefully I have already laid a foundation which warrants such an extensive dump of information, so I beg your kind indulgence. There is method here...long-winded perhaps, but my intention was to create intrigue and personality, not stereotype, while also entertaining.
I appreciate the patronage of my new followers, as well as the continued support of everyone who has stuck with me thus far. My beta is awesome and I love her dearly. This has been a trying year, for all of us, but if nothing else, it has reminded us to cherish the things that matter, big and small. Things that make us happy. This 'happy' is what I hope to add to, as this story chugs forward.
Okay...I believe we have a party to crash...
"Haggard, I would not be you for all the world! You have let your doom in by the front door...but it will not depart that way!"
-Mabruk The Magician, The Last Unicorn
Nearly one-hundred foreign souls marched toward the shores of Arendelle from across the ice-pack and the kingdom watched patiently as they approached.
Past ice-caves and deep crevices, stone-breaks and tide markers, an array of brightly colored, well-tailored, highly-motivated individuals made a slow, purposeful beeline toward the entrance of the harbor. They were flanked on all sides by an equally formidable collection of armed men, their weapons packed but their eyes sharp. They seemed more concerned with the safety of their individual superiors than the joint safety of the group, but for the moment, any and all threats were external. The wind had begun to pick up in the last hour, reaching a noticeable plateau as the group had departed their long-boats nearest the edge of the protective line of ice. The twinkling lights of the city were now the most inviting site for one-hundred leagues in every direction; even the dim lights of the fleet behind the group were pitiful by comparison. The clop of boots upon ice cast irregular echoes towards the barrier wall, while the torchlight danced shadows across the entrance to the docks.
Barden, for his part, was pleasantly fascinated by the site of distant houses climbing up into the foothills of the cliffs, their candlelight and warm hearths reminding him a bit of his own home. He carried a sizable tree-branch, the leaves of which were dry while still retaining their distinctive oblong shape, even in the cold of the night. His smile was earnest and easy, despite the weather.
His superior, ahead of the page and more or less leading the group, was less impressed by his surroundings. Rekcuff shuffled with surprising speed across the ice, his crutch hardly slowing his progress and his footfalls were brisk and sure. He was dead-set on the entrance to the kingdom; a space between two sentry towers, choked with ice and, most suddenly, occupied with a strange structure not unlike a Marshall tent. It was large enough to house a small family comfortably, but no one seemed to occupy it for the moment. Instead, five uniformed men stood warily beyond the tent-flaps, while seven or eight braziers, stacked with glowing firewood, burned gently in a semi-circle around the infantry shelter. The soldiers, clad in gray and black coats with large silver buttons, came to attention as Rekcuff approached, though they remained quiet and alert.
The captain only barely slowed his pace, raising a hand as he drew near. The rest of the group halted in their tracks, partly hidden in shadow, as the captain and his page came closer.
"Hail, men of Arendelle! Greetings to you!"
The eldest among the soldiers, a handsome, serious-looking officer about thirty years of age, stepped forward. He wore a three star insignia upon his shoulder, not too dissimilar from the cluster of three crossed halberds upon Rekcuff's uniform; another captain, it seemed.
"And greetings to you, sir. Well met, I hope, in this dead of winter," said the officer, raising a hand in acknowledgment. "I am Captain Lusk of her Majesties Elitevakt regiment."
"Captain Nybrasio du Rekcuff, of His Majesties Research and Defense Corps," Rekcuff said with a slight bow, difficultly executed. "Official representative of the Crown of Ludenor, dispatched by King Ardent at the behest of his security advisory."
The Arendellian Captain cocked his head slightly, eyeing the crippled man from crutch to cap. "King Ardent has dispatched a military research officer to Arendelle? At this time of year and with no correspondence between himself and her majesty the Queen? This seems highly irregular."
Rekcuff smiled. "I should certainly hope so, sir. But these circumstances are truly extraordinary, I assure you. Barden?"
The page crept forward, suddenly very aware that the five men where not the only ones watching his every move. From near and far across the harbor and the surrounding village, Barden was sure he could see dozens if not tens of dozens of eyes, peaking out of darkened doorways, beneath the prows of moored ships and just beyond the stone walls of the castle. It was unnerving, but perhaps not unexpected.
He presented the dry branch to Rekcuff, who gestured to Lusk. Barden nodded and walked closer, kneeling slightly.
"Captain Lusk, I, Captain Rekcuff, as a representative of those who have journeyed and gathered here, on this night, in this kingdom, present the Olive Branch of Peace, to you and your Queen, Elsa of Arendelle. We have come on a matter of grave urgency, one that must be addressed and rectified with all due speed. I ask that you take us to your Queen immediately, so that we might pursue these matters to their fullest completion," Rekcuff recited, practiced and eloquent.
The Arendellian officer took the branch, gave it a once over and casually passed it to his subordinate, who took the branch into the crook of his arm like one might shoulder a crossbow. He squared himself off with the other captain and held his ground, choosing his words carefully
"I appreciate the urgency with which you have presented yourself, sir, and I can also appreciate that many of you have traveled a long way to get here," Lusk said, looking beyond Rekcuff to the shadowy group of noblemen standing on the icy fjord. "But as I'm sure YOU must understand, further inquiry is required on my part. What business specifically do you have with her Majesty? And what other nations do you supposedly represent?"
Rekcuff had anticipated this. He leaned on his crutch and used his good arm to pull three scrolls from his inner petticoat pocket, all of which fluttered in the increasing wind and billowing snow. The fires billowed in their braziers as the captain handed the documents to the page once again.
"Quite right, sir, you are prudent to ask," Rekcuff said, gesturing to the parchment. "To that end, the first document is a full roster of the sovereign nations gathered here this evening. They have convened this night in your charming kingdom to pursue the causation of a series of crimes and misdemeanors. spanning many months and, in some instances, years, which have lead them to your doorstep. These representatives wish to speak with her majesty and inquire as to her knowledge of these events, if she has any, and so they have come to see these matters concluded, forthwith. They also wish to air grievances and seek justice, not against the queen, but against...a third party, so to speak. The second document is a letter, received from her Majesty, Queen Elsa, which was sent to King Ardent a little less than six weeks prior. As a result of reading THAT letter, his majesty bid me accompany this group so that I might address the third communication in this stack. Said final document, perhaps above all others, is most important, for it concerns the culmination of a warrant, one issued for the purposes of arrest, detention...and execution of a fugitive from the Crown of Ludenor."
Captain Lusk took all three pieces of parchment from the page, while Barden stepped back to flank his own superior. The Arendellian officer bid another man to step forward from the rear. Clearly a lieutenant or some equivalent, Lusk opened the scrolls betwixt the two of them. Their eyes widened as they absorbed a few chunks of information, looking back to Rekcuff with a scrutinizing gaze.
"A moment, if you would, Captain Rekcuff," Lusk asked, his smile placating, "while I appraise this documents a bit more thoroughly. You and yours are welcome to warm yourselves in the interim."
"My thanks, good sir, we shall oblige," Rekcuff said, bowing slightly and signaling for the rest of the group to join him.
The Arendellian soldiers talked quietly among themselves as the group approached the surrounding fire-grates, their faces hidden behind scarves, cloaks, silken masks and tufted tartans. They spread out carefully, their attendants never more than a few feet away, to gather about the licking flames and throbbing coals which produced them. They were oddly silent, only occasionally muttering something to one another in a host of languages too fast and precise to recognize. Bits of gold thread and crimson velvet could be seen flashing in the fire-light, while silver pommels and hand-forged chain-mail peeked-out from beneath heavy leather gauntlets and brightly-woven sashes. The most conspicuous among these travelers did not walk at all; instead, he was carried aloft by four other men, atop a small padded palanquin, languishing beneath several furs and quilts of dense wool. The conversing officers stole a few glances in his direction, taking notice when he swung a large carafe to his lips, produced from some hidden compartment, guzzling the liquid within quickly and hungrily.
Rekcuff and Barden had not changed position. They waited, patiently, for almost five minutes, while the soldiers of this receiving nation considered the offered documentation.
"They seem perplexed," Barden guessed, shivering in the cold.
"No, they understand alright," Rekcuff pointed out, seemingly ignorant of the wind snapping at his lapels. "And they know what comes next. They're just not overly fond of how to proceed."
To drive the point home, Lusk turned away from his group of officers, which turned from him and signaled to some unseen observer further inland. He kept his eyes on Rekcuff while thirty more soldiers strolled towards the tent from out of the dark, seemingly appearing from within the wind itself, crowding the ice-sheet even further. The murmuring among the group of travelers seemed to cease as they took stock of the increased security. They watched quietly as the newly-summoned soldiers carefully took-up positions along the entrance to the harbor, stretching from one sentry tower to he other, buffered by the wind but standing resolute despite it.
When Lusk approached Rekcuff again, his smile was ever-charming, but his tone was devoid of humor.
"Captain, in light of this new information and the surprising developments they are sure to precipitate, I am obliged to escort you and your entourage to the Queen, immediately. I'm sure she will want to address these...unsettling facts, directly and personally," the captain said, rolling all three documents into one coil of parchment and returning them to the Ludenorian. "While first confirming their validity, of course."
Rekcuff offered his own flattering flash of teeth, nodding in the affirmative. "Of course, I thought as much, sir, and I am thankful for your rational and prompt acquiescence, given the abruptness of these events. Shall we proceed?"
"We shall. But first...," Lusk said, holding up a hand before gently gesturing to the group in a large swath, "I must insist that your marines, footmen and attendants present themselves for inspection. They shall be searched and disarmed by my men BEFORE entering the kingdom. Any weapons will be confiscated and stored for the duration of your visit, then returned as soon as all parties disembark."
The visiting captain hadn't expected this. But regardless, Rekcuff held fast, a look of irritation tugging downward at his smile. "...I'm sorry, Captain, but while I appreciate your position, I would be hard pressed to force the entirety of this group to surrender their side-arms. They are not accustomed to entering a foreign land without some form of defense about their person, in times of peace or otherwise."
Here Lusk let his smile widen. "I'm sure they are not. I notice Weselton is not amongst your group of represented nations, is it?"
Rekcuff blinked before curtly shaking his head. "No, it is not. They couldn't be bothered to participate."
"Nor would they have been allowed within the borders of this city even if they COULD be bothered," Lusk said, casually resting a hand on the saber at his belt, "for though it pains me to admit, the treacherous nature of Prince Hans was a little more subtle than could have been anticipated; we could not disarm his nature, even if we were aware of his intent. But it was the Duke of Weselton—or rather his attendants, Francis and Erik if I remember correctly—who saw fit to arm themselves with crossbow when attempting to return her majesty to the castle. Regardless of the outcome, these men would accost my Queen, though she was unarmed, and slay her if they could...all because of one mans fear-mongering and greed."
The page stepped back as the taller captain stepped closer to the one leaning on his crutch "It was a hard-learned lesson. From that time onward, no visiting nation has been allowed entry to the kingdom if they arrive so armed. Indeed, had Queen Elsa not spoken-up for Elgar upon their return to the castle, I would have disarmed him as well. A spear is just as deadly as a crossbow-bolt, in the right hands."
Rekcuff's eyes widened, wrinkling his brow considerably. "A spear? He came armed with a spear?!"
Lusk waited a beat. "Yes. A great three-bladed thing on a long shaft. In fact, he scarcely goes anywhere without it."
Rekcuff appeared perplexed and excited all at once. He seemed fit to pace, if the action were more readily available to him. He pulled back for a moment, considering something new and oddly satisfying, before turning back to his Arendellian peer.
"A compromise, perhaps, sir?" Rekcuff suggested softly, gesturing with his good hand. "These marines will surrender their weaponry, I shall see to it. But the vassals and footman and servants among my group, I shall vouch for them. They serve their masters diligently, but their treachery, if any exists, is of the mind and tongue. Surely a small group of pontificating, supercilious toadies are of no threat to the crown? Especially while being constantly monitored by your impressive military detachment for the duration of their visit, yes?"
Lusk was somewhat off-put by Rekcuff's choice of words. There was a clear disdain in his voice, as if the nobility he seemingly served with diligence was equally tiresome and irritating. Though he was mindful of his responsibility, he was also aware that creating some kind of intercontinental incident was just as inadvisable. The argument offered by Rekcuff was clumsy, but satisfactory, for the time being.
"Very well," Lusk sighed, seemingly bored, as if he were going through the motions, "have your marines present themselves and their weaponry for storage. When I am satisfied with the condition of these men, I shall have your group escorted to the castle. I'm sure they are as eager to be indoors as my men and I."
"A wise observation indeed, sir. Come Barden, let us see to this errand and quit this freezing night, double-quick..." Rekcuff said, offering a salute before pivoting hard on his crutch and hobbling back to his anxious associates.
Lusk gestured with two fingers, never breaking his gaze with the slanted individual who carried himself surprisingly swiftly across the ice. The Arendellian guard encircled the group of foreigners, their own weapons stowed, while Rekcuff informed the large, hidden figure atop the palanquin of their next move. There seemed to be some initial disagreement, but finally the blanket-ensconced lord gave his approval. Slowly and cautiously, going from one warrior to the next, the soldiers of Arendelle confiscated all manner of weapons from the protective ensemble of visiting guardsmen. They returned to their positions laden with dirks, axes, sabers, daggers, two or three lances, an armful of crossbows and one broadsword, taken from a large man standing nearest the palanquin. Having completed their task, the secondary soldiers melted back into the night, chased away by the very wind that had previously revealed them.
Rekcuff returned to the glow of the firelight, watching as the weapons-laden soldiers retreated into the wind. As he did, he saw that Lusk was preoccupied with a new idea. In a move as subtle and quiet as the falling snow, he approached Rekcuff with open arms, seemingly looking to embrace him. Though his smile was genial, his voice was very formal. "Captain, if you don't have any specific objection, would you allow me to search you and your attendant?"
Rekcuff missed a beat with his voice, his eyes a touch wider. "I'm sorry, but, I am to be searched as well?"
Lusk bowed at the waist, just a bit, attempting to look non-threatening. "One captain to another...I respect your position and rank, so I would not subject you to the manhandling of my subordinates. But given the nature and abruptness of your visit, I'm afraid I must insist on a thorough search...especially of those counted amongst military personnel."
The Ludenorian captain was clearly off-put, but hid it well. The suggestion had been formal and polite, but also left no room for argument, which the captain knew. His mission would be stopped dead on the ice if he refused.
"As you wish, sir. If it hurries matters along..." he obliged, spreading his good arm outward and squaring his stance.
Lusk made his work as brisk and noninvasive as he could. A brief pat-down was all that was needed, so he didn't prolong the procedure, making sure that the man hid no nasty surprises on either side of his body.
He stopped when he detected something in the pocket of the captain that seemed unusual.
"What have we here?" he asked, retrieving a small bauble from within Rekcuff's inner coat.
Lusk held a stone wrapped in soft leather, about the size of a small potato. The surface was polished to a mirror shine and lightly faceted, the purples and silvers within glowing slightly in the firelight.
"Smuggling diamonds into the kingdom, eh captain?" Lusk asked with a smile.
Rekcuff gave a bark of a laugh, gesturing to the stone. "Ha! If only, good sir. With a gem that size I could retire. No, it is a gift from my father, one of the last he gave me before he died, a bit of quartz crystal he plucked from some God-forsaken shore many decades ago. I keep it with me as a form of protection and good fortune, especially while traveling abroad. A trifle, but a sentimental one, nonetheless."
Lusk didn't fully believe him, but it seemed unproductive to admonish the captain over something that, while curious, was apparently non-lethal. He wrapped the stone up once more and placed it back in the pocket from whence it came. "Of course, sir. We all find luck wherever we can."
Rekcuff watched as Lusk performed the same search procedure on Barden and, finding nothing, allowed the page to return to Rekcuff's side. As Lusk turned from the pair, the remaining contingent of his men were standing at attention. A confirmatory nod from his second in command told Lusk that all was ready. Rekcuff's placating smile returned as he cleared his throat.
"I believe that completes this business satisfactorily, don't you agree sir?" he asked.
"Indeed it does, Captain," Lusk said, stepping back and to one side, "so let us make haste to the castle, shall we? I'm sure the Queen will be most anxious to make your acquaintance."
"Of that, I have no doubt. By your leave, good sir," Rekcuff said, smiling genially.
Lusk turned to lead the Captain personally, who in turn made a gesture to his accompanying retinue. Rekcuff followed as quickly as he was able, marching slowly but purposefully toward the enticing lights of the city, the cold blackness of the ocean finally behind him. Lusk lead the group towards the nearest of the docks, outfitted with a small, broad stairway, wide enough for a group of men to ascend it five abreast. The welcoming Arendellian soldiers filed-in behind the group, keeping a small distance between themselves and the nobility they trailed after. As the visiting enclave climbed up and away from the icy channel, they noticed lanterns lining the planks of frosted wood. They were also met by another formation of guards, stationed on either side of the pier-head, lining the route all the way past the turning basin and the multiple ship berths, leading up to the port-house and past the trading terminal, into the city center. Said detail of men watched with silent fascination as the colorful delegation strolled past, marching quickly but regally toward the city, a parade of strangers decked in their finest winter garb.
Before long, the group was out of the harbor and making for the castle bridge, like-wise attended by soldiers on all sides. Barden noticed glints of light along the shadowed parapets, flashing in and out of sight like sparkles of glass. He guessed they must be arrow-heads, unstrung and hidden from view.
"They were certainly prepared for us, weren't they?" he whispered to Rekcuff. "Almost as if they could see us coming."
"Maybe. Maybe not," Rekcuff responded quietly. "If the reaction of the good Captain here is any indication, her Majesty won't see what's coming next."
Barden had only a second to consider that fact before they reached the end of the bridge. Here the gates swung wide on their hinges, opening on the main bailey. To one side, a makeshift stable had been hastily built to shelter several horses from the cold. To the other, a massive snarl of green-blue roots, dense and almost tropical in appearance, smothering the curtain wall and leading upward to an ice tree of preposterous proportion.
Rekcuff smiled as he heard exclamations of awe and fascination from the group at his back, appraising the tree as one might appraise an acrobat in mid-fall. But the Captain, it seemed, had eyes only for the route ahead.
The group—humbled but undaunted—cantered forward, hastened by the cold, into the fortress-like embrace of Castle Arendelle.
The half-walking, half-galloping Captain was shown to a large set of double-doors, the clap of his crutch echoing slightly through the brightly lit hall. Candles and torches guided him forward, mixing precociously with the accents of gold, purple and auburn which permeated the décor along the way. Barden was close behind, gazing upward at the quaint splendor of the castle and it's rustic design. Captain Lusk, having briskly escorted the pair and their group towards the throne-room, stopped the pair just short of the door-knocker. He turned to address the foreign representatives and, by extension, the slowly-thawing assemblage of nobility behind them.
"Here, dear Captain, young page, is where I must leave you. I shall deliver the roster of those present to her majesty and to the Court Crier, so that you might all be properly introduced," Lusk announced, the various soldiers under his command also listening closely. "I do believe you two shall precede the rest. Her Majesty wishes to follow formal decorum, what with this impressive collection of foreign nationals within our walls; recognition of the members of this cortege shall proceed from the lowest of gentry to highest of nobility and royalty. Is this understood?"
Though restrained, the Ludenorian had the smallest edge to his voice, even as he dipped his chin in recognition of courtly customs. "Seems fitting, given the lengthy compendium of pedigrees who have traveled so far to be here. I await our introduction, Captain."
Lusk briskly pulled one of the doors open and slipped inside. The Ludenorian and his page steadied themselves, looking back down the crowded corridor. The sound of murmuring and excited chatter could be heard some distance into the room, muffled by the grand door. Neither man could be sure, but both could have sworn that the voices were predominantly female.
Barden looked to his captain and noticed the irksome scowl.
"Is everything alright, sir?"
"It's fine," Rekcuff said, curt and soft, before leaning back a few inches and taking a breath. "Really, it is. Courtly procedure and all. Ceremony for the sake of ceremony...I suppose it is to be expected."
Barden was unconvinced, but decided not to push the subject. As he listened for a few minutes more to the random exclamations beyond the doors, he was struck by how rare this moment was, not only given the circumstances, but also for a man in his position as well. He was suddenly unsure of what to expect next.
"What is she like?" Barden asked, curious but casual. "Or rather, what are they like? The sisters?"
"You've read the intelligence reports, haven't you?" Rekcuff offered, looking at the man sidelong. "One powerful, graceful, beautiful and aloof. The other social, engaging, lovely and somewhat unpredictable. Quite the combination, eh?"
"Yes but what are they LIKE?" Barden asked, clearly disinterested in vague generalities.
Rekcuff shrugged, straightening his hair and combing cold fingers through his beard. "I'm sure they are far more complex than any sheet of paper might dictate. As for myself, I see them as any other scientific experiment, which is more or less what all of this is."
Rekcuff grinned confidently. "A challenge, my boy; just another challenge."
Barden hadn't the time to respond. The doors flung wide, held open by two servants in pressed tunics adorned with silver. A shrill, small man stood to one side, taking a deep breath before filling the room with his impressive voice.
"PRESENTING, Captain Nybrasio du Rekcuff, of His Majesties Research and Defense Corps, attaché and liaison to the Crown of Ludenor, and his Page, Barden Lucozan!"
The pair were whisked into the large room, with two pairs of horns on either side of them blaring loudly as they entered. It was a standard court announcement, perhaps a bit ornamental but still impressive, nonetheless. Rekcuff and Barden walked quickly, swept along by the grandeur on all sides.
The room was resplendent in color. Gold banners, crimson sashes and violet curtains hung on all sides, bolstered by the flames billowing atop fifty torches and nearly three dozen candelabra strewn about the room. A red carpet with staggered gold-leaf and purple tassels lay stretched from wall to wall, while soldiers, decked to the nines, lined every vertical surface. There must have been sixty lightly armed men standing at the ready, their formal-wear pressed sharp and their helms straight and tall. The two visiting men made a note of how closely they were being watched as they entered the room, making their way past a roaring fireplace to one side and a small collection of military officers lounging about on the other. They acknowledged these men with a speedy bow, but never lost momentum as they came to the head of the room.
Queen Elsa, her lips set in an easy smile, sat upon her fathers throne, her chin resting on one hand as she observed the men entering her court. Her crown, an understated bit of gold and jewels, lay proudly upon an immaculate nest of carefully woven braids, the platinum locks practically outshining the head-piece. Her gown began at the shoulder and plunged beneath her collarbone, encircling her upper body and arms in what looked like a twister of carefully woven cloth, accented with sky blues, silvery whites and a smattering of frozen crystal. The trail hung over the arm-rest, splayed wide, with ocean waves and thunderclouds carefully woven into the fabric. It seemed as if the queen had chosen to clad herself in a winter storm, delicately embossed but vibrantly displayed. Her legs were crossed but her posture was almost mockingly perfect; the woman may as well have been carved into the chair upon which she sat, seemingly possessive and commanding of the very air surrounding her.
To her right, upon slightly smaller but equally comfortable arm-chairs, sat the King and Queen of Corona. The king cut a dashing figure in his dress-whites, a heavy gold chain affixed with an emerald sun pendant hanging luxuriously across his shoulders, while the queen—quite the vision in a bronze, green and cream-colored long-sleeve column dress—had the countenance of a woman half her age, nary a wrinkle or line to be seen. The king held the queens left hand in his right, affectionate and familiar, but the eyes of the pair never left the faces of the two men hobbling towards their nieces.
The youngest Arendellian ruler sat to the left of the Queen, reclining on her mother's throne, an equally tasteful tiara atop her surprisingly loose coiffure. Pulled back into a single pony-tail, only one braid traveled the length of the princess' hair, reaching from the peak of her forehead all the way to the tips of her copper-red tresses. Her strapless, fitted gown seemed to be made of silk, a royal purple with a sash of muted crimson tied around her waste. The Crocus emblem was playfully displayed along the hem, while wisps of rose-gold could be seen trailing up along her legs. A thick lavender-colored winter shawl lay across her shoulders, clasped with two copper buttons just above her bust. Her hands were folded in her lap, a cup of what must have been cocoa between her palms, steam gently rising into the air. She was the perfect counterpoint to her sister the queen; relaxed, come-hither and nonabrasive. The only thing both sisters had in common was their footwear; both wore an identical pair of frost-white slippers, soft and comfortable and padded in what looked like powdered snow.
Continuing the symmetry of the room, Anna's cousin and her cousin's husband sat to her left. The princess of Corona wore a simple but flattering dirndl, the color-scheme very much like her mothers, but with a more nonchalant skirt and a corset with long sleeves. Her hair was tucked back, emphasizing her large, probing eyes, striking and inescapable. She sat very much like her cousin, her expression genial and frank. But her fingers tap-tap-tapped away at her arm-rest, as if keeping time with some inner mechanism that was hers alone to monitor. Eugene was probably the most casually dressed of the group, wearing beige slacks, a pair of heavy workman's gauntlets and sporting a pale blue cravat beneath a simple long-sleeve shirt, pressed tight to his chest by a black leather vest. The consort was absentmindedly tapping the heal of his bucket-top boot as he leaned forward on one knee, appraising the room the way a baccarat player watches a card table. His smile was friendly and approachable. His eyes were decidedly more suspicious.
Barden actually hesitated slightly, overwhelmed a bit by the sparkle and splendor which sat before him.
Rekcuff gave no such pause, sauntering as close as he dared before dropping to his good knee, bowing as low as he physically could before the two sisters.
"Hail Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, and her sister, Princess Anna!" he called, boisterous and clear, before turning to his right and left. "Hail also King Godehard and Queen Frida of Corona! And to the Princess Rapunzel and her Husband, Consort Eugene! I bring greetings from Ludenor and my lord King Ardent the Just! Well wishes he sends from across the sea, to you and yours this Yuletide season!"
The six royals absorbed the sincerity of the greeting as a sponge absorbs mercury; poorly, if at all. Of course their countenance never belied the truth of their dubiousness, but they found it difficult to offer a convincingly enthusiastic reply. Most of them nodded or gestured vaguely, while Elsa and Anna, for their part, found the display overzealous. They smiled politely and dipped their shoulders in lieu of a curtsy.
"Well met, Sir Captain," said the Queen, "and welcome to Arendelle. I hope your travels were swift and uneventful?"
"Predominantly, good queen, though the cold and wind in this part of the world leave something to be desired," said Rekcuff, offering a coquettish smile. "The fleet found the journey most engaging; a proper test of fortitude for seasoned and unseasoned sailors alike."
"Yes, the weather in our corner of the world is bracing and beautiful," agreed the princess, arching a delicate eyebrow, "so it's no surprise that Arendellians are made of sturdier stock than most."
"Speaking of your fleet," mused the Queen, "you've quite the procession massing behind you, sir, trailing it's way into my court. Best we finish with introductions before belaboring too many points of conversation all at once, yes?"
Rekcuff seemed to agree, retaking his slanted stance with a gesture of acquiescence. "True, true, absolutely, majesty. Forgive me my exuberance. To be continued, later, I am sure."
"Quite right," Anna said, turning to the crier. "Please continue, Mr. Einar."
Said crier clicked his heals, rereading the summoner as Rekcuff pulled himself to one side of the room, clearing the way for those who were to come.
"PRESENTING, the Royal Vizier to the Sultan of the Kingdom of Agrabah, Farouq bin Al Qasimi, and his wife, Lubna Khalid, Minister of Finance and the Royal Treasury!"
The doors swept wide again, providing a modest path for those who whose names were immediately summoned. A man in his late forties entered first, sporting a red hejazi with an ovate, azure stone situated just above his forehead. His beard was thin and his hairline seemed to be receding, but his eyes were fierce and bright, jade green and intelligent. His mishlah was dark and heavy, covering his thawb and insulating him from the cold, though a golden belt or sash could just be made out beneath the warm layers of cloth. The vizier seemed to be carrying something heavy in a large beaded sack, bound to his waist.
His wife followed after, also clad in a thick, dark cloak, covering her legs and the dainty slippers on her feet, playful bits of pink and blue occasionally peeking from underneath. Her shayla was likewise colorful, white and gold encircling her gracefully-aged face, with a string of pearls and opals draped over her head and down her neck. Her smile was faint but unforced, though the jewelry upon her head looked weighty and constricting. Behind her, four handmaidens, in complimentary colors, followed gracefully and quietly into the room, guarded on both sides by four slight but muscular men in matching sirwals, dark-green and red in color, with modest vests and smartly-worn agal, pulled tight over their keffiyeh. These men didn't smile, unlike the women they surrounded.
The vizier and his wife stepped forward, the man taking his wife's hand in his and bringing her to his side. They bowed in tandem, as did their entourage, genuflecting as modestly as they could in their cumbersome winter clothing.
"Alkthyr min alnaeam ealaa baytik, Your Majesties. Long has it been since any member of the Kingdom of Agrabah has walked within these walls," the vizier announced, his voice raspy but clear. "We bring tidings of good will from the Sultan and his Sultana, who are unable to travel due to a condition of the lungs. They ask me to communicate their sincerest of condolences to the both of you...your Father and Mother were wise, fair and too-quickly taken from this world. Their absence has been felt even very far from these shores."
His wife stepped forward a bit, her voice gentle and warm, though just a touch sad. "The Sultana in particular wished me to convey her deepest sympathies. She, too, knows what it means to lose a parent prematurely. There are few greater pains in this world, no matter how many years may pass."
Elsa offered a small bow of her own, as did Anna, nodding graciously to the pair as they spoke.
"Nurahib bikum, alwazir walwazir, fi manzilina," Anna recited, practiced and slow though still a bit clumsy. "We know the sea is cold and unforgiving, but we give thanks that your journey brought you safely here."
"My sister and I appreciate the condolences of the Sultan and Sultana," Elsa acknowledged. "They would be proud to know that you traveled so far to be here this night. Please, sit."
A group of guards produced several chairs from behind the curtains to the right of the throne, setting them some distance from where Godehard and Frida sat. The visitors took their seats gratefully and slowly, easing back into the soft cushions, while their attendants and protectors opted to stand about them, keeping close and silent as Elsa gestured back to her crier.
"PRESENTING, the court of His Excellency the Duke of Murcia, Humberto Allegro de Riofio, and his Daughter, the Countess of Asturias, Sofia de la Grassa, of the Calibri Federation!" called the man.
A large lord in a dark green doublet and pronounced collar entered the room, wearing a heavy cap upon well-oiled hair. He wore a short cape studded in rubies down the shoulder, the red garish next to his pale skin, his sleeves puffed and his leggings striped. His goatee was flat black and the rings on his fingers sparkled in the torchlight, especially as he bade his companion approach.
His daughter was, for lack of a better term, tremendous. Her dress, a pale green with streaks of black, blossomed so wide at her hips that it was amazing she could fit through the door. Her corset seemed fit to burst beneath her generous 'endowment', while she sported a massive collar-bib necklace around her throat. Blue and yellow diamonds studded her chest, stretching over her bust, while her hair was tied back in a fiercely constrictive bun, encapsulated by silver thread. Her face was placid and disinterested, even as she nibbled on what appeared to be a croquette of some kind; she didn't even look up as she entered the room.
From behind these two individuals came a throng of attendants, as well as a handful of lawyers, scribes, accountants, bankers and political tacticians of one caliber or another. Some twenty people swelled into the room, and while the duke and countess were predominantly withdrawn, their accompaniment were all a chatter, the general din composed of tax tariffs, regional expenditures, citations and violations of the law, with a few archaic references to the Siete Partidas, invoking the ALFONSO as they pertained to regional concerns. It was a whirlwind of conversation, one which quickly drowned out the call of the horns as they approached the throne.
Elsa and Anna only understood part of what they heard, offering uncomfortable smiles as the noise mounted and the group gathered closer. The Duke, offering a wide bow, attempted to speak, but he was drowned out by the flood of Castilian overtaking his words from the rear. He seemed to deflate a bit, until his daughter's eyes rolled up in frustration, spinning her generous frame one-hundred and eighty degrees on her calves-leather flats.
"SILENCIAR TUS AGUJEROS!" yelled the woman in a high, piercing alto. The veins on her neck were quite pronounced, her forehead wrinkled with rage as she blasted her compatriots.
The effect was immediate. Everyone in the room, including Elsa, Anna and their extended family, found themselves shocked into silence. The various gentry looked sufficiently unnerved and embarrassed at having been spoken to like children by an angry headmistress, their lips curled upwards and their collars ruffled with indignation. Elsa and Frida found themselves elegantly stifling a pair of chortles, while Godehard tilted his head with approval at the effectiveness of the young woman. Eugene and Rapunzel could only stare wide-eyed.
"Muchos perdones, majestades, por el comportamiento inapropiado de mi corte. The education and coordination of these gentlemen is formidable, but they sometimes lack the necessary tact to engage other parties beyond their own," said the Countess, clutching at her skirt and spreading it wide for the Queen and Princess. "I find it akin to driving cats in a lighten storm...using another cat. My father is rather soft-spoken. Fortunately, his daughter is not."
Anna smiled brightly. "Lucky for him. A pleasure to meet you both, Countess, Duke. Welcome to our little Kingdom."
"Muy agradecidos estamos con usted, gran reina y princesa," the Duke said, finally able to get his gentle, heavily-accented voice edgewise into the conversation. "The pressures of delegating across this federation can tax even the most reasonable men. It took seven sea-faring craft just to bare the entirety of this court hence. Perhaps they are simply over-tired."
Elsa clasped her hands gracefully. "Think nothing of it, sir. Please, sit, rest; I'm sure we have enough room for all of your—"
"Oh don't be ridiculous, let them cluster about," the countess said, traipsing over the rug to the largest chair she could obtain. "If they insist on squawking like flamenco, they should stand-about like them as well."
The wittiness was apparently not lost upon her platoon of politicians, though the dry, forced nature of their laugh as they congregated behind the countess and the duke suggested they were less than impressed. The two nobles paid it no mind, of course, reclining comfortably as Elsa gestured back to the man waiting patiently by the door.
"Ahem...PRESENTING, Maggiore General Ludovico Enzola de Savoy of Ministero della Difesa di Sua Maestà, and his Son, Emmanuel Francesco, Capitano della Cavalleria Esplorativa Reale, Emissario militare del Regno di Florentine!"
Two men entered the room marching at a half-quick pace, the younger behind the older. The Major General was decked from head to toe in a gray and Ox-blood red uniform, with a bright red sash running from shoulder to hip. Upon this sash sat many stars, medals and orders, the largest of which seemed to be shaped like dragon, coiled about a sword. The man was in his late sixties, with a clean-shaven face and faded blonde hair, sitting beneath a woven cap. His boots and gloves were of dark leather and his cape, folded over one arm as he marched, was crimson-dyed satin, shining in the torchlight. His smile was subtle and cocky; every bit the weathered, experienced commander that he appeared to be.
His son was something else. Taller, more slender but broader at the shoulder, his uniform was tightly fitted and sparsely adorned by comparison to his father. Only one medal sat upon his chest, that of a man ridding a horse while nocking an arrow into a bow, sitting above a small shelf of orders. He wore no head gear and his eyes were pale, almost white, but his corn-kernel hair was bright and youthful. He kept his hands together behind his back, his body just slightly hunched forward. His eyes drifted from one side of the room to the other, but they predominantly kept themselves trained on his father. He was strikingly handsome and clearly a product of rigorous training and discipline, but unlike his commanding officer, his demeanor was placid, unsure...perhaps even sad. His smile was one of placation; his father's was one of procedure.
Elsa and Anna pulled ever so slightly back into their chairs at the sight of the guard detail behind the pair of officers. Ten men, all of whom standing tall and rigid in formation, marched slowly and methodically down the red carpet. Each wore a helm of plate-armor, archaic in design but modern in application. A large crest arched over the head, coming to a rough plateau atop the brow, just above the slits for the eyes. Blackened steel embossed with silver, the chest-pieces were thick but articulate, forged with relief patterns of animals, warriors and weapons upon their chest and abdomens. This continued across their thick grieves and down their legs, ending at spiked boots glistening with melted snow. In each of their left hands, a shield, displaying the same dragon/sword design worn so proudly by the general who led them toward the sisters. The clop of their boot-falls filled the room and silenced the onlookers.
"Regina Elsa, principessa Anna, mando i saluti dalla mia regina, Isabella di Florentine," the general announced, bowing curtly and quickly. His voice was surprisingly high and sharp; it didn't seem to match his countenance at all. "She is expecting her third child and so was unable to join us on this pilgrimage. It is a boy, I would hope. Fine daughters she has, but the late King saw fit to bless her with one more child before succumbing to consumption. Truly a gift from God, to sustain the line of succession, despite the loss of the King. His miracles know no bounds."
Elsa could feel the squeak of her teeth as she ground them into a smile and acknowledged the man before her. "Buona salute alla regina e a lei, signore ... Spero che la nascita sia senza complicazioni. We were truly saddened to hear of King Philibert's passing. I trust Princess Maria and Princess Vittoria are well?"
"Oh who can tell with children these days?" The man said, gesturing disinterestedly and looking back at the captain. "I have raised MY son and that fulfills my responsibility as a parent. Took twenty-three years, but we managed to make a man out of you, didn't we, boy?"
The captain crept closer, bowing sheepishly before the Queen and Princess, before responding quietly, "Si, Generale. I suppose it did take some time...more than expected..."
Anna couldn't help but feel the slightest bit of pity for the man. As handsome and powerful as he appeared, his posture and tone were one of subservience to a clearly overbearing parent. The princess knew her relationship with her own parents hadn't be spectacular, but clearly there were always extremes on both sides of the spectrum.
"You are an equestrian, Capitano Emmanuel?" she asked the officer.
The man looked up, surprised at being addressed directly, one eye hidden behind a lock of hair. "Umm, yes...yes, Princess, I am. Expedition and Reconnaissance, mostly."
"Fascinating. I ride as well, but I'm afraid not very gracefully," Anna continued, earnest and true. "I'm told it takes a steady hand and kind heart to bring a steed to it's fullest potential. If you are a captain of such skill, I would imagine your temperance makes you a commanding presence upon a cavallo di battaglia."
Elsa and Rapunzel smiled as they listened. Both women were proud to call this young upstart family, especially given her propensity to tend to those who needed even the smallest bit of kindness.
The captain's cheeks colored slightly, compelling him to bow again. "H-Her highness is very kind. Though unseasoned, I trust I will one day be worthy of such praise...at least, I hope so..."
"Yes yes, one day you will crawl out from under that egg-shell still lingering about your backside," the General said, derisive and unimpressed, "God only knows when that will be. Anyway, we thank you for your hospitality, Majesties. May we be seated?"
"With all due speed, sir," Elsa said, cracking another uncomfortable smile.
The pair found their seats quickly, their soldiers continuing to encapsulate the officers on all sides, almost like a phalanx of darkened steel. The young Captain continued to look-on at the princess, clearly smitten at her kindness, if not her beauty, while his father leaned back and crossed his arms, as if waiting for a conference of officers to join him at a war-room gathering.
Elsa and Anna were simultaneously relieved at being introduced to the next set of visitors. The crier needed no further encouragement to simply 'move things along'.
"PRESENTING, their Regional Excellencies, Ker Dothnol, Earl of the Lothian Highlands, and the Marquess of Briene, Lord Gordon Balniel, Buidheann dioplòmasach roinneil Rìgh nan Albannach gu lèir!"
Two men, modest in height but both as big-around as a wheelbarrow, marched leisurely into the room. One sported a dark green Balmoral fitted with a white and blue cockade, hiding a head of dark red hair, while the other wore nothing atop his brow, instead opting to tie his graying scalp in a set of long braids trailing down his back. The younger of the two had a large untamed beard, while the older sported a formidable but neatly trimmed mustache, as silver as the hair on his head. The men wore wool mittens and thick white tunics, each wearing an order of gold around their necks; one fitted with glimmering Lapis, the other simply a knot-work of interconnected chains. Their plaids were heavy and rustic, the patterns pleasant but distinctly different from one another. The Cuaran's upon their feet, tied tightly with what looked like sinew and deer hide, looked completely soaked through, though they seemed to pay it no mind. They simply ruffled their clothing to knock the last of the damp from their person. Both men walked with a quarterstaff in hand, fashioned from polished Hawthorne. They were more or less using the poles as a walking sticks, with the younger exuding confidence, while the older displayed a notable temperance of stride.
The two came to a halt before the pair of seated women, bowing in a manner both rudimentary and gentile. They were probably the most casually dressed of all those present in the throne-room, but they carried themselves like the highest of nobility to enter the castle thus far.
"Biodh a 'ghrian a' deàrrsadh blàth air do rìoghachd, a bhanrigh mhath, eadhon mar a bhios gaoth a 'gheamhraidh a' sèideadh," greeted the eldest, slowly falling to his knees and bowing his head deeply. "Beairteas mòr dhaibhsan a thogas rìoghachd làidir airson an cuid dhaoine."
Elsa smiled brightly at the Gaelic, having studied it thoroughly as a girl. "Beannachd math gu dearbh, Pàillean math. Tha fàilte mhòr air do bheannachd. But please, stand, the floor is no place for a man of such high manners."
The elder gentleman looked up, slightly confused. "Beg do mhaitheanas, mòrachd?"
Elsa and Anna looked bewildered as well.
"Ehm...did she say something off?" Anna asked.
The younger lord, also dropping to his knees, made a wide show of his hands before chuckling slightly. "Ah ha, no, no, m'ladies, you've said nothing unseemly, I assure you. Allow me..."
The younger man bent towards the older and whispered something in his ear, before pulling back and smiling. The elder lord nodded as if in understanding, before bowing once more and coming to his feet, his muscular legs creaking with the effort.
"Ye'see, the good Marquess here, well, he is of an older, more conservative stock," explained the younger lord, also coming to his feet. His tone was gentle and his accent as gnarly as his beard. "Never really took to studying other languages as a lad. Was always more adept at mathematics, agriculture, that sort'uh thing. I suspect that's why I was asked to accompany his lordship, since I speak five languages...badly, I admit, but more than sufficient for such an errand."
"Oh," Elsa said, relaxing, "I understand. I was afraid my inflection or tone was off in some way."
"Actually, you're fairly well practiced, good queen," said Lord Ker, "I'm sure he understood you just fine on the first go. Appreciates the effort, definitely."
Anna nodded encouragingly. "Ah, in that case, we'll do what we can to meet you both half-way. A bheil an t-acras ort, a dhaoine math?"
Lord Gordon's eyes brightened as he leaned forward on his staff. "Aye, chan eil dad ach briosgaidean agus broth airson trì seachdainean. Tha biadh math a 'faireachdainn mìorbhuileach."
"Excellent," Elsa said, "we should be serving supper within the hour. Feuch an suidh thu agus gabh fois, mo charaidean, gus am bi an dinnear deiseil."
The men cheerfully departed the immediate company of the sisters to take their seats nearest to the entourage of Agrabah, leaning their staves upon their chairs and gratefully kicking their heels up for the first time in what seemed like days. They almost looked as if they had walked the nine-hundred kilometers from their kingdom to this one.
Before the sisters could could gesture to the crier for the fifth time that evening, they heard a thunderous roar from the other side of the door.
"O lyubvi ko vsemu belomu i netronutomu, KHOROSHO!" bellowed a voice, deep and dark and clearly upset. "Vse vmeste! SEYCHAS! Prezhde chem ya poteryayu samoobladaniye!"
The doors were practically thrown off their hinges as they were cast open. The crier, with barely enough time to move out of the way, dropped his summons and skittered to one side, doing all he could not to be trampled by the wall of legs and feet bursting into the room.
Twenty men, broad-shouldered and tall, entered first, fitted with double-breasted infantry coats and gold-braided galloons about their waists. Everything was pressed sharp, from their khaki-trousers to their gloves, spic and span down to the polish of their hard-heeled, hand-made boots. At the rear of this company came two officers, both in soft, warm-looking cherkeska, sporting oak leaves on either shoulder. Their tall, cylindrical shako caps looked heavy and awkward, but the men wore them proudly, the shine of a golden, double-headed eagle peaking out from the thick wool. They gave a harsh command and, almost as if choreographed, split the soldiers into two ranks, lining them up along the carpet, the men facing inward and offering a salute. The officers came to the head of the line and fell into place, awaiting further instruction.
A caravan of people flowed inward, emptying like a spigot onto the carpet. Some twenty-five additional lords and ladies made a quick but dignified dash between the two rows of men, almost scrambling to get out of the way. Elsa, Anna and the rest of their family took note of the flurry of color blossoming before them: dresses of pure silk layered with lace and frills, massive head-dresses laden with sapphire and diamond, large petticoats with wooden buttons, shoes and slippers ranging from what looked like ballerina flats to thick, felt-clad winter wrap-ups; simultaneously the best that could be offered by the cobblers of Paris to the most practical of hand-cut clogs. It was a menagerie of the wealthy and the working, the consumptive and the clergy, the regal and the raucous. Unlike the autocratic assemblage from Calibri, this group was surprisingly quiet, only allowing the softest of mutters to escape their lips. They clustered about nearest the foot of the stairs leading up to the pair of thrones, some falling gracefully to their knees, others bowing deeply, their jewelry and dense clothing making quite the racket as they attempted to slow and steady themselves. At first, Elsa and Anna wanted to call off such pomp and circumstance, finding it far too much for such a large group of people.
Both sisters came to the unsettling realization, almost at once, that these lords and ladies were not bowing before the two of THEM.
Another man, reed-thin and strangling a massive piece of parchment in his right hand, stepped down the carpet. In one eye sat a monocle, clamped firmly between his brow and the side of his sharp nose. In the opposite hand, a cane, mounted by a ruby the size of Anna's fist. He stood between the divided group of nobles, eyeing them suspiciously, before unrolling the parchment and declaring it's contents in a loud, piercing tenor.
"ANNOUNCING, HIS MOST ILLUSTRIOUS EMPERIAL MAJESTY! By The Grace of the Almighty, Emperor and Supreme Autocrat of All the Russland People, The Third of his Line, Ivan Sergeyevich Rurikid! Of Mozco, Keyiv, Navorog! Zsar of Asya! Zsar of Polad! Zsar of Siberius! Zsar of Belatussa! Zsar of Kaza! Lord of Keldoryi! Lord of Finelich! Grand Prince of Gegarinosis, Raxx, Legrain, Jestia, Ukranita and others. Heir of Circashi, Wesselheid, Doyridanuya and others and others and others...!"
The approaching palanquin was huge. It filled the doorway, almost scraping against the frame as it was hoisted into the torchlight of the throne-room. The shrill man spilling accolades from his lips stepped broadly to one side, allowing the creaking piece of antiquity to squeeze past him.
Four stout men—wrapped tight in ankle-length naval coats belted with red fox fur—bore the weight of the huge platform, carrying it aloft on two wooden shafts adorned with hammered brass. Two ornamental railings sat on either side, purely for decoration, sporting what looked like a tiger mauling a bear on one side, while a sea-serpent did battle with some ancient Greek God on the other. The railings looked worn and smooth, as if polished and cleaned daily for over a hundred years. Gold lief was layered heavily upon the outer molding of the platform, making it look as if the whole thing was sliding down a sparkling river of lavish liquid metal. Between the railings lay a rug, possibly Persian, woven with dark blues and golds and reds. It looked thick and sturdy, like the platform beneath it, yet slightly matted toward the middle, no doubt flattened over many years of use. The large tassels on each corner hung lazily off the edge, swaying gently with each measured step of the bearers.
A man in his early seventies languished atop the palanquin, surrounded on all sides by all manner of coverings and quilts. Bear-skin, tiger-fur, wolf-hide and mink-pelt were draped about his shoulders and legs, making it appear as if he were being suffocated by a taxidermist's winter catalog. The quilts were layered in lambs-wool and bordered with fleece, embroidered with symbols of the church, of grand monuments and star-charts, of long-dead saints and ancient battles past. They swallowed the man in a shield of impermeable warmth and softness, almost as if the layers of cloth had swelled around him like flaky layers of pastry rising in an oven. The man was propped up with green pillows and red cushions behind his back and on either side of his bulky shoulders, stiff but plush, walling him off and raising him to a sitting position at the same time. The man sat in a crater of sumptuous softness; the most lofty and comfortable person in the room, by a factor of ten.
Emperor Rurikid wore a shining laurel upon his brow, a simple crown for a traveling monarch, with soft accents of silver threaded into his huge, chest-covering beard. Both laurel and thread served to pronounce the dark of his eyes, blue as midnight, above his wrinkled cheeks. Instead of a military coat, like his officers, the Emperor wore a dazzling crimson polucaftan, collared in ermine, spilling off his shoulders like waterfalls of blood, studded with diamond clusters and swirls of sparkling amethyst. His rabbit-fur gloves were a stark contrast to everything else about his person, though they were no longer as pearly white as they had once been. In his right hand, the emperor held a large meerschaum pipe filled with a generous, gently smoldering pinch of makhorka, the bowl carved into the relief of some golden horde Khan. In his left, sitting on his knee, a large porcelain decanter wrapped in thick cloth, filled to sloshing with a sweet muscat.
The two sisters let a few beats play out before addressing the older man, their first-cousin twice removed...and undisputed ruler of one fourth of the planet.
"Vysokopreosvyashchenstvo," Elsa said, bowing her head over her clasped hands, hoping her accent was less hesitant than her choice of words. "Mnogo let proshlo s tekh por, kak vy posetili nashe korolevstvo. Ty chtish' moyu sestru i menya svoim prisutstviyem."
The large man tilted his head and brought his pipe to his lips. The puff of smoke that emerged from within his beard was almost mirthful, surrounding his face and giving his cheeks a cherubic glow. The smell was harsh and seemed to compete with the burning pine in the fireplace. But his eyes were surprisingly gentle, even as he appraised his distant relatives like chattel at auction.
"Been practicing, have you?" the emperor inquired, chewing a bit on the mouthpiece between his teeth.
Anna leaned forward. "Vozmozhno, my prenebregli nekotorymi iz nashikh yazykovykh issledovaniy. S tekh por, kak my govorili, proshlo mnogo let, Imperator."
"Yes. Almost fifteen years, I believe," the man said, perhaps deep in memory, perhaps enjoying the bliss of his pipe. "If I remember correctly, the princess Anna was still playing with dolls and scuttling about the castle like some errant puppy. Your father's letters said as much. And the princess Elsa...well, fewer details were shared. Perhaps for the best. I imagine it would have been hard to put into words, all the...irregularities with such a childhood."
The sisters swallowed in tandem; one from embarrassment, the other from concealed effrontery, and both incapable of fully hiding either.
"But where are my manners?" the emperor said, sitting up slightly and setting his pipe in a small nook between two cushions. "Please do not misunderstand, your crier was doing a marvelous job...but you see, I have been traveling for some weeks now, first by carriage and then by sea, and my backside feels tanned and treated like so much leather, so I thought it best to move things along. Okh ... opusti menya, bol'shiye gluptsy."
The palanquin bearers turned to face one another in a practiced maneuver, quickly but carefully sliding four hidden latches out of four hidden slots. The wooden shafts were extended outwards and bent upon hinges built into the poles, like the legs of a collapsible table. The men latched the poles into their new positions, perpendicular to the floor, lowering the platform to the carpet. Once settled, the Emperor sat only three feet off the ground instead of six, his platform the new, decadent, unexpected centerpiece of the room. Though he technically now rested beneath the thrones, he still sat more or less at eye level with his much younger cousins.
"I shall finish the introductions, yes? Since my own title fills the mouth like so many melted truffles, I think a bit of truncation is necessary," the emperor announced, gesturing to a man in a black caftan, surrounded by attendants and naval officers, a simple regalia adorning his chest. "This bloated chunk of herring is Danylo Ararat Zavod, Minister of Internal Security of Ukranita. The woman beside him, trying not to fall over from the ten kilos of pearls around her neck? Ulyana Aronov, Duchess of Kaza...the Aronov family controls most of the trade routes and caravan outposts throughout the southeastern empire. And here, to my right, the young man, pale as a bed-sheet, surrounded by blushing women and fawning nurses? Jakub Filip Wójcik, Duke of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship of Polad. A bit sickly from the journey, it seems...I always wondered why his father never trained him properly as a sailor. Finally, the rather gaunt elder lady, just there, looks a bit like a pheasant after it has been plucked and stuffed into a frilled dress? Your parents may have mentioned her in passing once or twice; Aava Inari Kanerva, Princess of Karelia. Now deposed, unfortunately. Her father's irregular trade dealings ran him afoul of the Kontinental'naya Torgovaya Gil'diya some decades back. But she was supposedly very close to your parents when they were young and she was...well, less old."
Elsa and Anna knew that their twice-removed cousin was low on tact, but they'd never seen it demonstrated before. The Queen and Princess looked from dignitary to dignitary, their own countenance unbroken, watching the crestfallen expressions weave themselves amongst the sizable group. It was entirely possible that these people were as vain or ridiculous or unflattering as the Emperor claimed, but his systematic evisceration of the people who supposedly made up his court was difficult to watch. It was unnecessary and vicious.
It was also articulate, patient and exact. Much like the grand entrance he'd made—without formal permission or introduction—his less-than-flattering recitation of his compatriots and their pedigrees was meant to impress just how much control he truly possessed. Powerful enough to command the attention of other royals from variously represented nations, but subtly degrading and dismissive enough to make them feel like their station meant nothing by comparison. The sisters knew that it didn't take much to stir the ire of those who perceived you as an enemy, but to command the respect of those around you out of fear? That was something to behold.
The Emperor and his family had not held sovereignty over twenty-four million square kilometers of land—for over two-hundred fifty years—by being nice.
The man retook his pipe and perked-up for a second, looking about the room. "Ah, where is Yevgeni...? YEVGENI! Idi ko mne seychas, ty, bol'shoy morzh!"
Behind the palanquin, a towering soldier marched into the room, keeping his distance. His long-coat was black with a silver trim and his beard was overgrown and burly, but at nearly seven feet tall and with shoulders as wide as a bakers' hearth, it was unlikely that anyone would discuss his grooming regimen to his face. Upon one shoulder, seemingly too heavy even for someone of his foreboding size, sat a crate large enough to house four barrels of salt-cod. There was no way to know what the contents of the crate were, but after entering the room, the man dismounted his cargo and set it upon the crowded carpet some distance behind the menagerie of lords and ladies which had preceded him. Here the soldier rested, arms clasped behind his back, his eyes sharp and clear, his posture immaculate. He bowed to his Emperor and to the sisters before him. He did not come closer; his position was chosen very carefully and he would not abandon it without express permission.
"Don't mind Yevgeni. My personal guard call him 'The Golem', but he listens well, especially for a creature of such size and density. I have him here on special assignment...but that is for later, I suppose," the emperor explained. "So now, we are all here! The line in your great hall is exhausted. The Pomp and Circumstance of entering the room has been completed...finally."
Elsa ignored her cousin's tone and stood slowly from her throne, clearing her throat. She addressed the newly assembled and previous all at once, allowing the lilt of her greeting to fill the room.
"Great nobility of the Russland Empire and it's satellite kingdoms, welcome, all of you, to Arendelle. Many moons has it been since our crown held congress with so many all at one time. I understand that your journey has been taxing and time consuming, so it gives me great pleasure that you have all arrived safely. Though we were only made aware of your entrant into this region very recently, my sister and I have prepared a great feast in celebration of this unexpected gathering. And, of course, warm lodgings within the castle as well; a welcome reprieve from weeks at sea, I am sure. You are our honored guests, all of you."
The small speech was met with scattered applause from royalty, nobility and gentry alike. Frida and Godehard joined in, clapping politely, while Rapunzel and Eugene followed suit. Elsa and Anna appreciated the accolade, such as it was, but the sisters were more appreciative of the wariness with which their relatives regarded the crowd. Their eyes, though genial and warm, were searching, watching, surveying the room as a hawk might survey a field of grass. Unarmed though the group was, it was unknown if something grand, violent or stupid had been planned in advance for the queen and her princess. As such, formality notwithstanding, it would be unwise for any of those upon the dais of the throne to drop their guard, even for a moment. This was the generally accepted risk by Elsa and Anna's family, one they took very seriously.
"We have roast and fish and pastries, sweet mead and sharp wine," Anna announced, joining her sister, "not to mention yule cakes and fattigman, freshly prepared—"
"ACTUALLY," came a stern voice from one side, "I think it best if we bring certain issues to light, first."
Elsa and Anna were just shy of astonished. They looked to Rekcuff, eyes wide and lips twitching with bemusement, while the rest of the crowd slowly silenced themselves. The interruption had been sufficient to cast all eyes in the room on the lopsided Captain, some even leaning forward in their chairs to get a better look at the usurper of the conversation.
"Captain," Frida said, raising her voice almost in retaliation, leaning forward with her husbands hand clasped tightly in her own, "we realize that your voyage has been long and probably arduous, but it is most irregular to call out in such a manner. Especially at the foot of the queen and princess themselves."
The captain dipped into a difficult but graceful bow, his knee almost buckling. "Her Majesty is correct, of course. And I meant no disrespect, I swear it. But as the queen has so directly pointed out, this, ALL of this, is highly irregular. Our journey, our goal...it is all very unusual."
Here he turned to face Elsa directly again. "If I might be allowed to explain...?"
The room murmured back and forth, but surprisingly, no objections came from the crowd. Elsa and Anna were intrigued by the reaction. This man, carrying no more than a common military rank and his own body-weight upon a crutch, had cut through the pomp and formality of the room almost as effortlessly as their second cousin. They seemed to forget the promise of food and comfort entirely, whispering and nodding in agreement with the proposal before the crown.
What could be so important as to capture the attention of so many like fish in a purse-seine net?
Elsa looked to Anna, almost as if to defer to her decision.
A curious look, the captain observed. Gentle and prodding, as if looking for support and approval...not something a queen would normally do, especially with a princess.
But Anna is her sister. This is conventional among siblings, of course, something Rekcuff was not immediately accustomed to.
That must be it. Of course.
"It seems the captain has urgent business that supplants the need for a meal," Anna announced with a crooked smile, earning a tidbit of laughter from the crowd. "But very well. Dinner can wait. Proceed, Captain Rekcuff. My sister and I are equally curious as to what justifies this mass-conglomeration of our peers...and in the dead of winter, no less."
The captain again bowed and let the gentle din of the room settle, before retrieving the coiled scroll-work from his inner coat once more. Barden stepped forward and held the first scroll aloft, so that the captain might better read the inscription and not have to decide how to balance his weight at the same time. After setting his eyes on the most prudent piece of information, he addressed the sisters, and the crowd at large, before bringing the congregation to order.
"Queen Elsa and Princess Anna of Arendelle, Royal Majesties and Highness's of the Russland Empire, nobles, lords, generals, ladies and gentleman et al, I thank you for your kind attention. While the vast majority of those gathered here tonight are aware of our purpose in this resplendent kingdom of the north, I am compelled to preface this declaration with an inquiry. If their majesties would be so kind, could you please identify this document and speak to it's fraudulence or validity, whichever the case may be?" the captain asked, gesturing toward the throne.
Elsa tilted her head but beckoned the page forward. The man approached swiftly and gracefully set the first scroll in Elsa's hand, backing away with haste. He retook his position as Rekcuff watched the queen and princess open the parchment wide, studying it in tandem.
Though he hid his pleasure, the Captain couldn't stifle the small smile with crept over his lips. The reaction from the Queen was exactly what he was hoping for. His anticipation seemed to rise in time with the delicate eyebrows of the sisters before him.
"Ehm...this, is a letter," Elsa said, hesitant but clear, "a letter I addressed to King Ardent some thirty-five days ago. It was dispatched by one of my Sun Fury Owls, not one hour after it's completion. I was never informed of it's arrival, or lack thereof, in Ludenor. Nor was I aware that anyone, other than the king himself, would intercept this correspondence."
"Curious, that," Anna said, looking her sister sidelong in the eye before looking down at Rekcuff. "So how is it YOU came into possession of this document, captain?"
Said captain offered an placating smile. "The answer to your question is very long-winded and complicated, princess. But suffice it to say, I have, for the last few years, be given the great honor of previewing any communication addressed directly to the king, especially if that communication is in some way suspect. Not to imply her majesty is, in any way, suspicious in her intent. But my newly minted position came about after a half-dozen attempts on the life of his majesty by way of mail...poison, explosives and the like. So your letter was more-or-less 'assigned' to me before reaching the eyes of the king. Rest assured, the king, my immediate superior and myself are the only three to read this letter and the Owl is resting comfortably in the Royal Aviary. His Majesty greatly appreciates the gift, by the by; he has always fancied himself a collector of rare species."
Elsa was unsure of how to broach the subject on how the Sun Fury Owl was not, in fact, a gift, but decided to leave that for another time. "And so captain? If my letter is not suspect, why the sudden subterfuge and subsequent 'return to sender', as it were?"
Rekcuff pushed his chin toward the queen in a gesture of urgency. "The letter is of little concern, truly, but the subject matter is...greatly troubling, to say the least."
"Clarify," Anna asked.
"I will be happy to," the man agreed, looking about, "but first, if I might ask...where IS Lord Elgar von Shroud?"
"That's not how this works, Captain."
The room turned in unison this time. King Godehard, silent as stone for the length of the proceedings thus far, had lent his voice to the dialogue. It wasn't as sharp and cutting as Rekcuff's was, but his baritone filled the room like smoke fills a chimney.
"Ah, Godehard," the emperor said, retaking his pipe and puffing slowly. "I almost forgot you were sitting there. Strange, I don't remember you being this composed as a boy...or this assertive."
"Time changes many things, Uncle. Nice to see you, as well," the king said, before reassigning his gaze to the crutch-leaning man. "Officer, the princess asked you for clarification. Important though your inquiry may be, they do not negate the priority of the princess's concerns. Clandestine or misconstrued intent is poorly received within these walls, and not just by the Queen, or her sister."
The man seemed to read his misstep and withdrew just a bit, lowering his head in acquiescence. "Ah, of course, good king. Perhaps I should elaborate. I was merely wondering if the letter itself was accurate, with regards to Lord Elgar's whereabouts. He has been in Arendelle for quite some time, is that correct?"
Elsa looked down at the letter and back to the man, her eyes lidded and careful. "Indeed. Lord Elgar has been our guest for these last several weeks, in fact. Though at the time of this correspondence, he had only been within these walls for a little less than six days."
Anna appreciated the calculated reply. There wasn't one lie in what she said, technically. Clever and quick was the name of the game right now.
Rekcuff seemed somewhat anxious at hearing her response. "I see...well, this is most disturbing news. That is, considering the circumstances, it is disturbing. But your majesties seem to be in good health and no worse for wear, so perhaps that is the best that can be hoped for."
"Why would they be worse for wear?" Rapunzel piped up, inquisitive and concerned. "You speak as if you expected the queen and princess to be in some terrible state upon your arrival. For what reason would they be anything other than fit and healthy? Explain yourself."
The Captain began to speak, but held his tongue. He rested his chin in his hand, standing tall, as if considering how to proceed. But with one quick glance to his left, he settled on a course of action both brilliant and expository.
"You are quite right, Princess Rapunzel...so perhaps, to better field your question, we must begin at the beginning. Or at least, the beginning insofar as it concerns this kingdom," the captain said, before gesturing to the delegation from Agrabah. "Royal Vizier, Finance Minister, if you please? Your encounter seems to be the first recorded incident, at least as it pertains to this inquiry. Would you start us off?"
The eyes of the group swerved wide to the other side of the room. The husband and wife came to their feet, their faces reluctant, but they seemed to recognize the importance of their contribution. Their posture suggested that they carried something far heavier than gold in that beaded bag between them.
"Thank you captain, may it please this congregation," the Vizier said, gesturing to his wife and the room at large, "I, too, have but one humble question to ask her majesty the queen."
"Proceed," Elsa said.
The vizier waited patiently as his wife pulled a large folded piece of canvas from within her robes. It was aged and creased, looking delicate despite it's weight. Elsa waited patiently as the elder woman unfolded the canvas into a four-foot-by-three-foot display, hanging from her fingers like a bolt of ancient cloth.
"Good queen, I am curious...do you recognize this man?" the vizier asked.
The hand-writing was formal and clear, as if printed by a calligraphy artist. Though the sisters could only read a little Arabic, they could clearly make out the urgency of the announcement, sitting beneath a garish portrait rendered in dark, harsh lines of red and black ink.
A man with a slender face and long, silvery hair was depicted in startling detail. Though his beard was poorly groomed and he wore what seemed to be a keffiyeh instead of a robe, bunched about the shoulders, everything else about the picture screamed the identification of the subject. The set jawline, delicate cheeks, creased brow and dark, hollow eyes...whoever this artist was, if nothing else, they had captured one of the more defining attributes of the man, exemplified in an image both foreboding and captivating.
"...yes," Elsa said, thinking carefully, "he looks familiar."
"Twenty Months ago, the grand coffers of Argabah were looted," the vizier began, lowering the poster to his side. "Somehow, thirteen of the sultans personal guard were engaged, defeated and detained, without so much as one alarm being sounded. These were some of the sultan's best men, highly capable, trained in deadly force. The second responding guard detail found the first hanging from the ceiling in the sepulcher, just outside the entrance to the qabu, bound in rope like pigs for slaughter. None were dead, Allah be praised, but many suffered serious injury. Once interrogated and brought to a mustashfaa, we learned a great deal about what the man looked like...but virtually nothing else. The men were unable even to wound him, he brushed past them as a stiff wind through fig leaves; apparently, he barely broke stride."
Anna, keeping her face neutral, leaned closer. "That is truly horrible. I am glad no one was killed. But you said there was a looting?"
The finance minister, her eyes downcast, spoke up. "That was the official report, yes. In truth, there was a great deal of damage to the entrance-way, but the coffers themselves were largely intact. Ransacked, searched, yes, but only three items were, in fact, missing. No gold, no jewelry, not even a single piastre missing, so far as we could count. In fact, after work had been completed on the restoration of the coffers and their security measures, it took us an additional three months to piece together what was missing. Arguably, these were the most precious items within the coffers, and the kingdom at large, if the rumors are true..."
"Rumors?" Frida prodded.
The vizier nodded grimly. "Three trinkets, hidden in plain site within the coffer so as to avoid implying value when unnecessary: a perfume bottle, a scepter and an old oil lamp. It was decreed, nearly nine-hundred years ago, that these items be kept secret, almost to the point of a being forgotten. When we noticed their absence, the sultan ordered their immediate retrieval, by any means necessary. It was a matter of internal security, held in the highest of confidence by members of the royal court, only. Indeed, such a search I have never seen before, or since."
"For...and I mean no offense..." Eugene added, softly and delicately, "an oil lamp, a perfume bottle and a scepter? That caused such a stir amongst the leadership of your kingdom?"
The minister clasped her hands together, looking at the young man with kind but wary eyes. "Correct, sir. Such was their impact nearly a millennia prior. You see, Agrabah entered it's Golden Period around this time in our history. Indeed, our kingdom experienced it's greatest stretch of prosperity and peace during this one-hundred and fifty year epoch, owed in large part to the young Sultan and Sultana who took the earsh around this time: Aladdin the Cunning and his wife, Jasmine the Bold. Not only did they expand our territory greatly, but our allies doubled and our trade tripled during their reign and the reign of their children and grandchildren. It truly was a wondrous chapter in the history of our little Agrabah."
"But it was due in large part, so they say, to these three objects," the vizier continued, stressing the importance with a slow, careful choice of words, "objects which were, in fact, in the possession of the Sultan and Sultana for the length of their rule."
"Tell them WHY, Grand Vizier," Rekcuff said, nodding his head, "they need context. We all do."
The man seemed to hesitate, even as his eyes wondered about the room at the eager faces asking for more. His wife placed her hand in his, which seemed to decide the matter for him.
He cleared his throat. "The oil lamp and the perfume bottle were precious because neither contained oil or perfume. In fact, they contained something which was, for many centuries, considered myth; two ancient jinn, of infinite and cosmic power, said to be capable of granting three wishes to whomever or whatever freed them from their respective prisons. Both were, supposedly, instrumental to the success of the reign of the Sultan and Sultana...up until their deaths. Then, the items in question became dormant once again."
Here the man pulled back his robes and brought forth the large beaded sack, slinging it over his hip. From within, he produced an oil lamp, worn and stained, and a perfume bottle, elegant but aged, wrapped in swaddling cloth. The dull surfaces still shown brightly in the torchlight of the throne-room, the man holding both aloft for all to see.
"We found both in the desert, some distance from the city," the man clarified, allowing the murmurs around them to eventually dissipate. "Both were empty, but we believe that was to be expected. You see the Sultan and Sultana, wise and fair, supposedly freed both Jinn within these vessels years before their death. They believed such power was...concerning, especially within the hands of certain men. Dangerous in the hands of others. So the remnants of these powerful spirits were placed under lock and key, as a precaution. But also out of respect; sacred they were, and would remain safe, until the heavens rain down upon the Earth. But the thief, it seems, was working from ancient information. He knew of the lamp and bottle, but not that they were long, long abandoned, their former occupants free to roam the world wherever they wished."
Elsa nodded, resting her chin on her knuckles. "And the scepter? Where was it found?"
The sigh from the minister was deflating. "That is the most concerning part: it was not found at all."
"Forgive my ignorance," Rapunzel started, "but unless this scepter also contained some super-powered wish-granter, how could it's theft be of greatest concern?"
"Not all power derives from magic, young highness," the minister said. "The scepter, itself, was made of gold and emerald. A trifle when compared to the grand wealth of the coffers. But WITHIN the scepter, unbeknownst to any person not looking for it...resided an oracle."
Everyone in the room seemed to be speaking now. Voices echoed like the chirping of birds within a large cave, nervous and hushed, raising the collective anxiety among the guests.
"Oh for St. Peter's sake, HUUUSSHHH!" bellowed the emperor, cutting through the noise with a throaty command. He scorched the room with a lengthy stare, causing many to bite their tongues. "You're all like frightened hens! Please, continue, Madame Minister, before these children cluck themselves silly again."
The woman nodded in thanks, or agreement, or capitulation, before continuing. "The Oracle grants the wielder of that scepter, not a wish, but an answer. THE answer, to whatever question the person may ask. It matters not the who, what, where, why or when: the oracle is bound to answer. But she will only answer once. Waste the question on something trivial, and the oracle will still answer, but further inquiries will be ignored. The Oracle was recovered from the wreck of a sunken ship far out at sea, and since the Sultan had already used his question, it, too, was placed under lock and key, so that future generations may make use of it's knowledge. We believe the thief stole all three items and, when he discovered that two of them were practically useless, took the third and ran. Perhaps he wanted to carefully compose his question when not on the run from our shurtat alhudud. In all the time since the theft, we have been unable to determine the whereabouts of the oracle...or the man who took it."
Elsa and Anna exchanged an uncomfortable look. The pair felt a range of emotions unexpressed by their person, communicated silently betwixt the two as they quantified the information newly-laid at their feet. They looked back at the pair of Agrabahnian dignitaries and settled on a gentle but direct line of inquiry.
"And this man, the one upon the canvas," Anna started, "you are positive he is responsible for the burglary upon your treasury?"
"His countenance was described in detail by the guards who fought him, yes," the vizier confirmed. "While their report was hampered by injury and the time of night in which the attack took place, their recollection was sufficient to produce matching descriptions. They were consistent and definitive in who...in WHAT attacked them."
"Please understand, Queen Elsa," the minister added, "my husband and I wish to bring this man to justice for his crimes, first and foremost. But also, the theft of the oracle is equally alarming in it's implication. A man with prior knowledge of the Jinn and the oracle, a man who can fight as he did and disable so many with such minimal effort...without even using his weapon..."
"Weapon?" Godehard interrupted. "He carried a weapon, but did not use it?"
The vizier and minister exchanged another worrisome look. "Yes, good king. The guards mentioned that he used the weapon to pry open the sealed doors of the qabu, but did not use it on a single man who engaged him in combat. They described a three-bladed monstrosity, the make and measure of which they could not determine, but formidable nonetheless. All they could be sure of was the most basic description; it was a spear forged like the forked tale of a chimera."
Both sisters held their breath.
"A man such as this, in possession of the Jinn, would have been unstoppable," the vizier said, a touch of relief in his voice, "but the oracle, in his possession, may prove him to be a far more dangerous opponent. I can only imagine what he would ask the keeper of all secrets."
"Magic is powerful," Rekcuff added, tilting his head in the direction of the pair, "but so too is knowledge."
The monarchy of Arendelle seemed to consider all that information, leaning back into the comfort of their chairs and looking skyward, as if mulling-over far wider considerations. They were the perfect example of the collected and coalescent.
Internally, they were screaming.
"This story is most concerning, my friends," Elsa started, musing to herself as she addressed the husband and wife, "and I can sympathize with your mission, to bring justice against those who have wronged your citizenry."
Anna took her cue from her sister, looking about the great hall. "But we take it yours is not the only tale of trouble associated with this thief, is it? There are others?"
"Si, precisamente," announced the Duke of Murcia, stepping away from his chair and standing forth. "and my daughter and I were witness to the offenses committed against Calibri and it's people, not six months after this effrontery in Agrabah!"
The sisters watched as the man produced a stack of papers wrapped in leather from within his robes. Though he wasn't as nimble in producing the necessary files, the man eventually withdrew one hefty clutch of documents, leaving the larger stack upon his chair. Breathing hard, the man searched quickly through each sheet, attempting to find a specific document. When he settled on the page he was looking for, he began to translate as quickly as he could
"Herein, the High Distributorship Of The Calibri Municipal Service Operative, in accordance with the articles of confounded administration of punitive action, in relation to article nineteen, subsection A, addendum(s) number fourteen, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-three, thirty-five and forty-four, with regard to the event(s), in question, occurring on April eighth and ninth in the year of our lord—"
"Oh papa, por favor, suficiente! Formal, preciso ... aburrido con detalles." pleaded the young woman to his right. "The Queen and Princess appreciate the documentation, I am sure. But perhaps we can avoid putting them to sleep?"
The man huffed with ruffled pride as a ripple of laughter went about the room. "Context is important, always! How else would they know what preceded these events?"
"How? Mira, te lo mostraré," the woman offered, turning to the sisters. "Majesties, you are familiar with the Tamborrada celebrations, correct?"
"Giant parades of marching drum-lines? Yes!" Anna said, a little excited. "We have heard of this but never observed one ourselves. I'm told they are quite amazing."
"Exactamente, bien dicha majestad," the countess commented, nodding in appreciation. "In particular, one such celebration was taking place late in the spring, due to an unseasonably protracted winter. The celebrations were pushed back to allow for larger crowds to gather in the open areas of Murcia. During one such procession, Prince Allegro de Raffael Spottono himself decided to visit our family estate, bringing with him twenty-five exquisite stallions as a gift to the mobile artillery stationed in the region. Ten of these were an assortment of Percheron draft horses, to be harnessed for cannon and coach driving. Ten more were of Lipizzaner descent, as clean and sparkling as fresh-cut marble. The remaining were specifically chosen by the prince himself from a private breeding stable in western Iberiana; a quinteto of three-year-old brillantemente ébano Andalusian's, the most beautiful animals I had ever seen."
The woman stood and joined her father as he tried to reorganize his paperwork. "The prince himself stayed with another countess, some waifish creature with pretty blue eyes and a gigantic...wine cellar. But the vast majority of his property, including his traveling carriage and the horses, were kept in our family stable and guest-villa. At the start of the celebration, my father and I joined his majesty at the pinnacle of the parade route, opting to rub elbows and indulge in as much courtly gossip as we could. The color guard had just past our observation booth, when father observed something unusual in the air..."
"Smoke," the large man added, chewing his bottom lip at the memory, "and lots of it."
Rapunzel caught on first. "There was a fire?"
"We were unsure at first, princess," the duke continued, clearly upset at the memory, "for we had no point of reference. It wasn't the smell of torches in the streets, nor candles in salons and cafes. It was subtle and nondescript, just a curiosity on the wind. But eventually, the smell was too intense to ignore. Indeed, even the prince, nose-deep in some bitter-orange liqueur, turned up his chin and wondered who was burning oil so late in the evening. It was then we noticed the light, filling the night sky, growing brighter and more fierce in the distance, behind the crowded boulevard."
The countess looked down, taking a slow, unhappy breath. "Our stables, our courtyard...our entire estate seemed to be on fire. We could see it from the middle of the town square, even though our home was a mile away. The fact that we smelled it before we saw it tells me it had been burning for some time before it was discovered."
"How did it start?" Anna asked.
"Well that is the mystery, isn't it?" the duke answered, setting down his pile of papers. "We only have so much to go on, ourselves. Our house-matron told us she came outside to find the stables ablaze. The footmen at the gate said there was an explosion nearest the trough, which spread quickly to the rest of the stable. Whatever the direct cause, all we know for certain is that our maestro de caballos discovered someone inside the stable who should not have been there. He was attempting to steal our horses, but was caught in the act."
"Who was?" Frida asked.
The countess looked up, eyes wide and unblinking, her voice stoic and sure. "I only saw him as we raced back to our home. By then, the villa itself was on fire. I heard from the servant staff 'Look! Up there! He is on the roof! He started the fire!'. Naturally, I looked up...and I saw him. More than two meters tall, with a broad-brimmed hat and a loose tunic, covered in soot. His pants were seared and smoking, as if he had just extinguished the flames upon them. He carried a bridle in one hand, a large, brass-fitted harness, and in the other, a staff, fitted with three sheathed blades. He looked at me, this man, this creature, and there was no pity or remorse in his eyes, no guilt. Even from a distance, the cold, the hollow, the emptiness of that stare will not leave me, to this day. As bright and engulfing as the fire was, the void of his gaze drained the heat from my body. He had taken something from me with that look...just as he had tried to take my property."
The room had grown quiet again. Even the countess seemed lost in her recollection, shaken and recoiling from the memory.
Anna cleared her throat. "How...who set the fire?"
The duke brushed his beard over his chin. "The man set fire to a large supply of lamp oil, kept in a cauldron in the main stable. It is obvious the fire was meant to distract my men, so as to hasten his theft and escape."
"They witnessed this?" Elsa asked.
The man bit back an accusatory tone. "Who else would have done it? Those who serve my house have done so with distinction for years. Are you saying one of my own servants would set fire to my home?!"
"Of course not," Elsa said, placid and peaceful, "we would never infer such a thing. I was merely asking if anyone witnessed the start of the fire. If the intention of this thief was to steal your property, would he not risk said property by setting the stables aflame?"
The countess screwed up her face, her countenance of pleasantry all but exhausted. "His intent and his skill would seem incongruous, at best. We are unaware of what or who set the fire, but as far as I am concerned, the inciting incident carries far more weight than anyone's intent. The fire would not have taken place but for his blatant—and grossly inadequate—attempt at thievery. He is responsible, of that, there is no doubt in my mind."
The woman snapped her fingers, loud and sharp. One of the men in her retinue, bent and old and sporting a dried-in-the-sun complexion, stepped forward with a large roll of parchment, bound in a red ribbon. The countess took possession of it and ripped the ribbon away with little ceremony.
"This document contains a detailed account of all that was lost or destroyed that night," the woman said, a teaspoon of venom bubbling up in her tone. "Not only was my family home almost burned to the ground, but the carriage of his highness, the prince, was also lost, along with all his belongings within. And while this is enough to gall any self-respecting noble into outrage, the greatest loss that night had almost nothing to do with the ancestral home of my father and I. Not only was the fire sufficient to destroy virtually every building it touched...it also collapsed the scaffolding surrounding the entrance to the stable. Not a single person could get in...nor a single horse, out."
Here the countess unfurled the paper for all to see, carrying, near the bottom, her family seal, blotched and branded with a large black 'X'. "We only found nine of the bodies. The rest were turned to ash in the fire. Twenty-five stunning animals, a gift from the highest crown in the region...lost to flame and smoke. The monetary value aside, the prince himself saw fit to hold my father and I personally responsible for the loss of his gift, going so far as to mark my family crest with a brand of shame. It will remain there, a scar upon my house and my name, for one generation at least. Even the king himself could not easily remove such a blight from our family...and why would he want to? His son was the offended party, after all."
The woman thrust the parchment back into the hands of the elderly accountant, not even looking back at him as he withdrew into the safety of his peers, before readdressing the two sisters. "This thief managed to offend my father and I not once, not twice, but THRICE in one night; he destroyed my home, destroyed the property of a prince in his attempt to steal it, and embarrassed the entirety of my family in his bungled attempt at burglary, an embarrassment which will follow me to my grave and may follow my children. The loss of diez mil doblones de oro in property damage is bad enough...but at times, I wish the fire had consumed the both of us as well. It would have spared us the humiliation, if nothing else."
Though her voice was laced with malice, the sudden appearance of large, barely-controlled tears betrayed the vulnerability of the woman, carefully guarded and fiercely secret. Though she seemed fit to spit fire upon the floor, she allowed herself to be comforted by her father, who slowly took the countess into his arms and held her close, his embrace far more nimble with affection than his fingers with recitation.
"Mis disculpas, reina y princesa. Estos últimos años han sido problemáticos en el mejor de los casos," the duke said, looking back to the court. "Upon learning of the trouble caused by, and the description of, the man who assaulted the kingdom of Agrabah, we began correspondence and coordinated a set of maneuvers to apprehend this thief and bring him to justice. Thus far, our efforts have been fruitless...but it seems we are but one link in this chain of malfeasance. It was only recently that we learned just how far reaching the treachery of this man truly is."
Rekcuff seemed to be waiting for such transitory language, gesturing to the other side of the room as the duke finished his sentence. "So as not to loose momentum...General Ludovico? I believe you were the next offended party? Chronologically, I mean..."
"The chronology of these events is important, Captain, but severity and effrontery are highly substantive factors as well," the general stated, stepping forth and bowing offhandedly to the Calibrian representatives. "And while I would never belittle the suffering or injury of others, I would argue that the compromising of vital intelligence is objectively more serious than the loss of a few labor animals...however resplendent they must have been."
The look exchanged between both groups could have stripped varnish from a railing. Though the countess held her tongue, it was obvious to anyone with a pair of working eyes that she was damning his existence with all manner of silenced rage. Still, as the general and his son took the center stage that was the red-carpet of the throne-room, the countess and her father pulled gracefully and reluctantly back into their seats, the painted nails of the young woman digging none-to-subtly into her armrest as she reclined.
"Majesties," the general announced, clearing his throat, "as the evening is waning and my disposition is anything but mollified by the cold, we shall make this brief. Florentine has also been greatly offended by this 'man in black', his connection to other crimes across the continent only solidifying the dubious and heretical nature of his character. Perhaps four months after the incident with his Highness Prince Spottono, a barracks, not too far south of the Graianito Alps, reported a incident at the Accademia delle Scienze Naturali Periferiche. As my Son and I were deployed in the region, following a successful confrontation with some brigands along the costa cristallina, we were the first to receive the distress communication. Two-hundred men rode south for a day and a night, but by the time we had arrived, the Accademia had been raided. I have, here, a formal declaration from her Majesty, Queen Isabelle, declaring this man an enemy of the crown. I am authorized to pursue this...criminale violento e disperato, to the ends of the Earth, so as to secure, or destroy, any and all material seized in the raid upon the Accademia. You'll see the mark of the queen, there, just above my own, sworn, sealed and delivered."
The officer handed a large envelope, bound in sealing wax, to his son, who approached the Queen and Princess. Though Godehard and Frida sat forward in a protective fashion, their fears were assuaged as the tall, sharply-dressed soldier bent on one knee before the sisters, his shoulders slack and his head hung low. Anna was closest and so took the parcel from his hands, the man retreating in an almost penitent fashion as soon as his cargo was delivered.
As Anna opened the folded message, slowly but carefully translating its contents, she gazed over the heading of the letter and noticed Captain Rekcuff looking at her. Though the translation was foremost among her duties at the moment, the Princess could not help but notice the intensity and fascination with which the man observed her. His face was neutral for the most part, but his eyes, Anna observed, were startlingly clear and focused. She was unsure if she had witnessed him blink at all over the course of the last several minutes; his stare was owl-like, expectant, as if watching puzzle pieces slowly and methodically fall into place. It was patient, but still...curious in it's intensity.
It was here that the princess noticed another odd occurrence. General Ludovico and his son, however quietly and unobtrusive, had begun to argue as soon as the younger officer had returned to his side.
"Gentlemen, is something wrong?" Elsa remarked. It seems she had noticed the exchange as well.
The elder man admonished his son before turning to face the Queen and Princess again. "Si, mi scusi, giovani maestà. I was simply reminding Captain Emmanuel that this court is neither the time nor the place for random declarations of no importance. I trust the document from my Queen is of sufficient authorization?"
"It is," Anna said, handing the letter to her sister and sitting forward, "but it sounds as if Captain Emmanuel has something pertinent to add to this discussion. Am I correct?"
The general gave a rearward glance at his subordinate, his eyes flint-like and accusatory, before looking back to the sisters. "The captain is perhaps, how you might say...overzealous, in this matter. The two of us have been taxed with presenting this search and recovery document, a task which we have completed. It behooves the members of the Tribunale Esecutivo Militare di Florentine, of which my house is a duly appointed member, to execute our assignments in a precise and timely fashion...NOT to obfuscate our mission with the superfluous and unremarkable idiosyncrasies which may present themselves."
The queen and princess exchanged a look, a slight nod, and then returned their attention to the pair of officers before Anna spoke again. "Forgive me generale, but it seems you have not answered my question. Does the Captain have something to add to these proceedings or not?"
The general, again, seemed to side-step. "Nothing of importance, I assure you, good Queen. The ambient collateral damage was of no concern to my queen, and certainly no concern of any respectable member of this court—"
"Murder is neither ambient nor collateral, father! How could you say such a thing?!"
The sudden outburst of the young Captain, forceful and rich with his accent, seemed to silence the rabble with it's intensity. The sisters of Arendelle found their own eyebrows leaping at the utterance, both surprised and intrigued at just how passionate the young man had suddenly become. The general himself seemed dumbfounded, looking back at his son as if daisy's had suddenly erupting into bloom about his ears.
The Emperor, smiling to himself as he gently puffed away at his pipe, was the first to break the silence. "So THAT'S what a roaring church-mouse looks like..."
"Murder?" Eugene echoed, infusing his voice with a tone that carried, much like the captain's, so that it, too, rang about the room. "Someone was killed, sir? During the course of this theft?"
The general turned swiftly, facing the prince. "...or in the process if it, yes, Prince Eugene. But I can assure you, such an act pales in comparison when measured against the cumulative breach in security, not only of the Institution which was robbed, but of the nation as a whole. Her Majesty and I agreed that even mentioning such a thing would only distract from the task at hand. Our national interests and state secrets are truly the objects at risk."
"Perhaps so," Elsa agreed, examining the declaration of her Florentinian counterpart, "but if said information was stolen at the cost of a life, it would certainly be a mitigating factor in just how egregious this act of treason might be...both against the crown of your nation and my own. It certainly merits a certain level of exploration."
The general looked slightly shocked. "Exploration, my lady?"
"Yes," Anna added, "as the duke and countess pointed out, context is exceedingly important when discussing a crime and the injured parties. Since your Captain seems quite knowledgeable on the subject of the crime in question, perhaps he should elaborate as to how it was carried out."
"I concur," Elsa said, "for the sake of clarity and all due diligence, it would 'behoove' us to pursue the truth of this matter from all relevant perspectives."
The general was clearly annoyed. Whether it was at the suggestion of the queen and princess, or the slight swell of his son's chest at the suggestion that he had meaningful information to contribute to the dialogue at hand, one could not say. But his incredulity lay like graffiti upon his brow, lining and rutting his face like an over-plowed field.
Even his voice was strained and snarled. "If the queen, in all her wisdom, is insistent on pursuing this peripheral addendum to the subject at hand..."
"I am," Elsa announced.
"She is," Anna chimed in.
The general rolled up his eyes, removed his cap and scratched at the bald-spot hidden beneath it. He let out an exasperated sigh before bowing again, albeit with far less formality.
"By your leave, majesty. If the indulgence of the Captain is your wish, far be it from me to deny you," he said, before reaching behind the taller officer and shoving him into the foreground. "Go on, boy...make this quick..."
Captain Emmanuel stumbled to his full height, grasping the edge of his coat and trying to straighten it. His composure was difficult to regain, having been thrust into the spotlight. As he brushed his hair from his eyes, he seemed to realize that he was stalling, looking about as the room became more and more agitated and impatient.
"M-Majesties...Queen Elsa, P-Princess Anna," he began, hesitant and short of breath. "W-When I, when, uh, WE, that is, the General and myself, were tasked w-with appraising the situation...that is, when we arrived a-at the location where the raid h-had supposedly taken place, we first asked...or rather, I suppose I first asked—"
"Captain?" Anna said, grabbing his full attention.
The man looked up. "Yes, your grace?"
The princess tried to be as direct as possible, lest the man trip over his own tongue. "I remind you that you are addressing the court, sir."
The man seemed confused. "Ma'am?"
Anna crossed her legs and reclined. "The COURT, young man. This is not a military briefing. You must speak up, naturally. But you are not reading orders to cavalrymen, or taking them from majors or generals. You are reporting your observations to the court...specifically, to the Queen and I. Let that color your recitation. Nothing else."
Though he was still flustered at the direct language, the captain seemed to take Anna's meaning. He seemed keenly aware of his superior officer, standing defiantly at the rear, burning holes in the back of his skull. But with a few deep breaths and the straightening of his collar, the young officer found his voice again, despite the clear disapproval of his father.
It wasn't an easy transition. But if nothing else, his new audience was far more encouraging.
"As the general noted, we rode for a day and night to base of Mt. Grivolatta; the Accademia delle Scienze Naturali Periferiche is set against a small river, near a seldom-used trade route to the west," he began, recalling the details of his mission. "Upon arriving, we established a perimeter. The superstructure of the main campus seemed untouched; no broken windows, no sign of arson or forced entry. Were it not for the large group of panicked academics and scientists gathered about the atrium, muttering in hushed tones about being attacked by a demon, one would never have known that anything untoward had happened. But they were clustered, bunched up, staying as far away as they could from one particular antechamber; the Mineral Sciences Division. Curious, it didn't SEEM to be infiltrated by a ghost or specter...but with that many educated gentlemen acting so frightened, it seemed advisable to investigate."
The captain gestured as if turning a key in a lock. "We learned that someone had made a copy of the master key to a large store-room of rare earth metals, some of which had not even been identified or cataloged as of yet. How this assailant had done so, no one could say. But apparently, this was the reason for sounding the alarm only AFTER the incident. No one even knew he had entered the premises. His stealth was incredible...for a time, at least. It seems that getting into the storage locker had been easy, but escaping had been...complicated."
"In what way, sir?" Anna asked.
The man shrugged. "He had been so careful, so quiet in his approach, I suppose the thief hadn't planned on being caught in the act. There was an elderly woman, a ricercatore campione, named Giulia Bertolucci, who had worked for many years in the Dipartimento delle Occorrenze Extraterrestri. She had twin sons, Fredo and Silvio, who were...how do I say this delicately? Sfidato intellettualmente. According to Signora Bertolucci, both men were born with dwarfish stature and other physical peculiarities, with their intelligence never rising above that of child out of their twelfth summer. Still, what they lacked in social skills and intellect, they made up for in curiosity, compassion and raw physical strength. Their mother had found employment for both young men as assistente di laboratorio; cleaning tools and equipment, janitorial labor, occasional carpentry and repair work. They were gentle and kind, devoted to their mother and fiercely loyal, not only to her, but their responsibilities within the institution. They were well respected by the bulk of the professori e dottori, to the point where both men were considered essential personnel. For fifteen years, they had been as much a part of the Accademia personale as any other assistant..."
The captain trailed off for a moment. He seemed to be grappling with a memory, one that didn't fit with his earlier recitation. For what seemed like five minutes, he struggled to remember his train of thought.
"Please...continue, sir," Elsa encouraged. "Tell us what happened."
Another deep, unpleasant memory unearthed itself.
"We found Signora Bertolucci, alone and abandoned, beneath a fallen bookshelf," the captain said, gesturing as if to lift the piece of furniture from atop an invisible victim. "Her legs had been crushed. The room was ransacked and the walls were pitted and gouged, as if someone had used black powder to scorch and scar them. It seems the woman and her two sons discovered the intruder as they walked the north wing of the building for the final time that night. He was attempting to pry open a large chest, one under the heaviest of lock and key, after already breaking open the vault containing several rare, precious mineral samples. She did not know, at the time, if any of them had been stolen...but the contents of that particular chest were of equal importance, it seems."
"Si, esattamente quell," the general interrupted. "Vital intelligence of great import. As stated earlier, the material is of a highly sensitive and secretive nature, hence our deployment to the area."
Anna looked annoyed but shaded that part of her tone. "And the material in question? What did it concern exactly?"
The general was about to elaborate, before thinking better of the action and slowly closing his mouth. His eagerness to speak was countered by some other prerogative.
"Le mie scuse, maestà," he offered instead, "such material is considered segreti di stato, altamente classificato...eyes only for the upper echelon of the Court of Queen Isabella. You understand, I am sure."
"Oh yes, of course. Governments need to protect their interests, we are well aware," Elsa said, a serpentine smile in place of an aggravated scowl, "but if that is the case here, I take it you cannot share any more specifics about the material...without violating state policy, am I correct?"
The general seemed to mull the idea over before answering. "Si, Queen Elsa. I am afraid that to do so would be neglectful on my part as a soldier."
"I completely understand. To that end, provided it does not reveal any particulars, perhaps you should let your officer continue his recitation of the event," Elsa declared, her voice as inescapable as her gaze. "I do so hate needless interuptions ...don't you?"
Frida and Godehard raised a hand to their mouths in unison, seemingly bored, but actually doing what they could to hide their amused smiles. They found the cherry-red face of the general most enjoyable, watching him 'retreat' from the center of attention.
"Please continue, Captain Emmanuel," Elsa asked, her smile relaxed again.
The young officer looked from the queen to his angered father and back again, seemingly aware of some impending consequence down the road, but thought better of keeping either waiting, so he began again.
"The scientist and her sons, they found the intruder. Caught him in the act, it seems. They entered the room and witnessed a man of impressive stature, wrapped in tight linen, wearing riding boots, a large weapon slung over one shoulder. He was using his fingers to rip the lid of the chest open...something considered impossible for any man to accomplish. The signora screamed, which got his attention, and when her sons saw him turn, brandishing his spear, they did not hesitate to engage. Initially, their mother begged them no to hurt the intruder, only to detain him. She knew her sons were powerful in their own way and she did not want him badly harmed..."
The captain ran a hand through his hair, clutching it tight between his gnarled fingers. "But the tide turned as the intruder fought back. Signora Bertolucci could not believe her eyes. Her sons, heavy and muscular, tossed like sacks of dirt, subdued and pummeled under fist and boot. The room was torn assunder, tables shattered, chairs broken, equipment destroyed. The battle lasted almost five minutes, even as the signora screamed for her sons to withdraw. She could do nothing, the fighting having tumbled a large shelf of books upon her, causing her sons to go into a rage."
Elsa watched the man wipe a single tear from his face, catching his voice as best he could with the memory closing behind. "The...men were beaten and broken. Fredo was a disjointed mess, his face a broken sack of bones. Silvio was...was thrown, out a window, into the river below. His mother heard the body hit the water. Fredo would not surrender and attacked the man one final time, only to have his legs cut from beneath him by one swipe of the intruders heal. He, too, was tossed into the night...but his body never made it to the river. His mother believes she heard him la—...land upon the rocks, near the shore..."
The man fell silent, the room following his example. Even the burning torches seemed hushed, unwilling to crackle or spit in such heavy atmosphere.
When the captain found his composure again, his gaze was cool and stalwart, as was his voice. "The assault was so blatant, but too deep into the research corridor for anyone else to respond. The signora witnessed the intruder place a few collections of parchment under his arm, retrieve his spear and nod in her direction...the arrogance of this person was astounding. He sprang through the window and vanished into the night. We never found his trail."
He looked at the sisters directly now. "The papers were of great importance to the crown, this is true...but this was first and foremost an assault, followed by two murders. It is possible that 'depraved debasement' may be added to the list as well, for we never found the bodies of either brother. One is presumed drowned, the other...mangled in a manner most offensive. But neither were recovered and while we cannot prove it, it is possible the intruder took possession of them, dopo la morte, to slow the process of his identification and arrest. In either case, his pursuit has been of highest priority for more than a year now. My father, in his great wisdom, has traced the intruder thus far. It was only with corroboration from other nations, in particular, Lord Gordon Balniel of Briene, that we found reason to journey to your shores, majesties. This is our best lead. With it, we hope to recover what was lost...and serve justice upon he who has broken our laws."
Here the man stepped backward slightly, bowing at the waist, and clearing his throat. "We thank your kind indulgence, buoni monarchi di Arendelle. The general is most insistent that we complete our task with all due speed. In this respect, at least, we are in total agreement."
The general gave his son a stern, lingering stare, but held his tongue. He watched the younger officer return to his side, contemplating all manner of reprisal, but remained silent. He knew better than to draw attention to himself again.
Rekcuff took that as his cue, speaking up and gesturing to the Scotsmen where they sat. "Majesties, I believe Earl Ker and Lord Gordon have another piece to add to this puzzle. My lord, please, step forward."
The Earl looked to his older counterpart and was given a solemn nod of permission, before standing and genuflecting before the crowded room. "Yer majesties, I am quite humbled to have your kind attention. As Captain Emmanuel has so eloquently explained, a bit of correspondence between our two kingdoms yielded some disturbing coincidences. Ye see, over the course of the last fourteen months, Briene has undergone a bit of restructuring as a kingdom, with less centralized power and greater dependence on regional governance. Lords and Ladies look to their own, first and foremost, for security, supply and organization, with intermittent trade as needed between districts with specialized materials. Those who live on the coast tend to fish, those who live inland tend to farm, those who populate the Forrest tend to log for timber and so on. We even have a Provence rich in another resource, one we had not considered utilizing until recently...specifically, magic."
The Marquess seemed to understand that word, nodding slowly as the younger man spoke.
"Lord Gordon is the youngest of three brothers, who in turn were the sons of a triplet, who were also descended from a triad of men. This peculiarity has run in his family for some time now, and we cannae be sure if it is a miracle or a curse. He thinks the latter," the Earl said, smiling at the older gentlemen, "but I am not so sure. His great grandfather was prince Hamish, one of the three Princes of Dunbroch. At some point over the last three-hundred years, the line was more-or-less integrated into the greater regional monarchy, much to the dismay of his family. But while his title has been watered down, the magic in his bloodline has not. For you see, his family was touched by magic many generations ago, and we believe it remains in his blood to this day."
He gestured to the queen this time. "Your majesty, you've 'ad your ice abilities since birth, correct?"
Elsa nodded. "For as long as I can remember."
The Earl smiled. "Forgive my forthrightness, but...d'you consider it a blessing, or a curse?"
A long, pensive silence followed. Elsa folded her arms and thought about the question, mulling the hundreds of different responses she could offer.
Ultimately, she settled on the most honest. "It's complicated."
The princess at her side looked as if she wanted to disagree, but offered a soft, ironic smile and nodded her head. She may not have fully agreed with Elsa's answer, but she understood it.
The man smiled humbly. "Aye, truly, I can only imagine. But as for the prince, it was definitely a curse. The three brothers were transformed, however briefly, into a set of bear cubs after eating an enchanted tart. The Queen, their mother, had suffered a similar fate the previous evening. While no harm would actually befall the family, the king, under the impression that a group of bears had invaded his castle, tried to kill his own wife...and would have succeeded, were it not for the intervention of 'is daughter, the Princess Merida. It was a harrowing two days, if you believe the story."
"Do you?" Anna asked, genuinely curious. "Believe the story?"
The Earl leaned to one side, his posture confident. "Oh aye, indeed. In fact, I KNOW it to be true, your grace."
"How is that?" Eugene asked.
"Because the Woodcarving Witch, who created the enchanted tart, still lives," the Earl said, pointing to the ceiling, "or at least, we think she does. Tis difficult to tell, if I'm being honest. The whole affair is quite...unsettling."
Elsa leaned forward. "A witch who controls woodcarvings?"
"And fate. And can predict the future. And can travel through time, depending on who you ask," the man confirmed. "It's all very muddled, but this much is true; she is the truest, oldest source of living Magic ever found within the boundaries of our kingdom. Her cottage was within the boundaries of the forest, but this was the only certainty. It had no fixed location, no permanence. It seems this witch liked her privacy and would only reveal herself, or be revealed, under very specific circumstances. Many attempts had been made to pin-down her home, with no success. It seems that she, like the magic she supposedly draws from, is as aloof and unpredictable as the Willow the Wisp which guide people to her. Only those with greatest need are privy to her company."
"Seems a bit unpredictable, doesn't it?" Elsa asked. "A source of incredible power and knowledge living among your people with no safeguard in place? Even my own abilities cannot be easily contained within these walls, much less several thousand acres of forest."
"Perhaps so, Queen Elsa. And there are those back home who might agree with you," the Earl acknowledged. "But the nobility of the region have long since come to recognize this witch as a benevolent, if somewhat eccentric, entity of magic. Her methods and weaving's have been well documented. The people of the neighboring villages have been warned that entering into any kind of deal with this woodcarver is a risky undertaking. It seems the risk is outweighed by the reward, since her presence has never been malevolent in any way. Because of her, Dunbroch has been a focal-point of mysticism, heritage and cultural significance to our people for almost three centuries. She has a connection, a link, if you will, to the ley lines of energy throughout out lands. Perhaps this is what made her so powerful and why so many sought 'er out for 'er magical properties...but, unfortunately, it also made her a target for the most unseemly and ambitious among us. And in particular..."
"Am fear le sùilean losgaidh," Captain Emmanuel chimed in, his Gaelic rough but sufficient.
Lord Gordon sat up straight, eyes bright and wide. He banged his quarterstaff on the floor, pointing to the Florentine captain with great exuberance. He seemed almost entranced by the phrase and it's implications.
Earl Ker concurred. "...yes. The witch's reputation as a soothsayer and fortune teller seemed to capture the attention of this Man with Burning Eyes. We are not sure how or when he first arrived, but we were made aware approximately six months ago, when an incident was reported deep in the hills and forests of Dunbroch."
"A most concerning incident indeed," Rekcuff added.
"My people are proud, industrious and robust. We fancy ourselves warriors with a deep respect for tradition, diplomacy and brotherhood," the Earl explained. "But we are also wary of strangers who appear in our midst without warning or reason. Sometime on or about the first of June, we received a message from one of our shore-men, a ferry captain. He used a barge to transport goods and people across the Merida gulf, a stretch of water between Dunbroch and the rest of the lower veil. He told his fellow ferrymen that he had brought a curious passenger across the gulf the night before. Though he 'ad proper traveling papers for the region, something about this man struck the ferry captain as...off. He drove a massive carriage, a six-wheeled traveling coach decked in brass and polished iron-wood, pulled by a set of sturdy, strangely silent horses. He barely spoke and rested atop the wagon for the entirety of the voyage, but the ferryman noticed many irregularities about 'im. In particular, he slung a massive spear across his lap, with a leather clad, three-bladed head, and the coach itself moaned and creaked, as if human voices within were attempting to speak."
The Earl gestured to Lord Gordon. "This was the first we'd heard of this man, up until this point. He disembarked and drove his carriage some distance into the forest, out of sight. The account of his arrival eventually made it to his lordship, but afterward, there was nothing to report. There was no further account of the man for several days."
"I take it this was not to last?" Godehard said, looking between the two men.
The Earl shook his head. "No, my king. In fact, it had just begun."
The man retrieved a piece of parchment from within the folds of his sleeve, opening it wide so as to take advantage of the torchlight, studying it closely. "Many of the accounts are unverified, unfortunately, but 'ifn I understand this correctly, this mystery gentlemen took up residence within the forest for the better part of ten days. In that time, he didn'a seem to bother anyone directly and he was seen, at least a dozen times, within spitting distance of an ancient structure known as the Menhirs Stone Circle. Many years earlier, a great battle had taken place there, between my kin and an evil entity known as Mor'du, a cursed demon-bear of monstrous proportion. The animal had once been a man, a prince who had made a deal for power and conquest. The animal had been defeated and crushed beneath one of th' fallen pillars, where it remained entombed and undisturbed for decades. Those who'd witnessed the event thought it best to let the dead lie where they fell...until the stone was discovered moved and the burial site plundered."
"Plundered? For what reason?" Eugene asked. "It's not like he was a king buried with his gold, right?"
"Truly, it was not," Earl Ker confirmed. "But that stone likely weighs well over fifteen-hundred kilograms. To move it would not be an easy feat...and yet, there were no tool marks. No sign of a wedge or plow. The stone was flipped like a card table in a gambling hall."
"So what was taken?" Anna asked.
"The Skull of Mor'du," the Earl confirmed, wiping his brow. "Pulled from the earth and spirited away, sometime during the seventh or eight night after the man's arrival. The woman who discovered all of this had been picking berries the following evening when she came upon the circle. That alone had been enough to cause her worry, an' so she reported it to the auxiliary constable in the village. She had just finished her eye-witness account, when a sound came-up from somewhere deep in the woods...a scream, terrible and shrill, drifting over the treetops."
The throne-room had become eerily quiet again. The voices receded as the man stepped forward, gesturing with his hands as his tale continued.
"Lord Gordon had been traveling through the region at the time, having taken up lodging at a nearby inn. He had heard the scream, along with every other person just outside the forest. Along with ten stout foot soldiers and thirty some-odd villagers, he took up arms and went into the woods, just as a thick fog had settled in over the trees. With torches and lamp-light, they trekked deep into the undergrowth, trying to keep one-another in sight. For the better part of an hour, they searched, trying not to lose themselves in the thicket of trees and vines and snarls. Just when it seemed like the search was fruitless, a whistle, probably from a sheep-herder, came out through the woods. They'd found something a kilometer or so to the north."
"A great, burning fire, perhaps?" the emperor commented, chuckling to himself. "With bodies strewn about like chord-wood? I had no idea so many of my fellow statesmen were so...theatrically inclined as the group gathered here."
The Earl, clearly irked, held his intended comment and focused on the rest of his report. "Begging your majesties pardon, but no. In fact, we found no fire of any kind...simply a hole in the ground, were a cottage had once stood."
The emperor clamped his teeth around his pipe, raising an eyebrow but saying nothing further.
"The group came upon what remained of someone's home," the man continued, turning from the emperor, "in the middle of a small glen. None of them were familiar with the area, nor had any of them seen a cottage there before...but, as I said, this was most likely by design. Wood and mortar and thatch had been cast in all directions, as if a great explosion had ripped it asunder. Yet...no fire, no char. Almost as if the Earth had simply expelled the structure from within itself. But the fog could not obscure what they found, standing amongst the debris, towering above the crater: a man, shod in black, his arm outstretched and his eyes burning brightly in the cold, misty night."
The man reached his arms out, pantomiming what he saw. His right hand was held at arms length, while his left sat near his middle, as if he was cradling something in his palm.
"He held the woman, the witch, by the throat in his right hand," he said, his eyes slit as if in pain, "an' in his left, between them, he held the skull of the bear. The witch was barely moving, 'er hands clawing at his arm, to no effect. Her eyes were pale and wide, looking to the sky, but she muttered and mumbled, despite his grip on 'er neck. Something was...passing, between them. It was faint, especially in the dark, but everyone present that night could see something being transferred. A light, a coil, a band of magic, perhaps, pouring down the arm of the figure into the witch, from her throat into the skull, and from the skull, back into the man. This cycle of exchange, it seemed to last only a few minutes, but to all those present, time dragged on. Lord Gordon sat perplexed, his men like statues, watching but not understanding."
He turned to Gordon once more. "Dè thuirt e riut? Às deidh an dàrna sgread?"
Gordon sighed, looking up in memory, whispering. "Tha na tha a dhìth orm. Ùine ri dhol."
"Pardon?" Anna said.
The Earl clarified. "The witch screamed once more. A grizzly, hollow sound, like a death rattle. She fell from his grasp then, like a pile of bones, upon the ruined turf. The 'passing' between the two of them had stopped and most in the group had regained their senses. One lancer said 'Stay where you are! Who goes there?!' The man, with only the briefest of pause, took the skull between his hands. He looked to the armed crowd closing about him, never even flinching. Outnumbered though he was, the burning eyes never faltered, never blinked. He looked to Lord Gordon then, dead 'inhis eye. He said 'I have what I need. Time to go.'"
The Earl grabbed his quarterstaff and threw it to the ground with a mighty BANG, spooking the entirety of the room. The sound rattled across the walls, echoing off into hollow of the ceiling.
"The man threw the skull then, directly at the front of the group. Whatever had been exchanged between man, witch and skull must have been powerful, because the thing detonated on impact. A light, bright enough to blind, filled the night. The sound was horrible, it threw many of the villagers from their feet. Nine people were struck by fragments of bone and teeth, others lost their hearing. Lord Gordon had shielded himself behind a mound of peat, but even so, he remains partially deaf in one ear. The ground shook and the trees shivered; one would swear a powder-keg had just gone off. But as the dust settled and the light ebbed, everyone that could came to their feet, ready for a fight. Alas, the man with the burning eyes was gone...faded into the forest, as if he'd never been there t' begin with."
The Earl bent and retrieved his quarterstaff, laying the heavy wood across his shoulder. "We never found him. Or his carriage. Or any tracks from his horses. A four day exhaustive search of the kingdom revealed nothing. On the fifth day, we learned that the ferryman had been dead drunk at home, when someone had stolen his barge right out from under him. This is how the man with burning eyes made his escape. Now, he could be anywhere."
Elsa's nails were biting into the arm-rest of her chair. Though she would not outwardly show it, this story was arguably the most unnerving. She did what she could to keep a quaver from entering her voice. "And the witch? What happened to her?"
"She lives. We think," the Earl admitted, tapping his pole to the ground. "When we recovered her body, a heartbeat was found. But she hasn't awoken. She remains in a state of paralysis, it seems, unable to move. We've placed her in the surgeons atrium of Castle Dunbroch, and there she will remain, until we can sort out this...sorcery."
"I am sorry," Anna said, her eyes sympathetic. "We all are. She may not have been family, but her importance to the people of Dunbroch cannot be overstated, I am sure."
"You've no idea, highness," the Earl said, deflating. "The country itself seems to have been injured as result of her removal."
The man spread his arms. "EVERYTHING in the kingdom seems sickly and dead. We're seeing less and less signs of magic ever since the incident in the forest. Wisps, for example, are a shy lot, t'be sure, but now, they have vanished. Indeed, all signs of vibrancy, of energy, of life, seem to be draining away. It's as if a plague has befallen the land. Crops are withering, game and fowl are harder and harder to find and the air itself seems cloying and thick. Whatever was done to the Woodcarver Witch, the effects are wide-spread. Her fate seems more closely tied to the energies of Dunbroch than we ever thought possible. Even now, many in my village are close to starvation, relying on the grain reserves of the King's trade silo just to make it through the winter. These times are desperate, my queen...to the point where, if the witch does not recover, neither, I'm afraid, will Dunbroch."
Waves of hushed conversation rippled throughout the room. The sisters could make out little exclamations of 'witchcraft', 'blight' and 'menace'. The words circled the closely-quartered gentry and nobility like wasps around a hive, excitable and impatient. The newly offered information acted as a child with a stick, poking this hive mercilessly, despite the calamity that might follow.
"Speaking with Captain Emmanuel, and then later with the Duke of Murcia, it seems we have a common source of antagonism," Earl Ker continued, calling attention to himself once more. "I am only now realizing just how wide and far these events have reached. While I sympathize with the condition of all those in attendance, it would be a lie to say that our motives in journeying here were anything other than recompense...to those injured, and to those who continue to be injured, by what occurred all those months ago. That is our purpose here. This is the task we must complete, before we can return to a homeland in desperate need of assistance...no matter the cost."
The Queen and Princess of Arendelle were mired in emotion, questions and doubt. Though they managed only the faintest of grimace upon their beautiful faces, the mounting trouble before them seemed without end. Even the echo of voices gently rising in volume before them offered little distraction. They may not have been of one mind, but they were suddenly of one migraine.
"I hate to prolong these proceedings, majesties, there is but one final leg to this journey," Rekcuff said, shrugging as if unhappily obliged with his task. "If you'll permit me, of course."
Elsa let out a long breath she hadn't realized she'd be holding. "By all means, sir...fire away."
"An apt choice of words, good queen," Rekcuff added with a grin, "for it is with cannon and fire that my report was written all those months ago, and even to this very night, I am not sure if what I witnessed was real or imagine."
Standing to his full height, Rekcuff approached the sisters with confidence and swagger, having laid the foundation for his part in this fray. He produced the other piece of parchment in his possession and, having gently laid it upon the hand of the queen, retreated to his previous position. Still standing proud, he watched as the woman opened the aged document, leaning toward her sibling so that both might appraise and understand the contents.
"Regrettably, majesties, I am not the man, nor the speaker, that I used to be," he started, gesturing to his person. "Nearly four years ago, a small calamity struck the research lab in which I was conducting experiments. The result was an unbalanced reaction, which catalyzed a rather impressive oxidation event. In layman's terms, I created a sizable explosion, which knocked me cold and reduced most of my left side to limp, motionless flesh. This has also affected my lung capacity, so I shall be as brief as possible: you hold in your hand the warrant for the arrest and, if circumstances dictate, forcible detention of one Elgar von Shroud, former Lord of Ludenor, Baron of the Litisia Highlands, Duke of Raxx, Count of Legrain, Marshall of the Eighth Mounted Cavalry, etc, etc, et-al. At the behest of my superiors, and with all the jurisdiction vested in me by my rank and standing within the Ludenorian Security High Commission, I executed this warrant exactly seven-hundred and ninety-one days ago. With an accompaniment of five men, I was to apprehend the now-deposed Lord Elgar and confiscate his property; in particular, letters of mark, suspicious correspondence with other possible dissenters, accounts of funds transferred and/or distributed to organizations or groups of ill-repute, classified research material illegally removed from Ludenorian scientific and defense programs, and, perhaps most importantly, any and all evidence of conspiracy to sabotage the internal security of the Ludenorian Directorate General, Congress of United Ludenorian Provinces and the throne of His Majesty, King Ardent the Just."
He gestured to the document and then to the room at large, his sweep broad and inclusive. "It seems that the agglomerated grievances of this representative gathering began, in earnest, upon the doorstep of my homeland. It has taken months and months of shared suspicion and unwarranted finger-pointing, but now, I believe we have determined a rough, coherent string of linked events...the source of which was catalyzed the night I attempted to bring this man to justice."
Elsa and Anna continued to read the document in their hands, but for some reason, though it was only three paragraphs in length, the two of them had a hard time reading beyond the first few sentences. The words, the language, the finality of it all, it burned their resolve and trickled doubt upon their hearts. 'Vicious propaganda' it said, 'conduct befitting a saboteur'. The declaration of the warrant's intent read no better. Whatever these accusations were, they seemed sufficient for the convening of a disciplinary council, one that had determined that Lord Elgar was dangerous enough to warrant arrest and execution.
"For a man in his late thirties, it seems Lord Elgar has kept himself very busy," Elsa said, more to herself and Anna than anyone else. "This list of offenses took no small amount of time to accumulate."
Rekcuff faltered, visibly, for a moment or two, before blinking himself back to the present moment. "Beg pardon, your grace?"
Anna shook her hand dismissively "The queen was merely remarking at how a man so young could be guilty of so much—"
"With respect, princess, that is the crux of my befuddlement, as it were," Rekcuff interrupted, gesturing to the queen. "Are we referring to the same man, majesty? A man of impressive stature, white hair and silver beard, with a rolling baritone for a voice overlaying a smokers cough?"
The sisters considered this list for a moment before the queen responded. "More or less, yes, but I have never seen the man smoke, not since he arrived, anyway. His voice seems unencumbered by tobacco use..."
"With respect, good Queen, Elgar von Shroud has been a smoker since well before either of you were born...since before I was born, in fact. He was legendary, according to my older counterparts, for filling the senate chamber with cigar smoke," Rekcuff clarified, his voice slightly higher but no less confident. "It was one of his less endearing attributes, which made him all the more disposable in the eyes of his peers."
"Naturally. To behave in such a way, considering his upbringing. No tact at all," the emperor said, before exhaling a mighty plume of smoke from his flared nostrils.
Rekcuff ignored the man, staying laser-focused on the sisters. "At the time this warrant was signed, von Shroud had just crested his eightieth year on this Earth. Though I grant you, given his proclivities for tobacco and drink, it is a wonder he achieved such a milestone."
Elsa let the warrant fall to her lap for a moment, staring the man down from where she sat. Anna, likewise, found herself subconsciously pushing deeper into the cushions behind her, as if the information, newly presented, was driving her into the aged wood of her throne.
"You're quite...certain?" Elsa asked, firm and slow. "Of Lord Elgar's age and condition? You are positive, captain?"
"Beyond any doubt, majesties," the man confirmed. "In fact, my superiors and I were under the impression that his arrest would go a great deal more smoothly because of his advanced age. He was vocal and belligerent toward anyone that would give him the time of day...but otherwise, he was harmless. It was intended to be a simple errand, a routine apprehension. What it BECAME was a total debacle...all because we underestimated a 'weak old man' and paid a hefty price for our complacency."
The sisters exchanged a look, hidden from view behind the warrant. Though the collective testimony of that cold winter's evening had been problematic, jarring and at times unsettling, this last piece of information gave said testimony an uneasy context, one which the two of them were slowly beginning to absorb. It was an almost sickening comprehension, but it was there, falling into place, layering itself like dead leaves upon a roof-top.
"Excuse me, a debacle?" Rapunzel asked after a moment. "Forgive me, sir, but what does that mean exactly? Did you complete the task or not?"
Rekcuff leaned forward a bit, a look of consternation and worry upon his brow. "To my mind, though the business of apprehension had been a bloody, botched affair which left five men dead and all relevant materials destroyed or lost, I was under the impression that my mission was complete. It seems I was gravely mistaken."
"How do you mean?" Queen Frida asked, her voice clear and regal. "If this warrant was carried out and Elgar was supposedly arrested, shouldn't that have been the end of it? How did he avoid arrest?"
"He didn't, my Queen," Rekcuff stated, rough and dejected. "Because I killed him that night."
The entirety of the room fell silent. If one listened closely, even heartbeats began to fade, transforming the throne-room into a mausoleum of mortified faces and unblinking eyes.
"So imagine my shock, your grace," he continued, allowing his voice to ring out, clear and unassailable, "and the shock of His Majesty, the King, when we received your letter and learned that the man I executed, the man I SHOT WITH A CANNON, was not only alive and well, but traveling the continent freely and, in defiance of reason and Holy God, residing comfortably in the Kingdom of Arendelle...the honored guest of the Queen and Princess."
Neither young woman could respond. Neither of them could move.
"You have been playing host to a corpse for the better part of the last six weeks, Queen Elsa," Rekcuff stated, his finger pointed accusingly at the floor as he held their gaze. "Apart from this man's many, MANY crimes across my kingdom and across the continent, this revelation is most concerning to me. And so we have journeyed here to address these injustices, these heresy's, these unholy manipulations, not only to determine why they were perpetrated, but perhaps most peremptorily, how."
Fifteen-dozen eyes swerved in the direction of the two thrones. Shock, fear, confusion, these were the most common reaction among the crowd. Even the eldest of them could do little to hide their true alarm. Those suspicious of these claims could do little but whisper and hush to one another, wondering in various tongues at what true witchcraft was about, especially in a land ruled by a powerful force of nature masquerading as a Queen.
And yet, the sister's noticed, there was one among them that seemed suspiciously un-vexed. Apart from the occasional draw from his pipe and swig from his porcelain decanter, the Emperor appeared largely unconcerned with the frothing sea of frightened subjects who hastened about his palanquin. The princess in particular found this curious, looking from the bearded monarch to his footmen, honor guard and attendants and back.
They all seemed to be waiting for something. Or, perhaps, waiting for their cue.
"These revelations are indeed disturbing, Captain Rekcuff," Anna announced, addressing the crippled officer and the group at large. "But there is testimony here not yet offered, regarding the crimes and collaborations expounded upon."
Rekcuff recoiled slightly, eyes wide. "Beg pardon?"
Elsa caught on quick, looking directly at her distant relative. "My sister has a point, Captain. Your evidence and presentation were compelling, to say the least. But it seems the final chapter to this tale has yet to be presented. Wouldn't you agree, Majesty?"
The room began to quiet itself again, turning their attention to the emperor. This time, the crowd was more curious than worried. Indeed, after so many vibrantly illustrated tales of treachery and mischief and murder, the most conspicuous among them had remained relatively uninvolved. He had not objected, corrected or countered any of the various discussion-points that evening. In fact, he seemed to be absorbing information, following along like an attentive student at lecture, waiting for the most appropriate moment to participate.
The man puffed gently on his tobacco for a minute or so, his aged gaze carefully appraising his younger counterparts. Though his beard obscured most of it, a smile crept across his ragged face; it was both alarming and fascinating to watch.
"Samyye nablyudatel'nyye, molodyye," the man hummed, raking the fingers of his free hand through the length of his beard. "I applaud your astute nature. Indeed, I saw no need to undercut the captain while he bled his case upon the floor. He took less time than I had anticipated."
Rekcuff gave the emperor a sidelong glace, the faintest hint of disdain edging across his eyes. "Majesty, I...hope you understand, it was never my intention to belabor these issues any longer than was absolutely necessary..."
"Oh don't be ridiculous, you love the sound of your own voice almost as much as I love mine," Rurikid countered, resting his pipe and staring the man down. "Besides, brevity compliments simple subjects, and since your presentation concerned so many people from different lands over SUCH a long period of time, perhaps I should thank the Holy Virgin that you kept your partition as succinct as you did. It will allow my own business here to be more direct and less socially masturbatory."
The crudeness of his language notwithstanding, Elsa didn't miss a step. "Your own business, Emperor? Does your business not concern itself with the collective grievances amassed by this group?"
The man turned his gaze, the motion not unlike a cat taking notice of a mouse as it skitters across an open floor. "Does my concern hinge on the near-mystical connivance's of one man, gallivanting about the continent, stealing and brawling and conjuring his way in an out of any kingdom he sees fit to molest with his clandestine intentions? No, young queen. The empire, of which I am but a humble servant, sees fit to present it's most diligent steward with slightly more pressing matters...harassment from greedy, destructive warlords looking to make a name for themselves along our southernmost borders, ognennoye plamya which seems to cripple the northernmost taiga with every new arrival of spring, and rising apprehension at the mere mention of grain shortages, further exacerbated by the almost continental application of winter weather in the middle of summer. Perhaps when you are a bit older, Queen Elsa, your appreciation for the global impact of your abilities will mature. Much like an emperor, your decisions, however ill-advised, have farther reaching consequences than even you, yourself, may realize."
The urge to race across the floor and smack the man upside his head was very strong within the Arendellian princess. It had been impulsive and hastily decided-upon when she had slapped Elgar, all because of one comment he had made. But Anna's distant cousin was lining an entire sheet of parchment with justifications for a repeat performance of her pugilism.
To her own discomfort, and Elsa's relief, the princess held both her tongue and her ground.
"I have joined this mismatched flotilla with my own entourage for one reason only: convenience," the emperor continued. "It made the journey less cumbersome and ultimately proved beneficial, given the rough seas which permeate the coast during this time of year. But I must admit, this journey was not inspired by the flamboyant fussing over this Elgar von Shroud. In truth, while Captain Rekcuff made a compelling argument that his concerns, and the concerns of Ardent, would more-or-less compliment my own, I was ultimately unconvinced. Strange creatures walk among men on this earth; this is not news to me or mine. But my objective in visiting this quaint kingdom is of a much more pedestrian and straightforward nature."
"Which is?" Elsa asked.
The emperor leaned forward, jutting his jaw out slightly, tilting his head in a perturbed, accusatory manner. "I seek clarification, Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, as to what insult I have offered you...specifically, what insult I COULD have offered which would necessitate such a blatant insult from you to ME."
The snap of his fingers was impressively loud. The sound rang-out like a flint-lock pistol, echoing across the rafters, signaling his attendant at the rear, who seemed to be waiting with bated breath for his part in this fracas.
"It is time, Yevgeni," the Emperor said, leaning back into his parapet of pompous plushness. "Show the Queen and Princess what you have brought for them."
"Da, moy imperator," replied his servant.
The man moved with surprising swiftness given his size. In five long strides he took center-stage amongst the crowd, grasping his cargo between his massive forearms. The crate settled upon the carpet with only the slightest rattle. Once situated, the soldier produced a short piece of iron with a hooked tip from his belt. He quickly set to work, jamming the pry-bar between the nails of each board along the top of the crate, while the Emperor looked on.
"The Vostok was not a particularly impressive ship," Rurikid said, watching the man drop every pulled nail from the crate to the ground, "in fact it was almost obsolete compared to other craft in it's class. But given how many ships are lost to pack-ice, human error and war in this day and age, one cannot be wasteful with even the oldest vessels in ones merchant navy, can they?"
Elsa was liking this situation less and less. "Indeed, sir. Nor should one disrespect or damage the property of others...at least without sufficient compensation."
"Quite right, well spoken, Queen Elsa," the emperor commented, looking between the women and the crate, his eyes sparkling with intensity. "So imagine my delight when we received your shipment! Marked with the seal of your treasurer and bearing your signature as well. Truly an example of good form and responsibility, that you should strive to repay your debt to my crown so quickly and dutifully. Your parents schooled you well with regards to diplomatic imperatives and the preservation of good will among your neighbors."
The last nail on the face of the crate was pried free. As the boards fell away, Yevgeni used his considerable strength to pry the top of the box away as well, causing all four walls to tumble to the floor. As the dust settled, all those within eye-shot could make out two large chests sitting between the discarded wooden boards. They were stained red and bound with iron latches, though the two padlocks on the front of each were missing. The emblem of the Crocus, faded and dirty, could plainly be seen upon the slat clamps.
The sisters recognized the chests immediately.
"The silver ingots were beautiful, to be sure," the emperor continued, almost gleefully, as he beheld the chests to his right. "I had them melted down into a new wash basin for my daughter's bathing chamber. She sends her love, by the way."
'Three...' Anna thought to herself, breathing hard and trying not to show it. 'There were three chests...!'
"I must ask, though, young majesties," the emperor finished, gesturing to Yevgeni again, "if I have offered some kind of offense or injury to either of you? Have I? Tell me, truthfully. Otherwise, I cannot fathom the rationale behind the rest of your delivery..."
Yevgeni moved forward, yanking free the latches from both chests, before using his momentum to empty the contents of both containers upon the floor.
Rather than a small mountain of gold spilling to the carpet, the sisters watched two piles of ash tumble to the floor at their feet. The puff of gray smoke which followed briefly filled the air, covering the small set of stairs up to the pair of thrones with a thin layer of soot. The carpet was splotched, as if a tributary of dirty water had met a sea of ox-blood. As it settled, so too did the murmuring disbelief of all those who witnessed the exchanged between Emperor and royal siblings. The smell of char filled the room, cloying and desiccating and dry as bleach-bone.
Elsa and Anna could only stare.
"Gifts hold meaning where I come from, young ones," the emperor continued, slowly and with subtle enunciation, his gaze as dry and pitiless as the piles of ash beside him. "Offer a man a sword, it shows trust and a desire to bare arms as brothers. Offer a man gold, it shows respect, fealty and an understanding of ones responsibility to their actions and debts. Offer a man a book, it shows his willingness to share knowledge and even a desire to exchange ideas, concepts, perhaps even faith...it depends on the book, I suppose."
Here he pointed to the twin piles with his pipe, his smile curious, almost childlike. "Offer a man the ashes of your hearth...what does that gift suggest, hmm? That you wish his destruction? The consumption of his home or kingdom by flame? That ruination is what you should share betwixt the two of you, the giver and the receiver of said gift? As you might imagine, there are many interpretations one might draw upon in their attempt to parse out greater meaning behind this exchange. Maybe…a joke! Yes, a playful misunderstanding, one which I have not properly dissected yet. My own father told me I lacked a sense of humor, so it is possible that I do not recognize a clever parry and thrust unless it is with an actual blade."
The man narrowed his gaze, all pretense of humor suddenly gone. "But as I find myself plagued by slightly more pressing matters concerning the well-being of my state and subjects, I have decided the more prudent course of action to simply ask for clarification. After all, we are a reasonable, educated sort, yes? I am sure your explanation for such a hastily concocted practical joke will be both concise and entertaining. At least, I trust it shall be...I can assure you, after muddling the issue for more than forty-two days, I have found no reason to laugh."
Godehard and Frida could only gawk, doing what they could not to reveal the depths of their collective misunderstanding. They gazed quickly between themselves, their nieces and their own children, wondering at just what in all blazes was going on. Finding no immediate answers, they looked back to the emperor, the ashes, the crowd and their collective bafflement, as if they could, from sheer desperation, pluck some kind of clarification from elsewhere in the room.
Even Rekcuff seemed blindsided. But his eyes held curiosity. He looked at the ashes as if he were examining some new specimen upon an examination table, grotesque and unusual, but still fascinating. In all his calculations, after all the information presented, THIS revelation was throwing both sisters far harder than even he could understand.
He fondled the small parcel in his pocket, the shape and weight of the stone committed to memory. Could this be part of it all? Was there more to his goal than even he fully realized?
Before he could begin to answer his own question, an interruption presented itself. From behind the captain and the deluge of fascinated onlookers, the great doors to the throne-room were once more cast open. Everyone turned in the direction of the creaking hinges, watching with agitation and fascination as three more bodies joined the fray.
Elsa and Anna, wide-eyed and clearly stressed to the point of collapse, could barely look up as the crier continued his (previously interrupted) duty.
"Commander Andor of her Majesties Royal Navy! Captain Lusk of her Majesties Elitevakt Regiment! Kristoff Bjorgman, Royal Ice Master!" he called loudly.
The men looked about themselves with perplexed wonder. Surrounded by so much royalty, gentry and nobility, the three of them halted in mid-stride. Kristoff, for his part, sent his gaze directly to the princess and her queen, noticing immediately that something was very, very wrong. Though he wanted to call out to the pair of them, he wisely read the room and held his tongue. He deferred to Andor, waiting for the elderly officer to articulate what Kristoff could not.
"Your Royal Majesties, Sir's and Lady's," the commander began, bowing deeply, "forgive the impertinence of our interruption. We come to discuss a matter of great importance with the Queen and Princess, regarding the security of Arendelle. I mean no disrespect, but the urgency of this issue cannot be ignored at this juncture. I beg your indulgence that I might borrow their highness's until such a time that this irregularity may be corrected. I ask with all due respect to those who have journeyed long and far to be here. Rest assured, we will resolve this business with all due diligence."
Minutes passed. The Emperor watched. The crowd vibrated. The ashes continued to settle.
Eventually, Elsa took a deep breath and came to her feet, beckoning Anna to join her. The sisters stood before their guests as one unit, tall and beautiful and resplendent, though obviously taxed beyond reason. When Elsa spoke, it was with a voice of resolve, though even should could not fully hide its tremor.
"Esteemed guests," she began, addressing the body politic as one, "I have heard your grievances, your accusations and your concerns. The crown wishes to confer upon you all our utmost dedication to the rectification of these charges, being broad, damning and crucially important to the continued peace of the realm. My sister, my family and I must confer with one another as to the best course of action moving forward, as well as to address the immediate security issue concerning our own sovereignty. In the interim, I implore you, take your fill of food and drink. Rest from your journey and avail yourself of our hospitality. I give you my solemn vow: the princess and I shall return as quickly as possible, so that no one here might return to their shores unsatisfied. It is our privilege and duty to assist you using all feasible means. I thank you for your testimony...and patience."
Whether it was out of habit or expectation, all eyes immediately looked to the emperor. The statement was one of cordial understanding and acknowledgement, but even then, there seemed to be an undercurrent of permission hovering above the group. No one would say it aloud, but all seemed focused on what the man would say next.
The emperor overturned his pipe, adding its embers to the considerable mound upon the floor. He seemed less perturbed than before, more tired than annoyed. But his voice had lost none of it's edge.
"Of course, young majesty, we completely understand. It would be erroneous of us to assume that your own internal security should be superseded by that of this crowd. Food and drink sound like a marvelous distraction after such dour discourse," the man said, bowing his head as if in submission. "Please, see to your commander. Reconvene at your leisure...we shall be waiting."
Elsa and Anna could not decide if that last part was a threat or a promise or both, but they weren't interested in finding out. With a generous curtsy, the sisters looked to their aunt, uncle and cousins, all of whom took to their feet and offered gestures of approval, before joining the sisters.
The emperor motioned to his palanquin bearers, who jumped up and carefully moved the emperor to one side. As if taking a cue from the aging autocrat, the crowd parted to either side of the throne-room, bowing and gesturing in respect. The sisters walked around the piles of ash, taking care not to set foot in the gray powder, while their relatives followed suit. Yevgeni was using a piece of wood to gather and shovel the piles back into their respective chests as the Queen and Princess strode past, while Captain Rekcuff bowed and stood aside, ever watchful, every wondering.
As Andor, Lusk and Kristoff took up flanking positions on either side of the sisters and their entourage, Elsa found herself subconsciously reaching for Anna's hand. Though neither dared to look up, the pair held fast to each other. Even after the small group had made it past the doors and into the hallway, the two refused to let go.
They grounded each other. It was all they could do.
The assembly at their back, awash with suspicion and accusation and doubt, seemed poised like a great tsunami, minutes from the shore and totally inescapable. If either sister relinquished their hold, both were convinced the cresting wave would break upon their heads and sweep them out to sea.
A little more action next time. The time for talk is all but at an end. Until then, take care of yourselves and each other. Read and review!