Anna woke first. Waking was a slow process for her. She always resisted leaving dreams, but this instance was even harder; Elsa had featured very prominently in it.
Anna couldn't quite remember what had happened in the dream, only that it had involved kissing. The dream had also left her feeling vaguely aroused and in a much better mood than usual for a morning. By the time her eyes opened, Anna was very aware of a warm weight resting against her. Elsa's head was still nestled on Anna's shoulder, face down-turned, a curled hand resting on Anna's abdomen. She was sound asleep, her breathing quiet and even.
A fragment of the dream resurfaced—Anna recalled that the dream may have involved breasts. She would have blushed at that, but she was still only half-awake and her brain pleasantly ensconced from the outside world. There was simply no room for modesty when everything felt so perfect and lovely. Elsa also looked very beautiful sleeping on top of her, Anna thought languidly. Delightfully tousled and so young in her relaxation.
She could stay in bed forever with Elsa, Anna decided. And when Elsa woke, perhaps Anna could inform her that something had to be done about the present unconsummated state of their marriage; that thought made her feel even warmer. And if Elsa needed some convincing, Anna was feeling rather persuasive.
Anna wondered if Elsa would mind terribly much if she explored a little. Her pulse hitched as she raised the arm beneath Elsa up to touch Elsa's hair. It was a little thrilling touching Elsa like that, but it was just her hair. Her soft, silken hair, in that incredible light shade that Anna had always admired.
Her hand fell, fingertips tracing the curve of a shoulder to a shoulder blade, then down Elsa's side. Elsa twitched when she brushed a sensitive spot, making Anna grin. Even in her sleep, Elsa was ticklish. She would have continued, but she felt Elsa stir. Anna stilled.
Elsa's eyes opened, blinked a few times, then focused up at her face.
"Anna?" Elsa's voice was low and sleep-roughened. Anna liked the sound of it immensely.
Elsa squinted at her, confusion written over her features, as though she was wondering why she had to look up. Then Elsa closed her eyes again, in the way one did when regaining their bearings. "You wanted to be on the bottom," Elsa murmured.
To Anna's disappointment, Elsa rolled off onto her back to stretch, stifling a yawn as she did so.
"What time is it?" Elsa asked, as she shifted to face Anna.
"I don't know," Anna said. Time was one of those inconvenient realities she had not wanted to acknowledge. She looked at the clock. "Oh, it's not even eight yet."
Elsa's eyes widened, then she smiled wryly. "I seem to be sleeping so much lately. I normally would have been up an hour ago."
Anna hummed. In case Elsa was going to get up shortly, Anna inched to her until their heads were almost touching, ready to crawl on top of her to prevent a hasty exit. "Maybe I help you sleep better."
"I don't doubt it. I'm glad I let you convince me to sleep with you."
Anna gave her a narrow-eyed look.
"You let me," she said, her voice flat and dry as paper. "You let me." That was delivered in a tone that rang with affront and made Elsa grin.
Anna knew she was being teased, and said in a peeved voice, "You know, Elsa, you think you're so smart and clever, but you're not—"
Elsa kissed her. It was a light, playful kiss, full of mirth and affection. "Shh," Elsa shushed against Anna's mouth.
"I beg your pardon, your highness," Elsa said with unconvincing humility once she had pulled away. "It's still morning and I've not yet gathered my faculties. Give me a little time for my manners to return."
Anna rolled her eyes, even though she could feel a smile rising up. "I'm starting to think you don't ever have your faculties together," she muttered. "You wanted us to sleep in separate rooms for god knows how long."
Elsa's smile did not dim the slightest. "I was laboring under grave misunderstandings, but you've since corrected that. I'm very thankful for your assistance."
Elsa looked so at ease, and in such good humor, that Anna couldn't help but kiss her in spite of the teasing. The kiss lingered; Anna knew Elsa wouldn't push her away if she demanded more. The thought of going further than they had before made her head swim, and she had to pull back to gather her wits.
There was an undercurrent of tension in the silence now—it was subtle, but they were both acutely aware of it. It was certainly not same kind of tension as when they'd fought; it left Anna's belly full of nerves and her skin heated.
Elsa was waiting for her to make the first move. Anna could see it in the way Elsa held herself so still, eyes watchful, but her pupils were dilated and the blue bordering on black. Then Elsa licked her lips as if she was unconsciously savoring the kiss, her eyes falling on Anna's mouth.
Anna swallowed. The erotic dream was no clearer than before, but she didn't need specific details to recall the state it had left her in. Her eyes traced the line of Elsa's jaw to her slender throat, and she moved without thinking. Anna lifted herself up on one elbow, her hand nudging at Elsa's shoulder to roll her on her back. Elsa acquiesced without protest, though her eyes did widen when Anna leaned over her.
"I had a dream about you last night," Anna said. She was surprised at how husky her voice sounded; Elsa looked taken aback as well.
"Was it a good dream?" Elsa asked, tentative.
"Yes," she murmured. "It was a very good dream." Anna watched Elsa's throat bob as she swallowed.
"Oh." Elsa sounded breathless. "That kind of dream."
Anna smiled and nuzzled her mouth down Elsa's neck to her pounding pulse. "Yes, that kind. Do you have any experience with those?"
Elsa was quiet for so long that Anna lifted her head to look at her. "Elsa?"
Her cheeks were red, a mix of chagrin and guilt etched all over her face. "Yes," Elsa confessed. She looked like she wanted to squirm. "I have. But it's—it's rare! I don't—" She clamped her mouth shut and cast her eyes about to look anywhere but at Anna.
The kind thing would be not to press if Elsa wasn't willing to expound, but the admission held Anna's attention fast. Elsa couldn't just say she'd had a dream and then leave off right there.
"Tell me what you dreamed," Anna wheedled. "Please?"
"Absolutely not!" Elsa muttered, mortified. "I said—I said it was rare! I can hardly—no. I don't want to."
Anna lined Elsa's throat with more kisses in the hopes it would distract her. "What's there to be embarrassed about? I had one, too. I would tell you about mine." She felt only a twinge of guilt at that white lie—there wasn't much to tell, after all.
Elsa's breath hitched. She was considering it—Anna could almost hear her thinking. "Anna, I can't think when you're doing that," Elsa muttered in a pained voice.
Anna smiled against the side of her neck. "If I share mine, will you tell me?"
A heavy, defeated sigh. "What do you want to know?"
Anna had to fight to keep from crowing in triumph. Sitting up, she affixed a serious expression on her face instead, because Elsa's obedience seemed tenuous and she didn't want to test it.
"What did your dreams involve? I mean, was I in it?"
Elsa scowled while her blush deepened. "Yes. You were."
"Where were we—"
"No," Elsa said, surprising her. "If we're going to be doing this, it should be at the same time."
Well. She'd been found out much sooner than she had thought she would be. Anna cleared her throat. "Well, ah. You were in mine, too," she hedged.
Elsa watched her with faint suspicion. "Indeed? What exactly did your dream involve?"
She squirmed. "Breasts?" Anna offered. It wasn't a lie, exactly.
Elsa's cheeks flamed. "I see." She appeared to struggle with herself for sometime until she covered her eyes with a hand, like a curtain.
"God. All right. This was some time ago, so I don't remember all of it, but you were… you did not have clothes on." Elsa's voice was so soft that Anna had to strain to hear her.
She stared down at Elsa's covered face, which had turned redder. "No clothes—none? At all?" She didn't understand why it was such an important detail, but the words were just pouring out of her mouth before she could think about any of it. "Wait, did you mean I was—well, dream me, that is—maybe was in the process of—"
"Anna!" Elsa groaned, aggrieved. "Why is that even—good grief. Fine. You had nothing on. Not a single stitch to your name. I don't even know how I could have dreamt of such a thing, I don't even know what you look like naked, but that apparently did not stop my imagination from attempting to compensate for that deficiency!"
"Oh," Anna breathed. The confession had a profound effect on her—her skin prickled into a tingling awareness, leaving her palms damp and her mouth dry.
Oh, goodness, Anna thought. They were speaking of erotic dreams, and she knew that, but she was still shocked at her own reaction. She couldn't help the giddy smile that split her face, because they probably looked patently ridiculous to anyone else.
She needed to do something about Elsa, though; Anna could practically feel the waves of mortification rolling off her in the thick silence. If Elsa were a turtle, she would probably be quivering inside her shell and refusing to emerge for the next year or five. After pulling the covers back, Anna tossed her leg over Elsa's hips and sat astride the queen in a smooth motion. She leaned down to tug gently at Elsa's hand.
"Elsa," Anna said in the same tone she used with skittish horses. "Oh, don't be like that. I did ask. You have nothing to be embarrassed about."
Elsa made a huffing noise and refused to look at her. "I hadn't meant to tell you that," she muttered.
"Why not? I had a dream about you, too, but I can't say if we were, ah, attired." If they weren't, Anna wondered if her imagination had also helpfully filled in for the deficiency. Elsa had to be pale all over, and likely soft and smooth and—Anna severed that train of thought before it could develop further. She was not going to think about that while she was straddling Elsa.
Elsa did not answer; her silences were always far more effective at communicating her mood than anything else.
"I have a confession, too. I actually can't remember what we did in my dream, but it did have kissing and breasts," Anna said gamely, and braced herself for a heated glare, which was exactly what she got the instant Elsa's hand dropped away from her face.
Elsa's mouth was agape. "You lied," she accused.
Anna tried to arrange her features into contrition. "I did, but it was the first time I had a dream like that. I was just, well, I thought maybe if you told me yours that I might remember more."
Her dignity was still fragile, so all Elsa could say was, "You tricked me," in an injured tone. Anna fought to keep her face penitent—it was truly difficult when Elsa looked on the verge of a full-blown pout.
"I'm sorry!" She hoped that sounded sincere; Anna could feel laughter wanting to bubble up.
"I don't believe you."
"I really am!" Elsa still looked so perturbed that Anna couldn't resist kissing her softly. "Besides, what's wrong about having dreams like that? Once we actually… make love, we will need to be naked, won't we?"
"Anna," Elsa started, then sighed. "I haven't the faintest notion of any of… that. If you think just because I've had a few dreams about it that I would know, you are mistaken."
Anna pressed her forehead down to Elsa's and smiled. "I suppose we'll have to fumble about then, won't we?"
"Well, I was hoping for a bit more grace, but I suppose fumble would be the more apt description if you're even tangentially involved—"
Anna dug her fingers into Elsa's side and was awarded a surprised snort of laughter for her efforts. "Hm, yes, more grace," Anna said, mimicking Elsa's mordant tone.
Elsa delivered a mock glare, but smiled back. "We should get up if you want to attend breakfast with your parents. They are leaving tomorrow."
Anna glanced at the clock and sighed; Elsa was right. If they didn't get up now, they would miss breakfast, and there would be little time left in the day if she was going with Elsa to see the duke in the afternoon.
She climbed off Elsa and waited for her to sit up. "Elsa, I want to do something soon. About… us."
Elsa's head swiveled to Anna, eyes wide. "What? Now? You mean—"
"I said soon, not right this instant, Elsa," Anna laughed. "I just—I want to know what it feels like. To make love with you."
Elsa's face colored so fast and brilliantly that Anna was amazed she didn't fall over from the sudden rush of blood to her head.
"Your frankness is bracing, as usual," Elsa managed.
"Well, we clearly both want it if our dreams are anything to go by," Anna pointed out. It sounded very reasonable to her own ears. That ought to appeal to Elsa's logic—she hoped, anyway.
"What do you think?"
Elsa ran a shaky hand through her hair before she answered. "God. All right. Soon, then. I don't understand how you make it sound so easy. Though I suppose if I have protests, you'll just bring me around to it, anyway."
"You'll let me convince you, remember?" Anna said, voice heavy with irony.
Elsa paused and loosed a laugh.
Anna was right, of course.
They dressed separately again and joined Frederick and Alice for breakfast. They also pointedly avoided sitting too close together, as if the proximity might give away what they'd been up to. Elsa was relieved to find Frederick and Alice in high spirits, their good mood diverting Anna's attention for the most part. It wasn't until somewhere midway through breakfast that the full import of Anna's "soon" smacked Elsa over the back of the head, and nearly sent her face flying into a plateful of eggs.
Had Anna meant that evening? She went light-headed at the thought. What if Anna had meant tonight? She wouldn't be able to refuse Anna even if she wanted to, and she certainly did not want to refuse Anna. In spite of that, her heart was stumbling at how… unprepared she felt. That was the only word she could come up with to describe the feeling. It was as if a tutor had sprung a test upon her for a subject she had never studied, nor known existed. Surely Anna wouldn't think less of her for not knowing? Anna was just as inexperienced as she was. Yet, that fact brought her no comfort—how could they manage if neither of them knew what they were about?
Could one do it wrong?
Elsa had an overwhelming urge to bury her head in her hands and whimper. What had Anna said the day after the wedding? Something about being a skilled rider and physically fit being best, of which Elsa was neither. This was one thing she did not want to do wrong, and Elsa had proven that she had a talent for doing things wrong.
Elsa's mind churned so violently with half-formed forebodings of all the potential wrongs that could be committed that she missed Anna's initial question.
"Elsa, do you want to go riding with us?" Anna repeated, voice and brows raised at her.
"What? Do I—oh. Riding." Three pairs of eyes gazed at her. Elsa resisted the urge to fidget. "No, thank you. You should go ahead. Spend time with your family."
Anna studied her, lips pursed. "You should come with us, Elsa. Riding's good for you." Her countenance had taken on an unyielding look that was terrifyingly familiar—Anna's resemblance to her mother was uncanny, at times.
She could feel her heels wanting to drag in protest; Elsa had no wish to partake in an activity where her ability could be called into question at the moment.
"Anna, I have some work to do "
Anna turned to her father. "Please excuse us. I'll see you and Mother by the stables in half an hour." Then Anna stood, grabbed Elsa by the wrist, and nearly dragged her from the room. Both missed the exchanged glances that passed between Frederick and Alice.
"Where are we going? You don't need to lead me about like a lost child."
"I wonder about that sometimes," Anna muttered, not releasing her hold on Elsa. She opened the nearest door she came across, which was to an empty parlor room. Pulling Elsa in after her, she shut the door and rounded on the queen.
"What is it?" Anna demanded.
Elsa stiffened at her tone. "What is what?"
"You. You're acting strange again. You were fine this morning, then sometime over eggs and toast, the sky fell and you were the only one who seemed to have noticed."
Elsa made a face. "'The sky fell'?"
Anna waved an impatient hand. "You can put it however you want, but what is it, Elsa? Are you worried about the meeting with the duke? I promised that I wouldn't say anything stupid, so you don't have to be concerned about that."
"No, it's not—it's not that." Anna's bracing frankness had cut to the heart of the matter once again. She ought to take a page out of the book of Anna, as Alice had put it.
"I don't want to do it wrong," Elsa blurted out. At Anna's questioning look, Elsa fought not to color.
"Sex!" She hissed, her hands clenching. "Making love! You said soon.. I don't even know how to do—anything! And I don't want to do it wrong."
Anna stared at her. "You don't want to do it wrong," she repeated. "You don't want to… make love wrong."
With the words actually said aloud, it sounded very strange and even more humiliating. Elsa said nothing—she obviously had no idea how to say anything without embarrassing herself—while attempting to collect her scattered dignity. Why did she even bother? Elsa wondered irritably. Everybody around her clearly thought she had no need of it.
The corner of Anna's mouth twitched in unmistakable humor. "Elsa…" She started, her voice quivering in such a way that obliterated the remainder of Elsa's pride.
The queen drew up to her full height and glared. Anna caught the full blast of it, a potent mix of royal ire and helpless indignance. Anna clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle the first peal of laughter.
"Obviously, my concerns were unwarranted," Elsa said, the inflection so caustic that Anna was surprised her ears didn't scorch from it. "You're easily pleased if you find the idea of an inexperienced lover amusing."
At "lover," Anna's laughter was instantly vanquished. She found herself gazing at Elsa with what felt like very deep fondness and affection. How Elsa had changed; or perhaps this fretful side had simply never had the opportunity to show itself when they were growing up. No, that wasn't true; Elsa had always been a bit… high-strung, Anna realized. It was just another thing entirely to see that being applied to the soon-to-be intimate aspect of their relationship.
"You're high-strung." Anna said. She started; she had not meant to say that aloud.
"What?" Elsa looked offended now. "What did you—high-strung? I am certainly not." Elsa had the gall to look down her nose at Anna in a ridiculous display of superiority, as if she could win the argument by sheer hauteur alone.
The longer Anna thought about it, the more she believed the description fit. "You are!" Anna said, undeterred. "God, I don't know how I didn't think of it before, but you're no better than a green colt!"
"You're comparing me to a horse." Elsa sneered out the last word, and then paused.
"I am not high-strung," she added, sounding precariously petulant.
"What else would you call worrying about inconsequential details such as… performance?" Anna asked, her brow rising. "You have delicate nerves."
"I am not a horse! Nor do I have delicate nerves!"
"Well, repeating it won't make it any less true," Anna replied. Elsa looked like she was on the edge of a temper fit, which would probably manifest as an unceremonious march out of the room. Anna framed Elsa's face between her hands before Elsa could give in to the temptation, rose up on her toes, and kissed her. Kisses usually distracted Elsa, and Anna was counting on this one to calm those aristocratic, anxiety-prone nerves.
"Stop worrying, Elsa," Anna said, gently. "I'm sure you'll perform admirably."
Elsa huffed in disbelief. "And how exactly would you be in a position to judge if you don't know any better yourself?"
Anna blinked. "Well, I heard from the grooms back in Corona that if the lady likes it, she will be very vocal about it and—"
Elsa shut her eyes in horror. "Stop! Stop it. I am not going to take second-hand advice from the Corona grooms, good god."
"High-strung and a snob," Anna sighed theatrically. "You were obviously born a thoroughbred."
Elsa glowered at her, unamused. "I don't want to botch it. And I seem to excel at botching things."
"We'll do it slowly. Unless you're suggesting that we never do it. I put my foot down at abstinence, Elsa, because I swear, I will hit you if you suggest that again—"
"Of course I wouldn't!" Elsa yelped, shaking Anna's hands off. "I want to as well, all right? It's just not—it's not easy for me as it is for you. It's different when you're not in the heat of the moment, and when I think about it, I'm—"
"You're overthinking it."
"Of course I overthink! It's probably my only talent, aside from mucking things up, Anna!" Elsa burst, startling both of them. She took a steadying breath and dragged a hand through her loose hair—this morning was a rare one where she had not arranged it into her habitual bun.
"Perhaps I am a bit high-strung," she conceded after regaining a semblance of composure. "I'm sorry, Anna. I just... don't want to disappoint."
Anna's expression softened. "Elsa, I don't think you could ever disappoint me." Anna drew the queen into an embrace, arms linked around Elsa's waist. "You really do worry too much. It can't be good for you."
"I will endeavor to do better next time." She didn't sound confident in the promise. Anna squeezed her and drew back.
"Come riding with me. It'll be relaxing."
"I do actually have some work. I need to go over my files for Weselton. Go ahead with your parents, you should spend time with them before they leave."
"You're not going to go flitting off on some other thing that nobody in their right mind should be worrying about?"
Elsa laughed. "I said I would try. My delicate nerves."
"It'll be a short ride," Anna promised. "Then we'll go see the duke."
True to her word, Anna kept the ride short. She left her parents to explore old trails, and returned to find Elsa in the study.
Elsa looked up from her desk, feeling considerably calmer after blunting her wits with financial reports. "Back already? You've only been gone an hour and a half."
"Mother and Papa are still out. When is the meeting?"
"In another two hours." Elsa eyed Anna's breeches. "Do you plan on attending wearing that?"
Anna had not, but since Elsa was asking, she seized the opportunity. "Well, if I'm only there to annoy him and make the visit nicer for you…"
Elsa scowled. "You're not there to be ornamental. I thought you might like to be present to see what work I do. Perhaps visit the city proper as well. Far be it from me to be thoughtful, what with my delicate nerves."
Anna smiled at the miffed tone. "You like the breeches, don't you?"
"I thought I made that clear."
"Enough that you don't want anyone else to see."
"Does that bother you?" Elsa asked, very carefully neutral.
"No. It's just nice to be told that," Anna replied. "I'll be in the stables and change later." She gave a little wave and strode off, leaving Elsa to frown at her back.
They left for the duke's estate in a carriage emblazoned with Elsa's royal seal and flanked by a quartet of mounted guards. Anna protested the use of the carriage—the city wasn't far, and horseback was far less stifling.
"It's for show," Elsa said as she helped Anna into the carriage. "Weselton is a stickler for meaningless propriety. He would probably have an apoplectic fit if you had shown up in the breeches, by the way. Not that I would complain about either of those conditions," she added, making Anna laugh.
"I thought you didn't want anyone to see me in them."
"I would make an exception for a charitable cause," Elsa said, climbing after Anna.
"Does he hang his head out the window to see how people travel about, or something?" Anna asked. Anna was dressed in a simple pale green dress that she thought looked appropriate for a business meeting. Elsa was back in a very similar blue dress and jacket she'd worn for the meeting with her lawyers, her hair still unbound, but her hands were gloved once again. The carriage seats were well-sprung and plush, and proved themselves worthy of their finery as soon as the driver snapped his whip; she could hardly feel the carriage rolling over the cobblestones.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he did," Elsa said. "He's getting on in his years, but still spry. He doesn't like me."
"Hm, no, that's not right. He doesn't like my family and anything related to Arendelle, would be more accurate. I didn't know why for a long time." Elsa met Anna's eyes.
"Now may not be the most appropriate time, but I think perhaps you should know before you see the duke. It's related to what your mother told me."
"The story about your parents?"
"Yes. I think Weselton is still angry about an engagement my father broke off. My father was once expected to marry Weselton's daughter."
"What? Really? I've never heard that."
"It wasn't arranged like ours, but I'm told it was expected. Weselton wanted to marry his daughter into royalty."
"Oh. Wow." Anna studied Elsa's face. "Your father and Weselton. Weselton could have been your grandfather."
The aghast look that passed over Elsa's face made Anna laugh gaily.
"Let's not entertain that thought, nor contemplate the impossibility of it. I resemble my father little enough as it is," Elsa muttered.
"All right, but why did your father break it off? Did he fall in love with your mother?"
"Something like that. Weselton doesn't know the real reason." Elsa hesitated. "My mother and father had an affair. My father got my mother with child and married her."
Anna knew her jaw was sliding open, but she couldn't help it. She had heard of stories like that in gossip, traded behind unfurled fans at parties. They were usually recounted with fits of scandalized giggles, and always with an air of condescension and pity. It was very difficult to imagine Elsa's regal parents being the subject of that kind of tawdry gossip.
"That's—" Anna shook her head. "God. I don't know what to say. Wait, my mother told you this?"
"Yes, she said she was there and knew about the affair. She said their marriage started out… somewhat contentious. My parents were upset with each other for being foolish." Elsa gazed out the carriage window, the fjord just passing out of view as they entered the city.
"There's more, none of it happier than before, but now isn't a good time for the rest. I'll tell you later."
"They loved each other though, didn't they?" Anna asked in a small voice, after a long moment. "I mean, even if they didn't have the best beginning, they loved each other."
"I think so, too. It's still shocking, though." Elsa gazed out the carriage window, pensive.
Anna wasn't sure what else she ought to say for Elsa, though she remembered that Elsa had found out the first night they'd slept together; Elsa had been in an odd mood, but not upset.
"Best not share that tale with the duke," Elsa said, a smile touching her lips. "I doubt it will improve his feelings toward Arendelle."
"I won't. What is the meeting for?"
"Reviewing the state of Weselton's loans from the kingdom, largely. He will probably argue about astronomical interest rates, perhaps try to persuade me into whatever investments he thinks are worthwhile. It will be boring, but I'll try to keep it short. The duke enjoys hearing himself speak."
"Couldn't you delegate the meeting to someone else if you don't want to do it?"
"Weselton has a bit of a history with Arendelle, and he has some sway with King William of the Netherlands. Weselton has always met with a member of the royal family in Arendelle and to change that would be rude. It's part of my duty and I will have to tolerate the cockalorum."
Anna looked at her blankly. "The what?"
Elsa blinked. "What—oh, cockalorum? My father used to call the duke that. It means a self-important little man."
She knew enough of the duke to know that it did suit him perfectly, but remained dubious. "Does it really mean that? Are you sure your father didn't just make that up?"
"I asked him the very same question and he told me to find it in a dictionary. I did, and it really does mean that. I'll show you the entry when we return. God, have you ever seen the duke dance? It suits him even better if you have."
Anna laughed again, because she actually had caught a glimpse of the duke dancing during the wedding party.
"Elsa, that is awful," she chided, which did nothing to quell her own humor or Elsa's. The pair found themselves grinning at each other at the shared joke just as the carriage came to a stop before a large manor. The carriage door opened and a coachman appeared to assist them.
Elsa examined the front of the mansion once Anna had exited. "Neo-classicist, renovated in the past decades. A popular style, though falling out of favor of late," Elsa remarked absentmindedly.
"No, just a habit of mine." The front door open and a butler emerged. "And there is our escort."
They were led to a large drawing room and seated on a sofa. The housekeeper trailed in after the butler, served tea and small cakes on a silver tray that was left on table, then retreated.
"His grace will be with you shortly," the butler said, before taking his leave.
Elsa sighed once the door was closed. "Weselton enjoys doing this—making me wait. I was tempted to arrive late to make up for that, but that would be rude and not go unnoticed, so we can sit here and twiddle our thumbs for his grace."
"There's chocolate in the cakes," Anna said, holding up a piece on her fork. "Have some."
"I can feed myself," Elsa said archly, but took the offering gracefully enough. "Well, at least our host does not skimp on the hospitality, even if he does on punctuality."
"His grace would be saddened to hear such comments from his guests," a feminine voice replied as the door opened.
Both women stiffened. The countess glided into the room and dipped into a curtsy. Lady Charlotte was dressed more modestly this time, her bosom no longer on display, but her dress was a similar shade of eye-catching red as the one she'd worn to the wedding party. Her chestnut hair fell over pale shoulders, framing her face and accenting her lightly painted mouth. Were courtesans supposed to look outrageously sensual all the time? Anna found herself wondering. Or did they have off days?
"It's lovely to see you again, your majesty, your highness," Lady Charlotte said, incongruously demure.
Anna would have risen to return the gesture, but she could feel the antipathy emanating from Elsa like a creeping draft. As Anna reached to the table to return her small plate, she discreetly gripped Elsa's clenched fist with her other hand. The queen glanced at her sharply, which Anna answered with the barest hint of a headshake, her eyes never straying from that plate.
Behave, Anna silently said.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Elsa's jaw tense for an instant, but her hands loosened just a hair.
"Hello, Lady Charlotte," Elsa said, her voice so flatly disinterested that it bordered on rude; but it was enough. The countess aimed a knowing smile at Anna, then settled on the opposite sofa.
"How interesting," Lady Charlotte said once she had smoothed her skirts out. "Both of you just look so… cozy. I wouldn't have imagined it so soon after your wedding. It was arranged, was it not?"
The implication put Elsa's back up and made her eyes narrow; she was readying something exceptionally cutting to throw.
"We've known each other since we were children," Anna interjected with a benign smile before Elsa could open her mouth. "We're hardly strangers."
"Ah, how romantic to have known each other for so long. I met my own husband in a less than ideal place," Lady Charlotte said with a wistful air. "It was the opening night of one of my first roles as leading lady—I'm sure you are aware of my prior career as an actress?"
"Yes," Elsa bit out, before Anna could respond. "We came here to meet the duke. I did not agree to a meeting with you. Why are you here?"
"I take it you don't mean why am I in the building. I have been sending you such nice letters and eagerly waiting for your reply, and yet—"
"So you decided to ambush me?" Elsa said with the faintest sneer. Anna wondered if it would be very obvious if she kicked Elsa. Perhaps stepping on her foot would be more discreet.
"Oh, I'd hardly call it ambushing; I'm sure you were aware that I am enjoying his grace's hospitality. The duke is also preoccupied at this time," Lady Charlotte said brightly. "And it was the least I could to ensure the queen and princess consort are… entertained." Her voice caressed the last word, her meaning apparent.
Anna and Elsa both drew back at the suggestion. The countess laughed—it was a surprisingly pleasant laugh, light and silver.
"Ah, I meant no offense, of course, so please forgive the bawdy humor—a vestige from a previous life, as I said. I am surprised, though, to see the princess consort with you for your business meeting, your majesty."
"I asked to come with Elsa," Anna lied, her polite smile still firmly in place. She didn't quite trust Elsa not to launch an unprovoked insult. "And Elsa was kind enough to allow me to come with her to see what kind of work she does."
"Truly kind of you, your majesty. Well, if you're truly curious, your highness, I might have just the thing for you. My employer is a competitor of Collier Company and still very much interested in it. We'd like to make an offer to purchase Arendelle's controlling share."
"We feel very optimistic about the company."
Elsa's lips twisted into a thin smile. "I feel very optimistic about it myself. I think it's a sound investment. I feel no urgent need to relieve the kingdom of such good fortune "
The countess leaned forward, her expression playful, but with an intent focus. "I wouldn't dream of trying to cheat you, your majesty. Our offer would be generous. Current market value, with an additional incentive at that. Negotiable, of course."
Elsa's face was inscrutable, but her eyes had turned to ice, hard and cold. She was still, her gaze fixed to the countess' face like a hunter sighting prey. The way Elsa stared was enough to make anyone uncomfortable—it wasn't even directed at her, but Anna still felt it tangibly pressing down on her chest, like a great paw forcing truth out. After several moments, the countess shifted in her seat, as if to find some relief from that intense scrutiny.
"You've given me very little information," Elsa said finally. "And I will not make a decision now. I will consider it for the time being, even if I believe my answer will be refusal. I don't appreciate unscheduled meetings, either during parties or before a prior appointment."
The countess took the cue that the matter was closed and any further pushing would be unwise. "Shall I send you a letter for another meeting?"
"No. I have a lawyer; his office is in the city. Send it to Holsen and Calhoun."
Anna breathed out in quiet relief. The conversation had gone well enough—everybody was still alive and intact. Perhaps she needn't fear Elsa doing something she would regret.
"Very well." Lady Charlotte's attention turned to Anna, the topic of business done for the moment. "I don't think I've given you my congratulations for your marriage yet, your highness. How are you finding it?"
"I'm happy," Anna replied cautiously, wondering if there was some innuendo she was missing. "I mean, not that I have anything to compare to, but I am happy."
"That's lovely. Do color me curious; I've never encountered two married women before. I'm surprised neither of you have left for a honeymoon."
Anna thought it was a minor miracle that her eyes did not roll in spectacular fashion in their sockets. "Because my wife is as high-strung as a racehorse at the gate," Anna wanted to confide. "She didn't think I wanted her to come with me on our honeymoon. I always thought Elsa was smart, but she really isn't sometimes."
Anna instead said, "We plan on going on one soon. We're looking forward to it, since Elsa works and worries so much," she said, tone heavy with meaning.
Elsa's eyebrow twitched at her, but she remained judiciously silent.
Lady Charlotte's eyes shifted between them speculatively. "I recommend Italy," she said after a pause. "Florence is a treat this time of year. How is your Italian?"
"I've never been very good with languages. Elsa has always been better at that," Anna admitted. They were discussing honeymoon plans with the countess, she thought with some bewilderment. It was better than the countess and Elsa sniping at each other, so Anna decided to continue with that line of conversation and hope she would not have to remain peacekeeper for long.
"My father was very strict about that. He used to start conversations in one language and wait for the correct response before continuing. I don't think your parents were as firm about language," Elsa said. While the atmosphere had relaxed somewhat, Elsa still looked to be on her guard.
"No, they weren't. Florence does sound nice, it has beautiful architecture, doesn't it? I've never been to any part of Italy."
"It's a beautiful city and a popular spot for summering nobility. The vineyards produce some of the finest wines you'll ever taste. Very romantic."
Anna didn't know why, but her heart tripped at the thought of being entirely alone with Elsa in a romantic city. She'd seen Italian paintings before, pictures in books, as well as listened to stories of the life there. She could see red sun-drenched rooftops, great cathedrals and pavilions, and hills for those famous vineyards. What would Elsa be like if she were away from Arendelle? Away from work and reminders of her station? Would she enjoy the sedate pace of hot days, the long siestas in the shade?
"It would be a long voyage if you wanted to go, Anna," Elsa said.
She wanted to ask if Elsa had anywhere she wanted to go, but she was aware of the countess's eyes on them and that question felt very private.
Anna smiled and instead said, "Maybe."
The door opened. The butler from earlier bowed deeply from the threshold and said, "Your majesty, his grace is now ready to see you. I can escort you to his study."
When Anna got to her feet with Elsa, the butler cleared his throat, a deeply apologetic expression on his face. "I'm very sorry, your highness. The duke sends his deepest regrets that he could not receive you properly, but he stated he needed to speak with the queen alone first. He is not feeling well, thus his absence."
Everybody in the room knew it was a lie. Elsa's eyes went so flat and cold that the butler dropped into another bow with more apologies.
"Elsa, it's fine," Anna said, a hand touching the queen's arm. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "We knew he might not want to see me first, so that isn't a surprise. I'll be fine here. Don't make a scene on my behalf. Please."
A long, tense moment passed, then Elsa's shoulders just barely relaxed. "I won't be long with the duke," she said. Elsa nodded once, then strode after the butler and out of the room, the door clicking shut behind her.
"How interesting," Lady Charlotte repeated.
Anna sat, smoothing the wrinkles out of her skirt. "That we're cozy?"
"Among other things." She smiled at Anna and the expression looked more genuine than anything Anna had seen from her before. It softened her face, and made her beauty much warmer than before. Which, Anna supposed, was why the next words flattened her so.
"You have not consummated, have you?"
Elsa entered the duke's stately study. It was considerably larger than her own study, the furnishings similar—all dark colors and distinctly masculine, the walls covered with fine art, but she had never liked the room. It felt too expansive and emphasized just how empty it was.
The Duke of Weselton rose and bowed from behind his desk, his head never dropping below the exact required amount of deference.
"Your majesty," he greeted.
"Your grace," Elsa returned. He waited for her to take a seat at his desk before also sitting. Elsa had to fight a smirk. The duke hated being reminded of his small stature. As she had approached the desk, she could see the irritation behind his spectacles at their height difference as he was forced to tilt his head.
"I appreciate your time, your majesty," the duke said, his manner stiff as usual. "Especially coming on such short notice."
"I'm grateful for your understanding and I apologize for the delay. I am aware that you may wish to return to your home estate rather than linger here given your... poor health. My recent wedding has occupied me." The rebuff to Anna was still fresh on her mind and turned her polite smile razor sharp. "My wife was disappointed that she could not formally make your acquaintance."
"The princess and I have been introduced before, though the meeting was brief," Weselton said with a frown, ignoring the comment to his health.
"The princess consort has not. But I'm sure once we've cleared away the business matters, we can remedy that."
The duke knew better than to say anything beyond agreement, though the twitch of his moustache betrayed his discontent. "Of course, your majesty. I would be honored."
Elsa opened the folder she had brought with her and removed several sheets of parchment, laying them flat on the desk. The desk was clear of the duke's own files, which was unusual—the only thing she did recognize was a globe that she could have sworn had not budged from its spot in the past decade.
"I've reviewed Weselton's financial reports from the previous years. I find the interest rates that were set six months ago would still fall within the acceptable range, given the contractual agreement between your businesses and Arendelle. Of course, if you find that a rate adjustment is warranted, I'm ready to see evidence supporting it."
She waited. The duke always had evidence for rate adjustment, but in spite of his contrary nature, Weselton did always pay on time. Much of Weselton's properties were in the Netherlands, and his sudden need for funds had been triggered by the Belgian Revolution nine years ago. The southern provinces of the Netherlands had seceded to become the recently recognized Kingdom of Belgium. Several of Weselton's profitable ventures had been in those southern provinces that had the gall to rebel; the duke had fought to not lose his business interests and properties, but to no avail. Weselton was forced to turn to Arendelle to take out several loans in order to rebuild what remained of the duchy's fortune.
The old man was prideful, and it had to have stung to go to the man who'd spurned his daughter and dashed dreams of a joined royal line, Elsa thought. Her father had always conducted business with Weselton fairly, perhaps out of some guilt from what had happened with Weselton's daughter. While Elsa did not enjoy the old duke's company, she would also treat their business affairs fairly. So, she waited for the duke to begin his semi-annual quibbling, ready to deflect all of it.
"I find the rates fair as well," Weselton said, to Elsa's surprise.
She nearly replied with, "Well, that's a first," but managed to keep that to herself.
"You are certain, your grace?" She could hear the faint incredulity in her voice.
The duke nodded, his face impassive. "I do."
Elsa blinked and looked down at the documents she had taken with her. She had expected to write notes all over them, but felt rather nonplussed seeing them blank before her. She slid the sheets back into her folder slowly.
"I see. Then our business is concluded?" If it was, it was the first time she'd be leaving the duke's office within the hour. Astounding. She'd barely warmed her seat.
"Actually, I had a different matter I wished to discuss with you, your majesty."
Well, there it was. Elsa wanted to sigh; she should have known better than to think she could escape early. "Yes?"
The duke adjusted his spectacles, and folded his hands before him on the desk. "As you know, I am grateful for Arendelle's assistance, financially. I'm sure I am not alone when I say that part of Weselton's survival has been due to Arendelle's generosity."
She felt her brow wrinkle at the words; the duke hated having to rely on anyone, and was even more reluctant to express gratitude. Suspicion crept up slowly, like encroaching ivy.
"I would say Weselton and Arendelle's agreement has been mutually beneficial. Arendelle does not seek to profit from… misfortune," she said. "Revolutions can be difficult to anticipate."
"I would agree, your majesty," the duke said, surprising her again. "Which is why I feel this should be brought to your attention. I understand that you are youthful. Your father was…" The duke just barely contained his grimace. "A good king," he finished as if the words were being dragged out of him.
"I agree that my father was a good king," Elsa said, her hands clenching in her lap. She knew she was young, but she would not tolerate insults to her family. If the duke did not amble to his point quickly, she would do it for him; it had not been nearly long enough since the countess had tested her patience.
"Instability within Arendelle would be disastrous. Arendelle does not have a particularly volatile history. But matters of accession are of utmost importance, as I'm sure you know. Especially if a ruler does not have popular support. Your father arranged for you to wed another woman, a princess of Corona, yes, but doing so has discounted the possibility of a blood heir, unless your marriage contract—"
Elsa slowly rose to her feet. The duke was still speaking, but it was a dull buzzing to her ears, like a gnat that needed to be swatted away. Her body felt strangely disconnected—she wondered if it was because of the raw rage that filled her head. Rage and complete and utter surprise.
No, the countess had not ambushed her, Elsa realized dazedly. The Duke of Weselton had. Weselton had the gall to question her, to question her dead father, to question Arendelle's future when he had no right, absolutely no right to any of it. He had the audacity to question her marriage to Anna, to insult Anna. For an alarming instant, Elsa felt her control sliding precariously out of her grasp; until she thought of Anna.
Anna was here. Elsa found equal parts reassurance and helplessness in the thought of Anna. Even if she wanted to freeze the duke solid, she could not. She would not.
She would deal with the old duke, though.
"Your grace. I appreciate your… concern." She felt stilted and brittle, ready to snap at the slightest hint of resistance. "But you see, the matter of my marriage is none of your concern. The matter of the next heir to Arendelle, to my family, is none of your concern. What is your concern, that is—" Her jaw flexed. To think that she'd cared about what he thought of her, or what anyone thought of her. There was so much more at stake now, one of which was a mere floor away from her.
"Well, it is precious little. Little to do with the crown, anyway. I will hear no more of your concerns. We shall leave this room and you will properly greet Anna as my wife, the Princess Consort of Arendelle, and you will be respectful and you will never utter another word on this topic again. Do I make myself clear?"
The duke also rose to his feet and removed his spectacles, folding the wire frame together before placing it on his desk.
"Your majesty. With all due respect. I do not bring this matter up to displease, but if there is no blood heir, there could be upheaval and that's not to say what other noble families with an interest in Arendelle might do. We have seen what it has done to my family and so many others."
Elsa tilted her head at the duke. Her gaze was deliberately aimed down her nose to emphasize their height difference; petty as it was, she did not care. "I am not King William. And if you'll recall, he lost half his kingdom because he was a despot who ignored the beggared lower class."
"A dispute over heirs can do the same and you know this," the duke insisted. "You must know this. If Arendelle were to crumble because of a populist uprising, which is within the realm of possibility even if the princess consort were to be the one to bear an heir—!"
"We will adopt," Elsa heard herself say, distantly. "I will ensure the inheritance law is strengthened and passed by the Royal Council. As my father would have wanted."
The duke looked horrified. "Adoption? For a throne? Even if you had such a thing passed, it will not matter! Whoever you choose for an heir will always have a disputed claim to the throne. This may be acceptable for lesser nations, for lesser titles, but for Arendelle it is not. Arendelle is too great to fall, and there is much at stake, more than just Weselton! I promise you, if you seek to pass that law, I will fight it, and so will the members of the Council."
She could feel her hackles rising at the challenge. Defenses and arguments welled up in her throat, mixed in with the anger. She had thought of the very same reasons before when she had doubted the betrothal and when she had doubted her father. But she would place her trust in her father and herself. She knew that because the duke was old and conservative, he would not listen. She had nothing to say to him. Nothing at all.
"You are right, your grace. There is much at stake; I've changed my mind," Elsa said softly. She stripped off a glove and placed her palm over the smooth surface of the globe, her gaze locked with the old man before her. "There is no need for you to meet Anna. Do whatever you wish. I will do what I have been taught to do all my life. I will rule."
When the door closed after the queen, the Duke of Weselton looked at his globe and found a layer of spiky frost lining its surface.
A/N: Thanks to somonastic and Rebecca Keys for their help beta-ing this chapter!