*A/N* - I'm posting this chapter here as an epilogue to make anyone who has an alert on this story aware that I have begun publishing the sequel. While this does work as an epilogue to the story you're currently reading, you can find identical text posted as the prologue chapter of the fic The Snow Queen: Love and Duty.
If you're just here to read Frozen: The Snow Queen, feel free to ignore this chapter and consider the curtain to have fallen at the end of chapter eleven. (That's also why I've left this after the appendix.) But if you want the sequel hook that I very intentionally omitted from the original story, then by all means read on!
Just to note, Frozen: The Snow Queen is now well and truly complete. I don't plan on further updates, and will only make changes in the event of grammatical corrections or typos, 99.99% of which I believe either I or sharp-eyed readers have ferreted out by now. Please let me know if you spotted something that proves me wrong!
September dawned on Paris unseasonably cold and dreary. It brought with it a fitful precipitation that did nothing to improve the mood of Bernard Maret as he disembarked from his carriage and made his way inside the French Foreign Ministry. He shook the damp spots from his overcoat with a grim determination that helped distract from the aggravating itchiness that plagued his scalp whenever it rained. Silently cursing the powdered wig and the entire lineage of whoever had deigned to invent it, Maret waved aside the greetings of the doorman and receptionist with indecipherable grunts, storming through the halls towards his office with an unapproachable aura. It did nothing to stop the incessant chorus of well-wishers, sycophants, and petitioners that plagued him until at long last his office door slammed shut behind him.
"Wonderful weather, isn't it?"
Maret scowled, shrugging off his overcoat and tossing it at the speaker, who caught it with deft practice and a wry smile. "I'm in no mood for it today, Dominic," Maret growled at his secretary. He stomped around his desk, throwing himself into the massive chair behind it with a weary sigh. He sank into the cushions, massaging his temples and refusing to open his eyes until he heard the muted clink of china.
"The day is young, Minister."
Maret gave a noncommittal grunt as he accepted the cup offered to him. He stirred the steaming coffee, allowing the scent to drive away some of his foul mood. By the time he took a sip, he felt almost sociable again.
"You have a meeting with the Minister of Police in two hours," the secretary said, arranging some of the papers that lined the desk. "Followed by a lunch with the Austrian ambassador."
Maret frowned. "He'll want an update on the emperor's progress, no doubt. I tell you Dominic, the vultures are circling."
The other man paused over a pile of correspondence, raising an eyebrow. "Is it really so bad?"
"Two months in enemy territory, and all the Grande Armée has to show for it are bloody skirmishes and longer supply lines." And casualty reports that are either too censored to credit or too ghastly to consider, he did not say aloud. "His Imperial Majesty could be standing at the gates of Moscow as we speak, but if the tsar's army keeps falling back, the Russian winter will do what no force at arms has been able to for ten years. Alexander will never come to terms at this rate."
"News is slow to arrive. A decisive battle may have already happened," Dominic said hopefully. "The war could be over, and we may just not know it yet."
"For better or worse," Maret agreed darkly. "But in the meantime, we must keep the rest of the world thinking we are unassailable. What letters do I have?"
Dominic shuffled through one of the stacks. "An invitation to a ball to honor Marshal Marmont and the Comte de Bonet, who are both in town recovering from wounds taken at Salamanca."
"RSVP, with my compliments." An experienced diplomat, Maret knew that such parties were the best places for him to get any real work done, making his attendance a matter of practicality. It didn't hurt that in addition to being one of the crème de la crème, a Marshal of the Empire, Auguste de Marmont was also one of the emperor's oldest and closest friends.
The secretary set the invitation aside, picking up the next envelope. "Ah, another petition for a meeting from the Spanish ambassador. I believe that's the sixth this week."
Maret stifled a groan. "Is he trying to set some kind of record? Keep him at bay, Dominic. It's impossible that either of us has any good news for the other where the Peninsula is concerned." I can only contain so many crises at once, he thought glumly.
"Here's a report from the Minister of the Navy on this month's embargo efforts in the Baltic territories."
"Give me that one. It might have some tall tales I can use to distract the Austrian ambassador over lunch. Did I tell you about last month's report? Some captains were claiming to have spotted ice floes in the North Sea. In July." He chuckled. "The fools were better off chalking every loss up to the British blockade. Those stories were at least credible."
Dominic handed over the letter and resumed his progress through the rest of the stack. "Here's another complaint from the Minister of Trade for being left off the guest list on Bastille Day. And… that's odd."
"This one is dated from last month. I'll have to have a word with the couriers. It's a letter from Joseph Ducos, one of our foreign emissaries."
Maret snorted. "The junior official we shuffled off to… where was it, again? Arendal? Something like that."
"Arendelle. Actually, sir, the letter is marked both most secret and most urgent."
The minister rolled his eyes. "You read it, then. No doubt the lad Ducos thinks news of the latest goings-on in a petty kingdom is of vital importance to the French Empire, but I have my doubts."
A brief silence came over the office, interrupted only by the rasp of paper or the occasional sip of coffee. Maret finished browsing through the navy's latest set of excuses for their inability to properly police the trade embargo of Britain and tossed the letter aside. But with one glance at Dominic, the minister was given pause by the look of intense concentration on his secretary's face. "What is it?"
Dominic jumped, startled out of a daze by the question. He shook his head, handing over the letter with an expression of mute shock.
Maret's eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me the Norwegians are making more noise about the Continental System." He snatched the letter out of his secretary's hand and began to read.
He stopped. He looked at Dominic. He blinked. And then the foreign minister started reading again, from the beginning.
When he reached the end, Maret placed the letter upon his desk. Still staring at the paper with disbelief, he said simply, "Find me Ducos. Now."
When the foreign minister went storming through the halls of his ministry this time, no one dared say a word. His demeanor was not just that of a man irritated by the weather and the want of his morning coffee. He was furious. The staff on the lower levels of the building were not accustomed to seeing the minister at all, and scrambled out of his path with admirable dispatch. By the time Maret threw open the door to a tiny office on the lowest level of the building's basement, the vicinity was practically deserted.
The man sitting behind the desk in that office looked up, startled at the sudden arrival. Middle-aged, with an impossibly tall nose and short black hair slicked back with a prominent widow's peak, he stared at the minister. A thin, well-groomed beard and mustache framed a mouth that had dropped open into the shape of a shocked O. "Minister Maret!" he gasped. "Please, come in, sit down!"
"What is the meaning of this, Ducos?" Maret waved a wadded sheet of paper in the younger man's face, clenched in a shaking fist.
"Minister? I don't—"
"An official communique of the French Foreign Services, affixed with the seal of our ministry, and stamped for the highest levels of urgency and secrecy."
Ducos' eyes lit up. He practically jumped from behind his desk. "You finally read my report? I had almost feared it lost, to not have heard anything back before now!"
"Read it? I daresay I have! Is this some kind of joke?"
"Of course not!" the younger man protested. "I dispatched that letter from Oslo, hoping to apprise the Foreign Ministry of urgent news while I delivered a prisoner entrusted to my custody back to the Southern Isles. When I returned to Paris with no further word, I tried to make an appointment with you, but I had not yet been granted a meeting with your undersecretary's assistant in charge of scheduling, and—"
"Be quiet, you fool! I don't know whose eyes you're trying to catch, or what promotion you think this drivel entitles you to, but when I receive an official report from a plenipotentiary of the French Empire, I do not expect to read a fairy tale!"
Ducos stiffened with indignation. "Minister, I swear to you, every line of that report is fact. If you doubt me, then ask the representative from the German Confederation. Or Spain! Ambassador Cortez was there himself."
Maret blinked. Cortez had been hounding him for a meeting for more than a month, he'd assumed because of the latest comedy of errors in the Peninsular War. But the ambassador had been more persistent than usual, ever since he'd returned from the side-trip he'd referred to as a "vacation"… a brief journey to attend the coronation of a new queen in Arendelle. Maret stared at the parchment wadded up in his fist with a dawning sense of dread. "You mean… it's true?"
"Every word," Ducos nodded stiffly.
"You're telling me that a girl from a Scandinavian backwater can conjure a blizzard for a hundred square kilometers around herself with magic?"
"Please, Minister. I have met Queen Elsa, she is hardly worthy of being called—"
"WITH MAGIC?!" Maret roared. The tiny glass panes in the door to the office rattled as his shout echoed away down the hall.
Ducos' mouth snapped shut. He gave the tiniest of nods.
"Do you realize what this means?" Maret was pacing back and forth in the tiny confines of the office, staring at the paper in his hand with sheer awe. "She could blockade every port from Southampton to Gibraltar. She could freeze the Royal Navy in its place. Forget the Russian winter; she could trap any army in any theatre on a whim! The emperor would sell every last one of his marshals to the devil himself for one week with this girl at his command!"
"Forgive me, Minister, but I don't think she would—"
"Oh, no." Maret's eyes, alight with the possibilities, suddenly grew pensive. "Don't tell me, have the British already claimed her? For the love of God, man, please don't tell me she's actually sympathetic to those slack-jawed monarchists."
"Actually, I don't think she has any great love for either—"
"She could ruin us, if so… If word got out, whoever held her leash would own the keys to the world itself. Ducos, who was there? Damn it man, stop gawking and tell me! Who else knows about her?"
"A great many officials were in attendance for the coronation. Myself, as well as the ambassadors for the Confederation of the Rhine and Spain, as I said. Some two dozen regional aristocrats and minor nobles—"
"Hah! Of course! No Dano-Norwegian would have any love lost for the British after they burned Copenhagen. It's even possible our old friends across the channel are too preoccupied by the new war in the Americas to have even noticed…"
"Actually, the Irish had an ambassador present, as well," said Ducos. "A friendly sort of fellow, actually."
"What? What on Earth were the Irish doing invited to such a place?"
"Some distant relations to the royal family, I understand. The queen's younger sister has red hair, as a matter of fact."
"Damn it all. If the Irish know, then so will the British. Eventually. It all depends on who they hate more on a given day, us or each other."
"The whole world will know, eventually," Ducos pointed out. He frowned. "Assuming they place sufficient trust in the words of their envoys."
"Don't be snide," Maret said, giving the younger man a sharp glance. "I tolerate my secretary's sarcasm, but you don't make coffee half so well. Who else have you told about this? Who else knows?"
"I have told no one myself, minister. I did not label my report secret only to go telling everyone about its contents. As for anyone else who is aware, I can give you a full guest list to the best of my recollection. There were few foreign ambassadors present apart from those I already mentioned. Only a loathsome prince from the Southern Isles and a young couple from the Coronan royal family."
"We have plans to make, then. Get me that list, as quick as you're able," Maret instructed. He turned and barreled out of the office, thoughts awhirl with just how this new wild card would come into play. "When word of this spreads, the young Queen of Arendelle will find herself with a great many people interested in the fate of her little kingdom."
TO BE CONTINUED
The Snow Queen: Love and Duty