“Conceal—don't feel,” Elsa told her reflection. “Put on a show.”
Her twenty-first birthday had arrived, and with it, her coronation day. To an extent, it was a day of death as well—the end of a specific life, of her childhood, of her confinement, of what last shred of freedom she had. If she thought she was burdened before, it was a summer holiday compared to the weight of a crown. Her days of hiding had come to an end.
Elsa looked down at her hands, encased in soft, sea-green gloves. The fine silk was fitting for a young queen. Over the past few years, she had practiced control of her powers, and little by little, she managed to build up stronger walls to contain her emotions and keep her magic in check.
Her gaze dropped to the surface of her vanity table and the hairbrush lying on it. She pulled off her gloves and stared at the brush, creating an air of indifference. It was only a hairbrush, an object of no significance. She reached for it calmly, grasped it and brought it to her scalp. As she pulled it through her hair, the handle stayed gold and cool to the touch. When she had finished styling the silver-blond locks, Elsa was pleased to see that the hairbrush was not cold and frosted over. It was a good sign.
Improper as it may have been for the queen to dress herself and set her own hair on such an important day—or on any day—it was the least of the eccentricities that permeated Arendelle Castle. Elsa's potentially fatal magic kept her in fear of harming anyone, even an anonymous serving girl who was unlikely to stir up any strong emotion. Her desire to protect others and to hide her power ensured that nobody could touch her.
Nobody, save for one person whose magic exceeded her own…
Elsa's heart skipped and her stomach flipped at the memory of Loki, the prince of Asgard, second son of Odin the king. It had been nearly three years since she had last seen him, and she had tried not to think about him in that time. Now she was twenty-one, about to be crowned a monarch. Her sister Anna was eighteen, and no longer a child to be coddled and sheltered. Now was the time when Elsa had to think of him, at least to be on the alert. She had asked him to wait, but would he remember? Would he come for her, as he said?
“He might not,” she told herself. She was not sure what she wanted. If he did not come at all, that would simplify things. But if he did…if he came to do what he promised he would do…what then?
Anna would play hostess to whatever guests were still at the palace. She would like that, after living so long in seclusion. Elsa's advisors and regents, who had served Arendelle so well since her parents' deaths, would keep order, as they always had. If there were questions or suspicions about Elsa leaving the kingdom so soon after her coronation, she would say she was making her first diplomatic visit—to the Southern Isles, perhaps, or beyond. No one had to know she was traveling to a mythological realm by means she did not understand.
Elsa looked up at her reflection again and saw that her pale cheeks had turned quite pink. Even alone, she was embarrassed by how much thought she had put into this. She'd had three years to ponder the possibilities, the details, the consequences. She closed her eyes and sighed. She had made plans all in the hopes of carrying them out. She wanted him to come back.
“But he might not,” she repeated. She had not heard from him in all that time. Not that she had a right to expect it, but still…Better to go on as if he would not come.
Styled and dressed, Elsa turned to the scepter and globe on her bedside table. They were perfect imitations of the real ones she would carry as she was named queen of Arendelle. She picked them up now, but without first concentrating and composing her feelings. Anxiety over the upcoming ceremony and her thoughts of Loki tumbled inside her head like foam under an endless waterfall of eventualities. The magic seeped out of her fingers, spreading across the props and coating them in a layer of frost.
Elsa let out a small sound of disgust and quickly put them down. It was no use—not today. She would keep her gloves on for the ceremony. What good was there in being queen if she could not alter a few pointless traditions?
She looked at the clock. It was now or never. She went to the chamber door and threw it open.
“Tell the guards to open up the gates!” Elsa called out.
Her own coronation ball, and Elsa was bored. It was better than terror, sorrow, or any combination of roiling emotions, she supposed. But in her nightmares, the worst-case scenarios were much more dramatic.
She had not imagined such interminable tedium as a parade of dignitaries, nobles, and others of fame and fortune came before her, mostly alone or in pairs. They offered the same congratulations, the same well wishes, the same conversational observations about the ceremony or the palace. A few offered stale condolences for Elsa and Anna's parents.
Elsa recited the greetings, replies, and phrases of courtesy she had been taught, feeling more disingenuous with every syllable. What trick of Fate had made her queen? She stood straight and tall, with a plastered smile, wishing she could retreat to her room again, or ride a horse out to the countryside, where…but it was best not to think of that now.
A trio of sisters had entered the great hall and seemed to be having a quiet squabble over who would go first in approaching the queen. It was unseemly behavior—the girls must have been lower-born, or visitors from a less cultured land. Elsa took advantage of the gap to glance at Anna.
The younger princess was not bored—and why should she be? Faced with more people than she'd ever seen in her life, Anna had hardly blinked all day. She looked tired of standing, and Elsa knew she felt awkward to be in her sister's company for the longest time since she could remember. But Anna watched every approaching visitor with equal fascination. Not so tightly bound by etiquette as the queen, Princess Anna could follow up the initial, obligatory greetings with whatever remark seemed suitable to her. Her warmth and spontaneity charmed visitors where the queen's cool regality failed to enchant, and Elsa was glad to have her at her side.
“Oh my goodness, who are they?” Anna muttered under her breath.
Elsa's attention had wandered after the introduction of the three sisters. She tried to remember what name the footman had announced—or had he announced one? When she looked toward the entryway, the floor seemed to open up beneath her feet.
Two men in exotic, ornamented uniforms came forward. One of them was tall and broad, ruddy and golden-haired as though he were born from the sun itself. The room's many candles and lamps glinted off his silver pieces of armor, and a long red cape added to the fiery effect.
Beside him, slightly shorter and more slender, wearing a forest-green cape over black, gold-studded leather, was Loki. Elsa forgot her rehearsed courtesies—indeed, all language escaped her as the two approached. From the way the green eyes sparkled in his pale face, and the way his lips curved into a wicked smirk, the dark-haired prince was well aware of the impact.
Every eye in heaven and earth seemed to be on Elsa as the two visitors each bent a knee and saluted her.
“Your Majesty,” the golden man said, his deep voice booming through the hall, “I am Thor Odinson, crown prince of Asgard, here with my brother, Loki. We have traveled far to pay our respects to the newly crowned Queen of Arendelle.”
“R-rise…and be welcome, Your Royal Highnesses,” Elsa said, alert and uncertain now that she was going off-script.
As they stood up straight, Thor gestured to Loki. “My brother bears our gift, a gesture of goodwill from the royal family of Asgard.”
Elsa glanced at Anna, and almost laughed. Her younger sister's mouth was ever so slightly open, her eyes the size of dinner plates. Clearly the crown prince's appearance was anything but displeasing. Elsa turned back to them with a genuine smile. “We are humbled and honored by your generosity.”
Loki had dropped his smile during Thor's introduction, but the mischief had not left his eyes. They met Elsa's for a moment as he took two steps closer, and she felt her stomach turn over again, more violently this time. She had been so astonished at his presence that she had not noticed what he carried. He held up a scabbard, just over a foot long, made of what appeared to be burnished bronze and covered with elaborate engravings. At the end of the sheath was the handle of a weapon, a reddish gold inlaid with jewels that caught and scattered the room's light.
“I present to you Villieldr, one of a dozen burning daggers forged by the fire jötnar of Muspelheim,” Loki said. His tone was solemn, but still there was that look when Elsa peeked up at him. She could not long glance away from the gift, though; it attracted every eye.
“Go on,” he whispered. “Have a look.”
Her fingers trembled slightly as Elsa reached for the handle. Loki kept hold of the scabbard as she slowly drew out a long dagger with a treacherously sharp blade. Beside her, Anna gasped. The steel seemed to shine with a light of its own. The blade was warm—even hot—though the handle was comfortable in her hand.
“What could I do with such a gift?” Elsa spoke softly, overawed.
“Stab all your foes, of course,” Thor said, punctuating the suggestion with a hearty chuckle. Elsa looked at him, surprised, and saw a twinkle in his brilliant blue eyes. Yes, they certainly were brothers. She turned back to Loki, who leaned toward her conspiratorially.
“It seemed a fitting gift,” he murmured. “I imagine this could be useful to you, if you ever lose that icy temper of yours again.”
Her magic could not harm him, but for a moment Elsa wondered if her new dagger could. She was not about to try to drive Villieldr through his chest in the middle of her coronation—or at all—but she gave him a squinty-eyed, pinched-lip glare that only amused him more.
“The princes of Asgard are most magnanimous,” Elsa said, trying to recover her ceremonious tone as she slid the blade back into its scabbard. “We thank you for such a beautiful and dangerous token.”
“As I said—a fitting gift.”
Elsa felt Anna's eyes burning holes in the side of her face, and she let herself give Loki the tiniest smile. “Forgive us, your highnesses, but we have still more guests to greet. You are, of course, invited to the banquet and ball to follow.”
She spoke loud enough that the attendants around them heard her clearly. She knew they would see to the princes, and hoped that Loki would not cause trouble. It only just then occurred to her that she had never seen him by daylight—or indoors—and had little experience with Asgardian manners. But the brothers responded only by repeating their bows and stepping away to give room to the next guests. Despite their foreign garments and intimidating appearances—particularly Thor's—they seemed to melt into the crowd.
Elsa could not hold Villieldr for the rest of the audience, nor could she take it to her room for safekeeping. “Gregor,” she called to the nearest guard. “Take this to your captain. See to it that he keeps it safe until I ask for it.” She hesitated, then added, “He is not to unsheathe it—anyone who does will find the blade buried in a much less comfortable location, do you understand?”
The soldier's eyes widened and he nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty, just as you say.” He seemed afraid even to look at the item she was placing into his care.
Elsa felt a mix of guilt and pride as he hurried away, but she suppressed it before greeting the next visitors who approached. Now that Loki was here, it was an even greater strain to resume her repetitious salutations to much less interesting guests. At long last, the audience with the new queen was over, and it was time for the guests to be fed and entertained with music and dancing.
“Who were those men?” Anna asked as Elsa stepped down from her platform and they moved toward the dining hall. “From…Asgard?”
“Yes, princes from Asgard,” Elsa said. “They're sons of Odin.”
“I've never heard of them. Did you know them?” she asked eagerly. Obviously her curiosity had overcome her shyness with her sister.
“I've never met the crown prince,” Elsa said.
“But the other one—the dark one? He seemed to know you.”
“We met once or twice, a long time ago,” Elsa said. “I didn't expect him to come.”
“But when? You never leave your room, not even for most meals. When could you have possibly—” Anna gasped, a drawn-out inhalation framed by smiling lips and flushing cheeks. “Elsa! Do you have a secret lover? Is that what you've been hiding?”
“Anna, please!” Elsa snapped, using the queenly tone she was getting used to. “No more questions. If you want to know more about our guests, you are free to talk to them yourself.”
It was enough to discourage the girl. She bit her lip and nodded, looking thoroughly chastened as she followed her sister to the banquet.
The banquet was course after course of choice saltwater fish, veal, summer salads, fruits from the palace orchards—roasted, fresh, or candied—and sweet pastries. Arendelle had not entertained in over 13 years, but the skill of the palace chefs and bakers gave no hint of it. Anna occasionally neglected her table manners, eager to taste it all, but Elsa was too anxious to take more than a few bites from each plate. Unwilling to talk about herself, she managed to maneuver the conversation to encourage her companions at the table to discuss themselves and their respective countries.
Occasionally she glanced around to see Loki. He and his brother, not formally invited, were not given honored seats close to the queen, but they did not seem offended. The only mishap was when one of the princes—it sounded like Thor—called for more wine and smashed his goblet into the floor. It had made Elsa and most of the other guests jump in their seats before the servants cleaned it up. Elsa clenched her fists for a few moments and willed herself to calm down, dreading the inevitable gossip.
Just when she thought she would be so sick as to bring up all that lavish food, the footmen cleared away the last plates, and she was able to announce the start of the ball.
Unfortunately, the change in activity only brought a new set of concerns. Elsa had been careful not to shake hands or so much as brush up against a guest or member of the palace staff. Now, as a small band was playing, the visitors began to pair off. More than one of them were eager to dance with the new queen, even if Elsa was cementing a reputation for being cool and aloof. In this, however, gossip could not matter; Elsa dared not let any of them touch her. She turned a few down with as much grace as she could manage, and in one of her more playful moments pawned Anna off on the Duke of Weselton. Still, she did not know how she could keep up her refusals. Besides that, she was tired.
She closed her eyes for a few seconds and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, she gave a start. Loki was standing beside her.
“I must say, your musicians are skilled, even if the tunes are not quite to my taste,” Loki said.
“We are lucky to have such talent in Arendelle,” Elsa said. “I've hardly heard any music at all since our parents were lost.”
“Do you always listen to music standing so stiff and still?”
Elsa frowned. “What do you mean?”
Grinning, Loki extended a hand to her. “Would you rather dance?” When Elsa looked down at the pale hand with its long, slender fingers, he added, “You cannot harm me, in case you forgot.”
“No, I…I haven't forgotten,” Elsa said. “But I've already turned down several others, one of them an important political ally, and I'm sure he was offended. If I dance with you…people might talk.”
“It is my experience that people do little else,” Loki replied.
“I'm a dreadful dancer.”
“Then we are fortunate this one is slow.” Without waiting for further argument, he reached for her hand and pulled her toward the other dancers.
Elsa should have been used to being watched by now; she'd had a constant audience since leaving her room this morning. Even so, she was unsteady on her feet and felt nauseated when she caught the curious glances around her. The sensations did not change much when Loki pulled her closer to him and she placed a shaky hand on his shoulder. She felt her energy quell in his hands, and recalled the effect he had. It was one less thing to worry about, at least.
“So, your grace, what do you think of being queen thus far?” Loki asked, still wearing a grin.
Elsa wished he would talk about why he came, but felt awkward about bringing it up herself. “It's gone back and forth between terrifying and utterly dull,” she answered him.
“And which is this?”
“It's certainly not dull,” she said, to which he chuckled.
As they moved across the floor, Elsa chanced a few looks around, but Anna was nowhere in sight. She would have thought, given the girl's reaction to the brothers, that Anna would be dancing or flirting with Thor. But the elder Odinson was exchanging boastful stories over wine with an elderly colonel, surrounded by a gaggle of wide-eyed, hopeful-looking women. Still, was there a need to worry about Anna right now? She had conducted herself well so far, and in this crowd, was unlikely to come to harm.
The tune came to an end, and the dancers lightly applauded the band. Elsa moved toward the throne at one end of the room, intending to sit and watch the remainder of the festivities. But Loki caught her by the elbow before she could get more than three steps away.
“And where might you be going, your grace?” he asked.
“The dance is over,” Elsa said. “I'm going to sit down.”
“And continue to decline more partners?”
“I can't dance every dance with you,” she said.
“You are the queen,” Loki said, “and it seems to me that a queen does just as she wishes.”
“Very well, I wish to avoid war and trade embargoes by not offending my other guests and letting you monopolize my attentions.”
“I do love when you talk politics,” Loki said, his voice almost a purr.
“Of course not—it is the dullest thing in the world.”
“And yet you would seize the throne from your brother and take on such matters yourself?”
“I thought I told you that was all in jest,” Loki said.
“You did,” Elsa said. “I wonder if everything you said was in jest.”
A shadow of bemusement passed across Loki's face and he opened his mouth to speak. Before his first word, however, Elsa heard Anna calling her name. She turned and saw her sister run into the ballroom from the hallway, holding a young man by the hand and pulling him along. Now what? she wondered.
“Give us a moment, would you?” Elsa murmured to Loki.
He nodded and faded into the crowd, as he and Thor had seemed to do earlier. As Anna came closer, Elsa tried to remember who the young man was. He must have been presented to her; he could not have entered the ball without going through the necessary rituals. She silently cursed herself for being so distracted before.
“Queen Elsa!” Anna said eagerly, bobbing up and down in a quick curtsey. Her arm was hooked tightly around the man's elbow, in a way that suggested no intentions to release him. “This is Prince Hans of the Southern Isles.”
Ah yes, Elsa thought. Her advisors had told her about the king there and his abundance of offspring. This Hans has to be among the younger. Elsa wished the two of them would stop giggling and get on with what they were saying, though she had a feeling she would not like to hear it when they did.
“We'd like to ask your blessing…of our marriage!” they finally managed to say between them.
For the second time that day, Elsa felt like the floor was dropping out below her. The sensation was much less pleasant the second time. She couldn't find it in herself to be any more regal, or even coherent, than to stammer out, “Your…I'm sorry, what?”
This has to be a joke, she thought. Maybe Anna and Loki planned this. That's why he left without an argument just now. Anna doesn't even know this boy—she can't be this stupid.
But Anna was not even looking at her now. She and Hans were babbling something about having soup at their wedding and inviting twelve brothers and which rooms they would take. Elsa watched the incoherent dialogue with increasing dread. It did not seem like a joke anymore.
“Anna, wait,” Elsa said, finally cutting through her sister's rapid words. “May I speak with you alone?”
There was that chastised look again, only with more anger this time. “No,” Anna said. “Whatever you have to say, you can say to both of us.”
“Fine,” Elsa said. “You can't marry a man you just met.”
“You can if it's true love,” Anna whined.
“Anna,” Elsa sighed. You're still such a child. She thought three years more would be enough, that Anna could marry, travel, or otherwise live her own life out of the palace. But the castle gates had been open for mere hours, and Anna already had made a hasty decision that could affect the rest of her life. How could Elsa have believed that her sister would be a fully mature, sensible adult at eighteen?
I was. But I had no choice.
“What do you know of true love?” Elsa asked.
“More than you!” Anna spat back. “All you know is how to shut people out!”
Elsa could not immediately hide her shock at Anna's words—nor could she ignore the hurt on her little sister's face. How many times had Anna looked like that over the years, on the other side of the door, where Elsa never saw? She doesn't understand, Elsa told herself. She still doesn't know why.
Elsa's lips parted, and she almost spilled out the truth. Conceal, she reminded herself. Don't feel. Don't let them know. Instead, she said, “You ask for my blessing, but my answer is no.” She could not bear the look on Anna's face and walked away, wondering if her answer really mattered to them.
Evidently, it did.
“Elsa, wait!” Anna cried out. She hurried after the queen and reached for her hand, but Elsa twisted away and the glove came off.
“Give it back!” Elsa said, feeling the panic rise in her chest. Suddenly, she was eight years old again. She gripped her bare hand into a fist, willing it to stay warm and still. Loki, she thought. Where is he? He could neutralize it, avoid the danger…
“Elsa, please, I can't live like this anymore!” Anna said, still holding her sister's glove in a vice grip.
“Then leave,” Elsa said.
Anna stood as still as if Elsa had frozen her in place. She was crushed, and Elsa knew it. The young queen almost took back her words, but maybe it was for the best after all…
When it seemed that Anna had nothing to say, Elsa turned away again. But it was not over.
“What did I ever do to you?” Anna shouted after her. “Why do you shut me out? Why do you shut the world out? What are you so afraid of?”
Elsa reached the door, and her breaking point.
Without thinking, she swept out her arm in emphasis, but her emotions were running too high. A blast of ice burst from her arm, creating a spiky wall several feet high between her and the rest of the room.
Elsa had nearly forgotten the other guests, but now, seeing their reactions, she remembered them all too well. The gentle roar of a hundred conversations was replaced by gasps and shrieks. Amidst the clamor, she heard a man exclaim, “Sorcery!”
Anna and Elsa stared at each other over the deadly spikes of ice.
“Elsa?” she said, her eyes enormous. Once again, Elsa saw a child, the lonely little girl who wanted answers. Well, now she had one.
Elsa's gloved hand reached for the doorknob, and she made her escape. Instead of going up to her room, as she originally meant to do, she rushed for the palace's grand entrance and out onto the front steps. She had forgotten the crowd of villagers gathered in the courtyard, hoping to get a glimpse of their queen. Elsa was sure they had not expected the newly crowned monarch to rush into their midst like a frightened rabbit, but that is what she did.
All she wanted was escape, but once outside, the people began to close in on her with more greetings and well-wishes. Just like in the ballroom, they turned to cries of shock and horror when Elsa backed up against a fountain and froze it with a touch. They began to step away from her, and some of them fled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw guests collect in the front doorway, which she had left open. Among them, Anna was calling her name.
“Just stay away!” she tried to tell them, but even holding up her hands was not the gesture of surrender she meant it to be. More frost and cold air burst forth, coating the columns and floor of the palace entrance with ice. Please, don't let me have hit anyone.
“Monster!” the Duke of Weselton called her, pointing a finger as though no one knew whom he meant.
Trapped and terrified, Elsa looked around at the faces in the crowd. How quickly they had changed from admiration and joy to hatred and fear! Loki…where's Loki? There was no sign of the Asgardian prince, or his brother. She saw only strangers. Men shielded their wives; women hid their children from her. And they were all around—there seemed no way out.
“Monster!” she heard the duke shout again. Elsa took a deep breath and plunged ahead. She won her gamble; the crowd parted to let her through.
Fleeing across the cobblestone streets, Elsa instinctively sought out the tiny door in the wall that she had always used in her excursions into the countryside. As she hurried down the slick stone steps, she heard shouts behind her. She looked down at her feet. Everywhere she stepped, the ground froze. The voices behind her grew louder, and she knew she had no time to run toward the hills. The fjord stretched out ahead of her, the opposite shore invisible in the night.
Elsa touched the toe of her boot to the water's edge. Instantly, the surface froze into ice thick enough to skate on. It was her only chance. After one last look back at her pursuers, Elsa took a step, then another, and finally broke into a run, the stepping-stones of ice keeping her dry as she raced across the fjord and into the mountains.