1 Prologue

After Hans returned to the Southern Isles, his life took a steady decline.

Once that ship sailed into harbor, flying the Arendelle flag, his brothers knew something disastrous had happened. And when they found him in the ship's brig and the representative had told the whole story, even the most mirthful of them grew grim.

The problem was, Hans had committed no crime.

They did put him in the castle's prison for a few days as "punishment", but mostly to keep him away while they figured out what to do with him. Officially, he had broken no law of the Southern Isles. Sure he had lied and deceived, but no one actually ended up harmed by his hand. The queen had left his fate for them to decide, the Arendelle representative said. And they were all quite busy with more important duties than their youngest brother.

Of course, they stripped him of his ranks and titles, eliminated the meager inheritance he would receive. Attempting a takeover by murdering the royal family couldn't be overlooked. Hans became a prince in name only.

He still kept his tiny room in the castle--above the servants' quarters and behind the cistern where waste funneled into the cesspit. By rules of formality, he was still allowed to attend the galas, where he wooed any woman of acceptable birthright or nobility before the rumors began. But before long, he found himself standing aside during the dances, as each duchess and countess whispered behind their fans.

Males of influence avoided him as if he were a contagion. They preferred to deal with his more powerful brothers anyway. But now, diplomats were declining invitations if he was going to be there.

So the twelve brothers did the only thing they could do--send him away. They bequeathed to him a small barony at the edge of their kingdom where the serfs toiled in the humid buggy fields, growing little but turnips and watercress. So many years later, and his brothers still pretended like he was invisible. No better than exiled. The boy that no one wanted overseeing the land that no one wanted growing things no one wanted.

His tiny mansion overlooked the pitiful swath of swampy grass that was his territory. Hans stared out the window of his office at another miserable day of rain. Though it was afternoon, the gray clouds gave the appearance of night, punctuated by the occasional lightning.

"Your soup, sir," said Petter--a middle-aged man with a bulbous nose and porky belly. He was the one servant from Westergaard Castle who accompanied Hans to the mire. (None of the princes kept him from leaving unlike the others, for they were glad to be rid of the permanent garlic stench that clouded his body.)

He placed a bowl of thin gruel on Hans's desk. Hans did not look at it. "Raining again."

"Sir, pardon my asking, but it's been quite some time since you went out. Most barons survey their lands at least once a week. It may do you well to walk among your people."

"Because it's raining, Petter. It's always raining. It will always be raining."

"You staying here, it's draining you. You're meant to be among people."

"That will be all, Petter," Hans said.

"Just because it's a miserable swamp doesn't mean we can't have a banquet. Invite some of the wealthier vassals. I could ask the kitchen to whip up some of those grub delights."

"I said, leave me alone."

Petter paused, then dropped his head and turned around.

Alone again, Hans took a deep breath and stared out the window. Rain pelted the glass, dribbling through the gold frame.

"He's right, you know."

Hans whipped around, ready to tell off Petter for his insolence. But that wasn't Petter's voice. And it didn't come from the doorway. It came from the shadows in the corner, next to his globe and molded bookshelf.

A man stood cloaked in silhouette. All Hans could tell was that he was tall and strong, like him.

"Who are you? How did you get in here?" Hans started for the door to call the guards. He knew of no one who wanted him dead, but not many cared if he remained alive.

"You aren't the same man you were, are you?" the man in shadows said. "You were charming, funny, confident. Despite all your setbacks, you are a capable leader. If only you'd been born in the right order." He clucked his tongue.

Hans stopped and scrutinized the man. His tone had authority, but with a hint of benevolence about it.

"You make one little mistake and poof... life turns on a coin. Ain't that always how it is?" The man shook his head. "Not fair, is it?"

Hans said, "No... it isn't."

The man extended his black leather-gloved hand out of the shadows, embroidered with red and gold. "Want to change it?"

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