The pykrete ships were an unqualified success. They needed to be constructed differently from a regular ship, with a much thicker hull and an appearance more like a barge than a sailing ship, but given that they cost next to nothing, it was deemed well worth it. Elsa built the ships, while Admiral Pyke oversaw. Mixing the slurry of sawdust and seawater took the bulk of the time, and Pyke had ordered a second drydock constructed just so that they could increase production and take as little of the queen’s time as possible.
“We can add sawdust to the list of Arendelle’s imports, your majesty,” said Pyke with a smile. “We’ll need tons of the stuff to get an entire fleet of the pykrete ships moving goods about the Crystal Sea.”
“Olaf, make a note of it,” said Elsa with a forced smile as she put the finishing touches on another ship. It was difficult to make them look attractive, due to the engineering involved. She’d done embellishments on the first one, and now felt compelled to continue on the others, though it was taking more time than she’d anticipated.
Olaf flipped open a small notebook that he kept with him and made marks with a pencil.
“He’s been following you around much more than usual, your majesty,” said Pyke.
“Olaf has picked up some skills of late,” said Elsa. She turned to the snowman as the last piece of the ship was finished. “Haven’t you?”
“Yes ma’am!” said Olaf. He looked down at the markings he’d scrawled on notebook. “It’s hard to write in a notebook with sticks for hands.” He looked to Elsa. “Can I change them?”
“Change them?” asked Elsa. “You want your hands to be something else?”
“Ice hands,” nodded Olaf with a grin. “Can I?”
“I can make the change, I think,” said Elsa. “We can discuss what you’d like later.”
“Oh,” said Olaf. “I can do it myself, I just wanted to know if it was okay with you.”
“He can do that?” asked Pyke.
“You can do that?” asked Elsa.
“Only one way to find out,” said Olaf with his lopsided grin. He pulled both of his arms off in a way that should have been impossible, and then with a grunt of concentration began to protrude small nubs of snow from the side of his body where the sticks had been. Olaf took a deep breath – absurd, since he didn’t need to breathe and had no lungs – and with closed eyes and a furrowed brow the two nubs extruded icicles, which cracked and branched at the end to form sharp tines for fingers. They looked somewhat like a falcon’s talons. Olaf opened his eyes and looked down at his new hands. “Shiny,” he whispered. He looked up at them, and must have seen something in their eyes, because the hands changed shape, rounding out the fingers to make them bulbous and non-threatening.
Pyke leaned close to Elsa. “He has some of your power,” he said.
“Yes and no,” said Elsa. “By his very nature he would have to have some of it, or he would fall apart the first time he was speared through the face with a carrot. In creating him I gave him incidental access to the power – perhaps more than I’d initially thought.”
“And if you made other constructs,” said Pyke. “They would have the same access?”
“I believe so,” said Elsa.
“Are you still opposed to making more?” asked Pyke. “We lack for sailors -“
“You’ve been talking to the duke of Weselton,” said Elsa.
“We had dinner together when he was last in Arendelle,” said Pyke. “He has a point, your majesty.”
“Where does it end, if I begin creating such things?” asked Elsa.
“They could do simple jobs,” said Pyke. “To man the blige would take no more thought than what the creatures that move the mills display. You’ve offered us a golem for each ship to drive a propeller, and with that we’ll be able to cross the Crystal Sea in half the time, but much of the work on a ship is done by rote, like the loading and firing of the cannons, and if we could have a golem that would manufacture cannonballs of pykrete, we would have room to store much more gunpowder, cargo, or cannons.”
“If it came down to it, I could simply make a construct that fired missiles of ice and forgo the idea of cannons altogether,” said Elsa. “I could make a person of ice that could sink a ship from half a mile away, with no need for the maneuvering of cannonfire. Again I have to ask where it ends? Arendelle exists in a time of peace, and it’s detrimental to diplomacy to appear too threatening. Beyond that, I have reservations about creating new life. I’m sure if you’ve spoken to the duke you know what those reservations are.”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Pyke. Unlike the duke, the admiral knew when to drop a topic of conversation.
When the twelfth ship of the day was complete, Elsa and Olaf walked back to the palace together. It was a much colder day than usual, part of the weather patterns that Elsa had designed for the kingdom. The schedule was posted in town centers, so that her subjects had some forewarning when the weather would be less than ideal. Early in her reign, Elsa had tried to keep the weather sunny and verdant all the time, but the population of reindeer had increased rapidly, and soon thereafter the wolves followed suit. When the reindeer had stripped the woods bare of anything to eat, they began to die of starvation, and when the wolves ran out of reindeer they moved closer to the settlements. It was an important lesson in unintended consequences, and Elsa had changed to the weather to more closely match what was natural for the region.
Aside from all that, Elsa enjoyed the brisk cold. Most of the people of Arendelle had elected to stay indoors, and so Elsa and Olaf walked alone.
“Do you like me?” asked Olaf.
“Like you?” asked Elsa. “Of course I like you.”
“Only it’s just that when you talk to people you keep saying that you don’t want to make more people like me,” said Olaf with a small frown.
“Oh Olaf, it’s nothing to do with you, you’re wonderful, but I worry about just … creating living things,” said Elsa.
“But why?” asked Olaf.
“It’s complicated,” said Elsa.
“I might be able to understand,” said Olaf. He didn’t seem like he was paying attention to her, and instead stared at his new hands as they walked, flexing them and subtly changing their shape to better suit him.
“I consider you a person,” said Elsa. “I made you, and I’m responsible for you. All of the memories you started with, all of the personality, that all came from me, and to a lesser extent the ways that you learn and grow are a result of the mind I gave you. That’s an enormous burden, more than having a child I would guess, because if you do something wrong, or you get hurt, there’s no one that the blame can fall on but me.”
“You’re worried someone would blame you?” asked Olaf.
Elsa shook her head. “I would blame myself,” she said. “The duke talks about creating an entire race of people like you, but that thought frightens me more than I think he can understand. After my coronation, when the blizzard settled over Arendelle, it was a miracle that no one died. If Anna hadn’t come to me to let me know, hundreds of people would have been without food or firewood, trapped in their houses until their froze to death.” Elsa went without speaking for a moment. For the first few months after everything had been resolved, Elsa had a recurring nightmare of coming down off High Mountain into Arendelle and finding corpses frozen solid in every house. “My power gives me a responsibility. It needs to be used in the most cautious possible way.
“If I made a sailor, like the admiral wants me to, would I make him love sailing? Would he have any agency in his life, any freedom of choice? He could make friends easily, or be a loner, he could – I don’t know, he could like to eat pickled beets or hate the color green. And if I make him more organically, and let my intuition guide me, then what happens if he’s unhappy? That would be my fault, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m happy,” said Olaf with satisfaction.
“I know you are,” said Elsa, “And I’m glad. But it’s more difficult than just solving a complicated problem and making people in the correct way. Do you know what happens to you when I die? If I made a thousand people with their own thoughts and personalities only to have them die with me … well. There are good reasons that I haven’t done more with that aspect of my power.” In truth, she sometimes dreamed up things beyond what the duke had ever come up with, creations that she would keep confined to her own mind instead of speaking aloud. Sheets of sentient snow a mile wide that couldn’t be killed by even the largest bonfire, intelligent icebergs that would seek out and sink enemy ships, manufactories with a will of their own that could rearrange their innards to produce any variety of good a person might want. By comparison, men made of ice represented a failure of imagination.
Olaf frowned. “Life is about living, it’s not supposed to be about worrying about the future. We can’t keep ourselves from doing good things just because they might come to an end some day. You make ice sculptures, even though you know they’re going to melt, right?”
Olaf actually had a point. It was the first time that had ever happened. They continued walking on in silence while Elsa tried to mull over her options.
“What do you want?” asked Olaf. His eyebrows were furrowed, and he was staring at her with more concentration than she’d ever seen on his face before.
“Safety and security, for myself, my family, and my subjects. Peace on earth.” If she’d been talking to anyone but a snowman, she was certain that she would have been accused of giving safe answers. She looked around for a moment, and made sure that the streets were still empty of anyone trying to overhear. “Love. Someone who doesn’t shrink back from my cold skin or treat me like I need warming up. An equal, I suppose, though I have no idea who that could possibly be.” She paused again. “Children, or … I don’t know.” She turned to look at Olaf. “Why?”
“Well, I’ve kind of sort of been trying to figure out what I want,” said Olaf. “Goofing around was fun for a couple of years, but now I keep learning all these things, and I don’t think goofing around is really me anymore.”
Elsa said nothing, unsure of what there was to say. She nearly offered to change him back, but she wasn’t sure whether she even could. She’d changed him in ways that were more intuitive than explicit – if she ever did want to make a host of ice sailors, she’d need to have a better handle on creating explicit instructions for them. She reached for his mind, just to take a look, and found it more complicated than before, a five course meal instead of a simple stew. Most days Olaf could be found reading in the library, putting his newfound literacy to use, and that accounted for much of his growth. She wasn’t sure that Olaf had any concept of privacy, but she kept her observation to a minimum.
The duke of Weselton was waiting in the sitting room when they got to the palace.
“I wasn’t aware that you were back in Arendelle,” said Elsa with a smile.
“Always lovely you see you, your majesty,” said the duke. “I hadn’t planned to return so soon, but your sister sent me a strongly worded letter about what ideas I’ve been discussing with you, including those about that marvelous snowman of yours. The letter had quite the opposite effect from what Anna intended, I’m sure.” He had a wide grin on his face. The duke looked to Olaf. “You’ve changed his hands.”
“I changed them myself,” said Olaf with a grin.
“He can do that?” asked the duke with delight. “How wonderful. I wish I could change my form as I desire, to suit whatever purpose I saw before me.”
“Being able to wear what I chose and alter it on a whim has been one of the unexpected benefits to my power,” said Elsa. “Though I can’t say that I would want hands of ice.”
“Olaf, can you change yourself in other ways?” asked the duke. Elsa felt a twinge of annoyance as the duke’s attention shifted.
“What other ways?” asked Olaf.
“As an example … can you alter your own mind? Can you make yourself smarter, like Elsa did when I was here last?” asked the duke.
“Olaf, could you excuse us for a moment?” Elsa asked.
Olaf looked between the two of them. His mouth hung slightly open, and for a brief moment he seemed like his former self again. “‘kay,” he said, and waddled out of the room.
“You like my power,” said Elsa after she’d shut the door behind Olaf. An unexpected chill crept into her voice.
“I do,” said the duke. “Not just for its own sake, but it’s so versatile and surprising. It ties into the deeper mysteries of the universe, don’t you think?”
“You like it too much,” said Elsa.
The duke was momentarily taken aback. “Your majesty, if I’ve overstepped my bounds in some way or said something to give you cause for offense, I can do nothing but offer my most humble apologies to you.”
“No,” Elsa sighed. She worked to bury her annoyance. “I just … I know that sometimes we joke about it, but I haven’t missed the fact that you only come calling when my power is involved, when you’ve thought up some new invention or want to see the result of some test.”
“Your majesty,” the duke began, but it was clear that he had no idea where to go with the rest of that sentence.
“I’m sorry. The only thing you’ve done to offend me is to show some honest curiosity, and that should never be cause for a person to take offense. I’ve been thinking of other things, and you’re unfortunate enough to have caught my ire,” said Elsa. “I sometimes wonder how I can have so much that life has to offer and yet be so unhappy. It seems patently absurd.” Elsa looked towards the window. “Olaf has a bit of my power, but I would appreciate if you refrained from making him the new object of your … enthusiasm.”
There was a knock at the door, which saved the duke from having to formulate a response. Elsa moved to open it, and before her stood Olaf, looking quite proud of himself.
“I did it!” said Olaf. “I made myself smarter!” He looked back and forth between the two of them with the same dopey smile he’d always had, and his face slowly fell. “Is that not okay?”
“It’s perfectly fine,” said Elsa. “The duke was just suffering my bad mood.”
“Your majesty,” stammered the duke, finally spilling out words in a rush. “I don’t know quite what ails you, but if I could assist you in any way, you have to know that I would. If it’s loneliness – if you wish me to court you -“
“That will be enough,” said Elsa. She could feel her face flush. “Let’s not embarrass each other. Tomorrow I will be more myself, and we can discuss anything you wish. I’ll forget what you’ve just said, if you’ll agree to forget everything that’s come from my mouth since the moment I came into this room.”
“Agreed, your majesty,” said the duke with a deep bow.
Elsa retired to her bedroom to think.
The duke had been a friend of hers since he’d taken the title from his father. He reminded her of Anna, in many ways. He would flit from subject to subject and idea to idea, never really giving his full attention to any particular topic. She’d visited his study in Weselton once, and it had been a place of dusty relics from bygone passions and half-finished notes. He was twenty-six years old, and had already started and abandoned three different memoirs of his life.
His offer for courtship wasn’t entirely unexpected, though it was clear that neither of them had a romantic inclination towards the other. Still, they were both of high birth and roughly the same age, and so it hadn’t been entirely unexpected. She had heard that sometimes it was better to take a marriage without any real affection in order to secure the family line, but the thought of the duke touching her with any warmth was nearly laughable, and the family line had little chance of propagation. She could only hope that their friendship hadn’t been unduly damaged by her outburst, nor by his offer.
It had become clear to her that if she had sent Olaf off to live in Weselton with the duke, she wouldn’t see either of them again unless she made a concerted effort to visit. The more she thought about the way the duke had talked to Olaf, the more upset she became. It was yet another reminder of how few solid connections she really had in her life, and how much her power interfered with her having a normal relationship of any kind, romantic or not.
She went to bed thinking of the world, and her place in it.
She awoke to the gentle touch of icy fingers.
Author’s Notes: The fluctuating reindeer population is a reference to St. Mathew’s Island, a semi-famous case study on exploding herbivore boom-bust cycles.
I appreciate reviews, even the bad ones. Heck, maybe especially the bad ones, since they help me know when and why I should rewrite. This fic is about halfway done – the second half moves quite a bit faster.