I hadn’t been inside Arendelle Chapel since Anna’s coronation, and Elsa’s before that. I made my way to the empty pews, passing under the yawning wooden beams that had seen generations of the royal family crowned all the way back to that mistiest of eras, the Viking Age. My finger lightly trailed along the seats’ frames, my bloodstone signet ring gleaming in the afternoon light.
Sitting by the front pew was a hefty, suited gentleman with a generous red beard. He looked straight ahead, avoiding my gaze.
“Interesting choice of a private rendezvous, Jarl Volker,” I said, sitting down in the row behind him. My voice was a murmur, but I didn’t hide the sneer in it. “You could have just asked me to get the Nokk Club’s doorman to let you in.”
“And humiliate myself further, you power-hungry woman?” scoffed Volker. “No thanks.”
I laughed. “When men call me power-hungry, I know I’ve won because they’d never use that as an insult against each other. So, you resigned from your seat in House of Jarls this morning?”
I knew it was a crushing blow for Volker. His clan had occupied that same seat in the Great Assembly’s upper house for almost seven generations. It was also one of the only times in Arendelle’s recent memory that a scion of a “Viking family” – a clan with an even older noble lineage than the royals – had resigned from parliament. These were the intensely private bloodlines that turned their noses up at Elsa and Anna, and had probably done the same to Agnarr and even Runeard. Which made them all the more delicious prey for our newspapers.
“Her Majesty will make sure you get the full pension allotted to nobles who have served their country. A comfortable plot of land in a region of your choice and a generous stipend enough to support your entire family. You’re a family man, aren’t you?” I asked.
“It’s not like I had a choice, did I? With my constituents unlikely to back me in the next borough elections, and that new… Northuldra woman taking over so much of our foreign policy,” he said, unable to mask the contempt and racism in his voice for Honeymaren. “She’s lobbying everyone to block my bill, and if a greenhorn like her succeeds, I can’t recover.”
“Oh, yes. You and your stupid Northuldran ‘foreign influence’ prevention bill, which anyone could see was a naked attempt to humiliate Elsa and stop her from giving Anna state counsel,” I said mockingly. “It does look like it’ll be blocked, won’t it? You don’t have much political capital anymore, certainly not compared to Anna.”
“That Maren and Anna have made me a lame duck in my own chamber. I’m not going to sit there and watch helplessly as those two children run roughshod over the hallowed political traditions of our Great Assembly, which Runeard and Agnarr had a much better sense of.”
“What did you expect?” I snarled quietly, leaning closer so I could whisper threateningly in his ear. “You pushed Anna, and pushed, and pushed, until she and her more loyal ministers – who command a majority in both the Ministers and Jarls, may I remind you – put a full-blooded Northuldran in a position of real damn power in government. That’s what you get for your bigotry and xenophobia, Volker: Maren staring you down from her seat near Anna, day after day.”
“Well, I hope she’s happy. But I’m not offering myself to you and Anna wholesale,” said the jarl. “I keep fighting for my bill until the elections, after which I formally leave and Anna’s ministers can let it die.”
“I need to look like I’m trying to hurt Anna, but the blows will be superficial. It’ll keep my team in high morale until I bow out and someone else takes up the fight for proper government, unlike what Anna is doing. It’ll give you good headlines too – unlike the smears your paper published about me and that Greta woman.”
I blinked innocently. “Was it not true that your wife left you after she found out Greta was your mistress?”
Volker sighed. “How does that news help the public interest?”
I grinned. “How does your rivalry with Anna serve the public interest?”
He finally turned to glare at me darkly. “You know damn well your reporters cast me as an untrustworthy liar. My children almost left me. No one will ever support me for any higher position in the House of Jarls.”
I shrugged. “Don’t pretend you actually care about Greta, or ex-Mrs. Volker. My reporters have tagged you for years, and we’ve known each other since you were a fresh-kid lawmaker. You have a new mistress in the bars around here every few months.”
“Go to hell.”
“You’ll be fine. As long as you play ball, and retire with your remaining dignity, your skeletons are safe… in The Arendelle Guardian’s closet.” I stood up. “Are we kids or what?” I asked, extending a hand. He followed suit and shook it, squeezing me so painfully I thought he’d break my hand. I smiled up at him tensely, staring unseeingly at his beard and beady, angry eyes. His burly size and superior strength was all he had left, so I let that go. He strode down the chapel aisle wordlessly, and I watched him, rubbing my sore fingers.
“The things I do for Her Majesty,” I muttered to myself, chuckling darkly.