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Anna and the new dark master of Keep Mundilfari sat across from each other in the castle’s grand hall, eating quietly. The hall was a magnificent room, far larger and more lavishly decorated than the modest stateliness of Anna’s own palace. The estate of Mundilfari was far larger than Anna’s home; with some wings of the complex dwarfing Arendelle Castle.
The hall they sat in tonight was generously lit, with an enormous, elaborate chandelier hanging above the trestle table. Anna and her host sat at the far end near the ornate door, through which uniformed housecarls – all of them young boys and girls – brought fresh food, removed dirty silverware, and poured drinks for the two women.
Anna shifted uncomfortably, watching Viola swishing a glass of red wine in her pale hand. “Don’t be a poor sport, Your Majesty,” said the sinister woman, observing Anna with those unnerving yet mesmerising crimson irises. “Unless you’re a vegetarian, I recommend you try the pheasant. I personally went down into the forests below our Jotunheimen mountains and shot a few for tonight’s dinner. I’ve been thinking about your visit more than the funeral of my grandfather,” she declared, her voice raspier than usual.
“You’ll forgive me if that’s of little comfort. Especially when you murdered the rest of your family to gain leadership of your clan,” replied the queen of the realm tersely. She lowered her gaze, biting her lip. “I thank you for hosting me, but I’m sorry, Viola. I just can’t be nice to someone who’s openly told me that she wants to kill my sister, the Fifth Spirit.” She raised her head, cerulean eyes flashing.
“As long as you threaten Elsa, you’re my sworn enemy.”
“Oh, stop with the histrionics,” groaned Viola, catching Anna by surprise. “You’re blinded by conventionality. Even our old gods of Thor and Loki, rivals that were destined to slay each other at the end of all things, feasted and had many adventures together before that fateful day. That’s one of the many things Arendellians have lost since the decline of the Old Ways, which we Mundilfaris uphold: the art of being a good enemy.”
Anna stared at her. “What do you mean?”
The countess took a sip of wine. “A banquet rushed ends with indigestion. Love made in haste is premature and disappointing.” She peered at Anna, whose cheeks were slightly flushed. “We all want friends and paramours that last us years. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the mortal foes we deem worthy… and perhaps even love and admire?”
Anna shifted uncomfortably. “It feels different, more personal, with you. You and your ancestors have eyed the destruction of Northuldra’s spirits since… I don’t even know. Maybe during the Baltic Crusades, when your ilk joined the crusaders to wipe out most of Scandinavia’s non-Christian traditions? Or even in the age of the Viking longships?”
Viola’s red eyes shone. “At last, you betray curiosity about me,” she said happily. “You can ask your host anything, you know. Perhaps your favoured newspaper can learn from my Snow Herald, and vice versa. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about things of ambition and power.”
“How about this: do you suck blood?”
Viola blinked in shock, stupefied into silence by Anna’s absurd question. “What?”
Anna grinned, a wild thought swirling about in her head. The pickle she was in was so crazy, anyway. “Our meeting suddenly reminded me of some books I’ve been reading. A few novelists are starting to write stories about monsters that drink the blood of innocent people – vampires. They lure their victims to ancient ruins or castles in the mountains, and then seduce them, either sucking them dry or turning them into their night brethren. They’re scary, but writers also make them out to be pretty irresistible.”
“You’re saying I’m the vampire and you’re the innocent maiden, my queen?” asked Viola, eyebrow arched.
“Well, you and your castle look the part,” muttered Anna, stabbing a piece of fresh scallop and chewing. She pointed at Viola with her knife. “Your whole getup – all that dark purple and sumptuous jewellery – doesn’t help, Countess. And those eyes… ” Anna cocked her head. “I can’t lie, they’re scary. But strangely pretty. Like a vampire in one of the books I’m reading now.”
Viola broke into a wide smile, before erupting into elegant laughter. “Oh, Your Majesty!” she chortled, thin fingers on red lips. “You’re full of surprises. Rest assured, I’m no demon or bloodsucker. I’m as mortal as you, despite my fascination with runes and magic.”
Anna couldn’t help a quiet giggle as well, and for a moment, the dinner was suddenly brightened by Anna’s joke and the ensuing mirth.
Viola set down her glass. That glint in her eye again, amidst glowing candles and the dancing flames of the grand hall’s fireplace. She snapped her fingers, and her housecarls began to remove their plates and bowls. “Do you want some coffee? Dessert?”
Anna smiled, shaking her head. “No, thanks. And my entourage should be here soon to pick me up.”
“Ah, yes. They sent me some rather rude dispatches over the past couple of days. They seemed so worried about you. I couldn’t resist taunting them.”
“You don’t want to mess with General Mattias. Or Alan and Michael.” Anna rose from the table. “I’m going back to Arendelle. Siegfried might be holding things together at home, but I don’t want to stay much longer now that I’ve seen you for myself.” Anna laughed again. “I’ve stayed here for two nights already: exactly the amount of time it’s taken my escort to get here. The room you gave me is too many degrees of creepy.”
Viola didn’t look offended. She stood up as well, adjusting her amethyst pendant. “It was Odin’s will that I managed to succeed Grandfather shortly after the Fifth Spirit showed herself in the world. You may not believe me yet, but I’m worthy of you, and you’re worthy of me. Our war will enrich us both in ways we don’t even realize.”
Anna’s eyes shone. “If you’re so keen on seeing me again, I’d rather you visit Arendelle Castle – with Mattias and his soldiers garrisoned nearby, of course. You deserve a welcome befitting your nobility, but I still don’t trust you. I’ll see myself out.”
“No, said Viola, reaching out for the queen and taking her hand. This time, her grasp was a bit gentler than their earlier altercation. “Let me see you off.”
Anna paused for several moments, gazing down at her. “Sure, Viola.”
It was approaching midnight. The countess led Anna down a twisting staircase down the tower that led to the courtyard. Anna had spent the last two days exploring the eerie complex – sometimes with Viola, other times on her own. Wherever she wandered, she found herself in lonely, ghostly hallways or towering parapets overlooking stunning vistas of the mountains and primeval forests. She was sure Keep Mundilfari held many, many dark secrets, some of them probably in stale libraries or dank basements that she didn’t dare to set foot in.
Anna’s escorts were waiting in the grand courtyard, their three horses whinnying. Near the massive portcullis stood three gentlemen: Sir Alan, Michael, and General Mattias himself.
“If you laid a hand on Her Majesty – ” barked the sturdy-looking Michael.
” – we’ll tear you and your castle apart,” finished Alan, eyes gleaming.
Mattias turned to his allies, who were glaring at Viola’s approaching form, and raised his hand. “She looks fine to me, fellas,” said the commander, and the two men slowly, albeit reluctantly, lowered their weapons.
Viola chortled. “You might have earned Anna’s respect and love, but you’ll need more to prove your worth to me.”
“We’re not yours to use,” said Alan. “Our loyalties are to Arendelle and the Crown, not some batty, hateful scumbag up in the mountains.”
Viola shot the men one more derisive sneer, before slowly curtsying to the queen. “Thank you for coming, Your Majesty,” she offered. Even in the blackest night, her blood-red eyes shone like a demon’s. She extended her hand, and Anna reached out after several moments. Viola grasped Anna’s fingers and planted a soft kiss on her knuckles: an act of fealty to the liege, for now. “I’m your servant, no matter how you feel about me, Anna,” she whispered.
“We’ll see,” murmured Anna, ears red. “We’ll see.”
Mattias hurried to the queen as Viola rose and retreated like a shadow, black boots gliding along the stone ground. “Are you alright, Anna?”
Anna nodded, hands clasped. “I don’t wish to talk about it anymore until we get home.”
“We’re glad you’re fine, lass,” said Michael, who was older than Mattias and familiar with the routes of the wilds.
“We were worried sick,” agreed Sir Alan anxiously.
Anna looked at Alan and Michael, smiling. “I’m blessed with wonderful friends like you watching over me, and I’m blessed with a commander like Mattias,” she said quietly, prompting the general to peer at her closely.
“Are you sure you’re fine, Anna? You’re always honest with us, but… you seem a bit different tonight.”
“She’s more dangerous than anyone I’ve ever met. Hans is a pigmy compared to her,” murmured Anna. “Yet somehow, in a twisted way, Mattias, I’m glad I know her face now.”
Her weary eyes narrowed in focus. “Is my carriage ready?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Let’s make haste back to Arendelle. Viola won’t waste time in mounting a fresh, multi-pronged attack on me. Assemble the war council and all our top commanders. I want Kristoff to chair a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce. Call a meeting with the Big Three newspapers, including the editor of Viola’s Snow Herald. And I’ll summon my inner court. Elsa, Maren… ”
She looked down. “They need to know about the Countess. They need to know that we stand at a precipice, and where we fall will shape Arendelle’s and Northuldra’s destinies for centuries to come.”