It had been a long time since she tasted the sea-salt air of Arendelle’s fjord.
Wreathed in her dark purple cloak, deep brown tresses blowing in front of her smooth face, Viola Mundilfari stared at Arendelle Castle in the distance. Heeled boot clacking idly, she stood at the bow of her ironclad warship, Muspelheim. It was positively Gothic how this gargantuan vessel had appeared on the horizon, her modern cannons bristling like a porcupine’s spikes from her hull. She’d been built with materials purchased from around the world by Viola’s lawyers in secret, and assembled under the shelter of the forest below Jotunheimen Mountains. It had set sail from a cove close to Viola’s castle, concealed from Arendellian intelligence until the moment Viola chose to commission her.
Her superweapon had moved past the mountains beyond the kingdom, and was anchored within firing distance of the palace and the Plaza.
At least twice the size of Anna’s personal flagship, Autumn Cloud, Muspelheim dwarfed any warship in the Arendellian fleet. The only vestiges of the old world on that ship were her three magnificent masts. Make no mistake: this vessel was a harbinger of a nightmarish modernity. Of destroyed cities and weeping orphans. Of world wars.
Viola was supposed to use her private warship to defend her overseas fiefs and assets. But ever since she had entertained Anna at her castle, she’d thought of a much more daring gambit. With the unexpected defeat of her bill for Northuldra in the Great Assembly, she needed to accelerate her cherished goal of putting boots on the ground in the enchanted forest. But Anna had broken her stranglehold over the Arendellian parliament, cutting off for the immediate future a political settlement for invading the north.
Her bill would have legalized a full assault on Northuldra, and now it was dead.
Damn that Kristoff and the support he had mustered in the Commerce Chamber, she thought to herself, grinding her molar. She should have blocked Kristoff’s election to Arendelle’s main trade lobby, whose merchant princes supported a good chunk of ministers and jarls in the Grand Assembly. When it came to the vote between her imperialist bill and Anna’s re-integration proposal, Kristoff’s appeal to the Commerce Chamber persuaded its affiliated ministers to tip the vote in favour of Anna’s.
She needed to up the ante, to show Anna exactly what was at stake.
Viola’s crimson eyes glinted as she imagined what was happening inside the palace. No doubt the government was in utter chaos, ministers scrambling about to get the common riffraff evacuated. The war cabinet would be wondering how they’d been so blindsided, without even a warning from forward scouts. Not a few commanders under General Mattias sympathized with Viola’s imperial worldview, and had helpfully suppressed any chance to report the advance of Muspelheim on Arendelle.
I have eyes everywhere, Anna, thought Viola smugly. So you beat a bunch of old men and women in parliament. Come to me and see how you do.
The countess’s bet was simple. Thanks to Muspelheim’s overwhelming firepower and the Arendellian navy’s unpreparedness, Anna would have no choice but to go to her. And once she was on the deck of Muspelheim, she’d have only two options: watch the warship fire on the hapless kingdom, or accept Viola’s terms. But Viola actually planned to surrender Muspelheim to the queen: an act that would strengthen the government’s military capability a hundredfold. On one condition: Anna needed to promise to deploy Muspelheim against Northuldra. To blow the entire forest to smithereens. Exile its people forever. Flush out its five spirits. And then turn Muspelheim’s cannons on Vakretta.
On Corona. Kill that stupid girl with the insufferably long hair and her guardians.
On Spain, France, Japan, and beyond…
On and on.
Viola would impart to Anna the practical means, the weapon, with which to begin a new Arendellian Empire.
A sailor walked up behind her and saluted. “The cannons are primed and ready for operation, Countess.”
“Remind me how many Runic Knights have joined the party today?” asked Viola, not turning back. “I’m aware my chivalric order has decayed and thinned in numbers.”
“Thirty-two Runic Knights from across Europe have heeded your summons and pledged their lives to you for this day. Your order’s members stand below deck for deployment,” replied the seaman.
Hundreds of years ago, Viola’s ancestors had been granted an extraordinary privilege by Anna’s: to form their own knightly order, something only the royal family could traditionally do. An exception was made for the Mundilfaris thanks to their contributions to the Northern Crusades in the papacy of Celestine III. The Order of the Rune was intended to serve as the shock troops that would invade Northuldra and realize the Mundilfaris’ dream of destroying the Five Spirits, but instead suffered a slow and meandering decline during the Renaissance.
“Thank those old men for coming. Tell them their only job is to stop anyone trying to distract Anna and me from each other. I want her to look only at me,” said Viola, dismissing the sailor with a wave of her hand.
“Once in a lifetime chance, sweet queen,” she whispered, her grin widening. “Make the right choice, and with a single kiss from me, Arendelle becomes a competitor among the world’s naval powers.”
“She’s demented. She’s out of her mind,” raged General Mattias, pacing back and forth in Anna’s throne room. He kept on adjusting the clasp of his white mantle, betraying his fretting and agitation. “How did she procure such a monstrous vessel without military assistance? And how are we supposed to muster the forces we need now? She’s already in the fjord, within firing distance of the palace and Arendelle’s docks!” He swept out his hand. “We’re sitting ducks!”
Honeymaren, Head Liaison of Northuldra-Arendelle Relations, and Kristoff, managing director of Bjorgman House, stared at Anna, who sat on her throne, rubbing her brow. “Everyone’s headed to the mountains,” said Kristoff, who had been responsible for evacuating the kingdom. He maintained a worried gaze on at his wife on that austere throne, wondering how she must feel.
“She isn’t going to fire on Arendelle. She wants to give me Muspelheim.” Anna was in a cold sweat and her hands were shaking slightly on her lap, although she spoke calmly. “The Snow Herald’s message in its morning edition was clear. Vi wants me to save my kingdom by accepting a gift of war. And she’ll expect me to use this weapon on her enemies, including Northuldra. She wants me to strike a devil’s bargain.”
“How dare she threaten the queen,” barked Mattias. “This is incredible. She really is Countess Nutjob.”
“She doesn’t think of it as a threat, but as a gift,” said Anna softly. “In our letters to each other, she warned me she’d force me to make a choice one day. I just didn’t know she had such a scary secret weapon.” Fire was dancing in her eyes. “Were I any different monarch, I might even welcome this warship as a new weapon against our enemies. But I won’t let Vi put me under her spell, to possess and own me,” she breathed, gritting her teeth. “I’m not going to play her game. I won’t stand for Muspelheim attacking my kingdom, but I’m not going to accept that warship either.”
“Still, we’ve been completely outmaneuvered. We’ve got to seize back the initiative. We need to move against Viola in the next half hour. If Muspelheim gets any closer, surrendering would be the only way to prevent horrific loss of life,” said Maren.
“Yeah. Our window of opportunity to counterattack is closing quickly.” Anna looked at Mattias. “Think fast,” she demanded, and Mattias nodded. “Meet Muspelheim head-on with our available ships in the harbour?”
“Nay,” said Mattias. “We’d barely have prepared for the ships to sail before that floating fortress fires on them.” The commander rubbed the ridge of his brow. “Buy time for negotiations with Viola as we prepare a rear attack behind the fjord with reinforcements?” he suggested.
“Nay,” replied Anna, eyes flashing. “The same problem: Muspelheim can overwhelm anything we muster. Giving Vi more time will just reinforce her position.” She stared at her general. “We take a gamble, and send a squadron of engineers with explosives to plant under Muspelheim’s hull?” she floated.
“Too big a risk, if you ask me,” said Mattias. “Viola will notice, and the engineers are completely vulnerable to the long-range cannons.” He moved on to stroking his bearded chin. “One or more small ships that can outmaneuver that monster, with a detachment of our best soldiers? We make it clear we want to negotiate. But should things go south, we arrest – maybe slay – Viola.”
Anna closed her eyes, visibly pained by the prospect. “That sounds like the best way. But these soldiers have to be led by me,” she said grimly. “Vi’s come all the way from her castle in Jotunheim Mountains to issue this challenge to me. I’m the target.”
She raised her hands, staring at them. “It’s just as Chief and Master Nahir said. What I share with Vi is anything but healthy for adversaries. But I can’t look away from her crimson eyes. I can’t stop thinking of her. I can only show her how I’m willing to risk everything for her, even as I resist her power.”
Her hands clenched into fists. “Prepare my flagship, Autumn Cloud. We’re going to sail straight for Muspelheim and board Vi’s ship!”
“You can’t go,” cried Kristoff. “I can’t let you. That’s way too dangerous.”
“I have to. She’ll talk only to me, and she’s probably prepared soldiers to engage whoever she sees as distractions,” insisted Anna. She stared at Kristoff. “If anything happens to me, you take over the throne and throw everything we have at Muspelheim,” she added. “You’ll make a gentle, wise, and handsome king.” Her cerulean eyes shone with a dozen emotions. Her voice was hoarse. Everything was happening so quickly. “You’re so beautiful, baby.”
“Anna,” whispered Kristoff, his throat dry in near-panic.
“Mattias! Maren! Come with me. Gather the strongest twenty soldiers under your command, general. They’ll be joining us on Autumn Cloud.” Anna’s voice hardened as she suddenly stood up from her throne. “Bring me my sword. I promise your training hasn’t gone to waste,” she said, glancing at Mattias, who gave a tense nod. “If Vampire Vi’s looking for a fight, she’s come to the right place.”
“Where you go, I will go. I want to stay by your side, and Elsa wouldn’t want you to fight alone,” said Maren. She struck her palm with her fist. “Let me get my weapons.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second. Elsa will give us strength,” whispered Anna, as she strode out of her throne room with Mattias and Maren behind her. Her eyes stared straight ahead as they hurried down the long corridor of the palace.
“I’m going to take you on, girlfriend, and thrash you back to good sense!”
NEXT: THE BATTLE OF THE FJORD!