It was the first time since the Battle of the Fjord that Anna had visited Keep Mundilfari. Like before, it was two days’ journey by coach across windswept, cold, narrow paths and craggy peaks. The four-wheeled carriage that made its way to the castle was three-strong, with Anna’s retinue including her close friends Alan, who’d been knighted by the queen some months ago, and Michael, a logistics entrepreneur and family friend.
Sitting in the carriage beside each other, the two men remained in silence for much of the bumpy trip, mindful of the clashing, contradictory feelings coursing through Anna’s mind as their date with the powerful countess drew closer. They could only observe Anna’s thoughtful face as she stared out at the changing scenery, the lush forest canopy gradually opening up to a grey, grand sky.
The last time Anna came to Viola’s home, the noblewoman had revealed herself and her family as the premier political force in Arendelle, rivalling only the monarchy itself, and since then both women had clashed directly and through proxies in Parliament and the press. There was also the small matter of their first battle against each other, the first crossing of their swords. Yet through their deep-rooted ties to Elsa and the ancient past of Arendelle, something more had grown between them – something tender, vulnerable, and mutual.
What this was, Anna wasn’t exactly sure, and neither she nor Viola could articulate it. But she didn’t want to let it go.
The carriage stopped before the mighty portcullis that had boasted of Mundilfari prestige and power for hundreds of years. The chains began to groan and turn, and the jagged gate began to rise, like a beast stirring from hibernation. The coachman spurred on his horses, and Anna once again found herself in the magnificent courtyard of Keep Mundilfari, which was large enough to function as a village square. Anna was dressed in her much more casual attire, a tomboyish getup that combined Kristoff’s jacket and sash with high boots and a flowing green dress. She, Michael, and Alan hopped out of the carriage to see Viola standing before them, as darkly beautiful as ever in her imperial purple cloak and figure-hugging black outfit. Her frilled necktie accentuated her patrician elegance. Her blood-red irises gleamed as she stepped forward. “Welcome to my home,” said Viola, and there wasn’t any sarcasm in her voice.
Anna smiled uncertainly, nervous for the first time. “Hey, Vi.”
They stood in silence for a few moments, unable to speak, like two girls trying to make up for fighting over a boy. Alan and Michael glanced at each other awkwardly. Then Anna moved forward, genuinely concerned. “Are you hurt? From… our battle.”
Viola cocked her head, smiling at Anna. “My stomach was bruised badly from those nasty hooves of the Water Spirit’s. Notwithstanding all the swimming I did to get back to shore, and the actual fight – I’d say I’m lucky to just have muscle aches all over.”
Anna looked down, her eyes worried, and Vi’s smirk broadened. “You fought well. Truly. Although your decision to decommission Muspelheim and reconvert her parts is a crying shame to me, to the victor the spoils. I was no match for Elsa, but it was you who I truly lost to. If you can resist the temptation of a great weapon like Muspelheim, and so willingly dance a death with me, it doesn’t look like I can get my way so easily.”
Alan, the more suspicious of the two men of Viola’s intentions, nodded tersely. Michael stepped forward. “I hope you understand we come in peace today.”
Viola sniffed. “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be past that portcullis.” She turned to Anna. “They seem like decent fellows. Didn’t I see them ‘rescuing’ you from me last time?”
“They’re far more than decent,” said Anna at once. “I trust them with my life, so play nice.”
Viola gestured to her housecarl. “See to it that Michael and Alan are appropriately entertained and fed until Anna and I are back from the geothermal springs.”
The housecarl nodded and moved to take the luggage inside the carriage – they’d be staying the night. But Alan protested: “Wait, wait. We should keep watch and be by Her Majesty’s side in case you try anything funny.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” replied Viola, wagging a slender finger at Alan. “You aren’t stealing a peek on our Junoesque bodies. I told you already, two letters ago, Your Majesty,” she said. “My personal spa is nearby, carved out of a primeval caldera that holds some of the most delightful and therapeutic hot water in Northern Europe. It’s an outrage that you, the queen, don’t have your own in Arendelle. We’re going to soak ourselves until our fingertips look like raisins.”
Anna flushed. “I brought a towel,” she muttered.
Viola tittered, taking Anna by the arm as she fluttered her eyelashes at Alan and Michael. “I shall have plenty of time for you gentlemen later,” she called, leading Anna away. “Keep yourselves busy while the queen and I entertain each other.”
Alan looked at Michael, who smiled in amusement. “The countess is quite the character,” chuckled the businessman.
“A front to keep us off our guard?” said Alan quietly.
“Maybe, maybe not. But she’s not wrong – this castle is huge, and with her servants watching us, we’ve got little choice but to wait for their return.” Michael jabbed a thumb at the great castle spires before them. “Let’s explore.”
“So this was what you’d planned for me today,” said Anna happily, her towel wrapped around her thin figure. She was standing in the cold open air, with a magnificent view of the jagged mountains before her. The spa was located a short distance from the castle, between the mountaintop and the forest estate below, but still high above sea level. She’d set aside all her clothes, and her toe dipped gingerly into a small, circular pool of extremely hot but soothing water.
It had been years since she’d properly enjoyed one of these hot springs, and it felt almost painful to adjust to the heat.
Viola emerged from behind a large rock, her towel also hugging her otherwise naked form. She walked over to the pool, dipped a dainty toe in, and stepped into the spa, exhaling slowly. “It’s better to submerge yourself at once, not bit by bit,” she advised. Soon she was floating in the hot water, her pale cheeks flushed red and dark brown hair damp. “Join me, Your Majesty.”
Anna resisted the burning sensation as she stepped in, allowing the water to slide over her midsection, torso, and then her freckled shoulders as she shut her eyes tightly, adjusting to the heat against her skin. “Hot hot hot hot hot,” she groaned.
“You’ll get used to it in a few minutes, and you won’t want to leave for hours,” assured Viola, submerging herself. “Not with this view, and this cold, crisp fresh air.” She gestured out to the mountains with a willowy, dripping arm. “Behold.”
Anna beamed, looking out at the Jotunheimen range, which was wreathed in mists and clouds. “You’re right. It’s beautiful.” She glanced back at Viola as she undid her bun, allowing her red hair to fall into the water. She met Viola’s gaze, blinking innocently.
“So here I am. Deep in enemy territory with no clothes on.”
Viola said nothing, gazing at Anna with a small smile.
“You know I used to have pigtails?” said the queen, giggling.
Viola’s smile widened. “Really? How childish!”
“I kept the look for years until I went to Northuldra with Elsa. I’d suggest you braid my hair to see for yourself,” said Anna, kicking out her legs and doggy-paddling toward the pool’s centre. She looked back. “But I’m soaked already.”
“Maybe later, when we’ve dried ourselves and you’ve settled in comfortably. You’re sleeping over,” replied Viola. She’d been sitting at the edge, adjusting to the heat, but when she noticed that Anna wasn’t moving towards her, she floated to her instead. Apart from the squawking of crows in the sky and the mild splashing of their limbs, it was dead quiet.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Anna worriedly, turning around, closer and more exposed to the countess than she’d ever been with anyone else, except Kristoff himself. “I mean… to be kicked in the tummy by the Nokk…”
“I’ve taken my beating in good stride. Don’t worry about me,” insisted Viola. The queen felt the other’s fingers lifting up her wet locks, and the young women fell silent, Anna waiting in shy silence as her host slowly, admiringly, sifted through her hair. “Stop feeling guilty about victory, because I won’t.”
Anna averted her gaze, mindful of Viola’s crimson gaze wandering over her rosy, dotted face. “I never meant to hurt you. But you tried to force my hand. That’s why I meant it when I offered you my life, if that’s what it’ll take for you to abandon your designs on Northuldra. On empire.”
“I thought we weren’t discussing politics this time,” breathed Viola, her expression whimsical as she continued to run her fingers through Anna’s tresses.
“You started it,” sighed Anna quietly, feeling her body relax in a way she’d not thought possible since she’d taken the throne. Viola was right. The water now felt warm and wonderful. She felt lightheaded. Beads of humidity and sweat slid off their skin. “As long as you mean Elsa harm, I’ll always stand between you and her.”
“You’ve been quite the obstacle,” murmured Viola, her own ivory face flushed and red. She felt Anna taking hold of her hand, and she didn’t pull away. “I admit: you’re not just bravado.”
Anna looked at Viola slyly, her aqua eyes glinting. “Right now, I am.” She gazed at Viola’s pale palm and then her thin fingers, running her thumbs appreciatively along her knuckles. It was remarkable that these frail, unworked hands – typical of an aristocrat’s, nothing like Kristoff’s big, calloused ones – held a sword just a few weeks ago and had bested Maren and her best commander, Mattias.
“You’re a scary woman, Vi,” she whispered. She let out a hot breath, as did Viola. “You don’t actually hate Elsa, do you? Before the Battle of the Fjord, you’d never even met her. It takes a lot of energy to hate someone, and even more to act on that hate.”
Viola stared at Anna for a few moments, before gently pulling away and rising from the pool. She hugged herself as Anna stared at her curvaceous legs. Why did Anna feel like she was getting déjà vu? It was as if she was standing behind Elsa in her ice palace.
“If I hate my enemies, I feel like I have some control, agency, responsibility. Without hate, I grow weak,” declared Viola.
“Hate is what kept you going so that you could survive and become your clan’s leader. Fair enough. But you don’t need that with me.” Anna rose from the spa, the cold air hitting her wet form and prompting a shiver. She gently took hold of Viola’s arms. “I don’t hate you at all. I know you don’t hate me because you brought me here with you. And I don’t believe you despise Elsa, because Elsa’s eyes reflect my soul.”
It was Anna’s turn to stare at Viola’s ivory-like, rounded shoulders, her own hand wandering up to playfully twirl a lock of brown hair. “What are you hiding? Tell me. Let me help. I’ll do anything.”
“Please, Vi,” said Anna, voice shaking. “You and I – we have to try. My kingdom has become a playground for our political wars even as we’re drawn to each other.” She smoothly turned Viola around to face her, and Viola’s feet obliged. She bit her lip. “Can’t you see we’ll hurt each other big time?”
Viola looked at Anna’s beautiful, flushed face sadly, but the sadness was only for a second, before she lightly tugged at Anna’s hand, silently requesting that she let her go. Anna did so at once, and silence came between them. Water dripped down their towels and slid down their wet bodies.
“I’m doing my best, sweet queen,” said the countess quietly. “I don’t want to lose this either.”
Anna blinked, before nodding uncertainly. Silence passed between them for several awkward seconds before Viola spoke again. “I’ve had enough. Let’s return to the Keep.”
“Sure… whatever you say, Vampire Vi,” she said hesitantly.
Michael’s leather boots tapped lightly on the cold stone floor as he walked into a beautiful and spacious drawing room. It was gothic and grand in its ambience, with an elevated roof and elaborately carved pillars, and extremely well-appointed, with a comfortably crackling fireplace, leather couches surrounding an entertaining table with several chess boards, and shelf upon shelf of books. A housecarl stood at attention near a large cabinet of well-stocked and well-aged wine. All around Michael hung portraits of past Mundilfari family members and oil paintings of grand landscapes like the North Mountain and the Arendelle fjord.
In the centre of the room was the main attraction: a grand piano that Viola had purchased from an Austrian duke a few years ago. Dressed once more in her elegant costume, Viola’s dark brown tresses were slightly damp from her dip with Anna. Her cheeks were still rosy. Her red eyes gleamed, reflecting the setting sun as her fingers ran confidently along the melodious, crisp keys to Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 4.
She looked at Michael, not skipping a beat. “My spa is yours to enjoy. The queen and I had a good soak.”
“She’s talking with Alan now,” said Michael, chuckling. “When we saw you return, there seemed to be… electricity between the two of you. Did something pleasant happen?”
Viola continued playing, her eyes returning to the piano.
“Anna tried to show you how much she cares for you.” Michael paused, before adding: “I came not just to accompany the queen. I came because I also care about you.”
Viola’s slender fingers glided along the keys like a swan on a lake. Her eyes fluttered open briefly to peer at him. She didn’t say anything, but neither did she stop playing, so Michael continued: “I’ve known Elsa and Anna for a long time. I’m like an uncle to them. I’m not a sage, but I’m wise enough to recognize domestic unhappiness and family neglect when I see it. That’s what the sisters suffered through for the greater part of their childhoods. Anna told me about what you did and said at the Battle of the Fjord. I think that life you lived here was no life at all: you experienced only anger, jealousy, rage, greed, and lust for power – everything except love.”
Viola finished the Étude, and switched to Debussy’s Clair De Lune. The melancholy piece resonated through the drawing room.
“There’s a little girl inside of you who is crying because she was never loved by her family. But I know that the queen you and I so admire offered you a genuine love from the first day you met. And ever since then, from you and her writing back and forth, that warm ember has been glowing ever brighter.”
“You’re quite poetic for a businessman,” observed Viola, fingers dancing on the keys.
“Anna and you can be more than friends. You can be almost like surrogate sisters. Iduna, the late queen mother you have such contempt for, once said that Anna’s love could hold the world. And it wouldn’t just be Anna. You could have a family,” said Michael, gesturing around the drawing room. “I mean, all this… grandeur… if there’s no love in this great castle, what’s it worth?”
Viola stopped playing, staring at her hands. “There’s my family’s legacy. That will always be there, no matter what love I receive… or give.”
She stood up from her piano, gazing at Michael. “When you and Anna are here, I want you to simply enjoy my company – and I yours. To agonize over what could have been, or what should be, will only inflict more pain,” she said cryptically. “Come, uncle of the Diarchy. I wish to summon Anna and Alan as well. Soon it’ll be sundown. Dinner will be magnificent.”
TO BE CONTINUED WITH: A HAUNTING SLEEPOVER!