“They seemed awfully quiet, didn’t they?” muttered Michael to Alan, as they walked along a frustratingly long corridor, its walls festooned with grand, ancient paintings of figures from the millennium-long history of Clan Mundilfari: popes, kings, grand dukes, princesses, and more. “Especially Anna. Usually that lass likes being the centre of attention. But we ended up talking more with the Countess tonight.”
It was well past ten in the evening. The tall windows of the castle reflected the moonlit dark outside. They had just finished dinner inside Viola’s great hall. Finely suited housecarls had served them fine wine for the entire evening. Viola, like every other night, had told her chefs to prepare a five course meal: tonight’s menu consisted of an amuse of cured Arendellian mackerel with goat cheese, sage, and rich butter, gratinéed French onion soup, a salad of fresh avocado and roasted pumpkins, and ribs with baby garlic and mash for the entrée. After that scrumptious lineup, the meal was concluded with coffee and a dessert of pudding made from lingonberries handpicked in the forests near Arendelle.
Alan shrugged as their shoes pressed against the ancient, ornate carpeting that seemed to go on forever. “I was more interested in what Viola said and didn’t say. She’s a good host, but that comes with the territory. I don’t trust her completely, Mike. Even if she fed us well, I’ll bet you Arendellian kroner that she doesn’t give up her plans for Northuldra… or for Elsa.”
“You’re probably right. I don’t think Anna would be so naïve as to believe the Countess has had a change of heart. Still, you’ve seen how those girls look at each other.” Michael glanced at a standing suit of medieval knight’s armour, perhaps an heirloom from the Mundilfari ancestors of the Middle Ages. “It’s been a while since I saw a bond – maybe even a friendship – bloom so naturally and quickly.”
“Still, the Countess is cruel, arrogant, and stands for things Anna is totally opposed to,” insisted Alan, as the two men passed a set of warm torches that lit the dark corridor. “And she’s got resources. Anna might have taken Muspelheim off her, but who’s to say she doesn’t have other crazy ideas about Northuldra, or the countries beyond Arendelle’s shores?”
When they stopped by a wooden door, he looked down at a scrap of paper, on which was scrawled a note from the Countess. “I guess this is my room for the night.” He nodded at Michael. “Let’s talk tomorrow, when we head back home. I’m getting the creeps, and it’s better to discuss these things when we’re at a safe distance from here.”
Michael “Sure, Alan. I’ll head on to mine. Rest well.”
“You too. Good night.”
Keep Mundilfari had over eight hundred rooms in its medieval complex. Six hundred of them were bedrooms scattered throughout the castle on many different floors, and it became so hard for the housecarls to keep track of those rooms that a few decades ago, when Viola’s grandfather was still the family head, each room was assigned a name just so the servants could keep track of which chambers needed cleaning, which were occupied, and which were in disuse and to be boarded up. Alan had been assigned the “Falcon Room,” and Michael the “Bear Room,” which was apparently two floors below Alan. Michael chuckled to himself – would he get lost within the labyrinthine castle just trying to find his room for the night? It wasn’t such an outlandish idea.
For her part, Anna had been given the “Beaver Room,” which was actually the grandest bedroom in the castle. It had a humongous canopy bed and a miniature living room of sorts before the chamber’s warm fireplace: a marble dining table and oaken chairs, a comfortable couch by the balcony through which the cool mountain wind blew gently in, and a great mirror with a long, mahogany dressing table. Anna didn’t feel like she needed to bathe after her spa dip – she enjoyed the smell of the bath salts on her skin anyway – and dressed into her green nightgown. There was a candle-lit chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Beaver Room, but there was also a silver candlewick holder by her bedside table. She was about to blow out the flame when she heard a gentle knocking. “Come in,” she called, and the door hinges creaked, revealing a stunningly beautiful Viola in a black, laced nightgown. “Vampire Vi,” said Anna, her pensive face breaking into a broad smile. She moved clumsily to the side of her great bed and patted the mattress. “Sit with me.”
“Is everything well-appointed and to your liking?” asked Viola, who evidently had gotten used to the new epithets Anna conjured for her. She shut the door and walked over. She held an ivory brush and her own candle wick, which she set on the bedside table beside Anna’s.
“Everything is great. I had a fantastic time today. Tonight’s dinner was so good.” Anna felt Viola sit down beside her. “Don’t worry about Alan. He just cares about me, and I don’t blame him for remembering how you and I just recently fought each other.”
“His skepticism is healthy. It’s not like I’ve changed my mind about Northuldra – or Elsa.”
Anna peered at Viola upon hearing those words, frowning. “You have no idea how disappointed I feel when you say that.”
Viola held up her brush, ignoring her. “I’d thought of braiding your hair, as we discussed, but I suppose you’d prefer to get some rest.”
Anna’s hair was already undone, draping over her shoulders. “Can you brush it anyway?” she asked.
Viola shuffled behind Anna and sifted her fingers through the red tresses, running the brush gently among them. “You were quiet at dinner tonight,” she noted. “If I made you uncomfortable at the spa – ”
“No, no. If anything, I felt weird for so much of today because the time I’ve spent with you is so unlike the first time I was here – when I was confused, indignant, and angry. Well, I was fuming because you insulted Northuldra and Mother,” said the queen drolly. “But you were posturing back then. I was too, if I’m honest with myself. But now…” She glanced back at Viola, who was smoothing out her hair attentively, her hands remarkably gentle. “My door is open to you.”
“You’re the first person who’s ever treated me so tenderly, my queen,” said Viola fondly. “You’re a precious soul. I know that in my heart of hearts.”
She paused her brushing, before Anna heard her taking a deeper breath than usual. “Vi? What’s wrong?” she asked anxiously.
Anna had to wait several seconds before Viola spoke again. “I shouldn’t be revealing my plans to you, because information is power and giving you so much would be self-sabotage. But…” Anna shifted around, looking up, and Viola was staring down at her, red eyes glimmering. “I’ve summoned one of my lieutenants to Arendelle, and she should be arriving in a few weeks. My counterpart to your General Mattias, so to speak. This lady will be your next great test, among others, to come.”
Silence passed between them again. Then, Anna reached up for Viola’s face. “Why?” she moaned, her voice choked.
“You didn’t really think Muspelheim was my only card, did you?”
“No, I mean… why must you and I fight?” said Anna sadly, cupping Viola’s cheeks in her hands.
Viola’s eyes fluttered shut briefly, savouring Anna’s touch. “Because I’ve sworn a sacred clan pact, which my Viking honour and lineage demands that I fulfil. Could you suddenly abdicate because things got too hard? No, you’re not a coward like your sister.”
“Bull,” whispered Anna, not releasing Viola. “It’s not me who has to renounce Elsa or Northuldra. It’s you who needs to let go of… this ancient madness. Imagine!” she continued, drawing closer, until their breathing warmed each other’s faces. “Imagine the team we’d make, what we could do together with Elsa.”
Those red eyes opened again and glinted. “Nothing has changed since we first met, Anna. Except perhaps that should I be defeated by you, I probably wouldn’t be as angry as I expected.”
“That’s heartbreaking to hear, Vi. Stop it.” Anna lowered her hands and crossed her arms as she realized there’d be no convincing either party tonight. “I wish you didn’t tell me any of this.”
“Consider it a little handicap on my part.”
“Don’t insult me. I don’t need a head start.”
“Not what I meant. The handicap is my heart.” Anna started as Viola took her hand with both of her own, gently planting a tender kiss on it. Her lips were soft to the touch. “A heart that is softening unreasonably for you.”
Anna lowered her head sorrowfully. “You can’t do this to me. This is torture for both of us.” She turned away. “I want to go to bed. I need time to think alone. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” said Viola, slowly withdrawing. She took her candlewick holder with her, gazing at Anna as the queen flipped over to her side and pulled the covers over her body, staring at her host. “Sleep well, my queen,” offered Viola.
“Well, I don’t think I’ll be able to now, thanks to you,” said Anna reproachfully.
For the first time in perhaps ever, Viola looked ashamed. “I’m… sorry.” It was a calm apology, and she quietly closed the door behind her.
Anna didn’t get any sleep whatsoever that night.
By all rights, the queen of Arendelle’s visit to Keep Mundilfari was a real treat, a success by every measure. Even Alan had to admit that they had experienced a smooth trip there and back. Yet Michael couldn’t help observing that Anna was in a worse mood than when they had arrived. Something had happened to the two arch-rivals. But as the four-horse coach left the portcullis and departed from the castle, Michael knew that it was more complicated than a simple political dispute or argument. Notably, Viola didn’t see them off like last time, and Anna looked up at the castle spires with a melancholy and longing Alan and Michael had never glimpsed before.
The queen was silent once more throughout the journey home, and she’d be immersed in her own thoughts upon returning to the palace. She’d been doing quite a bit of brooding since she’d met the Countess.
It was to be the calm before the storm.
“I just wish I’d met you somewhere else.”