The portcullis had already been raised when Anna, Sir Alan, and the newly appointed Minister of Trade, Michael, arrived at Keep Mundilfari. The attendant was waiting, and she curtsied in her frilled blouse as Anna and her friends disembarked the carriage. The coachman petted his whinnying horses, which were exhausted from two days of non-stop riding. “Her Ladyship is in the throne room, waiting for you,” said the attendant.
Rubbing her arms in the midnight cold, Anna glanced at her escorts. “Can they come inside with me, to speak with the Countess?”
The attendant hesitated. “That… that’s for Commander Hilde, Her Ladyship’s right hand, to decide.”
Jackboots could be heard coming from the main door. Moonlight spilled onto the slender but powerful general who emerged. Flanked by two members of her plague-masked death squad, the cloaked Todesschwadron, Hilde stared first at Anna, and then the two men by her side. Her serpentine, gold-yellow eyes flashed in disdain. Her demeanour was colder than any ice storm Elsa could conjure.
“Anna first. Then, those two can join,” she said curtly, the military honours and badges awarded to her by multiple countries gleaming across her breast pocket.
“Excuse me?” cried Alan indignantly. “We come in peace, but the whole point is being here is to make sure you don’t try anything funny.”
“I’ve come to know Viola, but I don’t know you that well, despite our last conversation at Kingdom Hall,” said Michael to Hilde. “And I still don’t know if we can trust you.”
“Oh, you can’t,” said Hilde dismissively. Anna remained calm as Alan and Michael tensed, surprised by Hilde’s honesty. “Your lives depend on whether the Countess asks me to extinguish them. If Anna fails Viola tonight, you gentlemen – ”
She pointed a finger at the knight and the trader. ” – will be leaving this castle by way of being thrown off the ramparts. But if Viola decides that it’s time to bind her family to Anna’s… ”
Hilde turned her back on the queen, and her soldiers dutifully followed. “Then my armies will serve Her Majesty, and be your unwavering allies, Minister Michael and Sir Alan.”
She looked back briefly at the grim-faced trio.
“Well?” she asked, lip curling. “Are you coming in or not?”
“This is unbelievable,” whispered Alan to Michael, as they watched Anna stare at the slowly opening door to the throne room. “What are we supposed to do, just stand here?” he hissed scornfully, glancing at Hilde, who stood behind them silently, hands behind her back. Her frosty aura was suffocating, palpable, almost unbearable.
“Not like we can shake her off,” sighed Michael. “At least we’re here close to the queen, and not locked away in some guest room. We’ll have to trust that Hilde will let us in soon. At least it’s not Anna alone in there with both of them, and we could probably hold off Hilde together if she made any move on Anna.”
“I’m standing right here,” said Hilde, her eyebrow slightly arched.
“I know,” replied Michael, smiling.
“Nein. You wouldn’t be able to beat me. I have my death squad’s members watching you from every direction. I’ve razed small kingdoms and torched cities. I’d destroy Arendelle without a blink of the eye if Viola commanded it.”
Alan glared angrily at her. “You’ve been complicit – no, outright active – in helping Viola get away with literal murder. Arendelle’s in a very delicate situation internationally because you razed the Southern Isles!”
Hilde’s eyes narrowed. “If you think I’d be any less willing to die for Viola than you two’d be for Elsa or Anna, then you don’t understand what the Countess and I share.”
“Tonight’s not the time for our usual banter. Wish me luck, gentlemen,” said Anna. She took a deep breath and strode in without looking back. The wooden door slowly closed in Anna’s wake.
Just before it boomed shut, Alan and Michael could catch the briefest glimpse of two glowing red eyes, seated atop a great throne that rivalled any Arendellian monarch.
Anna stood before Viola’s lithe form, their gazes meeting and glued to each other. Anna gave an awkward smile. “We sure parted on a weird note last time. Ha.”
Viola gave a small smile at Anna’s stammer. “My passion and frustration got the better of me. I apologize.”
“I wouldn’t be complaining about it if you’d been gentler.” A tense silence passed between them at Anna’s poorly conceived joke. “Sorry. Anyway… your note,” muttered the queen quietly. “I have it with me here. Look: you summoned me, and I obeyed. Like a good little girl.” Her aqua eyes shone. “Haven’t I begged you enough? Now it’s your turn to let me in. You say you hate Elsa, but you resemble her so much.”
Viola’s red irises glinted. “Do you know what I’m risking by putting my fate in your hands? By binding Clan Mundilfari’s ancient, millennium-old power to the Crown?”
“You’ve struggled with your inheritance ever since you became the family head. I know that there’s a lot at stake, but if you just tell me – ”
“My soul,” interrupted Viola, leaning over her throne’s armrests.
Anna stared at her. “Huh?”
“I suppose you didn’t expect the dark force we spoke about at Arendelle Castle to be a literal spirit.” Viola took a deep breath. “For a thousand years, the Mundilfari family has been in a demon’s thrall. We’ve had an… arrangement since the Holy Roman Empire, when my ancestors first thirsted for near-limitless power. We sealed our fate in the years of the Northern Crusades, when Pope Celestine III gave us free reign to destroy Scandinavia’s nature spirits. Ever since then, we’ve been empowered to steer Arendelle from the shadows, its monarchs beholden to us. In return, we must be beholden to him.”
She smiled at Anna’s shocked expression. “Do you know the name of this demon?”
“I don’t,” admitted Anna.
“His name is Mephistopheles, an enslaver of souls from the ancient heartland of Clan Mundilfari. Once I pledge myself to you, he’ll know I’ve abandoned my vow to destroy Northuldra and the Five Spirits, including Elsa,” said Viola calmly. “He’ll curse me for breaking the Mundilfaris’ pact with him. And on a day of his choosing – it could be tomorrow, or on my deathbed – Mephistopheles will come to claim my life and cast me into hellfire.”
She smirked bitterly. “Just like in Faust.”
“You’re going to be my Prime Minister,” protested Anna. “I won’t let anyone hurt you – not even this Mephistopheles.” Her gaze didn’t waver. “I have every faith that Elsa can match him. I’ll get whoever can assist in unshackling you from this evil force. I swear it.”
Viola closed her eyes. “Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that after talking with Hilde…” She opened them again, smiling at Anna. “… is that I’d rather die a true servant of the Crown than be seen as a cheat and traitor to you. Whatever you think of my intentions and methods, I’ve always been dead honest with you… perhaps too honest.”
“I know that. And that’s why, in my own strange way, I trust you.” Anna slowly walked over to her. “You and I will always have disagreements about the directions this kingdom needs to take. So why don’t we actually work together to improve each other’s ideas, as Queen and Prime Minister? I make mistakes. I’m never perfect. And maybe we can make each other better.”
As she closed in on Viola, Anna slowly went on her knees, putting her hands on the other’s lap.
“You have a home in my queendom,” she cooed, taking her hand and squeezing. The touch of their palms and fingers together was warm. “Nothing, not even you, can take that away.”
Anna’s words were kind, so kind that they stung Viola’s chest. “Anna,” she murmured, looking down at her as her voice shook.
Anna pressed Viola’s hand to her cheek, and the two women briefly shut their eyes, feeling as if a burden had somehow been lifted, as if things were lighter between them.
“I’ll tell my government that I’ve appointed you Prime Minister. China’s Yixin must know, too: as the holder of this new and highest office, you’re under my direct protection and there’ll be no civil war between us.” Anna’s eyes glimmered. “I’ve got no grudge against Hilde, and I welcome her presence in your life. You two share a bond that’s precious. But I’d like her to be my ally in foreign policy, not my nemesis. If Mephistopheles is the ultimate threat against your life, then let’s build an alliance against him with the Five Elements, including Elsa!”
Viola smiled down at Anna, slowly returning her squeeze.
“My queen… I accept your offer of employment.”
Anna blinked up at her, almost in a cutesly manner. “Do I hear a yes?”
Viola reached down with her free hand and ran it along Anna’s face. “Yes, damn you. I surrender, beloved Anna. Naturally, you should see my considerable resources as your own.” Her lip trembled. “You’ll make a far better liege than Mephistopheles ever could, who’s brought only butchery and misery to my family for a thousand years.”
“Vi!” breathed Anna, her voice one of sheer jubilation.
As if on cue, the door to the throne room opened, and Michael and Alan were ushered in by Hilde. Their concerned faces broke into open smiles as they saw Anna kneeling at Viola’s throne. Queen and Countess rose from their respective positions. “Gentlemen, meet the first Prime Minister of our kingdom: Vampire Vi – I mean, Viola Mundilfari! From tonight, her family and mine are bound by law and parliament. Her power and influence will be formalized and made legitimate, and in return she’ll swear an oath to the Crown, like any other holder of an office of state.”
Hilde smiled for the first time that evening, her beam directed at Viola. “Your Majesty,” she said to Anna, for perhaps the first time. She really meant what she said earlier: that Viola’s acceptance of Anna’s offer would change everything for her as well. “I can be of much service to you without stepping on Mattias’ toes. I’ll need an audience with you later.”
“I look forward to learning from you, Commander Hilde,” said Anna. “Let’s put Hans behind us, and move forward with the challenges I’m likely to face with the lordly powers-that-be under Yixin’s command. I don’t know how he’ll react when he realizes I have no intention of hurting Vi.”
“It’s going to take some getting used to calling you Prime Minister,” admitted Alan, his arms crossed. “Still, congratulations.”
Michael smiled. “I’m so proud of you, Vi. Perhaps this is what you wanted all along.”
Viola looked at both of them with her crimson eyes. “I can see why Anna chose you two to come here with her,” was all that she said. Her voice was somehow humbled yet prouder than it had been for some time.
Naturally, it was much too late to leave the keep, and Viola had the servants prepare supper before sending her guests off to bed. Anna’s heart was singing as she flopped down onto the canopy bed of the Beaver Room, Viola’s guest room for her, the hot chocolate and biscuits having done their work. She drifted off, exhausted, into a well-deserved, dreamless slumber, for now putting out of her head the prospect of angering much larger powers, and also incurring the wrath of a primeval demon. All that could wait.
Tonight was hers and Vi’s triumph.