“Did you read that interview with Her Majesty in The Arendelle Guardian? There’s a whole cohort of Northuldra kids coming to study at our university…”
“I think tariffs on seafood imports should be higher on the Japanese Shogunate, given their salmon harvesters’ competition with ours…”
“Does Jarl Sigurd’s wife know that he’s got a new plaything? His new squeeze adores him…”
“The Countess should take the Philharmonic to Vienna, the Austrians are top-notch musically…”
“Russia’s navy has been making some worrying moves along the Baltic…”
This was only some of the preening, intentional gossip that could be heard among the long line of guests excitedly crossing the plank aboard the queen’s waiting flagship.
Everyone was decked in formal Arendellian garments, from fine evening dresses and sumptuous jewelry to three-piece tuxedos. Ironically, it was Anna who deliberately dressed down in deference to the prime minister’s special night. Her hair was done up in a simple bun and she was wearing her favourite short blazer, patterned waist sash from Kristoff, and a long green dress complemented by sharp black boots. She preferred this more practical outfit over her queen’s getup, anyway. She stood by the port gunwale, greeting each guest personally as they walked up the plank onto Autumn Cloud. Holding her hand was Princess Danielle, a royal of eight summers. She had been abandoned by her birth parents, and was staying in Arendelle Castle after becoming Elsa’s ward. She had only started attending Arendelle Girls’ School, to where she’d been sent by Anna at Vi’s suggestion. “This looks like a really fun party, Auntie,” she said, looking up at Anna.
The queen beamed down at her. “It does. You look beautiful in that splendid orchid dress.”
Autumn Cloud was waiting to set sail, her main deck filling with standing guests assembled for a night of fine alcohol, revelry, and tittle-tattle befitting a party that summoned the entire Arendellian establishment. There were barrels serving as tables on deck, with a variety of delicious cake, fruits, and drinks waiting for attendees. A barman from the Lonely Reindeer, one of Arendelle’s most popular taverns, served beer and ale, and there was a cabinet set aside for fine wines from France, spirits from Russia, and whiskey and gin from Scotland.
“We’re ready to set off, Your Majesty!” came Mattias’ voice, who was standing just outside the captain’s cabin. The general wore his usual dark green military uniform, but had his white robe ceremonial robe draped around him. He had to shout amidst the rapidly filling deck, trying to reach Anna between conversing merchants, aristocrats, journalists, and ladies. Anna looked up at the main mast, smiling, and nodded. There was a great bellow from the chief mate, and the assembled guests cheered and whooped as all five of Autumn Cloud’s sails began to blow in the breeze, signalling the vessel’s launch. The party was officially in full swing.
Autumn Cloud sailed slowly and gently, her pace allowing the guests to drink, eat, and talk without feeling seasick. The sun was setting when she unanchored, and the late afternoon sky turned that of a cool and comfortable night as the ship sailed some distance from Arendelle Castle.
A perfect evening.
Under the bright moon, Anna left Danielle with Mattias and weaved among the crowd, smiling and nodding her head almost every few seconds. Candle chambersticks on the barrels provided sources of light. A pleasant wave at this jarl, a handshake with that executive of Kristoff’s Bjorgman House, small talk with a senior minister, and so on. Rinse, wash, and repeat. Anna took a sip of champagne from a waiter’s tray, but put it back, making a face as she smoothly saluted a portly director of the Bank of Arendelle, laughing at his joke even though she didn’t really get it.
Anna gazed across the deck at Kristoff, who was talking with Michael, the new trade minister. Bjorgman needed a strong voice within the Arendellian parliament, and Michael helped articulate that voice for Kristoff. Her fiance noticed her from the corner of his eye and winked. Anna grinned back, enjoying the sight of her beau in the three-piece suit that he hated wearing.
“You’re hot,” mouthed the queen playfully, blowing a kiss at him.
And there was the knighted Alan, talking with Nahir al-Adil, her new business ally and investor in sustainable entrepreneurship. William Tutore, a family friend and member of a legendary guild of assassins and bodyguards, had just finished speaking with Honeymaren. She looked especially beautiful in her Arendellian blouse, and she was surrounded by women and men alike, who fought to win her bemused attention. Anna passed by and clapped a hand on Maren’s shoulder, who turned around and uttered a brief greeting before going back to fending off her admirers.
This was the social grind of a monarch. They were all here. This was the party for the insiders that lorded over Arendelle. The ship’s main deck was now stuffed with the influential and incestuous, all eager to suck up to Anna and lobby her new prime minister. The only thing that would have made this party even more significant was Elsa’s presence. Her name was still spoken of almost reverently in Arendelle’s circles of power: she wasn’t just a Queen Emerita, an elder stateswoman, but the bridge between humanity and spirits.
Anna made her way among the throng to the quarterdeck, where Vi stood with Commander Hilde in all their dark glory. Vi was enwreathed in her purple cloak, in her familiar noblewoman’s garb, while Hilde’s multinational badges and military decorations glimmered at her breast pocket. They were observing the revelling guests, talking quietly between themselves. Anna strode up the steps and stopped before the Countess and her commander. She looked at Vi almost sheepishly, feeling as if she were interrupting something private. “So. Whatcha think?” she invited nervously. “I really hope this is up to your standards. I mean, I love hosting, but I’ve got none of the class and style that – “
Anna stopped as she felt Vi’s elegant hand on her arm. She stared at the Countess’s imperial purple nail polish and looked up, gazing into Vi’s red eyes. “You’ve gone far above and beyond what I’d expect,” said Vi softly. “This party is being held aboard your flagship. There can be no greater honour for a servant of the state than to be hosted by her sovereign in such a way.”
“Really?” asked Anna, blinking.
“Certainly.” Vi smiled, her sharp lips curling into a genuine smile. “I’m a woman of my word. You’re my – no, our leader. This is your function, and you’ve managed magnificently,” she said, surveying briefly the chattering crowd on the main deck.
“If I may say so, Your Majesty,” added Hilde, glancing at Anna, “Her Ladyship is fond of getting things done rather than exulting in pomp and ceremony. So are you. In that respect, you’re both of one mind. There’s no need to worry about whether Her Ladyship is happy with your entertaining.”
Anna beamed at Hilde. “Thanks so much, Commander. Have you had a chance to meet my general, Mattias?”
Hilde gave a small smile. “Oh, yes. We are… different.”
Anna winced. “Opposites attract kind of thing?” she asked hopefully.
“Not exactly,” replied Hilde.
“It doesn’t mean I won’t work with him,” clarified Hilde. “But we have some way to go in understanding each other. Perhaps I can talk with him further over a game of chess.”
Down in the cramped kitchen of Autumn Cloud, the chef and his aproned assistants worked feverishly to finish the entrees for the guests (tonight’s highlight was roast pork with fresh garden vegetables). They had completed the first round of twenty servings when the wooden door opened, and one of the assistants looked up from his chopping board, eyes falling on an intruder. “Oi,” he barked almost automatically, “the bathroom ain’t here – ” But then his eyes fell on the female figure in a grey hood, her outfit resembling more a hunter or ranger’s camouflaged garb. “Wait up. What the hell are you doing here?”
He didn’t manage to utter another bewildered inquiry as the intruder ran at him, her speed blinding. He barely had time to react or put his hands up as she knocked him unconscious, well before the chef and his assistants even realized that they were being assaulted. They haplessly tried to flee, and the chef did pick up a chopping knife to mount a semblance of resistance, but within seconds it was over as the interloper struck them all them down with lightning speed. She looked at the barrel that held the olive oil from Spain – an expensive import that had been intended for big parties like tonight’s – and kicked it violently. It tipped over, spilling the combustible liquid across the floor of the ship’s kitchen. Then, to the groaning chef’s horror, she took a matchstick from one of her pouches and lit it.
“What… what are you doing? Are you crazy!” he cried in panic.
The young woman under the hood looked at him directly, her striking emerald eyes flashing.
“Tell the queen and Honeymaren this: my homeland will never be a colony under Arendelle’s aegis,” she said, her voice steely and determined.
The chef and his retinue screamed, begging: “STOOOOOOP!”
The mysterious figure didn’t listen, casually tossing the matchstick onto the massive puddle of oil, along with a sprinkle of unidentifiable powder.
Then the world was on fire as a red-hot inferno engulfed the kitchen and blasted a flaming hole out of Autumn Cloud’s hull.
The deafening explosion that came from the cooks’ quarters below deck ripped through the hull of the ship, shaking the entire vessel. The angry blast rocked the keel, shook the masts, and knocked food and drinks off the barrels, sending said barrels tumbling everywhere. Several of them struck disoriented guests, downing them painfully. Cries of concern could be heard across the ship. Anna glanced at Vi, who looked equally shocked. They’d just been talking about their parliamentary agenda when the boom rocked them, causing Vi to almost fall over the quarterdeck. “What’s going on?” cried Anna.
Another ominous quake shook the vessel, and she creaked as terrifying flames began to lick the hull at port and starboard. Then, there were gasps and screams of horror as the chef and several other men burst out from the captain’s cabin, screaming in agony as they ran out to the main deck and set alight anything they touched, before mercifully finding the gunwales and hurling themselves off into the cold fjord waters, dousing themselves. But the rest of the ship was in total chaos and terror as Kristoff and Mattias scrambled to help the distressed party-goers, some of whom had also caught fire. “Don’t panic, everyone, our first mate and General Mattias will direct any evacuation,” cried Anna, although few paid attention to her as barrels and shrieking bodies rolled everywhere. It was wine-stained, food-splattered bedlam. The ship creaked again, and suddenly the ship began to slowly but sink from the stern, the rudder dipping below the sea.
Anna almost stumbled as Autumn Cloud’s centre of gravity began to began to shift. “Vi!” cried Anna, as Kristoff hurried to her. “We need to get out of here!”
Vi sighed, casually taking one last sip of champagne and then throwing away her glass. “This party is ruined. Everyone,” she snarled authoritatively, gesturing with a finger. “This way.” There were a few who followed her to the forecastle, which would be the last part of the ship to sink, but some of the ministers, jarls, and celebrities didn’t, opting to jump off the ship altogether. Vi snorted at the sight. “Have it your way. The rescue boats should be on their way – Autumn Cloud must look quite bright at this time of night – but you’re all going to freeze while waiting for them.”
She glanced at Hilde. “You know what to do, beloved. Not a single life is to be lost tonight.”
Hilde saluted. “My Lady.” With that, she launched into action, striding about the deck and directing the frightened women and men to huddle together. “Move up to the front of Autumn Cloud!” she bellowed. “We need to provide some counterweight and delay our jumps for as long as possible. We only have a few lifeboats on board; the rest of you will have to wait for the ones that are approaching us. Schnell, schnell!” she roared, moving people along aggressively. “I’m going into the captain’s quarters and below deck to help anyone who’s trapped. Hurry!” She ran the opposite way to the others, unblinkingly charging into the fires at the back of the ship.
Anna grabbed Kristoff’s hand. “Help our friends,” she begged, staring into his loving eyes. “I’ll be alright.”
“Are you sure?” asked Kristoff anxiously.
“Yes, babe. Help get Master Nahir, Master Tutore, and the rest out of here!”
More explosions tore through Autumn Cloud as the vessel gave way to its internal damage. The fires had reached the main deck, and spreading rapidly to the mast. Soon the sails caught flame. Anna and Vi joined Mattias, who led a contingent of nobles and journalists in the evacuation. “Hang in there!” howled Mattias, and Michael and Alan followed his lead as they ran up the now slanted deck to the forecastle. The men shielded Anna and Vi from the flames even as they coughed and sputtered from the fumes.
“Just a bit longer. Help is coming!”
Autumn Cloud was sinking.
The night air was filled with screams and panicked cries as a small fleet of wooden dinghies from Arendelle’s dockside zoomed towards the critically damaged ship, their oarsmen paddling as fast as they could. But the ship had already sailed some distance toward the edge of the fjord, and Autumn Cloud would be almost fully submerged in the freezing, icy waters by the time they arrived. There was nothing left for the stranded party-goers but to abandon ship.
Anna and Maren stood at the starboard of the forecastle. Another large hole had cleanly been blown out of the keel below. Queen and diplomat glanced at each other worriedly as Mattias led Michael, Alan, and Nahir to the queen. “We’ve got no choice. We’ve got to jump like the rest of them,” said Mattias, looking around the waters, where everyone was treading water and screaming at the approaching lifeboats to save them. “Thank the spirits we hadn’t sailed a great distance yet.”
Nahir bit his lip, looking at Anna. “What about Danielle?” he asked, who clutched Anna’s long green dress fearfully. “Any chance she could use her ice power to help cool the fire?”
“I’m afraid she’s paralyzed with fear, Master Nahir. And besides, freezing a fire of this size is more Elsa’s thing. Leave Danny with me,” said Mattias, looking around as reporters, merchant princes, and ministers alike hurled themselves overboard. “I’m going to help everyone off this ship, and we’re all going to get soaking wet, but I’ll be right here watching out for you all. Just bear with the cold a bit, and my rescue boats will take you back to shore.”
Anna didn’t let Danielle go, instinctively protective. “But – “
“Trust me, Your Majesty,” said Mattias, “She’s safer with me. I promise.”
Anna nodded, and reluctantly let Danielle go, who hurried into Mattias’ arms.
“Commander Hilde will coordinate the rest of the rescue,” he barked, and as if on cue, the Spirit Killer burst from the flames still engulfing the sinking quarterdeck, her arms dragging a screaming sailor and a crying deckhand. Smoke sizzling from her ebony uniform, she coolly flicked away several embers on her shoulder. Mattias held Danielle to him tightly, waving at one of the small boats that had arrived. Many were already filling up with revellers that had already jumped ship and were swimming towards the waiting sailors, who pulled them up onto the bottom boards.
Taking a deep breath, Mattias told Danielle to hold tight and jumped from the gunwale, slamming into the water. He resurfaced, gasping for air and holding onto a coughing and shivering Danielle as he quickly swam to a waiting boat. Alan and Michael moved to the port side, and they wasted no time in jumping off as well, landing in the cold water and paddling frantically to the nearest dinghy. Nahir and William followed them, the immediate waters around them filled with small rescue boats.
Then it was Anna and Maren’s turn. They looked at each other. “I’m so sorry, Anna,” said Maren, flames dancing in her distressed eyes. It was surreal seeing so many among Arendelle’s illustrious, wealthy, and influential paddling around, their drenched bodies being pulled aboard dinghies. “Whoever did this, whether to you or Vi… your ship – “
“We don’t even know if this was intentional or an accident,” interrupted Anna, taking Maren’s hand tightly. “What matters is that we’re all safe. Come on!” The queen and her top diplomat braced themselves, clutching each other’s sweaty palms. They leapt off the ship, screaming all the way down. Two neat plops. Seeing them plunge into the fjord waters, Mattias barked at his men to quickly intercept Anna and Maren and pull them up.
Meanwhile, Vi was still standing on the forecastle, the only part that wasn’t still underwater, waiting as Hilde finished guiding all the guests off the ship and to swim to the rescue boats. She watched with satisfaction as a soaked Anna and her friends climbed aboard their own vessels. They were all cold and shaken, but nothing a warm bath and hot chocolate wouldn’t solve. “So much for my party at sea,” she grumbled.
“All guests accounted for, Your Ladyship,” came Hilde’s calm voice. She stood behind Vi, arms behind her back. “I would’ve felt better if you’d been one of the first on those rescue boats. You’re the prime minister. If you were the target…” she added, a hint of disapproval in her voice.
“You’d have protected me, so I’m not worried. As long as there’s no silver around, not even scorching fire can hurt you.” Vi turned to her general, smiling. “Now take me away from here.”
Hilde gave a shy smile and nodded, drawing close and scooping the Countess up in bridal fashion. Vi tucked her head against Hilde’s chest and closed her eyes, holding on tightly. Hilde bent her legs slightly, letting out a low growl as her canines glinted. Her yellow eyes gleamed as she summoned a hint, a glimpse, of her werewolf power. As the last of Autumn Cloud dipped below the ocean, she suddenly sprinted up the sinking forecastle and shot into the sky, her superhuman strength propelling her and Vi far beyond the rescue boats that were paddling back to Arendelle’s dockside.
Seconds later after Hilde’s jackboots left Autumn Cloud, Her Majesty’s flagship sank completely.
She was forever lost to the depths of the Arendellian sea.