Art by P A O L O V E N T U R I
Since the rough start to Countess Vi’s prime ministership, there had been barely a chance for the kingdom to breathe. Despite the shadow of Amira’s threat to carry out further attacks in Arendelle, the governing, business, and media classes had more or less rallied around the queen, placing their trust in Honeymaren to deal with Amira now that they had identified the source of her grudge. Everyone knew that Arendelle faced many challenges, but after Anna’s call-to-arms was published in her column, a consensus formed that the queen was on the right track and deserved support.
It was about time for another event to be added to Arendelle’s already bustling social calendar. The dark countess was hosting her own bash at her recently purchased home. She had been voted by journalists, nobility, and ministers as “Most Stylish Hostess” in The Arendelle Guardian’s political magazine, Power Play.
This surprised the kingdom’s power bloc, which knew The Arendelle Guardian to be fiercely pro-Anna. Its reporters maintained that now that Vi agreed to defer to the Crown on most matters, the editor of the paper was open to drumming up positive press for Vi. Besides, everyone looked forward to parties in Arendelle, and tonight Vi was hosting in honour of not just Anna, but her fiance Kristoff and the prosperity his company had brought to the kingdom.
It was eight o’clock. The dwelling that Vi’s doorkeeper welcomed her many guests into was a stately residence dubbed the “Grand House” for being one of the largest townhouses in Arendelle. Vi had downsized significantly by moving to Arendelle proper. Her house was no Keep Mundilfari, but that didn’t dampen Vi’s aesthetic flair and taste for elegance and splendour. What the Grand House lacked in size compared to Arendelle Castle, it made up for in decor, with the living rooms, stairwells, corridors, and guest rooms festooned with portraits of her Mundilfari ancestors and statuettes dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. A single item in Vi’s house had nearly a millennium’s worth of stories, passing between kings, popes, and dukes like the fine sea salt that was being passed around the long table in Vi’s dining room.
Not even the Portrait Room in Arendelle Castle made quite the same statement of prestige as a Mundilfari could: “I’ve always been here, and I’ll always be here.”
Needless to say, such aristocratic obsessions mattered to Vi a great deal, but they barely registered for the much more egalitarian Anna as the two women walked about the crowded living room. Ministers, senior merchants, and journalists chattered and gossipped among themselves while the heady smells of warm brandy, succulent fish and venison, and fragrant mint and herbs wafted up the high wooden ceiling and beams. In the corner of the living room, the fully-uniformed Hilde Von Altheim worked her fingers on the Bösendorfer grand piano, with several impressed guests gathering round to listen to her playing. She was a solid pianist, if not as meticulous as her mistress. The presence of Honeymaren was in high demand. Dressed in an Arendellian diplomat’s outfit as usual, she was surrounded by both female and male admirers, and was only rescued by Sir Alan and the trade minister, Michael, who chivalrously brought her into their own conversational circle. Kristoff and investor Nahir al-Adil talked animatedly about Arendelle’s business environment.
The queen and her prime minister surveyed the lively party, satisfied at the party’s turnout. If Amira didn’t attack tonight, this would be a much better gathering than the disaster aboard Autumn Cloud. “Speaking of which, you need a new flagship, Your Majesty,” said Vi, looking down at Anna, who for some reason was giggling happily.
“I don’t need a new ship,” was Anna’s reply. “A replacement would be way too expensive at this time, and I’m not leaving Arendelle anytime soon, anyway.”
“The government shouldn’t waste tax kroner on it. I can buy a new one for you easily. I didn’t get you a birthday gift last month. A new ship would be nice.”
“Whatever you think best,” giggled Anna again, giddy at how, despite all her difficulties, all seemed right with the world for the moment. “Goodness, Vi – you talk about buying entire vessels like someone goes shopping for groceries. Someone might want to rob you.”
“I’ve already downsized from Keep Mundilfari to this townhouse. The things I do for you, Your Majesty!” joked Vi.
“It suits you,” said Anna, taking Vi’s arm as they continued walking. Her aqua eyes looked at the countess in sincere admiration and affection.
“Downsizing in both residence and opposition, you mean?” said Vi, smirking. She leaned in closer on Anna, who met her teasing nudge in good humour and enthusiasm. Their heads touched, auburn and dark-brown tresses brushing along each other. It was surreal to think that just some months ago, they’d been political nemeses. “Strange that you should compliment me on my defeat at your hands.”
“Well… you downsized for my sake. I needed you. And you were there.” Anna’s hands squeezed Vi’s arm. “It’s not like the Keep is going anywhere, even if you’re here. You’re still you, Vi, and whatever our differences, I’ll never seek to change you.”
“You’ve proven yourself worthy to lead others, including me,” said Vi, her crimson eyes shimmering. “Whatever our differences, my queen.”
Anna rubbed her nose. “And I’ll always honour the chance you gave me, Prime Minister,” she replied, humble and winningly self-effacing to the end.
The editor of The Arendelle Guardian, JJ, had been swishing around her glass of wine and laughing congenially with General Mattias when the door suddenly swung open. In walked a finely garbed Lars Krogh with a voluptuous woman decked in expensive furs dangling by the side of his arm. JJ and Mattias fell silent almost instantly. Many eyes began to be drawn to him, and he exulted in it. Hilde looked up and the piano melody stopped. Her face was impassive but her eyes flashed. As if sensing her change in mood, Vi looked towards her house’s main door. “Anna,” she said, as Anna also noticed Lars’ domineering presence.
Michael and Alan’s faces darkened when they saw Lars. They knew all about him and his desire to unseat the Princely House. The entire room fell into a hushed, tense moment as the merchant prince and business rival to Kristoff looked about him, enjoying the shocked faces all around.
Kristoff was still conversing with Nahir when he caught sight of the managing director of Skau-Krogh, and his smile faded. Anna always did her best to be impartial in the competition between Bjorgman House and Skau-Krogh, and part of that meant keeping Kristoff and Lars away from each other, especially at parties and gatherings.
But why had Lars chosen to show himself in the Grand House?
What did he want with Kristoff?
TO BE CONTINUED!