The moment Lars Krogh strode into the foyer of Vi’s Grand House, the mood shifted. The guests continued on as before, but there were many furtive glances shot at the boss of Skau-Krogh, who was talking pleasantly with the young woman at his side. The magnitude of the situation wasn’t lost on Vi as she whispered into Anna’s ear: “I need to borrow Kristoff. Let me handle this.”
“Go for it, Vi,” muttered Anna cooperatively. Vi glanced across her living room, staring straight at Kristoff, who seemed to sense her vampiric eyes on him. She gave a nod, and he nodded as well. They moved together to intercept Lars as Hilde returned to playing the piano. Lars saw Kristoff – they were both of large frame, fit and healthy, but Kristoff was just a bit taller than Lars. Kristoff gave a tense smile, while Lars smirked.
Vi glided beside Kristoff, staring coldly at Lars and his escort. “I thought I’d drop by. I hope you don’t mind, Prime Minister,” said Lars, kissing her raised hand.
“Not at all,” said Vi thinly, dying a little inside as she felt his stubble on her knuckles. Kristoff then took Lars’ hand, and they squeezed each other, their eyes locking like the horns of competing stags. “And who is this lovely thing?” asked the Countess, looking straight at the blonde, expensively-dressed woman holding Lars’ arm. Aside from the escort’s mink coat and fox scarf, Vi noticed her crocodile handbag – she seemed to have a penchant for animal furs and skins.
“Oh, this is Tiffany Hunsecker, secretary to Will Harrison,” said Lars, and at the mere mention of the Exalted’s member, Vi and Kristoff froze in their tracks. “She’s here to help me settle some accounts before Skau-Krogh enjoys a massive investment from Harrison’s company. And… well, she wants me to take her around the kingdom before she sails back to Boston. A Norseman can’t say no,” he said, smirking at her, his eyes rolling across her shapely form. Vi’s lip curled. A honey trap. How elementary, how typical of powerful men, how easy. Either Lars is a fool, or he’s playing dumb with Tiffany. Either way was not good for Bjorgman or Arendelle. Lars stared at Kristoff, baring his teeth. “And the moment the kroner is in Skau-Krogh’s bank account, we’re expanding into the ice market,” he said, “and my joint venture with Harrison is going to smash your Princely House to smithereens.”
“I’ll take you on, without American cash, and you’ll still fall short, like you’ve been falling short ever since Elsa made me Ice Master,” replied Kristoff.
“Ha! Are you attaching yourself to Elsa now, or are you still sucking up to Anna? Don’t think your royal squeeze can protect you,” snapped Lars, and Kristoff’s face turned red with fury at his disrespect. “You have your branch in Hong Kong, but I have mine in India. Soon, I’ll be the one expanding into the China trade with Harrison’s help.”
“You can darn well try,” said Kristoff angrily.
“Well, Miss Hunsecker,” said Vi smoothly, sensing an opportunity to ensnare the young woman, “perhaps we should let the men be men and have our own discussion elsewhere.” She gestured at the staircase, below which the guests continue to eat, drink, and chatter. “Shall we?”
Tiffany stared into her eyes, and nodded mildly. “After you, Prime Minister,” she said, adjusting her mink coat.
When they had walked upstairs and into a quiet corridor that led to the guest rooms, Vi turned to Tiffany. “Has Harrison made a deal with Lars?” she asked, her voice cold and forbidding.
“Yes,” said Tiffany, turning around to face the Countess. Suddenly, her entire demeanor changed from that of a clueless hanger-on to a calculating operator. “Lars is all in, just as Harrison hoped. Skau-Krogh is going to make a lot of money with my boss’s help.”
“You should tell your boss to tread carefully. I know he’s a member of the Exalted. And I know he’s always seen Anna as unworthy of Yixin’s favour.”
Tiffany just smiled, her hand indulgently stroking her coat’s mink skin. “Before you start speculating about my boss’s intentions, just how is Kristoff going to pay off his three winter instalments to Yee Wo Shipping in China?”
Vi’s heart stopped. What the ****? she thought. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, almost dumbly. How did this random lady know about Bjorgman’s finances?
“I mean, Kristoff hasn’t gotten permission from the British government to dock his fourth ship – which cost fifty-two thousand Arendellian kroner more than projected – in Victoria Harbour. So he’s got to find a way to raise that cash, fast, so he can bring more ice into Hong Kong, sell it, and pay back Yee Wo. But Lars already has all the money he needs, thanks to Mr. Harrison.”
“The cash… I’m sure there won’t be an issue.”
Tiffany’s lip curled, enjoying how unnerved Vi looked. “Mr. Harrison will tell Lord Yixin that Bjorgman is overextended by, heck, fifteen percent. Kristoff needs a new line of credit if he can’t earn back the money he’ll spend trying to keep up with Skau-Krogh’s expansion. Does that sound like a company the prince regent should keep betting on?”
“This is the Princely House we’re talking about, Arendelle’s star company,” said Vi testily. “Credit will come when it’s needed, and Anna won’t let Bjorgman fail just because Lars has a few advantages.”
“Sure, your government could bail out Kristoff with your citizens’ taxes. What am I saying? You’re the prime minister,” said Tiffany, shrugging. She smiled slyly. “But it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder for the Crown to assist Kristoff’s company once Anna’s coffers no longer enjoy trade privileges with the Qing.”
Vi stared at Tiffany and tried her best to keep calm. So this was Harrison’s ultimate goal: to seize Arendelle’s trade privileges with China, and replace Anna’s kingdom as “Most Favoured Nation” to Yixin and the emperor!
“You seem to be very well-informed about Kristoff’s situation,” she said thinly.
Tiffany sneered as she went on the offensive, launching into a full attack. “Oh, I can do better than that, girl. Bjorgman’s got… let’s see, six hundred and ten thousand kroner due on the 18th of September to the Bank of Arendelle: the total loan is three million uninsured. Bjorgman has barely broken even this year, and in fact has accrued one million in losses against a paper profit of one million, two hundred thousand from last year. Need I continue?” said Tiffany in her infuriating sing-song voice.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” said Vi quietly, murderous thoughts filling her dark mind. Her small fists were clenched and she wanted to stab Tiffany right there and then. “I don’t suppose you’d care to share the identity of your informant inside Kristoff’s company.”
Tiffany tittered. “Why would Mr. Harrison need a spy?” she said, as she continued walking down the hallway. “All of that information is available at the Bank of Arendelle, and rival companies… if you know where to look. I’m just his accountant. I keep track of the numbers.” She paused, staring at a portrait of Vi’s ancestor. “Is that… a Mundilfari?” she asked in awe.
Vi nodded, silent.
“He looks like you. It’s the eyes.” Tiffany’s face turned serious. “You know, it’s not too late to join the Exalted. You were once a predator, a vampire preying on all that dared to defy the mighty Mundilfaris. Now look at you. You’re a humbled appendage to the Crown of this tiny backwater. A backwater that’s pretty much going to be Mr. Harrison’s new playground. Once Lord Yixin no longer sees Arendelle as a strategic asset worth keeping, he’ll let Mr. Harrison do whatever he wants with those trade rights.”
“Arendelle is my fief,” snarled Vi, “and you won’t touch Anna or Kristoff!”
Tiffany shook her head. “You could have avoided all this if you’d accepted the offer made by Lord Yixin to join the Exalted. You’d become the head of the Mundilfari clan. But you were too busy attacking the Southern Isles and earned Yixin’s wrath.” She smiled, although her eyes weren’t mirthful. “You were in control all your life, manipulating others like chess pieces. Now you can see how it feels to be dancing to the tunes of another. You, Kristoff, Anna, even Lars – you’re all little pawns, the bodies on which women and men far more powerful than you fight their wars.” She suddenly looked at her timepiece. “Oh, dear, I must get going now. I promised to keep Lars company.”
She smiled fake-sweetly at Vi’s fuming face. “I suggest you reconsider your membership of the Exalted – the real holders of world power – before its members decide to destroy you, like Mr. Harrison and Katina have already decided with Anna. Toodles!”
Tiffany daintily pranced down the stairs and walked out the main door, where Lars awaited her after his verbal sparring with Kristoff. She took him by the arm as he glared one last time at Kristoff from across the foyer. The door shut, and the party briefly went into shocked silence as the Countess’s hateful shriek and angry punch against the wall could be heard.
“Did you hear that?” said Sir Alan, as everyone heard Vi’s scream of rage and a loud crunch of fist against wooden wall. In the drawing room of the Grand House, a comfortable, carpeted retreat with a warm, crackling fireplace, Nahir, Alan, and Michael talked quietly among themselves. “I’ve never heard the Countess lose control of her emotions like that in public.”
“If Miss Hunsecker is really Harrison’s aide, then he’s seriously set his sights on Arendelle,” said Michael, who was standing by the window. He puffed out a ring of cigar smoke, looking outside at the cool night backyard of the Grand House. “I know many of the bigger merchants in the Commerce Chamber, and I foresee a big tug-of-war between Kristoff and Lars.”
“Lars might not be bluffing when he talks so confidently about outpacing Kristoff in investments,” said Nahir, rubbing his chin. He sat across from Alan, who listened attentively as he poured Nahir some tea. “According to my sources, the First Family of Virginia has extensive resources. Plantations, ports, banks, railways – “
The loud clacking of curious high-heeled boots interrupted him as Vi stormed into the drawing room, her crimson eyes wild with anger. She spat out several expletives, and Nahir cringed. Alan whistled. “Hey, hey – what’s wrong, Countess?” said Michael, hurrying over as Vi held her arms, looking down. He put two hands on her shoulders. “Breathe. What happened with this Tiffany?”
Vi stared up at the trade minister. “She knows everything. And I mean everything about Kristoff’s company.” There was a stunned silence as Vi slipped away, pacing about restlessly, her dark purple cloak trailing her. “She could be bluffing, making it all up. But she knows we could verify her claims with Kristoff easily. I think she’s confident about her numbers.”
“So it’s true,” said Alan, standing up from the sofa. “Lars wants to put Bjorgman out of business.”
“It’s a partnership. To destroy not just Bjorgman, but Arendelle’s trade with the Qing Empire,” muttered Vi, and the three men looked at each other in shock. “It would be a double blow to Arendelle’s economy – the sinking of its premier company and the loss of long-held economic privileges. And the worst of it – ” Vi turned to face them, her eyes genuinely worried. “Lars is way ahead of Kristoff. He has Harrison’s money, and Harrison has Bjorgman’s balance sheets.
“With so much against Kristoff, the Princely House is in real danger, and if things look unsalvageable for Anna, the Qing might revoke our privileges sooner than later.”