The Countess’s long eyelashes stirred, and her eyelids fluttered open as she turned from her side onto her back sleepily. She let out a purring groan. Luxuriating in her purple, sensuous silken nightgown, she gazed outside her window atop the Grand House, enjoying the Arendellian sunlight filtering through the glass and bathing her body. She’d been burning the midnight oil last night, so today she’d woken up at 8 o’clock – three hours earlier than her usual rising time, since she needed to prepare documents before the parliament opened. “Take a break tomorrow, Vi,” Anna had told her yesterday. “We’ve been exhausting ourselves recently. Let me chair the House of Ministers tomorrow, and you can buy me dinner on the weekend.”
Vi slowly rose from her bed, pushing aside her scattered sheets. She stretched, her yawn modest and graceful. Not bothering to change out of her nightgown, she lifted her lithe legs over the large bed and walked out of her master bedroom. She headed downstairs, opening the wooden door out to her spacious backyard, enjoying the wet grass against her feet and between her toes. Underneath one of the trees that lined the garden was Commander Hilde in a black tank top, training hard. She had worked up a hearty sweat, beads glistening on her bare shoulders and toned arms. She flew a flurry of blinding uppercuts, shadowboxing an imaginary opponent, her yellow eyes gleaming in concentration as she lashed out with a perfectly aimed kick. She slowly lowered her military jackboot, glimpsing Vi watching her with a languid smile on her face.
“Hello there, wolfish one,” greeted Vi. “Diligently working out as usual, I see.”
Hilde’s flushed face broadened into a smile. “My Lady. It’s a beautiful morning today. Did you sleep well?”
“Fine, apart from the occasional nightmare that Mephisto sends me, to remind me that I belong to him and that he’s always watching.” Vi rubbed her head, wincing, as Hilde’s face fell. She opened her eyes. “Aside from that ancient inconvenience, I like living here, in walking distance of parliament and all the amenities of the kingdom. But it wasn’t the same without you.”
Vi peered at Hilde, yellow and crimson eyes meeting. “I’m glad you’re here. Even if your cooking is so bad I still plan to hire a housekeeper.”
“Better one housekeeper than the hundred at Keep Mundilfari, whom you still have to pay salaries to,” replied Hilde. Vi looked at her in surprise, before bursting out in good-natured laughter. “Worry not,” said Hilde, struggling not to chuckle herself, “The family castle will be well-taken care of. You can always return for a few nights.”
“Not for now. I’m very busy. And you’ll be too.” Vi walked up to Hilde, raised a twirling finger, and poked it against her collarbone. “I was lying about your food. I want to eat what you cook,” she said indulgently, gazing up at her lieutenant. “My days off as prime minister are rare. Anna works me to the bone. So I want you to appreciate me when I can stay with you.”
“Always,” said Hilde eagerly, brushing back her blonde hair. “Let me make you breakfast immediately.”
“That’s my girl. Take a bath first – you’re all sweaty and I get drenched just touching you.”
Vi had just turned back to head inside when Hilde realized that she’d forgotten something drastically important. “My Lady,” she burst out, “I received intelligence last night – “
“Oh, can it not wait?” cried Vi, rounding on Hilde and petulantly stomping a bare foot on the grass. Her glare made Hilde flinch. “I want breakfast with you, not a briefing! The recent months have been exhausting. I want us to just make silly talk and do whatever the hell we want, not discuss affairs of state.”
“No, this – ” Hilde swallowed her guilt and frustration at Vi’s spoilt temper. Her yellow eyes looked tortured as she worked up her resolve. For years she’d always tried to be supportive of the Countess, but sometimes that meant balancing how they wanted to be together with what they needed to do together. “I’m so sorry, Vi,” she said, dropping her usual decorum, “I… I wanted to tell you last night, but you were sleeping so soundly and beautifully – ”
“I don’t care anymore,” snapped Vi, “you’ve ruined the mood. Out with it, general! What’s so important that your awful cooking must wait?”
Hilde felt her heart shrivel as Vi twisted the knife into her, but she pressed on. “Something suspicious had been approaching the coastline of Weselton for several days. They arrived at the kingdom’s shores by midnight last night,” she said, her voice steadying. She stood straight, her usual discipline returning. “The Weselton mists are hard to part, obscuring the sight range for both the coast guard and the arrivals. But we’re concerned that the intruders might be warships.”
“Harrison,” snarled Vi, crimson eyes flashing. “It must be something to do with Harrison. He’s been injecting hundreds of thousands of Arendellian kroner into Skau-Krogh. Bjorgman might have a line of credit from Chatho, but I had to retain the faith of Kristoff’s investors’ by sending my own funds from my accounts in Zurich and Geneva. But what would Harrison – ”
Her eyes widened in realization. “Does he want to punish Weselton for joining Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms? He’s probably going to do the same with the other signatories of our alliance!”
Hilde grimaced. “Outright war? With six kingdoms?”
“Don’t underestimate the resources of an Exalted member. Besides, he might not be seeking conquest outright, but a limited attack to scare or blackmail them.” Vi turned to Hilde. “Similar to what I did with Muspelheim, before I summoned you back to me.”
“If that’s your assessment, then we must warn Her Majesty,” said Hilde.
“Then it looks like I don’t get a day off, after all. I’ll get changed and head to the palace. You entertain yourself for a while – or better yet, think of some strategies we can deploy to neutralize any mischief from Harrison’s pawns.” Vi was about to head back inside the Grand House when she heard Hilde’s rapid footsteps approaching her. “What – ” she squealed in surprise as Hilde grabbed her in a sudden embrace, her arms tight and strong around the Countess. She silently put her face on Vi’s shoulder, pressing close to her, noiselessly begging for forgiveness.
Vi relaxed in Hilde’s hug, her lip curling in amusement. She put a pleased hand on Hilde’s forearm.
“Silly she-wolf. I’ll be back in the afternoon once Anna knows about your intel. We’ll make up for lost time with dinner, okay?”