Featured image art “Commander” by feeplings (@feeplings)
Commander Hilde was a bit surprised that today’s appointment wasn’t at the Nokk Club.
She opened the door to the Lonely Reindeer tavern, her enhanced senses immersed in the pungent, jovial smells of roast chicken, frothy, refreshing beer, and more. It was a packed day for the tavern. Her wolfish eyes quickly identified the nondescript man sitting at one of the corner tables, where the barmaid often forgot to check up on. She strode over, silently noting his very bland, vanilla appearance: a traditional Arendellian three-piece suit, conventional and unextraordinary. Yet it was perhaps this rather orthodox look that lent him a sense of timelessness and understated elegance. He had a goatee, and his blue eyes darted at Hilde nervously as she sat down.
“Anonymous letters have a way of being thrown out of the prime minister’s mailbox and burned,” said Hilde, crossing her arms, “especially since they’ve lately been disgusting insults and slanders from our despised harasser.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t dispose of mine,” said the man, adjusting his high collar nervously. He beckoned over the barmaid, calling for a pint of beer. They sat in silence as she stared at the nobleman, waiting for him to speak – and finally, after an awkward pause, he did.
“I mean no harm – in fact, I’m here to try to calm the flames somewhat.”
“Then who are you?” asked Hilde. “Out with it. I oversee Countess Viola Mundilfari’s security these days. Until Anna returns from the Middle Kingdom, my Lady is regent. It was shortly after she assumed this responsibility and Her Majesty left that, conveniently, the letters began appearing and the vandalism across the kingdom began.” Hilde tried to stop her hackles rising. “My Lady has been forced to take up residence in Arendelle Castle, relying on the security of the queen to keep this harasser at bay.”
“I’m truly sorry for what the prime minister is suffering. My name is Gerald Vinter.” He took a deep breath. “I’m a direct descendant of Housecarl Erik Vinter, who was one of the founding nobles of Arendelle, alongside the early Mundilfari counts that migrated from the European heartland to up here.”
Hilde tensed. “You’re a member of the Vinter clan?”
“Yes. Dozens of generations have passed since the Viking Age, and the Vinter family is now just a humble if prosperous family living out a quiet existence here. We never quite reached the same heights of power and wealth that the Mundilfari clan did after the Arendellian settlement. We did control many of the trade routes into Byzantium and Kievan Rus’, though, so we were able to weather the many storms that threatened the kingdom. We have no political stake in Anna’s reign, so I watched Countess Vi’s rivalry with the queen with a detached interest last year. When the prime minister came under slanderous attacks, and you issued that challenge to two of Arendelle’s oldest aristocratic families in The Arendelle Guardian’s pages, it was clear to me that you and the government suspected that it was one of us, the Hellströms or the Vinters, that were trying to undermine the last Mundilfari.”
Gerald leaned in closer. Both their beer mugs stood forgotten, the beverage no longer cold. “I can’t speak for the Hellström family, but I know that no one from the Vinter family has any interest in challenging the Mundilfari clan or Her Majesty. We’re loyal subjects. We live blessed lives. I beg you, Hilde – imagine if someone accused you, a Von Altheim, of conspiring against the house of Mundilfari. Your family is the first and final line of defence for the Mundilfaris. You’d wish to defend your name, surely.”
Hilde didn’t betray any expression, simply keeping her eyes directly on Gerald. “So you maintain your clan’s innocence, while conveniently leaving the Hellström family out of our meeting today? That seems a bit convenient.”
Gerald snorted. “Who knows, perhaps a Hellström has already contacted the palace and asked for a meeting with you, like me. I have no fondness for them – it’s their honour, so they can take it up with you.”
“The Hellströms have long been known as rivals to the Countess’s clan – and looking at the many Vinter nobles that her ancestors have clashed with, I’d say that your record isn’t at unremarkable as you’re trying to make it.”
“We’ve shaped Arendellian life for a long time, I know,” cried Gerald, “but so have quite a few other clans. I truly, truly have no reason or motivation that would compel me to risk challenging Countess Vi… the very throne of Arendelle!” He put his hands together in intense thought. “Look, the Countess has the trust of Anna herself. No matter what our feelings about each other, no aristocratic clan wants to get into the bad books of the queen. I certainly don’t.” Gerald took a swig of warm beer and made a face. “Listen: whoever’s attacking the Countess is very likely not from the aristocracy. They don’t care about antagonizing the Countess, and by extension the throne. I’m not sure if that’s even on their mind. What they want to do is rattle the First Vampire. And perhaps you.”
Hilde gazed at Gerald long and hard, still not completely sure, but increasingly convinced of his sincerity. His inviting her out here – it had been discreet, anonymous, sensible – typical of how aristocrats arranged things. His argument that the nobles feared the queen’s wrath seemed to hold water, since Hilde knew the workings of these circles inside out. “Then before I make a big mistake, I want to confirm with you, Gerald,” she said, as a growing suspicion settled over her uneasily. “Am I being misdirected? Led on a wild goose chase against imaginary enemies by my real foe?”
“I don’t know, but that’s certainly the case with the Vinter clan. That’s what I’m here to tell you.” Gerald slowly rose from the table, throwing down several coins for his share. “I’m not involved with this, Baroness Von Altheim. I’d never want to make the queen angry. Or you and the Mundilfari house.” He glanced down at Hilde. “Someone wants to draw you out. Make you vulnerable. Beware, for if you don’t identify the right target – ” He shook his head fretfully. “They could hit you when you’re elsewhere, distracted or misled.”
Hilde stared at nothing as she sat by herself at the table. She couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Part of her wanted the Vinter clan to confess, or to behave suspiciously. But instead, if Gerald was telling the truth, this trail had gone cold. Not even the Hellströms, who might have been political rivals in the past, looked like they’d stoop so low as to send Vi hate mail. And even more infuriatingly, their shadowy adversary had happily let them think that they’d had something on them through the Vinters and Hellströms.
She swore quietly to herself as she picked up her own jacket to leave.
Who was toying with them?
THE MYSTERY CONTINUES, HILDE’S CONFIDENCE WAVERS…
AND FROM THE SHADOWS, SOMEONE CONTINUES TO WATCH, WAITING FOR THE RIGHT TIME TO STRIKE.