Art by Mixa. From artstation.com
The news from the Celestial Empire was grim. The expedition to Khara-Khoto had failed. Months of intelligence gathering by Arendelle’s agents, discreet dealmaking in the back streets and private tea rooms of Chinese cities between Anna’s intermediaries and mercenary trekkers and explorers, and finally, leveraging the influence of Kristoff’s Bjorgman House among friendly Qing officials whose coffers were enriched by trade with Arendelle to turn a blind eye to a foreign-funded expedition in Manchu-ruled territory.
All of that. Wasted.
Anna’s top commanders, Mattias and Hilde, delivered the grim news to the queen in her throne room, standing several feet from the royal as they announced the ramifications.
“Fortunately, Lady Kam, being the careful businesswoman that she is, covered her tracks carefully. She outsourced the retrieval of the bodies of Yelu and Arban to the Qing authorities,” said General Mattias, reading from his notes. He winced. “It was a complete disaster, Anna. I’m so sorry.”
“And, of course, Kam had to lobby hard to stop them from executing Babuhai, to keep his silence. Far easier for the governing Manchus to wipe this failed exercise from all records, leaving the three trekkers to be forgotten by everyone,” added Hilde, her hands behind her back as she stood at attention.
Mattias nodded. “Fortunately, that’s not how Arendelle does things. Still, Lady Kam has exhausted much of her capital among the Qing because of this fiasco, and she has to lay low in her palatial manor in Hong Kong to avoid implicating Kristoff, her employer.”
“There’s something more complicated at hand,” observed Hilde, looking directly at Anna. “What comes afterward, Your Majesty?” The failure to get close to the purported fragment of the elixir of life surely would have drawn the attention of the Moonborn. “The trekkers weren’t confronted by any ordinary foe. We had made sure, absolutely certain, that not a soul except those closest to us knew about the expedition. Yet they were found and intercepted by someone as if we had taken no precautions at all. Whoever they are, they’re formidable. They might even be the enemies Yixin talked about.”
“Yeah, I know. The Moonborn.” Anna remained silent, dour and brooding, as she planted her elbows on her throne’s armrest and pressed her steepled fingers thoughtfully against her lips.
The last time she had looked this serious was when Arendelle’s territories were under attack by Katina and Russia.
“Do the trekkers have families? Are they cared for?” she asked Mattias quietly.
“Lady Kam will see to that,” reassured Mattias quietly. “Lifetime indemnities with your condolences, as you asked. Paid over as many years as they need.”
“Good,” sighed Anna, rubbing the ridge of her brow with a hand. She looked unusually tired. Even though she was at the height of her power, and no longer had to worry about larger countries trying to shove Arendelle around, it was as if she was as powerless as she had been when she had first heard of Elsa’s near fatal injuries at the hands of Nykras, the Grand Duke that nearly slew her sister in the Russo-Arendellian War.
“Not enough,” she murmured to herself. “It’s not enough to protect Elsa. What I have isn’t enough.”
“What?” asked Mattias.
“Nothing,” said Anna. She turned her attention to Hilde. “I will need to deploy Peony Sinclair’s networks and connections across China to regain our momentum into Khara-Khoto. We’ll reach out to our agents and informants again. That we were stopped from venturing into that site just proves that there’s something deep down there, something that someone didn’t want us to find.”
“Even if it means leading an expedition to Khara-Khoto?” said Mattias, a hint of wariness in his voice. “We sent a lightly armed trio of adventurers there and they were assailed and destroyed. Are you prepared for overseas military ventures to protect our searches for the elixir? We should be wary of committing to anything that could drastically alter our policy toward other regions of the world.”
Anna stared at him. “If that means we secure the fragments, then I think we have no choice.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Never before had Anna proposed deploying troops overseas so proactively. But before Mattias could say anything more, the queen turned her attention to Hilde and asked, “Commander, can I ask about Countess Vi?”
Hilde blinked. “My queen?”
“Well, I’ll need Vi’s help in the coming few weeks to locate the elixir fragment in Europe.” Anna paused. “To be honest, it’s been a while since we sat down to have dinner together. I haven’t seen her in the palace recently. Is there any chance you could help me pass on my summons to her?”
Hilde nodded, slightly hesitant. “She’s not at the Grand House at the moment. She returned to Keep Mundilfari.” Mysterious and splendorous, Keep Mundilfari was the ancestral estate of the Mundilfari clan, and had stood proudly on the peaks of Jotunheimen for even longer than Castle Arendelle in the heartland of the kingdom. It was the seat of power for Countess Viola Mundilfari, Anna’s prime minister and perhaps the kingdom’s most powerful noblewoman. As the First Vampire, she was also almost equal in sheer power to her old rival, Elsa the Fifth Spirit.
“Oh?” asked Anna, surprised. “She didn’t tell me anything before she left. If anything, it’s been a while since she even spoke of going back to her old house. Is she on leave and wants to get back to the fresh alpine air of the Arendellian highlands?”
Hilde shifted uncomfortably. “No, Your Majesty. Just internal concerns relevant to the Mundilfari clan.”
Anna gave Hilde a look that was playfully suspicious. “We are a family. The house of my mother and father, Iduna and Agnarr, came together in political harmony with Mundilfari. That’s what’s made my reign so enduring and our kingdom so united. Therefore, unless it’s something personal, I believe it fair that we be transparent with each other.”
Hilde looked even more awkward. “Well, you spoke of Mundilfari Keep. There have been strange occurrences reported there by the stewards and groundskeepers.”
“What, exactly?” said Anna slightly agitatedly. “Now I want to know!”
Hilde pursed her lips. “It began a few weeks ago, when some of the servants began sending terrified letters to my lady. They were begging for help, for my lady to return to them. Several have been found dead in terrible ways – disemboweled, their limbs severed, decapitated – it’s reminiscent of when Her Excellency travelled to London and discovered all those grisly murders by that demented cultist, Thomas Hunt. Yet the Keep has always been secure, impregnable to outsiders. Things were peaceful…”
Hilde hesitated again, before grunting. “… until the killings started shortly after we got the reports of our failure in Khara-Khoto. And now, apart from the murders, the servants and handmaidens swear they’ve heard guttural howling and laughter, as if the corridors and halls themselves are haunted. And you know how large and sprawling Mundilfari Keep is.”
Mattias and Anna looked at each other. “What?”
“Her Excellency and I suspect that her vast castle is actually being stalked by a malevolent presence.” Hilde’s lycanthropic eyes glinted. “And we can’t rule out a supernatural origin. That’s why my lady has been so absent and quiet recently. She is preparing herself for a lengthy struggle, to defend the castle from an assailant of comparable power.”
Anna’s aqua eyes widened in realization. The light in her eyes reflected her fear. “It could mean… that the Moonborn already have an eye on us. Across Arendelle, and maybe even right here in the kingdom.”
DO ANNA’S ENEMIES HAVE THE COUNTESS IN THEIR SIGHTS?