The Kingdom of Chatho
The English clipper glided into the dockyards of Chatho’s capital, quietly anchoring next to the flagship of its monarch, Colisa. The queen, decked in her royal robes and golden hat, was about to step onto the plank of her ship when someone else stepped off the plank of the English arrival. The newcomer was impeccably elegant, in a form-hugging, British equestrian outfit: a smart, dark blue riding jacket, pristine white shirt with frilled collar, tight pants, and riding boots. Her blonde locks were cut to her shoulders, and her blue eyes were sharp and confident. She looked like she’d just stepped out of one of the British peerage’s riding clubs.
Colisa felt a surge of nervousness. She raised her hands and bowed at the waist. “Miss Peony Sinclair, emissary of Lord Yixin. For you to grace me with your presence must mean His Imperial Highness has eyes on me. I hope he’s satisfied with the tribute that I’ve sent him each year?”
“Forget the tribute. Our emperor’s demand for shiny gifts is just to massage his insufferable ego. Our prince regent, who really runs the show in China, couldn’t care less about that.” The Englishwoman took Colisa’s hands. “What’s it going to take for you to see me as a friend, instead of some terrifying visitation?” she joked, as they gazed at each other. “Am I that ugly? You were always admired around the world for your beauty, Your Majesty. Count me as one of your adorers.”
“You’re gorgeous, Miss Sinclair – incomparably so,” said Colisa apologetically, “and forgive me for behaving so uptight. But most monarchs and statesmen know that wherever you go, Lord Yixin’s pleasure – or wrath – follows. The timing of your arrival must mean that he knows of my joining Anna’s alliance. In fact, I’m sure you’re here because you knew I was sailing for Arendelle today.”
“Guilty as charged. I have eyes everywhere.” Peony looked at Colisa’s ship. “I won’t keep you long. Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?”
Colisa took her into the comfortable queen’s cabin, where she would stay for most of the journey to Arendelle. Peony looked around, noticing silk carpets on well-scrubbed decks; chairs and sofas, salt and hemp, the fragrance of cleanly oiled leather, and the faint sweet oily smell of herbs and frankincense from the holds below. The cabin was warmly comfortably illuminated by well-trimmed oil lamps, which cast shadows over the main deck beams. “Please, sit down,” invited the queen, gesturing at one of the couches.
“You don’t need to defer to me, Your Majesty,” said Peony, as she sat down and accepted a cup of tea from Colisa. “I’m a commoner, with no ties to the Chinese imperial house or the British royals.”
Colisa sat down opposite her. She had no teacup of her own. Her beautiful brown eyes shimmered. “You yourself are a socialite – you know everyone in Hong Kong. They call you a tai-pan there, don’t they?”
“Yes, it’s Chinese for any business leader.”
“Your own name is Chinese, isn’t it? Bestowed by His Imperial Highness himself?”
Peony’s sapphire eyes glinted. “When I swore myself to His Imperial Highness, he replaced my English name – Carol – with that of his favourite flower. That was years after one of his harem concubines rescued my five-year-old self from the streets of Peking. I’d been abandoned by my parents – my father was an Anglican missionary, but when he’d had me with another woman in China’s British circles… well. Let’s just say that I came into this world with everything stacked against me. No money, no loving parents, no social connections to save me from my bastard origin.”
“Not at all. I thank God every morning and night that my father abandoned me. It’s thanks to His Imperial Highness that I now have my own mansion in Hong Kong and get to visit Peking and teach English to his concubines and viceroys. Serving as his agent seems almost too cheap a payback.” She took a sip of tea. “But you’re right, Colisa. When I speak, it’s not with my voice, but Yixin’s. It’s also true that I came here because you’d signed on to Queen Anna of Arendelle’s Entente of Small Nations, and you’ve even committed a line of credit to the company of Bjorgman House.”
“Yes,” said Colisa. “Will Harrison is pumping lots of money into the rival company of Anna’s fiance, Kristoff. This rival, Skau-Krogh, wants to displace Kristoff’s company, and I’ve heard that Harrison will use this opportunity to reach a new economic settlement in Arendelle that suits him.”
“I know Bjorgman well, they’re Arendelle’s biggest traders with the Celestial Empire. I get my ice from their branch in Hong Kong, on Ice House Street. Skau-Krogh wants in on the China trade too, and Harrison covets Arendelle’s favourable trading privileges with us. How much is the Royal Bank of Chatho loaning the Princely House?”
“The equivalent of three hundred thousand Arendellian kroner. I’m going to Arendelle because I also seek a bespoke trade pact with them, so Kristoff gets new markets that Skau-Krogh won’t,” said Colisa.
“Your loan is a substantial sum,” said Peony, sitting back and setting aside her tea. Despite her modest protestations to common status, she didn’t hesitate to lean back and cross her legs in the queen’s presence. “Do you know how much Bjorgman needs in total?” When Colisa shook her head, Peony said, “By my calculation: one million, eight hundred thousand.” Colisa’s face went pale. The emissary clasped her hands together on her lap. “Yeah. Bjorgman’s in pretty deep trouble. And if we Exalted members are involved, Anna’s grip on power isn’t as assured as you think.”
Peony’s sharp, deep blue eyes narrowed. “Arendelle’s government has credible intelligence that Skau-Krogh is attacking signatories of Anna’s new alliance, trying to force them to dilute or renounce their pledge to Anna and to open their markets to Skau-Krogh.” She raised her fingers. “This means two things: one – you could be next. Two, and this is far-reaching – you can bet Skau-Krogh’s means of war are supplied by Harrison.” Peony took a deep breath.
“Please be honest with me, Queen Colisa. Are you helping Anna because she’s your friend, or because she stands a chance against Harrison?”
Colisa gazed at Peony, silent. Then she replied quietly, “Why can’t it be both? Why do you think Anna doesn’t have a fighting chance? Is cruelty and indifference to anything other than dominating others a prerequisite for your Exalted club? Harrison is a member, isn’t he?”
Peony put a slender hand over her lips, chuckling. “You’re not being fair. His Imperial Highness has shown favour to Arendelle’s royal family for decades. He has a soft spot for the sister-queens. But as leader of the Exalted, he balances all the members’ global interests. We’re transnational, and we don’t serve our states – our countries serve us. So let’s get that out of the way first.”
She paused. “Don’t look at me like that, Colisa, my love. The fact that the prince regent has sent me here to assess Anna’s situation means that he cares. He’s wondering whether Anna’s bluffing, or if she and her allies really do have the guile and strength to outmanoeuvre Harrison.”
“What difference will it make, dear Peony, if he doesn’t act to help?”
“You weren’t listening, Your Majesty. I’m here, I’m the help. I’m the difference,” clarified Peony, her eyes flashing again. “I’m a member of the Exalted too, and I’ll advise His Imperial Highness on who’s best for Europe: Anna and Elsa, or Katina, or Harrison.”
Colisa looked down at her own hands, silent.
Peony rose from the couch. “I’m not going to dissuade you. Things are unpredictable. But since Harrison is helping Skau-Krogh intimidate Anna’s allies, there’s one thing I can do to help her,” she added.
Colisa stood as well, her expression surprised.
“I can put my finger on the scale – just a little. Have you heard of Princess Mari?”
Colisa put a hand on her chin. “I’m afraid not. Where is this royal from?”
“Vesterland. The only kingdom that hasn’t signed on to Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms.” Peony pursed her lips. “You’ve known Elsa and Anna for much longer than Mari, but Mari and Anna shared a special bond during Elsa’s time as queen. They had several adventures together, and Anna discovered her strengths as a diplomat there.” Peony crossed her arms. “Perhaps Mari could be persuaded to be part of Anna’s alliance. I’m sure Anna is thinking the same thing. If Vesterland is capable of assisting, I’ll lean on them – privately – to do so.” Peony gave a bow. “I wish you a safe trip to Arendelle, and I hope you and Anna can help Bjorgman outlast Skau-Krogh’s onslaught, from ice and spices to real estate and shipping.”
Colisa folded her sleeves and nodded. “Thank you, Miss Sinclair. Give my greetings to His Imperial Highness.”
Colisa felt less tense after Peony left the ship, although her concern for Anna and Arendelle’s geopolitical situation returned quickly. As the Chathoan flagship finally set sail, she wondered if even an alliance of small kingdoms could stand up to a bullying member of the Exalted. Her loan certainly wouldn’t cover the funds Bjorgman would need to match Skau-Krogh.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Anna dear,” the queen of Chatho sighed, sitting back down as she felt the waves rocking the ship. “For we follow your lead.”