Peony Sinclair’s equestrian outfit boasted of her lifelong love of racing and her directorship of the British-owned Turf Club on the island colony of Hong Kong. Having crossed the courtyard under the midnight clouds, she glided into Anna’s palace wordlessly, the Arendellian guards knowing better than to stop the English-born agent of the Qing Empire’s prince regent. They kept their halberds at their flanks and saluted deferentially.
Tonight, titans hovered over the stricken, helpless body politic of Arendelle, fighting over the spoils of a gamble that Anna had lost badly. Only the intervention of Peony could help the queen of Arendelle salvage a deal that didn’t completely favour Peony’s fellow Exalted, Will Harrison. They’d been in urgent negotiations over what terms might be acceptable to both parties, with input from Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary of Britain, and Daniel Webster, America’s secretary of state.
Knee-high boots clacking on the palace teak floor, Peony made her way to the drawing room. It had a crackling fireplace, a piano, and a comfortable couch on which a napping Anna was being held in Elsa’s arms as Colisa and Kristoff stood beside the sofa, talking quietly. Michael, Alan, and Nahir were also there, looking at the tall bookcases and flipping through books to pass the time as they waited for Peony. The Snow Queen was stroking her little sister’s red hair when she saw the Exalted member, and she whispered for Anna to wake up. The latter moaned softly, rubbing her eyes and beaming up at Elsa, before she looked around at everyone to orient herself. She remembered why she was here, and her softly smiling face turned sad and tense.
Peony privately sympathized with Anna. How quickly the stress lines were appearing on her beautiful, freckled face. The rings under her eyes were palpable. How terrifying and awful it must be, she thought, to lead a small kingdom in a world of voracious imperial predators. To watch much larger forces barter and deal on your behalf, because you have so little power in comparison.
“Welcome to Arendelle, Miss Sinclair,” said Anna, standing up and giving a short bow. She looked slightly clammy. “Please excuse how we look. We stayed up all night waiting for you.” Michael and Alan looked at Peony somewhat cautiously. “Guys, this is Peony Sinclair, a member of the Exalted. She’s His Imperial Highness’s envoy, his ears and eyes across the world.”
Alan’s lip curled. He was furious with Harrison, but also frustrated by how the Exalted seemed to treat the signatories of Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms. “The Exalted: a club for people who think they can do whatever they want, including bullying sovereign nations,” he said. Despite his impassive face, Nahir nodded in agreement.
Peony sniffed. “We Exalted aren’t united in our opinions. Without our little club, the world would be in even more chaos.” She twirled her horse crop in her hand. “And, since you’re in trouble right now, I’m your best hope.”
Elsa put a protective hand around Anna’s shoulder and held her hand with the other. “What did His Imperial Highness think of Anna’s and my joint appeal?” she asked calmly. “I urged him to remember what he had planned for me when I became queen: to be a light to Europe, to the world. His hope for a light from Arendelle is now on Anna’s shoulders, but she can’t do this alone.”
Since the capture of Mari and the Duke of Weselton, the sister-queens had gone on the offensive: they’d written a jointly signed letter to the prince regent and asked Peony Sinclair to talk to the British parliament, which she had influence over. Michael, as trade minister, had also written to Webster in an effort to see if the United States might be able to rein in Harrison. Arendelle’s Big Three papers had united as well, baying for Harrison to be excoriated by America and its allies.
BAN HARRISON FROM THESE SHORES, bayed the Snow Herald, while the Fjord Times ran with: HARRISON’S BAD FAITH MUST BE PUNISHED. The Arendelle Guardian, the paper closest to Anna, simply declared: RALLY ROUND OUR QUEEN.
“We Exalted deal with each other directly, independently of the governments we puppeteer. Still, since Harrison has played dirty against you and taken hostages, I admit that he shouldn’t get everything he wants.” Peony pursed her lush lips. “Queen Victoria is very sympathetic to your plight, Anna. Lord Palmerston, Mr. Webster, and myself put enough pressure on Harrison to force him to swear to two things: to guarantee the safety of Princess Mari and Weselton’s duke, and to limit his demand for your Chinese trade privileges to two, rather than all four.”
Anna’s heart sank. The trade privileges Arendelle enjoyed with the Qing Empire gave specific, mouthwatering advantages to Arendellian traders, merchants, and financiers. They were bespoke privileges that befitted a Most Favoured Nation:
- Tariff-free imports into China;
- Expedited customs and priority inspections of said imports;
- A reduced tax on Arendellian banks operating in China, and:
- Arendellian law, not Chinese law, applied in areas where Arendellians were permitted to live by the emperor.
These were immensely generous favours, especially the fourth. Arendelle couldn’t be better treated or regarded by the Qing. These articles had powered the Arendellian economy and made it the envy of many others. Losing four was the worst possible scenario, but to even have to give up two of them…
Dazed and devastated, Anna stumbled slightly at Peony’s words, and a horrified Elsa caught her. Kristoff gasped in protest. “You can’t ask Anna to do this!” he cried.
“Harrison may be a conniving bastard, but his argument has some truth to it,” said Peony calmly. “I don’t like it, but if you look past the fact that he’s threatening the lives of two figures of state, he’s offering you something you want. He wants something you have. I’ve already gotten him to moderate his demand. Any further, and he might raise the stakes against Mari and the Duke.”
“Still, it’s a shaky deal for Arendelle,” said Nahir.
“What the blazes are Webster and Palmerston thinking? I expected better of them. Why aren’t they putting more pressure on Harrison!” cried Michael.
Peony peered at them. “They pushed their hardest. I was there. The influence and special interests in Congress captured by Harrison and Hunsecker – no slouch herself, being from a Boston Brahmin family – aren’t insignificant. That Webster supported me in denying Harrison two of four is solid,” she said.
“Can’t the emperor or Lord Yixin intervene?” asked Colisa tersely.
“These privileges aren’t a bilateral agreement. They were a present to Arendelle’s royal family. I can’t stop you from passing on to someone a gift I gave you,” replied Peony. She turned to Arendelle’s queen. “If you agree to my compromise, Anna, then you and Harrison have a deal. You’ll be able to jointly sign a treaty that I’ve prepared for you: the Treaty of Weselton.”
“You’re not giving Anna much room to move,” snarled Alan. “Your fellow member of the Exalted is a bastard.”
“Please, Peony,” said Elsa, “I’m willing to ride Nokk all the way to Peking to see His Imperial Highness himself – “
The room came to a standstill, the tension breaking into several moments of protracted shock.
“You said that? Did you say that?” confirmed Michael in disbelief.
“Anna,” whispered Kristoff, stepping forward. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’ll sign,” repeated Anna quietly, her voice hoarse. “Kristoff, sweetheart… ” She looked at Kristoff, her smile strained. “Can I have some water, please?”
Kristoff gave her a look mixed with absolute adoration and deep worry, before stomping angrily past Peony and heading to the kitchen.
Anna met Peony’s silver eyes as Elsa and her allies gazed at her worriedly.
“For Mari’s and the Duke’s sakes, I’ll sign. For the sake of peace in Europe, I’ll sign. For the sake of the ceasefire you’ve brokered, I’ll sign.”
“Your Majesty,” whispered Nahir, unable to mask his concern.
Anna bit her lip so hard that it began to bleed. “But I beg you, I beg any members of the Exalted that have patience for me… yes, I miscalculated. I didn’t expect Mari and the Duke to be captured, their safety used as a weapon against me. I was trying to defend my kingdom and my allies. I can’t take much more punishment for doing what I promised Elsa I’d do as queen.”
Elsa cradled Anna, her heart aching intensely. “Recall all that you’d said to me whenever I erred and felt wracked with guilt,” she whispered into Anna’s ear. “Repeat the comfort and advice you gave me, but for yourself.”
Peony gazed at Anna for several moments. “Elsa’s right. A great leader isn’t one who knows no defeat. In fact, she knows defeat all too well. But when she’s beaten, she eats the pain, ruminates over her losses, struggles and cries, then comes back stronger and wiser. Can you do that?”
Anna nodded wordlessly. She looked like she just wanted to go to bed and not wake up for a few days.
Peony nodded. “I hope so. That’s what everyone in this room and His Imperial Highness hope.” She turned her back on the Arendellians, shooting a sympathetic look at them. “Come back from this, Queen Anna,” she called, “come back stronger and wiser – you’re already nobler than Harrison. Temper your haste, adjust your strategies – and who knows what footing you’ll be on in the future to take him on?” she speculated aloud.
She closed the door behind her, leaving a distraught Anna to be comforted by Elsa and her friends.