Peony Sinclair dreamed of the Forbidden City again, and of its exquisite, magnificent Imperial Garden.
Managing world affairs and puppeteering the British Empire’s administrators was taxing work. She’d fallen asleep, her signature equestrian outfit discarded for her nightdress. She was lying across her couch in one of the twenty rooms of her Ottoman mansion in Constantinople, which had a magnificent view of the Bosphorus. It was yet another gift to her from Yixin, one of many stately homes purchased for her operations around the world.
In her dream she saw her five year old self, a little girl with fair hair and silver eyes. It was 1821, a few years after Elsa’s birth. Peony was standing around awkwardly, in her newly washed and dried, frilly English blouse. Her name back then was still Carol. She’d been cooed at and passed around in adoring wonder by the Chinese emperor’s harem women, none of whom had seen fair hair before. Then she was told to wait for someone very important in the Imperial Garden. Not knowing what else to do, she obeyed, wondering who her mysterious host was to be.
China, at this time, was being ruled by the Qing Dynasty. The imperial family of Aisin Gioro were ethnically Manchus. They came from beyond the Great Wall and overthrew the ethnic-Han Ming rulers way back in 1644. Nearly a century later, in 1731, formal trade relations were established between China and Arendelle. The Manchus considered themselves legitimate rulers of the Celestial Empire, assimilating into Chinese culture and becoming part of the Middle Kingdom’s dynastic tradition.
Just a few days ago, Carol been wandering the dirtier neighbourhoods of Peking for several days and nights, hungry, dazed, and heartbroken by the sudden disappearance of her deacon father. She’d heard her parents fighting in their Anglican mission’s quarters. Something about her being “wrong,” “that choirboy whore-mother’s spawn,” and a “nasty surprise.” Apparently, she didn’t deserve to be part of the family. There were sounds of screaming, crying, and worse from both her parents. It had gone on, sporadically, flaring up every few weeks for as long as she could remember. She didn’t really know what it all meant; she was just a child back then. But perhaps recently, her father had decided what he wanted to do with her.
And that was simply to dump her where no self-respecting British adult would ever find her.
Luckily, a humble Chinese servant girl on an errand in the markets had glimpsed and taken pity on her. She approached Carol, offering her food and attention. Carol didn’t mind some kindness, and so didn’t resist being whisked away to the 180-acre residence of China’s almighty emperors.
The Chinese called it Zijincheng: Purple Forbidden City, invoking the North Star of Polaris. The emperor was supposed to be like the Northern Celestial Pole, around which everyone and everything revolved… on Earth as it was among the stars. From the geometrically perfect entrance, the Meridian Gate to Zijincheng’s south, to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Carol had stared in open-mouthed amazement at the regal splendour and grandeur of the emperor’s home. She even managed to get a glimpse of the fabled bannermen, who were patrolling the plazas and passages of the Forbidden City. They were big, bearded men from the north of China. They were riding hardy horses and heavily armed with muskets, longbows, swords, and bannered lances. They were called bannermen because they carried the imperial flag and were the elite of the emperor’s army.
She was the very first English child to set foot in the Forbidden City.
It was cool and slightly humid, the weather very pleasant. Her young eyes wandered around and admired the lotus ponds, the palatial gardenscapes and bridges crossing artificial streams, the rockery, and the exquisitely grown flowers and trees of all varieties – plum blossoms, bamboos, pines, and apricot trees. Then she felt someone bumping into her. She looked up to see a beautiful, taller woman in Manchu robes. Beside her was a taller man, with his hair braided in a traditional Manchu queue indicating subservience to the Qing emperor. Carol looked up at the woman, who looked beautiful but had rather unfriendly eyes.
“Head, hands, and knees on the ground, little foreign girl,” demanded the waiting lady. “You stand before the Celestial Empire’s prince regent, Yixin. He’s not just the crown prince, but your benefactor. Had he not deigned to accord you even a sliver of curiosity, my fellow concubine would have been asked to abandon you the moment she brought you back. Kowtow, on pain of death!”
“You’re so foolish, Jasmine Stalk. Why do you think this child would know how to speak Chinese? Leave us,” said the man beside her quietly. Garbed in the imperial robes of the yellow dragon, Yixin was even more distant, cutting an intimidating and forbidding figure. He had extremely narrow, penetrating eyes. He spoke calmly and evenly, but something about his aura distorted the very atmosphere around him. His calm and gentle voice was made even softer by the luxuriant folding fan that, when open, hid his mouth from Carol’s sight. Yet it was as if there was a simmering tempest, a waiting thunderstorm in his words.
His woman, cowed, quickly bowed and scurried away, leaving Yixin to peer down at the girl, who gazed right back up.
“Little girl, you what name?” he asked, in broken English.
“Wo de ming zi shi Carol Sinclair, huang tai zi,” said Carol, answering directly in Yixin’s tongue. “Huang tai zi” meant crown prince in Chinese. Yixin showed no indication of his surprise at Carol’s bilingual talent, but he tried again in his subpar English once more, assuming that what Carol managed to say was a fluke. It wasn’t.
“You where come Middle Kingdom, the Celestial Empire?” he asked.
“Ying guo, da ren,” replied Carol, “Dan wo shi zai beijing chu sheng de.” “Britain, your lordship, but I was born in Peking.”
Yixin drew closer, peering more intently down at Carol. “You were born here?” he repeated, reverting to his mother tongue.
“Yes,” said Carol, “to my missionary parents. But I’m no longer their daughter.” She looked down, unsure of what to do now.
“I’m alone,” she said truthfully, sad but not tearful.
Yixin’s expression was completely inscrutable behind that elegant fan, which had a yellow dragon woven on its leaves. “Christians, seeking to evangelize us since that Jesuit Matteo Ricci,” he sniffed, “and they can’t even take care of a little girl.” He paused, observing Carol. “What shall I do with you, sweet foreign child? What would you like to do with your young life, now that I’ve had you cleaned, clothed, and fed?” His already fearsome gaze bore even more sharply into Carol’s eyes. “Think carefully before you answer.”
Carol somehow didn’t feel scared. She thought earnestly for a few moments, before piping up, “I’d like to see the world – all of it – and for someone to be with me. To be free but to never be alone again.” Her shining eyes blazed with a special inner strength. “I can be a lot of help to whoever is kind to me.”
Yixin nodded behind his fan. “Kindness ought to be reciprocated with kindness. That’s the first maxim of the wise ruler. Since I’ve done you a kindness, are you willing to answer the call of honour and propriety by doing me a kindness too?”
“Yes, your lordship.”
Yixin’s expression didn’t change at all, but his voice contained every so slightly a hint of pleasure. “Honesty comes to you easily. Good. I will burn the memory of this day into your heart. So that you don’t forget your ties to our glorious imperial family, I shall impart you a new name – one that suits you more than ‘Carol.'”
He looked around the gardens. “Tell me, little girl. What flowers here catch your eye?”
Carol smiled up at him. “They’re all beautiful, my lord.”
“A diplomatic answer that pleases my ears – one that will serve you well when you’re older. But I want you to pick a favourite.”
Carol put a finger on her chin. “Well… in that case,” she said, wandering to where the peony shrubs were: beautiful pink and red, fragrant petals blooming from deeply lobed leaves. “I like these.”
Yixin nodded. “Peonies… yes. They’re one of the Celestial Empire’s most wonderful blossoms. No garden is complete without some. In that case, your new name shall also be Mu-dan.” His eyes glinted. “Peony Sinclair,” he declared in English, and he sounded genuinely proud.
“Oh, your lordship! Thank you, thank you!” cried Peony. She couldn’t help clasping her hands together in delight as it finally dawned on her now. She had a new home and she would never need to wander again unless she wanted to. This was her abode, and she could always come home to him. She felt her heart aching as she gazed at Yixin. Although she couldn’t see it, she could swear he had a smile behind the leaves of his fan.
“Your training begins soon, blooming Peony. I shall refine your Chinese, and when you’re ready, you shall begin teaching my spies your tongue. You’ll earn great power with my guidance and meet extraordinary people. You’ll travel the world as you wanted. Your pleasure will elevate entire kingdoms, and your fury will make continents tremble.”
It was 1843, and now twenty-two years old and a member of the Exalted, Peony was napping in her nightdress when a knock on the door of her drawing room awoke her. She jolted from her vivid dream about her childhood initiation.
“Mistress Sinclair?” came the Turkic houseboy’s voice. “Ma’am, it’ll soon be time for your meeting with Princess Katina Romanov and Mr. Will Harrison. I’ve been knocking on your door all night. Should I tell them to cancel the meeting?”
Peony shook her head groggily, her sensual voice kind and soft. “No, thank you,” she called sleepily. “Have them wait in the lobby. I’ll receive them soon.”
As she heard her houseboy’s footsteps recede, she rubbed her eyes, her silver irises glinting as she remembered her tutelage under Yixin.
She had indeed gained great power over the years, and now she needed to use it to guide the queen of Arendelle to global greatness. That was her “Arendelle Assignment,” given to her personally by the prince regent.
And not even her fellow Exalted members, Katina and Harrison, would stop her, regardless of their own designs on Arendelle.