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“How dare that foreign girl run around the Forbidden City like she owns the place!”
“She shouldn’t even be allowed to look upon the prince regent’s face. Yet she sees him almost every month!”
“Does she have some kind of black spell over him? Do they have bewitching magic in England?”
From the consorts and concubines to the eunuchs and princes, murmurs swirled in the imperial clan about the young Englishwoman with a Chinese name. From a wide-eyed five-year-old to a beautiful young lady, over the years Peony Sinclair had grown into a diplomat equally comfortable in the court of the Qing and among the governments of Europe.
Some of the rumours against Peony were malicious; others were genuinely concerned about her safety. Court politics in China was complex and fatal. There were midnight conspiracies and backstabbing between scholar-officials, eunuchs, the harem, and the military. To courtly rivals, it was bad enough that Peony had her own room in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the quarters of the imperial family. When she was just five, Yixin hired Genoese designers to renovate her small room into a European-style bedchamber to make her feel more at home. For her bedside, he imported an Italian clock that the late Qianlong Emperor loved. This was unprecedented, beyond any court member’s wildest fantasies.
The jealousy aimed at Peony, a no-name, bastard foreigner who wasn’t even of royal blood in her home country, was intense and unreal.
But this place was her home. She knew nowhere else.
In the space of less than a decade, Yixin had moulded Peony into a multilingual, world-trotting, fearless, and eminently well-connected agent. At the age of twenty-three, the unusually talented and driven woman had already sailed to more countries than anyone else in all of China. The colonies of both North and South America. The sprawling Eurasian empires like Russia and the steppe communities. The great African tribal confederations and the Southeast Asian trading archipelagos. The sultanates and emirates of Arabia and the Indian princely states. Smaller kingdoms like Chatho, Vesterland, and many more.
All the treaties she’d negotiated, all the political figures she’d dined with, and all the places she’d seen were to test her mettle, and she had passed with flying colours. In all these years, Yixin had afforded her every social and personal freedom as long as she got the job done.
Compared to this one young lady, the entire Zongli Yamen, the government office responsible for Qing foreign policy, was an ossified, geriatric embarrassment. It would soon be time to initiate her into the Exalted, the secret group that truly controlled world affairs behind supposed governments.
Peony was also allowed to ride with the Manchu bannermen, since she’d become an excellent horsewoman in her own right. Each elite imperial soldier was a master horseman, and Peony had developed a deep love for riding. As England had its own proud equestrian tradition, Yixin shipped over four thoroughbred stallions and mares for Peony’s eighteenth birthday. It was perhaps the happiest birthday of her life.
Today she was wearing her signature equestrian outfit: a frilly, feminine white shirt and leg-hugging white tights, embraced by an elegant, buttoned, navy blue coat and knee-high boots made of fine grain calf leather. She was instantly recognizable around the Forbidden City: no one dressed like a British country lady. She entered the chamber of a side hall in the residential complex, a small structure where she met Yixin and received her debriefings.
“My lord, my lord,” said Peony, happily breathless as she hopped up the stone steps and passed the wooden threshold. “I’m here. I rushed to your summons.”
Several feet away, on a wooden, ornately carved chair, Yixin watched her, his expression as severe as ever behind the raised, open fan that hid the lower portion of his face. “That’s not necessary,” he said, as Peony enthusiastically lowered herself into a kowtow and touched the ground with her forehead. Her blonde tresses brushed the floor. Her knowledge of courtly ritual was as sharp as that of an Manchu noble. She stood, suddenly feeling emotional.
“May I approach you, your lordship?” she asked.
Peony walked slowly towards him, her boots clacking on the ground. She stared down at him, and he up at her from his elegant chair. She went on her knees at his side, folding her legs to one side as she sat on the floor and rested her arms on his lap. Such physical familiarity with His Imperial Highness would have meant instant death for anyone – but not Peony. She gazed up at him, her silver eyes shining.
“Eighteen years I’ve stayed in the Forbidden City, training myself to become your eyes and ears. Yet after so long, I’ve never even seen what you look like behind that fan.” She tilted her head wistfully, her heart aching. “I’ve given nearly two decades of my life to you. You’ve been more like a father to me than I could have ever dreamed of. Yet how absurd that I still have seen neither your smile nor your grimace. You’re a mystery to me as ever.”
Yixin stared thinly down at the young lady. “Are you ready for your next mission?”
Peony sighed, burying her face in his lap. “I am, Lord-Change-the-Subject.”
Yixin ignored the playful snipe and declared, “This will be your greatest task, the crowning jewel of your career. I’m assigning you a country to watch over and guide. It’s one that I’ve observed for many years as well. You remember the small kingdom of Arendelle? It lies on the northern latitudes of this planet, like the Manchu homeland, and is extremely cold in the winter.”
“How could I forget? Their king and queen, Agnarr and Iduna, visited us just last year. Iduna even saved me from the wounds I’d suffered in battle. But why me?” asked Peony.
“Because its people will shape the world that is to come, and I want you to be a part of it,” replied Yixin. “I received news last night that Iduna and Agnarr have died. They were lost at sea.” He flapped his fan, ensuring his mouth was concealed. “Arendelle is at the crossroads of the North and Baltic Seas, a critical port and a gateway into Scandinavia. Whoever masters Arendelle will master Northern Europe. They’ve been a faithful, reliable kingdom to us since the Yongzheng Emperor.”
“That was over a hundred years ago.”
“Their daughter, Elsa, will now ascend the throne. On the night of her birth, I gifted her parents with a proclamation that Arendelle was our Celestial Empire’s Most Favoured Nation. She’s special, unique, as is her younger sister, Anna. Given the right conditions, they could reshape the world in a way that would be… “
His gleaming eyes narrowed. “Yes… in a way that would be unlike that of any other country in this world, even my glorious Middle Kingdom. It would be magical.”
Peony looked at Yixin quizzically. “How can I help them?”
“Arendelle will face many challenges as Elsa and Anna grow into their roles as rulers. Oh, I’ll intervene when I see fit. But it will be as rare as the sighting of a unicorn. Elsa and Anna must prove that they can weather the forces that are arrayed against them, some of which come from our own camp.” Yixin’s eyes glinted. “You’ll know quite soon once I’ve initiated you into the Exalted.”
“So I’m to act as a mediator, an intercessor?”
“Yes. And for that, you’ll be spending much more time in Europe. Watch them, guide them where necessary, but allow them to stumble and err, even if it sets back their kingdom or costs them dearly. Help them maintain their alliances but don’t disrupt their domestic politics. In time, they’ll ease into a much grander theatre of statecraft and responsibility. Their horizons will expand and they’ll become regional, continental, global leaders. That is how we shall shape the world in a way that will ensure a thousand years of peace.”
What the prince regent said sounded inspiring. Yet Peony felt uneasy. It was one thing to travel the world pulling strings in Yixin’s name, but to be stationed in places beyond Peking? “Don’t send me away, your lordship. I serve you best here,” she said quietly. She lifted a finger, pouting, and trailed it along the prince regent’s lap. “You’re trying to get rid of me.”
“Rubbish.” Peony could tell that Yixin was smiling behind his opened fan as he stared down at her. “The coming world will be one of chaos and madness should something not change in the way empires rise and fall. Arendelle – no, Elsa and Anna, are the agents who can unite the world in love, just as they’re destined to unite their kingdom with another land of magic in love.”
Peony sighed. “I trust your grand talk will make sense to me, in time.” She got off Yixin and stood up, shifting to stand in front of him.
“One day, I’ll get to see your lordship’s true face,” she declared softly. “I want nothing else.”
Yixin’s expression didn’t change, but his voice had a snigger to it. “Accept this assignment, and I’ll think about it.”
Beaming in satisfaction, Peony put her left hand around her right fist, bowing at the waist.
“Then let the age of Pax Arendellia begin.”