Featured image art by chō/chou (@smolmushroomm)
1838. One year before the deaths of King Agnarr and Queen Iduna
It was the first time the royal couple had ever sailed to the East, to see the ruler that had assisted Arendelle’s rise to first-class prosperity and wealth. Already, the early modern world was becoming more interconnected. The crown prince of the Qing had sensed Arendelle’s special destiny while Elsa was still growing inside the belly of the queen, Iduna. The night Elsa was born, Yixin, who puppeteered the Chinese emperor, declared that Arendelle was to be China’s “Most Favoured Nation.”
With that title came four generous trading privileges that allowed Arendelle’s traders to trade freely with the Great Qing, no questions asked. Arendelle got a better deal than the Dutch, the Portuguese, or the Russians could ever dream of. Elsa and Anna’s early years saw their home’s greatest economic expansion since 1731, the year the Arendellian East India Company first travelled to Canton to buy silk and porcelain.
It had taken Agnarr and Iduna several months of travel aboard their ship, first reaching round the North Sea and past the English Channel, then around Western Europe and along the coast of the great African continent, before swinging back up and weaving through the subtropical archipelagos and making for Canton in Southern China. They finally reached the port, whereupon they disembarked and were received by the hoppo, a stout, well-fed mandarin who prepared them for the trip inland, towards the Forbidden City in Peking.
When they arrived at the emperor’s residence, which was larger than the entire kingdom of Arendelle, they were received by the Celestial Empire’s elite imperial guard: the bannermen, who carried lances with the flag of the imperial dragon, muskets, and longbows and quivers bristling with arrows.
Mysterious and somewhat otherworldly, Yixin stood at the Meridian Gate, looking majestic as ever in his yellow robes, yet somewhat forbidding with his raised hand holding his open fan in a way that covered the lower portion of his face. Meanwhile, Agnarr looked so very sharp in his Arendellian king’s uniform, his breast pocket decked with honours, and Iduna was as graceful and elegant as ever in her queen’s garb. The Qing bannermen saluted the Arendellian royals’ approaching sedan, which was being carried from the front and back by four burly, muscular men.
“Welcome to my home, Your Majesties,” said Yixin in his reedy voice, as two beautiful Chinese attendants helped Agnarr and Iduna dismount. “At last, I meet the royal couple I’ve invested so much hope in, years after we first began to write each other.”
“Your Imperial Highness. We’ve journeyed long and far to come here. What an honour it is to finally see you,” said Agnarr, who was about to drop to his knees to kowtow. His chief courtier, Kai, had warned him that the Qing might expect a show of deference. But Yixin noticed Iduna giving her husband a perplexed look. Unlike European kings, Northuldra women weren’t used to bowing and scraping before anyone – even rulers. Yixin nodded at his female attendants, who rushed forward and caught Agnarr as he lowered himself. The king of Arendelle looked up in surprise and slight embarrassment.
“No need,” sniffed Yixin, his expression still completely unknown behind that fan with the red colour and imperial dragon. “Only for you two,” he added pointedly. It would have been a grave insult for any other monarch to refuse the kowtow. After all, everyone wanted a slice of that near-limitless trade with the Celestial Empire. However, Yixin had far bigger plans than any ritualistic pedantry.
Iduna smiled apologetically at Yixin. “Thank you, your lordship,” she said.
Yixin nodded and began to walk towards the great Meridian Gate, which opened out into plaza after expansive plaza of the Forbidden City. Flanked by Chinese attendants, Agnarr and Iduna followed, walking carefully as they looked around their geometrically harmonious and grand surroundings in slight awe. For a while, they exchanged small talk, before Yixin brought up the subject matter that he felt was most interesting and important.
“Elsa’s nearing twenty-one summers, is she not?” asked Yixin quietly, his penetrating eyes peering at Iduna. “Has she displayed anything special about her? My astrologers had predicted that her birth would occur on the day the celestial mansions align perfectly with the Pole Star, and they were right. She’s the reason why your kingdom is unique and of particular interest to me and to China.”
Agnarr and Iduna glanced at each other, and there was a sudden air of discomfort and sadness between the royal couple. “She manifested some magical powers many years ago, but she hasn’t been able to control them,” said Agnarr, and Iduna hung her head. “We’re… still trying to work out how she can live with them without being destructive. Her little sister, Anna, suffered a terrible accident that happened while they were playing as children.”
“Hmph. I see.” Yixin looked at them thinly, and despite his partially hidden visage, Agnarr and Iduna could tell that he knew something had gone horribly wrong in their household. He turned away, refraining from raising any further questions. Agnarr and Iduna cringed inwardly. Elsa should have been a source of not just personal joy, but also of national pride. Instead, they’d made several severe missteps, and now, Anna and Elsa were isolated from each other, with Elsa locked in her own room for the greater part of her childhood.
A Qing courtier rushed up to Yixin, momentarily distracting the three leaders. “Reporting, Your Imperial Highness!” he cried, getting on one knee with his clasped hands raised. “Miss Peony Sinclair’s fever has risen to worrying levels. She’s overheating from the many wounds she’s sustained and on the verge of unconsciousness. If she faints, we might not get her back.”
The lady attendants around Yixin gasped, and the prince regent’s eyes flashed. “Hm.” He turned to Agnarr and Iduna. “I have a matter to attend to. Would you care to refresh yourselves and wait for me?”
“Whoever this Peony is, she sounds like she’s in big trouble,” protested Iduna, stepping forward. “Can we help?” She could sense instinctive reluctance from the prince regent, so she added, “I happen to have some experience with helping children and teenagers. And if she’s unwell, I have some hierochloe in my medicinal pouch, along with some other herbs that might help ease her pain and dispel her fever.”
Yixin stared at Iduna, before shooting a look at Agnarr. “Does your wife always carry around restorative plants with her?”
“It’s a habit that she picked up from her homeland,” said the Arendellian king ambiguously, nodding.
“How unusual,” responded Yixin, although he declined to probe further about this mysterious homeland. Agnarr and Iduna couldn’t tell if the Chinese prince regent knew that Iduna was actually from Northuldra, a land estranged from Arendelle. After several moments of considered thought, he finally said, “Very well. Your confidence, Iduna, piques my interest.”
They made their way to the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a sub-complex that contained Peony’s small but comfortable room. Agnarr, Iduna, and Yixin and his entourage of worried attendants strode into the room, where a young Englishwoman, who looked only slightly younger than Elsa, was lying on a European-style bed. Her blonde hair was spread under her sweating head as she wheezed, moaning quietly. She was stripped naked, with only a blanket covering her as her body struggled from several bandaged wounds on her limbs and her upper body. Agnarr gasped in horror, while Iduna rushed to Peony’s bedside, rummaging through her pouch.
“What happened to this Peony Sinclair, Lord Yixin?” asked Arendelle’s queen. “Is she your daughter?”
“In a manner of speaking. I raised her after she was abandoned many years back. She’s in a poor state now, but she’s otherwise always been an excellent representative for me. Perhaps she felt she was ready for more than just diplomacy and negotiations,” replied Yixin, and for the first time his voice betrayed a hint of exasperation. “I should have insisted that she not go, but Peony begged me for permission to lead our army against the Black Lotus sect some weeks ago. Rebellions have recently been springing up around our empire. I could have easily crushed them, and I usually do. But in her enthusiasm to contribute to the war effort, she… ” He gave a quiet, guttural snarl that unsettled everyone around him. “You see before you how this idiotic girl ended up,” he finished, his reproachful words masking his concern.
Iduna immediately got to work, covering Peony’s bandaged wounds with several green herbs and crushing an array of colourful Northuldra berries with her hands, which she then put in her mouth and calmly pressed her lips to Peony’s, feeding her directly the concoction that she learned from the tribal elders she’d left long ago. She ignored the hushed whispers from the women behind her and by the door. Peony coughed loudly as Iduna withdrew her lips from the young woman’s mouth, swallowing the berry juice. Agnarr broke the tense quiet with a shout of triumph. “Look, Your Imperial Highness! Iduna’s medicine works wonders.”
He was right. Peony was stirring faintly, and the colour on her face was returning, her fever suddenly settling down and receding.
“Keep the herbs I put on her bandages and they’ll accelerate her wounds’ healing and bodily regeneration,” advised Iduna, standing up and noticing with a degree of satisfaction that the attendants were now looking at her in admiration and even jealousy rather than scorn. “The mixture I fed her will cool her down and help her regulate her temperature while she recovers.”
Yixin’s eyes glinted as he looked down at his ward. For the first time since Iduna and Agnarr had met him, he lowered his fan, revealing at last his profoundly unsettling secret: two rows of jagged, beast-like teeth jutting out from his mouth. Iduna felt a sudden surge of fear and Agnarr looked shocked, but they were too focused on what Yixin was doing as he leaned over Peony. He reached down, tenderly cupping Peony’s flushed cheek as she slowly opened her eyes, her silver irises gazing up at Yixin.
“My lord?” she murmured blearily, her pink lips curling into a small smile. She was no longer drenched in sweat. Her slender fingers emerged from under the blanket, reaching for Yixin’s hand and grasping it.
At her touch, Yixin’s deformed face broke into what could be recognized as a grin, despite his bestial appearance. “My precious flower,” he rasped, “you seem to be of clear mind and sounder body. Thanks to this young queen,” he added, turning to Iduna, who had shuffled back respectfully. “I should have sensed something was very special about you, Iduna.” He peered at a pleased Agnarr. “I’m sure that’s why Elsa is special as well, and I trust your husband ultimately knows why you’re so unique.”
“Don’t worry, your lordship. Agnarr knows all about me,” replied Iduna, laughing good-naturedly. “I’m so glad I was able to help this lovely young woman. I’m glad you’re feeling better, Peony.”
Peony slowly turned her head, smiling tiredly at Iduna. “Hello, Your Majesties. My lord told me about you two – that you’d be arriving today. Oh, I’ve been a fool. To be unable to recover in time for such important guests, and to be healed only because you’ve blessed us with your visit today… ”
“Don’t mention it,” said Iduna at once, taking Agnarr’s hand. “I promise you’ll be out and about soon, Miss Sinclair. The Great Qing has been such a good friend to us that I couldn’t just stand by when I overheard Yixin and his attendants discussing your injuries.”
“When I’m better, I’ll visit Arendelle. I’d like to meet Elsa and Anna in person. And you can give me a better welcome than what I was able to offer you here,” joked Peony.
Iduna and Agnarr looked at each other and beamed. “That’s a wonderful idea,” said Agnarr, “and we hope you’d come with His Imperial Highness. The threads that we weave today will connect our futures in ways we don’t fully understand. Yet those relationships are there, and we’ll be grateful for them when we have the chance to bring our lives closer together. Here’s to our longstanding and unbreakable friendship – our people of Arendelle and the people of the Great Qing.”
Sadly, that day of Iduna and Agnarr welcoming Peony to Arendelle’s harbour would never come. Peony’s saviour and new friends would die at sea the following year.
And in 1839, one year after their first and final meeting, Lord Yixin would set forth the Arendellian Assignment for Peony, focusing attention on the soon-to-be sister-queens in the wake of their parents’ untimely demise.