Amira’s fortnight-long incarceration didn’t particularly strain her endurance and tolerance of isolation. In her training sessions she’d meditate in caves and behind waterfalls for entire days, and she had spent the last couple of years largely alone, away from Yelena and the rest of the tribe. Still, it felt good to be released from her chains, to be able to stretch her legs properly as she followed Honeymaren from Arendelle Castle’s dungeon. She rubbed her wrists, shooting sideways glances at the new Home Minister’s Arendellian attire. “I’d say something about your fashion sense, but since I’m your guest and still-prisoner, I’ll bite my tongue,” she said. Of all the Northuldra, she respected Maren the most.
“It’s just to fit in,” replied Maren. “I promise you, Amira – I’ve been fighting for Northuldra’s interests here. There are better ways to get what we want for our land and tribe than fighting Arendellians.”
“You want political solutions,” said Amira, as they arrived at the tall door of the dining room. “I hope they’re going to be more than Anna doing symbolic gestures. I guess her appointment of you wasn’t a bad start.”
Maren put a hand on the doorknob and twisted. “Political solutions, yes,” she said, as they walked into the large hall, “but that’s not to say that there aren’t opportunities to put your training to use. In fact, that’s what we’re here to discuss tonight.” There were several tables about, but only two of them were occupied. The queen was waiting at one of them, and seated around the circular table were Kristoff, Mattias, Alan, and Michael. But there were two additional guests: Arendelle’s top military leaders, General Mattias and Commander Hilde. They sat separately, at a corner table, muttering among themselves as they wolfed down steak and potatoes and red wine.
“They’re probably discussing their soldiers’ drills and war games. Thank you for giving me a chance to talk to you,” said Anna, smiling kindly and gesturing for Amira to sit.
“Glad you could join us after you tried to kill my fiancée,” said Kristoff wryly.
Amira looked at Maren and Kristoff sourly, before lowering her eyes. An attendant came to serve the courses, first scooping piping hot tomato soup from an elegant tureen into wide-rimmed bowls. “I guess there isn’t anything else for me to do here, anyway. And I want to learn more about what you know about this Russian matter that Maren mentioned,” she said to Anna.
“Well, I’m glad you’re willing to at least entertain the idea of helping us,” piped up Michael. “I’ve been discussing the Russian matter with the Diarchy, and things are pretty serious.”
“That’s right. This trip to Saint Petersburg we’re all going together on – peace or war with Russia could hinge on it,” agreed Alan. “Mari of Vesterland’s joining us, right?”
“Yes,” said Michael. “Since she’s promised to assist our queen, my dear niece Elsa will be leading the delegation with Maren. But Amira… ” He looked at her, and she raised an eyebrow.
“It’s time I explained myself.” Anna gave a loud slurp as she got into the soup. Her guests quietly began their first course, too. “I’d like to tell you a story about a vengeful princess, her daddy’s failed invasion, and the current state of play,” said the queen. “When Elsa was queen, Nicholas I invaded Scandinavia. She beat him back with an alliance led by her and Colisa, at great cost. She didn’t let me participate in the war,” she added sourly, before continuing. “That was where I got my idea for my Entente of Small Kingdoms. It was also a conflict that Elsa never resolved with Princess Katina Romanov, the tsar’s daughter and Exalted member. She wants revenge and sees Scandinavia as a critical choke point for Russia. She’s also much more formidable than her dad.” She looked over at Mattias, who excused himself from his conversation with Hilde. “Destin, can you please update Amira?”
“Of course,” called Mattias as he strode over. He gave everyone a warm smile, before reporting what he knew. “Based on the communications our Ravens intercepted and some strategic analyses by Hilde and I, Katina is planning three phases of her invasion. She’ll target our Arendellian heartland. But she’ll surely also mobilize her Baltic Fleet to dominate the North and Baltic Seas, so we’re looking at an all-out naval conflict. And the final component is where you come in, Amira and Maren.”
He glanced at Anna, who nodded. “We’ve intercepted communications about a third front: Northuldra itself. If this is true, Princess Katina is aiming for three theatres of war. The entirety of Northuldra-Arendelle is fair game. If we don’t stop her, we won’t even be able to debate ideas like re-integration. Forget about Anna’s hopes for unification, forget about even isolation, Amira. There’ll be nothing left except the standard of the double-headed eagle flying above the whole of Scandinavia.”
Michael, Alan, and Kristoff shifted uncomfortably. Even though they’d been briefed before dinner, the facts still hit hard. Amira’s jaw slackened in shock and almost dropped. It was hard to believe, but apparently the threat of invasion was on the minds of everyone in Anna’s inner circle.
“And that’s not all,” said Maren, as she took a swig of spring water from her glass. “May I, Anna?”
Maren pressed her thumb against her eye ridge, massaging her tired face. The main course was being served; everyone was receiving a plateful of fresh vegetables, steamed fish freshly caught from the fjord, and steamed potatoes. “We also know that Katina’s coming invasion will be led three of Russia’s greatest generals. We know next to nothing about them, though. The leaks go only so far. We just know that they’re all Grand Dukes.” Maren stuck a fork in her veggies. “We need all the help we can get. We’re blessed to have General Mattias and Commander Hilde with us, but the defence of our home must be a united effort.”
Amira’s lip curled, hiding her shock at how immense the scale of the threat facing Northuldra and Arendelle was. “I suppose war does have a way of bringing together unlikely parties.”
“That’s why we must work together,” said Michael. “You’re not just our unlikely ally. We want you to be our friend, to stand with us.”
“If you’re able to put your hatred of Arendelle behind you,” added Alan.
Anna piped up, tapping her fingers on the table. “Three Grand Dukes. Three possible theatres of war. But – and there’s a big but here – Elsa and Maren have a chance to talk to the Grand Dukes when they head to Saint Petersburg as part of my diplomatic entourage. Katina has assigned them to meet with us.”
“Katina won’t even speak to the Queen of Arendelle,” said Mattias bitterly. “Even the prince regent Yixin, the leader of her damned Exalted group, has deigned to receive letters from both Anna and Elsa. Who does Katina think she is?”
“Lord Yixin actually likes me and has been interested in my family for a long time,” said Anna, poking at her food. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure the Grand Dukes are hiding something – munitions, barracks with soldiers, supply depots – in the heart of Saint Petersburg.”
“We need to run a covert operation alongside our official mission to Katina,” elaborated Maren, “to find out just how strong their forces in the city are. You’re better at espionage than anyone I know, Northuldra or Arendellian. It’s the first step to figuring out how much stronger the Russians have grown since Nicholas I’s invasion. We really need your help to lead this secret assignment.”
Amira had been listening so attentively that she’d touched neither her soup nor her fish. Kristoff, Alan, and Michael were halfway through their meal. “So you want me sneaking about the city spires while Elsa and Maren talk to the Grand Dukes,” she said to Anna.
“Maren’s probably already mentioned this to you, but if you’re willing to lend a hand to the kingdom, I’m more than happy to commute your incarceration, and offer you lodgings so comfortable that you wouldn’t even feel like you’d been arrested,” replied Anna. “I’m even willing to abrogate your arrest, since you’ll be risking yourself for Arendelle and more than making up for what you did. And Maren also probably revealed to you that I’ve made her Home Minister. I’m deadly serious about involving Northuldra as an equal region to Arendelle. You could find yourself in a very senior and respected position here.”
Alan and Michael leaned in. “Please, Amira,” said Michael, as she mulled over Anna’s words. “This is no longer about just Northuldra and Arendelle.”
Alan nodded. “Things have gone international. We have Harrison and Katina breathing down our necks. And now Arendelle faces a challenge like never before. We need you.”
“What do you say, Amira?” asked the queen, her voice steady but also uncertain. “All hands on deck?”
Maren bit her lip as Amira parted her lips to respond.
“I’m willing to help Maren and you, Anna, but only because the strength of your conviction about Arendelle and Northuldra’s united future seems to match the cynicism and hopelessness I feel about such a future.” Her eyes were shimmering. “I really want to believe, even if I’m still not sure.”
Maren and Anna looked at each other, gasping in relief, as Michael and Alan relaxed and beamed at Amira. “Alright!” cried Kristoff, fist-bumping Mattias, who grinned in amusement.
Hilde watched it all from her corner table, a very slight smile on her lips.
Perhaps Amira would find more herself more at home with Anna’s team than she expected. But the stakes were high. Elsa, Maren, Alan, Michael, and Amira were actually headed to Saint Petersburg, along with Vesterland’s Mari and Chatho’s Colisa. Elsa and Anna had handled diplomacy on a grand scale before, but not quite like this.
The fate of two nations – Arendelle and Russia – rested on this epic encounter.