Featured image art by PURY (@puryart)
By Lukas, Defence Correspondent for The Arendelle Guardian
ARENDELLE; SAINT PETERSBURG – The queen and her diplomatic corps set off for Russia in the early morning from the docks aboard Anna’s personal flagship, Pride of Elsa. Leading the corps are Anna, Elsa, and Honeymaren, the new Home Minister of the kingdom. Also accompanying the delegation are Trade Minister Michael and Sir Alan of the Order of the Wheat Stalk. The delegation is also represented by two of the major members of Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms: Mari of Vesterland and Colisa of Chatho.
The delegation will spend a night at the summer residence of Alexander Palace, one of the many opulent dwellings of the Romanov family. Elsa and Anna are expected to meet her sworn adversary, Katina Romanov, and discuss matters of peace and war involving Imperial Russia.
The possibility – indeed, the outright likelihood – of Russian invasion weighs heavily on the Arendellian delegation, with Anna having asked Elsa to lead the team for her connection to the Romanov imperial family. “I hope my presence can serve as a guarantor of continuity between my reign and Anna’s, to show Katina that Arendelle takes the past as seriously as the present and future,” the Snow Queen told our newspaper. “We believe in peace, even if Katina does not.”
The horses stopped before the extravagant facade of the Alexander Palace, which stood about thirty miles from the imperial capital. It had taken about an hour by carriage for the Arendellian delegation to get here. Inside one of the two carriages, the shining and resplendent Elsa smiled to herself as she finished reading the article reporting her journey in The Arendelle Guardian. Of course, the newspaper, in close cooperation with Anna, had cast Russia as the perpetual aggressor, allowing Elsa to get a few digs in at Katina. Chief, the editor of the paper, had also kept mum about the second but equally important agenda of the entourage: to allow Maren and Amira the chance to gather intelligence and evidence of Russia’s military buildup.
The journey by sea aboard Pride of Elsa had taken several weeks (made a little easier by Pride of Elsa’s comfortable cabins), and when they disembarked by the port of Saint Petersburg, Maren and Amira had sprung into action immediately, detaching from the rest of the group to investigate the port of Kronstadt, which was the city’s primary maritime defence outpost and the main base of Katina’s Baltic Fleet.
Before going their separate ways, Maren had shared hugs with the rest of the entourage, reserving a particularly long and intimate embrace with Elsa and Anna. “Protect each other,” she whispered in their ears, as Amira stood at a distance and made a face. Oh, there of course would be entertaining, wining and dining, and restrained talk about the lofty destinies of Arendelle and Russia. But under no circumstances could Maren and Amira be discovered, or Russia might use their infiltration as a pretext for war.
There was a great sense of foreboding among the group, which comprised Anna herself, Alan, Michael, Elsa in her Snow Queen outfit, Princess Mari of Vesterland (she had cut her once-cumbersome hairstyle into something much shorter and more casual), and Colisa, the queen of Chatho and Elsa’s senior. Soon they were ushered into the vast Alexander Palace, with its dazzling gold and marble walls and hallways and the luxurious furniture and eye-wateringly expensive decorations. The guests made their way to one of the many drawing rooms in the east wing of the palace, where they sat down and waited in near-silence. Not that there wasn’t anything to discuss – indeed, there was almost too much to talk about. But the gravity of the impending meeting was overwhelming.
Mari, Elsa, and Colisa sat together. Mari had become an excellent ambassador in her own right, despite the disaster of being captured by Harrison some time ago. Elsa was glad to have reunited with Mari, who was like Anna’s informal protégé from their days trying to hold down jobs in Arendelle and helping Mari’s father, King Jonas. But she was also glad to be reunited with Colisa, and their visit to the Alexander Palace reminded them both of the time they’d negotiated with Nicholas I in the wake of the first Russo-Arendellian War during Elsa’s reign. As if reading her mind, Colisa put a hand over Elsa’s lap.
“You’re magnificent. Your presence alone should be enough to wow them into peace terms,” said the Chatho leader. She thought about how Elsa’s easy trust of others made her such an object of affection to so many, not least to Colisa herself and the new Home Minister. Colisa wondered how many served in Anna’s inner court simply due to a request from Elsa or a deep love for the Snow Queen. Probably quite a few.
Mari beamed, nodding in agreement. “You look just amazing, Elsa. Anna’s been a wonderful mentor to me, but we honestly struggled against Harrison’s overwhelming resources. With you returning to Arendellian politics, I think he and even Katina will think twice about casually threatening us with a corporate or hot war.” She looked worriedly at Anna, who was chatting quietly with Alan and Michael by the tall curtained window.
“That’s the idea,” said Elsa as a gentle joke, and the three young women shared a giggle.
The door swung open as a courtier’s announcement rung through the room: “Announcing Princess Katina Romanov and Grand Duke Nykras!”
The Arendellian delegation tensed up ever so slightly, and Elsa’s eyes flashed. Mari and Colisa pursed their lips. This was it. Apart from Elsa and Colisa, this was the first time any of them had ever set eyes on the Russian member of the Exalted. It was also the first time any of them would get a glimpse of the Grand Dukes. Katina, resplendent in a Russian royal’s dress with immaculately coiffed hair, was the first to step in. Her gait was elegant and her gaze imperious. Alan and Michael tensed: so this was the young woman who had brought so much trouble to Arendelle’s royal family. Anna’s and Katina’s eyes met immediately, and even though Katina’s gaze was filled with the same scorn that she had for Elsa a few years ago, she didn’t look complacent. “Queen Anna and friends,” she acknowledged, her brow raised. “Welcome to Russia.”
Anna gave a tense smile. “Your Highness. I – ”
“You’re different from back then, Snow Queen,” said Katina to Elsa suddenly, her voice a light trill. Mari looked at Katina angrily for ignoring Anna, but Anna fell silent, waiting. “You look as if you’re not afraid of anything.”
“That’s right,” replied Elsa calmly and truthfully, without a hint of showing off. She and Katina stared at each other. “As the Fifth Spirit, I fear nothing.”
“Arendelle’s trade minister, a knight of Anna’s chivalric order, and Vesterland and Chatho’s leaders. An impressive assortment of allies,” said Katina, looking at her other guests as she waved an imperious hand. “This one’s mine.”
At her words, the room suddenly darkened, the candlelights flickering as a shadow began to emerge from the corner of the room. Alan and Michael backed away, eyes widening, as a bubbling, necrotic figure rose from the floor, its black stain spreading across the walls like creeping black moss. Mari gasped as she fled to Anna’s side and Colisa grabbed Elsa’s hands. An elaborately armoured humanoid figure stood before them, encased in ancient Slavic silver. But what was most profoundly unsettling was the figure’s ghost-white slivers of hair, sparsely attached to a mummified face with a deathly sinister expression of oblivion, skull’s eye sockets glowing with an infernal red hue and skeleton’s teeth bared for all to stare at in revulsion.
“A lich,” said Elsa calmly, as the rest of the delegation slowly backed away. “An undying once-mortal that sought eternal life through necromancy, his body reduced to a shriveled husk that still enjoys inhuman mobility and sentience.”
Katina tittered. “Grand Duke Nykras. Introduce yourself.”
The lich turned his horrific head to peer at his ruler, before turning to stare at a horrified Michael and Alan. “Mortalsss for foesss? You disssapoint me, Princesss,” he said slowly. His voice was a spectral whisper that chilled the Arendellians.
“Unholy beast,” whispered Michael. “Katina, I thought your lust for power was bad enough, but to control hellish monsters like this?”
“Freak!” barked Alan.
“Sssay what you will,” dismissed Nykras, his words seemingly slowing time itself. “I’ve long forgotten who I originally wasss. A peasssant? A noble boyar? It mattersss little. I’ve borne witnesss to the Mongol conquessstsss of our lands… to Ivan the Terrible’sss rage-fuelled murder of his own ssson… to Catherine the Great’sss great lovesss.”
He looked directly at Elsa. “Fifth Ssspirit, it ssseemsss only sporting to tell you that Her Highnesss has entrusssted me with the attack on Northuldra and the asssault on Ahtohallan. The foressst will wilt before my deathly rot and undead army.”
Elsa grimaced. “That’s awful to know, lich.”
“Not before the elemental spirits and the tribespeople crush you, monster!” shouted Alan, incredulous that Katina had a general who was targeting the Northuldra forest and the sacred isle of Ahtohallan.
Katina sneered at the fear in the room. “Elsa and Anna. You came to convince me against my invasion of Arendelle.” She pointed a finger at Alan. “This one has many disqualifications as your negotiator, most noticeably his ridiculous temper.”
“I’m not here to negotiate if that’s how you’re going to be,” snarled Alan, his hand on his sabre. “I’m here to kick your – “
The room fell into darkness once again as a blanket of ebony night covered the walls, the windows, and the doors. Again, Mari and Colisa couldn’t help gasping sharply as they felt another necromantic cold spreading through their veins. It was nothing like Elsa’s gentle rime. Nykras stepped forward, his skeletal visage staring balefully at the Arendellians. “Do you truly believe you can beat me?” he asked as he raised a bony hand, its skin and flesh having rotted away centuries ago. But his show of power was quickly shattered as a shimmering snowflake spun onto the roof and scattered the darkness, before exploding into a gentle shower of soft snow that drifted onto the heads of everyone assembled.
Anna turned around proudly.
“That’s my sis,” she said, her heart swelling in pride and love.
Elsa smiled mildly as she lowered her hand. She didn’t shrink back from the lich’s soulless stare. “Don’t look so sssmug. You’re the only one in here who hasss a hope againssst me, girl,” hissed Nykras.
“Everyone calm down,” entreated Elsa. “Katina, my sister, the true queen, is here to negotiate with you terms that would benefit Russia more than a wholescale invasion of Scandinavia. You’ve been planning something of this scale since we first met. I know that you feel wronged by the kingdoms and nations to your west,” she said, stepping forward, “but Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms should be the model that you use for Russia’s protection. By attempting annexation of other nations, aren’t you inflicting the same kind of pain and indignity you feel that Russia has suffered enough of?”
“As a signatory to Anna’s alliance, I think nations are only truly protected in a system of rules and honour, not simply as a client state to a greater power. Russia’s not doing much better than other colonial empires. You can justify imperialism all you want by claiming self-defence,” added Mari. Colisa remained silent, preferring to listen and get a feel of the dynamics in the room.
But Katina shook her head. “No. Scandinavia has been a thorn in our side for too long, aiding and abetting invasions from Western Europe. You could have helped and supported us, but you always preferred to look east for expansion.” Her face twisted into a sadistic grin. “Which is why I’d rather cut Scandinavia out of the picture altogether, and use your whole landmass as my next base for striking back at Britain, France, and their neighbours.”
Colisa visibly gasped while Elsa grimaced. Anna spoke with an even voice. “Grand Duke Nykras said that he’s assigned to attack Northuldra. Does that mean… ” She shuddered at the thought. “… that your other generals are tasked with other theatres of war against us?”
“That’s right,” said Alan suspiciously. “Where are the other Grand Dukes, and are they as ugly at this guy?” he said, pointing at Nykras.
“Well, I won’t show off Sora to you yet, but I can tell you where Yaraslaf is,” sniffed Katina. Anna’s eyes narrowed at the names. Katina seemed to be deliberately keeping mum about their identities. “Yaraslaf is at the port of Kronstadt, awaiting your Northuldra friends who don’t suspect they’re about to perish at the hands of a Grand Duke!”
A shocked silence descended on the Arendellian delegation.
“More generals with bizarre, archaic names? What insanity is this?” said Mari contemptuously, no longer in the mood for diplomacy.
“My Grand Dukes herald from the medieval age of Kievan Rus’. Yaraslaf has been charged with leading the Baltic Fleet as its admiral,” said Katina, her smirk widening. “And I know about Honeymaren and Amira’s secret mission to infiltrate Saint Petersburg and gather intelligence for Arendelle about my forces!” she cried, as Elsa and Anna’s eyes widened in horror. Mari, Colisa, Alan, and Michael looked at each other, unsure of whether to vacate the Alexander Palace on the spot to go to Maren and Amira’s aid, or to stay. Meanwhile, Katina’s manic voice rose. “You came here in bad faith, and I knew I could never trust you Arendellians! So I set a trap and leaked rumours to your spies about my Baltic Fleet’s munitions in Kronstadt!”
“We’ve gotta get out of here, to find them,” said Alan. He glared at Nykras. “If Yaraslaf is anything like that monster… “
“There will be no reconciliation between Russia and Arendelle, especially now that I’ve sniffed out your cute attempt at espionage against me!” cried Katina. “Go to your Northuldra friends if you must, but you’ll find nothing but blood and death in Yaraslaf’s wake!”
“Let’s go. I’d ask Katina’s retainers to fetch our carriages,” said Colisa to Elsa, Mari, Alan, and Michael. “Anna – will you stay to negotiate with this tyrant?”
“Yes,” snarled Anna without hesitation.
For the first time, Elsa looked a bit worried. “She shouldn’t be alone.”
“Go to Maren and Amira, darling. They need help against Yaraslaf,” said Anna. She stepped closer to Katina and glared up at the slightly taller woman. Their eyes met, the leaders’ gazes glued to each other. “You’ve supported me for so long, Elsa. Now it’s my turn to parlay with you, Katina, as Arendelle’s queen.”
Katina grinned viciously. “Suit yourself.” She raised a finger, pressing it rudely against Anna’s chin. “Like a queen piece on a chessboard, you hurl yourself into the fray, betting yourself to save everyone else.” Her face drew closer to Anna’s freckled visage. “You leave yourself vulnerable, you know.”
“I do that a lot,” whispered Anna, not flinching or budging, “but I’m not afraid.”
Katina nodded. “Spoken like a true idiot who still doesn’t know the power of an Exalted member. I’m going to thrash you harder than Harrison ever could. Let’s go,” she crowed, as Nykras stared at Anna balefully. “How about a game of chess?”