Featured image art by PURY (@puryartist)
Read Part One here! Grand Duke Nykras reveals his dread necromantic powers!
Read Part Two here! Honeymaren and Amira take on Grand Duke Yaraslaf the werebear!
“Check.” Anna moved her bishop along the chessboard, cornering Katina’s king piece. Her eyes glinted. “I wonder if I can put you in checkmate soon?”
Surprised once more at Anna’s aggressive play style, Katina grimaced, looking at Anna with a strained smile. “You’re pretty good, Queen of Arendelle.”
Anna smiled. “Thanks, Katina, and I mean that. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent many a late night playing with Elsa and Kristoff.”
She reclined, hands behind her back. “Honestly, I have to admit – I thought after Elsa and my team left, you were going to have Nykras put me under house arrest or something.”
“A sovereign doing such a thing to another sovereign? And why would I worry about you attacking me? I have Nykras and Sora in the palace with me. And just because I hate you doesn’t mean I play dirty. You’re the one who sent Northuldra spies into my city. But I’m so straight with you, I’m even showing you my hand: the Grand Dukes that will lead my invasion.” She stared at Anna. “Mr. Harrison is the one who loves to play dirty. He’s a wily fox, a typical merchant prince. But I prefer war to be a duel. Just like a face-to-face conversation, or a game of chess.”
They were sitting over a game table in Katina’s drawing room, which was so large that it was twice the size of Anna’s drawing room back in Arendelle Castle. It was lavish and sumptuous, with voluminous curtains and gold leaf wallpaper, the walls themselves festooned with portraits of Katina’s ancestors, including Peter the Great. He was the one responsible for kicking off the reforms of feudal Russia and transforming it into an early modern superpower in Eurasia. There were mechanical trinkets, dolls, and toys on mahogany shelves, lavishly painted tables, and burning candles mounted on the most elaborately decorated candlesticks.
“How did the Grand Dukes come to serve under you?” asked Anna curiously, as she took Katina’s last knight. “If Yaraslaf and Sora are anything like Nykras, they seem to be pretty ancient beings.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” said Katina, sweeping her queen across the board and mopping up Anna’s rook. “In one way or another, each of them has been bound to serve my family through the ages. See? I shouldn’t be telling you this. Nykras, the lich, swore to protect the Rus’ lands when he was just a common soldier fighting the Mongols. That was how many centuries ago, now? Yaraslaf – he should be beating the pulp out of your friends now – is the champion of an extinct race of Arctic creatures that helped us Russians to explore the Arctic. And Sora… ” Katina smiled as she moved her king again. “She’s a different beast for the Romanovs altogether.”
She peered at Anna. “Check.”
“I completely understand your fear about Scandinavia being a pawn of the Western Europeans. Your family must have been quite frustrated with Elsa, perhaps even my father Agnarr,” said Anna, ignoring Katina’s taunt. Her pawn reached the eighth rank and was promoted to a rook. It was hard to accept that perhaps Katina really did feel justified in all her aggression. Maybe Lord Yixin was waiting to see who was a worthy steward of northern Eurasia. That would hurt if it were true, but Yixin’s favour for Arendelle never precluded him from allowing Katina a chance to prove her ways were right. “We won’t get anywhere unless I’m willing to make concessions that would bolster Russian security. To that end, I’d be willing to sign a treaty of non-alignment and neutrality with France and Great Britain.”
She saw an opening in Katina’s defence and went for the kill.
“Checkmate,” she said, using her newly promoted rook to corner Katina’s king piece with her waiting queen. She winked at Katina. “I forgot to tell you – I beat Kristoff and Elsa handily all the time. So I guess I’m being sneaky again.”
Katina’s eyes widened in momentary shock and anger as she realized that she had no way out. She closed her eyes, her chest heaving as she tried to contain her fury. She smiled. “You’re a good strategist, I’ll give you that. And that’s a nice idea, non-alignment. Unfortunately, non-alignment isn’t enough, because all France needs to do is to tell you to not get in the way, and you could easily let France strike the Russian heartland without technically violating a promise of non-alignment. I’m done tolerating that.”
“Does it need to be so stark? Does the choice need to be so binary?” asked Anna, eyes shining as she looked up at her. “Arendelle has been at peace for centuries. I’d like to keep it that way, especially with a Great Power like your country.”
Katina thought for a moment. “I’m willing to consider a treaty under which the Kingdom of Arendelle pledges to support Russia in the event of any invasion that my country suffers.”
Anna shook her head. “I can’t do that, Katina. I’m so sorry. You know as well as I do that such a clause would simply make my kingdom an extension of Russia’s foreign policy… your foreign policy. I won’t let Arendelle be reduced to a military port or colony for you.”
Katina’s eyes flashed as she stood up, snapping her fingers. “Then I’m afraid at this point, there’s not much that you can do to convince me that Scandinavia wouldn’t be better off under Russian… supervision. If it’s of any comfort, don’t blame yourself for our peace talks failing. You can blame me, and I bet your kingdom’s newspapers and people already do.”
“Well, I might blame you,” said Anna, her expression hardening, “but Elsa partly blames herself for not being able to make complete peace with your father.”
Katina smirked cynically. “Ever the saint, that Elsa. You and her were always adorable, in your own infuriating way. I can see the headlines now in the newspapers and gazettes of Arendelle and its allies: Russia will always be the baddie for defending its interests. It’s a bull**** tale as old as time and I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. I’m retiring for the evening now, and I don’t see much point in discussing more. I hope you don’t feel your trip to Saint Petersburg was wasted.”
“Not at all. To finally meet you for the first time was quite important to me,” replied Anna. “Now I’ve met every member of the Exalted, and while Lord Yixin might be the scariest, you’re easily the most bloodthirsty. I will resist, you know. Arendelle will resist.”
“Ha! I’m betting on it,” said Katina. “In the meantime, whether you choose to return to Arendelle immediately, or to hurry to Kronstadt to help your friends, is up to you. There’s a coach waiting for you downstairs. Just tell the coachman where you want to go.” She turned away. “Good night, Queen of Arendelle. I enjoyed our game of chess. I look forward to the day my generals meet you and Elsa on the field of battle.”
Anna followed the attendant to the main door of the Alexander Palace, just beyond the vast lobby of the entrance. Before she stepped into the waiting coach, she did as Katina told her to and approached the coachman on the box. He and the footman were upright and professional. “Where to, Your Majesty?” asked the coachman, tipping his hat. “Do you have a ship waiting for you at the docks?”
“Yes,” replied Anna, “but take me to the gates of Kronstadt first.”
“At this time of night?” was the surprised reply.
“I’m afraid so. There are people I need to pick up before I leave Saint Petersburg for Arendelle. Please hurry!”
As she sat down in the soft coach seat and looked out at the dark courtyard of the palace, her heart began to race. No, she thought, as the horses’ hooves began to clop along the ground. She wouldn’t leave Saint Petersburg without ensuring every single person she’d come with was going home with her. That was her duty as queen, and if Russia thought it could force her surrender by presenting impossible choices to her, the empire had another think coming. Even at her lowest point after Elsa and Olaf’s deaths, Anna had been willing to sacrifice the entire kingdom to right her family’s wrong.
Katina could force Anna to make choices, but they might not be to Katina’s liking.
Yaraslaf stood over Maren’s and Amira’s broken bodies, roaring in triumph as Elsa was surrounded in a pillar of light. The diamond-shaped ice crystals representing the four elements gathered around her, swirling about and filling the entire sky of Kronstadt. An ethereal choir echoed across the empyrean.
“Why didn’t you come to me earlier?” he roared to Elsa. “You’re a much more suitable challenge for me!” He launched into a fierce charge, but felt a sharp pain in his arm as gunshots rang into the night. Smoke trailed from the barrel of Michael’s Colt. The trade minister lowered his firearm, which looked slightly different to the usual American-built Colt that he’d wielded before. His usually friendly face was alight in anger as his eyes darted at Maren, who was cradling the barely conscious Amira and whispering comforting words into her ear.
“Commander Hilde had anticipated a moment when I’d need her expertise in defending against adversaries of a more… supernatural sort. This gun is refitted with bullets from the Altheim family’s armoury. Perfect for slaying spirits and other creatures of the mythic world,” declared Michael.
“Nice contingency. But not enough!” Yaraslaf roared, tightening his forearm, and Hilde’s bullets slipped out of his wounds and fell to the ground. He charged at Michael, but Elsa had summoned her first wave of elemental shards, blasting Yaraslaf with full force and hurling him back several yards, his burly form crashing and leaving a crater in the ground. Yaraslaf coughed blood, his bear eyes alight in shock, fury – and excitement. He struggled back up, but was pushed back again by Michael’s bullets and Elsa’s repeated ice blasts. Alan, meanwhile, advanced with his sword, forcing Yaraslaf on the defensive as his blade met Yaraslaf’s axe in a flurry of parries and slashes. Alan’s manic eyes reflected his ferocity as he hacked and thrust at Yaraslaf. “You’re all formidable,” growled Yaraslaf, blood pouring from several wounds on his head, torso, and arms and staining his white fur. “But – ”
He lunged forward, enveloping Alan in a crushing, literal bear hug. Alan wheezed as the Grand Duke threw him aside and leaped into the air, his huge feet aiming straight at Michael. But Elsa’s strong gust of wind shunted Yaraslaf aside, sending him crashing again into a warehouse. She then redirected the wind to carry Alan gently along the air so that he could roll along the ground comfortably. “Thanks, Elsa!” he called.
“Don’t mention it,” cried Elsa, as she sent a new barrage of icicles that Yaraslaf batted away with his axe. He bashed aside a pillar of jagged ice, before powering through a hailstorm that Elsa hurled at him. He drew near Elsa and was about to swing his axe when Alan attacked again, forcing Yaraslaf to respond to Alan’s blade and Michael’s bullets.
As Elsa, Michael, and Alan held back Yaraslaf, Colisa, the most senior leader of the group, assumed command. “Mari, can you help Maren take Amira away from the battlefield?” she asked. Mari nodded, and they hurried to the stricken Northuldrans. “Are you alright, Maren?” asked Colisa tersely.
Maren winced, cupping Amira’s cheek. “My ribs are shattered and I can’t move. Amira… she’s hurt far worse. Broken bones everywhere.” She looked up at Mari and Colisa, biting her lip. “I’m not sure either of us are in any shape to flee with you.”
“Don’t say that!” cried Mari. “No one is leaving anyone at the mercy of that beast.”
“I… wasn’t enough,” moaned Amira faintly. She insisted on speaking even though Maren put a finger to her lips. “We couldn’t stop him. So you… had to abandon Anna and come here to save us.”
“Again, don’t say that, silly,” demanded Mari. “Anna was the one who asked us to come to you here, and we’ll leave together!”
Elsa met Yaraslaf’s renewed charge with a barrage of elemental crystals. She leaped away as the Grand Duke slammed his clenched paw into the ground, hurling stone and wood everywhere. “Anna would never think of us as having abandoned her. Besides, she’s not about to abandon us either,” she said, smiling at Michael and Alan knowingly.
Michael and Alan stared at each other, and then into the immediate distance as they heard a rumbling of hooves and neighing. Yaraslaf looked up as well as a coach with two stallions screeched towards them, its coachman sweating in concentration. “Hello, ladies and gentlemen!” cried the footman. “The queen of Arendelle is here to pick you up!” The horses neighed loudly as the coachman shouted at them to stop, and the coach almost unbalanced and tipped over.
The ornate carriage door flung open, with Anna leaning out as she pushed the door aside. “There’s enough room for all of us!” she screamed. “Get Maren and Amira in!”
Colisa and Mari scrambled to carry the Northuldra warriors into the carriage. “Hurry!” cried Colisa, as Yaraslaf continued his relentless assault against Elsa, Michael, and Alan. Michael finished firing the last of Hilde’s bullets, swearing and backing away as Alan’s sword shattered at a particularly devastating blow from Yaraslaf’s axe. “****!” shouted Alan. He ducked a swipe from Yaraslaf’s paw. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” He and Michael made a dash for the carriage as Mari and Colisa scrambled in, with Anna holding on to Maren and Amira. Elsa unleashed a tornado that hurled Yaraslaf away, throwing him off Michael and Alan as they managed to clamber into the carriage. They hugged a relieved Anna before quickly attending to the Home Minister and Amira, who were both breathing shallowly on the satin seats.
“Hurry, Elsa!” cried Colisa, as Anna shouted at the coachman to get his horses ready to gallop like they’ve never galloped before.
Elsa calmly avoided Yaraslaf’s enraged swipes as she called, “Get that carriage moving, Anna!” Anna complied, screaming for the coachman to get going, and the horses began to gallop towards the gates of Kronstadt, with Elsa trailing behind as she threw blast after blast of elemental energy at Yaraslaf, who was injured but barely slowed down. “You’re strong, I admit that,” she shouted, as she summoned a gust of wind to take her alongside the carriage. “Stronger than any I’ve ever exchanged blows with.” She landed atop the carriage in a crouch, giving a wave to the frustrated Yaraslaf. “A good evening to you. This is the part where you stop threatening my friends and retreat.”
Yaraslaf howled in rage. “You think this is over?” he snarled. “So you saved the two Northuldra. But I’ll be commanding the Baltic Fleet, while Nykras leads his undead armies to the forest! Your friends will see us soon enough.” He stopped his pursuit and stomped his foot, snarling as the carriage horses outpaced him. He was strong beyond belief, but he wasn’t able to keep up with them as long as Elsa was protecting the coach. “You’re a mischievous one, Snow Queen. I look forward to the day we Grand Dukes wipe that confident grin off your mangled face!” he roared, howling his mighty rage through the Saint Petersburg night.
Elsa smiled grimly as she kept an eye on the receding werebear warrior. “That was a close call,” she breathed. It was their victory – kind of. But now Elsa had seen for herself the power of one of the Grand Dukes. Meanwhile, inside the carriage, Anna, Colisa, and Mari carefully attended to their injured and feverish Northuldra friends as Alan and Michael stared at each other in shocked silence at the night’s events. The air was pregnant with tense silence, punctured only by the Northuldra women’s sharp, raspy breathing.
The meeting with Katina and the confrontation with Nykras… facing down Yaraslaf, Anna’s conversation with the princess, and their daring coach getaway with Elsa…
“I think I’m going to sleep for days,” groaned Alan. “That was madness.”
Michael let out a deep sigh, looking worriedly at Maren and Amira. “How bad does it look for them?” he asked.
“I’ll keep them stable while we hop on the next ship out of Russia,” said Colisa, her hand on Maren’s forehead. “But now Maren and Amira have incontrovertible proof that Katina’s mobilizing vast resources and manpower for an invasion of Arendelle.” She looked at Anna solemnly. “Anna, the gravest duty of a sovereign is leading her country into war. Sooner or later, you’ll have to start preparations too. You have the support of every kingdom in the Entente of Small Kingdoms as we come together against Katina.”
Anna smiled tiredly at her de facto mentor. “Thanks, Colisa. A big thank you to all of you tonight for fighting for Arendelle and helping out Maren and Amira.” She put her hands on her lap, exhausted.
“Can someone tell Elsa to come down from up there and join us inside? I want her to hold me.”