1840. Canton, the Celestial Empire. The fate of a small kingdom in Northern Europe will be influenced by titanic forces and personalities astride the globe. But this little kingdom will just as much influence those forces and people…
Peony Sinclair, the English-born ace agent of the Celestial Empire, was eating dinner in the spacious dining room of the British factory in the Canton Settlement. Her table could seat over thirty people and the silver was elegant Georgian. The crystal chandelier hanging above her was decked with gentle candles. There was a comfortable fireplace with a flame that lit the marble walls and floor. The dining room was on the second floor, with a stately balcony facing the Pearl River. Below this floor were several corridors’ worth of offices, warehouses, and storerooms. Above the dining room were the living quarters, partitioned from Peony’s private rooms. Throughout the length of the top floor were courtyards, walks, suites and dormitories.
Whenever she visited, Peony would often first speak to the ten or so European merchants living in the factory, then spend the rest of the day with the several dozen or so Portuguese clerks that lived and worked in the building. They knew much more about the exact numbers of products coming in and out of the factory. Chinese servants were employed to keep the whole show running.
In this neighbourhood, where foreigners were assigned to live by the Qing emperor, factories weren’t production plants, but residences and warehouses that served as bases for the business communities from beyond the Celestial Empire. Britain’s three-story mansion had been built by the East India Company forty years ago. Then, the formidable corporation lost its monopoly over the China trade, partly due to Peony’s lobbying of Britain’s parliament. Four years ago, she’d directed the government to procure it on behalf of a coalition of Scottish China traders.
Peony put her knife and fork down, pushing the unfinished salmon steak and broccoli aside. “Excuse me. I’m done,” she said politely in Chinese, as an attendant shuffled in and took her plate and utensils. “Thank you.” She walked over to the balcony door, knee-high riding boots clacking on the floor. She pushed the door open, striding out to the balustrade. She looked down at the traders strolling and chatting in the landscaped garden below, breathing in the humid embankment air.
The Pearl River beyond was congested with Chinese ships, European vessels, and the floating towns of tanka boat people. Between the riverbank wharf and Thirteen Factory Street was a plaza teeming with Chinese hawkers, performers, messengers, and peddlers. As its name indicated, there were thirteen buildings along the colonnaded terrace of Thirteen Factory Street: there wasn’t just the British factory, but the American factory, the French factory, and several buildings away, the Arendellian factory.
Peony pursed her lips.
Arendelle. The potential “light of the world,” as her mentor, Lord Yixin, had called it.
That kingdom would come to dominate Peony’s thoughts for a long time. It wasn’t just the kingdom that Yixin had assigned her to guide and manage. It was also the hometown of Viola Mundilfari, the young noblewoman that had entered Peony’s life like a thunderbolt – then left just as suddenly. How bitterly ironic, when it was Peony who was supposed to recruit her into the Exalted. Vi’s refusal to join the club had been Peony’s one and only failure in all her missions for Yixin.
“Mademoiselle, he’s here,” came a manservant’s voice, who had opened the door to the dining room.
“Thanks. Send him in,” requested Peony, shaking away thoughts of Vi from her mind.
In strode Will Harrison in his signature grey vest, mariner’s white shirt, and adventurer’s trousers. There was a bounce to his step, and his wily golden eyes glinted with greed, daring, and devil-may-care opportunism.
“Hello, Mr. Harrison,” said Peony coolly. “The renovations of the American factory are going well, I presume.”
“You bet,” said Harrison cheerfully, sitting down a short distance from her. “We’re making a killing on so many commodities. I bet we’ll soon be able to catch up with the Scots and English traders.”
Harrison’s origins were steeped in luxury and sin as the scion of one of Virginia’s First Families, his family plantation attesting to the many enslaved bodies that maintained his clan’s lifestyle. But for the past decade or so, he’d been building a career as a China trader. He fancied himself as one of the hardy, individualistic, and oak-hard group of intrepid supercargoes that nonchalantly drove their ships into the violent seas of Asia in search of new markets to peddle goods. Some of the owner-captains had little more than a single ship to their name, and if they couldn’t offload their goods, they would very quickly find themselves going into debt or bankruptcy for their ship, wares, and crew’s salaries. Worse, others might set off to trade and instead encounter pirates, typhoid and scurvy, or the cannons from rival ships.
Harrison wasn’t one of these smaller traders, simply by virtue of his mind-bogglingly huge fleet of sixteen ships (soon to add three more clippers), which helped him elbow aside much of the American competition. Thanks to his political connections in Congress and the Senate, he’d managed to secure a business partnership with the Forbes clan – an American family of similar prestige to the Harrisons. Will quickly made friends with the young brothers John, William, and Henry Forbes, who were all taking a trading apprenticeship under a certain Master Wu, the wealthiest businessman in China. Soon, Harrison had an apprenticeship with Wu as well, who passed on his name to the mandarins, one of whom recommended his talents to Yixin directly.
Sensing that he could finally consolidate his rise to power, Harrison promised that he would serve not the Qing, nor the United States, but Yixin himself, with undying loyalty. Of course, there was always the fine print for someone as cunning as Harrison: whatever benefited Yixin was going to benefit him too.
It had all worked out so far – that was, until Yixin had made a bombshell announcement: he was turning his attentions to Arendelle, especially now that its future queen, Elsa, was turning twenty-one and soon to assume the throne.
“One day, she’ll fulfil a special destiny, as will her younger sister, Anna,” he had declared to all members of the Exalted. “If they can stay true to their path, they could become critical to the very future of the world.”
Peony was surprised at the time, but was more than determined to help Yixin. Harrison and Katina, though – not so much. Katina had her own reasons for despising Arendelle’s royal family. But for Harrison, it was much simpler.
“That’s what we’re here to discuss, right?” said Harrison, drumming his fingers annoyingly on the grand table. “Elsa. Now, what right does she have to usurp the favour of His Imperial Highness?” His grinning face darkening. “We’ve heard the rumours – that she was locked up for over a decade, that she’d hurt her own sister, and that she even wields some supernatural, freakish powers. That doesn’t exactly someone Lord Yixin should waste time with. Isn’t he busy enough up north in his opulent Summer Palace?”
Peony calmly took a sip of Darjeeling from her elegant bone china teacup. “All of those rumours might have some truth to them. I know for sure that her mother, Iduna, was quite special. She saved me when I was heavily wounded before she was lost at sea. It makes sense that Elsa might have something mysterious about her too.”
“So, you favour Elsa just because her mum saved your skin.”
“A petty insult that’s beneath a response from me.” Peony peered at Harrison. “His Imperial Highness has always sought out distinctive political figures – even ones he doesn’t like, such as Viola Mundilfari – to manage and guide the world. I, for one, don’t find myself agreeing much with your way of doing things, and Katina’s even less. But we all tolerate each other because total global chaos is worse than our individual vices. It’s fine for empires to rise and decline as well as the ebb and flow is manageable.”
She stared down at her tea, which was still warm. “Like it or not, I think his lordship sees something quite special about Arendelle under Elsa and Anna. Something about balance, and love. He had a good relationship with their parents, but it was only after they passed that he began to ask me to prepare for my Arendellian Assignment.”
“So you’re on board with Lord Yixin possibly forcing one or more of us out of the Exalted to make room for… whatever the kind of freak Elsa is?” asked Harrison snarkily. “You know that would mean the end of what we’ve set up now, and the start of something… something Arendellian! The Exalted would look Arendellian!”
“Is that what you’re worried about?” said Peony, her lip curling slightly and silver eyes flashing. “Lost prestige and being bumped down a rung?”
“I worked my butt off to get where I am – everyone just looks at my last name and assumes I got here because I clicked my fingers or some crap like that. I worked hard to build my position here, and I’m not letting it go without a fight. And besides,” he declared, jabbing a finger at nothing, “Arendelle is so tiny it’s smaller than my home state, let alone my country. Your British Empire is huge, as is the Qing dominion. Katina’s homeland is similarly vast. What business do Elsa and Anna have lecturing us world rulers what to do?”
Peony sighed. “I’m not sure that’s what Yixin is hoping those two to do. Look, I have my own questions as well, and I won’t pretend to know all of my master’s machinations. But you and Katina would make my job a lot easier if you didn’t reflexively see Arendelle as an enemy or a rival. It’s not up to you. Arendelle is here to stay, and as long as his lordship desires me to, I’ll be watching over it.”
She stood up, adjusting her collar. “Of course, the deal between all Exalted members remains the same: we moderate each other. Balance each other. Check each other. So I won’t lecture you, but don’t go too far. For your own sake.”
Harrison waved his hand dismissively. “Fine, fine. But I always hated how Arendelle was the Celestial Empire’s Most Favoured Nation. I still plan to change that.” His golden eyes narrowed. “I’m going to cripple their China trade, ruin their merchants, and reduce them into an economic pawn under my companies. I can do it, so I’ll do it.”
“Once a bully, always a bully,” sighed Peony. “I have to leave Canton now. I’m Europe-bound.”
Harrison sneered, his arms crossed lazily on the table. “If they were so good, they’d be able to stop me.”
Peony gazed back at him piercingly as a servant handed her her cloak.
“Perhaps Anna and Elsa won’t be strong enough to match you when they first set out. But be careful what you wish for if they’re given time – and I intend to give them time.”