Featured image art by PURY (@puryartist)
“I haven’t seen her around here before.”
“She’s so beautiful!”
“I mean, I see more and more people moving into the kingdom every year, but I can’t help feeling that she’s special…”
Anna was on her morning stroll, among comfortably lined homes and shops beyond the plaza, when she overheard Vera, her favourite chocolatier, gossiping with patrons about some new arrival. Curiosity piqued, she peeked past the wooden door to the Berg Sweetshop, which was open to let the pleasant light and fresh air in to the charming candy shop. “How are you all, ladies?” greeted Anna cheerfully.
“Hello, Your Majesty!” replied the middle-aged women happily.
“I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again: when I’m out and about, I’m not ‘Your Majesty,’ just Anna!” said the younger queen kindly. “And that is one of many things that will never change.”
“Oh, we know you keep on saying that,” said Vera, chuckling. “But we’ll keep on ignoring you because we love and respect you too much. And soon you’ll be a happy missus, as well – to His Highness Kristoff of the Princely House!”
“Oh, you’re sweeter than the candy I buy from you and stuff myself with! Now, are you guys talking about some new resident?” inquired Anna, beaming. “Who are we welcoming today?”
“Well, I’m not sure if she’s a resident,” said Vera, adjusting her spectacles, “and she may well just be passing through. In any case, there’s a particularly beautiful young lady who’s been wandering around the village and the dockside, turning all manner of heads, even in a bustling kingdom like ours.”
“One could say that she’s as eye-catching as your sister, Elsa,” added one of the matronly customers. “We don’t say that lightly.”
Anna whistled. “That is impressive. Did she divulge her name to anyone yet?”
“No,” came a light and gentle voice from behind, “but I’m happy to tell it to you, Your Majesty.”
Anna turned around, her aqua eyes falling on an admittedly stunningly attractive face: a redhead, like her, but with shorter and more intense auburn tresses. She had perfectly proportioned cheekbones, and her olive eyes were both sensual and wise. She was dressed in an unremarkable Arendellian dress, her build short and slender.
Anna blinked a bit, before reaching out with a hand. “Wow, you’re totally what Vera says you are,” she said, as the stranger shook hands with her. “I mean, we’re a small kingdom, but plenty of people come and go, so when you’ve got local tongues wagging, you know you’ve made an impact!”
“You flatter me, Your Majesty,” said the redhead, exuding a benevolent and alluring air.
“Please, just Anna,” repeated the monarch, as they set off for another round of walking, with Anna bidding Vera and her friends goodbye. “Welcome to Arendelle, love. Our kingdom is open to all. Have you tried walking along the hills? It’s quieter up there and you can start seeing the edge of the mountainside where we can go into the beautiful forest.”
“Yes,” said the young woman, nodding and smiling.
“So – are you moving here or visiting? Business, leisure, or lifestyle?” prodded Anna, as they walked up the sloping path, away from the town centre.
“Well, I’m just a traveller. And I’ll be leaving today,” said the visitor, turning to look at Anna, “because now I’ve seen you for myself and I already know in my bones that you’re a kind, thoughtful and loving person. You’re a wonderful ruler, perhaps the most genuine Arendelle has ever had apart from Elsa.”
She pursed her lips. “I know because I can see your heart.”
Anna smiled awkwardly. “Uh… yeah. Thanks.”
She paused, looking at her quizzically. “Assuming you can get to know me so well in just a few minutes.”
“I can,” said the woman, without blinking.
Anna pretended not to hear that so she wouldn’t need to challenge such a ridiculous statement. “You’re leaving today? You must be a frequent traveller,” she said, changing the subject.
“Yes. But you are, too. I read in the newspapers that you went to Saint Petersburg a few weeks ago, to negotiate with Princess Katina Romanov.”
The young woman’s smile wasn’t mirthful anymore. “Those negotiations evidently failed, but I’m here to see if you’d be willing to reopen them with me.”
Anna suddenly felt her muscles tense as she stared at the friendly face in front of her, at the hair that was redder than hers and the lips that were smoother. “Excuse me? I’m not sure if you have anything to do with state matters – forgive me for being blunt.”
The mysterious woman replied, with no hint of irony or parody: “I know you refused to align with Russia’s policy of containing the Western European powers, but I want to convince you that it’s a small price to pay for peace with Katina. A war could be prevented if negotiations are extended and realized. I’ve been familiarizing myself with Arendelle, and I was wondering if you’d reconsider Katina’s offer. Then I wouldn’t have to attack this beautiful kingdom. I’d rather not, because I’m not that bloodthirsty, and I genuinely don’t dislike this place… or you, Queen Anna. As I’ve already said, I actually quite admire you. I’d prefer if a war with you can be averted.”
“On whose authority do you speak for Russia,” demanded Anna, hackles rising. Rarely was she angry in public, but this woman was getting on her nerves. “Stop leading me on. And you’ve got some nerve, thinking you can come close to striking at our heartland. How do you know so much, anyway?”
The mysterious and audacious woman sighed.
“Your scepticism is expected. Maybe seeing is believing.”
Her arm suddenly shot out and grabbed Anna by her lapel, pulling her close. Her black wheat stalk patterned boots dragging along the ground, an outraged, sputtering Anna grabbed the woman’s wrists, desperately trying to break free, but to her shock, her grip wasn’t just firm – it was unbreakable, her strength like steel. For some reason, there was no one around. Her face inches from the other’s, Anna stared up into the woman’s eyes.
“Let me go!” she cried.
“Soon,” whispered the woman. She drew closer, her soft lips brushing Anna’s nose. Her breath smelt of waterfalls and tundras.
“And by the way, my name’s Sora. Russia’s third and final Grand Duke.”
The ground rumbled and the air popped. Anna barely noticed the blood coming out of her ears from the boom.
Anna was completely unprepared for how the ground left her feet and Sora shot up into the sky, like a vertical cannonball, the stinging wind slamming into Anna’s face and making her eyes water as Sora went up, up, up… higher and higher, away from the rapidly shrinking buildings of Arendelle, until Anna could feel their bodies punching through clouds and bursting into the open blue sky. Perhaps it was the shock or trauma, but Anna could swear she glimpsed, amidst her frantic screams and furious cries, a single white feather falling from Sora and floating back down to the distant ground.
Gasping yet unable to let go of Sora as she kicked and thrashed in panic at the groundless air, Anna felt her world sinking into black.
She couldn’t breathe, the air was too thin. They were enveloped in fire.
Choking, Anna moaned as they shot even higher into the stratosphere, and she gagged and threw up. Sora ignored her puke, suddenly pausing and shooting like a meteor at the direction of the North Mountain, where Elsa’s old ice castle stood.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, and her bun and braids undone, tresses a mess in her face, Anna continued to flail and jerk wildly, but was losing the will to resist. She wasn’t even sure she’d survive.
Nykras and Yaraslaf were bad enough. But this?
“Who… what are… you?” whispered Anna helplessly.
A shellshocked queen went limp, surrendering to Sora’s grip and sinking into despair as she allowed herself to go unconscious.
1581, many centuries ago. Moscow
“You killed your own son in a fit of rage,” echoed the celestial voice. It was a female’s voice – gentle but frightened and disappointed.
“How could you?”
The stench of evil in that room was pungent, overwhelming. The first tsar of the new Muscovite tsardom, the fearsome Ivan the Terrible, cradled his head in his gnarled hands as he sat, slumped, beside the cleaned and washed body of his son, the man that was supposed to succeed him. His new dynasty was founded on the blood of his enemies, and now the sinister double-headed eagle was to be fed his own flesh and blood.
“I was in a fit of rage, Sora,” he whispered, his voice choked. “I didn’t… no father could mean to do such a thing to his own beautiful child.”
Ivan heard the flap of a feathered wing before him as he began to sob. Two slender, pale hands reached for him in the darkness, brushing along his knuckles as he continued to clutch his skull. “I’m going to go to hell for this.”
Sora’s voice was pained as well. “My king…”
“When the Varangian Rurikids founded our dynasty in Kiev, our holy Orthodox family was blessed with an almighty guardian that would watch over us. A righteous, mythic force for our great Christian dominion.” Ivan trembled. “Now that I’ve committed the mortal sin of filicide, you’re a fallen angel now. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” He began to moan as tears fell down his face.
“I release you from your service, Sora. There is no angelic glory to be had in protecting a damned royal house.”
Sora’s eyes glimmered. “I refuse.”
Ivan blinked. “What?”
Another whoosh of avian wings as Sora’s hands pulled the seated Ivan close, his elfin face pressing against her midsection. “Even if I leave you and your descendants – even if your dynasty is to be replaced by another one – they’ll still need protection. And if I’m now fallen because of you, then your successors better make up for it by keeping a roof over my head. I’ve got nowhere else to go,” came the wistful reply. Ivan hiccuped, chuckling miserably at Sora’s humour. “But seriously,” echoed her voice, I doubt your successors could get much worse than you, who murdered his own son.”
Ivan grimaced. “We’re a cursed royal house, and whoever follows us will be too. Don’t be so sure.”
“Ugh…” Anna groaned as she stirred, rubbing her aching head. The inside of her mouth tasted foul. She gasped as her hands scrabbled at the ground, her gaze falling on the sweeping, panoramic view of Arendelle and Arenfjord far below the North Mountain’s peak. It was autumn, and there were already some loose flakes of snow gathered in mounds up here.
“What am I doing up here?” she stuttered, whipping around, disoriented. She gasped in shock as her eyes fell on Sora’s back. The mysterious woman that could fly like an eagle was sitting in front of her, still in her Arendellian dress as she gazed down at the stunning view.
“Relax,” said Sora placidly, staring at the sweeping Scandinavian landscape and not turning around. “I mean you no harm. I just wanted to impress upon you the odds that are aligned against Arendelle, and ask you to make an objective, rational choice. I say this as the Romanovs’ strongest protector.”
“You seem pretty sure of yourself,” observed Anna bitterly.
“Among the Grand Dukes, I’m the most senior. Just being objective.” Sora turned her head, peering at an enraged and terrified Anna. “Look, I get it. Following Russia’s policy towards the Western European powers might sound like coercion, but compared with the violence that Katina wants Arendelle and Russia to unleash against each other, I’d say it’s a price worth paying.”
Anna glared at her. Then she stared at the craggy ground, from which loose and sporadic blades of grass grew. “Why don’t you just kill me?” she asked morosely, and briefly panicked as she realized she’d blurted that out in front of Sora. Back in Saint Petersburg, she’d been confident that Elsa would be able to best both Nykras and Yaraslaf. But for the first time in a long, long time, just as she did when Grand Pabbie warned her about their earliest trip north, she worried that Elsa’s magic might not be enough.
She feared for Elsa. She feared for her people.
How was she supposed to stand against such awesome power? Against a fallen angel?
“Answer me!” cried Anna loudly when Sora didn’t reply. Her voice shook slightly as she remained on all fours, hands clutching the ground as she stared angrily down. “I hate being toyed with, Sora. I… I’d rather you take me on right here and now. Even if you’d crush me.”
“It’s beautiful,” said the Grand Duke quietly, gazing out at the distant kingdom and the surrounding environs. “Your kingdom is truly full of good hearts and brave souls. It’d be a shame to attack it simply because my monarch wants to service her own political goals. Again, Your Majesty – we aren’t destined to fight.”
She looked at Anna again. “I’m bound by the rules of war as much as I am by my ancient service to the Romanovs. I was once the guardian of an older dynasty: the Rurikids, Russia’s first royal family. I made a choice, centuries ago, to watch over the leaders of this great and vast land. I’ve stayed loyal to them. But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything they do.”
She gave a small smile. “You probably know our game plan already. The lich, Nykras, will be targeting the Northuldra forest, while Yaraslaf will lead the Baltic Fleet to the North Sea. Since I’m the most senior of the Grand Dukes, my assignment is Arendelle itself.”
A pit of dread opened in Anna’s already uneasy stomach. Sora didn’t seem to be lying; if anything, she was really quite transparent and open about her master’s strategy. Her straightforwardness made it all the more terrifying.
“No,” she whispered, mind racing. Elsa and Hilde seemed to be the only allies that even remotely had a hope against Sora, but even then…
“Don’t fret, Anna. I’m not attacking Arendelle unless Katina Romanov gives the order, and if there’s no war, you’ll never see me around here.”
Anna gritted her teeth. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I can’t let Arendelle become a pawn of Russian foreign policy. “
“How about swearing nominal allegiance to the tsar’s cause?” pressed the fallen angel. “It’ll be unpalatable, but…”
Anna laughed bitterly. “I’m grateful you’re trying to work out some kind of a compromise, but the peace talks have already passed. I have no choice but to prepare for your invasion, whichever day that comes.” She didn’t move from her spot: the queen was usually happy to make conversation, but for the first time, she wasn’t very curious at all. Not about Sora. Something about her was truly terrifying, far more than any of the other Grand Dukes.
It was as if Sora was so knowledgeable, so confident, so right about the extent of her might, that she was trying to handicap herself and stop her mistress, Katina, from giving her the order to attack Arendelle.
Sora slowly stood up, brushing her behind with her hands. “If you ever feel like talking to me, I’ll hear your voice. An angel never forgets, even a fallen one. Please consider it. I can’t go against my master, but I can mitigate her… love for war.”
She extended her hand. “That’s all I wanted to say to you. I’m flying back to Moscow. I can take you back to your palace, if you want.”
But Anna pulled away when Sora touched her hand.
“I’ll walk back home myself,” snapped the queen, still in a state of slight shock and disbelief.
“Suit yourself,” said Sora, shrugging. “It’s a long way back down. At least let me take you back to the forest outskirts beyond the kingdom.”
“No. No, no, no,” cried Anna, her voice cracking as her still-wet eyes stung with unshed tears – not of grief, but of fury at Sora and worry at what was to come. “You’re not welcome here.”
“Hey, maybe I was being too show-offy. I’m sorry if I was heavy-handed, alright? I didn’t mean you any harm. I’m trying to delay or even reverse what’s otherwise inevitable. My princess wills it. Better than showing up only on invasion day, no?” said Sora, reaching out and taking Anna’s hand, and this time, Anna didn’t try to pull away. She hung her head, shoulders slumped.
“Why?” she asked miserably. “Why are you serving someone like Katina, Sora?”
Sora smiled pensively. “You might as well be asking Countess Viola Mundilfari why she’s bound to that demon of hers… or why you’re queen of Arendelle.”
She pulled Anna close, giving her a surprisingly tender embrace. Anna didn’t resist. “You’d probably best send Elsa against me if you wish to stand a chance,” she whispered into Anna’s ear, and to Anna’s tumultuous despair, she knew Sora was right.
“I’m going to resist to my last breath. Even against someone like you, archon,” said Anna, pulling away and staring into Sora’s glimmering eyes.
“I’m counting on it, Queen of Arendelle,” replied Sora sincerely and softly.
The guardian angel gingerly released Anna, nodding soberly, and then shot into the sky, wind billowing violently against Anna’s jacket and dress. With a supersonic crack, she disappeared into the heavens, just like that.
After several long moments, Anna fell to her knees on top of the North Mountain, and for a dozen reasons, began to cry.
For the first time in her life, she couldn’t bring herself enjoy the view of her kingdom.
Sora, guardian angel of the Russian royal family since Ivan the Terrible, has joined her fellow Grand Dukes in preparation for Katina’s war on Arendelle!