Featured image art by chō/chou (@smolmushroomm)
Some years ago. Saint Petersburg, Russia
A little girl of five in a frilly dress and elaborately done hair ran to her elegantly garbed guardian angel in the vast hallway of the Alexander Palace. She was waving a book about excitedly. Sora smiled at the approaching heir to the tsar’s throne. “It’ll be your birthday tomorrow. What are you still doing running around the palace?” she asked the princess.
“Looking for you. Can I please, pretty please, borrow another feather from you?”
“To stick in your scrapbook, Katina? Of course,” said Sora, beaming as she unfurled a divine wing behind her and plucked a radiant feather from it. “Your mother and father are so pleased, as am I, that you’re already learning to journal. I want to encourage you every step of the way.”
Katina giggled gratefully as Sora put the feather in her chubby hand, and she kissed its soft barbs. “Oh, my princess. You honour me,” said Sora.
“I don’t need a birthday gift tomorrow. I already got the present I wanted right here,” declared Katina, as she flipped open her scrapbook, a leather-bound collection of pages with scribbles, drawings, and pasted mementos. Several pages already had Sora’s feathers on them, markers of special dates and events in the little Romanov’s life. She turned to one page, showing it to Sora. “I’m sticking your feather in this spot today!”
Sora’s olive eyes fell on two stick figures of a smiling Katina and Sora, holding hands with a crudely drawn house, sun, and tree in the background. For the first time in a long time since the fallen angel wound up fighting for the Russian royal lineage, her eyes pricked and she almost wanted to cry. “Your Highness,” she sighed, voice breaking slightly.
Katina gave Sora’s legs a robust hug, before stepping back and smiling up. “Just you wait, Sora,” she laughed, her voice light and her face angelic. “I’ll learn from you and become the kindest, gentlest ruler of Russia ever!”
1843, present day
Sora stood by the balcony, sighing sadly. Her hands were clasped before her as she leaned over the railings, thinking of her recent visit to Arendelle and the rapidly concluding plans for Russia’s invasion of Scandinavia. She watched the magnificent city falling into darkness, crowds bustling, carriages ringing, and horses neighing.
“What happened to you, Katina?” she murmured to herself, red hair blowing in the chilly winter wind. “Something went so wrong.” She never knew where that scrapbook went, but she never forgot that innocent drawing: Katina as a little girl, holding the hand of the taller angel as they stood together smiling. That drawing, to Sora, had been more precious than any priceless work of art owned by the Romanovs in their dozens of palaces across Russia.
The door to the Nicholas Hall boomed open as the princess of Russia strode in a pink, floor touching gown. There was a scowl on Katina’s face as she walked across the vast hall, and Sora left the balustrade and glided over to meet her. But she stopped as she saw two figures behind her. A golden-haired, golden-eyed man in the vest, shirt, and pants of a seafaring merchant prince. A blonde, silver-eyed young lady in a British equestrian getup. “Will Harrison. Peony Sinclair,” said Sora. Even she was taken aback. “I wasn’t aware that the Exalted were having a meeting today.”
“Leave us, Grand Duke,” said Katina curtly. “I have things to discuss with these two.”
Sora reached out with a hand. “Katina, I…”
“Can this wait?” said Katina impatiently. “We’ll talk later.”
Sora bowed her head. “Yes, Your Highness.”
She flapped her wings and glided out of the room, ignoring Harrison’s arrogant smirk. When the door was firmly shut behind Sora, Katina turned to her fellow Exalted members. “My invasion of Arendelle is going ahead. I trust you guys know and don’t object.”
Harrison held up his hands. “Hey, I just wanted to control Arendelle’s economy. I wasn’t expecting you to go this far.” He paused, noticing Katina’s bared teeth. “Well, to me money is like the wind, easy come, easy go. I don’t care a jot for Anna and Elsa, and I never understood Yixin’s favour for them. I won’t help you with my own resources, but I’m not getting in your way, either.”
Katina nodded. “Peony?” she prompted, and for the first time there was slight apprehension in her voice, for as much as she looked down on Peony, the latter spoke with the authority of their leader.
And so Peony did. “Each of us is a member because we alone have the power to keep the world in balance – a solemn duty indeed,” she replied. “Lord Yixin has always allowed each of us to act as we saw fit if we noticed certain nations disobeying our mandate. If you think Arendelle is disrupting things, you have every right to correct it.”
She raised a brow. “But you should be honest with yourself, Katina. If it’s in fact you who’s unbalancing the world order with dreams of European conquest and annexation of Scandinavia, and should Arendelle end up being the victor in your pet war – His Lordship will personally remove your claim to Exalted membership…”
Her silver eyes gleamed. “… and tear your windpipe from your throat, and have his servants throw your body into a commoner’s ditch.”
Suddenly, a cold sweat ran down Katina’s face. “What?”
Peony’s voice remained even. “If you can’t beat Anna, you’d have failed by your own standards. And to His Lordship, you’d have nothing to show for risking global turmoil. It would be a natural consequence for Anna to take your place.”
A mixture of stupefied dread fell upon the room. Did they hear Peony correctly?
Was Yixin planning to replace Katina with Anna if Katina failed to conquer Arendelle?
Harrison whistled, crossing his arms. “Ooh, boy. Now that’s a gamble. Even I’d have to respect Anna for winning such a bet.” He smirked at Katina. “Holy sh*t. Looks like His Imperial Highness is giving you rope to hang yourself with.”
“Shut up,” snapped an unnerved Katina at Harrison, before turning to Peony. “How can Anna possibly hold a candle to me? Screw her! How can she replace me? I’ve been loyal to Yixin for years! I made Russia strong!” she growled, unable to hide the quake in her voice. “No! My empire deserves this! He can’t do this to me!”
Peony nodded. “May the best woman win,” she said ominously.
The Celestial Empire. Yixin’s Summer Palace
In the vast hallway of Lord Yixin’s throne room, Peony Sinclair bent down, already on her knees, her forehead touching the ground. “You don’t need to do that with me,” came the hissing voice of China’s shadow ruler, as he emerged from the darkness, snake-like eyes peering down at her.
“The one thing we disagree on, Your Lordship,” said Peony, as she rose.
“Suit yourself, little one.” Yixin turned his back on her, waving his fan before his face. “Did you deliver my message to Katina?”
“I did, verbatim. She got the message.” Peony smiled as she gazed at Yixin’s Manchu queue. “She was rattled, but now it’s too late for her. It’s Arendelle against Russia now, and the outcome of that battle will decide her membership and her life. It’s not even up to Anna.”
Yixin began to giggle shrilly, almost like a child, but behind his sniggers were years upon years of patient planning, dissembling, and puppeteering. If Katina won, Anna would prove herself unworthy of further consideration. But if Anna won, then it would be time to take the next step with her. Everything was going just as planned. At the end of the day, he and the Exalted were the true winners.
“How ironic. The deathblow that Katina thinks she’s going to deal Arendelle is going to be Anna’s stepping stone into the Exalted. To become my apprentice,” he declared. He glanced at Peony. “My girl. Can you imagine the stratospheric heights Arendelle will reach with its ruler among our circle? At last, the light to the world that Arendelle became after Elsa’s birth is ready. Its first test – none other than Katina’s own invasion.”
“Katina’s probably realizing why you never said a word about her enmity against Arendelle, my lord. She thought you might have even approved of it – but for totally different reasons,” said Peony, smirking.
She lowered her head. “But what if Anna refuses to be initiated? Like Vi refused us?”
Yixin snorted. “That spoilt countess is nothing like the queen of Arendelle. Anna will join for her people’s sake. To defend those she loves from future threats like Katina, she’ll decide that she has little option but to grow in power… and move up the leagues into our ranks.”
Yixin moved his fan away from his face, revealing two rows of deformed, sharp teeth that could tear flesh from bone. “I will have Anna with us. Arendelle will shoot to pre-eminence as a global force. Katina thinks about petty revenge and mere continental conquest, but I’ve got her and Anna exactly where I want them.”
Peony was breathless. “You’re already preparing for the day when Katina lies dead at your feet, and a broken Anna, grief-struck, sees no other choice but to join the Exalted.”
She licked her lips and tried to relax, her heart beating like a rapid drum as she realized that all along, everyone had been dancing to the prince regent’s strings. Now it was all coming together. “You’re offering Katina as the first sacrifice to Anna, for the queen of Arendelle to get her first taste of true war and power.”
Yixin’s deformed, razor-sharp teeth glinted as he began to cackle loudly, his body convulsing in delight as his plans neared fruition. “Poor little Katina,” he barked. “Foolish, stupid girl. Oh, Anna – I couldn’t have Elsa, nor could Peony bring Viola to me. But you have so much to learn once you’re under my wing!”
Peony closed her eyes, her lord’s pleasure music to her ears as his cackling echoed throughout the vast halls of the Qing palace.
“Ah, ha ha ha ha. Ah ha hahaha! AH, HA HA HA HA HA!”
THE PIECES ARE IN PLACE, HISTORY READY TO BE WRITTEN, DESTINIES TO BE DECIDED…