Featured image “She was a punk,” by PURY (@puryartist)
Anna stood alongside General Mattias as the Ottoman warship, a European-style brigade clipper with sail masts decked in red and white, the national colours of the Sublime State, anchored in the harbour. The hull of Flagship Crescent towered over the queen and the general as businessmen, journalists, and several veterans stood behind them. Just a few moments ago, the Arendellian ships, Pride of Elsa and Nobility, had fired off nineteen rounds of cannonballs short of reaching Crescent, a salutation that indicated a new chapter of military cooperation between the Kingdom of Arendelle and the Ottoman Empire. Anna felt a surge of anticipation as she waited for Tileke to disembark. Gulls squawked over the gathered assembly’s heads, the morning sea breeze cool and comfortable.
“So this is it,” murmured Anna to Mattias. “After losing so many lives to Yaraslaf while defending the fjord, we finally have reinforcements.”
“Tikeke’s position is that her Mansure troops are here to defend Arendelle, in case Northuldra falls,” pointed out Mattias. “Honeymaren and Amira’s tribespeople are fighting for the forest’s life alongside the spirits. If they’re beaten, there’s no stopping Nykras, or Sora, from making a final push against us here.”
“We have Elsa for that eventuality,” said Anna sourly, “as she likes to remind me.” She bit her lip, mindful that Elsa had left Arendelle for Northuldra, much to her displeasure.
“I know your heart is restless – probably even in turmoil,” clarified Mattias, now wearing his father figure cap rather than his general’s, “but this is exactly the time to delegate your manpower and resources sensibly. Right now, the war can go in either way. A single battle could decide if it’s you or Katina who seizes the initiative – and irrevocably tips the balance.”
Anna sighed. “You’re right. And we have to be realistic: the Ottomans have their own plans, too. The best we can hope for is for Tileke to step in for Commander Hilde. A big ask, but…”
Suddenly, the blare of Ottoman trumpets – a leftover from the Janissary days that defined the empire’s elite strike force for centuries – blared across the harbour. Several Arendellians started at the brash, shrill announcement of Tileke’s arrival. There was an accompanying cacophony of drums and graceful flutes, which electrified the atmosphere with anticipation and grandeur. But even as the plank lowered from the hull in preparation for the Mansure Army’s disembarkation, a ball of red and white flew from the deck of the ship, shooting several feet into the air, before hurtling down toward the dockside and landing in a crouch before Anna and Mattias. Hushed murmurs and intrigued whispers rippled among the assembled crowd. Trade Minister Michael, who stood beside a curious Princess Danny, whistled as the lightning fast shape slowly got up from her crouch, raising her head to face Anna.
“Announcing serakser Tileke of the Eternal State!” came a shout from the deck, as two lines of disciplined looking men marched out from the plank connecting the ship hull to the docks. They were at least as impressive and serious as Mattias’ troops. Uniformed and stern, they carried rifles, had sheathed scimitars at their hips, and would have been a terrifying sight were they not led by the young lady smiling at Anna and Mattias, the only female in the large force. She was one of the most striking individuals Anna had ever seen. Her deep brown chestnut hair was done up in rebellious pigtails, while her hands had several cheeky black rings around several fingers. Like the soldiers she led, she also had a scimitar at her waist, but perhaps alluding to her reputation as a deadly gunslinger, she had two pistols secured in a leather holster fixed to her chest. The most distinctive part of her already unusual getup was her white jacket, of which the shoulder portions were intricately decorated with shimmering Ottoman patterns that were far more symmetrical and complex than anything Anna had seen before.
“Your Majesty!” said Tileke loudly, making a childish “V” gesture with her fingers. “Tileke, reporting in!” She lowered her arm, scratching her head as she casually jabbed a thumb at the waiting soldiers behind her. The wharf was already out of space thanks to the disembarking troops, who formed row upon row of battle-hardened men. “And, uh, these are the best of my Mansure Army. Only our empire’s most badass men to reinforce your war effort.”
Mattias stared at her in gobsmacked silence. “You’re Tileke?” he couldn’t help clarifying, even though there was none other commanding the army before them.
Tileke shrugged, shooting a sarcastic look at him. “Uh, yeah, old man. I’m the serakser as much as Anna is the queen around here.” She gazed at Anna, fire in her dark eyes. “I finally get to meet ya… the queen of Arendelle.” Her voice was full of hushed respect. “Ya got my letter, right?”
“I did,” said Anna, beaming. “You look amazing,” she observed, with complete sincerity. “I only wish our kingdom had such eye-catching and attractive attire.”
“Thanks,” replied Tileke, glancing down at her jacket. “And in case I haven’t repeated myself enough, I think you’re the amazing one.” Anna knew her type: the kind of person that was infectiously exuberant and friendly. Although Tileke was technically in a military and diplomatic capacity (hence a nineteen-gun salute rather than a twenty-one gun welcome), Anna couldn’t sense much that was particularly “diplomatic” about her. And she liked that. Being friendly is my specialty, thought Anna to herself, as she took Tileke’s hands in her own. “I’m so glad you’re here, and thank you for holding true to your promise to help us against Princess Katina.”
“Aw, sweetie, no big deal at all!” cried Tileke. “I’ll be honest with ya: it’s been a rough few decades for our empire, but any chance to move against our nemesis, Russia, is one we’ll seize with both hands. Our armies are vastly more powerful and organized now thanks to Daddy Pasha – I mean, Husrev Pasha’s – reforms. We’ve lost yet more land to the Russians in the Balkans, but now’s the perfect time to strike back at them – with the bonus of helping ya humiliate that princess Katina!” She caught the gazes of Princess Danny and trade minister Michael, who both gave a friendly wave. She waved boisterously back. “Ya’ll introduce me to all your friends, won’t ya?”
“I very much hope to, serakser.” Anna smirked. She reproached herself silently for enjoying Tileke’s pugilistic attitude a little too much and wanting to celebrate Russia’s hardships with her. It felt good to revel in the enemy’s losses, and she wasn’t sure what that said about her. She put those thoughts aside and gestured behind her with one arm, inviting Tileke to take their conversation to the palace. “Why don’t I host you and your men to a state dinner? Sadly, I don’t have any chefs who have much knowledge of Ottoman cuisine – I heard it’s absolutely delicious though. Rich goat’s cheese, stuffed peppers, delectable lamb, dazzling sweets like lokum and baklava…”
“Hey! I’m in Arendelle, and we’re gonna enjoy whatever ya got!” cried Tileke, taking Anna by the arm. “It ain’t often Daddy Pasha sics me on an enemy, so I’m gonna make the most of my visit to ya!”
True to the gravity of Arendelle’s present crisis, the state welcome for Tileke and the Mansure Army was relatively simple and straightforward: a five-course banquet of the finest Arendellian food, and a few perfunctory speeches about Turko-Arendellian friendship before the troops were allocated shared rooms in the Arendellian barracks. There was no dancing or entertainment; instead, the Mansure Army would be moving out the following day to replace the gaping hole left behind by the destruction of the Arendellian army at Yaraslaf’s hands. By no later than ten forty-five in the evening, the Great Hall was emptied of guests and dining tables. Tileke stayed behind to greet Anna’s family and friends, although Countess Vi and Commander Hilde remained absent. By the end of the night, Anna was standing at the balustrade outside, staring at the kingdom across from her palace’s view as Tileke stumbled to her side, slightly drunk from the wine and beer she’d been sampling with Mattias and Michael – after all, Ottomans were forbidden from alcohol, and she’d taken this chance overseas to indulge a guilty pleasure.
“Beautiful kingdom. Beautiful people,” praised Tileke, raising a hand to clap Anna on the back. For a moment, she remembered deportment, and stopped herself momentarily, before a consenting nod from Anna prompted Tileke to give the queen a good-natured hit. “Your cuisine isn’t as bland as ya made it out to be, ya know. Berries, salty dried fish, fresh, mouthwatering bread – it’s not too far off from my nosh back home. Were ya just tryin’ to be modest?”
Anna smiled. “All this – our food, our smiles, our friends – are something I want to protect. My big sister entrusted everything to me,” said the queen quietly. “Since I began my reign, I’ve been trying to allow our family’s values to guide us even as the kingdoms of Europe reckon with revolution and imperialism – products of fear and greed respectively.”
“Same shit over where we’re at,” agreed Tileke, looking more serious than usual.
Anna sighed. “This war is making it hard for me to have faith in a world that won’t be ruled by greed or fear.”
“Your sister was before my time, but I hear ya. Ya have a good heart, Your Majesty,” said Tileke, her voice quieter than usual. “There’re many, like Daddy Pasha, who’d try to convince ya that ya ain’t gonna get anywhere with that kind of attitude. It’s already made ya bend the knee to Will Harrison once because you cared so much about ensuring Princess Mari and the Duke of Weselton’s safety, that you bargained away a lotta leverage. If ya ask me – the prince regent of China knew all about what ya were going through, but he didn’t stop it from happening. He knows exactly what you’re going through now, but he still won’t step in to help. And I think I know why.”
Anna was surprised at how much Tileke knew about her. Not only was her intelligence network impressive, but her ruminations about Yixin were quite valid too. “You know Lord Yixin and the Exalted?”
“Who do ya think convinced the Ottoman sultan that sending his champion, me, would be a good idea for the Sublime State? That English gal, Peony Sinclair, Yixin’s top agent.”
Anna’s eyes widened at the bombshell. “Thank you for being honest with me,” she said quietly, suppressing her surprise. “But it’s extraordinary how Peony would seek you out to help us when her fellow Exalted member, Katina, is at war with me.”
“I’m gonna keep it real with ya, luv,” said Tileke, leaning against the balustrade, “because I don’t believe ya can be so naïve when it comes to dealing with Yixin.” She put her glass of wine aside. “I think he’s watching ya right now. Me, too. Maybe many others.” Her chestnut eyes glimmered. “Just when ya know what he’s planning, he’s already moved on to the next steps of his scheme. And he’s planning something big with ya at the heart of it all… involving the Exalted group itself.”
Anna shivered, feeling a chill go down her spine. “It’s times like these that I could use more allies. More friends.” She offered her hand, staring at the Ottoman commander, who looked down in surprise at it. “Will you stay with us until we figure out what Lord Yixin really wanted to achieve with a war between me and Katina?”
“Hell, yeah!” replied Tileke, shaking Anna’s hand with a firm grip. “I mean, I’m here now, aren’t I? We might as well find out together!”
Anna smiled, feeling strengthened by Tileke’s warmth, earnestness, and devil-may-care courage.