“Weaver” by Arute (@ast05water)
Gentle waves licked at the hull of Pride of Elsa as it slowly docked in Victoria Harbour, named after Anna’s fellow sovereign. A wooden plank descended upon a quiet wharf, with very few people around except for a neatly dressed Chinese fellow who stood beside Pride of Elsa, waiting to receive the new arrivals from Arendelle.
This colonial entrepot had been conceded by the Daoguang Emperor to Britain the year Anna was crowned queen. Unlike Portugal or Arendelle, to whom the Chinese emperor had granted generous trading rights, the Qing had hastily thrown Hong Kong Island at Britain, as part of a deal to get the persistent barbarians off their backs for trying to ban opium. Despite its barrenness, the British also wanted the island as a safe harbour at which to do business and dock ships. Curiously, Yixin had done nothing to help his own hapless ruler navigate the complexities of international diplomacy. But then again, back when Yixin controlled the Exalted, Harrison – a China trader and prominent opium dealer – was one of the core members.
Anna strongly suspected that the Celestial Empire’s day-to-day concerns and problems no longer concerned Yixin – if they ever did. And she knew why. The Exalted had always been a means for him to amass the wealth and resources necessary for his true goal.
He was no typical Qing prince regent. There was something unsettling about him. Something about the night. About the supernatural.
“He’s looking for the elixir of life,” she murmured to herself, “and I’m here to help him. To swear fealty to him.”
“Babe?” came Kristoff’s voice. “How are you feeling after so many weeks at sea?” Anna blinked and turned around, smiling up at Kristoff. He was flanked by Peony and Colisa, while Elsa stood to one side. The queen looked at her elder sister, and Elsa nodded.
“Apart from a few seasick moments, I’m feeling fine, love. I’m used to sailing for many days on end. And the trip was smooth sailing. Furthermore, we passed Russian waters without any incident. Now our time in the Celestial Empire really begins.” She took a deep breath. This was her first time in Asia, and she felt like she was following in the footsteps of Agnarr and Iduna, who’d also visited Yixin once. The latter didn’t look a day older than when Iduna had saved Peony from wounds sustained in battle.
She put a hand on Kristoff’s chest. “I’m in your care,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes at him. “I’m in all of your care. Thank you for guiding me. I love you all so much.”
Kristoff nodded. “My promise to you.”
Colisa beamed. “I couldn’t be prouder of you, Anna. I’m here to help you grow and advance even further.”
Anna looked at Peony. “Although you’re Yixin’s agent, I trust you. I’ve respected his wish that you stay in the Exalted, even though he passed it on to me. For that, can I ask you to guide me with kindness and care, and no lies or dissembling?”
Peony nodded, eyes shimmering. “Make no mistake, Anna: I want you to succeed. I promise you no deceit as long as you remain loyal to my lord.”
Anna stepped back and observed Elsa and her Exalted. Colisa. Kristoff. And yes, Peony. “Are you all ready?” she asked.
Elsa nodded, beaming. “Lead the way, Anna.”
In a straight line, the Arendellian delegates descended the plank, and the Chinese man waiting for them bowed at the waist, his hands clasped. “Great queen, Snow Queen, and honourable delegates. Welcome to our British-administered port,” he exclaimed. “Welcome, Anna, queen and beloved of Lady Kam’s tai-pan.” He gazed up at Elsa, his eyes widening. “Ah… the Fifth Spirit… the Fifth Spirit is in the Celestial Empire! In the Fragrant Harbour! Oh, my friends won’t believe their ears when I tell them!” His eyes looked dreamy. “Her Majesty Colisa, friend of China and Arendelle! Mademoiselle Peony Sinclair! And Master Kristoff,” he acknowledged, his bow deepening. “Welcome back to Hong Kong. Lady Kam has missed you, and I’m sure you’ve missed her.”
Elsa smiled humbly, while Colisa bowed back and Peony gave a short nod. “Only as your respectful guest. But it’s my sister that is carrying our entourage,” said Elsa.
Kristoff smiled broadly, and matched the Chinese man’s bow. Colisa did likewise. “Hello,” said Anna, rushing to him and urging him to rise. “I’m so honoured that Lady Kam wants to hold court with me before I go to the Forbidden City. What’s your name?”
“I’m but a humble servant and agent of my mistress. Please, Your Majesty, call me Tao. Lady Kam sends her warmest regards and can’t wait to see you and Kristoff… and rest of you, of course,” said the man with the queue. “The road to the mainland is long and potentially perilous, and who knows what dangers you’ll encounter in Beijing itself? You have several days to refresh, restock, and recharge, during which Lady Kam will keep you comfortable and safe. It’s only natural that she’d demand that you enjoy her hospitality first before the prince regent’s.”
Anna perked up. “She must know about my relationship to Yixin.” She turned to Kristoff. “Did you brief your comprador about our trip?”
Kristoff looked slightly awkward. “I tried to tell her, but she knew everything I was going to say.”
Anna raised an eyebrow. “Huh.”
“Lady Kam has eyes and ears everywhere, Your Majesty. It’s how she’s kept the Princely House competitive in this new port and this perilous land, and how she’ll protect Arendelle from the malcontents that seek to harm Bjorgman, and therefore your kingdom,” said Tao. “Please don’t begrudge my mistress for the value she puts on knowing everyone’s movements – friend or foe.”
“I’m not offended,” said Anna wryly, “only a bit curious about how I could have a piece of this all-seeing intelligence.”
“There will be plenty of opportunity to exchange strategies,” declared Tao. “For now…” He turned to Peony, bowing even lower than he did to Anna. “Mademoiselle. I’m your humble servant. It’s time to take our guests to your mansion.”
“Of course. I’ve invited Lady Kam to receive the queen of Arendelle there,” said Peony coolly, looking completely unruffled despite the long sea voyage.
Anna glanced at Peony. The allegiances and loyalties in this city were so complex that she didn’t want to think about it lest her head ache. All she knew was that she needed to stop Harrison, and get to the Forbidden City as soon as everyone was rested up. Concentrate, she urged herself, but she had a foreboding feeling that her old world of simple friendships and rivalries was coming to an end.
She’d grown up, and now she could see that the world was a lot more complicated than she could ever have imagined.
Tao quickly ushered the Arendellians into two horse-drawn carriages: the first, for himself, Anna, and Kristoff, the second for Elsa, Peony, and Colisa. As the horses clopped along Queen’s Road, and then in the direction of the leafy mansions on the foothills of the mountain in the distance, Anna and Kristoff looked outside their windows eagerly, taking in the sites of row after row of pawn shops, trading houses, and emporiums, with signs everywhere in both Chinese and English. Anna was quite sure that Elsa and Colisa were doing the same inside their own carriage. On both sides of the road, people of all social backgrounds walked about, hurrying to one place or another. Some looked immiserated, while others in full tailored suits. The energy was quite unlike Arendelle; where poverty was nonexistent but the energy placid. Here, there seemed to be much more struggle and suffering – but the atmosphere was electric, as if something amazing was to be created between the East and the West.
“So this is the city where Kristoff decided to expand,” said Anna eagerly. “I knew Peony had a power base here, but I’m starting to understand the stakes of his branch being burned down.”
“Peony is often seen at the soirees hosted by the governor,” said Tao, “as is Lady Kam. She represents Kristoff’s interests here. And thanks to her, Your Majesty, you have a powerful and prosperous base here too. As for the branch on Ice House Street, don’t be too worried. Lady Kam is working to punish the criminals, and you, respected Kristoff and Your Majesty, suspect Will Harrison rightly. We’re sure he directed the attack.”
Anna’s eyes narrowed. “He has resources I don’t. I’m hoping with Lady Kam’s help, Bjorgman can even the score and Arendelle can strike a lethal blow to his opium operations.”
The carriages began to go up winding roads that led up to the collection of mansions built by those that had clawed their way to the top in the colonial port: bankers, importers, colonial administrators, and traders of all manner of goods and services. While the local Chinese were excluded from the echelons of government, the colonial institutions were in a state of complete disarray and underdevelopment. As such, British rule by fiat from London or executive order could only go so far. Collaboration and mediation could only be filled in by the Chinese elite, which saw in Hong Kong commercial and social power otherwise unattainable in the Qing heartland. Plenty of people took advantage of this political dialectic, and no one did it better than Lady Kam.
The two carriages made their way up steep and narrow roads, carved by hardy labour and meticulous planning on a barren and unwieldy mountainside. Peony had her own mansion in the Mid-Levels neighbourhood, which had been secretly purchased and given to her by Yixin in the early days of the colony’s establishment. It was a magnificent marble hall, built with the most expensive imported materials and boasting colonnades that seemed to force apart the very landscape it had imposed itself on. Peony led her guests in, and Tao fussed about Anna and Kristoff as a smiling Elsa and Colisa followed.
“I feel like we’re bystanders to a younger generation,” said Colisa to Elsa, as they ascended the steps to Peony’s grand reception hall underneath a glittering chandelier.
“Not quite, in my opinion,” laughed Elsa, iridescent pupils shimmering. “You’re still the queen of Chatho. I’m… well, the Snow Queen. And Anna involves us so much in her daily life of work and play. Even if we acknowledge, as she does, that leading Arendelle isn’t always about her, I know I’m here to support her.”
“You’re right,” said Colisa, taking Elsa’s hands in hers. “Yet please remember, beloved: Anna is doing all this for you, because of you. We’re in China for the elixir of life because of how she feels about you.”
Elsa gazed into her senior’s warm brown eyes. “I don’t know how I feel about that. But I’m glad I’m here to watch over her. I also know how I feel about you, Colisa. Thank you for watching over Anna as you did me.”
“You two are… inexpressibly important to me,” said Colisa quietly.
“Colisa…” exclaimed Elsa, her soft voice trembling slightly –
“Your Majesties,” cried Tao, scurrying out to urge them inside. Elsa and Colisa detached themselves from each other to face him. “Everyone else is waiting for you. Lady Kam is ready to see us!”
The Fifth Spirit and Chathoan queen looked at each other excitedly. Kristoff’s manager for all Asian trade was here.
“Let’s go,” invited Colisa, taking Elsa’s hand once more, this time to lead her in Tao’s direction. Elsa beamed and followed her.
It was time to meet the lordly comprador of the Princely House.