Featured image art “Cosmic destiny” by Arute (@ast05water)
Anna’s Column: We’re in China!
Hello, Arendelle! How are y’all? I miss the kingdom terribly. I miss you awfully. I got news of the scaled-down celebrations on my birthday, which was only a week ago. I wish I could be with you, but take heart – my journey is approaching its end. Soon, I’ll be back with you. And I have some explaining to do when I’m back. For now, I can only apologize to you for keeping the true objective of my journey to the Celestial Empire a secret.
Just a little while longer.
Before our troupe left the British colony port of Hong Kong, I was told by Lady Kam that the Forbidden City is also called the zijincheng, which means “purple city” – the “purple” being a reference to the North Star, around which all other stars revolve. It’s the political centre of the entire Celestial Empire, and no foreign leader has ever stepped within its grand walls – until my parents, Iduna and Agnarr. They knew Yixin not just as a ruler, but as an associate. They passed on their relationship with him to Elsa and me, and although my sister and I have handled Yixin in our own ways, we’ve always honoured his presence.
Now my reign and fate as queen is intertwined with his plans as the former leader of the Exalted – a position that he chose me for. He’s promised me a glimpse of something truly mythic – a philosopher’s stone that’s captivated leaders throughout world history. But I know he’s got his own secrets, his own agenda. I just need to find out why he’s so hell-bent on locating this legendary elixir of life.
And most importantly, even if I lead the Exalted now, has our true goal all along been to locate and secure this elixir? All of the world’s resources at our disposal, and we use it all for this?
If I can protect Elsa forever, and shield Arendelle from the ravages of war eternally… no wonder why it’s so coveted.
I’m just putting the finishing touches to my column, and Gale will hopefully whisk it all the way over to Arendelle from here inside my inn room. We make for the Meridian Gate – the entrance to the Forbidden City – tomorrow.
I’m putting on a brave face, but I can’t help shaking in nervous excitement. Wish me luck.
They were here at last.
It was early in the morning, and they’d rested for a full day and night in a ramshackle inn before freshening up to prepare for what Anna had been hoping to accomplish ever since they’d set out from Arendelle. It had been several months now, and it was time. After a grueling journey that took them across the humid and hot southern half of China, Anna, Elsa, Alan, and the Exalted members had made their way upward, in the direction of the city that had stood as the capital of China for more than four centuries. Peking was a bustling town, with row upon row of lanes of bustling, crowded, often dirty buildings with a mix of gentry and immiserated commoners busying about. The carriages taking the Exalted pushed through to the outskirts and finally arrived at the heavily fortified dwelling of the Qing emperors.
The Meridian Gate loomed high above them, its ominous pagoda structure casting a vast shadow over them. Beyond, Anna and the rest of her group could glimpse an expansive, massive courtyard – larger than any they’d ever seen. And there were yet more gates that led deeper and deeper into the Purple City.
It was going to be a gruelingly long walk, one that someone like Peony Sinclair and the thousands of eunuchs and ministers that served the Dragon Throne had grown accustomed to long ago. But to an Arendellian leader who’d only just started sailing overseas in the past year, this was unspeakably intimidating.
“Hey.” Kristoff put a strong but gentle hand on Anna’s shoulder. The queen stood at the front of the entourage, flanked by Kristoff and Alan, Elsa and Colisa. Only Peony stood beside Anna, for it was Peony who was most familiar with the Forbidden City, having been raised by Yixin and his courtiers here in her childhood. The gates were beginning to creep open, and Anna was shaking slightly. “You okay?” He stared out at the vast structures before them, constructed in ways he’d never seen in his life. “I mean… I’d understand if you weren’t. This… this is incredible.”
Colisa and Elsa held each other’s hands, taking in the sheer size and opulence of the complex. Alan also was wide-eyed. In the distance was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor usually held court. But the emperor didn’t hold the true power in this empire – Yixin did. And so they’d be going to his private quarters, located at the northwest portion of the complex. Aside from his lavish Summer Palace, which lay some distance from the Forbidden City to the north of Peking, he had his villa here.
Anna nodded, placing her hand over his. “I… I think I’ll be, babe. This is my first time here, after all – even with Peony’s presence.” She glanced at her. “This is your home turf, Peony. Is this where you finally show us your real face? Your true self?”
Peony nodded. “You’ve seen only what I’ve wanted you to see when I visited Arendelle, or when I was dealing with people like Lady Kam. This was where I grew up after my parents abandoned me. This is my home.” She gazed at Anna, smiling gently.
“Now, I take you to meet my lord.”
They passed through the Meridian Gate, and then headed to pass through several bays-wide halls. They headed to the left side of the great complex of connected buildings, entering into a narrow passageway flanked by walls so high they could only see a narrow strip of sky directly above them. The passageway opened into a pleasant, spacious courtyard that held several two-story buildings, all of which still looked meticulously and intricately constructed, but were much cozier in their ambience. “Welcome to the Qianlong Gardens, a private retreat tucked away in this great city. Built by the Qianlong Emperor himself, the current emperor’s grandfather, this is the sanctuary reserved only for the emperor’s most intimate of inner circles – so consider it a great honour that my lord has invited you here,” said Peony, gesturing at the group to descend a small set of stone steps into the courtyard. Peony then led them into a comfortable hall, where Anna and Elsa suddenly seized up, their eyes wide.
There was a figure dressed in imperial yellow, long hair done in a queue, standing at the centre of the hall. He was brushing himself lightly with a red, dragon-patterned fan, and when he turned around, face partially hidden behind his open fan, Anna and Elsa felt a foreboding chill run down their spines. There was probably no one who possessed greater power in this room than the Fifth Spirit, yet…
The baleful yet thoughtful gaze from the man’s eyes seemed to betray great knowledge and might that dated back to the very beginning of human civilization.
“At last, we meet in person, Your Imperial Highness,” said Elsa softly. “I hope you’ve kept the letters I wrote you when I was queen.”
“Yixin,” whispered Alan, not quite sure what to think. Yixin, after all, was technically Anna’s ally. Yet there was no doubt at all that he had his own plans for her, and Alan was only partially sure about what they were. Like Anna, he needed to know more. They all needed to know more.
Anna stepped forward, uncomfortably trying to follow Peony, who had lowered herself to her knees in a worshipful kowtow. But Yixin raised a hand, just a few inches higher from his original position – and Anna froze in place. “Peony is intimately familiar with the rituals of our Qing court,” said Yixin, his gaze flicking from person to person: first to Elsa, then Kristoff, before finally landing on Colisa and Alan. “I assume these are the new members you wish to induct?”
“Yes,” said Anna. “This is Kristoff, my other half, and Colisa, queen of Chatho.” Colisa raised her arms and bowed her head, but Kristoff simply nodded brusquely. “They’ll help me form the Exalted that I think is right for the world, one that can be a positive force.”
Yixin’s eyes narrowed. “On your knees, all of you, as I acknowledge each of your names.”
Kristoff hesitated, before following Anna’s lead and getting on one knee. Colisa did the same, and Peony went one further and kowtowed again. Yixin pointed a thin finger at Anna. “The Emerald Dragon. Rise.” He slowly moved his finger to Kristoff. “You must be the Gold Reindeer that Anna spoke of. Rise.” As Kristoff got back up, he pointed at Colisa. “Colisa of the small but noble kingdom of Chatho. The Ruby Tiger. Rise. And my own little Peony, the Sapphire Phoenix. Rise.” He stared at the four troupe members, momentarily ignoring Elsa and Alan. “You did well to bring them here, Anna. You shan’t need to visit this place for a long time after today. You’ve proved yourself worthy to carry on the Exalted’s noble goal, girl.”
“Do you really need to call her that?” said Kristoff, annoyed. He didn’t care that his comprador, Lady Kam, had told him to watch himself while around Yixin. “She’s obviously a grown woman, and the leader of our kingdom, no less. Is this going to be a working relationship, or are you going to treat her like a pawn?”
“That’s right,” agreed Alan, his tone one of warning. “Because if you are – “
“Hold your tongue,” snapped Peony, who’d risen, and had displayed a flash of true anger for the first time. “You speak to the prince regent who holds the fate of millions in his palm.” Her eyes glinted. “He’s finally turned his attention to you, and this is how you behave?”
Yixin held up a hand once more, this time higher. “Enough, Peony. Anna and Elsa. Young Kristoff. Colisa. And retainer Alan. You’ve come all the way here, proving your sincerity in helping Anna become the Exalted’s leader. Not only shall I confirm my blessing that Anna lead this ancient group, but I shall also reveal all to your satisfaction. Peony’s already given you a glimpse into who I really am.”
Yixin glided to the window, waving his fan. He gazed at the morning light. “Answer me this, young Anna and Elsa. If immortality existed, would humanity deserve to possess it?”
Anna and Elsa looked at each other, while the rest remained in bewildered silence. “This is about the elixir of life, isn’t it?” said Anna, stepping forward. “Well, I’ll stick my neck out and say that I’d like the chance to at least study it before making a decision as to whether to take it. Because… ” She looked at Elsa. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t consider doing for my sister’s sake, or for that of my kingdom.”
Yixin nodded slowly. “In other words, you’d want at least the capability to choose, to have the choice available whether you decide to consume the elixir of life or not. That is precisely the goal of the Exalted… my goal for the past five thousand years of human endeavour. To present that very choice.” He turned to stare at Anna, even as Peony moved to stand diligently beside him. “A choice that my mother, a being of nigh-omnipotence, has withdrawn from humanity. Her name is Chang’e, the eternal goddess of the moon. A being from outer space.” His eyes glinted. “And perhaps you and Elsa, or your mother and father, had some inkling of my true nature. I’m a being of a name you’ve never heard of before: a Moonborn. Born of Chang’e, and whose very milk was the elixir of life.”
Colisa and Kristoff couldn’t hide their utter shock. Anna stared at Yixin. “I don’t believe this. All this – the Exalted, the elixir, all the world’s politics and struggles – are because of something between you and your mother?” A mother figure was the last person Anna would feel was who Yixin blamed for his meticulous and ancient plans.
It’s our mothers – whether it’s Iduna or Chang’e – that haunt us years down the line, isn’t it? Not our dads, but our mums.
Yixin turned away, circling the group slowly like a wolf leisurely examining its hapless prey. “I was there when Chang’e toppled her husband and my father, Hou Yi the Sun Archer. He was the very first mortal to become a tyrant, and the first man that Chang’e shared her elixir of life with. But after she defeated him, she swore to never let humankind be tempted due to her actions.”
Yixin’s eyes gleamed. “I fought a war among the planets and the stars against Chang’e, when my fleets were much larger and my power more space-bound than now. But just before my victory, she sent me hurtling from the stars and crashing onto this rock we call Earth. Shall I tell you my story, Anna and Elsa?”
Anna and Elsa glanced at each other first, then looked directly at the prince regent.
“Tell us everything and our role in it. We can take it.”
THE TRUTH, AND THE STAKES.
TO BE CONTINUED!