Featured image art “Swinging Sisters” by Arute (@ast05water)
“What should I do?” said Anna, throwing Tiffany Hunsecker’s invitation onto the coffee table. Kristoff, Elsa, Colisa, Peony, and Alan looked down at it, their expressions grim. They were in a palatial, terraced accommodation used by Peony Sinclair to host British diplomats to China. They’d had several days to digest everything that had gone down in the Forbidden City, during their long-awaited meeting with Yixin. Not only was Anna being tempted with power beyond imagination, it also had the potential to transform Arendelle forever and redefine her reign and legacy.
Yet the risks and pitfalls were enormous. As if that weren’t enough to mull over, Anna had received a letter shortly after speaking with Yixin. It was an invitation, in which Tiffany asserted that Harrison had, in light of Anna’s ascension to the Exalted’s leadership and her weathering everything he’d thrown at her, forced himself to acknowledge her as an equal.
Yet it wasn’t in the queen of Arendelle’s capacity or her business to completely destroy Harrison. She couldn’t. His assets were transnational and he could sail anywhere, be it Boston, London, or Hong Kong. His opium firm could incorporate anywhere in the world. He could sever ties to his triad associates long before Anna could produce any evidence to anyone that cared. Arendelle’s jurisdiction was much more limited than his business’s mobility.
True, there was bad blood – lots of it – between the Nordic monarch and this opium dealer and drug lord. But despite their enmity, they were in a deadlock. Neither were able to deal the other a decisive blow. So, in Harrison’s assessment (or so Tiffany claimed), negotiations were in order.
“This is an open challenge,” snarled Alan, Anna’s knight and a member of her chivalric order, the Order of the Wheat Stalk. His arms were crossed, and he was biting his lip skeptically. “He deals in bad faith. Look what happened last time, when he forced you to transfer our privileges for trading here in China.” He cracked his knuckles, smirking. “I challenged him to a no-holds-barred brawl after he forced you to sign that treaty so long ago. He won’t be visiting Arendelle for a long time, even if you let his ships back in. He disrespected Arendelle, so we paid back his scorn with a double serving of unpleasantness.”
“It doesn’t sound queenly to say this, but I took no small measure of comfort from that,” sniggered Anna, twirling at a lock of her red hair. “Still, I think I’m mature enough a leader to know that I should take this chance, even if Harrison has ulterior motives.”
“The Floodgate triads, who are helping him transport opium all across China and Asia,” said Peony, staring down at the invitation. “No doubt that they’ll be at the Qilin Cabaret, Harrison’s centre of power in this empire.” She stared at a worried-looking Colisa and Elsa. “Just as Berkeley Plantation along the James River is Harrison’s home in the United States, the Qilin Cabaret here in Peking is where he holds court, entertaining Chinese mandarins, fellow expatriate merchants and tai-pans, and schmoozing with visiting royalty from other regions of the world.” Peony looked at Anna. “You’re our leader, Your Majesty. Since you seem to lean toward accepting Harrison’s invitation, we’ll follow you into the den of the lion. However, you must be ready for not just the triads, but the terms of Harrison’s proposal. He’s very good at controlling the parameters of a business deal. Consider this a meeting of wills and negotiation strategy. Harrison expects you to sacrifice your advantages in order to save something precious to you. Don’t forget that, and surprise him.”
Anna looked at Elsa and Kristoff, and they nodded encouragingly.
“Okay. You got it, Peony,” said the queen.
Peony put her hands on her hips, satisfied and feeling somewhat excited herself. “Fine. Then let me hire something more… opulent for all of you to wear. It’s the Qilin Cabaret, after all. Harrison might be our enemy, but the venue is his home turf. We’ll have to blend in.”
Anna cracked a wry grin. “So we’re playing dress-up?” She winked at Elsa and Kristoff. “Alright, then. It’s been a while since we’ve had a party, and I’ve never been hosted outside of Arendelle. Even if we’re in the lion’s den, we might as well look snazzy while we’re there!”
It was a full moon the next night, perfect for a night of intense negotiations and entertainment.
Two carriages came to a stop before a great renaissance-style building. There was a entrance hall and grand staircase beyond the entrance, supported on fluted columns with capitals in the classical form. The carriage horses whinnied and snorted, and out stepped Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, and Alan in one, and Peony and Colisa in the other. For the very first time in their lives, they were wearing Chinese attire – Anna and Elsa wore matching qipaos of fine silk that complemented their leitmotifs of summer and winter, with Anna having an arm bracelet that displayed the Arendellian crocus. Her one-piece dress was a deep, luscious green while Elsa’s qipao was a white and light blue evocation of comforting, majestic winter. Anna’s hair was done up in a bun like her old princess days, while Elsa kept her hair free-flowing. Kristoff wore a magnificent two-piece suit with orange and beige hues, while Colisa’s own qipao was a brilliant red, showing off Chatho’s national aesthetic. Peony looked the most at ease in her Chinese dress, her preferred colours a deep navy blue with hints of elegant white.
“Do you think this makes me look a bit underdressed?” Alan asked Elsa, looking down at his own attire: a simple black jacket and slim-cut trousers with a raised collar. It was the simplest outfit of the lot, and it made him look like somewhat of a bodyguard or protector.
Elsa drew close and planted a light kiss on Alan’s cheek. “Not at all. It suits your martial character perfectly. You look very handsome and reliable.” She nodded at Anna. “Nervous?”
“A bit,” admitted Anna. “But that doesn’t matter at this point. I must face my archenemy. Let’s head in.”
Together, the Exalted members, Elsa, and Alan strode into the antechamber of the Qilin Cabaret. The structure was situated in an extraterritorial region of China’s capital city. Here, American president John Tyler’s government, after being advised by Harrison’s well-paid lobbyists, had purchased a plot of land to build a magnificent building that would serve as the place to host the best parties in all of Asia. In contrast to the squalid and dimly lit dens that sourced Harrison’s opium, the Qilin Cabaret was the embodiment of respectable expat society in Peking. It had two magnificent restaurants, with one serving Chinese cuisine and the other imported American fare. It had a ballroom and a reading room-cum-library on the second floor. But tonight, the visitors from Arendelle made their way to the bar lounge, where sumptuous lamps dangled from the ceiling, with musicians on a stage at the furthest end of the room. They were playing the most cutting edge of Western music, from trumpets and pianos to a mysterious but irresistibly catchy set of drums. A group of musicians were already playing a melodious tune as Anna and friends walked in, and even the queen couldn’t help gasping in awe, looking around and taking in the ambience of the place.
“I’ve never been in such a place before,” she whispered, staring down at her hand as lights in different shades of red – the colour of passion, danger, and fun moved all over her skin. How could Harrison have acquired such contraptions and technology? There were already some people of diverse backgrounds seated on comfortable sofas or talking at spacious tables, clinking glasses of whisky or gin and tonic. They were extremely well-dressed too, in opulent Chinese qipaos or finely cut suits from countries beyond the Celestial Empire. They were probably businesspeople, reporters, or diplomatically connected powerbrokers. The air was heady with schmoozing, conversation, and confidence.
So this was Harrison’s base…
Kristoff also looked quite overwhelmed by the sensual music and dim, romantic lights. He looked over at one of the unoccupied corner booths, where there was an elegant oak table and two empty red sofas. “You’d never see anything like this back home,” he said, plonking himself down.
Alan whistled in grudging appreciation, sitting beside him and adjusting his high collar. “Can’t say that Harrison doesn’t have good taste. Looks like he’s brought East and West together here. It’s pretty… cool, I hate to say.”
Colisa nodded, her arm around Elsa’s as they sat down with Peony, the three young women on one sofa while Kristoff and Alan sat together. “There’s a sense of modern elegance that we in Chatho have barely come to terms with. Is this what the immediate future looks like?”
They were talking quietly among themselves when a goateed waiter approached them, his tray already stocked with six glasses of non-alcoholic soda. “You must be Mr. Harrison’s esteemed guests,” he said spiffily. “He’ll receive you soon. In the meantime, please refresh yourself. If you prefer drinks of a more… inebriating variety, I can give you the menu.”
Kristoff raised his hand. “You got any beer from Arendelle?”
“No,” said the waiter, “but we have imported German varieties.”
Alan laughed. “I’m staying sober to keep an eye on the queen and Elsa.”
“Gin and tonic for me, David,” said Peony. Elsa and Colisa looked at her in surprise It was clear she’d been here before, perhaps during the days when Harrison was an Exalted member and Peony had meetings with him and Katina.
“I suppose we can just have some orange juice…” said Elsa nervously. Colisa laughed at the cute choice, and asked for the same.
Then, the musicians switched songs, with the pianist beginning to play a wistful yet passionate melody as scattered applause from the patrons could be heard. An American woman stepped on stage, spreading her arms as her hips swayed to the drums’ light and gentle beat. “This song is for all of you women and men of power who have hearts! And in those hearts are deep and complicated feelings for the those that you love… here’s to you all. Enjoy your night here, ladies and gentlemen.”
Make the night last.
Spend it with me.
One loving kiss…
And a dream made for two.
All this time, the queen of Arendelle was the only one who hadn’t sat down at their booth yet, mesmerized as she was by her new surroundings. But this song was too much. She slowly turned around to look down at her entourage. “What’s up, honey?” said Kristoff, glancing up as he clinked glasses with Alan.
“May I have this dance, my princely tai-pan?” asked Anna, smiling. Surprised but pleased, Kristoff grinned right back, taking Anna’s outstretched hand and moving to sway side by side with her on the open space in the middle of the bar lounge. Anna giggled in delight, wiggling her hips as she looked up at Kristoff, a queen showing herself off for her beloved. There were a couple of other people there too, and Anna rested her head on Kristoff’s broad chest as they moved slowly to the song. Kristoff initially looked a bit nervous as he held Anna’s small body in his arms, but he quickly closed his eyes in pleasure and put his arm around Anna’s waist, enjoying how much she loved the music. Her lips mouthed along with the song, which was one of late night longing and yearning. The others couldn’t help watching, impressed as they were by Anna’s smooth move on Kristoff. Peony gave a small smile at the painful memories of her own passionate affair with Countess Vi, while Colisa and Elsa let out adoring coos at the happy couple. Alan glanced at Elsa, taking a deep breath, but just as he opened his mouth, while Anna and Kristoff were dancing in the centre of the bar lounge, a shadow loomed over the group of Exalted members.
“I’m glad to see you enjoying yourselves. Anna and Kristoff look especially made for each other,” said the opulently dressed Tiffany Hunsecker, lifting a long pipe to her full lips and taking a long, languid breath. Her cold eyes stared down at the group, who suddenly tensed up.
“I trust you’ve gotten comfortable here in the Qilin Cabaret now. Are you ready to see my boss?”
THE NIGHT IS ABOUT TO GET CRAZIER…
HOW WILL ANNA AND ELSA EMERGE FROM THIS MEETING? AND WILL SHE BE ABLE TO RETURN HOME SOON?