“The New Exalted” by Arute (@ast05water)
The queen of Arendelle was in the book-lined study of Harrison, a private and literally cigar smoke filled backroom on the second level of the Qilin Cabaret. Outside in the lounge, singing, cheering, and clapping could be heard along with the clinking of wine and whisky glasses. Elsa and the others were waiting for Colisa and Anna, who were still in negotiations with the tai-pan.
“You’re offering access for me to the government of your Union across the Atlantic Ocean in return for the chance to participate in my search for the elixir of life? To partake in the elixir itself, if I find it?” confirmed Anna, crossing her arms as she sat before Harrison’s desk. “How is that different from being a member of the Exalted – which, as long as I’m leader, you’ll never be?”
Harrison grunted. “The difference is yours to decide, queen. I don’t need necessarily to be in an executive position. What I can provide is ships, resources, finances… all that stuff you’ll inevitably find yourself hankering for as your operations go global. I’m offering you my… conditional allegiance. And a… negotiated duopoly over various industries in the China trade. Between my own company and that of your beloved Kristoff’s Bjorgman. Together, we’ll hoard all profits to ourselves and watch our rivals sink into the depths of the China sea.”
“You know my opinion about the opium trade that’s become dominant throughout this land,” said Anna, shaking her head. “Bjorgman deals in ice, property, logistics, and other industries, but not opium.” She crossed her arms. “As long as the foundation of any cooperation we have is based on something I can’t support, then that foundation is rotten. Furthermore…”
She glared at Harrison sharply. “I simply don’t trust you, tai-pan. I’ve followed my heart and the advice of my loved ones, Uncle Mike and Sir Alan. They’ve helped me see with clear eyes. And I see a rattlesnake in you and Tiffany, because if we were ever allies, you’d try to undermine the new kind of Exalted I want to build. Honestly, when Lord Yixin was leader and you and Katina were still members, I felt the Exalted to be a distant, sinister force. I’ve insisted to Yixin that I’m going to change that.” She breathed deeply. “It’ll be hard, especially with what I’ve set out to do, but if I don’t try to fight to keep my ideals, then I’ll have nothing at all.”
Harrison’s golden eyes narrowed. “You’re walking away from the chance to basically run half of China’s economy with me?”
“It’s not mine to run,” said Anna defiantly. “And frankly, it shouldn’t be yours to run either. I should be putting an end to your operations, right here and now. But for the sake of maintaining good diplomatic relations with the United States, Arendelle won’t be interfering in private American business…”
Colisa looked around, brown eyes narrowing. “Unless…” she said slowly.
Anna grimaced. “Unless that private American enterprise employs shadowy gangsters and illegal triads to attack a head of state.”
Harrison smirked. “You think I have Floodgate triads waiting outside this very room to force you into signing a deal with me?”
Anna’s cerulean eyes glinted. “That’s what you did to me last time, in Arendelle when I surrendered my trading rights in China to you for Mari and the Duke of Weselton’s lives.”
Harrison slowly stood up, his larger body looming over Colisa and Anna. “And what if I did?”
“Are you trying to intimidate two women?” demanded Colisa.
“Two sovereign heads of state?” added Anna.
Harrison was about to answer when Tiffany strode in, her face unusually concerned. “Someone is here to see you, Will.”
“Who dares interrupt my negotiations?” demanded Harrison. Anna and Colisa looked at each other in surprise.
Tiffany’s lips tightened. “I don’t think Mr. Forbes can wait.”
Harrison blanched. “Didn’t he piss off back to Boston a few years ago?”
“He’s apparently back. And he specifically wants to see Anna. You can’t deny access to a member of the Forbes’.”
Anna wasn’t familiar with the name of Forbes, but judging from Harrison’s reaction, it seemed to at least hold its own in the circles of the Virginian tai-pan. Tiffany opened the door, and a well-built man in a top hat and an impeccably sewn suit strode into the dimly, red-tinted room. His eyes were confident and steady.
“Robert Bennet Forbes,” snapped Harrison, “fancy seeing you here? Just when I’m about to get the best deal of my life?”
“I wasn’t going to agree to it,” snapped Anna. “Haven’t you listened to a word I’d said?” She looked at the wizened gentleman, seizing her chance. “Whoever you are, I’d like your witness to my refusal to deal with Mr. Harrison any longer.”
“I’m just a humble China trader, like Mr. Harrison here. And consider your request done, Your Majesty. I can bear witness to tonight’s failure to secure anything between Mr. Harrison and the queen of Arendelle,” said Forbes, with an air of amusement. Harrison looked livid. “I’ve done business in the Celestial Empire for many years. I own the Midas, Edith, and Massachusetts ships, and while I did indeed leave the Celestial Empire – and my partnership at Russell and Co., for your information – Harrison would like to convince you that he’s the sole person to strike a deal with here. But despite his wealth, he’s only one tai-pan among many tai-pans.”
Anna’s eyebrow rose. She’d heard about Russell and Co. from Kristoff; it was one of the biggest American firms in the Celestial Empire.
Forbes’ warm but brilliant eyes twinkled. “In our beautiful United States, there are tai-pans that are themselves ambivalent about the opium trade that made them men and women of wealth, and who are trying to transition to something less… questionable. And on my side, we happen to be the tai-pans that support true freedom, including that of men and women still legally owned by old Virginian aristocracy like Harrison’s.”
“Piss off, you berk,” snapped Harrison. “You might be a fellow American, but you don’t understand a thing about us in Virginia.”
“Oh,” said Anna, “so you two are rivals.”
Forbes raised an eyebrow at Harrison. “Well, it’s as you and Anna were just discussing… surely you couldn’t have illegally employed gangsters ready to pounce on your unsuspecting guest here, could you? No. No, you’re not that kind of man.” Forbes gave a hearty laugh, while Harrison smiled along weakly. “So I suppose it’s my turn to offer something to Her Majesty, in the hopes that she might like my proposal better than yours. Competition being the lifeblood of capitalism, and all that.”
Harrison gritted his teeth. “You’ll at least consider my offer, though?” he said to Anna.
“Uh, yeah,” said Anna, though she grinned when Colisa rolled her eyes. “Yes. I will. Um, thank you, Will. I’m going to go outside and have a chat with Mr. Forbes now.”
“Very good,” said Forbes, laughing. He winked at Anna. “What say you we pick up your friends and have a quick conversation somewhere quieter?”
Harrison’s lips were thin, and Tiffany looked like she wanted to shout an order. But the triads wouldn’t be acting tonight, not in the presence of Forbes. All Harrison could do was watch helplessly as Anna and Colisa rose from their chairs and wordlessly followed Forbes outside of Harrison’s study.
“Look, thanks for rescuing us from Harrison,” said Anna, shaking hands with Forbes outside of the Qilin Cabaret. The singing and laughter was somewhat muffled from the outside of the stately building. It was well past midnight and she was surrounded by her Exalted members, Elsa, and Alan. “It looked like we were going to be forced into another messy battle again.”
“A pity, too.” Alan cracked his knuckles. “I was itching for another bust-up with Harrison. But I suppose it’s good for Arendellian-American ties that nothing happened.”
“Still, we can’t relax just yet,” said Kristoff, “not until we’re out of Chinese waters. Harrison could come after us at any time.”
“I can’t strike a deal with you either, Mr. Forbes: the world of the tai-pans in China is just too treacherous for a national leader like me to play favourites – for now,” said Anna.
Forbes nodded. “I understand. That was more of an excuse to help you get away from Harrison, anyway. Your Majesty’s opinion on our lucrative trade is quite well-known to diplomats and businesspeople alike. On my first tour in China years ago, I made my initial fortune in opium – what I make this time will be free from that stain,” he sighed. “I’m not sure what’s worse: Harrison with his unapologetic rapacious business sense, or my wavering conscience despite my hunger for more profits.” He looked down at Anna. “Well, what do you intend to do next?”
Anna stretched her aching limbs and looked proudly at her extravagantly well-dressed entourage. “We had fun, and there was plenty of peril along the way. But now that we’ve met Yixin, our objective has been fulfilled. It’s time to go home. Back to Arendelle. All of you, with me.” She gestured at Kristoff, Colisa, and Peony. “The Gold Reindeer. The Ruby Tiger. The Sapphire Phoenix.”
“And when we’re back, Emerald Dragon, our search for the elixir begins in earnest,” said Peony, as Elsa hugged Anna emotionally. At last. “Four members of the Exalted, four teams… four directions. We shall scour the north, south, east, and west of the entire globe for Lord Yixin’s prize.”
Anna nodded, drawing back from Elsa. “I promise you that the debt I owe to his lordship won’t go unpaid. But for now…”
She put a tired hand on Peony’s shoulder.
“I really want some decent roast chicken.”
They said goodbye to Forbes and prepared to get on their carriages outside of the Qilin Cabaret, having fended off Harrison’s last-ditch attempt to control Anna with a bit of help from a business rival. Anna yawned. “I sure hope things are going okay back home.”
“I’m sure it’s all good,” said Kristoff, his arm around Anna’s shoulder. “Countess Vi is watching over things. How bad could it get?”
AT LAST… THE EXALTED HEAD BACK TO ARENDELLE!
THE SEARCH FOR THE ELIXIR OF LIFE BEGINS…