Chapter 15: Change of Plans

“Captain,” Admiral Becker said as he shook Anna’s hand and guided her into his office. He gestured toward a chair. The HMS Brass was an older dreadnought, perfectly suitable to a case like this where modern vessels like Medusas and Harringtons would be overkill, but his office was still typically sized for a flagship Admiral’s vessel. “So glad you could make it.”

“I didn’t get to be a captain by unnecessarily annoying my admirals, sir.”

“Indeed.” He smiled. “I wanted to talk to you about several things, Captain. I don’t know where you went the day Queen Elsa came back to the capitol, but I have a working suspicion you had something to do with her return. I need to ask you a few questions before I deliver our next assignment.”

Anna nodded. “I had a feeling you were going to put it all together.”

“So, can you tell me what happened? And can you swear under oath that, whatever happened, it does not involve your subordination to a foreign power?”

“About the last, yes, sir, I will so swear, if the fleet requires it. About the first…” Anna sighed. She had rehearsed this moment, but the words came out in a rush. “Sir, when we return to Manticore I respectfully request that I be allowed a leave of absence while I turn myself over to BuMed for psychiatric evalutation to determine if I am still fit for duty in Her Majesty’s Navy.”

Becker went very still. A captain who called her own fitness for command into question was one who forever after could expect to receive letters informing her that the Admiralty had no ships suitable to her skills. “I was led to understand you were to make a full recovery, and that there wasn’t any brain damage from your, um, ressurection.”

“No, sir, it was my heart.” Anna touched her chest with an open hand as she leaned forward. This was harder than she’d imagined. “Quite literally.” Tears formed in her eyes, and one streaked down her right cheek. “You may have noticed, Olaf isn’t with me today.”

“Yes. I was surprised, and gratified, that you recovered him, although I haven’t been told the details on quite where you found him, or how. And I don’t understand why ONI has recorded seeing him several times in Queen Elsa’s presence. Can you explain why you seem to be sharing him with a foreign queen?”

Anna took a deep breath. “Admiral, sir, that day, he contacted me. He told me where he was, and how to meet up with him. Sir, after I was shot, I was dead. I don’t care about the legal or ethical ramifications of saying so, but for all intents and purposes I had zero brain activity, and I was in that state for six weeks. But when a treecat goes six weeks without any contact from his person, knowing that their person is dead–” She let the words hang in the air.

“He looks healthy…” Becker suddenly slapped the desk. “Your bond with him is gone? And, that means, my God.” He looked past Anna. It was his turn to take a breath. “My God. He bonded with Queen Elsa, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are they compatible?”

“They seem to be doing all right with each other. Elsa is enjoying this part, as far as she can. But I don’t think she’s the sort of woman who gets many chances to enjoy herself. I don’t think she knows how.”

“An understatement,” Becker said. “I’ve been told Elizabeth makes the same point on a fairly regular basis. To the Admiral.” No need to specify which Admiral. Right. “And that explains why she’s suddenly so much more effective as Queen. With a treecat’s stabilizing influence and his own empathetic abilities, he’d certainly be as helpful to her as Ariel is to Elizabeth, wouldn’t he?”

“Yes, sir,” Anna said. She paused to gather her thoughts. She tucked that errant strand of hair back behind her ear again. “What I’m saying, Admiral, is that my psych profile was always dependent upon Olaf being a part of my life. And now he’s not. I need to find out what that’s done to me before I can take another ship out at the Queen’s pleasure.”

Becker was still for a moment as he tried to think of a way around her predicament. But the regulations were clear. “As much as I don’t want to, I can understand that. I’m so sorry, Captain. I know how much a career in the Navy means.” His eyes took in the award board on her chest insignia, the list of commands and kills and honors and lost souls. She’d never see that fourth ring now. “I will write the recommendation, along with a commendation for your bravery and insight in bringing it to me, and we shall let the chips fall where they may.”

Anna listened to a man praise her even as he agreed that it was possible her career should end. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t.”

“But I must. You understand.”

“I do,” Becker said. “God bless you, Captain.” He smiled grimly. “However, for the moment, you are still a Queen’s officer, you are still in my command, and I have a very specific request to make of you.”

“Of me, sir?”

“Yes. Or, rather, Her Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle has asked me for a favor. Queen Elsa has asked that I convey her and a party of Arendelle’s government to Corona, to make initial contact with the government of Corona and begin negotiations to form a commonwealth. She has also asked that Winterkiss provide the initial contact. I have seen fit to grant these requests. I’m sorry, Captain, I know it’s never fun being reduced to a glorified bus driver, and with your own circumstances with Olaf– how is he taking it, by the way?”

“Hard. He says he still loves me, but he knows there’s something there that’s broken, something that we lost. I miss him every day he’s not with me. He does spend time with me when I’m groundside, but…”

“My God. I’m sorry, Captain. If you want, I can find another ship–“

“No, that’s fine,” Anna said. “If he’s on the same ship with me, we’ll get more time together. Who knows? If BuMed beaches me, maybe I’ll move to Arendelle. Become a part of the Foreign Office, or an advisor to the Queen. God knows they’re going to need more than one.” The idea of moving to Arendelle hadn’t occurred to her before, and for a moment the cold knife of losing Olaf and the hotter, stranger knife she felt every time she saw Elsa, both twisted inside her simultaneously. She looked away from Becker.

“Is it bad?”

“I was dead, sir. Being alive is better. That Olaf didn’t die with me is better. That he’s with someone like Elsa, and helping her be as excellent as she can be, is better. She will take care of him. It’s all right, sir.”

He shook his head. “You know, when they assigned you to my command, I was surprised but also very pleased to get you.”

She looked up, surprised. “I would have thought, after all the mess I made here…”

“Oh, that. There’ll be inquiries. Doctor Pine is going to raise one heck of a ruckus, and of course he has is patrons among the liberals. But don’t worry. When you exited the wormhole, your schedule gave you plenty of time to look around, and you were within your mandate to follow Dr. Fitzhubert’s request to investigate this very peculiar binary starsystem. Up until the moment the Vessel shot at you, you were well within your duties as a representative of Queen and Kingdom. Once they were shooting at you, you were free to defend yourself. Your choice of action was unorthodox but certainly won the hearts and minds of what looks to be a very interesting ally. And this is an area of space that, as far as we know, has never been explored. Doctor Pine is wrong and you were right: that first shot was well within an armed response zone under the Rules of Engagement.”

“With all due respect, sir, we know the Vessel was constrained by their technology. I could have pulled out and nobody would ever have been the wiser.”

“So Dr. Pine has argued. But he’s simply wrong, Captain. We do not leave innocents behind, not when we know tragedy awaits them that we can, in all probability, avert. You made the right and honorable call. You have the head for command, Captain. The Lords of the Admiralty gave you this ship in all good trust. Don’t second-guess that.”

“No, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Your record is exemplary, Captain. You’re probably one of the most generous officers it has, and I mean that in the best way possible. You give everything of yourself, and you get it all back.” He looked down at his desk momentarily. “And, from what I’ve just heard, so you have done with Olaf and Elsa. I don’t know what to tell you, Captain, other than I believe that the best will come out of this, and you will get it all back, whatever it really is.”

“I hope so, sir.”

“You have a ship to prepare, Captain, for a royal passenger. I won’t hold you any longer.” She rose. “And captain?”

“Sir?”

“Even without your treecat, I believe you’ll continue to be a damn fine leader, wherever you land.” He held out a hand.

Anna could feel tears in her eyes, but she ignored them as she took his hand and shook. “Thank you sir.”

“Godspeed, Captain.”

Anna nodded and left his office.