Chapter 29: The Reward For A Job Well Done
“Ouch,” Anna said as Dr. Whelan ran the scanner over her forehead. “I’m fine, Izik.”
Chief Medical Officer Commander Izik Whelan gave her a critical eye. “Captain, You’ve got a half-healed heart transplant after being shot in the back with a large-caliber handgun. You then go into combat in a aircraft you don’t know how to fly, which you manage to get shot down, and then you run into a building secured by an unknown enemy. You’re lucky I’m not ordering you back into the hospital.” He regarded the scanner. “But you don’t seem to have a concussion.” He returned the device to its case on the wheeled tray next to the infirmary bed on which she sat.
Anna looked up at him, carefully tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear and out of her face. “Then I’m fine, right?”
“No, you are not ‘fine.’ Your cortisol levers are absolutely through the roof. You’ve still pushed yourself too hard.” He handed her a small plastic cup with pills in it. “I know you won’t take opiates, Captain, but for God’s sake will you at least accept some anti-inflammatories and get some sleep?”
“Yes, doctor,” she said sheepishly, accepting the smaller cup. He handed her a water bottle as well and she downed the pills under his watchful eye. She hated having to take medicine in any form; it made her feel weak and not entirely herself. When she’d had Olaf…
She sighed. When she’d had Olaf, she hadn’t needed sleeping pills. Or reminders from her stress management classes.
Outside the infirmary bedroom the roar of aerodynes coming and going rocked the Summer Palace almost constantly as security details poured into the security zone, obstensibly to take both Gothel’s body and the Crew Quarters apart piece by piece and ensure there were no spoilsport plans in place. Anna had no idea where they’d taken Elsa, Rapunzel or Flynn. “Can I go?”
“If you go back to your room and go right to bed, yes.”
Admiral Becker’s voice interrupted her response. “I’m afraid that may not be possible.”
Anna started to get up to salute, but he waved her to sit back down on the hospital bed. “Sit, Captain. You’ve had a hard day. And I’m afraid it’s not going to get any easier.”
He paused, softly rapping his knuckles gently on the plastic countertop of the washbasin stand. “Did you have a chance to read the documents I’d sent with your Chief Engineer, Captain?”
Anna shook her head. “No, sir. He arrived just in time for lunch. I had… plans after that. They weren’t marked urgent, so I put them off until my afternoon appointment was ended.”
“Understandable. I suppose I should have marked them urgent. Captain, you’ve been recalled.”
“Sir?” Anna winced at the dismay in her own voice. She was more professional than that. She should have known this was coming.
“It wasn’t my choice. But the Lords of Admiralty, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that you are to take Winterkiss and return to Manticore immediately for an assessment of your injuries.”
Anna froze momentarily, then turned her head away. Tears came to her eyes. “They’ll take her away from me, Sir.”
“Unfortunately, I believe you’re right. You don’t deserve it, Captain, and I have included a letter of protest in my response, but the orders I’ve received do not give me much leeway.”
Anna sighed. “I understand, sir. I take it the orders are upon receipt?”
“Yes, Captain, they are.”
“May I… Do I have time to say goodbye?”
“Have you opened the attache I sent you?”
Anna smiled grimly. “I left it in my room.”
“In all the excitement today, I think it’s understandable if you don’t get around to opening it for a day or two. And I’ll probably forget to mention it while you’re under assessment for your injuries. You didn’t hear any of that, did you, Izik?”
Doctor Whelan briefly stuck a finger in his ear and dramatically scratched at it. “Sorry, sir, I’m sometimes selectively hard of hearing. Were you saying something?”
“Nothing important, Izik. Nothing important.”
Dr. Whelan nodded. “Admiral, the captain needs rest. I recommend she spend the night here for observation. If she’s fit to travel, in the morning she should return to the Palace at Corona. Our hosts can gather her luggage and deliver them to her steward there.”
“Good thinking, Doctor.”
“And I mean it, Captain,” Dr. Whelan said firmly. “You need rest. If you need to stay away from your room for… personal reasons, you’re still going to sleep until you’ve rebuilt your energy levels. Clear?”
Anna sighed. “Clear, Doctor.” Calling him by his title rather than his rank was a clear indication she was willing to take his orders. She outranked him, but a good doctor could sideline a particularly stubborn captain if he thought he could justify it as good for the ship. She lay down on the bed, unwilling to admit that she was exhausted. She wasn’t sure when they turned out the lights.
Elsa had been able to close her eyes but not her ears. Or her nose. She had needed her hands to keep steady against Rapunzel’s back as she provided sentience to her cousin’s cybernetic hair. The cartoonish unreality presented to her cybernetic vision showing her what Rapunzel’s hair had been doing inside Doctor Fitzhubert’s body had been replaced in her other senses by the horrific reality of the operating room. The smell of open-heart surgery had battered at her, along with the dozen or so sounds that kept the surgeon informed of the patient’s condition: the hiss of the suction tube, the buzz of the bone saw, the whir of the robots doing the actual cutting and sewing, and over it all the doctor’s low murmur of conversation with his staff.
She stared blankly at the wall of the Royal Hospital’s high security waiting room now. The horror of the day, the betrayal of The Mother, what she had had to do to save poor Doctor Fitzhubert, the madness of her rush to save them. She put her head into her hands and sobbed, quietly.
The doctor who had examined her had found no lasting injuries, but Elsa didn’t believe him. She was broken inside. Still broken, forever broken. Inadequate. The Eight Day Queen was half right: she was an imposter, not because she wasn’t a descendent of Anton The First, but because she would never ascend to the confidence and assurance a queen truly needed. Olaf, clearly concerned with the direction of his person’s thinking, padded over and touched her thigh with his hand, asking for her lap. Elsa picked him up and wrapped her arms protectively around him, but she didn’t know if she was protecting him from her or using him as a shield to protect herself.
“Niece.” She heard a deep, rumbling voice above her.
“Uncle John,” she said, starting to stand. Olaf clung tight in her arms.
“Sit, sit.” She did, grateful. She didn’t know if she could stand reliably for much longer. “You look exhausted, Elsa.”
Elsa sighed. “I am. I have no idea how Calhoun just keeps moving in these circumstances. Or Anna.”
“When the moment is right, we all find the reserves we need. Or, we die.” John, Elsa had learned, did not have a sense of humor. He had a sense of joy, which was an entirely different thing.
“And Flynn? Did he find his reserves?”
“He did. I understand my daughter is calling him Eugene, which is his Christian name. ‘Flynn’ is a patronymic of some kind.” Elsa nodded. “In any event, I have already written out a full pardon for his assault on my daughter.”
“He saved her life, John!”
“I know,” he said, chuckling deeply. “But he did draw the Princess’s blood while doing so, so… there must be a trial. Or a pardon. I provided the latter, as well as the King’s Voice that he be provided every medical necessity. They are both– you are all– heroes today.”
“Except that one man.”
“Halford Ianthina was a hero. He will be givin a hero’s funeral.”
“Just like Bradon.”
“Yes. You were brave today, niece.”
“I was lucky,” Elsa said fiercely. “I was lucky to be at the right place, with the right set of Keys, to get that aerodyne in motion. I was lucky to have someone as strong-willed and capable as Anna with me. I was lucky to arrive after Flynn– I mean Eugene– had done the hard part already.” She sagged back into her chair. “I cannot rely on luck to be a good queen, John, and yet it feels like it’s all I ever have.”
“Hmmm,” John said. “Elsa, you have had more than luck. You have tradition, authority, and training. Training no one else has. Every one of your dukes probably envies you your throne, but if they knew you well they would not envy your inbox.”
Elsa laughed darkly. “That’s true. But I’m not up to being the queen. Not when the crisis hits.”
“You were today!”
“I…” Elsa ddn’t want to admit that the alternative would have been showing her weakness in front of Anna. Again. This time the crisis hadn’t been about her, hadn’t been an attack on her. Elsa had ridden to the rescue of someone else. That was as it should have been. Good rulers lived to serve their people and, when the necessary time came, to ride to the rescue.
“Elsa,” he said gently. “We must learn from the Manticorans how to live without the Keys.” Elsa’s eyes widened as he held out to her one of her deepest wishes. He held up his hand, showing Elsa the same kinds of gloves, only on much bigger hands, as she and Rapunzel wore. “The Keys dehumanize us. You and me. And Rapunzel. They separate us from our subjects. They separate me from my wife. They were an inhuman solution to an inhuman situation, but we must not allow that inhumanity in our past to continue to poison our position with respect to our people.” He gestured toward the door. “They need to know that there is no absolute power, corrupting absolutely. Or, as we saw today, failing absolutely. There must be men and women of good quality capable of taking the reins if you or I cannot. People like your Captain DuVar, your Eugene Fitzhubert. Calhoun. Citron. People who have dedication, training, and the moral fiber to do good.”
Elsa stood suddenly, unable to stay still any longer. She paced the floor nervously. “When do we start?”
“We start immediately. But this is a many-years process, Elsa. I have spoken in depth with Ambassador Hellenola, and you must join us. We must send our own scholars and ambassadors to Manticore, and to Earth, and to every other nation that will allow us to study their means and their methods, and we must learn how to create a government balanced between the civilian and the military, the courts and the Keys. You and I must be the ultimate power, but we must devolve the day-to-day decisions over everything to a working executive government. We will need advisors, and we will need people we can trust to help us find them.”
Elsa stopped. “I think I know where I can find one.”
“Yes, I think you do.” Elsa gave him a surprised look. “It would be a very baroque plot indeed if the treecats were well-trained animals to lull us into a sense of security. Olaf is a bright fellow, in his own way. If you trust him–“
“I really don’t believe I have a choice.”
“So I’ve read. If you trust him, Elsa, he will be a good guide to start.”
Elsa grinned. It hadn’t been Olaf who had first come to mind.
“Unh. Boy, it’s bright in here.”
“Eugene!” Rapunzel hovered over him, taking his hand and holding it. It was still too cold for her comfort. “Eugene, are you there?”
“Hey, Rapunzel,” he said. “I’m still here.” He tried to move his shoulders, found that they were belted down. “External heart machine again, huh?” He let his muscles relax, sagging back against the life support bed. “I don’t suppose they have another spare for me.”
“They do,” Rapunzel said. “They’re tissue typing it right now.”
“Oh, good. A real one this time, huh?”
“My father said you get the best of everything.”
“I bet the best of hospital food is still terrible.”
Rapunzel half-laughed, half-sobbed. “I thought, for a moment– Eugene.”
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t cry. But… what happened to your hair?”
“Oh.” Rapunzel reached to brush back the medium-brown sheaf of what was left of her hair. “They had to cut it. And remove all the rest. Since we know that Gothel was using it to snoop on my telemetry, we didn’t know what other surprises might be in there. Father thought it would be safer if we just stripped it out.”
He nodded. “He’s a smart guy. And… I think I prefer you as a brunette.”
Rapunzel giggled. “Then you’d better get used to it, Eugene Fitzhubert.”
“Gonna keep me around?”
“As long as you’ll stay.”
He nodded. “That might be a while.”
“We have all the time in the world.”
“You’re leaving?” Elsa said as Anna told her the news. Anna braced herself against the table and she would not meet Elsa’s eyes.
“I have to. My Queen has ordered me back.”
“But you can’t just leave me. We… we just started, Anna.”
“And until I get settled with my Navy, Elsa, we’ll just have to put everything on hold. Here.” She turned her attention. “And you, Snowball. Will you be okay while I’m gone?”
Olaf gave her a salute, then ran to her and clambered up her uniform until he was perched on her shoulder. Anna seemed to recognize the gesture and held her arms in a loop in front of her. He fell into it easily, in a position where he could sign to her. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said.
He signed, “We will be fine. You must care for you.”
“I will. Are you going to teach her sign?”
He nodded, then squirmed to drop.
“Just like this?” Elsa said.
“It’s what has to happen. Afterward– we can see. Things will change.” Elsa’s lips trembled. Anna wanted to kiss those lips, to tell the Navy to go drop down a black hole, but she was too good a woman, and too good a sailor, to betray her history like that. “Elsa, we will make things change.” Anna glanced around the brightly lit tea-room. “I have to go. They say the reward for a job well done is a harder job. I wonder what they’ll give me for this?”
“If it were up to me, I’d give you an entire world of your own.”
Anna snorted. “And I’d probably run it into the ground, just like my career.”
Elsa stepped up to stand before her. “May I?”
Anna nodded. In a sad voice she said, “You may.” Elsa hugged her. Anna returned the embrace with fervor. “Take care of Doctor Fitzhubert for me, huh? He’s a good man.”
“Yes, he is,” Elsa said.
“Goodbye, Captain.” Elsa watched as Anna walked off the balcony and back into the palace. The doors closed behind her with the smallest of clicks.
“There goes a brave woman who doesn’t deserve what her kingdom is about to do to her.”
Elsa glanced up. Calhoun never offered her opinion on matters of state. Elsa said, “When she first arrived, I told her that I valued her friendship. If she were my friend, it would be because we had something in common, not because I was a queen. She was precious to me because she was the one person I could really lose. She could leave.”
Calhoun spent almost a minute forming a response. “Well, then. We’ll just have to figure out how to get her back, won’t we? Among all the politicking.”
Elsa nodded. “Yes, we do. I don’t know how yet. But yes, we will.”