Chapter 30: A Palpable Hit

“Anna! Breakfast is ready!”

Anna groaned as she pushed herself up, smacking her tongue against the persistently awful taste in her mouth. “I’m awake, I’m awake,” she said to no one in particular. Up the stairs and down the hall, the strains of a symphony reached her ears. Anna sighed. Dear God, her father was listening to Hammerwell again. Hammerwell may have been Sphinx’s most famous composer, but Anna had never enjoyed all that “vast emptiness of winter” emphasized with minor key woodwinds and generous helpings of synthesizers.

Anna rolled out of bed. Whoever had invented mornings needed to be tied upon the captain’s mast and thrashed to within inches of their lives. The only thing that made mornings in Iron Fjord humanly possible was the invention of hot cocoa. She might even enjoy a little coffee in it. She sighed and went down to the family dining room.

“Good morning, Dad.” Her father looked tired but that wasn’t unusual. He took the duties of his Earldom seriously and was often out late into the night. As she looked around the slate-floored room with its Sphinxian cherrywood table and chairs, the display pantry with its rare Terran crystal, she wondered if she would ever feel the same way he did. She loved Iron Fjord with all her heart, but she didn’t feel it the way her father seem to.

He smiled at her, broad with welcome. “Good morning, Anna. Sleep well?”

She shrugged. “Back to being a surly fifteen year-old, I see,” he said. She shrugged again. One of the staff, a new person she didn’t recognize, brought out a plate with one large waffle on it, topped with strawberries and whipped cream. On the side was a hard-boiled egg, a concession to morning protein. The waffle was fluffy all the way through and she appreciated her father’s chef yet again. He was far better than even the chefs on board her last starship. She frowned. Food like this couldn’t begin to tempt her away from wishing she were on a starship deck again.

“Anna, I think it’s time we discussed your future. The navy has beached you, and you need to accept that this time it looks to be permanent. Four months is more than enough time for you to realize this and start to plan on what to do with the rest of your life.” Her father always had a knack for reading her mind.

Anna scowled, holding back the deep depression that his words welled up inside her. “It hasn’t been four months.”

“It has. You got back in late March, and it is now August. Both your mother and your brother’s birthdays have gone by, and yours is coming up soon. Hans’s ship is in port and you haven’t even tried to contact him. You must stop pining over your career, Anna.”

“It’s not just my career, Dad!” Anna said hotly. “I mean, sure, that hurts, but…”

“I’m sorry you lost Olaf.” He reached out across the table, offering his hand. Anna took it. “And I’m very glad you didn’t get killed. I knew every time I let you go out that was a risk we were both taking. Unlike certain nobility that somehow or other achieved the rank of Captain, you performed your duty to Queen and Country with bravery and skill, Anna, and you earned that stripe and every medal. I have the deepest respect for that. But you have to move forward.”

“I will. I promise.” It had not been Olaf that had been topmost of Anna’s mind.

“Then you’ll contact Hans and move forward with that arrangement?”

Anna puttered with her fork in the lake of maple syrup she’d poured under the waffle. “I guess. Hey, where is Rolf these days?”

“Your brother is currently at the Manticore Colonial Institute.” Anna furrowed her brow, unable to recall if the MCI was positive or negative on the recent wave of kingdom acquisitions. It would probably be positive, knowing Rolf. Like most of his family, Rolf was a crown loyalist of a fairly progressive flavor: in favor of change if it enriched Manticore and didn’t threaten the authority of the Crown.

“But your brother is well-ensconced with his career, his wife and his child, Anna. You need to settle down as well. You’re the eldest, and it’s time, and Captain Westergaard is a fine catch for any earl’s daughter. I’d be proud of you both.”

Anna sighed. They’d had this conversation several times since… She sighed. “Father.”

“Forward, Anna,” he said firmly. “Take whatever romantic notions you have about what life should be and put them aside. It’s time you took up your duties again. Your are the Countess Heir of Iron Fjord. You survived your injuries because you have a strong will and a loyalty to duty.” He squeezed her hand. “And you’re famous. You navigated a new wormhole and found an isolated kingdom with enormous economic potential. You should enjoy it, and bank on it.”

“I will,” she said. “I promise.”

“Good,” he said, putting his hands down on the table. “In that case, I have a surprise for you. I’ve invited Hans to lunch today at The Club.”

“You what?” Anna said.

“You don’t sound pleased.”

“You said it was a surprise. Well, I’m surprised,” Anna said. Hans, coming here. What was she going to do? She wasn’t ready to answer him. She wasn’t even ready to talk to him. “I didn’t know.”

“Well,” he said, “You do now. You should get ready. It’s Saturday. I figured I’d take you both out.”

Anna fumed as she returned to her bedroom after dinner. It wasn’t fair. Dad was fond of repeating that life wasn’t fair. Life was pain, and anyone who said otherwise was selling something. Anna had had enough pain.

She hesitated in front of the mirror before unbuttoning the shirt on her nightclothes. The soft flannel parted to reveal the still-prominent scars on her chest. She’d flatly refused to let BuMed do anything about them. A brief procedure with a mild irritant to “reset” her skin and then twin doses of both topical and sub-dermal Regen and her skin would be completely healed. The doctor had insisted it would only feel warm and itchy; a look on-line had told her that it could be downright painful but it wasn’t the threat of pain that stopped her. That broad circle between her breasts laying on her honey-colored skin in a web of white scars laid by some meth-addled spider stayed to remind her of what she had lost.

“Everything,” she sighed. Career. Treecat. Respect. Love.

Love especially.

Traffic between Manticore and the Gothel systems was on track to match that to Talbott or San Martin. She noted wryly that they’d kept the name. News about Elsa had become her one minor obsession, and she’d continued to read the screamstreams daily, tracking the economic and political maneuverings.

Flynn had been right and Anna had been wrong. Economically, Arendelle and Corona were small players in the scheme of all things Manticore; pocket kingdoms at the far-flung edges of human space. But they were kingdoms with vast potential as launching platforms for the exploration of an entire new sector of the galaxy, they had their own innovations in material and medical sciences that Manticore lacked, and they had economic policies of material extraction and development that had allowed them to tool up to be a starfaring civilization almost as soon as they’d discovered gravitic technologies.

And yet, in all these months there had been not one letter, not one note. Anna had sent Elsa one letter and received no reply. She had imagined sending one a day, but that was impossible, as if someone might just send a flurry of missives to the Queen of Manticore that wouldn’t be intercepted by some secretary and round-filed, another batch of crazed letters from yet another love-sick obsessive who needed to be placed on a watch list, not granted an audience.

Audience. Anna frowned again as she dressed. That had been no audience. As she pulled a blouse across her back, the silky fabric felt just like Elsa’s skin, only cooler and less reactive. Anna grimaced. She was a starship captain. She had been trained in how to remember the important things, how to recognize when desire was rewriting memory.

Elsa’s skin was one of the important things. Elsa’s voice. Her smell. Anna closed her eyes and held on to the smell of skin, of snow, of an aroused woman with skin the color inside a pear and pubic hair as soft and fluffy as… as a certain treecat.

Dammit, Elsa and Olaf deserved each other.

She could spend the entire day just watching the networks. She’d done it for weeks now, just watching the networks, avoiding her message queue, ignoring her friends. If she didn’t see her friends, well, she could always tell Hans she wasn’t seeing anyone. Post-treecat depression. Or something.

She settled down into her favorite comfy chair and picked up her slate. She could have watched on the big screen in the family sitting room. She could have pulled it up on the home theater in the basement. But most of what she was wanted involved reading rather than watching. Her newsfeed bobbled onto the screen. She quickly swept away the various doings and announcements of the Navy, of the Sphinx nobility, until finally she dropped down to the open-search headlines with the keywords “Corona,” “Arendelle,” “Queen Elsa,” or “Gothel.”

The top headline immediately caught her attention. “Queen Elsa of Arendelle to meet with Queen Elizabeth.” Anna nearly broke the screen stabbing it with her finger to bring up the article.

Sources within the Palace say that Queen Elsa of Arendelle and Princess Rapunzel of Corona will be visiting Manticore sometime in the following week. A private ceremony at the Palace will be held next Monday, followed by a state dinner and reception.

Anna groaned. Elsa was here. Well, not here. Manticore. Sphinx was a little off the beaten path. There was a reason the Navy put its test-beds way out this way, far from the prying eyes of interstellar merchant shipping. Only Manticoran-flagged vessels were allowed to ply the routes between Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon.

She could go to Manticore. She wondered if there would be a point.

When her father gathered her near noontime, she had wound herself into a fundamentally deep funk. “Anna, it’s time to go.” She looked up at him and gave him her best sullen glare. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re a grown woman, you’re a starship captain. You don’t get to go back to being a surly teenager on me.”

“Fine,” she said, pushing herself out of her chair. “Let’s go.” The Earl of Iron Fjord shook his head. Anna, the Heir of Iron Fjord, didn’t push him. She put on a brown leather jacket and low-heeled boots.

“The Club” was an exclusive country club and fitness facility for the wealthy denizens of Iron Fjord, of which there were plenty. Iron Fjord’s mountains were rich with mineral and lumber. Automated recovery of both had made dozens of its citizens wealthy and thousands more comfortable. The comfortable ones sometimes mortgaged their childrens’ futures for memberships at the Club just so they could rub elbows and possibly close deals with the wealthy, to claw their way one further step up the ladder of class.

Anna would never have set foot in the place if its restaurant’s food didn’t fill her with a deep and abiding nostalgia for a better time when her mother and father had been together, when she had learned the joys of soda pop and the best club sandwich on three planets and even learned to appreciate the crisp pickles that filled the ice-jacketed stainless steel buckets at each table. Broad windows looked eastward onto fields that in Sphinx’s long, hot summers became one of the most demanding golf courses in all of the Manticore Binary System; those same courses became the bunny slopes and landing fields for Iron Fjord’s ski resorts.

Hans was sitting at one of the tables. He rose, perfect in his posture, perfect in his white House uniform, perfect in his closely shaved muttonchops and precisely formed hair. Anna and her father approached and he bowed. “Earl Iron Fjord. Captain Lady Anna.”

“Hans,” she said, knowing fully what was expected of her. “Come here.” He smiled and gave her a hug, and if he felt the stiffness in her embrace his own was warm and unstinting. He must have practiced.

“Have you ordered?” her father said.

“I only just got here,” Hans said. “The menu doesn’t look difficult.”

“No,” her father said. “It isn’t.”

“Are you in-system long, Hans?” Anna said.

“A few weeks. Minor retrofit. I had a beta node go weird on me in that way that makes everyone nervous. Especially with the new Grayson compensators.” Anna grimaced. Inertial compensators were the defining technology of modern, high-acceleration gravitics; a failed compensator meant the entire crew of a starship would wind up a thin pink paste splattered across the rear bulkheads. Nobody wanted to make a mistake with one. “Ah, it’ll be okay. Rune will be back in service in no time.” He grinned. “And it gives me time to pursue you.” Anna laughed. “I see I still have the magic.”

“Yes,” she said. “You always could make me laugh.” Her face fell.

“What?”

“That’s just it, Hans. That’s… ” She slowly raised her eyes to meet his. “When I was on my last mission, I didn’t miss you.” Hans’s face darkened, and Anna braced herself. She moved to explain. “I was too busy with other things. The discovery of Arendelle, and then my damaged ship, and then getting shot. Losing Olaf.” She sighed, but then her smiled flourished. “Rescuing the princess, who didn’t need nearly as much rescuing as her hero.” She blushed softly as she remembered the one event in the middle there she hadn’t said out loud.

“Well, of course you wouldn’t have much time to think about anything that was going on back home,” Hans said. “You’re not supposed to.” A waiter came and took their orders. Anna ordered her favorite club sandwich, as did Hans. Her father had the soup of the day.

They made political small talk. Hans pointed out several other people among Iron Fjord’s elite in the restaurant, making snide comments to show his knowledge of local politics was current and prodigious. He seemed to take exceptionally grim delight in the recent scandal involving a local lumber magnate who’d been caught keeping an underage lover. Anna didn’t think the matter was funny. “It’s a scandal, Anna. And right now, with not one but two sex scandals in the House of Lords, any small local scandals are giving the newsies plenty to talk about.”

“Two?” Anna didn’t keep up on politics as much as she should have. At least not local politics.

“At its heart, the genetic slavery thing is a sex scandal, Anna. And now there are accusations that the head of Home Security was shielding several Lords who were known to be abusing young orphan boys and girls for years and years years.” Hans shook his head. “Power is so corrupting.”

Anna didn’t comment. Her father’s expression was grim and withdrawn. Anna pushed her plate aside. “Tell me, Hans, do you think of me when you’ve taken your ship out?”

“Of course I do!” Hans said. “But a routine patrol in Silesia isn’t anything like a once-in-a-lifetime exploration of a new wormhole, Anna. I understand completely.”

“You do?”

“Yes!” he insisted. He reached across the table and took her hand so quickly she didn’t have time to react, or assent. “We can make this work, Anna. We can. We’ll make a great couple, the Countess Iron Fjord and her Summerisle consort. This earldom will be perfect.” He settled back against his chair.

Her father nodded. “I concur. This is in the best interest of Iron Fjord.”

Anna sighed. They were right. There was no bright future with a certain blonde-haired queen, no going back to the life she’d led with the deck of a starship under her feet. Not as long as she was without her treecat, without her crew, without her navy’s confidence. “Okay. I’ll put the ring on when I get home.”

“That’s it?” her father said.

“Yes,” she said, looking up. “Do you want me to be happy? Fine.” Anna grinned, her face taking on an almost painful rictus. “We’ll make a fine and powerful couple for Iron Fjord, Hans. It’s the right thing to do.”

“You don’t seem happy. I want you to be happy!” Hans said.

“I will be,” Anna said. “Someday. But I need some time. Time to mourn the woman I used to be.”

Her father grimaced. “‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; when I became an adult, I put away the childish thing.’” He always resorted to the Good Book when he needed a final way to persuade her. She had found comfort in those passages, but her father knew how to turn any parable into a red hot poker with which to hurry her decisions along.

“I know, Dad. I know,” she groused. She had been– no, she was– a starship captain, Mistress after God and her Queen before her crew. To call her to a child was blindingly unfair, and yet his needling was also alarmingly effective. “Forward.”

“Exactly so.” Her father paid the bill and the three of them stepped out into the late, long Sphinxian spring. It was still cool this far north. Anna glanced back at the rising ridge of snow-capped mountains that defined the geography of her youth. “When I was a child…” she sighed. She looked up at those places where she’d frolicked as a kid, tested herself as a teenager, and escaped to as a young adult. Those mountains where she’d met Olaf, and that day when she’d felt him in her heart. Her old heart. She smiled briefly, and wondered where she’d misplaced the love she had once felt. The heart, with its powerful beating, was a metaphor for feelings and emotions that started deep within her whole body, and ended… where? She was still bad at metaphor. “When I was a child.”

His father waved his hand at a valet who took the information from his pocketcomm and went to fetch the car. The two men talked in low, professional tones about the business prospects of a merger between the two entailments. Anna stood apart from them and took the opportunity to just stand and breathe.

The purring of a powerful hydrogen motor caught her attention. Anna looked up to see a woman in tight-fitting riding armor drive a motorcycle into the covered carport. The armor was strangely familiar, its dark green coloration and the tessellated plates delineating the long, muscular curves of the rider. Anna’s heart thudded in her chest as the woman turned toward her and took off the helmet.

“Cap…” Anna started to blurt, but the woman put a finger to her own lips in a ‘shushing’ gesture.

“Well, Anna,” she said with a casual purr. “You look good.”

“Tamora?” she said, first name basis and all. “Wow, it’s great to see you too. It’s been too long. You look good!”

“Have you got time?”

“I don’t have anything calendared,” Anna said, smiling so hard it made her mouth hurt.

“Would you like a ride?” Anna hadn’t known this woman could do sultry. She did sultry very well. Those heavy eyes, that blond hair. It wasn’t fair for a straight woman to wear her hair that way.

“That would be lovely.” Anna accepted the helmet she held out. Before either of the men could react Anna had straddled the back of the motorcycle.

“Anna!” her father called. “Who is that?”

“Dad, this is my friend, Tamora.”

“What are you doing?”

“She’s kidnapping me! What does it look like?” Anna could feel Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun’s body convulse in a snort. “Unless I get a better offer, I’ll be back before dinner!” She laughed like a loon as she pulled on the helmet, and the laughter turned into a delighted whoop as Calhoun gunned the engine and they shot out of the driveway, leaving Hans and her father to gawk at their hasty exit.