Chapter 34: Cinderella Waltz

Among the loud background of murmuring voices herding toward the outdoor reception, her attention picked out a voice addressing her. “Captain DuVar, is it? Lady Iron Fjord?”

Anna looked up and found herself face to face with the broad, smiling face of Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Earl White Haven, the man who had been her most senior commander at Second Basilisk. Tactically brilliant and politically connected, he was a man to admire from afar. “Sir,” she said, reaching for the black beret she wore and scrabbling it to her chest.

“At ease, Captain. I’m not your admiral at the moment.” His voice was a well-crafted tool, and now he used it for calm. He glanced as if to ensure no one was listening. “Her Majesty has asked me to convey to you that her words at the signing ceremony were sincere and heartfelt. It is among her deepest regrets that what is called ‘her navy’ is unable to find you a vessel, any vessel, much less one commensurate with your experience and skill. Your decisions and actions on your last mission were exemplary. Your personal life is your own, and there’s no indication you allowed it to intefere in your professional decisions. You’re a fine starship commander, and I’m proud to have had you under my command.”

“Thank you, sir,” Anna said, startled, sweeping in a bow of gratitude even as her brain started to unpack his words. The Queen approved of her. The current government wouldn’t stand forever, and when the Crown had a reliable ally in the House of Lords, she could count on being taken off the beach. “I appreciate all that you’ve said.”

“Yes, you seem like the sort who would.”

“Sir, if I may ask you a difficult question? Of course, you can always decline to answer it, I understand that.” He gestured for her to go on. “Captain Hans Westergaard of Her Majesty’s Heavy Cruiser Rune? Well, he’s asked for my hand in marriage. I wonder if you might, if you might know, I mean, is he a good man?”

White Haven thought for a moment. “There are many captains in our Navy, Captain DuVar, but I have had the opportunity to meet with Captain Westergaard. His career is exemplary. He has no stains on his record. His accomplishments have been in line with his advancement in rank.”

“But is he a good man?”

White Haven’s reply was a long time coming. “The Navy continues to give him ships, and his record is spotless. Still, I must admit that the Navy has been known to beach excellent officers while allowing wretched ones to grind out their days. Most people think ‘the beach’ is where the Navy puts its troubles too important to outright cashier, but in many cases, the truth is, ‘the beach’ is where you keep the people you know you will need.”

Anna decided that not-an-answer said a lot about Hans.

She nodded her thanks again as they were allowed out onto the grass-covered fields of the Palace garden at night. A tent sized for a circus had been set up, complete with tables and a dance floor. Decorative paper-like lanterns were strung from the poles. A small band played music in one corner. Here and there waited stands of champagne and wine. A buffet table of desserts near the band tempted Anna. She lost sight of White Haven.

Anna felt a growing tension gripping at her new heart as she hoped to bump into Elsa again. They had been unable during the signing ceremony to do any more than smile at one another, yet the memories of their entire day on board Elsa’s rental yacht between Sphinx and Manticore still shimmered in her mind and on her skin. The evening they had spent in the shower as Anna had washed the dye out of Elsa’s hair, had been both exasperating and wonderful. Elsa had alternately growled and purred at Anna’s ministrations, and the lovemaking afterward with that bright-haired woman of her dreams had left Anna feeling as accomplished and happy as she’d ever been. She was getting a real feel for the woman underneath that royal exterior.

But now that they were on Manticore developments had pushed Anna a bit off-kilter. She needed the story about Rapunzel and she needed it fast. She needed to know where the Princess had found that treecat, and she wanted to know why he was bright green. Olaf and Ariel had greeted each other like old friends and had seemed genuinely pleased to meet with the green-furred one. Anna had barely been able to contain herself during the signing ritual, watching the three women with their bright, beautiful contrasts: Elizabeth, Elsa and Rapunzel had all been stunningly beautiful, but Anna had only eyes for Elsa.

She resisted the impulse to sniff at her own fingers, hoping a few molecules of Elsa’s richest scents still harbored there after the long, slow shower they’d taken together that morning. The kisses. The whispers.

The word.

Anna still hadn’t used it.

She picked up a second glass of champagne and eased out of the tent and into the darkness. Feeling heady from the first glass, from memory and desire, she wanted a place to sit and breathe. Most of her crew had been reassigned to other ships already, but Felix was here and seemed to be chatting up Captain Calhoun something fierce. Anna grinned and tried to imagine that as a romance.

The garden was bordered with a shoulder-high hedge, but not as a wall. The hedge followed a winding path that created occluded, somewhat private green spaces, many inset with low concrete seats. As Anna sought one out as a shadowed refuge she felt a familiar weight bump her leg. “Olaf!” she said as she hoisted the happy treecat up onto her shoulder. The nook she found had a half-moon bench big enough to hold four. She sat down and put her wineglass and the treecat down next to her. “Good to see you.”

He buzzed happily. She could barely see his truehands in the dark. Before he could respond another voice said, “Anna.”

“Father?” She rose, her body suddenly feeling tight around her bones. “What are you doing here?”

“I called in a few favors. I wanted to be here when my daughter’s contribution to the Kingdom’s great economic future was recognized.” He smiled but Anna could see an unfamiliar rigidity in his body. “I don’t know what you think you were doing running away like that…”

“Running away?” Anna said, snorting a laugh. “In case you missed it, Dad, I’m 48 years old. My ‘contribution’ to the Kingdom involved commanding four hundred people and one of Her Majesty’s best naval vessels. I don’t ‘run away.’“

“You went your own way, then. I understand. But you are also heir to Iron Fjord, and you have promised to Hans–“

Olaf hissed. Anna looked up, and at the edge of the circle, just beyond the mouth of the cul-de-sac, stood another figure, his back to the lighted tent, his face in shadow. Anna returned her gaze to her father. “I don’t want to disappoint you, father. Truly I don’t.”

“Then don’t. You’re marrying Hans.”

“No,” she said, sadly. “No, I’m not. I was in doubt before my mission. I’m no longer in doubt. I know. It would be a marriage of… of… of nobility. A marriage where we would never really learn to cleave, to be of one flesh.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Dad. I am. But it can’t be Hans.”

“Anna, remember, when I was a child…”

“Don’t,” Anna said, holding up one finger. “Don’t. You always give me that. But I had time to read on the trip between Sphinx and Manticore. What does it say around that text, Dad? ‘Love suffers, and is kind. Love does not brag, love is not provoked, love thinks no evil. Love does not rejoice in iniquity, love rejoices in the truth. Believe everything, bear everything, hope everything, endure everything … now abides faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.’” Anna shook her head. “I don’t love Hans. I could endure him. I could endure anything honor demanded I endure. But I don’t love him.”

Her father looked away. “Nonetheless, Anna, you have to marry him,” her father said. “There is no one else. It has to be him.”

“What? Why?”

“It just has to be.”

“No,” she said. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Oh, Anna.” The shadowed figure moved out from behind the hedge. She had always known it was Hans. “I didn’t want to have to do this. I wanted you to think of me as the man you married because the chance of love was there. But now I see that I have no choice.”

Anna stared up at his shadowed face. “Hans? What are you saying?”

“Let’s just say that the apple never does fall from the tree, does it? Where do you think your inclination toward women comes from?” Hans stepped forward, and Anna could see him clearly now, his handsomely manicured muttonchops, his perfectly curved eyebrows. His face had always looked open and caring. Not now.

“I did tell you a few days ago that our House of Lords is currently in the middle of not just one but two scandals. On the one hand, we have the genetic slavery trade, which is always a trade in bodies, and is always about sex. On the other, we have the head of Manticoran Civil Security Service being a child molester who regularly protected other child molesters, turning the CSS into a giant abuse ring.”

Anna stared at her father. “You’re not… you’re not involved in any of those, are you?”

“No, he’s not,” Hans said. “But you father is a homosexual, and he always has been. More to the point, he’s a bit of libertine who takes the passive role with men. And if you don’t agree to our marriage, Anna, I’ll release to the sleaziest screamnet ‘journalists’ I know a video of your father at an orgy, gleefully taking on eight, nine, ten men, each one drawing a new line on his buttocks with a felt marker when they were done using him.”

Anna was repulsed by Han’s cruelty, and even Hans looked genuinely hurt by his revelation. Hans continued in that oh-so-smooth voice of his, “It doesn’t rise to a criminal scandal. But every member of the House of Lords is on his best behavior right now, trying to prove to the Kingdom that he’s not one of them, not in thrall to his piggish nature.

“Your father would become a laughingstock of the Lords, and the faint reek of sex scandal would haunt him for the rest of his days. His alliances would wither. He’d only ever have a voice again when someone needed a desperation vote.” Hans’s shoulders sagged. “I wanted to win your heart and trust, and make a good marriage with you. I understand if there isn’t love, but surely there could have been mutual respect. I’m sorry if I can’t even get that from you, but I am not going to let your inclinations ruin my chance at being the great Earl I know I can be.”

“No,” Anna said softly. “You can’t. Your… your honor…”

“Honor,” Hans said. “Anna, honor is an award for doing well by the Kingdom. It’s a currency and you cash it in when the time comes. It’s an ephemeral value counted only in the minds of those who know. The only people who need to know about this are you and your father, Anna. Keep your mouth shut and you can keep your honor, and mine, by agreeing to our marriage without a fuss.” Hans waved one white-gloved hand in the air casually. “After you’ve given us an heir, you can have the dalliances you want, as long as you do so privately, quietly. I won’t stop you.”

Anna was too stunned to respond. A minute passed. Then another voice broke the silence. “Were I you, I would reconsider your request, Captain Westergaard.”

Three figures stood behind Hans, two carrying treecats on their shoulders. Anna hadn’t even noticed Olaf leaving. “Your Majesty!” Hans dropped to one knee out of reflex, and so did Anna and her father.

Elizabeth Winton, the Queen of Manticore, waited three seconds, then said, “Rise, all of you.” She stepped forward, a very worried Elsa standing behind her, and regarded Anna with warmth. “Lady DuVar, I’m glad my friend was able to convey my message to you, and I’m glad your friend was able to convey his message to me.” She regarded Hans. “Captain Westergaard, how does the expression go? ‘Honor is what you are when no one is watching?’“

Hans stared at her, his jaw clenched, one muscle in his cheek twitching. Queen Elizabeth continued, “It’s true that I don’t have much control over the day-to-day operations of my navy, and if your petition to Lady DuVar should fail I wouldn’t have much say over your role in the Lords, since you wouldn’t have one. But I do not take threats against my recently favored subjects lightly, and we both know how I feel about grudges, don’t we? I could make it very clear to the Navy that I think your best use would be on beacon duty along the Western Arc.”

Hans gulped. Beacon duty was scutwork, the kind crews hated because it involved long hours stooging about mostly untraveled paths, ending in the heavy and tedious labor of extravehicular activities on large, automatic installations. With little shoreleave, no bloodings and even less chance for a prize than escort duty, it was among the worst informal punishments a navy could hand out.

He turned to Anna and said, “Anna, please. We would make a great couple.”

“I could never love you, Hans. Not after that.” She turned and looked at where she knew Elsa was standing, then back to him. Only now did she register that the third figure was her mother. “And I could never want to marry you. Not if we were the last living souls in all the universe.”

“You want to marry Elsa? Is that it?” He laughed harshly. “You can’t marry her. You’re both women. The law would never recognize it!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Captain Westergaard,” Elsa said softly, her eyes narrowing with the steel Anna knew hid down in Elsa’s soul. It gave that soft, thin voice a rapier-like quality. “It may not be legal here in Manticore, but it’s perfectly legal on Arendelle, and Manticore is now treaty-bound to recognize Arendellian marriage contracts, regardless of arrangements.”

“Which is going to make for some interesting case law,” Elizabeth muttered.

“You’re not even of the same faith! Whatever that thing is on their churches.” Hans snarled.

Anna smiled weakly. Now he was getting desperate, looking for any lever to keep her and Elsa apart, as if there were any chance that would drive her into his arms. She’d sooner kiss a Gryphon Kodiak Max than ever again kiss Hans Westergaard. Elsa and Anna hadn’t even talked about religion except in the most oblique terms, but Anna had studied up. “That ‘thing’ is an alpine crocus, Hans. It blooms very early in spring, pushing little blue flowers up through the snow. It’s a symbol of the resurrection.” She giggled and looked at Elsa. “I’m pretty sure I could be married in one of Arendelle’s churches without committing heresy.”

Elsa nodded. “Anton adopted it because we were a cold world and had survived the plague. We poked our heads up through the snow and thrived. I don’t know when the churches picked it up, but yes, my advisors tell me there’s no conflict there.” She stood forward. Anna looked up at Olaf, who was grinning at her madly. Anna could feel him, and she gazed at him in wonder. The link was there again, reforged, but precious, and through it Anna felt Elsa down deep, down into her soul. Before she could even begin to explore it, Elsa’s hands reached out. She said, “Would you?”

Anna took Elsa’s hands. Elsa said, “And so, let me say it. Lady Annastasia Christabelle DuVar– Anna. I love you. Would you marry me in my church?”

Anna blushed, and tears filled her eyes. “Elsa, I do love you. But… no.”

“No?” Elsa sounded stunned, hurt. Hans snorted.

“No. I have to tell the truth, Elsa. We’ve only spent a few days in each other’s company. We only know a little bit about each other. On the other hand, I will move to Arendelle, since your signing the treaty obligates you to treat my treecat with a certain amount of respect.” Elsa smiled widely at her. “If my Navy sees fit to reinstate me, I’m sure they can find me at the end of a wormhole inside the Commonwealth. And while we’re having lunch over Olaf…” Her fingers squeezed Elsa’s gently. “We’ll see if my love for you means more than, well…” She blushed hard, and so did Elsa.

“Anna?” Elsa said gently. “This is why I love you. You have a way of creating very wise plans.”

“Your Majesty,” Elizabeth said, interrupting anything Anna may have said, “Your government will need advisors to help you assess the technological impact of our agreement.” She regarded Anna directly. “I believe I know of someone who my Navy would gladly loan to yours, and who you would find quite suitable.”

Elsa grinned. “I believe you’re quite right, Your Majesty.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Well, this seems to conclude a matter that required my attention. Unless Captain Westergaard is considering pursuing his suit?”

Hans looked away. “No, Your Majesty.”

“Good. There will be other opportunities, Captain Westergaard. Pursue them, with honor.” She left, and only now did Anna see the two bodyguards that had hovered at the other side of the hedges. Hans took the opportunity to flee in the opposite direction from his queen.

“Oh, Anna, did you mean it?” Elsa said.

Anna resisted razzing at his back. She only glanced at him, then turned to Elsa, saying, “I did. But I still need to know so many things. Can I keep my Earldom if I marry a Queen in a distant realm? Or does Rolf want it? What happens if he doesn’t? What happens if we decide we’re not....” She grinned. “I love what I’ve seen of you. I want to see more, so much more.”

“Me too,” Elsa said simply. She turned. “Forgive me, Earl Iron Fjord. We don’t mean to ignore you.”

He nodded. “Anna,” he said, and his voice creaked with an age he rarely seemed to show.

“Dad?”

He wouldn’t meet her eyes, and his face was ablaze with shame. “I don’t want you to think less of me.”

“Well, no, Dad, nobody wants to think about what their parents do in bed. Eww. But, as long as you’re not diddling little boys?” He shook his head firmly. “Good. I suppose it’s all out in the open now. At least among family.” She looked up at her mother. “Did you know?”

Her mother sighed, then said, “Only after we were married. After you left for the service, actually. We kept it together.” She slipped up next to Anna’s father, put her hand on his shoulder. “We did love each other. I think we still do. But we’re better as friends than we are sharing a mansion.”

Her father looked at her mother, and he nodded, his eyes soft. They were so tender with each other, after a heartbreak Anna could barely imagine, the revelation, the fights, the compromises, the understanding. She shook her head. “Dad? Are you upset?”

“Oh, hell, no,” he said, his voice suddenly as strong as a moose. “I’m glad you have friends to come to your rescue. I didn’t imagine you’d need The Queen herself to make it stick, but I’m glad she did. You and Hans would have been terrible for each other.”

“Saying ‘no’ to him was still honorable only by coincidence,” Anna said. “I was being led by my hormones.”

A sharp nudge in her ribs caught her attention. Elsa said, “Annastasia DuVar, stop that right now. I told John that I had only succeeded as Queen by coincidence, but he showed me otherwise. You have been honorable all your life, and you must learn to trust the instincts trained into you by these two good people.” Elsa gestured at Anna’s parents. “Your promises to Hans were being undermined by those instincts all the time. You should listen to your heart more often.”

“The heart you gave me?” Anna said, grinning.

“You know what I mean,” Elsa said.

Anna grinned. “I’ve seen a lot of queens do a lot of rescuing this year.”

“Anna, dear,” her mother said, interrupting both of them while they stood still, staring into each other’s eyes, “There are people out at the party looking for you. We have to go say hello to them, too!”

“Okay, Mom.” The band played a trill of flutes and oboes, and Anna recognized the music as a waltz from Rodgers & Hammerstein. “Elsa, will you dance with me?” She reached out for Elsa’s hand.

Elsa looked down at Anna’s offered hand, took it. “Are you sure about this?”

“Let them talk,” Anna said, jabbing her chin in the direction of the brightly-lit central tent. “It’s the honorable thing to do.”