Elsa turned away from the armorplast window to the woman who entered her office, pushing a service tray in front of her. Gerda had been her majordomo for as long as she could remember yet age seemed to barely bow the woman. Elsa had been a queen for only three years and already she felt the responsibilities of her office bent her toward breaking. "Gerda, thank you. The weather today looks beautiful. I can even see the Space Elevator."
"Then your eyes are better than mine, My Queen," Gerda said. Elsa gratefully took the offered cup of tea. Once upon a time she might have added sugar and milk, and eagerly taken the biscuit Gerda always put on the side. Today, black and bitter felt just about right. Gerda watched and said, "I hope the tea helps. You seem so exhausted."
"I am," Elsa said. "Worn out." She gestured toward her temple, where her perfectly set hair seated the Crown of Arendelle. Her fingers brushed against it, she flinched, and withdrew the hand.
"I thought these were your friends."
Elsa contemplated the door where her eight most reliable dukes and duchesses had assembled to discuss a forthcoming All Duchies meeting. "Even my friend exhaust me." She glanced at the door and dreaded the moment when the Master of Chambers would ring a chime to resume the session.
Exhaustion was an old companion for Elsa, a result of the internal battle as she forced herself to assume the face and poise, the pose of a queen. She looked up at the painting hung to the right of her desk. Her parents peered down out of that painting toward her, smiling, benevolent. Her father had been so tall, so charismatic, so much in control. He had used the family power with grace and wisdom, with reserve and foresight. Her father had always shown great fortitude when dealing with those bickering men in the District Council. "I miss you," she whispered.
The other door opened and her secretary entered. A big man, given to smiling more than frowning, Kai had been her parent's secretary, and now he was hers. He wasn't smiling. "A problem?"
"More a matter of logistics, My Queen. Duke Meinard is asking for privilege, for his son, but you indicated Lady Guiliel should sit at your right hand for tonight's dinner."
Elsa let her brows knit together as she contemplated this reminder. She had promised Meinard's son a seat at her table, but that had been some time ago. Then again, her last dinner with any of her nobles had also been some time ago. She sighed. "Yes, I remember. Do I have to go?" Kai looked at her from under his eyebrows. "Fine. Tell Meinard his privilege is extended, this time. Give Meke my apologies, tell her I will see her at the ball afterward."
"I expected as much."
"Kai, if you knew what I was going to say, why did you even ask?" He gave her an old-fashioned look. "Fine. Do you need me to write it out?"
"If you would be so kind."
Elsa put down her tea and moved to pick up her pen. "You were there, Kai. Was the dance that brought my mother and father together this tedious and this clashing, all at once?"
Kai opened his mouth to answer when a rare buzzer went off at one corner of her desk. Kai leaned over the desk and pushed a button. The sharp features of her Captain of the Guard appeared on the embedded video panel. "Yes, Captain Calhoun?"
"Secretary Kai, is the Queen with you?"
"Right here, Captain," Elsa said.
"Your highness! Your highness, something... I..." Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun was the soul of professional calm, a woman for whom duty came before aught else. Elsa could not imagine anything that could possibly make her so flustered. If they were under attack, Calhoun would have been barking orders at her, where to go, who would take her, whom to trust. If they weren't, she wouldn't have called at all. "Your highness," she said, taking a deep breath. "A message has just come in to Arendelle Space Traffic Control, and... I think you should listen to it for yourself."
"Captain, if you feel that's necessary, please."
Calhoun touched something off-camera. "Arendelle Space Traffic Control," said someone Elsa had never heard before, someone with a sweet, confident voice that filled the room, "This is Captain Anna DuVar of the Royal Manticoran Navy Long Range Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss. My ship is now twenty light-hours out from Arendelle space, although by the time you receive this we should be down to 14 hours. Since we don't know your procedures, we are formally requesting parking orbit instructions around Arendelle and formal contact with your government. Please be advised that my ship's drives require a cubical space approximately forty-two kilometers on a side to provide standard margins of safety. It looks to us that you have a great deal going on in low orbit, so a high orbit is acceptable and requested." The woman at the other end of the recording took a deep breath. "We're very glad to have found you, Arendelle. This message repeats. Arendelle Space Traffic Control... "
Elsa looked up sharply. Kai was staring at her. "A starship?" she said.
"That's what it looks like, Your Majesty," Calhoun said. "I don't know my stars from my bars, but the eggheads are saying this thing is real, they can see it on their telescopes, and it's heading this way. They also tell me that whatever it's using for propulsion it ain't a fusion drive, and it's moving darn fast."
"Blunt as always. Thank you, Captain," Elsa said. She looked up at Kai, grinned and said, "Well, I think state priorities have been re-arranged. I won't have to sit next to Hans Meinard after all." She glanced toward the door leading to the parliamentary chamber, where she'd been in an attenuated conclave with eight of her nobles. "Kai, call an emergency conclave."
The chamber received the announcement with shock. The eight who had agreed to meet with her at the castle were newly joined by the images of twelve others, all looking down from life-sized video screens that had emerged from the floor behind each noble's official chair. "It's a trick!" the Duke of Carrington said when he came to his senses. He pounded his desk, and Elsa flinched as the speakers boomed out each thud. "Vesselton is up to something."
"Don't be ridiculous," Duke Chandrabahna said, also speaking without the permission of the Master of the Chamber. "Vesselton has nothing to gain from something like this. Vesselton and Arendelle have had a stable treaty for over fifty years, they contributed material and cargo to the last three starships we launched. We've managed to establish a decent trade relationship. They've even started trade with Corona! Why would they risk anything like that now?"
"Your Majesty," Carrington said as he gestured with something out of sight of his camera. "Vesselton is a closed state and a mystery. But we know well enough that they dislike the monarchy intently and have rebuffed every attempt by your noble family to reach out and give them a voice at the table." He gestured toward his right, where the one screen of the Vesselton Ambassador remained impassively dark. "You can't trust those machines."
"They're not machines, my Duke," Elsa said softly. "They're still as much flesh and blood where it counts as you are. We all share a common origin. They are our relatives and our family, and we owe them gratitude and respect for building our world."
"That was generations ago! I don't care if they are the original terraformers, we've taken on responsibility for maintaining this world without them. Their program of transferring human consciousness to a machine is still underway, and they still resent us for our 'romantic notions of organic supremacy.'" His voice was ripe with sarcasm. "For all we know, they've foisted off talking to us on some lousy artificial intelligence."
"I know," Elsa said, her eyes on the table, looking at her gloves. Her hands. She made a fist with one hand, and saw Carrington try and fail to suppress a flinch. "But they haven't made that leap."
"Your Highness," Duchesses Guiliel said. Elsa turned toward. Adelista Guiliel was one of Elsa's distant relatives, and her daughter was Elsa's closest friend., "They called their ship a 'long range exploratory cruiser.' Perhaps they spend a lot of time in cryogenic suspension. Perhaps there really is a sphere of human influence, and we just haven't been able to hear it. We are quite far out on the rim, thousands of light years from Sol, God only knows how, so maybe only now are they reaching us. We don't know who these strangers are."
Strangers. From afar. People who could come and go if and when they pleased. People who owed her no fealty, who shared with her no history, who looked upon her not as a Queen to be loved, feared, conspired against, opposed, honored, thwarted, or competed. And that voice, that sweet mezzo soprano that kept running through her mind.
"My noble men and women," she said, "I welcome your opinions, as well as the voice of any other in this chamber." She looked over the expectant faces, twelve men and eight women who ruled their districts with authority derived from Elsa's and the exigencies of history. "I don't see how we have a choice. The Royal Space Service has detected something heading our way from the direction from which the message came, on a direct line from Thorin, and that something isn't a fusion drive and it isn't something Vesselton has ever put into space. While we should certainly concentrate our forces to prepare for the worst, if these people are from a human civilization other than our own, they'll have technologies we can't begin to imagine, nor at this moment should we try. They're asking for a parking orbit and formal contact with my government." She smiled. "At the very least, we can give them those. I look forward to it."