3: Queen Elsa
Anna gasped silently. She had seen many beautiful women in her years. Elsa was beyond all of them. Elsa was a dream from another life, an alternate universe, a fairy tale legend. Tall, taller than Anna with skin the color inside a pear and hair so blonde that it looked like silver. Anna was sure that was its natural color. She was a radiant counterpoint to the magnificent dark skin of House Winton. She wore a black, silken blouse under a turquoise jumpdress that did not hide her curves. Her face was impassive, her lips drawn tight, and Anna couldn't tell if that tightness was worry, stress, anger, or fear. But it was her eyes, those pale blue eyes, eyes with vast, deep irises, that Anna suddenly wanted to fall forever into. "Welcome," Elsa said. Her soft, husky, precise voice went deep into Anna's belly. "Welcome to Arendelle."
Anna managed to find her own voice soon enough to say, "Thank you, Your Majesty." She curtsied deeply, emulating the Grayson dip as best as she could. It seemed appropriate, somehow. She stood and regarded the Queen.
Each looked at the other for far longer than was necessary before Elsa said, "Is this something I can expect to have happen frequently? Commander Buzz's report indicates he believes your report of faster-than-light travel."
Commander Adolph Buzz had been Arendelle's military officer in charge of assessing Winterkiss when it had first arrived. He'd arrived in the most delicate shuttle Anna had ever seen, but he'd had the body of a marine and the mind of an engineer, and he'd had a very long conversation with Chief Engineer Ficksit. The feel of artificial gravity had almost overwhelmed him. Anna had liked him and, like Kai, he no longer underestimated treecats. "I hope so. You are the nearest inhabited star system to the far end of a hyperspace wormhole junction to which Manticore has now officially laid territorial claim." Anna took a deep breath, surprised she'd gotten that right. "Manticore is always pleased to have good neighbors and trading partners. Especially peaceful ones."
Elsa was still staring at her, and her eyes had gone huge. Although Olaf was on her shoulder, Anna was sure Elsa was looking at her. Anna felt like she was being analyzed. Scanned. As if someone had finally seen all the way through her, someone other than Olaf. Elsa shook her head gently, and when she did her voice sounded distant and nervous. "I see. We aren't used to having neighbors. Other than Corona, of course. I hope we learn how to do that successfully."
Anna's conversations with Commander Buzz had been gracious and calm. He didn't seem like the kind of man prosecuting an ongoing war. But that still begged the question of the massive solar laser installations. "Your Majesty, we haven't been in your space long enough for details, but I must ask: Are you at war with your neighbor? The one you're shooting those lasers at?"
"At war with Corona?" Elsa laughed. "No, of course not!"
"Your Majesty," Flynn said. Anna admired the modulation in his voice. "I didn't believe you were. But then, what are the laser beams for? From the solar orbital platforms. Forgive me for speaking out of turn."
Elsa's smile at him was a kilometer of pure mercy. "Those are our starships drives, Doctor," she said.
"Wait," Doctor Pine cried as something clicked. "You mean to tell me you have ongoing trade with your stellar neighbor using slower-than-light transportation? Using beamed laser sails?"
Elsa smiled, and now she seemed genuinely pleased. "Yes. It's one of our most proud achievements."
"It's... " Pine clamped his teeth together to avoid saying anything that might further upset the meeting.
"It's amazing!" Flynn said.
"We think so," Elsa said, her eyes flashing. She caressed the back of her wrist, and Anna saw a small wristcomp attached to her glove. Elsa's face took on the impassive look it had had when they'd first entered. It was a face that Anna could stared at for hours. "We aren't sure how to proceed. We understand you've offered your publicly available encyclopedia, with its history and science of the Diaspora. That will prove invaluable to us. Rumors about your presence here on Arendelle have already begun to appear on our news networks, and I will be making a public statement about Manticore tomorrow. I'd like to know what I'll be making a statement about. To that end, I've asked Admiral Prost to brief you and your scientists on the public face of Arendelle's situation to the best of his ability, in a fair trade of information. I believe you'll find him a competent man."
Anna recognized the end of an audience, yet she didn't want it to end. She had so much more to ask. Olaf's claws dug into the reinforced, armored padding of Anna's flight tunic, and Anna reached up to stroke him. He purred reassuringly. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Kai will take you to the conference center. Feel free to ask anything. Is there something special you need?"
"Cocoa or, I suppose if it's all you have, coffee," Anna blurted. Elsa smiled at her, the first honest smile she'd had. "A small plate of meat, chicken or duck, cooked, is fine for our treecats. And a few celery sticks for them, too, if you have any?"
Elsa managed a small, uncomfortable smile. "I think the kitchen can manage that."
"Yes, your majesty," Kai said in that magnificent voice. "We certainly can."
The next several hours slid by Anna in a blur. She absorbed as much information as she could, continuing to be impressed with Arendelle and Corona and an interstellar trade in actual, physical goods and people over two light years at fractional C speeds. Pine and Fitzhubert immersed themselves in the Castle library and disappeared, as far as she could tell. She let Kristoff take the lead in questioning the military people Arendelle provided, since he was always good about asking the right questions and finding the right answers. Arendelle wasn't entirely idyllic. There were factions, there were Dukes and duchies that engaged in passive defiance of Elsa's rule, and there was that strange, silent outpost orbiting out by Arendelle's sole moon, a ball of rock smaller than Thorson or Luna, and even further away. In Arendelle's night sky it would be a tiny, indistinct circle of light. Anna heard the name "Vesselton," and the implication that it was an independent state of its own. Arendelle even a few violent extremist groups. Anna had the nastiest sensation that her very presence was going to upset a lot of people, but someone else's domestic politics weren't her concern.
Elsa. God, she'd never seen anyone that struck her so... so... Anna didn't have a word for it. It wasn't infatuation. Anna knew what that felt like, she'd been through it several times. This didn't feel like infatuation. She wanted to write it down to mere power, but she'd never felt like this when she'd met the Duke of Sphinx, and he'd certainly been both handsome and powerful. Anna had never been impressed with power.
Olaf's claws dug into her tunic and he chittered in her ear. "I know, snowball, I know. I'm sorry." She reached up to stroke his chin, and he buried his cool nose in the hair behind her right ear, making her smile.
Everyone who had a treecat used the word "love" to describe their feelings for that fluffy source of joy and security in their lives. Everyone except Captain Anna DuVar. She had had a few lovers in the physical sense in that brief rush of adolescent hormones at the Academy on Saganmi Island, most but not all men, and fewer still in the twenty-five years of her career since. Her friends had often-- unfairly!-- compared her romantic history to that of the legendary Admiral of the Green. Unfairly because Anna, at least, had romantic and sexual attractions that came first, whereas the Admiral seemed to be one of those whose physical interest came only after emotional attachment.
"Captain?" Kristoff's voice broke her reverie.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Admiral Prost and and DIO Favier were just finishing up. Is there anything you wanted to add?"
"No, thank you. I'm sorry, I was thinking of something else. I'm afraid I'm much more of a reader than a listener. When it comes to large infodumps."
Favier, who was Elsa's domestic intelligence officer, nodded. "I understand completely, Ma'am. I am too. Your communications officer was kind enough to help us create a protocol layer for transferring data back and forth, so all of this material should already be available on your readers."
"Thank you. Kristoff, remind me to thank Lieutenant Metzinger when we get back."
"Done," Kristoff said, his burly arms folded over his chest. Anna looked up and noticed that it had grown dark outside. Snow was blowing gently against the windows. "Hmm. Ship time, it would be almost midnight." He gestured to the tray of sandwiches that had been brought in. Anna had found them reliably familiar. Across time and space, some things never changed. Like a ham sandwich. "When was the last time you had a real meal, Captain?"
"Sandwiches are a real meal," Anna said. Kristoff lowered his eyebrows at her. "Okay, okay. Hours ago."
The door opened and let in a short woman in the lighter green uniform Anna was starting to recognize as indicating palace staff, rather than palace security. "Captain DuVar?"
"Forgive me for the intrusion. My timing seems to be fortunate. Queen Elsa would like to know if you would care to join her for a late supper?"
"Her Majesty asked me to ask you, personally, if you and your furry friend would care to have supper with her in fifteen minutes."
"Well then, I guess your needs are met," Kristoff said. He grabbed another sandwich off the tray. Sven was munching on a carrot. Anna shook her head. Sven was weird, even for a treecat.
"I can't just go to dinner with a Queen, dressed like this."
Kristoff tilted his head toward the servant. "She seems to think you can."
"What about you? Are you going to be okay?"
"I'm sure we can offer your XO something," Prost said. "In fact, Commander, would you like to join my staff in a late working dinner of our own?"
"Love to," Kristoff said through a mouthful of bread and whatever had been stuffed into it. "With your permission, Captain?"
"Granted, Commander," Anna said distantly. Kristoff's salute was sloppy, but Anna forgave him. Her mother had always liked Kristoff, and took every opportunity to remind her how much she liked Kristoff. Then again, her mother had been a commoner, and her father had married for love, and look how well that worked out. Anna paused to push all the romantic and emotional messes in her life down into the depths where she could safely ignore them.
She stood, checked her space-black formals, flicked away an invisible and possibly imaginary fleck of lint. "Yes, I guess I can. What's your name? Have you known the Queen long?" she gently asked the servant.
"I'm Gerda, Captain. Kai and I have been Queen Elsa's senior secretary and majordomo since she was born."
"Oh. I'm pleased to meet you, then," she said, bowing briefly. "Is there something I should know before meeting the queen once more?"
Gerda paused, one finger pressed to her jawline in thought. "No, I don't think so. It's most unusual. She doesn't have guests often."
"How many guests will be there?"
"Oh, just you, Captain. And Olaf."
Anna gave Kristoff a harried glance. He shrugged. "What do I know what it means to meet a queen? For that matter, what does this 'queen' do? What's her role and responsibilities, compared to the prime minister? There is one, you know. There's a lot of intelligence to gather here."
"Meaning, I should go gather some," Anna said.
"We're going to." He indicated Prost. Prost had been looking at Anna with careful introspection. He bowed with understanding self-deprecation at Kristoff's comment.
Anna turned back to Gerda, straightening herself taller. "We'd be delighted to join your Queen at dinner." She swallowed and hoped she wasn't lying.