4: Dinner With The Queen
"Why am I doing this again?" Elsa said, looking at the window on her tablet where cameras tracked Gerda and Captain DuVar's progress through the castle.
Kai's broad smile softened with understanding. "Because you said you 'needed a better grip on what these "Manticorans" offer.' I believe that was a direct quote, Your Majesty."
Elsa rubbed her hands together nervously. "But she's a stranger!" She was also, Elsa admitted, exquisitely beautiful in a way Elsa had never felt before, a thought she crushed ruthlessly. This was not the time to let her mind go down that track. There was never a time.
"And to her, so are you. Her ship belongs to the Royal Manticoran Navy. She has a Queen of her own. She understands protocol." He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. It was the most human touch Elsa ever experienced these day, and only because he'd been one of the few authorized to change her diapers half his lifetime ago, and he'd been the one to hold her the few times her facade had cracked. "Elsa..." She looked up. She felt tears in her eyes. "I know this can't be easy. You've never been good with people. But you must learn." He glanced down at the tablet. "Gerda is bringing her into the dining room."
"Do I have to?" Kai stared at her. "Fine," Elsa said, drawing herself up even as Kai retracted his hand. He reached into a pocket and handed her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and handed it back to him. "Thank you."
"You're always welcome."
The room to which Gerda had led Anna and her strange creature was a vast hall with a large table suitable to sit twenty people. The ceiling was at least eight meters away, with a massive crystalline chandelier of modern geometric precision hanging directly above the table. There were three settings, one at the head and to the immediate right and an elegant wooden high chair to the right of that. One of the "librarians" had engaged Doctor Pine on the treecats and he had held forth at appreciable length about the protocol, including the "ridiculous need" for them to sit at the table next to "their person."
As she entered the room on her quiet, soft shoes, Captain DuVar was facing away from her saying, "Remember, snowball, look but don't touch it, okay?"
"Bleek!" the white-furred beast responded before gleefully dancing in front of the fireplace.
Despite her apprehension, Elsa giggled at the beast's antics. "Well, he seems sprightly. Does he like fireplaces?"
"Your Majesty!" Captain DuVar turned and bowed deeply. "I didn't hear you enter. Forgive me." She was blushing. Even within her honey-dark skin, the blush added a bright, illumning glow to her already stunning appearance. She bowed.
Elsa smiled, her hand covering her mouth again as if to hide it. "There's no need. The court's formality is one thing, but let's not need it in here, Captain. There will be time for that later, when your government's formal representatives arrive. May I call you Anna?"
"Yes, of course, Your Majesty." Anna straightened. "He has manners but no respect for them. He's always loved fireplaces. Our homeworld, Sphinx, his and mine, is similar to Arendelle, but our winters are much, much longer. Treecats have a kind of hibernation to get through the winter, but when Olaf learned that moving in with humans meant he could play in the snow and hunt as much as he wanted and come inside and curl up by the fire, he was in ecstasy. He's loved fireplaces ever since." She sighed. "Sometimes I feel bad taking him so far from his home and his family and the weather he knew and the foods he loves."
Elsa had no idea how Anna knew Olaf wanted her attention, but Anna turned. Olaf stood up on his hindquarters, his true hands tracing signs and symbols in the air. Anna smiled back at him, shyly.
"What was that?" Elsa said. "Is that how he talks?"
Anna nodded. "He can't speak human languages with his mouth shaped like that, so we have a sign language."
"And what did he say?"
Anna blushed. "'Some people are worth leaving home for.'"
Olaf chittered at her from his warm curl before the fireplace. "I know, Olaf, I know. I'm sorry."
"Please," Elsa said, "Come eat." She was glad to have a reason to tear her eyes away from Anna. The RMN Naval uniform of black and gold fit snugly about Anna's body, showing off every line and curve. Only below the calves and the wrists did there seem to be any give at all to the outfit. Even Anna's jacket was closely tailored. Anna's warm auburn hair was tightly fit about her head and held down with twin braids. "Who braids your hair?" She felt her face flush. Why had she asked that?
"Oh, Claire does it," Anna said as she waited for Elsa to sit. Elsa did, and Anna followed. "My steward. She looks after me. I think she's afraid if she weren't there I would forget to eat, or bathe, or remember how to button my own uniform. Every captain above a tin-can-- a destroyer, sorry-- gets a steward, and I think they all go through some kind of training with a professional mother hen, because my last steward, James, was the same way. My mother was never this obsessed with keeping up my appearances." Anna abruptly clamped her mouth shut. "Sorry. I ramble. Nervousness."
"That quite all right," Elsa said, relaxing slightly. If Anna was comfortable enough to admit she was nervous, Elsa could do the same. She glanced over at the fireplace. "Will Olaf join us?"
Olaf galloped over to the table and scrambled up into the chair, sat with precision, and with one true hand and excessive airs drank from a tall, crystal goblet of water. He nodded a thanks to Elsa. "I see," Elsa said, pleasantly surprised by the clear intelligence in those eyes. "Yes, Kai warned me that Olaf, and your executive officer's treecat, Sven?" Anna nodded. "They were not to be underestimated." Elsa raised a glass and briefly tilted it back toward Olaf in a toast.
Servants brought plates of food, in a classical order any diner on Manticore would have recognized: soup, salad, roasted poultry and vegetables with a rich mushroom gravy. And wine. "Do you like the wine?" Elsa asked as Anna sipped it.
"Oh, it's very good," Anna said. "A little sharper than a lot of what I've had on Manticore. A lot like Sphinx wines. It's nice." They ate in silence. Olaf disdained the soup and salad, but he sliced into the meats using a knife and fork. He exhibited exemplary table manners. "Oh!" Anna said. "You're left-handed. So am I."
Elsa nodded. "Is it as rare on Manticore as it is here?"
"It's not common, no." She made a show of looking around the room. "Your city is so pretty. Your palace is as beautiful as you are," Anna said. "Wait, what? I'm sorry, that was... awkward. I'm not used to, I mean, I'm awkward."
"Thank you," Elsa said, and laughed, holding her hand over her mouth and looking away for a moment and taking a deep breath before turning back. "Yes, it's beautiful. My father loved it. It was built shortly after, the, well, what do you know of the history of Arendelle, Anna?"
"Well, nothing," Anna said. "It wasn't something your intelligence people covered."
Elsa glanced up at the ceiling. "Arendelle was originally a corporatism colony, but only a few generations after we arrived a fungus struck our farms. Starvation broke out. And the people who held the most stock used their power to hoard as much as they could. My ancestor, Anton the First, led an insurgency that took control of the cybernetic infrastructure of Arendelle. Communications, the space elevator, the solettas, the automated farms. Especially the island farms, the ones isolated from the mainland. A quarter of the population died of starvation. Half of what was left died in the war."
"I'm sorry," Anna said. "For your suffering."
"It's history," Elsa said. "Almost eight hundred years ago, now. Anton organized the surviving biologists into a crash program to fight the fungus. They succeeded, but only because he made sure they had enough food and the military to protect them had enough food, at the cost of, well." Anna nodded. "After the war, Anton restructured the corporations into entailments, reparcelling the land, and created the firsts Dukes and duchies, and himself as Anton the First, Monarch of Arendelle. History records that he was brutal in war, and wise in peace. He built this place. It's been rebuilt several times. But we've have eight centuries of peace and relative prosperity."
"Manticore isn't going to do anything to upset that."
"But you already have, Anna," Elsa said. "After all, what did Anton really control? Farms and communication gear can be replicated. But access to space, and the solettas that double the amount of sunlight a duchy receives, those are the sole province of the crown."
"Oh. Dr. Fitzhubert and I were discussing how access to space is probably a government prerogative. Without gravitics, it's..." Elsa could see the wheels clicking. "Oh. Oh, I'm sorry, Elsa. It didn't occur to me, that when we arrived..." Anna put her hand to her mouth. "I'm so sorry. Forgive me. I meant, Your Majesty, not..."
"You can call me 'Elsa' here. Please, I'd prefer it if you did." Elsa looked at Anna now and saw the earnest woman behind the Captain's facade, the decent, worried professional and her humane counterpart. Elsa realized she could watch Anna's mouth move all day long. "My domestic concerns can't be yours, Anna."
"Still," Anna said. "I'm sorry. About that."
"So, Manticore has a queen. Are monarchies common, where you're from?"
"There are a few. Manticore, Andermann. Republics are more common among the wealthy states, and dictatorships are terribly common among the less economically developed colonies."
"How does your monarchy work?"
Anna rambled for a bit, describing what sounded like an incredibly arcane arrangement of a government, a state, a military, and a populace, with both written laws and unwritten rules about how they interacted. "The main point," Anna said, "Is that within a star system's hyperlimit, there has to be a single, legal authority responsible for space, to defend the commerce from raiders and enforce tariff, trade, and quarantine."
"Quarantine? For diseases?"
"Well, mostly animal pests. There was an outbreak of this disgusting strawberry maggot on Sphinx when I was young. They finally figured out a topical immunization program, but I never got to have fresh strawberries as a kid. It wasn't nearly as bad as your fungus, though. And we could always get bags of frozen strawberries shipped over from farms on Manticore. So there was always strawberry puree for banana splits."
"A single legal authority." Elsa drummed her fingers on the table momentarily. "We might have a problem. We have Vesselton. They might argue."
"Admiral Prost mentioned them. What are they?"
"The Vessel-- Vesselton-- was, or is, part of the colony ship that reached Arendelle. Some of the original terraformers were heavily cyborgized for zero-g survival. When they were done, some of the ones that didn't move on to Corona didn't want to land, either. They remained in space, and moved their ship into an orbit around Arendelle's moon. They're still out there. There were only a few thousand when they left. I don't know how many there are now."
"They must be centuries old!"
"I've spoken with a few of them. We have contact, still, and a sort of trade. My scientists tell me the images we're seeing are animations, digitally produced. We have no idea what they're really like now. For all we know, they're just brains in jars."
Anna shuddered. "That sort of technology is possible. I've heard some Sollies had gone that way. I can't imagine how hard it must be. Admiral Prost said they were difficult?"
"They have grown more difficult as the years have passed." She kept her eyes off Anna. She wanted to look at the other woman all night, but that would have been rude. "They resented Anton's restructuring of the government into a kingdom. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that we've had a succession of successful kings and queens and a working legislative House of Commons, while Garrit Petrona has been 'captain' and 'mayor' of the Vessel for all that time.
"But they do trade with us. They have a lunar mining facility, and it's easier for them to send ore down the gravity well than for us to send it up the Elevator. We provide them with fresh food and water. They helped build the starship lasers and the laser focusing rings, and our communications laser station at the edge of the solar system that listens to Corona without interference from our star or our gas giants. They were our friends and family once. Now they're..." She sighed. "They're angry that they haven't succeeded in their final project, and they're angry that we won't help them. It's sad how they seem to be slipping away." She looked down at her gloved hands.
Elsa told the tale as she'd heard it thousands of times. "That's horrible," Anna said.
Elsa shrugged. "Yes, well, it's my 'horrible' to deal with."
"What is their 'final project?' If you're free to tell me."
"They call it 'substrate independence.' It means that they want to be able to transfer their consciousness to something other than, well, a human brain." Elsa put her fingers to her gloved forehead momentarily. "I don't suppose...?"
"Gross," Anna said. "I don't think anyone's tried that in human space in a long time."
"'Human space?' Is there some other? Aliens?"
Anna said, "No. I mean, there are a few other alien species that we know are sentient, and we've found a lot of alien biospheres, but humanity is the only spacefaring species that we know of."
"Where are you parents?"
"Oh," Elsa said, a wave of sadness washing over her. She should have known the question would come up. "They... died. In a boating accident. Six years ago."
"I'm so sorry."
Anna looked like she'd kicked someone's puppy. Elsa tried to be understanding, but every time she thought about that day the pain was nearly overwhelming. "I am too. I miss them. I had a regency for three years, and I've been Queen for three since then."
"How old are you?" Anna said suddenly. "I'm sorry, forgive me. That's just me being awkward again."
"I'm twenty-one Arendelle years old. Twenty-four Terran."
"You're half my age."
"You're forty-eight Terran?"
"Forty-seven," Anna said.
"You don't look it," Elsa said.
"We have Prolong. It extends the lifespan."
"I see. Is it something you can take? Or does it have to be done in vitro?"
"No, the initial treatment can be done after you're born. The earlier you start, the longer it lasts, and every generation lives a little longer. If you're twenty-four, you can probably expect to live to be almost a hundred and sixty if you got it soon."
"I see." Elsa didn't know how to pursue the conversation further. It seemed impossible to imagine that they'd run out of things to say to one another. She wanted to hear more of Anna's voice, listen to more of Anna's tales.
Anna said, "Where does Corona fit in?"
Elsa was grateful for the change of subject. She knew her citizens would clamor for this Prolong procedure when they learned of it. She would never do it, herself. "Oh, Corona. After the terraformers were done here, some went on to Corona, including Captain Gothel. All we had were a few much smaller laser platforms then, so the trip took almost a century. The ship was heavier, too, because it had laser sails for acceleration and electrical sails for brakes. After the war, though, there weren't enough manufactories, skilled engineers, or even colonists to build a new sleeper ship and send colonists across deep space. The engineers' ship we'd already sent didn't even know what had happened. They just kept doing their jobs. Three centuries ago, my great-great-grandfather, Anton the Sixth, announced that it was time to finish the Corona mission. He convinced Parliament to give him the funds, and they built the first set of heavy solar orbit arrays and the Arendelle Humbled, and sent 120,000 people across the gap, including his own second son, Errol. They arrived after a 24-year voyage and successfully set up a new colony. The population now is about a million." She grinned. "They've been busy over there. Not that we've been slacking here. Our initial population was almost 300,000 people, and we're up to fourteen million now. Some of them emigrate to Corona. And a few Coronas have even come here." She shook her head, and her voice became soft and distant. "I have a cousin there. A second cousin. Her name is Rapunzel. I never thought I'd have a chance to meet her. Not until now." She favored Anna with a smile.
"We'll do what we can," Anna said.
A servant place a small round cake just big enough for two in front of them, and sliced out a quarter for each woman. Under the intense, rich smell of chocolate Elsa tasted raspberries and a hint of coffee in the mix. It was insanely dark and dense. Anna let out a small moan of appreciation, and Elsa felt that sound deep inside herself. She shook her head briefly as if shooing away a bug. "Tell me about Sphinx."
Anna did. She avoided anything of a military nature, but clearly she felt comfortable telling Elsa a lot of personal details besides. She'd grown up in Iron Fjord, near the foot of the Black Rock Mountains. She'd been hiking there just before taking up her commission at the academy when she'd met Olaf.
"Does it normally happen in childhood? That adoption? Is it common?"
"It's very rare, actually," Anna said. "And it usually happens in the late teens. I had Olaf when I was eighteen. Kristoff had his when he was seven, which people tell me almost never happens. My parents couldn't believe it when it happened to me. I was such a... a flight. I talk too much, I ramble, I'm hyper, I'm too positive, so I'm told. When we bonded, it was that something-- he can't put a name to it, and neither can I-- that made us whole. Whatever it was, it gave me the strength to finish the academy. People say it made me be a good starship captain, too."
Elsa breathed deep. "I'm envious of you both."
"I dunno," Anna said. "The bond is strange. It's an empathy bond that makes both the human and the treecat emotionally stronger. And emotionally more distant from both other treecats, and other humans. I've never felt 'normal.'"
"Neither have I," Elsa said with a sigh. She traded back with stories from her own childhood. She had a few childhood friends, but everyone knew she was destined to be queen and arranged their prejudices accordingly. That loneliness had been brutally punctuated by the disappearance of wonderfully loving parents.
Their conversation moved on. Arendelle's music had the advantage of knowing all the styles Earth had had to offer in the third century Post- Diaspora, styles which had more or less completely mapped out the genres of music the human ear enjoyed. Anna defended Manticore's own musical traditions even though she said they had grown staid and local. Elsa hardly cared. She could have listened Anna for hours. Even if the woman was doing nothing more than a rambling monologue of the deciannual census report, Elsa would have been enraptured.
The only question Elsa really had was why.
"Oh, my goodness," Anna said, looking down at her watch. "We've talked all evening! I'm so sorry, Your Highness, you must have better things to do than listen to me prattle on. Kristoff says I prattle. Actually, all of my commanders have said I tend to talk too much. Oops, I'm doing it, aren't I?"
"Anna, it's fine," Elsa said, and laughed, covering her mouth again with her hand. Elsa found it more than fine, she found it adorable. "I've never had an opportunity like this. It's unlikely I will have another very soon. You were certainly a more interesting dinner companion than Hans Meinard would have been."
"Please, never mind. I shouldn't have said that. It was inappropriate."
"But you have a Hans problem too?"
"Wait, what? A 'Hans' problem?"
Anna giggled and nodded. "Tell me about yours."
Elsa shrugged. "There's not much to tell. Hans Meinard is the son of Duke Brecht Meinard. The Meinard have one of the most distant duchies and one of the most conservative. Their loyalty to the crown is highly contingent on our playing nice." Elsa paused. "They seem to think that it would be politically beneficial to the crown if I married a man from the opposition. Hans Meinard is a fine man, or so I'm told. Not like his father at all. Studious, polite, and entirely without any reputation of any kind." She sighed. "But he's just one of many. My nobles seem to think it's time I settled down, married, and started on the great project of providing the kingdom with heirs. I'm just not..." She tore her eyes away from Anna's open, wistful face to look down the length of the dining room. "I'm just not ready to marry yet. I don't know if I ever will." Anna had leaned forward, her chin in her hand, her attention rapt on Elsa's words. "So, that's all there is to it. I take it from your comment that you have a 'Hans' in your life too?"
"Oh, Hans." Anna waved the suggestion away, the sighed. "Captain Hans Westergaard of her Majesty's Heavy Cruiser Rune. I'm still not sure what to make of the situation. We had been dating for about a year. He's in the Navy of the Red, and I'm in the Navy of the Green, so technically we can date each other. Sometimes I think the point of having two whole command structures is to provide a pool of officers we can date, not just the redundancy. Anyway, three weeks before I headed out on this expedition, he proposed marriage."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him I would think about it. I also told my father. He thinks it's a great idea. Hans is the seventh son of the Earl of Summerisle, so he doesn't stand to inherit anything except maybe a stipend. I don't care. I want something more." Anna smiled, but Elsa could see her wrestling with unhappiness. "Hans said he loved me."
Anna straightened in her chair, and Elsa could see it almost as a force of will. "He said he loved me. But it's all a mess. My parents are separated and have filed for divorce. If they're not going to be together forever, what chance do I have? I still don't know what made them... I'm sorry. I'm rambling, and you probably don't want to hear all these painful little details. The point is, I like Hans, but marrying him feels like it would be settling, not winning. I have not been dealt a winning Hans."
Elsa laughed. "Anna, that was a terrible! But thank you for telling me." She rose, and Anna automatically rose in response. Elsa reached out one hand. "Thank you for coming to dinner."
Anna seemed to still be getting used to a queen's informal use of her common name, but she recovered enough to take Elsa's hand and close on it with a gentle, professional handshake. "Your Highness."
"'Elsa,'" Anna said, with that same breathy pleasure she'd expressed over the dessert.
Elsa's heart beat louder in her heart. She swallowed. An impulse came over her. "Anna, can I ask one more favor of you? On behalf of your Queen?"
"Of course. I'll do what I can."
"Does your navy have a way to allow visitors on board?"
"Of course! We have a dining room for honored guests, and a tradition of courtesy calls with friendly-- and potentially friendly-- star nations wherever we go. It's all very important that we let our friends know what our ships can do for them, and listen to what needs they might have, and... sorry, I'm rambling again."
Elsa's couldn't help herself and laughed again. "I think it's charming. Anna, I've been able to visit most of my kingdom here, on the ground, but my security team has always told me that the elevator would be too dangerous, even for the four-hour trip to low orbit, much less a full trip up to the Anchor, which takes days. I'd like to visit your ship and, with your help, the furthest reach of my kingdom."
Elsa watched, impressed as Anna's professional face fell into place. The woman before her had just transitioned from guest to soldier in less than a heartbeat. "Is there really that much domestic unrest?"
"About a quarter of the people here dislike the policies of what is called 'my' government. A small fraction of that are always willing to be demonstrative. There are always a few."
"That sounds like Manticore. Elizabeth has a lot of security."
"So do I," Elsa said, her eyes momentarily hesitating at the corners of the room, where cameras watched over her every waking moment.
"Kristoff can work with your security. We'll make your visit one to remember, I'm sure. Thank you again, Your Highness." She bowed.
"Thank you, Captain," Elsa said. She watched Anna go, and then turned back toward her own door, her fists clenched with an emotion she couldn't name, directed at herself.