5: Frying Pan
Kristoff had negotiated with Elsa's security detail, and the arrangement reached was suitable to Anna. There would be a total of twelve armsmen: four shifts of three, all but the active shift to be housed in guest staterooms near the pinnace docking bay, and to be accompanied by Anna's own small detail of Marines. To Anna's pleasure, Kristoff had also managed to get Commander Buzz to join them. Anna was left to abuse poor Claire with details for the dinner, all the while listening to Claire say, "Yes, Ma'am," and "It's a state dinner, Ma'am," and "It's what I'm trained for, Ma'am."
There was something about stewards. Claire was newly assigned to her this mission, but James had been more or less the same way. Then again, Anna had been allowed to choose her own meals, she'd probably eat sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With a dozen of those wicked chocolate-cream sandwich cookies for dessert.
Lieutenant Commander VonSchweetz piloted directly up to Winterkiss, nose to the aft quarter of the boat bay, and rotated the entire pinnace into the bay without a moment's hesitation. Anna loved great ship handling and VonSchweetz made it look easy. She had the attitude of a daredevil but she kept it reined in. Anna had sat in the center of the pinnace, Kristoff across from her, beside each the two treecats buckled into their restraining chairs and staring at each other with that look. Elsa had sat on the other side of the VIP row, her active duty security surrounding her and looking serious.
The head of Elsa's security detail was the tall, muscular woman Anna had met at the landing pad: severe with a brief, informal cut of light brown hair and a face that would have been beautiful if it hadn't been so intent. She'd been introduced as "Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun," and they'd exchanged looks that Anna read as "I won't hurt your ship if you don't hurt my Queen." Anna could keep her part of that bargain.
But ever since that dinner yesterday, she'd felt off-balance whenever she regarded Elsa. She couldn't even say why. The woman was always calm, always cool. Always achingly beautiful.
Once in a while, Anna would look up to find Elsa looking back at her. Their eyes would meet, and Anna would be unable to look away. Just looking into Elsa's eyes made her heart beat faster. Stop it. She's not Lucy or Mai. She's not even in the same class as any of the men or women you've known. She's the ruler of an entire world. She's probably straight. Hans is waiting for your answer. And she has no interest in you.
Anna wasn't sure any of that constituted telling herself the truth.
The RMN's electronic whistle hailing the return of a ship's captain signaled through the boat bay, and Anna was relieved to see that her first tier command staff were in line, as perfectly turned out for the Queen of Arendelle as they might have been for the Queen of Manticore. She stifled a further quiver of pleasure as Elsa allowed her to guide the small party down the line, giving introductions to her crew.
"This is Lt. Commander Ficksit, my chief of engineering, and Lieutenant Rekkit, my tactical officer. And yes, everyone has made that joke already." Ficksit was a Grayson: short, wiry, with a squashed nose and Grayson's religion-tinged tendency to swear in only the most mild of euphemisms. Rekkit, on the other hand, was a San Martino, a world so large and heavy that oxygen levels on the surface were toxic. Only a few high plateaus could support human life. The heavy gravity consequently produced people squat, broad, and heavily muscled. Rekkit also had a reputation for taking on Marines for recreation, although he'd recently channelled that effort into learning savate in the gym rather than practicing in bars. His dossier said his real name was Raoul, but everyone called him Ralph. If there was a story there, Anna hadn't heard it.
The Queen gave Anna a quick grin, and the two of them moved on down the line, all the way to Ensign Robin, Anna's junior staff secretary and her youngest officer, who looked appropriately gobsmacked to be greeting a queen.
They moved on to dinner. Claire had prepared beef with a savory jus, roasted asparagus and sliced, roasted potatoes with gravy. Ensign Robin remembered to lead the opening toast to "The Queen", and Anna rose in response. "This is a great honor," she said. "Lowly light cruisers of the Royal Manticoran Navy don't get to host a queen every day. We hope that Winterkiss is a good example of what our star kingdom can provide, and that the relationship between Manticore and Arendelle is a provident one."
"Here, here," Kristoff said, raising his glass at his cue. Even Sven and Olaf raised glasses at that.
"Thank you," Elsa said. "Your ship is beautiful, and my people are already envious of your artificial gravity. I pray we discover Arendelle has something to trade with Manticore, and that our relationship is a productful and provident one."
Dinner resumed. After a few minutes of considered eating, Elsa said, "I have one question, A-- Captain."
"Yes, Your Highness?"
"Winterkiss is not the sort of name I would expect on an... exploratory vessel."
"That's because Winterkiss didn't start out as an exploratory vessel." Anna hesitated, trying to word it so that it didn't sound alarming. "She was launched as a very deep penetration first-strike cruiser. Manticore recently fought a war with its neighbor, and we needed to innovate our military mix. Winterkiss was one of those. She was never used in her designed role, and after the war she was scheduled to be mothballed. Then the Lynx II Terminus was discovered. Winterkiss, which had already been gutted of most of her offensive arms, was refit with all sorts of sensors and exploratory gear instead. She received a larger boat bay and more bunkerage, too. The idea was that if she ended up five hundred light years away from Manticore and couldn't find the way home, at least she'll be able to sail home under her own power."
"I see. So your ship is unarmed?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. She has a few missile bays remaining, plus a lot of countermissle space, and there was no need to remove her point defenses. I don't think the RMN would ever field a ship that couldn't defend herself. Even hospital ships have defense arrays. I hope we never have to engage in any sort of battle while we're here, your highness."
Dinner had been scheduled early, as Elsa was due to go over to Anchor afterward. It ended on a high note, with Claire working some of the local chocolates into an exquisite whipped glaceau.
"How will we all fit into the elevators?" Anna asked. It looked a bit silly, all of them trooping down to the boat bay together after dinner: Anna and Kristoff, the two treecats, Ensign Robin at their heels, proceeding Queen Elsa and her royal secretary Kai, as well as her three security officers.
"Take shifts," Kristoff said. "We'll go up in one, then you lead Queen Elsa and two armsmen up in the second."
"Right," Anna said. It was a small personnel lift, one of the RMN's newest indulgences for good captains, and Anna appreciated it, but it barely had room for four. She spent the ride uncomfortably close to Elsa. "Sorry," she said.
"There is nothing to apologize for, Captain," Elsa said. Anna could swear she heard her own name in the way Elsa said 'Captain.' She could have listened to Elsa's voice for... for a long time. "I have learned that we must all make allowances for necessity."
When they got off, the shuttlecraft was waiting on the other side of the scarlet warning line. Elsa turned and said, "Thank you for your hospitality, Captain." Her eyes sparkled. "I hope we have a chance to talk at length again. Soon?"
"I do too, Your Majesty." She reached out a hand, and if Elsa's green-gloved clasp in response lasted a little too long, Anna wasn't prepared to judge. "Take care of my executive. I need him back."
Elsa laughed in a tossed-off manner. "I'm sure you do. We'll bring him back in one piece. Ready, Commander Bjorgmann?"
"Whenever you are, Your Majesty." Anna grinned. Kristoff's usual tone of voice was one shade south of insolent, but this time he sounded earnest. Oddly, she'd never heard him actually be insolent, except perhaps with Sven.
"Let's go, then." Captain Calhoun led Elsa across the barrier, and then guided her with expert kicks toward the waiting shuttlecraft. Anna tried not to look up Elsa's skirt as they crossed, and she mostly succeeded. Captain, you have to get your hormones under control.
Anna returned to the bridge and watched the agonizingly slow progress of the shuttle on the holosphere. "Call Dr. Fitzhubert. I want him to keep a close eye on... everything."