10: Confession to a Friend
Kai led a short, rounded woman in an elegantly cut dress and a giant smile past Gerda and into the winter sunroom. The day outside hovered barely below freezing and not even a breeze blew, the perfect weather for being outdoors. Hot tea in a self-warming pot sat on the tiny table and warm breads waited on a tray nearby. "Your Majesty, Lady Meke Guiliel."
"Meke," Elsa said, rising to stand before the other woman. "I'm so glad."
"Your Majesty. Are you sure you have time for this?"
"I have to make time. Or so Kai reminds me. And please, don't be so formal."
"I'm sorry, My Queen. I don't feel comfortable calling you 'Elsa.' Not since..." She sighed, but her eyes lighted on Elsa's tiny day-crown.
"You did when we were children."
"That was when we were children. Before you received the throne. And the Keys." Elsa looked down at her gloved hands and nodded. "I sometimes wonder what that was like."
"It was... frightening," Elsa said. "Kai helped me find the gloves, and` there were a few weeks when..." She sighed. "Every generation since Anton the Great has dealt with the Keys. It's the only way to maintain order, Meke. In a situation like this, a democracy would eat itself alive." Elsa gestured toward the chairs. "Come. Sit."
"I'm not so sure. Leto's The Timeless Way Of Governing says we're still small enough that accountability would be possible. But I'm not going to disagree; your family has done Arendelle great service over the years. But you, you look exhausted." Meke said.
"I am." When they were both situated around the table, Gerda poured Meke a cup of tea and withdrew. Elsa's serious look softened as she regarded Meke. Like most of her subjects, Meke was shorter and darker-skinned than Elsa's line and slightly plump. Meke's over-endowed chest preceded her like the prow of an icebreaker. Her dark, straight hair and wide eyes helped accentuate her beauty, and Elsa's eyes spent a little too long lingering over her friend's fortunate figure. "Actually, I asked you here for two reasons. I may be stuck as the Queen of Arendelle, but you've had the freedom to visit many of the districts. You've had time to build up an impression of all of them. I want to talk about... " Her finger tapped the thick folder on her table. The folder was real paper, hand-written in many cases. There would be no inadvertent leakage of her security staff's unguarded opinions. She took a deep breath. Sighing was all the rage these days, she noted.
Gerda raised a hand to her ear, then nodded to Elsa. "Oh, good. Before we get into that," she said, tapping the folder again, "I want you to meet someone and assess her for me. Get a feel for her. You've got the best lie-detecting equipment I've ever known between your ears, Meke, and I want you to tell me if I'm dealing with someone trustworthy here."
Meke's eyes furrowed, but she only nodded. Kai re-entered the room. "Your Majesty, as requested, Lady Captain Anna DuVar."
"Here?" Anna said. Kai put his hand to Anna's back and guided her toward the table. "Oh. Um. Hi." Anna seemed to remember herself, bowed. "Your Majesty."
"Captain," Elsa said. "I would like you to meet Lady Meke Guiliel. She's an old friend. I highly recommend you one to another." Meke's eyebrows rose at the coded message. Anna's face was still, but it was clear she hadn't missed the implications either. "Anna, Meke is second in line to inherit the Duchy of Guiliel. Meke, Anna is the Captain of the Royal Manticoran Naval Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss."
Meke's eyes widened. "I... I'm very pleased to meet you, Captain. I understand that Manticore isn't Earth, but... there still is an Earth?"
"Oh, yes, Your Ladyship," Anna said. "I've even been there. I went there on a diplomatic tour as a new lieutenant. We hit all the high spots, you know: London, Paris, New York, Alpha, Olympus and New Clarke."
"It's an orbital station around Jupiter. Refuelling stop. Of course, it's very touristy, because everyone wants to see Jupiter. The glass is thick and there's a layer of water to prevent all the radiation from seeping through. It's much safer to see it through a camera, although once through the glass has its own romance--" She caught herself short. She'd been bouncing.
Elsa smiled. She'd read Commander Buzz's after-action report. Captain Anna DuVar and Lady Anna DuVar seemed to be two utterly different people. Elsa had had a chance to see Captain DuVar, and Commander Buzz's report had reinforced Elsa's impression of a woman of action, toughness, reserve, and a sense of justice. Anna without the white beret was a different creature: flustered, chatty, social, and hedonistic. If both of them had anything in common, it was a deep reserve of commitment toward the people who depended upon her. Elsa could only admire her more.
"You're missing your famous companion."
"Oh, Olaf? He wanted to stay on the ship and hang out with Sven. I want them to come down here and get a good look at your forests, but we don't know what kind of predators you have loose in there, so of course until one of us does the research, he's either with me or upstairs. I like it. It gave me a chance to walk around Chantel without anyone recognizing me. It's a beautiful place, so fairy-tale and everything."
Elsa said, "My ancestor had a soft spot for ancient castles and primary colors. Other cities on Arendelle are much more... modern-looking."
"More's the pity," Meke said. "It's not like we have a good reason for them all to look like steam and steel towers. Captain, you've had a good look at Chantel. Tell me about Manticore."
Anna's eyes narrowed, but she obviously understood the appeal Meke was making. She told. Prost and Favier had met with Kristoff and Anna in the guise of professional soldiers, assessing each other's potential risks and benefits. Elsa's people knew Manticore hopelessly outclassed Arendelle militarily, but they were good professionals who had looked upon the imbalance as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to overreact, run or hide. Meke wanted something different. Elsa watched her best friend extract secrets Anna would never have revealed in a professional sense. Anna talked about growing up in Iron Fjord, visiting places named Copperwall and Jason Bay, about a middle school trip to Landing to visit the Royal Museum of Art and History . Meke was steering Anna around much personal history, although Elsa learned Anna had a mother and a father, they were separated, her father had the title and everything that went with it, and that she had at least one younger sibling.
Meke listened with stillness and attentiveness. Sometimes, when Anna ran down, the silence would seem to stretch out for painfully long moments, and then Meke would ask a question. Anna seemed all too eager to keep the awkward silence from recurring, so she would talk and talk to fill it. Elsa admired the technique, but was sure she could never use it herself. On the other hand, when the silence stretched long, it gave her a chance to watch Anna's face in stillness and concentration, and the flutters in her own belly were impossible to deny.
Meke traded back a few details from her own life. Her parents were still together, her brother Heul was due to inherit their seat, and she had no particular paramours at the moment. The mention of paramours made Anna close up momentarily, but Meke dodged the obstruction with a mention of a childhood pet, a horse. "I love horses!" Anna said, and the room again filled with her voice.
Elsa thought she could listen to Anna for hours. Such nattering should have driven her to distraction, but from Anna it was all so different, all so new.
After only half an hour, Kai entered and said, "Your Majesty, we have an appointment at two."
"Of course, Kai." She rose, and the two women rose with her. "If you would escort Captain DuVar back to her party?"
"Of course, Your Majesty. Captain?"
Anna rose, as did Elsa. Anna bowed, and Elsa nodded. Anna said, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Guiliel. I hope we meet again."
"Of that, I'm certain," Meke said, holding out a hand. Anna shook, and Kai guided her away. When the door closed, she said, "Well, that was an interesting interview." She was staring at Elsa intently.
"What do you think?" Elsa said as they sat back down.
"I like her. And I think she's telling the truth. I don't have a handle on Manticoran politics yet... hundreds of nobles, of different rank, oh my God, Elsa, it must be very confusing! But I think we're dealing with a fair dealer. She means what she says. Manticore's main power is economic with a military to back it up, not the other way around."
Elsa sagged. "Good. I don't know what we can do economically, but at least I don't have to worry about them coming in as an invading army."
"That doesn't seem their style, no." Meke was still looking Elsa over. She looked at the massive green folder on the table. "What's that, now?"
"Oh, this." Elsa sighed. "It's all the eligible male dukes and their heirs. I was hoping you might have a good idea..."
Meke grimaced. "Elsa--"
"They're pressuring me, Meke."
Meke's eyes went to the door through which Anna and Kai had exited. "Are you sure you didn't want me here to vet Captain DuVar for other reasons?"
Elsa's eyes narrowed. "What are you saying, Meke?"
Meke leaned back in her chair, put her cup down. Her insufferable silence trick stretched much longer than any time she'd spoken with Anna, but both of them knew Elsa had the patience to wait Meke out. Finally she said, "Okay. Elsa, I've known you my whole life. I know for a fact there isn't a man on this planet who attracts your eye. If you want my assessment of the nobility around here, you shouldn't ask your intelligence team to be assessing your dukes and their sons. You should ask them about your duchesses and their daughters."
Elsa felt herself go still, and down inside the flutters were replaced with a chill as deep as Arendelle's coldest night. Most of her "secrets" were publicly known. The Power of the Family of Anton, the Keys, the symbols of her authority real or imagined, were the fodder of the press and the public networks. Her people monitored the public 'net for signs of threat. This... this was never... "You know?"
"Pffft, My Queen. I've known since you were twelve. My only regret is that, well, I don't follow you that way. I would have leaped at the chance. I'm glad I didn't. It must be a terrible affliction, to go from having half the population available to you to having, what, one percent?"
"'Affliction?'" Elsa cried. Then she deflated. "That is one way to look at it. I suppose. But it's not fair, Meke! And how will my dukes react? They've been courting me with favored sons for awhile already. I wish you could accept."
"My Queen, my beloved friend," Meke said, "I would do anything for you. But I can't be that for you. You'll just have to tell them the truth, and have them start sending you their favored daughters instead. I'm afraid that, while you can have your staff go through the list, I don't know of any single Duchesses or Lady who I think would both suit you and would, um, suit you." She glanced back at the door. "Are you sure you're not looking to the good Captain DuVar?"
"What? No, of course not."
"Does she favor women?"
"I don't know. She's dealing with a 'situation'-- that's her word-- with a man right now, but it seems to be... unstable."
"Maybe because men aren't suitable to her, either?" Meke said.
"I have no idea. Meke," Elsa said, leaning forward fiercely, "It would be inappropriate of me to contemplate a relationship with someone not of Arendelle. It would certainly be inappropriate of me to, to, to glom onto the first woman from outer space that comes into my cham... my throne room."
Meke grinned but didn't say a word.
Elsa deflated. "She is very pretty."
"That she is," Meke said softly. Elsa cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, come off it, Elsa, just because I'm straight doesn't mean I lack in my ability to assess a woman's beauty. In other circumstances, Anna DuVar would count as the competition. Especially with that hair! You two would make an adorable couple."
Elsa laughed behind her hand. "True. Too true. What if I were courting her?"
Meke regarded her seriously. "Elsa, you have to rule Arendelle as best you can. Manticore's population is much greater than Arendelle's, and I'm sure there'll be lots of opportunities for you to find a lover here, or there, or Corona." She shook her head. "I still can't imagine having trade with Corona that isn't measured in years. But if Captain DuVar is available, and a good one... " Meke let it trail off. "There aren't many bargaining chips better than ruler of a whole world."
"I don't want to bribe anyone. I want a relationship based on, on merit."
Meke nodded. "Then don't bribe. I like her. I like Anna. If I were interested in women, I'd be interested in her, too. But I can't advise you in this, Elsa. You're going to have to find out if she's available, and then you're going to have to find your own way."