12: Frozen Over
Elsa had told her it would be a dinner. She hadn't said how large. Over a hundred people in elegant, fancy dress were served in the enormous room where Elsa had first invited Anna to dinner just a few weeks ago. The lighting was turned up, beautiful banners suggesting the four seasons, each with both a sun and a soletta at the top shining down onto the land,, hung along the four walls. There were nine tables, each seating twelve. Anna and Olaf had privileged seats at Elsa's right hand, and at her left sat Lady Meke Guiliel again. Flynn had also been given a place of privilege at Elsa's table, along with Captain Buzz. The other six spots were occupied by noble "Friends of the Crown," Anna noted carefully, mostly older gentlemen with a decidedly academic air. She and Flynn were now Friends of the Crown; the term obviously meant something.
Elsa had given a short introductory speech, welcoming Manticore and Winterkiss specifically, and discussing the "recent and tragic attempts by others to use this joyous occasion as reason to overturn centuries of peace and justice." There were rounds of hearty "Here here!" from the assembled guests.
Dinner consisted of some of the finest roast pork Anna had ever tasted. There were hints of port and clove in the marinade, rosemary and caramel in the rind. Anna loved to cook, and lived with the regret that she had so little time to indulge, but she truly appreciated the art in others. She looked up to see Meke's eyes on something over her shoulder. The woman leaned over and whispered something in Elsa's ear, and Elsa quickly looked in the same direction then looked away. "Is something the matter, your highness?" she asked.
"Only politically," Elsa said. She gestured with her head. "That's Hans Meinard's father, the duke. He wanted me to give his son the privilege of that chair for weeks now." She pointed toward Anna. "Tonight would have been one of those opportunities, but I much prefer that you be here, Captain."
"Thanks. I think."
Elsa laughed. "Meke and I have been discussing the matter of my... suitors." Meke suddenly looked up. The grin on her face was radiant, like that of a treecat with a celery patch. "We are coming up with a strategy. It shouldn't be your concern, Captain."
"No, probably not," Anna said. Should she be worried about this Meinard guy? It was obvious Elsa wasn't interested in him. Some Duke's son. She frowned. An Arendelle duchy was about the same size an a Manticore earldom, and Anna knew a lot of earl's sons who thought they were God's gift to anyone and everyone who crossed their paths. That thought connected directly to Hans, and she tried not to let it linger on him too long. She looked up at Elsa. "I'm sorry if it's a bother."
"It's not your bother," Elsa said.
"Still..." Anna said.
"Anna," Elsa said, and her hand seemed to reach toward Anna's, hestitated, then fell back. "I appreciate your warrior spirit, but this is a political issue, and an internal matter. For now."
"I understand, your highness." She looked up to see Meke's smile broaden until it looked almost painful.
One of the older men at that table said, "So, are we to understand that the gravity drive designs you've provided us are free for us to use?"
"Of course," Anna said, grateful for the distraction. Her hormones did not need this kind of abuse. Fifty-to-one odds Elsa was straight. Right? "It's an old technology by this time. Everyone uses it, and while there are always improvements that some design shops might want to keep secret for a while, the basic design has been around for hundreds of years."
"So, if we figure out how to make them, we could be crossing the Arendelle starsystem in a matter of days, not months?"
"Yes," Anna said. That Arendelle was already manufacturing hypercores was apparently not yet public information.
"And faster than light travel?"
"The same. Oh, you'll need a fast primer on the hazardous of interstellar travel, things like hyper limits and grav sheer and how to detect it, but I'm sure Manticore would be willing to provide the requisite technical expertise. We'd have to figure out an exchange rate, or how to trade Arendelle's krones with Manticoran dollars, but that's something for bankers and traders." Anna could have burbled on. "In fact, that's one of the things that Doctor Fitzhubert and I were discussing. We don't know much about your relationship with Corona, but you might be able to rent some large freighters and arrange for Corona to supply your food needs for the next few years, until your farms are back on-line. The geography of Corona has many more fertile zones than Arendelle, and is way underutilized. If you could tool up their farms, you could stave off even the small reduction in food resource."
"I see..." He drummed his fingers on the table, but seemed to have run out of questions.
Dessert was served, an exquisite little custard crusted on top with melted sugar glass and a mint leaf. Anna left none on her plate. "I'm going to regret that later," she mumbled to Olaf. He responded by pressing his nose against her arm briefly.
"Is it true he can talk?" asked one of the others.
Anna understood "Not with his mouth. We have a sign language. But we rarely need it."
"But he's a member of your crew?"
"Officially, yes," Anna said. "A member of the medical crew."
"Fascinating." Anna nodded, looking up. She locked eyes with Elsa. For a moment, each was unwilling to be the first to look away. They settled on turning away simultaneously. Anna swallowed.
It reminded Anna of the flight up to Winterkiss, that fateful day. Every time she looked up, Elsa was looking at her. Anna had entertained the fantasy that Elsa might be queer, might be interested in her, but those had just been fantasies. But at that first dinner, there had been more than just a casual exchange of pleasantries and a trade of information. She had been aware of Elsa's loneliness. She had wanted to share her own.
Anna glanced over at Meke, Elsa's strategist in finding a suitable partner, it seemed. When Anna caught Meke looking at her, it was some sort of intense examination. She would smile at Anna a little too broadly. Anna turned to Olaf. "Are you doing that?"
He gave her his best enigmatic grin. Anna went back to doing what she had been doing for two weeks: trying to ignore the curiosity lurking in the back of her head. Trying, and failing.
Dinner ended. Elsa rose, as did everyone else. "Forgive me," she murmured to the table. "I have to attend to a small detail. I'll meet you all in the reception area shortly."
The rest began a casual shuffle toward the broad, twin doors leading to the reception ballroom. Olaf took her place on Anna's shoulder. Anna moved with the crowd toward the larger ballroom. Before she passed the doors someone tapped her on the arm. She turned. "Oh! Gerda, right?"
"Yes, Miss. Could you come this way?"
Anna looked at her, puzzled. "Sure," she said.
Gerda led her out of the crowd toward a small door. Inside was a side sitting room with a small, elegant yellow couch flanked by tiny tables suitable to tea and biscuits. Gerda closed the door, leaving Anna alone.
She turned as a section of wall slid open, revealing a passageway. "Elsa... Queen." Anna's heart beat louder against her chest. She was alone with Elsa. Well, not alone. She was sure that somewhere nearby Captain Calhoun or one of her trusted subordinates was ensuring Elsa's safety. She bowed. Olaf bleeked in amusement.
The beautiful woman in blue laughed. "'Elsa' is fine in here, Anna," she gesturing to the room with that tiny shrug of hers. She peered at Olaf momentarily. "Tell me, with claws like those why doesn't he destroy your clothes?"
Anna brushed some loose fur off one shoulder. "One of the privileges of military life. I can order all of my jackets with reinforced armor-weave. Most people who've been adopted by a treecat get the shoulders done, but he likes to crawl all over me like a squirrel, so my entire jacket is armored."
"I see. Thank you for coming. Don't worry, there's no crisis."
"I wondered about that," Anna said.
"I asked Gerda to bring you here because, before the full reception starts-- I can't really call them 'festivities,' although I can name a duke or two who would-- I wanted to thank you personally for your role in saving my world. I haven't said it enough. I don't know that I can."
Anna said, "Your Majesty, I was only doing my job."
Elsa took a deep breath, let it out. "That's what Captain Calhoun says, too." She turned to the couch. "Please, take a seat. We have a few minutes." Anna looked at the couch dubiously, then toward Elsa, then sat. Olaf climbed off her shoulder onto the back of the couch. Anna registered his purring as gently pleased. "Anna, I also called you here because I believe I owe you an apology."
Anna was surprised, and a little worried. She was unable to imagine what Elsa might have done, or not done, that necessitated an apology. Elsa put one hand down on the couch to shift herself, turning her body toward Anna's. "Everyone here in the kingdom knows me in some way. My servants have known me since I was a child. The guards' role is set in their oath, their loyalty to the royal family, and they would give their lives to protect me. My subjects are my subjects. My nobles are my nobles, and while they mean well, they've also been a constant in my life since I was born. You're the only person in Arendelle right now for whom the rules don't exist."
"I have a queen!" Anna said quickly.
"Yes, but I am not she." Anna giggled. "What?" Elsa said.
"Of course, a queen would always pick the right tense. No, that's not right. What is that called, when you have to choose... You know, of course a queen's English would be perfect."
Elsa's eyes narrowed, but then she hid her smile behind her hand again. "Declension. I suppose that's true. What I mean, Anna, is that I invited you down here the first time, and asked for this privacy this time too, because I, because I don't have, because... "
Anna took a deep inward breath, filling her lungs with the way understanding filled her heart. She reached out and hovered her hand over Elsa's on the couch. "Elsa? May I?"
Elsa looked at Anna's hand, and nodded. Anna reached down and closed her fingers around Elsa's gloved hand hand. The touch was electric. Through the thin material Elsa's hand was cool but alive, the muscles twitching like a small, frightened animal against Anna's palm. Elsa's entire body jumped a little bit, and Anna held on tighter, and as they looked at one another an emotion neither of them was willing to yet name surrounded them. Elsa finally nodded toward their mutual grip, and smiled. "Did you ask because I'm a queen?"
"No," Anna said. "It's a kind of training we get. Some of us. I asked because, it's the right thing to do before you touch someone like that."
"Oh." Elsa grinned. "Really? That must make courting complicated."
"When you're courting, it can. But it also makes everything more explicit. Honest. You learn to ask, to respect the other person's body and space. It doesn't have to be with words, but it does have to be clear. I mean... sorry, I'm rambling."
"You have to ask every time?" Elsa said.
"At first. Eventually, you get comfortable with one another, and you build up a lot of trust, and then you reach a place where you can agree, but it has to be explict, you have to talk about it, you have to say it out loud, that instead of asking for each other's 'yes', you believe the other person's intentions are good, you agree instead to hear and honor each other's 'no.'"
"I see," said Elsa. "You said some get this training, but not everyone? Who gets this training?"
Anna hesitated before answering. She had been dreading this moment. But she also had wanted to tell Elsa how she felt. "People who aren't heterosexual. It's because we have to work harder not to be misunderstood. We've learned to teach it to each other."
Elsa jerked her eyes back down to their hands, and then to Anna, and now it was her turn for understanding to fall into place, and her eyes went very wide and her voice went very soft. "Oh," she said.
They were both silent, staring at each other. Anna felt something inside her pushing her toward Elsa, and was sure the other woman felt the same, but she didn't want to start it, she didn't want it to be her responsibility if she was wrong, or if she was right, and she knew, she knew, that Elsa was dealing with the exact same thoughts in her head.
Anna said, "We should head back out. They're probably wondering--" A loud popping sound, like a large vacuum light bursting in the far distance, caught their attention and shattered the moment. Olaf suddenly reared up from his drape along the couch, snarling. More pops, louder, more booming, more powerful, came closer, and then one exploded overhead. Plaster from the ceiling showered the room. "We have to get out of here," Anna said, leaping up and shoving open the door leading back to the ballroom. "Where's your security?"
"I don't know!"
Through the doorway leading to the reception area Anna heard gunshots and screams. "Get back," she hissed. "We might be safer in here." She held the door open just enough to peek through, ready to slam it closed if necessary, but watched the dining area and hoped that, whatever was happening, Calhoun's men would close it down.
The hidden door opened again and three men in Palace security livery came through it. Anna relaxed, but then one drew up a gun. "The Eight Day Queen!" he yelled even as his voice was drowned out by the ripping warcry of an enraged treecat. Olaf leapt off the couch and hit the front man with his full eight kilograms. The man screamed as he went down, blood streaking from where his eyes had been. Olaf leapt to a second man. The third had time to recover and and rasied his weapon. "OUT!" Anna shouted, shoving Elsa through the door into the dining room.
Olaf's impact on the gunman sent his aim wide and bullets spalled plaster off the ceiling. Anna hurled herself out of the doorway as three more men in security livery came through a serving door. She didn't need Olaf's empathy to see the murder in their eyes, and threw herself into the midst of them. "Elsa, run!"
One man pulled out something that looked like a fat pen and threw it. Anna more felt than heard what happened next as it went off-- and every bulb in that beautiful chandelier suddenly exploded at once. The chandelier came crashing down, shattering glass everywhere in the dining room, a crystalline bomb almost musical in its destruction.
Anna barely had time to recover. She was no marine trained in hand-to-hand combat. She had only ever had basic training, but it would have to do. She was a Sphinxian, at least half again as strong as a Terran of her size and build, and she hoped her attackers mistook her for the small woman she appeared to be. She hurled herself upward at the lead man, getting inside his gun arm and smashing the palm of her hand into his chin. Their momentum carried them into the second man, who tripped and fell.
More men came through the door. Olaf was among them, a buzzsaw of claws and teeth and rage, and now men who seemed to be part of the palace's real security detail joined the fray.
The man she struck grunted and turned, trying to point the gun at her, at Elsa, at any meaningful target at all. The gun roared, and Anna hoped it hadn't hit anything. Desperate, she kneed him in the crotch. He went down with a scream. Anna kicked another crushing blow to his face with the heel of her boot. The gun in his hand went off.
Anna heard a scream behind her. "Elsa!" She turned.
Elsa was holding her arm, her eyes wide with panic, but she was also running toward Anna. "Watch out!"
Anna heard a gunshot behind her, loud and very close, and the world contracted, thudded with an enormous final heartbeat. Pain, the coldest pain Anna had ever felt, flared in her chest as she looked up. Elsa's pale face, her magnificent turquoise blouse, were suddenly spattered with bright red blood. Who's blood?
Oh, Anna thought. My blood. Mine. No! She touched her chest, felt the huge, wet, ragged hole at the center of it. She looked up into beautiful, blue, horrified eyes. "Elsa..." she tried to say, but her lungs no longer held air. Distantly she heard Olaf's own terrified scream, heard the frenzy building, heard more voices, more footsteps, heard the man behind her shriek in agony.
Elsa grabbed her, wrapped her arms around her. "It's okay, Anna. I've got you." Anna began to slip from Elsa's grip and sink toward the ground. No!, Anna thought. No, not now. I've haven't said 'I love you' yet. Not to anyone. Not to Olaf. Not to... Anna fell down a deep, deep, deep, deep hole, and the only light she saw came from the shining, glistening tears in Elsa's eyes above her.