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Chapter Fifteen

"And this,Admiral Gold Peak, is Prime Minister Alquezar," Lady Dame Estelle Matsuko, Baroness Medusa, and Her Majesty Elizabeth III's Imperial Governor for the Talbott Quadrant, said. "Prime Minister, Countess Gold Peak."

"Welcome to the Quadrant, Countess," the red-haired, improbably tall and slender Alquezar said, shaking Micehlle's hand with a smile. Despite the low-gravity homeworld which had produced his physique, his grip was firm and strong. Then he glanced over her shoulder at Khumalo, and his smile took on a wicked edge. "It's one of my traditions to ask newly arrived officers in Her Majesty's Navy for their impression of the Cluster's political complexion."

Khumalo smiled back at the Prime Minister, shaking his head, and Baroness Medusa chuckled.

"Now, now, Joachim! None of that," she admonished. "You promised you were going to behave yourself tonight."

"True." Alquezar nodded gravely. "On the other hand, I am a politician."

"And the sort of politician who gives other politicians a bad name," another man said. Michelle recognized him from the newsfaxes. He was shorter than Alquezarwho had to be at least a full two meters tallbut still considerably taller than Michelle. He was also fair-haired and blue-eyed, and his Standard English had a distinctly different accent from Alquezar's.

"Well, of course, Bernardus," Alquezar said to him. "Now that I've been able to secure my grip on power, it's time for my megalomania to begin coming to the surface, isn't it?"

"Only if you really like being chased around Thimble by assassins," the fair-haired man said. "Trust meI'm sure I can find a dozen or so of them if I really need to."

"Admiral Gold Peak, allow me to introduce Special Minister Bernardus Van Dort." Medusa shook her head, and her tone took on just an edge of tolerant resignation as she waved gracefully at the newcomer.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Van Dort," Michelle said with quiet sincerity, shaking his hand firmly. "From everything I've read and heard, none of this" she swept her free hand around the luxurious banquet room in a gesture which included everything outside its walls, as well "would have happened without you."

"I wouldn't go that far, Admiral," Van Dort began. "There were"

"I'd go that far, Admiral," Alquezar interrupted, his tone and expression both completely serious.

"As would I," Medusa said firmly. Van Dort looked more than a little uncomfortable, but it was obvious the others weren't going to let him off the hook if he continued to protest, so he only shook his head, instead.

"There are several other people you need to meet tonight, Milady," Medusa said to Michelle. "I believe Commodore L'azl'o is around somewhere. He's the senior officer of the Spindle System Navy, and I'm sure he has quite a lot he'd like to discuss with you. And there are at least half a dozen more senior members of the Quadrant political establishment, as well."

"Of course, Governor," Michelle murmured, trying to look pleased.

There was no point protesting. She'd known that the instant Khumalo informed her about the banquet. For that matter, she even understood the logic, however little she might have liked the consequences. Not only was she the proof the Quadrant's new Empress and her government took the protection of her new subjects seriously, but she also stood far too close to the royaland now imperialsuccession for her to be able to hide aboard ship. And since it couldn't be avoided, the only thing to do was to pretend she was actually enjoying herself.

She thought she saw a glimmer of sympathy in Van Dort's eyes as Medusa shepherded her away, but the special minister only bowed with a murmured pleasantry and abandoned her to her fate.

"And this, Lieutenant Archer, is Helga Boltitz," Paul Van Scheldt said, and Gervais Archer turned to find himself face-to-face with one of the most attractive women he'd ever seen.

"Ms. Boltitz," he said, holding out his hand and smiling, which wasn't exactly the hardest thing he'd ever had to do in his life.

"Lieutenant Archer," she replied, and took his hand in a brief, decidedly pro forma handshake. There was not, he noticed, a smile in her blue eyes, and her voice, with its harsh, sharp-edged accent, was unmistakably cool. Indeed, "frosty" might have been a better choice of adverb.

"Helga is Minister Krietzmann's personal aide," Van Scheldt explained. Gervais was scarcely surprised by that announcement, given the similarity between her accent and Krietzmann's, but there was a none too deeply hidden sparkle of malicious delight in Van Scheldt's tone as he added in his own smoothly urbane accent, "She's from Dresden."

"I see," Gervais was very careful to keep any hint that he'd detected Van Scheldt's amusement out of his own response.

The suave, dark-haired Rembrandter was Joachim Alquezar's appointments secretary. The Prime Minister had sent him off with a wave of his hand to introduce Gervais to "the other youngsters," as Alquezar had put it. Unless Gervais was sadly mistaken, Van Scheldt had been less than delighted by his assignment. The Rembrandter, despite his youthful appearance, was at least ten or fifteen T-years older than Gervais, and there was an undeniable edge to his personality, a sort of supercilious arrogance, of knowing he was naturally and inevitably superior to those of lesser birth or wealth. It was a personality type Gervais had seen entirely too frequently back home, especially when someone afflicted by it realized he himself was at least distantly related to the Queen of Manticore. The people who had it frequently demonstrated an appalling desire to do what his father had always described as "sucking up" as soon as they realized the possibility of doing so existed. Gervais had come up with several rather more colorful descriptions of his own over the past few years, but he had to admit that Sir Roger Archer's was still the best.

Fortunately, Van Scheldt appeared not to have made that particular connection just yet. Which left Gervais wondering exactly at whose expense the appointments secretary had decided to amuse himselfGervais' or Ms. Boltitz's?

"I imagine you and the lieutenant will be seeing quite a bit of one another, Helga," Van Scheldt continued now, smiling at Boltitz. "He's Admiral Gold Peak's flag lieutenant."

"So I understood," Boltitz replied, and her voice, Gervais noted, was even frostier as she turned her attention to the Rembrandter. Then she looked back at Gervais. "I'm sure we'll work well together, Lieutenant." Her tone said that she anticipated exactly the opposite. "For now, however, if you'll excuse me, someone is expecting me elsewhere."

She gave Gervais and Van Scheldt a rather brusque little nod, then turned and made her way purposefully off through the clusters of guests. She moved with a natural, instinctive grace, yet it was obvious to Gervais that she lacked the social polish Van Scheldt exuded from his very pores.

Or thought he did, at any rate.

"My," the Rembrandter observed. "That didn't seem to go very well, did it, Lieutenant?"

"No, it didn't," Gervais agreed. He considered the appointments secretary thoughtfully, then crooked one eyebrow. "Is there a particular reason why it didn't?"

For a moment, Van Scheldt seemed a bit taken aback by the directness of the question. Then he produced a smiling snort of amusement.

"Helga doesn't much care for what she calls 'oligarchs,' " he explained. "I'm afraid that means she and I got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Don't get me wrongshe's very good at what she does. Very smart, very dedicated. Possibly a little too intense, I think sometimes, but that's probably why she's so effective. Still, she's also very...parochial one might say, I suppose. And despite her position over at the War Ministry, I suspect her heart isn't fully in this annexation business."

"I see." Gervais glanced after the now-vanished Boltitz with that same thoughtful expression. Personally, he empathized with her a lot more than he did with Van Scheldt. After all, the appointments secretary hadn't exactly gotten off on the right foot with him, whether he realized it or not.

"I suppose I really shouldn't hold it against her," Van Scheldt sighed. "After all, she's not exactly from the upper crust of Dresden. For that matter, I'm not at all sure Dresden has an upper crust, now that I think about it. If it does, though, she probably despises it almost as much as she automatically despises anyone from Rembrandt."

I wonder if you realize you're letting a genuine streak of venom show? Gervais thought. And I also wonder exactly what Ms. Boltitz did to piss you off so thoroughly? From what I've seen of you so far, it probably wouldn't have taken much. On the other hand, I can always at least hope it was something suitably publicly humiliating.

"That's unfortunate," he said out loud, and turned back to the task at hand as Van Scheldt spotted someone else who needed to be introduced to the new Manticoran admiral's flag lieutenant.

"Ms. Boltitz?"

Helga Boltitz twitched in surprise and looked up quickly from the wrist chrono she'd been studying hopefully. Unfortunately, it hadn't magically sped ahead to a point which would let her disappear, but that wasn't the source of her surprise.

"Yes, Lieutenant...Archer, wasn't it?" she said. She tried to say it tactfullyshe really didbut she knew it hadn't come out that way.

"Yes," the red-haired, green-eyed young man replied. The single word came out with a polished, aristocratic smoothness not even that cretin Van Scheldt could have rivaled, she reflected. Despite her innate distaste for the wealth and arrogance which had created it, it actually had a sort of beauty.

"What can I do for you, Lieutenant?" she asked a bit impatiently, and his educated accent made her even more aware than usual of the harshness of her own. Dresdeners weren't exactly noted for the beauty of their speech, she reflected sourly.

"Actually," the Manticoran said, "I was wondering if you could explain to me exactly what that unmitigated jerk Van Scheldt did to...irritate you so thoroughly?"

"I beg your pardon?" Despite herself, Helga felt her eyes widen in surprise.

"Well," Gervais said, "it was pretty obvious you weren't what someone might call delighted to see him. And since whatever it was about him that irritated you seemed to be splashing onto me, as well, I thought it might be a good idea to find out what it was. After all, he may be an ass, but he had a point about how much we're likely to be seeing of one another, and I'd just as soon not inadvertently offend you in the same way."

Helga blinked, then felt herself settling back on her heels, head cocking to one side as she looked atreally looked atArcher for the first time.

What she saw was a tallish young man, a good quarter-meter taller than her own hundred and sixty-two centimeters, although he was nowhere near the height of someone like Alquezar or someone else from San Miguel. He was built more for speed than brute strengthhe looked like he'd probably make a decent wingand his face was pleasantly ordinary looking. But there was something about those green eyes...

"I must say, that's a conversational gambit I haven't encountered before, Lieutenant," she told him after a moment.

"I imagine people both here in the Quadrant and back home are going to be encountering all sorts of things we haven't encountered before over the next few years," he replied. "On the other hand, I think it's a valid concern, don't you?"

"However little I may like Mr. Van Scheldt, I don't allow it to color my professional relationship with him," she shot back a bit sharply.

"Probably not. On the other hand, he's only an appointments secretary, and I'm the flag lieutenant of the second-ranking naval officer here in the Quadrant," Gervais pointed out. "I'd say that probably means you and I are going to be running into one another quite a bit more frequently than you run into him. Which brings me back to my original question."

"And if I pointed out to you that my personal relationshipor lack thereofwith Mr. Van Scheldt is none of your affair?" Helga inquired, her tone no more pleasant than it had to be.

"I'd agree that you're entirely correct," Gervais replied calmly. "And then I'd go on to say that, speaking in a purely professional sense, I think it's important that I know how he contrived to give offensenot that I can't think of at least a dozen probable scenarios right off hand, you understand, even on this short an acquaintance with himso I can manage not to follow in his footsteps. To be perfectly frank, Ms. Boltitz, I don't care what your personal relationship with him or anyone else might be. I'm simply concerned with potential consequences to our own professional relationship."

And you can believe as much of that as you'd like to, lady, he reflected. Not that there isn't quite a bit of truth in it, but still...

"I see."

Helga considered Lieutenant Archer thoughtfully. He was a prolong recipient, of courseprobably at least a second-generation recipient, given the background of wealth and privilege his accent clearly denotedwhich meant he was also very probably quite a bit older than she'd originally thought. There weren't enough Dresdeners who'd received prolong for her people to be particularly good at estimating the age of people who had, she reflected bitterly. But despite the way his confident, sophisticated attitude made Van Scheldt's look like the provincial facade it actually was, there was still that hint of a twinkle in his eyes. And his tone, though amused, wasn't patronizing or dismissive. It was more as if he were inviting her to share his own amusement at Van Scheldt than as if he were mocking her.

Sure it is. You just go right ahead and assume that and see what it gets you, Helga!

Still, he did have a point about how likely they were to find themselves working together, or at least in close proximity to one another. And Minister Krietzmann, despite his own deep-seated aversion to oligarchs, wasn't likely to thank her for generating any more friction with the Manties than she had to.

"Actually, Lieutenant Archer," she heard herself say, "I rather doubt you're going to be as offensive as Mr. Van Scheldt. I hope not, at least, since I don't see how anyone possibly could be without deliberately working at it."

"From what I've seen of him so far," Gervais told her, "I imagine that's exactly what he didwork at it, I mean." He saw her blue eyes widen slightly in fresh surprise and smiled faintly at her. "We're not exactly unfamiliar with the type back home," he added.

"Really?" Helga was a bit surprised by the cold edge of her own voice, but she couldn't help it. "I rather doubt that, Lieutenant. His 'type,' as you put it, has had a bit more of an impact on Dresden than I imagine it's ever had on you."

Gervais managed not to blink in surprise or raise any eyebrows, but the harshness, the sudden, unmistakable anger, in her response took him more than a little aback.

This isn't just a case of Van Scheldt personally being an asshole, he realized. I don't know what the hell it is, but it's more than that. And now that I've so nonchalantly wandered out into this particular minefield, what do I do about it?

He gazed at her for several seconds, and as he did, he realized there was a darkness behind the anger in her eyes. A darkness put there by some memory, some personal experience. He felt certain somehow that this wasn't a woman who lightly succumbed to prejudice or permitted it to rule her life, and if that was true, there had to be more to the bitterness, the shadows of pain, than the mere casual arrogance and amused malice of a drone like Van Scheldt.

"I don't doubt that that's true," he said finally. "I've done my best to bone up on Talbott since Lady Gold Peak picked me as her flag lieutenant and we both found out we were headed this way, but I can't pretend to really know very much about the way things have been out here in the past. I'm working on it, but there's an awful lot of information involved and I simply haven't had time to make very much of a dent in it. It's obvious to me that you and Van Scheldt don't exactly get along like a house on fire, but I'd assumed he must have personally done something to offend you. Lord knows he's obviously the sort of jackass who could do something like that as easily as breathing! But from what you've just said, I'm beginning to realize there's more to it. I'm not trying to be flip, and if you'd rather not talk about it, I'll accept that. On the other hand, if it's something I should knowsomething my admiral should be aware ofso that we don't inadvertently do the same thing, I'd really appreciate it if you could help further my education about the Quadrant."

My God, I think he actually means it! Helga thought. She gazed at him for several heartbeats, frowning ever so slightly, then felt the decision make itself.

He wants to know why I feel the way I feel? Wants to understand why not all of us are ready to start dancing in the streets just because another batch of oligarchs thinks it can make a profit off of us? All right. I'll tell him.

"All right, Lieutenant," she said. "You want to know why Van Scheldt and I don't like each other? Try this on for size." She folded her arms in front of her, standing hip-shot, her blue eyes glittering, and looked up at him. "I'm twenty-six T-years old, and I only received my very first prolong treatments when I went to work for Minister Krietzmann last year. If I'd been three T-months older, I'd have been too old for even the first-generation treatment...just like my parents. Just like my two older brothers and my three older sisters. Just like all but six of my cousins and every one of my aunts and uncles. But not Mr. Van Scheldt. Oh, no! He's from Rembrandt! He got it just because of where he was born, who his parents were, what planet he came fromjust like you did, Lieutenant. And so did his parents, and all of his sisters and brothers. Just like they got decent medical care and a balanced diet."

Her eyes were no longer merely glittering. They blazed, now, and her voice was far harsher than her accent alone could ever have explained.

"We don't like Frontier Security on Dresden any more than anyone else in the Cluster. And, sure, everything we've heard about Manticore suggests we'll get a better deal out of your Star Kingdom than we ever would out of OFS. But we know all about being ignored, Lieutenant Archer, and most of us on Dresden don't have any illusions. I doubt the Star Kingdom is going to gouge us the way Frontier Security, the League, and the Rembrandt Trade Union have, but most of us take all those 'economic incentives' the Convention promised us with a very large grain of salt. We'd like to think at least some of our neighbors were sincere about it, but we're not stupid enough to believe in altruism or the tooth fairy. And if any of us might've been tempted to, there are enough Paul Van Scheldts in the Cluster to teach us better. His family was deeply invested in Dresden even before the Annexation, you know. They hold majority interests in three of our major construction companies, and they could care less about the people who work for them. About the building site injuries, or the long-term health problems, or providing their employees' familiestheir children, at least, for God's sake!with access to prolong."

The depth of her anger swept over Gervais with a pure and consuming power, and it took everything he had not to flinch from it. No wonder Van Scheldt had found it so easy to flick her on the raw!

And the fact that he obviously enjoys doing it so much suggests he's an even nastier piece of work than I thought he was. He probably spends his free time pulling the wings off flies.

"I'm sorry to hear that, especially about your family," he said quietly. "And you're rightit's not something I can really imagine or share from my own experience. My brothers and sisters, my parentseven my grandparentsare all prolong recipients. I can't begin to imagine how I'd feel if I'd gotten it and none of them had. If I knew I was going to lose every single one of them before I was even 'middle aged.' " He shook his head, his own eyes dark. "But I can understand why an asshole like Van Scheldt would be able to get to you. And even if I can't really say I 'know' him yet I don't need to know him to recognize how much he enjoys doing just that. Which, given what you've just said about his family's involvement in your planet's economy, makes him an even sicker bastard than I'd already thought."

Helga twitched as she heard the hard, cold disgustthe contemptin his voice. She'd heard plenty of contempt from people like Van Scheldt, but this was different. It wasn't directed at the speaker's "natural inferiors," and it wasn't petty and denigrating. More than that, it was born of anger, not arrogance. Of outrage, not disdain.

Or, at least, it sounded as if it were. But Dresden had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving, she cautioned herself.

"Really?" she said.

"Really," he replied, and he felt a distant sort of wonder at the rock-ribbed certitude of his own tone.

The back of his brain wondered what the hell he thought he was doing, using terms like "sick bastard" to describe someone he hardly knew to someone he'd barely even spoken to. Yet there it was. He did recognize the self-indulgent sadism required for someone to enjoy mocking the victim of his own family's exploitative greed and neglect.

"I'd like to believe that," she said finally, slowly. Her Dresden accent was as harsh as ever, yet that harshness was oddly smoothed, he thought. Or perhaps the word he really wanted was "gentled," instead. "I'd like to. But we've believed people on Dresden before. In fact, it took us far too long to realize we shouldn't have. We've accomplished a lot in the last couple of generations, but only because people like Minister Krietzmann realized we had to do it ourselves. Realized that no one else gave a solitary damn what happened to us.

"Don't get me wrong." She shook her head, and her voice was calmer, as if she were reasserting control over her own passions. "There's no reason why anyone off Dresden should have given us a free ride. We understand that. Charity begins at home, they say, and Dresden is our home, not Rembrandt's, or San Miguel's, or Manticore's. It's not so much that no one came and invested in free clinics or schools for us, but that we had to fight other people tooth and nail to somehow hang onto enough of the profit of our own labor, our own industrial structuresuch as it was, and what there was of itto begin building our own clinics and schools.

"We'd figured that out by the time the RTU finally got around to us, which is why one of the things we insisted on, if they wanted trade deals with us, was that they had to clean their own house where people like the Van Scheldts were concernedhad to put at least some limits on the kind of crap they could get away with. And, to Mr. Van Dort's credit, I suppose, the RTU did just that. Of course, the extent of the limits they could impose was limited by the domestic pull of their own oligarchs who were already invested in Dresden, but they still managed to do a lot. Which is probably one of the reasons Van Scheldt is such a pain where I'm concerned, I suppose, since his family got whacked harder than most...since they'd been even worse than most. But even with Van Dort on our sideand I think he really is" she sounded almost as if she wished she could believe otherwise, Gervais thought "we're still a long way from where we could have been. It's hard to stand on your own two feet when someone else owns the carpet and keeps trying to jerk it out from under you."

The party's background noise seemed distant, like the sound of surf rolling up onto a far-off beach. It was no longer part of Gervais' worldor hers, he realized. It was no more than a frame, something which enclosed her intensity, whose contrasting banality underscored the raw honesty in her voice.

"That's one thing that isn't going to be happening again," he told her quietly. "Not on our watch. Her Majesty won't stand for itnot for a heartbeat."

"I hope you'll pardon me for saying that Dresden's going to be taking that with a grain of salt, too, Lieutenant." Her voice was flatter, no less passionate but with something far worse than anger, he thought. It was flat with the bitterness of experience. With disillusionment so deep, so intense, that it couldn'tdared notexpose itself to the risk of optimism.

He felt a stab of quick, fierce anger of his ownanger directed at her for daring to prejudge the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Daring to prejudge him, simply because he'd been fortunate enough to be born into a wealthier, less constrained world than she. Who was she to look at him with such distrust? Such bitterness and anger born of the actions of others? He'd told her nothing but the simple truth, and she'd rejected it. It was as if she'd looked him straight in the eye and told him that he'd lied to her.

Yet even as he thought that, even as the anger flared, he knew it was at least as irrationaland unfairas anything she might have felt.

"It's obvious I have even more to learn about the Talbott Quadrant than I thought I did," he said after several moments. "In fact, at the moment, I'm feeling pretty stupid for not having realized it had to be that way." He shook his head. "Trying to get some sort of 'quick fix' on sixteen different inhabited star systems is guaranteed to be an exercise in futility, isn't it? I guess nobody's really immune to the idea that everyone else has to be 'just like them' even when intellectually they know better."

She was looking at him now with a slightly puzzled expression, and he grinned crookedly at her.

"I promise I'll try to do my homework better, Ms. Boltitz. I know Lady Gold Peak will be doing the same, and I don't doubt that Baroness Medusa's been working at it the entire time she's been out here. But while I'm doing that, do you think you could do a little homework on the Star Kingdom? I'm not going to say Manticore doesn't have its own share of warts, because God knows we do. And I don't blame you a bit for taking the Star Kingdom's promises withwhat was it you called it? 'A grain of salt'?but when Queen Elizabeth gives her word to someone, she keeps it. We keep it for her."

"That sounds good. And I'd like to believe it," she replied. "I doubt you have any idea how much I'd like to believe it. And if a part of me didn't, I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be working with Minister Krietzmann to try to make it be true. But when you've been kicked often enough, it's hard to trust someone you don't even know. Especially when he's wearing the biggest, heaviest boots you've ever seen in your life."

"I'll try to bear that in mind, too," he assured her. "Do you think you can give megive usat least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, as well?" He smiled at her. "At least for a little while, long enough to see how well we do at living up to our promises?"

Helga looked at that smile, and its warmth, the empathy and the concernthe personal concernbehind it amazed her. He meant it, she realized, and wondered how he could possibly be that na"ive. How could he believe, even for a moment, that the oligarchs who must infest an economic power like the Star Kingdom of Manticore would care for a moment about any political "promises" someone else had made?

Yet he did. He might bealmost certainly waswrong, yet he wasn't lying. There were many things in those green eyes that she couldn't read, but deceit wasn't one of them. And so, despite herself, she felt a small stir of hope. Felt herself daring to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, he might not be wrong.

Bitter experience and the cynicism of self preservation roused instantly, horrified by the possibility of opening such a breach in her defenses. She started to speak quickly, to make her rejection of his overture's false hope clear. But that wasn't what came out of her mouth.

"All right, Lieutenant," she heard herself say instead. "I'll do my 'homework' while you do yours. And at the end of the day, we'll see who's right. And," she realized she was actually smiling slightly, "believe it or not, I hope it turns out you are."

Chapter Fourteen | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Sixteen