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Chapter Seventeen

"Hi, Helga," Gervais Archer said, and grinned from Helga Boltitz's com. There was more than a little worry in his green eyes, but the grin seemed remarkably genuine. "Got time for lunch?"

"Hello, Gwen. And how are you? Very well, thank you, Helga. And yourself?" Helga replied. "Fine, thank you, Gwen," she continued. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of this call? Well, Helga, I was wondering if you had lunch plans?" She paused, looking at him with one eyebrow raised. "Would it happen, Lieutenant Archer, that any of that sounded remotely familiar?"

"I suppose," he said unrepentantly, still grinning. "But the question still stands."

Helga sighed and shook her head.

"For someone from an effete, over-civilized Star Kingdom, you are sadly lacking in the social graces, Lieutenant," she said severely.

"Well, I understand that's a hallmark of the aristocracy," he informed her, elevating his nose ever so slightly. "We're so well born that those tiresome little rules that apply to everyone else have no relevance for us."

Helga laughed. Even now, she found it surprising that she could find anything about oligarchsor, even worse, overt aristocratseven remotely funny, especially with everything else that was going on. But the last ten days had significantly altered her opinion of a least one Manticoran aristocrat.

Gervais Archer had stood her concept of oligarchs on its head. Or perhaps that was being a little too optimistic, at least where oligarchs in general were concerned. It was going to take an awful lot of "show me" to convince Helga Boltitz and the rest of Dresden that all the protestations of selfless patriotism flowing around certain extremely well-off quarters here in Talbottor, for that matter, back in Manticorewere sincere. Still, if Gervais hadn't inspired her to leap to a sudden awareness that she'd profoundly misjudged people like Paul Van Scheldt all her life, he had convinced her that at least some Manticoran aristocrats were nothing at all like Talbott Cluster oligarchs. Of course, she'd already been forced to admit that at least some Talbott Cluster oligarchs weren't like Talbott Cluster oligarchs, either, if she was going to be honest about it. Kicking and screaming the entire way, perhaps, but she'd still had to admit it, at least in the privacy of her own thoughts.

The universe would be such a more comfortable place if only preconceptions could stay firmly in place, she reflected.

Unfortunatelyor perhaps fortunatelythat couldn't always happen.

She'd already been forced to accept that people like Prime Minister Alquezar and Bernardus Van Dort were very different from people like that poisonous Wurmfresser Van Scheldt. Henri Krietzmann had been right about that. They still didn't really understand what someone like Helga or Krietzmann had experienced, but they did understand that they didn't, and at least they were trying to. And much as she'd wanted to cling to the belief that Van Dort's motivation for the original annexation campaign had been purely self-serving, she'd had no choice but to concede otherwise as she watched him working with Krietzmann and the other members of the newly elected Alquezar Government.

Not that there aren't still plenty of Rembrandters who are just like Van Scheldt, she reflected sourly.And they've got plenty of soulmates in places like right here in Spindle.

And then there was Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer. Despite his disclaimers, he really was a member of the Manticoran aristocracy. She knew he was, because she'd made it her business to look him up in Clarke's Peerage. The Archers were a very old Manticoran family, dating clear back to the original landing on Manticore, and Sir Roger Mackley Archer, Gervais' father, was not only ridiculously wealthy (by Dresdener standards, at least) in his own right, but stood fourth in line for the Barony of Eastwood, as well. Gervais was also a distant relative (Helga had found it almost impossible to decipher the complex genealogical charts involved in determining exactly how distant, although she suspected that the most applicable adverb was probably "very") of Queen Elizabeth of Manticore. As far as someone from the slums of Schulberg was concerned, that definitely qualified him for aristocrat status. And in the universe which had once been so comfortably her own, he ought to have been just as well aware of it as she was.

If he was, he concealed the fact remarkably well.

He was younger than she'd first estimatedonly about four T-years older than she wasand she wondered sometimes whether or not some of the monumental aplomb he carried around with him was due to the fact that deep down inside he was aware of the intrinsic advantages of his birth. Mostly, though, she'd come to the conclusion that it was simply a case of his being exactly who he was. There was remarkably little pretense about him, and his lighthearted mockery of the aristocratic stereotypes appeared to be completely genuine.

And unlike certain cretins named Van Scheldt, he also works his ass off.

Her mouth tightened slightly at that thought.

"Should I assume there's an official reason for your question about lunch?" she asked him, and saw his own smile fade.

"I'm afraid so," he acknowledged. "Not" he added with a resurgence of humor "that I would ever have been gauche enough to admit any such thing without being forced." The flicker of amusement dimmed once more, and he shrugged. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid that what I really want to do is discuss some scheduling details with you for tomorrow. Since I know you're as busy as I am, and since I doubt very much that you've taken any breaks today, I thought we might do the discussing over a nice lunch at Sigourney's. My treat...unless, of course, you feel you can legitimately put it on the Ministry's tab and spare a poor flag lieutenant the grim necessity of justifying his expense vouchers."

"What kind of scheduling details?" she asked, eyes narrowing in thought. "Tomorrow's awfully tight already, Gwen. I don't think there's a lot of flex in the Minister's itinerary."

"That's why I'm afraid it might take us a while to figure out how to squeeze this in." His rueful tone was an acknowledgment that he'd already known how tightly scheduled Krietzmann was.

"And would that also be the reason you're having this discussion with me instead of Mr. Haftner?" she inquired shrewdly.

"Ouch!" He winced, raising both hands dramatically to his chest. "How could you possibly think anything of the sort?"

"Because otherwise, given how busy Mr. Krietzmann is and all the assorted varieties of hell breaking loose, your Captain Lecter would have brought a little extra firepower to bear by discussing this directly with Mr. Haftner instead of having you sneak around his flank. That is the way you military types describe this particular maneuver, isn't it? Sneaking around his flank?"

"Us military types, is it?" He snorted. "You don't do all that badly for a civilian sort, yourself. And," he shrugged, his expression darker and more serious, "I might as well admit that you've got a point. Captain Lecter doesn't think Mr. Haftner's going to be pleased by an official request to grab an hour or so of the Minister's time."

"An hour?" Helga's dismay wasn't in the least feigned.

"I know. I know!" Gervais shook his head. "It's an awful big chunk of time, and just to make it worse, we'd like it to be off the books. Frankly, that's another reason not to go through Haftner's office."

Helga sat back in her chair. Abednego Haftner was Henri Krietzmann's Spindle-born chief of staff at the War Ministry. He was a tall, narrowly built, dark-haired man with a strong nose and an even stronger sense of duty. He was also a workaholic, and in Helga's opinion, an empire-builder. As far as she could tell, it stemmed not from any sort of personal ambition but rather from his near-fanatical focus on efficiency. He was an extraordinarily able administrator in most ways, but he obviously found it difficult to delegate access to Krietzmann, and he wasn't about to let anything derail his own smoothly machined procedures.

In fact, that was his one true, undeniable weakness. He wasn't exactly flexible, and he didn't improvise well, which only reinforced his aversion to people who operated on an ad hoc basis. Under normal circumstances, that was more than offset by his incredible attention to detail, his encyclopedic grasp of everything going on within the Ministry, and his total personal integrity. Unfortunately, circumstances weren't normal at the moment, and even in the radically changed circumstances following the Webster assassination, he persisted in his efforts to force order upon what he considered chaos.

That lack of flexibility had already brought him and Helga, as Krietzmann's personal aide, into conflict more than once, and she suspected that was going to happen more often for the immediately foreseeable future. It was less than two T-days since news of the Webster assassination had hit Spindle like a hammer, and the entire governmentfrom Baroness Medusa and the Prime Minister on downwas still scrambling to adjust. So was the military, which probably had a little something to do with Gervais' request. Although his apparent desire to keep any meeting with Krietzmann off the War Ministry's official logs also rang more than a few distant alarm bells in the back of her brain.

"Can you at least tell me exactly what you want his time for?" she asked after several seconds.

"I'd really rather discuss that with you over lunch," he replied, his expression and his tone both totally serious. She looked at him for another moment, then sighed again.

"All right, Gwen," she conceded. "You win."

"Thank you for coming," Gervais said as he pulled out Helga's chair for her.

He waited till she was seated, then settled into his own chair on the other side of the small table and raised one finger to attract the attention of the nearest waiter. That worthy deigned to notice their presence and approached their table with stately grace.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" His tone was nicely modulated, with just the right combination of deference to someone from the Old Star Kingdom and the hauteur that was so much a part of Sigourney's stock in trade. "May I show you a menu?"

"Don't bother," Gervais said, glancing at Helga with a twinkling eye. "Just let us have a tossed saladvinaigrette dressingand the prime ribextra rare for me; medium rare for the ladywith mashed potatoes, green beans, saut'eed mushrooms, and a couple of draft Kelsenbraus."

The waiter flinched visibly as Gervais cheerfully deep-sixed all of the elegant prose the restaurant had invested in its menus.

"If I might recommend the Cheviot '06," he began out of some spinal reflex effort to salvage something. "It's a very nice Pinot Noir. Or there's the Karakul 1894, a truly respectable Cabernet Sauvignon, if you'd prefer. Or"

Gervais shook his head firmly.

"The Kelsenbrau will be just fine," he said earnestly. "I don't really like wine, actually."

The waiter closed his eyes briefly, then drew a deep breath.

"Of course, Lieutenant," he said, and tottered off toward the kitchens.

"You, Lieutenant Archer, are not a nice man," Helga told him. "He was so hoping to impress somebody from Manticore with this pile of bricks' sophistication."

"I know." Gervais shook his head with what might have been a touch of actual contrition. "I just couldn't help it. I guess I've spent too much time associating with the local riffraff."

"Oh?" She tilted her head to one side, gazing at him speculatively. "And I don't suppose you had any particular members of the 'local riffraff' in mind?"

"Perish the thought." He grinned. "Still, it was somebody from Dresden, I think, who introduced me to the place to start with. She said something about the food being pretty decent despite the monumental egos of the staff."

Helga chuckled and shook her head at him. Not that he was wrong. In fact, he'd picked up very quickly on the fact that she particularly enjoyed watching the oh-so-proper waitstaff's reaction to her buzz saw Dresden accent. Of course, the food was really excellent and, despite the waiter's reaction to Gervais' order, Sigourney's was one of the very few high-class restaurants here in Thimble which kept Kelsenbrau on tap. The dark, rich beer was a product of her own region of Dresden, and she'd been deeply (if discreetly) pleased by Gervais' enthusiastic response to it.

"Why do I think you chose this particular venue as a bribe?" she asked.

"You'd be at least partly right if you did," he admitted. "But only partly. The truth is, the admiral sent me dirt-side on several errands this morning. I've been a very busy and industrious little flag lieutenant since just after dawn, local time, and I figured I was about due a decent lunch, a nice glass of beer, and some pleasant company to share them with."

"I see."

Helga looked up with a faint sense of relief as a far more junior member of the waitstaff turned up with a pitcher of ice water. She watched the young man pour, murmured a word of thanks, then sipped from her own glass as he withdrew. She took her time before she set it down again and returned her attention to Gervais.

"Well, in that case, why don't we get whatever business we need to attend to out of the way while we wait for the salads?"

"Probably not a bad idea," he agreed, and glanced casually around the dining room.

There'd been another factor in his choice of restaurants, she realized. Although Sigourney's was completely public, it was also extraordinarily discreet. Several of its tableslike, coincidentally, the one at which they happened to be seated at this very momentsat more than half enclosed in small, private alcoves against the rear wall. What with the lighting, the ambient noise, and the small, efficient, Manticoran-built portable anti-snooping devicedisguised as a briefcase, which had kept her from immediately recognizing what it wasGervais had unobtrusively parked between them and the open side of the alcove, it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to eavesdrop upon them.

And if anyone's watching him, all he's doing is having a flashy lunch with an easily impressed little girl from Dresden, she thought dryly.

"The thing is," he continued quietly, "that the admiral would like to invite Minister Krietzmann to a modest get together aboard her flagship. Purely a social event, you understand. My impression is that the guest list will include Admiral Khumalo, Gregor O'Shaughnessy, and Special Minister Van Dort. I believe Ms. Moorehead may well be able to attend, as well."

Despite her own previous suspicions, Helga inhaled in surprise. Gregor O'Shaughnessy was Baroness Medusa's senior intelligence officer and, effectively, her chief of staff, as well. And Sybil Moorehead was Prime Minister Alquezar's chief of staff. Which suggested all sorts of interesting things.

"A 'social event,' " she repeated very carefully after a moment.

"Yes." Gervais met her gaze levelly. Then his nostrils flared slightly, and he shrugged. "Basically," he continued in a slightly lower voice, "Admiral Gold Peak and Mr. O'Shaughnessy want to share some of the admiral's...personal insight into the Queen's probable reactions to what happened to Admiral Webster."

Helga's eyes widened. Personal insight? she repeated silently.

Part of her wasn't particularly surprised. Admiral Gold Peak seemed remarkably unaware of her own importance for someone who stood fifth in the royaland now imperialsuccession. It was painfully obvious that quite a few of the true sticklers of Spindalian society, especially here in Thimble, had been sadly disappointed by her low-key efficiency and easy approachability. Her businesslike, no-nonsense attitude towards her responsibilities, coupled with an almost casual, conversational personal style meant that even people from backgrounds like Helga's were remarkably comfortable with her. And the fact that she was fifth in the line of succession meant that not even the starchiest oligarch dared take open umbrage at her cheerful disregard for the ironclad rules of proper social behavior...or their own vast importance.

Setting up an informal "social event" as a cover for something considerably more important would be entirely like her. That was Helga's first thought. But her second thought was to wonder just what sort of "personal insight" the Queen's first cousin was likely to be offering and why it was necessary to go to such lengths to disguise the fact that she was?

And O'Shaughnessy's presence, as well as Khumalo's, makes it even more interesting, she thought. If both of them are presentnot to mention Van Dort and the Prime Minister's chief of staffthen this is going to be some sort of strategy session, as well....

"Where would this gathering take place? And what time did Lady Gold Peak have in mind?" she asked.

"She was thinking about offering everyone the courtesy of her flagship," Gervais replied. "Around nineteen hundred local, if Mr. Krietzmann could make it."

"That's not much lead time," Helga pointed out with massive understatement.

"I know. But"Gervais looked directly into her eyes"the admiral would really appreciate it if he could find time to join her."

"I see."

Helga gazed at him for several seconds, then looked up as their salads arrived, accompanied by theirKelsenbraus. The server's courteous interruption gave her time to think, and she waited until he'd withdrawn from the alcove. Then she picked up her beer glass, sipped, and set it back down.

"Obviously, I won't be able to make any promises until I've been able to get back to the office and check with the Minister. Having said that, though, I think he'll probably be happy to attend."

In point of fact, "happy" might well be the last thing Henri Krietzmann would be, she reflected. It all depended on exactly what sort of "insight" Lady Gold Peak proposed to share with him.

"Good. You'll screen me one way or the other when you've had a chance to talk to him about it?"

"Of course."

"Thank you," he said, smiling at her with quiet sincerity. "And as a reward for our having been such good little worker bees about organizing this, you and I are invited, as well. I'm sure there'll be enough 'go-for' work to keep us both busy, but we may be able to steal a few moments just to enjoy ourselves, as well."

"Really?" Helga smiled back at him. "I'd like that," she said with a sincerity which surprised her just a bit.

Chapter Sixteen | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Eighteen