Mission Of Honor – Snippet 40

Chapter Twelve

“May I help you, Lieutenant?”

The exquisitely tailored maître d’ didn’t sound as if he really expected to be able to assist two such junior officers, who’d undoubtedly strayed into his establishment by mistake.

“Oh, yes — please! We’re here to join Lieutenant Archer,” Abigail Hearns told him. “Um, we may be a few minutes early, I’m afraid.”

She managed, Ensign Helen Zilwicki observed to sound very . . . earnest. Possibly even a little nervous at intruding into such elegant surroundings, but very determined. And the fact that her father could have bought the entire Sigourney’s Fine Restaurants chain out of pocket change wasn’t particularly in evidence, either. The fact that she was third-generation prolong and looked considerably younger than her already very young age, especially to eyes not yet accustomed to the latest generations of prolong, undoubtedly helped, yet she clearly possessed a fair degree of thespian talent, as well. The maître d’ was clearly convinced she’d escaped from a high school — probably a lower-class high school, given her soft, slow Grayson accent — for the afternoon, at least. His expression of politely sophisticated attentiveness didn’t actually change a millimeter, but Helen had the distinct impression of an internal wince.

“Ah, Lieutenant Archer,” he repeated. “Of course. If you’ll come this way, please?”

He set sail across the intimately lit main dining room’s sea of linen-draped tables, and Abigail and Helen bobbed along in his wake like a pair of dinghies. They crossed to a low archway on the opposite side of the big room, then followed him down two shallow steps into a dining room with quite a different (though no less expensive) flavor. The floor had turned into artfully worn bricks, the walls — also of brick — had a rough, deliberately unfinished look, and the ceiling was supported by heavy wooden beams.

Well, by what looked like wooden beams, Helen thought, although they probably weren’t all that impressive to someone like Abigail who’d grown up in a (thoroughly renovated) medieval pile of stone over six hundred years old. One which really did have massive, age-blackened beams, a front gate fit to sneer at battering rams, converted firing slits for windows, and fireplaces the size of a destroyer’s boat bay.

Two people were seated at one of the dark wooden tables. One of them — a snub nosed, green-eyed officer in the uniform of a Royal Manticoran Navy lieutenant — looked up and waved as he saw them. His companion — a stunningly attractive blonde — turned her head when he waved, and smiled as she, too, saw the newcomers.

“Thank you,” Abigail told the maître d’ politely, and that worthy murmured something back, then turned and departed with what in a less eminent personage might have been described as relieved haste.

“You know,” Abigail said as she and Helen crossed to the table, “you really should be ashamed of the way you deliberately offend that poor man’s sensibilities, Gwen.”

Personally, Helen was reminded rather forcefully of the old saying about pots and kettles, given Abigail’s simpering performance for the same maître d’, but she nobly forbore saying so.

“Me?” Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer’s expression was one of utter innocence. “How could you possibly suggest such a thing, Miss Owens?”

“Because I know you?”

“Is it my fault nobody on this restaurant’s entire staff has bothered to inquire into the exalted pedigrees of its patrons?” Gervais demanded. “If you’re going to blame anyone, blame her.”

He pointed across the table at the blonde, who promptly smacked the offending hand.

“It’s not polite to point,” she told him in a buzz saw-like accent. “Even we brutish, lower-class Dresdeners know that much!”

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t make it untrue, does it?” he shot back.

“I didn’t say it did,” Helga Boltitz, Defense Minister Henri Krietzmann’s personal aide, replied, and smiled at the newcomers. “Hello, Abigail. And you too, Helen.”

“Hi, Helga,” Abigail responded, and Helen nodded her own acknowledgment of the greeting as she seated herself beside Helga. Abigail settled into the remaining chair, facing Helen across the table, and looked up as their waiter appeared.

He took their drink orders, handed them menus, and disappeared, and she cocked her head at Gervais as she opened the elegant, two centimeter-thick binder.

“Helga may have put you up to it, and I can’t say I blame her,” she said.” This has to be the snootiest restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, and trust me, Daddy’s taken me to some really snooty places. Not to mention the way they fawn over a steadholder or his family. But you’re the one who’s taking such a perverse enjoyment over thinking about how these people are going to react when they find out the truth.”

“What truth would that be?” Gervais inquired more innocently yet. “You mean the fact that I’m a cousin — of some sort, anyway — of the Queen? Or that Helen here’s sister is the Queen of Torch? Or that your own humble father is Steadholder Owens?”

“That’s exactly what she means, you twit,” Helga told him, blue eyes glinting with amusement, and leaned across the table to whack him gently on the head. “And much as I’m going to enjoy it when they do find out, don’t think I don’t remember how you did exactly the same thing to me!”

“I never misled you in any way,” he said virtuously.

“Oh, no? If I hadn’t looked you up in Clarke’s Peerage, you never would’ve told me, would you?”

“Oh, I imagine I’d have gotten around to it eventually,” he said, and his voice was considerably softer than it had been. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, gave his right hand a pat where it lay on the table between them, then settled back in her chair.

If anyone had suggested to Helga Boltitz eight months ago that she might find herself comfortable with, or actually liking, someone from a background of wealth and privilege, she would have laughed. The idea that someone from Dresden, that sinkhole of hardscrabble, lower-class, grub-for-a-living poverty could have anything in common with someone from such stratospheric origins would have been ludicrous. And, if she were going to be honest, that was still true where the majority of the Talbott Quadrant’s homegrown oligarchs were concerned. More than that, she felt entirely confident she was going to run into Manticorans who were just as arrogant and supercilious as she’d always imagined they’d be.

But Gervais Archer had challenged her preconceptions — gently, but also firmly — and, in the process, convinced her that there were at least some exceptions to the rule. Which explained how she found herself sitting at this table in such monumentally well-connected company.

“Personally,” Helen said, “my only regret is that I probably won’t be here when they do find out.”

At twenty-one, she was the youngest of the quartet, as well as the most junior in rank. And she was also the non-Dresdener who came closest to sharing Helga’s attitudes where aristocrats and oligarchs were concerned. Not surprisingly, given the fact that she’d been born on Gryphon and raised by a Gryphon highlander who’d proceeded to take up with the closest thing to a rabble-rousing anarchist the Manticoran peerage had ever produced when Helen was barely thirteen years old.

“If you really want to see their reaction, I suppose you could tell them yourself this afternoon,” Abigail pointed out.

“Oh, no way!” Helen chuckled. “I might want to be here to see it, but the longer it takes them to figure it out, the more irritated they’re going to be when they finally do!”

Abigail shook her head. She’d spent more time on Manticore than she had back home on Grayson, over the last nine or ten T-years, but despite the undeniable, mischievous enjoyment she’d felt when dissembling for the maître d’, there were times when she still found her Manticoran friends’ attitude towards their own aristocracy peculiar. As Gervais had pointed out, her father was a steadholder, and the deepest longings of the most hard-boiled member of Manticore’s Conservative Association were but pale shadows of the reality of a steadholder’s authority within his steading. The term “absolute monarch” fell comfortably short of that reality, although “supreme autocrat” was probably headed in the right direction.

As a result of her own birth and childhood, she had remarkably few illusions about the foibles and shortcomings of the “nobly born.” Yet she was also the product of a harsh and unforgiving planet and a profoundly traditional society, one whose deference and rules of behavior were based deep in the bedrock of survival’s imperatives. She still found the irreverent, almost fondly mocking attitude of so many Manticorans towards their own aristocracy unsettling. In that respect, she was even more like Helga than Helen was, she thought. Hostility, antagonism, even hatred — those she could understand, when those born to positions of power abused that power rather than meeting its responsibilities. The sort of self-deprecating amusement someone like Gwen Archer displayed, on the other hand, didn’t fit itself comfortably into her own core concepts, even though she’d seen exactly the same attitude out of dozens of other Manticorans who were at least as well born as he was.

I guess you can take the girl off of Grayson, but you can’t take Grayson out of the girl, she thought. It wasn’t the first time that thought had crossed her mind. And it won’t be the last, either, she reflected tartly.

She started to say something else, then paused as their drinks arrived and the waiter took their orders. He disappeared once more, and she sipped iced tea (something she’d had trouble finding in Manticoran restaurants), then lowered her glass.

“Leaving aside the ignoble, although I’ll grant you entertaining, contemplation of the coronaries certain to follow the discovery of our despicable charade, I shall now turn this conversation in a more sober minded and serious direction.”

“Good luck with that,” Helen murmured.

“As I was about to ask,” Abigail continued, giving her younger friend a ferocious glare, “how are things going dirtside, Helga?”

“As frantically as ever.” Helga grimaced, took a sip from her own beer stein, then sighed. “I guess it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. I don’t think anyone in the entire Quadrant’s ever seen this many dispatch boats in orbit around a single planet before!”

All three of her listeners grimaced back at her in understanding.

“I don’t suppose we can really blame them,” she went on, “even if I do want to shoot the next newsy I see on sight! But exactly how they expect Minister Krietzmann to get anything done when they keep hounding him for ‘statements’ and ‘background interviews’ is more than I can imagine.”

“One of the less pleasant consequences of an open society,” Gervais said, rather more philosophically than he felt.

“Exactly,” Abigail agreed, then smiled unpleasantly. “Although I’d like to see the newsy back home on Grayson who thought he could get away with ‘hounding’ Daddy!”