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 Alquezar — who had to be at least a full two meters tall — but 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 me — I’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 Lázló 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 royal — and now imperial — succession 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 appointment 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 himself – Gervais’ or Ms. Boltitz’?

            “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?”