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 wrong – she’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 tactfully – she really did – but 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 at – really looked at – Archer 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 strength –he looked like he’d probably make a decent wing – and 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 relationship – or lack thereof – with 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 offense – not that I can’t think of at least a dozen probable scenarios right off hand, you understand, even on this short an acquaintance with him – so 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’t 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 course – probably at least a second-generation recipient, given the background of wealth and privilege his accent clearly denoted – which 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 façade 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.