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 oligarchs – or, even worse, overt aristocrats – even 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 Talbott – or, for that matter, back in Manticore – were 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.

            Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – that 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 [“worm-eater”: let’s find someone who can translate this into German for us] 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 estimated – only about four T-years older than she was – and 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 government – from Baroness Medusa and the prime minister on down – was 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.”