“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 salad – vinaigrette dressing – and the prime rib – extra rare for me; medium rare for the lady – with mashed potatoes, green beans, sautéed 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 tables – like, coincidentally, the one at which they happened to be seated at this very moment – sat 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 device – disguised as a briefcase, which had kept her from immediately recognizing what it was – Gervais 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 royal – and now imperial – succession. 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 present – not to mention Van Dort and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff – then 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 their Kelsenbraus. 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.