Chapter Thirteen

“Welcome to Torch, Dr. Kare.”

“Why, thank you, ah, Your Majesty.”

Jordin Kare hoped no one had noticed his brief hesitation, but despite all of the briefings he’d been given before heading off to the Torch System, the obvious youth of the star system’s ruling monarch still came as something of a surprise.

“We’re really glad to see you,” the monarch in question said enthusiastically, holding out her hand to pump his. She rolled her eyes. “We’ve got this wonderful resource here in the system, and none of us have a clue what to do with it. I sure hope you and your team can fix that for us!”

“We’ll, um, certainly try, Your Majesty,” Kare assured her. “Not that this is the sort of thing anyone can give hard and fast time estimates on, you understand,” he added quickly.

“Believe me, Doctor, if I’d ever thought it was, my ‘advisors’ here would have straightened me out in a hurry.”

She rolled her eyes again, and Kare found himself hastily suppressing a smile before it could leak onto his face. Queen Berry was a healthy young woman, quite obviously, if perhaps a bit below average height. She had a figure that was slender without being skinny, and a full head of chestnut hair that was quite striking and attractive. He’d been warned before he ever departed Manticore that she was also what one of the Foreign Ministry types had described as “a free spirit . . . a very free spirit,” and nothing he’d seen so far seemed to suggest that description had been in error. From the sparkle he’d detected in her light brown eyes, she was fully aware of her reputation, too.

“But I’m forgetting my manners,” she said, and half-turned to face the trio of people behind her. “Let me make the introductions,” she said, either blithely unaware or uncaring that ruling monarchs were supposed to have other people make introductions for them.

“This is Thandi Palane,” Berry said, indicating the tall, very broad-shouldered young woman who’d been standing directly behind her. “Thandi is in charge of sorting out our military forces.”

Palane had a very fair, almost albino complexion, with kinky silver-blond hair and beautiful hazel eyes, and although she was in civilian attire at the moment, she managed to make it look as if it were a uniform. Kare had been thoroughly briefed on her, too, although now that he’d laid eyes on her, he didn’t really think the warnings about her lethality had been necessary. Not because she wasn’t lethal, but because he was pretty sure only an idiot would have failed to figure that out on his own. Her carefully moderated grip was like shaking hands with a cargo grapnel. It could have picked up an egg if it had wanted to, or crumpled a solid block of mollycircs like foil. She couldn’t have looked more affable and friendly, either, but it was the sort of cheerful affability one would have expected out of a well fed sabertooth, and he definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be around when she decided it was feeding time.

“And this,” Berry continued, “is Dr. Web Du Havel, my prime minister. While Thandi takes care of the military, Web is in charge of sorting me out.” The teenaged queen smiled mischievously. “I’m never sure which of them has the harder job, when it comes down to it.”

Kare had seen HD coverage of Du Havel following his initial arrival in the Star Kingdom of Manticore two and a half T-years earlier. As a result, he knew all about the prime minister’s academic credentials — credentials, in their own way, even more impressive than Kare’s own. And he also knew that the stocky, physically powerful Du Havel was himself a liberated genetic slave who’d been intended by his Mesan designers as a heavy labor/technician type.

Just goes to show that you never want to piss off anyone who’d make a good engineer, Kare thought as he shook Du Havel’s still powerful but considerably less scary hand. Du Havel may be the head of the “process oriented” branch of the movement, but I’ll bet there’s a bunch of people like him in the Ballroom, too. Although, come to think of it, if I were Manpower, this is one guy I’d rather have designing bombs to throw at me, if that kept him from concentrating on what he has been doing.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Du Havel,” he said.

“And an honor to meet you, Dr. Kare,” Du Havel replied with a toothy grin.

“And this,” Berry said, her mischievous smile turning positively wicked for a moment, “is the famous — or infamous — Jeremy X. He’s our minister of war. But it’s all right, really, Doctor! He’s all reformed now . . . sort of.”

“Oh, not so reformed as all that, lass,” Jeremy said, reaching past her to offer his hand to Kare in turn. He smiled lazily. “I am on my best behavior at the moment, though,” he added.

“So I’ve heard,” Kare said with all the aplomb he could muster.

Aside from Berry herself, Jeremy X. was the smallest person in the entire room. He was also renowned (if that was the proper verb) throughout the Solarian League as the most deadly terrorist, by almost any measure, the Audubon Ballroom had produced in many a year. Given the caliber of the competition, that was saying quite a lot, too. Like Du Havel, he was another example of Manpower having created a nemesis of its very own, although he and the prime minister had chosen very different ways to go about their nemesis-ing. Jeremy, who’d been designed as one of Manpower’s “entertainer” lines, had the compact, small-boned frame and enhanced reflexes of a juggler or a tumbler. Although he was undoubtedly on the small side, there was nothing at all soft or frail about his physique, however, and the reflexes and hand-eye coordination Manpower had intended him to use for sleight-of-hand or juggling crystal plates made him one of the most lethal pistoleers in the galaxy. A point he had demonstrated with enormous gusto to his designers over the years.

Kare was well aware that, as the Kingdom of Torch’s minister of war, Jeremy had officially renounced terrorism in the kingdom’s name. As far as anyone back home in the Star Kingdom of Manticore was aware, he’d meant it, too. On the other hand, the man who’d planned and executed (Kare winced mentally at his own choice of verb) so many deadly and . . . inventive attacks on Manpower executives was still in there, just under the skin. One on one, Kare never doubted that Thandi Palane was more dangerous than Jeremy could ever be; as implacable forces of nature, though, he suspected there would be very little to choose between the two of them.

Which suits me just fine, given the people the two of them are likely to be going after, he reflected grimly. Even if Rabbi McNeil does have a point about vengeance belonging to a higher power. After all, nobody ever said He couldn’t use any means He chooses to execute judgment.

“I suppose I should introduce my own associates,” he said as he got his hand back from Jeremy, and indicated the tallish, undeniably shaggy strawberry-blond man to his left.