“Dr. Richard Wix, Your Majesty,” he continued. “Who rejoices, for some reason I’ve never quite understood, in the nickname of the ‘Tons of Joy Bear.'” He grimaced. “We usually shorten it to ‘TJ,’ but I understand you have a very efficient intelligence operation here on Torch. If you can pry the origin of his nom de party out of him, I’d be delighted to know what it is.”

“I’m sure if anyone can figure it out, it’ll be Daddy,” the queen said cheerfully, offering her own hand to Wix.

“Forewarned is forearmed, Your Majesty,” Wix said. “Besides, it’s not really all that much of a secret. If Richard here ever stuck his nose out of the lab, he’d probably have figured it out for himself by now.” He gave the youthful monarch a conspiratorial look. “He doesn’t get out much, you know,” he added in a stage whisper.

“And this,” Kare continued in the tone of a man rising above the slings and arrows of smaller-minded individuals, “is Captain Zachary, Harvest Joy’s skipper. She’s the practical-minded sort who’s going to keep us all straight while we get to work.”

“I think you and Web are both going to have your work cut out for you, Captain,” the queen commiserated as she extended her hand in turn to the dark-haired, dark-eyed Zachary.

“It’s not like it’s something I haven’t done before, Your Majesty,” Zachary replied with a slight smile, and Berry chuckled.

“Well!” she said as she released Zachary’s hand and gestured at the comfortable chairs around the conference table in what had once been the office of the Mesan governor of what had once been Verdant Vista. “Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, why don’t we all find seats?”

It was not, Kare thought, the sort of preplanned, carefully choreographed protocol one might have expected out of most people who ruled an entire star system. On the other hand, Queen Berry’s realm wasn’t quite like most other star nations, either. It was barely fifteen T-months old (counting from Berry’s coronation), for one thing, and it had been born in carnage, bloodshed, and all too often bloodcurdling vengeance, for another. The fact that the liberation of the planet now known as Torch hadn’t simply degenerated into a bloodsoaked chaos of massacre, torture, and atrocity was mostly due to the teenaged girl settling into her own chair at the table, and Kare found himself wondering, again, how such a cheerful-looking slip of a girl had done it. There was no question, according to Admiral Givens’ people at the Office of Naval Intelligence or their civilian counterparts that it had, indeed, been Berry who’d somehow convinced the liberated slaves to forgo the full, bitter dregs of the vengeance to which generations of savage repression and mistreatment had, by any fair measure, entitled them.

On the other hand, the fact remained that she’d had to do that convincing to bring the bloodshed to an end, and it was the atrocities which had already been committed, however merited they might have been, before she managed to intervene which explained why Kare and his mission were only just now arriving in Torch.

They all settled into their chairs around the circular table. Palane sat between Kare and Wix, and Du Havel sat between Wix and Captain Zachary, with Jeremy X. between Kare and Queen Berry, going the other way. There’d been no formal seating chart, but Kare found himself rather doubting that that neat spacing had occurred totally by chance.

“First,” Berry said, without even glancing at Du Havel or Jeremy, “I’d like to start by saying that we’re all very grateful to Mr. Hauptman for assisting us this way. And to Prime Minister Grantville and Queen Elizabeth, of course.”

Well, she’s got her priorities right, Kare thought wryly. He and Wix were officially here as privately paid consultants, on leave from the Royal Manticoran Astrophysics Investigation Agency. If it had been solely up to Klaus Hauptman, the financial backer of this expedition, the two of them would have been in Torch before the smoke had cleared, too. Unfortunately, and despite the Star Kingdom’s official recognition of the Kingdom of Torch, the “taint” of the Ballroom had forced the Star Kingdom to move rather more slowly, even after that idiot High Ridge’s ignominious departure from the premiership, than Kare was confident Elizabeth Winton or her new prime minister would have preferred. The Star Kingdom of Manticore understood more about the genetic slave trade and Manpower, Incorporated, than most star nations did, but even Manticore had been shocked by some of the HD footage which had come out of Torch. It wasn’t just foreign public opinion Elizabeth had been forced to worry about, either.

There were more than a few Manticorans, even among those bitterly opposed to genetic slavery, who nursed serious reservations where the Ballroom was concerned. In fact, if Kare were going to be completely honest, he had a few reservations of his own. Not because he didn’t understand exactly what had produced the Ballroom’s ferocity, but because he was enough of a historian to recognize where that sort of ferocity could lead if something didn’t happen to . . . ameliorate it. And despite everything the Star Kingdom had already seen out of Manpower, there’d been sufficient public revulsion at how some of Manpower’s executives on Torch (and their families, in some cases) had died — and how gleefully they’d been tortured to death — before Berry Zilwicki’s adamant intervention ended the atrocities (or counter–atrocities, perhaps) to make the outlaw transtellar’s propaganda about the barbarism of the ex-slaves at least temporarily convincing to enough men in the street to put the brakes on any official cooperation between Manticore and Torch. Of course, that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned, overbred, under-brained, cretinous excuse for a politician High Ridge hadn’t needed a lot of convincing, given his own attitudes.

Even now, though, the Grantville Government hadn’t officially signed off on the survey effort. For the record, it was a privately funded project, backed by the Hauptman Cartel, which was picking up the complete tab for it. As a matter of fact, Kare and Wix were both receiving comfortable — very comfortable — stipends from Hauptman, and although Harvest Joy was a Navy vessel, the Star Kingdom had “leased” her to Hauptman for the effort and Captain Zachary was officially on half-pay at the moment. Given what Hauptman was paying her, she was actually making close to twice what her salary as an active-duty Queen’s officer would have been, although that had very little to do with her presence in Torch. As the officer who’d commanded the survey voyage that led to the successful exploration and charting of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, she brought a unique level of experience with her. Besides, Kare had worked with her on that effort. When it had been made clear to him that the “private venture” in Torch was actually about as private as Mount Royal Palace, he’d known exactly who he wanted as his survey ship commander.

“We’re delighted to be here, Your Majesty,” he said now. “It’s not all that often anyone gets to survey a wormhole. The number of people who’ve gotten to survey two of them — and do it in less than three T-years, at that — could probably be counted on one hand.” He grinned. “Trust me, it’s not going to look bad on our résumés!”