"The Captain's compliments, Sir, and the pinnace will depart from Boat Bay Three in thirty minutes."
"Thank you, Helen." Bernardus Van Dort smiled and shook his head. "You didn't really have to come and deliver that message in person, you know. The com would have worked just fine."
"First of all, I didn't mind delivering it in person, Sir. Second, when the Captain 'suggests' that a snotty personally deliver a message to an important guest aboard his ship, the snotty in question gets on her little feet, trots right down the passage, and delivers said message."
Van Dort laughed out loud, and Helen Zilwicki grinned at him. Their relationship had come a long way in the seven days-six by Hexapuma's internal clocks-since he'd come on board. At first, Helen thought, he'd started out regretting having accepted her as his aide. He seemed, for all his accomplishments and personal wealth, a very private man. And, she thought, a lonely one. He'd certainly been politely distant from her, with a sort of cool courtesy that discouraged any familiarity. Indeed, in some ways he'd seemed even more distant from her than from anyone else in the entire ship, as if he were deliberately keeping her at arm's length. He'd gotten a bit more comfortable, but he still maintained that sense of distance, of watchfulness.
Yet she'd come to realize there was a warm and caring person under that isolated, detached shell of his, and she wondered why a man like that lived such a solitary life. No doubt he did have large, capable staffs to serve him at home on Rembrandt. And, equally no doubt, he could call on the RTU staffers on any planet in the Cluster to provide him with secretaries and assistants at need. But he should have had a permanent, personal staff. At least one private aide to travel with him whenever travel was necessary. Someone who was as much a confidant as an administrative assistant.
Someone to keep him company.
There had to be a reason he didn't, and she wished she dared to ask him what it was.
"Will you be free to accompany me to the meeting, Helen?" he asked, and she looked at him in surprise.
"I… don't know, Sir. As far as I know, the possibility hasn't been discussed. I'm sure that if you'd like me to, the Captain would authorize it."
"Well, it's occurred to me that if I'm going to be continuing aboard the Kitty ," he shared another grin with her, "it would be just as well for my 'aide' to be up to speed on what we're trying to accomplish. And I've come to realize you're actually quite a bright young woman, despite occasional attempts to pretend otherwise." His expression grew more serious. "I think you could be of even greater assistance if you were fully informed on the parameters of my mission. And there are a few other reasons I think it might be a good idea to have you along."
"Sir," she said, "I'm deeply flattered. But I'm only a middy. I'm not at all sure the Provisional Governor would approve of someone that junior being fully briefed on a mission that was important enough to haul you all the way back to Spindle from Rembrandt."
"If I tell her I've come to rely on your assistance and that I'd like you informed-and that you'll keep your mouth shut about any sensitive information-I feel sure I could overcome any objections she might have. And you would keep your mouth shut, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, Sir! Of course I would!"
"I rather thought so," he said with a slight smile. "Then again, I'd hardly expect less from the daughter of Anton Zilwicki."
Helen couldn't help herself. This time she didn't just look at him in surprise, she gawked at him, and he chuckled.
"Helen, Helen!" He shook his head. "I've made it a priority to remain as closely informed as possible on events in the Star Kingdom ever since Harvest Joy came sailing out of the Lynx -Terminus. I know all about that affair in Erewhon. In fact, I probably know more about it than most native-born Manticorans. That feature story Yael Underwood did on your father just before the Stein funeral caught my eye, especially in light of what happened in Erewhon and, later, in Congo. I'm sure he got parts of it wrong, but he obviously got a lot right, too. It took me all of an hour and a half to put you and your surname together with his, especially after I remembered that the newsies said he had a daughter at the Manticoran Naval Academy."
"Sir, I'm not a spook. Daddy may be some sort of superspy, although given the fact that everybody in the entire galaxy seems to know now what he does for a living, his active spying days must be pretty much over. But I never even wanted to be a spook."
"I never assumed you did. But, as I say, you're intelligent, you've demonstrated tact and initiative in the time we've been together, and whether you want to be a 'spook' or not, your father's example when it comes to maintaining operational security has to've rubbed off on you at least a little. Besides," he looked away, "you remind me of someone."
She started to ask who, then stopped herself.
"Well, Sir," she said, instead, with a crooked smile, "I'm sure you could have your pick of people far better qualified than I am. But if you want me, and if the Captain doesn't have any objections, I'd be honored to help out anyway I can."
"Excellent!" He looked back down at her with a broad smile. "I'll speak to him immediately."