Today's Reading

He huffed a self-disgusted exhalation. Honestly. He needed to take the hyperbole down a notch or several. Cara Delaney was not bringing good tidings of great joy. If she was an angel, she wasn't a good one. He arranged his mouth into the shape of a smile but took care that his eyes did not convey any warmth. "Ms. Delaney?"

"Yes." She stuck out her hand in that aggressive way Americans had. Her nails were varnished in a red so dark it was almost black.

"I am Matteo Benz."

"A pleasure to meet you," she said in a tone that suggested there was in fact nothing whatsoever pleasurable about making his acquaintance as she attempted to break his fingers.

"Likewise," he murmured, squeezing her hand equally hard. It was ridiculous, these displays of dominance, when everyone, except perhaps American management consultants, knew that when it came to getting what you wanted, soft power was a great deal more effective than brute force. Bone-crushing handshakes and shoes that should be subject to EU weapons regulations were not only empty signifiers, they suggested an underlying lack of confidence that could be exploited.

He made a mental note.

"I know you'd been working closely with Bradley Wiener to prepare for his arrival," she said. "I hope getting me instead isn't too much of a disappointment."

He was supposed to rush to assure her that she could never be a disappointment. Instead, he kept his face expressionless. "I do hope Mr. Wiener's recovery is continuing apace?"

Ms. Delaney did not address Matteo's inquiry about her colleague's condition. "I can assure you that Brad has oriented me to the file."

The file. As if an entire nation, its well-being and prosperity, could be reduced to something so pedestrian as a file. But he needed to remember that in her mind, it could. It already had been.

"I didn't realize you would be meeting me," she said.

He did not know if she was remarking on the fact that he hadn't merely sent a driver—as he should have—or if she was complaining that the king himself was not on hand to roll out the red carpet. "The king regrets that he could not be on hand this evening to personally welcome you. He had some last-minute business to attend to in Riems, which you may or may not know is on the other side of the country. He is—"

"Yes. There's a secondary Morneau factory in Riems," she said, interrupting him.

Though why should he expect anything less from someone like her? He practiced his breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Just once, though, so he didn't look a fool. It helped. He picked up where he'd left off, not acknowledging the substance of the interruption. "He is, however, looking forward to meeting you tomorrow. In the meantime, I am equerry to His Majesty. Are you familiar with the role?" He asked because many people weren't. Americans in particular often thought he was a butler. Not that there was anything wrong with being a butler. It was an honorable way to make a living performing an important service.

"Yes. I've seen The Crown."

God preserve him. His impassive facade almost slipped. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

"As far as I can tell," she went on, "being an equerry is like being an executive assistant. Everyone thinks you're a secretary, but really, you make the entire ship go."

"The ship? I beg your pardon?"

"It's a Star Trek metaphor. The captain can talk a good talk, but the person who actually makes the ship go is the engineer. If the engineer can't make the ship go—or doesn't want to—it's not going, no matter what the captain says."

Hmm. What a curious, and unexpected, analogy.

"But choose your metaphor," she went on. "The wind beneath your boss's wings. The man behind the throne." She cracked a smile, which she held for a beat, clearly trying not to laugh. She lost the battle and let loose a high, musical, delighted laugh that seemed at odds with her crushing-handshake, rudely-interrupting, corporate-goth persona. "Which I guess is not a metaphor in this case, because you literally are that."

"Well, not literally."

"What?"

"I don't literally stand behind the throne." There wasn't even a literal throne, at least not in the way she imagined.

She rolled her eyes ever so slightly. He would have expected "Don't roll one's eyes at the client" to be a basic principle. "You may not be aware," she said, "that many English-language dictionaries have revised the definition of literally to include in effect, or virtually."

He tried not to bristle overtly. He spoke English as well as or better than your average educated American, thank you very much. "I am aware, but that doesn't mean I approve. A word cannot also mean the opposite of itself simply because enough people agree." Another fact of which he was aware: he shouldn't be speaking to her like this, not when the king had expressly asked him to see her comfortably settled.
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