A sharp knock disturbed Dr. Barlow just as she had settled down to read. She frowned in the direction of the door - it was far too late for visitors - but set the book aside, pulled on her dressing gown, and went to answer it.
There beyond the threshold, looking both somewhat distressed and highly annoyed, stood Count Volger. Dr. Barlow arched an eyebrow at the oddness of the situation, but he made no response. "Count Volger," she said after a moment more of puzzled staring did nothing to move him. "Whatever can I do for you at this most unusual hour?"
Wordlessly, the count help up a rumpled, folded newspaper. She could see on its front page a familiar photograph and the words AUSTRIA'S LOST PRINCE in large, bold letters.
"Ah," she sighed. "I see." Really, she should have expected something like this. With a glance down either side of the hallway, Dr. Barlow took a step back and opened the door wider. "Do come in, then."
The count, looking rather uneasy with the suggestion, remained firmly on the other side of the doorway.
"Unless you'd prefer to chatter on about it out here, of course," she added impatiently. "We should have at least a few minutes until the watch reaches this corridor, though I suspect they might hurry over if they hear you shouting, as I'm sure you plan to do."
Count Volger shot her a glare but proceeded to stride past her into the room, however reluctantly.
She gave the back of his head a small, triumphant smile as she closed the door. It was rare to see the man at all uncomfortable, and in her personal opinion, he could do with being a little unsettled now and then. She crossed the room and moved a small stack of books from her chair to the top of her desk, which was already fairly cluttered though in an orderly way, full of neat stacks of paper and a few jars containing zoological specimens for later study. "Please have a seat," she said, offering him the chair. She perched herself opposite him on the edge of her bed. "You wished to discuss something with me?"
That was enough provocation to break Volger's wary silence. "Yes," he hissed, holding up the newspaper again and giving it an emphatic shake. "What in God's name is this about?"
Dr. Barlow's gaze flickered briefly to the paper - that really wasn't a very flattering photograph of poor Alek - and then up to Volger's furious face. "I found the article fairly straightforward," she said calmly. "I'm certain you don't need me to explain it."
Her attempt at humor did little to improve the count's mood. "Why has it been published?" he demanded through clenched teeth.
"I haven't the slightest idea," she replied. "You know I don't write these papers, yes? I merely provide them to you in exchange for the pleasure of your company." Volger scoffed loudly at this, and she smiled. She knew very well that he carefully rationed what knowledge he shared so that he always had something to barter with. As amusing as conversation between them could be, their association was one of tenuous mutual benefit. Dr. Barlow dropped the act of being difficult for the moment. "I thought you'd take comfort in this," she told him. "After all, your boy prince is still alive out there, or was no more than a week or so ago. The papers never take long to print this sort of story."
Count Volger settled back slightly in the chair, though he still had the harassed, irritable look of an offended cat. "I'd rather him still be missing than learn his whereabouts from a headline," he muttered.
She sighed. "Yes, well, it seems very little is going according to plan these days." It was difficult to ignore the rash of bad luck they'd had lately, though she supposed that was a standard symptom of war. Things could certainly be worse. She turned her attention back to the matter at hand. "Alek is an intelligent young man," she said. "I'm sure he had his reasons for divulging his secrets in this way."
Whatever calm had come over the count at the thought of Alek's safety vanished in an instant. "That boy always has a reason," he spat, beginning to raise his voice. "That hardly makes any of his decisions ̶ !"
Dr. Barlow quickly cut him off by reaching across and pressing her hand over his mouth. At his look of outrage, she raised a finger to her lips, then silently pointed toward the door, beyond which the faint sounds of boots clacking against a metal floor could just barely be heard. The count's eyes widened, and he gave a slight nod.
She waited until the footsteps had faded before withdrawing her hand. "Wouldn't want to be caught in a lady's room after dark, would you?" she asked with a wry smile. Volger looked as though he might have a comment or two about just how ladylike she really was, but as he kept them to himself, she ignored it. "Especially as I'm fairly certain you're still meant to be confined to your room."
He snorted derisively. "The guards are lax."
"The guards don't want to offend the prince's men," she corrected, tapping two fingers against the newspaper still gripped in his hand. "Though they really should be a bit more observant, I'll grant you that."
Volger glanced briefly at the paper before regarding Dr. Barlow with a suspicious look. "You, of course, were not surprised to learn any of this," he said carefully. It was a statement of fact, not a question. Alek had surely told him some time ago what she had figured out.
"I made a few educated guesses," she agreed, "some of which were explained further in the article, and all of which I have kept to myself up to this point." She smiled as she stood up. "And I rather doubt I've come anywhere near discovering all of your secrets, Count."
Volger scoffed but visibly relaxed. It was the answer he had been looking for. "If you have," he replied drily, "I've done my job very poorly." He stood as well and pushed the chair back under her desk.
"I suppose I shall have to try harder, then, if only to keep you on your toes. We wouldn't want you to grow negligent in your duties." She crossed her room to the door and opened it just wide enough to peer outside. An empty corridor greeted her. "You should leave now if you want to get back to your room undetected. It should be a while before anyone else comes along."
Volger came up beside her and glanced out into the hallway for himself. He then took a step back to face her again, with an expression suggesting he still didn't quite know what to make of her. "You seem to have quite a detailed knowledge of the patrol schedule," he noted. "One might wonder at your reasons."
Her expression became rather enigmatic. "One should always know what goes on outside her own door," was all she offered in reply.
The count shook his head, the corners of his mouth turned ever so slightly upward. "As always, Dr. Barlow," he said after a moment as he reached for the door handle, "your company has been most enlightening."
"Indeed," she replied, pressing her lips together to keep from smiling too widely in her amusement. "Have a pleasant evening, Count Volger," she said, though it was now far too late to be considered evening anymore.
The count inclined his head in a short bow before heading out into the corridor. Dr. Barlow watched his progress for a moment, then, when he showed no signs of being caught by a crewmember, stepped back into her room and shut the door.
She moved to sit back down at her desk, shaking her head as her visitor had done. Count Volger could be quite a useful man, but he also had the potential to be very dangerous. He was single-minded in the pursuit of his goals, good at keeping secrets, and even better at extracting them from others. That made him far more troublesome than anyone else on this ship, more than even a wayward prince with no throne but a world of enemies. It was a calculated risk, dealing with him, and one she doubted often.
"Well, Nora," she murmured to herself, "you always did fancy a challenge."