Либрусек (книги fb2)
Captain Vorpatril's alliance
Lois McMaster Bujold
Captain Vorpatril's alliance
Miles Vorkosigan – 14
Lois McMaster Bujold
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Ivan’s door buzzer sounded at close to Komarran midnight, just when he was unwinding enough from lingering jump lag, his screwed‑up diurnal rhythm, and the day’s labors to consider sleep. He growled under his breath and trod unwillingly to answer it.
His instincts proved correct when he saw who waited in the aperture.
“Oh, God. Byerly Vorrutyer. Go away.”
“Hi, Ivan,” said Byerly smoothly, ignoring Ivan’s anti‑greeting. “May I come in?”
Ivan took about a second to consider the, at best, complicated possibilities Byerly usually trailed in his wake, and said simply, “No.” But he’d hesitated too long. Byerly slipped inside. Ivan sighed, letting the door slide closed and seal. So far from home, it was good to see a familiar face‑just not By’s. Next time, use the security screen, and pretend not to be here, eh?
Byerly padded swiftly across the small but choice living quarters of Ivan’s downtown Solstice luxury flat, rentals by the week. Ivan had picked it out for its potential proximity to Solstice nightlife, which, alas, he had so far not had a chance to sample. Pausing at the broad glass doors to the balcony, Byerly dimmed the polarization on the seductive view of the glittering lights of the capital city. Dome, Ivan corrected his thought to Komarran nomenclature, as the arcology existed under a hodgepodge of seals to keep the toxic planetary atmosphere out and the breathable one in. Byerly pulled the drapes as well, and turned back to the room.
Yielding to a curiosity he knew he would regret, Ivan asked, “What the hell are you doing on Komarr, By? Isn’t this off your usual beat?”
Byerly grimaced. “Working.”
Indeed, an experienced observer, which Ivan unfortunately was, could detect a distinct strain around By’s eyes, along with the redness from drink and perhaps recreational chemicals. Byerly cultivated the authentic look of a Barrayaran high Vor town clown given over to a life of dissolution and idle vice by actually living it, ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, and most of his hidden income, came from his work as an informer for Imperial Security. And ninety percent of that was just more dissolution and vice, except for having to turn in reports at the end. The residue, Ivan had to concede, could get dicey.
Ratting out your friends to ImpSec for money, Ivan had once heckled By, to which By had shrugged and replied, And the greater glory of the Imperium. Don’t forget that.
Ivan wondered which it was tonight.
In reflexive response to the manners drilled into him in his youth, Ivan offered, “Something to drink? Beer, wine? Something stronger?” He contemplated By’s boneless flop onto his living room couch. “Coffee?”
“Just water. Please. I need to clear my head, and then I need to sleep.”
Ivan went to his tidy kitchenette and filled a tumbler. As he handed it to his unwelcome guest, By said, “And what are you doing in Solstice, Ivan?”
By’s open hand invited him to expand.
Ivan sat across from him and said, “Trailing my boss, who is here for an Ops conference with his assorted counterparts and underlings. Efficiently combined with the annual Komarr Fleet inspections. All the excitement of a tax inventory, except in dress uniform.” Belatedly, Ivan realized By had to already know all this. He’d found Ivan, hadn’t he? Because By’s random social calls, weren’t.
“Still working for Admiral Desplains?”
“Yep. Aide‑de‑camp, secretary, personal assistant, general dogsbody, whatever he needs. I aim to make myself indispensable.”
“And still ducking promotion, are you, Captain Vorpatril?”
“Yes. And succeeding, no thanks to you.”
By smirked. “They say that at Imperial Service Headquarters, the captains bring the coffee.”
“That’s right. And I like it that way.” Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare‑up of tensions with Barrayar’s most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan Empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters 26.7 hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities. Designing death in detail. War had been averted through non‑traditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran emperor Gregor’s weaseliest Imperial Auditor and, to give credit where it was due, his wife.
That time. There was always a next time.
Ivan studied Byerly, who was only a few years older than himself. They shared the same brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin common to Barrayar’s somewhat inbred military caste, or aristocracy, whatever one wanted to call it, and, indeed, common to most Barrayarans. By was shorter and slighter than Ivan’s six‑foot‑one, broad‑shouldered fitness, but then, he didn’t have a Desplains riding him to keep up the recruiting‑poster appearance expected of an officer serving at Imperial Headquarters. Granted, when they weren’t squinting from the dissolution, By’s eyes had the startling beauty that distinguished his famous, or infamous, clan, to which Ivan was connected by a few twigs in his own family tree. That was the problem with being Vor. You ended up related to all sorts of people you’d rather not be. And they all felt free to call on you for favors.
“What do you want, Byerly?”
“So direct! You’ll never become a diplomat that way, Ivan.”
“I once spent a year as assistant military attache to the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth. It was as much diplomacy as I cared for. Get to the point, By. I want to go to bed. And by the looks of you, so do you.”
By let his eyes widen. “Why Ivan! Was that an invitation? I’m so thrilled!”
“Someday,” Ivan growled, “I might say yes to that old line, just to watch you have a coronary.”
By spread his hand over his heart, and intoned wistfully, “And so I might.” He drained his water and gave over the vamping, the face so often arranged in a vague smarminess firming intently in a way Ivan always found a touch disturbing. “Actually, I have a little task to ask of you.”
“It’s quite in your line. I may even be said to be doing you a good turn, who knows. I’d like you to pick up a girl.”
“No,” said Ivan, only in part to see what By would say next.
“Come, come. You pick up girls all the time.”
“Not on your recommendations. What’s the catch?”
Byerly made a face. “So suspicious, Ivan!”
By shrugged, conceding the point. “Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. And my duties with, if I may say it, the unusually unpleasant people I am presently accompanying‑”
Spying on, Ivan translated this without difficulty. And the company By kept was usually unpleasant, in Ivan’s opinion. Unusually unpleasant implied…what?
“‑leave me little opportunity to check her out. But they have an inexplicable interest in her. Which I suspect is not friendly. It worries me, Ivan, I must say.” He added after a moment, “She’s quite well‑looking, I assure you. You need have no fear on that score.”
Ivan frowned, stung. “Are you implying I’d refuse to supply assistance to a homely girl?”
Byerly sat back, eyebrows flicking up. “To your credit, I actually don’t believe that’s the case. But it will add a certain convincing verisimilitude for the outside observer.” He pulled a small plastic flimsy from his jacket and handed it across.
The background was too fuzzed to make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anything between twenty and thirty standard‑years, though that was no certain clue as to real age. Tumbling black hair, bright eyes, skin glowing an interesting cinnamon brown against a cream tank top. Decided nose, determined chin; either the natural face she was born with, or the work of a real artist, because it certainly didn’t bear the stamped‑from‑the‑same‑mold blandness of the usual body sculpture, a biological ideal that lost its appeal with repetition. Long legs in tan trousers that hugged in all the right places. A nicely full figure. Nicely full. If the face was natural, might the other prominent features be, too? With weakening reluctance, Ivan said, “Who is she?”
“Supposedly, a Komarran citizen named Nanja Brindis, lately moved to Solstice from Olbia Dome.”
“I have reason to suspect that might be a recent cover identity. She did move here about two months ago, it does seem.”
“So who is she really?”
“It would be a fine thing if you could find that out.”
“If she’s hiding her identity for a good reason, she’s hardly going to tell me.” Ivan hesitated. “Is it a good reason?”
“I suspect it’s a very good reason. And I also suspect she is not a professional at the game.”
“This is all pretty vague, Byerly. May I remind you, my security clearance is higher than yours.”
“Probably.” Byerly blinked in doubt. “But then there is that pesky need‑to‑know rule.”
“I’m not sticking my head into one of your dodgy meat grinders‑ again – unless I know as much as you know. At least.”
Byerly flung up his well‑manicured hands in faux‑surrender. “The people I’m with seem to have got themselves involved in a complex smuggling operation. Rather over their heads.”
“Komarr local space is a major trade nexus. The place is lousy with smugglers. As long as the transients don’t try to offload their goods within the Imperium, in which case Imperial Customs deals sharply with ’em, they get ignored. And the Komarran trade fleets police their own.”
“That’s two out of three.”
Ivan’s head came up. “The only thing left is the Imperial fleet.”
“Crap, Byerly, if there was even a hint of that sort of thing going on, Service Security would swoop in. Damned hard.”
“But even Service Security needs to know where and when to swoop. I am doing, as it were, a preliminary pre‑swoop survey. Not only because mistakes are embarrassing, especially if they involve accusations of Vor scions with arrogant and powerful relatives, but because they tip off the real crims, who then promptly escape one’s tediously set net. And you’ve no idea how tedious that can get.”
“Mm,” said Ivan. “And once military personnel get involved with, they think, simple civilian crime, they become vulnerable to more treasonous blackmail.”
By bared his teeth. “I’m so pleased you keep up. One of your saving graces.”
“I’ve had practice.” Ivan hissed alarm. “Desplains should know about this.”
“Desplains will know about it, in due course. In the meanwhile, try to remember you don’t know.” Byerly paused. “That caution is cancelled, of course, should my dead body turn up in a lewd and compromising position in some ditch outside the dome in the next few days.”
“Think it might?”
“The stakes are very high. And not just the money.”
“So how’s this girl connected, again?”
Byerly sighed. “She’s not with my crew. She’s definitely not with the non‑Barrayarans they’re dealing with, though it’s not outside the realm of reason that she could be a defector. And she’s not what she pretends to be. What’s left, I am forced to leave to you to find out, because I can’t risk coming here again, and I’m not going to have time in the next few days for side‑issues.”
Ivan said slowly, “You think she’s in danger of her life?” Because why else would By bother to set even a side‑friend on this side‑issue? By didn’t make his living through charity.
But he did make his living through a weird sort of loyalty. And, somewhere underneath the persiflage, camouflage, and just plain flage, he was high Vor of the highest…
“Let’s just say, you would gratify me by staying alert. I should not care to explain any accidents that might befall you to your lady mother.”
Ivan allowed the concern with a rueful nod. “So where am I to find this so‑called girl?”
“I am fairly certain she’s a real girl, Ivan.”
“You think? With you, one never knows.” He eyed By dryly, and By had the grace to squirm just a bit, in acknowledgement of his cousin Dono nee Donna of lamented memory. Donna, that is. Count Dono Vorrutyer was all too vivid a presence, on the Vorbarr Sultana political scene.
By dodged the diversion and, so to speak, soldiered on, though the idea of By in any branch of the Service made Ivan wince in imagination. “She works as a packing clerk at a place called Swift Shipping. Here’s her home address, too‑which was unlisted, by the way, so unless you can devise a convincing reason for turning up there, probably better to run into her coming into or out of work. I don’t gather she does much partying. Make friends, Ivan. Before tomorrow night, by preference.” He rubbed his face, pressing his hands to his eyes. “Actually‑by tomorrow night without fail.”
Ivan accepted the contact data with misgivings. By stretched, rose a bit creakily to his feet, and made his way to the door. “Adieu, dear friend, adieu. Sweet dreams, and may angels guard your repose. Possibly angels with clouds of dark curls, sun‑kissed skin, and bosoms like heavenly pillows.”
By grinned over his shoulder, waved without turning around, and blew out.
Ivan returned to his couch, sat with a thump, and picked up the flimsy, studying it cautiously. At least By was right about the heavenly pillows. What else was he right about? Ivan had an unsettling premonition that he was going to find out.
Tej was conscious of the customer from the moment he walked in the door, ten minutes before closing. When she’d started this job a month ago, in the hopes of stretching her and Rish’s dwindling resources, she’d been hyperaware of all customers who entered the shop. A job that exposed her directly and continuously to the public was not a good choice, she’d realized almost at once, but it had been the entry‑level position she could get with the limited fake references she commanded. A promotion to the back office was mentioned, so she’d hung grimly on. It was being slow in opening up, though, and she’d wondered if her boss was stringing her along. In the meanwhile, her jagged nerves had slowly grown habituated. Till now.
He was tall for a local. Quite good looking, too, but in a way that fell short of sculpted or gengineered perfections. His skin was Komarran‑pale, set off by a long‑sleeved, dark blue knit shirt. Gray multi‑pocketed sleeveless jacket worn open over it, indeterminate blue trousers. Shoes very shiny yet not new, in a conservative, masculine style that seemed familiar but, annoyingly, eluded recognition. He carried a large bag, and despite the time noodled around looking at the displays. Her co‑clerk Dotte took the next customer, she finished with her own, and the fellow glanced up and stepped to the counter, smiling.
“Hi, there”‑with difficulty, he dragged his gaze from her chest to her face‑“Nanja.”
It didn’t take that long to scan her nametag. Slow reader, are you? Why, yes, I get a lot of those. Tej returned the smile with the minimum professional courtesy due a customer who hadn’t, actually, done anything really obnoxious yet.
He hoisted his bag to the counter and withdrew a large, asymmetrical, and astonishingly ugly ceramic vase. She guessed the design was supposed to be abstract, but it was more as if a party of eye‑searing polka dots had all gotten falling‑down drunk.
“I would like this packed and shipped to Miles Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House, Vorbarr Sultana.”
She almost asked, What dome? but the unfamiliar accent clicked in before she could make that mistake. The man was not Komarran at all, but a Barrayaran. They didn’t get many Barrayarans in this quiet, low‑rent neighborhood. Even a generation after the conquest, the conquerors tended to cluster in their own enclaves, or in the central areas devoted to the planetary government and off‑world businesses, or out near the civilian or military shuttleports.
“Is there a street address? Scanner code?”
“No, just use the scanner code for the planet and city. Once it gets that far, it’ll find him.”
Surely it would cost this man far more to ship this…object to a planet five wormhole jumps away than it was worth. She wondered if she was obliged to point this out. “Regular or premium service? There’s a stiff price difference, but I have to tell you, express won’t really get there much faster.” It all went on the same jumpship, after all.
“Is it more likely to arrive intact with premium?”
“No, sir, it will be packed just the same. There are regulations for anything that goes by jumpship.”
“Right‑oh, regular it is.”
“Extra insurance?” she said doubtfully. “There’s a base coverage that comes with the service.” She named the amount, and he allowed as it would do. It was in truth considerably less than the shipping charges.
“You pack it yourself? Can I watch?”
She glanced at the digital hour display over the door. The task would run her past closing time, but customers were fussy about breakables. She sighed and turned to the foamer. He stood on tiptoe and watched over the counter as she carefully positioned the vase‑a glimpse of its underside revealed a sale tag with four markdowns‑closed the door, and turned on the machine. A brief hiss, a moment of watching the indicator lights wink hypnotically, and the door popped back open, releasing a pungent whiff that stunned her sense of smell and masked every other scent in the shop. She bent and removed the neat block of flexifoam. It was an aesthetic improvement.
Ivan Vorpatril, read the name on his credit chit. Also with a Vorbarr Sultana home address. Not just a Barrayaran, then, but one of those Vor‑people, the conquerors’ arrogant privileged class. Even her father had been wary of‑she cut the thought short.
“Do you wish to include a note?”
“Naw, I think it’ll be self‑explanatory. His wife’s a gardener, see. She’s always looking for something to stuff her poisonous plants into.” He watched her slide the foam block into its outer container and affix the label, adding after a moment, “I’m new in town. Yourself?”
“I’ve been here a while,” she said neutrally.
“Really? I could do with a native guide.”
Dotte closed out the scanners and turned off the lights as a broad hint to the laggard customer. And, bless her, lingered by the door to see Tej safely free of the shop and him. Tej gestured him out ahead of her, and the door locked behind them all.
The oldest human habitation on the surface of Komarr, Solstice Dome had a peculiar layout, to Tej’s eye. The aging initial installations resembled the space stations she’d grown up in, with their labyrinths of corridors. The very latest sections were laid out with separate, street‑linked buildings, but under vast, soaring, transparent domes that mimicked the open sky the residents hoped to have someday, when the atmospheric terraforming was complete. Middling areas, like this one, fell between, with much less technologically ambitious domes that still gave glimpses of an outside where no one ventured without a breath mask. The passage that Swift Shipping fronted was more street than corridor, anyway, too broad for the persistent customer to easily obstruct her.
“Off work now, huh?” he inquired ingenuously, with a boyish smile. He was a bit old for boyish smiles.
“Yes, I’m going home.” Tej wished she could go home, really home. Yet how much of what she’d known as home still existed, even if she could be magically transported there in a blink? No, don’t think those thoughts. The tension headache, and heartache, were too exhausting to bear.
“I wish I could go home,” said the man, Vorpatril, in unconscious echo of her thought. “But I’m stuck here for a while. Say, can I buy you a drink?”
“No, thank you.”
He waggled his eyebrows, cheerfully. “Ice cream? All women like ice cream, in my experience.”
“Walk you home? Or in the park. Or somewhere. I think they have rowboats to rent in that lake park I passed. That’d make a nice place to talk.”
“Certainly not!” Ought she to invent a waiting spouse or lover? She linked arms with Dotte, pinching her in silent warning. “Let’s go to the bubble car stop now, Dotte.”
Dotte gave her a surprised look, knowing perfectly well that Tej‑Nanja, as she knew her‑always walked home to her nearby flat. But she obediently turned away and led off. Vorpatril followed, not giving up. He slipped around in front, grinned some more, and tried, “What about a puppy?”
Dotte snorted a laugh, which didn’t help.
They were far enough from Swift Shipping now that customer politeness rules no longer applied, Tej decided. She snarled at him, “Go away. Or I’ll find a street patroller.”
He opened his hands in apparent surrender, watching with a doleful expression as they marched past. “A pony…?” he called after them, as if in one last spasm of hope.
Dotte looked back over her shoulder as they approached the bubble‑car station. Tej looked straight ahead.
“I think you’re crazy, Nanja,” said Dotte, trudging with her up the pedestrian ramp. “I’d have taken him up on that drink in a heartbeat. Or any of the rest of the menu, though I supposed I’d have to draw the line at the pony. It wouldn’t fit in my flat.”
“I thought you were married.”
“Yes, but I’m not blind.”
“Dotte, customers try to pick me up at least twice a week.”
“But they aren’t usually that incredibly cute. Or taller than you.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?” said Tej, irritated. “My mother was a head taller than my father, and they did fine.” She clamped her jaw shut. Not so fine now.
She parted company with Dotte at the platform, but did board a bubble car. She rode to a random destination about ten minutes away, then disembarked and took another car back to a different stop on the other side of her neighborhood, just in case the man was still lingering out there, stalker‑like, at the first one. She strode off briskly.
Almost home, she started to relax, until she look up and spotted Vorpatril lounging on the steps to her building entrance.
She slowed her steps to a dawdle, pretending not to have noticed him yet, raised her wristcom to her lips, and spoke a keyword. Rish’s voice answered at once.
“Tej? You’re late. I was getting worried.”
“I’m fine, I’m right outside, but I’m being followed.”
The voice went sharp. “Can you go roundabout and shake him off?”
“Already tried that. He got ahead of me somehow.”
“Oh. Not good.”
“Especially as I never gave him my address.”
A brief silence. “Very not good. Can you stall him a minute, then get him to follow you into the foyer?”
“I’ll take care of him there. Don’t panic, sweetling.”
“I’m not.” She left the channel open on send‑only, so that Rish could follow the play. She took her time closing the last few dozen meters, and came to a wary halt at the bottom of her steps.
“Hi, Nanja!” Vorpatril waved amiably, without getting up, looming, or lunging for her.
“How did you find this place?” she asked, not amiably.
“Would you believe dumb luck?”
“Ah. Pity.” He scratched his chin in apparent thought. “We could go somewhere and talk about it. You can pick where, if you like.”
She simulated a long hesitation, while calculating the time needed for Rish to get downstairs. Just about…now. “All right. Let’s go inside.”
His brows shot up, but then his smile widened. “Sounds great. Sure!”
He rose and politely waited while she fished her remote out of her pocket and coded open the front entrance. As the seal‑door hissed aside, he followed her into the small lift‑tube foyer. A female figure sat on the bench opposite the tubes, hands hidden in her vest as if chilly, voluminous patterned shawl hiding her bent head.
A slender gloved hand flashed out, aiming a very businesslike stunner.
“Look out!” Vorpatril cried, and, to Tej’s bewilderment, lurched to try to shove her behind him. Uselessly, as it only cleared the target for Rish. The stun beam kneecapped him neatly, and he fell, Tej supposed, the way a tree was said to, not that she’d ever witnessed a tree do such a thing. Most of the trees she’d seen before she’d fetched up on Komarr had lived in tubs, and did not engage in such vigorous behavior. In any case, he crashed to the tiles with a vague thrashing of upper branches and a loud plonk as his head hit. “Owww…” he moaned piteously.
The quiet buzz of the stunner had not carried far; no one popped out of their first floor flat door to investigate either that or the thump, alarming as the latter had seemed to Tej.
“Search him,” Rish instructed tersely. “I’ll cover you.” She stood just out of reach of his long but no doubt tingling arms, aiming the stunner at his head. He eyed it woozily.
Tej knelt and began going through his pockets. His athletic appearance was not a facade; his body felt quite fit, beneath her probing fingers.
“Oh,” he mumbled after a moment. “You two are t’gether. Thass all right, then…”
The first thing Tej’s patting hand found was a small flimsy, tucked into his breast pocket. Featuring a still scan of her. A chill washed through her.
She seized his well‑shaved jaw, stared into his eyes, demanded tightly: “Are you a hired killer?”
Still weirdly dilated from the stun nimbus, his eyes were not tracking quite in unison. He appeared to have to think this question over. “Well…in a sense…”
Abandoning interrogation in favor of physical evidence, Tej extracted the wallet he’d flashed earlier, a door remote much like her own, and a slender stunner hidden in an inner pocket. No more lethal weaponry surfaced.
“Let me see that,” said Rish, and Tej obediently handed up the stunner. “Who is this meat really?”
“Hey, I c’n answer that,” their victim mumbled, but fell prudently silent again as she jerked her aim back at him.
The top item in the wallet was the credit chit. Beneath it was a disquietingly official‑looking security card with a heavy coding strip identifying the man further as one Captain Ivan X. Vorpatril, Barrayaran Imperial Service, Operations, Vorbarr Sultana. Another mentioned such titles as Aide‑de‑Camp to Admiral Desplains, Chief of Operations, with a complicated building address featuring lots of alphanumeric strings. There was also a strange little stack of tiny rectangles of heavy paper, reading only Lord Ivan Xav Vorpatril, nothing else. The fine, black, raised lettering bumped under her curious fingertips. She passed them all up for Rish’s inspection.
On sudden impulse, she drew off one of his polished shoes, which made him twitch in a scrambled reflex, and looked inside. Military issue shoes, aha, that explained their unusual style. 12 Ds, though she couldn’t think of a reason for that to be important, except that they fit the rest of his proportions.
“Barrayaran military stunner, personally coded grip,” Rish reported. She frowned at the handful of IDs. “These all look quite authentic.”
“Assure you, they are,” their prisoner put in earnestly from the floor. “Damn. By never mentioned any lethal blue‑faced ladies, t’ ratfink. Izzat…makeup?”
Tej murmured in uncertainty, “I suppose the best cappers would look authentic. Nice to know they’re taking me seriously enough not to send cut‑rate rental meat.”
“Capper,” wheezed Vorpatril‑was that his real name? “Thass Jacksonian slang, innit? For a contract killer. You expectin’ one? That ’splains a lot…”
“Rish,” Tej said, a sinking feeling beginning in her stomach, “do you think he could really be a Barrayaran officer? Oh, no, what do we do with him if he is?”
Rish glanced uneasily at the outside door. “We can’t stay here. Someone else could come in or out at any moment. Better get him upstairs.”
Their prisoner did not cry out or try to struggle as they womanhandled his limp, heavy body into the lift tube, up three flights, and down the corridor to the corner flat. As they dragged him inside, he remarked to the air, “Hey, made it inside her door on t’ first date! Are things lookin’ up for Ma Vorpatril’s boy, or what?”
“This is not a date, you idiot,” Tej snapped at him.
To her annoyance, his smile inexplicably broadened.
Unnerved by the warm glance, she dumped him down hard in the middle of the living room floor.
“But it could be,” he went on. “…To a fellow of certain special tastes, that is. Bit of a waste that I’m not one of ’em, but hey, I can be flexible. Was never quite sure about m’cousin Miles, though. Amazons all the way for him. Compensating, I always thought…”
“Do you ever give up?” Tej demanded.
“Not until you laugh,” he answered gravely. “First rule of picking up girls, y’know; she laughs, you live.” He added after a moment, “Sorry I triggered your, um, triggers back there. I’m not attacking you.”
“Dead right you’re not,” said Rish, scowling. She tossed shawl, vest, and gloves onto the couch, and dug out her stunner again.
Vorpatril’s mouth gaped as he stared up at her.
A black tank top and loose trousers did not hide lapis lazuli‑blue skin shot with metallic gold veins, platinum blond pelt of hair, pointed blue ears framing the fine skull and jaw‑to Tej, who had known her companion and odd‑sister for her whole life, she was just Rish, but there were good reasons she’d kept to the flat, out of sight, ever since they’d come to Komarr.
“Thass no makeup! Izzat…body mod, or genetic construct?” their prisoner asked, still wide‑eyed.
Tej stiffened. Barrayarans were reputed to be unpleasantly prejudiced against genetic variance, whether accidental or designed. Perhaps dangerously so.
“’Cause if you did it to yourself, thass one thing, but if somebody did it to you, thass…thass just wrong.”
“I am grateful for my existence and pleased with my appearance,” Rish told him, her sharp tone underscored by a jab of her stunner. “ Your ignorant opinion is entirely irrelevant.”
“Very boorish, too,” Tej put in, offended on Rish’s behalf. Was she not one of the Baronne’s own Jewels?
He managed a little apologetic flip of his hands‑stun wearing off already? “No, no, ’s gorgeous, ma’am, really. Took me by surprise, is all.”
He seemed sincere. He hadn’t been expecting Rish. Wouldn’t a capper or even hired meat have been better briefed? That, and his bizarre attempt to protect her in the foyer, and all the rest, were adding to her queasy fear that she’d just made a serious mistake, one with consequences as lethal, if more roundabout, as if he’d been a real capper.
Tej knelt to strip off his wristcom, which was clunky and unfashionable.
“Right, but please don’t fool with that,” he sighed. He sounded more resigned than resistant. “Tends to melt down if other people try to access it. And they make issuing a replacement the most unbelievable pain in the ass. On purpose, I think.”
Rish examined it. “Also military.” She set it gingerly aside on the nearby lamp table beside the rest of his possessions.
How many details had to point in the same direction before one decided they pointed true? Depends on how costly it is to be mistaken, maybe? “Do we have any fast‑penta left?” Tej asked Rish.
The blue woman shook her head, her gold ear‑bangles flashing. “Not since that stop on Pol Station.”
“I could go out and try to get some…” Here, the truth drug was illegal in private hands, being reserved to the authorities. Tej was fairly sure that worked about as well as it did anywhere.
“Not by yourself, at this hour,” said Rish, in her and no backtalk voice. Her gaze down at the man grew more thoughtful. “There’s always good old‑fashioned torture…”
“Hey!” Vorpatril objected, still working his jaw against the stun numbness. “There’s always good old‑fashioned asking politely, didja ever think of that?”
“It would be bound,” said Tej to Rish, primly overriding his interjection, “to make too much noise. Especially at this time of night. You know how we can hear Ser and Sera Palmi carrying on, next door.”
“Houseless grubbers,” muttered Rish. Which was rude, but then, she’d also had her sleep impeded by the amorous neighbors. Anyway, Tej wasn’t sure but that she and Rish qualified as Houseless, too, now. And grubbers as well.
And that was another weird thing. The man wasn’t yelling for help, either. She tried to decide if a capper, even one who’d had the tables so turned upon him, would have the nerve to bluff his way out past an influx of local police. Vorpatril did not seem to be lacking in nerve. Or else, against all the evidence, he didn’t think he had reason to fear them. Mystifying.
“We’d better tie him up before the stun wears off,” said Tej, watching his tremors ease. “Or else stun him again.”
He did not even try to resist this process. Tej, a little concerned for that pale skin, vetoed the harsh plastic rope from the kitchen stores that Rish unearthed, and pulled out her soft scarves, at least for his wrists. She still let Rish tug them plenty tight.
“This is all very well for tonight,” said Vorpatril, observing closely, “especially if you break out t’ feathers‑do you have any feathers? because I don’t like that ice cube thing‑but I have to tell you, there’s going to be a problem come morning. See, back home, if I didn’t show up for work on time after a night on the town, nobody would panic right off. But this is Komarr. After forty years, assimilation into the Imperium’s going pretty well, they say, but there’s no denying it got off to a bad start. Still folks out there with grudges. Any Barrayaran soldier disappears in the domes, Service Security takes it up seriously, and quick, too. Which, um…I’m thinking might not be too welcome to you, if they track me to your door.”
His comment was uncomfortably shrewd. “Does anyone know where you are?”
Rish answered for him: “Whoever gave him your picture and address does.”
“Oh. Yes.” Tej winced. “Who did give you my picture?”
“Mm, mutual acquaintance? Well, maybe not too mutual‑he didn’t seem to know much about you. But he did seem to think you were in some kind of danger.” Vorpatril looked down rather ironically at the bindings now securing him to a kitchen chair, dragged out to the living room for the purpose. “It seems you think so, too.”
Tej stared at him in disbelief. “Are you saying someone sent you to me as a bodyguard? ”
He appeared affronted by her rising tones. “Why not?”
“Aside from the fact that the two of us took you down without even getting winded?” said Rish.
“You did too get winded. Dragging me up here. Anyway, I don’t hit girls. Generally. Well, there was that time with Delia Koudelka when I was twelve, but she hit me first, and it really hurt, too. Her mama and mine were inclined to be merciful, but Uncle Aral wasn’t‑gave me a permanent twitch on the subject, let me tell you.”
“Shut. Up,” said Rish, driven to twitch a bit herself. “Nothing about him makes sense!”
“Unless he’s telling the truth,” said Tej slowly.
“Even if he’s telling the truth, he’s blithering,” said Rish. “Our dinner is getting cold. Come on, eat, then we’ll figure out what to do with him.”
With reluctance, Tej allowed herself to be drawn into the kitchen. A glance over her shoulder elicited a look of hope from the man, which faded disconsolately as she didn’t turn back. She heard his trailing mutter: “Hell, maybe I should’ve started with ponies…”
Ivan sat in the dark and contemplated his progress. It was not heartening.
Not that his reputation for success with women was undeserved, but it was due to brains, not luck, and steady allegiance to a few simple rules. The first rule was to go to places where lots of women already in the mood for company had congregated‑parties, dances, bars. Although not weddings, because those tended to put the wrong sorts of thoughts into their heads. Next, try likely prospects till you hit one who smiled back. Next, be amusing, perhaps in a slightly risque but tasteful way, until she laughed. Extra points if the laughter was genuine. Continue ad lib from there. A 10:1 ratio of trials to hits was not a problem as long as the original pool contained ten or more prospects to start with. It was simple statistics, as he’d tried to explain to his cousin Miles on more than one occasion.
He’d entered that shop knowing the odds were not in his favor; a pool with only one fish required a fellow to get it right the first time. Well, he might have got lucky; it wasn’t unprecedented. He wriggled his wrists against his scarf bonds, which were unexpectedly unyielding for such soft, feminine cloth. Some sort of metaphor, there. This is not my fault.
It was By’s fault, he decided. Ivan was a victim of poor intel from his own side, like many a forlorn hope before him. Ivan had encountered overprotective duennas before, but never one who’d shot him from ambush the first time he walked through the door. The unfriendly blue woman…was a puzzle. He disliked puzzles. He’d never been good at them, not even as a child. His impatient playmates had generally plucked them out of his hands and finished them for him.
Rish was incredibly beautiful‑sculpted bones, flowing muscles, stained‑glass skin shimmering as she moved‑but not in the least attractive, at least in the sense of someone he’d want to cuddle up to. Sort of a cross between a pixie and a python. She was shorter and slimmer than Nanja, and very bendy, but, he had noticed when the two women were dragging him up here, much the stronger. He also suspected genetically augmented reflexes, and the devil knew what else. Best appreciated from several meters’ distance, like a work of art, which he suspected she was.
Whose work? That degree of genetic manipulation on humans was wildly illegal on all three planets of the Barrayaran Imperium. Unless one had it done to oneself, offworld, in which case it might still be better to go live somewhere else, after. Nanja was certainly neither Komarran nor Barrayaran, or she’d have had a more visible reaction to that famous name and address where he’d shipped the ghastly vase. Not only Not From Around Here, but also Not Been Here Long.
Her companion’s elegant gengineering was almost Cetagandan in its subtlety‑but the Cetagandans didn’t make human novelties as such. Their aesthetic boundaries in that material were very strict, not to mention restricted, reserved for more serious and long‑range goals. Now, animals‑when Cetagandans were working with animal or plant genomes, or worse, both at once, all bets were off. He shuddered in memory. He would be glad to cross Cetagandans off his list, renegade or otherwise. He would be ecstatic.
Ivan peered around the dim living room. He was not, he assured himself, tied up in a small, dark place. It was a spacious, dark place, and not pitch‑dark in any case, given the ambient urban glow from the window. And on the third floor, well aboveground. He sighed, and remembered to keep wriggling his weary feet. The nasty plastic ropes securing his ankles to the chair legs did seem to be slowly stretching. Perhaps he should have tried harder to escape, earlier. But the two women had been taking him right where he’d wanted to go, inside, for just the purpose he’d come, to talk. True, he’d been envisioning friendly chat, not hostile interrogation, but what was that quote Miles was so fond of? Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake. Not that they were enemies, necessarily. He hoped. By could have stood to be clearer on that point, in retrospect.
The next most likely suspect on the body modification front was, of course, the planet and system of Jackson’s Whole, an almost equally unsavory hypothesis supported, alas, by any number of small hints the two women had let fall.
Jackson’s Whole did not have a unified planetary government‑in fact, it claimed to have no government at all. Instead, it was ruled by a patchwork of Great Houses‑116 of ’em the last Ivan had heard, but the number shifted in their internecine competitions‑and countless Houses Minor. They tended not to hold large, unified territories on the planet’s surface, but rather, interpenetrated more like competing companies. Granted, the system, or lack of it, did make it less likely for the Jacksonians to pull together for, say, a major military invasion of their neighbors. But a person who had no House allegiance or employment there was a very unprotected person indeed.
Ivan had no trouble imagining all sorts of colorful reasons for the two young women to be on the run from the Whole. Any sensible persons not aligned with the power structure‑structures‑would be better off emigrating, if they could manage it. The real mystery was why anyone from there would be chasing them. Assassination wasn’t that casual a business expense, not with interstellar distances in play. If the two had made it all the way to Komarr but were still this afraid, someone with resources must really care, and not in a good way.
The room was not growing smaller. Nor darker. Nor damper. Nor changing in any way. But dear God this chair was getting hard. He hitched his shoulders and wriggled his butt, recalling all those dire warnings about deep‑vein thrombosis and long rides in shuttle seats. As if he didn’t have enough paranoia running through his aching head right now. Though his legs had stopped with the post‑stun pins‑and‑needles, and were down to just pins.
So how had the two women fallen in together, and what was their relationship, really? Was the blue woman friend, business partner, servant, lover, or bodyguard to the other? Some combination, or something even more arcane? When, inevitably, he’d had to pee, Rish had taken the con in the argument over whether it was safe to let him up. Ivan’s plaintive, How long do I have to spend not attacking you to prove I’m not attacking you? had moved the warmer Nanja, but not the gold‑eyed other. In the end, Nanja had left the room, and Rish had held a plastic jug.
Decanting his bladder was too much of a relief by then for Ivan to be embarrassed, much. Rish’s strange beauty did not diminish close up, it just grew ever more detailed, almost fractal, but he’d stayed shriveled in her hand nonetheless, too alarmed to be aroused by her cool touch. She’d been as impersonal and efficient as a trained medtech. Which was undoubtedly just as well. Ivan couldn’t vouch for how things would have gone had the task fallen to her partner.
So had undertaking the chore indicated anything except the price of winning the argument, or that Rish was protectively older, or what? Maybe the two women were escaped slaves. They could ask for asylum‑slavery was entirely illegal in the Imperium, even more disapproved than gaudy gengineering upon humans, despite the inevitable legal brangling about where mere unfavorable indentures left off and the real thing began. If Rish was a created slave, she might be valuable enough to pursue. Hell, maybe Nanja had stolen her, now there was a thought. That’d tick someone off…
For a planet with a mere nineteen‑and‑something‑hour sidereal day, this was turning into a damned long night. Ivan eyed his out‑of‑reach wristcom and tried to estimate the time left till dawn, and his non‑arrival at work. His credit chit, used at the shipping shop, would surely give ImpSec a Last Known Location. Nanja’s co‑clerk would come under questioning about as soon as the investigating officer could scramble there, and probably wouldn’t even need fast‑penta to identify Ivan. ImpSec‑not Service Security, for reasons Ivan had not yet confided to his quarry‑would probably be knocking on the door before the two women had finished arguing over whether to feed their famished prisoner any breakfast. Pleasant, well‑upholstered Nanja, Ivan imagined, would take his side…
His breath stopped at a faint scratching noise from the living room window. The flat was three floors up; there was no wind within a dome to move, say, tree branches against the polarizing glass, even assuming there were any trees on that side of the building. He hadn’t had a chance to look. He opened his mouth again, exhaling as quietly as possible. Well‑he scraped for optimism‑maybe ImpSec hadn’t waited for morning…? And if you believe that, I have a cousin who will sell you the Star Bridge in Vorbarr Sultana…
A hiss, a faint glow, as a narrow plasma beam cut a large hole in the window. Ivan thought he could see two dark shapes briefly limned in the dark beyond. Three floors up? They had to be riding some kind of float pallet, out there above the alley. The panel of normally unbreakable glass was eased back soundlessly out of the way.
Ivan had quite expected ImpSec to come collect him, yet another reason not to exert himself unduly in pointless escape attempts. But not at this hour, and not by that route. It seemed Nanja’s paranoia was more urgently justified than he’d thought.
Ivan became uncomfortably aware that he was still tied to the bloody chair. Even if he could, by some heroic effort, rip his feet out of their restraints (shedding his shoes in the process), his wrists would remain bound to the chair arms. The most he’d be able to manage would be a sort of barefoot, crouching waddle toward his probably‑armed foes. Maybe he could swing around and hit them in the shins with the chair legs…? Ivan had no desire to be stunned twice in one day, even optimistically assuming they bore stunners and not some more lethal weapons.
Ivan sank back and waited till both dark shapes had oozed through the gap and stood up, before calling out in a carrying voice: “If you’re after those two women, I gotta tell you, you’re hours too late. They packed their bags and flew ages ago.”
A low‑voiced huff from the dark that might have been, What the hell…? A faint double gleam from night goggles as two startled heads turned toward him.
“You may as well turn on the lights,” Ivan continued, loudly. “You could stand to untie me, too.” He bounced in place and thumped his chair legs, as if for emphasis.
The shapes trod forward. One reached to shove up his goggles and hit the light pad on the wall; the other yelped, “Ow!”, clapped his hands over his eyes, and hastily dragged down his own light‑amplifying eyewear. Cheap civilian models, Ivan observed, wincing against the sudden glare, not that anything more exotic would be required for this sort of sortie.
The first intruder strode toward him. Waving a stunner, Ivan noted wearily. “Who the hell are you?” the man demanded.
Two males. Komarran accents. And heights and general builds, though Komarran phenotypes were not nearly so uniformly blended as Barrayaran. It was all their centuries of trade, and passing traders, when Barrayar had been cut off from the Nexus at large. Dark clothing that might pass as street wear.
“A few minutes ago, I’d have said I was a completely innocent bystander, but now I’m starting to think I might be someone who was mistaken for you,” said Ivan amiably. “I don’t suppose you could untie me?”
“And why are you strapped to that chair?” added the other, staring.
“Tortured, too,” Ivan supplied inventively. Nanja, Rish, wake up! “Horribly. For hours.”
The second man peered in suspicion. “I don’t see any marks.”
“It was psychological torture.”
“Well,” Ivan said, beginning with the first thought that rose to his mind, “they took off all their clothes, and then‑”
The first man said, “Don’t talk to him, you fool! The job’s gone wrong. Toss the place and let’s split.”
“Hey, it gets better‑don’t you want to know about the ice cubes…?”
“Should we grab him, instead?”
The stunner wavered in doubt, steadied, pointing all‑too‑directly into Ivan’s face. “Decide on the way out. Stun him first.”
And ask questions later? In some nastier locale, much harder for ImpSec to find…? Dammit, Miles could have talked two such goons into untying him. Yeah, and probably suborned them to his cause before the ropes hit the floor, to boot. The trigger finger tightened…
The staccato buzz of a stunner beam came not from the Komarran, but from the shadows of the darkened hallway. Two pulses, two direct head‑hits, the most effective if you could make the aim. The range was short. The invaders dropped like sacks of cement.
Ivan controlled his involuntary flinch. “About time you two woke up,” he said cheerily, swiveling his head.
Rish padded into the light, followed at a more cautious tiptoe by Nanja. Neither woman wore filmy nightwear, Ivan saw to his disappointment. And apparently neither slept bare, more’s the pity. Instead, both wore body‑hugging knits suitable for the gym. Or for snapping awake in the middle of the night and dealing with unpleasant surprises.
“You know, if anything I said maybe led you to think I didn’t quite believe you, I mean, about being a touch twitchy about uninvited visitors, I take it back,” Ivan began. He nodded to the two lumps on the floor. “Anybody you know?”
Rish knelt and turned them over. Nanja followed to stare down into their faces.
“No,” said Rish.
“Local rental meat,” said Nanja, in a more disgusted tone. Her face grew suddenly tenser. “They’ve tracked us. Not only to Komarr, but all the way to here. Rish, now what do we do?”
“Follow the plan.” The blue woman rose and stared down at the unconscious pair. “Kill them first, I suppose.”
“Wait, wait!” said Ivan, a twinge of panic running through him. She meant that, even if she didn’t sound very enthusiastic about it. “I mean, I agree with your diagnosis, local hirelings. Suggests they probably don’t know much. And I don’t think they were assassins‑cappers. They were kidnappers, I bet.” He added after a moment, “And don’t I get any reward for saving you from them, just now? I mean, a kiss would be nice, but untying me would be more practical.”
Nanja, after long look at him, nodded. Under her blue companion’s disapproving glare, she knelt and undid Ivan’s bonds. He vented a whoosh of relief, rubbing his wrists and ankles before carefully standing up. The room only spun a little.
He really shouldn’t push it, but faint heart never won, and all that. He bent his head and presented his cheek to her, just to see what would happen.
A hesitation. A widening of her eyes, which, close up, were a clear sherry color, lighter than her skin, very striking framed with her long black lashes. To his unconcealed delight, she stretched her neck and bestowed a neat peck on his cheekbone.
“See?” he said, in an encouraging tone. “That wasn’t so hard.” The spot tingled pleasantly.
He poked an invader with his toe in passing, as Rish knelt to go through their pockets, then stuck his head out the big rectangular hole in the window through which a faint draft now coursed. A float pallet of much the sort used by techs to effect repairs on tall building faces hovered just below the frame. It bore a large plastic bin, typical of receptacles used to haul away soiled linens in hotels or hospitals. Empty. You could just about fit two stunned women into it, Ivan judged, if you folded them up snugly. Ah, the classics. But a cheap, common object; no one would look at it twice, so long as it wasn’t trundled through some very inappropriate location.
He drew back inside and turned to the two women. “Yep, kidnapping. Not murder. Unless they meant to kill you and then cart away the bodies, tidily. Any guesses which?”
Nanja stood hugging herself, looking cold. “It could be either, I suppose. Depending.”
“Any idea who would be sending you budget ninjas in the dark before dawn? No, silly question, belay that. Would you care to share with me who would, and so on?”
She shook her head. The clouds of curls bounced in a forlorn fashion.
“No IDs, no money, no nothing,” reported Rish, rising. “Just stunners, gloves, and pocket lint.”
The invaders, Ivan noticed for the first time, did indeed wear thin transparent gloves. Cheap, commercial, millions used to protect hands from dirty jobs all over the planet. Nothing unique, nothing traceable, which pretty much went for all of their equipment. Low rent, or cleverer than they seemed?
“You know, those goons could well have some sort of backup waiting outside,” Ivan opined.
“We have an escape route. Over the roofs,” said Nanja.
“Have you ever practiced it?”
“Yes,” said Rish, scowling at him, which was no clue, as she pretty much scowled at him all the time. “Start packing, Tej.”
Tej? Well, Ivan had known that Nanja was an alias. The blue woman hadn’t made that slip of the tongue in front of him before. Starting to trust him, or just rattled?
“Do you know where you’re going? That is, do you have a place to go?” Ivan asked.
To which Rish replied, “No business of yours,” and Nanja‑Tej said, “Why do you ask?”
Ivan promptly addressed himself to the latter. “I was thinking you might like to hole up at my place for a few days. Take stock, make your plans when not in a panic. I can almost guarantee I have no prior connection with you for your enemies to trace. It’s likely as good a safe‑house as you could get on short notice. And it’s free.”
Nanja hesitated. Nodded. Rish sighed.
“What do we do with these, then?” said Rish, nodding at the lumps. “Safest to kill them…”
Ivan was still having trouble figuring out which woman was in charge. But the lumps did indeed pose a puzzle. The most obvious thing was to call ImpSec Komarr and have them send a professional cleaning crew to take the whole mess in hand. Reminded, Ivan retrieved his wallet, stunner, and wristcom. No one objected. The thing was…
Very belatedly, it occurred to Ivan to wonder what kind of fix Byerly was in, to send an HQ desk pilot to cover these women instead of, say, a trained ImpSec bodyguard or even squad, with all the high‑tech trimmings. By’s idea of a joke was not out of the running as a hypothesis, but…just how delicate was By’s investigation? Was he simply out of range of his usual handlers, contacts, and blind drops, or was there some more sinister reason in play? By’s hints had suggested that his current bag of creepy playmates had high connections in the Service‑how high? And which branches? Could By be on the track of some corruption within ImpSec Komarr itself?
Dammit, the purpose of a briefing was to tell you everything you needed to know to do your job right. It shouldn’t be a frigging IQ test. Or worse, word puzzle. Ivan hissed in growing frustration. Next time he saw By, he was going to strangle the smarmy Vorrutyer whelp.
The smarmy Vorrutyer whelp who, Ivan had reason to know, did sometimes, if very rarely, report directly to, and receive orders directly from, Emperor Gregor…
“Don’t kill them,” said Ivan abruptly. “Pack up as quick as you can, we’ll take your escape route, and then go to my digs. But on the way out I’ll call Solstice Dome Security, report that I witnessed a break‑in from down in the street. Leave the door open for them, everything in place. Plenty enough funny business here that I guarantee they’ll take these goons in charge, maybe put them on ice for a good long time. When the local patrollers arrive, any backup out there will scatter, if they haven’t already. Does that work for you?”
Slowly, Rish nodded. Nanja‑Tej was already on her way to their bedroom.
Ivan did yield to the temptation‑temptation should have the right‑of‑way at all times, in his view‑to peek after her into the room. The flat only had the one sleeping chamber, windowless, curiously enough. Twin beds, both rumpled, hm. What did that mean…?
The two women were ready in less time than Ivan would have believed possible, having fit everything they wanted into a mere three bags. They had to have drilled this. Ivan coiled up the ropes and scarves and stuffed them into various of his jacket pockets, and returned his chair to its demure place under the kitchen table. As a practical matter, he abandoned any of his fingerprints, loose hairs, or shed skin cells to their fates. Maybe they would pose an interesting test of Solstice Security’s crime scene procedures.
Tej, dry‑mouthed with worry, jittered along the edge of her building’s roof as the Barrayaran spoke into his wristcom. He did an extremely convincing drunken drawl.
“…Yeah, you should see, I’m down in the street watching this right now. No horseshit, these two guys with, like, a window‑washer’s float pallet, goin’ right through this third‑story window. I don’t see how they’re washing windows in the dark, d’you know? Oh, my God. I just heard a woman scream…!” With a faint smile, Vorpatril shut down his link to the Solstice emergency number.
Solstice Dome never really slept. Enough general illumination from the city lights gave adequate vision for the next task, even if the colors were washed out to a mix of sepia and gray, checkered with darker shadows.
“You first, Tej,” said Rish. “Careful, now. I’ll toss you the bags.”
Tej backed up a few steps for her running start and made the exhilarating broad jump to the next building. Three floors up. She cleared the ledge with ease and turned to catch the bags, one, two, three. Rish followed, loose garments fluttering as she somersaulted in air, landing on balance half a meter beyond Tej, motionless and upright like a gymnast dismounting.
Vorpatril stared gloomily at the gap, backed up quite a way, and made a mighty running jump. Tej caught his shoulders as he stumbled past her on landing.
“Ah,” he wheezed. “Not as bad as it looked. A little gravitational advantage, thank you, Planet Komarr. Almost makes up for your miserly day‑length. You wouldn’t want to try that on Barrayar.”
Really? Tej wanted to ask more, but didn’t dare. And there was no time. Rish led off. As they made the second leap, the flashing lights of a dome patrol airsled were visible in the distance, closing rapidly.
Vorpatril balked at the next alley, half a dozen meters across. “We’re not jumping that, are we?”
“No,” said Tej. “There’s an outside stair. From the bottom, it’s only a block to the nearest bubble‑car station.”
By the time they’d distributed the bags and walked the block, carefully not hurrying, everyone had caught their breaths again. The few sleepy‑looking early, or late, fellow passengers crossing the platform scarcely spared them a glance. Rish twitched her shawl around to hide her head better while Vorpatril selected a four‑person car, paying a premium for its exclusive use and express routing. He politely took the rear‑facing seat, punched in their destination, and lowered the transparent canopy to its locking position. The car entered its assigned tube and began to hiss along smoothly.
The night was fading into dawn, Tej saw as the car rose on a long arc between two major dome sections. A shimmering red line edged the horizon beyond the limits of the sprawling arcology. As she watched, the tops of the tallest towers seemed to catch fire, eastern windows burning sudden orange in the reflected glow, while their feet remained in shadow. From a few lower sections, higher domes rose in a strange random spatter‑pattern, catching gilded arcs.
Her fingers spread on the inside of the canopy as she stared. She’d never seen practically the whole of Solstice laid out like this, before. Since they’d arrived downside, she had only left their refuge to scurry out for work or food, and Rish hadn’t ventured out at all. Perhaps they should have. Their immobility had given only an illusion of safety, in the end. “What are those domes?”
Vorpatril swallowed a jaw‑cracking yawn and followed her glance. “Huh. Interplanetary war as urban renewal, I suppose. Those are sections destroyed during the fighting in the Barrayaran annexation, or later in the Komarr Revolt. Making way for fresh new building, after.” He eyed her with tolerant amusement. “A real Komarran would have known that, of course. Even if they weren’t from Solstice.”
She clamped her teeth and sat back, flushing. “Is it so obvious?”
“Not at first,” he assured her. “Until one meets Rish, of course.”
Rish’s gloved hand pulled her shawl down lower over her face.
Several minutes and kilometers brought them to the business and governmental heart of the dome, an area where Tej had never ventured. The platform on which they disembarked was growing busier, and Rish kept her face down. They crossed the street and marched a mere half block till they came to a tall, new building. Vorpatril’s door remote coded them within. The lobby was larger than Tej’s whole flat, lined with marble and real, live potted greenery. The lift tube seemed to rise forever.
They debouched into a hushed, deeply carpeted corridor, walked to the end, and entered, through another coded door, another foyer or hallway and then a living room, with a broad view of the cityscape opening beyond a wide balcony. The decor was serene and technologically austere, except for a few personal possessions dropped at random here and there.
“Ah, no, look at the time!” Vorpatril yelped as they entered. “First dibs on the bathroom, sorry.” He broke into a jog, leaving a trail of clothing in his wake: jacket, shirt, shoes kicked aside. He was unbuckling his trousers as he called over his shoulder, “Make yourselves comfy, I’ll be out in a tick. God, I’d better be…” The bedroom door slid closed behind him.
She and Rish were left staring at each other. This sudden stop seemed even more disorienting than their prior panicked rush.
Tej circled the living area, inspecting a swank kitchenette that seemed all black marble and stainless steel. Despite its culinary promise, the refrigerator contained only four bottles of beer, three bottles of wine (one opened) and a half‑dozen packets which the undecorative wrappings betrayed as military ration bars. An open box of something labeled instant groats graced the cupboards in lonely isolation. She was still reading the instructions on the back when the bedroom door slid open and Vorpatril thumped out again: fully dressed, moist from his shower, freshly depilated, hair neatly combed. He paused to hop around and shove his feet into his discarded shoes.
Both she and‑ hee, I saw that! – Rish blinked. The forest‑green Barrayaran officer’s uniform was quite flattering, wasn’t it? Somehow, his shoulders seemed broader, his legs longer, his face…harder to read.
“Gotta run, or I’ll be late for work, under pain of sarcasm,” Vorpatril informed her, reaching past her to grab a ration bar and hold the package between his teeth as he finished fastening his tunic. He shoved the bar temporarily into a trouser pocket and seized her hands. “Help yourselves to whatever you can find. I’ll bring back more tonight, I promise. Don’t go out. Don’t make any outgoing calls, or answer any incoming ones. Lock the doors, don’t let anyone in. If a slithering rat named Byerly Vorrutyer shows up, tell him to come back later, I want to talk to him.” He stared at her in urgent entreaty. “You aren’t a prisoner. But be here when I come back‑please?”
His grip tightened; laughter flashed in his eyes. He pressed his lips formally to the backs of her hands, one after the other, in some Barrayaran ethnic gesture of unguessable significance, grinned, and ran. The outer door sighed closed on sudden silence, as if all the air had blown out of the room with him.
After a frozen moment, she gathered her nerve, went to the balcony door, and eased it aside. Judging from the angle of the light, she would get an excellent view of Komarr’s huge and famous soletta array, key to the on‑going terraforming, as it followed the sun across the sky, later. She’d never been able to see it from her own flat.
She’d been cowering in the shadows for a long, sick time, it seemed in retrospect. Every plan she’d ever been given had come apart in chaos, her old life left in a blood‑soaked shambles far behind her. Unrecoverable. Lost.
No going back.
Maybe it was time to take a deep breath and make some new plans. All her own.
She ventured to the railing and peeked down, a dizzying twenty flights. Far below her, a hurrying figure in a green uniform exited the building, wheeled, and strode off.
Tej and Rish spent their first few minutes alone scouting the exits. The luxurious flat had only the one door, but the corridor had lift tubes at either end, and emergency stairs as well. There was also the balcony, Tej supposed, but to be survivable escape by that route would require either antigrav or rappelling gear, which they did not currently possess. They next explored the interior space for any hidden surveillance equipment or other surprises; there either was none, or it was very subtle. The lock on the outer door was much better than average, and Rish set it with satisfaction, but of course no ordinary door would stop a truly determined and well‑equipped invader.
Rish did find a compact launderizer concealed in the kitchenette, and applied herself to laundering all the dirty clothes they’d hastily packed, perhaps in the hope that their next escape, whatever it turned out to be, could be more orderly. Tej discovered the captain’s sybaritic bathroom, and decided to treat her chill weariness with a long soak.
The scent of him still lingered in the moist air, strangely pleasant and complex, as if his immune system was calling out to hers: let’s get together and make wonderful new antibodies. She smiled at the silly image, lay back in the spacious tub of hot water, and frankly enjoyed his dash of inadvertently displaced flirtation in the old evolutionary dance, all the better because he couldn’t know how he was observed. It was, she realized after a bit, the first spontaneously sensual moment she’d had since the disastrous fall of her House, all those harried months back. The realization, and the memories it trailed, were enough to destroy the moment again, but it had been nice while it lasted.
She stirred the water with her toes. Since they’d gone to ground on Komarr, fear and grief had slowly been replaced with the less stomach‑churning memory of them, till last night had kicked it all up again. It was not in the least logical that she should feel‑relatively‑safe in this new refuge. Who was this Ivan Vorpatril, and how had he discovered her, and why? She floated, her hair waving around her head like a sea‑net, and breathed his fading scent again, as if it could supply some hint.
The water didn’t cool‑the tub had a heater‑but at length her hands and feet grew rather wrinkly, and she surged up out of the cradling bath and dried off. Dressed again, she found that Rish had discovered that the flat’s comconsole was not code‑locked, and was searching for any Solstice Dome Security reports on their intruders.
Rish shrugged her slim shoulders. “Not much. Just a time stamp, and our address. ‘In response to a witness report of a possible break‑in, officers arrived and apprehended two men in possession of burglary equipment. Suspects are being held pending investigation.’ It doesn’t sound like anyone’s stepped up to outbid the arrest order yet.”
“I don’t think they do it that way here,” said Tej, doubtfully.
Rish scanned down the file. “‘Officers called to domestic altercation…vandalism reported at bubble‑car platform…attempted credit chit fraud by a group of minors…’ Oh, here’s one. ‘Beating interrupted of man spotted by bar patrons stealing public emergency breath masks. Suspect arrested, patrons thanked.’ I suppose I can see why no one would have to pay for that arrest order…The Solstice patrollers were busy enough last night, but really, the crime here seems very dull.”
“I think it’s restful. Anyway, bath’s yours, if you want it. It’s really nice, compared to that dreadful sonic shower we’ve been living with lately. I can recommend it.”
“I believe I will,” Rish allowed. She stood and stretched, looking around. “Posh place. You have to wonder how he can afford it on a Barrayaran military officer’s salary. I never had the impression those fellows were overpaid. And their command doesn’t let them hustle on the side.” She sniffed at this waste of human resources.
“I don’t think it’s his real home, that’s back on Barrayar. He’s just here for some work thing.” Recently arrived, judging from the contents of his kitchenette, or maybe he didn’t cook? Tej nodded at the comconsole. “I wonder how much we could find out just by looking him up?”
Rish’s golden eyebrows rose. “Surely this benighted Imperium doesn’t allow its military secrets out on the commercial planetary net of its conquest.”
Throughout the Jackson’s Whole system, information was tightly controlled, for the money, power, and security it could bestow, and for that narrow edge that could mean the difference between a deal succeeding or failing. At the other extreme, Tej’s favorite tutors from her youth, a trio of Betans her parents had imported at great trouble and expense, had described a planetary information network on their homeworld that seemed open to the point of madness‑suicide, perhaps. Yet somehow Beta Colony remained, famously, one of the most scientifically advanced and innovative planets in the Nexus, which was why the tutors had been imported. Of all the instructors she’d been plagued with, the Betans were the only ones whose departure she’d mourned when, homesick, they had declined to renew their contracts for another year. Most other planetary or system polities fell somewhere between the two extremes of attempted information control.
“I think we may be thinking too hard,” said Tej. “We don’t need to start with his secrets, just with what everybody else knows.” Everybody but us.
Rish pursed her lips, nodded, and stepped aside. “Have at it. Shout out if you find anything useful.”
Tej took her seat. Stuck hiding in their flat, Rish had been allowed far more time to learn the arcana of making this net disgorge data than Tej, but how common could that odd name be? She leaned over and entered it.
A Komarran database was the first to pop up above the vid plate, bearing the promising title of The Vor of Barrayar. All in alphabetical order, starting with V and ending with V. Oh. There were, it seemed, hundreds and hundreds of Vorpatrils scattered across the three planets of the Barrayaran Empire. She tried reordering the names by significance.
At the top of that list was one Count Falco Vorpatril. The Counts of Barrayar were the chiefs of their clans, each commanding a major territorial District on the north continent of their planet. In their way, Tej supposed they were the equivalents of a Jacksonian Great House barons, except that they came by their positions by mere inheritance, instead of having to work and scheme for them. It seemed a poor system to her, one that did nothing to assure that only the strongest and smartest rose to the top. Or the most treacherous, she was uncomfortably reminded. Count Falco, a bluff, hearty looking, white‑haired man, had no son named Ivan. Pass on.
Several high‑ranking military officers followed, and some Imperial and provincial government men with assorted opaque and archaic‑sounding titles. There was an Admiral Eugin Vorpatril, but he had no son named Ivan either.
Belatedly, she remembered the little paper cards from Vorpatril’s pocket. There were several Ivan Vorpatrils, including a school administrator on Sergyar and a wine merchant on the South Continent, but only one Ivan Xav.
His entry was short, half a screen, but it did have a confirming vid scan. It seemed to be of him as much a younger officer, though, suggesting that he had improved with age. Tej wasn’t sure how such a stiff, formal portrait could still look feckless. His birth date put him at 34 standard‑years old, now. The entry listed his father, Lord Padma Xav Vorpatril, as deceased, and his mother, Lady Alys Vorpatril, as still living.
Her eye paused, arrested. His father’s death date was the same as his birth date. That’s odd. So, her Ivan Xav was half an orphan, and had been so for a long time. That seemed…painless. You could not miss, fiercely and daily, a man you’d never met.
She was reminded of his horrible vase. Who had he sent it to, again? She bit her lip, bent, and spelled the awkward name out very carefully. All those Vor names tended to come out as a blurred Voralphabet in her mind, unless she paid strict attention.
A very uncommon name, Vorkosigan; barely a dozen or so living adult males. But she should have recognized it nonetheless. The clan Count of that surname appeared, when she reordered the entire database by significance, second on the whole list, right after Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. Count, Admiral, Regent, Prime Minister, Viceroy…Aral Vorkosigan’s entry scrolled on for what seemed several meters of closely written text. Unofficial titles included such nicknames as Butcher of Komarr, or Gregor’s Wolf. He did have a son named Miles, of just about her Ivan Xav’s age. VorMiles also had an entry much longer than Captain Vorpatril’s, if much shorter than his sire’s.
Tej was not as vague as most Jacksonians about the history of this patch of the wormhole nexus. But she’d never expected even to visit here, let alone be trapped for months, so she hadn’t exactly studied up. Her original evacuation route had called for a direct transit across the Barrayaran Imperium, not even touching down on the surfaces of Komarr or Sergyar, just making what orbital or jump‑station transfers were needed to reach her final destination of Escobar. Or even, when that goal had begun to seem unsafe as well, to Beta Colony of imagined‑happy memory. No one would blink at Rish there. Well, all right, they probably would blink, she was made to be riveting, but no one would harass her. Anyway, the point was, this stop had never been on any sensible planner’s itinerary.
Barrayar had one of the most bizarre colonization histories in the whole of the Nexus, which was full of the relicts and results of audacious human ventures. The story extended far back to the 23rd Century CE, when wormhole travel had first been developed, launching a human diaspora from Old Earth. A prize because of its breathable atmosphere, the planet drew an early settlement attempt of some fifty thousand would‑be colonists. Who promptly disappeared from all contact when their sole wormhole link proved unstable, collapsing with catastrophic results. Missing, presumed dead, and over the next six centuries, all but forgotten.
Till, little more than a hundred years ago, a new jump route was prospected from‑to its ultimate regret‑Komarr. The explorers discovered a thriving but backward world. Subsequently, twenty years of Komarran‑supported Cetagandan occupation had failed to civilize the savage planet, but did succeed in militarizing it.
A generation after the expensive withdrawal of the Occupation, the Barrayarans had come boiling out of their cul‑de‑sac to seize Komarr in turn, presumably to block any further galactic attempts to civilize them. The momentum of their Komarran success had led in turn to an ill‑advised overreaching, as the Barrayarans of the day then went on to try to conquer more distant Escobar the same way. That expedition had failed, disastrously, in the face of strong Escobaran resistance aided by every neighbor the victim possessed, including clever Beta Colony; high‑ranking casualties had included the Barrayaran crown prince himself.
It was still a matter of profound respect and awe, to Jacksonian students of the great Deals of history, how evil Emperor Ezar had managed to hang on to the newly‑discovered planet of Sergyar during the treaty settlements, adding it firmly to his empire before dying and leaving his throne to a five‑year‑old grandson. After that, the Imperium had settled down a lot, more concerned with consolidating the boundaries they’d gained than expanding them beyond their power to defend. But in all, the Barrayarans remained uncomfortable neighbors. Jacksonians generally were just as glad they weren’t right next door, but rather, buffered by a complex multi‑jump route through the open system of the Hegen Hub and the free planetary polity of Pol.
All of which, plus two out of three systems of the Imperium, a person had to cross to reach the safety of Escobar, or Beta Colony beyond, sigh.
Tej returned to Ivan Xav’s entry. Really, there was little more here than what had been revealed by the contents of his pockets, though she supposed this confirmed their validity. He was what he seemed, a middling Vor officer of middling responsibilities and middling rank. Just middling along.
So why was he looking for me? But before she could explore further, Rish emerged refreshed from her bath to offer a shared brunch, which perforce consisted of half a military ration bar, nasty but nutritious, and half a bottle of wine each. It was surprisingly good wine, though Tej suspected the beer would have complemented the entree more stoutly. And after that, she fell into an exhausted doze on the sofa. Even after her months downside, Komarr’s short day length remained physiologically awkward. She hadn’t slept soundly since they’d arrived.
Nor since before…
Ivan was only a few minutes late, which he was honestly able to blame on the morning bubble‑car clump‑up on the tube from Dome Center out to the military shuttleport‑happily, the slowdown had been in a high section with a nice view, not in the disturbing underground stretch. Barrayar’s Komarr command HQ was somewhat awkwardly split between the downside installation next to the ’port and the orbital and jump‑point stations, but no pop‑ups to orbit were scheduled today for the visiting admiral and his loyal assistant.
Desplains, a spare and quietly competent officer in his late fifties, took in Ivan’s neat but squinty appearance with an ironic eye. “Heavy drinking last night, Vorpatril?”
“No, sir, not a drop. I was kidnapped by two beautiful women and held prisoner in their flat all night. They didn’t let me get a wink of sleep.”
Desplains snorted amusement and shook his head. “Save your sex fantasies for your friends, Ivan. Time to saddle up.”
Ivan gathered the notes and agendas and followed him out.
The three‑hour‑long morning meeting with the downside local staff was more torture than last night’s ordeal had been, in all, and Ivan only kept awake by surreptitiously pinching his earlobe with his fingernail. The afternoon’s schedule promised to be more entertaining, a private planning session with Desplains’s own inspection team, a cadre of keen and occasionally evil officers known to the inspected as the Vor Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though only two of the group had surnames burdened with that prefix.
This left Ivan his lunch hour to pursue his own affairs. He grabbed a rat bar again, poured a cup of tarry coffee, popped two painkillers in an attempt to clear the sleep‑deprivation cotton batting from his head, unwillingly contemplated his secured comconsole, and instead of starting a tedious and possibly frustrating search, called the building next door. Admiral Desplains’s name cleared his route at once.
ImpSec Galactic Affairs shared its downside offices with ImpSec Komarr, although how much the two sets of spook‑handlers talked to each other was anyone’s guess. Once past the lobby security, the hushed, windowless corridors reminded Ivan all too much of ImpSec’s parent headquarters back in Vorbarr Sultana: utilitarian, secretive, and faintly depressing. They must’ve imported the same interior designer, just before he hanged himself.
The top Galactic Affairs analyst for Jackson’s Whole here was one Captain Morozov; Ivan had been interviewed by him twice before, over his cousin Mark’s affairs. The personal touch always sped things up, in Ivan’s experience. Morozov also met, adequately, Ivan’s current who‑do‑you‑trust calibrations. Ivan found him presiding over a similar cubicle and comconsole as a few years back, even more packed with books, cartons of flimsies, and odder memorabilia. Morozov was a pale scholar‑soldier with a square, bony face, and an unusually cheerful outlook on life and his work‑ImpSec regulars could be morbid.
Morozov greeted Ivan with either a wave or an ImpSec‑style salute, it was hard to tell which, and drew up the spare swivel chair with an extended foot. “Captain Vorpatril. We meet again. What can Galactic Affairs do for Admiral Desplains today?”
Ivan settled himself, finding a place for his feet amongst the cartons. “I”‑he conscientiously did not say we – “have a query on an unusual person with a suspected Jacksonian connection.” Carefully, if vividly, Ivan described Rish, withholding her name for now‑it could be just another alias, after all. There seemed no point in describing Tej. There might be whole planets full of cinnamon‑skinned beauties out there somewhere, for all Ivan knew. Rish, he suspected, was unique. Keep it simple.
Morozov listened intently, his eyebrows climbing, fingertips pressed together in a gesture copied, Ivan was fairly sure, from his infamous former boss. As Ivan wound up he vented a Huh! Before Ivan could inquire just what kind of Huh! it was, Morozov spun to his comconsole and zipped through its file listings too fast for Ivan to follow. He sat back with a triumphant little Tah‑dah! gesture as a still vid formed over the plate.
Ivan leaned forward, staring. “Good grief! There’s a whole set!” With a conscious effort, he closed his mouth.
The vid showed a group portrait, posed and formal. Rish, it was clearly Rish, knelt on one knee, second from the left. She was wearing very little; a gold thong and a winding pattern of gold foil that appeared to be glued on, barely covering other strategic points and twining up to her neck as if to present her face as an exotic blossom. Surrounding her were four other women and a man. They had slightly varying heights and builds, but all looked equally lithe and shimmering. One woman was white and silver, one yellow and metallic gold, one green and gold, one red and garnet, and the man was jet black and silver. Six faces differently but equally exquisite, smiling faintly, serene.
“Who are they?”
Morozov smiled like a particularly satisfied stage magician. Ivan had to admit, that was one hell of a rabbit.
“Their names are Pearl, Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Onyx, and the blue one is Lapis Lazuli. Baronne Cordonah’s famous living Jewels. That scan was taken several years ago.”
“Jacksonian genetic constructs?”
“What, um, do they do? Besides stand around and look stunning.”
“Well, the Baronne was known to use them as decor from time to time‑from all reports, she was a woman who knew how to make an entrance. Also as a dance troupe, for very favored visitors. Servants, and I suspect much more. They are certainly jeeveses.”
“A jeeves is a Jacksonian slang term for an obligate‑loyal servant or slave. Made variously, either by psychological conditioning or genetic bias or both, and unswervingly devoted to their object of attachment. They’re said to pine if they are separated from their master or mistress, and sometimes even die if he or she dies.”
They actually sounded a bit like his cousin Miles’s loyal armsmen, but that select cadre of stern men wasn’t nearly so photogenic. Ivan kept this reflection to himself. “Baronne Cordonah? Any relation to Cordonah Station?” One of five vital jump point stations guarding the wormholes into and out of Jacksonian local space. Fell Station, which served the jump point out to the Hegen Hub, was usually of the most interest to Barrayar, but the others were important, too.
“Until recently, Shiv and Udine ghem Estif Arqua, Baron and Baronne Cordonah, were the joint masters of House Cordonah and all its works.”
“Until how‑wait, what? Ghem Estif?” A pure Cetagandan name. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Oh, now that’s a tale and a half.” A glint of enthusiasm lit Morozov’s eye. “How far back should I start?”
“How far back does it go?”
“Quite a way‑you’d be amazed.”
“All right, begin there. But keep in mind that I get mixed up easily.” Ivan cast an eye on the time, but quelled an urge to tell Morozov to fast‑forward it. An ImpSec analyst in a forthcoming mood was a wonder not to be wasted.
“The name of General ghem Estif may be dimly familiar to you from your history lessons…?” Morozov paused in hope. More dim than familiar, but Ivan nodded to encourage him. “One of the lesser Cetagandan generals who oversaw the last days of the Occupation, and its assorted debacles,” Morozov generously glossed. “At about that time in his career, he actually was awarded a haut wife.”
The highest honor, and burden, a Cetagandan ghem lord could acquire; such a spouse was a genetic gift bestowed by the upper tier of Cetagandan aristocracy, the haut, a super‑race‑in‑progress, or so they imagined themselves. Having met a few daunting haut ladies, Ivan could imagine that the reward had been a very mixed blessing for the old general.
“When most of his brother ghem officers returned to Eta Ceta to lay their somewhat terminal apologies before their emperor, ghem Estif and his wife understandably lingered on Komarr. It must have been a strange life and wrenching life for them, expatriate Cetagandans in the domes. But ghem Estif had his connections, and eventually his daughter Udine, who was actually born here in Solstice, married an extremely wealthy Komarran shipping magnate.”
“Uh, how many generations of Udines are we talking about…?”
Morozov held up a hand. “Wait for it…Ghem Estif’s schemes were unfortunately knocked asunder by us once more, when Barrayar annexed Komarr. The family fled in various directions. The daughter and her husband got out at the last possible moment, under fire, with the protection and aid of a mercenary captain from the Selby Fleet, which Komarr had hired to augment their defense. A somewhat eccentric Jacksonian sometime‑smuggler and hijacker by the name of Shiv Arqua.”
“Was the Komarran husband killed, then?”
“Nope. But by the end of the voyage, young Udine had definitely switched allegiances. It is unclear just who hijacked whom, but Shiv Arqua’s rise to prominence in House Cordonah began at about that time.”
“I see.” I think. Ivan wondered just what accumulated frustrations on the part of the defeated ghem general’s expat daughter had triggered such an elopement. Or had it been a more positive choice? “Er, was Shiv an especially glamorous…space pirate, then?”
Mororsov rubbed his chin. “I’m afraid even ImpSec has no explanation for women’s tastes in men.” He bent forward again and called up another scan. “The official portrait, when Arqua took the Baron’s seat, twenty years back. He’d be grayer and stouter now, if that helps.”
A man and a woman appeared standing side by side, staring into the pick‑up with grave, closed expressions. Both were dressed in red, her gown deep carmine, his jacket and trousers almost black. The woman drew Ivan’s eye first. Oh, yeah, she had the height, the luminous eyes and skin, the superb sculpted bone structure, the marrow‑deep confidence that marked a liberal serving of haut genes. A thick, black hank of shining hair bound with jeweled ribbons was drawn over her shoulder, to hang, visibly, past her knees, very much harking to the haut style.
The top of her husband’s head was barely level with her chin, though Arqua was by no means unusually short. Middle height, stocky build, the remains of a muscular youth softening in middle age; black hair of unknown length, but drawn back, probably, into some knot at his nape. Maybe some faint streaks of silver, in there? Rich, deep mahogany skin. A heavy, rather squashed face that looked as if it would be more at home running a gang of enforcers, but featuring liquid black eyes that would, Ivan suspected, be dangerously penetrating if turned on you in person.
Ivan wasn’t sure, but by the angle of their arms, he thought the two might be holding hands behind that velvety fold of skirt.
“Impressive,” said Ivan, sincerely.
“Yes,” Morozov agreed. “I was actually rather sorry to lose them. Arqua and his wife were pretty even‑handed in their dealings. Arqua got out of the hijacking trade and into the middleman, ah, recovery business quite a while back. House Cordonah had the best record for getting hostages back alive of any of the Houses that dabble in that commerce. Reliable, in their own special way. They were just as happy to sell Barrayaran information to Cetaganda as Cetagandan information to ImpSec, but if the data the Cetas received was as solid as what we did, they should have been satisfied customers. And the Cordonahs were willing to return favors, both above and below the table.”
“You keep using the past tense. So what’s Barrayar’s current relationship with House Cordonah, then?”
“It’s in disarray, I’m afraid. About seven months ago, House Cordonah suffered an especially hostile takeover by one of their rival jump‑point control cartels, House Prestene. With this much time gone by without an attempt at a countercoup, it’s almost certain that both the Baron and the Baronne are dead. A real loss. They had such style.” He sighed.
“Are, uh, the House’s new masters less helpful to us, then?”
“Say rather, untested. And uncommunicative. Several data lines were lost during the shifts, which have not yet been replaced.”
Ivan squinted, trying to imagine what that last sentence would translate to if it weren’t in ImpSec Passive Voice. Trail of bodies was a phrase that rose to mind.
“It was not known if the late Baronne’s Jewels were captured, killed, or scattered in the takeover,” Morozov went on. “So I have a keen interest in any sightings, if perhaps academic at this late date. Just where did you see Lapis Lazuli?”
“We need to talk about that,” Ivan evaded, “but I’m out of time.” He glanced at his wristcom; it wasn’t a lie, oops. He scrambled up. “Thank you, Captain Morozov, you’ve been very helpful.”
“When can we continue?” said Morozov.
“Not this afternoon, I’m afraid; I’m bespoke.” Ivan picked his way over cartons to the cubicle door. “I’ll see what I can fit in.”
“Stop by any time,” Morozov invited. “Oh, and please convey my personal best wishes to your, er, stepfather, which I trust will find him much recovered.”
“Virtual stepfather, at most,” Ivan corrected hastily. “M’mother and Illyan haven’t bothered to get married yet, y’know.” He managed a somewhat wooden smile.
As he fled in disorder down the dingy corridor, it occurred to him that there could be another reason he was getting such an unusual degree of cooperation from the ImpSec old guard these days, and it had nothing to do with his association with Admiral Desplains. He shuddered and ran on.
Ivan headed for the door at day’s end with his brain jammed with everything from personnel promotion debates to surprise inspection schemes to the lurid history of House Cordonah, but mostly with urgent mulling of just where to stop for a take‑away dinner that would most please Tej. If she’s still there. He was anxious to get home and find out. It was, therefore, no joy to see, out of the corner of his eye, a lieutenant from the front security desk waving frantically and hurrying to catch him. “Sirs! Wait!”
Too late to speed up and pretend not to have seen the fellow. Ivan and Admiral Desplains both paused to allow him to come up, slightly out of breath.
“What is it, lieutenant?” inquired Desplains. He did a better job than Ivan of concealing his dismay at their impeded escape, only a faint ironic edge leaking into his resigned tone.
“Sir. Two Solstice Security people just turned up at the front desk, saying they want to interview Captain Vorpatril.”
Interview, not arrest, Ivan’s suddenly‑focused mind noted. Although he imagined any attempt by civilian dome authorities to arrest a Barrayaran officer from the midst Barrayaran HQ could be a tricky proposition, jurisdiction‑wise.
Desplains’s brows rose. “What’s this all about, Vorpatril? It can’t be the Imperial Service’s largest collection of parking violations, again‑you don’t have a vehicle here. And we’ve only been downside four days.”
“I don’t know, sir,” said Ivan, truthfully. Suspect was not the same thing as know, right?
“I suppose the fastest way to find out is to just talk to them. Well, go along, try to make them happy.” Unfeelingly, his boss waved Ivan away. “Tell me all about it in the morning.” Desplains made a swift strategic retreat, leaving Ivan as the sacrificial rear guard.
It could have been worse. Desplains could have wanted to sit in…Ivan sighed and trudged unwillingly after the too‑efficient lieutenant, who told him: “I put them in Conference Room Three, sir.”
There were a handful of such reception rooms off the HQ building lobby, holding pens for people HQ didn’t care to admit to its inner sanctums. Ivan expected that every one of them was monitored. Conference Room Three, the smallest, had approximately the ambiance and intimacy of a tax office waiting area, Ivan discovered as the lieutenant ushered him inside. He wondered if it was made that dismal on purpose, to encourage visitors not to linger.
“Captain Vorpatril, this is Detective Fano and Detective‑patroller Sulmona, Solstice Dome Security. I’ll just leave you to it, then, shall I? Detectives, please return to the front desk and sign out again when you’re finished.” The lieutenant, too, beat a retreat.
Fano was a stocky man, Sulmona a slim but fit‑looking woman. He was in civvies, she in uniform complete with such street gear as would be expected on a patroller’s belt, including a stunner holster and shock‑stick. Both were youngish but not young. Not grizzled veterans, but not rookies; born post‑Conquest, then, though perhaps with older relatives possessing unhappy memories. Sulmona’s left hand bore a wedding ring, Ivan noted automatically.
“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Captain,” said Fano formally, standing up. He gestured to a chair across the table from the pair. “Please, sit down.”
Taking psychological possession of the space, Fano was, in proper interrogation‑room style. Ivan let it pass and sat, granting them each a neutral nod. He had suffered through a course in counter‑interrogation techniques once, long ago. I suppose it will come back to me. “Sir, ma’am. What can I do for Dome Security?”
They exchanged a look; Fano began. “We’re following up on a peculiar B amp;E arrest‑that’s breaking and entering‑early this morning in the Crater Lake neighborhood.”
Dammit, how had this pair nailed him so fast? Don’t panic. You didn’t do anything wrong. Well, all right, he’d done several things wrong, starting with listening to Byerly Vorrutyer. But he didn’t think he’d done anything illegal. Yeah, I’m the victim, here. What he said out loud was, “Ah?”
“Oh,” put in Sulmona, pulling a vid pickup from her pocket and setting it in front of them, “do you mind if we record? It’s standard procedure in these investigations.”
Why not? I’m pretty sure my people are. Yes, and the transcript would be copied to Admiral Desplains first thing tomorrow morning, no doubt. Ouch. “Sure, go ahead,” said Ivan, trying for a tone of easy innocence. He offered a friendly smile to the detective‑patroller. She seemed to be immune to his charm.
Fano went on, “The flat that was broken into is listed as rented by a young woman named Nanja Brindis, lately moved to Solstice from Olbia Dome. Unfortunately, Sera Brindis is not to be found, either last night or today‑she didn’t report to her work this morning. We understand you had contact with the young woman earlier last evening. Would you care to describe it? In your own words.”
The better to hang myself. How much of the story did this pair already possess? They had obviously seen some scan of the credit chit he’d used at the shipping shop, and maybe talked to the coworker, and who knew what else. So he’d likely better stick as closely to the truth as possible, without betraying Byerly or Nanja‑Tej. Or the Imperium. Or himself, but it was pretty easy to see where he sat in that hierarchy, should a goat be required. He sighed, because he didn’t think the Komarrans would understand it if he bleated.
“Yes, well, I’d stopped in at the shop where she worked to ship a package home. It was closing time, so I offered to take her out for a drink or dinner.”
Sulmona frowned at him. “Why?”
“Er…haven’t you seen a picture of her yet?”
“There was a scan for her work ID,” said Fano.
“Then it didn’t do her justice. She was a very eye‑catching young woman, believe me.”
“And?” said Sulmona.
“And I’m a soldier a long way from home, all right? She was pretty, I was lonely, it seemed worth a try. I know you Komarrans don’t always think us Barrayarans are human, but we are.” He matched her frown. She didn’t drop her eyes, but she did rock back a bit; point taken.
“And then what happened?”
“She said no, and I went my way.”
“Just like that?” said Sulmona.
“I can take no for an answer if I have to. Someone else will say yes eventually.”
The pair exchanged another unreadable look. Fano prompted, “And then what? Did you follow Sera Brindis to her flat?”
“No, I thought I’d stroll back to look at that lake, where they rent the boats, you know. Since it seemed I was to have time on my hands.” Wait, was that in the right direction? Well, he could feign to have been turned around. “And I ran into Sera Brindis again, coming the other way. A happy chance, I thought.”
“I thought you took no for an answer,” murmured Sulmona.
“Sure, but sometimes women change their minds. It never hurts to ask again.”
“And if they change their minds in the other direction?”
“Her prerogative. I’m not into that rough stuff, if that’s what you’re thinking.” And Ivan could see it was‑well, they were cops, they had to have seen some ugly scenarios. “I prefer my bed‑friends friendly, thanks.”
“And?” said Fano. Weariness was beginning to color the patience in his voice.
“So she invited me inside. I thought I’d got lucky, was all.” Ivan cleared his throat. “This is where it gets a trifle embarrassing, I’m afraid.” Did they know about the blue roommate? Well, they might, but Ivan decided that he wouldn’t. “I thought we were going to sit down for a drink, some get‑to‑know‑you conversation, maybe dinner after all, all the civilized stuff, when suddenly she pulled out a stunner and shot me.”
“Were you trying to attack her?” said Fano, abruptly cold.
“No, dammit. Look. I know I’ve been a desk pilot for a while, but I did have basic training, once.” And the ImpSec refresher course on personal defense once a year, but that was a non‑routine and dubious benefit of his other rank. No need to mention it here. “If I’d been trying to attack her, I’d have succeeded. She was only able to zap me because it came as a complete surprise. I’d thought things were going well.”
“And then what did you think?” said Sulmona dryly.
“Nothing. I was frigging unconscious. For a long time, I guess, because when I woke up, I was tied to a chair and the flat was dark. Seemed empty. I wasn’t sure if it was safe to yell out or not, so I just started working on trying to get loose.”
“Safe?” said Sulmona, in a disbelieving tone.
He didn’t have to play a total fool, Ivan decided. He fixed her with a frown. “If you two have worked at your jobs for any length of time, you have to have cleaned up a couple of cases of Barrayarans, especially in uniform, out in the domes who ran into Komarrans with old grudges. I didn’t know if I’d fallen into the hands of crazy people, or terrorists, or spies, or what. Or if I was about to be tortured or drugged or kidnapped or worse. So getting myself loose seemed a better bet than drawing attention.”
The pair’s return stares were tinged with enough embarrassment that Ivan was pretty sure he’d scored a hit. Develop this theme, then.
“I was just starting to make progress when these two guys showed up at the window‑third‑story window, mind you‑and started cutting through it with a plasma arc. I didn’t figure this was exactly how Komarrans went visiting their friends, y’know? Especially at that hour. For all I knew, they’d come to collect me.”
“The perpetrators,” said Fano, “in their first testimony, stated that they were in process of returning the float pallet to the person they’d borrowed it from, and saw you by chance in passing. That you cried out frantically for help, and that’s why they broke in.”
“Ha,” said Ivan darkly. “Good story, but not true. They cut their way in before they ever saw me.” He hesitated. “First testimony? I hope you fast‑penta’d those suckers.”
He’d actually neither hoped nor expected anything of the kind. Surely any kind of serious agent had to have undergone resistance treatment to the truth drug?
“Later,” said Fano. “A soon as we’d collated enough evidence and inconsistencies to legally permit us to conduct a non‑voluntary penta‑assisted interrogation.”
“What, they weren’t allergic? I mean, they seemed like pros to me. What little I saw of ’em.”
“Professional petty criminals in the domes don’t normally adopt such extreme military techniques,” said Fano. “Instead, they rely on a cell system. They never know who hired them, or why they were set to their task. Low tech, but effective enough, and very annoying. To us, that is.”
“I’ll bet,” Ivan commiserated. “So‑ were they after me?” And thank God he’d stuck as tightly to the truth as he could, so far.
Fano frowned, and admitted, “No. It seems they were hired to pick up Sera Brindis and her maidservant, and deliver them to a location where they would be handed off to yet another cell for transport. We haven’t been able to find out anything about this maidservant. Sera Brindis was the only resident listed in the flat. Did you see a second woman?”
Ivan shook his head. “Not before I got stunned.” He gave it a beat. “Nor after, for obvious reasons.”
“Did you stun the two men?” asked Fano.
“I was still tied to the damned chair, unfortunately. And blinded by the lights. I tried to con them into untying me. The shots seemed to come out of nowhere. I did hear footsteps behind me, running out the front door, but by the time I finally got free and was able to look around, nobody was there.”
“How many pairs of footsteps?”
“One, I thought, but I couldn’t swear to it. The whole night was like a damned farce, except I was the only one without a script. By then I was mainly interested in getting out of there before someone else came back and started in on any fun let’s‑torture‑the‑Barrayaran games.”
Sulmona leaned forward and fiddled with her recorder. “We received an anonymous tip about the break‑in, which led back to a data wall that none of our programs could penetrate. Happily, it seems, we now have a positive voice match.” Ivan’s own slurred voice began to sound: “…yeah, you should see, I’m down on the street watchin’ this right now…” Remorselessly, she let the call play all the way to its abrupt end. She added, “We also found a charge to your credit chit for a bubble‑car ride from Crater Lake Platform to downtown Solstice, just a few minutes after the time‑stamp on this call.” Because it never hurt a case to add a little redundancy, Ivan glumly supposed.
“ Did you hear a woman scream?” asked Fano.
“Uh, well, no, not really. I just figured it would hurry up the response. I wasn’t sure how fast those two goons were going to wake up. And I didn’t think they should be let to go wandering off on their ownsome. Better the whole mess should be turned over to the proper authorities. That would be you. Which I did.”
“You know, Captain Vorpatril, both leaving the scene of a crime and making falsified emergency calls are against the law,” said Fano.
“Maybe I should’ve hung around, but I was going to be late for work. And I was still pretty shaken up.”
Fano gestured to the recorder. “Were you drunk?”
“I won’t deny I might have had a drink or two earlier.” He could, but he wasn’t going to‑better if they thought he’d been a trifle alcohol‑impaired, which they might well buy. He could see it played to their prejudices. “But have you ever had a heavy‑stun hangover?”
Fano shook his head; Sulmona’s brows drew down, possibly in unwilling sympathy, about the first he’d got from her.
“Let me tell you, they’re downright ugly. Your head buzzes for hours, and your vision is messed up. Balance, too. It’s no wonder I sounded drunk.” And that for Admiral Desplains, and whoever else on Ivan’s own side that was going to be listening to this. Because there were limits to self‑sacrifice, and this was all bad enough, damn Byerly.
Fano’s lips twisted. “And what at your work was more important than leaving a crime scene in which, to hear you tell it, you were a victim?”
Ivan drew himself up, letting the admiral’s high Vor aide‑de‑camp out for the first time. He, too, could deliver unpleasantness in a chilly tone. “A great deal of my work is highly classified, Ser Fano. I won’t be discussing it with you.”
Both Komarrans blinked.
Sulmona riposted, “Would you be willing to repeat your testimony under fast‑penta, Captain?”
Ivan leaned back, folding his hands, sure of his ground on this one. “It’s not up to me,” he replied easily. “You would have to apply to my commanding officer, Admiral Desplains, Chief of Operations, and then after that the request would have to be approved by ImpSec HQ in Vorbarr Sultana. By General Allegre personally, I believe.” Damned well knew, actually. “An ImpSec operative would have to sit in, administer the drug and the antagonist, and record everything. You would both have to be personally investigated and cleared by ImpSec first.” Ivan added kindly, “You’re welcome to apply, of course. I expect you could get an answer in about two weeks.” And he would be on his way back to Barrayar before then.
The detectives shot him twin looks of dislike. That was all right. Ivan didn’t exactly like them, either.
“Yes, but didn’t you even report this incident to your own security, Captain?” asked Fano.
Really disliked them. “I reported it in brief to my commanding officer.” True in a sense, but oh God, wasn’t Desplains ever going to fry him in the morning over that. “As I didn’t end up in the hospital or the morgue, and I wasn’t questioned, tortured, bugged, or even robbed, I have to classify it as a misadventure encountered on my own time. Bit of a mystery, true, but mysteries get turned over to ImpSec”‑ or originate from ImpSec – “which is, thank God, not my department. I’m Ops, and happy to be so. Every ImpSec officer I ever had to do with was twisty as hell, y’know?” Especially my relatives. “But when ImpSec decides what I’m supposed to think, I’m sure they’ll tell me.”
Fano said, unhopefully, “And would ImpSec be willing to share any findings with Solstice Dome Security?”
“You can apply,” said Ivan. He bit his lower lip to stop himself from baring his teeth.
Sulmona drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “We still have a missing woman on our hands. Or not on our hands. I don’t like it. If whoever was trying to kidnap her missed her, where is she?”
“At a guess, she probably pulled up stakes and went to hide somewhere else,” said Ivan. “It would seem the sensible thing, if someone was after you.”
“The sensible thing would be to go to Dome Security for help,” said Sulmona, mouth pinching in frustration. “Why didn’t she?”
Ivan scratched his head. “Dunno. She didn’t exactly confide in me, y’know? But if she’s only lately moved here, it would make sense that her mysteries probably have their roots back where she came from. Where was that, again?”
“Olbia Dome,” said Fano, automatically.
“Then shouldn’t you folks be directing your attention to Olbia Dome?” Instead of to, say, my flat, argh?
“That will be our next task,” sighed Fano. He pressed his palms to the table and levered himself upright, and Ivan wondered how much of his night’s sleep he’d missed over this. Not as much as me. Reluctantly, he opened his hand in dismissal of Ivan. “Captain Vorpatril, thank you for your cooperation.” He didn’t add such as it was out loud, but Ivan thought it was implied.
“My personal embarrassment doesn’t seem the most important issue, here. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it. But you’re welcome. I really do hope no harm has come to Sera Brindis.”
Ivan rather pointedly escorted his visitors to the security desk to sign out. The harrowing interview over, he fled the building.
Captain Vorpatril returned nerve‑wrackingly late after dark, when both sun and soletta had set. Tej forgave him almost immediately for the sake of the several large, heavy, handled bags he bore, from which delectable odors issued.
“We have to talk,” he wheezed, but the two famished women overbore him without much resistance on his part.
“We have to eat. Do you realize you left us nothing but those awful ration bars?” Tej demanded. “That was all we had for lunch. Well, and the wine,” she added fairly. “That was pretty good.”
“ I had rat bars for breakfast and lunch, and no wine at all,” he one‑upped this.
Rish, whose metabolism was permanently set on high, sped to lay out plates and eating tools on the round glass table across from the kitchenette. The bags disgorged three kinds of pasta, grilled vegetables, a saute of spinach, garlic, and pine nuts, sliced vat beef, roasted vat chicken with rosemary, salads both leafy and fruit, cheeses, cheesecake, three flavors of ice cream and two of sorbets, and more wine. Tej could only think I do like a man who keeps his promises.
“I wasn’t sure if you had any special dietary things, customs, needs,” Vorpatril explained. “So I tried to get a range. All Komarran‑style; there’s a good place just up the street.”
“I’ll eat anything that wasn’t ever a live animal,” Rish avowed, setting‑to in demonstration.
“I was beginning to think about compromising on that live animal part,” Tej added.
Vorpatril, she was pleased to see, was a man who appreciated his food. Given the rat bars, she’d begun to picture him concealing a level of Barrayaran barbarism that even the holovids hadn’t hinted at. But the selection demonstrated an unexpected level of discernment and balance. The attunement of his senses couldn’t match her or Rish’s innate aptitude and formal training, of course, but it was far from hopeless. And he seemed unwilling to damage the dining ambiance with upsetting discourse, which suited Tej just fine.
He was still working up to whatever he’d wanted to disclose when he went off to the lav and to shed his jacket and shoes, returned via the couch, sat, and more or less fell over. “Just need to close my eyes f’r a minute…”
The eyes stayed closed; after a while, the mouth opened. He didn’t snore, exactly; it was more of a soothing purring sound, muffled by the cushion he clutched.
Rish crossed her arms and regarded him. “I’ll concede, these Barrayarans are cute when they’re asleep. They stop talking.” Her head tilted. “He even drools fetchingly.”
“He does not drool!” Tej smiled despite herself.
“Don’t get attached, sweetling,” Rish advised. “This one is dangerous.”
Tej stared down at the sleeping officer. He didn’t look all that dangerous, not with that curl of dark hair straying over his forehead, just begging for a soft hand to put it to rights…“Really?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Should we wake him up?” asked Tej doubtfully. “I don’t think he slept at all last night. I thought he would doze in the chair.”
“Eh, let sleeping creatures lie.” Rish glanced at her wristcom. “Besides, my favorite ’vid comes on right now…”
Rish, immured in their flat for weeks on end, had developed an addiction to an array of Komarran holovid serial dramas, a fondness Tej did not especially share. After a day of grubbing, the short Komarran evening left her little time for relaxation. Rish went off now to the bedroom, which had the best holovid remote link, and closed the door. First turning off the lights to make sure she was not visible from a distance, Tej slipped onto the balcony and stared out for a time at the strange, sealed city. Was her long journey doomed to end here‑one way or another? It could be worse. But it was not her choice, just an accumulation of chances.
She returned at length, carefully locking the balcony door and drawing the drapes, then set herself to quietly cleaning up after their meal. There was plenty left over to sustain them through tomorrow, at least. The captain appeared to be planning on keeping her and Rish, not that the decision was his. She returned to the couch and tentatively tried to poke him awake, pulling away the cushion. He clutched it back with surprising strength and determination for an unconscious man, mumbling and turning over to protect it, so Tej gave up and just sat down across from him to contemplate the view. She had to admit, it was a good view, genetically speaking. For a wild‑caught.
After another few minutes, Rish came out to join her, smiling in a pleased way. “I was right about Hendro Fon,” she informed Tej. “He was faking the amnesia. And the DNA sample had been substituted. Sera Jenna was a real clone! I’ll bet the trade fleet merger is off now.” She sat beside Tej and nodded at Vorpatril. “Still out, is he?”
“Yes. He must have been exhausted. I wonder what it is they make an aide‑de‑camp do all day, anyway?”
“I have no idea,” said Rish.
Quiet held sway for a time.
Tej finally murmured, “Rish, what do we do next? We’re good here for tonight, probably tomorrow, but then what? I can’t go back to my job.”
“Small loss. I know you worked hard, sweetling, but your grubber job was far too slow in filling the bag. I said so at the time.”
“You did. I thought Nanja would get something better soon.” And the commonplace shop had seemed to be ideal for lying very low indeed. Tej had learned how to do every task required of her in less than two days. Which was good, because she doubted she’d have been up to mastering anything more challenging, just then. I’m so sick of this struggle. “Nanja Brindis used up my last identity package, and she was barely deep enough to pass even a cursory inspection.” Maybe that was a good thing. Her next identity would surely be less predictable to their pursuers if even she couldn’t predict it.
Nor afford it.
If they could get to Escobar, better identities might be made available to them there, but if they couldn’t get off Komarr without better IDs…
“I really realize, now, what it is to be Houseless.”
Rish gripped her hand in brief consolation. “I suppose we could try going to ground in a different dome. Maybe Equinox, or Serifosa. If we can’t afford a jumpship, we could at least afford the monorail. Get out of Solstice, where we know we’ve been smoked.” Her voice was unpressing.
“A smaller dome would make it even harder to hide, though.”
Rish stood, stretched, and wandered over to prod their host. When he did not stir, she leaned over and neatly forked his wallet from his pocket. She brought it back to Tej, and they went through it together, again.
“Not much cash,” said Rish, “and we can’t use his credit chit. Though I suppose his IDs would fetch a good price, if we could find the right buyer.”
“This”‑Tej fingered the thin stack of local currency, then tucked it into the wallet again‑“would only sustain us for a few days. We’ve a couple of days for free right here. This much wouldn’t get us ahead. Just put it back.”
Rish shrugged and did so, as deftly as she had extracted it.
Tej leaned her head back, her own eyes closed for a time.
“I saw this vid show,” Rish offered after a while, “all about Sergyar, and the colonization effort. It looked like a nice world, breathable atmosphere and all.”
“Did they show anything about that horrid worm plague?” Tej shuddered.
“Not a word. I think they were trying to persuade people to move there. Gruesome pictures of colonists all bloated up like lumpy sausages wouldn’t much aid that. But I gathered you could go as some sort of indentured laborer, and pay for your passage after.”
It sounded like the first step on the slippery slope into contract slavery, to Tej. What she said aloud was, “But Sergyar has an even smaller population than Komarr. And it’s all stocked with Barrayarans. How would you hide there?”
“It’s a very mixed population, I heard. The current Vicereine is making an effort to draw immigrants from all over. Even Beta Colony. It won’t be like Barrayar, or even Komarr, if that keeps on.”
They were both silent for a while, contemplating this option. It depended on their being able to make it to orbital embarkation alive and uncollected, which didn’t seem a good bet right now.
“There’s Captain Mystery, here.” Rish nodded to the sleeping figure across from them. “Captain Vormystery, I suppose he would correct that.”
“Ivan Xav, the one and only. I think he likes me.”
“Oh, I can smell that.” Rish smirked. “He also has a slight breast fetish.”
“Don’t they all,” Tej sighed. The corners of her mouth drew up. “Though not, in his case, for slight breasts.”
“If he were a random Komarran stranger off the street, I’d advise‑though only as a second‑to‑last resort‑that you attach yourself to him and ride as far as you could. But he’s not Komarran, he’s definitely not random, and that’s far too strange.”
Another long silence.
Rish finally said, in a very low voice: “I would die before I allowed myself to be taken back and used against the Baron and Baronne.”
In an equally quiet tone, Tej returned, “There’s no Baron and Baronne left to be used against. We’d just be used.” She blinked eyes gone abruptly blurry. No. I won’t cry any more. If weeping were going to help, it would have done so by now.
Both stared straight ahead. Rish’s voice went darker, bleaker. “Once they grab us, the chances for the last escape will grow very constrained. Too soon could become too late too fast to target.”
No need to say out loud what the last escape was; they’d discussed it twice before, though they’d twice evaded it, once by bare minutes. “How, here?”
“Too dangerous for either of us to go out looking for a painless termination drug, though I did notice a sign for veterinary hospital on the way, could be raided, but…I read about this method, once, that they used on Old Earth. Lie back in a hot bath and just open your veins. It only hurts for a moment, a little sting, less than a hypospray jab, they say. There’s that great big tub in the bathroom. We could just ease back and…go to sleep, sweetling. Just go to sleep.”
“It would be a bit tough on Ivan Xav when he came home, though, wouldn’t it? Not to mention tricky for him to explain to the dome cops.”
“Not our problem by then.”
Barely turning her head, Tej glanced aside at her companion. “You’re tired, too. Aren’t you.”
“Very,” Rish sighed.
“You should have taken a nap this afternoon, as well.” Tej scrunched her eyes in thought. “I don’t know. I think I’d rather seize some last chance for…something. Go to the highest tower in Solstice, maybe, and step off the roof. The fall would be great, while it lasted. We could dance all the way down. Your last dance.”
“Bitch of an arret at the end, though,” said Rish.
“And no encore. The Baronne always loved your encores…”
“I vote for the tub.”
“The balcony out there might do, if we were cornered.”
“No, too public. They might scrape us up and put us back together. And then where would we be?”
“That’s…really hard to guess.”
More silence. The sleeping captain snorted and rolled over again.
“You’d have a better chance of hiding out minus me,” began Rish.
Tej sniffed. This, too, was an old argument. “My loyalties may not be bred in my bones, odd‑sister, but I’ll back nurture against nature any day you care to name.”
“Nature,” breathed Rish, starting to smile.
“Nurture,” said Tej.
“Tower.” Tej paused. “You know, we need a third vote, here. We always end up in a tie. It’s a gridlock.”
“Whatever.” Tej tilted her head in consideration. “Actually, the best method would be something that made it look like our pursuers had murdered us. The local authorities would think they were killers, and their bosses would think they botched the snatch. Get them coming and going.”
“That’s pretty,” Rish conceded. “But it would only cook the meat. The best revenge would fry the brains.”
“Oh, yes,” Tej sighed. Oh, yes. But she didn’t see how to reach all the way home to effect such a deed from the Unbeing, given that she couldn’t even do so while still breathing.
Vorpatril rolled back and made a strange wheezing noise, like a distant balloon deflating, then went quiescent again.
“Eyeable show, that, I grant you,” said Rish, nodding to him, “but there’s not much of a plot.”
“Think of it as experimental dance. Very abstract.”
Rish yawned. “I vote we take over the bed. Leave him out here.”
“You know, I think you might get a unanimous‑” Tej froze as the door buzzer sounded, loud in the stillness. Rish jerked as if electrocuted and leaped to her feet, golden eyes wide.
Tej lurched across to the other sofa and shook its occupant by the shoulder, saying in an urgent undervoice, “Captain Vorpatril! Wake up! There’s someone at your door!”
He mumbled and hunched in on himself, like an animal trying hide in a hole too small for it. The buzzer blatted again.
Tej shook him again. “Ivan Xav!”
Rish stepped across, grabbed his sock feet, and ruthlessly yanked them to the floor. The rest of him followed with a thud. “Hey, ah, wazzit?” he mumbled indignantly, rolling over and sitting up at last, then clapping a hand over his eyes. “Ah, too bright!”
The door buzzer sounded and did not stop, now, as if someone held it down with a thumb and leaned in.
“Who the hell’d be out there at this time of night?” Vorpatril blinked in a blurry attempt to focus on his wristcom. “What is this time of night?”
“You’ve been asleep almost three hours,” said Rish.
“Not ’nough.” He tried to lie back down on the floor. “God, what’s that noise in my head? Swear I didn’t drink that much…”
“Answer your door,” Tej hissed, hauling on his arm. To the buzzing was now added a thumping, as if someone was hitting the door with a bunched hand. Surely kidnappers wouldn’t be this noisy…?
He lumbered up at last, visibly pulling himself into focus. “Right. Right. ’L go find out.” He waved them off as he started for the short hallway leading to the door on the corridor. “You two go hide.”
Tej stared wildly around. The place had only the living room, kitchenette, bedroom, and bath, spacious as they were, plus two closets and the balcony; any search for cowering women would be short and foregone. Should she allow herself to be cut off from access to that balcony? Rish darted into the open bedroom doorway and frantically motioned her to follow; instead, Tej nipped to the other corner and peeked around into the entry hall.
The door slid aside. From a shadowy shape occluded by Vorpatril’s broad shoulders came a terse voice, male, Barrayaran accent: “Ivan, you idiot! What the hell happened with you last night?”
To Tej’s considerable surprise, the captain reached out, grabbed his visitor by the jacket, and swung him inside and up against the hall wall. The outer door hissed closed. She caught a bare glimpse of the man before shrinking back out of sight: neither old nor young, shorter than Ivan Xav, not in any recognizable uniform.
“Ivan, Ivan!” the voice protested, shifting its register from irate to placating. “Easy on the jacket! The last time anyone greeted me with that much passion, I at least won a big, sloppy kiss out of it.” A slight pause. “Granted, that was my cousin Dono’s dog. Thing’s the size of a pony, and no manners‑it will jump all over‑”
“Byerly, you, you‑ImpWeasel! What the hell did you set me up for?”
“Just what I wanted to ask you, Ivan, my love. What went wrong? I thought you would bring the woman back here!”
“Not on a first date, you twit! You always end up at her place, first time. Or some neutral third location, but only if you’re both insanely hot.”
“I stand enlightened,” said the other voice, dryly. “Or would, if you would let me down. Thank you. That’s better.” Tej fancied she could almost hear him shooting his cuffs and adjusting his garb.
Ivan Xav’s voice, surly: “You may as well come on in.”
“That was what I’d had in mind, yes. I’d have thought the five minutes I spent leaning on your door buzzer would have been a clue, but oh well.”
Tej retreated on hasty tiptoes across the living room and around the bedroom doorframe. Rish stood plastered against the wall on the far side, listening intently. She raised a warning finger to her lips. Tej nodded and breathed through her open mouth.
The light, exasperated voice continued, “The latest updates from Solstice Dome Security on the break‑in remain very unenlightening, but‑tied to a chair, Ivan? However did you manage that?”
“I haven’t seen the latest‑oh, God, they didn’t give my name, did they?”
“Do they know your name?”
“They do now.”
“Ivan! You should know better!” A hesitation. “The next begged question being, of course, how did you get untied?”
The captain heaved a sigh. “Before you say anything more, Byerly‑ladies, you’d better come out, now.”
Whoever this man was, he seemed to know Ivan Xav, and far too much about Tej’s affairs. Should she trust in her host’s cavalier disclosure of them? Do we have a choice? Tej let out her breath, nodded across to Rish, and stepped out of the bedroom doorway. The new man swung around to take her in, his eyebrows climbing.
“The hell! Do you mean to tell me I’ve been running mad since midmorning trying to trace the woman, and she was here all the‑”
Rish stepped out from behind Tej and regarded the newcomer coolly.
He was abruptly expressionless‑now, there was a curious first response‑his face unreadable. But not the rest of him. His eyelids did not widen, but his pupils flared. Rish could actually pick up heart rates, a degree of discernment beyond Tej’s capacity, though she fancied his heart did not speed, but actually slowed, seeming to take bigger gulps in its shock. Of the surprise, fear, and arousal all present in the first faint scent of him, wafting to her, she suspected he was only conscious of the first two.
He blinked, once. Closed his lips with a visible effort. “My word,” he said faintly.
“Yeah, that’s what I said. More or less,” said Vorpatril. “Or would have, if she hadn’t just grassed me with a stunner.”
“Mademoiselle.” The man named Byerly favored Rish with a flowing half‑bow, only partly a parody of the gesture. “May I just say, a stunner seems redundant? So, introduce us, mon coz.” He was back in control of himself, now. Rish’s eyes were very narrow, watching him intently. Taking him in, far more literally than he could guess.
“He’s not my cousin,” said Vorpatril, with a jerk of his thumb at his visitor. “The relationship’s more removed, although, alas, not removed nearly far enough. Tej, Rish, meet Byerly Vorrutyer, commonly known as By. Just plain By. Not Lord Vorrutyer or Lord Byerly‑those titles are reserved for the sons of the Count.”
In coloration, the two might have been siblings, though the underlying bones denied that first impression. Yet clearly, the two men shared a generous measure of Vor genes. Caste might be the precise term. The visitor wore a vaguely military‑looking jacket and trousers, decorated with braid and piping that she suspected were more artistic than indicative of rank. The jacket swung open, revealing a fine shirt and colorful braces. And a brief glimpse of a discreet stunner holster.
Ivan Xav was dangerously engaging. This man was dangerously…tense? Tired? Wired? Yet despite his manhandling in the hallway, there was no flinching in his posture, no effort to distance himself from his host. No fear of Vorpatril, nor of Tej for that matter. Rish‑by the flicker of his eyes, the angle that he held his body, he was keenly conscious of Rish. Trying to account for her?
Vorpatril went on, “By, meet Tej, also known as Nanja Brindis‑but you knew about her, didn’t you? And her…friend, Rish. Who was a surprise to us all, but I believe the dome cops have her down on their play‑list as the maidservant, missing.”
Tej swallowed. “How do you do, Byerly Vorrutyer,” she said formally. “That tells us who you are, but not, I’m afraid, what you are.” She let her eyebrows rise in an inquiry divided equally between the two Barrayarans.
Vorpatril folded his arms and stared off into space. “That would be for By to say.”
The other Barrayaran drew a long breath‑buying time to think? – and cast an inviting wave toward the angled pair of couches. “Indeed. May I suggest we all sit down more comfortably?” Another moment or two purchased, while she and Rish alighted where they’d been before, and the two men took Vorpatril’s late sleeping slot. But after settling himself next to his removed relative, who removed himself yet further to the couch’s end, Byerly still looked rather blank. “Um. So. How…did you all end up here?”
Tej said, in chill tones, “Captain Vorpatril invited us.”
“They wanted a safe place to lie low,” Vorpatril put in. “Which must be working, if you couldn’t find ’em.” He added after another moment, “On purpose, anyway.”
Tej frowned at Byerly. The mismatch between his foppish mannerisms and his body’s testimony was as grating to her senses as clashing colors or a musical discord. “Who are you?”
“Good question. Who are you?”
“I can tell you one thing,” said Vorpatril. “Got it from Morozov, the Jackson’s Whole guru in Galactic Affairs out at HQ‑Rish, here, is also known as Lapis Lazuli. She used to be part of a whole gengineered dance troupe belonging to the, evidently, late Baronne Cordonah of Cordonah Station. Seems that about seven months ago, House Cordonah was swallowed up by some pretty nasty competitors.”
Rish looked up, eyes hot with rage, swiftly banked. “Not competitors. Predators. Scavengers. Hyenas, jackals, and vultures.”
“A veritable zoo,” said Byerly, his brows lifting above widened eyes. “Were you, ah, there at feeding time?”
Tej held up her hand. “We won’t tell you anything.” She waited while his face tightened in frustration, and then offered her only card, or the illusion of it. Pure bluff, exhilarating and sickening. “But we might deal you for it. Answer for answer, value for value.”
Would he go for it? The deal was utterly hollow. The man could pull out his stunner, drop Rish where she sat, and take Tej before she was half launched at him‑though perhaps less easily the other way around. She could wake up tied to a chair like poor Ivan Xav, except with the cool kiss of a hypospray of fast‑penta held to her arm. In minutes, be spilling everything she knew, along with fits of giggles. Why should he buy what he could so easily steal?
Instead, he sat back. There ensued a long, thoughtful, silence.
“All right,” said Byerly at last. “I’ll deal.”
Rish’s brows rose in surprise. So did Vorpatril’s.
“What’s your real name, Sera Brindis?” By began at once.
Tej’s mouth drew down, concealing both elation and terror. His supple adaptation was almost Jacksonian, and yet he was as purely Barrayaran as Vorpatril. Did he understand what he was doing‑what she was doing? Only one way to find out. “That’s a question worth my life. What have you to offer of equal weight?”
His head tilted. “Eh, perhaps we won’t start with that one, then. As for what happened last night, I can get that free from Ivan, so I shan’t waste a trade on it. What did happen last night, Ivan?”
Vorpatril started. “Eh? You want the short version? No thanks to you, these ladies mistook me for a hired goon sent to stalk them, a misunderstanding we didn’t get straightened around till the real goons showed up. You owe me for a lost night’s sleep, a stunner hangover, having to jump tall buildings with a stunner hangover, and, let me add, a major personal disappointment. We bailed, left the goons out cold on the floor, called in the break‑in to the dome cops, and came here with barely time left for me to get to work.”
Byerly ran his hands through his dark hair, disarranging it. “Dear God Ivan, why did you call Dome Security?”
“They were bound to turn up eventually. I didn’t want the goons to get away, sure as hell didn’t want to take ’em with me, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust”‑he hesitated‑“other authorities, given some things you’d said.” He went on, sounding more aggrieved, “And to cap it, the two most unsympathetic dome cops ever tracked me to work just at quitting time and cornered me for forty‑five minutes of grilling. They were just itching to arrest me for stalking, rape, kidnapping, murder, who knows what else‑being Barrayaran, I expect.”
“Ah, shi‑did you mention me?”
“Kept your existence entirely out of it. Had to tap‑dance around their physical evidence like a loon to do it, too, so you can say Thank you, Ivan.”
“That may be premature.”
Vorpatril’s scowl deepened. “Yeah, and to make things worse, this all took place in an Ops conference room, where you just know it was monitored. It’ll all be in my boss’s inbox by tomorrow morning, and I might lie to the dome cops for you, By, but I’m damned well not going to lie to Desplains.”
Byerly pounded his forehead with his fist. “ Ivan. If you knew that, why didn’t you take them out somewhere else for that interview‑coffee shop, park bench, anywhere? You haven’t the instinct for self‑preservation that God gave a canary. How ever have you survived so far?”
“Hey! I do fine, on my own. It’s only when you Im‑you damned weasels show up in my life‑uninvited, generally‑that it gets this complicated.”
“All right, I have a question,” said Tej, interrupting all this‑how long would they keep it up? “Who sent Captain Vorpatril to me, who gave him my picture? Was it you?” She frowned at the other Voralphabet.
He spread a hand over his chest and offered her a sitting bow. “None other. I trust you found him satisfactory?”
“That’s two questions.”
“So keep score.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did you know Rish and I were going to be attacked last night? How?”
Vorpatril bit his knuckle.
Byerly’s face set in a faint, empty smile for a moment‑processing? – then relaxed into its ironic default expression once more. “I hired them.”
Tej’s heart plummeted. Were they deceived‑again…?
“What!” cried Vorpatril indignantly. “You might have said!”
“I was not certain to what degree I could rely on your acting abilities.”
Vorpatril crossed his arms and sat back with a snort.
Uh, what…? thought Tej. Rish’s empty hand slipped quietly back out of her trouser pocket, even her guarded face bewildered.
Byerly continued to Tej, “I am presently engaged in studying some people. Frequently, the best way to gain a close view is to make myself useful, which I do‑selectively. While it is not always true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, in this case I thought it well to give the appearance of cooperation while diverting its result, at least until I could find out more about you.”
So he’d betrayed her with one hand, and his acquaintances with the other? “That’s…pretty ambidextrous.”
He shrugged, unoffended. “Hence Ivan‑a third hand, if you like, whom I admit was a last‑minute stop‑gap, but this all came up rather suddenly. My plan‑as there was no indication whatsoever that your strangely elusive maidservant lived in‑was that he should take you out frolicking, leaving the cupboard bare for your midnight visitors. Pleasant for you both, frustrating for them, entirely unconnected with me. I still don’t know why they wanted you kidnapped, mind you.” He looked up and batted his eyes invitingly.
“You’re an agent.” Commercial, governmental? Surely not military. “What kind?”
“Now, that is a piece of information worth your name.”
Ivan put in, “Er, Tej, if your enemies know who you really are already, why should your friends be kept in the dark? Does this make sense to you? Because it doesn’t to me.”
“You’ve not proved yourselves our friends.”
“What, I have too!” said Vorpatril. He jerked his thumb at the other man, and conceded, “Him, maybe not so much.”
Tej rubbed her mouth. Ivan Xav had a point. “Is he trustworthy?” she asked him straight out.
“No, he’s a damned weasel.” Vorpatril hesitated. “But he won’t betray Barrayar. If what you are poses no threat to the Imperium, you have nothing to fear from him. Probably.”
Byerly cast Vorpatril a look of exasperated disbelief. “Whose side are you on?”
“You’ve been known to make mistakes. I distinctly recall pulling your, and your Countly cousin’s, feet out of the fire on one of ’em, spectacularly. But do I get respect? Do I get gratitude? Do I get‑”
Byerly, hunching, said, “You got another job.”
For some reason, this settled him. “Huh.”
Byerly massaged his neck, looked up, and met Tej’s gaze with a mild smile belied by his intent eyes. “Very well. I will now deal for your name.” He inhaled. “I am an Imperial Security surveillance operative. My specialty is normally the high Vor social milieu centering around Vorbarr Sultana. I am out of my usual venue because the people I am following left there and came here in pursuit of their affairs, which are certainly criminal and potentially treasonous.”
Tej shook her head. “The ones who are after us are not Barrayarans.”
“I know. Yours are the people my people are dealing with. Locating you for them was to be a favor, to sweeten a pot presently in process of going sour.”
Vorpatril’s face scrunched. “Hey. Was finding Tej and Rish one of the little ways you made yourself useful, too?”
“For God’s sake, By! What if those goons had snatched ’em?”
“I thought the experiment might yield much useful information, whatever way it fell out,” said Byerly, sounding pressed. “In no case would their captors have been allowed to carry them out of the Imperium. But if Tej and Rish can tell me even more about their, ah, foes, then this affair has fallen out better than I might have expected. Although there are other consequences…well.” Very reluctantly, he added, “Thank you, Ivan.”
“It’s not just my life at risk,” said Tej slowly. “Rish’s is, too.”
Byerly said, “I am working with two associates. If I‑what is that Jacksonian phrase? – get smoked, it is probable that they will be, too. So you see, I am not without my further responsibilities, either.”
It occurred to Tej that this exchange had just given the Barrayaran agent a very good professional reason to keep her and Rish as far away as possible from kidnappers and hostile interrogators, regardless of his other agendas. Her bluff had won them a very real prize. Or else he’d want them safely dead, but she did not sense the excited tang of such a hidden lethal intent upon him. Tej glanced at Rish, who had been following this with all her attention‑and superior senses. Is he telling the truth? Rish returned a cautious nod. Yes, go ahead. With maybe a So far implied.
Yes. This man’s coin is information. Not…coin. Rish would appreciate the aesthetic clarity, to be sure.
Tej swallowed. “Very well.” Her throat felt very tight and thick, as if it were closing off in some deathly allergic reaction. “My full name is Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua. My parents are‑were‑Shiv and Udine ghem Estif Arqua. Baron and Baronne Cordonah.”
She looked up, to gauge the effect of this news. Byerly had gone expressionless again, as if not merely processing, but locked up. Vorpatril’s face had fallen into a fixed smile. She had once owned a favorite fur and fabric bear, very huggable, with eyes that glassy, but she felt no urge to hug the Barrayaran now.
Ivan’s mind had gone so blank, the first thought that arose in it sped out of his mouth wholly without impediment. “How did all that name get stuck on one girl?” And how the devil did she spell it?
Tej‑Ivan could see why the nickname, now‑tossed her clouds of curls in impatience. She made a truncated gesture, as if to deny‑what? “When we kids started to come along, my father found this book‑I don’t know from where‑ Ten Thousand Authentic Ethnic Baby Names From Old Earth, Their Meanings and Geographical Origins. He had trouble choosing. I have a sister named Stella Antonia Dolce Ginevra Lucia, but by the time I arrived, he’d reined back a little.” She added after a moment, “We called her Star.”
“You’re…not an only child, then?” asked By. “Not the heiress of your House?”
Oh, there was a good question. And an appalling thought.
Tej gave By a cold stare. Waiting for a trade?
“I’m an only child, myself,” Ivan offered.
“I know that.”
“I looked you up on the comconsole. You’re really you, too.” She frowned at Byerly. “I wonder what I’d find if I looked you up?”
“Not much. I am a scion of an undistinguished cadet branch of my family.” By’s glance flickered to Rish, listening with those pointed turquoise elf‑ears. “Disinherited, technically, but since my branch possesses nothing to inherit, that was something of an empty gesture on my father’s part.”
“He has a younger sister, I think,” said Ivan. “Haven’t ever met her. Married and living on South Continent, isn’t she, By?”
By’s smile, already thin, flattened further. “That’s right.”
“There’s no point in withholding anything Captain Morozov could tell us,” Ivan pointed out helpfully to Tej. This whole deal thing was alarming, really, all too Jacksonian and adversarial. “That’ll include anything that’s public knowledge, or that’s hit the Nexus news feeds.” And likely a good bit more than that, and Ivan was now sorry that he hadn’t lingered to learn more. But it would have been bound to lead in turn to questions he hadn’t wanted to answer just then, such as, How many mysterious women are you hiding in your rental flat, Ivan?
Tej rubbed her eyes with one slim brown hand. “I’m the second‑youngest. My oldest brother was the heir, but he was reported killed in the takeover, too. I’m pretty sure my two older sisters made it out of Jacksonian local space through other jump points, but I don’t know what happened to them after that. My other brother…got out a long time ago.”
“How did that work? Your escape?” asked By.
Tej shrugged. “It’s been set up for ages, for all us kids in case of a House emergency. There was a drill. When we were given the code word, we weren’t supposed to ask questions or argue or delay, we were just supposed to follow our assigned handlers. I’d been through it once before, a few years back‑we made it to Fell Station before the turnaround order caught up with us. I thought that’s what would happen again.”
“So you weren’t an eyewitness to the Cordonah Station’s, er, forcible change of management?”
“I think Star got out just as the station was being boarded, but the rest of us were hours gone by then. The evacuation drill was never something my parents took chances with.” She swallowed, her throat obviously tight with some upsetting memory. “Everything we learned, we learned later through the news feeds, though of course you can’t trust them.”
“Twice,” said Rish, unexpectedly. “Surely you weren’t too young to remember?”
“Was that the trip we took when I was six? Oh! No one ever told me what that was all about. Just that we were going on a ride, and a visit.”
“We wanted to keep you calm.”
“What, you couldn’t have been older than fifteen.” Tej turned to Ivan, though not to Byerly, and said, “Rish used to baby‑sit me a lot when I was younger, in between dance practice and other chores the Baronne assigned.”
You call your mother the Baronne? Well, the tall woman in Morozov’s scan had looked formidable, more beautiful than warm. The man…had been harder to gauge.
“Is Rish your assigned handler?” asked By.
Tej shook her head. “We had a real bodyguard, a courier. I’m afraid he may be dead, now. That happened on Fell Station. We almost didn’t get away.”
Had the man bought their escape with his life? Seemed like it, from the quiver in her voice, and the chilled look in Rish’s eyes. But if Rish wasn’t the official bodyguard, what was she? Ivan looked at her and asked, “So are you really a jeeves?”
Those spun‑gold eyebrows rose. “What would you trade for that information?”
“I…” Ivan glanced aside. “I think it’s Byerly’s turn, now.”
By shot him a look of annoyance, which left Ivan unmoved.
“Actually,” Ivan went on to him, “I think you owe me a bucket of information, By. Before I put my foot in it by accident, again, and I’m not taking any more Ivan, you idiots off of you when you can’t be troubled to give me a decent briefing!” This ringing declaration left him a little winded, and By edging slightly away, good. If Ivan had to shout to be heard, maybe it was time to bellow a bit. “Name names, Byerly!”
Byerly looked as if he’d rather knock out several teeth and hand them across. Nevertheless, after a narrow frown at the two women, he rubbed his forehead and began, “All right, then. Ivan, d’you know Theo Vormercier?”
“Barely. Not my crowd.”
“Quite. Lately, he was cut out of a long‑expected inheritance when his aging uncle, Count Vormercier, remarried and began springing offspring.”
“Really? I mean, I’d heard about the marriage, from m’mother y’know, but I didn’t think the new wife was that much younger than him.”
“Technology, of course. They used genetic assembly and a uterine replicator. I understand they now have a brand‑new gene‑cleaned bouncing baby boy and another on the way.” Byerly smirked. “Say, any chance that your mother and old Illyan would‑”
“No,” said Ivan firmly. Not that a certain formidable auntly person hadn’t actually suggested it, Betan that she was. He glanced at Tej, listening intently if with a somewhat baffled expression. “You were saying about Vormercier.”
By’s eyes glinted with fleeting amusement; he nodded and went on, “Theo had been living on his expectations for quite a long time, and not frugally. To say that this development took him aback would be understating the case. In the meanwhile, he had a younger brother in the Service‑a quartermaster officer in the Sergyar Fleet’s orbital depot. Brother Roger’s expectations, while considerably more modest, were equally thwarted. About a year ago, Theo went out to visit him. And, evidently, they talked.”
“Sergyar Fleet is Commodore Jole’s patch,” said Ivan. “Not to mention…Huh. Not a good place to play games.”
“Doubtless that had something to do with the extreme caution and cleverness with which they went about it. Roger’s embezzlements began small, with theft of a load of outdated military equipment and supplies that had been slated to be destroyed. Perfectly understandable temptation, almost an admirable frugality when you think about it. The receiver contacts they’d made with that scam led to bigger and better contacts, and the next effort was much more ambitious.”
“How’d you get all this from Vormercier? You fast‑penta him when he wasn’t looking?”
“Alcohol and braggadocio, Ivan. And stretched patience and a strong stomach on my part, if I do say so.” By sighed. “The conspirators divided the task. Roger takes care of the heavy lifting. Theo launders the money. There is no money trail back to the actual military thieves. The loads go as opportunity permits from Sergyar orbit to Pol Station, where they are slipped to their non‑Barrayaran receivers and into a void. Money comes out of a void into the hands of a contact on Komarr, who finds various apparently‑legal ways to hand it on to Theo, who takes it back to Barrayar and invests it. At a much later date, the military minions stop by and collect, under an inventive variety of pretexts. But like many another gambler before them, the brothers Vormercier appear never to have heard of the dictum, Quit while you’re ahead.”
“My Dada used to say that,” said Tej. Rish nodded.
Byerly, after a bemused pause, cast them a small salute and continued. “The old phrase, No honor among thieves also seems apropos. I have reason to think Theo has been embezzling from the funds entrusted to him. In any case, he was quite on‑edge when it became time to take his yacht, his entourage, and his trusted hanger‑on‑that would be me‑to Komarr for a soletta‑viewing party. And gather in his next payout for goods delivered from his Komarran contact. Unfortunately for Theo, the goods have not been delivered. The ship was unexpectedly delayed in Komarr orbit, and has missed its Pol Station rendezvous. I believe your people had something to do with that, Ivan?”
Ivan pursed his lips and whistled. “So it’s gotta be the Kanzian. Only Sergyar Fleet vessel in‑system right now. The Vor Horsemen snagged it for the fleet inspection. Desplains likes springing little surprises like that, though I bet it wasn’t a surprise to Jole. He’ll likely reciprocate, next chance.”
Byerly nodded, as if satisfied to have another stray piece of his puzzle slot into place. “While Theo’s contacts appear to be relatively unruffled by the development, Theo is in a lather. The contacts have declined to advance him moneys on a cargo as yet in limbo, but offered as a sop a surprisingly substantial bounty on your two guests.” Byerly nodded across at the women. “Beggars not being choosey, Theo promptly seized the sop and set me on the task, and here we are.”
By paused as if for a round of applause, and appeared disappointed to only receive three long stares. “Collecting the identity of Theo’s Komarr contact was a bit of a coup for me, but hardly enough to justify my expense reports. But, as Ivan could no doubt explain in his exemplary military manner, the best way to capture a wormhole is from both ends at once.” He spread his arms wide then brought his hands slowly together, caging air, or something only he could see. “If one could get a handle on those people in the void beyond Pol Station, one might well work backward to trap everything that lies between them and Komarr.” He looked up with undisguised interest at Tej and Rish. “Do you figure the people who bid for you are from the syndicate that seized your House?”
Tej’s fists clenched, opened. “Prestene? I…don’t know. Maybe. Or they might be anybody, looking to collect the arrest order fee.”
“Said fee posted ultimately by the syndicate? Why do they want you? The size of the prize suggests quite a special interest.”
Tej’s lips tightened; then she shrugged. “Rish, as one of the Jewels, would be an outward sign of Prestene’s triumph over House Cordonah, if they could capture and display her. Even more brag if they can collect the set. I suppose they think I’m a loose end, wild to come back and destroy them if I could, and take back my parents’ House. Maybe they watch too many holovids, I don’t know.”
“And are you? Wild for revenge?”
“I never wanted to be a baronne. The only thing I want is my parents back, and my brother.” She bit her lip. “Won’t happen in this life.”
Byerly turned to Rish. “So‑ are you a jeeves?”
She eyed him, then gave a short nod as if to say, fair trade. “I was one of the Baronne’s created children, and will always remain so. All further loyalty treatments were discontinued after that scare years back. The Baronne said she didn’t want her Jewels to be damaged or suffer if she died unexpectedly.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Tej, sounding surprised.
Rish made a graceful turn of one blue hand, though what she meant by it, Ivan could not guess. “You were six.”
“So what kept you from running off?” asked By.
She raised her chin and looked down her nose at him, a neat trick given that she was shorter. “Didn’t you claim you were disinherited? What keeps you from betraying your Imperium?”
By opened his hands as if to surrender the point. “So what other tasks did you perform for Baronne Cordonah? Besides babysitting.”
Rish touched her lips and gave him a peculiar smile. “Living sculptures.”
“At receptions, the Baronne would position us Jewels around the chamber, and we would maintain various poses, as still as marble for minutes at a time, then shift to new poses. After a while, the guests invariably began to behave as if we were real statues. None of them seemed to realize how very keen our hearing was. Or how good our memories. We would compete with each other, to see who could get the best tidbits to report to her at the end of an evening.” Her gaze at By grew speculative. “But I think you know exactly how that works. How freely people will talk, when they take you for a block. Not so?”
He returned her a reluctantly appreciative nod.
“So what does it all mean?” asked Ivan plaintively.
By cocked an eyebrow at him. “That seems a rather philosophical question, to be coming from you.”
“No, the name thing.” Ivan gestured somewhat inarticulately at Tej. “Aj‑Tejas‑whatever. From your da’s book.” He added conscientiously, “Ivan in old Russian means John in English. Dunno what John means, come to think.”
Tej got a strange look on her face, but answered‑was the deal still on? – “ Akuti, princess, Tejaswini, radiant‑or maybe intelligent, I’m not sure which‑ Jyoti, flame. Or light.”
“Princess Radiant Flame,” Ivan tested this on his tongue. He’d attempt the other pronunciation later. Or Princess Bright Light, whichever. Princess, in either case. “Sounds like your da thought the world of you, huh?”
Tej swallowed and looked away, as if the far end of the room had suddenly grown riveting. She answered in a would‑be‑pedantic quaver, “The geographical origin was supposed to be South Asian. Star’s was South European, or South American, or south something, anyway. Or maybe it was the other way around. We never spent much time on Old Earth history.”
“So what kind of a name is Vorrutyer?” Rish asked Byerly, possibly to give Tej a moment to regain her composure.
He sat back looking surprised at the question, or maybe just at its coming from her, but answered readily: “The origin of the prefix Vor is much debated, except that it arose during the Time of Isolation and came to refer exclusively to members of the then‑warrior caste. We are fairly certain that the Rutyer was a mishearing or misspelling of the Old Earth German Rutger.”
Tej, back in control of her voice, asked, “So what about Vorpatril?”
Ivan cleared his throat. “Not sure. Some say it’s British, some claim it came from the Greek or French, maybe as a corruption of patros or some word like it. A lot of Barrayaran names got twisted around during the centuries after the Firsters were cut off. Or shortened‑Serg from Sergei, Padma from Padmakar, and Xav’s a contraction of Xavier.”
“Mutated over time, makes sense,” said Tej, then paused to take in matching glares from both By and Ivan. “Why do you look like you just swallowed a bug? The usage is precise. A mutation is a copying error. Everyone knows that.”
“Do not,” said Ivan firmly, “use that term to a Barrayaran. It’s a pretty deadly insult to imply that someone’s a mutant. Even if you’re just spelling their names.”
“Oh.” Tej looked baffled, but said amiably, “All right. If you say so.”
By glanced at the time on his wristcom and muttered a curse. “I have to be somewhere else. Several minutes ago.” He dragged his hands through his hair and stood up. His gaze swept Ivan, Tej, and Rish, all three. “I guess this is as good a bolt‑hole for you as any other, for now.”
“For how much longer?” asked Ivan.
“I don’t know. A day, two days, three? I meant to play this out as long as I could, in hopes of getting in beyond Theo’s contact. I’m making progress, but we’re close to pulling the plug. At which point I’ll need to vanish, if I want to maintain my cover and my livelihood. And my skin. So until we meet again, dear friends, adieu.”
With a wave that did not quite mimic an ImpSec salute, By made for the door; Ivan accompanied him out.
In the corridor, By lowered his voice. “If things go sideways, Ivan, you should probably take those women to Morozov.”
“They won’t want to go. They don’t trust ImpSec.”
By shrugged. “Morozov could cut them a deal, I’ll bet. ImpSec Galactic Affairs would be happy to lap up whatever they wanted to spill about this syndicate of theirs.”
“Or maybe more than they wanted.”
“We can discuss that. Later.” By strode off, a tired man hurrying.
Ivan sealed the door, made sure it was locked, and returned to his living room to find Tej and Rish deciding who was to have the first turn in the bathroom before bed. Ivan glanced at his wristcom and cringed to count the scant hours till Komarran dawn. I hate this strangled day length.
“That is a strange man,” commented Rish, looking toward the door after Byerly.
“You’re not the first to note that,” said Ivan ruefully.
“How did he get into his line of work?”
Ivan squinted, wondering why that question had never before occurred to him. “I have no idea. It’s not the sort of thing you ask these ImpSec fellows. I think he was around twenty‑standard when he moved to Vorbarr Sultana‑his parents lived out on the west coast, t’other side of the continent, see. He hung around on the edges of things for years before I ever found out about his ImpSec moonlighting. The fact that he was estranged from his family never seemed to need an explanation‑that is, if you knew many Vorrutyers. The whole clan is, um…either on the vivid side, or downright antisocial.”
“Ah,” said Rish elliptically, and went off to claim the bath.
Ivan sat back down, watching Tej watch her friend pad silently away. This couch would do for his bed, if only people would let him lie here in peace for enough hours…“Babysitter?”
Tej’s laugh was no more than a puff of air through her nose. “I don’t know that she exactly volunteered for the job. I used to follow her around like a kitten chasing a string. I was just fascinated by all the Jewels, when I was younger. I would watch them at their dance practice, and make them try to teach me, too.”
“What kind of dance?”
“Oh, every kind. They collected skills and styles from all over, and were always trying to put them together in new combinations. I wanted to be one of them, to be allowed to really dance‑you know, in their performances. But puberty was cruel to me.”
On the contrary, Ivan thought puberty had been very generous to her. He just managed to stop himself from saying so out loud, converting it to, “How so?”
“The best dancers are all thin and small and strong, very whippy. Like Rish. By age fourteen, it was plain I was going to be built more like my Dada‑my other sisters all took after my mother, willowy. I just grew too tall, too big, too heavy. Too top‑heavy.” She sniffed as if in some weird‑in Ivan’s view, anyway‑female self‑disapproval. “By age fifteen it was obvious that no matter how hard I worked, I could never be as good as the Jewels. So I stopped.”
“Gave it up?” said Ivan. “That’s no good. Just because someone else is some sort of natural flaming genius, doesn’t mean that you’re an idi…um.” Um. “Doesn’t mean that you should…” He tried rushing the notion. “Should hide your light under the covers.”
Her smile grew wan. “My sister Star said the only reason I wanted to perform with the Jewels was to make myself the center of attention. I expect she was right.” She hoisted herself wearily to her feet and went off to change places with Rish.
She’d forgotten to demand a trade. Watching her vanish into the shadows of the next room, all Ivan could think was: Actually, y’know…I expect you wanted to dance because you wanted to dance.
She was running through writhing space station corridors, pursued by a nameless menace. Ahead of her, the Jewels scattered right and left, leaping in grand jetes down cross‑corridors, flashes of red and green, blue and obsidian, gold and pearl‑white somersaulting in fantastical triple turns in the air, but by the time she caught up, the corridors were silent and echoing, empty. She ran on.
A side door slid open; a voice hissed, “Quick! Hide in here!”
It was Captain Vorpatril. He was wearing his green military officer’s uniform over a bear suit. His chest was crisscrossed with bandoliers of power charge packs, and he held a very large weapon, perhaps a plasma rifle. Or was that a water gun? He grinned at her from the round, furry frame of the bear hood. The gun went away, and then they were kissing, and for a moment or two, the dream went good. His kisses were expert: neither too shy, tickling annoyingly, nor too invasive, like someone trying to shove a slug down her throat, but just right, firm and exploratory. Tej noted this, thinking, I’ll have to try very hard to remember this part when I wake up…
“I want to touch your skin,” she told him, when they broke for breath. “It’s very pale, isn’t it? Is it smooth, or hairy? Are you that pale all over? Do you have silver veins like Pearl?” Where was Pearl…?
“Here, let me show you.” He grinned again and zipped the bear suit down from neck to crotch. Both fur and skin peeled away, revealing glistening red muscle, white fascia, and the thin blue lines of veins.
“No, no, just the fur!” Tej cried in horror, backing up. “Not the skin too!”
“Oh, what?” said Vorpatril, in a tone of some bewilderment. He stared down, the bewilderment changing to dismay as the blackening crackle of a plasma arc burn spread out in a widening circle on his chest. Smoke and the smell of burning meat filled the air, and then it wasn’t Vorpatril anymore, but their ill‑fated courier, Seppe, back on Fell Station…
Tej gasped and awoke. She was in bed in the dark of Vorpatril’s flat; Rish lay in silence beside her, unmoving, unaware, yet elegant even in sleep. Tej wanted to ask her where the Jewels had been flying to, but of course, people didn’t share each others’ dreams reciprocally. Tej wouldn’t wish hers on anyone else, certainly.
I’m glad to be out of that dream…Most of it. The beginning and the end were just like most of her dreams lately, altogether too much like her real life. The kiss, though, had warmed her right down to her loins. Hi there, loins. Haven’t heard from you for a while…
The strange rushing noise at the edge of her hearing resolved itself at last as the shower. It turned off, and then she could hear rustlings from the bathroom and its attendant dressing room/closet. In a while, a faint hiss sounded as the door slid aside, but the captain had evidently turned off the lights before he’d opened it. So as not to disturb his sleeping guests? Or, she wondered as his unshod footsteps wandered nearer to the bed, something more sinister?
She opened her eyes, turned, and stared up at his shadowed shape. He seemed to be fully dressed in his uniform again. No bear suit. His skin was firmly in place, good. Masked by fresh soap and depilatory cream, his scent was mildly aroused; as was her own, she supposed, but fortunately Rish was not awake to razz her on it.
“What?” she breathed.
“Oh,” he whispered back, “sorry to wake you. I’m just on my way out to HQ.”
“But it’s still dark.”
“Yeah, I know. Damn nineteen‑hour days. Anything special you’d like me to bring back tonight?”
“Whatever you pick will be fine,” she said, with some confidence.
“All right. I’ll try not to be so late this time, but I never know what’ll come up, so don’t panic if I’m delayed. I’ll lock up behind me.” He made to tiptoe away.
“Captain Vorpatril!” She hardly knew what she wanted to say to him, but the dream‑scent of burning flesh still unnerved her. She settled on a vague, “Be careful.”
He returned a nonplussed, “Uh…sure.”
The bedroom door closed behind him; she heard him rattling in the kitchenette, and then the sigh of the outer door, and then…then the flat sounded very empty.
Tej rolled back over, hoping for a sleep without dreams.
Despite everything, Ivan managed to arrive at Komarr downside HQ right on time that morning, half an hour before his boss was due‑though more often than not Desplains managed to bollix that schedule by arriving early. Ivan started the coffee, sat at his secured comconsole, grimaced, and fired it up to find out what all had arrived in the admiral’s inbox since last shift.
Ivan had developed a personal metaphor for this first task (after the coffee) of the day. It was like opening one’s door to find that an overnight delivery service had left a large pile of boxes on one’s porch, all marked “miscellaneous.” In reality, they were all marked “Urgent!” but if everything was urgent, in Ivan’s view they might as well all be labeled miscellaneous.
Each box contained one of the following: live, venomous, agitated snakes on the verge of escape; quiescent venomous snakes; non‑venomous garden snakes; dead snakes; or things that looked like snakes but weren’t, such as large, sluggish worms. It was Ivan’s morning duty to open each box, identify the species, vigor, mood, and fang‑count of the writhing things inside, and sort them by genuine urgency.
The venomous, agitated snakes went straight to Desplains. The garden snakes were arranged in an orderly manner for his later attention. The dead snakes and the sluggish worms were returned to their senders with a variety of canned notes attached, with the heading From The Office of Admiral Desplains, ranging from patiently explanatory to brief and bitter, depending on how long it seemed to be taking the sender in question to learn to deal with his own damned wildlife. Ivan had a menu of Desplains’s notes, and it was his responsibility‑and occasionally pleasure, because every job should have a few perks‑to match the note to the recipient.
As he had both expected and feared, an urgent‑ of course – note from ImpSec Komarr with his full police interview of yesterday attached was nestled among this morning’s boxes. And the supply of venomous, agitated snakes in today’s delivery was disappointingly low.
After a brief struggle with his conscience, Ivan set the note in the garden‑snakes file, although he did put it at the very bottom of the list. Desplains was possibly the sanest boss Ivan had ever worked for, and the least given to dramatics, and Ivan wished to preserve those qualities for as long as he could. Forever, by preference. So every once in a while, Ivan let something trivial but amusing filter through to the admiral, just to keep up his morale, and today seemed a good day to stick in a couple of those, as well. Ivan was still looking for a few more things he could legitimately enter when Desplains blew in, collected his coffee, and murmured, “Ophidian census today, Ivan?”
“All garden variety, sir.”
“Wonderful.” Desplains took a revivifying sip of fresh‑brewed. Ivan wished he could remember which famous officer had once said, The Imperial Service could win a war without coffee, but would prefer not to have to. “What ever came of your interview with the dome cops yesterday?”
“I put the ImpSec note in File Three, sir.” File Three was the official designation of the garden‑snakes crate, because, after all, sometimes Desplains did suffer a substitute aide, if Ivan was on leave or out ill or requisitioned for other, less routine duties, and some shorthands took too long to explain. “I expect you will want to look at it eventually.” Ivan made his tone very unpressing.
“Meeting with Commodore Blanc and staff in thirty minutes,” Ivan reminded him. “I have the agenda ready.”
“Very well. Snakes aweigh.”
Ivan hit the send pad. “On your desk now.”
Desplains raised his coffee cup in salute and passed into his inner office.
He would never, Ivan reflected, ever want to be promoted to admiral, to be greeted the first thing every working day by a desk populated entirely by live, hissing snakes. Perhaps he could resign his commission if such a threat ever became imminent. Assuming he made it to that stately age without being court‑martialed, a consummation depending closely in turn on his doubtful ability to avoid relatives associated with ImpSec bearing…gift pythons. Gift pythons with snazzy reticulated blue‑and‑gold skins this time, it seemed.
He bent to his comconsole and returned a crisp note to ImpSec Komarr: From the Office of Admiral Desplains: Urgent memo received and the date stamp. Hold pending review.
“Tej, get away from that edge,” said Rish, irritably. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I’m only watching for Ivan Xav.” Tej gripped the balcony railing and craned her neck, studying the scurrying evening throng in the street far below. She’d had several false alarms already, of foreshortened dark‑haired men in green uniforms exiting the bubble‑car station and turning in her direction, but none of them had been the captain. Too old, too young, too stout, too slight, none with that particular rolling rhythm to his stride. None bearing bags. “Besides, he’s bringing dinner. I hope.”
Rish crossed her arms tighter. “If only the Baron and Baronne had known, they could have had all your parade of suitors offer you provisions, instead of those high House connections.”
Tej’s shoulders hunched. “I didn’t want high House connections. That was Star’s and Pidge’s passion, and Erik’s. And the Baronne’s. I thought there were enough Arquas trying to build economic empires. Family dinners got to be like board meetings, once they were all into it.” Tej had long since given up trying to get in a word at meals without a crowbar, certainly not about her own piddling interests, which, since they did not include schemes for House aggrandizement, interested no one else there.
Pidge, officially named Mercedes Sofia Esperanza Juana Paloma, was Tej’s other older even‑sister, born in the era before the Baronne had finally made her spouse ease back on his inspirations, or maybe she’d hidden the book by the time the last few Arqua offspring were decanted from their uterine replicators, who knew. The Baronne always called her Mercedes; Dada, from the time she’d started precociously talking‑and never again shut up, as far as Tej could tell‑had dubbed her Little Wisdom as a play on Sofia, but as soon as her other siblings discovered that another meaning of Paloma was pigeon, her family nickname had stuck. Well, except when Erik transmuted it to Pudge, to get a rise out of her, which it reliably did.
Did you get out safely, Pidge? Have you made it to your assigned refuge yet? Or did your flight go as sour for you as mine did for me? Her elder sisters had supplied Tej with what she suspected was no more than the normal amount of adolescent hell, but she worried for them now with all that was left of her shredded heart. Erik…knowing that Erik had not got out, but not knowing how, had supplied the stuff of nightmares, both asleep and awake. Had he died fighting? Been captured and coldly executed? Tortured first? However it happened, he’s beyond all grief and pain and struggle and regret now. After all these months, Tej was beginning to be reconciled to that cold consolation, if only for want of any other. Amiri…her middle brother Amiri was still safe as far as Tej knew. And your hard‑bought new life will not be betrayed through me, that’s an iron‑clad contract. Even if she made the deal only with her own overwrought imagination.
She rose on her toes and leaned out, causing Rish, who stood well back with her shoulders snug to the wall, to make a strained noise in her throat. “Oh, there he is! And he’s got lots of big bags!” Tej watched that long stride close Ivan Xav’s distance to the building’s entry till he turned in out of sight, then gave up her spy‑vantage. When they went inside, Rish locked the glass door firmly behind them.
Vorpatril bustled in with the dinner and what proved to be sacks of groceries, and cheerfully emptied them out onto the counter while Rish rescued the restaurant containers and set the table.
“It’s Barrayaran Greekie, tonight,” he told the women. “Wasn’t easy to find. Got a tip about this place from one of the fellows out at HQ. A Barrayaran Greekie sergeant whose family’d been in the restaurant business back in his home District married a Komarran woman and retired here, set up shop. It comes highly recommended‑we’ll see.”
“Barrayaran Greekie?” asked Rish, brows rising in puzzlement.
“The smallest of our main languages,” he told her. “The Firsters actually arrived in four disparate settlement groups‑Russian, British, French and Greek, as their home regions on Old Earth were back then. Over the centuries of the Time of Isolation, everyone pretty much blended together genetically‑founder effect, you know‑but they kept up those languages, which still gave folks plenty to fight about. I think there were some more minor tongues as well, to start, but those got rubbed out in what you galactics call the Lost Centuries. Except we weren’t lost, we were all right there. It was just the Nexus that got misplaced.”
Tej considered this novel view as he continued unpacking sacks, including, she was glad to see, fresh fruit and teas and coffees and vat‑dairy cream and milk. How many days was he planning for?
He added, “Fortunately, we kept a lot of the food styles. Modified.”
“But not mutated,” murmured Tej.
“ Indeed not.” But his lips twitched, so her tiny joke hadn’t really offended him, good. He drew out another large carton and folded the bag. “More instant groats. They’re a traditional Barrayaran breakfast food, among other things.”
“I saw that little box in your cupboard. I wasn’t sure what a person was supposed to do with them.”
“Oh, is that why you weren’t eating them? Here, let me show you…” He drew boiling water from the heater tap and mixed up a small bowl of the stuff, and passed it around the table to sample as they sat to the new largess. Tej thought the little brown grains tasted like toasted cardboard, but perhaps they were some childhood comfort food of his, and she oughtn’t to criticize them.
Rish made a face, though. “A bit bland, don’t you think?”
“You usually add butter, maple syrup, cheese, all sorts of things. There’s also a cold salad with mint and chopped tomatoes and what‑not. And they use them at weddings.”
The Greekie food, as he dished it out, looked more promising; her first bites delivered some quite wonderful aromas, flavors and textures. “How do they prepare your groats for weddings?”
“They don’t serve them. The grains get dyed different colors, and sprinkled on the ground for the wedding circle and what‑not. Some sort of old fertility or abundance symbol, I suppose.”
It also seemed the food least likely to be regretted in that sacrifice, a suspicion Tej kept to herself.
Ivan Xav seemed much more relaxed tonight, and she couldn’t figure out quite why, except for the lack of his strange friend Byerly to stir him up. She would have thought that the revelation of her true identity would have alarmed him more, but maybe he disliked mysteries more than bad news?
“This is all right,” he said, leaning back replete when they’d demolished the Greekie dinner. “When I rented this place to sample the Solstice nightlife, I’d forgotten just how short the nights were. There’s time to either party or recover before work, but not both. So staying in actually suits, though not on your ownsome. That would be dull.”
He rose to go rummage at the comconsole. “My cousin told me about this dance thing you and Rish might like to see, if I can find an example…”
“Do you have a lot of cousins?” Tej asked, leaning over his shoulder. “Or just a lot of one cousin?”
He laughed at that last. “Both, actually. On my father’s side, there’s only my cousin Miles‑not exactly a cousin, our grandmothers were sisters. That part of the family got pretty thinned out during Mad Yuri’s War, which came down soon after the end of the Occupation. I’ve half‑a‑dozen first cousins on my mother’s side, but they don’t live near the capital and I don’t see much of ’em. Ah, here we go!”
His search had turned up a recorded performance of the Minchenko Memorial Ballet Company, from a place called the Union of Free Habitats, or Quaddiespace. Tej had never heard of it, but as the vid started up Rish drifted in and said, “Oh! The gengineered four‑armed people. Baron Fell had a quaddie musician, once. I saw a vid of one of her gigs. Played a hammer dulcimer with all four hands at once. But she jumped her contract and left, and no one’s heard of her since. I didn’t know they could dance…” Her face screwed up. “ How do they dance, with no feet?”
“Free fall,” said Ivan Xav. “They live in it, work in it, dance in it…my cousin and his wife saw a live performance when they were out that way on, er, business last year‑told me all about it, later. Very impressive, they said.”
Dance the quaddies did, it seemed, in zero‑gee: hand to hand to hand to hand, singly, in pairs, but most amazingly, in groups, glittering colored costumes flashing through air. The Jewels gave the illusion of flying, at times‑these dancers really flew, wheeling like flocks of bright birds. Both Rish and Tej watched in rapt fascination, Rish putting in mutters of excited critique now and then, and bouncing on the edge of her chair at especially complex maneuvers, her arms waving in unconscious mimicry.
Tej shared the sofa with Ivan Xav. His arm, laid out along the back, crept nearer, easing down over her shoulders till she was quite snugged in by it. After a few moments of silent consideration, she declined to shrug it off. It threw her back into a memory of watching shows with Dada, in her childhood‑how patient he must have been with her choices, in retrospect‑snuggled into his warm side, a stouter one than Ivan Xav’s, but smelling equally, if rather differently, masculine. She wasn’t sure if the recollection helped or hurt, but there it was. For a little hour, some simulacrum of peace.
It ended soon enough, when Ivan Xav turned off the holovid at the close of the performance and Rish said, “So how long were you planning to stay on Komarr, Captain Vorpatril?”
“Mm? Oh.” He sat up, and Tej edged regretfully away. “This whole duty‑the annual inspections and conferences‑usually runs about ten days or so. I’ve been here, um, let me see…” His lips moved as he counted on his fingers. “Seven nights, so far, including this one. So not much longer. I trust that By will be done with his business sooner, though. Seemed like his pace was picking up.”
“So this safe house”‑a graceful blue hand spiraled‑“will go away when you do.”
“Uh…” he said. “I’m afraid so. Though I could book it an extra week for you, but…I figured to wait and see what By comes up with.”
Rish glanced significantly at Tej.
Ivan Xav cleared his throat. “Would you two consider making a deal with ImpSec? I mean, more than just with Byerly. I bet you know lots of things they’d like to share, for suitable considerations.”
Tej grimaced. “If there was one lesson both my parents took care to pound into me, it’s that it’s impossible to deal safely if the power differential between the two sides is too great. The high side just skins, and the low side gets stripped. Your ImpSec has no need to be nice to us.”
“Well, they’ve no need to be gratuitously nasty, either,” said Ivan Xav uneasily. “That I can see.”
“What if they decide they need to establish a fresh working relationship with the new House Cordonah, and that Rish and I would make dandy bargaining chips? I have nothing to stop them with‑ nothing.” She choked down her rising tone, refusing to turn her head toward the balcony. That nothing would stop them, too literally true.
“Look, I know they’re all weasels over there at ImpSec, but they’re pretty honorable weasels.”
“I thought they were a security organization,” said Rish. “Their honor has to consist of putting Barrayar’s interests first.”
Ivan shrugged somewhat helplessly, but did not deny this.
“We’ll think about it,” said Tej. “Meanwhile…do you want first claim on the bath, Captain? You have to get up before us.”
He glanced at the time and made a face. “I guess I’d better.” He looked as if he’d like to stay and argue more, but swallowed whatever he’d been going to say, and went off.
When the bedroom door had closed after him, Rish said, “Was that a Maybe yes we’ll think about it, or was that a No, but we won’t confirm it till we make it safely to the exit we’ll think about it?”
“Have you spotted a safe exit? I haven’t.”
Rish set her fine jaw. “Tomorrow. I think we should run tomorrow, as soon as he goes off to that HQ of his. The cash in his wallet would get us to another dome, at least.”
It would have to be one of the domes with its own commercial shuttleport. That cut it down to a couple of dozen choices planet‑wide, all larger arcologies, which was a good feature, but none were close. Tej’s heart sank at the thought of another scurrying, fearful journey among strangers, from nowhere to nowhere, in the vague hope that their lost House’s enemies would look for them…nowhere.
“And are you sure we’re not being watched out for?” said Tej. “Are you sure he isn’t watched, for that matter?”
Rish shook her head. “I think we ran out of good choices a while back. We’re now down to the least‑bad.”
Tej rubbed her aching forehead. “I’ll think about it.”
Rish flounced in her seat, a maneuver only she could imbue with such stylish censure. “And you have to stop cuddling that Barrayaran. It’s not as if you can keep him, or take him along with us, or whatever.”
“Oh, so it’s just me?” said Tej. “ You liked his weasel friend well enough. Even I could smell it.”
“Did not!” Rish denied. “I just thought he was…interesting. A walking human puzzle who…works on human puzzles, I suppose.”
“Ferreting them out?” Tej snickered.
“Apparently.” Rish frowned. “He sure found us. Twice.”
A disturbing observation. Tej was still thinking about the implications when her turn came for the bath.
The door buzzer sounded in the half light of dawn, just as Ivan was finishing dressing for work, all but his shoes. And kept on sounding, continuously.
Byerly in a toot? Strange hour for it. It was too late for him to have been up since yesterday, and far too early for him to be up for today. Ivan padded to the door, and this time prudently checked the security vid. Yes, By, leaning on the buzzer and shifting from foot to foot. Maybe he really, really had to go to the lav. You wish. Ivan released the lock, the door slid aside, and Byerly tumbled within and hit the pad to close it with his bunched fist. “Ivan. Thank God I caught you,” he said. “We have a problem.”
“What, a new one? Or just more of the same one we have already?” said Ivan, refusing to be stirred by By’s histrionics at this hour. He gave way as By surged down his short hallway, beginning to rethink that stance already. By never surged; he sauntered. Or strolled. Or sometimes swayed, or even evaporated. But right now, he looked downright condensed, altogether too much here.
The two women, awakened by this entry, appeared through the door of the bedroom as Ivan followed By in from the hall. Tej looked deliciously bed‑rumpled, warm and soft but for her frown. This was a woman who ought to greet each day with a sleepy, seductive smile, which Ivan wished he knew how to supply. Hell, I do know; I just haven’t had a chance to. Rish was her usual sleek self, concerned and fully alert mere seconds after being jerked from a sound sleep. Both women wore the tank tops they slept in and loose Komarran trousers, pulled on hastily; Rish spotted By and tucked her stunner back in her pants pocket. Tej wore no support garment under her top, and the effect as she moved forward was wonderfully distracting. Not now, Ivan told himself. Part of himself, the part with a single mind of its own.
“What’s going on?” asked Rish.
“Theo Vormercier has blindsided me,” said By bitterly. “When my hired goons didn’t produce you, instead of turning to me for my next solution, he implemented his very own brilliant idea, or so he thinks. He turned your identities and descriptions over to Komarran Immigration Services as illegal entries. He figured to let them do the legwork of locating you, and then snatch you somehow from incarceration after your arrests.”
Tej’s eyes grew big. Rish just went very, very still.
“So?” said Ivan. “They’re hidden for now. No way for Immigration to know they’re here…is there?”
“Unfortunately, Immigration shares databases with the dome cops, and your name, which you so thoughtfully supplied them, came up. The Immigration people will be on their way to check you first thing today.”
“They’ll have to catch me at work again. Nobody home here, right?”
“What if they break in to search?” asked Tej uneasily. “There’s no place to hide.” Her gaze shifted to the balcony door, where the first faint color in the sky was beginning to mute the city lights, and she swallowed.
“They have to have some sort of warrant,” said Ivan, beginning to share her unease. “I would think.”
“Ivan, those people issue warrants,” said By impatiently. “They don’t have the broad powers ImpSec does, but they’ve plenty enough for this. Probably more than they used to have back when Komarr was an independent polity. They don’t even have to break anything‑they can make the building manager open the door.”
“We have to get out,” said Tej. “We can’t let ourselves be trapped in here.”
Ivan had some sympathy for that sentiment. Even though the flat wasn’t dark, or constricted, or wet. Also, they weren’t alone…Maybe they were overreacting, really.
“That’s what I came to tell you,” said By.
“Wait, no,” said Ivan. Once they got away, and lost themselves, how would he ever find Tej again? The women had to be pretty good at hiding, or they wouldn’t have evaded their determined pursuers across four systems for what, seven months? Or maybe By had a plan‑he wouldn’t have come boiling in here without one, would he? Some way to keep a string on them‑
“You’ll have to get your things together‑” By began, but was interrupted by the door buzzer. Two stern blats. Tej jumped and Rish tensed. By wheeled. “What the hell? They can’t be here already.”
Ivan nipped out to the short hallway and checked the security viewer. Unfortunately, he recognized his visitors. Detective Fano and Detective‑patroller Sulmona, up bright and early, or dark and late, whichever. Fano leaned on the buzzer again, and Sulmona, after another moment, pounded on the door. “Vorpatril?” she shouted through it. “Answer your door.”
No polite please with that, Ivan noted as By and the women came up to peer anxiously around his shoulders.
“That’s not Immigration,” said By.
“No, it’s the dome cops. Same pair I talked to t’other day. Would Immigration have sent them?”
“No, they have their own uniformed squads for this sort of thing. There are procedures. This must be something else.”
Another buzz, longer. Sulmona pounded again. “Vorpatril? We know you’re in there. Open up.”
Ivan hit the com and called, “Why?”
Fano drew a long breath. “We have a felony warrant for your arrest. That gives us the right to break down this door if you don’t open it.”
“Arrest! What the hell for? I haven’t done anything!”
“ What? ” said Ivan, outraged.
Fano’s jaw jutted. “We know you lied. The security vids from the Crater Lake bubble‑car platform finally surfaced. They clearly show you and an unknown person escorting the missing Nanja Brindis into a bubble car. She hasn’t been heard from since. The abduction charge is enough to get us in your door, but the one I’m really after is murder. But you know that, don’t you, Captain?”
Ivan was struck nearly speechless, except for the wheeze of his hyperventilation.
“Don’t open it!” whispered Tej. Truly, Ivan didn’t want to. By and Rish dragged him back to the living room for a hissed conference.
“But I have to let them in,” said Ivan, harried. “In the first place, it’s another felony not to, and in the second place, Tej, you can make the kidnapping charge go away by telling them I didn’t abduct you, I just invited you. Not to mention murder, good God!”
Tej said, “We can’t let them in, they’ll take us.”
“Tell them through the intercom,” Ivan suggested. Would that work?
“How would they know you weren’t holding a weapon to her back?” asked By, unhelpfully.
“And don’t you believe for a minute that Prestene’s agents can’t whip us out of their custody before you can get back with help, and anyway, your help is worse,” said Tej. “ImpSec! I’d almost rather take my chances with Prestene!”
“Hey!” Byerly protested.
Rish turned in a complete circle, gold eyes dilated, reaching as if for some rope that wasn’t there. “We can’t get out. There’s no way out!”
Tej grabbed her hands, stopping her rotation. “It’ll have to be the balcony after all. Oh, Rish, I’m so sorry I led you into this!”
“What’s on the balcony,” Ivan began, but was interrupted by a chime from his wristcom. That particular tone wasn’t one he could ignore. He held up a hand, “Wait!” and opened his link. “Sir?” he said brightly.
Ivan rocked back. Desplains never bellowed. “Uh, yes?”
“What the hell is all this?”
“Are you at work already, sir?”
“No, I’m in my quarters. Just received an emergency heads‑up from ImpSec Komarr that Dome Security has filed a felony charge on my aide‑de‑camp, so I finally opened their memo. That was no garden snake!”
“I can explain, sir.” The door buzzer sounded again, and more pounding. Muffled shouts. “Later. I have a bit of a situation on my hands right now.” Ivan gulped and cut the com. He’d never cut off any admiral, ever, let alone Desplains.
The pounding stopped. More muffled voices.
“We’ve got to block the door. Buy time,” said Ivan.
“Time for what?” said By.
“Time for me to think of something.”
“ That could take all day.”
Ivan shot him an irate look, teeth clenching hard.
“The couches,” said Tej. “They’ll be through the door codes soon enough‑we have to make a physical barrier.” The two women leapt to begin dragging furniture into the hall and propping it up against the door. By looked as if he didn’t think this would work, but, carried along by the fog of cold panic that seemed to be permeating the place, fell into helping them nonetheless. Damn but Rish was strong for her size…
Ivan peered into the security vid. The two detectives had been joined by four more people, three men and a woman. One man was the building manager. The other three were in unfamiliar uniforms. They appeared to be debating with each other, comparing official‑looking forms displayed by their wrist holos. Unless it was some really arcane style of video arm wrestling? Dueling jurisdictions?
Ivan shoved By up to look in the vid. “That wouldn’t be Immigration, would it?”
The building manager fumbled with a code key. By opened his jacket and jerked out his stunner.
“Can you take down all six of them before they get you?” asked Tej uneasily. Picturing her and Rish escaping over a wall of bodies? Possibly including By’s and Ivan’s?
Still peering, By swore, set his stunner on high, and jammed it up against the electronic lock. It buzzed angrily, and after a long moment, sparks shot out of the mechanism. “At least that’ll hold the building manager,” said By, a glint of strained satisfaction in his eye.
“You’ve locked us in!” Ivan protested. “And now I can’t open the door.”
“Good!” said Rish, heaving another heavy armchair atop the pile and wedging it in tight.
They all retreated temporarily to Ivan’s emptied living room.
Tej swung around, stared deeply into Ivan’s eyes, gasped, “I’m so sorry it has to end this way, Ivan Xav. I know you tried,” and flung her arms around him. Ivan found himself holding what would, under other circumstances, be an absolutely delightful bundle of warm, soft woman. He opened his mouth to her frantic kiss nonetheless, and his arms wrapped her in turn, snugly and securely. He wasn’t sure what was happening here, but O God don’t let it stop…
She stopped. Pushed him away. He managed not to whimper. “That’s it,” she said simply, and turned to take her blue companion’s hand, with a nod toward the balcony. “It’s time, Rish.”
Rish nodded back, face very grim. They started for the door. By, uneasy, moved to block the glass.
“Where do you think you’re going?” By asked.
“Over the balcony.”
“But you don’t have grav belts! Or anything!” said Ivan.
Tej wheeled back and raised her chin at him. “That’s right.”
“But we’re twenty stories up!”
“Yes, that ought to be enough.”
“You’ll be killed!”
Rish stared at him in disbelief. “Are you slow, Captain?”
“But the dome cops will think I flung you off, or worse!”
Tej was plainly moved by this, but steeled herself and said sternly, “If you haven’t got a better plan, right now, we’re going. Because later will be too late.”
“No, yes, what‑” Ivan’s wristcom chimed, insistently. He opened the link, yelled, “ Not now, sir! ” into it, and closed it again. After a moment, it chimed once more. Louder. No override for this code.
“By, don’t let them get out!” said Ivan, ran to the kitchenette, ripped off his wristcom, opened the refrigerator door, tossed it in, and slammed the door shut again. The wristcom still whimpered, but very faint and plaintive.
He turned back to the women, and By, who stood with his back tight against the glass. Both he and Rish had their stunners out, pointed at each other. Rish’s was shaking in her death‑grip. The new pounding from the hall was growing louder, more disturbingly mechanical. Not just fists anymore. The flat’s doors were designed to keep air from getting out, in a dome‑pressurization emergency. Not determined policemen, backed up by building maintenance personnel, from getting in.
What else had he just seen sitting out on that kitchen counter…“Don’t shoot!” Ivan cried. “And don’t jump! I have an idea!”
This held the tableau, if only in morbid curiosity, long enough for him to run back into the kitchenette and grab the instant groats from the countertop, the large economy‑size box that he’d purchased yesterday evening. He ran back into his living room and brandished it. “This’ll do the job!”
“You’re going to throw cereal at them?” asked Rish, perplexed.
“Or shall we all sit down and have a hearty Barrayaran breakfast together while the police break in?” asked By, in an all‑too‑similar tone. But both stunners drooped.
Shrugging off the sarcasms, and dear God hadn’t he had enough practice at that in his life, Ivan drew a long breath. “Tej. Will you marry me?”
“ What? ” she said. It wasn’t a thrilled sort of what? either, that ought to greet such a proposal, more of a have‑you‑lost‑your‑mind? what. Ivan cringed.
“No, this’ll work! A woman who marries a Barrayaran subject automatically becomes a Barrayaran subject. It’s one of those fundamental oaths that underlie all other oaths, biology before politics, so to speak. From the moment we finish speaking, Immigration won’t be able to arrest you. And the dome cops won’t be able to arrest me, either.” What he was going to do about Desplains, Ivan was less sure. His wristcom was still thinly chiming in its exile, cold and lonely and far off. Ivan ripped open the box and began dancing sock‑foot through the living room, dribbling out a circle of cereal on the carpet.
“Don’t we have to go somewhere and register it, even for a simple civil match?” asked Tej. “We’d never make it to wherever! They’ll seize us as soon as we go out the door!”
“But not,” said Rish blackly, “the other door.” By braced his back harder against the latch, though he still stared, confounded, at the growing circle. His eyes were as wide as Ivan had ever seen them.
“No, that’s the beauty of it!” Ivan explained. “In Barrayaran law, the couple marry themselves. It’s a Time of Isolation thing, you wouldn’t understand. Your breath is your bond. You each prop up your Second‑your witness‑on the edge, you step into the circle, you speak your oaths, you step out, it’s done. The core oaths are really simple, though people gussy them up with all kinds of additions to stretch the ceremony out, God knows why, it’s usually racking enough.” He appealed for support. “Tell them I’m right, Byerly!”
“Actually”‑By coughed, swallowed, found his voice‑“he is. About the legalities, anyway.”
“I can use my military dependent travel chits to get you back to Barrayar,” Ivan went on. “Five jumps further away from your pursuers, and besides, once you’re married to me, you’ll have ImpSec totally on your side because, um, because. This’ll buy time. And as soon as you’ve figured out what you really want to do, we can go get a divorce in the Count’s Court. Not quite as easy as getting married‑my Betan aunt thinks it should be t’other way around‑but Count Falco’s an old friend of Mamere’s. Ten minutes, in and out, I swear! And you’ll both be on your way.”
“On our way where?” asked Rish, sounding confused.
“I don’t know, somewhere! I can’t think of everything all at once, you know!”
“Oh, so not a permanent – but I don’t know your oaths,” said Tej faintly, staring at him in a kind of hypnotized fascination as he stood before her waving the emptied box in time with his urgent persuasion.
“That’s all right, I have them memorized. I must have been dragged to about a thousand high Vor weddings in the past decade. I could probably recite them in my sleep. Or my nightmares. We won’t tell the dome cops about the divorce, of course. None of their business.”
Tej glanced toward the balcony. Toward him. Toward the balcony. Toward him. Why is this a hard choice?
From the hallway, a teeth‑gritting mechanical whine began, as of someone cutting through an airseal door.
“You can’t tell me you’d rather jump off a twenty‑story building and smash in your skull than marry me,” Ivan went on desperately. “I am not a fate worse than death, dammit! Or at least not worse than that death, good God!”
“But what about Rish?” asked Tej. Her chin came up. “You can’t marry us both…can you?”
“Uh.” said Ivan. He cast a beseeching look at By, who held up his hand as if to fend off an attacking mini‑drone.
“No,” said Rish, coolly.
“ Thank you,” said By. His expression grew inward for a moment. “I think…”
“I’ll, I’ll, I’ll…hire you for something, after,” said Ivan. “Lady’s maid? Lots of Vor women have them. M’mother does, I know. At that point, you’ll be properly employed by a Barrayaran subject, a Vor subject, and we can fudge it with Immigration later. From a safe distance.”
“Then who will protect us from ImpSec?” said Rish.
“I will,” Ivan promised recklessly. “I can call in some favors. And if not, I know people who can. Starting with m’mother’s gentleman friend, if I have to. Or maybe as a last resort.” Definitely as a last resort. “Can’t I, By?”
This last proposal left By standing like a mesmerized waxwork effigy. But he did manage to make his mouth move‑it was By, of course he managed to make his mouth move. “I don’t know if I want to watch when you tell your mother about this, or flee the Empire. Given that you’re making me complicit as your Second, maybe Old Earth would be far enough…no, farther than that…” He shook himself out of his paralysis and turned to the women. “Much as I hate to admit it, this notion of Ivan’s would work. Temporarily. It’s the long‑term consequences that terrify me.”
“And after what you just did,” Ivan went on to Tej, disregarding By’s last comment, “you can’t convince me that you’d rather kiss the pavement than kiss me.” My mouth is still tingling. “Not that you’ll have to kiss me, if you don’t want to. Totally up to you, what happens after, I hope that goes without saying.”
More alarming thumps and crashes from the hallway. Rish wet her lips and said, “Do it, Tej. And we’ll find out if it works soon enough. We’re out of time to debate. Or for the tub.” She reset the safety and slipped her stunner back into her pocket in wordless acquiescence.
Ivan held out his hand to Tej. “Tej, will you please try this?”
She rubbed her forehead, and said doubtfully, “I guess so…” As the first acceptance to a marriage proposal that Ivan had ever received in his life, this lacked a certain something, but she took his hand and stepped over the line of groats into the circle.
Ivan pointed. “By, Rish, you stand on either side, facing each other. You’re the witnesses, so watch.”
“I doubt I’ll be able to look away,” murmured Byerly, holstering his stunner as well and stepping up to his assigned spot. “It’ll be just like watching a monorail wreck.” Rish rolled her eyes‑in agreement? – and took her place opposite.
“All right, I’ll go first,” said Ivan to his bride‑to‑be, “and then I’ll coach you through your part. Wording’s about the same. ‘I, Ivan Xav Vorpatril, being of sound mind and body‑’”
“That’s for wills, Ivan,” muttered By. “I thought you said you knew this stuff?”
Ivan ignored him and plowed on. “Do take thee, uh…what did you say your name was, again?”
By buried his face in his hands.
Tej repeated it. All of it.
“Do take thee, Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua”‑and he’d got the pronunciation right the first time, and didn’t even choke on the ghem part, hah! – “to be my spouse and helpmeet, forsaking all others…” The core of the oath was only three sentences. He got them out somehow, and coached Tej through her half. “… do take thee, Ivan Xav Vorpatril, to be my spouse…” Her hands were shaking, held in his. So were his.
“And that’s it!” said Ivan. “We now pronounce each other spouse and spouse, before these witnesses, and I get to kiss you. Again. For the first time. Because before, you kissed me, right?” He locked himself to her lips, rolling his eyes as By stepped forward and swept a break through the groat barrier with his shoe. They swung out of the circle together, Byerly stretched his neck and pecked her on the cheek in passing, and six irate, swearing Komarrans stumbled over each other out of Ivan’s hallway and advanced upon them, stunners at the ready.
Ivan drew a wad of cash from his wallet, thrust it into the startled Rish’s hand, and added, “You’re hired. Officially.”
And, as a uniformed woman reached out to seize Tej, who shrank away, continued in a forceful bellow modeled directly on Count Falco: “Unhand Lady Vorpatril!”
Tej had spent days steeling herself for death. This wrenching turn in her affairs left her stomach floating as if she had just jumped over that beckoning balcony, except that this fall didn’t come to an end. She felt weightless, like a drowning woman. The mad captain seemed to have clamped a rescuing arm around her neck and be towing her along, but was it toward some unseen shore, or farther out into deeper waters?
She should have spotted that Ivan Xav was insane before this. Surely there had been clues. But he had, despite it all, seemed so easy‑going, so affable, so comfortable – or at least unwilling to be thrust out of his comforts‑a welcome rarity, among the people in her life. And then, with no warning, this.
Maddest of all was that his ploy seemed to be working. The Komarran Dome cops neither arrested him, nor seized him to be carried off for some psychiatric observation. Byerly Vorrutyer, introduced as an acquaintance from Vorbarr Sultana and presenting valid identification, blandly testified to the ceremony he had just witnessed, pointing out the circle of groats ground into the carpet as supporting physical evidence. Rish backed him up, if in a slightly choked voice. There followed much frantic consultation of wristcom hololinks on the parts of both the dome cops and the Immigration officers, which apparently returned some very unwelcome answers. Ivan Xav retrieved his now‑silent wristcom from the refrigerator and, anxious to get to his military HQ, cut the attendant explanations quite short.
The dome cops were plainly not happy that the discovery of Tej, transmuted from kidnap victim to runaway bride, had spoiled their hoped‑for case against the Barrayaran. They retired thwarted and surly, with mutters about subpoenas for material witnesses to be promptly forthcoming, as they were still left with the puzzle of the budget ninjas on their hands. But they couldn’t arrest Tej for being a crime victim. The Immigration people, too, retreated like a force planning a rematch, but the important thing was that it cleared the doorway now, except for a brief argument with the building manager about the damages. Vorpatril, affronted, pointed out he hadn’t created the mess, but impatiently short‑circuited the sting by telling the manager to put the repair costs on his rental charges. The two tense Barrayarans then gave Tej and Rish barely time to throw on street clothes and grab their most important possessions‑not many left of those by now‑before hustling them out the wrecked doorway, down the lift tubes, and through the lobby.
Outside, Vorpatril swung Byerly aside and backed him up into a wall niche behind a tall, potted evergreen. She could hear very little of their rapid, low‑voiced exchange over the street noise, but it seemed to involve a lot of jaw‑clenching and teeth‑baring. Under a flowing headscarf, Rish all but pricked her ears. Tej leaned toward the pair, but only caught Ivan’s Xav’s forceful You owe me, and I’m collecting… and, as he finally eased back and released his unwilling auditor, Go do what you have to do. Byerly was more successful at pitching his voice not to carry, so all Tej had to go on was his body language. She’d never before seen someone swear quite so emphatically in body language. But when they started again toward the bubble‑car platform, Byerly hastened off in the opposite direction.
They were about to cross the street when Vorpatril herded her and Rish abruptly into the doorway of a shop not yet open, spinning Tej around to face him‑and, she realized, to shield him from view. “What is it?” she whispered, acquiescing to the tactic as soon as she recognized it.
“Service Security,” he muttered into her hair. “A whole patrol. Just came charging out of the bubble‑car station‑yep, heading for my building, all right. Two enlisteds, a sergeant, and a colonel, hoo boy. Desplains must have dispatched them for me. I wonder if they mean to rescue me, or arrest me?…I think we don’t want to stick around to find out. They can have a nice, long chat with the building manager. He deserves it, and it’ll hold ’em for just long enough, I think. Come on, hurry.”
Vorpatril’s wooden smile and this‑is‑all‑normal posture didn’t slip till he’d bundled them into a bubble car and it was bowling along the route out to the military shuttleport. He slumped in his seat and addressed himself to his wristcom with the caution of a man defusing a bomb. At some return code, he muttered in relief, “Oh, good, he’s got it on voice delay,” and continued more brightly, “Admiral Desplains, Vorpatril here, sir. Sorry about the holdup this morning, but I have the misunderstanding with the Komarrans all straightened out. Nobody’s trying to arrest me anymore”‑his lips silently mouthed, I hope – “but I have one more short stop to make at ImpSec Galactic Affairs to settle a few details. I’ll meet you and the Horsemen out at Dock Six. I’ll explain everything else when I get there.” He made to cut the com, but then raised it to his lips and added, “Please don’t leave without me. It’s important.”
He blew out his breath, then entered another code, and made an appointment with someone named Captain Morozov to meet them in a few minutes at some lobby security desk. Tej and Rish looked uneasily at each other.
“That’s your ImpSec person you mentioned who studies Jackson’s Whole?” asked Rish.
“Morozov, yes. Good scout, bit of a boffin, but he’s really interested, you know. I mean, above and beyond what he has to be for his duties as an analyst, which I suppose is what makes him a top boffin. I thought I’d leave you two with him for the day. You can’t go back to my flat‑after all that uproar this morning, it’s gotta be smoked.”
“True,” said Rish, reluctantly.
“But however you feel about ImpSec, I can pretty much guarantee that nobody’s rent‑a‑goons can get at you inside their HQ.”
“But surely this Captain Morozov will want to know things,” said Tej. “What should we tell him?”
Ivan Xav shrugged. “Everything. He’s even cleared to know about By, though I doubt he does‑not his department.”
“Even about the‑the wedding thing?”
He sighed. “I’ll tell him about that.”
When they exited into the busy bubble‑car station out by the shuttleport, Rish said, “I have to pee,” grabbed Tej, and towed her into the ladies’ lavatory. Vorpatril made frustrated gestures of protest, but stopped short of following them inside. They left him standing in the corridor alongside a couple of other males with glazed, waiting expressions.
It didn’t matter; there was only the one door, and no windows, Tej automatically noted as they entered. A woman dealing with a wailing infant, and another attempting to shepherd two hyperactive and not‑well‑trained toddlers through their ablutions, gave plenty of sound cover and guaranteed that no one was paying them the least attention.
Rish retreated to a corner and turned Tej around, strong blue hands gripping her shoulders. “Talk to me, Tej. You look like someone hit you on the head with a mallet, and you’re just waiting to fall down. You’re scaring me, sweetling.”
“Am I?” Tej blinked. “I sure didn’t see that blow coming. I wonder if he really thinks he married me?”
Rish shifted her head and eyed Tej narrowly, as if checking to see that her pupils were still the same size. “Do you think you really married him?”
“I have no idea. I guess the important thing is that everyone else seems to.” Tej took a deep breath. “And till we find out what all else this Lady Vorpatril business is good for, we’d likely better go along with it.”
Rish pursed her lips, nodded, and stood back, releasing her worried grip. “Point taken.” Her mouth tightened. “So what are we going to tell this Morozov fellow? Think, sweetling, think.”
Tej rubbed her forehead. “I’d be perfectly happy to feed everything we know about those House Prestene bastards to Barrayar, if only I could be sure they weren’t about to become new best friends afterward. Though if the Prestene syndicate is really on the other end of this smuggling scheme, I think the Barrayarans aren’t going to be too well‑disposed toward House Cordonah’s new management. I know even Dada and the Baronne took care how they crossed these Imperium crazies. It’s rumored that all of House Ryoval was taken down by a single ImpSec agent, after the old baron pissed Barrayar off somehow.”
Rish whistled. “Really?”
“That’s the tale Star told me, anyway. She got it from someone in House Fell. So I think…” Tej wished she could think. Her brain seemed to have turned to mush. “I think we should tell this Morozov almost everything. Bury him in details, so’s he won’t have either the time or the motivation to move on to the fast‑penta.”
“Our story will be that the syndicate is after you as a flashy prize, and me as a baby enemy they want to strangle in the cradle.” Yes, that had seemed to work for the Byerly person. And besides, it was true. “Hold back only anything about where Amiri is. Anything about Amiri, come to think. And don’t volunteer anything about Star and Pidge. Or Grandmama.”
Rish nodded understanding.
They both made quick dashes for the stalls, returning to the station corridor before Vorpatril overcame his social conditioning and came in looking for them, although, by the glare he cast them, it had been a near thing.
“Crowded?” he inquired.
“Lots of little kids,” Tej said truthfully. “I think they must have eaten straight sugar for breakfast.” That was the best deal, yes. Truth.
Just not all of it.
To Ivan’s relief, Morozov was already waiting at the ImpSec Galactic Affairs reception desk when he guided the two women inside the lobby. Morozov’s eyes widened as Rish turned to face him, but then he managed a boffin‑y bow.
“Lapis Lazuli. A visit to ImpSec’s humble quarters by an artist of your caliber is quite an honor.” His lips parted in equal surprise as he took in Tej. “And, if I am not mistaken, one of the Misses Arqua as well! This is excellent, Vorpatril.”
“You’re mistaken,” said Ivan. “Or anyway, behind the times. Captain Morozov, may I present the new Lady Vorpatril.”
Morozov blinked. Three times. And rose to the challenge: “Congratulations to you both. Er…a recent happy event, was this?”
“About”‑Ivan glanced at the time on his wristcom, ouch – “an hour ago.” He drew breath. “But it’s all right and tight and legal, we had the groats and the oaths and the witnesses and everything. Which means she is now officially an Imperial Service officer’s dependent. And Rish is her, um, personal assistant. In my employ. Officially.”
“I see. I think…?” Morozov laced his hands together; Ivan wasn’t sure if that lip‑biting expression concealed dismay, or unholy glee.
“An officer’s dependent who some very unpleasant people have been trying to kidnap and maybe murder,” Ivan forged on.
That got the analyst’s full attention. “Ah. I see. We can’t have that, can we?”
“Right. So I’m leaving them with you for the day till I can get back downside and deal with, uh, everything. They probably ought to stay in the building. I thought you all could talk.”
“It would be my very great pleasure,” said Morozov, brightening right up. Tej and Rish did not look nearly as thrilled as he did.
“And no damned fast‑penta,” Ivan continued. “I think you’d have to ask my husbandly permission anyway, but just in case there’s a question, you don’t have it. My permission, that is.”
Morozov’s brows twitched. “Noted. Er…if I may ask a personal question…does your mother know about this marriage yet?”
“Nobody knows about this marriage yet, but that’ll change soon enough. One thing at a time. I’m due to accompany Desplains upside in, oh God, twenty minutes ago. I hope they’re holding the shuttle.”
Morozov waved an ImpSec salute at him. “Then I shall consider myself detailed to guard the new Lady Vorpatril from all harm until your return, shall I?”
“Please.” Ivan turned away, turned back. “And feed them. They’ll like that. Nobody’s had breakfast yet.” He started off and stopped again. “But not rat bars.”
“I’ll send my clerk to bring up something from the cafeteria. Ladies, will you come with me? I can offer you coffee or tea in my office.” Morozov gestured the uneasy women away down the corridor, and continued in the tone of a town Vor dame, or possibly Byerly Vorrutyer, at the most gossipy: “And I’m dying to hear all about your wedding, Lady Vorpatril! I’m sure this will come as a delightful surprise to all of Captain Vorpatril’s friends…”
Ivan pushed through the doors and ran. He made sure to make it that special bland run that said, I’m late and in a hurry, and not the wild bolt that said, This building I am fleeing is about to explode, because he didn’t want to spread panic. He had enough panic tamped into his head right now to blow up a battalion. This’ll work this’ll work, this had better work…
He found, thanks be, the admiral’s shuttle still waiting in Dock Six. Desplains and all four of the Horsemen were aboard, fuming with impatience. The shuttle was already moving as Ivan flung himself into the seat where the scowling Desplains pointed and snapped his belts closed.
“We’re off to inspect the flagship New Athens, right?” Ivan wheezed.
“So glad you remembered,” said Desplains, drawing a long breath for what promised to be a classic bolt of scouring sarcasm, but Ivan shook his head.
“Change it to the Kanzian.”
Desplains stopped dead in mid‑rant‑launch. “What?”
“The Kanzian. Tell the shuttle pilot to dock at the Kanzian.”
Desplains sat back, eyes narrowing. “Why?”
“Because hidden somewhere aboard it‑or possibly clamped outside of it‑are several cargo pods full of equipment, weapons, and supplies stolen from the Sergyar Fleet Orbital Depot. Which their conveyors are no doubt trying frantically to camouflage right now, in anticipation of our scheduled inspection tomorrow.” Ivan nodded to the inspection team chief, leaning over the aisle to hear this. “Forget the rest, that’s what the Horsemen should look for.”
“How do you know this, Vorpatril?” asked Desplains.
“I had a tip‑off from an ImpSec agent.”
“ImpSec didn’t tell me.”
“This was one of their left‑hand men, the sort the right hands don’t talk to. Frigging weasels. But he’s known to me. The reasons I’ve been late for work the past few days weren’t just personal ones, sir.”
“Are you sure of this?”
“ImpSec.” Desplains sat back, his scowl transmuting to his thinking‑frown, scarcely less alarming. “I suppose you would know.”
“I do in this case, sir.” Adding I’d stake my career on it seemed redundant, since he just had. “But you can’t even hint where you got the tip, sir. There are ImpSec agents still on the ground in the matter who are at high risk till they get clear.”
There ensued rumbling and grumbling, but the Horsemen were good; they had the new inspection plan roughed out before the shuttle slid into its docking clamps at the Komarr Fleet orbital station. Next to the Kanzian.
Captain Morozov proved a disappointment to Tej, considering ImpSec’s reputation. He wasn’t in the least scary.
By the time he’d ordered in a gratifyingly substantial lunch, the tale of her and Rish’s escape and subsequent odyssey across three systems was almost told. The first not‑too‑alarmed flight to Fell Station, and then all their false sense of security blown to shocked bits when their bodyguard was shot; the escape to the Hegen Hub, the weeks turned to months of slipping from station to station around the Hub like some sort of lethal shell game‑brief, stressed, frightening periods of motion alternated with long, boring, frightening periods of hiding; the bad news catching up with them in agonizingly slow hammer blows; the gradual relaxation of their months downside on the free planet Pol, almost sure they’d shaken pursuit, till it turned up again. The final flight to Komarr, with their every resource of money, identity, and resolution nearly tapped out. She tried to hold back how their identity shifts had worked, but since the fellow promptly guessed nearly every detail, Tej ended up being frank about all that, as well.
Morozov might not be properly intimidating, but he was something better; he understood. Tej discovered, when he volunteered a few inviting anecdotes of his own during the lulls and hesitations, that some years back he had actually been a junior ImpSec field agent in the Whole. They were all out‑of‑date tales of amusing misadventures, but Tej began to sense that in the gaps lay some adventures that hadn’t been so amusing, nor misses.
“No one is allowed to become an analyst without field experience,” he explained. “They are not at all the same skill‑set, but when one is given the task of interpreting field reports, it’s a source of considerable illumination to have once been the fellow writing them.” He seemed quite content with his headquarters job now, though, and perhaps the holovid of the middle‑aged woman with children, tucked almost out of sight on his cluttered desk, suggested why.
As they portioned out sandwiches, teas, and assorted deep‑fried vegetables and cheeses around the cubicle, Tej, with editorial interjections from Rish, brought the tale up to the moment with a description of her bewildering wedding at dawn.
“I wish I could have been a witness, too,” said Morozov, his eyes crinkling. “That was quite a quixotic impulse on your, er, bridegroom’s part. Well, faint heart ne’er won fair lady, I suppose.”
“I think it was his admiral calling on his wristcom that finally pushed him…” she swallowed the words, over the edge, and substituted, “into his inspiration. When it wouldn’t stop chiming, he finally took it off and threw it into the refrigerator.”
Morozov choked on a bite of sandwich. But, “Really,” was all he said when he got his breath back.
“Is this Admiral Desplains of Ivan Xav’s a, um, very important admiral?”
“Chief of Operations for the entire Imperial Service? You could say so, but it would be a charming understatement.”
“Oh,” said Tej. “So…Ivan Xav’s not just some sort of military clerk?”
“You could say so.” Morozov’s lips twitched. “But it would be a charming understatement.” Morozov finished his last bite, leaned back in his station chair, and tented his fingertips together. “I should likely explain, I served several years of my apprenticeship in Analysis at ImpSec headquarters in Vorbarr Sultana, back when the legendary Chief Illyan was still running the place.”
Illyan’s, at least, was a name Tej dimly remembered hearing on her father’s lips, more than once. Usually accompanied by swearing. She nodded uncertainly.
“Domestic Affairs was never my department, but one cannot serve long in the capital without acquiring some familiarity with the high Vor scene.”
“Did you know Ivan Xav there?”
“No, we never met in person till the affair of his cousin’s clone brought him into my orbit, some time later.”
And why did that have anything to do with Jackson’s Whole? And which cousin? “Am I‑are we‑likely to meet his cousin? Or his clone?” She hesitated. “Is this the Cousin Miles he keeps talking about? Is he anyone important?”
Morozov squeezed his eyes shut, briefly. Opened them to give her a rather pained look. “Just how much has your new husband told you about himself?”
“Not much. I looked him up.”
“Maybe I’d better show you…”
A few minutes at his comconsole found Tej’s database. “Why ever did you look in a Komarran database for Barrayaran affairs?” Morozov inquired mildly.
“It seemed…as if it would be more reliable…?” Would he take that as an insult?
Morozov looked over Ivan Xav’s entry and sniffed. “Correct but incomplete, and sadly out of date. You shouldn’t have stopped there, m’dear.”
“I ran out of time.”
“Well.” Morozov swung around again. “High Vor family relations tend to be complex, interlaced, and mined. Before you set foot in them, I strongly advise you to study up.”
“Is Ivan Xav high Vor, then? I thought he was just…middling. He acts middling.” Tej was beginning to be peeved about that. Just what kind of a tricky deal had she landed herself in, anyway?
“Oh, yes,” said Morozov, as if that explained anything.
Tej glared at him.
He held up a warding palm and suppressed a smile. “To understand Captain Vorpatril’s peculiar position in the capital, one must travel a bit farther up his family tree. His mother is of good Vor stock, and certainly not to be underrated, but it’s on his father’s side that things become interesting.”
“He said he was an only child. So was his father‑or anyway, he didn’t have any siblings listed.”
“Up farther than that. Captain Vorpatril’s father’s mother was Princess Sonia Vorbarra, who, along with her elder sister Olivia, were the daughters of Prince Xav Vorbarra. Who was the younger son in turn of Emperor Dorca Vorbarra, later called Dorca the Just. And the younger half‑brother of Emperor Yuri, later called Mad Yuri, but that’s another tale.”
Perhaps more than names out of history texts for the Baronne or Grandmama, but mere distant tales to Tej. Yuri had led the brutal and bloody rebellion against the Occupation on the ground, while his brother Xav had run all over the Nexus gathering off‑world support for his forces, not so much for Barrayar, as against Cetaganda. And‑um, yes‑that was the whole sum of Tej’s knowledge of them. “So…Ivan Xav’s great‑grandfather was this really important prince. And his great‑great‑grandfather was this really important emperor?” She looked suspiciously at Morozov, who had his hand pressed to his mouth, his eyes alight with annoying amusement. “Or is that another charming understatement?”
“It will do for now. To bring it back to the present, Ivan Xav Vorpatril from the hour of his birth has been high on the list of potential heirs‑presumptive to the throne of Barrayar should anything untoward, God forbid, happen to Emperor Gregor. Or he was, till Gregor married Laisa Toscane and the boys came along, to many people’s relief.”
“A list? Is it a long list?”
“Not especially, though it still contains several latent opportunities for civil conflict. First on the list has always been‑ah, you see, Sonia’s elder sister Olivia married Count Piotr Vorkosigan. Who thus became the sire in turn of Count Aral Vorkosigan, who is the father of Miles Vorkosigan, Ivan’s notable cousin. Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan, now. If you linger in Vorbarr Sultana for longer than ten minutes, I can almost guarantee you will meet him. But it’s always been realized by anyone with even half a wit that none of the Vorkosigans would have touched the throne, seeing as how Lord Miles was born so damaged, should it have fallen vacant before Gregor had sired his own heirs. Instead, they would doubtless have swung their considerable weight behind Ivan Vorpatril. And pushed.”
Rish was listening to all this like a blue marble stature. Tej hoped she was tracking the complications better than Tej was. Tej had a hot date with a comconsole soon, there could be no doubt. Homework. Tej hated homework. No choice now.
“The upshot of it all is that Vorpatril has been a potential plot magnet for disaffected political parties all his life, partially shielded by his cousin’s clan, partially protected by his own…I suppose I could describe it as notoriously nonferrous lifestyle. Pressures have eased off for him lately, to a degree.”
“Wouldn’t Ivan Xav’s mother have been anxious to promote him?” asked Rish, clearly puzzled by this maternal lapse. “Or see him promoted, anyway?”
“I gather that Lady Alys has always been much more anxious to protect him from risk. Her only child, you see. Though she is a formidable woman. Had anything untoward ever happened to Gregor, I am sure that‑after first seeing those responsible properly hanged with all due ceremony‑she would undoubtedly have been drawn into guiding her son in his new duties.”
“I thought she was a secretary,” said Tej faintly. “The database called her some kind of secretary.” She looked at Morozov, looking back at her in wonder. “Charming understatement…?”
“Social Secretary to the Imperial Residence. Official hostess for Emperor Gregor for decades, now first assistant to Empress Laisa. One of the most powerful women in the capital, in her own quiet way. I know Chief Illyan never underestimated her.”
Would Ivan Xav take her to meet his mother, when they arrived in Vorbarr Sultana? And if so, should they perhaps tell her about the divorce before they mentioned the wedding?
While Tej digested the implications, Morozov gathered up the lunch debris and set the tray in the corridor. When he returned, his thoughts had plainly shifted back to his own more immediate duties, for he opened with a chatty, “And how ever did the Baronne come to create you Jewels, Rish? It must have been a fascinating project for her…”
And then it was time to gather what was left of her wits and evade, again, and push Ivan Xav to the back of her mind. Where he loomed like a very indigestible lump indeed.
Just as Ivan had hoped, his arresting lure drew Desplains’s attention entirely off of the erratic personal affairs of his high Vor aide‑de‑camp for the next several hours, especially after the first cargo pod was found in the process of being stashed under a fake antenna. There followed a fire drill of the most chaotic, Service Security everywhere, surprised perpetrators playing hide and seek all over the ship, the Kanzian ’s captain out for blood, livid with outrage and chagrin to discover that he’d missed the criminal scheme taking place under his nose. Ivan faded into the background, documenting and taking notes on the whole circus like the excellent admiral’s assistant he was. At the end of the long day, Admiral Desplains and the Horsemen were being regarded by the Kanzian ’s entire crew and most of the orbital station’s personnel as possessing supernatural powers granted by some dark god, and they wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t enjoyed the effect, at least a little bit.
Desplains was almost mellow as he settled into his shuttle seat for the trip back to downside HQ. His gesture this time for Ivan to take the seat across from him was more of a wave of friendly invitation. The admiral leaned his head back against the seat in a moment of well‑earned weariness, but opened his eyes again and regarded his subordinate in some bemusement.
“Good work today, Ivan. You do have your uses.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And here I thought‑never mind. I owe you one.”
Ivan was good. Ivan was Ivan when the admiral was pleased with him, Vorpatril when the mood was neutral, and Captain when Desplains was irritated. This was probably the best opportunity Ivan would get to broach the next subject. Also, given the short duration of the flight, the only opportunity, so. Go. He took a deep breath. “I’m glad you think so, sir. As it happens, I am in need of a somewhat personal favor just at the moment. Not unrelated to this.” His wave around reminded his listener of the Kanzian coup, just bagged.
“Oh?” Desplains knew better than to offer a free pass in advance, but his benign tone and nod invited Ivan to go on.
“I need a permission to get married, and approval for two passages from Komarr to Barrayar for Service dependents.”
Desplains’s eyes flew wide. “Ivan! This is sudden. You never breathed a word‑is it some Komarran girl? Nothing wrong with that, of course, quite the fashion these days, but‑does your mother know about this?”
“Backdated to yesterday,” Ivan forged on, before the admiral could build up any more elaborate fantasies of secret interplanetary romances in his mind.
Desplains went still. Sat back. Continued in a much cooler tone, “I see. When did these nuptials actually take place, Vorpatril?”
Not Captain yet; Ivan still had turning room. “At dawn this morning, sir. So I suppose a permission dated to today would also do, but there will hardly be time before we land downside.”
“I think you had better begin at the beginning.”
“I intend to, sir.” Ivan marshaled his thoughts, trying to figure out how to put as much of the culpability on Byerly as possible. Traditionally, Ops had no objection to criticizing ImpSec for any screw‑up, from minor to monumental. Yes, blame the absent, always a good plan. “The beginning would be three nights ago, when the ImpSec deep cover agent came to my flat and asked for my help‑”
It was almost Komarran midnight when Ivan at last made it back to the ImpSec Galactic Affairs building where, the night clerk assured him, Morozov was still in his office, very late, isn’t it, sir? Ivan declined to respond to this invitation to drop tidbits, which disappointed the clerk but did not surprise him.
The door to Morozov’s cubicle was open, spilling light into the corridor and, Ivan was heartened to hear, rather cheerful‑sounding voices. He arrived to discover Morozov and his two guests perched variously in the debris, disemboweled food cartons spread all over and deflated soda bulbs piled up, deeply engaged in some sort of game‑a brightly colored, if rather tattered, box lay open on the floor, and each player manned a vid board, balanced on their laps. As Ivan walked, or rather, picked his way inside, something beeped and twinkled, Tej hooted, Morozov groaned, and Rish grinned like an evil blue elf.
Tej was the first to look up. She cast him an oddly penetrating glance. “Ivan Xav! You’re back!”
“Sorry it took me so long. I have some guest quarters arranged for us tonight here in the HQ compound, so it’s only a step over to bed. Nothing fancy, but safe. Looks like you got dinner. Uh…” Have you been all right here? seemed to be a question already answered. “What’s the game?”
“ Great House,” said Tej. “It’s an old Jacksonian children’s game. I used to play it when I was girl, with my sibs and the Jewels, but they always beat the pants off me, unless I cheated. Though you’re allowed to cheat.”
“Each player starts with a small stake,” Morozov explained, “and the object is to deal with and against each other, till the winner ends up owning the virtual world. It can be played with only two people, barely, but it’s far more interesting with three or more. It’s not often that I get a chance to play it with actual Jacksonians.” He added after a moment, “I’ve lost five rounds straight. I suspect collusion.”
“Thank you for staying so late,” Ivan began, but Morozov waved this away.
“It’s been a very enjoyable day, quite a nice break in my routine.” The ImpSec analyst rose with a groan, and stretched. “I concede. You two can wrestle it out for second and first.”
The two women eyed each other, bared teeth, and bent to a flurry of beeps and twinkles. Morozov jerked his head at the doorway, and followed Ivan out. They moved a few steps down the corridor beyond earshot of the cubicle.
“I like your new wife, Captain Vorpatril,” said Morozov.
“Uh, thanks. Only temporary though, you know.”
“So she explained.” Morozov smiled at his shoes.
“Did you get anything useful out of the day? From ImpSec’s viewpoint, that is. From your interrogation.”
“Interrogation? Oh, nothing so crude among friends. Or cultural relatives‑in‑law. We just had one delightful, riveting conversation after another. You must get her to tell you the full tale of her flight from the Whole‑it sounds to have been a ghastly adventure, in all. I quite hope it may have a happier ending than beginning.”
“Er,” said Ivan. “We really haven’t had much chance to talk yet.”
“So I gathered.” Morozov rubbed his neck; his voice took on a more serious tone. “Everything the pair of them told me that I already knew about, checked out well, allowing for point of view and so on. So I have a high degree of confidence in the new information they purveyed. As far as it went.”
Ivan waited for it. Then grew impatient‑he was exhausted‑and prodded, “But…?”
“Tej began by withholding details about her family, reasonably enough, but just about everything I could want to know and more about the Arqua clan has come out in the last three hours of Great House – very valuable game. Lively, too.”
Who won? Ivan suddenly realized, could be a question with more than one answer.
Morozov slipped from serious to grim. “My considered professional analysis is that the syndicate that seized House Cordonah is going to keep on coming. It’s plain they still fear a counter‑coup. They want these women‑alive, probably; dead, in a pinch. Each Arqua they can obtain gives them a stronger handle on the out‑of‑reach remainder. You’d best be prepared.”
“Ah.” Ivan swallowed. He tried to figure out what that meant, then realized he had a top figurer‑outer standing right in front of him. Use your resources. “For what, exactly?”
“Small‑scale kidnapping teams, most likely. Deploying all sorts of tactics, including deception. Import teams have greater logistical challenges, but are known quantities to their handlers. Local hirelings blend better, and know the ground. Any successful abduction must fall into two halves, seizing the victims‑which actually may be the easier part‑and their removal beyond the Imperium’s boundaries.”
Somebody kidnaps my wife, and they’ll find the Imperium’s boundaries can stretch a hell of a long way, Ivan found himself thinking with unexpected fierceness. Wait, no. This thing with Tej was only a temporary ploy, not a real marriage. Well, no, it was a real marriage, that is, a legal marriage, that was the whole reason why it had worked. But not permanent. Nothing to be alarmed about there.
Anyway, it was surely allowable to shoot kidnappers regardless of who they were trying to carry off, right?
“I’ll be escorting them both on to Barrayar in little more than a day’s time,” said Ivan. “They should be safe out here at Komarr HQ till then‑don’t you think?”
“Commercial or military ship?”
“Admiral Desplains’s jump‑pinnace, actually. He was kind enough to assign me some spare berths. Wedding present, he said.”
“That should be exceptionally safe. I imagine it will take their pursuers some time to regroup after the, ah, curve ball you threw this morning. I don’t think that could have been anticipated in anyone’s schemes.”
“Meanwhile,” said Morozov, “I’d think you, as the lady’s new husband, would be as closely placed as humanly possible to find out more, eh?”
Puzzles. I hate puzzles. Ivan liked flow‑charts‑nice and clear and you could always tell just where you were and what you should do next, everything laid out neatly. No ambiguities. No traps. Why couldn’t life be more like flow charts?
Morozov went on jovially, “After all, a man who can’t persuade his own wife to trust him is a man in trouble in many ways.”
So many ways. Ivan could only nod.
The military compound’s guest quarters proved to resemble a small, faintly shabby hotel, designed to temporarily house officers, dependents, or civilian contract employees either in transit to elsewhere, or downside on Komarr for duties too brief to billet them in permanent housing. Its security, Tej judged, was only fair, but still vastly better than anything she’d had to rely upon lately, and it didn’t feel like a prison. Ivan Xav escorted Tej and Rish to a clean if narrow chamber with two beds, and, yawning, himself went to ground in a room directly across the hall. As Tej’s very first wedding night ever, this would have left something to be desired, if she hadn’t been so exhausted by the disruptions of the past days as to fall asleep nearly as fast as she could pull up her covers.
When they awoke the next morning Ivan Xav had already gone off to aide‑de‑camp his admiral some more, though he left a note of reassurance, scrawled on the back of a flimsy and shoved under their door. Captain Morozov turned up to escort them to a long, chatty brunch in a private room off the ImpSec building cafeteria, where he asked yet more uncomfortably shrewd questions, seeming as satisfied with the evasions as the answers, which was a bit disquieting, on reflection. In the afternoon, a uniformed enlisted man arrived with all of their and Ivan Xav’s remaining possessions from his rental flat, and dumped them on Rish’s bed to be sorted out. Minus the groceries, evidently abandoned; Tej would rather have liked to have kept the emptied groats box for a souvenir.
Tej sat herself down at the room’s little comconsole and began to try to study up on Barrayaran history. Which the Barrayarans appeared, from a first glance, to have made far too much of. Rish, trammeled by the confined space as usual‑these past months had been especially hard on her‑started her dance exercises, or as least as many of the thousand‑moves‑kata as she could fit into the constricted area. She had wandered into their tiny bathroom to practice the neck, face, ear, eye, and eyebrow movements in front of the mirror‑ten reps each‑when a hearty knock on the door shot Tej from her chair and almost out of the window. Only one floor up, now, so unlikely to be lethal‑had Ivan Xav arranged that?
In any case, it was his voice that called, “Hi, Tej, you in there?” Trying to calm her pounding heart, she went to unlock the door.
He stuck his head in and said, “Saddle up, ladies. Our shuttle awaits.”
“So soon?” said Tej, as Rish came out of the lav.
“Hey, you two may have slept in, but it’s been a long day for me.”
“No, I mean, I thought‑I thought this thing with the smugglers might have thrown you off schedule.”
“It’s Service Security’s problem now. That’s what delegation is for. They’re scrambling like mad to cover their lapse‑this is the sort of rattlesnake they’re supposed to hand to Desplains, neatly pithed, pinned on a card, and labeled, not the other way around. Very disorienting for ’em. Though all of their further reports will doubtless catch up with us en route. Travel time with the boss is not break time, alas.” He gathered up his delivered gear and went off to pack his duffle.
The ride up to orbit on the military shuttle felt like escape from a deeper pit than just a gravity well. Tej stared out her tiny window. Scabrous patches of green terraforming clung like lichen around the barren, poisonous planet, and the lights of the dome arcologies, strung like bright beads along the faint monorail lines, made promises for the future, but not for the now. For someone who’d spent as much time growing up on space installations as Tej, Solstice Dome ought to have felt spacious, but it hadn’t. If a place wasn’t going to be a proper station, it ought to be a proper planet, but Komarr had seemed to be something caught between.
I don’t know where I’m going. But this wasn’t it. Was she going to have to sort through the entire Nexus by process of elimination to find her final destination? I hope not.
The shuttle docked, and Ivan Xav led them on a very short walk through the military orbital station to another portal. A zero‑gee float through a personnel flex tube gave Tej a bare glimpse of a ship about the size of a rich man’s yacht, but not nearly as cheery‑looking‑an effect of the warty weapons housings studding the armored skin, perhaps. The tube spat them out into a small hatch bay, neat but decidedly utilitarian. Three men awaited them: an armed soldier in ship gear, an unarmed enlisted man in a plain green uniform, and a spare, gray‑haired man in a less‑plain green uniform like Ivan Xav’s. He did not particularly exude arrogance, but Tej recognized how a person stood or moved when they owned the place, and this man did; it hardly needed Ivan Xav’s salute and, “Admiral Desplains, sir,” to identify him. “May I present to you my wife, Lady Tej Vorpatril, and her personal assistant, Lapis Lazuli, also known as Rish.”
The admiral returned the salute in a more perfunctory manner. His polite smile broadened into something more genuinely welcoming, or maybe that was just genuinely amused, as he looked over his guests. Somebody must have warned him about Rish, for he didn’t gawk. “Lady Vorpatril. Miss, ah, Lazuli. Welcome aboard the JP‑9. My ship has no more memorable name, I’m afraid.”
Tej gathered her wits enough to return, “Thank you for inviting us, sir,” and didn’t correct Rish’s address. A Chief of Operations wasn’t exactly a House baron, more like a senior House security officer, but it might be well to treat him just as circumspectly.
“I understand you were of material aid in helping us trap our home‑grown smugglers, yesterday,” Desplains went on.
Not at all sure what Ivan Xav had told him, Tej tried smiling mysteriously, and murmured, “They were no friends to me or mine.”
“So Captain Morozov gave me to believe,” said Desplains.
Oh. Of course Morozov had to be reporting to someone. Their chats hadn’t been just for his entertainment, or his back‑files, however much he managed to make one feel so. “Has Morozov much special training in interrogation?” Tej asked, belatedly curious.
“Actually, he trains interrogators,” said Desplains. “One of our top men, you know.” He dragged his gaze back up to her face‑so, old but not dead, though Tej had trouble estimating Barrayarans’ ages. “I begin to see why Captain Vorpatril’s chivalrous inspiration took the form it did, Lady Vorpatril. I suddenly realize his duties with me have not left you much time together since your wedding yesterday, ah, morning was it?”
“Not any,” she confirmed. She tried a doleful look on him, curious to see what would happen.
It won a quirky smile, anyway. “We shall have to find some way to make it up to you. In the meanwhile, Ivan, show our guests around the ship and give them the safety drill.”
He made a motion to the enlisted man, who collected their bags. Tej and Rish parted reluctantly with theirs, till Ivan Xav whispered, opaquely but reassuringly, “Admiral’s batman, it’s all right.” As they left the hatch bay, Desplains and the other bent their heads together in some conference.
The ship was small and the tour brief, as the engineering and Nav‑and‑Com areas were evidently off‑limits. While they were about this, Tej more felt than heard the faint thumps and clanks that told her they had detached from the station and were on their way already. The amenities were few: a kind of dining room‑gathering place that Ivan Xav dubbed the wardroom, a small observation lounge, a compact but well‑equipped exercise room that Rish eyed with interest. Tej guessed a crew of less than twenty, split among shifts, and a capacity of perhaps a dozen passengers, maybe twice that in an emergency. The jump‑pinnace was bigger and slower than a fast courier, but not by much.
Getting lost on board was not going to be a problem, or even an option. Ivan Xav focused on escape routes and emergency pods and equipment how‑to’s, and conscientiously made them both go through the entire pressurization‑or‑other‑emergency safety routine, till he seemed satisfied that they understood it.
“Do you do this for passengers a lot?” asked Rish, freeing herself from a breath mask and handing it back.
“We carry high‑ranking non‑Service supercargo from time to time, depending on the mission. Or the admiral sometimes includes his family on these more routine jaunts, but they had other things going on at home this week.”
“Have you worked for Desplains long?” asked Tej.
“About three years. He brought me along with him when he was promoted from Admiral of the Home Fleet to Chief of Operations, two years back.”
The batman‑person appeared. “If you will come this way, Captain, Lady Vorpatril, Miss Lazuli.” He led them down to the end of a short corridor; an airseal door labeled Admiral Desplains slid open at his touch on the pad. Inside was a tiny suite‑a sitting room and two bedrooms with a connecting bath. One bedroom had four neat bunks. The other boasted a double bed. Their three bags and Ivan Xav’s duffle waited, placed ambiguously on the floor of the sitting room.
“Admiral’s compliments, Lady Vorpatril, ma’am, but he begs you and the captain will accept the use of his quarters for the duration of the journey. He says the space is underutilized, without Madame Desplains or the children along. Which, indeed, it is.” The batman pointed out a few basic features and bowed himself out with a murmured, “There is a call button on the wall if you require anything more, but I trust I have provided most of the necessities.”
Ivan Xav stared around, seeming vaguely stunned. “Huh! Guess I’m forgiven, then…” He pulled himself together, peeked into both bedrooms in turn, wheeled to the women, and said, “Er…take your pick?”
Tej and Rish looked at each other. Rish said, “Excuse us a moment,” grabbed Tej by the arm, and dragged her into the bunk room, letting the airseal door slide closed behind them.
“Quit smirking,” said Rish.
Tej chirped, “Oh, but how nice. Ivan Xav’s boss has given us the honeymoon suite. It would seem a shame to waste such a grateful gesture, don’t you think?”
Rish ran a hand over her platinum pelt in a harried swipe, blue ears twitching. “All right, I can see how it might be a good deal if he pair‑bonds to you. Maybe not so good if you pair‑bond to him. Don’t lose your head, sweetling.”
Tej tossed her curls. “It’s only a practice marriage. So I ought to get in some practice, don’t you think?”
“And quit prancing, too. It’s not like he’s an allowed suitor. That call button won’t bring in a brace of the Baron’s bodyguards to eject him from your bedroom if he displeases you. There’s only me. And while there are places where I’d back myself to take him on, this isn’t one of them. This ship is Barrayaran, bow to bulkhead. With no place to run.”
“He’s allowed if I allow him.” Tej’s voice went bleak. “Who else is left to make that call, Rish?”
Rish took a breath, but let it out slowly, unused.
“I know this isn’t a deal from strength, but here we are,” said Tej. “For the next six days. And afterward, too, for some unknown amount of time. There’s no harm in setting up a basic biological reward‑loop as a minor safety net. You know I won’t mistake it for anything more.” Tej hesitated. “Although how you can look at what Dada and the Baronne had, and dismiss it as minor, I don’t know.”
“Exception that proves the rule, sweetling.” Rish paced the floor, two steps each way. “Oh, hell, go on and have your treat. Maybe it’ll be the fastest cure for this madness.”
Tej’s smile tucked up, irresistibly. “Not for him‑I’ll wager my training on that. Anyway, his admiral practically handed him to me gift‑wrapped. And you know how I like opening presents.”
This pulled a reluctant chuckle from Rish. She thumped a fist gently into Tej’s shoulder. “In that case, break a leg. Preferably one of his, not one of yours.”
“Nothing so violent.”
They went back out to the sitting room, where Ivan Xav was standing with the glazed look of those men who’d waited outside the women’s lav, except that the fingers of his right hand were drumming rapidly on his trouser seam. He jerked to attention with a weird, twisted smile. “So what’s the verdict?”
“Rish will take the bunk room,” said Tej, “and you and I will take the other room.”
His mouth opened. Closed. Opened again. “That…sounds great, but you know, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Of course, if you do want to, that’s…that’s just great!”
Rish rolled her eyes, picked up her bag, and withdrew to the bunk room, calling, “Good night, good night, to all a good night. I claim first dibs on the bath, though.”
Barely seeming to hear this, Ivan Xav blinked at Tej, and said, “And the other good thing is that on board here, we’re back on Fleet time, which is Vorbarr Sultana time. Twenty‑six‑point‑seven hour sidereal day, you know, with the night proportional. Makes for a much more leisurely evening.”
Unexpectedly, he stepped forward, wrapped an arm around Tej’s waist, and swung her around like a dancer and down onto the room’s little sofa, bolted to the floor in case of artificial gravity mishaps. “How do you do, Lady Vorpatril? I’m so pleased to meet you.”
Yes, I can tell already, Tej did not say out loud. “Hi there, Lord Vorpatril.” What was he a lord of, anyway? She would have to find out. Later. “Say my whole name. Bet you can’t.”
His chin jerked up at the challenge. “Lady Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua Vorpatril.”
Tej, impressed, raised her brows. “You’re a fast study, Ivan Xav.”
“When I have to be.” One finger went out to tease a curl from her forehead, then hesitated. “Er…how old would you happen to be, Tej? I mean, you look maybe twenty‑something standard, but Jacksonians, all that body modification…Cetagandans, all that genetic manipulation…could be anything from ten to sixty, I suppose.”
“As it happens, I am just turned twenty‑five.”
“What would you have done if I’d said ten?” she asked curiously.
“Cried. And turned you back over to your babysitter.”
“Now, that I could have dealt with. Older women‑it’s a fantasy, y’know. Or can be.”
“Have you ever fulfilled that fantasy?”
“I…don’t think this is the time to go into my past, y’know? Tonight should be all about you.” His voice was growing smoother, more confident. But then he hesitated again. “Ah…Great House baron’s treasured daughter and all, I expect you led a very sheltered life, huh? Very protected. Lots of armed guards and all that.”
“Yes, till the House fell.”
He tilted his head back and forth, as if thinking. Or puzzling. “Uh…I need to ask this, don’t mean to embarrass you or anything, and any answer is fine, as long as it’s true. Because I kind of need to know. Are you still a virgin?”
“Good heavens, no. Not since age fifteen.”
“Oh, was it fifteen for you, too? I mean, oh good. That’s not a problem for me, I don’t have any of that Time‑of‑Isolation baggage about marrying a virgin, that would be hypocritical, after all. Especially for a temporary‑though‑legal marriage. Easier the other way around anyway, really.” He paused again. “Contraceptive implant?”
“Also since age fifteen,” she assured him.
“Ah.” He smiled beatifically, and closed in for a kiss.
It was a good kiss, quite as good as her dream or better. She snaked her fingers up between them to deal with his first button. The flattering uniform seemed to have rather a lot of them. For the first time, his hand strayed below her shoulders, in a tentative, reverent touch; good, he wasn’t going to be grabby.
“So what happened when you were fifteen?” she asked, during their next break for air. “Was it a positive experience?”
This surprised a laugh from him, and a look of fond reminiscence. “I was a desperately randy adolescent‑almost any experience would have seemed positive, but yes, I guess it was. She was one of the girl grooms at my great‑uncle’s stables down at the long lake, a summer fling at a summer place, pretty damned idyllic, really. I thought I seduced her, but in retrospect, I realize she seduced me. Older woman, y’know‑she was nineteen. Dear God, but I was a clumsy young lout. But fortunately, or maybe it was mercifully, she didn’t trample on my young ego. Though she would probably have had to gallop one of the dressage horses across it to make a dent, I was so chuffed with myself.”
Tej laughed at his laughter, pleased for his covertly tender former self.
A finger ran lightly over her cheekbone, tracing its curves. He started to speak, shook his head, but then, as if he could not help himself, asked, “And you? I hope you weren’t afflicted with a clumsy and self‑absorbed young lout.”
“By no means. The Baronne wanted to make sure we knew what we were about‑me and my siblings and the Jewels. So she imported an eminent team of licensed practical sexuality therapists from the Betan Orb for us, for erotic arts training. A man, a woman, and a hermaphrodite. They stayed two years‑I was so sorry when they went back home. It was the only thing I was ever better at than my sisters.”
The hand stopped. He made a weird little noise down in his throat that she was completely unable to interpret. “I’ve never been to the Orb,” he said at last, in a faraway voice. “My cousin Miles has been there, though he won’t talk about it. Mark and Kareen have been there. Hell, even Commodore Kou and Madame Drou have been there…”
“Well, I’ve never been there, either,” she said. “Except by proxy, I suppose. But I did like the arts. They meshed well with my perception drills. It was like dance, in a way. For a little while, you live in your body, in the now, not all up in your head, all torn between the past and the future and missing the moment.”
That gentle hint brought him back to the now; the hand began to move again.
“I had two allowed suitors after that,” she went on. “But they didn’t work out. There’s another fortunately‑in‑retrospect for you.”
“Allowed suitors? I don’t know what‑is that a Jacksonian term?”
“You don’t have allowed suitors on Barrayar?” she asked. He shook his head. She couldn’t say she was surprised, merely surprised at his ignorance. “It’s for when one is considering some sort of House alliance by marriage. Try before you buy, and I’m glad I did. The first was plainly far more interested in House politics than in me. When I told him that in that case maybe he should go to bed with my father, instead, he wasn’t too pleased. And nor was I. The other…I don’t know. There was nothing wrong with him, I just didn’t like the way he smelled.”
“Did he…not bathe?” Ivan Xav’s arm made an abortive jerk, as if he thought, but then thought better, of trying to sniff his own armpit.
“No, he was perfectly hygienic. Just not, I don’t know…compatible. The Baronne suggested later that maybe our immune systems were too similar, but that didn’t seem quite right to me. I thought he was just boring.”
“Oh,” said Ivan Xav.
She took the opportunity of his distraction to unwrap his shirt a few more buttons. Ah, nice chest hair. Not too much, not too little, a fine masculine dusting. The dark color made a pleasing aesthetic contrast with his pale skin, and she made sure to savor it. One should notice one’s partner’s gifts, and let them know one was pleased, or so her erotic arts training had emphasized. She curled a bit of hair over her finger, in signal of appreciation, and danced her fingertips down his torso.
The bunk room door slid open partway, and he flinched at the slight noise. Rish’s voice floated out. “Shower’s yours. I’m going to sleep now, so close both doors between when you’re done, eh?” The door slid shut, firmly.
“Rish has very sensitive hearing,” said Tej, “but she sleeps like a brick.”
“Ah,” said Ivan Xav, faintly. “Well. It’s been a long day, perhaps I’d better hit the lav‑uh, unless you’d like first crack?”
“Or we could share the shower…” Her fingers twirled some more.
He shook his head in regret. “Not this one. It’s only a sonic, and two people wouldn’t fit.” He brightened. “But when we get back to my place in Vorbarr Sultana, I know that, um…another time?”
They should have taken advantage of the amenities back in his Solstice flat, but how were they to have known? Timing. The best chances of life all ran afoul of timing.
He kissed her again, then peeled himself away, lips last.
When they rendezvoused again in the bed, most of the unwrapping was already done, to Tej’s mild regret, but perhaps there would be other occasions. She slid between the sheets he had warmed. Clean sheets, she noticed in appreciation, a thoughtful touch from the busy batman, at a guess. Ivan Xav rolled over, and up on one elbow, his hand hovering uncertainly over her, as if he didn’t know where to begin.
She smiled up at him. “Are you shy, Ivan Xav?”
“No!” he denied indignantly. “It’s just…I’ve never made love to a wife, before. I mean, to my wife. A wife of my own. Not having had one. I don’t know how a few words in a groat circle can make what should be familiar feel very strange all of a sudden. Power of suggestion or something.”
She rolled up on her own elbow, to free a hand to reach his face, trace the bones beneath the skin. Good bones. Her body shifted with the motion, and then he wasn’t looking deep into her eyes anymore, but he was looking, pupils wide and black. Noticing gifts with due reverence needn’t always take the form of speech, she was reminded.
“I always kept it light, y’know?” he gasped.
“I can do light,” she said, leaning in. “My name means light.”
He leaned to meet her. “So…so illuminate me,” he breathed, and then there was much less talking.
The admiral’s batman brought breakfast on a trolley‑not intending it to be indolently consumed in bed, Ivan suspected, but rather to make sure Ivan was out of his in a timely fashion. The military servant knocked politely on both bedroom doors and set up the meal in the sitting room, effacing himself promptly as soon, Ivan also suspected, as he’d ascertained who had slept with whom last night, the better to report that intelligence back to their mutual boss. Desplains had very obviously left it up to Ivan and his guests to sort themselves out, but he had to be curious as to the results.
Ivan felt…chipper, he decided, was a good word. Remarkably chipper. He put himself together in immaculate military order, waved to Rish, who was blearily sucking tea, kissed his wife goodbye‑make that, his beautiful bed‑rumpled exquisitely edible wife, who, to cap his enchantment, did not appear to be chatty in the mornings‑and chippered off to work, approximately twelve steps down the corridor to Desplains’s on‑board office, adjoining the ship’s compact tactics room.
Desplains was there before him, not unexpectedly‑the admiral found the constraints of jump travel minus combat boring, and, unless Madame Desplains was along, worked longer shifts to fill the time. Since this often resulted in his generating yet more things for his subordinates to do, it was one of Ivan’s duties not mentioned in the manual to make sure he didn’t extend those hours indefinitely. But this shift, Ivan felt ready to wrestle a thousand snakes. He greeted the admiral with a snappy salute and a “Good morning, sir!” and fell to.
Desplains merely raised a brow; they slid at once into the practiced routine, Ivan triaging the messages coming in semi‑continuously over secured tightbeam, shooting notes back and forth, the occasional spoken query or order, returning memos, messages, and orders in a steady stream back to Komarr Operations or ahead to Ops HQ in Vorbarr Sultana, still five flight‑days away. As Ivan had anticipated, the uncovering of the theft and smuggling ring had generated a load of new traffic, though not yet the interesting explosions that would no doubt ensue when word had finally made it all the way to Commodore Jole’s Sergyar Command and back.
“Ivan?” said Desplains, about an hour into this.
“Stop whistling. You sound like an air leak.”
“Sorry, sir. Didn’t realize I was doing that.”
“So I eventually concluded.”
When the first wormhole jump came up, Ivan took a break to warn the ladies, which was when he discovered that both were susceptible to jump‑sickness, Rish far more than Tej. He then pulled off the world’s easiest heroics by popping to the infirmary and collecting jump medication‑the admiral’s ship carried the good stuff‑and hand‑delivering it, though Tej had to forcibly excavate the whimpering Rish from her bedding to administer her dose. “Five jumps in five days, why did I agree to this?” she moaned. But within twenty minutes she was sitting up blinking in agreeable surprise, reconciled once more with her inner ears, her stomach, her vision, and, apparently, her hearing‑unpleasant auditory hallucinations from jump sickness were a new one to Ivan. All he ever experienced was a brief twinge of nausea and having everything appear to turn green, requiring him to remember to use caution in interpreting indicator lights for about a minute.
He returned to work, intensely aware that mere meters away, a pocket paradise awaited.
At the end of the shift, Desplains cordially invited Ivan and his female entourage to join him for dinner, which was laid on privately, just the four of them, in the little observation lounge. While ship food was not elaborate‑Desplains was an indifferent gourmet‑Ivan detected the hand of his loyal crew in fresh produce picked up before they’d left Komarr, and Ivan himself had long ago made sure that the admiral’s all‑Barrayaran wines were something to be proud of. And the batman’s service was impeccable.
Observation lounge proved an apt description, as Ivan quickly became aware that Desplains was using the opportunity to study Ivan’s new bride and her companion. Well, evaluating personnel was one of the man’s jobs, after all. Tej did quite well, Ivan thought. It occurred to him that a Jacksonian Great House might be not‑dissimilar to a District count’s household, with its demands for the regular entertainment of assorted business associates and odder guests, and a lot of potentially hazardous politics going on under the table. She certainly had the how‑to‑make‑small‑talk and which‑fork‑to‑use down smoothly.
Desplains drew her out on her recent flight, avoiding the most distressing parts because this was, after all, dinner. A few of her stories were unconsciously hair‑raising, but mostly they were neutral‑to‑opaque. Morozov might have done some groundwork, there, unconsciously supplying her with clues of what to say to Barrayarans, and she hadn’t missed the turns. Rish, more wary, spoke less.
In any case, Desplains seemed to have enjoyed the diversion and the company, for the invitation was repeated on succeeding evenings, with various of the ship’s crew gradually added in as shifts permitted‑the captain, the off‑duty pilots, the chief engineer, and Desplains’s physician, because the admiral traveled with his own as per Service regs. But by whatever mercy, Desplains did not let the meals stretch too far into the night, for which Ivan was intensely grateful.
During the dayshift hours when Ivan was closeted with Desplains, Tej seemed to be reasonably content reading and watching vids, or primping, or playing games with Rish. The crew of JP‑9 were among the more sophisticated fellows the Service could supply, and any comments they had to make on Rish’s boggling physical appearance they at least kept out of her keen hearing. Rish made heavy use of the exercise room, first alarming and then impressing some of the crewmen who shared it. She somehow discovered three more addicts of Komarran holovid dramas, and ganged up with them during their off‑duty time to obtain fresh episodes snuck in during slack periods in the tightbeaming.
At one of Admiral Desplains’s suggestions, Tej also discovered the on‑board language tutoring programs, and dipped into the Barrayaran dialects of Russian, French and Greek, none of which she claimed to have been taught before. Or plunged into, Ivan thought, when he ducked his head in to check her progress. So far from a trudge, she seemed to find the task tolerably amusing.
“Oh, languages aren’t work,” she explained cheerily. “They’re a game. Now, economics, that’s boring.” She made a face at some pedagogical memory Ivan couldn’t guess at.
For almost the first time, Ivan saw a glimpse in her of her haut genetic heritage, not only in the scary speed of her acquisition, but the purity of her accent, as she wandered around the ship to find bemused bilingual crewmen to practice upon. Her Komarran accent had certainly fooled him, and presumably the Komarrans as well. No question, she had a keen ear, and he wondered if she possessed perfect pitch, too, like a certain part‑ghem Barrayaran he knew.
The off‑shifts arranged themselves, though Ivan was beginning to think that even 26.7 hours was too short for a day, or rather, for a night.
The first snake in Ivan’s garden raised its head briefly on the fourth day out. He’d forwarded a memo to Desplains’s comconsole from General Allegre, Chief of ImpSec, marked Personal, Eyes Only. A few minutes later, Desplains looked up and remarked mildly, “Ivan‑you have messaged home with an account of your adventures, have you not?”
“No reason to, sir. I mean, you know all about it. And my mother stopped asking about my girlfriends after I turned thirty.”
“Vorpatril, I decline to get between you and your mother on any of your personal matters.”
“As well you shouldn’t have to, sir.”
And that was, Ivan hoped, the end of that, but a number of hours later‑they were, after all, getting closer to Barrayar‑he fielded another Eyes Only message, from an all‑too‑familiar address. Though the temptation to make it vanish between his comconsole and Desplains’s was very strong, Ivan nobly resisted it, a spasm of virtue that he suspected no one was going to appreciate.
About fifteen minutes later, Desplains remarked, “May I ask why, if Lady Alys Vorpatril wishes to know what is going on in her only son’s life, she applies to me and not to you?”
Ivan blinked. “Experience?”
The silence from across the room took on a curious frigid quality, and Ivan looked up. “Oh. That was one of those, what d’you call it, rhetorical questions, was it, sir?”
Ivan cleared his throat. “You don’t suppose ImpSec’s been feeding her their reports, do you? That’s bound to be confusing. I mean, look at the stuff they send us.”
That last line almost worked. But, alas, not quite. Desplains’s lips tightened. “As she works directly, every day, with General Allegre and his key staff on matters of the emperor’s personal security, and lives with the man who ran ImpSec out of his head for decades before that, and you are her closest living relative, I would think you were in a better position to guess the answer to that question than I am, Captain.”
“I’ll, ah”‑Ivan swallowed‑“I’ll just fire her off a little reassuring note right now, shall I, sir?”
“You do that.”
Ivan hated that dead‑level tone. Ugly unnerving thing, it was. Reminded him of his Uncle Aral in a mood.
But a written note, that was the ticket. A vid recording was nothing but an invitation to blather, with no living person in real‑time opposite you to give a visual or verbal cue how you were getting on, or when to stop.
Ivan bent to his comconsole, setting the header and the security codes. Medium security would likely do. Enough to shield the message from the eyes of people who didn’t need to know, not enough to make it sound like some sort of emergency.
He sat a moment, while lights blinked at him.
I don’t know what ImpSec’s been telling you, but actually, everything’s all right. I seem to have accidentally gotten married, but it’s only temporary. Don’t change the headings on your cards. I will explain it all to you when we get there.
He contemplated that for a moment, then went back and cut the middle lines as redundant. If he was going to explain it all when he got there, surely he needn’t explain anything now.
I don’t know what ImpSec’s been telling you, but actually, everything’s all right. I will explain it all to you when we get there.
That looked much better. Now a little short, though. A slow smile turned his lips. He bent and added: P.S.‑Byerly Vorrutyer has the whole story, if you can catch up with him.
Actually, he didn’t expect By to be back in Vorbarr Sultana till some days after he and Tej and Rish arrived, at the earliest. But what was that tale from Old Earth, about throwing one’s fellow traveler out of the troika to distract the pursuing wolves? Yeah, like that, only more virtual, since Mamere wouldn’t be able to lay her hands on By either. But it sounded good.
He sent the message on its way, racing ahead of them at the speed of light.
For a capital that had hosted so many wars, both civil and interplanetary, Vorbarr Sultana seemed in remarkably good shape to Tej’s eye. From her readings of Barrayaran history aboard the JP‑9, she’d half expected to see gutted buildings with blackened timbers still smoking, bomb craters in the streets, and haunted, emaciated people scurrying like rats among the barricades. Instead, it was fully modernized, if not always fully modern, chock‑a‑block with galactic‑standard transportation and architecture, with citizens‑no, subjects, she corrected the term‑out everywhere, looking busy and well‑fed and alarmingly assertive. Terms like lively or even vibrant rose to Tej’s mind. It was extremely disorienting.
All right, the traffic congestion was appalling. The auto‑cab that they’d taken from the military shuttleport took twenty minutes to crawl across what Ivan Xav assured her was a very famous bridge, but it did give her and Rish time to stare up and down the river valley, from the high bluffs crowned with strange archaic castles lit, their guide promised, with pretty colored floodlights at night, to the hillsides crowded with fine houses hogging the views, to the level areas sprouting high‑rises, universities, and medical complexes. They pulled up in front of a tall residential building quite close to the center of things, or at least to the military headquarters. The government complexes were closer to the Old Town, nearly lost in the center of the sprawl, but Ivan Xav explained that the historical area was all cleaned up these days, with some quite fine restaurants to be found if one knew how to avoid the backcountry tourists.
The building harboring Ivan Xav’s flat reminded Tej very much of his place in Solstice, but the security was rather better; a human guard manned a reception desk, and Ivan Xav paused to have them scanned and entered as bona fide residents in the electronic database. The vidcams were unobtrusive but maintained a redundant overlap. He then whisked them up a lift tube and down a hallway, pulling out a remote to unlock a sliding, but not airsealed, door. “Home at last,” he announced cheerfully, “and boy, am I glad of it.”
His flat, too, reminded her of the place on Komarr‑it lacked the separate entry hall, and the kitchen was bigger, but it boasted a balcony overlooking the street and a bit of the city. Not as high up. The rooms were larger, but they were much more cluttered, seeming closer and warmer somehow despite the stuffy smell of a place not occupied for the better part of a month.
“Ah, good,” Ivan Xav went on, striding to the bedroom and tossing his duffle down on a broad bed. “The cleaning service has been in. We’re all set.”
Having worked for nearly three weeks straight, Ivan Xav was due several days of leave, Admiral Desplains had told Tej upon parting for his own leave and Madame Desplains, who’d been waiting at the shuttleport to pick him up. He trusted Captain Vorpatril would use the time well to organize his affairs, right, Ivan? Ivan Xav had nodded earnestly. Just what that meant, Tej had no idea.
They were here. Now what? In her exhaustion and stress on Komarr, she’d scarcely thought past escape from. Escape to hadn’t even been on her mental horizon.
“Where do I sleep?” Rish inquired, wandering around and looking things over, her expression dubious.
“The sofa folds flat. It’s not too bad.” Ivan Xav stretched mightily and came back into his living room. “There are three people I’d most like to avoid in Vorbarr Sultana‑m’mother, Miles, and Gregor, in that order. Well, and Falco, but he’s not so hard to dodge. He may well be up in the District. Though I suppose we’ll have to chase him down in due course. But other than that, what would you two like to do here in the great metropolis?”
Tej looked down at her travel‑rumpled garments. Do? That implied Go out, surely. “We only have these Komarran clothes. Are they all right to wear on Barrayar, or should we find something to help us blend in better?”
Rish extended a slim blue hand and snorted. She then raised her arms and did a slow backbend, kicking over to a handstand and then up to her feet again.
“You know what I mean,” said Tej.
“Yeah, sure,” said Ivan Xav. “M’mother gets her clothes custom designed, but my other gir‑I’ve been dragged around to enough other places, I’ll bet I could find you something nice. But Komarran styles are trendy, too‑Empress Laisa, you know. Maybe you want to look around and see what you like, first, and then go picking.”
A pleasant chime sounded.
“T’ hell?” said Ivan Xav. “Nobody knows I’m back yet. Not expecting company…” He wandered to his door and carefully checked his security vid. It was far too early, Tej reminded herself, for her pursuers to have regrouped and caught up with her.
“Ah,” muttered Ivan Xav. “Christos. Maybe…maybe we’re not home just yet. Still caught in traffic, yeah.”
“Come on, Lord Ivan, open up,” came a man’s voice, balanced on some cusp between amused and irritated. “I know you’re in there. Or at least check the messages on your wristcom.”
“M’mother’s driver and errand boy,” Ivan Xav told Tej and Rish over his shoulder. “And bodyguard‑the man’s a retired commando sergeant. Like my cousin’s armsmen in all but title and oath. I swear he aspires to the role. Came in about four years ago‑he didn’t actually dandle me on his knee as a small boy, he just acts like it.” He added reluctantly after a moment, “Good at his job, though.”
Which one? Tej wondered.
Ivan Xav hit the pad to open the door.
The man looked big, gray‑haired, and affable; for a change, his clothing did not resemble a uniform, just a neat shirt with wide sleeves, trousers with baggy cuffs tucked into short boots, and a sleeveless jacket with strange but attractive embroidery. But mostly, he looked big.
He eased around Ivan Xav, spotted Tej and Rish, and said, “Ah,” in a satisfied tone. He came to a species of attention before her. “Good afternoon, Lady Vorpatril, Mademoiselle Lapis Lazuli. I’m Christos, Dowager Lady Vorpatril’s driver. M’lady has charged me to convey you to a private dinner at her flat. And also to convey her earnest invitation for said dinner, should it unaccountably”‑he cast a knife‑flick of a glance at Ivan Xav‑“have become lost somewhere on Lord Ivan’s wristcom.”
“Oh,” said Tej, glaring a plea at Ivan Xav. What was she supposed to do?
“We just got off the shuttle,” Ivan Xav began.
“Yeah, I know.” Christos held up a viewer. “I brought a book for while you clean up. I’m to wait while you get ready. Because she didn’t want me to miss you, if you took yourselves out or whatever.” He smiled thinly, trod into the living room, and helped himself to a chair, settling back for a comfortable read. He added as he keyed it on and found his place, “Dress is casual, she said. Which only means, not formal.”
“Trapped,” Ivan Xav muttered. “Like rats…”
“What now?” Tej whispered to him.
He scratched his head and sighed, as if in defeat. “Well, we’ve all got to eat sometime. And at least the food’ll be first‑rate.”
“If we get this over with now,” murmured Rish, “we won’t have to sit around anticipating it, you know. It does seem an inevitable meeting.”
Ivan Xav grimaced, but Tej nodded. Even if Ivan Xav’s mother was a horrible harridan in hysterics, as his actions seemed to imply, the news of the impending divorce ought to calm her down. It seemed unlikely that she would pull out a weapon and shoot her son’s new bride over dinner, and besides, that would be redundant. She had only to stake Tej and Rish out where the enemy syndicate could find them, and the problem would be carried out of her ken without her having to lift, or tighten, a finger. Still…poisons? Rish could detect an astonishing number of these, if presented in food or drink. But‑redundancy, again. Tej decided she was letting travel weariness and her nerves turn her thoughts just too strange. It would all be made plain soon enough.
A flurry of turns in the bath and dithering over their tiny selection of garb resulted in Rish in black Komarran trousers and top, with a long‑sleeved jacket and her head‑shawl, Tej similarly attired in shades of cream, a little shabby but easy on her acute color sensitivity, and Ivan Xav in civilian clothes similar to what he’d been wearing the first time they’d met, but pulled clean from his capacious closet and not crumpled and smelly from his duffle. The driver shepherded them out with bland courtesy.
A large groundcar with a separate driver’s compartment awaited them in the basement garage. As Christos handed them into the spacious back passenger compartment and started to close the silvered canopy, Ivan Xav held up a hand and said, “Uh, Christos‑will Simon be there, do you know?”
“Of course, Lord Ivan.” The canopy snapped closed, sealing them in.
Ivan Xav sat back with a wince, but for a few minutes Tej and Rish were too busy craning their necks and trying to see the city for Tej to pursue this new mystery. Nearing sunset of what seemed to be a late fall or early winter day, traffic was heavy, but the car was bearing generally upriver and uphill.
Ivan Xav cleared his throat. “I should probably explain Simon,” he began, then stalled out, muttering, “No, there’s no explaining Simon…”
“All right, who is Simon?” said Tej. If they were being flung into this headfirst…“Aren’t you the one who was complaining to Byerly Vorrutyer about inadequate briefings?”
“How do I put this?” Ivan Xav rubbed his forehead. “Simon Illyan was Chief of Imperial Security for upwards of thirty years, from the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership till about four or so years back, when he suffered, um, a sort of stroke. Neurological damage to his memory functions. Retired out on a medical, y’know.”
Wait, that Simon Illyan? The same ImpSec boss whom Morozov, without a trace of irony, had dubbed the legendary?
“‑and took up with m’mother. Why then, and not any time in the preceding three decades that they worked together, I have no idea, but there you are. So he’s like there, all the time now. With her. Unless she’s at the Residence working. They stick to each other like glue. It’s pretty damned unnerving, I can tell you.”
“Oh,” said Rish, finally unraveling this. “They’re lovers. Why didn’t you say so?”
Ivan Xav tilted his head back and forth and made little flailing motions with his hands. “Haven’t got used to it yet, I guess.”
“After four years?” Tej blinked in new dismay. In other words, the Simon Illyan was almost‑sort‑of Ivan’s stepfather and he hadn’t mentioned it till now? “Does he really have a cyborg brain?”
“That was the rumor in the Whole. Illyan, the Barrayaran Imperial Security chief with the cyborg brain.” The whispers had suggested a sinister super‑humanity. Or super‑inhumanity.
“I wouldn’t call it that. When he was a young ImpSec lieutenant‑twenty‑seven, I think he said, good grief, that’s almost eight years younger than I am now…” Ivan Xav trailed off, then took up his thread again. “Anyway, then‑Emperor Ezar sent him all the way to Illyrica, a trip that took months, to be fitted with an experimental eidetic‑memory chip. Which was kind of a bust‑nine out of ten of the subjects came down with some sort of chip‑induced schizophrenia, and the project was canned. Illyan was a tenth man. So ever after that he had to cope with two memories, the perfect one off his chip, and his original organic one. Ezar, of course, died, and Illyan had to find his own way‑he became one of the Regent’s key men around the time of the Pretendership.”
“So, so he had a stroke, and…” Tej puzzled through all this spate of belated information. “It did something to this chip?”
Ivan Xav cleared his throat. “Actually, it was the other way around. The chip broke down. Had to be surgically removed. But Illyan’s brain had sort of, it’s hard to describe‑even harder to live through, I guess‑rerouted itself around the chip in the, what, almost thirty‑five years that he had it. When it was so abruptly yanked out, it was really hard for him to readjust.
“So the thing about Simon is,” Ivan Xav forged on, “the thing about Simon is, he used to have this terrifying total recall, but now he sometimes doesn’t track. He’s pretty quiet, so you’re not always sure what’s going on in his head, not that you ever were. So, um…make allowances, huh?”
He was‑Tej tried to sort it out‑he was anxious for his mother’s lover’s dignity, then? And not just for how it reflected on his mother, it seemed. He seemed anxious for Simon Illyan in his own right. That was…unexpected.
And Illyan was now her…stepfather‑in‑law? Or would he see her that way? It was unclear whether he and Ivan Xav were close. But it seemed that the legend was in some sort of medical eclipse. Well, old people. It was said Barrayarans aged faster than galactics.
It was all very curious. If the looming Christos were to offer them escape from their date with fate right now, she wasn’t sure that she would take him up on it.
They arrived at length at another tallish residential tower, this one high on the river ridge and so commanding an even better view. “Is this where you grew up?” Tej inquired, as they entered yet another underground garage.
“No, m’mother moved here recently. She has the top two floors. She used to live in an older building much closer to the Imperial Residence. That was where I grew up as much as anywhere, I guess.”
“Nice digs,” murmured Rish as they rose in a transparent lift tube through level after level of elegantly appointed foyers. “Are higher floors more expensive?”
“Dunno. She owns the building, so it’s not like she pays the rent.” He added after a moment, “She still owns t’old one, too.” And, after another, “And mine. Has a business manager to look after ’em all.”
Tej was beginning to wonder if Lady Alys Vorpatril qualified as a House Minor in her own right. And then they were crossing out of the tube into another foyer, and escorted by Christos through a pair of sleek doors clad in fine wood marquetry to a hushed hallway graced with mirrors and fresh flowers. And then into a broad living room backed by wide glass walls taking in a sweeping panorama of the capital, with the sun going down and the dusk rising to turn the city lights to jewels on velvet for as far as the eye could see, under a cloud‑banded sky.
In two comfortable‑looking armchairs angled close together at the room’s far corner sat a man and a woman; both rose and advanced as Christos announced, “Milady, sir; Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Lady Tej Vorpatril, Mademoiselle Lapis Lazuli,” and bowed himself out, delivering his captives and escaping in the same smooth movement.
Tej scrambled to recognize the couple from assorted vid scans she’d recently seen, although, as always, a person in person was subtly different from their graphic representations‑in scent, in sound, in sheer palpability. And these people were palpable.
Lady Alys was a woman past youth and into an indeterminate age one might dub dignified, but certainly not old; she moved with ease, and the streak of silver in her bound‑back hair seemed to rest there as mere tasteful decoration. Dark brown eyes like Ivan Xav’s, large in her pale, oval face; fine skin well‑cared‑for. A long‑sleeved, dark red dress with a hem at her mid‑calf was topped by a darker loose sleeveless vest of equal length, the colors appropriate to her skin tones, her surroundings, and the season.
Simon Illyan was dressed not unlike the driver, except in shades of sober cream and charcoal. He was barely taller than Lady Alys, who was surely of no more than average height for a Barrayaran woman. Thinning brown hair was succumbing to a tide of gray rising around the sides. Scans she’d seen of him from earlier in his career, always in the background of some Imperial event‑and if she’d known, she’d have paid him more attention‑had seemed to convey a sharp tension in his posture and grim expression. He smiled at her now with an amiable vagueness that went well with the slight pudge around his middle, but sat oddly with his reputation.
Lady Alys cast a look at her son that seemed to say, I’ll deal with you later, and turned to take the startled Tej’s hands in cool, slim fingers.
“Lady Tej,” she said, looking her guest in the eye as if…searching? “Welcome to my home. Congratulations on your marriage. And, I am so very sorry for your late losses.”
The last words floored Tej. No one had offered her condolences for the slaughter of her family, not one person in all the long months of their erratic flight from the Whole to here. Granted, the only people who’d known who she was were the ones trying to add her to the tally. But still, but still, but still. She gulped, breathless and trembling. Managed a constricted, “Thank you,” blinking back the blur in her eyes. Ivan Xav looked at her in concern.
With a peculiar little nod, Lady Alys squeezed her hands and released them. Ivan Xav moved in to slip an arm around her shoulders and give her an uncertain hug.
“And you too, Lapis Lazuli,” Lady Alys continued, turning to Rish, but offering more of a handshake. “Or do you prefer Rish?”
“I prefer Rish,” said Rish. “Lapis Lazuli has always been more of a stage name.”
“May I make you both known to my long‑time friend, Simon Illyan.”
Illyan, too, shook their hands in turn, his clasp firm and dry. He lingered to look Tej up and down; his smile broadened slightly. But he made no remark.
“Please, won’t you come sit down.” Lady Alys made a graceful wave toward the seats in a close conversational grouping at the room’s far end. Ivan Xav grabbed Tej’s hand and kept her by him, aiming them onto the two‑person sofa; Lady Alys and Illyan took their former chairs, and Rish perched on a rather antique‑looking carved chair with new silk upholstery. The whole room, Tej noted, was put together with a quiet, firm taste, a mixture of the old and new that complemented rather than clashed, and, oh blessings, with an impeccable eye for color. Well, Rish stood out a little.
Lady Alys touched a jeweled pin on her vest, and in a moment a staidly dressed, middle‑aged woman servant appeared trundling a sort of drinks trolley. “May we offer you an aperitif? Or there are teas.”
Tej, mind still swimming, rather blindly selected a Barrayaran wine she recognized from Admiral Desplains’s table, and Rish chose some native cordial, apparently for the strange name; the others were handed what were apparently their usual tipples without query by the servant. The glasses were small and finely‑wrought, inviting appreciation, not inebriation. The servant trundled away as discreetly as she’d entered.
Lady Alys took a sip and turned to Rish‑to give Tej time to recover herself? “Someone was kind enough to forward me a short vid of one of your performances with your fellow Jewels. Very impressive. I understand your emigration was forced upon you, but do you have plans or hopes for continuing your art in a new venue?”
Rish grimaced. “No plans, certainly. Performance arts do not mesh well with hiding for one’s life. Success requires‑and generates‑fame, not obscurity.”
Lady Alys nodded understanding. “Teaching or choreography…no, I suppose the same difficulty would arise.”
Illyan rubbed his chin, and offered, “Could you change your appearance? Cosmetic alterations to blend with the target population?”
A blue hand tightened on a black‑clad knee. “That would be repugnant to me. And…when I started to dance, people would know who I was anyway.”
He gave a conceding nod, falling back into his listening quiet.
Tej decided she’d calmed enough that her voice wouldn’t crack. She set down her glass, gripped Ivan Xav’s hand for courage, and said, “Lady Alys, you should know right away that you needn’t worry about the marriage. Ivan Xav and I will be getting a divorce.”
Ivan Xav freed his arm only to put it around her shoulders, hugging her in tight. He endorsed this: “That’s right, Mamere. Just as soon as I can catch up with Count Falco, that is.”
Lady Alys tilted her head and stared at them. “Has my son proved such an unsatisfactory husband in a mere week? Surely you should give him a longer chance.”
“Oh, no, no!” said Tej, hurrying to correct this strange misconception. “I think Ivan Xav would make a wonderful husband!”
“So I had always hoped,” murmured Lady Alys, “and yet, somehow, it seemed never to be…”
Ivan Xav squirmed slightly, inching closer to Tej, or trying to. There weren’t any inches left.
Tej said sturdily, “He has so very many good qualities. He’s brave, he’s kind, he’s smart, he has excellent manners, and he thinks quickly in emergencies.” When pressed hard enough, anyway. “Very good‑looking, too, of course.” She probably ought not to add good in bed here; Barrayarans seemed to have funny notions about sex, which she didn’t quite understand yet. “And, um…” What was that unusual word Desplains had used? “Chivalrous, too, which is why he rescued us and brought us here, but really, he owes me nothing.”
Lady Alys pressed a finger to her lips. “That is not what those words in the groat circle say, however. Assuming Ivan managed to remember the right ones.”
“I did,” asserted Ivan Xav indignantly. “And anyway, I shouldn’t think you would be in such a tearing hurry to become the Dowager Lady Vorpatril.”
“My dear and only child, how did you come by that misapprehension? I’ve longed for it any time these past ten years. And anyway, if the title comes to seem too dreadfully aging, I now have other resources to correct the problem.” She glanced at Simon Illyan, who raised his brows and smiled back. Very private smiles that made Tej feel an intruder, though she wasn’t sure on what.
“So,” Lady Alys went on, “it is to be a marriage of convenience, then?”
Illyan put in, “Or inconvenience,” and pressed a concealing hand across his jaw. His eyes were alight, betraying his upward lip‑twitch nonetheless.
“The inconvenience,” said Lady Alys, “would seem to reside not in the marriage, but in this Jacksonian syndicate which pursues the girls. About which, I confess, I understand very little as yet. But I feel constrained to point out to you, Ivan‑just in case you have overlooked it‑that there is no point in your catching up with Falco for a divorce until you have figured out what happens to Tej and her companion after the protection of your name and position is removed. You dragged them here to Barrayar, after all.”
“I, uh…hadn’t got that far yet,” Ivan Xav admitted.
Lady Alys turned to Tej, and asked seriously, “Do you know what you would want?”
It came to Tej then, belatedly, that Lady Alys had just spent much of the prior conversation slowly, gently, and thoroughly roasting her son. And that she wasn’t at all the person Tej had been led to expect. She allowed herself a moment of crossness‑she would have words with Ivan Xav about that, later. But right now, she needed to give Lady Alys’s serious question the serious attention it deserved.
“We had a place we were planning to go‑not here on Barrayar, not in the Imperium, in fact. But we can only go there if we are absolutely certain that we’ve broken our trail in a way that the Prestene syndicate can’t pick up again. Otherwise, it’s…it would be worse than getting caught ourselves.”
“That would actually come to the same thing,” Rish pointed out. “Once they have us, they have…” A blue hand made an ambiguous, if fluid, wave.
Tej nodded grimly. “That was why the balcony, in the end.”
“So you protect another,” said Illyan, leaning back and tenting his hands together. “One very dear to you.” He blinked vaguely. “Must be the missing brother, what’s‑his‑name.”
Tej gasped and turned in alarm to Ivan Xav.
He shrugged, and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “I said he’d lost his memory, not his wits.”
“The point was mentioned in Morozov’s report,” said Illyan, sounding apologetic. “I only read it this morning. It hasn’t had time to go fuzzy yet.” He took up and emptied his glass, appearing to study the curious absence of his drink before setting it down again. “From the direction and duration of your travel, I would posit that he’s hiding on Escobar, with remoter possibilities being Beta Colony, Kibou‑daini, or Tau Ceti. Not farther.”
Rish had jerked upright in her chair. But there was nowhere to bolt to. Nothing to attack. Or to defend against, either.
“In which case,” Illyan continued, “one obvious solution presents itself. The ladies might be conveyed to Escobar as unlisted supercargo in a routine government fast courier, and discreetly deposited downside by the same means by which we used to insert agents. Or perhaps still do; I don’t suppose the procedures have changed all that much. The break in the trail from here, at least, would be clean, as our couriers go in all possible directions. And no record of your landing on Escobar, either.”
Rish’s mouth had fallen open; she leaned forward like a woman contemplating a bakery case. Tej’s heart was beating faster. She asked, “Could it really be done?”
“Ivan would no doubt have to call in some favors,” said Illyan, a bit blandly.
“Oh, yes, please!” said Rish.
“Er,” said Ivan Xav, glancing at Tej. “Is that what you really want?”
Tej sank back in new hesitation. No gifts came without price tags. “What would you want in return for this deal?” She looked in worry at Illyan, at Lady Alys. At Ivan Xav.
Lady Alys finished her drink. “I should have to think about that.”
Ivan Xav scratched his nose, frowned at Illyan. “Could you assist me, sir?”
Illyan replied airily, “Oh, I think that’s a problem you can solve on your own, Ivan. You know the same go‑to men as I do.”
Ivan Xav’s brow wrinkled. He turned to Tej and said, rather plaintively, “But you just got here. Don’t you want to look around a little before running off again‑forever?”
“I hardly know,” said Tej, wishing she had a net to catch her spinning wits.
Lady Alys touched her brooch again. “Indeed. Ivan’s aunt has often remarked on the inadvisability of making decisions on an empty stomach. Shall we dine?”
As she rose, and everyone else followed suit, the smiling woman servant spread wide another pair of marquetry doors at the end of the room, revealing a dining chamber with places for five ready and waiting. Lady Alys ushered them all through.
Ivan Xav had not lied; his mother set a first‑rate table. The conversation became general as the discreet server brought course after course, with wines to complement. Rish made no signals regarding subtle poisons in the soup or salad, fish or vat‑meat; instead, she bore the blissful smile of a trained aesthete given, for a change, no penance to endure in the name of good manners. It was all as well‑choreographed as a dance. If Ivan’s mother fed her lover like this all the time, it was no wonder he never left.
“Have you lived here long, sir?” Tej asked Illyan, when a lull in the talk presented an opportunity.
“Say rather, I visit here frequently. I keep my old apartment as my official address, and stay there often enough to make it plausible. And for my mail‑letter bombs and such‑although I am officially retired, ImpSec still provides a courtesy squad to open it.” He smiled quite as if this were not a disconcerting remark. He added a little regretfully, “Just because I have forgotten so many old enemies does not mean they have forgotten me. We set it about that I am more addled than I am, to appease them. Please feel free to add to that public impression, should the subject come up.”
“I don’t find you addled at all, sir,” said Tej, quite sincerely.
“Ah, but you should have met me before the‑no, perhaps you should not have. It’s far better this way, I assure you.”
Both Ivan and his mother shared an unreadable look at this, but it was gone from their faces before Illyan glanced up again from his plate. For all his silences, the man was about as self‑effacing as a neutron star; light itself seemed to bend around him.
After dinner, Lady Alys kindly showed Tej and Rish around her more‑than‑flat, or at least the top floor. Ivan Xav slouched after, his hands in his pockets. The floor below was given over to personal apartments allotted to her servants, of whom she kept four: a cook, a scullion‑and‑housemaid, who was also the server they’d seen, a dresser‑cum‑personal secretary, and the driver, Christos. Two rooms she passed over in the tour; Ivan explained in a behind‑the‑hand whisper that they were Illyan’s bedroom and study. They stepped out briefly to a chilly roof garden, designed, Lady Alys told them proudly, by Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan, who appeared to be famous for such things. It was past the season for lingering there, though a few late‑blooming fall plants still gave up delicate scents, but Tej could see how one might want to, on warmer days or nights. The view was even better than the one from the living room below.
“I do appreciate your welcome,” said Tej to Lady Alys, as they paused at the parapet to take in one last look at the light‑draped river valley. “I feel so much better about it all now. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what to do about‑well, anything. I’d never planned to visit Barrayar.”
Lady Alys smiled into the dark. “I considered leaving the time and place of your presentation up to Ivan, as a sort of test. Then I considered all the many ways that scenario could go so wrong, and changed my mind.”
“Hey,” said Ivan Xav, but not very loudly.
“There were two principal possibilities on the table.” Lady Alys turned to face Tej. Laying out her cards at last? “First, was that you were an adventuress who had somehow succeeded in entrapping Ivan, and he should be rescued from you as expeditiously as possible. Maybe. After I’d found out how you did it, for future reference. Or possibly he should be allowed to extricate himself from the consequences of his own folly, for a life lesson. I was having trouble deciding which‑”
Another inarticulate noise of protest from her son.
Ignoring it, she went on, “But in any case, both Morozov’s and Simon’s evaluations put that as a low probability. The second main hypothesis was that you were exactly as you appeared to be, the unwitting victim of one of Ivan’s less‑well‑thought‑out inspirations, and needed to be rescued from him. My ImpSec consultants were both united in setting that as a high probability.” She added after a contemplative moment, “ImpSec men never fail to hedge their bets, I’m afraid. It’s most annoying, when one must make decisions based on their reports.”
“If anyone needs any rescuing around here, Mamere, I’m perfectly capable of doing it,” said Ivan Xav, sounding annoyed.
“So I hope, love. So I hope.”
When, at length, they took their departure in the mirrored hallway, where Christos again waited to convey them to the groundcar, Ivan Xav bent and gave his Mamere a rather formal peck on the cheek, which seemed to make her smile despite herself. He really was much taller than her, Tej realized.
Lady Alys turned to Tej with a thoughtful look. “As he may or may not have told you, Ivan’s birthday is coming up next week. We always begin it with a little private ceremony, very early in the morning. I hope that he will decide to invite you.”
The startled and bemused glances Lady Alys won from both the men for this were the most mystifying yet.
“Uh…sure,” said Ivan, sounding oddly unsure. “G’night, Mamere. Simon, sir.”
He nodded to Illyan, and ushered Tej and Rish out to the foyer. The natural wood inlay on the wide doors that closed behind them made not an abstract jumble, but a mosaic picture, Tej realized in a last look back. It portrayed a dense woodland, with horses and riders half‑hidden, crossing through the trees. Her eye had not parsed it at all, her first time through.
In the back of the groundcar, Ivan ran his fingers through his scalp in a harried swipe and moaned, “She makes me crazy.” Still, Tej and Rish seemed to have survived the daunting visit, as had he. That it was better to have behind them…he was not yet sure.
“You mean Lady Vorpatril?” said Tej. She gave Ivan a peeved poke in the arm. “She was not at all like what you led me to believe. From the way you talked, I thought there would be screaming and weeping and carrying on, at the very least. But she’s very practical.” She added after a moment, “And kind. I didn’t expect kind.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Ivan. “After thirty years of high Vor diplomacy and a few wars, of course she has the chops. This is a woman who knows how to get her way.”
Tej cast him a funny look. “Not always, it seems like.”
Rish turned her head from a long, thoughtful stare out the canopy to observe, “She reminds me of the Baronne.”
“A little, yes,” said Tej, with an introspective frown. “Not as tightly focused.”
“She’s mellowed a lot since Simon arrived in her life,” Ivan admitted. “And vice versa, though his was rather imposed upon him by his, um, brain injury.” Ivan was put uncomfortably in mind of Tej’s alarming response to his mother’s first greeting. Tej seemed such a sunny personality, much of the time‑these flashes of dark were like a crack in the sky, shocking and wrong. Reminding him that the daylight was the illusion, the scattering of light by the atmosphere, and the endless night was the permanent default behind it all. And God that was a weird and morbid thought, but his mother did make him crazy. “Did you, um, love your mother? The Baronne?”
Tej hesitated, her brows lowering. When she spoke, it was slowly, as if she had to grope for truth in a thicket of thorny memories. “I admired her very much. We didn’t always get along. Actually, we clashed a lot. She said I wasn’t working up to my full potential. Not like my sisters.”
“Ah,” said Ivan, wisely. “That does sound all too familiar.”
Tej looked across at him in surprise. “But you were an only child!”
“Not…exactly. I always had my cousin Miles. And Gregor for an elder brother, but of course it was understood he was in a class by himself.” He added after a reflective moment, “All by himself, poor sod.”
“So your cousin Miles was like a brother to you?” asked Rish. Glints from her gold earrings flickered in the shadowy compartment as her head tilted.
“Miles…is really hard to explain. He was‑is‑smart.”
“ You’re smart,” said Tej, in a tone of indignant protest.
Ivan’s heart nearly melted, but he sighed. “Yeah, but Miles was…the thing is, he was afflicted with a severe birth injury. He grew up pretty much crippled, so he poured all his frustrated energy into his intellect. Since the Vorkosigan family motto might as well be, Anything worth achieving is worth overachieving, the effect was pretty frightening. And it worked for him, so he did it some more.”
“Very like the Baronne,” murmured Rish.
Tej said slowly, “Yes…my mother loved being the Baronne, you see. Building the House was her passion. And in her way, I suppose, she loved us, and naturally wanted us to have this great thing she’d found, too. Except…I wasn’t her. It was like…if she could just fix me into being her, then she could shower me with the gifts she so valued.”
Ivan winced. “Ah.” It was kind of appalling, how little trouble he had following that whole line of reasoning. On both sides. Not sure what to say, he slipped an arm around Tej and hugged her in. Warm and soft, why didn’t anyone value warm and soft…?
“So will we get to meet your cousin?” asked Rish. Or, possibly, prodded?
“Not sure. He’s an Imperial Auditor now‑that’s sort of a high‑level government trouble‑shooter‑so he goes out of town at erratic intervals to find trouble to shoot. I should warn you, if we do go to Vorkosigan House, it’s knee‑deep in infants these days. Twins, speaking of overachieving. They offer to let you hold one as if it was some kind of treat.” Ivan shuddered. “And they leak, and make the most horrible noises.”
“I never had much to do with infants,” said Tej. “Comes of being the youngest, I guess.”
“Yeah‑only child, here,” said Ivan.
“Whereas I,” said Rish coolly, “was the babysitter.” She leaned back and stretched her legs, propping her feet on the seat opposite, beyond Tej. “I expect we’ll cope.”
Tej was plainly distracted and unnerved by her new surroundings, but by diligent efforts, Ivan won back her full attention in bed that night, and a smile when he brought her coffee in the morning. He had not guessed that any of his morning practice placating bleary‑eyed admirals would transfer, but that one did. His plans for a post‑coffee rematch were thwarted, however, by a call from his mother informing him that she was sending Cristos and her formidable dresser‑cum‑secretary to escort Tej and Rish on a hunting‑and‑gathering expedition for Barrayaran garb. Granted, the subject had come up last night, but he’d thought it was small talk.
“Is it safe to go out?” asked Rish, both dubiously and longingly. The building had a well‑equipped exercise room on the second floor, but being immured inside was perhaps a little too much like being trapped aboard the JP‑9 all over again.
“Gotta be. Mamere and her people enjoy more attentive security than any Jacksonian House lording could ever hope to buy. On account of what she’s done for Illyan, y’know. ImpSec worships her, at least the old guard. And the newbies are all their daunted subordinates.”
“I didn’t notice the coverage, last night,” said Tej.
“You wouldn’t. And neither will anyone who attempts to stalk you, till it’s too late. You should go,” he told the women, wondering why he wasn’t more relieved to be let off the hook as sartorial escort. “You won’t get a better native guide, except maybe Mamere herself.” Who had duties at the Residence this morning or else, she had implied, she would have undertaken the task personally.
The middle‑aged and gimlet‑eyed dresser expanded upon this. “Clothing is a cultural and social language,” she intoned, when shepherding the women out. “And local dialects can be tricky for an outsider to interpret. We must make sure your dress says what you mean it to say, and not something unintended.”
Tej and Rish, at least, looked very impressed. If they were like every other woman Ivan had known, he was certain to be treated to a fashion show afterward anyway. This was much easier than tagging along, as all he had to do was approve each garment with suitable compliments, instead of frantically trying to guess which choices they wanted him to endorse, with the distinct hazard of guessing wrong. Much more restful.
He sent them off with a clear conscience and turned to his strangely silent and empty flat. He had three weeks of personal correspondence and other chores to catch up on that had not been urgent enough to be tightbeamed after him to Komarr, which was most of it.
He was half an hour into these tasks when a call came in over his comconsole which, after a glance at the sender ID, he sent to voice delay. After another few moments, the display above his vid plate flickered and gave way to a smiling, or at least smirking, face he didn’t especially want to deal with. Damned Imperial Auditor override…
“Hi, Miles,” Ivan sighed, and waited. No point in stirring any waters not already roiling.
“Sorry for the interruption”‑Miles did not look in the least sorry‑“but I must not be behindhand in conveying my thanks for the extremely thoughtful gift you forwarded from Komarr. Ekaterin actually wondered if she should put flowers in it, next time you came over, but I suggested target practice. Or passing it along to the twins, which might be an even faster way to dispose of it. At which point the light dawned, and she looked very relieved.”
“Hey, it took me half an hour to find that vase!” said Ivan in mock‑indignation.
“Hidden in the back of the store, was it, lest it frighten away customers?”
Ivan’s lips twitched. “Yep.”
Miles leaned back, his smile stretching in an unsettling way‑that is, if you knew Miles. “I also understand some very unexpected congratulations are in order.”
“News gets around fast,” Ivan grumped.
“I was in on it from the first day the reports started coming in. Your mother called me to ask me to explain it to her, as if I would know anything‑I told her to apply to Allegre, which she did, apparently to more satisfactory effect.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not my fault,” muttered Ivan.
Miles’s brows rose, most annoyingly. “You married a woman you’d known barely a day, and it wasn’t your fault?”
“Well, it wasn’t! It was an accident. And anyway, it’s only a temporary expedient. If you’ve read the ImpSec reports, you know why. She was in danger.”
“I heard various recaps, from various people.” Miles drummed his fingertips on his comconsole desk.
“My mother talk to you this morning?”
“No, not her. In any case, I have called to invite you to bring your blushing accident and her blue‑she really is bright blue?”
“‑and her blue companion to Vorkosigan House this afternoon for a get‑to‑know‑you Ma Kosti tea.”
Ivan hesitated, concealing the small spurt of saliva that spontaneously appeared in his mouth at any reference to Miles’s famous cook. Damned conditioning. “That’s bribery.”
“As an Imperial Auditor, I am only above taking bribes, not handing them out.”
“You’ve never shown an interest in any of my girlfriends before.”
“You’ve never married any of your girlfriends before, Ivan. And in any case, I’m off to Sergyar soon for what may be an extended stay, so I don’t want to miss my chance.”
“To roast me? You’ll doubtless have others.” Get in line.
“Ah…” Miles took in, and let out, a long breath. “Make that requests and requires your attendance. Someone else wants to meet her, in an informal setting. We figured my library would do. Doubling up on my mission planning at the same time.”
Ivan paused, his heart sinking. “Oh.”
“Uh, right. Sharp.”
“See you then.” Miles cut the com in his best grandiose My‑Lord‑the‑Imperial‑Auditor‑dismisses‑you style.
There was really no call to whimper. But Ivan wanted to.
Tej sat in the passenger side of Ivan Xav’s sporty two‑seater groundcar, with Rish balanced awkwardly on her lap, and fumed in terror.
Gregor, he’d said. As if it might be just any Gregor off the street, and not, say, the absolute ruler of three worlds, as far above a Great House baron as a baron was above a gutter grubber. Mister Lord Ivan Xav Oh‑I’m‑not‑anyone‑important had led her astray, Tej swore, for the last time. And now she was being semi‑forcibly carted off to meet Gregor, no, THE Gregor‑oh, yeah, no, he wants to meet you – in about the most diametrical opposite of hide‑and‑be‑sought‑by‑no‑one as she could have imagined. No, she couldn’t have imagined this. Tej felt as if she had laser targeters dancing all over her skin.
And the Imperial Auditor Coz was scarcely better. She’d barely had time to look up the definition of the title before having to get ready. The man had the power to order summary executions, for pity’s sake.
At least she and Rish were dressed well for it. Lady Alys’s expert had guided them to a semi‑custom shop, the sort of place where one had a personal laser scan and then spent a happy hour poring over the vid catalog and experimenting with various virtual try‑ons upon one’s three‑dimensional holovid replica, before selecting garments to be made up on‑demand, to fit exactly, by computerized fabricators. The dresser had dubbed the results ‘casual,’ which Tej eventually realized simply meant not suitable for an Imperial function or ambassadorial ball. They had returned burdened with bags to Ivan Xav’s flat, where the dresser had reported judiciously to the waiting husband, The new Lady Vorpatril has an excellent eye for color. Having experienced the dresser in action, Tej took that as no small compliment. And then Ivan Xav had dropped the news, or bomb, of where they were going next…Had Lady Alys known?
Ivan, with a glance aside at his stacked and glaring passengers, took the next corner with improved caution, and then slowed, thank the hovering fates. A tall stone wall topped with iron spikes sped by, and then he slowed some more, turning in to a short space in front of broad wrought‑iron gates. A man in a strange brown uniform with silver embroidery on the collar and cuffs, flanked by a second in black, with silver frosting ditto, emerged from a kiosk and approached the groundcar. Ivan Xav raised the canopy, and they peered suspiciously in. “Ah. Lord Ivan.”
Ivan Xav raised a hand in greeting. “And two guests, as per.”
The man in black, unsmiling, aimed some sort of scanner at Tej and Rish, then nodded.
“You are expected.” The man in brown and silver waved them on as the gates swung open.
A huge archaic‑looking stone pile of a mansion‑four stories high‑rose above the Earth‑import trees, almost bare of leaves in this turning season. Ivan drove in under a porte‑cochere, parked, raised the canopy, and helped Rish and Tej extricate themselves. The dresser’s tutorial on what styles a woman wore for what hours and occasions had been swift but thorough. The Barrayaran‑style calf‑length afternoon skirts were no more awkward to manage than Komarran loose trousers, Tej was pleased to discover; with some practice, they might even prove more comfortable. The faintest vibration from an invisible force screen shielding the house faded momentarily, carved wooden double doors swung wide, and yet another man in brown and silver motioned them through into a spacious, two‑story‑high entry hall. An elaborate wooden staircase with a polished banister swept down from a gallery above. Wide archways opened to the right and the left, with a lesser archway under the gallery straight ahead.
Rish stopped short; Tej nearly tripped over her. The hall was stunningly paved in a marvelous colored mosaic like a stone garden underfoot, wildly proliferating with plants and flowers, insects and small creatures peeking from the leaves. The stonework was so fine it looked at first glance like a master’s painting in oils. Tej half‑expected the plants to crunch underfoot, giving up strange perfumes. The walls carried the theme skyward, with meticulously hand‑painted vines and flowers madly twining, as if the living forest on the floor surged up to reach for the light.
Rish was riveted. “ Oh,” she said. “I could dance the most amazing dance across this…”
A shrill squeal sounded from the right, and a man’s light, amused voice, “’Ware escapee!”
Ivan Xav jerked and swung around. He muttered in alarm under his breath, “Oh, God, they’re moving on their own now.” From the archway, a stark naked boy‑child not much over two feet high toddled determinedly, as fast as his little legs could carry him. He was pursued by an even more startling figure. The man swinging a cane who limped after the child was less than five feet tall, shockingly short for an adult Barrayaran male, which he obviously was. Dark hair neatly cut, a slightly oversized head set on a short neck, faintly lined face, hunched shoulders, fine white shirt, gray trousers and matching jacket‑and if Tej had thought Alys and her Simon had borne a palpable presence, this man’s authority filled the hall, drawing the eye away even from the astonishing floor and the happily shrieking child thumping across it.
The toddler stopped dead, staring up at the strangers. No, staring at Rish. “Ooh,” he cooed, mouth falling open in flattering wonder.
“Ivan, grab Sasha,” the short man ordered, a trifle out of breath.
Ivan Xav stepped forward and gingerly scooped up the child, holding him out well away from his body and handing him off as quickly as possible to the short man. The toddler squirmed like a large pink starfish, reaching out toward Rish and repeating “Ooh, ooh!”
The short man informed Ivan Xav, “Sasha has learned three new tricks this week: how to divest his diaper, how to get lost in Vorkosigan House, and how to outrun me. If only he would take up talking, like his sister, I’d dub him a proper little genius.” He then, with difficulty, brought his wristcom to his lips around his unwieldy and resisting burden. “Ekaterin? Found him. Stand down your patrol. He broke cover in the dining room, but was cut off at the pass in the front hall.”
“So where is his partner in crime?” asked Ivan Xav, bending to look warily around at floor level.
“Sleeping. They take it in shifts, you know, trying to wear us down. I think they’re aiming for unconditional surrender and total world domination. But I can hire shifts too, hah!” He gave up attempting to hold the heavy wriggler and set him on the floor, where the child’s attention was caught by a bug in the mosaic; he attempted several times to pick it up and put it in his mouth, without success, and made a moue of frustration.
A tall, breathless, dark‑haired woman scuffed rapidly down the staircase. She said to the short man, “How in the world did he manage to get down the stairs without breaking his neck?”
“Crawled backward, I believe. He’s actually surprisingly cautious. I broke an arm and a leg on those same stairs, once. Well, sequentially. Different years.”
“I remember the arm,” muttered Ivan Xav. “Competitive banister‑sliding.”
The woman gathered up the boy, one arm firmly supporting his little bottom. They made a rather more proportional combination. “Hi, Ivan,” she said, and raised her brows invitingly.
Ivan Xav broke out of his infant‑induced paralysis, and said, “Miles, Ekaterin, may I make known to you my wife, Lady Tej, and her companion Rish. This is my cousin Miles and his wife Ekaterin, Lord and Lady Vorkosigan.” He peered uneasily at the child. “And his heir, Lord Sasha.”
“Ackle,” Lord Sasha remarked gnomically, reaching up to dislodge a hank of his mother’s sleeked‑back hair and chew on it.
Lady Ekaterin smiled in distraction. “Welcome to Vorkosigan House, Tej, Rish. I’m so glad you could visit before we have to leave.” She added aside to Ivan Xav, “I’m taking the twins to Sergyar to see their grandparents while Miles is about his affairs.”
“Nikki, too?” asked Ivan Xav.
She nodded. “He’s not too happy about having to do all the make‑up work for school, but he’s tremendously excited about the travel.” She added over her shoulder to her husband. “Miles, why don’t you take them on into the library, and I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
The burdened woman trudged back up the staircase, and Lord Vorkosigan gestured them to follow him through the archway to the left. On the far side of a large antechamber with walls covered in pale green silk, double doors painted white were swung open by an unseen hand. Their host ushered them into a long room lined with antique bookcases. Tej’s station‑bred eye was briefly shocked by the orange flicker of a fire, burning tamely in a white marble fireplace‑no, not an emergency here, just decor. A pair of short sofas and some other chairs were grouped invitingly around the hearth. Upon one of the sofas, a lean, dark‑haired, rather hatchet‑faced man looked up from his viewer at their entry, stood, and waited with a grave smile. He was dressed in one of those Barrayaran faux‑military suits, dark blue and very plain.
“Sire,” said Ivan Xav, as they herded up.
“Hi, Ivan. But I’m doing Count Vorbarra today,” said the man, his smile turning briefly saturnine. “It cuts down the circus by at least half.”
“Right,” said Ivan Xav. He was apparently growing introduction‑fatigued at the most inopportune time, for he went on far too casually, “Gregor, my wife Tej, her friend Rish. I suppose you read the reports?”
“I had Allegre’s precis. And I talked in person with your mother this morning, which was rather more informative.” He turned to the women. “How do you do, Lady Vorpatril, Mademoiselle Rish. Welcome to Barrayar.”
He said this in the exact same way that Lady Vorkosigan had said, Welcome to Vorkosigan House. It came to Tej that he was the one man here who was not a subject. Did that make him an object…? He sat, apparently the signal for everyone else to do likewise. Ivan Xav gathered Tej to him and seized the other sofa, Lord Vorkosigan swung his cane out of the way and dropped into a smallish armchair, and Rish perched gingerly on a similar one.
Rish had to be madly trying to parse the many unfamiliar scents, of which the wood smoke was the strongest and strangest. There were two more men in the black uniforms standing statue‑like in the room, one by a pair of glass doors at the far end, apparently leading outside, the other at the wall by their entry. They looked back over the two women like a pair of sleek guard dogs studying a couple of cats that had strayed onto their territory. As if they might grab them in their teeth and break their necks with one sharp shake, if their doggish reflexes were triggered by a wrong move. Tej tried to sit extra‑carefully, and not let her fur stand on end.
The emperor of Barrayar leaned back at his ease, one arm stretched out along the top of the sofa, and asked genially, “So, Lady Tej‑how did you come to meet our Ivan?”
Tej glanced wildly at Rish, whose stark, stuffed expression returned, This one’s all yours, sweetling. How far back was she supposed to begin? She swallowed, grabbed Ivan Xav’s hand for luck, and started at random: “We’d run out of money, trying to get to‑” Wait, should she‑but he said he’d talked to Lady Alys, how much of‑
“Trying to get to your brother on Escobar, as I now understand it?” said The Gregor.
Tej gulped and nodded. “We were stuck downside on Komarr, dodging what we think were hirelings of the Prestene syndicate. I was working at this grubber shipping store, trying to rebuild our stake, and Rish was in hiding at our flat. Ivan Xav brought in this vase, wanting it packed and shipped‑” To here, come to think. She looked up at him in belated indignation. “Hey! You bought that horrible thing on purpose just to have an excuse to come into the shop, didn’t you?”
He shrugged. “Well, sure.”
“We were just closing. He tried to pick me up.” Tej scowled in memory.
The Lord Auditor Coz pressed a hand to his lips, briefly. “What, and failed? ”
Tej nodded again. “Then he turned up on my front steps. I thought he might be a capper stalking me. So I invited him in, and Rish shot him.”
The cousin jerked slightly. The emperor’s eyebrows went up.
“ Stunned him, sweetling,” Rish corrected, urgently. “Just a little light stun, really.”
“And then we dragged him up to our flat,” Tej went on.
“ This wasn’t in the ImpSec report,” said The Gregor.
“It wasn’t relevant by then,” said Ivan Xav, in a distant tone. “Forgive, forget…”
“So we tied him to a chair for the night,” said Tej.
The Lord Auditor Coz made a strange little wheeing sound. He was biting his own hand, Tej noticed. Ivan Xav pointedly ignored him.
“Which proved to be very lucky,” Tej forged on, “because when the real kidnappers turned up, we woke up and heard them talking to him and were able to get the drop on them.”
“That wasn’t luck,” protested Ivan Xav. “I engaged them in delay as loudly as I could, till the reinforcements came up. Rather slowly.”
“Quick thinking‑for a man tied to a chair,” murmured the Coz.
“Well, it was!” said Ivan Xav.
“Anyway,” Tej plowed on, “he invited us to hide out in his flat for the next few days, which worked fine, till the Prestene contact thought of putting Komarran Immigration onto us, to smoke us out of hiding so they could target us. So Byerly, who came to warn us, and the Immigration officers, and those Dome cops who were trying to arrest Ivan Xav for kidnapping me, which he didn’t, all arrived at once before anyone had drunk any coffee, and then Admiral Desplains called Ivan Xav, very irate about the Dome cops, I think, and I was so tired and scared, and we‑we panicked.” She glanced at Rish. Still no help there.
“Quit laughing,” said Ivan Xav irritably to the Coz, who actually wasn’t, out loud at least, except for the madly crinkling eyes. “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
Ivan Xav glanced aside at Tej, and his hand squeezed hers. She squeezed back. No, it hadn’t been. Not that part, not at the time.
In retrospect, though…“So he threw his wristcom into the refrigerator, grabbed this box of instant groats, and asked me to marry him. To keep the Immigration people from arresting me and the Dome cops from arresting him. And I said yes.”
“I see,” said The Gregor. “I think…”
“It worked,” said Ivan Xav, sounding stung.
“Why did he throw his wristcom into the freezer?” asked the Coz, diverted by this detail.
“His admiral kept calling back.”
“Ah. Makes perfect sense.”
“It does?” said The Gregor. The Coz nodded, and he seemed to accept this.
“And then Ivan Xav brought us here to Barrayar, where we are supposed to find this man named Count Falco who will give us a divorce, and then…” Tej ran aground, till she bethought herself of the kind and shrewd Lady Alys. “And Lady Alys’s Simon suggested that Rish and I might be smuggled to Escobar on a Barrayaran government courier vessel, if Ivan Xav would ask the right people.” She gathered her courage and looked up from her lap at The Gregor. “Would that be you, sir?”
“Possibly.” He leaned over and propped his chin in his hand, regarding her quizzically. He had one of those wildly unfair male face‑transforming smiles, she noted, even more so than Ivan Xav’s; but then, The Gregor’s smile was transiting from a much sterner‑looking start‑point. Ivan Xav had to work hard to look stern, and even then it was more likely to come out just peeved. The emperor continued, “Where on Escobar is your brother?”
This was not the time to try to deal, Tej realized; this whole meeting was a deal. A big one, at that. “Amiri was never happy in the House, never wanted to be involved in the business with my brother Erik and my sisters. He had this passion all his life for biology and medicine, so eventually my parents made a deal for him to go to Escobar to this clinic where they had a special contact, and change his identity and finish his medical education. He’s a graduate researcher there, now, under a new name.” She moistened her lips and added, “It was always the plan that if something terrible happened, I would go to him, because we always got along best, and my sisters would go to Grandmama.”
The Gregor stretched out his arm and drummed his fingers on the sofa back. “Given that Shiv Arqua’s Jacksonian parents are both listed as long‑deceased, this would have to be your Cetagandan haut grandmother, General ghem Estif’s widow, exiled to Earth?”
“Good God!” said Ivan Xav. His hip being pressed to hers on the short sofa, Tej felt him start. “She’s still alive? ”
The Gregor looked across at him in some bemusement. “Didn’t you read the ImpSec reports?”
“Didn’t figure they’d disgorge ’em without arm wrestling. Besides, I spend all day every day up to my eyebrows in Ops reports for Desplains.”
“But there were all those evening‑never mind,” said The Gregor. Tej wasn’t sure if he was looking at her or Ivan Xav or both, but a ghost of that smile went past again.
“But ghem Estif’s widow‑she was on Barrayar back during the Occupation, and nobody still alive remembers that,” said Ivan Xav. “She must be over a hundred and twenty years old, at least! Mummified!”
“About a hundred and thirty,” said Rish. “If I recall correctly.”
“Did you ever meet her?” Ivan Xav asked Rish. But his glance went to Tej.
Tej replied, “After the old general died, she came to live with the Baronne and us for a while. When we kids were all younger. She left almost eight years ago. I haven’t seen her since‑but she wasn’t in the least mummified then. She wasn’t young, of course, and her hair had turned this fascinating silver color, meters of it, it seemed like, but she was perfectly limber. And tall. And very dignified. It was like‑it wasn’t that she couldn’t move fast, it was simply that she didn’t choose to.”
A smile of memory flickered across Rish’s lips. “That was her.”
There was a bustle at the door to the antechamber, and Lady Vorkosigan‑Lady Ekaterin? – entered, followed by two maidservants with not so much a trolley as a train of carts loaded high with a bountiful formal tea. Everyone came to attention, even The Gregor. The two black‑clad guards were already at attention, but every once in a while their eyes flicked longingly toward all the clinking and gurgling going on around the fireplace. It was not until coffee, two kinds of teas, a dozen sorts of little sandwiches and cakes and tarts, freshly candied fruits, marzipan dainties, and miniature and rather messy cream cakes were served that the conversation resumed, limping around the chewing and swallowing. Rish was nearly mesmerized with sensory bliss.
“Ma Kosti is always especially inspired by one of your visits, Gregor,” Lady Ekaterin told the emperor, who smiled.
“Don’t even think about it, Gregor,” said the Coz.
“I suppose an Imperial military draft would be cheating,” replied The Gregor with a sigh, and homed in on his third cream cakelet.
Everyone was amused. Except for Tej and Rish, who were bewildered. Tej nudged Ivan Xav, but he was chewing, too, and just shook his head. “’Splain later,” he mumbled. “Miles defends his cook with his life.”
The Coz washed down his bite with a gulp of tea and told his wife, “Just before you came in, Lady Tej was starting to tell us about her Cetagandan haut grandmother, the late General ghem Estif’s relict. She was apparently on Barrayar toward the end of the Occupation, if you can imagine. She must have been close to old General Piotr’s age.”
Lady Ekaterin nibbled a frosted cherry, licked her fingers, and nodded. “Oh, Ivan, you’ll have to introduce Tej to Rene and Tatya Vorbretten when they get back to town.”
Giving up on Ivan, Tej looked her question at the Coz.
He waved a cucumber‑and‑cream‑cheese sandwich expansively in the air, and said, “Count Vorbretten. Bit of a scandal a few years back, when a gene scan turned up that he was one‑eighth Cetagandan ghem. On the male side, unfortunately for Barrayaran inheritance law. Dating back to his great‑grandmother and the Occupation, it seemed.”
Ivan put in, “They were dubbing him Rene Ghembretten for a while, but the Council of Counts finally voted to let him keep his countship. A near thing, it was. I was glad of it. Exceptionally nice fellow.”
“Exceptionally diligent District count,” said The Gregor.
“Now that gene scanning has become widely available,” said Lady Ekaterin to Tej and Rish, “quite a few such hidden links are being turned up. Despite huge pressures at the time from both sides against such crosses. The Occupation lasted for two decades, after all.”
“Humans will be humans,” said her husband. “And so make more humans.” They exchanged amused smiles, which fell rather short of private.
“Rene’s case is hardly unique, as far as inter‑Nexus romances on Barrayar go,” said The Gregor. “Miles’s mother Countess Cordelia is famously from Beta Colony, as was Ivan’s‑and Miles’s‑great‑grandmother who married the celebrated diplomat Prince Xav.”
Tej turned in surprise to Ivan. “You’re really one‑eighth Betan? You never said!” Rish’s gold eyebrows, too, went up.
Ivan Xav shrugged. “Can’t say as I much think about it. It was a long time ago. Before I was born.” He topped this unassailable observation with a marzipan violet, and chewed defensively.
“This medical clinic on Escobar that took your brother the Jacksonian refugee under its wing, the one with the special contact with your late parents…” the Coz said slowly, returning to a subject Tej had hoped was lost in the shuffle.
“It wouldn’t by chance be the Durona Group, would it?” he went on.
Rish gasped, a glazed orange segment dropping from her hand as she stared in horror. “Did ImpSec know all the time?”
“Apparently not,” said The Gregor, looking up with a scarily keen interest.
“How did you know?” Tej demanded. It was a secret she’d almost died to protect…
“ Mark’s Durona Group?” Ivan Xav looked indignantly at Tej. “You could’ve stood to have said this earlier!”
“What do you know about them?” Rish, still tense with alarm, asked the Coz.
“Quite a lot, for my sins. They were once a division of House Fell, a group of thirty‑six cloned siblings with extraordinary medical talents. Their progenitor‑mother, Lily Durona, who is also on the high side of a century old, I believe, had some special relationship with old Baron Fell that I never did quite understand. In any case, my clone‑brother Mark helped buy them out some years back and arranged for their removal to Escobar, a planet and polity I understand they find considerably more congenial than their House Fell techno‑slavery, however much they were valued back in the Whole. Were your parents allies of old Fell, then, Lady Tej? Or of Lily Durona?”
Tej looked wildly at Rish, who opened her hands as if to throw the question back. Tej tried, “My parents were always…I believe they and Fell often found each other useful, yes. There was never a formal alliance, or any question of a merger, though.”
The Coz tapped his fingers on his chair arm, his lips pressing together for a moment. “Hm. My brother Mark is a silent investor in the Durona Group, but by no means a secret one. I believe he and his partner Kareen are on Escobar right now, in fact, busy about their affairs. Mark is quite the entrepreneur of the Vorkosigan family. Has several successful‑and a couple of unsuccessful‑start‑ups down in our District, as well.”
“Anything worth achieving,” muttered Ivan Xav under his breath. “God, even the clone…”
“The‑Count‑our‑father approves‑the Vorkosigan’s District has lagged economically ever since the Occupation, unfortunately. And several of the later civil wars were disproportionately hard on us, as well.” He tapped some more. “But the thing is, Lady Tej, this connection of mine is also a connection of Ivan’s. If you meant to go to ground secretly with the Durona group…”
“Are you saying now we daren’t go?” asked Tej anxiously.
“No. But I am suggesting that your identities and perhaps appearances might need to be rather better laundered than you originally thought.” He glanced at Rish.
She glowered back. “You seem to know an awful lot about the Whole, for a Barrayaran.”
The Coz shrugged. “I visited it several times in my career. My earlier career, that is, before I became an Imperial Auditor. In any case, Barrayar tracks the five Great Houses that control the Whole’s jump points rather more closely than we track the general mob of Jacksonians. House Fell most of all, because of proximity. Less of Cordonah Station, as our interests don’t extend much in that direction‑we have more economically efficient routes to Earth via Sergyar and Escobar. The fact that the jump point from the Whole into the Cetagandan Empire’s back door is controlled by House Prestene is, ah…a feature of some interest.”
“What earlier career?” asked Tej.
He eyed another cucumber sandwich round, popped it whole into his mouth, and chewed and swallowed before replying. “I was an ImpSec courier for a few years, before I was discharged for medical unfitness. I did a great deal of traveling throughout the Nexus.” He looked up and smiled at his wife. “Rather got it out of my system, to tell the truth.”
Lady Ekaterin’s return smile grew lopsided. “Did you indeed?”
Tej turned again to The Gregor. “But the ride, sir?”
The emperor rubbed his jaw. “I’ll drop a word in Allegre’s ear. Ivan and he can discuss the details.” He paused, looking her and Ivan Xav over thoughtfully. “Note, it could be some weeks before a place opens up. We cannot delay scheduled or emergency business for this courtesy.”
Tej nodded, trying to seem cooperative. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“Ivan’s perimeter has already been notified of the new threat level,” The Gregor went on.
“If…if the syndicate’s agents track us here, can your people stop them?” asked Rish.
The Gregor’s dark eyebrows flicked up. “They’re expected to be able to stop much worse.”
“If they’re not blindsided,” the Coz put in. “You need to give the poor security fellows as much of a fighting chance to protect you as you can. That means no more withholding information, eh?”
Tej nodded, her throat tight. Ivan Xav felt her hand tremble in his, and frowned at her in worry. She remembered all too clearly the death of their bodyguard on Fell Station. She’d barely known the man, and yet…Among the many, many reasons she’d never wanted power in the House, to play the game as her parents had, was that she’d never wanted her life to be bought at the price of another’s. Maybe no one was free of that, really. Or else what were police forces and armies all about, on places like Pol or Komarr? Mass protection, jointly purchased by an entire society, instead of piecemeal by those who could afford it‑without even the up‑front rewards that Jacksonian enforcers and security people routinely demanded, and were given, for assuming such risks.
The guard beside the door to the antechamber spoke for the first time. “It’s seventeen‑thirty hours, sire.”
“Already?” The Gregor glanced at his wristcom, then looked apologetically at Tej, Rish, and Ivan. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go. I still need to have a few words with my Auditor, here, before we travel our separate ways.”
Lady Ekaterin stood up smoothly. “Perhaps Tej and Rish would care to see a little more of Vorkosigan House before you take them home, Ivan. And I could show them the Barrayaran garden.”
Ivan Xav’s nod endorsed this, and they made what Tej hoped were correct formal farewells and followed their hostess out.
In the front hall, Rish’s steps slowed as she stared downward. Her hands twitched, as if she wanted to bend and touch the art underfoot. Or dance across it, pinwheeling. “Is this a recent installation?” she asked Lady Ekaterin. “It’s so beautiful. And unexpected. It looks new…?”
Lady Ekaterin smiled, obviously pleased. “When Miles and I were first married, he encouraged me to put some stamp of my own on the house‑I mean, besides the Barrayaran garden. It took me a long time to decide what. Then one day my mother‑in‑law was telling me about some unhappy events that she always associated with the old black‑and‑white marble tiles that used to be here for, oh, decades, and I thought of this.” She gestured in a sweeping arc, from the lavish floor to the lush walls.
She went on, “I was born and grew up on South Continent, where such fine work in natural colored stones is very much a regional art form‑the north favors wood as a medium. There was a famous stone mosaic artist whose work I’d adored for years, but could never afford. Miles flew down, quite suddenly one day, and practically kidnapped the poor woman out of her semi‑retirement. I worked closely with her on all the botanical details‑it took over a year to design and install, not to mention walking the Vorkosigan’s District to collect as much suitable stone as could be incorporated. It represents a mixed native Barrayaran and Old Earth ecosystem‑just like some places around Vorkosigan Surleau, at the foot of the mountains.”
Ivan Xav vented a short chuckle. “When they broke up the old floor, people took the fragments away as historical souvenirs. I saw some of them for sale for an ungodly amount of money, later. If you’d thought to sell ’em yourselves, Ekaterin, you could have funded the whole replacement with the proceeds.”
She laughed, too, but said, “I suspect the fresh start suited everyone better.” She turned to Tej. “Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan is very close friends with Ivan’s mother, you know. Cordelia has frequently mentioned to me how much she treasured having a woman friend, when she first came to Barrayar as a bride and a stranger, to show her how to go on here‑all those things the men didn’t know. At least there’s no war on, this time. Perhaps when Miles and I get back from Sergyar, we can visit again…?”
A heartbreakingly kind offer, Tej thought. She smiled, but shook her head. “We don’t expect to be here that long.”
“Ah,” said Lady Ekaterin, with a curious glance at Ivan Xav. “That’s a pity. Well, let’s just take a stroll through the dining room wing, and then we can go out the back and around to my garden…”
When Tej had first set foot on Barrayar, she’d felt she couldn’t get away again soon enough. Now, after less than two days, even the nebulous plans for their departure in unknown weeks seemed to loom up before she was ready for them. It was as if the whole blasted planet was bent on seducing her…Odd thought. She shook it from her head, gripped Ivan Xav’s anxiously proffered arm, and followed her hostess.
A bit of rest being overdue for everyone, Ivan and his guests spent the day following the alarming interview with Gregor in the confines of Ivan’s flat. The women seemed content to limit their explorations of Barrayar to the safety of the comconsole, with meals delivered from some of the large array of providers of provender to bachelors on Ivan’s auto‑call list. It wasn’t till conversation over a late brunch the next noon that Ivan discovered that his ladies’ objections to venturing out lay not in mistrust of his security, but in distaste for his groundcar. He then had the happy thought of renting a larger vehicle for the week, an inspiration greeted with applause. They were just discussing his offered menu of places to go and things to see in and around Vorbarr Sultana when they were interrupted by his door chime.
Tej and Rish both jerked in fresh alarm.
“No, no, it’s all right,” Ivan told them, swallowing his last bite of vat‑ham and rising to answer it. “It has to be someone on my cleared list, or the front desk would’ve called for permission to let ’em come up.”
Not that cleared necessarily equated to welcome, Ivan reflected, when he checked the security vid to find Byerly Vorrutyer waiting in the corridor, looking around and tapping his fingers tensely on his trouser seam. Maybe it was time to review that list, and take certain names off it…Reluctantly‑wasn’t this how he’d fallen into all of this trouble in the first place? – Ivan opened the door and let By in, rather like a delivery boy bringing not delicious meals, but bags of snakes. No tip for you, By.
By was perfectly neat, tidy, and well groomed, but he had a harried look in his eye. “Hello, Ivan,” he said, padding past his host. “Is everyone all still here? Ah, yes, good. Hello, Rish, Tej.” He waved to the women lingering around Ivan’s little dining table, who sat up with interest and waved back, and helped himself to a seat, settling in with a sigh.
“If you’re looking to hide out from my mother,” said Ivan, “this likely isn’t the best place.”
“Too late for that,” said By. “For the love of mercy, give me a drink.”
“Isn’t this, like, the equivalent of dawn for you? Drinking before breakfast is a sign of serious degeneration, you know.”
“You have no idea what serious degeneration is, Ivan. I just had a very long interview with your mother. Worse than my ImpSec debriefing by far, and that took a full day.”
Ivan balanced mercy against a tempting heartlessness. Mercy won by a hair, so he brought Byerly a clean glass to share out their champagne and orange juice, heavy on the champs. Byerly evidently wasn’t in a fussy mood, for he didn’t even look at the label till after he’d poured and taken his first sip, not quite a gulp, and raised a brow in belated appreciation.
“I’d have thought you would’ve had the sense to duck her,” said Ivan, settling back into his own chair.
“Wasn’t given a chance. I was publicly arrested in the Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport by an ImpSec goon squad as soon as I stepped off the shuttle yesterday, and hauled away in handcuffs.”
“Ivan Xav’s mother did that?” said Tej, sounding impressed. “She just sent Christos and a car for us.”
Byerly appeared to contemplate this. “Much the same thing, I suppose. It was actually my handler’s bright idea for getting me to my debriefing discreetly, now that the Vormercier scandal has hit the news. The public tale for me will be that I had no idea that all this brotherly chicanery was going on; I was just the caterer for the party yacht. Drinks, drugs, girls, you know.”
“Girls?” said Ivan. “I don’t think the term for that is caterer, By.”
By shrugged one shoulder. “They were actually my co‑agents. ImpSec has found that it’s often better to recruit from those already in the trade, giving them a step up in the world in return for their loyalty, than to start with a trained agent and persuade them to‑well, you see. I called right after I left your wedding, told them to get the hell off Vormercier’s yacht, met them on the orbital transfer station to, supposedly, go shopping‑that was our code phrase for pulling the plug. We were all three boarding a commercial flight to Barrayar by the time Desplains and your crew descended on the Kanzian. Desplains’s jump‑pinnace passed us by us en route, I suppose‑ours wasn’t the fastest ship. Nor the best cabin. We had to share.” A smile flickered over Byerly’s face. “We were commended for our economy, though. ImpSec being in the throes of one of its periodic budget spasms.”
“Hot bunks?” inquired Ivan. “What suffering you ImpSec weasels do endure, to be sure. Just you and two beautiful call girls, stuck together for eight days in a tiny room with nothing to do. It must have been hell.”
“Not quite nothing,” Byerly murmured back, taking another sip of champagne and orange juice. “We had all those reports to write…”
“What’s a call girl?” asked Tej, her brows crimping in puzzlement.
“Uh…” Ivan sought a translation. “Like a Betan licensed practical sexuality therapist, only without the licensed and the therapy parts.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Like a grubber sex worker. That doesn’t sound altogether safe.”
“It isn’t,” said By. “It’s not a trade that attracts the risk‑averse, let us say.”
“Like an informer?” inquired Rish, with a small blue smile.
He raised his glass to her, and drained it. “There are parallels. Combine that with informer, and you may perhaps guess why I was anxious to extract them before the hammer came down.”
“Hm,” she said, eyeing him in fresh evaluation.
“So ImpSec released me back into the wild today, supposedly after a grueling night of incarceration and involuntary fast‑penta interrogation, which cleared me of complicity in Vormercier’s crimes. But left me looking rather a public fool. All good so far.” He scowled, and added, “I was also commended for my months of meticulous and, if I may say it, wearing work on the Vormercier case, and raised one pay grade.”
“Congratulations!” said Rish. “But…you don’t look happy…?”
By’s lips twisted. “And then I was promptly reprimanded and docked one pay grade for involving you, Ivan.”
“Oh.” Ivan almost added Sorry! till he reflected that, actually, it wasn’t his fault. Had he asked By to hand‑deliver him a bride? No. Not to mention the stunned, tied up, and threatened with arrest and/or the admiral’s sarcasm parts.
“They did it that way on purpose, you know.” By brooded. “If they’d presented it the other way around, it wouldn’t have been nearly so stinging. Or just said nothing at all, which would have come to the exact same end. Far more efficiently.”
Ivan assured Rish, who seemed taken aback, “Don’t worry about it. Byerly’s pay grade goes up and down a lot. Think of it as white noise in a general upward trend.”
“This marked a new speed record, though,” By grumbled.
Tej was still looking thoughtful. “How does one become a spy?” she asked Byerly.
His dark brows flicked in amusement. “Thinking of applying? A portion of candidates are filtered in from the Service side of things. Good people in their way, but, let us say, afflicted with a certain uniformity of world‑view. Some are purpose‑recruited from the civilian side, generally for some special expertise.”
“So which way did you get recruited?” asked Rish.
He waved his glass in a what‑would‑you gesture. “I came in by the third route, recruited piecemeal by a working Domestic Affairs agent. I had arrived in the capital at the age of not quite twenty, bent on going to hell as expeditiously as possible in my own callow fashion‑meaning, as like to the other callow, ah, what Ivan and his ilk call town clowns, as I could manage. It was not a very original period of my life. I won’t say I fell in with bad company‑I more hunted them down‑but among all the bad apples in my chosen barrel was one who was…not. He used me for a few favors, found me satisfactory, assigned me more small tasks, then larger ones, tested me…” Byerly grimaced at who‑knew‑what memory‑Ivan suspected he wasn’t going to tell that one. “And then one day made me an offer which, by that time, did not astonish me‑though it illuminated many things in retrospect. I was cycled through a few ImpSec short courses, and the rest was apprenticeship. And, ah…more spontaneous learning experiences.” He poured himself more champagne and orange juice. He doubtless needed the vitamins.
“Which brings me to the moment,” By went on. “We need to‑”
“Wait, you skipped over my mother,” said Ivan.
“Would that I could have. She appeared to be remarkably well informed. I tried to explain that my testimony was redundant, but she insisted on the extra angle of view. What I was about to say is, that before any of you here go out into circulation in Vorbarr Sultana‑I mean, beyond the extremely select company you’ve already kept‑we need to get our stories straight about what really happened on Komarr.”
“Ah,” said Ivan, unsurprised. “Not a social visit, then.”
“Hardly.” Byerly glanced under his lashes at Rish. “Well, mostly not, but I’ll get to that later. Having, miraculously, not yet blown my cover and lost my livelihood, I would like to keep it that way.”
Ivan conceded the validity of this concern with a nod.
“The short version will be that Ivan met you, Tej, on Komarr when he went to mail his package. You indulged in a whirlwind affair, and, when you were suddenly threatened with deportation by Komarran immigration, he married you in a fit of gallantry.”
Tej wrinkled her nose. “Why?”
“What, you were beautiful, you were in danger, and I hadn’t got laid yet,” said Ivan. “Seems simple enough.”
Byerly tilted his head. “You know, you were doing well there, Ivan, till that last‑never mind. Verisimilitude is everything. Speaking of which, I was told Tej and Rish may as well go on being themselves for as long as they are on Barrayar. Making a virtue of necessity, as erasing them from earlier in the record would be nearly impossible, with all the trail you’ve left‑like an Emperor’s Birthday parade, compete with marching bands and an elephant. Highborn but destitute refugees fleeing from a disastrous palace coup‑Barrayarans will understand that part, have no fear, even if they remain suspicious of your Jacksonian aspects.” His eye fell on Ivan, and he added meditatively, “You spotted me on Komarr by chance, and nabbed me for a known witness when you suddenly needed one. I wonder if you should have been drunk at the time?”
“At dawn?” said Ivan indignantly. “No!” He added in false cordiality, “You’re welcome to have been, if you like.”
“What, and besmirch my impeccability as a witness? Surely not.”
“In other words,” said Tej slowly, “pretty much the same tale as we’ve been telling everyone. Except for Admiral Desplains, Lady Vorpatril, Simon Illyan, Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, Emperor Gregor…” She trailed off, plainly finding it an uncomfortably long list for a closely‑held secret.
“It’s all right,” Ivan assured her. “That bunch holds more secrets among ’em than I can rightly imagine.”
“Moving on to my concerns,” Byerly continued. “In the interests of spreading the correct cover story as soon as possible to as many observers as possible, Rish, I wonder if you would care to attend a select little soiree with me this evening. Dinner beforehand, perhaps?”
“Go out?” Rish’s eyes grew wide with both longing and alarm. “On a date? With you? On Barrayar?”
Byerly tilted his free hand judiciously back and forth. “Not exactly a date. I need to get out and about to complain, gossip, backstab, and of course curse Theo Vormercier and ImpSec‑jointly, severally, and loudly. A tough job, but somebody’s got to, and all that.”
“What about my”‑Rish waved a hand down the slim length of her body‑“non‑standard appearance?”
“Some extra distraction for people’s eyes and minds while I set about my tedious task of disseminating disinformation seems…useful. Famous foreign artist, enjoying refugee status in the train of a mysterious romance, or possibly scandal, involving the scion of one of the stodgiest of high Vor families‑I guarantee they’ll muscle past their prejudices for a taste of that. And in the company of the Vorrutyer clan’s most debonair non‑heir, at that. Our audience will be positively agog.” He smiled. Ivan bared his teeth. Byerly ignored him, and went on, “Simultaneously, it will begin the process of habituating them to you. Also, it will give you a chance to see a bit of Barrayar not in Ivan’s stodgy company.”
“I am not stodgy! And your company is notoriously, notoriously unfit for…well, unfit, anyway!”
Rish raised her golden brows, and murmured, “Hm!” She regarded Byerly for a long moment through, narrowed, considering eyes. And flared nostrils? “It sounds a small enough task to start on. I think…yes.”
“I believe you will find the evening not without elements of interest,” By purred in triumph. “And I shall be fascinated by your observations.”
“What should I wear?”
“Ah, cerulean on the surface, woman to the bone. Casual‑chic and striking would do the job nicely. A touch of the exotic a plus.”
Ivan thought the exotic was more of a default, but Rish merely said, “I can do that.”
Ivan struggled with a formless frustration. Rish was not his spouse, nor did he stand in any way in loco parentis to her. But who would be blamed, if something went wrong? Yeah. On the other hand, this would give him and Tej the flat to themselves for the whole evening. They could order in, and, and…Ivan finally managed, “Well…well, if you’re taking my employee out into deep waters, make damn sure you give her a better briefing than you gave me!”
Byerly set down his emptied glass and raised a brow. “Ivan, do I tell you how to run Ops?”
As Ivan sputtered, By grinned, arranged the hour for his return to collect Rish, stood up, and sauntered out, all in fine By style again. About a liter of Ivan’s most expensive champagne had relaxed him, presumably.
Ivan returned from escorting Byerly to the door and making sure it was locked after him to find Tej and Rish dividing the last of the fresh orange juice and frowning curiously.
“So…is By bi?” Tej asked. “Bisexual, that is.”
“I have no idea what By’s real preferences are,” Ivan stated firmly. “Nor do I wish to know.”
“What, couldn’t you smell him, that first night he came in on Komarr?” said Rish. Addressing Tej, Ivan hoped. “He’d had a busy two days or so. Any lingering scents from prior to that were too attenuated to discern.”
“He was pretty confusing,” said Tej. “In all ways, including that one.”
“To be sure, though I’d call it more compounded than confusing. But whether his contacts were sequential or together, for business or pleasure, enjoyed or endured, even I couldn’t guess.”
“I don’t want to know this,” Ivan repeated, although in a smaller voice. He bethought him of a new caution. “You do realize, Byerly has almost certainly been ordered by his handlers to keep a close eye on you? Surveillance is what he does. What could be a more efficient way of keeping you under his thumb than to ask you out himself?”
Rish smirked and rose. “There’s nothing that says a man can’t enjoy his work.” She added over her shoulder, as she drifted out like some exotic blue blossom floating down a stream, “Come on, Tej. Help me sort through this crazy Barrayaran wardrobe.”
Tej paused to whisper in reassurance to Ivan, “She adores being seen, you know. She’s bound to have a good time.” She bounced after Rish with a sort of happy‑teakettle chortle.
A more horrid notion occurred to Ivan then. What if Byerly wanted Rish not for a smokescreen, but as bait? What could be a more efficient method of drawing their syndicate pursuers out to where ImpSec could see and nail them than that?
Well, Ivan reflected morosely, one way or another, at least ImpSec is on the job.
Rish returned to the flat very late that night; to Tej’s secret bemusement, Ivan Xav stayed up to let her in‑but not Byerly, who had escorted her to the door, whom he sent to the right‑about with complaints about keeping people awake past their bedtimes. By’s ribald return remarks merely made him grumpier. The next night, Rish had Ivan Xav issue her a door remote. Byerly took her out again, although not to a party, but to a dance performance put on by some touring folk group from the western part of the continent, his former and apparently forsaken home. On the third night, Rish called on Byerly’s wristcom to tell Tej not to wait up; she’d probably be back around noon the next day. Ivan Xav grumbled disjointedly.
The next morning, however, was his birthday, an event Tej had been anticipating with growing curiosity. They arose in the dark before dawn and dressed rather formally, he donning his green captain’s uniform for the first time on his week’s leave. They ate no breakfast, merely drank tea, and then he bundled her into his sporty groundcar and they threaded the dark, quiet streets, although to no great distance away. His driving was, thankfully, subdued, though whether because of the bleary hour of the day or the solemn task they were to undertake, she wasn’t sure.
He hadn’t been very forthcoming about the ceremony, some traditional Barrayaran memorial for his dead father that apparently involved burning a small sacrifice of hair‑after it had been clipped from one’s head, Tej was relieved to learn. They pulled up in a street lined by older, grubbier, lower buildings, where a municipal guard vehicle was parked, its lights blinking. Two guardsmen were setting up a pair of lighted traffic deflectors on either side of a bronze plaque set in the pavement. The guard sergeant hurried over and started to wave Ivan out of the parking spot into which they eased, but then reversed his gesture into a beckoning upon recognizing the car and its driver.
“Captain Vorpatril, sir.” The man saluted as Ivan Xav helped Tej out. “We’re just about ready for you, here.”
Ivan nodded. “Thank you, sergeant, as always.”
Tej stood on the sidewalk in the damp autumn chill and stared around. “This is where your father died, then?”
Ivan Xav pointed to the plaque, glinting among the amber‑and‑shadow patterns woven by the street lights. “Right over there, according to Mamere. Shot down by the Pretender’s security forces, while they were trying to make their escape.”
“Wait, she was there? I mean, here? At the time?”
“Oh, yes.” He yawned and stared sleepily down the street, then perked up slightly as a long, sleek, familiar groundcar turned onto the block. The municipal guardsman waved it into its reserved parking space with studied officiousness, and saluted its occupants as they disembarked. Lady Vorpatril was accompanied, or escorted, by Simon Illyan, with the driver Christos bringing up the rear and holding a large cloth bag that clanked.
The guardsmen took up parade‑rest poses at a respectful distance away, and Christos knelt in the street to withdraw a bronze tripod and bowl from the bag, setting them up next to the plaque. He nodded to his mistress and went to join the guardsmen; they greeted each other and conversed in low tones, then one of the guardsmen went out into the street to direct the growing trickle of traffic safely around the site.
“Good morning, Ivan,” Lady Alys greeted her son. “Happy birthday, dear.” She hugged him, and he returned her what seemed to be the regulation peck on the cheek. He nodded thanks to Illyan’s echoed, “Happy birthday, Ivan. Thirty‑fifth, isn’t it?
“Halfway through your Old Earth three‑score‑and‑ten, eh? Incredible that we’ve all survived so long.” He shook his head, as if in wonder. Ivan grimaced.
The War of Vordarian’s Pretendership had been more in the nature of an abortive palace coup, as Tej understood it from her recent reading. Shortly after the ascension of the five‑year‑old Emperor Gregor under the regency of Aral Vorkosigan, the rival Count Vidal Vordarian and his party had made a grab for power. In the first strike, they’d secured the capital city, the military and ImpSec headquarters, and the young emperor’s mother, but the boy himself had slipped through their fingers, to be hidden in the countryside by Vorkosigan’s gathering forces. It had proved an ultimately fatal fumble.
There had followed a months‑long standoff, minor skirmishes while each side frantically maneuvered for allies among the other counts, the military, and the people. Captain Lord Padma Vorpatril and his wife, Lady Alys, relatives and known allies of Regent Vorkosigan, had been cut off in the capital during the coup and gone into hiding. Padma’s death rated barely a footnote, less even than the skirmishes. Had it been a chill and foggy night like this?
How much more, not less, surreal the tale all seemed, now that Tej had been in the same room‑and shared cream cakes‑with the grown‑up, forty‑year‑old Gregor. Not to mention…
The present Lady Alys, composed and commanding, turned to take Tej by the hands. “Good morning, Tej. I’m pleased you came.”
Tej considered the significant difference between husband shot and husband shot in front of your eyes. She ducked her head, suddenly shy before this woman in a whole new way. “Thank you,” she managed, unsure what else to say.
“This is the first such memorial service you will have seen, I understand?”
“Yes. I’d never even heard of them before.”
“It’s nothing at all difficult. Especially not after thirty‑five repetitions. Sometimes people perform it on the anniversary of their loved one’s death, sometimes on their birthday, sometimes other occasions. As need arises. Keeping the memory alive, or getting in the last word, depending.” A dry smile turned her lips. The amber light leached the color from her face, and turned Ivan Xav’s uniform drab olive.
Lady Alys and Ivan Xav knelt by the brazier. With a brisk efficiency, Lady Alys pulled a plastic sack of scented bark and wood shavings from the cloth bag and upended it into the metal bowl. She pulled a smaller packet from her purse and shook out a mat of black and silver hair clippings atop. Ivan rummaged in his trouser pocket and unearthed a similar packet, adding a fuzzy black blot to the pile. Parsimoniously saved from their most recent haircuts, maybe? They both stood up.
Lady Alys nodded to the plaque. “This is where my husband was shot down by Vordarian’s security forces. Nerve disruptors‑poor Padma never had a chance. I’ll never forget the smell…burning hair, among other things. This ceremony always brings that back.” She grimaced. “Ivan was born not an hour later.”
“Where was his uterine replicator?” Tej asked.
Three faces turned toward hers; Lady Alys’s twisted in a wry humor. She touched her stomach. “Here, dear.”
Tej gasped in new and unexpected horror. “You mean Ivan Xav was a body birth?”
“Everyone was, in those days. Replicator technology had barely reached Barrayar, and didn’t become widespread for another generation.” Lady Alys stared at her uneasy son in reminded ire. “Two weeks late, he was. Nine pounds!”
“Not my fault,” muttered Ivan Xav, very much under his breath. He added to Tej, not much louder: “She mentions that every year.”
Lady Alys went on more serenely, “The friends who rescued us…me, almost in time, hustled me away to an abandoned building in the old Caravanserai district‑very run‑down and dangerous, back then‑not too far from here. Sergeant Bothari, rest to his troubled soul, played midwife, for lack of any other with the least experience in the task, including me. I was so terrified, but I couldn’t scream, you know, because Vordarian’s men were still out there looking for us. Bothari gave me a rag to bite…I can still remember the horrid taste, when I think of it. Nauseating. And we got through it somehow, dear heavens, but I still don’t know how. We were all so young. Ivan is older now than Padma was then.” She regarded Tej in sudden wonder. “I was just twenty‑five. Your age, my dear. Now, there’s a strange chance.”
Half past strange and aiming for very unsettling, Tej thought. But a new, or newly‑revealed, reason for this aging woman’s unexpected sympathy to another young refugee mourning her dead grew very clear, like ice, or crystal, or broken glass, or something else with sharp and dangerous edges. Oh.
She knows. She knows it all, and more, probably. Maybe Lady Alys’s glossy surface had to be so thick and smooth because it hid so much…?
Simon Illyan’s brow furrowed. “Where was I, during all of this? I do wish I could have been there for you, Alys…”
She touched his supporting arm in reassurance. “You were smuggling Admiral Kanzian out, to Aral’s great tactical benefit.”
His face cleared. “Ah, yes, now I recall.” He frowned again. “Fragments, at least.”
“Trust me, love, after thirty‑five years, fragments are all anyone recalls.” She turned again to Tej. “As Ivan’s bride, you are now a part of this‑however temporarily. Would you care to lay some hair on the fire as well? Since you’re here.”
Tej was taken aback all over again. That seemed to be happening a lot, lately. “I…is it permitted?” Not offensive? Apparently, it was perfectly allowable, because all the Barrayarans nodded. Lady Alys drew a small pair of scissors from her purse‑secreted for just this hope, or did she always carry them? – and snipped a curl from Tej’s bent head. She handed it to Ivan Xav, who laid it atop the pile and set the wood shavings alight. Little flames crackled up, hot and swift. There did not seem to be any formal words to be recited, because everyone just stood around watching, the flames reflecting in their shadowed eyes as tiny molten glints. The tops of the highest buildings, visible in the distance, sprang into color as the first sunlight reached them, but down here all was yet a pool of damp gray, with the fire a shimmering orange blur in the autumn murk.
Not formal, but words‑very low, from Lady Alys; as though she told secrets. “Padma and I were hiding in what was then a cheap boarding house down the street. Just there.” She pointed to a building a few doors down, half‑concealed by renovation scaffolding. The scent of burning hair was very pungent, now. “When I went into labor, Padma panicked. I begged him not to go out, but he was frantic to find someone, anyone, to take over the terrifying task of delivering a baby that women all over the planet had been doing every damned day since the Firsters landed. Though I had the biggest part of the job, and wasn’t going to be able to wriggle out of it by any means whatsoever. So he went out, leaving me alone and petrified for hours with my contractions getting worse, waiting, and of course he promptly got picked up. Once they brought him back and we’d both been dragged out into the street, he tried to stand up to armed men, all penta‑drunk as he was. But I knew, then and forever after, that it wasn’t his bravery that killed him‑it was his cowardice. Oh, dear God, I was so angry at him for that. For years. ”
Illyan touched her shoulder; Ivan Xav stood warily away. Illyan said, “Kou got you and baby Ivan out, didn’t he?” Giving her thoughts a more positive direction?
“Yes. Lieutenant Koudelka‑later Commodore,” she glossed to Tej, “Kou managed to smuggle us out of the city in the back of a grocery van, of all things. His father had been a grocer, you see. Lurching along in the vegetable detritus‑Ivan very hungry and noisy, to be sure, and not happy to be thrust out into the cold world in the middle of a war.”
The little flames were almost gone, gray ash starting to drift away in the stirrings of air from the passing vehicles. The acrid smell was abating.
“This is a Barrayaran ceremony for remembrance,” said Lady Alys, turning to Tej. “It was always my intention, when Ivan married, to turn this task of remembrance over to him, to continue or not as he willed. Because…memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Her hand reached out and gripped Illyan’s, who gripped it back in a disturbed little shake, though he smiled at her.
“Thirty‑five years seems long enough, to me,” Lady Alys went on. “Long enough to mourn, quite long enough to be enraged. It’s time for me to retire from remembering. From the pain and sorrow and anger and attachment, and the smell of burning hair in the fog. For Ivan, it’s not the same, of course. His memories of this place are very different from mine.”
“I never knew,” said Ivan Xav, shifting uncomfortably. “All that.”
Lady Alys shrugged. “I never said. First you were too young to understand, and then you were too adolescent to understand, and then…we were both much busier with our lives, and this had all become a rote exercise. But lately…in recent years…I began to think more and more about giving it up.”
By every sign, she’d been thinking about this for quite a while, Tej thought. No one built up that much head‑pressure overnight. She looked her alarm at Ivan Xav who, belatedly, slid closer and put a bracing arm around her waist.
“It was just something we did, every year,” said Ivan Xav. “When I was really little, of course, I didn’t understand it at all. We just came here, burned this stuff, stood around for a few minutes, and then you took me to the Keroslav bakery, because we’d not had breakfast. I was all about the bakery, for the longest time.”
“They closed last year,” Lady Alys observed dispassionately.
“Not surprised. They’d kind of gone downhill, I thought.”
“Mm, that, and your palate grew more educated than when you were six.” She added after a reflective moment, “Fortunately.”
The flames had burned out. At Lady Aly’s gesture, Christos came back with the bag and a padded glove, upended the bronze bowl and tapped out the ash, wiped it with a cloth, and put it all away again. He stood up with a grunt.
Lady Alys brightened. “Well. That’s all over with, for another year at least. Given that the bakery is gone, removing an occasion for tradition without any effort on our parts, would you both care to come back to breakfast at my flat?”
Tej glanced at Ivan Xav, who nodded, so said “Sure! Thank you, Lady Alys.”
They followed the sedate groundcar in Ivan Xav’s two‑seater. Tej looked over her shoulder to see the municipal guardsmen taking down the lighted barriers and putting them away in their vehicle, returning the street to its normal morning traffic, which was growing notably busier. It was full dawn, now, and the city was awake, eager to get started on another brand‑new day. Looking forward, not back.
Thirty‑five funerals seemed too many. Yet none was not enough. Tej wondered, if Ivan Xav would help them to it, if she and Rish would feel any better for burning some hair in a little pan for Dada and the Baronne, and Erik. Maybe you had to be raised to this.
She turned to Ivan Xav. “What a morbid way to start your every birthday, when you were a child. I mean, most children get presents, and sweets, parties, maybe ponies here on Barrayar‑even we and the Jewels all did. Well, not ponies, not on a space station. But you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I had all that, too,” said Ivan Xav. “Later in the day. Quite ornate parties, for a few years, when the mothers in Mamere’s set were competing with each other. All that was damped down by my mid‑teens, when we kids were all more intent on moving into adulthood as fast as we could, God knows why.” He blinked reflectively. “Not that their teens are something most people would want to linger in.” And after another moment, “It felt like childhood came to a pretty abrupt halt when I started the Imperial Service Academy at age eighteen, but looking at some of the frighteningly dewy new‑minted ensigns they’re sending us these days, I’m not so sure. Maybe that was an illusion on our parts.”
And, after a much longer pause, while he negotiated a few corners and dodged incoming traffic: “Sure taught me the price of Vorpatrils mixing in politics, though. I didn’t understand much, but I had that down by the time I was eight. I mean‑other boys had fathers, most of ’em, even Miles had Uncle Aral, scary as he was‑I had a bronze plaque in the street that groundcars ran over. That made Mamere either sad or twitchy or bitchy by turns, but never happy.”
“Is‑was‑she always this, um?” Tej wasn’t sure how else to describe Lady Alys. Desperate for escape? “When you do this burning thing?”
His brows drew in. “No. She’d never told me some of those crazy details, before. Funny thing, that. I mean, she’s the one who had that damned plaque installed in the first place, right? Makes me wonder‑if she didn’t enjoy this, and I didn’t enjoy this, and my father, whatever he was or would have been, is decades past caring, why do we keep doing this? She didn’t have to wait for me to get married to stop. She could’ve stopped any time.”
“Some passing‑of‑the‑generations thing?” Tej hazarded.
“I guess.” Following Christos, Ivan Xav turned in at the garage under his mother’s building, and offered no more illumination.
The rest of Ivan Xav’s thirty‑fifth birthday passed quietly, although he did take Tej and Rish out to dinner at an intimate restaurant featuring Barrayaran regional cuisine, where he appeared to be well known by the staff. Rish drew stares and whispers as they entered, but no overt insults.
“I thought they didn’t like mutants, here,” murmured Tej.
“Byerly says my appearance goes so far beyond what Barrayarans usually think of as mutants that their categories break down,” said Rish. “Although he did warn me to stay out of grubber venues if I don’t have outriders. Except he didn’t say grubber, oh, what was that Barrayaran term…”
“Prole?” said Ivan. “Plebe?”
“Prole, that was it.”
“Yeah, probably good advice, till you know the territory better.”
To Tej’s surprise, they were guided to a five‑person table with two seats already occupied. A solid, dark‑haired man who looked to be in his forties, not handsome but striking‑blade of a nose, penetrating nutmeg‑brown eyes‑stood up as they approached; a younger, athletic blond woman, taller than her partner, smiled across at them, clearly interested in but not shocked by Rish. This must not be a grubber venue.
“Happy birthday, Ivan,” said the man, shaking Ivan’s hand. “Congratulations on making it this far alive.”
“Yeah, really,” said Ivan Xav, returning the handshake and smiling in evident sincerity. “Tej, Rish, I’d like you to meet my friend Duv Galeni, and his wife Delia.”
The blond woman waved in a warm way; Galeni bowed Vor‑like over Tej’s hand and murmured, “Lady Vorpatril,” and shook Rish’s, “Mademoiselle Rish.”
After they were all seated, studied the menus, had the Vorgarin District‑style stroganoff recommended, and placed their orders, Tej asked, “How do you all know each other?” Because Galeni was no Barrayaran Vor, certainly; wrapped within that cultured voice Tej heard a faint Komarran accent.
“Delia, I’ve known all my life,” Ivan Xav explained. “Her father, Commodore Koudelka, worked for my uncle, back when. Aide‑de‑camp and secretary.”
Not unlike Ivan Xav’s job, this seemed to say. “Wait, was he the lieutenant who smuggled baby‑you and your mother out of this city back when it was under siege?”
“Yep, that’s the one. Three more daughters, y’know. Where are they all, at the moment, Delia? Because I figured Tej could stand to meet some more Barrayaran women.”
The blonde replied, “Martya’s down in the Vorkosigan’s District with Enrique, working on one of Mark’s projects. Kareen’s on Escobar with Mark‑I’m not sure when they’ll next be back. And Olivia’s out in the Vorrutyer’s District with Dono. Would Count Dono count, do you suppose?”
“ No,” said Ivan Xav, then hesitated. “And anyway, that’s a lame pun.”
Delia grinned unrepentantly; Galeni hid a smile behind his hand.
“And you and Ivan Xav?” Tej inquired of Galeni.
“I don’t go as far back as Delia,” he replied easily. “I first met Ivan when I was senior military attache at the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth, and Ivan, as a wet‑behind‑the‑ears lieutenant, was assigned as one of my assistants. About…has it really been ten years?”
“Eleven,” said Ivan Xav, a bit glumly.
“My word.” The crow’s‑feet at the corners of Galeni’s eyes crinkled.
As the first course arrived, Galeni and Delia took it in turns to draw Tej and Rish out about their own travels. Rish was describing their time on Pol when Tej, overcome with a sense of Morozovian deja vu, turned to Galeni and said suspiciously, “Wait. Are you another ImpSec man?”
“Well, yes, but I promise you I am off‑duty, tonight,” he assured her.
His wife put in proudly, “Duv’s been head of ImpSec’s Komarran Affairs department for the past four years. He was one of the first Komarrans to enter the Imperial Service, as soon as it was opened to them.”
Commodore Galeni, it soon transpired. And another of the Legendary‑Illyan’s old trainees. But he and Ivan Xav did appear to be friends in their own right, not watcher and watchee. Or not just watcher‑as the conversation wended over a surprisingly wide range of topics, Tej had the distinct impression that both members of the couple were testing for the answer to the unspoken question Is she good enough for Our Ivan?
That was…kind of nice, actually, that Ivan Xav had such friends. Tej had enjoyed a string of carefully‑vetted playmates, growing up, from among the children of her parents’ higher‑level employees, but all were scattered now. Or worse, suborned to the new regime. When she tried to come up with a list of intimate friends, the sort who might ask, Is he good enough for Our Tej? they all came out family, or at least some of the survivors‑Jet, Rish, maybe Amiri. Also all scattered. She hoped Jet was still safe with Amiri.
Galeni’s presence did account for the absence of Byerly, she realized a bit belatedly; it would not do By’s town‑clown cover good to be seen dining out with one of the senior officers of ImpSec.
When they arrived, roundaboutly, at the account of how Tej had met and married Ivan Xav, she was afraid it was going to be The Coz and The Gregor all over again, or at least, Galeni wheezed red‑faced into his napkin to the point where his wife stopped giggling long enough to look at him in concern.
Galeni straightened up and caught his breath at last. “At least it sounds better than your last kidnapping.”
“I thought so,” Ivan Xav agreed ruefully.
“What?” said Tej.
Galeni hesitated, then said, “One of the more traumatic incidents of my till‑then remarkably trauma‑free sojourn on Earth. Ivan spent a very unpleasant afternoon kidnapped by, ah, a group of conspirators, who hid him in the pumping chamber of a tidal dam.”
“An afternoon?” muttered Ivan Xav. “Try a subjective year. Pitch‑dark, y’know? I couldn’t have read a clock if I’d had one. Also cold, wet, cramped, and underground. Listening the whole time for the damned pump to start, and drown me, when the tide turned.”
Tej, picturing this, felt her throat tighten. “Sounds nasty.”
“Yeah,” said Ivan Xav.
“Among the several pressing reasons I was kissing my career goodbye about then, that came high on the list,” sighed Galeni. “To be handed Lieutenant Lord Vorpatril to look after, and then lose him…not good on my resume, I assure you.”
“But he was rescued,” said Rish. “Obviously. By you, Commodore?”
“Captain, back then. Let’s say I helped. Fortunately for my resume.”
“Is your claustrophobia better now?” Delia asked Ivan Xav, more in a tone of curiosity than concern.
Ivan Xav gritted his teeth. “I do not have claustrophobia. Thank you very much, Delia. There’s nothing irrational about it…About me.”
“But Miles said‑”
“I have an allergy to total strangers trying to kill me, is all. One that Miles shares, I might point out.”
Delia’s lips twisted. “I don’t know, Ivan. I think Miles actually gets rather excited by that.”
“You may be right,” agreed Galeni.
“Do you suppose it’s the attention?” said Delia. “He does like to be at the center.”
Ivan Xav choked into his own napkin at this one, and was drawn away from his little moment of irate by uniting with this old friend in trading scurrilous observations about The Coz, none of which, Tej noticed, Galeni tried to gainsay.
At dessert, the commodore pulled a small, flat case from his jacket pocket and pushed it rather shyly toward her and Ivan Xav. It contained a book‑disc, she saw. Ivan Xav eyed it warily. “What’s this, Duv?”
“Something of a combination birthday and wedding present. Well, perhaps more for Lady Tej than you. A new history of Barrayar since the Time of Isolation. Just released from the Imperial University Press this week, after some years in the preparation. Professora Vorthys is going to teach her modern history class with it, starting next fall.”
“How long is it?”
“Ninety chapters, roughly.”
“And how many did you write?”
Galeni cleared his throat. “About ten.”
“I didn’t know ImpSec gave homework,” said Tej faintly.
Galeni smiled wryly. “More of a hobby, in my case. But I do like to keep my hand in, when I can. As much as I can. I have several interesting papers written, waiting for their references to age out of their classified status.”
“I should explain,” said Ivan Xav, “when Duv said he quit school to go to the Imperial Military Academy, back when the Service was opened to Komarrans, he was a professor, not a student. History. He’s mostly over it, but sometimes he reverts. Is this thing”‑he touched the case with a cautious finger‑“written in high academic?”
“I can only speak for my own chapters, but Illyan beat the scholastic prolixity out of me back when I was first writing ImpSec analysis reports for him,” said Galeni. “Taught me the ImpSec ABC’s‑accuracy, brevity, and clarity. Although he did say he was glad to get reports where he didn’t have to correct the grammar and spelling.”
Ivan Xav laughed. “I’ll just bet.”
Tej had just enough wits to accept the book‑disc with suitable appreciation. This did not seem the time to explain that she wasn’t going to need to study Barrayaran anything, because she was skiving off to Escobar at the first opportunity. Ditto Delia’s offer to hook her up with the array of sisters, when the chances arose. She managed noncommittal thanks.
The Galenis excused themselves soon after dessert‑a toddler and an infant evidently waited at home. A vid‑cube of the absent offspring was shown about; Tej made suitable complimentary noises. As the couple passed out of the restaurant, Ivan Xav remarked, “No night life for him anymore, poor sod.” But undercut this by adding, “I expect that suits him to the ground.”
Ivan Xav didn’t have brothers, but at least it seemed he had brother‑officers, Tej reflected. It was something.
It wasn’t till bedtime, when Ivan Xav was taking his turn in the bathroom and she and Rish were making up the couch, that Tej was able to snatch a private moment to decant the Byerly Report.
“So? Last night. How was it?”
Rish flicked over a sheet and smiled a maddeningly secret smile. “Interesting.”
Tej tossed her head. “That’s what people say about some dodgy dish that doesn’t quite work. Whitefish and raspberries.”
“Oh, this combination worked. Delectably.”
“ So? ”
Rish touched her lips, though whether to check her words or draw them out, Tej could not guess. “Byerly…I’ve never encountered anyone whose mouth and whose hands seemed to be telling two such different stories.”
“Do I have to shake you?”
Rish grinned, and made a rather Byerly‑like wrist‑flutter. “The mouth ripples on amusingly enough, though most of what comes out is camouflage and the rest is lies‑not so much to me, though. But the hands…”
“The hands are strangely shy, until suddenly they turn eloquent. And then their candor could make you weep. A woman might fall in love with the hands. Though only if the woman were nearly as foolish as my little even‑sister‑which, luckily, doesn’t seem to be possible.”
Tej threw a pillow at her.
The next day, the last of Ivan Xav’s leave, he spent ferrying them around to see a few locally‑famous tourist sites, including a military history museum at Vorhartung Castle, the most looming of the old fortresses above the river that were, indeed, lit up colorfully at night. During this outing, he discovered that Tej and Rish not only didn’t drive ground vehicles, they couldn’t.
“We had sport grav‑sleds, at this downside country villa my parents kept, but my older sibs usually hogged them,” Tej explained. “And in congested places, towns and cities like this”‑she waved around‑“even Dada used an armored groundcar with a dedicated driver and bodyguards. Outside the cities it’s all toll roads built and operated by assorted Houses, so you need a lot of money to get around.”
“Huh,” said Ivan Xav. “I bet I can fix that.”
His fix proved to be a private driver’s education service specializing in off‑world tourists, whose personable instructor picked them up at the front of Ivan Xav’s building the next morning, after Ivan Xav went off to Ops for his day’s work.
“It’s an excellent choice to learn to drive in our beautiful Vorbarr Sultana,” the instructor informed them cheerfully. “After this, no other city on the planet will daunt you.”
Tej jumped into the challenge; Rish, claiming distressing sensory overload, opted out after a short trial that left her green, figuratively. In far fewer hours than Tej thought possible or even sane, she was issued a permit that allowed her to practice‑drive under Ivan Xav’s supervision.
She only froze once, on their first evening’s outing, when trying to back the groundcar out of its parking space beneath the building. The pillar made such an ugly crunching noise…
“Don’t worry,” Ivan Xav told her jovially. “These groundcars are so crammed with safety features, you can hardly kill yourself even if you try. Why, I’ve had half‑a‑dozen crack‑ups with barely a scratch. On me, that is. Harder on the groundcars, naturally. Except for that one time, but I was much younger then, so we don’t need to go into it.” He added after a moment, “Besides, this is the rental.”
Encouraged, Tej set her jaw and soldiered on. They arrived back an hour later without having cracked anything; not even, in her case, a smile, but that changed when she successfully piloted the beast back into its stall and powered down at last. “That wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be!”
“Oh, hey, you want scary‑the best day I ever had with my Uncle Aral, who usually doesn’t have time for me in both senses of that phrase, but anyway, it was the first summer I had my lightflyer permit, and had gone down with Miles to their country place. Uncle Aral took me out, just me for a change, over the unpopulated hills and taught me what all you could really do with a lightflyer. He said it was in case I ever had to evade pursuit, but I think he was testing his new security fellows, who were along in the back seat. If he could make them scream, cry, or throw up, he won.”
“Er…did they? Did he?”
“Naw, they trusted him too much. I got a couple of the veterans to yelp, though.” He went on with unabated enthusiasm, “After you’re comfortable with groundcars, we’ll have to move you on into lightflyers. You need them to get around out in the more remote parts of the Districts, where the roads can get pretty rough. Too bad Uncle Aral is too old now to give you his special advanced course”‑he pursed his lips‑“probably. Anyway, he’s stuck on Sergyar viceroy‑ing, which has disappointingly little to do with vice, he claims.”
The That Uncle Aral, Tej translated this. It was almost harder to imagine than The Gregor. “And your mother encouraged this…coaching?”
“Oh, sure. Of course, neither of us told her what we really did. Uncle Aral is nobody’s fool.”
Ivan Xav next discovered that neither Tej nor Rish, despite their sensory discrimination training, was more than a rudimentary cook. He claimed he was no master, but could survive in a kitchen, cooking a dinner at home for a change to prove it. He then hit on the bright idea of sending them both off to Ma Kosti for formal lessons, on the theory that she was underemployed and bored this week with most of the Vorkosigan household gone to Sergyar.
In appearance, Ma Kosti proved very much their first sample prole, short and dumpy and with a notably different accent and syntax than her employers, and she was at first visibly leery of Rish. This changed when Rish demonstrated her fine discriminatory abilities in taste and smell, plus less of a tendency than Tej to cut herself instead of the vegetables, and Rish was promptly adopted as a promising apprentice. Rish in turn recognized a fellow master‑artist, if in a different medium. The days filled swiftly.
Two evenings out of three, Rish went off with Byerly, often not returning till the next day. “By’s place,” she remarked, “is surprisingly austere. He doesn’t bring his business back there much, as far as I can tell. Something of a refuge for him.” Tej handed her a pillow, and she punched it to fluff it up. “Not as austere as this couch, though. When am I going to get off this thing?”
Ivan Xav, passing by with a toothbrush in his mouth, removed it to say, “You know, I bet we could get you your own efficiency flat, right here in the building, if I try. Might have to wait for an opening. Or I could put myself on the waiting list for the next two‑ or three‑bedroom unit that comes up. Call the moving service, we could shift digs in a day, no problem. Unless Byerly takes you off my hands.” Ivan Xav fluttered his fingers, to demonstrate their potential Rish‑free state.
Rish sat up in her sheets and stared at him. “But we’re leaving.”
“ When are we leaving?” she asked.
“That’s kind of up to ImpSec. They haven’t called.”
“But they could. At any time.”
“So what about this divorce ceremony you two have to go through before we can lift off?”
Tej perched on the couch’s padded arm, and said, “Ivan Xav said it would only take ten minutes.”
“Yeah, but how long do you have to stand in line to get the ten minutes? Is there a waiting list for that, too?”
“And how does it really work?” said Tej, unwillingly prodded into wondering. “I mean, in detail?” He’d never said. But then, she hadn’t thought to ask. They’d been busy.
“Hm,” said Ivan Xav, sticking his toothbrush into his T‑shirt pocket and sinking down into a chair. “The thing we have to do is fly up to the Vorpatril’s District on one of the days Falco is holding Count’s Court in person. He does that at least once a week, when he’s in the District, more if he has time. That’ll save a world of explanation. We go in, say Please, Falco, grant us a divorce, he says Right, you’re divorced. Done! bangs his courtly spear butt, and we skitter out.”
“Don’t you need lawyers and things?” said Rish.
“Shouldn’t think so. You’re not suing me for support, are you?” Ivan Xav asked Tej.
She shook her head. “No, just for a ride to Escobar, which The Gregor is giving us anyway.”
“If it’s something this Count Falco only does once a week, for a whole District‑how many people are in the Vorpatril’s District, anyway?” said Rish.
“I dunno. Millions?”
“How does one man play judge to millions of people?” asked Rish, astonished.
“He doesn’t, of course. He’s got a whole District justice department, with all kinds of sub‑territorial divisions for cities and towns and right on down to the Village Speaker level. But he keeps a hand in for the political symbolism of it, and to sample what his people really have to say. Most counts do, even Uncle Aral when he’s home. Which isn’t very often, true.”
“Hadn’t you better check his schedule?” asked Rish, sounding a trifle exasperated. “In case ImpSec calls with our ride, oh, say, tomorrow morning?”
“Um. Yeah, maybe…” said Ivan Xav, and lumbered off reluctantly to his comconsole. He was gone for a long time.
When he came back, he looked sheepish. “In fact, Falco’s Count’s Court docket is packed for months out. If that fast courier opening comes up sooner, I’ll have to pull personal strings. Which I can do, but would rather avoid if I can. Because the thing about me owing a big favor to Falco is, he’ll collect. And grin while he’s doing it. But I put us on the court’s waiting list‑they say they sometimes get last‑minute openings, which they fill first‑come, first‑served.” He took a breath. “Your protection won’t be withdrawn till you’re safe on Escobar, anyway, regardless of when we do this divorce deal.”
Rish nodded. Tej felt…odd.
They were going to Escobar, in theory, to take up a new life under new identities. Lady Vorpatril was certainly a new identity, enjoying a safety that didn’t rely on obscurity… No. Stick to the plan. Without the plan, they had no anchor at all; it was the last lifeline her parents had thrown to her, as they went down with their House.
Worried that Tej might be a little homesick, Ivan stopped on the way back to his flat one afternoon and found a brand‑new Great House set, with six player panels. If he’d had any doubt that Rish was Byerly’s assignment as well as his hobby, it was put to rest by By’s apparent willingness to devote several evenings in a row to a children’s game, if, admittedly, a fast‑moving, complex, and strangely addictive one. It didn’t help that By took to it so well, he was soon giving the born Jacksonians real competition, leaving Ivan to bring up the rear time and time again.
But Ivan found Morozov’s other way of winning at Great House to carry over, too. As one friendly anecdote followed another, in the relaxation and triggering reminders of the old game, Ivan learned a great deal about Tej’s upbringing as a real Jacksonian Great House baron’s daughter, apparently much doted‑upon by her powerful Dada. Ivan traded with a few tales out of school, himself. Only Byerly did not contribute to the exchange, although Ivan was sure he was sucking it all in. But they were in the middle of a round of Great House when Ivan finally learned the real relationship of the late Baronne, her children, and her Jewels.
“Even‑sister and odd‑sister?” said Tej. “We call each other that because we are, more‑or‑less. Half‑siblings, at least. The Baronne used a lot of her own genome as a base to create the Jewels. Although not Dada’s, except for the Y chromosome for Onyx. In a way, Ruby was really the first, the Baronne’s prototype, so she claims to count as One, in a class by herself. Erik was the next first, and then Topaz, and Star, then Pearl, and then Pidge, and then Emerald, and then Amiri, and then Rish and then finally me, and right after me, Jet‑Onyx, that is. Odds and evens, see? It became a sort of family joke.” She sighed in memory. “Only now we’re all scattered. And Erik…I wish we could get some word about Topaz. I won’t say it’s worse, not knowing if she’s alive or not. But it’s…not good.”
Ivan stared open‑mouthed at Rish, who stared back in somewhat affronted dignity. “So you’re my sister‑in‑law?” He sat a moment, not so much in reflection as stunned‑like an ox that had just met a mallet. “That sure explains a lot…”
Byerly didn’t help by laughing like a loon.
“You could take some other course,” said Ivan Xav a week later, when Tej’s ground‑vehicle operation training had concluded in triumph, or at least not disaster, and left her with a certification giving her the freedom of the city‑if she could, first, borrow a vehicle, and second, wedge through the traffic. Bubble‑tube systems were being retrofitted in some areas, but the installation was evidently slow, plagued with problems. It sometimes seemed to Tej as if this entire planet was in process of being retrofitted.
“There are three major universities and over a dozen colleges and who knows how many tech schools in this town,” Ivan Xav went on. “They have courses for everything. Well, maybe not licensed practicing sexuality whats‑its, but given the way the conservative crowd complains, that may be next. You’re smart. You could pick anything you liked.”
Tej contemplated this offer, both uneasy and enticed. “I always had tutors, before. I never chose my own, like, off a menu.”
“It might be a way for you to meet more people, too,” Ivan Xav speculated. “I should really introduce you to more than the Koudelka girls, come to think. All the women I know have women friends‑to excess, sometimes.” He paused for thought. “There’s Tatya Vorbretten, though she’s up to her ears in infants right now, as bad as Ekaterin and Delia. Tattie Vorsmythe? She was always fun, despite her strange taste in men. Not sure who all Mamere could suggest, of the younger generation. She used to know lots of Vor maidens, daughters of her cronies, y’know, but they mostly seem to have gotten married and moved along.”
This mental search for names was interrupted when he went to answer his comconsole. When he came back, he looked stricken.
“Bad news?” asked Tej, sitting up on the couch and setting aside her reader.
“No, not…not really. It was the Clerk’s office at the Vorpatril District Court. Says they had a case fall off Falco’s docket for the first afternoon of next week, and did I want the slot? I, uh…said yes. Because God knows when there’ll be another, y’know?”
“Oh, excellent,” said Rish, wandering in from the kitchen with a fresh mug of tea in her hand in time to hear this. “One more chore out of the way.”
“Oh,” Tej echoed hollowly. “Yeah. Good.”
It was like some weird sort of honeymoon in reverse, Ivan thought. Taking a personal day’s leave from Ops left him facing a three‑day weekend, not something to waste. So Ivan seized the chance to show Tej more of Barrayar while he could, outside of the hectic confines of the capital. Rish, upon finding that her witness was not required, elected to stay behind under the loose supervision of Byerly, and just how loose that might be, Ivan wasn’t asking, gift horses and all that. It left him with a great chance for a real get‑away with Tej, just the two of them at last.
It was not the season for tourists in the northeastern coastal District traditionally held by the Vorpatril counts. As his lightflyer beat its way up the shoreline against a cold sea wind, Ivan explained to Tej, “People come up here from the south in the summer to escape the heat. Then go back down in the winter to find it again. If there’s time, maybe I could take you down to see the south coast, too.” Time. There wasn’t enough time. Yes, the marriage was supposed to have been temporary. But not bleeding instantaneous.
He took a detour over the rural territory, to give Tej an idea of the extent of it. A few areas of early snow, just inland, proved no novelty to her, as Jackson’s Whole was apparently temperate all the way to the equator, with large and barren polar regions. Happily, the snow covered up the last few biocide blights lingering from the Occupation. But a little way up the coast past the summer resort town of Bonsanklar, Good Saint Claire in one of the old tongues, lay a cozy little inn specializing in the Vor trade, fondly remembered from a few visits in Ivan’s youth. It was still there, perhaps a little shabbier, but just as cozy. He and Tej managed one walk on the pebbled beach before darkness drove them indoors; the next day it rained, but their end room boasted its own fireplace, food service, and no reason to go out. None at all.
Far too soon the next morning, they were back in his lightflyer, threading their way upriver to the Vorpatril District capital city of New Evias.
“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to call him,” said Tej, peering anxiously ahead out the front canopy. “Count Vorpatril or Count Falco? And if only his heir is Lord Vorpatril, why are you Lord Vorpatril too, or are you?”
“All right, I’ll try to explain it. Again,” said Ivan. “There are the Counts and their heirs, political heirs. Count Vorwho, Lord Vorwho, Lord Firstname‑the firstborn males‑like Aral, Miles, and Sasha, all right?”
“That, I got.”
“Any other siblings of Lord Firstname, like Sasha’s twin Lady Helen, get to stick on a Lord or Lady in front of their names too, as a courtesy title. Whether they drool or not. But those titles aren’t inherited in the next generation. So we have a case like By, whose grandfather was a count, whose father was a younger son and so Lord Firstname, and then Byerly, who is just Vorrutyer, the Vor part standing in for any other honorific. So you’d never introduce him as Mister or Monsieur Vorrutyer, just as Vorrutyer. Although his wife, if he had one, would be Madame Vorrutyer, and his sister, before she married, was Mademoiselle Vorrutyer.”
“All right,” said Tej, more doubtfully.
“Then, just to confuse the tourists, there are a bunch more Lord Vorlastnames running around, like me, who have the title as a permanent inheritance even though we aren’t in line for any Districts. My grandfather, who was just a younger grandson of that generation’s Count Vorpatril and so didn’t even rate a Lord Firstname, was given his when he married Princess Sonia, as some sort of prize, I guess.”
“Oh,” said Tej, fainter but still valiant. “But…”
“Those are the correct formal titles. Then we come to casual conversation. Falco, or Aral, would be Falco or Aral to their close friends and cronies, wives, and what‑not. But I’d never call ’em that; it would be Count Falco or Count Aral, sort of like Uncle Aral. Informal but not so familiar or intimate, y’see? And also useful when there are a bunch of people with the same last name in the conversation, to keep straight which is which. So my mother gets called Lady Alys a lot, because there’s another Lady Vorpatril in town, Falco’s daughter‑in‑law, as well as his Countess Vorpatril. Er, and you, now.”
“But…I’m not intimate with the same people you’re intimate with‑so I can’t just copy you, can I?”
“Keep it simple,” advised Ivan. “Just call him Count Vorpatril or Sir, unless he tells you otherwise. And still call him Count Vorpatril when we’re actually in his court, because that’s very formal, see?” He added after a moment, “I sure plan to.”
The outskirts of New Evias hove into view, and Ivan had to give over his lightflyer’s control to the municipal traffic computer. New Evias was maybe one‑tenth the size of Vorbarr Sultana, but perhaps for that very reason, more uniformly modernized. In any case, the control system brought them down neatly into one of the few empty circles painted atop the parking garage next to the assorted District offices of justice. The targeting was accurate to within, oh, twenty centimeters or so. Or thirty. Ivan rubbed his jaw, made sure Tej hadn’t bitten her tongue or anything in the hard landing, and escorted her out.
Count Falco Vorpatril sat in judgment, as had several equally stodgy ancestors before him, in one of the few remaining Time‑of‑Isolation public buildings still left standing in downtown New Evias. The structure’s musty legal smell seemed to be ageless. Tej, who had grown very silent, perked up at the dark woodwork and elaborate stone carving gracing the architecture. “Now, this really looks like Barrayar,” she said. Ivan was gratified.
In a second‑floor corridor, they encountered, prematurely, the count himself, who seemed to be on his way back from lunch.
“Ivan, my boy!” Falco hailed them.
He was still white‑haired, stout, jovial‑like a sly Father Frost with a hidden agenda. Falco was nothing if not a political survivor, Conservative by inclination, Centrist by calculation. He wore the formal Vorpatril House uniform of dark blue and gold, which adapted itself to his contours much as he adapted himself to the political landscape. A clerk bearing an electronic case filer stamped with the Vorpatril crest dogged his steps, obsequiously. Falco eyed Tej in open appreciation as they stopped and he strolled up.
“Sir.” Ivan came to attention. “May I introduce my wife, Lady Tej?”
“Indeed, you may.” Count Falco shook Tej’s hand, aborting a vague attempt on her part at a curtsey. “I’ve heard about you, young lady.”
“How do you do, Count Vorpatril, sir,” said Tej. Loading it all in, just in case, Ivan guessed.
“Talk with Mamere, did you, sir?” Ivan hazarded.
“Quite an entertaining talk, yes.”
“Oh, good, that’ll save a shipload of time.” Ivan squeezed Tej’s hand. “See, didn’t I say it’ll be fine?” Tej smiled gratefully and squeezed back, huddling closer. Ivan slipped a supporting arm around her waist.
Falco smiled benignly. “Countess Vorpatril was very curious about your nuptials, Ivan,” he went on, tapping Ivan familiarly on the chest with one broad finger. “She’d like to hear about them from you, by preference. We will both be down to the capital later in the week, note, where you may find her at Vorpatril House at the usual hours. You are behindhand on your courtesy visit, head of the clan and all that.”
“It’s only a temporary marriage, sir, as I hope Mamere explained? To rescue Tej from some, um, legal complications on Komarr. Which worked fine, all right and tight‑got her all fixed up, free of them. Now we just have to get her free of me, and she’ll be, um…free.”
The clerk touched his wristcom, indicating time issues, and Count Falco gave him an acknowledging wave. “Yes, yes, I know. Well, good luck to you both…”
Falco toddled off down the corridor to the back door of his chambers. Ivan led Tej in the opposite direction, where they found the waiting area. Another clerk took their names, and left them to wait.
Tej circled the room, eyeing the woodwork and the items decorating the walls, mostly historical artifacts and prints, then stood studying the big wall viewer displaying successive scans of New Evias and rural District scenes since the Time of Isolation.
Ivan, too, rose after a while, because sitting was becoming unbearable, and studied the woodwork, or pretended to. “I’m glad they didn’t just knock this old place down like most of the rest of it. Makes it feel like our past isn’t just something to be thrown on a scrap heap, now we’re all turning galactic, y’know?”
This brought a smile to Tej’s lips, one of the few in the past hours. “Is that what you Barrayarans think you’re doing?”
But before Ivan could figure out a reply, the clerk returned to say, “Captain and Lady Vorpatril? Your case is up next.”
The clerk led them down the hall to Falco’s hearings chamber. They stood aside to let a group, no, two groups of people exit, one set looking elated, the other downcast and grumpy. The wood‑paneled room was surprisingly small, and, to Ivan’s relief, uncrowded: just Falco and his clerk sitting at a desk on a raised dais; a couple of desks toward the front, where a woman lawyer was gathering up what appeared to be stacks of yellowing physical documents dating back to the Time of Isolation, along with her electronic case book; some empty backless benches bolted to the floor; and, by the door, an elderly sergeant‑at‑arms in a Vorpatril District uniform. The sergeant received Ivan and Tej from the clerk, who departed again, presumably to deal with whoever next needed to wait, and directed them to the empty tables.
“Um, should be one of you at each of these,” he said doubtfully, “and your respective counsels.”
“I’ll be out of here in just a moment,” said the lawyer, stacking faster.
“We’re skipping the counsel,” said Ivan. “Don’t need it.”
“And we’d rather sit together,” said Tej. Ivan nodded, and they both slipped behind the empty desk. Ivan let his hand dangle down between their uncomfortable wooden chairs, and Tej slid hers into it. Her fingers felt cold and bloodless, not at all like her usual self.
Count Falco lifted his head from some low‑voiced consultation with his recording clerk, then made a sign to the sergeant‑at‑arms, who turned to the room and announced formally: “Next case, Captain Lord Ivan Xav Vorpatril versus Lady…” The sergeant paused and looked down at a slip in his hand, his lips moving. They rounded in doubt; he finally settled on, “His wife, Lady Vorpatril.”
The lawyer, about to make her exit, instead turned around and slid onto one of the back benches, her chin lifting in arrested curiosity. Ivan decided to ignore her.
The recording clerk leaned over, grasped an ancient cavalry spear bearing a blue‑and‑gold pennant that leaned drunkenly against the table edge, tapped its butt loudly in its wooden rest, and intoned, “Your Count is listening. Complainants please step forward.”
Tej looked at Ivan in panic; Count Falco leaned forward and encouraged them to their feet with a little crooking of his hands. A charitable pointing of one thick finger indicated where they should stand. Ivan and Tej stood and shuffled to a spot beneath his countly eye, holding hands very tightly.
The clerk observed into his recorder, “Petition for the dissolution of a marriage number six‑five‑five‑seven‑eight, oaths originally taken”‑he gave the date of that mad scramble in Ivan’s rental flat‑“Solstice Dome, Komarr.”
Ivan wasn’t sure whether to think, Wait, was it only a month ago? or Is it a whole month already? It had not been like any other month of his acquaintance, anyway.
“So…” Falco laced his hands together and stared down at Ivan and Tej for a long, thoughtful moment. Ivan, rendered uneasy by the sheer geezerish Falco‑ness of his expression, edged closer to Tej.
Falco leaned back in his chair. “So, Captain Vorpatril, Lady Vorpatril. On what grounds do you petition this court for release from your spoken oaths?”
Ivan blinked. “Grounds, sir?” he hazarded.
“What is, or are, the substances of your complaint or complaints against each other?”
“It was understood from the beginning to be a temporary deal.”
“Yet you took permanent oath all the same.”
“Er, yes, sir?”
“Do you happen to be able to remember what you said?”
“Repeat it for the court, please?”
Ivan did so, stumbling less than he had the first time, and leaving out the of sound mind and body part because he was afraid the lady lawyer would laugh.
Falco turned to Tej. “Is that as you also remember it, Lady Vorpatril?”
“Yes, sir, Count Vorpatril.” She glanced at Ivan, and ventured, “So what are the usual grounds for divorce on Barrayar, Count Vorpatril, sir?”
Falco folded his arms on his desk, smiling toothily. “Well, let’s just run down the list, shall we? Did either of you, at the time of your marriage, bear a concealed mutation?”
Tej’s eyebrows rose, for a moment almost haughty. Or haut‑like. “I was gene‑cleaned at conception, certified free of over five thousand potential defects.”
“Mm, no doubt. And the Cetagandan element has undergone recent revision of precedent here, so that won’t count either. Besides, I believe Ivan knew of your ancestry?”
“Yes, sir, Count Vorpatril, sir.”
“Ivan?” Falco prodded.
“Huh?” Ivan started. “Oh, you know I’m fine, sir!”
“So we all have long hoped,” Falco murmured. “Well, that disposes of that issue. Next, adultery. Do either of you accuse the other of adultery?”
“There’s hardly been time, sir!” said Ivan indignantly.
“You would be amazed at the tales I have heard upon this dais. Lady Tej?”
“No, Count Vorpatril, sir.”
Falco paused. “Ah…or admit to it?”
They both shook their heads. Tej looked peeved. “Really!” she whispered to Ivan.
“Well, let’s see, what next. Desertion, obviously not. Nonsupport?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?” said Tej.
“Does your spouse supply you with adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care?”
“Oh‑yes, sir! Abundantly. Vorbarra Sultana cuisine is just amazing! I’ve gained a kilo since we got here. Lady Vorpatril’s dresser helped me find the right clothes, Ivan’s flat is very nice, and medical issues, um, haven’t come up.”
“We’d cover it,” Ivan assured her. “Whatever it was. God forbid, of course.”
“And I see you, too, are looking quite healthy, Captain Vorpatril…hm, hm. What else do we have here.” Falco… made play, Ivan was sure, of consulting some notes. Does he do this performance for every divorce petition, or are we special?
“Abuse‑physical, mental, emotional?”
“Sir?” said Tej, staring up in palpable confusion.
“Does your husband beat you?”
“Do you beat him?”
“No!” said Ivan. “Good grief, sir!”
“Does he insult you?”
“Certainly not!” Their voices overlapped on that one.
“Does Ivan restrict your mobility, your choices, your access to your family or friends?”
“He got me a groundcar permit, I have more choices than I know what to do with, and my family”‑Tej bit her lip‑“is out of reach for other reasons. Sir.”
“Ah. Yes,” said Falco. “Pardon an old Barrayaran’s clumsiness.”
“Sir.” Tej, startled and clearly moved by this apology, returned an uncertain nod. “There’s Rish. She’s the closest thing to family I have left. She lives with us.”
“So, we must cross off abuse, as well. What about denial of marital rights?”
“Sir?” said Tej. “What does that mean, in Barrayaran?”
Falco smiled. “When was the last time you had sex?” he clarified.
“Oh! This morning, sir.” Tej thought for a moment, then volunteered, “It was really good.”
Two snickers sounded from the back of the room. Ivan did not deign to turn his head.
“ And congratulations, Ivan,” Falco murmured under his breath.
You wily old bastard, why are you yanking us around like this? Ivan thought, but did not dare say it aloud.
“And so, what are we down to, here,” said Falco. “Hm, hm. Denial of children?”
Tej looked taken aback. “We’ve never discussed it.”
“It’s only a temporary marriage, sir,” Ivan said. “Children would be, er, rather permanent.”
“So we all hope and pray,” said Falco.
Tej twisted a strand of her hair in doubt. “Though I suppose if Ivan Xav wanted an egg donation, something could be arranged. My mother sold eggs, when she and my father were first married. To raise venture capital.”
Ivan rather thought all of the Barrayarans in the room blinked at this, even the ones behind him. He would not look around.
Falco recovered his balance and continued, “So, that one does not hold up, either. I’m afraid we’re reaching the bottom of my legal barrel here, Captain and Lady Vorpatril. Do either of you have anything else to offer?”
“But,” said Tej, in a confused voice, “it was the deal!”
“Yeah, there you go, sir!” said Ivan. “Breach‑of‑promise. That’s some kind of illegal, isn’t it?”
Falco’s bushy white eyebrows climbed. “Breach‑of‑promise, Ivan, is where an expectation of marriage is denied, not where an expectation of divorce is denied. Also, the complainant has to show palpable harm.” He looked them both over and just shook his head.
The clerk passed Falco a swiftly‑scribbled note. He squinted, read it, and nodded. “Do either of you make any financial claims upon the other?”
“No,” said Tej, and “No,” said Ivan.
“Now, that is interesting. And nearly unique, if I may say so.” Falco sat back, sighing. At length, his tapping fingers stilled. He drew a breath. “It is the ruling of this Count’s Court that the respondents, Lord Ivan Xav Vorpatril and Lady Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua Vorpatril, have no grounds for the dissolution of their respective, freely spoken marital oaths. Your petition is denied. Case closed.”
The clerk reached over and banged the spear butt in its rest with two loud, echoing clacks.
Tej’s mouth had fallen open. Ivan was so stunned he could scarcely suck in air to sputter. “But, but, but…you can’t do that, sir!”
“Of course I can,” said Falco serenely. “That’s what I come here every session to do, in case you missed the turn, Ivan. Sit, listen to people, form and deliver judgments.” His smile stretched, endlessly it seemed. “I do this quite a lot, you know,” Falco confided to Tej. “Sometimes I begin to imagine I’ve heard it all, yet every once in a while there’s still some new surprise. Human beings are so endlessly variable.”
“But didn’t you say you’d talked to my mother?” said Ivan desperately.
“Oh, yes. At great length.” Falco leaned forward for the last time, his expression chilling down, and for a moment Ivan was conscious that he stood not before an elderly relative, but a count of Barrayar. “These are some words not from your mother. Do not ever again attempt to play fast and loose with solemn oaths in any jurisdiction of mine, Captain and Lady Vorpatril. If you should in the future acquire grounds for your petition, you may again bring it, but my court‑which is very busy, I must point out, and has no time for frivolous suits‑will not hear you again on the same matter in less than one‑half year.”
“But,” moaned Ivan, still in shock. Even he wasn’t sure but what.
Falco made a finger‑flicking gesture. “ Out, Ivan. Good day, Lady Tej. Countess Vorpatril hopes to see you both at Vorpatril House in the near future.”
Count Falco jerked his head at the sergeant‑at‑arms, who came forward and grasped Ivan by the sleeve, towing him gently but inexorably toward the door. Tej followed, bewilderment in every line of her body. A mob of people waiting to enter shouldered impatiently past them as they cleared the doorframe and stood, directionless, in the corridor, and the sergeant‑at‑arms turned his attention to herding the newcomers toward their respective benches. The door closed on the babble, although it opened again in a moment to emit the lawyer, papers and files stacked in her arms.
She twisted around her stack and reached into her case to extract a card, which she handed to Ivan. “My number, Captain.”
Ivan took it in numb fingers. “Is this…if we want legal advice?”
“No, love. It’s for if you ever want a date.” She trod away up the hall, laughing. By the time she reached the far end of the corridor, the echoes had died, but then she glanced back and her un‑lawyerly giggles burst forth once more as she turned down the stairwell.
Holding onto each other like two people drowning, Ivan and Tej staggered out of the archaic building and into watery early‑winter sunlight. Apparently, still married.
At least I was right about one thing, Ivan thought. It did only take ten minutes.
Tej paced up and down Ivan Xav’s living room. Ivan Xav sat with a drink in his hands, occasionally putting it down in favor of holding his head, instead. Rish perched on the couch with her feet drawn up, listening to their tale; at first with gratifying disbelief, then with increasing and much less gratifying impatience, which was now edging into exasperation.
“I still can’t believe that one old man, who wasn’t even there, could cancel out my deal like that!” fumed Tej. “I thought this was supposed to be all fixed up in advance!”
“It was, it seems‑but not by me,” said Ivan Xav, sounding morose. “That was my first mistake, going to someone who knows Mamere. We should have taken this to some judge who didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, let alone since childhood. Total strangers wouldn’t have known what the hell was going on, and might have let us just slide on through.”
“So what do you have to do?” said Rish. “To provide these grounds they want.”
Ivan Xav shook his head. “Divorce turns out to be a lot of work. Way more than I thought.”
“There has to be something. Let’s go down your list again,” said Rish in an annoyingly reasonable tone, squaring her shoulders. “Mutation. Couldn’t one of you pretend to be a mutant? Well, not Tej, I suppose. But the captain here is just a natural conception‑a body‑birth, if you can believe it! Run him through an exhaustive enough gene scan, something would be bound to turn up that you could pretend to object to.”
“No!” said Ivan Xav, incensed. “Besides, it would go down on the court’s public record. Think what it would do to my reputation! Dear God, I’d never get laid on this planet again.”
Rish tilted her head in concession. “All right, so what about this adultery thing? Which I gather isn’t about being a grownup, something we could probably use around here, but about sleeping with someone when you’re married to someone else. Sounds easy enough. Pleasurable, even.”
“Who with, for pity’s sake?” said Tej. “The only other male I even know very well on this benighted world is Byerly.”
Ivan Xav set down his drink with a thunk that sloshed it over the edge of the glass. “You are not sleeping with Byerly.”
“Who else have I even met here? Well, there’s The Coz and The Gregor, I suppose, but be reasonable. Anyway, they’re both taken.” Tej added after a moment, “And Simon Illyan was very nice, too, but no. Just no. Just…no.”
“No,” said Ivan Xav. “So many kinds of no, I can’t even count the ways.”
“That’s what I just said.” Tej eyed him in speculation. “I don’t suppose you could sleep with Byerly…?”
“Only if I can watch,” murmured Rish.
“ No! ” said Ivan Xav. “ Nobody is sleeping with Byerly, all right?”
Frostily, Rish cleared her throat.
Ivan Xav waved his arms. “You know what I mean. Neither Tej nor I are sleeping with Byerly. Separately or together.”
“A foursome, now there’s a thought,” purred Rish. “You know, I bet we could persuade By to‑”
“Stop teasing poor Ivan Xav, Rish,” said Tej. He was getting an alarming flush. “If you can’t say something to the point, just give over.”
Rish looked at Ivan Xav. “Don’t you have any old girlfriends you could call on for a favor?”
“Sure, but they’re mostly married now. Even Dono, and Olivia would‑never mind. Jealous husbands…spouses…I figured I was done dealing with that kind of excitement in my life. It’s just no fun anymore, y’know? Hasn’t been for a while.”
Both women stared at him in bemused silence; after a moment, he stirred uncomfortably and took another swallow of his wine.
Rish sat back. “What else was there? Oh yes, abuse.”
“I am not beating Tej.” Ivan Xav glowered at Rish. “You, I’m less and less sure about.”
Rish snickered. “You couldn’t lay a hand on me if you tried, natural‑boy.”
Ivan Xav sighed, avoiding conceding the point. “Besides, it’d get me in so much trouble with so many people‑after Mamere, Uncle Aral, and Aunt Cordelia‑and Simon‑there’d be Miles and Ekaterin and all the Koudelka girls lining up to deal with the remains‑ and their mother‑ and Gregor, and Desplains‑God, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to carry to court in a bucket. Hell, a teacup.” Ivan Xav sat back in what, had he been of another gender, Tej would not have hesitated to describe as a flounce. A little too large and surly for the term, here.
Rish turned her head toward Tej. “That leaves it up to you.”
“But I don’t want to hit Ivan Xav! I want to kiss Ivan Xav.”
“Try it,” urged Rish. “Just for the experiment.” Her gold eyes glinted.
Reluctantly, at Rish’s gesture, Ivan Xav put down his drink and stood up. Tej bunched her hand, drew it back, and poked him in the solar plexus. Her fist made a little fump sound, bouncing off his heavy uniform jacket.
Ivan Xav just stared glumly at her. “What was that supposed to be…?”
“It’s really hard,” Tej protested. “When you don’t want to. Besides, it would hurt my hand.”
“Bloody Falco,” muttered Ivan Xav, sitting back down and retrieving his drink, which he drained.
Rish ran her hands through her hair in a ragged swipe. “Look. Think. You’re both making this too hard by trying to do the divorce thing first. It’s not necessary. Desertion, wasn’t that one of the grounds? Tej and I go off to Escobar, change our identities, disappear, you’re got your desertion right there. Tootle back to court on your own, get it done. You don’t have to drag us into it at all.”
“There are time limits about that sort of thing,” said Ivan Xav. “Three or four years, or was it seven? Or was that for declaring someone dead…?” He frowned in doubt.
“What does that mean?” asked Tej. “In Barrayaran.”
“It means that even though you were gone, I’d still be married to you. For several more years. I couldn’t, say, remarry in that time. Or even become betrothed, I suppose.”
“Oh,” said Tej. “That’s right, this place only lets people have one spouse at a time, doesn’t it? That wouldn’t be a good problem to dump on you, would it. You might meet someone you liked…” A strangely unheartening picture. Didn’t she want him to be happy?
Ivan Xav, on the other hand, sat up, brightening a trifle. “That actually could be more of a feature than a bug, come to think. My mother couldn’t very well lean on me to seriously court other women if I was already married, huh? Yeah, that docking slot would be all filled up.” His brow wrinkled. “Not sure what it would do to my hit rate, though…”
“In that case,” said Rish, rolling to her feet, “I hereby declare this a non‑emergency, and would appreciate it if you two would clear my bedroom. Some of us want to sleep.”
Ivan Xav appeared to give this serious consideration. “Yeah, Miles goes all frantic and forward‑momentum‑y when he hits a snag in his plans, but I usually prefer to give it a bit of time. Maybe there’ll be a better idea come along, or the problem will change, or, if you wait long enough, even go away on its own, without having to do anything. If people don’t keep poking at it, that is.”
“Time would certainly do the trick, sure,” said Rish cordially. “I figure it would only take, oh, you’re a natural‑maybe sixty more years? Unless you die sooner in a groundcar crash, that is.”
Ivan Xav said, in a faraway voice, “Yeah, that would be the line of least resistance, now, wouldn’t it…?”
Rish shook her head. “Go to bed. Screw what’s left of your brains out, deal with it again in the morning. Or some other time when I don’t have to listen to you two.” She departed to collect her bedding from the linen closet in the dressing room.
Ivan Xav stood up and took Tej’s hand, warm in his warmer one. “Best advice she’s offered all night. Let’s just…give it a rest. Maybe something else will come up.”
As the week wore on, Ivan contemplated the merits of inertia as a problem‑solving technique with growing favor. Desplains kept him only normally occupied during his workdays, there being no real crises at Ops this week, and Ivan being quite unmoved by now by all the synthetic ones, although he did garner some enjoyment selecting snarky return memos. In the mornings, Tej continued her language studies, or games, as she seemed to insist on thinking of them, alternated with afternoon visits along with Rish to Ma Kosti. Even better, they brought back culinary homework. Ivan surreptitiously let his uniform belt out one notch.
Byerly continued to carry off Rish most evenings, a public service to which Ivan could muster no objection. The Creatures of the Night, as he began to think of them, returned at varied hours. He didn’t mind it if Rish came in quietly, although he was less fond of stumbling over Byerly at breakfast.
As Ivan was scarfing down his morning groats standing, prior to toddling off to Ops HQ, Byerly, en dishabille in shirtsleeves but slightly less bleary than usual, sipped his tea and remarked, “Interesting chit‑chat last night about you and Tej. From Jon Vorkeres, of all people. Countess Vorbretten’s little brother, y’know.”
Ivan frowned, glad he’d left Tej sleeping. She didn’t need to hear anything poisonous. “What was he doing in one of your venues?”
“Hey, not all of my venues are a hazard to the morality of our Vor youth. Else I should have gently steered him out. Jon says that gossip among certain of the more fossilized high Vor dames in town is that your surprise marriage is a disaster for Lady Alys, for all that she feigns otherwise. That Tej’s haut genes and connections would render any progeny you two might pop utterly disqualified for the Imperial camp stool, should, God forbid, anything untoward happen to Gregor et al. And, presumably, you disqualified along with them, unless you could be persuaded to some second marital attempt, I suppose.”
Ivan choked on his groats. “Seriously?”
“Very seriously. Count Rene Vorbretten is keeping his jaw clamped shut on the discussion, naturally.” Byerly eyed him sidelong.
Ivan’s brows climbed as the full import of this slowly sank in. “Huh. That’s an advantage that hadn’t crossed my mind, but you’re right!” The corners of his mouth tugged up. “Me and my children, ducking right out of the Vorbarr Sultana political crossfire‑oh, superb. Have to point that out to Mamere, next time I see her. It would cheer her up no end.”
Byerly took a delicate sip, and inquired, “What children?”
Ivan reddened. “Uh…”
Byerly patted his lips‑curving in the most maddening way‑with his napkin, but did not pursue the point.
It was only as he was entering Ops that it occurred to Ivan that Byerly had been watching his reaction for more reasons than just sly personal amusement. No, dammit, I have never wanted Gregor’s job! He almost turned around right there and then to go find By and a body of water to hold his head under till he stopped thinking like that.
“I bought these bells for my ankles,” said Tej to Rish, holding them up and shaking them. They made a cheery chime‑tuned to chords, not just randomly dissonant. “If we pushed the furniture back, there’d be room for a real dance practice. I could take Jet’s part. Keep the beat for you.”
Rish wheeled, sizing up Ivan Xav’s living room. “I suppose we could try. I have an hour or so till By comes to get me.”
They skinned into their knits and collaborated on shoving sofas and chairs around, clearing a nice, wide space on the carpet. An afternoon without Ma Kosti was an afternoon when boredom and brooding loomed, but Tej had thought ahead, this time. As they began their bends and stretches, Tej asked as‑if‑casually, “So. By, again. What do you and he do every night, anyway?”
Rish’s lips twitched. “Really, Tej, you had the same erotic arts tutors that I did. Use your imagination.”
“I mean besides that.” Tej tossed her head impatiently, then had to blow stray hair out of her mouth. “What does he talk about? I mean, when he’s not just camouflaging?”
“If his mouth is moving, he’s camouflaging,” said Rish. But added after a few torso‑twists, “Usually.”
“Ah?” When this encouraging noise did not pry out further clarification, Tej tried, “Do you still like him?”
“Well…he hasn’t stopped being interesting, yet.”
Tej dared, “Do you love him?”
Rish snorted. “He’s not the warm and fuzzy sort, sweetling.”
“Neither are you.”
Rish’s ambiguous smile crept a tiny bit wider, before she hid her expression in some toe‑touches. “I did meet his infamous cousin Dono, in passing. At a party where By had gone to gossip.”
“I thought he wasn’t on speaking terms with his family?”
“Apparently Count Dono Vorrutyer is an exception to the general trend‑he laughed when By introduced me. Delighted, apparently, by a Vorrutyer being even more shocking than himself. Herself. Whatever.” A few overhead reaches. “Still, By hasn’t spoken to his father for eighteen years, his mother has been estranged from everyone for a decade and barely communicates, and By secretly helped ImpSec put his even more obnoxious cousin Richars in prison. With cause. No love lost there. On the whole, not a close‑knit clan.”
“Oh?” Tej raised her arms and her eyebrows, waggling both.
A long pause, while Rish stretched hamstrings. “ In vino veritas, By calls it,” she said at last. “Like some primitive native fast‑penta. Except By is almost never as drunk as he appears. If he’s slurring and staggering, he’s certainly spinning out lines to catch something. When he’s actually smashed, his diction gets very precise and distant, like…like a scientist reporting the results of an unsatisfactory experiment. It’s oddly disturbing.”
Tej sat on the floor with her legs out, put her hands behind her head, and bent to touch her elbows to her knees. And waited, not in vain.
Her voice and movements slowing, Rish went on, “We were watching some old vids of the Jewels’ performances that ImpSec came up with, and testing out some really dreadful Barrayaran inebriants. Which got us onto the subject of sisters, somehow, which got us onto the subject of his younger sister…It seems they were very close when they were teens‑By fancied himself quite the brotherly protector. Till their father, as a result of some vile report he had from who‑knows‑where, accused By of molesting her. And went on believing it, despite the pair of them protesting to the rafters. By says he was more enraged at his father for swallowing the smear than he ever was at the anonymous clown who made it. Which was when he left school and came east to the capital. I’m not sure if you can disinherit your parents, but it seems that break was mutual.”
Rish stood on one foot, bent backward, and touched the sole of the other to the back of her head, then alternated. Tej merely essayed a few less ambitious back‑bends, while she thought this through. She finally collapsed to the carpet and asked, “What in the world did you trade to him for that confession?”
“I’m not at all sure,” said Rish, in a tone that frankly echoed this wonder. “But he was enunciating very clearly, just before he passed out.”
Tej squinted. “Puts rather a different spin on his choice of careers, maybe?”
“I think, yeah. At first I thought he was in it for the money, and then for the mischief, and then I figured both of those were covers for this crazy Barrayaran patriotism all these Vor fellows go on and on about. Then I thought maybe it was for revenge, for nailing the guilty. Now I wonder if this furtive obsession for sorting truth from lies is actually in aid of clearing the innocent.”
“That seems like two sides of one coin, to me.”
“Yeah, but it’s like the man bets tails, every time.”
“In which case…”
“He won’t give it up. No matter how much he despises the work. Or his subjects. Or himself.”
“Do you think…this planet. Barrayar. Since this divorce thing snagged up, what would you think of staying here? For a while. Longer.” Tej forced herself not to hold her breath.
Rish shrugged. “It’s been a more interesting place to visit than I would’ve imagined, but I wouldn’t want to live here. I want”‑she hesitated‑“what I had.”
“You miss the Jewels.” It wasn’t a question.
Rish stretched like a starfish on her back, then closed her arms and legs in tight. “As I would miss my limbs, amputated. I keep reaching, but they’re not there.”
Tej buckled the bell straps around her ankles, rose, and stamped. The bells sang back in a ragged chorus. “I’ll take Jet’s part,” she offered again. Keeping, somehow, the quaver out of her voice.
Rish rolled to her bare blue feet, kicked once in air, and took up her position. “Do your best.” She eyed Tej more closely. “Don’t worry, sweetling. I won’t abandon you on this benighted world. We’ll get out together.”
That’s not quite what I meant, Rish… Tej bit her lip, nodded, extended her arms, and bent her legs, taking up the complex rhythm at the hub of the wheel, heel‑and‑toe. The music and motion flowed up through her body and out her spiraling fingertips, as she turned to track her spinning partner around the circle’s rim.
Ivan encountered By in the lobby of his building, entering just ahead of him. “Hey, wait up,” he called, and By paused. Ivan shifted his dinner bag from hand to hand and asked, “You going up to see Rish?”
“We’re heading out for the evening, yes.”
They entered the up‑tube together. Ivan pictured himself demanding of By, What are your intentions toward my sister‑in‑law? in the best paterfamilias style, and winced. Trouble was, By might answer. But as they exited to the hallway outside Ivan’s flat, his steps slowed nonetheless. By stopped with him, looking his inquiry.
“About Rish. You’re not making her, like, fall in love with you or anything, are you? Because you could be reassigned or something, and have to drop her. And I don’t want to be stuck in a flat full of weeping, angry women, with no male to take it out on but me.”
By tilted his head in appreciation of this concern. “No, I seem to be on the case, at least until they decamp for Escobar. Has your, ah, non‑divorce affected the timetable on that?”
“I have no idea.”
“Have you asked?”
By was dressed in casual garb, not evening wear; planning a night in, not a night out, apparently. Ivan went on in covert hope, “So, ah…any chance that you’ll invite her to move in with you? Save steps and all that. Or that she’ll decide to move in with you?”
By’s hooded eyes grew amused. “The topic has not come up.”
“But you could make it come up. Couldn’t you? S’true, I’d rather hug a snake, but there’s no accounting for tastes.”
“S‑s‑s‑she is amazingly flexible,” By agreed. “I expect she could crush my skull with her thighs alone. Very talented thighs. I could be in danger of my life every time we go to bed. Just think of the obituary.”
Ivan heroically resisted the straight line, not to mention the spinning visions this comment engendered. “You could make her happy just by getting her off my couch.” Or off on my couch, I suppose. Except it was possible By already had. Dammit, I want my furniture back.
By snorted. “Happy? God, no, I couldn’t make her happy. Not in a thousand years.”
Ivan’s brows rose in surprise. “I don’t get it. She seems tolerably amused by you. I mean, you’ve made her laugh. I’ve heard her.”
By waved a dismissive hand. “She won’t be happy till she’s reunited with her odd sibs. The other Jewels. They’re more than just a troupe or a team, or even a family. I suspect something gengineered.”
Ivan’s nose wrinkled. “Are you suggesting they’re some sort of Cetagandan post‑human group mind or, or something?”
“No, not that. Definitely not, by her account of some of their arguments. Something much more visceral. I suspect some sort of kinesthetic biofeedback in play. It’s not at all obvious when you see her in isolation. You have to see her with the others.”
“Uh, when did this happen?”
“I had ImpSec Galactic Affairs scrounge me some recordings of the Jewels’s performances. It’s…no, it’s not clear. But it becomes subtly apparent, if you watch them over enough, that the Jewels were sustaining each other, somehow. But Rish alone is…starving isn’t the word. I don’t know what is.” By had forgotten to be smarmy, as his eyes narrowed in memory and thought.
“So what’s the difference?”
By’s hand reached out and closed, as if trying to grasp something elusive. “Rish with the Jewels looks like a woman with a beating heart. Rish in exile looks like…a woman with a muscle in her chest that pumps blood.”
Ivan tried to unravel this. “Y’know…I haven’t the least idea what you’re on about, By.”
By rubbed his forehead and laughed shortly. “Yeah, neither do I. You should watch the vids sometime, though.”
“Is Tej in any of ’em?”
They walked on; Ivan coded open his door. A sound of bells and rhythmic thumping wafted out.
They entered to find Tej and Rish engaged in some sort of vigorous dance practice. Tej spared Ivan a flashing smile, as she turned and stomped. She seemed to dance with every part of her, from her toes to her face; the expressive movements of her arms reminded him, for a moment, of the quaddies. The cadences moved through her generous flesh as though her body danced with itself, joyously. Ivan’s lips parted.
Rish, spotting By, glinted a grin like a sickle moon hung in an evening sky, and switched from spinning along around a wide circle like some planetary epicycle, to a kind of precise hand‑to‑hand‑to‑foot‑to‑foot rotation, a blue spider turning cartwheels. Ivan blinked dizzily as the grin rolled upside down with each turn.
“Now…now that’s just showing off,” he muttered to By.
For just a second, By grinned back, though not at him.
Tej, who seemed to be performing the same function as the drummer in a band backing the lead singer, brought the bells and thumps to a graceful closure. The two women stretched and made obeisance to each other, for all the world like two martial arts players completing a satisfactory round. Ivan wasn’t sure who’d won.
Rish waved at By and dashed toward the lav. “A quick shower, and I’ll be right with you.”
Ivan put the dinner bags down on the table and watched as Tej, arrestingly warm and breathless, sat on the carpet and began to unbuckle the ankle bells. By folded his arms and leaned against the wall, till Tej and Ivan drafted him to help pull furniture back into place. Ivan sighed meaningfully at his couch, but he wasn’t sure if By got the message. The Creatures absconded without dropping any further hints of their intentions, anyway.
All right, Ivan supposed he was slow. He’d been told so often enough by his assorted relatives, colleagues, and so‑called friends. But it wasn’t until tripping over the ankle bells on the way back from the lav in the night, and wrapping himself around a warm, squirmy, sleeping Tej, that the thought crossed his mind like a bright, evasive‑unhelpful‑shooting star.
So…how does a fellow ask his own wife to marry him…?
It took him a long time to fall asleep again, after that.
“Tej? Tej!” A hand shook her shoulder; Tej swam up out of slumber. A dim yellow pool of light from the bedside lamp pushed back the shadows. Ivan Xav was sitting on her side of the bed with his trousers on, his face in that scrunched expression it wore when he’d bitten into something he didn’t quite like.
Tej rubbed her eyes and sat up on one elbow. “What time ’zit?” She tried a sleepy smile on him, but it won only a return lip‑twitch.
“A little after oh‑three‑hundred. I just got a rather strange call from a Customs amp; Security officer out at the Vorbarr Sultana Shuttleport. Says they’ve detained some fellow out there who claims to be a relative of yours. Or at any rate, he was asking for Madame Tejaswini Arqua Vorpatril, which is at least part‑right.”
“What?” Tej sat bolt upright. “ Who?”
“Supposedly, some Escobaran tourist named Dr. Dolbraco Dax. Held up because of irregularities, Customs said, although the fellow’s documentation seemed to be all in order. I’m not sure what that meant, except that this Dax fellow was insistent that if you would come identify him, you could straighten it all out.”
“That’s Amiri’s identity!” Tej cried, scrambling from her covers. “Oh, what’s he doing here? We have to go out there!”
Ivan Xav prudently ducked out of the way as she lunged for her clothes. “Well, either your brother, or some really clever bounty hunter. Morozov was pretty sure some of those would be showing up in due course. Although a bounty hunter would have to be downright crazy to try a snatch in the middle of shuttleport security.” Ivan Xav scratched his stubbled chin. “Or maybe just lazy. Not as far to drag you to the exit, after all.”
“Most of them actually are crazy, but…” Tej’s thoughts whirled, as she shoved her head through her turtleneck and clawed her hair free. “If it’s really Amiri, how did he find me? Here, put your shirt on.” She crawled back across the rumpled bed in search of her socks. “Did your ImpSec people contact him or something?”
“Shouldn’t think he’d have been detained, in that case.” Ivan Xav shook his head. “Though I could see…If Miles gossiped to Mark or Kareen about you and me, and he probably couldn’t resist doing so, Mark might have told this Lily Durona woman who runs his clinic. Who could have said something to your brother. I can’t guess how much information might have been dropped out or added with each link. Or how it was spun. Mark and I, um…don’t always get along.”
As Tej got him dressed and pulled him toward the door, Ivan Xav added, “I’m leaning toward bounty hunters, myself. I did alert my ImpSec outer perimeter, though I don’t much care to talk to those fellows if I don’t have to. But at least it’ll give the night shift something to do that doesn’t involve voyeurism. I expect they’ll like that.”
“Voyeurism?” Despite her hurry, Tej froze. “I hope that’s a joke.”
“Well, I hope so, too,” confessed Ivan Xav. “Grant you, I gave up asking them questions I didn’t want to hear the answers to some time back.”
Shaking her head, Tej abandoned this side issue and shoved him into the hallway.
For the first time ever, as his two‑seater arrowed out through the wintry margins of the city, she thought that Ivan Xav was driving too slowly. She leaned forward anxiously into her seat straps as the civilian shuttleport at last rose into view. This was her first look at the place, as they’d come downside before via the military shuttleport, where arrangements had been very different. VBS Main looked very much like every other big galactic port she’d ever seen‑under construction. Ivan Xav wove handily around worksite barricades. Fortunately, he seemed to know where he was going, and the place was thinly populated at this dark off‑hour.
His military ID whisked them past the first layer of security like a magic wand, at which point they were met by a man in a customs uniform, a lieutenant in military undress greens with ImpSec Horus‑eyes on his collar, and, hurrying up last, Byerly and Rish, out of breath. The customs man stepped back at the sight of Rish, his lips parting in astonishment, but he glanced at the unreactive ImpSec fellow, swallowed, and carried on.
“I’ve arranged a preliminary look through a monitor for you, Madame Vorpatril,” the customs man told her, and it was a sign of something that Ivan Xav didn’t correct the title. “As it seemed to be thought that there could be some safety and security issue.” Tej wasn’t sure if his irritated glance at the ImpSec officer suggested a conflict of jurisdictions or procedures, or just the accumulated frustrations of trying to get ImpSec to give a straight answer to any question.
The customs man guided them through a code‑locked door labeled Authorized Personnel Only and threaded a maze of office corridors, mostly with doors shut for the night. Down two floors, through some utilitarian tunnels smelling of dry concrete and machine oil, up again, then to an unlabeled door in a broader corridor. Some kind of satellite security office, judging by the consoles; on duty was only a single clerk, who gave way to the customs officer and gestured to the vid. “Nothing of interest so far, sir.”
The plate showed four views of what appeared to be a midsized, private waiting room, brightly lit if a touch shabby, neither luxury lounge nor prison chamber. The ambiguous space was occupied by nine people and many jumbled piles of luggage. The figures were variously sitting up looking very bored, or lying across rearranged chairs and cases, uncomfortably dozing. Three men and six women. Tej’s heart seemed to stop beating altogether.
“Can you pick out this Dr. Dax?” asked the ImpSec lieutenant.
She gulped for breath, for rising joy, for hope unlooked‑for. “I can pick out everybody.”
Rish was staring over the vid display with wide, devouring eyes. “The Baronne…?” she breathed.
“And Dada!” said Tej. “And Star and Pidge and Em and Pearl and…is that Grandmama?”
“What happened to her hair?” said Rish faintly.
Ivan Xav’s brows climbed; Byerly looked suddenly very blank.
Tej grabbed the customs man by the front of his uniform jacket. She really hadn’t meant to lift him off his feet; it just happened. “Take me to them! Take us to them right now!”
Two armed shuttleport security guards stood alert outside the entrance to the waiting room, Ivan noted at once. The Arqua clan had been sequestered well apart from the usual transients, but, delicately, not yet in criminal detention. That area lay conveniently nearby, though, through those unmarked double doors at the corridor’s end, if he was recalling the labyrinthine layout of this place correctly. Ivan decided not to mention this to the frantic Tej. Or to the jittering Rish. Judging from By’s narrowed glances around, he was making similar estimates.
The guards made way as the Customs amp; Immigration officer, a senior shift supervisor named Mahon, coded open the waiting‑room door. Tej and Rish nearly fell over him, and each other, blasting through.
“My parents, I thought they were dead…” Tej squeaked as she elbowed the man out of her path.
A jerk of By’s chin invited Ivan to note the vid recorder the customs officer clutched in his hand. Mahon regained his balance and murmured to Ivan, “All those names Madame Vorpatril was rattling off…you do realize, none of them match the documentation these people were traveling under.” A thin smile turned his mouth, as of an earnest official contemplating well‑honed instincts rewarded.
“Is that going to be a problem?” said Ivan.
“Definitely. I just don’t know what kind, yet. Or whose.” He and the wary ImpSec lieutenant, Zumboti, exchanged calculating stares.
Ivan twitched, and corrected, “Lady Vorpatril,” for the first time. Just in case. Zumboti took the precaution of unholstering his stunner and easing off the safety, though he held his hand discreetly down at his side, before shouldering in ahead of Ivan. A beat, and his glance back gave permission for Ivan to enter.
The chamber was transmuting from sleepy, grouchy boredom to shrieking chaos as various Arquas looked up one after another and saw Tej and Rish. Ivan had just time to confirm that no one was drawing a weapon as Tej flew directly to a stout, gray‑haired, mahogany‑faced man who barely made it to his feet before catching her in an astonished bear‑hug. Ivan had moment to watch, unobserved, as his eyes squeezed shut, lids glistening with moisture, mouth opening in a huff of an exhalation under Tej’s impact; it seemed wrong, somehow, to look uninvited upon a man’s face so deeply disarmed, so naked with emotion.
Ivan tore his glance away to see Rish somersault through the air and fetch up kneeling neatly at the feet of the very tall woman with short, dark hair held in a jeweled headband, and crouch to touch the sandaled toes. The woman hastily bent and raised her up into an embrace as well. Her face was vastly more reserved than that of her spouse, but her expression was unnervingly intense for all its restraint.
All hopes delivered…
The pairs parted to share another hug four‑about, and then the mob closed in. Ivan’s eyes flicked madly, trying to identify them all‑if they would only stand still for a minute, or better yet, line up, he might have a fighting chance.
Two young women were taller than Tej, although not as tall as their mother‑Ivan mentally dubbed them Fit and Fitter, before memory of the scans he’d been shown kicked in. Fit was Pidge, the middle sister, sporting red‑brown skin, red‑brown hair, and cinnamon eyes, dressed in something blue‑green and flowing. Her taller, older, and impossibly even fitter sister Star shared the spicy skin, with sleek ebony hair drawn back in a tight knot, complemented by her utilitarian black pantsuit; her startling ice‑green eyes recalled those of her mother the Baronne.
The assorted Jewels were, thank God, color‑coded, and much easier to sort out. Ivan barely blinked at Emerald’s green and glittering skin and sunlight‑on‑leaves colored hair, or the slim woman with pointed ears and white skin laced with silver, her snow‑white hair clipped in a similar short pelt‑Pearl, obviously. Their pantsuits would probably be travel‑rumpled if they dared.
The two young male figures were less instantly recognizable, although Ivan managed to arrive at them by process of elimination. They lacked the Arqua height of their elder sisters, being barely as tall as Byerly. The one had crisp black hair and dark olive skin‑he likely could pass for an Escobaran. The second, more thickset fellow had mahogany skin like the Baron’s, but weirdly patchy; flecks of onyx‑black and silver peeked through here and there. His ears, alone among the Jewels, were round‑another change from that old group portrait of Morozov’s. Both men were dressed in Escobaran‑style street clothes, short‑sleeved hemmed shirts worn un‑tucked over trousers. Onyx, presumably, and‑
“Amiri!” cried Tej, flinging herself on him in turn. “You look so different! Jet!”
The olive‑skinned man embraced her, his eyes closing briefly as if in prayer. “You’re alive. You’re both alive, but oh‑” His eyes snapped open again in anger shot with joy, crackling with both. “We’ve been waiting for months! Never heard a word, until‑we didn’t know if you were alive or dead!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Tej laugh‑cried back, “we ran out of money, we ran out of luck, we ran out of, of nearly everything…”
Rish held out one of the other man’s muscular arms, and reached to touch the outer curve of an ear. “You’re so big! And your beautiful skin‑what’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing permanent,” he assured her, folding her in a fresh hug. “Just a treatment to blend in on Escobar, wearing off. The extra fifteen kilos is mostly muscle, but I needed some fat to change the shape of my face. The Duronas supplied.”
Tej danced in a circle, arms outspread as if to take in everyone. “Oh, how did you find me, how did you get away, why are you all here
…? And you brought Grandmama, too?”
Standing a little aside from the whole show, watching with cool approval, was the tallest woman of all, taller than Ivan. She wore loose silky trousers, shirt, and a light, knee‑length coat in an indeterminate planetary style. She was very straight‑backed, yet thin and faintly frail. Age‑softened skin clad bones of timeless elegance. Her bright silver hair was cut in short wisps around her perfectly‑shaped head.
Tej bowed before her, hands held palm‑to‑palm in a respect only enhanced by the pleasure overflowing from her face. A pale hand as delicate as an ice sculpture moved to rest palm‑down among her wild curls in a gesture of benediction. “Indeed,” the woman murmured.
The customs officer, with another chary look around at all the wildly gesticulating and madly babbling Arquas, edged closer to Ivan. Better the Vor lord that you knew than the Jacksonians that you didn’t? He said, not quite out of the corner of his mouth, “Are these really relatives of yours, Captain Lord Vorpatril?”
About to hotly deny any such absurdity, Ivan’s mouth opened and hung at half‑cock. “Well, er…in a sense. That is, that would be my father‑in‑law, my mother‑in‑law”‑he nodded variously‑“and my, um, siblings‑in‑law.”
“ All of them?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I know they don’t look alike. It’s kind of hard to explain…” He took a breath. “Yes.” He added after a vaguely shattered pause, “And my‑uh‑that lady over there would be my grandmother‑in‑law. My wife’s mother’s mother. Widowed.” Ivan was suddenly profoundly grateful for that. A wizened ghem‑general would surely tip this barrel right over.
Wait, no, this wasn’t the whole set after all. It seemed the eldest brother Eric was still missing, and a couple of the Jewels‑Ruby, and, what was the other one? Topaz, that was it. Maybe it wasn’t just jump‑lag and umpteen hours in Barrayaran detention that gave the Arqua crew that edgy, exhausted air.
The customs officer looked as if he was thinking hard and fast. Ivan eyed him uneasily.
Tej grabbed Ivan by the arm and towed him over to face the Baron, the Baronne, and Lady ghem Estif. Ivan was sorry now he wasn’t shaved and in uniform, instead of stubbled and in wrinkled civvies grabbed off his bedroom floor. Though he supposed it made him even‑all with the travel‑worn Arquas.
In a voice gone breathless and shy, Tej said, “Dada, Baronne, Grandmother‑this is my Barrayaran husband, Lord Ivan Xav Vorpatril.” As if she had several other husbands of various planetary origins tucked away somewhere…? “He’s not a lord of anything, though.”
The three elders swung piercing gazes upon Ivan. Their smiles chilled right down.
“Lily Durona had said as much,” said the Baron.
“It all sounded very odd,” said the Baronne.
“Not at all illuminating,” said Lady ghem Estif.
“The wedding was a bit impromptu,” said Tej, “but at the time it saved me and Rish from a world of trouble. I’ll explain later.”
The Baron’s heavy features lightened only marginally. It was the man’s height and broad build, Ivan decided, that reminded him subliminally and uncomfortably of Count Falco. And his edginess that recalled, even more uncomfortably, Uncle Aral in a mood. Yikes.
“How do you do, sir, ma’am, haut,” Ivan managed, belatedly grateful for every lesson in diplomacy his mother had ever tried to inflict on him. The last being the proper form of address to a haut lady, if a touch flattering to one culled and demoted to ghem. Lady ghem Estif’s silver brows rose in surprise. In any case, she did not offer to correct it. God, what next? I am pleased to meet you was a diplomatic lie of the first order, beyond his scope right now. His mouth moved on automatically to, “How may I help you?” Wait, no…
The Baron brightened a touch more, with a surprised glance under those heavy lids at his daughter. Right answer? “By all means, let’s find out. Pidge, come here.”
The woman in the flowing blue‑green trouser outfit stepped up alertly. “Baron?”
The Baron waved the customs officer forward. “Officer Mahon, I think the time has come for you to talk with our lawyer, the Baronette Sophia Arqua.” Pidge’s formal name and courtesy title, Ivan dimly recalled. “She will speak for our group.”
“Are you oath‑bound to practice law on Barrayar, ma’am?” asked Mahon stiffly.
Pidge smiled warmly across at him, eye‑to‑eye. “I am primarily trained in galactic law and trade law, with some experience in criminal law. I have made a special intense study of Barrayaran law in the past two weeks, however.”
Ivan wondered‑on Jackson’s Whole, how literally did she mean criminal law?
“The conundrum would seem to be whether we are still House Cordonah”‑she cast a nod at her father, who nodded back‑“and so due all appropriate diplomatic protocol, or whether we are Houseless persons, seeking asylum under the aegis of a Barrayaran Vor relative, and due all assistance as such.”
“That’s not nearly the only two questions…” Mahon, swinging toward the ImpSec lieutenant, held out a hand in either direction or plea, Ivan wasn’t sure.
Zumboti took a neutral pose, not quite parade rest, and observed to the air, “It is ImpSec’s mandate to secure the Imperium against threats of violence. I’ve seen none on offer here, so far. Strictly bureaucratic issues are not normally our department.”
What, was ImpSec giving its officers a short course in disingenuity, now? Probably.
Mahon rubbed his forehead, and muttered, “Two hours…” It took Ivan a moment to realize he was likely referring to his end‑of‑shift, when the day officers would be coming on. And, Ivan was reminded with a glance at his wristcom, when he was due at Ops. So would Mahon play this out till then, in order to dump it on his senior colleagues and escape? In any case, he looked marginally happier to be presented with a single Arqua to argue with, rather than all of them at once. And a gorgeous female, at that. A little weakly, he allowed Pidge to glow at him, take him by the arm, and lead him aside, bending her head to murmur at him in an intimate tone.
Shiv Arqua’s gaze shifted around to at last snag on Byerly, standing behind Rish. A brow cocked. “And who is this?”
By, with covert reluctance, stepped forward. Rish cleared her throat. “Baron, Baronne, haut, may I present my, um, friend, Byerly Vorrutyer.”
Byerly managed a tolerably non‑croggled bow. “My pleasure, to be sure.” Aye, By was the trained professional liar.
Star, strolling up, sniffed. “ Um‑friend? So it would appear. Really, Rish, your taste in men. He has to be a natural.”
“Barrayaran Vor, certainly,” said Lady ghem Estif, with the air of an entomologist observing a familiar species of beetle.
“Though not a lord,” By put in, with a specious helpfulness.
“But a friend?” said the Baron to Rish. That edge was back. “Truly?”
Rish, put on the spot, shrugged. “Well…friendly. I’ll explain later, all right?”
By’s stance eased. The Baron’s suspicious glower seemed to slot him into a class by himself, provisionally. Very provisionally. Which wasn’t wrong.
“So were the news vids all lies?” said Tej. “There were pictures of your bodies.”
“Yes, that made it rather awkward for Prestene to report our escape, when we followed Star and the girls to Earth,” said the Baronne dryly.
“Ruby, Topaz‑Eric?” said Rish. “Is everything horrible made not so?”
“Yes and no,” the Baronne told her. “Ruby made it to Fell Station, we believe, and is under the protection of Baron Fell for the moment. Seppe is apparently with her, though fallen into contract‑debt to House Fell for his medical treatment.”
Ivan watched a tremble run through Tej’s body. She exhaled and ran the back of her wrist over her eyes.
“That was the yes,” said Rish. Her voice was growing quieter.
The Baronne nodded. “Topaz…did not get off the Station when we did. As far as we presently know, she remains hostage.”
“Eric‑?” said Tej. Her voice, too, had fallen low.
Shiv Arqua grew grim. “It’s hard to say. Prestene claims to have his body cryo‑preserved. How revivable he may be, we do not know.”
Tej swallowed. So did Ivan. Almost worse than death, that boundless uncertainty. In his experience.
Arqua grimaced. “Fool boy‑nothing he defended was worth his life, once you girls were away. He should have surrendered!”
“Perhaps he did,” murmured the Baronne, and her husband pressed his teeth together.
“Did you get out right after Star’s group, then?” asked Rish. Oddly wary, that question. Oddly hopeful.
The Baronne ran a hand through her short hair, almost dislodging the defiantly bright band across her forehead. “No. Not for some weeks. They shaved my head when they took me, among the other things they tried‑for all the good it did them.” Her eyes flashed in some dark triumph. “It will grow back. We will grow everything back, now we’ve rescued the pair of you.”
“Uh, we sort of rescued ourselves…” Tej pointed out tentatively. When no one responded to this, she turned and added, “But Grandmama, what happened to your hair, then?”
A muscle jumped in Lady ghem Estif’s fine jaw. “I sold it. Back on Earth.”
“All three meters of it,” confirmed Star. “At auction. It went for a fabulous sum, which we needed at that point. Far more money than I would have believed possible‑there are collectors, it turns out. And absolute provenance, since we allowed the winner to cut it himself.”
Emerald, at her shoulder, muttered, “I still think he had a fetish.” Pearl nodded ruefully.
The Baronne, her own dark hair regrown barely finger‑length beneath the red band, said nothing at all. The story under that silence…well, Ivan would doubtless get it later, too. No visible damage marred her skin, but it was not nearly so luminous as in the younger scans. Pallid, almost. These people are really tired.
“That was a pretty amazing sacrifice, for a haut woman,” Ivan offered, this seeming a less fraught topic. “I once met some of the ladies of the Star Creche itself, on Eta Ceta, some years ago. Their never‑cut hair was a major status‑marker.”
Lady ghem Estif’s expression went rather opaque. “It is long,” she stated, “since I left the Star Creche.” She hesitated, looking at Ivan more sharply. “Do the Consorts speak with Outlanders, now?”
“It was a special, um, event. What was your clan, that is, your haut constellation of origin, before you married the ghem general?”
“Rond.” Lady ghem Estif delivered the flat monosyllable without emotion. The Rond were one of the mid‑grade Cetagandan Constellations, though that was like saying ‘one of the mid‑grade billionaires.’ But she regarded Ivan with the faintest new spark of…less disapproval. As though he might be trainable, with the right program of exercises and rewards.
Byerly sucked on his lower lip, his expression baffled.
Officer Mahon and Pidge returned from the corner where they’d been talking in rapid under‑voices. Mahon’s lips were screwed up in something less than joy, but better than hostility. Pidge looked unsettlingly serene.
Mahon blew out his breath. “This is what I can offer tonight, to get you people out of here and into some more comfortable location. If Captain Vorpatril, here, will speak for you as the Barrayaran subject to whom you are related, pledging his word and posting a bond, I can release you into his temporary custody as applicants for asylum. This allows you a two‑week limited visa while waiting for judicial review. With an opportunity for extensions should the review take longer.”
Kicking the problem upstairs‑much the best choice. Ivan would sympathize, except…
“Given the numerous irregularities, not to mention outright falsifications, in your travel documentation, for which you can, yes, plead mitigating circumstances”‑a fending gesture at Pidge‑“you should not count on your application being finally approved. But at least,” his voice dropped, as if talking to himself, possibly as the one sane person here, “I have forms to cover it all.”
Tej turned to Ivan, her bright eyes thrilled. “Oh, yes! I knew you could do it, Ivan Xav!”
Ivan tried to point out that he hadn’t done anything, yet, but the words stuck in his throat, especially when Tej spared a hug for him. This is not my fault. Right? Right? He glanced at By, who blinked back palpably unhelpfully.
“Bond,” Ivan said to Mahon. “Is that, like, a pledge of credit, or do you need cash down?”
“Cash, I’m afraid, Captain. Times nine, although I may be able to arrange a group discount. And a spoken oath, given your rank.”
“Ah.” How many forms? Multiplied by nine? No, he wasn’t going to make it to Ops on time today, was he. Ivan drew a deep inhalation. “In that case, Officer Mahon, I need to make some calls.”
Mahon was efficient; documentation hell only ran an hour and a half past the end of his shift. Either conscientious or curious, he stayed to see things through. Ivan read aloud off Mahon’s cheat sheet a number of promises to take responsibility for a number of things over which, as far as he could see, he had no control whatsoever, making it official; the Arquas watched this Barrayaran step with the inquisitiveness of metropolitans come down to take in a backcountry show at a District fair.
This dumped Ivan, Tej, the nine new Arquas, and their small mountain of luggage into a rented ground‑van headed for downtown Vorbarr Sultana at the peak of morning traffic. By and Rish, who’d come out to the shuttleport by the new bubble tube‑in service this week for a change, however temporarily‑drove Ivan’s two‑seater on ahead. Ivan wondered what they were saying to each other.
Conversation in the van had drifted off to a sleep‑deprived muttering by the time they arrived at the hotel, just down the block from Ivan Xav’s flat. It seemed a middling sort of place, built in a functional mode during the reign of Emperor Ezar with patchy upgrades since, but the location could scarcely be bettered. Ivan Xav saw them all registered, which seemed to involve displays of both his credit and military IDs, then drew Tej aside.
“Now I really have to run to Ops. Don’t let them do anything awful till I get back, right? In fact, don’t let them do anything.”
“I think everyone wants to sleep, first.”
“That’d be all right. Yeah, do that.” He kissed her and fled.
Surprisingly, Rish managed to scrape By off at the lobby lift tubes; he bade her a fond farewell. Exiting at the seventh‑floor lift‑tube foyer, Rish paused and picked what seemed to be a piece of metallic lint from under her collar, murmured, “Nice try, By. Love and kisses,” and made smacking noises into it, and deposited it in the waste chute. At Tej’s sideways look, she merely shrugged.
Ivan Xav had somehow managed to secure rooms all in a row for them. A two‑bedroom suite for the seniors with a central lounge connected on either side to bedrooms that absorbed Amiri and Jet, and Star, Pidge, Pearl and Emerald, plus their luggage. They all returned as swiftly as they could to the sitting room, where Tej and Rish were recounting, once more, the tale of their long flight, and took up perches to listen. And, inevitably, to critique.
When Tej came to the part about Ivan Xav’s clever marital rescue on Komarr, she glanced at Amiri and Jet and left out the bit about the balcony, saying only, “We weren’t thinking too straight by then, I guess. We were both so tired.”
“You weren’t thinking at all, as far as I can see,” said Pidge tartly. “Good grief, Tej, you’re as scatterbrained as ever.”
Pearl turned to Rish. “And you let her?”
“It worked out,” said Rish defensively.
Dada held up a thick hand to stem an incipient and well‑worn digression into personalities, if adding mildly, “Though really, Tej‑love, we could have negotiated you a favorable deal for a House heir anytime these past five years. All those wasted opportunities, just to end up with a Barrayaran?”
This was tolerable only because he had accepted Tej’s every No – well, No, thank you, Dada – on said deals for five years straight with no more demur than an occasional wince and grunt. At least Dada wouldn’t complain that Ivan Xav was a natural, being one himself. Nor could the Baronne, without blatant hypocrisy. Not that she couldn’t find other grounds.
“This Vorpatril fellow turns out to be quite interesting, for a Barrayaran, I will allow that,” said the Baronne. “If I thought it was guile and not blind luck, I would be quite proud of you both. Or‑did you know of his high‑level connections before negotiating this strange oral contract?”
“For free, no less,” said Star in an aggrieved undervoice. “ Tej.”
“No,” sighed Tej. “We only found out after.”
“Figures,” murmured Pearl.
“Did you look him up?” Tej asked the Baronne. “Back on Escobar?”
“Of course. As soon as Lily passed us that‑at the time, it seemed a very garbled rumor, but actually it seems correct in more details than I would have believed. Not that we weren’t overjoyed to have finally located you two. But how closely does that boy actually stand the to Barrayaran Imperial throne?”
Oh, blast, the Baronne had already stumbled onto that angle. Well, of course she had. She was the Baronne. “Camp stool,” Tej corrected in a small voice. “When The Gregor has to sit in ceremony. On account of Vor being a military caste.” The Baronne waved away this distinction. Tej…remembered a plaque in a street that groundcars ran over.
Rish put in, “There are quite a few more bodies between him and that position than when he was younger, apparently‑plus he’d have to win a couple of civil wars with rival claimants, to hear him tell it. He was never the only potential heir.”
Grandmama lifted a quelling finger. “I would advise against pursuing that direction, Udine, dear. There are many safer approaches you might work in aid of our aims here, and I promise you, you do not want to get bogged down in extended altercations with the locals.” She gave the impression of a delicate shudder without, actually, shuddering.
Tej cast her a grateful glance. Dada grunted, not disagreeing.
“Still, he’s in their military,” said Star. “He can’t be totally clueless, in a crunch. Maybe we could use him in our Security. Our new Security, when we set it up.”
“Or in Administration,” said Pidge. “You say he’s a kind of secretary?”
“Or in Hospitality,” said Jet, with an amused snicker. “How well does he strip?”
Tej glowered at him.
The Baronne waved this aside, pursing her lips. “But apparently, he’s been kept close confined here in the capital under the eyes of his handlers for nearly the whole of that career. Chained to a desk, which is, I suppose, kinder than chained in a cage. Keeps him out of trouble just the same, to be sure.”