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By Any Means Necessary

Chapter Text

Ivan should have known better than to answer the door-chime, but it wasn't his fault: he was never at his most alert when he got to that part of the holovid. So he'd jumped up, Xav tumbling awkwardly off his lap, and his visitor had already weaseled a foot in the crack before Ivan's brain caught up with his hand on the Door-open pad.

Of course it was Byerly. It could only be the one person on all Barrayar that Ivan least wanted to open the door to.

"Go away."

"Delighted to see you too, to be sure. Open the door, Ivan."

"No."

"Let me in, Ivan; this is important."

"So? You can talk in the hallway."

"No one must hear."

So it was another of By's hare-brained schemes. Ivan was definitely not getting involved this time.

"What's made you so cheerful? Did I wake you up?"

Ivan might have been dozing, just a bit, but he wasn't going to admit it to Byerly Vorrutyer of all people. "Of course not. I wasn't really asleep."

That didn't sound right.

"It's Xav you woke up."

That sounded even more wrong.

Byerly gave an evil smirk and raised one eyebrow in that way he must have thought so urbane. "Ah… Then you'll not deny me the pleasure of making your boyfriend's acquaintance?"

"Xav is the cat," spluttered Ivan. Trust By to assume the most offensive explanation imaginable.

He raised both eyebrows this time, in obviously feigned disbelief. "So our Captain Ivan likes animals? One would have thought a dashing officer-about-town had no time for pets."

"Then one would be right," growled Ivan. He didn't like animals, least of all cats. Kittens might sometimes be useful for charming the ladies, but you inevitably outlived the furry verminoids. There was no point in letting yourself care for something that just--died on you. How had Aunt Cordelia talked him into "babysitting--just for a few days--" one of Zap's numerous offspring? That was months ago, when Miles's sprogs were decanted, done in an attempt to prevent his houseguests from tripping over a furry obstacle course every two steps, and Xav didn't seem to want to go back anytime soon. So long as he had his holovid to watch, that is.

By didn't seem to have heard him, examining the long hairs, black against the green of Ivan's dress trousers, swaying his head slightly as if trying to focus through an ethanol haze. He was staring at the cat hairs, Ivan was sure. In the holovid the actress was moaning Great-grandfather Prince Xav's name in an atrocious Betan accent. This was Xav the cat's favorite episode: he was a vain little monster who didn't mind the historical inaccuracy of showing galactics, particularly Betans, formalizing a political alliance with marriage. Ivan hoped that By realized the voice was coming from the vid.

He was almost relieved when By said, "But I think I believe you, just this once," and reached his hand through the shoe-wide crack to brush off the hairs.

Ivan jumped back with a snarl. He was fairly open-minded: it was none of his business what people were driven to do so long as they were discreet. But there was nothing wrong with By. He acted overfamiliar just to annoy Ivan, and there was something indecent about that, like a man going about in a float-chair when he could very well walk. So, as open-minded as Ivan might be, he wasn't about to give By any ideas, particularly when he looked to have left early from a party.

Speaking of which… "What do you want, By?"

By, of course, had already slipped inside. It never ceased to amaze Ivan how he used his size--or lack of it--to his advantage.

"Lend me your lightflyer."

Preposterous. "No."

"Why not?"

"Just no."

"It's for official business."

"Get out of my house."

By brushed past him, deliberately close, to settle on the battered sofa in front of the holovid viewer. He nodded towards the vid. "Why, Ivan, that seems rather tame for your taste! Anyway, I have to get to Saint-Fiacre tonight, and I'm not about to take the monorail." He wrinkled his nose. "I need a lightflyer, Ivan."

On the holovid, there was a close-up of the actor playing Great-grandfather Prince Xav, eyes wide, pupils dilated, evidently gazing at his new bride. In the living room, there was no sign of Xav the cat. Ivan envied him. "Have one of your little friends lend you his. I don't see why you're coming to me. I don't even like you."

"Yes, well--" he gave a little moue "--unfortunately all my current crop of 'little friends' are under suspicion. They might not be as sensible as you when they discover my destination."

"Good for them. I wouldn't trust you with my flyer in Vorbarr Sultana, let alone all the way out to Saint-Fiacre."

The journey to Saint-Fiacre was a death-trap, particularly for a half-drunk By flying Ivan's temperamental lightflyer, particularly tonight, when a cold front was forecast to sweep over the Vortaine's District. The Cairngorms were where a man went when he got to the end of the line and needed a convenient lightflyer accident, and Ivan's flyer had all the characteristics of an over-bred racehorse: it was designed for speed and maneuverability, not crossing country in the weather.

By jumped up, all grins. "If you won't let me fly myself, I can only conclude that you'll take me there. Say you'll take me, Ivan--oh, do!"

"No."

"I shudder to think what your mother will say when a little birdie tells her you refused to comply with an innocent little request."

Ivan knew full well that By's requests tended to escalate into Situations neither innocent nor little, and he was not getting involved with this one, whatever it was.

"I can't do it, By. I have work in the morning."

In the end he did it, more to get By out of his apartment than from wanting to help him, God forbid. It would be almost two hours to Saint-Fiacre. A quick round trip should see Ivan home not much past midnight and only mildly bleary-eyed tomorrow when Xav woke him at exactly an hour before dawn. There'd be a five-minute session of rather vicious play, from which Ivan had accumulated an impressive collection of scars; then a feed and the dreaded morning cuddle, which could take up to an hour when Xav felt in the mood; then Ivan would go down to the same café as he did every morning for a leisurely breakfast over the newsvid, come back up, get ready for work, and arrive in good time to collect a complement of coffee from the mess before reporting in. He sighed. There was a reason he'd stopped entertaining on weekdays.

Chapter Text

"I trust you'll want to know what's going on," said By, as they left behind the lights of the metropolitan area. The headlights drilled into a driving drizzle, illuminating nothing. Ivan perforce flicked up the night vision overlay. They'd be leaving automated air traffic control soon, and he hated navigating by satellite, not being able to see what you were getting yourself into.

"No. I already know what's going on. I've been forced to run an irritating parasite down to Saint-Fiacre in the dark of night, and I'm safe in the knowledge that, whatever happens, it's most emphatically not my fault. Because you made me. I was under duress." He felt free to vent because By wasn't really offering information; Vorrutyers never made a move that didn't serve their own evil purposes.

By started explaining as if he hadn't heard, as Ivan knew he would. Nobody ever listened to a word Ivan said. "It's about the Budget: how many marks go to the Komarr Terraforming Project, how many marks go to extending the Second Loop Monorail, blah, blah, blah… All deadly dull, no fun at all--not even a good brawl in the Councils to get the blood going."

Ivan shrugged. "It's hardly worth debate. Gregor and Miles have got the vote sewn up between them. Three-quarters of the money's coming out of Komarran taxes in the first place, and if we don't keep them pacified there'll be another revolt--which can't be healthy for the Budget. We've done the projections. Besides, a stable Komarr will let us bring our ground troops back home to build just the infrastructure projects the Conservatives are jumping up and down to get. Yes, soldiers hate digging ditches, but where else are we going to get the manpower? Do they ever think of that?"

By was looking at him as if he'd grown a second head. A much cleverer second head. Not that Ivan had been trying to impress--why would he want to do that?--though he may have deliberately let his guard down, maybe just a bit. It was nice to have one person in the Nexus who didn't think he was a complete idiot, which person might as well be By, who had an inkling already. More importantly, Ivan wasn't going to have By walk all over him again. However highly By esteemed his own abilities, he was no Miles, and he'd have to respect Ivan's judgment. Which was that Ivan was going to dump him in Saint-Fiacre and go straight home.

By rearranged his face to show an unimpressed expression. "Really, my dear Ivan, I understood the Service to be denying the extent of the General Staff's input into the Budget. The new Minister--what's his name?--and Admiral Duplaine were splashed all over the newsvid this morning, vigorously denying it."

"Publicly, yes. But be realistic." Ivan grimaced at the memory: briefing the Admiral for press conferences, however meticulously scripted by his communications officer, was easily one of Ivan's least favorite duties. It didn't help that media season entailed dress greens all round, just in case any of the Admiral's underlings got caught by a stray newsvid pickup.

"Then realistically, I suppose," said By with evident glee, "you're an accountant. How delicious! Won't all your swooning ladies die to know! But back to my story: you lot make sense and poor Henri makes sense when he regurgitates the stuff. Except not everyone agrees--"

Ivan could have told him that. "Skip the politics and just get to the point, By."

"Goodness, aren't we tetchy today! Is it because I interrupted your Betan bonking vid?"

Ivan wanted to protest that the vid was Xav's choice, and instead of Betan bonking it was an award-winning juvenile series based on the life and exploits of Prince Xav. But By must have known; he was just making his usual nasty comments.

"Forgive me, pray, for being comprehensive. I distinctly remember you using threatening language the last time you felt under-informed. The point, if that's all you care for, is this:

"I've had an inkling something was brewing for a while. Now it takes time to make friends, even for me--"

Ivan rolled his eyes. Then he fixed them back on the display.

"--I got a lead an hour ago. I had myself invited to Ludwig Vorgorov's party. Say what you like about the man's dress sense, but he throws a wild party. So why am I here, you ask, rattling around a tin can in a rainstorm when I could be getting safely drunk at poor Vorgorov's expense?

"Cyril Vortaine, remember him? I could tell he was--er, happy--from the way he got stuck in the wine, so I stuck by him. Sure enough, he let something slip. He has a man in Saint-Fiacre making him pamphlets, I think. I don't have the details yet, but then that's why we're here."

"Isn't this the sort of thing you should be reporting to your superiors?"

A rustle as By must have shrugged. "My handler's busy. I can't reach her till morning, which is too late if they mean to influence the vote--as I rather suspect they do."

Yes, Ivan's mother was mentoring Laisa as she hostessed the reception for the Komarran delegation tonight. And it wouldn't do for By to be seen contacting ImpSec through any official channels, not if he valued his cover--and his life. Ivan was stuck with him. Until Saint-Fiacre.

Saint-Fiacre was the oldest town in the Vortaine's District, nestled in the confluence where the river was joined by a tributary falling from the picturesque foothills of the Cairngorms that formed the border with the Vorvolynkin's District. There was flat land, easily terraformed, along the river as it meandered across the District. Upstream it had carved a gorge through the ranges, down from the falls and rapids beyond Vorbarr Sultana; downstream it slowed and widened as it traversed a dozen districts towards the sea.

But the Cetagandans had built their shuttleport in the middle of the alluvial plain, and their main trunk monorail bypassed Saint-Fiacre in favor of the port. Industry had continued to thrive about the port after the Cetagandans pulled out, and as agricultural production fell in importance and hydroelectric dams cut off river transport, the late Count Gustave Vortaine moved his capital to the renamed Port Vortaine, leaving Saint-Fiacre preserved as a little provincial town still stuck in the Time of Isolation in many ways.

A couple of years ago, the new Count Claude Vortaine, grandson of the late Gustave, invested in a branch monorail station at Saint-Fiacre. The place was consequently beginning to reinvent itself as a sort of heritage tourist destination, all very Old Barrayar, its alleys crammed with peddlers (salaried, apparently), overhung with deliberately rickety-looking wooden townhouses, and boasting horse-and-cart access to canoeing in the rivers and spelunking and trekking in the hills. The alleyways were specifically designed to be unnavigable by lightflyer.

Ivan hovered over the roofs of the first houses, just inside the town wall. "Where to? Or I could drop you off from up here."

By ignored this last remark. "To the publisher's, the old-fashioned one."

Ivan flicked up the directory. The publisher's, or printing press, backed onto a loading area that on the display looked like it would take a lightflyer with room to spare.

The "printing press"?

"Wait, you don't mean he's made physical pamphlets, printed on real flimsies? Who does that these days?"

"Anyone wishing to avoid the comm net monitoring, naturally."

Yes, By would know that, the ImpSec sneak. "I'm surprised he hasn't been closed down. How does PubSafe let him get away with it?"

"Special license? I suspect it's that tourism thing the boy Vortaine's doing. So not only does our man make physical pamphlets, he probably prints on paper--churns out those ridiculous WANTED posters, no doubt, where you get a chocolate at the municipal guard station for "catching" some sham felon who's really a third-rate actor who can't get a job on the boards. There's no underestimating the taste of proles keen to give their whelps a historical education."

Ivan landed the lightflyer in a yard rather larger than he'd expected from the vid display. "Good. We're here. Now out."

By turned back from the window with an expression in his fine Vorrutyer eyes so tragic it ought to be illegal on By's face. "It's closed."

"Of course it's closed. Decent people aren't at work in the middle of the night."

"I'm sure Vortaine said something was happening here tonight."

By was entirely sober now. Ivan could tell because he looked and sounded exactly as he always did when sober, which is to say, irritating.

"Well, maybe he meant something different," Ivan suggested reasonably. "But here we are, and I need to get home." If he didn't turn back straight away, he wouldn't be alert enough when Xav started pouncing on him in the early hours. He'd rip his arms into ribbons. And the mornings when Xav turned Ivan into a bloodied mess were the mornings when he demanded the longest cuddles, leaving Ivan with a matting of cat hairs stuck to the liquid bandage that covered his arms.

"First you'll take me to the owner's house."

Ivan put his foot down. "I'm putting my foot down. You asked me to run you to Saint-Fiacre, and I've run you to Saint-Fiacre. You can take it from here."

"Don't be more of an idiot than you can help, Ivan. I happen to know you have a directory in your lightflyer, and I don't."

The yellow directory button glowed friendliness at Ivan. Ivan ignored it: he was not getting involved. He knew what happened when you got involved in By's schemes. "By, unlike some people I have work in the morning."

By suddenly looked frighteningly serious. "Ivan," he said, enunciating very clearly, "I'm at work right now."

Chapter Text

Ivan took him to the printer's house. It was a pretty brick thing in a row overlooking the river, with space enough on the rain-slicked promenade to make a decent landing despite the wind.

By got out, letting in a rush of wind and rain, picked his way to the front door, and touched the chime-pad. Ivan should have been leaving; he reminded himself that Xav expected him in bed tomorrow. But he didn't trust By. He particularly didn't trust By to know what he was doing. Particularly when he'd stopped looking irritatingly smug all of a sudden, huddled on the veranda in dripping pink and lace.

A cursory scan showed nothing untoward in the surrounds, and the night vision overlay was clear: three warm bodies horizontal in this house, similar in all the others. Knowing he was being an idiot, but unable to stop himself, Ivan buttoned his tunic up to the neck, braced himself for the weather, got out of the lightflyer and, just as By lifted his hand to ring again, reached past him to pound on the door.

"Chime's disconnected for the night."

"Ah."

"Maybe I should go 'round the back, make sure he doesn't make a run for it."

By nodded, the last raindrops falling from his nose and the ends of his hair. "Yes, I think that would be best."

A nasty suspicion crept up Ivan's spine to lodge in his head: "You haven't--Tell me you've done this before."

"Well, in a sense, not as such, no. But a Vor officer is always to be relied on--is that not so?"

Ivan sighed. He should have known he was going to get involved. He always did. Some people had no respect for the innocent bystander.

He was already halfway down the front steps when By hissed, "Someone's coming."

Ivan too could make out the soft thump of footsteps on floorboards over the patter of rain. The intercom buzzed on. Before they could state their name and business, the door was opened just wide enough to admit a body. A rotund man in dressing gown and slippers sidled out before edging it shut again. He didn't look much like a "Hippolyte Pruvot Esq., Printer and Proprietor", though you never knew with proles.

"I know who you must be," the prole stammered in a rush, albeit with an attempt at dignity. Stammered in English, Ivan noted--why was he expecting an official visit in the night? "I'm entirely at your service. But--but might we talk somewhere else? My wife, if you please, she mustn't hear us. She's innocent, and I would be most gratified if she may be kept out of this. If you please," he added weakly.

"How thoughtful," By drawled, immediately put at ease by the prole's discomfort, "to spare your wife the consequences of your, er, shall we say, political indiscretion. Why don't we have a chat--at your printing press, perhaps?"

"No!" He smiled hastily, blinking the panic out of his widened eyes.

"The press it is, then. Take us there, Ivan, if you will."

This was the point at which Ivan should be glaring at By and demanding to know all the details of what was going on. And he would, of course, as soon as they got rid of the prole. Some appearances had to be kept up.

The weather had turned for the autumn, and by the time they arrived at the press the horizontal rain was building into a storm. Ivan was warm in the dress greens he hadn't bothered to change out of after work--they were not quite regulation, having been insulated, waterproofed and fireproofed, but when you had relations like Ivan's it was better to be safe than sorry. By was wearing a flimsy evening jacket, lace and ruffles still soaked. The prole was shivering, his nightshirt and dressing gown plastered to his bulk, unable to pull the dressing gown closed across his front because Ivan had used the sash to bind his wrists. Ivan vaguely felt he should be offering his tunic to one or the other of them. Then he thought better of it: he wasn't about to let the prole see he was unarmed. After the third time Xav had stunned him in the leg, Ivan learned to put away his weapons first thing when he got home.

They didn't have to endure the rain for long, in any case. As the prole had told By in the flyer, the security alarms were disabled, the delivery entrance unlocked. He'd been expecting a pickup in the night. Ivan got the door open while By "guarded" the prole. Inside the loading bay they found a lift van, and bundles covered with packing plastic, tied up with twine. Ivan tore one open with the knife on the end of his light-pen. There were pamphlets inside, hundreds, thousands of them, but not printed on plastic flimsies. These were on real, pulped-from-trees paper.

Handing a pamphlet to By, Ivan skimmed through another himself. It was the usual Conservative nonsense, rabbiting on about the vital importance of developing essential services as opposed to what it called "foreign fripperies". Komarr had been wealthy for centuries without its oligarchs seeing the need for a centralized terraforming project, the argument went, while Barrayar was in a stage of rapid industrialization, requiring central government funding for its infrastructure: electricity, water services, the monorail, the comm net--all these things were of strategic value in bringing the vast hinterland out of the Time of Isolation. It was a disgrace to the Barrayaran nation, it went on, that the most developed areas of the planet remained those that had a policy of collaboration with the Cetagandan occupation.

It then continued on a more personal tack. The Emperor was a fine man, but tragically orphaned at a young age. His desire for the security of family had blinded him to the truth about his wife. He was bewitched by That Foreign Woman, his judgment overcome by her powerful Komarran relatives, intent on rapaciously seizing from Barrayar to give to Komarr. Had Barrayar not spent enough sons on Komarr that she must spend fruits of her labor on Komarr too? It all sounded rather like the friends of Ivan's cousin Falco, the Count Vorpatril, only with shorter words and homelier prose, and repeated in all four of Barrayar's official languages.

The argument was absurd--what was the alternative? No Budget had ever been defeated in Barrayaran history; every voting count and minister knew that the consequence was a destabilized government. Then there was the example of Vanaheim III, where the resulting constitutional crisis had created the perfect opening for Kshatrya to invade. An embarrassment for Barrayar, who didn't quite manage to pull out its Embassy in time. Eliminating one of the three major local systems upset the balance of power, tipping Kshatrya and its other neighbor Radgrid into a prolonged war of attrition. In the end, when they'd bled each other dry, the Nuovo Brasilians stepped into the vacuum to absorb all three into their empire. Vanaheim III and Radgrid no longer existed as independent polities, and the Imperial Government of Kshatrya in Exile was forced these days to eke out a meager existence hiring itself out as the Imperial Mercenaries. It didn't bear thinking about, not when Barrayar had its very own expansionist empire slavering on the doorstep.

Not that the Cetagandans would admit to anything as crude as slavering.

By was intent on something else. "I don't see the seal of the Imperial Bureau of Publication Safety anywhere," he said, flipping through the pamphlet. "You may explain the circumstances to me later at your leisure, but first, do you know what this means for you?"

The prole looked surprisingly shocked at the question, considering that he claimed to know what they'd come for. He nodded slowly.

"Do you know the penalty for unlawful publication?"

The prole nodded again.

By explained anyway. "It's not so bad: a spell in prison to think over your crimes, a suspension of your publishing license to give you time to adjust your organizational culture--a good deal lighter than forgery, which is what you'd get if the seal were present. There's no way you could have pushed this through PubSafe. Unless you're very talented." His gaze flicked downwards to the prole's middle, currently demonstrating no particular talent at all. "But that would be bribery and corruption."

The prole kept nodding. A hopeful expression was starting to cross his face.

"Sedition, though," By hissed. "Sedition is treason. Did you know that?"

The prole paled and opened his mouth, but no words came.

"A conviction for sedition partly--only partly, mind you--depends on character and intent. What's your intent, I wonder."

"I'm--I'm not political… I'm a loyal Barrayaran. I've never understood pol--"

Ivan hated witnessing Miles do this sort of thing, and he now discovered that he hated it even more when it was By doing it, mainly because By wasn't acting much different from his usual obnoxious self. Well, this wasn't Ivan's job, so there wasn't any point to his dawdling. By was just getting started.

"Forgive the interruption, but if he's telling the truth," he said to By, jerking his head at the prole, "and the pickup is happening any minute now, shouldn't we get these things out of here? Which ones are them, anyway?"

By studied the prole. "All of them, I should think."

"All of them?" That came as a shock. Somehow, despite the evidence of the ripped-open bundle, Ivan was still expecting a nice tidy wad of seventy-five. It wasn't just the vote Vortaine meant to sway, then. In fact, the Budget's passage would only reinforce the arguments in his pamphlet. He didn't want a coup; he wanted a revolution, and all this was starting not to sound much like the stuck-in-the-mud, overlooked-for-the-Countship Cyril Vortaine that Ivan sort-of knew.

"You can't… You can't just take this!" The prole had finally found his indignation. "It's private property! Do you have documents? A search warrant? You're not PubSafe at all, are you? What the hell are you doing here?"

Ivan and By waited for him to finish, to run down to the inevitable conclusion. Then, "A search warrant sounds so tediously bureaucratic, especially when it's unnecessary. I don't know about you," By drawled, his appallingly liquid Vorrutyer eyes running appreciatively, obscenely, along the line of Ivan's shoulders, "but I don't fancy straining myself carrying all this, er, 'out of here'. I'm afraid we'll have to destroy it. How, do you think?" he pretended to ask Ivan. "Shall we burn it?"

The prole's indignation sputtered out as quickly as it had flared. He was making abortive little glances at one wall, starting to edge towards it. Ivan followed his line of sight to a panel with a striped border. Was there a fire hose behind it? The man looked nervous enough to take By at his word. "No, if you please, lord," he pleaded, "these aren't flimsies; it's all paper. Paper's combustible. It'll take down the building."

"But my dear fellow, is that obstruction I sense? Then you won't need the building when they revoke your license--and your lovely plump head." He patted the prole's cheek speculatively. "How high do you suppose it'll bounce on the Great Square in Vorbarr Sultana? Besides," he added in a conspiratorial whisper, "I'm not the lord; he is, much as he looks like a bit of trade."

"We're inside! He's insane!" The prole turned to Ivan, who was doing his best impression of invisibility--this really wasn't his job--and wildly back towards By. "We're all going to die!"

A Vor's life is not his own: he holds it in trust for his Emperor and spends it on his behalf. By wasn't insane; he was Vor. Ivan waited a beat for it to really sink in for the prole, during which he experienced an uncomfortable moment of fellowship with By, the last person in the Nexus he'd choose to share any fellow-feeling.

Quite reasonably, and finally switching to French, By said, "How do you propose we move this, then?"

He told them, of course.

Ivan loaded the lift van's freight compartment with the aid of a giant robotic arm running along a track that hung from the ceiling, while the other two stood aside to have their chat. He made barely a dent in the bundles. Knowing he'd be returning for a few more trips, and not wanting to make the pickup too easy for Vortaine's men should they arrive before him, he pocketed the arm's remote.

Then came the decision of where to take their load. The municipal guard station was rejected; neither Ivan nor By had any contacts there. The district militia was similarly rejected--for obvious reasons. When Ivan suggested Port Vortaine in a last-ditch effort, By was initially skeptical.

"I'll handle Vorinnis," said Ivan. "I've known him forever."

Although he hoped he sounded more confident than he felt, it hardly mattered if his reasoning reassured By, because Port Vortaine was the only safe base for them anywhere near Saint-Fiacre, and By knew it. He tried to argue all the same. Ivan was irritated; there were some things you really didn't want to explain.

"I can deal with Vorinnis," he repeated. "He's a pushover."

"A pushover? That's not what I've heard."

"He is when it comes to me. Which is why you'll be waiting outside while I see him."

By's eyes sparkled maliciously. "Do I smell a dirty little secret?"

"No, you don't. It's called loyalty. And honor. I don't have time to explain the concepts to you." So Ivan had finally worked out how to deal with By: you whetted his curiosity, and he was as distractible as a ferret.

With no further discussion, they were off. To Port Vortaine.

Chapter Text

Although he had to cede his lightflyer to By, who didn't have the heavy vehicle license required to fly a lift van in the Vortaine's District, Ivan managed to snatch a few blissful moments of silence on the flight by keeping the prole gagged in the back.

The night was spiraling out of control. Ivan had intended to spend a nice, quiet, and--yes--boring evening placating the evil mastermind that Aunt Cordelia mistook for a cat, followed by an early night as soon as Xav left him to go out on the prowl. Instead, here he was, flying across some formless corner of the Vortaine's District in a storm, on his way to petition poor old Vorinnis, whom he'd not seen in years, with his snotty not-cousin, a by now thoroughly confused prole, and a lift van full of seditious publications in tow. It was almost, but not quite, Ivan's least-favorite way of spending an evening, trumped only by having to act pleasant and charming at a party when the person he'd spent most of his life trying to keep out of trouble had taken one gamble too many and gotten himself--apparently irretrievably--killed.

Too soon, and not soon enough, they approached the lights of Port Vortaine, first the residential and metropolitan areas, and then, a little apart, the real heart of the city: the burgeoning industrial complex that ringed one of the oldest functioning Barrayaran shuttleports. When Ivan gave his name, he was waved through every checkpoint, past shiny new extensions and expansions flashing with aircraft warning lights, through to the commissioner's office in one of the original buildings, kept just as shiny and in fine repair. By's assessment of Vorinnis made sense as far as it went: the condition of his shuttleport testified he was a shrewd operator. But that was work; Ivan was not. He'd been depending on there being no objections to Vorinnis receiving a social call at any hour, and was gratified the years had not changed him in this regard. A lackey left Ivan in a nondescript room, smooth and elegantly bland in that peculiarly Cetagandan style you came to expect in these old installations.

Dmitri Vorinnis appeared just as Ivan forced himself to stop hovering and sit down, and ushered him through a low door into his inner office. Ivan almost didn't notice the old limp that had pulled Vorinnis off ship duty. By rights he shouldn't have that limp, but he'd been caught up in the Pretender's War while home on leave: in the final stages even Count Vorinnis couldn't protect his District from the fighting that spilled out of the capital. Following Vorinnis through the door, Ivan bowed his head briefly to the icon corner, though he was not superstitious himself and doubted it of Vorinnis. Rather, the corner seemed to be a memorial: a wedding diptych hanging in the center of the group; the table covered by the Vorinnis tartan; a lamp and a censer in which Vorinnis must burn offerings to his dead. Dismissing the lackey hanging hopefully about the doorway, Vorinnis shut the door.

"Sit, Vorpatril. Schnapps?"

"Thank you, sir."

Ivan drained it in one go. It burned nicely on its way down, settling into a warm glow. Oh, the benefits of retirement from the Service! Running a major commercial shuttleport had its perks. Vorinnis poured him another--a double, this time.

"Thank you." Ivan controlled himself to taking a respectful sip. "You look well, sir. My mother asks after your health."

His mother had asked no such thing, and Vorinnis must know it.

"Thank the Lady Alys for me, for her concern. Tell her I'm keeping well--much better, in fact. I maintain getting out of the capital's the best thing I've ever done." He tilted his head minutely, encompassing the room and the shuttleport around it. "Not bad for a personal tinpot kingdom, eh?"

"Nice place you've made of it, sir. I like what you've done with the old fuel depot. Very elegant. And by Gate Two, the…"

"…the hotel…"

"Was that there the last time I dropped in?"

"Ah, no--though that was, what? Five years ago? They working you hard at HQ?"

Ivan winced at the implied criticism--and at the suppressed wistfulness in Vorinnis's tone. "Sir--well, you know Vorbarr Sultana. There's this and that, and nothing gets done; we're all treading water. But here--I barely recognize the place."

Vorinnis pursed his lips on a smile and half-nodded.

"Enough of the flattery; I'm here to ask a favor, sir, actually." The cold knot in the pit of Ivan's stomach, momentarily dispelled by the alcohol--by Vorinnis's very fine alcohol--was back with a vengeance. "I've, er, got myself landed with some evidence and a couple of witnesses. They'll want to be kept safe until I call the cavalry out to fetch them, sir, and I was thinking you might have somewhere…"

People trusted Ivan. Mostly they trusted that he was without any initiative whatsoever and was therefore acting under orders. Vorinnis, who'd known him since he was a lad in diapers, was no exception. "Family business, eh?"

Ivan shrugged, throwing in a self-deprecating smile. "I do as I'm told, sir."

It was enough. Vorinnis clasped him on the shoulder. "You've never been anything but straight with me, Vorpatril. Would the brig do, do you think?"

"Perfectly, thank you. It's only for a few hours. Sir, what's the security on this comconsole?"

"It's secured. This is my private sanctum." Then he rose and left, saying, "I'll be in the outer office."

The soul of discretion.

Ivan should have been getting Artemyev, Admiral Duplaine's ImpSec liaison, on the comm except, never having called the man, he'd not bothered to learn his code. It wasn't Ivan's job. He tried to have as little to do with weaselly ImpSec types as he could; he'd had more than enough of them when he was attached to the Diplomatic Service, even though at the Embassy he was only spying on the enemy rather than delivering fellow Barrayarans up to Domestic Affairs. So now he was forced to scan through Vorinnis's directory for his ImpSec liaison. Unfortunately Vorinnis had scarcely better access than Ivan himself. Ivan's estimation of the man rose measurably.

When Ivan was finally connected to what he thought must be Domestic Affairs, he was answered by a lazy lump who redirected him to the switchboard. The switchboard was no more forthcoming. They must have put everyone competent on the Komarran reception, damn it. Ivan was of half a mind to call his mother and jump over a few heads. Eventually, after being passed up the chain twice and laterally between units three times, in the midst of which farce he gave up on the whole Concerned Barrayaran Subject nonsense and let them know who he really was, he was able to put his request through to some major, acting commander of the local ImpSec base. He was assured he'd be sent a so-called "investigative team" to arrive in half an hour, which was half an hour too late by his reckoning. Even so, he was less disgruntled than he might have been, considering he had bargained the man down from an initial estimate of one and a half to two hours.

The next problem was By. And By was always a problem.

"You're not having me put in the brig, my dear Ivan," he declared in Russian. "May I remind you that I'm not a witness in this; I'm the operative. If anything, you should be the witness." A novel note of panic edged his voice.

Ivan refused to think about it. "Look," he pointed out, "Dmitri Vorinnis trusts me; he doesn't trust that a town clown like you won't be planting the pamphlets on him to get him in trouble. You don't know good old Vorinnis like I do: he's not--entirely rational, when it comes to people."

"Very well, you speak for me, then. This is, after all, my case."

"Just so. Which is why you should be here getting the story out of him--" he jerked his head at the prole "--ready to report to ImpSec when they arrive, while I'm fetching and carrying, being the donkey as usual."

By looked unconvinced for a moment, then calculating; then he sighed dramatically and said, switching to French, "It's just my luck that, the one time I'm locked up in confined quarters, of the two of you it's the dumpy prole I'm spending the night with."

Ivan flinched from the pointed look the prole shot him. Still, he was relieved By had seen sense: he really didn't need a bossy civilian getting in the way and needing to be taken care of--particularly when the bossy civilian in question happened to be Byerly Vorrutyer.

Chapter Text

Although it involved doing work, Ivan decided, on balance he hadn't come through too badly-off. After all, he'd succeeded in avoiding all of the following: spending a moment more in By's company, continuing to exchange excruciating small talk with Vorinnis, and having to deal with Domestic Affairs. Yes, here he was, unloading the pamphlets, hand-tractoring them down utility corridors, stacking them in the cargo bay cordoned off for his use, all perfectly unobtrusive, all perfectly safe.

When the freight compartment was empty, Ivan flew back to the press for a second run. It was dark and quiet at his approach, and though it seemed to take forever to get the bundles loaded, his heart in his throat all the while, he managed to finish and leave without encountering any opposition.

He was halfway through loading the lift van on his third trip when he heard the roaring of engines. At first he assumed it was ImpSec come to relieve him, which meant he was soon to be on his way home--after picking up By, if he were feeling particularly charitable. Then the noise grew too loud over the rain to belong to a single vehicle. Seconds later, the doorway and windows of the loading bay were flooded with light from headlights shining in from every direction, filling the yard outside.

Ivan swallowed his panic. He told himself that the van hid him from view, and briefly, wildly, thought he might have to blow everything up after all. But that was civilian--it was By's style: though it would look spectacular on the holovid, it wasn't at all practical.

Through the blinding dazzle of headlights Ivan couldn't count how many vehicles were outside, what they were, how many goons he'd have to fight. Where had ImpSec got to, now when he desperately needed them? Curse By for not sending them on to the press.

He shouldn't even be here. This wasn't his job. This was the kind of thing Miles should be doing, not Ivan. Miles would be high on the excitement and adventure. Ivan got all the excitement and adventure he needed from making coffee for the office or being savaged by the monsterkin that shared his apartment.

Ivan made himself finish guiding the claw of the robotic arm out of the lift van's freight compartment. He wanted to climb into the cockpit, fly the van out of there. Though that was hardly appropriate: there were still a good few bundles of pamphlets remaining, and he was here to prevent their delivery. He would have to hide in the press, try to think of a good idea.

There was nowhere to hide in the loading bay except behind the piles of pamphlet bundles. That was no good; the thugs would be all over them soon. But Ivan was still holding the remote.

There was a high window near the ceiling, one that didn't lead outside. A flight of steps nearby led to a narrow door, too far for a man to reach the window from the landing. Ivan guessed the door opened to the overseer's office. He hoped it could give him some ideas.

He climbed onto the claw of the robotic arm, braced his arms around its wrist, flicked the remote. The arm swung wildly, diagonally crossing the room.

After an evening's familiarity with the remote, Ivan's aim was good: the claw crashed into the internal window, and in a hail of safety glass Ivan landed in a tiny office. He tried the door he'd seen earlier. It was locked, as he'd suspected. So he had a little time.

There was a comconsole in the office whose password Ivan did not know, a long table piled high with things printed on real paper, two chairs, a second window overlooking the factory floor, where Ivan caught sight of machines that he took to be the printing presses, and three more doors. One of these, locked, led to the floor. Another opened to a flight of stairs, presumably to more offices in the roof. Then Ivan tried the last.

He was met with a tangle of cables and panels of buttons and switches. He almost fell over in relief. If he was lucky, he'd just found the security controls. He stared at the panels along the alcove's walls, wishing he remembered any of the engineering he'd learned at the Academy or in those interminable Professional Development tutorials at the Embassy.

Gradually, as blind panic receded, his training started to reassert itself. He recalled now what most of the main components did--this system was far simpler than the one he'd gotten Miles through--but what did he want to do with it?

There was a tiny window overlooking the yard. Peering out, Ivan counted four float trucks. So there were at least four goons, more likely eight or twelve. One crossed the yard to the nearest float truck and leaned over to talk to the pilot. The pilot jumped out. They went to the other float trucks in turn, to the same effect. Ivan supposed the goons inside the loading bay were trying to shift the lift van, which was obstructing the other vehicles, and needed all the help they could get.

That gave Ivan his idea. It wasn't a particularly good idea, but it was the best he could do. He waited for all the goons to enter the building; then he broke the glass and switched on the security lockdown.

A force screen coalesced, shimmering gold against the ceiling, walls, and floor. Looking out the window Ivan saw it cover the exterior surfaces as well. Not only did it create a physical barrier, it interfered with the standard civilian comm net spectrum. Using his light-pen knife, Ivan cut what he was almost certain was the cable that carried comm signals across the force screen. He turned up the knife's power and held it to the lockdown toggle, vaporizing it into a neat hole in the panel. Ivan was impressed: he didn't usually use the knife for anything more strenuous than peeling fruit or opening pouches of cat food.

The security system was intended to prevent unwanted entry, rather than egress, so Ivan knew there were overrides in case staff found themselves stranded inside. Which meant that the goons were prevented from getting out or reporting only for as long as he held the alcove. He didn't expect that to be a long time. There were eight of them to one of him, and only a locked door between them. He had to destroy the overrides. He turned his knife's power back down and started cutting cables.

He spent a long time cutting cables, vaporizing switches, until he wondered why no one was trying to attack. He risked another peek through the window. And saw a huddle of six goons deliberating in a cleared space, the other two sniffing about. Ivan had expected them to be more efficient. Moreover they didn't look like any goons he'd ever had the misfortune to meet. They looked more like the sort of delivery proles who flew cabbage trucks to market, the ones you saw on those rural development holovids that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry bullied the Ministry of Culture into issuing every couple of years.

One of the two scouts, though Ivan was reluctant to dignify them as such, was beginning to climb the stairs.

Ivan looked around. Headlights were still shining up onto the ceiling from the tiny window, reflecting off the force screen in a sparkle of gold. Miles would have known how to disable the screen locally; he'd have been small enough to crawl out of the window, make off with the float trucks. Better, he'd have charmed the thugs into delivering the pamphlets straight to ImpSec, sparing them the bother of the chase.

By would have convinced them he was a journalist who'd gotten drunk and was left behind when his colleagues went home, or that he'd gotten lost and wandered in when the delivery entrance was open, interrupting the imaginary original culprits to whom the lift van belonged. By would have kept the goons amused or outraged, but in any case idle, until ImpSec arrived, even if it took days.

But he wasn't Miles and he wasn't By. He was Ivan-You-Idiot. Ivan-You-Idiot couldn't do any of those things. He was, as By had said, an accountant--well, accountant's secretary--and this wasn't his job. His job was to help run tax inventories and model budget projections. There wasn't much to like about it except the security and routine it offered, but it was what the Service demanded of him, and the Service knew what suited him best. Because, unlike Miles or By, Ivan-You-Idiot had no hope of convincing anyone of anything without a data disk of holocharts. Even then it was touch and go.

More sets of footsteps were making their way up the stairs. The security control panels were as badly destroyed as Ivan could manage with his tiny knife. It was time to retreat into the roof space.

He found himself near the end of a corridor extending the length of the building, on the right an external wall set with sash windows, offices with sloping ceilings opening to the left. He locked the stairwell door and shoved a chair from the nearest office under the old-fashioned handle as he'd seen done on Xav's holovid. So the vain little brute's obsession with the sound of his own name was good for something at last.

The chair was a poor barricade: it wouldn't give Ivan much time. All he needed was time. He didn't have to win--he didn't have to survive. All he had to do was buy enough time, keep the goons occupied until ImpSec arrived. That was easy enough, surely.

He had a light-pen in one hand and a plastic remote in the other. He'd not keep them occupied for two seconds.

He remembered the prole glancing at the wall panel. He remembered it was safety glass he'd crashed through--he'd only bruised his hip in the impact, if that. Vortaine was Old Vor enough to take care of his people; if Vortaine was associated with this building there should be a corresponding emergency panel on this floor.

It was halfway down the corridor. Ivan pried it open to find the high-pressure fire hose he'd expected, along with a small hatchet for breaking glass that came as a pleasant surprise. He now had a ranged weapon, the fire hose, which should be good until someone thought to turn off the mains; and a hatchet and knife, which were an innovative twist on the traditional two swords, he supposed. And a remote.

He considered rigging the remote into a small grenade. Then he decided the point of the exercise was not to burn the place down. So he took cover in an office doorway, fire hose aimed at the stairwell door, in growing dread at the prospect of a fight against eight goons.

No one came for him, though they must have got into the office by now. Ignoring an enemy when you were aware of his presence made no sense. Maybe they were concentrating all their efforts on disabling the force screen? If that was the case, Ivan had to stop them. Rushing them wasn't likely to prove useful for anything except getting himself killed. But he still had the remote.

He couldn't see what he was doing, he wasn't sure if the signal worked inside the force screen or if it was subject to interference like the comm frequencies, but it was worth a try. Visualizing the position of the robotic arm where he'd jumped off, he swung it at the alcove. He jerked it away, rammed it back in. Again and again, from every direction. Crashing and shouts floated up the stairwell as the claw must have lurched around the little office, taking swipes at the thugs.

The shouting quieted down. Had he damaged the arm? Had they shut the alcove door against it? Ivan's heart clenched suddenly at the mental picture--the stifling dark, the drip of water, the smell of things dying by the shore--he had to calm himself down by repeating that he wasn't in London any more. He would never go back to London, or anywhere else on Earth, ever again.

Whatever was happening in the overseer's office, Ivan kept the arm moving, just in case he was doing some good, because there was nothing else to do. The pressure of expectation was mounting, so that he almost wished someone would try to break in upstairs and give him an honest fight. He didn't like the quiet, he didn't like to think what they could be doing in the alcove. He'd proved he was a threat. Still no one came.

He couldn't understand it. These people didn't look like goons, though Vortaine could afford the very best. So Ivan must conclude that they weren't goons.

Suddenly everything made sense. Ivan was being an idiot. Despite Miles criticizing him often enough for this very thing, it seemed he still hadn't learned: he was thinking like a subordinate rather than Cyril Vortaine, Heir and almost-Count of the Vortaine's District. These proles looked like country bumpkins--because that's exactly what they were. They weren't armed, and they couldn't read, and that was why Vortaine had hired them: he wanted men who didn't know what they were doing, who asked no questions, who didn't realize they were doing anything less than above board. Vortaine looked after his people; he'd not involve them in knowingly committing treason if he could help it.

Miles was always two steps ahead of the enemy because he knew what they'd be thinking before they did. By could always manipulate people by playing to their expectations. Which meant now Ivan had to think like a delivery prole. He hadn't the first idea how. Would they succeed in disabling the screen? Had they given up and gone downstairs to find another way out? Were they preparing to attack him despite what he assumed to be their instructions to the contrary? He tried to imagine himself in their shoes. He simply could not do it.

As far as Ivan was concerned, a prole was a man who was not Vor and not Service. But when he tried to take the Vor and Serviceman out of himself, there was nothing left. His mother expected him to be her truly perfect, gentle knight--and he was suddenly inexplicably terrified that there truly was nothing more to him than that.

Except there was the terror. He was so often absolutely, utterly terrified. Danger exhilarated Miles; Gregor bore daily with equanimity things that would turn Ivan into a gibbering wreck. Climbing up his family tree, his father Padma had ventured into an enemy-occupied city to fetch a midwife, his grandfather Ivan had taken down half of Yuri's death squad single-handed, and every evening in front of the holovid Ivan was faced by his great-grandfather Prince Xav's acts of derring-do. While plenty of things scared Ivan, from close spaces to competent women. There was that. It was not a comforting thought.

The quality of the light changed. They must have shut the alcove door after all, and now they'd disabled the force screen. Ivan raised the hatchet to the nearest window--He checked himself, reluctant to alert them with the noise. He reached up instead to fumble with the old-fashioned latch.

Cursing the very concept of historically accurate renovation, Ivan heaved at the window until it opened wide onto the fire escape he'd expected. Ducking out, he skidded along the platform slick with bucketing rain. He climbed down the ladder. There was a drop at the bottom; he aimed for a patch of garden to avoid crunching too loudly on the gravel.

The rain masked his footsteps as he dashed for the nearest float truck. What he'd do with it he didn't know; he only knew it was easier to plan in the possession of a piece of equipment than without.

He lifted off just as two delivery proles, having given up on shifting the van out of the delivery entrance, came out into the rain, hauling a bundle of pamphlets between them. They saw Ivan. Dropping the pamphlets, they ran for the other float trucks.

Ivan had no time. Hovering overhead, he was reminded of something else that had happened in London--luckily, not to him. If you could try it on people, why not float trucks?

He positioned himself directly above the nearest truck and switched off the anti-grav.

There was a sickening lurch. His head hit the ceiling, the impact of it jolting down his spine. Another lurch, accompanied by a crunch, as he was pressed down into the seat.

He really shouldn't be flying without a shoulder harness, but he'd had no time.

He approached the second float truck. The pilot--he'd seen what had happened to the first truck--lifted off, attempting to escape. Instead of landing squarely on top, the back of Ivan's truck hit the ground. He came to rest at a crazy tilt. At least he'd braced himself this time; his ears were only moderately ringing.

He lifted off again. By now the third truck had picked up speed--Ivan was momentarily distracted: one of the delivery proles, their supervisor perhaps, was lifting his wrist to his mouth. Ivan made a split-second decision to go for the truck, leaving him to his report.

Ivan had no chance of squashing the last float truck. He'd have to ram it. He wasn't suicidal, though, so he'd try to avoid the fuel cells, if he could. Of course, he'd already decided he couldn't imagine how delivery proles thought and what they would do, so who knew if the prole would make a sudden swerve--and how the trucks would impact in such a case.

Taking a deep breath, he went for it.

Chapter Text

Ivan came to wedged awkwardly in a cockpit that was all broken glass, jagged plastic and twisted steel. The wind roared through the structure. The rain poured in. He felt sick. He couldn't get out. His head hurt. Something hard was grinding into the hip that had hit the window of the overseer's office. His left shoulder felt bruised, his arm pinned in a corner that hadn't existed before. He wasn't quite sure where he was.

The window of the overseer's office?

Oh.

The fuel cells' indicator lights were dark, telling Ivan nothing. But a red light flashed by his head, probably the float truck's comm wanting to make a distress call. Cautiously, he eased his right arm free to let it. It was time for the regular authorities.

He blinked the rain out of his eyes. It didn't help much. He seemed to have landed side-on--if you could tell which side was which of the twisted chunk of metal that the float truck had become--in an alleyway. The truck had taken with it part of the roof and wall of a building on the near side. Maybe on the far side as well, Ivan couldn't see. Ahead he glimpsed what must have been the wreck of the third truck--and, really, that was good enough.

Two municipal guardsmen arrived, listened to Ivan call for dogs and confiscation of pamphlets, shook their heads, went away, and returned with a crew who cut him out of the cockpit. Someone shone a light into his eyes, blindingly bright. He was poked and prodded. There was a tuning fork. The guardsmen hauled him up between them.

"What about the other float truck?" he asked, perhaps with a touch of hysteria.

"What about the other float truck?" said the guardsman holding him up on the left. "You've totaled it; there's nobody inside--if that's what you're asking."

"And the two I squashed?"

"The what?"

"The ones at the press. Haven't you been listening to a word I've said?"

"Those are your handiwork too?"

"You have to catch them. Eight proles, one with a wristcom, likely unregistered. You have to confiscate the pamphlets as well. That's the delivery they were trying to make."

"Easy, easy," said the guardsman on his right, as if Ivan were a skittish horse. "You've had a nasty hit on the head. Before you say anything more, let me tell you your rights first." They bound his wrists and arrested him for reckless flying causing property damage and flying without a shoulder harness.

Ivan had to let ImpSec know what had happened. And the last place he could do that from was "disappeared" somewhere in the civilian justice system. In a panic, there was only one thing he could think to say: "Do you know who I am? I'm Ivan Vorpatril, and you'll let me speak with ImpSec."

"Yeah, yeah," said the first guardsman.

Hefting Ivan into their aircar, he gave his arm a jerk that shot agony up to his shoulder. He decided it wasn't just bruised; he'd pulled something, too.

"I am Lord Ivan Vorpatril," he insisted.

"Look, you, whoever you are," said the guardsman, "there was a re-enactment of Yuri's Massacre here last week, and I know what Lord Vorpatril looks like. And let me tell you: you're not him."

Of course. This town was a crazy tourist spot where the municipal guard must be used to actors claiming to be all sorts of famous people. "No, that's the first Lord Vorpatril my grandfather. I'm the current one. And I demand you transfer me to Service Security at once. My name is Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril; as an officer in His Majesty's Imperial Service I am under the jurisdiction of Imperial Service Security and have the right to trial by court martial."

"Yeah, and I'm Ekaterin Empress of All the Russias," said the guardsman. "Come to think of it, we did have an Ekaterin Empress of All the Russias on Thursday. Insisted on it. You might meet her in the holding cells--we haven't processed her yet." The guardsmen sniggered as if at a private joke.

There was no arguing with these people. The talk of cells and processing sounded hopeful, though: maybe Ivan wasn't to be locked away forever just yet. "I want to make a comm call," he said, sounding his most subdued.

"There, that's better," said the other guardsman, patting his arm. "You can wait your turn like the others."

A short, queasy flight later, they arrived at the Saint-Fiacre Municipal Guard Station. It was an ornate, rather imposing-looking building, all scrollwork and copperplate, set back from the road by a cobbled courtyard. The theme continued in the reception areas open to the public, through which Ivan was led to a code-locked door. On the other side they took him along a coolly-lit corridor sporting a double row of holding cells, bright and clean, spacious, fitted out with modern amenities--all occupied.

The second guardsman said almost apologetically, "I'm afraid we're full tonight; you'll have to go with the crazies."

Ivan went quietly. He didn't want to make trouble and give them an excuse to deny him his comm call. Still, it took most of his fortitude to comply when he discovered where they were leading him. They'd come around in a circle back to a part of the station designed for public display, now temporarily partitioned for non-frivolous use. Facing a stone corridor lit by holographic safety torches were two large, barred cages full of--well, "crazies" hadn't been a bad word to describe them: the cage into which Ivan was thrust housed, amongst the usual assortment of drunks and vandals, a Napoleon and a Stalin, oddly enough a Xenophon, a Vorthalia the Bold, a couple of General Vorkrafts, and a man who introduced himself as Ivan's Uncle Aral the Viceroy of Sergyar. Ivan wondered bleakly why so many delusionals--unless they were actors?--should all show up in such a small town. Then again, if he had a relation convinced he was General Vorkraft, what better place to keep him out of sight than Saint-Fiacre?

Ivan claimed a surreptitious corner and willed himself to disappear, eyeing his cellmates warily. Most were sleeping off the drink or lounging on the floor or the benches bolted to the wall. Xenophon was holding a quiet, though animated, discussion about dressage technique with Shorter General Vorkraft, as far as Ivan could make out with his imperfect grasp of Greek. These might be the town troublemakers but, being proles, none dared show aggression in the face of authority. Taller General Vorkraft was standing at the bars that separated the cages, trying to gain the attention of the female inmates in the other cell.

Those women huddled against the opposite wall, giving Taller General Vorkraft no notice: they must have learned by now he had nothing for them. They looked listless. It was deep night, but none dared sleep--though from the looks of some of them Ivan guessed they weren't used to sleeping at night, anyway. It seemed to be the usual story: village girls who hadn't managed to get married in time and couldn't face the weighted sack for an inconvenient whelp. In Vorbarr Sultana such girls could forgo marriage to reinvent themselves as galactic-style career women; in a small town in the Conservative heartland, they had fewer options. Well, that seemed to apply to most of them. Some were dressed just as oddly as the men: Ivan had the discomforting suspicion there was another General Vorkraft in their midst.

"Ekaterin!" Ivan called, mostly to distract himself from the rising nausea and the throbbing pain in his skull. "I was told I might find you here."

A girl looked up, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with jewels in her hair, a glorious cleavage, and a silk sash tied over frills and ruffles that just failed to cover any of her curves or her miles and miles of legs. Not under the delusion she really was Empress of All the Russias, then. Good.

"Who are you?"

"Who would you like me to be?" Ivan emerged from his corner, slowly approaching the bars, careful not to limp on his hip, picking his way between sleeping bodies, taking a step with every name. "Serg? Stanislav? Gregor? Alexander? But I'd rather you called me Ivan."

She was approaching too, just as cautiously as he did. "Because you're a violinist?"

"Because I'm called Ivan." Ivan shot Taller General Vorkraft a threatening look and jerked his head to indicate he should leave. Taller General Vorkraft withdrew. Ivan's head hurt.

The girl gave Ivan a grateful little smile and came right up to the bars as he wanted, leaning against them. She smelled like woman: she must be wearing pheromones. Ivan inclined his head slightly, all gallantry. There was a long wait ahead--he didn't know how many hours he'd have to waste in this pit--he might as well keep up his skills. It was too easy, though, with her. He supposed she was doing the same.

He reached up through the bars to unpin her hair from its elaborate updo and watched as it cascaded down her shoulders. "Oh, dear. Your hair's come loose."

"Are you trying to steal my hairpins?" she teased.

"No. Should I be?"

"Some do. Don't you ever lose anything to your clients?"

"My what?" Ivan hoped she didn't mean what he thought she meant.

She gave a little exasperated sigh. "You're obviously a jobbing actor like me. Look at you: you can't be a captain--" she touched his collar so gently he almost didn't feel it "--it would be entirely unfair for a man to be good-looking and a captain as well."

"It's against Imperial law to impersonate Service personnel," he replied. It was perhaps not the most romantic comment to make.

She shrugged. "Where you're from, maybe. People here do it all the time. Look at General Vorkraft: he's in for harassing decent matrons in the promenade again, not for impersonating anyone." She flicked her gaze down and bit her lip, then looked back up at him. He wished the lighting were more flattering. "But, if you insist, I'll let you be a real captain tonight."

"I thank you, Your Majesty."

She laughed and shook her head. "I'm spoiling you: next you'll be telling me you're a Vor lord."

Ivan decided he didn't want to deal with that statement just yet.

He must have hesitated a moment too long, because she said, "You can't ask me to believe that. Ignore the holovid--it makes everyone look good. Vor lords are all horrifically ugly. It's the inbreeding, you know."

Ivan was beginning to enjoy watching her dig herself a nice little hole. "Really?" he encouraged.

"Oh, yes. It's why all their wives take lovers, and they have to make do with us."

Ivan considered all the countesses and ladies he'd known. "I thought it was because they marry for political advantage." Too late, he realized she'd included him in her "us".

"That's their excuse so they don't lose face. Didn't you know? You really are an idiot, aren't you?" she said without rancor, in just the way he liked. She felt nice against him. She didn't seem to mind he was dripping wet. "I think I'd feel sorry if you were a Vor lord. I like you. And they always seem so sad--or somber, at least. The Emperor's the worst: one look at him and it makes you want to cry."

Although Ivan privately agreed with her assessment of Gregor's habitually glum expression, he said, "It's because you see them on the newsvid, usually when there's been a state funeral, or a declaration of war, or a natural disaster or something."

"That's just it, isn't it? I don't have to worry about those things."

"You worry about men stealing your hairpins," said Ivan, handing them back to her as a bouquet.

He would have dropped them down the front of her dress one by one, but he had a feeling they had an audience by now, and it wouldn't do to shame her, whatever she was. It was high time he returned her hairpins: booted feet were approaching from somewhere down the corridor. He hoped they might be coming for him.

They were. His two guardsmen halted before the cage, turned to look for him, and asked for "Ivan Vorpatril" in a disbelieving tone.

The girl laughed. "I knew it! Though why him? Is it because he married a princess?"

Ivan felt a flash of annoyance. Why did everyone think instantly of his grandfather? Granted, Ivan deliberately kept a low profile, but how could he be more obscure than a man whose only claim to fame was idiotically getting his body between Yuri's death squad and Prince Xav's daughter? He should have grabbed his son and run, like Great-uncle Piotr.

"What about an empress?" the girl continued. "Have you ever known an empress?"

Ivan thought about all the frighteningly formidable empresses he knew--well, not in that sense--and grimaced. Laisa wasn't too bad, but otherwise… "I have to go. I have a comm call to make."

"I'll see you when you get back," she said with a smile.

"No, you won't see me. They'll let me go."

"Everyone says that, but they always come back."

"Well, I won't." And he kissed her through the bars.

The girl was a good kisser, though the stability of the Imperium was possibly more deserving of Ivan's attention just now. He allowed his hands to be bound again. He was led back through the coolly-lit corridor, across an antechamber whose walls were tiled with vidplates, and deposited into a room bare but for a comconsole bolted to the floor.

When the guardsmen made to go, he said, "Stay with me. You'll need to take instructions."

They flicked each other a significant look. Evidently deciding to humor the lunatic, they arranged themselves on either side of the door.

Ivan keyed in Vorinnis's code. As soon as his image appeared on the vidplate, Ivan fancied he heard the guardsmen straighten themselves.

"Ivan, you idiot! Where are you?" Vorinnis hadn't called Ivan by his given name since he was admitted to the Academy.

"Never mind that, sir. Safe. Have ImpSec arrived?"

Vorinnis might have nodded, or maybe the display was shaky. "A platoon, over two hours ago. Dregs of the Service, mainly, passed over for tonight's reception. Most of them have left again--they're in and out--but they're based at the Port."

"Good. Patch me through to the platoon leader, please, sir."

"Do you need holo? He's in my interrogation room."

"No, no; just audio will do--" Then it sank in. "Still? After two hours? He's still interrogating?"

They were joined by Lieutenant Kuzin, leader of the Domestic Affairs investigative team, on his wristcom. Vorinnis, a civilian these days, insisted on making civilian-style introductions more suited to a party at the Imperial Residence than an ImpSec operation. Ivan smiled gratefully at Vorinnis, safe in the knowledge that Kuzin was effectively blind. It was nice when people spontaneously pulled rank for you: though he outranked Kuzin, he wasn't in his chain of command. If he was to get anywhere, he had to awe him with the full weight of his name, rank and title. Having set the tone for the conversation, Vorinnis left the details to Ivan.

Ivan advanced with all guns blazing, denying Kuzin the opportunity to take control. When you had a headache, it was the only way to deal with Domestic Affairs. "What the hell were you thinking, lieutenant?" he snarled, though to his ears it sounded like a purr. "Where the hell were you? I secured the premises till over an hour after I contacted your major, plenty of time for you to get there. The delivery's been aborted, no thanks to ImpSec. The men escaped. One has a wristcom; you can track him. You'll have to use dogs for the others, but in this weather I don't expect the scent to linger. I've got the Saint-Fiacre Municipal Guard onto it, and I've got them to confiscate the pamphlets. I don't know how far they'll get; they're a useless bunch out here. The one with the wristcom alerted at least one other person. You're running out of time.

"And I've lost my transport. I want your shuttle at the Saint-Fiacre Municipal Guard Station in ten minutes. When I get back I don't want to see you playing twenty questions in that cozy room, lieutenant, intruding on Commissioner Vorinnis's hospitality. Now get off your arse."

He disconnected from Kuzin's wristcom, feeling decidedly shaky and not a little sick. After taking a few deep breaths, he thanked Vorinnis, assuring him that he was safe and well, before disconnecting as soon as it was polite. He turned around.

"What? Was it something I said?" The two guards were looking distinctly nervous. "I hope you've sent out the dogs, for your own sake."

"We have, Lord Vorpatril, two hours ago. They've brought back four men so far. We've cordoned off the premises, too."

"Good. You'll keep the prisoners and confiscated materials isolated for handover to ImpSec."

So the municipal guard weren't entirely hopeless, after all. Then again, it would be deliberately obtuse to put one man, four wrecked float trucks and a scrambled security control room together and conclude that they indicated reckless flying.

Ivan had ten minutes to waste before the suborbital ImpSec shuttle came for him, ten minutes he didn't feel like spending in the guardsmen's company. Then he had an idea. "Take me back to the holding cells."

The guardsmen hesitated. After a moment, evidently made biddable by the threat of Domestic Affairs, they led him back.

Ivan stopped before the women's cage. "I want that one released," he said, pointing to Ekaterin Empress of All the Russias.

"Lord Vorpatril, this is highly irregular…" began the first guardsman.

Doubtless it was highly irregular, but under the circumstances Ivan didn't care: though it was wrong to feel vengeful, and these men had been doing no more than their duty, Ivan was tired and grumpy and having a terrible evening through no fault of his own. More to the point, By was too far away to blame.

The girl had raised her head at their arrival; when she heard "Lord Vorpatril", she began to look like a hunted hare.

"Do I look like I care?" Ivan interrupted pleasantly. "I want the girl."

"But--Lord Vorpatril, we don't have the authority. Complaints have been brought against her. Please, if you have issues with the proper procedure, you may raise them with the relevant authorities."

"Meaning Cyril Vortaine?" What Ivan had seen of this place had Vortaine's style oozing out of it.

"But of course you are familiar with my Lord Vortaine. I'm sure you know he's very particular about the law. And in this town we strive for historical accuracy. Perhaps you could discuss the matter with him: he's taken a personal interest in us--"

"He's not so particular about Imperial law against impersonating Service personnel," Ivan pointed out, making an effort to mask his irritation. "But if he's such a stickler for historical accuracy--which those torches make me doubt--tell him Ivan Vorpatril purchases this girl for his Household. Cyril Vortaine may name his price." Never mind that Ivan's "Household" consisted of himself, a black furry miscreation that ran circles around him, and a weekly cleaning service. It was the thought that counted.

From the courtyard outside, Ivan heard a whoosh over the wind and rain. His ImpSec transport had arrived. The guards must have heard it, too.

"Or I could raid you for her, which has the benefit of being even more historically accurate: we Vorpatrils were infamous for raiding the Vortaines for cattle and serfs."

The second guardsman had evidently been weighing the risk to his career of calling Lord Vortaine in the middle of the night for a spurious request. He cleared his throat, deciding to humor Ivan at last. "The girl's still in the holding cells; she hasn't been processed yet. If you want her, I suppose you can have her, and nobody need know. But she must understand, Lord Vorpatril, that in Saint-Fiacre it's against municipal bylaws for, er, actresses to ply their trade at street corners."

Ivan smirked a Miles-smirk. "How very galactic of you: if there's no documentation, it didn't happen. Get her out."

Ivan was signing a monorail chit when she sidled up to him, a little confused, a little apologetic, and taking everything in her stride. Stepping away, Ivan thrust the chit at her. It wasn't peculation if he remembered to make it up when he got back.

"Go home. Pack your things. Get yourself on the first monorail out of here in the morning." If she stayed, he knew she was bound to wind up back at the station sooner or later.

He hushed her when she tried to apologize for what she'd said and was grateful she didn't try to thank him; she must have realized he wasn't doing it for her sake. Then he let the guards show them out to the foyer where ImpSec was waiting. She drew back with a gasp when she saw the ImpSec man across the room, Horus eyes glinting from his collar.

Ivan gripped her elbow. "Ignore him. He's not here for you. He's with my backup, which is only--" he checked his wrist chronometer "--three hours late."

He accepted the return of his light-pen and the remote, which he hadn't remembered surrendering, nodded curtly in acknowledgement of the ImpSec man's salute, and walked the girl past him out of the double doors and down the front steps, to where a suborbital shuttle was landed in the courtyard, the ImpSec insignia painted across her fuselage. Four pairs of municipal guardsmen were transferring the prisoners onto the shuttle. The girl looked up at Ivan, no longer scared, but inquiringly. She was curious. Good.

"None of your business; get along with you." He gave her a slap on the rump. "Shoo!"

She scurried off into the storm. Halfway across the courtyard the rain had already soaked her dress through, so that in the wind the skirts clung to her legs as she ran. She gave Ivan one backwards glance as she rounded the gate, the jewels in her hair glinting in the shuttle's headlights. If, in a month's time, all this sordid business was the talk of Vorbarr Sultana, well, Ivan had a reputation to maintain. But if it wasn't, he might track the girl down, introduce her to his mother. Gregor could use people of talent and discretion--and she was talented, at least. Unless she was keeping quiet because ImpSec had got to her first, which meant she'd be rotting in a gutter somewhere, permanently silenced.

Ivan felt a twinge of--was it guilt?--for inadvertently letting her see more than ImpSec in their paranoia might allow. Then he was in the shuttle, trying to get as much information as he could out of the pilot while the co-pilot kept an eye on the prisoners in the cabin. They gave him no trouble; three of the four were visibly injured. So the robotic arm had worked, sort of: it had at least impeded their escape.

Chapter Text

The prisoners captured on By and the prole's information had been joined in Vorinnis's brig by the delivery proles' supervisor, the one with the wristcom. Ivan felt a flash of absurd self-satisfaction that Kuzin was following his leads. He barely had time to formally identify the rest of the delivery proles, the same sorry, bedraggled lot that he recognized from the press, when he received Kuzin's summons to meet in Vorinnis's outer office. To Ivan's disgust, neither he nor Vorinnis were cleared to receive any substantial answers. Nonetheless, he gathered that Kuzin's investigative team had been approaching the problem from the opposite end, starting with the Vor names that By had provided and proceeding from there; the continuous stream of prisoners were what kept him busy in Vorinnis's interrogation room.

"Good," said Ivan. "I was afraid you were harassing my witnesses for two hours."

"Ah, about them…"

"Yes?" Ivan encouraged, trying to sound his least dangerous.

"I'd like to lay charges against one of them, Lord Vorpatril. The other I'd like to keep for questioning. There's something about his story that doesn't add up."

"Efficiency, lieutenant. You've had over two hours with them--more than enough, surely, for a spot of fast-penta."

"Well," Kuzin admitted, "we had some difficulties there."

Ivan suddenly recalled By's flash of panic, quickly suppressed, when he'd asked him to stay at Port Vortaine. "What did you do to him?"

"What is he to you?" Kuzin had narrowed his eyes.

"He's a blight on my family and an albatross around my neck," Ivan wanted to say, "and if I let anything happen to him Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan and his wife will not be happy, Lady Alys Vorpatril will definitely not be happy, Count Dono Vorrutyer will have my head and unmentionables on a platter, and Emperor Gregor will give me That Look and make me wish the float truck had exploded around me and so spared Dono the trouble."

What he actually said was, "One of my cousins is the patron of his cousin's in-laws," picking one of their more distant relationships, "so I'll have some explaining to do if he's, er, damaged."

"He's low on the priority list; we haven't spent much time on him, yet."

If this was meant to be reassuring, it was not. As far as Ivan was concerned, they shouldn't have had to spend more than ten minutes receiving By's report.

"I'd like to see him."

Kuzin inclined his head sideways in a way he must have considered authoritative and rose in unison with Ivan.

"I'm sure you're very busy, lieutenant; I can show myself to the brig."

"All the same, I think I'll come with you. Maybe you can help me, Lord Vorpatril."

Ivan perforce let him lead the way.

By had been mauled by a bear. The impression was especially pronounced when you compared him with his surroundings, an immaculate Occupation-era cell evenly-lit by no obvious light source, with no sharp edges or corners, made of a material neither hard nor soft, the air filled with a gentle, insistent whine: a place designed to drive men mad. Ivan had only once seen a bear, at London Zoo in the service of "cultural polish", and didn't actually know what a man looked like after being mauled by one, but he thought this must be close.

"It's not my fault!" he blurted out. Never mind the platter, it was going to be death by embroidery needle, the blunt kind.

By raised his eyebrows, not deigning to comment.

Kuzin began, "Why should it be?"

Ivan ignored him. "What happened to you?"

"I have terrible allergies, alas! At school I was excused from games--my legs swell up on the field, you see, and when I'm tackled to the grass my throat closes over. I stop breathing. I almost died once when I touched a peanut--hence this hypoallergenic pod. And you? Where were you hiding all this time?"

Ivan knew that none of what By had said was true, he was clearly upset with Ivan, and Ivan knew exactly what he wanted to hear: "Hiding? Hardly. I was detained. At the municipal guard station. At Saint-Fiacre. In an iron cage in the company of three General Vorkrafts, one of whom was a woman. You can imagine."

"The phrase 'poetic justice' springs to mind--I trust you appreciated it." The healthy malevolent glint was back in By's eyes. He settled them on Kuzin. "Have you shown that man enough holocharts to convince him to let me go yet?"

"Yes," Ivan said, at the same moment as Kuzin said, "No."

Ivan glared down at Kuzin.

Kuzin glared up at Ivan.

By frowned contemplatively into the middle distance. "The picture of accord, I see. Truly holocard-worthy--a heart-warming souvenir for every visiting Komarran terrorist. I must admit, my dear Ivan, I don't much care for the help you've hired."

Kuzin repeated, all suspicion, "Just what is he to you?"

So Ivan was going to have to explain if he didn't want Kuzin to get the wrong impression. And he really didn't want Kuzin to get the wrong impression. "He's--he's a sort of cousin, actually, by a few different ways. I could draw you our family tree; the thing is, there are links and crosses over five dimensions, and I barely passed five-space math."

An expression of distaste crossed Kuzin's face, though whether at the suggestion of consanguineous unions or his lack of geometrical prowess, Ivan couldn't say. He sighed. He was losing status fast with Kuzin, By was giving him a tense and eloquent look, impossible to interpret, and he didn't trust this Cetagandan cell. He hovered in the corridor, debating what to do.

Finally he said to Kuzin, "I need to talk to you. In private."

Kuzin twitched up at Ivan's tone. So he'd been forcing himself to retain his easy stance leaning against the doorjamb. Recovering his insolence at once, he casually unfolded himself from the doorway, allowing his men to shut the door behind them as he led the way down the corridor.

Ivan hadn't the first idea what he was going to say until the expression Kuzin turned on By filtered into his consciousness: it was the familiar impotent exasperation. "From the looks of my cousin, you're getting desperate. Squeezed anything out of him yet?" He kept his voice low; it wouldn't do to undermine Kuzin's authority with his men. "Byerly is a Vorrutyer--mad as a snake, the lot of them. You're going about this the wrong way. I've seen that gleam in his eye; he won't talk."

"But he has, Lord Vorpatril. A great deal."

"You know what I mean. He won't say what you want to hear."

Kuzin looked skeptical. "Oh, I think he will."

"Do you think you know my cousin better than I do?"

"I think I know my job better than you do."

"Have you actually read my file?" So what if he'd slept through most of his Professional Development tutorials at the Embassy? They were still on file.

"I have, Lord Vorpatril, actually. You're a glorified accountant's clerk. It was boring." He studied Ivan for a long moment before saying slowly, as if struggling to articulate a difficult thought, "How do you come into this, then, Lord Vorpatril?"

Ah. Problem. Ivan was an idiot for not thinking to ask By for his cover story; Miles would have known to do it. But there was no use wishing now.

Exiting the lift tube, Kuzin continued, "I await your answer, Lord Vorpatril. As you are aware, Imperial Security Domestic Affairs has unlimited powers of detention for security assessment."

Oh.

Not that Ivan ordinarily considered himself quick on the uptake, but this was a delayed response even for him. He consciously shut his mouth.

"I suppose I should be grateful you didn't do this in Commissioner Vorinnis's presence. So, thank you, lieutenant. My name is Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril; as an officer in His Majesty's Imperial Service I am under the jurisdiction of Imperial Service Security and have the right to trial by court martial."

"Service Security keeps bureaucratic hours; so long as the handover is proper and complete, they don't usually mind if we make a start on the investigation."

Ivan let go the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. If he was to be transferred, Kuzin must play by Service Security rules, and Ivan doubted he was cleared to submit Admiral Duplaine's aide-de-camp to fast-penta--not that Ivan had anything to hide; his conscience was clear. But By was going to lengths to avoid blowing his cover. Why that was necessary, when Kuzin was on the same side, Ivan couldn't fathom. Well, as Ivan himself wasn't considered enough of a security risk to have the induced fast-penta allergy By evidently had done--so he really must be IS-9, huh--his only safeguard was policy and procedure.

"Lord Vorpatril, I ask again: how do you come into this?"

"I've told you. I'm just the driver."

They were ensconced now in Kuzin's office, a commandeered conference room with a comconsole at the far end, its vidplate showing a rather boring file. Seated at a swivel armchair at the head of the conference table, Kuzin kneaded his temples. Ivan's head ached in sympathy.

"I don't understand why you persist in being obstructive. In a few hours the story will be out. You've no doubt seen this before: we're prepared to be lenient if you make a full confession. Now tell me the truth."

Ivan couldn't find it in himself to be irritated at Kuzin. "What do you think I've been telling you all along? If you don't believe me, we'll wait for Service Security. Besides, when did all this become about me? Aren't you supposed to be interested in Lord Vortaine?"

Kuzin said nothing, though he couldn't quite help looking like the proverbial cat that had got the cream.

Ivan had never understood that comparison: Xav's expression when he got the cream was a baleful, yellow, possessive glare. Then again, Xav was no cat, no matter how rationally Aunt Cordelia explained it. Ivan had known that since the day he'd stood shriveling under Pym's watchful eye, smiling and nodding and saying, "Yes, Aunt Cordelia, of course, Aunt Cordelia," as usual. When Aunt Cordelia pushed him out and shut the door, and Ivan was left standing on the front steps of Vorkosigan House, a case of holovid disks tucked under his arm and the pitching, snarling box in his hands, he'd thought, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Aunt Cordelia…" Which was when Xav clawed his first hole through the box and gave Ivan more immediate concerns.

The comparison wasn't the only thing Ivan didn't understand. This whole situation was a mystery: a revolution was so far beyond Vortaine's ambitions--or, to put it bluntly, abilities--that the idea was absurd. Granted, the execution had Vortaine written all over it: Gregor's push for isonomy had resulted in proles being just as open now as Vor to charges of high treason--Vortaine had made sure no such charges would stick to his men. People who planned revolutions were allowed no scruples. So it made sense he'd failed. But Vortaine, a secret revolutionary?

Was that so strange? Who'd have pegged Byerly as an IS-9 rated informer? Who'd have imagined Vorinnis once had hopes of an alliance with Ivan's mother?

But Cyril Vortaine?

Ivan was thoroughly confused. The usual state of affairs, then, whenever he got caught up in a twisty ImpSec scheme.

"You've got Lord Vortaine? He's confessed… under fast-penta? Did he say what he was hoping to achieve?"

Kuzin shrugged. "Lord Vorpatril, it doesn't matter why. It matters to the law what he's done."

Ivan persisted, "It matters to you why he did it. As a Count's Heir, lieutenant, his case will be heard before the Council of Counts. Have you ever had the misfortune to be cornered by Lord Vortaine at a party, or seated across from him at dinner? Have you ever suffered through his droning all evening, even when you're so drunk you're horizontal and he's so drunk he hasn't noticed? They have. They know him.

"Your case will have to be airtight, not just against his actions but his motives, too. Not that the Counts would dare acquit him--only, the penalty seems calculated to gain sympathy for the condemned, particularly if there's any reason to feel it was undeserved. Think of the political repercussions. You didn't even realize it was a problem, did you?

"You have an asset being wasted in the brig. Byerly Vorrutyer is the most idle man in Vorbarr Sultana. Parties are his natural habitat; he knows everyone and his vice. Of the three of us, Byerly knows Lord Vortaine best; he'll make sense of him for you. And then he'll spin your case for maximum palatability to the Council."

"He'll lie like he's been doing all evening."

"Not if you ask him nicely--and ask the right questions. He's Vor." Ivan hoped he sounded more certain than he felt.

"You're not serious!"

"I am perfectly serious: don't throw good money after bad. If you want him to talk, you'll have to play nice. A good gossip over coffee would be the right idea. You've reached the end of the road with interrogation. What do you have to lose?"

Kuzin went very still, so still that Ivan guessed he'd recently been trained out of some telling personal quirk. "He'll still be technically detained for questioning."

"I don't ask you for more than that." All he needed was to have By out of the hands of Kuzin's interrogation team for as long as he could manage, preferably until morning. And it seemed like he was, for the first time that night, going to get what he needed.

"Coffee, you said, Lord Vorpatril?"

"With a splash of painkillers. A few cakes and pastries won't go amiss."

Chapter Text

The coffee arrived first, accompanied by a tray of almond and apricot pastries and tiny teacakes. Snagging a cup of coffee, Ivan positioned himself directly in front of the tea trolley. He was starving. When the fourth pastry disappeared into his mouth, Kuzin called for a second tray.

So when By appeared at the door, flanked by a pair of ImpSec men who promptly arranged themselves against the wall alongside the two others already present, Ivan was feeling considerably more human than he had for hours. "Ah, come in, By," he called cheerily. "We were just sitting down to, er--what would you call this?--late afternoon tea?" He handed him coffee. "Coffee?"

By took a long gulp. He managed not to spill any though his hands were shaking. Ivan supposed he was used to it: tremors were a common side effect of a range of recreational chemicals, both licit and illicit, with which By was no doubt well acquainted. As soon as the coffee hit his system, he brightened perceptibly. Ivan could tell by the intensification of his aura of pernicious insouciance. For his part, Ivan had been feeling hopelessly uninformed since he'd dropped By off at Saint-Fiacre, a situation he meant to remedy right now.

"There's no such thing as a free late afternoon tea. My price is the story: I want to you to tell me exactly what's going on. All of it."

By crossed his legs over the arm of his swivel armchair, gazing consideringly at Ivan. It was evidently the first time he'd looked at him properly since the press, because he said, "Did you use blood to stick glitter in your hair? How hardcore--if strangely charming in a Fusion sort of way: Old Barrayar Meets the Galaxy, Body Fluids and Stardust--you might set off a trend."

"Only a useless town clown like you, By, would even think to stick glitter in his hair. It's glass. Then I hit my head after. The glass must have cut me." Ivan had expected the rainstorm to have washed off the blood; the municipal guard certainly hadn't been alarmed. But maybe he was bleeding again? He resisted the temptation to touch his hair to find out.

"You hit your head? Amazingly, I couldn't actually tell--or maybe not. How did you do it?"

"I don't know; I was knocked out." There were some things you didn't want to talk about. "Tell me what's going on before I give you a demonstration."

"Goodness me, aren't we tiresomely persistent!" By peered at his coffee, pretending to consider. "Cruelly so, to stoop to such a threat."

Ivan made a noncommittal gesture.

By cradled his cup possessively. "All right, I shall tell you what I can--though I'd imagine there's a great deal more I can't tell you, simply from counting the gaps between interviews."

Ivan noticed he'd said "I can't tell you" rather than "I don't know". He also noticed the glance By sneaked at Kuzin. Ye gods, the day By became fully comprehensible was the day Ivan was going to lose the will to live.

"Remember those WANTED posters our man Pruvot prints? Catch-the-robber is apparently not as popular as it once was; it's losing originality, he thinks. He was told they'd try playing for higher stakes to really enliven the crowd."

Ivan was incredulous. "It's one thing to stage cattle theft for fun and profit, but he truly believed they were planning a fake rebellion? Is he stupid?"

"Which is exactly the response he was told to expect from PubSafe. They've been giving him a hard time already: he's been dragged through the Indecent Publications Tribunal a few times over the posters and the sham stories in the Saint-Fiacre Courier. Doing this on the quiet, he insists, was supposed to be the perfect opportunity to show them there wasn't anything worth their worry. What better way than a success to convince them to get off his case?"

"So, he is stupid."

"Or Vortaine's man was persuasive. Then again, I merely repeat what he told me," Byerly replied fastidiously, "in between copious weeping over my sleeve. I didn't have the pleasure of attending his fast-penta interrogation."

Ivan zeroed in on a single word: "Vortaine? Cyril Vortaine?"

"Indeed, yes. Did you doubt me? I feel strangely insulted." By was still lying, Ivan could tell. But about what?

"It's just--don't you think it's odd for Lord Vortaine to lead a rebellion? Three years ago it would have made perfect sense, but now?"

"Why three years ago?" interjected Kuzin.

"Oh, having one's District whipped out from under one by a nephew while being fifth in line to the throne seems as fair a rationale as any for discontent," said By. "These days, with Emperor Gregor and my Lord Auditor Vorkosigan popping out sprogs in batches, Vortaine's rather further down the list."

Kuzin nodded; he must have known all this already. "Hence his attempt to discredit the Empress and characterize the Vorkosigans as galactic mutants."

"It's too late," Ivan pointed out in reflexive self-preservation. "He'll never get the Counts to rescind their confirmation of Laisa's brood. As for the Vorkosigans, it's teratogenic," Ivan felt compelled to explain. "Miles's children are clean; that should be evidence enough."

"My poor, simple Ivan, I'm afraid you vastly overestimate the average Barrayaran education," said By. "A natural consequence of spending all the Government's money on Komarran terraforming instead of schools and hospitals, I think you'll find." To Kuzin he continued, "Which rather leaves my dear cousin here in a difficult position. In his defense, he's not foreign, not retired, and not a mutant. Idiocy, on the other hand--Is mental capacity a criterion?"

Kuzin, studying Ivan, tracing the rim of his coffee cup with a finger, took his prerogative not to answer.

In Ivan's head, the details were starting to shuffle into position: "Is that why you're suspicious of me--you think I'm behind Lord Vortaine?" It was hard to seem insignificant when you were the focus of attention of the room at large. Ivan tried his best. He resisted the urge to surreptitiously look around for somewhere to hide.

Kuzin ignored this question too. "If you persist in going about with your 'cousin' here, you know what people will think."

"You mean: '…who people will think you're behind'," said By, radiating enough evil glee to power a small dreadnought.

Ivan spluttered and choked on a mouthful of cake.

"Lord Vorpatril, you may know of a certain tradition for men in the succession who cultivate Vorrutyer hangers-on: Emperor Dorca the Just had his Count Pierre 'Le Sanguinaire' Vorrutyer--"

"He was the Chief of Staff--" protested Ivan.

"--who shared his brother-in-law's tent on campaign," said By, "while his sister was locked away in the Residence's tower room."

"--Mad Emperor Yuri had his Lord Dono Vorrutyer--"

"He was the Imperial Architect--"

"--who engineered his patron's rise to the throne and went mad with grief at his death. Such touching fidelity, to be sure."

"--Prince Serg had his Admiral Ges Vorrutyer--"

"He was his military advisor!"

"Goodness, Ivan! Whenever I think I've plumbed the depths of your idiocy, I discover there are new frontiers to explore. Do you truly believe, returning victorious from Escobar, they'd have disbanded their support and gone their separate ways without a longing glance at Emperor Ezar's inconveniently intact throat?"

So Kuzin had answered Ivan's question after all. "You don't think I'm behind Vortaine, but you do think I'm going to take this opportunity for a coup of my own?"

"That's one fairly obvious interpretation, yes."

"Well, it's wrong. No one who knows Gregor would want his job." Ivan underlined the finality of that statement by popping a pastry into his mouth, whole.

Kuzin said, not breaking stride, "With all of you ruled out, Lord Vorpatril, it's not so impossible for Vortaine, even now, to claim the Imperium for himself."

"Excuse me," protested Ivan, swallowing hastily, "but on what grounds did you just rule me out?"

"Moral degeneracy," said By. "Do keep up!"

Ivan appealed to Kuzin: "Surely not!" He could feel six pairs of eyes boring into his head. Not to mention other parts. He wanted to squirm.

"Do you think the truth matters so long as Vortaine can muster a case against you that the average prole will believe? Lord Vorpatril, you refuse marriage, through no lack of willing families, yet you are known to conduct a series of love affairs with both married and unmarried women, you publically support a degenerate's--an ex-woman's--claim to the Vorrutyer Countship, and you're called on at all hours by this 'cousin' of yours."

The disconcerting conversation was tying Ivan up into knots, which sensation was not improved by his certainty that By was relishing every moment and that Kuzin was recording every word to go in his file. "I thought we were discussing Lord Vortaine and his claim for the Imperium," he said, to prevent any further discussion of himself, "and while you've shown that it's possible, it doesn't seem likely. The fact remains that Lord Vortaine doesn't have a chance without the troops."

"Nor without friends, either," said By, suddenly serious, "and he doesn't have enough friends."

"What about all those names you gave up, the ones downstairs?"

"I said 'friends', not jackals spiraling in to seize an advantage when he's hung out to dry." He added to Kuzin, "Never mind Vortaine, those are the ones to keep your eye on."

"We have them quite in hand, thank you. But you're both still thinking in terms of a coup."

"So?" said Ivan. "We've had a coup or attempted coup every generation since Dorca's Unification. In fact, we're due for a nasty one about now."

"While that may be true, the evidence suggests what Lord Vortaine's planning is a revolution, for which all he'll need is support from the common prole--no troops, no Vor friends necessary. ImpSec looks at all possibilities."

"Actually, at the moment you're only looking at the one possibility," By pointed out, "a highly improbable one, if I know Vortaine at all--which I do better than either of you. Granted, the Vortaine's District votes Conservative, but what you're suggesting is off the lunatic fringe: it's beyond Count Vormoncrief, beyond even my cousin Richars, may he enjoy Lord Vorbohn's hospitality for years to come. Vortaine must know he has no chance of success--and he lacks the imagination and sense of romance to proceed despite certain failure. Did he confess ambitions for the Imperium?"

Kuzin said nothing.

By winced dramatically, as if Kuzin's silence were physically painful. "One can't help but have the feeling someone didn't think to ask."

Cyril Vortaine was delivered into Kuzin's office by another pair of ImpSec men. "Vorrutyer!" he exclaimed as soon as he caught sight of By, whose request to be returned to his cell had been politely but firmly denied. "What happened to you?"

"I, er, fell down the stairs."

"You fell down Vorgorov's stairs all the way to Port Vortaine?"

"It was a long flight."

No one laughed.

"So they got you too, eh? And, er, you told them about… things?"

By looked distinctly uncomfortable. So underneath the nastiness he wasn't entirely heartless, after all. The novelty of that concept made Ivan's head hurt, despite the synergine in the coffee.

"Ah, well," Vortaine continued, "no hard feelings--and none on your part, I hope. I shouldn't have got you involved, and for that I'm sorry. Now, now, don't look like that! ImpSec are efficient; it's not your fault."

Ivan couldn't take any more of this. He'd instructed Kuzin, who'd already faded professionally into the background, to say nothing at first, so Ivan would have to be the one to speak. He poured coffee for Vortaine, whose hands were released by Kuzin's men at a nod, and asked his one prepared question:

"Lord Vortaine, did you know Commissioner Vorinnis burns offerings in his office?" Then, "Sugar?"

"No, thanks. Can't tell what Vorinnis puts in the stuff." He took his coffee and the chair beside By. "It doesn't surprise me, though it's against fire safety regulations. Mind you, that's probably why he does it." He eyed his coffee suspiciously, gave it a good long sniff, sighed in resignation, and drank.

"I thought you might say that. So is the Port under the Count's authority, sir?"

Vortaine harrumphed. "Count's authority! All the ports--Port Authorities now--are run by Administrators sent down from the Capital. It's the New Barrayar nonsense."

So Port Vortaine was, indeed, nationalized. Ivan understood this to have been the state of affairs--more or less--since Dorca's Unification. Centralization of sovereignty was the point of the bloody process. Nevertheless, he grinned encouragingly. "So what's Commissioner Vorinnis done to upset the Vortaine's District authority?"

Vortaine squinted at him; something must have rung a bell. "Ivan Vorpatril, aren't you? Lady Alys's boy? Your mother has influence with Vorinnis. Now ask her to do something for a dead man. No, no, don't fuss, Vorrutyer. Tell her--She's got to persuade Vorinnis that, though he might be exempt from the Count's law and custom, no Vor is exempt from his customary duty. Look. Look at this."

He shook out a folded flimsy from his breast pocket and shoved it at Ivan. It was a table of Occupational Health and Safety figures.

"I'm impressed Vorinnis releases his figures to you," Ivan murmured, visualizing the data springing up from the flimsy as a series of holocharts.

"He doesn't keep figures!" Vortaine snarled. "I compiled them. Worked back from hospital and cemetery records. These three--" he pointed "--District men who died falling off dodgy scaffolding on Vorinnis's building project last month. If he'd followed the workplace safety regulations, they'd have survived. That blip there--trampled in a leak: overcrowding…"

He continued to point out what he considered particularly egregious cases. As he spoke, his eyes were glazing over, his expression faraway. Ivan fancied that for each of the numbers he knew a name, saw a face, recalled sending a hamper to the family.

"And that's not the worst of it. Now you tell me it's more than carelessness in the interest of meeting his targets. He flaunts his disdain for fire safety. I know people laugh at me--not to my face, mind you, not yet. But I'm only protecting the people of my District. It's the duty of every Vor. It's especially my duty, as he who represents the Count before he's come of age. I don't claim to do anything new--we've always protected our people with law and custom. What does it profit Barrayar to gain worlds and lose her soul?"

Ivan gave up trying to digest his tirade. He said instead, "I'll pass your request to my mother, I'm sure. I only wondered, sir, it sounds like your quarrel is with Vorinnis, but--well, I've read your pamphlet, and it's aimed at the Government. At Gregor in particular. Why bring the Imperial family into it?"

"The Emperor's wife is a galactic--"

"A Komarran."

"A Komarran, all right--it makes no difference. I know galactics; I've served in the Fleet; I've served under Kanzian. I expect in Vorbarr Sultana you're as good as galactics already, but the Barrayar I know and live on doesn't suit your galactic-style governance. Production targets! Terraforming Komarr when the countryside has no comm net or running water! Better to develop at our own pace, in our own way. Vorinnis--now he'd fit right in on Komarr; he might be all right in Vorbarr Sultana. Not real Barrayar, though, not here."

"So you're protesting Gregor's placement of Vorinnis? Gregor encouraging his man's repudiation of his customary duty in order to accelerate galactic-style development?"

"Encourage? No. The Emperor's busy in Vorbarr Sultana. He's lived there all His life, in the Residence--it's another world: it's hard to see the real Barrayar from there."

"Why didn't you petition him? That's what I'd have done," said Ivan, although from By's snigger he knew as well as Ivan himself that he'd do nothing of the sort.

"For what?" said Vortaine. "What would you think of a man who cries to the Emperor when someone burns offerings in his office? Or overcrowds his dormitories? I can't trouble the Emperor with that. The Count should have authority in his District."

"Sir, I still don't quite understand your alternative: foment rebellion and--Overthrow Gregor? Impose the Vortaine's District legislature throughout the Imperium?"

"Are you an idiot? I don't want a rebellion."

Kuzin could hold back no longer. "How do you explain your pamphlet, then?"

"You've only to ask Vorrutyer. I wanted to make the Emperor see--in a way I can't as one man complaining. Each man's voice adds strength to our cause. I wanted Barrayar to remind Him of Himself. All very clean, very quiet, well-behaved; I wanted Him to see, to remember. You repeat, Vorrutyer, what I told you."

If Vortaine had discussed all this with By before, presumably at Vorgorov's party--and Ivan was more inclined to trust Vortaine than By, all things considered--then By had been lying to Ivan the whole time. "You knew!" he accused, forgetting Kuzin's presence entirely. "You knew everything all along--it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Budget. And you knew I was involved with the Budget so you spun me a yarn about that. You manipulative little--little insect! I was wondering how you talked me into this."

"Naturally I knew," By said reasonably, though his wary eyes were fixed on Kuzin. "You were hardly likely to come with me otherwise. Face it, Ivan, if I'd told you the truth at the start, you'd have said the Emperor deserved a nudge from the populace, with that expression of idiotic self-satisfaction on your face, and then you'd have picked me up and put me out like the cat."

"I dispute that," said Ivan. He tried not to imagine how pleasant life would be if Xav actually let him pick him up to put him out. "Are you implying I'd have let a revolution just--happen?"

"Indeed. Because you are an idiot who doesn't think. When the tidy little protest erupts into a demonstration and then revolt you might realize, by which time it'll be too late."

"Oh," said Ivan. Count By in as another person who understood him better than he did himself.

"There, I knew you'd thank me in the end." Then turning to Vortaine he said, "I told you earlier, Vortaine, and I'm telling you again: you're being pigheaded about this. Did you think ImpSec was going to let you get away with it? Did you not even stop to consider that Pruvot might be watched? He's been in trouble with PubSafe before."

Vortaine drew himself up in his chair and said, with such awesome dignity that Ivan had to force himself not to roll his eyes, "I do it for Barrayar. It doesn't matter what happens to me."

God save Barrayar from earnest men.

"It matters," said By. Was it Ivan or was the accustomed edge gone from his voice? "It matters to… What happens to your District when you're gone?"

"The Count my nephew will continue my work--his mother guides him well. I've no doubt in time, when he consolidates his position, he'll be as fine a Count as his late grandfather."

"Though I assume you don't mean to say your relations support you in this venture? I only ask because our ImpSec friends here--" By waved extravagantly at the not-particularly-friendly-looking ImpSec men lining the walls "--have an unfortunate tendency for jumping to conclusions."

"My family share my ideological and moral position." Vortaine's tone implied that anyone who did not was therefore immoral. "Naturally they encourage me to see to Vorinnis. How could they not? But they know nothing about the specifics. I have the sense to keep my family out of it."

"Good," said Kuzin. "Because we'll be talking to them next."

"I wasn't aware you had them here," said Ivan, who was starting to get a bad feeling about this: the sooner Kuzin finished with Vortaine, the sooner he'd begin on By.

"Not yet," said Kuzin.

"Then I was wondering if we could invite Commissioner Vorinnis to our tea party first?"

To Ivan's undying shock, "He's right, you know," added By in support. "You'll want to get to the bottom of Vortaine's grievance against Vorinnis before anything else."

"Very well, why not? We'll do it your way," said Kuzin in the expansive tone of a man who'd had his fill of synergine-laced coffee and cake. He ordered a third tray and a second carafe of coffee, which, again, arrived before the interviewee, in this case Vorinnis wrapped in a quilted dressing gown.

"Commissioner Vorinnis, come join us!" said Ivan, waving him to the chair furthest from Vortaine. "Lord Vortaine here has been complaining about your conduct."

"Evening." Vorinnis greeted the room at large with a minute nod. "I'm not surprised." He took the offered chair, eyeing Vortaine with evident, and returned, hostility.

"But why antagonize him, sir? He's Count Vortaine's Heir and Voice. Wouldn't things be easier if you dealt well with each other?"

"Playing devil's advocate, Ivan, does not become you."

Ivan busied himself pouring coffee, the better to hide his blush. "You are quite right, sir, to be sure. Still, some would consider it a valid question."

Vorinnis swept the room with a swift glance as he accepted the cup from Ivan.

"I don't deal well with traitors."

As he stirred his coffee the silence was absolute.

Then Vortaine shook off By's restraining hand from his elbow. "How dare you--" he began, and Ivan could see as well as anyone what was coming next. He looked around the room to assure himself there was nothing remotely resembling two swords for Vortaine to seize. By was doing the same. A pair of ImpSec men closed about Vortaine.

"That's a serious accusation," interjected Kuzin, using officiousness to keep control of the situation.

"Offensive, some would say," By joined in. Ivan wasn't sure he was helping.

"And not altogether accurate--or at least premature. Lord Vortaine has been detained on suspicion of incitement to sedition. Until he is formally convicted by the Council of Counts, he is within his rights to challenge your accusation."

"I need no conviction to tell me what he is. Has he been complaining about me? Yes, how dare a nobody stand up to the beloved Count's Heir! Surely that's the very disloyalty he's being accused of. Well, this isn't my District and he isn't my Count's Heir. I haven't sworn to serve him or obey him, but I have sworn to my Emperor and he'd do well to remember he's done the same--"

By waved his hand in a superfluous gesture. "Forgive me for asking--not being a military man, these things confuse me, you understand. Were you not released from your oaths when you left the Service?"

"From the letter, yes. But a man who can be released from the spirit of an oath at a word, a man who doesn't feel a continuing sense of duty to his Emperor, I--"

He shook his head, so controlled that it passed like a tremor, and his face tightened in an expression that Ivan interpreted as intense disgust. Ivan knew that Vorinnis was embarking on one of his occasional spurts of eloquence, from which nothing and no one could dissuade him. He sighed and leaned back in his chair.

"--I think he must be just the sort of man who can say the phrase 'Loyal Opposition' with a straight face. What is a 'loyal' opposition? How can a man be loyal when his every deed, his every word, his every thought, every principle by which he conducts his life and duties necessarily opposes the very Emperor he claims loyalty towards? Every man in the Loyal Opposition is a traitor, to Emperor Gregor, to Unified Barrayar herself, and I need no conviction by the Counts to tell me that. You know me, Vorpatril, you know who I am, what I'd do."

"Sir." Ivan nodded, though he was starting to have his doubts.

"Do you believe I would defy any Count or Count's Heir, no matter of which District, for self-interested motives?"

"Of course not, sir." Self-interest was not a concern--rather, it was earnest, but misguided, loyalty to Gregor, and he was fairly sure he was being proven right.

God save Barrayar from earnest men.

"No, I only want Barrayar to have a future. I want for Barrayar the future I fought for.

"When Vordarian seized Vorbarr Sultana I was on leave from the Fleet. I could have stayed put: defended my home, protected my mother and sister--we all believed after the Vorvolynkin's District the Vorinnis's District was next. But when Admiral Vorkosigan--" he was lapsing into the past, Ivan noticed; nobody called Uncle Aral just "Admiral" these days "--summoned the Emperor's loyal troops, I answered that call. I mobilized as many men as I could find from my ship for Vorkosigan. I fought for Vorkosigan because I wanted Vorkosigan's Barrayar.

"Vordarian's Barrayar was the old, feudal Barrayar, stuck in the rut of tradition where power was meted out through tracing family trees and marrying princesses, where a man blindly followed his nepotistic self-interest in the name of duty. Vorkosigan's Barrayar is the new Barrayar--a Barrayar where a man rises or falls on merit, where a man may hold power and authority without name or lineage, where an earned rank means more than hereditary titles like Emperor or Count or--" he sneered at Vortaine "--Heir. That was the Barrayar I fought for, the Barrayar your father, Captain Lord Vorpatril, died for."

Ivan had always understood his father to have died in an act of idiocy--he supposed he took after him in that regard--but maybe Vorinnis had a point. After all, he'd served with Ivan's father and afterwards been a friend to his mother, while Ivan himself knew no more than hearsay, had no more evidence than a plaque in the street. Interesting, though, that Vorinnis fell for Uncle Aral's sleight of hand. Uncle Aral wasn't so politically antithetical to Vordarian, after all: by breaking the power of the Ministries, he necessarily elevated the hereditary Counts--but because he loudly and publically appointed his veterans into Administrative positions, everyone only noticed that Vorkosigan supported the troops.

"All through Vorkosigan's Regency he worked tirelessly for that vision of Barrayar; and later during his term as Prime Minister--we all knew Emperor Gregor was a tame young man whom the Vorkosigans raised as their own."

Ivan wanted to protest that he'd got the relationship between Uncle Aral and Gregor completely wrong--until he remembered that neither had had much time for Ivan, and politics were the source of all those terrifying things he avoided whenever possible, so he really couldn't know. Maybe it had been as Vorinnis saw it.

"Now that the Viceroy's retired to Sergyar, the Emperor could do with a few men who have His interests at heart. He allows the so-called 'Loyal' Opposition to go too far--look at Saint-Fiacre! But that's not the limit of Vortaine's ambition--a return to the old Barrayar, in his District if that's all he can have: his Barrayar is Saint-Fiacre writ large, a planet coddled, cosseted, weak, where he indulges his old-woman tendencies by straitjacketing the populace with legalities, calling it his duty to his people. Well, in Vorkosigan's Barrayar the man who would set himself on fire with a death offering, the man who would fall off scaffolding--it would be best for everyone if they died before they were allowed to breed."

It was strange how Vorinnis, who considered himself a Progressive, was reverting to that old Time of Isolation practice--except instead of cutting out mutants from the gene pool, it was incompetents--while the Conservative Vortaine was advocating a galactic-style protest movement that would no doubt have set off a bloody rebellion in the Old Barrayar he was nostalgic for. It was all too political for Ivan, too dangerous to think about.

"The man's gone mad at last," said Vortaine, who was no longer furious, but looked, if anything, bemused. "Must be a fair swish of Vorrutyer in him. 'Better off if they died before they were allowed to breed'! I'm only relieved you're not in line for a countship."

"Are you relieved, indeed? Then look to your own family: your nephew the Count agrees with me in every regard. The Lady Vortaine is a sensible woman; she's raised him well--and she has but encouraged me in my intent."

"Do you insult my family too? Delusional! Why, Sonya has been urging me to resolve the--huh, what she calls the 'inconveniences at our Port'--from its root cause. For the past six months she has, ever since it's come to her notice."

Vorinnis's gaze flicked down; when he looked up again his eyes were suddenly soft. "Perhaps Lady Vortaine is compliant with you out of fear: she must know her young son is the only obstacle between you and the Countship."

Ivan thought he had a good idea of the situation by now. This was by no means the first time he'd seen it happen: a woman in a weak position between two powerful men could only hope to improve her chances by playing them off against each other. He wouldn't be surprised if Lady Vortaine had incited both men to ever more ridiculously extremist stances in hopes of just such an eventuality--except it mustn't have seemed ridiculous to the men who'd died on Vorinnis's construction site or those awaiting processing for days on end at Vortaine's overcrowded municipal guard station.

"Now," said By to Kuzin, "is the time to talk to Lady and Count Vortaine."

Chapter Text

The Vortaines kept an estate, Château fort de Vortaine, just upstream of Saint-Fiacre. The house backed into the protection of the mountains, and its expansive lawn--the fortifications had long since fallen into disrepair--rolled down to the village that served it, nestled in a bend in the river. In the Time of Isolation the site had been chosen for its access to transport and defensibility against attack, but in these days of flight they had only to land the shuttle on the lawn.

Would that it were so simple.

"We'll go to the Château," said Kuzin when Vorinnis had been sent back to bed and Vortaine back to his cell. "Save us some time."

"We'll come with you," said Ivan. "You don't do too badly, but you're not Vor, and if you're to be taking on a count, no matter how young, we might come in useful."

"You'll need to be kept under guard; I don't have the men to spare."

He was at least willing to consider it. Good. "We'll be detailed a guard in any case. Bringing us puts them where they're needed, not stuck here twiddling their thumbs. Who knows but they might come in handy before the night's out?"

Kuzin went very still.

Ivan continued, "We're unarmed; you've nothing to fear from us. What exactly is my status, lieutenant? I give you my parole if you want it. Bind and gag my cousin if you like--in fact, I'd prefer it if you did."

"But my dear Ivan--do I detect a hint of imagination under that vanilla façade?"

Oddly enough, it was the jibe more than anything that seemed to have decided Kuzin, because at that moment he ordered, "Bind their arms." Turning to Ivan, he added, "The gag won't be necessary."

If this was how Kuzin behaved towards Vor, Ivan was beginning to understand why he'd not been detached to Vorbarr Sultana for the Komarran reception. The Imperial Residence would eat him alive.

They trooped out into the storm that was raging unabated, crossed the courtyard, and filed into the suborbital shuttle. Ivan and By were strapped down in the centre of the cabin, surrounded by a dozen ImpSec men, every one that Kuzin could spare. The medtech was fiddling with his equipment and supplies in the back, while Kuzin himself was in the cockpit with his pilot and communications man, giving instructions through the shuttle's inbuilt comconsole to his sergeant, whom he'd left in charge at the Port.

"I'm quite overwhelmed," said By, apropos of nothing. "This must be the first time you've publicly acknowledged me as a relation."

Ivan shot him a wary glance. "Don't expect it to come with any family feeling."

"I know." By heaved an unnecessarily dramatic sigh. The hitch in it--possibly even unintended--made Ivan wince; irritatingly, it reminded him of Miles. "I know you've never liked me."

"You've never given me cause to."

"I'm not famous enough, alas! Lord Vorpatril doesn't acknowledge his relations unless they have an eponymous holovid series."

Ivan had already opened his mouth to object when he realized By was mostly right. His cousin Falco was an exception whom Ivan had no choice but to acknowledge, but he was also an interminable Vor bore who despised Ivan in turn, so the exception only proved the rule. Almost all the relatives Ivan actually liked were the subject of, at the very least, a blockbuster Ministry of Culture docudrama; considering the average quality of Ministry of Culture productions, that was saying something. He tried not to wonder what it said about him. "This… mess would make a fair holovid, if it weren't classified."

"Fair for putting you to sleep, you mean. What--no bonking Betans, no explosions, not enough danger…"

No explosions! Not enough danger! Ivan stared at By and changed the subject. "When we get back, do you think they'll give up on you?"

"If you're able to tell, they'd be remiss in their duty. Nobody loves me at the Port: they pay me no attention, they buy me no flowers, they call me low priority; they fit me in between the important victims. That's how I've been able to last so long."

"Will you last till morning?"

By smirked. "Is that an invitation?"

"Don't be disgusting, By." Ivan shoved himself as far away from By as his restraints allowed. He wished Kuzin had taken his advice to have By gagged. "Seriously, how are you holding up?"

"Until Allegre receives Kuzin's report, you mean? It depends. To tell the truth, I half-expected you to have spoken with Allegre already and was most put out to discover otherwise. Why haven't you? The man owes you his job, if I'm not mistaken. You'll hardly find a better a time to call in a favor or two."

"It's Miles that he owes--" began Ivan. Then he frowned: how had By known the circumstances of Allegre's promotion? Had Ivan no secrets from him? "Anyway, he isn't the sort of man for calling in favors. It won't kill us to wait a few hours."

"Speak for yourself." By's tone turned suddenly flippant: "Ivan--I can trust you to delay proceedings as much as you can?"

"What sort of idiot do you take me for?"

By smirked. "Touché. Actually, I was overestimating your misplaced sense of duty."

"Why do you think I got us out of the port?"

"Oh, I don't know--it might well be a hallucination, but I have the distinct memory of you, not ten minutes ago, making a rather convincing case." He did not look convinced in the least.

"It was a desperate excuse. And a poor decision on Kuzin's behalf. He's not cautious enough--he's ImpSec, for heaven's sake; they're paid to be paranoid. I don't know what he was thinking."

"He trusts you, obviously out of pure insanity. He's fooled like everyone else by that wholesome, inane expression of yours."

Before Ivan could tell By to shut up, the shuttle shuddered to a landing. Kuzin fielded a couple of last-minute questions and clarifications from his sergeant, and completed the transfer of a handful of disks from the shuttle's comconsole to his hand-reader, until Ivan was more than relieved they were here in an official capacity and therefore did not need the element of surprise on their side.

Finally they filed out of the shuttle, all except By, who didn't file so much as weave. The long lawn, going to seed, was sodden underfoot as they made their way up the incline towards the garden gates. The lights from the windows barely made headway against the storm, diffracting off the nearest horizontal sheets of rain, so that the house was haloed like something in a snow globe. The railings of a fence stood out black and stark against the dissipated lights, arching ahead of their party to form a giant, overwrought pair of wrought-iron gates.

An Armsman greeted them, emerging from the gatehouse, a flimsy kiosk that almost completely failed to keep the downpour off the poor man. He hardly needed convincing to cooperate with ImpSec; with an apology for the dreadful weather, he pushed the button that opened the gate. He continued to push it for nearly half a minute while the gates continued to remain shut. Then, apologizing for the hinges that often became stuck in the damp, he braved the storm again to investigate. It was when he was returning to his post that he noticed a red light flashing in a panel beside the comconsole.

"Your arrival must have set off the alarm again, sir," he said. "Don't worry: I have a manual override."

There was a narrow door built into the patterning of the left-hand gate; the Armsman proceeded to disassemble its hinges. He worked fast--he was evidently telling the truth when he claimed the gates often got stuck--and in a couple of minutes they were in. Ivan judged the security system typical of Vortaine. Once through the door, they found themselves on the start of a path that led up to the house through a formal garden. Directly before them stretched a long, tiered pond with a fountain at the top, to the left was the back of the gatehouse, and a larger-than-life-sized equestrian statue atop a tall plinth loomed out of the darkness diagonally to the right.

Kuzin was not so foolhardy as he'd seemed, because he said to the Armsman, "Can you confirm it was our arrival that set off the alarm?"

"I'll contact the Château, sir." Which he did, firing up his comconsole, its lights blindingly bright.

Kuzin had his corporals spread his men out through the garden, with two detailed to the gate, while he waited for the Armsman's call to connect. By tried at first to find shelter in the gatehouse, where it was raining in the exact direction that allowed water to pour in through the open doorway. Then, visibly torn between innate curiosity and need for shelter, he repaired to huddle behind the statue's plinth, where he was out of the wind, and an overhanging lip of decorative marble kept off some of the rain, while being close enough to the gatehouse to eavesdrop on any conversation.

Where By went, Ivan perforce had to follow. He looked up. Beyond the foreshortened horse the rider was armored and helmed, though neither plate nor helm made any attempt at concealing that the man represented the standard of Barrayaran beauty and manhood: the power emanating from every muscle of his well-built, perfectly-proportioned body, the breadth of his shoulders, the arm raised in command, the resolve in his piercing eyes… It was probably the original Count Claude Vortaine, the one who'd defeated Ivan's own ancestors, thereby holding off the annual Vorpatril incursions for almost a generation. Ivan wished he looked like that--if only it didn't come with any unfortunate political complications attached. Uncle Aral used to look like that. On second thought, he still did where it mattered.

Then Ivan saw--before he felt or heard it--a strange peachy glow blossoming on the marble--orange--golden-red--

"Get down!"

Or maybe he only thought it, because he'd shoved By to the ground and flung himself on top of him and surely there'd been no time to say anything at all.

There were two explosions: the first was the smaller, followed a fraction of a second--or an eternity--later by the second, as the heat of the first must have melted the casings of the fuel cells.

There was a jarring, crunching lurch as the nose of the float truck concertinaed into nothing. He hit his head, he could see that--funny, he didn't remember looking at himself the first time--and then the fall, the explosion, the nose of the float truck concertinaing into nothing, the lurching, jolting, lurching, again and again--except no, that wasn't happening. It was By. By was shaking him. He loosened his grip on By's shoulders; he must have been hurting him.

"I'm all right," he tried to say. "I'm fine. It should have been the float truck that exploded, but it didn't, and I'm fine. It's just--I think I've added another phobia to my collection."

He couldn't hear himself speak over the thing that was making a strangely dull but ringing screech. It was everywhere--they were in his ears. But when he tried to pull them out there was nothing there. He told himself to be sensible. There was a term for this: acute acoustic trauma. It happened all the time. He was fine. Then he got sick of the boiling green-bright darkness behind his eyelids and opened his eyes--to find they were already open. There was a term for this as well, he thought: flash blindness. There, putting names to things made them smaller, safer; it domesticated them. He was not going crazy. He was fine.

By took his hand. He should be pulling away, he knew that: it was what he always did. But somehow he didn't quite feel like it. Maybe he could pretend it wasn't By and he wasn't Ivan; they were two other people, two strangers. Other people were allowed to do this sort of thing when they'd narrowly escaped death--maybe. Ivan wished a woman were here for him to reassure and comfort, then was ashamed for wishing such danger on a woman. He tried to recall how people were meant to deal with near misses but could only find memory after memory of Miles--and Miles loved them, they exhilarated him.

Ivan always confused himself when he tried to think too hard. Maybe he should be pulling away, after all. By was doing something strange, though: he was tracing his finger along Ivan's palm; when Ivan made to withdraw his hand, By held it harder and repeated the pattern. Ivan forced himself to calm down, to take deep breaths, to attend to what By was doing.

The figure was "В". When By was sure he had Ivan's attention, he followed this up with "И́--Д--И--Ш--Ь". Then he repeated himself: Do you see? It took Ivan a ridiculous while to recognize it for Russian--to save time, he supposed, from having fewer letters to make.

Could he see! He traced on By's hand just one letter, "Н" for No. It felt strange--no, more than "strange": it felt wrong. Not the kind of wrong that made Ivan feel clean and healthily indignant, no. It was the other kind. He was confusing himself again.

Do you hear?

No. You?

Ringing. I see a little.

That made sense. Ivan had got By's head down, forcing his face into the grass, which must have made By instinctively shut his eyes. Ivan had landed on top of him, hoping they were far enough away from the explosion that the marble plinth and Ivan's flame-retardant uniform were enough to protect them from the worst of it. Not much light from the second blast must have got through or around Ivan to reflect off the grass, and By's eyelids had taken care of most of the rest.

So By could see. Who else, he wondered.

What do you see?

When By started to wriggle under him Ivan gripped his hand tight, holding him still with his body, suddenly remembering he was a civilian. In order for their civilian contract employees to act and move convincingly, ImpSec deliberately gave them no combat training. Ivan supposed it was detrimental to their life expectancy, not that ImpSec had ever made that a priority. But By was IS-9; he was a valuable asset to the Imperium.

Take my pen. Cut my bonds.

He shifted so that the tunic pocket containing his light-pen was against By's hand. When he felt By take the pen, he returned to his former position, holding out his wrists. Then, after shaking the tension from his arms, he cut By's restraints by touch.

Be careful. No sudden movements. Don't expose yourself.

He released By, and was relieved he didn't go far, wriggling forward only a few centimeters to look around the side of the plinth.

No shuttle. Hole in the ground.

So it had been the shuttle. In a corner of Ivan's mind, he'd been hoping it was something else.

By wriggled around to the other side. ImpSec behind the gatehouse, garden bench, topiary. Man moving behind a bump in the lawn.

Where?

Centre of the lawn, to the right. Beyond the shuttle.

If he was beyond the shuttle, he had to be their man.

Still there?

Nothing.

There was nothing for a long time, until Ivan wrote: What is the bump?

He hides behind it. Hard to see.

Ivan supposed he meant the man was lying hidden in a piece of dead ground about halfway down the lawn, where the terrain was uneven. If so, he had to break cover sooner or later, and Ivan rather thought it would be sooner, because if he dawdled for a few more minutes ImpSec and the Armsmen would recover their vision and be crawling all over the grounds in search for him.

Ivan's own vision was starting to return. Although he couldn't see well through the blossoming afterimage, he could just make out the direction of the house from its lights.

Kuzin leaves the kiosk.

So Kuzin was regaining his vision, too. He'd been in the brightly-lit gatehouse before the blast; Ivan supposed that gave him an advantage.

Kuzin is being shot at. Projectiles. Missed. He doesn't realize.

Yelling at Kuzin to get down--Ivan's first impulse--wasn't going to work, because he was sure to be as temporarily deaf as any of them. Ivan strained to see something, anything, that would show him where Kuzin was so he could pull him down. By could see, but this wasn't something Ivan could ask of By. Where from?

The lawn.

The bump? Ivan decided it would be easiest to use By's terminology.

Another. Kuzin ducks. Uninjured. Back in the kiosk.

Were there two of them? More than two? Overwhelming numbers could account for why they weren't making a quick getaway. Ivan instantly thought of the Armsmen, but dismissed that possibility. If it were the Count's Armsmen, By, Ivan and ImpSec would all be dead by now. It had to be a third party. Ivan wished Miles were here: Miles would know exactly what was happening and exactly what to do about it.

Where is this bump?

Like the first, but to the left.

How far?

3-400 yards.

Ivan was beginning to make out the landscape through the rain now, only a few spots boiling in his vision. Show me.

By pointed beyond the side of the plinth. Ivan couldn't see a thing. Granted, there was undulating land, but no obvious "bump" that could hide a man and his gun.

No bump. Give me a line.

Left of the village. Just. The rise.

Now Ivan thought that maybe he could see a gentle rising of the ground, maybe three hundred yards from the nearest stretch of fence, in a direct line of sight a little to the left of where the village wall terminated.

Yes. The other?

By showed him another, smaller rise, about a hundred yards to the right of the first and a little further down the lawn.

If those things could conceal a man, Ivan supposed, he'd have plenty of cover once he reached that area of rough ground. There, to the left of the first rise, just under three hundred yards from the fence, he spotted a similar feature. That was the place he'd make for; he hoped there wasn't a man hiding behind it. Ivan assessed the fence: iron railings, about six feet high. If he took cover in the garden, he'd have to scale the fence, which was doable, but might draw attention. If he slipped out of the gate, though, he'd have further to travel in the open.

It was the presence of ImpSec near the gate that decided him. Kuzin would never let him go until he explained himself, which would take time, and who knew what the enemy were doing meanwhile? Even then, he knew Kuzin would insist on sending out more men. And men who could barely see, who couldn't hear, blundering into unfamiliar terrain, facing concealed assailants, at least one of whom was armed--no matter how poor his aim, if they all went out at once, he was sure to hit someone. No, this was a job for one man, preferably one man who wasn't in Kuzin's chain of command, who knew where at least some of the enemy were situated, and who wasn't a civilian. Unfortunately for Ivan, he happened to be that man.

He transferred the contents of his tunic pockets to his trouser pockets: his light-pen, his chit book, and the remote. Which reminded him he was still unarmed. Prying open the remote with his light-pen, he rigged it into a tiny grenade. He'd done a similar thing once before using a stunner, at a Professional Development tutorial that, being a practical, he hadn't been allowed to sleep through. The procedure was simple enough, though not easy, considering that Ivan could barely see the fine wires. Judging by the size--or lack of it--of the power pack, the blast wouldn't do more than startle his target--if he noticed at all--but with a bit of luck it might distract him enough for Ivan to disarm him, at least.

Keeping low and as close as he could to the plinth without sticking an elbow in By's eye, Ivan undid his belt and aiguillettes, unfastened his tunic and pulled it off. The cold hit him like the time Miles had dared him to dive off the pier at Bonsanklar at Winterfair. He spread the tunic out so that it covered most of By--without Ivan on top of him, his pink satin was glowing like a traffic control beacon in the dark. Ivan's shirt was instantly plastered to his skin by the freezing rain, clinging so constrictively to his arms that he unbuttoned the cuffs and rolled the shirtsleeves up to his elbows.

By grabbed his hand and wrote, What are you doing?

By now Ivan could see well enough, if he adjusted his focus, to write on the back of a chit: Too conspicuous. He pointed to the baubles and braid: they showed up well on the newsvid; they showed up equally well in the dark. There wasn't anything he could do about his too-shiny boots.

By took the light-pen and book. Where are you going? Why?

Ivan answered the question he thought By was really asking. The man's a lousy shot. The safest place to be is in his sights, he wrote with a confidence he did not entirely feel, because a man who missed at four hundred yards in a storm would not necessarily miss at ten. Stay down. Keep covered. Don't move until I get back. Understand?

How masterful you've suddenly become. You should do it more ofte--

Ivan snatched the pen and book away. Trust By to indulge in irritating comments at a time like this! Pocketing the items, keeping as low as he could, he ran for the nearest bush in the charred topiary garden.

Chapter Text

There were ImpSec men in the topiary garden, just as By had written, though none made more than a cursory effort to halt Ivan. The garden imposed itself upon the incline with brutal symmetry, its landscaping rendering it one of the darkest parts of the grounds, unlit by the lights from the windows. Ivan supposed that the men caught by the blast here were still having trouble seeing. Beyond the topiary garden was a rock garden that followed the contours of the rugged slope. Ivan picked his way over the pebbles, moving from rock formation to rock formation. Reaching a position directly across from the low ridge he'd decided on, he made a run for the fence; scaled its railings, slippery with rain; flattened himself on the ground on the other side. The ringing in his ears changed pitch--or was it the whirr of projectiles in flight? Feeling no shards falling on him from projectiles striking the railings overhead, he looked up. No sparks, either. Good. Maybe the enemy were indeed watching the gatehouse as intently as Ivan had hoped.

He'd pulled something in his shoulder; scaling the fence had confirmed it. He tried not to think about the crawl ahead. He took his light-pen in one hand and the remote-cum-grenade in the other, pinching the wires he'd left sticking out, ready to twist them together to short-circuit the power pack. Flat on his belly, concealed in the grass, he crawled down the lawn. He'd not done this in years, not since the Academy, not like this, in the mud, in the weather, cutting himself on the tiny hooks that lined the blades of unmown grass. He was never more thankful not to have been posted to the infantry.

A safe, clean, warm office: that was the thing! Ivan had the run of the capital, the lifestyle of a civilian--so what if he was a glorified secretary?

There was only one drawback to his job, besides the bleak promotion prospects, that is, which suited Ivan's lack of ambition just fine--more to the point, Barrayar was due for a coup anytime now, likely with an associated civil war, by the end of which Ivan would be safely and happily dead like all the other Vorpatrils who shared his name. No, the only drawback to serving at Imperial Headquarters, for those with no obvious physical deformities, was the constant need to dodge the advances of certain superior officers and to pretend to misunderstand the subtler ones. The rules were different at school and in the Academy; in the real world you didn't want a reputation for that sort of thing. Particularly persistent were those remnants from Prince Serg's era whose usefulness saved them from the purges, ones like General Lamitz, retired. He behaved exactly like By, in fact, except that the General actually meant it. Belatedly, it occurred to Ivan that By must know all this, which was how he'd become so good at getting on his nerves.

Speaking of By, the "bump" was coming up ahead. Ivan rounded its left flank, expecting some sort of depression on the other side, desperately hoping it wasn't already occupied.

What he found--almost fell into--was a ha-ha. By, city born and bred, wouldn't have recognized a ha-ha if he'd been thrown headlong into one.

Ivan climbed down, landing up to his ankles in water. On the one hand, he was hopeful that the presence of a ha-ha connecting the "bumps" meant there was just the one assailant, not at least two as he'd assumed. On the other hand, the man could be anywhere. If both of By's sightings were of the same man, he'd been travelling left, away from the house. If he intended to attack Kuzin again, he'd be to the right, closer to the gate. Ivan knew he'd never catch the man if he ran, so, very cautiously, keeping in the shadows of the ha-ha's château side, he turned right.

It was harder to see in full dark. Through the resurgence of blossoming, floating spots, Ivan caught the impression of a confusion of converging logs and planks. The ha-ha, instead of advancing in a straight line, zigzagged in all directions, cutting the hillside with sharp turns and blind corners. It was following the course of what once had been the Château's outworks, Ivan decided. By's "bumps" were the remnants of the outer defensive wall and its ravelins, and the ha-ha was the fosse running along its external aspect, reinforced with wooden struts. Ivan had assumed this stretch of grass to be a lawn, his internal model of a District seat being Vorkosigan Surleau, which had not been a working estate, but he now recognized it as a hayfield, not quite ready for mowing when the storm struck. The Vortaines must have restored the ha-ha to divide the Count's personal estate from what looked like tenanted pastureland below.

The tiny, elliptical glint from a needler muzzle.

Before the man could bring his weapon to aim, Ivan charged, a low tackle, using his weight to overbalance him. Ivan didn't know if the man discharged his needler; he only knew nothing had hit him yet. They were brought up sharp as the man crashed against the opposite wall. There was a brief struggle, the man twisting and thrashing, until they splashed into the puddle at the bottom of the ha-ha. Straddling the man, Ivan pinned his hand under the black water. He smashed the remote down on his wrist, again and again, feeling the crunch as he crushed the bones between the remote and the stone floor. It took a long time, the water dissipating some of the force of his strike--but after what felt like dozens of blows, the man's grip relaxed from the needler. Ivan shook it away.

The man's face was terrified. His mouth was moving, but Ivan could barely hear, let alone make out the words. He hefted the remote a final time to bring it down across the man's temple. It was the best he could manage, not having a stunner.

There was water everywhere; it was getting into his boots where he knelt over the man. He rose to a crouch, and was surprised to find that the man--or anyone at Château fort de Vortaine--was fashionable enough to sport Komarran trousers. He wore no belt, so Ivan cut the trousers off him, using the legs to bind him. This wasn't difficult: the man was smaller and slighter than Ivan, not nearly in as fine condition. So there was a point to his grueling training regime after all, besides giving the old pervs at Imperial Headquarters something to ogle.

Ivan remembered, very distinctly in a flash of recollection, his mother making him repeat one of the many warnings he'd had to learn before being allowed outside to play: "One only needs two inches of water to drown."

Thoroughly sick of it one day, and envying Miles his freedom to come and go as he pleased with no such delays, he'd said petulantly as he pulled on his too-thick gloves, "Don't worry, Mother. I won't let Miles get himself drowned."

And she'd tipped up his chin and said, "I'm not thinking about little Miles."

So he hauled the man out of the deepest part of the puddle, until he was half-leaning against the wall, his head well out of the water. Ivan hoped he wouldn't slip in while he was gone.

He retrieved the needler with his handkerchief and continued right, hoping he'd meet no one else. He walked a long while, until the ha-ha began once more to curve towards the house.

It was an Armsman who stopped him, his stunner trained on Ivan's chest. He said something Ivan couldn't hear. Ivan dropped the needler and held his hands out, showing he meant no harm. "I can't hear you!"

The Armsman shook his head.

Ivan backed away a pace to avoid startling the Armsman. Slowly, he mimed writing in the air.

The Armsman nodded, said something inaudible again.

Very slowly, Ivan reached in his pocket for his light-pen and chit book. He wrote: Cpt. VPatril. ImpSec op. His tunic showing his Ops insignia was with By; if the Armsman thought he was an ImpSec captain--well, he wasn't exactly lying: he was here with Kuzin's ImpSec operation.

The Armsman received the torn-off chit warily. He read it in snatches, flicking his glance between it and Ivan. Then, apparently believing him, he lowered his stunner to gesture for the book and pen. Armsman Beauxis. Alarm. Retrieving strays.

Anything?

He shook his head, and Ivan read his lips: "No, sir."

Ivan wasn't technically "sir" to him; the tense situation must have returned him to the accustomed modes of speech from, presumably, his days in the Service. He was exactly what Ivan needed. I have a man, restrained. You'll help me carry him.

"Yes, sir."

Keeping in clear view of Beauxis, Ivan picked up the handkerchief-wrapped needler before leading him back to the man he'd stunned the old-fashioned way. Ivan watched the him catch sight of the man; his expression was surprise, perhaps recognition. You know him?

As Beauxis began to speak, Ivan pushed the light-pen and book into his hands. Thale. Komarran.

What?

M'lord Indris's houseguest. Business partner.

Oh, Kuzin! How many?

Beauxis held up two fingers.

Where is the other?

Beauxis shook his head.

What two Komarrans were doing running amuck at Vortaine's residence without being detained at the first hint of trouble Ivan couldn't guess. He'd have to have a good talk with Kuzin. Well, he'd have to get the Komarran up to Kuzin first. Ivan eyed the man. Then he judged the ha-ha's depth on the château side. He was not looking forward to this--though it was hardly likely to matter now if he made his shoulder worse. He reached down for the Komarran; Beauxis dutifully joined him. Together they hauled the Komarran up and swung him, not without a misaimed bump or two, over the top.

Take him up to the house. Report to the gatehouse to Lt. Kuzin, ImpSec, cmdg. I'll provide covering fire. Signal when you reach safety. I won't be joining you. Understood?

Beauxis nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good man. Go." He expected Beauxis didn't need that written down.

The other Komarran made no attempt to intervene as Beauxis carried his captured companion up to the gate. Receiving Beauxis's signal, Ivan retraced his steps back along the ha-ha, up the hayfield, over the fence, across the rock garden and the topiary, back behind the statue where By, for once by some miracle obedient to Ivan's word, had stayed put. He was tucked against the foot of the plinth, under the narrow eave that, on this side, provided no shelter from the slanting rain. At least he'd had the sense to put Ivan's tunic on properly--it looked ridiculously oversized on him. He narrowed his eyes in mock offense when Ivan arrived, failing to keep the triumph from his face.

Ivan squished himself up against the plinth. Got him.

How? Do tell! Where is he?

Armsman has him, reporting to Kuzin.

While the conquering hero hides behind a pillar?

Ivan was just beginning to bridle at his disdain when he reflected that By's jibe was only fair. He was hiding behind a pillar. Kuzin's too-- he began to explain, and found he couldn't put into words what he wanted to say.

Kuzin had an instinctive respect for authority; Ivan recognized it because he shared it himself. Kuzin tried not to show it, cultivating a manner that verged on insolence, but nevertheless it informed everything he did. Which meant he'd retain some measure of independent judgment only so long as he remained suspicious of Ivan and By--which suspicion, Ivan knew, was already beginning to erode. If Ivan showed up in the midst of a planning session, which he assumed to be happening in the gatehouse, as the one who'd captured their man, he was pretty sure that Kuzin would defer to him.

He mustn't know we're on his side, Ivan tried again, because I outrank him. I don't want to influence his decision-making.

By's expression was a mixture of fastidious disgust, which was familiar enough, and something unreadable. You should, he began. This message was a long one, By scribbling furiously over both sides of the chit. Unless you're satisfied with his decisions so far? You might have noticed this is no longer a matter of a silly protest--there's a terrorist blowing things up, shooting people. Don't you military types feel you have a duty in these circumstances?

It's not my place. He paused, trying to word his explanation so By would understand. I'm an accountant's secretary. I'm not ImpSec, I've never held a field command. I'm out of my depth. I'll only make things worse.

Whereas I'm deaf, cold and wet, lying in the mud, in a storm, pinned against a slab of rock by the biggest idiot I have ever had the misfortune to know, hiding from a man who's insane enough to blow up an ImpSec shuttle in full view of ImpSec. You would have to demonstrate exceeding imagination to make things any worse.

Ivan responded to the only part of By's complaint he could: I'll stop holding you still when you stop squirming. If the enemy sees you moving, you're dead.

Forgive me if I haven't been trained to lie in the mud for hours on end, to be sure.

By looked miserable. More tellingly, he hadn't made any comments along the lines of Much as I've dreamed of finding myself in this position, I never expected it to occur in quite this situation. Ivan sighed. Very carefully, he eased himself off By. He was beginning to regret insisting on By being brought along. Maybe if he'd kept him safe in that dry, warm Cetagandan cell, Dono might be convinced to use the hunting rifle, nice and quick; as it was, Ivan was going to die a slow and painful death by blunt embroidery needle instead.

Now that the adrenaline, and the coffee, had worn off, Ivan was feeling the cold again. The water in his boots was annoying him. His hands were numb. They weren't the problem--in fact, they were starting to prick with warmth. It was the rest of him. He leaned back and tried not to think about it. Maybe he should go talk to Kuzin--not to give him any suggestions, mind--just to raise the issue he'd meant to earlier… The gatehouse looked bright, inviting--it might make By complain less…

Gingerly he rose to a crouch, testing out his legs. I'll go first. You follow. That was about as well as he could do with fingers he could barely feel.

He drew the Komarran's handkerchief-wrapped needler, resolutely ignoring By's start. He made it to the back of the gatehouse without being fired on. Taking a covering position, he gestured for By. When By joined him, Ivan edged himself around the side, slipped out the narrow door set in the gate, and entered the gatehouse. He took a position at the lintel until By appeared. Then he seized him by the arms and pulled and shoved until he was well inside, well clear of the doorway.

When Ivan turned around, a crowd started talking all at once. He was amazed that he could hear them, a little. He supposed they were shouting.

Chapter Text

There was in reality no crowd. The kiosk was packed, which was what had given Ivan that impression. Kuzin, Beauxis, and the Armsman who manned the gate were standing before the comconsole in a space intended for one. Squeezed around the sides were two ImpSec men, the medtech and a corporal; another Armsman was backed against a corner, across the door from Ivan and By. The Komarran was trussed up on the only available piece of floor: under the comconsole desk.

Scanning the fractured conversation on the vidplate, Ivan learned that the three men at the comconsole had been using it to communicate--scribbling over each other as often as not--until their improving hearing allowed them to descend into a confusion of shouting instead. Ivan indicated he couldn't hear them. It was true: though he could make out the sound of their voices, at once muffled and far away over the ringing in his ears, he was still unable to distinguish speech with any accuracy.

Kuzin wrote on his hand-reader, You took down this man, sir. It was not a question.

Ivan's instinct was to affirm, Yes, before fading into the background, until he remembered why he'd come. He wrote in his chit book, Where's the other?

I have Cpl. Ananias on the search, sir.

Have you considered using Armsmen? They know the terrain; they know their man. He added for emphasis, It's regarded poor manners for outsiders to do a manhunt for a count's houseguest without informing the count. They were technically the houseguests of Lord Indris, the Count's father, but that was a minor detail.

They're Komarrans! After his initial outburst, Kuzin set the Armsmen searching all the same, except for Beauxis and Elizalde, the one who'd been guarding the gate.

Meanwhile Ivan had written, 'Every Komarran is a potential terrorist.' Or have they taken that off the curriculum?

'Potential dissident' now, sir. These men's files are clean: not members of known dissident factions, no known subversive activities, no known links to terrorist groups.

'Past performance does not predict future return.' Ivan didn't expect Kuzin to have heard that one, a personal favorite of Admiral Duplaine. I understood ImpSec to be more properly paranoid.

It's almost two generations since the Conquest, one generation since the Revolt. Komarrans are Barrayarans now. I don't want to discriminate, sir.

"Try telling that to your comrades on Komarr," Ivan wanted to reply, "who are still losing men every month." But his brain caught up in time: Kuzin didn't want to discriminate. So it was all about the Vorbarr Sultana detachment. Kuzin must have shown, or thought he'd shown, signs of anti-Komarran discrimination--for which he was overcompensating--when the real concern was his inability to control Vor. Ivan sighed. He couldn't mention that in front of Kuzin's men without undermining his authority. Some appearances had to be kept up. Ivan gave the Komarran under the desk a desultory kick. No response. Until he revived they couldn't get any answers out of him, either.

In the end, none of those things was Ivan's problem. His job here was done--he'd spoken to Kuzin about the Komarrans as he'd intended--so it was time to retreat into insignificance. Looking around the gatehouse, though, Ivan had the feeling that events were not going to allow him an easy escape: it might be the way his presence had disrupted Kuzin's meeting, or the way Kuzin was waiting for him to speak, standing far too straight and attentively for Ivan's comfort, or the way By was glaring daggers at him from under his lashes in that unsettling manner only a Vorrutyer could achieve.

Well, maybe Ivan could act in an advisory capacity. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

What's happening in the house? By claimed the comconsole, saving Ivan from further dithering.

Kuzin looked to Ivan for guidance. Ivan gave him a curt nod.

They've cut the comm net, sir, Kuzin answered Ivan. When the alarm sounded, Beauxis was detailed to bring in the Komarrans and any other strays in to the safe room. Two other Armsmen have corroborated his account.

What do you plan to do?

I need more information. I'd like to interview this KT when he revives, or the other when we capture him, sir. I like to know what I'm getting into.

Kuzin's response was cautious, ImpSec style. Ivan could see the benefit of learning the Vortaines' roles, of locating the second Komarran, of ascertaining whether it was a trap, rescue, or retrieval they were walking into. But while answers were good to have, any delay risked allowing the situation inside to deteriorate.

Kuzin must have taken Ivan's indecision for criticism, because he added, What will you do in my position, sir?

I'd biff it upstairs. Obviously.

Kuzin was not so easily dismissed. And if you were my colonel, sir?

Ivan frowned. Personally he'd still biff it upstairs, but somehow he didn't think that was what Kuzin was getting at.

Kuzin continued, I reviewed your file, sir. On your twelve-month posting as second assistant military attaché to the Embassy on Earth, you received a commendation for your part in a joint Galactic Affairs and Komarran Affairs operation classified to the highest level. With respect, sir, I think you have more counterterrorism experience than you lead me to believe.

Before Kuzin lifted his stylus, Ivan began to scribble in a panic: It wasn't my fault. It was Miles. I got myself kidnapped. I didn't do anything. He'd been relieved to have haggled Galeni down into recommending him for no more than a commendation. Medals were for building up Miles's ego--only by standing on a pile of them did he feel as tall as other people; Ivan himself preferred staying safely unobtrusive.

You are clearly not a secretary. Vorrutyer's--your cousin's--file, sir, has too many sections classified too highly to interpret simply as voyeurism discouragement measures.

You'd be surprised, wrote Ivan, though he'd given up on Kuzin reading it before finishing his own screed. Domestic Affairs monitored all Vor and significant proles who were considered "morally degenerate" or otherwise represented a defection risk. Of course they had By on file. Ivan tried not to imagine what the contents included.

He has too many associates of interest to ImpSec not to be on our list himself. His reaction to fast-penta is too severe to be natural, unless he's been sensitized by previous exposure, of which no record exists on file. He's very good, but if you're to use him for internal operations he'll need to have his file fixed.

Me--I have nothing to do with him-- Too late, Ivan realized he'd confirmed Kuzin's theory about By. If By had good reason for keeping Kuzin in the dark, Ivan had at best condemned him to a cycle of memory-suppressant therapy--at worst, he'd ruined both their careers. And while Kuzin was no loss, By was IS-9.

By glared. Do you gentlemen intend for us to stay here all night?

Ivan looked down at Kuzin. Guiltily. Kuzin looked up at Ivan.

Ivan? Offhand I can think of a dozen drier places to argue, the house being the nearest.

You mean to go in, sir.

Ye gods, when had Kuzin decided Ivan and By were attached at the head? I'd like to model the scenarios first.

We don't have the software required, sir. It was in the shuttle.

Ivan hoped he had sufficient experience modeling operations, and Kuzin leading them, to do the calculations manually. He also hoped the models would require more men or resources than Kuzin commanded, so providing a way for him to step down with dignity. Do you have the Château blueprints?

On the comconsole, sir.

Beauxis punched up the blueprints onto the vidplate. They studied it, picking his brains, planning their little strike. Eventually Kuzin decided he could do it on his own, wearing a determined Miles-look that meant all Ivan's dissuasion was futile, and Ivan lost any lingering hope that he might get away with biffing the mess upstairs. It was not his concern that they might fail--the models were unanimous in that regard--but he kept worrying about what, and who, their obviously irrational target might take down with him on his way out. After all, with fuzzy tactical objectives and zero situation understanding, what could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Text

The Armsmen had not reacted to ImpSec with hostility so far, but that was in the absence of direct orders from their Count. There was a real, albeit small, possibility the situation could change as soon as they made contact. So Kuzin elected to have them continue their search in the grounds, using his own men for the strike. He brought along Beauxis for his knowledge of the Château's passwords and door codes, and Ivan and By for no reason whatsoever that Ivan could see. In answer to his protest that the inclusion of a civilian would needlessly complicate the operation, By simply went over his head, directly appealing to Kuzin.

They compromised, in the end. By joined the party, having returned Ivan's tunic so that he was clearly seen to be a civilian, while Ivan was trusted with an Armsman's stunner for his protection. Ivan grabbed him by the elbow and shoved him into the middle of the formation, not caring how he disrupted it, intending to keep him there for the duration. Kuzin could look after himself; he wasn't Ivan's problem. Ivan and By shouldn't even be here, this wasn't their job, and bad things would happen to Ivan if he let By be harmed.

Beauxis keyed them in through the grand front doors, overriding the lockdown. The entrance hall was brightly-lit, apparently abandoned. They advanced down the central hallway. All was quiet. Two hallways, a flight of steps, and a corridor from the safe room in the cellar, they found the first bodies. Ivan smelled them first, the metallic tang of blood that somehow reminded him of rubies. They turned the corner.

"Don't look!"

Ivan said it to By in reflex. By must have heard him, though not well, because he immediately followed Ivan's line of sight.

They were a pair of Armsmen, or had been, who now resembled--Ivan had not the words to describe it. One was near, the other another ten yards distant. Their limbs and heads were remarkably intact, though no longer quite attached the usual way. Their torsos were--There was blood and scraps of their bodies sprayed across the walls, ceiling and floor. The pattern of injury was strange; it looked like nothing Ivan had seen before.

The medtech examined the nearer Armsman briefly, seeming as puzzled as anyone. Then the group moved on. By was busy vomiting; he hadn't noticed. Ivan transferred his hold from By's elbow to his upper arm just below the shoulder and tugged harder, guiding him forwards so that he remained in the exact centre of their party, numbering only seven now since the corporals had split off their sections a hallway ago.

They passed another Armsman as they neared the safe room.

The safe room--really more of a cave--opened to a stone corridor on the cellar sublevel. Its reinforced door was concealed among the blocks of stone that formed the original wall. Kuzin jerked his head towards the stretch of wall where the blueprints indicated the door, but Beauxis hesitated. There was a comm link taped to the stone.

While Kuzin was debating whether to risk losing Beauxis to a potential explosive device, one of his men stepped up. Gigauri, Ivan thought his name was, one of By's guards. It took Ivan a second to understand what was happening: he was volunteering.

Kuzin motioned everyone back. Gigauri pulled the comm link off the wall, switched it on. The activation light flickered. The link was emitting audio, Ivan guessed, too quiet for him to hear. Kuzin made a rising motion with his hand; Gigauri turned the volume up to the maximum. Now Ivan could just make out the words, tinny and faraway, over the thin ringing that still filled his ears.

"I want to speak to your leader," the voice said.

Ivan almost laughed: this was the sort of greeting you expected from the bug-eyed aliens that frequented children's holovid programming.

Kuzin looked to Ivan. Ivan pretended to disappear. These were not his men; this was not his job. Beside him By was thankfully still and quiet. Kuzin stepped forward to take the comm link. Managing to make his shout sound bored, even insolent, he recited, "Lieutenant Kuzin, Imperial Security. I command this mission. Identify yourself."

Ivan could have hugged him.

"I am Komarr."

Ivan couldn't help it--he doubled over in hysterical giggles. Whoever this terrorist was, he evidently watched too many bad holovids.

"You will state your true name. Claiming false identity is a chargeable offence."

"Stop it. You're in no position to threaten me. You're only alive because I'm keeping you that way. And I wouldn't recommend opening that door in front of you. As soon as you do, the house goes up."

"Why?"

By now Ivan had got hold of himself enough to read the chit that By was thrusting before his face: The comm link works. He's either inside or he's reconnected the comm net. Ivan nodded. Either alternative was good news. He made an effort to pull himself together, to attend to the--well, conversation; he couldn't bring himself to dignify it with the term "negotiation".

"Why, he asks? Because the cellar's full of explosives. I've got the switch."

"No, why are you doing this? Won't it kill you when the house explodes?"

"Ah, but you'll be dead, too. One for--how many?--a dozen, at least? I'm dead anyway, now you've come."

So he was inside. With any luck, one of the other sections would reach him soon, maybe while Kuzin was still keeping him occupied.

"Your hosts, the Vortaines, are in the cellar. They will also be killed."

"Sad, but it can't be helped. They're Barrayarans too. You see what you've made me do? You shouldn't have set them to spy on me. You showed your hand, there."

Ivan gleaned that the Vortaines were still in the safe room where they'd fled; this had been the most likely scenario.

"Well, here's mine: I want you to go away and let Komarr be, all of you. Stop talking, stop spying, everything. I want you to contact the Barrayaran Emperor, and I want him to affirm the sovereignty of Komarr for the Komarrans. It shouldn't be hard; there's a delegation of oligarchs here ready to sign the document. When I see the signatures on the flimsy, and not before, I'll let the Vortaines go. If not, kaboom."

Kuzin was pretending to think about it. Good. He wasn't pointing out to the melodramatic Komarran that he had no understanding of how the world worked outside of mass-market vid thrillers. He was also not pointing out that purely written agreements weren't legally binding on Barrayar. "I don't see how the Vortaines are involved," he said. "We can talk to the Emperor after you release them."

The voice sounded exasperated, contemptuous. "I don't think you understand. I believe the word is 'hostage'."

Kuzin's own wristcom flashed, likely emitting a beep below Ivan's threshold of hearing. Kuzin began unbuckling the strap. "Wait, so you want me to tell the Emperor that if he doesn't hand Komarr over--" he handed the wristcom over to Ivan "--to the Komarran delegation at Vorbarr Sultana tonight--" he lowered the input volume at Ivan's signal "--you'll kill the Vortaines?"

On the wristcom must be one of the corporals reporting to Kuzin. Ivan looked down at By. Ivan was still holding his arm in a firm grip, still in the center of the group, but now he would have to either let go or remove him from their protection. If he took the call here, the Komarran was sure to overhear at least part of the conversation, despite Kuzin reducing the volume. If Ivan got through the night safely and By did not, he'd have embroidery needles to face. All things considered, a nice whatever-had-killed-the-Armsmen would make a quicker, more painless, and far less ignominious end. Whatever happened to By would have to happen to him, too. So he pulled him behind a tapestry near the end of the corridor, into a niche furnished with a cushioned bench, hoping that the material would absorb some of the sound. He turned up the volume.

"Vorpatril here."

"Corporal Voytov, sir--"

"Good grief, man. Corporal, report."

"We've gained the second floor. We passed two Armsmen on the first floor landing, sir, dead--gutted. No sign of the KT."

"We're in the cellar; we've located the Vortaines. This is a hostage situation; the lieutenant's negotiating via comm link. The KT's in the building; there appears to be no accomplice. Find him, corporal; neutralize him; eliminate if necessary. He's using unconventional weapons; take care. You've seen the Armsmen. Patch me through to Ananias, thanks."

The situation there was similar. Ivan repeated his orders, feeling horribly exposed; he hated telling people what to do.

When he returned By to the safety of the herd, Kuzin was still going strong. "I see: you don't want the Emperor to know about you at all. You want me to tell him that I'd like him to give up Komarr off my own bat, a personal decision as it were. Why do you think he'd listen to me?"

"I… You have Barrayaran reasons. If you can't convince him, the Vortaines die."

"Of course; I understand that. I just thought you might have some suggestions for persuading him, since you seem to have thought about this a great deal."

This was a clear invitation to elaborate on his grievances, but surprisingly for a dissident the Komarran stayed silent. Kuzin caught Ivan's eye, By's, and Ivan's again, and it dawned on all three: the Komarran hadn't thought about this part much at all. He'd changed horses midstream as the opportunity presented itself--never a good idea unless you had ops support, or were Miles, who held the equivalent of a full ops team in his head--and was now flailing about just as much as they were. Which made it imperative to keep him on this track, prevent him from reverting to his actual, likely better-laid, plan.

While Kuzin kept the Komarran talking, By had written in the appropriated chit book, He's beginning to sound like Pierre, bless him, between lucid intervals. Dangerous when cornered. Does he bluff about the explosives?

Beauxis shrugged and returned, M'lord Indris keeps his inventory in the dungeons. Mining equipment.

By frowned, cocking his head.

A half-remembered newsvid flickered in a dim corner of Ivan's mind. Mining equipment… Mining bots! A loophole in the Interstellar agreements made certain classes of pre-programmed drones available to the Barrayaran civilian market in the guise of mining bots. There was a range of models for exploration, sampling, blasting, and so on. It wasn't difficult for anyone with a modicum of technical expertise to fit them with much more powerful and flexible circuits. And Lord Indris had been importing these things with his Komarran business partners, likely through Vorinnis's shuttleport. Vorinnis must be aware of what was being declared through his port. There were no mines in the Vortaine's District; Vorinnis would reach the obvious conclusion. No wonder he was so hostile to the Vortaines! Although if it were Indris importing the drones, why the feud with Cyril?

The more immediate problem Ivan faced was their personal safety, and that of the Vortaines. The dungeon was packed with explosives. At the Komarran's command, when he lost patience with Kuzin, drones would be zipping up and down the hallways armed with automatic drills or carrying explosive charges. The Komarran must have got the Armsmen with the drills. Ivan suppressed a shudder, recalling the state of their corpses. What the Vortaines needed was a commando, Ivan decided, when all they had instead was a bedraggled investigative team from the local office of Domestic Affairs, more accustomed to following up overambitious knitting circles or running pre-employment checks than conducting a counterterrorism operation. Ivan studied Kuzin's section: if the corporals took their time, if it really came down to it, this was probably going to be the first instance any of these men faced live fire outside of a training exercise. On second thought, the Vortaines didn't need a commando--what they really needed was Miles. What they got was Ivan-You-Idiot.

Ivan stationed a man at each end of the corridor armed with a plasma arc. He connected to the corporals' channels to revise his orders: they were to arm their men with plasma arcs on high and shoot at anything that moved, the Historical Buildings Society be damned.

Or rather, he tried to connect to the corporals' channels. The channels were dead.

He wrote to Beauxis, I have no connection to Voytov or Ananias. Why?

The security system, sir. The comm links must be inside security screens.

I am on a military frequency-- Ivan checked his impending rant with an effort. It would not do to appear hysterical at a time like this. Although it was against Imperial law to interfere with or otherwise disrupt comm signals at military frequencies, that it had happened was hardly Beauxis's fault. What's happening to my men?

By sniggered against him, eavesdropping over his shoulder. Ivan read over what he'd written. He crossed out "my" and replaced it with "the".

Nothing. They must have triggered a lockdown mechanism.

If the corporals' sections were confined inside force screens, then Kuzin's section, or part thereof, must take over the search for the Komarran. Ivan looked around. Kuzin himself could not go, obviously, because he'd make too much noise; the pilot and Gigauri were holding the ends of the corridor; Beauxis was needed to key open the door; and the medtech was most useful where he could attend his comrades. The only dispensable person was Ivan himself.

Why was it always him?

I mean to take over from them.

Sir, we're not to leave the corridor. Ricia--Komarran--instructed the Lt. when you were away.

How will he know?

Surveillance vid.

Which he will have to be in the guardroom to see.

Beauxis had no answer to that. So Ivan left By with Beauxis, swapped his stunner for the medtech's plasma arc, turned up its power, set off upstairs. He nodded at Gigauri at the head of the corridor, and was unnerved to receive a respectful salute back. He was no longer being treated as a detainee.

Ivan had passed Gigauri by no more than ten paces when the thing hurtled around the corner. He dived back to the head of the corridor, raising his borrowed plasma arc to aim. He kept low to give Gigauri a clear shot. As soon as he'd found a steady position, he fired, joining his bolt to Gigauri's.

The thing absorbed the first few milliseconds of fire until Ivan started to panic. No further than halfway down the corridor, it finally burst into flame, lost velocity, exploded. Bits of twisted metal flew out of it, bouncing off the walls. Ivan and Gigauri took cover around the corner.

"The only way to make danger go away is to shoot at it," Ivan recalled being told by a sergeant at the Academy. He was right. Gigauri had probably heard the same. Ivan wished things like "proximity to the throne" and "attractiveness as a figurehead for conspirators" were equally amenable to being shot at. He stood up, dusted himself off, gave Gigauri a wry, not-quite-sheepish smile, and wrote on the back of a chit, KT in the guardroom. Care to come?

Gigauri fairly leapt at the opportunity. The man was wasted in Domestic Affairs. Ivan relieved him with the medtech, after returning his plasma arc; they wouldn't be needing his medical services just now, in any case.

Ivan showed the chit to Beauxis with the second line crossed out, so that it read, KT in the guardroom. He added, Draft me directions, avoiding surveillance.

Beauxis shook his head.

Plumbing? Chimneys? Air vents?

Grilles in the way.

Ivan remembered Armsman Elizalde at the gate. Assume I have a manual override.

Beauxis grinned despite himself. After a moment's thought, he started to sketch.

The guardroom was on the ground floor, not far away. They'd not searched it, having taken the neighboring hallway on their way in, expecting to find the Komarran in either of the Komarrans' suites or Lord Indris's office. The way to the guardroom was straightforward, for which Ivan silently thanked Vortaine. The niche behind the tapestry had been a garderobe before the house was installed with modern plumbing facilities. There was a corresponding niche in the hallway not five yards from the guardroom door. Moreover, the single surveillance vid pickup between the ground floor niche and the Komarran himself was directed at this door, its range encompassing just two yards to either side.

Ivan briefly considered borrowing Kuzin's unused plasma arc, but decided against it. He was leaving By in Kuzin's protection, after all. Ivan would have Gigauri take on whatever the Komarran threw at them, while he took the Komarran with the Armsman's stunner.

Inside the garderobe, Gigauri removed the cushion--it was flammable--and fired a plasma arc bolt at the bench. From the gaping hole a shaft led straight downwards until, somewhere unseen in the darkness, it opened to the external wall. Beside it was the opening to a second, parallel, shaft, which led up to the garderobe on the ground floor. There were grilles between them and the open, as Beauxis had said. Plasma arcs being unwieldy in the tight space, Gigauri fired directly downwards into the darkness until Ivan was sure he'd cleared the grilles. They climbed in, Gigauri first. Waiting in the garderobe under By's ironically supercilious gaze, Ivan was surprised at his own calmness in the enclosed space. The company was helping, he admitted in reluctance, even though the company currently consisted of By. Ivan's shoulder, though, was aching in anticipation. He'd have to get it seen to when he got back to Vorbarr Sultana. If he got back to Vorbarr Sultana.

The going wasn't as bad as he'd expected. After the first few seconds adrenaline took care of his shoulder for him--and the bruise on his hip that kept grinding against the wall of the shaft. When Gigauri reached the bottom, he took a while to get his plasma arc in place, careful not to drop it, before blasting four deep gouges into the stone walls for hand--and footholds. He descended into the open, braced himself against the wall, incinerated the grilles in the second shaft as he'd done the first, before disappearing inside.

Ivan followed. The exterior was slippery with rain. The wind kept catching at him in gusts, trying to buffet him away from the wall to be dashed onto the barely visible rocks below. The house was built on a steep slope; while the safe room backed into the mountain, here they were at least thirty feet above ground. Wishing he had a grav-suit, Ivan tried not to look down. He told himself it was worse for Gigauri: he'd had to make the way.

It was raining down the second shaft: Gigauri had cleared it right to the top--and then some. The bench was gone, as was the ceiling of the garderobe, revealing through the hole a scorched crater in the ceiling of the first floor room above. The plasma arc bolt had started the sprinkler going in that room, accounting for the rain. Gigauri's nerves had him shaking in silent giggles against the wall. Ivan had crossed beyond hysterical laughter into sheer terror.

When they'd rested from their exertion--not quite enough, but Ivan knew he'd never feel quite rested enough tonight--he very slowly, very carefully drew back one edge of the tapestry. The hallway was clear. He judged the two-yard mark to the door, just outside the range of the surveillance vid pickup, and dashed for it, Gigauri right behind him.

If he had time, Ivan thought, and a ladder, he'd be able to loop the vid record so that the Komarran saw nothing. As it was…

He nodded to Gigauri. Gigauri aimed, fired. As soon as his plasma arc bolt hit the vid pickup, Ivan threw himself across the intervening space to the door. Before he reached it, Gigauri swung his plasma arc to describe a circle on its panels. Ivan shouldered through the centre section.

The Komarran was sitting at the monitoring desk, as Ivan had expected, leaning across to tap at the dead vidplate, as he'd expected. Ivan felled him with the stunner. As if in slow motion, he slid sideways to the floor.

For seconds they stood ready for something to fly out at them. Ivan jumped at a noise, startlingly loud.

"Engineer Ricia? I've lost you. Are you there?"

It was only Kuzin over the comm.

"Vorpatril here. I'm in the guardroom with Gigauri. The KT's stunned. I'm coming down to join you. Get the Vortaines out. Evacuate the building. Get the security disabled. We've no contact with the others until then…" Ivan ran out of things to say. Talking was always Miles's job.

"Sir! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Gigauri, too. Just... get everybody out. There's a spew of jury-rigged controls up here. I don't trust the KT's wiring. I recommend bomb disposal."

After few more assurances for Kuzin--Ivan knew he ought to be touched by his concern--they dragged the Komarran to a cleared space in the centre of the guardroom, careful to avoid what must have been the control circuits for the mining bots. Gigauri scrounged a float pallet from the first aid cupboard, to which he bound the Komarran with the attached restraints. Feeling rather satisfied with arrangements, all things considered, Ivan led them back downstairs. They came across Beauxis on his way to the guardroom. The Armsman saluted as he passed.

Chapter Text

The Vortaines had been released, as had their staff and the eight Armsmen who'd escorted them into the safe room. The whole procession was retreating to the garage, where Kuzin intended to commandeer the Vortaines' vehicles for the return journey to Port Vortaine.

Or, the procession had been retreating, until they reached the dead Armsman.

Rounding the corner Ivan saw among the crowd, very distinctly, Lady Vortaine, face pale against her dark hair and the dressing gown--her husband's--wrapped over her nightdress. She'd been clutching her son's shoulder; now she lifted her hand to her mouth. The Armsmen on either side closed in for support.

Ivan introduced himself; the Armsmen parted before him. He was about to offer his hand when, thinking better of it, he took Lady Vortaine by the waist instead. With minimal hesitation she transferred her weight to him; she felt nice against him, soft, with a bit of heft to her, curvy in that way he liked. In reflex he looked for her husband: Lord Indris was several steps behind, his watery, washed-out face blank in what Ivan charitably interpreted as shock. The young Count Vortaine, on the other hand, had shrugged off his mother's grasp to continue onward, drawn to the body, bending over the Armsman as he reached him. Ivan was relieved his District responsibilities precluded a Service career: you really didn't want that kind in the military.

Catching Ivan's expression of disgust, By said dismissively, "You mustn't blame him; they can't help that gruesome stage."

Ivan was not entirely convinced. He'd certainly not gone through such a stage--but maybe Miles's various orthopedic mishaps had put him off the fascination with gruesomeness before it had the opportunity to develop.

"And at least he doesn't kill people for a living."

Ivan conceded the point. Some. "Nor, come to think of it, does he betray his friends for money."

"Or for the greater good of the Imperium--don't forget that." So saying, By extended the Count a mock bow, caught him by the shoulders with deceptive firmness, and steered him down the corridor.

Lady Vortaine was still leaning into Ivan as they walked. He held her waist more securely and took her hand in his. He made sure they were in full view of her husband, who was raising no objections, not asserting his claim. This was not theft, just a loan; Ivan was doing nothing wrong. He murmured assurances into Lady Vortaine's dark curls, braided for the night; she began to relax her desperate grip on his hand. In response Ivan felt the tension drain from himself; he'd wanted this, he'd wanted to have a woman to comfort since the shuttle exploded.

Kuzin insisted the Vortaines travel in separate vehicles, likely to prevent them from synchronizing alibis. Lord Indris went where he was led. Lady Vortaine became tearful when ImpSec took her son from her, but the Count only rolled his eyes before settling into his official groundcar beside By, champion and confidante of all unpleasant sorts. Ivan showed Lady Vortaine to the lightflyer. As the smallest vehicle, he hoped it would prevent unnecessary gawpage. He handed her into the rear compartment, pulling her close. She laid her head on his shoulder.

When they'd sat awhile in the soothing hum of the engines, "Lady Vortaine," Ivan began very gently, "do you understand why we're going to Port Vortaine?"

She shook her head against his chest, though Ivan guessed she had a fair idea. He put his other arm about her.

"Lieutenant Kuzin will want to know about your guests. He might ask you some questions--"

"I've done nothing wrong!"

"Hush," Ivan murmured, "to be sure. It doesn't mean anything. I expect Kuzin to treat you as well as he can, as a witness. He'll see everyone in your household as a possible witness."

Her breathing hadn't quite settled; he could feel the beating of her heart. He stroked her hair.

"Do you know how witnesses are interviewed?"

She nodded, but couldn't quite bring herself to speak.

"Yes, he'll use fast-penta. Just between you and me, it doesn’t deserve its reputation."

That got her attention. She peeked up at him under her lashes.

"It's difficult to cast a wide net," he explained. "If Kuzin asks an open question, you could reply with anything, anything at all. You have no inhibitions. I'm not suggesting you've anything to hide--only, there are some things no woman wishes to share with a strange man. It could take a long time, and various angles of questioning, to give him what he wants. It's much pleasanter to take the alternative."

"I suppose you'll tell me what that is?"

"You're safest to answer yes-no questions, to confirm for Kuzin what he already knows. If he's provided the right questions to ask, he might spare your husband and son the full experience, too."

"Does the Emperor know his security forces are so transparent?"

Ivan put on his inane grin, with a touch of rue in it for good measure. "I'm not one of them, Lady Vortaine." He pointed to the insignia on his collar. "I'm only being honest. Your cousin the Lord Vortaine has already admitted his part; I wish to spare you unnecessary unpleasantness. Kuzin--he's not Vor; he's not one of us. He doesn't understand."

Lady Vortaine wriggled out of Ivan's arms and slipped to the end of the seat. Ivan let her go.

"Is that how it's done in the training vid? Does it ever work in practice?"

"Lady Vortaine, I'm trying to help you."

She shook her head. "You'll not make me betray anyone."

"To be sure," Ivan replied automatically. Then his brain caught up. "How would you feel if you--if your family--were betrayed?"

"Who would betray us? We've never harmed anyone."

"Your houseguest, Ricia, threatened to kill your household tonight."

She shook her head again, decisively, all brave defiance. "You're lying. Even if he threatened it, he didn't do it. He'd never have done it. He was bluffing to convince you to leave."

So she wasn't in on that part. Good. "He killed your Armsmen with a mining bot."

"It was an accident." She kept shaking her head, and her voice was firm, but she was starting to look uncertain. "They fly all through the château: they're being tested, the circuits. Ducalcon wasn't careful enough. He ran into it."

"Lady Vortaine--Sonya--please. You saw your Armsman. Ducalcon. He was drilled into, deliberately." It was cruel to state the facts so plainly. "Two more Armsmen died on the ground floor; another two on the first floor landing. Five accidents? All at once?"

She was shaking her head, shaking all over, tearful, distraught. She had one arm wrapped around herself, the other brought to her throat. In the lightflyer's rear compartment there was no one to turn to, so when Ivan slid across and put his arms about her, she clutched at him blindly, burying her head in his chest. Ivan took a calming breath, vowing never to let By talk him into another scheme, no matter how innocent it seemed.

"Who? Who were they?"

"I don't know their names. I'm sorry, Lady Vortaine, I should have found out from Beauxis. Whatever their names, be proud of them. They died well: in the line of duty, weapons in their hands. No Armsman could wish for a finer end." He recalled the thing flying at him, its drill bit a spinning, whirring blur; imagined himself armed with an Armsman's stunner, firing, firing, the thing coming closer, making contact, ripping him apart, still conscious--watching it all, hearing it, feeling every moment, maybe even afterwards when it moved on to the next man, knowing he would suffer the same fate. Surely it was one of the less pleasant ways to go.

"Why did he do it?"

"No doubt he'll inform Kuzin as soon as he revives." Ivan made an effort to keep the edge off his voice.

"We've been so good to him, to both of them. They've lived with us for months. We thought they were happy here--quieter, lately, but happy. The Armsmen helped them test their gadgets."

"Gadgets? That seems an incongruously benign name."

"I didn't know what they could do. None of us did--it's not my husband's fault, nor Cyril's either."

"No, of course not." Ivan stroked her back with long, slow strokes. "It's not their fault."

After a while, when he pressed no more, she offered, "My husband--he's not a military man, you see?"

Ivan murmured assent, though he did not, in fact, see. He knew nothing about Lord Indris except that he was a nonentity, a cousin chosen for Lady Vortaine for three abilities: the ability to give the late Count's grandson the right surname; the ability to cut the next nearest cousin out of the succession; and the ability to appear so unpromising that he'd never garner the support to seize the Countship from his son.

"He's--always longed to make something of his life. He's an enthusiast. He's never had the opportunity, until my Claude--well, Count Claude. My husband's interested in this thing, this trade deficit."

"Ah, so the tourism project was Lord Indris's idea! It's doing well, I trust?"

She looked up at this shift in tone. "Yes, but--I don't know. Cyril runs it. He's good at running things. My husband isn't a military man. He's--he's more of an ideas person."

"Whose latest idea to reverse the District's trade deficit is to mine the Cairngorms?"

"Well, yes."

"Cheaper on an asteroid belt."

"Not for us. We don't own any asteroid belts."

Ivan shrugged, smiling reassuringly. "Of course Lord Indris must have it all worked out."

Lady Vortaine was silent, averting her gaze.

"You disagree?"

She clung closer, her lovely breasts pressed to him. He'd been wishing she'd stop talking about her husband so he could reach up to touch them without feeling guilty. They were driving him to distraction now.

"No, you're right, of course. I'm grateful you believe in him. You may be the only one; he doesn't even have the support of the Imperial Bureau of Mines. He had to go to Komarr to find engineers who'd help; customs isn't happy; and it's all turned into a--My husband is an idiot."

Reality shifted. In another universe, Lady Vortaine might be talking about Ivan. Or if things had been different there might be a Lady Vorpatril to defend Ivan to total strangers. She'd call him an idiot. While in the real world he was going home to an evil, yellow-eyed beastlet that used him as a scratching post. "His idiocy is debatable, I'm sure. What puzzles me is why he inventoried hazardous and explosive materials in your dungeon--and how he convinced Lord Vortaine to allow it. There's a rare piece of genius indeed."

"Cyril doesn't know, not the details. We'd no wish to worry him. He gets so worked up about things--it's from his time in the Fleet." Seeing Ivan's expression she added, "There are all kinds of measures preventing accidental detonations. My husband showed me."

Ivan was unconvinced, but let it pass. They would find out, soon enough, when the bomb disposal squad was through. "Funny you should mention worrying Lord Vortaine. I'm worried about him."

"What has he done?"

Ivan blinked his best blank blink. "What's he supposed to have done?"

"Nothing," said Lady Vortaine quickly. After a while, when the silence grew oppressive, she added, "He's taken a dislike to Commissioner Vorinnis. This latest problem with the Commissioner's customs officials--I was afraid Cyril might have overstepped his authority to get the gadgets through for my husband."

So Vortaine was fronting for Lord Indris. Now that Ivan had met both men, the arrangement didn't surprise him. But Vorinnis already suspected Vortaine of treason, of separatism at least; if Vortaine had smuggled weaponizable materials through his shuttleport, he'd not refrain from reporting it as evidence. So Vortaine must have imported everything perfectly legally. Had Vorinnis used his powers of search and seizure to inconvenience Vortaine? Was this the trigger that had escalated their feud?

This was too convoluted. Ivan's head was starting to hurt again. "Not that I've heard of. And Commissioner Vorinnis wouldn't be keeping quiet if he had, I've no doubt."

"Oh, do you know the Commissioner?"

Even in distress, she was too sharp. What to say? Ivan settled for a not-lie: "Not so well, these days. He used to work in Vorbarr Sultana."

"Do you like him?"

Ivan supposed the correct answer was "no". He couldn't bring himself to say it. "Yes, I do, actually."

Lady Vortaine turned away in his arms, distancing herself--or as if embarrassed. "Everyone hates him. I went to see him, once, when Cyril was getting nowhere with customs--well, that was the first time. He was nice. I liked him, despite myself, and I found I couldn't say any of the things I'd meant to. I liked him!"

"I'm not surprised: women generally do."

"Like they generally like you?"

Ivan blushed. Lady Vortaine was still looking away. Good.

"You see, when I left, I… Well, I resolved to go back to try again because the Commissioner seemed so reasonable. I felt sorry for him. I don't think a man could be so kind--and truly believe such terrible things."

"He's from a different generation; he's been through a lot." He'd grown up in Ezar's time, and deep down he could not unbelieve the things he grew up with. More to the point, he was not High Vor: he was raised to direct his sense of duty and loyalty upwards, not down. Ivan couldn't say this, though. Lady Vortaine was a woman, her loyalty given to her men; she wouldn't understand. Because a man's politics were determined by subconscious impulses, they were the product of upbringing, though he flattered himself that he came to them by a rational decision-making process. Multiply that phenomenon by sixty million, Ivan thought, and there you had the trouble with democracy.

He almost missed Lady Vortaine's reply: "So has Cyril; he's been through the same."

"Which is why," Ivan wanted to say, "he has his own problems."

The lightflyer, landing that moment, rescued him from insulting Lady Vortaine's cousin to her face. Then he was rescued permanently when a pair of ImpSec men, having greeted Lady Vortaine politely, escorted her away.

Ivan turned to the man who'd piloted the lightflyer. "You've made recordings?"

"Yes, sir."

"Get a transcript to your lieutenant. Don't make him ask for it. Efficiency."

"Yes, sir."

Ivan fervently hoped Lady Vortaine was too far away to have overheard this exchange. He liked her--he liked an accomplished woman uncorrupted by Vorbarr Sultana society. He hoped to meet her again one day, just as soon as the shine wore off her husband a little.

Chapter Text

It was time to collect By, Ivan decided, and disappear in the confusion engendered by the influx of new detainees. He found him in the first place he looked: alighting from the Count's official groundcar, his expression one of ironic magnanimity, the Count's of sly conspiracy. Ivan frowned, irritated at the tableau. Two ImpSec men had attached themselves to the Count. By caught Ivan's eye. Ivan took his elbow, and they slipped into the dark.

"What did you do with my flyer?" Ivan demanded, barely hearing himself over the engines and the rain.

"ImpSec impounded it. May I remind you, my dear idiot cousin, that we are in a shuttleport, and therefore there is no need to take that tone?"

"Much good will the port do us while we're still technically in ImpSec detention. Kuzin isn't a man to be lax in his paperwork."

By shrugged. "So we'll wait it out." He did not, Ivan noticed, insist on Ivan protesting to Allegre. Ivan wasn't sure how he felt about that. "Perhaps out of the rain?"

Ivan led him through a side door and various back passages to a small staff kitchen. Ivan's hopes for a revitalizing coffee were dashed when he discovered the cupboards were locked down for the night. Well, By was looking decidedly better--or simply more smug; it was hard to tell--and it wasn't long till Kuzin's report would find its way to Allegre. Then they'd be sure to go home, where By's coffeelessness would no longer be Ivan's concern. In the meanwhile, Ivan had his own report to write.

Settling down with a flimsy, "By," Ivan asked, a little plaintively, "what's my chain of command tonight? I mean, to whom do I address my report?"

"Me, naturally."

"I can't address reports to you; you're a civilian."

By raised a mocking eyebrow. Oh. He wasn't being serious. "You might be able to get away with not writing one. Goodness me! Captain Lord Vorpatril--goes one night without writing a report! Have you ever done anything without a chain of command, Ivan? Brushed your teeth, maybe? Been with a girl? I suppose it's hands off Lady Vortaine tonight, alas--no orders from Admiral Duplaine."

Ivan snarled. He decided he would write the body of the report now, leaving a space to add the addressee later.

As he was three-quarters down the second page, the back of Ivan's neck pricked; he glanced up to see By studying him thoughtfully from his nest on the sofa. He'd finished scribbling his report, with many a flourish and self-satisfied sigh, well ahead of Ivan. "What?"

"I was poised in expectation of your tedious questioning, but you defeat me already--I'm afraid I really can't parse that one."

"You see what I'm doing here? I'm writing my report. That means it's over," said Ivan, more in threat than relief. "It's done and dusted. There's nothing more I need to know. If I'm allowed to learn anything further, I trust I'll be told." It was true: while Ivan enjoyed listening to Miles recount his exploits, he was thankfully without the terminal curiosity that drove people like By. No, that way lay madness--and ImpSec. Then again… "Wait--you don't mean to say you've got to the bottom of it?"

By was definitely looking smug. "Some people pay attention to the principals rather than haring off on madcap adventures and canoodling with other men's wives."

Ivan refused to be distracted. "Never mind that. How were the Komarrans connected to the case?"

"Who says they were connected to anything? It's questionable whether they're connected to reality."

This was harder than pumping Miles for information. Miles made Ivan work for it because he craved external validation--from Ivan if he couldn't get it anywhere else--but By really did seem to enjoy keeping secrets. Ivan abandoned his flimsy and pen on the kitchen table to sit on the arm of the sofa over By. He grabbed his arm in what was fast becoming a familiar gesture.

With deliberate insouciance By looked down at Ivan's hand around his arm, but not before Ivan caught a flicker of alarm in his eyes. "This is getting old, don't you think? You need to know, Ivan, this threat of violence routine only works on those who are frightened of you. And I'm too strung out to be afraid of anything right now."

Which meant he'd been frightened of Ivan that night at Gregor's wedding, when he'd forced him into that private bower. The very idea made Ivan squirm. He dropped By's arm. By could keep his secrets. Ivan had a report to write.

When the door opened, Ivan was carefully reviewing his report for the second time. It was taking so long because the letters kept jumping around; if only they stayed where he'd put them, he knew he'd get through faster. It was Kuzin at the door, expression a combination of harassment and naked awe. The poor man was still at work, from the look of him, though he'd evidently received the response to his interim report, because he said, "Orders from Vorbarr Sultana, sir. You're both to be released, with your lightflyer. And I'm supposed to give you this and make sure you took it before the flight back. It's on my head, apparently, sir, from upstairs--from all the way upstairs."

He held out one of those little blue pills that couldn't possibly be healthy, but it meant Ivan wouldn't be acting like a zombie all day, so he took it gratefully under Kuzin's watchful eye. The thing had a kick like a mule: within seconds, the room--and Ivan's brain--had sharpened to a painful intensity. Ivan was glad of it, all the same.

He gave By, who was snoozing, curled up in his nest, a tentative shake, and when he stirred into wakefulness carefully hauled him off the sofa. By swayed a bit before he found his feet. Letting him go, Ivan allowed Kuzin to show them out.

"I was wondering, sir," said Kuzin, "I'd like to consult your cousin's opinion on a matter of his personal expertise. If he's agreeable, of course."

By shrugged, not quite awake. Ivan, hopeful for an explanation at last, and rather more awake than his brain was ready for, answered for him: "Willingly."

Kuzin led them back to his office, now sadly cleared of tea things. Seating them before the comconsole, he played a recording:

Bound to a chair fixed to the floor, under even illumination, the Komarran Thale was even smaller and slighter than he'd appeared in the ha-ha. The medtech had set his wrist and bandaged his head. He was dressed incongruously, in Komarran-style daywear matched with a pair of faded fatigue trousers that looked to have been donated by the laundry of the Port Vortaine Port Authority Guard. His hair was long--longer than By's, though not nearly so finely maintained.

The medtech, who'd been kneeling beside him, rose to his feet. "Prisoner's under, sir."

The Komarran's face held a relaxed, vacant expression. Ivan felt horrifically embarrassed. He shouldn't be privy to this: it wasn't his job. To his ashamed disgust, Kuzin let the recording play on.

They were students, the Komarran said, of mining engineering, when Lord Indris contacted them. Nearing the end of their degree, they'd come to the belated realization that employment in their chosen career involved relocating to an asteroid belt, where almost all major mining operations were sited. planet-born and -bred, the life of a stationer was not for them. So when an apparently enormously wealthy and powerful Barrayaran lord offered them employment on a planet, one close to home, they jumped at the opportunity.

They'd been born well after the Komarr Revolt; they knew no other regime than the Barrayaran, against which they held no grievances; they assumed Barrayar was a copy of Komarr with the addition of a bit of local color. They were wrong.

"We were treated like terrorists from the get-go--"

By raised an eyebrow at Ivan. Ivan managed--just--not to squirm.

"--there were three queues at the shuttleport: for Barrayarans, galactics, and Komarrans. The Komarran queue was the slowest. And that was in Solstice, before we set foot off Komarr. We got the same treatment on all our transfers--and the shuttleport on Barrayar! We haven't travelled since. It's not just the officials, either. People cross the street to avoid us, they're nervous if we leave our bags to pay the bill, we get a monorail carriage to ourselves--presumably so we'll only blow up fellow Komarrans and save you the surveillance. Don't think we don't see it! We're even spied on at home--it feels more like a zoo. The Vortaines think they're so kind, so gracious, to offer their home to the poor little Komarrans, when every minute they're relaying our movements to the Barrayaran authorities. What gives them the right to be gracious? Oh, if Komarr only knew the real Barrayar!

"All Barrayarans are the same. They're making us a minority on our own planet, while our oligarchs--are they naïve or in your pockets?--let you get away with it. Well, we too were blind until you proposed the ultimate imperialistic act: Barrayaranizing the Komarran landscape. No one sees terraforming for what it is. What's next? Knocking down the domes? They're our principal cultural icons. Then you'll really create a second Barrayar--" He was becoming agitated.

Kuzin, off-screen, cut off his diatribe. "Right. Fine. You've made your point now. You've aired your grievances. Why did you blow up my shuttle?"

"You came too soon. Nothing happens that fast on Barrayar--"

"In the Vortaine's District, maybe," Ivan couldn't help thinking; in his experience paranoia drove Barrayarans to surprising efficiency.

"Too soon for what?"

"Freedom for Komarr, of course."

"You--thought you'd free Komarr?" Kuzin was incredulous. "Come on, tell me what you planned. Impress me."

The Komarran flipped his hair back and directly addressed the surveillance vid pickup. Was he imagining himself being broadcast? Ivan was so embarrassed for him that he wanted to cringe down into his chair. He did the sensible thing instead: he assumed his blandest expression, pretending to disappear.

"We hate the Progressives, the hypocrites. If Conservatives ruled Barrayar, Komarr would revolt. We'd have an even better chance if there was civil war. The Commissioner is a Progressive. First we wanted to get rid of him. Then we thought, wouldn't it be better if we got the Vortaines to get rid of the Commissioner, and then effect a Conservative takeover?"

"A takeover of what?" Ivan did not say. In the greater scheme of Barrayaran politics both Vorinnis and the Vortaines were complete nonentities: replacement administrators could be appointed at a dozen to the mark, and there were fifty-nine counts and fifteen ministers with equal nominal power to Vortaine, the vast majority of whom held greater real power. In the Komarran's limited worldview, Ivan supposed it was possible, if you equated Vorinnis to a senior colonial administrator--in many ways he assumed the autonomy of one--and Count Vortaine to an oligarchic heir. Were there seventy-five oligarchic families left on Komarr to dilute the rule? Ivan thought the figure was considerably smaller.

Trying to fit the facts into the Komarran's story was only successful in giving Ivan a worse headache. The most baffling part of it was that, without By's intervention, the Komarrans would have succeeded--by accident and despite their lack of a sense of reality or perspective, but succeeded all the same. Ivan personally considered theirs a ridiculously convoluted plot--though when had Komarran plots been less than crazy? Komarrans made complex plots because they had an expectation that things worked, or at least worked consistently. Barrayarans, on the other hand, knew that everything broke down, nothing ran on time, and at least once a week some important person's whim completely changed the game, so they depended on speed and brute force instead. Ivan knew which made more sense to him.

Kuzin skipped the recording to the next relevant section.

"We couldn't sleep, the rain was so loud. So I went to Sam's room. There's no rain on Komarr," the Komarran explained with obvious superiority. "That's when we saw the shuttle. The Vortaines! They smile to our faces one minute; the next, they're siccing you lot on us! We tried to send a bot out, but it was too windy."

That they were designed to work only in mining conditions was one of the few stipulations placed on the bots to prevent their weaponization. Naturally, neither Komarran had accounted for weather conditions.

"We had to go outside. Sam cut the comm net and I got into the weapons cabinet to get a gun, for after. Then the alarm sounded. On the first floor a couple of Armsmen started hustling us downstairs. Sam put a drill on their tail and we got out. We programmed them to go after their brass buttons. We'd done trials--with the drills turned off, obviously. It's a useful thing for exploration. You program them to seek out certain minerals. It gives you a direction--"

By was looking disturbingly intrigued. Ivan was not.

"What happened after you set the drill on the Armsmen?"

"We laid the explosives manually. I didn't expect the blast to be so bad. We were wearing protective gear, but we got separated. We were supposed to be going for vehicles, the village was the backup plan. That's when I saw one of you lot. I shot him. Don't know if I got him. Then I waited around to try catch another one. That's when you got me."

Modestly, Ivan dropped his gaze to the table.

"What was Engineer Ricia doing in the house?"

The Komarran shrugged, as far as he was able against the bonds. "Probably getting a vehicle. It's what we planned to do--"

"No, he was holding the Vortaines hostage. What do you know about that?"

"Sam listens to the rain too much." He screwed up his face in disgust. "Never going to work. There's too many Armsmen--"

Kuzin stopped the recording.

The stimulant washing around Ivan's brain was starting to link the details together to make a horrible sort of sense. He glanced across at By, who sat cross-legged, impassive--perhaps deliberately so. Ivan couldn't help himself: "Lieutenant, how dare you insult my cousin in this manner?"

"Sit down, Ivan," said By. "No insult intended, I trust, and none taken. I suspect Beauxis passed on that comment about my cousin Pierre's--shall we say, eccentric moments?" He scanned the room; they were quite alone. "The stories about the Vorrutyers are true--each of us with an evil angel or two perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. Mine feeds me my best lines." He smirked at Ivan's dumbfounded expression. Oh. By was lying, of course. "Your engineers don't share that problem. In fact--" he extended his hand to shake Kuzin's "--let me congratulate you for achieving your goal. What was it? Oh, 'Komarrans are Barrayarans now'--yes, a year of Barrayar has certainly rendered them as paranoid as any respectable Barrayaran. I suspect the Vortaines haven't noticed because our engineer friends have always been odd--they play feelie-games, you know."

So this was By's game with Kuzin, to wrap the information he needed in a string of ghost-lights, leading nowhere. Ivan felt an inexplicable urge to point him in the right direction: "Lady Vortaine says they're quieter than they used to be. They don't seem quiet to me."

"Quite the opposite." Kuzin nodded in agreement.

By raised his eyebrows. "Lady Vortaine was also not immediately threatening. Your medtech jumps at shadows. If there's nothing more, lieutenant?"

Exiting the door that Kuzin held open, Ivan gave up trying to suppress all the too-sharp thoughts that were stabbing him in the head. Picking one of the safer ones--one not featuring By--he asked anxiously, "What's going to happen to Lord Vortaine?"

"I can't help but get the impression you're about to tell me, sir."

"I wouldn't presume to interfere."

Both By and Kuzin raised their eyebrows at him for that one. He supposed he deserved it. Still, it was disconcerting to see Kuzin cultivating By's mannerisms after a single night's acquaintance.

"I'm concerned that if it comes to a trial in the Council of Counts, Vortaine's counsel will advise him to plead provocation by Commissioner Vorinnis. And if Vorinnis repeats the speech he gave to us before the Counts, the Progressive Coalition will dissolve overnight. The Centrists--at least half of them--will run screaming into the Conservatives' arms. The Komarrans will have won."

"And your suggestion, sir?"

Ivan supposed it was disingenuous to require further prompting. "Consider denying Vorinnis an audience. Justice must be served, to be sure, but perhaps instead of incitement to sedition Vortaine were charged with incitement to unlawful publication? The Indecent Publications Tribunal is a closed court. Think about it."

"Sir."

Ivan nodded curtly in relief. Maybe he wouldn't have to go shopping for a dagger to smuggle to Vortaine, after all.

"How do you do it?" marveled By in outrageously feigned admiration, as they abandoned Kuzin to call on Vorinnis. "The man looks at you like you're a god, and you've got him eating out of your hand. Much as it pains me to admit, you've impressed me at last."

"He's a provincial prole," said Ivan shortly. "I don't suppose you've met many of those. He romanticizes the Vor."

"You mean he romanticizes you, because he certainly doesn't romanticize me. He barely notices I exist."

Except it was By's intonation and expressions that Kuzin was beginning to adopt. Deciding that By already had a big enough head, Ivan let it slide. Kuzin ignored By not because he was beneath his notice--unimaginable!--but because he didn't know what to do with him. In Ivan's experience, it was a common response.

They found Vorinnis already at work in his outer office. He offered them schnapps; although it was the following morning to him, he must have known that for them it was still the night before. Ivan regretfully declined his. The stimulant he'd taken and alcohol didn't mix. By was delighted to have his share.

"Come have a drink with me, sir, next you're in the capital," Ivan said to Vorinnis, his hand being shaken deceptively vigorously. "And you must visit my mother; she's been asking after you."

Vorinnis showed the ghost of a rueful smile. "I hear the Lady Alys is busy these days."

So he'd heard about Illyan--Simon--whatever you were supposed to call the man who was conducting a torrid affair with your mother. "Sir, come have a drink with me, in any case." Not normally one to press, Ivan felt it justified under the circumstances: they mightn't have many opportunities left, if he knew how the system worked.

Vorinnis had single-handedly kept the Vortaine's District limping along for the past fifteen years. His worldview might be a relic of Ezar's era, but his wholehearted and ardent centralism, combined with his ability to act autonomously from the local elite, had rendered Port Vortaine impervious to Vortaine family conflict. He'd held the port as a safety-valve, creating employment and revenue, when the Vortaines were in the throes of their succession crisis, while the late Count Gustave spent all his time and energy in Vorbarr Sultana feeding his obsession with the Vorvolynkin boundary water dispute. Fifteen years ago, when the late Count had been possessed of an elderly but distressingly vigorous wife, no son, and a young unmarried daughter, Vorinnis had been the right choice to appoint as Commissioner to the Port Vortaine Port Authority.

In light of present tensions, though, it was high time he moved on. The emerging partnership between Vortaine and Lord Indris might begin to make something of the District if they weren't aiming to undermine the Port Authority Commissioner with every step. The District could do with a more diplomatic, more collaborative man at this juncture, while Vorinnis himself was well overdue for promotion, Ivan thought, to Komarr. If anyone, Vorinnis would be the one man to regard Komarr truly as a promotion. After all, the reward for a job well done was another, harder, job.

Chapter Text

In the foyer of the building that housed the commissioner's office, Ivan dug the tattered chit book out of his tunic pocket, flipped to a clean one, and wrote out a monorail chit.

"What's that?"

"Your transport to Vorbarr Sultana."

"What about you? Can't wait for that 'drink' with Vorinnis? The man demonstrates surprisingly fine taste to pick you over Lady Alys."

"Shut up, By. Look, I can't stand you. I've spent hours with you already tonight, and I can't face another two hours of your company in a tiny cockpit. No family feeling, remember?"

"But Ivan… the monorail!" By flapped his arms rather more dramatically than necessary to emphasize the horrors of public transport. "Overflowing with proles! I'll get lice! Fleas! Ringworm! Scabies! How could you do this to me? If this is your idea of a sick joke, I'm not impressed."

Ivan shut his eyes. Then he looked at a point just beyond By's left ear so he wouldn't have to see the tragic expression in those Vorrutyer eyes, unfairly fine, somehow still disconcerting set in By's face, no matter how he tried to get used to it. "I crashed a float truck last night. Deliberately. Into another truck with a man on board. I was lucky neither wreckage exploded before the municipal guard cut me out. So I don't want any distractions going over the Cairngorms."

"Oh." By took the monorail chit. He held it out in front of him by a corner, as if it were impregnated with the plague.

Ivan supposed By had heard what he hadn't said: "I don't want another live body in the flyer in case I panic and lose control."

Outside the front doors it was still raining hard, though the wind had died down. By had landed Ivan's lightflyer just outside the portico the night before, which was exactly where ImpSec had returned it, now surrounded by a fleet of Vortaine vehicles and a fresh suborbital shuttle a little further off. Ivan wasn't quite ready for the flood of profound relief he felt at the familiar sight, the feel, the smell of his own lightflyer again. Then he pulled himself together--he was inside, in the pilot's seat, embarrassed, blushing, squirming a little, hoping that no one had seen.

It was the effect of the stimulant, he told himself: it made everything too clear, too bright. He shouldn't let it affect him like this.

He started the engine, extended the wings, and lifted off. He was on his way. The flyer felt so very right under his hands, every response as it should be; the experience was entirely unlike flying a float truck--so unlike that, not two minutes into the flight, passing over the residential wards of Port Vortaine, the gnawing guilt finally consumed him. He imagined By riding the same monorail as Ekaterin Empress of All the Russias--he simply couldn't. By didn't belong on the monorail, he belonged… Ivan sighed and turned back.

And there was By, huddled inside the last gatehouse of the Port Authority; even in the weak light of the checkpoint lantern Ivan could tell that his pink jacket was drenched again, for the umpteenth time.

"What are you doing out here?" demanded Ivan. "Why didn't you ask Vorinnis to fly you to the station?"

By blinked. "But I knew you couldn't stay away from me for long. And I know not even you are such a boor as to come all the way back just to shout."

So Ivan opened the passenger door and shut By inside with an unnecessarily loud crash. By was dripping all over his upholstery. Ivan turned up the heat. "So you get a ride with me after all," he said. "Remember: no talking, no distractions."

By's response was gratifyingly--though somewhat surprisingly--demure. More surprisingly, he followed this with a period of obedient silence so absolute that Ivan couldn't help but steal a glance across at him once or twice to make sure he was still there and still breathing. Unfortunately for Ivan, he was. On both counts.

Something knocked into Ivan. The lightflyer swerved, banked, dipped dangerously. In an instant the float truck's nose had concertinaed into nothing. The expected crash didn't come. He kept falling, falling… No, this wasn't happening again. It had happened already. Ivan shook the image out of his head.

By had slumped over, asleep, against his shoulder. Ivan swore and shoved him away, none too gently. "Get off me. You'll crash the flyer."

By's head smacked into the passenger window with a satisfying thunk. Ivan had chosen this model partly for the tiny cockpit's enforced intimacy. He hadn't imagined that intimacy to be with Byerly Vorrutyer.

"Easy!"

From the corner of his eye Ivan could just make out the blur of By gingerly feeling his skull. Nothing serious, then. Good. He was annoyed at his own response, but put it down to reflexes honed from a lifetime's worth of Miles-watching duty.

"Are you still angry? I'd have thought you'd be pleased, now that everything's turned out to be about your precious Budget after all. Isn't this a little unreasonable? Aww, the poor Captain Lord Vorpatril, his feelings hurt by the natives' base ingratitude!"

Ivan narrowed his eyes, transferring his irritation to the more rational target. By was up to his tricks again, being deliberately provocative. The trouble was, Ivan couldn't tell why. His headache was pounding with increasing insistence, each stimulant-sharpened thought stabbing hard at the inside of his skull. It was worse than the headache he usually got when he tried to outthink twisty minds--a sign for him to give it up and leave everything to Miles. Except the twisty mind in this case wasn't Miles.

Ivan fell back to his default position of answering By straight. "We're accelerating the Komarr Terraforming Project to improve their standard of living. It's obvious why their oligarchs have been clamoring for it. The man's conspiracy theory is absurd. I don't know of any naïve oligarch, or any for whom principle trumps self-interest. Yes, they sold the scheme to us as a pacifier, a benevolent gesture certain to be well-received--it's supposed to have a stabilizing effect. In reality, they're just wringing the most out of us while the going's good."

"Remind me, Ivan--didn't the Cetagandans improve the standard of living for their occupied territories? Surely you don't mean to say you want them back?"

Ivan recalled the horrible period, only months ago, when it seemed that Cetaganda was about to declare war--for the fourth time in a century. Was that how terraforming looked to ordinary Komarrans? No, By was just trying to confuse him. He was succeeding, too.

"That's different. We're Barrayarans, and Barrayarans have…" It was too embarrassingly earnest to admit to.

"Honor? So naturally, if Pol were to invade Cetaganda, we'd deny them transit through Komarr."

"Certainly. They'd have no hope of success, and then Cetaganda would come down on us like a ton of bricks." It was obvious. "The thing is…"

The thing was, Komarr was Barrayar's sole strategic asset, which Barrayar must keep at all costs. This was an obvious truth: Komarr served as a buffer against expansionist empires--well, only one--it significantly broadened Barrayar's sphere of influence, it linked Barrayar to her colony Sergyar, and it represented the Government's primary source of revenue.

It was all very well to say "at all costs" until you looked at the projections. In another generation or two, the pre-Conquest Komarr would be fading from living memory. All the systems and planets who'd bleated against the invasion of a sovereign planet while cozying up to Barrayar to take advantage of her fairer trade tariffs were in danger of forgetting the basis of their alliance. And if a distinct Komarran cultural identity still existed--well, who knew what stray cause the unwashed galactic liberal might seize upon? And what irrational policies a spineless democratic government might not pursue in order to win their favor? More critically, an avaricious or paranoid government could easily use the excuse of liberating a conquered nation to gain Nexus-wide support for an invasion. Three Polities in One Imperium was at risk of becoming very expensive before long.

Cetaganda's success came down to its cultural homogeneity; Earth was a war-torn mess because of the exact opposite. What Barrayar needed, thought Ivan, was to obliterate geographically-defined factions, for there to be no Komarrans and no Sergyarans, just Barrayarans. Full integration--hence the terraforming--was the best way to cut the long-term costs of holding onto Komarr. The Komarran terrorists had been right on the money.

None of which was Ivan-You-Idiot allowed to say to By.

"The thing is?" prompted By. "Were you meaning to enlighten me or have you forgotten your train of thought mid-sentence again?"

"The thing is, those Komarrans don't know what they're doing. They've no idea how dangerous that can be."

"You seem fairly pro-Komarr yourself--although, I grant you, perhaps not to their extreme."

"I'm pro-Imperial stability. Means less work for me. And for that, the last thing we need is their independent Komarr: it's hard to be stable when you're being invaded." Hell, he was doing it again, saying too much; By had that effect on him. "They don't seem to see it: Komarr will never be independent. As soon as we pull out, someone else will move in. It's like they're living in bad daytime holovid reality. Do you think it's because they watch too many holovids?"

"I think that is the most inane thing I've heard from you today."

"I'm serious," protested Ivan, as a horrible thought struck him. "I think the holovid really does affect your sense of reality. Take Xav, my cat: the only explanation for his behavior is that he believes he's a pan-galactic warrior-diplomat, and he's cast me as all the other characters, ranging from his Betan wife to a marauding Cetagandan ghem-colonel."

By was silent for a long time. Suspicious, Ivan risked a glance across: By was studying him, frowning a little.

Ivan swallowed to clear his ears. "What? What did I say?"

"Are you sure your head's quite all right? You don't need a lie down somewhere?"

Ivan mentally reviewed the last few moments. Oh. He'd complained about Xav out loud. "It's the stimulant," he explained weakly.

"Yes, I wondered. Be assured your cat comes by his instability honestly. The Komarrans brought over a feelie-game machine; since they arrived they've been using it in lieu of actual human contact. Unless your cat gets into your stash of contraband…"

Ivan smothered his incipient protest. By meant nothing by the insinuation; he was just insulting him. Now that Ivan thought about it--well, he watched all of Xav's holovids with him, and while Xav might seem to believe he was a pan-galactic warrior-diplomat, Ivan knew that he himself was nothing of the sort. So maybe he wasn't putting Xav's sanity in danger after all. The Komarrans' problem wasn't that they watched too many vid thrillers. No, they played too many of those feelie-games that were banned from the civilian market on Barrayar--for good reason--though not, apparently, on Komarr.

Ivan didn't understand the point of such games himself: when he'd played games as a child, Gregor was Emperor Xian, Miles was Vorthalia the Bold, and Ivan was his donkey. That was how games were supposed to work: they were an opportunity to practice your training, they prepared you for your role in life. As Ivan had good cause to learn in that year Miles was schooled on Beta, the year he didn't have to trail around after him like an oversized medical alarm, the year he actually played games for fun. At the end of term he'd gone straight home and proceeded to swive the maidservants silly, but the damage had been done.

He had to get rid of By, Ivan thought; he was reminding him of things he'd rather forget.

Ivan's ears were persistently blocked now, no matter how hard he coaxed the cabin pressurization. An airlock was one of many mechanisms his lightflyer sacrificed for speed and maneuverability. They were deep in the Cairngorms: out in the open, the sky would be just beginning to lighten, but here there was still zero visibility. Ivan put away his frivolous, stimulant-driven thoughts to concentrate on his flying, and immediately wondered when he'd gotten so--well--old. What happened to that Ivan who used to go on all-night benders and have three ladies on the go at once?

By's head thumped on Ivan's shoulder again. The lightflyer dived, aiming towards a rocky crag. Ivan was inside the cockpit of a colliding float truck. A whisker before the crag impaled the flyer on its point, Ivan talked himself out of the flashbacks. He overcorrected, climbing sharply, the sudden change in altitude crushing the pain in his ears into the pain in his head. His heart kept galloping like a mad thing long after they left the crag behind.

It must be the heat putting By to sleep--the thin air and schnapps weren't helping, and Ivan knew it was exhausting to endure pain. He was tempted to turn the heat down and point a cold blast straight at By, but tendrils of steam were still rising off him; if he caught a chill Ivan would get the blame. If he shoved him away again, he'd only fall asleep again--a bad idea on the approach to the Massif Berowald. No, he'd have to navigate the rest of the Cairngorms like this, then put By on the floor when the terrain flattened out.

Somehow he got used to having By's head on his shoulder--it felt a little like his Xav. Not until they were picked up by Vorbarr Sultana's automated air traffic control did he remember, by which time two sets of border security had taken closed-circuit vids of By drooling all over his collar, and so it was rather too late.

Ivan landed on the roof of the accident clinic he frequented after those awkward nights when bothering ImpMil wasn't a good idea. Pushing By off his shoulder, he gave him a good shake, before trying, without much success, to blot out some of the drool that had soaked well and truly into his collar and shoulder, and was running down his front. Waterproofing only went so far.

"Get yourself seen to before you report," he snarled, absurdly irritated that By had slept through the near-miss on the crag. "Don't show your face to my mother looking like that. My line of credit should cover you; just give them my name."

By slowly blinked awake, long lashes sweeping up to reveal his eyes, still startlingly fine, still so very wrong. This was By, Ivan reminded himself, his parasitic cousin, the useless town clown. There was an impression of Ivan's epaulette on By's chin. In the light of day, he still looked like he'd been mauled by a bear, though the rain--how many times had he gotten wet last night?--had washed off most of the blood.

"Why, thank you," he murmured huskily, "what a dutiful son you are. We mustn't distress your lady mother. It wouldn't, after all, do for her to know how carefully you use your cousins." He groaned softly, unnecessarily, just to remind Ivan of his injuries, and alighted from the flyer, maybe a little more stiffly than usual.

It was not his fault, Ivan told himself. It was not his fault that By played games with ImpSec. Ivan had done everything he could. Domestic Affairs was meant to be brutal, everyone knew that. By in particular should know that. He worked for them, for goodness' sake. It really wasn't Ivan's fault, no matter how you looked at it.

Ivan took off, but not before catching a glimpse in the rear-view mirror of By wiggling his fingers in an obscene sort of wave.

None of it was Ivan's fault.

Chapter Text

Ivan supposed he'd have to report in to ImpSec Headquarters; on the other hand, he still needed his shoulder looked at, and he wasn't keen on getting more comments about the glass in his hair. No, it would have to be ImpMil first.

He hated the smell of it. It smelled like Miles, pinched and pale and pretending there was nothing wrong, really, when Ivan could very well see that arms weren't supposed to sit at that angle and Ivan had let him do it, though it wasn't Ivan's fault, not really. It smelled like Uncle Aral, or what was supposed to be Uncle Aral, because that grey, inert man in the bed looked nothing like him--why had they left him alone with Mark? It smelled like Illyan--Simon--whatever he was meant to call him--the chip turning to snot in his head, the horror, the wrongness, but no one else was screaming or gibbering and Ivan knew it wasn't allowed. Ivan hated hospitals.

A medtech at Casualty handed Ivan a form to fill out. He left most of it blank, uncertain what he was free to say. There was a short wait--it was still early in the morning, when things were quiet--which he filled by touching up his report, before a captain herded him into a tiny room. He shut the door.

"Captain Vorpatril? What's brought you in to see me today, sir?"

"I think I've injured my shoulder. And there's this glass." Ivan pointed to his hair.

"Yes…" The captain was taking notes on his comconsole. "Tell me how it happened." Interpreting Ivan's uncertain expression, he added, "Just how you got injured is fine. I must inform you, sir, that I am subject to mandatory reporting duties and have the duty to breach patient confidentiality in order to ensure security."

"Yes, I understand. I was involved in a float truck accident last night. I wasn't wearing a shoulder harness. I didn't put my head through the windscreen: this glass was in my hair already."

"A float truck accident? You're lucky it wasn't a lightflyer. Go back to the beginning and take me through what happened."

Ivan did, as much as he felt appropriate. Recounting the events out loud like this, without explaining his reasoning or the circumstances, made him feel like an idiot--well, even more so than usual. Then it got worse when the captain made him strip to the waist and copy a series of actions, swinging his arms, placing them in awkward--not to say painful as hell--configurations. He was attempting one pose in particular when his shoulder gave up completely. He inwardly swore.

"Can you do this?" the captain repeated, all clinical distance.

"No, I bloody well can't and you know it," Ivan was tempted to snap. Instead, he said, "It hurts when I try."

"See how far you can get."

"This is as far as I can get."

"Just relax. I'm going to hold your arm and move it for you."

Nothing good ever came of a physician asking you to relax. Denying Ivan the opportunity to duck away or protest, the captain had one hand in a firm grip on his shoulder and the other on his elbow. It hurt. He swore before he could help himself. "Sorry."

"I see." The captain had him lie on the table while he pushed and pulled his arm, and took some scans. Almost instantly the readings came through the comconsole. The captain told him what was wrong with him. It sounded like a foreign language.

"Can you repeat that in words of one syllable?"

The captain said brightly, "Nothing a spell of rest and ice won't fix."

"Good."

An ice pad was slapped onto his shoulder, his arm folded into a sling. "Now, let's get the glass out."

He told Ivan it wasn't going to hurt--and it didn't, not after the hypospray, but Ivan disliked the feeling of the surgical hand tractor picking bits of glass out of his scalp. He watched the pile of shards, ranging from the microscopically tiny to the size of a groat, accumulating in the dish in alarm. How had all of that stayed put in his hair over the course of the night? The worst part was that the captain insisted on talking to him, murmuring in a singsong voice, probably to put him at ease. It didn't work.

"This is safety glass."

"Yes."

"You're right, it doesn't look like windscreen."

"No."

"There's a lot of it."

"Yes."

"That's the last of the loose bits. You may start to feel some pushing now."

"Very well."

"Ah, here's a biggish piece."

"Yes."

"Just a little more pushing. Here it is. Look at that."

"Yes."

"Almost done. A few fiddly bits left."

"Good."

"I'm applying the bandage now. It may feel a little cold."

"It's fine."

In the end it was done. He was finally allowed to get dressed, while the captain finished his notes.

The comconsole chimed.

"Ah, my major will see you now."

Ivan frowned; hadn't they finished with him yet? But before he worked himself up into real irritation, the door chimed and hissed open.

Without preamble, "You were knocked out," said the major, stepping through.

"Yes."

"How long were you out for?"

The captain had already asked this. "I don't know. Not long?"

"Did you notice anything unusual afterwards? Headache? Nausea?"

"Well, I…" By always gave him a headache, and he'd felt a little sick in the guardsmen's aircar bowling along in a storm--was that so unusual? "I'm not sure."

"Visual disturbance? Changes in hearing? Problems with movement? Balance?"

Yes to the first two, but only after the explosion. "It's hard to say."

"Sleep disturbance? Difficulty with memory, thinking or concentration? Unusual mood? Irritability?"

Yes, but no more than expected. He'd taken a stimulant, after all, before which he'd been exhausted. And By always irritated him. "I really can't tell you, I'm afraid. There was a lot going on last night."

"Hm." The major shone a torch into his eyes, prodded him all over, made him do yet more actions, and finally produced a tuning fork.

The tuning fork jogged Ivan's memory. "The municipal guard's already done all this," he muttered in rising exasperation. "It must be on their report."

"Hm," the major repeated. He used the tuning fork anyway; Ivan felt ridiculous. The major ordered more scans. Then he said, "You've hit your head. I don't recommend making major decisions in the next week or so. Over the next few weeks I want you to keep an eye out and come straight back if you notice anything unusual. In fact, come in next week, about this time." He turned to the captain. "Carry on." The room felt suddenly empty when he left.

The captain carried on. Ivan was given an appointment, a script and a printed flimsy with instructions about head injury observations and how to take care of his shoulder.

"A sling?" Ivan read off the flimsy. "Do you have anything a little less--well--conspicuous?"

"I hardly consider that necessary." The captain's expression added, "For a man who swans around on the Staff."

"Admiral Duplaine is very particular about the image the Service projects, especially over the newsvid."

"I'll give you a brace. And a note, sir, for your Admiral, excusing you from the gym?"

"Thank you." Physicians always had the knack of making Ivan feel about six inches tall.

After getting the script filled from a hole in the wall, Ivan staggered out to the landing pad loaded with a vast ImpMil bag containing a grand total of three flimsies, the appointment, the instructions, and the note; two packets of ice pads, a week's worth in each; a box each of painkillers and tubes of liquid bandages; and the brace. He felt like an invalid; he had to get away. He made it to his lightflyer as quickly as he could without actually running--that was beneath even Ivan's meager dignity--and lifted off, letting air traffic control take him home.

Vorbarr Sultana after the morning rush hour: the pale, shimmering air; beneath her famous bridges the glittering river snaking past sundry Service headquarters, ministries, embassies, the Imperial Residence where a crew was at work clearing the flotsam of the previous night; café-goers fringing the Great Square, its vast expanse desolate--there was no execution today; the bright, brave banners of Vorhartung Castle fluttering in the small breeze, in its parking area the sunlight glinting off the serried ranks of the counts' and ministers' official groundcars--This was Ivan's Barrayar, the modern Barrayar. It was, he supposed, really Gregor's Barrayar. And all the travails of last night, this was what it was for.

Ivan realized he was hovering above his building, lost in thought, released from traffic control. Flustered and inexplicably guilty, he landed the flyer on the roof, retracted its wings, took the lift tube down to his apartment. He keyed open the door.

No furry torpedo bowled into his chest. No dagger-sharp teeth or claws assaulted the ankles of his boots.

"Xav?"

Nothing.

"Xav?" he tried again, in an unconvincing Betan accent.

He was nowhere to be seen. The holovid viewer played on; Ivan had left it so for Xav the night before. Nothing was overturned. There were no fresh gouges in the sofa or walls.

A sudden, ridiculous panic overcame Ivan--Xav was dead--followed immediately by the equally sudden and ridiculous urge to check at Vorkosigan House to make sure he'd not abandoned Ivan and gone home, until he considered how embarrassing it would be to admit to Ekaterin what he was doing there. No, Xav was well-named. He could look after himself. There was a simple explanation for his behavior, Ivan told himself: Xav was in a snit with him. Again. It was nothing more than that.

Still feeling something was subtly wrong, Ivan watered the plant on his balcony--an ugly brown thing Miles's miniscule sproglets had "presented" to him for Winterfair--and went to check what the physician had done to his hair. Never mind the hair, he was a mess, like one of those vagrants who slept under the bridges spanning the Thames, the sort you never saw in Vorbarr Sultana these days because Lord Vorbohn's Municipal Guard moved them on before they made a nuisance of themselves.

Well, he'd make a start by getting himself cleaned up. He stood in the shower to take off his boots, which still felt sloshy inside. He tipped a small stream of muddy water out of each. The wet socks were next. It was remarkable how comfortable he felt when they came off. He wiped his feet on the mat and padded over to drop his socks--and the dirty mat--into the laundry chute. After a moment's indecision, the boots went in after them. They thudded against the sides of the chute on their way down, reminding Ivan of the garderobe's shaft at Château fort de Vortaine. If he'd slipped…

Fetching a fresh bathmat brought him back past the mirror. He tried to avoid looking at it. He couldn't help it, though--he was trained to attend to moving objects--the flash of his buttons caught his eye. He remembered the Komarran bragging he'd programmed the automated drill bots to attack brass buttons. Ivan paused before the mirror, staring at his buttons, imagining what it was like for something whose benignity you'd got used to, something you met along the hallways every day, suddenly turning on you, gouging your innards out.

In irrational anxiety he started to undo his buttons from the neck; he was hit with a wave of profound relief when he finally shrugged off his tunic. It followed his socks and boots into the laundry chute. He unclipped his braces and hung them up; he unfastened his trousers below the knees and, unbuckling them, pulled them off. They looked salvageable as far as he could tell. His shirt, though, was a write-off: it hadn't been designed for the crawl he'd put it through. It went in the incinerator chute. Innate modesty made him take off his underthings in front of the laundry chute, resolutely avoiding the mirror, and he rolled them up in his trousers before throwing them down the chute. Then he grabbed towel and bathrobe, and his depilatories. He was going to have a shower this morning, a nice, real shower with plenty of real water. He didn’t just want to be clean, he wanted to feel clean.

Afterwards, he stood in front of the mirror with a fresh ice pad in his hand. Now that he looked a little more human, he noticed what the physician had done to his hair: it was gummed together by the bandage so that, though regulation-short, it stuck up in clumps. It was untidy. He looked like an idiot. By would probably like it. Ivan shrugged inwardly; there was nothing he could do about it. He placed the ice pad carefully, following the instructions, before doing the same with the brace. Then he dressed--undress greens, thank goodness--making a mental note to order a new shirt.

He took the lift tube back to the roof, ignoring his comconsole's message received alert. He had a fair idea it was his mother, who by now must know he was fine. Deciding he'd postpone the physiotherapist--his gym replacement for the next fortnight--until after breakfast, he let air traffic control direct him to his customary café. The holovid viewer was showing a rerun of one of those vid dramas that middle-aged prole women apparently found nostalgia-inducing, but that had the exact opposite effect on Ivan. After ten excruciating minutes, he could take no more.

"They're voting on the Budget today, grandmother," he said to the plump prole woman behind the counter. "Would you switch the vid to the news channel for me?"

Recording devices being banned from Joint Sessions, the newsvid showed the reporter standing outside Vorhartung Castle amid the same crush of official cars in District and Government livery that Ivan had spotted on his way home, repeating stale news from the day before. The Armsmen drivers, whose grapevine was traditionally the primary channel for political information exchange, guarded their cars in silence in front of the vid pickup--or maybe in the reporter's hearing. It was interesting, Ivan thought, that the presence of the news media actually reduced the transparency of the political process on Barrayar. He supposed things would improve, with time: Gregor must know what he was doing.

The pickup panned across the battlements, the reporter reciting the list of counts present in session. Ivan looked for the Vortaine flag--in vain: so none of them had made it. Ivan felt sorry for them; he'd been hoping one of them would arrive to cast his vote against. Though it would be a doomed effort, to be sure, Ivan fancied it would have nicely rounded off the morning. Real life was strangely deflating: unlike a vid drama, or even a feelie-game, there was no story to it, no dramatic set pieces, no arc that rounded off neatly in the end. You never learned all the answers; the best you could do was collect the loose threads, all tangled, none connected, and their clues never predicted what was coming. In life there were no protagonists, no villains, just bit-players who muddled through one thing happening after another and hoped not to be called on beyond their skill. Speaking of bit-players... Ivan finished his breakfast, drained his coffee, and went to work.

After the flurry of the previous night, ImpSec seemed to have returned to its usual state of organized chaos. The man at the front desk sent Ivan off to the office of some general he didn't know--they were all proles at Domestic Affairs, and not particularly sociable--who was pleased enough to receive his report, and that seemed to be that.

Just as Ivan was taking his leave, the general said, "I must say I hadn't expected this sort of dedication from what I've been told about you."

"Dedication, sir?" Ivan almost squeaked in alarm. He mentally reviewed his report; he'd taken care to present himself as the exact opposite. Then it occurred to him that the general couldn't have read his report so quickly. He calmed somewhat.

"Coming to see me in person," the general explained, "when you could have sent your report via comm. Though speaking as ImpSec I applaud your wariness of messages soliciting information over the comconsole."

"Thank you, sir."

Ivan made a hasty exit to hide his confusion. Out in the corridor, he realized the message alert must have been the general's instructions for sending him his report. He'd chosen to ignore it, not feeling equal to what he'd expected to be his mother's admonishments. But if it were not his mother… Surely By had reported by now? The clinic couldn't be holding on to him still, surely! And even if it were, it wasn't Ivan's fault. He should stop thinking about it.

Which only made him pay undue attention to the corridors he was retreating through. They, like every element of this building, were proportioned for maximum discomfort. This was the genius of Lord Dono: the grandiose paranoia of his public architecture, all five appalling structures, perfectly reflected his patron's mental state. However uncomfortable they might be, though, they were preferable to the alternative, because Lord Dono's personal style, as expressed in his final works, was a little too--well, personal for Ivan's taste: his towers were all sinuous curves and poured plascrete, each topped by an organic dome. Reduced to fit onto a holocard, the only place Ivan had seen them, the effect was obscene. It was a blessing he'd adhered to his brief.

This thought brought Ivan back to By. He was maybe beginning to understand him, a little: By was a Vorrutyer, too. Whatever their faults--and they had many--Vorrutyers always found a way to serve.

Trying to wrap his head around this novel idea, Ivan took his order in to the Service tailor, just to delay the inevitable, insisting on staying to watch his shirt being made. Too soon, it was over, he was being firmly shown out the door with his shirt in his hands, and the physiotherapist was just down the corridor.

The physiotherapist kept him in agony for an hour before he managed to escape.

Ivan collected a complement of coffee from the mess on his way to work. He hoped against hope that the other office underlings had taken his advice this time, that the trick to getting some peace in Admiral Duplaine's office was to always keep him fed and watered, and in the possession of a good, strong coffee.

Evidently not, because the Admiral's opening shot was a deceptively soft, "So, when am I to expect the Vor lord's next commendation, hm?"

"Sir?" Ivan pushed the coffee--all the coffee--towards the Admiral. He wore his most open, most affable expression.

"I wonder sometimes, Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Operations Staff, whether you work for me, or for ImpSec."

Ah. So that was the tack he was taking; Ivan could deal with that one. "We all work for Gregor, naturally, sir. How's the coffee today?"

The Admiral, mollified, dropped the subject to blow on his precious coffee. It was a source of endless satisfaction and amusement to Admiral Duplaine that he, the son of a bookkeeper, was the admiral, while Ivan, the Emperor's cousin, fetched him coffee. Ivan distributed the remainder around the office, earning not a few smart comments about his hair, and only then dared to present the Admiral with the physician's note.

"Rest and immobilization, eh?" the Admiral murmured. To the room at large he said, not loudly, though Ivan was sure everyone heard, "It appears our delicate flower Vorpatril is to be excused from coffee duty for a fortnight. Well? Do I have any volunteers?"

Of course he did, eager young things fighting over themselves to make an impression. Ivan hoped he'd never seemed like that.

The rest of the day passed quietly enough, negotiating schedules, drafting agendas, writing up reports: all the mundane duties that made life bearable and kept Ivan sane. He crashed in the late afternoon; he'd metabolized the stimulant. With a heroic effort of will, and the liberal application of coffee, he managed to keep himself somewhat awake for the last hour of work before slipping home on the dot. Not trusting himself with the lightflyer, even with the guidance of automated air traffic control, he walked the short distance home.

He excavated some leftover vat cubes out of the fridge and, not bothering to heat it, ate it straight out of the box, sprawling across the sofa. Somewhere in the third bite, he suddenly remembered he was having dinner with Clair--or was it Claris?--something like that, anyway. He swore and looked consideringly at the comconsole, still taunting him with its insistent flash. One of the messages must be from his mother by now, he thought, if not Dono--who was somehow even more intimidating these days as a man.

It seemed too much effort to walk over, and if Ivan looked as strung out as he felt he was in no state to be seen over the vidplate. Finally, as the last cup of coffee was wearing off, he mustered the energy to fire up his comconsole one-handed, determinedly making his way through the cubes with the other. Ignoring the new messages alert, he punched up one of his form letters, the abject apology one for when he worked unexpectedly late. Then, leaving the rest of the cubes out for Xav, he collapsed into bed.

Where he landed on the two mice, a lizard, a squirrel, and a chicken, all lined up in a neat row, that Xav had left out for him on his pillow.

Chapter Text

Ivan grunted, too exhausted for the shocked disgust he knew he should be feeling. He heaved himself up on one elbow to shake down his pillow. His macabre presents thumped, bouncing on the floor--all except the chicken, which rolled off, lodging against his chest. He flung it after the others. He was off-duty tomorrow; he'd deal with the corpses in the morning.

A movement in the corner of his eye.

He grabbed the stunner under his pillow, snapped it up to aim.

"I recommend disposing of them properly. The lizard was twitching earlier."

Ivan flopped back into bed. His pillow smelled like a cross between a farmyard and an abattoir. He'd cry if he weren't so tired. "Get out of my house, By. Get out of my bed. Wait--how did you get in here?"

"I'll have you know I'm delivering a message of vital importance from your mother. You've not been answering your comm all day. So she sent me. Finding you not at home, and being of the sort to take my duty seriously, I resolved to wait."

Was there no escape from his mother? Ivan didn't have the energy for this. "Go away." Stimulant withdrawal. Not good.

"Not before I deliver my message--it's my solemn duty. Are you paying attention?"

Eyelids. Heavy. "Very… w…"

Chestnut trees dappled the morning sunlight. The stone wall of the sports pavilion was cool, rough, against Ivan's back. Rhythmic. Warm. Who was he? Ye gods, he smelled good. No. They had to be quiet. Ivan was responsible. He was Pavilion Monitor. He had a badge. Baubles and braid. A throne. A float-chair. A swivel float-chair. Rough, like a polo pony's coat. A polo pony's tack. Knots. Who was he? He smelled good, like a distant cousin. Ivan hung by the tack, the knots. Around his wrists. His left arm, hell, his shoulder. Where was the swivel float-chair? The tack unknotting. Coward. No grav-suit. He mustn't know. Quiet. Chestnut bark against Ivan's back. Rain through the chestnut trees. Fat drops from the leaves. Hot, like wax. On Ivan's face, hair, eyes. Green wax. Nothing to see. His shirt, green, against Ivan's face. Against his eyes. The smell of it. Distant cousins smelled best. Chicken feathers. A tall polo pony. Like a racehorse. Not a chicken, a bear. A chicken-bear. A racehorse was good; faster than a polo pony. Not so good in the weather. A chicken on his shoulder. A twitching chicken. Which cousin? He smelled good. A nest. A nest in the tall grass. Ivan buried his face deep… burrowed in… Dark. Chestnut trees fading. No, he wasn't waking! Please, let him be asleep! Ivan was asleep. He was. It was wrong. It had to be wrong. He was asleep. It was dark in his sleep. He should be feeling more guilt. Only if he was awake. And he was asleep. Yes. Asleep. Cousin. Quiet. Yes.

He was tangled in the sheets, left arm twisted behind him at an awkward angle. At the edge of his mind some vaguely remembered guilt was fading fast. His brain was treacle, his bones had all disappeared, and, to clinch it all, yes, the uniform he'd forgotten to take off was slightly sticky. Hell.

He didn't want to move his nose, didn't want to meet By's eye--it was By, wasn't it?--two good reasons for not raising his head. No, it was best to get it over with: Ivan didn't think he could face By if he made an insulting comment first. He felt the blush rising already. He took a steadying breath, looked up. Though By's face was a blur in the small light filtering through the curtains from the streetlamps, Ivan was practiced at reading his body language by now: mostly relaxed, head cocked. Ivan had expected mockery, disdain, even disgust; he sensed instead expectation, mild impatience.

Oh. Ivan was remiss.

By was naked under the sheets, the liquid bandages glossy against his skin. They reminded Ivan of bears, a strangely embarrassing thought--or maybe it was the sight of By that embarrassed, rather than the bears. That made more sense. By was interested, Ivan could tell. It was straightforward with men; there was no point in pretence. He hesitated, not knowing if he could do it, if he remembered how--it had been half a lifetime ago--trying hard to convince himself he didn't want to. By didn't push, didn't mock--Ivan almost wished he would; the choice would have been easier if he had--he just emanated an aura of faint disappointment. Disappointment was harder to fight.

In the end, common politeness and the duty of reciprocity decided Ivan: knowing no rules for this specific situation, his only choice was to comply with general ones. Gingerly, he touched By. It twitched. The familiar response gave Ivan confidence. It was very much like riding a horse: once you'd learned how to do it, you never really forgot. You could only forget how much you liked it.

For long moments By stayed very quiet, very still. Ivan hadn't expected him to be like this. He glanced up in sudden anxiety--was he doing it wrong? But By's liquid eyes were careful; Ivan had the impression of veiled, tempered wonder, like when a wild animal came to your hand to be fed.

Ivan was no wild animal. He forced himself to relax beside By, to push his nose against his skin, to breathe in his scent. By moved against his hand. It was comfortable between them now, Ivan thought, which comfort would last until By finished, when they'd revert to their familiar antagonism. Still, it was unkind to delay By's release for Ivan's own sake. He speeded up, took By's cues, enjoyed the feel of him, tried to imprint it in his memory. Ivan had hit his head, after all; whatever he did today wouldn't be his fault.

By was finishing. Ivan watched him in fascination, peering into the dark. He'd forgotten what this was like. He'd forgotten how much he'd liked it.

Afterwards, he swirled it around on By's stomach, skimming it over the liquid bandages, blowing on it gently, spreading it out, feeling it dry. He twirled his fingers in By's dark hair, traced the line of his bones--he was too thin; he ought to eat more. Ivan himself was ravenous; he'd missed dinner last night. He was sticky and hungry and refusing to meet By's eyes. He didn't want to move. He was glad of the predawn dark: glad he couldn't see By's face, glad he had an excuse to stay.

By broke the silence: "Ivan--"

Reluctantly, Ivan looked up. By was staring beyond him to the open bedroom door, down at something very near the floor. Ivan thought it might be the chicken.

"Ivan, why is there a Cat Sìth stalking me, and how dangerous is it?"

Oh. Xav. By. So that was why Xav hadn't attacked Ivan today--there might be a use for By after all. "He's Xav, my cat. Xav, meet By, my inedible cousin. I suggest you don't try; he'll give you a stomachache." The sight of Xav woke Ivan up like a bucket of ice water to the head. "Look, By, I have to go. My cat."

He reached under his pillow for the stunner and felt By's involuntary start. By really needed to get more used to weaponry--this was beyond civilian contract employee training, he was acting un-Barrayaran. Ivan switched on the stunner's laser sights, aimed it through the doorway at the living room wall. A bare second later, Xav had flung himself against the wall, gouging a scratch over the laser's exact position. Ivan repaired into the living room, picking his way between the dead animals strewn across the floor, to continue Xav's game; Xav liked variety in his targets.

He proceeded to work himself into a frenzy, until suddenly, mid-bound, he lost all interest. Making a gentle landing, he immediately began grooming his flank in a show of deliberate indifference. It was breakfast time. Ivan stumbled into the kitchen--his stimulant hangover was finally asserting itself--to fetch Xav his cat food. Xav sauntered across to his bowl and gave its contents a sniff, before pointedly ignoring it. He continued grooming.

Ivan put on the coffee, a copious volume of coffee. In the full wakefulness of morning, the events of last night--ten minutes ago, specifically--were starting to make him feel queasy. And squirmy. Mainly squirmy, to his alarm, in a not unpleasant way. Ivan halted any speculation in that particular direction. He was making coffee in the hope that the smell of it might get By up, draw him out of Ivan's bedroom, make him leave. Then Ivan could think things over in peace. Or get drunk. Very, very drunk. Clean-out-the-cellar drunk.

Meanwhile he'd have a nice snack of groats, he decided, so he wouldn't be drinking on an empty stomach. He poured Xav a saucer of cream and for himself a bowl of milk for the groats. Xav claimed the cream, polishing it off with disconcerting speed. Standing over his food bowl, he glared accusation at Ivan.

"I'm not ungrateful," said Ivan. "I'll eat the chicken. Thank you. I'll eat it so long as you eat your breakfast. No, I can't do it now because humans have to do things with our food before we eat it."

The coffee was done. Ivan poured himself a cup and put it on the kitchen bench to cool.

"All right, I'll eat the squirrel as well. But not the lizard and certainly not the mice. I categorically refuse to eat mouse."

Ivan opened a packet of instant groats. Xav glared at him from his position over the bowl, unmoved by his concessions.

"Fine. You win. I'll tell you what: if you eat your breakfast, I'll send the mice down to be broken up into amino acids, or whatever it is they do, and reconstituted. Then I'll eat it. Vat mouse. That's my final offer. But you have to eat your breakfast first."

"Is that coffee I smell?"

Poised to pour the groats, Ivan's head shot up. He shouldn't be feeling this guilty. He'd hit his head; it wasn't his fault. By, having appropriated Ivan's old dressing gown, was making straight for the coffee machine.

"It's in the machine, if you want it," said Ivan superfluously.

There was a thump, followed by a growl. Xav was crouched possessively on the kitchen bench over Ivan's bowl of milk. Ivan was momentarily confused, until he realized his coffee was now solid. The groats had dissolved, expanded in the hot liquid: it was a congealed mess. Oh. He edged away from Xav's claws, casually--not at all intimidated--spooning some coffee into his mouth. He chewed. Xav continued glaring. In sensible self-preservation Ivan decamped to the kitchen table, where from the vastnesses of yesterday's ImpMil bag he fished out a couple of painkillers. He was going to need them today.

Then he knew what was wrong: By and silence weren't concepts that fit into a single sentence, but ever since Port Vortaine there'd been flashes of unnatural quiet, culminating in… this. At first Ivan took it for pain; then exhaustion; then he'd begun--just--to learn to read it. Now the silence was of expectation: By was waiting for Ivan to talk. He wielded the absence of words just as he did words themselves. Ivan considered it most unfair of him.

Ivan spooned another lump of coffee into his mouth, and chewed on it mechanically. The prospect of actually having to talk to By--after what had happened, before he got the chance to think things through--made him suddenly no longer hungry.

"It's not my fault," he began.

By said nothing; just poured himself a second coffee.

Ivan supposed that wasn't the most convincing way to phrase it. "I went to ImpMil yesterday." He nodded towards the eponymous bag. "About my head. Which I hit. The physician said--he was a major--he said I'm not myself. I can't think straight and I don't feel right, and I can't remember things. I'm not supposed to make any decisions. And, on top of all that, I've got a stimulant hangover. It really isn't my fault," he finished weakly. This expanded version wasn't sounding any better. If By didn't start insulting him soon, he was going to blurt out something he'd regret.

By studied his coffee. "Do you have anything stronger?"

"Wine?" Ivan offered dubiously. There wasn't much storage in the apartment, and he was planning to clean out his inadequate cellar himself as soon as By left.

By looked decidedly unimpressed. "That's not going to do it, I'm afraid. I was thinking something maybe a little less--legal."

Ivan sat up. He didn't know why--he could hardly seal the door and prevent By from ever using an illicit chemical in future. Sinking back, he said, "You'll kill yourself with those one day." And Ivan would have driven him to it--

"At least I've lived."

"I live," said Ivan, stung. "I live quite well, thank you."

Except--that wasn't entirely true, and By knew it now. Ivan had always had to hold back, to keep a low profile, to fit himself into a shrinking box, to define himself by negatives: not-Emperor, not-injured, not-Count, not-figurehead, not-political, not-martyr… All his life he'd been shown what he didn't want, what he ought to be afraid of, while he could imagine nothing he actually wanted. No--rather, nothing he dared allow himself to want.

Vorrutyers shared the spectrum of vices between them; yet they were loyal, they served. Couldn't Ivan have his one vice? Surely he deserved one? Just a little one? By wasn't so very big, after all.

Ivan tried to stir his solidified coffee, frowning at the painkillers.

"Use mine; I don't want it," said By, leaning over, setting his cup--his third coffee of the morning--in front of Ivan.

Ivan grabbed his arm. He tried to explain all the thoughts running through his head, but the words wouldn't come. He considered By's cup of coffee--liquid coffee--and the painkillers in turn, wondering whether it was appropriate to accept By's offer. Then somehow By's free hand had found its way to Ivan's temple. No one had done this for him before. He swallowed, closed his eyes, let By go. But By did not go--he stayed. Ivan leaned his head back against By, breathing him in.

"Remind me, how severe is this brain damage of yours, again?"

"Terrible. It won't get better for weeks and weeks. Months, years. Maybe forever."

"And you say you won't be yourself?"

"Oh, no. Erratic behavior. Personality changes. Poor impulse control."

"Good." After a while: "Why is your cat trying to bulldoze me into the chair?"

Ivan could hear a rumble like a small industrial complex emanating from somewhere behind him. "He's rubbing against your ankles. It means he owns you now."

Later--much later--when they'd woken up for the second time that day, long after Ivan had got properly undressed and washed, when he'd had By's skin against his for hours, things finally felt right. By was wriggling about just as much as Ivan expected, making just as many obnoxious comments, just as certain of what he wanted, and just as determined that Ivan give it to him. And, try as he might, Ivan simply couldn't find his irritation.

"Let's go away," he said. "I'm off-duty today and tomorrow. My place on the river's between tenants this week."

"Goodness, Ivan, back to hiding again?"

"No." Well, yes. But if there was already talk, as Kuzin claimed, when there'd been nothing going on, Ivan needed to wrap his head around developments before the gossip circuit got hold of it. "I just want to be somewhere quiet, where people don't drop in on us at unawares."

"In other words, hiding."

"Not unless you actually want to entertain my mother. Or take the Vorkosigan sproglets for an afternoon. They're starting to crawl."

By winced; not, Ivan suspected, from the effects of the interesting things they'd been doing. "You have a point." Then he smirked. Gloatingly. "So, Captain Ivan is unmasked, to reveal the exciting, the heroic, the goo-feeding, the diaper-changing Uncle Ivan--truly a complex man of unfathomed depths!"

Ivan felt distraction from this train of thought was in order. "Speaking of my mother, what was her message for me? You haven't told me yet."

By waved a hand in a deliberately nonchalant gesture. "Oh, I forget. Must we discuss your mother?"

By was better at being distracting, Ivan conceded, when he was capable of coherent thought again. But it was never too late to learn.