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Strategic Placement

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“Don’t get in trouble, now,” Kareen said.

“Easier said than done,” Mark grumbled.  “How long are you supposed to be gone?”

I don’t know.  There’s no telling.  It’ll probably take a while to get through all the Imperial wardrobe, and then there’ll be loads of gossip to shovel around, and even once the music starts up in here it’ll take a while to get everybody back in for dancing mode.  Not to mention waving at the diplomatic dinner with Gregor going on in the other wing.  At least you’re missing that.”

That, and the other diplomatic dinner going on at Vorhalas House, which Miles was attending (“Can’t I switch with Mark?” Miles had begged General Alys when she came on a flying visit to Vorkosigan House; “No,” Lady Alys had said, “he requested you specifically.  It’s a friendly gesture.  Get over it.  Take Madame Vorsoisson with you,” and Miles had gone off muttering about wasting a date with Ekaterin dining at Vorhalas’s), and the soiree at Vorsmythe House which the Count and Countess were attending, which would have been much more advantageous to Mark business-wise, if he’d been allowed to go.  “How many pre-wedding events does there have to be?” Mark had said, and got his answer when Lady Alys handed him his list of scheduled appearances.  Apparently there actually were enough events to demand the dubious appearance of House Vorkosigan’s clone cadet at a few of the venues Aral, Cordelia, and Miles couldn’t make.  Mark had resigned himself with a sigh, and with Lady Alys's approval had recruited Kareen to help him ride the gauntlet.

Tonight he was disporting himself with saturnine panache at the Imperial Regalia Dinner and Ball, which he and Kareen had irreverently dubbed the Trousseau Show and Dance, and had just spent the last half-hour profitably poking fun with her at the historical costumes set up in glass cases around the hall.  Fortunately the dress code had not insisted the attendees wear their own regalia, so Mark was in his favored sweeping black suit instead of his House uniform.  The evening had been going just fine, in fact, until it was announced that the women would all be going away with the Empress-to-be to view the actual trousseau, and the men would entertain themselves with drinks and canapes while they were gone.  Whose bright idea was that? Mark had almost said, and then answered himself with the inevitable, Tradition.

“Hurry back,” he told Kareen, who made him a swift moue and swept out with the last of the ladies.  The doors closed behind them with a sense of doom, it seemed to Mark.

Mark’s idea of fun did not include being exposed like a goat tied to a stake in a tiger habitat, in a roomful of Barrayaran (and a few Komarran, as if that helped) males without any female influence.  But there was no help for it, so Mark drifted to the refreshment tables (which mostly consisted of beverages, as they had just finished dinner), snagged a glass of wine and a canape, and scanned the room for an unobtrusive spot to observe the proceedings.

This wasn’t two years ago, he reminded himself.  It was only a habit of thought that made him forget that though nobody, including Mark, had known Lord Mark Vorkosigan then, quite a number of people knew him now.  There were even a few people in this room whom he knew to speak to without some culture-shock disaster occurring.  Granted, none of them were people he wanted to speak to, either for business or pleasure, but he wasn’t the focus of unpleasant attention, Miles wasn’t dead, and Lord Mark (and company) was surer of his footing now than he had ever hoped to be.

Still, it was more relief than pleasure that brightened Mark’s mood when he spotted Ivan Vorpatril between two displays of ancient disembodied uniforms.  Ivan’s parade red-and-blues were brighter than the faded versions hailing them all from the deeps of the Time of Isolation, but they were no less stiff, and Ivan’s expression was sour.  Mark drifted up to him, and Ivan greeted him with a companionable glare.  Good.  He was less likely to get into trouble if he stuck with Ivan.

“Wasn’t expecting to see you at this thing,” Mark observed pleasantly, taking a sip of his wine.

“‘If you can’t find a date it’ll be much less noticeable at this event.’”  Ivan reproduced Lady Alys’s tones so perfectly that Mark didn’t even have to ask.  Ivan’s fortunes had changed a bit since two years ago, too, Mark reflected.

“Surprised you’re not getting drunk, then,” Mark said.

“Can’t,” Ivan replied, morosely.  “After this my Ops unit is holding another meeting at HQ.  I’m supposed to brief my superiors on the distribution of Imperial Service veterans at the wedding supper.  Otherwise I’d be drinking like the proverbial carp in the fountain.  Tempted to have at least one.”

“This is the sort of do that makes one want to up the number of drunk Vor,” Mark said, “but it’s a very bad idea in general.”

Ivan snorted.

Case in point, Mark thought, observing a pair of Vor in parade dress making the round of the displays.  They were upright and reasonably steady, but they were very pink-faced and read the cards slowly through watery eyes.  They were coming this way.  Ivan saw them too, but he disdained to abandon his position.  Mark sighed, and stayed where he was, looking with Ivan out on the floor where men coalesced and coalesced again in chatting, munching groups.  He finished his wine and handed off the glass to a servitor whipping around with an empty tray.

The two Vor reached the display on the other side of Ivan from Mark, and then moved on desultorily toward the next display; but they stopped at Ivan, and one of them peered at him as if to look for his card.

“That’s not a display, Vortravis,” said the other.  “It’s Vorpatril,” and he guffawed at his own joke.

“Very well observed, Vorgautier,” Ivan said, with polite cheer.  Vortravis laughed at Vorgautier in turn, and to Mark’s annoyance fell in next to Ivan as if for the duration.  Vorgautier glanced down at Mark as if to question his existence: Mark stared stolidly back, and Vorgautier returned his gaze dismissively to Ivan.

“Enjoying the festivities, Vorpatril?” Vortravis inquired, jovially.

“Oh yes,” Ivan smiled, with his gaze out on the crowd.

“Amusing to see them haul out the museum of old kit for this little party,” Vortravis said.  “Keep us all entertained while the ladies do their thing.  You bring a date, Vorpatril?”

“Nope.  I’m on duty,” Ivan said.

“Oh, no wonder you look so stuffed.  I didn’t bring one either.  Gets in the way of drinking.”

“What, Vorgautier’s not your date?” Ivan said.  The dry raillery got a snicker from Vortravis and a sour smile from Vorgautier; Mark sighed to himself.  Barracks humor was best appreciated when drunk.  Not being drunk, Mark could tell that Ivan thought so too, but the others either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“Surprised they didn’t invite some more of the older crowd to this one,” Vortravis said.  “But I suppose there’re a lot of traditions to keep up.  Not that we’re keeping the most important one.  ‘Course, blood doesn’t mean what it used to anyway.”

Vorgautier looked at Mark again.  Mark gave him a slow, vulpine smile.

“I suppose you approve,” Vortravis said, with a watery glare at Ivan and a gesture out at the Komarran-infested crowd.

“Approve?  I’m called on to approve something?” Ivan said mildly.  “Like what, exactly?”

Vortravis laughed, rather unpleasantly.  “Oh, you won’t get me that way.  I wouldn’t speak freely to a Vorpatril these days were I ten times as drunk.”

Oh, that was skating close to the brink, Mark thought.  He watched Ivan for his reaction, but Ivan evinced nothing more than a thin smile and the observation:  “In that case, I wonder at your speaking to a Vorpatril at all.”  Yes, take the hint and go away! Mark thought.  But of course Vortravis didn’t.

“Now, now, no need to get insulted.  I’m merely observing the fact that House Vorpatril has been getting progressively…progressive, of late.”

“Mm.”  Ivan seemed to have settled on an immediate policy of studied neutrality.  This wasn’t a policy Mark could assist with except by keeping his mouth shut, so Mark did.

“There was that sad vote in the Council last week, for example,” Vortravis pursued idly, pretending to watch the crowd with Ivan.  “Even old Count Vorpatril got in on the act.”

“Mm.  You were there, I take it?” Ivan said.

“Oh, no, I just heard about it.  You were there, though, I understand.”

Ivan merely smiled.

“One by one the bastions fall,” Vortravis said, and Vorgautier snorted.

Ivan’s languid expression didn’t change.  Miles had always said that thanks to long practice with his mother’s harrying, Ivan could keep up this sort of thing for hours; but Mark suspected that even Ivan had his breaking point.  Mark felt his weight shift to the balls of his feet, and under the valence of his consciousness his psyche stirred.  No, not yet, he thought.  Just wait.  He cast his gaze out into the crowd, and spied a familiar face: Simon Illyan, glass in hand, in what looked like idle conversation with two officers.  The big officer was telling an uproarious story with wide meaty gestures; the others were chuckling.  Naturally, Mark thought, Illyan was here: Lady Alys was presiding over the trousseau thing herself, and if Illyan wasn’t assigned an appearance somewhere else, he would be where Lady Alys was.

Unfortunately, Vortravis had spotted him too.  “Ah, and there’s old Illyan,” he said.  “A textbook case of what happens when you keep snakes as pets.  Got bit by one of his own, they say.  I hear he has a comconsole program to remind him when it’s lunchtime.  Very sad, eh, Vorpatril?”

Holy shit, Mark thought suddenly.  They’re doing this on purpose.  A reaction from Ivan would give them the perfect opportunity to make a scene.  An embarrassment to House Vorpatril, indeed.  A black eye to Gregor, even, on the eve of his wedding.

And I thought keeping close to Ivan would keep me out of trouble, Mark thought.

“ ‘Course,” Vortravis went on juicily, “from what I hear, Illyan apparently hasn’t forgotten how to—”

That was when Ivan’s elbow connected at velocity with Vortravis’s face in what Mark considered an admirable economy of movement and gesture.  On the instant, two things happened at once.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Ivan said, reaching for Vortravis as he reeled back against the wall clutching his nose.  Blood dribbled from between Vortravis’s fingers; droplets of it spattered the display case.  “So terribly clumsy of me, I turned too fast.  I’m so sorry—how bad is it?—” Etc.

At the same moment Mark moved forward just in time for Vorgautier to half-fall over him on his way to help make the scene worse.  With a disgusted noise he pushed at Mark, found him immovable, and stepped around him, by which time Ivan had already established his excuse.

“You bastard!” said Vortravis, his voice blunted by his already-swelling nose.  “You did thad on burpose.”

“Oh, no, no,” Ivan said, fawningly apologetic.  “I couldn’t possibly.  How badly did I hurt you?  Oh, what a pity, on your parade red-and-blues, too.  Allow me to arrange for their cleaning.  Here, let me see—”

“Ouch!” cried Vortravis, in a note of real pain.  He jerked away from Ivan, and Mark swallowed a smile.

Vorgautier said harshly, “Just what are you playing at, Vorpatril?”

“So clumsy,” Ivan said again.  “It’s really a shame.  We’d better find you a medkit,” and he reached for Vortravis again.

“Don’t touch me!” Vortravis said.

Mark got in Vorgautier’s way again.  Vorgautier had to content himself with saying, “I’ll be speaking to your commanding officer about this!”

“Oh, really?” Ivan said, “how interesting.  It happens that my commanding officer just now is my mother.  You certainly had better tell her all about it.  It will get me into a great deal of trouble, I’m sure.”

Vorgautier suddenly looked as though he’d swallowed something nauseous.

“No?  Well, let us look on the bright side,” Ivan said cheerfully.  “I believe I just saved you from the misfortune of insulting her.  So—”

My misfortune!” Vortravis spluttered, still attempting to stanch the flow of blood with his fingers, a cause as lost as his grasp of the situation.  “What would you do about it, challenge me to a duel?”

“I believe dueling is illegal now,” Ivan said.  “Progress, you know.”

“So is hiring an assassin,” Mark pointed out blandly.

All three Barrayarans stopped and stared at him.

Mark rolled his eyes.  “Oh, right.  I forgot.  I’m on Barrayar.  Hiring an assassin would spoil the fun of doing it oneself.  And, I must admit, it’s expensive.  So if you wanted to assassinate Ivan for accidentally breaking your nose—”

“What?” said Vorgautier, bewildered, and “I didn’t—” Vortravis began.

“I hardly think that’s a good use of Lieutenant Vortravis’s money,” said a dry voice.

Mark had to admire that knack of Illyan’s for just suddenly being there, as if he had been privy to the conversation all along.  And the effect of his appearance was quite lovely: Vorgautier swallowed noisily, and Vortravis’s face went horribly pale against the blood.

“Lieutenant Vortravis seems to have sustained a slight injury,” Illyan observed, looking at Ivan.

“Yes, sir,” Ivan said, with a relish of humility, “I turned too fast and got him, right in the face.  It was a horrible clumsy accident.”

“Well, then, he needs a medkit.  I believe there’s one in storage near here for just such incidents.  Why don’t I escort Lieutenant Vortravis there and assist him,” Illyan suggested, and at once Mark and Ivan assented heartily over Vorgautier’s and Vortravis’s protests.  Inexorably, Illyan drew Vortravis apart by the arm and took possession.  “Now, where—?”

“Second door on the left in the corridor,” Ivan said helpfully.  “There’s a cabinet.”

“Ah, yes.  Of course.  Thank you, Ivan.  Come this way, Lieutenant.  I’m sure this is easily fixed.”  With a kindly air Illyan towed Vortravis away.  Vortravis’s eyes rolled fearfully back at them, but he voiced no protest.

“And do send me the bill for cleaning your uniform,” Ivan called, with all apparent concern.

Around them the murmur of remark began to recede, and people started looking away.  Those who continued to stare saw Ivan clap a friendly hand on Vorgautier’s shoulder.  Vorgautier did not resist.  “Now,” Ivan said with a gentle smile, “Vorgautier.  Are you sober?”

“More or less,” Vorgautier said warily.

“Then attend,” Ivan said, in the same cheerful tones he’d used throughout.  “The next time I am forced to take notice of an insult to my mother or Captain Illyan, there won’t just be a clumsy accident.  My vengeance will be legal, it will be creative, and above all,  it will be complete.  And no one—no one at all—will raise the least protest, because they will be so entertained by the spectacle I will provide.  My victim will only wish I had hired an assassin.  Am I understood?”

“I believe so, Lord Vorpatril,” Vorgautier said, with a stiff smile.

“Excellent.” Ivan beamed at him.  “You may convey this information at your convenience to Vortravis, or any other interested party.”

“Right,” Vorgautier said.  “I think…I’ll go home now.”

“You do that,” Ivan said, clapping him genially on the shoulder.

He watched narrowly as Vorgautier made his way from the room.  Then: “Right,” Ivan said, “I need a drink.”

Mark followed him to the refreshment table, where Ivan took a glass of wine and drained it in one deft swallow.  Then he put down the empty glass, picked up another, and took a heavy gulp.  “Dammit,” he said, after a second gulp, “I knew saving Dono’s ass would come back to bite me in mine.”

It wasn’t exactly Dono’s ass that Ivan had saved, but Ivan’s glare dared Mark to say so, and Mark decided to forgo the punch line.

“And I’m going to have a huge bruise on my elbow,” Ivan said, working his left arm gingerly.  “Vortravis has a hard face.  And what was all that bullshit about assassins?” he added suddenly, rounding on Mark.

“Nothing like a little bullshit to change the script,” Mark shrugged.

“If you don’t mind ImpSec asking you some uncomfortable questions later,” Ivan said.

Mark sighed.  “That’s nothing new.”

Illyan reappeared in the hall just as Ivan was reaching for his third glass.  His eyes sought out and found them, and he tacked gently among the milling men until he reached them.  Mark and Ivan made no attempt to avoid him.

“Well,” he said to Ivan, “I’ve mopped up Lieutenant Vortravis and sent him home with two painkillers and a cold-pack.  He was amusingly docile, though he did insist on inserting the absorbent plugs into his nose by himself.” 

Ivan’s lips twitched, and Illyan half smiled in reply.  “Did I break it?” Ivan asked, lifting his wine for a sip.

“I couldn’t tell; there was too much swelling.  Where did Vorgautier go?”

“Home, he said.”

“Ah,” Illyan said.  He gave Ivan a casual look, but his eyes were keen.  “Do I want to ask what that was all about?”

“You really don’t, sir,” Ivan said, quaffing his wine, his gaze far away.

“Mm,” Illyan said.  He waited, but Ivan didn’t elaborate.

There was something to be said after all, Mark thought, for his relationship with Aral Vorkosigan, despite its awkwardness: there was, at least, some established reason to call him father.  There was no name for the relation that existed between Ivan and Illyan, and yet for something with no name, it had remarkably powerful substance.  Mark watched, fascinated.

Then Illyan’s eye fell on him.  “Lord Mark,” he said, “I hope you have not been making a habit of offering to procure the services of an assassin.”

Mark bowed.  “Believe me, Captain,” he said sincerely, “nothing could be further from my desire than to find myself involved in an assassin’s contract.”

“I am delighted to hear it,” Illyan said.  His eyes were weightless: an expression that one kind of fool would read as vacancy, and another as bottomless malice.  And Vortravis, probably, as both at once.  Mark smiled.

“And you may be delighted to hear,” Illyan went on, “that nothing could be further from my desire than to be involved in the intrigues of the next generation.  I wish you gentlemen a good evening.”

He bowed, and went away.

Ivan’s look grew morose.  “When my mother hears about this—” (When? said Mark’s eyebrow; don’t be stupid, said Ivan’s look) “she’s going to rip me a new one.  And I’ll deserve it, for letting myself get blindsided.”

“Well, whatever happens,” Mark said consolingly, “at least you may be sure Illyan won’t tell her.”

“He won’t hide it from her, either,” Ivan said sourly.  Mark thought he was probably right, and wondered if Ivan had ever tried to solicit such a favor from Illyan.  No, Ivan wasn’t that kind of idiot, or if he had been, it was years ago.

Ivan lifted his near-full wineglass, looked at it, sighed, and put the wine down.  “No sense screwing up twice in one evening,” he said.  As he spoke, the chamber company began tuning up for the dancing.

“Ooh,” Mark said.  “D’you think this means the ladies will be coming back soon?”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Ivan said.  “You’ll probably have to go and fetch them back.  The Residence is crawling with people tonight.  It’s therefore,” he added, “probably also crawling with ImpSec.  You want some amusement, ask the Count your father to get you a transcript of everything you said this evening.”

The wine had not improved Ivan’s mood.  But it had taken the edge off his trembling glee.  “You going to be all right?” Mark asked him.

“Fine,” Ivan said.  “Dandy.”

A few women began to straggle back into the hall, in twos and threes.  But Ivan was right, they weren’t exactly sweeping in in a great rush, and Mark couldn’t see Kareen among them.

“How much trouble will I be in,” Mark said, “if I find Kareen and just go home?”

“How much more trouble, you mean,” Ivan said.  “You’ve been hanging out with me all evening.”

Mark gave him a quizzical look.  “Yeah, I thought I was home free, spending the evening someplace other than Miles’s presence.  I suppose he’s bored shitless at Vorhalas’s right now.”

Ivan snorted, but couldn’t conceal a smile.  Mark breathed private relief.

More ladies were coming in.  “I’m going to go find Kareen,” Mark said.  “Listen—if you do need a you-know-what….”

Ivan smiled dryly at his joke.  “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

“Oh, yes,” Mark said, “I heard it.”

“Good.”

They gave one another a wave, and Mark dodged his way through the crowd of men toward the door.  Couples were reuniting, both inside and outside the hall, and the company struck up a sprightly tune to encourage them to dance.  Mark still didn’t see Kareen.  Dodging a cluster of laughing women, he moved out into the corridor where he had a less obstructed view of the people coming and going.  Still no Kareen.  Mark headed toward where the women seemed to be coming from.

He was a good way along the corridor when a hand snaked out and drew him swiftly through a dark doorway.  All Mark’s instincts leaped up, and as the door closed between him and the light, he registered simultaneously the lack of real danger, and anger at the casual pressing of his trigger points.  He whirled on the person accosting him.

“Don’t do that!  —Oh.”

His ersatz aunt Lady Alys was standing there looking at him grimly.  They were—Mark glanced around, his sight adjusting—in an unused office, devoid of furniture except a few chairs and a comconsole desk, with its high-backed chair skewed away as if the last occupant had been too careless or hurried to straighten and push it in.  The total effect of the abandoned room and the dimness, cut only by the brilliant lights shining in through the window from outside, was very forlorn.

In the wake of his receding alarm, Mark said severely, “You ought to know better than to grab me like that.  I could have hurt you.”

“I apologize,” Lady Alys said coolly.

Mark’s next line was going to be What do you want?  But just as the words arrived on his tongue, Mark realized he didn’t need to ask.

“Wow,” he said.  “I see Ivan was right.  You’ve heard about what happened with him and Vortravis.  Should have realized he meant, within the same evening.  And the fact that you’ve approached me means you know I was there, which means Illyan’s already told you everything he knows about it.  Ivan was right about that, too.”

She seemed neither offended nor surprised at his deductions, but at the last sentence her eyes narrowed.  “Ivan said that Simon would tell me about the incident?”

“No,” Mark said, “he said that he wouldn’t hide it from you.  A world of difference.”

“Mm,” she said.  “What exactly happened between Ivan and Vortravis?”

“Why don’t you ask Ivan?” Mark said warily.

“Because I want to know what happened.”

“And you think he won’t tell you.”  Mark was growing more and more annoyed.  “Well, you’re not mistaken about that.  But you are mistaken if you think I will.  Good night.”

He turned and opened the door.  But in the same moment Lady Alys reached over his head and pressed it shut with the flat of her hand.  Alys wasn’t a tall woman, but she still had a good ten centimeters on Mark, not to mention the authority of her name and seniority, and it rankled hard.  Mark turned around and glared at her.

“That’s not playing fair, my lady,” he said.

“Playing fair,” Lady Alys said, not removing her hand, “is for those who have never known disadvantage.”

Well, here at least was one Barrayaran who could speak his language.  Mark considered her with fresh attention.  “That lets out a lot of people,” he said, after a moment of careful silence.  “Including Ivan.”

Her expression did not change, but Mark knew at once that it had been a dangerous thing to say.  There was a long silence, in which Mark considered their height disparity and the risks of rousing protective maternal ire at close range.

“What happened?” she asked him again.

“I hate to disappoint you,” Mark said, “but I suggest you wait for the ImpSec report to land by your breakfast plate in the morning.”

“I don’t want a report,” Lady Alys said patiently.

Mark said nothing, and let his silence be his denial.

“Then tell me—” and of all the silken female voices that had ever filled him with a sense of grave peril, Lady Alys’s was the surest— “what is Ivan’s disadvantage?”

Mark did not answer for a moment, reflecting that whatever Ivan’s disadvantages, they were nothing to the ones he was currently experiencing.  He was beginning to regret intensely ever leaving Beta, where nobody was likely to hook him into a dark room for anything unpleasant, where there was no Imperial wedding to oblige him to attend perilous functions filled with people who disliked him.  Both of which situations were Lady Alys’s fault.  If Mark were her and had a son like Ivan, he would be grateful, not ready to pounce on him and any of his hapless cousins who happened to be in range.  Still, it paid to tread carefully.

“I once heard my lady mother say,” Mark said slowly, “that Ivan is too close to the Imperium to be able to afford being himself.  That he prefers to keep on playing the fool rather than risk being a target for any insurrectionists looking for a figurehead.  The Count my father was skeptical, but I think she’s right.  Probably he fell into the strategy, and then got locked into it.  Well, it’s kept him out of trouble, but at the price of everybody thinking he’s an idiot.”  He paused to gauge Lady Alys’s reaction to this: she said nothing but watched him with eyes narrowed in thought.  Mark went on.  “But he tipped his hand helping Gregor and Miles with that Vorrutyer thing.  Now he’s not going to get splashed with trouble just by following around in Miles’s wake.  He’s going to have to find a new strategy.  And you can’t help him.”

“But we can hurt him,” she said, her voice very quiet.  “Is that what you’re saying?”

Mark registered the we, and realized suddenly why he’d felt all along as though he’d been addressing her and Illyan together.

“I didn’t say that,” he said, carefully keeping his eyes on Lady Alys’s face.  “Nor will you ever hear me say it.  The inconvenience one family member can cause another is not a topic I have room to speak on.”  He heard the bitterness in his own voice and drew a slow breath against the roil in his psyche.  Down boy, he told himself.  This is not about you.

In the half-light, he could see the faint lines in her face that were somehow invisible in direct light.  She looked tired, like a woman of sixty who had been working nonstop for over six months.  She took her hand away from the door and stood back, giving him no answer but a weary little sigh.  Mark was torn between compassion and renewed anger.  Fortunately he could think of a couple of things to say that would serve both.

“If Ivan were to ask my advice,” he said finally, “I would tell him he ought to take a page from Illyan’s book.  Be totally transparent, and let everybody else play the fool.  I think he’ll get there on his own, which is good, because I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to ask my advice.  He’s certainly not going to be asking yours.”  Lady Alys gave him a very dry look.  Mark suppressed a smile.  “And I’m sorry, Captain Illyan,” Mark went on, addressing the back of the skewed desk chair, “but as I’m sure you’ve realized, he’s not going to be asking yours either.”

To his gratification, the chair tilted back slightly and then turned in a slow spin to reveal Illyan, with a faint angelic smile on his face.  Mark smiled angelically back.

“What was Vortravis saying when Ivan hit him?” Illyan asked, without preamble.

“I don’t know,” Mark said dryly, “he didn’t get to finish saying it.”

Illyan crossed his arms and leaned back.  The silence stretched.  Lady Alys didn’t look back at Illyan, but with Illyan kept her eyes on him: Mark had a palpable sense of their unity, an utter confidence that breathed in the room with them, and felt a pang of envy.  Did you have to be old to have this kind of partnership, or did you just have to suffer a lot first?  Mark thought he had the suffering part covered.

He let the silence go just long enough to prove his point.  “That,” he said at last, “you will have to get from ImpSec.  What you get from me is this.  What happened with Vortravis wasn’t about you, except incidentally.  It was about Ivan dealing with the conservatives of his generation.  And he knows it.  He defended your honor, and he didn’t disgrace his own.  Leave him alone.”  Mark divided a bow between them both.  “A good night to you.”

This time Lady Alys made no move to stop him opening the door.  He emerged into the brilliant light of the hall, blinking, and pulled it to behind him.  But before he resumed his search for Kareen, he paused to listen and was rewarded to hear Illyan’s voice, faint behind the wood.

“Well,” Illyan remarked, “how’s that for instant analysis?”

Mark smiled and pushed off down the corridor.  Ten paces later, he was stopped in his tracks again.

“Mark!”

He turned around: Kareen was coming toward him, all pink and cream and gold.  “Ah,” Mark breathed, feeling whole again.

“Where were you going?” she asked as she reached him.

“I was looking for you.  Couldn’t see you in the crowd back there.”

“And I was looking for you,” she laughed, tucking her hand in his arm.  He smiled fondly up at her.

“So,” she said, grinning, “did you stay out of trouble while I was gone?”

“It was touch and go for a few minutes there,” Mark said, “—but I think I managed it.”

*

Overseeing the gradual exodus of dance partners from the hall, Ivan reflected that the evening went better when he actually considered himself on duty rather than using his duty as a mere excuse for propping up a wall.  Propping up a wall never saved anyone from trouble anyway, except maybe Illyan, and sometimes not even him.  Quietly alert, Ivan sipped a glass of sparkling ginger water and kept moving, his eyes and ears open.

He had happened to be on the other side of the room when his mother came in, with Laisa and Laisa’s closest friends; Ivan had waited for Lady Alys to seek him out with her gaze and flick at him, but she didn’t.  So it was going to be the freezing treatment, then.  Great.  Well, he’d just have to weather it.

But when he found himself at close range later, Lady Alys’s glance when it encountered him was merely thoughtful, not freezing.  “Oh, Ivan, there you are,” she said.  “Would you be a dear and man the vestibule as people are leaving?”

Surely it wasn’t possible that she’d not heard about the Vortravis incident yet.  Dammit, anything was better than this suspense.  “Yes, ma’am,” he said, meekly.

He was looking for a place to dispose of his ginger water—suddenly there was a dearth of ImpSec servitors in his vicinity, how remarkable—when he found himself face-to-face not with a servitor, but Illyan.

“Can you help me get rid of this?” Ivan said.  “I’m supposed to go be on the doors.”

“I was just about to suggest it,” Illyan said, taking the glass from him.  Then he added in an undertone, “I was just privy to a very interesting conversation between your lady mother and Lord Mark.”

Of course.  That explained everything.  “And Mark spilled the whole thing to her, I suppose,” Ivan said, his mouth twisting.

Illyan cocked his head, looking up at Ivan.  “Actually,” he said, “he didn’t.  He gave her nothing except his opinion of the situation at large.”  He fixed Ivan with a speculative look.  Miles, Ivan thought, made people feel that his short stature was an advantage; Illyan, much more sinisterly in Ivan’s opinion, made taller men feel that their greater height was a disadvantage.  “You appear,” Illyan went on, “to have won his entire loyalty.”

Mark was loyal to him?  Mark was loyal to him?  Ivan was silent a long moment, trying to parse the situation and getting no help from Illyan’s bland expression.  “And why do you tell me this?” he said finally.

“Because,” Illyan said, the corner of his mouth moving in half a smile, “anyone who wins the loyalty of a Vorkosigan ought to be duly warned of the fact.”

Helplessly, Ivan barked a laugh before he could swallow it.  Illyan smiled.

Ivan offered him a self-mocking bow.  “Then I thank you, sir,” he said.  “I consider myself duly warned.”  Illyan inclined his head in a mirroring gesture; they exchanged smiles, and Illyan turned away with Ivan’s glass.

“Simon?” Ivan said.

Illyan turned back.  Ivan didn’t often give him his name, and it had its calculated effect of raising his eyebrow and his interest.

Ivan said, thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t mind being copied on whatever ImpSec report comes out of this evening.”

“It is well thought of,” Illyan said, both his eyebrows going up now.  “I’ll make a note to ask.”  He pulled out his audiofiler, an increasingly familiar gesture, and did so.  As he put the device away, he said, “Are you riding home with us after this?”

“No,” Ivan said, “I’m going to HQ.”

“Oh, right, you had that meeting.”  The speculative look was back on Illyan’s face.

“Just another day at the office,” Ivan said, with a dry smile.

Illyan returned him an equally dry ImpSec salute.  “Good night then, Ivan.”

“Good night, sir.”

They parted, each to their own duties.  As Illyan cleared Ivan’s field of vision, he saw his mother beyond, her face turned from the knot of women clustered around Laisa Toscane, watching them with a look of clement gratification.  He saluted her, and the merest hint of a smile touched his mother’s face.

Ivan turned, and with a stride growing to match his sense of satisfaction, went to man the vestibule.

*

fin