Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold



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Chapter Fourteen


It was about noon, local time, when the lightflyer she had rented in Vorbarr Sultana brought her over the long lake. The shore was bordered by vine-garlanded slopes backed in turn by steep, scrub-covered hills. The population here was thinly scattered, except around the lake, which had a village at its foot. A cliffed headland at the water's edge was crowned by the ruins of an old fortification. She circled it, rechecking her map on which it was a principle landmark. Counting northward from it past three large properties, she brought her flyer down on a driveway that wound up the slope to a fourth.

A rambling old house built of native stone blended with the vegetation into the side of the hill. She retracted the wings, killed the engine, pocketed the keys, and sat staring uncertainly at its sun-warmed front.

A tall figure in a strange brown and silver uniform ambled around the corner. He bore a weapon in a holster on his hip, and his hand rested on it caressingly. She knew then that Vorkosigan must be nearby, for it was Sergeant Bothari. He looked to be in good health, at least physically.

She hopped out of the lightflyer. "Uh, good afternoon, Sergeant. Is Admiral Vorkosigan at home?"

He stared at her, narrow-eyed, then his face seemed to clear, and he saluted her. "Captain Naismith. Ma'am. Yes."

"You're looking a lot better than when we last met."

"Ma'am?"

"On the flagship. At Escobar."

He looked troubled. "I—can't remember Escobar. Admiral Vorkosigan says I was there."

"I see." Took away your memory, did they? Or did you do it yourself? No telling now. "I'm sorry to hear that. You served bravely."

"Did I? I was discharged, after."

"Oh? What's the uniform?"

"Count Vorkosigan's livery, ma'am. He took me into his personal guard."

"I'm—sure you'll serve him well. May I see Admiral Vorkosigan?"

"He's around back, ma'am. You can go up." He wandered away, evidently making some kind of patrol circuit.

She trudged around the house, the sun warm on her back, kicking at the unaccustomed skirts of her dress and making them swirl about her knees. She had bought it yesterday in Vorbarr Sultana, partly for fun, mostly because her old tan Survey fatigues with the insignia taken off collected stares in the streets. Its dark floral pattern pleased her eye. Her hair hung loose, parted in the middle and held back from her face by two enameled combs, also purchased yesterday.

A little farther up the hill was a garden, surrounded by a low grey stone wall. No, not a garden, she realized as she approached: a graveyard. An old man in old coveralls was working in it, kneeling in the dirt planting young flowers from a flat. He squinted up at her as she pushed through the little gate. She did not mistake his identity. He was a little taller than his son, and his musculature had gone thin and stringy with age, but she saw Vorkosigan in the bones of his face.

"General Count Vorkosigan, sir?" She saluted him automatically, then realized how peculiar it must look in the dress. He rose stiffly to his feet. "My name is Cap—my name is Cordelia Naismith. I'm a friend of Aral's. I—don't know if he mentioned me to you. Is he here?"

"How do you do, madam." He came more or less to attention, and gave her a courteous half-nod that was achingly familiar. "He said very little, and it did not lead me to think I might meet you." A smile creaked across his face, as if those muscles were stiff from long disuse. "You have no idea how pleased I am to be wrong." He gestured over his shoulder up the hill. "There is a little pavilion at the top of our property, overlooking the lake. He, ah, sits up there most of the time."

"I see." She spotted the path, winding up past the graveyard. "Um. I'm not sure how to put this . . . is he sober?"

He glanced at the sun, and pursed leathery lips. "Probably not, by this hour. When he first came home he only drank after dinner, but the time has been creeping up, gradually. Very disturbing, but there isn't much I can do about it. Although if that gut of his starts bleeding again I may . . ." He broke off, looking her over with intense, uncertain speculation. "He has taken this Escobar failure unnecessarily personally, I think. His resignation was not in the least called for."

She deduced the old Count was not in the Emperor's confidence on this matter, and thought, it wasn't its failure that slew his spirit, sir; it was its success. Aloud, she said, "Loyalty to your Emperor was a very great point of honor for him, I know." Almost its last bastion, and your Emperor chose to flatten it to its foundations in the service of his great need. . . .

"Why don't you go on up," suggested the old man. "Although, this isn't a very good day for him, I—had better warn you."

"Thank you. I understand."

He stood looking after her as she left the walled enclosure and went on up the winding walk. It was shaded by trees, most of them Earth imports, and some other vegetation that had to be local. The hedge of bush-like things with flowers—she assumed they were flowers, Dubauer would have known—that looked like pink ostrich feathers was particularly striking.

The pavilion was a faintly oriental structure of weathered wood, commanding a fine view of the sparkling lake. Vines climbed it, seeming to claim it for the rocky soil. It was open on all four sides, and furnished with a couple of shabby chaises, a large faded armchair and footstool, and a small table holding two decanters, some glasses, and a bottle of a thick white liquid.

Vorkosigan lay back in the chair, eyes closed, bare feet on the stool, a pair of sandals kicked carelessly over the side. Cordelia paused at the pavilion's edge to study him with a sort of delicate enjoyment. He wore an old pair of black uniform trousers and a very civilian shirt, a loud and unexpected floral print. He obviously had not shaved that morning. His toes, she noticed, had a little wiry black hair on them like the backs of his fingers and hands. She decided she definitely liked his feet; indeed could easily become quite foolishly fond of every part of him. His generally seedy air was less amusing. Tired, and more than tired. Ill.

He opened his eyes to slits and reached for a crystal tumbler filled with an amber liquid, then appeared to change his mind and picked up the white bottle instead. A small measuring cup stood beside it, which he ignored, knocking back a slug of the white liquid directly from its source instead. He sneered briefly at the bottle, then traded it for the crystal tumbler and took a drink, rinsing it around in his mouth and swallowing. He hunched back down in the armchair, at a slightly lower level than before.

"Liquid breakfast?" Cordelia inquired. "Is it as tasty as oatmeal and blue cheese dressing?"

His eyes snapped open. "You," he said hoarsely after a moment, "are not a hallucination." He started to get up, then appeared to think better of it and sank back in frozen self-consciousness. "I never wanted you to see . . ."

She mounted the steps to the shade, pushed a chaise closer to him, and seated herself. Blast, she thought, I've embarrassed him, catching him all awry like this. Off balance. How to put him at his ease? I would have him at his ease, always. . . . "I tried to call ahead, when I first landed yesterday, but I kept missing you. If hallucinations are what you expect, that must be remarkable stuff. Pour me one too, please."

"I think you'd prefer the other." He poured from the second decanter, looking shaken. Curious, she tasted from his glass.

"Faugh! That's not wine."

"Brandy."

"At this hour?"

"If I start after breakfast," he explained, "I can generally achieve total unconsciousness by lunch."

Pretty close to lunch now, she thought. His speech had misled her at first, being perfectly clear, only slower and more hesitant than usual. "There must be less poisonous general anesthetics." The straw-pale wine he had poured her was excellent, although dry for her taste. "You do this every day?"

"God, no." He shuddered. "Two or three times a week at most. One day drinking, the next day being ill—a hangover is quite as good as being drunk for taking your mind off other things—the next day running errands and such for my father. He's slowed down a great deal in the last few years."

He was gradually pulling himself into better focus, as his initial awkward terror of being repellant to her ebbed. He sat up and rubbed his hand over his face in the familiar gesture, as if to scrub away the numbness, and made a stab at light conversation. "That's a pretty dress. A great improvement over those orange things."

"Thanks," she said, falling in immediately with his lead. "I'm sorry I can't say the same for your shirt—does that represent your own taste, by chance?"

"No, it was a gift."

"I'm relieved."

"Something of a joke. Some of my officers got together and purchased it on the occasion of my first promotion to admiral, before Komarr. I always think of them, when I wear it."

"Well, that's nice. In that case I guess I can get used to it."

"Three of the four are dead, now. Two died at Escobar."

"I see." So much for light chitchat. She swirled her wine around in the bottom of her glass. "You look like hell, you know. Pasty."

"Yes, I stopped exercising. Bothari's quite offended."

"I'm glad Bothari didn't get in too much trouble over Vorrutyer."

"It was touch and go, but I got him off. Illyan's testimony helped."

"Yet they discharged him."

"Honorably. On a medical."

"Did you put your father up to hiring him?"

"Yes. It seemed like the right thing to do. He'll never be normal, as we think of it, but at least he has a uniform, and a weapon, and regulations of a sort to follow. It seems to give him an anchor." He ran a finger slowly around the rim of the brandy tumbler. "He was Vorrutyer's batman for four years, you see. He was not too well, when he was first assigned to the General Vorkraft. On the verge of a split personality—separating memories, the works. Rather scary. Being a soldier seems to be about the only human role he can meet the demands of. It allows him a kind of self-respect." He smiled at her. "You, on the other hand, look like heaven. Can you, ah—stay long?"

There was a hesitant hunger in his face, soundless desire suppressed by uncertainty. We have hesitated so long, she thought, it's become a habit. Then it dawned on her that he feared she might only be visiting. Hell of a long trip for a chat, my love. You are drunk.

"As long as you like. I discovered, when I went home—it was changed. Or I was changed. Nothing fit anymore. I offended nearly everybody, and left one step ahead of, um, a whole lot of trouble. I can't go back. I resigned my commission—mailed it in from Escobar—and everything I own is in the back of that flyer down there."

She savored the delight that ignited his eyes during this speech, as it finally penetrated that she was here to stay. It contented her.

"I would get up," he said, sliding to the side of his chair, "but for some reason my legs go first and my tongue last. I'd rather fall at your feet in some more controlled fashion. I'll improve shortly. Meantime, will you come sit here?"

"Gladly." She changed chairs. "But won't I squash you? I'm kind of tall."

"Not a bit. I loathe tiny women. Ah, that's better."

"Yes." She nestled down with him, arms around his chest, resting her head on his shoulder, and hooking one leg over him as well, to emphatically complete his capture. The captive emitted something between a sigh and a laugh. She wished they might sit like that forever.

"You'll have to give up this suicide-by-alcohol thing, you know."

He cocked his head. "I thought I was being subtle."

"Not noticeably."

"Well, it suits me. It's extraordinarily uncomfortable."

"Yes, you've worried your father. He gave me the funniest look."

"Not his glare, I hope. He has a very withering glare. Perfected over a lifetime."

"Not at all. He smiled."

"Good God." A grin crinkled the corners of his eyes.

She laughed, and craned her neck for a look at his face. That was better. . . .

"I'll shave, too," he promised in a burst of enthusiasm.

"Don't go overboard on my account. I came to retire, too. A separate peace, as they say."

"Peace, indeed." He nuzzled her hair, breathing its scent. His muscles unwound beneath her like an overtaut bow unstrung.

* * *

A few weeks after their marriage they took their first trip together, Cordelia accompanying Vorkosigan on his periodic pilgrimmage to the Imperial Military Hospital in Vorbarr Sultana. They traveled in a groundcar borrowed from the Count, Bothari taking what was evidently his usual role as combination driver and bodyguard. To Cordelia, who was just beginning to know him well enough to see through his taciturn facade, he seemed on edge. He glanced uncertainly over her head, seated between him and Vorkosigan.

"Did you tell her, sir?"

"Yes, everything. It's all right, Sergeant."

Cordelia added encouragingly, "I think you're doing the right thing, Sergeant. I'm, um, very pleased."

He relaxed a little, and almost smiled. "Thank you, Milady."

She studied his profile covertly, her mind ranging over the array of difficulties he would be taking back to the hired village woman at Vorkosigan Surleau this day, gravely doubtful of his ability to handle them. She risked probing a little.

"Have you thought about—what you're going to tell her about her mother, as she grows older? She's bound to want to know eventually."

He nodded, was silent, then spoke. "Going to tell her she's dead. Tell her we were married. It's not a good thing to be a bastard here." His hand tightened on the controls. "So she won't be. No one must call her that."

"I see." Good luck, she thought. She turned to a lighter question. "Do you know what you're going to name her?"

"Elena."

"That's pretty. Elena Bothari."

"It was her mother's name."

Cordelia was surprised into an unguarded remark. "I thought you couldn't remember Escobar!"

A little time went by, and he said, "You can beat the memory drugs, some, if you know how."

Vorkosigan raised his eyebrows. Evidently this was new to him, too. "How do you do that, Sergeant?" he asked, carefully neutral.

"Someone I knew once told me . . . You write down what you want to remember, and think about it. Then hide it—the way we used to hide your secret files from Radnov, sir—they never figured it out either. Then first thing when you get back, before your stomach even settles, take it out and look at it. If you can remember one thing on the list, you can usually get the rest, before they come back again. Then do the same thing again. And again. It helps if you have an, an object, too."

"Did you have, ah, an object?" asked Vorkosigan, clearly fascinated.

"Piece of hair." He fell silent again for a long time, then volunteered, "She had long black hair. It smelled nice."

Cordelia, boggled and bemused by the implications of his story, settled back and found something to look at out the canopy. Vorkosigan looked faintly illuminated, like a man who'd found a key piece in a difficult puzzle. She watched the varied scenery, enjoying the clear sunlight, summer air so cool one needed no protective devices, and the little glimpses of green and water in the hollows of the hills. She also noticed something else. Vorkosigan saw the direction of her glance.

"Ah, you spotted them, did you?"

Bothari smiled slightly.

"The flyer that doesn't outpace us?" said Cordelia. "Do you know who it is?"

"Imperial Security."

"Do they always follow you to the capital?"

"They always follow me all the time. It hasn't been easy to convince people I was serious about retiring. Before you came I used to amuse myself flushing them out. Do things like go drunk driving in my flyer in those canyons to the south on the moonlit nights. It's new. Very fast. That used to drive them to distraction."

"Heavens, that sounds positively lethal. Did you really do that?"

He looked mildly ashamed of himself. "I'm afraid so. I didn't think you'd be coming here, then. It was a thrill. I hadn't gone adrenaline-tripping on purpose since I was a teenager. The Service rather supplied that need."

"I'm surprised you didn't have a wreck."

"I did, once," he admitted. "Just a minor crack-up. That reminds me, I must check on the repairs. They seem to be taking forever at it. The alcohol made me limp as a rag, I suppose, and I never quite had the nerve to do without the shoulder harness. No harm done, except to the flyer and Captain Negri's agent's nerves."

"Twice," commented Bothari unexpectedly.

"I beg your pardon, Sergeant?"

"You wrecked it twice." The Sergeant's lips twitched. "You don't remember the second time. Your father said he wasn't surprised. We helped, um, pour you out of the safety cage. You were unconscious for a day."

Vorkosigan looked startled. "Are you pulling my leg, Sergeant?"

"No, sir. You can go look at the pieces of the flyer. They're scattered for a kilometer and a half down Dendarii Gorge."

Vorkosigan cleared his throat, and shrunk down in his seat. "I see." He was quiet, then added, "How—unpleasant, to have a blank like that in one's memory."

"Yes, sir," agreed Bothari blandly.

Cordelia glanced up at the following flyer through a gap in the hills. "Have they been watching us all this time? Me, too?"

Vorkosigan smiled at the look on her face. "From the moment you set foot in the Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport, I should imagine. I happen to be politically hot, after Escobar. The press, which is Ezar Vorbarra's third hand here, has me set up as a kind of hero-in-retreat, snatching victory spontaneously from the jaws of defeat and so on—absolute tripe. Makes my stomach hurt, even without the brandy. I should have been able to do a better job, knowing what I knew in advance. Sacrificed too many cruisers, covering the troopships—it had to be traded off that way, sheer arithmetic demanded it, though. . . ."

She could mark by his face as his thoughts wandered into a well-trodden labyrinth of military might-have-beens. Damn Escobar, she thought, and damn your Emperor, damn Serg Vorbarra and Ges Vorrutyer, damn all the chances of time and place that combined to squeeze a boy's dream of heroism into a man's nightmare of murder, crime, and deceit. Her presence was a great palliative for him, but it was not enough; still something remained unwell in him, out of tune.

As they approached Vorbarr Sultana from the south, the hill country flattened out into a fertile plain, and the population grew more concentrated. The city straddled a broad silver river, with the oldest government buildings, ancient converted fortresses most of them, hugging the bluffs and high points commanding the river's edge. The modern city spilled back from them to the north and south.

The newer government offices, efficient blocky monoliths, were concentrated between. They passed through this complex, making for one of the city's famous bridges to cross the river to the north.

"My God, what happened there?" asked Cordelia, as they passed one whole block of burnt-out buildings, blackened and skeletal.

Vorkosigan smiled sourly. "That was the Ministry of Political Education, before the riots two months ago."

"I heard a little about those, at Escobar, on my way here. I had no idea they were so extensive."

"They weren't, really. Quite carefully orchestrated. Personally, I thought it was a damn dangerous way to get the job done. Although I suppose it was a step up in subtlety from Yuri Vorbarra's Defenestration of the Privy Council. A generation of progress, of sorts . . . I didn't think Ezar was going to get that genie back in the bottle, but he seems to have managed it. As soon as Grishnov was killed all the troops they'd called for, which for some reason all seemed to have been diverted to guard the Imperial Residence—" he snorted, "turned up and cleared the streets, and the riot just melted away, except for a few fanatics, and some wounded spirits who'd lost kin at Escobar. That got ugly, but it was suppressed in the news."

They crossed the river and came at length to the large and famous hospital, almost a city within a city, spread out in its walled park. They found Ensign Koudelka alone in his room, lying glumly on his bed in the green uniform pajamas. Cordelia thought at first that he waved to them, but abandoned the idea as his left arm continued to move up and down from the elbow in slow rhythm.

He did sit up and smile as his ex-commander entered, and exchange nods with Bothari. The smile broadened to a grin as he saw her in Vorkosigan's wake. His face was much older than it used to be.

"Captain Naismith, ma'am! Lady Vorkosigan, I should say. I never thought I'd see you again."

"I thought the same. Glad to be mistaken," she smiled back.

"And congratulations, sir. Thanks for sending the note. I sort of missed you the past few weeks, but—I can see you had better things to do." His grin made this comment stingless.

"Thank you, Ensign. Ah—what happened to your arm?"

Koudelka grimaced. "I had a fall this morning. Something's shorted out. Doc should be coming around to fix it in a few minutes. It could have been worse."

The skin on his arms, Cordelia noted, was covered with a network of fine red scars, marking the lines of the prosthetic nerve implants.

"You're walking, then. That's good to hear," Vorkosigan encouraged.

"Yeah, sort of." He brightened. "And at least they've got my guts under control now. I don't care that I can't feel anything from that department, now that I've finally got rid of that damned colostomy."

"Are you in very much pain?" asked Cordelia diffidently.

"Not much," Koudelka tossed off. She felt he was lying. "—but the worst part, besides being so clumsy and out-of-balance, are the sensations. Not pain, but weird things. False intelligence reports. Like tasting colors with your left foot, or feeling things that aren't there, like bugs crawling all over you, or not feeling things that are there, like heat . . ." His gaze fell on his bandaged right ankle.

A doctor entered, and conversation stopped while Koudelka removed his shirt. The doctor attached a 'scope to his shoulder, and went fishing for the short circuit with a delicate surgical hand tractor. Koudelka went pale and stared fixedly at his knees, but at last the arm stopped its slow oscillation and lay limply at his side.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave it out of commission for the rest of the day," apologized the doctor. "We'll get it tomorrow when you go in for the work on that adductor group on your right leg."

"Yeah, yeah." Koudelka waved him away with his working right hand, and he gathered his tools and moved on.

"I know it must seem to you to be taking forever," said Vorkosigan, looking at Koudelka's frustrated face, "but it seems to me every time I come in here you've made more progress. You are going to get out of here," he said confidently.

"Yeah, the surgeon says they're going to kick me out in about two months." He smiled. "But they say I'll never be fit for combat again." The smile slid away, and his face crumpled. "Oh, sir! They're going to discharge me! All this endless hacking around for nothing!" He turned his face away from them, rigid and embarrassed, until his features were under control again.

Vorkosigan too looked away, not inflicting his sympathy, until the ensign looked back again with his smile carefully re-attached. "I can see why," Koudelka said brightly, nodding to the silent Bothari propping up the wall and apparently content just to listen. "A few good body blows like the ones you used to give me in the practice ring, and I'd be flopping around like a fish. Not a good example to set my men. I guess I'll just have to find—some kind of desk work." He glanced at Cordelia. "Whatever happened to your ensign, the one that got hit in the head?"

"The last time I saw him, after Escobar—I visited him just two days before I left home, I guess. He's the same. He did get out of the hospital. His mother quit her job, and stays home to take care of him, now."

Koudelka's eyes fell, and Cordelia was wrenched by the shame in his face. "And I bitch my head off about a few twitches. Sorry."

She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

Later, alone with Vorkosigan in the corridor a moment, Cordelia leaned her head against his shoulder, and was taken in his arms. "I can see why you started drinking after breakfast, on the days after this. I could use a stiff one myself, just now."

"I'll take you to lunch after the next stop, and we can all have one," he promised.

* * *

The research wing was their next destination. The military doctor in charge greeted Vorkosigan cordially, and only looked a little blank when Cordelia was introduced, without explanation, as Lady Vorkosigan.

"I hadn't realized you were married, sir."

"Recently."

"Oh? Congratulations. I'm glad you decided to come see one of these, sir, before they're all done. It's really almost the most interesting part. Would Milady wish to wait here while we take care of this little business?" He looked embarrassed.

"Lady Vorkosigan has been fully briefed."

"Besides," added Cordelia brightly, "I have a personal interest."

The doctor looked puzzled, but led on to the monitoring room. Cordelia stared doubtfully at the half dozen remaining canisters lined up in a row. The technician on duty joined them trundling some equipment obviously borrowed from some other hospital's obstetrics department.

"Good morning, sir," he said cheerfully. "Going to watch us hatch this chick today?"

"I wish you'd find some other term for it," said the doctor.

"Yes, but you can't call it being born," he pointed out reasonably. "Technically, they've all been born once already. You tell me what it is, then."

"They call it cracking the bottle at home," suggested Cordelia helpfully, watching the preparations with interest.

The technician, laying out measuring devices and placing a bassinet under a warming light, shot her a look of great curiosity. "You're Betan, aren't you, Milady? My wife caught the Admiral's marriage announcement in the news, way down in the fine print. I never read the vital statistics section, myself."

The doctor looked up, startled, then returned to his checklist. Bothari pretended to lean against the wall, eyes half closed, concealing his sharp attention. The doctor and the technician finished their preparations and motioned them closer.

"Got the soup ready, sir?" muttered the technician to the doctor.

"Right here. Inject into feed line C . . ."

The correct hormone mixture was inserted into the right aperture, the doctor rechecking the instruction disk on his monitor repeatedly.

"Five minute wait, mark—now." The doctor turned to Vorkosigan. "Fantastic machine, sir. Have you heard any more about getting funding and engineering personnel to try and duplicate them?"

"No," replied Vorkosigan. "I'm out of this project officially as soon as the last live child is—released, finished, whatever you call it. You're going to have to work on your own regular superiors for it, and you'll have to think up a military application to justify it, or at least something that sounds like one, to camouflage it."

The doctor smiled thoughtfully. "It's worth pursuing, I think. It might be a nice change from thinking up novel ways of killing people."

"Time mark, sir," said the technician, and he turned back to the current project.

"Placental separation looks good—tightening up just like it's supposed to. You know, the more I study this, the more impressed I am with the surgeons who did the sections on the mothers. We've got to get more medical students off planet, somehow. Getting those placentas out undamaged must be the most—there. There. And there. Break seal." He completed the adjustments and lifted the top. "Cut the membrane—and out she comes. Suction, quickly, please."

Cordelia realized that Bothari, still pinned to the wall, was holding his breath.

The wet and squirming infant took a breath and coughed as the cold air hit her. Bothari breathed too. She looked rather pretty to Cordelia, unbloodied, and much less red and squashed-looking than the vids of vivo newborns she had seen. The infant cried, loud and strong. Vorkosigan jumped, and Cordelia laughed out loud.

"Why, she looks quite perfect." Cordelia hovered at the shoulders of the two medical men, who were making their measurements and taking their samples from their tiny, astonished, bewildered and blinking charge.

"Why is she crying so loudly?" asked Vorkosigan nervously, like Bothari still in his original spot.

Because she knows she's been born on Barrayar, was the comment Cordelia suppressed on her lips. Instead she said, "What, you'd cry too if a bunch of giants hooked you out of a nice warm doze and tossed you around like a bag of beans." Cordelia and the technician exchanged a look half-amused, half-glowering.

"All right, Milady," surrendered the technician, as the doctor turned back to his precious machine.

"My sister-in-law says you're supposed to hold them close, like this. Not out at arm's length. I'd squall too if I thought I was being held over a pit about to be dropped. There, baby. Smile or something for Auntie Cordelia. That's it, nice and calm. Were you old enough to remember your mother's heartbeat, I wonder?" She hummed at the infant, who smacked her lips and yawned, and tucked the receiving blanket around her more firmly. "What a long, strange journey you've had."

"Want a look at the inside of this, sir?" the doctor went on. "You, too, Sergeant—you were asking so many questions the last time you were here. . . ."

Bothari shook his head, but Vorkosigan went over for the technical exposition the doctor was obviously itching to supply. Cordelia carried the baby over to the Sergeant.

"Want to hold her?"

"Is it all right, Milady?"

"Heavens, you don't have to ask me for permission. If anything, the other way around."

Bothari picked her up gingerly, his large hands seeming almost to engulf her, and stared into her face. "Are they sure it's the right one? I thought she'd have a bigger nose."

"They've been checked and rechecked," Cordelia reassured him, hoping he wouldn't ask her how she knew. But it seemed a safe assumption. "All babies have little noses. You don't know what kids are going to look like till they're eighteen."

"Maybe she'll look like her mother," he said hopefully. Cordelia seconded the hope, silently.

The doctor finished dragging Vorkosigan through the guts of his dream machine, Vorkosigan politely managing to look only a little unsettled.

"Want to hold her too, Aral?" Cordelia offered.

"Quite all right," he excused himself hastily.

"Get some practice. Maybe you'll need it someday." They exchanged a look of their private hope, and he loosened up and permitted himself to be talked into it.

"Hm. I've held cats with more heft. This isn't really my line." He looked relieved when the medical men repossessed her to complete their technical log.

"Um, let's see," said the doctor. "This is the one we don't take to the Imperial Orphanage, right? Where do we take her, after the observation period?"

"I've been asked to take care of that personally," said Vorkosigan smoothly. "For the sake of her family's privacy. I—Lady Vorkosigan and I, will be delivering her to her legal guardian."

The doctor looked extremely thoughtful. "Oh. I see, sir." He didn't look at Cordelia. "You're the man in charge of the project. You can do what you like with them. No one will ask any questions, I—I assure you, sir," he said earnestly.

"Fine, fine. How long is the observation period?"

"Four hours, sir."

"Good, we can go to lunch. Cordelia, Sergeant?"

"Uh, may I stay here, sir? I'm—not hungry."

Vorkosigan smiled. "Certainly, Sergeant. Captain Negri's men can use the exercise."

On the way to the groundcar, Vorkosigan asked her, "What are you laughing about?"

"I'm not laughing.

"Your eyes are laughing. Twinkling madly, in fact."

"It was the doctor. I'm afraid we combined to mislead him, quite unintentionally. Didn't you catch it?"

"Apparently not."

"He thinks that kid we uncorked today is mine. Or maybe yours. Or perhaps both. I could practically see the wheels turning. He thinks he's finally figured out why you didn't open the stopcocks."

"Good God." He almost turned around.

"No, no, let it go," said Cordelia. "You'll only make it worse if you try to deny it. I know. I've been blamed for Bothari's sins before. Just let him go on wondering." She fell silent. Vorkosigan studied her profile.

"Now what are you thinking? You've lost your twinkle."

"Just wondering what happened to her mother. I'm certain I met her. Long black hair, named Elena, on the flagship—there could only have been one. Incredibly beautiful. I can see how she caught Vorrutyer's eye. But so young, to deal with that sort of horror . . ."

"Women shouldn't be in combat," said Vorkosigan, grimly glum.

"Neither should men, in my opinion. Why did your people try to cover up her memories? Did you order it?"

"No, it was the surgeon's idea. He felt sorry for her." His face was tense and his eyes, distant.

"It was the damnedest thing. I didn't understand it at the time. I do now, I think. When Vorrutyer was done with her—and he outdid himself on her, even by his standards—she was catatonic. I—it was too late for her, but that's when I decided to kill him, if it happened again, and to hell with the Emperor's script. First Vorrutyer, then the Prince, then myself. Should have left Vorhalas in the clear . . .

"Anyway, Bothari—begged the body from him, so to speak. Took her off to his own cabin. Vorrutyer assumed, to continue torturing her, presumably in imitation of his sweet self. He was flattered, and left them alone. Bothari fuzzed his monitors, somehow. Nobody had the foggiest idea what he was doing in there, every minute of his off duty time. But he came to me with this list of medical supplies he wanted me to sneak to him. Anesthetic salves, some things for treatment of shock, really a well-thought-out list. He was good at first aid, from his combat experience. It occurred to me then that he wasn't torturing her, he just wanted Vorrutyer to think so. He was insane, not stupid. He was in love, in some weird way, and had the mother-wit not to let Vorrutyer guess."

"That doesn't sound altogether insane, under the circumstances," she commented, remembering the plans Vorrutyer had had for Vorkosigan.

"No, but the way he went about it—I caught a glimpse or two." Vorkosigan blew out his breath. "He took care of her in his cabin—fed her, dressed her, washed her—all the while keeping up this whispered dialogue. He supplied both halves. He had apparently worked out this elaborate fantasy in which she was in love with him, married in fact—a normal sane happy couple. Why shouldn't a madman dream of being sane? It must have terrified the hell out of her during her periods of consciousness."

"Lord. I feel almost as sorry for him as I do for her."

"Not quite. He slept with her, too, and I have every reason to believe he didn't limit that marriage fantasy thing to just words. I can see why, I suppose. Can you imagine Bothari getting within a hundred kilometers of such a girl under any normal circumstances?"

"Mm, hardly. The Escobarans fielded their best against you."

"But that, I believe, is what he chose to try and remember from Escobar. It must have taken incredible strength of will. He was in therapy for months."

"Whew," breathed Cordelia, haunted by the visions his words conjured. She was glad she would have a few hours to settle before seeing Bothari again. "Let's go get that drink now, all right?"




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