Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold



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Chapter Fifteen


Summer was waning when Vorkosigan proposed a trip to Bonsanklar. They were about half packed on the morning selected when Cordelia looked out of their front bedroom window, and said in a constricted voice, "Aral? A flyer just landed out front and there are six armed men getting out of it. They're spreading out all over your property."

Vorkosigan, instantly alert, came to her side to look, then relaxed. "It's all right. Those are Count Vortala's men. He must be coming to visit my father. I'm surprised he found time to break away from the capital just now. I heard the Emperor's been keeping him jumping."

A few minutes later a second flyer landed beside the first, and Cordelia had her first view of Barrayar's new Prime Minister. Prince Serg's description of him as a wrinkled clown was an exaggeration, but a just one; he was a lean man, shrunken with age but still moving briskly. He carried a stick, but from the way he swung it around Cordelia guessed it was an affectation. Clipped white hair fringed a bald and liver-spotted head that shone in the sunshine as he and a pair of aides, or bodyguards, Cordelia was not sure which, passed under her line of sight to the front door.

The two Counts were standing chatting in the front hall as Cordelia and Vorkosigan came down the stairs, the General saying, "Ah, here he comes now."

Vortala looked them over with a bright and penetrating twinkle. "Aral, my boy. Good to see you looking so well. And is this your Betan Penthesileia? Congratulations on a remarkable capture. Milady." He bent over her hand and kissed it with a sort of manic savoir faire.

Cordelia blinked at this description of herself, but managed a "How do you do, sir?" in return. Vortala met her eyes calculatingly.

"Nice that you could get away for a visit, sir," said Vorkosigan. "My wife and I," the phrase was emphasized in his mouth, like a sip of wine with a superior bouquet, "very nearly missed you. I'm promised to take her to the ocean today."

"Just so . . . This isn't a social call, as it happens. I'm playing messenger boy for my master. And my time is unfortunately tight."

Vorkosigan gave a nod. "I'll leave you gentlemen to it, then."

"Ha. Don't try to weasel off on me, boy. The message is for you."

Vorkosigan looked wary. "I didn't think the Emperor and I had anything further to say to each other. I thought I made that clear when I resigned."

"Yes, well, he was perfectly content to have you out of the capital while that dirty work on the Ministry of Political Education was in progress. But I am charged to inform you," he gave a little bow, "that you are requested and required to attend him. This afternoon. Your wife, too," he added as an afterthought.

"Why?" asked Vorkosigan bluntly. "Frankly, Ezar Vorbarra was not in my plans for the day—or any other day."

Vortala grew serious. "He's run out of time to wait for you to get bored in the country. He's dying, Aral."

Vorkosigan blew out his breath. "He's been dying for the last eleven months. Can't he die a little longer?"

Vortala chuckled. "Five months," he corrected absently, then frowned speculation at Vorkosigan. "Hm. Well, it has been very convenient for him. He's flushed more rats out of the wainscotting in the last five months than the past twenty years. You could practically mark the shakedowns in the Ministries by his medical bulletins. One week: condition very grave. Next week: another deputy minister caught out on charges of peculation, or whatever." He became serious again. "But it's the real thing, this time. You must see him today. Tomorrow could be too late. Two weeks from now will definitely be too late."

Vorkosigan's lips tightened. "What does he want me for? Did he say?"

"Ah . . . I believe he has a post in mind for you in the upcoming Regency government. The one you didn't want to hear about at your last meeting."

Vorkosigan shook his head. "I don't think there's a post in the government that would tempt me to step back into that arena. Well, maybe—no. Not even the Ministry of War. It's too damn dangerous. I have a nice quiet life here." His arm circled Cordelia's waist protectively. "We're going to have a family. I'll not risk them in those gladiator politics."

"Yes, I can just picture you, whiling away your twilight years—at age forty-four. Ha! Picking grapes, sailing your boat—your father told me about your sailboat. I hear they're going to rename the village Vorkosigan Sousleau in your honor, by the way—"

Vorkosigan snorted, and they exchanged an ironic bow.

"Anyway, you will have to tell him so yourself."

"I'd be—curious, to see the man," murmured Cordelia. "If it's really the last chance."

Vortala smiled at her, and Vorkosigan yielded, reluctantly. They returned to his bedroom to dress, Cordelia in her most formal afternoon wear, Vorkosigan in the dress greens he had not worn since their wedding.

"Why so jumpy?" asked Cordelia. "Maybe he just wants to bid you farewell or something."

"We're talking about a man who can make even his own death serve his political purposes, remember? And if there's some way to govern Barrayar from beyond the grave, you can bet he's figured it out. I've never come out ahead on any dealing I've ever had with him."

On that ambiguous note they joined the Prime Minister for the flight back to Vorbarr Sultana.

* * *

The Imperial Residence was an old building, almost a museum piece, thought Cordelia, as they climbed the worn granite steps to its east portico. The long facade was heavy with stone carving, each figure an individual work of art, the aesthetic opposite of the modern, faceless Ministry buildings rising a kilometer or two to the east.

They were ushered into a room half hospital, half antique display. Tall windows looked out on the formal gardens and lawns to the north of the Residence. The room's principal inhabitant lay in a huge carved bed inherited from some splendor-minded ancestor, his body pierced in a dozen places by the utilitarian plastic tubes that kept him alive this day.

Ezar Vorbarra was the whitest man Cordelia had ever seen, as white as his sheets, as white as his hair. His skin was white and wrinkled over his sunken cheeks. His eyelids were white, heavy and hooded over hazel eyes whose like she had seen once before, dimly in a mirror. His hands were white, with blue veins standing up on their backs. His teeth, when he spoke, were ivory yellow against their bloodless backdrop.

Vortala and Vorkosigan, and after an uncertain beat Cordelia, went down on one knee beside the bed. The Emperor waved his attendant physician out of the room with a little effortful jerk of one finger. The man bowed and left. They stood, Vortala rather stiffly.

"So, Aral," said the Emperor. "Tell me how I look."

"Very ill, sir."

Vorbarra chuckled, and coughed. "You refresh me. First honest opinion I've heard from anyone in weeks. Even Vortala beats around the bush." His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat of phlegm. "Pissed away the last of my melanin last week. That damned doctor won't let me out into my garden anymore during daylight." He snorted, for disapproval or breath. "So this is your Betan, eh? Come here, girl."

Cordelia approached the bed, and the white old man stared into her face, hazel eyes intent. "Commander Illyan has told me of you. Captain Negri, too. I've seen all your Survey records, you know. And that astonishing flight of fancy of your psychiatrist's. Negri wanted to hire her, just to generate ideas for his section. Vorkosigan, being Vorkosigan, has told me much less." He paused, as if for breath. "Tell me quite truly, now—what do you see in him, a broken-down, ah, what was that phrase? hired killer?"

"Aral has told you something, it seems," she said, startled to hear her own words in his mouth. She stared back at him with equal curiosity. The question seemed to demand an honest answer, and she struggled to frame it.

"I suppose—I see myself. Or someone like myself. We're both looking for the same thing. We call it by different names, and look in different places. I believe he calls it honor. I guess I'd call it the grace of God. We both come up empty, mostly."

"Ah, yes. I recall from your file that you are some sort of theist," said the Emperor. "I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days."

"Yes, I have often felt the pull of it myself."

"Hm." He smiled at that. "A very interesting answer, in light of what Vorkosigan said about you."

"What was that, sir?" asked Cordelia, her curiosity piqued.

"You must get him to tell you. It was in confidence. Very poetic, too. I was surprised." He waved her away, as if satisfied, and motioned Vorkosigan closer. Vorkosigan stood in a kind of aggressive parade rest. His mouth was sardonic but his eyes, Cordelia saw, were moved.

"How long have you served me, Aral?" asked the Emperor.

"Since my commission, twenty-six years. Or do you mean body and blood?"

"Body and blood. I always counted it from the day old Yuri's death squad slew your mother and uncle. The night your father and Prince Xav came to me at Green Army Headquarters with their peculiar proposition. Day One of Yuri Vorbarra's Civil War. Why is it never called Piotr Vorkosigan's Civil War, I wonder? Ah, well. How old were you?"

"Eleven, sir."

"Eleven. I was just the age you are now. Strange. So body and blood you have served me—damn, you know this thing is starting to affect my brain, now . . ."

"Thirty-three years, sir."

"God. Thank you. Not much time left."

From the cynical expression on his face Cordelia gathered that Vorkosigan was not in the least convinced of the Emperor's self-proclaimed senility.

The old man cleared his throat again. "I always meant to ask what you and old Yuri said to each other, that day two years later when we finally butchered him in that old castle. I've developed a particular interest in Emperors' last words, lately. Count Vorhalas thought you were playing with him."

Vorkosigan's eyes closed briefly, in pain or memory. "Hardly. Oh, I thought I was eager for the first cut, until he was stripped and held before me. Then—I had this impulse to strike suddenly at his throat, and end it cleanly, just be done with it."

The Emperor smiled sourly, eyes closed. "What a riot that would have started."

"Mm. I think he knew by my face I was funking out. He leered at me. 'Strike, little boy. If you dare while you wear my uniform. My uniform on a child.' That was all he said. I said, 'You killed all the children in that room,' which was fatuous, but it was the best I could come up with at the time, then took my cut out of his stomach. I often wished I'd said—said something else, later. But mostly I wished I'd had the guts to follow my first impulse."

"You looked pretty green, out on the parapet in the rain."

"He'd started screaming by then. I was sorry my hearing had come back."

The Emperor sighed. "Yes, I remember."

"You stage-managed it."

"Somebody had to." He paused, resting, then added, "Well, I didn't call you here to chat over old times. Did my Prime Minister tell you my purpose?"

"Something about a post. I told him I wasn't interested, but he refused to convey the message."

Vorbarra closed his eyes wearily and addressed, apparently, the ceiling. "Tell me—Lord Vorkosigan—who should be Regent of Barrayar?"

Vorkosigan looked as if he'd just bitten into something vile, but was too polite to spit it out. "Vortala."

"Too old. He'd never last sixteen years."

"The Princess, then."

"The General Staff would eat her alive."

"Vordarian?"

The Emperor's eyes snapped open. "Oh, for God's sake! Gather your wits, boy."

"He does have some military background."

"We will discuss his drawbacks at length—if the doctors give me another week to live. Have you any other jokes, before we get down to business?"

"Quintillan of the Interior. And that is not a joke."

The Emperor grinned yellowly. "So you do have something good to say for my Ministers after all. I may die now; I've heard everything."

"You'd never get a vote of consent out of the Counts for anyone without a Vor in front of his name," said Vortala. "Not even if he walked on water."

"So, make him one. Give him a rank to go with the job."

"Vorkosigan," said Vortala, aghast, "he's not of the warrior caste!"

"Neither are many of our best soldiers. We're only Vor because some dead Emperor declared one of our dead ancestors so. Why not start the custom up again, as a reward for merit? Better yet, declare everybody a Vor and be done with the whole bloody nonsense forever."

The Emperor laughed, then choked and coughed, sputtering. "Wouldn't that pull the rug out from under the People's Defense League? What an attractive counter-proposal to assassinating the aristocracy! I don't believe the most wild-eyed of them could come up with a more radical proposal. You're a dangerous man, Lord Vorkosigan."

"You asked for my opinion."

"Yes, indeed. And you always give it to me. Strange." The Emperor sighed. "You can quit wriggling, Aral. You shall not wriggle out of this.

"Allow me to put it in a capsule. What the Regency requires is a man of impeccable rank, no more than middle-aged, with a strong military background. He should be popular with his officers and men, well-known to the public, and above all respected by the General Staff. Ruthless enough to hold near-absolute power in this madhouse for sixteen years, and honest enough to hand over that power at the end of those sixteen years to a boy who will no doubt be an idiot—I was, at that age, and as I recall, so were you—and, oh yes, happily married. Reduces the temptation of becoming bedroom Emperor via the Princess. In short, yourself."

Vortala grinned. Vorkosigan frowned. Cordelia's stomach sank.

"Oh, no," said Vorkosigan whitely. "You're not going to lay that thing on me. It's grotesque. Me, of all men, to step into his father's shoes, speak to him with his father's voice, become his mother's advisor—it's worse than grotesque. It's obscene. No."

Vortala looked puzzled at his vehemence. "A little decent reticence is one thing, Aral, but let's not go overboard. If you're worried about the vote, it's already bagged. Everyone can see you're the man of the hour."

"Everyone most certainly will not. Vordarian will become my instant enemy, and so will the Minister of the West. And as for absolute power, you sir, know what a false chimera that notion is. A shaky illusion, based on—God knows what. Magic. Sleight of hand. Believing your own propaganda."

The Emperor shrugged, carefully, cautious of dislodging his tubing. "Well, it won't be my problem. It will be Prince Gregor's, and his mother's. And that of—whatever individual can be persuaded to stand by them, in their hour of need. How long do you think they could last, without help? One year? Two?"

"Six months," muttered Vortala.

Vorkosigan shook his head. "You pinned me with that 'what if' argument before Escobar. It was false then—although it took me some time to realize it—and it's false now."

"Not false," the Emperor denied. "Either then or now. I must so believe."

Vorkosigan yielded a little. "Yes. I can see that you must." His face tensed in frustration, as he contemplated the man in the bed. "Why must it be me? Vortala has more political acuity. The Princess has a better right. Quintillan has a better grasp of internal affairs. You even have better military strategists. Vorlakial. Or Kanzian."

"You can't name a third, though," murmured the Emperor.

"Well—perhaps not. But you must see my point. I am not the irreplaceable man which for some reason you choose to imagine me."

"On the contrary. You have two unique advantages, from my point of view. I have kept them in mind from the day we killed old Yuri. I always knew I wouldn't live forever—too many latent poisons in my chromosomes, absorbed when I was fighting the Cetagandans as your father's military apprentice, and careless about my clean techniques, not expecting to live to grow old." The Emperor smiled again, and focused on Cordelia's intent, uncertain face. "Of the five men with a better right by blood and law to the Imperium of Barrayar than mine, your name heads the list. Ha—" he added, "I was right. Didn't think you'd told her that. Tricky, Aral."

Cordelia, faint, turned wide grey eyes to Vorkosigan. He shook his head irritably, "Not true. Salic descent."

"A debate we shall not continue here. Be that as it may, anyone who wishes to dislodge Prince Gregor using argument based on blood and law must first either get rid of you, or offer you the Imperium. We all know how hard you are to kill. And you are the one man—the only man on that list who I am absolutely certain, by the scattered remains of Yuri Vorbarra, truly does not wish to be Emperor. Others may believe you coy. I know better."

"Thank you for that, sir." Vorkosigan looked extremely saturnine.

"As an inducement, I point out that you can be no better placed to prevent that eventuality than as Regent. Gregor is your lifeline, boy. Gregor is all that stands between you, and being targeted. Your hope of heaven."

Count Vortala turned to Cordelia. "Lady Vorkosigan. Won't you lend us your vote? You seem to have come to know him very well. Tell him he's the man for the job."

"When we came up here," said Cordelia slowly, "with this vague talk of a post, I thought I might urge him to take it up. He needs work. He's made for it. I confess I wasn't anticipating that offer." She stared at the Emperor's embroidered bedspread, caught by its intricate patterns and colors. "But I've always thought—tests are a gift. And great tests are a great gift. To fail the test is a misfortune. But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"No," said Vortala.

"Yes," said Vorkosigan.

"I've always felt that theists were more ruthless than atheists," said Ezar Vorbarra.

"If you think it's really wrong," said Cordelia to Vorkosigan, "that's one thing. Maybe that's the test. But if it's only fear of failure—you have not the right to refuse the gift for that."

"It's an impossible job."

"That happens, sometimes."

He took her aside, quietly, to the tall windows. "Cordelia—you have not the first conception of what kind of life it would be. Did you think our public men surrounded themselves with liveried retainers for decoration? If they have a moment's ease, it is at the cost of twenty men's vigilance. No separate peace permitted. Three generations of Emperors have spent themselves trying to untangle the violence in our affairs, and we're still not come to the end of it. I haven't the hubris to think I can succeed where he failed." His eyes flicked in the direction of the great bed.

Cordelia shook her head. "Failure doesn't frighten me as much as it used to. But I'll quote you a quote, if you like. 'Exile, for no other motive than ease, would be the last defeat, with no seed of future victory in it.' I thought the man who said that was on to something."

Vorkosigan turned his head, to some unfocused distance. "It's not the desire for ease I'm talking about now. It's fear. Simple, squalid terror." He smiled ruefully at her. "You know, I fancied myself quite a bravo once, until I met you and rediscovered funk. I'd forgotten what it was to have my heart in the future."

"Yeah, me too."

"I don't have to take it. I can turn it down."

"Can you?" Their eyes met.

"It's not the life you were anticipating, when you left Beta Colony."

"I didn't come for a life. I came for you. Do you want it?"

He laughed, shakily. "God, what a question. It's the chance of a lifetime. Yes. I want it. But it's poison, Cordelia. Power is a bad drug. Look what it did to him. He was sane too, once, and happy. I think I could turn down almost any other offer without a blink."

Vortala leaned on his stick ostentatiously, and called across the room, "Make up your mind, Aral. My legs are beginning to ache. But for your delicacy—it's a job any number of men I know would kill for. And you're getting it offered free and clear."

Only Cordelia and the Emperor knew why Vorkosigan barked a short laugh at this. He sighed, gazed at his master, and nodded.

"Well, old man. I thought you might find a way to rule from your grave."

"Yes. I propose to haunt you continually." A little silence fell while the Emperor digested his victory. "You'll need to start assembling your personal staff immediately. I'm willing Captain Negri to my grandson and the Princess, for Security. But I thought perhaps you might like to have Commander Illyan, for yourself."

"Yes. I think he and I might deal very well together." A pleasant thought seemed to strike a light in Vorkosigan's dark face. "And I know just the man for the job of personal secretary. He'll need a promotion for it—a lieutenancy."

"Vortala will take care of it for you." The Emperor lay back wearily, and cleared his throat of phlegm again, lips leaden. "Take care of it all. I suppose you'd better send that doctor back in." He waved them out with a tired twitch of one hand.

* * *

Vorkosigan and Cordelia emerged from the Imperial Residence into the warm air of the late summer evening, soft and grey with humidity from the nearby river. They were trailed by their new bodyguards, trim in the familiar black uniforms. There had been a lengthy conference with Vortala, Negri, and Illyan. Cordelia's head swam with the number and detail of subjects covered. Vorkosigan, she'd noticed enviously, seemed to have no trouble keeping up; indeed, he'd set the pace.

His face seemed focused, more electric than she'd seen it since she'd come to Barrayar, filled with an eager tension. He's alive again, she thought. Looking out, not in; forward, not back. Like when I first met him. I'm glad. Whatever the risks.

Vorkosigan snapped his fingers and said "Tabs," out loud, cryptically. "First stop Vorkosigan House."

They had driven past the Count's official residence on their last trip to Vorbarr Sultana, but this was the first time Cordelia had been in it. Vorkosigan took the wide circular staircase two steps at a time to his own room. It was a large chamber, simply furnished, overlooking the back garden. It had the same feel as Cordelia's own room in her mother's apartment, of frequent and prolonged disoccupation, with archeological layers of past passions stuffed into drawers and closets.

Not surprisingly, there was evidence of interest in all kinds of strategy games, and civil and military history. More surprising was a portfolio of yellowing pen-and-ink drawings, run across as he sorted through a drawer full of medals, mementos, and pure junk.

"Did you do these?" Cordelia asked curiously. "They're pretty good."

"When I was a teenager," he explained, still sorting. "Some later. I gave it up in my twenties. Too busy."

His medal and campaign ribbon collection showed a peculiar history. The early, lesser ones were carefully arranged and displayed on velvet-covered cards, with notes attached. The later, greater ones were piled haphazardly in a jar. One, which Cordelia recognized as a high Barrayaran award for valor, was shoved loose in the back of the drawer, its ribbon crumpled and tangled.

She sat on his bed and sorted through the portfolio. They were mostly meticulous architectural studies, but also a few figure studies and portraits done in a less certain style. There were several of a striking young woman with short dark curls, both clothed and nude, and Cordelia realized with a shock from the notes on them that she was looking at Vorkosigan's first wife. She had seen no other pictures of her anywhere in his things. There were also three studies of a laughing young man labeled "Ges" that seemed hauntingly familiar. She mentally added forty pounds and twenty years to him, and the room seemed to tilt as she recognized Admiral Vorrutyer. She closed the portfolio back up quietly.

Vorkosigan finally found what he was looking for; a couple of sets of old red lieutenant's tabs. "Good. It was quicker than going by headquarters."

* * *

At the Imperial Military Hospital they were stopped by a male nurse. "Sir? Visiting hours are over, sir."

"Did no one call from headquarters? Where's that surgeon?"

Koudelka's surgeon, the man who had worked on, or over, him with the hand tractor during Cordelia's first visit, was routed out at last.

"Admiral Vorkosigan, sir. No, of course visiting hours don't apply to him. Thank you, corpsman, dismissed."

"I'm not visiting this time, Doctor. Official business. I mean to relieve you of your patient tonight, if it's physically possible. Koudelka's been reassigned."

"Reassigned? He was to be discharged in a week! Reassigned to what? Hasn't anybody read my reports? He can barely walk."

"He won't need to. His new assignment is all desk work. I trust you have his hands working?"

"Pretty well."

"Any medical work left to be done?"

"Nothing important. A few last tests. I was just holding him to the end of the month, so he would have completed his fourth year. Thought it would help his pension a bit, such as it is."

Vorkosigan sorted through the papers and disks, and handed the pertinent ones to the doctor. "Here. Cram this in your computer and get his release signed. Come on, Cordelia, let's go surprise him." He looked happier than he had all day.

They entered Koudelka's room to find him still dressed for the day in black fatigues, struggling with a therapeutic hand coordination exercise and cursing under his breath.

"Hello, sir," he greeted Vorkosigan absently. "The trouble with this damn tin-foil nervous system is that you can't teach it anything. Practice only helps the organic parts. I swear some days I could beat my head on the wall." He gave up the exercise with a sigh.

"Don't do that. You're going to need it in the days to come."

"I suppose so. It was never my best part, though." He stared, abstracted and downcast, at the board, then remembered to be cheerful for his commander. Looking up, he noticed the time. "What are you doing here at this hour, sir?"

"Business. Just what are your plans for the next few weeks, Ensign?"

"Well, they're discharging me next week, you know. I'll go home for a while. Then start looking for work, I guess. I don't know what kind."

"Too bad," said Vorkosigan, keeping his face straight. "I hate to make you alter your plans, Lieutenant Koudelka, but you've been reassigned." And laid on his bedside tray, in order, like a fine hand of cards, Koudelka's newly cut orders, his promotion, and a pair of red collar tabs.

Cordelia had never enjoyed Koudelka's expressive face more. It was a study in bewilderment and rising hope. He picked up the orders carefully and read them through.

"Oh, sir! I know this isn't a joke, but it's got to be a mistake! Personal secretary to the Regent-elect—I don't know anything about the work. It's an impossible job."

"Do you know, that's almost exactly what the Regent-elect said about his job, when he was first offered it," said Cordelia. "I guess you'll both have to learn them together."

"How did he come to pick me? Did you recommend me, sir? Come to think of it . . ." He turned the orders over, reading them through again, "who is the Regent going to be, anyway?" He raised his eyes to Vorkosigan, and made the connection at last. "My God," he whispered. He did not, as Cordelia thought he might, grin and congratulate, but instead looked quite serious. "It's—a hell of a job, sir. But I think the government's finally done something right. I'd be proud to serve you again. Thank you."

Vorkosigan nodded, in agreement and acceptance.

Koudelka did grin, when he picked up the promotion order. "Thanks for this, too, sir."

"Don't thank me too soon. I intend to sweat blood out of you in return."

Koudelka's grin widened. "Nothing new about that." He fumbled clumsily with the collar tabs.

"May I do that, Lieutenant?" asked Cordelia. He looked up defensively. "For my pleasure," she added.

"It would be an honor, Milady."

Cordelia fastened them to his collar straightly, with the greatest care, and stepped back to admire her work. "Congratulations, Lieutenant."

"You can get shiny new ones tomorrow," Vorkosigan said. "But I thought these would do for tonight. I'm springing you out of here now. We'll put you up at the Count my father's Residence tonight, because work starts tomorrow at dawn."

Koudelka fingered the red rectangles. "Were they yours, sir?"

"Once. I hope they don't bring you my luck, which was always vile, but—wear them in good health."

Koudelka gave him a nod, and a smile. He clearly found Vorkosigan's gesture profoundly meaningful, exceeding his capacity for words. But the two men understood each other perfectly well without them. "Don't think I want new ones, sir. People would just think I'd been an ensign yesterday."

* * *

Later, lying warm in the darkness in Vorkosigan's room in the Count's town house, Cordelia remembered a curiosity. "What did you say to the Emperor, about me?"

He stirred beside her, and pulled the sheet tenderly up over her bare shoulder, tenting them together. "Hm? Oh, that." He hesitated. "Ezar had been questioning me about you, in our argument about Escobar. Implied that you had affected my nerve, for the worse. I didn't know then if I'd ever see you again. He wanted to know what I saw in you. I told him . . ." he paused again, and then continued almost shyly, "that you poured out honor like a fountain, all around you."

"That's weird. I don't feel full of honor, or anything else, except maybe confusion."

"Naturally not. Fountains keep nothing for themselves."




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