Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold



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Aftermaths


The shattered ship hung in space, a black bulk in the darkness. It still turned, imperceptibly slowly; one edge eclipsed and swallowed the bright point of a star. The lights of the salvage crew arced over the skeleton. Ants, ripping up a dead moth, Ferrell thought. Scavengers . . .

He sighed dismay into his forward observation screen, and pictured the ship as it had been, scant weeks before. The wreckage untwisted in his mind—a cruiser, alive with patterns of gaudy lights that always made him think of a party seen across night waters. Responsive as a mirror to the mind under its Pilot's headset, where man and machine penetrated the interface and became one. Swift, gleaming, functional . . . no more. He glanced to his right, and cleared his throat self-consciously.

"Well, Medtech," he spoke to the woman who stood beside his station, staring into the screen as silently and long as he had. "There's our starting point. Might as well go ahead and begin the pattern sweep now, I suppose.

"Yes, please do, Pilot Officer." She had a gravelly alto voice, suitable for her age, which Ferrell judged to be about forty-five. The collection of thin silver five-year service chevrons on her left sleeve made an impressive glitter against the dark red uniform of the Escobaran military medical service. Dark hair shot with grey, cut short for ease of maintenance, not style; a matronly heaviness to her hips. A veteran, it appeared. Ferrell's sleeve had yet to sprout even his first-year stripe, and his hips, and the rest of his body, still maintained an unfilled adolescent stringiness.

But she was only a tech, he reminded himself, not even a physician. He was a full-fledged Pilot Officer. His neurological implants and biofeedback training were all complete. He was certified, licensed, and graduated—just three frustrating days too late to participate in what was now being dubbed the 120 Day War. Although in fact it had only been 118 days and part of an hour between the time the spearhead of the Barrayaran invasion fleet penetrated Escobaran local space, and the time the last survivors fled the counterattack, piling through the wormhole exit for home as though scuttling for a burrow.

"Do you wish to stand by?" he asked her.

She shook her head. "Not yet. This inner area has been pretty well worked over in the last three weeks. I wouldn't expect to find anything on the first four turns, although it's good to be thorough. I've a few things to arrange yet in my work area, and then I think I'll get a catnap. My department has been awfully busy the last few months," she added apologetically. "Understaffed, you know. Please call me if you do spot anything, though—I prefer to handle the tractor myself, whenever possible."

"Fine by me." He swung about in his chair to his comconsole. "What minimum mass do you want a bleep for? About forty kilos, say?"

"One kilo is the standard I prefer."

"One kilo!" He stared. "Are you joking?"

"Joking?" She stared back, then seemed to arrive at enlightenment. "Oh, I see. You were thinking in terms of whole—I can make positive identification with quite small pieces, you see. I wouldn't even mind picking up smaller bits than that, but if you go much under a kilo you spend too much time on false alarms from micrometeors and other rubbish. One kilo seems to be the best practical compromise."

"Bleh." But he obediently set his probes for a mass of one kilo, minimum, and finished programming the search sweep.

She gave him a brief nod and withdrew from the closet-sized Navigation and Control Room. The obsolete courier ship had been pulled from junkyard orbit and hastily overhauled with some notion first of converting it into a personnel carrier for middle brass—top brass in a hurry having a monopoly on the new ships—but like Ferrell himself, it had graduated too late to participate. So they both had been re-routed together, he and his first command, to the dull duties he privately thought on a par with sanitation engineering, or worse.

He gazed one last moment at the relic of battle in the forward screen, its structural girdering poking up like bones through sloughing skin, and shook his head at the waste of it all. Then, with a little sigh of pleasure, he pulled his headset down into contact with the silvery circles on his temples and midforehead, closed his eyes, and slid into control of his own ship.

Space seemed to spread itself all around him, buoyant as a sea. He was the ship, he was a fish, he was a merman; unbreathing, limitless, and without pain. He fired his engines as though flame leapt from his fingertips, and began the slow rolling spiral of the search pattern.

* * *

"Medtech Boni?" he keyed the intercom to her cabin. "I believe I have something for you here."

She rubbed sleep from her face, framed in the intercom screen. "Already? What time—oh. I must have been tireder than I realized. I'll be right up, Pilot Officer."

Ferrell stretched, and began an automatic series of isometrics in his chair. It had been a long and uneventful watch. He would have been hungry, but what he contemplated now through the viewscreens subdued his appetite.

Boni appeared promptly, and slid into the seat beside him. "Oh, quite right, Pilot Officer." She unshipped the controls to the exterior tractor beam, and flexed her fingers before taking a delicate hold.

"Yeah, there wasn't much doubt about that one," he agreed, leaning back and watching her work. "Why so tender with the tractors?" he asked curiously, noting the low power level she was using.

"Well, they're frozen right through, you know," she replied, not taking her eyes from her readouts. "Brittle. If you play hotshot and bang them around, they can shatter. Let's stop that nasty spin, first," she added, half to herself. "A slow spin is all right. Seemly. But that fast spinning you get sometimes—it must be very unrestful for them, don't you think?"

His attention was pulled from the thing in the screen, and he stared at her. "They're dead, lady!"

She smiled slowly as the corpse, bloated from decompression, limbs twisted as though frozen in a strobe-flash of convulsion, was drawn gently toward the cargo bay. "Well, that's not their fault, is it?—one of our fellows, I see by the uniform."

"Bleh!" he repeated himself, then gave vent to an embarrassed laugh. "You act like you enjoy it."

"Enjoy? No . . . But I've been in Personnel Retrieval and Identification for nine years, now. I don't mind. And of course, vacuum work is always a little nicer than planetary work."

"Nicer? With that godawful decompression?"

"Yes, but there are the temperature effects to consider. No decomposition."

He took a breath, and let it out carefully. "I see. I guess you would get—pretty hardened, after a while. Is it true you guys call them corpse-sicles?"

"Some do," she admitted. "I don't."

She maneuvered the twisted thing carefully through the cargo bay doors and keyed them shut. "Temperature set for a slow thaw and he'll be ready to handle in a few hours," she murmured.

"What do you call them?" he asked as she rose.

"People."

She awarded his bewilderment a small smile, like a salute, and withdrew to the temporary mortuary set up next to the cargo bay.

* * *

On his next scheduled break he went down himself, drawn by morbid curiosity. He poked his nose around the doorframe. She was seated at her desk. The table in the center of the room was yet unoccupied.

"Uh—hello."

She looked up with her quick smile. "Hello, Pilot Officer. Come on in."

"Uh, thank you. You know, you don't really have to be so formal. Call me Falco, if you want," he said, entering.

"Certainly, if you wish. My first name is Tersa."

"Oh, yeah? I have a cousin named Tersa."

"It's a popular name. There were always at least three in my classes at school." She rose, and checked a gauge by the door to the cargo bay. "He should be just about ready to take care of, now. Pulled to shore, so to speak."

Ferrell sniffed, and cleared his throat, wondering whether to stay or excuse himself. "Grotesque sort of fishing." Excuse myself, I think.

She picked up the control lead to the float pallet, and trailed it after her into the cargo bay. There were some thumping noises, and she returned, the pallet drifting behind her. The corpse was in the dark blue of a deck officer, and covered thickly with frost, which flaked and dripped upon the floor as the medtech slid it onto the examining table. Ferrell shivered with disgust.

Definitely excuse myself. But he lingered, leaning against the doorframe at a safe distance.

She pulled an instrument, trailing its lead to the computers, from the crowded rack above the table. It was the size of a pencil, and emitted a thin blue beam of light when aligned with the corpse's eyes.

"Retinal identification," Tersa explained. She pulled down a pad-like object, similarly connected, and pressed it to each of the monstrosity's hands. "And fingerprints," she went on. "I always do both, and cross-match. The eyes can get awfully distorted. Errors in identification can be brutal for the families. Hm. Hm." She checked her readout screen. "Lieutenant Marco Deleo. Age twenty-nine. Well, Lieutenant," she went on chattily, "let's see what I can do for you."

She applied an instrument to its joints, which loosened them, and began removing its clothes.

"Do you often talk to—them?" inquired Ferrell, unnerved.

"Always. It's a courtesy, you see. Some of the things I have to do for them are rather undignified, but they can still be done with courtesy."

Ferrell shook his head. "I think it's obscene, myself."

"Obscene?"

"All this horsing around with dead bodies. All the trouble and expense we go to collecting them. I mean, what do they care? Fifty or a hundred kilos of rotting meat. It'd be cleaner to leave them in space."

She shrugged, unoffended, undiverted from her task. She folded the clothes and inventoried the pockets, laying out their contents in a row.

"I rather like going through the pockets," she remarked. "It reminds me of when I was a little girl, visiting in someone else's home. When I went upstairs by myself, to go to the bathroom or whatever, it was always a kind of pleasure to peek into the other rooms, and see what kind of things they had, and how they kept them. If they were very neat, I was always very impressed—I've never been able to keep my own things neat. If it was a mess, I felt I'd found a secret kindred spirit. A person's things can be a kind of exterior morphology of their mind—like a snail's shell, or something. I like to imagine what kind of person they were, from what's in the pockets. Neat, or messy. Very regulation, or full of personal things . . . Take Lieutenant Deleo, here. He must have been very conscientious. Everything regulation, except this little vid disc from home. From his wife, I'd imagine. I think he must have been a very nice person to know."

She placed the collection of objects carefully into its labeled bag.

"Aren't you going to listen to it?" asked Ferrell.

"Oh, no. That would be prying."

He barked a laugh. "I fail to see the distinction."

"Ah." She completed the medical examination, readied the plastic body bag, and began to wash the corpse. When she worked her way down to the careful cleaning around the genital area, necessary because of sphincter relaxation, Ferrell fled at last.

That woman is nuts, he thought. I wonder if it's the cause of her choice of work, or the effect?

* * *

It was another full day before they hooked their next fish. Ferrell had a dream, during his sleep cycle, about being on a deep-sea boat, and hauling up nets full of corpses to be dumped, wet and shining as though with iridescent scales, in a huge pile in the hold. He awoke from it sweating, but with very cold feet. It was with profound relief that he returned to the pilot's station, and slid into the skin of his ship. The ship was clean, mechanical and pure, immortal as a god; one could forget one had ever owned a sphincter muscle.

"Odd trajectory," he remarked, as the medtech again took her place at the tractor controls.

"Yes . . . Oh, I see. He's a Barrayaran. He's a long way from home."

"Oh, bleh. Throw him back."

"Oh, no. We have identification files for all their missing. Part of the peace settlement, you know, along with prisoner exchange."

"Considering what they did to our people as prisoners, I don't think we owe them a thing."

She shrugged.

* * *

The Barrayaran officer had been a tall, broad-shouldered man, a commander by the rank on his collar tabs. The medtech treated him with the same care she had expended on Lieutenant Deleo, and more. She went to considerable trouble to smooth and straighten him, and massage the mottled face back into some semblance of manhood with her fingertips, a process Ferrell watched with a rising gorge.

"I wish his lips wouldn't curl back quite so much," she remarked, while at this task. "Gives him what I imagine to be an uncharacteristically snarly look. I think he must have been rather handsome."

One of the objects in his pockets was a little locket. It held a tiny glass bubble filled with a clear liquid. The inside of its gold cover was densely engraved with the elaborate curlicues of the Barrayaran alphabet.

"What is it?" asked Ferrell curiously.

She held it pensively to the light. "It's a sort of charm, or memento. I've learned a lot about the Barrayarans in the last three months. Turn ten of them upside down and you'll find some kind of good luck charm or amulet or medallion or something in the pockets of nine of them. The high-ranking officers are just as bad as the enlisted people."

"Silly superstition."

"I'm not sure if it's superstition or just custom. We treated an injured prisoner once—he claimed it was just custom. People gave them to the soldiers as presents, and that nobody really believes in them. But when we took his away from him, when we were undressing him for surgery, he tried to fight us for it. It took three of us to hold him down for the anesthetic. I thought it a rather remarkable performance for a man whose legs had been blown away. He wept. . . . Of course, he was in shock."

Ferrell dangled the locket on the end of its short chain, intrigued in spite of himself. It hung with a companion piece, a curl of hair embedded in a plastic pendant.

"Some sort of holy water, is it?" he inquired.

"Almost. It's a very common design. It's called a mother's tears charm. Let me see if I can make out—he's had it a while, it seems. From the inscription—I think that says 'ensign,' and the date—it must have been given him on the occasion of his commission."

"It's not really his mother's tears, is it?"

"Oh, yes. That's what's supposed to make it work, as a protection."

"Doesn't seem to be very effective."

"No, well . . . no."

Ferrell snorted ironically. "I hate those guys—but I do guess I feel sort of sorry for his mother."

Boni retrieved the chain and its pendants, holding the curl in plastic to the light and reading its inscription. "No, not at all. She's a fortunate woman."

"How so?"

"This is her death lock. She died three years ago, by this."

"Is that supposed to be lucky, too?"

"No, not necessarily. Just a remembrance, as far as I know. Kind of a nice one, really. The nastiest charm I ever ran across, and the most unique, was this little leather bag hung around a fellow's neck. It was filled with dirt and leaves, and what I took at first to be some sort of little frog-like animal skeleton, about ten centimeters long. But when I looked at it more closely, it turned out to be the skeleton of a human fetus. Very strange. I suppose it was some sort of black magic. Seemed an odd thing to find on an engineering officer."

"Doesn't seem to work for any of them, does it?"

She smiled wryly. "Well, if there are any that work, I wouldn't see them, would I?"

She took the processing one step further, by cleaning the Barrayaran's clothes and carefully re-dressing him, before bagging him and returning him to the freeze.

"The Barrayarans are all so army-mad," she explained. "I always like to put them back in their uniforms. They mean so much to them, I'm sure they're more comfortable with them on."

Ferrell frowned uneasily. "I still think he ought to be dumped with the rest of the garbage."

"Not at all," said the medtech. "Think of all the work he represents on somebody's part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that's just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into making him."

She smoothed a strand of the corpse's hair into place. "That head held the universe, once. He had a good rank for his age," she added, rechecking her monitor. "Thirty-two. Commander Aristede Vorkalloner. It has a kind of nice ethnic ring. Very Barrayaranish, that name. Vor, too, one of those warrior-class fellows."

"Homicidal-class loonies. Or worse," Ferrell said automatically. But his vehemence had lost momentum, somehow.

Boni shrugged, "Well, he's joined the great democracy now. And he had nice pockets."

* * *

Three full days went by with no further alarms but a rare scattering of mechanical debris. Ferrell began to hope the Barrayaran was the last pickup they would have to make. They were nearing the end of their search pattern. Besides, he thought resentfully, this duty was sabotaging the efficiency of his sleep cycle. But the medtech made a request.

"If you don't mind, Falco," she said, "I'd greatly appreciate it if we could run the pattern out just a few extra turns. The original orders are based on this average estimated trajectory speed, you see, and if someone just happened to get a bit of extra kick when the ship split, they could well be beyond it by now."

Ferrell was less than thrilled, but the prospect of an extra day of piloting had its attractions, and he gave a grudging consent. Her reasoning proved itself; before the day was half done, they turned up another gruesome relic.

"Oh," muttered Ferrell, when they got a close look. It had been a female officer. Boni reeled her in with enormous tenderness. He didn't really want to go watch, this time, but the medtech seemed to have come to expect him.

"I—don't really want to look at a woman blown up," he tried to excuse himself.

"Mm," said Tersa. "Is it fair, though, to reject a person just because they're dead? You wouldn't have minded her body a bit when she was alive."

He laughed a little, macabrely. "Equal rights for the dead?"

Her smile twisted. "Why not? Some of my best friends are corpses."

He snorted.

She grew more serious. "I'd—sort of like the company, on this one." So he took up his usual station by the door.

The medtech laid out the thing that had been a woman upon her table, undressed, inventoried, washed, and straightened it. When she finished, she kissed the dead lips.

"Oh, God," cried Ferrell, shocked and nauseated. "You are crazy! You're a damn, damn necrophiliac! A lesbian necrophiliac, at that!" He turned to go.

"Is that what it looks like, to you?" Her voice was soft, and still unoffended. It stopped him, and he looked over his shoulder. She was looking at him as gently as if he had been one of her precious corpses. "What a strange world you must live in, inside your head."

She opened a suitcase, and shook out a dress, fine underwear, and a pair of white embroidered slippers. A wedding dress, Ferrell realized. This woman is a bona fide psychopath. . . .

She dressed the corpse, and arranged its soft dark hair with great delicacy, before bagging it.

"I believe I shall place her next to that nice tall Barrayaran," she said. "I think they would have liked each other very well, if they could have met in another place and time. And Lieutenant Deleo was married, after all."

She completed the label. Ferrell's battered mind was sending him little subliminal messages; he struggled to overcome his shock and bemusement, and pay attention. It tumbled into the open day of his consciousness with a start.

She had not run an identification check on this one.

Out the door, he told himself, is the way you want to walk. I guarantee it. Instead, timorously, he went over to the corpse and checked its label.

Ensign Sylva Boni, it said. Age twenty. His own age . . .

He was trembling, as if with cold. It was cold, in that room. Tersa Boni finished packing up the suitcase, and turned back with the float pallet.

"Daughter?" he asked. It was all he could ask.

She pursed her lips, and nodded.

"It's—a helluva coincidence."

"No coincidence at all. I asked for this sector."

"Oh." He swallowed, turned away, turned back, face flaming. "I'm sorry I said—"

She smiled her slow sad smile. "Never mind."

* * *

They found yet one more bit of mechanical debris, so agreed to run another cycle of the search spiral, to be sure that all possible trajectories had been outdistanced. And yes, they found another; a nasty one, spinning fiercely, guts split open from some great blow and hanging out in a frozen cascade.

The acolyte of death did her dirty work without once so much as wrinkling her nose. When it came to the washing, the least technical of the tasks, Ferrell said suddenly, "May I help?"

"Certainly," said the medtech, moving aside. "An honor is not diminished for being shared."

And so he did, as shy as an apprentice saint washing his first leper.

"Don't be afraid," she said. "The dead cannot hurt you. They give you no pain, except that of seeing your own death in their faces. And one can face that, I find."

Yes, he thought, the good face pain. But the great—they embrace it.

Barrayar


For Anne and Paul

Chapter One


I am afraid. Cordelia's hand pushed aside the drape in the third-floor parlor window of Vorkosigan House. She stared down into the sunlit street below. A long silver groundcar was pulling into the half-circular drive that serviced the front portico, braking past the spiked iron fence and the Earth-imported shrubbery. A government car. The door of the rear passenger compartment swung up, and a man in a green uniform emerged. Despite her foreshortened view Cordelia recognized Commander Illyan, brown-haired and hatless as usual. He strode out of sight under the portico. Guess I don't really need to worry till Imperial Security comes for us in the middle of the night. But a residue of dread remained, burrowed in her belly. Why did I ever come here to Barrayar? What have I done to myself, to my life?

Booted footsteps sounded in the corridor, and the door of the parlor creaked inward. Sergeant Bothari stuck his head in, and grunted with satisfaction at finding her. "Milady. Time to go."

"Thank you, Sergeant." She let the drape fall, and turned to inspect herself one last time in a wall-mounted mirror above the archaic fireplace. Hard to believe people here still burned vegetable matter just for the release of its chemically-bound heat.

She lifted her chin, above the stiff white lace collar of her blouse, adjusted the sleeves of her tan jacket, and kicked her knee absently against the long swirling skirt of a Vor-class woman, tan to match the jacket. The color comforted her, almost the same tan as her old Betan Astronomical Survey fatigues. She ran her hands over her red hair, parted in the middle and held away from her face by two enameled combs, and flopped it over her shoulders to curl loosely halfway down her back. Her grey eyes stared back at her from the pale face in the mirror. Nose a little too bony, chin a shade too long, but certainly a servicable face, good for all practical purposes.

Well, if she wanted to look dainty, all she had to do was stand next to Sergeant Bothari. He loomed mournfully beside her, all two meters of him. Cordelia considered herself a tall woman, but the top of her head was only level with his shoulder. He had a gargoyle's face, closed, wary, beak-nosed, its lumpiness exaggerated to criminality by his military-burr haircut. Even Count Vorkosigan's elegant livery, dark brown with the symbols of the house embroidered in silver, failed to save Bothari from his astonishing ugliness. But a very good face indeed, for practical purposes.

A liveried retainer. What a concept. What did he retain? Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors, for starters. She nodded cordially to him, in the mirror, and about-faced to follow him through the warren of Vorkosigan House.

She must learn her way around this great pile of a residence as soon as possible. Embarrassing, to be lost in one's own home, and have to ask some passing guard or servant to de-tangle one. In the middle of the night, wearing only a towel. I used to be a jumpship navigator. Really. If she could handle five dimensions upside, surely she ought to be able to manage a mere three downside.

They came to the head of a large circular staircase, curving gracefully down three flights to a black-and-white stone-paved foyer. Her light steps followed Bothari's measured tread. Her skirts made her feel she was floating, parachuting inexorably down the spiral.

A tall young man, leaning on a cane at the foot of the stairs, looked up at the echo of their feet. Lieutenant Koudelka's face was as regular and pleasant as Bothari's was narrow and strange, and he smiled openly at Cordelia. Even the pain lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth failed to age that face. He wore Imperial undress greens, identical but for the insignia to Security Commander Illyan's. The long sleeves and high neck of his jacket concealed the tracery of thin red scars that netted half his body, but Cordelia mapped them in her mind's eye. Nude, Koudelka could pose as a visual aid for a lecture on the structure of the human nervous system, each scar representing a dead nerve excised and replaced with artificial silver threads. Lieutenant Koudelka was not quite used to his new nervous system yet. Speak truth. The surgeons here are ignorant clumsy butchers. The work was certainly not up to Betan standards. Cordelia permitted no hint of this private judgment to escape onto her face.

Koudelka turned jerkily, and nodded to Bothari. "Hello, Sergeant. Good morning, Lady Vorkosigan."

Her new name still seemed strange in her ear, ill-fitting. She smiled back. "Good morning, Kou. Where's Aral?"

"He and Commander Illyan went into the library, to check out where the new secured comconsole will be installed. They should be right along. Ah." He nodded, as footsteps sounded through an archway. Cordelia followed his gaze. Illyan, slight and bland and polite, flanked—was eclipsed by—a man in his mid-forties resplendent in Imperial dress greens. The reason she'd come to Barrayar.

Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan, retired. Formerly retired, till yesterday. Their lives had surely been turned upside down, yesterday. We'll land on our feet somehow, you bet. Vorkosigan's body was stocky and powerful, his dark hair salted with grey. His heavy jaw was marred by an old L-shaped scar. He moved with compressed energy, his grey eyes intense and inward, until they lighted on Cordelia.

"I give you good morrow, my lady," he sang out to her, reaching for her hand. The syntax was self-conscious but the sentiment naked-sincere in his mirror-bright eyes. In those mirrors, I am altogether beautiful, Cordelia realized warmly. Much more flattering than that one on the wall upstairs. I shall use them to see myself from now on. His thick hand was dry and hot, welcome heat, live heat, closing around her cool tapering fingers. My husband. That fit, as smoothly and tightly as her hand fit in his, even though her new name, Lady Vorkosigan, still seemed to slither off her shoulders.

She watched Bothari, Koudelka, and Vorkosigan standing together for that brief moment. The walking wounded, one, two, three. And me, the lady auxiliary. The survivors. Kou in body, Bothari in mind, Vorkosigan in spirit, all had taken near-mortal wounds in the late war at Escobar. Life goes on. March or die. Do we all begin to recover at last? She hoped so.

"Ready to go, dear Captain?" Vorkosigan asked her. His voice was a baritone, his Barrayaran accent guttural-warm.

"Ready as I'll ever be, I guess."

Illyan and Lieutenant Koudelka led the way out. Koudelka's walk was a loose-kneed shamble beside Illyan's brisk march, and Cordelia frowned doubtfully. She took Vorkosigan's arm, and they followed, leaving Bothari to his Household duties.

"What's the timetable for the next few days?" she asked.

"Well, this audience first, of course," Vorkosigan replied. "After which I see men. Count Vortala will be choreographing that. In a few days comes the vote of consent from the full Councils Assembled, and my swearing-in. We haven't had a Regent in a hundred and twenty years, God knows what protocol they'll dig out and dust off."

Koudelka sat in the front compartment of the groundcar with the uniformed driver. Commander Illyan slid in opposite Cordelia and Vorkosigan, facing rearward, in the back compartment. This car is armored, Cordelia realized from the thickness of the transparent canopy as it closed over them. At a signal from Illyan to the driver, they pulled away smoothly into the street. Almost no sound penetrated from the outside.

"Regent-consort," Cordelia tasted the phrase. "Is that my official title?"

"Yes, Milady," said Illyan.

"Does it have any official duties to go with it?"

Illyan looked to Vorkosigan, who said, "Hm. Yes and no. There will be a lot of ceremonies to attend—grace, in your case. Beginning with the emperor's funeral, which will be grueling for all concerned—except, perhaps, for Emperor Ezar. All that waits on his last breath. I don't know if he has a timetable for that, but I wouldn't put it past him.

"The social side of your duties can be as much as you wish. Speeches and ceremonies, important weddings and name-days and funerals, greeting deputations from the Districts—public relations, in short. The sort of thing Princess-dowager Kareen does with such flair." Vorkosigan paused, taking in her appalled look, and added hastily, "Or, if you choose, you can live a completely private life. You have the perfect excuse to do so right now—" his hand, around her waist, secretly caressed her still-flat belly, "—and in fact I'd rather you didn't spend yourself too freely.

"More importantly, on the political side . . . I'd like it very much if you could be my liaison with the Princess-dowager, and the . . . child emperor. Make friends with her, if you can; she's an extremely reserved woman. The boy's upbringing is vital. We must not repeat Ezar Vorbarra's mistakes."

"I can give it a try," she sighed. "I can see it's going to be quite a job, passing for a Barrayaran Vor."

"Don't bend yourself painfully. I shouldn't like to see you so constricted. Besides, there's another angle."

"Why doesn't that surprise me? Go ahead."

He paused, choosing his words. "When the late Crown Prince Serg called Count Vortala a phoney progressive, it wasn't altogether nonsense. Insults that sting always have some truth in them. Count Vortala has been trying to form his progressive party in the upper classes only. Among the people who matter, as he would say. You see the little discontinuity in his thinking?"

"About the size of Hogarth Canyon back home? Yes."

"You are a Betan, a woman of galactic-wide reputation."

"Oh, come on now."

"You are seen so here. I don't think you quite realize how you are perceived. Very flattering for me, as it happens."

"I hoped I was invisible. But I shouldn't think I'd be too popular, after what we did to your side at Escobar."

"It's our culture. My people will forgive a brave soldier almost anything. And you, in your person, unite two of the opposing factions—the aristocratic military, and the pro-galactic plebians. I really think I could pull the whole middle out of the People's Defense League through you, if you're willing to play my cards for me."

"Good heavens. How long have you been thinking about this?"

"The problem, long. You as part of the solution, just today."

"What, casting me as figurehead for some sort of constitutional party?"

"No, no. That is just the sort of thing I will be sworn, on my honor, to prevent. It would not fulfill the spirit of my oath to hand over to Prince Gregor an emperorship gutted of power. What I want . . . what I want is to find some way of pulling the best men, from every class and language group and party, into the Emperor's service. The Vor have simply too small a pool of talent. Make the government more like the military at its best, with ability promoted regardless of background. Emperor Ezar tried to do something like that, by strengthening the Ministries at the expense of the Counts, but it swung too far. The Counts are eviscerated and the Ministries are corrupt. There must be some way to strike a balance."

Cordelia sighed. "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree, about constitutions. Nobody appointed me Regent of Barrayar. I warn you, though—I'll keep trying to change your mind."

Illyan raised his brow at this. Cordelia sat back wanly, and watched the Barrayaran capital city of Vorbarr Sultana pass by through the thick canopy. She hadn't married the Regent of Barrayar, four months back. She'd married a simple retired soldier. Yes, men were supposed to change after marriage, usually for the worse, but—this much? This fast? This isn't the duty I signed up for, sir.

"That's quite a gesture of trust Emperor Ezar placed in you yesterday, appointing you Regent. I don't think he's such a ruthless pragmatist as you'd have me believe," she remarked.

"Well, it is a gesture of trust, but driven by necessity. You didn't catch the significance of Captain Negri's assignment to the Princess's household, then."

"No. Was there one?"

"Oh, yes, a very clear message. Negri is to continue right on in his old job as Chief of Imperial Security. He will not, of course, be making his reports to a four-year-old boy, but to me. Commander Illyan will in fact merely be his assistant." Vorkosigan and Illyan exchanged mildly ironic nods. "But there is no question where Negri's loyalties will lie, in case I should, um, run mad and make a bid for Imperial power in name as well as fact. He unquestionably has secret orders to dispose of me, in that event."

"Oh. Well, I guarantee I have no desire whatsoever to be Empress of Barrayar. Just in case you were wondering."

"I didn't think so."

The groundcar paused at a gate in a stone wall. Four guards inspected them thoroughly, checked Illyan's passes, and waved them through. All those guards, here, at Vorkosigan House—what did they guard against? Other Barrayarans, presumably, in the faction-fractured political landscape. A very Barrayaran phrase the old Count had used that tickled her humor now ran, disquieting, through her memory. With all this manure around, there's got to be a pony someplace. Horses were practically unknown on Beta Colony, except for a few specimens in zoos. With all these guards around . . . But if I'm not anyone's enemy, how can anyone be my enemy?

Illyan, who had been shifting in his seat, now spoke up. "I would suggest, sir," he said tentatively to Vorkosigan, "even beg, that you re-consider and take up quarters here at the Imperial Residence. Security problems—my problems," he smiled slightly, bad for his image, with his snub features it made him look puppyish, "will be very much easier to control here."

"What suite did you have in mind?" asked Vorkosigan.

"Well, when . . . Gregor succeeds, he and his mother will be moving into the Emperor's suite. Kareen's rooms will then be vacant."

"Prince Serg's, you mean." Vorkosigan looked grim. "I . . . think I would prefer to take official residence at Vorkosigan House. My father spends more and more time in the country at Vorkosigan Surleau these days, I don't think he'll mind being shifted."

"I can't really endorse that idea, sir. Strictly from a security standpoint. It's in the old part of town. The streets are warrens. There are at least three sets of old tunnels under the area, from old sewage and transport systems, and there are too many new tall buildings overlooking that have, er, commanding views. It will take at least six full-time patrols for the most cursory protection."

"Do you have the men?"

"Well, yes."

"Vorkosigan House, then." Vorkosigan consoled Illyan's disappointed look. "It may be bad security, but it's very good public relations. It will give an excellent air of, ah, soldierly humility to the new Regency. Should help reduce palace coup paranoia."

And here they were at the very palace in question. As an architectural pile, the Imperial Residence made Vorkosigan House look small. Sprawling wings rose two to four stories high, accented with sporadic towers. Additions of different ages crisscrossed each other to create both vast and intimate courts, some justly proportioned, some rather accidental-looking. The east façade was of the most uniform style, heavy with stone carving. The north side was more cut-up, interlocking with elaborate formal gardens. The west was the oldest, the south the newest construction.

The groundcar pulled up to a two-story porch on the south side, and Illyan led them past more guards and up wide stone stairs to an extensive second-floor suite. They climbed slowly, matching steps to Lieutenant Koudelka's awkward pace. Koudelka glanced up with a self-conscious apologetic frown, then bent his head again in concentration—or shame? Doesn't this place have a lift tube? Cordelia wondered irritably. On the other side of this stone labyrinth, in a room with a northern view of the gardens, a white old man lay drained and dying on his enormous ancestral bed. . . .

In the spacious upper corridor, softly carpeted and decorated with paintings and side tables cluttered with knickknacks—objets d'art, Cordelia supposed—they found Captain Negri talking in low tones with a woman who stood with her arms folded. Cordelia had met the famous, or infamous, Chief of Barrayaran Imperial Security for the first time yesterday, after Vorkosigan's historic job interview in the northern wing with the soon-to-be-late Ezar Vorbarra. Negri was a hard-faced, hard-bodied, bullet-headed man who had served his emperor, body and blood, for the better part of forty years, a sinister legend with unreadable eyes.

Now he bowed over her hand and called her "Milady" as if he meant it, or at least no more tinged with irony than any of his other statements. The alert blonde woman—girl?—wore an ordinary civilian dress. She was tall and heavily muscled, and she looked back at Cordelia with even greater interest.

Vorkosigan and Negri exchanged curt greetings in the telegraphic style of two men who had been communicating for so long all of the amenities had been compressed into some kind of tight-burst code. "And this is Miss Droushnakovi." Negri did not so much introduce as label the woman for Cordelia's benefit, with a wave of his hand.

"And what's a Droushnakovi?" asked Cordelia lightly and somewhat desperately. Everybody always seemed to get briefed around here but her, though Negri had also failed to introduce Lieutenant Koudelka; Koudelka and Droushnakovi glanced covertly at each other.

"I'm a Servant of the Inner Chamber, Milady." Droushnakovi gave her a ducking nod, half a curtsey.

"And what do you serve? Besides the chamber."

"Princess Kareen, Milady. That's just my official title. I'm listed on Captain Negri's staff budget as Bodyguard, Class One." It was hard to tell which title gave her the more pride and pleasure, but Cordelia suspected it was the latter.

"I'm sure you must be good, to be so ranked by him."

This won a smile, and a "Thank you, Milady. I try."

They all followed Negri through a nearby door to a long, sunny yellow room with lots of south-facing windows. Cordelia wondered if the eclectic mix of furnishings were priceless antiques, or merely shabby seconds. She couldn't tell. A woman waited on a yellow silk settee at the far end, watching them gravely as they trooped toward her en masse.

Princess-dowager Kareen was a thin, strained-looking woman of thirty with elaborately dressed, beautiful dark hair, though her grey gown was of a simple cut. Simple but perfect. A dark-haired boy of four or so was sprawled on the floor on his stomach muttering to his cat-sized toy stegosaurus, which muttered back. She made him get up and turn off the robot toy, and sit beside her, though his hands still clutched the leathery stuffed beast in his lap. Cordelia was relieved to see the boy prince was sensibly dressed for his age in comfortable-looking play clothes.

In formal phrases, Negri introduced Cordelia to the princess and Prince Gregor. Cordelia wasn't sure whether to bow, curtsey, or salute, and ended up ducking her head rather like Droushnakovi. Gregor, solemn, stared at her most doubtfully, and she tried to smile back in what she hoped was a reassuring way.

Vorkosigan went down on one knee in front of the boy—only Cordelia saw Aral swallow—and said, "Do you know who I am, Prince Gregor?"

Gregor shrank a little against his mother's side, and glanced up at her. She nodded encouragement. "Lord Aral Vorkosigan," Gregor said in a thin voice.

Vorkosigan gentled his tone, relaxed his hands, self-consciously trying to dampen his usual intensity. "Your grandfather has asked me to be your Regent. Has anybody explained to you what that means?"

Gregor shook his head mutely; Vorkosigan quirked a brow at Negri, a whiff of censure. Negri did not change expression.

"That means I will do your grandfather's job until you are old enough to do it yourself, when you turn twenty. The next sixteen years. I will look after you and your mother in your grandfather's place, and see that you get the education and training to do a good job, like your grandfather did. Good government."

Did the kid even know yet what a government was? Vorkosigan had been careful not to say, in your father's place, Cordelia noted dryly. Careful not to mention Crown Prince Serg at all. Serg was well on his way to being disappeared from Barrayaran history, it seemed, as thoroughly as he had been vaporized in orbital battle.

"For now," Vorkosigan continued, "your job is to study hard with your tutors and do what your mother tells you. Can you do that?"

Gregor swallowed, nodded.

"I think you can do well." Vorkosigan gave him a firm nod, identical to the ones he gave his staff officers, and rose.

I think you can do well too, Aral, Cordelia thought.

"While you are here, sir," Negri began after a short wait to be certain he wasn't stepping on some further word, "I wish you would come down to Ops. There are two or three reports I'd like to present. The latest from Darkoi seems to indicate that Count Vorlakail was dead before his Residence was burned, which throws a new light—or shadow—on that matter. And then there is the problem of revamping the Ministry of Political Education—"

"Dismantling, surely," Vorkosigan muttered.

"As may be. And, as ever, the latest sabotage from Komarr . . ."

"I get the picture. Let's go. Cordelia, ah . . ."

"Perhaps Lady Vorkosigan would care to stay and visit a while," Princess Kareen murmured on cue, with only a faint trace of irony.

Vorkosigan shot her a look of gratitude. "Thank you, Milady."

She absently stroked her fine lips with one finger, as all the men trooped out, relaxing slightly as they exited. "Good. I'd hoped to have you all to myself." Her expression grew more animated, as she regarded Cordelia. At a wordless touch, the boy slid off the bench and returned, with backward glances, to his play.

Droushnakovi frowned down the room. "What was the matter with that lieutenant?" she asked Cordelia.

"Lieutenant Koudelka was hit by nerve disruptor fire," Cordelia said stiffly, uncertain if the girl's odd tone concealed some kind of disapproval. "A year ago, when he was serving Aral aboard the General Vorkraft. The neural repairs do not seem to be quite up to galactic standard." She shut her mouth, afraid of seeming to criticize her hostess. Not that Princess Kareen was responsible for Barrayar's dubious standards of medical practice.

"Oh. Not during the Escobar war?" said Droushnakovi.

"Actually, in a weird sense, it was the opening shot of the Escobar war. Though I suppose you would call it friendly fire." Mind-boggling oxymoron, that phrase.

"Lady Vorkosigan—or should I say, Captain Naismith—was there," remarked Princess Kareen. "She should know."

Cordelia found her expression hard to read. How many of Negri's famous reports was the princess privy to?

"How terrible for him! He looks as though he had been very athletic," said the bodyguard.

"He was." Cordelia smiled more favorably at the girl, relaxing her defensive hackles. "Nerve disruptors are filthy weapons, in my opinion." She scrubbed absently at the sense-dead spot on her thigh, disruptor-burned by no more than the nimbus of a blast that had fortunately not penetrated subcutaneous fat to damage muscle function. Clearly, she should have had it fixed before she'd left home.

"Sit, Lady Vorkosigan." Princess Kareen patted the settee beside her, just vacated by the emperor-to-be. "Drou, will you please take Gregor to his lunch?"

Droushnakovi nodded understandingly, as if she had received some coded underlayer to this simple request, gathered up the boy, and walked out hand in hand with him. His child-voice drifted back, "Droushie, can I have a cream cake? And one for Steggie?"

Cordelia sat gingerly, thinking about Negri's reports, and Barrayaran disinformation about their recent aborted campaign to invade the planet Escobar. Escobar, Beta Colony's good neighbor and ally . . . the weapons that had disintegrated Crown Prince Serg and his ship high above Escobar had been bravely convoyed through the Barrayaran blockade by one Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Expeditionary Force. That much truth was plain and public and not to be apologized for. It was the secret history, behind the scenes in the Barrayaran high command, that was so . . . treacherous, Cordelia decided, was the precise word. Dangerous, like ill-stored toxic waste.

To Cordelia's astonishment, Princess Kareen leaned over, took her right hand, lifted it to her lips, and kissed it hard.

"I swore," said Kareen thickly, "that I would kiss the hand that slew Ges Vorrutyer. Thank you. Thank you." Her voice was breathy, earnest, tear-caught, grateful emotion naked in her face. She sat up, her face growing reserved again, and nodded. "Thank you. Bless you."

"Uh . . ." Cordelia rubbed at the kissed spot. "Um . . . I . . . this honor belongs to another, Milady. I was present, when Admiral Vorrutyer's throat was cut, but it was not by my hand."

Kareen's hands clenched in her lap, and her eyes glowed. "Then it was Lord Vorkosigan!"

"No!" Cordelia's lips compressed in exasperation. "Negri should have given you the true report. It was Sergeant Bothari. Saved my life, at the time."

"Bothari?" Kareen sat bolt upright in astonishment. "Bothari the monster, Bothari, Vorrutyer's mad batman?"

"I don't mind getting blamed in his place, ma'am, because if it had become public they'd have been forced to execute him for murder and mutiny, and this gets him off and out. But I . . . but I should not steal his praise. I'll pass it on to him if you wish, but I'm not sure he remembers the incident. He went through some draconian mind-therapy after the war, before they discharged him—what you Barrayarans call therapy"—on a par with their neurosurgery, Cordelia feared, "and I gather he wasn't exactly, uh, normal before that, either."

"No," said Kareen. "He was not. I thought he was Vorrutyer's creature."

"He chose . . . he chose to be otherwise. I think it was the most heroic act I've ever witnessed. Out of the middle of that swamp of evil and insanity, to reach for . . ." Cordelia trailed off, embarrassed to say, reach for redemption. After a pause she asked, "Do you blame Admiral Vorrutyer for Prince Serg's, uh, corruption?" As long as they were clearing the air . . . Nobody mentions Prince Serg. He thought to take a bloody shortcut to the Imperium, and now he's just . . . disappeared.

"Ges Vorrutyer . . ." Kareen's hands twisted, "found a like-minded friend in Serg. A fertile follower, in his vile amusements. Maybe not . . . all Vorrutyer's fault. I don't know."

An honest answer, Cordelia sensed. Kareen added lowly, "Ezar protected me from Serg, after I became pregnant. I had not even seen my husband for over a year, when he was killed at Escobar."

Perhaps I will not mention Prince Serg again either. "Ezar was a powerful protector. I hope Aral may do as well," Cordelia offered. Ought she to refer to Emperor Ezar in the past tense already? Everybody else seemed to.

Kareen came back from some absence, and shook herself to focus. "Tea, Lady Vorkosigan?" She smiled. She touched a comm link, concealed in a jeweled pin on her shoulder, and gave domestic orders. Apparently the private interview was over. Captain Naismith must now try to figure out how Lady Vorkosigan should take tea with a princess.

Gregor and the bodyguard reappeared about the time the cream cakes were being served, and Gregor set about successfully charming the ladies for a second helping. Kareen drew the line firmly at thirds. Prince Serg's son seemed an utterly normal boy, if quiet around strangers. Cordelia watched him with Kareen with deep personal interest. Motherhood. Everybody did it. How hard could it be?

"How do you like your new home so far, Lady Vorkosigan?" the princess inquired, making polite conversation. Tea-table stuff; no naked faces now. Not in front of the children.

Cordelia thought it over. "The country place, south at Vorkosigan Surleau, is just beautiful. That wonderful lake—it's bigger than any open body of water on the whole of Beta Colony, yet Aral just takes it for granted. Your planet is beautiful beyond measure." Your planet. Not my planet? In a free-association test, "home" still triggered "Beta Colony" in Cordelia's mind. Yet she could have rested in Vorkosigan's arms by the lake forever.

"The capital here—well, it's certainly more varied than anything we have at ho—on Beta Colony. Although," she laughed self-consciously, "there seem to be so many soldiers. Last time I was surrounded by that many green uniforms, I was in a POW camp."

"Do we still look like the enemy to you?" asked the princess curiously.

"Oh—you all stopped looking like the enemy to me even before the war was over. Just assorted victims, variously blind."

"You have penetrating eyes, Lady Vorkosigan." The princess sipped tea, smiling into her cup. Cordelia blinked.

"Vorkosigan House does tend to a barracks atmosphere, when Count Piotr is in residence," Cordelia commented. "All his liveried men. I think I've seen a couple of women servants so far, whisking around corners, but I haven't caught one yet. A Barrayaran barracks, that is. My Betan service was a different sort of thing."

"Mixed," said Droushnakovi. Was that the light of envy in her eyes? "Women and men both serving."

"Assignment by aptitude test," Cordelia agreed. "Strictly. Of course the more physical jobs are skewed to the men, but there doesn't seem to be that strange obsessive status-thing attached to them."

"Respect," sighed Droushnakovi.

"Well, if people are laying their lives on the line for their community, they ought certainly to get its respect," Cordelia said equably. "I do miss my—my sister-officers, I guess. The bright women, the techs, like my pool of friends at home." There was that tricky word again, home. "There have to be bright women around here somewhere, with all these bright men. Where are they hiding?" Cordelia shut her mouth, as it suddenly occurred to her that Kareen might mistakenly construe this remark as a slur on herself. Adding present company excepted would put her foot in it for sure, though.

But if Kareen so construed, she kept it to herself, and Cordelia was rescued from further potential social embarrassment by the return of Aral and Illyan. They all made polite farewells, and returned to Vorkosigan House.

* * *

That evening Commander Illyan popped in to Vorkosigan House with Droushnakovi in tow. She clutched a large valise, and gazed about her with starry-eyed interest.

"Captain Negri is assigning Miss Droushnakovi to the Regent-consort for her personal security," Illyan explained briefly. Aral nodded approval.

Later, Droushnakovi handed Cordelia a sealed note, on thick cream paper. Brows rising, Cordelia broke it open. The handwriting was small and neat, the signature legible and without flourishes.

With my compliments, it read. She will suit you well. Kareen.




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