Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold



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Chapter Eleven


"Sir," said Koudelka urgently to Vorkosigan, "the secured comconsole was sabotaged." The ImpSec guard commander at his elbow nodded confirmation. "I was just coming to tell you. . . ." Koudelka glanced fearfully at Negri's body, laid out on the grass. Two ImpSec men now knelt beside it frantically applying first aid: heart massage, oxygen, and hypospray injections. But the body remained flaccid under their pummeling, the face waxy and inert. Cordelia had seen death before, and recognized the symptoms. No good, fellows, you won't call this one back. Not this time. He's gone to deliver that last message to Ezar in person. Negri's last report . . .

"What time-frame on the sabotage?" demanded Vorkosigan. "Delayed or immediate?"

"It looked like immediate," reported the guard commander. "No sign of a timer or device. Somebody just broke open the back and smashed it up inside."

Everyone's eyes went to the ImpSec man who had been assigned the guard post outside the comconsole room. He stood, dressed like most of the others in black fatigues, disarmed between two of his fellows. They had followed their commander out when the uproar began on the front lawn. The prisoner's face was about the same lead-grey color as Negri's, but animated by flickering fear.

"And?" Vorkosigan said to the guard commander.

"He denies doing it," shrugged the commander. "Naturally."

Vorkosigan looked at the arrestee. "Who went in after me?"

The guard stared around wildly. He pointed abruptly at Droushnakovi, still holding the whimpering Gregor. "Her."

"I never!" said Drou indignantly. Her clutch tightened.

Vorkosigan's teeth closed. "Well, I don't need fast-penta to know that one of you is lying. No time now. Commander, arrest them both. We'll sort it out later." Vorkosigan's eyes anxiously scanned the northern horizon. "You," he pointed to another ImpSec man, "assemble every piece of transport you can find. We evacuate immediately. You," this to one of Piotr's armsmen, "go warn them in the village. Kou, grab the files, take a plasma arc and finish melting down that comconsole, and get back to me."

Koudelka, with one anguished look back over his shoulder at Droushanakovi, stumped off toward the house. Drou stood stiffly, stunned and angry and frightened, the cold wind fluttering her skirts. Her brows drew down at Vorkosigan. She scarcely noticed Koudelka's departure.

"You going to Hassadar first?" said Piotr to his son in a strange mild tone.

"Right."

Hassadar, the Vorkosigan's District capital: Imperial troops were quartered there. A loyal garrison?

"Not planning to hold it, I trust," said Piotr.

"Of course not. Hassadar," Vorkosigan's wolf-grin winked on and off, "shall be my first gift to Commodore Vordarian."

Piotr nodded, as if satisfied. Cordelia's head spun. Despite Negri's surprise, neither Piotr nor Aral seemed at all panicked. No wasted motion; no wasted words.

"You," said Aral to Piotr in an undertone, "take the boy." Piotr nodded. "Meet us—no. Don't tell even me where. You contact us."

"Right."

"Take Cordelia."

Piotr's mouth opened; it closed saying only, "Ah."

"And Sergeant Bothari. For Cordelia. Drou being—temporarily—off duty."

"I must have Esterhazy, then," said Piotr.

"I'll want the rest of your men," said Aral.

"Right." Piotr took his Armsman Esterhazy aside, and spoke to him in low tones; Esterhazy departed upslope at a dead run. Men were scattering in every direction, as their orders proliferated down their command chain. Piotr called another liveried retainer to him, and told him to take his groundcar and start driving west.

"How far, m'lord?"

"As far as your ingenuity can take you. Then escape if you can, and rejoin m'lord Regent, eh?"

The man nodded, and galloped off like Esterhazy.

"Sergeant, you will obey Lady Vorkosigan's voice as my own," Aral told Bothari.

"Always, my lord."

"I want that lightflyer." Piotr nodded to Negri's damaged vehicle, which, while no longer smoking, did not look very airworthy to Cordelia. Not nearly ready for wild flight, jinking or diving to evade determined enemies . . . It's in about as good a shape for this as I am, she feared. "And Negri," Piotr continued.

"He would appreciate that," said Aral.

"I am certain of it." Piotr nodded shortly, and turned to the first-aid squad. "Leave off, boys, it's no damn good by now." He directed them instead to load the body into the lightflyer.

Aral turned to Cordelia last, at last, for the first time. "Dear Captain . . ." The same sere expression had been fixed on his face since Negri had fallen out of the lightflyer.

"Aral, was this a surprise to anyone but me?"

"I didn't want to worry you with it, when you were so sick." His lips thinned. "We'd found Vordarian was conspiring, at HQ and elsewhere. Illyan's investigation was inspired. Top security people must have that sort of intuition, I suppose. But to convict a man of Vordarian's magnitude and connections of treason, we needed the hardest of evidence. The Council of Counts as a body is highly intolerant of central Imperial interference with their members. We couldn't take a mere vaporplot before them.

"But Negri called me last night with the word he had his evidence in hand, enough to move on at last. He needed an Imperial order from me to arrest a ruling District Count. I was supposed to go up to Vorbarr Sultana tonight and oversee the operation. Clearly, Vordarian was warned. His original move wasn't planned for another month, preferably right after my successful assassination."

"But—"

"Go, now." He pushed her toward the lightflyer. "Vordarian's troops will be here in minutes. You must get away. No matter what else he holds, he can't make himself secure while Gregor stays free."

"Aral—" Her voice came out a stupid squeak; she swallowed what felt like freeze-dried chunks of spit. She wanted to gabble a thousand questions, ten thousand protests. "Take care."

"You, too." A last light flared in his eyes, but his face was already distant, lost to the driving internal rhythm of tactical calculation. No time.

Aral went to take Gregor from Drou's arms, whispering something to her; reluctantly, she released the boy to him. They piled into the lightflyer, Bothari at the controls, Cordelia jammed into the back beside Negri's corpse, Gregor dumped into her lap. The boy made no noise at all, but only shivered. His eyes were wide and shocky, turned up to hers. Her arms encircled him automatically. He did not cling back, but wrapped his arms around his own torso. Negri, lolling, feared nothing now, and she almost envied him.

"Did you see what happened to your mother, Gregor?" Cordelia murmured to him.

"The soldiers took her." His voice was thin and flat.

The overloaded lightflyer hiccoughed into the air, and Bothari aimed it generally upslope, wavering only meters from the ground. It whined and moaned and rattled. Cordelia did, too, internally. She twisted around to stare back through the distorted canopy for a look—a last look?—at Aral, who had turned away and was double-timing toward the driveway where his soldiers were assembling a motly collection of vehicles, personal and governmental. Why aren't we taking one of those?

"When you clear the second ridge—if you can—turn right, Sergeant," Piotr directed Bothari. "Follow the creek."

Branches slashed at the canopy, as Bothari flew less than a meter above the trickling water and sharp rocks.

"Land in that little space there and kill the power," ordered Piotr. "Everyone, strip off any powered items you may be carrying." He divested his chrono and a comm link. Cordelia shed her chrono.

Bothari, easing the flyer down beside the creek beneath some Earth-import trees that had only half-shed their leaves, asked, "Does that include weapons, m'lord?"

"Especially weapons, Sergeant. The charge unit on a stunner shows up on a scanner like a torch. A plasma arc power cell lights it up like a bloody bonfire."

Bothari fished two of each from his person, plus other useful gear; a hand-tractor, his comm link, his chrono, some kind of small medical diagnostic device. "My knife, too, m'lord?"

"Vibra-knife?"

"No, just steel."

"Keep that." Piotr hunched over the lightflyer's controls and began re-programming the automatic pilot. "Everyone out. Sergeant, jam the canopy half-open."

Bothari managed this task with a pebble crammed forcibly into the canopy's seating-groove, then whirled at a sound from the undergrowth.

"It's me," came Armsman Esterhazy's breathless voice. Esterhazy, age forty, a mere stripling beside some of Piotr's other grizzled veterans, kept himself in top shape; he'd been hustling indeed, to get so puffed. "I have them, my lord."

The "them" in question turned out to be four of Piotr's horses, tied together by lines attached to the metal bars in their mouths the Barrayarans called "bits." Cordelia thought it a very small control surface for such a large piece of transport. The big beasts twitched and stamped and shook their jingling heads, red nostrils round and flaring, ominous bulky shapes in the vegetation.

Piotr finished re-programming the autopilot. "Bothari, here," he said. Together, they manhandled Negri's corpse back to the pilot's seat and strapped it in. Bothari powered the lightflyer up and jumped out. It lurched into the air, nearly crashing into a tree, and lumbered back over the ridge. Piotr, standing watching it rise, muttered under his breath, "Salute him for me, Negri."

"Where are you sending him?" Cordelia asked. Valhalla?

"Bottom of the lake," said Piotr, with some satisfaction. "That will puzzle them."

"Won't whoever follows trace it? Hoist it back out?"

"Eventually. But it should go down in the two-hundred-meter-deep section. It will take them time. And they won't know at first when it went down, nor how many bodies are missing from it. They'll have to search that whole section of the lake bottom, to be sure that Gregor isn't stuck in it. And negative evidence is never quite conclusive, eh? They won't know, even then. Mount up, troops, we're on our way." He headed purposefully toward his animals.

Cordelia trailed doubtfully. Horses. Would one call them slaves, symbionts, or commensals? The one toward which Esterhazy aimed her stood five feet high at the top. He stuck its lines into her hands and turned away. Its saddle was at the level of her chin, and how was she supposed to levitate up there? The horse looked much larger, at this range, than when idling around decoratively at a distance in its pasture. The brown fur-covered skin of its shoulder shuddered suddenly. Oh, God, they've given me a defective one, it's going into convulsions—a small mew escaped her.

Bothari had climbed atop his, somehow. He at least was not overpowered by the size of the animal. Given his height he made the full-sized beast look like a pony. City-bred, Bothari was no horseman, and seemed all knees and elbows despite what cavalry training Piotr had managed to inflict on him in the months of his service. But he was clearly in control of his mount, however awkward and rough his motions.

"You're point-man, Sergeant," Piotr told him. "I want us strung out to the limit of mutual visibility. No bunching up. Start up the trails for the flat rock—you know the place—and wait for us."

Bothari jerked his horse's head around and kicked at its sides, and clattered off up the woodland path at the seat-thumping pace called a canter.

Supposedly-creaky Piotr swung up into his saddle in one fluid motion; Esterhazy handed Gregor up to him, and Piotr held the boy in front of him. Gregor had actually seemed to cheer up at the sight of the horses, Cordelia could not imagine why. Piotr appeared to do nothing at all, but his horse arranged itself neatly ready to start up the trail—telepathy, Cordelia decided wildly. They've mutated into telepaths here and never told me . . . or maybe it was the horse that was telepathic.

"Come on, woman, you're next," Piotr snapped impatiently.

Desperately, Cordelia stuck her foot through the whatchamacallit foot-holder, stirrup, grabbed, and heaved. The saddle slid slowly around the horse's belly, and Cordelia with it, till she was clinging underneath among a forest of horse legs. She fell to the ground with a thump, and scrambled out of the way. The horse twisted its neck around and peered at her, in a dismay much milder than her own, then stuck its rubbery lips to the ground and began nibbling up weeds.

"Oh, God," Piotr groaned in exasperation.

Esterhazy dismounted again, and hurried to her elbow to help her up. "Milady. Are you all right? Sorry, that was my fault, should have re-checked, uh—haven't you ever ridden before?"

"Never," Cordelia confessed. He hastily pulled off the saddle, straightened it back around, and fastened it more tightly. "Maybe I can walk. Or run." Or slit my wrists. Aral, why did you send me off with these madmen?

"It's not that hard, Milady," Esterhazy promised her. "Your horse will follow the others. Rose is the gentlest mare in the stables. Doesn't she have a sweet face?"

Malevolent brown eyes with purple centers ignored Cordelia. "I can't." Her breath caught in a sob, the first of this ungodly day.

Piotr glanced at the sky, and back over his shoulder. "Useless Betan frill," he snarled at her. "Don't tell me you've never ridden astride." His teeth bared. "Just pretend it's my son."

"Here, give me your knee," said Esterhazy after an anxious look at the Count, cupping his hands.

Take the whole damned leg. She was shaking with anger and fear. She glared at Piotr, and grabbed again at the saddle. Somehow, Esterhazy managed to boost her aboard. She clung like grim death, deciding after one glance not to look down.

Esterhazy tossed her reins to Piotr, who caught them with an easy wrist-flick and took her horse in tow. The trail became a kaleidoscope of trees, rocks, sucking mud puddles, whipping branches, all whirling and bumping past. Her belly began to ache, her new scar twinging. If that bleeding starts again inside . . . They went on, and on, and on.

They bumped down at last from a canter to a walk. She blinked, red-faced and wheezing and dizzy-sick. They had climbed, somehow, to a clearing overlooking the lake, having circled behind the broad shallow inlet that lay to the left of the Vorkosigan property. As her vision cleared, she could make out the little green patch in the general red-brown background that was the sloping lawn of the old stone house. Across the water lay the tiny village.

Bothari was there before them, waiting, hunkered down in the scrub out of sight, his blowing horse tied to a tree. He rose silently, and approached them, to stare worriedly at Cordelia. She half-fell, half-slid, off into his arms.

"You go too fast for her, m'lord. She's still sick."

Piotr snorted. "She'll be a lot sicker if Vordarian's squads overtake us."

"I'll manage," gasped Cordelia, bent over. "In a minute. Just. Give me. A minute." The breeze, chilling down as the autumn sun slanted toward evening, lapped her hot skin. The sky had greyed over to a solid shadowless milk-color. Gradually, she was able to straighten against the abdominal pain. Esterhazy arrived at the clearing, bringing up the rear at a less hectic pace.

Bothari nodded to the distant green patch. "There they are."

Piotr squinted; Cordelia stared. A couple of flyers were landing on the lawn. Not Aral's equipment. Men boiled out of them like black ants in their military fatigues, maybe one or two bright flecks of maroon and gold among them, and a few spots of officer's dark green. Great. Our friends and our enemies are all wearing the same uniforms. What do we do, shoot them all and let God sort them out?

Piotr looked sour indeed. Were they smashing his home, down there, tearing the place apart looking for the refugees?

"Won't they be able to tell, when they count the horses missing from the stable, where we've gone and how?" asked Cordelia.

"I let them all out, Milady," said Esterhazy. "At least they'll all have a chance, that way. I don't know how many we'll get back."

"Most of them will hang around, I'm afraid," said Piotr. "Hoping for their grain. I wish they had the sense to scatter. God knows what viciousness those vandals will come up with, if they're cheated of all their other prey."

A trio of flyers was landing around the perimeter of the little village. Armed men disembarked, and vanished among the houses.

"I hope Zai warned them all in time," muttered Esterhazy.

"Why would they bother those poor people?" asked Cordelia. "What do they want there?"

"Us, Milady," said Esterhazy grimly. At her confused look he went on, "Us armsmen. Our families. They're on a hostage-hunt down there."

Esterhazy had a wife and two children in the capital, Cordelia recalled. And what was happening to them right now? Had anyone passed them a warning? Esterhazy looked like he was wondering that, too.

"No doubt Vordarian will play the hostage game," said Piotr. "He's in for it now. He must win, or die."

Sergeant Bothari's narrow jaw worked, as he stared through the murky air. Had anyone remembered to warn Mistress Hysopi?

"They'll be starting their air-search shortly," said Piotr. "Time to get under cover. I'll go first. Sergeant, lead her."

He turned his horse and vanished into the undergrowth, following a path so faint Cordelia could not have recognized it as one. It took Bothari and Esterhazy together to lift her back aboard her transport. Piotr chose a walk for the pace, not for her sake, Cordelia suspected, but for his sweat-darkened animals. After that first hideous gallop, a walk was like a reprieve. At first.

They rode among trees and scrub, along a ravine, over a ridge, the horses' hooves scraping over stone. Her ears strained for the whine of flyers overhead. When one came, Bothari led her on a wild and head-spinning slide down into a ravine, where they dismounted and cowered under a rock ledge for minutes, until the whine faded. Getting back out of the ravine was even more difficult. They had to lead the horses up, Bothari practically seeming to hoist his along the precarious scrubby slope.

It grew darker, and colder, and windier. Two hours became three, four, five, and the smoky darkness turned pitchy. They bunched up with the horses nose to tail, trying not to lose Piotr. It began to rain, a sad black drizzle that made Cordelia's saddle even slipperier.

Around midnight they came to a clearing, hardly less black than the shadows, and Piotr at last called a halt. Cordelia sat against a tree, stunned with exhaustion, nerve-strung, holding Gregor. Bothari split a ration bar he'd been carrying in his pocket, their only food, between Cordelia and Gregor. With Bothari's uniform jacket wrapped around him, Gregor finally overcame the chill enough to sleep. Cordelia's legs went pins and needles, beneath him, but at least he was a lump of warmth.

Where was Aral, by now? For that matter, where were they? Cordelia hoped Piotr knew. They could not have made more than five kilometers an hour at most, with all that up and down and switch-back doubling. Did Piotr really imagine they were going to elude their pursuers this way?

Piotr, who had sat for a while under his own tree a few meters off, got up and went into the scrub to piss, then came back to peer at Gregor in the dimness. "Is he asleep?"

"Yes. Amazingly."

"Mm. Youth," Piotr grunted. Envy?

His tone was not so hostile as earlier, and Cordelia ventured, "Do you suppose Aral is in Hassadar by now?" She could not quite bring herself to say, Do you suppose he ever made it to Hassadar?

"He'll have been and gone by now."

"I thought he would raise its garrison."

"Raise and disperse, in a hundred different directions. And which squad has the Emperor? Vordarian won't know. But with luck, that traitor will be lured into occupying Hassadar."

"Luck?"

"A small but worthy diversion. Hassadar has no strategic value to speak of for either side. But Vordarian must divert a part of his—surely finite number of—loyal troops to hold it, deep in a hostile territory with a long guerilla tradition. We'll get good intelligence of everything they do there, but the population will be opaque to them.

"And it's my capital. He occupies a count's district capital with Imperial troops—all my brother counts must pause and think about that one. Am I next? Aral probably went on to Tanery Base Shuttleport. He must open an independent line of communication with the space-based forces, if Vordarian has truly choked off Imperial Headquarters. The spacers' choice of loyalties will be critical. I predict a severe outbreak of technical difficulties in their comm rooms, while the ship commanders scramble to figure out which is going to be the winning side." Piotr emitted a macabre chuckle, in the shadows. "Vordarian is too young to remember Mad Emperor Yuri's War. Too bad for him. He's gained sufficient advantage, with his quick start, I'd loathe to grant him more."

"How fast . . . did it all happen?"

"Fast. There was no hint of any trouble when I was up to the capital at noon. It must have broken out right after I left."

A chill that had nothing to do with the rain fell between them briefly, as both remembered why Piotr had made that journey this day.

"Does the capital . . . have great strategic value?" Cordelia asked, changing the subject, unwilling to break open that raw issue again.

"In some wars it would. Not this one. This is not a war for territory. I wonder if Vordarian realizes that? It's a war for loyalties, for the minds of men. No material object in it has more than a passing tactical importance. Vorbarr Sultana is a communications center, though, and communication is much. But not the only center. Collateral circulation will serve."

We have no communications at all, thought Cordelia dully. Out here in the woods in the rain. "But if Vordarian holds the Imperial Military Headquarters right now . . ."

"What he holds right now, unless I miss my guess, is a very large building full of chaos. I doubt a quarter of the men are at their posts, and half of them are plotting sabotage to benefit whatever side they secretly favor. The rest are out running for cover, or trying to get their families out of town."

"Will Captain Vorpatril be all—will Vordarian bother Lord and Lady Vorpatril, do you think?" Alys Vorpatril's pregnancy was very close to term. When she had visited Cordelia at ImpMil—only ten days ago?—her gliding walk had become a heavy flatfooted waddle, her belly a swaying high arc. Her doctor promised her a big boy. Ivan, he was to be named. His nursery was completely equipped and fully decorated, she had groaned, shifting her stomach uncomfortably in her lap, and now would be a good time. . . .

Now was not a good time anymore.

"Padma Vorpatril will head the list. The hunt will be up for him, all right. He and Aral are the last descendants of Prince Xav, now, if anybody's fool enough to start up that damned succession-debate again. Or if anything does happen to Gregor." He bit down on this last line as if he might hold back fate with his teeth.

"Lady Vorpatril and the baby, too?"

"Perhaps not Alys Vorpatril. The boy, definitely."

Not exactly a separable matter, just at the moment.

The wind had died down at last. Cordelia could hear the horses' teeth tearing up plants, a steady munch-munch-munch.

"Won't the horses show up on thermal sensors? And us, too, despite dumping our power cells. I don't see how they can miss us for long." Were troops up there right now, eyes in the clouds?

"Oh, all the people and beasts in these hills will show up on their thermal sensors, once they start aiming them in the right direction."

"All? I hadn't seen any."

"We've passed about twenty little homesteads, so far tonight. All the people, and their cows, and their goats, and their red deer, and their horses, and their children. We're straws in a haystack. Still, it will be well for us to split up soon. If we can make it to the trail at the base of Amie Pass before mid-morning, I have an idea or two."

By the time Bothari shoved her back atop Rose, the deep blackness was greying. Pre-dawn light seeped into the woods as they began to move again. Tree branches were charcoal stokes in the dripping mist. She clung to her saddle in silent misery, towed along by Bothari. Gregor actually still slept, for the first twenty minutes of the ride, openmouthed and limp and pale in Piotr's grip.

The growing light revealed the night's ravages. Bothari and Esterhazy were both muddy and scuffed, beard-peppered, their brown-and-silver uniforms rumpled. Bothari, having given up his jacket to Gregor, went in shirtsleeves. The open round collar of his shirt made him look like a condemned criminal being led to the beheading-block. Piotr's general's dress greens had survived fairly well, but his stubbled red-eyed face above it was like a derelict's. Cordelia felt herself a hopeless tangle, with her wet tendrils of hair, mishmash of old clothing and house slippers.

It could be worse. I could still be pregnant. At least if I die, I die singly now. Was little Miles safer than she right now? Anonymous in his replicator on some shelf in Vaagen and Henri's restricted laboratory? She could pray so, even if she couldn't believe so. You Barrayaran bastards had better leave my boy alone.

They zigzagged up a long slope. The horses blew like bellows even though just walking: getting balky, stumbling over roots and rocks. They came to a halt at the bottom of a little hollow. Both horses and people drank from the murky stream. Esterhazy loosened girths again. He scratched under the horses' headbands, and they butted against him, nuzzling his empty pockets for tidbits. He murmured apologies and little encouragements to them. "It's all right, Rosie, you can rest at the end of the day. Just a few more hours." It was more briefing than anybody had bothered to give Cordelia.

Esterhazy left the horses to Bothari and accompanied Piotr into the woods, scrabbling up the slope. Gregor busied himself in an attempt to gather vegetation and hand-feed it to the animals. They lipped at the native Barrayaran plants and let them fall messily from their mouths, unpalatable. Gregor kept picking the wads up and offering them again, trying to shove them in around the horses' bits.

"What's the Count up to, do you know?" Cordelia asked Bothari.

He shrugged. "Gone to make contact with somebody. This won't do." A jerk of his head in no particular direction indicated their night of beating around in the brush.

Cordelia could only agree. She lay back and listened for lightflyers, but heard only the babble of water in the little stream, echoed by the gurgles of her empty stomach. She was galvanized into motion once, to keep the hungry Gregor from sampling some of the possibly-toxic plants himself.

"But the horses ate these ones," he protested.

"No!" Cordelia shuddered, detailed visions of unfavorable biochemical and histamine reactions dancing in a molecular crack-the-whip through her head. "It's one of the first habits you have to learn for Betan Astronomical Survey, you know. Never put strange things in your mouth till they've been cleared by the lab. In fact, avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and mucous membranes."

Gregor, unconsciously compelled, promptly rubbed his nose and eyes. Cordelia sighed, and sat back down. She sucked on her tongue, thinking about that stream water and hoping Gregor wouldn't point out her inconsistency. Gregor threw pebbles into the pools.

Fully an hour later, Esterhazy returned. "Come on." They merely led the horses this time, sure sign of a steep climb to come. Cordelia scrambled, and scraped her hands. The horses' haunches heaved. Over the crest, down, up again, and they came out on a muddy double trail carved through the forest.

"Where are we?" asked Cordelia.

"Aime Pass Road, Milady," supplied Esterhazy.

"This is a road?" Cordelia muttered in dismay, staring up and down it. Piotr stood a little way off, with another old man holding the reins of a sturdy little black-and-white horse.

The horse was considerably better groomed than the old man. Its white coat was bright and its black coat shiny. Its mane and tail were brushed to feather-softness. Its feet and fetlocks were wet and dark, though, and its belly flecked with fresh mud. In addition to an old cavalry saddle like Piotr's horse's, the pinto bore four large saddlebags, a pair in front and a pair behind, and a bedroll.

The old man, as unshaven as Piotr, wore an Imperial Postal Service jacket so weatherworn its blue had turned grey. This was supplemented by odd bits of other old uniforms: a black fatigue shirt, an ancient pair of trousers from a set of dress greens, worn but well-oiled officer's knee-high riding boots on his bent bowlegs. He also wore a non-regulation felt hat with a few dried flowers stuck in its faded print headband. He smacked his black-stained lips and stared at Cordelia. He was missing several teeth; the rest were long and yellow-brown.

The old man's gaze fell on Gregor, holding Cordelia's hand. "So that's him, eh? Huh. Not much." He spat reflectively into the weeds by the side of the path.

"Might do in time," asserted Piotr. "If he gets time."

"I'll see what I can do, Gen'ral."

Piotr grinned, as if at some private joke. "You have any rations on you?"

" 'Course." The old man smirked, and turned to rummage in one of his saddlebags. He came up with a package of raisins in a discarded plastic flimsy, some little cakes of brownish crystals wrapped in leaves, and what looked like a handful of strips of leather, again in a twist made of a used plastic flimsy. Cordelia caught a heading, Update of Postal Regluations C6.77a, modified 6/17. File Immediately In Permanent Files.

Piotr looked the stores over judiciously. "Dried goat?" He nodded toward the leathery mess.

"Mostly," said the old man.

"We'll take half. And the raisins. Save the maple sugar for the children." Piotr popped one cube in his mouth, though. "I'll find you in maybe three days, maybe a week. You remember the drill from Yuri's War, eh?"

"Oh, yes," drawled the old man.

"Sergeant." Piotr waved Bothari to him. "You go with the Major, here. Take her, and the boy. He'll take you to ground. Lie low till I come get you."

"Yes, m'lord," Bothari intoned flatly. Only his flickering eyes betrayed his uneasiness.

"What we got here, Gen'ral?" inquired the old man, looking up at Bothari. "New one?"

"A city boy," said Piotr. "Belongs to my son. Doesn't talk much. He's good at throats, though. He'll do."

"Aye? Good."

Piotr was moving a lot more slowly. He waited for Esterhazy to give him a leg up on his horse. He settled into his saddle with a sigh, his back temporarily curved in an uncharacteristic slump. "Damn, but I'm getting old for this sort of thing."

Thoughtfully, the man Piotr had called the Major reached into a side pocket and pulled out a leather pouch. "Want my gum-leaf, Gen'ral? A better chew than goat, if not as long-lasting."

Piotr brightened. "Ah. I would be most grateful. But not your whole pouch, man." Piotr dug among the pressed dried leaves that filled the container, and crumbled himself off a generous half, which he stuffed in his breast pocket. He put a wad in his cheek, and returned the pouch with a sincere salute. Gum-leaf was a mild stimulant; Cordelia had never seen Piotr chew it in Vorbarr Sultana.

"Take care of m'lord's horses," called Esterhazy rather desperately to Bothari. "They're not machines, remember. "

Bothari grunted something noncommittal, as the Count and Esterhazy headed their animals back down the trail. They were out of sight in a few moments. A profound quiet descended.




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