Four hours down the night trail, the distinctive black and white horse loomed out of the dark. Kly was a shadow aboard it, but his thick profile and battered hat were instantly recognizable.
"Bothari!" The name huffed from Kly's mouth. "We live. Grace of God."
Bothari's voice was flat. "What happened to you, Major?"
"I almost ran into one of Vordarian's squads at a cabin I was delivering mail to. They're actually trying to go over these hills house by house. Dosing everyone they meet with fast-penta. They must be bringing the drug in by the barrel."
"We expected you back last night," said Cordelia. She tried not to let her tone sound too accusing.
The felt hat bobbed as Kly gave her a weary nod of greeting. "Would've been, except for Vordarian's bloody patrol. I didn't dare let them question me. I spent a day and a night, dodging 'em. Sent my niece's husband to get you. But when he got to my place this morning, Vordarian's men were all over. I figured we'd lost everything. But when they were still all over by nightfall, I took heart. They wouldn't still be looking for you if they'd found you. Figured I'd better get my ass up here and do some scouting myself. This is beyond hope."
Kly turned his horse around, heading back down the trail. "Here, Sergeant, put the boy up."
"I can carry the boy. Think you'd better give m'lady a lift. She's about out."
Too true. It was a measure of Cordelia's exhaustion that she went willingly to Kly's horse. Between them, Bothari and Kly shoved her aboard, perched astraddle on the pinto's warm rump. They started off, Cordelia gripping the mailman's coat.
"What happened to you?" Kly asked in turn.
Cordelia let Bothari answer, in his short sentences made even shorter by his burdened stride, as he carried Gregor piggyback. When he got to a mention of the men heard down the vent, Kly barked a laugh, then clapped a hand over his mouth. "They'll be weeks getting out of there. Good work, Sergeant!"
"It was Lady Vorkosigan's idea."
"Oh?" Kly twisted around to glance back over his shoulder at Cordelia, clinging wanly.
"Aral and Piotr both seemed to think diversion worthwhile," Cordelia explained. "I gather Vordarian has limited reserves."
"You think like a soldier, m'lady." Kly sounded approving.
Cordelia wrinkled her brow in dismay. What an appalling compliment. The last thing she wanted was to start thinking like a soldier, playing their game by their rules. The hallucinatory military world-view was horribly infectious, though, immersed in it as she was now. How long can I tread water?
Kly led them on another two hours of night marching, striking out on unfamiliar trails. In deep pre-dawn dark they came to a shack, or house. It seemed to be of similar construction to Kly's place, but more extensive, with rooms built on and other rooms built on to the additions. A light from a tiny flame, some sort of greasy homemade candle, burned in a window.
An old woman in a nightgown and jacket, her grey hair in a braid down her back, came to the door and motioned them within. Another old man—but younger than Kly—took the horse out of sight toward a shed. Kly made to go with him.
"Is it safe here?" Cordelia asked dizzily. Where is here?
Kly shrugged. "They searched here day before yesterday. Before I sent for m' nephew-in-law. Checked it off clean."
The old woman snorted, surly memory in her eye.
"What with the caves, and all the unchecked homesteads, and the lake, it'll be a while before they get around to re-checking. They're still searching the lake bottom, I hear, they've flown in all kinds of equipment. It's as safe as any." He went off after his horse.
Meaning, as unsafe as any. Bothari was already taking his boots off. His feet must be bad. Her feet were a mess, her slippers walked to flinders, and Gregor's rag shoes utterly destroyed. She'd never felt so near the end of all endurance, bone-weary, blood-weary, though she'd done much longer hikes before. It was as if her truncated pregnancy had drained life itself out of her, to pass it on to another. She let herself be guided, fed bread and cheese and milk and put to bed in a little side room, herself on one narrow cot and drooping Gregor on another. She would believe in safety tonight the way Barrayaran children believed in Father Frost at Winterfair, true because she desperately wanted it to be.
* * *
The next day a raggedy boy of about ten appeared out of the woods, riding Kly's sorrel horse bareback with a rope halter. Kly made Cordelia, Gregor, and Bothari hide out of sight while he paid the boy off with a few coins, and Sonia, Kly's aged niece, packed him some sweet cakes to speed him on his way. Gregor peeked wistfully out the corner of one curtained window as the child vanished again.
"I didn't dare go myself," Kly explained to Cordelia. "Vordarian has three platoons of men up there now." A wheezing chuckle escaped him at some inner vision. "But the boy knows nothing but that the old mailman was sick and needed his re-mount."
"They didn't fast-penta that child, did they?"
Kly's black-stained lips compressed in sympathy with her outrage. "If he can't get hold of Gregor, Vordarian's coup is likely doomed. And he knows it. There's not much he wouldn't dare to do, at this point." He paused. "You can be glad fast-penta has replaced torture, eh?"
Kly's nephew-in-law helped him saddle up the sorrel, and buckle on the mailbags. The mailman adjusted his hat, and climbed up.
"If I don't keep my schedule, it will be near-impossible for the Gen'ral to contact me," he explained. "Got to go, I'm late already. I'll be back. You and the boy stay inside, out of sight, as much as you can, m'lady." He turned his horse toward the bare-branched woods. The animal blended quickly into the red-brown native scrub.
Cordelia found Kly's last advice all too easy to follow. She spent most of the next four days in her cot-bed. The dull silence of hours went by in a fog, a relapse into the frightening fatigue she'd experienced after the placental transfer operation and its near-lethal complications. Conversation provided no diversion. The hill-folk were as laconic as Bothari. It was the threat of fast-penta, Cordelia thought. The less you knew, the less you could tell. The old woman Sonia's eyes probed Cordelia curiously, but she never asked anything beyond, "You hungry?" Cordelia didn't even know her last name.
Baths. After the first one, Cordelia did not ask again. The old couple worked all afternoon to haul and heat enough water for herself and Gregor. Their simple meals were nearly as much labor. No Pull Tab To Heat Contents up here. Technology, a woman's best friend. Unless the technology appeared in the form of a nerve disruptor in the hand of some dead-eyed soldier hunting you down carelessly as an animal.
Cordelia counted over the days since the coup, since all hell had broken loose. What was happening in the larger world? What response from the space forces, from planetary embassies, from conquered Komarr? Would Komarr seize the chaos to revolt, or had Vordarian taken them by surprise too? Aral, what are you doing out there?
Sonia, though she asked no questions, would now and then return from outings and drop bits of local news. Vordarian's troops, headquartered in Piotr's residence, were close to abandoning the search of the lake bottom. Hassadar was sealed, but refugees escaped in a trickle; someone's children, smuggled out, had arrived to stay with relatives nearby. At Vorkosigan Surleau most of Piotr's armsmen's families had escaped except Armsman Vogti's wife and very aged mother, who had been taken away in a groundcar, no one knew where.
"And, oh yes, very strange," Sonia added. "They took Karla Hysopi. That hardly makes sense. She was only the widow of a retired regular Service sergeant, what use do they expect to make of her?"
Cordelia froze. "Did they take the baby, too?"
"Baby? Donnia didn't say about a baby. Grandchild, was it?"
Bothari was sitting by the window sharpening his knife on Sonia's kitchen whetstone. His hand paused in mid-stroke. He looked up to meet Cordelia's alarmed eyes. Beyond a tightening of his jaw his face did not change expression, yet the sudden increase of tension in his body made Cordelia's stomach knot. He looked back down at what he was doing, and took a longer, firmer stroke that hissed along the whetstone like water on coals.
"Maybe . . . Kly will know something more, when he comes back," Cordelia quavered.
"Belike," said Sonia doubtfully.
* * *
At last, on schedule, on the evening of the seventh day, Kly rode into the clearing on his sorrel horse. A few minutes later Armsman Esterhazy rode in behind him. He was dressed in hillman's togs, and his mount was a lean and spindle-shanked hill horse, not one of Piotr's big glossy beasts. They put their horses away and came in to a dinner Sonia had apparently fixed this night of Kly's rounds for eighteen years.
After dinner they pulled up chairs to the stone fireplace, and Kly and Esterhazy briefed Cordelia and Bothari in low tones. Gregor sat by Cordelia's feet.
"Since Vordarian has greatly widened his search area," Esterhazy began, "Count and Lord Vorkosigan have decided that the mountains are still the best place to hide Gregor. As the search radius grows enemy forces will be spread thinner and thinner."
"Locally, Vordarian's forces are still hunting up and down the caves," Kly put in. "There's about two hundred men still up there. But as soon as they finish finding each other, I expect they'll pull out. I hear they've given up on finding you in there, Milady. Tomorrow, Sire," Kly glanced down and addressed Gregor directly, "Armsman Esterhazy will take you to a new place, a lot like this one. You'll have a new name for a while, for pretend. And Armsman Esterhazy will pretend he's your da. Think you can do that?"
Gregor's hand tightened on Cordelia's skirt. "Will Lady Vorkosigan pretend she's my ma?"
"We're going to take Lady Vorkosigan back to Lord Vorkosigan, at Tanery Base Shuttleport." At Gregor's alarmed look Kly added, "There's a pony, where you're going. And goats. The lady there might teach you how to milk the goats."
Gregor looked doubtful, but did not fuss further, though the next morning as he was put up behind Esterhazy on the shaggy horse he looked near to tears.
Esterhazy gave her a driven look. "He's my Emperor, Milady. He holds my oath."
"He's also a little boy, Armsman. Emperor is . . . a delusion you all have in your heads. Take care of the Emperor for Piotr, yes, but you take care of Gregor for me, eh?"
Esterhazy met her eyes. His voice softened. "My little boy is four, Milady."
He did understand, then. Cordelia swallowed relief and grief. "Have you . . . heard anything from the capital? About your family?"
"Not yet," said Esterhazy bleakly.
"I'll keep my ears open. Do what I can."
"Thank you." He gave her a nod, not as retainer to his lady, but as one parent to another. No other word seemed necessary.
Bothari was out of earshot, having returned to the cabin to pack up their few supplies. Cordelia went to Kly's stirrup, as he prepared to swing his black and white horse about and lead Esterhazy and Gregor on their way. "Major. Sonia passed on a rumor that Vordarian's troops took Mistress Hysopi. Bothari had hired her to foster his baby girl. Do you know if they took Elena—the baby—too?"
Kly lowered his voice. " 'Twas the other way around, as I have it. They went for the baby, Karla Hysopi raised hell, so they took her too even though she wasn't on the list."
"Do you know where?"
He shook his head. "Somewhere in Vorbarr Sultana. Belike your husband's Intelligence will know exactly, by now."
"Have you told the Sergeant yet?"
"His brother armsman told him, last night."
Gregor looked back over his shoulder at her as they rode away, until they were obscured from sight by the tree-boles.
* * *
For three days Kly's nephew guided them through the mountains, Bothari on foot leading Cordelia on a bony-hipped little hill horse with a sheepskin pad cinched to its back. On the third afternoon, they came to a cabin which sheltered a skinny youth who led them to a shed that held, wonder of wonders, a rickety lightflyer. He loaded up the backseat with Cordelia and six jugs of maple syrup. Bothari shook hands silently with Kly's nephew, who mounted the little horse and vanished into the woods.
Under Bothari's narrow eye, the skinny youth coaxed his vehicle into the air. Brushing treetops, they followed ravines and ridges up over the snow-frosted spine of the mountains and down the other side, out of Vorkosigan's District. They came at dusk to a little market town. The youth brought his flyer down in a side street. Cordelia and Bothari helped him carry his gurgling produce to a small grocer's shop, where he bartered the syrup for coffee, flour, soap, and power cells.
Upon returning to his lightflyer, they found that a battered groundtruck had pulled up and parked behind it. The youth exchanged no more than a nod with its driver, who hopped out and slid the door to the cargo bay aside for Bothari and Cordelia. The bay was a quarter full of fiber sacks of cabbages. They did not make very good pillows, though Bothari did his best to arrange Cordelia a nest of them as the truck rocked along above the dismally uneven roads. Bothari then sat wedged against the side of the cargo bay and compulsively polished the edge of his knife to molecular sharpness with a makeshift strop, a bit of leather he'd begged from Sonia. Four hours of this and Cordelia was ready to start talking to the cabbages.
The truck thumped to a halt at last. The door slid aside, and first Bothari then Cordelia emerged to find themselves in the middle of nowhere: a gravel-surfaced road over a culvert, in the dark, in the country, in an unfamiliar district of unknown loyalties.
"They'll pick you up at Kilometer Marker Ninety-six," the truck driver said, pointing to a white smudge in the dimness that appeared to be merely a painted rock.
"When?" asked Cordelia desperately. For that matter, who were they?
"Don't know." The man returned to his truck and drove off in a spray of gravel from the hoverfan, as if he were already pursued.
Cordelia perched on the painted boulder and wondered morbidly which side was going to leap out of the night first, and by what test she might tell them apart. Time passed, and she entertained an even more depressed vision of no one picking them up at all.
But at last a darkened lightflyer floated down out of the night sky, its engines pitched to eerie near-silence. Its landing feet crunched in the gravel. Bothari crouched beside her, his useless knife gripped in his hand. But the man awkwardly levering himself up out of the passenger seat was Lieutenant Koudelka. "Milady?" he called uncertainly to the two human scarecrows. "Sergeant?" A breath of pure delight puffed from Cordelia as she recognized the pilot's blonde head as Droushnakovi. My home is not a place, it is people, sir. . . .
With Bothari's hand on her elbow, at Koudelka's anxious gesture Cordelia fell gratefully into the padded backseat of the flyer. Droushnakovi cast a dark look over her shoulder at Bothari, wrinkled her nose, and asked, "Are you all right, Milady?"
"Better than I expected, really. Go, go."
The canopy sealed, and they rose into the air. Vent fans powered up, cycling filtered air. Colored lights from the control interface highlighted Kou's and Drou's faces. A technological cocoon. Cordelia glanced at systems readouts over Droushnakovi's shoulder, and then up through the canopy; yes, dark shapes paced them, guardian military flyers. Bothari saw them, too, his eyes narrowing in approval. Some fraction of tension eased from his body.
"Good to see you two—" some subtle cue of their body language, some hidden reserve, kept Cordelia from adding together again. "I gather you got that accusation about the comconsole sabotage straightened out in good order?"
"As soon as we got the chance to stop and fast-penta that guard corporal, Milady," Droushnakovi answered. "He didn't have the nerve to suicide before questioning."
"He was the saboteur?"
"Yes," answered Koudelka. "He'd intended to escape to Vordarian's troops when they arrived to capture us. Vordarian apparently suborned him months ago."
"That accounts for our security problems. Or does it?"
"He passed information about our route, the day of the sonic grenade attempt." Koudelka rubbed at his sinuses in memory.
"So it was Vordarian behind that!"
"Confirmed. But the guard doesn't seem to have known anything about the soltoxin. We turned him inside out. He wasn't a high-level conspirator, just a tool."
Nasty flow of thought, but, "Has Illyan reported in yet?"
"Not yet. Admiral Vorkosigan hopes he may be hiding in the capital, if he wasn't killed in the first fighting."
"Hm. Well, you'll be glad to know Gregor's all right—"
Koudelka held up an interrupting hand. "Excuse me, Milady. The Admiral ordered—you and the Sergeant are not to debrief anything about Gregor to anyone except Count Piotr or himself."
"All right. Damn fast-penta. How is Aral?"
"He's well, Milady. He ordered me to bring you up to date on the strategic situation—"
Screw the strategic situation, what about my baby? Alas, the two seemed inextricably intertwined.
"—and answer any questions you had."
Very well. "What about our baby? Pi—Miles?"
"We've heard nothing bad, Milady."
"What does that mean?"
"It means we've heard nothing," Droushnakovi put in glumly.
Koudelka shot her an irate look, which she shrugged off with a twitch of one shoulder.
"No news may be good news," Koudelka went on. "While it's true Vordarian holds the capital—"
"And therefore ImpMil, yes," said Cordelia.
"And he's publicizing names of hostages related to anyone in our command structure, there's been no mention of, of your child, in the lists. The Admiral thinks Vordarian simply doesn't realize that what went into the replicator was viable. Doesn't know what he's got."
"Yet," bit off Cordelia.
"Yet," Koudelka conceded reluctantly.
"All right. Go on."
"The overall situation isn't as bad as we feared at first. Vordarian holds Vorbarr Sultana, his own District and its military bases, and he's put troops in Vorkosigan's District, but he only has about five district counts who are his committed allies. About thirty of the other counts were caught in the capital, and we can't tell their real allegiance while Vordarian holds guns to their heads. Most of the twenty-three remaining Districts have reiterated their oaths to my Lord Regent. Though a couple are waffling, who have relatives in the capital or who are in dicey strategic positions as potential battlefields."
"And the space forces?"
"I was just coming to them, yes, Milady. Over half of their supplies come up from the shuttleports in Vordarian's District. For the moment, they're still holding out for a clear result rather than moving in to create one. But they've refused to openly endorse Vordarian. It's a balance, and whoever can tip it their way first will start a landslide. Admiral Vorkosigan seems awfully confident." Cordelia was not sure from the lieutenant's tone if he altogether shared that confidence. "But then, he has to. For morale. He says Vordarian lost the war the hour Negri got away with Gregor, and the rest is just maneuvering to limit the losses. But Vordarian holds Princess Kareen."
"Doubtless one of the losses Aral is anxious to limit. Is she all right? Vordarian's goons haven't abused her?"
"Not as far as we know. She seems to be under house arrest in her own rooms in the Imperial Residence. Several of the more important hostages have been secluded there."
"I see." She glanced sideways in the dim cabin at Bothari, who did not change expression. She waited for him to ask after Elena, but he said nothing. Droushnakovi stared bleakly into the night, at the mention of Kareen.
Had Kou and Drou made up? They seemed cool, civil, all duty and on duty. But whatever surface apologies had passed, Cordelia sensed no healing in them. The secret adoration and will-to-trust was all gone from the blue eyes that now and then flicked from the control interface to the man in the passenger seat. Drou's glances were merely wary.
Lights glowed ahead on the ground, the spatter of a middle-sized city, and beyond it, the jumbled geometrics of a sprawling military shuttleport. Drou went through code-check after code-check, as they approached. They spiraled down to a pad that lit for them, peopled with armed guards. Their guard-flyers passed on overhead to their own landing zones.
The guards surrounded them as they exited the flyer, and escorted them as fast as Koudelka's pace would permit to a lift tube. They went down, took a slide-walk, and went down again through blast doors. Tanery Base clearly featured a hardened underground command post. Welcome to the bunker. And yet a throat-catching whiff of familiarity shook Cordelia for a terrifying moment of confusion and loss. Beta Colony did a lot better on the interior decorating than these barren corridors, but she might have descended to the utility level of some buried Betan city, safe and cool. . . . I want to go home.
There were three green-uniformed officers, talking in a corridor. One was Aral. He saw her. "Thank you, dismissed, gentlemen," he said in the middle of someone's sentence, then more consciously, "We'll continue this shortly." But they lingered to goggle.
He looked no worse than tired. Her heart ached to look at him, and yet . . . Following you has brought me here. Not to the Barrayar of my hopes, but to the Barrayar of my fears.
With a voiceless "Ha!" he embraced her, hard to him. She hugged him back. This is a good thing. Go away, World. But when she looked up the World was still waiting, in the form of seven watchers all with agendas.
He held her away, and scanned her anxiously up and down. "You look terrible, dear Captain."
At least he was polite enough not to say, You smell terrible. "Nothing a bath won't cure."
"That is not what I meant. Sickbay for you, before anything." He turned to find Sergeant Bothari first in line.
"Father's not here. He's on a diplomatic mission from me to some of his old cronies. Here, you, Kou—take Bothari and set him up with quarters, food chits, passes, and clothes. I'll want your personal report immediately I've seen to Cordelia, Sergeant."
"Yes, sir." Koudelka led Bothari away.
"Bothari was amazing," Cordelia confided to Aral. "No—that's unjust. Bothari was Bothari, and I shouldn't have been amazed at all. We wouldn't have made it without him."
Aral nodded, smiling a little. "I thought he would do for you."
"He did indeed."
Droushnakovi, taking up her old position at Cordelia's elbow the moment Bothari vacated it, shook her head in doubt, and followed along as Aral steered Cordelia down the corridor. The rest of the parade followed less certainly.
"Hear any more about Illyan?" Cordelia asked.
"Not yet. Did Kou brief you?"
"A sketch, enough for now. I don't suppose any more word's come in on Padma and Alys Vorpatril, then, either?"
He shook his head regretfully. "But neither are they on the list of Vordarian's confirmed captures. I think they're hiding in the city. Vordarian's side is leaking information like a sieve, we'd know if any arrest that important had happened. I can only wonder if our own arrangements are so porous. That's the trouble with these damned civil affrays, everybody has a brother—"
A voice from down the corridor hailed loudly, "Sir! Oh, sir!" Only Cordelia felt Aral flinch, his arm jerking under her hand.
An HQ staffer led a tall man in black fatigues with colonel's tabs on the collar toward them. "There you are, sir. Colonel Gerould is here from Marigrad."
"Oh. Good. I have to see this man now. . . ." Aral looked around hurriedly, and his eye fell on Droushnakovi. "Drou, please escort Cordelia to the infirmary for me. Get her checked, get her—get her everything."
The colonel was no HQ desk pilot. He looked, in fact, as if he'd just flown in from some front line, wherever the "front" was in this war for loyalties. His fatigues were dirty and wrinkled and looked slept-in, their smoke-stink eclipsing Cordelia's mountain-reek. His face was lined with fatigue. But he looked only grim, not beaten. "The fighting in Marigrad has gone house-to-house, Admiral," he reported without preamble.
Vorkosigan grimaced. "Then I want to hopscotch it. Come with me to the tactics room—what is that on your arm, Colonel?"
A wide piece of white cloth and a narrower strip of brown circled the officer's black upper left sleeve. "ID, sir. We couldn't tell who we were shooting at, up close. Vordarian's people are wearing red and yellow, 's as close as they could come to maroon and gold, I guess. That's supposed to be brown and silver for Vorkosigan, of course."
"That's what I was afraid of." Vorkosigan looked extremely stern. "Take it off. Burn it. And pass the word down the line. You already have a uniform, Colonel, issued to you by the Emperor. That's who you're fighting for. Let the traitors alter their uniforms."
The colonel looked shocked at Vorkosigan's vehemence, but, after a beat, enlightened; he stripped the cloth hastily from his arm and stuffed it in his pocket. "Right, sir."
Aral let go of Cordelia's hand with a palpable effort. "I'll meet you in our quarters, love. Later."
Later in the week, at this rate. Cordelia shook her head helplessly, took in one last view of his stocky form as if her intensity could somehow digitize and store him for retrieval, and followed Droushnakovi into Tanery Base's underground warren. At least with Drou, Cordelia was able to overrule Vorkosigan's itinerary and insist on a bath first. Almost as good, she found half a dozen new outfits in her correct size, betraying Drou's palace-trained good taste, waiting for her in a closet in Aral's quarters.
* * *
The base doctor had no charts; Cordelia's medical records were of course all behind enemy lines in Vorbarr Sultana at present. He shook his head and keyed up a new form on his report panel. "I'm sorry, Lady Vorkosigan. We'll simply have to begin at the beginning. Please bear with me. Do I understand correctly you've had some sort of female trouble?"
No, most of my troubles have been with males. Cordelia bit her tongue. "I had a placental transfer, let me see, three plus," she had to count it up on her fingers, "about five weeks ago."
"Excuse me, a what?"
"I gave birth by surgical section. It did not go well."
"I see. Five weeks post-partum." He made a note. "And what is your present complaint?"
I don't like Barrayar, I want to go home, my father-in-law wants to murder my baby, half my friends are running for their lives, and I can't get ten minutes alone with my husband, whom you people are consuming before my eyes, my feet hurt, my head hurts, my soul hurts . . . it was all too complicated. The poor man just wanted something to put in his blank, not an essay. "Fatigue," Cordelia managed at last.
"Ah." He brightened, and entered this factoid on his report panel. "Post-partum fatigue. This is normal." He looked up and regarded her earnestly. "Have you considered starting an exercise program, Lady Vorkosigan?"