They divided the meager spoils from the camp in makeshift backpacks and started down the mountain in the grey mist of morning. Cordelia led Dubauer by the hand and helped him when he stumbled. She was not sure how clearly he recognized her, but he clung to her and avoided Vorkosigan.
The forest grew thicker and the trees taller as they went down. Vorkosigan hacked through the undergrowth with his knife for a while, then they took to the stream bed. Splashes of sunlight began to filter through the canopy, picking out fiery green velvet humps of moss, sparkling rills of water, and stones on the stream bed like a layer of bronze coins.
Radial symmetry was popular among the tiny creatures occupying the ecological niches held by insects on Earth. Some aerial varieties like gas-filled jellyfishes floated in iridescent clouds above the stream like flocks of delicate soap bubbles, delighting Cordelia's eye. They seemed to have a mellowing effect on Vorkosigan, too, for he called for a break from what seemed to her a killing pace.
They drank from the stream and sat a while watching the little radials dart and puff in the spray from a waterfall. Vorkosigan closed his eyes and leaned against a tree. He was running on the ragged edge of exhaustion too, Cordelia realized. Temporarily unwatched, she studied him curiously. He had behaved throughout with curt but dignified military professionalism. Still she was bothered by a subliminal alarm, a persistent sense of something of importance forgotten. It popped out of her memory suddenly, like a ball held underwater breaking the surface on release and arcing into the air.
"I know who you are. Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr." She immediately wished she had not spoken, for he opened his eyes and stared at her, a peculiar play of expressions passing across his face.
"What do you know about Komarr?" His tone added, An ignorant Betan.
"Just what everyone knows. It was a worthless ball of rock your people annexed by military force for command of its wormhole clusters. The ruling senate surrendered on terms, and were murdered immediately after. You commanded the expedition, or . . ." Surely the Vorkosigan of Komarr had been an admiral. "Was it you? I thought you said you didn't kill prisoners."
"Did they demote you for it?" she asked, surprised. She had thought that sort of conduct to be Barrayaran standard.
"Not for that. For the sequel." He seemed reluctant to say more, but he surprised her again by going on. "The sequel was more effectively suppressed. I had given my word—my word, as Vorkosigan—they were to be spared. My Political Officer countermanded my order, and had them killed behind my back. I executed him for it."
"I broke his neck with my own hands, on the bridge of my ship. It was a personal matter, you see, touching my honor. I couldn't order a firing squad—they were all afraid of the Ministry of Political Education."
That was the official euphemism for the secret police, Cordelia recalled, of which Political Officers were the military branch. "And you aren't?"
"They're afraid of me." He smiled sourly. "Like those scavengers last night, they'll run from a bold attack. But one must not turn one's back."
"I'm surprised they didn't have you hanged."
"There was a great uproar, behind closed doors," he admitted reminiscently, fingering his collar tabs. "But a Vorkosigan can't be made to disappear in the night, not yet. I did make some powerful enemies."
"I'll bet." This bald story, told without adornment or apology, had the ring of truth to her inner ear, although she had no logical reason to trust him. "Did you, uh, happen to turn your back on one of those enemies yesterday?"
He glanced at her sharply. "Possibly," he said slowly. "There are some problems with that theory, however."
"I'm still alive. I wouldn't have thought they'd risk starting the job without finishing it. To be sure, they'd be tempted by the opportunity to blame my death on you Betans."
"Whew. And I thought I had command troubles just keeping a bunch of Betan intellectual prima donnas working together for months on end. God keep me from politics."
Vorkosigan smiled slightly. "From what I've heard of Betans, that's no easy task either. I don't think I should care to trade commands. It would irritate me to have every order argued over."
"They don't argue every order." She grinned, as his crack ferreted up some particular memories. "You learn how to coax them along."
"Where do you suppose your ship is now?"
Wariness dropped across her amusement like a portcullis. "I suppose that depends on where your ship is."
Vorkosigan shrugged and stood, hitching his pack more securely to his shoulders. "Then perhaps we should waste no more time finding out." He gave her a hand to pull her up, the soldier-mask repossessing his features.
It took all the long day to descend the great mountain to the red-soiled plains. A closer view found them cut and channeled by watercourses running turbid from the recent rains, and confused by outcrops of rocky badlands. They caught glimpses of groups of hexapedal grazers. Cordelia deduced from their wary herd behavior that associated predators must lurk nearby.
Vorkosigan would have pushed on, but Dubauer was seized by a serious and prolonged convulsion followed by lethargy and sleepiness. Cordelia insisted adamantly on a halt for the night. They made camp, if one could so describe stopping and sitting down, in an open gap in the trees perhaps three hundred meters above the levels. They shared their simple supper of oatmeal and blue cheese dressing in a beaten-down silence. Vorkosigan cracked another cold light as the last colors of a gaudy sunset drained from the sky, and seated himself on a large flat boulder. Cordelia lay down and watched the Barrayaran watching until sleep relieved her of her aching legs and head.
He woke her past the middle of the night. Her muscles seemed to screech and creak as she rose stiffly to take her watch. This time Vorkosigan gave her the stunner.
"I haven't seen anything close," he commented, "but something out there makes a hellish racket from time to time." It seemed an adequate explanation for the gesture of trust.
She checked Dubauer, then took her place on the boulder, leaning back and staring up at the dark bulk of the mountain. Up there Rosemont lay in his deep grave, safe from the beaks and bellies of the carrion eaters, but still doomed to slow decomposition. She bent her night-wandering thoughts instead to Vorkosigan, lying nearly invisible in his camouflage fatigues in the border of the blue-green light.
A puzzle within a puzzle, he was. Clearly, he must be one of the Barrayaran warrior aristocrats of the old school, at odds with the rising new men of the bureaucracy. The militarists of both parties maintained a bastard, uneasy alliance that controlled both government policy and the armed forces, but at heart they were natural enemies. The Emperor subtly stabilized the delicate balance of power between them, but there was not much doubt that on the clever old man's death Barrayar was destined for a period of political cannibalism, if not outright civil war, unless his successor showed more strength than was currently expected. She wished she knew more about the matrix of blood relationships and power on Barrayar. She could give the Emperor's family name, Vorbarra, it being associated with the name of the planet, but beyond that she was quite vague.
She absently fingered the little stunner, and tantalized herself: who now was the captive, and who the captor? But it would be nearly impossible to care for Dubauer in this wilderness by herself. She had to have supplies for him, and since Vorkosigan had been careful not to say exactly where his cache lay, she needed the Barrayaran to take her there. Besides, she had given her parole. It was a curious insight into Vorkosigan that he should so automatically accept her bare word as binding; he evidently thought along the same lines himself.
The east began to grow grey at last, then peach, green, and gold in a pastel repeat of last night's spectacular sunset. Vorkosigan stirred and sat up, and helped her take Dubauer down to the stream to wash. They had another breakfast of oatmeal and blue cheese dressing. Vorkosigan tried mixing his together this time, for variety. Cordelia tried alternating bites, to see if that would help. Neither commented aloud on the menu.
* * *
Vorkosigan led northwest across the sandy, brick-colored plain. In the dry season it would have been near-desert. Now it was brightly decorated with fresh green and yellow growth, and dozens of varieties of low-growing wildflowers. Dubauer did not seem to notice them, Cordelia saw sadly.
After about three hours at a brisk pace they came to their first check of the day, a steep rocky valley with a coffee-and-cream-colored river rushing through it. They walked along the edge of the escarpment looking for a ford.
"That rock down there moved," Cordelia observed suddenly.
Vorkosigan pulled his field scope from his belt and took a closer look. "You're right."
Half a dozen coffee-and-cream-colored lumps that looked like rocks on a sandbar proved to be low-slung, thick-limbed hexapeds, basking in the morning sun.
"They seem to be some sort of amphibian. I wonder if they're carnivores?" said Vorkosigan.
"I wish you hadn't interrupted my survey so soon," Cordelia complained. "Then I could have answered all those questions. There go some more of those soap-bubble things—goodness, I wouldn't have thought they could grow so big and still fly."
A flock of a dozen or so large radials, transparent as wineglasses and fully a foot across, came floating like a flight of lost balloons above the river. A few of them drifted over to the hexapeds and settled gently on their backs, flattening over their withers like weird berets. Cordelia borrowed the scope for a closer look.
"Do you suppose they could be like those birds from Earth, that pick the parasites off the cattle? Oh. No, I guess not."
The hexapeds roused themselves with hisses and whistles, humping their bodies in a kind of obese bucking, and slid into the river. The radials, colored now like wineglasses filled with burgundy, inflated themselves and retreated into the air.
"Vampire balloons?" asked Vorkosigan.
"What appalling creatures."
Cordelia almost laughed at his revolted look. "As a carnivore yourself, you can't really condemn them."
"Condemn, no; avoid, yes."
"I'll go along with that."
They continued upstream past a frothing, opaque tan waterfall. After about a kilometer and a half they came to a place where two tributaries joined, and stumbled across at the shallowest place they could find. Crossing the second branch, Dubauer lost his footing as a rock turned under him, and went down with a wordless cry.
Cordelia tightened her grip on his arm convulsively, and perforce went with him, slipping into a deeper area. Terror shook her, that he might be swept downstream beyond her reach—those amphibious hexapeds, sharp rocks—the waterfall! Careless of the water filling her mouth, she grabbed him with both hands. Here they went—no.
Something pulled her bodily with a tremendous counter-surge against the rush of waters. Vorkosigan had grabbed her by the back of the belt, and was hauling them both toward the shallows with the strength and style of a stevedore.
Feeling undignified, but grateful, she scrambled to her feet and pushed the coughing Dubauer up the far bank.
"Thanks," she gasped to Vorkosigan.
"What, did you think I'd let you drown?" he inquired wryly, emptying his boots.
Cordelia shrugged, embarrassed. "Well—at least we wouldn't be delaying you."
"Hm." He cleared his throat, but said no more. They found a rocky place to sit, eat their cereal and salad dressing, and dry awhile before moving on.
Kilometers fell behind them, while their view of the great mountain to their right scarcely seemed to change. At some point Vorkosigan took a bearing known only to himself, and led them more westerly, with the mountain at their backs and the sun beginning to slant into their eyes.
They crossed another watercourse. Coming up over the lip of its valley, Cordelia nearly stumbled over a red-coated hexaped, lying quite still in a depression and blending perfectly with its background. It was a delicately formed thing, as big as a middle-sized dog, and it rippled over the red plains in graceful bounds.
Cordelia woke up abruptly. "That thing's edible!"
"The stunner, the stunner!" cried Vorkosigan. She pressed it hastily into his hand. He fell to one knee, took aim, and dropped the creature in one burst.
"Oh, good shot!" cried Cordelia ecstatically.
Vorkosigan grinned like a boy over his shoulder at her, and jogged after his prize.
"Oh," she murmured, stunned herself by the effect of the grin. It had lit his face like the sun for that brief instant. Oh, do that again, she thought; then shook off the thought. Duty. Stick to duty.
She followed him to where the animal lay. Vorkosigan had his knife out, puzzling over where to begin. He could not cut its throat, for it had no neck.
"The brain is located right behind the eyes. Maybe you could pith it going in between the first set of shoulder blades," Cordelia suggested.
"That would be quick enough," Vorkosigan agreed, and did so. The creature shivered, sighed, and died. "It's early to make camp, but there's water here, and driftwood from the river for a fire. It will mean extra kilometers tomorrow, though," he warned.
Cordelia eyed the carcass, thinking of roast meat. "That's all right."
Cordelia looked around. Dubauer was not in sight. "Oh, lord," she inhaled, and ran back to the spot where they had been standing when Vorkosigan had shot dinner. No Dubauer. She approached the rim of the watercourse.
Dubauer was standing by the stream, arms hanging by his sides, gazing upward blank and entranced. Floating softly down toward his upturned face was a large transparent radial.
"Dubauer, no!" shrieked Cordelia, and scrambled down the bank toward him. Vorkosigan passed her with a bound, and they raced for the waterside. The radial settled over Dubauer's face and began to flatten, and he flung up his hands with a cry.
Vorkosigan arrived first. He grabbed the half-limp thing with his bare hand and pulled it away from Dubauer's face. A dozen dark, tendril-like appendages were hooked into Dubauer's flesh, and they stretched and snapped as the creature was ripped off its prey. Vorkosigan flung it to the sand and stamped on it as Dubauer fell to the ground and curled up on his side. Cordelia tried to pull his hands away from his face. He was making strange, hoarse noises, and his body shook. Another seizure, she thought—but then realized with a shock that he was weeping.
She held his head on her lap to stop the wild rocking. The spots where the tendrils had penetrated his skin were black in the center, surrounded by rings of red flesh that were beginning to swell alarmingly. There was a particularly nasty one at the corner of his eye. She plucked one of the remaining embedded tendrils out of his skin, and found it burned her fingers acidly. Apparently the creature had been coated all over with a similar poison, for Vorkosigan was kneeling with his hand in the stream. She quickly pulled the rest of them, and called the Barrayaran over to her side.
"Have you got anything in your kit that will help this?"
"Only the antibiotic." He handed her a tube, and she smeared some on Dubauer's face. It was not really a proper burn ointment, but it would have to do. Vorkosigan stared at Dubauer a moment, then reluctantly produced a small white pill.
"This is a powerful analgesic. I have only four. It should carry him through the evening."
Cordelia placed it on the back of Dubauer's tongue. It evidently tasted bitter, for he tried to spit it out, but she caught it and forced him to swallow it. In a few minutes she was able to get him to his feet and take him to the campsite Vorkosigan chose overlooking the sandy channel.
Vorkosigan meanwhile made a handsome collection of driftwood for a fire.
"How are you going to light it?" inquired Cordelia.
"When I was a small boy, I had to learn to start a fire by friction," Vorkosigan reminisced. "Military school summer camp. It wasn't easy. Took all afternoon. Come to think of it, I never did get it started that way. I lit it by dissecting a communicator for the power pack." He was searching through his belt and pockets. "The instructor was furious. I think it must have been his communicator."
"No chemical starters?" Cordelia asked, with a nod to his ongoing inventory of his utility belt.
"It's assumed if you want heat, you can fire your plasma arc." He tapped his fingers on the empty holster. "I have another idea. A bit drastic, but I think it will be effective. You'd better go sit with your botanist. This is going to be loud."
He removed a useless plasma arc power cartridge from a row on the back of his belt.
"Uh, oh," said Cordelia, moving away. "Won't that be overkill? And what are you going to do with the crater? It'll be visible from the air for kilometers."
"Do you want to sit there and rub two sticks together? I suppose I had better do something about the crater, though."
He thought a moment, then trotted away over the edge of the little valley. Cordelia sat down beside Dubauer, putting an arm around his shoulders and hunching in anticipation.
Vorkosigan shot back over the rim at a dead run, and hit the ground rolling. There was a brilliant blue-white flash, and a boom that shook the ground. A large column of smoke, dust, and steam rose into the air, and pebbles, dirt, and bits of melted sand began to patter down like rain all around. Vorkosigan disappeared over the edge again, and returned shortly with a fine flaming torch.
Cordelia went for a peek at the damage. Vorkosigan had placed the short-circuited cartridge upstream about a hundred meters, at the outer edge of a bend where the swift little river curved away to the east. The explosion had left a spectacular glass-lined crater some fifteen meters wide and five deep that was still smoking. As she watched, the stream eroded its edge and poured in, billowing steam. In an hour it would be scoured into a natural-looking backwater.
"Not bad," she murmured approvingly.
By the time the fire burned down to a bed of coals they had cubes of dark red meat on sticks ready to broil.
"How do you like yours?" Vorkosigan asked. "Rare? Medium?"
"I think it had better be well done," suggested Cordelia. "We hadn't completed the parasite survey yet."
Vorkosigan glanced at his cube with a new dubiousness. "Ah. Quite," he said faintly.
They cooked it thoroughly, then sat by the fire and tore into the smoking meat with happy savagery. Even Dubauer managed to feed himself with small chunks. It was gamey and tough, burned on the outside and with a bitter undertaste, but no one suggested a side dish of either oatmeal or blue cheese dressing.
Cordelia's humor was touched. Vorkosigan's fatigues were filthy, damp, and splashed with dried blood from hacking up their dinner, as were her own. He had a three-day growth of beard, his face glistened in the firelight with hexaped grease, and he reeked with dried sweat. Barring the beard, she suspected she looked no better, and she knew she smelled no better. She found herself disquietingly aware of his body, muscular, compact, wholly masculine, stirring senses she thought she had suppressed. Best think of something else . . .
"From spaceman to caveman in three days," she meditated aloud. "How we imagine our civilization is in ourselves, when it's really in our things."
Vorkosigan glanced with a twisted smile at the carefully tended Dubauer. "You seem able to carry your civilization on the inside."
Cordelia flushed uncomfortably, glad for the camouflaging firelight. "One does one's duty."
"Some people find their duty more elastic. Or—were you in love with him?"
"With Dubauer? Heavens, no! I'm no cradle snatcher. He was a good kid, though. I'd like to get him home to his family."
"Do you have a family?"
"Sure. My mom and brother, back home on Beta Colony. My dad used to be in the Survey too."
"Was he one of those who never came back?"
"No, he died in a shuttleport accident, not ten kilometers from home. He'd been home on leave, and was just reporting back."
"Oh, that was years and years ago." Getting a little personal, isn't he? she thought. But it was better than trying to deflect military interrogation. She hoped fervently that the subject, say, of the latest Betan equipment would not come up. "How about you? Do you have a family?" It suddenly occurred to her that this phrase was also a polite way of asking, Are you married?
"My father lives. He is Count Vorkosigan. My mother was half Betan, you know," he offered hesitantly.
Cordelia decided that if Vorkosigan, full of military curtness, was formidable, Vorkosigan trying to make himself pleasant was truly terrifying. But curiosity overcame the urge to cut the conversation short. "That's unusual. How did that happen?"
"My maternal grandfather was Prince Xav Vorbarra, the diplomat. He held the post of ambassador to Beta Colony for a time, in his youth, before the First Cetagandan War. I believe my grandmother was in your Bureau for Interstellar Trade."
"Did you know her well?"
"After my mother—died, and Yuri Vorbarra's Civil War was brought to an end, I spent some school vacations at the Prince's home in the capital. He was at odds with my father, though, before and after that war, being of different political parties. Xav was the leading light of the progressives in his day, and of course my father was—is—part of the last stand of the old military aristocracy."
"Was your grandmother happy on Barrayar?" Cordelia estimated Vorkosigan's school days were perhaps thirty years ago.
"I don't think she ever adjusted completely to our society. And of course, Yuri's War . . ." He trailed off, then began again. "Outsiders—you Betans particularly—have this odd vision of Barrayar as some monolith, but we are a fundamentally divided society. My government is always fighting these centrifugal tendencies."
Vorkosigan leaned forward and tossed another piece of wood onto the fire. Sparks cascaded upward like a stream of little orange stars flowing home to the sky. Cordelia felt a sharp longing to fly away with them.
"What party has your allegiance?" she asked, hoping to keep the conversation on a less unnervingly personal plane. "Do you stand with your father?"
"While he lives. I always wanted to be a soldier, and avoid all parties. I have an aversion to politics; they've been death on my family. But it's past time someone took on those damned bureaucrats and their pet spies. They imagine they're the wave of the future, but it's only sewage flowing downhill."
"If you express those opinions that forcibly at home, it's no wonder politics come looking for you." She poked at the fire with a stick, freeing more sparks for their journey.
Dubauer, sedated by the painkiller, fell asleep quickly, but Cordelia lay long awake, replaying the disturbing conversation in her mind. Still, what did she care if this Barrayaran chose to run his head into nooses? No reason for her to get involved. None at all. Surely not. Even if the shape of his square strong hands was a dream of power in form . . .
She awakened deep in the night with a start. But it was only the fire flaring up as Vorkosigan added an unusually large armload of wood. She sat up, and he came over to her.
"I'm glad you're awake. I need you." He pressed his combat knife into her hand. "That carcass seems to be attracting something. I'm going to pitch it into the river. Will you hold a torch?"
"Sure." She stretched, got up, and selected a suitable brand. She followed him down into the watercourse, rubbing her eyes. The flickering orange light made jumpy black shadows that were almost harder to see into than plain starlight. As they reached the water's edge she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and heard a scrambling among the rocks and a familiar hiss.
"Uh, oh. There's a group of those scavengers just upstream to the left."
"Right." Vorkosigan flung the remains of their dinner to the middle of the river, where they vanished with a dim gurgle. There was an extra splash, a loud one, not an echo. Aha! Cordelia thought—I saw you jump too, Barrayaran. But whatever had splashed didn't show above the surface, and its ripples were lost in the current. There came some more hisses, and a shattering shriek, from downstream. Vorkosigan drew the stunner.
"There's a whole herd of them out there," Cordelia commented nervously. They stood back to back, trying to penetrate the blackness. Vorkosigan rested the stunner across one wrist, and let off a carefully aimed burst. It buzzed quietly, and one of the dark shapes slumped to the ground. Its comrades sniffed it curiously, and moved in closer.
"I wish your gun had more of a bang." He aimed again and dropped two more, without any effect on the rest. He cleared his throat. "You know, your stunner's almost out of charge."
"Not enough to flatten the rest of them, eh?"
One of the scavengers, bolder than the rest, darted forward. Vorkosigan met its charge with a shout and a rush of his own. It retreated temporarily. The breed of scavengers that ranged the plains was slightly larger than its mountain cousins, and if possible, uglier. Obviously, it also traveled in larger groups. The ring of beasts closed tighter as they attempted to retreat toward the valley rim.
"Oh, hell," said Vorkosigan. "That does it." A dozen silent, ghostly globes were drifting in from above. "What a foul way to die. Well, let's take as many with us as possible." He glanced at her, seemed about to say more, but then only shook his head and braced for the rush.
Cordelia, heart lurching, gazed up at the descending radials and was illuminated by an idea of awesome brilliance.
"Oh, no," she breathed. "That's not the last straw. That's the home fleet, coming to the rescue. Come, my pretties," she coaxed. "Come to Mama."
"Have you lost your mind?" asked Vorkosigan.
"You wanted a bang? I'll give you a bang. What do you think holds those things up?"
"Hadn't thought about it. But of course it would almost have to be—"
"Hydrogen! Bet you anything those darling little chemistry sets are electrolyzing water. Notice how they hang around rivers and streams? Wish I had some gloves."
"Allow me." His grin winked out of the fire-streaked dark at her. He jumped up and hooked a radial out of the air by its writhing maroon tendrils, and flung it to earth before the approaching scavengers. Cordelia, holding her torch like a fencer's foil, thrust toward it at full extension. Sparks scattered as she jabbed two, then three times.
The radial exploded in a ball of blinding flame that singed her eyebrows, with a great bass whoom and an astonishing stench. Orange and green afterimages danced across her retinas. She repeated the trick at Vorkosigan's next snatch. One of the scavengers' fur caught fire, and it led a general retreat, screeching and hissing. She poked again at a radial in the air. It went off with a flash that illuminated the whole reach of the river valley and the humping backs of the fleeing pack of scavengers.
Vorkosigan was frantically patting her on the back; it wasn't until the smell caught her that she realized she'd set her own hair on fire. He got it out. The rest of the radials sailed high into the air and away, except for one Vorkosigan captured and held by standing on its tendrils.
"Ha!" Cordelia war danced around him in triumph, the adrenaline rush giving her a silly urge to giggle. She drew a deep breath. "Is your hand all right?"
"It's a little burned," he admitted. He took off his shirt and bundled the radial into it. It pulsated and stank. "We might want this later." He rinsed his hand briefly in the stream, and they jogged quickly back to their campsite. Dubauer lay undisturbed, although a few minutes later one stray scavenger turned up at the edge of the firelight, sniffing and hissing. Vorkosigan put it to flight with torch, knife, and swearing—whispered, so as not to wake the ensign.
"I think we'd better live on field rations for the rest of the trip," he said, returning.
Cordelia nodded heartfelt agreement.
* * *
She roused the men at the first grey light of dawn, as anxious now as Vorkosigan to complete the trip to the safety of the supply cache as quickly as possible. The radial held captive in Vorkosigan's shirt had died and deflated during the night, turning into a horrible gelid blob. Vorkosigan of necessity took a few minutes to wash it out in the stream, but the stinks and stains it left made him the unquestioned front-runner in the filth-collection contest Cordelia felt they were having. They had a quick snack of their dull but safe oatmeal and blue cheese dressing, and started on their way as the sun rose, sending their long shadows racing ahead of them across the rusty, flower-strewn levels.
Near their noon halt Vorkosigan took a break and disappeared behind a bush for biological necessity. In a few moments a string of curses came floating around it, followed shortly by the speaker himself, hopping from foot to foot and shaking out the legs of his trousers. Cordelia gave him a look of innocent inquiry.
"You know those light yellow cones of sand we've been seeing?" Vorkosigan said, unbuckling his pants.
"Yes . . ."
"Don't stand on one to piss."
Cordelia failed to strangle a giggle. "What did you find? Or should I say, what found you?"
Vorkosigan turned his trousers inside out and began picking the little round white creatures running among their folds on cilia-like legs. Cordelia appropriated one and held it on the palm of her hand for a closer look. It was yet another model of the radials, an underground form.
"Ow!" She brushed it away hastily.
"Stings, doesn't it?" snarled Vorkosigan.
A burble of laughter welled up within her. But she was saved from a lapse of control when she noticed a more sobering feature of his appearance.
"Hey, that scratch doesn't look too good, does it?"
The claw mark of the scavenger on his right leg that Vorkosigan had collected the night they buried Rosemont was swollen and bluish, with ugly red streaks radiating from it up as far as his knee.
"It's all right," he said firmly, beginning to put on his de-radialed pants.
"It doesn't look all right. Let me see."
"There's nothing you can do about it here," he protested, but submitted to a brief examination. "Satisfied?" he inquired sarcastically, and finished dressing.
"I wish your micro people had been a little more thorough when they concocted that salve," Cordelia shrugged. "But you're right. Nothing to be done now."
They trudged on. Cordelia watched him more closely now. From time to time he would begin to favor the leg, then notice her scrutiny and march forward with a determinedly even stride. But by the end of the day he had abandoned subterfuge and was frankly limping. In spite of it he led on into the sunset, the afterglow of the sunset, and the gathering night, until the cratered mountain toward which they had been angling was a black bulk on the horizon. At last, stumbling in the dark, he gave up and called a halt. She was glad, for Dubauer was flagging, leaning on her heavily and trying to lie down. They slept where they stopped on the red sandy soil. Vorkosigan cracked a cold light and took his usual watch, as Cordelia lay in the dirt and watched the unreachable stars wheel overhead.
Vorkosigan had asked to be waked before dawn, but she let him sleep until full light. She didn't like the way he looked, alternately pale and flushed, or his shallow rapid breathing.
"Think you'd better take one of your painkillers?" she asked him when he rose, for he seemed barely able to put weight on the leg, which was much more swollen.
"Not yet. I have to save some for the end." He cut a long stick instead, and the three of them began the day's task of walking down their shadows.
"How far to the end?" Cordelia asked.
"I estimate a day, day and a half, depending on what kind of time we can make." He grimaced. "Don't worry. You're not going to have to carry me. I'm one of the fittest men in my command." He limped on. "Over forty."
"How many men over forty are there in your command?"
"Anyway, if it becomes necessary, I have a stimulant in my medkit that would animate a corpse. But I want to save it for the end too."
"What kind of trouble are you anticipating?"
"It all depends on who picks up my call. I know Radnov—my Political Officer—has at least two agents in my communications section." He pursed his lips, measuring her again. "You see, I don't think it was a general mutiny. I think it was a spur-of-the-moment assassination attempt on the part of Radnov and a very few others. Using you Betans, they thought they could get rid of me without implicating themselves. If I'm right, everyone aboard ship thinks I'm dead. All but one."
"Wouldn't I like to know. The one who hit me on the head and hid me in the bracken, instead of cutting my throat and dumping me in the nearest hole. Lieutenant Radnov seems to have a ringer in his group. And yet—if this ringer were loyal to me, all he'd have to do is tell Gottyan, my first officer, and he'd have had a loyal patrol down to pick me up before now. Now who in my command is so confused in his thinking as to betray both sides at once? Or am I missing something?"
"Maybe they're all still chasing my ship," suggested Cordelia.
"Where is your ship?"
Honesty should be safely academic by now, Cordelia calculated. "Well on its way back to Beta Colony."
"Unless they've been captured."
"No. They were out of your range when I talked to them. They may not be armed, but they can run rings around your battle cruiser."
"Hm. Well, it's possible."
He doesn't sound surprised, Cordelia noted. I'd bet his secret reports on our stuff would give our counterintelligence people colonic spasms. "How far will they pursue?"
"That's up to Gottyan. If he judges he can't possibly catch them, he'll return to the picket station. If he thinks he can, he's bound to make maximum effort."
He glanced sidelong at her. "I can't discuss that."
"I don't see why not. I'm not going anywhere but a Barrayaran prison cell, for a while. Funny how one's standards change. After this trek, it will seem like the lap of luxury."
"I'll try to see it doesn't come to that," he smiled.
His eyes bothered her, and his smile. His curtness she could meet and match with her own flippancy, guarding herself as with a fencer's foil. His kindness was like fencing with the sea, her strokes going soft and losing all volition. She flinched from the smile, and his face fell, then became closed and grave again.