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Died in unknown circumstances

Georgette


A naked man covered in bruises and scrapes rolls himself into a ball on the floor. He would settle more comfortably, but he is impeded. His hands are chained behind his back, and there is no room, anyway. The floor and the bars of the cell are awfully cold. The prickly snow crosses the windowpane, and a wind rushes through its scarce frame with a thin, chilling whistle. Winterfair comes in four days.

What a twist of fate.

At this New Year's Eve, the night street bonfires will mean a massacre, not a holidays. And the Emperor's Winterfair Ball won't take place. But why does his blood pound mockingly in his ears with a waltz rhythm, muffling all other sounds? A remembrance of two years ago stings in the pit of his stomach like heartburn. "And... one-two-three, one-two-three..."

***

The Graduate Ball of the Imperial Academy was traditionally wild, doubled now by the boldness of the first post-war years. High uniform collars, firm as foundations. Proud glances of fathers and uncles, all war veterans themselves, and shy smiles of an appropriate selection of young ladies, invited here as possible brides for the fresh young officer corps. There were prospects of a Napoleonic scale, and most of the people here were even well-educated enough to know who Napoleon had been.

They were graduates of the third post-war year. They were a bit old for cadets, by Barrayaran measure, because they had fought a real war before they started their training. Some of them had already been brevetted to officer rank before entering the Academy; their hands were more accustomed to anti-aircraft plasma guns than to flight-simulator buttons.

The old Emperor had not come to this party; it was already rumored that Dorca was close to death. Instead the somber crown prince Yuri, in rich-gilded tunic, greeted the former cadets. And his august sister was there too, hand in hand with him, opening the ball with the first strains of the waltz.

The graduates were favored by turns at the dance with Her Highness. Like the others, he received her ironic praise. He was further appreciated by her indulgent sentence: "You dance rather well, my Prince".

"Lieutenant, dear aunt," he quietly corrected, only to be rewarded by the furious glare of her dark ember eyes. "A lieutenant only."

Alas, he didn't then notice the proper eyes, the ones that mattered. Another glare was fixed hard upon his proudly straightened shoulders.

He was light-hearted. Because there was a waltz, and freedom, and new plastic rectangles shining under the chandeliers' light like the scarlet running lights of a car, rushing away to the future...

Or drops of fresh blood.

All they knew was how to kill. And he knew that on a par with all the others; only a man not acquainted with his father would dare to breathe a word about his flabby Betan upbringing.

Why was his staunch loyalty to the Imperium such hell for him? So far, it was that a rebellion is worse than a massacre.

His opinion would change. In half a year Yuri would succeed to the throne.

***

Stunners were a new-fashioned galactic doodad, a weapon for nervous girls unable to stand the sight of blood. But the special squad dispatched to arrest him had used stunners. Apparently they had a strong order to take him alive.

Before throwing him at the Emperor's feet, they had worked him over handily, to change him from a neat officer Vor lord to an unsightly fellow, blood drying upon his face and buttons ripped from his tunic. As a prisoner, he bent down ugly: whatever a man did, he couldn't stay upright after so many punches to the stomach. Did his mad uncle still needed to erase the human being in his enemy to be able to kill him easily?

Wasn't an arms-length list of accusations enough?

***

Why, he had known beforehand!

He hated political blather just on account of his blood. There was a reasonable rule for Imperial officers to avoid such talk. But you couldn't shut the mouths of your fellow-officers when they'd raised their wineglasses and seized all the capital's rumors and gossip, and talked it over.

Of course, it was always in an undertone, as if they cared to take into consideration the subjects of this gossip.

"... an accident? He could have just ordered them taken out of his sight, and made haste. Before the first councilor had time to blink he was falling head-first from the third floor..."

"... the front of ImpSec building is so ugly that even the gargoyles beside its doorway seem downright pretty. But I still would like to admire that architectural masterpiece on the outside, not from within..."

"... Count Vorgarin is under a capital charge. His House is sealed off. Ah, yes, after his urgent departure to his District with all his young daughters..."

"Sh-sh...", snickers and whispers. It's impossible not to hear; it's stupid to excuse yourself too quickly every time; it's hypocrisy to loyally vindicate every decision of the Emperor; it's suspicious to avoid parties. Of course, they would have forgiven some ordinary Lieutenant for the same story that would become an accusation against a person with his name. He would have liked to take his mother's maiden name, but it was not Vorish. He had no choice but to conceal a blank face behind his wineglass and to keep silent. And a silent person looks the most dangerous. You can't guess which one of your friends will inform the Secret Imperial Police of every detail you didn't say, come the next morning.

And what a conclusion Yuri the Mad would draw from this report.

***

A real death sentence for a fictitious treason is starvation in a cell in Vorbarr Sultana's Great Square.

So as not to let him go to his eternal sleep under a sedative whisper of frost and not to deny Emperor Yuri the pleasure of a long vengeance, they placed his cell in the palace hall instead of the Great Square. It was empty, dark and desolate. This was for the better, however; he was not so broken yet that he would not feel shame at being put out naked for show.

What is better? To die all alone without the tactless remarks of any witnesses, but also without any hope of help? Or to know that his friends and relatives would see him every day of his imprisonment in the ignominious cell until he died?

However he settles, the pain and chill throb in his beaten body. It's too cold to lie down; it's too painful to sit. The second time, before putting him here, Yuri's thugs no longer restrained themselves. They had the order not to kill him and nothing more. He didn't worry about pain, but the remembrance of a past humiliation made him grit his teeth. Fucking perverts. And their lord too...

***

Crown Prince Yuri never married before his father's death; this fact gave rise to a lot of rumors, from romantic to sexy. It didn't matter to the Lieutenant: his Betan half suggested that somebody's intimate life can't be proper or improper, and his Barrayaran half said that a well-bred man shouldn't take an interest in such things.

He learned that both halves were wrong suddenly and brutally.

Vlad Vormitten was his Academy classmate. They hasn't been friends back then, but now they felt a sort of mutual nostalgic sympathy which often grips former messmates after they no longer have the same familiar faces every day in their classes.

Vormitten was an irreproachable, right and proper blonde fellow, suitable for modeling in advertising photographs. He rose impossibly rapidly through the ranks and was promoted to the post of Emperor's aide-de-camp the day after the official Coronation party in the Imperial Residence.

He had not the slightest wish to think about the reasons. Especially after catching Lieutenant Vormitten after the man left an Emperor's briefing. Vormitten straightened out his tunic convulsively, checking its fit in a mirror and only then noticing that he was not alone in the antechamber.

The aide, pale and with his bitten lip bleeding, didn't looked happy. But Vormitten spoke first.

"Is something wrong, Dag?"

"Nothing".

"And 'nothing' happened to me. But I keep my head on shoulders and my rectangles on my collar."

"What are you about?" He had to laugh and smile uncomprehendingly. But he resisted the temptation to ask sarcastically, what's the difference between working in the Imperial Service and working in the Betan Orb.

One more link in the chain of his loyalty to Emperor grew irretrievably weaker this day.

***

Anyway. He is not a traitor. Not a mutineer. He didn't plot against his insane crown-bearing kinsman to usurp the throne. He didn't think, didn't conspire, didn't participate... damn his honest inaction!

But he is Vorbarra the Prince. Dorca's grandson, Xav's son, and yes, Yuri's nephew. Lieutenant Dag Vorbarra.

And therefore he is guilty. Whatever he did, however honestly he served, it only strengthened his paranoid uncle's suspicions that the next in succession was ready to reach for the crown. And Emperor Yuri the Mad has figured out how to resolve this trouble in his own way.

Uttering the verdict, Yuri let slip that everybody named Vorbarra would die by this Winterfair. A madman's ravings? Of course. But this madman is able to make it happen.

Parents? Sisters? Cousins? Would anybody be lucky enough to save himself?

The night is still. He doesn't hear the distant shots, only the dry hiss of the blizzard.

It is the last sound he will hear.

August 2006