Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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For Anne and Paul

CHAPTER One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, Milady," said Illyan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About the size of Hogarth Canyon back home? Yes." "You are a Betan, a woman of galactic-wide reputation." "Oh, come on now."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, it is a gesture of trust, but driven by necessity. You didn't catch the significance of Captain Negri's assignment to the Princess's household, then." "No. Was there one?"

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

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

"I didn't think so."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you have the men?"

"Well, yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregor swallowed, nodded.

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

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

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

"Dismantling, surely," Vorkosigan muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't mind getting blamed in his place, ma'am, because if it had become public they'd have been forced to execute him for murder and mutiny, and this gets 1 off and out. But I ... but I should not steal his praise. I'll pass it on to him if you wish, but I'm not sure remembers the incident. He went through some draconian mind-therapy after the war, before they discharged him—what you Barrayarans call therapy"— on a part with their neurosurgery, Cordelia feared, "and I gather 1 wasn't exactly, uh, normal before that, either."

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

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

"Ges Vorrutyer ..." Kareen's hands twisted, "found a 1 minded friend in Serg. A fertile follower, in his vile amusements. Maybe not... all Vorrutyer's fault. I don't know."

An honest answer, Cordelia sensed. Kareen added lowly "Ezar protected me from Serg, after I became pregnant.

I had not even seen my husband for over a year, when he was killed at Escobar."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Respect," sighed Droushnakovi.

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

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

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

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

Later, Droushnakovi handed Cordelia a sealed note on thick cream paper. Brows rising, Cordelia broke it open The handwriting was small and neat, the signature legible and without flourishes. With my compliments, it read. She will suit you well. Kareen.

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