Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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CHAPTER Four

One aspect of her new life as Regent-consort that Cordelia found easier to deal with than she'd anticipated was the influx of personal guards into their home. Her experience in the Betan Survey, and Vorkosigan's in the Barrayaran military service, had given them both practice with life in close quarters. It didn't take Cordelia long to start to know the persons in the uniforms, and take them on their own terms. The guards were a lively young group, hand-picked for their service and proud of it. Although when Piotr was also in residence, with all his liveried men including Bothari, the sense it gave Cordelia of living in a barracks became acute.

It was the Count who first suggested the informal hand-to-hand combat tournament between Illyan's men and his own. In spite of a vague mutter from the security commander about free training at the Emperor's expense, a ring was set up in the back garden, and the contest quickly became a weekly tradition. Even Koudelka was roped in, as referee and expert judge, with Piotr and Cordelia as cheering sections. Vorkosigan attended whenever time permitted, to Cordelia's gratification; she felt he needed the break in the grinding routine of government business to which he subjected himself daily.

Cordelia was settling down on the upholstered lawn sofa to watch the show one sunny autumn morning, attended by her handmaiden, when she suddenly remarked, "Why aren't you playing, Drou? Surely you need the practice as much as any of them. The excuse for this thing in the first place—not that you Barrayarans seem to need an excuse to practice mayhem—was that it was supposed to keep everybody on their toes."

Droushnakovi looked longingly at the ring, but said, "I wasn't invited. Milady."

"A rude oversight on somebody's part. Hm. Tell you what—go change your clothes. You can be my team. Aral can root for his own today. A proper Barrayaran contest should have at least three sides anyway, it's traditional."

"Do you think it will be all right?" she said doubtfully. "They might not like it."

The they in question were what Droushnakovi called the "real" guards, the liveried men.

"Aral won't mind. Anyone else who objects can argue with him. If they dare." Cordelia grinned, and Droushnakovi grinned back, then dashed off.

Aral arrived to settle comfortably beside her, and she told him of her plan. He raised an eyebrow. "Betan innovations? Well, why not? Brace yourself for chaff, though."

"I'm braced. They won't be as inclined to make jokes if she can pound a few of them. I think she can—on Beta Colony that girl would be a commando officer by now. All that natural talent is wasted toddling around after me all day. If she can't—well, then she shouldn't be guarding me anyway, eh?" She met his eyes.

"Point taken . . . I'll make sure Koudelka puts her in the first round against someone of her own height and weight class. In absolute terms she's a bit on the small side."

"She's bigger than you are."

"In height. I imagine I have a few kilos on her in weight. Nevertheless, your wish is my command. Oof." He climbed back to his feet, and went to enter Droushnakovi on Koudelka's list for the lists. Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, "Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants girls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her— hm, I do hope that's what that gesture means, otherwise you're getting obscene, Kou—wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan—Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey. Transaction complete: the rest is up to you, Drou."

Vorkosigan rejoined her. "All set. She'll start against one of father's men."

Droushnakovi returned, attired in loose slacks and a knit shirt, as close to the men's workout suits as her wardrobe could provide. The Count came out to consult with Sergeant Bothari, his team leader, and find a place to warm his bones in the sun beside them.

"What's this?" Piotr asked, as Koudelka called Droushnakovi's name for the second pair up. "Are we importing Betan customs now?"

"The girl has a lot of natural talent," Vorkosigan explained. "Besides, she needs the practice as much as any of them—more; she has the most important job of any of them."

"You'll be wanting women in the Service, next," complained Piotr. "Where will it end? That's what I'd like to know."

"What's wrong with women in the Service?" Cordelia asked, baiting him a little.

"It's unmilitary," snapped the old man.

" 'Military' is whatever wins the war, I should think." She smiled blandly. A small friendly warning pinch from Vorkosigan restrained her from rubbing in the point any harder.

In any case it wasn't necessary. Piotr turned to watch his player, saying only, "Humph."

The Count's player carelessly underestimated his opponent, and took the first fall for his error. It woke him up considerably. The onlookers shouted raucous comments. He pinned her on the next fall.

"Koudelka counted a bit fast there, didn't he?" asked Cordelia, as the Count's player let Droushnakovi up after the decision.

"Mm. Maybe," said Vorkosigan in a non-committal tone.

"She pulls her punches a bit, too, I notice. She'll never make it to the next round if she keeps doing that in this company."

On the next encounter, the deciding one for the two-out-of-three, Droushnakovi applied a successful arm-bar, but let it slip away from her.

"Oh, too bad," murmured the Count cheerfully.

"You should have let him break it!" cried Cordelia, getting more and more involved. The Count's player took a soft and sloppy fall. "Call it, Kou!" But the referee, leaning on his stick, let it pass. In any case, Droushnakovi spotted an opportunity for a choke, and grabbed it.

"Why doesn't he tap out?" asked Cordelia.

"He'd rather pass out," replied Aral. "That way he won't have to listen to his friends."

Droushnakovi was beginning to look doubtful, as the face clamped under her arm turned a dusky purple. Cordelia could see release coming, and leaped up to shout, "Hang on, Drou! Don't let him fake you out!" Droushnakovi took a firmer hold, and the figure stopped struggling.

"Go ahead and call it, Koudelka," called Piotr, shaking his head ruefully. "He has to be on duty tonight." And so the round went to Droushnakovi.

"Good work, Drou!" said Cordelia as Droushnakovi returned to them. "But you've got to be more aggressive. Release your killer instincts."

"I agree," said Vorkosigan unexpectedly. "That little hesitation you display could be deadly—and not just for yourself." He held her eye. "You're practicing for the real thing here, although we all pray that no such situation occurs. The kind of all-out effort it takes should be absolutely automatic."

"Yes, sir. I'll try, sir."

The next round featured Sergeant Bothari, who flattened his opponent twice in rapid succession. The defeated crawled out of the ring. Several more rounds went by, and it was Droushnakovi's turn again, this time with one of Illyan's men.

They connected, and in the struggle he goosed her effectively, loosing catcalls from the audience. In her angry distraction, he pulled her off-balance for a fairly clean fall.

"Did you see that!" cried Cordelia to Aral. "That was a dirty trick!"

"Mm. It wasn't one of the eight forbidden blows, though. You couldn't disqualify him on it. Nevertheless . . ." he motioned Koudelka for a time-out, and called Droushnakovi over for a quiet word.

"We saw the blow," he murmured. Her lips were tight and her face red. "Now, as Milady's champion, an insult to you is in some measure an insult to her. Also a very bad precedent. It is my desire that your opponent not leave the ring conscious. How, is your problem. You may take that as an order, if you like. And don't worry needlessly about breaking bones, either," he added blandly.

Droushnakovi returned to the ring with a slight smile on her face, eyes narrowed and glittering. She followed a feint with a lightning kick to her opponent's jaw, a punch to his belly, and a low body blow to his knees that brought him down with a boom on the matting. He did not get up. There was a slightly shocked silence.

"You're right," said Vorkosigan. "She was pulling her punches."

Cordelia smiled smugly, and settled herself more comfortably. "Thought so."

The next round to come up for Droushnakovi was the semi-final, and it was the luck of the draw that her opponent was Sergeant Bothari.

"Hm," murmured Cordelia to Vorkosigan. "I'm not sure about the psychodynamics of this. Is it safe? I mean for both of them, not just for her. And not just physically."

"I think so," he replied, equally quietly. "Life in the Count's service has been a nice, quiet routine for Bothari. He's been taking his medication. I think he's in pretty good shape at the moment. And the atmosphere of the practice ring is a safe, familiar one for him. It would take more tension than Drou can provide to unhinge him."

Cordelia nodded, satisfied, and settled back to watch the slaughter. Droushnakovi looked nervous.

The start was slow, with Droushnakovi mainly concentrating on staying out of reach. Swinging around to watch, Lieutenant Koudelka accidently pressed the release of his swordstick, and the cover shot off into the bushes. Bothari was distracted for an instant, and Drou struck, low and fast. Bothari landed clean with a firm impact, although he rolled immediately to his feet with scarcely a pause.

"Oh, good throw!" cried Cordelia ecstatically. Drou looked quite as amazed as everyone else. "Call it, Kou!"

Lieutenant Koudelka frowned. "It wasn't a fair throw, Milady." One of the Count's men retrieved the cover, and Koudelka resheathed the weapon. "It was my fault. Unfair distraction."

"You didn't call it unfair distraction a while ago," Cordelia objected.

"Let it go, Cordelia," said Vorkosigan quietly.

"But he's cheating her out of her point!" she whispered back furiously. "And what a point! Bothari's been tops in every round to date."

"Yes. It took six months practice on the old General Vorkraft before Koudelka ever threw him."

"Oh. Hm." That gave her pause. "Jealousy?"

"Haven't you seen it? She has everything he lost."

"I have seen he's been blasted rude to her on occasion. Its a shame. She's obviously—"

Vorkosigan held up a restraining finger. "Talk about it later. Not here."

She paused, then nodded in agreement. "Right."

The round went on, with Sergeant Bothari putting Droushnakovi practically through the mat, twice, quickly, and then dispatching his final challenger with almost equal ease.

A conference of players on the other side of the garden sent Koudelka limping over as an emissary.

"Sir? We were wondering if you would go a demonstration round. With Sergeant Bothari. None of the fellows here have ever seen that."

Vorkosigan waved down the idea, not very convincingly. "I'm not in shape for it. Lieutenant. Besides, how did they ever find out about that? Been telling tales?"

Koudelka grinned. "A few. I think it would enlighten them. About what kind of game this can really be."

"A bad example, I'm afraid."

"I've never seen this," murmured Cordelia. "Is it really that good a show?"

"I don't know. Have I offended you lately? Would watching Bothari pound me be a catharsis?"

"I think it would be for you," said Cordelia, falling in with his obvious desire to be persuaded. "I think you've missed that sort of thing, in this headquarters life you've been leading lately."

"Yes. . . ." He rose, to a bit of clapping, and removed uniform jacket, shoes, rings, and the contents of his pockets, and stepped to the ring to do some stretching and warm-up exercises.

"You'd better referee, Kou," he called back. "Just to prevent undue alarm."

"Yes, sir." Koudelka turned to Cordelia before limping back to the arena. "Um. Just remember. Milady. They never killed each other in four years of this."

"Why do I find that more ominous than reassuring? Still, Bothari's done six rounds this morning. Maybe he's getting tired."

The two men faced off in the arena and bowed formally. Koudelka backed hastily out of the way. The raucous good humor died away among the watchers, as the icy cold and concentrated stillness of the two players drew all eyes. They began to circle, lightly, then met in a blur. Cordelia did not quite see what happened, but when they parted Vorkosigan was spitting blood from a lacerated mouth, and Bothari was hunched over his belly.

In the next contact Bothari landed a kick to Vorkosigan's back that echoed off the garden walls and propelled him completely out of the arena, to land rolling and running back in spite of disrupted breathing. The men in whose protection the Regent's life was supposed to lie began to look worriedly at one another. At the next grappling Vorkosigan underwent a vicious fall, with Bothari landing atop him instantly for a follow-up choke. Cordelia thought she could see his ribs bend from the knees on his chest. A couple of the guards started forward, but Koudelka waved them back, and Vorkosigan, face dark and suffused, tapped out.

"First point to Sergeant Bothari," called Koudelka. "Best two out of three, sir?"

Sergeant Bothari stood, smiling a little, and Vorkosigan sat on the mat a minute, regaining his wind. "One more, anyway. Got to get my revenge. Out of shape."

"Told you so," murmured Bothari.

They circled again. They met, parted, met again, and suddenly Bothari was doing a spectacular cartwheel, while Vorkosigan rolled beneath to grab an arm-bar that nearly dislocated his shoulder in his twisting fall. Bothari struggled briefly against the lock, then tapped out. This time it was Bothari who sat on the mat a minute before getting up.

"That's amazing," Droushnakovi commented, eyes avid. "Especially considering how much smaller he is."

"Small but vicious," agreed Cordelia, fascinated. "Keep that in mind."

The third round was brief. A blur of grappling and blows and messy joint fall resolved suddenly in an armlock, with Bothari in charge. Vorkosigan unwisely attempted a break, and Bothari, quite expressionlessly, dislocated his elbow with an audible pop. Vorkosigan yelled and tapped out. Once again Koudelka suppressed a rush of uninvited aid.

"Put it back. Sergeant," Vorkosigan groaned from his seat on the ground, and Bothari braced one foot on his former captain and gave the arm an accurately aligned yank.

"Must remember," gasped Vorkosigan, "not to do that."

"At least he didn't break it this time," said Koudelka encouragingly, and helped him up, with Bothari's assistance. Vorkosigan limped back to the lawn chair, and seated himself, very cautiously, at Cordelia's feet. Bothari, too, was moving a lot more slowly and stiffly.

"And that," said Vorkosigan, still catching his breath, "is how ... we used to play the game . . . aboard the old General Vorkraft."

"All that effort," remarked Cordelia. "And how often did you ever get into a real hand-to-hand combat situation?"

"Very, very seldom. But when we did, we won."

The party broke up, with a murmuring undercurrent of comment from the other players. Cordelia accompanied Aral off to help with first-aid to his elbow and mouth. a hot soak and rubdown, and a change of clothes.

During the rubdown she brought up the personnel problem that had been growing in her notice.

"Do you suppose you could say something to Kou about the way he treats Drou? It's not like his usual self at all. She about does flips trying to be nice to him. And he doesn't even treat her with the courtesy he'd give one of his men. She's practically a fellow officer. And, unless I'm totally wide of the mark, madly in love with him. Why doesn't he see it?"

"What makes you think he doesn't?" asked Aral slowly.

"His behavior, of course. A shame. They'd make quite a pair. Don't you think she's attractive?"

"Marvelously. But then, I like tall amazons," he grinned over his shoulder at her, "as everyone knows. It's not every man's taste. But if that's a matchmaking gleam I detect in your eye—do you suppose it could be maternal hormones, by the way?"

"Shall I dislocate your other elbow?"

"Ugh. No thanks. I'd forgotten how painful a workout with Bothari could be. Ah, that's better. Down a bit . . ."

"You're going to have some astonishing bruises there tomorrow."

"Don't I know it. But before you get carried away over Drou's love life . . . have you thought carefully about Koudelka's injuries?"

"Oh." Cordelia was struck silent. "I'd assumed . . . that his sexual functions were as well repaired as the rest of him."

"Or as poorly. It's a very delicate bit of surgery."

Cordelia pursed her lips. "Do you know this for a fact?"

"No, I don't. I do know that in all our conversations the subject was never once brought up. Ever."

"Hm. Wish I knew how to interpret that. It sounds a little ominous. Do you think you could ask . . . ?"

"Good God, Cordelia, of course not! What a question to ask the man. Particularly if the answer is no. I've got to work with him, remember."

"Well, I've got to work with Drou. She's no use to me if she pines away and dies of a broken heart. He has reduced her to tears, more than once. She goes off where she thinks nobody's looking."

"Really? That's hard to imagine."

"You can hardly expect me to tell her he's not worth it, all things considered. But does he really dislike her? Or is it just self-defense?"

"Good question . . . For what it's worth, my driver made a joke about her the other day—not even a very offensive one—and Kou got rather frosty with him. I don't think he dislikes her. But I do think he envies her."

Cordelia left the subject on that ambiguous note. She longed to help the pair, but had no answer to offer for their dilemma. Her own mind had no trouble generating creative solutions to the practical problems of physical intimacy posed by the lieutenants injuries, but shrank from the violation of their shy reserve that offering them would entail. She suspected wryly that she would merely shock them. Sex therapy appeared to be unheard of, here.

True Betan, she had always considered a double standard of sexual behavior to be a logical impossibility. Dabbling now on the fringes of Barrayaran high society in Vorkosigan's wake, she began to finally see how it could he done. It all seemed to come down to impeding the free flow of information to certain persons, preselected by an unspoken code somehow known to and agreed upon by all present but her. One could not mention sex to or in front of unmarried women or children. Young men, it appeared, were exempt from all rules when talking to each other, but not if a woman of any age or degree were present. The rules also changed bewilderingly with variations of the social status of those present. And married women, in groups free of male eavesdroppers, sometimes underwent the most astonishing transformations in apparent databases. Some subjects could be joked about but not discussed seriously. And some variations could not be mentioned at all. She had blighted more than one conversation beyond hope of recovery by what seemed to her a perfectly obvious and casual remark, and been taken aside by Aral for a quick debriefing.

She tried writing out a list of the rules she thought she had deduced, but found them so illogical and conflicting, especially in the area of what certain people were supposed to pretend not to know in front of certain other people, she gave up the effort. She did show the list to Aral, who read it in bed one night and nearly doubled over laughing.

"Is that what we really look like to you? I like your Rule Seven. Must keep it in mind ... I wish I'd known it in my youth. I could have skipped all those godawful Service training vids."

"If you snicker any harder, you're going to get a nosebleed," she said tartly. "These are your rules, not mine. You people play by them. I just try to figure them out."

"My sweet scientist. Hm. You certainly call things by their correct names. We've never tried . . . would you like to violate Rule Eleven with me, dear Captain?"

"Let me, see, which one—oh, yes! Certainly. Now? And while we're about it, let's knock off Thirteen. My hormones are up. I remember my brother's co-parent told me about this effect, but I didn't really believe her at the time. She says you make up for it later, post-partum."

"Thirteen? I'd never have guessed. . . ."

"That's because, being Barrayaran, you spend so much time following Rule Two."

Anthropology was forgotten, for a time. But she found she could crack him up, later, with a properly timed mutter of "Rule Nine, sir."

 

The season was turning. There had been a hint of winter in the air that morning, a frost that had wilted some of the plants in Count Piotr's back garden. Cordelia anticipated her first real winter with fascination, Vorkosigan promised her snow, frozen water, something she'd experienced on only two Survey missions. Before spring, I shall bear a son. Huh.

But the afternoon had basked in the autumn light, warming again. The flat roof of Vorkosigan House above the front wing now breathed back that heat around Cordelia's ankles as she picked her way across it, though the air on her cheeks was cooling to crispness as the sun slanted to the city's horizon.

"Good evening, boys." Cordelia nodded to the two guards posted to this rooftop duty station.

They nodded back, the senior touching his forehead in a hesitant semi-salute. "Milady."

Cordelia had taken to regular sunset-watching up here. The view of the cityscape from this four-floors-up vantage was very fine. She could catch a gleam of the river that divided the town, beyond trees and buildings. Although the excavation of a large hole a few blocks away along the line of sight suggested that the riverine scene would be occluded soon by new architecture. The tallest turret of Vorhartung Castle, where she'd attended all those ceremonies in the Council of Counts' chamber, peaked from a bluff overlooking the water.

Beyond Vorhartung Castle lay the oldest parts of the capital. She'd not yet seen that area, its kinked one-horse-wide streets impassable to groundcars, though she'd flown over the strange, low, dark blots in the heart of the city. The newer parts, glittering out toward the horizon, were more like galactic standard, patterned around the modern transportation systems.

None of it was like Beta Colony. Vorbarr Sultana was all spread out on the surface, or climbed skyward, strangely two-dimensional and exposed. Beta Colony's cities plunged down into shafts and tunnels, many-layered and complex, cozy and safe. Indeed, Beta Colony did not have architecture so much as it had interior design. It was amazing, the variety of schemes people came up with to vary dwellings that had outsides.

The guards twitched and sighed, as she leaned on the stonework, gazing out. They really didn't like it when she strayed nearer than three meters to the edge, though the space was only six meters wide. But she should be able to spot Vorkosigan's groundcar turning into the street soon. Sunsets were all very well, but her eyes turned downward.

She inhaled the complex odors, from vegetation, water vapor, industrial waste gases. Barrayar permitted an amazing amount of air dumping, as if ... well, air was free, here. Nobody measured it, there were no air processing and filtration fees. . . . Did these people even realize how rich they were? All the air they could breathe, just by stepping outdoors, taken for granted as casually as they took frozen water falling from the sky. She took an extra breath, as if she could somehow greedily hoard it, and smiled—

A distant, crackling, hard-edged boom shattered her thoughts and stopped her breath. Both guards jumped. So, you heard a bang. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Aral. And, icily. It sounded like a sonic grenade. Not a little one. Dear Cod. There was a column of smoke and dust rising from a street-canyon several blocks over, she couldn't see the source—she craned outward—

"Milady." The younger guard grasped her upper arm. "Please go inside." His face was tense, eyes wide. The senior man had his hand clamped to his ear, sucking info off his comm channel—she had no comm link.

"What's coming on?" she asked.

"Milady, please go below!" He hustled her toward the trapdoor to the attic, from which stairs led down to the fourth floor. "I'm sure it was nothing," he soothed as he pushed.

"It was a Class Four sonic grenade, probably air-tube launched," she informed his appalling ignorance. "Unless the thrower was suicidal. Haven't you ever heard one go off?"

Droushnakovi shot out the trapdoor, a buttered roll squashed in one hand and her stunner clutched in the other. "Milady?" The guard, looking relieved, shoved Cordelia at her and returned to his senior. Cordelia, screaming inside, grinned through clenched teeth and allowed herself to be guarded, climbing dutifully down the trap.

"What happened?" she hissed to Droushnakovi.

"Don't know yet. The red alert went off in the basement refectory, and everybody ran for their posts," panted Drou. She must have practically teleported up the six flights.

"Ngh." Cordelia galloped down the stairs, wishing for a drop tube. The comconsole in the library would surely be manned—somebody must have a comm link—she spun down the circular staircase and pelted across the black and white stones.

The house guard commander was indeed at the post, channeling orders. Count Piotr's senior liveried man jittered at his shoulder. "They're coming straight here," the ImpSec man said over his shoulder. "You fetch that doctor." The brown-uniformed man dashed out.

"What happened?" Cordelia demanded. Her heart was hammering now, and not just from the dash downstairs.

He glanced up at her, started to say something calming and meaningless, and changed his mind in mid-breath. "Somebody took a potshot at the Regent's groundcar. They missed. They're continuing on here."

"How near a miss?"

"I don't know. Milady."

He probably didn't. But if the groundcar still functioned .. Helplessly, she gestured him back to his work, and wheeled to return to the foyer, now manned by a couple of Count Piotr's men, who discouraged her from standing too near the door. She hung on the stair railing three steps up and bit her lip.

"Was Lieutenant Koudelka with him, do you think?" asked Droushnakovi faintly.

"Probably. He usually is," Cordelia answered absently, her eyes on the door, waiting, waiting. . . .

She heard the car pull up. One of Count Piotr's men opened the house door. Security men swarmed over the silver shape of the vehicle in the portico—God, where did they all come from? The car's shiny finish was scored and smoked, but not deeply dented; the rear canopy was not cracked, though the front was scarred. The rear doors swung up, and Cordelia stretched for a view of Vorkosigan, maddeningly obstructed by the green backs of the ImpSec men. They parted. Lieutenant Koudelka sat in the aperture, blinking dizzily, blood dripping down his chin, then was levered to his feet by a guard. Vorkosigan emerged at last, refusing to be hustled, waving back help. Even the most worried guards did not dare to touch him without an invitation. Vorkosigan strode inside, grim-faced and pale. Koudelka, propped by his stick and an ImpSec corporal, followed, looking wilder. The blood issued from his nose. Piotr's man swung closed the front door of Vorkosigan House, shutting out three-fourths of the chaos.

Aral met her eyes, above the heads of the men, and the saturnine look fixed on his face slipped just a little. He offered her a fractional nod, I'm all right. Her lips tightened in return. You'd by-Cod better be. . . .

Kou was saying in a shaken voice, "—bloody great hole in the street! Could've swallowed a freight shuttle. That driver has amazing reflexes—what?" He shook his head at a questioner. "Sorry, my ears are ringing—come again?" He stood openmouthed, as if he could drink in sound orally, touched his face and stared in surprise at his crimson-smeared hand.

'Tour ears are only stunned, Kou," said Vorkosigan. His voice was calm, but much too loud. "They'll be back to normal by tomorrow morning." Only Cordelia realized the raised tone wasn't for Koudelka's benefit—Vorkosigan couldn't hear himself, either. His eyes shifted too quickly the only hint that he was trying to read lips.

Simon Illyan and a physician arrived at almost the same moment. Vorkosigan and Koudelka were taken to a quiet back parlor, shedding all the—to Cordelia's mind—rather useless guards. Cordelia and Droushnakovi followed. The physician began an immediate examination, starting, at Vorkosigans command, with the gory Koudelka.

"One shot?" asked Illyan.

"Only one," confirmed Vorkosigan, watching his face. "If they'd lingered for a second try, they could have bracketed me."

"If he'd lingered, we could have bracketed him. A forensic team's on the firing site now. The assassin's long gone, of course. A clever spot, he had a dozen escape routes."

"We vary our route daily," Lieutenant Koudelka, following this with difficulty, said around the cloth he pressed to his face. "How did he know where to set up his ambush?"

"Inside information?" Illyan shrugged, his teeth clenching at the thought.

"Not necessarily," said Vorkosigan. "There are only so many routes, this close to home. He could have been set up waiting for days."

"Precisely at the limit of our close-search perimeter?' said Illyan. "I don't like it."

"It bothers me more that he missed," said Vorkosigan. "Why? Could it have been some sort of warning shot' An attempt, not on my life, but on my balance of mind?"

"It was old ordnance," said Illyan. "There could have been something wrong with its tracker — nobody detected a laser rangefinder pulse." He paused, taking in Cordelia's white face. "I'm sure it was a lone lunatic. Milady. At least, it was certainly only one man."

"How does a lone maniac get hold of military-grade weaponry?" she inquired tartly.

Illyan looked uncomfortable. "We will be investigating that. It was definitely old issue."

"Don't you destroy obsolete stockpiles?"

"There's so much of it. ..."

Cordelia glared at this wit-scattered utterance. "He only needed one shot. If he'd managed a direct hit on that sealed car, Aral'd have been emulsified. Your forensic team would be trying right now to sort out which molecules were his and which were Kou's."

Droushnakovi turned faintly green; Vorkosigan's saturnine look was now firmly back in place.

"You want me to give you a precise resonance reflection amplitude calculation for that sealed passenger cabin, Simon?" Cordelia went on hotly. "Whoever chose that weapon was a competent military tech—if, fortunately, a poorish shot." She bit back further words, recognizing, even if no one else did, the suppressed hysteria driving the speed of her speech.

"My apologies. Captain Naismith." Illyan's tone grew more clipped. "You are quite correct." His nod was a shade more respectful.

Aral tracked this interplay, his face lightening, for the first time, with some hidden amusement.

Illyan took himself off, conspiracy theories no doubt dancing in his head. The doctor confirmed Aral's combat-experienced diagnosis of aural stun, issued powerful anti-headache pills—Aral hung on to his firmly—and made an appointment to re-check both men in the morning.

 

When Illyan stopped back by Vorkosigan House in the late evening to confer with his guard commander, it was all Cordelia could do not to grab him by the jacket and pin him to the nearest wall to shake out his information. She confined herself to simply asking, "Who tried to kill Aral? Who wants to kill Aral? Whatever benefit do they imagine they'll gain?"

Illyan sighed. "Do you want the short list, or the long one. Milady?"

"How long is the short list?" she asked in morbid fascination.

"Too long. But I can name you the top layer, if you like." He ticked them off on his fingers. "The Cetagandans, always. They had counted on political chaos here, following Ezar's death. They're not above prodding it along. An assassination is cheap interference, compared to an invasion fleet. The Komarrans, for old revenge or new revolt. Some there still call the Admiral the Butcher of Komarr—"

Cordelia, knowing the whole story behind that loathed sobriquet, winced.

"The anti-Vor, because my lord Regent is too conservative for their tastes. The military right, who fear he is too progressive for theirs. Leftover members of Prince Serg and Vorrutyer's old war party. Former operatives of the now-suppressed Ministry of Political Education, though I doubt one of them would have missed. Negri's department used to train them. Some disgruntled Vor who thinks he came out short in the recent power-shift. Any lunatic with access to weapons and a desire for instant fame as a big-game hunter—shall I go on?"

"Please don't. But what about today? If motive yields too broad a field of suspects, what about method and opportunity?"

"We have a little to work with there, though too much of it is negative. As I noted, it was a very clean attempt. Whoever set it up had to have access to certain lands of knowledge. We'll work those angles first."

It was the anonymity of the assassination attempt that bothered her most, Cordelia decided. When the killer could be anyone, the impulse to suspect everyone became overwhelming. Paranoia was a contagious disease here, it seemed; Barrayarans gave it to each other. Well, Negri and Illyan's combined forces must winkle out some concrete facts soon. She packed all her fears down hard into a little tiny compartment in the pit of her stomach, and locked them there. Next to her child.

Vorkosigan held her tight that night, curled into the curve of his stocky body, though he made no sexual advances. He just held her. He didn't all asleep for hours, despite the painkillers that glazed his eyes. She didn't fall asleep till he did. His shores lulled her at last. There wasn't that much to say. They missed; we go on.

Till the next try

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