Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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CHAPTER Six

Cordelia watched the shadow of the lightflyer flow over the ground below, a slim blot arrowing south. The arrow wavered across farm fields, creeks, rivers, and dusty roads—the road net was rudimentary, stunted, its development leapfrogged by the personal air transport that had arrived in the blast of galactic technology at the end of the Time of Isolation. Coils of tension unwound in her neck with each kilometer they put between themselves and the hectic hothouse atmosphere of the capital. A day in the country was an excellent idea, overdue. She only wished Aral could have shared it with her.

Sergeant Bothari, cued by some landmark below, banked the lightflyer gently to its new course. Droushnakovi, sharing the back seat with Cordelia, stiffened, trying not to lean into her. Dr. Henri, in front with the Sergeant, stared out the canopy with an interest almost equal to Cordelia's.

Dr. Henri turned half around, to speak over his shoulder to Cordelia. "I do thank you for the luncheon invitation, Lady Vorkosigan. It's a rare privilege to visit the Vorkosigans' private estate."

"Is it?" said Cordelia. "I know they don't have crowds, but Count Piotr's horse friends drop in fairly often. Fascinating animals." Cordelia thought that over a second, then decided Dr. Henri would realize without being told that the "fascinating animals" applied to the horses, and not Count Piotr's friends. "Drop the least little hint that you're interested, and Count Piotr will probably show you personally around the stable."

"I've never met the General." Dr. Henri looked daunted by the prospect, and fingered the collar of his undress greens. A research scientist from the Imperial Military Hospital, Henri dealt with high rankers often enough not to be awed; it had to be all that Barrayaran history clinging to Piotr that made the difference.

Piotr had acquired his present rank at the age of twenty-two, fighting the Cetagandans in the fierce guerrilla war that had raged through the Dendarii Mountains, just now showing blue on the southern horizon. Rank was all then-emperor Dorca Vorbarra could give him at the time; more tangible assets such as reinforcements, supplies, and pay were out of the question in that desperate hour. Twenty years later Piotr had changed Barrayaran history again, playing kingmaker to Ezar Vorbarra in the civil war that had brought down Mad Emperor Yuri. Not your average HQ staffer. General Piotr Vorkosigan, not by anybody's standards.

"He's easy to get along with," Cordelia assured Dr. Henri. "Just admire the horses, and ask a few leading questions about the wars, and you can relax and spend the rest of your time listening."

Hem-is brows went up, as he searched her face for irony. Henri was a sharp man. Cordelia smiled cheerfully

Bothari was silently watching her in the mirror set over his control interface, Cordelia noticed. Again. The sergeant seemed tense today. It was the position of his hands, the cording of the muscles in his neck, that gave him away. Bothari's flat yellow eyes were always unreadable;

set deep, too close together, and not quite on the same level, above his sharp cheekbones and long narrow jaw. Anxiety over the doctor's visit? Understandable.

The land below was rolling, but soon rucked up into the rugged ridges that channeled the lake district. The mountains rose beyond, and Cordelia thought she caught a distant glint of early snow on the highest peaks. Bothari hopped the flyer over three running ridges, and banked again, zooming up a narrow valley. A few more minutes, a swoop over another ridge, and the long lake was in sight, An enormous maze of burnt-out fortifications made a black crown on a headland, and a village nestled below it. Bothari brought the flyer down neatly on a circle painted on the pavement of the village's widest street.

Dr. Henri gathered up his bag of medical equipment, 'The examination will only take a few minutes," he assured Cordelia, "then we can go on."

Don't tell me, tell Bothari. Cordelia sensed Dr. Henri was a little unnerved by Bothari. He kept addressing her instead of the Sergeant, as if she were some translator who would put it all into terms that Bothari would understand. Bothari was formidable, true, but talking past him wouldn't make him magically disappear.

Bothari led them to a little house set in a narrow side street that went down to the glimmering water. At his knock, a heavyset woman with greying hair opened the door and smiled. "Good morning. Sergeant, Come in, everything's all ready. Milady." She favored Cordelia with an awkward curtsey.

Cordelia returned a nod, gazing around with interest. "Good morning. Mistress Hysopi. How nice your house looks today." The place was painfully scrubbed and straightened—as a military widow, Mistress Hysopi understood all about inspections. Cordelia trusted the everyday atmosphere in the hired fosterer's house was a trifle more relaxed.

"Your little girl's been very good this morning," Mistress Hysopi assured the Sergeant. "Took her bottle right down—she's just had her bath. Right this way. Doctor. 1 hope you'll find everything's all right. . . ."

She guided the way up narrow stairs. One bedroom was clearly her own; the other, with a bright window looking down over rooftops to the lake, had recently been made over into a nursery. A dark-haired infant with big brown eyes cooed to herself in a crib. "There's a girl," Mistress Hysopi smiled, picking her up. "Say hi to your daddy, eh, Elena? Pretty-pretty."

Bothari entered no further than the door, watching the infant warily. "Her head has grown a lot," he offered after a moment.

"They usually do, between three and four months," Mistress Hysopi agreed.

Dr. Henri laid out his instruments on the crib sheet, and Mistress Hysopi carried the baby back over and began undressing her. The two began a technical discussion about formulae and feces, and Bothari walked around the little room, looking but not touching. He did look terribly huge and out-of-place among the colorful, delicate infant furnishings, dark and dangerous in his brown and silver uniform. His head brushed the slanting ceiling, and he backed cautiously to the door.

Cordelia hung curiously over Henri and Hysopi's shoulders, watching the little girl wriggle and attempt to roll. Infants. Soon enough she would have one of those. As if in response her belly fluttered. Piotr Miles was not, fortunately, strong enough to fight his way out of a paper bag yet, but if his development continued at this rate, the last couple of months were going to be sleepless. She wished she'd taken the parents' training course back on Beta Colony even if she hadn't been ready to apply for a license. Yet Barrayaran parents seemed to manage to ad lib. Mistress Hysopi had learned on the job, and she had three grown children now.

"Amazing," said Dr. Henri, shaking his head and recording his data. "Absolutely normal development, as far as I can tell. Nothing to even show she came out of a uterine replicator."

"I came out of a uterine replicator," Cordelia noted with amusement. Henri glanced involuntarily up and down at her, as if suddenly expecting to find antennae sprouting from her head. "Betan experience suggests it doesn't matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive."

"Really." He frowned thoughtfully. "And you are free of genetic defects?"

"Certified," Cordelia agreed.

"We need this technology." He sighed, and began packing his things back up. "She's fine, you can dress her again," he added to Mistress Hysopi.

Bothari loomed over the crib at last, to stare down the lines creased deep between his eyes. He touched the infant only once, a finger to her cheek, then rubbed thumb and finger together as if checking his neural function. Mistress Hysopi studied him sideways, but said nothing.

While Bothari lingered to settle up the month's expenses with Mistress Hysopi, Cordelia and Dr. Henri strolled down to the lake, Droushnakovi following.

"When those seventeen Escobaran uterine replicators first arrived at Imp Mil," said Henri, "sent from the war zone, I was frankly appalled. Why save those unwanted fetuses, and at such a cost? Why land them on my department? Since then I've become a believer. Milady. I've even thought of an application, spin-off technology, for bum patients. I'm working on it now, the project approval came down just a week ago." His eyes were eager, as he detailed his theory, which was sound as far as Cordelia understood the principles.

"My mother is a medical equipment and maintenance engineer at Silica Hospital," she explained to Henri, when he paused for breath and approval. "She works on these sorts of applications all the time." Henri redoubled his technical exposition.

Cordelia greeted two women in the street by name, and politely introduced them to Dr. Henri.

"They're wives of some of Count Piotr's sworn armsmen," she explained as they passed on.

"I should have thought they'd choose to live in the capital."

"Some do, some stay here. It seems to depend on taste.

The cost of living is much lower out here, and these fellows aren't paid as much as I'd imagined. Some of the backcountry men are suspicious of city life, they seem to think it's purer here." She grinned briefly. "One fellow has a wife in each location. None of his brother-armsmen have ratted on him yet. A solid bunch."

Henri's brows rose. "How jolly for him."

"Not really. He's chronically short of cash, and always looks worried. But he can't decide which wife to give up. Apparently, he actually loves them both."

When Dr. Henri stepped aside to talk to an old man they saw pottering around the docks about possible boat rentals, Droushnakovi came up to Cordelia, and lowered her voice. She looked disturbed.

"Milady . . . how in the world did Sergeant Bothari come by a baby? He's not married, is he?"

"Would you believe the stork brought her?" said Cordelia lightly.

"No."

From her frown, Drou did not approve this levity. Cordelia hardly blamed her. She sighed. How do I wriggle out of this one? "Very nearly. Her uterine replicator was sent on a fast courier from Escobar, after the war. She finished her gestation in a laboratory in Imp Mil, under Dr. Henri's supervision."

"Is she really Bothari's?"

"Oh, yes. Genetically certified. That's how they identified—" Cordelia snapped that last sentence off midway. Carefully, now...

"But what was all that about seventeen replicators? And how did the baby get in the replicator? Was — was she an experiment?"

"Placental transfer. A delicate operation, even by galactic standards, but hardly experimental. Look." Cordelia paused, thinking fast. "I'll tell you the truth." Just not all of it. "Little Elena is the daughter of Bothari and a young Escobaran officer named Elena Visconti. Bothari . . . loved her . . . very much. But after the war, she would not return with him to Barrayar. The child was conceived, er..., Barrayaran-style, then transferred to the replicator when they parted. There were some similar cases. The replicators were all sent to Imp Mil, which was interested in learning more about the technology. Bothari was in ... medical therapy, for quite a long time, after the war. But when he got out, and she got out, he took custody of her."

"Did the others take their babies, too?"

"Most of the other fathers were dead by then. The children went to the Imperial Service orphanage." There. The official version, all right and tight.

"Oh." Drou frowned at her feet. "That's not at all ... it's hard to picture Bothari ... To tell the truth," she said in a burst of candor, "I'm not sure I'd want to give custody of a pet cat to Bothari. Doesn't he strike you as a bit strange?"

"Aral and I are keeping an eye on things. Bothari's doing very well so far, I think. He found Mistress Hysopi on his own, and is making sure she gets everything she needs. Has Bothari — that is, does Bothari bother you?"

Droushnakovi gave Cordelia an are-you-kidding? look. "He's so big. And ugly. And he ... mutters to himself, some days. And he's sick so much, days in a row when he won't get out of bed, but he doesn't have a fever or anything. Count Piotr's Armsman-commander thinks he's malingering."

"He's not malingering. But I'm glad you mentioned it, I'll have Aral talk to the commander and straighten him out."

"But aren't you at all afraid of him? On the bad days, at least?"

"I could weep for Bothari," said Cordelia slowly, "but I don't fear him. On the bad days or any days. You shouldn't either. It's . . . it's a profound insult."

"Sorry." Droushnakovi scuffed her shoe across the gravel. "It's a sad story. No wonder he doesn't talk about the Escobar war."

"Yes, I'd ... appreciate it if you'd refrain from bringing it up. It's very painful for him."

 

A short hop in the lightflyer from the village across tongue of the lake brought them to the Vorkosigans' country estate. A century ago the house had been an outlying guard post to the headland's fort. Modern weaponry had rendered aboveground fortifications obsolete and the old stone barracks had been converted to more peaceful uses. Dr. Henri had evidently been expecting more grandeur, for he said, "It's smaller than I expected."

Piotr's housekeeper had a pleasant luncheon set up for them on a flower-decked terrace off the south end of the house by the kitchen. While she was escorting the party out, Cordelia fell back beside Count Piotr.

"Thank you, sir, for letting us invade you."

"Invade me indeed! This is your house, dear. You are free to entertain any friends you choose in it. This is the first time you've done so, do you realize?" He stopped, standing with her in the doorway. "You know, when my mother married my father, she completely re-decorated Vorkosigan House. My wife did the same in her day. Aral married so late, I'm afraid an updating is sadly overdue. Wouldn't you . . . like to?"

But it's your house, thought Cordelia helplessly. Not even Aral's, really...

"You've touched down so lightly on us, one almost fears you'll fly away again." Piotr chuckled, but his eyes were concerned.

Cordelia patted her rounding belly. "Oh, I'm thoroughly weighted down now, sir." She hesitated. "To tell the truth, I have thought it would be nice to have a lift tube in Vorkosigan House. Counting the basement, sub-basement, attic, and roof, there are eight floors in the main section. It can make quite a hike."

"A lift tube? We've never—" He bit his tongue. "Where?"

"You could put it in the back hallway next to the plumbing stack, without disrupting the internal architecture."

"So you could. Very well. Find a builder. Do it."

"I'll look into it tomorrow, then. Thank you, sir." Her brows rose, behind his back.

Count Piotr, evidently with the same idea in mind of encouraging her, was studiously cordial to Dr. Henri over lunch, New Man though Henri clearly was. Henri, following Cordelia's advice, hit it off well with Piotr in turn, Piotr told Henri all about the new foal, born in his stables over the back ridge. The creature was a genetically certified pureblood that Piotr called a quarter horse, though it looked like an entire horse to Cordelia. The stud-colt had been imported at great cost as a frozen embryo from Earth, and implanted in a grade mare, the gestation supervised anxiously by Piotr. The biologically trained Henri expressed technical interest, and after lunch was done Piotr carried him off for a personal inspection of the big beasts.

Cordelia begged off. "I think I'd like to rest a bit. You can go, Drou. Sergeant Bothari will stay with me." In fact, Cordelia was worried about Bothari. He hadn't eaten a single bite of lunch, nor said a word for over an hour.

Doubtful, but madly interested in the horses, Drou allowed herself to be persuaded. The three trudged off up the hill. Cordelia watched them away, then turned her face back to catch Bothari watching her again. He gave her a strange approving nod.

"Thank you, Milady."

"Ahem. Yes. I wondered if you felt ill."

"No . . . yes. I don't know. I wanted . . . I've wanted to talk to you, Milady. For — for some weeks. But there never seemed to be a good time. Lately it's been getting worse. I can't wait anymore. I'd hoped today..."

"Seize the moment." The housekeeper was rattling about in Piotr's kitchen. "Would you care to take a walk, or something?"

"Please, Milady."

They walked together, around the old stone house. The pavilion on the crest of the hill, overlooking the lake, would be a great place to sit and talk, but Cordelia felt too full and pregnant to make the climb. She led left, instead, on the path parallel to the slope, till they came to what appeared to be a little walled garden.

The Vorkosigan family plot was crowded with an odd assortment of graves, of core family, distant relatives, retainers of special merit. The cemetery had originally been part of the ruined fort complex, the oldest graves of guards and officers going back centuries. The Vorkosigan intrusion dated only from the atomic destruction of the old district capital of Vorkosigan Vashnoi during the Cetagandan invasion. The dead had been melted down with the living there, then eight generations of family history obliterated. It was interesting to note the clusters of more recent dates, and key them to their current events: the Cetagandan invasion. Mad Yuri's War. Aral's mother's grave dated exactly to the start of Yuri's War. A space was reserved beside her for Piotr, and had been for thirty-three years. She waited patiently for her husband. And men accuse us women of being slow. Her eldest son, Aral's brother, lay buried at her other hand.

"Let's sit over there." She nodded toward a stone bench set round with small orange Rowers, and shaded by an Earth-import oak at least a century old. "These people are all good listeners, now. And they don't pass on gossip."

Cordelia sat on the warm stone, and studied Bothari. He sat as far from her as the bench permitted. The lines on his face were deep-cut today, harsh despite the muting of the afternoon light by the warm autumn haze. One hand, wrapped around the rough stone edge of the bench, flexed arrhythmically. His breathing was too careful.

Cordelia softened her voice. "So, what's the trouble, Sergeant? You seem a little... stretched, today. Is it something about Elena?"

He breathed a humorless laugh. "Stretched. Yes. I guess so. It's not about the baby... it's... well, not directly." His eyes met hers squarely for almost the first time today. "You remember Escobar, milady. You were there. Right?"

"Right." This man is in pain, Cordelia realized. What sort of pain?

"I can't remember Escobar."

"So I understand. I believe your military therapists went to a great deal of trouble to make sure you did not remember Escobar."

"Oh yes."

"I don't approve of Barrayaran notions of therapy. Particularly when colored by political expediency."

"I've come to realize that. Milady." Cautious hope flickered in his eyes.

"How did they work it? Burn out selected neurons? Chemical erasure?"

"No . . . they used drugs, but nothing was destroyed. They tell me. The doctors called it suppression-therapy. We just called it hell. Every day we went to hell, till we didn't want to go there anymore." Bothari shifted in his seat, his brow wrinkling. "Trying to remember—to talk about Escobar at all—gives me these headaches. Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Big man like me whining about headaches like some old woman. Certain special parts, memories, they give me these really bad headaches that make red rings around everything I see, and I start vomiting. When I stop trying to think about it, the pain goes away. Simple."

Cordelia swallowed. "I see. I'm sorry. I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was . . . that bad."

"The worst part is the dreams. I dream of ... it ... and if I wake up too slowly, I remember the dream. I remember too much, all at once, and my head — all I can do is roll over and cry, until I can start thinking about something else. Count Piotr's other armsmen — they think I'm crazy, they think I'm stupid, they don't know what I'm doing in there with them. I don't know what I'm doing in there with them." He rubbed his big hands over his burr-scalp in a harried swipe. "To be a count's sworn Armsman — it's an honor. Only twenty places to fill. They take the best, they take the bloody heroes, the men with medals, the twenty-year men with perfect records. If what I did — at Escobar — was so bad, why did the Admiral make Count Piotr make a place for me? And if I was such a bloody hero, why did they take away my memory of it?" His breath was coming faster, whistling through his long yellow teeth.

"How much pain are you in now? Trying to talk about this?"

"Some. More to come." He stared at her, frowning deeply. "I've got to talk about this. To you. It's driving me...

She took a calming breath, trying to listen with her whole mind, body, and soul. And carefully. So carefully. "Go on."

"I have . . . four pictures . . . in my head, from Escobar. Four pictures, and I cannot explain them. To myself. A few minutes, out of—three months? Four? They all of them bother me, but one bothers me the most. You're in it," he added abruptly, and stared at the ground. Both hands clenched the bench now, white-knuckled.

"I see. Go on."

"One—the least-bad one—it was an argument. Prince Serg was there, and Admiral Vorrutyer, Lord Vorkosigan, and Admiral Rulf Vorhalas. And I was there. Except I didn't have any clothes on."

"Are you sure this isn't a dream?"

"No. I'm not sure. Admiral Vorrutyer said . . . something very insulting, to Lord Vorkosigan. He had Lord Vorkosigan backed up against the wall. Prince Serg laughed. Then Vorrutyer kissed him, full on the mouth, and Vorhalas tried to knock Vorrutyer's head off, but Lord Vorkosigan wouldn't let him. And I don't remember after that."

"Um . . . yeah," said Cordelia. "I wasn't there for that part, but I know there was some really weird stuff going on in the high command at that point, as Vorrutyer and Serg pushed their limits. So it's probably a true memory. I could ask Aral, if you wish."

"No! No. That one doesn't feel as important, anyway. As the others."

"Tell me about the others, then."

His voice fell to a whisper. "I remember Elena. So pretty. I only have two pictures in my head, of Elena. One, I remember Vorrutyer making me... no, I don't want to talk about that one." He stopped for a full minute, rocking gently, forward and back. "The other . . . we were in my cabin. She and I. She was my wife. . . ." His voice faltered. "She wasn't my wife, was she." It wasn't even a question.

"No. But you know that."

"But I remember believing she was." His hands pressed his forehead, and rubbed his neck, hard and futilely.

"She was a prisoner of war," said Cordelia. "Her beauty drew Vorrutyer's and Serg's attention, and they made a project of tormenting her, for no reason — not for her military intelligence, not even for political terrorism — just for their gratification. She was raped. But you know that, too. On some level."

"Yes," he whispered.

"Taking away her contraceptive implant and allowing— or compelling—you to impregnate her was part of their idea of sadism. The first part. They did not, thank God, live long enough to get to the second part."

His legs had drawn up, his long arms wrapped around them in a tight, tight ball. His breathing was fast and shallow, panting. His face was freezer-bum white, sheened with cold sweat.

"Do I have red rings around me now?" Cordelia asked curiously.

"It's all ... land of pink." "And the last picture?"

"Oh, Milady." He swallowed. "Whatever it was ... I know it must be very close to whatever it is they most don't want me to remember." He swallowed again. Cordelia began to understand why he hadn't touched his lunch.

"Do you want to go on? Can you go on?"

"I must go on. Milady. Captain Naismith. Because I remember you. Remember seeing you. Stretched out on Vorrutyer's bed, all your clothes cut away, naked. You were bleeding. I was looking up your . . . What I want to know. Must know." His arms were wrapped around his head, now, tilted toward her on his knees, his face hollow, haunted, hungry.

His blood pressure must be fantastically high, to drive that monstrous migraine. If they went too far, pressed this through to the last truth, might he be in danger of a stroke? An incredible piece of psychoengineering, to program his own body to punish him for his forbidden thoughts . . .

"Did I rape you. Milady?"

"Huh? No!" She sat bolt upright, fiercely indignant. They had taken that knowledge away from him? They'd dared take that away from him?

He began to cry, if that's what that ragged breathing, tight-screwed face, and tears leaking from his eyes meant. Equal parts agony and joy. "Oh. Thank God." And, "Are you sure... ?"

"Vorrutyer ordered you to. You refused. Out of your own will, without hope of rescue or reward. It got you in a hell of a lot of trouble, for a little while." She longed to tell him the rest, but the state he was in now was so terrifying, it was impossible to guess the consequences. "How long have you been remembering this? Wondering this?"

"Since I first saw you again. This summer. When you came to marry Lord Vorkosigan."

"You've been walking around for over six months, with this in your head, not daring to ask —?"

"Yes, Milady."

She sat back, horrified, her breath trickling out between pursed lips. "Next time, don't wait so long."

Swallowing hard, he stumbled to his feet, a big hand waving in a desperate wait-for-me gesture. He swung his legs over the low stone wall, and found some bushes. Anxiously, she listened to him dry-vomiting his empty stomach for several minutes. An extremely bad attack, she judged, but finally the violent paroxysms slowed, then stopped. He returned, wiping his lips, looking very white and not much better, except for his eyes. A little life flickered in those eyes now, a half-suppressed light of overwhelming relief.

The light faded, as he sat in thought. He rubbed his palms on his trouser knees, and stared at his boots. "But I'm not less a rapist, just because you were not my victim."

"That is correct."

"I can't... trust myself. How can you trust me? Do you know what's better than sex?"

She wondered if she could take one more sharp turn in this conversation without running off screaming. You encouraged him to uncork, now you're stuck with it. "Go on."

"Killing. It feels even better, afterwards. It shouldn't be ... such a pleasure. Lord Vorkosigan doesn't kill like that." His eyes were narrowed, brows creased, but he was uncurled from his ball of agony; he must be speaking generally, Vorrutyer no longer on his mind.

"Its a release of rage, I'd guess," said Cordelia cautiously. "How did you get so much rage, balled up inside of you? The density is palpable. People can sense it."

His hand curled, in front of his solar plexus. "It goes back a long way. But I don't feel angry, most of the time. It snaps out suddenly."

"Even Bothari fears Bothari," she murmured in wonder.

"Yet you don't. You're less afraid even than Lord Vorkosigan."

"I see you as bound up with him, somehow. And he's my own heart. How can I fear my own heart?"

"Milady. A bargain."

"Hm?"

"You tell me . . . when it's all right. To kill. And then I'll know."

"I can't — look, suppose I'm not there? When that sort of thing lands on you, there's not usually time to stop and analyze. You have to be allowed self-defense, but you also have to be able to discern when you're really being attacked." She sat up, eyes widening in sudden insight. "That's why your uniform is so important to you, isn't it? It tells you when it's all right. When you can't tell yourself. All those rigid routines you keep to, they're to tell you you're all right, on track."

"Yes. I'm sworn to the defense of House Vorkosigan, now. So that's all right." He nodded, apparently reassured. By what, for God's sake?

"You're asking me to be your conscience. Make your judgments for you. But you are a whole man. I've seen you make right choices, under the most absolute stress."

His hands pressed to his skull again, his narrow jaw clenching, and he grated out, "But I can't remember them. Can't remember how I did it."

"Oh." She felt very small. "Well . . . whatever you think I can do for you, you've got a blood-right to it. We owe you, Aral and I. We remember why, even if you can't."

"Remember it for me, then. Milady," he said lowly, "and I'll be all right."

"Believe it."

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