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Cordelia shared breakfast one morning the following week with Aral and Piotr in a private parlor overlooking the back garden. Aral motioned to the Count's footman, who was serving.
"Would you please rout out Lieutenant Koudelka for me? Tell him to bring that agenda for this morning that we were discussing."
"Uh, I guess you hadn't heard, my lord?" murmured the man. Cordelia had the impression that his eyes were searching the room for an escape route.
"Heard what? We just came down."
"Lieutenant Koudelka is in hospital this morning."
"Hospital! Good God, why wasn't I told at once? What happened?"
"We were told Commander Illyan would be bringing a full report, my lord. The guard commander . . . thought he'd wait for him."
Alarm struggled with annoyance on Vorkosigan's face. "How bad is he? It's not some . . . delayed aftereffect of the sonic grenade, is it? What happened to him?"
"He was beaten up, my lord," said the footman woodenly.
Vorkosigan sat back with a little hiss. A muscle jumped in his jaw. "You get that guard commander in here," he growled.
The footman evaporated instantly, leaving Vorkosigan tapping a spoon nervously and impatiently on the table. He met Cordelia's horrified eyes and produced a small false smile of reassurance for her. Even Piotr looked startled.
"Who could possibly want to beat up Kou?" asked Cordelia wonderingly. "That's sickening. He couldn't fight back worth a damn."
Vorkosigan shook his head. "Someone looking for a safe target, I suppose. We'll find out. Oh, we will find out."
The green-uniformed ImpSec guard commander appeared, to stand at attention. "Sir."
"For your future information, and you may pass it on, should any accident occur to any of my key staff members, I wish to be informed at once. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. It was quite late when word got back here, sir. And since we knew by then that they were both going to live. Commander Illyan said I might let you sleep. Sir."
"I see." Vorkosigan rubbed his face. "Both?"
"Lieutenant Koudelka and Sergeant Bothari, sir."
"They didn't get into a fight, did they?" asked Cordelia, now thoroughly alarmed.
"Yes. Oh—not with each other. Milady. They were set upon."
Vorkosigan's face was darkening. "You had better begin at the beginning."
"Yes, sir. Um. Lieutenant Koudelka and Sergeant Bothari went out last night. Not in uniform. Down to that area in back of the old caravanserai."
"My God, what for?"
"Um." The guard commander glanced uncertainly at Cordelia. "Entertainment, I believe, sir."
"Yes, sir. Sergeant Bothari goes down there about once a month, on his duty-free day, when my lord Count is in town. It's apparently some place he's been going to for years."
"In the caravanserai?" said Count Piotr in an unbelieving tone.
"Um." The guard commander eyed the footman in appeal. "Sergeant Bothari isn't very particular about his entertainment, sir," the footman volunteered uneasily.
"Evidently not!" said Piotr.
Cordelia questioned Vorkosigan with her eyebrows. "It's a very rough area," he explained. "I wouldn't go down there myself without a patrol at my back. Two patrols, at night. And I'd definitely wear my uniform, though not my rank insignia . . . but I believe Bothari grew up there. I imagine it looks different to his eyes."
"Why so rough?"
"It's very poor. It was the town center during the Time of Isolation, and it hasn't been touched by renovation yet. Minimal water, no electricity, choked with refuse..."
"Mostly human," added Piotr tartly.
"Poor?" said Cordelia, bewildered. "No electricity? How can it be on the comm network?"
"It's not, of course," answered Vorkosigan. "Then how can anybody get their schooling?" "They don't."
Cordelia stared. "I don't understand. How do they get their jobs?"
"A few escape to the Service. The rest prey on each other, mostly." Vorkosigan regarded her face uneasily. "Have you no poverty on Beta Colony?"
"Poverty? Well, some people have more money than others, of course, but ... no comconsoles?"
Vorkosigan was diverted from his interrogation. "Is not owning a comconsole the lowest standard of living you can imagine?" he said in wonder.
"It's the first article in the constitution. 'Access to information shall not be abridged.' "
"Cordelia . . . these people barely have access to food, clothing, and shelter. They have a few rags and cooking pots, and squat in buildings that aren't economical to pair or tear down yet, with the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls."
"No heat in the winter is a bigger problem, here."
"I suppose so. You people don't really have summer. How do they call for help when they're sick or hurt?"
"What help?" Vorkosigan was growing grim. "If they're sick, they either get well or die."
"Die, if we're lucky," muttered Piotr. "Vermin."
"You're not joking." She stared back and forth between the pair of them. "That's horrible . . . why, think of all the geniuses you must be missing!"
"I doubt we're missing very many, from the caravanserai," said Piotr dryly.
"Why not? They have the same genetic complement as you," Cordelia pointed out the, to her, obvious.
The Count went rigid. "My dear girl! They most certainly do not! My family have been Vor for nine generations."
Cordelia raised her eyebrows. "How do you know, if you didn't have gene typing till eighty years ago?"
Both the guard commander and the footman were acquiring peculiar stuffed expressions. The footman bit his lip.
"Besides," she went on reasonably, "if you Vor got around half as much as those histories I've been reading imply, ninety percent of the people on this planet must have Vor blood by now. Who knows who your relatives are on your father's side?"
Vorkosigan bit his linen napkin absently, his eyes gone crinkly with much the same expression as the footman, and murmured, "Cordelia, you can't . . . you really can't sit at the breakfast table and imply my ancestors were bastards. It's a mortal insult here."
Where should 1 sit? "Oh. I'll never understand that, I guess. Oh, never mind. Koudelka, and Bothari."
"Quite. Go on, duty officer."
"Yes, sir. Well, sir, they were coming back, I was told, about an hour after midnight, when they were set 01 by a gang of area toughs. Evidently Lieutenant Koudelka was too well dressed, and besides there's that walk of his, and the stick . . . anyway, he attracted attention I don't know the details, sir, but there were four deaths and three in the hospital this morning, in addition to the ones that got away."
Vorkosigan whistled, very faintly, through his teeth "What was the extent of Bothari's and Koudelka's injuries?"
"They ... I don't have an official report, sir. Just hearsay."
The duty officer swallowed a little. "Sergeant Bothari has a broken arm, some broken ribs, internal injuries, and a concussion. Lieutenant Koudelka, both legs broken, and a lot of, uh . . . shock bums." His voice trailed off.
"Evidently — I heard — their assailants had a couple of high-voltage shock sticks, and they discovered they could get some . . . peculiar effects on his prosthetic nerves with them. After they'd broken his legs they spent... quite a long time working him over. That's how it was Commander Illyan's men caught up with them. They didn't clear off in time."
Cordelia pushed her plate away and sat trembling.
"Hearsay, eh? Very well. Dismissed. See that Commander Illyan is sent to me immediately he arrives.' Vorkosigan's expression was introspective and grim.
Piotr's was sourly triumphant. "Vermin," he asserted. "You ought to burn them all out."
Vorkosigan sighed. "Easier to start a war than finish it. Not this week, sir."
Illyan attended on Vorkosigan within the hour, in the library, with his informal verbal report. Cordelia trailed in after them, to sit and listen.
"Sure you want to hear this?" Vorkosigan asked her quietly.
She shook her head. "Next to you, they are my best friends here. I'd rather know than wonder."
The duty officer's synopsis proved tolerably accurate, but Illyan, who had talked to both Bothari and Koudelka t the Imperial Military Hospital where they had been taken, had a number of details to add, in blunt terms. His puppy-dog face looked unusually old this morning.
"Your secretary was apparently seized with a desire to get laid," he began. "Why he picked Bothari as a native guide, I can't imagine."
"We three are the sole survivors of the General Vorkraft," Vorkosigan replied. "It's a bond, I suppose. Kou and Bothari always got on well, though. He appeals to Bothari's latent fatherly instincts, maybe. And Kou's a clean-minded boy — don't tell him I said that, he'd take it as an insult. It's good to be reminded such people still exist. Wish he'd come to me, though."
"Well, Bothari did his best," said Illyan. "Took him to this dismal dive, which I gather has a number of points in its favor from Bothari's point of view. It's cheap, it's quick, and nobody talks to him. It's also far removed from Admiral Vorrutyer's old circles. No unpleasant associations. He has a strict routine. According to Kou, Bothari's regular woman is almost as ugly as he is. Bothari likes her, it appears, because she never makes any noise. I don't think I want to think about that.
"Be that as it may, Kou got mismatched with one of the other employees, who terrified him. Bothari says he asked for the best girl for him—hardly a girl, woman, whatever—and apparently Kou's needs were misinterpreted. Anyway, Bothari was done and kicking his heels waiting while Kou was still trying to make polite conversation and being offered an assortment of delights for jaded appetites he'd never heard of before. He gave up and fled back downstairs at last, where Bothari was by this time pretty thoroughly tanked. He usually has one drink and leaves, it seems.
"Kou, Bothari, and this whore then got into an argument over payment, on the grounds that he'd burned up enough time for four customers versus—most of Oils won” be in the official report, all right?—she couldn't get his circuits working. Kou forked over a partial payment--Bothari's still grumbling over how much, insofar as he can talk at all through that mouth of his this morning—and they retreated in disorder, a lousy time having been had by all."
'The first obvious question that arises," said Vorkosigan "is, was the attack ordered by anyone from that establishment?"
"To the best of my knowledge, no. I threw a cordon around the place, once we'd found it, and questioned everyone inside under fast-penta. Scared the shit out of them all, I'm glad to say. They're used to Count Vorbohn's municipal guards, whom they bribe, or who blackmail them, and vice versa. We turned up a lot of information on petty crimes, none of which was of the least interest to us—do you want me to pass it on to the municipals, by the way?"
"Hm. If they're innocent of the attack, just file it. Bothari may want to go back there someday. Do they know why they were questioned?"
"Certainly not! I insist my men work clean. We're here to gather information, not pass it out."
"My apologies. Commander. I should have known. Carry on."
"Well, they left the place about an hour after midnight, on foot, and took a wrong turn somewhere. Bothari's pretty upset about that. Thinks it's his fault, for getting so drunk. Bothari and Koudelka both say they saw movements in the shadows for about ten minutes before the attack. So they were stalked, apparently, until they were maneuvered into a high walled alley, and found themselves with six in front and six behind.
"Bothari pulled his stunner and fired—got three, before he was jumped. Someone down there is richer by a good service stunner this morning. Kou had his swordstick, but nothing else.
"They ganged up on Bothari first. He took out two more, after he'd lost the stunner. They stunned him, then tried to beat him to death after he was down. Kou had been using his stick as a quarterstaff up till then, but at that point he popped the cover off. He says now he wished he hadn't, because this murmur of 'Vor!' went up all around, and things got really ugly.
"He stabbed two, until somebody struck the sword with a shock stick, and his hand went into spasms. The five that were left sat on him and broke both his legs backwards at the knees. He asked me to tell you it wasn't as painful as it sounds. He says they broke so many circuits be had hardly any sensation. I don't know if that's true."
"It's hard to tell with Kou," said Vorkosigan. "He's been concealing pain for so long, it's almost second nature. Go on."
"I have to jump back a bit now. My man who was assigned to Kou followed them down into that warren by himself. He wasn't one of the men who are familiar with the place, supposedly, and he wasn't dressed for it — Kou had two reservations for some live musical performance last night, and until three hours before midnight that's where we thought he was going. My man went in there and vanished, between the first and second hourly checks. That's what has me going this morning. Was he murdered? Or kidnapped? Rolled and raped? Or was he a plant, a setup, a double agent? We won't know till we find the body, or whatever.
"Thirty minutes after the missed check my people sent in another tail. But he was looking for the first man. Kou was uncovered for three solid bloody hours last night before my night shift supervisor came on duty and woke to the fact. Fortunately, Kou'd spent most of that time in Bothari's old whore's retirement home.
"My night shift man, whom I commend, redirected the field agent, and put a patrol in the air to boot. So when the field agent finally got to that revolting scene, he was able to call a flyer down on top of it almost immediately, and drop half a dozen of my uniformed bruisers in to break up the party. That business with the shock sticks— it was bad, but not as bad as it might have been. Kou's assailants evidently lacked the sort of, hm, imaginative approach that, say, the late Admiral Vorrutyer might have had in the same situation. Or maybe they just didn't have time to get really refined."
"Thank Cod," murmured Vorkosigan. "And the deaths?"
"Two were Botharis work, clean blows, one was Kou's--cut him across the neck—and one, I'm afraid, was mine. The kid went into anaphylactic shock in an allergic reaction to fast-penta. We zipped him over to ImpMil but they couldn't get him going again. I don't like it. They're autopsying him now, trying to find out if it was natural or a planted defense against questioning."
"And the gang?"
"Appears to be a perfectly legitimate—if that's the word—caravanserai mutual benefit society. According to the survivors we captured, they decided to pick on Kou because he 'walked funny.' Charming. Although Bothari wasn't exactly walking in a straight line, either. None of the ones we captured is an agent for anybody but themselves. I cannot speak for the dead. I supervised the questioning personally, and will swear to it. They were quite shocked to find themselves of interest to Imperial Security."
"Anything else?" said Vorkosigan.
Illyan yawned behind his hand, and apologized. "It's been a long night. My night shift man got me out of bed after midnight. Good man, good judgment. No, that about wraps it up, except for Kou's motivation for going down there in the first place. He went all vague, and started asking for pain medication, when we came to that subject. I was hoping you might have a suggestion, to ease my paranoias. Being suspicious of Kou gives me a crick in the neck." He yawned again.
"I do," said Cordelia, "but for your paranoia, not for your report, all right?"
"I dunk he's in love with someone. After all, you don't test something unless you're planning to use it. Unfortunately his test was a major disaster. I expect he'll be pretty depressed and touchy for quite some time."
Vorkosigan nodded understanding.
"Any idea who?" asked Illyan automatically.
"Yes, but I don't think it's your business. Especially if it's not going to happen."
Illyan shrugged acceptance, and left to pursue his lost sheep, the missing man who'd first been assigned to follow Koudelka.
Sergeant Bothari was back at Vorkosigan House, though not yet back on duty, within five days, a plastic casing on the broken arm. He volunteered no information on the brutal affair, and discouraged curious questioners with a sour glower and noncommittal grunts.
Droushnakovi asked no questions and offered no comments. But Cordelia saw her occasionally cast a haunted look at the empty comconsole in the library, with its double-scrambled links to the Imperial Residence and the General Staff Headquarters, where Koudelka usually sat to work while at Vorkosigan House. Cordelia wondered just how much detail of that night's events had been poured, searing as lead, into her ears.
Lieutenant Koudelka returned to curtailed light duties the following month, apparently quite cheerful and unaffected by his ordeal. But in his own way he was as uninformative as Bothari. Questioning Bothari had been like questioning a wall. Questioning Koudelka was like talking to a stream; one got back babble, or little eddies of jokes, or anecdotes that pulled the current of the discussion inexorably away from the original subject. Cordelia responded to his sunniness with automatic good grace, playing along with his obvious desire to slide over the affair as lightly as possible. Inwardly she was far more doubtful.
Her own mood was not the best. Her imagination returned again and again to the assassination scare of six weeks ago, dwelling uncomfortably on the chances that had almost taken Vorkosigan from her. Only when he was with her was she completely at ease, and he was gone more and more now. Something was brewing at Imperial HQ; he had been gone four times to all-night sessions and had taken a trip without her, some flying inspection of military affairs, of which he gave her no details and from which he returned white-tired around the eyes. He came in and out at odd hours. The flow of military and political gossip and chitchat with which he was wont to entertain her at meals, or undressing for bed, dried up to an uncommunicative silence, though he seemed to need her presence no less.
Where would she be without him? A pregnant widow, without family or friends, bearing a child already a focal point of dynastic paranoias, inheritor of a legacy of violence. Could she get off-planet? And where would she go if she could? Would Beta Colony ever let her come back?
Even the autumn rain, and the fat lingering greenness of the city parks, began to fail to please her. Oh, for a breath of really dry desert air, the familiar alkali tang, the endless flat distances. Would her son ever know what a real desert was? The horizons here, crowded close with buildings and vegetation, seemed almost to rise around her like a huge wall at times. On really bad days the wall seemed to topple inward.
She was holed up in the library one rainy afternoon, curled on an old high-backed sofa, reading, for the third time, a page in an old volume from the Count's shelves. The book was a relic of the printer's art from the Time of Isolation. The English in which it was written was printed in a mutant variation of the Cyrillic alphabet, all forty-six characters of it, once used for all tongues on Barrayar. Her mind seemed unusually mushy and unresponsive to it today. She turned out the light and rested her eyes a few minutes. With relief, she observed Lieutenant Koudelka enter the library and seat himself, stiffly and carefully, at the comconsole. I shan't interrupt him; he at least has real work to do, she thought, not yet returning to her page, but still comforted by his unconscious company.
He worked only for a moment or two, then shut down the machine with a sigh, staring abstractedly into the empty carved fireplace that was the rooms original centerpiece, still not noticing her. So, I'm not the only one who can't concentrate. Maybe it's this strange grey weather. It does seem to have a depressing effect on people. . . .
Picking up his swordstick, he ran a hand down the smooth length of its casing. He clicked it open, holding it firmly and releasing the spring silently and slowly. He sighted along the length of the gleaming blade, which almost seemed to glow with a light of its own in the shadowed room, and angled it, as if meditating on its pattern and fine workmanship. He then turned it end for end, point over his left shoulder and hilt away from him. He wrapped a handkerchief around the blade for a hold, and pressed it, very lightly, against the side of his neck over the area of the carotid artery. The expression on his face was distant and thoughtful, his grip on the blade as light as a lovers. His hand tightened suddenly.
Her indrawn breath, the first half of a sob, startled him from his reverie. He looked up to see her for the first time; his lips thinned and his face turned a dusky red. He swung the sword down. It left a white line on his neck, like part of a necklace, with a few ruby drops of blood welling along it.
"I ... didn't see you. Milady," he said hoarsely. "I ... don't mind me. Just fooling around, you know."
They stared at each other in silence. Her own words broke from her lips against her will. "I hate this place! I'm afraid all the time, now."
She turned her face into the high side of the sofa, and, to her own horror, began to cry. Stop it! Not in front of Kou of all people! The man has enough real troubles without you dumping your imaginary ones on him. But she couldn't stop.
He levered himself up and limped over to her couch, looking worried. Tentatively, he seated himself beside her.
"Um . . ." he began. "Don't cry. Milady. I was just fooling around, really." He patted her clumsily on the shoulder.
"Garbage," she choked back at him. "You scare the hell out of me." On impulse she transferred her tear-smeared face from the cold silken fabric of the sofa to the warm, roughness of the shoulder of his green uniform. It tore a like honesty from him.
"You can't imagine what it's like," he whispered fiercely/ "They pity me, you know? Even he does." A jerk of his head in no particular direction indicated Vorkosigan. "Its a hundred times worse than the scorn. And it's going to go on forever."
She shook her head, devoid of answer in the face of this undoubted truth.
"I hate this place, too," he continued. "Just as much as it hates me. More, some days. So you see, you're not alone."
"So many people trying to kill him," she whispered back, despising herself for her weakness. "Total strangers... one of them is bound to succeed in the end. I think about it all the time, now." Would it be a bomb? Some poison? Plasma arc, burning away Aral's face, leaving no lips even to kiss goodbye?
Koudelka's attention was drawn achingly from his pain to hers, brows drawing quizzically together.
"Oh, Kou," she went on, looking down blindly into his lap and stroking his sleeve. "No matter how much it hurts, don't do it to him. He loves you . . . you're like a son to him, just the sort of son he always wanted. That," she nodded toward the sword laid on the couch, shinier than silk, "would cut out his heart. This place pours craziness on him every day, and demands he give back justice. He can't do it except with a whole heart. Or he must eventually start giving back the craziness, like every one of his predecessors. And," she added in a burst of uncontrollable illogic, "it's so damn wet here! It won't be my fault if my son is born with gills"
His arms encircled her in a kindly hug. "Are you... afraid of the childbirth?" he inquired, with a gentle and unexpected perceptiveness.
Cordelia went still, suddenly face-to-face with her rightly suppressed fears. "I don't trust your doctors," she admitted shakily.
He smiled in deep irony. "I can't blame you."
A laugh puffed from her, and she hugged him back, around the chest, and raised her hand to wipe away the tiny drops of blood from the side of his neck. "When you love someone, it's like your skin covers theirs. Every hurt is doubled. And I do love you so, Kou. I wish you'd let me help you."
"Therapy, Cordelia?" Vorkosigan's voice was cold, and cut like a stinging spray of rattling hail. She looked up, surprised, to see him standing before them, his face frozen as his voice. "I realize you have a great deal of Betan ... expertise, in such matters, but I beg you will leave the project to someone else."
Koudelka turned red, and recoiled from her. "Sir," he began, and trailed off, as startled as Cordelia by the icy anger in Vorkosigan's eyes. Vorkosigan's gaze flicked over him, and they both clamped their jaws shut.
Cordelia drew in a very deep breath for a retort, but released it only as a furious "Oh!" at Vorkosigan's back as he wheeled and stalked out, spine stiff as Kou's swordblade.
Koudelka, still red, folded into himself, and using his sword as a prop levered himself to his feet, his breath too rapid. "Milady. I beg your pardon." The words seemed quite without meaning.
"Kou," said Cordelia, "you know he didn't mean that hateful thing. He spoke without thinking. I'm sure he doesn't, doesn't ..."
"Yes, I realize," returned Koudelka, his eyes blank and hard. "I am universally known to be quite harmless to any man's marriage, I believe. But if you will excuse me— Milady—I do have some work to do. Of a sort."
"Oh!" Cordelia didn't know if she was more furious with Vorkosigan, Koudelka, or herself. She steamed to her feet and left the room, throwing her words back over her shoulder. "Damn all Barrayarans to hell anyway!"
Droushnakovi appeared in her path, with a timid, "Milady?"
"And you, you useless... frill," snarled Cordelia, her rage escaping helplessly in all directions now. "Why can't you manage your own affairs? You Barrayaran women seem to expect your lives to be handed to you on a platter. It doesn't work that way!"
The girl stepped back a pace, bewildered. Cordelia contained her seething outrage, and asked more sensibly "Which way did Aral go?"
"Why . . . upstairs, I believe. Milady."
A little of her old and battered humor came to her rescue then. "Two steps at a time, by chance?"
"Um . . . three, actually," Drou replied faintly.
"I suppose I'd better go talk to him," said Cordelia, running her hands through her hair and wondering if tearing it out would have any practical benefit. "Son of a bitch." She did not know herself if that was expletive or description. And to think I never used to swear.
She trudged after him, her anger draining with her energy as she climbed the stairs. This pregnancy business sure slows you down. She passed a duty guard in the corridor. "Lord Vorkosigan go this way?" she asked him.
"To his rooms. Milady," he replied, and stared curiously after her. Great. Love it, she thought savagely. The old newlyweds' first real fight will have plenty of built-in audience. These old walls are not soundproof. I wonder if I can keep my voice down? Aral's no problem; when he gets mad he whispers.
She entered their bedroom, to find him seated on the side of the bed, removing uniform jacket and boots with violent, jerky gestures. He looked up, and they glared at each other. Cordelia opened fire first, thinking. Let's get this over with.
"That remark you made in front of Kou was totally out of line."
"What, I walk in to find my wife . . . cuddling, with one of my officers, and you expect me to make polite conversation about the weather?" he bit back.
"You know it was nothing of the sort."
"Fine. Suppose it hadn't been me? Suppose it had been one of the duty guards, or my father. How would you have explained it then? You know what they think of Betans. They'd jump on it, and the rumors would never be stopped. Next thing I knew, it would be coming back at me as political chaff. Every enemy I have out there is just waiting for a weak spot to pounce on. They'd love one like that."
"How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I'm talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you'd funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What's the matter with you, anyway?"
"I don't know." He slowed, and rubbed his face tiredly. "It's the damn job, I expect. I don't mean to spill it on you."
Cordelia suspected that was as near as she could expect of an admission of his being in the wrong, and accepted it with a little nod, letting her own rage evaporate. She then remembered why the rage had felt so good, for the vacuum it left filled back up with fear.
"Yes, well . . . just how much do you fancy having to break down his door one of these mornings?"
Vorkosigan frowned at her, going still. "Do you . . . have some reason to believes he's thinking along suicidal lines? He seemed quite content to me."
"He would—to you." Cordelia let the words hang in the air a moment, for emphasis. "I think he's about that close." She held up thumb and forefinger a bare millimeter apart. The finger still had a smear of blood on it, and it caught her eye in unhappy fascination. "He was playing around with that blasted swordstick. I wish I'd never given it to him. I don't think I could bear it if he used it to cut his own throat. That—seemed to be what he had in mind."
"Oh." Vorkosigan looked smaller, somehow, without his glittering military jacket, without his anger. He held out his hand to her, and she took it and sat beside him.
"So if you're having visions of, of playing King Arthur to our Lancelot and Guinevere in that—pig-head of yours, forget it. It won't wash."
He laughed a little at that. "My visions were closer to home, I'm afraid, and considerably more sordid. Just an old bad dream."
"Yeah, I ... guess it would hit a nerve, at that." She wondered if the ghost of his first wife ever hovered by him, breathing cold death in his ear, as Vorrutyer's ghost sometimes did by her. He looked deathly enough. "But I'm Cordelia, remember? Not . . . anybody else."
He leaned his forehead against hers. "Forgive me, dear Captain. I'm just an ugly scared old man, and growing older and uglier and more paranoid every day."
"You, too?" She rested in his arms. "I take exception to the old and ugly part, though. Pigheaded did not refer to your exterior appearance."
"Thank you—I think."
It pleased her to amuse him even that little. "It is the job, isn't it?" she said. "Can you talk about it at all?"
His lips compressed. "In confidence—although that seems to be your natural state, I don't know why I bother to emphasize it—it looks like we could have another war on our hands before the end of the year. And we're not nearly well enough recovered for it, after Escobar."
"What! I thought the war party was half-paralyzed."
"Ours is. The Cetagandans' is still in good working order, however. Intelligence indicates they were planning to use the political chaos here following Ezar Vorbarra's death to cover a move on those disputed wormhole jump points. Instead they got me, and—well, I can hardly call it stability. Dynamic equilibrium, at best. Anyway, not the kind of disruption they were counting on. Hence that little incident with the sonic grenade. Negri and Illyan are now seventy percent sure it was Cetagandan work."
"Will they ... try again?"
"Almost certainly. But with or without me, consensus in the Staff is that they'll be probing in force before the end of the year. And if we're weak—they'll just keep right on moving until they're stopped."
"No wonder you've been . . . abstracted."
"Is that the polite term for it? But no. I've known about the Cetagandans for some time. Something else came up today, after the Council session. A private audience. Count Vorhalas came to see me, to beg a favor."
"I'd think it would be your pleasure, to do a favor for Rulf Vorhalas's brother. I gather not?"
He shook his head unhappily. "The Count's youngest son, who is a hotheaded young idiot of eighteen who should have been sent to military school—you met him at the Council confirmation, as I recall —"
'Yes. He got into a drunken fight at a party last night."
"A universal tradition. Such things happen even on Beta Colony."
"Quite. But they stepped outside to settle their affair armed, each one, with a pair of dull swords that had been part of a wall decoration, and a couple of kitchen knives. That made it, technically, a duel with the two swords."
"Uh-oh. Was anyone hurt?"
"Unfortunately, yes. More or less by accident, I gather, in a scrambling fall, the Count's son managed to put his sword through his friend's stomach and sever his abdominal aorta. He bled to death almost immediately. By the time the bystanders had gathered their wits sufficiently to get a medical team up there, it was much too late."
"It was a duel, Cordelia. It began as a mockery, but it ended as the real thing. And the penalties for dueling apply." He rose, and paced the room, stopping by the window and staring out into the rain. "His father came to ask me for an Imperial pardon. Or, if I could not grant that, to see if I could get the charges changed to simple murder. If it were tried as a simple murder, the boy could plead self-defense, and possibly end up with a mere prison term."
"That seems . . . fair enough, I suppose."
"Yes." He paced again. "A favor for a friend. Or ... the first crack in the door to let that hell-bred custom back into our society. What happens when the next case is brought before me, and the next, and the next? Where do I begin drawing the line? What if the next case involves some political enemy of mine, and not a member of my own party? Shall all the deaths that went into stamping this thing out be made void? I remember dueling, and what things were like back then. And worse—an entry point for government by friends, then cliques. Say what you will about Ezar Vorbarra, in thirty years of ruthless labor he transformed the government from a Vor-class club into some semblance, however shaky, of a rule of law, one law for everyone."
"I begin to see the problem."
"And me — me, of all men, to have to make that decision! Who should have been publicly executed twenty-two years ago for the selfsame crime!" He paused before her. "The story about last night is all over town, in various forms, this morning. It will be all over everywhere in a few days. I had the news service kill it, temporarily, but that was mere spitting in the wind. It's too late for a cover-up, even if I wanted to do one. So what shall I betray this day? A friend? Or Ezar Vorbarra's trust? There is no doubt which decision he would have made."
He sat back beside her, and took her in his arms. "And this is only the beginning. Every month, every week, there will be some other impossible thing. What's going to be left of me after fifteen years of this? A husk, like that thing we buried three months ago, praying with his last breath that there may be no God? Or a power-corrupted monstrosity, like his son, so infected it could only be sterilized by plasma arc? Or something even worse?"
His naked agony terrified her. She held him tightly in return. "I don't know. I don't know. But somebody . . . somebody has been making these lands of decisions right along, while we went along blissfully unconscious, taking the world as given. And they were only human, too. No better, no worse than you."
She sighed. "You can't choose between evil and evil, in the dark, by logic. You can only cling to some safety line of principle. I can't make your decision. But whatever principles you choose now are going to be your safety lines, to carry you forward. And for the sake of your people, they're going to have to be consistent ones."
He rested in her arms. "I know. There wasn't really a question, about the decision. I was just . . . kicking à bit, going down." He disengaged himself, and stood again. "Dear Captain. If I'm still sane, fifteen years from now, I believe it will be your doing."
She looked up at him. "So what decision is it?"
The pain in his eyes gave her the answer. "Oh, no," she said involuntarily, then bit off further words. And I was trying to speak so wisely. I didn't mean this.
"Don't you know?" he said gently, resigned. "Ezar's way is the only way that can work, here. It's true after all. He does rule from his grave." He headed for their bathroom, to wash and change clothes.
"But you're not him," she whispered to the empty room. "Can't you find a way of your own?"
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