Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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CHAPTER Eight

Vorkosigan attended Carl Vorhalas's public execution three weeks later.

"Are you required to go?" Cordelia asked him that morning, as he dressed, cold and withdrawn. "I don't have to go, do I?"

"God, no, of course not. I don't have to go, officially, except . . . I have to go. You can see why, surely."

"Not . . . really, except as a form of self-punishment. I'm not sure that's a luxury you can afford, in your line of work."

"I must go. A dog returns to its vomit, doesn't it? His parents will be there, do you know? And his brother."

"What a barbaric custom."

"Well, we could treat crime as a disease, like you Betans. You know what that's like. At least we kill a man cleanly, all at once, instead of in bits over years. ... I don't know."

"How will they ... do it?"

"Beheading. It's supposed to be almost painless."

"How do they know?"

His laugh was totally without humor. "A very cogent question."

He did not embrace her when he left. He returned a bare two hours later, silent, to shake his head at a tentative offer of lunch, cancel an afternoon appointment, and withdraw to Count Piotr's library and sit, not-reading ÿ book-viewer. Cordelia joined him there after a while, resting on the couch, and waited patiently for him to come back to her from whatever distant country of the mind he dwelt in.

"The boy was going to be brave," he said after an hour's silence. "You could see that he had every gesture planned out in advance. But nobody else followed the script. His mother broke him down. . . . And to top it the damned executioner missed his stroke. Had to take three cuts, to get the head off."

"Sounds like Sergeant Bothari did better with a pocketknife." Vorrutyer had been haunting her more than usual that morning, scarletly.

"It lacked nothing for perfect hideousness. His mother cursed me, too. Until Evon and Count Vorhalas took her away." The dead-expressioned voice escaped him then. "Oh, Cordelia! It can't have been the right decision! And yet . . . and yet ... no other one was possible. Was it?"

He came to her then, and held her in silence. He seemed very close to weeping, and it almost frightened her more that he did not. The tension eventually drained out of him.

"I suppose I'd better pull myself together and go change. Vortala has a meeting scheduled with the Minister of Agriculture that's too important to miss, and after that there's the general staff. . . ." By the time he left his usual self-possession had returned.

That night he lay long awake beside her. His eyes were closed, but she could tell from his breathing it was pretense. She could not dredge up one word of comfort that did not seem inane to her, so kept silence with him through the watches of the night. Rain began outside, a steady drizzle. He spoke once.

"I've watched men die before. Ordered executions, ordered men into battle, chosen this one over that one, committed three sheer murders and but for the grace of God and Sergeant Bothari would have committed a fourth . . . I don't know why this one should hit like a wall. It's stopped me, Cordelia. And I dare not stop, or we'll all fall together Got to keep it in the air somehow."

 

She awoke in the dark to a tinkling crash and a soft report, and drew in her breath with a start. Acridity seared her lungs, mouth, nostrils, eyes. A gut-wrenching undertaste pumped her stomach into her throat. Beside her, Vorkosigan snapped from sleep with an oath.

"Soltoxin gas grenade! Don't breathe, Cordelia!" Emphasizing his shout, he shoved a pillow over her face his hot strong arms encircling her and dragging her from the bed. She found her feet and lost her stomach at the same moment, stumbling into the hall, and he slammed the bedroom door shut behind them.

Running footsteps shook the floor. Vorkosigan cried, "Get back! Soltoxin gas! Clear the floor! Call Illyan!" before he too doubled over, coughing and retching. Other hands bundled them both toward the stairs. She could scarcely see through her madly watering eyes.

Between spasms Vorkosigan gasped, "They'll have the antidote . . . Imperial Residence . . . closer than ImpMil . . . get Illyan at once. He'll know. Into the shower— where's Milady's woman? Get a maid. . . ."

Within moments she was dumped into a downstairs shower, Vorkosigan with her. He was shaking and barely able to stand, but still trying to help her. "Start washing it off your skin, and keep washing. Don't stop. Keep the water cool."

"You, too, then. What was that crap?" She coughed again, in the spray of the water, and they exchanged help with the soap.

"Wash out your mouth, too. . . . Soltoxin. It's been fifteen, sixteen years since I last smelled that stink, but you never forget it. It's a poison gas. Military. Should be strictly controlled. How the hell anyone got hold of Damn Security! They'll be flapping around some like headless chickens tomorrow . . . too late." His face was greenish-white beneath the night's beard stubble.

"I don't feel too bad now," said Cordelia. "Nausea's passing off. I take it we missed the full dose?"

"No. It just acts slowly. Doesn't take much at all to do you. It mostly affects soft tissue — lungs will be jelly in an hour, if the antidote doesn't get here soon."

The growing fear that pounded in her gut, heart, and mind half-clotted her words. "Does it cross the placental barrier?"

He was silent for too long before he said, "I'm not sure. Have to ask the doctor. I've only seen the effects on young men." Another spasm of deep coughing seized him, that went on and on.

One of Count Piotr's serving women arrived, disheveled and frightened, to help Cordelia and the terrified young guard who had been assisting them. Another guard came in to report, raising his voice over the running water. "We reached the Residence, sir. They have some people on the way."

Cordelia's own throat, bronchia, and lungs were beginning to secrete foul-tasting phlegm, and she coughed and spat. "Anyone see Drou?"

"I think she took out after the assassins. Milady."

"Not her job. When an alarm goes up, she's supposed to run to Cordelia," growled Vorkosigan. The talking triggered more coughing.

"She was downstairs, sir, at the time the attack took place, with Lieutenant Koudelka. They both went out the back door."

"Dammit," Vorkosigan muttered, "not his job either." His effort was punished by another coughing jag. "They catch anybody?"

"I think so, sir. There was some land of uproar at the back of the garden, by the wall."

They stood under the water for a few more minutes, until the guard reported back. "The doctor from the Residence is here, sir."

The maid wrapped Cordelia in a robe, and Vorkosigan put on a towel, growling to the guard, "Go find me some clothes, boy." His voice rattled like gravel.

A middle-aged man, his hair standing up stiffly, wearing trousers, pajama tops, and bedroom slippers, was offloading equipment in the guest bedroom when they carne out. He took a pressurized canister from his bag and fitted a breathing mask to it, glancing at Cordelia's rounding abdomen and then at Vorkosigan.

"My lord. Are you certain of the identification of the poison?"

"Unfortunately, yes. It was soltoxin."

The doctor bowed his head. "I am sorry. Milady."

"Is it going to hurt my . . ." She choked on the mucus.

"Just shut up and give it to her," snarled Vorkosigan.

The doctor fitted the mask over her nose and mouth. "Breathe deeply. Inhale... exhale. Keep exhaling. Now draw in. Hold it..."

The antidote gas had a greenish taste, cooler, but nearly as nauseating as the original poison. Her stomach heaved, but had nothing left in it to reject. She watched Vorkosigan over the mask, watching her, and tried to smile reassuringly. It must be reaction catching up with him; he seemed greyer, more distressed, with each breath she took. She was certain he had taken in a larger dose than she, and pushed the mask away to say, "Isn't it about your turn?"

The doctor pressed it back, saying, "One more breath, Milady, to be sure." She inhaled deeply, and the doctor transferred the mask to Vorkosigan. He seemed to need no instruction in the procedure.

"How many minutes since the exposure?" asked the doctor anxiously.

"I'm not sure. Did anyone note the time? You, uh . . ." She had forgotten the young guard's name.

"About fifteen or twenty minutes, Milady, I think."

The doctor relaxed measurably. "It should be all right, then. You'll both be in hospital for a few days. I'll arrange for medical transport. Was anyone else exposed?" he asked the guard.

"Doctor, wait." He had repossessed canister and mask, and was making for the door. "What will that . . . soltoxin do to my baby?"

He did not meet her eyes. "No one knows. No one has ever survived exposure without an immediate antidote treatment."

Cordelia could feel her heart beating. "But given the treatment . . ." She did not like his look of pity, and turned to Vorkosigan. "Is that — " but was stopped cold by his expression, a leaden greyness lit from beneath by pain and growing anger, a stranger's face with a lover's eyes, meeting her eyes at last.

"Tell her about it," he whispered to the doctor. "I can't."

"Need we distress — "

"Now. Get it over with." His voice cracked and croaked.

"The problem is the antidote. Milady," said the doctor reluctantly. "It's a violent teratogen. Destroys bone development in the growing fetus. Your bones are grown, so it won't affect you, except for an increased tendency to arthritic-type breakdowns, which can be treated . . . if and when they arise. ..." He trailed off as she closed her eyes, shutting him out.

"I must see that hall guard," he added.

"Go, go," replied Vorkosigan, releasing him. He maneuvered out the door past the guard arriving with Vorkosigan's clothes.

She opened her eyes to Vorkosigan, and they stared at each other.

"The look on your face . . ." he whispered. "It's not . . . Weep. Rage! Do something!" His voice rose to hoarseness. "Hate me at least!"

"I can't," she whispered back, "feel anything yet. Tomorrow, maybe." Every breath was fire.

With a muttered curse, he flung on the clothes, a set of undress greens. "I can do something."

It was the stranger's face, possessing his. Words echoed hollowly in her memory, If Death wore a dress uniform He would look just like that.

"Where are you going?"

"Going to see what Koudelka caught." She followed him through the door. "You stay here," he ordered.

"No."

He glared back at her, and she brushed the glare away with an equally savage gesture, as if striking down a sword thrust. "I'm going with you."

"Come on, then." He turned jerkily, and made for the stairs to the first floor, rage rigid in his backbone.

"You will not," she murmured fiercely, for his ear alone "murder anyone in front of me."

"Will I not?" he whispered back. "Will -I- not?" His steps were hard, bare feet jarring on the stone stairs.

The large entry hall was in chaos, filled with their guards, men in the Count's livery, medics. A man, or a body Cordelia could not tell which, in the black fatigue uniform of the night guards, was laid out on the tessalated pavement, a medic at his head. Both were soaked from the rain, and smeared with mud. Bloodstained water pooled beneath them, and the medic's bootsoles squeaked in it.

Commander Illyan, beads of water gleaming in his hair from the foggy drizzle, was just coming in the front door with an aide, saying, "Let me know as soon as the techs get here with the kirilian detector. Meantime keep everyone off that wall and out of the alley. My lord!" he cried when he saw Vorkosigan. "Thank God you're all right!"

Vorkosigan growled in his throat, wordlessly. A knot of men surrounded the prisoner, who was leaning face to the wall, one hand over his head and the other held stiffly to his side at an odd angle. Droushnakovi stood near, wearing a wet shift. A wicked-looking metal crossbow dangled gleaming from her hand, evidently the weapon that had been used to fire the gas grenade through their window. She bore a livid mark on her face, and stanched a nosebleed with her other hand. Blood stained her nightgown here and there. Koudelka was there, too, leaning on his sword, one leg dragging. He wore a wet and muddy uniform and bedroom slippers, and a sour look on his face.

"I'd have had him," he was snapping, evidently continuing an ongoing argument, "if you hadn't come running up and shouting at me—"

"Oh, really!" Droushnakovi snapped back. "Well, pardon me, but I don't see it that way. Seems to me he had you, laid out flat on the ground. If I hadn't seen his legs going up the wall—"

"Stuff it! It's Lord Vorkosigan!" hissed another guard. The knot of men turned, to step back before his face.

"How did he get in?" began Vorkosigan, and stopped. The man was wearing the black fatigues of the Service. "Surely not one of your men, Illyan!" His voice grated, metal on stone.

"My lord, we've got to have him alive, to question him," said Illyan uneasily at Vorkosigan's shoulder, half-hypnotized by the same look that had made the guards recoil. "There may be more to the conspiracy. You can't . . ."

The prisoner turned, then, to face his captors. A guard started forward to shove him back into position against the wall, but Vorkosigan motioned him away. Cordelia could not see Vorkosigan's face, standing behind him in that moment, but his shoulders lost their murderous tension, and the rage drained out of his backbone, leaving only a gutter-smear of pain. Above the insignialess black collar was the ravaged face of Evon Vorhalas.

"Oh, not both of them," breathed Cordelia.

Hatred hastened the rhythm of Vorhalas's breathing as he glared at his intended victim. "You bastard. You snake-cold bastard. Sitting there cold as stone while they hacked off his head. Did you feel a thing? Or did you enjoy it, my Lord Regent? I swore I'd get you then."

There was a long silence, then Vorkosigan leaned close to him, one arm extended past his head for support against the wall. He whispered hoarsely, "You missed me, Evon."

Vorhalas spat in his face, spittle bloody from his injured mouth. Vorkosigan made no move to wipe it away. "You missed my wife," he went on in a slow soft cadence. "But you got my son. Did you dream of sweet revenge? You have it. Look at her eyes, Evon. A man could drown in those sea-grey eyes. I'll be looking at them every day for the rest of my life. So eat vengeance, Evon. Drink it. Fondle it. Wrap it round you in the night watch. It's all yours. I will it all to you. For myself, I've gorged it to the gagging point, and have lost my stomach for it."

Vorhalas looked up, then, for the first time, past him to Cordelia. She thought of the child in her belly, his delicate girdering of new cartilagenous bones perhaps even now beginning to rot, twist, slough, but could not hate Vorhalas, although she tried to for a moment. She couldn't even find him baffling. She had a sense, as of a second sight, that she could see right through his wounded spirit the way doctors saw through a wounded body with their diagnostic viewers. Every twist and tear and emotional abrasion, every young cancer of resentment growing from them, and above all the great gash of his brothers death seemed red-lined in her mind's eye.

"He didn't enjoy it, Evon," she said. "What would you have had from him? Do you even know?"

"A little human pity," he snarled. "He could have saved Carl. Even then he could have. I thought at first that was why he had come."

"Oh, God," said Vorkosigan. He looked sick at the flashing vision of the rise and fall of hopes these words conjured. "I don't play theater with lives, Evon!"

Vorhalas held his hatred like a shield before him. "Go to hell."

Vorkosigan sighed, and pushed away from the wall. The doctor was lingering to chivvy them to the waiting vehicle for the trip to the Imperial Military Hospital. "Take him away, Illyan," said Vorkosigan wearily.

"Wait," said Cordelia. "I need to know—I need to ask him something."

Vorhalas eyed her sullenly.

"Was this the result you intended? I mean, when you chose that particular weapon? That specific poison?"

He looked away from her, speaking to the far wall. "It was what I could grab, going through the armory. I didn't think you could identify it, and get the antidote all the way from ImpMil in time. . . ."

"You relieve me of a burden," she whispered.

"The antidote came from the Imperial Residence," Vorkosigan explained. "A quarter of the distance. The Emperor's infirmary there has everything. As for identification ... I was there, at the destruction of the Karian mutiny. Just about your age, I think, or a little younger. The smell brought it all back, just now. Boys coughing gut their lungs in red blobs. . . ." He seemed to shrink into himself, into the past.

"I didn't intend your death particularly. You were just in the way, between me and him." Vorhalas gestured blindly at her swollen torso. "It wasn't the result I intended. I meant to kill him. I didn't even know for sure that you shared the same room at night." He was looking everywhere, now, except her face. "I never thought about killing your ..."

"Look at me," she croaked, "and say the word out loud."

"Baby," he whispered, and burst into sudden, shocking sobs.

Vorkosigan stepped back, beside her. "Wish you hadn't done that," he whispered. "Reminds me of his brother. Why am I death to that family?"

"Still want him to eat vengeance?"

He leaned his forehead on her shoulder, briefly. "Not even that. You empty us all out, dear Captain. But, oh . . ." His hand reached out as if to cup her belly, then drew back in consciousness of their ring of silent watchers. He straightened. "Bring me a full report in the morning, Illyan," he said, "at the hospital."

He took her by the arm as they turned to follow the doctor. She could not tell if it was to support her or himself.

 

She was surrounded by helpers at the Imperial Military Hospital complex, carried along as on a river. Doctors, nurses, corpsmen, guards. Aral was separated from her at the door, and it made her uneasy and alone in the crowd. She said very little to them, empty courtesies, automatic as levers. She wished for shock to take her consciousness, numbness, reality-denying madness, hallucinations, anything. Instead she just felt tired.

The baby was moving within her, flutters, kneading turns; evidently the teratogenic antidote was a very slow-acting poison. They were still granted a little time together, it seemed, and she loved him through her skin her fingertips moving in a slow massage over her abdomen. Welcome, my son, to Barrayar, the abode of cannibals; this place didn't even wait the usual eighteen or twenty years to eat you. Ravenous planet.

She was bedded down in a luxurious private room in a VIP wing, hastily cleared for their exclusive use. She was relieved to discover Vorkosigan had been ensconced just across the hall. Dressed already in green military-issue pajamas, he came promptly over to see her tucked into bed. She managed a small smile for him, but did not attempt to sit up. The force of gravity was pulling her down into the center of the world. Only the rigidity of the bed, the building, the planet's crust, held her up against it, not her will at all.

He was trailed by an anxious corpsman, saying, "Remember, sir, try not to talk so much, till after the doctor's had a chance to give your throat the irrigation treatment."

The grey light of dawn was making the windows pale. He sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand, rubbing it. "You're cold, dear Captain," he whispered hoarsely. She nodded. Her chest ached, her throat was raw, and her sinuses burned.

"I should never have let them talk me into taking the job," he went on. "So sorry . . ."

"I talked you into it, too. You tried to warn me. Not your fault. It seemed right for you. Is right."

He shook his head. "Don't talk. Makes scar tissue on the vocal cords."

She gave vent to a joyless "Ha!" and laid a finger across his lips as he started to speak again. He nodded, resigned, and they remained looking at each other for a time. He pushed her tangled hair back gently from her face, and he captured the broad hand to hold against her cheek for comfort, until he was hunted out by a posse of doctors and technicians and driven off for a treatment. "We'll be in to see you shortly. Milady," their chieftain promised ominously.

They returned after a while, to make her gargle a nasty pink fluid, and breathe into a machine, then rumbled out again. A female nurse brought her breakfast, which she did not touch.

Then a committee of grim-faced doctors entered her room. The one who had come from the Imperial Residence in the night was now smartly groomed and neatly dressed in civilian clothes. Her own personal physician was flanked by a younger, black-browed man in Service greens with captain s tabs on his collar. She gazed at their three faces and thought of Cerberus.

Her man introduced the stranger. "This is Captain Vaagen, of the Imperial Military Hospital's research facility. He's our resident expert on military poisons."

"Inventing them, or cleaning up after them. Captain?" Cordelia asked.

"Both, Milady." He stood at a sort of aggressive parade rest.

Her own man had the look about his eyes of someone who had drawn the short straw, although his lips smiled. "My Lord Regent has asked me to inform you of the schedule of treatments, and so on. I'm afraid," he cleared his throat, "that it would be best if we scheduled the abortion promptly. It is already unusually late in your pregnancy for it, and it would be as well for your recovery to relieve you of the physiological strain as soon as possible."

"Is there nothing that can be done?" she asked hopelessly, already knowing the answer from their faces.

"I'm afraid not," said her man sadly. The man from the Imperial Residence nodded confirmation.

"I ran a literature search," said the captain unexpectedly, staring out the window, "and there was that calcium experiment. True, the results they got weren't particularly heartening —"

"I thought we'd agreed not to bring that up," glared the Residence man.

"Vaagen, that's cruel," said her own man. "You're just raising false hopes. You can't make the Regent's wife into one of your hapless experimental animals for a lot of untried shots in the dark. You have your permission from the Regent for the autopsy — leave it at that."

Her world turned right-side-up again in a second, as she looked at the face of the man with ideas. She knew the type; half-right, half-cocked, half-successful, flitting from one monomania to another like a bee pollinating flowers, gathering little fruit but leaving seeds behind. She was nothing to him, personally, but the raw material for a monograph. The risks she took did not appall his imagination, she was not a person but a disease state. She smiled upon him, slowly, wildly, knowing him then for her ally in the enemy camp.

"How do you do, Dr. Vaagen? How would you like to write the paper of a lifetime?"

The Residence man barked a laugh. "She's got your number, Vaagen."

He smiled back, astonished to be so instantly understood. "You realize, I can't guarantee any results..."

"Results!" interrupted her man. "My God, you'd better let her know what your idea of results is. Or show her the pictures—no, don't do that. Milady," he turned to her, "the treatment he's discussing was last tried twenty years ago. It did irreparable damage to the mothers. And the results—the very best results you could hope for would be a twisted cripple. Perhaps much worse. Indescribably worse."

"Jellyfish describes it pretty well," said Vaagen.

"You're inhuman, Vaagen!" snapped her man, with a glance her way to check the distress quotient.

"A viable jellyfish, Dr. Vaagen?" asked Cordelia, intent.

"Mm. Maybe," he replied, inhibited by his colleagues' angry glares. "But there is the difficulty of what happens to the mothers when the treatment is applied in vivo.

"So can't you do it in vitro?" Cordelia asked the obvious question.

Vaagen shot a glance of triumph at her man. "It would certainly open up a number of possible lines of experiment if it could be arranged," he murmured to the ceiling.

"In vitro?" said the Residence man, puzzled. "How?"

"What, how?" said Cordelia. "You've got seventeen Escobaran-manufactured uterine replicators stored in a closet around here somewhere, carried home from the war." She turned excitedly to Vaagen. "Do you happen to know a Dr. Henri?"

Vaagen nodded. "We've worked together."

"Then you know all about them!"

"Well — not exactly all. But, ah — in fact, he informs me that they are available. But you understand, I'm not an obstetrician."

"You certainly aren't," said her man. "Milady, this man isn't even a physician. He's only a biochemist."

"But you're an obstetrician," she pointed out. "So we have the whole team, then. Dr. Henri, and, um. Captain Vaagen here for Piotr Miles, and you, for the transfer."

His lips were compressed, and his eyes held a very strange expression. It took her a moment to identify it as fear. "I can't do the transfer. Milady," he said. "I don't know how. Nobody on Barrayar has ever done one."

"You don't advise it, then?"

"Definitely not. The possibility of permanent damage— you can, after all, begin again in a few months, if the soft-tissue scarring doesn't extend to testicular — ahem. You can begin again. I am your doctor, and that is my considered opinion."

"Yes, if somebody else doesn't knock Aral off in the meantime. I must remember this is Barrayar, where they are so in love with death they bury men who are still twitching. Are you willing to try the operation?"

He drew himself up in dignity. "No, Milady. And that's final."

"Very well." She pointed a finger at her doctor, "You're out," and shifted it to Vaagen, "you're in. You are now in charge of this case. I rely on you to find me a surgeon — or a medical student, or a horse doctor, or somebody who's willing to try. And then you can experiment to your heart's content."

Vaagen looked mildly triumphant; her former man looked furious. "We had better see what my Lord Regent has to say, before you carry his wife off on this wave of criminally false optimism."

Vaagen looked a little less triumphant.

"You thinking of charging over there right how?" asked Cordelia.

"I'm sorry. Milady," said the Residence man, "but I think we'd do best to quash this thing right now. You don't know Captain Vaagen's reputation. Sorry to be so blunt, Vaagen, but you're an empire builder, and this time you've gone too far."

"Are you ambitious for a research wing. Captain Vaagen?" Cordelia inquired.

He shrugged, embarrassed rather than outraged, so she knew the Residence man's words to be at least half true. She gathered Vaagen in by eye, willing to possess him body, mind, and soul, but especially mind, and wondering how best to fire his imagination in her service.

"You shall have an institute, if you can bring this off. You tell him," she jerked her head in the direction of the hall, toward Aral's room, "I said so."

Variously discomfited, angry, and hopeful, they withdrew. Cordelia lay back on the bed and whistled a little soundless tune, her fingertips continuing their slow abdominal massage. Gravity had ceased to exist.

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