Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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Chapter Ten

Cordelia woke slowly, stretched, and clutched the magnificent silky feather-stuffed comforter to her. The other side of the bed was empty—she touched the dented pillow—cold and empty. Aral must have tiptoed out early She luxuriated in the sensation of finally having enough sleep, not waking to that stunned exhaustion that had clotted her mind and body for so long. This made the third night in a row she'd slept well, warmed by her husband's body, both of them gladly rid of the irritating oxygen-fittings on their faces.

Their comer room, on the second floor of the old stone converted barracks, was cool this morning, and very quiet The front window opened onto the bright green lawn, descending into mist that hid the lake and the village and hills of the farther shore. The damp morning felt comfortable, felt right, proper contrast to the feather comforter. When she sat up, the new pink scar on her abdomen only twinged.

Droushnakovi poked her head around the doorframe. "Milady?" she called softly, then saw Cordelia sitting up, bare feet hung out over the edge of the bed. Cordelia swung her feet back and forth, experimentally, encouraging circulation. "Oh, good, you're awake." Drou shouldered her through the door, bearing a large and promising tray. She wore one of her more comfortable dresses, with a wide trine skirt, and a warm padded vest with embroidery. Her footsteps sounded on the wide wooden floorboards, then were muffled on the handwoven rug as she crossed the room.

"I'm hungry," said Cordelia in wonder, as the aromas from the tray tickled her nose. "I think that's the first time three weeks." Three weeks, since that night of horrors at Vorkosigan House.

Drou smiled, and set the tray down at the table by the front window. Cordelia found robe and slippers, and made for the coffeepot. Drou hovered, seeming ready to catch her if she fell over, but Cordelia did not feel nearly so shaky today. She seated herself and reached for steaming groats and butter, and a pitcher of hot syrup the Barrayarans made from boiled-down tree sap. Wonderful food.

"Have you eaten, Drou? Want some coffee? What time is it?"

The bodyguard shook her blonde head. "I'm fine, Milady. It's about elevenses."

Droushnakovi had been part of the assumed background, for the past several days here at Vorkosigan Surleau. Cordelia found herself really looking at the girl for almost the first time since she'd left ImpMil. Drou was attentive and alert as ever, but with an underlying tension, that same bad-guard-slink—perhaps it was only because she was feeling better herself, but Cordelia selfishly wanted the people around her to be feeling better, too, if only not to drag her back down.

"I'm feeling so much less thick, today. I talked to Captain Vaagen yesterday, on the vid. He thinks he's seen the first signs of molecular re-calcification in little Piotr Miles. Very encouraging, if you know how to interpret Vaagen. He doesn't offer false hopes, but what little he does say, you can rely on."

Drou glanced up from her lap, fixing a responding smile on her downcast features. She shook her head "Uterine replicators seem so strange to me. So alien -- "

"Not so strange as what evolution laid on us, ad k empirical," Cordelia grinned back. "Thank God for technology and rational design. I know whereof I speak, now."

"Milady... how did you first know you were pregnant? Did you miss a monthly?"

"A menstrual period? No, actually." She thought back to last summer. This very room, that unmade bed in fact. She and Aral could begin sharing intimacies there again soon, though with some loss of piquancy without reproduction as a goal. "Aral and I thought we were all settled here, last summer. He was retired, I was retired ... no impediments. I was on the verge of being old for the organic method, which seemed the only one available here on Barrayar; more to the point, he wanted to start soon. So a few weeks after we were married, I went and had my contraceptive implant removed. Made me feel very wicked; at home I couldn't have had it taken out without buying a license."

"Really?" Drou listened with openmouthed fascination.

"Yes, it's a Betan legal requirement. You have to qualify for a parent's license first. I've had my implant since I was fourteen. I had a menstrual period once then, I remember. We turn them off till they're needed. I got my implant, and my hymen cut, and my ears pierced, and had my coming-out party. ..."

"You didn't... start doing sex when you were fourteen, did you?" Droushnakovi's voice was hushed.

"I could have. But it takes two, y'know. I didn't find a real lover till later." Cordelia was ashamed to admit how much later. She'd been so socially inept, back then... And you haven't changed much, she admitted wryly to herself.

"I didn't think it would happen so fast," Cordelia went on. "I thought we'd be in for several months of earnest and delightful experiment. But we caught the baby first try. So I still haven't had a menstrual period, here on Barrayar."

"First try," echoed Drou. Her lip curled in introspective dismay. "How did you know you'd . . . caught? The nausea ?"

"Fatigue, before nausea. But it was the little blue dots..." Her voice faltered, as she studied the girl's twisted-up features. "Drou, are all these questions academic, or do you have some more personal interest in the answers?"

Her face almost crumpled. "Personal," she choked out.

"Oh." Cordelia sat back. "D'you... want to talk about it?"

"No ... I don't know..."

"I presume that means yes," Cordelia sighed. Ah, yes. lust like playing Mama Captain to sixty Betan scientists back on Survey, though queries about pregnancy were perhaps the one interpersonal trouble they'd never laid in her lap. But given the Really Dumb Stuff that rational and select group had sprung on her from time to time, the feral Barrayaran version ought to be just... "You know I'll be glad to help you any way I can."

"It was the night of the soltoxin attack," she sniffled. "I couldn't sleep. I went down to the refectory kitchen to get something to eat. On the way back upstairs I noticed a light on in the library. Lieutenant Koudelka was in there. He couldn't sleep either."

Kou, eh? Oh, good, good. This might be all right after all. Cordelia smiled in genuine encouragement. "Yes?"

"We ... I ... he ... kissed me."

"I trust you kissed him back?"

"You sound like you approve."

"I do. You are two of my favorite people, you and Kou. If only you'd get your heads straight . . . but go on, there has to be more." Unless Drou was more ignorant than Cordelia believed possible.

"We . . . we ... we ..."

"Screwed?" Cordelia suggested hopefully.

"Yes, Milady." Drou turned scarlet, and swallowed. "Kou seemed so happy . . . for a few minutes. I was so happy for him, so excited, I didn't care how much it hurt."

Ah, yes, the barbaric Barrayaran custom of introducing their women to sex with the pain of unanesthesized defloration. Though considering how much pain their reproductive methods later entailed, perhaps it constituted fair warning. But Kou, in the glimpses she'd had of him hadn't seemed as happy as a new lover ought to be either. What were these two doing to each other? "Go on."

"I thought I saw a movement in the back garden, out the door from the library. Then came the crash upstairs-^ oh. Milady! I'm so sorry! If I'd been guarding you, instead of doing that—"

"Whoa, girl! You were off-duty. If you hadn't been doing that, you'd have been in bed asleep. No way is the soltoxin attack your fault, yours or Kou's. In fact, if you hadn't been up and, and more or less dressed, the would-be assassin might have gotten away." And we wouldn't by anticipating yet another public beheading, or whatever, Cod help us. One part of Cordelia wished they'd gone for seconds, and never looked out the damned window. But Droushnakovi had enough consequences to deal with right now without those mortal complications.

"But if only—"

"If onlys have been thick in the air around here, these last weeks. I think it's time to replace them with some Now-we-go-ons, frankly." Cordelia's mind caught up with herself at last. Drou was Barrayaran; Drou therefore didn't have a contraceptive implant. It didn't sound like that idiot Kou had offered an alternative, either. Drou had therefore spent the last three weeks wondering . . . "Would you like to try one of my little blue dots? I have lots left."

"Blue dots?"

"Yes, I started to tell you. I have a packet of these little diagnostic strips. Bought them in Vorbarr Sultana last summer at an import shop. You pee on one, and if the dot turns blue, you're in. I only used up three, last summer." Cordelia went to her dresser drawer, and rooted through it for the obsolete supplies. "Here." She handed one to Drou. "Go relieve yourself. And your mind."

"Do they work so soon?"

"After five days." Cordelia held up her hand. "Promise." Staring worriedly at the little strip of paper, Droushnakovi vanished into Cordelia and Aral's bathroom, off the bedroom. She emerged in a few minutes. Her face was glum, her shoulders slumped.

What does this mean? Cordelia wondered in exasperate. "Well?"

"It stayed white."

"Then you aren't pregnant."

"Guess not."

"I can't tell if you're glad or sorry. Believe me, if you want to have a baby, you'd do much better to wait a couple years till they get a bit more medical technology on-line around here." Though the organic method had been fascinating, for a time...

"I don't want ... I want ... I don't know . . . Kou's hardly spoken to me since that night. I didn't want to be pregnant, it would destroy me, and yet I thought maybe he would, would... be as excited and happy about it as he was about the sex, maybe. Maybe he'd come back and — oh, things were going so well, and now they're so spoiled!" Her hands were clenched, face white, teeth gritted.

Cry, so I can breathe, girl. But Droushnakovi regained her self-control. "I'm sorry. Milady. I didn't mean to spill all this stupidity on you."

Stupidity, yes, but not unilateral stupidity. Something this screwed up had to have taken a committee. "So what is the matter with Kou? I thought he was just suffering from soltoxin-guilt, like everyone else in the household." From Aral and myself on down.

"I don't know. Milady."

"Have you tried something really radical, like asking him?"

"He hides, when he sees me coming."

Cordelia sighed, and turned her attention to getting dressed. Real clothes, not patient robes, today. There in the back of Aral's closet were her tan trousers from her old Survey uniform, hung up. Curiously, she tried them on. Not only did they fasten, they were loose. She had been sick. Rather aggressively, she left them on, and chose a long sleeved flowered smock-top to go with them. Very comfortable. She smiled at her slim, if pale, profile in the mirror.

"Ah, dear Captain." Aral stuck his head in the bedroom door. "You're up." He glanced at Droushnakovi. "You're both here. Better still. I think I need your help, Cordelia. In fact, I'm certain of it." Aral's eyes were alight with the strangest expression. Amazement, bemusement, worry? He let himself in. He was wearing his standard gear for off-duty time at Vorkosigan Surleau, old uniform trousers and a civilian shirt. He was trailed by a tense and miserable Koudelka, dressed in neat black fatigues with his red lieutenant's tabs bright on the collar. He clutched his swordstick. Drou backed to the wall, and crossed her arms

"Lieutenant Koudelka — he tells me — wishes to make a confession. He is also, I suspect, hoping for absolution" said Aral.

"I don't deserve that, sir," Koudelka muttered. "But I couldn't live with myself anymore. This has to come out," He stared at the floor, meeting no one's eyes. Droushnakovi watched him breathlessly. Aral eased over and sat on the edge of the bed beside Cordelia.

"Hold on to your hat," he murmured to her out of the comer of his mouth. "This one took me by surprise."

"I think I may be way ahead of you."

"That wouldn't be a first." He raised his voice. "Go ahead. Lieutenant. This won't be any easier for being dragged out."

"Drou — Miss Droushnakovi — I came to turn myself in. And to apologize. No, that sounds trivial, and believe me, I don't think it trivial. You deserve more than apology, I owe you expiation. Whatever you want. But I'm sorry, so sorry I raped you."

Droushnakovi's mouth fell open for a full three seconds, then shut so hard Cordelia could hear her teeth snap. "What?!"

Koudelka flinched, but never looked up. "Sorry . . sorry," he mumbled.

"You. Think. You. What?!" gasped Droushnakovi, horrified and outraged. "You think you could—oh!" She stood rigid now, hands clenched, breathing fast. "Kou, you oaf! You idiot! You moron! You-you-you—" Her words uttered off. Her whole body was shaking. Cordelia watched in utter fascination. Aral rubbed his lips thought...

Droushnakovi stalked over to Koudelka and kicked his swordstick out of his hand. He almost fell, with a startled "Huh?", clutching at it and missing as it clattered across the floor.

Drou slammed him expertly into the wall, and paralyzed him with a nerve thrust, her fingers jammed up into his solar plexus. His breath stopped.

"You goon. Do you think you could lay a hand on me without my permission? Oh! To be so, to be so, so, so—" Her baffled words dissolved into a scream of outrage, right next to his ear. He spasmed.

"Please don't break my secretary, Drou, the repairs are expensive," said Aral mildly.

"Oh!" She whirled away, releasing Koudelka. He staggered and fell to his knees. Hands over her face, biting her fingers, she stomped out the door, slamming it behind her. Only then did she sob, sharp breaths retreating up the hallway. Another door slammed. Silence.

"I'm sorry, Kou," said Aral into the long lull. "But it doesn't look as though your self-accusation stands up in court."

"I don't understand." Kou shook his head, crawled after his swordstick, and climbed very shakily to his feet.

"Do I gather you are both talking about what happened between you the night of the soltoxin attack?" Cordelia asked.

"Yes, Milady. I was sitting up in the library. Couldn't sleep, thought I'd run over some figures. She came in. We sat, talked. . . . Suddenly I found myself . . . well . . . it was the first time I'd been functional since I was hit by the nerve disrupter. I thought it might be another year, or forever—I panicked, I just panicked. I ... took her . . . right there. Never asked, never said a word. And came the crash from upstairs, and we both ran out into the back garden and . . . she never accused me, next day I waited and waited."

"But if he didn't rape her, why did she get so angry, just now?" asked Aral.

"But she's been mad," said Koudelka. "The looks she given me, these last three weeks . . ."

"The looks were fear, Kou," Cordelia advised him

"Yes, that's what I thought."

"Because she was afraid she was pregnant, not because she was afraid of you," Cordelia clarified.

"Oh." Koudelka's voice went small.

"She's not, as it happens." (Kou echoed himself with another small "Oh.") "But she's mad at you now, and I don't blame her."

"But if she doesn't think I — what reason?"

"You don't see it?" She frowned at Aral. "You either?"

"Well . . ."

"It's because you just insulted her, Kou. Not then, but right now, in this room. And not just in slighting her combat prowess. What you just said revealed to her, for the first time, that you were so intent on yourself that night, you never saw her at all. Bad, Kou. Very bad. You owe her a profound apology. Here she was, giving her Barrayaran all to you, and you so little appreciated what she was doing, you didn't even perceive it."

His head came up suddenly. "Gave me? Like some charity?"

"Gift of the gods, more like," murmured Aral, lost in some appreciation of his own.

"I'm not a—" Koudelka's head swiveled toward the door. "Are you saying I should run after her?"

"Crawl, actually, if I were you," recommended Aral. "Crawl fast. Slither under her door, go belly-up, let her stomp on you till she gets it out of her system. Then apologize some more. You may yet save the situation." Aral's eyes were openly alight with amusement now.

"What do you call that? Total surrender?" said Kou indignantly.

"No. I'd call it winning." His voice grew a shade cooler. "I've seen the war between men and women descend to scorched-earth heroics. Pyres of pride. You don't want to down that road. I guarantee it."

"You're—Milady! You're laughing at me! Stop!"

"Then stop making yourself ridiculous," said Cordelia sharply- "Get your head out of your ass. Think for sixty consecutive seconds about somebody besides yourself."

"Milady. Milord." His teeth were gritted now with frozen dignity. He bowed himself out, well slapped. But he turned the wrong way in the hallway, the opposite direction to which Droushnakovi had fled, and clattered down the end stairs.

Aral shook his head helplessly, as Koudelka's footsteps faded. A splutter escaped him.

Cordelia punched him softly on the arm. "Stop that! It's not funny to them." Their eyes met; she sniggered, then caught her breath firmly. "Good heavens, I think he wanted to be a rapist. Odd ambition. Has he been hanging around with Bothari too much?"

This slightly sick joke sobered them both. Aral looked thoughtful. "I think . . . Kou was flattering his self-doubts. But his remorse was sincere."

"Sincere, but a trifle smug. I think we may have coddled his self-doubts long enough. It may be time to kick his tail."

Aral's shoulders slumped wearily. "He owes her, no doubt. Yet what should I order him to do? It's worthless, if he doesn't pay freely."

Cordelia growled agreement.

 

It wasn't until lunch that Cordelia noticed something missing from their little world.

"Where s the Count?" she asked Aral, as they found the table set only for two by Piotr's housekeeper, in a front dining room overlooking the lake. The day had failed to warm. The earlier mist had risen only to clot into low scudding grey clouds, windy and chilly. Cordelia had added an old black fatigue jacket of Aral's over her flowered blouse.

"I thought he went to the stables. For a training session with that new dressage prospect of his," said Aral, also regarding the table uneasily. "That's what he told me he was going to do."

The housekeeper, bringing in soup, volunteered, "No, m'lord. He went off in the groundcar early, with two of his men."

"Oh. Excuse me." Aral nodded to Cordelia and rose and exited the dining room to the back hall. One of the storerooms on the back side of the house, wedged into the slope, had been converted into a secured comm center, with a double-scrambled comconsole and a full-time ImpSec guard outside its door. Aral's footsteps echoed down the hall in that direction.

Cordelia took one bite of soup, which went down like liquid lead, set her spoon aside, and waited. She could hear Aral's voice, in the quiet house, and electronically tinged responses in some strangers tones, but too muffled for her to make out the words. After what seemed a small eternity, though in fact the soup was still hot, Aral returned, bleak-faced.

"Did he go up there?" Cordelia asked. "To ImpMil?"

"Yes. He's been and left. It's all right." His heavy jaw was set.

"Meaning, the baby's all right?"

"Yes. He was denied admittance, he argued awhile, he left. Nothing worse." He began glumly spooning soup.

The Count returned a few hours later. Cordelia heard the fine whine of his groundcar pass up the drive and around the north end of the house, pause, a canopy open and close, and the car continue on to the garages, sited over the crest of the hill near the stables. She was sitting with Aral in the front room with the new big windows. He had been engrossed in some government report on his handviewer, but at the sound of the closing canopy put it on "pause" and waited with her, listening, as hard footsteps passed rapidly around the house and up the front steps. Aral's mouth was taut with unpleased anticipation, his eyes grim. Cordelia shrank back in her chair, and steeled her nerves.

Count Piotr swung into their room, and stood, feet planted. He was formally dressed in his old uniform with his general's rank insignia. "There you are." The liveried man trailing him took one uneasy glance at Aral and Cordelia, and removed himself without waiting to be dismissed. Count Piotr didn't even notice him go.

Piotr focused on Aral first. "You. You dared to shame me in public. Entrap me."

"You shamed yourself, I fear, sir. If you had not gone down that path, you would not have found that trap."

Piotr's tight jaw worked this one over, the lines in his face grooved deep. Anger; embarrassment struggling with self-righteousness. Embarrassed as only one in the wrong can be. He doubts himself, Cordelia realized. A thread of hope. Let us not lose that thread, it may be our only way out of this labyrinth.

The self-righteousness took ascendance. "I shouldn't have to be doing this," snarled Piotr. "It's women's work. Guarding our genome."

"Was women's work, in the Time of Isolation," said Aral in level tones. "When the only answer to mutation was infanticide. Now there are other answers."

"How strange women must have felt about their pregnancies, never knowing if there was life or death at the end of them," Cordelia mused. One sip from that cup was all she desired for a lifetime, and yet Barrayaran women had drained it to the dregs over and over... the wonder was not that their descendants' culture was chaotic, but that it wasn't more completely insane.

"You fail all of us when you fail to control her," said Piotr. "How do you imagine you can run a planet when you cannot run your own household?"

One comer of Aral's mouth twisted up slightly. "Indeed, she is difficult to control. She escaped me twice. Her voluntary return still astounds me."

"Awake to your duties! To me as your Count if not as your father. You are liege-sworn to me. Do you choose to obey this off-worlder woman before me?"

'Yes." Aral looked him straight in the eye. His voice fell to a whisper. "That is the proper order of things." Piotr flinched. Aral added dryly, "Attempting to switch the issue from infanticide to obedience will not help you, sir. You taught me specious-rhetoric-chopping yourself."

"In the old days, you could have been beheaded for less insolence."

"Yes, the present setup is a little peculiar. As a count's heir, my hands are between yours, but as your Regent your hands are between mine. Oath-stalemate. In the old days we could have broken the deadlock with a nice little war." He grinned back, or at least bared his teeth. Cordelia's mind gyrated. One day only: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object. Tickets, five marks.

The door to the hallway swung open, and Lieutenant Koudelka peered nervously within. "Sir? Sorry to interrupt. I'm having trouble with the comconsole. It's down again."

"What sort of trouble. Lieutenant?" Vorkosigan asked, wrenching his attention around with an effort. "The intermittence?"

"It's just not working."

"It was fine a few hours ago. Check the power supply."

"Did that, sir."

"Call a tech."

"I can't, without the comconsole."

"Ah, yes. Get the guard commander to open it up for you, then, see if the trouble is anything obvious. Then send for a tech on his clear-link."

"Yes, sir." Koudelka backed out, after a wary glance at the three tense people still frozen in their places waiting for him to withdraw.

The Count wouldn't quit. "I swear, I will disown it. That thing in the can at ImpMil. Utterly disinherit it."

"Not an operative threat, sir. You can only directly disown me. By an Imperial order. Which you would have to humbly petition, ah... me, for." His edged smile gleamed. "I would, of course, grant it to you."

The muscles in Piotr's jaw jumped. Not the irresistible force and the immovable object after all, but the irresistible force and some fluid sea; Piotr's blows kept failing to land,' splashing past helplessly. Mental judo. He was off-balance, and flailed for his center, striking out wildly now. "Think of Barrayar. Think of the example you're setting."

"Oh," breathed Aral, "that I have." He paused. "We have never led from the rear, you or I. Where a Vorkosigan goes, maybe others might not find it so impossible to follow. A little personal . . . social engineering."

"Maybe for galactics. But our society can't afford this luxury. We barely hold our own as it is. We cannot carry the deadweight of millions of dysfunctionals!"

"Millions?" Aral raised a brow. "Now you extrapolate from one to infinity. A weak argument, sir, unworthy of you."

"And surely," said Cordelia quietly, "how much is bearable each individual, carrying his or her own burden, must decide."

Piotr swung on her. "Yes, and who is paying for all this, eh? The Imperium. Vaagen's laboratory is budgeted under military research. All Barrayar is paying for prolonging the life of your monster."

Discomfited, Cordelia replied, "Perhaps it will prove a better investment than you think."

Piotr snorted, his head lowered mulishly, hunched between his skinny shoulders. He stared through Cordelia at Aral. "You are determined to lay this thing on me. On my house. I cannot persuade you otherwise, I cannot order you... very well. You're so set on change, here's a change for you. I don't want my name on that thing. I can deny you that, if nothing else."

Aral's lips were pinched, nostrils flaring. But he never moved in his seat. The viewer glowed on, forgotten in his still hands. He held his hands quiet and totally controlled, not permitting them to clench. "Very well, sir."

"Call him Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, then," said Cordelia, feigning calm over a sick and trembling belly. My father will not begrudge it."

"Your father is dead," snapped Piotr.

Smeared to bright plasma in a shuttle accident more than a decade ago ... She sometimes fancied, when she closed her eyes, that she could still sense his death imprinted on her retina in magenta and teal. "Not wholly. Not while I live, and remember."

Piotr looked as if she'd just hit him in his Barrayaran stomach. Barrayaran ceremonies for the dead approached ancestor-worship, as if remembrance could keep the souls alive. Did his own mortality run chill in his veins today? He had gone too far, and knew it, but could not back down. "Nothing, nothing wakes you up! Try this, then." He straddled the floor, boots planted, and glared at Aral. "Get out of my house. Both houses, Vorkosigan House, too. Take your woman and remove yourself. Today!"

Aral's eyes flicked only once around his childhood home. He set the viewer carefully aside, and stood. "Very well, sir."

Piotr's anger was anguished. "You'd throw away your home for this?!"

"My home is not a place. It is a person, sir," Aral said gravely. Then added reluctantly, "People."

Meaning Piotr, as well as Cordelia. She sat bent over, aching with the tension. Was the old man stone? Even now Aral offered him gestures of courtesy that nearly stopped her heart.

"You will return your rents and revenues to the District purse," said Piotr desperately.

"As you wish, sir." Aral headed for the door.

Piotr's voice went smaller. "Where will you live?"

"Illyan has been urging me for some time to move to the Imperial Residence, for security reasons. Evon Vorhalas has persuaded me Illyan is right."

Cordelia had risen when Aral did. She went now to the window and stared out over the moody grey, green, and brown landscape. Whitecaps foamed on the pewter water of the lake. The Barrayaran winter was going to be so cold...

"So, you set yourself up with Imperial airs after all, eh?" jibed Piotr. "Is that what this is, hubris?"

Aral grimaced in profound irritation. "On the contrary, sir. If I'm to have no income but my admiral's half-pay, I cannot afford to pass up rent-free quarters."

A movement in the scudding clouds caught Cordelia's eye. She squinted uneasily. "What's wrong with that lightflyer?" she murmured half to herself.

The speck grew, jinking oddly. It trailed smoke. It stuttered over the lake, straight at them. "God, I wonder if it's full of bombs?"

"What?" said Aral and Piotr together, and stepped quickly to the window with her, Aral on her right hand, Piotr on her left.

"It has ImpSec markings," said Aral. ,

Piotr's old eyes narrowed. "Ah?"

Cordelia mentally planned a sprint down the back hall and out the end door. There was a bit of a ditch on the other side of the drive, if they went flat in it maybe... but the lightflyer was slowing at the end of its trajectory. It wobbled toward a landing on the front lawn. Men in Vorkosigan livery and ImpSec green and black cautiously surrounded it. The flyer's damage was clearly visible now, a plasma-slagged hole, black smears of soot, warped control surfaces—it was a miracle it flew at all.

"Who—?" said Aral.

Piotr's squint sharpened as a glimpse of the pilot winked through the damaged canopy. "Ye gods, it's Negri!"

"But who's that with—come on!" Aral flung over his shoulder, running out the door. They charged in his wake, around into the front hall, bursting out the door and churning down the green slope.

The guards had to pry open the warped canopy. Negri fell into their arms. They laid him on the grass. He had a grotesque burn a meter long on the left side of his body and thigh, his green uniform melted and charred away to reveal bleeding white bubbles, cracked-open flesh. He shivered uncontrollably.

The short figure strapped into the passenger seat was Emperor Gregor. The five-year-old boy was weeping in terror, not loudly, just muffled, gulping, suppressed whimpers. Such self-control in one so young seemed sinister to Cordelia. He should be screaming. She felt like screaming. He wore ordinary play-clothes, a soft shirt and pants in dark blue. He was missing one shoe. An ImpSec guard unhooked his seat belt and dragged him out of the flyer. He ringed from the man and stared at Negri in utter horror and confusion. Did you think adults were indestructible, child? Cordelia grieved.

Kou and Drou materialized from their separate holes in the house, to goggle along with the rest of the guards. Gregor spotted Droushnakovi, and Hew to her like an arrow, to wind his hands tightly in her skirt. "Droushie, help!" His crying dared to become audible, then. She wrapped her arms around him and lifted him up.

Aral knelt by the injured ImpSec chief. "Negri, what happened?"

Negri reached up and grabbed his jacket with his working right hand. "He's trying for a coup—in the capital. His troops took ImpSec, took the comm center—why didn't you respond? HQ surrounded, infiltrated — bad fighting now at the Imperial Residence. We were on to him — about to arrest — he panicked. Struck too soon. I think he has Kareen —"

Piotr demanded, "Who has, Negri, who?"

"Vordarian."

Aral nodded grimly. "Yes ..."

'You — take the boy," gasped Negri. "He's almost on top of us..." His shivers oscillated into convulsions, his eyes rolling back whitely. His breath stuttered in resonant chokes. His brown eyes refocused in sudden intensity. "Tell Ezar — " The convulsions took him again, racking his thick body. Then they stopped. All stop. He was no longer breathing.

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