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He let his head rest against the crisp cloth of her uniform jacket a moment longer. She shifted, her arms reaching toward him. Was she about to hug him? If she did, Miles decided, he was going to grab her and kiss her right there. And then see what happened—
Behind him, Galeni's office doors swished open. Elli and he both flinched away from each other, Elli coming to parade rest with a toss of her short dark curls, Miles just standing and cursing inwardly at the interruption.
He heard and knew the familiar, drawling voice before he turned.
"—brilliant, sure, but hyper as hell. You think he's going to slip his flywheel any second. Watch out when he starts talking too fast. Oh, yeah, that's him all right. . . ."
"Ivan," Miles breathed, closing his eyes. "How, God, have I sinned against You, that You have given me Ivan—here. ..."
God not deigning to answer, Miles smiled crookedly, and turned. Elli had her head tilted, frowning, and listening in sudden concentration.
Galeni had returned with a tall young lieutenant in tow. Indolent as he was, Ivan Vorpatril had obviously been keeping in shape, for his athletic physique set off his dress greens to perfection. His affable, open face was even-featured, framed by wavy dark hair in a neat patrician clip. Miles could not help glancing at Elli, covertly alert for her reaction. With her face and figure Elli tended to make anyone standing next to her look grubby, but Ivan might actually play the stem to her rose and not be overshadowed.
"Hi, Miles," said Ivan. "What are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same thing," said Miles.
"I'm second assistant military attache. They assigned me here to get cultured, I guess. Earth, y'know."
"Oh," said Galeni, one corner of his mouth twitching upward, "is that what you're here for. I'd wondered."
Ivan grinned sheepishly. "How's life with the irregulars these days?" he asked Miles. "You still getting away with your Admiral Naismith scam?"
"Just barely," said Miles. "The Dendarii are with me now. They're in orbit," he jabbed his finger skyward, "eating their heads off even as we speak."
Galeni looked as if he'd bitten into something sour. "Does everybody know about this covert operation but me? You, Vorpatril—I know your Security clearance is no higher than my own!"
Ivan shrugged. "A previous encounter. It was in the family."
"Damned Vor power network," muttered Galeni.
"Oh," said Elli Quinn in a tone of sudden enlightenment, "this is your cousin Ivan! I'd always wondered what he looked like."
Ivan, who had been sneaking little peeks at her ever since he'd entered the room, came to attention with all the quivering alertness of a bird dog pointing. He smiled blindingly and bowed over Elli's hand. "Delighted to meet you, m'lady. The Dendarii must be improving, if you are a fair sample. The fairest, surely."
Elli repossessed her hand. "We've met."
"Surely not. I couldn't forget that face."
"I didn't have this face. 'A head just like an onion' was the way you phrased it, as I recall." Her eyes glittered. "Since I was blinded at the time, I had no idea how bad the plastiskin prosthesis really looked. Until you told me. Miles never mentioned it."
Ivan's smile had gone limp. "Ah. The plasma-burn lady."
Miles smirked and edged closer to Elli, who put her hand possessively through the crook of his elbow and favored Ivan with a cold samurai smile. Ivan, trying to bleed with dignity, looked to Captain Galeni.
"Since you know each other, Lieutenant Vorkosigan, I've assigned Lieutenant Vorpatril here to take you in tow and orient you to the Embassy, and to your duties here," said Galeni. "Vor or no Vor, as long as you're on the Emperor's payroll, the Emperor might as well get some use of you. I trust some clarification of your status will arrive promptly."
"I trust the Dendarii payroll will arrive as promptly," said Miles.
"Your mercenary—bodyguard—can return to her outfit. If for any reason you need to leave the Embassy compound, I'll assign you one of my men."
"Yes, sir," sighed Miles. "But I still have to be able to get in touch with the Dendarii, in case of emergencies."
"I'll see that Commander Quinn gets a secured comm link before she leaves. As a matter of feet," he touched his comconsole, "Sergeant Barth?" he spoke into it.
"Yes, sir?" a voice replied.
"Do you have that comm link ready yet?"
"Just finished encoding it, sir."
"Good, bring it to my office."
Barth, still in his civvies, appeared within moments. Galeni shepherded Elli out. "Sergeant Barth will escort you out of the Embassy compound, Commander Quinn." She glanced back over her shoulder at Miles, who sketched her a reassuring salute.
"What will I tell the Dendarii?" she asked.
"Tell them—tell them their funds are in transit," Miles called. The doors hissed shut, eclipsing her.
Galeni returned to his comconsole, which was bunking for his attention. "Vorpatril, please make getting your cousin out of that . . . costume, and into a correct uniform your first priority."
Does Admiral Naismith spook you just a little . . . sir? Miles wondered irritably. "The Dendarii uniform is as real as your own, sir."
Galeni glowered at him, across his flickering desk. "I wouldn't know, Lieutenant. My father could only afford toy soldiers for me when I was a boy. You two are dismissed."
Miles, fuming, waited until the doors had closed behind them before tearing off his grey-and-white jacket and throwing it to the corridor floor. "Costume! Toy soldiers! I think I'm gonna kill that Komarran son-of-a-bitch!"
"Oooh," said Ivan. "Aren't we touchy today."
"You heard what he said!"
"Yeah, so ... Galeni's all right. A bit regulation, maybe. There's a dozen little tin-pot mercenary outfits running around in oddball corners of the worm-hole nexus. Some of them tread a real fine line between legal and illegal. How's he supposed to know your Dendarii aren't next door to being hijackers?"
Miles picked up his uniform jacket, shook it out, and folded it carefully over his arm. "Huh."
"Come on," said Ivan. "I'll take you down to Stores and get you a kit in a color more to his taste."
"They got anything in my size?"
"They make a laser-map of your body and produce the stuff one-off, computer controlled, just like that overpriced sartorial pirate you take yourself to in Vorbarr Sultana. This is Earth, son."
"My man on Barrayar's been doing my clothes for ten years. He has some tricks that aren't in the computer. . . . Well, I guess I can live with it. Can the embassy computer do civilian clothes?"
Ivan grimaced. "If your tastes are conservative. If you want something in style to wow the local girls, you have to go farther afield."
"With Galeni for a duenna, I have a feeling I'm not going to get a chance to go very far afield," Miles sighed. "It'll have to do."
Miles sighted down the forest-green sleeve of his Barrayaran dress uniform, adjusted the cuff, and jerked his chin up, the better to settle his head on the high collar. He'd half-forgotten just how uncomfortable that damn collar was, with his short neck. In front the red rectangles of his lieutenant's rank seemed to poke into his jaw; in back it pinched his still-uncut hair. And the boots were hot. The bone he'd broken in his left foot at Dagoola still twinged, even now after being re-broken, set straight, and treated with electra-stim.
Still, the green uniform was home. His true self. Maybe it was time for a vacation from Admiral Naismith and his intractable responsibilities, time to remember the more reasonable problems of Lieutenant Vorkosigan, whose sole task now was to learn the procedures of one small office and put up with Ivan Vorpatril. The Dendarii didn't need him to hold their hand for routine rest and refit, nor could he have arranged any more safe and thorough a disappearance for Admiral Naismith.
Ivan's particular charge was this tiny windowless room deep in the bowels of the embassy compound; his job, to feed hundreds of data disks to a secured computer that concentrated them into a weekly report on the status of Earth, to be sent back to Security Chief Illyan and the general staff on Barrayar. Where, Miles supposed, it was computer-collated with hundreds of other such reports to create Barrayar's vision of the universe. Miles hoped devoutly that Ivan wasn't adding kilowatts and megawatts in the same column.
"By far the bulk of this stuff is public statistics," Ivan was explaining, seated before his console and actually looking at ease in his dress greens. "Population shifts, agricultural and manufacturing production figures, the various political divisions' published military budgets. The computer adds 'em up sixteen different ways, and blinks for attention when things don't match. Since all the originators have computers too, this doesn't happen too often—all the lies are embedded before it ever gets to us, Galeni says. More important to Barrayar are records of ship movements in and out of Earth local space.
"Then we get to the more interesting stuff, real spy work. There's several hundred people on Earth this embassy tries to keep track of, for one security reason or another. One of the biggest groups is the Komarran rebel expatriates." A wave of Ivan's hand, and dozens of faces flickered one after another above the vid plate.
"Oh, yeah?" said Miles, interested in spite of himself. "Does Galeni have secret contacts and so on with them? Is that why he's assigned here? Double agent—triple agent ..."
"I bet Illyan wishes," said Ivan. "As far as I know, they regard Galeni as a leper. Evil collaborator with the imperialist oppressors and all that."
"Surely they're no great threat to Barrayar at this late date and distance. Refugees ..."
"Some of these were the smart refugees, though, the ones who got their money out before the boom dropped. Some were involved in financing the Komarr Revolt during the Regency—they're mostly a lot poorer now. They're aging, though. Another half generation, if your father's integration policies succeed, and they'll have totally lost momentum, Captain Galeni says."
Ivan picked up another data disk. "And then we come to the real hot stuff, which is keeping track of what the other embassies are doing. Such as the Cetagandan."
"I hope they're on the other side of the planet," said Miles sincerely.
"No, most of the galactic embassies and consuls are concentrated right here in London. Makes watching each other ever so much more convenient."
"Ye gods," moaned Miles, "don't tell me they're across the street or some damned thing."
Ivan grinned. "Almost. They're about two kilometers away. We go to each other's parties a lot, to practice being snide, and play I-know-you-know-I-know games."
Miles sat, hyperventilating slightly. "Oh, shit."
"What's up you, coz?"
"Those people are trying to kill me."
"No they're not. It'd start a war. We're at peace right now, sort of, remember?"
"Well, they're trying to kill Admiral Naismith, anyway."
"Who vanished yesterday."
"Yeah, but—one of the reasons this whole Dendarii scam has held up for so long is distance. Admiral Naismith and Lieutenant Vorkosigan never show up within hundreds of light years of each other. We've never been trapped on the same planet together, let alone the same city."
"As long as you leave your Dendarii uniform in my closet, what's to connect?"
"Ivan, how many four-foot-nine-inch black-haired grey-eyed hunchbacks can there be on this damn planet? D'you think you trip over twitchy dwarfs on every street corner?"
"On a planet of nine billion," said Ivan, "there's got to be at least six of everything. Calm down!" He paused. "Y'now, that's the first time I've ever heard you use that word."
"Hunchback. You're not really, you know." Ivan eyed him with friendly worry.
Miles's fist closed, opened in a sharp throw-away gesture. "Anyway, Cetagandans. If they have a counterpart doing what you're doing—"
Ivan nodded. "I've met him. His name's ghem-lieutenant Tabor."
"Then they know the Dendarii are here, and know Admiral Naismith's been seen. They probably have a list of every purchase order we've put through the comm net, or will soon enough, when they turn their attention to it. They're tracking."
"They may be tracking, but they can't get orders from higher up any faster than we can," said Ivan reasonably. "And in any case they've got a manpower shortage. Our security staffs four times the size of theirs, on account of the Komarrans. I mean, this may be Earth, but it's still a minor embassy, even more so for them than us. Never fear," he struck a pose in his station chair, hand across his chest, "Cousin Ivan will protect you."
"That's so reassuring," Miles muttered.
Ivan grinned at his sarcasm, and turned back to his work.
The day wore on interminably in the quiet, changeless room. His claustrophobia, Miles discovered, was developed to a much higher pitch than it used to be. He absorbed lessons from Ivan, and paced from wall to wall between times.
"You could do that about twice as fast, you know," Miles observed to Ivan, plugging away at his data analysis.
"But then I'd be done right after lunch," said Ivan, "and then I wouldn't have anything to do at all."
"Surely Galeni could find something."
"That's what I'm afraid of," said Ivan. "Quitting time rolls around soon enough. Then we go party."
"No, then you go party. I go to my room, as ordered. Maybe I'll catch up on my sleep, finally."
"That's it, think positive," said Ivan. "I'll work out with you in the embassy gym, if you want. You don't look so good, you know. Pale and, um . . . pale."
Old, thought Miles, is the word you just edited.
He glanced at the distorted reflection of his face in a bit of chrome plating on the console. That bad, eh?
"Exercise," Ivan thumped his chest, "will be good for you."
"No doubt," muttered Miles.
The days fell quickly into a set pattern. Miles was awakened by Ivan in the room they shared, did a stint in the gym, showered, breakfasted, and went to work in the data room. He began to wonder if he would ever be permitted to see Earth's beautiful sunlight again. After three days Miles took the computer-stuffing job away from Ivan and started finishing it by noon, so that he might at least have the later hours for reading and study. He devoured embassy and security procedures, Earth history, galactic news. In the later afternoon they knocked off for another grueling workout in the gym. On the nights Ivan stayed in, Miles watched vid dramas with him; on the nights he went out, travelogues of all the sites of interest he wasn't allowed to go visit.
Elli reported in daily on the secured comm link on the status of the Dendarii fleet, still holding in orbit. Miles, closeting himself with the comm link, found himself increasingly hungry for that outside voice. Her reports were succinct. But afterwards they drifted off into inconsequential small talk, as Miles found it harder and harder to cut her off, and she never hung up on him. Miles fantasized about courting her in his own persona—would a commander accept a date from a mere lieutenant? Would she even like Lord Vorkosigan? Would Galeni ever let him leave the embassy to find out?
Ten days of clean living, exercise, and regular hours had been bad for him, Miles decided. His energy level was up. Up, and bottled in the immobilized persona of Lord Vorkosigan, while the list of chores facing Admiral Naismith piled up and up and up …
"Will you stop fidgeting, Miles?" Ivan complained. "Sit down. Take a deep breath. Hold still for five minutes. You can do it if you try."
Miles made one more circuit of the computer room, then flung himself into a chair. "Why hasn't Galeni called me yet? The courier from Sector HQ got in an hour ago!"
"So, give the man time to go to the bathroom and get a cup of coffee. Give Galeni time to read his reports. This is peacetime, everybody's got lots of leisure to sit around writing reports. They'd be hurt if nobody read 'em."
"That's the trouble with your government-supported troops," said Miles, "you're spoiled. You get paid not to make war."
"Wasn't there a mercenary fleet that did that once? They'd show up in orbit somewhere, and get paid—to not make war. Worked, didn't it? You're just not a creative enough mercenary commander, Miles."
"Yeah, LaVarr's fleet. It worked real good till the Tau Cetan Navy caught up with 'em, and then LaVarr was sent to the disintegration chamber."
"No sense of humor, the Tau Cetans."
"None," Miles agreed. "Neither has my father."
"Too true. Well—"
The comconsole blinked. Ivan had to duck out of the way as Miles pounced on it. "Yes sir?" said Miles breathlessly.
"Come to my office, Lieutenant Vorkosigan," said Galeni. His face was saturnine as ever, no cues there.
"Yes, sir, thank you sir." Miles cut the com and plunged for the door. "My eighteen million marks, at last!"
"Either that," said Ivan genially, "or he's found a job for you in inventory. Maybe you're going to get to count all the goldfish in the fountain in the main reception court."
"Hey, it's a real challenge! They keep moving around, you know."
"How do you know?" Miles paused, his eyes lighting. "Ivan, did he actually make you do that?"
"It had to do with a suspected security breach," said Ivan. "It's a long story."
"I'll bet." Miles beat a brief tattoo on the desk, and vaulted around its corner. "Later. I'm gone."
Miles found Captain Galeni sitting staring dubiously at the display on his comconsole, as if it was still in code.
"Hm." Galeni leaned back in his chair. "Well, your orders have arrived from Sector HQ, Lieutenant Vorkosigan."
Galeni's mouth tightened. "And they confirm your temporary assignment to my staff. Officially and publicly. You may now draw your lieutenant's pay from my department as of ten days ago. As for the rest of your orders, they read the same as Vorpatril's—in fact, they could be templated from Vorpatril's orders with the name changed. You are to assist me as required, hold yourself at the disposal of the ambassador and his lady for escort duties, and as time permits take advantage of educational opportunities unique to Earth and appropriate to your status as an Imperial officer and lord of the Vor."
"What? This can't be right! What the devil are escort duties?" Sounds like a call-girl.
A slight smile turned one corner of Galeni's mouth. "Mostly, standing around in parade dress at official Embassy social functions and being Vor for the natives. There are a surprising number of people who find aristocrats—even off-planet aristocrats—peculiarly fascinating." Galeni's tone made it clear that he found this fascination peculiar indeed. "You will eat, drink, dance perhaps ..." his tone grew doubtful for a second, "and generally be exquisitely polite to anyone the ambassador wants to, ah, impress. Sometimes, you will be asked to remember and report conversations. Vorpatril does it all very well, rather to my surprise. He can fill in the details for you."
I don't need to take social notes from Ivan, Miles thought. And the Vor are a military caste, not an aristocracy. What the hell was HQ thinking of? It seemed extraordinarily obtuse even for them.
Yet if they had no new project on line for the Dendarii, why not use the opportunity for Count Vorkosigan's son to acquire a little more diplomatic polish? No one doubted that he was destined for the most rarified levels of the Service—he would hardly be exposed to less varied experience than Ivan. It wasn't the content of the orders, it was only the lack of separation from his other persona that was so ... unexpected.
Still . . . report conversations. Could this be the start of some special spy work? Perhaps further, clarifying details were en route.
He didn't even want to think about the possibility that HQ had decided it was finally time to shut down Dendarii covert ops altogether.
"Well. . ." said Miles grudgingly, "all right. . ."
"So glad," murmured Galeni, "you find your orders to your taste, Lieutenant."
Miles flushed, and closed his mouth tightly. But if only he could get his Dendarii taken care of, the rest didn't matter. "And my eighteen million marks, sir?" he asked, taking care to keep his tone humble this time.
Galeni drummed his fingers on his desk. "No such credit order arrived with this courier, Lieutenant. Nor any mention of one."
"What!" shrieked Miles. "There's got to be!" He almost lunged across Galeni's desk to examine the vid himself, caught himself up just in time. "I calculated ten days for all the ..." His brain dumped unwanted data, streaming past his consciousness—fuel, orbital docking fees, re-supply, medical-dental-surgical, the depleted ordnance inventory, payroll, roll-over, liquidity, margin. . . . "Dammit, we bled for Barrayar! They can't—there must be some mistake!"
Galeni spread his hands helplessly. "No doubt. But not one in my power to repair."
"Oh, I shall."
"Better yet—let me go as courier. If I talked to HQ in person—"
"Hm." Galeni rubbed his lips. "A tempting idea . . . no, better not. Your orders, at least, were clear. Your Dendarii will simply have to wait for the next courier. If all is as you say," his emphasis was not lost on Miles, "I'm sure it will all be straightened out."
Miles waited an endless moment, but Galeni offered nothing more. "Yes, sir." He saluted and faced about. Ten days . . . ten more days . . . ten more days at least . . . They could wait out ten more days.
But he hoped HQ would get the oxygen back to its collective brain by then.
The highest-ranking female guest at the afternoon reception was the ambassador from Tau Ceti. She was a slender woman of indeterminate age, fascinating facial bone structure, and penetrating eyes. Miles suspected her conversation would be an education in itself, political, subtle, and scintillating. Alas, as the Barrayaran ambassador had monopolized her, Miles doubted he was going to get a chance to find out.
The dowager Miles had been assigned to squire about held her rank by virtue of her husband, who was the Lord Mayor of London and now being entertained by the ambassador's wife. The mayor's lady seemed able to chatter on interminably, mainly about the clothing worn by the other guests. A passing servant of rather military bearing (all the human servants in the embassy were members of Galeni's department) offered Miles a wine glass full of straw-pale liquid from a gold tray, which Miles accepted with alacrity. Yes, two or three of those, with his low tolerance for alcohol, and he would be numb enough to endure even this. Was this not exactly the constrained social scene he had sweated his way, despite his physical handicaps, into the Imperial Service to escape? Of course, more than three glasses, and he would be stretched out asleep on the inlaid floor with a silly smile on his face, and deep in trouble when he woke up.
Miles took a large sip, and almost choked. Apple juice. . . . Damn Galeni, he was thorough. A quick glance around confirmed that this was not the same beverage being served to the guests. Miles ran his thumb around the high collar of his uniform jacket, and smiled tightly.
"Something wrong with your wine, Lord Vorkosigan?" the dowager inquired with concern.
"The vintage is a trifle, ah ... young," Miles murmured. "I may suggest to the ambassador that he keep this one in his cellars a little longer." Like till I get off this planet. . . .
The main reception court was a high-arched, skylighted, elegantly appointed chamber that looked as if it should echo cavernously, but was strangely hushed for the large crowd its levels and niches could enclose. Sound absorbers concealed somewhere, Miles thought—and, he bet, if you knew just where to stand, secure cones to baffle eavesdroppers both human and electronic. He noted where the Barrayaran and Tau Cetan ambassadors were standing, for future reference; yes, even their lip movements seemed shadowed and blurred somehow. Certain right-of-passage treaties through Tau Cetan local space were coming up for renegotiation soon.
Miles and his charge drifted toward the architectural center of the room, the fountain and its pool. It was a cool, trickling sort of sculptured thing, with color-coordinated ferns and mosses. Red-gold shapes moved mysteriously in the shadowed waters.
Miles stiffened, then forced his spine to relax. A young man in black Cetagandan dress uniform with the yellow and black face-paint markings of a ghem-lieutenant approached, smiling and watchful. They exchanged wary nods.
"Welcome to Earth, Lord Vorkosigan," murmured the Cetagandan. "Is this an official visit, or are you on a grand tour?"
"A little of both," Miles shrugged. "I've been assigned to the embassy for my, ah, education. But I believe you have the advantage of me, sir." He didn't, of course; both the two Cetagandans who were in uniform and the two who were not, plus three individuals suspected of being their covert jackals, had been pointed out to Miles first thing.
"Ghem-lieutenant Tabor, military attache, Cetagandan Embassy," Tabor recited politely. They exchanged nods again. "Will you be here long, my lord?"
"I don't expect so. And yourself?"
"I have taken up the art of bonsai for a hobby. The ancient Japanese are said to have worked on a single tree for as long as a hundred years. Or perhaps it only seemed like it."
Miles suspected Tabor of humor, but the lieutenant kept his face so straight it was hard to tell. Perhaps he feared cracking his paint job.
A trill of laughter, mellow like bells, drew their attention toward the far end of the fountain. Ivan Vorpatril was leaning against the chrome railing down there, dark head bent close to a blonde confection. She wore something in salmon pink and silver that seemed to waft even when she was standing still, as now. Artfully artless golden hair cascaded across one white shoulder. Her fingernails flashed silver-pink as she gestured animatedly.
Tabor hissed slightly, bowed exquisitely over the dowager's hand, and passed on. Miles next saw him on the other side of the fountain jockeying for position near Ivan—but somehow Miles felt it was not military secrets Tabor was prowling for. No wonder he'd seemed only marginally interested in Miles. But Tabor's stalk on the blonde was interrupted by a signal from his ambassador, and he perforce followed the dignitaries out.
"Such a nice young man, Lord Vorpatril," Miles's I dowager cooed. "We like him very much here. The ambassador's lady tells me you two are related?" She cocked her head at him, brightly expectant.
"Cousins, of a sort," Miles explained. "Ah—who is the young lady with him?"
The dowager smiled proudly. "That's my daughter, Sylveth."
Daughter, of course. The ambassador and his lady had a keen Barrayaran appreciation of the nuances of social rank. Miles, being of the senior family line, not to mention the son of Prime Minister Count Vorkosigan, outranked Ivan socially if not militarily. Which meant, oh God, he was doomed. He'd be stuck with the VIP dowagers forever while Ivan—Ivan carried off all the daughters. . .
"A lovely couple," said Miles thickly.
"Aren't they? Just what sort of cousins, Lord Vorkosigan?"
"Uh? Oh, Ivan and me, yes. Our grandmothers were sisters. My grandmother was Prince Xav Vorbarra's eldest child, Ivan's was his youngest."
"Princesses? How romantic."
Miles considered describing in detail how his grandmother, her brother, and most of their children had been blown into hamburger during Mad Emperor Yuri's reign of terror. No, the mayor's lady might find it merely a shivery and outre tale, or even worse, romantic. He doubted she'd grasp the true violent stupidity of Yuri's affairs, with their consequences escaping in all directions to warp Barrayaran history to this day.
"Does Lord Vorpatril own a castle?" she inquired archly.
"Ah, no. His mother, my Aunt Vorpatril," who is a social barracuda who would eat you alive, "has a very nice flat in the capital city of Vorbarr Sultana." Miles paused. "We used to have a castle. But it was burned down at the end of the Time of Isolation."
"A ruined castle. That's almost as good."
"Picturesque as hell," Miles assured her.
Someone had left a small plate with the remains of their hors d'oeuvres sitting on the railing by the fountain. Miles took the roll and started breaking off bits for the goldfish. They glided up to snap at the crumbs with a brief gurgle.
One refused to rise to the bait, lurking in the depths. How interesting, a goldfish that did not eat—now, there was a solution to Ivan's fish-inventory problem. Perhaps the stubborn one was a fiendish Cetagandan construct, whose cold scales glittered like gold because they were.
He might pluck it out with a feline pounce, stamping it underfoot with a mechanical crunch and electric sizzle, then hold it up with a triumphal cry—"Ah! Through my quick wits and reflexes, I have discovered the spy among you!"
But if his guess were wrong, ah. The squish! under his boot, the dowager's recoil, and the Barrayaran prime minister's son would have acquired an instant reputation as a young man with serious emotional difficulties. . . . "Ah ha!" he pictured himself cackling to the horrified woman as the fish guts slithered underfoot, "You should see what I do to kittens!"
The big goldfish rose lazily at last, and took a crumb with a splash that marred Miles's polished boots. Thank you, fish, Miles thought to it. You have just saved me from considerable social embarrassment. Of course, if the Cetagandan artificers were really clever, they might have designed a mechanical fish that really ate, and excreted little . . .
The mayor's lady had just asked another leading question about Ivan, which Miles in his absorption foiled to completely catch. "Yes, most unfortunate about his disease," Miles purred, and prepared to launch a monologue maligning Ivan's genes involving inbred aristocracies, radiation areas left from the First Cetagandan War, and Mad Emperor Yuri, when the secured comm link in his pocket beeped.
"Excuse me, ma'am. I'm being paged." Bless you, Elli, he thought as he fled the dowager to find a quiet corner to answer it. No Cetagandans in sight. He found an unoccupied niche on the second level made private by green plants, and opened the channel. "Yes, Commander Quinn?"
"Miles, thank God." Her voice was hurried. "We seem to have us a Situation down there, and you're the closest Dendarii officer."
"What sort of situation?" He didn't care for situations that came capitalized. EUi was not normally inclined to panicky exaggerations. His stomach tightened nervously.
"I haven't been able to get details I can trust, but it appears that four or five of our soldiers on downside leave in London have barricaded themselves in some sort of shop with a hostage, holding off the police. They're armed."
"Our guys, or the police?"
"Both, unfortunately. The police commander I talked to sounded like he was prepared for blood on the walls. Very soon."
"Worse and worse. What the hell do they think they're doing?"
"Damned if I know. I'm in orbit right now, preparing to leave, but it'll be forty-five minutes to an hour before I can get down there. Tung's in worse position, it'd be a two-hour suborbital flight from Brazil. But I think you could be there in about ten minutes. Here, I'll key the address into your comm link."
"How were our guys permitted to take Dendarii weaponry off-ship?"
"A good question, but I'm afraid we'll have to save it for the post-mortem. So to speak," she said grimly. "Can you find the place?"
Miles glanced at the address on his readout. "I think so. I'll meet you there." Somehow . . .
"Right. Quinn out." The channel snapped closed.
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