From Baen Books
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Graf Station Security Post Three lay on the border between the free fall and the grav sides of the station, with access to both. Construction quaddies in yellow shirts and shorts, and a few legged downsiders similarly dressed, were at work on repairs around the main grav-side entrance. Miles, Ekaterin, and Roic were escorted through by Bel and one of their quaddie outriders, the other having been left on dour guard at the Kestrel's docking hatch. The workers turned their heads to stare, frowning, as the Barrayarans passed.
They wound via a couple of corridors down one level, where they found the control booth at the portal to the grav-side detention block. A quaddie and a downsider were just collaborating on raising a new, possibly more plasma-fire-resistant, window into place in its frame; beyond, another yellow-clad quaddie could be seen putting the finishing touches on a monitor array while a uniformed quaddie in a Security floater, upper arms crossed, watched glumly.
In the tool-cluttered staging area in front of the booth they found Sealer Greenlaw and Chief Venn, now supplied with floaters, awaiting them. Venn immediately made sure to point out to Miles all the repairs completed and still in progress, in detail, with approximate costs, with a chronicle appended of all the quaddies who had been injured in the imbroglio, including names, ranks, prognoses, and the distress suffered by their family members. Miles made acknowledging yet neutral noises, and went into a short counter-riff on the missing Solian and the sinister testimony of the blood on the loading bay deck, with a brief dissertation on the logistics of his ejected body being spirited away by a possible outboard coconspirator. This last gave Venn pause, at least temporarily; his face twinged, like a man in stomach pain.
While Venn went to arrange Miles's entry to the cellblock with the guard in the control booth, Miles glanced at Ekaterin, and a little doubtfully around the less-than-inviting staging area. "Do you want to wait here, or sit in?"
"Do you want me to sit in?" she asked, with a lack of enthusiasm in her voice that even Miles could sense. "Not that you don't draft anyone in sight, as needed, but surely I'm not needed for this."
"Well, perhaps not. But it looks like it might be a trifle boring out here." "I don't have quite your allergic response to boredom, love, but to tell the truth, I was rather hoping I could get more of a look around the station while you were tied up here this afternoon. The glimpses we saw on the way in seemed quite enticing."
"But I want Roic." He hesitated, the security triage problem turning in his head.
She glanced across in friendly speculation at Bel, listening. "I admit I would be glad for a guide, but do you really think I need a bodyguard here?"
Insult seemed possible, though only from quaddies who knew whose wife she was, but assault, Miles had to admit, seemed unlikely. "No, but . . ."
Bel smiled cordially back at her. "If you would accept my escort, Lady Vorkosigan, I would be pleased to show you around Graf Station while the Lord Auditor conducts his interviews."
Ekaterin brightened still further. "I would like that very much, yes, thank you, Portmaster Thorne. If things go well, as we must hope they do, we might not be here very long. I feel I should seize my opportunities."
Bel was more experienced than Roic in everything from hand-to-hand combat to fleet maneuvers, and vastly less likely to blunder into trouble here through ignorance. "Well . . . all right, why not? Enjoy." Miles touched his wrist com. "I'll call when I'm about finished. Maybe you can go shopping." He waved them off, smiling. "Just don't haul home any severed heads." He glanced up to find Venn and Greenlaw both staring at him in some dismay. "Ah—family joke," he explained weakly. The dismay did not abate.
Ekaterin smiled back, and sailed out on Bel's cheerfully proffered arm. It occurred to Miles belatedly that Bel was notably universal in its sexual tastes, and that maybe he ought to have warned Ekaterin that she needn't be especially delicate in redirecting Bel's attentions, should any be offered. But surely Bel wouldn't . . . on the other hand, maybe they'd just take turns trying things on.
Reluctantly, he turned back to business.
The Barrayaran prisoners were stacked three to a cell in chambers meant for two occupants, a circumstance about which Venn half complained, half apologized. Security Post Three, he gave Miles to understand, had been unprepared for such an abnormal influx of recalcitrant downsiders. Miles murmured comprehension, if not necessarily sympathy, and refrained from observing that the quaddies' cells were larger than the sleeping cabins housing four aboard the Prince Xav.
Miles began by interviewing Brun's squad commander. The man was shocked to find his exploits receiving the high-powered attention of an actual Imperial Auditor, and as a result defaulted to a thick MilSpeak in his account of events. The picture Miles unpacked behind such formal phrases as penetrated the perimeter and enemy forces amassed still made him wince. But allowing for the changed point of view, his testimony did not materially contradict the Stationer version of the events. Alas.
Miles spot-checked the squad commander's story with another cell full of fellows, who added details unfortunate but not surprising. As the squad had been attached to the Prince Xav, none of them were personally acquainted with Lieutenant Solian, posted on the Idris.
Miles emerged, and tested an argument on the hovering Sealer Greenlaw. "It is quite improper for you to continue holding these men. The orders they were following, though perhaps ill thought out, were not in fact illegal in Barrayaran military definition. If their orders had been to plunder, rape, or massacre civilian quaddies, they would have been under a legal military obligation to resist them, but in fact they were specifically ordered not to kill. If they had disobeyed Brun, they could have faced court-martial. It's double jeopardy, and seriously unfair to them."
"I will consider this contention," said Greenlaw dryly, with the For about ten seconds, after which I shall toss it out the nearest airlock hanging unspoken.
"And, looking ahead," added Miles, "you can't wish to be stuck housing these men indefinitely. Surely it would be preferable for us to take them," he just managed to convert off your hands to, "with us when we leave."
Greenlaw looked even dryer; Venn grunted disconsolately. Miles gathered Venn would be just as glad for the Imperial Auditor to take them away now, except for the politics of the larger situation. Miles didn't push the point, but stored it up for near-future reference. He entertained a brief, wistful fantasy of trading Brun for his men, and leaving Brun here, to the net benefit of the Emperor's Service, but did not air it aloud.
His interview with the two service security men who'd initially been sent to pick up Corbeau was, in its way, even more wince-worthy. They were sufficiently intimidated by his Auditor's rank to give full and honest, if muttered, accounts of the contretemps. But such infelicitous phraseology as I wasn't trying to break her arm, I was trying to bounce the mutie bitch off the wall, and All those clutching hands gave me the creeps—it was like having snakes wrapping around my boot, convinced Miles that here were two men he wouldn't care to have testify in public, at least not in public in Quaddiespace. However, he was able to establish the significant point that at the time of the clash they, too, had been under the impression that Lieutenant Solian had just been murdered by an unknown quaddie.
He emerged from this interrogation to say to Venn, "I think I'd better speak privately to Ensign Corbeau. Can you find us a space?"
"Corbeau already has his own cell," Venn informed him coolly. "As a result of his being threatened by his comrades."
"Ah. Take me to him, then, if you please."
* * *
The cell door slid aside to reveal a tall young man sitting silently on a bunk, elbows on knees, his face propped in his hands. The metallic contact circles of a jump pilot's neural implant gleamed at his temples and mid-forehead, and Miles mentally tripled the young officer's recent training costs to the Imperium. He looked up and frowned in confusion at Miles.
He was a typical enough Barrayaran: dark-haired, brown-eyed, with an olive complexion made pale by his months in space. His regular features reminded Miles a bit of his cousin Ivan at the same feckless age. An extensive bruise around one eye was fading, turning yellowish green. His uniform shirt was open at the throat, sleeves rolled up. Some paling, irregular pink scars zigzagged over his exposed skin, marking him as a victim of the Sergyaran worm plague of some years back; he had evidently grown up, or at least been resident, on Barrayar's new colony planet during that difficult period before the oral vermicides had been perfected.
Venn said, "Ensign Corbeau, this is the Barrayaran Imperial Auditor, Lord Vorkosigan. Your emperor sent him out as the official diplomatic envoy to represent your side in negotiations with the Union. He wishes to interview you."
Corbeau's lips parted in alarm, and he scrambled to his feet and bobbed his head nervously at Miles. It made their height differential rather spring to the eye, and Corbeau's brow wrinkled in increased confusion.
Venn added, not so much kindly as punctiliously, "Due to the charges lodged against you, as well as your petition for asylum still pending for review, Sealer Greenlaw will not permit him to remove you from our custody at this time."
Corbeau exhaled a little, but still stared at Miles with the expression of a man introduced to a poisonous snake.
Venn added, a sardonic edge in his voice, "He has undertaken not to order you to shoot yourself, either."
"Thank you, Chief Venn," said Miles. "I'll take it from here, if you don't mind."
Venn took the hint, and his leave. Roic took up his silent guard stance by the cell door, which hissed closed.
Miles gestured at the bunk. "Sit down, Ensign." He seated himself on the bunk across from the young man, and cocked his head in brief study as Corbeau refolded himself. "Stop hyperventilating," he added.
Corbeau gulped, and managed a wary, "My lord."
Miles laced his fingers together. "Sergyaran, are you?"
Corbeau glanced down at his arms, and made an abortive move to roll down his sleeves. "Not born there, my lord. My parents emigrated when I was about five years old." He glanced at the silent Roic in his brown-and-silver uniform, and added, "Are you—" then swallowed whatever he'd been about to say. Miles could fill in the blank. "I'm Viceroy and Vicereine Vorkosigan's son, yes. One of them."
Corbeau managed an unvoiced Oh. His look of suppressed terror did not diminish.
"I have just interviewed the two fleet patrollers sent to retrieve you from your station leave. In a moment, I'd like to hear your version of that event. But first—did you know Lieutenant Solian, the Komarran fleet security officer aboard the Idris?"
The pilot's thoughts were so clearly focused on his own affairs that it took him a moment to parse this. "I met him once or twice at some of our prior stops, my lord. I can't say as I knew him. I never went aboard the Idris."
"Do you have any thoughts or theories about his disappearance?"
"Not . . . not really."
"Captain Brun thinks he might have deserted."
Corbeau grimaced. "Brun would."
"Why Brun especially?"
Corbeau's lips moved, halted; he looked still more miserable. "It would not be appropriate for me to criticize my superiors, my lord, or to comment on their personal opinions."
"Brun is prejudiced against Komarrans."
"I didn't say that!"
"That was my observation, Ensign."
"Well, let's leave that for the moment. Back to your troubles. Why didn't you answer your wrist com recall order?"
Corbeau touched his bare left wrist; the Barrayarans' com links had all been confiscated by their quaddie captors. "I'd taken it off, and left it in another room. I must have slept through the beep. The first I knew of the recall order was when those two, two . . ." He struggled for a moment, then continued bitterly, "thugs came pounding at Garnet Five's door. They just pushed her aside—"
"Did they identify themselves properly, and relay your orders clearly?"
Corbeau paused, his glance at Miles sharpening. "I admit, my lord," he said slowly, "Sergeant Touchev announcing, 'All right, mutie-lover, this show's over,' did not exactly convey 'Admiral Vorpatril has ordered all Barrayaran personnel back to their ships' to my mind. Not right away, anyway. I'd just woken up, you see."
"Did they identify themselves?"
"Show any ID?"
"Well . . . they were in uniform, with their patrol armbands."
"Did you recognize them as fleet security, or did you think this was a private visit—a couple of comrades taking out their racial offense on their own time?"
"It . . . um . . . well—the two aren't exactly mutually exclusive, my lord. In my experience."
The kid has that one straight, unfortunately. Miles took a breath. "Ah."
"I was slow, still half asleep. When they shoved me around, Garnet Five thought they were attacking me. I wish she hadn't tried to . . . I didn't slug Touchev till he dumped her out of her float chair. At that point . . . everything sort of went down the disposer." Corbeau glowered at his feet, encased in prison-issue friction slippers.
Miles sat back. Throw this boy a line. He's drowning. He said mildly, "You know, your career is not necessarily cooked yet. You aren't, technically, AWOL as long as you are involuntarily confined by the Graf Station authorities, any more than Brun's strike patrol here is. For a little while yet, you're in a legal limbo. Your jump pilot's training and surgery would make you a costly loss, from command's viewpoint. If you make the right moves, you could still get out of this pretty cleanly."
Corbeau's face screwed up. "I don't . . ." He trailed off.
Miles made an encouraging noise.
Corbeau burst out, "I don't want my damned career any more. I don't want to be part of," he waved around inarticulately, "this. This . . . idiocy."
Suppressing a certain sympathy, Miles asked, "What's your present status—how far along are you in your enlistment?"
"I signed up for one of the new five-year hitches, with the option to reenlist or go to reserve status for the next five. I've been in three years, two still to go."
At age twenty-three, Miles reminded himself, two years still seemed a long time. Corbeau could be barely more than an apprentice junior pilot at this stage of his career, although his assignment to the Prince Xav implied a superior rating.
Corbeau shook his head. "I see things differently these days, somehow. Attitudes I used to take for granted, jokes, remarks, just the way things are done—they bother me now. They grate. People like Sergeant Touchev, Captain Brun—God. Were we always this awful?"
"No," said Miles. "We used to be much worse. I can personally testify to that one."
Corbeau stared searchingly at him.
"But if all the progressive-minded men had opted out then, as you are proposing to do now, none of the changes I've seen in my lifetime could have happened. We've changed. We can change some more. Not instantly, no. But if all the decent folks quit and only the idiots are left to run the show, it won't be good for the future of Barrayar. About which I do care." It startled him to realize how passionately true that statement had become, of late. He thought of the two replicators in that guarded room in Vorkosigan House. I always thought my parents could fix anything. Now it's my turn. Dear God, how did this happen?
"I never imagined a place like this." Corbeau's jerky wave around, Miles construed, now meant Quaddiespace. "I never imagined a woman like Garnet Five. I want to stay here."
Miles had a bad sense of a desperate young man making permanent decisions for the sake of temporary stimuli. Graf Station was attractive at first glance, certainly, but Corbeau had grown up in open country with real gravity, real air—would he adapt, or would the techno-claustrophobia creep up on him? And the young woman for whom he proposed to throw his life over, was she worthy, or would Corbeau prove a passing amusement to her? Or, over time, a bad mistake? Hell, they'd known each other bare weeks—no one could know, least of all Corbeau and Garnet Five.
"I want out," said Corbeau. "I can't stand it any more."
Miles tried again. "If you withdraw your request for political asylum in the Union before the quaddies reject it, it might still be folded into your present legal ambiguity and made to disappear, without further prejudice to your career. If you don't withdraw it first, the desertion charge will certainly stick, and do you vast damage."
Corbeau looked up and said anxiously, "Doesn't this firefight that Brun's patrol had with the quaddie security here make it in the heat? The Prince Xav's surgeon said it probably did."
In the heat, desertion in the face of the enemy, was punishable by death in the Barrayaran military code. Desertion in peacetime was punishable by long stretches of time in some extremely unpleasant stockades. Either seemed excessively wasteful, all things considered. "I think it would require some pretty convoluted legal twisting to call this episode a battle. For one thing, defining it so runs directly counter to the Emperor's stated desire to maintain peaceful relations with this important trade depot. Still . . . given a sufficiently hostile court and ham-handed defense counsel . . . I shouldn't call court-martial a wise risk, if it can possibly be avoided." Miles rubbed his lips. "Were you drunk, by chance, when Sergeant Touchev came to pick you up?"
"Hm. Pity. Drunk is a wonderfully safe defense. Not politically or socially radical, y'see. I don't suppose . . . ?"
Corbeau's mouth tightened in indignation. Suggesting Corbeau lie about his chemical state would not go over well, Miles sensed. Which gave him a higher opinion of the young officer, true. But it didn't make Miles's life any easier.
"I still want out," Corbeau repeated stubbornly.
"The quaddies don't much like Barrayarans this week, I'm afraid. Relying on them granting your asylum to pluck you out of your dilemma seems to me to be a grave mistake. There must be half a dozen better ways to solve your problems, if you'd open your mind to wider tactical possibilities. In fact, almost any other way would be better than this."
Corbeau shook his head, mute.
"Well, think about it, Ensign. I suspect the situation will remain murky until I find out what happened to Lieutenant Solian. At that point, I hope to unravel this tangle quickly, and the chance to change your mind about really bad ideas could run out abruptly."
He climbed wearily to his feet. Corbeau, after a moment of uncertainty, rose and saluted. Miles returned an acknowledging nod, and motioned to Roic, who spoke into the cell's intercom and obtained their release.
He exited, frowning thoughtfully, to encounter the hovering Chief Venn. "I want Solian, dammit," Miles said grouchily to him. "This remarkable evaporation of his doesn't reflect any better on the competence of your security than it does on ours, y'know."
Venn glowered at him. But he didn't contradict this remark.
Miles sighed, and raised his wrist com to his lips to call Ekaterin.
* * *
She insisted on having him rendezvous with her back at the Kestrel. Miles was just as glad for the excuse to escape the depressing atmosphere of Security Post Three. He couldn't call it moral ambiguity, alas. Worse, he couldn't call it legal ambiguity. It was quite clear which side was in the right; it just wasn't his side, dammit.
He found her in their little cabin, just hanging his brown-and-silver House uniform out on a hook. She turned and embraced him, and he tilted his head back for a long, luxurious kiss.
"So, how did your venture into Quaddiespace with Bel go?" he inquired, when he had breath to spare again.
"Very well, I thought. If Bel ever wants a change from being a portmaster, I believe it could go into Union public relations. I think I saw all the best parts of Graf Station that could be squeezed into the time we had. Splendid views, good food, history—Bel took me deep down into the free fall sector to see the preserved parts of the old jumpship that first brought the quaddies to this system. They have it set up as a museum—when we arrived it was full of quaddie schoolchildren, bouncing off the walls. Literally. They were incredibly cute. It almost reminded me of a Barrayaran ancestor-shrine." She released him, and indicated a large box decorated with shiny, colorful pictures and schematics, occupying half the lower bunk. "I found this for Nikki in the museum shop. It's a scale model of the D-620 Superjumper, modified with the orbital habitat configured on, that the quaddies' forebears escaped in."
"Oh, he'll like that." Nikki, at eleven, had not yet outgrown a passion for spaceships of every kind, but especially jumpships. It was still too early to guess whether the enthusiasm would turn into an adult avocation or fall by the wayside, but it certainly hadn't flagged yet. Miles peered more closely at the picture. The ancient D-620 had been an amazingly ungainly looking beast of a ship, appearing in this artist's rendition rather like an enormous metallic squid clutching a collection of cans. "Large-scale replica, I take it?"
She glanced rather doubtfully at it. "Not especially. It was a huge ship. I wonder if I should have chosen the smaller version? But it didn't come apart like this one. Now that I have it back here I'm not quite sure where to put it."
Ekaterin in maternal mode was quite capable of sharing her bunk with the thing all the way home, for Nikki's sake. "Lieutenant Smolyani will be happy to find a place to stow it."
"You have my personal guarantee." He favored her with a half-bow, hand over his heart. He wondered briefly if he ought to snag a couple more for little Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia while they were here, but the conversation with Ekaterin about age-appropriate toys, several times repeated during their sojourn on Earth, probably did not need another rehearsal. "What did you and Bel find to talk about?"
She smirked. "You, mostly."
Belated panic came out as nothing more self-incriminating than a brightly inquiring, "Oh?"
"Bel was wildly curious as to how we'd met, and obviously racking its brains to figure out how to ask without being rude. I took pity, and told a little about meeting you on Komarr, and after. With all the classified parts left out, our courtship sounds awfully odd, do you know?"
He acknowledged this with a rueful shrug. "I've noticed. Can't be helped."
"Is it really true that the first time you met, you shot Bel with a stunner?"
The curiosity hadn't all run one way, evidently. "Well, yes. It's a long story. From a long time ago."
Her blue eyes crinkled with amusement. "So I understand. You were an absolute lunatic when you were younger, by all accounts. I'm not sure, if I'd met you back then, whether I'd have been impressed, or horrified."
Miles thought it over. "I'm not sure, either."
Her lips curled up again, and she stepped around him to lift a garment bag from the bunk. She drew from it a heavy fall of fabric in a blue-gray hue matching her eyes. It resolved itself into a jumpsuit of some swinging velvety stuff gathered to long, buttoned cuffs at the wrists and ankles, which gave the trouser legs a subtly sleeve-like look. She held it up to herself.
"That's new," he said approvingly.
"Yes, I can be both fashionable in gravity and demure in free fall." She laid the garment back down, and stroked its silky nap.
"I take it Bel blocked any unpleasantness due to your being Barrayaran, when you two were out and about?"
She straightened. "Well, I didn't have any problems. Bel was accosted by one odd-looking fellow—he had the longest, narrowest hands and feet. Something funny about his chest, too, rather oversized. I wondered if he was genetically engineered for anything special, or if it was some sort of surgical modification. I suppose one meets all kinds, out here on the edge of the Nexus. He badgered Bel to tell how soon the passengers were to be let back aboard, and said there was a rumor someone had been allowed to take off their cargo, but Bel assured him—firmly!—that no one had been let on the ships since they were impounded. One of the passengers from the Rudra, worrying about his goods, I gather. He implied the seized cargoes were subject to rifling and theft by the quaddie dockhands, which didn't go over too well with Bel."
"I can imagine."
"Then he wanted to know what you were doing, and how the Barrayarans were going to respond. Naturally, Bel didn't say who I was. Bel said if he wanted to know what Barrayarans were doing, he'd do better to ask one directly, and to get in line to make an appointment with you through Sealer Greenlaw like everyone else. The fellow wasn't too happy, but Bel threatened to have him escorted back to his hostel by Station Security and confined there if he didn't give over pestering, so he shut up and went scurrying to find Greenlaw."
"Good for Bel." He sighed, and hitched his tight shoulders. "I suppose I'd better deal with Greenlaw again next."
"No, you shouldn't," Ekaterin said firmly. "You've done nothing but talk with committees of upset people since the first thing this morning. The answer, I expect, is no. The question is, did you ever stop to eat lunch, or take any sort of break?"
"Um . . . well, no. How did you guess?"
She merely smiled. "Then the next item on your schedule, my Lord Auditor, is a nice dinner with your wife and your old friends. Bel and Nicol are taking us out. And after that, we're going to the quaddie ballet."
"Why? I mean, I have to eat sometime, I suppose, but my wandering off in the middle of the case to, um, disport myself, won't thrill anyone who's waiting on me to solve this mess. Starting with Admiral Vorpatril and his staff, I daresay."
"It will thrill the quaddies. They're vastly proud of the Minchenko Ballet, and being seen to show an interest in their culture can do you nothing but good with them. The troupe only performs once or twice a week, depending on the passenger traffic in port and the season—do they have seasons here? time of year, anyway—so we might not get another chance." Her smile grew sly. "It was a sold-out show, but Bel had Garnet Five pull strings and get us a box. She'll be joining us there."
Miles blinked. "She wants to pitch her case to me about Corbeau, does she?"
"That's what I'd guess." At his dubiously wrinkled nose, she added, "I found out more about her today. She's a famous person on Graf Station, a local celebrity. The Barrayaran patrol's assault on her was news; because she's a performing artist, breaking her arm like that has put her out of work for a time, as well as being an awful thing in its own right—it was extra culturally offensive, in quaddie eyes."
"Oh, terrific." Miles rubbed the bridge of his nose. It wasn't just his imagination; he did have a headache.
"Yes. So the sight of Garnet Five at the ballet, chatting cordially with the Barrayaran envoy, all forgiven and amicable, is worth what to you, in propaganda points?"
"Ah ha!" He hesitated. "As long as she doesn't end up flouncing out of my presence in a public rage because I can't promise her anything yet about Corbeau. Tricky situation, that one, and the boy's not being as smart as he could about it."
"She's apparently a person of strong emotions, but not stupid, or so I gather from Bel. I don't think Bel would have coaxed me to let it arrange this in order to engineer a public disaster . . . but perhaps you have reason to think otherwise?"
"No . . ."
"Anyway, I'm sure you'll be able to handle Garnet Five. Just be your usual charming self."
Ekaterin's vision of him, he reminded himself, was not exactly objective. Thank God. "I've been trying to charm quaddies all day, with no noticeable success."
"If you make it plain you like people, it's hard for them to resist liking you back. And Nicol will be playing in the orchestra tonight."
"Oh." He perked up. "That will be worth hearing." Ekaterin was shrewdly observant; he had no doubt she had spent the afternoon picking up cultural vibrations that went well beyond local fashions. The quaddie ballet it was. "Will you wear your fancy new outfit?"
"That's why I bought it. We honor the artists by dressing up for them. Now, skin back into your House uniform. Bel will be along to collect us soon."
"I'd better stick to my dull grays. I have a feeling that parading Barrayaran uniforms in front of the quaddies just now is a bad idea, diplomatically speaking."
"In Security Post Three, probably. But there's no point in being seen enjoying their art if we just look like any other anonymous downsiders. Tonight, I think we should both look as Barrayaran as possible."
His being seen with Ekaterin was good for a few points, too, he rather fancied, although not so much propaganda as pure swaggering one-upsmanship. He tapped his trouser seam, where no sword hung. "Right."