Lois McMaster Bujold, "Shards of Honor"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10


She sighed shakily at the sight of him, and the paralyzing panic streamed out of her in that long breath. "My God, you almost gave me heart failure," she managed in a small tight voice. "Come in, and close the door."

His lips moved silently around the shape of her name, and he entered, a sudden panic in his face almost matching her own. Then she saw he was followed by another officer, a lieutenant with brown hair and a bland puppy face. So she did not fling herself upon him and shriek into his shoulder, as she passionately wished, but said instead cautiously, "There's been an accident."

"Close the door, Illyan," said Vorkosigan to the lieutenant. His features became tightly controlled as the young man came even with him. "You're going to have to witness this with the greatest attention."

His lips pressed to a white slit, Vorkosigan walked slowly around the room, noting the details, some of which he pointed out silently to his companion. The lieutenant said, "Er, ah," at the first gesture, which was with the plasma arc. Vorkosigan stopped before the body, looked at the weapon in his hand as though seeing it for the first time, and put it in its holster.

"Been reading the Marquis again, have you?" he addressed the corpse with a sigh. He turned it over with the toe of his boot, and a little more blood ran out of the meaty slice in its neck. "A little learning is a dangerous thing." He glanced up at Cordelia. "Which of you should I congratulate?"

She moistened her lips. "I'm not sure. How annoyed is everyone going to be about this?"

The lieutenant was going through Vorrutyer's drawers and cupboards also, using a handkerchief to open them, and from his expression finding that his cosmopolitan education was not so complete as he had supposed. He remained staring for a long time into the drawer that Cordelia had shut so hastily.

"The Emperor, for one, will be delighted," said Vorkosigan.

"But-strictly in private."

"In fact, I was tied up at the time. Sergeant Bothari, uh, did the honors."

Vorkosigan glanced at Bothari, still sitting curled up on the floor. "Hm." He gazed around the room one last time. "There's something about this that reminds me forcibly of that remarkable scene when we broke into my engine room. It has your personal signature. My grandmother had a phrase for it-something about late, and a dollar ..."

"A day late and a dollar short?" suggested Cordelia involuntarily.

"Yes, that was it." He bit an ironic twist from his lips. "A very Betan remark-I begin to see why." His face maintained a mask of cool neutrality, but his eyes searched her in secret agony. "Was I, ah, short?"

"Not at all," she reassured him. "You're, um, very timely. I was just dithering around in a panic, wondering what to do next."

He was facing away from Illyan, and a quickly suppressed grin crinkled his eyes briefly. "It seems I am rescuing my fleet from you, then," he murmured between his teeth. "Not exactly what I had in mind when I came up here, but I'm glad to rescue something." He raised his voice. "As soon as you're done, Illyan, I suggest we adjourn to my cabin for further discussion."

Vorkosigan knelt by Bothari, studying him. "That bloody bastard has about ruined him again," he growled. "He was almost well, after his time with me. Sergeant Bothari," he said more gently, "can you walk a little way with me?"

Bothari muttered something unintelligible into his knees.

"Come here, Cordelia," said Vorkosigan. It was the first time she had heard her first name in his mouth. "See if you can get him up. I don't think I'd better touch him, just now."

She got down into the line of his sight. "Bothari. Bothari, look at me. You've got to get up, and walk a little way." She took his blood-coated hand, and tried to think of a line of reason, or more likely unreason, that might reach him. She tried a smile. "Look. See? You're washed in blood. Blood washes away sin, right? You're going to be all right now. Uh, the bad man is gone, and in a little while the bad voices will go away too. So you come along with me, and I'll take you where you can rest."

During this speech he gradually focused on her, and at the end he nodded, and stood. Still holding his hand, she followed Vorkosigan out, Illyan bringing up the rear. She hoped her psychological band-aid would hold; an alarm of any sort might touch him off like a bomb.

She was astonished when Vorkosigan's cabin proved to be just one door down, across the corridor.

"Are you captain of this ship?" she asked. His collar tabs, now that she got a better look at them, proclaimed him a commodore now. "Were you here all the time?"

"No, I'm on the Staff. My courier just got in from the front a few hours ago. I've been in conference with Admiral Vorhalas and the Prince ever since. It just broke up. I came up straight away when the guard told me about Vorrutyer's new prisoner. You-in my foulest nightmare, I never dreamed it might be you."

Vorkosigan's cabin seemed tranquil as a monk's cell compared to the carnage they had left across the hall. Everything regulation, a proper soldier's room. Vorkosigan locked the door behind them. He rubbed his face and sighed, drinking her in. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Just shaken up. I knew I was running risks, when I was selected, but I wasn't expecting anything quite like that man. He was a classic. I'm surprised you served him." His face became shuttered.

"I serve the Emperor." She became conscious of Illyan, standing silent and watchful. What would she say if Vorkosigan asked her about the convoy? He was a greater danger to her duty than torture. She had begun to think, in the past months, that their separation must eventually diminish her heart-hunger for him, but seeing him live and intense before her made it ravenous. No telling what he felt, though. Right now he looked tired, uncertain, and strained. Wrong, all wrong ...

"Ah, permit me to introduce Lieutenant Simon Illyan, of the Emperor's personal security staff. He's my spy. Lieutenant Illyan, Commander Naismith."

"It's Captain Naismith now," she put in automatically. The lieutenant shook her hand with a bland calm innocence wholly at odds with the bizarre scene they had just left. He might have been at an embassy reception. Her touch left a streak of blood on his palm. "Who do you spy on?"

"I prefer the term, 'surveillance,' " he said.

"Bureaucratic weasel-wording," put in Vorkosigan. He added to Cordelia, "The lieutenant spies on me. He represents a compromise between the Emperor, the Ministry of Political Education, and myself."

"The phrase the Emperor used," said Illyan distantly, "was 'cease-fire.' "

"Yes. Lieutenant Illyan also has an eidetic memory biochip. You may think of him as a recording device with legs, which the Emperor may play back at will."

Cordelia stared covertly at him. "It's too bad we couldn't meet again under more auspicious circumstances," she said carefully to Vorkosigan.

"There are no auspicious circumstances here."

Lieutenant Illyan cleared his throat, glancing at Bothari, who stood twining and untwining his fingers and staring at the wall. "What now, sir?"

"Hm. There is entirely too much physical evidence in that room, not to mention witnesses as to who went in and when, to attempt to monkey with the scenario. Personally, I should prefer for Bothari not to have been there at all. The fact that he is clearly non compos mentis will carry no weight with the Prince when he gets wind of this." He stood, thinking furiously. "You will simply have to have escaped, before Illyan and I arrived on the scene. I don't know how long it will be possible to hide Bothari in here-maybe I can get some sedatives for him." His eye fell on Illyan. "How about the Emperor's staff agent in the medical section?"

Illyan looked noncommittal. "It's possible something might be arranged."

"Good man." He turned to Cordelia. "You're going to have to stay in here and keep Bothari under control. Illyan and I must go at once, or there will be too many unaccounted minutes between the time we left Vorhalas and the time we sound the alarm. The Prince's security men will be going over that room thoroughly, and everyone's movements as well."

"Were Vorrutyer and the Prince in the same party?" she asked, feeling for footing in the riptides of Barrayaran politics. Vorkosigan smiled bitterly. "They were just good friends." And he was gone, leaving her alone with Bothari and utter confusion.

She had Bothari sit down in Vorkosigan's desk chair, where he fidgeted silently and incessantly. She sat cross-legged on the bed, trying to radiate an air of calm control and good cheer. Not easy, from a spirit filled with panic frenzied for expression.

Bothari stood and began to pace about the room, talking to himself. No, not to himself, she realized. And most certainly not to her. The choppy whispered flow of words made no sense to her at all. Time flowed by slowly, viscous with fear.

Both she and Bothari jumped when the door clicked open, but it was only Illyan. Bothari fell into a knife-fighter's crouch as he slipped in.

"Servants of the beast are the beast's hands," he said. "He feeds them on the wife's blood. Bad servants."

Illyan eyed him nervously, and pressed some ampules into her hand. "Here. You give it to him. One of these would knock out a charging elephant. Can't stay." He slipped back out again.

"Coward," she muttered after him. But he was probably right. She might well have a better chance than he of getting it into the Sergeant. Bothari's agitation was approaching an explosive level. She set the bulk of the ampules aside, and approached him with a sunny smile. Its effect was diminished by her eyes, large with fear. Bothari's eyes were flickering slits. "Commodore Vorkosigan wants you to rest now. He sent some medicine to help you."

He backed warily before her, and she stopped, cautious of forcing him into a corner. "It's just a sedative, see?"

"The beasts drugs made the demons drunk. They sang and shouted. Bad medicine."

"No, no. This is good medicine. It will make the demons go to sleep," she promised. This was walking a tightrope in the dark.

She tried another tack.

"Come to attention, soldier," she said sharply. "Inspection."

It was a wrong move. He batted the ampule nearly out of her hand as she tried to stick it in his arm, and his hand closed around her wrist like a hot iron band. Her breath hissed inward at the pain, but she just managed to twist her fingers around and press the administrative spray end of the ampule against the inside of his wrist, before he picked her up bodily and flung her across the room.

She landed on her back, skidding across the friction matting with what seemed to her a dreadful amount of noise, fetching up with a bang against the door. Bothari lunged after her. Can he kill me before the stuff cuts in? she wondered wildly, and forced herself to go limp, as if unconscious. Surely unconscious people were very non-threatening.

Evidently not to Bothari, for his hands closed around her neck. One knee pressed into her rib cage, and she felt something go painfully wrong in the region. She popped her eyes open in time to see his eyes roll back. His hands slackened in their twisting, and he rolled off her to his hands and knees, head wagging dizzily, then slumped to the deck.

She sat up, leaning against the wall. "I want to go home," she muttered. "This wasn't in my job description." The feeble joke did nothing to dissolve the clot of hysteria rising in her throat, so she fell back on an older and more serious discipline, whispering its words aloud. By the time she finished self-control had returned.

She could not lift Bothari to the bunk. She raised his heavy head and slipped the pillow under it, and pulled his arms and legs into a more comfortable-looking position. When Vorkosigan and his shadow returned they could have a go at it.

The door opened at last, and Vorkosigan and Illyan entered, closing it quickly and walking carefully around Bothari.

"Well?" said Cordelia. "How did it go?"

"With machine-like precision, like a wormhole jump to hell," Vorkosigan replied. He turned his hand palm upward in a familiar gesture that caught her heart like a hook.

She looked her puzzlement at him. "You're as baffling as Bothari. How did they take the murder?"

"It went just fine. I'm under arrest and confined to quarters, for suspicion of conspiracy. The Prince thinks I put Bothari up to it," he explained. "God knows how."

"Uh, I know I'm very tired," she said, "and not thinking too clearly. But you did say, 'Just fine?' "

"Commodore Vorkosigan, sir," interrupted Illyan. "Keep in mind that I'm going to have to report this conversation."

"What conversation?" said Vorkosigan. "You and I are alone in here, remember? You're not required to observe me when I'm alone, as everyone knows. They'll start wondering why you're lingering in here before long."

Lieutenant Illyan frowned over this Jesuitry. "The Emperor's intention-"

"Yes? Tell me all about the Emperor's intention." Vorkosigan looked savage.

"The Emperor's intention, as communicated to me, was that you be discouraged from incriminating yourself. I cannot edit my report, you know."

"That was your argument four weeks ago. You saw the result."

Illyan looked perturbed.

Vorkosigan spoke low and controlled. "Everything the Emperor requires of me will be accomplished. He's a great choreographer, and he shall have his dance of dreamers down to the last step." Vorkosigan's hand closed in a fist, and opened again. "I have withheld nothing that is mine from his service. Not my life. Not even my honor. Grant me this." He pointed at Cordelia. "You gave me your word on it then. Do you intend to take it back?"

"Will someone please tell me what you are talking about?" interrupted Cordelia.

"Lieutenant Illyan is having a little conflict at the moment between duty and conscience," said Vorkosigan, folding his arms and staring at the far wall. "It is not solvable without redefining one or the other, and he must now choose which."

"You see, there was another incident," Illyan jerked his thumb in the direction of Vorrutyer's quarters, "like that, with a prisoner, a few weeks ago. Commodore Vorkosigan wanted to, er, do something about it then. I talked him out of it. After-afterwards, I agreed that I would not interfere with any action he chose to take, should the situation come up again."

"Did Vorrutyer kill her?" asked Cordelia morbidly.

"No," said Illyan. He stared moodily at his boots.

"Come on, Illyan," said Vorkosigan wearily. "If they aren't discovered, you can give the Emperor your true report, and let him edit it. If they are found here-the public integrity of your reports is not going to be your most pressing worry, believe me."

"Damn! Captain Negri was right," said Illyan.

"He usually is - what was the instance?"

"He said that permitting private judgments to turn my duty in the smallest matter would be just like getting a little bit pregnant-that the consequences would very soon get beyond me."

Vorkosigan laughed. "Captain Negri is a very experienced man. But I can tell you that - very rarely - even he has been known to make a private judgment."

"But Security is tearing the place apart out there. They're going to arrive back here eventually just by process of elimination. The moment it occurs to someone to suspect my integrity, it's all over."

"In time," agreed Vorkosigan. "How much time, do you estimate?"

"They'll complete the search sweep of the ship in a few hours."

"Then you'll just have to re-direct their efforts. Widen their search area-didn't any ships depart the flag during the time window after Vorrutyer's death and before the security cordon was started?"

"Yes, two, but ..."

"Good. Use your Imperial influence there. Volunteer all the assistance that you, as Captain Negri's most trusted aide, can supply. Mention Negri frequently. Suggest. Recommend. Doubt. Better not bribe or threaten, that's too obvious, although it may come to that. Slander their inspection procedures, make records evaporate-whatever is necessary to muddy the waters. Buy me forty-eight hours, Illyan. That's all I ask."

"All?" choked Illyan.

"Ah. Try to be sure it's you and no one else who brings meals and so on. And try to slip in some extra rations when you do."

Vorkosigan relaxed measurably when he had gone, and turned to her with a sad and awkward smile that was good as a touch.

"Well met, lady."

She sketched him a salute, and returned the smile, "I hope I haven't messed things up for you too much. Personally, that is."

"By no means. In fact, you have simplified them enormously."

"East is west, up is down, and being falsely arrested for getting your C.O.'s throat cut is a simplification. I must be on Barrayar. I don't suppose you'd care to explain what's going on around here?"

"No. But at last I understand why there have been so many madmen in Barrayaran history. They are not its cause, they are its effect." He sighed, and spoke so low it was almost a whisper. "Oh, Cordelia. You have no idea how much I need one sane clean person near me. You are water in the desert."

"You look pretty, uh - you look like you've lost weight." He looked, she thought, ten years older than six months ago.

"Oh, me." He ran his hand over his face. "I'm not thinking. You must be exhausted. Do you want to go to sleep, or something?"

"I'm not sure I can, yet. But I'd like to wash up. Didn't think I ought to run the shower when you weren't here, in case it's monitored."

"Good thinking. Go ahead."

She rubbed her hand over her nerveless thigh, black cloth sticky with blood. "Uh, have you got a change of clothes for me? These are messed up. Besides, they were Vorrutyer's. They have a psychic stink."

"Right." His face darkened. "Is that your blood?"

"Yeah, Vorrutyer was playing surgeon. It doesn't hurt. I've got no nerves there."

"Hm." Vorkosigan fingered his scar, and smiled a little.

Cordelia's astonishment pulled out the Survey fatigues she had left behind on the General Vorkraft, now cleaned, mended, pressed, and neatly folded. "I haven't got the boots with me, and the insignia are obsolete, but I rather imagine these will fit," Vorkosigan remarked blandly, handing them over.

"You-saved my clothes?"

"As you see."

"Good heavens. Uh - why?"

His mouth crimped ruefully. "Well-it was all you left. Except for the shuttle your people abandoned downside, which would have made a rather awkward memento."

She ran her hand over the tan cloth, feeling suddenly shy. But just before disappearing into the bathroom with the clothes and a first-aid kit, she said abruptly, "I've still got my Barrayaran uniform at home. Wrapped in paper, in a drawer." She gave him a firm nod; his eyes lit.

When she came out again the room was dim and night-quiet, but for a light over the desk where Vorkosigan was studying a disk at his computer interface. She hopped onto his bed and sat cross- legged again, wriggling her bare toes. "What's all that?"

"Homework. It's my official function on Vorrutyer's - the late Admiral Vorrutyer's - Staff." He smiled a little as he corrected himself, like the famous tiger of the limerick when he returned from the ride with the lady inside. "I'm charged with planning and keeping the contingency orders up to date, in case we are forced to fall back. As the Emperor said in the Council meeting, since I was so convinced it was going to be a disaster, I could bloody well do the planning for it. I'm regarded as a bit of a fifth wheel around here at the moment."

"Things going well for your side, are they?" she asked, oppressed.

"We're becoming nicely overextended. Some people regard that as progress." He entered some new data, then shut down the interface.

She sought to turn the subject from the dangerous present. "I take it you didn't get charged with treason after all?" she asked, thinking back to their last conversation, long ago and far away above another world.

"Ah, that turned out something of a draw. I was recalled back to Barrayar after you escaped. Minister Grishnov-- he's head of Political Education, and third in real power after the Emperor and Captain Negri-was practically drooling on himself, he was so convinced he'd got me at last. But my case against Radnov was air-tight.

"The Emperor stepped in before we could draw blood, and forced a compromise, or more correctly, an abeyance. I haven't actually been cleared, the charges are still pending in some legal limbo."

"How'd he do it?"

"Sleight of hand. He was giving Grishnov and the whole war party everything they'd asked for, the entire Escobar scheme on a platter, and more. He gave them the Prince. And all the credit. After the conquest of Escobar, Grishnov and the Prince each think they're going to be the de facto ruler of Barrayar.

"He even made Vorrutyer swallow my promotion. Pointed out he'd have me directly under his command. Vorrutyer saw the light at once." Vorkosigan's teeth set at some searing memory, his hand opening and closing once, unconsciously.

"How long have you known him?" she asked cautiously, thinking of the bottomless well of hatred she had fallen down. His eyes slid away from her. "We were in school, and lieutenants together, back when he was only a common voyeur. He grew worse, I understand, in recent years, since he started associating with Prince Serg, and thinking he could get away with anything. God help us, he was nearly right. Bothari has done a great public service."

You knew him better than that, my breath, thought Cordelia. Was that your infection of the imagination, so hard to tight off? Bothari has done a great private service, too, it seems. . . .

"Speaking of Bothari-next time, you sedate him. He went wild when I came at him with the ampule."

"Ah. Yes. I think I understand why. It was in one of Captain Negri's reports. Vorrutyer was in the habit of drugging his, uh, players, with a variety of concoctions, when he wanted a better show. I'm fairly certain Bothari was one of his victims that way."

"Vile." She felt sick. Her muscles cramped around the ache in her side. "Who's this Captain Negri you keep talking about?"

"Negri? He does keep a low profile, but he's hardly secret. He heads the Emperor's personal security staff. Illyan's boss. They call him Ezar Vorbarra's familiar."

"If you think of the Ministry of Political Education as the Emperor's right hand, then Negri is his left, the one the right is not permitted to know. He watches internal security on the highest levels-the Ministry heads, the Counts, the Emperor's family-the Prince . . ." Vorkosigan frowned introspectively. "I came to know him rather well during the preparations for this strategist's nightmare. Curious fellow. He could have any rank he wanted. But forms are meaningless to him. He's only interested in substance."

"Is he a good guy or bad guy?"

"What an absurd question!"

"I just thought he might be the power behind the throne."

"Hardly. If Ezar Vorbarra said, 'You're a frog,' he'd hop and croak. No. There is only one Emperor on Barrayar, and he permits no one to get behind him. He still remembers how he came to power."

She stretched, and winced at the pain in her side. "Something wrong?" he asked, instantly concerned. "Oh, Bothari got me with his knee, when we had that go-round about the sedative. I thought for sure they'd hear us. Scared me to death."

"May I see?" His fingers slid gently along her ribs. It was only in her imagination that they left a trail of rainbow light. "Ow."

"Yes. You have two cracked ribs." "Thought so. I'm lucky it wasn't my neck." She lay back, and he made shift to tape them with strips of cloth, then sat beside her on his bunk. "Have you ever considered chucking it all, and moving someplace nobody ever bothers with?" Cordelia asked. "Earth, for example."

He smiled. "Often. I even had a little fantasy about emigrating to Beta Colony, and turning up on your doorstep. Do you have a doorstep?"

"Not as such, but go on."

"I can't imagine what I'd do for a living there. I'm a strategist, not a technician or navigator or pilot, so ] couldn't go into your merchant fleet. They would scarcely take me in your military, and I can't see myself being elected to office."

Cordelia snorted. "Wouldn't that startle Steady Freddy?"

"Is that what you call your President?"

"I didn't vote for him."

"The only employment I can think of would be as a teacher of martial arts, for sport. Would you marry a judo instructor, dear Captain? But no," he sighed. "Barrayar is bred in my bones. I cannot shake it, no matter how far I travel. This struggle. God knows, has no honor in it. But exile, for no other motive than ease-that would be to give up all hope of honor. The last defeat, with no seed of future victory in it."

She thought of the deadly cargo she had convoyed, now safe on Escobar. Compared to all the lives that hung on it, her own and Vorkosigan's weighed less than a feather. He misread the grief in her face, she thought, for fear.

"It isn't exactly like waking from the nightmare, to see j your face." He touched it gently, fingertips on the curve of her jaw, thumb laid a moment across her lips, lighter than a kiss. "More like, knowing, while dreaming still, that | beyond the dream there is a waking world. I mean to join you in that waking world, someday. You'll see. You'll see." He squeezed her hand and smiled reassuringly.

On the floor Bothari stirred, and groaned.

"I'll take care of him," Vorkosigan said. "Get some sleep, while you can."

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10