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Miles ran into his mother in the back passage downstairs.
"Have you seen your father lately, heart?" Countess Vorkosigan asked him.
"Yes," unfortunately, "he went into the library with Captain Koudelka and the Sergeant."
"Sneaking off for a drink," she analyzed wryly, "with his old troopers. Well, I can't blame him. He's so tired. It's been a ghastly day. And I know he hasn't gotten enough sleep." She looked him over penetratingly. "How have you been sleeping?"
Miles shrugged. "All right."
"Mm. I'd better go catch him before he has more than one—ethanol has an unfortunate tendency to make him blunt, and that egg-sucker Count Vordrozda just arrived, in company with Admiral Hessman. He'll have trouble ahead if those two are getting in bed together."
"I shouldn't think the far right could muster that much support, with all the old soldiers solidly behind Father."
"Oh, Vordrozda's not a rightist at heart. He's just personally ambitious, and he'll ride any pony that's going his way. He's been oozing around Gregor for months ..." Anger sparked in her grey eyes. "Flattery and innuendo, oblique criticisms and these nasty little barbs stuck in all the boy's self doubts—I've watched him at work. I don't like him," she said positively.
Miles grinned. "I never would have guessed. But surely you don't have to worry about Gregor." His mother's habit of referring to the Emperor as if he were her rather backward adopted child always tickled him. In a sense it was true, as the former Regent had been Gregor's personal as well as political guardian during his minority.
She grimaced. "Vordrozda's not the only one who wouldn't hesitate to corrupt the boy in any area he could sink his claws into—moral, political, what you will—if he thought it would advance himself one centimeter, and damn the long range good of Barrayar—or of Gregor, for that matter." Miles recognized this instantly as a quote from his mother's sole political oracle, his father. "I don't know why these people can't write a constitution. Oral law—what a way to try and run an interstellar power." This was homegrown opinion, pure Betan.
"Father's been in power so long," said Miles equably. "I think it would take a gravity torpedo blast to shift him out of office."
'That's been tried," remarked Countess Vorkosigan, growing abstracted. "I wish he'd get serious about retiring. We've been lucky so far," her eye fell on him wistfully, "—mostly."
She's tired too. Miles thought.
'The politicking never stops," she added, staring at the floor. "Not even for his father's funeral." She brightened wickedly. "Nor do his relations. If you see him before I do, tell him Alys Vorpatril's looking for him. That'll make his day—no, better not. We'd never be able to find him, then."
Miles raised his brows. "What does Aunt Vorpatril want him to do for her now?"
"Well, ever since Lord Vorpatril died she's been expecting him to stand in loco parentis to that idiot Ivan, which is fine, up to a point. But she nailed me a while ago, when she couldn't find Aral—seems she wants Aral to stand the boy up in a comer somewhere and brace him for—er—swiving the servant girls, which ought to embarrass them both thoroughly. I've never understood why these people won't clip their kids' tubes and turn them loose at age twelve to work out their own damnation, like sensible folk. You may as well try to stop a sandstorm with a windsock ..." She went off toward the library, muttering her favorite swear-word under her breath, "Barrayarans !"
Wet darkness had fallen outside, turning the windows into dim mirrors of the subdued and mannered revelry within Vorkosigan House. Miles stared into his own reflection in passing; dark hair, grey eyes, pale shadowed face, features too sharp and strongly marked to satisfy aesthetics. And an idiot, to boot.
The hour reminded him of dinner, probably cancelled due to the press of events. He determined to forage among the canapés, and collect enough to sustain a strategic retreat back to his bedroom for the rest of the evening. He peered around a hall arch, to be sure none of the dreaded geriatric set were nearby. The room appeared to contain only middle-aged people he didn't know. He nipped over to a table, and began stuffing food into a fine fabric napkin.
"Stay away from those purple things," a familiar, affable voice warned in a whisper. "I think they're some kind of seaweed. Is your mother on a nutrition kick again?"
Miles looked up into the open, annoyingly handsome face of his second cousin, Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan too held a napkin, filled close to capacity. His eyes looked slightly hunted. A peculiar bulge interrupted the smooth lines of his brand-new cadet's uniform jacket.
Miles nodded toward the bulge, and whispered in astonishment, "Are they letting you carry a weapon already?"
"Hell, no." Ivan flicked the jacket open after a conspiratorial glance around, probably for Lady Vorpatril. "It's a bottle of your father's wine. Got it from one of the servants before he'd poured it into those itty-bitty glasses. Say—any chance of you being my native guide to some out-of-the-way corner of this mausoleum? The duty guards don't let you wander around by yourself, upstairs. The wine is good, the food is good, except for those purple things, but my God, the company at this party! . . ."
Miles nodded agreement in principle, even though he was inclined to include Ivan himself in the category of "my God the company." "All right. You pick up another bottle of wine," mat should be enough to anesthetize him to tolerance, "and I'll let you hide out in my bedroom. That's where I was going anyway. Meet you by the lift tube."
Miles stretched out his legs on his bed with a sigh as Ivan pooled their picnic and opened the first bottle of wine. Ivan emptied a generous third of the bottle into each of the two bathroom tumblers, and handed one to his crippled cousin.
“Isaw old Bothari carrying you off the other day." Ivan nodded toward the injured legs, and took a refreshing gulp. Grandfather, Miles thought, would have had a fit to see that particular vintage treated so cavalierly. He took a more respectful sip himself, by way of libation to the old man's ghost, even though Grandfather's tart assertion that Miles couldn't tell a good vintage from last Tuesday's washwater was not far off the mark. "Too bad," Ivan went on cheerfully. You' re really the lucky one, though."
"Oh?" muttered Miles, closing his teeth on a canapé.
"Hell yes. Training starts tomorrow, y'know—"
"So I've heard."
"—I've got to report to my dormitory by midnight at the latest. Thought I was going to spend my last night as a free man partying, but instead I got stuck here. Mother, y'know. But tomorrow we take our preliminary oaths to the Emperor, and by God! if I'll let her treat me like a boy after that!" He paused to consume a small stuffed sandwich. "Think of me, out running around in the rain at dawn tomorrow, while you're tucked away all co2y in here ..."
"Oh, I will." Miles took another sip, and another.
"Only two breaks in three years," Ivan rambled on between bites. "I might as well be a condemned prisoner. No wonder they call it service. Servitude is more like it."
Another gulp, to wash down a meat-stuffed pastry. "But your time is all your own—you can do whatever you want with it."
"Every minute," agreed Miles blandly. Neither the Emperor nor anyone else demanded his service. He couldn't sell it—couldn't give it away ...
Ivan, blessedly, fell silent for a few minutes, refueling. After a time he said hesitantly. "No chance of your father coming up here, is there?"
Miles jerked up his chin. "What, you're not afraid of him, are you?"
Ivan snorted. "The man turns entire General Staffs to pudding, for God's sake., I'm just the Emperor's rawest recruit. Doesn't he terrify you?"
Miles considered the question seriously. "Not exactly, no. Not in the way you mean."
Ivan rolled his eyes heavenward in disbelief.
"Actually," added Miles, thinking back to the recent scene in the library, "if you're trying to duck him this might not be the best place, tonight."
"Oh?" Ivan swirled his wine in the bottom of his cup. "I've always had the feeling he doesn't like me," he added glumly.
"Oh, he doesn't mind you," said Miles, taking pity. "At least as you appear on his horizon at all. Although I think I was fourteen before I found out that Ivan wasn't your middle name." Miles cut himself off. That-idiot-Ivan was beginning a lifetime of Imperial service tomorrow. Lucky-Miles was emphatically not. He took another gulp of wine, and longed for sleep. They finished the canapés, And Ivan emptied the first bottle and opened the second.
There came an authoritative double knock on the door. Ivan sprang to his feet. "Oh, hell, that's not him, is it?"
"A junior officer," said Miles, "is required to stand and salute when a senior officer enters. Not hide under the bed."
"I wasn't thinking of hiding under the bed!" said Ivan, stung. "Just in the bathroom."
"Don't bother. I guarantee there'll be so much covering fire you'll be able to retreat totally unnoticed." Miles raised his voice. "Come!"
It was indeed Count Vorkosigan. He pinned his son with eyes cold and grey as a glacier on a sunless day, and began without preamble, "Miles, what did you do to make mat girl cr—" He broke off as his gaze passed over Ivan, standing at attention like a man stuffed. Count Vorkosigan's voice returned to a more normal growl. "Oh, hell. I was hoping to avoid tripping over you tonight. Figured you'd be getting safely drunk in a comer on my wine—"
Ivan saluted nervously. "Sir. Uncle Aral. Did, um, did my mother speak with you, sir?"
Yes," Count Vorkosigan sighed. Ivan paled. Miles realized Ivan did not see the amusement in the hooded set of his father's eyelids.
Miles ran a finger pensively around the lip of the empty wine bottle. "Ivan has been commiserating me upon my injuries, sir." Ivan nodded confirmation.
"I see," said Count Vorkosigan dryly—and Miles felt he really did. The coldness sublimated altogether. Count Vorkosigan sighed again, and addressed Ivan in a tone of gentle, rhetorical complaint. "Going on fifty years of military and political service, and what am I? A boogey-man, used to frighten boys into good behavior—like the Baba Yaga, who only eats the bad little children." He spread his arms, and added sardonically, "Boo. Consider yourself chastized, and take yourself off. Go, boy."
'Yes, sir." Ivan saluted again, looking decidedly relieved.
"And stop saluting me," Count Vorkosigan added more sharply. "You're not an officer yet." He seemed to notice Ivan's uniform for the first time. "As a matter of fact—"
*Yes, sir. No, sir." Ivan began to salute again, stopped himself, looked confused, and fled. Count Vorkosigan's lips twitched.
And I never thought I'd be grateful to Ivan, Miles mused. "You were saying, sir?" he prompted.
It took Count Vorkosigan a moment to collect his thoughts after the diversion provided by his young relative. He opened again, more quietly. "Why was Elena crying, son? You weren't, ah, harassing her, were you?"
"No, sir. I know what it looked like, but it wasn't. I'll give you my word, if you like."
"Not necessary." Count Vorkosigan pulled up a chair. "I trust you were not emulating that idiot Ivan. But, ah— your mother's Betan sexual philosophy has its place—on Beta Colony. Perhaps here too, someday. But I should like to emphasize mat Elena Bothari is not a suitable test case."
"Why not?" said Miles suddenly. Count Vorkosigan raised his eyebrows. "I mean," Miles explained quickly, "why should she be so—so constrained. She gets duenna'd to death. She could be anything. She's bright, and she's, she's good-looking, and she could break me in half—why shouldn't she get a better education, for instance? The Sergeant isn't planning any higher education for her at all. Everything he's saved is for dowry. And he never lets her go anyplace. She'd get more out of travel—hell, she'd appreciate it a thousand times more than any other girl I know." He paused, a little breathless.
Count Vorkosigan pursed his lips, and ran his hand thoughtfully across the chair back. "This is all very true. But Elena—means enormously more to the Sergeant than I think you are aware. She is a symbol to him, of everything he imagines ... I'm not sure how to put this. She is an important source of order in his life. I owe it to him to protect that order."
*Yes, yes, right and proper, I know," said Miles impatiently. "But you can't owe everything to him and nothing to her!"
Count Vorkosigan looked disturbed, and began again. "I owe him my life. Miles. And your mother's. In a very real sense, everything I've been and done for Barrayar in the last eighteen years is owed to him. And I owe him your life, twice over, since then, and so my sanity—what there is of it, as your mother would say. If he chooses to call in that debt, there's no bottom to it." He rubbed his lips introspectively. "Also—it won't hurt to emphasize this anyway—I'd much prefer to avoid any kind of scandal in my household at the moment. My adversaries are always groping for a handle on me, some lever to move me. I beg you will not let yourself become one."
And what the hell is going on in the government this week? Miles wondered anew. Not that anybody's likely to tell me. Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. Occupation: security risk. Hobbies: falling off walls, disappointing sick old men to death, making gins cry . . . He longed to patch things up with Elena, at least. But the only thing he could think of that might put her imagination-generated terrors to rest would be actually finding that blasted grave, and as near as he could figure, it had to be on Escobar, mixed in with those of the six or seven thousand war dead left behind so long ago.
Between opening his mouth, and speaking, the plan possessed him. The result was that he forgot what he'd been about to say, and sat with his mouth open a moment. Count Vorkosigan raised his eyebrows in courteous inquiry. What Miles finally said instead was, "Has anyone heard from Grandmother Naismith lately?"
Count Vorkosigan's eyes narrowed. "Curious that you should mention her. Your mother has spoken of her quite frequently in the last few days."
"Makes sense, under the circumstances. Although Grandmother's such a healthy old bird—all Betans expect to live to be 120, I guess. They think it's one of their civil rights."
Miles's Betan grandmother, seven wormhole jumps and three weeks travel time away by the most direct route—via Escobar. A carefully chosen commercial passenger liner might well include a layover at Escobar. Time for a little tourism—time for a little research. It could be done subtly enough, even with Bothari hanging over his shoulder. What could be more natural than for a boy interested in military history to make a pilgrimage to the cemetaries of his Emperor's soldiers, maybe even bum a death offering? "Sir," he began, "do you suppose I could—"
And, "Son," Count Vorkosigan began at the same moment, "How would you like to deputize for your mother—"
“I beg your pardon," and "Go ahead, sir."
"I was about to say,' continued the Count, "that this might be a very opportune time for you to visit your Grandmother Naismith again. It's been what, almost two years since you were to Beta Colony? And while Betans may expect to live to be 120—well, you never know."
Miles untangled his tongue, and managed not to lurch. '"What a wonderful idea! Uh—could I take Elena?"
There went the eyebrows again. '"What?"
Miles swung to his feet, and shuffled back and forth across the room, unable to contain his outpouring of schemes in stillness. Give Elena a trip off-planet? My God, he'd be a hero in her eyes, a sheer two meters tall, like Vorthalia the Bold. "Yes, sure—why not? Bothari will be with me anyway—who could be a more right and proper chaperone than her own father? Who could object?"
"Bothari," said Count Vorkosigan bluntly. "I can't imagine him warming to the thought of exposing Elena to Beta Colony. After all, he's seen it. And coming from you, ah, just at the moment, I'm not at all sure he'd perceive it as a proper invitation."
"Mm." Shuffle, turn, shuffle. Flash! "Then I won't invite her."
"Ah." Count Vorkosigan relaxed. "Wise, I'm sure ..." "I'll have Mother invite her. Let's see him object to that!"
Count Vorkosigan emitted a surprised laugh. "Underhanded, boy!" But his tone was approving. Miles's heart lifted.
"This trip idea was really hers, wasn't it, sir?" Miles said.
"Well—yes," Count Vorkosigan admitted. "But in fact, I was glad she suggested it. It would—ease my mind, to have you safe on Beta Colony for the next few months." He rose. "You must excuse me. Duty calls. I have to go feel up that rampant creeper Vordrozda, for the greater glory of the Empire." His expression of distaste spoke volumes. "Frankly, I'd rather be getting drunk in a corner with that idiot Ivan—or talking to you." His father's eyes were warm upon him.
'Tour work comes first, of course, sir. I understand that."
Count Vorkosigan paused, and gave him a peculiar look. 'Then you understand nothing. My work has been a blight on you from the very beginning. I'm sorry, sorry it made such a mess for you—"
Mess of you, thought Miles. Say what you really mean, damn it. -
"—I never meant it to be so.' A nod, and he withdrew.
Apologizing to me again, thought Miles miserably. For me. He keeps telling me I'm all right—and then apologizing. Inconsistent, Father.
He shuffled back and forth across the room again, and his pain burst into speech. He flung his words against the deaf door, "I'll make you take back that apology! I am all right, damn it! I'll make you see it. I'll stuff you so full of pride in me there'll be no room left for your precious guilt! I swear by my word as Vorkosigan. I swear it, Father," his voice tell to a whisper, "Grandfather. Somehow, I don't know how ..."
He took another turn around his chamber, collapsing back into himself, cold and desperately sleepy. A mess of crumbs, an empty wine bottle, an open full one. Silence.
"Talking to yourself in an empty room again, I see," he whispered. "A very bad sign, you know."
His legs hurt. He cradled the second bottle, and took it with him to lie down.
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