Sergeant Sybrand Azua gave Commander Quinn his most deliberately maddening grin and waited for her to get to the point.
He always liked dealing with Quinn, who was frankly gorgeous. It wasn't merely the face, which was as high art as his own genome in its own way. Her intensity brought her alive, her ruthlessness, her anger. Quinn liked him too, sometimes. They'd actually slept together a couple years ago, when they'd both been the same rank and had been stuck on an extremely boring station for repairs. It was a matter of mild regret to Sybrand that they weren't still doing so. Few women or men in the Dendarii Free Mercenaries met his exacting standards for a partner, and Bel Thorne had turned him down. But now they had to deal with Admiral Naismith's new fraternization rules and Quinn, at least, was annoyingly pious about them.
He felt a little sorry for her. Naismith's clear purpose had been to prevent anyone else from sleeping with Quinn since he couldn't, which wasn't fair to any of the three of them. And far too late, in any case. His smile broadened.
"Why do you stay here?" she asked suddenly. It was a far cry from Naismith's usual half-horrified "Oh, god, you're still here?", but he'd been the last Cetagandan standing in the Dendarii for quite some time. Plenty of people asked him about that, but she never had.
"Going home would be awkward," he said, deciding to be a little more honest than usual. "I score more points this way."
Her eyebrows went up. "Points?"
"Well, not points, exactly. But we keep score."
"Why do you get more points this way?"
"I'm not dead in an alley." He shrugged. "A fairly usual story for this outfit."
"Blood feud?" she asked. He wondered how much she actually knew about the ghem. Not much, he expected.
"Something like that. I am very nearly the last of my clan. We never amounted to much to begin with, but had dangerous enemies."
She quirked an eyebrow.
"Most of which I made personally, yes. Joining a group of postulants looking to be blooded was the sensible choice at the time. I certainly couldn't stay."
"Cetagandan ghem aren't normally mercenaries."
"You think they were ghem-comrades?"
She paused. "They had the face paint."
"Some were indeed ghem by right, like myself. Some were ghem by descent, but wished to be by right. Many were not yet ghem. You couldn't tell?"
"No," she admitted.
"They were essentially mercenaries, though. You understand that a ghem-comrade by right is a man of purified blood, and he must slay a worthy enemy in battle?"
"Not usually, except as family. Women counted among the ghem-comrades, the warriors, are rare. They have their own interests and driving passions. But the ghem must either slay each other to be blooded, or seek outsiders to fight. They may not kill non-ghem under the protection of the Emperor, that brings no honor. The son of a ghem is counted as ghem, as is a wife or daughter, but if that son is not blooded, his own sons are not ghem. There are fewer opportunities at home to be blooded than you might think, particularly for low-ranking clans unwilling to begin a vendetta and purified men of no family. So, aside from the Emperor's service, aside from various clan militias, aside from semi-official military advisers, you also have freelancers like the unfortunate Century-Captain Resnick. He himself was unqualified for any higher-status military adventurism and attracted only the lowest of the low."
"And you?" Quinn leaned back in her chair, folding her hands behind her head.
"Let's just say that I needed to leave the Empire very fast."
"I'm... surprised you haven't put yourself forward for officer training. You must have some experience."
"I do not wish to be too high-profile. The pay is more than adequate, and the missions... interesting."
Quinn studied him. "I may need to pass for ghem in the immediate future. Is that possible?"
And here they were. "No."
His grin widened. "Your smell is wrong."
"All ghem must have some minimal genetic modifications to be called pure. One of the most important is to various genetic components of body odor. You have the usual galactic modifications there... frankly, you might pass to the uninitiated, but any ghem would notice something was wrong instantly. Not necessarily on a conscious level, but we can sense imposters."
"Could anyone else in the Dendarii pass?"
"Besides me?" he asked, amused. "No."
"I would prefer not to use you for this," Quinn said. "You understand."
He shrugged. "It is not even disloyal to fight other ghem on the fringes of the Empire. If they cannot defeat you fairly, they hardly deserve honor. I would not fight the Emperor, but I do not think anything you could attack would touch upon his interests. And if you cross the Emperor himself, I would be the least of your concerns. Most Cetagandans are not ghem, you know, or even purified in the ghem fashion. With careful coaching, a few Dendarii could probably pass as Imperial."
He thought. "Captain Bothari-Jesek, actually."
Quinn looked unamused.
"Scent again," he grinned. "She's not a full-blooded Barrayaran. I don't know what she is, but she's certainly not that. Barrayarans stink. Nobody's ever gene-screened them. They smell very distinctive. And she doesn't. Someone like me would assume - like I did before I met her father - that she's a gene-screened descendant of some of the many, many refugees that ended up joining the lower classes of the Empire. Her accent's also nearly right, it's much weaker now than it was. And she's far too pretty to be Barrayaran."
"Wouldn't people assume her to be disloyal?"
He laughed. "You've never met one of our Barrayarans, have you? But again, careful training would be needed. It's a far more difficult problem than you seem to be assuming."
"Are you volunteering, Azua?"
He wasn't about to make it that easy for her. "Not unless you ask, Commander."
Her glare was epic. "Most noble and honorable sergeant, would you be so gracious as to share the virtues of your superior civilization with us?"
His lip twitched. "Oh, I like you, Commander Quinn. This might be fun."