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Guerrilla

Chapter Text

In the dark of space, invisible to the naked eye, the exit vortex spun out in 5-space from the pinprick of a wormhole. A freighter, waiting its turn in a queue that had frozen for the last few hours, wallowed painfully out of the way of the courier vessel that had appeared in the wormhole's mouth, its bulk shifting slowly and laboriously. The courier accelerated, apparently unconcerned about the scramble to accommodate it.

It was not a standard traffic communication ship. All communication from Sergyar had stopped eight hours ago, after a flat transmission that all jumps were to be suspended.

"Unknown vessel. This is Lieutenant Estevez of Escobaran Traffic Control. You have just performed an unauthorized wormhole jump. We do not have a flight path on record for you. Please identify yourself, state your business in Escobaran space, and transmit your flight path immediately."

Static crackled for a moment.

"Escobaran Traffic Control, this is the Barrayaran courier ship Perseverance. We are unarmed, and are transporting an ambassador of the Barrayaran Emperor on urgent business. We are requesting an immediate audience with el Presidente del Gobierno Planetaris. We are transmitting our flight path now."

"Acknowledged, Perseverance. We have been awaiting information from the jump point in Sergyaran local space. Can you advise as to the current situation?"

"Negative, Traffic Control. We can offer no information at the present time. Perseverance out."

#

The headquarters of the Cortes Planetaris was a fantastically modern building, a spiraling palace of gravity-defying glass and steel. The gardens around it were beautifully manicured, and the furnishings were restful. Despite all of this, however, the Barrayaran ambassador could not seem to relax.

The servitor assigned to wait with Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan watched her awkwardly as she paced the room. He had seen vids of her many times, both in recent history and as a child, decades ago in the time of the Barrayaran Invasion. She had not looked so old then, but he supposed that made sense. Time does go by.

"Are you certain I cannot get you a glass of wine, Ambassador?" he asked, bowing shallowly. She was Barrayaran; Barrayarans were supposed to like bowing.

They were supposed to like wine, as well, but the ambassador shook her head. "Thank you, but no." Her voice was hoarse. "When will Presidente Arroyo be here?"

"Another five minutes or so, madam," said the servitor. Cordelia Vorkosigan nodded and turned to the window, but seemed unable to focus on the view out of it. After a moment she turned and paced on.

It was closer to ten minutes before the door to Presidente Arroyo 's office opened, and the Vicereine turned with wide-eyed relief. At Arroyo's invitation, she stepped inside to greet him.

"Vicereine," Arroyo greeted, offering a polite nod. "To what do I owe the honor of this unexpected visit?"

To his profound shock, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, wife of his planet's old enemy and one-time hero of his people, spread her skirts and dropped to a knee in front of him.

"Presidente Arroyo," she said, her words formal, "I have come as an ambassador plenipotentiary on behalf of my husband, Emperor Aral of Barrayar, to beg your aid in throwing off the unprovoked Cetagandan invasion of his Empire."

#

Eighteen hours earlier…

"We'll need to redeploy our escort ships to better defend the Komarran jump, my lord," a young major was saying. "Given the need for stronger defenses here, I don't think we should rely on the Komarran fleet to stop them. We'll need to park well out of range of a sun wall attack, but close enough to move in quickly."

"We should get the minelayers out deploying the system defense system as soon as possible," put it Admiral Vorvolynkin. "It will be expensive, but we cannot possibly hold the system without the mines to guard the approaches."

This was not Cordelia's area of expertise, and everyone in the room knew it, so they spoke to Aral, trying to pretend there was no woman in the room, curled up in a comfortable chair with a lap blanket and a cup of tea. She sipped from it as the men argued over military defenses and contingency plans. To them, she knew, this was a real and pressing danger. Some part of her, despite knowing the real tenuousness of the situation, could not entirely credit it.

Twice during Aral's regency, the Cetagandans had attacked, and twice they had been driven back. The idea that they would launch another useless assault over what was clearly a misunderstanding was almost laughable, although not at all humorous.

"Do you think it might be worthwhile to send our fleet to Komarr?" Major Pattas was asking, his tone making it clear he knew the idea would be unpopular. "Splitting our fleet at this time might not be wise, and we cannot possibly hold out here against a concentrated attack. At the very least, we should be prepared for the necessity of a retreat to rejoin our Komarran Fleet."

"And abandon Sergyar to them?" Vorvolynkin was plainly appalled. "You can't –"

"PRIORITY SIX," blatted Aral's comconsole. Every eye in the room swung to it, locking on. Cordelia felt her blood freeze. Priority six was for urgent imperial communications only. Gregor had never used it before. She could feel the thoughts of all the men as they stared at it. War, called the heartbeat of the room.

The several seconds before Aral spoke seemed very long. "Gentlemen," he said. He stood, seeming very solid and reliable, despite his advancing years. Cordelia could see the Barrayarans responding almost unconsciously to the old Admiral's authority he wore like a second skin. "Please return to your stations and bring us to readiness level one. I will issue further instructions when I have them."

The men filed out. Cordelia waited for the door to close before she rose and padded barefoot across the room to Aral. She laid a hand on his forearm and he closed his hand over it, holding to her as though she were an archaic shield he planned to take into battle. Alas, there were some kinds of blows she could not block, and neither could he, more was the pity. They could only weather them together.

He keyed on the comconsole.

It was not Gregor's face that appeared, but that of a middle-aged Barrayaran in an admiral's uniform. He looked like a man who had seen death. Cordelia knew, somehow, that he had. She did not know how much. "Admiral Voraronberg," Aral murmured for her benefit. "Komarran High Command."

"My lord Viceroy," the recording began. "An overwhelming Cetagandan force has attacked Komarr in a flash assault, overwhelming the local defenses and proceeding to Barrayaran orbit. Three hundred and sixteen ships were in the assault, and of those, at least eighty-seven are confirmed destroyed. The remaining vessels have set up in Barrayaran orbit, where they deployed a tactical nuclear strike against Vorbarr Sultana. The Emperor is dead, my Lord. Word has reached us that Lord Auditor Vorkosigan was killed in an act of espionage against the Cetagandan Empire, and Lady Vorkosigan was taken prisoner by the Cetagandans. We do not know where she is being held. The Council of Counts is in disarray. The Barrayaran local military force has been decimated. I am approaching Sergyar with the remnants of the Komarran Fleet that was present in local space, consisting of twenty-seven combat ships, most of which have sustained heavy damage. We will arrive in Sergyaran space in six days' time. My full report will follow this transmission in burst format."

His face vanished.

Aral stared at the blank screen. "Cordelia," he said after a moment. "I want you to stay with me more than anything, but it is a luxury we cannot afford right now. You have to go to Escobar, to be my voice. Promise them anything, but get their help. We cannot fight off the Cetagandan Empire without help. You are perhaps the only person I have here who will be more asset than liability with the Escobarans. When you are done on Escobar, go on to Beta Colony. I don't care if you have to mortgage our next five generations. Without their aid, we will not have them. Not this time. Find Mark. Tell him to come back to Sergyar. He will be a target."

Cordelia couldn't understand what he was saying. She was still stuck in a horror of incomprehension, her hand over her mouth, shaking her head at the screen. She wasn't crying, not yet. There was nothing real enough in the world to make her cry. "Aral," she whispered. "Didn't you –"

"Yes." His voice was a whipcrack in the room, too sharp for a bellow, too loud for anything else. "Dear Captain. We don't have time for this right now. I'm going to halt non-military traffic through the wormholes and try to work out the scattered remnants of our fleets. We need them here. We need allies. I need you to be strong right now, Dear Captain. Stronger, always, than I." He smiled, a soft, sad smile. "There is no turning things back by standing still, my love. We have faced this before. There will be time for tears later."

It wasn't any easier, but Cordelia fought to make herself understand, to process. "Aral, we don't have the authority to promise anything. We cannot make alliances. We don't have the authority."

"Dear Captain," Aral's voice was very, very gentle. "Gregor is dead, and without issue. I am here, and the need is here. I cannot flinch from it this time."

"Oh," Cordelia said whitely, pulling her hand back from his arm. That flinch struck him like a knife to the gut; she could see it in his wounded face, but there was no undoing it now. "For Barrayar," he said quietly, "there is nothing I will not do. I will declare my right to the Imperium before you leave local space. And I will have the backing of the people here."

She was underway in fifteen minutes. As Aral had predicted, there was plenty of time for tears.

Chapter Text

On Illyan's advice, they had kept the team small. There was too much risk of disaster with more men, he had told them. They did not have firepower enough to fight off a Cetagandan patrol if one stumbled across them, and with that in mind, each extra man on the team was one more man they needed to hide, one more man they needed to explain away if things went wrong.

Keeping this in mind, Ivan had eventually decided on only two men: himself and Dyson Vorinnis. They had been drinking buddies what felt like a lifetime ago, but was only actually four days now. Dy had been out inspecting inventory for General Vorlakial when the bomb fell. He'd stumbled across Ivan the next day in the village of Vorkosigan Surleau, where Ivan and Illyan had been collecting allies.

Ivan was deeply relieved to have him. Most of his network had been atomized with the rest of Vorbarr Sultana, and the men Illyan was pulling in were mostly twenty-year men who had opted out of the service and gone into civilian life. Two were double-twenty-year men who had opted out of the service and retire. Ivan was glad to have them, but this war wasn't going to be won by Illyan's generation. Dy was Ivan's first real ally – or perhaps second, after Illyan. He wasn't entirely sure whether he was Illyan's ally or subordinate right now.

This infiltration of Hassadar was Ivan's idea, though "infiltration" seemed too grand a word for it. Hassadar was never designed to be guarded against attack. This meant the Cetagandans had poured in quickly to hold the town, but it also meant their control was very loose. Ivan and Dy poured in just as easily, slipping through the dark streets.

They were unarmed. Dy had been very unhappy about this, but Ivan had insisted: having a weapon changed the way a man looked at the world, he remembered someone telling him once. It might have been Uncle Aral, or possibly even Illyan, though Illyan didn't remember it now. Just having the weapon meant you were more likely to wind up in a place to use it. He didn't want them to have that mindset.

There were Cetagandan patrols, but Hassadar had a population of over a million, and the Cetagandan troop transports had a garrison of a few hundred. The patrols were a formality. The real threat, as everyone knew, was out in space. The populace of Hassadar was feeling very, very subdued right now, in every sense of the word.

Ivan thought he remembered where the house was, and was incredibly relieved when he spotted it, rounding the corner onto Oak Street. He and Dy walked down the road quickly and quietly, and Ivan rapped on the door three times.

There was a long moment with no response. Ivan flexed his fingers and shifted his weight, and Dy stirred uneasily, looking up and down the road. "What if they're not here?" he asked, voice barely audible.

"Then we break in," Ivan murmured back, "and see if we can figure out where they might be." He eyed the expensive-looking commercial locking plate on the door. If only Miles was here, he could have the thing open in a few heartbeats. But Miles had been off on his honeymoon with Ekaterin, and was surely now caught up in whatever resistance was going on elsewhere. The Cetagandans were claiming that Komarr and Sergyar were under control, that the fleet was destroyed, but Ivan would believe it when he'd counted the damned bodies.

He knocked again, feeling oppressed by the dark street. Finally, a few quick footsteps sounded inside, and the door cracked open. Martya Koudelka peered out uncertainly. At the sight of Ivan, her eyes widened. "Ivan!" she cried, then pressed a hand over her mouth. Silently, she opened the door the rest of the way. Ivan and Dy hurried inside.

"Enrique's in the kitchen," she told Ivan. Her eyes flicked to Dy, guarded.

"Captain Dyson Vorinnis, Miss Martya Koudelka," Ivan performed the introduction, just as if they were at a formal dinner at the Residence, instead of meeting furtively in a front hallway in an occupied city. As usual, he felt an odd pang, realizing that the Residence was gone forever now, a pang that tried to flare up into anguish at the faces that had died with the old building. Ivan shoved them back down. "Dy's a very old friend, Martya," he said. "We've served together in ops for most of a decade now."

Taking his cue from Ivan's formality, Dy bowed. "Miss Martya," he said. "It's a pleasure."

Martya's lips twisted in bleak humor, but she did not continue the little charade. She looked instead at Ivan. "Duv and Delia are here."

Ivan's heart almost skipped a beat at these words. "I thought – Are you sure?"

Martya's eyebrows lifted, and she opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it. Ivan felt himself flushing. "Well, yes, I suppose you would be."

Martya nodded, her mouth twisted up again. "Come on," she said, and led them past the stairs and towards the wide kitchen.

It was a beautiful house, which Martya had bought for Enrique with some of his share of their start-up money and then promptly moved into along with him. Real estate was cheaper in Hassadar than in Vorbarr Sultana, and this beautiful modern building, in the sprawling fringes of the city, had been a good investment for the couple. The kitchen was spacious and brightly lit. Enrique Borgos, Duv Galeni, and Martya's sister Delia sat around the table. Duv and Delia were holding hands.

When Ivan stepped into the room, Duv shot to his feet. It took four of his long steps to round the table and cross the room, and then he had Ivan's hand caught in both of his. "Ivan!" he said. "You're alive. We thought –"

Ivan smiled a bit grimly. "I nearly was," he said. "My mother and Simon were at Vorkosigan Surleau, and she asked me to come out. When the Cetagandans hit local space, I was called back to ops, but was I was still an hour away when…" He broke off. "I made it back there and met up with Illyan and Dy. Oh. Dy, this is Commodore Duv Galeni, Head of Komarran Affairs for ImpSec. That's his wife, Delia." Delia was standing, too, one hand pressed to her mouth. "And that's Dr. Enrique Borgos, whose house we are all in. Everyone, this is Captain Dyson Vorinnis."

Dyson and Galeni nodded, but they were the only ones. Dr. Borgos, Ivan knew, was the youngest of the people in the room, but he looked very old now, and tired. Delia was still staring at the pair of them as if seeing a ghost.

"Duv," Ivan said, focusing on the essentials, "we were sure you'd been killed. How did you get out?"

"We were at the clinic here in Hassadar," Duv answered. Delia and I were – " He broke off, glancing back at Delia.

Delia lifted her chin slightly. "We were about to start our first baby," she finished for her husband. "We'll have to wait a bit now."

"Oh." Ivan tried for a moment to process this, then pushed it off. Not now. There would be time for processing things later.

"Mama and Da are dead," Martya said, crossing to the refrigerator to pull out some juice packets. "I talked to them just before. They were on their way to the Residence. Laisa wanted –" She broke off, staring into the icebox.

Duv took over. "We don't know where Olivia or Dono are. Kareen is probably all right on Beta Colony."

Silence hung for a minute at this. Ivan rubbed at his jaw because he didn't want to rub his eyes. "Bet you wish you'd let those skip-tracers drag you back to Escobar right about now, Dr. Borgos," he said, and got the tired laugh he'd been hoping for. Dr. Borgos shrugged, but Ivan thought he could see in the man's face that he'd come pretty near the truth. Aw, hell, he thought, suddenly oppressed by that knowledge. How much can we trust this man?

All Dr. Borgos had ever wanted was his research. He and Martya had each fallen into the other's way (and, Ivan suspected, bed), but Borgos's research came first for him. Right now, he did not have it, which was probably at least part of the reason for the grayness of his features. There was a really simple way for him to get it back. Ivan looked over at Martya, who was still rummaging in the refrigerator. Hell, we can talk about it later, he told himself.

"M'mother and Illyan are all right," he said instead. "Illyan's got a bunch of old crusty retainer types with him now. We're holed up –" He glanced at Dr. Borgos and edited, "in this place in the mountains.. Illyan's collecting a team. I wanted to get you, Martya."

Martya looked over at him, her eyes wide. He hitched a shoulder in a slight shrug, feeling a bit sheepish. She met it with a little smile, appreciative.

"What kinds of resources do you have at this point?" Galeni asked.

Ivan detailed their munitions supply (alarmingly small) and current position. "We're placing a fairly heavy drain on the community we're with right now," he wound up. "We'll need to find a more stable base of operations before long. How much have you been following the news? Do you have any sense of the wider planetary picture?"

"The Cetagandans have taken control of the nets," Galeni replied. "Any information we're getting right now is fairly badly compromised."

"We can send you back with some food, regardless of anything else," Martya said. "Da always–" Her voice trembled on the word, and she stopped, rather than let it break. She tried again. "Da always taught us to be prepared. I have a few weeks of rations in the basement, and of course –" Her mouth twisted, "we've always got the butter bugs. There are a few colonies in the basement."

"I don't suppose we could bring those back with us, too," Ivan said, mostly joking. "Could come in handy in our really desperate moments."

"Actually –" Dr. Borgos started to speak, then cut himself off.

Ivan's eyes narrowed at the scientist. "Actually?" he prompted.

"Well," he said. "The girls are meant to be able to range free. It would not be difficult to build them a new home. If you wished to start some new colonies, you could do it fairly simply from just a few mature queens." He glanced at Galeni. "If we could get into my laboratory."

Galeni's face darkened, and Ivan had the uneasy sense he was coming into the middle of an existing argument. Ivan hastened to cut them off. "I suspect the coming and going of a few colonies of butter bugs would be a bit too noticeable, anyway," he said. "They're not exactly subtle, anymore."

"Oh." Borgos's face fell.

Ivan changed the subject. "You were saying something about the nets, Duv?"

"Ah." Duv cleared his throat. "Yes. The Cetagandans have sent a haut-governor along with the army, and he has established a base in Donosgrad, declaring it the new capital. He's from the Empress's constellation. Prescott Degtiar. I don't know anything about him. He's spoken a few times on the vids. He's painting a bleak picture for us, but I'm fairly certain he must be exaggerating at least a bit." He cleared his throat. "Ivan, ah –" He paused.

Ivan waited a few seconds, then flexed his hands in a burst of nervous energy. "Duv, what is it? Just spit it out. It's not like we haven't all heard the worst already."

Galeni blew out a breath. "He claims that Count Vorkosigan and his heir are both dead." He avoided Miles's name, Ivan noticed. He could understand that, somehow.

"Oh," Ivan said, inadequately. Delia was watching him, her face drawn. Ivan tried to work this new information into his picture of the world, but it didn't fit, so he rejected it. It was, he thought with bitter irony, what Miles would want. "No," he said. "They want us to believe it, so I won't. If it serves them to make us think it, it –" He was getting tangled in his own words. "There is no way in hell I'm believing a report like that from the Cetagandan bastards," he said instead.

Martya blew out her breath and looked away. Galeni frowned at Ivan. Ivan felt harassed, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Right," he said. "So anyway. Duv, I am so glad I found you. You'll come with us, right? Take command?"

Galeni hesitated. Ivan's heart plunged. "Duv," he started to say, but Galeni cut him off.

"Ivan, let's talk upstairs," he said.

Ivan frowned at him, then glanced over at Delia. Delia had turned gray and was looking decidedly away from anyone else. Martya was pulling things out of the refrigerator again. When his eyes caught her, she shrugged awkwardly. "I'll make some omelets for everyone," she said. "You could use some real food."

It was Dy who gave her the smile she deserved for that. "I'd sure appreciate that," he said. "It's only been a few days, but the rations are already getting old. Go talk to the commodore, Ivan."

Ivan blew out an exasperated breath. "All right," he said. "We'll be back in a minute."

He lifted an eyebrow at Galeni, who led the way without further comment. Once up the stairs, he went through the first door on the left. He waited for Ivan to follow him, then closed the door behind him with a click. The room was blandly furnished, a guest room, presumably. Ivan thought it had been used recently – probably Duv and Delia had been staying here.

He briefly considered claiming the chair over by the wood dresser, but decided against it. If they stood, the conversation would probably be shorter. "Duv, what's going on?" he asked plaintively, opening his hands in supplication.

The other man didn't answer immediately, pacing to the window to look outside. Ivan tried Gregor's trick of just waiting, confident that the other man would break immediately. He planted his feet and folded his arms. He tapped his foot. In the end, he was the first to squirm. "Duv, what aren't you telling me? Aren't you – you're not giving in?" It seemed so impossible.

Galeni turned back, startled. "What? No!"

Ivan blew out his breath. "All right. So what's going on here? Are you coming back with us?"

"Ivan…" Galeni flexed, and Ivan remembered the times he'd seen the Komarran on the edge of losing his control – or over that edge. This seemed different, somehow. "Please, Ivan, sit down."

Ivan rubbed his face, which felt numb. To hell with it. He sat.

Something in Galeni seemed to unclench, and he sat on the edge of the bed. "Ivan," he began, "I'm not saying this as an ImpSec commodore, or as a friend. I'm speaking as a student of Barrayar history." He paused, and Ivan nodded. He did not think he needed a history lecture right now, but Galeni seemed so… intent. He would let the man say what he felt he had to.

"I understand," he said.

"Good. In successful military campaigns, it is almost always a top priority to seize control of the lines of communication. There are a few reasons for this. Speaking purely tactically, disrupting your enemy's ability to coordinate gives you a powerful advantage over them. But there are politically strategic reasons behind it, as well. Whoever controls the news sources controls the information that the people have. Control of that information allows you to control the people indirectly."

None of this was new information. Ivan nodded, sure that his confusion showed on his face. Miles, he suspected, would have figured out Galeni's meaning by now; he wished more than anything that Miles was here now. Galeni studied his face intently, as if looking for something under its surface. "Lord Ivan," he said, using the title for the first time, "I understand that you need to believe that Count Vorkosigan and your cousin Miles are still alive. I even agree with you that it seems likely. But the Cetagandans are declaring the opposite, loudly. And every time they repeat it, it will sink a little more into the consciousness of the people."

He seemed to be waiting for Ivan to make a connection on his own, but Ivan couldn't see it. He shook his head. "Duv, I haven't been sleeping too well lately," he said. "If there's something you want me to understand, you need to spell it out a little more than this."

Galeni stood up and paced to the window again, then turned back. "Lord Ivan, Gregor Vorbarra is dead. He had no heirs. In the minds of the people, Aral Vorkosigan and Miles Vorkosigan are dead, or as good as. Right now, on Barrayar, the Imperium is gone."

Ivan stared at him, his mouth abruptly gone very dry. "Oh, hell, no, Duv," he started, but Galeni cut him off with a shake of the head.

"I can't go out there and lead any kind of defense of the Imperium, Lord Ivan. I haven't the right. I have no one to speak for. You can. Make the claim for yourself, for your uncle, for your cousin – whoever you like. But the new Resistance will need you to live. If you ask me, I will place my hands between yours right now, here in this room. I will serve you in this. I will advise you. But I can't command you. Not here, and not now."

Three long steps brought him back across the room. Ivan rose instinctively as Galeni moved towards him, trying to retreat, but he bumped up against the dresser, and Galeni dropped to one knee in front of him and looked up steadily. He held up his hands.

Ivan stared at them in horror. He wanted --desperately -- to be anywhere other than here. "Duv – Duv, damn it, get up." Galeni did not immediately obey, studying Ivan with level eyes. "Damn it, Duv!" It was almost a wail. Galeni's face twisted, and he relented enough to rise.

"You need to decide before we move forward," he told Ivan.

"Duv, I can't take your oath," Ivan said, letting instinct drive him for the moment. It would certainly bring him around eventually to logic, right? "I'm not a vassal secundus to Gregor. I can't take your oath. It would be treason."

"Against whom?" Galeni asked.

Ivan stared at him. "I – well. Uncle Aral, then. Or – or whoever. Hell, Duv, you're Komarran! You don't even buy into this Vor oath business."

Duv's lips twisted. "I believe in enough of it, it seems. I had my hands between Gregor Vorbarra's, albeit at a slight remove. Did you think I didn't mean that oath?"

"Oh, hell, Duv. No, I didn't – that's not what I meant." Ivan's brain was scrambling, still trying to keep up. "I didn't mean to insult you."

"You Vor aren't the only ones with honor. You always knew that, although some of the Vor caste don't seem to. I suppose some of your cultural peculiarities are contagious. Ivan, you need to understand the realities of this moment. Right now, you are sworn to no one. You cannot commit treason against an Emperor who does not exist. When we have won, you can swear your forces over to whomever you wish and we'll go willingly. But for now, we need you."

"You want a figurehead," Ivan said bitterly.

Galeni started to speak, then caught himself. He took a long moment, examining Ivan. "No," he said at last, his voice even. "I want an Emperor. I will accept a figurehead, if that's all you will offer."

Ivan opened his mouth, then shut it again. It was his turn to walk to the window, drawing aside the curtain to stare out at the empty street. "Hell, Duv," he said quietly. "I didn't want this."

"Do you think your father did?" Galeni asked, just as quiet. "Or Miles. Or Gregor, even? Responsibilities don't go to those who want them, they go to those who can handle them."

"And you think I can?"

Ivan said it bitterly, knowing the answer, but to his surprise, Galeni did not answer. He turned back to look at the Komarran-born commodore, Head of Komarran Affairs for ImpSec, doctor of modern history and political science, and Ivan's one-time commanding officer. Galeni studied him back, his look frankly appraising. After a long moment, he said, "If you choose to accept them, then yes. I think you can."

In spite of his frustration and fear, Ivan could not help warming to the praise. Duv Galeni was a complex man, but one Ivan respected immensely. The weight of his approval was somehow daunting and uplifting at the same time. Ivan scrubbed at his face with both hands. "Duv – I can't say yes, not right now. We'll have dinner. I'll think about it. I'll – decide before I go."

Galeni nodded. "All right," he said. He looked as if he was about to add something, but just shook his head and started for the door.

"Duv." Ivan stopped his just before he opened it. Galeni turned back, lifting his eyebrows. "How is Delia doing?" Ivan asked. "Really?"

Galeni's jaw worked. "She doesn't want to lose me. She lost her mother and father today, and we think – well, things don't look promising regarding Olivia. She is not happy with the idea of me going off and leaving her alone and worried."

Ivan's eyebrows shot up, and he pushed past Galeni without another word. He took the stairs two at a time and rounded the banister to charge into the kitchen. Galeni was still halfway up the stairs when he said to a bewildered Delia, "Hell, you don't think I'd leave you here, do you? You know that, right? I didn't come for Galeni, I came for Martya. If Duv comes, you come too. I need you, Delia."

Delia's mouth formed a little unvoiced, "Oh." Martya looked like she was on the edge of her first real laugh in days.

Dy looked faintly shocked. "Ivan," he began. "We can't take a woman on the road with us!"

Ivan turned to look at his old friend. "She's coming," he said, and Dy inhaled, then blew out his breath in a frustrated whuff. Ivan realized, abruptly, that Dy hadn't in fact been the first ally he'd brought in. Dy was the first soldier he'd brought in. The first block in the army he had intended to build from the beginning. He looked over at Galeni. Galeni gave him a very dry smile.

Martya, bless her, came to everyone's rescue. "Omelet!" she said. "Tada!" She slid the somewhat runny creation out of its pan, splitting it onto a half-dozen plates and pouring more egg in to cook for a second helping.

For a few minutes, everyone was occupied with the business of eating. Dy dug in with obvious relief, and Enrique mostly just slid the food around his plate. Everyone else fell somewhere in the middle. Ivan didn't have much of an appetite at this point, with Galeni's words rattling around his head, but he wasn't an idiot, and the rations were too valuable to waste, so he ate automatically, accepting the offered seconds.

Dy tried to keep a conversation moving, but there wasn't any topic that wasn't either painful or horribly inappropriate. He asked a bit about how the mood of Hassadar had changed; Martya, who was eating by the stove, answered him briefly. Most people were staying indoors, waiting for a new order to assert itself. The news of the death of the Vorkosigans (she spared a glance at Ivan) had hit hard. No one really gave any validity to the idea of Mark as an heir; even if he were here, he was not theirs, not the way the real Vorkosigans were.

Ivan pushed a bit of translucent onion around on his plate, listening and taking it all in. He could feel Galeni's eyes on him, and Delia's. Did Galeni have any idea what he was asking? Hell, Ivan's entire life had been built as a defense against exactly this moment. He didn't want the damned Imperium! Look what it had done to Gregor.

Ivan and Gregor had not been friends, not the way Miles and Gregor had been, but Ivan still remembered him as a boy a few years older than him, very serious and quiet, always listening. He had been Ivan's Emperor, not his friend, but the hole in Ivan's heart where he had lived ached. I could never fill a man's heart like that, he knew. But he remembered the way Galeni's eyes had felt on him upstairs. I never asked for this job…

The conversation had lapsed, and Ivan looked over at Galeni, who was watching him with a guarded wariness. Ivan blew out his breath. "Come with me, Duv," he said, and he saw something in Galeni's shoulders unclench. "And you, too, Delia. I need both of you if –" He hesitated, then drove on. "If I'm going to do this."

Martya's eyes were wide. Dy looked baffled, missing the catches here. Galeni held his eyes for a minute, then nodded. "Of course, my lord," he said. Ivan felt a little pit in the core of his stomach.

"What do you need me to do, Ivan?" asked Martya, her voice quiet. Ivan had no idea. He rubbed at his chin, stubbly with a few days' growth of beard. "I was going to ask you to come back with me," he said, "But – I think we need someone here. Someone who's closely connected with the Vorkosigans." He glanced at Galeni, telling himself he didn't really need the other man's approval, but gratified to see the slight nod nonetheless. "Since Delia will be with Duv and me, I think that's you. We need to start fighting the damned propaganda about Miles and Uncle Aral being dead. No one really knows, and they're all looking for some kind of reality to believe in. Let's put ours out there to counter the Cetagandans'."

Martya nodded, then glanced at Enrique. Ivan, too, looked at the Escobaran scientist. Enrique continued to push food around his plate.

Dy had finished not only his second helping of omelet, but Enrique's, since the scientist wasn't eating. It was time to get moving, Ivan judged. There wasn't anything to be gained by staying longer. "Duv, Delia, Dy – hell, that's a lot of D's, isn't it – everyone go use the bathroom before we go." He felt like he was channeling his mother. "Martya – can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure, Ivan." Martya left her plate on the counter. Neither of them glanced at Enrique as they left the kitchen.

Enrique's study was cluttered and high-tech, right off the front door. Martya closed the door behind them, saying, "Sorry about the mess. Enrique's been kind of manic these last few days. We've had to close the lab, and he's really worked up about the bugs."

"Yeah," Ivan said, perching uncomfortably on the edge of a desk. "I kind of guessed he would be. Look… okay, Martya, I really need to talk to you about Enrique."

"I know," Martya said. "Duv's been doing that significant look thing a lot, too. You men aren't nearly as suave and mysterious as you think you are. You want to know if you can trust him."

"Well." Ivan picked up a random flimsy from the desk beside him and rolled it up. "That's part of it, yes. But… Martya, what I really need to know is whether I can trust you where Enrique's involved."

For a split second, Martya froze, her mouth half-open. When she snapped back to herself, it was with her temper already ignited. "How dare you?" she cried, her words probably audible to the entire house, and possibly the neighbors at well. "You know I would never –"

"Shh! Shh!" Ivan surged forward, catching her by the upper arms to try and contain the fury. "That's not what I meant, Martya! Crap!"

"Let go of me!" She wrenched away, but the physical effort seemed to burn off some of her hot rage. Her voice was a bit quieter. "What did you mean?" She spoke in clipped, precise tones.

"Is everything all right in there?" It was Delia's voice, from right outside the door.

"Yes!" Ivan called, at the same time as Martya's, "No!" Ivan opened his hands to her and stepped back. Resentfully, she modified her answer to, "I've got it under control, Delia. We'll be out in a minute."

"All right." Delia's voice was dubious, but her footsteps moved off down the hall.

Martya waited a few seconds for her to move off, then repeated her question. "What did you mean, Ivan?" She articulated each word carefully.

"Look… Martya." Ivan tried a charming smile, but she just folded her arms. "Okay. I know Enrique cares about you. And I know you care about Barrayar. But I don't think Enrique cares a whole lot what happens to the rest of us. If he decides it's too much, that he wants out… look, if I keep you involved, he's going to know enough to hurt us, and you're the only person who'll be here to stop him."

Martya just stared at him, unmoved. How the hell would Miles handle this conversation, Ivan wondered. He had an ugly little suspicion that Miles wouldn't. Miles would just place his faith where it fell and rely on the people he trusted to do what they needed to. But people did that sort of thing for Miles all the time. They grew beyond their boundaries, became more than they were because Miles needed them to be. Gregor had the same effect on people. Ivan… did not. Hell. He'd just have to blunder through it.

"Look," he tried again. "Tomorrow, after we're gone, if Enrique suddenly said, 'To hell with Barrayar, I need to save my bugs; the Cetagandans will let me help them if I tell them who was here yesterday' – I'm not going to be here to do anything about it. Would you be willing to shoot him in the back to stop him from doing that?"

Martya looked sick. "He wouldn't do that!"

Ivan wet his lips. "No. All right. But if he did."

Martya shook her head, but it was a refusal to answer – a refusal to consider – not an answer itself. "That's… Ivan, that's ridiculous. Would you?"

"With Enrique? Yes."

"With… Duv, then. Someone you care about."

"Duv? Yes. That's… tied up in my military oaths. I've had to think about it before. I wouldn't be willing to shoot my mother that way, but I think Duv would, and that's part of why I'm glad he'll be there. You're going to be alone, Martya. That's why I need to know. If not, that's all right, I can leave you out of this for now. But… I need an answer."

Martya curled one hand into a loose fist and ran the other hand over it nervously, as if polishing a ball. She turned to look at the door, and possibly through it. Hell. I didn't want this… "If I said yes, would you trust that?"

Ivan took a second to check his answer. "Yeah. I would."

Martya nodded slightly, still looking at the door. After a few more seconds, she looked back. "If it was a choice of him or Barrayar… I would choose Barrayar. Right now… Right now, I think Duv thinks Barrayar means you. Do you think he's right?"

"Oh, hell, I hope not," Ivan said. "He needs… a symbol. Someone the Vor will back." He grimaced. "It's all about the blood."

"Well," Martya said. "Maybe a little more than that." She managed a smile, bitter and twisted. "I'll back you, Ivan. Even against Enrique. Even if it means pulling that trigger." She let this hang for a second, then said, "But I won't have to. You're underestimating him."

"I hope I am," Ivan said, letting her have the point. "Look – I'm sorry, Martya. I really am. But… I think we needed to get this out."

"Yeah, probably. You can really be an ass, Ivan, you know that?"

"Yeah," Ivan admitted. "I'll work on it."

They exited together, but Ivan took himself off to follow his own advice and use the bathroom before returning to the kitchen.

Martya was sitting at the table now, her hand twining with Enrique's. Duv and Delia didn't have anything packed, but, Ivan reminded himself, they wouldn't. Their things had all been destroyed with the rest of the capital. Galeni had a small rucksack, which he thumped against his leg when he saw Ivan looking at it. "Rations," he said.

Delia slid her arm around Galeni's waist and rested her head briefly on his shoulder. "We're ready," she told Ivan.

"All right," Ivan said. He looked at Martya. "Get the word out," he said. "See who you can find to trust."

"We'll be in contact as soon as we can," Galeni added. "If there's anything you can do to accumulate food stores or any kind of weapons without betraying yourself, keep them ready." He grimaced. "Barrayar's laws against private weapon ownership are going to hurt us here."

"Well," Ivan put in reasonably, "they've helped us often enough in the past. We're not going to catch every break."

"True."

Galeni seemed to be waiting, and Ivan realized it was his job to give the order here. Hell… "All right," he said. "Let's go."

Delia broke away from Galeni to give Martya one last fierce hug. She whispered something in her sister's ear, inaudible to Ivan. Martya closed her eyes for an instant. "Be careful," she told Delia in return.

"I will," Delia promised.

Reluctantly, Delia released her hold. A second later, Martya did as well. Without further comment, the Galenis, Dy, and Ivan filed to the door and slipped out into the night.

Chapter Text

Dy had parked the old groundcar just over five miles from Dr. Borgos's house, well outside the main security perimeter of Hassadar. A little over an hour after they left the house on foot, the four of them were bundled into its cramped luxury. Delia was driving, to which Dy had visibly considered objecting. A look from Galeni had closed down that line of argument before it even started. Ivan thought Galeni had picked up that trick from Illyan, who was a master of making people feel like idiots.

It was another hour's drive back to the village of Maple Creek, where Ivan had left his mother and Illyan. The ride back was subdued. Now that he was sitting still, Ivan was beginning to feel the late hour. It had been nearly midnight when they'd arrived at Dr. Borgos's. The hour was creeping relentlessly towards dawn, and Ivan was definitely feeling the ten miles he'd hiked that evening.

Ivan and Galeni were avoiding looking at each other, Ivan because he really didn't want to restart their earlier conversation, and Galeni – well, Ivan didn't know why. Probably because Ivan wasn't presenting a very good image of an Emperor or a figurehead, slouched in the seat of the groundcar with his head against the window.

Dy had fallen asleep early in the drive. He didn't quite snore, but his breath whistled very slightly every minute or so. It seemed strange to Ivan that that the little sound, intermittent and quiet, should make the silence deeper rather than disrupting it. Each time the little whistle came, it felt harder for him to break the silence and talk to Galeni. When it was time to give the directions for the turn-off, Ivan's voice felt too loud. Delia complied without speaking.

There wasn't a real road leading into Maple Creek, so the groundcar bumped and jostled on the dirt track. Ivan directed Delia towards the brand-new barn where they could park, and she slid them in without incident.

The owner of the barn, a young man named Jeb Fallon, was waiting for them, mending nets in the barn in the dim glow of a table lamp. He waited for everyone to climb out of the car before rising to approach them, looking curiously at Galeni.

"Jeb," Ivan greeted. "This is Commodore Duv Galeni and his wife Delia. Duv, Delia, this is Jeb Fallon. His grandfather was an armsman for General Piotr. We've been staying with him and his wife."

Jeb's eyes moved to Delia, then back to Ivan. "You – did you not find Miss Martya, then?"

"No, we did," Ivan said. "Plans changed. Delia is Martya's sister. Are my mother and Captain Illyan asleep?"

"Oh. Yes, Lord Ivan," Jeb said. "They said as they'd talk to you in t'morning, and to wake them if anything went wrong. Did it?"

Galeni turned to Ivan, lifting an eyebrow. Ivan worked his jaw for a minute, considering. "No," he said at last. "Let them sleep. Um, we can sleep out here tonight, I think, if you can get blankets. I don't want to wake everyone in the basement." The basement of Jeb's house had become a sort of common sleeping area for all the men they'd gathered. Since the majority of the men collected would not see sixty again, Ivan supposed they needed their sleep more than his party did.

Hell, he thought gloomily, odds are pretty good none of us will see sixty again, not in this fight. How many of General Piotr's guerrillas had pulled through the fighting, in the end? Ivan thought he'd rather not go look that one up, just at the moment. It was not likely to inspire the troops.

Jeb had gone into the house in search of blankets and returned with bath towels instead. "'M sorry, Lord Ivan," he said, "but it's all we've got left."

Ivan grimaced, and Jeb bit his lip. "Sorry," Ivan said hastily, inanely. "Hell. Not like I've brought anything. Oh! Wait. We have some rations in the car. We'll make blankets a priority." And why the hell hadn't he thought of that before? "I'll talk to Illyan about it tomorrow."

"This be all right for now?" Jeb asked awkwardly. "We've got some coats and the like, if you think that'd be better."

"These are fine," Delia answered for Ivan, stepping forward to appropriate the stack of folded towels. "Honestly, Ivan. You make everything so complicated."

Dy was already seated on a hay bale, elbows on knees, face buried in his hands. He looked up when Delia dropped a towel beside him, smiling at her in bleary gratitude. She tossed one to Ivan, who bobbled his catch embarrassingly, then took the other two for herself and Galeni. Ivan blew out his breath and looked for a soft bit of hay to sleep in.

#

Hay was not soft. Ivan was sure that he had this image of hay as a fabulous place to sleep (or roll), picked up no doubt from vids of strapping young farm lads dozing away the lazy afternoon hours. In reality, hay was coarse, scratchy, and itchy. Despite his exhaustion, it took him a long time to fall asleep, and he slept only restlessly once he did.

He was dreaming of war in the streets. He'd dreamed this scene often before, from the other side: the young man, struggling to reach his young, pregnant wife, the shouting and the acrid smell of smoke in the air. Something must be burning. He had fought the restraining grip, broken free, and then seen the muzzle of the nerve disruptor as it swung towards him, had a half-second to see the crackling blue fire that had killed his father.

This time, he watched it from a remove, seeing the man and his wife, seeing the panic and anguish in their faces. He saw the nerve disruptor fire hit the young man with Ivan's own face, and then, horribly, his own hands came up, and there was a disruptor in them. He turned to train it on the young woman, who looked at him with his mother's eyes.

"Ivan, wake up." A booted toe nudged him in the ribs, and he jolted away from it with his entire body, spasming to wakefulness. He could feel his heart thud as he looked up at Illyan's amused face. "Ivan. I'm not a death squad. Calm down."

Ivan's heart thudded alarmingly against his ribs. He stared for another uncomprehending second at Illyan, whose amusement softened into concern. "Are you all right?"

Ivan fought his way back to coherence. It took some effort. "Um. Yes. Bad dream." He swallowed. "What time is it?"

"Seven. Jeb said you'd been asleep for around four hours. I would have let you sleep, but I gather things went oddly last night."

"Oh. Yeah." Ivan scrubbed his face with his hands. "What time is it?"

Illyan blinked at him. "Ivan. Go wash your face and wake up. Come meet me in the kitchen when you're ready."

Ivan took five minutes, taking the time to strip out of his tunic and douse his hair and neck. It was autumn, and the Dendarii foothills were chilly in the early morning hours. Another few weeks, and they'd be breaking ice off the horse trough in the morning. The cool helped snap him back to awareness, and at least he already had a towel.

He hated to pull his grimy tunic back on, but he certainly wasn't going to go report in to Illyan without a shirt on. They'd need to find some way to get changes of clothes; the ground-in dirt couldn't be good for them. There were too many logistical things he hadn't thought of, and would continue to not think of. Damn it, this was why they'd needed Martya. Maybe in another week or so, someone could take over for her in Hassadar, if they were all still alive.

He finger-combed his damp hair into order as he headed barefoot into the house. Jeb's pretty young wife, Elise, was cooking groats for breakfast, with some combination of garlic and herbs that made them smell like heaven itself. He offered her a nod and a faint smile. She returned the former, her face tense and unhappy.

Illyan was at the table, looking unfairly alert for a retired man of sixty-odd. Ivan dropped into a chair across from him. "Where's my mother?" he asked.

"Doing laundry in the creek," Illyan answered.

Ivan couldn't decide whether that was a joke or not. He stared at Illyan, who raised his eyebrows. "We have to give something back to our hosts, Ivan, beyond risk."

"Oh," Ivan said. "Well, sure." But… "Laundry?"

Illyan shrugged. "She volunteered."

Ivan grimaced and changed the subject. "So, I guess you heard I found Duv and Delia?"

"Yes." Illyan's face lightened slightly. "There's a bit of relief. Not that Komarran Affairs are precisely relevant at the moment, but Duv will have recent information about our security network and who we can rely on. He's much more qualified to direct things than I am at this point."

Ivan shifted slightly in his seat. "Have you talked to Duv yet?" he asked cautiously.

"No." Illyan's eyes narrowed at him. "Why?"

Oh, hell. Ivan did not, absolutely did not, want to have his conversation with Illyan, so he just said, "Well, he… had some ideas he wanted to share."

Illyan waited a minute for Ivan to elaborate. Ivan squirmed inwardly under the gaze, but just looked away and cleared his throat. "So, uh, we decided to leave Martya there. There's been a lot of propaganda, I guess, about Uncle Aral and Miles being dead. We wanted to leave someone to try and make contacts and counter it, and with Duv coming…" He shrugged.

After a moment of silence, he risked a glance back at Illyan, who was frowning at him. "Wait here," he said. He rose and walked out of the small kitchen. Ivan cleared his throat again and looked up at Elise, who was still stirring the groats.

"Those smell good," he offered awkwardly.

Elise looked back at him over her shoulder, then turned back to the stove. "Have you asked Captain Illyan how long you'll be staying?" she asked, her words coming a bit too quickly: rehearsed, Ivan thought. "M'husband'd never say a thing, but you're putting all of us in danger here. M'brother's got daughters just down the street. Lots of us have kids. You'll be bringing attention here, and we don't need it."

Ivan stared at her. "I – No. I haven't." He felt vaguely sick all of a sudden. He hadn't even thought – but Illyan surely had. And they were here anyway. Had Illyan weighed all of this? Had he decided the benefits outweighed the risks? Did the benefits outweigh the risks? He had still been too far away to see the explosion when Vorbarr Sultana was reduced to a molten wreck, but he could imagine it all too clearly. The Cetagandans would not even blink at the idea of destroying this sleepy little village, blotting out Elise and Jeb and all their families and friends.

"I'll talk to him," Ivan promised awkwardly. Poor Elise had only been married a few months. She hadn't asked for this intrusion into their lives. Hell, maybe Elise would prefer to just lay low and wait for things to settle. How much did the man-on-the-ground really have invested in the government that ruled them? There was no poverty in the Cetagandan Empire. She could have peace to raise a family, away from the grind of this war.

The second shoe dropped far too late. Ivan's eyes widened. "Elise – are you pregnant?"

Her shoulders hunched forward as if in some futile act of protection. She forced them back again. "Yes."

"Oh, hell." Ivan stared at her. "Uh, sorry. Language. I – we'll get out of here. As soon as we can." Probably taking Elise's young husband with them, if he read Jeb correctly. Hell.

Illyan came back in then, and Elise cast a nervous look at him before gathering up her cooking pot and offering a quiet, "Excuse me." Breakfast, as usual, would be al fresco on the porch. The bell rang. Illyan sat.

"Duv will be a few minutes," he said.

Ivan looked past Illyan at the door, trying and failing to come up with a way to broach the subject of their hosts. Illyan followed his eyes and said, "We can eat after we've spoken with Duv."

Ivan just nodded. Hell. They could talk about moving on after breakfast, right?

Galeni, when he arrived, hadn't taken the time to do more than splash his face. He had straw in his hair, and his clothes were wrinkled. It was hard to remember, looking at the man, that there had been rumors around the capital that he might be in line to replace Allegre as head of ImpSec one day. He nodded to the pair of them. "Simon," he said to Illyan, and "Lord Ivan," to Ivan.

Illyan's eyebrow twitched up. "Duv," he returned, drawing the word out with considerable irony.

"Morning," Ivan said, making a stab at cheer that he could not quite pull off.

Galeni grimaced. "Is there any coffee?" he asked.

"Not yet," Illyan said. "Join us?" He gestured to a seat. Galeni sat.

Galeni glanced at Ivan. Illyan watched Galeni. Ivan drummed his fingers on the table and avoiding meeting any eyes. Finally, Illyan said, "Well?"

Galeni opened his hand toward Ivan. Ivan said, "Oh, hell, no. This was not my idea, I'm pretty far from sold on it, and I'm not going to pitch it to Illyan, of all people. That would be…" He sought for and failed to find a word sufficiently revolting. "No. It was your idea. You tell him."

Galeni looked faintly disapproving (or, perhaps, disappointed), but Ivan crossed his arms and did not waver, so Galeni, perforce, spoke.

"Simon, I don't know how much you've been following the news reports."

"They don't have comconsoles here."

"The Cetagandans sent a haut-governor with the invasion force, Prescott Degtiar. He's done several press conferences about the takeover. They're not prettying this up, Simon. 'Vile and corrupt treachery,' 'poisonous villainy' – they are angry, and they want us to know it. They're talking about the Emperor, of course, and how he committed inhuman acts of cruelty against the Cetagandan people. They regret the necessity of the attack on Vorbarr Sultana, but they will flinch from no act necessary to subdue their enemy and prevent further acts of barbarism. They desire peaceful assimilation."

Illyan's face grew progressively harder through this recitation. Ivan felt almost physically ill. He rose to his feet, pacing to the stove. Galeni went on, his voice cool and academic. His accent went more Komarran when he delivered these little lectures, Ivan noted distantly, back to Professor Galen – or had he already changed his name then? Ivan couldn't remember. Somehow, that little dive he and Miles had once taken into the man's personnel file during that mess on Earth, seemed decades ago.

"They're trying to shock the populace into submission; shut down the resistance quickly enough that by the time any effective defense can be mounted, they will be the status quo. It's been done successfully before, and they certainly don't want to get bogged down in another trench war after the last time. The attack on Vorbarr Sultana was part of that, certainly. It had the double effect of subduing through horror and decapitating the government. There's no one to rally around. That's undoubtedly also why they're reporting that Aral and Miles Vorkosigan are both dead."

Illyan shifted as if about to say something, but did not speak. Galeni nodded. Ivan wasn't sure what had just been communicated between the two ImpSec men. "They report that Miles was killed in an act of espionage against Cetaganda, and Aral Vorkosigan was executed after the invasion of Sergyar. The Emperor is gone, and without heir. Aral Vorkosigan had the bloodline and the political force to claim the title in this time, if necessary. But he is gone, and possibly dead. Who are we fighting for?"

"Barrayar." Illyan said, the word harsh.

"And what is Barrayar, without an Emperor?" Galeni asked. "The entire Barrayaran system is, and always has been, predicated on the pyramid structure, with each group of people answerable to each other through the Emperor. Without the Emperor, what binds the people together? What guides their oaths and their loyalties? Why not this new Cetagandan?"

Illyan sat very still, gray with suppressed anger. When Galeni paused for effect, Illyan said, quietly, "Are you suggesting then that Barrayar is dead? That we should give in, stop fighting?" His voice was oddly gentle; Ivan supposed he had plunged all the way through vitriol and emerged on the far side.

"No," Galeni said quietly. "I'm suggesting that the people will need a person they can fight for, not just an idea."

"Aral Vorkosigan," Illyan said.

Galeni spread his hands. "Where is he? Let him say the word, and I will charge in gladly."

Illyan's jaw worked. "Then – " He broke off, and turned to stare at Ivan, breathless with realization and rage. "No." He fairly spat the word. "No. Aral Vorkosigan lives, and I will not see – will not see—"

Ivan had never seen Illyan actually tangled up in his own anger before. He had to work not to wilt from it. Galeni, more used to this kind of towering fury and the will of powerful men, stayed calm and level. "Simon," he said, "I don't think you can wage this war for Aral Vorkosigan in absentia. I know I can't. I think Ivan has the moral authority to do it either in his own right or as his uncle's representative here. Regardless of what else is or is not true, Ivan Vorpatril is the closest heir Gregor Vorbarra has here on Barrayar. He is Aral Vorkosigan's closest heir here on Barrayar. He can be a reminder that the Vorbarra bloodline is not entirely gone. There can still be an Emperor. I don't think Aral Vorkosigan is near enough to let the people believe that."

Ivan straightened a bit. "Wait," he put in. "Can I do that? Can I just do this all in the Emperor's name, as a, ah, proxy for him? Duv, you kept going on about hands between mine. I like this better."

Galeni shrugged. "Are you prepared for the possibility that if Count Vorkosigan and his heirs are dead, you may be serving as proxy for yourself?" he asked.

Ivan flexed his wrists, looking at his hands and seeing Galeni's, held up to him as they had been last night. Theater, he knew intellectually, but effective theater. "Yes," he said quietly.

Illyan shook his head. "You idiot," he said scathingly. "You're putting your head in a noose with this, do you realize? You don't have any idea what you're getting into."

Ivan's heart thudded and stung. "Simon," he said quietly, "I'm going to give you a minute to think about who and what I am, and who and what my father was, and my mother --" He hit this last hard, and saw Illyan start from it – "and to think about what the Vor means to my family, and then I'm going to give you a chance to reconsider those words, because I don't think we need this to be – to be a thing between us, not here and now."

Illyan stared at him for a minute, and Ivan added, after a minute. "You and my mother may be… whatever you are, but I'm not a boy. And I'm not going to be treated like one."

Slowly, Illyan nodded. "I'm sorry, Ivan," he said. "Duv is right that I can't carry this, and I've known it. Even if I had the right, I am not what I once was. This can't be my war, and it's been… hard on me. I shouldn't have said what I did."

"Forgiven and forgotten," Ivan said, aiming for lightness and falling, he fancied, only a little bit shy of it.

"But –" Illyan paused, but only for effect, letting the word hang like a guillotine blade. "I cannot swear to any man here. I am Aral Vorkosigan's man until I die or until I see his body with my own eyes. He is still alive." He turned his eyes on Galeni, as if he could make it true by sheer force of persuasion. If it were possible, he'd certainly have succeeded, Ivan reflected. He sure as hell wouldn't want to be the universe standing between Simon Illyan and what he wanted to have be true.

Galeni simply spread his hands in acquiescence. The three men waited a moment, each poised for someone else to speak. Then at last, Galeni said, "Then we are agreed. For now, Ivan is our general. Ivan speaks with the will of the Emperor."

The phrase was terrifying, but Ivan gritted his teeth and nodded. The gesture seemed inadequate – a man's soul is in his breath, and therefore in his voice – so he added to it, choosing his words uncomfortably. "I… undertake this responsibility."

Illyan gave him a very dry look. "Agreed," he said only. The concession was reluctant, with which sentiment Ivan could only agree.

Silence fell again. Ivan felt as if something momentous should happen to mark the occasion, but nothing offered itself immediately. "Okay," Ivan said inanely. "We're agreed. I need to go take a leak, so… we'll all talk more after breakfast?"

Illyan waved a hand. "Go, boy, go."

Ivan went. He could feel Galeni's eyes on his back.

Chapter Text

After breakfast, Ivan followed his mother's example and attached himself for an hour to a group of young men splitting firewood. He didn't have the practiced swing of the local lads, but it only took him a few tries to find a rhythm. He didn't try to keep up with the younger men, who worked with grim determination and no bantering. Life didn't stop, even for war.

He had accumulated a respectable pile by mid-morning, and went back inside feeling significantly better for the exertion. He suspected his shoulders would ache in the morning, but the stiffness of a bad night's sleep had left his back, and the monotonous physicality of the work had pushed some of his more difficult thoughts back to where he could look at them more easily. It seemed a little ridiculous to think of an exercise regimen under the current circumstances, but he suspected it would do him good. Maybe he could convince Delia to go along with him. There was no use thinking as if this was a temporary situation, after all. They had to start finding ways to fit this reality into their lives, and fit their lives to the reality.

He washed again, sluicing dust and sweat off his arms and shoulders. His mother passed him as he was standing at the trough, and gave him a very dry look, which he could not quite interpret. He nodded with respectful wariness – always a good default when it came to his mother – and she went on into the house.

He knew he should go in and talk to her, but figured he had leeway for at least a few minutes of stalling, so circled the building to where Delia and Elise Fallon were hanging laundry up to dry. He apologized for interrupting and asked if they'd seen Dyson anywhere.

Dyson was down the road a little ways, trying to repair a broken comconsole. The other man looked up when Ivan approached, giving him a nod. As Ivan crossed the ground between them, Dy took a moment to hit the power cable with a spot weld and tested the on switch without bothering to replace the cover. Nothing happened. He grinned down at it like a dueler, appreciative of an honorable enemy.

"Any luck?" Ivan asked, dropping to crouch a few feet away.

"I'll get it," Dy replied. "What's happening?"

"Nothing urgent." Ivan said. "You can finish up here, but this afternoon, take a drive around the area with some of our marks. Buy whatever they have spares of – clothes, blankets, shoes, cooking pots, anything you can think of. Actually – talk to my mother first. She can probably come up with a shopping list." He rummaged in his pocket for a second, pulling out a sheaf of folded flimsy bills. He held them out to Dy, who took them.

"Illyan ask for this?"

"No," ivan said. He picked up a rock from the ground, rubbing his thumb over it. "This is just from me." He caught and held Dy's eyes. "Any problems with that?"

Dy cocked his head slightly to the side, one corner of his mouth twisting up a bit. "Ah," he said. "Well, all right. You know I came for your sake. And Barrayar's, of course." He added this almost as an afterthought. "I'll hold to that. There's nothing I should know about going on?"

"No," Ivan said. "Thanks, Dy." He braced his hands on his knees and pushed to his feet.

"Ivan?"

Ivan waited.

Dy turned the laser welder over in his hands. "I'm not trying to pry. But I know something happened in Hassadar. Whatever it was… look, Ivan. There's not much to be salvaged in all this hell, but I hope I'm still your friend. If you should need one."

The words were awkward but clearly well-intentioned. Dyson Vorinnis was not exactly the social animal many of Ivan's capital friends were, but he was a good man, and had always been a true friend. Ivan had found him by accident, passing through the village of Tannersmill in search of one of Count Vorkosigan's men. One of the locals had made a throwaway comment about "the other Vor captain," and when Ivan had heard the name, he'd insisted on following him to the next village. Dy hadn't needed much persuading to come along; he'd been frustrated and adrift, an officer whose army was in disarray. The old retainers had come for Illyan, and Count Vorkosigan. Dy had come for Ivan.

Ivan read the truth of this in Dy's face, as he had that first day. "I do," he said. "And I will. This is just… a bit sensitive right now. There are political motivations."

Dy opened a hand in a sweeping gesture toward the dirt ground in front of him, inviting Ivan to sit with all the panache of a gentleman officer at a club in… a city. Ivan felt the wrenching in his chest and pushed it away. "Tonight, maybe," he put Dy off. "I need to talk to my mother, and then probably Duv and Illyan again. You finish up that com set."

"Sure," Dy said agreeably. "We'll talk later."

Ivan left him there, sitting in the dust with his toolkit, and trudged reluctantly back up the road to the house where his mother waited.

Lady Alys Vorpatril was sitting at the simple kitchen table, a map spread out in front of her. It looked old. She turned to frown at him. "Really, Ivan," she said, "must you always bang doors like that?"

"It banged itself!" Ivan protested with complete honesty; the heavy screen had slammed itself shut as soon as he released it.

"Inanimate objects do not have a will of their own, Ivan," his mother told him firmly. "You may choose to close the door carefully, and it will not take action to thwart you."

In spite of it all, Ivan had to grin at this. "Good morning, mother," he said, leaning to kiss the top of her graying head.

"Good morning, dear," she replied. "I understand from Simon that you had an interesting night."

"Yeah," Ivan sighed.

His mother, for once, forbore to correct his diction, and just smiled sadly up at him. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Ivan sat in the chair next to hers at the table, sitting in it sideways. "I don't know," he admitted. "Did Simon tell you… all of it?"

"He told me Commodore Galeni's logic. He said you didn't seem entirely ready to commit to the idea, and that he wasn't sure you would be able to handle it." Lady Alys relayed the critique without hesitation.

"I think I agree with Simon, most of the time. I don't really know if I'm all right. I'm committed now, anyway. I have to be; this isn't really something I can do halfway. But I don't know if I can handle it. I never trained for this."

"Do you think anyone does?"

Ivan blinked at her. "Yes?" he said after a brief pause. "I think Gregor trained from the minute he was born. Miles, too. Probably most of the counts, for that matter."

"They didn't train for this, Ivan," his mother said gently. "This is something beyond training."

"They would have more of an idea where to start," Ivan said. "I don't even know how to take the first steps. I want to find somewhere else for a headquarters. We're putting these people at risk."

"Jebediah Fallon volunteered to host us," Lady Alys said.

"Elise Fallon didn't," Ivan replied flatly.

"Oh," said Lady Alys. Then, "Ah."

Ivan drummed his fingertips on the table. "But then… what happens after that? What's the next step? How do I find allies? How do I get from being here with Delia, Duv, Dy, Illyan, you, and a bunch of old retirees – " he politely excluded his mother and her, ah, paramour from this last category – "to regaining control of the planet and throwing off the invaders? There's this whole host of steps between here and there, and I don't know what the first of them is."

His mother lifted a hand and placed it on his cheek, warm and dry and comforting. "Ivan, you need to slow down. If you try to move too quickly, you'll fall and not wind up moving at all. You don't need to see the entire picture yet. Until you know what resources you have available, you can't know what strategies you'll use, because strategy depends on logistics. You need information, and you need a first step. Moving our base will work as a starting point."

Ivan's forehead creased as he thought about this. He had to acknowledge the logic of it, and shifting bases was certainly something he could handle. Break the problem up into manageable pieces, an academy instructor had once told them of difficult 5-space math puzzles. Solve the pieces, then figure out how to reassemble the whole, and you'll have solved the problem.

The first piece of this puzzle had to be keeping them all alive. That meant better cover, and a sustainable base with a real cache of supplies, not mooching off the impoverished people of Maple Creek. "I asked Dy to drive around and buy some supplies locally," he was reminded to tell his mother. "I told him to talk to you to figure out what we need. Blankets, clothes, food, camping equipment…"

"I'll have a list," his mother said.

"Thanks," Ivan said, relieved. He paused, then added, "I can't help feeling like a traitor when this talk of the Imperium comes up. I don't feel I have any right to it, and our bloodiest history always seems to start with claimants to the Imperium. I –" He hesitated, then decided not to mention his dream to her. The images were still stark; the nerve disruptor in his hands, his mother, pregnant, terror in her face… Those images must be bitter for her now.

Ivan wondered, suddenly, how this must feel to Lady Alys. She'd lost her husband in the last war for control of the Imperium. Now her only son was in the center of the next one, risking everything, making a target of himself. He wished desperately that he hadn't given her such a hard time about marrying and giving her grandchildren. Although – come to that, he certainly didn't need more innocent hostages to fortune in this deadly game.

His mother waited a polite moment to see if he would finish his thought, but when he didn't, she spoke. "It's not as black and white as that. If Aral had lost the War of Vordarian's Pretendership, Count Vorkosigan and Simon would both have been called traitors. Count Piotr Vorkosigan was a traitor when he aided Ezar Vorbarra against Mad Emperor Yuri. I think it would take a very skewed perspective to call you a traitor for any part in this."

Ivan relaxed slightly into her maternal reassurance. This was almost certainly a mistake.

"But," she went on, her voice sharpening. "It would not matter if they did. If the inevitable result of all of this was that you'd be hanged as a traitor, I'd expect you to do it anyway, Ivan. Because we are Vor and it is your duty to do this, whatever history will call you for it. You are acting childish, and it is time to stop sulking."

Ivan felt slapped. His mother's sharp eyes, source of love and disapproval alike for so many years, were focused on him, and they yielded nothing to his shock. "It is time to grow up, Ivan," she told him firmly. "The last war was my generation's task. This one is yours. You are your father's heir, and he would not sit around dithering."

Ivan closed his mouth, which he hadn't quite realized was open. Then he opened it again. "Do stop behaving like a fish, Ivan," Lady Alys said, rising from her seat. "Take a few minutes to get control of yourself, then go do whatever it is men do in these moments. I will go speak to your friend Captain Vorinnis."

And she just left. Leaving Ivan sitting there. Like a fish.

#

Ivan didn't exactly know what it was that men did in these moments, so instead of going off, he spent a while studying the map Lady Alys had left behind her on the kitchen table. He and Miles had gone camping in these foothills, and flown lightflyers in the gorge, but he had never really taken the time to study the geography of the area.

He had been right in his earlier guess that the map was old. It was older than he was, in fact: over forty years old. He hoped the geography of the area hadn't changed too much in the last half-century. The mountains were more complex than they looked from overhead, with cave networks extending deep underneath them.

He remembered vividly the time he and Miles had found a cache of old guerrilla weapons in one of those caves, and Miles had insisted on trying the old hovertank. It had worked. Unfortunately. Miles had nearly brought the entire damn cave down on their heads, and had eventually managed to make it to Vorkosigan Surleau, where he knocked down a barn and provoked a stampede. One of Count Piotr's horses had been hurt in the mess. Ivan remembered the old man ranting on about the stupid horse, as if that mattered more than the barn or the fact that Miles had nearly buried Ivan alive in a landslide. He thought Elena Bothari had been there, too, though he couldn't remember clearly.

Ivan had never even gotten a turn to steer the damn thing.

Well, maybe he'd get another chance, hah. Which was a thought, come to it. If the old cache had gone unnoticed barely five miles from Vorkosigan Surleau, what were the odds that other supply points still had something usable? Anything left behind would be eighty years out of date, maybe, but that didn't mean it couldn't be useful. A modern stunner was sleeker and more power-efficient, with a longer range, but you'd be unconscious just as much from an older model. And have a worse headache when you woke up.

Ivan ran a finger down the line of the Dendarii Gorge, contemplating it, but stopped with his finger partly down it. The Dendarii Gorge had been a fantastic base for the Resistance during the First Cetagandan War. The cave complexes went back miles, and he had heard stories of men leading Cetagandans on days-long pursuits deep underground, with three men taking out a group of twenty or thirty Cetagandan ghem-soldiers as they wandered lost around the passages.

He reflected now, however, that the Cetagandans likely remembered that as well. Why, after all, was he really sitting here staring at a map of the Dendarii Mountains? It wasn't that he'd thought through the best spot for a base and chosen this region. It was that… well, the Dendarii Mountains were where guerrillas fought Cetagandans, right? It was common knowledge. So why give the Cetagandans a starting point?

Ivan folded the map incorrectly, grimaced, tried again, gave up, and just mashed the fold lines into submission. He left the map threatening to flop back open again on the table and headed back to where he'd left Dyson.

Dy had finished repair of the unit, but was still closing it up. "Ivan," he greeted. "I just talked with Lady Alys. I'm going to go now, and plan on eating lunch somewhere along the way, wherever I can buy something without putting people out."

"Good idea," Ivan said. "Look, this is a bit of a long shot, but if you can find one, see if you can get a map cube. If not, we'll have to make a run into Hassadar to get one. I want recent information."

"I don't think any of these people are going to have a recent map cube, Ivan," Dy said dubiously. "Didn't Captain Illyan carry one around in Vorbarr Sultana? Does he still have it?"

"Uh." Ivan stopped to consider this. "I… don't know. I should ask him. Try anyway, though, just in case. It would be good to have two, anyway."

"Right-oh," said Dy willingly enough. "I'll come find you when I get back, to report on my success."

"Good luck," Ivan said, and left him there.

#

Duv and Delia were down by the river, talking quietly with each other. Ivan hesitated, unsure whether to intrude. He had seen a lot of couples in his day, and if he read the body language right, this couple was not particularly healthy right now. Delia sat facing the water, but her legs and shoulders were twisted slightly as if to deny Galeni even her full profile; she was staring out at the water as she spoke. Galeni was sitting facing her, leaning in a bit too much; his obvious desire to communicate was overbearing, and Ivan could see Delia closing off, read the lines of tension in her shoulders. Hell, he thought. Duv clearly needed to be interrupted for his own good, whether he knew it or not. As Ivan watched, Galeni moved a hand to touch Delia's shoulder, and she twitched slightly at the contact.

Okay, this was passing beyond uncertainty about approaching and into some kind of unpleasant emotional voyeurism. Ivan needed to announce himself, now. He started walking again, lifting a hand and calling loudly, "Duv! Delia!" Delia's head whipped around, her long blond hair snaking around her face like Medusa's, caught by the wind and the motion. Galeni just glanced up, more restrained, and waved a return greeting. Ivan made his way down the little slope to the river's bank.

"What's happened?" Galeni asked as Ivan closed the conversational gap. He looked alert and tense. Delia looked… oppressed and tense. Ivan suspected he looked tense, too. He forced a smile. From Duv's expression, it didn't help much. He stopped smiling.

"Um, nothing's wrong," Ivan said. "I've just been thinking."

"Good," Delia said, her voice slightly bitter. Galeni frowned at her. Delia set her jaw.

"About," Ivan went on firmly, overriding whatever squabble this was and refusing to be an object in it, "geography. Where'd you do your winter maneuvers training?"

Galeni had not been expecting this question. He stared at Ivan for a few seconds, trying, Ivan suspected, to decide what Ivan was thinking. "The Black Escarpment," he said at last. He did not ask why.

"I was thi– ah – trying to decide where would make a good base camp, and it was occurring to me that the Dendarii Mountains mostly seem good because of history. I was trying to decide whether there might be any areas on the South Continent that could work, and thinking of the Black Escarpment."

Duv's brow creased. "Is there any reason it needs to be mountains?" he asked. "There are coastal caves along some of the beaches down there. It might be more comfortable and give us easier access to local cities and towns."

"Oh." Ivan grimaced. "No, I guess there isn't any reason. I was just… still trapped in old patterns."

Duv shook his head. "It was a good thought," he said. "I don't know exactly where we'd look, down there. Do you know anyone who might be able to find us a site?"

"No," Ivan admitted. "It would have to be a goal for slightly longer-term. I just feel… strangely exposed up here. The Cetagandans have to be prepared for the fact that we're going to resist, and they've got to be looking to this area with more wariness than most. I just don't entirely trust them not to just start blowing up the mountain range if they know we're here and can't find us."

"That… is a vivid thought," Galeni said after a heartbeat's consideration. Ivan shrugged.

"I'll go," Delia put in unexpectedly.

Galeni whipped his head around to stare at her. "Like hell!"

Ivan was opening his mouth to say something similar (though a little less dramatic), but decided to let Galeni do his arguing.

"Why not?" Delia retorted. "I can do the job, I can take care of myself, and I'll be less threatening than a man. I've got some connections down there, from school. Is there something I need to stay here for?"

Her eyes were direct and challenging, and this last question was nearly a snarl. Galeni snarled right back. "You're acting ridiculous."

"Oh, well," Delia shot at him, "you know us Barrayaran women, with our ridiculous ideas! You should be used to it by now; you've been here long enough."

Ivan stood with his mouth open. This was not exactly the way this conversation was supposed to have gone.

"Don't you dare try that bullshit line on me," Galeni said, his voice rising alarmingly. "You know what I've given – what I feel about – about –"

"About us frail little flowers? You can go to hell, Duv!"

"Okay, stop!" Ivan bellowed. To his faint surprise, it worked. Duv and Delia both stopped mid-argument, turning to stare at him. He felt his inertia vanish in an instant. What the hell did he say now? Quick, they were building up to another exchange… "Delia, how would you get down there?"

It was a good question. Galeni looked faintly mollified by Ivan's challenge of Delia's assertion, and Delia looked startled and thoughtful. She considered the question for a minute, then said, "Commercial lightflyer. They haven't totally shut it down, though they're monitoring it. I'll go see Ekaterin's family. It will look natural enough."

Ivan chewed on his lower lip. Galeni tensed and relaxed in turns, coiled on the edge of some explosive action. "You do have a connection with the Vorkosigans," he pointed out. They might stop you."

"Right," Delia said. "So who would they be less likely to stop? Count Vorkosigan's retired armsmen? Duv? Illyan? You?"

It was unfortunately accurate. She went on with unerring accuracy. "It can't be a military officer. I have the best chance. You can move camp after I leave, and I'll check in with Martya when I have new information. That way, I won't be able to betray you."

"This is insane," Galeni put in.

Ivan shook his head. Delia flushed and opened her mouth, but Ivan stopped her with a raised hand. "Do it," he said. "Dy will drive you in to Hassadar, then come back here, and we'll leave as soon as he gets back. Figure out your story and what you'll need. You can leave in the morning. I don't want to stay here much past tonight."

"Ivan!" Galeni said.

Ivan turned to stare at him. "Do you have a problem with my decision, Duv?" he asked pointedly.

Galeni clearly had a lot of problems with Ivan's decision. He shifted his weight, clenched his hands, and worked his jaw for a very, very dangerous few seconds. Then he spat the word, "No," and turned, stalking away.

Delia watched him go. When she turned back to Ivan, her expression was grave. "Did you mean it?" she said.

"Yeah," Ivan sighed.

"I am the best candidate, you know."

"Yeah, I know," said Ivan. "That's why I'm letting you. But – seriously, Delia. Don't get caught."

She smiled fleetingly. "No," she agreed.

"And Delia? When you get back… you and Duv are going to need to deal with this, whatever it is. Try to use the space, okay?"

Delia's smile vanished, and she looked at Ivan for a few uncomfortable moments. Ivan wasn't entirely sure what it was that she saw. "You know," she said at last, "I sometimes have a very hard time telling what with you is show and what isn't."

Sometimes, Ivan reflected, he had the same problem.

#

Delia left the next morning. By midafternoon, the group was settled in a cave complex in the Dendarii gorge. It was there, apart from the everyday needs of everyday people, that they began to plan in earnest.

Chapter Text

No one was entirely sure how long it would take Delia to find a suitable base of operations, but Ivan didn't really expect to hear anything for a few weeks. Duv Galeni stalked around base camp for a few days, until Ivan grew thoroughly sick of him and sent him off to Hassadar to play ImpSec analyst on any news reports he could find. "You can stay with Martya," he'd told Galeni, "and let us know if Delia gets back." The man had grunted and left without further protest.

Their group was growing. Several young men had come in from local villages, Dy and Ivan had connected with a few soldiers who had been hiding quietly in Hassadar, and Lady Alys had known a few local officials who proved interesting points of contact. They checked in with Martya every few days, and the word from her was increasingly optimistic about the situation in Hassadar. People now talked about what Count and Countess Vorkosigan must be doing, out in greater galactic society. Someone had burned the words "Emperor Aral Lives!" into the stones of the main square, melting the rock to nearly a half-inch depth. The Cetagandans had ripped up the square and poured new concrete, but not before hundreds of people had seen it.

"We're too narrowly focused," Illyan said after one such report. "With all of this energy focusing on Hassadar, the rest of the planet is insulated from it, and it gives the Cetagandans too easy a target for reprisals. Intense nationalism here while the rest of the planet sits tensely lets them solve two problems at once for clamping down on it."

"Do we know that it is only happening here?" Lady Alys asked reasonably. "If they can effectively insulate Hassadar by cutting down on news channels, why not other cities, as well? Is it possible there are three score of other groups already doing what we are across the planet?"

"I don't think so," Illyan said after a contemplative pause. "They have yet to completely close down planetary travel. Word would spread between cities through the rare travelers that pass through. We would know. There may be a handful of other groups, but not dozens, and not, I suspect, spreading the exact message we are. Similar messages would begin to resonate; we'd see the distortion of our propaganda by what they were saying."

"So you think it's time to spread out," Ivan said, to be sure he understood. "Break off into a number of small groups and set up on the outskirts of different cities?"

"Yes," Illyan said.

"Okay, so maybe I'm showing my ignorance," Ivan said, "but if we're staying small, is there any reason we need to have the groups outside the cities? Can't we stay inside city walls, like Martya? It's going to be complicated trying to get food out to a number of small teams. Inside city walls, they're on the grid and can draw on supplies without exciting attention."

"For this, we could," Illyan said. "But this has to be only the first step in what we're doing. Eventually, questions of manpower and munitions storage are going to become critical, and basing those inside city limits increases our exposure."

"But there's a trade-off in time?" Ivan confirmed. "We can work more quickly if we just insert into the cities?"

"Yes," Illyan said cautiously. He looked on the edge of adding something. Ivan tried to wait him out, but Selig Welensky was a jittery sort, and moved to fill the brief silence.

"We might do both, in stages," he said. "If we placed a two-man team in each city, they could base themselves inside city limits for propaganda spreading and recruitment purposes, and explore for a site outside the city where they could effectively conceal a force."

Commander Welensky had been aboard the Prince Serg, and was injured in an engineering accident. Ivan got to know him during a long posting in Ops while he dealt with the long-term recuperation and rehabilitation from his damaged shoulder. When it became clear he would never return to ship duty, Welensky had opted out of the service after fifteen years in uniform. He was a Vorkosigan District man by birth, and had returned to Hassadar to teach at the district university. Ivan had found him there and sounded him out, and Welensky had been willing to leave his wife and two small daughters to come join them. His ship duty experience outweighed any other man of the party's, and while that was not yet terribly relevant, Ivan hoped it would eventually become so.

Also in the conversation was Georgios Telcova, a prominent local attorney with a substantial degree of political influence. He would not, he had told Lady Alys, leave the Hassadar area in the long term, but he possessed a doctorate in economics and a great deal of authority in the community, and had agreed to come to camp and talk with them while they determined strategies. When they moved on from Hassadar, Telcova would undoubtedly be a major part of the team they left behind.

Dy would normally have been in the conversation, but he was making the drive to Innistan, in the Vorinnis District, to look for General Vortala, whom rumor had it was hiding there. Ivan had heard his uncle call Vortala one of the shrewdest strategists of this generation, and wanted him on their side, if possible. Since Vortala had a well-known bias in favor of dealing with his own class, socially, Ivan had decided Dy should be the one to find and speak with him.

That meant Ivan was stuck here without any real support from his contemporaries, with Delia and Duv gone. He was the youngest man present by ten years, and it felt very odd to him to see the way the others closed down and gave him respectful attention when he spoke.

"Does anyone know yet how we're going to solve the communication problem, once we separate?" Ivan asked now. "I still think that should be our priority. There's no point trying to figure out where we'll be spending our nights if we're not going to be able to talk enough to coordinate our efforts."

"I think we will need to accept the risks of using a code on public channels," Telcova said. "Any illicit communications would be immensely suspect if they were detected. If we can find a sufficiently innocuous conduit for the messages, they should never look at them long enough to read a pattern."

"How often do we expect these messages would need to be passed?" asked Lady Alys, and something in her tone made Ivan look at her curiously.

"Simon?" he asked.

Illyan opened one hand in a judicious gesture. "If we were communicating from a central base, I would say not more than one or two a day to each satellite site. If we needed to bounce messages through other communication nodes, four or five. And of course, there would be days when considerably more might be needed."

"I was considering," Lady Alys said, "the long conversations I used to have with Countess Vorinnis regarding our children. We were very optimistic at that point regarding Ivan and dear Genevieve, and we would sometimes discuss them for hours. There are almost certainly hundreds of such frequent correspondents we could call upon for a purpose such as this."

"My god," Ivan breathed in sheer appreciation of the idea's… audacity. Miles, he suspected, would have cackled at it. "You want to tap the baba network?"

"If you must put it so coarsely," he mother said acerbically, "then yes, I suppose so."

"It's amazing," Ivan said. "Even the Cetagandans can't possibly have analysts who could listen to that many hours of gossip without going insane. It's built-in defense against counter-espionage."

His mother's expression was getting decidedly frosty, but Telcova looked as if he was trying not to laugh. Ivan decided not to twit his mother any further, and turned to look at Illyan, who had his abstracted look on. "Simon?" he asked. "Will it work?"

"I think it can be made to work," Illyan said, choosing his words carefully. "Though there are probably better options."

"A good solution now is better than an excellent solution in five weeks," Ivan said. "We'll do it. It's the only decent idea anyone's had, and we can't waste time. Simon, you and my mother work out the code. She knows the way women talk, you know the things we'll need to say. You should be able to work it out between you."

"Don't be impatient," Illyan said sharply. "We shouldn't take the first idea just because it's here. That's bad strategy, and bad precedent."

Welensky and Telcova exchanged glances. Ivan just said, "We're doing it, Simon. Work it out with my mother."

Illyan, clearly biting his tongue, nodded brusquely, and Lady Alys, apparently mollified, remained silent for the rest of the conversation.

They left the question of personnel distribution nebulous, again, pushing it off for a later meeting. Soon, Ivan knew, he was going to need to make some decisions there. He hated to flake off any of his supporters. They seemed a pitiably small lot.

The meeting broke up with disgruntled murmurings of "I think," and "But" and "You don't understand." Ivan decided he needed a run to cool down. On his way to the fringes of camp, however, his mother's voice caught him up. "Oh, Ivan, dear. Do you have a minute?"

He froze, recognizing the cadences of something dreadful about to arise. Oh, hell, he thought desperately and too late, I shouldn't have made that crack about Cetagandan analysts…

His mother caught up with him and tucked her hand smoothly into his elbow, guiding him away from the main body of the camp. Ivan's alarm increased. With some of his relatives (Miles, Mark), he'd have been half-suspicious they meant to kill him and dump his body. With his mother, he knew it was probably worse. Whatever she was going to tell him, she believed he was going to lose his composure and make an idiot of himself. Again.

She stopped around five minutes from the camp and turned to face him. Ivan braced himself.

His mother waited an uncharacteristic thoughtful moment before laying into him, her eyes not flashing nearly as much as he expected. "Ivan, dear," she began at last, "I hope you recognize that I intend to support you fully in this. I am your mother, but you are a man grown, and I would not dream of interfering in your decisions at this stage."

But, Ivan thought.

"However," his mother said instead, "I also hope that you respect me as a political advisor. I have been negotiating the complexities of Vor politics for decades. You, I am sure, will not demean my contribution."

There were several possible responses to this, but all of them were idiotic except one. "Ah, no, ma'am."

"Good." Lady Alys paused a moment, and it struck Ivan that she was steeling herself for whatever she was going to say. Oh, hell…

"Ivan," his mother said slowly, "I wonder if you have truly thought out the long-term ramifications of the approach that you and Commodore Galeni have adopted."

Ivan waited for her to elaborate, but she seemed to be waiting for him. Deadlock. After several long seconds, Ivan broke it with a tentative, "Long-term?"

Lady Alys sighed. "Ivan, the first Cetagandan invasion lasted twenty years. Commodore Galeni felt that the wisest and simplest way to unite the resistance was by calling on the historically significant allure of Imperial blood. It is a romantic notion, but has usually been successful, and I cannot fault his logic. However, it does create a complicated situation for us: without you, we have no Imperial heir. The longer we press this line of reasoning, the more the people begin to link the resistance and Imperial blood, and the more the old Vor begin to feel the resistance is legitimate only because of the Imperial link. If something should then happen to you, the repercussions could be crippling."

"Oh," Ivan said blankly. He tried to imagine the shape of this resistance in twenty years. He barely had hold of what it would be in twenty hours, and if experience had taught him anything in the last few days, it was that he was probably wrong in the short-term, too. Hell, he thought suddenly, in twenty years I'll be almost my mother's age.

"I understand," his mother went on, "that it is important to do what will work now, but there is no excuse for neglecting our long-term options and contingency planning. From a purely sociopolitical perspective, I need to advise that you find a way to marry and father an heir as quickly as possible. Even if the child is too young to fight, he can provide a symbol if you should fall."

His mother was avoiding the word 'die,' Ivan noted distantly. He couldn't really blame her. For his part, he was trying to avoid thinking about what she'd said.

"I am not saying this as your mother, Ivan," Lady Alys said, her voice brooking no argument. "I am saying this as your primary advisor in the political arena of this army you are building. "I strongly recommend this course to you. Consider it. I am going to get some water."

She reached up to cup his cheek briefly, and said, quietly, "Your father would be very proud of you, Ivan." She did not wait for a response before leaving. Ivan didn't try to offer one. She was giving him time to think before he made any decisions; he supposed he ought to take advantage of the respite.

He stood there for a moment, brooding on the long and sometimes bitter battles he and his mother had had through the years over Ivan's refusal to marry. She had not been above subterfuge and manipulation before. Finally think you've found a trick that will work, mother? he thought bitterly, and was instantly ashamed of himself for it. He rubbed his face and stared around the trees.

He'd intended to run when he came out here, he remembered belatedly, and promptly began moving. For the first minute of so, he didn't think about anything but the feet of his boots on the autumn ground, the bite in the air, the sting of leg and arm. He stretched into the physical motion and felt his body slowly unclench in response.

These mountains really were beautiful, he had to admit. Miles had loved them since they were boys together, and Ivan had always resented them in part just because they were Miles's place. Everywhere had seemed Miles's place at that time, and Ivan had shrunk back to fill the confines of his own skin. He fit well, there, he thought. But now Miles was away, and the space he had filled gaped, demanding something of Ivan. He didn't know if he could grow that large.

Today, though, he thought he could expand enough to encompass these mountains, at least. The trees were all shading to reds and golds, with the tall spires of the evergreens reaching for the sky. The world smelled of pine sap and of a promise of snow after dark – it came early on the slopes, and they'd had a dusting on the ground when they awoke two days ago. There might be more this time, Ivan thought. The peaks of the mountains stood as a spectacular backdrop to all the foliage, blue and gray and white against a blue sky. Ivan longed for a few days of slow-paced camping, with nothing but him and the sky and the ground and a campfire. And a full set of camping gear, of course.

He ran the path up to the stream and then paced it for perhaps a mile, circling back to the camp by a slightly less direct route. He hadn't checked his chrono before he started, but he thought it had been under twenty minutes and rather more than five kilometers; he was passably pleased with the effort.

There was an unfamiliar vehicle in the mouth of the cave complex, an old one-person hover cycle Ivan had never seen before. He frowned at it in passing, not sure where it had come from. He saw enough familiar faces to assure him that they weren't in any danger (yet, said a little voice), but he would feel better when he knew what was going on.

Sergeant Cox (extremely retired) was lecturing two young hillmen about the realities of war, realities that, if Ivan remembered correctly, Cox had learned fighting for an entirely different emperor, under Count Piotr in Mad Yuri's war. Ivan called out to him. "Cox, who brought the bike in?"

"Commodore Galeni, my lord!" Cox called gruffly. "Came in not five minutes ago."

Ivan perked up. "Did he have Delia with him?" It was, he realized, a stupid question: Galeni couldn't have brought anyone with him on that bike; it could barely carry one.

"No, my lord," Cox answered. "He came in all of a hurry, demanded to see you. Captain Illyan's in with him, now, over that way." He gestured to a passageway leading… somewhere. Ivan couldn't keep all of the passages straight yet. Something was in storage that way. Clothes?

Ivan nodded to Cox and spoke with a cheer he didn't feel. "Carry on."

They were storing medical supplies, food, and cooking equipment in this little alcove. Ivan had been close. Duv Galeni was sitting on a crate, glowering at Illyan, who was pacing. Illyan looked like he was barely holding in an outburst, so Ivan cut him off at the source with a quick, "Duv. What's happened?"

"Riots," Galeni answered succinctly. "I'm not entirely certain what set them off, though the pattern suggests to me that they started at a central point, radiating from a single conflict. The Cetagandans pushed back severely. There have been hundred of arrests, and reports of deaths. I don't know how many; I suspect rumor is exaggerating the situation."

Ivan could picture it; Hassadar, with troops of Cetagandans marching, firing with abandon. Hell, even if only stunners were used, there had probably been a few fatalities. Stunners were not a safe weapon, for all that they were theoretically non-lethal; all it took was a weak heart, a subtle neurological condition, or a precarious bit of ground to turn incapacitation into death.

He focused on the one part he could immediately process. "Are Martya and Dr. Borgos all right?"

"Yes," Galeni replied. "They… have moved houses for the time being."

Ivan's eyes narrowed. He looked at Illyan, who was now leaning against a stalagmite, his arms crossed. Simon was looking very Illyanesque, with the traces of a sardonic smile. "Where to?" Ivan asked the obvious question.

" Byerly Vorrutyer came to see them," Galeni answered steadily, watching Ivan.

"By –" Ivan broke off. "By Vorrutyer was out of the capital," he said, not making it a question.

"Yes," Galeni said. "He offered Martya and Enrique a new place to stay for a few days. He's in Hassadar – well, he came to ask Martya's help with something."

Ivan was getting heartily tired of this conversation already. "With what?" he snapped. "Spit it out, Duv."

"Dono and Olivia are dead," Galeni said, his voice flat and level. "And little Pierre with them."

Ivan felt his jaw lock. He had known it was probable, but the shock of confirmation still hit hard. It took him a minute to unwind the pain; it seemed to wrap his neck like a noose, closing off speech. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Galeni nodded once, simply, an acknowledgement of the apology and his own loss: sister-in-law, brother-in-law, nephew. "Dono and Olivia started a second son not long after Pierre was born," he said. "Dono… had some ideas about building up the line, establishing himself as a new patriarch to provide heirs for generations. They had the work done in Hassadar, at the Vaagen Institute, and there were some minor complications. The institute kept him there for supervision."

Ivan, appalled, could see too clearly where this was going. "Oh, hell, Duv –"

Galeni pushed on, relentless. "Byerly wants Martya's help with getting him out of the replicator – it's been just over eight months – and to a safe location. Martya and Enrique are staying with him while things calm down in Hassadar and they consider options."

"They're not going along with this?" Ivan was almost dancing, his instincts of fire for action. He flexed on his toes, one hand fisting. If By Vorrutyer got Martya killed on this errand, Ivan was going to break his face in. Possibly with something a lot less yielding than a fist. Olivia, dead -- Hell, why did that hit so much harder than other deaths had? He could see her in that white party dress she'd worn the night Dono was attacked. Maybe it was just disappointed hope: when the three other Koudelka girls had made it, he'd expected Olivia to pull through as well, somehow. He had a hard time thinking of the Koudelka girls without one of their number. It felt like… another in a long series of fundamental changes to his universe. Eventually, even here, he had to find his way to solid ground, right?

"I don't know," Galeni replied. "Martya is… distraught. Things were tense, these last few days. She hadn't decided yet. I counseled patience."

"I need to go talk to them," Ivan said suddenly, finding his action and his direction. He turned and started for the main cavern. Illyan pushed off from the rock against which he leaned to pursue, almost running.

"No!" Illyan said, catching up and taking Ivan's arm, forcing him to stop. They were in sight of the rest of the common area just inside the mouth of the cave, now, and Ivan could feel eyes on him. He turned to glare at Illyan. "You can't," Illyan gritted out, low-voiced, "go charging blindly into an alert hostile territory out of some… personal issue. You cannot risk yourself like that."

"The hell I can't," Ivan replied, heatedly. "You were ready to fight this whole damned war with me in the backseat. If I'm in charge, I'm in charge, and I say I am going."

"You are betraying the people who came out here to fight for you," Illyan replied, ignoring the stares of those same people, hearing, most likely, only half the conversation.

"Fuck you," Ivan said intelligently, and turned to Galeni. "Duv. Where is By Vorrutyer staying?"

Galeni, his face closed, glanced at Illyan, then back at Ivan. He took a moment before replying. "He has a flat in Burgher Place, on the corner of Park and Hyssop, my lord. Second floor."

"Right." Ivan turned to stalk towards open air.

"My lord?" Galeni's repetition of the title was deliberate, Ivan knew, and it stung. He felt like it was an attack of his judgment, a subtle way of backing Illyan up. It stung worse because he suspected it was deserved, but right now, he didn't much care. He needed to see By Vorrutyer, and to talk to Martya before she did anything stupid.

"What?" Ivan asked, trying not to snarl.

"It might be simpler if I went with you," Galeni said.

Ivan hesitated. It was… a good compromise. "The bike will only hold one person," he said.

"It will manage," Galeni replied.

Ivan did not look at Illyan. He didn't want to know what Illyan thought of this before deciding. "All right," he said. "But we leave now."

#

It was nearly a three-hour trip in to Hassadar, and they hit the city limits as the sky was starting to purple with approaching dark. Burgher Place was several miles from the downtown area, and outside of the heaviest Cetagandan control; Ivan and Duv slid along the streets without encountering any patrols and eased their way into a parking space along the side of Hyssop Avenue.

Parking was limited, and they had been forced to a spot nearly two blocks from the building where By was staying. Most people were already indoors for the night, but a few pedestrians still moved on the sidewalks. One pair of young men stopped abruptly when they saw Ivan: one of them pointed and said something to his friend. Galeni's jaw tightened, and he closed his hand on Ivan's elbow and pulled him down the side street. They circled the block to come at the flat from the other direction.

Ivan rang the bell four times before By Vorrutyer finally came to open it. The two men stared at each other for a moment without speaking. Finally, By, with a small smile, stepped back and bowed them Vorishly into the flat.

Byerly looked older, Ivan thought. He wondered how he looked to By. It had been over three weeks since his last shower, and he had been running. He probably smelled really, really bad. By looked like he was ready to go out drinking with a friend. A high-end friend. Ivan probably looked like he should be drinking from a bag. In an alley. Talking to a friend no one else could see.

"Byerly," Ivan said, claiming control of the conversation before By could start making him feel like more of an idiot. "I want to talk to Martya. Now."

"So forceful," By said, his voice dry. "She's in the shower. I shall offer you a turn when she's finished, I think. As a service to the rest of the resistance, you understand."

Ivan gritted his teeth and crossed deliberately to sit on By's immaculate sofa. He hoped he left a big, Ivan-shaped stain on the upholstery. "You're going to get her killed," he said. "Worse, captured. She knows things that can hurt all of the rest of us. You're being selfish and petty."

"Petty?" By asked, lowering himself to another seat and crossing his legs. "Truly, Ivan? And what is it that brought you here?"

Ivan flushed. He couldn't stop himself. Duv Galeni moved to sit on the edge of a wooden chair, poised to rise again. He was grave and silent. Ivan tried to push his way through it, saying, "I needed to see you." He was surprised, after the words came out, to discover that they were pretty near the truth. "I don't trust you, By. I have never trusted you. And I know that you held a position of trust in the Imperium, and I still don't trust you." He rose from the sofa to pace the room. "I needed to see you, By. Because if you're really here, and if you're... hell, I don't know. Are you with us?"

Byerly was watching him, his expression wary. "With 'us'?" he asked. "Or with you, Ivan?"

"With me." Ivan would not flinch from it, not here. "You know enough, I suppose. Emperor Aral is in exile. I will speak for him here. Do you have problems with that?"

"With you?" By asked after a moment. "No. I had to see you, too, of course. You understand that, I hope. Emperor Aral... well. We should deal in realities here."

It was the same damned By-speak, always, circuitous and weaving. You left not certain what he had even said, let alone how much of his speaking was truth. "Byerly. Are you with me?"

"What are the alternatives?" By asked ruefully. "I am no fan of the Cetagandans."

"Byerly," Ivan said again. "Are. You. With me?"

By paused here, at last, searching Ivan's face. "Do you want me to be?"

"I don't know." Ivan, exasperated, rubbed his face and dropped into an armchair.

"Good god, Ivan, do have a care. The furniture isn't mine, you know."

Ivan glowered at him. Byerly smiled.

After a moment, Ivan asked, "Did you ever get the fast-penta allergy ImpSec uses?" He saw Galeni shift, out of the corner of his eye.

Byerly just tilted his head. "No. They don't ask it of mere civilian analysts."

"Would you be willing to have one induced? For my protection?"

The silence after that question lasted a very long time. By rose and crossed to a liquor cabinet, pulling out a bottle and three glasses. He poured into one of them, and studied the glass, turning over the idea in his head. Galeni was very carefully not speaking, Ivan thought, fully aware that they lacked anything like the ability to induce a fast-penta allergy. Byerly was probably aware of at least that possibility. Ivan was not going to speak first, this time. He would wait By out regardless of how long it took.

Byerly sipped, then lowered his glass and poured into the other two. He carried all three back over to the seating area, placing the two untouched glasses on the coffee table and seating himself with the third. He studied Ivan. Ivan studied him right back.

"Yes," Byerly said.

"All right," Ivan said, absurdly gratified by the reply. A direct answer! From Byerly! "Are you with me?"

"Yes."

"Will you give up on this insane idea about the Vaagen Institute?"

Byerly looked pained. "Ivan," he said quietly, "he is all I have left of Dono."

Ivan swore. "Byerly, it's so damned dangerous I can't even begin to count the ways it could get fucked up."

"Ivan," Byerly said, "if you tell me not to, I won't. Please, don't tell me not to." It was there, the entreaty. He was too careful and controlled to let himself beg, but Ivan could see it in his eyes and his bearing.

Ivan gnawed on his lower lip. He heard the shower turn off, and was aware only then that the water had in fact been running upstairs. "Where's Dr. Borgos?" he asked belatedly.

"Ah," said Byerly. "In the shower."

"I thought you said – oh."

"Indeed." And suddenly, By laughed. "Good god, Ivan, the look on your face right now..."

Ivan glowered at him, but refrained from comment. Byerly called out, "Martya, Enrique. We have company."

Ivan claimed his glass and tried it dubiously. It proved to be an unexceptionable cognac. After a moment of silent contemplation of the drinks, Martya tumbled down the stairs, dressed in work trousers and a man's shirt. "Ivan!" she said, startled. Her expression was, well, glowing. Not for him, alas, and here came Dr. Borgos just behind her, looking faintly smug.

Seeing him, Ivan was reminded of the conversation they'd left in Dr. Borgos's living room. They had, just this morning, been talking about the problems of regular food supplies for small bases while they grew. "Dr. Borgos," he said, not even responding to Martya yet. "Isn't your lab near the Vaagen Institute?"

"It is in the same complex, yes," Borgos said, sounding faintly confused. "We do very different work there, of course."

By Vorrutyer had an eyebrow raised. Ivan took a deep breath. If you're going to hit, he told himself, hit hard, and multiply the targets. Leave them confused. "If we hit there in two days," he said, "how many butter bug colonies could we walk out with?"

Chapter Text

Ivan insisted that the entire group pull back out of Hassadar for the time being. The one thing most certain to blow everything up spectacularly for the group was to have one person get caught acting suspicious. For a few days, with the Cetagandans stirred up, they would be much more secure well outside city limits. When Ivan returned with the entire party, Illyan grudgingly approved of his decision to withdraw. He did not at all approve of the idea of the raids.

"What the hell are you thinking?" Illyan demanded to know as soon as he'd hauled Ivan off to a quiet corner to debrief him. "What possible benefit does this have for us? You'll be risking how many men, on this mission to go claim a baby who probably isn't actually in any danger and save a few hundred insects?"

"Simon," Ivan said, "I'm not doing this without thinking about it." He knew his impatience was coming through in his voice, and wished he could press it out as effectively as Gregor always had. "I had the idea that –"

"It's the damned kitten tree all over again," Illyan interrupted him. "I know you, Ivan. You see a little animal or a damsel in distress, and you cast yourself in the role of the hero. Remember what happened with the cat?"

"How the hell do you remember that?" Ivan returned, stung. "Damn it, Simon, why does it seem you only held onto the most irritating memories possible?"

"Because they're the ones that pissed me off!" Illyan said.

Ivan clenched his fists and forced down his seething anger. "Horseshit," he said. "I will bet you two months pay that you laughed your ass off when you heard that story."

Illyan deflated at this, his own anger lowering. He gave a soft, rueful smile. "Yes," he acknowledged. "Vorreedi's description of your expression was brilliant. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I got this image…" He shook his head.

Ivan blew out his breath. "Simon," he said, "we've got to start having these conversations better. You have to at least stop assuming my default position is idiot."

"Sometimes," Illyan said tightly, "that's hard to do. And you did that to yourself. You embraced the persona; don't blame us for not reversing quickly enough to suit you now."

For a dark, hot moment, Ivan had to resist the urge to take a swing at this man, who had for so long held the Empire in a type of terrified grip no less menacing for the subdued way he wielded it. He felt slapped, dismissed. This, he thought, must be the way men had felt when they stepped into lethal duels. He had heard this accusation before, heard it a thousand times over, and it never stopped stinging. Unfair; unjust; undeserved. "You would never have treated Gregor like this," he said instead, voice harsh with the effort of restraint. "If Miles were here, you'd never talk to him like this."

"They'd proved themselves capable of more," Illyan replied.

"And I haven't? Goddammit, Simon, I've been in the middle of more hot shit than just about anyone on this planet who isn't Miles. You know what I've done. You know what I can do. You just wish it were Miles here. Admit it to yourself, if not to me. You're pissed at me because I'm not Miles. I'm some cheap-ass knockoff version. You're pissed at the world, and the Cetagandans, and Miles for not being here, and yourself for not being what you once were, and you're dumping it all on me, and I'm not going to be your punching bag!"

He ran down, breathing heavily, glaring at Illyan, who had balled his own fists and dropped automatically into a fighting stance; Ivan wondered distantly just how physically threatening he might seem right now. Good, he thought savagely. Let it sink in.

Ivan wasn't sure what he would have done if Illyan hadn't backed down, then, but after a few very tense moments, Illyan exhaled and relaxed, rubbing at his face. Illyan had aged ten years in the last month, Ivan thought, and was reminded of his mother's comment about the First Cetagandan War. In twenty years, he thought, Illyan will be gone.

"I'm sorry," Illyan said after a long moment. "I know this has been hard on you. The habits of command are difficult to break."

Ivan nodded stiffly. "I know," he said. "And I know your situation with my mother makes it more complicated."

Illyan actually smiled at that, the expression brief and rueful. "Yes," he said. "It does that."

"Look –" Ivan stopped, trying to order his scattered frustrations into coherent thoughts. "Didn't you think about this when you said you'd be willing to have me in command, that first day with Duv?"

"I hadn't actually expected you to take on the responsibility," Illyan said frankly. "Given your background, I had assumed you'd take on the nominal responsibility, but defer to us in decision-making."

"Oh," Ivan said. He tried to decide whether to be upset about this.

"Ivan," Illyan said. "I read your performance reviews, in the Imperial Service. They all said the same thing: that you coasted, that you tried to do your job and keep your head down and avoid real responsibility. They thought you were capable of more, but would never reach for it. There's a reason you never drew ship duty, and it was right there in those confidential assessments. The consensus of your senior officers was that you wanted rank, but not responsibility. It would have been a long time before you rose any higher than captain, and that assessment is why. I expected you to stay true to form."

Ivan stood for a minute, absorbing this. He could feel the heat rising in his face, and thought Illyan must have seen him coloring; the older man's mouth twisted in sympathetic half-amusement. He gave Ivan the time he needed. "I'm taking on the responsibility," Ivan said finally. "I can't not do so, not in this."

"I see that now," Illyan said.

"So we need to figure out how to work together," Ivan said, putting aside Illyan's information about his performance reviews for now; come to that, he could not think of much that was less relevant to his life now. "Because we can't come to the brink of a fistfight every time you don't agree with me on something. I want your advice and your help. But I'm not going to defer to you in everything, and if you won't be able to deal with that, I need you to go with one of the groups I'm sending away from headquarters."

Illyan's bland face met this ultimatum, and he took it with all the appearance of polite interest. Ivan gave him the same time to absorb this that Illyan had given Ivan before. "I understand," Illyan said at last. "I may need to move on. Let us take a few days and see what – see how it goes."

Ivan nodded, feeling absurdly pleased.

"Now," Illyan said, matter-of-fact, "why don't you tell me why this raid isn't a stupid idea?"

#

It was a simple idea, at its core. The Cetagandans were making a statement with their actions in Hassadar: resistance will be met with force, those who rise up will be pressed down. They would meet it with a stronger message: you can try to control us, but you will fail. A strike now, while the Cetagandans were on alert, would tell the people that the Cetagandans could not actually suppress them. It would be a hope and a promise. We will not disappear.

"The Vaagen Institute is actually a near-perfect target from that perspective," Galeni said as they were discussing the plan later. "It is a high-profile government building, but is not significant enough strategically that the Cetagandans have real defenses on it. If we seed local gossip with the idea that a Count's heir was liberated from the institute, it becomes a major victory."

"And with just a very little more effort," Ivan said, "we turn it into an embarrassment. Not just one attack, but a series of four coordinated strikes. It exposes their vulnerability and makes us look like a larger force than we are. The Vaagen Institute is the top priority, but we will send a team to Dr. Borgos's lab and break into two other buildings to confuse the issue. Martya has some contacts in Hassadar who can fill out some break-and-enter teams. Their job will be to get into two target buildings and vandalize one office in each. They'll break into the comconsoles in they can, raid filing cabinets, and rifle through any documents they can find. If we can make an informed decision about which office, we will. Otherwise, they'll choose at random."

They had a good-sized crowd for this discussion: Simon Illyan and Lady Alys, Duv Galeni, Martya, Enrique, Commander Welensky, Byerly Vorrutyer, and Ivan himself. The crowd was a sort of leadership quorum, and more importantly, it was the team Ivan wanted in the field. Excepting, of course, his mother, who was there because she wanted to be there and she was his mother.

By Vorrutyer was being remarkably quiet, for By, listening to the analysis Galeni and Ivan had worked out on the trip back from Hassadar. Enrique kept murmuring agitated little asides to Martya, who kept shushing him. Illyan and Alys looked calm and contained. Welensky sat leaning slightly forward, his eyes alight.

"Our goal in the Vaagen Institute is simple," Galeni picked up the thread. "Our first priority is to do no damage to the facilities. If anyone's children are hurt, this becomes counterproductive. Second priority is to identify and claim the replicator containing the Vorrutyer child."

"Lord Vorrutyer," Byerly said with the air of a polite correction. "Lord Dono Clement Vorrutyer."

There was a brief silence after this interjection. "The replicator containing Lord Vorrutyer," Galeni said. "If possible, the team will also locate the materials necessary to service the replicator. We hope this will not be necessary, since the – since Lord Vorrutyer should be delivered by a doctor in Hassadar within an hour after the raids are finished. From there, Byerly Vorrutyer will take him to a safe location of his choosing and then return to meet up with our group here."

"You mentioned the consequences of any deaths in this raid," Illyan said into the brief silence that followed this. "Have you considered the possibility that the Cetagandans will damage the site and blame us?"

"I've considered the possibility that if anything goes wrong and we do end up causing damage, we might be able to claim the Cetagandans did it," Ivan answered, a bit ruefully. "But yes. I think they're unlikely to send anyone with that kind of authority to respond immediately."

"If they do?" Illyan's voice was sober.

"Then we live with the consequences of that," Ivan answered. "And we –"

"Hey," Martya interrupted him as if she hadn't heard him speaking. "Why don't we plant some kind of vid recorder there when we leave? To monitor the replicator banks. We can hope it doesn't catch anything, but if it does… there's got to be some value in propaganda like that, right?"

The men sat silently for a minute, processing this. It was Lady Alys who spoke, firmly. "Yes," she said. "There would be definite value in that."

"Can we get vid recorders?" Welensky asked. "We'd need built-in transmitters. Omni-directional, and they wouldn't need to be secured, I suppose. They'd need to be concealed at least crudely."

"That shouldn't be difficult," Galeni said.

Ivan glanced at Illyan. "Good?" he asked.

Illyan nodded. "Good," he said. Ivan flashed a grin at Martya, who grinned back smugly.

"All right," Ivan said, picking up the thread from Galeni. "The last leg of this will be Dr. Borgos's lab, where we want to obtain at least fifteen mature queens and the materials we'll need to start colonies. Martya?"

Martya took over confidently. "I think most of you know what the butter bugs are, but for those that don't, they're a genetically modified insect species capable of consuming any Earth-descended botanical matter and converting it into a completely balanced diet off of which humans can live indefinitely."

Welensky, the only one of the party who had not heard this before, it seemed, stared at her with his mouth open. Martya continued. "They're completely controlled and cannot produce new queens without human assistance, but can forage for their own food and maintain a colony indefinitely until the death of the queen. It takes around two months for a mature queen to build up a colony capable of supporting three men, and around the same amount of time for a new queen to grow to maturity. If we managed to get only ten queens, each supported by a minimum of ten workers, by mid-winter we could have separate stations for each colony, providing food for the men who were based there. Then we could start breeding new queens to expand our operation, indefinitely, if necessary. Food becomes free, and something that does not require any transportation."

"Provided the girls have a source of Earth-descended botanical matter to hand," put in Dr. Borgos anxiously.

Martya waved a hand. "Yeah. Provided that. Enrique's research lab is a ground-floor space in the Hassadar Institute of for Commercial Life Sciences. He's been renting the place for just over a year. He has a couple of experimental lines he wants to salvage from there, but we can also get several of the, er, classic model. If we weren't going to be hitting the Vaagen Institute as well, it would be easier to get the queens from the main plant outside the city, but there are benefits from this." She glanced at Dr. Borgos. "One of Enrique's experimental models will consume primarily Barrayaran-based plant matter and turn it into human-edible food. It's not perfect yet, but if we can find a way to use it, it could be invaluable on the South Continent."

By Vorrutyer pursed his lips in a silent whistle. Ivan exhaled slowly. "You finally did it, then?" he asked Dr. Borgos.

Dr. Borgos waggled his head from side to side. "I was coming very close," he said. "They are not yet stable, and require some tending of their diet. Toxins will build up if the girls are not supplemented with Earth-descended botanical matter in careful proportions. The bug butter will need to be tested regularly, and if the dinitropolycarbonate count grows too high, then the girls will be placed on a careful diet for a few days. They are picky eaters, my little girls, ha ha!"

He looked proud and awkward, a da sending his daughter off to her first dance with an untrusted lad. Ivan nodded gravely and tried not to roll his eyes. "Targets?" he asked Martya.

"There are travel boxes into which we can pack the queens and their support workers for transport," Martya said. "Enrique will need to be there to select the lines to rescue, but one they're packed, they should all fit in a single crate for transport. The real concern is going to be the chemical portion. Enrique's not sure how much of the hormone solute needed to render the queens fertile he has to hand in the lab, so he may need to mix more on the spot. The synthesis is around a twenty minute process, but we'll want to plan for thirty to be safe."

"That is a good deal of time in an operation like this," Galeni said. "We may not have the flexibility."

"Could we just get the equipment and chemicals, then do the mixing outside?" Welensky asked. "Safer and quicker."

"It would be… more difficult," Dr. Borgos said dubiously.

"Could we get the hormone solution from the main plant afterwards, if the mixing went wrong?" Ivan asked.

"Another raid?" Illyan interjected dryly. "They'll lock down that facility once they know what your target was here. Dr. Borgos and his project are too closely associated with the Vorkosigan family for them to discount his work once they know it's of interest to us."

Ivan grimaced. "Selig?" he asked. "This one's going to be your raid. Do you think you can spare the twenty minutes?"

Welensky looked startled, and took a moment to consider, forehead creasing. "I hadn't…no," he said at last. "We'll take the materials and go if there isn't enough of the hormone solution."

Dr. Borgos looked unhappy, but did not protest.

"I thought, somehow, that you would be leading, ah, the Great Butter Bug Caper," Illyan said to Ivan, his voice carefully neutral.

"Oh," Martya put in cheerily, "it's really the Next Great Butter Bug Caper. The Great Butter Bug Caper – the Sequel. Enrique did all this once already, with Mark on Escobar."

"How… reassuring." Illyan did not look reassured. "You aren't handling the bug raid yourself, Ivan?"

"No," Ivan said. "I'm staying right here. Not my area of expertise, and not the time to risk myself. Commander Welensky will take command of the raid on the lab, going with Martya and Dr. Borgos, and Commodore Galeni will go with Byerly to the Vaagen Institute. Simon, I want you there waiting with the aircar. I need someone with the authority to decide when it's time to leave men behind."

Illyan's eyes were very, very thoughtful. "There are times," he said after a moment, "when I am tolerably impressed by you, Ivan."

#

The planning took hours. Maps were produced, entry routes planned. They debated at length whether to have Dr. Borgos use his access code for the lab, but decided against it: keep them guessing who'd invaded, Illyan had said. It made sense.

Once the plans were all worked out, it took four days to prepare. They needed the omnidirectional broadcast vid cameras; they needed quick-dry adhesive; they needed some burglary tools about which Galeni knew entirely too much for Ivan's comfort. Martya needed to find her teams for the office building, and Illyan needed to decide on targets in those buildings.

Byerly was the busiest of them. He needed to talk to his doctor friend and make whatever arrangements he was making for fostering the child out. Ivan understood why none of them could go along, but he was uncomfortable letting Byerly out of his sight while this hung unresolved over them.

"What if he decides to sell us all out to the Cetagandans?" he asked Illyan one day, watching the empty ridge over which Byerly had just vanished.

"He won't," Illyan said simply.

"But how do you know, really?" Ivan had persisted.

"I trust By."

"One of these days, you'll need to tell me why."

But in the end, they'd finished all the preparations, loaded everyone into a "liberated" lift van (the aircar having been deemed too small for the project, which had collected another four participants for the Vaagen Institute raid) and left. Ivan watched them leave. It would be at least eight hours before he had any news, even if everything went perfectly.

His mother found him wandering around the camp in a glum mood two hours later. "Ivan, you cannot simply stalk about frightening the men until they return," she told him. "You need to go to bed. We'll have a busy day tomorrow."

Ivan had to smile at this rehash of so many scenes from his childhood. "I will, mother," he said. "I don't think I'd get much sleep just yet, though. Too much on my mind. I want to talk with you."

Lady Alys raised her eyebrows, but gestured to the base of a nearby tree. She lowered herself to sit on the carpet of red leaves that had already fallen, arranging her skirt. Ivan had wondered if his mother would change to trousers, as so many of the younger set did, now that she was out here. By now, he was fairly sure the answer was no. Somehow, she managed to make the ground beneath an autumn maple look like a formal setting. Ivan joined her, sitting cross-legged.

"What did you want to discuss, Ivan dear?" she asked him.

He took a second to steel himself. "Marriage," he said. "You were right; I've been short-sighted. Who would be best?"

Lady Alys looked faintly stunned. "Goodness, Ivan," she said. "So direct. I expected more talking around the notion, somehow."

"I don't know how I could expect to go courting under these circumstances," Ivan said. "It would have to be, you know. A practical thing. Political. Who would work?"

"There are a few possibilities," Lady Alys said thoughtfully. "I would need to speak with some of them, and with their fathers. An alliance with one of the conservative counts would serve you well; Vorkalloner has an unmarried daughter. She is young, but of marriageable age."

Ivan's stomach turned over, the reality of his decision sinking in. Oh, hell, he thought. This is going to be… repulsive. Him and a young woman, unknown to each other, meeting long enough for a quick awkward screw, then separating for mutual safety, trying again and again until they could safely be separated for a year or more, her bearing his child the old, hard way, off in some distant place, not knowing whether he would live to see it. The duty of a Vor woman, he thought bitterly, thoroughly disgusted with himself and the system. "That's fine," he said to cut off his own line of thinking. "Make contact, whatever you need to do. You have any resources you need, all right? Just… " He hesitated. "Make sure she's got some grit to her, all right? This…" He trailed off.

His mother's expression went briefly soft. "Ivan, dear," she said quietly, leaning to place a hand on his. "I do have some experience in this area. I know what you will need in a bride."

And she probably did. A war widow herself, Lady Alys could surely identify the best survivors. "All right," Ivan said. "When will you leave?"

"As soon as your friend Captain Vorinnis returns, I think," said Lady Alys. "I'll take him along with me, I think, unless you need him."

"No," Ivan said. "He'll be a good choice for you."

"Good," said his mother. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. "Go get some sleep, Ivan. Simon and his group will be back in less than five hours now."

Ivan closed his hand over hers and squeezed gently. "Yes, mother," he said dutifully. He rose, took a moment to brush off the seat of his trousers, and headed back to his bedroll.

It was less than three hours later that he was awakened by a young Hillman named Clive Durond. "Lord Ivan?" he said quietly. "Madame Galeni's come back. She's wanting to speak with you."

Chapter Text

"So, when the group got in, they found the note I left at Enrique's. Martya came to let me know how to find you, and I came back here while they did whatever they were doing. Ivan, what were they doing?"

Delia had a cup of coffee in her hands, but seemed content to just inhale the steam. It was bitterly cold in the cave. Illyan had suggested, and Ivan had agreed, that for this night, with the likelihood of Cetagandan patrols out in pursuit, they should keep from lighting anything more than a small cooking fire. At least on the South Continent they were headed towards summer, instead of winter.

"It's kind of a long story," Ivan told Delia apologetically. "Kidnapping and entomology, mostly. Did, ah – " Like a coward, he skewed away from asking if she'd been told about Dono and Olivia. They could handle all of that in the morning. He suspected he was not at his most tactful just then. "Did you find a spot?"

"Yes," Delia answered, looking tired but self-satisfied. "Ivan, it's perfect. I got a tip from a school friend of Martya's who lives near the coast down there. There are these caves in places that move down to underground grottos. A lot of those have fresh water in them, and there's one place where they've breached the boundary to an inland lava tube. The tube is over four meters across and nearly three miles long. There's no real settlement too nearby, and there are plenty of places where we could store vehicles in the sea caves. It's not perfect, but nowhere is. I think we can make it work."

"It sounds nearly perfect," Ivan said. "Delia, you did great. Do you have any ideas about how we can get everyone down there?"

As Delia ran through scenarios and methods of transport, Ivan listened with only half of his attention. She'd need to go through the list again, later, with Illyan and Galeni and the entire team, to discuss pros and cons. For now, Ivan absorbed the general thrust of her ideas and thought about the strike teams, which by now had already succeeded or failed in their missions, and would be on their way back or not. It was an odd thought, as if he was the one trapped inside Schroedinger's box, clawing at the walls. Was the resistance alive or dead?

On reasoned reflection, he thought perhaps Illyan had been right to argue against this. Now that his cards were in play, no matter how much he had been confident of success, he thought he had wagered too high on this hand. If the mission failed completely, he had lost Martya, Galeni, Illyan, Welensky, all on a single draw. Too late now, he told himself firmly. No second guessing. You made the best decision you knew how to make at the time. If they failed, he'd find a way to move forward.

Delia had come to the end of her report and accepted Ivan's distracted, "Good work. We'll discuss next steps when everyone gets back and has a chance to sleep. This evening, probably." Now, she had a look in her eyes that matched his, Ivan imagined. Distracted. She wasn't thinking about the caves, either.

"Ivan?" she asked after a moment. "How high risk is this mission? Martya wouldn't tell me anything about it, but... Duv's out there?"

"Yeah. Duv's leading one of the arms of the raid. I wouldn't have committed him to it if I thought it didn't have a good chance of success."

"How good?"

Ivan hesitated. "Of full success? Eighty, eighty-five percent. But even if some part fails, I don't think we're likely to lose anyone. Ninety percent plus says we get everyone back intact."

"Playing the odds, though, eventually they'll go against us."

"Yeah. They will. But it's the only game we have. Miles told me once that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. I think he got that from his father."

Delia smiled briefly. "He told me that, too. He used to just spout military aphorisms like that, didn't he? Any conversation with him was an accidental lesson in strategy or tactics."

Ivan felt himself stiffen at her words, and forced his shoulders to unclench, his voice to ease. "No 'used to,' Delia," he reminded her. "He's fine. They both are."

"Oh," Delia looked struck. "I just did it, didn't I? They're playing the reports everywhere down on the South Continent. It's just... sunk in to the bone down there. Everyone who talked about resisting talked about Count Vorkosigan in the list of those to avenge, not as a leader. Ivan... we may have a hard time down there convincing them of this new way of thinking."

Ivan paused, trying to decide whether to speak. Hell, he thought. "Delia, you're convinced, right?"

She didn't answer for a long moment, looking down at her knees. She had caught her lower lip between her teeth and was worrying at it. She avoided meeting his eyes.

"Delia?" Ivan persisted.

"Oh, Ivan," she said, and her tone was halfway to defeated. "I don't know anymore. It's this ideal, right? This dream of reality. Maybe it doesn't matter if we really believe it, like Winterfair wishes. The dream is the point."

"But—"

"Ivan, it's the entire Cetagandan Empire!" Delia replied. "They've been distracting themselves with little fights for generations, and now they've borne down on us: no distractions, no mercy. They sent a haut-governor. You know that the haut have weapons they've never given to the ghem. They can destroy us all, absolutely, with no compunction. Do you really think Aral Vorkosigan is out there, with some shattered Barrayaran force he cobbled together from bits and pieces, holding out against them? They sailed in here and destroyed our local forces in a day, Ivan. One day, and the planet was theirs. I'll fight, and I'll die, because I'm Barrayaran and I can't not fight, but I can't actually make myself believe in this – this fairytale."

She was breathing heavily by the time she finished, and Ivan was reeling. He felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the lack of a fire, now, as if his heart pumped mountain water instead of blood. Each heartbeat spread the chill a little more. He took a moment to regain his balance, his powers of speech. What could he say to that, after all? What was there to be said? What would Gregor have said? It didn't matter what the words were, he realized. Gregor was the Emperor, and a speaking in the Emperor's voice changed worlds. He longed for that kind of power, that authority, right now.

He tried to summon Gregor like a mantle to wrap around himself. He felt horribly inadequate, but he was all they had right now. He leaned forward to cover Delia's hand with his. She was staring at her knees again, but at his touch, she looked up, startled. "Delia. Aral Vorkosigan will not fail us, because he can't fail us. It's in his blood. He won at Komarr. He saved our fleet at Escobar. He carried the Empire for fifteen years, keeping it alive for Gregor. He will find a way, whatever that way is. And we owe it to him to keep hope and faith alive for him on the ground until he comes."

He poured all the certainty he fought to keep alive into his voice, willing the words to be true. Delia's eyes were wide as she stared at him. He didn't know what she saw there, but for an instant, her lips parted, and he saw in her eyes an odd shadow of the way women looked at Miles, sometimes. It passed on, and Delia pulled her eyes away, back to the mouth of the cave, where gray dawn had started to weaken the darkness. Her voice was very quiet. "I'll try."

#

Delia claimed a bedroll, but Ivan suspected she didn't get any sleep in those tense hours, waiting for the return of the strike team. Ivan didn't even bother with the pretense, leaving the cave to sit in the gloom of predawn and think about next steps.

Delia's doubt bothered him more than he liked to admit even to himself. That Delia could give into it was a dark, unpleasant thought, but it was grimmer to imagine an entire planet of people with that mindset, already giving up in their minds, even if they kept fighting, like dead men passing time before their burning. What kind of force could they make?

And – he forced himself to look at it squarely – what if they were right? Delia's scenario had chilled him. The Cetagandans had so easily subdued Barrayar itself; what hope did the rest of the fleet have, scattered in bits and pieces throughout the nexus? This time, he knew, there would be no withdrawal, no polite locutions about a "reconnaissance in force." This time, one side or the other would need to be destroyed. Could he really believe it would be the Cetagandans who would lose that fight for survival?

Yes. He could, because he had to. He fought to find that certainty, and, somewhat to his surprise, found it, anchoring him from the center of himself, tethering him to the world. This was his world, and the world of his father, of Aral Vorkosigan and Gregor Vorbarra, of Dorca the Just and Pierre le Sanguinnaire, of Voradar Tau, of Piotr Vorkosigan. Of Simon Illyan and Duv Galeni. Of his mother. It was Ivan's world, and it would by god be his children's world, too, because he would give it to them. What possible hope could the Cetagandans have, against a tradition like that?

The sky was lightening with each passing moment now, and Ivan turned and strode back into the cavern to the sleeping area. He lowered himself to a crouch and touched Sergeant Cox's shoulder. Cox, for all his advanced years, was awake in an instant, one hand snapping to grab Ivan's wrist. When he recognized Ivan, Cox grinned up at him. "Startled me, m'lord," he said. "M'apologies."

"Get everyone awake," Ivan told him. "I want everything we have here inventoried and ready to go. We're moving out as soon as we can get some vans out here."

Illyan and his company found them at it an hour later, taking the liberated lift van into the valley. A sentry had called the alert, but Ivan stayed in the cave, helping with the hauling of crates and sacks into the main area. When the company entered, he did a tense count, but all were accounted for except Byerly, whose stay in the city was part of the plan. Dr. Borgos was carrying a pallet of nesting crates, and cooing to them in a song-song tone. "Daddy is here, now, my precious little ones. Do not worry, you will soon have food and babies and sunlight. No more of the dark, nasty lab for you."

With a glad cry, Delia pushed away from the wall and flung herself at Galeni, who caught her up easily, crushing her to him and murmuring something in her ear. Delia pulled back slightly, then leaned in to kiss her husband. Ivan averted his eyes.

Illyan and Lady Alys were having their own, rather more restrained reunion: joined hands and meaningful looks. Ivan decided to let Duv and Delia have their moment and sidled instead over to Illyan. "Did everything go all right at the Vaagen Institute?"

"Yes," Illyan answered, pulling his eyes away from Lady Alys. "The raid was a success. Vorrutyer took the replicator with him when he vanished into the city. The Cetagandans hadn't responded yet when we left; I don't think an alarm even went up. They'll find out when the skeleton staff arrives tomorrow."

Ivan nodded grim satisfaction. "Good. I see that you got the butter bugs; were there any problems there?"

Martya, who had wandered into range of the conversation, was the one to answer. "Yes. There'd been a failure in one of the automated systems. The bugs weren't being fed. We only actually managed to rescue five queens; the others had all starved."

Ivan winced, feeling a bizarre burst of sympathy for the bugs. "Which lines?"

"Two of the Barrayaran mutation, three of the standard line. We'll still be able to use them, but it will take longer."

"Right." Ivan grimaced. "The office strikes went smoothly?"

"Yes," Illyan replied. "Ivan, why does our base look as if it was hit with an earthquake in our absence?" His voice was very mild, but Ivan thought he could hear the faint glimmer of amusement behind the words.

"Because we're moving out," Ivan said firmly. "It's time. We've hit here. Telcova can handle the fallout from this and make propaganda soup. We're moving on. We've been rooted here too long. Delia's back; she's found us a spot. What's the status on the Babaground Railroad?"

Galeni looked up from his embrace with Delia, a pained expression on his face. "Ivan, please tell me you aren't actually going to call it that."

"Do you have a better name?"

"Secured communication network?" Illyan suggested dryly.

"Nuptial Encryption Patterns," Galeni mused.

"Barrayaran Alternative Babble Algorithm," Dr. Borgos said diffidently.

"There!" Ivan said. "That one wins."

Galeni tried not to smile. Illyan rolled his eyes heavenward. "Okay," Ivan said. "So. What's the status of the BABA?"

"I would class it as partially complete," Illyan replied. "We have some of the more critical message types encoded. We will need to add more, but very basic communications are possible." He spoke cautiously, as he usually did when discussing eventualities. It was an interesting personality tic, a slight doubt in his own assessments that Ivan was starting to recognize.

"Good," Ivan said, "because we need it to go live pretty much immediately. Mother is leaving on a separate assignment as soon as Dy Vorinnis meets up with us again."

Illyan's forehead furrowed. "What kind of assignment?"

"A political one." Ivan met Illyan's eyes squarely. It wasn't exactly a challenge, he thought, and hoped Illyan wouldn't read it that way. It was… a reminder. A question.

A few heartbeats ticked past, and then Illyan nodded. "I understand," he said.

Ivan nodded very slightly at him, then glanced over at Delia, who had her fingers interwoven with Galeni's, not leaving his side. Whatever issues they'd had before leaving, separation and concern for one another seemed to have dulled their edge. Ivan didn't know whether the respite would last, but he was glad of it for now.

"Delia brought back some really unfortunate news about the state of the Cetagandan propaganda machine on South Continent," he told the group. "We may have an uphill battle there on the political front. My instinct is to try to make personal contact with as many prominent figures as possible, to make it clear that I'm there and fighting. Duv, Simon, your take?"

Illyan shook his head. "Not in the beginning," he said. "The South Continent is more distant from Vorbarr Sultana and the hardest ruthlessness of the Cetagandan invasion. There will be collaborators, and I think they're more likely there than they are here. It would be too great a risk until we know for sure that the men you're talking to will back you."

Galeni frowned in philosophic disagreement. "I am not convinced the South Continent will be more likely to produce collaborators. While they're more insulated from the most brutal portion of the invasion, the South Continent is historically and culturally more conservative. The death of the Emperor will have a great deal of power for them."

"Most of them are already convinced that Emperor Aral is dead," Ivan said. Galeni lifted an eyebrow, but did not otherwise comment on his word choice. "Delia's stories are... grim. If they don't believe there is an Emperor anymore, where do they fall? Do they risk war to fight off the Cetagandans, knowing it will probably be civil war afterwards?"

There was a brief silence after that, which, Ivan reflected, was probably an answer in itself.

"Regardless of my analysis of the relative likelihood of collaborators on the north or south continents," Galeni said after a quiet moment, "I agree with Simon that we cannot afford to risk Lord Ivan in meetings with people whose loyalty we're unsure of."

"Okay," Ivan said. "So, if we can't risk me in meetings with people we're unsure of, and we can't get the loyalty of the people without an Emperor, and I'm the only candidate people will be able to acknowledge and accept, how the hell do we get anywhere?"

Again, there was a long pause. Welensky opened his mouth, as if about to say something, then closed it again. Galeni looked grim. Illyan looked vague. Martya and Dr. Borgos mostly looked tired.

"Well," Delia said after a moment, her tone cautious. "What about some public appearances? A lot of low-influence people has to be roughly equivalent to one influential person, once the numbers get high enough. If we arrived en masse in a small town without much real garrison, gave a quick speech, and then decamped in a hurry, we could reach hundreds of people in a moment. Any collaborators would be outweighed by the masses of probably loyal people."

Galeni frowned at this. Illyan rubbed his jaw. "It goes against my instinct," he said. "After all of those years of guarding Gregor, the idea that a mob could be safer than a single individual feels inherently wrong. However, I'm used to circumstances where individuals could be thoroughly cleared before entering the Imperial presence, a luxury we don't have."

"It's an idea worth considering, certainly," Galeni agreed diplomatically.

Ivan looked at his mother, who made a little shooing gesture at him as if to say, Yes, yes, very good, now get on with it.

"All right," Ivan said, getting on with it. "We can expect By back here by noon, if all goes well, yes? Mother, you'll stay here with Telcova until Dy Vorinnis gets back. Simon –" He hesitated, looking at Illyan cautiously. "After our conversation a few days ago, Simon, would you prefer to stay here with my mother, or do you want to come along to South Continent with us?"

Illyan's eyes met Ivan's, and Ivan knew Illyan understood exactly his reference to their argument and the struggle for power and authority. "I'll come with you, I think. Lady Alys, I trust you will be along eventually?"

"Oh, yes," Lady Alys said, her voice firm in a certainty none of them could ever actually feel.

The meeting broke up on that note, and Ivan set Dr. Borgos and Martya to the task of constructing and seeding the first Resistance Bug Hutch, a process that seemed to involve a great deal of Martya sawing and hammering and a great deal of Dr. Borgos talking encouragingly to his bugs. "You will need to take care of each other, now," he said into the box, his hand scooping through the dozen-odd specimens chittering inside. "I am sure you can do it, my good girls. You will be so happy here, with the woods around. And you, my lovely, you make hundreds of beautiful babies. You shall be a mother of generations!"

Martya rolled her eyes at Ivan when he passed by in the middle of this. "You should have seen him in the lab," she said in an undertone. "Selig had to threaten to stun him to get him to give up on his idea about burning the dead ones with a few words for remembrance."

"I'm glad I sent Selig, then," Ivan said, not sure how else to respond. He paused briefly, then asked, "Is he... okay, do you think? I mean, we all joke about it, but I know how he feels about them. This has got to be a shock for him, and coming on top of all the others..."

"Yeah," Martya agreed. "It's hard. We're –" She broke off suddenly, and gave him a wavery smile. "I think it hits all of us in strange ways at strange times. I think Duv's been expecting me to lose it over Dono and Olivia, but... it's little things that hit harder. Like those stupid bugs. Or like... I was thinking the other day about this little bistro near the palace where I used to meet Mama for lunch sometimes. And the idea that the bistro was gone... I don't know how to put it. The idea that she and Da are gone hurts horribly, but the idea that the spots where those memories were made are just... vaporized. That is, I suppose, easier to understand, so harder to handle. I don't think the big blows can hurt me, anymore. I've been in pain so long that I can't process it anymore. Give me six months, and I'll cry then."

Ivan wanted to reach out to her, but sensed, somehow, that to do so would be a fatally wrong move. Instead, he said, "I'm glad you're surviving. We need you."

"I know." Martya smiled with more strength this time. "You men think you're so good at this, but without women to keep you in line, you'd be rushing off into guerrilla raids with your underwear on backwards. Go be a leader, Ivan. I'll deal with Enrique."

#

Noon came and went with no sign of By Vorrutyer. By two hours after noon, Ivan was getting antsy.

"Everything is packed," he told Illyan. "But I want By with me. When do you think we should give up and leave anyway?"

"An hour or two either way doesn't matter much," Illyan told him. "What will ambush you is a gradual slip in time that turns five minutes into five weeks, an hour or a day at a time. Choose a time and hold to it. The specifics don't matter, just the inflexibility."

"Two more hours," Ivan decided.

It was just over one hour later that the sentry spotted the float bike coming into the valley. By looked drawn and haggard as he came into the cave, and Ivan cut off his angry questions when he saw By's expression.

"What's happened?" he asked. "The baby?"

"No," By said. "Lord Vorrutyer's fine. But – it's all over the news, Ivan. They've just executed Count Vorhalas in Donosgrad."

#

Their plans to relocate were delayed for the moment, and By met with Galeni, Illyan, Ivan, and Lady Alys to tell them the story.

"It was a treason charge, as I understand the thing. Vorhalas's guards killed a pair of Cetagandan officers who'd come to arrest him and his wife. They caught them trying to leave the city the next day and brought them before the haut-governor, who offered clemency in exchange for some dramatic ritual of repentance and obeisance – very Cetagandan, full of empty meaning. Vorhalas refused the thing, and they sentenced him to death."

By shook his head. "Part of this is fact, some just rumor, but the Cetagandan story, for what we can credit that, is that they offered to spare his wife, but Countess Vorhalas insisted on sharing her husband's fate, so they were killed together by an injection of some sort of lethal toxin. The generally accepted rumor is that they told old Vorhalas they'd let his wife live if he drank some kind of suicide elixir instead of forcing the public execution, and he told them he would be damned to hell before he did anything to help them. 'Josephine is Vor,' he's reputed to have said. 'She will understand.'" By captured the cadences of Count Vorhalas's voice perfectly, Ivan thought remotely. He felt ill.

"Now, I haven't any idea how anyone could know the precise wording of his defiant speech in private to his Cetagandan captors," By noted, "but the rumor is certainly a colorful one. It's set Hassadar on fire."

"I can imagine," Illyan said, his eyes burning with some of that fire themselves. "If the Cetagandans have a cardinal sin as a people, it is surely hubris."

"I need to go to Donosgrad." Surprisingly, it was Lady Alys who spoke. Everyone turned to stare at her.

"Are you insane?" Ivan was the first to speak. "Mother, they just killed Count and Countess Vorhalas. They'd sentence you to slow death and wait for me to show up to try and save you."

"And if they catch me," Lady Alys said, "then I know you will refrain from being foolish and recollect that I, too, am Vor and my life is worth no more than that of anyone else on your team. But right now, in the aftermath of this, Donosgrad is where I need to be. I can pursue my separate goals there." Her tone brooked no argument. "Simon, will you come with me?"

Illyan looked to Ivan, who pressed his lips together for a long moment, then nodded. "I will," Illyan told Lady Alys.

"Then we'll all leave tomorrow morning," Ivan said, hating himself for letting this go. But his mother was right, and if he was going to use her, he needed to use her where she was at her best. "If Dyson isn't back by then, we'll send someone back for him."

No one slept well that night. An hour after dawn the next morning, they were all off on their separate paths.

Chapter Text

They had the rhythm of the thing fairly well defined by now. The lift van pulled into the town, and Ivan climbed out of the passenger seat. Martya was driving today, looking cool and efficient and intimidating in a safely female way. Ivan had bathed and groomed and changed into the clean Vorpatril House uniform he kept for these missions. Delia had managed to get it put together by a school friend of hers on less than four days' notice, a feat Ivan would never cease to consider miraculous. He had trimmed his hair, depilated his near-permanent beard stubble, and polished his boots. Walking into the town with Martya by his side, he knew he would grab the attention of everyone.

They had a ten-minute window for this trip. Ivan had memorized their shopping list, and started with a trip to the local café. "Two coffees," he said, placing a flimsy bill on the counter. The young woman behind the counter stared at his house uniform, but took the bill with automatic motions.

Martya offered her a smile, then turned to Ivan. "We really need to be moving out quickly, my lord," she said, her voice carefully pitched to reach all ears in the room.

"We'll have time," Ivan reassured her. This much of the conversation was scripted. They had it down fairly well by now, Ivan thought, and the conversations in the room took on a subtly different tone in response to their little show. "The Cetagandans don't have the place ground down yet. They'll take time to get here. We'll be gone in plenty of time."

He offered the counter girl one of his best smiles, and she stared back at him in stunned immobility. Clearly, the town of New Strangle Ridge was not used to the sudden arrival of the underground resistance. Ivan had to wonder, with some trepidation, what had happened to old Strangle Ridge. Miles, he suspected, would have just asked the girl, but Miles could manage that kind of question with more aplomb. He was more used to unsettling people.

Their coffees were delivered, and Ivan sipped his cautiously. Martya did not, instead looking around the room at diners who averted their eyes from her attention. "Ivan, we can't afford to waste time."

The trap was fairly baited. Ivan deposited his change in a little mug reading, "Leave your Mark?" with little flowers decorating it. He wondered if the barista was also the artist. "Good coffee," he told her, and, with that, he and Martya stepped into the street. "Two minutes?" he asked her quietly, sipping his coffee by the door. She nodded without speaking.

Ivan studied the general shop across the street. They needed pillows and some more first-aid kits. It was amazing how much more often people seemed to hurt themselves in idiotic ways when access to medical treatment was limited. Enrique should write a paper on it. It was obviously some kind of deeply ingrained anthropological imperative, and Enrique was equally obviously pining for some kind of research project. It was a bit out of his usual line, but Ivan was becoming more and more convinced as the Resistance built up momentum that there was not so much difference between insects and people after all, in their basest behaviors. And god knew people were at their basest in camp these days.

The coffee was gone. Ivan dropped his cup in the conveniently located disposal unit and started across the street. Martya, with her long stride, did not need to hurry to keep up. Ivan could feel the eyes on him, and wondered who would be the first to speak.

It was a man a few years older than Ivan, who stepped off the sidewalk and started towards Ivan and Martya. Martya's hand went to her jacket, and Ivan touched her arm as if to quell her. It was a dance, by now, a ritual of making the right motions to convince the crowd. "Good morning," he told the man pleasantly.

"You're not from here," the man said, getting right to the meat of the issue.

"No," Ivan agreed. "I'm not. You are, I take it."

"Yes. Are you trying to bring danger here?"

Ivan paused, considering the man. "No," he said. "I'm trying to bring pride and honor. The danger may follow them."

A crowd was definitely gathering; Ivan was not keeping his voice quiet. He could hear the rising and falling sounds as the low-voiced conversations swam in and out of sync with one another, like the wind in the mountains.

The man hadn't expected this response. "Who are you?" he asked the real question.

Ivan sketched a shallow bow. "Lord Ivan Vorpatril."

"Ivan Vorpatril is dead."

"I've heard that rumor, too," Ivan said easily. "I'm not convinced, personally." Beside him, Martya grinned. Ivan smiled over at her. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm being rude. This is my associate, Martya Koudelka. We're just here to do a little shopping. But," he let his voice harden, turning back to the self-appointed spokesman, "I imagine the fight will follow us. The fight will follow everyone, eventually."

"Lord Ivan!" The voice that called out from the crowd was familiar, though Ivan couldn't place it. He swung to stare off to his right, and Martya's hand went again for her stunner. Ivan did not stop her this time.

"Who--?"

The question was answered before he could get it out as a hulking young man shouldered to the front of the crowd. He wore an academy cadet's undress uniform, battered and stained. He was grinning as he shoved forward; without needing to think, Martya stepped between him and Ivan, her stunner drawn.

The young man drew up short, opening his hands and displaying them non-threateningly. "Lord Ivan," he said, "they said you were killed!"

"I heard that, y—" Between one word and the next, recognition slotted into place, and Ivan stopped mid-sentence. "Martin?" he said, hearing his disbelief in his own voice. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Martin Kosti grinned at him, and Ivan felt his own grin rising in an answer. They had never been close, but in this moment and this unfamiliar place, seeing his cousin's former driver felt like meeting an old friend, believed dead for years. Ivan stepped past Martya, crossing the distance to Martin, and caught him up in a bear hug, which Martin returned. "Martin! My god." He sobered abruptly, giving himself a little distance. "I'm sorry about your mother. Is your brother…?" he trailed off.

Martin shook his head. "No. My sisters are all right; they weren't in the capital. I made a call to Georgia, first day I got down, and she told me they're all in touch."

"What the hell are you doing here, of all places?"

"I could ask the same, I think, my lord!" Martin had changed, Ivan reflected. It had been three years or so since he'd last seen the boy – the man, now. He had broadened across the shoulder, and he stood slightly taller, without the self-conscious stiffness of adolescent pride. He filled his skin better, a man grown now, with three years of academy training under his belt.

"I'm just picking up some supplies," Ivan said, waving a hand vaguely at the general store. "We… move around a lot." He became aware, belatedly, that their ten minute window was ticking by alarmingly fast. Martya was shifting her weight from foot to foot, looking on-edge. This was not part of the scripted plan. "But you! Why are you down here? I thought –" He broke off. He had no idea was the status of the service academy was. He imagined it had been captured or destroyed, but he did not know how many might be alive or escaped from that.

"We were on maneuvers in the mountains down here, my lord," Martin explained. "When the Seedies moved in, my CO said scatter, and we scattered. Some of us," he gave a rueful half-shrug, "were dumb enough to try scattering right off the mountain. I dunno how many of us made it out, but it took me three days to get down here. I was in pretty bad shape by then, but New Strangle Ridge took me in. These are good people, here."

Ivan could hear the question in his voice. What are you going to get them into? "I can believe it," Ivan said. "They seem like good people. We're really just here for some supplies – Martya, do you think you could…" He flicked his eyes do the general store. Martya hesitated, clearly torn. Her eyes went weighed Ivan, Martin, the general store, and the parked lift van with its hidden reinforcements in the back. Finally, she nodded.

"I'll be right back," she promised, and Ivan trusted he was the only one who read the undertones of, Surely you can avoid doing anything stupid for three minutes or so?

"Good," was all he said. Martya paused again, then hurried into the store. Ivan turned back to Martin. "You'll come with us?" he said.

"Of course!" Martin said, his shoulders straightening. Hell, Ivan mused. Martin might be even better than Martya, for impressive accompaniment on these runs.

"Good," he said. "You have anything you need to get? We'll be leaving as soon as Martya finishes up inside." Automatically, he scanned the sky. They had calculated the window before the Cetagandans could respond as at least eighteen minutes long, depending on how quickly they got word. It had been barely eight. The sky was clear.

"I've only got what you see," Martin said. "I can leave right now. I, uh, think word will get around."

That was undeniably true, Ivan had to acknowledge. "Okay. We'll leave as soon as Martya finishes the shopping run." Ivan looked back at the original spokesman, who was standing awkwardly a few feet away. He had been rather deflated by Martin's arrival on the scene, Ivan judged. "There's a good chance that someone here let the Seedies know we came," he said, borrowing Martin's word for the Cetagandans. He rather liked it. "If so, they'll be here soon. Don't try any heroics. Don't get yourselves killed. We'll need all our loyal Barrayarans in the months and years ahead. Don't give up faith. Emperor Aral is out there, and he will rule on Barrayar."

The man wavered on the line between hope and incredulity. Ivan knew his struggle from the inside out. "How do you know?" he asked at last.

Ivan just shook his head in a way he hoped expressed security concerns prevent me from divulging that information and not I'm making a wild-assed guess based on my own desperate hope and need to have it be true. Martya came out of the shop, two bag in one hand, leaving one hand free to draw her stunner if needed. Ivan offered the unknown man his hand. "Lord Ivan Vorpatril," he said, meeting the man's eyes steadily.

The man hesitated. "Lionel Festi." He took Ivan's hand. They shook, eyes locked.

"Thank you, Lionel Festi," Ivan said. For what, he did not say. It didn't really matter, he knew. Say the right-sounding words, and people would respond. "Martin, Martya, let's go."

Five minutes later, they were several miles away from New Strangle Ridge, heading north with the shadow of the Black Escarpment looming on their right.

#

The two men who rode in the back of the lift van with Selig Welensky were both around Martin's age, and briefed him thoroughly about procedures and the current situation on the drive back to camp. The Resistance had been gaining force in the month since they'd relocated to South Continent, and their network now laced its way through eight cities. Ivan had no idea of exact numbers, but their best estimate was that his word could summon up around three hundred Barrayarans, of whom three quarters were still in their cities and towns, living quiet lives and waiting for that word.

Ivan didn't intend to risk them all for anything less than dramatic results, however, so for now he waited and let their numbers increase. Several small teams were in position to gain information. Two weeks ago, a small force in Innistan had broken up the arrest of Lord Vortugalov, whose father was in hiding somewhere in the north. Five Cetagandan agents had been stunned, and the commander of the arresting force was left tied to a flagpole in the shopping district. Lord Vortugalov was now tied into the network, and had pledged his loyalty to Ivan. He was the first of the counts and counts' heirs to do so.

This was the fourth town they has visited in this way, spreading the word that Ivan, at least, was still on the ground and fighting. The men they had in the cities had reported that they were having an effect: news from the outlying towns drifted inwards: Lord Ivan is alive. We are resisting.

It was a start.

Duv Galeni had been working with Dr. Jourdan, a mathematics professor from the Vortashpula District University, on a decryption algorithm for the main Cetagandan communication cipher, and from what Galeni reported, they were making progress.

They parked the lift van in a cave and climbed out. With practiced motions, the team fanned out around the cave, waiting with old-fashioned unpowered binoculars for a half hour. The skies were clear, but they had established this protocol to guard against overconfidence, and Ivan held to it rigidly. The minutes ticked by, and no one appeared. Finally, Martya stood up. Ivan counted off the sixty seconds with her, and had only reached fifty-four before she waved her arm in an all clear signal. The rest of the team emerged from their concealment.

They were still four miles from camp, a distance Galeni had selected as the minimum safety margin for vehicle storage. They walked back along the margin between inland and coast, borrowing the scant cover of the local scrub. Most of it was Barrayar-native, and Ivan was intensely grateful he didn't have any of the common allergies to the native flora, since he was spending a great deal of time wading in it these days.

They were met at camp by Delia. "How'd it go?" she asked anxiously.

"Ask him," Martya said drily, flicking her eyes to Martin Kosti, following at Welensky's elbow.

Delia's eyes were alight with curiosity. "I know you, don't I?" she asked Martin.

"Yeah," Ivan said. "You two have met. Martin Kosti, Delia Galeni. Delia, Martin."

"Martin Kosti?" Delia's eyes were wide. "You were with Miles, right? A few years ago?"

Martin nodded. "Is he…?"

Delia shook her head. "No one knows. We –"

"We believe he's well and healthy on the far side of the wormhole," Ivan said firmly. "Delia, we'll update everyone after lunch. Any news here?"

"Your mother's on her way in," Delia said.

Ivan, who had been starting in towards the interior caverns, halted at this. "My mother?" he repeated. "Is – well, I assume Simon's with her?" Delia nodded. "Who else is she bringing?"

Delia smiled briefly. "General Vortala. And Dyson Vorinnis, and a few others, from what I gather. She's been busy, Ivan."

"When is she getting in?"

"Tonight."

Ivan swore. Delia blinked at him. "Goodness, Ivan."

"Is there any way we can scare up a real meal for tonight?" Ivan asked. "Meat, vegetables, something hearty and healthy?"

"I'll… see what we can do," Delia told him cautiously.

"Good," Ivan said. "I'll show Martin around. Martya, drop the bags off and find Galeni. Let him know we've met up with Martin." To Martin, he added, "Duv Galeni – did you know him? He was the Chief of Komarran Affairs for ImpSec, and is a friend of Miles."

"I… know who he is, of course, my lord, but I don't really know him. Saw him at Vorkosigan House a few times, I think, and sometimes when I was driving Lord Vorkosigan about."

"Oh, right. Of course." Ivan grimaced. "Well, he's sort of the chief of my general staff here, my top military advisor. He'll want to talk with you, figure out what skills you've got. He'll probably assign you of one of the experienced undercover men for really basic training, and send you on to another site in a week or so. We don't want to get too concentrated here."

As they talked, they walked, moving through the main cave area. When Ivan had thought of caves, he had thought of the deep crevices and pitted rock of the Dendarii Mountains: this open, airy system had been a shock to him. It was more of an enormous outdoor pavilion than anything else, with rock above and pillars of supporting stone. There were open arches on three sides, and only the very back of the cave was enclosed on three sides. It was beautiful, better fitted for a vacation destination than a secret resistance outpost. Tropical fruit grew freely in inland groves. The water, with the reddish tinge of Barrayaran sea life, sparkled in the sunlight.

Martin was drinking it all in, though he was not the same exuberant youth Ivan remembered. He was more contained, with the control and discipline the academy drilled into their cadets. He moved with a long-legged confidence through the camp, only his eyes darting around.

"Most people sleep in the open area, unless the weather gets bad," Ivan explained. "You'll be issued a bedroll; just roll it up when you're done in the morning. The smell can get rough when we're all cooped up when the storms hit, and we've got contingency plans for when the water gets too high; General Galeni will have someone go over those with you." Ivan had insisted on the promotion, telling Galeni that no one else outranked him in Ivan's eyes, and his borrowed Imperial power ought at least to stretch this far. Galeni hadn't been exactly happy about it, but Ivan thought Delia was pleased in a quiet way.

When Galeni caught up with them, Ivan turned Martin over to him, saying only, "The mission went as planned, other than running into Martin. They're scared there, and not sure whether we'll be good for them, in the long run. But they'll remember us, and they haven't given in yet."

Galeni just nodded, and Ivan moved off in search of Delia again. He found her with Martya, unloading their purchases and talking quietly. When Delia spotted him, she touched Martya's arm, and the two women stopped talking. Martya turned to look at Ivan.

"Hi," Ivan said, feeling painfully like an interloper. "Sorry to interrupt, but Delia, I wanted to talk to you about my mother's message."

"I wanted to talk to you, too," Delia said, rising from her seat and giving Martya an apologetic smile.

Martya shrugged back, saying, inexplicably, "Good luck." Ivan frowned at her, but Delia had a hand on his arm and was guiding him away before he could try to puzzle it out.

"Do you want to go first?" Ivan asked.

"No," Delia said. "What did you want to know?"

Ivan frowned at her, now, feeling very… handled. But he answered. "I just wanted to know what information she sent about who she's bringing. Illyan, we said, and General Vortala, Dy Vorinnis, and some others? What others?"

"She didn't say," Delia said. "It's possible she didn't have the language for it; we had code names for Illyan, Vortala, and Vorinnis, since they were all, um, people of interest. She said there were seven people in total, and they'd be here tonight. Duv said we should send someone to meet them in town, to show them where we are." She paused, her forehead creasing as she looked at Ivan's face. "Why, Ivan? Is it important?"

"Yeah," Ivan said, brooding. Hell. It had been nearly six weeks. Had his mother found someone in that time? Seven people made his mother, Illyan, Dy, Vortala, and three others. A wife for him? Her father? Someone else? This was going to gnaw at him until she arrived, he knew. He tried to push it out of his mind with extremely limited success.

"Well," Delia said carefully, "at least you won't have too long to wait."

"Right." Ivan managed a smile, forcing his features, if not his mind, away from their abstraction. "Sorry. It's not that long. What did you want to talk to me about?"

Delia looked out at the water, avoiding his eyes. Ivan's forehead wrinkled, and he opened his mouth to press, but managed to close it without his foot wedged inside, for once. He could read, now, the tension in her shoulders; she didn't look well.

Finally, drawing a deep breath, Delia turned back to look him squarely in the eyes. "Ivan, I'm pregnant. Duv and I decided not to wait for all of this to settle before trying, and it's been – well, it's been enough time. Martya got a test patch for me. Nothing's certain at this point, obviously, but… well."

Ivan stared at her. "Oh," he said inadequately.

"Duv knows, of course. And Martya. I haven't told anyone else, but it's obviously… going to affect things for you. I didn't know – Duv wanted to ask you first, and I told him – well. I didn't want to. I know the fight is important, and you don't have that many people, but – Ivan, there are only so many chances a person had in life. I couldn't – I didn't want to wait. Not knowing."

Ivan nodded, absorbing this. "I – Delia, I'm not upset," he said, belatedly realizing from whence sprang her nervous pattern. "Your life, your body, your choices. And Duv's, of course. I won't say I won't be sorry when I'm planning missions I can't send you on, but – god knows we'll need people of the caliber any kid of yours and Duv's will be, down the line. However things go. We always need good people, I mean." Ivan was babbling, too, he realized, and shut off his stream of words. "I support you," he said instead, simple and to the point. "What do you need from me?"

"Nothing, just now," Delia said. "As things move along… well. We'll see then, I guess. Duv is still adjusting, but I know he doesn't plan to change anything on his side, and we both know we may need to be separated at times. We're both still with you."

"I never doubted it," Ivan said firmly. "Congratulations."

It was odd, he mused later on, that even in the midst of his own concerns about the need for an heir, that he'd never considered the possibility that the women on his team might want children, as well. Besides Delia and Martya, there were a dozen other women of the right age who were important in their organizational hierarchy. Would any of them be stepping out for periods of time? They'd grown so used to the uterine replicator in the last few decades that the realities of childbirth and its dangers had become very distant to most upper-class Barrayarans.

Delia's news had, at least, the effect of distracting him somewhat from his mother's impending arrival. He found a moment to give Galeni a warm handclasp and a meaningful look; Galeni returned the latter warily, but gave a cautious nod of thanks. Ivan didn't venture anything further in the press of camp.

They sent Martya to meet Lady Alys, as a face she would know and trust. Ivan didn't make everyone delay their meals, but he didn't eat himself, pacing the margins of the cave in the darkening gloom of the evening. Delia was casting covert glances his way, and Ivan suspected she thought he was upset about her news, but right now, he didn't have the energy to reassure her.

The sentry's cry alerted him to their arrival not long after full dark. Ivan whirled and strode back in to the firelit interior of the camp. He could see the tight knot of people approaching the camp. Martya walked in the lead, glancing back over her shoulder at some comment from behind her. He could see his mother in conversation with another woman, and Illyan at her shoulder. The four figures behind them, however, were half-hidden by the figures in front of them.

Ivan wanted, badly, to rush towards the group and shake his mother until she told him what was happening, but he suspected that would not make a good impression. Regardless of the other people with the group, General Vortala was supposedly with this group, and Ivan needed the general with him. So he clasped his hands behind his back and waiting. Galeni stepped up beside him, giving him an odd sideways look. "Expecting someone?" he asked in a dry sotto voce.

"I'm telling you, Duv," Ivan murmured back, "I have absolutely no idea."

Galeni lifted his eyebrows and looked back out at the group.

As they drew close enough, Lady Alys detached from the group to move forward and take Ivan's hands in hers. "Ivan, dear," she said in welcome. Ivan leaned forward to kiss her cheek.

"Mother," he said. "I'm glad to see you still well."

"And I you," she said. "I've brought visitors, dear. May I present to you General Takis Vortala."

Ivan stepped forward to take the older man's hand in a warm clasp. "General Vortala, sir," he said. "We are very glad to have you with us."

"I am glad to have found you, Lord Ivan," replied the general. He was a short man, with a build that reminded Ivan of his uncle's. How had Armsman Szabo described him that time, to Dono? Power in motion. "I hope I can be of some use here."

"I'm sure you can, sir."

"And this," Lady Alys continued, gesturing to the late middle-aged woman with whom she had been talking, "is Countess Sylvia Vorhalas Vorkalloner, and with her, her children: Lord Thomas and Lady Berenice Vorkalloner."

Ivan bowed automatically to the countess, murmuring the correct words, but his eyes went to the younger woman as she moved into the firelight. She met his eyes without flinching, and he read in her gaze a clear knowledge of the reason for her inclusion in the group.

Chapter Text

Lady Alys took firm control of the conversation, performing the introductions and settling everyone for drinks and a light, late meal. When Ivan corrected her introduction of "Commodore Galeni" with Galeni's new promotion to general, she raised her eyebrows and Vortala lowered his, studying Galeni thoughtfully. Within five minutes, the two military men had detached from the group to discuss their current forces and distributions.

Meanwhile, Lady Alys carried the conversation, asking leading questions about the state of affairs here on South Continent, speaking about the mood in Donosgrad, drawing out Countess Vorkalloner and Lord Thomas on various issues. Lord Thomas, Ivan judged, was significantly younger than Ivan was, and spoke forcefully to cover his real sense of being out of his depth. Ivan suspected he'd get over it quickly, and to his credit, the young man's understanding seemed good, even if his experience was limited. Lady Berenice mostly sat and listened, her expression closed and her eyes alert.

When Ivan judged the politics had gone on for long enough, he asked, his voice as neutral as he could make it, "Lady Berenice, would you care for a walk?"

Martya rolled her eyes at him; her thoughts were entirely plain in her familiar exasperation. Lady Berenice considered him, her dark eyes unreadable. "If you wish," she said after a moment, and rose from her place by the fire. Her brother rose beside her, but she turned toward him. She caught his hands in hers and leaned forward to whisper something in his ear. His face was grim as he bent to hear her words, but he nodded and released her hands.

Berenice turned to Ivan. Ivan offered her his arm, and she placed her hand on it gently. Ivan could feel all eyes on them as they walked from the camp.

He had no idea how to start this conversation, so he let the walk stretch in silence. Lady Berenice was on the small side for a woman, and he shortened his stride a bit for her, but she seemed content to walk without speaking.

Only one of the moons was up now, high and full in the sky. The other would rise as a waning crescent a few hours before dawn. The moonlight on the water seemed almost mockingly romantic, and the water whispered in and out against the sand as they walked silently down the shore.

Lady Berenice was walking nearer the water, and kept her eyes directed towards the ocean, giving Ivan freedom to look at her without being rude. He wasn't sure whether it was deliberate on her part. She was certainly plainer than most of the Vor women he'd been accustomed to see in the capital, a small, thin woman with a very round face. Her brown hair was straight and uninteresting, tied back in a simple horsetail. Her eyes, he remembered, were dark, though he could not judge their color by firelight or moonlight.

She walked with all the correct formality his mother could have mustered, even here on loose sand. Her posture was absolutely precise, back straight, shoulders back. Her hand rested on his arm lightly, barely touching him, though she did not pull away from the contact, either. She was simply contained within herself, giving the illusion of needing support without actually using it. Her clothes were simple, but so were everyone's, here. Protective coloration was de rigeur, under the present circumstances.

The silence was comfortable, but the longer Ivan let it stretch, the more impossible it seemed to break. How long had they been walking? They were surely far enough for privacy, now.

Lady Berenice was the one who broke the silence at last. "Lord Ivan," she said, "how much longer do you intend to wait? I've had a long walk already this evening."

Ivan felt abruptly like a fool, and stopped where he was. "My apologies, Lady Berenice," he said, turning to face her. "I wasn't thinking. We should stop here, and talk. Would you like to sit?"

She glanced around at the bare sand, then looked up at him with a quirk of her eyebrows. Ivan smiled a bit awkwardly. "Not exactly the height of formality, I know," he said in apology, and gestured to the sand underfoot. Berenice lowered herself smoothly, tucking her skirts around her calves as she knelt in the sand. Ivan lowered himself much less gracefully.

"You, uh, do that very well," he offered. "How do you do that, with always seeming so natural? My mother does the same thing, and it's always baffled me."

"I was a student at Madame Vorbataille's Academy for Young Girls for four years," Berenice replied, offering him a polite smile. "We practiced everything there. I suspect it's similar to the way men train in whatever combat you learn. You cannot prepare for every possible situation, so you practice the basic movements until they come to you when you need them. The same basic actions, applied to different needs."

"Oh." Ivan tried to think of a way to reply to this, but couldn't quite formulate an answer. It made sense, he supposed, that Vorkalloner's daughter – and Vorhalas's granddaughter – would have attended a finishing school, conservative old Vor families that they were. Finishing school. God.

He had no idea how to talk with this woman. He had never realized just how much the structure of balls served to smooth the rough edges of social intercourse. He could have complimented her dress, her jewelry, her hair; he could have commented on the other dancers, the decorations, the event that motivated the gathering. "So," he said. "You attended a – ah, an academy for young girls? What was that like?"

She met his eyes for a minute before answering, reading who-knew-what in them. "It was challenging," she replied. "I also attended the district university in Hassadar, and graduated with high honors in sociology." Her voice was sweet and mild, but there was a faint bite behind the words. "And what did you learn in school, my lord?"

"I—" Ivan was taken aback. "I attended the Imperial Service Academy. They don't have honors there, exactly, but I'm still alive today." He tried a charming smile.

"The training helped you successfully navigate the perils of a twelve-year career behind a desk in Operations, then?"

Ivan jerked his head back, stung. "I've had a slightly more complicated career than that!" he said, abruptly on the defensive.

"I imagine you have. So why don't we both begin by not dismissing the other's education or experience in a patronizing way?"

Ivan opened his mouth for a quick response, but reconsidered and closed it again. He studied her for a minute, watching her face which gave nothing away, her dark eyes that met his steadily. "You're right," he said. "I apologize, Lady Berenice."

"I was rude as well, my lord. I know this can't be easy for you. I've had more time to adjust to the idea."

"Yes." Ivan brooded on this statement. "I suppose you have. I spent most of my life evading this kind of marriage, you know. My mother always wanted it for me, but..." He shook his head. "I don't mean any slight on you, but this is not the way I would have chosen."

Berenice didn't say anything for a moment. "I didn't expect exactly this, of course," she said. "I imagined a more ritualized courtship. I've always known that I intended to marry into the political arena, however. Being my father's daughter, I had certain opportunities. For a woman of our class who wishes to have an impact on the world, the best course is a marriage which can place her on the right path. This marriage seems as if it offers a good chance of that."

Ivan looked away from her and picked up a stone from the beach, turning it over in his fingers. Something about Berenice's calm explanation of her expectations and hopes knotted in his stomach. It was too commercial, too calculated. He looked for a response, but couldn't find any.

After a brief pause, Berenice spoke again. "I think, my lord, that you are a romantic." Her voice was that same soft tone, soothing and low. It reminded him in an odd way of his Aunt Cordelia, who could talk a person into anything, at least while they were with her. It was a very strange image to superimpose over blunt, traditional Lady Berenice Vorkalloner. "There's little room for romance in this, though. I think it's best for both of us if we are as clear as possible about our expectations and motivations. I don't need to be courted, and I don't ask it. We are considering yoking to each other for mutual political benefit and the good of Barrayar. I don't harbor any illusions that you'd be seeking me out if not for that."

Ivan grimaced. "That is... a stark way of putting it," he said. "But probably accurate. Do you – did my mother explain my expectations and motivations to you?"

"Some of them," Berenice said. "You need an heir, and a figure to tie you in with the conservative Vor faction, to ally them beneath your banner. You want to borrow some of my grandfather's legacy by choosing me as a wife. My mother believes he would have supported you, and I think I agree. My father is... unfortunately out of touch right now, or we would have consulted him."

Ivan frowned at this news. "Out of touch meaning...?"

"Meaning out of touch," Berenice said. She lifted one hand to adjust her necklace, a pendant of some kind on a silver chain. Ivan couldn't make out the shape in the dark, and she tucked it into her collar when she was done. "If I had meant dead, I would have said it."

"I believe you," Ivan said. He paused. "I want more than that, but I don't know how much I can expect it. You're right, I think, that I'm something of a romantic. I wish... well, I wish I could give you the courtship I suspect you deserve. I hope that we can... find a way to work together. You said you wanted to have an impact on the world, didn't you? What do you want to do?"

Berenice met his eyes, her head tilted slightly to one side. With her round face and her hair pulled back, she looked disconcertingly childlike, Ivan realized, which was almost certainly raising his discomfort level. "I am my father's daughter," she said at last. "And you are Aral Vorkosigan's nephew, associated clearly with the Progressives. I suspect there are probably more areas where we disagree politically than where we agree. Right now, the most important work that we have is driving back the Cetagandan Invasion so we can continue to have a Barrayar over which to argue."

"Well, yes," Ivan said. "Obviously. But I want to know, anyway. I want to know you, at least a little, and I don't know where to start."

This won a brief rueful smile from her. "That's fair, I suppose," she said. She ran her fingers through the sand. "This is a beautiful place." It was just an aside, and she didn't linger on it, saying instead, "I dislike the way that galactic technologies have tended to advance and improve the lives of city-dwellers disproportionately. I think that it's tended to reduce awareness of the real problems of poverty faced by too many Barrayarans. Policies in the last decades have been focused on pouring money into Komarr and even expansion onto Sergyar, but in the backcountry, farmers put in backbreaking hours of labor to win a scrap of profit from tainted land, or haul wood to burn for heat. Too many families have to choose between feeding their families through the winter or keeping them warm, and the Council of Counts, led by the Progressives, are spending money expanding the Komarran mirror array so that they can get outside of their extremely comfortable, high-tech, opulent domes in three hundred years instead of three hundred and fifty. The problems of the already wealthy are cleaner and easier, so people have been winning political points off of fixing them instead of dealing with the real wounds in our society."

To Ivan's practiced ear, the speech sounded a bit too rehearsed, like a closing argument in a university debate, and he would not be at all surprised if that was how it started. It was the most intensity he'd seen from Berenice yet, however, and she spoke with an emotion that gained power as she went on. She was, he realized, still very young, probably just out of school, or she'd be married already. He bit his tongue on the almost automatic question of how old she was, a question she would almost certainly take as an insult, right now.

He searched for words. "I don't know whether I entirely agree," he said cautiously, "that the funds placed into Komarr and Sergyar are misspent. The marks are going into building up their infrastructure in a way that will produce more marks in years to come."

"Unlike," she parried, "marks put into being sure that every man, woman, and child on Barrayar can read and write and try to better himself without being worried that the next storm will kill him? We need to build our own infrastructure, Lord Ivan, not just Komarr's. Komarr can always be taken back. We, here, are the core of Barrayar. Don't you wish now a little more effort had been put into this world, with Komarr and Sergyar so distant from our support?"

Ivan felt his mouth twist unwillingly. "Right now," he admitted, "I'm having a hard time coming up with an argument against that."

Berenice returned the smile a bit ruefully. Ivan drew a deep breath, then exhaled. "I don't know how much I can offer you in return for all of this," he said. "I definitely feel as if I'm asking for sacrifice upon sacrifice, and offering very little that's good in return."

"Am I offering you anything good for you, then?" Berenice asked. "I think I'm asking for too many sacrifices, myself. You may be the leader of this resistance, but I think we're both sacrificing to it, not to each other."

"That... is probably true," Ivan said. "Hell. I'm not – I don't know. Is there anything you want from this?"

Berenice looked out at the water for a moment, and Ivan tried to read something in the precise way she held her shoulders. He couldn't even tell if she was going to answer, let alone what she would say.

"I think," she said at last, "that there are three possibilities of what will happen in our future. One is that we will fail, and die, and very little matters if that happens. One is that Aral Vorkosigan and Miles Vorkosigan are dead, and when we win, your wife will be in a very good position."

"Mark might –" Ivan began, but she cut him off with a shake of her head.

"Lord Mark Vorkosigan will never be an Emperor on Barrayar. Not without his father to elevate him, certainly. He'd never be accepted."

Ivan made a face, but couldn't really dispute the analysis. "That's two," he said instead.

"The third is that Aral Vorkosigan or his heir are still alive, and when we win will move in to claim the Imperium, leaving them with two districts under their control, the Vorkosigan and the Vorbarra. And you will be their most loyal supporter left behind."

She spoke as if the statements were incontrovertible fact, and the conclusion inevitable. Ivan found it infinitely evitable, however. "You've got to be joking," he said without thinking. "You can't expect me to..." He trailed off, not sure how to express his horror in dire enough terms.

"I'm not joking," Berenice said. "You asked me what I wanted from this. My ambition for myself has always been the sociopolitical power of a countess. You want me to yoke my horse to yours in this race, to tie my future and my success to yours. That's what I want from this, in the end." She paused, considering her own words. "If you refuse, of course, it won't change my mind. I said earlier that I'm not doing this for you, and I meant it. I'm not going to betray Barrayar's interests because my husband isn't willing to seek out the authority to fight for it. But you did ask. And I answered."

Ivan worked his jaw. He tried to imagine his uncle's response on that homecoming. "Ivan, I'm back! I've saved the planet!" "Great! I sat on a beach and talked to some people while you were away! Can I have Gregor's district?" Hell.

"I..." Ivan ran his hand through his hair, feeling distinctly harried. "I'll talk with them about it. My word as Vorpatril."

Berenice looked faintly startled by the assurance, cocking her head. "Thank you, my lord."

"Do..." He sought for words. "Do you think this can be made to work, then?"

"Oh, certainly." She spoke with a confidence Ivan did not feel. "If we both enter into it with reasonable expectations and a willingness to work on it."

"I think I can do that."

"I think so, too."

They sat for another moment, turning the idea over in their heads. At least, Ivan was turning the idea over. For all he could read on Berenice's face, she might as easily have been calculating the net annual income of the Vorbarra District with the Vorbarr Sultana economy removed from the picture. He suspected she could handle a role as a political hostess very well; he'd seen flashes of the charm she could muster when needed, though she hadn't bothered wasting much of it on him today. This was, he supposed, more a business transaction than anything else. This young woman, with her round face and plain features and detached calculations, would be Lady Berenice Vorpatril, his wife. Time to wrap his mind around the reality.

"How old are you?" he asked, reminded of his unasked question from earlier. "You never said."

"Twenty-three. I graduated from university last year, and had been helping my mother in the district until the attack."

Ivan nodded, thought of another question, and then paused. "Should we walk back? We can talk along the way."

"If you like," she said. Ivan rose and offered her his hand. She accepted it without hesitation, allowing herself to be drawn up. She shook her skirts, her head lowered to inspect the state of the garments as she dislodged the dry sand that clung to them. When she had satisfied herself that she was presentable, she took the hand Ivan offered, and they started back toward camp, talking of little things.

"Your brother Thomas isn't your father's heir, is he?" Ivan asked at one point. "Count Vorkalloner has three sons, right?"

"Yes," Berenice said. "Thomas is the youngest, only a year older than I am. My eldest brother, Yves, is with my father. Nicholas is out with the fleet on the far side of the wormhole. My grandfather Vorhalas told Thomas once that he was planning to name Thomas his heir in his will, but no one knows now where the document is, or what body might ratify it or not. It leaves Thomas in a very uncertain position."

"I... can imagine. I think by pure patrilineal descent, the heir would be... a fourth cousin, right? The Vorhalas family has had rough luck with sons in the last few generations."

"Yes," Berenice said simply.

"So." Ivan cast about for something else to talk about, his eyes scanning the area. "The water here is pretty," he said in some desperation. "With the moonlight, and the waves. The food here is fairly good, too."

He looked sideways at her, and saw the corners of her eyes crinkling with her grin. She glanced up at him. "Old habits?" she asked lightly. "This has been a very impressive first date, my lord. You don't need to worry."

Feeling a bit sheepish, he returned the grin. "Well, I'm glad to have pleased, my lady," he said with Vorish gallantry.

Fearing that any other attempts at conversation would end much less positively, Ivan continued in silence, letting the calm lapping of the ocean provide the backdrop to the walk.

When he saw the glow of the fire from the main cave, he paused, struck by a thought. Berenice, perforce, stopped as well, turning to look up at him with a question in her dark eyes.

Ivan offered her a slightly sheepish grin, then said, "Formalities." He lowered herself to one knee, and looked up at Berenice, catching one of her hands in both of his. He wasn't entirely sure from whence came the impression that she was laughing at him, since her expression was admirably calm. Probably from past experience. "Lady Berenice Vorkalloner, will you be my wife?"

She had clearly seen the same dramas he had, and lowered her head in demure shyness, placing her free hand atop his. "My lord," she said clearly, "I would be honored."

"Ah. Good." Ivan smiled up at her, then rose. Since he still held her hand captive, he bowed over it, placing a dry kiss on its back. When he looked up to meet her eyes, she smiled at him.

It was, perhaps, not the most enjoyable date Ivan had ever had, but he suspected they could do. It was enough, for now.

Ivan answered the sentry's challenge, a local birdcall which he answered with a nonsensical phrase, and they passed on into camp. Many had already gone to sleep, but Galeni and Vortala were still talking, and Lady Alys's party was still awake, as were Martya and Delia. Martya grinned impishly up at him, but Delia was more thoughtful as she looked over. Ivan's eyes met his mother's, and he could see the concern there, concern which few would have recognized. Ivan nodded slightly, and saw her relax.

"Mother," Ivan said formally. "Countess Vorkalloner. I have asked Lady Berenice to marry me, and she has agreed."

Martya's mouth fell open. Delia's lips pursed in a silent whistle. Lady Alys exhaled slowly, and Countess Vorkalloner looked to her daughter, her forehead knit in some private concern. Whatever she read in Berenice's face seemed to reassure her.

It was Lord Thomas who spoke, rising from his place by the fire. "Congratulations, my lord," he said. "You are a fortunate man."

There was just enough stress on the words to underscore a threat in them, and Ivan nodded back, acknowledging and answering it. "I believe I am," he said.

"When?" asked Countess Vorkalloner.

"As soon as possible," Berenice answered. "Tomorrow?"

"Next week," Ivan said firmly. "Duv? We can afford a week here, yes?"

Galeni had been watching from the far side of the fire. "Oh, I think so," he said. "We'll be busy planning here. We will probably be... significantly adjusting elements of our strategy."

"Good," Ivan said. "Because I want to be sure to record the event, which means we need a good show. I don't want anyone saying, afterwards, that it didn't happen."

"A good point," said Lady Alys. "Delia, your friend who did the uniforms can surely fit a dress for Lady Berenice, yes?"

"I... think so?" Delia said carefully. "We can go into town tomorrow."

Berenice nodded. "This can all wait until morning, can't it?" she said a bit wistfully. "We've been up for a very long time."

"Oh, of course, dear," said Lady Alys. "We set up a special sleeping area for you and your mother near the rest of the women. Lord Thomas is with the men, of course."

"Of course," echoed Berenice.

Ivan did not try another kiss, only bowing over her hand before releasing her into Lady Alys's care. He did not entirely know what kind of alliance he had won himself today.

Chapter Text

"You did well, Ivan," his mother told him the next morning. Delia, the countess, and Lady Berenice had left for the city around midmorning, taking with them his house uniform for repairs and cleaning. Lady Alys had spoken at length with the countess about what type of dress they thought would suit, and had been very specific about their requirements, in the end. Ivan hadn't asked, but he had faith that his mother would do everything as correctly as it was possible.

"I did?" Ivan said, taken a bit aback.

"Yes. Lady Berenice is tolerably pleased with you, from what she told Sylvia, and given the difficulties of our position, that has to be seen as a victory."

"Oh." Ivan thought over the meaning behind the phrase, tolerably pleased. "She's... very ambitious."

"She's politically-minded, which will serve you very well in the years to come. It will also serve your sons well, particularly should anything happen to you." Lady Alys was crisp-voiced today, but less acerbic than Ivan was used to expect. Ivan, who recognized this as his mother in her persuading-by-reason mode, was not especially reassured by her tone.

"She's..." Ivan sought for words. "I think you're right about her, but she's not exactly what I envisioned for myself. She's very... um, analytical about the entire thing."

"She's been through a great deal recently."

"With her grandparents. I know." Lady Alys's eyebrows shot up. "What?" Ivan said, mystified. "Did I say something wrong?"

"'I beg your pardon,' Ivan, not 'What.' Did she not tell you?"

"Tell me what? She said her father was still all right. Is there something else?"

Lady Alys exhaled. "Oh, goodness. Ivan. When I was first thinking of a wife for you, I was thinking of Lady Berenice's younger sister, Sofia, because Berenice was said to be attached. Her mother suggested Berenice, instead, saying Sofia was a bit too uncontrolled. Berenice had been involved with Lord Jacob Vorfolse, who was next in line to Count Vorfolse, though they had no formal agreement."

Ivan winced. "Lord Jacob was killed?"

"No." Lady Alys spoke quietly. "Lord Jacob swore fealty to the haut Degtiar. Four weeks ago."

Ivan stared at her. "Four weeks ago – that's two weeks after Count Vorhalas's death?"

"Yes. He apparently begged Berenice to come with him, and promised her protection, saying that he could not save her family if they would not surrender, but that she could come with him, that the Cetagandans had guaranteed his safety and offered a position of some power in the new government. She refused, and he left. The Cetagandans came for the Vorkalloners the next day, but they'd gone into hiding. I met up with Sylvia and her children a day after that."

"Holy hell."

Lady Alys, for once, did not object to his language, giving an expressive shrug of her shoulder. "Lady Berenice apparently had a great deal of affection for Lord Jacob. It struck her hard. When I offered her this opportunity, she considered it for several weeks. I knew I could use the time to good effect in Donosgrad, so did not press her. She agreed three days ago, and her mother and brother gave their approval, so we traveled to meet you here."

"Holy hell."

This time, Lady Alys frowned. "Ivan, I understand that this is a bit of a shock, but you must learn to control your language better, even when caught off guard."

Ivan grimaced. "Sorry. Yes. So... you're telling me that I'm basically the mother of all rebound guys? And she's going to marry me, so we'll be – this is such a mistake on so many levels." He scrubbed his face, as if to chafe away the numbness that seemed to be settling in. "What happens when this pain starts to fade? She's going to have tied herself to me forever. Is this about anger at him? Despair? This is... such a mistake."

"This is about duty," his mother told him, her voice growing edged. "Do not imagine this is anything unique or new for Vor women, Ivan. Men are asked to risk lives and honor through war and alliances. We are asked to risk the same through marriage and childbearing. Barrayar has changed, but Lady Berenice has been raised by very traditional parents. She thought herself fortunate in her affection for an appropriate marriage candidate, but she spent years avoiding connections to those she considered poor political alliances. She has sacrificed sentiment to ambition before. She will sacrifice them now for honor and duty. Do you think she is less worthy than you to make a marriage of convenience for the sake of Barrayar? Do you think she feels her duty less than you?" There was some bitterness in her voice.

"No. I guess not." Ivan turned the idea over in his mind. "Mama, why did you marry my father? Was it a love match?"

"Oh." Alys's voice had a breathless tone, as if struck by the question. "Ivan... it was so long ago." He did not speak, borrowing his aunt Cordelia's trick of using silence to increase psychological pressure. She looked away from him, out at the water. Her dark hair was alight with silver now, bright in the sunlight. He hadn't noticed how very gray it had become. You can see a person every day, he mused, and not realize what you're seeing.

"I was much younger then than you are now," Alys said at last. "The world was different. This kind of arranged marriage was a matter of course." She paused, her eyes distant with memory. "We'd met at a dance in the capital, at someone's home. I can't remember whose, now. Your aunt Laila was there with me; this was just after her marriage to Anton Vorlightly, and she was delighted to be allowed to chaperone. I remember, because when Captain Lord Vorpatril asked me to dance, she was off gossiping with someone, and let me go. My mama would have watched us much more carefully. Padma held me a bit closer than was proper, and whispered some very daring things in my ear. He had been drinking a bit too much, I rather think. He sought me out at every dance after that, as his duties permitted, and sent the baba just after my twenty-fourth birthday."

She smiled fondly at Ivan. "I was flattered, and impressed by his rank and title, and agreed. We were married, and then I was pregnant with you. We had all these wonderful dreams, Padma and I, of family and fortune and politics. I loved him as much as children are ever able, I think, but we were never tested, never came to that deep knowledge of one another that adults can share. He died too soon, and my memory of him..." She trailed off, seeking the right words. "I remember the idea of him more than the man, I'm afraid. We were man and wife, and we cared for each other, but our concerns were always separate. It wasn't the same as it was for Aral and Cordelia, or for Simon and me."

Ivan absorbed this. "I always imagined something… different, I think."

"I know you did. I wanted you to. I wanted you to have everything perfect." She smiled sadly. "I have great success everywhere but where it matters most, I sometimes feel."

"I've been a real disappointment to you." Ivan didn't know where the statement came from, but it was there, all of a sudden, translated directly from the first glimmer in his mind to speech, and then he could not pull it back.

Lady Alys didn't speak for a moment. It was a hard moment. "No," she said at last. "You haven't. I have disappointed myself, I know at my most honest, by making my dreams for you so specific. But you are a good man, and I think are shaping up to be a great man, like your great-grandfather was. I could never be disappointed in a man who has become as much as you are."

Ivan, his chest tight with emotion, caught up his mother's hand and placed a formal kiss on the back. "Thank you," he said.

His mother cleared her throat and reclaimed her hand. "And," she said, her brisk self again, "I think you will make a more than adequate husband to Lady Berenice, if you are moved to try. Are you?"

"Yes," Ivan said. "It –"

"Good," his mother cut him off ruthlessly. "So, tell me how you intend to manage the wedding. You want to record it; do you intend to broadcast it?"

Ivan, well-trained in this, at least, followed his mother's change of subject without much difficulty. "Not immediately, no. It would put Lady Berenice and her family in danger, and it's not necessary. It's… a kind of insurance, I guess you'd call it, against claims that we weren't really married. For when the question of an heir comes up. I won't be there to help settle them."

"Ah. Good."

"I was thinking of maybe trying to find a holovid studio for the ceremony itself. That should conceal our actual surroundings, since they're made to be nondescript without the sets. You and Simon for my primary witnesses, and Duv for my second. Countess Vorkalloner and Lord Thomas as Berenice's chief witnesses, and – well, if she doesn't have any other ideas, probably Delia for her second. The Galenis have to already be on the Cetagandan watch lists; so that list won't end up endangering anyone new."

"You wouldn't ask Dyson Vorinnis to serve as your second?"

Ivan blinked at his mother. "What? No. Dy and I are friends, but not – why would you think of him?"

"Hm." Lady Alys frowned in thought. "I understood from him that you two were very close."

"No." Ivan tried to understand that, but couldn't. "No. We're friends, but only casually. Duv and I have been through a lot more, and I wouldn't have said I was very close to even him, before all of this."

"Perhaps I misunderstood. We were all understandably distracted on the trip from Donosgrad."

"Maybe." Ivan put the thought aside, asking instead, "So, did you have any ideas about wedding specifics?"

Lady Alys did, of course, and when they broke two hours later for lunch, Ivan was halfway longing for a Cetagandan patrol to fly overhead, just for the novelty of it. Flowers and clothes and formal vows, which she had memorized, of course, and drilled into him, "Although I suppose we could manage a vidprompter, should you need it," in her most sardonic tones. Maybe the next day would have been best for the ceremony, in all.

When the aircar did fly overhead, the entire camp flung into instant action. The two men closest to the campfire hauled the barrel of sand over, extinguishing the flames with barely a wisp of smoke. Everyone dove for the cover of the cave, the traces of their camp vanishing in less than a minute. A minute later, two men hauled the heavy chemical-propellant anti-aircraft rifle from deeper in the cave.

They waited. The whine of the aircar sounded as it circled back around.

Duv Galeni was at Ivan's elbow now, General Vortala just behind him. Galeni's voice was barely audible. "Once we take them down, you and your mother will make for the float bikes. I will rendezvous with you at Pelham Ford." Ivan nodded, not wanting to risk more sound than necessary. Galeni stared grimly at the mouth of the cave.

"Don't fire!" It was Delia's voice that rang into open air, and Galeni's shoulders spasmed. His jaw worked, and Ivan saw, in that moment, a heart-wrenching pain in the man's face.

"Hold steady," was all Galeni said. The men with the rifle glanced uneasily at him, then at each other.

"We're setting down!" The aircar engines whirred as it sank from the sky to the clear margin of sand before the cave.

"Stay in the damned car!" Galeni yelled out. He pointed to two men, then whisked his fingers in little circles. Taking their cues, they grabbed stunners and circled around to get cross-angles on the vehicle. "All right!" Galeni called. "Delia. I want you to open the door and come out. Walk straight towards the cave."

Ivan had pressed his fist to his mouth. It was all he could do not to chew on his fingers. He couldn't see the aircar from where he stood, out of any line of fire. Seconds ticked away.

"Stop!" Galeni called. "All right. Now turn, and walk towards Austin. Slowly. Stop there."

There was a moment of tense silence. Then a voice – Austin's voice. "She's clean, sir! Nothing's wired."

Galeni strode from the cave. Ivan, certain it was either follow or go mad, sidled out after him. Delia was speaking to Galeni in low-voiced urgency. Galeni looked grim. "Come on out!" he shouted at the aircar.

Lady Berenice climbed out first, then turned to help her mother out, as well. Ivan, after a glance at Galeni showed no concern, moved towards the pair. "Countess Vorkalloner, Lady Berenice," he greeted with a brief bow. "I'm sorry about this, um, excitement. We… don't usually bring cars directly into camp."

"I know," said Lady Berenice. "Madame Galeni told us. But we didn't think we could get him into camp without the car."

"Him?"

Berenice leaned her head over towards the back door. Ivan craned his neck to see in. Across the rear seat of the car lay a wedding gown in a plastic garment bag. On the floor under it lay an unconscious man, bound and gagged. Ivan stared. "Who—" He couldn't quite formulate the question.

"Ghem-Lieutenant Bal," Lady Berenice said. "Madame Galeni stunned him." Ivan turned to gape at Delia, who was already walking over with Galeni. Duv looked very grim.

"Lord Ivan," he said. "We have… a window of opportunity here. Ghem-lieutenant Bal is apparently on a city leave for sixty-six hours, and was planning to slip out for some mountaineering. If we can compel his cooperation, we should be able to gain access to the Cetagandan grid for a few hours and then arrange an –" He broke off, realizing that Lady Berenice was still at Ivan's elbow, listening intently. "My lady." He gave a brief, formal bow. "If you would care to go join Lady Alys for a few minutes, I need to speak to Lord Ivan."

"No." Lady Berenice's voice was polite, but firm. "I will stay."

Galeni frowned at her, but Ivan said, "It's all right, Duv. We can arrange…?"

"An accident." Galeni's eyes hung on Berenice for another few seconds before he looked back at Ivan. "We should be able to make the entire event seem accidental, concealing our access from anyone who might otherwise look. It's our best window yet for obtaining an inside look at their systems."

"We don't have any fast-penta," Ivan pointed out.

"No." Galeni answered him calmly, eyes holding Ivan's. "I don't expect any problems, my lord."

Oh. Ivan chewed the inside of his lip. "I'll go with you," he said at last.

"My lord –" Galeni broke off. Lady Berenice was listening to the exchange with wide-eyed intensity. Lord Thomas came up behind her, placing a hand on her elbow and glancing a curious question at the two men. "My lord," Galeni said again. "I believe your presence would inhibit the interrogators. I advise you to remain here."

"Oh." Ivan could see the sense of it, when he looked at the issue straight on. Hell. "I understand. Who will question him, then?"

"Myself, General Vortala, and Captain Illyan."

"All right. Good." Ivan couldn't help feeling the nasty little surge of relief that he could so effectively hand off the responsibility for this dirty task to others. He felt like a coward, despite acknowledging the truth of Galeni's words. He wanted to say something about it, but didn't know what. Thank you? I'd go if you'd let me? He didn't like laying the guilt of this sin on Galeni. "I understand the importance of this, General Galeni," he said at last, "and I authorize and –" He hesitated briefly over the word – "and require all necessary actions be taken to obtain the necessary information."

Galeni's mouth moved without sound for a moment. At last, he said, "I understand, my lord."

Ivan knew he did. He did not, he mused as Galeni and his team piled into the aircar, deserve the team he had.

#

Lady Berenice and her mother were speaking quietly by the fire when Ivan walked over to join them. "Countess," he greeted formally. "My lady. Other than the unexpected excitement, I hope everything went well in town?"

"Indeed, Lord Ivan," the countess answered, gesturing in an invitation to sit. Ivan bowed his thanks, then lowered himself to sit, hands on his knees.

"I saw that you had some success, at least," he said, striking up the conversation and trying not to think about Galeni's team. "I saw the dress bag, though I didn't look closely, of course."

"Worried about bad luck?" Berenice asked, keeping her voice light.

He smiled over at her, mimicking her ease. "Petrified, my lady. Aren't you?"

"Perhaps a little," she conceded.

"I was surprised you could bring it with you today. My understanding of these things is that they usually require several rounds of alteration."

They talked of clothes for some time, then flowers, then vows. Ivan's mother had primed him well for the conversation, and right now he was grateful for meaningless thoughts. Lady Berenice and Countess Vorkalloner played their conversational parts well, and the Vor social dance hardly required effort when all participants were invested in its success.

When Ivan explained his intention to use a holovid studio as a site for the wedding, Berenice frowned in thought and glanced over at her mother, who didn't seem to notice. Ivan didn't have enough experience with Countess Vorkalloner to guess whether her failure to notice was deliberate or accidental, but he thought Berenice's sigh was more disappointed than annoyed or frustrated. In Ivan's experience, that usually suggested accident. He wondered what she was hoping to convey.

The topic wandered from wedding plans around to various people around the camp, with Ivan performing introductions at a distance, pointing out Byerly Vorrutyer, Enrique Borgos, Selig Welensky, Martin Kosti, and several others. He gave them a brief description of the roles people served in the organization, and spoke of the basic make-up of their groups in other locations. When Countess Vorkalloner asked who ran those teams, Ivan said only, "It is best for everyone if you don't know that, countess."

She was taken aback at first, but said, "Oh, of course. I hadn't considered."

Berenice stepped smoothly in, to distract from her mother's brief embarrassment. "I was surprised to see General Galeni in such a central position in this group," she said. "Not that I have any doubts of his loyalty, of course, but I wouldn't think he would have as much investment in this fight as you or I."

Ivan was definitely getting better at these subtle political moments. He took the two seconds he needed to keep from his first, angry reaction, a two seconds that was almost conversationally invisible, but let him sideline the emotional side of his mind in favor of the rational. Then he said, "Duv Galeni has as much invested in the future of Barrayar as almost any man I know. He's spent most of his adult life trying to help lead Komarr to a share in it."

Berenice opened her hands. "I didn't mean any offense. Of course, as a Komarran, it makes sense that he would want a share, yes?" She smiled at him, but Ivan didn't feel terribly mollified. "I had thought it might have been Madame Galeni who helped bring him in with the Resistance. She's an old friend of yours, I think your lady mother said?"

"Neither I nor anyone else brought Duv Galeni into my resistance, Lady Berenice," Ivan said, his voice firm. "He created it for me and around me." He could still see the look on Galeni's face, kneeling in front of him, his hands raised.

"I think I've offended you," Berenice said after a cautious hesitation. "I apologize. It was unintentional. I won't speak of it again, if it upsets you."

"No," Ivan said, summoning a smile from somewhere. He didn't know where he'd found it, just at the moment. "I apologize. I was overreacting. You couldn't have known." He understood, much too late, the impassioned anger with which Miles had defended Mark in the beginning, or old Bothari. Galeni was the shape of his spine. He could not imagine doing this without the man. Who else could do what Galeni did?

Berenice was looking up at the sky, now, her forehead slightly creased. Ivan tilted his head, studying her, then turned to track her gaze. The aircar was returning. "Surely it's too early for them to be back," Berenice said dubiously.

Much too early. Ivan's mouth tightened, and he rose, taking the time for a brief bow. "Excuse me, please, ladies." He started toward the beach. He was halfway there before he realized Berenice was not far behind him. He halted and turned to face her, marshaling arguments.

"He was our prisoner," Berenice pointed out before he could speak, not even slowing down. Ivan sought for and failed to find a response to that. He had to hurry to catch up.

It took the aircar a ridiculously long time to land, from Ivan's perspective. When the driver's door finally opened and Galeni unfolded himself from his seat, Ivan spread his hands at his side. "Duv," he said. "What happened?"

Galeni's teeth flashed in a grin. "You won't believe this, my lord, my lady," he said, including Berenice with a nod. "Apparently, their standard Barrayaran occupation force field pack includes a fast-penta interrogation kit."

#

"So, where do we go from here?" Ivan asked once the team was assembled.

"We have another forty-seven hours until ghem-Lieutenant Bal is due back on duty," Vortala said, starting things off. "That is our window of opportunity. Once he goes missing, his comconsole access will become suspect. If they know he was captured or killed, they will adjust their plans and security protocols, and our information will become useless."

"What information did we get, then?" Ivan asked.

Galeni, Illyan, and Vortala were all seated on the beach, along with Lady Berenice and Lord Thomas, Delia and Martya, Selig Welensky, and (Ivan had no idea how or why) Byerly Vorrutyer. The prisoner had been taken over by Dy Vorinnis, and was bound in some extremely soft restraints, which Illyan had assured Ivan would leave no marks regardless of how hard he struggled. This left their options open.

"There were a few critical facts we learned," Galeni said. "The first is that the Cetagandans have been allowing only a very few non-Cetagandan ships to travel back and forth through the wormhole. There have been a few news vessels, although specifics about who they are was not available under Bal's clearance level. There were two of them yesterday, who never got closer than necessary for a very cursory sensor impression of the planet."

"Huh," Ivan said. "That's… interesting. I'm not sure what it means, though. Byerly, will you sit down with my mother after this meeting? Try to evolve some theories about galactic politics based on this information, but don't tie yourselves down. I want the range of possibilities."

Byerly placed a hand over his heart and half-bowed from his seat. "I am at your command in this, as all things, Lord Ivan."

"Sure you are," Ivan said dryly. "What else did we learn?"

"There's a significant bounty out for you, Simon, and your mother. I am, sadly, not on the list yet, though I am sure I will be soon. Vortala is a 'person of interest,' as is Dr. Borgos." Galeni paused for response.

"How significant?" Ivan asked, unable to suppress the morbid curiosity.

"Eight hundred thousand marks for you, six hundred each for Simon and your mother."

Welensky whistled. Byerly raised his eyebrows and glanced over at Lord Thomas. "Feeling entrepreneurial?" he asked.

Lord Thomas stiffened, but Berenice placed a hand on his back and whispered something in his ear. His jaw tensed, but he unwound himself back into his seat.

"What else?" Ivan asked, moving on before emotion could flare again. Byerly was still smiling as if at some private joke, undoubtedly at the expense of everyone else present.

"There's a prisoner transfer of some sort happening in two days," Galeni said. "This is the most interesting. It's happening out of their base in Vorpinski Politas, and they're moving the prisoner to Donosgrad."

"Who's the prisoner?"

"We don't know. It was classified."

"Argh." Ivan ran his hands through his hair. "All right. What do we know?"

"We know enough to plan an attack on the transfer ship, should we choose to."

Ivan dropped his hands, his eyes narrowing at Galeni. "Really." It wasn't exactly a question, but Galeni nodded. Ivan blew out his breath and straightened his spine. "All right," he said. "I don't know yet. Advice?"

"We don't know what we're risking it for," Illyan pointed out. "It could be a Cetagandan officer, for all we know, a war criminal of some sort."

"Count and Countess Vorpinski are still missing," Berenice put in. "It's generally believed that they were not in Vorbarr Sultana."

Ivan exhaled. "So, that's our floor and our ceiling," he said. "The question of whether we go this route then comes down to a risk-reward analysis. We know the range of possible rewards. What are the risks?"

"We'll need a concrete plan to make a true risk assessment, Lord Ivan," Vortala said.

"Do it," Ivan said. "You and Simon and Welensky. Give me two possibilities by tomorrow morning. I don't care if they're stupid. If stupid's all we can come up with, I'd like to know that."

Vortala frowned at him, and Ivan realized that in the press of events, he'd never actually sat down with the general, never established what their relationship was to be. If Vortala chose to challenge his authority here, in this, Ivan couldn't even fault him for it. Ivan certainly questioned his own right often enough.

But after a few fraught seconds, Vortala nodded. "Yes, my lord," he said. Ivan tried not to visibly sigh his relief.

He looked back to Galeni. "Anything else significant?" he asked.

"No, my lord."

"All right," Ivan said. "So what do we do with Bal?"

Galeni paused a moment, glancing at Lady Berenice, who frowned and shifted slightly in her seat. She did not speak, however, and after a few seconds' pause, he looked back at Ivan. "He was going into the mountains for a climbing trip. It's not particularly authorized for the invasion forces, but they turn a blind eye when it happens. It takes fast-penta thirty-four hours to work its way out of the bloodstream. We will have time to wait and drop him off a cliff face."

Ivan winced. Galeni carefully did not look at Berenice again, but Ivan did. She sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her expression very rigid. Ivan turned back to Galeni. "How many men?" he asked.

"We can't stun him again without it showing up on an autopsy, and we don't want any marks to show. I think a three-person team should be able to manage."

"You'll go?" Ivan asked.

"Yes," Galeni said. "And I want Martya. Her training has less to do with physical force for subduing an opponent than most of the soldiers."

"Who for the third?"

"I'll go." Lord Thomas spoke from his place, his jaw set. Ivan hesitated, looking at Galeni, who was looking at him. In that moment, it was clear both men wanted the other to veto the offer. Ivan grimaced. This was definitely one of those situations where authority meant he should not delegate, rather than the reverse.

Lord Thomas sat stiffly, his shoulders back and determination written in every line of his face. To Ivan's eyes, which had seen young men coming up in the military, the look spoke more of fear than courage, a fear compounded by the fear of revealing itself.

"No," Ivan said, firmly and bluntly. "You don't have any training in this, Lord Thomas. We can't afford wasted bodies on this trip, and we'll need you more on the planning side of things than execution." He didn't let the topic linger; get the embarrassment over and gone as quickly as possible, and move past it. It was what he'd want for himself. "Duv – Martin Kosti might be a good choice. He spent some time up on the Escarpment for winter training just recently. You can have Martya, and let me know your third choice."

"Understood," Galeni said.

Ivan paused, trying to think through the material they'd digested. "All right," he said. "I think we're done here, then. Any last-minute concerns?"

The group was silent.

"Let's get it done," Ivan said.

Chapter Text

"Is my collar straight?" Ivan tried to see the back of his own neck in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, without much success. He knew he made an impressive figure in his Vorpatril uniform, its blue and gold emphasizing his height and dark good looks. But he was plagued by a nagging certainty that some glaring inadequacy in his presentation was going to suddenly appear, an absolute conviction that as soon as the cameras were on, a bit of spinach was going to appear in his teeth for posterity to mock, should posterity ever be presented with the opportunity.

He supposed this was all pretty much par for the course.

"It was," his mother told him acidly, "until you started squirming. Hold still, Ivan." With expert hands, she twitched his collar back into place. "I can assure you that I will not allow you to be anything less than a credit to your father's name when you walk out there." She smoothed a shoulder seam and looked up at him. "Stop worrying about everyone else," she told him. "You need to be here right now."

Ivan knew that it was true. The logic of coordinating all three prongs of their tactical agenda in one pass was undeniable. They reduced their visibility, divided the Cetagandan possibility for response, and eliminated the need for additional operations once the Cetagandans were on high alert.

Duv Galeni was leading his group of three to drop their Cetagadan off a cliff, using countergrav packs to eliminate tracks and spilling his pack down the mountainside to disguise the missing fast-penta kit. His comlink would allow the Cetagandans to locate the missing man's body in short order.

General Vortala was in command of the hit on the prisoner transfer vehicle. He had a group of fifteen men with him, comprising most of the military men other than Galeni, Kosti, and Ivan himself. Ivan was getting married.

Lady Berenice and Countess Vorkalloner were of course present, along with Lord Thomas and Delia, who was serving as Berenice's second. Lady Alys and Simon Illyan were there as Ivan's witnesses, with – god help him – Byerly Vorrutyer as his second. Ivan didn't think there was a single military man he would not have preferred to Byerly, but since they were all busy, it was Byerly or Enrique Borgos.

Ivan had chosen By.

Now, Byerly, dressed in a neat civilian suit, was lounging on a couch in the salon. The original idea of a studio had been rejected as unnecessary when Lady Berenice had pointed out quite logically that by the time this video would need to be released, other, much more important changes would be needed which would render the exposure of their location moot.

"Besides," she had told her mother and Lady Alys firmly, "most of this may be unavoidable, but when I have to tell my children about my wedding day, I do not want to have to tell them it was in a holovid studio."

Ivan had acquiesced on the security issue, and Lady Alys and Countess Vorkalloner had put their heads together and found the summer home of a Vorkalloner family retired armsman's daughter. It was a small house, but directly on the water, and the beaches were beautiful. They would be married there.

If Ivan could keep from murdering his second before the ceremony started.

"You look a bit queasy, Ivan," By said, not making any effort at all to conceal his amusement. "I hope you had a proper Imperial breakfast, in case the views at home end up being second-hand witnesses to it."

"Shut up, By," Ivan said through gritted teeth.

"Byerly, please," chided Lady Alys. "Ivan has no need of your assistance."

For that matter, Ivan brooded morosely, his mother had insisted he have a real breakfast instead of bread and bug butter this morning. By was a few hours late with this idea. Lady Alys Vorpatril had Ivan's back, and was prepared for everything. Lucky Ivan. His stomach lurched.

He could not let his mind rest for any amount of time on what would come after the wedding. All of his planning ended with this hour, down all branches. Until they knew what prisoner they had retrieved, they could not plan what to do with him. They needed to pull back after this strike and examine their new resources. What would they have? What could they do with it?

As for the wedding, every time he tried to imagine the wedding night, his brain balked at the idea of their return to camp. There was so little privacy, so little of anything, he had no idea how the Galenis had managed to accomplish the thing. Maybe he should ask Duv for tips. Maybe he should ask Delia. Maybe he should just shoot himself. He considered, for a second, the idea of the lift van… and then his brain balked again.

Galeni and his team would already be up in the mountains, he thought, choosing their target zone and wrestling the ghem-lieutenant out of their lightflyer. Vortala's team was already in place. It was time, they had decided, to make their identities undeniably clear. There was no hope of a secret assault here. They would take the prisoner and announce that Lord Ivan Vorpatril's resistance was taking him. They would kill most of the Cetagandans, but leave one or two alive to carry word back. The war was declared.

And while all this was going on, Ivan was adjusting his shirt cuffs and trying to think about where he was going to find a spot to deflower his new bride. Cognitive dissonance didn't even begin to cover it.

"Having second thoughts?" Byerly asked. "Little niggling doubts? We among the ranks of the bachelors will be sorry to lose you, Ivan; you were always such a poster child for the cause…"

"Shut up, By."

"But then, I suppose you are anticipating the felicity of connubial bliss. Pretty wife… fat babies…"

"Shut. Up. Byerly." Ivan's jaw was starting to ache from clenching his teeth.

"Hold still, dear." His mother wet a comb and ran it through his hair, smoothing any flyaway wisps from it. It seemed somewhat futile, since the wedding was being held on the beach, but he appreciated the effort.

"I should have had it cut," he said, looking at himself in the mirror. "It would stay in place better in the wind. I'm going to look a bit rumbled, I think."

"It's an opportunity, Ivan," Byerly said cheerfully. "Leave your tunic behind and unbutton the top few buttons of your shirt, and she'll think she's in a romance vid. The tousled hair, the manly jaw…"

"Byerly, your part in this ceremony does not require speech," Lady Alys said tartly. "If you cannot find the self-restraint to hold your tongue, I will numb it with a surgical stunner."

Ivan really, really hoped Byerly would say something else after that, but Byerly merely smiled, lounging at perfect ease. Did nothing ever crack the man's reserve? Damn him.

It was another interminable twenty minutes before Delia came to report that Berenice was ready. Ivan paced and fidgeted and tried to rationally measure which was worse: waiting for the ceremony or not knowing what was happening with Vortala. They were feeding off of one another in a truly gruesome way.

When Delia arrived, she gave him a brief, cheerful grin. "Ivan," she said. "You look awful." Delia, of course, looked stunning, wearing a tea-length dress of ice-blue silk.

"Thank you," Ivan growled at her.

"Don't worry," she told him kindly. "No one ever looks at the groom at a wedding." She turned to Lady Alys. "We're ready."

"Ah, good," said Lady Alys. "Return to her, and we'll convene on the beach in ten minutes."

Delia grinned over at By, who did something expressive and, Ivan was sure, indecipherably mocking with his eyebrows, gave a cheery, "Good luck," to Ivan, and stepped out the door.

Ivan turned to his mother, who gave him a last, critical inspection. "You will do," she informed him. "Are you certain you remember all of your lines?"

"Yes, mother," Ivan said.

She eyed him with healthy maternal skepticism for a moment, then nodded. She reached for his hands, and when he offered them, clasped them firmly in hers. She gave him a brief kiss on the cheek. "I am very proud of you," she told him. Her voice was quiet, but firm. "You have grown into a fine man."

"Thank you, mama." Ivan felt an odd tightness in his chest, considering this cusp of worlds he had come to stand on. Today, he went from being his mother's son to Berenice's husband. Today, Berenice went from being her father's daughter to Ivan's wife. Their existing roles would be not replaced, but subsumed by the new, overwhelming them beneath the new reality. What kind of wife would Berenice be to him? What kind of husband could he be to her? They would have to find out.

Byerly cleared his throat. "Loath though I am to disrupt so charming a tableau," he said, "it is time for us to leave."

Down on the beach, Illyan and Lord Thomas had been busy laying out the colored groats. The inner circle was open, looming with unavoidable meaning for Ivan. He swallowed. His mother patted his hand, and he bowed to kiss hers in answer, meeting her eyes for a moment.

Dr. Borgos had set up the three holovid cameras in a rough semicircle around the groat pattern, catching the backdrop of the beach. He was holding a fourth, handheld model, which he aimed at Ivan. Ivan tried to smile for it.

Dr. Jourdan, who had volunteered for the position of Coach, had a small book with the vows printed in it. He waited genially just outside the central circle.

Lady Alys released him then into Byerly's tender custody and walked down to take Illyan's arm. The six-pointed star that would hold the primary witnesses was laid out around the principals' circle, and Illyan led Alys to her spot at the tip of one arm. He then moved into place himself.

Countess Vorkalloner emerged from the house a minute behind Ivan's party, sweeping past Ivan and Byerly to take her son's arm. Lord Thomas bowed formally over his mother's hand and walked her to her star point before taking his own.

"It's not too late to run, Ivan," Byerly murmured suggestively in his ear. "Your mother is out of arm's reach, and cannot possibly have a stunner to hand in that gown of hers. You could make for the treeline, crying loud cries of freedom from the shackles of marriage."

"What, and leave fair Berenice to you, second?" Ivan murmured back.

Byerly's lips twitched. "Obsolete jokes only get half credit for cleverness, Ivan," he said.

Ivan breathed deeply. Dr. Borgos had the camera trained on him. "Let's go."

They started down towards the circle, walking, Ivan hoped, with confidence and purpose. He thought he should probably be smiling, but didn't think he could manage to make it look good, and had this horrifying image of his mother calling, Cut! Take two! so opted for the safer and easier regal gravity.

When they reached the circle, Byerly stepped aside to let Ivan walk in alone. He felt as if someone had painted a target on his back; the area between his shoulder blades itched. He clasped his hands behind his back, feet shoulder width apart in parade rest. He looked up at the house. The sun was almost at its apogee, and the heat, in his dark house uniform, was oppressive.

For a moment, nothing happened. Ivan tried not to fidget. He had this horrifying suspicion that Delia was behind the curtains at one of the long windows, peering out and making ironic comments about him. He wondered if Berenice was laughing, or was as irritated at Delia as he was at By. Well, at least it wasn't Martya.

Finally, the door opened. Ivan inhaled deeply as Delia stepped out, then moved aside to allow Berenice through.

Berenice was wearing a full-skirted gown in white silk. A lace overlayer set with pearls caught shimmered in the light. The design was very traditional, almost outmoded, but she wore it like a bride should, her chin high and her posture precise. She could resurrect the high buttons and long white gloves, Ivan thought; the gown looked as if it had been built around her. It probably had been; no wonder it hadn't needed much adjusting. Silk laces weaving up the sides emphasized the curve of her waist without actually revealing anything. The hem of her skirt lapped at the sand as she walked toward the circle. She had live blue flowers and sparkling jewels woven into her hair.

It was amazing, he mused as he watched her descend the path, how finely made clothing and a good hairdresser could make any woman look attractive. Berenice was radiant, walking down the path, but he held the image of her in his head from the night before: quiet, inwardly turned, young and plain. Today, all of her advantages seemed accentuated, her disadvantages muted. Brutal self-honesty compelled him to the acknowledgement that the dress rendered the idea of the wedding night a little less unattractive.

Dr. Borgos followed Berenice's path with the camera as she walked up through the outer star and into the inner circle beside Ivan. Byerly and Delia took up their bags and pours the groats to close them in, then stepped back to take their places on the two remaining star points. Ivan took Berenice's hands and looked down at her. Her face was tilted up, letting the mass of curls and flowers tumble across her shoulders and down her back.

She looked very serious, and Ivan wondered what she read in his face, looking down at her. He tried a smile, and she answered it, the expression brief and grateful. Then Dr. Jourdan cleared his throat, and Ivan was recollected to his responsibilities. Jourdan was there to prompt them to their lines if necessary, but neither of them required the aid; Ivan began, reciting the vows in a clear, firm tone. Berenice answered, her voice lighter, but no less confident for that. They maintained eye contact throughout, though Ivan had to work not to glance at the camera he kept glimpsing at the corner of his vision.

They made it through without incident, and, just like that, Ivan was married. He paused for a few seconds, then used Berenice's hands to pull her a step closer, stepping in to meet her. He bent his head and touched his lips to hers.

It was a long kiss, several seconds ticking by to allow the witnesses to begin applauding. But Ivan did not press the intimacy; it was just a kiss, close-mouthed and straightforward. When he lifted his head, her cheeks were slightly pink, and she offered an almost sheepish smile, which Ivan returned without needing to think about it. It was a good start.

And then Byerly swept a foot to break open groat circle, and extended a hand to Lady Berenice, to claim his second's right of first kiss from the bride. Ivan met his eyes, and saw there a teasing promise. His jaw clenched. Byerly Vorrutyer, if you dare… But Byerly, as aware of the cameras as any other, merely said, "My congratulations to you, Lady Berenice Vorpatril," and placed a light kiss on her cheek.

"Thank you, Byerly," she said, and was handed off to her brother. Ivan, aware that the cameras were still recording, kept on hand at her elbow while he shook Byerly's hand and accepted warm congratulations. He wondered where Vortala was at that moment. Or the Cetagandan ghem-lieutenant.

#

The cameras were finally turned off, the party ready to go. Lord Thomas had a lightflyer procured for carrying the tapes off to a secure facility. They were to be copied and then put into storage. Lady Alys stopped him at its door with a hand on his elbow and murmured something to him. Lord Thomas looked struck, and nodded.

Ivan watched uneasily as Lord Thomas moved instead to the lift van, and his mother approached him. Lady Berenice – Berenice, he corrected himself – was talking with her mother.

"Ivan." His mother had drawn near enough for a low-voiced conversation. "It has occurred to me that we have the use of this house until sundown, at least, and two vehicles. I suggested to Lord Thomas that we might all accompany him to Vorpinski Politas, and leave the lightflyer for you and Lady Berenice to follow along."

The meaning was clear and absolutely embarrassing. Ivan did not, did not want to talk with his mother about this, but could not deny the sense of her proposal. 'All… right," he managed.

"Good," his mother said, patting his hand. "It will all go well, Ivan. I am assured you are not without experience in these matters."

"Mother!" Ivan was scandalized, and felt his cheeks heating up. He spotted Jourdan watching him from where he sat with Illyan, looking decidedly amused. Ivan suspected the mathematician had a pretty good idea of what his mother was saying.

"This is one of the privileges of being Mother of the Groom, dear," she told him, and kissed his cheek. "Drive safely."

And with that, she released him, gliding on to speak with Berenice and Countess Vorkalloner. "My dear," she told Berenice, "I am so happy to know that my son is in such good hands. Do look after him."

Berenice smiles slightly and inclined her head. "I shall certainly do my best, Lady Alys."

Alys leaned in then, to whisper something into her new daughter-in-law's ear. Berenice choked back a laugh, one hand flying to her mouth. Ivan looked on uneasily.

Lady Alys and Countess Vorkalloner both gave Berenice farewell kisses, and Countess Vorkalloner pulled something from her handbag, pressing it into Berenice's hand with a quiet word. It was fortunately too small to be a Vorfemme knife, but Berenice curled her hand around it before he could make it out. Ivan looked on very uneasily.

The older women then released Berenice to stand alone as they moved towards the lift van. Ivan crossed the beach to stand beside her, resting one hand at the small of her back. She looked up at him, not quite smiling. "What did your mother give you?" he asked quietly.

She opened her hand to reveal the little package of pills in its pale blue dispenser pack. "XYgote!" read its cheerful logo. There was a little stork cartoon on it.

"Oh." Ivan said. "Of course. I wasn't thinking." He should have thought to get the sex-determination pills. Once again, the babas were way ahead of the sheep.

"You've been a little busy," Berenice pointed out. "I didn't think of it, either."

"What did my mother say to you?" he asked her.

"Maybe later," she told him, and her eyes lit with amusement. They stood like that, watching as the wedding party piled into the van. Byerly, Ivan saw, was shrewd enough to bring a large bag for groat collection, but Lord Thomas and Delia both pocketed a handful as well, in passing. Ivan assumed his mother was only refraining because she planned to appropriate some from Byerly later.

And then they were gone, and Ivan and Berenice stood for a long moment watching the empty sky. The sun was still high, and Ivan could feel a thin trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck. "Let's go inside," he said.

Berenice did not object, and they ascended the little slope back up to the house. The foyer felt very still and quiet, now that he was in it with no one but Berenice, and he glanced at her to see that she was chewing on her lower lip and eyeing the stairs. He looked up at the light fixture, commenting to the ceiling, "I feel very out-of-place here." She looked up at him, her expression composing itself again, and he gently steered the way to the staircase. "As if we were prowlers," he went on, "and the municipal guard were about to descend."

"We were in here not an hour ago," she pointed out rationally.

"Well, yes, but my mother was there then."

"Did it make that much difference?"

"Are you joking?" Ivan grinned briefly. "She's my mother. Lady Alys Vorpatril. I think she could stand in the middle of the haut Degtiar's enclave in Donosgrad itself and make the Cetagandan guards feel like prowlers."

Berenice choked out a laugh at that. Ivan wondered, uncomfortably, how much Lord Jacob Vorfolse was in her thoughts tonight. It was an uncomfortable feeling, as if he were suddenly sharing his skin with the man, and Ivan didn't particularly want to share anything with him. He knew that he probably should have talked to Berenice about him before, about what he knew, and what she hadn't said. But he hadn't, and now was most certainly not the time.

There was a bedroom at the head of the stairs, and Berenice turned into it automatically. Ivan thought this must have been the room the ladies used for their preparations. At the sight of the bed, she paused, and Ivan turned to close the door, giving her a few seconds. "It seems pointless to close it; we're all alone here. But to not do it would feel very strange. Habits of civilization, I suppose."

"I suppose."

Ivan turned back to Berenice, looking down at her. "You look beautiful," he told her, meaning it completely. He was a little unsure of how he was supposed to get the damned dress off of her, with its layers and laces, but it was surely a sartorial triumph.

She did not try to deny the compliment or brush it aside. She just said, very quietly, "Thank you."

They stood for a few seconds like that, still and quiet, looking into one another's eyes.

To hell with it, Ivan thought. He kissed her. After several seconds, she pulled back.

"The pills," she said.

Ivan laughed, a bit breathlessly. "Of course."

And from there, things went just as they ought.

#

It was making its way towards dark by the time they settled the lightflyer into its cave. The afternoon had gone fairly well, Ivan judged from some experience. They had gained a little comfort with one another, the beginnings of an ease which Ivan thought could lay the foundations of a decent working relationship. He had made her laugh twice, the first a bit self-consciously but the second more genuine, and she had made him laugh once in return.

They had spoken afterwards of children and of futures, of the possibilities for how things could go. They had discussed names and dynasties. They had come a step nearer to an understanding of one another. It was a start.

After they had made use of the shower and dressed again, Berenice had insisted on running the bedclothes through the sonic cleaner and remaking the bed, a little to Ivan's bemusement. He had gone to collect some of the remaining groats while she dealt with the sheets and towels. He had picked up a few shells while he was there, pocketing them as remembrances.

The flight home was quiet. Berenice seemed to be struck by a new sort of shyness, one by which Ivan seemed curiously afflicted, as well. They were both happy to remain quiet, Berenice looking of the passenger window and Ivan focusing on his driving.

"I wonder if Vortala is back yet," Ivan said into the waning light as they sat in the dark bushes.

"I don't know," Berenice said. "He's due back any time, isn't he?"

"Yeah, but these things usually run long, not short."

"We'll find out when we get back, I suppose."

"Yeah."

They sat in silence again, waiting out the sunset. After a minute, Berenice slid her hand over into Ivan's. Ivan curled his fingers around it.

When they finally started back, in the moonlight, they walked along the water, with the lower risk of obstacles to trip them. It was definitely dinner time, according to the gnawing pit in Ivan's stomach, and he'd missed lunch today, too. Dinner, a meeting with Galeni and Vortala, and then sleep. They could handle new strategy tomorrow. The realization that he would not be sleeping alone tonight was still startling, and he glanced down at Berenice thoughtfully.

She looked back up at him with a question in her eyes. He just smiled and slid his arm around her waist. "What did my mother say to you, on the beach?" he asked.

Berenice let herself be pulled closer in toward him, smiling briefly. "She told me if I had any problems with you, I should mention Lynda Delahunt. Who is Lynda Delahunt?"

Ivan groaned as memory came to him, and Berenice laughed with real delight. "Oh, this must be a good story. Who is she?"

"She was a friend of my mother's," Ivan explained ruefully. "When I was around fourteen, I was convinced I had fallen in love with her. I decided that I—" He broke off, the amusement draining away. Someone was in the bushes to their right.

"What is it?" Berenice followed his eyes, and halted where she stood.

"It's all right," Ivan said, very aware of the stunner inside his tunic. "Probably someone from camp. Keep walking." He kept his eyes on the shrubs, keeping himself between Berenice and the bushes, one hand on his stunner.

He saw the figure emerge, the short form, the oversized head. "Hi, Ivan." The voice was achingly familiar. "Been a while."

"My god," Ivan breathed. "Miles?"

Chapter Text

Even as Ivan said the name, however, he saw the hunch to the shoulders, the reflexive stiffening of the spine at his mistake. "Mark," he said. "I'm sorry. I -- you've lost some weight."

Mark touched his stomach with one hand and rubbed at his face with the other. "It's been a rough month," he said. He looked almost withered, the skin loose and sagging on his form. He was by no means as thin as Miles, but he had lost his soft rotundity. He looked empty.

"Tell me about it." Ivan laughed shortly. "I --" He didn't know what to say. This day was shaping up to a very surreal one. He was too off balance to be able to react. When Mark's eyes shifted to Ivan's left, Ivan was reminded of Berenice standing there. "I'm sorry. Lord Mark Vorkosigan, may I introduce Lady Berenice Vorpatril. My wife."

Mark's chin jerked up, and he stared at Ivan, then Berenice. He stood for several seconds looking quite as shocked as Ivan felt, then recovered himself and stepped forward. He offered her a hand. "Lady Berenice."

"Lord Mark. I'm honored." When she stepped forward to take his hand, Mark bowed over it, very formally.

"My pleasure," Mark told her. "I wasn't aware my cousin had relinquished the bachelor state. When did this happen?" The trace of irony in his voice was low-key, but unmistakable.

"A little after noon," Ivan said impatiently. His brain was finally starting to catch up. "Mark, what is happening out there? Where's Miles?"

All of the amusement drained out of Mark's face. "Ivan --" He paused. "We thought you knew. Miles is dead."

Ivan froze. It took several long seconds before he could even think to speak. "We --" He broke off. He felt Berenice touch his elbow, but couldn't look at her. His eyes were locked on Mark, willing him to be somehow mistaken.

Mark met his eyes without flinching, and there was sympathy in his eyes, but no yielding. Ivan started to shake his head, but stopped himself. He wet his lips, then said. "All right. I think you need to talk with everyone."

"I've seen your mother already, and Illyan. Caught a ride back to camp with them, and came out to wait for you. Illyan said I shouldn't talk to anyone until I'd talked to you."

"Is my uncle all right?"

"When I last saw him, yes. He's declared himself emperor, and has been drumming up support from other governments."

Ivan exhaled slowly. "Is General Vortala back yet? Or Galeni?"

"Not when I left, but I've been walking out here for most of an hour."

"All right." Ivan glanced down at Berenice and forced a brief smile. He didn't think for an instant that it was a decent attempt at one. "All right. Let's go back and talk there."

#

"I came over on a newsie ship from Earth," Mark explained a few minutes later. He had a real meal, stew and bread and some sort of flavored bug butter pudding, and was eating slowly but steadily. Ivan didn't know if he ever planned to stop. "My parents arranged to smuggle me on board out of Escobar in a new Betan single-passenger re-entry pod. It's shielded, so they can't detect it if it's not boosting. Took me four days to get from the local wormhole entry point to orbit, and then seventeen hours to decay and crash."

The wedding party and Galeni's team, which had just arrived, were all sitting around Mark, watching him with deep fascination.

"Are you --" Ivan broke off, considering his question, "um, stable?"

Mark smiled tightly. "I'll manage."

It was not exactly an answer, but Ivan suspected Mark didn't have much more of one to offer. Illyan and Galeni were both eying Mark warily, as if afraid he might burst into flame.

"So," Galeni said. "We do have an emperor. Emperor Aral." He looked at Ivan, measuring him. Ivan straightened his shoulders without thinking. Berenice, seated beside him, frowned thoughtfully.

"And," Lady Alys put in, studying Mark, "you for his heir."

"No," Mark said.

"No?" Lady Alys repeated.

"I will not be emperor on Barrayar. Not for my father, and not for anyone. For my own sake and for Barrayar's. We don't need another Yuri."

"I think you sell yourself short," Illyan said mildly.

"I don't." Mark's voice was absolutely flat. There was no arguing with that certainty.

Byerly Vorrutyer cleared his throat delicately. "Well, then. Do the emperor and empress intend another child, then?"

Mark looked at Ivan. So did everyone else. Ivan grimaced. "And what would you have done if I were dead?" he asked.

"I don't know," Mark said. "We were planning with the idea that you weren't. What would you have done if Father was dead?"

"I don't know," Ivan gritted out. "I was –"

"I know," Mark cut him off. "Planning with the idea that he wasn't. He's not. You're not. Lucky everyone. Our idiotic optimism didn't bite us all in the ass. Can we move on?"

"Lord Vorkosigan," Berenice said. Ivan's throat tightened, hearing the title applied to someone other than Miles, but Mark didn't blink.

"Lady Berenice," he said.

"This is a bit harder for us than for you right now. You've had some time to adjust. Please respect that." Her voice was completely level.

"It's all right," Ivan said, touching her on the elbow. Berenice turned to stare at him, but before she could speak, Mark spoke.

"No, Ivan. I apologize, Lady Berenice. I assure you, this is not easy for me, either." Ivan could readily believe that. Mark looked only marginally in the world of the sane, and given his normal state, that was extremely distressing.

"Mark," Ivan said, struck by a thought. "Where is Kareen?"

Delia and Martya straightened slightly. Mark actually smiled, albeit a bit ruefully. "Off with my mother, playing diplomat. Mother found us on Beta Colony and sent me back to Father while Kareen traveled on with her. It will probably be a long separation." His smile slid away.

"You're here for a while, then?"

"I don't have any way to get back," Mark pointed out. "Father sent me to formally authorize you as his Voice, if I could find you, and to pass on some information about the state of things. And then to help out, if you can use me. Can you use me?"

"Hell, yes. Glad to have you."

Mark gave another, brief smile. Ivan could see something in his eyes, a guarded flickering. He opted not to press; the crowd was still a bit too public. He'd pin Mark down alone later.

They talked of the resistance after that, of Vorhalas's death and the rescue of Lord Vortugalov, of the move to the South Continent and the Next Great Butter Bug Raid, which Martya recounted with great enthusiasm. Mark listened to it all with apparent fascination, and recounted a few tidbits himself.

"After mother had strong-armed the Betan government into support against the Cetagandan invasion force, she started looking out for more contact points. Elena Bothari-Jesek, of all people, came to her them, and roped her into this insane plan to head to Jackson's Whole and pitch a Deal to Baron Fell, with whom I have, hem, some small experience."

Ivan, who knew the fringes of this story, shifted uncomfortably and looked over at Illyan, who was looking remarkably bland.

"Mother was, from what I hear, remarkable."

"Naturally," Galeni said in a fascinated murmur.

Mark grinned at him. "She managed to out-argue Fell, spin out risk-reward scenarios, and lock him down to an agreement of support in exchange for some plans of his own. He's got a real vested interest in Barrayar's survival, now, or he doesn't collect."

There were a handful of other supporters the Emperor and Empress had managed to lock down: Marilac, Vervain, Selistan Five. Ivan listened to the list, his forehead creasing.

"Mark," he said at last, when his cousin paused long enough to allow for an interruption. "If this entire inter-system force has been gathering, why – what's going on with them? Why did you need to be smuggled through?"

Mark gave a tight little smile. "Political considerations," he said. "We can talk more later."

Ivan read the warning in his voice – some things weren't meant for all ears – and let it go at that. Reluctantly. Mark asked Lady Alys to recount how the wedding had gone, which she did admirably well, and everyone ate. Vortala's absence was only one of the things hanging over them now, but every quarter hour made it hang heavier.

When the sentry finally called the alert for approaching figures, Ivan and Galeni were both on their feet in an instant. "Vortala?" Galeni asked. Ivan just shook his head in non-answer; they'd know soon enough.

When Vortala finally came into sight, the entire camp seemed to let out a breath. Ivan moved forward to take the man's hand. "How did it go?" he demanded. "Any losses? Was the mission a success? Who was the prisoner? Is he all right?"

Vortala held up a hand to stall the spate of questions. He looked exhausted and dirty. "Two injured, my lord," he replied. "No deaths. We rescued Lord Auditor Vorgustafson. He is uninjured."

Ivan stared, stunned, as the stout auditor moved up behind Vortala, offering his hand. "My thanks to you, Lord Ivan," he said, voice gruff. "I understand from Takis here that you're the one who accomplished my rescue."

"Lord Auditor Vorgustafson." Ivan bowed shallowly to a man, covering shock. "It's… an honor, sir. I'm glad we could be of some help." This possibility hadn't even occurred to him, when considering who the prisoner might be. One of Gregor's auditors. The political potential of this ally was barely measurable.

"Well," said Vorgustafson charitably. "Perhaps we should sit down and see what use we can be to each other, eh?"

"And to Barrayar, sir," replied Ivan.

"And to Barrayar," Vorgustafson allowed.

"We've… had an interesting visitor ourselves, General, my Lord Auditor," Ivan said. "Lord Mark Vorkosigan has arrived from the far side of the wormhole."

Vortala jerked his head back, shocked. Vorgustafson's eyes glinted. From his place by the fire, Mark swirled a bite of bread in his stew, popped it in his mouth, and waved.

"Well, well," muttered Vorgustafson. "It looks like we have a lot to talk about."

"Aral Vorkosigan?" asked Vortala.

"Alive," Ivan said. "We'll give more information to everyone tomorrow morning, but Emperor Aral is alive and well, and has authorized me as his Voice here on Barrayar."

Vortala looked curiously over toward Mark at that, but didn't comment. Ivan cleared his throat. "Lord Vorkosigan also brought word that his brother Miles is dead," he said, looking at Vorgustafson, whose eyebrows lowered.

"Can't say as it's much of a shock," Vorgustafson said after a moment, "but I'd wished for better news."

"I am sorry, Lord Ivan," put in Vortala.

"Thank you," said Ivan.

"We can talk more about strategies in the morning."

"Yes. Good. Lord Auditor Vorgustafson, I know you must be tired, but would you be willing to sit down with General Galeni tonight? I'd like for you and him to discuss your current situation and get the story of your arrest from you in some detail."

"Of course."

"All right. Glad to have you with us, sir." He offered his hand, and Vorgustafson took it, clasping it in a bonecrushing grip. "If you gentlemen will excuse me?"

At their polite assents, Ivan turned back toward the fire. Dyson Vorinnis caught his eye and moved towards him, but Ivan shook his head. He could talk to Dy later. He needed Mark, now. Mark, and Galeni, and then sleep.

Dy halted, but nodded, watching Ivan move over to Mark.

"Walk with me," Ivan told Mark. Mark grimaced down at his food, and Ivan turned his eyes heavenward, seeking patience. "Bring a rat bar, if you need to."

Mark made a face, then looked wistfully at his bowl. "Pass." He heaved himself up to his feet.

Berenice started to rise, but Ivan motioned her down with one hand. Her eyebrows shot up.

Ivan grimaced and shrugged one shoulder, jerking his head to Mark. This was, he suspected, not the time to foist an unknown on his cousin. Berenice pursed her lips, but settled. Something in her expression, however, seemed to promise they would be Discussing Things later. Ivan had a lot of those talks ahead of him. He suspected Berenice had better be at the top of his list.

Well, Mark first. Then Berenice. Ivan led the way down towards the water, finding a quiet spot for the pair of them to sit. Mark didn't say anything, pacing along glumly.

When they finally sat, Ivan studied Mark for a minute. "How are you, really, Mark?"

"How do you think?" Mark asked sourly. Ivan blew out his breath, and Mark grimaced. "Sorry," he said. "I've been better. Five days in a single-passenger pod, without a real meal. The week or so before that I was stuck on the news ship, stowed away. I'm away from Kareen, away from my therapist and my parents. New pressures. I really am Lord Vorkosigan now, for all the good that does anyone. I never wanted that."

"Yeah." Ivan absorbed this. "Are you – Mark, I don't want to be offensive, but are you really in control now? Can I rely on you?"

"I'll let you know if you can't." Mark's voice was very flat.

Ivan nodded, rubbing at his jaw. "Okay. So… what's happening out there, with the fleet? The Cetagandan forces have got to be split. With all those forces you were naming, they can't get in here and break us free?"

Mark exhaled slowly. "Ivan, Barrayar's been mined."

Ivan tried and failed to process that. "Mined?"

"Nuclear mines. There are fifty-nine of them, according to the Cetagandans. One for each District capital. They're spouting rhetoric about the vile Barrayaran assault, and they're willing to destroy the planet rather than lose it. Father can't send the fleet through the wormhole without killing… I don't even know how many. Too many. Most. Killing Barrayar, in the end."

Ivan couldn't breathe. He stared at Mark, feeling the tightness in his throat, then pushed to his feet and turned, looking out at the water. He rubbed his face, ran his hands through his hair. Mark waited for him without commenting.

"Mined," Ivan said at last. "And your father thinks they'd really…?"

"In a heartbeat," Mark said. "He thinks they may be relying on it, in fact. 'Just give me a reason,' you know how those things go. They are pissed, Ivan. I can't even start to tell you how pissed they are. They're saying Miles stole a year's worth of haut-babies on their way to Rho Ceta. They say as hostages. No one knows what the hell was going on with it. They took his ship with the replicators on board. He was dying of some… I don't know. They sent his remains to Father on Sergyar. They're keeping Ekaterin. She got some kind of kangaroo court trial and a life sentence on some prison planet. They're serious, Ivan, and they're ready to do just about anything."

Ivan couldn't seem to marshal his thoughts. Everywhere his mind turned, there were abrupt new walls. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Mines. Hell. "So… we're really just screwed, then," he said, feeling the dullness in his own voice. "Give in or die en masse." He wondered which he should choose. Hell.

Mark gave a bitter little smile. "Well, I guess that's up to you."

"Me?" Ivan stared blankly at him.

"Father's coming through in seventy-three days. You just need to clear the path."

Chapter Text

When Ivan returned to Berenice some time later, she was gone from the fire. He sought her out and found her in her old sleeping area. He watched her for a minute. She looked extremely chilly.

"She looks angry." Ivan turned. Lord Thomas was standing there, watching Ivan coolly.

"Oh," Ivan said, running responses through his head. Yeah, they all sounded equally stupid. He needed to just pick one, and not the one that started, It's not what you think… "Yes. We had a bit of an argument."

"She's still my sister, you know," Lord Thomas said.

Ivan wondered if young Vorkalloner had ever been in an actual fight. Probably not. Ivan had been in several. It was unfair, really. He'd been targeted by angry husbands over young ladies for years, and now that he actually was a husband, he was targeted by angry brothers. He really didn't deserve this. "I know, Lord Thomas," he told the man. He clapped Thomas on the arm and moved past him confidently, leaving Thomas standing alone, his righteous anger deflated before it could build up any real momentum.

Berenice looked up as he approached. "This is the women's area," she pointed out.

"I know," Ivan said. "Why are you here?"

"I was under the impression you didn't need my input tonight."

"Berenice – " He became aware of Martya watching him from one of the bedrolls, completely failing to suppress a grin. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. "I'm sorry, Berenice. I needed to talk to Mark alone. I want to talk to you now, though. Before anyone else." A nasty little part of him wanted to add, If you aren't too busy with important matters of state here, but he suppressed it. No room for two wounded egos here.

Berenice stared at him for a moment, then climbed to her feet. "Let's talk, then," she said. A studied indifference in her tone told Ivan as clearly as any fury that he was not out of the doghouse yet. He offered her his arm. She studied it for a few seconds, then lightly placed her hand on it. He led her to a quiet corner in the cave complex, not wanting to venture out into the dark again.

When they stopped, securely away from prying ears, Ivan placed a lamp on the floor. Berenice dropped her hand from his arm and looked at him, her expression one of polite interest.

"I don't intend to exclude you from this," Ivan said, skipping any preambles.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "It was the first meeting since we got back," she pointed out.

"It was Mark," Ivan said. "Mark is… " He paused, looking for a way to describe his cousin in terms that were both fair and honest. "Mark has some trust issues," he said at last. Berenice eyed him skeptically. "Some serious trust issues," Ivan amended.

"You didn't even ask him," Berenice said.

Ivan hesitated. "I know I can trust your discretion," he said, although he was by no means as confident as he tried to sound. "I want to make sure I say clearly that this is not public information, though." Berenice just watched him, waiting. "Mark is not a stable person," Ivan said. "He's been through… I don't even know how much. Torture and abuse, at the bottom of it, with years of psychological damage and identity issues. The fact that he's sane at all says a lot about his will and strength of character. But Miles's death and his trip here have to have been, um, serious stressors. And when he gets stressed, his paranoid side comes out. Explosively. I didn't want to add to those stresses."

Berenice sat quietly for a minute. Ivan had to resist the urge to add something, but managed to keep silent and give her a moment to process the information. It was oddly restful, talking with someone who liked to take her time before responding.

"All right," Berenice said at last. "What did he tell you?"

"That we're in trouble." Ivan outlined briefly the situation as Mark had described it: the galactic coalition, the mines, the deadline. She didn't interrupt.

After he was done, the silence seemed to loom heavier between them. Berenice, whose eyes had remained on his face for the full account, let them drop to focus on the air between them.

Several seconds ticked by. "What are you going to do?" she asked at last.

"Don't know yet. Talk to Duv, first. I want to give him this outline, get him thinking about what to do next."

"If you can't do it… will Vorkosigan really take that chance? What if we fail?"

"He has to take the chance. The Seedies are betting their game on the fact that he won't. If he doesn't risk it all, he loses automatically."

Berenice looked unconvinced, but didn't argue. "You're going to talk to General Galeni now?"

"Want to come with me?"

#

 

Galeni and Lord Auditor Vorgustafson were talking intently, complete with visual aids in the form of little pebbles piled in what seemed haphazard heaps, but were undoubtedly actually some sort of complex economic model. They paused their conversation when Ivan and Berenice approached.

Lord Auditor Vorgustafson did not, Ivan thought, look pleased at the interruption. The man looked absolutely exhausted, weary and bitter and spent. Galeni said, "Do you need me, my lord?"

"I will," Ivan said. "But you two should finish up first. I don't want to keep Lord Auditor Vorgustafson from sleep."

When Vorgustafson paused, glancing at Berenice, Ivan said, "We'll just wait over there, shall we?" Without waiting for a response, he put a hand on Berenice's elbow and guided her away. He heard the male voices start up again behind them after a momentary pause.

Berenice glanced back over his shoulder, then looked up at him, a question in her eyes. Ivan shrugged in answer. "Vorgustafson is worried he'll say something not appropriate for mixed company. He's exhausted. We'll get what we need from Galeni later."

She nodded, though her expression remained a bit skeptical. They sat. After a moment of silence, Berenice asked, "Does Lord Vorkosigan know where the mines are placed?"

"No," Ivan said. "Or, not specifically, anyway. There's supposed to be one in each District capital. How exactly we're supposed to find them is apparently left as an exercise to the reader." He grimaced. "And the reader, in this case, seems to be me. I don't see why Mark can't have taken this all over. He's closer to the title than I am."

Berenice raised her eyebrows. "Apparently not anymore," she said. "Not if the Emperor has said otherwise."

"Well, by blood, then," Ivan said. He knew he probably sounded petulant, but it had been a disappointing evening. He had felt such a surge of hope when he'd seen Mark – this new burden of responsibility felt an unfair gift for Mark to have brought him.

"Lord Vorkosigan didn't feel he was capable of it, I suppose," Berenice observed mildly. "I suspect he was right. He would have a harder path to walk than you do, given his position and reputation."

"I don't feel particularly capable of it myself," Ivan said sourly.

"No, you don't want to do it," Berenice corrected him. "And you don't know if the job is possible. That's not doubting your capabilities, that's evading responsibility for the consequences."

Ivan glowered at her. "My god, you sound like my mother."

"Why, thank you, my lord."

She was so deadpan, Ivan had to grin, albeit reluctantly. "I was hoping for more," he said ruefully.

"Seventy-three days is not very long," she said after a brief pause.

"No," he agreed. "I can't even work out where to begin. Duv will have some ideas. We'll probably be up late. This has been a really long day." His eyes ached with exhaustion. He hadn't slept well the night before, and didn't think he'd see a bedroll much before dawn.

"Yes," Berenice agreed. "But that's not exactly what I meant. A pregnancy is eight and a half months."

"Oh."

She smiled briefly. "If you're convinced Emperor Aral will arrive as planned, I think this war will be over one way or another before we can be certain a viable pregnancy has even taken. If one does."

Ivan was sure he would have gotten around to thinking of that himself, eventually. Soon. "Oh, hell."

Berenice turned her head. "Poor timing, I suppose. If Lord Vorkosigan had arrived yesterday, we might both have been spared this."

"Spared –" Oh, hell. "That's not what I meant!"

She shook her head. "It's all right, my lord," she said. "I knew what I was committing to."

The worst part of it was, Ivan knew she was right. If Mark had arrived a week before, he would never have made Berenice the offer of marriage. If Mark had arrived yesterday… he didn't know. Ivan wanted to repeat his protests, but didn't know how to do it credibly. He supposed he couldn't. They weren't credible. Ivan regretted the marriage.

But he didn't regret Berenice. There was a distinction there, but Ivan didn't know how to articulate it.

He was relieved of the need by the approach of Duv Galeni. He wasn't sure whether he was grateful or not. "We'll talk about this later," he promised her weakly. She just smiled, a tight, unhappy expression that did not sit well on her face.

"My lord, my lady," Galeni said. He extended one hand to a patch of sand, as if to claim it, then glanced the question at Ivan.

"Oh, please, sit," Ivan said. "I get tired just watching you stand there."

"Ha." Galeni folded himself down onto the sand, rubbing with one hand at the small of his back. "The day isn't over yet, unfortunately," he said. "I still need to talk with General Vortala. I presume you will want to be included on that, my lord?"

"You don't know the half of it, Duv," Ivan said. Galeni's eyebrows raised, and Ivan grimaced at him. "Mark had some… news." That was one way to describe it, he supposed.

Galeni sat quietly through the recitation, expression growing tenser and more deeply lined as Ivan spoke. "Lord Mark – Lord Vorkosigan has no idea where these mines are placed, then?"

Ivan shook his head, and Galeni turned to look over towards the main cavern area. Nearly everyone was asleep by now, but Delia and Lord Thomas were talking quietly by the fire, and Ivan thought that was where Galeni's eyes rested. "Do we know that they actually exist?" Galeni asked after a moment's consideration.

"The mines?" Ivan asked, startled. Galeni spread his hands, as if to encompass the range of possibilities under discussion. Ivan supposed he had a point.

"If they're not," Berenice said, "does it do us any harm to assume they are?" Both men turned to her, and she smiled slightly. "Whether we succeed or fail, I am assured, Emperor Aral will be leading the fleet through the wormhole at the appointed time. What difference does it make if we assume it's not a bluff and we've failed completely, and are proven wrong?"

Galeni considered this argument for a minute. "I can't argue with that."

"Well, we might all die of heart failure before he gets here," Ivan said ruefully. "But I don't think it is a bluff." He tried to articulate what was mostly an intuitive belief. "There has to be a reason they would telling the rest of the galaxy and not those of us here on-planet. The psychological impact would certainly be effective here."

"You think it is so we can't take actions to eliminate the threat," Galeni said.

"Yes," said Ivan, grateful for the succinct summation. "Can you think of another explanation?"

"They may be saving the threat," Berenice said thoughtfully. "If Emperor Aral has assembled a multi-system fleet, they needed to neutralize him immediately. It isn't a bluff they can use more than once. They may be saving it here."

It sounded unfortunately logical to Ivan. He turned to Duv, who was frowning thoughtfully. "Duv? Thoughts?"

"I think," Galeni said after a moment, "that Lady Berenice is right that it does not matter. We should operate as if the threat is real, because the consequences of being wrong are overwhelmingly slanted in that direction. If this is all a bluff, we'll have a nice surprise in the end."

"All right," Ivan said. "Berenice?"

She didn't answer right away, tilting her head and watching him. Ivan waited a few beats, then explicated, "Do you agree with the reasoning?"

"Oh," she said. "Yes."

"So we're in deep shit, then," Ivan said bluntly. Berenice raised her eyebrows at him, but Ivan just raised his right back at her. He wasn't going to dispute her right to be in on this conversation, but he wasn't going to turn it into a parlor discussion for the sake of feminine sensibilities, either.

Galeni's eyes flicked to Berenice, too. "The situation is grave, my lord," he replied after a fractional pause. Ivan thought Berenice might be suppressing a smile.

"Where do we start?" Ivan asked

Galeni blew out his breath. "With the hardest parts," he said. "We'll need time to assemble and drill the teams who will defuse the bombs. We will need to strike concurrently at all of the mines, or the Cetagandans may be provoked to detonate one in retaliation for losing another."

"All fifty-nine?" Berenice said. "At once?" She sounded incredulous. Ivan couldn't blame her.

"No, he's right," he said. "Hell. Duv, we're going to need some kind of communication system they can't scramble. It doesn't need to last very long, but for the operational window, we'll need to be able to coordinate at a distance. As long as they can't pin down exact locations for the origins of the signals, we may need to accept that they'll know we're talking about something."

"That can wait a few days," Galeni said, but he nodded acknowledgment of the point. "Our second priority, equal to the first, needs to be determining the locations of the mines. If we know where they are and have the manpower to disarm them, other details can be tailored to our abilities. Without those two pieces, we will certainly fail."

"Well, thank god," Ivan said. "Here I thought this was going to be hard."

They sat a few seconds in silence, contemplating this bleak assessment. "What else do we need?" Ivan asked after a moment.

Galeni grimaced. "Ideally? We should have some sort of diversion, to make them think our communications are about something else. If we can gain access to their communication net, that would be a help, but that may be more than we can accomplish in the time frame. Beyond that, we need to know where the mines are before we can evolve a plan to disarm them. We will know what we need when we know what we must accomplish."

"All right." Ivan gave himself a few seconds of silence to absorb this and brace for the next topic. "Vorgustafson. What do I need to know?"

Galeni needed a moment to shift gears, the effort visible in his face. "It has been a difficult few weeks for him, my lord," he said at last. "He was nearly captured in Seville Gulch, and the Cetagandan forces sent to retrieve him had brought nerve disruptors. He took some damage from a near miss, but they left a dozen or so dead or disabled in their wake. He kept moving for a time, but was captured in Vorpinski Politas. They –" Galeni glanced at Berenice. "The prison conditions were not good. Their intent appeared to be to extract a public confession from him. Eventually."

Ivan could interpret that one entirely too well. He suspected Berenice understood the meat of it, as well, though her experiences probably didn't let her spin out the kind of details his mind was insisting on supplying for him. Well, and thank god Mark hadn't heard it.

"Then he doesn't have much of immediate interest for us, as far as information goes?"

"No, my lord."

"Everything else can wait until morning, then," Ivan said decisively.

"I should speak to General Vortala first –"

Ivan shook his head. "Morning," he reiterated. "Get enough sleep tonight, Duv. That's an order. Seventy-three days isn't a lot, but it's not so short that an extra four or five hours sleep will break us. We need to be sure our early reasoning is sound, and we can't do that if we're a bunch of zombies."

"Understood," Galeni said, with a brief flicker of a smile.

Ivan rose to his feet with some effort and offered Berenice a hand, which she accepted. "This night wound up running later than I expected," he told her apologetically. "I think we should be glad we stayed at the house, rather than coming straight back to camp."

"A few artificial hours of leisure?" she asked.

"Something like that, I suppose." New wife or no, right now, Ivan wanted nothing more than to collapse and be asleep as soon as possible. It must be getting close to dawn by now. A figure moved against the firelight, heading towards them. Ivan blinked away the spidery cobwebs at the edges of his vision.

Berenice, on his arm, tensed slightly. "It's Captain Vorinnis," she said mildly, her voice showing none of that sudden tension. She turned her face up to his, apparently searching for something in his expression for an instant. Whether she found it or not Ivan couldn't guess; she only said, "I will go on ahead. Follow on when you're done with the captain?"

Ivan frowned at her. "Is everything—" But she was already moving on, and Dy was close enough now to say, "Ivan! Congratulations!"

"What for?" Ivan asked, bewildered. The clue dropped a second too late. "Oh. The wedding. Thanks."

"How did it go?" Dy asked. "Better than our side of things, I hope!" His tone was jovial and almost knowing, with the implications of a wink.

Ivan felt a startling rush of possessive irritation with Dy for presuming to comment on Berenice in what was almost an inappropriate manner. It was muffled by the alarm he felt at the other implications of Dy's comment. "Wait," he said. "What went wrong on your end? Vortala didn't say anything about problems." He glanced around for the general, presumably waiting in the wings to detail this latest disaster.

"Calm down, Ivan!" Dy said with a little laugh. "I didn't mean that. Just… you were getting married. I was riding into combat with a group of nervous soldiers. Your day was a little more cheerful and upbeat than mine."

Ivan could only stare at him. "I – right." He tried to think of something to say that wasn't just an explosion. He didn't want to talk to Dy; he wanted sleep. He knew, however, that he had put Dy off too many times already this week; a dismissal now, for nothing other than sleep, would offend the man, and with good reason.

"So, tell me about it," Dy said. "Did you make it through without stuttering?"

"We did all right," Ivan said, a bit guarded. "You'll probably get to see the whole thing somewhere down the line." It occurred to him, abruptly, that he would need to have Lord Thomas move the recording, which was undoubtedly in Vorpinski Politas. If they needed it, nine or ten months down the road, Vorpinski Politas might well be gone.

Dy flashed a grin at him. "No regrets, then, about giving up bachelorhood?"

It was all just too much. The conversation had taken a turn towards the surreal, and Ivan just didn't fit in it anymore. They weren't two young officers meeting in a bar in Vorbarr Sultana shortly after one ended his honeymoon. They were the leader of an underground resistance and his old acquaintance, and Ivan wasn't allowed to have regrets about his marriage. His marriage wasn't about him.

"I – no." Ivan changed the subject. "Vortala said there were two injuries. You weren't hurt, were you?"

This let Dy chatter on for few minutes about his role in the operation and the performance of his five-man unit. None of them were among the injured, though their timing had been slightly off; Dy was not fully satisfied, and thought drills might help polish off some rough edges in their execution. Ivan listened without really absorbing, steered them back over towards the sleeping area, laughed obediently at one or two little quips, and made his escape as soon as he could.

Dy left him with a meaningful, "Good night," and a little wink, and Ivan watched him head off toward his bedroll. He looked up at the sky, which was not quite as dark as it had been an hour before. Then he headed for his sleeping area, neatly curtained off.

Berenice was already there, changed into an old oversized work shirt and a pair of extremely fuzzy socks. She was curled up on her side, facing away from him, and seemed to be asleep. Ivan looked down at her for a minute, his lips twisting into a half-smile. Then he pulled off his tunic and sat to unlace his boots.

After a moment, Berenice, awake after all, spoke behind him. "My lord?" she asked.

"Please," Ivan said wearily, "Can we try to use names? I feel really… uncomfortable when you call me that in bed." There was a brief silence.

"Ivan," she said at last. "How well do you know Captain Vorinnis?"

"Pretty well, I guess?" Ivan said, turning to look back at her. She was looking up at him, her face a pale splotch in the darkness. "We were friends in Vorbarr Sultana, and he's been with me since the beginning, here. He's a good man. Loyal."

She was silent.

"Why?" Ivan asked warily.

She shook her head. After a few second she said, "I was just wondering. Come to bed? You need to sleep."

She rolled back over, and he looked down at her for another few breaths, then slid in beside her. He rested one hand on her upper arm briefly, giving it a gentle squeeze. Rolling onto his back, Ivan looked up at the disappearing stars. The camp was waking up when he finally fell asleep.

Chapter Text

When Ivan woke, he was alone in his bed. It took him a groggy minute to swim fully to awareness, and his shoulders were stiff when he pushed himself up to sit. The sun was high overhead, and the sticky southern heat beat down on the camp. Berenice had clearly already awakened and started her day.

Ivan took a moment to comb his hair and pull his boots on. He didn't bother with his tunic; it was too damned hot already. He did take the time to wash and depilate in a basin of water, and rummaged through his pack for a clean shirt. Appearances mattered, even here in the rough. The key to confidence, his mother had told him once, was knowing that you were better dressed, better groomed, and better prepared than everyone around you. Everyone around Ivan now wore dirty shirts and trousers. Ivan wore dirty trousers and a clean shirt. It was a sartorial leg up.

He emerged looking as groomed as he could, trying to convince himself he was better prepared than the rest of the group. His mother and Simon were examining some flimsies together, with a civil engineer named Demyan Kyparisis. Ivan didn't see Galeni anywhere. Delia and Martya were doing laundry, along with Martin Kosti, who seemed to have thrown himself into the task with more goodwill than most of the men around camp.

General Vortala was talking with Dy Vorinnis over by the supply area, looking grave and stern. A few of the military men were wrestling down by the water, supervised by a benignly amused Sergeant Cox. Dr. Jourdan was down by the butter bug hutch with Dr. Borgos, the two of them having an animated conversation about something Ivan probably had no hope of understanding. Mark and Berenice were sitting together by a cookfire, having a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Ivan paused when he spotted this last couple, staring at the two of them from a few dozen yards away. They were having a serious conversation about something, though Ivan could not guess what. Mark looked surly, but you couldn't judge anything from that; Mark always looked surly. Berenice was turned mostly away from him, so he could only see a sliver of her profile. Ivan tried to calculate whether an interruption was likely to do more harm than good. He hoped they weren't talking about him, but didn't think the odds were especially in his favor.

He ought to check in on Galeni first, anyway, so cast a last thoughtful glance at his cousin and his wife, but turned toward Illyan and his mother. His mother saw him first, and raked her gaze down and up him before giving an approving maternal smile. "Ivan, dear," she said. "Good morning."

"Good morning, mother," he said, offering her a proper Vorish bow. She inclined her head in response. "Good morning, Simon, Kyparisis," he greeted the other two men with individual nods.

"Lord Ivan," Illyan greeted with grim formality. "You were up late last night. I trust everything is all right?"

Ivan blew out his breath. "Things are… complicated," he said, his eyes flicking to Kyparisis. "We'll talk more a little later."

Illyan took the hint. His eyes narrowed briefly, but he didn't comment further. Ivan hurried on past him. "I haven't seen Duv; is he around?"

"He's still asleep," Lady Alys answered.

"Oh," said Ivan. "Well, good. We'll wait for him to wake up, then, and he'll probably want to talk to Vortala. We can all meet around midafternoon. I'll want both of you there, of course."

"Of course," said Illyan dryly. "I will look forward to it."

Kyparisis was sitting awkwardly, clearly not sure whether he ought to be excusing himself. Ivan gave him a reassuring smile. "I can't really stay to talk," he said to Illyan. "Don't harass Duv, when he wakes up."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of it," Illyan replied.

Ivan offered another little bow to his mother, who inclined her head in gracious dismissal, and then moved away from the trio, leaving them to their conversation. So, Galeni was still asleep. Good. In spite of Ivan's words to him, he half-expected to find that Galeni had been up after only four or five hours of sleep, anxious to get on with his duties. He ought, he realized, to check in with Delia, trying to get a finger on Galeni's emotional pulse. If Galeni broke down, Ivan was not going to be in a good place, and Ivan was putting a great deal of pressure on the man. He ought to keep his eyes open for that sort of thing.

For now, though, he made his way toward Mark and Berenice, taking a long curving path to be sure Mark would see him before he was in range to overhear anything. Mark glowered as he approached, and Ivan returned him a rueful smile. Berenice turned when Mark's attention shifted, offering Ivan a polite nod. Ivan returned it a little more deeply, almost an echo of the bow he had offered his mother. "Good morning, Berenice. Good morning, Mark."

"Good morning," Berenice replied.

"What do you want?" Mark asked.

"To bask in your sunshine, Sunshine," Ivan retorted. He dropped himself onto the sand between the camp chairs Mark and Berenice were using. "I want to talk."

Berenice folded her hands in her lap and looked at him, her eyebrows arched. Ivan read that one loud and clear, and took a minute to plan his question. "I'd like Berenice to stay, if you're comfortable with that. Are you?"

Mark stared at him, expression dour. "I didn't suggest you make her leave," he pointed out.

"Are you?" Ivan repeated.

"Whatever," Mark said.

This was already going badly. Ivan set his teeth and pressed on. "I wanted to check up on you," he said. "I don't think we really talked as much last night as we should have. Things here… they've been a bit chaotic. I want to make sure –" He broke off. Mark waited, his brows lowered in a hostile glare. Berenice watched with the apparent interest of… hell, a sociologist, probably. On the Dynamics of Rank in Small Groups under High Stresses. Ivan was going to be a case study.

"Look," Ivan said at last. "I didn't expect to see you here. And I sure didn't expect that if you came, you were going to confirm my command here. But you're here, and you've placed yourself as my subordinate, and that goes both ways. I need to know you understand what I need from you, and I need you to know that if you need something from me, I'll do what I can to give it to you."

Mark's forehead smoothed. He looked at Ivan for a moment, his expression grim. Finally, he said, "You've changed."

Ivan, uncomfortable, shrugged in response. "We all have. We've needed to."

Mark's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "I suppose we have. I'm going to be all right, Ivan. If I need anything, I'll tell you." His eyes flicked sideways, "Or you, or course, Lady Berenice."

Berenice smiled briefly. "Thank you, Lord Mark," she said.

Mark's answering half-bow had a lot less sincerity in it than Ivan's would have. Or, he thought with a pang, Miles's. "Lady Berenice," he began, then broke off and slid his eyes to Ivan. Ivan reflexively stiffened at the look he saw there, an all-too-familiar irony presaging something only a Vorkosigan could find amusing.

"Mark," he said in warning.

Mark did not take the nearly palpably blatant hint, continuing on with malicious good humor, "It occurs to me, Ivan, that it would help me a great deal if you would work to clarify our relative positions. And I know just the way."

"Whatever you're thinking," Ivan warned, "the answer is no. Just… don't even say it."

"Prince Ivan," Mark pronounced.

Beside him, Berenice, who had been watching all of this with understated amusement, went very still. Ivan tensed, his eyes going to her. Mark's twisted smile slid away. Ivan didn't look at him. Berenice was watching Ivan now, and there was a challenging look in her eyes. Ivan exhaled, long and slow.

"We'll talk about it later, Berenice?" he offered.

"Tonight," she agreed, her tone mild. Ivan could see the conversation as if it were written on stone tablet, laid before him with the force of inevitability. He supposed he had around another ten hours of Lord Ivan left to him. It did not, he told himself, matter as much as it felt like it did. To Berenice, it mattered far more. This was the right one to compromise on, to give her. He just didn't want to. Well, he could sulk for another ten hour or so. Then it would be time to man up.

Mark cleared his throat. "I was a little surprised to see you'd already managed to put yourself at the head of the group," he said. "Father and Mother thought you'd need to be talked into it. Mother sent me in armed with a dozen subtle psychological arguments."

Berenice's eyes lit, and her lips parted in amused anticipation, but Ivan held up his hand hastily. "Don't," he said, "tell me what they are, please." Mark smirked. After a second's thought, Ivan prudently added, "Or her, either! Or my mother. Consider them state secrets."

"As you command," Mark said. Ivan sneered at him.

"To be honest," Ivan said, "I did need to be talked into it. Galeni just got to me before you did. God, Mark, it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. He ambushed me in an upstairs bedroom –"

Mark's lips twitched. "I'm finding this story considerably more interesting, abruptly."

Berenice slid her eyes away, but Ivan thought she was smiling. "Sorry," Mark told her belatedly, without much conviction in his voice.

"Anyway," Ivan overrode him heavily, "Galeni got me alone – shut up, Mark – and dropped to his knees –"

Mark lifted his eyebrows, and Ivan just bulled on through, "And tried to put his hands between mine, right there and then. Just about gave me a heart attack. He gave me this enormous lecture on history and royal blood and the power of public opinion, and by the time he was done, I'd somehow agreed. It's become a lot less of an act and a lot more real since then."

Mark pursed his lips in a silent, appreciative whisper.

"He was right, I think," Ivan admitted. "Apparently, your father agrees with him."

"Father…" Mark hesitated. "Father is very tired. This attack is putting all of his marks on a single roll of the dice, but he says he doesn't have the energy for a long battle this time. He's choosing the best possible conditions, shaping a single assault, and then acting. If it succeeds, the war is over. If it fails, the war is over. Mother isn't very happy with the way he's structuring the assault, but she won't try to gainsay him."

Ivan nodded. "I can understand the appeal of that, right now."

"Me too," Mark said.

Berenice cleared her throat. "General Galeni is awake, Ivan."

Ivan turned, following the direction of her gaze toward the supply area. Galeni was speaking with General Vortala, who seemed to have shaken Dyson Vorinnis. "I should get something to eat, then," Ivan said. "We'll be meeting soon. Mark, you'll be there?"

Mark waved a hand in vague acknowledgment. As if Ivan's words had reminded him, he was again working his way through his bowl of groats, which looked lukewarm and unappealingly congealed. Ivan would leave it to Mark.

"Berenice," Ivan said, "can you go find your brother and Byerly Vorrutyer and ask them to come, as well? And your mother, too, come to think of it."

She tilted her head at him slightly. "Of course."

Ivan answered the question in her tone. "I think we need to start looking for political legitimacy. If we call your brother the heir to the Vorhalas countship, which I'm provisionally willing to do, and Byerly the regent for the newborn Count Dono, then we can assign your mother status as your father's voice here, and Mark can speak for the Vorkosigans. We're up to four out of sixty countships, which isn't bad for a start. I want to start building that core."

"And you," Mark put in. "The Imperial voice."

"Yeah," Ivan sighed. "And me." The Imperial goat.

"I will tell them," Berenice said.

"Thank you." Ivan pushed to his feet. "I'll need to find some people."

#

In the end, it was a combined session of military and political minds: Ivan and Berenice, the four district representatives, Lord Auditor Vorgustafson, and Lady Alys for the political; and Duv Galeni, General Vortala, and Simon Illyan for the military perspective. Ivan was growing uncomfortably aware that his military leadership was rather thin; after Galeni and Vortala, his next highest-ranking officer was Ivan himself. They would need men who could be trusted to command in crisis scenarios before they proceeded.

"...so, there we have it. We have seventy-two days now, and failure is not an option." Ivan had handled the briefing himself, sparing Mark the need to recount the details again. Ivan thought he was getting fairly practiced at them by now, and his cousin certainly hadn't spoken up to correct him. Mark was sitting silently, hunched on a camp chair, listening without looking at Ivan. "Suggestions?"

For a moment, there was silence as everyone absorbed the news, trying to transition from importers of data to exporters of ideas. It was a shift that took a mental effort.

Lord Thomas was the first to speak. "Do we actually know that the mines are even real?" he asked.

"No," Ivan answered. "We only have the Seedy threats to tell us. We're choosing to operate as if they are, however. If we discover somewhere in our planning that we were wrong, we can change direction then."

Lord Thomas looked as if he wanted to argue that, but did not. Ivan could sympathize. He understood the need for denial that seemed to drive everyone to that question first. Maybe it's all a bad dream... Well, and maybe it was, this time. Ivan wasn't prepared to bet Barrayar on that.

"We don't have the personnel," Vortala said, his tone blunt. "This kind of job needs specialists, and you can't train specialists in a field camp in two months."

"Priority one," Ivan agreed. "We get those specialists. Ideas?"

Vortala blew out his breath. "Assignments of that sort were always handled at a lower organizational level than mine," he said. "I could name two or three men with expertise in that area, but they will be the men most likely to have gone to ground. At least one has already been arrested."

"If --" Lord Thomas started to speak, then broke off.

"If?" Ivan prompted.

"Well," Lord Thomas said. "I was just thinking that if you're looking for men to actually do the work, you may have more success checking the municipal guards than the Imperial Service. Each guard unit will have a few men with training in handling explosive devices, and they're small enough that individual guardsmen are more likely to be able to know the men on the explosives squad."

"That's a good thought," Galeni said. "Do we have contacts within the municipal guards?"

"I can find a few within the Vorkalloner District," said Countess Vorkalloner.

Illyan added, "I have a few contacts I can try to make as well. Perhaps General Galeni and I can put our heads together after we're done here."

"All right," said Ivan. "We can start there. Once we have a few solid points of contact, we can branch out from there." He offered Lord Thomas a brief nod.

"Much as I loathe playing the cynic in such a situation," Byerly put in, "I doubt that even the Imperium's finest men can defuse a bomb that no one can find. Do we know where these mines are?"

There was a brief silence. "No," said Berenice after a moment.

"And you don't think that should be our first priority?"

"They're probably in the main military installations the Cetagandans have set up for themselves," Lord Thomas said. "They could set them up without anyone noticing."

"It would be interesting to analyze the placement of the military bases," Vorgustafson said, his words slow and deliberate. "They would certainly want the mines to be centrally located, but the bases would be easier to construct near the outskirts. If the military bases are more central as a rule, it would certainly suggest a separate motivation."

"I cannot speak to the military mind," Lady Alys said thoughtfully, "but I do not imagine even the Cetagandans would want a live nuclear mine in their own home. I know that a mile's difference would make little practical difference, but people do make emotional decisions."

"It occurs to me," Illyan said, "that we may be approaching this the wrong way."

When he didn't embellish on that, Ivan asked, "How so?"

"Hmm?" Illyan seemed distracted, as though he had not realized he'd spoken aloud. "Ah. I was just thinking that we don't actually need to deduce the locations of the mines. We need, instead, to decide who will have that information, and how to get to it."

"Who will have that information, then?" Ivan asked.

"The haut-governor," Vorgustafson said. "He will be the decision-maker about whether to detonate them."

"Ghem-General Nieran," Vortala said. "As commander of the military forces, he would have had to give the orders for the mines to be placed."

There was a brief pause. "Anyone else?" Ivan asked.

"Almost certainly," Galeni answered when it became clear no one else was going to. "But none we can rely on. There are surely a few hundred men who can locate at least one or two of the mines, but we can't predict with any certainty who they might be."

Ivan blew out his breath. "All right. Degtiar and Nieran. I suppose we can't just, um, snatch them and choke it out of them?"

"It seems improbable," Illyan said dryly.

Ivan felt his lips twitch into a rueful smile at Illyan's tone. Berenice overrode the nascent amusement with a firm, "What is a more probable option, then?"

Illyan glanced at Galeni. "Who for records?" Illyan asked.

"Ninkovich?"

"Possibly. I don't recall him handling stress well."

"Stephanopoulos?"

Berenice was frowning at them. "When could you find these men?" she asked.

"Mm," Galeni said, acknowledging her point wordlessly.

"What type of exercise are we talking about here, then?" Ivan asked.

Galeni paused, more to marshal his thoughts than anything else, Ivan thought. "We would need to infiltrate either the military base or the governor's palace. Either one would be challenging, to say the least. I am certain the data will be on code-locked machines which require physical access. Our operative would need to locate the machines, break through the security on them, find the data, and then bring it back to us."

There was a brief moment of silence. Ivan glanced over at Illyan, who was inspecting his boot. Ivan suspected Illyan was thinking of Miles as much as he was at that moment. Who could they rely on to accomplish the impossible?

"Mark!" he said abruptly.

Mark, who had yet to speak in this discussion, looked up, startled. "What?"

"You've had training in this sort of thing, right? You were taught all sorts of things."

Mark's eyes flickered briefly to Berenice, then back to Ivan. "I was taught how to kill. You want me to kill someone?"

"You could get in there," Ivan said.

"I can't."

"You have a better chance than anyone else we have." Ivan put a persuasive wheedle in his voice.

"I'd fail."

"You don't know that."

"Ivan, don't ask me to do this!" Mark's voice was rising now. "I can't do this!"

A quiet voice spoke from beside them. "I can." Startled, Ivan turned to meet the unfliching eyes of By Vorrutyer.

Chapter Text

It wasn't until much later that Ivan finally had a chance to sit down with Illyan. Byerly had given the barest outline of a plan, and Ivan had grudgingly given him three days to flesh it out, with access to any resources he needed. Byerly had promptly commandeered Mark and carried him off with a cheer that probably boded ill for Mark. Ivan was prepared, just now, to let his cousin suffer.

Countess Vorkalloner, General Galeni, and Simon Illyan had spoken for a time after that, about municipal guardsmen and Barrayaran geography and travel plans. Ivan expected that the countess and Illyan would be leaving soon to carry out their mission of tracking municipal guardsmen.

But first, he needed to talk with Illyan.

"Walk with me, Simon?" he asked.

Illyan was doing an inventory of his military-issue duffel bag, but looked up at Ivan's words. He frowned briefly at Ivan, but said only, "Of course." He climbed to his feet, a painstaking process, and smoothed the line of his tunic. Ivan waited for him to get himself settled, then started walking at a comfortable pace. He headed inland; it was an unpopular direction, and he wanted to be sure he could avoid interruptions.

Sensitive to the many nuances of the situation, Illyan did not speak as they walked, waiting for Ivan to start them off. When the water was no longer visible behind them through the brush, Ivan put a hand on Illyan's arm to stop him. "I think we're far enough."

"What is this about, Ivan?"

Ivan put his hands in his pockets and resisted the urge to pace. "Simon, I need to know why you trust By Vorrutyer." This niggling conflict had been there on the edges of his mind for months, and Ivan had been picking at it from time to time. It was almost a relief to open the wound and expose the fear to air again.

Illyan's forehead creased. "I see." He seemed to be considering the statement.

"I know that you trust him. I know that my mother trusts him, and Miles trusted him, and Dono Vorrutyer. But I never have, and I've never seen any real evidence that he can be trusted. I think you have. And I need to know what it is before I can give him this job."

There were a few seconds of very uneasy silence, at least from Ivan's perspective. It was anyone's guess what was going through Illyan's head, whether he was uneasy or contemplating the fall of light on the trees. Finally, he sighed. "You aren't going to particularly like this answer," he said, "but I'm afraid I can't remember most of the details."

Ivan, frustrated, thumped backward against a tree trunk and tipped his head back until he felt bark scratching his scalp. "Wonderful," he told the sky.

Illyan smiled, a bitter, twisted smile, full of the knowledge of what he had lost. "I am sorry," he said.

Ivan shook his head. "Not your fault," he said. He felt a need to be moving, but resisted it, drumming his fingers against the tree trunk. "All right," he said finally. "I understand. But I want you to tell me everything you can remember, then. As much as you can."

"All right." Illyan paused for a moment, as if trying to find the old neural pathways he needed, dusty, damaged, and dark in the recesses of his mind. "It… was tied up in the Yarrow Incident. How much do you know about that?"

"A little," Ivan said. "Count Vortrifrani and a lot of his crazy friends tried to blow up the Residence with an old jump-freighter." It had been thwarted by ImpSec and then-Colonel Lucas Haroche, who had bought the old building around eight years more. Ivan rubbed his upper arm, feeling abruptly cool even in the oppressive summer heat.

"Yes. It was… some time ago. It must have been between five and ten years, because I remember that Miles was off on one of his more exciting adventures, and I was… feeling a great deal of stress." Illyan's faint, embarrassed smile grew more sardonic. "You will understand why that particular emotional state doesn't let me pin down any particular assignment for him."

Ivan snorted a brief laugh. "Yeah, I can understand that." He refused to let his mind dwell more than that on Miles, not just now. There was too much else to be dealt with.

"At any rate, Lucas Haroche was assistant section chief for Domestic Affairs then. It was a bad time. There was something else – I can't recall exactly what – keeping General Pitney busy, and Lucas stumbled across something about the Yarrow itself that concerned him. He started looking into it, and Pitney let him have the reins. Pitney was near retirement then, and I think already losing his edge. He wasn't sure whether Haroche was up to the job. Haroche's work on the Yarrow case convinced him, and me." Illyan broke off briefly here, brooding over pasts that couldn't be changed.

Ivan realized, with an odd emotional flicker, that Lucas Haroche had almost certainly died with the rest of Vorbarr Sultana, still locked up in his cell in the Imperial prison to whose authority he had been remanded. He had nearly killed Illyan, in his ambitious panic, but now here they were, with Illyan still alive and Haroche gone, out in the greatest funeral pyre Barrayar had ever seen.

Well, the Cetagandans might top it, if we can't pull off a miracle in the next seventy-two days. Ivan prodded himself, and Illyan, back on track. "And Byerly?" he asked. "What was his part in all of this?"

Illyan sighed, and leaned against a tree himself. "He was involved. I know that I do trust him. He gained most of his Civilian Informant status as a result of his work there. I read the reports, and made the decision to offer him the position based on them, with consensus approval of the department heads." He shook his head. "He was caught up in the middle of things on the political end. He was somehow connected with the group, and found… information of some sort."

This was not as helpful as Ivan had hoped. "Do you remember anything specific at all about it?" he asked glumly.

"I recall that he once described me to Count Vortrifrani as an overgrown puppy of Aral Vorkosigan's, blinded by my own desire to see the world my own way. 'All bite, no sight,' he said. He has a way with words."

"That isn't really very useful."

"No." Illyan studied Ivan. "If you want the full story," he pointed out, "you might ask Byerly himself for it. He was, after all, there."

"Yeah," Ivan sighed. "I guess he was."

#

Ivan did not ask Byerly about the Yarrow Incident. He wrestled with the question for a few hours, but in the end, couldn't see how it would do more good than bad. He could either trust Illyan or not. Whatever story Byerly told, it wouldn't really make a difference in Ivan's choice. Trust Illyan's judgment, or not; trust Byerly, or not. He didn't think telling Byerly now that Ivan didn't have faith in him was likely to make the man more trustworthy.

So he would trust. He wondered if this was how Gregor had felt, resting so much on the performances and loyalties of men he had never even met. The Imperium rested in so many thousands of hands; considering that complex web made Ivan's head spin, just now. One had to trust one's subordinates not only for their own loyalty, but their ability to judge loyalty.

Of course, considering that raised the question again of Lucas Haroche. Illyan had trusted him, had named the man Illyan's own successor as head of ImpSec. Haroche had tried to kill Illyan. He almost managed step into Illyan's shoes, with amazing influence over the emperor himself. Illyan had misjudged.

So he could not trust. Around and around it went. He changed his mind ten times, then twenty. Towards the end, he seems to be focusing in on the line between faith and doubt, his oscillations speeding to a dizzying extent. His head hurt.

When he went to bed that night, the answer was still gnawing at him. He had seen Illyan and the countess off, had spoken with Dr. Jourdan about recruiting some communication specialists, and had assigned a team to foraging for Earth-descended botanical matter (their butter bugs were growing enzymatically unbalanced, according to Dr. Borgos).

Berenice had slipped into their curtained-off area a few minutes before Ivan, and was already changed. She looked up at him as he knelt to unlace a boot. "Something is bothering you," she said.

"We've been married less than forty hours," Ivan said. "You can already tell what I'm thinking?"

"The entire camp can tell what you're thinking. You're not being very subtle."

Ivan grimaced and didn't answer. She sat watching him, not saying anything. She had very loud silences. He finished getting his boot off and shifted to work on the other. She watched him. Finally, he said, "I don't want to talk about it right now."

"All right," she said easily. "Shall we talk about Lord Vorkosigan's suggestion from before instead?"

"That wasn't a suggestion," Ivan said sourly. "That was a bad joke."

She sat and watched him. Ivan glowered at her. "That is a really annoying habit you have," he told her.

"Is it?" she asked.

"Yes."

She sat and watched him. Ivan couldn't tell where in her expression it was lurking, but he could swear there was a smile hiding somewhere. Maybe in the corners of her eyes.

Oh, to hell with it. "Does it matter that much to you?"

She considered the question seriously for a few seconds. "It is more… hm. I think it is more that your refusal would mean something to me. Do you plan to fight against the inheritance?"

Ivan blew out his breath. "I don't know. Well, I do know, I suppose. I don't intend to. I just wish I could pretend I intended to a little longer."

The corners of her mouth twitched, but she regained control almost immediately. "I think I can understand that."

"If it matters to you," Ivan said, "I'll do it. Tomorrow."

She looked faintly startled. Surprised he'd given in so quickly? Probably. "Thank you," she said.

"Just so long as you appreciate what I'm doing for you," Ivan said. "Oh, god. I'll have to tell my mother." At least Illyan had left already. And Berenice's mother.

"Won't it be better to adjust with familiar people, rather than total strangers?" Berenice asked.

"No," Ivan predicted with glum certainly. "Total strangers would not be nearly as amused as the people here. And they would be a lot less likely to show their amusement. I can't even start to imagine the kind of jokes Byerly Vorrutyer will make."

"Very clever ones, I imagine."

"Ha." It was not a particularly humorous laugh.

Berenice paused a moment, then said, "You don't like him, do you?"

"Byerly? No."

She nodded. "I thought you didn't. He's very, um, caustic."

"Yeah. Like lye. Or flesh-eating Cetagandan acid beetles." His boots off, Ivan moved to sit next to her on the bed. "We got… really familiar during a weird political battle where Byerly was playing both sides in a really convoluted way. I never really unwound his motivations, and it's… well, it's unsettling to have him so deeply in my inner camp now."

She took a moment to digest this information. "Do you think he'll betray you to the Cetagandans? Betray us, I mean?"

"No." The answer was automatic, and Ivan had to stop to look at it for a minute. It was almost a relief, how quickly it had come. "No, I really don't. I think he's got too much tied up here; he doesn't want to give up. He's lost, too. I just… don't know what his endgame will be. Or when he'll decide it's time to move towards it. I don't trust that his strategy will match mine, or that he won't throw me on top of a Sergyaran worm nest to get past me."

"But you don't think he'll betray you to the Cetagandans?" she confirmed.

"No."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The – what?" He blinked at her.

Berenice shrugged one shoulder. "Well, you're Vor. If you need to die to save the planet from the Cetagandans, so be it. It's not as if you actually want to be Emperor, right?"

"I sure as hell don't want Byerly to be Emperor instead! And you wanted the Imperium, not me. Why aren't you…?" He couldn't think how to end that sentence.

"Well," she said thoughtfully, "if Byerly needs to kill you to get by you, I'll be a widow, and he is single." After a second, she added, "And handsome."

"You –" He wrenched his brain back into gear with an effort of will. "You are laughing at me!"

She grinned then, her face lightening from its usual solemnity. "You were really inviting it, Ivan."

Ivan worked his jaw for a moment, easing out the tension. "Ng," he grunted.

"Besides, Ivan," she said, her voice growing more practical, "there isn't any reason to worry today. I can't see any way this mission could be the start of his forking endgame. For now, he has no motivations. We can watch him."

"Right." The word was mostly a sigh. Berenice's head was several inches lower than his as they sat, and her dark hair was loose. Ivan moved a hand to touch it, and she went briefly still. "Do you think," Ivan said, his voice low, "that people will stop trying to mess with my mind for their own twisted amusement if I start calling myself Prince Ivan?"

"Yes," she replied, her voice a bit unsteady. "I think they will start trying to mess with your mind for nasty political reasons, instead."

He bent and kissed her. She did not exactly kiss back, but she relaxed into it, not resisting, not tensing. He pulled back a few inches, looking into her eyes. "Berenice?"

"Mm?"

"Do you really think By Vorrutyer is handsome?"

Her laugh broke the early-blooming tension of the moment. "I'm not blind, Ivan," she said to him.

"But I'm more handsome."

"Of course you are," she said with the soothing tones one might use to a child. Her eyes glinted with amusement.

Ivan grinned down at her.

He felt much better by the time they slept.

#

Byerly Vorrutyer's plan was too convoluted for Ivan's taste. He asked for a team of three, which he was given. It was a multi-stage process, with doubtless daring heroics and smooth fast-talk. The plan hinged on his passing for a Cetagandan ghem for brief periods in low-security situations; it hinged on a plan of the facility they had found from ghem-Lieutenant Bal; it hinged on precise timing and a man Byerly knew who could forge documentation. Ivan could only see the points where it might fail. Galeni, at last, said, "There is no perfect plan, Prince Ivan. The most we can do is smooth out the danger areas as much as possible and trust in our personnel."

"What if you're captured?" Ivan asked Byerly.

"I won't be," Byerly said soberly. "Killed, perhaps. Captured, no." His eyes moved to Galeni. Ivan looked, as well. Galeni grimaced.

"He's right," Galeni said. "We have some… very subtly triggered suicide devices."

"Subtle enough for stunner fire?"

"Yes."

Ivan supposed he had to be satisfied with that.

The preparations took two additional days, once the plan was formed. The plan itself was to have Byerly away from camp for three days. Sixty-four days, Ivan thought. By the time he gets back, we'll be down to sixty-four days.

They were already building their explosives team. One of the men who had gone with Countess Vorkalloner had returned with three men who had trained with explosives. They had explained apologetically that they could make no promises, m'lord, until they'd seen the type of explosive they would need to work on, but Ivan was vastly reassured. Three men was… a beginning.

Byerly ended up taking Selig Welensky and Martya Koudelka with him when he left. Something in Ivan's soul still clenched a bit at the thought of sending Martya into that kind of danger, but he pressed it down. Everyone was expendable, when it came to it. Including him, now that they knew Uncle Aral and Mark were alive. It was a bit of a relief to be expendable, when it came to the point.

Once they were gone, the tension level in the camp shot up several degrees. Dr. Jourdan made a little trip out to Vordarian's District to try and recruit an applied physicist he knew with a specialty in communications. He sent word back via the BABA that he would be staying there for a few weeks. Ivan tried not to jitter.

Dr. Borgos was disconsolate with Martya gone. He moped. He sulked. He fussed over his bugs to a ludicrous level, and things almost came to blows when Lord Thomas accidentally stepped on one during a wrestling match. Things would have ended very badly for Dr. Borgos, Ivan thought, if Berenice had not stepped firmly in and sent both men off to cool down.

Lord Thomas was growing up quickly. His initial bristling defensiveness was smoothing into sometime more self-aware, an understanding of his weaknesses and strengths. He did some of the lower-impact training with the soldiers, and accepted his constant defeats in the wrestling ring with some equanimity. Ivan didn't underestimate the strength of character that required.

Lord Thomas and Princess Berenice spent a great deal of their time together, talking quietly by themselves. Ivan suspected they were worried about their mother, out collecting explosive ordnance disposal technicians. He wondered if he should talk to Berenice about it, but didn't like to intrude. It seemed a personal sort of matter.

On the afternoon after Byerly and his team left, General Vortala came to talk to Ivan. "Prince Ivan," he said. "Captain Vorinnis has some ideas for exercises that may be useful."

"Ah?" Ivan was too busy fretting over Byerly and the bomb squad to be able to do much around camp, so he was pacing around feeling useless and trying not to get in other people's way too often.

"Yes, sir. He felt his team was underperforming in the strike on the Cetagandan prisoner transport, and wanted to attempt to refine their skills. He submitted plans for a few strikes to be carried out over the next few weeks at various locations. I believe it may be of some use. It will leave the Cetagandans feeling more harried, raise the pressure on them, and give a false idea of our long-term strategy."

Ivan was frowning by the end of this description. "What kind of timeline are we talking about here?"

"He could leave with his team within two hours of receiving orders, sir. He would be taking his team north to begin. They first strike would occur within forty-eight hours of their departure. If they took no losses – losses are not expected, but must be planned for – they would continue on to the next objective. There are a series of eight operations, targets of low risk but moderate impact." Vortala met Ivan's gaze steadily. "The men need to be trained to kill. Vorinnis is right about that. In your great-grandfather's day, the Cetagandans were made to be afraid of Barrayaran brutality. Now we are flinching from theirs. It is time to reverse the proportions."

Ivan didn't answer for a minute. Brutality. Miles had told him once about the collection of Cetagandan scalps he had found in the attics of Vorkosigan House. He was almost afraid of the answer, but he had to ask the question. "What do you mean when you talk about brutality?"

Vortala frowned briefly. "Prince Ivan, the most important thing to remember here is that every Cetagandan on this planet right now is by definition a military target. There are no civilians among their number."

"I understand that, General. What do you mean when you talk about brutality?"

General Vortala did not evade the question again. "Their strikes will be designed to kill quickly and efficiently, sir. The bodies will be left where they will be found by Cetagandan patrols. In the beginning, they will simply kill the men and leave them. As the attacks progress, they will be arranged more artistically."

"We aren't talking about –" Ivan hesitated. "General Vortala, I am taking you at your name's word that these strikes are intended to kill quickly and efficiently, whatever is done after death. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Ivan chewed on the inside of his cheek for a minute. "Takis," he said at last, "do you really think this will…" He trailed off, seeking weasel-words, and abandoned the attempt. "Do you really think Dyson Vorinnis is going to be able to do this?"

Vortala flashed a brief, tired smile. "The exercise will certainly provide us with useful intelligence on at least one score," he said.

"Ha!" Ivan's laugh was bleak.

"In honesty, sir, I don't see that it matters much if he can or not. His failure won't be at the point of attack; it will be in the aftermath. If he fails, we'll know, and we will be able to recall him. If he succeeds, it's a psychological victory over the enemy and gives our men added confidence."

"How many do you think he'll need?"

"Eight," Vortala answered. "He had a fully drawn up mission plan, if you feel you need to review it, sir."

Ivan shook his head. It was all about trusting your subordinates… Gregor would never have reviewed this mission plan. "Do you recommend it?"

"I do, sir."

"Then do it."

Vortala saluted, and Ivan returned the gesture, still feeling awkward with it. "Yes, Prince Ivan. Thank you, sir."

Dyson Vorinnis left three hours later, taking with him eight of the remaining soldiers, including Martin Kosti.

The team at base camp was getting very small now. Lady Alys sent to the other, smaller camps to inquire after anyone with explosives experience, and received two affirmative responses. Lieutenant Antoine Lenier and Sergeant Mikhail Grainger would be arriving within a few days. They were up to seven miners, as the camp had taken to calling them, by the day Byerly was due back.

He didn't arrive.

#

Ivan didn't sleep at all the night Byerly's team was scheduled to return home. By the time dawn began clawing its way up the eastern skyline, he was feeling his confinement enough to take a run to the landing site and back. He did not meet the lightflyer there, as he had been half-hoping. Back at camp, he joined in with the wrestling matches, did a round of stunner target practice, and, between jittering nerves and sleep deprivation, signally failed to cover himself in glory at either.

After lunch, Berenice pulled him aside. "Ivan," she told him in an undertone, "either you need to sleep or I will find someone to stun you."

"Stunned unconsciousness is not the same as sleep," he told her irritably. "It wouldn't get you anything."

"It would get the rest of us a little peace," she replied. Ivan snarled something wordless at her and stalked off to harass Galeni.

"We can't know anything yet, my lord," Galeni said. "It could be trouble, yes, but it could also be just a minor setback. If we don't hear anything by tomorrow, I'll send someone to monitor local news for information. You should get some sleep."

"I can't sleep," Ivan grouched.

"My lord," Galeni said, "if something has happened, we won't know for a few days. If they're simply delayed, we will want to make the most of our time when they return. We will need you sharp and able to lead. You should get some sleep."

Ivan relented, though not with much grace.

It was inching on towards sunset by the time Berenice came in to wake him with one hand on his shoulder. "Ivan?'

He jolted up, nerves frayed and sensitive. "What's happening?" he asked before he'd even fully come awake.

"Commander Welensky and Miss Koudelka are back."

"Well, thank god!" Ivan was up and moving before her words had fully registered, pushing past the curtain and striding into the main gathering area while Berenice trailed behind, much more slowly.

Martya and Selig Welensky were making their way up the beach, alone. Ivan squinted at them. "Where's Byerly?" he asked Galeni, moving towards the man. Galeni shook his head, not venturing any guesses.

Martya moved over to Ivan without speaking. No one else said anything to her. There was something very formalized about her motions. She held up a data disk.

"We got it," she said flatly.

Ivan stared at the disk for a few seconds, then took it from her hand. He turned it over in his fingers, then handed it to Galeni. Galeni nodded, his mouth thin. Ivan turned back to Martya.

"Where's Byerly?" he asked.

"Byerly," Martya said quietly, "is dead."

#

It had been a near thing, a few times inside the compound. Martya and Welensky had been outside, and Byerly had been in there for far too long. When they finally met up, he had warned them that he might have been seen. He had handed the data off to Martya.

"You," he had told her, "are the least likely of us to be suspected."

Martya had urged him to copy it, to give them the best chance to getting at least one copy out, but Byerly had said no. If one of them was captured and found with the data disk, it would betray their plans.

Martya left through the city checkpoints first, with Selig Welensky nearby. He had been armed with a stunner, to help get her past if she needed it. She hadn't, in the event. When Byerly followed, however, he raised a flag in the Cetagandan systems. He had been stopped. He had been searched. He had been questioned. The Cetagandan ghem-officer in command had given the order to bring him back to the base camp.

That, Welensky told them in as few words as possible, was when Byerly had gone into sudden convulsions. The Cetagandans had called for a medic, but Welensky had seen the blood at his ear.

Galeni grimaced at this recitation. The group sat silently for a minute. Ivan felt cold. He remembered, back in Hassadar, him asking Byerly if he would be willing to have a fast-penta allergy induced. Byerly had gone one better on him.

"Anyway," Martya said after a minute, "Selig decided to wait a bit longer before passing through the checkpoint, which is why we're a bit late. Security seemed to be dy—to be easing off again by the time we left. I don't think they know what we have. They surely know who Byerly was."

After a moment of silence, Delia said quietly, "Byerly was the only one who knew where Count Dono is. I wonder if his caregiver knows who he's got."

There was nothing anyone could say to that.

Finally, Ivan said, feeling like a heel, "We don't have time to waste here. Duv, you and Takis need to sit down with those plans. Bring in Lieutenant Lenier and figure out what we still need. I want an assessment of the situation by noon tomorrow, with an idea of what resources we still need. Martya, Selig, good work. Get some sleep. We'll start on the next stages tomorrow."

The group broke up, a bit raggedly. Berenice sat beside Ivan, not looking at him. Ivan stared at the water for a minute, then said to her, "I'm going to see about getting dinner put together early today. I think we're going to have a full day tomorrow."

That night, before he went to sleep, Ivan built up a small pile of dry sea grass and twigs, and placed a clipping of his hair on it before he lit it. He didn't say anything, not even in his own mind, just watched the smoke rise until the pitiful little fire burned out. It didn't take very long.

Chapter Text

The weeks that followed Byerly's death were busy and strained. They continued to collect miners, and the ones they had were already starting to form a technique for disabling the mines quickly, safely, and in a way that would not allow quick repair.

"What worries me," Sergeant Grainger admitted at one meeting, "is that we don't really know if we're seeing the real picture. We've got the data, but what if it's wrong, or outdated? We could walk in at the last minute and realize we have no idea what to do, and our teams could all end up exposed, sitting there staring at these mines and waiting for them to explode, with no way around it. I would be a lot happier if we could get a look at one of these things in advance."

"That is not permitted by the parameters of the operation, Sergeant," Lieutenant Lenier had said, firmly shutting down the wistful hope. That did not prevent him from a little fantasizing of his own later, with just Vortala and Ivan: "If we could even just get a look at one of them, sir, it would be a help. We wouldn't need to touch it, just get a quick image of it and get back out. I keep waking up from these recurring nightmares of getting there and finding out they yanked all the trigger mechanisms from these things and replaced them with something else."

"Well," said Vortala sympathetically but not terribly reassuringly, "we'll just have to hope your team is resourceful, then."

By the thirty-nine day mark, when Dy Vorinnis's group was due back, they had collected fifty-three miners, and Lieutenant Lenier had gratefully turned command over to Colonel Ducharme, whom Ivan knew a little from his stretch as head of Residence Security's Explosives Response Team during the regency. Ducharme had been moved away from the post with his promotion from major, and Illyan had tracked him down in the small town to which he'd retired less than a year ago.

Ivan liked Ducharme, with his bluff manners and direct approach to problems, and saw his impact on the team almost immediately. They stopped focusing so much on the difficulty of the task, and began to work more cohesively as a unit. They were closing in fast on the magic number of fifty-nine, but Ducharme informed Ivan that he had no plans to stop recruiting until at least a hundred and twenty.

"I want two men on each team, if possible," the colonel said. "You cannot plan an operation like this without expecting some casualties, and I do not want a team crippled by the enemy managing disable the one man capable of carrying out their objectives. We need to build redundancy in wherever we can."

Ducharme himself had brought in nearly a dozen men, and their networks were fanning out in a spiderweb pattern. The lines crossed in dozens of places, but each new recruit brought some names with them. Ivan was vastly reassured by the way things were unfolding.

Vorinnis's strike team was due back sometime in the afternoon. Just after breakfast, Berenice put a hand on Ivan's arm to pause him as he moved off to join Galeni for a planning session. He halted, looking at her with a raised eyebrow.

She held out her other hand without saying anything, opening it to reveal one of the skin-pad pregnancy tests Lady Alys had found her. Unlike all the others, with their sad green minus signs, this one had a pale blue plus in its little window. Ivan stared at it, then looked up to meet her eyes. They were sober and reserved. Ivan's mind spun.

After a moment, Ivan bent to very gently place a kiss on her forehead. "Do you want to talk about it now?" he asked.

"Go to your meeting," she told him. "We can talk after lunch."

Ivan had known intellectually that he and Berenice were trying to produce an heir, but somehow in all of his thoughts about a son, he had failed to miss the inevitable fact that he would become a father by all of this. The idea of him having a son was not at all strange to him by now, but the idea of him as a father somehow did not fit in his world view.

Ivan had never had a father. He had Uncle Aral, yes, and the threat of him to scare him back onto the straight-and-narrow. He had seen Aral, distantly, as father to Miles, and registered that his uncle had done better than most fathers, but the specifics failed him. He felt abruptly very alone, and wished he could ask advice from someone.

Unfortunately, his inner circle at camp was astonishingly devoid of stable father-son relationships. Clearly, there was more wrong with the Barrayaran Empire than its current infestation of Cetagandans. Something would have to be done about this.

Instead of Dyson Vorinnis, a message came in from him, informing Vortala that everything was going well with the mission objectives, and he planned to extend it another eight days with hits on three targets he had chosen. Vortala swore colorfully for a minute or two, then coded a message on the BABA informing Captain Vorinnis in no uncertain terms that he was to get his ass back to camp immediately, and that they could discuss the level of discretion in his mission plans that he was allowed at length when he returned.

When Ivan finally found Berenice a little after lunch ended, she was talking with Delia Galeni. He wondered if they were comparing notes on pregnancy, but no – Berenice wouldn't have told anyone yet. He offered the women a smile. "Delia," he said. "How are you feeling?"

She returned the smile and shrugged. "I'm a bit tired," she said, "but otherwise I'm doing all right. Better than I was afraid, from the horror stories I heard from some of Mama's generation."

"Yeah, my mother certainly lorded it over me whenever she thought I was failing to show her enough respect," Ivan said ruefully. "'You will never know what it is to sacrifice for an ungrateful child!' Or, my favorite, 'You can't even give me one grandchild, Ivan? Do you know what I suffered through to have you? I promise you, your part would be far easier than mine was!"

Delia choked on a laugh, but Berenice just smiled faintly, not looking very amused by the joke. Ivan ran it through his mind hurriedly, trying to see if he'd put his foot in it somewhere. He couldn't find anywhere, but past experience suggested that didn't mean much.

"Anyway," he continued, "I'm glad it's going better for you. I actually needed to talk to Princess Berenice, if I could borrow her for a few minutes?"

"Oh, it's all right," Delia said, rising in spite of his aborted half-protest. "I should go find Duv and make sure he eats something." With a quick smile for Berenice, she moved away.

Ivan took her seat, feeling awkward. "So," he said, looking for words. "We did it?"

Berenice laughed at that, easing some of the tension from the moment. "I suppose we did."

"I'm sorry about what I said just now," Ivan said. "You must be missing your mother."

Berenice tilted her head slightly. "Actually, no," she said. "I was thinking about my father. I haven't seen him in a few months now. I don't think he even knows I'm married. I worry about him."

"Oh." Ivan felt like an idiot. He hadn't even thought about her father all these weeks. Victim of his own angle of view, the absence of a father had never registered with him. "Do… you think he'd – he'll be happy?"

"I hope so," she said quietly.

Ivan paused a few seconds, then said, "I'm happy. You know that, right?"

Her smile was brief, but genuine, he thought. "I'd hoped so, certainly. I am, too."

"I want…" Ivan trailed off. What promises had his father made his mother; what happy dreams had he spun for her? "I want to give you more than this. You deserve more than this. Is there… what do you want me to do now?"

She was silent for a minute, her eyes meeting his. "I want… some time to think about that."

He nodded. That was fair enough, he supposed. "All right," he said. "But you'll tell me? If there's anything I can do?"

"I'll tell you," she agreed.

"Are – Hm. Are you planning on telling anyone else? About all of this, I mean?"

"That I'm pregnant? I don't know yet. Do you want to tell your mother?"

"Well, I feel like I should tell someone, but I think that's just, ah, dynastic panic. I don't think it's actually necessary."

"I would like to wait until my mother is back, then. So we can tell her and your mother together."

"Mother will be… unbearable, probably."

Berenice smiled at him. "I don't find your mother nearly as unmanageable as you seem to, Ivan," she told him. "You should have taken a firmer hand with her at a young age."

Ivan choked back a laugh. "I defy you," he said, "to ever say that to her face."

"I think I will decline," she said, her tone prim.

"Good."

After a brief pause, Berenice asked, lightly, "You were… thinking of the traditional name? After your father?"

"I…" Ivan hesitated. "I don't know. If it was just me… yes, I think so. But with my new position and the inheritance from my uncle, I wondered if it might really be better to refer back to the Vorbarra princes in my bloodline and call him Xav. My father was Padma Xav."

She sat silently for a moment, looking at the ground. "I don't have any problems with either. Whatever you decide you're more comfortable with will be fine."

Ivan nodded. "All right. I'll think about it."

They talked for a few minutes more about matters in which neither person could much interest themselves, and then separated to return to their daily routines.

#

Despite Vortala's message to Dy Vorinnis, his team was a day late, arriving towards the middle of the next morning. The mood among Ivan's senior officers was grim, and was made worse by a report they received that a mission to collect another explosives expert had gone badly wrong.

One of the men at camp, Stavros Urban, had gone to try to recruit a former colleague of his to the cause. His friend had argued with him, and tried to convince him to give up. He had tried to convince Urban to tell what he knew to the Cetagandans, and hope for a reward. In the end, he had tried to threaten Urban, to keep him there until he could hand him off to the Cetagandans in hope of a reward. Stavros Urban had shot him. Stavros Urban had then sent word to camp that he could not do this anymore, and had vanished.

"I don't think he'll betray us," Colonel Ducharme had said. "But I am damned sorry to lose any man. And I don't like having to explain to the rest of the team what happened. I'll tell them he chose to leave for now, and avoid filling in specifics as long as I can. I don't want them to start feeling they can't suggest new recruits."

"If he does choose to betray us," Ivan said, "or rather, if you thought he would, is there anything we could do to stop him now?"

"No," Ducharme said flatly. "If he decides to fuck us, sir, we are well and truly fucked."

There had been a brief debate about moving camp, but they had decided against it. The Cetagandans finding their camp would obviously be a disaster, but no worse than them knowing about the bomb disposal team. All they would need to do was move each mine to a new location, and the resistance would be blind again, and helpless, and without enough damned time. They had thirty-eight days now.

When Dy Vorinnis's team arrived, it was with some fanfare. He walked calmly enough, with some pleased pride in his expression, but his men were exuberant, flushed with the excitement of a return to camp after a very successful mission. General Vortala gave Vorinnis a cold look, but allowed the men to have a late breakfast first.

"It was amazing!" said Sergei Khavin. "We took out a convoy of fourteen men on the last hit. I never would have thought – but the Seedies don't know anything about the ground here. If you get a good position, you can have half of them down before they've even realized you're there."

"And then Kosti can get the rest of them while we have a nice nap," put in another man, and they all laughed.

Martin Kosti shrugged one shoulder. "I did my bit," he said, shifting his eyes away from Martya and looking a bit embarrassed. Most of the camp had gathered to hear their accounts, and over fifty men were now grouped around Vorinnis's little squad. Dy Vorinnis was seated just behind his men, smiling with faintly paternal pride.

"Ha," said Khavin. "Pulled our asses out a couple times, is what you mean." He flung his arm around Kosti's neck and rubbed his head. "You got something going down, boys, this is the man you want."

Kosti jabbed an elbow in Khavin's ribs hard, winning both his release and a backhanded swat to his head. The two men were grinning, however, and no one interfered with the friendly roughhousing.

"I," Kosti pointed out, "wasn't the one who took down that floatbike while hanging upside down from a tree branch."

Cal Minga, a dark-haired Greekie boy who still spoke with a slight accent, flushed at that. "That's just because you weren't stupid enough to nearly fall out of the damned tree, Kosti," he said sheepishly. "Trust me, I'd much rather have taken it out sitting comfortably on the branch."

"Wait, what happened there?" Martya demanded the story, and for a while, Khavin and Minga were diverted to the new subject. Their stories were colorful and full of grandeur and adventure and, most helpfully, success, a series of victories to make the group believe in the possibility of coming out of this alive. Ivan was actually grateful they'd been a day late; their arrival today nicely overshadowed Urban's departure.

Vortala was less pleased, but waited until he had Captain Vorinnis by himself to say it. Ivan was not witness to that conversation, but he saw Dy stalk off towards the beach after the talk was over, and could hazard a pretty shrewd guess about what had been said.

Berenice saw it, too, and watched Dy vanish before moving over closer to Ivan. "General Vortala wasn't happy with him?" she said quietly.

"I think Dy expected a better homecoming," Ivan said ruefully. "He did good work on this mission, but he was kind of an idiot at the very end."

"Do – hm."

When she didn't elaborate after a few seconds, Ivan prompted, "What were you going to ask?"

She was silent for a long minute.

"Berenice?"

When she finally spoke, the words came quickly. "Ivan, I think you're placing too much trust in Dyson Vorinnis."

Ivan didn't say anything for a minute. He felt an immediate surge of defensive anger, but didn't want to let that drive his reaction. Instead, he let it cool, examined the statement, and found the flaw in it. "I think you're wrong," he said. "I'm not really putting that much trust in him. He's not exactly part of my general staff."

"Well, I think he thinks you're putting more trust in him than you are, then. He's getting… I don't like him, Ivan."

"He just risked his life on a several-week mission for our sake," Ivan pointed out.

"No," Berenice corrected, "he just risked ten men's lives on a several-week mission to try and show off how capable he is. Did you see him preening out there?"

"He'd earned a little pride, Berenice. This scale operation, and with no casualties?"

"Were you even listening to the men out there?" Berenice asked, her voice rising. "Vorinnis was barely even involved. It sounds like the men were planning their own operations, and carrying them off while Vorinnis held back."

"Are you accusing Dy Vorinnis of cowardice?" Ivan asked, unable to fully suppress his flash of anger at that one. "He is my friend, and was my comrade in arms."

"Ah. Then you've witnessed his bravery in combat first-hand?"

"Yeah, I expect you know a lot more about military operations and how they work than I know about my friend."

"He tried to seduce me," Berenice said flatly.

Ivan stopped in his tracks at that, his mind spinning uselessly for a few seconds. After a long pause, he asked, "When?"

"On our way back from Donosgrad, with your mother."

Ivan took a minute to process that. "So it was before you and I were committed to each other," he said.

Her chin lifted. "It was not before he knew I was the daughter of Count Vorkalloner," she pointed out, her voice cool.

"What, so he hurt your pride?" Ivan said, incredulous. "How dare he court the great lady? You obviously didn't spend enough time in the capital. I'm not going to blame the man for pursuing a pretty woman without any connection he knew about to another man."

"He wasn't doing it because he thought I was pretty," Berenice snapped back at him. "He thought it would be a good alliance for himself."

"Oh, so his motivations were exactly the same as yours, then, in coming here for me."

Berenice opened her mouth as if to reply, then closed it again, visibly biting back whatever she was going to say. When she did speak, it was to say, very precisely, "You asked me, Prince Ivan."

"I had no damned choice." He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but didn't try to call them back. He could recognize when he'd only be digging further in.

Berenice's face had gone pale, her features resolute. "If only Lord Vorkosigan had arrived a day earlier," she said, her tone very neutral. After a few seconds' pause, she added, "This type of situation changes a man, Ivan. You have seen men rise beyond what they thought they could do. You've done it yourself. They can fail, too, under heavy pressures."

"You need to stop seeing your lover in everyone around you."

Berenice looked as if he'd hit her. She physically flinched, drawing back from the accusation. Ivan pursued the point. "Just because Lord Jacob turned traitor doesn't mean everyone will."

For several long seconds, Berenice said nothing. Then she wet her lips and said, very carefully, "Lord Jacob Vorfolse has nothing to do with this."

"No?" Ivan pressed. "I think he does. And maybe you can see why I'm a little less than completely willing to trust your judgment of people when it comes to their loyalties."

She was actually trembling now. For a minute, Ivan thought she might cry, but she spoke instead, her voice low and even. "Be glad," she said, "that I am a lady, or I would slap you for that."

"You'd never land the blow," Ivan snarled.

For a long moment, the two of them just stared at each other. Then Berenice turned on her heel and walked away from him. Ivan didn't try to stop her.

#

Lord Thomas came up to him later, his eyes dark and his motions very contained. He spoke tersely, "Consider yourself lucky," he said, "that the days of dueling between Vor lords is over."

"Oh, I do," Ivan assured him, his tone acid. "I'd hate to have to kill my brother-in-law, after all."

Lord Thomas worked his jaw. "Well," he said, "fortunately for you, we don't have to consider that possibility. Berenice and I are leaving."

"What?" Ivan's mind raced. "You can't just leave. We're in the middle of a crisis."

"And clearly," Lord Thomas said, "my sister and her politically expedient womb and inconvenient little brain are getting in your way. You've done your part. She's pregnant. Now you can shuffle her off to the side and get on with the work of running the war."

Ivan had not anticipated this. "I – no," he said automatically.

"No?" Lord Thomas repeated.

"No, you can't leave," said Ivan.

"Watch us." Lord Thomas turned to walk away.

"Hey!" Ivan snapped. "Don't just walk away from me!"

Lord Thomas halted, looking back over his shoulder with an irritating supercilious raise of his eyebrow. "I thought we were done, Prince Ivan."

"I speak in the Emperor's voice here," Ivan said, knowing his frustration made him sound more petulant than he should. "I said that you can't leave."

Lord Thomas looked at him for a moment, measuring Ivan with his eyes in a way that made Ivan feel abruptly as if he had been underestimating the younger man. He felt… outmatched. "All right," he said. "So I'm committing treason. Are you planning to lay me out to die of exposure? See what that does to your coalition." He spread his arms, looking at Ivan expectantly. "I'll make it easy. Shoot me. Now."

Ivan stared at him, and Lord Thomas met his eyes without any trace of fear. When Ivan didn't say anything, Lord Thomas dropped his arms. "That's what I thought," he said. "I'm going to go take care of my sister."

When he turned this time, Ivan's, "Wait," was more restrained.

Lord Thomas looked back.

"Where are you two going?"

Lord Thomas shrugged. "Berenice wants to try and find our father. He was heading for the small towns in the district. We'll start there. There's a town called Miskaden where he had some connections."

Ivan took this in. "Take care of her," he said at last. "Stay away from the capitals."

Lord Thomas just nodded. When he turned a third time, Ivan didn't try to stop him.

Chapter Text

"Ivan, what did you say to that poor girl?" Lady Alys's voice was firm, and laden with more maternal disapproval than Ivan imagined any other woman could muster. He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking calm.

It was the morning after Berenice had left, and Ivan did not think there were many people in camp not speculating about her departure. He had told people in as few words as possible that she was pregnant and was moving to a new location for her security and the baby's, but he didn't think many people believed that was the entire story. Delia had given him an extremely old-fashioned look over breakfast, and Galeni had made a very rapid departure when he saw Lady Alys approaching.

And his mother's dismissal of the official story was evident.

"I don't know what you mean," he said, trying for polite avoidance.

"You know exactly what I mean, Ivan, and do not try to walk away from this. Sit down and tell me what you did, so I can find a way to repair your disaster." The again was implicit in her tone.

Ivan inhaled and counted to ten before letting the breath out. "Mother," he said with all the calm he could muster. "Berenice and I owe first loyalty to one another now. Even if there had been an issue, which I do not admit, you would have no place in it. I owe her discretion, and it is impolite of you to ask. Which you well know." He delivered the final sentence with the precise hauteur he had heard so many times from his mother herself.

Lady Alys jerked her head back, staring at Ivan in frank astonishment. Ivan took the opportunity to bow low, and then turned on his heel and walked away.

He sought out Galeni, requesting a full report on the progress of the miners. The report was fair. There were a handful of men who probably should not be given the main responsibility for handling the explosives, but could serve as backups. Given their current rate of recruitment, Ducharme estimated they would have seventy-five men, his absolute minimum for operational parameters, within seven days.

"At that point," Galeni said, "it will be time to start building the individual mission teams. We will need officers to command them, and clear mission objectives to allow them to train and drill. We have a definite shortage of officers, and I think it is time to consolidate our personnel from all of our separate bases."

"Mm," Ivan agreed. "It shouldn't be hard to find sixty or so officers with rank enough to command this scale of operation, but our recruitment rate is already raising security concerns."

Galeni smiled thinly, and Ivan suspected he'd nailed the main angle of concern. "You have an idea about that," he guessed.

"Yes," Galeni said. "I think it is time that we get our hands on a supply of fast-penta. We can send a dose with each recruiting team."

Ivan blew out his breath. "Ah." He turned the idea over in his head. "I… don't know that I like it, Duv. Have you discussed the idea with anyone else yet?"

"No, my lord." Galeni's eyes were intense as he studied Ivan. "What are you thinking?"

"Mm. I don't know if we might be shooting ourselves in the foot with it. I've seen clumsy fast-penta interrogations. If we can't trust the data, we might be hurting our cause by even trying."

"I think the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages in this case," Galeni said.

"Maybe," Ivan said. He gnawed on his lower lip. "All right," he said. "Sit down with, um… Selig Welensky. Tell him to spend twenty-four hours putting together his best arguments against the idea. You can both pitch more thoroughly to me tomorrow."

"Yes, my lord."

"Any word from Dr. Jourdan and his physicist?"

"Dr. Clouet," Galeni provided the man's name. "They are making steady progress, but can't offer any guarantee of success in the timeline we have."

"So, same story."

Galeni shrugged philosophic acceptance of the status quo. Ivan suspected it was all show; Galeni must be feeling time gnawing at his heels as much as Ivan did. "All right," Ivan said. "Anything else I need to know today?"

"No, my lord."

"Twenty-four hours then. I'll see you and Welensky at this time tomorrow."

"Shall I start assembling a list of contacts to approach once we know how to handle the recruitment? To speed things as much as possible?"

Ivan considered this briefly. "It's a good thought, but give it to Vortala, all right? I want you focusing on a consideration of the fast-penta question. We need to be thinking about what kind of parallel strike we'll be carrying out, as well."

Galeni raised his eyebrows. "I only see one real possibility there, my lord. Only one path that would be sufficiently distracting." Ivan waited for him to elaborate, but Galeni seemed to be waiting for him to guess. Ivan was not in the mood. At his impatient hand gesture, Galeni elaborated. "An assassination."

Oh. "Degtiar?" Ivan checked.

Galeni nodded.

"You're thinking Mark?"

Galeni opened a hand. "Is there anyone else?"

"No," Ivan said. "I don't know. It's a good thought. Do you want to talk to him about it?"

"Not especially," Galeni said ruefully.

Ivan's smile was tight and grim. "Talk to him about it, Duv."

"Yes, my lord," Galeni sighed.

Ivan left him to his planning.

#

When Dy Vorinnis found him fifteen minutes later, Ivan was trying to skip stones on the water, without success. He and Miles had done this as kids, down at Vorkosigan Surleau. Neither of them had been much good at it, though Elena Bothari had a knack for it and used to quietly show off between protestations of false humility.

He'd lost whatever touch he once had, however, and his missiles were all sinking like the stones they were when Dy came up behind him. "Rough day?" he asked sympathetically.

Ivan turned back to look at him, giving a quick smile. "I'm taking advantage of the down time while I can," he said. "Congratulations, by the way. Sounds like your team did good work in the field."

Dy grinned at that, scooping to grab a flat stone and joining Ivan. He turned the rock over in his hands, looking out at the water. "It was good to get the experience for the men," he said. "We should get more groups out like that."

"We need a few more good command officers, first," Ivan said. He tried another stone, which vanished without a trace.

Dy sent his stone after Ivan's. It skipped once on the water, then dropped. "See," Ivan said, "I know it's in that wrist motion there. I just can't remember the trick of it."

"You're holding it too tightly," Dy said. "Let your index finger rest along the back edge." He chose another stone and tried again. This one bounced twice off calm waters before it hit the swell of an incoming wave and was overpowered.

Ivan picked up another rock and tried it. "Sounds like Kosti did good work out there," he said. "You like him?" He adjusted the lay of his finger and hurled the stone. It made a little splash, swallowed by the water.

"Throw faster, not harder," Dy advised. "Kosti's all right. Follows orders well. Doesn't get ahead of himself."

"Sounds like the men liked him," Ivan said, selecting another stone.

"Men like to think the hero is one of them," Dy said. "So. Are you all right today?"

Ivan closed his hand around his rock. "Why wouldn't I be?" he asked, keeping his voice level.

Dy grinned. "Good attitude," he said, crouching to search the beach for better stones. "No great loss, at any rate."

Ivan stared down at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he asked.

Dy blinked, one hand resting on the ground for balance as he looked up at Ivan. "Well, she was getting a bit in the way here," he said. "I know it was important for you to get an heir, but that part's handled, right? Time for the men to do the men's work, without distractions."

Ivan grimaced. "She was definitely distracting," he acknowledged.

Dy stood up and offered a rock to Ivan. "Try this one," he advised. Ivan took the rock and curled his hand around it, but didn't throw it. He stared out at the waves, replaying bits of yesterday's conversation in his head. He shouldn't have brought up Lord Jacob. He knew it when he was saying it, but it had come out anyway. Why the hell did I ever think I could do this job? He couldn't even argue with his wife without major fractures in his coalition.

"Ivan?" Dy said when he had stood too long. "Are you going to skip the stone?"

Ivan grimaced down at the stone. "No," he said, and hurled it into the water.

"Hey," Dy said, clapping a hand roughly on Ivan's shoulder. "Hey. It's all right. Don't let her get to you. The stuck-up little prig probably just wanted a nice cozy bed to sleep in."

Ivan turned back to glare at Dy, shrugging the other man's hand off of him. "Keep your mouth off my wife."

Dy stared at him for a few seconds. "Ivan," he said. "I didn't mean to insult you."

"Just her?" Ivan demanded.

"Ivan, she's been jerking you around ever since she came here!" Dy snapped. "Getting in on meetings, giving orders – for god's sake, she got everyone calling her princess! Don't tell me that was your idea."

Ivan ground his teeth. "Dy, just… go away. Now. I really don't want to have this conversation."

"Yeah, you never want to," Dy said, his voice bitter. "Not this conversation, and not any other. Forget it." He didn't wait for a reply, turning to stalk away.

An hour later, when the lightflyer darted away overhead, they realized no one had seen Captain Vorinnis since that conversation.

#

They ran the distance to the hangars, arriving only twenty minutes after Vorinnis flew overhead. There was no hope of following him at this point, however. The speck of his vehicle was long since gone from the sky.

"Where do you think he went?" Galeni asked as Ivan maneuvered the flyer into the air. There were four of them in the vehicle: Galeni, Ivan, and the two men who had been standing nearest them: Martin Kosti and Cal Minga. It had probably been a mistake, he had realized halfway through the run, to bring two members of Vorinnis's team with him, but it was too late to swap them out.

"I have no idea," Ivan said. "But I see three real possibilities. One, he just went to fly around and burn off some steam and will be back in a few hours, leaving us all feeling stupid and apologetic."

"That seems unlikely," Galeni said.

"Yeah," Ivan said. "Option two, he's heading for Donosgrad to sell us all to the haut Degtiar."

Galeni grimaced, and glanced at Kosti and Minga, who were sitting in the back seat looking grim and young. "And the third?" he asked.

"He might be going after Berenice."

Galeni worked his jaw and stared out the window. "Which do you think?"

"Excuse me, sir?"

Ivan glanced back over his shoulder at Kosti, who looked like he wished he hadn't said anything.

"What is it, Kosti?" Galeni asked for him.

"Sir, if the cap – if Captain Vorinnis was going to turn traitor, I don't think he'd go so far as Donosgrad. There are bases in all the capitals down here. He knows where to find them, sir; we all do."

Minka nodded confirmation of this, and Galeni glanced at Ivan. "Does he know where the princess went, my lord?"

Ivan shook his head. "I don't know. I know. Lord Thomas told me. If he – oh, hell, Duv. How many times in twenty-seven hours can I be an idiot?"

"Let's not try to raise the number artificially, my lord. Where are we going?"

Ivan gnawed the inside of his cheek. "Vorkalloner District. Miskaden."

#

Galeni urged caution. "Put down outside the town, my lord, and we can walk in."

Ivan landed on top of a bicycle in the town square. He was out of the lightflyer while its engine still cycled down. "Do the Seedies have any kind of garrison here, General?" he asked Galeni.

"No, my lord." Galeni had one hand on his stunner, looking around at the curious passersby, who were all murmuring about the squashed bicycle.

"Good," Ivan said. He looked around the gathering crowd. "Hello!" he called, waving his arm expansively. "I'm Ivan Vorpatril, heir to Emperor Aral."

Behind him, he heard a small sound of dismay from Galeni, almost successfully stifled. Ivan pressed on despite the general's dismay, overriding the rising noise of the crowd. "I've come to tell you not to give up hoping! We are fighting! We will triumph! We will drive away this invasion!" He'd done this often enough that he didn't need to think much about the words. He felt like a bit of an idiot.

Galeni blew out his breath. The people stared at Ivan. "My lord," Galeni muttered, his tone as even as possible, "what are you doing?"

"Making sure Berenice finds me," Ivan replied, still waving to the crowds.

"The Cetagandans may well find you first," Galeni said.

"Fuck the Cetagandans," Ivan said, loud enough for the crowd to hear. "We've got Martin here, right, Martin? We know how to handle Cetagandans."

"Yes, sir!" Kosti said, right off a recruiting poster.

"So," Ivan asked a nearby woman conversationally. "I don't suppose you've seen any other strange Vor officers come through in the last half hour or so?"

"I –" She looked frightened and alone, pulled out of the anonymity of the crowd. "No, my lord?"

"You?" Ivan asked the man beside her. He shook his head mutely. "Damn," Ivan said. "Okay." He glanced back at Galeni. "What do we do from here?"

"Well," Galeni said, his tone heavy with irony, "we could slip quietly into the town, my lord, and try to look for contacts who might give us information."

Ivan's lips twisted. "No time," he said. "Other options?"

Galeni blew out his breath and turned to survey the gathered crowd. "Can we get under cover?" he asked.

"Is there any point?" Ivan asked.

"It would make me feel better," Galeni muttered. Ivan grinned at him. Galeni, his eyes still moving constantly – ImpSec eyes, Ivan mentally dubbed them – suddenly went very still. "M'lord," he murmured, nodding with his chin to the edge of the square.

It took him a moment to recognize the man in the doorway of the stationers shop, though he knew the face was familiar. The man met Ivan's eyes and held his gaze for a moment, and the name slotted into place: Nozov. The man was Count Vorkalloner's senior armsman. Ivan glanced at Galeni, who nodded. When Ivan looked back at the shop, Nozov had retreated inside.

"Hold the crowds here," Ivan told Kosti. "You're in command here until we get back. Don't let them follow." He turned to Galeni. "Go," he said.

Galeni led the way across the square to the shop next to the stationers, which was a bakery. Kosti and Minga walked behind them and firmly but politely blocked the door. Galeni met the shopkeeper's eyes and jerked his head towards the door. "Out," he said. The shopkeeper, wide-eyed, obeyed.

Galeni and Ivan waited until the door closed beside him, then stepped out the back door of the shop. Armsman Nozov was waiting in the service alley behind the shop.

"Prince Ivan," he greeted. "And Commodore Galeni."

"General Galeni," Ivan corrected automatically.

"My apologies, General. My lord Count Vorkalloner asked me to extend an invitation to you to dine with him."

"Does he?" Ivan asked. He glanced over at Galeni, who looked pleasantly blank. "Well, how civil of him. Of course I will accept my father-in-law's invitation."

Nozov didn't even bat an eye; this intelligence had clearly already reached him. Hopefully, this meant Berenice had reached her father.

They didn't have far to go. Another doorway from the service alley led to a warehouse storeroom. They left through the front door of the warehouse and walked down the street to the deteriorating office of an insurance agency. There were not many people in this part of the town; it took Ivan a minute to realize that the work-week was over. His sense of time had become curiously vague in the last few months. The larger sense of urgency blurred away the details. Thirty-seven days…

There was a small apartment above the office. Inside, Berenice and her father were waiting, seated in hard-backed wooden chairs. Lord Thomas waited by the window, his arms folded and his expression hard.

"Prince Ivan Vorpatril and General Duv Galeni, my lord," Nozov intoned formally. Ivan, well-versed in the many moods of the Vorkosigan and Vorrutyer armsmen, spared him a wary glance before turning his attention to Count Vorkalloner.

The old man gave him a grave nod, which Ivan returned with equal sobriety. "Count Vorkalloner, sir. I am glad to see you're well."

"And I you, Prince Ivan," Vorkalloner answered. "I understand we are now related."

"Ah, yes, sir," Ivan answered, trying to find some meaning in the short sentences. He glanced at Berenice, seeking a clue from her. She stared back at him, her expression impassive. He offered her a very Vorish bow. "Princess Berenice," he said.

"Ivan," she replied.

Ivan hesitated, then abandoned niceties. For all that the world seemed abruptly much slower here in this little apartment, the urgency was no lower. "Have you seen anything of Dy Vorinnis?"

Her eyebrows shot up. Count Vorkalloner tilted his head, then glanced back at his son as if for explanation. Lord Thomas just made a face. Ivan reflected that family parties at the Vorkalloner place must have been painfully silent affairs.

"No," Berenice said after a moment. "Should I have?" Her voice was maddeningly cool.

"I don't know," Ivan answered. "I – he left, Berenice. You were right about him. I was wrong. I was an idiot. I'm sorry."

She didn't answer for a few seconds. Lord Thomas interjected with, "If you'd owned up to that a month or so ago, you might –"

"Thomas," his father said, the warning clear in his tone. Lord Thomas worked his jaw, but didn't say anything. Ivan wondered how the count had managed that trick. He'd have to learn it himself.

"I haven't seen him," Berenice said. "Do you think he might have come here?"

"I worried that he might have heard your brother tell me about this town. I thought…" Ivan trailed off.

"You were worried about your son."

"I was worried about you." Honesty compelled Ivan to add, "And our son."

One corner of Berenice's mouth turned up in a smile. Count Vorkalloner cleared his throat. "We have not seen him, though we haven't been looking, either."

"If he's turned himself in, we've already lost."

"I don't think he has," Berenice said thoughtfully.

After a brief pause, Galeni said, "Princess Berenice, could you please elaborate on that?"

Berenice shook her head. "I don't know how to – hm. Captain Vorinnis is a man who wants to better himself. While he thought he could do that by remaining attached to you, or trying to attach to me, he did. Now he may have something of worth to the Cetagandans. He wouldn't just tell them. He would try to barter."

"That would take time," Galeni said.

"And balls," Ivan pointed out. "The Seedies aren't going to look nicely on someone who has information and plays games with it."

"Vorinnis might only see the possible rewards, not the possible risks," Galeni said.

"So, even if this is all true," Lord Thomas said, "do we have any more idea of where to find him?"

There was a moment of silence in response to this. Ivan glanced at Galeni, who was studying his boot. As the silence began to weigh on them, Berenice said, lightly, "If only he had been coming to kill me."

"Berenice," said the count, and just as Lord Thomas had, she fell silent. Ivan grinned at her, and she gave him a faint smile in return.

"All right," Ivan said. "Berenice, I'd be a lot happier if you'd be willing to, um, relocate from here. If –" He broke off and cleared his throat before proceeding, very aware of the eyes of his in-laws on him. "If you'd like to come back to base, that would be nice. Otherwise… whatever you'd like."

"We will move on to a new town," said Count Vorkalloner.

"I'll come back to base," Berenice said.

"Berenice!"

She turned to smile briefly at her father. "You could come, too," she told him lightly. "But my place is with my husband."

"You are welcome, sir, of course," Ivan put in. Count Vorkalloner frowned at him. "I hope, at least, that I have your support, sir," Ivan added.

"You do," Count Vorkalloner said after a minute. "I think we will return with you for now, and make new plans from there."

"Thank you, sir. Do you have a lightflyer here? Or an aircar?"

"Yes," Berenice said. "General Galeni, will you return with my father?"

Galeni glanced at Ivan, who shrugged. "I'll be fine, Duv," he said. "We're just going back to the lightflyer, and I'm armed." He touched the lumps of the stunner and plasma arc under his jacket.

"I will, my lady," Galeni answered, inclining his head.

Berenice spent longer than Ivan thought was really necessary on farewells to her father and brother, since they would be reunited in a few hours. They finally managed to pull themselves away, and Berenice led him back to the square along a different route than they'd come in on, up a side street to one of the main roads and then a few blocks along it.

Ivan smiled at the people they passed, a few of whom murmured and pointed, but he did not stop. With one hand on Berenice's back, he set a pace that did not allow anyone much time to react. He could hear the noise of the crowd before he could see it, clamorous and agitated.

He drew his stunner automatically and set its beam to the widest setting possible, shifting to stand slightly in front of Berenice as they approached. "Careful," he told her. She glanced up at him, her eyes uncertain, but did not speak. Ivan kept moving.

The crowd had grown, and was ringing the lightflyer, shouting questions and demands which Ivan could not interpret. He could see the flyer, but no sign of Kosti or Minga. Ivan's skin crawled, and he forced himself to keep his grip on his stunner easy and relaxed.

As the crowd became aware of their approach, the tone of their demands changed. Ivan heard his name woven through the press of words. Pleas for help, for understanding, for knowledge: they came fast and unrelenting, but the crowd shifted back at Ivan's forward motion. Cal Minga rounded the side of the lightflyer, and he braced automatically to attention. "Lord Ivan!" he said, then hastily corrected himself, "Prince Ivan, I mean. Sir, we – ah."

Ivan eyed him warily. "Where's Kosti?" He had to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd noise.

"Inside the flyer, sir."

Ivan looked up at the mirrored canopy. "I see." He glanced at Berenice, who shrugged unhelpfully. Ivan blew out his breath. "I don't know why we're being so mysterious here," he complained, then stepped forward and rapped on the canopy.

After a few seconds, the canopy slid back, revealing Martin Kosti and an unconscious Dyson Vorinnis.

Ivan stared. Berenice jerked back a step. "We had to stun him, sir!" Kosti said. "Sir, can we get the hell out of here now?"

It took Ivan a second to answer. Berenice recovered first. "Yes!" she said.

"Now, please," Ivan seconded. He handed her up into the flyer, then climbed in himself. Minga swung himself in, and Kosti hit the control to close the canopy, then roughly blasted the flyer off. It rocked in the air.

"You really haven't gotten any better at flying these things, have you?" Ivan grouched, securing his safety harness.

Martin grinned over his shoulder at him and gunned the engine, sending them zipping east at high speed. "Where to, sir?"

"Keep on this heading for another three minutes, then turn north-north-west," Ivan said. "Just to put us on a new path. I'll decide then what we'll do."

"Not back to base?" Berenice asked.

"Not… just yet," Ivan said. He looked at Vorinnis's unconscious form. His skin crawled. I never asked for this…

#

They ended up setting down in the Dendarii gorge. Back where they'd started, on this idiot quest. Ivan half-wished he'd gone up with the rest of Vorbarr Sultana, at times like this. He desperately wished that Gregor or Miles had survived, had come here to help him with these moments. Of course, if they were here, they could handle these moments for him.

Ivan left Berenice with Minga and the ship. He didn't think she would make the conversation any better or easier. Kosti watched Ivan administer the synergine, his stunner trained to fire at need, his eyes steady. Ivan sat in front of Vorinnis, watching his eyelids flutter as the stun wore off. It didn't take very long.

"Ivan?" Dy asked, his tone groggy. Ivan didn't say anything for a minute. Dy pushed to sit up, rubbing his head. "What's going on? Are we – Ivan, what's wrong?"

Ivan exhaled, long and slow. "What were you planning to do, Dy? Grab Berenice? Kill her? Offer her in trade?"

"I don't – Ivan, what are you talking about?" Dy looked legitimately baffled. "What does Berenice have to do with – Ivan, where are we?" His eyes flicked up to Kosti, then away.

"Dy, I'm not an idiot," Ivan said. "It wasn't just coincidence that you wound up in Miskaden. You were going for Berenice."

"I wanted to talk to her!" Dy said. "You were upset. I wanted – I wanted to see if I could help."

"Bullshit," Ivan said.

"Ivan – how long have we been friends?" Dy asked, tone plaintive.

"I don't know," Ivan said. His head hurt, but he kept his voice even. "I don't know what we've been, Dy."

"And I don't know when you turned into such a jackass," Dy snapped back. "You never have time for anyone, you never talk to anyone."

"I've been a little busy!" Ivan said, stung.

"We were both captains, Ivan! You and I were the same damned rank. And now you're off giving orders to generals, and I'm just… shuffled to the side? Why the hell would I want to be part of this anymore? You don't want me!"

Ivan felt cold. "Dy. We can't just let you go. You know that."

Dy pushed to his feet. Kosti stirred uncomfortably behind Ivan, but didn't fire. "So, you'll keep me prisoner. Nice moral authority you have going there."

"No," Ivan said. "We don't have the resources to hold you prisoner."

Vorinnis shook his head. "So," he said. "I guess we part ways here."

"Dy," Ivan said. "Don't do this."

"I'm not going to do anything, Ivan," Vorinnis said. "I'm just… done. I'll go, lie low, see how it all plays out. I'm just done fighting."

"You can't just leave, Dy."

"Watch me." Vorinnis turned to walk up the ravine.

"Sir?" Kosti asked, his voice uneasy.

Ivan ignored him. "Dyson! We can't just let you walk away from this!"

"So shoot me," Vorinnis called back over his shoulder, his voice scalding.

"Prince Ivan?" Kosti asked.

Ivan shook his head. "Dyson!" he yelled. Vorinnis didn't even look back. "We don't have anywhere to hold him," he told Kosti.

He drew his plasma arc. He fired.

Chapter Text

Ivan lied to Berenice about Dy Vorinnis. "He was planning to sell us to Degtiar." He lied to Galeni. He did not lie to himself.

Would Vorinnis have told anyone? Ivan didn't think so. Ivan couldn't have taken the chance. He refused to let himself second-guess the decision. It was done, it was past. No do-overs. He had done the right thing. He had done the only thing.

That night, back at camp, he swore Martin Kosti as his first personal armsman, in his service as heir to the Imperium. Neither of them said the name Vorinnis, but they both knew what hung between them now. There was no time to look at it.

Selig Welensky's arguments against fast-penta interrogation of possible officer recruits didn't just convince Ivan; they convinced Galeni, who promoted him to major and put him in charge of building the strike teams.

They hit an unexpected stumbling block when Galeni went to talk to Mark about their plan for the assassination of the haut Degtiar.

"Absolutely not." The firm denial came not from Mark, but Lady Alys. "Mark is an heir to a countship now, and this strike is not worth risking him on."

"Mother," Ivan said, since it was clear no one else would venture into the silence such an emphatic statement had produced, "Mark is the only person we have with a chance of succeeding in this."

Lady Alys raised her eyebrows at him. "I am not the military expert so many of you gentlemen are," she said, "but it seems to me as though for a decoy, success or failure is a secondary issue. If the assassin is caught, it will serve the same purpose of distraction."

"They would have to get far enough to be perceived as a credible threat," Mark pointed out. "People probably try to kill the man at least once every week or so. They won't even bat an eye unless we can get close."

"Can you train someone enough to get him close, then?" asked Lady Alys. "You have a little over four weeks, now."

"Hang on," Ivan interjected. "Are you two really suggesting that despite the fact that we have someone who might succeed in this mission, I should send in someone unqualified, so they can fail and die? Because we can't let anyone get captured."

"Yes," said his mother, her voice level.

From behind Ivan, Kosti, who had become a second shadow since he took his oath as armsman, said, "I'll do it, my lord."

Ivan turned to look up at the young man, with his level eyes and set features. It was hard, still, not to think of him as the overeager kid his cousin had hired to drive him around, but they'd all come a long way since then. He paused, trying to shape his response, then said, "Mark? Do you think you can teach him?"

Mark glanced from Ivan to Kosti, then over at Lady Alys. "Yeah, I think so," he said.

"All right." Ivan let it slide past him like the ocean, a little more erosion of the soul. He didn't know how people handled this kind of position. He needed, he thought, to have a long conversation with his Uncle Aral when he got back. He understood a lot more now about the kinds of questions he should ask.

He resisted the urge to micromanage the planning stages. He was not Miles, and his officers were far more qualified than he was to plot out specific routes, timing, and contingency plans. He reviewed them all, and asked questions, but did not override any of their decisions, and kept his nervous nagging for Galeni's ears only. Galeni could always calm him down again.

They finished assembling their teams with only eight days to go. They did not have Colonel Ducharme's hundred and twenty explosives experts, but they had one hundred and eight, and their list of leads was thinning. Ivan called a halt to the recruiting.

"We will just have to put the twelve one-miner teams in lower-risk locations, Colonel," he told Ducharme.

"There are no low-risk locations, my lord," Ducharme replied.

"That's why I said lower, not low," Ivan said. "We can't afford to have any of these men out recruiting any more. We have one week to drill and train. We need to use every minute of it."

"My lord –"

"It's mindset-shift time, Colonel. Stop thinking about positioning ourselves to execute, start thinking about execution."

"Yes, my lord." Ducharme did not seem particularly happy, but he accepted the command without further complaint.

"Can the teams be ready in eight days?"

"They understand the stakes, my lord. They'll be ready."

#

With only four days remaining, Dr. Jourdan returned to base camp with a portable comconsole and two hundred and forty specially configured comlinks.

"The problem with using extremely low-frequency communications has always been data loss and power expenditure," he explained "By factoring in a redundant signal and widening the parabola of the receiving scoop, we've managed to mostly overcome the data problem, but the energy consumption will be high."

"How high?" Galeni asked. Jourdan was briefing Ivan and the generals, and, at Ivan's request, Selig Welensky.

"The power cell on a standard comlink is rated for up to two years of use," Jourdan said, "so in terms of the power supply, we will not have an issue. The problem is the power flow. The wiring in the link was designed to conduct a standard charge, and the load we're putting on them will eventually burn the device out."

"Eventually is a very vague term, doctor," Galeni said.

Jourdan shrugged. "I can't give you a better one," he said. "It depends on the age and wear of the specific comlink, and a great deal on random chance. We tested fifteen of them in the lab. Two blew out in the first two minutes. Another seven remained functional for the entirety of the ten-hour test. The other six failed after eighteen, one hundred and thirty-two, two hundred and seven, two hundred and fifty-three, four hundred and thirteen, and five hundred and sixty-eight minutes. Some will fail. Some will not."

"So we build in extra redundancy," Ivan said. "Two hundred and forty comlinks means four for each team, including Kosti's group. Will a standard comconsole send and receive signals for them?"

"No, my lord," replied Jourdan. "Your command team will need comlinks of their own."

"Three per team, then," Ivan said. "And in our initial test, a twenty percent failure rate inside of twenty minutes. What does that make the chances of complete failure for an entire team?"

"Zero point eight percent, my lord," Jourdan answered. "But I stress that a fifteen-unit test is not a large enough sample to predict future behavior with any degree of confidence."

Welensky blew out his breath. "That seems… high," he said.

"Especially if we factor in the possibility of losing men along the way," Vortala said.

"All right," Ivan said. "We're not going to be able to improve that very much at this point. You did well, Dr. Jourdan."

"Hm," said Galeni.

"Hm?" Ivan prompted after a brief pause.

"The failures are heavily front-loaded," Galeni said. "It would lower the odds of a complete team failure to load them all up and run them for five minutes, to test the initial resilience of the systems. If we weed out the percentage that will fail in the first five minutes, we may be able to narrow it down to two hundred comlinks with only a ten percent failure rate in the first twenty minutes."

Ivan refrained from protesting on the grounds that they would have fewer comlinks overall in that scenario. Broken comlinks were of no use to them. "Dr. Jourdan?"

"I think it would be a good idea," the mathematician said.

"All right," Ivan said. "Duv, give someone the task of basic stress-testing all of these by the end of today. I want to know our total count before I go to bed."

"Understood, my lord."

"So," Ivan asked Jourdan, "do we have access to the Seedy communications net?" He didn't ask with any optimism, but Dr. Jourdan smiled at him.

"No, my lord," he said, his tone faintly smug, "but neither will they."

After a brief pause, Vortala said, "I beg your pardon?" He was speaking, Ivan imagined, for all of them.

"That's why we chose the frequency that we did, general. Not only will our signal be more difficult for them to detect and trace, even should they notice it, we have found a type of magnetic pulse that will disrupt higher-frequency signals, rendering standard communications inoperable."

Ivan absorbed this. "A jamming field, then," he said.

"Of sorts," Jourdan replied. "It is created by a portable wave dispeller, which we have tested on a small scale. Dr. Clouet and his team are manufacturing a number of scaled-up versions of the dispeller, which will disrupt signals for a twelve-mile radius."

"How many can we have in three days?" Vortala asked.

"We expect each one to take around two or three hours," Jourdan replied, "but we have two teams building them. Conservatively, then, a team can do four in a day, so we can have twenty-four by the end of three days."

"That's not fifty-nine," Vortala said, but he kept the complaint low-voiced.

"It's a damned lot," Ivan pointed out. "Duv, will this be useful?"

"Oh, yes," Galeni said, his voice faintly breathless with anticipation. "Most definitely."

"Wait," Welensky put in. Everyone turned to look at him. "Lord Auditor Vorgustafson," he said. "He must have connections who could help with this. If we could get the plans to some of the industrialists he's worked with…"

"We might even be able to get them built in the cities where they'll be used in some cases," Vortala put in. "It would be very valuable for the cities low on our priorities list."

"Talk to him, Selig," Ivan said. "If he needs transportation, see that he gets it."

"Yes, my lord."

Jourdan gave a tired smile. Ivan returned it. "You've done well, Dr. Jourdan," he said. "Right now, I need you to go with General Galeni and brief his test team on how to stress-test the comlinks, and then try to get some sleep. Duv, figure out how this will impact our strategy. I want scenarios in front of me in six hours. Questions, gentlemen?"

There were none. Ivan broke up the meeting. They didn't have much time left for dithering.

#

It was easy to find Berenice these days around camp. One needed only to find either Countess Vorkalloner or Lady Alys and ask them. No surgically implanted tracking chip could be more effective than a pair of old Vor grandmothers-to-be, both of whom were full of old-Vorish advice and admonitions.

Countess Vorkalloner was with her husband, speaking quietly about the state of industry in the Vorkalloner district. "They've closed the mills, but once we get them started again, we should see production nearly back to normal."

"I'm concerned mostly about the research institutions. I can't imagine how much we'll have lost at Grinkov Parks, and the pharm labs in Vos Gurra will be a disaster. I hope we can salvage something there, but we --" The count broke off as Ivan approached. "Prince Ivan," he greeted.

"Count Vorkalloner, sir," Ivan replied, giving the pair a shallow bow. "I apologize for interrupting, but I was hoping the Countess might know where Princess Berenice is?" It was still difficult for him to think of this pair as family. Part of the problem, he suspected, was the nature of camp life. With everyone forced into tight physical proximity, the social boundaries they used to protect themselves either relaxed into nothing or strengthened into unshakable barriers. The Vorkalloners fell into the latter category. Perhaps later, if they succeeded, Ivan would see his in-laws more at ease.

"She is sorting equipment with Madame Galeni," the Countess replied. "You should tell her to rest more; she should not be straining herself as she does."

Ivan opted for diplomacy. "I shall be certain to take care of her, my lady," he said with another slight bow.

"I've been meaning to speak to you," the count said. "Sylvia and I are leaving tomorrow morning."

Ivan nodded. "Back to the district?" he asked.

"Yes. Our place is there. We'll want to be in a position to act swiftly, whatever may happen."

"I understand, sir. Thank you for staying as long as you did. Your advice and support were extremely valuable."

The count's smile was dry. "Off with you, boy."

"Yes, sir." Ivan made his escape.

Berenice was sorting through their supply of weapons, power packs, rations, medical gear, and other sundries. Delia was with her, her slender form rounding noticeably as her pregnancy progressed. It would be a few months yet before Ivan's son intruded on the world as anything other than a promise and an occasional bout of maternal heartburn.

"Hi, Ivan!" Delia called as he approached, and Berenice looked up. Ivan and Berenice had reached a type of cautious peace over the last few weeks, a strained ceasefire for the sake of the resistance and Ivan's nascent government. They both knew the basic limits of their accord, and neither party would press those boundaries. Berenice did not smile.

"Hi, Delia," Ivan said. "Princess Berenice." He bowed. "I was hoping to talk to you, if you have some time?"

"Of course," Berenice answered. She turned to Delia, offering a half-smile of apology. "Will you excuse me, Delia?"

"Of course, my lady," Delia said, reaching out to cover Berenice's hand with one of hers. Berenice's smile warmed briefly, and Ivan tried to stifle a surge of unease at this show of female solidarity.

They did not say anything else, at least, and Ivan gave into the masochistic urge to look back over his shoulder at Delia as he and Berenice moved off to a quiet corner. Delia was not quite smiling, but there was a definite ironic cast to her lips, and her eyes were dancing. Ivan averted his gaze and quickened his pace slightly.

Berenice didn't wait for Ivan to speak, once they were shielded from other eyes. "You want me to leave," she said.

"Yes," Ivan said. "It's time. Your parents are leaving tomorrow. I want you to go either with them or with Martya and Enrique to some more secure location. We need to separate now, for both of our sakes and for Barrayar."

"I would rather not be shuffled aside."

"You are not being shuffled aside," Ivan said, willing conviction into his tone. "You are being entrusted with the custody and safety of my unborn heir. That just happens to be tied up with your own safety and well-being."

She smiled at that, then looked away as if embarrassed by the brief flash of humanity. Ivan wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. "Where will you be?" she asked.

"I don't know yet. Not here. We'll have to decide what's best politically and strategically. I'll probably go wherever Duv tells me, unless someone tries to veto him."

Berenice nodded, still looking off into the distance. She didn't speak for a few seconds. Ivan didn't try to rush her, giving her the time she needed to think. She always looked very serene at these moments, keeping her mask of calm around her and locked firmly into place. He wondered how much chaos or order of the mind actually lived underneath.

"I think," she said at last, "that it would not send the proper political message for the pregnant wife of the Crown Prince to turn to her father for protection in a crisis. I will go with Dr. Borgos and Miss Koudelka."

#

He wound up, in the end, at Vorkosigan Surleau. They had discussed a few sites, but the advantages to basing themselves on Aral Vorkosigan's home soil were politically obvious. If they needed to address the people, they would have extra authority lent by the location. They would be surrounding themselves with Vorkosigan loyalists. The building was apart from district capitals and not of obvious military importance to the Cetagandans, but equipped with modern security and communications gear, and designed to be defensible against an attack. If the Cetagandans chose to drop a bomb on the roof, they would all be thoroughly dead, but if they wanted to discover who was inside first, any enemy would need time to fight his way inside.

Ivan was there with Duv and Delia, Simon Illyan and Lady Alys, Mark, Dr. Jourdan, and Lord Auditor Vorgustafson, along with nearly a dozen guards. They were settled in a ground floor parlor, in which they'd set up a command station, tying the modified comlinks into the system.

"We can have up to four communication links open at a time, my lord," Dr. Jourdan explained. "I'm keeping three comlinks in reserve to slot in if and when these blow out. When we lose them, new failures will decrease the number of possible connections."

Galeni had wanted more than seven comlinks, but Ivan had insisted. One hundred seventy-seven were out with the mine squads. Vortala had four at his station in Donosgrad, and Selig Welensky had five more for the assassination mission, which he was commanding.

Count Vorkalloner had one, for emergency use only. Berenice and Martya had three.

That count had left only seven remaining for Ivan and his command team. He would have been happier with more, too, but he was not willing to take any away from anyone else.

He had insisted that Martya not decide where they were going until after the three of them had left camp. Ivan did not know. No one knew. Their instructions were to maintain com silence except in the direst of emergencies. Ivan had to try not to think about it.

The teams had been moving into position for over forty hours now, placing their wave dispellers and establishing the positions for their strikes. Ivan had to sit quietly in the middle of the chaos and wait to see where this particular roulette wheel stopped spinning. He'd put it into play; he'd armed everyone as well as he could. It was their job now.

"Fifty-four teams checked in, now, my lord," reported Galeni.

"Does that include Welensky?"

"No, my lord. We have separate confirmation from him. We're waiting to hear from five – four more teams, sir. Ducharme just reported in from Federstok."

"All right. Let me know when we have all fifty-nine, or at 0858."

"Yes, my lord."

Their plan had been to begin at nine on the dot, but Ivan would be flexible to allow his teams into position if they were a few minutes late. They still had eighteen minutes until nine.

Ivan paced to the window, looking up at the clear blue sky. It was a beautiful day, a type of quiet cosmic irony. It should have been grey and miserable. It was actually starting to get warm again in Vorkosigan's District, winter struggling to hold on against the oncoming spring. They were probably tapping maple trees in the backcountry, moving on with their lives without any awareness of the precariousness of the day.

Good for them. Ivan took a moment, by the window, to just breathe, to find his center and relax into his responsibilities here. He did not need to be the military genius today, or the political one. He needed to be willing to say yes and no, to make the decisions that would mean lives spent one way or the other. He had to be the one to weigh risks and rewards. He felt very cold.

"Team fifty-nine, reporting in, my lord," Galeni said.

Ivan turned back from the window. "Time?"

"0854, my lord."

"All right. Make sure we have Welensky in contact, then send standby notices to all of the teams in waves. We will begin as scheduled at 0900."

"Yes, my lord."

The quiet waves of instructions went out, and Ivan tried not to jitter. Bouncing off the walls wouldn't do anything but disrupt Galeni's work. He poured himself a cup of coffee instead, leaning against the wall to sip from it.

"This is zeta-niner, sir, confirming hold for signal. Zeta-niner out."

Galeni glanced back at Ivan. "All teams report ready, my lord. Major Welensky reports the haut-governor in line of sight."

Ivan exhaled. "Understood, general. Major Welensky is authorized to launch Operation Excision."

Chapter Text

Galeni spoke quietly into the com hookup. "Operation Excision is a go, major. Repeat, you are go for Excision."

"Acknowledged, sir," Welensky replied. Ivan watched the comconsole and listened to the calm confidence of that disembodied voice. "Preparing to launch Operation Excision. Omega-one will begin com silence in five, four, three…" He did not speak the last two seconds aloud, but Ivan heard the background noise die away as the link went silent.

The room was still for a few seconds.

"We have at least five minutes before we can hear anything back," Galeni said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his face with one hand. "This is a marathon, people, not a sprint. Let's all try to remain as relaxed as possible."

Ivan leaned firmly against the wall to prevent himself from pacing. He stared down at his coffee cup and counted seconds in the silent room. He had reached forty-eight when his mother said, "Excuse me, gentlemen," and walked out of the room.

Ivan blinked at the empty door, then turned to look a question at Illyan, who shrugged.

"She's probably preparing some esoteric post-apocalyptic tea ceremony," Mark opined, which drew a brief laugh from Galeni and a grim smile from Ivan.

"If anyone would know it, Alys would," Illyan said.

They all fell silent again, listening to time slide past them. After a moment, Ivan asked, "What's our time, Duv?"

Galeni glanced at his screen. "Three minutes, sixteen seconds, my lord."

"We should have brought in a clock," Delia commented. "Like the ones in situation rooms in the holovid. Something we can all see."

"Interior decorating is your job, dear," Galeni told her.

She smiled back at him. "Shall I see if I can find one?"

"Go ahead," Mark answered. "There has to be a good multi-featured wall clock somewhere in here."

She glanced down at Galeni, clearly torn.

"Will you feel any better for being in here?" he asked her.

"No," she said. "I'll be back."

They continued to wait.

"Five minutes gone, my lord," Galeni said.

"All right," Ivan said. "Let me know when we hit eight."

"Understood, my lord."

Welensky's team had thirty minutes to report back in. At thirty minutes, they had decided, they would launch phase two, and send in the strike teams. Ivan had too good an understanding of everything that might go wrong for his comfort today.

The strategy had been easier than they had expected, in its planning stages. The haut Degtiar was Cetagandan, and fell into the basic Cetagandan traps of mind. Cetagandan warfare was all within caste, not from without. Haut-lords plotted and schemed against other haut-lords, and ghem-lords warred for precedence among themselves. The Cetagandans did not respect the threat posed by the common classes against the haut-governor.

They took basic security precautions, of course. Degtiar was guarded by a cadre of personally loyal guards, answerable only to him. Ivan suspected from the descriptions that they were ba, imported from the palaces of the haut. There were soldiers, as well, and the governor's palace was nearly impervious to intruders.

Their mindset showed its weaknesses in Degtiar's travel arrangements, however. The haut-governor traveled to the military station every morning, and he entered and exited his vehicle in sight of the street, and on a predictable timetable. It was a window of opportunity.

Disaster scenarios ran through Ivan's head. Simplest of all, the team might be unable to get into position, held up by crowds or patrols. Their communications could fail. They could be captured. They could be killed. It was, in truth, more probable that they would fail than that they would succeed. Kosti was the only one who would show himself, by orders. Welensky had two teams observing from different positions, but they were not to attempt to extract Kosti. He would succeed or fail in this by his own efforts.

Mark had told Kosti to keep it simple. "Don't skulk," he said. "They're trained to notice skulkers. Don't try to get fancy. Choose your path. Walk the path. Take the shot. That's all there is to it."

"Eight minutes now, my lord," Galeni reported.

"Understood," Ivan said. "Nothing from Welensky?"

"Not yet, my lord."

Lady Alys returned with a tea cart. Mark choked back a laugh, and Lady Alys gave him a quelling look. "I don't believe that any of us are in danger of falling asleep, gentlemen. We do not need artificial agitation. Herbal tea until and unless you begin to flag."

Lord Auditor Vorgustafson and Dr. Jourdan were sitting quietly in one corner. Ivan saw Vorgustafson's hands close protectively around his coffee cup and gave the auditor a rueful smile before surrendering his mug to his mother's determined confiscation. He looked down at the weak brown of the tea, a dissipated beverage after the black murkiness of the coffee. He sipped glumly.

The comconsole crackled to life. "This is Omega-One!" Dr. Jourdan, who was accepting his tea from Lady Alys, dropped his cup as Welensky's voice rang in the quiet room. "The tumor is excised. Repeat, the tumor is successfully excised."

Galeni spun his chair back over to the comconsole. "Acknowledging tumor excised, major. Get your team back and out. Report back when you are secure."

"Yes, sir!" The giddy relief in Welensky's voice rang through unmistakably even across the electronic divide. "Omega-One out."

Galeni looked back at Ivan. "My lord?" he said.

"How long before word of the assassination reaches the outlying cities?"

"It's hard to tell, my lord. Ten or fifteen minutes."

"All right," Ivan said. "Send out initial instructions. I want everyone primed to execute Operation Antibiotic in sixteen minutes."

"Yes, my lord." Galeni turned back to the com, keying in the first set of four teams. "Alpha-One, Alpha-Two, Alpha-Three, Alpha-Four, report." Dr. Jourdan began picking up the broken fragments of teacup while Lady Alys poured a new one for him.

Ivan turned to look over at Mark as the responses came in from the team. Mark was frowning down at his stomach. "Kosti did it," Ivan volunteered.

"Yeah," Mark said. "I'll feel better when I get the final report there."

"Me, too," Ivan admitted. He could imagine too many scenes. Martin shot down where he stood, Martin turning his weapon on himself to avoid capture… How many were already dead in Donosgrad? It's done, it's done, it's done… There was only forward to go now.

"Prime countdown to fifteen minutes, seven seconds from my mark," Galeni was saying to the second group. "And… mark. Barring separate instructions, execute when countdown concludes."

Ivan sat and listened to the instructions roll out in waves. Fifteen separate waves of communications were necessary to speak to all fifty-nine teams. The pace was agonizing.

Delia came back halfway through it with a portable comconsole with a wide viewing area. She quickly called up a visual countdown, priming it to Galeni's instructions to the last of the Zeta teams. Three minutes, thirty-two seconds to go.

When the clock ran down, fifty-nine teams would begin their progress toward the mine sites. They had forty-one wave dispellers in forty cities, with two in Donosgrad. They had decided it was better to build in redundancy for the capital than it was to carve another city out of the communication network. Once the dispellers were active, each team would proceed independently to their target.

"Command, this is Gamma-Six. Primary comlink has failed, sir. On to secondary comlink."

"Acknowledged, Gamma-Six," Galeni said, tapping a few keys on his comconsole. "Updating contact point to secondary comlink."

"Understood, sir. Gamma-six out."

Ivan shifted, glancing at the clock. One minute, eight seconds. "Which team is Gamma-Six?" he asked.

"Vortashpula Regnata," Galeni replied. "Lieutenant Ohm."

Ivan nodded.

They waited in silence.

It was redundant, with all of them staring at the countdown, but Galeni announced the point of no return nonetheless. "Operation Antibiotic is live. I repeat, we are live with Operation Antibiotic."

Ivan blew out his breath. "All right. Dr. Jourdan, try to contact someone in each of the cities covered by a wave dispeller using standard communications channels. I want confirmation that the dispellers are doing their job. Delia, check the news channels. See if there's anything happening on them at this point. Someone has to still be broadcasting."

As they moved off, Ivan glanced over at Galeni. "Nothing from Welensky yet?" he checked.

"No, my lord."

"All right." Ivan sipped from his tea. It was definitely insufficiently soothing, whatever his mother had thought. He thought wistfully of the excellent wine cellar under their feet, but supposed trying to conduct this mess drunk might conceivably have a negative impact. It would at least be disrespectful to the officers who had to stay sober. They could chase oblivion after the day was over.

They waited. The shortest of the missions was sized at twenty-three minutes, but the numbers were all soft, from here. Delia had reconfigured the clock to run forwards, and it ticked away the minutes from commencement of the mission.

"Ivan! You have got to see this!"

It was Delia, calling from the next room. Ivan glanced up at Galeni, who nodded. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Simon, come grab me if anything happens."

"Of course," Illyan replied amiably.

Ivan joined Delia at the comconsole. "They have video up," she told him. "It's amazing. No one seems to have any idea of what's happening, but they know Degtiar's been shot. Look at this." She tapped a few keys, backing the track up a few seconds. "It's the military base. They were doing some sort of formation drill, and recording it for – look, there."

She jabbed a finger at the screen, and Ivan saw the unmistakable figure of Martin Kosti, tall, muscular, and proud, walking down the street. As the door to the haut-governor's car opened and Degtiar stepped out, Kosti drew a needler from a concealed holster inside his tunic. In one fluid motion, the weapon was out, aimed, and fired, and Degtiar was dropping, blood spraying from that inhuman haut head. The camera froze on Kosti's face, cool and merciless and professional. It was beautiful.

There was a reporter talking about the scene, but he wasn't saying anything interesting, and Delia had the sound turned all the way down. "Did they say whether Kosti got away?" he asked.

"They didn't say. But they're rioting in Donosgrad now, or were. They're talking about the communication problems. No one knows what's causing them. Some of the nets say the Cetagandans are doing it."

"Any reports of deaths yet, from the riots?"

"No," she said. "But people are definitely going to die, Ivan. The Cetagandans aren't going to try for non-lethal crowd control first, not after this. It started right next to the military base, too."

"Right," Ivan said. He stared down at the comconsole, which was running in real time again, taking in a sweep of Cetagandan guards. "No one's saying he's dead yet, either, right?"

"No," she said. "But with a head wound like that?"

"Right," Ivan said. "All right. Keep monitoring in here. Try to get something from the cities not caught under the dispellers. See what's happening there in reaction to this."

"Yes, my lord," she said, and the use of the title seemed unconscious. It made Ivan feel chilled.

"I'll be right next door," he told her, and returned to the main operations center.

Jourdan and Vorgustafson were sitting together at a small comconsole, running through prearranged communication checks. Galeni was tapping on his screen, looking intent and grim. Illyan and Lady Alys were sitting together on a small couch; her head was resting on his shoulder. Mark, damn him, looked like he was napping. Ivan wanted a nap.

"Anything?" Ivan asked.

"Delta-Six lost a comlink," Galeni answered.

"Hassadar's wave dispeller didn't activate properly," Dr. Jourdan said. "They still have full communications."

Ivan acknowledged both reports, then settled himself to wait. He wasn't terribly good at waiting, but there was going to be a lot of it today. Two more teams reported comlink failure. The twenty-three minute mark came and went. Thirty minutes. At thirty-two minutes, a tired voice came over the comconsole.

"Command, this is Gamma-Four reporting antibiotic success. Repeat, this is Gamma-Four, reporting success."

"Gamma-Four, this is command," Galeni replied, ignoring the sudden tension of motion behind him. "Acknowledged antibiotic success. What is your status?"

"No opposition met, sir," came the voice. "We are withdrawing now with the team intact."

"Congratulations, Gamma-Four. Pull back to your wave dispeller and hold for further instructions."

"Understood, Command. Gamma-Four will return to the wave dispeller and hold for instructions."

The comlink went quiet. Ivan took a moment to breathe, to make certain his voice would be calm. "Where is Gamma-Four?" he asked.

"Vorbretten District," Galeni answered.

Ivan nodded. That was one. If one was all they could do, it was still something. It was not enough. He looked out the window at the blue sky and thought about the people dying in Donosgrad, people being mown down by the Cetagandans for celebrating his victory today. This wasn't a day for triumph, not for him. All he could do was minimize the losses.

"Command, this is Beta-Six! Report antibiotic success, sir! Repeat, this is Beta-Six, and we have antibiotic success."

The reports came in steadily after that. Ivan fought against unrealistic optimism. The successful missions would be the smoothest, he reminded himself. If there were problems, they would report in late.

Ten teams reported in, then fifteen. Ivan tried not to betray the little thrill of relief at hearing back from Hassadar and Costazura, in the Vorpatril District. All were equal in this fight. He would keep the shameful delight at preserving those two to himself.

One hour and six minutes in, with eighteen teams reporting, a hoarse voice came over the comlink.

"Command, this is Gamma-Three. We have taken fire! Colonel Ducharme is down, Command. Repeat, Colonel Ducharme is down. We have cleared the enemy. Please advise, command!"

Ivan's fingers, curled around his tepid teacup, felt icy. Galeni did not hesitate. "Gamma-three, this is Command. Do we copy, Colonel Ducharme is disabled?"

"Yes, Command! We have a clear path to the mine, sir, but none of us know how to disarm. Do we proceed, sir?"

"Hold, Gamma-Three." Galeni tapped a key and turned to look at Ivan, whose mind was spinning down useless paths. "My lord?"

Ivan tightened his jaw. "Someone give me a risk assessment of proceeding."

Galeni blew out his breath. "If they get there and we can patch them through to one of the teams that's already done, they might be able to talk them through it."

"Might," Ivan repeated. He felt like screaming. "This isn't like cutting a wire, right, General? We're talking about a complex procedure, with lots of room for error."

"Yes, my lord."

Ivan stared at the comconsole. "Ducharme was in Federstok," he said. "All right. Duv, do you think Gamma-Three can do this with a walkthrough?"

Galeni hesitated. "No, my lord." His voice was flat.

Ivan worked his jaw. "Pull them out."

Federstok had a population of something over a hundred thousand. Ivan pushed them aside. He sipped his tea and tried to calm his racing pulse.

Zeta-Two lost a second comlink, and was on to their third and final. Alpha-ten took fire, but kept both of their miners alive and moving. Twenty-five teams reported success. Thirty. Forty.

The clock read two hours and forty-eight minutes when Lady Alys left the room to prepare lunch for them. Ivan didn't feel much like eating, but his mother's voice still provoked an automatic obedience in him when it came to matters of necessity.

Selig Welensky finally reported back just after lunch. "Everyone is safe and alive, Command. There are riots all over the city. Moving anywhere was next to impossible, but we've managed to withdraw to a safe house. Kosti was amazing, sir."

"Tell him I saw the video," Ivan told the com. "You did well. All of you."

"Thank you, my lord." Welensky sounded exhausted, and Ivan could not blame him. "We'll clear the com for you now. God go with you."

"I hope he will," Ivan said. He wasn't a believer, not like his aunt, but today he wished he was. It would be nice to know that all of this was somehow meant to work out.

Fifty-two teams had checked in by the four-hour mark, and the reports had slowed significantly. Fifty-one had been successful. Two teams had been on their last comlink at their most recent report, and Ivan had to allow for the possibility that their last comlink had died. He would not risk initiating communications while his teams were potentially exposed.

"Our window is shrinking," Mark said into the quiet room. He was working on his fourth packaged meal, though everyone else had been done with lunch for over an hour. Ivan had been trying not to think of that looming deadline. A six-hour window had seemed like a good idea at the time. Enough time to complete the task. Not enough time for the Cetagandans to re-arm the mines. With under an hour and a half remaining, it felt like far too short a stretch.

"Fifty-one," Illyan said quietly. "That's nearly eighty-five percent. It's amazing we've done this well."

Eighty-five percent. God help them all. "Who are we still waiting on, Duv?" Ivan asked.

"Innistan, Gudriksburg, Black Ridge, Niklopolis, Vorgarin City, Tiklis, and Donosgrad."

"Can someone get me population statistics of those seven? Plus Federstok, please."

"My lord –"

"Just… get it for me, Duv."

"I'll find it, my lord." Vorgustafson offered. Ivan leaned back, staring up at the ceiling.

The number was just over two million. Donosgrad accounted for nearly a third of that number.

With twenty minutes left before the deadline, the team in Innistan checked in. They had lost two men, but had successfully made it to the mine via an alternate route. They had disarmed it. Ivan reduced his death toll by three hundred thousand.

No one was talking now. Ivan was staring at the comconsole, willing it to chime. Mark was apparently sleeping again. Dr. Jourdan was running some calculation over at his desk, and Lady Alys and Illyan were seated together, huddled as if for warmth. Delia sat with Galeni, watching the minutes tick away. Lord Auditor Vorgustafson was at the window.

The silence lay like a shroud over the group. Ivan could feel his heartbeat and hear his own breathing, like a reprimand from the dead who would be losing them soon.

"My lord!" It was Vorgustafson, his voice sharp. "Look!"

Ivan was at the window in three long strides, looking out. Overhead, like a stain against the sky, a fiery bruise licked across the clouds. Ivan blew out his breath. "They're here."

There was a brief silence from the room behind him.

"Instructions, my lord?" Galeni asked.

Ivan watched as another brilliant flash bloomed in the sky. He was crying, despite all his Vorish pride and masculine dignity. The explosions were blurred. "Contact all teams. Tell them to disable the wave dispellers. I'm going to address the people."

#

Some of the old ImpSec overrides on the communication grid were still active. If anyone had tried to use them before now, the Cetagandans would surely have found them and disabled them, but Barrayar was an expert in paranoia, and the subroutines were buried deep in the communication code. Galeni tapped an old emergency signal, cutting off broadcasts over the entire planet.

"People of Barrayar," Ivan said to the camera. "I am Prince Ivan Vorpatril. You may have heard that I am dead. I can assure you that I am not. Even as we speak, my uncle, Emperor Aral Vorkosigan, is in the skies above us, leading a force that will drive away the Cetagandan oppressors."

He had chosen to have Mark and Lord Auditor Vorgustafson in the frame with him, a token of the Vorkosigans and a token of the Imperial authority now gone. They stood behind him like escort ships to his battlecruiser, guards of honor.

"The haut Degtiar is dead, executed by my order. We will not tolerate the imprisonment of the Barrayaran people. We will not tolerate the murder of Barrayaran citizens. We will not tolerate the defilement of Barrayaran soil. We will not tolerate the presence of these oppressors any longer!"

He hoped desperately that the joint fleet was actually winning; this would be embarrassing and not a little dispiriting if the Cetagandans won the day. He, at least, would probably not have to witness it. They were making no effort, today, to conceal their location from the cameras. The Cetagandans could be at Vorkosigan Surleau in a few hours.

"I call on all loyal citizens to stand firm and stand tall. I call on all Cetagandan intruders to surrender yourselves immediately to Imperial mercy – or what little remains of it. After today, there will be no second chances. May god go with you all."

#

No bombs went off, in the end. Later examination of Cetagandan records would show that the order to detonate was given in only twenty-three cities. Of those twenty-three, eleven were thwarted by junior ghem-officers shooting their superiors to save their own lives and the lives of the cities they were in. The other twelve mines had all been successfully disabled.

Most of the cities did not even know that the fleet was overhead until far too late. With communications disrupted, runners were sent in with word of the space battle, but no clear orders were given; the chain of command was decapitated. Degtiar's word was meant to launch this last desperate measure, and without him, most ghem-officers were unwilling to take on that burden of responsibility.

The Cetagandan fleet was caught by the same scale of overwhelming force that the Barrayarans had faced in the autumn. With less to lose and their ground command shaken, they sought escape. With escape denied, they surrendered. Eighty-three Cetagandan ships were still in fighting shape by that time, against an attack fleet of over three hundred.
Assault shuttles fell like steel raindrops across Barrayar, reclaiming the cities from the Cetagandan garrisons. And one ship came directly to Vorkosigan Surleau.

It was windy, and the water of the lake was in constant rippling motion. Ivan watched the sky, with its white clouds scuttling north from the mountains. Mark was with him, and General Galeni and Lord Auditor Vorgustafson watched from a polite distance behind them.

Mark spotted the shuttle first, and pointed silently up at the sky. Ivan tracked its progress as it swooped down and around, growing swiftly into recognizable features. He was wearing a service uniform, probably one of his uncle's, which had been in the closet. The trousers were short on him, and his cuffs sat too high on his wrists, but it was what he could manage. His own clothes didn't bear thinking about at this point. His captain's tabs felt very strange on him now, but he had not quite had the gall to have himself promoted, among all the other promotions he was handing out. Until he had spoken with his uncle, he was back to being Captain Vorpatril, loyal Imperial officer, carrying out his duty to protect his homeworld. He'd even managed to catch a shower.

The shuttle's roar grew louder as it came in on its landing vector, sliding to a spot beside the lake. History loomed, Ivan thought, remembering the stories of the boy Emperor being brought to this very place by Captain Negri. The reins of the Imperium had passed through the Vorkosigan District time and again, from old General Piotr fighting off the first Cetagandan invasion, to the overthrow of Mad Yuri for Ezar. Aral Vorkosigan had held the Imperium for Gregor, and now, finally, the kingmakers had passed the crown to themselves.

The shuttle settled on the grass and the engines quieted. One of the Emperor's armsmen exited first, still in the familiar brown and silver. He sized up the small group quickly, then stepped aside. Aral Vorkosigan followed him out.

Ivan hadn't seen his uncle since just after Miles and Ekaterin's wedding. His work on Sergyar had kept him busy, and Ivan hadn't had time to get away. He didn't think his uncle had looked so old before, though.

Aral Vorkosigan's solid frame and expressive face seemed almost hollow, with a new brittleness. Even in the aftermath of his heart attack, Ivan didn't think his uncle had seemed quite so frail. He seemed to have aged ten years in the last few months. The lines of his face cut deeper, etched with more pain than laughter. He looked like a man looking to the end of his life. Ivan's heart ached.

But when he saw Mark, the Emperor grinned, and some of the weight of those years lifted. He strode forward and clasped his son to him in a bear hug, which Mark returned a bit awkwardly. After a brief, hard, embrace, Uncle Aral held Mark at arm's length and looked down at him. "You look well," he said.

"You look like hell, sir," Mark answered honestly, and Aral laughed, then turned to Ivan.

Ivan met his uncle's eyes for a few seconds, then dropped to one knee before his Emperor.

Aral Vorkosigan's smile was brief and rueful, but he reached out his hands, and Ivan lifted his to slide between them. Their eyes met as Ivan recited the formal oath. "I, Ivan Xav Vorpatril, do testify that I am a free and loyal subject to Barrayar and the Imperium, and pledge my fealty and my service to Emperor Aral Vorkosigan. I offer to him my labor, my lands, and my name's honor in service of the Imperium."

"I, Aral Vorkosigan, do accept your oath, and acknowledge Prince Ivan Xav Vorpatril as my sworn vassal," replied the Emperor, his voice steady. "I pledge to you the protection of a liege-lord and a place in my empire."

Ivan rose a bit unsteadily to his feet, and his uncle caught him in a hug to match the one he gave Mark, fierce and hard and proud. "It is good to see you," he said into Ivan's ear. "You did well, son."

Ivan closed his eyes against the daylight and the tears. He took a minute, making sure he could trust his voice before speaking. "Welcome home, sire."

Chapter Text

Once the Cetagandans were relocated to prison camps, the planet took a moment to mourn its dead.

The dead of Vorbarr Sultana were by far the majority of the lost. Two million Barrayarans had been atomized with the city, and the funeral pyres for those dead burned as bright and hot as the rage of the survivors. But they were not the only ones gone.

Over thirty thousand Barrayaran soldiers had died with the home fleet, and another seven thousand men had been killed in the attack that had retaken the planet. More than a thousand civilians had been gunned down with needlers and plasma fire on the streets of Donosgrad, and over four hundred senior officers and political prisoners had been executed by the Cetagandans during the occupation.

Ivan's dead were more personal for him, though there were fewer of them. Twenty-nine of his two hundred and sixty-four men had been killed in action. Three of the teams had been killed entirely before reaching their goal. Colonel Ducharme was dead, and Cal Minga, and Lord Thomas Vorkalloner. Ivan would carry their faces with him for the rest of his life, he thought, these men who had given their lives for him and for Barrayar.

Only twenty-three of the original Counts were still alive. In several cases, the line had to be reestablished at a very distant remove. Sigur Vorbretten would get his countship after all, along with many other Vor who had never anticipated their elevation. Ivan and Berenice went with Emperor Aral to find and elevate the new counts and to mourn the dead in city after city.

"Are you planning on choosing a new capital soon, sire?" Ivan asked at dinner one evening in Innistan. "Eventually, we'll have to be done moving around."

Emperor Aral took a long moment before answering, looking out the window. Ivan almost repeated himself, but didn't give in to the impulse. He traded looks with Berenice, instead.

"No," the emperor said at last. "I will not."

Ivan hesitated. "I don't understand," he said after a minute.

"We need to have somewhere, sire," Berenice said. "It's important to establish that center soon, so we can find our balance again as a government."

Emperor Aral smiled over at her. He had ended up approving of Berenice more than Ivan had feared; Ivan rather suspected his mother had done a great deal there. "You are quite right," he said. "But I will not choose it." He turned to face Ivan. "I am growing too old for this, Ivan," he said, his voice somber. "Barrayar does not need a weary, aging emperor. Barrayar needs someone who can see this through to its end. And I… am not that man."

Berenice seemed frozen. Ivan was afraid to look at her, afraid of seeing something ugly in her eyes. He watched his uncle, instead.

"I'm not ready," he said quietly.

"You've been doing the job, Ivan. For six months."

"In your name, sire."

"My heart is failing again, Ivan."

Ivan didn't answer right away. He looked down at his dinner, and adjusted the position of his fork. After a moment, he said, "How long, sire?"

"Without a transplant… who can say? Four months? Six? Twelve? There's no reason I can't have the surgery, but I will need a few months to convalesce. And I will need to rest."

Ivan nodded, not speaking. He let the words sink in for a moment, then turned to look at Berenice. She was watching him, not the emperor, and her eyes were wary and unsure. Ivan didn't want to say anything. He wanted to let the moment stretch forever, to keep from ever having to say yes. But time rolled on, and the duties of the Vor came in many forms. "When?" he asked.

"As soon as possible," his uncle replied. "Your lady wife is correct that we need to regain our center, and that should not be delayed. You will be that center, not I."

Ivan took a moment to breath, to look for his own center. Berenice reached over and gently touched his arm, and he briefly covered her hand with his. "All right," he said. "Tomorrow, then. You'll stay here, to advise me?" He hadn't meant for it to come out as a question, but his uncertainty betrayed him. His hands weren't shaking, at least.

"I will," said Aral Vorkosigan, kingmaker.

#

No one argued with the decision. His uncle was right, Ivan knew, that this was easier now than it would be in six months, or twelve. Today, Ivan Vorpatril was Prince Ivan, the face of the resistance. In six months, he would be fading back into a hanger-on, an accessory to the Vorkosigans.

Ivan had argued passionately against the assumption of Gregor's name and district, but in the end, yielded to necessity there. He would ascend to the Imperium as Emperor Ivan Vorbarra, and burn an offering in apology to his father's name and memory. It was a symbol, they told him, a promise to the people, a legacy kept. There was already a Count Vorpatril – old Falco had hung on through the conquest and the fighting – and it would be excessively confusing to have two Vorpatrils both voting in the Council.

He decided to keep Donosgrad as the provisional capital. He would begin rebuilding in the Vorbarra District once they found their equilibrium. The Cetagandans might have been gone from Barrayar, but the war was surely not over, not yet. There were promises to be kept to their allies, and the Cetagandans were still there, seething with hatred. They would surely not simply stop, not now.

Ivan did not make a ceremony out of gathering oaths. He took them as he came to the counts or they came to him. There were six new counts too young to govern themselves, for whom regents would need to be selected. One of those was Count Dono Vorrutyer, whom Martya had managed to find. Ivan firmly intended to use as much political capital as necessary to get Martya approved as regent for the young count. The Imperium needed her common sense.

After all of the bloodlines had been traced, one seat remained vacant. Count Jacob Vorfolse, the last heir to his name, had shot himself before the arresting forces could come for him.

#

Ivan called Duv Galeni in to talk with him three days after he became the Emperor.

"Did you expect this?" he asked him. "That night in Hassadar, when I came looking for Martya? Did you expect things to play out this way?"

"Oh, yes, sire," Galeni said dryly. "Down to the details."

Ivan grinned at him. "We always knew you were brilliant, Dr. Galeni."

Galeni smiled back with rather more restraint. "In truth, sire, you did better than I expected. You've grown."

"We all have," Ivan said. "Speaking of which, how's Delia?"

"Resting, at last," Galeni answered. "She was relieved to be able to visit a doctor at last, and the reports are that the baby is doing well. It's a little girl."

"She'll probably be just as pretty as her mama," Ivan predicted. "You'll be tearing your hair out by the time she's sixteen."

"Almost certainly," Galeni sighed happily. Remembering himself, he asked Ivan, "And how is the empress, sire?"

"Doing well," Ivan replied. "She decided not to do a placental transfer at this point; she prefers the risks of body-birth to the risks of the transfer. She'll need to be a bit careful about travel, but we should manage."

"I'm glad to hear that, sire."

Ivan took a deep breath. "So, Duv, I didn't actually call you here just to chat."

"I didn't think you had, sire," Galeni replied, sitting almost imperceptibly straighter in his chair.

"I want you to know," Ivan said, "that I've been thinking very hard about this, and any objections you may want to raise, I've probably already considered."

Galeni's forehead creased with a new wariness, and he gave a guarded nod. "I am happy to serve however you wish, sire."

"Oh, Duv, I really, really hope you mean that," Ivan said. "I'm raising you to Vor, Duv. Vorfolse's district needs someone, and there's no one left. I'm establishing you as Count Duv Vorgaleni."

Galeni stared at him, his mouth hanging slightly open. Ivan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I have the right," he pointed out. "Legally." Galeni didn't reply. "There's precedent," Ivan added.

After a brief pause, Galeni said, his tone very careful, "Sire –"

"I've already thought of it," Ivan reminded. "Whatever it is. My uncle approves, and the Empress."

"I – Sire, this is – are you joking?"

"No," Ivan said. "I am definitely not joking."

"The conservative counts will –"

"Berenice thinks it will fly."

"I'm Komarran, sire!"

"Good for relations."

"There must be someone else," Galeni said at last.

Ivan blew out his breath. "Duv, over half of the council of counts was not there one year ago. This is a new government. There will be new alliances, new factions, and a lot of really incompetent politicians in there. I need people who are intelligent, educated and loyal. I need people I can trust. Tell me, Duv. Who else do you think there is?"

Duv looked away, out the window. "Sometimes," he said quietly, "you remind me a great deal of Count Vorkosigan."

And there, in that room, they finished what had started in Hassadar, with Vorgaleni's hands between Ivan's, and two witnesses to the oath-taking. Ivan wondered if Delia would thank him or curse him. Well, she was Vor now. There were many kinds of sacrifice.

After Duv left, Ivan walked to the window, looking out at Donosgrad, at the people moving through the streets. Martin Kosti waited by the door, a silent shadow.

"The first time they came for us," Ivan said quietly, "we conquered Komarr, to protect our borders and prevent future attacks. This time will be the last time. I swear it by my name as Vorbarra. This time, we will not stop."

He turned to look back at Kosti, alert and patient. "Martin, I want to talk to my ministers at 1400 and the general staff at 1700. We have work to do."