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Saint Miles dy Vorkosigan

Chapter Text

"Are you sure it's safe back here?"

Mark was not sure that Miles was really the best person to ask; not only was his grasp of cutting edge theoretical five-space math shaky at best, Miles had an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the most alarming potential disasters where his own plans were concerned.

"Oh yes. If there's any kind of a gravitational event, it'll certainly travel back along the energy path of the Wormhole Deep Resonance Energy Extractor." Mark made a face, though Miles missed it, staring at the viewport despite the the fact that all the action was so distant as to render it nothing more than tiny spots of light.

"Can't we come up with a better name for it than that? WDREE isn't exactly an acronym that sits lightly on the tongue."

"That can be your department. Only physicists have had a chance at naming so far; I don't disagree that if the Imperium is to have any galactic commercial success with technology, a better name would not hurt."

Not so long ago, it would have been Kareen's department. The thought sent another wash of bleak despair over Mark. Again and still. His fingers flexed for a moment, but it had been nearly two years; his therapist was gentle about it being time to move on, but the message had sounded increasingly worried for him. And his stomach rumbled. Mark ignored Gorge and focused, instead, on the present problems, rather more solvable than non-cryonic resurrection. "Of course it won't be easy to sell anything to anyone with this level of security still wrapping the whole project."

Lord Mark and Count Miles Vorkosigan stood in what Miles had dubbed a governmental slow courier, as opposed to the fast kind. They were neither armed nor armored, making them a fast ship but not so hyperactively fast as a true courier ship. Luckily, they were also not nearly so cramped on board. They had jumped through an explored but fruitlessly dead-ended wormhole from Sergyar to a place that had nothing resembling a valuable resource anywhere near. Except one more wormhole to another useless dead end.

That was the WDREE's target, just to be safe. Not even a remote chance of causing disruption to the wormhole they needed to get home, though Lord Auditor Vorthys insisted that shouldn't really be a concern anyway. He was off on the actual test platform. Miles and Mark had identical, if slightly time delayed, telemetry readings on the large board beside the viewport, but they were still quiescent. Only the final checks were clicking away quietly, and the allure of the real view was far more enticing.

Mark looked sidelong at his progenitor-brother. Six years older, he was nonetheless considerably further advanced in the acquisition of grey hair. The responsibilities of his position and his family seemed to have turned him into a caricature of a wizened grandfather at a mere fifty years old. Granted, the congenital damage done before his birth that left him shrunken and twisted did him no favors, but his face was lined, hair almost as grey as their father's had been when Mark first met him, and his cane was now a permanent fixture.

From an angle, Mark could see a reflection of the pair of them, and while their similarities would never vanish, their differences were pronounced now. Their hair, of course, was significantly different in color, and their builds were not even vaguely similar any more. Some of Lily Durona's treatments were keeping the cosmetic portion of Mark's aging process in check as well, never mind the softening effect of his double chin on his facial features.

Those difference were as nothing, of course, to the internal differences. Miles' seizures, his hyper-activity, his strange metabolic responses and his incomprehensible adrenaline addiction were bad enough; the subtler differences of growing up with parents who loved him, knowing his place in the world, and having grown into his own family, those were the distinctions that still dug at Mark under the skin even now. Thirty years of chasing, and I never seem any closer to catching up. Except when he thought of Kareen, the thought was more resigned now than full of angry jealousy. When he thought instead of her aircar accident, it turned to despair.

"Well, when we go to galactic governments asking to put in minor military bases by their spare wormholes in exchange for supplying nearly free energy to every ship that cares to dock, we'd best be able to demonstrate the economic viability. Professor Vorthys can certainly back up the technical side, but when it comes to things like pricing the surplus of energy, we're going to need your analysis."

"Well, someone's analysis at least," Mark replied. "I'm surprised you didn't get the Minister of Trade off of Komarr for this."

"Well, I might have, if he hadn't been tied up in negotiations with the Cetagandans over the level of our tariffs and the fact that neither of us want armed ships from the other operating in our space." Miles glanced over at the readouts. "Looks like the smoke test ran up clear. Should be getting underway in a minute."

On cue, the console chimed and Miles tapped the accept code. Lord Auditor Vorthys appeared, looking rumpled but energized. Mark couldn't help comparing Miles and Vorthys and thinking that really, Miles looked closer in age to the Professor's healthy ninety than his own forty-four.

"Ah, Miles. We're all ready to go here. Everything within spec except for a short in one of the high amplitude transformers and we're getting powered up. Is all your telemetry backup clear?"

"No red blinking lights on our end, Professor. We're ready to see what this thing can do." The time lag was short but perceptible at their range.

"Excellent. Once we begin, we'll have to keep the beam active for at least one hundred hours to get the kind of resonance build up we're looking for."

"I thought we were just going to have a one day test," Miles put in, sounding surprised. "Before we plunged in any deeper, so to speak."

"Well, so we did, but with one of the transformers off line, we have to measurably walk back our input in case anything else fails." The Professor grimaced. "Best to play it safe. But if we scale down our gravitational pulses, the time it will take to build up the proportional level of resonance necessary to offset our initial power inputs increases geometrically."

"Ah. Well, soonest started, soonest completed. Good luck."

"Thank you, Miles. I'll check in again when we've got some initial data to analyze." The Professor punched off line.

Mark straightened his shoulders with an effort. He really wished that he didn't feel the need to curl like a turtle when his brother was talking and he didn't want or need to get involved. It was a deep seated defense mechanism, and it had gotten worse since Kareen's death. Everything had gotten worse. He wondered if Howl was responsible for that reaction; it certainly had the potential to give him a screaming tension headache if he didn't stay on top of it.

"Someone once told me that new physics only come along once in a lifetime," Miles told Mark over his shoulder as he stared first at the largely incomprehensible readouts, then out the viewport again. "Too bad that with these five-space gravitational events there's so little to see."

"Well, not yet. I suppose anything that makes terawatts of energy appear out of nowhere will also make millions of marks do the same. Too bad paper currency is so little in use, now; then you'd really see some mass effects."

Miles gave a little snort at this sally, which was all Mark really thought it deserved anyway. Miles went to the viewport again, which let Mark step in front of the computerized display. Power levels were being monitored with microscopic precision, apparently necessary to both tune the WDREE properly and allow Mark to make accurate economic predictions. Power flow was steady, the gravitic interference remained negligible and there did not seem to be any fluctuations or breakdowns that his instrumentation could reveal.

Then a readout beeped. It was not an angry alarm beep, but it caught his attention quickly anyway. It indicated that something was happening in the wormhole. A ship coming through? What ship could possibly be coming on this route? Something in the internal structure of the wormhole itself, destabilized enough to be measurable? That seemed unlikely, given the amount of math Mark had skimmed over proving that it should not be a problem.

The computer seemed unable to generate a theory as to what was happening. Whatever it was seemed to be happening slowly, anyway, so if it didn't pose a threat, they would certainly have to study it carefully.

Another beep on the screen, this time the link from the Professor. Mark tapped accept as Miles moved up to stand with him, not attempting to push him out of the way.

"Miles, are you getting these readings? Very peculiar. If this keeps up, we may ask you to move a little closer to get some more precise readings."

"Yes. You don't have a theory as to what's causing it, do you? Or, ah, what exactly the 'it' is?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Doctor Riva is suggesting that what we're seeing is the wormhole being wedged open a crack and perhaps crossing the usual laws of three space with the internal five-space nature of the wormhole. I'm not convinced that's what it is, but I can't say I have any better theory, either. Certainly, the energy flow is not what we expected, but nothing suggests cause for immediate alarm."

The Professor looked as unalarmed as his assurances suggested. In fact, Mark thought he looked stimulated, eyes bright as he kept glancing from the vid pickup off to the side, probably at some data output.

"New physics?" Mark suggested.

"Yes indeed. We may require new models to explain what we're seeing."

"Do you think it's doing what it's supposed to do, whatever else it's doing?" Miles put in.

"Oh, without question. The resonance effects are right on their predicted levels. We certainly want to continue the trial for its full duration unless something changes dramatically."

"All right, Professor. I guess we've got some time to wait, then. Let us know if anything new develops for you, or if you come up with any more compelling theories."

"Certainly. Miles, Mark." Lord Auditor Vorthys winked out again and Miles stepped back.

"Well. I suspect this is going to be interesting once they have sorted out what it is we're doing, but we're going to have to do rather a lot of sitting around here until it is."

Miles sounded like he had caught some of the Professor's enthusiasm as he turned away. Mark permitted himself to be led away, but the prospect of an extra three days of interminable testing in which he had no real function was enough to make the whole black gang restless. It was just as well that Mark had thought to include some provisions other than military rations.

"There wouldn't be much purpose in heading back to Sergyar; we'd what, almost get there, then have to turn back?" Mark attempted to avoid sounding wistful.

"No, sorry to say. I'd better send a message to our courier so he can relay it home when he jumps again. After that, well, I should probably head down to the wardroom. Care to join me?" Miles did airy indifference well, but Mark could read his brother well by now. Even Miles was never quite sure he was being a brother correctly, though he was less innately awkward than Mark.

"Ah, I suppose I might as well. There's only so many business models I can run." And there would be food. Perhaps awkward social pleasantries might even provide Howl with a degree of satisfaction.

#

"How about the 'Free Energy Tap?' Or the 'Intergalactic Electrical Spigot?' Or the 'Zap-a-tronic?'"

Mark made a face. All Miles' suggestions had tended to the absurd. Mark had not yet come up with many that were better, though, he had to admit. They had the wardroom to themselves, it being the middle of the night by the shipboard clock to which they had not adjusted.

"It has to sound at least vaguely scientific. The market we're trying to reach is conservative planetary governments and shippers with astronomically high energy expenditures. Wormhole Deep Resonance Energy Extractor isn't really bad, it's just too long, and lacks a really usable acronym. If 'Deep Resonance Extractor of Wormhole Energy' made any sense, 'DREWE' would be fine. At least you can say it."

"Well, if we're not limiting ourselves to options that make sense, how about the 'Special Holistic Improvement Transformer?'"

Mark was just put together a rejoinder when the com chimed again. Miles leaned back in his chair far enough to hit the activation key. Lord Auditor Vorthys appeared once again, looking both excited and perplexed. He began without preamble.

"Miles, I wonder if we could move your ship to the wormhole for a time. We can't possibly get detailed readings from our present distance, and part of our essential test conditions require us to maintain our present position relative to the wormhole. There shouldn't be any danger, even at the moment we exceed the phase boundary, but that won't be for days yet anyway."

"Move to the wormhole?" Miles appeared rather startled at the suggestion. "Professor, you've been telling me that you have no real idea what is going on, and you really think the best way to investigate is to send a manned vessel straight into whatever it is?"

"None of our readings indicate anything the least dangerous. Energy discharges on the kilowatt level -- enough to give a person a nasty shock, but hardly a threat to your ship. No, the difficulty is that there appears to be a very small amount of matter leakage, and there's simply no way to identify all the trace elements from any kind of distance."

"Matter leakage?" The question burst out of Mark without bothering to ask his rational brain for permission. "You mean that there are seriously, what, molecules of some kind that are coming through the wormhole? In the middle of wide open, empty spot in the void of space, that only links up to another wide open, empty void?"

"Yes. It appears to be only trace amounts, but laser spectrometry is not particularly easy to apply to trace elements from a light second away. Please, Miles, go and talk to that captain of yours. Your mass shielding should more than protect you from what you've seen, and your readings will be enormously more accurate than anything we can take from here."

"I..." Miles hesitated. Mark could see the wild curiosity struggling with the responsible caution on Miles' face. "You're sure there's no sign of anything dangerous, Professor?"

"None whatsoever. I'd be doing it myself if I could move my ship." That sincerity seemed to sell it.

"All right. I'll get us moved; we're probably going to have to get very close to really get good readings, yes?"

"Oh, yes. I see no reason you can't make your approach a cautious one, but I think you'll need to be within a kilometer for at least a few hours to get an accurate sampling."

"I'll go speak to Captain Popov and see about getting a course laid in. I suppose we're also going to want to reverse our telemetry stream, so that you'll be able to see our data as we see hours."

"Yes, please."

"All right. Vorkosigan out."

Miles flicked off the com and rubbed at his chin. He picked up his cane, which was actually an elegant little sword stick, and tapped it meditatively on the floor. Mark stared at it. When Miles noticed, he stopped tapping.

"Well. To the Captain, it seems. You coming?"

"I suppose so. Seems like the best chance at entertainment we're likely to get out here."

They each levered up from the table and trundled out into the hall. Armsman Kozlov fell in behind them without comment. It was a little disturbing to Mark to be trailed by a retired twenty years man who was nonetheless his junior, but the armsmen of their father's generation had been retiring steadily. Miles had only taken a convenient three for this journey, pointing out that his personal security would not be a significant concern.

#

Captain Popov, a tall and burly middle aged man, was another retired member of the Barrayaran military service. His security clearance was high or he would never have been tapped for this duty. His understanding of cutting edge five-space manipulation technologies was limited, but his understanding of his duty to his ship and his crew was acute, which was inconvenient for Miles.

"Captain, I have the direct and personal assurance of Lord Auditor Vorthys that but for the need to keep his ship stationary to continue the test, he would be going in himself."

"That's well enough, Count Vorkosigan, but I have responsibility for my own ship. And no one is telling me what we are flying into!"

"It is a low intensity debris field of non-volatile elements broken down into a disperse gas. You've flown through worse a dozen times since we left Sergyar."

"It's not what we see that worries me, it's what we can't see! We have no idea where this field is coming from, except that it wasn't there before this experiment started, and no one predicted it!"

Miles frowned at Popov and Mark crossed his arms, leaning against a bulkhead and waiting to see how Miles would chose to ride roughshod over the man. It did, indeed, promise to be the best entertainment available in this node of the wormhole nexus.

"Captain, do I need to start giving orders in the Emperor's Voice?" Miles was actually disappointingly calm and quiet in the question; granted, his authority was so far above the Captain's, it was unfair to uncork any more than necessary. In this case, just the reminder seemed to be sufficient.

"I...no, my lord auditor. Gregovich! Plot us a course for a 1 kilometer intercept on that wormhole that'll bring us to rest before this test is over."

The navigator tossed off a quick "Aye, sir," and began plugging into his computers. Really, Mark thought this was likely to be the easiest piece of navigation the kid was ever likely to get. Out in deep space, with a well localized point for reference and without even any planetary gravitational effects, it seemed likely to just require them to accelerate and decelerate in the right direction.

"Now, my lord Auditor, I'll be getting down to engineering to see to those uplinks you wanted."

"Thank you, Captain," Miles replied with a dignified nod. He beat a retreat as Popov continued giving orders and Mark unpeeled from the wall to follow.

"You know, you used to spend a lot more effort working people around to your point of view," he couldn't help observing to his older brother, who shrugged.

"I think it would have wasted both our times on this one. He didn't want to do it because he doesn't want to run the risk of running into the field when we can't give him an answer as to what's happening, and we can't get an answer without better information. We're really the only option, so it's up to us. You heard him calling me 'count' instead of 'auditor'? Trying to convince me to stay in my Vorkosigan hat instead of my Imperial one."

Miles mimed removing a hat by its brim and tossing it over his shoulder before flourishing a new one into place. Mark rolled his eyes; this was taking theatricality a little far even by his standards. The gesture let him take in Armsman Kazlov, who was contriving to look more blank than could possibly be natural. Well trained, though Mark thought he would probably get more subtle about it with practice.

"I think you're getting too used to everyone just rolling over and doing what you say." As Miles opened his mouth to object, Mark quickly raised his hand. "Okay, everyone outside the family." Miles shut his mouth, so Mark continued. "I mean, the Council of Counts is one thing, but there's hardly anyone else you need to do more than say 'Gregor Vorbarra' to, and suddenly they're a quivering submissive puddle."

"I wouldn't exactly call Captain Popov either quivering or submissive," Miles finally objected, as Mark gave him the pause.

"Nor would I, in the ordinary course of events, but your guns are so big, by Barrayaran standards, that they annihilate what you would otherwise think sturdy force screens. So to speak."

Miles actually seemed to give this assertion serious consideration, eying Mark sidelong as they trooped back into the wardroom, which was no longer completely empty. They could sit at their own table, but a couple of off shift techs shifted uncomfortably at their own table.

"Are you saying I've lost my edge?"

"That was not quite what I meant." Though Mark did not attempt to entirely deny the question. "I think what I mean is that you only deal with problems on an entirely different scale from most men. You aren't worried about finding your depilatory or packing for a trip or being obeyed. You're worried about the subtle wranglings of the Council and the ministries, the most lethal vectors for disaster to the Imperium and the best chances for development. Captain Popov just isn't up to your weight class; if he made the mistake of trying to give you trouble, you wouldn't even have any choice about squashing him like a bug, and he knows it."

"I suppose that's all true, but I have to say, Mark, that I think wrestling the Council around to accepting something that's not traditional but good for Barrayar ought to count as enough practice in personnel management to outweigh, oh, for example, managing a minor financial empire."

Mark flipped up a hand in surrender at that. "And it's probably nothing compared to keeping Helen from turning Vorbarr Sultana upside down, though at least you've got Ekaterin on your side there."

"And Gregor and his merry men with the Council, it's true." Mark grinned.

"Does that cast Duv Galeni in the role of Little John, then, as his chief enforcer of Impsec order?" Miles laughed at that.

"What am I, then, Extremely Little John?"

"I was thinking of Alan-a-Dale, but you can be Little John's occasional sidekick and sometime superior."

"Shall we cast Ivan as Will Scarlet?"

They went through as much of the rest of the cast of characters in the Robin Hood legend as they could agree upon. Having cast Gregor as Robin Hood, the problem of whom to peg as King Richard, Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham became tricky, ending up with Baron Fell of Jackson's Whole as Guy of Gisborne somehow. Eventually, they switched over to Arthurian legend, but they hung up quickly on the horrifying thought of inflicteing a Lancelot on Gregor. Even if it did mean they could unilaterally (or at least bilaterally) elect Count Vormoncrief to the role of Percival. They snickered over that.

All the political power in the world, Mark reflected, couldn't turn Vormoncrief into a genuine coward, but a moment's effort of the imagination will do it for anyone.

#

"So, does this list of elements mean anything to you, Professor?"

They had been in the matter emission field, as Lord Auditor Vorthys dubbed it, for the better part of a day. It was coming up on the end of the testing period, and the wormhole still seemed to exist, and it still seemed to be spewing a lot of gaseous elements. Well, technically, they were frozen, but they were spaced as individual molecules of frozen elements rather than larger crystals.

"Well, the obvious parallel is to a breathable atmosphere. The proportions of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon are certainly with the parameters one would expect. Also, they seem to be frozen as individual atoms, which suggests they were not concentrated when frozen, but they are certainly concentrated now. At least, by deep space vacuum standards."

"That's so very odd," Miles replied, scratching at his chin. "I mean, it's been proven mathematically that you can't have a wormhole end remotely close to any interfering gravitational source. What it looks like is a planet's atmosphere venting into space. But that's outright ridiculous."

"No, indeed. And I can't see how a wormhole would somehow fixate inside a ship, nor a station, without having destroyed it and its source for additional atmosphere to vent."

Mark found himself sitting to one side again, though he realized he was not puling in his shoulders this time. Perhaps he felt engaged with the issue for the first time. He spoke up at last.

"Could it be the wormhole itself that's actually creating them? If energy and matter are possible to transmute, one into the other, I can't say it's impossible."

"That seems...unlikely," Vorthys replied. It sounded like diplomatic courtesy to Mark, but then he shrugged. "Then again, everything else sounds impossible. It might actually be the simplest theory." That was a rather daunting thought to Mark.

"You mean," Miles put in, "that we might be producing so much excess energy, we could be producing matter? Good lord, and this might just be a byproduct?"

"Either that, or all our theorized excess energy will in fact return fairly trivial elemental resources and this entire project will turn out to be a colossal waste of time, energy and brainpower," Mark put in with his trademark cheer. Miles grimaced at the thought.

"Actually, I was wondering if it might have had an impact on the atmospheric compositions of a large number of our Earth-like planets. Not, perhaps, a very practical application, but if it were more than a flight of my fancy, it could offer considerable insights into the early development of the universe."

There was a thought that brought Miles and Mark both up short. It was quite a bit further along the chain of reasoning than they had yet moved. Before they could get deeply diverted, however, the professor started poking amiable holes in his own theory.

"Of course, to assume that this phenomena, which has never been observed in nature, would occur with sufficient regularity and scope to significantly impact anything close to the size of a planet is a bit of a stretch. I think that we shall have to be satisfied if it simply fails to interfere with our originally intended economic application."

Mark and Miles were in nav and com today. The expanded requirements of the two way links between their ship and Lord Auditor Vorthys' test platform added onto the constant, finely calibrated sensor sweeps had apparently left the ship's engineer no choice but to shunt all the information onto the abundantly wired and already data-rich brain center of the ship. This meant that Popov was sitting not far away, drumming his fingers on the arm of his command chair and Armsman Kozlov was parked in a corner with excellent vantage and stunner angles. It was not intended for the extra bodies.

"Well, I'm certainly interested to see what --"

"Sir, reading a large mass that just emerged from the wormhole, heading out at slow speed. Looks like seventy-nine kilos of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Strong traces of calcium and phosphorous. Large enough that our visual scans will -- shit!"

The tech operating the scanning station recoiled from his screen to the limit allowed by the fact that his chair was bolted into place. He did not contrive to fall out of it, but Mark had the sense that he almost wished he had. Despite his limp, Miles beat Mark to look over the man's shoulder. What was his name? Bogdanovich? Bagdanovig? Unfortunately, all that Mark could remember for sure was the pilot officer grumbling about a tech called "Bag o' nuts" which really didn't help him.

The tech -- Mark tried hard not to think of his inaccurate name -- had managed to bring up the visual scan and lock it onto the object. And it was hideously recognizable as human. There was no space suit. And suddenly, it spasmed.

"Oh God. He's still alive."

Mark realized that he was the one who had spoken. Bag o' nuts -- it had to be Bogdanovich -- suddenly fell out of his chair and vomited messily on the friction matting. Miles' walking stick clattered to the floor as he flung himself into the man's seat and started slapping controls with frantic speed.

"What are you doing?" Popov surged out of his command chair and started furiously over toward Miles, looking like he would pull the Lord Auditor bodily out of the chair. Mark turned toward him and tilted his head to the side. His breathing steadied as the Other balanced on his toes, prepared for action the ship captain could not possibly expect. Fortunately, Armsman Kozlov stepped out of his little alcove with his stunner drawn and his eyes dead level, between Popov and Miles. The captain, looking considerably shocked, stopped in his tracks. Miles didn't even look up.

"We got that poor bastard as soon as he came through the wormhole or whatever the hell that thing is," Miles explained without for a minute slowing his frantic tattoo on the computer's control panel. "He's dying of explosive decompression as we sit here watching. I'm bring him in by the tractors as fast as I can without tearing the poor bastard in half. Not that he'd feel it by now." His tone was almost absent, so intent was he on his task.

Popov opened his mouth, closed it, and looked at Kazlov. The armsman was silent. Mark decided he admired the approach, and so when Popov looked at him, he likewise stared back silently, giving not an inch. The man looked as if he wasn't sure if he should thank them, try to brig them, run away, or possibly crawl out of his own skin. Then he looked down at Bogdanovich, who was sitting up, but looking a little dazed.

"Bogdanovich," Ha! "get down to sickbay. Take the shift, and give them a warning what's coming in. You gonna make it on your own?" The tech nodding and pushed to his feet, though he glanced guiltily at the puddle on the floor. "Get going," Popov reiterated, and Bogdanovich took himself off.

Meanwhile, Miles was still hammering commands. "I'm getting him into airlock five. It's clear."

This news seemed to kick Popov into whatever gear it was that Miles was operating in. He stepped to his chair and started slapping internal com buttons, bellowing at the medical staff to get a party to airlock five in fifteen seconds. Seconds, dammit! It was probably more helpful in letting Popov blow off some steam than in getting the medtechs moving, Mark reflected. Or than in saving the life of that man, whoever he was. What was it, ninety seconds between the beginning of explosive decompression and death? Perhaps the man could be thrown into cryo-freeze if there was enough of his brain left to save, but despite Miles' heroics, it was extremely unlikely that --

What is this place?

It was a thought, Mark was sure of it, for there was no sound that accompanied the words, but he couldn't figure out which of the black gang could possibly have said it. They were all quite passive about the wormhole, though Killer's interest had been piqued by the body and the potential for confrontation. But the question did not taste black. It tasted somehow purple, and that was all wrong for the black gang.

Then Mark's eyes rolled back in his head, and he fainted.

Chapter Text

Miles felt his heart pumping as pulled the man into the airlock. If only he had been able to start the ship moving to shorten the distance, but he couldn't concentrate on the commands, give the necessary orders, override Popov and work two different stations at once. He had done all he could; it would have to be enough. Even if it probably wouldn't be.

The odds against someone being in position to collect a person outside a pressure suit before the vacuum of space killed them were incredible. If he had come from their own ship, it would be one thing, but he hadn't, and no one else in the universe had had a prayer. It would either work or it wouldn't.

Miles was just checking the time between the first sensor contact and the repressurization of the airlock -- eighty-six seconds, so very marginal -- when there was a heavy thump behind him. Miles, his immediate task resolved, finally turned in his seat to see Mark laid out on the deck behind him.

"What the hell?" He queried Kozlov with his eyes. The armsman, one of the more recent additions to Miles' service, looked rather panicked.

"He just...he just fainted! He was just fine, all through that mess and suddenly he was toppling over!" He added in desperate exculpation, "I tried to catch him but he's, ah, heavier than I expected."

Miles glanced at Kozlov and realized that two of his fingernails were torn. Miles shot out of his seat and stumbled over Mark's feet. He managed to convert a fall on his face to a slide onto his knees by Mark's head. In the days before Miles had his brittle bones replaced by plastic ones, the landing might have broken his kneecaps. He certainly would have broken a bone or two in his hands as they slapped down.

Kozlov lurched to try and catch him, but it was far too late, and Miles had other priorities. He lay his ear on his brother's chest, listening and looking up at a profound double chin. The heartbeat was strong and regular, and Miles guessed it between ninety and a hundred beats per minute; somewhat elevated, but then, his own must be doing a hundred and forty with the press of the crisis. And Mark's breathing was regular, slow, probably calming the heart rate down.

Miles sat up with rather less frantic scramble than he had gone down. "Well, his heart and breathing are fine. We'll have to have the medic check him for contusions, but it looks like you managed to break his fall a little, anyway." This was more for Kozlov's reassurance than because Miles had any particular belief that his armsman had saved Mark from a head injury, but the man had paid in blood and fingernail. He deserved a small reassurance.

"What in the hell is going on here?" Popov asked, a little plaintively.

"An excellent question, but I rather think our three medical problems are not signs of some strange and sinister plague. If you could detail one of your men to help my armsman, we will get Mark down to sick bay."

"Couldn't you --" Popov cut himself off, a little too late, and Miles grinned as he levered himself to his feet with his swordstick. No, Miles was palpably not capable of carrying one end of Mark. What Mark had said earlier, about him him not having to work at moving people around, flashed through his mind as he watched the captain flush. After that moment's embarrassment, the chance of Popov contradicting or challenging Miles had to be shrinking near to zero. Maybe it was too easy, but if it worked, far be it from Miles to complain.

"Julian, go get Lord Mark's feet," said Popov to his duty astrogator. The man was big, a good choice, and as Kozlov got Mark's shoulders, Miles stumped along behind, trying not to hobble on his aching knees.

#

"So, he seems to be all right?"

"As far as we can tell, my lord. He didn't take any significant bruising in the fall, definitely no breaks or significant damage to any blood vessels. His heart rate and blood pressure are still higher than I'd like, but he is, ah, heavy set. There's also a marked increase in the levels of his neurotransmitters, particularly endorphins, but I don't know what to make of that in isolation, and I don't have a good medical baseline for Lord Mark here on ship. I am not precisely sure what constitutes normal. I'm also not sure why he's still unconscious."

Miles frowned at his brother rather worriedly. Mark didn't really look bad, not even changed into a patient gown yet in sickbay. And it hadn't really been that long yet, under an hour. But that seemed a long time for a faint, and the medtech's suppressed frown confirmed Miles' concern.

"Is there anything to do for him?"

"I might give him a mild dose of synergine if this continues much longer, but with his neurotransmitter levels being what they are, I'd prefer to avoid muddling his brain chemistry any more than absolutely necessary. In fact, if this was some kind of anxiety attack or combat flashback or the like, I really don't want to give him anything even resembling a stimulant." The medtech, whose name Miles was sure had been passed to him a few days ago, made a vague gesture. "I've got some fluids going in; that certainly won't hurt."

Miles stared at Mark for a long minute, then sighed. Condition stable but confusing. That was not his favorite diagnosis, but he had to agree that he didn't want to mess with Mark's pharmacology without the greatest possible care. He had no idea what drugs Mark might be on as a matter of course these days.

"If he doesn't come around by the time we're wrapping up this test, we can transfer him to the fast courier and get him sent to more major medical facilities on Sergyar. I take it there wouldn't be a problem with moving him, if it came to that?"

"Oh, no," the medtech replied immediately. "His condition is certainly stable. If he woke up, I'd call it good." Miles nodded and turned away from that bench.

"Now, how much progress have you made on your other patient?"

This was not a reference to Bogdanovich, who had cleaned up, brushed his teeth, gotten some coffee, and then hurried out to spend the rest of his shift in his own bunk when realized what was behind a medical curtain. What was there was a body, and given the cause of Bogdanovich's little stomach trouble, Miles could hardly argue with his hasty retreat.

"Well, the cause of death was obvious enough: explosive decompression and asphixiation. I'm afraid he was dead by the time the airlock finished cycling in its new atmosphere, my lord."

Miles waved a hand to hurry the man along. He had known the chances of affecting a rescue were ridiculously slight, but he had certainly had nothing to lose. Just one more frozen ghost to gain, stooping by his bedside in the dark hours of the night. He missed Ekaterin in those hours, when he was away. He missed Ekaterin right now.

"Yes," said Miles, attempting to sound brisk, "I certainly knew the odds were long, but I find that it greatly relieves my mind in this situations to make the attempt. Not doing so is harder on the soul."

The medtech clearly had no idea what to say in response to this. He stared for a minute, glanced at the lurking Kozlov, and then cleared his throat.

"Ah, hm. Yes, m'lord. I did find some other oddities. Consider the clothes."

They had been separated from the body, and the medtech pulled aside a sheet under which they had been laid out. They included some riding boots that Miles judged to be well made, a set of pants, shirt, tunic and a long, sleeveless woolen cloak. These were odd, though not the oddest planetary fashion Miles had ever seen by a long shot, but what stood out to him, after decades of dealing with the difficulties of getting proper tailoring to suit his own bent form, was that each stitch was plainly hand-sewn. They were regular, as such things went, but not nearly so fine and regular as the mechs available today supplied. And there was the sword.

Of course, Miles was carrying a sword stick himself, but then, he really needed the stick's support. He had occasionally worn the ridiculous paired swords with his military uniform at the height of formality, but this man was clearly in no kind of uniform at all. He just happened to be carrying a sword. When he plunged, with no pressure suit at all, through a wormhole. A wormhole that went nowhere.

"Well, even leaving aside the sword, for the moment, it looks more and more like he must have come from some planetary surface, though the Professor will probably growl at me for saying so."

"Ah, hm. Yes, m'lord. I also ran some of his blood samples, and I came up with some really odd results. He has not nearly the array of immunizations common to galactic culture, though he's got a fair supply of antibodies to all manner of things. Measles, chicken pox, all sorts of things. And his lifetime radiation exposure level is nil! I mean, modern technology is wonderful about shielding us and our gonads from mutation, my lord, but I would swear this man hasn't been within a kilometer of a microwave in his life!"

"Are you saying that it looks like he's from a genuinely low tech society? A place like Barrayar back in the time of isolation?" Miles turned from the clothes to contemplate the distorted body. His interest acted as a fairly effective counter to his natural nausea, and to the continued sensation that he had failed the man by not pulling him aboard ship in time.

"It certainly looks that way. I've got a lot more tests to run, and most of the rest of the blood work will take a little longer, but I suspect that when I'm done, there's going to be colleges full of people back home who'll want to play with this puzzle."

"Indeed, I'd imagine so. Make sure to document every breath that lands on him, then, and to do no destructive tests, or tests you can't replicate. I'm quite pleased with your results, but your facilities are naturally limited."

The medtech flushed under the praise. Miles would have to check the man's name so he could issue him a brief commendation. It was harder to remember who needed a word of praise in their record than who needed an excoriating letter, but probably more important. Almost certainly more beneficial to the Imperium.

At that moment, Captain Popov came into sickbay. Miles reflected that it would be seriously unjust to blast the man for being edgy and surly. Popov was definitely competent, and Miles had a hard time arguing with his rational worries for his crew and responsibilities. Miles schooled himself to endure, despite the fact that Popov's frown was putting his teeth on edge already.

"Lord Auditor, we've only got ten minutes left in the test period. Can we please move the ship back? Our safety margin against gravitational events is getting narrower by the minute."

"If there is any gravitational event, it will almost certainly follow the lines of the previous trials." Best, Miles thought, to characterize the Komarran terrorist plot that had revealed this piece of new physics as a 'trial' rather than 'bloody and expensive debacle' and keep the details classified. "It was highly directional. Ten kilometers out of the line ought to be enough and frankly, if Lord Auditor Vorthys were not highly confident of not being smeared to paste, he wouldn't be on the test ship. His wife would never permit it."

"She isn't here," Popov pointed out dryly. "In any case, we can still get good readings from a little further; it's not like the cloud of gas being emitted won't spread that far. Our sampling data will be a little thinner, but still statistically significant and representative."

"Yes, yes," Miles agreed with a sigh. And, he had to concede, the data had been quite consistent on what was coming through. Except for the mystery man. "Very well, captain, you may pull back now."

Popov looked immeasurably relieved and opened his mouth to thank Miles. Before he could speak, however, Mark sat bolt upright, his light blanket falling away. He grabbed his head and moaned something unintelligible. It quite diverted everyone in the room. Miles was by his brother's side in an instant.

"Mark, are you all right?"

Mark pulled his face out his hands and blinked at Miles, as if trying to bring him into focus. Then he flung off the covers and swung his feet off the side of his bed, forcing Miles to step back in surprise.

"What times is it? Is the experiment over?"

"Well, no, we've got, ah," Miles checked his chrono, "eight minutes left now. Why...?"

Miles failed to finish his question, because Mark ripped the IV out of his arm, despite the medtech's protest, and bolted out of sickbay. He actually caromed off Popov, effectively shouldering the man in the solar plexus, sending the unfortunate captain careening into the wall and Kozlov. They went down in an undignified tangle.

"What in the hell is going on here?" the medtech asked Miles' back. But Miles was charging after Mark. He had gotten good at it over the years, and he didn't think Mark could outpace him by much. Kozlov, well, he would have to catch up.

It was not too difficult to track the thumping of Mark's running feet, and the ship was not large enough to provide a really long chase. Mark was in an airlock bay, stepping into a pressure suit with remarkable speed and urgency.

"Mark, what do you think you're doing?" Miles was breathing hard, but he had enough breath left to speak. His tongue, as old Admiral Oser had once said, was his most dangerous weapon. He wasn't sure he needed a weapon, but he was not sure he didn't need one.

Mark ignored him, and pulled the suit's core over his torso. His fingers sealed it quickly and efficiently, but Miles noticed he was not bothering with the proper safety checks. Given the body he had just been looking at, this was quite alarming.

Miles frowned, then stepped over to a ship's internal com panel. He keyed it up, preparing to speak to Nav and Com, when the panel sudden fizzled and the display dissolved in static. Miles stared at it, then looked over at Mark, who was clapping his helmet in place and picking up an Extra-Vehicular Activity pack to strap on his back.

"Mark, the captain was just asking to move the ship! You can't go outside now!"

Mark stopped and looked at Miles for a moment, and Miles thought he could detect a flicker of concern through the faceplate of the suit. Then there were running footsteps and Popov and Kozlov appeared down the corridor, thundering to meet them, and Mark looked relieved.

Then, without warning or explanation, the suit panels on the front of all the remaining racked pressure suits popped off and dangled from sprung wiring.

Miles gaped at them. He had never seen a malfunction like that on one suit, let alone a whole rack at once, in unison. There was a little tinkle of electronic fragments as broken bits fell out and onto the floor. Mark stepped into the airlock and sealed it behind him, then slapped down a code for emergency venting. The door popped open and Mark, in his suit went shooting out, sucked out at speed by the atmospheric pressure exploding outward.

Kozlov and Popov barged into the room and Popov stared at his rows of broken pressure suits. Kozlov pressed his face the port beside the door.

"He's heading for the wormhole!" Kozlov turned his head back to Miles, gaping in disbelief. "What t'hell does he think he's doing, my lord?"

"And what did he do to my suits!" Popov wailed. Miles wished he could answer, because he was feeling increasingly sorry for Popov. This was, he had to concede, probably far outside the lines of what he was used to handling. It was probably even outside Miles' usual line, and that was saying something.

What was he supposed to do now? Well, Miles could probably start giving some orders. What was there to lock down at this point? The ship, that was what. And this corridor. But that was not what Miles really wanted. What he wanted was to get his hands wrapped around Mark's fat neck and wring until something resembling an explanation, apology or death rattle emerged.

There was no way to get to the wormhole now, short of bringing in the whole ship, and Miles did not want to do that. If it really did let out on a planetary surface, well, that was no place for a ship designed for deep space work. But there were no more pressure suits, and Miles was not about to volunteer to go vacuum diving without a space suit. The mystery man's ghost seemed to hang by his shoulder.

"Captain Popov!" Miles made the name crack and was rewarded with a start. "Go by sickbay and get the medtech's report on what Mark's readings were like when he popped out of his little nap. Then get up to nav and com. We're going to have some serious communicating to do very soon. No, wait; Kozlov, you go to sickbay. Popov, you need to get by engineering first to come up here and check out this com panel and these suits, and once he's done with that, you should probably make him check every other system on this ship. And once you get to nav and com, Popov, you can move the damned ship. Meet in nav and com. Move!"

The old voice of Admiral Naismith got them moving. It was a little different from his usual Lord Auditor's voice, but they were on a ship, and it was better suited to their present circumstances. If either noticed a hint of a Betan accent coloring his terminal r's, they were moving too fast to comment to him.

That gave him some time and space. Five minutes until the experiment ended; Popov probably wouldn't be back in time to get the order relayed, for all that it shouldn't matter. What did matter was that Miles had a tiny window of time without anyone hovering over his shoulder.

He pulled a bodpod, the inflatable and almost control-free self-contained atmospheric life preservers for deep space, out of its compartment, ready to hand for emergencies and spread it on the floor. He hit the buttons to refill the airlock and, while it repressurized grabbed an EVA pack like Mark had done.

The problem, Miles reflected, was that the bodpod's only external sensor was a safety check for a breathable, pressurized atmosphere to allow the person trapped inside to know he had been rescued and it was safe to come out. There were no, for instance, external visual sensors.

Miles solved this problem by ripping open an emergency medkit from the wall and pulling out the high grade adhesive (which, when concerned about a suit's integrity, might be very necessary to have to hand.) He pulled the helmet off a suit and ripped the camera off it. Then he glued it firmly to the side of the bodpod so that it would face in the direction opposite where he clued the EVA pack, which was as much forward as he was going to be able to manage.

Then Miles dragged his improvised space ship into the airlock and threw into it his sword stick, the controls for the EVA pack, the helmet containing the remote linkups to his camera, and a powerpack from the disemboweled and decapitated suit. After a moment's thought, he threw in the emergency medical kit. He put his feet into the deflated pod and told the airlock to vent in ten seconds. Finally, he inflated the bodpod with himself and his little assortment of goods inside.

Roic and Ekaterin, Miles reflected, will have a nice little arm wrestling match over who gets to kill me first.

He checked his chrono and found that he had two minutes. Then he was kicked out of the ship sent tumbling. He managed to crack a cold light and get hold of the helmet, touching the leads to the power cell. Definitely spinning crazily, but that's what the EVA controls were for. He managed to get them held between his knees so they wouldn't spin away. His fingers caressed the little joystick and control, directionality gradually returned. He managed to locate the wormhole; there were not, after all, too many points of reference out here, and there was a definite center to a faint, expanding circle of gas that shimmered when he focused on it.

He accelerated toward it, pushed back into the soft walls by the speed he was gaining, and risked a glance for his chrono. Less than a minute, but he was going to make it now. And the helmet had a com. He tapped it.

"Captain Popov. Who is this?"

"Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. I'm going in after Mark. Tell Lord Auditor Vorthys that if he wants to send anyone after us, he's going to have to begin working to get this thing open again immediately."

There followed a considerable spate of cursing, and Miles was fairly sure that it included both Popov and Kozlov. Miles was sorry to do it to them, but there really was no more time. Before they had time to do anything so disruptive as tie him up in a tractor beam, the wormhole was just ahead. Saying a prayer to any god who might be listening, Miles dropped the EVA control box to curl into a defensive crash position, and hit the wormhole. The universe went white.

Chapter Text

It was a room in Miles' own floor of Vorkosigan house; the study outside the bedroom he shared with Ekaterin. The decorations were subtly altered, though, with light white linen curtains on the windows, which were cast open wide. It was hard to see because the light shining in was blinding. There was a figure in the midst of that light, but Miles was having a hard time making it out.

Then it stepped forward and resolved into Mark.

"Mark! What are you doing -- what are we doing -- where are -- how did..." Miles couldn't even get through a whole question, so many thronged through his mind. Mark stepped closer, and Miles realized he was dressed in white, which was entirely atypical of his brother. And his hair was somehow pure white, though he looked no older.

And then Miles saw the eyes. Instead of the grey that looked back at him from the mirror, he saw a blackness, a depth, a light swallowing infinity that sent goose bumps up his spine. He had seen eyes well over a hundred years old. He had not before seen anything like these eyes. It helped him settle on a question.

"Who are you?"

The white-Mark grinned at him and stepped forward again, shifting a paunch that Miles thought was even greater than Mark possessed in reality, which he was becoming increasingly convinced was not his present location.

"My sister said you a quick one. She wanted to be the one to greet you, but we agreed that it was fundamentally my business that brought you here."

"If she is more inclined to get to the point than you, I'd much appreciate an introduction," Miles replied tartly. "Perhaps she could tell me who you are, who she is, or why you look like my brother."

"I think he quite suits me. Given his parentage -- well, his parentage is all right, but his means of arriving is entirely unique in my experience -- the way he wrestles with his own personality, and his unorthodox sexuality, I do think he would make a natural devotee of my order."

Miles frowned at the figure, which was giving him a really infuriatingly knowing look. Miles tapped his walking stick and considered unsheathing the sword. That seemed disproportionate, but whoever this was didn't seem to understand that he was in enough of a hurry to have seriously risked his life to follow his brother. Of course, it was possible he was dead, and this, he was becoming increasingly convinced, would not be his first choice of afterlife.

"You are not dead." Miles jerked and opened his mouth. "In fact, this whole conversation is taking place in your mind. As to your hurry, no time is truly being lost in the world while we speak. You will arrive promptly, whether you are happy when you do so or not."

"If this is all taking place in my mind, who are you to be in here? I've had conversations with myself, and I've got nothing so annoying as you inside me!"

"Well, not so annoying to yourself, at least. General Metzov might have disagreed." Miles twitched at the reference to that old, dead lunatic and his fists clenched. His thoughts had definitely been rifled and that was entirely unsettling. The almost-Mark raised his hands, spreading them apart.

"Peace, Count. You have entered a world new to you, and to your brother. That was not what you think of as a normal wormhole; it was a small tear in the fabric of reality. You would be best served if I express it to you as passing into a parallel universe, where most of the laws of reality are as you know, but a few will come as a shock."

This was a baffling sort of babbling, but it was also clear to Miles that his brother's bleached doppleganger was finally coming to a point. "Well, the idea that anyone can tie me up in my own mind is certainly a new one to me."

"Is it really?"

Miles came up short again, reviewed his statement's possible meanings and gave a slow nod.

"All right, I admit there are ways of influencing a man's mind. This, however, is not one I've seen before! Fast-penta, torture, lobotomy, I don't care what you use, you don't get to walk into another man's thoughts and play out whole conversations!" He was getting worked up again, and the smile he kept seeing really wasn't helping.

"I am unlike any being you have encountered. I am known as a god where you are going, except where I am incorrectly called a demon. They refer to me as The Bastard."

"Is that for genealogy or personality?"

"Theologically, the former, though both are mentioned often enough." A white grin flashed. "I was right as well; your tongue is at least as sharp as your wits."

"All right, Bastard. What will it take to get you to shut up and let me get a move on?"

"A little attention, a little less focused on yourself. To quote your mother," and suddenly the form transmuted, lengthening and slimming, the hair streaming out until he faced a similarly whited out version of his mother, "I'm not going to waste my breath on you unless you're finally paying attention."

Miles could identify the exact source of that quotation, time and place. It did, indeed, command his attention, but his mother had the moral authority to bring him up short. This being, god or demon, had none.

"For someone who claims he isn't going to waste his breath, you're doing a damned lot of talking!"

The figure applauded, morphing again into the familiar figure of Elli Quinn. It was surely a version younger than Elli was now, but then, he had not seen her in some years.

"Tart and to the point. Three points, I think. But Miles," and suddenly he was looking at his mother again, "my control and your temper are not the point. The point is your baby brother."

Coming in her voice, the resonances of that phrase were enough to freeze his anger in its tracks and direct him back where he should have been focused the whole time. Which was, as irritating as this creature was, what was happening to Mark. The Bastard nodded.

"Yes. Your brother. There is, unfortunately, a great deal of background you do not possess and which you will have to acquire. In short, however, the man you recently witnessed dying was a sorcerer. A sorcerer is a man possessed of a demon, in his case possessed by the demon rather than the other way around. When he died, in your world, the demon, being a creature of spirit and not of matter, flitted to one of the closest souls it could find onto which it could batten. Now, I am afraid, the demon possesses your brother, and strives to return to its master."

This was entirely incomprehensible. On the other hand, this Bastard creature seemed sincere, and his mother's Betan accent made even the supernatural definitions sounds clinical and scientific. He realized that he was going to have to watch for psychological traps this shape shifter could spring on him at will, for he clearly had a slew of advantages at his disposal.

"I am inside your mind and you cannot hide from me, but you need not fear me. I am equally aware of all else in this world. And while I can see inside your mind, the one thing I cannot do is invade your will. That is entirely your own, and even the gods may not corrupt it."

Miles, in experimentation, let out a string of the bluest, vilest galactic invective he could recall, fasten together or corrupt. Halfway through, the Bastard turned back into Elli, cocking his head to the side, listening with appreciative interest. It did not slow Miles down, but he ran down eventually.

"For someone in such an all fired hurry, you spent enough time at that." Miles actually took a step forward, then, and the figure spread his hands and turned into Ekaterin. Miles tried very hard to stick to the male pronoun in his head.

"You stepped through the portal of your own will. I did not force it. I did not put you on this road, but I think it is very important you follow it for the sake of your brother, now that you are here. He is possessed by an escaped demon, I remind you, and he will need all your aid. And you will need my aid."

"You can go to hell and do counter-rotating squat lifts on a pitchfork!"

The smile on Ekaterin's face was both infuriating, to see so stolen, and arousing. The figure stepped forward and Miles refused to retreat. She -- he, dammit! -- leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth, deeply and searchingly. Without breaking the kiss, he heard her whisper in his ear.

"Explain my visit to dy Cazaril when you speak to him and he will set you right. And when you want my aid for your tongue, you will have only to ask."

And the world faded again to white.

#

When light returned, it was the sickly greenish cast of the coldlight in the bodpod. Before Miles could register any more, there came a hellish decelleration and a violent series of impacts slammed him around the interior of his little space ship. The helmet fell off his head and it felt like Miles must have banged every part of himself a dozen times on every item he had brought with him. When he came to rest a small eternity (probably three seconds) later, he lay on his back, panting, reflecting on the joys of unbroken plastic bones. At least his swordstick hadn't popped open.

He heard, dimly, something that sounded like it might be shouting, rattling and hammering coming from outside his little bubble. With a groan, Miles pulled himself to a sitting position and grabbed his stick. Today would not be a good day to go without it.

It took a little searching, but he managed to find the side of the bodpod with green light indicating acceptable levels of pressure, oxygen, and trace elements. Gravity also seemed to be about a nice, safe 1g. Miles thought he could have done with a .9 or so, but it was probably better not to get too used to going low gravity for long.

Miles fumbled around until he found the tabs to deflate the pod and open the skin. He wallowed his way out as the fabric collapsed around him. For a moment, he was reminded of an arctic winter bog closing on him, but at least the air here seemed warm, and escape was not so difficult.

When at last Miles managed to stand upright, the deflating pod pooling around his feet, he came to the sudden realization that he was ringed by a half a dozen soldiers, all with drawn swords pointing right at him. Two more stood behind the semi-circle, clearly winding crossbows as they eyed him suspiciously. Unfortunately, the open side of the U of soldiers penning him in seemed to be the solid stone wall of a decrepit old tower. It was not, alas, decrepit enough to allow him to climb through it.

He thought of the stunner concealed in his shoulder holster and his sword stick and of how quickly he would be skewered if he made the least sudden motion. At least they seemed to be holding steady. He spread his hands, not relinquishing his staff but opening the other palm at his side. Certain pieces of body language were, he hoped, universal. Moving slowly had better be.

"Ah. My apologies for intruding so abruptly, gentlemen. I have no interest in threatening anyone here. If you could direct me after the, ah, stocky young man who arrived ahead of me and seems to have gone running off out of sight, I'll be on my way."

The looks given him were blank. Not merely distrustful, though they were, but genuinely baffled. Oh hell. His gaze slipped beyond them to take in what he was fairly certain must be a courtyard of a very old style fortress. There were horses being chased by grooms, armed men milling around in some disorder. He could see a gate, which had a heavy door. The door was closed and looked like it was somehow wedged shut; a full dozen men seemed to be trying to shift the massive log used to bar it safely shut.

A tall man came up behind the soldiers, and the crossbowmen glanced to him, looking relieved. He had the look of a man in authority, dressed soberly but not poorly. He had only a few items of jewelry, but those he wore looked expensive in what Miles was becoming increasingly sure was a genuinely low technology setting. His eyes were penetrating and his hair was only faintly lined with grey, but he had a haggard look that suggest to MIles' eye that he was only just into middle age but had used himself hard. His left hand seemed to have lost the tips of two his fingers. Miles also observed that one heavy ring had the same sigil as the tabards the swordsmen wore over their mail. This was the man to address.

"Do you speak English?"

This received a blank look, and the leader -- probably a noble, or at least some sort of civilian authority -- muttered to one of the crossbowmen. Miles listened hard for the reply, but it definitely did not contain any patterns of sound that Miles could recognize from any language he could recall. He took the lack of response for a no.

Miles tried French, Russian and Greek with equally little impact. He even tried Spanish, Japanese and Arabic, all of which he only knew well enough to ask if it was familiar. None produced even a flicker of recognition.

The nobleman, as Miles decided to provisionally class him, stepped up to the circle and moved the swordsmen apart. He took a place as the seventh in the circle, his own sword undrawn. He was not so foolish as to step further forward, outside of the reach of their protection. He spoke then, and Miles blinked at the unfamiliar words. No, none of them seemed to apply. His ear could pick up that his counterpart was trying his own litany of languages, as the shift was significant between them. After four, he stood looking at Miles in almost equal exasperation. Hey, all the swords are under your command, bucko.

At last, he lifted his undamaged hand and pressed it flat to his chest, spreading his fingers. He made careful eye contact.

"Cazaril," he enunciated carefully. Then he offered up a shorter alternative: "Caz."

That was plain enough. And given the Bastard's final words, it was a name Miles was going to recognize quickly. Miles considered a moment, then put his own hand on his chest.

"Miles Vorkosigan." He left a beat. "Miles."

Cazaril nodded and took a deep breath, clearly stealing himself for the task of communicating with someone with whom he shared absolutely no common language. But Miles decided to forestall him. He pointed to the gate.

"Mark Vorkosigan. Mark."

As expected, the repetition of the last name was enough to catch the man's attention. Cazaril held out a hand, parallel to the ground, at just about Miles' height. Then he puffed out his cheeks and bowed his elbows and knees, looking a little ridiculous, but Miles nodded firmly.

"Mark," he agreed. Then Miles lifted his hands, slowly, in front of him, and mimed ringing Mark's fat neck, using his stick as a prop. "Mark," he repeated through gritted teeth.

A white grin flashed for a moment on the sober noble's face, making him look rather younger than he had before. Unfortunately, Miles was beginning to realize that his possibilities for communicating anything more subtle were rapidly drawing to their logical conclusion. And there was only a small amount of good will he could obtain from a shared desire to throttle his younger brother, not least because he was probably going to have to save him rather than kill him in the end. Again.

Miles held up his hand, one finger raised, hoping this would serve as a request for a moment's respite. Then he closed his eyes. Okay, you self-inflated bastard. Or Bastard. If this gift you're trying to give me is what I think it is, yes, I need it. I need to be able to speak to them, and I clearly need your help to do it. Miles took a deep breath. If you please, Bastard, I beg you for your assistance. He couldn't keep it from being grudging and resentful, but he made an effort to open his will to that Bastard.

He felt a warmth in his mouth and heard what might be a buzzing in his ears and might be laughter. Miles opened his eyes.

"Can you understand me now?" Cazaril turned his head to the side and the soldiers all gave sidelong looks to their authority figure.

"Yes," Cazaril replied. "Quite clearly."

Miles sighed and let his hands fall to his sides. He really was going to have to follow the instructions he had been given. He hated having detailed instructions from headquarters; hadn't avoiding that been part of his new job description.

"Well, then, my lord Cazaril, the Bastard bids me greet you in his name. We had quite a chat on my way into what he claims is your world, as distinct from mine. He also tells me that a demon has possessed my brother and run off with him, and that if I want to do anything about it, I'm best off unburdening myself to you. Lacking better allies than his ambiguously divine self, I throw myself on your mercy and experience." He tried not to sound too exasperated about all this, but he knew that he was failing.

"I see. Stand easy, men." The weapons lowered, though the men did not disperse just yet, and they continued to stare at Miles warily. "Dalmin, go run to the temple. Tell Archdivine Mendenal that I require a moment of the time of Divine Umegat of the Bastard's order and Acolyte Clara of the Mother's order if they can at all be spared. Tell them to meet me and this gentleman in the Zangre, where we will be attending upon the Royse and Royina shortly. Varkarvil, you go up to the palace and inform them of my intentions. Go."

Two men from the ring of soldiers took off at a run in different directions. The rest looked more relaxed, apparently relieved to have someone giving coherent directions. Cazaril turned back to Miles and favored him with a small bow.

"I feel we should probably try our introductions again, since we can go into a bit more depth. I am Chancellor dy Cazaril, serving the Royina and her Royse Consort through the whole of Chalion. And if it is any comfort, I am not entirely without experience in the affairs of the gods." A wry smile crooked his mouth. "And I remember very clearly that it could get rather uncomfortable."

Miles found this unaccountably encouraging. It probably shouldn't feel like a positive that someone from this world found contact with its gods to be as irritating as he had found it, but at least it meant he was not lacking some essential holy quality.

"Pleased to meet you, Chancellor." Miles favored the man with his best sweeping bow. "I am Lord Auditor Count Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. The title of Count, in our Empire, means I am one of sixty men responsible for the running of a district, whose inhabitants are liege sworn to me. That's about two and a half million people, now. And as a Lord Auditor, I am authorized by my emperor, Gregor Vorbarra, to speak with his voice in the interests of the Imperium, which includes military, civilian and diplomatic authority."

Cazaril processed this. Miles could see the guards looks of either alarm or incredulity as he mentioned the size of his district. No, he hadn't thought whatever country this represented could be very big, certainly not in terms of total population. Not compared to a sixtieth of a planetary settlement, even if not the most populous segment. And that let out Komarr and Sergyar, but he wasn't quite sure that explaining a multi-planetary empire would be comprehensible to these people. Miles had to admire the way Cazaril kept whatever he was thinking inside his own head. Definitely not a babbler like, say, himself.

"I see," was the cool reply, and Miles was fairly sure that Cazaril had picked up quite a few more implications than he had stated explicitly. "Am I correct that retrieving your brother and ridding him of his demon is your only goal in coming here?"

"Well, it's certainly the reason I arrived so precipitously," Miles replied, now leaning on his sword stick. Despite Cazaril's orders, Miles noticed they hadn't started moving, and he hadn't dismissed the guards. Not a stupid man, but also too diplomatic himself to draw attention to his caution.

"I'm also interested in investigating and exploring the phenomenon that allowed passage between our worlds. Unless you think it was something you did, I think it was being caused by some experimentation on our side, though this was not the result we either sought or expected." He paused. "I'm afraid that if someone you know disappeared through this odd portal we opened, that person is dead. The environment on the other side is not one which can be survived without aid, which is why I arrived, as you see, packed in this pod." He poked the deflated remains with his sword stick.

"I see," Cazaril replied again. He looked to be thinking. "Someone did, indeed, disappear through this portal, though we didn't really know what he had done or how. I'm glad now I didn't try to send men through to investigate. I rather thought it was to do with his demonic powers, not some, some tear between worlds that anyone might pass."

Miles felt a little sick at the thought of a troop of men, like the one surrounding him, being ordered into an unknown breach and all bursting through into the vacuum of space, to choke and die, impotent and uncomprehending of their fate. And there would have been nothing to be done; even if he had seen, he couldn't have tractored them all. If there had been that many, he would have ordered the ship the wormhole and be damned with Captain Popov and the risks. Good thing it hadn't come to that.

"In the short term, my brother is my goal but I have no support nor any means of bringing him back. I'd like to beg your assistance, and that of the, ah, the rulers you serve. I would be delighted to open diplomatic relations with them, though I don't know what form they will take.I don't suspect you really want some possessed sorcerer running loose any more than I want my brother to be taken off. And..." He trailed off, took a breath, and plunged on. "I'm sure you've noticed that some of our resources are unknown to you. We have a store of knowledge that I think could make him far and away more dangerous even than a typical sorcerer."

Cazaril looked at Miles, looked at the deflated bodpod, then looked across the court where someone was holding the empty arm of a pressure suit.

"Yes, my lord, I think we should not underestimate the hazards. If you would, I will escort you to the Royina Iselle and Royse Bergon now."
Miles gave a little ironic bow, and stepped off his plastic bubble for the first time, ready to accompany the Chancellor.

"One thing," Miles put in as he glanced down. "I highly recommend you get some trained and trusted men to collect all the artifacts that I and my brother have strewn around us. I won't try to prevent you from looking at them or hide them, but I beg you to be cautious with them, and their distribution. They could have unintended consequences."

Miles wasn't even sure what these consequences might be, but he had some shrewder ideas than Cazaril. The Chancellor looked down, thoughtful, then detailed two more of his soldiers to begin the cleanup, and the four remaining accompanied them up toward the castle's entrance.

Chapter Text

Cazaril managed to time his trip into the heart of the Zangre just right, so that Umegat and Clara met them on route. Before bringing the strange, hobbling dwarf into the presence of Iselle and Bergon, he had a duty to make sure he was not possessed by a demon as he claimed his brother was. As Cazaril had been able to tell his brother was.

This had not been a great day for the Royacy of Chalion-Ibra. A sorcerer had attempted to weasel his way into power, then apparently escaped into nothingness. Then, not an hour later, the same demon in a different mount reappeared and, despite the buzzing of the soldiers, managed to ride out of the Zangre. And now, he had the brother of the second sorcerer in tow. This was either extremely good news or extremely bad. Perhaps Clara could give him a hint as to which.

"Ah, Acolyte Clara, Learned Umegat. This," Cazaril indicated the strange visitor, "is Miles dy Vorkosigan, titled Count and Lord Auditor of the Empire of Barrayar. Have I got that right?" It was hard to say why, but Cazaril had the impression that the man would not have been offended if he had misspoken, but he only nodded. "Those titles seem to equate with the duties of a Provincar and Chancellor in one."

Clara and Umegat made their bows. Umegat spoke first. "I am honored, high one. But I confess that I have not yet heard of this empire you represent. Is it beyond Roknar, or Darthaca, perhaps?"

Miles looked a little taken aback at the question of how to answer this, but Cazaril knew Umegat better. He knew Umegat's scholarship, and that the question concealed in velvet a certain skepticism about an envoy from an empire so far away Umegat had never even heard of it. Well, Umegat could handle the explanation.

"Not exactly. He claims to be from another world, and he has some strong evidence to support the claim. Crossing over, it seems he met the Bastard, who appears to have given him a gift of tongues."

As he explained this, Cazaril shifted his gaze to Clara, as if casually, but of course, it was not so at all. If he hadn't wanted Clara's second sight, he would simply have called Umegat for advice on theology, and it was a nuance he was confident neither Clara nor Umegat would miss. Clara's eyes flickered to the man -- Cazaril could not quite decide how he should be addressing him in his own head, so kept reviewing his name and titles -- then closed. In a moment, she opened her eyes again and gave Cazaril a little confirming nod.

Well, that was a relief. There was no way she would mistake the white god light of the Bastard for the purple corruption of a demon. Cazaril had not thought the man lying about his encounter, not least because he seemed both bewildered and annoyed. That certainly meshed with his own experiences in the service of the gods. He started to move, unhurriedly, and the group resumed their passage along with him.

Umegat, bless the man's wits, filled the gap in conversation smoothly. "Mm! That, I must admit, is new in my experience. Was it the Bastard who called you across whatever divide you followed, or was it something else?"

"Something else," came the wry reply. "As best I can figure, it looks like a demon of your world escaped into mine, had the -- I'm not sure how you'd say it. He was possessing in a man, the man died, and he jumped to my brother. Who came bolting back here. Unfortunately, the channel was about to close, as well as we could understand the phenomenon in our universe, so I came pelting through without much of a plan beyond seeing what was to be found." There was a moment's thoughtful pause. "My wife is really going to kill me."

Umegat gave a small laugh and Cazaril smiled ruefully, thinking of his own wife, Betriz. Clara, he noticed, grimaced rather more in sympathy with Vorkosigan's wife than with the Count. "You have a family, then?" Cazaril was not sure whether to be surprised. Maybe all men in his world were as short, but he found himself fairly sure that the man's well tailored clothes hid some significant deformations. On the other hand, Cazaril was also beginning to note the effects of the man's quick wit and sudden smiles. He was not lacking in a leader's charisma.

"Oh, yes. Six children and a step-son, and he's going to be a father himself, soon. He's a decade older than the eldest of my blood, but he's doing well for himself, despite all the complications that his mother's marriage to me bought him. What about you, Chancellor, Learned, Acolyte?" Before they could answer, he added in, "And are those proper address? I hope you will correct me before I speak with your rulers if I'm committing some error of etiquette."

"You seem to be doing all right so far," Cazaril assured him. "For the Royina and the Royse, you can use 'my lord' and 'my lady' or 'royina' and 'royse' without fear. Bow, and they will offer their hands for you to kiss. Offer yours in return. Then speak plainly and truthfully. This will be a private conference, so do not fear to discuss the supernatural openly. They have some experience, and we are bringing more." It seemed best not to go into all the details of exactly how they had experience, but Clara and Umegat would not need more clues to understand the reference.

"Ah, good. That much, I believe I can manage." That grin flickered and disappeared again. "But I interrupted myself. I was asking after families."

Cazaril was elected by eye to answer first. "I am married, yes. Not so long married, but Lady Betriz and I are blessed with two children, now." Cazaril could not repress his own smile. "My poor wife suggests that we should consider waiting a little longer for the next. They're just fifteen months apart in age."

Count dy Vorkosigan, as Cazaril was deciding to call the man, laughed at that. "Very prudent of her, if nature will comply. And you, Acolyte, Learned?"

Clara was next elected. "I have three children of my own. My calling is as a midwife for the Mother's temple, though, so I have contact with quite a deal more."

"Children have not come my way," Umegat replied. "Nor are they likely to, I am afraid, unless the gods see fit to change certain aspects of my nature."

It took Count dy Vorkosigan a minute to unravel this, but it seemed that he did. "Ah. Well, I hope there are sufficient consolations in your vocation and, ah, those to whom your nature does incline you?"

This won a smile from Umegat and a little duck of his head. "I am glad to say they do, though more the first than the second these days."

One of the pages flitting about the Zangre bobbed up to them as they approached the door of the private audience chamber. "My lord dy Cazaril," he says, ducking and speaking so quickly his tongue seemed to trip over his teeth, "the Royina and Royse bid you come to them directly and make your guest welcome and do you think refreshments are in order my lord, because if they are then I am to go order them from the cooks my lord."

Cazaril watched Count dy Vorkosigan unsuccessfully attempting to suck a smile back off his lips. Ah, it seemed that teenage boys were not so different where he came from. Cazaril also noticed that his guest was not in the least disconcerted by the fact that this boy of thirteen was a head taller than him, for all that his gangly limbs seemed to flop about him. Yes, he was used to being short; nothing about Cazaril's height, or anyone else's, phased him in the least.

"Very well, dy Tolnoxo." Iselle had hit upon the notion of inviting the highest Provincars in the land to send their sons to serve as court pages for a time, and Cazaril approved heartily. They could stamp a little savvy and some manners into the boys before sending them home again looking like men. "I think we will need some light refreshment, yes. And tell the cooks we may be dining in privacy tonight, so not to get started on any major feasting preparations. Whether we're done or not, I don't think tonight is the night for it."

"Yes my lord!" Another duck and the boy flailed his way down the hallway, managing to avoid caroming off a passing serving girl and flinging himself down a stairwell.

"Goodness. I suddenly feel very old and fusty," Count dy Vorkosigan observed, staring after the page in obvious bemusement. Cazaril, who had been thinking something similar, only more along the lines of wondering if he had ever really galloped around the Provincar's court in Valenda the same way, couldn't help a little bark of laughter.

"There's a reason that youth does the running for us. Come, our presence will be missed if we do not attend." Cazaril led the way down the hall at a quicker pace.

#

Cazaril was the first through the doors and held them open for his little troop. He made a little motion and the soldiers, trooping along behind, finally halted outside. He spread two fingers down low, behind Vorkosigan, and pointed to each side of the door. A swordsman immediately moved to each side of the door to take up station, and Cazaril made a little shooing motion, dismissing the rest as he stepped in and closed the doors behind him.

"Royina Iselle, Royse Bergon. I bring you Learned Umegat and Acolyte Clara, whom you know. I also bring Lord Auditor Count Miles dy Vorkosigan, of the empire Barrayar. Count Dy Vorkosigan, may I present Royina Iselle dy Chalion-Ibra and Royse Consort Bergon dy Chalion-Ibra. And," and here Cazaril's eyes lifted and he smiled, "Lady Betriz dy Cazaril, my wife, and the Royina's chief lady-in-waiting."

Miles stepped forward and executed a flourishing bow, by no means hampered by his cane. In fact, while he used it reliably, he also seemed to regard it as a much as a theatrical prop as an ambulatory one.

"Royina, Royse, I am honored to meet you."

"Likewise, my lord." Iselle rose and stepped forward, lifting her hands. The little count had not forgotten this part of Cazaril's instruction, and took up her hands, kissing each formally upon the back, not lingering too long, and letting her take his hands for the same. Bergon stepped forward as well, and Cazaril could perceive a slight hesitation in Count dy Vorkosigan as they went through the same greeting. It seemed as though he found it more odd to perform with a man; Cazaril found himself wondering why that was and whether the gesture might have some different significance in Barrayar.

"And Lady Betriz. Your husband mentioned your children; I trust they are well?" He took Betriz's hands as well. She looked pleasantly gratified at the question and smiled after the greeting exchange.

"Yes, thank you, they are both in excellent health, though I may have to absent myself if this is a long counsel."

"I quite understand, my lady." Count dy Vorkosigan executed another bow, though this was shallower, and Cazaril realized that the man's eye was lit. Oh dear; surely he would not have the poor taste to press some importunity on Cazaril's wife. That could get extremely awkward. Fortunately, however much he might appreciate Betriz's beauty -- and Cazaril was not sure he could begrudge any man that pleasure as long as he did it discreetly and from a distance -- Count dy Vorkosigan was not so smitten as to drop into any foolishness. He turned his attention back to the Royina.

"I am afraid that we have come to a situation so tangled that I do not know where I ought to begin in untangling it. I come to beg your assistance, and I hope that I may be of similar use to you, because I think my primary aim and yours lie together."

"Indeed. I think we shall all have to ask Chancellor dy Cazaril to untangle us, because I think he has rather more of the threads in presently in hand than anyone else. But please, let us sit." Iselle gestured graciously to the room's chairs, and two of the servants came bustling forward to pull them into something of a circle.

"Ah, yes, I think I might," Cazaril had to admit. "Though I hope that you can supply more detail when our paths begin to cross, Count dy Vorkosigan."

The count spread a hand to accept Cazaril's request, but he added, "I really won't feel slighted if you don't wait on ceremony for my sake. 'Miles' has served me just fine, at least in private."

Cazaril inclined his head back. "As you will. I, ah, prefer 'Caz' to my first name." He tried not to catch Betriz's eye, because she was keeping a smile from her lips but not her eyes. At least it made it easy to produce a genuine smile.

"I am happy to dispense with ceremony if you are, Lord, ah, Miles. But I think this tale is not a short one, Cazaril, so we had best be about it, hm?" Iselle could be quite brisk when she chose, and she was choosing now.

"Of course, my lady." Count dy Vorkosigan could dispense with formality, but Royina Iselle was still Cazaril's liege. "Well, it must have started for us with the arrival of the Royse's former comrade from Ibra, Ser dy Lovar. Three weeks ago, now, was it, my lord?"

"Yes, for it was just after the Daughter's Day celebration," Bergon confirmed. He turned his attention then to Vorkosigan to offer a little explanation. "I was born into the royacy of Ibra, my...Miles. And I came here in haste to wed Iselle and unite our two royacies in the person of our son, the Mother and the Father willing, but a great many courtiers from Ibra seem to wish to at least visit here, hoping to gain a better position wooing me than my father, who is over seventy years old now. They do not expect him to live long enough to make currying his favor worth their while." There was a faint tinge of bitterness in this assertion that spoke to the royse's continued care for his elderly father. "Well, and then he's never had much time for those who think words instead of deeds will move him. Since I am young, they hope I will prove easier and more profitable in the long run. In any case, Ser dy Lovar is -- was. I understand he is dead?"

Bergon did not know to whom to look for the answer to this last question, so Cazaril spoke up. "It seems certain, my lord. He vanished at the same point Count dy Vorkosigan and his brother appeared, he verifies dy Lovar's death, and his brother seems possessed by a demon. It seems rather a stretch to think that it is not him who died." Cazaril found he could not switch to first names in his head so readily as Vorkosigan seemed to. Well, he might get used to just the last name, at least.

Bergon nodded grimly. "Well, Ser dy Lovar was never a close companion of mine, but had always been personable enough, and only a few years older. He was bitter about being passed over for his father's position of Castellar in favor of his younger brother, but he seemed to have gotten over it when he arrived, intent to find some new posting for himself. I asked Cazaril to find one and he did, as an assistant clerk." He nodded then for Cazaril to pick up the thread again.

"He was efficient enough in his tasks. If Bergon hadn't suggested him, I might have turned him down, as we're not running low on clerks, just now, but a man willing to serve should be given an opportunity if he may." Cazaril watched the slight narrowing of the eyes and tilt of the head Vorkosigan gave this philosophical assertion. It looked approving, which was encouraging. "I would not have thought much about him except for the Royse's interest. So I was a little surprised when the Royse started calling him to attend as an advisor."

"As was I," Iselle put in, her voice dry, "since he didn't ask me before he did it." Bergon gave a little wince and Iselle reached to touch his hand in reassurance. "It was most unlike you not to have mentioned it, or at least to remember on his arrival that you had asked him and not mentioned it to me."

"I was seeing the world in a rather uncanny manner," Bergon replied ruefully. "It seems so fogged to me now, but at the time, it was like floating through a dream where only dy Lovar was real, unblurred, in focus." He look around at Vorkosigan and explained, "He was a sorcerer, and disrupting my perceptions and judgment."

"I see; that is quite disturbing to imagine." Indeed, Vorkosigan looked a little ill at the thought, either of himself in Bergon's place so afflicted, or perhaps brother presently enthralled, Cazaril could not be sure. Certainly, either was harrowing enough.

"Well, luckily Iselle and Caz had their wits about them," Bergon assured Vorkosigan, and gestured again to Cazaril to take up the tale.

"We all noticed shifts in personality, and not just in that dy Lovar seemed to become the royse's constant companion. He was distant, abrupt, dismissive, suspicious -- it turned out to be quite difficult to get time to discuss it alone with Iselle. I had to set Betriz on it." Cazaril sent a little smile at his wife, who took up the cue.

"Yes, well, if dy Lovar wanted Bergon to himself at all, he rather had to leave Iselle to me, if not Caz. It didn't take much comparing of notes to see the changes, and we agreed we had better seek the advice of the temple, where Learned Umegat and Acolyte Clara helped us before in sniffing out the demon. Once Clara had the chance to confirm it at a distance, we could put together a plan to trap dy Lovar. Well, Umegat and Caz could." Betriz's dimple flashed for a moment.

"We combined acolytes and inquires of the Bastard's order with soldiers of the Daughter's order. I had to be sure the Royina approved the plan, since we had to take hold of Bergon to keep him from countermanding the orders, but we managed to do so without harming him. Dy Lovar had to leap through a third story window to escape us, and I'm still not quite sure how he managed to bob up running. We cut off the gates easily enough, but he made for Fonsa's tower. I was in the group chasing him," Cazaril explained, "and I couldn't think why he was going that way. Then suddenly, he vanished, and we stopped, staying carefully clear of the point at which he disappeared, for I was wary of it. I think correctly, as it now appears, dy Vorkosigan?"

The little man, who had listened to all this with only the one polite interjection and with the greatest intensity, did not fail to catch his cue. "Yes, I am extremely glad you stayed out; I believe that any men you sent through would have met a death I would not wish on anyone." He paused, but his eyebrows drew together and he heaved a breath, clearly deciding how to proceed.

"It is difficult to explain exactly what happened then, but I will do my best. I think I will have to go back in time to try and explain where we were. Which was between the stars."

Cazaril could see Vorkosigan looking around at the faces before him at a wide array of expressions from blank to confused. He was certainly unsure of what the man was saying, so he hazarded, "You mean, your people can fly? High in the sky?"

"Yes," Count dy Vorkosigan replied slowly, "but far, far higher than I suspect you envision, for the stars are almost inexpressibly far apart. When you move far enough from the surface of a world, the air starts to fall away; have any of you ever noticed that it is harder to breathe on a high mountain? If you continue far enough, it gets to where there is nothing at all to breathe. And is cold, colder than ice. You must bring a contained vessel, with all the air you need within it or the facilities to generate new air, and heat, and movement, or it is impossible to go so far."

Vorkosigan looked around for understanding in his audience and Cazaril involuntarily shivered. The hint of freezing without breath to draw reminded him entirely too much of the sensation of being pitched off a Roknari slave galley and having to swim and beg, gasping, to be let aboard, to please, please pull his oar. Only so far up, there might not even be anyone to beg.

"How far up would you have to be before falling was not the greatest of your concerns, my lord?" he heard Umegat ask, as if from a distance. Just as well someone else could keep the conversation flowing while he tried to unknot his neck.

"Not so far as you might think, but we're talking vertical miles. Three miles up, as I understand it, the air isn't really breathable any more without special aid and acclimatization. From sea level, that is. Though it suddenly occurs to me that I don't know that the measurement I just gave you translates properly. Nor even that all the forces at play on your world might not alter the composition and density of your atmosphere -- " Vorkosigan cut himself off with a lifted hand to forestall anyone else putting in either. "No. Never mind. The exact height of your atmosphere is not really relevant to this."

But interesting, Cazaril thought. He wondered how far apart that meant the stars really were. They had to be far in any case, for them to vary but little in all his travels across Chalion, Ibra, Brajar and the Roknari princedoms. If they were close, a short trek would leave familiar constellations behind, and that was clearly not the case, but Cazaril got a faint hint that perhaps these specks of light were larger and further off than he had ever had reason to consider. Perhaps further than he could really conceive. He was not entirely sure what the rest of Vorkosigan's audience construed from this, but they were certainly rapt.

"In any case, we were floating, safe in our self-contained ship between the stars. We were testing a new procedure on something we call a wormhole. They are -- well, they're a quick way for one of our inter-stellar ships to jump from one place to another distant one. But all within the same universe, simple enough. And they never, ever occur near a planet.

"When we started testing our new technique, we got some odd results. It was as if air was spilling into the nothingness near our wormhole, which seemed very strange. We were investigating, getting very close, when suddenly we saw a person appear, who I suppose must have been your dy Lovar. We had a very narrow window, but we saw him, realized he was living, unprotected person, and tried to get to him. It was close, but I -- we couldn't save him. There just wasn't time."

Cazaril gauged the grey, guilty look on Vorkosigan's face. No, Cazaril didn't doubt the assessment that dy Lovar could not have been saved. Not that it seemed to be making it much easier. He's a romantic, Cazaril realized suddenly. Polished and practical, but Cazaril recognized that need to save anyone and anything in danger, whatever the cost. He had, after all, plunged unsupported into totally unknown territory to rescue his brother. The Count, Cazaril reflected, would make an excellent lay dedicat of the Daughter's order.

"Then my brother Mark fell over. I was looking away, but my armsman -- that's a liege-sworn bodyguard and manservant, more or less -- Armsman Kozlov said he just fainted. After all the fuss and mess with dy Lovar was over, so it was definitely not a reaction, and in any case, Mark is not particularly squeamish. And he stayed fainted for almost an hour."

There was a little shifting on the Chalionese side, glances exchanged, particularly between Umegat and Clara. Since this was at the heart of the supernatural, Cazaril found himself, along with his wife and lords, looking at Umegat. Clara was still connected to the Mother in a way that Umegat was not to the Bastard any more, but Umegat was without a doubt their spiritual authority. The Roknari shifted and cleared his throat.

"That is most unusual, my lord dy Vorkosigan. Unconsciousness is not exactly uncommon in a sorcerer newly possessed of a demon, but it is usually no longer than a brief faint. I am afraid we do not know much about this demon, except that it was old enough to be crafty; perhaps one of the Jokonan infestation. But a crafty demon would not seek to so disable a host. Is there anything unusual about your brother?"

Vorkosigan barked a laugh at that, startling a blink from the divine. He raised a hand in a hurried apology. "The short answer, Learned Umegat, is yes, there is a great deal odd about Mark's," and here, Vorkosigan said a word that sounded like gibberish. Plenty of the names and titles he had used sounded strange, but this was not a title. It was, Cazaril realized, a word for which Ibran had no direct translation, so he lifted a hand to interrupt.

"Ah, I think I failed to quite grasp that last word, my lord. I am not sure it translates."

"Oh." No one contradicted Cazaril, which relieved his mind a little about his assessment of the problem. Vorkosigan sat and considered, then jerked up his chin. "It comes from two old root words, where I come from. 'Psyche' meaning 'mind' and 'ology' meaning 'the study of.' Psychology, the study of the mind."
"This is a, a course of study where you come from?" Iselle sounded intrigued. "Is it so possible to extrapolate from one mind to all minds?"

"Ah. There are certain similarities and patterns common to most minds, but one of the biggest themes is the incredible variety of the human mind. I have not made a formal study of the subject myself, but I can promise that Mark's mind would be unlikely to be like any other's the demon had encountered." Vorkosigan paused for a moment, frowning. "Also, if it could read his mind, there was surely a lot of information there, on things like technology and the physical laws of the universe."

"Would you say your brother is weak willed?" Umegat inquired. Iselle looked like she was ruminating on the suggestion of what strange powers Vorkosigan might have at his call.

"I would not normally call him weak willed, no, but I think he's presently quite unbalanced in his mind," Vorkosigan replied, speaking slowly and unhappily. Cazaril was confident of his honesty; a lie would not be so painful. "His wife died two years ago now, and he hasn't recovered. And he wasn't too stable before then, and she was an important source of order and personal connection in his life. He's had a hard life." Vorkosigan clearly brooded on this reminiscence.

"Can you think of any reason why your brother would wish to leave your world behind at once and go charging into a realm known to him only through a set of images just taken in?" The way Umegat phrased the question suggested that he would usually expect the answer to be 'no.'

"Well, Mark had no desire to get too close before he was -- possessed, infected, overcome, whatever you want to call it. I think he was curious about what was happening, because we didn't understand it, but I can't imagine why he'd want to come."

"Then I think we must assume that it is the demon who is making the decisions. I am not precisely sure why it wanted to return so badly, either, since I gather sorcery is unknown in your world?" Umegat made this a question, but continued before Vorkosigan could answer. "If what it desired was power, I have to imagine there would be fewer checks on him in your world."

"I don't suppose there would be many," Vorkosigan admitted. "I don't know what the limits of a demon's power are, but it tried to ensure I couldn't follow it. Damn near succeeded. I wonder..." He trailed off, looking thoughtful. "Our test was due to end in just minutes, at that point. Do you think it could have simply been afraid of being caught, unable to return? Because while I'd believe it can do some odd things, I don't think it could replicated the," and here he devolved into some truly incomprehensible babble, though Cazaril caught "experiment" and "wormhole" and "resonance," for what good that did.

Iselle held up a hand, the gesture graceful but firm. She really did have the aura of command down well, now, grown into a centered knowledge of her own power; anything less would clearly not have arrested the flow of Count dy Vorkosigan's thoughts. "The practical matter, for now, is to decide what to do about the demon's flight with Mark. And possibly this rift, or whatever it is. First of all, it seems potentially quite dangerous, and I want the area around it blocked off. I want couriers riding off in all directions to warn of Mark's potential approach and how hazardous he might be. Another to my mother, to see where she may be, that when we capture him, we may have the demon removed. And I want all the courier houses, military posts and outposts of the temples alerted to watch for him. You'll handle that, Caz?"

Cazaril dipped his head. "Of course, Royina. I'll begin immediately." But Iselle put up a single finger to forestall him briefly.

"Count dy Vorkosigan. I would like for you to prepare a very large sign for us to tack up where anyone emerging from your world will see it, and also prepare some letters to assuage their alarm. I suspect we would not care for the experience of attempting to stop them in their search for you and your brother, nor are we likely to be able to speak with them without you. I suspect Lord Caz will also need your assistance in deciding how large an area to cordon off."

The little man dipped his head, managing a seated bow that looked well practiced to Cazaril's eye. "I am at your service, royina, and your chancellor's."

"In the mean time, Lady Betriz, would you see that the servants make up a bedroom for Count dy Vorkosigan? See that he is afforded the courtesies of a visiting Provincar or ambassador from a friendly nation."

"Certainly, royina."

Iselle glanced around the group, then rose. "To your tasks, then. Best we not dawdle."

The group was just breaking up as a page came bursting in.

"Royina, royse, my lord chancellor..." He ran down on titles, gulped a breath, and then announced, "The food you requested is arriving."

Chapter Text

Miles took some of the proffered food with him as they went off to the courtyard. He found himself impressed with the rapid patter of orders that Chancellor dy Cazaril had unleashed, getting men organized to rope off the area in front of the tower that was apparently a relic from the reign of Iselle's grandfather. After Miles had suggested a suitably wide area to cut off, just in case the Barrayarans sent an assault shuttle after him, Miles stood aside to chat with Umegat as they watched Cazaril direct.

Umegat then unfolded to Miles the tale of the Golden General and Fonsa the Fairly Wise, the invasion of Chalion and the assassination of the Roknari military leader by death magic. A day ago, MIles had to reflect, he would have considered this story as nothing more than an entertaining fairy tale. Today, Miles believed. It was unsettling to contemplate.

"So, death magic is actually the Bastard meting out his judgement of justice when justice fails, when the supplicant is willing to sacrifice his own life to balance the scales. But the Golden General was so blessed, or god-touched, or something, it required a roya to balance his sacrifice. Have I got that right?"

"Nicely summarized, my lord," Umegat replied mildly. "And Fonsa made his sacrifice in that tower." The older man gestured to the tower in whose lee Miles had first appeared. In fact, he could see some of the scuffing in the dirt from his passage and that of the soldiers. Actually, Miles reflected, he wasn't sure how old Umegat might actually be; they were probably closer in age than he and Cazaril, though he felt more of an instinctive alignment with the chancellor.

Which, he had to admit, might be at least partly due to how little he liked the Bastard's combing through his mind, and knowing Umegat was part of his order.

"The remains of the roya, his loyal page, and the divine who accompanied him were burned by a lightning strike. That is not exactly the usual manifestation for death magic, but the circumstances were unique. Roya Ias, who ruled after Fonsa, decreed that the tower be shored up enough to prevent danger to passersby, but not be repaired. Now," Umegat gestured upwards to circling black shapes, "it hosts the Bastard's sacred crows, and provides a conversation piece for visiting dignitaries and historical enthusiasts."

Miles gave a little snort as he looked sidelong at Umegat. He clearly had a quick set of wits to him, as well as courtly manners and a dry sense of humor. For all that he seemed to take in the world with even tempered equanimity, Miles felt that it would not do to underestimate the man. Clara had apparently been brought in for a current connection to divinity that Umegat did not possess, but Umegat was plainly her superior in theological scholarship. Miles abruptly wondered if Umegat had ever been touched directly by his god, and how such a touch ended.

"Well, at least our little dimensional vortex or holy transporter or whatever you want to call it didn't open any closer to the tower, or I might have flattened myself against it. I was going rather fast when I made my transit." In fact, Miles was feeling decidedly achy. He wondered if he might apply to Cazaril to let him have a painkiller when bedtime rolled around.

"Indeed. I wondered whether the site of the tower might have any theological, cosmic importance in siting the rift. I believe you said you were performing your test on a 'wormhole,' which was some sort of spot where you could jump quickly between the stars? Would that imply that it is, in itself, a warp or a thin place in reality of some kind?"

No, Miles had better not make the mistake of thinking that the people here were any less intelligent than himself, even if their understanding of the physical laws of nature was more limited. "That is an interesting question, Learned Umegat. I can't really give you a good answer, but it does seem plausible that there might be some sort of causal connection there."

The divine nodded placid acceptance of this answer. Miles spent a moment reflecting on how differently certain episodes of Barrayaran history would have gone if death magic had been available. Hundreds of Komarrans would have tried it on his father, for one thing. If his father hadn't tried it on Mad Emperor Yuri first. If Yuri hadn't tried it some high ranking, occupying Cetagandan. Of course, Miles had to admit that the actual use of such power would have depended on what the Bastard took to be a balancing of the scales of justice, and he had no idea where that strange power might have decided to rest his thumb to tip the scale. What a thought.

Cazaril strode over, then, his long legs separating him from what seemed like a teaming horde of men, wrestling wooden barricades into place like butterbugs dragging a stranglevine back to their nest. Or something like that.

"Well, my lord, we've got things started here. I've got a large canvas coming for a sign; could you draw out a short message for them to copy, writ large? 'Peace! I am well. Count dy Vorkosigan' or something along those lines?"

Miles glanced involuntarily at Cazaril's left hand and its missing fingertips at that. There was surely a man who had some idea of what a war looked like. Not that he could quite understand what this invasion might be, but Miles was all for keeping things peaceable.

"Certainly, chancellor. I was thinking, 'Don't shoot! I left instructions. Lord Auditor Vorkosigan.' That would be the more relevant of my titles to the men likely to come barreling in here. But the sentiment should be about the same in any case. Do you figure you'll hang it up on the side of Fonsa's tower there?"

"Seems the best spot," Cazaril agreed.

A few minutes of discussion and three tries with a scratchy quill pen, and Miles managed to write a short message in careful block letters that he thought might be copied. Cazaril seemed to know enough to divide the paper into a grid so as to allow the copying of each individual square onto the larger canvas. Umegat then retired back to his temple and Cazaril led Miles into what he was informed was the chancellery to write out some longer lists of instructions and orders to put into the hands of whoever had the duty of standing watch over Fonsa's rift, as Miles was beginning to think of it.

#

Some time later, Cazaril saw Vorkosigan sit back and sigh. He had been scribbling for hours, clearly writing about contingencies Cazaril could only guess at. It would have taken far longer to ask the man to explain them all, so he forbore, instead kicking the chancellery's mechanisms into motion on the royina's behalf. The gates had finally been cleared and riders sent thundering out on their various apportioned missions.

Cazaril was just getting back the first reports from the town of Cardegoss itself. It seemed that Mark dy Vorkosigan had gotten cleanly away, and Cazaril was not quite sure whether to be concerned or relieved. The damage the demon had done on his way out of the Zangre was disturbingly well controlled to suit his ends, blocking pursuit. Had men simply blocked his path, Cazaril was more than a little unsure they would have stayed in his path.

That, unfortunately, led to the question of how to corner the man. For now, his couriers were simply told to keep watch and send word immediately. If they could herd him to Dowager Royina Ista's party, Cazaril had confidence that Foix dy Gura had the wit and power to counterbalance the tricks Lord Mark had imported from Barrayar. But he hadn't had word of Ista's location since the business of the Ibran Provincar with a demon gnawing his soul. That, at least, had worked out for the best all around. Except, perhaps, for the demon.

Since Vorkosigan seemed to be done, Cazaril lifted a report and caught the man's eye. He levered himself up and walked over, clicking his cane as he came. "I've finally got word that your brother has taken the north road out of Cardegoss in the direction of Ibra."

Vorkosigan blew out his breath in apparent relief. "I was beginning to fear he'd got away clean. He has some experience in lying low, though not in this setting. You've sent word ahead? How soon can we make for Ibra?"

Cazaril started at that. "Make for Ibra?" he repeated. "My lord, if you wish to see your brother as soon as possible, you would not be well served by haring off at top speed after the first report of his flight. Never mind that your own reinforcements might arrive and be able to pursue more quickly --" Cazaril paused here to lift an eyebrow; Vorkosigan had not precisely said how fast his subordinates could be expected to move, but if he bounced between stars regularly, Cazaril suspected they could move a deal faster than a large party on horseback. Vorkosigan gave a little nod to the point. "-- all of my couriers are set to bring word back here, to the Zangre. They know where to reach us, and anyone capturing your brother would bring him straight back here."

Vorkosigan frowned and tapped his stick a few times, clearly a nervous gesture. "I see your point, Caz, but I hate sitting on the defensive. Not to mention, I doubt anyone here has the least idea of the sort of tricks he could think up."

"Nor do you have the least idea the extents of a demon's abilities," Cazaril countered. He found the man's easy familiarity interesting; try as he might, he could not think of Vorkosigan as 'Miles,' though he didn't begrudge the man the use of his own nickname. "I am afraid that your problem, my lord, is the same one that sent you barreling through a closing rift in pursuit of your brother with no assurance of support or even your ability to return."

Vorkosigan tapped two fingers on the left side of his chest, above his heart. "A hit, a palpable hit," he acknowledged with a wry smile. "But still, my worry about his abilities stands. I haven't even -- I think he had his stunner when he crossed over." This suggestion seemed to be drawn out of him with reluctance.

"Stunner?" Cazaril repeated blankly. "What is a stunner?"

Vorkosigan sighed and reached into his jacket, coming out with a hand sized, silvery object that looked like a small portion of the stock of a crossbow. It had a handgrip and a trigger and some odd glowing lights. There was no way for Cazaril to guess its purpose other than the clues of context and name Vorkosigan had provided. He held it cautiously, pointing what Cazaril guessed was its directional end always at the ground. At least, if it really were analogous to a crossbow, that would be the directional end.

"This," Vorkosigan announced with a faint sense of dread, "is a stunner." And of course, Cazaril realized, he had happily let the man carry it into the presence of the royina and her consort; not that he would have known what to look for if he had searched the man. In any case, he declined to spasm or blanch, cocking his head in inquiry.

"A stunner is a non-lethal weapon designed to incapacity enemies without causing them any serious physiological harm. It is a directional weapon, rather like a crossbow -- I'm pointing it at the floor right now -- and it has a limited battery to supply power for its shots. It has a better range than a crossbow and its shots are not curved by gravity, which makes it rather easier to aim. It fires a beam, rather than a projectile, with no solid substance, so it travels extremely quickly. And while it is designed not to injure, that doesn't take into account whether a man is standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse when he's knocked unconscious, or whether he might have a heart condition." Vorkosigan paused. "Also, it leaves a body with a hell of a hangover."

Cazaril had absorbed this lecture well enough; Vorkosigan seemed a competent lecturer, addressing most of the first questions he might have asked in one go. This last, however, gave him pause. "A hangover?" he repeated. "As in, a bad head from drinking too much wine the night before?"

"Much the same symptoms, anyway, if not the same cause," Vorkosigan affirmed as he put the stunner back beneath his jacket. "Nausea, disorientation, slurred speech, muscle aches and a killer headache seem to be the most common effects. One of the things I brought with me was a medical kit, and it contains something called 'synergine' which considerably eases the effects, and usually speeds a return to consciousness as well. Doesn't work on real hangovers, though."

"More's the pity. Or perhaps, thank the five gods you didn't bring a hangover cure with you," Cazaril replied and Vorkosigan gave an acknowledging snort. "So your brother has one of these weapons with him, you say? All things considered, my lord, I'd rather he shot all his pursuers with that than unleashed the demon's powers to try and bring them down."

"Having seen and heard a small sample of what it might do, I suppose I can understand that," Vorkosigan acknowledged. "Though I wonder whether a demon might not replicate the effects of the blast with Mark's knowledge of how to create them."

"That, I don't know. I don't know enough about the mechanics of your stunner nor, truth to tell, the mechanics of a demon's power. For that, you might ask Umegat, or possibly Royina Ista, when we get in touch with her."

Vorkosigan leaned against the side of Cazaril's desk idly. "What do you know? Clearly, a demon doesn't have a physical form of its own, but I don't think I've got a real concrete understanding of what it is."

Cazaril sighed. "Page!" A page bobbed up in the doorway. "Get food for us here, if you please. Or wait. Go and ask Betriz where she plans to take dinner and report back." The page bobbed and ran off.

"I wish I had that much energy," Vorkosigan observed, in apparent ignorance of the fact that he had been constantly fiddling with his stick or his stunner since finishing his letters. Cazaril also took it as a conversational out if he did not want to answer Vorkosigan's question about demons. Little enough that he knew, he figured he might as well, so he ignored the diversion.

"To answer your question, my lord, I can tell you that what we call demons are really elementals of pure chaos from the swirling destruction of be-not."

"Be-not?"

"I'm not sure if there's a better translation, but there isn't a simple description for us, either. It is a place without form or true substance, under the dominion of the Bastard. The elementals who escape or are drawn out are creatures of spirit, so they must batten on a living soul, whether animal or human. The longer they spend with a host in the world, the more they learn, according to the nature of the host, but if they are not in a strong willed person, they are corrosive to the spirit on which they are fixed. There are temple sorcerers, learned and strong in will, who are able to sustain an elemental for years by channeling its powers according to its nature; allowing a certain amount of chaos in controlled moments to its benefit."

Vorkosigan frowned thoughtfully as he absorbed this, and Cazaril left his lecture there; this was more or less how Foix dy Gura had explained his understanding of the matter after taking a demon into his own spirit. Unfortunate that he had lost the man's services, or at least, first claim on his loyalty, but he certainly did not begrudge Ista his permanent support.

"So, it's chaos that it channels? But it must be able to put some ordering on it if it was using its powers to sway Royse Bergon. He didn't strike me as fickle or easy to manipulate. Though more than a little embarrassed by his recent behavior."

"No, he is not easy to manipulate," Cazaril agreed fervently. And if I thought he were, I certainly wouldn't let you near him. The man was very good about coaxing information out into the open while revealing only what he wished to be known. At the moment, Cazaril was fairly certain that Vorkosigan's motives were good, and the stamp of approval from the Bastard probably bought him a good deal of forbearance, never mind the implied threat of overwhelming support. But Cazaril was just as glad to keep Vorkosigan under his eye. "I think, though, listening to him, that what the demon manipulated were the royse's perceptions, more than his choices, if you see the distinction."

Vorkosigan clearly did. "That is interesting. Yes, the world was muddled, he said. So, you think it couldn't have overpowered him directly?"

"A demon may wrestle control from its mount if the sorcerer's will fails; the sorcerer can also wrest it back. But the will itself cannot be corrupted. Even the gods must be given access, freely granted, or they are powerless in the material world."

"Then how did that smug, stick up the ass Bastard get into my..." Vorkosigan trailed off, looking thoughtful, then smiled wryly. "I was saying a prayer as I hit the passage. A generalized one. I expect I really was rather, I don't know, spiritually open at the time, though mostly because I had no idea what to expect."

"Ah." Cazaril's mouth crimped in sympathy as he thought back to a certain night on the walls of Gotorget, and the years of spinning consequences that had fallen out from that moment. Fundamentally including this moment, which was encouraging; for all his horrors and despair along the road, his present place seemed a good one.

As if in answer to his thought, his bouncing page reappeared. "The lady Betriz bids me tell you that she is dining with just the children tonight, my lord chancellor, and you if you may come. And soon, my lord."

"Ah, then I will definitely leave you to it. Wish your lady wife my best, Chancellor dy Cazaril." Vorkosigan pushed himself to his feet with a faint grunt, straightening from his half-seat on the desk.

"Count dy Vorkosigan, if you would wish to accompany --" Cazaril began as he rose himself, but the strange visitor cut him off forcefully.

"I have no wish to intrude on a privacy that I am sure is hard for a busy man to come by. I thank you for your hospitality, but what I really want is a quiet meal in a quiet chamber, possibly a hot bath, and a good night's sleep. If your good page will undertake to conduct me at a sedate pace, I will be deeply in the debt of your entire castle."

Cazaril hesitated a moment, but the appeal of a quiet meal with just his wife and two children was more than enough to outweigh the fact that Vorkosigan was clearly overstating his own tiredness. Well, a new day would do well for them all, and Cazaril had to agree there was little more to do about the count's real priorities today. Start fresh in the morning.

"As you wish, then. You know where his rooms are?"

"Yes, my lord! If you'll follow me, my lord, they are in the main keep." The page paused and looked back from Vorkosigan to Cazaril. "Should I send a runner ahead to your wife to expect you, sir?"

"No, don't bother. No doubt she already does," Cazaril replied with a small smile. "Count dy Vorkosigan, good night. If any word arrives, I'll see that you know immediately."

With a cheery little salute, a tapping of the end of his stick to his eyebrow, Vorkosigan bit him a good night, and they parted company.

#

The Other watched and waited.

Lord Mark was safe for now, divided and hidden and protected. The demon could access his knowledge, learn about the world and Mark's life, but it could not change Mark's nature. So there was nothing irrevocable that would require immediate action. That was just as well, because the Other could not act alone in this.

Howl, Gorge and Grunt were still in the demon's thrall, seduced by its promises and powers. Particularly its promises. But the Other did not need to feed to sustain himself; he sustained himself on his own potentiality, and the promises the demon could make were of no interest to him. But the black gang needed to act as one, together to defend Lord Mark when it came time to retake their own mind. Four fingers and Mark the thumb, clenched as a fist.

Tonight, Howl and Gorge and Grunt ran to their limits. The Other was offered a turn but demurred, pointing out the possibilities for discovery or capture. Besides, he was the closest to Lord Mark, and he knew Lord Mark would not approve.

So he waited. And he watched.

Chapter Text

Miles was finding it difficult to adjust to the pace of life in this Chalionese court. He had had a very awkward conversation his first night in his new rooms before the maid had understood that he really wasn't used to using a chamberpot. They had both wound up thoroughly embarrassed, but at least Miles understood the procedures now. And he'd managed to make her laugh before she left, which relieved the tension before he relieved himself.

Now they were coming to the second day, and Miles was beginning to realize all the things he did not have. He had no toothbrush, once again having to ask for instructions in the use of the little tooth sticks used here. He had no depilatory, and he rather thought it might be safer to grow a beard than chance using a by-the-apparently-five-gods straight razor on himself, or letting a barber do it daily. Particularly since he didn't have his seizure stimulator, and therefore had no idea how long it would be before he started unexpectedly spasming and twitching.

The seizures that were the lingering effect of his cryonic freezing and revival had spread further apart as he grew older, requiring less frequent use of his stimulator. Alas that when they did occur, they were no less debilitating. And as stress tended to increase their frequency and severity, Miles imagined he was going to be due a whopper some time in the not too distant future.

Well, his clothing was at least something with which he could request help. It was galling to have to essentially beg, but it probably served him right for going off half-cocked. And the Chalionese had certainly been generous. Miles supposed he probably had the Bastard to thank for that on more than one level. He really would have preferred not to give the god any such credit, but Miles supposed he ought to be fair.

Miles made himself as presentable as he could, smoothing his clothes down to a reasonable impression of neatness. He emerged from his room, looked up and down the hall, and realized he had no idea where to go for breakfast.

Fortunately, it was not hard to find a page for some cursory directions and get down to the kitchens, where the staff was mightily confused by his appearance. One cook took him for a child for a moment and started to bellow at him to get out until he tilted his head and lifted his eyebrows at her. Once she was flustered, it was easy to grin and rescue her from her social blunder, so long as she would supply him with something to eat. Then he managed to find his way out to the courtyard where he took a seat on a bench, folded his hands over the end of his walking stick and watched the buzzing of early morning activity.

It was funny, because in terms of the density of population and urgency of activity, this castle was clearly the equivalent of Vorbarr Sultana, or at least Hassadar center. The hostlers were busy, grooming horses, taking some out for individual attention, feeding, mucking, hostling. Was 'hostling' a word? Probably derived from 'hustling' or similar. Messengers scurried to and fro. Commoners moved quickly, universally intent on their morning tasks.

But for all the individual effort, the pace felt to Miles much more like the rustic life out in the further communities of his district's own Dendarii mountains. Grooming a horse had always been a task Miles enjoyed, found soothing, and it was one that was not meant to be unduly hurried. A messenger was nothing to the light speed of a planetary communication net, however excitedly he ran. There was someone by God -- by all five gods -- churning butter. It didn't get much slower than that.

Miles also kept one eye on Fonsa's tower, but nothing seemed to have appeared yet. That was actually puzzling, when Miles considered it. There was no reason the WDREE couldn't be set up again immediately upon the test's completion, assuming nothing had gone wrong. He had rather expected Kozlov to come hurtling through in a shuttle with whatever support he could bring to hand. Perhaps they'd sent back to Sergyar for military support; they would certainly get it if they asked, and if it took more than a few days, Miles would bet on a military drop shuttle slamming into the ground. That would certainly make a splash whether Miles was paying attention to it or not.

It was best to keep to the problems he could have some control over. Of course, at this point, even the ones in his present universe seemed to be well out of his grasp. So he watched and adjusted his expectations.

#

Eventually, a courtier approached Miles. Fashion was not a social language that Miles could decipher with any great speed, but the man's strut was enough for Miles to know that what he wore would be fashionable. His clothing was certainly well ordered and neat, his hair was coiffed so as to suggest it simply grew into its immaculate waves with no attention at all and his beard was clearly trimmed daily.

The man swept a bow before him and smiled as he stood. The image in Miles' mind of Ivan was very, very strong.

"Good morning, Count dy Vorkosigan. I am Ser dy Rinal, and our delightful chancellor has asked me if I might show you about the palace, make you a few introductions and perhaps offer you a visit to the palace tailors, if you are so inclined."

Miles considered for a moment whether someone might have it in mind to sabotage him, either through a joke or for some obscure end. He really didn't think he'd been around long to have made enemies, but a court was bound to have complex politics.

"I was just enjoying the view, but I wouldn't mind switching entertainments." Miles levered himself to his feet while his body reminded him, in detail, of every thumping bruise he took bouncing around a bodpod. "I'm afraid that I'm not in a position to pay a tailor at the moment; my resources are not exactly in hand."

"That's all right, the chancellor has bid me put you on the palace's rolls." Dy Rinal smiled cheerfully and gestured into the castle, and Miles let himself be chivvied inward.

Dy Rinal, it turned out, had no official position at court, but he confided that Cazaril often pointed unfamiliar visitors in his direction for entertainment and orientation. Miles decided he was unfairly traducing Ivan's long military service when he equated the man with dy Rinal; Byerly Vorrutyer might be a closer comparison on the social side, though dy Rinal's cheer was certainly more akin to Ivan's.

Miles found himself escorted through the palace to the tailor's first, which only made sense. The man took a lot of measurements, which made Miles feel self-conscious, but he made no comment. Of course, it would have been difficult to shoehorn a word in edgewise around dy Rinal's constant patter. He intelligently asked after Miles' family with regard to symbols and colors. Miles explained that yes, there was a uniform, and it was probably impossible to replicate in local styles, but brown and silver was apparently easy enough. It was oddly restful, for with dy Rinal blithering on, Miles needed to do little more but give brief answers and make occasional encouraging noises.

Once the tailors had been assured of the urgency of Miles' need for clothes, dy Rinal left him to it and guided Miles away and through a portrait gallery. Most of the portraits were of previous royas of Chalion and their royinas. Dy Rinal proved a ready source of information about who they were, who their parents were, where they found marriages. This turned into a lengthy explanation of the political clan claims and alliances around Chalion, Ibra and Brajar, which Miles found interesting, particularly when dy Rinal explained that there was to be a banquet that night, to which he was of course invited.

"So our clever chancellor wished for me to give you a little grounding in just who you might be meeting before you got thrust into the thick of things," the courtier wound down his explanation.

"I see," Miles said, his eyebrows lifted as he considered dy Rinal. Like Byerly, he might be a bit of a dandy, but he was not an idiot. "So, how is the evening likely to go? Socializing over canapes, banquet, then dancing?"

"More or less," dy Rinal agreed affably. "There's likely to be a little socializing beforehand, over glasses of wine. Then to dinner, where I understand you are to be seated at the high table between the March dy Palliar and the Roknari envoy from the princedom of Pacova." He made a face, which Miles took for editorial.

"Does that mean I should be concerned about his trying to draw me into committing Barrayar into an alliance with him?"

"Oh, certainly, if he thinks he can manage with you seated right beside the Marshal of Chalion's troops. I understand he leaned on Lord dy Cazaril rather heavily to get the space. You should be flattered; there's quite a bit of curiosity flowing about you, you know."

Miles made a face at that. "I'm used to that. Is there as much rumor?" Dy Rinal hesitated, which Miles took for an emphatic affirmative. He couldn't help it; Miles laughed. "Oh, don't look so worried. Gossip is pure entertainment to me now; I've been the subject of rumors all my life, and I will be for whatever remains. But it will make my life easier if I know on what side of me the whispers are falling, if you catch my drift."

Dy Rinal clearly did, but he was also cagey about testing the waters. "Well, of course, no one knows anything about you, so there is quite a lot of room for supposition. For instance, some suggest you are, well, not so important a person as you claimed to the chancellor. Someone else said you must be a sorcerer to have convinced him so quickly. I even heard one man claim that you were a reincarnation of the Golden General, but the Bastard had made your birth go wrong and left you, well, short and crazy."

Miles was impressed. Dy Rinal had managed to compose a list that sounded like it went to the limit of crazy speculation, and he sounded both apologetic and amused at the absurdity. And yet Miles judged that he actually had done a little editing, of such words as 'deformed' and 'dwarf.' True tact, after all, considered the ear of the recipient.

"That would be a stretch. I'm afraid the 'short' part comes as a result of a very long story in which my mother was poisoned before my birth and my own growth stunted as a result. If I am crazy, well, I promise it is a result of my life, and not the cause. Of most of it anyway."

Dy Rinal laughed dutifully and brightly changed the subject.

#

After a day trailing Dy Rinal, Miles felt he must have seen every corner of the castle and been introduced to all its denizens. By the time evening arrived, Miles found himself forcibly directed at a barber, which was certainly good for his appearance, and then whisked back to the tailor to try on his new clothes. Miles understood they had been cut down from formal garb for a teenager, and thought of the bevy of gangly, pimply youths he had seen running here and there about the Zangre.

Before the tailor was done, Lady Betriz appeared to relieve dy Rinal and send him back to his own preparations for dinner. She was already dressed in a sweeping garment of blues and greens with lots of trailing silk. Miles was beginning to decode the colors assigned to the various gods, implying that Betriz mingled the Daughter and the Mother tonight, presumably for the season and her stage of life, respectively.

Miles found her uncomfortably reminiscent of a younger Ekaterin when she was so bedecked. She certainly could have come close to passing for one of the old images of the Vor lady from the time of isolation. The style wasn't quite right, but it was close, and no artist could have improved the line of her nose, no matter how clever his brush. Fortunately, she was married, and so was he.

She escorted him out of the tailor's rooms, assuring the tailor that her husband would see to his compensation, and assuring Miles that his clothing was both unusual enough to be distinctive and close enough to local fashion not to be taken as wild. Lady Betriz took his arm and sent their attendants ahead as they went towards the hall so as to offer a quiet word.

"Did Ser dy Rinal serve you well as a guide?"

"Oh, yes. I certainly feel stuffed to brimming with information, if I can simply keep it all straight."

Betriz smiled and a little dimple winked. That, at least, was wholly unlike Ekaterin's smile. Though it was cute. "Yes, he's done well as a guide in the past. And he's quite personable. But I wanted to get a brief word in your ear before dinner commences and there are too many other ears nearby."

Miles perked up. It was a relief to him that the image of Betriz murmuring in his ear was not as stimulating as the thought of some new challenge, perhaps a break in the routine, an intrigue, something. This place really does move too slowly for me. "At your service, my lady."

"I wanted to caution you against open discussion of the more uncanny portions of your tale. I would recommend you stay as vague as you may, though I will not attempt to dictate to you what you say or do. I particularly wish to caution you against open discussion of either your brother's demon or your own blessing from the Bastard with the Roknari envoy with whom you will be seated. The Roknari consider the Bastard to be a demon, rather than a god, and so his worship is the worship of a demon. When Roknari soldiers catch a divine of the Bastard, they mutilate him before death, and a sorcerer is to be burned alive and so take his demon out of the world." She paused for a moment to let him absorb that sentence.

"He wouldn't fly into some wild frenzy and try to take my head off, would he?" Miles asked. He was kidding, unless he wasn't, in which case he had better know right away.

"I very much doubt it," Betriz reassured him. Her dimple was more relaxing than her words, underscoring her understatement. "Even if he believed you, I think he is not so foolish as to fail to realize that he would find little sympathy in this castle. He will also try to woo you into any kind of alliance against Chalion he can manage, which is part of why we put the March dy Palliar, who is Marshal to Chalion's forces, on your other side."

"Not letting me get my ear bent without someone bending back, hm?" Miles waved Betriz down as she started to try and form a diplomatic reply to this. "Of course you aren't. It's your home court, and if you, your husband and your rulers can't keep things tilted in your favor here, I'm quite mistaken in you all. Believe me, I'm no stranger to political leanings, and I promise you, whatever he lays out won't be any slicker."

Betriz closed her mouth and considered him for a moment, then gave a little nod. "You represent Barrayar. I have no doubt you'll do it in your own empire's best interest; I'm also reasonably confident that unless your emperor is intent on limitless expansion, you will wish to treat first with us."

Miles smiled. He loved seeing a confident, strong woman unafraid to assert her place. He also suspected she was right. He gave a little bow as he walked, augmented with a small flourish of his cane. It was really a wonderful prop, as long as he didn't try to disregard it too long.

They arrived, then, at the banquet hall, where there was already a substantial crowd and the chancellor arrived to reclaim his wife. Miles went through more introductions and wetted his lips with wine rather than drinking, though the quality seemed fair. It was definitely not the same as the wine he was used to drinking, but for grapes from an alternate universe grown on soil that had never been terraformed, it was close enough.

Dy Rinal swirled by again and accepted compliments on Miles' fashionable transformation. He was modest enough, but clearly pleased at the results and the reactions. It soon appeared that Miles had arrived fashionably late, because it was apparently time to head to dinner At this point, Miles found himself introduced to a big, bluff man with an affable smile. Dy Rinal labeled him as "the March dy Palliar, Marshal of Chalion's troops, and the architect of our swift conquest of Visping."

Miles reflected that yes, he had better equate dy Rinal with Byerly, because here was a man whose impression of Ivan was overpowering. A heavy hand clapped on his shoulder familiarly as he was informed, "Please, just call me Palli, everyone does." Interesting that he seemed to be telling the truth, despite his high position and esteem; Miles had not yet gotten anyone to refer to him as Miles without looking like it was choking them. Maybe if he made a nickname out of his last name, he'd have better luck, but probably not.

They filed off together and Palli showed Miles his seat readily enough. Miles leaned his sword stick against the table beside him, and no one seemed inclined to comment. Though the court seemed to tend towards youthful, no doubt due to the influence of the ruling couple, he was not the only grey haired man to require a little prop to get around. Well, let them think he had gravitas. Perhaps it would balance his height.

No sooner had he sat down than the man on his left introduced himself. "Forgive me for being forward, but I must seize the opportunity to introduce myself. I am Prince Taligat, Ambassador for the Princedom of Pacova and I very much wish to have some speech with you, my Lord dy Vorkosigan. Is that the proper address?"

"It will certainly suffice," Miles replied. "My full title is Lord Auditor Count Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar, but that's a bit of a mouthful even for me."

"Of course, of course." While Taligat marshaled himself for a pitch, Miles decided to cut him off. Pitches were always more interesting and revealing if the person making them were a little off balance.

"Admittedly, I suspect I understand even less of your political structures than you can surmise about mine. Your title is Prince, you say, and you represent a princedom, but I take it that you yourself are not the, ah, polity's ruler?"

"Ah, no. The present ruling Prince of Pacova is my uncle. There are enough of his own descendants between his throne and myself to make him less than worried at my possible temptations, but my place in the succession is close enough to allow me the courtesy of the title." Taligat paused a moment, but pressed on, determined to avoid being side tracked. "My lord, I hoped you would be willing to speak with me later about establishing diplomatic relations between Barrayar and Pacova. We have not, to my knowledge, had any contact with your empire before now, and we are eager to learn more."

"Don't listen to him, my lord," put in Palli from Miles' other side. "He's just afraid that Pacova's going to be swept under like Jokona and looking for any driftwood to cling to before they go under."

The Pacovan ambassador reddened slightly at the interruption. This was definitely not how he had hoped the conversation would go. Miles swiftly decided that the argument between Taligat and Palli would be far more entertaining and illuminating than a planned pitch from either man, so he settled back in his seat to give them a better line through which to argue.

"Well, Marshal, with you in court, I am not particularly worried about being over run this week," the ambassador managed to return. "Though I hope you understand, Count dy Vorkosigan, what an aggressive royacy Chalion has become lately." Miles detected about equal parts venom and fear in that assessment, though he was in no position to call it inaccurate.

"Ha! As if Chalion, Ibra, Brajar and the five princedoms haven't been squabbling back and forth across that soil for a generation and a half now! And if you think our incursion into Jokona to scoop up Visping was aggressive, you have clearly not spent enough time talking to the Jokonan survivors of Porifors." Palli sounded more amused than aggrieved as he parried easily enough.

Soup arrived quietly, their servitors slipping around them to place bowls before each guest. It smelled of onion and broth of some kind. Miles tried a spoonful. Again, it was a little bit odd, the flavors sharper than he would have expected on Barrayar, but the combinations of vegetables with some sort of poultry was familiar and appetizing. Of course, the five gods alone probably knew what unknown parasites he might be introducing to his system. Still, he was hungry.

Taligat and Palli continued their discussion over and around Miles. "We have no wish to court Chalionese aggression, but we are certainly not afraid of it!"

"Only because we would have to curve around Brajar to come on you by land."

"If you persist in your attempts at conquest, Pacova will be drawn in eventually --"

"And your raiders aren't already harrying our borders and Ibra's sea trade? Careful, Prince. If your innocence were your fig leaf, you'd not be fit for mixed company."

Miles could see why Palli had been delegated to keeping him out of Pacovan hands. He was a quick wit without ever getting upset, and his blunt speech made the Roknari look deceitful, even though Miles suspected both were actually being more or less honest. Also, the bickering gave him an excellent opportunity to go at his soup, and even sample the wine a little more deeply.

Taligat finally seemed to abandon his attempt to badger Palli into any sort of compliance and settled for ignoring him and turning directly to MIles again. "My lord, has Barrayar any declared allegiance in this conflict?"

"No." That, at least, Miles could provide in answer. "Barrayar is considering her position very carefully and offering no guarantees to anyone until we have established our contacts with a much higher degree of reliability." He paused, then put in, "I will note that the hospitality of the Chalionese has not gone unnoticed."

Palli gave a small smirk at that and Taligat hastened to assure Miles, "We would be most honored to receive you or another delegation from Barrayar in Pacova, where you would be most heartily welcomed."

"Thank you, Prince Taligat; I shall not forget it. The treatment of all Barrayaran citizens would be of most particular interest to myself and my emperor." Just in case Mark wound up in the hands of these people, it wouldn't hurt to put in the suggestion that burning him alive might be diplomatically disastrous. Taligat probably couldn't even conceive of how disastrous it could be, in fact, but he was clearly hustling hard enough as it was.

Miles felt a small twinge in his belly. Hm. Perhaps the local food was not agreeing with his system quite as smoothly as it agreed with his taste buds. He sat back and touched a hand to his belly, frowning at his bowl.

"You feeling all right, Miles?" Well, at least one person took him at his word that he preferred his first name. Just as Ivan would have, no doubt.

Miles pushed back his chair and smiled at Palli. "I'm all right, but I think I need to, ah, pay a little visit." He wasn't sure what euphemism to use in polite company, but the soldier seemed to follow without difficulty.

"Ah, let me get a servant to escort you to the wardroom. You there, this gentleman needs --" Palli cut himself off as the server he had tried to flag down brushed past without apparently having heard the summons. Palli frowned in brief annoyance, then looked back up the table to catch the eye of the next servant.

Miles watched the first servant move. There was something wrong with the way he moved; the other servants moved quickly about their tasks, but they had a smooth gait, useful for holding trays level, and it made them look unhurried. This one was definitely hurrying, and in the direction of the royal party. A subtle set to his jaw made Miles think that perhaps he was going to impart bad news. Miles pushed his chair back far enough to rise to his feet, collecting his cane.

Then Miles saw the servant's hand flick up behind him to the center of his back, where it would be hidden from view from from the Royse and Royina. And then there was a glint of reflected light.

There was no time to think; the man's hand was already moving, the royse right before him. Time seemed to slow as Miles realized that in his unfamiliar garment, he might fumble for his stunner for half a minute after the assassin had finished his task and still not have his weapon right way around. But he did have a weapon in his hand.

All that was required was that Miles twist his wrist, bringing the cane's tip up off the floor, and then he jammed his thumb into the release trigger. His sword stick really was a scaled down version of old Commodore Koudelka's, right down to the power of the spring on the case. The heavy wood shot out and thumped with satisfying weight into the assassin's shoulder, its trajectory just a little too low to take the man in the face. It was hardly a real threat, but it was distracting and disruptive.

The assassin had been attempting to reach around Bergon's neck for a clean slice across the blood vessels in the neck. Jarred off balance and looking around at the strange new threat, the knife lifted involuntarily and the stroke crossed Bergon's cheek instead, leaving a line of red from jaw to nose.

At that point, Bergon shoved his chair back and into the assassin hard, knocking him back. Before he had any chance to recover, Chancellor dy Cazaril had flung himself out of his seat and smashed the assassin's head with his soup bowl. While it was an unorthodox weapon, it had surely been ready to hand. The heavy ceramic shattered, overstressed by wiry muscle, fury and terror. Cazaril kept his hand driving through to grab the man by the side of his head and bear him to the ground, thumping the other side of the assassin's head on the stone floor. It did not look as if much more resistance were forthcoming.

Palli was lunging out his seat and past Miles to go to the injured Royse. The Royina appeared to have a handkerchief clapped to the wound already and a bevy of men had descended on the assassin. Miles let his unsheathed sword lower from where the Roknari ambassador was looking at it with both wariness and avarice. Cazaril rose from the cluster of men and bodies as the room was full of chaos and diners coming to their feet. The chancellor held the sheath of Miles's sword stick out to him. Miles took it and clicked the weapon away.

"Not that I intend to complain overmuch tonight, my lord, but would you be willing to do me the courtesy of informing me if you are carrying any more weapons on your person you haven't mentioned yet?" Cazaril sounded a little exasperated, but Miles supposed the man had a right to be feeling flustered. At least the Royse was still on his feet under his own power.

"Ah, no, you've seen the inventory, my lord," Miles assured him, feeling faintly as if he were floating on a cloud. Suddenly, he realized that the edges of his vision were dissolving in colored confetti.

"Oh shit. Catch me!"

Cazaril looked bewildered as his face dissolved into static.

#

There were no treats for Grunt and Gorge tonight. Even Howl found little satisfaction in low grade saddle soreness and the damp discomfort of a poor camp on the road. They had nearly been spotted last time after all, so tonight they had to stay in the rough.

The Other was not ready to make serious overtures yet. After all, Lord Mark was hardly going to be ready to satisfy all their basest desires when he regained control. Balance was what they needed. For all their overwhelming identification in the seedier parts of Mark's id, the members of the black gang existed to do their jobs. And their jobs were not actually gratification but balance.

The Other did observe that this necessity was not really surprising, given their flight. They had been lucky to find their refuge in the last town, and would not find another so easily going forward. Word of them had surely gone on ahead of them already, on horse relays whose speed a lone man could not match.

Tonight was neither balancing nor gratifying. The group would have to tip before it would unite with The Other and Mark could reglue them to serve himself again. Not tonight.

But perhaps tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Cazaril was not destined to sleep that night.

Before he had gotten everyone hustled out of the banquet hall, Cazaril had made Bergon lift a hand to wave to his frightened courtiers. It got a nervous cheer, and would suffice to keep rumors that the royse was dead to a minimum. The cut was superficial, though being on the face, it was quite alarming to look at. Cazaril had detailed Palli and Betriz to accompany the royse and royina back to their private chambers. Then he had scooped up Umegat and a group of soldiers to carry off the unconscious Vorkosigan, and a page to bolt for a physician. Finally, before he had left, he had primed dy Rinal with the hastily constructed official version of what happened.

Dy Rinal had proved a useful pipeline for Cazaril, allowing him to pump most anything he wanted into the castle's gossip. Dy Rinal was happy enough to be so close to the source for news, and Cazaril did not attempt to quell him if he drew his own conclusions from the stories Caz fed him. That, in particular, was a touch of which Cazaril was proud; it kept dy Rinal at a remove, making sure that those in the castle viewed him as simply a favored friend of the chancellor, and not a simple mouthpiece.

In this case, the official story was more or less the truth: an assassin had tried to kill the royse, the Barrayaran envoy had thwarted him in the last moments, the royse was fine, then dy Vorkosigan had fainted. He would be fine too. Cazaril was off to oversee the care of the royse, who looked like he wouldn't need much, and the Barrayaran, who might need more, but he was still clearly breathing, so he would be fine. And then he would oversee the prisoner. Who would not be fine.

In fact, Cazaril did not go off to follow the royse, for he would not be of any great use, and he very much worried about what had happened to Vorkosigan. As startling as the little man's request had been, it had been enough to allow Cazaril to make a desperate lunge and catch the man as he crumpled. The twitching that followed was quite alarming, as was the subsequent flaccidity. Once he was simply unconscious and Cazaril had assured himself that Vorkosigan was breathing, he had begun to give his orders.

Now, he came to the room to which Vorkosigan had been taken to recover and be seen. Cazaril was relieved to see Vorkosigan attempting to wave the physician away and the physician ignore him. Good to see the little man awake, and good to know that he was not the only one to be so beleaguered when ill.

"No...'S okay...'M okay. Jus' need ta...need ta rest." The slurring quality to Vorkosigan's voice was disturbing as well. Cazaril walked up to the side of Vorkosigan's bed opposite the divine from the Mother's temple. "Caz! 's royse...?"

"He's fine," Cazaril hastened to assure the man. "You saved his life and we have the assassin. Once I'm assured you're going to be all right, I'm going to oversee his questioning."

Vorkosigan sagged, clearly relieved. "Good. Really, I'll be fine, I just...I just need to rest when this happens."

"Then it has happened before and is something of a regular occurrence with you?"

"Yeah," Vorkosigan agreed morosely. "Sorry. Shoulda said somethin'. But I didn't think it'd be soon. Stress makes 'em come." His eyelids fluttered rather disturbingly.

"Get him up to his room and let the man sleep," Cazaril ordered all and sundry. "Learned, if you can stay to observe him, it would ease my mind. If there is anything you need, any person or assistance, do not hesitate to request it. When I say he saved Royse Bergon's life ten minutes ago, I am in no way exaggerating."

The divine hesitated, then nodded with a simple "Yes, my lord." He then began ordering about the strong young men who had brought Vorkosigan into the little antechamber in the first place. Cazaril got out of the way and out of the room.

He received word in the hallway that the royina and royse were fine, the injury stitched up and looking clean, and the royal couple were retiring for the night. His wife would not be expecting him, but would welcome him if he were free. Alas, no.

Instead of heading up to his wife's bedroom, he descended into the Zangre's dungeons to check on the status of his prisoner. The man was tied, stretched on a rack that was merely drawn securely snug. It was a useful position in which to put a man when he was to be put to the question. He was secure, his own helplessness and vulnerability made plain. The tools of coercion could easily be applied to any desired level at any point. Many men broke more from their own anticipation and imagination than any force applied from outside. Cazaril wondered what Vorkosigan's study of the mind would have to say about questioning prisoners.

He realized something was wrong when he saw the man, however. His head lolled to the side and his mouth drooped open, slack and still. One of the Zangre's inquisitors was peeling back the assassin's eyelids. He looked up at Cazaril's entrance and shook his head.

"No good, my lord. I'm afraid he's bleeding inside his skull. He's not quite dead yet, but I don't think there's anything to be done."

Cazaril stopped in his tracks and stared at the questioner, then the assassin. A string of curses burst through his thoughts, particularly against the force with which he had bashed the man's head into the floor. But caution for the assassin's continued health could not have been his main concern. He been counting on questioning the man, though, to learn who had sent him and why. He did not look Roknari.

The thought formed that perhaps he could call Clara, or call himself upon the Daughter, to beg the merciful goddesses for a blessing of a healing, a miracle to repair this man's skull. But to ask of their power that a man be healed just so that he could be tortured? That seemed monstrous, and Cazaril found himself ashamed to even think it.

Cazaril took a deep breath and nodded. "Understood. Keep watch on him. If he reverses course, send word for me. I do not expect it, but these injuries can be strange. If he dies, send me word of that as well. Search his person in the meantime and see if any of his effects mean anything to you."

He turned on his heel, the "Yes, my lord" following his retreating footsteps as he strode back up to the hall. If the man was dead, what next? He wanted to present Iselle and Bergon with facts when they rose in the morning, for all that sleep might elude them.

Well, if he could not turn to the man who had attempted the assassination, he would have to study those around him and see what impression he had left in his wake. No one could move without some notice within the Zangre. For all that he had once told Umegat that a castle tabard might as well be a cloak of invisibility, the servants and guards around the banquet hall were not so lax in their attention as a battered old secretary might be.

Eventually, he settled into his office and sent for a succession of persons to be brought to him. His methods of questioning were considerably more gentile than he had been grimly anticipating, but the subject matter was sufficient to end with more than one of his subjects in tears before the night ended.

Cazaril managed to establish a timeline for the assassin's arrival. It was not encouraging. It was apparently Ser dy Lovar who had greased the man's way into the ranks of the palace servants. He had vouched for the man and spoken prettily to several members of the staff. Cazaril suspected that the steward who most directly oversaw the servants had been actively bespelled by Lovar, for he spoke with a sense of disbelief in his own actions to Cazaril's ear. It felt wrong not to make a full explanation to the man, but Cazaril judged it would not help the man enough to justify exposing the secret sources of recent events to court gossip.

Tracking down the various servants took most of the night, and around dawn word came that the assassin had indeed died without ever regaining consciousness.

"Killed by a damned soup bowl," Cazaril muttered to himself as he paced his deserted office. He contemplated the vision of a bard attempting to capture the daring rescue of Royse Bergon in song and poetry. His rhymes for "soup bowl" all came out along the lines of "poop hole" and "goop foal." Somehow, none of it suggested epic heroism. What it suggested was that he was getting overtired.

Not long past dawn, a runner came up to report that Lord Mark had been sighted the day before, heading towards Ibra and Darthaca. He had a quick horse and a fair head start, but word of his approach had surely overtaken him by now. Now, if only the Lady Ista were in place to catch him in her saintly net.

He dispatched another messenger immediately to relay the most recent news of the sorcerer's location and path to Ista, wherever she was presently to be found. Then he removed himself from his office to make his report to Iselle and Bergon in person.

The royal couple were up, unsurprisingly. They looked good as they ate a quiet, private breakfast with their two daughters. His report was brief, filled as it was with negative information; the assassin's source was still unknown, but his association with dy Lovar suggested that the sorcerer was where they should concentrate their investigation. He asked for, and got, permission to send to the Fox of Ibra requesting information on dy Lovar's doing and explaining in blunt terms the reasons for their interest. Cazaril went back to his office long enough to get down a letter for their signature and have it sent up to be sent on its way.

Then he inquired after Vorkosigan to learn he was still asleep, apparently peacefully. Finally, he took the time to go and visit his wife and their children in time for their breakfast.

#

Miles roused with deep regret from a deep sleep. He groaned, attempted to sit up and failed, his arms seemingly turned to jelly as they tried to push him upright. With an unpleasantly gummy effort, he unstuck his eyelids and was greeted by a pair of rheumy eyes spread over a bulbous, pocked nose and staring intently at him from a scant few inches away.

"Eeyurglp!" His strangled cry didn't seem to help matters, but the startling sight did seem to turn his spinal reflexes back on and pump some adrenalin to his limp arm muscles. He flailed out at the face, which withdrew hastily. Miles' arms flopped defensively over his own face rather than actually slugging the white bearded man in the face, and Miles whimpered.

"Get a grip on yourself, man!" came a bark from still too near a distance. Miles could almost swear it was grandfather Piotr, but of course it couldn't be. He did risk bringing his arms down to peer at the man standing by his bedside and glowering.

He was probably a doctor of some sort, Miles supposed, and as he remembered ancient stories of leeches and bloodletting, he was abruptly unsure he wanted anything to do with what the man might think necessary. He tried to slow his breathing back to something approaching normal, but he still felt the grey weariness that usually accompanied his post-seizure hangovers.

"Sorry," he mumbled, hugging himself, then frowned back up at the man. "But don't wake a man like that!" Miles felt better immediately as he switched to the offensive. Well, about his position. He was going to feel terrible for a while yet.

"Pah. Least you're awake. Now make water in this so's I can get a good look." He thrust a colored glass beaker of some sort at Miles in a hand that, while gnarly, looked intimidatingly strong.

"Make --?" Miles cut himself off, biting his tongue for a moment. What he needed was to collect his thoughts before he was totally derailed. "I have no need of a physician this morning. I need some strong tea and a bland breakfast. I know exactly what is wrong with me, and I know you haven't a cure." There. That was a bald and flat and true as he could get it. He managed to push himself to a sitting position, which made him feel at less of a disadvantage.

The hand with its alarming vial shook under his nose. "I'm not some common servant who'll fix you up a diagnosis to your liking sonny." Miles judged the man probably not more than a decade his senior, but time was probably even harder on the Chalionese than Barrayarans. "I'm to see you recovered and by the five gods, I'll do my job!"

Miles took a minute to size the man up seriously. He was an older man, probably about sixty, with an impressive white beard and bald pate. He seemed built around the generic model of the bulky old man, as opposed to the skinny old man, in which category Miles now appeared to qualify. Unfortunately, a burgeoning belly did not mean that the green robed man was not rather more physically powerful than Miles. He had to be a divine of the Mother's order, probably sent here under the chancellor's orders.

Miles would be damned to the Bastard's clutches before he would take that vial, though. Not least because it kept waving beneath his nose.

"Learned, I appreciate your concern. My seizure disorder is sporadic and irregular, and quite alarming, I know, but I promise you that I have been dealing with it for twenty years now." Frightening to break up his life by that measure. "If you do not desist in shaking that thing in my face, I am going to throw you out of my room and complain to the chancellor."

"Oh you will, will you? Well, I have ways of getting my patients to comply when I need to." The physician's eyes glinted. The vial did not move. Well, except that it kept shaking.

Miles stared at the man in utter exasperation. Earlier in his life, he would have been daunted, cowed by the mantle of authority and the fact that it might be easier to go along, to ease his way through. What was it that Mark had said, about how people simply made way for him now? Perhaps it was part of joining the generation of the elders. It didn't seem to be working on this fellow and Miles realized that he really was part of the older generation now. And part of that was the fact that you stop having to put up with blatant horse shit, even from your peers. General Piotr would never have laid still for something so foolish. His father would never have had it suggested to him. Miles had always had to skirt around physical force, due to his size and brittle bones.

But his bones weren't actually brittle any more; they were all either replaced or reinforced now. For a moment, Miles flashed back to his infamous dinner party with the butter bugs and the disastrous marriage proposal. This man's tunic had a suitable collar.

Miles snaked out his hand and grabbed hold of physician's collar, dragging him forward and off balance so that he had to slap his hands down on the bed or fall across Miles' lap. Then Miles twisted. No, he hadn't lost the knack. He was grimly satisfied to watch the red-purple start to darken the man's face as Miles' knuckles cut off both air and blood flow, but he didn't wish to take the time to gloat. The man might pass out or hit him with his piss-vial, and neither particularly suited.

"Learned. I am not well but you cannot make me better. I need rest. And I need not to be disturbed by a self-inflated quack who wouldn't know a neurotransmitter from a night of bad fish. And if you shake that bottle in my face one more time, I'm going to take it from you, shatter it over your head and then use the shards to tattoo my ancestral symbol on your scalp. Am I quite clearly understood?"

"I see you've gotten acquainted with Learned Dumenites, Count dy Vorkosigan. While I sympathize, he has been quite useful to his temple in the past, so I'd appreciate it if you could see your way clear to releasing him."

Cazaril had apparently arrived during Miles' little soliloquy. Miles managed not to let his hand spring guiltily open at the first sound of the new voice, but he did release it upon request with more dignity all around. Except perhaps for Learned Dumenites, who fell to his knees, but managed not to smash his precious piss-bottle.

"Of course, Chancellor. Provided you get him the hell out of my room and suggest to the temple the wisdom of keeping him out of my line of sight."

"Naturally." Cazaril went to the diviine's side and hooked a hand under his arm to help him up. And then, Miles observed, propel him out of the room quickly. There was a trailing mutter as he moved away and Cazaril returned to Miles' bedside. "My apologies, my lord. I hadn't realized the temple had sent him up, or I would have come to evict him sooner."

"And I apologize for manhandling someone whose presence was kindly meant. At least, I assume it was."

"Yes, he is quite good in his narrow field, but I do not think he was well matched to you." Miles thought he detected a hint of a repressed smile in the chancellor's voice, but he could not be sure. "Just so I am clear and relieved in my own mind, you know the causes and treatment of your own illness, and this is no unexpected event? You certainly seemed to know what was happening when you warned me to catch you."

"Ah, yes, I did indeed. It is an idiosyncratic piece of neurological damage left after my cryonic revival." Miles paused. Cazaril blinked. "Ah. To clarify, yes, I know the cause. Alas, there's no treatment I can get here except to have the seizure and then rest. Stress makes them worse."

"Oh." Cazaril digested this for a moment. "Well. It's a good thing that nothing you have experienced in the last two days could remotely be classed as stressful, isn't it?"

Miles laughed. He hoped it didn't sound too hysterical, but it felt relieving, and Cazaril smiled pleasantly at him. "Well, my dear chancellor, at least I'm not dead this time."

Cazaril smiled, then cocked his head to the side. "'This time?'"

Miles hesitated, unsure of just how to explain. "Well, technically dead. Blown in half, in fact. But the people I was with had the technology to freeze me and send me where I could be put back together, thawed, and started back to life. A purely technological miracle, but one with a few side effects."

Cazaril stared at Miles for a long minute. "That is...fascinating. Your spirit did not depart your body for the realms of the gods?"

"Apparently not. For that matter, I don't have any deep certainty as to what happens to the spirits of those who die in my universe. I have some confidence that your five gods are not the same ones who operate there, because from what I've seen and heard, yours are a lot more prone to direct interference than we've seen on our side."

"Ah. Hm." Cazaril considered this, then shrugged. "In point of fact, my lord, I have died as well. My own resurrection was a purely theological miracle, as the Daughter required my assistance. I am afraid that I cannot tell you everything about the circumstances, but I know that I was altered by my experience. I thank the Lady of Spring that her changes were more pleasant than it seems yours were."

Miles closed his mouth, which he could not remember opening. "I was going to recommend you not try dying because it's surprisingly painful. It seems I got to you too late."

"Ah, well. I should perhaps caution you on the hazards of the saint's trade in turn, then. Though I doubt your task has your death implicit in its completion, as mine did. I would say 'unfortunately' but I cannot complain of the place to which my tortuous life's path has brought me."

Miles decided he was going to have to rethink any attempt he ever made to surprise or shock Cazaril. His complaint of his own death had contained more than a little bit of brag to it, he had to admit to himself, and Cazaril had thoroughly upped the stakes and left Miles feeling unnerved.

"I...will remember your words," Miles said truthfully.

"In any case, if you are feeling well enough, I came to relay to you the news of the night, Count dy Vorkosigan." Cazaril sounded like he was changing the subject to get Miles off the hook, and Miles was grateful. It was a measure of the distractions of the moment that he could have so lost track of the many subjects on which he passionately wanted news.

"Yes, please! Am I going to have to get out of bed for any of it?"

"No." Cazaril was firm about that. Miles doubted he could threaten the chancellor into letting him out as he had the physician if Cazaril took it into his head that Miles needed to rest himself. Well, he did need rest, so he could sit.

"First," Cazaril began, pulling around a chair to sit near the head of MIles' bed, "I should tell you that the Royse is fine this morning. He'll have a thin scar, but the cut on his cheek is not serious, and he and Royina Iselle will without a doubt wish to find ways to repay you." Miles attempted to wave this way. He was much more interested in what 'second' would be.

"Second," followed to Miles' satisfaction, "the assassin unfortunately died before he could be put to the question. It seems there was bleeding inside his skull, and he never regained consciousness." Cazaril paused, then added, "We did, however, manage to trace his employment with the castle to Ser dy Lovar."

"Disturbing," Miles said thoughtfully. "If the demon had some sort of geas on this assassin, could it have maintained it hopping universes and hosts, and running for the hills in Mark's body?"

"Honestly, I have no idea, but I wouldn't have thought so." Cazaril rubbed at his chin, which was in need of shaving. Miles' too, he fancied, though he didn't intend to go out in public today, as the chancellor was already doing. "I think we must assume it likely that he was some sort of employee or co-conspirator, not a mind-fogged tool. In fact, I suspect that dy Lovar's disappearance might have triggered the planned attack on the royse. It was at the very next formal dinner that the attempt was made, after all, which was really his soonest chance."

"Mmmm." Miles was not sure what else to say; it was a good theory, though they didn't have the evidence to support it. At least it accounted for the timing without contradicting anything they knew. "Was there any more news, or was that it? Not a bad haul for a night's investigation, really."

"There is one more piece of news I received just after breakfast. A courier came in, apparently having done a good deal of night riding, which we do not usually encourage. Your brother was spotted stay sitting!" Cazaril hadn't even finished his sentence before he admonished Miles not to bound out of bed. Just as well; sitting up a little further was really about the best he could manage.

"Where? Where's he going? Did anyone catch him, was anyone hurt?"

"He stopped for the night in a small town where he bought a room, an enormous quantity of food, a couple of horse whips, a new horse, and a night of female companionship. The, ah, lady in question worked at the inn and was apparently a bit miffed at the state in which he left the room, because it also fell to her to clean up afterwards. Apparently he paid well, but she hinted that he had odd tastes and wouldn't say more than that."

Miles mulled on that description. There were quite a few blanks he could fill in from his knowledge of Mark's peculiar psychology, but the food and sex combination sounded very much like Mark. "That is interesting. It is, in fact, very much to Mark's taste, if Mark had all his restraints removed. As far as I know, he hasn't entertained a lady since the death of his wife two years ago. But if he were going to, there would be food involved. And probably the horse whip." Cazaril paled. "On himself," Miles clarified. He wasn't sure if Cazaril looked relieved. "But no one was hurt?"

"Well, he apparently rode out early, so I don't know if he hurt himself, but no one else was reported hurt, including the young woman. It is interesting that you say this reflects Lord Mark's own taste; I'll have to consult Umegat as to whether there are any guesses we can make based on that. Would you like me to send him to attend on you later?"

"That would be exceedingly convenient," Miles admitted. "I'd like to jump up and go riding after him, but I definitely need a day to recover."

"And we shouldn't go chasing him yet anyway. He's headed towards Ibra, where he may hope to find sanctuary, or else cross into Darthaca, which would be much further from our reach. In any case, our main course must be to get word to the Fox in Zagosur, and to Royina Ista. I'm going to ask her to make for Zagosur if other holy matters to not compel her elsewhere, because I think it is our best spot to tree your brother and his demon."

"I defer to your knowledge of your lands, chancellor," Miles replied with a small nod. "I am anxious, but I certainly can't go off on my own."

"I would sincerely hope not," Cazaril agreed. "In the mean time, my lord, is there anything else you require?"

"Pots of hot tea, and some very bland food," Miles replied instantly. "I'll probably want a shave and a bath at some point, but I'm not exactly in a hurry today."

"I'll see they are provided," Cazaril promised, and moved to the door.

#

That night and day were miserable. The Other had to endure as much as anyone, but silent stalking was part of his identity. Gorge wanted no part of their cross-country trek, and Grunt was growing surly. Not that he hadn't spent two years almost totally quiescent, but to be wakened and allowed to play in such an extravagant fashion, and then ignored? That rankled. The demon was not particularly patient about dismissing the black gang's complaints, either.

The Other hid a secret smile. He was ready. This demon was going to have no idea what happened to it.

Chapter Text

It was dark and dreary. It was cold and clammy. It was not quite unpleasant enough to appeal to Howl. it was certainly too isolated for Grunt and they had left their last town so fast that Gorge had gone entirely hungry for almost a full day. Given Lord Mark's fat padding and the ridiculous feeding they had choked down before, they were not about to starve, but hunger was a deep offense to Gorge.

The Other considered. This was more like planning a siege than an assassination. Perhaps the earliest stages of planning an assassination, marshaling resources and allies, gathering information. The allies he needed were all within the same head. Unfortunately, so was the enemy.

Back on the other side of the rift, it had been Grunt to first reply to the demon's overtures. Grunt had been so long inert that the whiff of an exotic, erotic promise had been enough to get Grunt to open the door to the demon's control. Yes, he had said, yes I want what you can bring me. Mark hasn't fed me for so long.

And Gorge and Howl were off balanced by the fierceness of his sudden desire. Mark still fed them, and in fact, they had grown stronger and larger, filling up the space that was Grunt's. When Grunt suddenly returned in force, they did not know what to do with him. So the demon offered to let them run without limit, to do what Mark would no longer allow. He was too sane, too staid, too Barrayaran to let them really come out any more. But the demon knew a place where they could achieve their full potential.

And the demon had come to the other, trying a different tack. You, said the demon, know so many ways to kill a man. I have limitations; if I kill a man direct, I could be pulled away. But you know tricks to make a man die, and yet leave him breathing for hours first to let us escape. What a subtle team we could be.

The Other would not have agreed, but he realized that the others were already panting. He was not strong enough to fight alone, but he could protect Lord Mark. That was his job, after all. It had always been his job.

The Other was not quite sure why the demon had been so insistent on returning through the rift. He thought it had something to do with not wanting to be on board the space ship. There were too many things about it that the demon didn't understand, too controlled an environment, reliant on all the people aboard to make her go and make her safe. That was not the place the demon wanted to be.

It was really the Other who had kept them unconscious so long. The demon had not gained control until the Other had given in, but with the rest of the gang resisting, he could not take control back, either. He had let the demon have their body as preferable to being kept in a coma or worse, being overcome by the efforts of the demon and the rest of the black gang. That might have damaged him.

The demon's plan had not been quite clear then, but the Other had been watching closely. When the demon sat up, it had first spoken in Ibran, still a little disoriented. So whatever it was, it was not independent of their body; the physical effects of being unconscious had left it as groggy as him. That was better true than not, though perhaps not a great advantage.

The Other was not as adept at reading the demon as the demon seemed to be at reading Mark's memories. Whatever was in the forefront of its thoughts was accessible enough, but probing deeper was difficult, and he did not want to engage it in conversation that might reveal himself to be not suborned but waiting. In that moment, however, he understood that the demon's own personality came from several sources, himself only the most recent.

The flight through the ship had been interesting. It knew enough to know where it was going, but not to guess that Miles would, of course, be following, rather than running to nav and com to shut down the escape routes. Why should he have thought Mark wanted to escape? Where could he have escaped to? Except exactly how and where he did.

When Miles had gone for the com panel, the demon had wanted to kill him. Perhaps stun him and leave him with a clot in his heart, waiting to catch and seal an artery. For one moment, the Other had thought he could act as a unit then, retake his ground whole, but the demon had sensed it, guessed the fraternal bond, and shorted the com panel instead. Then it had burst the small, pressurized container of what amounted to anti-vacuum anti-freeze in each pressure suit's control panel. That, apparently, was easy for it. And to judge from the look on Miles' face, quite astonishing to watch.

Then they'd gone through the rift and somehow gotten out of the pressure suit, onto a horse, and out the gate. The Other had felt shafts of the demon's power shooting off to disable soldiers and crash the gate behind them, but there had been too many too quickly to follow everything. He thought he might do better now, having had some experience in watching it in action. It managed to hold onto a horse, anyway, and ride them away.

That was when the Other first came to understand that the demon was made up of the creatures and men on which it had first battened, for it shifted from a soldier to a courier then. There seemed to be some sort of scholar thrown in as well, who was largely in charge of speaking. Interesting that the demon should seem as fractured as Mark himself, but the demon could not combine its pieces, only switch between them.

It also seemed, at first, to understand the necessity of feeding the pieces of Mark it had subverted. When they were well away from the fortress, having ridden through the city and out on a long road, and through another town, they approached an inn that the demon seemed to know. First, it snuck them around back to where it apparently knew the coin was kept and lifted it through a window. Then they strode in to pay for all the delights that could be offered. The best girl, the best food, the best horse whip. Yes, horse whip.

The evening that followed was odd. It reminded the Other of Ryoval, though he was not sure he wanted to mention that to his fellows, at least not just then. They did it to themselves, but the demon was egging them on, encouraging them, glutting every bit as much on the experience as the black gang. It even tried to convince him to give their girl a tumor or a blood clot, to test out the control of his power. He had refused, pointing out that weird requests in a bedroom would only excite a little gossip, but a corpse would always engender suspicion, even if he left before she died. But if the demon wouldn't mind, the Other would enjoy going over the ways they could kill her if they chose.

That was a lie, though it was interesting. It was to learn what kinds of powers the demon could command, of course. And they were fascinating, and the Other could indeed think of a hundred ways to kill a person, some of them more or less immediate than others. He did not kill the girl, first because Mark would not have approved, and second because the demon might be vulnerable to gods if it killed directly, but it was a not a guarantee. Still, if it came to that, being offered a turn again might be the Other's best way to unilaterally take back control.

In the mean time, he listened intently to the Ibran and found that having a translator in his own head made learning it much, much easier. That was interesting too, though not a good enough reason to be possessed by a demon.

Then had come a group of soldiers to the inn, apparently looking for Mark, and they had jumped out a window to escape. The Other had a flicker of the fact that the demon had used self-defenestration as a means of escape once before, and they had been forced to get away on foot. The next few days had been a constant stream of low grade misery.

Grunt was feeling sullen and swollen. It had been so long since he was active, he felt especially sensitive but since that first night, he had found nothing remotely resembling relief. Howl was still stinging a little, but what suited him best these days was Mark's emotional pain. He had fed on such a steady diet that changing to these low grade, second hand physical ailments did little to satisfy him. Gorge was just plain starving.

Now, the Other had to get them back. It would take the right moment, but he had better start laying his groundwork.

We just skirted around a town, the Other informed Gorge.

We can't eat if someone stabs us, Gorge replied. His stomach rumbled anyway. It won't kill me to be hungry for a while. He can get us lots of food all the time when we get to Darthaca.

And what if we can't get there? the Other replied. There was no answer to that. So the Other turned his attention to Howl. And what do you think it will do for you? Do you really want to go to the limits of what Mark's body can endure? Because it's only the body he can work on, in the end.

He can work on you. Or Gorge. Or Grunt, Howl pointed out. But that was clearly not an argument even Howl liked. The Other let him sit and squirm, which was oddly pleasant for them both. Howl finally admitted, No, that wouldn't be good.

And you want to bring Mark back into control? Grunt sounded atypically belligerent. And where do you think he'll leave me? Packed up on the shelf for another two years?

And where do you want to be, Grunt? What have you wanted in the last two years? the Other came back quickly but dispassionately. You shriveled up. You left. And you deserted. Where were you when the demon invaded?

Silence. The Other waited a moment, then spoke again. You opened the rear gate and let the demon in. That was how he came in and why we're sitting here now.

Still silence. The Other whispered now. What do you want, Grunt? If you want it, Mark has to know. You could have had a whore, or a courtesan, or a visit to the Orb of Unearthly Delights. Now you've had that night, you're back, and Mark knows it.

The Other watched Grunt, curled up and rocking in his corner. You were key to the demon's domination and you are equally key to removing him. We are together, or we are not Mark. We are his soldiers, but if we turn, we weaken him. Mark has given you everything you have asked for in the last two years. So ask.

I will, came the quiet sensation.

I still think the demon will let Gorge and me do much more than Mark will, put in Howl.

Yes, I suppose he will. Have you seen that the demon is built out of parts of souls it has digested?

Do you mean it will digest us, chew us up, take us in, kill us and move on?

No, the Other replied. It will digest me. I am the part it wants. It doesn't want new needs. It wants new skills, new strengths. When it has eaten me, digested me, and subsumed me, then it will turn on each of you. And starve you. And crush you. And like dear old Baron Ryoval, we will have done it to ourselves, because there will be nothing to stop it using bits of me against all of you.

Silence again. Mark will supply you better and more regularly than the demon will. Mark wants us, needs us, owes us. The demon uses us.

Are we agreed?

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Suddenly, Mark was awake and trapped. But now, four towering guards surrounded him: Gorge and Howl beside him, the Other in front of him and Grunt at his rear (of course). His turncoats were back in his army, marching in line.

They marched up to the demon. It was shocked. But Darthaca has all you could ever want!

"No. I've had what I wanted in my life. It was taken. And I want it again." It was a little shocking to realize that. After so long with Kareen, then so long without her, to think that he might want, need to move on. "And I absolutely do not want your sorry ass puppeting me around."

Mark realized he was talking out loud and clamped his jaw shut. Of course, there was no one even close to hearing range, but he was feeling tender of his mental health just at present. Then he realized that he was the one in control of his own body again. No dramatic struggle, no contest of wills. He was unified, he knew what he wanted, and inside his own body, it was not really a contest. He had simply won.

Now. Where in the hell was he supposed to go?

Chapter Text

Cazaril observed that Count dy Vorkosigan was not very good at waiting. The day after the assassination attempt and his seizure, he had confined himself to bed, much to the relief of everyone involved. The next day, however, he had emerged and begun dogging Cazaril's steps.

Not that the man was bad company, impolite or unpleasant. But he was insidious, and not all of Cazaril's business of state was any of Vorkosigan's business. And while he was terribly charming, he was not as pleasant a companion as Betriz, which meant that finding dinner entertainments for the little nobleman became a pressing concern. Umegat, dy Rinal and the March dy Palliar were good choices for keeping him occupied, as each had considerable wit and a whole store of stories and anecdotes that were entirely new to Vorkosigan.

Tonight was the fifth night since the assassination attempt, and Iselle and Bergon had invited Vorkosigan to a more private dinner. He and Betriz were invited as well. Palli probably would have been, but he had just returned to the armies to oversee further preparations for the Roknari campaigns. In truth, Cazaril would feel much better about dining with Vorkosigan if he had more new to report, but Lord Mark and his demon seemed to have vanished since their one report of the man. :He had one piece of news, which would have to suffice.

Count dy Vorkosigan was early, which was no surprise. He did not seem to mind waiting for something that he knew was about to arrive. It was merely the formless waiting without relieving anticipation that sent him limping up and down the halls. He had observed quite a lot of the castle, both above and below stairs, and seemed as happy to converse with grooms as diplomats. Cazaril knew he had been quietly interrogating some of the staff about their assassin and dy Lovar, but that was fine by Cazaril.

Vorkosigan bowed and Cazaril bowed back. Betriz, on his arm, dipped a little curtsey without letting go, and they all filed in. A dinner with the Royina and Royse was rarely truly private, and there were servants to bring the excellent food. And guards, to be sure the servants were not assassins this time. And a few extra guards, to watch the other guards.

The conversation over dinner was largely trivial, concerned with a comparison of notes as to what the day encompassed. Iselle and Bergon had spent a large portion of the day reviewing a series of reports on the justiciars of the various districts in an effort to make Chalionese legal proceedings more even handed across the royacy. Vorkosigan seemed interested and related an anecdote about his father, who had apparently served as a regent to the then-juvenile emperor, managing to sell his counts on a provision to allow the common folk of his empire to move to another district if their count's rule was not to their liking. Cazaril found himself fairly stunned by the implications, though it was not actually so difficult a thing to do in Chalion, at present.

Vorkosigan admitted that he had been down to the dueling ring to watch some of the courtiers and the pages at practice. Apparently dueling was not legal in -- on, really, though it was hard to think that way -- Barrayar, yet all the aristocrats were still trained in the use of two swords. Including Vorkosigan, though he was quick to own himself a poor swordsman, for both the obvious reasons of his stature and difficulties of health, and the disinclination to practice so useless a skill. Cazaril admitted to a certain envy, and idly thought that it might not hurt him to put in at least a little such practice now and then; it had been rather a while since his hands held anything but a pen. Iselle explained the legalities in Chalion, that while dueling was accepted, it was not required to accept a challenge. That seemed to be a relief to Vorkosigan.

"So, how are interpersonal disputes settled on Barrayar?" Betriz wanted to know.

"Well, if the parties in question can't work it out, they can appeal for a ruling to the local Speaker. If that does not satisfy, the can take it to the local magistrate, and if that doesn't end it, they can take it to their count on direct appeal. At least, that's the chain of decision in my district; others have slight variations."

"And you aren't swamped by petitioners who don't like your magistrates?" Cazaril asked, his voice dry.

Vorkosigan had to chuckle at that. "No; not many try to push their suits that far, because all the counts, even myself, don't want to get drawn into solving hundreds or thousands of petty disputes. We're careful with our appointment of magistrates and if we get an appeal of a magistrate's decision that is obviously wasting our time, the final judgment tends to come back a lot worse for the person bringing the nuisance appeal." He gave a little, apologetic shrug. "It's far from a perfect system, and I don't want to discourage people who genuinely need my aid. I've also granted a fair share of appeals in varying degrees."

"I imagine," put in Bergon thoughtfully, "that you must also carefully weigh the reactions of the magistrates and speakers who made the initial rulings. You do not wish to undercut them."

"True, but as a count, I also have to take responsibility for all that my justice system dispenses. When I can, I attempt to make any changes in judgment I offer to be in the context of clarifying or updating district policy. And sometimes, the rules just need to change. When I was born, it was still widespread practice for babies with obvious mutations or birth defects to be put to death, despite all we can do to correct such problems."

There was a brief silence in the contemplation of this fairly horrific image and then Vorkosigan admitted, "But perhaps I should remove the foot from my mouth and make less gruesome dinner conversation."

Bergon gave a little courtesy laugh, which helped a bit with the tension. Betriz redirected to the lighter possibilities implicit in Vorkosigan's uncomfortable tale, rather skillfully in Cazaril's estimation by inquiring, "So, what sort of possible corrections does your technology allow you?"

"Oh, goodness. The scope is enormous. There are surgeries to correct simple physical malformations like a hair lip or a club foot, genetic treatments for some disorders, and many can be screened even before conception. Our repetoire of possible medical treatments keeps expanding, too; my own physical problems are a result of my mother being poisoned before my birth. If not for a lot of experimental and, I'm sorry to say, painful treatments, I would not have survived."

"What sort of poison was it, my lord? Was your mother all right?" The question popped out of Cazaril before he could chide himself to keep the conversation light, himself.

"Oh, she's fine. It was actually the antidote that was so bad for me. It saved her life, but it stops bone development in children. If not for some pretty radical treatment, I wouldn't have been able to grow any bones at all. As it was, they were very brittle, and I required dozens of surgeries over the course of my life to be as straight and functional -- and tall -- as you see me today."

Iselle was frowning. "You say your height is the result of this poisoning, yet your younger brother is the same height, as I understand it? Though very different in build." Tactfully put though Cazaril wryly.

"Ah, yes. Hm." Vorkosigan poked at his plate with a knife. "I'm not precisely sure I can explain Mark to you without leaving you enormously confused. He is my six-years-younger twin brother, conceived and raised in secret slavery to the enemies of my empire in general and my father in particular, originally raised to kill me and take my place in a much-too-complicated substitution plot. He didn't have the same damage I did, but he underwent surgery to make him shorter until he looked like me. But they didn't change his metabolism, so his body is attempting to achieve the weight my body would have if I had grown about a quarter more than I did. In the end, he rebelled against his creators and my family took him in."

Stunned silence reigned for a long moment after this recitation finished. Cazaril closed his mouth with an effort and swallowed. While the story sounded coherent, the inherent contradictions were layered so thick, he was not certain he could uncover them all without dissecting this story word by word, three times over.

Vorkosigan smiled sadly at their reactions. "I am sorry, but I'm afraid you're going to have to take my word for all these assertions about Mark. I can't exactly produce any witnesses. Unless you've had some word of Mark?"

Cazaril had wondered how long before the daily query would arise. In all, he had to give Vorkosigan credit for waiting as long as he had. "No, there's still no word at all. If he got away and headed for the Ibra, he could be trying to find passage to Darthaca, but I've heard from some of the Fox's representatives nearer the border, and they're on the lookout. I did have word from Royina Ista, though; she's heading toward Zagosur now, in the absence of any better intelligence."

That did not seem to be a great deal of consolation to Vorkosigan, though Iselle gave a pleased, firm nod. "Good. The sooner she may cut him off, the less likely he will slip out of Ibra. Do make sure that our agents are being alert in other directions as well, Lord Caz. If Lord Mark let himself be seen and then doubled back, we must be alert to cut him off before he falls into Roknari hands."

"I'm sorry to say that Mark is usually very good at disappearing. Or at least he used to be; he's a good twenty years out of practice now," Vorkosigan put in.

"I will send out fresh dispatches tonight," Cazaril promised. Fortunately, he had clerks for copying out letters. He would just have to dictate one and sign the rest.

On this note, they adjourned from the table and settled for some socialization. Cazaril bespoke his secretary and set up in the corner of the room to dictate his letter while Bergon discovered that Vorkosigan was familiar with the game of castles and riders and offered a match. They compared the rules carefully to be sure there would be no surprises, but somehow, the games seemed identical. That was odd to Cazaril's mind; that there might be people in another universe was right and proper with the work of the gods. But when there were differences in history, language, religion and technology, to wind up with the same game seemed surprising.

As he played, Vorkosigan explained that it was a game of a truly ancient derivation that had endured in its form for thousands of years. And in fact, his world could trace recorded history back a great many thousands of years, to the earliest examples of writing. As he discoursed, in general terms, upon the development of civilization on the human homeworld in his universe, he calmly went about demolishing Bergon in the game. Cazaril had attempted a few games against Bergon and found him, true son to his father, to be far and away better than Caz. Vorkosigan seemed to be always six moves ahead, so that as soon as Bergon made a move, Vorkosigan's piece moved. He won by threatening Bergon's high ranked pieces until he made a sudden and spectacular drive to entrap the king and end the match.

"I suspect I've been playing strategy games a little longer than you, royse," Vorkosigan observed dryly as Bergon stared at the board in admiring disbelief.

"Who taught you?" Bergon wanted to know.

"My grandfather. The late great General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, who was twenty when he led the twenty year long rebellion against the invading Cetagandans, forty when he led the rebel forces to depose Mad Emperor Yuri, and eighty when I was born. I don't think I ever saw him lose a board game by anything other than overwhelming luck in my entire life."

"Ha. That sounds like large shoes to step into." This was, unsurprisingly, Bergon. His father cast a long enough shadow.

"Not so large as my father's," Vorkosigan replied. "I have given up trying to outshine him in the history books. Short of another dynastic war which would devastate my family, friends, and home, I am happy to simply be an agent of preserving the peace."

"Sometimes a war is a necessity. When it prevents worse disasters or holds off the wolves from your borders, there is no choice but to fight. And win." Iselle did not lack resolve and Vorkosigan clearly responded with a smile.

"No choice at all. I led my share of skirmishes, though most were small scale to prevent larger disasters. My father, on the other hand, conquered a planet. They let the Cetagandan invaders pass through their space. Five million dead Barrayarans later, we threw them out. A few years later, my father led the fleet in a strategist's ideal fantasy of an operation." He paused for a moment, looking down at the game board. "Almost."

Cazaril was finding that he wished he had more time to decant the history of this planet, or even just Vorkosigan's family. It seemed that he would not be able to get either one without the other, which probably contributed to his fascination. Unfortunately, he had more varied and pressing tasks. Perhaps he should put Umegat on composing a history. It would be good practice for his returning writing skills, as well.

Around then, the children came in and Betriz and Iselle were abruptly very busy. Vorkosigan admired from a distance, so as not to spook them. He was clearly an oddity, and his strangeness made all four, two young royesses and his own boy and girl, were a little more clingy than usual. Vorkosigan had the wit not to press and when the elders approached, he coaxed out shy smiles in short order.

While Cazaril was watching, just a little bit smugly, a courier came in at what had probably been a headlong gallop until he reached the door. This was no young page, but one of the men from the gates at the town's edge. He was breathing hard, but not looking so wild as to make Cazaril think they were being invaded.

"My lord chancellor," he said in a quiet voice. "You, ah, left orders regarding what to do if Lord Mark returns. We're, ah, following them."

#

Miles set a pace that required even the long legged Cazaril to hurry. Miles understood perfectly the decision to keep Iselle and Bergon well away from Mark until his intentions were well established, given what they said dy Lovar had been up to. Sending Cazaril as a proxy kept everything at one safe remove. But if they expected him to be anywhere else, they were going to have to lock him up.

Cazaril put a hand on Miles' shoulder when they got to a receiving room and Miles managed to come to a halt. He immediately started tapping his cane impatiently. Cazaril managed to look as if it didn't bother him. Miles tried to still it and started pacing instead. Cazaril did not try to stop him.

Then the double doors opened and Mark strode in, flanked by a quartet of nervous looking guardsmen. He was disheveled and seedy looking, with several days of dark beard growing in and his clothes muddy and full of small rips. But his familiar, fat face was still Mark.

In fact, in a weird way, Mark looked good. Not his condition, which was dreadful, but the sense of his personality, his spirit, was much improved over the lagging lethargy he had shown on the ship outside Sergyar. His eyes were gleaming and he walked with his back straight. His stride made the guards look like an honor guard rather than a prison guard. And they were much less comfortable with the arrangement than he was.

"Mark!" Miles went striding over to his brother, ignoring the guards. They wisely made way, though they looked past Miles to Cazaril for guidance. Miles and Mark were not brothers made for hugging, but today, Miles really wanted to assure himself of Mark's reality, so he grabbed his brother. Mark was looking startled, hands open at his sides.

"Miles! What in the frozen hells are you doing here?" He spoke in English. Miles was getting better at being both aware of the sound of the words he heard and the sense of the words that the Bastard poured into his brain. For once, they were identical. Miles wondered if this sensation were anything like what old Illyan had felt with his memory chip.

"I came after you. What, did you really think I'd let a few blown pressure suits stop me?"

"Yes!" Mark sounded exasperated, but he grinned in spite of himself. "I might have known. If I'd blown up the ship, you'd just have put yourself on the right side to be catapulted through."

"Damn straight. Now, Mark, ah..." Miles glance back over his shoulder at the patient Cazaril. He didn't want to have a long conversation without offering the man some translations. He was courteous, but he certainly had a right to be curious. "Can you speak Ibran?"

"Oh yes," Mark replied, this time in Ibran. "My demon is quite fluent."

"So," Miles said, cautiously, also switching to Ibran, "you've managed to regain control from the demon, I take it?" He resisted looking over his shoulder this time.

"Yeah. It was slick, but it wasn't a patch on old Ry Ryoval. Now I'm calling the shots, and I'm not letting it up for air. Don't worry that I'm going to give it up, either; it's a bit of a balancing act in my head, but you of all people know I have practice with that. And I'm better on balance than I have been in a while."

Miles considered this declaration. It definitely sounded like the genuine Mark, but the real trick of the thing was that a non-corporeal demon inhabiting Mark's head might know a good deal about Mark's internal workings and memory. But really, the best litmus test he had was Mark's reaction to seeing him. Shocked, pleased and exasperated, yes, that was definitely Mark. Or at least, as good as he was likely to get.

"Well, it's good to see you. I was beginning to think you'd give us the slip entirely. I should introduce you, though." Before Cazaril's patience wore thin. He stepped aside to gesture Mark at Cazaril. Miles quickly introduced them, giving a rough translation for Cazaril's rank and the information that he had been coordinating the search for Mark, and explaining that Mark's rough hierarchical position to Caz in return.

About then, Acolyte Clara, whom Miles had not seen since his first days in Chalion, passed through. She unobtrusively looked at Mark and gave a little nod to Cazaril. Then she slipped out. Miles did not miss the byplay, nor the way Cazaril's shoulders eased when he saw it. He thought for a minute about how much more complicated Barrayaran politics would be if he had to mix in theological concerns. He was definitely unsure of what motivations the gods had in all of this, though he was not minded to give up his ability to speak.

"I imagine Royina Iselle and Royse Bergon will wish to speak to you, Lord Mark. We last had word of you in Delnarin. We were beginning to wonder if you were going to completely slip our net."

"Well, in a way, your searchers helped me regain control by their diligence, keeping the demon off balance. Still, I wasn't sure I wanted to put myself into your hands until got back to civilization," Mark replied. "I wasn't at all sure what kind of arrangements your guards would make for a few days of travel. I wasn't even quite sure this was the right place for me to go, given how I left. I take it I probably have you," he looked at Miles, "to thank for that."

"Me and my patron, I believe." Miles glanced at Cazaril and saw a faint twitch at the man's lips. "We're going to have a lot to explain to each other."

"No doubt, but before we go anywhere: my demon is absolutely terrified of the Dowager Royina Ista, and I'm not sure whether that means I should be going to her directly, or staying as far away as I can. Can anyone explain to me what I'm choosing, here?"

"Ask Learned Umegat of the Bastard's Order to attend on us," Cazaril instructed one of the guards. "I think we're safe enough now."

Miles let out a little sigh. The explanations were not going to be quick, but they had Mark and Mark had rescued himself. Typical of Mark, really. Well, if smoothing the way was all he accomplished, it was still worth doing.

Together, they went back up the stairs to meet with Iselle and Bergon again.

Chapter Text

It had not taken Iselle and Bergon long to convince Mark that Iselle's mother, Ista, would have his best interests at heart. Miles had clearly established a trusting rapport with Cazaril and Umegat, and he seemed to have no difficulty with their proposal. Mark's demon wanted nothing to do with the idea of Saint Ista, which was a pretty good recommendation in Mark's book.

"Some can hold a demon without any ill effect to the spirit, but those tend to be holy souls of great learning and stability. I am afraid, my lord, that my conversations with your brother do not suggest to me that you possess either, at least as regards theological matters."

Mark took in Umegat's apologetic verdict and spared a brief glare for Miles. Miles shrugged, not looking terribly repentant. Well, he trusted Miles hadn't explained everything about Mark's inner workings. For one thing, the people in front of him probably weren't well equipped to understand. For another, if Miles had, Mark suspected they would have been a lot more definite in their doubts as to his stability.

"So, if we can get to Ista, she can pull this demon out of me, will or nil?" Mark repeated. The demon seemed to think so. It squirmed within him. It was a strange feeling, something between a wiggle in the muscles of his abdominal wall and the stirrings of his black gang. He could not quite be certain whether there was a physical sensation or not.

"Yes." Umegat was firm on this.

"Then let's see about getting me there, please. I have the distinct sensation of being constantly under siege, and I'm not fond of it."

"The quickest course," Cazaril put in, "is to head to Zagosur in Ibra. That's where Royina Ista was headed last, and it will be difficult to reach her on the road. If we make up a party to leave tomorrow, it should arrive about the time that she anticipated reaching the city. I don't see how to bring the pair together any faster."

"We should by all means begin preparations," Iselle agreed, "but first, Lord Mark, if you are in command of your demon, are you in a position to question it? It will allow you to speak Ibran, you said. And you say you can command its power. Can you also learn what its plans were when it inhabited Ser dy Lovar?"

Mark frowned and looked down at his own belly. He closed his eyes and peered inward. He imagined poking a tightly curled purple ball of light. It gave slightly under his finger. He gripped it and squeezed. Its surface was not hard, allowing his hands to imprint, but he could squeeze out no answer.

"I'm afraid not," Mark replied as he opened his eyes again. "Its skills and abilities are one thing. We sort of share those, and with me being in charge, I can control them all. But I can't just rifle through its memory. It had a lot more luck doing that with me when we first met."

"Do not be concerned. It has had more practice. But if your will holds true, it cannot overpower you." Mark found the divine's calm confidence very reassuring. Umegat's serene voice sounded as if nothing in the world could surprise him, and given how much about himself was surprising inside his own head in the last week, it felt as though Umegat was a safety net of sanity. Which was a little absurd, since he might know about demons but he didn't know about Mark, but Mark would take whatever tranquility he could borrow, just now.

"I do know that it was headed for Darthaca," Mark put in, hoping this would be a better clue for his hosts than it felt for him. He had a rough sense of where Darthaca was on a map, but he didn't really know anything more than that. "I don't know if that was his original destination or intention, but I know the demon thought that somewhere in Darthaca was the best place for him to go safely and comfortably to ground for a while."

"Really?" Iselle sounded surprised, then thoughtful. "Bergon, your father has not had much trouble with the High March of Yiss since your elder brother's death, has he?"

"Not so's I've heard," Bergon confirmed. Mark wondered about the story there. Bergon sounded only slightly grim, so Mark supposed the loss of his brother must not have been too crippling a shock, anyway. "There are always tensions, but there's not been any movement of troops or overt hostility."

"We should probably inform him of this development directly," Cazaril noted, his voice thoughtful. "He surely does not share every piece of intelligence he gets, and this might shed new light on old reports. I would certainly welcome any light that can be shone on this peculiar business."

"Indeed. I think I shall have to ask that you accompany the Vorkosigans, Caz. And you as well, Learned Umegat; they will certainly require a spiritual advisor, and I can think of none better. Cazaril, we'll send word ahead, of course, but I think putting your wits at the Fox's disposal might do us all some good when our troubles actually arrive in his lap."

There was a faint hesitation at Iselle's orders. Betriz reached out and touched her husband's arm. He looked at her and they shared a brief smile before Cazaril looked back around and nodded. "Of course. I will have to set about preparing the party."

Umegat murmured something about being at the disposal of the royina and the party started to break up. There seemed a bewildering array of servants, but Miles insisted on getting Mark to the palace tailor before they could do anything resembling settling down.

"We're going to set out to ride a few hundred miles tomorrow, Mark. You need more than one set of clothes, and you need clothes that will suit serious riding."

Mark could not argue, though he seriously doubted the tailors would be able to fit him properly by the morning.

#

In the end, sorting out his chancellery business took Cazaril almost the whole of the next day, and it was agreed by the middle of the afternoon that they should get a fresh start in the morning instead. It meant that Royina Ista might arrive a day ahead of them, but if the weather were fair, they might well still arrive at the same time.

It certainly made the arrangements less frantic, and it gave him time to spend much of the late afternoon with his wife and children, which Iselle graciously granted Betriz before she could even ask. Cazaril had managed to keep the Vorkosigan brothers pinned down by sticking Mark with the tailors and Count dy Vorkosigan with his secretary, writing out an incredibly long list of instructions to anyone who might come through the rift looking for him. Just in case, as Vorkosigan put it, a giant metal house appeared out of nowhere in the courtyard and metal men started pouring out throwing fire. Cazaril found it uncomfortably likely that Vorkosigan's description was in no measure hyperbole.

There was again no state dinner, but the various delegations wound up receiving various invitations to a variety of private dining occasions. Cazaril had observed the Pacovans getting more and more anxious as Vorkosigan had been closely closeted with himself and his close confederates, no doubt assuming this meant some alliance concluded. In truth, Vorkosigan had been extremely cagey about engaging in any such discussions, and until Lord Mark was cured, Cazaril had no intention of pressing questions of the future. For that matter, until someone made it through the rift after him, Vorkosigan's claimed empire remained entirely theoretical.

The Vorkosigan brothers appeared in one of the little parlors in good time to be conducted up to a last semi-formal meal with the Royina and Royse before they left. There was a crowd milling about at loose ends as Cazaril crossed to them. He skirted around Prince Taligat and his scowling son to greet Mark and Miles. It was easier to think of their first name when he had to face both of the short brothers, but Cazaril suspected that Miles would always be simply Vorkosigan to him. He had both the title and the weight of authority to go with it; that was one reason Cazaril did not doubt his claims about his home empire.

After brief but warm hand kisses, Cazaril explained, "Royina Iselle bid me come down and tell you that it will be a few minutes until the dining room is prepared. Her little daughter needed feeding and apparently managed to make her mother feel a change of clothes was necessary. I'm not quite privy to the details, much to my relief."

Vorkosigan laughed at that, the conspiratorial laugh of a parent. In this case, a parent whose children had all escaped that stage some time ago. Mark merely smiled dutifully. He seemed friendly enough, but rather less engaged with Chalion than his brother, for which Cazaril supposed there were a large number of reasons. He would have to set Umegat on Mark while they journeyed to Ibra. He had been able to observe how the divine's neutral questions and calm assurances had relaxed Mark.

They were attempting to continue the polite amenities when Cazaril became aware of Prince Taligat dy Pacova and his son Prince Verdaso had drifted closer.

"Look at them," Verdaso said in Roknari, making a flippant gesture of his wrist to indicate the two Vorkosigans. "Already in bed with the Royina. Would make it crowded if they were any taller." He gave a little braying, affected laugh. His father gave a tight smile, but did not respond. But the younger Prince was not done.

"Of course, the Chalionese devil worshippers are probably introducing them to a whole new realm of perversion. I wonder if the fat one can bend over far enough."

That stopped the father's smile. Or perhaps it was the fact that both of the Vorkosigans were now staring at them, clearly in perfect understanding of the Roknari's every word. Mark tilted his head and addressed his brother in perfect court Roknari.

"So, do you suppose it was the father or the mother who taught the boy about bending over?"

Vorkosigan rolled his eyes at his brother. "Mark, that's not --"

"Speak of my mother again and I'll feed your balls to the dogs!" Verdaso's hand went to his sword, color filling his face. Taligat grabbed his son's arm to restrain him, now looking genuinely alarmed.

"Your mother, dogs, and perversion. You should be careful what ideas you put together in men's minds, you cowardly, bastard son of a bitch." Mark's insults were delivered calmly. They sounded a little calculated to Cazaril's ear, but what could he be up to besides provoking Pacovans for his own amusement? Cazaril was not sure he wanted to let this continue, but he was terribly afraid that he was not going to be able to get between them before --

"You are the lapdog of the devil, sorcerer! I want satisfaction from you, and to hell with three drops, I want your dead body at my feet!"

Three drops was customary to settle a slight but duels to the disablement of one combatant were also accepted. They were frowned on, but Cazaril had already come to the opinion that Verdaso was out to eliminate Chalionese allies. Cazaril looked at Taligat, who was pale; this was a scheme of the son not approved by the father, or so it appeared. But Cazaril did not want Mark to die, for more reasons than he could name.

"Lord Mark, you do not need to accept the duel," he explained urgently. "I do not duel, and the Royina and Royse have made their dislike of the practice well known."

"Good," Vorkosigan put in. "Because dueling was outlawed in our empire quite some -- "

"What are the rules?" Mark wanted to know.

"Mark!" But Mark held up a hand to his brother.

"What are the rules, Cazaril?" he repeated.

"Well, you and he would take the duel outside. You'd need a second, and a sword, or we could find you a proxy," though Cazaril realized he was unsure who would be the best available choice to offer. "You'd face off in the dueling ring with witnesses, a divine of the Father by preference, to ensure fair play. When one party can no longer continue, the duel is over."

"Any rules about weapons?" Mark asked, and Cazaril immediately thought of the weapons his brother had shown.

"Only the sword. If you come up with a weapon you did not declare beforehand, it is considered murder or attempted murder."

Mark mulled this over in apparent tranquility while his brother jittered visibly beside him. He looked up at Cazaril.

"Nothing but the body and the sword, huh?"

"That's right."

"Then I suppose I'll need to borrow a sword."

"Mark, you can't! You're no duelist!" Miles was clearly not happy about his brother going into a duel, and not because he was afraid for Verdaso.

"I had to train to pass as you, and you knew the two swords. And I've kept up my training better than you. All my training."

Miles hesitated. A distant part of Cazaril reflected that he was now thinking of Miles by first name again; it was probably a trick of the man's demeanor. Now, instead of looking like a diplomat, he looked like an overly energetic teenager trying desperately not to wring his brother's neck.

"Will you lend me a sword?" Mark repeated to Cazaril.

"Of course, Lord Mark."

"And I hate to ask it, but will you serve as my second? Or find me someone to?"

"But -- "

"No, Miles," Mark cut off his brother. "You have to stay well away from this. Have you given any thought to what Captain Popov and Armsman Kozlov would do if they busted a military transport in here and found us both dead?"

That brought Miles up short. His fingers flexed around his sword stick and he glared daggers at Verdaso for moment before looking up at Cazaril beseechingly. Of course, Caz was not quite not quite sure what he was hoping Cazaril would do.

"I'll stand as your second, Lord Mark, and ensure that the duel's terms are fair. And I can have a selection of swords brought, so you can select one that suits your arm and style." Who knew, after all, what a Barrayaran duelist would look like. "Only one sword, though, my lord."

"If he can only have one, I only need one," Mark asserted. Then he turned from their semi-private but much eavesdropped conference to address Verdaso in a public speaking voice. "I accept your challenge. Lord Cazaril has agreed to be my second. It will take a little time to have a sword brought, but I wish to settle this quickly. I've got a dinner engagement."

"I will serve as second to my son," Prince Taligat announced. He looked grave; Cazaril judged him extremely unhappy and trying to present a good front for the sake of public unity.

"Meet me in the dueling ring in ten minutes and if you do not run away from the Zangre a second time, I'll gut you like the dog you are." Verdaso looked satisfied but angry; his gambit had worked, but accusations of bastardy cut particularly deep in the Roknari princedoms. He turned and strode away, his father following.

Once they strode out of the room, Mark leaned in close to both Miles and Cazaril. "If you were sorting a list of who might have been supporting Ser dy Lovar, where would the Pacovans rank on it?" he whispered urgently.

"Before you told us about Darthaca, they'd have headed the list," Cazaril admitted. "I'm not quite so sure now, but they'd still have to be close to the top."

"Mark, what do you think you're doing? You think you're going to win a duel against a guy who was going out of his way to pull you into one? This really isn't what you ever trained for!" Miles managed to keep his voice to an urgent hiss rather than the wild scream that Cazaril suspected he would have prefered.

"Miles." Mark looked his brother levelly in the eye, and Cazaril reflected on just how few people either brother could do that with. "The Black Gang is active. I am telling you that I have in hand," he lifted his right and wriggled his fingers, "so to speak, enough experience that I am not at all afraid of being killed in a one-on-one fight with no one shooting at my back. I'll trust you two to ensure that's what I get, but truly: I am not taking a chance with my life here. Now go water a bush if you can't stop fidgeting, and Lord Cazaril, if you could send for those swords and lend me your experience to be sure they are all of good quality, I'd much appreciate it."

#

There was nothing more for Miles to do, short of running mad with his stunner and stunning everyone in the castle, starting with Mark. He soon found himself out by the dueling ring he had watched earlier that same day.

He had managed to mutter a few words in Mark's ear about what he'd seen, how the duelers here seemed to go in for a style that he judged heavier than a Renaissance Frenchman with a rapier and less bludgeoning than a Medieval knight with a dull broad sword. Speed would certainly be at a much greater premium than muscle power in a duel like this.

Unfortunately, a man under five feet and over two hundred pounds could hardly be expected to match the physical prowess of a younger man, a foot taller and probably lighter. Reach would be a severe handicap, particularly when Miles took into account the length of the sword Mark chose. To suit his height and arm, the sword was not particularly long.

Verdaso looked like a heron to Mark's squat toad. He stood, looking down his nose, eyes glittering, as he watched the amenities pass between seconds. Cazaril and Taligat each checked the swords of their own principals and their opponents. Both pronounced themselves satisfied in clear voices to the witnesses.

Witnesses were not in short supply this evening. Everyone in the little room where their confrontation had occurred seemed to have come, after stopping to mention the event to their friends, passing pages, and possibly passing heralds. Miles was prepared to stab anyone so foolish as to try and force him out of the first ring of onlookers, but his place seemed protected when Cazaril returned to his side.

"My lord," Cazaril said under his breath, "do you have any idea what your brother intends? Prince Verdaso is not particularly renowned as a swordsman, but I have heard he enjoys the dueling ring. Even if he wins, I'm not quite sure what he's hoping to accomplish here."

"Neither am I," Miles had to admit. "But I wouldn't underestimate him. He once --" Miles cut himself off, because he was definitely not going to explain about Baron Ryoval's untimely end, and the impulse to do so was pure nervous babble. "If Mark cares to place a wager on a single outcome, he is confident of his outcome," he finally finished.

Cazaril gave a slow nod, as if not quite sure whether to be reassured. Putting it to himself like that, it actually reassured Miles. He turned his attention back to Mark and Verdaso, who were taking their places a few paces apart with a temple divine in gray robes between them. He looked sober, like a judge, which he might well be.

"Will you not be reconciled?" he asked formally, pitching his voice to be heard. The witnesses quieted to a low murmur, not quite silent, but keeping their side conversations low enough that they could hear. There was an entire raised walkway around their little courtyard, and Miles saw that now both levels were jammed with people.

"No! I shall never forgive his calumny!"

Mark actually looked bemused for a moment at the sheer amateur-theatrical quality of the response. Miles was not quite sure whether to admire the fact that Verdaso delivered it with all apparent sincerity, or just gag. The divine turned to Mark.

"No," Mark replied more calmly. "Stuck up bastard's already made me late for my dinner."

There were titters from the audience at this, quickly quieted. Verdaso looked even more choleric. Cazaril leaned in and murmured, "Is your brother always so, ah, insouciant?"

"Yes, though not usually so offensive," Miles murmured back.

"When I drop my hand, you may commence. If I cry halt, you must halt, on pain of being accounted a murderer. If either man flees the dueling ring, he shall be accounted a coward. Are you ready?"

The divine of the Father's order looked back and forth between the pair, received his nods, and dropped his hand. He backed hastily out of the circle, which was just as well, because Verdaso was bearing down on Mark.

Verdaso was strong and vigorous, swinging away at Mark with a will. His style seemed to tend more towards aggressive hacking than subtle finesse, but he was enraged enough to go at Mark relentlessly. Mark gave ground, parrying each stroke inelegantly but effectively. He displayed a good awareness of his ring, turning to give himself more room to retreat when Verdaso tried to drive him all the way back.

Mark did not look like a natural with a blade. The match was clearly tilted in Verdaso's favor, for all that neither was hurt; Mark was constantly on the defensive. But Miles observed that Mark was not attempting to turn the tables yet and did not look to be tiring with the exertion. He was moving, Miles realized, like a martial artist, maintaining his balance and poise at all times. He was not losing, he was merely coiled, waiting to strike.

If he had not been watching for it, Miles would not have spotted the moment when Mark chose, because it happened in a blinding flash. It was a shift in his weight, which had consistently been moving away from Verdaso. Suddenly, Mark was moving forward and instead of a clattering deflection, Mark locked the blade hilts in a clinch.

But the sword was not the point; the sword was only to clear the way for Mark's left fist. It flew past the blades, all of Mark's mass driving the knuckles up and into Verdaso's throat. The Roknari Prince collapsed like a marionette with the strings cut, his head snapping forward as his legs gave way. He hit the ground curled on his side and began to scrabble at his collapsed windpipe and thrash, desperate for air.

Prince Taligat lunged forward, and Miles saw Mark tense in case he was about to be attacked, but the Pacovan was flinging himself to his son's side, down on his knees and staring in horror. The divine was too shocked to step in and the rest of the gallery was stunned into silence. Verdaso's choking was muffled and the kicking of his heels quiet in the sand.

"Prince Taligat," Mark said into that near silence. "Would you like me to save your son?"

There were tears on Taligat's face now as he looked up at Mark, incomprehension plain on his face. "Save --" Then he processed enough to let out a wail of, "Yes!" His hands closed around one of his son's, holding it tight.

"Then what hand did Pacova have in the assassination attempt on Royse Bergon?"

"What? None, none!" Taligat was staring at Mark in desperation, his son's thrashing growing appreciably less energetic by the moment.

"Are you sure, Prince?" No one else in the room would have dared make a sound. Miles found he was holding his breath and didn't dare release it. He was fairly sure Cazaril was too.

"I swear! I swear by my life, my son, my wife, by all the gods, may the Bastard drag me to his hell and feed me to his demons for all eternity if I lie! We had no hand in it!" Taligat was getting to the point of choking on his own tears now and Verdaso was definitely losing consciousness.

Mark leaned down and touched two fingers to Verdaso's neck. There was a faint click, audible only because of the quality of the silence, and Miles saw the cartilage plump back out, reforming an airway. Verdaso drew a shuddering breath and twitched, then coughed. Mark put a hand on the son's shoulder to keep him in place and looked at the father.

"Don't let him try to speak or eat solid food for a week. If you do that, I believe that he will probably regain the use of his voice, though he should have a care to use it gently for at least three months thereafter." Now, in the aftermath, his voice was gentle.

Cazaril stepped forward then and motioned to some of the Zangre's guards and servants who descended. "Prince Taligat, allow us to carry your son back to his chambers. We will send a healer from the Mother's temple to attend him."

The envoy was wiping his face on his sleeve and trying to get a hold of himself. "Yes, yes. Thank you." He looked at Mark, as if not quite sure whether he ought to be plotting Mark's death or thanking him. Mark gave him a small nod, and then stepped back to let taller and more athletic men take over the clean-up.

Miles finally exhaled as Mark rejoined him. "Christ, Mark," he said under his breath. In English, he murmured, "You sure you're doing okay?"

"The Black Gang is back," Mark replied. The side conversations of the crowd were now more than enough noise to cover their conversation, even if there had been anyone there capable of understanding the words. "I need them to help handle the demon. And they have their uses, dear brother. Unless you brought some fast-penta along with you, I just got as good an assurance as we're going to get that Taligat didn't have a thing to do with dy Lovar."

"And Iselle's hands are even clean," Miles acknowledged grudgingly. "But I have to tell you, Mark, we are getting on the road as soon as we can get the horses saddled."

"Tomorrow," Mark said. "I really am starving."

Chapter Text

Their baggage train was prepared early the next morning. It was probably politic to have the Vorkosigans out of the court as soon as possible. Cazaril was not going to waste a lot of tears on the Pacovans, who had clearly been manufacturing the duel to drive any wedge they could between Barrayar and Chalion-Ibra, but watching Taligat's grief as a father had been excruciating. And he believed they were not behind dy Lovar.

That probably left Darthaca at the top of his list, one way or another. It could still be another of the Roknari princedoms, or even unknown people in Pacova itself, and the demon simply wanted to get as far away as it possibly could now that its plans were in disarray. But it could be King Alisar in Darthaca, or some independent operation on the part of one of his high nobles. Darthaca was so large that its High Marches often operated almost like separate nations, and Yiss was closest, bordering Ibra.

All of which meant that it would be well to sit down with the Fox of Ibra and lay out all his worries in as clear a manner as could be managed. It would stretch his credulity, but having Ista, Cazaril and Mark all present at once should be enough to keep him entertaining uncanny possibilities. Or at least, so Cazaril hoped. If nothing else, Cazaril was certain the Fox would not be hard to put on his guard.

Cazaril had said his real goodbyes to Betriz and the kids earlier in the morning, but she was there to see him off. She had a new hat for his trip. This one was trimmed with dark fur, looking considerably more masculine than the last hat she had handed him for an Ibran sojourn. He fingered the soft fur, then looked up at Betriz and smiled. Her dimple winked back at him.

"Beaver fur?" he guessed.

"Muskrat," she corrected.

"It won't be so cold on this trip in any case," Cazaril said, but he put the hat on as he spoke. "But I hate having cold ears."

"I know." Betriz stretched up to give him a kiss that Cazaril felt would definitely help keep him warm through the mountains. He opened his eyes and stepped back to get a good long look.

"I'll miss you."

"I know. Try not to get yourself in trouble." Betriz glanced over at the two Vorkosigan brothers and lowered her voice. "And try not to let them get you into trouble."

"I'll do my best."

Cazaril was actually rather nervous when he thought about it. For all their courtesy and wit, the Vorkosigans were certainly not under his control. Never mind their weapons and Mark's demon and their distant empire's probably overpowering military might, it was rapidly becoming apparent that simply holding up against their independent wills could prove a mammoth challenge.

Cazaril finished his goodbyes and made his way over to the pair. Miles was presently pointing out the best features of their mounts with apparent enthusiasm while Mark eyed their transport dubiously.

"These are some beautifully cared-for and conditioned horses. Good endurance animals. See the level croup, here in the back? Shorter-ranged mounts will have more of a slope. I like the conformation of the hind legs. Grandfather would have liked the mare, I think."

"Miles, I know how to ride a horse. I don't obsess over them. I can just about tell the difference between a pony and a plow horse. And I know I'm going to be very, very sore in a week. You don't need to explain to me what part of the horse is going to chafe me."

"Ah, well, if you want to form an opinion quickly, just start with the hindquarters and -- "

"I have no interest in inspecting my horse's ass!"

Cazaril judged the exasperation in Mark's tone to be more fond than genuinely angry, but he still suspected that it would be an opportune moment to break in.

"I take it, my lords, that you do prefer the longer legged beasts? I wasn't sure it was politic to bring it up, but we're bringing some mountain ponies for the high passes anyway; if it would be more comfortable, they will be bringing along baggage anyway." Cazaril aimed for diffidence in the question, observing their shortness without judging.

Miles, at least, waved this suggestion away. "Oh, no. Horseback riding is something I always enjoyed, even when I was little and broke my arms whenever I fell. And I don't think shrinking the horse will sweeten Mark on them any."

"Probably not," Mark agreed. "I learned, but I was never very good, and I certainly never understood why anyone short of a raving masochist would enjoy it."

"Should be right up your alley, then," Miles returned sweetly. Mark looked to be just about to shoot back a reply, and probably one a little more angry, when Cazaril intervened. He did not, after all, want another duel.

"I'm afraid I side with Lord Mark," Cazaril said smoothly, and watched Mark deflate. "I suppose that I am unfairly biased by the circumstances of my last ride to Ibra. Five gods be thanked, we need not ride at any particular speed this time."

"Ah, yes. Riding was never something I had to do; we have other means of transport. It was always something of a relic, dating back to my granfather's time. He still kept some impressive blood stock, but I think the main reason I was so eager to learn to ride was to get in Grandfather's good graces." That, Cazaril reflected, was probably as close to a concession as the elder Vorkosigan was likely to grant. Mark looked faintly surprised at the last revelation -- no, Cazaril corrected himself. Mark was surprised that Miles recognized his own motivations so clearly.

Umegat approached then, his old tongueless assistant Daris also dressed for riding. The Roknari divine was looking calm and well groomed as usual. Cazaril was pleased to have him along, though he wondered somewhat about how he would fare, riding so far. Daris, too; Cazaril was not quite sure of the man's age, but he certainly not young.

"Umegat, have you ever been to Zagosur?" Cazaril asked idly as the grooms hastened to tighten saddle girths.

"Once, my lord, when I was younger, and not for very long. I find I do not remember much about the city and far less about the route. You were there for longer, were you not, Daris?"

The man let out one of his little mumbling comments that Cazaril could not decipher, though his nod was plain enough. Count dy Vorkosigan gave a chuckle. Cazaril looked at him. Miles looked back, tilting his head slightly to the side.

"Ah, did I miss the joke?" Cazaril asked Miles, feeling a little bewildered. Miles looked back, about equally confused, it appeared.

"Well, ah, I was assuming that Daris' comment about women more numerous than fish was mostly facetious?"

Cazaril, Umegat, Daris and Mark all stared at Miles. Miles looked between them all with some confusion.

"What?"

"You --" Cazaril glanced at Daris, not wishing to offend the man, but he was just as struck. "You understood Daris, my lord?"

"Well, yes?"

Cazaril looked at the little man, who was staring at Miles. He burst into a mumbled pelter of what had to be speech and Miles looked astonished when he finished.

"He says, well. He explained about how the Roknari mutilate Quintarians of the Bastard's Order, and how it had been some years since his martyrdom. And how only Umegat has seemed to understand even a little of what he said until now." Miles raked a hand through his hair. "I suppose it must be a piece of the Bastard's gift; if he's not simply granted me a list of languages but the ability to understand the meaning of whatever anyone says, then I guess it doesn't matter how well Daris is able to articulate it. It's still translated."

Daris was staring hungrily at Miles now, while Miles was looking almost embarrassed, as if not quite sure he'd meant to ask for this. Welcome to the saint trade, dy Vorkosigan, thought Cazaril wryly. Daris blinked, and Cazaril spotted a tear, though Daris quickly wiped it away and smiled. He hummed at Miles and gestured upward, at the horses.

"Yes, we should get moving," Miles agreed. He swung into his own saddle without a mounting block or a hand at all. Cazaril had a hint in the back of his mind that Miles had learned to do that as a sort of act of defiance, to prove he could, rather than because it was particularly practical. It certainly looked awkward.

Cazaril himself accepted the use of a mounting block and watched Mark do the same with evident relief. The man's horse should probably be relieved as well, Cazaril reflected.

Finally, they were all mounted, principle travelers, grooms, a small troop of soldier brothers of the Daughter's Order, and baggage. All together, they were over thirty men, which Cazaril thought a little excessive. Still, a party this size would have no trouble with common banditry. Their route, through the heart of Chalion-Ibra, would not be dangerously near any Roknari borders, and even if Darthaca were to pose a threat, that threat would have to come through Zagosur first.

Still, no need to tempt fate by failing to prepare against the unexpected. And there was no way that Cazaril wanted to try to explain to the Barrayaran military that he had mislaid their Lord Auditor Count dy Vorkosigan due to some failure of preparation.

They set out, riding at a mercifully gentle clip.

#

Mark observed that Miles gravitated toward Cazaril, as the head of their expedition and his Chalionese opposite number. Daris was gravitating toward Miles, which was understandable given his new-found powers of communication.

That eventually led to Mark settling in beside Umegat. Mark estimated that Umegat was probably a few years older than Miles, but he did not look quite so hard used. His hair was neatly braided and tied in a style that some background piece of the demon recognized as Roknari, which suited Umegat's accent and coloration.

They rode side by side in silence for a while and Mark was again struck by the man's sense of center. It reminded him of Mother and made him think of his first meeting with her. Where he'd passed out in terror in the car ride over to Vorkosigan house and then gradually been calmed by her dependable logic. Even Mark's therapist didn't achieve the same sense of contagious ease.

Eventually, Mark decided to try a little conversation. Umegat was the spiritual advisor, after all, and he certainly had his share of spiritual concerns.

"So, all I know about theological politics is what I've squeezed out of my demon, and it isn't much, but it's enough to know that's pretty unusual to find a Roknari Divine of the Bastard. How'd that happen?" Mark felt a twinge of concern that he was failing at being circumspect enough in his small talk, but Umegat smiled.

"Ah, it is a long story."

"We do have time," Mark pointed out. "What's it going to be, about a week to where we're going?"

"About that," Umegat confirmed. "To make the tale short, I am inclined not towards women, but to other men." Umegat watched Mark for his reaction, and Mark confined himself to a little encouraging lift of his chin, not being quite sure what Umegat's sexuality had to do with his religion. "This is forbidden in the theology of the Quadrene faith, as such urges are considered the domain of the Bastard. My first true lover was a secret Quintarian for that reason, and he did not find it hard to convert me."

"Oh." Mark paused as he absorbed this. "So any such affair is what, akin to devil-worship?"

"More or less," Umegat agreed.

"With the same penalties as your assistant Daris went through?"

"Oh yes. My lover and I tried to flee the archipelago together, but he did not reach the ship, and, fortunately, I did not wait. It took some time for me to learn his fate -- executed for heresy. I was quite unbalanced for a time after that. It took the Bastard's order to restore me to some sanity. In the meantime, well. I was much younger than you, so I think you can imagine some of the follies of a youth in despair, hm?"

Mark rode in silence, looking at the spot between his horse's ears. After a minute, Umegat spoke again, his voice soft and soothing.

"I understand from your brother that you suffered a grievous loss of your own, my lord. You have my deepest sympathy. Such a blow can leave a person a little, as I said before, unbalanced afterward."

Mark let out a bark of black laughter without really meaning to. "Truer words never spoken, learned," he replied sadly. "It's been two years, but it's still -- I don't have anything else to lean on the way I leaned on Kareen. Like having a cane snatched away."

"Mmm. Does that have anything to do with how the demon overmastered you in the beginning?"

Mark did not look at Umegat. He could not look up. This was hard and painful, but there was a sense of a pressure being relieved. It was like pulling out a deep splinter; the pulling hurt, but there was a sense that what the pain left behind was cleaner, more ready to heal. He'd talked about this with his therapist, of course -- well, maybe not about the demon -- but he'd felt so raw that he had never really felt as if he had expelled it all with her.

"Yeah. I wasn't the most stable person in the world before the accident, and I leaned on her a lot. I tried not to lean too much, but we'd been together for so long and it was working for us both. She'd even convinced me I wanted to be a father. And then, for no reason at all, she was gone. I'm still trying to find some kind of balance, but it feels like," Mark groped for a minute, discarding a simile of moving from a bicycle to a unicycle, "like trying to ride a three legged horse."

"Then five gods be thanked you need not ride it without any help at all," Umegat answered softly. Mark looked up then, blinking at the divine and Umegat gave him a small smile. "Keeping confidence has always been one role of the clergy. I think that perhaps you are most in need of a fresh ear for your troubles. Your brother seems a fine man, and he clearly cares for you, but I am afraid that if you unburdened yourself to him, you would then have to face his attempts to fix what was wrong. It would be a sort of burden in itself, that you could not heal yourself to please him."

"Yes," Mark whispered, then cleared his throat. "I had someone back home to unburden to, a therapist. They take some of the role of the clergy you're talking about, taking confessions and keeping confidences, in a more secular world."

"Mm. That is very interesting. Tell me, Lord Mark; I have been speaking with Count dy Vorkosigan for several days on the subject of Quintarian theology, and occasionally the difference between the Quintarian and Quadrene faiths. We have not talked about the difference between Chalionese faith and Barrayaran. What role has the divine take in your world and in your life?"

Mark was temporarily dumbfounded. It was a perfectly logical question for Umegat to be concerned with. Knowledge of the ways the gods impacted the world here, directly and indirectly, welled in him and he had to compare it to his own life experiences.

"I -- well, religion is not as prominent on Barrayar. There are some pervasive customs regarding respect for one's ancestors -- burning offerings for the peace of the dead, and to keep their memory alive -- but it's not like it is here." Mark took a deep breath. "I guess the first thing you have to know is that our God, or gods, or whatever you choose to think we have, don't take so direct a hand in everyday life. Every time a person dies here, the gods grant them their little miracle of signaling which god has taken them up, yes? Never mind the greater miracles like Miles' languages, or whatever you want to call my demon. We don't have things like that where we come from."

"So what happens to a soul after its body dies and it can no longer draw its sustenance from that link with matter?"

"That's something people argue over. I'm an agnostic, which means I don't have a clue. Mother has a set of beliefs involving a single Creator who leaves us to forge our own destinies. She believes that souls live on in another realm, in God's presence, after death." Mark paused for a moment. "That's the thrust of it, anyway. She hasn't tried proselytizing me, so I've never had much in the way of deep discussions about it with her."

"Huh. It is entirely possible your mother is correct; who can say? If the five gods were active in your world, I would be surprised that they would not make themselves more evident. The story of our world's creation is based upon the births and first actions of the gods, but I have no way to say that your world was created the same way, or by the same committee of gods."

"Committee design; that would explain a lot about the world." Mark observed dryly. "So the gods take up all souls? Do you think if I died here, I'd be taken up by your gods?"

"I think so. Your brother reports that the Bastard first touched him in the instant he moved from your world into ours. He also said the Bastard explained that some of the laws of the world were not quite identical to your world, though we do not know exactly which. I believe, based on that conversation, that our gods would oversee all souls who depart their bodies here."

"So, if I died here, and there is some sort of afterlife in my world, Kareen and I might never be able to get to each other? We'd be stuck in different paradises?"

"Unless the gods choose to tell us, I do not think we will be in a position to know before death. Perhaps even the gods do not know; since your brother was only touched the moment after his transfer, I would not be surprised if the gods are limited to our world." Umegat paused for a moment, then added, "I hope you will use the uncertainty as motivation to postpone your death until you can return home."

Mark let out a snort and got an answering faint smile from Umegat. "I have no desire to set this demon free on anyone else. I've got it locked down now, but it's a clever little bugger. I don't know who it would jump to here, but I dread the thought of it passing to my brother."

"I think he would be an unlikely choice, given that he presently hosts a miracle for the Bastard. If it did leap to him and your brother asked for it, it is entirely possible that the Bastard could spin the demon directly back to himself through your brother's will. Even if he did not have the Bastard's gift of tongues, I doubt he would be a good choice. I think he is much too driven to be derailed by a demon."

"Oh, Miles can domineer anyone. The problem would come when things turned downhill and he dropped into a depression. Because when Miles drops, he drops hard. I was at a low point when the demon got to me. It's not likely to hit Miles unless he runs out of things to do or starts to think we can't get home again." That was certainly a terror, though Mark knew that Miles felt it much more keenly than he did. He would miss his mother and his nieces and nephews, and certainly all the conveniences of a galactic lifestyle. Miles would be shattered to never see his children, his wife, his home. Best not to suggest it too loudly.

Mark and Umegat dropped into a companionable silence for a while, then. Mark could hear some of Daris' hum and Miles translating for Cazaril; it sounded as if both men were fascinated by the experience of talking to the man, but Mark was not drawn to listen in.

"I did not answer your question earlier," Umegat admitted at length. "When you asked whether the gods took in all souls. They do not."

Mark tilted his head to the side as he looked at Umegat. "Oh? Is there combination of unrepentant sin and blasphemy that will bring down the wrath of the gods for all eternity?"

"No, nothing so vengeful. When a person dies, the gods open a portal between the world of matter and the world of spirit to allow the soul to pass through. But it is the last choice; if a soul will not go through that gate, the gods cannot force them."

"Then what happens to them?" Mark asked, his voice a whisper. He found he could not keep from thinking of Kareen and wondering about her fate after death. If there is no divinity in our world, what would have happened to her? He had not given it much thought; if anything, Mark's agnosticism tended towards atheism, and so he been too wrapped up in the pain of her absence to even consider the consequences of a soul.

"Then the soul must stay in the world of matter. But as a ghost of spirit without the sustenance of matter or its god, it cannot sustain itself. It begins to forget itself, to lose its shape and its memories, growing fainter and vaguer until it finally dissipates entirely."

Mark needed to swallow and could not. Oh, god, Kareen. What a horror; how far dissolved would she be, two years after her death? And how could he ever say whether she was or was not?

"That is damnation to us," Umegat continued. "But someone who was granted second sight for a time once explained it as both a damnation and a mercy. It is a terror to most men, to think of being banished from the world and to slowly forget everything, even one's own shape. In the realm of the gods, the soul remembers itself with perfect clarity. But for those whose lives have fallen so far that simple memory is a torture, then the slow erosion of the ghosts becomes a divine mercy."

"I think I have some sympathy for that," Mark said, surreptitiously wiping his eyes.

"I believe that memory is difficult for you, Lord Mark, but do not sell yourself short. I suspect your soul would be most eagerly welcomed by the gods."

"You do?" This was a strange thought to Mark. What, all five of me? "I don't think my brother has explained the extent of the damage to my soul, Learned, or you would think differently."

"He has spoken in only very general terms," Umegat agreed placidly, "but that does not change my opinion. The gods do not desire perfect souls but great ones. It is often our periods of darkness, of failure, of loss and madness and woe that shape us and force us to grow. I know it was so for me. My theological reading suggests that the gods cultivate our souls as a gardener cultivates a garden, and they treasure each blossom."

"Some souls get better soil than others though." Mark thought of his childhood and Miles', and then of Kareen's.

"Ah, the shit may may be of different beasts, but it does seem to rain down on everyone," Umegat replied. The delivery was so even tempered and good natured Mark had to blink at him for a minute before he could even process the observation enough to laugh at it.

"You sound like my grandfather. Or, well, how Miles sounds when he quotes Grandfather Piotr."

"I imagine such quotations are the ones to stick in the mind. But I wonder, my lord, if you need to relieve your mind on the subject of your soul. You say you have spoken much to your therapist on Barrayar," and Mark decided not to correct him about his therapist's actual location, "but right now, you are not there. You are here, and while I may be ill equipped to understand the subtleties of what your brother termed 'psychology,' I am as well suited as any man to tell you how such peculiarities of mind and spirit might mesh with the theological on this world."

Mark stared at Umegat, then down at his horse's neck. Shaky as he was feeling with the thought of Kareen as an impotent spectre, he was not sure he wanted to continue. On the other hand, he really was feeling like he was wringing something toxic out of his system, admission by admission, and Umegat was riding in apparently perfectly calm interest. And the suspicions about Mark that he had voiced so far had been right on the money. He might not know psychological terminology, but he certainly knew people.

Could Umegat be trying to play him? Trick him for some reason? Persuade him to reveal something damaging? He didn't give the impression of a con man; he was much too grounded, and he was so imperturbable that he left Mark no doubt that he would accept any boundary about his personal business that Mark cared to draw. And it was that, that cool autonomy, interested but not judging and needing nothing of him, that tipped the balance in Umegat's favor.

Mark told him about Ryoval, about being captured by an enemy of his and Miles', about the forms of his torture. About how he resisted by splitting into four personae. About the role each one played, both within the context of Ryoval's torture and afterward. As he tried to explain, he realized he need to jump backward, because explaining Grunt's impotence and the needs of Gorge and Howl and the formation of Killer really went back to Galen's conditioning and training.

So he went back to explain about his childhood, not on Barrayar, but on Jackson's Whole. He managed to avoid getting side-tracked into attempting to explain the clone brain transplant business, because that required far too much background explanation of galactic techno-culture to make sense to this pre-gunpowder holy man. He could explain about his intended use as a substitute for Miles and the ways in which Galen damaged his psyche and Ryoval hammered on those lines until he fractured, shattering like a gemstone struck on a fault.

"The thing was, once I broke under his torture into those five pieces, they were each much stronger. He couldn't make Grunt ashamed of what he did, he couldn't make Gorge want to stop eating, he couldn't even make Howl stop getting satisfaction from all the pain he went through. And so he couldn't find Killer at all. Killer stalked him. And they all, together, protected Mark, until Ryoval was dead and I needed to pull myself together to get away."

Umegat had listened in silence, only asking a few questions if Mark's story started to confuse him or become jumbled. Here, Mark finally came to a rest, feeling just a little hoarse. He fumbled for a water skin.

"I think," said Umegat finally, "that you are a remarkable man, Lord Mark. If I understand you, you broke yourself into five so that you could put yourself together again and survive. I am sorry for your hardships; I do not think I could have survived them. But it seems to me that you know yourself, to the depths of yourself, to a much greater degree than most men."

"Well, having a therapist to help put words to everything helps," Mark replied, trying to lighten the tone a little. "And I think most people don't really have the stomach," he patted his belly illustratively, "to look that closely at themselves. We get pretty ugly when you strip us down to our basic desires."

"I also think that is why you are in control of your demon now and not the reverse. If you can face every piece of yourself, even the most dangerous, ugly or treacherous, then what does a demon have that can frighten you?"

"Well, it's not exactly comfortable."

"Take heart, Lord Mark; in Zagosur, the saint of the Bastard will no doubt be happy to take your demon from you and reduce the pressure in your head from six to five." And with that, Umegat made the sign of the Quintarian blessing, touching forehead, lips, navel, groin (or saddlebow, at the moment) and then spreading his fingers wide on his heart.

Mark decided that he was just as happy letting the topic finally rest, so he switched to a side curiosity. "Learned, what's the precise meaning of that gesture? I've seen it a few times, and I know it's a blessing, but I'm missing the specifics."

"It is a touching of the five sacred theological points," Umegat explained. "The forehead," he gestured, "is the Daughter's point, for she is said to favor those quick of wit and pure in thought. Lord dy Cazaril is a lay follower of her order." That fit. Actually, it fit Miles too. Umegat touched his lips. "The mouth, especially the tongue, is sacred to the Bastard, god of balance and all things out of season. He favors the tongue because of all the complexities man may spin from his words." That might explain why it was the Bastard, not the Daughter, to touch Miles. No one talked faster, not even Miles' children. "The stomach, or womb, for the Mother, goddess of health and healing. The genitals for the Father, for fertility. And the Son for the heart, for strength of spirit and courage."

Mark nodded as Umegat went through the list. It was interesting. Suddenly a thought struck him and he let out a little snorting chuckle before he could repress it. Umegat tilted his head at him and Mark lifted a hand to wave him away.

"Sorry, I just had a terribly irreverent thought. Probably blasphemous."

"Ah, in my experience, Lord Mark, the gods do not begrudge us our humor," Umegat replied piously, but now with a little glint in his eye. "Besides, if the gods hear all thoughts, they must be used to impiety. And as a devotee of the Bastard, I promise that I am not easily upset."

If Umegat hadn't ridden off screaming at Mark's description of Killer stalking Ryoval, he probably wasn't going to be upset by a little off-color theological humor. He gave a little embarrassed shrug and lifted his hand.

"I was just reflecting that there are five gods, and five pieces of me. Killer," he touched his forehead, "is almost entirely cerebral. Howl," lips, "got his name for a reason. As did Gorge," belly, "and Grunt," groin. "Which leaves Mark," and Mark spread his fingers over his heart.

Umegat grinned broadly. "I do not know how the gods would feel about their assigned roles in the Physical Theological Hierarchy of Mark," he said, and Mark could hear capital letters, "except that I suspect the Bastard is laughing."

Mark grinned back. You know, it could be worse here.

Chapter Text

Miles had stopped commenting so much on the beauty and condition of the horses by the time they got out of the mountains. As much as he had used to love days long horseback riding and camping excursions with old Fat Ninny at Vorkosigan Surleau, the long trip from Cardegoss to Zagosur had taken some of the luster off the opportunity.

Miles had also stopped teasing Mark because the exercise was not comfortable for Mark. His additional bulk made him more prone to chafing, he was not as easy with his mount, and he was clearly wearing himself out. In fact, despite the amount he ate at court and the reports of his feast in that little Chalionese town, Miles would swear Mark had lost weight in the two weeks they had been in Chalion. It was a little tough to tell whether this was encouraging or disturbing, giving Mark's emotional complexity, but in the short term, it looked painful.

Miles had spent a large portion of his ride speaking with Cazaril and Daris, the tongueless acolyte. He was happy to do both; the little acolyte proved to have spent an interesting life in the service of the Bastard, and despite the evidence of torment on his body, he seemed to regard it all as more to be celebrated than regretted. He was also devoted to Learned Umegat, a side effect of the divine having saved him from the death that would ordinarily have followed his mutilating martyrdom.

It had been a scam worthy of Admiral Naismith at his most audacious, for all that Umegat had only had to carry it out for a few minutes. Spying on the Golden General's army, he had come across the scene of the Quintarian's torture. Umegat had slipped into an officer's tent, stolen a suit of armor, and then stormed his way into the crowd of taunting, jeering, leering Roknari and demanded who had dared cut the man's tongue out before the Golden General had the chance to question him. You fool, of course he wants this man! Perhaps his fingers can still hold a pen. No, I don't need your help, you incompetent dogs! Get a healer to stop the bleeding, then I will take him, and pray to the Father I do not find out your names!

Daris had not gone into much more detail about their escape, from which Miles deduced it was more excruciating than it was adventuresome, but it was hair raising enough for Miles' taste.

"It comes out somewhat differently when Umegat tells it," Cazaril told Miles a little later, when it was just the two of them riding side by side. "He spends more time explaining how angry and how frightened he was. Heroism tends to look more noble and pure from the outside."

"Too true," Miles agreed. "I have been terrified and confused and yet come out ahead in the end enough to know that."

About then, one of the forward riders called that he could see the sea and a ragged cheer went up as the troop got a good look at the end of its journey. It was certainly a relief. Miles noticed, however, that Cazaril did not join in. His hands tightened on his reins and his jaw set, not so firmly that anyone further away would notice, but Miles noticed. He leaned slightly closer.

"Lord dy Cazaril, have you any reason to fear for our reception upon our arrival in Zagosur? You don't look as pleased as I'd think you would be. I know I would love to have a day with a cushion instead of a saddle under my ass."

Cazaril forced a smile and gave his head a little shake. "It is nothing to do with politics. The Fox will receive us well. I am simply not fond of the sea."

"Oh." Miles contemplated Cazaril for a moment. "Do you, ah, know how to swim?"

"Yes." Cazaril took a deep breath, then let it out. "After one particularly unpleasant siege during the reign of Royina Iselle's half-brother, Roya Orico, I was taken by the Roknari and not ransomed. I was sold into slavery on the Roknari galleys. It gave me an aversion."

"Oh." Miles was more taken aback by this story. He had suspected Cazaril had been hard used, worn by a difficult life, but it looked as though he hadn't guessed the half of it. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." Pry? No, he'd meant to pry. "Hit a sore point."

"It's all right. The story is fairly well known in Chalion; I hadn't thought about it as part of the background you would not have. And if I had thought about it, I would have suspected that you would spot my discomfort. You have a shrewd eye."

"Of necessity. Your job seems to require similar skills."

Cazaril gave a little smile of acknowledgement, one that Miles was pleased to see looked less tightly wound. Not relaxed, but a little distracted. If that was the best a little verbal fencing could accomplish, it was still better than nothing.

It wouldn't last long, though. Miles could see Cazaril's eyes returning to the distance. Well, if he couldn't make Cazaril think about other things, maybe they could look at it in a more clinical light.

"So the gods can't invade a man's will. But slavery is still legal? Your servants aren't slaves." Or at least, there was certainly a lack of manacles and chains on the common classes in Chalion that Miles had ever seen.

"No, we do not practice slavery in any of the Ibran states. Chalion-Ibra or Brajar, that is. The Roknari brought the practice from their archipelago, and as we retake the peninsula, any slaves we capture are freed."

"But that's not a difference between your faiths, right? I mean, you at least agree on four gods, and none of them take over a man's will."

"No, they don't." Cazaril paused for a minute. "Power over a man is not the same as taking his will," he finally said. "A slave may have no choice what he endures, but he always has the choice as to how he will endure."

"'As if the way one fell down mattered.' 'When the fall is all there is, it matters,'" Miles quoted. Cazaril smiled a little at that.

"If nothing else, I find that I very much want to learn the sources of all these mysterious and poignant quotations you seem to have ready to hand."

"Ah, the military ones are from Ky Tung, the old battle-axe who helped me con my way into a galactic admiralty. The literary ones, like that, are probably my mother's fault, since she had the strongest hand in guiding my education. Picking schools and what not."

"Well, you still have some time where you could claim them all for your own work. Until your people get through to you."

"I don't think so." Miles shook his head. "First, I'd have to get Mark to go along, and he doesn't like to see my head swell. Second, you at least would see through me in an instant, I'm increasingly sure."

Cazaril merely smiled. Well distracted indeed, Miles thought with some satisfaction as they rode toward the city.

#

Mark liked the city of Zagosur. The sea air reminded him of London. Not all the associations were pleasant, but the feel of the air was familiar. All the air here felt both clean and earthy; it wasn't sterile, like the recycled air of a space installation, but it was free of the kind of pollution that tinted most other settled worlds Mark had visited. The mountain air had probably been more fresh, but Mark had been at the worst point in the progression of his saddle soreness there. He was better used to the daily grind in the saddle now, so he could spare some attention for something other than Howl's mutterings.

Most of Mark's trip had been spent with Umegat beside him. The divine clearly had not done this much hard riding in many years, and the fact that he was suffering as much as Mark was more than a little comfort. Daris didn't seem to be faring much better, but the joys of free speech with Miles seemed to compensate him. Between those moments and attending to Umegat, he seemed to spend little on his own comfort, though.

The trip was long enough that Mark had a chance to speak with Cazaril as well and get a sense of the man. Caz reminded Mark of his father the Count (as opposed his foster father, the mad Komarran terrorist.) Caz gave the same impression of a man with an unshakable center and integrity that led other men to virtue by example. If he were less personable, it would have been extremely daunting. Umegat was as centered, but when Mark talked to Cazaril, he had the impression that the chancellor's eyes were boring right into him. Maybe Gregor was a better comparison than Aral. In either case, it was no wonder Miles liked him so much.

Mark was near the head of their double column as they rode through the city. It was a good position; he didn't have to pretend to know where he was going and his horse could follow after Cazaril's, but it still left him with a good view. There were quite a few people who lined the streets to get a look at their procession. It was probably the best show to come through that week.

He certainly found it the most interesting sampling of humanity he had seen in some years. In Cardegoss, he hadn't really had the attention to spare for the city's denizens on any of his trips through the city. The first time had been a mad flight, the second had him surrounded by tall guards, and this last time, he had still been trying to stay alive on his horse. After eight days on the trail, even he had been bounced into getting used to it.

That left him free to look at the people. It was amazing what the eye got used to. Mark was used to galactic technoculture. That could supply some bewildering variations from time to time, like four armed freefall dwellers or eight foot tall demihuman supersoldiers or amphibians. But they all tended to be sculpted, through genetics and surgery, after the Greco-Roman ideal of beauty. Mark knew himself for an outlier of that trend, but here you saw genuine infirmity. What was more, the people with missing teeth or a twisted leg did not seem to be ashamed by it. Not exactly proud, maybe, but this was a world on which there were no alternatives to bearing whatever the gods chose to dish out.

Their mob made it into the castle courtyard where grooms descended in force. Mark waited for a mounting block which allowed him to merely totter, rather than collapsing ignominiously into the spring mud. Cazaril spoke quietly but firmly with some high ranking servants and the bustle around them seemed to increase further. Mark was happy to be whisked to a room with a waiting bath. At a wistful suggestion to a manservant, a little tray of bread, cheese and fruit appeared, along with a glass of wine. Mark watered the wine heavily and cleaned the plate, despite the assurance of a full meal later.

Mark was the last of the party's principles to reassemble for presentation to the Fox's court. They all looked much improved, ready for high company rather than horses. The servants and soldiers apparently had gone on their own merry ways, leaving Cazaril, Miles, Mark, Umegat and Daris to meet the court of the Fox of Ibra. It was interesting that no one even mentioned the actual name of "the Fox of Ibra." And what would Aral Vorkosigan have done if he were called, always and only, "the Butcher of Komarr?"

They made a strange and motley company, Mark decided. Cazaril looked dignified enough in an outfit of blue and white that fit the season. He had a few gold ornaments, preferring to display his station as chancellor in a heavy gold ring, rather than weigh himself down with jewelry. Miles wore what Mark supposed was the best Chalionese approximation of Count Vorkosigan's livery, looking grave and unusually wizened next to the tall, straight Cazaril. Mark fancied he looked as though someone had shoved a bicycle pump up Miles' ass and overinflated him, then painted his clothes and hair black. Which left the Bastard's two followers, one a Roknari and the other plainly a victim of Roknari martyrdom. Mark hoped the Fox's court got sufficient entertainment out of them.

One of the Fox's secretaries led them to the door of the audience chamber and knocked for them. The guards pulled open the doors and they strode, limped, waddled, paced and sidled, respectively, into the room to a herald's announcement. They all followed Cazaril's lead, managing deep bows without falling over.

"Roya, we bring letters from your son, the Royina, and the archdivine of Cardegoss," Cazaril announced and stepped forward to proffer them to the Fox.

"Do they differ much in substance from the ones you had sent ahead?" the old man asked, his voice gruff. The Fox of Ibra looked tired, to Mark's eye, not unlike his own father had in the last years before his death. Like the old Admiral Count Regent Viceroy Butcher, though, the Fox's eye remained sharp.

"No, my lord."

"Very well." The Fox put the letters aside for the moment. "I will tell you, then, that the Dowager Royina Ista's letters put her no more than a day away from Zagosur. A relief to you all, I'm sure." That sharp eye lingered on the Vorkosigans, but passed first to the holy men in white. "Learned Umegat and Acolyte Daris, you are welcome here. My son has written to me of your good counsel before. We would be happy to accommodate you here in the castle, unless you would prefer to lodge with the temple?" He lifted one thin hand, turning it palm up and spreading it, to invite their reply.

"Thank you, my lord. As we were sent as spiritual advisers to Chancellor dy Cazaril, Count dy Vorkosigan and Lord Mark, I think it would be best if we stay in proximity; since you make the invitation, we are most honored to accept." Daris nodded his agreement, and both bowed again.

The Fox nodded acceptance of Umegat's decision and turned to Miles and Mark. "Which leads me to you, my lords. Under the invitation of my son, you are welcome under my roof. I hope you have had some discussion of opening formal relations with Chalion. I promise you, since our two royacies are to be joined into one in the person of my grandson, five gods willing, I would be happy to extend Ibra's hospitality, and her interest in doing the same."

That sentence took Mark a minute to straighten out in his brain, though the tone was welcoming enough to set him mostly at ease. The demon was tense, knowing that Ista was near, but the black gang were all together now, surrounding and holding it in. Fortunately, Miles knew his cue to step forward.

"Thank you, my lord. We are honored to be so well received, as we have been in Chalion as well. We appreciate the many courtesies that have been extended, and we look forward to the day when we may return the favor."

Mark managed a nod of agreement. That seemed to set the tone, sending an unambiguous message to stay on best behavior. The Fox got to his feet then, which took a little doing, and picked up a cane to keep him up. The formal audience atmosphere relaxed; apparently that was the signal for servants to come around with food and wine, and the rather large group who had come to ogle the new arrivals broke into more social pieces.

Umegat and Daris were immediately bespoken by the archdivine of the Zagosur temple. Mark lingered close enough to be sure that he was not getting into a snit over Umegat choosing palace over temple. The conversation was quickly turned to the temple in Cardegoss, which was not of much interest to Mark, so he wandered after Miles and Cazaril in their orbit of the Fox.

"This is Admiral Nalhys dy Galvar. He is my chief naval commander, and directly in control of Zagosur's coastal defenses. We've scheduled a naval review for tomorrow, in light of all the concerns you've raised."

"It's more about waving the flag than readiness, but the common soldiers need to know what they're saluting. Gives 'em a reason to wipe their aahhhh-noses in the morning." The admiral changed words in mid-sentence. He definitely looked like a salty sea dog, with a grizzled beard more gray than blond and a star-shaped scar radiating out from just below one of his blue eyes. He was shorter than the lanky Cazaril but occupied far more space.

"Morale is not a force to be dismissed," Miles agreed. "An ancient military leader from my realm stated that in war, the moral is to the physical as three to one. I think the exact ratio varies, but my own military experiences probably bear it out."

"Ha. I'll drink to that." Admiral dy Galvar was as good as his word, then turned aside and made a come-forward gesture. "Sorry, gentlemen. I should have introduced my daughter straight off. Yelina dy Galvar, my only child, sad to say, but at least I got one to be proud of."

Yelina dipped a shy curtsy. She was small and curvaceous with blue eyes, blond hair and rosy cheeks. Her eyelids swept down as she made the curtsy and Mark was treated to an excellent view of her cleavage. She couldn't be more than twenty.

Grunt was at quivering attention. Mark had to catch his breath. She could not have been mistaken for Kareen, even if her long hair had been cut as short, but she definitely fit the same physical type. Mark had the suddenly realization that he did not know how to shift in these clothes to be sure that his arousal would not be apparent; they draped so differently. He glanced down and was slightly reassured that his belly was still large enough to act as a concealing shield.

Suddenly, Mark realized that with Grunt's attention fixed on Yelina, it was not fixed on the demon. There was an oily sensation of a purple silk thread reaching out to caress Yelina. The girl rose from her curtsy and her eyes flickered open to settle on Mark. Mark saw her full lips part slightly as she inhaled.

NO! Mark screamed inside his own head.

But why should you not have her? purred the demon. You wanted to move on, and with my help, she will certainly have no complaints of you.

A vision flashed through Mark's head of Maree, the remarkably enhanced clone girl he had rescued -- along with Miles and the Dendarii Mercenaries -- from death in a Jackson's Whole butcher-surgery. More than two decades later, the images were still razor sharp in his mind, clear and cutting. The feel of her hair, her body squirming under him as he prevented her escape back to her would-be killers, her skin as he pulled her night shirt down to reveal those astonishing breasts, and the agony of shame and impotence as he collapsed in panic, then was discovered. Grunt curled up and turned back to the demon, pinning him again.

No. That is not what we want. This time, Grunt spoke with him. All together, now, Mark and the black gang presented no chink through which the demon might leak. It curled tight again.

Think on it. When Ista arrives, you will have no more chances, it let out one last whisper for him to think on.

Mark realized he had been standing stock still and rigid, staring not quite at Yelina, but more into space. The brief look of desire had been replaced by a slight tilt of her head in curiosity at him. The admiral was still blustering on, the male listeners apparently interested in the naval dispositions he was explaining, but he had to get away from this poor girl.

"I -- I'm sorry, Sera dy Galvar. I think I must be more tired from the ride than I realized. I'm not a very good rider and it's a long way and I wasn't used to it." It definitely sounded like babbling to him, but he thought he was probably close enough to polite to pass for merely fatigued.

"Oh, that's all right, Lord dy Vorkosigan; is that the right way to address you? My father said the rules seemed to be a little different where you came from, but he didn't explain how." To Mark's consternation, she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and started to lead him toward the edge of the room. He couldn't flinch away, but he stiffened.

"I, I, well, Lord Mark is probably most proper because Lord Vorkosigan is the right title of the heir to the Countship of the Vorkosigan district which is my brother's son, not me." This, at least, was practiced enough explanation that he could let it out with only a little bit of a stutter. Where was she taking him? Oh god, she couldn't be leading him somewhere private and intimate, could she? He didn't know if he could handle that. He was sure the demon had not been able to do more than catch her interest; it hadn't planted any deep compulsions in her, but if she actually had a tryst in mind, there would be no way he could believe that it was not due to some kind of compulsion.

"Lord Mark, then. And Lady Yelina is entirely sufficient for me, my lord." She smiled at him and Mark felt like his breathing was going to stop. "But if you really want to retire for the evening, one of the pages can take you to your room and see to your needs. I imagine after riding all the way from Cardegoss you must be stiff as a board."

"Oh yes," Mark replied faintly. "I need, I need, I need to rest. In private. I'm sorry. Lady Yelina." She had led him to the edge of the throng and made eye contact with a young man in the Fox's livery who bounded up and utterly failed to keep his eyes on Yelina's face.

"Lord Mark dy Vorkosigan wishes to retire. Please escort him to his room and be sure he has everything that he needs." Maybe she was just playing hostess. Maybe the stiffness comment was not a deliberate double entendre. Maybe Mark's head was going to explode even without the demon along.

"Yes, my lady!" The page bowed and tore his eyes away from Yelina's chest for long enough to bob to Mark. "If you'll follow me, my lord." Mark did, after stammering out some garbled farewell.

#

When the knock came at Mark's door an hour or so later, Mark dreaded that it would be Miles. Then he dreaded even more that it would be Yelina. Then he hoped it would be her; then he thought about the amount of food he had just consumed and his relieving date with his right hand, and he went right back to dreading the thought of it being her on every level.

"Who is it?"

"Umegat. May I enter?"

"Oh. Yes, come in."

Seeing the Roknari enter the room was an enormous relief. Mark was sitting in bed, though still dressed and leaned against the headboard. Umegat closed the door behind him and surveyed the empty trays of food. Mark shifted a little, uncomfortably. It had not been too bad, by his standards, but Gorge and Howl had definitely helped calm Mark's confused id.

"I saw your exit from the hall. I thought you might need a little bit of company and counsel, whether you asked for it or not."

"I was afraid it was going to be Miles at first," Mark admitted. "I'm not sure I could have -- well, I wouldn't have handled him well."

"Indeed. You have the look of a man with a weight on his mind. May I be of assistance, my lord?" Umegat sat on the closed chest at the end of Mark's bed, looking at him with those level, sympathetic eyes. The question was almost rhetorical; it was just a question of whether Mark wanted to ask that assistance.

Mark stared back for a moment. He was afraid to alienate this man -- to explain, he would have to explain about Maree, and about the demon slipping his control for a moment. Would Umegat think he was too dangerous or disgusting? No, probably not the latter, not after all he had already admitted. But dangerous?

"The demon slipped my control for a moment," he blurted. There it was, out there, beyond recall. It was almost a relief, except that he had to wait for Umegat's reaction.

Umegat considered Mark, tilting his head to the side. "It does not seem to be controlling you now. This was a small slip, not a total loss of control?"

"Yes," Mark agreed. He could feel the divine's calm rubbing off on him again. It seemed as if all Umegat had to do was continue to not panic and Mark could keep doing the same.

"It involved Lady Yelina dy Galvar?" The way Umegat saw through him was less reassuring. It looked as though Umegat were not only not perturbed, it looked as though the man had guessed already. At least it spiked any last impulse toward concealment.

So Mark explained what his demon had done. In the course of it, he went back and explained his molestation of Maree, doing the best he could to explain what kind of emotional innocence he knew he was harming at the time. He explained his panic attack, which Umegat immediately recognized as a part of Galen's conditioning that Mark had already explained. As before, it felt like drawing a bee's stinger out of the wound, removing the source of poison and infection.

"I knew it was wrong as soon as it happened," Mark said finally. "Grunt was just so riveted on her, but that isn't what Grunt wants either. I remember what it was like when I didn't have a choice, and it isn't something I want to inflict on anyone else."

"I believe you," Umegat replied simply. "But I think you should not deceive yourself; there is a part to most men that would want their release at any price, and I think you are not free of the desire. I also think you have learned to resist your own darkness, and you know that you would all but destroy yourself if you ever gave in to such an impulse."

Mark found he was unable to meet Umegat's eye. He had been aroused, painfully so. His fantasies when he got back to his room had centered around Yelina. But a fantasy hurt no one. His was definitely not the only eye that fell on Yelina and stayed there.

"The key," continued Umegat, "is to relieve you of the suspicion and temptation of the demon. You suspect yourself because you have both power and temptation. If you removed the unnatural power, your desire would be nothing but an attraction without threat. I promise you, Lady Yelina dy Galvar, daughter of the famous Ibran admiral, is no shrinking violet and would allow no unwanted liberties."

"That...is actually very reassuring." Yelina looked like such an innocent, but the more Mark thought about her father, the more Mark thought that a sailor's daughter would not be ignorant, however exalted and gentle her birth.

"Yes. I find it so," Umegat agreed. Mark glanced up to find that Umegat was studying his coverlet rather than looking directly at him.

"Well, probably best that I stay out of the way until Ista arrives. Though I suppose they'll make me go along on that military review I heard them mentioning."

"Yes. That should not be too difficult. Merely tedious." Mark gave a little snort and Umegat finally looked up with a twisted smile.

"You mentioned what Grunt does not want, my lord. What does Grunt want?" Mark stared at Umegat, unsure of what he was driving at. Umegat shifted on the trunk and met Mark's eye again. "Understanding the nature of temptation is the first step to conquering it. Lady Yelina's charms are obvious enough and I can see the similarities to your late wife, and the girl Maree. But is it just her beauty? Is it just small, soft, blue eyed, blond women who interest Grunt?"

"No," Mark acknowledged slowly. "I mean, if I have a physical type, that's it. But it's not like blond hair is the secret ticket to my libido."

"What is it about them that tempts you, then? From where does the desire come?"

"I've talked about this with my therapist," Mark answered, speaking slowly. He had never discussed this with anyone else, not even Kareen or his mother. "It's not the physical type, it's what the markers imply to me. They were soft, gentle, feminine. Nothing to frighten or hurt me." He lifted a hand to rub his lips for a moment, then let it drop. "Maree was like the princess in a story. I wanted her to be the heroine for my story, which is part of why I got all wrapped in in what I wanted and wasn't thinking of her as her own person, and her needs and what I was --" He cut himself off, but Umegat nodded in apparent understanding.

"Soft, gentle, feminine," Umegat repeated thoughtfully. "Your early experiences were surely enough to turn any man from the harsh or the violent. I am not surprised you would turn your back and run in the opposite direction." He gave another twisted little smile. Mark was unsure whether he expected a response, let alone what response he could make. "It is often easier and safer after such trauma to make simple rules, to reject what caused damage before. So no hard edges, no violence, no men."

"I --" Mark hesitated, then looked down and rubbed at the back of his neck. He closed his eyes for a minute, concentrating on Grunt. Grunt shifted a little, then gave a little shrug of one shoulder.

"I guess it's a little more complicated," Mark replied finally. "I mean, that may be where Grunt is inclined to go, but Howl is still a part of me as well. When Ryoval was toying with aphrodisiacs, Grunt wasn't faking anything, as painful and degrading as it got. I have some seriously twisted up desires bubbling around somewhere deep down in me. The problem is that getting to the level of comfort I need to feel safe enough to, well, admit complexity is really hard. A man getting that close would be really unsettling until I got used to it. Howl doesn't thrive on fear but on punishment, and there's no way I'm letting someone I don't trust near me for that."

Umegat nodded slowly. "It is very natural." He pushed himself to his feet. "Rest well, my lord. Tomorrow is a new day, and hopefully Ista's arrival will relieve many burdens." He hesitated a moment, then added, "If you need anything, even in the night, my room is just across the hall. Not placed accidentally, I understand."

Mark gave a wry smile at that and lifted his hand for a little finger waggle of a farewell. "Probably best for everyone if I'm not separated from my support, hm?"

"Probably," Umegat agreed, and made his exit.

Chapter Text

The naval review was a first class dog and pony show, Miles reflected. He was on the reviewing stand with the rest of the main Chalionese party, the Fox, Admiral dy Galvar, and a selection of important Ibran nobles meant to reassure either them or the sailors presently on parade.

Miles knew about military reviews from Barrayar, though they remained, thank whatever god operated on Barrayar, Gregor's province. The VIPs on the stand rarely did any significant reviewing. The sergeants and lieutenants did the reviews of their troops in detail, then trotted them out to feel like a unit, to feel pride in being part of a greater whole, and to see that their leaders honored them and their labors.

That meant that the really important VIPs had to look stern but approving and as if they were paying keen attention when they were actually wondering when they could get get to a bathroom. Or a chamberpot. Miles fancied that between Cazaril, the Fox and the Admiral, they surely had a good mix. Admiral dy Galvar was looking proud and making occasional gestures to his seated roya. The Fox had his reputation and the look of a man with a keen eye. Cazaril was enough of an outsider to make them want to come together and make dy Galvar look good.

Miles was not quite sure what they made of the others. The formal temple robes of Umegat and Daris would probably seem unexceptional in their glittering company, but he and Mark probably stood out like blots of dark ink on a painted rainbow. Who knew what a common Ibran sailor could make of them, or what they were rumored to be.

The term "naval review" was a little misleading. It was not the ships that were on parade but the men who crewed them, which meant that the actual ships were almost all sitting safely at anchor in the harbor. Their reviewing stand was set near a pier, close enough to the water that Miles was sure Cazaril was keenly uncomfortable. The usual business of the docks seemed to be on hold for the day, or at least the unfavorable tide.

"And these are the seamen of Commodore dy Olyvane's light war galleys," dy Galvar narrated for the benefit of the reviewing stand. It did help keep Miles attentive, for all that the names meant little to him. "Aside from our little messenger sloops, those are the fastest things on the seas. Certainly the fastest things that'll worry the Roknari."

The crews were small and more than a little motley as they marched past and saluted. Then again, sailors were not meant to create order on land, just on their ships. Miles thought they must be making a sincere effort, and reminded himself that it would be brutally unfair to compare them to the crews of a Barrayaran interstellar jumpship, or even the old efficiency of his various units of the Dendarii Mercenaries.

Miles glanced at the rest of his company. Mark seemed mostly bored but a little edgy; that was to be expected with Ista due to arrive at some unknown time today. Umegat and Daris were murmuring to each other, with some gesticulated punctuations from Daris to help make his meaning clear. Cazaril looked like he might pass out and pitch over backward.

"So, are all the sailors short, or is that one fellow really tall?" Miles asked Cazaril in an effort to force his mind onto anything other than his fears of the sea. It took Cazaril a minute to bring his attention downward to meet Miles.

"Hm? Oh, yes, the sailors tend to be a little on the short side, but not excessively. That tall one is probably taller than me, but only a little." Since Miles estimated that Cazaril topped six feet by at least two inches, this was not trivial.

"He reminds me a little of this one trooper I once commanded, back when I ran a galactic mercenary fleet," Miles reminisced, in a deliberate attempt to distract Cazaril. "I've mentioned a little bit about genetic manipulation and cleaning, but she was exceptional even by our wildest standards. Eight feet tall, with by-the-gods fangs and claws -- you'd probably have thought she was a monster. I did, for about twenty minutes, when I first met her."

This was enough of an image to make Cazaril look down at him, his eyebrows pulling together. "Eight feet -- " He cut off the rest of his incredulous repetition and looked suspicious. "Are you testing me? Is this the proverbial fish that gets bigger with each retelling? See how much the benighted Chalionese chancellor will believe?"

Miles grinned and lifted a hand. "Not this time, my lord. Sergeant Taura was my wife's second at our wedding. Saved her life, and hence my sanity. The soul of a storybook princess in the body of a storybook monster." Since Cazaril still looked suspicious, he added, "I swear by my word as Vorkosigan, I am not teasing, testing or lying." If he really wanted to test Cazaril's credulity, he could try describing Quaddies. Or that repulsive kitten-tree that Ivan had foolishly vandalized on their visit to Eta Ceta.

Cazaril might not be up on the significance of Barrayaran formal oaths, but Miles apparently put in enough serious sincerity to convince the man. He gave a slow nod, then asked, "So, what happened to her?"

"Died too young. To power her muscles and mass, her body used itself so hard, she couldn't sustain it long. There were ten super-soldiers in her group when she was born; all the rest were dead before she was sixteen, and she outlived them all by more than a decade."

"That sounds...grotesque," Cazaril replied, looking unsettled. Well, at least he's unsettled for a new reason, now, Miles thought with dark amusement. "Not her physicality, but the -- the constraints of her life."

Miles was a little bit taken aback by this assessment. He had expected that Cazaril would have a similar moral position on Taura if he explained properly, but he thought the man would have to assimilate the new concepts before striking right to the center of the true evils of her situation. Almost unsettlingly like his father, in that ability, as Miles reflected on Cazaril; his eyes constantly seemed to see below the surface.

MIles kept himself positioned so that Cazaril could keep his back mostly to the sea. As dy Galvar was announcing the crews of the heavy war galleys ("the fiercest things on the seas!") Miles noted a single dock worker on the pier behind them. That seemed a little odd, since all the others were idle, but he trudged to a coil of rope and started quietly doing something with it.

"Yes, well, she made the most of her life. I quite admired her approach, living for each moment. It's a little harder to do as a major political figure and a parent, as opposed to a mercenary marine sergeant." And Miles was glad for every moment of that joy every time he thought of Taura.

"I suppose we worriers and schemers must make due with other consolations," Cazaril replied dryly. "How many children was it you said you had again?"

Miles grinned and didn't answer the rhetorical retort. The worker who had caught Miles' attention was still fixing that one coil of rope. Miles reflected that he must have really messed it up for it to need so much fixing. Then again, it actually made sense; if he'd realized he'd made an enormous error that would take half an hour to fix, he'd be more likely to get a jump on it than if it were a little thing.

"And here come the marine skirmishers. Finest landing parties on the peninsula!" declaimed dy Galvar, probably loudly enough for the men in question to actually overhear. Maybe that was the point.

And then the dock worker stood. He had just pulled a cocked and loaded crossbow out of its concealment in the heavy coils of rope on which he had been apparently working. He lifted it and Miles felt it point right toward him, or at least toward the stand.

"Duck!" he bellowed and started to follow his own advice, but before he could even get down, the bolt was loosed and flying. Miles had time to recognize that it was headed squarely for the Fox but not time to do anything about it. Admiral dy Galvar tried to fling the Fox out of the way, but he had only just grabbed the roya's shoulders when the Fox took the bolt squarely in the chest. He was badly unbalanced backward, as he let out a hoarse scream, and fell into his admiral. Dy Galvar's hands came loose as the changes in direction left him spinning, and stepped off the reviewing stand. It was not a high platform, but dy Galvar went down heavily, and Miles thought he might have hit his head.

Miles stopped himself with his cane from going all the way to the ground. There were screams and a general uproar, full of sailors cursing and screams from every direction. Miles reached into his vest cloak and managed to fish out his stunner, then stumble forward, toward the assassin. Most of the attention was being directed at the Fox, who was not dead yet, despite being pierced and dropped to the floor of the stand.

#

Mark had been standing with Umegat and trying not to get too anxious about Ista's arrival. He only even saw what happened when the Fox hit the ground. Killer instantly diagnosed that the bolt had almost certainly gone through the Fox's lung. Then he noticed that Miles was stumbling out of the panic stricken mob and off toward the assassin. Figured.

Mark began to hammer after his brother, bulling through a pair of twittering nobles. Mark suspected that he had knocked them to the ground but he was not quite certain. When he managed to get out of the press of people he saw their assassin heaving something that looked heavy off the pier which stared to drag a heavy rope after it.

Then the assassin looked up at Miles and Mark recognized the look. Despair, defiance, acceptance and a hint of relief at an escape. This man knew he was about to die.

Then he flared blue and collapsed to the deck in a heap because Miles had stunned him. And then, before Miles could reach him the rope -- no wait, that was no rope, that was a chain -- snapped tight and the body was jerked to the pier's edge and over into the water.

Mark pelted up to the spot at the deck's edge where the assassin had gone over just after Miles. It appeared that the assassin had hidden his kit in the high stacked curl of rope, now in disarray. Miles looked up at Mark.

"There's no way we can break that chain," he said, clearly wishing he were wrong. In fact, he was. Mark reached into his own clothes and pulled out a short bladed knife with a little switch on the side.

"Vibraknife," Mark replied.

Miles blinked at Mark, then wild hope shone on his eyes and he made a sharp downward gesture. "Go!"

Mark shook his head and slapped his belly. "I can't dive deep. I float." He really didn't want to, but there was no other choice: Mark held out the knife to his skinny, old, damaged brother.

Miles growled a curse and flung off his vestcloak, then grabbed the knife and dived. Mark stared down for a minute then looked up and bellowed at the shore, "Hey! If anyone wants to ask that assassin any questions, they better get their asses over here and help my brother get him up!"

Cazaril led the charge up the pier, shedding his own outer garments.

#

Cazaril was trying very hard not to think about what he was doing. Also, not to throw up. Or hyperventilate. But as he had told Miles, he could swim. In fact, Cazaril was a strong swimmer, and in a quiet river inlet or pond, he quite enjoyed it. But this was the sea.

He took a running dive to prevent himself thinking about it, gulped a breath in the air and swam under to where he thought Miles must be. It was murky enough to take him a moment, but there was the shape of the unconscious assassin, trying to float except that it was tied down with a chain. There was the gnarled knot that was the little Count, curled around the chain just below the assassin's feet.

As Cazaril got close enough, he realized that Vorkosigan was sawing at the links with something. The chain was thick, it had to be futile; Cazaril dived a little further to look for what was weighing the man down. It was a small anvil, light enough for one man to push around, but far too heavy for men underwater to safely bring up. Cazaril swam up again to Miles and realized with a shock that Miles had somehow parted one side of the link and was working on the other.

He realized there were two more Ibran sailors under the water with them now, swimming up and realizing, as he had, their utter lack of a coherent plan. He waved to them, then held up one finger, and like him, they paused, hovering.

Finally, there was a little motion and the assassin started to drift away as the chain fell. Vorkosigan tried to grab the larger man to drag him up, and Cazaril gestured to the two sailors forward instantly. He forcibly separated Vorkosigan from the assassin, shoving the assassin into the arms of the sailors. Then, as the sailors dragged their quarry up, Cazaril pushed Miles at the surface.

Miles resisted, hesitated, and finally saw that the sailors were better equipped than he was to tow a man out of the depths. Cazaril was keenly aware of how much longer Vorkosigan had been underwater than himself, and his lungs were pulsing with effort already. It was probably impolitic of him to be heaving the much smaller man around so much; he felt a little like a bully, but all he was actually trying to do was get Miles to the surface.

He actually swam upwards with a hand on Miles' backside, pushing him up, since Cazaril seemed to be the faster swimmer. In any case, it got Miles and Cazaril both to the surface without either passing out, and when Cazaril got his head up, he could see that Miles was gasping desperately, and wondered if Vorkosigan had given any thought to the possibility of having an underwater seizure.

The sailors burst out of the water with their unconscious assassin prisoner a moment later. Now the dock was absolutely crammed with people leaning down to pull them up, and Cazaril was relieved that little effort was required on his part. He did, however, have to fend off solicitous offers of help and push his way to Vorkosigan, who looked like he could barely stand. Cazaril grabbed him by an arm supportively.

"Get -- me -- killer -- now," Miles managed to gulp out and so Cazaril pushed in the direction of the spot where he'd seen the assassin pulled up. He was half supporting, half towing the little Barrayaran and Cazaril was glad he was not heavier.

They broke into the circle that surrounded their prisoner and Cazaril's heart sank. The prisoner was face down with men thumping doubled fists on his back. One looked up and recognized him as a man in authority.

"We think we got the water out of his lungs, but he's not breathing," he reported. Cazaril spotted Mark bulling his way into the circle as well; it was astonishing how the younger Vorkosigan could use his low slung bulk to push aside men who were quite a bit larger. Miles jerked out of Cazaril's supporting grip and thumped to his knees beside the prisoner. Mark came forward, too. The sailors were already flipping the prisoner onto his back and one of them seemed to be manipulating his arms; Cazaril realized he was raising them to try and expand the man's chest, as if for a breath.

"Rescue -- breathing -- now!" Miles managed to rasp out to Mark, who seemed to understand this cryptic shorthand. He turned to the sailors attempting to revive the prisoner.

"Move!" When Mark really barked, men jumped, and the sailor holding the prisoner's arms dropped them almost guiltily. Mark tilted the prisoner's head back, pinched the nose closed, and leaned forward to press his lips over the assassin's. The man's chest lifted slightly, and Cazaril realized what they were doing. Instead of pulling the man's arms around to try and restart his breathing, Mark was actually puffing air into him directly.

Miles gestured urgently for Cazaril and Cazaril came forward. There was no way he was going to gainsay the Vorkosigans right now, who clearly knew exactly what they were doing. Could the man truly be saved? It was not unheard of, but they were doing it very differently.

"Listen -- heart -- beating?" Miles gestured down to the chest with its intermittent rising, and then to Cazaril's ear. Vorkosigan was sounding only marginally less winded, and Cazaril wondered if he had in fact been quite in time getting him to the surface, or if Vorkosigan had actually swallowed a little water before he made it up. In any case, he obediently put his ear to the man's chest and listened while Miles seemed to poke at the man's wrist.

"Thready but beating," Cazaril reported as he heard a faint double thump in the man's chest and another. Cazaril could see Miles let his shoulders slump for a moment in relief. Suddenly, their prisoner gave a little spasm and Mark moved his head back just in time to avoid getting vomited water into his mouth. Mark hastily turned the man's head to the side and more trickled out. He was not conscious yet, but he was definitely breathing under his own power.

Miles clapped his hand on Mark's shoulder and Mark, who was panting a little himself, now, grinned at his brother. Miles handed over a small knife, which Cazaril realized must have been the tool he'd used on the chain. What in the name of the Five Gods was that knife made of?

"Chancellor dy Cazaril," Miles said, his voice sounding breathy but back under control. "Could you get someone to run back to my room and pick up the medical kit there? It is white with a bright red cross, and we might find it of assistance in questioning our new captive."

"Miles, you didn't pack fast-penta, did you?" Mark sounded incredulous. Cazaril realized that Mark had mentioned this 'fast-penta' once before in relation to questioning the Pacovans, but he still had no idea what exactly it meant.

"No, but he'll need synergine, and we should go see if there's anything to be done for the Fox."

Cazaril was fairly certain there was not going to be anything even the miraculous Barrayaran medicine could do; the kit was simply not large enough to contain a spare lung. But there was certainly no reason not to check. He gave a short nod and strode off, the crowd quickly making way for him.

As he went, he heard Miles asking Mark, "Mark, do you think you could make me glow?"

Cazaril made it to the reviewing stand and bullied a page to go get the medical box from Miles' room. The boy seemed relieved to have someone give him an errand. There were physicians attending the Fox and Admiral dy Galvar was sitting up, holding a cool, wet cloth to the back of his head. He seemed to have managed to shed any physicians who attended him, so Cazaril approached him, rather than the stricken roya.

"How's he doing?" Cazaril asked. No question who he meant.

"Dying," replied dy Galvar, looking on the brink of tears. That was disturbing, but the admiral forged on, despite the husky emotion clotting his throat. "His lung's collapsed, but it missed the major blood vessels. Just means it'll take him a little longer to go."

Cazaril had no idea what to say to that, so he asked instead, "How's your head?"

"Hurts like a man suffocating a wolf with his nutsack," dy Galvar replied immediately. Cazaril wondered if he had been preparing that line and no one had asked him. It was just colorful enough to make him try to work out how one might attempt that trick before he could stop himself.

"The Vorkosigans managed to get us the assassin alive," he volunteered instead.

"Hot damn! Someone get me a wolf!"

Cazaril dropped his jaw, then clapped a hand over his mouth before he could let out an accidental crack of laughter. It would surely not be appreciated at this moment, except possibly by dy Galvar, who looked like he was trying to buck himself up.

Before he had to decide how to respond to this, however, a divine emerged from the crowd around the Fox and gave a quick but deep bow. "Chancellor dy Cazaril, Admiral dy Galvar, the roya wants you."

The page had his instructions to go straight to the Vorkosigans, and there was certainly nothing to prevent him going. Cazaril was not precisely sure he wanted to, but he joined the circle around the roya. There were the physicians all around, but also present were the Fox's own castle warder and chancellor. The Fox was pale, the loss of blood and air draining all color from him.

"Darvik," the Fox addressed his chancellor softly. "Letter to Bergon. Tell him. See it arrives." The harried looking man nodded, looking as if he did not trust his voice.

"Cazaril. Galvar." Cazaril was a little surprised to be paired with the admiral, but gave a grave nod of his head. He hardly dared speak, for the Fox's voice was quiet and breathy. "I leave you two to oversee Zagosur. For my son."

The castle warder, Ser dy Kator, gave a little start, as if slapped but the Fox continued before he could voice his objections. "You know Bergon's mind, Cazaril. Make sure he will like -- what he finds here. You may rely on my people. And you," he looked around at the men who remained his subordinates for the last few minutes of his life, "can rely on him."

The castle warder met the Fox's eyes for a minute, then looked down. "Yes, my lord," was all he said. Cazaril thought the chancellor looked rather relieved to be spared the responsibility of command in his roya's absence. Dy Galvar's gaze was steady and Cazaril could not detect any of the hints of tears he had seen earlier. But the Fox's eyes focused on Cazaril, expectant.

"If you wish it, I will undertake this charge, for the sake of your son and in his name, my lord," Cazaril replied formally. The Fox nodded back and closed his eyes.

"Dy Kator, please stay. Caz, Galvar, Darvik. Do your duties."

That seemed the signal for the physicians to close in again, so the three men stepped away, looking at each other. Chancellor Darvik dy Yldam spoke first.

"My lord," he addressed Cazaril, "is there anything I should send to Royse Bergon but this news?"

"Tell him of the assassin's method and that he is captured, awaiting the question. We will send more word when we have it to meet him on route, but he should arrive as speedily as he may." Cazaril hesitated a moment, then added, "And tell him I suggest that Iselle stay in Cardegoss for the moment. We will be attempting to stablize the situation here, but they should not send both Royina and Royse in together until we are more confident we have done so." Then he looked at dy Galvar. "Anything else you think we should include?"

"No, Lord Cazaril. Get it moving, Darvik. We'll probably have a follow up to send tonight, but let's not waste half a day getting details." Cazaril noticed that, for all dy Galvar's deliberate identification with the common Ibran soldier in his speech and mannerisms, when it was time for a formal counsel, his speech became much more precise. Even if he had spent of his life at sea, somewhere along the line, he had had a gentleman's upbringing.

"I'll go do that, then, my lords, then return." And Darvik hurried away. Dy Galvar turned back to Cazaril, squaring his broad shoulders.

"Damn. What a business. And on my watch, too." His jaw tensed for a moment, then he swallowed. "I'm going to get the sailors back on their ships and on high alert. If someone is out to pick off the Fox, we better be ready for a second strike to follow up. Dy Kator will be all right getting the castle into order for you, and if he's not, mention Gotorget to him. I'm not sure he's realized you're the same as that Cazaril."

It still made Cazaril grimace to have to call on that legacy, but he would not shy from it now. "All right. I'm going to go see about interrogating our prisoner first, though I think Count dy Vorkosigan was thinking about it."

"You trust him?" asked dy Galvar bluntly. The man gave it a serious inflection that implied it was a serious question. "If the Fox trusts your judgment, then I will too."

"I do," Cazaril replied. "He's a man of honor. He's got no formal alliance, but he's not the sort who'll forget any help we give him. He's actually a retired admiral in his own right, though his military seems to be, ah, more than a little different."

Dy Galvar's eyebrows shot up. "An admiral, eh? Well, if you trust him, I'll welcome his counsel, too."

"He also personally foiled an assassination of Royse Bergon," Cazaril mentioned. Before dy Galvar could respond to that, Cazaril gestured to the pier. "Can you get your officers to clear the pier? We can't have all those sailors milling about."

"Right." Dy Galvar turned and began bellowing, his voice once again dropping into a lower class twang. Men started moving, all of them clearly relieved at having something to do. It was a little tricky for Cazaril to make it back up the pier with the press of bodies moving in the other direction, but when they passed, it was pleasantly clear. Two guards still stood by with the Vorkosigans and Cazaril could see the page similarly swimming through the crowds in their direction.

"Cazaril, I'd like to lead the interrogation, if I may," Miles began without preamble. "I think I can get him to confess if you give me a free hand when my medical kit arrives."

Cazaril nodded. "I had a feeling," he admitted. "What do you need?"

"Space," Miles replied. "Mark. Some rope. You nearby to listen in. No interruptions. Right here would really be best."

"Done," Cazaril replied as the page started up the pier toward them.

Chapter Text

He felt no pain. That made sense; the divines all said that when the spirit left the body, it left behind all connection to the realm of matter. There seemed to be some sensations, but he not sure what they meant. He felt almost heavy, immobile.

He opened his eyes. They did not focus well at first. There was a white blur above him, surrounded by a field of pale blue. He blinked a few times and the figure came into focus. It was that strange, short little man who had been up on the reviewing stand, except it wasn't. He was glowing, and his eyes had a strange, fathomless quality to them.

"Who are you?"

The words were somewhat slurred, as if he could not quite control the muscles of his own face. Maybe he was losing his connection to his body.

"You don't know?" The voice had a faint edge of mockery to it. "Well, I suppose you must still be disoriented. I am the Bastard, my little unseasonal assassin." He could feel his face giving away shock and apprehension. The Bastard smiled at him in a way that was not comforting. "Were you expecting someone else?"

"Yes!" escaped him before he could contain it. "I'm sorry," he added immediately. "I just expected the Father."

"After your little trick? I must almost admire it, in its way. Almost your own little simulation of my own most famous gift of death magic. Victim and killer, both slain." There was a beat of pause. "Except my miracles are justice, when justice fails. How would you describe your choices?"

He flinched at the question. "My family can never regain their honor while I live. If I can serve in death, a glorious death for my homeland, isn't that -- I mean, what choice did I have?"

The dark eyes flickered down, then up. He found he could not easily move his head to look away, but really, why would he? He was still not quite sure he was truly taken up with the god, or if he might left behind, excluded, damned.

"If the gods may not invade a man's will, neither may other men. We will not make our choices for you, mortal, but the trade is that at the end of your life, you must account for them. Make your confession, assassin, and do not spare yourself in your own judgment. To pass into us, you must cleanse your soul, and my family is not sure whether yours truly can be made pure again, or if it will defile what it touches. Start at the end of your life, and explain to us the chances and choices that bring you here."

He was trembling with the weight of what he had made of his own life. It would be like living it again, and he was afraid to do that. But if he did not, he might never escape it. He closed his eyes and half choked on a sob.

Then he poured out confession.

#

Cazaril was not quite sure of the significance of everything Miles had done with his medical kit. What he gathered was that their assassin, who eventually gave his name as "Ambin," was seeing the world through a drug induced fog, not quite able to use his muscles properly, and not able to feel any pain. He didn't even seem to be aware that he was lying on his back, tied securely, and looking up as Miles leaned over him.

What was more disquieting was that Mark was causing his brother to give off a faint glow as of a candle, and making his eyes look odd and distant somehow. It did not compare to actually being in the presence of a god, as Cazaril could attest, but their captive could hardly be expected to know better.

So it was Yiss and Darthaca after all. The exact dynamics were unclear, since this Ambin was not privy to their plans, but he had definitely been dispatched by the High March of Yiss himself. Their enemies grew unpleasantly numerous; Chalion-Ibra had the kind of strength of purpose to contend with the squabbling, divided Roknari princedoms, but Darthaca was a genuine empire. For all that its heart was distant, allies like Yiss, who paid fealty without quite being engulfed in the empire, were much closer to hand.

Finally, Miles pressed the little device he had termed a "hypospray" to Ambin's arm, and the man slipped quietly into sleep. Miles straightened up and stretched his back with a wince as the guards came to hoist the prisoner and take him away. Somewhere along the line, Vorkosigan's sword stick had made its way back to him. Mark also stood and stretched as the eerie effects faded from around Miles.

"So, I understand that we have the High March of Yiss to thank, but I suspect I'm still missing all the larger political consequences. I didn't miss anything you wanted to ask about, did I?"

"No, I don't think he knew anything else of value. Aside from sordid family history that I don't think I really want to know." Cazaril drew a deep breath. "As to the wider political implications, I'm afraid that it is complicated."

"Oh, good," Mark replied. "Because I was beginning to think that assassins, possessions and miracles were too fucking simple."

"Mark!" Miles did not sound scandalized so much as exasperated. Mark gave a little shrug, which Cazaril suspected was about the best apology he was likely to get. He actually felt an inadvertent smile twitching at his mouth as he thought of his own brother.

"Yiss is not technically part of the Darthacan empire; they are simply an ally. But they pay fealty for a certain amount of protection. If Darthaca wants to expand into the Ibran peninsula, they will almost certainly be coming through Yiss to do it, so the question is whether this is a project of the High March of Yiss alone, or King Alisar in Darthaca."

"So," Miles replied, his eyes narrowing, "you're telling me that King Alisar can let Yiss take a swipe at you and if it fails, he raps Yiss on the knuckles and says 'Bad ally! We'll deal with him,' and you have to let it go?"

Cazaril could not keep a grimace from his features. "That is entirely too plausible for my liking, yes."

"Oh good god. Gods. It's like the damned Cetagandans with galleys instead of starships." This time it was Miles cursing, undercutting his recent outrage more than a little. Cazaril tilted his head invitingly, and Miles explained, "They have this weird double decked aristocracy, where the military leaders are below these pretty gentry. So when the military fails, like in their invasion of Barrayar, they go and recall the failed leaders of their 'unauthorized military adventure.'"

"Ah." Cazaril could follow the parallel, though it was not exact. No wonder it should strike up old resonances, given the Barrayaran history he had gotten from Miles thus far. "We should attend on the Fox, if he is still able to hear our report. Dy Galvar will have to know, certainly."

They turned and started up the pier, back to the reviewing stand. It appeared no one had dared move the roya, though they had managed to erect a sort of awning to protect him from the sun. Dy Galvar was near, but keeping himself out of the way of the divines. The Fox's chancellor was not back, but his castle warder seemed to be playing gatekeeper, so it was dy Kator that Cazaril approached.

"How does he go on? Is he still lucid?" he asked in an undertone. Dy Kator glanced at the Vorkosigans, his eyes suspicious, but he finally licked his lips.

"He's drifting," dy Kator admitted. "But he's not gone yet. Do you have something for him?"

"Yes. The Vorkosigans got our prisoner to make a full confession in record time." If he was taking their part, it was probably best not to mention the deep blasphemy they had undertaken in doing so. It would not even help that the Bastard probably loved their particular gambit. In any case, dy Kator looked impressed, and gave them a little nod, allowing them past. He stayed close at their elbows as they came upon the roya.

He was now gray, not merely pale, and his eyelids were closed. There was a wheezing to his shallow breathing that suggested he would not last much longer, to Cazaril's ear. He glanced at Miles and Mark, who looked as grim as any Ibran in the face of death. So for all Vorkosigan's talk of his death and resurrection, Cazaril could see on their faces that it was a familiar and painful sight; apparently immortality still remained beyond their abilities.

"Caz. News?" That seemed all the Fox could manage. His eyes did not seem open, but they might be slitted enough to make him out, or perhaps he had simply heard the voice. The roya seemed to be fitting his words to his quick, labored breathing, afraid to change its pattern lest he destroy it.

"The Vorkosigans," Cazaril nodded to indicate the pair, "got a confession out of the prisoner. He was sent by the High March of Yiss, there can be no doubt of it. Whether this is an independent venture of some kind, he was not in a position to know."

The Fox gave a little nod, as if acknowledging the tactical importance of sending out suicidal assassins in as much ignorance as possible. Still in his breathy rasp, he asked, "Kator. Galvar. Defense?"

Dy Galvar spoke first. "Well, as Yiss has no coastline and no navy, I think we'd best be more worried about an assault by land, for all that it'd have to come the wrong way 'round. If it's King Alisar and Darthaca, well, that'd be another story. In either case, I plan to keep our greatest strength close to Zagosur 'til we hear something different. If we get a land assault with no naval component, it won't be here. In that case, ships will still get our men to where they're needed at our best speed." Then Galvar turned to Kator.

"I'm more concerned for a direct assault on Zagosur, however they get the troops here; here's where they were hoping to sow their confusion. I've sent orders to put more outriders on the roads, to give us better warning if there is any movement. I'm keeping our greatest standing strength in the city and preparing to defend our two practical approaches. I think we should also send word to our other border towns to prepare them and offer to shelter them if they must evacuate at speed." Dy Kator looked at Cazaril with some challenge, which Cazaril elected to ignore.

"Good," was all the reply the Fox could make. His eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and Cazaril started to try and wave the herd of them back to let the man have a little peace. But the Fox lifted a hand, pointing two fingers to the Vorkosigans, then beckoning them forward. They looked at each other, then Cazaril. Cazaril gave a little shrug, then tilted his head to the Fox as if to say Would you really deny him now?

They approached, together, and the Fox's eyes flickered open to sum their shortness. Finally, he managed to wheeze out, "Confession. How?"

"I enlisted Mark's aid in posing as the Bastard and convinced him he was dead, and that it would do his spirit good to make full confession of his sins," Miles replied promptly. A little twitch at the corner of the Fox's mouth suggested amusement.

"Smite you," he cautioned the little man. Miles just shrugged.

"If he wanted to stop me, my lord, he could have at will. I'm told he appreciates a good ploy."

Cazaril was not entirely sure the Fox understood Miles' miracle of speech, but the old roya gave a little nod. "You. Help. Son?"

"I will if I may. I certainly owe him for his assistance." The Fox turned his eyes on Mark, who hesitated a moment, then likewise nodded.

"Yes, sir. I will do what I can." Cazaril was not quite sure what was going on behind Mark's round cheeks, but his face was an uncomfortable gray color. After a moment, he added, "I'm sorry I can't heal you, but I'm pretty sure I'd only make it worse."

The Fox lifted a couple of fingers to wave this away. "Son. Con...sole." His eyes turned to Cazaril, clearly expecting him to be the one to act as translator.

"We will all do what we can, my lord," Cazaril promised. "Bergon is not without his consolations in life. He has Iselle, and his girls, and a double royacy poised on the brink of greatness in the Ibran peninsula." He paused for a moment, looking down, then up again. "I have spoken often enough with your son to say that you may go to the gods without fear of censure on his part. As for the rest of the deeds of your life, well. I have heard it said the gods desire great souls, not perfect ones."

The Fox lifted his fingers again and waved them all back. The group went quickly enough and the physicians moved into their place. They formed a new knot, just out of earshot of the roya, who was clearly not going to be in a position to conduct more business at his current rate of decline. Their attention was clearly focused on the reviewing stand, though, waiting for any change.

"Have we any news of Dowager Royina Ista's party?" Cazaril inquired of dy Kator, once they were safely turned in again.

"Yes," came a familiar voice from behind dy Galvar. As they all turned to see who was speaking, Cazaril identified the voice as that of Foix dy Gura, sometime soldier, now Royal Sorcerer in the little traveling court of Royina Ista dy Chalion. "We're here."

Foix was not alone, either. Cazaril had met the Royina Saint's principle attendants after the Jokonan campaign, so he recognized Annaliss dy Tenneret, Illvin dy Arbanos and Goram dy Hixar. There was also the massive divine of the Bastard, Learned Chivar dy Cabon, and it was from behind his screening that Ista emerged into view.

Cazaril saw Mark stiffen and realized that Ista's little formation had been arranged with intent. Sorcerers could be dangerous, and Cazaril had sent enough reports of Mark to make her retinue justifiably nervous. Cazaril was not sure how well even a bulk like dy Cabon's could conceal the presence of her god, but between Mark's distractions and her movements, he appeared genuinely surprised.

Then Mark tilted his head to the side and lifted his hand. Cazaril saw Foix, watching him intently, raise his hand as well, as if to defend Ista, perhaps deflect a blow. Surely they were well practiced in their craft by now. Ista paused for a moment, regarding Mark and seemed about to speak, but Mark spoke first.

"My demon wishes to make confession," he said, sounding decidedly bemused.

#

Mark thought it had to be a very strange conclave in which they met. Introductions had taken some time, but at least Ista's party only added six new faces on top of the many he had just learned. Umegat, Daris by his side, had rejoined them, leaving them somewhat oversupplied with representatives of the Bastard for the demon's taste. If it kept the demon uncomfortable and docile, that was fine with Mark.

Instinctively, Mark started grouping them. Two chancellors, two admirals (counting his brother,) two sorcerers, two saints (counting Miles again, though it was a little bit painful to deliberately apply the word to him,) two divines of the Bastard, and quite a lot of confusion besides.

Arranging themselves in the hastily vacated boathouse for their conference proved a tricky little negotiation. Ista would not be far parted from Mark, apparently to keep the pressure on his demon, and Foix and Illvin would clearly not be parted from her side. Miles would have started stunning people if they tried to shift him any further away, and Cazaril was unanimously elected as the lead interrogator when the demon hinted that it could shed light on the political machinations behind their recent troubles. Even the resistant dy Kator seemed to be relieved to pass off this task.

"How are we supposed to question a demon?" Miles wondered aside to Umegat as Cazaril got settled, but it was Foix, who was rather more muscular than Mark would generally have imagined a sorcerer to be, who replied.

"We have not done it often. Last time, our sorceress let the demon have control for a time so it could speak, then took it back; that's part of what I'm here for, but frankly, the threat of being eaten immediately ought to be a big enough stick."

"Eaten?" Miles said with both confusion and concern, but Mark overrode him.

"I'm sorry but there's not a chance in hell I'm letting this thing up off the mat for an instant. It swallowed me up once and I barely got control back. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience." He stared directly at Ista. It was probably not good politics to challenge a royina so directly, but that wasn't really the role in which he was dealing with her.

"Then how is the demon to make confession?" Ista inquired tartly. She was watching Mark suspiciously and he wondered exactly what her second sight saw in him.

"Put your questions to me and I will put them to it. It is very much aware of your presence, Royina Ista. I have told it that it is in no position to make demands, but apparently it wants to get this out." Mark paused, then admitted, "I think it wants every minute of existence it can squeeze out."

"Tell it that if it tries to string us along, we have additional means of persuasion at our disposal," Foix put in dryly. Mark gave a brief sidelong look at Foix and wondered just how much distinction these methods would make between him and his demon. Still, he gave the demon a little internal prod.

I know that, whispered the demon from its curled ball in the pit of Mark's belly.

"It seems to be aware," Mark replied blandly.

"Very well, then," Cazaril replied, firmly taking back the conversational hot ball. "We already know it was the High March of Yiss who dispatched our assassin. Does it have any more useful information?"

Well? Mark prodded the demon again.

It was Yiss who sent me, in Ser dy Lovar, to infiltrate Chalion's court and import his little pet assassin, hissed the demon. Mark got the sense that it was holding back, measuring out its confessions as slowly as it thought it might. He relayed this one anyway.

"Good to have confirmation, though I don't think it's any great surprise at this point," Cazaril replied coolly. Miles gave a silent little nod, apparently already conversant enough in Chalionese politics to be ahead of this chain of logic. "How did Yiss get dy Lovar on his side?"

Bribery, of course, the demon replied.

When and how? Speed it up, or I'm going to ask Ista to rip you out by the roots so I can be rid of you. What the fuck do I care about politics in this ass backward little country? Let them kill each other off. The thought was not perfectly sincere, for Mark found he was interested; he liked the Chalionese. The demon seemed to be able to tell.

My, how amoral we are today, it drawled at him with a hint of a smug leer. Mark blasted it with a wash of red anger that made it curl tighter again. He might be cursing too much when he let it out at Cazaril, but he had no need to be nice or polite to this thing, especially after all he had gone through because of it. The demon seemed to get the hint that while he might be insincere about not caring for Chalion, he was really deathly sincere about his threats against the demon.

The demon's voice shifted, going more academic; Mark thought there was a scholar mixed in with it somewhere, coming to the fore to give its explanations. It was some months ago. Yiss captured my last mount and slew him with dy Lovar present. So I fled to dy Lovar; why should I not? But I think they had set some sort of theological gate to ensure that it was to him I fled, not to Yiss or anyone else. Dy Lovar wanted a demon; my power was part of the price that bought him.

"Bribery. He was suborned some time ago. He -- " Mark broke off for a moment, frowning down at his own gut. "It says that Yiss actually captured it before he was in dy Lovar and slew his body, forcing him somehow into dy Lovar, who was primed for it. Apparently, possession of the demon was part of the price to get dy Lovar to back Yiss. Once it was in dy Lovar, the demon was actually quite happy to go along with what Yiss planned, so I'm a little unclear about which was actually the dominant partner."

"I see," Cazaril replied seriously. Mark had no idea how he was able to look so calm and even about all this. "So was it, through dy Lovar, orchestrating Bergon's assassination?"

Iselle's assassination, in the original plan, the demon corrected, still in the scholar's voice. It seemed more helpful this way, Mark had to admit. If dy Lovar and I held Bergon, why should we strike at him? Remove Iselle and the old rotting Fox and what would stand between us and Chalion-Ibra? But when we were discovered, our little bloody handed pet seized a chance at our backup plan much too soon, as he struck at Bergon.

Mark explained about the change in targets. As he did so, his audience riveted, he wondered, Too soon for what?

The plan, replied the demon, not so helpful again.

Cazaril leaned back as he absorbed the explanations. Dy Galvar seemed to be muttering curses to himself, while the Ibran chancellor and castle warder looked pale and horrified. The saint's party just looked intent, though Mark thought that Ista's eyes would spark and snap. Well, she was Iselle's own mother.

"Why is the demon suddenly making confession of all this now?" That was dy Cabon, the divine even fatter than Mark, and that was accounting for the fact that he was significantly taller, too. Mark tilted his head to the side for a moment, listening to an inner voice.

So the Bastard's vessel will not eat me, I hope to make a little use of myself. Its attempt at pious innocence was cloying.

"It says it wanted to live, so it hoped to make itself useful so Royina Ista would not eat it."

"Eating the demon won't hurt Mark, will it?" Miles could not contain the question. This was the second time that someone had described it as 'eating' the demon. Remembering what Quadrenes did to sorcerers, Mark suddenly had visions of cannibalism, or maybe vampirism, and internally cursed MIles for putting the thought into his head.

"No," Ista replied with regal calm. She kept her chin very level and so gave the impression that she was looking down her nose at Miles even while seated. He supposed the question was probably annoying from her perspective, a slur on her abilities.

"Royina Ista's recovered over thirty elementals for the Bastard! And mostly the men who had them, when it's men and not animals, mostly they're grateful afterward," put in the tall young lady in waiting, Lady Liss as she'd asked to be known. Her bright tone was reassuringly straightforward, and seemed to soothe Miles.

"It is strange..." It was dy Cabon again, trailing off in some train of thought. Mark noticed that Miles was tapping his cane. Mark frowned and Miles stilled it. Then he started tapping his fingers on the cane's shaft. Then he stilled them. Then Miles' toes started to wriggle.

"What's strange?" Miles finally prodded the divine. Mark was relieved he'd asked, rather than wriggling like a two year old until his head popped off and flew around the room.

"Well, most elementals are afraid of the Royina, which only follows from her calling. But this one seems to be attempting to make some sort of bargain for its life, which is far more sensible and ordered a chain of reason than you can expect from a creature whose very nature is chaos."

There was a little silence before the seneschal, Lord Illvin, noted, "But it isn't bargaining. No one has committed to anything but listening to its confession. And if it thinks it's going to be spared just for that, it would have to be curiously naive for a demon that we understand has feasted on several souls." He glanced sidelong at Mark and asked, "So, is it one of the escapees from Jokona? Since it's answering questions now."

Oh, yes. Tell Lord Illvin I remember his dear, departed brother, the demon replied sweetly.

"Yes," Mark replied after his little pause. "It says it recalls your brother, Lord Illvin."

Illvin stiffened at that, his eyes narrowing. "One of the demons in the sorcerers my brother slew in his final ride, then?"

If you are trying to get him to fly into a rage and slay us, Killer informed the demon in a dead level tone, we will have you eaten. And we will not relay your insults. Behave or die.

The demon seemed to have no choice but to believe the flatness of the threat, which was good, because the rest of the black gang grumbled their agreement. Fine, then. Yes, that was where I met Lord Arhys. And I don't need your promises now. Petulance, Mark could tolerate.

"Yes," Mark confirmed again. Illvin stared at Mark a moment, then simply gave a little nod, declining any hotter reaction, to Miles' obvious relief. Mark realized that the master of horse, Goram dy Hixar, had tensed too, but Mark had only noticed it when he relaxed, looking as fixated on Illvin and Ista as Daris seemed to be on Umegat, and on Miles since their revelation of his gift's side effects. "But it says it doesn't need a promise yet. Because..."

Why don't you need them? Mark asked.

Because if this assassin were any better about his business than mine, and it seems he was, then the Darthacan fleet is about to crash into Zagosur's harbor by lunch, and I think you'd rather have my power than squander it in a fit of pique.

Mark trailed off, his eyes widening as he looked down at himself. Ista and Foix tensed but did not make a move, which was good. Clearly, they had some clearer perception of him than he did of them; he could sense their power and had to overcome an instinctive wariness, but he could not see Ista's miracle or tell whether Foix was in control or his demon.

"It says that if the Fox has been assassinated, it almost certainly means the Darthacan fleet will be here before lunch."

"What!" Dy Galvar's bellow was the loudest, but hardly the only voice to burst into explosive speech. The castle warder shot to his feet, towering and glowering in Mark's direction. The excitement was such that Mark was a little worried someone would barrel into him and either knock him over or trigger a go-for-the-throat killer defensive reflex in him. But it was Cazaril who got them all back into line.

The Chalionese chancellor stood and lifted a hand as he glared around their company. Mark was reminded that Cazaril had held true command in the past and that he was surely drawing on some of that experience now. Just like Miles confronting Escobaran skip tracers in Vorkosigan house that time, it seemed to be just the weight of Cazaril's expectation that he would be obeyed pressed them all into following him. As martial and tall as Cazaril was, Mark was not sure he would have gotten silence if not for the fact that everyone had already agreed on his authority before their questioning.

"Mark, do you believe what your demon says?" Cazaril asked, still holding up his hand.

"Yes," Mark replied, a little faintly.

"Do you think you can maintain your control for at least a few days more?"

"Yes," Mark replied, more firmly. The demon curled up, but with a hint of smugness that it was not already on its way back to the Bastard.

"Lord Mark, Count dy Vorkosigan. We have no formal alliance with you, but I do not think I can send you back out of the city in any safety. If you feel you must go, we will not detain you, but we would not be able to spare many men to accompany you, nor vouch for your safety. If you stay, I am afraid you will bear the risks of the battlefield or siege. But if we have parley with our attackers, I will promise you a place at the party, where you may request their safe conveyance if you so choose." He paused for a moment. "Of course, if you stay, we would be more than eager for any aid and counsel you may feel comfortable giving."

Miles looked at Mark. Mark glanced over to Ista, then to Umegat and Daris. Finally he looked back at Miles, gave a little half smile and a small shrug of one shoulder. Miles looked back at Cazaril.

"To hell with a formal alliance. We're not going to try and run out now." Cazaril looked both pleased and relieved, though he kept his face stern. Miles added hastily, "Though if you think you can get out a courier to Cardegoss, I'd urgently like to include a letter, just in case any of Barrayar's forces come through to find us."

"Good," Cazaril said and turned to the admiral. Before he could speak, however, a page burst into the boathouse, panting a little with his running.

"My lords, the roya is dead and the fleet of Darthaca has been sighted!"

Chapter Text

Dy Vorkosigan attached himself to Cazaril’s cloak as they came bubbling out of the boathouse. Cazaril was not entirely sure how much the count’s military experience, and his old studies in military history, would help anyone, but it would certainly do no good if he were not in a position to offer it.

“First priority, admiral, is to keep the harbor clear. If my memory serves, Zagosur’s harbor defense are fearsome, so I think your ships would be better used outside the harbor, keeping them from the nearby beaches.”

“Aye,” dy Galvar agreed with Cazaril. “We won’t be able to keep them from landing further up the coast, but we ought to be able to keep ‘em from getting a beachhead here.”

“I’ll have scouts to warn our landside defenders if you can’t. If you have to fall back, do; better keep our ships and get reinforced from outside. If their strength is such that the odds are against you, send word as soon as you can.”

“Aye,” the admiral repeated and turned, striding away to take ship. Cazaril felt mildly guilty about the pace he set, but he kept one eye on dy Vorkosigan. He hobbled with his cane, but he seemed used to picking up his pace around longer legged men. The rest of their conference trailed after in a ragged band.

Cazaril gave rapid orders as he went, assigning Lord Illvan, who also had some command experience, to one group of soldiers defending the approaches to Zagosur. Dy Kator took command of the other while Cazaril led the whole mob to a tower midway between the two. He also commandeered a whole troop of pages and other idle youngsters to serve as messengers.

Ista did not seem thrilled to be parted with Illvan, but had let him go with a brief, discreet hand clasp. Now she sat in apparent calm, attended by Foix, Liss and Goram. Dy Cabon had grouped himself in temporarily with Umegat and Darus, who were sticking close to Mark. Mark and Foix kept a certain wary distance, but neither attempted to escape the other entirely. Miles seemed to be craning his neck, looking in every direction at once, so Cazaril took a moment to explain his preparations.

“There are only four good approaches to the city of Zagosur,” Cazaril explained, ostensibly to Miles, but most of the rest of the party seemed inclined to listen in as well. “The first is the harbor, but to come at it, the Darthacans would first have to come through our ships, then pass under our siege weaponry. Even if our fleet simply retreated, their fleet would suffer catastrophic losses from a direct assault into the teeth of the harbor.”

He gestured as he explained and saw, unsurprisingly, the whole tower top cadre look in the direction he indicated. The harbor entrance was deep enough to provide a good channel but narrow enough to be a death trap for invaders.

“If that were their goal, I’ll be more than a little inclined to let them through,” Miles admitted. “But I suppose they wouldn’t be so stupid as to take the opening and let your fleet pin them in.”

“No,” Cazaril agreed with a faint smile. “The second approach would be a beach landing and assault along the sand to our docks. I’m trusting dy Galvar to watch that approach, though we’ve sent scouts to be sure, as well. If that is how they come at us, there is nowhere to hide them. We will see them in time to shift other troops. I would not expect that unless dy Galvar is badly over matched, and given his reputation, I do not expect that, even if he is outnumbered.”

“Is the Ibran fleet comparable to the Darthacan, then?”

“Darthaca is much larger than Ibra,” Cazaril admitted, “but the Ibrans put much store by their seamanship and their shipwrights. I would believe that two Ibran ships could match three Darthacan, and I do not believe that Darthaca can spare so many ships that they’ll outright overpower the Ibrans.”

“They wouldn’t attack if they didn’t think they had something to gain, though,” put in dy Hixar, the master of horse.

“No,” Cazaril agreed. “What I think is much more likely is that they have transported enough of an army to land up the coast and march on the city. Their navy will just keep ours occupied, while they march from one of the city’s main approaches, between the walls and the cliffs.” Cazaril pointed to the two far gates of the city. “Those are approaches three and four, and those are the charges of dy Kator and dy Arbanos.”

“So,” Mark put in, “what exactly is there to be done up here? Seems like dy Galvar, dy Kator and dy Arbanos have the fighting to do. We just supposed to sit on our thumbs?”

“You and Foix are here for a reason, Lord Mark,” Cazaril replied grimly. “You are sorcerers. You have a commanding view of all the places we may be attacked. If you do not want your demon wrenched out of you now, well, I do not wish to turn away your aid.”

Foix shifted uncomfortably. “Chancellor. You were not at Porifors.”

It was unusually for Foix to be so discommoded. Cazaril focused on the young man, trying to read any message from him but could get nothing but unease. “Yes,” Cazaril replied finally, “that is so.”

“The evils that a demon can cause in a man or an army are a horror. I am not prepared to start tumors and gangrene and fever in our enemies in the pursuit of war.”

Cazaril locked eyes with Foix and saw there a stubborn insistence that would not budge for threat of death. Well, if he would not be compelled, Cazaril would have to take what assistance he could get. Before he could reply, however, Mark chimed in again.

“Is it that much worse than getting stabbed through the intestines?” There was a hint of black humor in the question but Cazaril thought it also held Mark’s real feeling.

“Yes,” Foix said, looking around at Mark. They both flinched a little, but neither broke eye contact. Cazaril considered the fact that both men had contained their demons successfully, despite using them; their wills would not bend easily. Best if they could be diverted soon. It was Lady Liss who interrupted.

“If we’re not evil like the Jokonans, we can’t do the same things the Jokonans did. But it doesn’t mean we have to hobble our own horses.” She paused. “Ah, so to speak.”

“Perhaps,” put in Ista, “we must consider the manner in which the demon magic is used. It would not be a grotesque violation to ensure that ropes fray or come untied, swords rust untimely fast or horses become a little more fractious?”

Foix considered this. “You mean, nothing inside men’s bodies? That would ease my mind, I think.”

Mark shrugged. “If you say so. I’m not opposed to pitching in a little from here.”

Cazaril nodded, and filed away in the back of his mind that Mark’s sensibilities might be less demanding than Foix’s. It was a greasy, unclean thought, but there were far too many lives depending on him to forget it. Hopefully, he would not need it.

It was not long before a runner arrived to report that troops had been seen marching up the road on one of the city’s better approaches. The scouts said there was little cavalry, but some supply that might represent siege weaponry, transported in pieces and waiting assembly for a full assault. Lord dy Arbanos reported on his preparations, including his plans to hold fast if they continued to march into range of his archers and the permanently installed siege defenses, or mount a cavalry sortie if they stopped at long range to start assembling their siege weaponry.

Cazaril sent back approving the plan and reiterating his trust in dy Arbanos’ judgment. He moved some more scouts to that side of the city in case they broke up and attempted to march to the docks. Cazaril would not expect it, or approve the tactic if he were in command of the Darthacan forces, but it would be inexcusable to be caught unprepared.

Dy Kator sent a messenger requesting permission to shift the bulk of his troops across the city to reinforce dy Arbanos and leaving a smaller token force at their gate. Cazaril sent back a firm order to stay; if they got themselves entangled on the wrong side of the city, it would be extremely difficult to get them back in the event of some surprise second front.

The messenger from dy Galvar sounded a bit garbled, as if the couriers had trouble getting his salty sailor’s language down properly. Cazaril deciphered that the seafaring fight was not a lock to go in either direction. The Darthacans had the numbers, but the Ibrans had the safety of the harbor and the siege weapons at the harbor mouth if the fleet got too aggressive.

“And the Admiral said he recognized the flag of the Darthacan admiral, and that he was Pelvin dy Jalivo, and he said he wasn’t a, a land sucking, tea in a teacup, wig headed army reject, more’s the pity. Begging your pardon, m’lord, but that’s the words he used.”

The messenger looked as though he were unsure whether a courier’s duties ought to include diplomatic cover for their seniors. Cazaril preferred precision, when he could get it, so he simply replied, “Well remembered. Send back that dy Galvar has all our confidence and we hope he will let us know if there is any material change. We do not presently need the support of his troops on land, and if there is any support he needs of us, to please ask it at once.”

As the messenger pelted off, looking relieved, Cazaril heard Ista inquire, “Do you suppose we me scrounge some tea, here? And perhaps even a teacup?” Dy Vorkosigan seemed to choke back a laugh, and Cazaril could not quite hide his own smile as he passed orders that yes, they should have some light refreshments available. It was not going to be a quick day’s work.

#

Mark spent a little while eavesdropping on Miles and Cazaril. There seemed to be incredibly long pauses between any action being required on their part, a fact that left Miles babbling about it to conceal his nervous energy.

“I mean, you could practically sit down to a formal meal in between getting reports from your lines!”

“Many commanders do,” Cazaril replied dryly. “I had no such leisure at my last command post, but we’re not going to the front lines, here. My task is one of coordination and delegation.”

“Well, you seem to be better at waiting for your reports than I ever was, and mine came quite a lot faster.”

Cazaril gave Miles a faint smile, Mark judged, in lieu of saying something rude about Miles’ self-control and patience. Mark decided the conversation was not really of interest to him, especially if Cazaril was not going to give in and start being rude, and wandered instead toward Umegat, sitting with Daris and dy Cabon. They seemed to be doing something on a low table, though Mark could not see what. He moved closer to peek around them.

They were leaning down to set a little box decorated with symbols and a small brazier in front of it. It reminded Mark of the one Miles liked to use for memorial offerings, back home on Barrayar. He caught a whiff of some sort of incense before Umegat looked up and smiled a welcome.

“Lord Mark. We were just setting up a small shrine to the Bastard, so that we might pray to be spared from any of the more unseasonable gifts of warfare.” Once Umegat had identified it, it was blindingly obvious to Mark what it was they were preparing. “Would you like to come and say a few words with us?”

Umegat asked the question gently, not pressing. Still, Mark thought he saw a flicker of hope in those dark eyes, that today, he might join in. He had not accompanied them on their morning prayers on their journey, for all their discussions.

“Ah, I don’t think so,” Mark demurred. “I don’t really --”

He cut himself off and frowned. He had been about to say that he didn’t really believe, not like that did, that he was not a Quintarian, and he would not like to make a mockery of their beliefs by feigning them. But now that he came to it, what did he believe?

He was standing there before them with a demon in him. He was familiar with the fractures of his own personality, and this thing awaiting excision was definitely something other than him. He was awaiting the pleasure of a saint and a god for their aid. In the mean time, his brother seemed to have been given a gift of tongues, along with an actual divine audience; as many types of crazy as Miles might be, he was not prone to religious delusions.

He believed in the demon. He believed that Ista could remove it, and that the demon believed that as well. He believed Miles had a gift of his own.

If he believed all that, could he deny that he did actually believe in the Bastard?

Mark closed his mouth, which he realized had been hanging open all through this. Dy Cabon, who had been watching him, put in, “Perhaps it is time to widen your horizons, my lord? I promise you, the Bastard is not fussy; open to him in all your confusion, and he will not mind. In fact, he’ll probably enjoy it.”

Mark was not sure how reassuring this was. “I don’t know the words,” finally fell inanely out of his mouth.

“Ah oh ee uh oh,” Daris replied, as far as Mark could make it out.

“You don’t need the words,” Umegat translated, “but we can teach you the ones that matter. They are not so important as the willingness to offer prayer.”

They arranged themselves, all kneeling in a little semi-circle before the shrine. Mark found the position difficult, a strain on his knees, but it could hardly be much easier on the massive dy Cabon, nor the aging Umegat and Daris. If he did this more often, perhaps he would get used to it. Umegat and dy Cabon looked at each other for a moment, each apparently expecting the other to begin. Finally, Umegat opened his hand and dy Cabon shifted his girth and gave the prayer. Apparently, Mark would not be required to say it at all.

“Lord Bastard,” dy Cabon began, “guard us in this hour. I have seen many worse, in your service, and as always, we beg protection. From this strange war, the whole of which seems out of season to us. We will serve you if we may, though the way is still unclear to us. We beg guidance, to put our service to better effect. And for your gifts too, God of the Unseason, we thank you.”

And they signed themselves. Mark did it too, a beat after them. He had seen it done often enough to get the gesture right: forehead, lips, navel, groin, heart. It seemed to him that the demon flinched away from his hand as it touched the five theological points, as if the holy gesture were uncomfortable for it. That alone might bring him back to the altar, Mark reflected.

“And that is all there is to it,” Umegat explained as he pushed himself up. As awkward as their group had been going to their knees, it was nothing to how uncomfortable they were trying to get to their feet again. Mark fancied that in a less tense hour, he and dy Cabon would have made one hell of a show, wallowing upright.

“Do you suppose he’ll take the hint and actually give anyone here any advice?” Mark asked, once he was sufficiently vertical to speak again.

“Probably not,” Umegat replied serenely. “The gods give us tools to do their work, but they also give us choice. If they simply tell us what we must do for them, then we would be no better than puppets.”

“They have hopes and plans for us,” added dy Cabon. “But they certainly won’t give us a gift if we aren’t open to receiving it, whether the gift is the tiniest guidance or the embodiment of the divine.” He tilted his head slightly to consider Mark. “I have to admit, I wonder what the result would be of a spirit possessed of a demon opening to receive a saint’s gift, particularly from the Bastard.”

“I don’t think the demon would much care for it,” Mark replied from the shivery feeling of the contained elemental. “It doesn’t want to be near Ista as it is. Miles is hard enough for it to tolerate.”

Umegat nodded, interlocking his fingers, except for the pointers, which he extended together and pressed to his lips. “Indeed. I was somewhat surprised the Bastard did not reach through your brother when you arrived in Cardegoss, since he represents a soul already opened slightly to his miracles. But perhaps he meant for us all to be here.”

“Remind me to thank him,” Mark replied dryly.

Umegat grinned and was about to reply when there was a hum and a thunk. Mark looked to his lift to realize that a crossbow bolt had buried itself in the rail near him.

He looked over the edge of the tower and saw a group of soldiers in the black and gold of Darthaca coming into Zagosur by an entirely unexpected direction, and frighteningly near their command tower. Then Mark grabbed Umegat and dy Cabon and flung them all back from the edge before another volley could pick them all off, screaming for the soldiers and nobles to get down.

#

Miles dived to the floor before Cazaril could push him down; getting thrown to the floor by people attempting to preserve his life had become quite painful as Miles had gotten older. It hadn’t happened in a while, and he wanted to keep it that way. Holding his stick, he scuttled forward with his elbows to the edge of the tower so he could peek over.

The group of skirmishers seemed to number about fifty men, which was far more than Miles would have expected could sneak anywhere. They were still assembling, sliding down long ropes from the cliffs that guarded Zagosur’s flanks. Where the scouts should have watched that approach, there was no one.

“Foix!” Miles shouted. “They’re climbing! Come here and fray some ropes!”

The muscular sorcerer copied Miles’ fast scurry to the edge as Miles pulled back, and Miles heard some cries and thumps as he made for the circular stair down. “Cazaril! I need a dozen guards with crossbows and Mark! I’ll take care of them.”

“Go!” Cazaril acknowledged. Miles scrambled down the stairs, just glancing to see that Mark was following.

Mark managed to get close enough to huff quietly into Miles’ ear, “I’m not a damned commando!”

“No,” Miles agreed, “but you have a stunner and a demon. You stay in back.” Then Miles put on a little burst of speed to out distance Mark’s objections. He was not exactly sure he wanted to subject Mark to this, but not using him and particularly his stunner seemed at least as potentially damaging.

There were only around twenty guards at the bottom of the tower; Miles directed half of them to hold the door from the inside, where their small numbers would be hard to turn against them. The other group he told to follow as he darted for cover.

They were outside the main town, so it was not exactly urban warfare, but the landscape was crowded. Foix’s trick with the ropes had left them in some disarray, with ten of their number pinned at the top of the cliff without cover. The others were trying to organize themselves.

“Mark! Stunner on the the ones up the cliff!” That, Miles hoped, would be like target practice, since they could neither hide nor dodge. Miles had not forgotten that raid on Bharaputra’s clone facilities; Mark was no coward, but he did not possess the knack of becoming more focused in the crunch that Miles had needed so often. Mark found a short stack of crates to serve as cover and started to shoot off crackling white-blue stunner bolts.

Miles darted from concealment to concealment as he come up on where the skirmishers were trying to defend themselves. They had thrown over a cart and were attempting to huddle behind it to give their colleagues up above a safe landing zone. At the rate Mark was firing, though, there wouldn’t be many left up above. They would have to spread out soon.

Miles motioned the sergeant he had dragooned to him and hissed, “Keep them pinned down! We’re outnumbered here, but they’re in a bad position, so let’s keep them in it. If they make a concerted rush for the tower, they could take it.”

The sergeant nodded and Miles glanced up. Three men left up above. The sergeant was whispering to his men. What would the enemy do?

Miles darted up to the men. “All of you, arrange on that side of them. I’m going to spook them into coming out towards you, but you’ve got to be ready. Over there, under cover, swords to hand!”

Command voice came naturally to Miles and obedience to that voice came naturally to a prole sergeant. He hustled his men around to one flank and Miles slipped from concealment to concealment around the other side.

It was a risk, but there were nearly four times as many invading skirmishers as Miles had in his defending force. He cursed himself for only asking for a dozen men, but he really could not have stripped the tower any further. Fortunately, shelter of the cart was extremely limited. They seemed not to know exactly where Miles was yet, so he moved stealthily until he could see partially around at the mass of men.

Then he started firing.

The repeat rate on a stunner was so much higher than that for a crossbow, they had to feel themselves absolutely inundated with fire. And each hit he scored, men dropped instantly in a heap. It must look like a particularly fatal form of sorcery to them. Miles hoped that Foix wouldn’t start having flashbacks or some strange thing, considering that little discussion about Porifors and sorcery.

The gamble was a simple one and it paid off. Caught between Miles’ heavy fire into their right flank, and Mark’s stunner in front of them, they couldn’t stay put and they couldn’t summon the conviction to charge the unfamiliar weaponry. That meant there was only one way to go: right into the teeth of the ambush Miles had set up.

The Ibran defenders popped up as one and fired their crossbows. Miles could see the front rank of Darthacans drop before their fellows pushed past and engaged sword to sword. The Ibrans gave way, but Miles and Mark continued to spray their stunners liberally. The biggest failure of Darthacan calculation was that the Barrayaran crossfire had no fear at all of hitting their own men; stunner tags recovered.

In less than three minutes, the ground was riddled with dead and unconscious soldiers. A small group of Darthacans managed to form enough of a wedge to break away toward the tower, but Foix dropped an awning over them, making them sitting targets. Only three Ibrans were left standing, but none of the Darthacans had gotten loose in the city.

Miles called out the remaining guards in the tower to help secure the prisoners, since most of the Darthacans were stunned. Three of the Ibrans were as well, but six were dead. Miles cursed himself inwardly again. It took much longer to clean up the battle than it had to fight it.

When Miles and Mark dragged back in to report to Cazaril, he congratulated them on a swift and decisive victory. Miles accepted the praise with gracious nods, and made private plans to burn a lock of his hair later that night. It seemed worse that they were all so faceless to him. As bad as leading friends to die was, it felt like a profound erosion of the soul to lead men to their deaths without having time and attention to learn any of their names.

Mark poked him in the back. “Now is not the time for one of your funks, Miles,” he murmured, safely in English. Miles turned and glared. He opened his mouth, then closed it against an angry reply. Mark had an uncharacteristically steely look, and he went on before Miles could get properly worked up. “This is not the end of the fight. This is the first day. It’s a siege. And the prize for surviving is possibly getting to see Ekaterin again. And maybe saving my soul. So don’t you dare go under on me, because Ivan told me the story of your ice water bath, and I’ve been dying to see it again for the last decade, you copy?”

Miles stared at Mark for a long minute. It would be a lot easier to be properly indignant if Mark were less squarely on the button. And he had to admit, the sting was effective at stimulating him back to fury, which probably beat torpor. “You know,” he finally said, “I really hope you meet the Bastard. I think you two deserve each other.”

Miles could swear there was a faint doubled sound to Mark’s chuckle, echoing secretly within his own head.

Chapter Text

Zagosur was still holding two days later.

Dy Galvar reported that he spent an inordinate amount of time in maneuver, attempting to draw Darthacan ships into unfavorable positions while protecting his own ships from the same.  The range of the harbor defenses was an enormous advantage, an envelope into which the Darthacan fleet could not sail without changing their odds badly.

Dy Kator and dy Arbanos both held up to their charges well, which was a relief to Cazaril after dy Kator’s initial unhappiness.  Dy Kator turned out to be stolid and unimaginative, but the commander opposing him seemed no more creative; they fought three pitched battles with inconclusive results, but all ended with dy Kator firmly controlling the city’s walls.

Dy Arbanos was much more cunning and aggressive.  After the first day watching him, Cazaril decided that Lord Illvan was a better choice to lead the Ibran troops in their tactical assaults than he would have been.  Of course, having spent so many years on the borders meant he was probably considerably more in practice than Cazaril.  Still, he thought back to his own scrambling, torchlit midnight raid against the Roknari sappers at Gotorget, and it seemed that Lord Illvan’s sneak harassment of the Darthacan siege and supplies was much more smoothly orchestrated than he would have managed.

In fact, Cazaril was much better suited to his current role as a coordinator and administrator.  Which did not make it either fun or relaxing.

It was made even less relaxing by the presence of Count dy Vorkosigan constantly at his elbow.  Once upon a time, Cazaril had fancied himself an energetic man, and keeping up with Iselle, Bergon, the demands of Chalion and his own family had required him to keep active.  But this man, a decade his senior and much more physically damaged, seemed able to run rings around him.  If he were less shrewd, Cazaril would not have kept him so close.

Now, at morning of the third day since the death of the Fox of Ibra, the High March of Yiss and Admiral dy Jalivo had sent a herald to request a peace conference.  Lord Illvan had accepted immediately, on the theory that any delay increased the chance for Ibran relief forces to arrive.  Cazaril was hoping more keenly for some way to bring the conflict to an end, but he had to agree with dy Vorkosigan’s assessment that “they didn’t come all this way to spend their soldiers and leave tamely.”

Still, they were assembling a delegation.  Cazaril was attending, as best able to speak for the new Roya back in Cardegoss.  Bergon was probably going to receive the word of his father’s death today, at the cost of half a dozen horses.  Privately, Cazaril thought he was also the least immediately necessary of Zagosur’s commanders, as their overall strategy remained constant.  The tactics at their gates and at sea varied continually, but his decisions were limited.

Count dy Vorkosigan insisted on attending, which mean his brother was coming, which meant Foix dy Gura was coming.  The Royina might be better suited to control Lord Mark’s demon, but she was less well suited to the conference, and Foix was clearly the next choice.  Beyond them, they took a half dozen attendants, all experienced in arms, as both sides agreed to send ten men to their negotiation.  The tent would be pitched outside Zagosur’s walls but close to them.

“What do you think they’re going to offer?” dy Vorkosigan asked in a low voice.  Lord Mark and Foix were close enough to overhear, but probably not their men.

“I am sure that an opportunity to peacefully surrender will be their first ploy, which courtesy I shall offer back to them in turn,” Cazaril replied dryly.  “But they won’t expect us to accept that, especially with our having relief forces so much closer than theirs.  I think the most I’m going to give up is the possibility of unmolested passage back home.”

“The longer this goes on, the more it looks like they must be regretting their decision to attack at all,” put in Foix.  Cazaril had attempted not to observe Foix’s farewell from the lady Liss, but the bit of it had caught put him uncomfortably in mind of Betriz, and longing for home.  And unfortunately, if Bergon was getting the word today, Betriz would be learning that she should be worried about him.  Cazaril hoped that Bergon would be able to keep Iselle and Betriz home and safe, but if Iselle could come to the northern Roknari battlefields, Cazaril supposed he should not underestimate her resolve.

“If they aren’t, I can suggest a few ways to make them rethink,” Lord Mark muttered darkly.  Foix gave him a suspicious look, but Lord Mark did not pursue his disquieting suggestion.

They passed out of the gates and headed up the road to the pavilion set up by the Darthacans.  There was a silk tent shading a rich rug in the style of the Darthacan royal court.  The tent had its sides taken down, allowing access all around.  There was a beautiful table of polished mahogany  with four chairs set on each side.  The Darthacan delegation was already at the table, though not seated, and their six guards appeared to be doubling as servants.

The High March of Yiss stood in flowing robes of black, gold and scarlet, combining Darthacan colors with his own fief’s traditional red and gold.  They were elaborate to the point of ostentation, to Cazaril’s eye, even for a ruler holding court, never mind one on a battlefield.  His long, silvery hair was coiled into ringlets that emerged from beneath a sculpted hat which Cazaril thought might better serve as a toy boat than headgear.  For all his foppish ornamentation, however, he had a regal hauteur that dominated his associates easily.

The other men were all hard faced, clearly men made for war, not court.  Cazaril recognized the Ibran admiral from the gilt and designs on his armor, but even this ceremonial garb was clearly functional as well as decorative.  The other men looked like apes made to stand up and squeezed inexpertly into formal yet functional armor.  Cazaril idly compared them to the principals in his own party; he had brought three of the most cunning men Zagosur could offer up.  Yiss was apparently content with his own negotiating skills and simply wanted more muscle, or perhaps intimidation, at his table.  Admiral dy Jalivo looked rather sour, and Cazaril wondered whether it was an effect of being grouped in with the muscle, with dislike for his commander or simply with his inability to break the Ibran fleet.

Foix leaned slightly closer to Cazaril and murmured, “Yiss has a tiny piece of sorcery hidden in his clothes.  I don’t know what, he’s not a sorcerer, but ‘ware, my lord.”

Cazaril was hard pressed to keep his face straight, but gave a small nod.  The implications swirled around Cazaril; was this left over from the service of Mark’s demon in Ser dy Lovar?  Or was there yet another demon involved in this tangle?  Then they were walking into the tent, where Cazaril automatically positioned himself opposite Yiss.  The other delegation frankly stared at the Vorkosigan brothers, which seemed to affect the count not at all.  Mark glowered, which seemed to recall at least Yiss to his hostly manners.

“My lords,” Yiss greeted them with an expansive gesture that looked more like theatre than welcome to Cazaril.  “I greet you in my own name, as High March of Yiss, and that of Darthaca, whose interests I am honored to serve this day.  Permit me to introduce Admiral Pelvin dy Jalivo, who will return to his ships when our conference concludes.  This are my aides, Dalgar and Telex dy Karack.”  The men all gave little bows, the overstuffed apes looking unsurprisingly awkward.

“And in the name of Chalion-Ibra, I offer greetings of my own,” Cazaril replied.  “I am Chancellor Lupe dy Cazaril, charged by the Roya and Royina to defend their interests.”  He put just a hit of emphasis on the word defend.  “This is Foix dy Gura, my own aide.  These two gentlemen represent the interests of the Barrayaran Empire.  Count Miles dy Vorkosigan holds a province in his own right, but also holds the position of Imperial Auditor, empowering him to serve as the Barrayaran Emperor’s voice in all matters of political, military and diplomatic interest.  Lord Mark dy Vorkosigan is his younger brother.  Their interest, aside from potential diplomatic negotiations underway with Chalion-Ibra, is primarily in the fact that they were trapped here by, shall we say, recent events.”

The Vorkosigan brothers both gave stiff nods, though Foix bobbed a better bow.  Dy Vorkosigan put in, “While my own place in this mess is that of an outsider,” carefully not mentioning his own heroism and stream of useful advice, “I must admit that I am quite curious as to what justification you have that allows you to move your men.  Allowing naked aggression to pull you into so exposed a tactical situation seems recipe for disaffection among one’s soldiery.”

Yiss looked just slightly aggrieved to have the matter put so baldly, but he had his answer ready.  He spread his hands sadly in an unconvincing show of innocence.  “Why, the broken marriage treaty between Roya Bergon and my daughter.  What choice have we but to seek redress?”

Cazaril felt his brows snap down at this.  “What marriage treaty?  Roya Bergon has been married for nearly four years!”  This was a little less diplomatic than Cazaril had intended on being, but neither had he expected that reply.  “And he was not betrothed when he went to wed Royina Iselle either!  When was this supposed treaty contracted?”

Infuriatingly, Yiss smiled a little supercilious smile.  “Why, you hardly imagine that the Fox would confide you any more than he need, would you?  He had signed the treaty, Chancellor, though it had not traveled back to Yiss for my own countersignature when you arrived and put all my plans into disarray.  There had been no announcement, and the Fox repudiated it immediately.  I spent several years quietly seeking some more diplomatic redress from Ibra without making the matter a public scandal, you see, but my patience was exhausted some time back.”

That, unfortunately, had enough of a veneer of plausibility that Cazaril could see how the Darthacan troops would accept it.  He did not believe it, but it would be difficult to expose as a lie.  The Fox’s chancellor could give Yiss the lie, but his word would certainly not be enough for propaganda against the invading soldiery.  If they could get out here for another day’s meeting, though, Cazaril made a note to include the man.

Yiss continued smoothly while Cazaril digested and fumed.  “We understand that you may not have had full understanding of our grievance.  So we offer you the chance to surrender the city, in which case we mercifully pledge your lives, and those of your people.”

Cazaril glanced sidelong at Count dy Vorkosigan whose chin jerked up in a small, nervous twitch.  There was a little gleam of amusement in his eye.  Clearly, they were all back on script.

#

Mark was bored.  This was not exactly surprising, but he was having a hard time looking anything but glassy at the bickering back and forth.  Cazaril and Mark were the only ones actively contributing, which was no surprise, but Foix at least seemed to find the discussions to be of some interest, for all of their lack of progress.

At least Mark fancied he looked less useless than Tweedledee and Tweedledum across from him.  The burly brothers fidgeted and sat with surly slouches and no understanding of the arguments.  Well, perhaps they understood the pointlessness of the exercise.

If Mark were any judge, he fancied that Miles and Cazaril were playing the game with rather more skill than Yiss, turning the arguments consistently in their favor without getting worked up.  But their successful debate did not seem to disturb Yiss, who simply refused to budge.

It seemed a little odd, given that delay was definitely in the Ibrans’ favor, while Yiss ought to be looking for ways to reach resolution.  To Cazaril’s credit, he was equally unwilling to bend while Yiss would not, though he carefully dropped lures; if the Darthacans would withdraw, the Ibrans would consider not pursuing, if the Darthacans would pay reparations, the Ibrans would allow them to recover their dead and so on, but Yiss seemed totally unwilling to accept even the most trivial agreement that would not fatal compromise the Ibran position.

“Gentlemen,” Yiss finally said, “perhaps we should take some refreshment; I think we have laid out our initial positions well enough for the morning.”  He lifted a hand and snapped his fingers, sending his guard-servants into motion.

The food, at least, was of genuine interest to Mark.  Despite the fact that they were in an army camp in enemy territory, Yiss apparently still indulged himself with some quite decadent food.  It was probably stolen from somewhere nearby, Mark reflected, which made him feel guilty.  On the other hand, any food that he ate off Yiss’ table at least went to his side.

Mark noticed the little raised eyebrow glance Cazaril shot to Foix and the little nod he got in return.  Interesting; perhaps Foix could make his demon serve as poison taster.  His own did not seem inclined to play along, and this seemed like a poor time to wrestle it.  As if in answer to this thought, the demon uncoiled to whisper to him.

This is who you should be with, it informed him.  His court could offer you pleasures at your fingertips.  Images flashed across the back of Mark’s head of the courtesans and court ladies, sitting down to their elaborate meals.  There was even one with black enameled nails who was clearly chosen to pique Howl’s interest; that particular image was more drawn from Mark’s imagination than from reality, most likely.

It would not take much to put us in control of him, of his court.  We did it with Bergon, whose friends were more alert than Yiss.  There is just one little impediment, then we could make free with his whole grand province, and there are none there to stop us.

Mark bit into a pastry, perhaps a bit more forcefully than necessary.  The Black Gang was not impervious to this attempt at subversion, but they were not going to break.  The offered delights were a long way off and Mark was by no means convinced that Yiss would come out well from the present invasion attempt.  And besides, Miles was right there, and no part of him was going to sell out his brother.  But there was one piece of the attempted seduction that did gather in the interest of Killer.

What impediment do you mean?  The demon did not instantly respond to this, and Mark decided that for this, he would wrestle.  Tell me!  Mark bore down, pressing in on the demon in some way he could neither define nor explain.  It coiled defensively, but finally it relented.

His pet sorcerer.  The one who captured us and set us in Ser dy Lovar.  His little catamite.  You and he might even get along, actually.

Grunt flinched a little, but then straightened up.  Don’t try to shame me.  Not inside my own head.  I am who I am, and however tangled up I am, Mark doesn’t exist without me.  Mark felt proud of his sub-persona and sent a wave of approval to himself.  It was strange how much better that made him feel.  Mark turned his unified self back on the demon.  So why are you telling me?

I find I like your style, replied the demon.  Even when you appear stable to the outside world, that is not exactly accurate, is it?  “Dynamic equilibrium” is a wonderful phrase; I am sorry more people in this world don’t know it.  Chaotic on the inside, but stable in the larger view.

Mark was not quite sure how to reply to that, so he pushed back to the original topic.  What about this sorcerer that Yiss is holding; how is he holding the man, if he’s so skilled?

You underestimate Yiss, and the sorcerer is not so skilled as that.  He is an expert in the twisting of men to his ends.  His pet is known as Gar, and as I understand it, he was the son of one of Yiss’ enemies.  Yiss broke him to bridle, then subborned Temple aid to steal a sorcerer.  Then he removed the witnesses, leaving himself with a pet sorcerer, a man with no will but to do his master’s bidding.

Mark shivered at that and glanced up at Yiss.  For a moment, he saw Baron Ryoval’s face and the Other flexed his hands.  But it was not the same face, and this was probably not an opportune moment to try and kill Yiss with his bare hands.

So Yiss...what exactly is he trying to do? Mark wondered inside his own head.

Rule the world, of course, replied the demon.  One step at a time.  First Ibra, then Chalion, then the whole peninsula.  Once he brings it under his control, then he will be near the equal of the Darthacan king, perhaps more if he can hold onto the troops he was loaned for this venture.

Well, that at least was the kind of ambition that Mark could understand.  It seemed straight forward, when the ultimate aim was so plain, naked of the supernatural.  Why tackle Chalion-Ibra from the start then?  I got the impression that the Roknari and Brajar were less strong this double-royacy.

Best hit them when they are extended with their campaigns, and only getting stronger.  If the greatest power on the peninsula is crippled, the rest will neither be able to resist nor unite.

Mark supposed he could understand that.  Why are you telling me all this now?

Gar is somewhere near.  I do not know where, but he has some sorcerous trinket with Yiss; I believe it is one of his signals.  He left me with an enspelled wooden stick; when it broke, so would the spell, and Gar would know.  That was how I was supposed to signal my success in Chalion, but the magical cord was cut when I flew into your world.  I think what Yiss has is something of the same type.  I do not know what he plans, but he is awaiting some moment to make a signal.

Now that was something he should communicate to Cazaril as soon as possible.  He looked up at Yiss, who was accepting a tray from a servant.  “Zagosur oysters, my lord?”

Miles’ head suddenly twitched to stare at Yiss.  It was a short gesture, but the sharpness of it was not like Miles when he had his diplomatic hat on.  He leaned in to hiss to Cazaril urgently and Mark leaned too, enough to interpret that he was asking “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Cazaril murmured back, covering his mouth with a sip of wine.

“He just told Yiss the soldiers were in position!”

Cazaril looked down at Miles and opened his mouth, but just then, Mark saw Yiss reach to his embroidered vest as if to adjust it.  But there, beneath it, he briefly saw the outline of a short stick, concealed beneath the fabric in an inner pocket.  Then Yiss snapped it.

Mark put his hands on the underside of their parley table, locked his elbows and executed a powerful squat lift.  “‘Ware sorcerers!” he bellowed, mostly at Foix as the table toppled over at Yiss and his goons.  “To the city!”

While everyone seemed surprised at Mark’s sudden outburst, Miles and Cazaril reacted with commendable swiftness, given the warning Miles had managed to give them.  That was it, Mark realized; in the same way the Bastard’s gift let Miles understand the tongueless Daris, it had apparently let him understand the meaning behind the code phrase used by the Darthacan soldier rather than the actual words he said.

Cazaril had grabbed Foix’ arm to pull him out of his seat, and once moving, dy Gura was as fast as could be wished.  The soldiers were slower on the uptake, but when the Darthacan contingent appeared as if from nowhere, they had time to get their swords out.  Unfortunately, the numbers were not on their side.

Miles and Mark had their stunners out; they had debated bringing them, but had decided in the end that they had nowhere reliable to leave them.  Mark saw Foix flick a hand at the tent, and the ropes holding it up suddenly snapped, the poles collapsing inward along with swaths of fabric.  Mark prefered his stunner to his demon for this.  Cazaril and Miles both called orders and somehow never seemed to contradict each other, keeping what was left of their group together and clearing space toward the wall.

Despite the stunners, the walls of bodies were closing in; Mark suddenly found he could barely see the sky, the mob pressing them so tightly that elbows and instep stomping were about all he could do when with a clatter and jangle, Illvan dy Arbanos led up a sortie of cavalry.  For them to be there so quickly, they must have been held ready, and Mark had no idea how he could have been so well prepared and coordinated.

There was light, and then a path, a break in the soldiers, and Mark stumbled toward it, Miles and the rest with him.  “Go, go!” bellowed Miles as he limped along, his sword cane apparently lost somewhere in the scrum.

The cavalry was only enough to buy them a little space; there were more Darthacans coming up, and quite a few had crossbows.  Foix had his hand on Mark’s arm; Mark decided not to try and shake him off, because he was getting winded and the pull seemed to help.

Then suddenly, Miles wasn’t beside him.  Mark turned, but Foix’ hand would not let him stop, even as he saw Miles’ eyes roll back in his head, his body flopping to the ground and starting to twitch.

“No, NO!” Mark yelled, trying to get back to Miles, but the Darthacan force was already streaming past Miles.  “Miles!”

He wrenched at Foix and fired wildly with his stunner.  Help me! he screamed to his demon, and to his surprise, the demon uncoiled for him.  Darthacan men dropped to the dirt, their fingers fumbling their swords, their armor collapsing around them.  Their helmets went askew and got in their eyes.  But there were too many, and Foix would not let him drag himself free.

When the doors of Zagosur closed behind him, he was still screaming for Miles.

Chapter Text

Miles came swimming up out darkness to find himself being carried. It felt like someone was trying to shake his head until it popped open and spewed colored confetti on the ground, but the rhythmic sensation clarified enough for him to realize that he was being carried by four very large men at quick march. He couldn’t focus long, however, and the blackness came up around him.

#

Cazaril saw Foix manhandle Mark into the gates before Mark managed to throw him off. Mark seemed surprisingly hard to keep hold of, probably due to some trick of leverage and mass. Mark slammed himself into the gate, and Foix and Cazaril together had to grab the Barrayaran’s arms to pull him back long enough to slam the bar into place.

“No no no!” Mark was screaming, crying, begging incoherently. The rest of the command party was clustered nearby. Cazaril kept hold of Mark’s upper arm with one hand and turned to bark forcefully, “‘Ware treachery! Guard your posts now!” That, at least, was enough to send dy Kator running back to the other end of the city and dy Arbanos shoved a page in the right direction to send a signal to the fleet.

Cazaril turned back to Mark and twisted his grip suddenly so that Mark spun. Instead of lunging at the gate fingernails first, Cazaril thumped Mark into it back first so that Cazaril could lean a forearm across Mark’s chest and lower his gaze to look directly into those wide, wild, staring grey eyes.

“And ‘ware treachery to you too, Lord Mark,” Cazaril whispered in a deceptively calm and quiet voice. The sudden change in tactic seemed to have the desired effect, at least insofar as that he had Mark’s attention. After a brief beat, he continued, “I will move the earth and heavens to recover your brother if there is any way to do so, but he would regard it as an ill trade for us to lose you at this late date.”

Mark still looked terrified, rolling his eyes to look at the solid wood behind him. “But Cazaril, Miles -- he won’t be able to -- if he has Miles long, he’ll crack him like an egg!” At least Mark was becoming more coherent now. Cazaril did not let up on the pressure, though Mark was no longer struggling; it seemed that Foix had lost his grip as well, though Cazaril had hardly noticed as he had been spinning Mark around.

“Then we need to get him back quickly. But if I recall the last time this happened to your brother, Yiss will have little luck plying the question until he’s had some chance to recover sensibility. We have some little time. And I cannot waste it worrying about you haring off, or worse, losing control now.”

Mark gulped. He looked back at the gate. Then he looked back and Cazaril and finally nodded.

Cazaril straightened up, releasing Mark cautiously. He nodded back. Then he turned and finally took in the staring tableau of their audience.

Liss clung to Ista’s hand in the tension of the moment while Ista regarded Mark with cool calculation. Once they’d gotten into the city, there had probably been no more real chance of the demon escaping, not with a brimming miracle just waiting to engulf an elemental so foolish as to try and break free. Goram dy Hixar had his hand on his sword in any case, but seemed to be relaxing. Umegat, dy Cabon and Daris were clustered together, but when Cazaril stepped back, Umegat stepped forward.

“Come my lord,” said the divine, slipping his arm across Lord Mark’s shoulders and starting to lead him away. “Let us return to our tower, and perhaps I can ease those fingers a bit.” For all that Mark had not had long, his scrabbling at the gate had definitely torn at least one of his nails enough to bleed. Dy Cabon came up on the other side of Mark and they led the way back. Ista trailed very close behind and Cazaril thought he could overhear Liss murmuring something about “what a mess” as they moved off. Daris trailed after, wringing his hands together and glancing back at the gate.

Cazaril realized that he was standing behind, simply watching, as the soldiers hurried to and fro. He grabbed one of the messengers. Time to start doing something. “Tell Lord dy Arbanos that if he can spare a few minutes from the defense, I am mightily in need of his wits to plan our next course.” And he strode off, soon overtaking Daris and leading the slow moving mob back to their tower. Mark was right that he could not wait; an enemy would violate a peace conclave would not flinch at learning all he could, however he could, from so strange and high ranking a prisoner as Lord Auditor Count Miles dy Vorkosigan.

#

Miles woke again stretched out on a low couch. It was barely long enough to serve as his bed, but it was luxuriously padded with velvet, and as his fingers groped along the sides while he tried to recover his awareness of his surroundings, he probed some intricately carved shapes just underneath.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” said a cheerfully oily voice, near enough to make Miles’ head twinge. He cautiously opened one eye.

It took a minute for his surroundings to swim into place. He seemed to be a rich tent, similar to the one in which they had held their abortive negotiations, but with the red silk sides raised and some incredibly sumptuous furnishings. Red and black and gold predominated, which made it a little difficult to pick out the figure of the High March of Hiss, standing and eating a bunch of grapes. Before him crouched a servile, cringing man whose presence sent a faint, uneasy tingle up Miles’ spine which had nothing to do with his physical ailments. Days in the presence of Mark and then of Foix left him certain: here was another sorcerer.

“You haven’t yet met my pet Gar, here,” Yiss continued, opening his hand to indicate the man before him. His black clothes stood out more strikingly in this tent than those of Yiss himself; they might once have been of good quality, but they were wrinkled and pulled into strange shapes by the man’s cringing.

Miles felt a sudden surge of anger and it took him a moment to even realize the source: half a lifetime ago, he had grown up a crippled, hunchbacked child, and the bent obsequiousness of Gar triggered echoes from cruel mockeries of his own deformations.

“Wha’ve you done t’him?” Miles slurred out, cursing himself for his own show of weakness even as he did. Both the slurring and the revelation of his own discomfort. Damn, Yiss hadn’t even touched the thumbscrews and Miles was already squirming. He tried to lift his head and the tent swam. He stopped.

“Oh, come come, surely a man such as yourself knows how to command the loyalty of his servants,” Yiss replied, leaning down to brush Gar’s hair back behind his ear. The man was hairy, bearded, looking up at his master with a mix of fear and fawning. It made Miles’ skin crawl. He tried again to sit up and got up on his elbows.

“My pets too, but they’re no’ the same’s my people,” Miles managed to quip back. Yiss merely chuckled.

“How dreadfully dull that must be for you.”

“No’ really.”

“Well, taxing, then. I find that when properly broken in, a servant can be the best of all pets. If you remove all distractions from a man but his devotion, then he can be the perfect servant, the perfect pet...the perfect vessel.” His eyes flicked sharply to Miles under heavy lids. “But I gather you have already sensed this.” And Yiss popped a grape into his mouth.

Neither “yes” nor “what?” seemed to fit the bill. But Miles realized that abruptly that he was dealing with a classic gloater. Oh good God -- gods -- I thought these only came along in fiction! But if Miles could keep him talking, well, talking was better than torture, and maybe he would even have a chance to put this information to use. He’d done it against Ser Galen, after all, thanks to Elli Quinn’s superior sense of timing.

“How did you do that to him?” Miles had no sooner asked the question than he was not sure he wanted to know. At least he was managing to make his voice come out clearer. He pushed up a little further and got to all the way sitting up. He shifted his shoulders as if to stretch them, but what it really accomplished was testing the feel of his vestcloak. His stunner was missing. Damn.

“Oh, the training was quite tedious. He was an idiot of course, quite dreadfully useless. His family was happy to have him off their hands. It took hardly any effort all to train him. Teaching, of course, would have been quite beyond him, but he knows how to listen, don’t you, Gar?” Gar nodded and continued to stare up at Yiss. “The trick was to be sure his devotion was complete before I channeled the demon into him. That there was no chink in his will. But after what he did to his parents for me, and what we did to his sister of course,” and the smile on Yiss’ face nearly made Miles vomit right then, “I had no reason to doubt.”

Miles swallowed hard. “And Ser dy Lovar?” Definitely, definitely keep this one talking. Miles was certain he did not want to know where this one’s ingenuity would trend; this was bad enough as it was.

“Oh, he was much easier to bribe. The Fox is so miserly with positions and preferment, let alone genuine favor -- well, he was so miserly, I suppose I should say.” Yiss smiled again. “He’d spend his bribes well enough when it suited him, but even the man’s own son could hardly wait for him to drop dead.”

It took Miles a moment to process that this did not mean Bergon, but Bergon’s elder half-brother, whose history he teased out back in Cardegoss. How long ago now? Miles found he had no idea. Yiss did not seem to be finished, however.

“I didn’t think he would really succeed, of course; well, I did think he had a fair shot of ridding me of that damned Chalionese girl and sewing chaos across the realm. Set the factions fighting, unsure who their rightful leader ought to be, Iselle dead, the Fox dead, Bergon clearly going mad and his advisors torn between aiding and rebelling...” Yiss trailed off with a little sigh at the apparently beatific vision. Gar craned his neck up at his master, looking for some signal.

“But alas,” Yiss said, refocusing on Miles, “I am given to understand I have much for which to blame you in the disarray of my own plans, Lord dy Vorkosigan.” Now, the dark eyes that focused on him were hard.

Miles surreptitiously glanced around. There, on that table was his stunner, and his sword cane too. It was nearer Yiss than him, of course, and there was Gar. And there was the question of whether Miles would pass out if he tried to stand up. He managed to swing his legs off the couch and plant his feet on the floor, which actually felt better, but physical resistance was still futile. There had to be guards just outside, as well as Gar, and Miles was by no means sure he could even make it to the table.

“Well, maybe so, though it sounded like Ser dy Lovar’s plan was well on its way to collapse before anything we did could have interfered.” Miles paused. “I did stop Bergon’s assassination, though. And lead the defense against your cliff-wall raid. And warn the peace delegation of your trap.” He paused for a minute. “You know, if you want to rule the world? You’re going to have to plan for greater margin of error in your operations.”

Yiss’ eye flashed and Miles considered whether he would ever, just once, learn to stop antagonizing his enemies at the moment they had him in their power. Well, looks like I’ll need at least one more trial, he thought miserably as Yiss strode over, Gar lurking behind.

“My plan,” hissed Yiss, leaning forward, “has certainly not failed yet. When they mount their rescue attempt, Gar will be ready to ruin them. We will take your fat brother, and the dy Gura sorcerer, and when Ista and Cazaril lie dead, there will be none with the strength to oppose, and no saints ready to suck dry my sorcerers.”

Ista would indeed be a terror to Yiss, able to cut the strings of his powerful servant. Privately, Miles thought it seemed that Yiss was mightily overconfident to think that he could break Foix dy Gura or Mark when they had demons in them from the start, but it did seem unfortunately likely that both would be made vulnerable in any attempt at saving him.

“You’ll never get away with this!” Miles cringed inwardly at the words, but perhaps they were not quite as hackneyed in this particular universe. Surely they had different literary traditions, but Yiss seemed to have no trouble finding his cue.

“You will certainly not stop me.” Yiss straightened up. “I expect they’ll wait until nightfall or nearly so. Not long now.”

#

Umegat still had his arm around Mark. They were kneeling again as the details for the rescue were hashed out, mainly between Cazaril and Illvan. There had been a lively exchange in the beginning with Ista suggesting that Mark should stay in the town, but Mark had stated flatly that if they wanted to try that, they would have to rip out his demon, tie him up and throw him in a cell, and even if they did, they still better not bet against him.

So he and Foix were definitely going; they certainly each packed a more dangerous punch than any other man available. Now Umegat, with dy Cabon on the other side, were trying to make the wait easier. Umegat was having a little success, anyway.

“Would you like to try and pray again?” the divine asked gently. “It would be well to clear your mind, as much as you are able.” Umegat paused thoughtfully as Mark did not respond. “Or you could do as I once did, and get pie eyed drunk.”

This actually won a little snort. “What, are you joining the cause to keep me out of the battle?” Mark asked bitterly.

“I think it would be wise to seriously consider the sound reasons for staying here,” replied Umegat seriously. “And if it is too difficult to face, immobilizing yourself might make it easier.”

“I can’t leave him there, Umegat,” Mark replied. His voice was a whisper, though it was not really a conscious choice. “He’d come through fire and death to get me. Hell, he has. More than once. Fire and death and wormholes.” He could not meet the Roknari’s eye.

“Consider what he would want. And consider also, Mark, that I have seen you ride. I have seen sacks of potatoes that bounce less upon a horse’s ass, and this rescue is planned to require speed and coordination, and I am afraid you are quite lacking in both.”

In the sting of this harsh appraisal, Mark failed to notice the first time Umegat had failed to add the “lord” to his name. He scowled.

“I can’t sit by and do nothing. I can’t drink myself under the table either. There’s no moral difference between deciding not to do a thing and deliberately disabling yourself from doing it. If I choose to drink myself into a stupor, I’m just as much choosing to not be available as if I just refused to move.”

“But I think you might consider whether, in your haste to aid your brother, you are doing the best possible thing to aid him. Your sorcery is the greatest skill you bring to bear, is it not?” Mark nodded reluctant agreement. “Then stand on the walls as the sortie goes out. Use your powers to distract and confuse the enemy, and cover the retreat when it comes.”

Mark looked at his knees and Umegat reached forward to touch Mark’s chin gently. Mark let his face be raised to Umegat’s. “I am worried for you, Lord Mark.” Now Mark noticed the earlier lack of honorific. “You are on the verge of wild, ill-considered action, and your will is unfocused. You must focus on one thing at a time to keep your demon in hand and best aid your brother.”

Foix stepped over then and added, “Lord Mark, I’ll still go, if you’ll stay on the wall. I’m sorry I couldn’t grab him then, but we just didn’t have the time. I’ll get him for you.”

Mark met his eyes, and this time neither flinched away. Finally, Mark nodded.

“All right,” he said, looking back at Umegat. “I’ll stay on the walls.”

Foix nodded and turned back to inform Cazaril, Illvan and Ista of the change. No doubt they would be relieved, consider it the right choice. Mark kept his back to them.

“Now,” dy Cabon said, breaking his silence, “perhaps we should say that prayer?”

It did not seem hard this time to get into the proper spirit as Mark, Umegat and dy Cabon said their prayer together.

Chapter Text

Somewhat to Miles’ surprise, there had not yet been any thumbscrews. There were two guards inside the tent now, and he could hear more soldiers moving outside. He had been offered wine and allowed to use a chamberpot, though with less privacy than he might have hoped. He watched the guards when they were near him -- they were cautious of him, but they did not seem to be as wary of the stunner as they ought to be if they understood what it did.

Unfortunately, he was recovering only very slowly. This was not the rest he would have much prefered in the wake of a seizure. Despite a jittery sense that his adrenaline was pumping, his emptied neurotransmitter reservoirs still left him groggy and desperately needing real sleep. It was a curiously skewed sensation, and Miles devoutly hoped he could avoid ever repeating it. As long as he got out of this one alive, he hastily amended -- there was always the possibility that someone was actually listening to the cacophony inside his head now.

Yiss seemed to be amusing himself by taking in reports while watching Gar eat. Miles wondered what could be done with Gar if he did away with Yiss, or separated the two. If Ista removed the demon, what would be left? What did they do with people so mentally unbalanced here? He hadn’t asked, perhaps worried what they would do with Mark. Yiss had seemed to imply they were not much thought of, that his family had been happy to be rid of him, but Miles was not simply going to take his word for that. While Miles judged most of Yiss’ monologue to be unguarded, secure in his own superiority, Miles thought he was probably more than a little prone to self-deceptions that would serve his own inflated ego.

He was just preparing to test his balance by casually levering himself to his feet when Yiss put down his reports and started mincing his way over to Miles. It was hard to tell what exactly Yiss was doing with his feet under all the robes, but his knees seemed to come forward in a peculiarly bow legged fashion; perhaps it was just to kick the robes out in front of him and keep him from tripping on them. It did not add to his air of menace, but the little gesture he used to summon both the guards and Gar after him was enough to put Miles on edge quickly enough.

“Your friends do not seem to be moving as quickly as I would like. I want to get them out before dusk, if I can, which will surely not be their first choice.” Yiss gestured at the guards, then pointed at Miles’ arms. The guards took up firm grips. Miles swallowed.

Yiss leaned forward, putting his face close to Miles. “Gar,” he said softly, “make this man scream for me.”

#

Umegat had insisted on staying by Mark on the walls, as had Ista, which meant Liss and dy Cabon were by as well. Goram dy Hixar had been loaned to the assault, while Cazaril had resolutely stated that his place remained in the central command. It was probably lonelier there now, but he had expressed his concern that Yiss would use any move they made as a signal to make an all out assault on another front. It had clearly cost him, however, to be so distant from their main action.

From where they stood, Mark could just see a corner of the red tent that Illvan had assured them was the command tent, and where they believed Miles to be. There was a wall of soldiers and some crude barricades between them and this goal; it looked all but impossible to drive them.

“Do not despair,” Umegat murmured, and Mark looked around in surprise. Umegat gave a little shrug. “I have seen that look often enough. And I do not think either Lord dy Arbanos or Chancellor dy Cazaril would have accepted the plan if both did not think it offered fair odds of success.”

“No, nor would I,” put in Royina Ista, though her eyes remained on the battleground before them. “Much as I believe we should recover your brother, I would not put three of my most valuable assistants at such risk if I did not think they would be returning to me.” Her voice was crisp and even, held as ramrod straight as her back. Her confidence seemed to be a mask to Mark, but it was a good one. It reminded him abruptly of his mother, back when he’d first come to Barrayar and she’d been faced with a half-dead husband, a truly dead and lost firstborn, and a wayward, broken bastard she’d never expected waddling about her home.

“Lord Illvan is a great soldier,” Liss put in. “And after Jokona, Foix’s more than a match for any sorcerer that Darthacan snake could possibly command.” There was a little flash of pride in her eyes at this.

Mark did not pay them very much attention. They might be sincere in their estimations, but getting good intelligence was one of the great problems they faced, and the whole enterprise was based on so much speculation that it was difficult not to imagine all that could go wrong. The good news, however, was that nothing had gone wrong yet. But if they were wrong about where Miles was being held --

It was unusually quiet, as neither side was actually attacking. The Darthacans were waiting for the inevitable rescue and the Ibrans were waiting until they were good and ready. So despite the low level clattering and the calling of the sea birds, when the screaming started, it could be heard all the way to the walls.

Umegat grabbed Mark before he could pitch himself off the walls or faint. Mark was not sure which he wanted to do, but standing there was not going to be tolerable.

“Wait, my lord! You must wait for the signal!” Umegat urged him.

“But they’ve got him, Umegat. Miles won’t last under their knife, he’ll be destroyed!” Mark could not be quite certain whether he was crying, but his eyes were definitely blurring. He strained his eyes to see the red corner of the Darthacan command tent.

“But he is certainly alive,” Ista pointed out coolly, “and it sounds as if he is coming from the tent, as we thought he would. And the more noise he makes, the easier it will be for our soldiers to find him quickly.” She paused for a moment, then asked, “Lord Mark, is your brother really that loud?”

The question, directed at him, gave Mark something to focus on. He squinted into the distance and actually listened more closely.

“I...I wouldn’t think so, not from that distance,” he admitted, feeling bewildered. He had heard Miles yell at the top of his voice, but this screaming was different. Even so, with the tent so distant, it hardly seemed that Miles’ screams could carry so far, so loud.

“Then this pet sorcerer your demon described to you is probably helping the sound to carry. It might even be a fabrication.” Ista paused for a moment. “It does sound as though it is your brother’s voice, though?”

“Yes,” replied Mark at a whisper.

“Hm. I hope they are not trying to lure us in a false direction, but their protection could scarcely be better anywhere else. We will have to rely on the wits of Lord Illvan and Foix dy Gura, and possibly Count dy Vorkosigan.”

“There!” The shout was from Liss, pointing over the wall. Her young eyes, focused intently throughout, had spotted the signal; the Darthacan flag flying by the command tent had somehow come loose and now fluttered off its pole.

Ista smiled a small, sharp smile. “Good. They are in position. The signal, if you please, Lord Mark.”

The cue reminded Mark of his most important part in all the proceedings. He reached into his vestcloak and pulled out his stunner. He pointed it straight up into the and pulled the trigger. A brilliant sparkle of blue, unlike anything Zagosur could produce on its own, shot into the air, a signal that no one could miss. The gates below them opened for the horsemen, and Mark narrowed his eyes. We are coming brother.

#

Miles had no idea what Gar had been doing; something inside him had wrenched and he had begun screaming in short order. They seemed inordinately loud screams, but he was not sure he was in a fit state to judge.

“A break, I think,” Yiss declared after a five minute eternity. Miles panted, sagging between the grips of the two guards. “Put him down,” instructed Yiss, and Miles oozed onto the couch where he’d woken up.

His captors all retreated from him then, but Miles was busy shaking and trying not to vomit. Whatever sorcery Gar had performed, the Bastard’s gifts did not seem to provide him any defense.

Slowly, Miles managed to unclench his clawed hands, settle his breathing and focus on the tent above him. He was very much unsure that he could take another round of that, but it seemed that Yiss was at least temporarily satisfied with his performance. There had been no questions asked, just a blinding, white hot pain in his guts, like a toothache in the bowels. But it appeared that the point of the torture was not extracting information, but simply extracting screams, turning up the heat on his allies to take some ill-considered action.

It was hard not to hope for rescue, but did Miles really want his new friends endangering themselves for him? If it meant he would not have to endure any more of that, well, perhaps it was too much to expect him to be so self-sacrificing. But he had always said, hadn’t he, that “Vor means sacrifice” and that the measure of a Vor’s life was in the lives he improved and protected.

Hoping for rescue or not wasn’t really the point, though. There was nothing Miles could do about that one way or the other. He was a prisoner, intent on survival, escape and sabotage. Yes, that was it. The classic prisoner’s dilemma. Survive, that would be first. And escape.

Miles let his eyes drift again to his stunner. Unfortunately, the guards were still watching him and were closer to the stunner than he. Yiss was back to reading reports and Gar was at his feet, looking like some kind of curled up cross between a man, a gorilla and a cat. It was the posture that seemed to imply the non-human elements.

A soldier in light armor burst in, looking short on breath. He saluted Yiss and waited at rigid attention until Yiss acknowledged him with a negligent wave of his hand. “My lord, the Ibrans have sent a force of cavalry at our front. They seem to be trying to break through on the cliff side; our barricades just broke down, and they’re moving past our first lines.”

This report was enough to make Yiss finally put down his reports and look up with interest. “Ah, I thought they must come that way. Tell Captain Albren to concentrate the resistance between us; they must not be allowed to approach this command center! I want them stopped by the third barricades!”

The messenger saluted again and ran off at high speed while Yiss rubbed his hands together in apparently gleeful anticipation. “Before long, we should have some company for you, Count dy Vorkosigan,” he said cheerfully. “Perhaps they’ve even sent your fat brother along. That ought to be more than enough break one of you.”

Miles clenched his jaw, raging and despairing in silence. But he could hardly move, could not physically stop anyone, and for once, his wits deserted him and left him without a stinging reply. Or perhaps that was his wits asserting themselves. He simply glared at the High March’s face, so flushed with anticipation.

The expression on Yiss’ face began to subtly alter. It was still flush, but the flush grew darker and the glee faded to puzzlement and consternation, building rapidly to panic. He staggered back from Miles, waving his arms at his guards. Miles realized, somehow, that Yiss was not turning purple from some emotion, whether joy or rage; he was turning purple because he could not breathe.

The guards stepped forward, looking worried. “My lord, what --” One of them began and cut himself off as Yiss fell to his knees, still waving his arms wildly. The guards ran to him, then, but were clearly unsure of what to do.

What Miles would have liked to do was make a running lunge for his stunner. What he accomplished was standing up and swaying precariously. Between his post-seizure lassitude and the shocky shivers of his body, it was all he could do to take one slow step, pause for balance, then take another. The guards didn’t seem to notice.

Suddenly, a heavy weight slammed into him, spinning him around and dropping him to the floor. Miles wound up on his back, staring into the wild, mad face of Gar. There was no question of dislodging the bigger, stronger, heavier man.

“You killed him!” The words were not quite right in either Ibran or Darthacan, sounding more like an inarticulate cry, but the gift of the Bastard nonetheless gave Miles the sense of the hysterical man. “My master, you killed him! I kill you!”

Again, Miles felt something twisting inside him, only this time, he could not scream because he could not breathe. His lungs seemed to trying to crush themselves down to nothingness. Fat lot of good that gift is doing me now! he thought dizzily to himself.

He felt a faint breath against his lips, like an echo of a ghostly white kiss.

Miles froze. That had not been his thought. What was it that Umegat had explained? The gods perform their miracles not by force, but by slipping through open channels. Was he not wedged a little bit open by the Bastard, accommodating his gift of tongues? What else might be possible here, now, if he could believe, if he could trust, if he could surrender?

He stopped struggling, then, because he could not possibly best Gar. Even the pain seemed to be receding from him, but that might be due to lack of oxygen. If he was going to ask for aid, he had better get to it, and if the Bastard favored a quick tongue, let him hear what was in Miles’ mind.

Lord Bastard, he thought, more calmly than he would have thought possible, I beg a boon of you. For myself, for my brother’s sanity, for the Ibrans who protected us, for my wife and children and mother and the people of my district and my empire, for the people of Darthaca, and for this poor wretch on top of me. Let your will be done, whatever it be, but save this man, if you can.

The moment stilled, Miles’ vision expanding to white for a moment. A soft voice in Betan accented English murmured, You seem to have acquired some practice at abject -- you are better at it now. And at sympathy. Open to me, my knight errant.

And then Miles was back in himself, staring up at Gar’s horrified face seeing something strange and purple come streaming out of the man and into his own gaping mouth. It was the demon, he realized; he was seeing some form of the demon being pulled right out of Gar and he could feel the Bastard behind him, calling it away. Was this what Ista felt? It was strangely peaceful.

And then there was no more purple and Gar fell of Miles, curling up into a little fetal ball. Miles felt his lungs expand into their accustomed place, and the pain of that nearly made him pass out.

Gar had his hands over his head, whimpering and moaning and the guards seemed to be focused on their master, though whatever they were doing did not seem to be going well. This would be the perfect time to get his stunner. If he could just move.

Miles looked over his head. Gar’s tackle had actually done Miles a favor, propelling him toward the correct table, but Miles was not even sure he could roll off his back now. The table was not particularly high, and had an elegant tablecloth that draped down to the ground. Stretching one arm over his head, Miles found that he could just barely touch the cloth with his fingers. He managed to catch his nail on an embroidered flower and parlay that into a real grip. Then he pulled.

The stunner clattered down and Miles managed to reach with his other arm and find it. He got the weapon up in front of him well enough to check its readouts. Still in working condition, apparently. The safety, he could flip, and did. Then he chanced sitting up.

One of the guards had run off, perhaps in search of a physician. Well, that would make things easier. Miles took a minute to be sure he sitting securely, then took careful aim and dropped the man. He looked at the poor, pitiful Gar, still curled up and whimpering at the loss of his demon, and prudently stunned him too. Gar might have been using sorcery on Miles, but he could just as easily have strangled him.

Now what? Miles looked around him again and realized that he had also managed to bring down his sword-cane from the table which had held his stunner. He got to his hands and knees and crawled to it, then crawled with all his prizes back to the couch on which he’d spent almost the whole afternoon.

When he got the stunner holstered and held the cane, sitting up straight, he felt rather more human. He had his things, he was back together, and for a moment, no one was holding him. It dawned on him that the second guard was taking a long time to get back, and also that he had not checked on Yiss.

It was definitely easier to walk with his cane now. He made it over to Yiss and peered down at the swollen, blue face. No, he was definitely not breathing, and no blood had gotten above his neck in some time. Perhaps a galactic hospital could have done something for him -- it had certainly not been too long for cryo-freeze yet. But Miles had no idea what was wrong in the first place, and would not have been equipped to handle it even if he had.

He became aware of a suddenly increasing commotion outside and hobbled a few steps back from Yiss and his unconscious guard, fumbling out his stunner. The noise increased and Miles realized there was definitely yelling and steel clashing. Could his rescuers actually be close? There would surely have been too many men for the horses to break through...

But then the tent flap burst open and Lord Illvan dy Arbanos entered, sword held at the ready. A half dozen men, including Foix dy Gura burst in just after him and all surveyed the room. Illvan was the first to take it in and focus on Miles.

“My lord,” he said, his head tilted slightly to the side, “have we come too late to rescue you? Did you have your own plans, or might we be of assistance?”

Miles barked a laugh and hastily choked it back lest he not be able to stop. “Royina Ista spoke very highly of your timing Lord Illvan. It has not deserted you.”

Grinning, Foix dy Gura lowered his sword and strode over to Miles, who was putting away his stunner. “Can you run my lord? We’ll have to move quick to get to the boats.”

“Boats? But Yiss said cavalry --” Miles checked himself. “No, Foix,” he admitted with considerable reluctance, because he had a feeling what was about to come. “I am in no condition to run anywhere.”

Foix gave a short nod, looking rather as though he expected that to be the answer and placed his shoulder gently against Miles’ belly, then stood up. Miles held onto his cane and reached up to make sure his stunner would not fall out of its holster as he dangled over Foix’ shoulder like a sack of grain. “Sorry, m’lord,” he added belated.

“‘S alright,” Miles managed to grunt.

Illvan led the way out, rejoining a considerable scrum of men outside. It was beginning to get dark now, finally, and Miles found it hard to follow what was happening. He and Foix were well protected, following not far behind Illvan. Every so often, he could see a little flash of purple come from Foix and leave behind a strange knot of consternation or confusion. It seemed the second gift of the Bastard had sharpened his perceptions; he was no longer simply aware of something about Foix that meant he was a sorcerer, he could see a faint purple glow.

Miles managed to look ahead and saw that a trio of longboats were just now putting into the harbor. But if the boats were only landing now, how did these men, none of whom were mounted, get there? The men in the boats leapt to the shore and fought their way up to join with Illvan’s troop, and they all got aboard.

When he was finally upright, allowed to huddled exhausted but upright next to Foix, he finally had a moment to ask.

“Oh, we came from the other side,” Foix replied. “Yiss got a report about the cavalry, right?”

“Yes, he ordered more men forward to block the rescue attempt.”

“Just as Chancellor dy Cazaril said he would,” Foix agreed smugly. “So Goram dy Hixar led the cavalry in a strong enough charge to make ‘em think that was our goal. Your brother was up on the wall shooting sorcery, with Royina Ista to watch over him. Lord Illvan got some of the Ibrans to lead us this back way. He realized that if the Darthacans could make an assault from the cliffs -- that one you and your brother fought off? Well, if they could find a way to us that way, there had to be one to them. Got a few Ibran guides to plot out the way. When we were in position, I made the flag fall off its pole and your brother signalled the whole mess with that blue fire of his. We came up the unprotected side, but we figured we wouldn’t make it back the same way, which is why the boats came in. Couldn’t leave ‘em landed long, but a couple dozen extra men coming from ways they weren’t watching got ‘em thoroughly foxed.”

Miles stared at Foix. “By...all the gods, do you realize how many things could have gone wrong with that plan?”

“Yes,” Foix replied serenely, “but they didn’t.”

Miles settled down in his seat, scowling. “My battle plans never worked out that smoothly.”

“Yes, well,” put in Lord Illvan, “you had apparently gone and decapitated their command structure before the sharpest points of our trap were even sprung.”

“But I didn’t,” Miles interjected. “The High March just started choking. For no reason at all, as near as I can tell.”

Illvan and Foix exchanged a look, apprehensive and puzzled.

“Let’s get back into Zagosur,” Illvan said, and moved to give orders to the helmsman.

Chapter Text

Mark had watched from the wall, using his demon when the moment demanded it, but mostly watching the red corner of the command tent. Goram dy Hixar’s mounted charge was beginning to founder before he saw action around it, and only then had the confusion really set in. A second force of footmen had come out of Zagosur, and it was their efforts that allowed the cavalry to break into the open before the whole mass retreated. Mark should have been aiding them more, but it was the other force that he was watching.

When the boats landed and Mark had been able to make out Miles’ little body settled beside Foix, he had staggered with relief. Now, with their other forces safely inside the walls and the Darthacan forces seemingly in some kind of uproar, Mark watched the little boat finally coming into Zagosur’s harbor, under the protective watch of its defenses. Ista, Liss, Umegat, dy Cabon and Caz were all waiting with him.

Illvan was the first to second to hop off the boat, behind a seaman tying off a line. He went directly to Ista and held both her hand, hard as they shared an intense look that made Mark look away. In any case, he was looking for his brother, and there he was, with Foix dy Gura helping him up.

Miles looked shaken, downright tottering on his feet and Mark hurried up to him to slip an arm under his shoulders. “Miles are you alright?”

“No,” Miles admittedly, which was almost more alarming than his grey pallor in the torchlight, “but give me a meal and a day’s real rest, and I think I will be.”

Foix followed Illvan’s example and went to Liss. Lady Liss was evidently less restrained than her royina and threw her arms around Foix’ sturdy neck. Somewhere in all the fuss, Foix had picked up a bandage on his left forearm, but it didn’t stop him from holding her back. Mark felt considerably less jealousy than he had expected, all things considered. Grunt seemed to be not just quiescent but unaccountably satisfied. Mark was not prepared at this moment to try and figure out why.

“Then, my lord Mark, would you let these good men bear your brother to his bed?” Cazaril interrupted Mark’s thoughts. There were four men with a hand litter, waiting to carry Miles away. Mark was not really sorry to let them take the job, especially when Miles’ protest was decidedly perfunctory. They hoisted him and started to move.

“Cazaril,” Illvan said, when he and Ista seemed to have communicated enough through hand clasps and burning stares, “Count dy Vorkosigan said Yiss dropped dead before him. It sounded like death magic. And his sorcerer seems to be out of the running, too.”

“Death magic?” Cazaril’s head pulled back in surprise. “But who --?” Mark realized that Illvan had strategically waited for Miles to start to be carried away before he dropped this bit of information. Miles was carried off without even a chance at protest before he could become embroiled in the new mystery, and Mark couldn’t help but admire Illvan’s wits.

Suddenly, Umegat went pale under his golden skin. “Has anyone seen Daris?” he asked in a choked voice. Each of them looked around, and Mark suddenly realized that he had not seen Daris since just after Miles’ capture.

He and Umegat found Daris together in the first place Umegat went to look, in a small dormitory room in the Bastard’s Tower. He lay on his side, half in and half out of ring of five white candles. A dead crow and a dead rat lay before where he must have been kneeling in the circle. Though his face was swollen and livid, Mark fancied it looked relaxed and peaceful, eyes closed and with perhaps a hint of a smile.

Umegat dropped to his knees and wept. It fell to Mark to order one of the acolytes to call off the other searchers and send word to Cazaril. Then Mark sat beside Umegat and hesitantly put his arm around the divine’s shoulders.

“He was with me for so long,” Umegat finally said. “I understood him better than anyone else, until your brother came.” There was no bitterness in this observation. “Oh, Daris, you did not need to do this.”

“It was his choice,” Mark replied quietly. “You have to let people make their choices. ‘Yes’ has no meaning if there is no ‘no,’ didn’t you tell me something like that? Anyway, it wasn’t just Miles who understood him. It was the Bastard, and he clearly understood what Daris wanted.”

Umegat wiped at his eyes, though it did not seem to slow the fall of his tears. “I suppose he did. And I suppose that I am being selfish, to grieve so. Daris always wanted to be the best servant of the gods that he could, and for a moment, before his death, he touched his god and carried his blessing.”

“If I understand the term correctly, he died a saint and a martyr. I don’t suppose you can aspire much higher than that,” Mark agreed.

Umegat let out a watery chuckle and wiped his eyes again, more successfully. He glanced behind him at the temple men who arrived, a stretcher between them. “And he has passed beyond all his hurts and troubles now. I will wish him well...but I will miss him most keenly.”

Together, they got up and let the men begin to clean up the room. “See that he has all honors prepared for him,” Umegat instructed the acolytes, and they nodded as Mark led Umegat away.

#

Cazaril was not surprised when he received a message from the Darthacan admiral in the morning, requesting a cease fire and suing for peace, requesting that the be allowed to remove his men from the coast, take their dead, and leave Ibran waters. Cazaril sent a message back accepting, but demanding that the soldiers leave behind all horses, siege weapons and materials for barricades and command posts. Admiral dy Jalivo replied saying he was coming ashore to discuss the matter, and he would meet within Zagosur’s walls to allay Ibran fears.

Dy Jalivo approached with a considerable contingent of guards and a very large white flag. All but five guards waited outside the gate without being told. Cazaril noted with some satisfaction that neither of the creatures Yiss had brought to the last conference were along.

“Chancellor dy Cazaril,” the Darthacan began with very little preamble, “I believe my master, King Alisar of Darthaca, would wish me offer his sincere regret at the course of events between our two nations. I am sorry to say that I believe we were taken in by the petitions of one of our allies who wished to manipulate us to his own nefarious ends.”

That was considerably more of an admission of wrongdoing than Cazaril had expected and he lifted his eyebrows. “Your king’s regret is all well and good, but your support made this entire venture possible. I would ask for a tithe of your fleet as well, except that I want them carrying your soldiers home with all possible speed, Admiral.”

The delay to nearly noon had made it impossible to keep dy Vorkosigan from attending the conference, which had led to all the arrayed panoply from Royina Ista and her court on down attending this summit. Foix and Goram were both showing visible bandages in token of their injuries and the combined weight of their glowering had to be heavy.

Still, the Admiral scowled. “Chancellor, I am prepared to leave behind the siege engines -- I don’t want to take the time to break the damned things down, but I can’t just leave the horses. You know what cavalry men are like, they’ll bloody mutiny.”

“Tell them,” put in dy Vorkosigan, “that you’re leaving, and without the horses. They can come aboard, or they can stay ashore.”

Dy Jalivo was marshalling a hot reply when a strange whistling, windy sound filled the air. He lifted his head to look around him and Cazaril found himself doing so as well. He spotted the Vorkosigans, who alone of all their company were looking not perplexed but elated.

Lord Mark pulled out his stunner and fired it into the air. This would have been cause for greater alarm from dy Jalivo if he weren’t still looking around for the source of the sound. Cazaril realized that both the Vorkosigans were looking in the same direction, up over the line of ridges that protected the city, and Cazaril followed their gaze.

A tiny grey dot was floating over the hills. Cazaril realized it was getting closer at what must be an astonishing speed.

“Clear the courtyard!” yelled dy Vorkosigan. “Clear the whole area, now!”

Cazaril decided that if this made sense to him, he had better trust the little Barrayaran. He shepherded the whole party, including the Darthacans off into a side street until dy Vorkosigan seemed satisfied that they were far enough back. Mark let off another stunner shot into the air.

The small grey dot grew bigger and bigger until Cazaril realized that this must be the giant metal flying house that Vorkosigan had promised. He had neglected to saw how loud it was. They soon all had their hands over their ears as it came down and landed on four large metal feet.

Then abruptly, the screamed sound stopped. A great gaping metal maw opened on one side of the thing, and a dozen metal men carrying what Cazaril intuited were weapons -- of a larger and heavier order than dy Vorkosigan’s stunner -- came hurtling out and set up a clear perimeter around their landing area.

Count dy Vorkosigan strolled out of their clump, holding up his hands, one empty, one holding his sword cane, grinning like a loon.

#

The next person out of the military shuttle was Armsman Roic. Roic was not in battle armor, but he was formidable enough in height and breadth on his own. He had acquired a few grey hairs, but not enough to offset his muscular fitness.

“Roic!” Miles called. “You made it!”

“Count Vorkosigan,” Roic said with unusual formality, “Your lady wife has charged me to tell you that the only reason she is not letting me carve you up for Winterfair feast is that she wants to share the job with your mother.”

Miles rolled his eyes. “Good to see you too, Roic,” he said drily. “Whatever happened to the days when a Count could get armsmen who would follow him with unquestioning loyalty into battle?”

“Our father used ‘em all up and they all follow Gregor now,” Mark put in.

Just then, behind Roic, Royse Bergon, now the ruler of all of Ibra came down the steps.

“Oh, good. Time for some introductions. Roic, now that you’ve delivered your unhappiness, I need your best loyal retainer -- there’s some tricky negotiations underfoot. Oh, and give me your plasma arc.”

Roic glowered for a moment, then just heaved a sigh. He unholstered his plasma arc and handed it over. “Thank you,” Miles said. “This is going to be in Ibran -- sorry, I can’t translate just now.”

Bergon was doing a good job of looking cool despite his apparent first flight and Miles bowed to him. “My lord, good of you to make the trip. I trust my men were accommodating?”

“Thank you, Count, they were,” Bergon replied, answering the bow with a deep nod. “It seems that things have progressed quickly since word of my father’s death was sent. Could you bring me to Cazaril, is he here?”

“Oh yes, right this way. Let me perform some introductions.”

Miles led Bergon, with Roic bringing up the rear and looming most impressively. “Admiral Pelvin dy Jalivo, may I present Royse Bergon dy Chalion-Ibra, ruler of Ibra and consort of Chalion. And this is Armsman Roic, my own personal bodyguard. He has been most vexed to be unable to see to my personal protection these last few weeks, but he is here now.”

Dy Jalivo was looking unsettled. Miles plowed on before either he or Bergon had a chance to interrupt him. “He has also had the opportunity to bring this lovely military shuttlecraft with him. That contingent of marines in battle armor are also under my command. Up until now, Admiral, you’ve only seen a Barrayaran stunner at work. This,” he said, lifting his hand, “is a plasma arc. Watch.”

Miles fired into the dirt, well away from any people or buildings. It was just a quick burst, but the smoking hole it left steamed.

“That,” Miles said, handing the plasma arc back to Roic, who checked the safety and holstered it, “is a small, hand sized version of the weapon. It super-heats the air, you see. All those soldiers,” he gestured to the armored ring, “have much more powerful versions as part of their suits. And the shuttle itself has a vastly more powerful weapons with enormous range, deadly accuracy, and all but unlimited shots. It could wipe out your entire fleet without coming into range of your weapons. So, Admiral.” Miles stepped forward, close into the sweating dy Jalivo’s personal space and looked up at him. “What terms, exactly, did you want to haggle over?”

#

The Darthacans had left behind considerably more supplies than Cazaril had asked for in their haste to escape the otherworldly Barrayaran menace. Parties of soldiers and tradesmen took weeks bringing in all the supplies left behind. And Darthaca would surely think extremely hard before daring to offend Chalion-Ibra in any way.

Cazaril had been extremely busy organizing the cleanup, as Bergon had taken charge and put him to work in the wake of dy Jalivo’s instant and desperate capitulation. He had taken time for the funeral of Daris, and marked how Umegat had leaned on Lord Mark. He rather thought Count dy Vorkosigan had spotted it as well, but he did not comment. If it brought Umegat comfort, Cazaril was glad that he had some friendship now. For all that Umegat seemed spiritually resigned to his loss, it did not make it easy in a personal sense.

In all, it did not take more than a full day to get through all the funerals, and the Vorkosigans made it clear they were staying through those. Once they had set all in motion, however, they were all eager to return to Cardegoss. Even Ista and her retinue accompanied them, which the shuttle was impressively large enough to allow.

The flight was terrifying at first, then wonderous. To see the land stream below them as they passed on to the capital in a matter of minutes was a miracle of which Cazaril could not have properly conceived before living it.

They were greeted by Iselle and Betriz and the children, along with some of the braver members of the court, mostly young, but much more evenly divided among women and men than Cazaril would have guessed. Apparently, the tall, strong Barrayaran men excited some interest when they took off their imposing metal armor.

Count dy Vorkosigan quickly gathered together Cazaril, Betriz, Iselle and Bergon. “I am afraid that I am going to have to leave you shortly,” he said with both regret and eagerness. Cazaril could hear the pull of home in his voice. “I cannot express my thanks for all the courtesy and hospitality you have shown my brother and me. You accepted us into your midst with open arms, even with all the problems we posed and I -- and the Barrayaran Imperium -- will never forget that debt of honor.”

“I am afraid we will have to account that debt in the other direction as well,” replied Iselle with a smile. “Your services to us have been extraordinary beyond measure. We,” and Cazaril could tell that the Count did not miss the royalty of the pronoun, “will never forget either.”

Count dy Vorkosigan gave a little shrug, not quite arguing the point, but preferring to avoid haggling over the value of services rendered. “I gave some thought to a gift -- do I understand correctly that your marriage treaty relies on the birth of son to go into full effect?” He glanced between Iselle and Bergon, who both frowned slightly.

“So it was written,” Iselle agreed.

“But there are none now with standing to challenge it,” Bergon put in.

“Well, I had a thought,” dy Vorkosigan said, pulling out of a pocket a small bottle of some solid white material with colorful writing on the side. “These are a very small example of Barrayaran medicine. Well, it didn’t actually originate with us, but we certainly adopted it in force, back in the day.” He unscrewed the lid and took out a small, dark green pill. “What this is, Royse Bergon, Royina Iselle, is a pill that the Royse should take nightly when you two start trying to have your next child. If you have any pregnancy while he is taking them, the pills will ensure the child is a male. Just put one on the tongue and swallow with a mouthful of water or tea, don’t chew them.”

Bergon looked stunned as he accepted the bottle, the pill back inside and the bottle closed. “Count -- this gift -- “

Dy Vorkosigan waved his thanks away. “These are cheap at any pharmacy where we come from. I don’t want to unleash the whole range of Barrayaran technology on your planet. I don’t think you would thank me for the results. But not having an heir of the right gender seems to me a damned silly way to possibly have someone go to war in ten years, so let’s spike their plans now, shall we?”

Iselle seemed to be considering the bottle with a more thoughtful eye. “It would at that,” she agreed. “But if all your technology would be too much to give us at once, perhaps some targeted aid, such as medicine, might be acceptable?”

Dy Vorkosigan lifted his hand rub at his chin. “I’m not sure, to be honest. If we’ve got a stable portal here, I do intend that our cultures continue to interact, but there are considerable dangers in joining the galactic mainstream too fast. I’ll have to see if I can provide any histories of my own planet; we went through some horrific upheavals after the Time of Isolation, and I hope that perhaps we could smooth some of your own difficulties.”

“If that’s the case, I hope the first thing you’ll send to us is a suitable linguist,” Caz interjected with a wry smile.

Dy Vorkosigan laughed. “Well, it will certainly have to be high on our list of priorities yes.

#

While Miles made nice with the politics and the served Barrayar’s interests, Mark stood aside with Ista, along with Umegat and most of her party.

“I did not think it wise to press you in Zagosur, Lord Mark,” Ista said coolly, “but with the crisis over, I think it is time. Do not you?”

Mark found he was strangely reluctant to have his demon finally removed. It seemed like a cord tying him to this place, and he had liked who was here. It felt better than who had been back in the galactic whirl.

He glanced down at this belly and mentally prodded at the demon. It was more calm than he had been expecting.

You ready?

Does it matter?

As if the way one fell down mattered. When the fall is all there is, it matters.

There isn’t anything but the fall is there.

No. You aren’t really asking.

No, I suppose I’m not. I suppose that means I’m ready.

Mark looked up at Ista nodded. “When you will, Royina.”

Ista closed her eyes and opened her mouth and for an instant, Mark thought he saw a faint white light in her mouth.

Then, without warning, Mark found himself in a whited out version of his rooms at Vorkosigan house. He turned around, staring at the walls which seemed to have transmuted to marble, the bed, the table, the chair, and found a formless blob of purple smoke hanging in the air next to him.

“What are you?” he asked, but he knew.

Your demon, came the reply, but I do not understand why we are here.

“We are here,” came a voice that made Mark whip his head around, “because you have something more than my elementals usually carry.”

It was Kareen.

It was not truly Kareen, Mark knew instantly. Miles had told him about his vision of the Bastard, and Mark had no trouble recognizing this whited out version of Kareen, beautiful and strong and kind and alive.

“Come to me.”

The purple fog came to the Bastard, and those soft, gentle hands took it up tenderly, caressing it into a ball. It came quietly, and the ball shrank until it disappeared. Then the Bastard turned his fathomless eyes, those eyes in Kareen’s face on him.

“Thank you,” said her voice.

“For what?”

“For giving my elemental the gift of acceptance. They are not like mortal creatures, who understand they will one day die. But this one wound itself in your despair, and in your faith, and in your love, and it came back willingly. It is a better path for them, and one which they usually may only take when a powerful temple sorcerer takes one out of the world at the end of a long, mortal illness.”

Mark let out a little bark of laughter. “So I was kind to your puppy before you killed it, and what, you’ll let me see my dead wife as a reward?” He had not meant to say that, actually, but he wasn’t sorry that he did.

The Bastard smiled Kareen’s saddest smile. “No. In the first place, it was never truly alive as you are. In the second, such elementals at it, I do not destroy, but neither do I wish that one wandering at large. And as for you wife,” she spread her hands, indicating her form, “I chose her to make a point to you, Lord Mark.”

“And what point would that be?”

“That you have finally let go,” whispered her voice. “As you know Kareen would have wanted for you.”

“How would you know that?” Mark rasped out. “She was never here, you never saw her.”

“I do not need to,” came the reply. “I have seen her reflection in you. You have found some measure of peace, Mark. Do not reject it. Take what comfort you may.”

Mark had no reply to this. It was not false, but Mark had no idea what he was supposed to do with that statement. The Bastard simply smiled again. “Goodbye Mark. For now, but perhaps not forever.”

And he was standing in front of Ista, his demon gone out of him. He staggered a little, but he felt good, light on his feet. Foix dy Gura caught his arm to steady him.

“You all right, Lord Mark?” Mark realized he could still understand the Ibran; whether it was some piece of the demon consciousness left behind or just the intensity of his immersion, there seemed no great difficulty in understanding the sorcerer.

“Yes, yes I’m fine.” Mark straightened up and gave a decisive nod. “No one in my head but me.” All of us, but let’s not let these Chalionese figure that out.

Ista smile a small, sharp smile. “Then I wish you good fortune, Lord Mark. Yours was far from the most troublesome demon I have encountered, but it did have a knack for stringing itself along.”

“Thank you for your persistence, then, Royina,” Mark countered. The amenities with the rest of her retinue were mercifully short. Foix clapped him on the shoulder, Goram nodded, Liss exchanged kisses on the hands and Illvan moved off with Ista with just a little wink. Mark was left with Umegat.

“I suppose you must make ready to go?”

“I suppose I must.” Mark felt decidedly reluctant at the prospect.

“Are you so sure?”

Mark looked up to meet Umegat’s eye. For one split second, he could almost imagine he saw fathomless depths there, but surely that must be his imagination. There were depths, but they were only human. Wisdom, faith, affection, and comfort, all deep in the eyes of that one old man. And Mark realized he could stare into them forever, and found himself starting to smile.

#

Miles was just getting ready to go when Mark told him.

“Are you out of your mind?” Miles hissed.

“No,” Mark replied calmly. “In fact, I’m feeling more sound in my mind than I have for years.”

“But Mark, mother --”

“-- would be more than welcome to visit and probably love to see the place,” Mark cut Miles off. “You’ve certainly been invited back. And whoever you send here is going to need a translator to start. That’s either me or you, and the Empire can get along just fine without me. Your family can’t get along without you.”

Miles lifted his hands and let them flop down again. “Damnit, Mark, I flung myself through an unknown crack in the space-time continuum to get you back, not leave you stranded in a benighted backward stuck in the Dark Ages!”

Mark grinned in an infuriating fashion. “I thought you’d stopped making plans for me years ago, Miles. Time to start getting used to it.”

Miles sobered, frowning at Mark. “Mark, are you sure about this? I mean, Vorthys and Riva got the WDREE working again, and they say they can keep doing it, but this is risky. It might stop working!”

“If it does, I’d rather be here than there,” Mark said firmly. Miles must have looked stricken, because Mark put a hand on his shoulder. “Look Miles, I’ll miss you, and mother, and the Koudelkas, and Gregor, and even Ivan. But I think I have a better chance of being happy here, of being useful here, of finding my balance here. Can you understand what that would mean for me?”

Miles hesitated. Finally, he said, “I’m not sure, honestly. But I do know it would have to be one hell of a big deal for you.”

“Yeah.” Mark let his hand fall away. “Try to explain it to mother, and tell her I hope to see her. And tell your kids Uncle Mark sends his love.”

“I will. And you -- take care of yourself, d’you hear?”

“Ha. Don’t I always?”

Miles decided not to answer that. Instead, he asked, “What are you planning to do first? We’re not planning to leave behind a whole lot of technology.”

“Oh, first I thought I’d get to work translating that history of Barrayar. I figure the Royse and Royina ought to get a good read through of that as soon as possible so we can sit down and start brainstorming how we should approach potential interaction with Barrayar, limit the damages of entering into galactic society too quickly.”

“Huh. I’ll send you a linguist and medtech soon, then. And probably and anthropologist, because they would never forgive us if we didn’t start letting them document things over here.”

“Just try and hold off on the theologians for a while.”

“Ha! You’ll get ‘em in boatloads, eventually.”

“That’s why I want to hold them off while we can.”

Miles and Mark stared at each other for a long minute, then hugged.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Mark said.

“We’ll be setting up a probe relay so you’ll be able to get regular messages through. Don’t forget to write.”

“Don’t you forget to write either.”

They separated and looked at each other. For all the misgivings Miles had about this course of Mark’s, he liked the way his brother looked. Calm, centered, at peace. Well, maybe the lower pace of life would agree with him.

Miles mounted the hatch to the shuttled and waved. Mark, Umegat now by his side, waved back. The royal family and retainers waved as well. The shuttle door closed, and Miles went up to the cockpit to commandeer a good seat.