"Such a disgrace! And to think he's on the General Staff!"
Alys prepared a placatory comment for Elspeth, following the elderly woman's gaze across the crowded reception hall. There were a number of the General Staff here, and by this hour many of them were acting in ways that Elspeth might consider disgraceful. Alys preferred to leave a party after the first guest was publicly sick, but tonight she had to stick it out till the traditional hour of three thirty in the morning, the hour when the last defeated Cetagandan ship had fled Barrayaran space after the invasion, when she was needed to open the fireworks display.
Her soothing words died on her lips as she saw the soldier Elspeth was indicating. Captain Illyan was sitting in a secluded alcove with a lovely young woman on his lap, entirely absorbed in her charms. They weren't the only amorous couple in the room, of course, but they were by far the most unexpected.
"Dear me," she said weakly after a moment. "How unusual."
"These young officers are all the same," Elspeth went on. "No concept of the dignity of the uniform."
Simon's parade red-and-blues were rumpled, his face flushed, and he looked ... delightful, to Alys' eyes. She tried to mimic Elspeth's disapproving frown, but it took a while to force her twitching lips into the correct lines. Though when she looked at the young woman it was easier.
Now could this be some ImpSec thing? Simon hadn't mentioned that there were any suspicious people here, and surely if that young woman was being pumped for information, it would be the job of some active field agent, not Simon. She studied the woman. Alys knew exactly what expression would be found on the face of a woman who was in love with Captain Illyan. She saw it sometimes in her mirror. The woman sitting on Simon's knee and kissing his neck was smiling, but with triumph, not delight.
Simon's eyes were ever so slightly glassy. Perhaps Alys should consider that understandable, given how the young woman was pressing herself against him--and that was no way for a decent woman to dress, either--but instead she was suspicious. In twenty years of Simon's friendship, Alys had never seen him anything but alert, no matter what the circumstances.
"I'll have a word with him," she said to Elspeth. "Excuse me."
Alys approached cautiously, with dignity. She wanted to drag the woman away from Simon and slap her, but instead she pressed her features into her most severe and aristocratic expression.
"Terribly sorry to interrupt," she said in a cut-glass tone that sounded anything but sorry, and was meant to, "but I need to speak with the Captain for a few minutes."
Simon turned unguarded brown eyes on her. "Alys!" he exclaimed. "Of course. Just a moment, sweetheart," he said to the woman, easing her off his knee. He swayed a little as he stood.
Alys put her arm through his, ostensibly in a ladylike manner, actually to steady him and steer him out of the woman's arm-reach. His free hand came up and touched her cheek. "You are exceptionally beautiful tonight, Alys."
She flinched away, her suspicions turning to certainty. This was wrong. She glanced back at the young woman, who was watching her with a mixture of scorn and wariness. Alys knew it was important not to let the slightest hint of her suspicions show. Simon was just another drunk officer making improper advances towards everything in a skirt. There were dozens of them here tonight. Alys drew her grandmother's aura around herself
"We haven't been introduced," the young woman said, extending a hand. "Dala Pranie. I'm with the Illyrican delegation."
Alys gave the woman's hand a cold stare and did not touch it, instead making a shallow curtsey in the most formal Barrayaran style. "Lady Alys Vorpatril."
"The finest woman on Barrayar," Simon added helpfully, observing this. He opened his mouth to continue on this theme, and Alys hastily cut across him.
"If you will excuse us." She nodded to Pranie and turned away, leading Simon with her. He gave a little wave to Pranie.
"I'll be right back," he said with a smile and a wink. Pranie sat back, apparently satisfied.
Simon's hand on her arm was disturbingly like a caress. "How may I serve you, Alys?" he asked, with an unmistakeable undertone in his voice. Alys bit her lip and caught the eye of one of the waiters-cum-ImpSec agents. He came towards her, presenting a tray with a bow of his head.
"Arrest that young woman," Alys said quietly. "Without causing a disturbance. Be careful, I think she must have some kind of drug or poison on her. And Captain Illyan needs medical assistance."
At one time an ImpSec agent would have as soon stripped off his clothes and danced on the table as take orders from her, but after that business with the Cetagandan assassin, Simon had made it plain to his Residence men that when Lady Alys snapped her fingers, they jumped. Now the guard received her instructions without a blink. With her free hand, Alys took a canapé from the tray.
"There will be medtechs outside in a minute, my lady," the guard said after a pause. He set his tray down on a convenient table and moved smoothly so that he was standing between them and the young woman.
"What are you doing?" Simon asked in bemusement, twisting to face her.
"Just trust me, please," Alys said to him, piloting him towards a small servants' entrance.
"Of course I trust you." Simon leaned against her with a little sigh of content, his arm somehow insinuating itself around her waist. Alys hurried him out.
In the corridor, the medical might of ImpSec descended upon them and Simon was whisked away by frowning medtechs clutching scanners and blood-test machines that bleeped ominously. Alys watched him go, then returned to the party in time to see the young woman ushered firmly out.
The next day Simon dropped into her office. He looked decidedly green and heavy-eyed, and stood awkwardly in the doorway even after she gestured him to an armchair.
"My lady, I am deeply sorry for the insult I offered you last night," he said. "And I am even more profoundly grateful for your intervention."
Alys gave him a warm smile. "You obviously weren't in control of your acts, Simon. It's all right. Sit down. Let me ring for some tea." As he obeyed, moving gingerly, she looked at him closely. "Are you sure you should be on duty?"
"I'm not," he said. "But I felt you were owed an apology, and an explanation."
Alys, who had been eaten up with both curiosity and concern, did not demur. She relayed orders through her comm link, and the corridor maid appeared promptly with a tray. Alys dismissed her and poured for them both. "So," she said. "What was it all about?"
Simon sipped his tea. "I was, as you realised, drugged. Our preliminary interrogation of the young woman showed that she had intended to lure me away and when I was, er, sufficiently distracted, shoot me with my own nerve disruptor. Komarrans, naturally. It's a clever way to get around our restrictions on carrying weapons, I must admit." He seemed perfectly at ease discussing ways he could be killed. "It seems that she would have made her move very soon, but you realised something was wrong. For which I thank you." His eyes narrowed. "None of my personal guard seemed able to explain their lapse. The best answer I got was from the ensign in charge, who finally admitted--" his voice changed subtly, as it always did when he quoted from his chip "--that he was hoping I had a chance to get laid." He sighed. "How did you know something was wrong?"
Alys considered how much of the truth to tell. I didn't at first, I was jealous didn't seem wise to say. "I can tell the difference between a woman who's genuinely enjoying herself and one who's playing a part. I've seen enough of Gregor's courting."
That won a thin smile from Simon. "I wish you could teach my guard to make that distinction," he said. "Though I trust they now realise that their opinions on my personal life are not to be taken into consideration in their decision-making."
"How ever did she manage to drug you?"
"It was on her gloves," he said. "Absorbed by the skin, apparently. I shook hands with her when we were introduced. It's a Jacksonian date-rape drug, of all the things. Induces trustfulness, lack of inhibitions and, er, desire. Cheap, easy and effective, and it's not a poison so it doesn't show up on our chem-sniffers. The simplest plots are always the best, and the hardest to spot." He paused. "Will it give serious offence if I refrain from shaking hands at receptions in future?"
"If it does, you can be assured that nobody will show it openly."
"Assuming my reputation survives this," Simon said with a slightly bitter twist of his lips that made Alys frown.
"I can't see why it shouldn't," she said. "First of all, well over half the guests were far too drunk to even notice what was happening to you, and as for the others--well, it's not been my experience that having a pretty young woman interested in him has ever harmed the reputation of a man in Vorbarr Sultana. I didn't hear any particular gossip about it for the rest of the evening, and I assure you I was listening."
He grimaced. "If you say so."
"And are you all right now?"
"The Jacksonians aren't as careful in their pharmacology as the Cetas, or perhaps they just didn't care, in this case. The drug leaves a nasty hangover. It'll pass." He took another swallow of tea, staring wearily at the carpet.
"It was a nasty thing to do," Alys said, watching him.
"All part of the job," Simon answered. "Don't worry, Alys. As tortures go, having a pretty young woman sitting on my lap whispering sweet nothings into my ear is not too terrible." He sighed a little, belying his words. "The drug generally causes memory loss in its victims, but in my case, of course, that doesn't work. It's ... rather mortifying."
Alys caught herself before extending a hand to him in sympathy. "Don't dwell on it. You were drugged, you couldn't help yourself."
"I'm just lucky," he said, meeting her eye, "that I had you watching my back."
"You watch all our backs all the time," Alys said, smiling at him over her teacup. "Turn about is fair play."