The full strength of the Barrayaran fleet descended on the planet Komarr. The mercenaries protecting the planet fled before them, and the two remaining destroyers hardly posed a threat to the landing craft. Among the first to make orbit was the war cruiser General Vorhartung, fresh from destroying the wormhole defenses.
Komarr was defenseless. From the bridge, the surface of the planet was clearly visible through the thin atmosphere, the domes shining in the sunlight like scattered coins. The General Vorhartung hovered like a black dragon over Solstice, defending the troop transports.
Suddenly, the display winked out, and the commander heard an impossible announcement in a cheerful voice. "This cruiser now belongs to the Selby Fleet, under contract to independent Komarr. Goodbye, Barrayarans!" It could not be real, but the main weapons array of the General Vorhartung unfolded like something out of a nightmare, aiming downwards at the center of the troop transport formation. The shot could only be seen, not heard, but the gravitational implosion shredded and crushed the transports, leaving only metal shrapnel and debris.
Orders were hurriedly given, trajectories swiftly recalculated, command reestablished. The fleet finally reacted, turning violently on its former flagship. A fatal hit. The cruiser lost control as one of its engines exploded, and its enormous, fully-fueled bulk fell down upon Solstice.
The land erupted in flames visible from orbit. Vast, endless explosions leveled the former capital of Komarr.
"Simon, you monster." Miles pressed a button on the comconsole, interrupting the game with a grin. "That only killed a few million civilians. Who's the Butcher of Komarr now?"
"Y-es. That was bad." Illyan rubbed his face, disturbed. "You won again, Miles, even though I had all the advantages on my side."
"Well, you still took Komarr. Besides, this game allows you to cheat a little. My mercenaries hijacked the cruiser with the help of a traitor, but you never would have missed that on the Vorhartung."
"I think I screwed up my calculations. I shouldn't have used imploder lances so close to the surface." Simon swore under his breath. "If I still had my memory chip, I wouldn't have missed that. Or maybe I'm just getting too old for strategy games?"
Miles offered him a glass of cognac and he took it.
"Pour yourself one too," Simon said, taking a sip.
"I've been playing these games all my life, you know," Miles sympathized. "I doubt you'd have been able to beat me even with your chip." He let out a breath and gave Illyan a look, smiling nervously. "You know, your natural memory's nearly fully recovered. At the time we were all afraid for you, but now, five years later, you're doing very well."
"Don't patronize me," Illyan said with a short wave of his hand, and changed the subject. "How did you get those commandos on my cruiser, anyway? How does treason work in the game?"
"The usual dirty methods, blackmail and bribery. One of your virtual officers was a bribe-taker. You never tolerated that sort on your staff. Even Haroche..." Miles stopped short. "Even he... wasn't venal, anyway. I never understood how he got past you. I still don't understand. Er... I don't mean any offense. You have an incredible understanding of people, and all my life I've been trying to learn it from you. An uncanny ability to sense the motives of men."
"I regret that Haroche broke. He was so reliable. And so effective." Illyan sighed. "I blame myself. Not for trusting him, but for vanity. He was my own Grishnov, and I had hoped that he would prove equally brilliant."
"Grishnov?" Miles asked, surprised. "Brilliant? That repulsive propagandist? A strong administrator, maybe, but... Political Education? Feh."
"Oh, Miles, what do you know?" Illyan chuckled. "You've read about these times, but you didn't live through them. When I was a boy, sometimes I dreamed of becoming a political officer. It was an honor back then, an admirable occupation. Then I was assigned to ImpSec, but Grishnov has always been a special figure for me. Not just unique, but - a model bureaucrat. He exercised his power flawlessly. The postwar Ministry of Political Education was a peculiar organization, but it was exactly what Emperor Ezar required..."
He sighed and went on. "My doctor has recommended that I train my memory by reading. I'm studying some of Grishnov's private files now, and comparing them with what I remember of him. We did not know each other personally, but I saw him in the Residence and witnessed his reports to Ezar. You know that he had a chance to become Regent, perhaps even a greater one than your father did? Grishnov kept the Imperium under control, and enforced a political stability that could withstand any cataclysm. He was a brilliant student of the Emperor."
Miles felt a stab of annoyance. "Was he? Yet your vaunted Grishnov was unable to survive the aftermath of the Escobar debacle. You can hardly compare him to the Count my father."
"Grishnov was a high-precision instrument," Illyan continued. "Your father is a passionate man, a force of nature that can work miracles. Grishnov did a lot of delicate work, some of it dirty. He skillfully managed a huge department, kept the fear of the Imperium in people, and never misstepped. As opposed to Aral, I must say. His health!" Illyan raised his glass in a wry toast. "But Grishnov just sailed through crisis after crisis, approaching them almost like mathematical problems. I've read some of his reports, and they frankly made me envious."
"But he turned out to be superfluous. Perhaps he was too flexible. He had no qualms about criminal orders, certainly. Maybe that was the issue. He was like a chameleon, able to change his colors to adapt to any environment. Yet Ezar didn't trust him like I trusted Haroche. Your father was given the Imperium on his word of honor and without conditions. And Grishnov... faded into history, and it seems to me that that was quite unfair."
The men sipped at their drinks.
Calling Grishnov's file to the commconsole with his Auditorial seal, Miles opened it and began to peruse the collection of photographs.
"He looks impressive. And he had an intelligent face. I might have trusted him... if I didn't know about the Solstice Massacre. Do you think he was blameless there?"
"I don't know exactly what happened, it was before my time. I don't think the government of Komarr was shot on Grishnov's whim, though. Only one move, and your father was no longer a competitor to the Crown Prince, the planet no longer had a legitimate government, and all the diplomatic agreements were meaningless. There's a hint of a greater will behind it, settling old scores with those who sold the blood of our dead so many years ago. After Komarr Grishnov became closer to the Crown Prince. I don't think they had too many interests in common. But if Serg had become Emperor, I think Grishnov could have been a stabilizing influence."
Alcohol had made Illyan wordier than usual, but Miles listened with interest. His former boss looked more relaxed, now, almost younger.
"So you think Ezar chose my father because Grishnov was too willing to compromise? And my father was not as flexible and had other qualities... like what we might call personal honor?" Miles felt that the conversation wasn't just about the previous generation here.
Illyan smiled. "It's difficult to speculate about Emperor Ezar's motives. Yes, maybe Grishnov would not have given up power to the young Emperor, convincing himself he was acting for the good of the Imperium. Haroche also felt he was acting for the good of the Service. Eh. You know what surprised me at the time? If you're not too tired..."
"Go on! I haven't had such an interesting evening in a long time." Miles was still paging through the photographs.
"I became chief of ImpSec in the midst of Vordarian's civil war. I was handling a lot of cases, and I didn't have either the people or the experience to investigate everything that needed to be investigated. Remember that Political Education was purged after the Escobar campaign, and almost erased from history. I began investigating Grishnov only a couple of years after his death. Rumor had it that together with the Ministry of Political Education millions and millions of marks disappeared. The investigation was lengthy, and the documentation ran to a good fifty volumes. What I found particularly interesting was that he lacked interest in money. He left only a very modest inheritance to his family. We went over all of his accounts more than a dozen times, and whatever he was, he was not a thief. He had every opportunity to misplace funds appropriated to the Escobar war and other operations, but so far as we can tell he never did."
Miles snorted. "You don't think he had contingency plans? Ezar purged nearly the entire Council of Ministers before his death. If Grishnov thought himself safe, he was a fool. You're sure?" He wasn't keen on Illyan's strange enthusiasm for his father's old enemy.
"Almost." Illyan smiled again, seeing the effort Miles was putting into trying not to argue. "I set a special task force to unravel Political Education's finances, and reconstruct as much as they could. Some of my best analysts spent three years on it... that's a good picture, stop." He jabbed his finger at the screen. "There it is, close-up, Grishnov's infamous ring. My agents wasted a great deal of time investigating that."
Miles enlarged the picture, looking at the unusual design of the ring. He'd seen something like that before somewhere...
"Grishnov was hardly Vor, to have such an expensive heirloom. Nor did he have a weakness for trinkets. However, a few years before his death, he had this thing created for him, and never took it off," Illyan told Miles with unflagging enthusiasm. "The investigation revealed that the ring was not just decoration, and the inner workings opened a secret door in his home. We found a hidden safe in his house, and we thought that here, maybe, we'd find what happened to all that money. But he only had working documents in there, a small amount of cash, and a card for a Betan bank account, which had a fairly modest balance. Even if Grishnov anticipated his fall from grace, he did not betray Ezar's trust. And perhaps he did not expect it..."
Miles thought hard. Then he called up the investigation file, looking for relevant documents, sorting through them for things of interests. Having discovered a better hologram of the ring in the files, he called it up on the main display and began to carefully examine it.
"Hey, Simon! I don't think it's that simple. Did your analysts check to see if he had any accounts on Jackson's Whole? I don't see that in the documentation. They seem to have decided the ring was Komarran work and I wouldn't be so sure of that..."
He paged through some more documents and sighed. "Oh, hell. That's where I've seen it. Seems to me that this is almost a copy of the ring Baron Ryoval used to wear, when he was alive. Mark mentioned to me that Ryoval's ring had at least three functions, and one of them was as a key to his personal finances. These sort of accounts aren't simple, but... gold! Literally." He pointed to the screen. "Some Jacksonian banks use this type of code key for depositors who have secret account balances of over a million Betan dollars. And you don't seem to have checked."
"Are you sure?" Illyan asked, unpleasantly surprised. "A Jacksonian account? With over a million dollars, at the old exchange rates... Damn! Our money's been supporting the economy of those bandits for over half a century?"
"Just don't tell Mark or he'll mutiny." Miles said, still looking at the comconsole. "But... hmm. You know, we don't have the right to just forget this conversation. No right at all. Someone needs to be sent to Jackson's Whole..."
"Send yourself. As an Auditor, you can and should. If you find a lot of stolen money, all honor to you."
"Are you angry?" The odd, sad tone of Illyan's voice made Miles turn around. "If I hadn't spent so much time dealing with exotic Jacksonian millionaires, would you still consider him a role model?"
"A little upset, yes. But... again it's not that simple." Illyan held out a hand to keep Miles from interjecting. "Remember that with Grishnov I'm talking about Haroche? I not only admired Grishnov, I wanted someone like him in my organization. I was trying to surpass the great Ezar himself, since I thought that I could do better. It annoyed me that I couldn't. But it seems I'm not the only one who was missing things!"
And Illyan smiled broadly.