"Aren't you done with that letter yet?" Ges demanded.
"There!" Amara pushed it over to him. "But no one's going to believe it. Why would Lord Vorhovis and poor old Cadmir kill each other? It's ridiculous!"
"They killed each other out of jealousy over you. Perfectly plausible." Ges skimmed the letter quickly.
"Well." Amara tossed her dark brown curls. "Perhaps. But everyone knows Aral is the really jealous one."
"That's why he needs us to protect him, my dear. You don't want to see him executed in the Square, do you?"
"Of course not! Though he is so tiresome when he gets into one of his rages."
Ges smiled thinly. "But you should have seen him, my love. He was magnificent, dispatching the two of them. A god of vengeance."
Her eyes gleamed. "Oh, that does sound exciting. If only it hadn't been poor Cadmir. He's such a sweet thing; I'm sure he didn't want to fight."
"You could put it that way." Ges handed the letter back to her, the white gloves of his dress uniform ensuring he left no fingerprints. "Now it's time for your part."
"I don't understand this at all," Amara pouted. "Why do we have to make everyone think I've killed myself? And how long will I need to hide away on that dreary South Continent, anyway?"
"Because you might be questioned, my lovely -- perhaps even with that new fast-penta drug the Galactics came up with." Ges bent to brush his face through her scented curls one last time. She really was astonishingly beautiful; it was a shame that hiding on the other side of the planet simply wasn't as effective as it had been back in the Time of Isolation. But once she was gone, Aral would turn to Ges again for consolation. Who would have guessed the boy would be such a stickler about adultery, in his wife or himself?
"Won't they question you, also?" Amara asked.
"Oh, no; I'm just a bystander in this affair. But you're right at the center of the scandal, as might be suspected of a woman as desirable as yourself."
Amara laughed musically. "You'll take care of all the rest, then?" She stood up from the writing table.
"Oh, yes." Ges caught her slender hand in his gloved one and nuzzled it, kissed the fingertips, and pressed his surprise into her grasp.
"What is this?" she asked, turning it to face her and making Ges's plan far easier to carry out than he'd imagined.
"A plasma arc, my dear," he murmured, and pressed her finger upon the trigger.
Arde Mayhew walked with a spring in his step through Escobar Orbital Station No. 5, back to where his freighter was docked. He'd just seen Captain Naismith off on the next leg of her super-secret mission, and he was a little bit in love. He'd persuaded her to let him buy some baggage, a change of clothes, and a pair of proper shoes instead of the slippers she'd been wearing. He'd even gotten her to admit that the reason she'd had to leave Beta Colony with no luggage or shoes was that she'd almost been apprehended by enemy agents, so she'd had to leave in a tearing hurry. It was a good thing his freighter had been departing just then, after he'd been specifically chosen by the Captain's superiors to help her carry out her mission.
Captain Naismith didn't know it yet, but Arde had also slipped a credit chit into her bag, containing most of the money he'd been saving up for an upgrade to his jump implants. She'd find a way to pay him back later, he was sure. And even if she didn't, it was all right; Arde was happy to contribute to the war heroine's mission, and he had plenty of years to save up more money before his implants became obsolete, the secret fear of every jump pilot.
Later, when he was met by the Beta Colony government agents and dicovered how gullible he'd been and how many fines he was going to be slapped with for abetting the escape of a suspected spy, Arde started to realize it was going to be harder to save up than he expected. And though it hurt his heart to believe the lovely Captain Naismith had been lying to him and plotting in league with the evil Barrayarans, he gave up on thinking he'd ever see his money back.
Many years later, Arde was repaid in full with interest. But he never did get his implants upgraded, and he only relived the wonder of jump in his dreams.
Elii opened her eyes -- and gasped. She could see! Blurrily at first, but a few blinks brought everything into focus. The hospital room she'd been in for several weeks now (assuming this was the same room) was not quite as she'd imagined it. The walls were a soft, cheerful yellow instead of white or grey, and the ceiling was decorated with an intricate pattern that drew the gaze -- designed, she realized, to calm and intrigue bored patients. There were no windows, as she'd nervously imagined there might be (Beta was still a dirtball, albeit a very advanced one), and the seats beside the bed actually looked quite comfortable even for sleeping in. One of them was occupied by a silver-haired woman reading from a handheld viewer.
Elli frowned (which felt weird; she tried a couple of other expressions, but wasn't sure if her facial muscles were moving quite the right way). "Elizabeth?" she ventured. Her mouth and throat had been reconstructed nearly a week ago, so the voice that came out was beginning to be familar.
The woman looked up. "Welcome back, dear. The doctors said you would probably be waking soon." Her voice confirmed that she was the one who'd been hosting Elli's stay on Beta Colony. Admiral Naismith's grandmother, of all things. Elli had been picturing -- well, she wasn't quite sure what. Something more martial perhaps, with hair iron-grey instead of silver, and more frown lines than smile lines, and an athletic figure instead of a matronly one. But that was silly, because she'd had plenty of time to learn that Elizabeth was a mild-mannered retired geneticist and rather bemused by her grandson's military career.
Elli raised a hand and patted very cautiously at her face. Her eyes had been the last surgery, so no more wrinkled plaskin met her fingers. But what she felt on the outside of the face didn't quite seem to match how it felt from the inside. "How . . . how is it?"
"The surgeries went splendidly, dear. You look wonderful."
"You're sure? My face feels . . ." It felt huge. Puffy. She imagined something along the lines of a big balloon ("face just like an onion" she'd heard all too clearly when Admiral Naismith's cousin had assumed she was deaf and stupid as well as blind and mute).
"Here." With a couple of clicks, Elizabeth turned her handheld reader reflective and passed it to Elli.
She looked like a sculpture, was the first thing Elli thought. Something finer-grained than marble, more faithful to the hues of human skin. Then she realized that was exactly what her face was: a work of very skilled and highly-paid artisans in the medium of her flesh. She would look more like a real person once her hair grew in, of course; she already had a few millimeters of dark stubble on most of her head, but no eyebrows yet since her eyes had been the last thing worked on. Her chin and jaw were sharper than they had been, she could see that. And her nose was straight -- not that it had been crooked before, just a little off-center. The pink cupid's-bow mouth was definitely very nice, she thought, pursing her lips carefully. And the eyes (grey, as she'd requested -- unable to remember, she'd shyly asked Elizabeth the color of Miles' eyes) were quite stunning, almost luminous. But maybe that was because she was just so happy to have eyes at all.
"It's . . . great," she said weakly. Which was poor gratitude for Admiral Naismith and his long-suffering grandmother.
"You're going to be lovely," Elizabeth assured her warmly.
Elli patted her cheek, still looking in the mirror. "Why does it feel so odd?"
"The nerves are still regrowing. You'll have a few sessions with some therapists to make sure you have full control over all your facial muscles -- especially in the tongue and mouth."
Elli grimaced, and the sculpture in the mirror pouted prettily. "I've already had a couple of those."
"Now that you can look in a mirror, they'll want to do some more. But you can get out of here tomorrow, probably."
"Oh," said Elli. She wasn't quite ready for what-comes-after, just yet. Where would she stay?
"You'll come home with me, of course. Take some time to get back on your feet."
"Right." Elli thought of the 'combat bonus' Admiral Naismith (Miles, Elizabeth called him fondly, and it was too easy for Elli to fall into thinking of him that way) had pressed into her hand, and started making plans. She'd have to rejoin the fleet, of course, but first she had to get herself back into fighting shape. And it would be better shape than ever before; she was determined to make Miles proud of her.
The difficulties became apparent almost immediately. The therapist flirted with her instead of working on her diction. The herm running the dojo where she went to practice pulled its punches and invited her to an orgy out near Quartz. About half of the Dendarii, after she rejoined, seemed to regard her as a recruiting advertisement at best and a prostitute at worst. Gradually she adjusted to living with this new, unexpected handicap. It was better than being blind and mute, she reminded herself frequently, but there were times when she wished she still had a face like an onion.
At least Miles liked her face, and never treated her as less of a thinking person because of it.
Years later, when Elli finally met the rest of Miles' family at the shuttleport in Vorbarr Sultana, she was blindsided by a different kind of reaction. Miles' mother was fussing over his floatchair before handing him over to the doctors from ImpMil (and was a backwater dirtball really the best place for him to get his arm bones replaced? Elli worried not for the first time.) The stocky, athletic, iron-grey-haired and very martial man who must be Miles' father turned to greet her.
"You must be --" he began, and then his face went blank. "Amara?"
"I -- no. Elli Quinn," she said, lowering the hand she had held out to him. Did they not shake hands in greeting on Barrayar?
He shook himself after a moment. "I'm sorry. You look remarkably like . . . someone I used to know. Though of course she'd be older now, if . . ." He turned away, and Elli was a little glad. There was something disturbing behind his eyes.
For the rest of her visit to Barrayar, Elli got along wonderfully with Miles' mother, but she never managed to exchange more than a few words at a time with his father, and somehow the Count was never alone in the same room with her.
Humming softly under his breath, Dr. Ethan Urquhart shifted the sleeping infant on his shoulder and reached carefully for the comconsole. Quinn (so named because Terrence had insisted Elli was not a suitable name for a boy, even if no one on Athos would know that) was a fussy baby, reluctant to go to sleep or to stay asleep if he wasn't being constantly dandled and cooed at. Ethan's work schedule had been reduced by his fatherhood allowance; he was on pure research, with no obstetrical duties at present. He got enough urgent summonses from his imperious offspring without needing to field calls from anxious techs and fathers-to-be. But even though research allowed a more flexible schedule, it was still work. And he had to finish reviewing his correspondence before the data packets went out on the supply ship in two days.
Dear Dr. Naismith, his latest letter began. He'd had an ongoing correspondence with the Betan geneticist ever since his return from Kline Station four years earlier. He was always careful not to use her first name, since it was possible Terrence was right and someone on the review board might recognize what was apparently a traditional female name. And also, though Ethan hardly feared he would be corrupted across the light-years when he had withstood feminine blandishments in person, it was probably better not to encourage too much familiarity.
Thank you for the detailed information on reassortment of alleles under controlled electrophoresis, he continued, inputting the text awkwardly with one hand while his other rubbed soothingly across Quinn's tiny back. He could have used vocal inputs, of course, but that might wake the baby. I have been successful in using your technique on an individual scale -- He glanced at the sleeping baby and reminded himself to prepare some more of the special formula. There was very little tyramine in baby formula anyway, but Ethan wanted to make sure Quinn wasn't exposed to any of the side-effects so early in life. Terrence agreed.
Ethan returned to his letter. -- and I am working out how it might be done on a larger scale using widely-available technolll -- Ethan's hand froze as Quinn stirred and made some squeaking noises. He realized he'd stopped humming when he became engrossed in what he was writing; now he carefully resumed the low buzz that seemed to make the baby happy. After a moment, Quinn smacked his lips thoughtfully, turned his head the other way, and drooled down his father's neck.
A quick glance down the hall showed no light in the bedroom; Terrence must not have been disturbed. He seemed particularly sensitive to the baby's moods and usually responded when Quinn woke in the middle of the night. But a bout of colic over the last few days had left Terrence exhausted, so tonight Ethan had ended up with the feeding and changing duties.
Ethan scratched the stubble spreading across his jaw and smiled wryly at himself. Sitting up a few hours before dawn, humming and swaying and being drooled on while he tried to compose a letter one-handed, with his husband snoring in the bedroom; fatherhood was everything he'd ever dreamed it would be.
"Put down that plasma arc, Private," said Alexi Vormoncrief firmly. He glanced around the infirmary uneasily, wondering how long it would take the medtechs to get back. He'd just stopped in to visit the young man he'd recently rescued from death out on the ice of Camp Permafrost, and now he found himself trying to talk down a suicide.
"But look what they done to me!" Private Hedakis wailed. He certainly wasn't a pretty sight. The surgeons had managed to save his right hand, but both feet and several fingers from the left hand had been lost to frostbite. So had his left ear and the tip of his nose, although the bandages fortunately spared Alexi the sight.
"Now, it's not that bad," said Alexi weakly. "You'll go back to ImpMil and they'll fit you up with some prosthetics in no time." He took a cautious step closer to the bed. If he could just reach the call button, that would bring someone running.
"So I can be half plastic and metal, like one of them golems in the stories?" the sniveling boy cried.
"Look here." Alexi tried a change of tactics. "What would your mother say if she heard you carrying on like this over a few small, er . . ." Amputations didn't really fit so well at the end of that sentence. Alexi shifted another step closer.
But Private Hedakis' chin just quivered all the more. "Ma would say I look like a mutie ought never to've been born!" he blubbered. "Better if I'd died out there!" A wave of the plasma arc indicated the wa-wa raging outside.
Alexi was beginning to wonder what was in the cocktail being pumped into the boy's veins. Clearly the medtechs had gotten the wrong mix of sedatives in there, or something. Alexi was not going to be able to talk reason into this young idiot, and the call button was still too far away. So he did the only thing he could think of: he grabbed for the plasma arc.
It was just the kind of impetuous, imperious, well-meant but unconsidered action that had gotten Alexi exiled to this camp in the first place. As Private Hedakis's hand tightened on the weapon, and they wrestled for it briefly, and Alexi felt the boy's finger depress the trigger, he had one microsecond to think, It wasn't supposed to be a death sentence! before the searing bolt of plasma blew out most of his chest.
And many more . . .