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A Marvellous Party

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Aral's toga was slipping off his shoulders again. Ges watched it slide down as Aral gesticulated, his words lost beneath the frenzied beat of the band in the pavillion. The white linen slipped off his shoulder and caught halfway down his arm. Aral shook it impatiently, and the whole thing came off. Ges swallowed a smile as Aral completely ignored it.

Ned Vorinnis, resplendent in some kind of red velvet suit with white-powdered hair, did not ignore it, and the tempo of his gestures increased. Aral bared his teeth. Ges carefully placed his sandalled feet on the end of the lounger, leaned back and watched the show.

Ned was joined by Lord Francois Vorsoisson, apparently also considering Aral's costume unsuitable even for this masquerade. In justice, Ges had to grant that the underwear was a little brief even for a costume party at this beachfront villa in Bonsanklar. And the rest of it--leather sandals laced to the knee, tinfoil Greek helmet, and plasma arc in a modern holster at his hip--didn't do more than add a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole. The God of War, matching his own costume as Dionysus: it had been Ges's idea, and he'd known this would happen. Judging from his selection of underwear, Aral hadn't, or hadn't cared. Ges would put money on the latter, if there was anyone who'd take the bet.

The late sunset glow flushed Aral's skin, casting subtle shadows in the musculature of his chest and shoulders. Ges sipped his drink. Ned said something sufficiently provocative to push Aral from annoyance to anger, and he took a swing at him, knocking his preposterous wig onto the sand. Ned lunged angrily for Aral, but Francois caught his arm, and for a moment they all tussled together. Then Aral pulled out his plasma arc, and Ges sat up a little straighter. He didn't think even the Vorkosigan heir would be allowed to carry a charged plasma arc here tonight, but if it was charged and Aral was going to shoot someone, it should be someone more worthwhile than Ned or Francois.

Two other costumed young men joined in, but Ges couldn't make out who from their backs. He stood up and started to saunter over. Four against one were the kinds of odds Aral liked lately, but Ges didn't want him to get all his relief from brawling tonight.

The toga lay discarded on the sand. He stooped and picked it up and shook it out, rearranging its folds, and went over to the incipient brawl.

"You're crazy!" Francois was saying. "Just calm down, Aral, he didn't mean anything by it."

"Didn't mean anything?" Aral snarled. "Of course he meant something. That's the trouble with everyone around here, nobody means anything about anything!"

"You can't have a plasma arc here," Ned expostulated at the same time. They were circling Aral cautiously, angry but not stupid enough to provoke him into firing.

Ges stepped smoothly into the circle. "The great General, you know," he said. "His son does as he pleases." He waited for Aral to turn towards him, plasma arc still in his hand, then deftly tossed the toga around him, much like gladiators of old captured their rivals in a net, the linen folds temporarily trapping Aral's arms. "Much as it goes against the grain with me to cover you up," he whispered in Aral's ear, pulling him in. "I went to a lot of trouble getting this costume sorted out for you. Leave it lying on the ground here to be trampled on and I might just call you out myself."

Aral thrashed like a netted fish, and Ges felt the hard muzzle of the plasma arc press against him as he held on. "I could almost believe you were pleased to see me," he quipped, tightening his hold. "There's more than one way to scandalise these idiots, you know."

"There's plenty more, but you only think about one," Aral retorted, but he kissed Ges anyway, more bite than kiss, but Ges had no objection.

Ned and Francois and their cronies took the opportunity to slip away, Ges noticed. He saw another too-familiar figure wearing an abbreviated cultured fur and carrying a club, and tensed. Some people he really would rather not meet tonight, or any night. Aral recaptured his attention, and the hairs on the back of Ges's neck settled down. His hand slipped under the folds of cloth, nails biting into Aral's back, and Aral groaned at the back of his throat, a mere vibration that seemed to set up a sympathetic resonance in Ges. Then Aral's attention flickered, and Ges made a noise of protest as Aral pulled back slightly.

"What's he doing here?"

Ges supposed it was typical that Aral would notice the out-of-place arrival even half drunk and kissing Ges in full view of the assembled Vorish youth. He straightened Aral's toga, letting his hand linger, and turned slowly to look.

Over by the bandstand was a slight, short figure, also clad in a toga with lyre and wreath indicating it an attempt at Apollo. Apollo turned, and Ges saw it was not a short man but the Crown Prince, evidently determined not to miss this grown-up party. Serg turned and spotted them. Spotted Aral. Ges let no hint of annoyance show as the Prince started to make his way over. The Crown Prince idolised Aral, and somewhat to Ges's surprise the last few months of scandal had only increased his hero-worship. Ges wondered who had told him about the costumes.

Serg seemed to have escaped not only his tutors and guards, but also the gang of slightly older youths who usually congregated around him. Every Vor with a son within ten years of Serg's age was trying to promote a friendship between them, and of course all the daughters paraded for him too, though the boy was scarcely into his teens.

Serg reached them and Ges saw that he had had no trouble getting a drink from the waiters here.

"My Prince," Ges said in greeting, putting just enough irony in his voice that Serg wouldn't be sure whether he was being mocked or not.

"Slipped your leash again, have you?" Aral said, much more straightforward in tone. "I should pack you off to the summer palace again. Do your Armsmen know where you are?"

"They won't stop me going anywhere I like, now," Serg said. "It's just like you told me. All I have to do is order them, and they have to obey me."

"They're your guards," Aral growled. "If they don't obey you, you have a problem."

Serg looked satisfied. "That's what I told them."

"Charming as this little love-in is," Ges said, "what's your purpose in coming here tonight? Wine, women and song?"

"Yeah," said Serg, looking at Aral. "And also--well. It's a surprise."

"I don't care for surprises," Aral said, and Serg looked crestfallen.

"Well, well, look at this, it's the Three Musketeers."

Serg and Aral both turned sharply at the new voice. Ges turned more slowly. "Vidal," he said. "And what are you? Is that Henry the Eighth?"

"King Arthur," Vidal retorted.

"Ah yes, of course. An easy mistake to make."

Aral, uninterested in this mild verbal fencing, looked around for a waiter. Ges summed him up and decided not to intervene yet, just catching his eye with the hint of a smile before Aral veered off, Serg trailing him.

"The General's looking for you," said Vidal, with a nod towards Aral indicating which General. "I told him I'd pass the message along, but if I were you I'd make tracks."

"If you were me--you'd love to be me, wouldn't you?" Ges said. "You couldn't hold him for a week. What am I saying, you couldn't hold him for an hour."

"You're disgusting, Vorrutyer. Your own sister barely cold, and you're here with her husband--"

"Spare me the speeches. You wouldn't have anyone at all if not for the little help I provide. I take it you're buying tonight?"

Vidal gave a short nod, and Ges reached into the folds of his toga. Vidal's hand shot out to receive the little packet, but Ges held it back.

"You know the rules," Ges said. "You name names, then I will name names."

The look of dislike in Vidal's face grew, but he didn't withdraw his hand. Ges smiled, made him wait another moment, then exchanged the packet for the folded mark notes.

Aral and Serg were returning, now with Rulf and Ned in tow, and somewhat to Ges's surprise Aral's toga was no more disarranged than before and he seemed to be talking civilly to the others.

"If you tell everyone," Rulf was observing, "it's not going to be much of a surprise."

"Tell everyone what?" Vidal said, taking this distraction with some relief.

"Fireworks," Aral said in a bored voice. "Serg's idea of fun. I think people here are too sozzled to even notice. I wish I was."

"No doubt you will be soon," said a new voice, and Ges tensed, deep in his stomach. His eldest brother could always do that to him, and he hated it. "It's more of a surprise to see you sober at a party, even this early in the evening. Approximately sober."

Aral gave a shrug, the insult seeming not even to register, ignoring Lord Dono Vorrutyer with an insouciance that Ges couldn't help but envy. "You'll probably blow the whole place up," he went on to Serg. "Not that it would be a bad thing. It'd improve Barrayar immensely if someone blew this whole Vorish party to oblivion." He made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the entire beachfront, and knocked off his own preposterous helmet, again.

Vidal picked it up, ostentatiously brushed the sand from it, and replaced it slightly askew on Aral's head. Aral took a swing at him, but was blocked by Dono.

"Don't be a fool," he said, then to Ges behind him. "Can't you keep your pet under control?"

Serg frowned at this, but Ges laughed, and did not take a step further away from his brother. "Surprised you're here," he said instead, slipping a secret caressing hand on Aral's back, which diverted him from pursuing his attack on either Vidal or Dono. Not that it would bother him if Aral went for Vidal, but he didn't want to be forced in between Aral and Dono if he could help it. "What's tempted you out of the District?"

"What else but you, my dear brother?"

"And Coralie? I hope she is well?"

"Expecting. Very tedious."

"Ah. Your presence here is now explained in full. Do please give Lady Vorrutyer my very best wishes."

"So tell me, when are we to expect this pyrotechnic display?" Dono asked, turning back to Serg.

Serg gave a sly smirk. "You'll see." He made a gesture towards the far side of the beach, outside the area where the revellers were partying. "My tutor thought I was learning about native sea life this afternoon," he said. "It's all set up and ready to go."

"Best wait a little," said Vidal. "The moon's so bright that they won't show up well."

Serg nodded vaguely and looked off towards the pavillion where the dancing was going on. "Come on, let's go take a look over there."

Aral grunted and nodded. Rulf hung back as they moved in that direction.

"All you're doing is making it worse," Rulf told him. "I'm giving you the credit of assuming you are trying to help. But you're making it worse."

"He doesn't want your kind of help," Ges said. "What, you think a friendly chat and a manly hug and he'll be back like none of it ever happened? Don't be a fool."

Rulf glared at him, but didn't argue. All he said was, "You're not going to drive me away."

"Rid yourself of the idea that I care where you are." Ges gestured with his glass at the whole scene. "Help yourself. I leave you in possession; I have a summons I cannot refuse."

"Oh, you're impossible," Rulf said, but without much heat. Ges left him returning to Aral, no doubt to try again with the friendly chat and manly hug. Rulf was less likely to drive Aral to violence than some of his other friends. Ges judged it a fair time to go and see the Count. Avoiding him, after all, would in no way help any of his goals, and he had no wish to seem either afraid or ashamed.

The beach was crowded with the younger generation; their elders were up in the beachfront villa, their party a more sedate but fundamentally similar copy of the beach: drinking, talking, dancing. Ges wandered in the direction of a buffet, as-if casually, as if he had not immediately seen and tracked the short man who had disdained costume and was wearing his dress uniform. He was equally careful to seem indifferent when he saw the General moved towards him, cornering him at the side of the room. Ges had time to pick up a canape and swallow it before the General arrived.

"What are you playing at, Vorrutyer?"

Pretending ignorance was pointless. Instead Ges leaned back against the wall, deliberately casual. "I don't suppose you'd believe I am prompted by motives of purest humanity."

"You're right, I won't." Count Piotr didn't have to try hard to project menace. "I heard about the party last week."

"Did you." Ges knew and respected Count Piotr's information net across Vorbarr Sultana society. "And what else did you hear? There are worse things than me in this city, my lord Count."

"You're looking at one of them, boy," Piotr growled. "And it was purest humanity that had you bending my son and heir over a table, with just a half-closed curtain between you and the rest of the party?"

Ges met the stern, implacable face, and gave an elaborate shrug. "But of course."

Driving the Count to strike him was almost as easy as with Aral, though Piotr pulled the blow. Aral hadn't, until Ges had finally pinned him down and pressed a hypospray to his neck. His head only ringing a little, he managed to hold the Count's gaze.

"General Vorhovis was there last week," he said. "Aral was throwing himself at his head. And other parts."

"Was he." Piotr had regained control now. "And you think you're the lesser of two evils, do you?"

"You do," said Ges. "General Vorhovis would love to have Aral as his latest. Even more so than any of the dozens of other young officers he feels up. The Great General's son in his bed... and that's without considering what usually happens when the old goat tires of someone."

Piotr's lips were pressed together so tight as to be almost bloodless. "Just so."

"Purest humanity," Ges repeated with a slight smile. "Aral's very ... hard... to distract, when he has a goal in mind. It takes drastic action." Sometimes also the application of some of the stock he had in a wallet inside his toga.

"Drastic action," Piotr echoed. "I'll be watching you, Vorrutyer, and I've forgotten more about drastic action than you ever knew. Cross the line, and you'll never see it coming." He leaned in as he spoke, and despite himself, Ges tensed slightly. Count Piotr's eye glinted, and he stood back again. "Run along and play, then," he said, as if Ges was still a child visiting at Vorkosigan House.

Strategic retreat with concessions, Ges told himself, was not bad at all on such dangerous ground.

Still, he was not entirely calm as he went down the steps and onto the beach, and he was unprepared for the second ambush of the evening.

"It's not," Dono said from behind him, in a measured, helpful tone that had the hairs prickling on Ges's arms, "that I object to your, ah, friendship. After all, if our esteemed young prince manages to blow himself up with his own fireworks, that drunken lout is the next in line, and since you seem to have blown your chance at being the Emperor's brother-in-law--"

"Blown your chance, you mean," Ges put in automatically, a reflex from years of fighting with uncovered foils.

"Yes, very clever. I doubt she saw it that way, dearest brother. You may think you have Vorkosigan on your leash, but you're going to need a choke-chain to hold him. Be sure to stand well back when you need to, and remember your duty to the House."

"And you think you're best placed to remind me of that, do you?"

"I know I am. You forget who is the heir, with all your scheming and planning. I know you told Vorkosigan about her, and I know you were egging her on at every turn too, and now you think you have him in the palm of your hand. It may prove useful, but if it does not, I will put a stop to it." He smiled at Ges. "You know I can."

"Oh, go to hell," Ges said, and turned away quickly, heading at random into the crowded beach, bumping into a pair of girls in mermaid costumes and swearing at them before he recovered himself enough to get his bearings.

Aral was still up near the band, not dancing himself, but talking to Rulf and Serg with glass in hand. But still on his feet, so either he felt some vestigial restraint around the young Prince, or Rulf was having more success than Ges anticipated. Either way it wouldn't last long. Ges spotted Vidal crossing the sands again and turned away sharply, because he had had more than enough of him for one evening. Wrestling with Aral would improve this evening no end, but until he felt more in possession of himself he would be in danger of losing that fight. He headed away from the rest of the party towards the end of the beach, where a wooden groyne marked the end of the terraformed sands. Beyond was an unterraformed stretch used by the local university for research, which also served as a modest buffer zone between this private beach and the area open to proles further along the seafront. Ges wandered right up to the wooden barrier and leaned over, wondering exactly where Serg had laid out his little firework display.

Glinting on the unterraformed pebbles was Aral's tinfoil helmet.

He knew where Aral was without looking, just from the feel of the party, had known where he'd been all evening. And Aral had not been over here to inspect Serg's firework surprise.

Carefully, Ges climbed over the barrier and let himself down lightly on the opposite side. A piece of driftwood lay nearby, and he picked it up and prodded at the helmet. Nothing happened, and he began to feel foolish. Most likely this was some silly prank, someone else had taken the helmet and thrown it over here to annoy Aral. It wasn't as if there was a shortage of people here who had reason to be annoyed with Aral.

But the sense that was prickling the hairs on the back of his neck was still warning him to caution. The Vorrutyers were not quite close enough to the Imperial line to have rated a death squad, but nobody survived a civil war without a keen awareness of the possibilities. He frowned at the helmet again, then bent to pick it up.

"What the hell are you doing over there?"

The voice, as ever, went straight through him, and he turned involuntarily. Aral was leaning against the groyne.

"Don't shout," Ges said mildly.

"I'll shout whenever the hell I like."

"Aral." His tone was still mild, but the sense of danger he still felt infused his words, and Aral straightened, his hand reaching for his plasma arc, drunken belligerence giving way to alertness. Aral's senses, even smothered in drink and suicidal rage, were even keener than his. Ges valued him for that: why else did a man keep a dog, except for its sharper senses?

"That's my helmet," Aral said.

"I take it you haven't been over here."

Aral shook his head, the gesture half invisible in the night.

"Who took it?"

"How should I know?" Belligerent again. "Could have been anyone, it's not like I care about the fucking helmet. These costumes were a stupid idea."

Aral heaved himself up and over the groyne, proving his final words by losing the toga in the process. Ges had to move to catch him as he slithered down the other side, mostly because a crash and shouting would undoubtedly attract attention. Aral, distracted, twisted in his grip, turning it into an embrace, but Ges stepped back.

"There's something wrong here."

Aral sat down heavily on the sand. "Other than some idiot tossing my helmet over here? You take a look."

Ges glowered at him, then approached the fireworks. Serg had set them up in the sand, nothing more complicated than a row of rockets arranged to go off with one fuse. Ges bent down to look at them more closely, stiffened and took a slow step back.

"These have been tampered with." Only a small amount of extra explosive, nestling concealed near the end of the fuse. But then, when a person was standing this close, only a small amount of extra explosive was needed. Ges could picture it easily: Serg coming over, lighting the fuse, taking the sensible five steps backwards... but five steps backwards wouldn't help.

Aral pushed himself upright again and came over. "What? How?"

"Stay clear," Ges said, but of course Aral disregarded this, and Ges had to move to intercept him. "Stay clear, you sozzled fool. This is a trap for you as much as for him. If you leave any traces here--" He pushed Aral backwards, towards the barrier again. "It's all rigged to blow, and you're in the frame for it. Stay over here."

"You've got to get this sorted out," Aral said, staring at the row of rockets. "Call someone in. Negri's boys, the Armsmen, someone."

"Do I?" Ges stooped and picked up the helmet, and set it back on Aral's head. "We could go back to the party. Without the helmet, without you stomping around breathing all over this stuff, you'll be one step closer to the campstool and you won't even have to lift a finger."

"What? But they're trying to frame me."

"Yes," Ges said patiently, "but if we take you out of the frame, then it's just a free gift. Ezar won't get another child now. It'll be you for sure."

"No." Aral's voice was too loud again. "What have I done--what have I ever done--to make you think this is something I want? Dammit, he's only a kid. Who did this, anyway?" Aral looked around as if expecting the perpetrator to rise up out of the sand.

"He didn't leave his card," Ges said dryly, and then his mouth went dry in truth as he remembered what Dono had said. That young fool blowing himself up with his own fireworks... it would be exactly Dono's style to try this. "Let's go," he said quickly.

"Damn you, I said no," Aral whispered, and he lunged at Ges. Braced for a completely different attack, Ges fell with Aral on top of him, and Aral managed to get his hands around his neck. Ges locked gazes with him, saw true determination in Aral's face, and let himself go limp. Aral was determined, but he was also drunk; it was only a moment before his concentration wavered and Ges twisted and broke free, staggering to his feet leaving Aral prone on the stones again.

"You've made your point," he said before Aral could struggle up and try again. "Very well, I'll defuse this little surprise. No, stay there, you'll be more likely to set it off yourself, mucking around with fireworks."

He stooped to the work. There were two little balls of explosive embedded in the fuse; one would have been sufficient, Ges thought. He checked through the whole system carefully, and found where the would-be assassin had taken the explosive from the last rocket. That made sense; this must have been done on the spur of the moment, and even he would struggle to find a supply of explosives in this party. But Serg had brought his death with him, or would have if not for Aral's helmet.

Dono, he thought, didn't know much about explosives, or fireworks. He was so Old Vor, preferring the sword to the plasma arc. Ges doubted he would have the skill to do this, and relaxed slightly as he restored the fuse to its original state. But if not Dono, then who? Cui bono, there could be only one other answer. He smiled to himself.

"That's it," he said after checking it all again. "They're safe now. The last rocket won't fire, but that shouldn't be a problem."

Aral stood up. "Good. Then I'll set them off now. Just in case."

"No, you fool--" Ges said.

"You got it all, didn't you?" Aral gave a fey smile, all glinting teeth in the darkness. "Let's find out."

He took his plasma arc and before Ges could stop him, turned it to a low setting and lit the fuse. Ges grabbed him and jerked him backwards, more like ten steps than five. Aral staggered against him, and despite himself Ges put an arm around him.

"It is charged, then," he said as the fuse burned down.

"What's the point of carrying one uncharged?"

"Fair enough."

The first rocket went off, and Aral gave a satisfied sigh. "Nice. He got the good ones."

"We need to get rid of the explosive too," Ges said. "Give me that plasma arc."

"You think I can't hit it?"

"In the dark, drunk?" Ges retorted.

Aral took the little ball from him and threw it in a long curving arc towards the water, then fired his plasma arc. The water lit a brilliant orange as it exploded, but the second rocket fired at the same time, masking it from the beach party.

"I take it back," Ges said. "You're not that drunk yet. Come on, let's get clear of this before they come looking."

He hauled Aral back over the barrier, off the unterraformed rock and onto the sand again as the next rocket fired. Nobody saw them. Ges steered Aral away from the crowds, along the waterfront where the lights were low. Aral lost his footing in the sand and landed in a heap, but instead of getting up, sat back and watched as the next firework went off. Ges smiled in the darkness and sat next to him.

"It wasn't that bad an idea, fireworks," Aral said, lying back and staring up at the sky. "Better than that time we smuggled a beaded lizard into the Residence, d'you remember?"

"All too clearly," Ges retorted. "Come here." He wrapped an arm around Aral and pulled him close as the last firework went off, and for a time all thoughts of explosives and assassination attempts were forgotten. Ges rolled on top of Aral, nipping at his shoulder.

"You ruined the fireworks! Why didn't you--oh. Um. Oh."

Ges sat up with as much poise as he could muster. "My Prince," he said, "when people withdraw to a secluded part of the beach, it is best to leave them alone."

"There was a--" Aral began, but Ges put a hand across his mouth, hard. Aral bit his hand automatically, but didn't attempt to continue.

"I think this party's getting a bit wild for you now," Ges said, adjusting his toga. "Come on. I'll walk you up to the gates. I'm sure your Armsmen are starting to get restless."

"I don't--"

"Serg." Aral's voice was low. "Enough."

"All right, all right. But you completely ruined the fun, I was looking forward to setting them off, and--"

"If you broadcast your intentions like that, you have to expect people to interfere," Ges said, getting to his feet. Aral propped himself up one an elbow and nodded. "Come on. And next time, if you're going to fool around with explosives, keep it to yourself."

He shepherded Serg through the party, which was getting very lively, and spotted the Vorbarra Armsmen waiting by a side entrance just beyond the bandstand. He didn't escort the Prince all the way, just far enough to be sure he would go the rest of the way on his own. Then he turned back.

Vidal was on the edge of the dancefloor, trying his luck with Mademoiselle Vorinnis. Judging by the way she kept casting hopeful, slightly desperate glances around her, he wasn’t succeeding. Ges approached slowly from behind.

"I wonder what they’ll find when they go investigate where those fireworks came from," Ges said across Vidal’s line.

Vidal whirled around with a sharpness that betrayed that he’d taken Ges’s little aid to confidence and euphoria he’d purchased earlier. Though any man who’d just attempted the assassination of the Emperor’s son on the spur of the moment would be jumpy even without chemical assistance.

Ges jerked his head at Mademoiselle Vorinnis, who didn’t need a second excuse, but hurried away mumbling something about her sister looking for her. Ges gave a toothy smile and stepped closer, right into Vidal’s personal space.

"Take a look over at the pavilion. Our imperial runaway has been restored to the loving bosom of his mother. Or his Armsmen, as the case may be."

Vidal looked, and blanched. The three stern-faced Vorbarra Armsmen had created their own very large bubble of personal space even at this rowdy party. Ges moved closer still, close enough that he could feel the heat from Vidal’s body. Vidal looked down and saw the tip of the dagger pressing into his stomach.

"I found your amiable trap," Ges said. "Clever. Kill Serg, frame Vorkosigan, and other than that Vorpatril kid, you're next in line. But I know exactly what you did, and I have this to say to you: involve Lord Vorkosigan in any of your little schemes again and you will learn exactly what a dangerous enemy I am. I know everything, I trust nobody, and I will not forget. I don’t give a fuck about the Prince, but as long as I live, you will stay far away from Aral."

The tip of his dagger pierced Vidal’s velvet costume and broke his skin, just a tiny pinprick, but Vidal recoiled violently. He gave a short nod, stood staring wide-eyed at Ges for three heartbeats, then hurried off at random, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at Ges as he went.

Ges was breathing hard, a few drops of sweat on his forehead. He wiped them away, let out his breath slowly, and picked up two glasses and a bottle from the waiter.

Aral hadn't moved from his spot on the sand, though he had spread his toga out more comfortably. Ges poured some wine and gave it to him. Aral took the glass and drank, without asking whether Ges had put anything in it. As it happened, he hadn't, yet.

"Who was it, the fireworks? Do you know?"

"It's taken care of," Ges said. "He won't be trying anything else in a hurry. Certainly not anything that involves you."

Aral grunted. "Like I care about that."

"I only do it to annoy you. And it works."

Aral kicked out at him, but without trying particularly hard, his sandalled foot scarcely tapping Ges's shin. He ignored it and sat down beside Aral on the toga, and they looked up at the party, dancers and lovers and drinkers all spilling across the sand under the lights.

"The flower of the Vor at play," Aral said lazily. "God help Barrayar." Up near the band, Josef Vormoncrief was on a table, gyrating drunkenly with the hired danseuse there. Ges felt himself entirely in agreement with Aral for a moment.

"Look at them," Ges returned, nodding to where Lara Vorsmythe and her even wilder sister were broaching their third bottle. "We could do anything we wanted to them, and they couldn't stop us."

Aral squinted at them. "They might scream," he said. "I don't like screaming." He picked up the bottle and refilled his glass, splashing a little wine onto the toga, like tiny splatters of blood. Ges watched intently as he raised the glass to his lips. "You could do anything you wanted to me. I couldn't stop you either."

The glass wavered in his hand, and Ges found himself wrapping his own fingers around Aral's and putting the cold smooth glass to Aral's lips again. "No," he said, and tilted the glass. Aral swallowed, not breaking the gaze. "No, you couldn't." Couldn't, wouldn't, it was close enough.

Aral licked a stray drop of wine from his lower lip, and Ges leaned further in, setting the glass down, then swung a leg across Aral.

"I won't scream," Aral whispered, and Ges pushed him back against the sand.

"Are you sure about that?" he said into Aral's ear. "Well. Let's find out."