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A Loyal Armsman Does Not Gossip

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The Armsman who opened the door was one Pym had met before: Esterhazy, the Armsman-commander, who had served the old Count and new for more than a generation. He flicked a critical glance over Pym, and Pym resisted the urge to look down himself. He knew he was all right and proper, from his shined brown boots up to the plain brown suspenders over his perfectly pressed white shirt and hair cut too short to get out of order; Anna wouldn't have let him leave the house any other way.

Esterhazy gave him a fractional nod in acknowledgment of this, and then unbent enough to smile to Pym's right. "Pym, Madame Pym, come in. And this must be Aurie, of course. How old is your little girl now, ma'am?"

Beside Pym, Anna smiled. He set his hand on her back, and she preceded him into the black-and-white tiled foyer of Vorkosigan House, carrying Aurie so she wouldn't have a chance to muss her little white dress with the brown ribbon trim. "She'll be two at Midsummer. Can you say hello to Armsman Esterhazy, Aurie? Your Papa will be working with him, now."

Aurie gazed up mutely at Esterhazy for a moment and then hid her face against her mother's shoulder. Pym reached out and ran a hand over her neatly-plaited hair, silently sympathizing with the impulse. The Vorkosigan Armsmen were second only to the Vorbarra men in their famous excellence and loyalty, and they were made no less intimidating by the fact that in a very few minutes Pym would become one of them.

"This way," Esterhazy said, ushering them to the stairs to a sunny room on the third floor where the Count and Countess and ten more uniformed Vorkosigan Armsmen all waited. Pym picked out the ones he'd been introduced to before--Jankowski, ten years younger than himself, whose place Pym would take as New Man, was here. So was Maisky, a solid, gray-haired fellow who would be responsible for much of Pym's training. Pym would be introduced to the others later, and the eight men not present; for now, he turned his attention to the Count and Countess.

"My Lord, My Lady," Pym said, bowing. "Allow me to present my wife, Anna, and our daughter, Aurelia."

The Count offered approving smiles to Anna and Aurie and murmured a polite welcome. The Countess, grinning, executed a neat flanking maneuver to get into Aurie's line of sight and said, "Hello there, sweetheart. Would you like to come and see the flowers, over by the windows?"

Anna shot the Countess a grateful look, and Aurie lifted her head to face this less-intimidating approach. The Countess took the Pym women away toward the potted flowers at the window. Pym thought for an instant that there was another woman standing over there waiting for them, but when he actually looked he realized with a burst of chagrin that it was a man in dress greens--the only man in the room not wearing Vorkosigan brown and silver.

It was the Count's--properly, the Prime Minister's--military secretary, of course. Lieutenant Jole looked like a holovid's idea of a soldier, young and tall and strikingly good-looking. He had no part in this ceremony, but naturally still waited upon his master here. He smiled brightly at the Countess as she introduced him to Anna, and plucked a flower to proffer to Aurie.

Pym jerked his attention back to Esterhazy, who was directing everyone to their places. When he looked again, as he stepped forward to face the Count, the Countess and Anna and Jole stood all in a row at the windows, and Aurie, perched on Anna's arm, was holding the pink flower Lieutenant Jole had given her. Then Pym focused on his Count and knelt, offering up his hands to be held between the Count's.

He'd practiced his oath a hundred times already, determined to avoid the indignity of being prompted by Esterhazy. When the Count met his eyes--a sudden staggering force of attention--Pym opened his mouth and said, "I," and thankfully the rest came to him automatically. "John Pym, do testify I am a sworn military vassal of Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, honorably retired from his service, and so do freely take service under Count Aral Vorkosigan as an Armsman simple, and will hold him as my liege commander until my death or his releases me."

The Count smiled a little as he nodded, and returned, "I, Count Aral Vorkosigan, a vassal secundus to Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, do accept your oath and pledge you the protection of a liege commander, this by my word as Vorkosigan."

And that was that; that was the rest of his life, offered up and accepted. Count Vorkosigan's hands shifted to take hold of one of Armsman Pym's, and helped him up to his feet. Esterhazy produced a brown and silver uniform tunic--which, unlike the rest of the uniform, could not be worn by anyone, but only a properly sworn Vorkosigan Armsman--and helped Pym into it. The tunic weighed as much as parade red-and-blues, for all that the one Pym wore was laden with considerably less shiny silver piping than Esterhazy's. The Count's had to be heavier still, embellished as it was with braid, extra silver embroidery, and a single medal; Pym noted with surprise that the sole military honor displayed was the ordinary Imperial Service medal from the Third Cetagandan War, which thousands of men had an equal right to wear.

Pym exchanged a flurry of handshakes with his new brother-Armsmen, and posed for the obligatory pictures with the Count and Countess, with Anna and Aurie, and with the other Armsmen present--twelve of the twenty, including himself, and so a quorum of sorts. And then Pym said goodbye to his family--a kiss on Aurie's forehead, and a discreet hand-squeeze exchanged with Anna--before the Countess herself escorted them out. Lieutenant Jole took up what was obviously his regular post at the Count's shoulder as the majority of the Armsmen scattered to their usual duty stations. The ceremony was over. It was time for Pym's first day as a Vorkosigan Armsman to begin.

 


 

Maisky spent a few hours leading Pym all over Vorkosigan House, explaining minutiae as they occurred to him; Pym was confident that the order of the introduction would probably make sense eventually. There were security procedures--which, this being Vorkosigan House, related in large part to interfacing with ImpSec, a process Pym already understood somewhat from the other side, though he'd never been posted to Vorkosigan House. There were cleaning and maintenance schedules for everything in and around the House, and arcane social protocols that only the highest of Vor bothered about anymore. And, sprinkled throughout this torrent of dry information, there were anecdotes.

Jankowski and the others who had come in since the old Count's death--Sebastian, Antropov, Davies, Tverdovsky, and Ward--all received their bit of chaff. Most of the procedures Maisky explained were accompanied by a story of how one of these Armsmen had fouled it up within his first few days. There were also other stories, told as-if-idly, when they stopped a moment here or there.

Esterhazy had not only been the most trusted Armsman of the old Count, he'd personally hidden and protected Emperor Gregor during the Pretendership, even after the Countess and Armsman Bothari (of blessed memory, Maisky's tone of voice added) had returned to Lord-Vorkosigan-that-was.

The Countess had done much good down in Hassadar, seeing that the bright young people of Vorkosigan's District got a proper chance at education. The Countess was even keen on seeing girls get their chance, including Maisky's own two little daughters.

"Katya wants to be an engineer," Maisky said, shaking his head in something much closer to wonder than disapproval. He glanced at Pym and added, half-defensively, "The Countess thinks she can do it, too. Every Winterfair she sends a new little book or educational game for Katya, and every year Katya's figured out the whole thing by the time the snow melts in Hassadar."

Pym murmured the required agreement, and imagined his own Aurie growing up to go to the University. Well, that was a long way off. But if she liked, why shouldn't she? Aurie was a bright little thing, and times were changing all over. There was no need these days for a man to rush his daughter out the door and into marriage.

In the side wing on the third floor, they came to the door of Lord Vorkosigan's bedroom, and Maisky paused again in the corridor to speak of Lord Vorkosigan--Lord-Miles-that-was--and the lifelong devotion between him and Armsman Bothari. The testimonial went on for a while, covering Lord Vorkosigan's determination to attend the Imperial Service Academy--Armsman Bothari's death protecting him on the galactic trip that had been twisted by Vordrozda, three years ago, into a charge of treason--and Lord Vorkosigan's ultimate vindication, fully proven by his subsequent entrance into the Academy after all.

"And he's done everyone proud," Maisky concluded firmly, with a decisive rap of his knuckles against the doorframe. "He'll be graduating this summer, taking his oath to the Emperor right as anyone."

Pym again nodded, accepting this, too, as a part of the orientation. These were the stories they would tell: the high esteem due to the Armsman-commander, the Countess's good works, Lord Vorkosigan's fitness for command. Pym waited to hear what Maisky would say of the Count, and soon was rewarded with a series of references and brief anecdotes, almost rapid-fire.

The Count, or occasionally the Countess as his deputy, attended Armsmen's children's naming parties without fail. The Count had even sent a dowry to Bothari's little Elena, after she married an offworlder on the same trip her father never returned from. The Count had danced the Countess down this very corridor in overwhelming delight, the night after he laid down the Regency for the Emperor to take his true place and rule.

"He got about three days," Maisky remarked with a nostalgic smile. "Three days thinking he was going to get a rest at last, and then here came the Prime Ministership, and not a moment's peace since. But the Count never complained, of course."

"Of course," Pym echoed obediently.

 


 

In the afternoon Pym repeated the patrol of Vorkosigan House, this time with Esterhazy, whose lectures were a little more heavy-handed. Walking along the third-floor corridor in the main wing, away from the Count and Countess's private suite and past the rooms used by close connections of the Family when they visited, Esterhazy gave him a sudden sharp glance and said, "Whatever you forget today of all you're told, remember this: a loyal Armsman does not gossip."

Pym nodded, a little offended that Esterhazy thought he had to be told--he'd done half his service in ImpSec, he knew how to keep a confidence.

Esterhazy, not seeming at all mollified, looked away sharply. "No matter what occurs, no matter what he would think of it if it involved anyone else--a loyal Armsman does not gossip, not about anything that goes on in his Count's household."

Pym, keeping his eyes scrupulously forward, said, "Yes, sir. Of course, sir." Thank you for alerting me that something gossip-worthy is going on in the Count's household, and that you would not approve of it if it involved anyone of whom you dared to disapprove, sir.

The thought came laden with scorn--how clumsy of the old Armsman-commander, to give away so much information. Esterhazy had been one of the old Count's men, and he had not chosen them the same way the Count did these days. But within a few more strides down the corridor it occurred to Pym that it was just as well that Esterhazy had told him, inasmuch as the thing--whatever it was--could even be nodded at. This way Pym wouldn't be surprised when he came across a secret scandal in the house. Esterhazy wouldn't want him acting like a fool because he was caught off-guard.

"Just you remember," Esterhazy said firmly.

Pym nodded again. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

 


 

Pym was horribly footsore in his new boots, which surprised him until he realized he must have walked miles tramping all over every inch of Vorkosigan House. When he finally got a moment to sit, in the Armsmen's wardroom, he found Jankowski beside him looking sympathetic.

"Which was worse?" Jankowski asked. "The boots or the Commander?"

Pym--with a sudden vivid recollection of the story about Jankowski and the gross of fresh eggs--made his grimace mostly a smile. "The boots, I think. Commander doesn't seem so bad, really."

Jankowski offered an equivocating nod-and-shrug gesture, seemed about to say something, and then cut himself off. Sensing an opportunity, Pym added casually, "He seemed a bit fierce about not gossiping--is that his hobbyhorse, then?"

Jankowski hesitated a couple of very informative seconds, and then said, "Oh, yes, I got a lecture about it when I started. The Count and Countess are so much in the public eye, you know how it is."

"Naturally," Pym agreed, and returned his attention to his boots. Jankowski had lied to him, and had been uncomfortable about the lying. Esterhazy's obsession with the prevention of gossip was newer than the second-newest Armsman.

That gives me a time frame, Pym thought, and it was only then that he realized he was determined to find out what was going on in his Count's household as quickly as he could.

 


 

They were high Vor. They were Vorkosigans. It couldn't be anything criminal or political; the Count was unimpeachably honorable and his politics were an entirely public matter.

That left personal vices of some sort, on the part of the Count or Countess, or, conceivably, both. Lord Vorkosigan was out of the question, having been away at the Academy without any leave since Winterfair.

There were other people around the Count and Countess who might be considered a part of their household, but scandals among ladies-in-waiting and ne'er-do-well dependent relatives were scarcely worth mentioning in Vorbarr Sultana, though Pym couldn't remember a breath of such a thing out of Vorkosigan House anytime in the last twenty years. It was possible that some such thing had recently erupted for the first time in living memory, and so set everyone back on their heels--but Pym couldn't make sense of this ferocious silence, even between Armsmen, for anything short of the Count and Countess themselves.

So: the Count and Countess, and personal vices. The wine cellar had been on Maisky's tour, as well as Esterhazy's. Esterhazy's lecture, at that point, had turned heavily toward reminiscences of the old Count, who had laid down nearly all the really fine wines. Maisky had simply dragged his finger through the coat of dust on the green glass bottle and shaken his head. "No one pays this lot much attention anymore. The Count and Countess always serve what's proper, but they don't really care, not like the old Count did."

Maisky had also mentioned, quite casually, while going over the roster of usual deliverymen, that the Countess had accounts at a couple of import shops which stocked "food and things from Beta Colony that the Countess likes to have around."

If the Count or Countess had that sort of vice--drink or anything more exotic--Maisky's casual words would have cut dangerously close to it. That would have been entirely out of keeping with the scrupulous silences.

Pym racked his brain for another variety of goings-on that could have Esterhazy's back up this badly, but he couldn't think of one.

It had to be sex.

Pym was already starting to regret being curious.

 


 

On his second day, Pym went with Maisky to serve as driver-bodyguards when the Count and Countess went out in the evening. Maisky called it, dryly, "A very minor event at the Residence."

Pym knew enough to translate this into the Emperor presiding over dinner and dancing for a few dozen High Vor couples, to be over within shouting distance of midnight, and without a stated political or ceremonial purpose. Sure enough, he and Maisky wound up holding down positions at the wall of a ballroom for most of the evening, conspicuously waiting on the Count and Countess's pleasure just like the fifty-four other liveried men--Pym had time to count--arrayed around the room.

The Count and Countess danced with each other four times; each time they parted their hands lingered on each other subtly, briefly. It seemed like too small an expression of reluctance to be intended for an audience. In between the dances they circulated far apart, carrying on separate, intent conversations--though at times Pym would swear he could see them, ten meters apart with their backs to each other, making exactly the same gestures in the course of their respective arguments. A blind mirror dance from opposite sides of the room, performed without a flaw.

At the end of the night--only half past midnight--the Count handed the Countess into the groundcar himself, and sat down closely beside her, crushing her skirts. The Countess hitched them up to throw one bared leg over the Count's lap as Pym, keeping a very straight face, shut the door behind them.

"So," Maisky asked, when Pym was settled in the driver's compartment, "what do you think?"

He thought that if one of them were betraying the other he'd never believe in love or fidelity again. He thought Esterhazy wasn't a fool, so maybe he should stop believing now and save time. He thought he was still a long way from the time when every question one of his brother-Armsmen asked him wasn't a test.

Pym looked over at Maisky and nodded firmly. "I think you're right. The second day of the boots is worse than the first."

Maisky laughed, and they compared their experiences with various uniform boots all the way back to Vorkosigan House.

 


 

The next night Pym was sent out alone to collect the Count from the office at the end of his workday--a reward of sorts for not yet making any major mistakes, overt or otherwise, Pym supposed. The call for the car had apparently been very skillfully timed; despite an aggravating bit of evening traffic, Pym pulled up on the north edge of the Great Square about thirty seconds before the Count appeared, trailing his secretary.

They were both in undress greens, so Pym supposed it had been a low-key day, as the Prime Minister's days went. Jole was carrying a binder under one arm and a case in the other hand. The Count had his own stack of flimsies in hand, and was talking into his wrist comm even as Pym opened the door for him.

He nodded to Pym without interrupting his stream of instructions to someone on the other end. "...A synopsis, then, but include all the specs, Jole can pull out the things I need when I figure out I need them..."

Jole offered Pym a commiserating smile before he climbed in to sit across from the Count, settling his burdens beside him on the seat.

When they arrived at Vorkosigan House, Pym opened the door again and Jole emerged with everything he'd previously been carrying held in one arm, his other hand occupied with pointing an autocorder in the Count's direction, though the Count wound down to, "expect to hear, closing salutation--you can send that after you've had something to eat," as they mounted the steps up to the door.

As Pym put the groundcar away he thought, It can't be the Count. He's chaperoned better than a Vor virgin with seven brothers.

 


 

A few hours later, limping toward the Armsmen's quarters and his solitary bed, Pym passed a door that wasn't quite closed, and heard one of the footmen saying, "From the import shop--you know which--came himself, in his lightflyer, with a plain box--this big! A special express order, and he had to put it into the Countess's own hands. She whisked it right off and took it up--"

Pym didn't break stride.

 


 

Pym was sitting in the kitchen, nursing his coffee and telling himself that his feet really hurt much less this morning than they had last night, when Lieutenant Jole walked in. He was wearing dress greens today, perfect down to the mirror polish of his boots. Pym missed his properly broken in dress boots, just then, more than he missed Anna and Aurie--he'd just talked to Anna, and admonished Aurie to eat her breakfast like a lady, over the comconsole ten minutes ago. He hadn't worn a pair of boots he didn't want to set on fire for days now.

Pym's attention was jerked over to Jole when Helge, the assistant cook, said, "Oh, Lieutenant! Do you need some breakfast? Take these brillberry tarts."

There was something a little forced about Helge's voice, Pym thought--like she wanted everyone in the kitchen to do exactly what they did, which was to look up and see her beaming as she set down the plate of brillberry tarts in front of Jole. Jole smiled, the tips of his ears going a little pink.

He said only, "Thank you, ma'am," and picked up a tart.

Pym sent a quick, surveying look around the room. The head cook kept her back to Helge and Jole and her head bent over her task--but she was pouring a cup of coffee which had to be for the Lieutenant. The two grannies sitting in a sunny corner were giving Jole appreciative looks that--in the terrifying way of women past the age of giving a damn what men thought--bordered on open lasciviousness. Armsmen Sebastian and Davies were both staring down into their coffee; Sebastian looked amused, while Davies looked worried. The scullery girls whose names Pym hadn't learned yet were divided evenly between starry-eyed gazes and pointedly ignoring the spectacle.

Pym looked back at Jole, who had received his cup of coffee now, and was frowning sideways at his wrist comm even as he drank. Pym looked down himself to check the time, and realized that Jole was already at Vorkosigan house, in need of his breakfast, an hour before he should have been starting his workday at the Prime Minister's office.

Pym didn't look up from his coffee again until after Jole had left the kitchen.

 


 

Meeting two maids on the back stairs to the third floor, each carrying a hip-basket full of bedsheets, Pym stood aside to let them pass. They both nodded to him, though the one coming down first didn't pause in what she was saying as they went by.

"Perfectly clean, I swear! A waste of soap to wash them. But then the Lieutenant is such a spit-and-polished sort, what else would you expect?"

"Perfectly clean," the second maid parroted dryly, and Pym continued on to the fourth floor before he could hear another word.

 


 

Pym remembered Jole's smile for the Countess, the day he'd taken his oath--a sunny grin as he casually plucked a flower which was, rightfully, the Count's property. There were a dozen ballads in English alone that could tell Pym what would come of that trespass, variously oblique or explicit about the metaphor. Not that anyone in Vorkosigan House ought to need an instructive ballad when there was the tragic scandal of the first Lady Vorkosigan, not even forty-five years back.

And Jole was the Count's--the Prime Minister's--own man, standing at his back, trusted more than almost anyone, and all the time....

Pym forced himself not to put his suspicion--his deduction--into words. If he put it into words he'd have to know; if he put it into words he'd have to ask himself how so many in the household could seem to approve of the Lieutenant, or find it a laughing matter. There was nothing to know. The Count and Countess were happy, and their household was a loyal one.

When he had a few minutes off-duty to talk to Anna that night, she watched him worriedly for a few minutes while he assured her that all was well with his new duties, and then launched mercifully into a long recitation of Aurie's latest escapades. He'd remembered how to laugh by the time he closed the com, and returned her I love you with his whole heart.

 


 

Two days later, with his boots finally beginning to be broken in, Pym took Jankowski's place on the night shift.

"Wake me if you need me," Maisky said cheerfully before leaving him. They'd reviewed all the usual procedures, and now Pym set out alone to keep his quiet patrol of the first floor and lower level. ImpSec guarded the exterior, so he hardly needed to be concerned about repelling an assault; he was little more than a gesture, like a light left burning, just in case.

A couple of hours past midnight, Pym was startled into full alert by the message-chime of the secured comconsole in the library. He ran to answer it, and jerked to attention at the sight of the pale face that materialized on the other side.

"Sire," he said blankly, and the Emperor seemed to regard him with nearly as much surprise.

"Armsman," he said, after a second's pause. "I meant to contact Count Vorkosigan directly."

Pym forbore pointing out the time, and instead consulted the status console for the household systems. "Yes, sire, I'm sorry--the comconsole in the Count's rooms is shut off. I can go and wake him and have him call."

The Emperor ran a hand through his hair--he was still dressed for the day, Pym noted, in the dark civilian suit he tended to prefer over uniforms. He said firmly, "We will wait."

That was an Imperial command. Pym nodded, bowing to the comconsole being impractical, and said, "Yes, sire," as he backed quickly out of range of the vid pickup.

He rushed up to the third floor without stopping to think--there was, really, nothing to think about--and let himself into the Count and Countess's rooms, passing the darkened shape of the secured comconsole on his way. He only hesitated at the actual bedroom door, lost his nerve and knocked, calling out in a low but carrying voice, "My lord?"

Almost instantly there was movement from within, and Pym stepped back and stood to attention as quick, soft footsteps approached the door. When it opened, however, it revealed the Countess, in grey men's pajamas, brushing her long, loose hair back from her face and blinking owlishly. "Pym? Emergency?"

Pym stared blankly once again, but said, "A call on the line for the Count from the Residence, milady."

"Gregor," the Countess translated. "What time--no, doesn't matter what time, Gregor is waiting. I'll get Aral."

But instead of disappearing back into the bedroom, the Countess stepped out and headed briskly back the way Pym had come. He followed a few steps behind, brain half-frozen in horror--had she banished the Count from his own bed?

The Countess stopped at the second door along the corridor, pausing to press her ear to the panel before she let herself in. Pym, not wanting to look but feeling his duty required him to follow where she led, came along the corridor far enough to see in through the door she'd left open behind her.

The Countess stood just outside the path of light from the door, leaning over the bed.

There were two people--there were two men in the bed. The Countess's hair had fallen forward and hid the nearer one's face, but the bare shoulder her hand rested on could only belong to the Count. Another shoulder was pressed up closely behind it, and a blond head was visible lying on the pillow behind the Count's; a pale, muscular arm was thrown across the Count's body. As Pym stood watching, the blond moved. The drag of his hand as it withdrew across the Count's side reminded Pym for a disorienting instant of the Countess's hand, reluctantly releasing the Count's shoulder after a dance.

Jole sat up behind the Count, who had scarcely moved yet, and looked directly at Pym. For a moment they were both frozen, and then Jole looked away, twisting and shoving the coverlet back. Pym did a quick right-face and stood staring blindly down the corridor.

The Count.

The Count and Lieutenant Jole.

The Countess--the Countess, who'd known just where to find the Count, who stood with her hand on the Count's shoulder, murmuring to him as he lay in the arms of his--his--

The bedroom door closed with a quiet click, and before he could think better of it Pym turned again to face Lieutenant Jole, who stood there wearing only a pair of fatigue trousers that didn't fit him properly--they sagged down on his hips, and still rode high on his ankles, showing his bare feet. After a brief, reflexive glance, Pym fixed his gaze firmly on Jole's face. He had a pillow-crease across his right cheek.

Jole was smiling a little, and Pym could not have decoded that smile to save his life. "Armsman."

Pym cleared his throat. "Lieutenant."

"Did you notice," Jole said, and Pym blinked and struggled to make his face as blank as humanly possible, but Jole finished the sentence with, "what the Emperor was wearing?"

Pym blinked again, but he had an answer, and it was a sensible thing to ask. "Civilian clothes, still dressed for the day. Tunic collar still done up."

Jole blew out a breath, brows lowering pensively. "Right. It's even odds whether this can be sorted out over the comconsole, then. I suggest you go and get one of the other Armsmen to relieve your watch, and--"

The door opened, and Pym's eye skipped helplessly over Jole's shoulder. The Count emerged, looking wide awake and clad only in his underwear. He nodded toward Pym and murmured, "Armsman" even as his hand caught Jole's shoulder and squeezed, a brief but unmistakably claiming gesture. The Count scarcely broke stride, leaving Jole with Pym as he strode back down the corridor. The Countess followed, carrying what looked like an undifferentiated pile of uniform clothes. Minus one pair of trousers, presumably.

Jole turned his head to watch them go, and when he met Pym's eyes again, his smile widened and he shrugged a little. Pym couldn't swear it was what Jole meant, but he gained a very strong impression of Can you blame me?

"You should bring the groundcar around to the front door, just in case he needs to leave quickly," Jole finished. "I promise everyone will be properly dressed by the time you see us again."

Pym nodded and turned away, heading for the Armsmen's quarters at double-time, not quite quickly enough to miss seeing Jole hitch up the precarious trousers and head toward the Count and Countess's rooms.

Pym shook Maisky awake a little roughly. He'd had a couple of flights of stairs to compose his speech, and bit it out crisply. "Call from the Residence. Had to wake the Count. Jole says he'll want the groundcar, like as not."

Maisky, succinctly, said, "Shit." Then he sat up, already reaching for his trousers as he said, "Armsman, I relieve you of the watch."

"I stand relieved," Pym agreed, and bolted in the direction of the garage.

He sat for five minutes in the driver's seat of the groundcar in front of the House before the other door opened and Maisky climbed into the driver's compartment beside him.

"I woke Jankowski up and gave him the watch," Maisky said. "I thought I'd better come out and see how you were managing."

"I've managed to drive the groundcar twenty meters, sir," Pym said.

Maisky snorted, and Pym stared fixedly forward.

"You see why no one told you," Maisky said. "It's not a thing we could say."

Pym nodded. He did see that--because it wasn't just the affair, or just the sex of the Count's lover, though those were both bad enough. It was that the Countess obviously permitted the thing. That made it uncomfortably Betan; if she allowed this, then what else, who else...?

"Esterhazy," Pym said, and then couldn't say more. Esterhazy would die before he'd say he didn't approve of his Count's actions--to say nothing of his Countess--and Pym had no right to put words in the Armsman-commander's mouth.

"Esterhazy was a sort of foster father to Emperor Gregor during the Pretendership. A few weeks, but it made an impression. The Emperor was five years old then. Esterhazy's own boy was four. So was Lieutenant Jole. That's how the thing looks to Esterhazy, and I can't say he's wrong to see it that way. But plenty of us--we see other things."

Pym tilted his head. This was the part he didn't understand, how so many in the household could approve. This was what he needed Maisky to tell him.

"A couple of weeks before you took your oath," Maisky said, "the Countess arranged to have lunch privately, in her and the Count's rooms, with Lieutenant Jole, without the Count. They'd been in there maybe ten minutes when Jole shut the door hard coming out--that got the upstairs maid's attention, see, and she noticed he looked upset--and then he took off running for the attic. The Countess came out a minute later and all but ran down to the library, and five minutes after that, up goes the Count to the attic, and it's half an hour before he and Jole come down. I was on door-duty that day, and I can tell you the Lieutenant looked like he'd just run a race and won it, and the Count--the Count looked rather preoccupied with Lieutenant Jole. He didn't even look up to say goodbye as he went out."

Pym had only been in the house a week, but he knew that the Count never acted as if the man on door-duty were merely an appliance for opening the door. The Count had been very preoccupied indeed. And it had been the Countess who sent him to the attic to become preoccupied.

"Next day," Maisky continued, "the Countess throws her staff into fits by canceling her entire morning, and around mid-morning the Count and Jole come back from the office; the Count goes up to the third floor secure comconsole to make some calls, and Lieutenant Jole goes into the library to work--which is where the Countess has been sitting the whole morning. This time they're in there together maybe an hour, and when the Lieutenant comes back out he all but skips back up the stairs to find the Count.

"Meanwhile the Countess places an order with one of the import shops, and a couple of hours later the proprietor himself shows up with a sealed box to place in her own hands; she takes it to the blue suite. Ten minutes later the maids and footmen get the word: they're to leave all the drawers in the blue suite alone, like a private room. Lieutenant Jole is to have the use of the suite whenever he wishes for the foreseeable future. He's stayed maybe five nights, since then.

"That first night, the Count gets home late, and he's barely through the door before Esterhazy tells him about a District matter that's blown up that day. The Count goes off to speak to his people down in the District, and ten minutes later--I had all this from Jankowski, he was on door-duty, you can ask him yourself--Jankowski sees on the monitor someone come walking up to the guard shack. It's Lieutenant Jole, alone, and ImpSec waves him through without question, because of course he's on their all-hours list. Jankowski opens the door for him, and tells him the Count's in the library, but Jole says he'll just go up to the blue suite, if that's all right. Jankowski checked the room assignments, not having heard from any of the maids yet about Jole having the room, and as soon as he saw the Countess's orders in the household log, he sent him up."

Consent, Pym realized. Jole had come alone, independently and deliberately, after the end of the workday, and had gone directly to the room the Countess had set aside for him. If there could be free consent at all, there it was. And Jole had gone to the Imperial Service Academy--he'd had the lecture on how to resist a criminal order.

From Admiral Vorkosigan.

Pym raised one hand to rub his forehead, trying to ward off a headache.

"Next morning Jole turns up in the kitchen to beg breakfast, looking like he'd run his entire uniform through the bathroom sonic cleaner, and ungodly chipper for that hour of the morning. The Count and Countess were worse, looking at each other all through breakfast like children who think they're keeping a secret, asking each other how they'd slept and did they think the weather would stay fine. And it has stayed fine, so far--uncommonly fine."

Maisky fell silent, and Pym tried to make sense of the thing. Maisky had laid it out clearly enough; it was just that it was like five-space math, logical steps leading to something that seemed impossible. After a while, Pym said, "So no one is betrayed."

It seemed impossible that it could be true, for all he'd seen, until the moment he said it out loud. Then it seemed self-evident.

Maisky nodded firmly in his peripheral vision. "No one is betrayed."

There was a sharp double-rap on the window, making both Armsmen jump. Maisky opened his door, and Lieutenant Jole--slightly rumpled but, as promised, fully dressed--leaned in to say, "All's well. Everyone can go back to bed."

Maisky clapped Pym's shoulder. "Everyone but you, Armsman."

"For my sins," Pym murmured, wondering what the hell he'd looked like when the Count saw him--probably anything but a perfect and imperturbable Vorkosigan Armsman. But if Maisky or Jole heard that, they ignored it, and no matter what, there was the night watch to be finished.

 


 

Aurie wouldn't let him put her down from the moment he came home on his first free day to the moment she fell asleep on his chest. After that, Pym had to admit that he didn't want to put her down either, but he deferred the matter a while, lying stretched out on the sofa with his head in Anna's lap as she told him about her own ten days' orientation to life as an Armsman's wife.

"All the wives talk about the Count and Countess like a fairy tale," she said, combing her fingers through his hair. "But you see them at all hours--it can't be that simple, not really."

Pym looked down at Aurie--whose curls were all in disarray, and whose day-at-home dress still showed just what she'd eaten for supper--and then tipped his head back to meet Anna's eyes as he told her the absolute truth.

"Not that simple, no. But the stories are real."