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Secrets and Lies

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By Vorrutyer rolled over into the shrubbery and lay staring at the flyer lights arcing over the Vorbarr Sultana sky. He thought of trying to get up, but his legs still felt heavier than lead and when he moved the points of light in the sky blurred and swirled. The Emperor might have been suffering from some nebulous illness since he got back from Komarr, only appearing a few times at essential public events to prove he wasn't at death's door, but the cycle of entertainments at the Imperial Residence continued, and the absence of the Emperor and his heavy security only made them livelier.

Little sparks of memory lit in his mind. There had been Max Vorbohn, trying to coax people to go on with him to a new club he'd found and was convinced would be the new sensation, that public nuisance Trotters making up increasingly poorly rhyming dirty limericks with Pavlo, and André Vortienne bragging about knowing the best secret in town, and then swearing he could drink any man in the place under the table. He'd been wrong about that, By thought with a certain degree of satisfaction, slightly tempered by the fact that he'd only got halfway up the hill from the pavilion before his legs had given out.

Still, By reflected philosophically, there was this to be said about falling down drunk here at the Residence: he wouldn't be here long. In a few minutes, no doubt, some hard-working sods from the staff would be along and they'd sweep him up and dispatch him home. And they wouldn't even send him a bill, which the municipal guard did for clearing up drunks. That was a delightful new initiative from the Prime Minister to reduce public drunkenness, and By thought it deeply hypocritical considering the family stories about Count Vorkosigan in his younger days. He'd slept in every gutter in the Old Town, in his dissipated youth.

There were people approaching on the path edging the lawn. By considered turning his head to look at them, but decided against it. Everything was moving quite enough already. Two people, he thought. One was a lady, the unmistakeable clack-clack of her heels on the pavement. The other sounded like military boots. As they drew nearer he heard what they were saying.

"Fortunately, everyone seems to be skirting wide around the whole issue. The usual speculation, of course, but that happens every time he so much as sneezes. I've heard nothing you need to worry about."

It was a moment before By recognised the woman's voice. He knew it well, of course, but whenever Lady Alys Vorpatril spoke around him she was either coolly polite or tartly defeating him in a skirmish of words. He'd never heard her voice gentle and sweet before.

"I suppose that's something. But do please keep an eye on it," her companion said. "It's quite bad enough without any suspicious gossip. Or worse."

By couldn't place the man at all. His voice was measured, cultivated and somehow forgettable. He reminded By of a particularly boring history teacher at his prep school, who could make the career of Pierre le Sanguinaire so dull-sounding that twenty bloodthirsty boys nearly fell asleep listening.

"I know," said Lady Alys. "You're doing everything you can."

"Not enough," the man replied wearily. "I have agents everywhere looking, but ... there's nothing. Absolutely nothing."

With a flash of inebriated insight, By recognised the man. Agents looking. Suspicious gossip. Lady Alys was talking to the chief of ImpSec.

By tensed, expecting to be hauled out by a hundred paranoid ImpSec agents. But nobody came near him, lying under his shrubberies. The footsteps paused at the junction of the paths.

"I need to get back to the office," Captain Illyan said. "But we must think about what to do if this continues much longer. As things stand, I can't see any immediate resolution in sight."

"The ensign is only a stop-gap," Lady Alys agreed. "Yes. I'll think about it. But ... there are no good choices. Aral will overrule the obvious step, anyway."

"He may not have a choice," said Illyan, and his voice was grim.

"I know that. I think he does too. But then there's Miles, and that would be ... difficult."

"Perhaps. But Ivan..."

"Quite."

By knew he was pretty drunk, but he doubted this conversation would make any more sense to him sober. It was a shame. Accidentally eavesdropping on people's conversations was only worthwhile if they talked about something intelligible.

"Take care of yourself, anyway," Lady Alys said, and her voice was gentle again. "We're in this for the long haul."

"You too," answered Captain Illyan, and his voice too was warm. By heard their footsteps start off again, moving in different directions.

He lay back and looked at the stars. He could only deduce one thing from that conversation, and that was that he was going to have so much fun teasing Ivan about this. Rumor had matched Lady Alys with every likely and unlikely man in town, over the years, but By's finely-tuned ear for gossip had never detected anything that had a smidgen of truth in it. But there had been a note in her voice that By knew well, that of a woman trying to please and attract a man. The fact that the man was still reported by some gullible people to be an android only made the story juicier. The ice queen and the robot. What a pair. Ivan would die.

The thought motivated him sufficiently that he managed to stagger to his feet again. Both Lady Alys and Captain Illyan were long gone, and he could see the other revellers around the grounds and on the terrace, drawing the last dregs of fun out of this party. By made his way carefully to an exit and asked the guard on duty there to call him an autocab.

As he sat in the back, he contemplated another aspect of the conversation. Lady Alys was working with ImpSec. There was no love lost between Lady Alys and By's set of fashionable and wealthy young men, but it was obvious to everyone with a brain--which set comprised, By had to admit, disturbingly few members of Vor society--that she was more powerful than many Counts and Ministers. Still, it was a bit of a surprise that she was reporting directly to ImpSec. The woman would be running the whole planet soon, he thought in disgust.

He resumed watching the city lights until the cab reached his building. Then he reluctantly paid—it was cheaper than the municipal guards, at least—and drifted up the lift-tube to his floor. The drink was catching up to him fast now, and he barely managed to reach his bed before falling into a sodden sleep.

When he woke up, sometime around noon with a thundering headache and feeling like something scraped off the sole of a boot, he would have put it down to a drunken dream, except that he suspected even his mind couldn't imagine anything as unlikely as Lady Alys fancying the pathologically boring chief of ImpSec.

By lay in bed and reviewed the peculiar evening again. It was just typical. He knew that Lady Alys was reporting to ImpSec and in love with Captain Illyan. It would have been such a marvellous opportunity for a bit of genteel blackmail--a steady source of invites to the best parties in town, perhaps some sinecure job in a Ministry that would sort out his little financial difficulties--if it hadn't been for the fact that she was an ImpSec agent with Captain Illyan at her back. He'd be upside down in ImpSec's dungeons before he opened his mouth.

At least, he thought wryly, there was still Ivan to tease. That was a constant.

He managed to get up, shower and dress by mid-afternoon, and went to look at his console for messages and his calendar. But the next three days were so dull-looking he nearly went straight back to bed. The most thrilling thing in the list was an invitation to a dinner party at Vortienne House tonight. He hadn't planned to go, since family dinner parties were rarely much fun, but it was that or sit here nursing his hangover and watching old holodramas. All the best company was off at resorts on the south coast at this time of year. By usually relied on Lord Mikhail Vorinnis to invite him to stay at his family estate there, but this year Mikhail was all wrapped up in some girl and was visiting her family instead. And he couldn't afford the exorbitant rents that were asked for apartments in the good part of the resort, and of course taking an apartment for the summer in a bad part of town would be worse than not going.

Perhaps he should, he thought, do what his father had been nagging him to do for years and find some job. Something easy and simple, where he just had to show up and dawdle about until quitting time. But even the thought of that turned his stomach a little. He was a Vorrutyer, not some prole sweating away for a salary and a pat on the head.

Still, if life got much more boring he might be driven to it.

By grimaced, got up and went to make himself some coffee. Self-pity didn't become him, he thought. He was just weighing up the pros and cons of attempting some toast when the door chimed.

It was his cousin Donna, appearingly disgustingly fresh and chipper.

"Heavy night?" she said sweetly as she breezed in. "That do at the Residence, wasn't it?"

"The only way to make it tolerable was with large quantities of Imperial alcohol," By agreed. "To what do I owe the pleasure, dear cousin?"

"Oh, you know," Donna said, helping herself to the coffee from By's pot and perching on the sofa. "Lack of anything better to do. A desire to tweak your tail. The fact that I don't have anyone who's required to listen to me ramble any more."

She sipped the coffee, leaned back and put her feet up on the table. Her eyes dared By to comment on the masculine posture. "I was at the Review this morning," she said, plunging headlong into whatever was on her mind the way she always did. "Gregor was there, before they whisked him back to Vorkosigan Surleau for his rest and recovery, or whatever it is. And ... well." She paused. "There's something funny going on with him," she said at last.

"Gregor, funny?" By said. "Surely you jest."

"No, I mean it," she said. "I know they say he's been unwell, but I did get a moment with him, and..." She hesitated.

"And what?" By prompted after a moment.

"And he seemed ... interested."

Donna's repeated attempts to add the young Emperor to her conquests had amused By. He'd supposed that having a young man as Emperor would mean that events at the Residence would be much more lively than they had under the Regent's sway, but Gregor had Lady Alys serving as chief dragon at his parties, and under her gimlet eye even the drinking had eased off. If Gregor was having private parties full of dancing girls, By hadn't heard of it. He'd have thought under the circumstances Gregor would be delighted to take Donna up on her hints, but apparently not.

"So you're dumping Ivan for the Emperor, are you?"

"But he seemed different somehow," Donna said, ignoring this. "I only had a few minutes with him, but he didn't seem quite himself."

Donna had a shrewd eye for that kind of thing, By knew. "Not himself," he echoed. "Well, he's been ill. That makes people a bit different."

"Perhaps. But it was odd. I didn't want to mention it, because--well, he is the Emperor, but. It was strange."

By filed the observation away. He didn't really know what to make of it, but it was obviously bothering Donna. "Did you happen to notice if Ivan was there?" he asked after a while.

Donna gave a little smile. "You're not his type," she said. "Yes, as it happens, he was. He's gone down to Vorkosigan Surleau with the Emperor. Relaxing company, apparently."

"Positively soporific, I'd say." And that meant that ragging Ivan about his mother and Captain Illyan would have to wait for another day. Well, By thought, if there was anything he had plenty of right now, it was time.

*

The Vortienne's party was every bit as dire as By had feared. The guests were a motley mixture of friends and acquaintances of all the children of the house: Lord Vortienne had invited several work colleagues and their wives, Lady Natalia had brought a selection of fashionable friends, and By had realised why André had invited him when he'd been introduced to André's other guest, Estelle Vorinnis, chaperoned dotingly by her mother. He'd briefly considered charming Estelle away from André anyway, but after five minutes of her conversation he decided she and André deserved each other.

The Vortienne's cook was not exceptional, and By found himself sitting between the visibly pregnant wife of one of Lord Vortienne's junior colleagues, Madame Vorsoisson, and the youngest Vortienne daughter, Ninette. Madame Vorsoisson's attention was entirely dedicated to charming Lord Vortienne, presumably to advance her husband's career, and Lieutenant Vorsoisson a place down was equally dedicated to boring Ninette, so By wound up with nothing to do but listen to two extremely dull conversations and vow never, ever to accept an invitation from André again. Several glasses of wine made it all a bit more tolerable, but after last night at the Residence he didn't feel much inclined to drink too heavily tonight. His few witty sallies were greeted blankly, and he decided there was little point wasting his brilliance on people too dim to appreciate it.

It was a relief when they were allowed to get up and flee to the Vortienne's comfortable drawing-room. Madame Vorsoisson was clearly not enjoying the party any more than he was, and By felt a certain fellow-feeling as he helped her up, but she attached herself diligently to Lord Vortienne and his colleagues regardless, leaving By with Lady Ninette.

"Grace me with your company," By said politely to Ninette. "Allow me to rescue you from that crashing bore," he added in an undertone, and was rewarded by a giggle and a sharply appreciative look under her eyelashes.

"Thank you," she said, taking his arm. By escorted her to the drawing-room, found a seat as far from Lieutenant Vorsoisson as he could, and offered Lady Ninette a plate of petit fours. She immediately took the stickiest chocolate confection and positively grinned at him. "These are much better than the rest," she informed him wickedly.

"Then I shall follow your lead, my lady," By said at once, and tried one of the chocolate things. It was, at least, an improvement on the dessert they'd been offered, and it dented the rather sharp taste of the brandy that had been inflicted upon him. "You have exquisite taste," he said.

To his surprise, she made a face. "Oh, you don't need to do that," she said. "I know you're only flirting. Mama says you're not the marrying kind." By winced a little, wondering what she would say next, but she surprised him again by continuing, "Besides, I don't want to get married for years and years. I want to get one of Countess Vorkosigan's scholarships to Beta Colony."

By blinked, then smoothly changed from one line of patter to another. "Off-planet education is becoming extremely popular, I hear. We shan't have any young ladies left here soon."

Ninette's laugh this time was a little rueful. "Oh, you will," she said, "because none of us will ever persuade our parents to let us go. We're going to be stuck at these parties forever."

"Talking to crashing bores through far too many courses," By concluded with a nod to Lieutenant Vorsoisson.

Ninette nodded, smiling. "I think my brother is regretting inviting him," she said. "Theo is stuffy, but he's not boring, at least. Even if he did have the most dreadful row with Papa and André this morning. You could hear them halfway across the house."

By raised his eyebrows, feeling the first spark of interest at anything he'd heard this evening. "I wouldn't have thought any subject could raise such passion from your dear brother. You pique my curiosity strangely."

"Oh, it was just some District thing," Ninette said. A brush-off, By thought, but a rather inexperienced one.

"Something, of course, that a mere Vor fop such as myself could not be expected to understand, unlike a serious-minded student," he returned.

It was a little cruel, but it worked. Ninette coloured in confusion and said, "Oh, no, I didn't mean--it was about Papa's thing with the Ministry of Terraforming. They've been wrangling for months over the budget for the District, and Papa said that with what André had told him, he could get whatever he wanted from the Ministry, and Theo got very angry and said that it would be 'unethical to take advantage of this difficult time'." Her imitation of her brother's pompous tones was perfect, and By laughed appreciatively. He was just wondering whether he could coax anything more from Ninette when Countess Vortienne came over. She'd been regarding them a little fishily for a while, By had noticed. Now she smiled at them both and said, "Ninette, dear, Miss Vorinnis was hoping to speak with you before she left, I believe."

"Oh, yes, Maman," Ninette said, and By returned the Countess' smile with practised ease. He allowed the Countess to rescue Ninette from the dangerous Vor rake and sat idly sipping bad brandy and wondering what exactly was going on with this secret André had been talking about. Something big enough that the Count could use it to extract favours from the Ministry? He looked around the room with a new attentiveness. Now that Ninette had pointed it out, he could see the coolness between the Count and his heir in their body language and the gaps in what they'd said.

He watched as Miss Vorinnis and the other young ladies left, then drifted across the room to join André. With the diverting presence of Estelle Vorinnis gone, he was sprawling gracelessly on a sofa, glass in hand.

By sat beside him, equally languid, but, he felt certain, much more elegantly, and contemplated his plan of attack.

"Finding new ways to annoy Theo, are you?" he said. "Families!"

André leaned forward. "I," he said with drunken emphasis, "am not disloyal."

Disloyal? By had to force himself not to sit up a little straighter. He'd assumed this secret was some petty scandal in the Ministry, but if it was a question of disloyalty...

"Of course not," he said smoothly. "Far too much work, that sort of thing."

André glared at him. "All I did," he said, "all I did was win a bet. A bloody bet. At the races last month. I won fifty marks off this ensign I'd never seen before, a prole guy, I never got his name. But I told him he looked a lot like the Emperor, and he laughed and said everyone said that." André stared across the room at his brother, still talking shop with his colleagues. "And then I saw him again, only he was the Emperor." André drained his glass. "I won fifty marks off the Emperor, and now Theo thinks it would be treason to tell anyone."

By gave him a skeptical look. "It was just a resemblance," he said. "Lots of people look a bit like the Emperor."

"I never forget a face," André retorted. "The person I won the bet off and the person at the medal presentation last week were the same."

"What were you doing at a medal presentation?" By asked.

"Estelle's brother was being awarded something. She invited me to go with her." He stared into the distance. "She's very loyal," he said. "And all her family. If Theo goes telling people that I'm not, or that Father's not, she'll throw me over."

"Well," By said, "perhaps you'd better not go telling everyone the Emperor goes to the races incognito."

"I only told Father. Well, and you, I suppose, if that counts. But Father's gone all weird now and is talking about how the District will finally get one over the Imperium." André made a face. "Politics!" he snorted. "Politics! Who cares about them?"

By smirked. "Earnest, priggish souls who don't understand the importance of fashion," he replied. He stood up. "I think your party's over, André. Go dream of your beautiful Estelle."

He caught an autocab and made himself comfortable in the back. So, that was André's big secret: the Emperor wandering around town incognito. Hardly anything that exciting, really. If he was the Emperor, By thought, he'd spend as much time as he could ducking out of his work.

Donna's words from earlier came back to him. Gregor's not himself. Abruptly, André's story inverted itself in his mind. It wasn't the Emperor going to the races, it was a random ensign who looked like the Emperor impersonating him at public events. Count Vortienne must have made the same deduction, he realised.

Thinking back, By noticed that there hadn't been any events recently, public or political, which couldn't have been done by the Emperor's double. And then there was the story of Gregor being ill, and now him going down to Vorkosigan Surleau for a private holiday. Gregor was being kept out of sight.

By could think of plenty of reasons why, ranging from assassination attempts to a disfiguring skin disease, but some possibilities were more frightening than others. Could Gregor be dead? And how? When? But nobody would think they could conceal that from the Empire for long. But perhaps they had some reason to want to wait, perhaps until Lord Vorkosigan got back from his galactic tour so that he would be ready to stand as his father's heir when Count Vorkosigan did the obvious thing and took the throne himself. But no, that didn't make sense, Vorkosigan wouldn't want to draw attention to his mutie son if he was trying to become Emperor. But there must be some reason.

Or perhaps Gregor was really ill, dangerously ill, or going crazy like Mad Yuri, or had been kidnapped. Whatever it was, it had to be serious. This, By began to realise, wasn't just town gossip. This was real, and important.

And now the conversation he'd overheard last night was starting to fall into place. By's lips twisted a little at his own innocence, to think that the big secret he'd found out was whatever relationship there might be between Lady Alys and Captain Illyan. But they were worried, and were trying to keep this concealed. If it had been anyone else, By might have wondered about some dubious treason, but not with those two. Whatever game they were playing, it was for the good of the Emperor, and of Barrayar.

And they were afraid the secret would get out. And now By knew that it had. Count Vortienne probably would be able to get whatever concessions he wanted, with this, but perhaps it might go further. If word started to spread that Gregor hadn't been seen for weeks, there would be panic. Everyone would start to form up in battle lines: Vorkosigan's side, the Francophones, the Greekies ... the Komarrans, too, would revolt. Shit. By stared out the window and wished he still felt bored. And he knew the secret would get out, because if he could figure it out, then so could other people. He needed to do something, but he had no idea what.

He would, By reflected as he paid the cab and went up to his apartment to think harder than he'd thought in his life before, look awfully stupid if it really was a disfiguring skin disease.

*

Somewhere in the hinterlands between drunk and hungover, By found himself standing in Lady Alys' outer office at the Imperial Residence absurdly early the following morning. She was keeping him waiting, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in her primly fashionable office full of awkward bits of furniture and an elegant desk, and gradually the hangover was winning. He would have killed for a painkiller and some strong coffee, but neither seemed to be available. Finally the door of the inner office opened and Lady Alys emerged.

"Sorry to have kept you," she said, not sounding particularly sorry. "Now, Vorrutyer, would you care to explain that extremely cryptic message you sent?"

Captain Illyan could keep her, By thought. He stood up and waited until she took a seat opposite him, then sat back down. "The man who went down to Vorkosigan Surleau with Countess Vorkosigan and Ivan," he said without beating around the bush, "is not the Emperor."

She was good. Her eyes widened a little, quite naturally, and she said, "What on earth makes you say that?" in a tone of genuine surprise, laced with disbelief.

By grimaced. "Could I have some coffee, please?" he asked.

Lady Alys managed to avoid wincing at his breach of protocol. She rang a bell, sent for coffee and sat back and waited in silence until he had a steaming cup in his hands. Which was, By reflected, informative in itself.

"Now," she said, "if you wouldn't mind explaining that extraordinary statement..."

"The night before last," By began, "I was at the reception here. André Vortienne was bragging that he knew an explosive secret. I didn't think anything of it--he's always a loudmouth--but the next day my cousin Donna mentioned that she'd encountered Gregor--the so-called Gregor--briefly and that he'd seemed different in some important ways. Last night I was at the Vortiennes' party, and I put together the rest of the story. The, ah, ensign, isn't it, with the uncanny resemblance to Gregor lost a bet to André a few weeks ago, and so André recognised him here. And he'd told his father the story last night as well. I believe the Count has plans for using it for political leverage."

At that, Lady Alys' poise faltered a little, and By knew he was right about how serious this was.

"Well," she said, recovering quickly. "That's an interesting story. Tell me this, Vorrutyer. Why have you brought this tale to me?"

"So that you can pass it on to whoever needs to know. ImpSec, I presume."

"Then why not go directly?"

"Who would I talk to?" By said. "ImpSec people keep themselves to themselves. I can't just waltz in the door there. But you have close ties with ImpSec, I know."

At that, the faintest of flushes came to her cheeks. Ha, By thought with satisfaction.

"I see." She sat still a moment, then skewered him with her gaze. "And so I repeat, why?"

"To tell you, of course."

"Don't play the fool. You know what I mean."

And he did. It was something he still didn't quite understand himself. Why did he care what political landmines went off around the city? It would be more his style to watch, all cool and unimpressed, as the soldiers and politicians fell over each other in their panic and anger. Lady Alys was watching him sharply, and he realised he was going to have to come up with an answer, a real one. He finished his coffee to buy time and give his brains a chance to get started.

"Vorrutyers may be many things," he said finally, "but we're loyal to the Imperium. Even my Uncle Ges was loyal."

"I think we'd do best to leave your Uncle Ges out of this," Lady Alys interjected in a tone that suggested that she was carrying the subject of Uncle Ges out to a midden with a pair of long tongs. "You're loyal," she prompted when he didn't answer this.

"Yes. And whatever's going on, it sounds... serious." He grimaced, and went on, only half-ironically, "Also, it would interrupt my frivolous life most severely if we had another round of civil wars here. So I thought it might help if you knew what was going on before it all went wrong." If that was even possible now.

"I see." Lady Alys gave him a nod that made By incomprehensibly uncomfortable. "Well. Thank you for passing this along. For your reassurance, you have come to the right person."

"What's happened to Gregor?" By heard himself ask.

Lady Alys gave him a narrow-eyed look. "You cannot imagine," she said, "that I am going to give you any sort of answer to that question, or even confirm that anything has happened to Gregor."

"Well," By said thoughtfully, thinking back over the past fortnight with new insight, "whatever it is, you're keeping it at a very high level, since even the Counts don't know yet. But there's obviously something."

"Obviously?" Lady Alys echoed, an eyebrow elegantly raised.

"Even without this ... body double, I mean. All of the Emperor's inner circle have been bustling around, and they haven't been at parties, and when they have they've been distracted. And, of course, the Emperor not being present. But the Counts have been normal, so whatever's going on, they don't know about it."

"I see," Lady Alys said. She was regarding him steadily now, and her expression of cool disdain had entirely gone. In its place was something that unsettled By. Respect.

The moment passed, and Lady Alys stood up, forcing By to do the same. "Thank you for coming to me. I perceive, given your loyalty, that I need not ask you to refrain from mentioning this to anyone else."

By acknowledged this with a nod. Then as he turned to go, he suddenly remembered another thing. "My lady?" he said.

She raised an eyebrow.

"If you should happen to speak to Countess Vortienne--" Lady Alys gave him a somewhat irritated look at that, which By supposed he deserved, "--you might say something on behalf of Lady Ninette, who would like to accept one of Countess Vorkosigan's Betan scholarships if her parents will permit. She said some very helpful things last night."

Lady Alys gave him a noncommittal nod. "I'll see what can be done."

For all that Ivan bitched about his mother and how she bossed him around, By thought meditatively as he left the Residence, Lady Alys was one of the most interesting and intelligent women in the capital. Perhaps Captain Illyan's taste wasn't as bad as he'd first thought.

*

For three weeks, By heard nothing. 'Gregor' remained at Vorkosigan Surleau with Ivan, apparently enjoying a holiday. Count Vortienne suddenly discovered pressing business matters that required him to disappear back to his District, taking André with him, and Lord Vortienne went to hold down his seat in the Council, whilst Ninette prepared to leave for Beta Colony. The Vortienne District terraforming matter, he also learned, had been settled in the Count's favour, very quietly. The Prime Minister left for the Hegen Hub with what seemed even to By's ignorant eye to be a very large warship and escort. And Lady Alys continued to treat him exactly as she did the other men of his set: with frosty disdain, which By found somehow discouraging even as he understood the reason.

Then one morning he received a call requesting him to attend on Lady Alys at her Residence office immediately.

She didn't keep him waiting this time, and she invited him into her inner office instead of joining him in the outer office. The inner office, By noticed, was significantly more comfortable, though no less elegant.

"Good morning, Byerly," she said. "I thought you would like to know that the Emperor is safe and well."

By couldn't help feeling more than a little relieved by this news, though he concealed it as best he could.

"Your information, as you no doubt noticed, was of use to us."

"I did notice a few things that suggested it," he returned. He didn't really believe he was the Man who had Saved the Empire--that was the kind of fantasy that made people join the Service and spend months running around in the mud and the cold, and By had never wanted or shared in that. Nonetheless, he was aware of a feeling of satisfaction.

Lady Alys gave a faint smile. "Good. Now, I have been thinking about this, and I believe I have an offer that will interest you."

By blinked.

"ImpSec is always in need of people with quick wits and an ability to sort important information from trivial gossip. If you should be interested, you could be of use." She paused. "There would also be a salary, which I believe would be useful to you."

By winced slightly, especially since it was true. He had been bracing himself to go and beg his father to avoid an embarrassment with his tailor's bill.

"You want to give me a job?" he said carefully. "As an informer?"

"It would be ImpSec who would give you the job," Lady Alys said, as if correcting a minor faux pas. "I would merely be recommending you to Captain Illyan's attention."

By had a feeling he understood how strong a recommendation that was. He sat silently for a moment. "What would I do?"

"Keep an ear open. Bring me anything more along these lines you find. Occasionally you will be given assignments: individuals to spend time with, to listen to, to get drunk and worm confidences out of them. Much as you did with young Vortienne, I believe. They would be people you know already, naturally." Lady Alys paused. "I have been observing you. It does not seem to me that you are so attached to the majority of your acquaintances as to find this distressing."

Lady Alys was far too observant, By thought. It was perfectly true. Apart from Donna, and perhaps a few others, he couldn't think of anyone he'd suffer more than the briefest of pangs over before handing them to ImpSec if he thought they deserved it.

"If you would prefer to consider the offer for a little while, I will see you again in a few days," Lady Alys added, watching him.

"I'd work with you?" he asked.

"Yes. I would pass on ImpSec's requests to you, and would convey your information back to them."

It was odd that that was a draw, but it was. He wouldn't mind having the respect of someone as powerful and brilliant as Lady Alys. And he was bored. And this would give him a much more interesting reason to go to those tedious parties. And he would have one up on all the military bores, and they wouldn't even know it. And his tailor's bill wouldn't be quite such a problem.

"All right," he said. "I am interested in your offer."

Lady Alys smiled as if she'd known he would accept from the outset. Perhaps she had. "Captain Illyan will discuss the details with you in due course." Her gaze at him sharpened. "You're not a fool, Byerly, but nonetheless I will warn you. This isn't a license for you to go prying into anything that seems interesting to you, or to play the hero. If we want you to investigate something, we'll let you know. Otherwise you should continue your ordinary life. You seem to understand how to do that well enough so far. Don't let this go to your head."

"I know how to be discreet and careful," By said, meeting her eye.

"Good. Remember it." She stood up. "Captain Illyan will be in touch."

He supposed that expecting praise from Lady Alys was too much, and he was right, but she did pause, and then say, "The reward for a job well done, they say, is another job. I'll have one for you soon."