“Have I got a juicy tidbit for you,” a cheery voice said from behind Corporal Fedor Golovin, following a low whistle.
Only one person could possibly be that chirpy this early in the morning. “Zip,” Fedor grunted from over his morning coffee, regretting his late-night drinking already.
“There’s a new recruit you might be interested in,” Zip persisted, even going so far as to try to swipe Fedor’s coffee.
Fedor didn’t even blink as he blocked the swipe, and jabbed his elbow at the other man viciously. You never get between him and his coffee. “Unless he shits diamonds, I don’t care.”
“Even better,” Zip smiled. “He knows Illyan.”
It took a moment for this to sink in, but then he sat up in surprise. “He knows Illyan? In what capacity?”
Zip saw his opportunity and took it – he grabbed the coffee. “I don’t know in what capacity. But you know how Illyan had some sort of official visit scheduled with Allegre this morning?”
“Who didn’t know?” Fedor snorted. “All the curious overachievers like yourself spent all morning trying to eavesdrop, am I right?”
“Well, my curiosity put me in just the right spot to see him stop and talk to one of the recruits on the way out. A whole conversation.”
“So? How does he know him?”
“I’m not sure,” Zip admitted. “The conversation was only a couple of sentences long. ‘I hope training is treating you well’/‘Yes, sir’/‘I’m glad to see you’re adjusting’/‘Yes, sir’/‘Good luck, and give your mother my regards’/‘Yes, sir’ was about all the conversation amounted to. Pleasantries. I thought I’d leave picking the recruit’s brain to lunchtime, when you’d have less of a hangover and might want to join in.”
“I’m in,” Fedor said emphatically, then winced and clutched at his head pathetically. Zip just laughed at him, the unsympathetic bastard.
Martin was really just minding his own business, trying to scarf down as much as food as possible before he had to go back through more grueling drills, when a very cheerful man with curly red hair sat down next to him.
“Ah, Martin Kosti, is it?” he said with a friendly smile, and waved at someone Martin couldn’t quite see. “Fedor, over here! There’s an empty spot.”
Another man slid down in the next seat, the tabs on his collar marking him as a Captain. His smile was disarming as he said, “Ah, you must be Martin. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Martin looked from the one to the other, not quite sure what to do with all this friendliness. “Do … I know you?” he asked hesitantly.
“Oh, but how rude,” the first man said. “I can’t believe we forgot to introduce ourselves. This here is Captain Golovin-”
“Call me Fedor.”
“-and you can call me Zip,” the man finished, beaming.
“Um, hello,” Martin said slowly, not really sure what to do with this information. He didn’t recall having ever come across a Fedor Golovin or a Zip before. “I … still don’t think I know you?”
“Of course not,” the one named Fedor said smoothly. “But we know you.”
“Oh, Fedor, that sounds so ominous coming from you. Don’t scare the poor boy,” Zip laughed. “What he means to say, Martin, is that I saw you exchanging words with Captain Illyan this morning, and I’ve been burning with curiosity ever since. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know him?”
A question he knew the answer to – Martin was on more familiar ground now. “Oh, he was around a lot this summer,” he said. “When I was working for milord,” he added, when it was clear they wanted more details.
“That would be milord …?” Zip said encouragingly.
“Milord Vorkosigan,” Martin elaborated.
“Lord Miles Vorkosigan?” Captain Golovin confirmed. (Martin couldn’t bring himself to think of the man as Fedor.) “I thought he only recently, uh, elected to stay on planet long-term. I didn’t know he’d already had the House fully staffed by summertime.”
“He hadn’t,” Martin said, deciding that the rules of propriety probably didn’t mean he had to stop eating, as long as he was careful about swallowing before speaking. “It was just Ma as cook, really. And me, I only helped around the house sometimes, when I needed to show someone in. Most of the time, though, I was just a chauffeur.”
“So …” Zip said carefully. “You were chauffeur the whole summer? This past summer? When Captain Illyan started spending more time at Vorkosigan House?”
“Well sure,” Martin said. “I only quit a few weeks ago when milord, uh,” Martin mentally edited out mention of milord’s medical condition as that was nobody’s business but his own, “resolved some personnel issues and no longer needed a driver on a permanent basis.”
Zip looked intrigued about the vague reference to his “issues” but Captain Golovin spoke first. “So that means you can enlighten me on a few matters,” he practically beamed. “Zip and I have an ongoing bet, you see.”
Zip rolled his eyes dramatically. “You see, Fedor here thinks that Lord Vorkosigan is the product of nepotism, that he was more of a figurehead during the whole Illyan crisis. Whereas I think he’s an unsung hero of covert ops whose brilliance was vital to the capture of Haroche.”
Martin looked uneasily from one to the other – he didn’t hold with people speaking ill of milord and referring to him as a “product of nepotism” but Zip didn’t look like he really meant all the things he was saying either. He didn’t know what they wanted him to say – Zip hadn’t really asked a question, just made a statement.
They stared at him for a bit longer, before Zip pasted on another grin and said, “Could you enlighten us as to which of us is right?”
“I don’t know anything about what milord did during his covert ops missions,” Martin frowned. “That’s classified and he never said anything.” The two were looking at him like they were expecting more, though, and Martin shifted a little in his seat. It was a bit difficult to try to eat your lunch when people were staring at you with such concentration. “The only thing ever did say about his career was that once he cleaned drains,” Martin offered. “And that he died the one time,” he added as an afterthought.
The two men had rather deflated at his first statement, but brightened up at his last.
“I think I remember the news about that,” Captain Golovin said meditatively, “the rumors about how he had died, coupled with Count Vorkosigan’s health issues at the time – they said that’s why the Count and Countess were parading the clone Vorkosigan around, in case he ended up being Heir after all.”
“Never mind that,” Zip said dismissively, “tell me more about this past summer. Did anything interesting happen? I mean, this is the time when Captain Illyan came down with his … illness. Surely you noticed something?” he coaxed.
“Anyone interesting coming in and out?” Captain Golovin offered up as an example. “Any late-night clandestine meetings?”
Martin shrugged. “Milord has a lot of friends. A lot of them dropped by at night.”
“Anyone from ImpSec in particular?” Zip pushed.
Martin wondered whether the man was a bit touched in the head – “Milord worked in ImpSec,” he said plainly. “Many of his friends were from ImpSec.”
Zip seemed to have realized this already, however, and had slumped. “Of course.”
“But surely if you were working for him,” Captain Golovin said, “you had to, say, serve tea at important meetings or stand by as some sort of decorative bodyguard, or other butlery things. You didn’t hear anything?”
Martin paused, thinking about it. “I was probably supposed to do all that,” he finally admitted, “but milord didn’t care about formality much – I was only there when needed.” Now that he thought about it, there were several lectures from the intimidating Lady Alys about it – she’d been very insistent that Martin learn certain behaviors that fortunately milord luckily hadn’t cared about.
“Don’t you remember anything useful?” Zip demanded, somewhat irritated, but then he was all smiles again. “You said you were his chauffeur. Surely you remember driving to ImpSec to visit Captain Illyan when he first fell ill.”
Martin paused, thinking back to that first visit to ImpSec. “Oh yes,” he said. “I remember that.”
“Did something memorable happen?” Captain Golovin inquired offhandedly.
“Well, milord got thrown out of HQ, didn’t he?” Martin said, remembering the look of outrage on milord’s face. At the time, he’d been terrified – he was a chauffeur, not a bodyguard, but he’d been sure he was supposed to do something about milord’s ill treatment, yet he wasn’t at all up to facing down ImpSec guards on his own. Now, he could look back at it and chuckle.
“Oh really?” Zip said blithely. “What happened?”
“Well, that … Haroche? General Haroche? Whoever, he told the guard to throw milord out,” Martin related, “and then of course milord was upset so he had me take him home so he could put on his uniform with all his rows of medals and had me take him to the Imperial Residence.”
“Rows of medals?” Captain Golovin said. “That sounds a like a lot – you mean that figuratively or literally?”
“He means how many rows?” Zip asked impatiently.
“There were three or four rows, I guess,” Martin said, trying to remember. “It was hard to tell, because there were so many different kinds.”
“Not just ones from Barrayar then?” Zip asked.
“I don’t think so,” Martin said. He’d seen a few medals up close before, Imperial Stars and the bad-luck ones for getting hurt. There’d been more kinds than those on milord’s uniform. “Some were this big,” he gestured with his hands, remembering the biggest one and how it had stood out oddly next to the others.
“There aren’t any medals that big,” Captain Golovin dismissed.
Martin didn’t contradict him, but he knew what he remembered.
“Then what happened?” Zip asked.
“Well, when he came out he had that Auditor’s chain around his neck and then we went back to ImpSec HQ and he gave General Haroche, uh, a nasty surprise.” That was an understatement.
“Well-played,” Zip sighed. “That must have been satisfying.”
“But really, was that the only visit?” Captain Golovin coaxed.
“Of course not,” Martin said. “I drove milord to ImpMil a lot, he was always checking in on Captain Illyan, then they were going to meetings in ImpSec HQ for all sorts of secret things, and then, well,” he shrugged. “There was that one last trip. I’m sure you know what happened.”
“I’m sure it must have been exciting – who exactly was there for the storming of HQ?” Captain Golovin casually inquired.
“Oh, loads of people,” Martin said. “One of the Koudelka sisters, Captain Illyan, some doctor, Lord Ivan …” Martin paused and tried to remember if he were forgetting anyone.
“Lord Ivan … Vorpatril?” Captain Golovin clarified.
“Yes,” Martin nodded.
“Was Lord Ivan around for a lot of the business?” he asked casually.
“Oh yes,” Martin said. “He was always tagging along. He was there when milord first went to HQ as an Auditor, too.”
“Ah,” Captain Golovin said noncommittally. Zip shot him a look that Martin didn’t quite understand. “And you don’t remember anything else?”
Martin frowned. “About what?”
“Never mind,” Captain Golovin said. “Well, it was a pleasure talking to you, but I really must get going now.”
“We’ll see you later,” Zip added cheerily, and then he and Captain Golovin were gone.
Martin blinked, rather bemused, then caught sight of his chrono. He only had five minutes left, and had barely even gotten through half his lunch! In his great haste to inhale the rest of his food, the conversation had entirely slipped his mind by the time he got to his afternoon drills.
“I was right, of course,” Fedor said, disgustingly smug. “You owe me twenty marks.”
“Don’t be so cocky,” Zip scowled. “It’s still just a theory.”
“Lord Ivan was there for most of it – he has to be the mastermind. Hiding behind a mask of foolishness while secretly pulling the strings – it makes sense and you know it. There’s no way Vorkosigan could actually have figured it out on his own.”
“It’s a pretty theory, but I’ve actually met Lord Ivan Vorpatril,” Zip snorted, remembering the overall unfavorable impression. “If that foolish Vor butterfly thing is an act, then I’m Betan. You don’t have any proof – what makes Vorpatril any less a product of nepotism than Vorkosigan?”
“Don’t give me that,” Fedor said. “You think being Prime Minister Vorkosigan’s son hasn’t given him plenty of legs up? Vorpatril’s just had your garden-variety Vor privilege. I doubt Lord Vorkosigan has worked a day in his life for anything – he’s had everything handed to him on a silver platter.”
“My point stands,” Zip insisted. “No proof, no money.”
“Which will be easier for me than you,” Fedor smirked. “The only way you could possibly prove competence is maybe if you could get your hands on his files.”
“You mean the classified ones?” Zip said dryly. “That’ll be easy.”
“Just admit defeat already,” Fedor sighed. “It’s too bad that Martin of yours wasn’t more informative. He was around for all that went down this summer, and he doesn’t remember anything interesting.”
“I don’t think we could have trusted anything he did remember anyway,” Zip said wryly. “I mean, rows of medals? One ‘this big’?” He mimicked Martin’s gestures. “He’s obviously prone to exaggeration.”
“The only medal that might be that big would maybe be a Cetagandan Order of Merit – I saw it in a book once.” He exchanged looks with Zip. “You don’t think …?”
The two paused mid-step, to give the idea some thought.