"My God," Ges had spluttered the first time he'd tried maple mead. "You are proud of this stuff?"
That was an insult, but Aral had liked the way Ges' eyes had glittered, the promise of challenge in the backward corners of his mouth, and he had let it go. Ges had ordered brandy then, old stuff and expensive, and a very long time later they had swum their way out of the bar and into Ges' lightflyer. The silent Vorrutyer armsman had held the door open for them, and drove with inanimate steadiness while they were occupied, hazily, in the back seat.
How strange to count the intervening years and arrive at a finite number.
Ges was floating in deep space with his throat slit, and Aral had hung up all his uniforms to sit in his father's garden and drink maple mead at noontime. The cellar had smoother things to offer, but the mead had been made by his own people, from poor soil, with poor equipment, and he drank it because it burned his throat and tasted like resistance. He sat beside the petunias and tilted the snifter in his hands, and thought that here, at least, was one thing he had not betrayed.
There was an armsman at his elbow, one of the new ones: Kolkov, washed out of ImpMil with nerve damage after Escobar, but still alive and still serving. Cordelia, Aral thought, would be pleased; then he looked up and saw the frozen muscles in Kolkov's face and knew what a self-serving notion that had been.
"My lord," the armsman said. His voice was low and uncertain. "There is a messenger from the Emperor at the gate asking for you. Shall I." He stopped, and cleared his throat. "Shall I say that you are indisposed?"
Aral bared his teeth and realized, after a moment, that it was a smile. "Tell him to go to hell."
"My lord," Kolkov said, and hesitated.
Aral had tried love that was a lie and love without honor; honor without love, and love without hope. He had used them all up, now, but this much was still left to him.
"Don't worry," he said. "You may quote me. And bring me more mead." He kicked his shoes off and lay back, tipping his hat down over his face.
"My lord," Kolkov said again, and later there was mead, and sunshine, and some time further, night.