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Twenty-Year Man

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Ivan arrived at Vortashpula's while the candidate was taking questions, and headed straight for the drinks. He'd timed it well— early enough to pretend an interest, late enough to avoid the boring bits.

Though Vortashpula's guests were doing their best to keep things boring. At Vortala's reception for Colonel Svoboda, one of the ancient Vortala cousins had questioned the Colonel for half an hour on what he'd do as mayor about dogs fouling her sidewalk. Here, the only entertainment at the moment was a younger Vorsmythe plaintively asking, "So, when you say tax incentives, what you really mean is tax abatements, right?"

"He's asked that twice already," murmured By Vorrutyer, appearing at Ivan's elbow as if summoned by the chink of glassware. "Open a new bottle of the white, will you?"

From the number of half-empty bottles cluttering the sideboard, everyone else had had the same idea. Some ensign had been admitted to ImpMil last night, OD'ing on something called Punch, and the news had clearly traveled fast; hardly any of this crowd would get the daily threat briefings.

"Abatements are a strategy I am committed to considering," answered Maxim Glinka, in a tone of infinite patience, "and I can take one more question."

"'Committed to considering?'" By repeated, and took the glass Ivan offered. His cravat matched his mauve gloves—By must be hard at work, if he was getting himself up that foppishly.  "That's like addicted to placebos."

Privately, Ivan thought 'committed to considering' was as much as Glinka could get away with saying in Vortashpula's salon; aloud, all he said was "Who's he planted to ask about the stadium?" He drifted to the edge of the room and found a table to lean against. It was miraculously empty—no one was setting a drink down, even for a moment.

By covered his eyes dramatically, waved a hand over the backs of the crowd like a stage magician, and pointed to Edith Vorlane—who, as if on cue, said "Can you tell us about more about the new municipal stadium?"

"It figures," Ivan muttered, while Glinka smiled and allowed how we could all agree the old stadium was simply an embarrassment to Vorbarr Sultana. "Edith's the one who invited me. I'd hoped it was for the pleasure of my company."

By arched his eyebrows. "Where have you been, Lord Ivan? We are all political animals now; there are no other pleasures."

And it was true; Ivan hadn't had a conversation all winter that hadn't turned on the mayoral race. Gregor had granted a charter to the city, formerly his private demesne; when the new year began, the capitol would be governed by a mayor and council, like any other town of Vorbarra's District. The tight three-way race had displaced every other object of interest and concern. 

Across the long mirrored room, Glinka was shaking hands, making his way slowly towards the door. "I think," Byerly said, "I should go have a word with young Vorsmythe." He lifted his glass in mocking salute to Ivan and started a weaving progress through the crowd, body language growing looser with every step, settling out somewhere on the far side of tipsy, but not quite drunk.

About where Ivan was for real, then; he'd nearly finished his drink, much too quickly—perils of having to keep hold of it. He downed the last of it and poured another, from the same bottle he'd opened before, and made his slow way to where Edith was holding court. This crowd had definitely had the gossip about the ensign's OD, but Ivan suspected some of them had the goods, as well. The room had none of the energy of a good party—someone had put on music, just loud enough to interfere with conversation but not loud enough to dance to, and the people were all clustered in tight knots. And yet there were two girl university students grinning toothily and lazily at some fellow droning about imperial land tenure; at Edith's side, there was Stannis Vorkeres, a dour fellow at the best of times, smiling—no, beaming—and voluble, even while going on about the requirements of the franchise.

Maybe he'd pay his respects and call it a night. There were a few other pretty girls here, but none of them seemed worth the effort. Either they'd start with the wedding plans before sunup, or they'd kick you out brusquely without so much as a cup of coffee; either way, waking up alone seemed better and better these days.

And Edith had managed to surround herself with swains already: Stannis, Vortashpula himself, and two smiling and distracted young officers—stoned, or merely stunned by the quantity of bosom Edith was deploying, Ivan couldn't tell. The presence of so many people young enough to be having that much fun at so dire a party was abruptly oppressive. Young enough, or high enough, or on other business—By was methodically working the other end of the room, leaning affectedly against the piano with his narrow hips canted to show off the line of his suit. Poor sod; he had to feel even older than Ivan here, stuck playing the town clown for as long as he could pull off the part.

Ivan shook off the thought and bowed over Edith's hand; she smiled, but did not interrupt Vorkeres, who was still orating. "I swore to Vorbretten, you see, when he married Tatya," he said. "I can't see my way to changing allegiances again." Only Vorbarr Sultana residents whose oaths were to the district count—which was to say, to Gregor directly, through one local vassal or another—were eligible to vote in the election.

"And quite right too," agreed Vortashpula, and looked to Ivan for confirmation. "Suppose you're sworn to Vorkosigan, then? Not thinking of switching, are you?"

"If I tell you I am, will you ask me how I'm voting, too? Thought the point of a secret ballot was the secret part." Ivan said it affably enough, but he thought Edith gave him a dark look. Or maybe he imagined it, because she sidled up and gave him a smile that owed nothing to chemicals.

"Ivan dear, you mustn't hold out on us." She stretched up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and stayed draped against his side—which was almost enough to salvage the evening right there. Ivan knew from experience that she was one of the kick-out-brusquely sorts, and he had no desire to take her home again, but he would certainly enjoy the soft press of her arms and bosom for as long as she'd let him, even if it did mean listening to Vorkeres go on.

"It's not even about Vorbarr Sultana, really," Stannis burbled. "It's all about getting a modern precedent on the books for devolution of powers, now that the Crown Prince has a little brother. Got to have something for him to do, right?"

Edith snuggled closer, a conspiratorial smile on her face, and stroked Ivan's neck under his collar. Maybe he didn't mind going without coffee and a goodbye kiss after all. "You think he'll cut the District loose next?" she said "Divest all of the County's holdings from the Imperium?" She fluttered her eyelashes with intent. "What do you think, Ivan—will you swear allegiance to Count Vorbarra, even if the next count might not be emperor?"

Ivan thought, given the rumors he'd heard about Prince Serg over the years, that it was no wonder Gregor wanted to give himself a way to cut an heir out of the succession. "But would the Vorbarra countship buy off a crown prince, if it came to that?"

Vorkeres gave him a befuddled smile. "A crown prince? How do you mean? Why would he skip over the older boy?"

"Why not?" said Ivan, warming to the subject. "Count's choice, after all. It's just been so long since there's been a choice of heirs to the Imperium— I mean a real choice, not people talking all sorts of rubbish about Miles or god forbid me. They did, you know," he added conspiratorially—and, without meaning to, aloud. "You know, I must be drunker than I thought."

"I still say," Vortashpula interjected—

"But you're sober," Ivan muttered. "That's very sad."

"—I still say, it's all just for show. There's more to Vorbarra District than just the capitol—"

"And you built most of it," he said, and was relieved when Edith and Vortashpula both spoke right over him, Edith pouting, in an undertone, "You haven't answered my question, Ivan," while Vortashpula continued:

"--water rights, district taxes— that's all still in the count's hands. Which is to say, the Emperor's."

"Right," said Ivan, "and he's still the biggest landowner in Vorbarr Sultana. That's why there hasn't been any infrastructure improvement in this city since the end of the Regency. It's clever of him, when you think about it." Ivan felt rather clever himself for having seen it. "Gregor's always stinted the capitol of urban development funds because he doesn't want to look like he's diverting imperial resources to his private demesne. But an independent mayor and council could request whatever they want—extend the streetcar lines into the Caravanserai, build a new stadium, whatever it is Svoboda's promising. Anything."

"And the emperor reaps the benefit, when his rents and property assessments go up?" said Edith. She wasn't smiling. 

"You're not smiling," Ivan chided. "Whyever not? This is fun. And we all reap the benefit," he explained. "The Vorbarra income goes up, the Vorbarra properties get maintained out of the Vorbarra purse, with none of those embarrassing special levies like your da, Edith, like he always has to push through the Counts right before the recess. What?" Ivan said, because she still wasn’t smiling. "Just because I don't talk about politics, it doesn't make me oblivious."

"Yes," said another voice at his shoulder. "You're making that very clear."

"By!" By wasn't smiling either, not even with his eyes. "You're not glad to see me. You never act like you are," Ivan allowed, "but this time you really aren't. It's your eyes, you see. I can tell."

"No doubt." By draped an arm over Ivan's other shoulder, dislodging Edith's hand. Edith clung grimly before letting go.

"Are you going to arm-wrestle over me?" Ivan said. "I think I'd like that."

 "No," By said. "I'm going to take you home." He had already steered Ivan to the door of the salon. Edith frowned fiercely behind them.

"And not even buy me a drink first?"

By pried Ivan's glass from his fingers— the ridiculous gloves were suede, and so thin Ivan would barely have known they were there, except for the soft nap—and peered into it, though anyone could see it was empty. "You've had enough, I think. Come on. Give me your keys."

"That was just my second drink!" Ivan insisted. "I can drive. I just—really shouldn't right now, actually. Oh. Oh dear." By retrieved his coat from the liveried servant, not an armsman but trying hard to look like one, stationed in the airy hall; Ivan shrugged into it mechanically. "I haven't had what that ensign OD'ed on, have I?"

"It wasn't an OD," By muttered, suddenly very close in Ivan's ear. "It was anaphylaxis." He shoved him gently down the entry hall and out the massive front doors. "And yes, you have," he said, when they were alone outside Vortashpula's townhouse. He ran his gloved fingers under Ivan's collar, very slowly and lightly—Ivan shivered—and came up with a tiny slip of clear plastic, all that was left of a pharmaceutical patch. "Punch," By said. He slipped it into a sealed pouch and secreted it in a pocket. "Or to you and me—fast-penta."

"I can't have been fast-pentaed!" Byerly gestured urgently for him to shush. "Except, no, I—is this always what it's like?"

"A low dose, I think." Byerly spoke so low Ivan had to bend his head to hear; his breath rustled in the hair behind Ivan's ear. "But the effects are unmistakable. You were sounding nearly cogent back there." He quickened his stride down the snow-dusted sidewalk. "I believe this is your…"

"Flyer," Ivan prompted.

"'Monstrosity' is the word I would have used."

Ivan piled into the passenger seat and watched Byerly strap in and go through the preflight checks. "Why would anyone use fast-penta as a party drug?" By lifted the flyer, and settled them into the lowest and slowest of the airlanes. "Oh, come on, you might as well take a groundcar."

"But annoyingly enough, you didn't. I shudder to think what you're compensating for with this thing." He turned the controls over to the autogovernor and leaned back. "And it is a very powerful euphoric. That may be the only reason. It's mostly been turning up in townie circles, the same crowd that tries everything else it can get a buzz off."

"Or it may not be," Ivan said. "That wasn't just your crowd in there tonight. Vorkeres was flying pretty high, too. Though Vortashpula wasn't," Ivan remembered. "Vortashpula was stone cold sober. And so was Edith Vorlane, and she had to be the one who planted the patch on me. And if she meant it to be recreational, she'd have been using it herself."

"Are you sure of that?"

"Believe me, she would not share until she'd had all she wanted herself."

"Vortashpula and Lady Vorlane. Interesting. Count Vorlane hasn't backed a horse in this race, publicly at least. Were they just sounding people out on the charter?"

"The charter, and whether we were declaring allegiance to Gregor for the vote, and what sort of precedent it might set. For devolution of imperial powers. Oh god. I almost blabbed all about Prince Serg in there."

Byerly automatically depressed the brake lever, though it had no effect with the autogov on. "What do you—no, stop, do not answer that."

Ivan shut his mouth amiably. "It's okay," he said. "I don't really know anything about Prince Serg. Just the same rumors everyone knows—you know, about your late uncle. And your late uncle and my late uncle. And—"

"Ivan, shut up. Really. Shut up." Byerly's eyes were wide and a little desperate.

"You look younger when you're surprised," Ivan said. "Or maybe just less jaded. It looks good on you."

"Fine," said Byerly. "We can talk about my face for as long as you want."

"It's not a bad face," Ivan agreed. "When you do that thing with your mouth, it makes me want to kiss you."

"Oh god. Ivan, please shut up again."

Ivan frowned, or he tried to; his own mouth still didn't want to bend that way. "I do want to, though. I'm a good kisser, you see. I bet if you let me kiss you, I could convince you to let me suck your cock."

"Right now, I would settle for convincing you to stop talking. I though fast-penta was supposed to make people biddable."

"Low dose," said Ivan, cheerfully. "I really do want to make you happy, By—and that's got to be the drug, because usually I just want to annoy you and watch you do that thing with your mouth—but that's not the same as wanting to do what you say."

"I am giving you the antagonist as soon as this thing lands."

"We're on autogov."

"I don't trust it."

"You don't trust anyone."

"Oh, you noticed? I'm touched."

"Except Dono. And me, for some reason. I don't know why," Ivan said, "but it's flattering, really. God knows I shouldn't trust you, but I do." He considered Byerly's profile; the habitual moue, halfway between a smile and a sneer, was gone; his mouth was a flat line, all the expression in his face concentrated in those beautiful long-lashed eyes. "I meant it, about sucking your cock." 

"Ivan—"

"I did! I couldn't lie about that now. Not even to myself. I really do want to."

"Yes, and right now that fact doesn't bother you at all," hissed By.  "But you'll feel differently once you've had the antagonist." The thrusters kicked in, and the flyer made a neat landing behind Ivan's building.

Ivan nodded. "That's why I want to do it now," he explained, hurriedly, because By was rummaging in his satchel. "If I've already gone and done it and it wasn't my fault, then it's all right if I want to do it again."

Byerly just looked at him, even his eyes devoid of expression now.

"You see, I understand the way I think," Ivan assured him.

"I can see that," said By. "I'm giving you the antagonist now."

It took effect almost immediately, before Ivan's face could even fall out of its hopeful grin.  And then the comedown really hit, and he couldn't have smiled if he'd wanted to, as every muscle in his body simultaneously remembered how tired he was, how tense he should be after saying... god.

"For the record," Ivan said finally, "the way I think is really, really stupid. I'm going to bed." He popped the hatch and clambered out, in stages, feet and then head and then everything else.

By came around the side and held out the keys. "Drink some water first. If that was your second drink I'm Lady Vorlightly."

It had been, but Ivan didn't argue the point. "Thanks for the lift." He took the keys without looking at By's face.

"Oh, any time," said By. Another time, it would have been flirtatious. Now, it was fairly clear Ivan had finally found out how to stop By from flirting with him once and for all.

"Yeah. Sorry. I—how are you getting home?"

"I'm not," he said, and grimaced. "I'm going back to that wretched party."

"I'll call you a cab from upstairs," Ivan said, and held the lobby door open. By hesitated. "At least wait inside where it's warm."

Byerly nodded, crossed to the front door and arranged himself in a slouch against the glass. It had to be almost as cold, leaning there, as it was out on the street—those tall windows leaked heat something fierce— but Ivan supposed that was By's lookout.

"Right. I'll—call that cab." Ivan hit the lift button. They waited in silence, By looking out into the street, Ivan looking anywhere but at By, until the lift finally wheezed open and took him away.

~*~

Next morning, Ivan nearly bowled over an ensign loitering in his doorway talking to his officemate. It was one of Edith's followers from last night, looking sheet-white and ill. "It takes some people like that every time," Captain Lecoq assured him. "Go hide out in the conference room for a while if you need to; no one'll bother you there."

"First hangover?" Ivan booted the secured comconsole, and skimmed his message queue from the open 'console while he waited for it to warm up. "Wish my chain of command had been that nice about it when I was his age."

"Don't laugh, Vorpatril; your turn's coming up." Technically, Ivan outranked Lecoq, but there had never seemed much point in ordering the man to call him 'Major' when they were doing the same work, if at slightly different levels of classification. At Ivan's blank look, he added darkly, "Check your high side."

Ivan switched his display to the secured machine. The top message in its queue was a notice from ImpSec, ordering him to report for questioning at 1500.

He read the notice again, but it still said the same thing. "What does ImpSec want with me?"

"Looks like they're pulling in everyone who was at Vortashpula's last night." Lecoq grinned; he was even more apolitical than Ivan, and wouldn't have been caught dead at a campaign event. "Heard you treated everyone there to your thoughts on civic governance. Never suspected we were harboring a political genius in our midst." He pitched the last sentence to carry, and several passers-by stopped in the doorway to agree that Ivan had, in fact, shared a great many keen political insights. Not all of them had been at the party.

"Yeah, well. If that's what passes for genius these days, the state is doomed." It had the twin virtues of being true, and not particularly funny, and that was the end of it.

Or an end; Ivan kept having the same conversation at intervals all day. He let Lecoq keep ribbing him; he was mostly doing it to distract the poor sods coming in to unwind from their ImpSec interviews. There were a lot of them. As the day went on, Ivan found some consolation in their sheer number—at least Ivan had gotten to sleep in his own bed last night. Byerly had to have been up past dawn making that report. 

He ran some logistics simulations; it didn't matter if he was distracted when the computers were doing all the work. And then his console pinged, and it was time to face ImpSec.

They gave him penta again, a distinctly non-recreational dose this time. It was nothing like last night. The cramped, windowless office they'd put Major Deligiorgis in was exactly like Ivan's cramped, windowless office, but it started closing in on him before they even put the patch on him; and then the walls stopped moving and he couldn't remember any more why they'd seemed so threatening. "I sometimes get claustrophobic, you know," he volunteered. "Still. It's been a whi—"

"That's enough," the major interrupted, toneless and bored. He interrupted Ivan a lot, but the rudeness didn't rankle. Nothing rankled; nothing pleased—the floating euphoria was too extreme to be pleasant. Ivan couldn't even remember what shame felt like, or worry, and without that there was no joy in their absence—only the sense, which he kept trying to explain to the major, that when this was over he thought he might just have a serious claustrophobic episode.

The third or fourth time, Delgiorgis found a bottle of pills in the medikit and laid two on the table. "So there's an anti-anxietal if you do. Those are safe to use with penta and with the antagonist. Now. Did Mr. Vorrutyer ask you any questions, after you left the party?"

"He started to. He started to ask me what I knew about the prince—Prince Serg, I mean, not Gregor's boys. But then he told me to shut up. I told him I didn't know anything about—"

"That's enough. Did he give you any other instructions?"

"I told you, he told me to shut up. Shut up, Ivan. I thought he'd want to—"

"That's enough. Did you speak to anyone else before Mr. Vorrutyer administered the antagonist?"

"No. Just By. And he didn't want me to talk, but—"

"That's enough." Deligiorgis made a few notes on the sheet in front of him, but Ivan was too far away to read them upside down. "Very good, Major Vorpatril. I am administering the antagonist now."

The comedown was as brutal as he'd known it would be; the walls all loomed up and the gravity seemed to double, and Ivan dived for the anti-anxietals and swallowed them dry.

Deligiorgis had opened the door, was holding it to keep it open. "Thank you for your cooperation, Major. If you could just send in the next subject on your way out?"

Ivan breathed through lungs that didn't want to inflate. "Right."

He didn't go back to his office. He walked—quickly, but he managed not to bolt—to the newer section of the building where the stairwells were all glass, and climbed high enough to find an empty landing, and he sat on the lowest stair and did the breathing exercises the therapists had taught him. It had been years since he'd needed them, but they, or the watery sunlight or the drugs, eventually did the job.

Though anxiety drugs weren't much use against rational fears, or even against their aftermath; the queasy knowledge of all the things he might have said stayed with Ivan, even once he felt steady enough to return to his desk.

He hadn't, of course. Said anything he shouldn't, or indeed said much at all; the ImpSec major had asked him to repeat every question he had been asked, but when the questions had proven innocuous, he had not cared about Ivan's answers—had cut him off sharply every time Ivan had started to share them. And the dosage had been high enough that Ivan had obeyed immediately. Still, the belated awareness of his utter vulnerability made him feel even sicker—and abruptly, humiliatingly grateful to By, for everything he'd had the decency not to do.

And then there were the things he'd said in public. Lots of people had been at Vortashpula's; and even the ones who hadn't now knew that he could rattle on about the charter and devolution and such with the best of them. Weirdly, he minded that more than having babbled to By about his stupid face and—well, and such. Convincing the world that he didn't know or understand about politics had been a simple, nearly foolproof way to demonstrate that he didn't care.

Ivan didn't know how else to convey his deep lack of ambition, or even whether he should keep bothering. He was too old to change. He was too old to keep playing an increasingly stale part. If there was a third option, he was probably too old for that, too.

Compared to that, having By know how he thought about him was almost a non-event. Byerly had to have at least suspected— and in any case, Miles was about the only high Vor male Ivan knew who wasn't carrying around some repressed homoeroticism. Except of course for By, who had never bothered to repress anything.

He slunk back into his office. "Rough time?" Lecoq said. He unlocked the drawer where he kept his stash of chocolate toffees and offered Ivan the bag.

Ivan took one and shrugged. "Could have been worse."

~*~

A week after the Vortashpula party, Byerly dropped by, very late. Ivan had spent the evening in—he lay sprawled on the sofa half-asleep, trying to convince himself it was worth it to take his clothes off and sleep in his bed. He would regret it in the morning if he didn't, he knew, but morning seemed a long way away. And so did the door buzzer; it rang three times before Ivan managed to stumble to the wall console and hit the switch.

"It's Byerly." Ivan could just see him through the frosted window, huddled under the arched portico with his breath clouding around him. "I thought you'd like to know," he said, "we've found where the Punch was coming from."

It made no sense, until he mentally supplied the capital letter. "Oh." Ivan keyed the door without actually deciding to. He did, in fact, want to know. "Come on up."

By declined to take a seat. He stood leaning against Ivan's armchair, drawing patterns in the upholstery. "It was a corporal in ImpSec Procurement," he said without preamble. "His second cousin's a dealer. They were skimming the penta, trimming and re-patching it, and selling it as a party drug; neither of them had any plans beyond that."

Ivan thought about this. "Edith did," he said at last. "She had to have been the one who slipped me the stuff. And she wouldn't just drug her friends for fun. She'd have something in mind."

"Well. There's nothing more to be learned from tracing her source; I know where she got it, and it wasn't hard for her."

"How did you find that out?"

Byerly shrugged; the gesture seemed to get lost in his Byzantine tailoring. "Bought some off Sasha Vorventa. I offered him half of it and palmed my half, and we had a nice, rambling little talk about how hard it is earning pocket money these days, and what scandalous prices the wholesalers charge, and what a lucky break it is when good chums like Aristide Duroe will take some merchandise off your hands. And then I had lunch with Aristide's fiancee, and agreed that it was just terrible the way poor Aristide's sister treated herself, no self-respect at all, but it was awfully good of Aristide to take such good care of her. And then I paid a call on Suzanne Duroe and offered her the rest of Sasha's bundle, and we talked about how nice this new stuff was and how floaty it makes you feel and how even that stick Edith agreed how nice it was, why she even took some away for later, maybe she was finally unbending, how very nice." He slumped wearily against the chair. "After all that, interviewing Edith seemed superfluous."

"No kidding." Detailed as By's account had been, Ivan thought it was still the abridged version; his eyes were dark-circled, and he had a twitch in one eyelid, like he'd swapped out sleep for coffee one morning too many.

Or, no, not just the one morning. "By, how long can you keep this up?" Ivan asked. "This—this life." He gestured vaguely at the suit and the gloves and the haggard face.

Byerly smiled, the little self-deprecating one that Ivan didn't know how to read. "How long can you keep up yours?" He did sit down then, crossing his feet at the ankles and letting his head fall heavily back. "You've been a Service clown longer than I've been an informer—you must be a twenty-year man by now."

"Depends how you figure it," Ivan said. "For the full officer's pension, they count years in the commission, not in the uniform."

"Oh, my mistake. So you hit your Twenty, Observed, in what, a year?"

"Six months." He hadn't meant it to sound quite so grim.

"And then what?" By wanted to know. "Will they keep you on?"

"They're hardly going to ask me for my resignation. Nepotism still counts for something in the service."

 "No," By agreed. "They'll just observe—as an observation—how nice it is to have so many talented young people seeking to enter the profession, and what a pity it is they can't find  suitable places for all of them."

Ivan stared. "Dear god. My mother didn't say that to you, did she?"

"I don't know why you persist in this delusion that I have anything but a slight social acquaintance with Lady Alys," Byerly demurred.

"I'm so sorry," said Ivan wholeheartedly.

"Don't be. It's true. I'm getting too old to keep chasing around with young hotheads, and I've established exactly the wrong reputation for the old hotheads, the ones who turn respectable and dangerous in middle age, to want me around." He eyed Ivan narrowly. "You, on the other hand—"

"Not a chance," Ivan said. "I don't sell my friends out for money."

"I don't just sell them out for the money," By snapped.

"No, you don't. Sorry." Ivan snorted. "You've been of more service to the Imperium than I have." By frowned, and Ivan added, "Don't give me credit for the stunts my cousin's pulled me into."

"Since you insist on it so strenuously, I won't," he agreed. "So, what will you do, Ivan? Fill out your twice-twenty-years fetching coffee? I ask merely for information," he said, when Ivan didn't answer.

"I don't know," Ivan said. "I like my job. I just—I don't know how I'll like it in five years, when the people who sign my reports start to get younger than me."

By made a vague noise of sympathy and agreement. "And on that depressing note," he said, "I should get home. It's the earliest night I've had all week." He rose, and stood for a moment, looking weary and gladder than he should have been for Ivan's company.

"By," Ivan said, "thank you. For—the other night, for being, well, decent about things." It was hard to say even that much, sober, but it needed saying, and there wouldn't be a better time than this moment of odd intimacy.

"Decent," By repeated sourly. "Of course. You can always count on me to ignore your homoerotic outbursts. Good night."

"Not—I'm not asking you to pretend it didn't happen," Ivan said. "Just—thanks for, for not taking me up on anything."

And now he'd made Byerly angry somehow. "Oh, you're welcome, I'm sure. So glad to know you appreciate my restraint in not taking advantage of my friends who are too stoned to consent to so much as a haircut. That kind of sacrifice usually passes unremarked."

He stalked away; Ivan intercepted him at the coat rack. By's shoulder, under Ivan's hand, was solid and humming with tension. "Look, you twerp, I'm trying to tell you I meant it!" By went even stiller. "Everything I said. I meant it all."

By let out a breath, and some of the tightness went with it. "Of course you did, Ivan." His nostrils were still white, but his voice was gentle. "You were on truth drugs." By ducked out of Ivan's grasp, took his coat down and pulled it tight around his shoulders. "But naturally I'm happy you feel comfortable sharing your repressed desires with me. I'm sure my unique insight is a great comfort to you. Call me any time."

"Oh, for—I swear, Byerly, I don't even know why I want to do this," Ivan said, and kissed him.

He should never have boasted to By; it was a terrible kiss. By stood there unresponding while Ivan, torn between convincing him and pulling away, did neither; and then there was a moment of knocking teeth and noses and confusion, and then By was blinking at him and closing his lips, pursing them, as though testing that yes, they'd registered that sensation correctly.

"No more do I," By said. "Good night, Ivan." He left without buttoning his coat. The door shut, and rattled in its jamb as the draft from the elevator lobby swept down the hall.

Well.

That was the benefit to saying it sober, Ivan decided. It left him all the drunkenness in the world for afterward.

~*~

The morning brought Ivan a brief tumultuous inner debate, between calling in sick and burning one of his precious stash of the good hangover pills, the ones the medics weren't supposed to let you take out of ImpMil. He opted for the pill; and by the time it kicked in properly, halfway through the morning message queue, Ivan had come to a place of perpective.

Coming clean to By, saying what he really wanted, had been freeing, and dizzying, and easier than he'd ever imagined.

Finding out that bloody stupid Byerly had no bloody stupid follow-through—that had been harder. Much, much harder.

On the whole, he thought it balanced out. Probably. Eventually.

~*~

"So I hear you got fast-pentaed. Twice." Miles looked up over the top of his muffler. His breath was beginning to crystallize in the wool. "You doing okay? You look a little shaken."

Ivan was fine. Miles was projecting. He had spent the last four months in a long progression through the District, with Ekaterin and the kids; but with Winterfair and the civic election both impending, he'd finally had no choice but to come back to Vorbarr Sultana, and open up the house for the first time as Count Vorkosigan.

Ivan shrugged. "No harm done, except for everyone in town knowing what I think about Gregor's burgage policies."

"And that you know the word burgage. The level of political discourse in this town has risen sharply since I went away."

"Hardly," Ivan said. "You weren't here for old Louise Vortala's passionate speech about dog turds." A well-aimed snowball hit the guardhouse and exploded; across the lawn, Helen danced a victory lap around Aral Sasha.

Miles waved to the kids. "I'm sorry I missed that." He forged ahead into the new snow, though it was past his knees. Closer to the wall, it had drifted even deeper; he stopped, up to his waist in snow that was now packed too solidly to simply wallow through. "Do we muddle ahead, or do we go out to the street side and crash through the rosebushes?"

"I think we muddle, and I go first," Ivan said.

Miles bowed, making a be-my-guest flourish with one mittened hand and sweeping the rolled-up campaign banner behind him like a cape with the other. The Vorkosigan House lawn had lain white and untrampled through the first month of snowfall, and there were several layers of crust to contend with. Ivan trampled for all he was worth, dry snow billowing up around him and getting up his coat and down his collar.

"On that topic," Miles began.

"What, dog turds?"

"Political discourse. Not that there aren't similarities." Ivan attained the wall; Miles swept the top clear of snow and peered over. "I think we're visible above the rosebushes, here. Hand me one of those anchors." Miles plucked ineffectually at the hardware, swore, and stripped off his mittens. "What are people saying about the election? In town, at HQ?"

"They're not saying much of anything at HQ," Ivan said. "The generals still remember the days of the political officers. It's made them very—apolitical."

Miles secured one end of the banner to a chink in the stones. "I'd have thought they'd all be out for Svoboda. He's a popular man."

"They're certainly not out for anyone else," Ivan allowed. "Everyone's behind him, to that extent. But whether they're actually planning to vote—" he tried to shrug again, but Miles thrust the rolled-up end of the banner into his arms. "No one's talking about that."

Miles followed Ivan through the drifted snow, unrolling and untangling the banner behind him. "Except under the influence."

The banner snapped out to its full extent, and Miles secured the other corner. Ivan leaned over the wall: it was hanging straight, and—thankfully—right-side-up. VOTE VORMENZIES, it read, with the commcode for the progressive candidate written small in one corner. "Looks good. Can we go in now?"

Miles rubbed his bare hands, put his mittens back on, rubbed his hands again, and slapped them on his thighs. He grimaced. "I promised Ekaterin not to let the twins back into the house until she was finished with her letters." Lady Abigail Vormenzies was a former provost of Vorbarr Sultana University and a friend of Profesora Vorthys; the new Countess Vorkosigan had been waging a tireless epistolatory campaign from the District, which she hoped to keep epistolatory even now that she was back in town.

There was still almost an acre of pristine snow to tear across; it would be hours before Helen and Aral Sasha tired themselves out. "Why don't I take them ice-skating or something? You go in, warm up."

Miles looked up from blowing on his fingers. "Really?"

"I haven't a chance to be a bad influence since you went down to the district. I'll swear in front of them and spoil their dinners, it'll be great."

"A thousand thanks," said Miles. He whistled shrilly and waved the twins over. "Ivan—" he began, seriously.

"Really, it's nothing."

"Not that. Just—if you want to vote—for anyone—you know that I'm happy to release you from your oaths." He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away.

Neither Miles's political affiliations, nor Ivan's own professional ones, seemed good enough reasons to choose one candidate or another, let alone one liege lord over another. "I haven't decided yet," Ivan said.

"Haven't decided what?" Helen floundered to a halt in the trampled snow at Miles's side.

"Whether I'm voting in the election."

"That's stupid," Helen declared. "I'm going to vote."

"You're six years old, sweetheart," Miles said. "Sasha, what happened to your hat?"

The young Lord Vorkosigan produced it from an interior pocket and displayed it, quite free of snow; his hair was liberally dusted. Helen, with impressive scorn for her tender years, said, "They don't have to count it."  

Ivan ruffled her hair through her floppy knit cap. "Go get your skates, kiddos—"

"Quietly—" Miles qualified.

"Yes, quietly. I'm taking you away to sell to the sorcerers for parts."

"That's what you always say, and you never do," Aral Sasha complained, and followed his sister at a slower pace into the house.

Miles set off after them. "Have them back for dinner at 1900. I owe you one."

Ivan took them to the reflecting pool on the parade ground, under the frosted cake-tiers of the Residence. "Are Dorenka and Karina and Livvy and Milly and Galya here?"

"And Dyusha!" added Aral Sasha, for whom the birth of the new prince had been a long-overdue corrective after a string of girl cousins and sisters.

"Dyusha's twelve weeks old, kiddo; I'm pretty sure he can't skate yet. Go get your skates on."

"What about your skates?"

"Yes, what about them, Uncle Ivan?" Helen planted her fists on her hips and frowned up at him. "You forgot them, didn't you?"

"I don't know even know if I still own a pair," he confessed.

"Then you're going to have to rent them." She shook her head. "And there's a line. So you'd better hurry."

Ivan saluted crisply and obeyed. He gave it about six years before Miles suddenly found the ban on female military service—or at least the lack of girls' military academies—to be scandalously unfair. He had certainly come around on female inheritance, now that Gregor had two sons and Miles had three daughters.

"Uncle Ivan!" Helen bellowed, from the middle of the pond. She executed a pretty little turn and made a flashy curtsey on her skates; Ivan whistled appreciatively and picked at the knots of his rented skates.

Of course Ivan loved all Miles's kids, and all of Gregor's, but as the ne'er-do-well uncle he was absolutely allowed to play favorites, and the twins were his. When Miles first cracked the seals on them, Ivan had almost collapsed with the giddy rush of relief—whether relief that he could have kids of his own without cluttering the succession, or relief that now he didn't have to, he'd never been able to tell. But it had been enough to make him love the little brats immediately and forever; so at that level, it really didn't matter.

~*~

Monday morning, the Ops staff need-to-know caught up with Byerly's intelligence, and an ImpSec liaison came in to brief them on the fast-penta leak. "ImpSec is following up on all leads," he said wearily, "but we haven't tracked it all down yet. The professional dealers, they know how much they sold, and who to, but some of these society clowns—" He spread his hands. "They put out a bowl of patches at a party, or it gets lifted from a desk drawer, or they give some to someone they know they knew, they just never managed to catch their name. Bottom line," he said, "is that there's between forty-five and seventy half-doses still unaccounted for, and not likely to be found unless someone else turns up with the allergy like poor Ensign Raskin. Who should be out of ImpMil soon, by the way, and I've got a card here for him if you want to sign it."

"'Following up on all leads,'" Lecoq said afterwards. "What do you suppose that means? Standing rounds in all the townie bars, on ImpSec's mark?" Ivan had some idea of what it meant, and he had a moment of sympathy for By. But, hell, it was his chosen career; he could deal with it. He dismissed the thought—dismissed all thoughts of him.

But there was clearly some law of conservation of Vorrutyers in Ivan's life; on his walk home, a long groundcar matched pace with him and the darkened window lowered to reveal a stripe of Count Dono's face. "Lord Ivan. Need a lift?"

"I guess I must." Ivan ducked into the rear compartment. "Hello, Dono. What's going on this time?"

"A chance meeting, I swear," Dono said, "but I hope you might answer a question for me. About the fast-penta cleanup—how much is still out there?"

"By what I'm sure is merely a staggering coincidence," Ivan said, "I happen to have that information," and told him.

"Damn. I've been trying to lie low until it's all recovered, but we're feting Lady Abigail tonight."

"And you're this paranoid about it? Just what have you have been plotting?" It couldn't be anything too rash; Vormenzies was a low Vor spinster and over seventy.  

"For once, Ivan, I have no political secrets. But there are still a lot of people in this town who would love to ask me some purely personal questions, for purely prurient reasons."

"I can imagine," Ivan said. "You'll have armsmen, though."

"Conspicuous, and needed for household security," said Dono, "but I'll have Olivia, and she's as good a bodyguard as Szabo. Although…" Dono looked Ivan up and down, with a look that brought Lady Donna back to his features. "If you wanted to come stand behind me in your dress greens and look pretty, you might do me some good."

"Active duty service personnel are strongly discouraged from participation in partisan political activity," Ivan quoted. Though in practice, "strongly discouraged" meant that the SVOBODA FOR MAYOR posters appeared across the street from HQ and not directly outside, and the Svoboda leaflets on the coffee-room notice board were half hidden under the football leagues and the lost dogs.

"You wouldn't have to do anything of the sort. Just come tonight, as my guest, and glare at anyone who tries to touch me. You've done that before."

"Dono—"

"I know, I know. We've put all that behind us, now that I'm—married."

The sad part, Ivan reflected, was that that really was the reason. Count Dono flirted as easily and relentlessly as Lady Donna had—though not with men; Ivan seemed to be his sole exception—but there was no longer any intent behind it; he was deeply and monogamously devoted to Countess Olivia.  "Fine," he said, because there was no way this conversation was going to end except in his agreement. "I'll come."

"Good," said Dono. "I think you'll like Lady Abigail." 

~*~

Dono, damn him, was right. Ivan did like Lady Abigail. If she'd been thirty years younger—or even twenty; Ivan was not particular—he would have begun courting her the next day. Lady Abigail had brilliant blue eyes, a take-no-prisoners attitude, and a determination to make Vorbarr Sultana a truly galactic city that reminded him less of Tante Cordelia's tut-tutting than of a motor enthusiast smacking her lips over a truly sweet vintage lightflyer that just happened to have a minor case of rust, severed fuel lines, and plasma-arc damage.

She also fully expected to lose. "Oh, we all know it's going to a conservative this time round," she said cheerfully, in a last-minute strategy session in Vorrutyer House's bustling kitchens. "The best we're likely to do is get a few good ideas on the table." Behind her, a line of Armsmen took heavy trays, clanking with crockery, from the scullions and conveyed them bucket-brigade style up the service stairs; there was no place safer against eavesdropping in the house—and, given the house's fortifications, possibly in the city.

"Where Glinka can pick them up and pretend they were his," Olivia said.

"That's still a success, in its way," Lady Abigail countered. "The only true progressive victory is in the adoption of progressive ideals, and that never happens until the ideals are considered mainstream."

"Let's not give up too soon on mere political victory," Dono said.  "It has certain advantages that moral victory, however lasting, does not afford." He smiled, rather disturbingly.

"My dear Count, I will be happy to take whatever sort of victory I can get." She lifted the tiny glass she'd accepted of brillberry cordial and knocked it back in a single businesslike bolt. "So let's go out there and get it." 

Dono offered his arm, and escorted her through the scullery and into the back hallway with perfect ceremony. Ivan followed, squiring the Countess. "Is she really going to lose?" he whispered. "I thought it was a dead heat."

"Between Svoboda and Glinka, yes; but they've been polling at thirty-four to thirty-five percent each. She's never topped thirty-two."

That sounded about like a dead heat to Ivan; but then he was used to Miles's exploits in the Counts, where you talked not of percents but of single votes, and anyone could be pressured or persuaded or simply waylaid up until the last minute. In a city of a million people, even if only a fraction of them voted, two or three percent was still a lot of minds to change.

By the end of the Q&A, Ivan thought Lady Abigail might have changed a few—or at least, that some of her thicker opponents, like the Vorsmythe kid, might have driven a few of their own side away in exasperation. "No, Lord Roger," she said, for at least the second time, "I am not worried. I do not believe this city will be ruined by the same level of taxation the rest of the District has borne, and prospered under, for twenty years. If anything is going to ruin Vorbarr Sultana, it is the sort of short-sighted and shady speculation her landowners are resorting to to escape paying their fair share."

"Count Vorlane must be your new best friend, then," chimed someone from the crowd. Over strained laughter, Lady Abigail said, rather sternly, that the Count had not seen fit to share his plans with her, and took another question.

"What was that about Vorlane?" Ivan whispered later. Lady Abigail was holding court in the center of the ballroom, shaking hands with great determination, while Dono circled the room like a sheepdog, herding guests into her orbit, and Olivia cut in and herded them out again.

"Oh, you haven't heard? He's put Vorlane House up for rent. No one knows where he's moving—taking a flat like crazy old Vorfolse, maybe. Ah, Vortrifani, glad you could stop by. Have you had a chance to talk to Lady Abigail about the technical high schools? No? Let me introduce you.

No," he continued, ten minutes later, "he's an inveterate speculator."

Ivan managed not to parse this as a complete non-sequitur. "Vorlane is, you mean?"

"He must expect an exorbitant rent, to offset the increased tax burden. Probably has an arrangement with some tenant already—I wonder if he's letting it out as a business headquarters?"

"Tax burden?" Ivan had long ago decided that the many inarguable drawbacks of renting were offset by the immense advantage that when his plumbing blew out at 0300, it was officially Not His Responsibility. Though he complained loudly about the failings of the management company that ran his apartment block, which seemed to feel that a great many problems were not its responsibility either, he was still scanning the To Let column and not the sale listings. The problems of landowners were a closed book to Ivan.

"Well, a count's seat is an outpost of his district," Dono explained. "If I were to pay tax on this pile, I'd have to pay it to myself, at a rate I set—so effectively, it's untaxable. But if Vorlane sets up a new seat, the old one will be assessed for property taxes, just like any other lot in the city."

"And those rates are going up," Ivan said. "Huh. Wonder what he's got in mind."

"God only knows. Oh, Rene, there you are." Dono took the other count's arm—Vorbretten was obviously not suspected of lying in wait to fast-penta him—and waded into the crowd, Ivan close on his heels. "Lady Abigail. I wonder if you might repeat what you were just saying about the anti-discrimination ordinance for Count Vorbretten here. Genetic discrimination, as you're aware, is a major concern of the count's—"

The circle around Lady Abigail widened to include them, and suddenly Ivan was shoulder to shoulder with Byerly.

"By."

"Ivan." By nodded to him, once, politely, without turning away from Lady Abigail. His shoulders stiffened when Ivan was jostled closer by a gesture of Dono's, but that was his only reaction.

Ivan tried to catch his eye, but he was supposed to be watching Dono's back; he tried to glance inconspicuously between them, barely taking in Lady Abigail's impassioned defense of the need for galactic-style protections against arbitrary exclusion.

He managed to catch Olivia's eye as Dono was shepherding Rene away, and she got the idea and stepped up to take his place at Dono's side. Ivan followed By out of the ballroom.

"You're Dono's bodyguard tonight?" By said.

"Sort of. How'd you know?"

"Well, you weren't paying much attention to anything else." He sounded almost disapproving.

If he was still angry about the other night, Ivan didn't know how he could apologize this time. Or even if he wanted to, he told himself, but he didn’t quite believe it. "So what about you? Who are you after tonight?"

By shot Ivan a look—annoyed, but that was an improvement over the flat nothing. "Myself, actually," he said. "Not that my support is good for anything but a single vote," he added, with a pointed look at Ivan's dress greens and polished boots, "but I am told that every one counts."

Too late, Ivan compiled the last five minutes' discussion of vulnerable populations and legal remedies to societal prejudices into actual understanding. Of course. Gregor had decriminalized homosexual conduct early in his reign, for civilians and military alike, but Lady Abigail's anti-discrimination ordinances would make a much more material difference, to— well, if not to Byerly himself, he must have friends. Lovers. Someone in his life for whom this election meant the difference between protection from firing, from eviction, and… and business as usual, Ivan supposed.

"Oh," Ivan said. "I hadn't met Lady Abigail before tonight. I quite like her."

"Your ringing endorsement will sway the masses, I've no doubt," By said. "And as lovely as this has been, I do have other calls to pay tonight. Convey my farewells to my cousin."

"You just got here," Ivan complained. "By—are you angry with me? About, you know. Those things I said."

"If you mean, am I avoiding you, I'm seriously considering it."

"Dammit, By—"

By stopped, short enough that Ivan trod on his heels. He looked up into Ivan's face, and then at the wall, thoughtful. When he turned back he looked more like himself—wearier, a little somber, and how wrong was it that Ivan could tell he was about to tell the truth because he looked sad?

"I'm not angry about—those things you said," he quoted. "But I don't want to talk about them, either."

"Oh," Ivan said.

"I'll see you around, Ivan." He clattered down the great stone stairs.

Ivan turned back to the ballroom. Just outside the spill of light from its doors, Ekaterin was leaning heavily against the paneled wall, skirts spread carefully behind her so they wouldn't crush.

"Oh," Ivan said. "I didn't see you."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to overhear." Ivan struggled for some sort of explanation, but Ekaterin went on. "I just had to get out of there for a while."

"Too many people?"

She made a fluttery sort of gesture. "I've thrown bigger parties in the District and not minded at all. I just—I had finally started to feel like I was getting the hang of being Lady Vorkosigan," she said. "I know that's horribly selfish of me—and I miss Count Aral terribly—but. There it is."

"It can't be that different," Ivan said. "I mean, you've been managing things in the District pretty much single-handedly for years now."

"That's just it," she said. "Miles is—picking things back up. Things he knows, or knew once. I'm... I started spending so much time in the District so that I wouldn't have to learn how to deal with the capitol. And now here we are." She smoothed her skirts. "Or here I am, at least. Miles had District business. I could have handled it, but..."

"...but if you don't let him run himself ragged with work, he starts doing that thing where he stares at the wall and looks right through you?"

That made Ekaterin smile. "Of course, you understand. No, I—I signed on to learn to be Countess Vorkosigan eventually. And I'm glad he's trying so hard to learn how to be Count. But I just—I feel like he's learning so much faster than I am. And I'm running to keep up, all the time."

Ivan found a clean handkerchief and offered it; she hid her face in it for a moment and blotted her eyes calmly and silently.

"Let me tell you something about Miles," Ivan said. "He's spent his entire life running to keep up."

"With Aral," Ekaterin agreed.

"No," Ivan said. "Aral was just the excuse. If Uncle Aral had been a wastrel second son and not Viceroy Prime Minister Lord Regent Admiral Count Vorkosigan, Miles would have found something else to chase after."

Ekaterin let out a huff that might have been a laugh. "So I should just let him keep running."

"He's going to do that anyway. But he shouldn't be trampling you." Ivan smiled ruefully. "I've been bowled over by Miles's forward momentum a few times."

"I remember," she said.  She tried to give back the handkerchief; Ivan waved it away. "Thank you," she said. "For listening. And I'm so sorry for eavesdropping."

Ivan shrugged. "Not like we managed to say much."

"As falling-outs go, it didn't sound so bad to me. I—of course, I don't know what you said to Mr. Vorrutyer. But it sounded to me like you're still friends."

"Friends," said Ivan. "Yeah." That moment of connection they'd had last week was gone, probably not to return, but they'd been friends before that, of a sort. "I should just stop trying to apologize. I said one stupid thing, and I've been digging myself in deeper ever since."

It was supposed to be flippant, or at least light—Ekaterin's face was tense and strained around the eyes—but she looked up, stricken. "Oh, Ivan. I'm sorry. That's a terrible place to be. I—are you sure it was so bad?" she said. "The thing you said?"

For all he'd been strenuously trying not to think about them, Ivan had every detail of his last two conversations with By firmly fixed in his memory by now. He'd come on to him and continued to make advances after By repeatedly told him not to, and then he'd thanked By for having the courtesy not to take advantage of him. However you rated Ivan's capacity for consent that night, he'd said something that ought to have gotten him slapped.

"Yeah," he said. "It really was."

"Oh. That's no fun either," Ekaterin said. "I'm really sorry."

"'S' all right." He offered his arm. "Back to the front lines, Countess?"

~*~

Ekaterin didn't cry again, and no one was fast-pentaed. That was enough of a success for Ivan, and he interrupted Dono and Olivia's rapid-fire dissection of the evening's political outcomes to say so, and then interrupted himself with a yawn. The two impolitenesses seemed to cancel out; Olivia's expression transmuted into concern. "Of course, poor Ivan must have been up hours before we were," she said. "We'll have Szabo drive you home."

"Lord Ivan. Lord Ivan." Ivan opened his eyes; the white-haired armsman was leaning over the seat back. "I need the gate code."

"What gate?" Szabo pointed. Between the sidewalk and the lot, a tall steel-mesh fence had gone up, with a gate with a code box. "That's new. That's—" he thought back. He hadn't used the rear door in a couple of days, and he supposed he'd have missed the construction if he'd been at work. "—new," he finished. "Sorry. There's the front door?"

Szabo turned the car around and took it back down the street. The fence encircled the row of townhouses next door—Stannis Vorkeres, struggling with a gate across his step, dislodged a torrent of snow from the steep awning and onto his head—and continued around the corner, and the next corner. The whole irregularly-shaped block between Ninth Street and the Towpath in the back and Midsummer Avenue and Kalloner Place in the front was encircled; the fence straddled the alleys and the two ends of Cowbyre Lane in swaying padlocked gates. It straggled between the sidewalk and the steps and porticos of the buildings, or else clung like steel ivy right to their facades.

"Someone having a practical joke on you, Lord Ivan?"

"Me and a few hundred of my neighbors?" He peered down the street; the fence kept right on going. "A few thousand?"

The last bit of it must have only gone up hours ago—there was a gate right across the portico columns of Ivan's building, though this one, fortunately, hadn't had its code box installed yet, only a latch that he could reach through the wires and lift. Ivan waved to Szabo, who had waited courteously to make sure he got in, and latched the gate behind him.

There'd be a reason. Maybe it was some sort of campaign stunt. Someone had already hung a SVOBODA FOR MAYOR sign on the gate; someone else had already torn half of it down.

~*~

There was a code-key for the rear lot, and a tag for his lightflyer, in an envelope in his mailbox, but no explanation was attached. In the morning, Ivan took a walk around the block, following the fence. Or he tried to; someone was moving into one of the larger townhouses—someone pretty flash by the look of the furniture being carried in—and the long lift-van had parked right across the sidewalk, its chassis resting on the berm of plowed snow by the roadside and its cab sticking right out into traffic.

They had something like a proper gate, too— a couple of prefab concrete pillars, plonked down at the edge of the sidewalk. Ivan leaned against one to watch the movers at work; a sheet of new snow slid off onto his boots and revealed, riveted to the pillar, a brass plaque much older than pillar, fence, or indeed anything on this block: Vorlane House.

It was, naturally, the talk of HQ. Ivan got in and found Lecoq at the center of a lively conversation already. "Hey, Vorpatril, you live in Vorlane Manor, don't you?"

"Is that what we're calling it?" Ivan reclaimed his chair from the lieutenant who was straddling it. "Did he just buy the place, or what?"

No one knew, though there was a great deal of speculation, and a great deal of much better-informed conversation about traffic: which parking lots debouched into which other ones, which building's residents had been given access to which alleyways, which pedestrian gates were incorrectly installed and didn't lock, and whether this last was a security breach or a loophole which should be carefully maintained.

The lieutenant drifted away; the ensign who'd been so traumatized by ImpSec drifted in. Actually, half the building seemed to be living inside the new fence; Ivan had known he lived in a military neighborhood, but he had never before appreciated just how military.

Ivan got into the public newsfeeds on his low-side console and skimmed the To Let column. "If you're looking for a new place,"  he said, to no one in particular, "Vorlane House, the old one, is still up for rent." He slid back to let the crowd read the listing; the rent was, as Dono had predicted, exorbitant.

Lecoq whistled. "What do you even do with that kind of money?"

"Put most of it toward maintenance, I think," Ivan said. He didn't actually know what it took to keep up a house that size, but he had heard Miles's annual rant about knocking Vorkosigan House down and replacing it with a nice warm underground bunker. "Maintenance and property tax; that's going to go way up now that it's not a Count's seat anymore."

"Ooh, I forgot, we have the expert over here." Lecoq clapped his shoulder and went back to his desk. No one, Ivan noted peevishly, had stolen his chair.  

"Yeah, well, the expert will answer to Colonel Vorkalloner if he doesn't run these sims," Ivan said. "Beat it, you lot."

The office emptied, slowly, and Ivan heard the conversation start up again next door.

There was other work Ivan could be doing while the sims occupied his high-side machine; there was, in fact, other work he was supposed to be doing. But he knew to a  nicety how long he could wait before starting. He wandered in and out of other people's offices, joining and rejoining the ongoing Vorlane Manor conversation; in between, he skimmed the information nets for whatever tidbits he could find.

Of course, there was no reason Count Vorlane shouldn't live where he pleased. But if he wanted to move, why not just take the townhouse? Why disrupt Ivan's routine with fences and keys and ugly steel-mesh gates?

The sale listings gave no clue—except the negative one, that whenever Vorlane had bought the place, it wasn't in the last three updates. The rental notice for old Vorlane House had nothing else to tell. There was a news item about the fence, but it was mostly concerned with the dubious legality of blocking the alley mouths.

The most anyone else had to add was a report from the foraging party at lunchtime—they'd foraged all the way to the delicatessen on Midsummer to have a look—that Vorlane's townhouse now boasted a nice set of wrought-iron gates—erected by Vortashpula Construction, like everything else in town—and that the lift-van was gone.

Clearly, more drastic measures were called for if Ivan was going to get to the bottom of this. Ivan took his sandwich and his change, and went back to his desk to look up the hours of the Public Records Office.

~*~

They closed an hour after Ivan got off; he went straight from work. Ivan wasn't really sure what he was looking for—he grabbed everything that looked relevant and fed it all into the scanner. Property deeds, records of sale, records of tax assessment, records of anything with Vorlane's name on it, or an address in Ivan's block. After an hour and a half, he had a dossier that barely fit in his satchel and an archivist coughing meaningfully in his direction and turning off the stacks lights, one by one.

"I'm so sorry!" He gave the girl a big smile—a pretty girl, but seriously, a girl; when did he get older than people who were in charge of things? Big things, full of whole ranks of shelves he hadn't had time to even glance at. "Sorry, lost track of time. Look, can I just let this last scan job finish up? It's already started—won't take a moment." She nodded grudgingly; the moment her back was turned, Ivan dumped the rest of his armload of papers into the hopper.

Another half hour later, after a stern lecture on overloading the scanners, Ivan flagged an autocab and clambered in, arms full of data modules and the printouts which the lovely archivist had very kindly disassembled the machine to retrieve. He leafed through the thick dossier on the way home. Lord Vorlane certainly owned Ivan's apartment block—that much was clear, though he owned it through several layers of companies that probably weren't supposed to be buying and selling from each other as much as they had.

Under the deeds came a thick stack of documents stamped with the seal of the Council of Counts. They'd looked important, so he'd copied them, but they were written in such impenetrable legal language that Ivan couldn’t take away more than a vague impression they had to do with real estate. Tucked into one, though, was a copy of a notice, with NOTICE at the top in large letters and the address of Ivan's building. It detailed a list of improvements that the new management had undertaken to make, in exchange for a rather large portion of the purchase price of the building having been underwritten by an Imperial Grant of Monies for Urban Infrastructure Renewal and Civic Development.

It was dated three years ago midsummer, which Ivan thought was when the building had changed hands; he had only really noticed that there'd been a new, and harder to reach, handyman. The target date for completion of the named improvements was six months ago.

Ivan trundled his sheaf of papers up the sidewalk and through the gate. Only one lift was running today, and it was somewhere in the upper floors; Ivan swore and started up the stairs. He was certain he'd never seen the notice, which, according to itself, was to have been posted prominently on the aforenamed premises. He was equally certain that none of the improvements—the high-efficiency glazing, the soundproof insulation, the bloody lift maintenance—had ever been carried out.

Coming out of the staircase, he met a neighbor, an ensign in uniform, coming out of the lift; no one he knew, though he'd seen the fellow around. "Hey!" He brandished the notice. "Did you ever see this?"

"N-no sir, sorry sir." The ensign clutched an overnight bag in front of him, as if it had the power to ward off superior officers with notices. "I've been in the hospital, you see; I must have missed it."

He certainly hadn't been well; there were red welts, not quite faded, up and down his neck and cheekbones; some of them had split and scabbed over in the centers. Like the worst case of hives you could ever have—"It's Ensign Raskin, isn't it?"

"…yes?"

"I knew it!" The hapless ensign cringed. "Not your fault, sorry. Just—I'm Major Ivan Vorpatril; that's me in 404. You know, I bet everything in your fridge must have gone off by now—I was just about to order dinner."

He fed Ensign Raskin falafel from the place on the corner and interrogated him—well, made neighborly conversation, but it amounted to the same thing, with the ensign being an ensign and every conversation he'd had in the last two weeks having been an interrogation of one sort or another. He didn't know who gave him the penta, or when—which Ivan had no trouble believing; if he'd known, ImpSec would have got it out of him—but Ivan had a picture of Edith Vorlane, in the group shots from the Vorbrettens' wedding, and Raskin recognized her. "But she only, you know, made small talk," he said. "Where did I live, and did I like it there, and whether I was planning on making oath to Count Vorbarra for the election. Just little stuff."

Little stuff. Ivan sent the leftovers home with the ensign, and sat up late reading or skimming the files he'd brought home from the records office, and tried to connect everything he knew into some sort of explanation.

Vorlane had taken imperial money to fix up this block—and, inveterate speculator that he was, presumably shuffled it into some other project and lost it; certainly, the improvements had never been done. And now he was about to see the taxes on the properties, which Gregor had kept absurdly low while they were slated for his private purse, shoot up—triple at least, if Ivan was reading the old assessment forms correctly, and maybe more—to match the rest of the District.

He couldn't raise the rents much without making some sort of improvement; there were new buildings on Kalloner and all down Seventh that were just as central and much nicer, if pricier. He couldn't sell the buildings on, or even knock them all down, without someone bringing in the property inspectors, or digging up the deeds—just like Ivan had—and discovering the fraud. And if he was broke again—which he usually was—then he couldn't just pay the higher rates without diverting more money he didn't have from someplace else.

So he put a fence around the whole block and declared the whole thing Vorlane House, and untaxable.

Which made Ivan and all his neighbors the Count's tenants. But they'd already been that, without getting fast-pentaed by the Count's daughter.

That was the part that seemed both clearest, and least explicable. She'd fast-pentaed him, and Stannis with his townhouse down the street, and poor allergic Ensign Raskin—but not, say, Vortashpula, in his new house on the other side of town. Edith was sounding out her father's tenants. With fast-penta, which seemed a bit extreme…

…except that this neighborhood lay just over from HQ, and an easy walk the other direction from ImpMil. It was almost all service people and their families. Active duty service personnel, strongly discouraged from participation in partisan politics and, from Edith's point of view, maddeningly cagey about their intentions. Ivan supposed, when she realized what her friend Suzanne Duroe was giving out so freely, the plan must have seemed like poetic justice.

Sounding out her father's tenants, to see who'd make a stink when…

Tenants.

That was it.

What sort of tenure were they living under now? When Ivan woke up this morning within the fence that enclosed Vorlane House, had he woken up in villeinage? Was Vorlane going to declare them all his subjects by manorial right, and demand their oaths?

...and bar them from the civic elections?

How many people lived in this block, anyway? It wasn't exactly small.

~*~

Ivan took another walk the next morning, after a restless night. It was still twilight, so close to midwinter, and the lights were on in nearly every window. Ivan mentally matched each building with the number of units listed in its deed: four tall apartment blocks, six smaller multi-unit buildings, forty or so narrow townhouses. About two thousand units, all told, and most of them occupied. Adding in roommates and wives—Vorlane's little fiefdom had to encompass at least twenty-five hundred potential voters.

And with Svoboda and Glinka trading the lead in every poll, that might be enough votes to tip the race.

To Glinka.

Because they weren't just potential voters, they were potential Svoboda voters. Ivan had hardly seen a poster for either other candidate go up on these streets, and he hadn't seen any that had lasted more than a day. Svoboda had been well-liked when he retired, had stayed well-liked in the two years since: a fixture at every trooping of the colors and Navy versus Ground football match, a mentor for two generations of soldiers, always happy to write an academy recommendation for a promising boy. He exemplified the military virtue of loyalty, and he'd had it paid back to him a thousand times. The service was behind him. Not unanimously; and not all his supporters would vote. Maybe even not most of them. But they were Svoboda's men.

Vorlane wasn't just trying to shirk his property taxes. Vorlane was trying to hand Glinka the mayoralty.

Ivan got into HQ early, fully intending to call Miles and put him on the case. Tell him he could prove that Vorlane had defrauded the Imperium of millions of marks. Miles would be right on it—he would investigate, he'd lay the charge, and Vorlane would face all the pomp and terror of a trial in the Counts.

And Glinka— Ivan switched the console out of 'phone mode without pushing the call button. There was the problem.

Ivan couldn't prove that he was complicit. He couldn't prove any connection, yet, between Glinka and Vorlane. Come to that, he didn't know why Vorlane was trying to throw the election, or even have any evidence that he was trying except that it seemed an unlikely thing to do by accident.

If the counts arraigned Vorlane for fraud before the election, the tenants he'd tried to disenfranchise would turn out in droves. For Svoboda. Glinka would at least be out of office.

And out of jail. If he had known—if he'd made Vorlane some sort of offer—that really wasn't acceptable.

And the Counts couldn't sit on this—Miles wouldn't sit on this. He'd investigate everything he could, but he'd have to lay the charges as soon as he had reason to. Hell—he couldn't even ask Miles's advice; Miles could smell a fake hypothetical a mile away. Or Dono's, or Gregor's—or Ekaterin's, or Olivia's. Tante Cordelia was still on Sergyar. His mother was out of the question.

There really wasn't anyone else he could take this to. He switched the vidphone back on and called By.

~*~

By wasn't answering. Ivan left a short message and applied himself to his inbox. Working with unaccustomed diligence, he was able to clear out his queue completely by noon. He tried By again; By still wasn't answering

Over lunch, Ivan walked to the library, and came back with several books on manorial law—the whole case, he had realized, depended on Vorlane's tenants actually being deemed ineligible to vote. If they weren't, he'd still committed fraud, but anything else would become impossible to prove.

He tried By again; By still wasn't answering. Ivan left a longer message this time: "Look, I'm really not calling to apologize again. I've found some things out, that I think you ought to know about, but if you're not interested I can talk to your cousin. Or my cousin. Or both, actually. But I really think you want to come over tonight and listen to what I've got to tell you. Um, that's all."

He cut the call. Lecoq was listening unabashedly. "If that was your ladyfriend, you have a complicated love-life, Vorpatril."

Ivan managed to turn his sputter into a cough. "Not romance," he said. "Politics."

"Ah." Lecoq looked distinctly non-plussed. "That what you're doing when you get your Twenty?" He glanced at Ivan's stacks of law books. "Thought you might be gunning for promotion, instead."

"Right now, I'm really not thinking past Winterfair," Ivan said. He opened the top volume to the table of contents, started to skim. "Lecoq, are you planning to vote?" If Lecoq was, so was every soldier on this floor; the man was utterly typical in a way Ivan could only aspire to.

Lecoq squirmed in his seat; Ivan just raised his eyebrows, guileless and curious. "Why?" he said at last.

"What if someone tried to tell you you couldn't?" Ivan said. "If you got to the polls and they told you you weren't eligible after all? What would you do?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" he demanded.

"No reason. Just—say there was some obscure law," Ivan said, waving a book illustratively. "No person with a surname beginning in L shall be given the franchise in a municipal election. Something like that. Would you just go along with it?"

"What the hell kind of question is that, Vorpatril?"

"A hypothetical one."

"It had better be. That's a stupid sort of law."

"That's what you'd tell them at the polls?"

"That's—yes. I'd want to know what gave them the right to turn me away. Hell, I'd want to know that even if I wasn't voting."

Which meant he was, Ivan thought, and watched Lecoq color as he realized what he'd just said. Scratch a soldier, find a Betan. 

"Me, too," Ivan said.

~*~

At 1600, By called back. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me whatever this is over the phone."

"I'd rather not, no," Ivan said.

There was a pause; By had the display blanked, and Ivan could only imagine his expression. "It's urgent, I take it?"

"I think so. I came in early today; I'll be home in an hour."

By sniffed. "I'll be there in two."

Ivan was still poring over the law books when the buzzer rang. There were numerous precedents establishing that when the borders of districts changed, the affected residents fell immediately under their new count's laws. He hadn't found any precedent for a count having an actual manor within the capitol, but he hadn't found any reason why one couldn't, either. It looked more and more like he was living under the laws of Vorlane's District now—whatever those might be.

Ivan buzzed By in—he had to buzz him through the gate and, half a minute later, through the door—and unlocked the apartment door for him. He was dressed to play the fop tonight, in a long paisley scarf and fur-trimmed cuffs.  "Good evening, Lord Ivan," he said—flirting, perhaps, a little, but in the distant way that he'd always done.

"By." Ivan sidestepped By to bolt the door behind him, and By got a look at the living room, tiled and carpeted with stacks of books and papers. "Good god."

"It's a little of a mess, I know—"

"It's not the mess I'm worried about. Have you been replaced by a clone? Or have you, god help me, been studying?"  He brushed the back of his hand across Ivan's brow. "Shall I call the medics?"

"I told you," Ivan said. "I've learned some things. And I need you to help me figure out what." He cleared a place on the couch, where the papers had started to encroach, and sat down next to By. "This is a copy of the deed to this building," he began.

He'd had time that afternoon to write up notes on everything, and lay it all out in order in a folder—Vorlane's land speculation, the Urban Development grant, the tax assessments; the estimated population of the block, the even more speculative estimation of its number of Svoboda voters; the list of Edith's known victims and their addresses; the legal precedents. By spent almost an hour, reading Ivan's report and his supporting documents, asking few, but pertinent, questions. Ivan sat beside him, passing him additional documents when By asked for them and trying not to read over his shoulder. He tried not to fidget. He tried not to stare at By, but it was hard, when they were sitting knee-to-knee, and By was absorbed in the dossier.

By's skin was translucent where it stretched over the hinge of his jaw, under his ear. The shadow of his beard didn't begin until halfway down his cheek. His lips were pursed, the upper still shiny with balm, the lower scraped bare by his teeth.

He was looking at Ivan, and rather impatiently.

"Ah," said Ivan. "So. Well?" 

"Do you want me," By began, "to set Domestic Affairs on this? Parts of it are their bailiwick."

"I dunno," Ivan said. "Do you think Glinka offered to make Vorlane's swindling disappear somehow, if he won the race for him?"

"That he offered something, I have no doubt," By said. "But what? The grant from the Counts puts a rider of responsibilities on subsequent owners for a decade; for the property to change hands, an imperial officer will have to sign off somewhere along the line."

"Pay off the officer?" Ivan suggested.

"Treasonous."

"Pay for the improvements," though he knew Vorlane didn't have that kind of cash, not when he'd had to petition the Counts for funds again last session.

"Conspicuous, expensive, and they're meant to be finished anyhow."

"Knock the building down—no, that was in the rider; even if someone else bought the property, they'd have to go through channels."

But By was rummaging through Ivan's stacks. "A private owner, yes," He found the copy of the grant and skimmed it. "But, no, see here—" he flourished a page of impenetrable jargon. "These conditions are nullified if the municipality takes the properties under eminent domain." He smiled triumphantly.

"But they're not in anyone's way," Ivan said.

By gave him an exasperated look. "Ivan. What has Maxim Glinka been promising the good people of Vorbarr Sultana at every appearance?"

"A new stadium. Damn. You think he wants to build it here?"

"It would solve both their problems admirably. That's got to be their scheme. If only we had a way to prove it."

"He must have drawn up plans," Ivan said. "Or brought in surveyors or something. Or had Vortashpula's construction company do it."

"No doubt," By said, "but we don't have any way to get hold of it, do we? Vorlane's not likely to talk, not unless the Counts agree to fast-penta one of their own. Without some proof of a connection, all we have is speculation. That's not sufficient to make Glinka hand over his papers; or Vortashpula either."

"An Imperial Auditor—" Ivan began.

"Oh, the emperor could certainly order an audit," By allowed. "An Imperial investigation. Of one of the front-runners in Vorbarr Sultana's first, and hotly contested, mayoral election as a free city. One week before the polls open." He let that picture hang in Ivan's mind. "Would that actually be better, in the long run, than letting Glinka walk?"

"I'm not sure it would be better than letting him win," Ivan said.

"Then I hope you've found something else," said By, "because nothing but an Imperial Audit can compel Glinka to turn over the stadium plans." 

"No…" Ivan agreed, and sunk back into the couch morosely. And then, "No. Not compel. Ask."

"Ask?"

"Ask him for the plans. We're citizens of Vorbarr Sultana," Ivan said. "We're constituents. We have every right to ask him to share those plans, or that study, or whatever he's done." He grinned up at By from the cushions. "It'd look damned suspicious, don't you think, if he refused to show them."

By's eyes flickered, as though watching the scene play out, and then lit on Ivan. "Show them to us?" he said. "Won't he be suspicious—what with your cousin being who he is, and my cousin being who he is?"

"To us, or really to anyone. Wait. By." Ivan sat up straight. "How much do you want Vormenzies to win?"

For a moment, Ivan thought By was going to kiss him; but he looked away, eyes wide, breath fast. "She could make a much more public challenge than we could," By said. "And more effective. But most of Glinka's voters aren't going to break for  her; they'll vote Svoboda or they'll stay home."

"Most isn't all. It might not even be most. What if she's the one to break this whole thing open?"

"Tip her off, you mean? Her, not Dono and Vorkosigan?"

"…both, I think. I mean, it's probably best if we give Miles some warning that she's about to accuse Vorlane. Just, not enough for him to do anything but follow her lead. But, yes, why not?" Ivan said. "She's got staff; they can hunt up the rest of the details as easily as we can. More so, I would hope." 

By leaned his forehead in his hands.

"By?"

"I'm thinking; shut up."

He thought for a good several minutes, staring intently at the floor. "All right," he said at last. "If we're going to tip off Lady Abigail, I need to talk to some people tonight. We want to give her as much proof as possible, and I'd like it to not all come from us." He looked up and bared his teeth, so unlike his normal smile that for a moment Ivan couldn't even process it as a grin. "Don't worry," By said;  "I won't do anything to warn Glinka. Meanwhile," he continued. "There's another gap in your case."

"Land tenure in Vorlane's district?"

"Good, you noticed," By said. "If we can document that Vorlane intends to cut his tenants out of the franchise, that's a reason for all the candidates to call for an investigation. And if Vormenzies and Svoboda team up to put pressure on the Counts, it will look damned suspicious if Glinka doesn't join in. It would give us another line of attack."

"That'll be in the Public Records Office," Ivan said.

"I know. Go straight there tomorrow after work, and I'll meet you."

"All right," Ivan said. "What else can I do for now?"

By looked rather sadly at the stacked papers, the books with their ragged fringe of memos and receipts marking the pages, and at Ivan's hopeful face. "Wish me luck," he sighed. "And get a good night's sleep." He stood up, and stretched with surprising gracelessness. "I'd ask you to get one for me, too, only that never seems to work."

He reached out and gave Ivan a hand up from the couch. "Ivan," he said. "I'm—this is very impressive. This work. All you've done."

"Someone had to," Ivan said. He was still holding Byerly's hand; he let go, but By was still holding on.

"If you say that again, I shall suspect you of becoming public-minded on me," By said. His voice was light, almost brittle. "And then who shall I look to as a fixed point in my universe?" He released Ivan's hand and turned away, fussed with his coat and with arranging his scarf just so. His face, the thin skin along his jawline, was flushed.

"By." He turned; his face was set in its usual lines again, the moue firmly fixed. "Good luck."

"Good night, Lord Ivan." Byerly gave him a slight nod, more a dip of the eyelashes than anything else, and let himself out. Ivan locked the door behind him.

 ~*~

The next day Ivan ran sims and pored through the open catalog of the Public Records Office. Some of their information was available in soft copy on the information nets, but nothing that Ivan needed. Land law in Vorlane's district did not appear to have been updated since digital storage had become ubiquitous. He kept searching anyway, and compiling lists of call numbers; the sooner he and By could get in and out, the sooner they could start… whatever they were doing.

It was, undeniably, partisan political activity. Calling Miles—his sworn Count—would have been the more responsible thing to do, as a serving officer. Or at least, the more respectable thing. It wasn't actually forbidden; only strongly discouraged.

It heartened him, a little, to reflect that he'd have felt just as conflicted if he'd been taking the information to Colonel Svoboda instead. It heartened him more to think of Lady Abigail bolting her berry cordial like a slug of maple mead and going out to fight a losing battle. He certainly wasn't doing anything so rash as that.

He walked—briskly, but not conspicuously—to the Records Office in the darkening twilight. By wandered out of a bookshop across the street, and met him as if by chance just as they crossed the threshold. "I've done some research already," Ivan whispered, and handed him the list. "Counts' decisions are all arranged by district and date; the ones we need should be in about the same place."

"You mean," By said, stopping in front of an empty shelf, "here where this sign says Removed for Conservation?" He checked the numbers of the books on either side of the empty space; the missing run included every volume on Ivan's list. "Think Vorlane beat us here?"

"He wouldn't dare," Ivan whispered. "Damaging public records is an imperial offense punishable by up to two years in detention."

By opened his mouth, closed it, thought for a moment, and finally spoke: "Firstly-- the man's already defrauded the Imperium of at least thirty-five million; I don't think another two years would be much of a deterrent. Secondly, how many law books did you read last night?"

"The archivist told me that," Ivan said. "Last time I was here." By raised his eyebrows, waiting. "Also, that we shouldn't overload the scanners."

"Oh, good," By said. "I'm glad to see you haven't strained anything from this unaccustomed hard labor. Now, shall we find that archivist of yours?"

It was, in fact, the same girl at the circulation desk, and she didn't look pleased to see Ivan. "Me again," Ivan said, "and I am so sorry about last time. I promise, if you can help me find these, I will treat them like pressed flowers. Do you like flowers?" he added. "Because I think I owe you some."

"They give me hay fever." She scanned the list that By silently proffered. "The Vorlane's annals; those are in back. You'll need to sign for them," she said sternly. "And you will be held accountable for any damage."

 "We'll be careful," By assured her. "Thank you, Miss—Miss…?"

"Roskilde," she said curtly, if not uncivilly, and set a heavy register down on the counter before them. "Signature, volume numbers, date, and time out, please." She disappeared through a set of swinging doors with Ivan's list in hand.

Ivan picked up the pen and stared. "By," he hissed, and pointed to the last signature in the sign-out log: Yevgeny Vortashpula.

"Keep her busy," By mouthed. He seized the register and made a silent dash for the nearest scanner.

"So, tell me, Miss Roskilde," Ivan temporized, speaking far too loudly. "If these books are so fragile, how come they're on the shelf at all? I mean, these can't be the only copies."

"Actually," she answered, in a sort of carrying murmur, "they very nearly are. Most counts didn't start printing more than the required repository copies until Emperor Ezar's reign."

"Whyever not?" Across the room, By had the register arranged on the scanner platen.

"Well, for the first century of the Time of Isolation, digital storage media was cheaper than paper, so soft copies were used for all but the most important archival editions. And after that, paper was still expensive and digital storage was unreadable. And people had got out of the habit of literacy."

"When you say 'unreadable,'" Ivan said, "do you mean there weren't any compatible machines?" By sprinted back with the register, and arranged himself against the counter just as Miss Roskilde returned, laden with books.

"That, and the media had degraded. To dust, in most cases." 

"And the print editions are halfway there," By mourned. He folded the scan printout and tucked it unhurriedly into his jacket.

"We are digitizing them, but it takes some time." She set the books down carefully, but kept her arms folded, warily, on top of the stack. "Ah—will you be wanting to scan these volumes?"

"You know—" Ivan had a brainwave. "The last fellow to sign here had all the same volumes out that we need. How long do you keep scan jobs in memory?"

"That depends," the archivist said. "This was four weeks ago: it may have been overwritten by now."

By gave her a look of absolute sincerity. "If it would avoid further wear on the books, we'd be happy to wait while you check, Miss Roskilde."

She had the look—long familiar to Ivan—of a person caught between two competing sets of orders. But he thought preserving the books might win out. "I know, I know—you're probably not allowed to do that. I can't ask you to bend the rules for me again. I'll do my own scanning." He reached for the books.

"No!" She curled protectively around them. "That is—which page ranges did you intend to scan?" Ivan flipped his list over, slid it down the counter and silently pointed to his notes. "I see. Let—let me just check." She lifted a section of counter, and with a wistful glance back at the stacked annals, headed for the same scanner By had used and plugged in an ident key. She bent over the little display screen, shielding it from view, and typed rapidly at the keypad for several minutes.

"We're—you're in luck," she said at last. "There is a scan job still in memory that includes everything you need. Shall I print it, or soft-copy it for you?"

"Both, if you please," By said, and handed over a memory module.

"And thank you," said Ivan fervently. "It's a pity about the flowers, but are you allergic to chocolate?"

By shot him a look. "I'm a public servant. I can't accept gifts for doing my job," Miss Roskilde said. She gave Ivan a look of her own, a rather longer one. "But I'm off the job at seven."

By looked like he was watching the most riveting holo ever made. "I—really need to finish this research up tonight," Ivan said.

"I'm sure the lady can take a raincheck, Lord Ivan." By gave her a sunny smile.

"I get off every night at seven," said Miss Roskilde. The scanner burped and finished printing; she rapped the papers sharply against the platen to true them and offered them to Ivan on upturned hands.

"I'll—remember that," said Ivan.

He clutched the papers to his chest. By took Miss Roskilde's hands and bowed over them with grave courtesy. "Thank you so much. Come along, Lord Ivan. Sadly, duty calls."

"I hate you," Ivan said conversationally. "So very much."

~*~

The printouts didn't show metadata, but the date and time of the original scan job were still recoverable from Miss Roskilde's soft copy. They matched Vortashpula's checkout of the volumes. "Hardly seems necessary to read it," By said. "Vortashpula's been in Glinka's pocket since the start." 

But they read everything Vortashpula had scanned, By craning over Ivan's shoulder to read off the comconsole, even though the printouts were right there. By read it once, ducked away to consult the stack of law books, and then leaned on Ivan's chair and made him scroll through the whole file again. "It looks," he said at last, "like if we call this a manorial property of the Count's—and the enclosure is enough to make it that, if you follow the letter of the law—" he marked a page with a take-out menu and set the book aside—"then you and your neighbors could be compelled to swear fealty as a condition of residence."

"Where do you get that?" Ivan said. "I'm still confused about the part with the cows."

"Yes, well, that was probably the only word small enough for you to recognize. Here." By steadied himself on Ivan's shoulder and reached across him to zoom in on one ornately-initialled paragraph. "So, you know Vorloupulous's Law."

"Intimately," said Ivan.

"Oh, of course you would. When it took effect—" he set down another flagged law book—"the remaining scutages in most districts were converted into money rents—fee simple."

"But not in Vorlane's District," Ivan said. He'd gotten that much.

"No indeed. The thirteenth count Vorlane converted his scutages—of which his manors, note the plural, in the district had possessed a great number—into various forms of serjeantry. With the effect, if I'm reading this right, that he is still legally permitted to compel various specified services from all his manorial tenants."

"Including fealty," Ivan said.

"As well as clearing land and providing summer pasturage for the count's cattle." By scrolled back a few pages. "The twelfth count having already abolished droit de seigneur. At least you've dodged that bullet."

"Thank you for that image. So—when is he going to spring this?" Ivan said. "If he can compel our allegiances, shouldn't he be down here now, compelling?"

"I imagine he wants to wait until the last minute," By said. "Give everyone less time to react. Or simply block your names from appearing on the voter rolls," By said. "And the Counts don't have to sign off on those until two days before the election."

"That gives us a little time, then," Ivan said. "And it gives Lady Abigail and her staff time to verify everything we send them." He copied the Vorlane's District records into the soft-copy dossier and double-checked that they'd transferred. "That's all the dirt about Vorlane. And a note that she might want to look into his ties to Glinka."

"And Vortashpula's page from the register?"

"Got it."

"I have placed a few bugs in a few ears about the stadium," By said. "And about other things. If Lady Abigail hasn't demanded to see the plans by the end of tomorrow, someone else will have. I will myself, if it comes to that."

Ivan addressed a message to the Vormenzies campaign mailbox. "By," he said. "I can send this securely, or I can send it anonymously. I can't do both. Not unless we want to run down there with a hard copy."

"Which could be neither secure, nor anonymous, if the campaign offices are being watched," By said. He looked down at Ivan consideringly. "We've done nothing illegal to get hold of this. We've scarcely done anything questionable."

"That list of the fast-penta victims—"

"You could have compiled that from your own recollections of the party. Or I could have—and, in fact I did." He sighed. "If you really want to stay out of it, we can take our chances with interception—even if we put Glinka on his guard, he can't destroy circumstantial evidence…"

"No, no." Ivan addressed the dossier from his own account. "No, you're right. I'm a citizen of Vorbarr Sultana. There's no reason I can't alert a candidate for office of the kind of corruption she should take an interest in. There's no reason I shouldn't." His hand hovered over the Send key.

"And she probably won't need to mention you by name," By said. "Not if you've asked her not to."

"No," Ivan agreed, and sent the message.

"Probably," By qualified. "Are we still giving a heads-up to the Counts? Or some of them?"

"Miles will have my guts for garters if I don't." Ivan placed a call to Miles's private number. By hovered, just outside the video pickup.

Miles answered after six or seven rings. He had Taurie in his lap, asleep. "Ivan?" he whispered. "What's up?"

"Miles. Can you get Dono and Vorbretten together tomorrow for breakfast?"

"Probably," Miles said slowly, stroking Taurie's wispy hair. "Why?"

"I'd rather tell you in person," Ivan said. "But, I've found some things out."

He expected Miles to challenge him, or make him elaborate as much as he could, but Miles just nodded and reached for the keypad. "Just Dono and Rene?"

"The countesses too, if they're available. You can decide who else to bring in after that."

"And I assume you're coming," Miles said. "Alone?"

Ivan met By's eyes. "No. I'm bringing someone." By gave a brief, sour nod.

Miles leaned toward the camera as though he could peer around the edge of the screen. "You do that," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

"You have no idea," Ivan said.

"Do I need to clear the rest of my day?"

"It would be a good idea."

"Do I need to be down before 0730?"

"I shouldn't think so."

"Are you going to tell me anything else?" And now he did look impatient, but he would just have to live with it.

"Tomorrow, Miles."

"I can't wait," he said darkly, and cut the connection.

Ivan stared at the blank screen. "So that's it." He looked up at By, still leaning just outside the camera pickup. His legs were stretched out in front of him, and his hands clutched the edge of the desk. "You are coming with me to Miles's." He tried to make it not a question.

"Of course," By said, distractedly. He looked down at Ivan; his eyes were very wide. "Do you still want to do this?"

For a moment, Ivan wasn't sure what 'this' was—everything he'd done all day, all week, felt new and unbalanced. By's face went still, gelling in its lines, and he began to turn away. And then Ivan got it. "Yes! Yes." He licked his lips, suddenly nervous. "You could warn a guy next time," he said. "But. Yes. By?"

By leaned down and kissed him. Ivan met him enthusiastically, opening his mouth, reaching to clasp By's neck; he had a boast to make good on. By gasped into his mouth and returned the kiss soundly for a moment. He pulled back, breathing hard, and spun Ivan's chair away from the desk. He straddled Ivan's leg, pressed him back by the shoulder, and bent to kiss him again.

The desk chair was wobbly; leaning back as far as it would allow, Ivan had no leverage to do anything but lie there and be ravaged. He really had no problem with that.

Or he wouldn't, if By would just ravage him a little harder. This kiss was straightforward, methodical; By stroked his neck and sucked his lower lip and mapped Ivan's teeth with his tongue, easily, almost lazily. He wasn't breathing hard any more—though Ivan had that covered for both of them; he gasped into Byerly's kiss, gasped louder when By's other hand suddenly found his cock, grabbed at his shoulders and back and touched and held for everything he was worth, because who knew if By would ever offer this again.

For now—for now By stroked his cock as methodically as he kissed, carefully but ungently, making Ivan lift his hips until the chair tilted and nearly overbalanced. By broke the kiss then, smiling, and sank to his knees.

Ivan sat up, planting his feet on the floor, and gazed open-mouthed down at By, unruffled and calm between his knees. Unruffled, unhurried, unaffected—"Hold on," Ivan said, and tilted By's chin up until he met his eyes. "By, is this a pity fuck?"

By's face froze, and then reset into the untouchable moue. He drew breath to speak. "Fuck that," Ivan said, before he could, and shoved the chair back and let go.

And then a moment of real hurt crossed By's face—only a flicker, immediately shut down. So he did want this. Wanted it, and was telling himself it was his favor to Ivan, which was so exactly the kind of stupid thing Ivan would have done himself that he wondered how either of them had ever managed to get laid. Ivan caught By's shoulder before he could stand, and slid to his knees beside him. "Fuck. That," he said again, and with the advantages of mass, reach, and surprise, tackled him to the floor.

They panted into each other's faces, Ivan half-lying, half-kneeling over By. By had tensed, braced for anything, but for now he was still waiting to see what Ivan would do.

Ivan fumbled one-handed at By's trouser flies, and got his pants half down and his cock out. It was very pale where it was pale, and very red where it wasn't; hard, and getting harder the longer Ivan looked. He gave it a stroke—a firm one, there was no need to be tentative about this—and, when By's hips strained up after his hand, another, and another, and then a rhythm.

By's eyes were closed. He worried his lower lip in his teeth while Ivan stroked, holding something in; and then finally he seemed to relax, or to decide to relax, head falling back and hips canting up and bitten mouth parting.

Ivan looked between the hinge of By's jaw and the seam of his thigh, the same translucent skin on both, equally tempting. He opted for south, bent his head to By's waist and licked a broad stripe down while he wrestled By's pants off—and then, when he could settle between his thighs properly, he screwed up his courage and licked the head of his cock.

The taste was more intense than his mouth, or his sweat, but not different, not really. By spread his legs for him in mute plea, and Ivan opened his mouth and tried to take him in.

Too deep, too fast; he nearly choked himself and pulled off. He tried again, slower, with no better luck— he had teeth and a tongue and he'd never been more conscious of either, and there was just no room for anything else; certainly not for the delicate, tender skin of By's cockhead.

He tried licking again, and that was better, he could do that—could lay his head on By's thigh and tangle a hand in his shirt-tail and lick down his shaft, along the bare triangle inside his thigh, up again and over the head with his tongue. He could do this, no problem. And he did, again and again, until By's thighs were splayed wide and his hips were thrusting up, and he let out a frustrated little whine.

Ivan tried again, took in just the head and gave it an experimental suck. By's hips jerked, and Ivan learned all kinds of things about his oral anatomy, specifically the mass of muscle at the base of his tongue and how unpleasant it was to nearly swallow it. "Come on, help me out here." He tugged at By's hand until By raised his head and peered muzzily down. "This isn't as easy as it looks, you know."

"Oh, god. Ivan." By was flushed, heavy-lidded and breathing hard, and he shook his head in exasperated arousal. "Here." He sat up a little, resting his back against the front of the sofa, and took his cock in one hand. "Go on." He offered his handful, just the head exposed, glistening.

Ivan bent his neck again, and opened his mouth; By's other hand came up to cup his head. "Start with this much," By breathed. "Just this." He snapped his hips up and thrust into Ivan's mouth, holding him loosely in place.

It was too much, but it wasn't; By's hand at his nape controlled the angle and the depth of his shallow thrusts, and all Ivan had to do was keep his mouth open and follow By's simple instructions. "Close your lips," he said. "Press with them. Like that. Oh, god, like that." Or "Try curling your tongue. Make a cradle of it. Let me—fuck, yes, now do it again. Nnh." And then "I know you can go deeper. Ready?" And no, really, he wasn't, but he could; he did. And now every thrust went a little deeper than the last, over lips and tongue that were suddenly desperate for pressure, for heat. Every thrust, he was sure he was going to choke, going to run out of air or just out of room, but at the last instant, By would draw back, and gently hold Ivan's head in place to keep him from following, and his lips and tongue would curve and curl to chase every centimeter of skin, of flesh, of vanishing sensation. And then By's hips would snap into another thrust, and it would start over.

After a while he remembered the rest of his body was still there, pulse throbbing in time with the rhythm of tongue and mouth. He managed to bring one hand up to cover By's, lacing their fingers together around his shaft; he clutched By's hipbone with the other, and let him fuck his mouth, still shallow, but faster now, and faster. By stroked the hair over Ivan's ear with his thumb, and told him in monosyllables when to breathe, when to suck, when to use his tongue—and, on one ragged breath, "Fuck, Ivan, I'm close. I'm—"

Ivan clutched with both hands and tried to take it. He swallowed once, coughed, sputtered, tried to swallow again, and sat up panting and red and wet-chinned, and as hard as he had ever been. "Wow," he managed. "That was—wow." He laughed, half nerves and half a sudden giddy joy; the tug on his abs went straight to his cock: he was swimmingly, dizzily aroused. It took all the effort he had left to find By's hand, and press it to the crotch of his pants. "By," he gasped. "By, please."

Byerly opened his eyes to sleepy slits and smiled, the long slow flirtatious grin that Ivan hadn't seen since that night in his lightflyer. "Why, Lord Ivan," he slurred. "You're never this pleased to see me."

"By, I swear, I will do anything you want if you'll just—"

"But I don't want anything." He struggled to sit up, and gave up and fell back against the couch. "Except to sleep. Sleep is nice."

"Byerly, I will come right in your eye if you don't—"

"You wouldn't dare." With surprising agility for being half-asleep, By pulled Ivan down atop him. He traced Ivan's chin, dragging a finger through the stripe of his come, and pulled him down into a kiss.

This, this was good too, Ivan could do this. He thrust against By's thigh, kissing him back sloppily. His uniform trousers were painfully tight and had to be uncomfortably coarse against By's bare skin, but if By didn't mind, he didn't.  He didn't mind at all; he could do this all night, except for how he really, really—

And By wasn't so sleepy anymore; he rolled them over, and Ivan went along, and then he broke the kiss and Ivan whimpered.

"I promise you, my mouth isn't going anywhere," By said. Slowly, luxuriously slowly, he crawled down Ivan's body, opening his clothes and pressing kisses at random. "Except here," he added, a puff of breath just where Ivan needed it most. And he rested his head heavily against Ivan's belly, and sucked him down sweetly and easily.

"Oh god. Oh god, By, you have got to teach me to do that." By just smiled around his cock and sucked again, lazily, in no hurry at all. He brought one hand into play, then two, and— god, this slow, he could keep Ivan here all week.

Ivan propped himself on one elbow, while he could still manage that level of control over his limbs. By was curled sleepily at his side, head pillowed on his thigh, sated and drowsy with it. He was used to this—long used to it, accustomed—unworried and expert, taking his time. The contrast with Ivan himself, hard and shaking and still as nervous as he'd been with a new lover in—god, in years—only wound Ivan tighter, made him meet the advances of By's mouth with desperate and shuddering thrusts. He touched By's face, the corner of his jaw, the tender skin below his ear, and came wrenchingly hard.

He lay for a while, curled up around By and cradling his head, By draped heavy and boneless across his legs. Eventually By lifted his head, and, bit by bit, dragged himself up to his knees. "It's rather late," he said.

"Mmm," Ivan managed, when it became clear that an answer was expected.

"I should go," By clarified. He climbed to his feet.

Ivan opened his eyes. "Do you have to?" he slurred. "It's late. 'S cold. Stay here."

By hesitated. "If we're meeting Vorkosigan for breakfast—"

"—then it's stupid for you to go home," Ivan finished. He held out a hand; By took it, and hauled Ivan to his feet.

They leaned against each other for a moment, Ivan's clothes open and wrecked and By's pants somewhere under the desk. Ivan's stomach growled. "I think we forgot to eat dinner."

"I seem to remember being rather preoccupied."

"Well, that settles it. I'm not throwing you out into the snow without food. Come on." He stopped halfway to the fridge; By was still standing bare-assed in the middle of the room. "Do not try to tell me you're not hungry, after that."

"Just dubious about the contents of your kitchen," By said. "Do you even have food?"

He didn't, really, but he had three kinds of leftover takeout and a half dozen eggs that were still, if not fresh, then not actually bad yet. By sent Ivan to fetch his pants—"Fire and nakedness do not mix," he said authoritatively, "except under circumstances that I prefer to leave to specialists"—and made omelets, and they ate them on the couch, By sitting primly and Ivan sprawling.

They made some scattered conversation—loose ends for the morning's briefing, questions that sent one or the other of them into the books and notes, now spread hopelessly across the living room floor. By seemed quite content to sit there with Ivan's bare feet in his lap, reading out choice bits from the edicts of the twelfth and thirteenth Counts Vorlane.

Content was nowhere in Ivan's reach. In the front of his mind a wheel was spinning unstoppably, cranking out three thoughts over and over: I sucked By's cock and I sent that message and What the hell was I thinking; while the rest of Ivan's nervous system had passed mere contentment ages ago and was still hovering somewhere around blissful.

Though it would still be nice, he thought, to have any idea whether this was a one-time thing or… not. But that was a hard question to ask if you didn't already know the answer. What came out of his mouth was "I'm not sorry. That we—you know. This."

Smooth it wasn't. By just raised his eyebrows and said "High praise."

"By—"

"No, I always aim to leave no grounds for contrition. Set the bar high, I say." But he didn't move Ivan's feet from his lap, or his hand from Ivan's thigh.

Good enough for the moment. Still, he wasn't sure what By would do when he stood up and said "Are you coming to bed?" He still wasn't sure twenty minutes later, lying in bed in his shorts and nothing else and watching By, stark naked, rummage through his closet rejecting all his clothes hangers. Finally By gave up, folded everything neatly on a chair and slid in beside Ivan. He arranged him as a sort of full body pillow and fell asleep at once.

Of course, none of this was new to him. Possibly exciting—Ivan rather hoped for exciting—but certainly not new.

Ivan had sucked By's cock, and he had sent a message that would bring down a candidate and a count, and tomorrow he was going to go to Vorkosigan House and tell at least one of those things to Miles. Ivan didn't think he could sleep at all.

By breathed warmly into his arm. He looked younger in his sleep, and somehow sturdier. He did a lot, Ivan realized, to avoid taking up space—to carry himself like a smaller man; to look harmless. Insubstantial. Now, stripped of the eye-catching clothes and the affected manner, he had substance enough: a simple, solid body that bowed the mattress on his side, and took more than his share of covers, and jabbed Ivan with sharp elbows when he tried to steal them back. He was unmissably real.

Out of uniform, in bed beside him, Ivan couldn't tell whether he felt realer than he had in years, or like a wilder flight of fancy than he'd ever allowed himself.

He had been sure he couldn't sleep, but then he was waking to Byerly's wristcom alarm. By slept on, totally oblivious, which was some trick because the thing was bloody loud. Ivan staggered out of bed—By was rolled up in most of the covers with his head between two pillows—and rummaged through By's neatly-arranged clothes to find the com and turn it off.

Ivan's own alarm would be going off in another fifteen minutes. "By, your alarm's gone. By?"

By mumbled something into the pillows and burrowed deeper into the bedclothes. Ivan shook him by the shoulder. "By. Your alarm went off. It's morning."

"That's a filthy lie," By enunciated, and hauled a corner of a blanket over his face.

"Fine, see if I save you any hot water." Ivan had hoped a shower would help get his head together, but that incessant three-thought loop resisted even the calming influence of water and steam. Though at least it was down to background noise by now, just a constant chatter of Cock! Message! What!

By was sitting up blearily on the edge of the bed when Ivan came back out and tossed him a towel; he got up wordlessly and sidled past him into the bathroom. Ivan fired up the coffeemaker, got dressed, poured coffee, and groaned at the sight of the living room—he had meant to put together dossiers for Miles and the others. He poked through a stack with his toe and gave up on even trying to salvage it, and had the comconsole run new printouts of everything.

While he was at it he read his messages. There were rather a lot of them by now, from people with progressively more-important-sounding titles in the Vormenzies staff. Halfway through the queue, Byerly wandered in and leaned on the desk at his elbow, unabashedly reading over Ivan's shoulder. Ivan wondered how much of By's success as an informer was simply the result of a carefully-cultivated reputation for nosiness.

Ivan let him read; this was his business too. He skimmed everything before replying to the most recent message: That's really all I know. Sorry.

He reached for the power button, but By waved his hand away, and scrolled back through his message queue. He pointed vaguely to the timestamp column. "Three hours ago," he muttered, apparently regarding the first message from Lady Abigail's private secretary. "She'll—" he fluttered his hand again, and took a long, searching swallow of coffee—out of a pint glass, into which he had evidently poured the rest of the pot. "Briefed. She'll have been briefed."

Ivan crammed the new printouts into his satchel—he really should have swiped a few folders from work. "Then let's brief Miles." He took the half-full glass away from By and shoved his coat into his arms in its place.

By whimpered, and looked longingly back at the glass on the counter as Ivan dragged him out the door.

"There'll be coffee at Miles's," Ivan said. "There will be pastries." 

"Promise?" By draped his coat over his shoulders, too disconsolate to attempt sleeves. Though he'd dressed with his usual precision. If not quite the same outfit—he appeared to be wearing one of Ivan's shirts. Ivan kept sneaking glances at it, all through the short drive to Vorkosigan House.

~*~

The Vorbrettens were already in the Yellow Parlor when Pym announced them. "Morning, Ivan." Miles waved them to the coffee and the heavenly Ma Kosti spread, already laid out. "Byerly." Miles nodded civilly, not looking terribly surprised to see By. Though that was the thing about By; it wasn't a surprise to see him anywhere. "Dono should be here presently. You want to tell me what's going on?"

"It's complicated," Ivan began. He looked to By, who was no help at all; he was deep in communion with a cup of coffee and a plate of fried pastry. Ivan emptied his satchel onto an armchair and dealt out printouts to Miles and Rene and Tatya. "But in a nutshell—"

"Vorkosigan!" Dono stormed in before Pym could announce him. "Can you explain why I was woken up by a call from—let's just say from a friend in the Vormenzies organization, giving me a heads-up that Lady Abigail's going to make a public petition to the Counts this morning, asking why we haven't arraigned Vorlane yet?" He nodded to Rene and Tatya, and—with a look of growing suspicion—at Ivan and By. By offered his plate silently, and Dono took a decisive bite of peach turnover. Ma Kosti's patisserie did its usual magic; by the time he'd swallowed, he seemed in noticeably better humor. "What are we arraigning him for, dare I ask?"

"Fraud," Ivan said cheerily. Hah. That had got their attention. "And maybe some conspiracy charges, but that's going to be your lookout." He handed Dono a stack of papers. "A copy of this dossier was sent to the Vormenzies campaign headquarters last night at 2130." 

"How do you know this?" asked Countess Vorbretten, perfectly ingenuously.

"Ah—"

"He's acquainted with the sender," By said.

Miles had found Ivan's synopsis, and was reading it with interest—and probably with an eye to the phrasing. "I just bet you are. Go on, Ivan."

Ivan walked them through the report, with occasional prompting and color commentary from By. He rather enjoyed having three sitting counts and a countess—two countesses, after Ekaterin slipped in and sat down by Miles's side with her coffee—listening attentively and taking the occasional note. Or rather, the Vorbrettens listened attentively, with identical expressions of interest; Dono listened furiously; and Miles listened with a growing expression of barely-suppressed glee.

"Oh, this is going to be fun," he said, shuffling the last page back into the stack. "What time does the Petitions Office open?"

"Ten," Rene said. "By which point Lady Abigail should certainly have her petition prepared."

"We're going to be caught with our pants down," Dono said. "Pity, isn't it, Ivan, that she got this much of a jump on us."

"It'll help us speed things along," Miles said. "If we can have a motion prepared for the Lord Guardian of the Speakers' Circle by ten hundred, then Lady Abigail's public stink—and I assume she'll be bringing witnesses—should let us get a quorum of the Counts by noon."

"Better get writing," Dono said. "It's getting on towards nine now."

"What? Shit." Ivan's duty shift started at 0900. He grabbed another jam tart for the road; he'd barely gotten a chance to eat anything, with all the talking. "By. Can you take it from here?"

By was curled up in a an armchair with a saucer on his knee. He looked from Dono on one side, scrawling notes on the backs of printout, to Tatya Vorbretten on the other, calmly instructing Rene's secretary over the wristcom to throw out both their schedules and start over. "Oh, yes," he said, giving Ivan that slow, lazy smile. "I think I've got things well in hand." He settled into the cushions to enjoy the chaos. That was definitely Ivan's shirt he was wearing.

"Go on," By added. "Run along to your galley bench."

"Ivan." Miles looked up from the comconsole. "Thanks." He was enjoying this every bit as much as By, Ivan could tell, but he said it dead seriously. 

"Yeah." Ivan nodded to the others and took his leave. Ekaterin rose and walked downstairs with him. "Could you give me a lift downtown? You don't need to go out of your way—I'm meeting Olivia Vorrutyer not far from HQ."

"Campaign business?"

She smiled. "Of a sort." Pym brought Ivan's lightflyer around, and Ivan handed her in. "I'm glad you've made up your quarrel with Byerly."

"First names?" Ivan took the car out into the flight lanes—gently, but Ekaterin braced herself by reflex. "That took long enough."

"I don't like to presume," she said, which was an understatement even for her. "But I ran into him at the Vorbrettens', the night before last, and he agreed it was long overdue." She looked straight ahead, out at the street, and said "That was you, wasn't it, that tipped Lady Abigail off?"

"By was in on it, too," Ivan said, spreading the blame.

"It was brave of you," she said, "to get involved." She smiled conspiratorially. "Though it is exciting, isn't it?"

"I don't need excitement," Ivan complained. He brought the car to a hover, just above the pavement, and began to open his door, but Ekaterin waved him back into his seat. "Sorry; I can't take you into the garage without a pass and there's nowhere else to park."

"Don't bother; I can jump," she said, and did.

He found an unreserved spot in the crowded garage—there was a reason he usually walked—and got to his desk only a couple of minutes late.

He didn't need excitement. He really didn't, and he had had weeks at a time of perfectly pleasant, boring existence to prove it. Sometimes even whole months of it, when Miles was offworld and By was absorbed in his dissipation and his mother was preoccupied. He really didn't need complications in his life.

But he didn't, strictly speaking, need the Ma Kosti jam tart he was eating, either. But he'd certainly picked up a taste for them.

~*~

He kept searches open on his low-side comconsole all day, to ping him when there was news about Vorlane, or Lady Abigail, or Glinka. It pinged sporadically all day, brief notices about appearances, speeches, decrees, summonses, rallies. His high-side comconsole pinged with troop movements, ship telemetry, supply lines, and wormhole jumps, feeding straight into his logistics sims. They were all equally distant from his windowless office; and they had all taken his input and sped on smoothly without him.

It wasn't quite the same; to those ships in motion, he'd been a cog in a machine; to the people in the city, a pebble in an avalanche. That avalanche could be sweeping by him right now and he'd never even see it. He realized he was doing his breathing exercises again, automatically, and he locked down his consoles and headed for the nearest window.

There was nothing to see, not here: all the action was happening below the steps of Vorhartung Castle in the Great Square, or in the park across from the Vormenzies offices or, according to the vehicular traffic warnings, in the street outside Ivan's own flat. From the glassed-in stairwell of HQ, he could only see isolated specks of activity, like the motes of hurtling debris that point back to a deep-space explosion: a man on a bicycle balancing a sheaf of rolled up VOTE VORMENZIES signs on poles; a flyer whipped by the wind off a fence across the street, that had been bare this morning; a group of schoolchildren, just dismissed, tearing past the bus stop where they usually waited and running uphill towards the Castle.

He went back to his desk and breathed like the therapists had taught him. He bent his neck, since he couldn't put his head between his knees; the pull of the muscle summoned up a flash of By's broad hand on his nape and the curve of his skull. He kept breathing, just in case—it had been half a day, more than half, and he still hadn't panicked.

And still wasn't going to, it seemed. Somewhere during the breakfast briefing, memories of last night had become the simple, pleasant thoughts that he seized on when everything else got overwhelming. Which was levels of screwed up that he didn't really want to contemplate, so he didn't; he logged back in and wrote up the not-quite-due reports on the week's sims instead. They all said the same thing: the fleet was getting along just fine out there, hurtling along without him.

~*~

He logged off ten minutes before shift's end, to make sure the secure console had time to shut everything down. He'd been stuck in the office before, waiting for some recalcitrant piece of software to grind to a halt and let him leave. But today it all shut down smoothly, and he was, perhaps, out the door a few minutes early.

He was not the only one; nor the only officer in uniform walking up to the Great Square. Half of Vorbarr Sultana seemed to be there tonight. Some carried signs, and some carried candles, and some were toting flasks and making a party of it. Vorbohn's guardsmen ringed the plaza, watchful, but unworried; this crowd had been gathering all day, peacefully.

More than peaceful—festive. Even the people who were carrying signs and chanting—for  Glinka's arrest, for Vorlane's conviction, some for things with no connection to the mayoral race at all—were smiling, and clapping Ivan on the back as he struggled through the wool-wrapped bodies and the clouds of steaming breath. Because this was how it was done, Ivan realized. There would be people in this crowd from backcountry towns that named their own headmen or councils because the district count couldn't be arsed to name one for them; and there would be urbanites whose only exposure to electoral democracy was galactic soap operas from Beta Colony. But they'd all agree that this was what it entailed—taking one's grievances not to one's liege-lord, but to one's neighbors. And shouting at them a lot, which was not a traditional part of a vassal's relationship to his liege, Ivan's relationship with Miles notwithstanding.

Everyone who'd cared enough to turn up and shout—or even just to turn up and watch—was here because that was how the process was supposed to work. The crowd thrummed with public spirit and a sense of duty and dedication that Ivan had only felt in the service in moments of crisis and mortal peril.

Ivan supposed you might make a case for this being a crisis—and, on the steps of the dais, Lady Abigail was making just that case, with the help of some discreet amplification. But no one here seemed to be in peril of anything except catching a chill. Ivan approved.

He caught sight of Dono Vorrutyer, in the front rank of the crowd, and fought his way to his side. Olivia and By were with him, one on each arm.  "Where are we?" Ivan said.

"She's got a copy of the stadium plans," By said. He pulled Ivan closer by the belt of his coat, making a human windbreak of him and Dono. "She's already called for Vorlane's arraignment; she's calling for Glinka's arrest now."

She did so at some length, reading choice passages from the stadium feasibility study aloud. Ivan leaned on By's shoulder, listening with one ear to Lady Abigail, but mostly distracted by the wind-chapped color in By's cheek, and the way his breath condensed in his eyelashes and sublimed again into the air.

A cheer went up, and By joined in, though in a tone of some irony. Ivan wrenched his attention back to the candidate; her gray ringlets bobbed and roiled under her hat like storm clouds. "I call upon the Council of Counts to lay these charges against Count Oleg Vorlane," she concluded. A cheer went up; she cut it off. "And I call on the Emperor, as head of the Imperium and as Count Vorbarra, to lay a charge of conspiracy against Maxim Glinka!"

There were some boos and hisses—rather a lot, but a minority of the crowd—in the cheer this time; a few of Vorbohn's men made quelling gestures, but the crowd quieted again as the Counts Vorbretten and—yes, there he was behind him—Vorkosigan emerged from the Castle side of the crowd and mounted the dais.

"It is my sad duty to tell you," said Count Vorbretten, "that a quorum of the Council of Counts has just voted to indict Count Vorlane on eleven charges, including fraud and alienation of allegiance. A sad duty, because the evidence Lady Abigail has presented attests to behavior that saddens and shames me, as Count Vorlane's peer—that saddens and shames all of us. But you may all rest assured that justice will be served."

"And," Miles added, speaking more directly into the hidden microphone, "that Count Vorlane's associates, and any co-conspirators, will be discovered as well—and in as timely a manner as possible." He got a bigger cheer than Vorbretten had gotten. "In the meantime— the Council has placed a stay on the Count's change of seat, and tenants of the count will be free to offer their allegiances where they will. None of Count Vorbarra's sworn liegemen and women will be turned away from the polls.

"Lady Abigail," Miles said, and bowed deeply. "The Council of Counts is indebted to you for your diligence in uncovering these crimes. We thank you."

"That's got to be good for another two percent," Olivia breathed. "Three, even." 

"Enough to put her ahead, you mean?"

She shook her head. "Svoboda's going to pick up a lot of Glinka's vote. It's a two-person race with a spoiler, now, and she's still got a lot of catching up to do if she's to have a chance." But she was beaming, and rubbing her gloved hands as much with glee as with cold.

Vormenzies took the dais again, reiterating her usual points for the benefit of the new turnout. Somewhere between the streetcar extension and the anti-discrimination ordinance, Miles and Rene appeared out of the crowd, and there was much handshaking all around. Ivan got a backslap from Dono and a "Good work. Seriously. Couldn't have done better" from Miles, which was a bit disturbing. And then his mother swept through the crowd, parting it around her by sheer force of personality and volume of fur trim, and said "Ivan, dear, Gregor would like a word. You too, Mr. Vorrutyer. Ivan, straighten your collar."

The officer she handed them off to conducted them to Gregor's office in Vorhartung Castle—the genuinely private one, up in the top gables, rather than the more official one off the Council chamber. "Lord Ivan. Mr. Vorrutyer. Sit down, please." He nodded to a pair of office chairs next to the window. Far below, the dais was empty, but the crowd had not dispersed; a dark sea of bodies, broken by splashes of flashlights and candles, lapped at the edges of the square and spilled up the steps of the Residence on the far side.

"I understand," Gregor began, "that We have you to thank for the discovery of Count Vorlane's crimes."

"Yes, Sire."

"Oh, the discovery was entirely Lord Ivan's doing, Sire."

"You're too kind," Ivan said.

"And of Glinka's collaboration too, of course," By added.

"Which has yet to be proven," Gregor qualified. "But in any case, We are grateful to both of you for your efforts."

"Thank you, Sire."

"Thank you, Sire."

"Your method of bringing these crimes to light was somewhat unorthodox," Gregor said quietly. Ivan was usually pretty good at telling Gregor's calm quiet from his angry quiet, but this time he had no idea at all. Gregor tilted his head infinitesimally and regarded him.

Ivan looked at By. By raised his eyebrows and looked right back. "I've been given to understand," Ivan said, "that an elected representative bears a liege lord's duty to her constituents. Sire."

Gregor forbore visibly to mention that Lady Abigail was not yet an elected anything, and said only "Your confidence in the system is heartening, Ivan."

"I try."

"We are curious," he began—and that was bad, when Gregor decided his curiosity was a matter for We and not I—"just how Lady Abigail obtained a copy of Glinka's stadium plans."

Ivan blinked. So was he, now he came to wonder about it.

He looked at By. So did Gregor. "Ah," said By. "I had a word the other night with the Countesses Vorkosigan and Vorrutyer. They took my suggestion and paid a call on Lady Vorlane this morning. Sire"

"You set Ekaterin on her?" Ivan said. "What did she say to her?" Ivan couldn't imagine Ekaterin or Olivia as the bad cop.

"The Countesses warned her that her house was going to be swarming with imperial officers by the end of the day, and suggested that she might want to remove anything—untoward—among her own effects. And so at their suggestion, she gave into their keeping a quantity of an unidentified drug which she had discovered. In her house," he clarified. "After a party. Several weeks ago."

"I see," Gregor said. "And the plans?"

By spread his hands. "I can only assume they were found, too, along with the drugs. Countess Vorrutyer really couldn't say, but as they seemed to pertain to Lady Abigail's investigations, she very civic-mindedly passed them along."

"And the drug was, just as civic-mindedly, passed on to ImpSec?"

"For identification," By said. "All the missing doses are accounted for, Sire."

Gregor steepled his hands and considered this. "Well," he said, "as long as Lady Vorlane continues in this spirit of civic-mindedness—and cooperation with questioning, in private—I think We can assure she is not subjected to public prosecution."

"I am sure the Countesses would be only too pleased to be the bearers of such good news, Sire."

Gregor smiled, at last—faintly, as always, but Ivan swallowed a sigh of relief—and said "Of that I have no doubt." He stood—Ivan sprang to follow. "This was well done. I will—We will commend you, both, to your superiors."

"Sire."

"Sire." Ivan nodded; By bowed, fairly deeply, at the rare acknowledgement of his career. At least Miles, Ivan thought, had been able to command the respect of an officer. Byerly's work brought him all the disadvantages of a Covert Ops agent and none of the benefits of the service.

Gregor summoned a guardsman to escort them—or to escort By, it turned out. "Ivan. Stay a moment."

Ivan turned back. Gregor was leaning on his desk, a little more at ease; and it was as Gregor, not as the emperor, that he said "You're coming up on your Twenty soon, aren't you?"

"Midsummer," Ivan said. "Give or take a few days."

"I wondered if you had given any thought," Gregor said, "to what you want to do with your next twenty years?"

"A lot of thought," Ivan admitted. "No answers."

Gregor turned over a sheaf of papers, leafed through it and set it back on the desk. A copy, Ivan realized, of his Vorlane dossier. "Whoever wins the mayoral race is bound to have a place for a twenty-year man of spotless record and— proven judgment."

Ivan digested this. "I don't think I'd be very welcome in Svoboda's administration."

"You might be surprised," Gregor said. And then, "I had a word with Miles. He assures me, he won't be at all offended if you would prefer to have the franchise in Vorbarr Sultana."

Ivan opened his mouth to demur, again, but the familiar words weren't there. "I'd—Yes," he said. And then more decisively, "Yes. I do. My liege."

Gregor didn't smile, but he looked at Ivan with what might have been pride. He spread his hands in silent invitation, and Ivan knelt and placed his hands between his new Count's,  and offered up his oath on his word as Vorpatril.

What the hell. He'd given twenty years to being apolitical. Surely, he could think of something else to do with the next twenty.

By was gone when Ivan came out—absorbed back into the slowly-dispersing crowd. Ivan didn't see him again that night. Over the next few days he ran into him in public almost daily—there were galas and fetes and rallies, Q&As and debates and roundtables, and though Lady Abigail's campaign had not revealed Ivan's name, Miles or Dono or someone had clearly been talking, because Ivan had invitations from the Progressive side every night. By was in and out of the same parties—sometimes, clearly working, and Ivan hung back and let him decide who to be seen with; but just as often, there on his own time.

In public, he was snide, flirtatious, and arch—friendly, basically, by his standards. He ogled Ivan remarkably overtly, though it was astonishing what people just plain didn't notice, at least when it came to By. And he stationed himself next to Ivan as often as not, stealing his drinks and murmuring commentary on the clothes, the quarrels, the shameless electioneering—and, halfway through the week, the indictment and spectacular testimony of Maxim Glinka. But he went home alone at the end of each night—even the nights Ivan hadn't driven, and offered to split a cab instead.

Maybe it had just been a one-time thing, then. Ivan couldn't really blame him. There were enough spectacular blowups in his romantic past to make any sensible person a little leery of getting involved, even leaving aside the unconventional circumstances. Or maybe By had just—gotten it out of his system.

Ivan wished he had. He was going home alone every night, too. Sleeping with women he didn't like had lost its charm—quite a while ago, now—and the ones he did like were mostly married now.

Of course, women weren't the only game in town. That had been proven rather dramatically. But Ivan wasn't interested in sleeping with men he didn't like, either.

So he went out, and drank and danced and shook hands and heard speeches and danced again with lovely women who squeezed his hand and went back to their husbands, and watched Byerly drink and dance and do dead-on impressions of crusty old colonels and Vor dowagers and walk away alone at the end of the evening. And on Winterfair Eve, he went to the polls and cast his vote for Lady Abigail.

They stamped his hand with blue ink, to show he'd voted, and he wandered out onto the crowded street. It was full dark already, and bloody cold; he was wearing his gloves, and so was everyone else in sight—servicemen in uniform, matrons in fur lining, students in raveling stripes of hand-knit. Winter guarded their secrets for them.

The house Gregor had gifted to the city as the mayoral palace was lit up from within and without, waiting for its new tenant. Inside, elections officials were shadowed against the bright windows, and the little square in front was filling up with people, waiting in the snow for an announcement, even though the polls wouldn't close for another hour.

He didn't see anyone he knew—Miles, he knew, would be waiting on the results at home, with his family and a house full of guests. Ivan was expected; but Miles would be up for hours, waiting to ring in Winterfair at midnight. Ivan could spare an hour or two in this bubbling, anticipatory crowd—and, he found, he wanted to. He accepted a candle from someone and a light for it from someone else, and watched the pattern it joined, motes of light spreading and fanning out through the crowd and spilling down the street and away.

Someone held out a candle for him to light, and he did. "Hello, Ivan." The candlelight reflected in By's eyes, and threw the shadows of his long eyelashes in dim tendrils across his face.

"Byerly." By offered him a flask, warm to the touch; he took a long drink. "Have you voted yet?"

By rolled up his glove to show the ink splotch, and quickly rolled it back down. Ivan passed him back the flask to warm his hands. His own stamp was starting to bleed through his glove; he rubbed ineffectually at the wool, and then let it go. So the world would know he'd cast a vote. He had every right to. And the ballot was still secret.

"So," Byerly said. "This time I actually have been avoiding you."

"I hadn't noticed," Ivan said. "Just as well you came and told me."

"Yes, well, I've had some thinking to do," he said. He held the flask between his palms, but didn't drink. "And I've come to a few conclusions."

"I'm all ears."

"I will be your midlife crisis," he declared. "I will not be your Betan therapist. When this thing comes to its sordid and entirely foreseeable end, you can talk to your cousin, or to my cousin, or anyone you like, but I am not going to listen to you pour your heart out about what a freeing experience it was for you and how much you've learned about yourself."

Ivan stared in horror. "How many times have—"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Still. On behalf of repressed bisexual Vor military officers—"

"If you apologize to me, I'm going to throw this candle in your face."

"Apology retracted."

"Good," said By. "A cock to suck or a shoulder to cry on, but not one and then the other. Take it or leave it."

"I'll—yeah. I'll take that." Ivan thought, privately, that there was a third option, one that involved the words and and simultaneously, but he didn't bring it up. He did take the flask out of By's hand and hoist it. "Cheers."

This time, By did drink, and saluted him back. "Let us hope so."

"So," Ivan said. "I'm invited to Miles's tonight."

"I'm invited to Dono's."

"One, and then the other? They'll be dancing all night at both."

By looked at him narrowly. Ivan sighed. "No, I am not going to dance with you. Or introduce you as my date. What makes you think I'm suddenly going to be indiscreet about this? You've known me long enough."

"Indeed," By said. "Long enough to know you have the capacity to surprise me." He looked away, candlelight revealing, or maybe simply painting, a flush on his cheek. But Ivan thought he'd just heard the most sincere compliment By had ever paid him. "So by all means, we shall celebrate. Or we shall mourn. I would prefer to wait here until we find out which."

"I'm not standing out here in the cold for my health," Ivan said, by way of agreement.

"Perish the thought," By said, and huddled into the crook of Ivan's arm to wait, side by side with strangers, for the great doors to open.