The sun went down, all blood and streaks of tragic glory, inside the Imperial Theatre of Sergyar. For a few seconds -- an eternity -- the last beams lingered, illuminating the withdrawn armies at the edges of the stage, shimmering on the great illusory river. Then all light faded but that of a cold, single moon, glancing down at two motionless figures. Dark fell, a collective breath released, and hands beat together in applause, generous and cathartic; lights came up full, and the characters of the drama, alive, dead, or defeated by fate, became actors, taking their places according to status and bowing as one to acknowledge the tribute.
The clapping continued long enough for the actors to bow three times, but they did not tease out more, instead stepping back to allow the curtain's fall, some already turning to the wings before it divided their reality from that of their admirers. A happy buzz of conversation rose in the house, and in the Viceroy's box Aral sat back with a sigh.
"Very satisfying," he said, striking his knees with his palms. The gesture served both to give his legs notice they'd be needing to move soon, and to inform his personal audience of ministers and attendants that he approved of the evening's entertainment. But he felt, for the moment, too weary to rise, and allowed the others to approach and shake his hand and thank him, and then, the Armsmen withdrawing as well to stand in the hall, no one remained but Cordelia and Lieutenant André. He beckoned to the latter. "Take my compliments to the director, if you would, André, and... did we agree on flowers?" Aral turned to Cordelia for a second opinion.
"An artistic arrangement of swords, perhaps, in the skull of a vanquished enemy?" she said.
"Flowers," André said, unperturbed. "I ordered them in the interval, sir. Dark reds and purples mostly, suitably..." His voice trailed off.
"Bloody?" said Aral, amused. "Masculine?" The Caucasus Players, if this was their full complement, were ninety percent male, even if not counting the shadowy projections of soldiers filling up the stage. Not the Athosian Players, not quite, but hardly anyone in a pretty gown to whom you could present a bouquet. And whoever had choreographed that no-holds-barred final fight, and all the other battles too, had known what he was doing. "Never mind," he told André. "Compliments, flowers, thanks. Go." André nodded and went, and Aral, still feeling more tired than he should, looked over at his wife.
"Very satisfying," she echoed, gently mocking. "Only a Barrayaran--"
"Would feel satisfaction at watching all that young promise get hacked to shreds?" he finished for her.
"It was... a moving drama," she admitted.
Aral let histrionic tones color his voice. "A father and son, met on the field of war in single combat, neither aware of the other's identity until the elder strikes a fatal blow to the younger, who with his dying breath declares himself and offers forgiveness and honor. And love."
"A long breath," said Cordelia.
"Well, it's theatre. At least we have a venue now for traveling troupes to perform in. You have to agree they made good use of the technical facilities."
"The lighting was splendid," she said. "And the swordfights," she added before Aral could. "Were you thinking about Mark?"
"How could I not? Although, granted, he knew who I was, and he was supposed to kill me without letting on who he was. And if I'd killed him instead, he wouldn't have had any time to explain himself. Sohrab didn't have a twin brother to be mistaken for."
"No, just a phantom sister. Well, a phantom female alternate self. How very Old Earth that was, Rustum completely ignoring a daughter he would have been thrilled to know was a son instead."
"Not Old Earth so much as Ancient Earth. Or Old Barrayar." He smiled at her, acknowledging her critique. "Of course, now she could simply make a trip to Beta Colony. I'm surprised they didn't explore that angle. It might have enhanced the tragic irony." She gave him an indulgent chuckle in response. "Mark would hardly have challenged me to single combat, either," he went on. "Whether to impress me or to kill me. Too risky a strategy. Though he is pretty damn deadly. Even after..." Aral made a gesture implying Mark's expanded waistline.
"Not much physical resemblance, to be sure," Cordelia said, waving a hand toward the stage. He could read that very Betan thread of humor: the actor playing Sohrab was young, slim, tall, handsome... dark-haired, yes, but otherwise utterly unlike Mark and like, in his straight-backed military bearing, athleticism, and brashness hiding vulnerability, what Cordelia thought of as Aral's "type" when it came to men. In fact he'd borne a superficial resemblance to André: the latest in a series of which Jole had been the prototype, of highly competent, attractive young officers, anxious to please, deferential but not afraid to assert themselves. Aral was honestly not certain how one after the other made their way into his orbit, whether it was Cordelia's doing or his own or someone else's, but, as with this evening, he'd always enjoyed the spectacle without ever having the least desire to join in the performance.
"Rule Six," he chided her, and she laughed delightedly. In delight, he supposed, that he had remembered all this time. There was nothing wrong with his memory, as she knew perfectly well; his body might be failing him, but his mind was still sharp. And he had extracted a sort of promise from her, that she would not keep, to shoot him if the edge began to dull. Or at least to cut out his tongue.
Speaking of tongues.... "And then," he said, "there was Rule Fourteen, if you recall."
"Oh," she replied, eyes widening in happy surprise, "I do," and she rose to her feet and came over to his chair, moving as easily as though she were half his age, and offered her hands. He took them, considered pulling her into his lap and thought better of it, and instead used the leverage to get out of his seat. Arms and lips were quite functional, and he'd started to put them to good use when a throat cleared behind him.
It was André. He looked faintly scandalized; not, Aral realized soon enough, at the spectacle of the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar canoodling -- he'd seen that before -- but at the exposure to the backstage atmosphere. "The director's compliments in return, sir, not that I saw him, but the message was delivered... by a person in makeup and very little clothing, and rather abrupt... you are invited... here you are, sir."
He handed over a note on paper; his nose wrinkled, and Aral, catching the cue, sniffed before unfolding. Scent, spicy but floral. He read the note.
"I will honor the company director if I present myself in five minutes in dressing room C," he reported. "Drinks, delicious morsels of the Orient... a chance, I imagine, to patronize the arts..."
"You ought to be getting home, sir," said André. He'd stopped blushing when he said motherly things like that, Aral noted. "You have a breakfast meeting with the Sub-Minister for Terraforming; a call to the Emperor scheduled for--"
"Yes, yes, I know," said Aral. And the call from Guy Allegre, not on André's schedule, for which he needed to be awake. "I am allowed ten minutes, I should think. I did enjoy the play, very much. And I'm interested to hear how the theatre worked for them."
"The Arts Ministry--" began André.
"A great deal of Gregor's personal funds went into improvements the Arts Ministry thought were unnecessary," said Aral. "I think he'd like to know how they came out. Who knows, Sergyar could be the next capital of culture in the galaxy."
"Next week," Cordelia said, "Titus Andronicus, the ballet." He turned to her, lifting his eyebrows. "I think you should accept the invitation," she said. "It was an interesting performance. I'm curious to know about the mind behind it."
"Join me, my lady?"
"No. The invitation was for you." She paused. "You will send ImpSec ahead, no doubt."
"I believe" -- he turned to André, who nodded -- "that's already been taken care of. Reasonable precautions. I won't eat or drink anything, either."
"Good. I'll wait up for you at home." She gave him the shiver of a wink -- was violating Rule Fourteen still on offer? -- but alas, the breakfast meeting... Aral followed André out of the box and down the stairs, trailed by Armsmen, the usual parade. His left hip protested the first flight, but after that it wasn't painful: a good evening.
They found their way through the corridors and arrived at dressing room C in time to witness an impasse between a pair of servants and a pair of ImpSec guards, the former carrying trays and the latter blocking access. André waved a hand and the trays made their entrance in ImpSec's heavy grip. Inside the room, the sergeant was running a scanner over the body of...
Ah. Over the ironically unprotesting body of Aral's hostess. The director of the Caucasus Players was a woman. She held her slim arms in a pointed arch over her head; her slippered feet met the floor in a solid, soldierly stance a third of a meter apart. Red-gold curls writhed from her well-shaped head down over her shoulders, which were braced back in regulation squareness. Her gown was rich green and fit her like a snake's skin; she was shapely but tiny, not up to Aral's shoulder, though her polite, chilly smile proclaimed that she was merely enduring the indignity of the security exam and might strike out -- successfully -- at any moment. Her spicy perfume overwhelmed the scent of André's bouquet, somberly ornamenting the dressing table in a large vase, but what Aral smelled was the crackle and burn of a ship's command bridge under fire. Sparks, adrenaline surging, the horror of charred flesh: his senses hadn't been assaulted to that precise pitch since the last time he'd been in a room with Ges Vorrutyer.
The sergeant finished his exam and stepped aside, saluting... improperly, but as usual Aral provided a return gesture, turning it into a wave of dismissal. "Thank you," he said, waving away the Armsmen and the lieutenant as well. Imprudent, but, he was quite sure, worthwhile.
"André," he said to the disapproving frown, "close the door on your way out." But don't go too far away, he encoded in the tone; André was sure to catch it.
"Viceroy Vorkosigan," said the woman when they were alone, curtseying deeply, "it is an honor."
He nodded back. "You have the advantage of me, madame."
"Call me Cleo. Please tell me you enjoyed our performance."
She held out one small, pale hand in appeal, and he realized suddenly that she'd been in the play: dark-haired and differently-gowned, in the subdued, futilely entreating part of Sohrab's mother. She had changed her clothes, but not removed her stage makeup. "It was... intriguing," he said. "Quite mesmerizing, in fact." The hand was still balanced on the air, awaiting his response; he decided to play along. Enfolding it in what seemed in relation an enormous paw and bringing it to his lips, he added, "I am still spellbound."
"Oh my," she said. "And here I'd heard that you were immune to women."
"Whoever told you that?"
She met his eyes. "Your son."
He didn't ask which one? His mind had been on Mark, earlier, but he knew instantly that she meant Miles. And that she wasn't lying. His mind working furiously over the adventures of Admiral Naismith, Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan, and the youngest Imperial Auditor ever, he dropped her hand, uttered an incurious grunt and changed the subject.
"Was the theatre satisfactory to your needs?" he asked.
"Oh, very. It's an interesting building," she replied. "Six-sided?"
"An indigenous architectural theme," he said. "You'll see others like that in the city. Has someone given you a tour?"
"I've seen nothing but these walls," she said, her gesture encompassing the broader expanse of the arts center, not just the tiny, warm, perfumed chamber enclosing them. "Mounting a production on such a scale... a challenge, you know."
"But surely you'd given 'Sohrab and Rustum' elsewhere? Such a polished extravaganza--"
"The first and only. Here, tonight. Where it counts. Please, have a seat."
She indicated a chair, substantial enough to accommodate him; the one she took was as small, delicate and steel-reinforced as herself. The chairs belong to you, Aral told himself. Don't make symbols out of them.
The trays held glasses of honey-golden wine, plums and olives in little bowls, and a plate of some sweet treat rolled in powdered sugar. She held out the last, and he shook his head, suspecting that she'd just made a joke and he'd provided the expected punchline. It was the first he'd let slip that he no longer considered this a social call, but André would kill him if he accepted food so obviously easy to poison.
"Where it counts," he echoed. "We do enjoy our martial dramas, we Barrayarans. Sergyarans, I should say. Is that what you meant?"
"There was more to it than fighting," she said, acting offended.
"Of course. But that part was very well done. Did you... design, I suppose, the fights yourself?"
She shook her head. "Not my field of expertise."
"The swords would be too heavy for you. Nerve disruptors weigh a good deal less."
Her eyebrows went up, but she didn't reply directly. "My son blocked the fights," she said. "He has studied with the masters. On Earth, and on Eta Ceta."
"Sohrab. You didn't see the resemblance?"
Aral thought back, not to the scenes the two had played together, but to the curtain call, when for a brief second the two faces had glanced up at the Viceroy's box as one. They had looked alike: not the facial structure so much as the expression. "He doesn't have your lovely hair," Aral said, and she gave him a satisfied smirk; possibly she even believed the compliment. The hair was a wig, he was almost certain, though a well-made one, and she'd donned it to remind him of Cordelia. Why, he wasn't yet sure; she wasn't making any effort to seduce him. He should probably be insulted.
"Perhaps he takes after his father?" he added, a casual thrust at no particular target, and was all at once aware that he'd hit a vital nerve. His heart beat faster, that scent of blood and fire rising again in his nostrils.
"Perhaps," she said after a moment's tense stillness. She took one of the glasses of wine and tossed some back -- no games, no offering him the choice of which might be poisoned or drugged -- and turned her chair to face the dressing table. "Do you mind?" she said, dipping a fluff of cotton into cold cream.
"Of course not," he said, and she applied the cream to her face, beginning to rub off the makeup. It was odd that she hadn't done it before changing -- the thick stuff should have stained her clothes -- but he supposed this room was as much a stage as the one he'd applauded in earlier.
She'd called her son "Sohrab." Shorthand, an easy reference, certainly, but he must have a name other than his character's. They hadn't been given programs: no one in the production had a name, including its creator. "Cleo" did not tell him much, and he sensed it was as false as the red hair. Cleopatra? Another ancient legend, and not one he knew much about, though Miles had made him read the play out loud, changing his voice to suit the different players.
"So when did you meet Miles?" he asked.
She smiled at him briefly before returning to her mirror. "Oh, years ago," she said. "I'm not as young as I look, you know."
"You don't look young," Aral said. This earned him a mock look of disapproval: failure to act his role. "Timeless," he amended.
Half her face was bare now; she turned and he felt the divided face as a deliberate effect, like but utterly dissimilar to Cetagandan battle paint. "That will do," she said thoughtfully, and took another sip of wine before going back to her task. "How is Miles?" she said a little indistinctly, working on the mouth.
"Happily married, a father of three, soon to be four children, an Imperial Auditor and my Voice on Barrayar while I serve here."
"That's what, not how, but I'm sure he deserves it. I didn't know him as Miles Vorkosigan, of course. But we all play our parts."
Aral took a gamble. "Admiral Naismith was a long-running engagement," he said. "Successful while it lasted."
"He had other names." She cleared the last-lingering bits of paint from around her nose before adding, "I nearly named my son Victor; it seemed a good omen."
Aral had never wished for a chip in his brain like the one that had tormented Simon for decades while making his career. Nothing wrong with his memory: he remembered what mattered -- like Cordelia's Rules -- like everything about Cordelia -- and the rest leaked out in the normal way of things. It was all -- except the deepest secrets -- written down somewhere. "Victor" set off echoes, an angry word reverberating in a leaked-out memory cave, the suffused face of an ImpSec officer exasperated by Miles's antics. Ensign Vorkosigan. It had been that long ago; he'd been an ensign relatively briefly. Well, that's a start on the subordination problem: that was Simon, reporting, very dry.
Eighteen years ago, more or less. The Hegen Hub; Vervain; Miles recapturing the Dendarii; the death of Stanis Metzov. Gregor, pale and determined in the fleet tactics room of the Prince Serg. Gregor, pale and determined, emerging from the library at Vorkosigan House after, most likely, having his head turned inside out and hung out to dry, a dose of Betan therapy Aral had reluctantly admitted was much-needed.
A far more recent memory, last week's: Guy Allegre, by ultra-secured comconsole transmission, reporting to Aral not as Viceroy of Sergyar nor strictly as former Regent or Prime Minister, not as Count Vorkosigan, but in a leap over regulations as the man whom Allegre trusted most to know. A phantom. A blip, he'd said. Though we've heard of him more than once. Several times, in several places. I wouldn't be concerned, except... it's just the name.
The name was enough. "But you didn't call him Victor, did you?" Aral said. "And he's not Miles's son." She shook her head. "I suppose he could be Stanis Metzov's," Aral went on.
Cavilo -- and it was certainly she -- snorted. "Stanis was born to be a goat. A clown. Not the father of... what did you see on that stage tonight?"
"A waste of a good soldier. An overdose of tragic irony. And... what would my wife say?... a failure to communicate."
"Not a hero?" Cavilo asked.
"Of course. But heroes are overrated."
"I agree. Winning is what counts. My dear Count."
It's just the name, Allegre had said. Serg Barra. It's turned up on Earth, on Jackson's Whole. On Escobar, most recently. If he is who we think, he's young. Seventeen standard. If the witnesses don't lie. He'd given Aral the smidgeon of a raised eyebrow at that "seventeen standard," obviously meaning Miles at the birth of Admiral Naismith. Aral had been remembering Prince Serg at seventeen.
"Well!" he said. "And here I thought the biggest challenge I'd face this evening was turning down a request for artistic patronage." She wasn't going to poison him, at least; he reached for one of the white-coated nuggets and bit into it. Honey, nut meats; the sugar sliding over his tongue, catching on his teeth. He wiped powder from his mouth and washed it down with half a glass of wine. "To Gregor," he said belatedly, holding up the glass.
"I called him Greg," she said. "He was quite lovely in bed, you know. I expect he's had more practice since." She raised her glass and drank in return.
"He's sired an heir and a spare," Aral said. "Legitimately."
"His wife is very pretty," Cavilo allowed. "I was blonde once. Then, in fact. I'm still rather short."
"And slim," said Aral. "And, hm. Vicious. Not the model for Laisa, I'm afraid."
"Not that it matters." Cavilo turned the glass in her hand, watching the patterns of light on the remaining swallow of wine. "I didn't raise him," she said. "I was captured by the Cetagandans, and when they discovered the pregnancy, they took the fetus and grew it in a replicator. He was raised in the household of a ghem-General and his haut-wife. He escaped, on his own, at fourteen, and found me on Earth. He knows who his father is. So do the Cetagandans."
"They let you go?" said Aral.
"I paid for my freedom, believe me. One thing you can say for the Cetagandans, they are more sophisticated than anyone else in the galaxy." Her eyes bored into Aral's. "Stanis used to call me a frill. Have you ever called a woman that?"
"Not after the age of..." He considered. "Thirty or so. You're not. Frilly, I mean." Damn, he wasn't getting drunk on a few gulps of wine, was he? Never could hold your liquor, Ges sneered in his head.
Well, if Ges was talking to him, he was at any rate... up past his bedtime. "What do you want from me?" he asked. "If this young man is Gregor's get -- and I have only your word for that -- that fails to make him Crown Prince, I'm afraid. And I assume you wouldn't be satisfied with a quiet annuity." Cavilo shook her head. "Then," said Aral, "I regret to tell you that facility with swords isn't going to protect him. We've taken down pretenders before. Even those with good bloodlines."
She just smiled at him. He stared back for a moment, then echoed her earlier remark. "Here, tonight. Where it counts. Why here? Why me, for that matter?"
"You are Sergyar; that answers for the place. Besides the amusement of the name. Why you? Because you're a father, I suppose."
"Miles's father." She shook her head, slowly. Gregor's father. Where it counts.
"I wouldn't stay my hand, you realize," he went on. "And it wouldn't be my word that brought him down." Or... why do you think Guy Allegre came to you?
"Perhaps not," she said. "But you wouldn't fail to tell Gregor about it." He frowned, and she added, "I could proclaim my son in public, but they'd silence me. They'd never let Gregor know. If you found out that way, you'd hold your tongue. I'm sure you've kept secrets before." A little smirk, to show him she might know what they were. "But hearing it from me, face to face" -- she circled her face with a hand, reminding him she'd stripped the paint from it in his presence -- "you know it for truth. And you know that Gregor has the right to be told."
"And why do you think he'll care? He's not the boy you knew any longer. He's a man, and a good Emperor, and... pragmatic. And he has no reason to like you. None of us do."
"Oh dear, how dreadful." She shook some of the curls over her shoulders; leaned forward, showing cleavage. "I could make you like me. If you wish me to."
Aral had only once in his life spat in a woman's face, and he didn't think he could produce enough saliva to manage it now. He laughed, coldly, instead. "Save it," he said.
"Ah, yes. You are an old man, after all. And, as Miles said..."
"Not immune to women. To you, certainly. There are advantages to getting old; knowing better is one."
"There are disadvantages as well," she snapped. "Like forgetting important details." He waited. "The Cetagandans," she said, sneering.
"I haven't forgotten. You said they were aware of your son's alleged parentage."
"Yes," she said, a crow of triumph. "What's more, they have his genetic material."
Aral shrugged. "They have some of Miles's, too. No additional clones have come knocking on my door. If they did, I'd invite them in. But it's unlikely."
"They can isolate Gregor's--"
"Didn't you learn anything while the Cetas were holding you? That's not their style. Though if they choose to use your son's genes to experiment with, you are honored. He'd probably turn up first in one of the sexless ba--"
Cavilo was not lacking saliva. Aral wiped his cheek and went on. "If you wanted to double your chances at pointless dynastic challenge, you should have gone to Jackson's Whole." Which, apparently, "Serg Barra" had, if Allegre's sources were right. It was unimportant. Unless... Cavilo's anger at the idea of a Serg-ba made him reconsider. A Gregor-clone in whatever had replaced Ryoval's dungeons -- that would be unfortunate. As would a pampered Gregor-clone supposedly awaiting brain transplant. But he was hardly going to suggest either scenario to Cavilo.
"So," he said, "you've failed to move me to fury, lust, panic or... patronage. What now?"
"I suppose," she said coolly, "I go over your head."
"Directly to Gregor? You have no access."
"I have a recording of the performance. I’m sure he would be thrilled to--"
"You know I can block that."
"True. But then it seems I was wrong. You don't think he needs to know. You don't think he's strong enough to know. What are you afraid of? What would he do?"
Aral shrugged, refusing to answer. If he knew Gregor, and he thought he did, the response would involve, in some logical order, using ImpSec to confirm paternity, sharing the news on a strict need-to-know basis (including, most importantly, with Laisa), and letting someone browbeat Cavilo into accepting money for silence and a name change for Serg. Aral was afraid that it would also include meeting with the young man, and possibly offering him a post at a strategic distance from Barrayar.
"In any case," said Cavilo, "when I said 'over your head' I didn't mean Gregor. As I called you down here my son was already on his way to intercept your wife."
"Yes. I did quite a lot of looking into Countess Vorkosigan, in those brief days when I thought I might succeed in becoming Empress. People have said things about her. That she trusts easily. That she worships truth and openness and -- how like a Betan -- the sharing of feelings. And she's a mother. I don't think she could keep this secret from Gregor. She'd be dying to share it."
Aral got up slowly, went to the door, opened it and leaned out. André stood there, with Armsman Petrov. "The Vicereine," he said, giving Cordelia her proper title for Cavilo's benefit, and to let his men know it was important, "has she already gone home?"
Petrov muttered into his wristcom, while André lifted his eyebrows and tried to angle his gaze past Aral into the room. "Yes, m'lord," said Petrov.
"Oh, what a shame," said Aral. "Straight home after I left her, I assume? Is she already in bed? And, um, alone?" André's eyebrows went higher; but it was no time to worry about getting his questions in order.
Petrov muttered again. "Yes, m'lord," he reported. "To all of those."
"Thank you," said Aral, and shut them outside. He turned, and found Cavilo standing close by, not looking at him but studying her image in a full-length mirror on the wall, smoothing her dress over her hips as though it might have wrinkled from long sitting. He leaned against the door, waiting until her attention turned back to him.
"You can't always believe what people say," he told her. "And neither does my wife. She might tell Gregor, if she thought it was best, but she'd be damned sure she wasn't being fooled first. But we can both keep secrets, when keeping them is the right thing for all concerned. And," he added, taking a few steps toward Cavilo, "we can, both of us, kill ruthlessly and without regret when it's necessary." We can also lie. "A man died once while telling her she was a Betan and couldn't kill him. And she's been a Barrayaran many years since then."
"A Sergyaran, now."
"Yes. I'm sorry that will never mean what you'd like it to mean. This planet was named after the man who fathered Gregor. But Serg was never his father. Not the sort that held him and educated him and made him believe in himself, and not the sort who, say, would accept a challenge to single combat and tear his heart out in anguish when he killed his own son. You should have picked a different name for yours."
Her gaze grew more intent, and Aral cursed himself. She hadn't told him her son's name; she now knew that he'd found out from another source. Well, it hardly mattered; it should add to Barrayar's credit.
She moved closer to Aral, looking down at her folded hands and, raising her gaze but not her head, up through dark eyelashes into Aral's face. Acting again: the regretful mother belatedly discovering her maternal love. "I didn't name him," she said. "He named himself."
"One of many names, I suspect." She nodded. "The choice is pretentious," Aral said. "Gets him noticed. I take it, then, that he's not attempting to emulate Sohrab."
The eyelashes fluttered a little. "Gregor is too pragmatic for single combat, I'm sure."
"Gregor's whole life has been a series of single combats. He was in the midst of one when he met you. At least, being Emperor, he usually has a champion or two in the wings, watching his back."
"Such as Miles." She toyed with one of the curls snaking down her neck, trying to draw Aral's gaze to her chest; apparently seduction was still part of her strategy.
"We were all grateful to Miles on that occasion." And infuriated, frustrated and astounded, but that was beside the point. "If you were speaking literally, then no, Gregor is not trained to the sword. He's not bad with a stunner."
"And he has champions armed with nerve disruptors, yes." Her hands touched Aral's; her eyes met his briefly as if for permission, and then, stepping very close, she trailed her fingers up his arms to his shoulders. "We're a theatre troupe. We play to an audience, but we don't think what we play is real, or the best policy under all circumstances." The wandering hands locked behind his neck with a caress like a crawling spider; she had to go up on her toes to reach. "I'd rather thought of this, tonight, as the single combat. You and I, Viceroy."
"And are you murderous or suicidal?" said Aral.
She smiled pensively. "Are those the only options? You said Gregor's whole life was single combat, but what you meant was wrestling with demons. When I met him" -- she wriggled, implying sexual grappling -- "it was rather literal. But even demons have demons. Surely you do. I hear you choked a man to death once." Her voice was light, curious. "How did that feel, I wonder? Having his life squeezed out by vengeful, righteous fingers? Was he grateful to be so chastised?"
She gave him what might have been a playful glance if her eyes hadn't been so hard, and slid her hands around his neck so the thumbs pressed against his windpipe. It wasn't much of a threat, but anger and reflexes took over, breaking the grip with an upward thrust of his arms, collecting her wrists in one hand and forcing them over her head into the pose she'd held when he first entered the room. He pushed her -- misjudging her weight, harder than he'd intended -- and she flew against the wall; the mirror cracked.
Her breath drew in; she'd been hurt. Not that he cared, and he felt a little unworthy pleasure that his aged body could still move so efficiently. She recovered, her eyes flickering toward the door and the non-response of André and Petrov outside.
"What do they think you're doing in here? Or perhaps they've sneaked out for a drink. Or a quick blowjob in an empty dressing room. I'm sure they need practice for servicing you."
Rule Six, Aral thought. But Cavilo had no sense of humor. "They merely think I can handle myself in whatever situation should arise. They are," he added, releasing her hands and stepping back with a formal bow of his head, "obviously wrong. I let myself overreact, and I apologize." Like hell, his tone told her. Her arms lowered, slowly, to her sides, and then one hand felt behind her. "Are you bleeding?" he asked.
"'Now in blood and battles was my youth, and full of blood and battles is my age, and I shall never end this life of blood.' You're breathing hard, Viceroy. Are you Rustum, proving your valor has not been daunted with senility? At least he wasn't reduced to beating up women." She examined her red-tinged fingers. "All down my cold, white side the crimson torrent runs," she said, still mocking: another quote from the play. "Unlike Sohrab, I will live."
"Strip me and bandage me? No, thank you. An exemption on our security deposit for the mirror would be appreciated. And the price of the gown." She went back to her chair, threw a shawl over it -- red, to match the blood -- and settled down a little stiffly.
"You will be refunded any legitimate costs," he said.
"Save those I came here to recoup. So much for Barrayaran mercy. A mythical beast."
Aral shrugged. "It's not entirely mythical. It's just very... traditional. I have, personally, done a lot to change that. So has my wife. So has Gregor. But the traditional forms are still valued."
"I thought," she said, smiling slightly, "I might have used some of them. A miscalculation, clearly." She pulled the red shawl over her shoulders, a vivid contrast with the wicked green of her dress. "Blood and battles. You've had a long life; do you remember everyone you've killed?"
"Some of them," he said. "Some were just blurs of light in the distance. Some haunt me to this day. Demons, you said. I have demons. Though the man I strangled isn't one of them." She gave him an acknowledging, perhaps rueful nod. "I'm not going to kill you," he told her. "But if I did, I'd remember." Her spine straightened and her chin lifted: a posture of satisfaction. It pricked a memory: a young Miles, echoing lines from the play he'd made Aral read.
"'Give me my robe; put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me,'" he quoted. "Cleopatra."
"She bore a child to Caesar," Cavilo said. "None of it went very well." She began to laugh, gently but with the irregular hiccup of hysteria. "This has been an entertaining interlude," she said after a moment. "But I really can't keep you any longer."
"I won't be sleeping tonight," he replied.
"Yes, I suppose you have things to report. To someone." The giggle still infected her voice. "There's no need. Really. Pay me no mind."
"I'm sorry if your actions have resulted in personal inconvenience," he began, "but--"
"No," she said more sharply, cutting across his words. "I mean it. You can't always believe what people say." The echo of his words carried his own resonance and weight. "I'm an actress, my dear Count. It happens to be my profession, at the moment, but it's my nature as well. I've been performing for you. Telling you tales."
He was standing, unconsciously, in parade rest, waiting as the world swirled around him. "Say what you mean," he told her.
"His name is Matthias. He's twenty-three, and he's not my son. He's my lover, in fact. I like them young." A vulpine smirk, and she went on: "Really, now. The Countess would have seen through me right away. How long was I with Gregor? If I'd whipped out my contraceptive implant immediately, pregnancy would still have been extremely unlikely. Thank my lucky stars. It would have ruined my figure."
"You're forgetting the Cetagandans," said Aral dryly.
"Oh, yes. It's already slipping away. Another performance tomorrow; new lines to learn. You have been a charming audience. Good night." She rose, almost smoothly -- he didn't think the injury had been feigned -- and lifted a hand, the same gesture of appeal she'd used earlier. He took her hand and raised it toward his mouth, but failed to kiss it.
She looked sideways, a pointed glance at the mirror. Spiderweb cracks, shards missing; their reflections, shattered and echoed, hands and bits of faces and slashes of red, green, and brown with silver sparks. He looked less old, in that glass, than in those he'd been accustomed to of late.
"What if I'd gone along with your persuasions?" he asked. "Any of them."
"That," she said, "would have been even more charming." She brought her gaze back to his face. "Forgive me my amusements," she said. "Your Emperor amused himself in a similar fashion, with me. I was... simply taking my own small revenge. It's all I have left." Her expression was frank and open, and Aral thought he might trust her honesty; he felt dizzy with relief.
"I'll still have to report this."
"You must do your duty. Good night. Close the door on your way out."
He bowed and left her. André and Petrov were still waiting just outside, with the other Armsmen further down the hall. Aral ignored the questions in André's eyebrows and Petrov's practiced silence, motioning them into their regulation positions. The theatre was quiet; protective cover seemed ridiculous, but his men guarded him by rote, and ImpSec no doubt lurked in the wings.
Down the hall, around the corner to the stairs; the Armsmen on sudden alert as a head popped out of another dressing room. It was Sohrab -- Matthias. The youngster emerged completely and swept Aral a deep bow. He looked up again, into the light, finding it with an actor's instinct, and Aral stopped dead.
Out of costume, makeup stripped, and at arm's length rather than on a stage, the boy's appearance was shockingly familiar. Aside from the cruel arrogance haunting the dark eyes, he might have been Gregor's twin. Aral tried not to glance at André and the other men; they couldn't be missing the resemblance. Or perhaps they could -- he was seeing a memory, after all. Perhaps his old eyes were failing him. But he didn't think so.
He gave the boy a curt nod. "Congratulations," he choked out, and waved his retinue on. He needed to get home for a long conversation with Guy Allegre, before he spoke to the Emperor tomorrow.