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Memory is corrupted and ruined by a crowd of “memories.”  If I am going to have a true memory, there are a thousand things which must first be forgotten. —Thomas Merton

Time is what prevents everything from happening at once.  Space is what prevents everything from happening to me. —John Wheeler

 

Day One

“And so what happened after you were coded in to the house?”  Simon leaned back in his chair and stared over his folded arms at his informant.

Duv Galeni shifted and gave a half-suppressed sigh.  “We went looking for him.  It took a while.  It’s a damned big place.”

“He wasn’t in his room?” Simon said blandly.

“No, that was the first place Ivan—Captain Vorpatril—looked.  Then we looked in several other places he thought he would be.  We wound up having to take it room by room.  Turned out he was in a tiny room on the fourth floor.”

Galeni stopped, looking uncomfortable.  Simon didn’t blame him; he felt uncomfortable himself.  He had deliberately set the feeling on a lower register of his attention for this interview.  Simon proceeded, quietly and gently.

“What state was he in when you found him?”

“Bad,” Galeni said flatly.  “Unresponsive.”

“Drunk?”

“We thought so at first, but the bottle was still sealed.  He was catatonic.”

Simon winced inwardly.  He’d dealt with a catatonic Miles before.  Still, it wasn’t the worst scenario.  Captain Galeni’s preface to this interview had been to assure him of that.

“There was his fancy Vor knife sitting on the table, too,” Galeni went on.  (Simon knew that knife: just short of the worst scenario, then.)  “He was still in his uniform—you know, with—”  With the blood on his collar and his insignia torn off.  Galeni didn’t say it, and Simon didn’t press him.

Galeni took a fortifying breath and continued.  “I suggested we get him some medical attention, but Captain Vorpatril seemed to think that wasn’t a good idea.  He decided to revive him by his own method.”

“Which was what?” Simon asked, grimly.

Galeni’s lips twitched.  “We filled a large bathtub down the hall with the entire contents of the icemaker bin and ran it full of cold water.  Then we carried him down the hall fully dressed—minus his boots—and dumped him in.  Ivan pushed his head all the way under and ducked him as many times as Miles would stand for it.”

“What did Miles do?” Simon was fascinated in spite of himself.

“Set up the most appalling howl and tried to jump Ivan before he even got out of the soup.  Then he swore several impressive blue streaks.  There was ice and water everywhere.”

“You wouldn’t think it to look at him,” Simon murmured, “ but Captain Vorpatril’s methods are very effective sometimes.  What was your reaction to this?”

Galeni hesitated; opened his mouth, shut it, then lifted his chin in a faint gesture of defiance.  “If it hadn’t been so deadly serious, sir, I would have found it highly amusing.”

I’ll bet.  Good for you, Simon thought.  “That’s Miles for you,” he said with a little sigh.  “Then what happened?”

“Ivan made him get cleaned up and dressed, and we dragged him out to a restaurant and made him eat.  We tried to get him to talk about what happened, but he wouldn’t till we brought him back home.”

Simon watched Galeni carefully.  “And did he?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What did he tell you?”

“To all appearances,” Galeni said, “the truth.  He told us about the incident in the field, which was gruesome enough without the details.  Then he said he lied about it in his report to you.  And that you fired him for lying.”

It sounded like the truth, all right:  Simon’s heart was starting to hurt again.  He said nothing.  Now he tells the truth, he thought; now.

Galeni was looking morosely away across Simon’s desk.  The Komarran necessarily had good control quite apart from his ImpSec training, but it was plain he wasn’t enjoying this debriefing, and continuing was beginning to make Simon feel rather sick.  But it had to be done.

“It’s a waste,” Galeni said, with his eyes elsewhere.

“Yes, well, he did it to himself,” Simon snapped.

“Yes, he said that,” Galeni said calmly, looking back at him.  “It seemed to be his only source of dignity.  He said he was well out of being pulled off galactic duty to train for your position, by the way.  He seemed to be very clear-sighted about that at least.”

“You told him about that discussion?” Simon said, with his eyes narrowed.

“Yes, sir,” Galeni said, without apology.

It wasn’t good security, but Simon was vengefully pleased.  Let Miles know how royally he’d fucked up some good plans.  He wouldn’t be sorry about it, but at least he’d understand what a waste of effort his perjury had been.

Time to wrap up this interview before he got any more depressed.

“You realize, I think, that the entire substance of that conversation is not for anyone else’s ears.”

“Of course, sir,” Galeni said, with the merest hint of coolness.  That stiff, aloof demeanor of his sometimes got him in trouble with his Barrayaran colleagues, but Simon liked Galeni for all that: the former historian could be depended on to value a certain level of objectivity—or at least, to flee from the kind of subjective entanglement that was a danger to security.  He would keep his own counsel, a good quality in an analyst.

“Of course,” Simon said.  “What else happened after that?”

Galeni shrugged.  “Not much.  I came away shortly after that.  Captain Vorpatril’s plans were to stay with him until we could be sure he was stable.  He brought a duffel for the purpose.  And—”  Galeni stopped again.

“And what?” Simon said, softly.

He swallowed.  “And, he said, to make sure Miles doesn’t skip off back to the Dendarii.”

It was what Simon was worried about too.  He grunted.  “I’ll leave Ivan to it, then.  But I want you to keep me posted.”

“Sir,” Galeni said, “I’m not really in Miles’s confidence.” (The hell you’re not, Simon thought, considering what he just told you.)  “We don’t spend much time together.  That was the first time I’ve ever been in Vorkosigan House, and he didn’t exactly offer me a standing invitation.”

“Nevertheless,” Simon said austerely, “whether you realize it or not, you’re one of Miles’s people now.  He collects them.  It’s an impressive set.  At least—” Simon sighed— “he comes by it honestly.  He’s got his father’s eye for personnel and his mother’s power of persuasion.  It’s a deadly combination.”

“A very…interesting…compliment, sir,” Galeni said.  Oh yes, the man had a sense of humor, all right.

“Indeed,” Simon said.  “I’ll expect regular reports of whatever you may get, either from Miles or Captain Vorpatril, no matter how slight.  You may go.”

They both rose and saluted one another, and Simon went with Galeni to the door, to let him out.

In the outer office his secretary looked up smartly.  “Sir, General Haroche wants to talk to you,” he said as Simon waved Captain Galeni out.  “And you have an incoming from Lady Alys Vorpatril.  D’you want me to take a message from her?”

“No, I’ll talk to her now,” Simon said.  “Put her through.”  He went back into his office and shut the door.

He sat down to his chiming comconsole and pulled up the vid.  “Good morning, Simon,” Lady Alys said.

“Good morning, my lady,” Simon returned, with a slight smile.

“I have some business to go over with you,” she said, “of a rather delicate nature.  Are we on a secure channel?”

“My personal one.  Yes.”

“Good.  Tomorrow afternoon Gregor is giving a private picnic lunch for Dr. Toscane.  He has invited myself and Miles to attend as chaperones.”

Simon couldn’t quite suppress a wince.  “So, it wasn’t your imagination, then.”

“No,” Lady Alys said grimly.  “He has also requested that Miles attend him for a personal conference beforehand in his office.”

Simon sighed.  “Yes.”

“There’s more to this medical discharge of his than Ivan tells me,” she said, without a scintilla of uncertainty in her dark eyes.  “I’m not going to ask.  But knowing Miles, it’s bound to be something to induce a massive headache.”

“Quite,” Simon said, with a snort.  Headache, indeed.  “And it’s as nothing to the headache there’ll be when Aral finds out.”

“About the discharge?  Or about what’s behind it?”

“Either.  Both.”  Simon felt a heavy qualm on his stomach at the thought.  It must have shown on his face, because Lady Alys’s pretty mouth twisted briefly in sympathy.  “Anyway, I’ve delegated that little job firmly to Miles himself.  Don’t let him inveigle you into doing it for him.”
 
She gave a delicate snort.  “No fear of that.  I’ve enough on my plate with this interest of Gregor’s in Dr. Toscane.”

“What kind of interest is it, d’you think?” Simon asked.

“Not the simple and discreet kind, I am now convinced.  I think we are looking at the approach of Imperial matrimony.”

Simon closed his eyes briefly.  “With a Komarran.  Oh, Gregor.  I think I just collapsed under a deluge of work.”  He thought of his Komarran Affairs department.  “Captain Galeni—”

“Yes,” Lady Alys said, “I intend to sound Miles out on that subject tomorrow.  I don’t want any trouble from that quarter.”

“No,” Simon agreed.

“What can you tell me about his interest in her?”

“Not much,” he admitted.  “He’s very close.  I doubt I could draw him.”

“I need to know if they have had any kind of understanding.  I cannot go into this situation blind.”

Simon sighed, acquiescently.  “I can get that information for you, Lady Alys.”

“Please.  I would appreciate it.  And if you can see your way to finding out before I see Miles tomorrow, I would be even more grateful.”

“Your servant, my lady,” he said.  Over the years, Simon had cultivated toward Lady Alys a courtly demeanor leavened with just enough dry humor to defuse any sense of condescension on his part or obligation on hers.  In return, she had favored him with all the information about the internal workings of the Residence that he could ever want.  Their foxhole friendship during the final days of the Pretender’s War had evolved to regular, occasional mornings over tea at the Residence, a peaceful exchange of data which neither took for granted.  Working with her was an exercise in gratitude.

“Thank you, Simon.  Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Mm, unlikely.  I’ll send a courier with any report I’m able to produce.”  He gave her a dry half-smile.  “There’s rather a lot going on just now.”

“Yes, well, grab something and hang on.  It’s only going to get worse from here.”  When Lady Alys talked like that, with the light of generalship in her eye, Simon always felt ready to fall in like an infantryman.  He never could tell whether it was delight, fear, or curiosity that most moved him, and he suspected he never would.

“Understood,” he said, with a brief grin.  “Anything else?”

“No, that’s all.  I look forward to next hearing from you.”

“Good day to you, my lady.  Oh, and I’d love to hear what Miles has to say about the situation with Galeni.  When next we meet.”

“Of course.  Good day, Simon.”

Alone in the silence of his office after Lady Alys ended the call, Simon reflected ruefully on the incestuous manner of ImpSec data gathering.  He had just extruded from Duv Galeni all his data about Miles Vorkosigan’s state of mind; Lady Alys was in the process of picking Miles’s brain about Galeni.  Were Miles still working for him, he could shorten the circuit by picking his brain himself.  He had a bad feeling he was going to miss Miles terribly, and not just for his handy knack for galactic ops.  Damn Miles, anyway.  And Galeni, poor bastard—first he gets sucked into Miles Vorkosigan’s orbit, Simon thought, and now this.  The man’s talent for objectivity was about to be sorely tested.  Again.

Simon reeled back through his data on Galeni’s relationship with Laisa Toscane.  There was Lady Alys’s first conversation with him of four days ago, over early coffee at the Residence:  You may want to be aware, Simon, that Gregor has requested me to invite Dr. Laisa Toscane to tea.  It might be my imagination, but I think he may be paying particular attention to her.  Simon had said:  Dr. Toscane?  The Komarran diplomat that Duv Galeni brought to the State dinner?

The same, Lady Alys had said in her driest tone.

Further back: the State dinner itself.  Simon, running security, had indeed taken note of Gregor’s attention to Dr. Toscane, had even been in eyeshot, at a distance, when they were introduced.  Gregor’s look of absorbing interest had been subtle but unmistakable, when you knew what you were looking at.  Today, Simon parsed the memory again for Galeni’s face.  Galeni was near as hard to read as Gregor, and Simon lacked the equivalent of his thirty-years’ relationship with the Emperor to guide him here.  Alys had said that Ivan put Galeni and Toscane on the guest list, as a favor to himself and Miles, who both owed him a good turn, Alys had reported.  Was that good turn a chance for Galeni to appear to advantage at the Residence merely, or was it to forward his interests with Laisa Toscane?  Simon had a hunch it was the latter, but nothing in Galeni’s face gave him certain confirmation.

No: even collating data from his chip was not going to give Lady Alys the report she needed.  He would have to put someone on it.  Allegre would do it; he knew not to ask questions if Simon said I need some background on one of your men.  Is Galeni sleeping with Dr. Toscane?  There were any number of reasons Simon might want that information, and after all, this was ImpSec.  You expected not to sneeze without an analyst inquiring after your cold by nightfall.

Well, if that was what was to be done, he’d better get started.  Simon got up and went out into the outer office.

"Did Haroche say what he wanted?” he asked his secretary.

“Yes, sir.  It was to brief you on the investigation going on in the Vorrutyer’s District.”

“And where did he go?”

“Back to his office, I think, sir.”

“Very well.  Call over and give him a heads-up that I’m coming.  I’ll stop by his office on my way down to Komarran Affairs.  When I get back I want to review the dispatches for Galactic Affairs Komarr, so get them ready.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”  Simon gave him a wave and went out.

 

Day Thirty-six

“Lieutenant,” Simon shouted, “where are those dispatches?”

He reached for his comconsole, to pull up the vid feed, but his hand wouldn’t move.  Impatiently, he tugged at it, and realized that his wrist was held fast in a medical restraint.  So was his left hand.  In fact, he wasn’t in his office at all.
 
He looked around, aware of his own anxious heart rate, taking stock.  He was in a hospital room.  It looked like ImpSec’s infirmary.  What the hell?

His feet were restrained too, and his clothes were gone.  Shit.  He could think of a few worse things than being tied up like a dog in the bowels of ImpSec HQ, but it wasn’t a long list.

Think, think.  How had he gotten here?  That was the most disturbing thing; he couldn’t remember.  Perhaps he’d been drugged.  But that didn’t make sense.  Wild theories cavorted before his eyes, some Komarran terror plot he had failed to anticipate, involving Gregor and Laisa Toscane and Duv Galeni.

Galeni.  Galen.  Mark.  Miles.

Simon groaned to himself.  Of course Miles had something to do with this.  He was a frigging prisoner in his own command post; there was a Vorkosigan mixed up in it somehow.  And he bet he knew which one.
 
Experimentally, he called out, “Guard!”

Sure enough, a guard put his head around the door and looked him over.

It was Vorberg.

Wait, Vorberg wasn’t off medical leave yet.  Was he?  More to the point, Vorberg couldn’t possibly be in on a treasonous conspiracy.  Unless he wanted revenge on Simon for consigning him to the tender mercies of Admiral Naismith, which, heh.  But no, Vorberg’s expression was one of pale discomfort: no look of vengeance satisfied about him.  Simon gave his subordinate a close glare.

“Vorberg, get Vorkosigan in here at once.  Someone has to explain this fiasco.”

Vorberg’s discomfort deepened to a look of resigned compassion, with a tinge of horror.  “Sir,” he said, “Count Vorkosigan is on Sergyar.”

“No no no,” Simon said in disgust.  “Not on Sergyar.  Here.  At Vorkosigan House.  Having a monumental pity party.  Tell him to make himself useful and get his ass down here.  I need him.”

“Sir,” Vorberg said uncertainly, “if you’re talking about Lieutenant Vorkosigan, he’s been given a medical discharge.  He doesn’t have the clearance.”

Simon rolled his eyes.  This was going to be tedious.  “Well, then give him the clearance.  I want him here.  Now.”

“I’ll…pass that along, sir.”  Vorberg ducked back around the doorway, but Simon could see him still standing there.

This wasn’t going to work.  Simon had to get out of here.  He tugged harder at his restraints.  His knuckles were bruised and swollen.  I hope I gave somebody something to remember, he thought.  Because I sure don’t.  Sudden rage flooded through him, and just as quickly left him exhausted, as if he’d tried that option already, though he hadn’t.

Maybe he was having a particularly long and harrowing nightmare.  Which was disquieting in itself, because between himself and his chip, he’d been conditioned not to have those.  They were a distraction, they were interference.  Simon let his head fall back against the infirmary bed and forced himself to take long, slow breaths.  Interference.  What kind of—

 

Day Eleven
 
Simon woke up with a snap.  He’d been dreaming; he was breathing fast.  With a deliberate gesture he reached for the light-panel at the side of his bunk and touched it on.  He waited for the remnants of the dream to leak away, as they would soon.  Sometimes he had to stay awake the full quarter of an hour that it took for his waking mind to take full control, and sometimes he merely had to wait several seconds before turning over and going back to sleep.

It had been years since he’d learned not to try and drag the content of his dreams forward into consciousness:  his chip didn’t like it; it wasn’t clear usable data, and it read like interference, like static on a broken com channel.  Trying to shift into that function, instead of away from it, was almost impossible, and a sure gateway, Simon suspected, into madness.

It was going to be one of the long ones tonight.  Simon flipped the covers off, got out of his bunk, and pulled his robe on over his pajamas.  He padded into the kitchenette and made himself a cup of tea.  If he was going to be awake, he could do some work.  Simon often amused himself with the idea of going out the door of his little apartment and up two floors to the chief’s office while still in his pajamas, but he’d never actually done it, not even when the call came in breaking the Yarrow case and they were all hands on deck within a few swirling seconds.

He sat down at the little table he used both for eating and working and keyed up his personal comconsole.  Reading a few field reports should dispel the remainders of this dream.  What had it been about?  Something unpleasant, with shadows at the edges of his vision.  No, let it go. 

No, something wasn’t quite right here.  The dream was gone, but there was still something there, like there was something he’d…forgotten?  An anomaly.  Well, you couldn’t find an anomaly just by knowing it was there.  He could either track it down or ignore it till it came to focus.

He decided to ignore it.  He took a sip of tea and pulled up a list of dispatches from ImpSec observers in the Nexus.  Five routed through Pol to Komarr; two through Sergyar by way of Escobar.  Aral had sent him a message yesterday, with a few choice tidbits of data; it was clear Miles hadn’t told him yet about the spectacular end of his career.  Miles, of course, was hiding out at Vorkosigan Surleau for his birthday, Ivan had told Lady Alys, who had told him.  At least he was still on Barrayar.

Simon’s hand curled into a sudden fist.  Damn that boy!  In vulnerable moments he was drawn back to the afternoon he’d compared the anomalous reports and realized what he was looking at.  It could hardly have hurt worse if Miles had actually stabbed him with that Vor knife of his.

The knife.  The knife had been in his dream.  Now what was the significance of that?  Simon could only guess what its significance was to its owner; to him it was a relic of the Time of Isolation and the feudal system whose ethos still rang clear in Barrayar’s every waking moment.  An ethos which Simon often used as a precision tool to lay order.  Tools.  Something missing.  An anomaly. 

Simon unclenched his hand and used it to rub at his face, hard.  No, it wasn’t just a tool.  He lived and breathed it himself; that was why it hurt.  Damn it.

He tented his face for a moment on both hands, his fingertips bracing his eyesockets.  Right, whatever this was, he wasn’t going to untangle it with a quiet session of work distraction.  Or by teasing it out.

He got up and got dressed, and exited his apartment for the wider corridors of the ImpSec fortress, walking in unhurried but swift strides.  The anomaly began to dissolve into evanescence, but he kept going, to ensure he’d be tired enough when he got back.  Rarely did he have to venture on his walks out into Vorbarr Sultana itself.  But tonight might be one of those nights.

 
Day Fifty-two

On the landing between the second and third floor, Simon paused to breathe.  There was sweat beading on his temples, and he blotted at it with the sleeve of his robe.  He was facing up the stairs.  What was he going to do again?

Oh yes.  Comconsole in Aral and Cordelia’s rooms.  Not the one in the library, that one’d been compromised.  No, wait.  That was thirty years ago.  Yes.

Yes, it had been compromised, so all of the comconsoles were routed through his office at ImpSec.  Except the personal ones which had their own private secure channel.  Which was not the comconsole in Count Piotr’s rooms where he was a guest.  Right.  So he was going upstairs.

Now please God, don’t let me get lost in Vorkosigan House.

Simon climbed the rest of the stairs with soft footsteps.  At an equal level of priority with not getting lost was not waking up Miles.  The energy Miles would throw into diverting his panic made Simon stifle a moan at the very thought.

Maybe he ought to try going back to bed again.  (If he didn’t get lost on the way.)  But he’d tried that over and over, lying down shivering, then getting up to pace, and he was exhausted now but the chaos just kept reeling him back in.  He could remember just enough at a time, just enough, to keep the loop going.  It was all very well for the doctor to tell him not to try to rush his recovery: there was a massive goneness in his head and it wasn’t coming back.

Simon stopped, shaking, to catch his breath on a gasp.  He firmly shut away the image of himself wandering the halls of Vorkosigan House, to be found at last derelict and asleep in some corridor by Miles, or worse, ImpSec personnel turned out to look for him.

This, he thought, was the right door.  He pressed it open.  Yes.  It was better when he didn’t think about it too hard.  This was Cordelia’s sitting room and office; there was her comconsole.  Simon went to it and keyed up the desk light, drew out the code pad.  Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.  His fingers entered a code.  If it got him some Vorbarr Sultana lordling annoyed at being rousted out of bed at 0200, he would just have to circle back and look the code up.  Or give up and slink back downstairs.

Which he should probably do anyway.  In fact, yes.  Never mind the lordling, he had no business waking up—but it was too late.  Lady Alys was already sitting down, wrapping a robe around her of some silky embroidered blue stuff, and blinking into the vid pickup.  “Simon?”  Her dark eyes were alert almost at once.  “Simon.  What’s wrong?”

He shook his head, many small times, trying to buy seconds to snatch some words.  “Nothing’s wrong,”  he said finally.  “I—shouldn’t be bothering you, my lady.”

“Nonsense,” Lady Alys said.  “You should certainly be bothering me if something’s happening.  What is it?”

Simon shook his head again.  Dammit, he couldn’t even think of a complete sentence.  “I can’t—can’t—think properly, and it’s keeping me from sleeping.”  There, that was inadequate but plain.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Cordelia’s office,” Simon said, controlling another shiver.  The room’s dimness seemed to curl around him like a hand.

“And you called me?  Yourself?  With the right code?”

He rolled his eyes miserably.  “Hooray for me.”

She gave him a small, rueful smile.

“You’re going to tell me not to panic,” he said.

“I’ve noticed that by the time people say ‘don’t panic,’ it’s usually too late.”

“Well, it is,” he admitted.

“I can see that.  Simon,” she said, her gaze steady on his face, “do you want me to come there to you?”

Yes.  “No,” he said; “no….Miles—ImpSec—your driver—” He tried to make something out of this word sauce for her, but had to give it up.

“You want to talk to me without involving any other people?” she said gently.

Some taut thing in him released, and his shoulders went down.  “Yes,” he said, drawing a clear breath.

“Very well.  We shall talk.  What shall we talk about?”

Anything, as long as it didn’t require him to keep up.  Simon pushed the daunting thought aside and studied Lady Alys’s face, intent on him through the vid pickup.  “Pretend we’re having tea,” he said suddenly.  “Tell me about your day.”

She smiled suddenly, a gesture of relief.  “Of course.  You could get a real cup of tea, before we begin,” she suggested.

He shook his head.  “Other people.  You could get one, though.”

Her smile went wry.  “I, too, would like to avoid involving other people.  We’ll both do without.”  It occurred to him that besides a driver, Lady Alys kept a staff who would probably hold her robe for her if she wished it.  It was a wonder she’d answered her own com.

“Very well,” he said gravely.

She opened her mouth; then paused with a little frown between her brows.

Guessing her thought, he said sadly:  “You probably don’t need to worry about repeating yourself from this afternoon.”

“I’m tired of talking about the betrothal anyway,” she said with conviction.  “I know.  I will tell you about what I did on Komarr besides speak with Gregor’s Voice to various and assorted Toscanes.  I’d been saving up things to tell you, and never got my chance.”

“You had time for other things besides diplomacy?”

“Well, there’s diplomacy, you know, and diplomacy.  I visited three cities and was taken shopping in two of them.  There’s a lovely fountain garden in Solstice, did you know?  And of course we visited their shrine to the Martyrs near the University.  For an object devoted to dragging Aral’s name through the mud, it’s remarkably tasteful.  I didn’t say that, however.  And one evening we attended a theatre festival of ancient stage plays from old Earth….”

Lady Alys described to him the substance of the play, which Simon had actually read some years ago.  It was gone with the chip, now, of course.  But he could read it again, and he wouldn’t even be bored.  Was this what people meant by rereading things for the pleasure of it?  It had been so long since any such thought occurred to him that he lost the thread of Lady Alys’s narrative and had to listen carefully to get her gist again.  Fortunately he didn’t have to hold all that she had said on the reel for later reference.  Didn’t have to?  He couldn’t, was the point, surely.  But he realized suddenly that it was true: he couldn’t, and he also didn’t have to.  There was nothing he had to do, just at this moment.  ImpSec was safe with Lucas at the helm; and if he himself got lost, he had Miles to break all the barriers and all the rules, and Lady Alys to put a thread in his hand to lead him back.

Lady Alys was telling him something about wild parrots, and some outrageous story Ivan had told her about a kitten tree on Eta Ceta, which she refused to believe even if Miles had offered to swear on his name it was true.  Even the Cetagandans would not do something so tasteless.

Pretend we’re having tea, he had said.  An image came to him, not clear, not sharp, but real nonetheless, of himself and Alys in the reception room which she used for her office, looking out the large panel windows at Ezar’s garden, a small tea table at their elbows between them.  It was not one image but a composite of hundreds, Winterfair and Midsummer, thirty years of unhurried confabulations despite those same years of tumult and toil.  With all he’d lost, he hadn’t lost this.

These thoughts were drawing a deep, heavy tide of emotion from somewhere unknown in him.  Simon was afraid of it.  Forgetting he didn’t have to, he switched the register of his attention and concentrated on her words again.

“…and I very nearly bought a pair of Komarran trousers, to please them, you know, because they weren’t bespoke, but in the end I came away without them.  Still, before this matrimonial campaign is finished I may very well appear in Komarran trousers, if only to scandalize Ivan.”

Simon’s lips twitched in spite of himself.  “You wish to scandalize your son?”

“Ivan,” she said, with a flash in her eyes, “needs a few sharp shocks to his system.  Speaking of ice water.”

His brows went up, and stayed up.  “Who told you about that?”

Lady Alys waved a hand.  “Ivan is very proud of his little strategy.  I admit, it saved a number of people a deal of bother.  Why, who told you?”

“Galeni,” he said, with a head-tilt shrug.  “Not that he had a choice.”

“Mm.”  She was looking at him speculatively.  “And you remembered it.”

“It was recent,” Simon said.  “And there were a number of…related features of the situation to remember.”

“In other words, you were worried about Miles at the time.”

Simon didn’t think it was nearly that simple, but he had to admit that the image with its freight came back rather easily.  “Well,” he sighed, “the tables are turned now.  With a vengeance.”

She studied him for a long moment.  He allowed it.  “You seem a little less panicked now,” she said finally.

“Yes,” he said, “I can breathe again.  Maybe I could sleep now.”  He frowned into the middle distance.  “I was having some important thoughts a minute ago.  But I can’t quite call them back.  Do you…d’you suppose it’s safe to lose them?”

“I’m sure it must be,” she said, her eyes suddenly bright.

He nodded, and then added shamefacedly, “I probably haven’t panicked for the last time.”

“Likely not.  When you do,” she said, “you may always call me.”  Something in the set of her head and shoulders reminded him of her son, and his unhesitating—devotion was the only word he could come up with for it—to his cousin.  What had he done to merit a Vorpatril’s fierce commitment?

“Thank you, my lady,” he said, meaning it.

Her eyes were bright again.  “Your servant,” she said lightly.

“Never,” he said.

 

Day Twenty-seven

“I’ve finished proofing this morning’s digests,” Simon said, with his finger on the com pad.  “They’re ready for you to send back.”

“Yes, sir,” said his secretary.  “Right away.  Sir, Captain Galeni has requested to see you.”

“I do have his digest now, thank you, Lieutenant,” Simon said tartly.

“No, sir, it wasn’t that.  He said something about a report.”

Report?  Oh, about Miles.  Simon knew Miles was back in town; he had passed along the alert from Vorkosigan House’s security detail to Gregor at Gregor’s request.  Simon didn’t want to hear about Miles just now.  He had not received any messages from Aral about the matter, so he presumed the status quo was unchanged.  But Galeni was following his orders faithfully, so Simon said, “Fine.  Send him up.  That’s all.”

“Yes, sir.”  The com clicked off.

He stood up, and paused to think.  Any day now he expected to hear from Aral, as soon as Miles sucked it up and told him what happened, which of course he would put off doing as long as he could.  Simon would, if he were Miles.

Any minute now they would bring Miles in here, squelching in frostbite gel and rattling with pneumonia.  Then Aral would come, and they would have to figure out what to do about him.  Again.

You’d think that someone who loved and respected his father would consider what grief his actions would cause before he carried them out.  But no, it always started with one brilliant idea and snowballed from there.  Simon was going to have to create a new department just to handle the security problems caused by Miles Vorkosigan.  He wondered what to call it.  The Department of Localized Chaos?

His com buzzed.  He pressed the com pad.  “Yes,” he said, “bring him straight up.”

“Sir?...Lady Alys Vorpatril is here to see you.  She’s downstairs at the front desk.”

“I didn’t request a visit from Lady Alys,” Simon said sharply.

“No, sir.  She is requesting to see you.  On an Imperial errand, she says.”

An Imperial—  All at once the entire office changed, as if the three dimensions had swapped places without moving at all.  Between one second and the next, he could hardly remember what he’d just been thinking.  He was standing in the same place, his fingertips still splayed on his desk.  This was reality.  He hoped.  A second ago had been…what?

“…Sir?” came his secretary’s tentative voice on the com.

“Yes, of course I’ll see her.  Bring her up.”

“And Captain Galeni, sir?”

“Has he arrived already?”

“No, sir.”

“He can wait in your office.  If my meeting with Lady Alys goes very long, I’ll have you reschedule him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Simon was alone in the silence of his office again.  Alone with that feeling of anomaly that was out of his reach.  He put a hand to his temple as if it hurt, though it didn’t.  There was no pain, just a directionless threat teasing at his consciousness.  What had just happened?  Or had anything happened at all?

He went out to receive Lady Alys, who arrived looking grimly cheerful.  Or cheerfully grim; Simon couldn’t tell which.  His distraction dissipated, and the import of her visit was suddenly very clear.

“My lady.  Please come in.”  He bowed her gracefully into his office.

“Thank you, Simon.”

When they had both sat down she came straight to the point.  “Gregor is sending me to Komarr as his Voice to Laisa’s parents.”

Simon held his breath, stifling a groan.  He let it out by slow degrees.  “Yes.  When?”

“As soon as I can be ready,” she said.  “I have a good deal of packing to do.  And there’s the courier ship to be arranged—”

“And the security detail, and the itinerary clearance—”

“Precisely.”

“Just as you said, a lot of work.  Who is in the need-to-know pool for this?”

“Until after tonight, no one but you.  Gregor and Laisa have a list of people they wish to inform personally, which they plan to do this evening.  After that, it will be up to your discretion who in ImpSec to inform ahead of the formal announcement.  Which, I told Gregor, will not be occurring until I get back from Komarr.”

Simon was very good.  He leaned back in his chair and did not smile even a little bit.  “And the betrothal?”

“Winterfair.”

Simon nodded.  “And the people to be informed tonight.  Is Galeni one of them?”

“Yes.”

Wonderful.  “Well, saves me doing it, I suppose.  And I might as well put him in the need-to-know pool right away, to help with the Komarran end of things.”

“Assuming, of course, that he does not react badly to the news.”

Simon shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  Galeni hasn’t got where he is by letting his professional objectivity go flying out the window.”

“In regard to war, perhaps,” Lady Alys said shrewdly.  “What about love?”

“What about it?” Simon said, irritated.  “I should think the same factors are operative.  In any case, nothing I’ve seen in Galeni so far suggests he is likely to lose his countenance in front of the Emperor, nor do I think he’ll act out in some irretrievably public way.”

“Not everyone has your iron control, Simon,” she said.  Her voice was gentle but her eyes on his face were thoughtful.  Simon felt a touch of warmth rising to his cheeks.  He pitched his answer to match the tone of hers.

“But many men share my sense of duty,” he pointed out.  “Without which they are not allowed to work for me.”

Lady Alys sighed, not disagreeing.  “Well, then, we shall see, won’t we.”

He didn’t need to ask her to pass along anything she heard of Galeni; she saw the need for care as clearly as he did, so he left it at that.  His thoughts cast themselves outward from the present set of difficulties, to light on a fact he had almost despaired of ever having under his grasp.  The Emperor was going to be married.  Instead of the destruction and civil war and widespread chaos that had threatened Barrayar in Gregor’s childhood, Simon saw in his mind’s eye the present concertedly-stable outlines of Vorbarr Sultana, lit up by the glory of Imperial fireworks.  His spirits lightened a trifle.  “It’s really going to happen, isn’t it?” he said wonderingly.  His gaze focused on Lady Alys, whose lips twisted wryly.  “That is,” he added in agreement with her thought, “if we pull it off.”

“If we do,” she said with a small sniff, “I hope it means the end of Byerly’s tedious quips about Gregor’s preferences.  I should dearly like to shut him up.”

“Oh yes,” Simon said, “that’s entirely likely,” and she broke into an unguarded smile.

They looked at one another over Simon’s desk for a moment, and then he asked quietly:  “Is Gregor happy?”

“Judge for yourself,” Lady Alys said, opening a hand in a graceful shrug.  But she was still smiling.

“I’ll do that,” he said.  “And I’ll make up a list of men for your security detail and have my secretary start the arrangements in the morning.”

“Thank you, Simon.”

“My pleasure, my lady.”  He bowed to her as they rose, and he opened the door and followed her out into his outer office.

At their entrance Simon’s secretary looked up sharply, coming to a sort of seated attention, and Duv Galeni rose to his feet.

“Lieutenant,” Simon said, at the same moment pointing Galeni into his office, “please get me on the Emperor’s schedule this afternoon for an informal appointment.  My lady—” he turned to Lady Alys as Galeni slid morosely past him through the door— “may I wish you godspeed.”

Out of Galeni’s eyeshot, Lady Alys glanced after him and raised an eyebrow at Simon.  Simon mouthed, Miles, and her eyes lifted heavenward, as much as to say, That boy!

“Thank you, Simon,” she said, answering his words with hardly a pause.  “And you.  You’re looking very pale lately, you know.  I hope you’re not unwell.”

“Touch of overwork, maybe,” Simon said, and added deadpan, “Perhaps I should look into taking a holiday.”

Her lips twitched begrudgingly into a smile.  “Oh yes,” she said, “that’s entirely likely.”

He allowed himself a very brief grin.  “Good day to you, my lady.”

“And to you.  Simon.  Lieutenant.”

He watched her go for a moment, and then returned to his office and shut the door.  He received Galeni’s salute and sat down.  “Well?”

“Sir,” Galeni said, “my report is that I have nothing to report.  I’m sure you’re aware that Miles is back in Vorbarr Sultana.  But he’s made no move whatever to contact me, and I’ve hesitated to try to reach him by com.  I suspect he’s avoiding me.”

“And what do you make of that?” Simon asked carefully.

Galeni shrugged.  “It makes sense to me.  Except that I have tried at least three times to contact Captain Vorpatril, and he’s ducked all my messages.  I don’t know what to make of that.”  The expression in his hooded eyes was narrow and distant.

Simon knew exactly what to make of it, and wished that in situations like this Ivan would exert himself to dissimulating rather than taking cover.  Not that either tactic was likely to cushion the blow that was coming to Galeni.  What would we do, he thought, if we could always see what’s coming?

“I don’t have an explanation, Captain,” Simon told him.  “But it seems evident that this assignment is tapped out.  You’re excused from reporting to me any further, unless and until something happens you think I should know about.”

“Thank you, sir,” Galeni said, looking only marginally relieved.  Simon dismissed him, and sat brooding at his desk.  War and love.  Perhaps he had better invoke his privilege of viewing Gregor’s calls.

Just to be sure.

 
Day Sixty-three

Simon was getting dressed when he—felt, more than heard, the rumble of sudden activity below, as if Vorkosigan House were a banner shaken out by a sudden strong breeze.  He went across the hall to a room with a window looking on the front drive.  Multiple cars, yes, and there was Martin coming round with another.  Miles was headed, Simon deduced, to his investigation at ImpSec; and therefore Cordelia would soon be up here to investigate him.  A mixed blessing, surely, for Miles to have work that deflected maternal concern.  It would therefore fall to Simon to tell her about the sabotage of his chip.  But he found he didn’t actually mind.  He wanted to consult her, and, yes, to renew his memory of her.  He went back into the study in Count Piotr’s suite, took up a reader, and waited.

Sure enough, Cordelia sailed in about ten minutes later, with the clear direct gaze of a navigator that Simon was grateful to find familiar.  “Ah, good, Simon, you’re up and about.”  She allowed him to bow over her hand, and then pulled him into a Betan hug to which he submitted with good grace; it certainly wasn’t the first time his liege lady had insisted on hugging him as a friend.

Except that instead of letting go, Cordelia tightened her embrace, in a concern so immediate that the tears sprang to Simon’s eyes.  Before he had quite blinked them away, she held him away by the shoulders to look him over.  “I can’t stay long, I’m afraid—I’m meeting with Alys and Laisa in less than an hour—but I wanted to see you first.  I’ve heard a little news, but not much.  How are things?”

Simon was shaken out of himself.  “Oh, Cordelia,” he said, attempting his usual dry smile, “what a lot of shit has hit the fan since we last met!”

She grinned.  “Evidently.  I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?  At least you look well.  How does it feel to have that damned chip out?”

Simon gave a sigh.  “My brain and I are not used to it.”

“Not surprising,” she said, and reached for her pocket.  “I bring you greetings from Aral.  They predate your medical crisis, of course, but I expect most of his message is still relevant.  I had to discourage him from recording one for Miles, and make him send one to you instead.  Between the pair of you, you’ve got him worried to distraction.”

Simon accepted the message disk and put it in his own pocket.  It seemed less fearful a thing, to hear from Aral now.  “My attempted assassination,” he corrected her.

She straightened, and her eyes glittered.  “Then it was sabotage.  We wondered.  Tell me.”  He nodded, and they both sat down.

“There’s not much to tell as yet.  Someone somehow slipped me an engineered biosubstance designed specifically to destroy my chip.  Almost took me with it.  The rest of the questions are still unanswered.”

“Hence the load Miles is towing with his Auditor’s chain,” Cordelia nodded, and added thoughtfully, “I must say, this does seem to have effectively redirected him.”

“Yes, when Miles gives something his full attention, he’s impossible to distract.”  Simon stared into the distance, eyes narrowed.  “I could almost feel sorry for whoever did it,” he said.  “Except…I really, really don’t.”

“Good for you,” she said quietly.

“Speaking of Miles,” Simon said, blinking, “where is he?  Is he up yet?”

“He was leaving for ImpSec HQ as I was coming in.”

“Oh, yes.”  Simon gave his head a shake.  “I saw his car out the window just now.  That’s right.”  He cast Cordelia a bleak look.  “You see.”

"Simon, it’s been what? a week?”

“More than that.”
 
“So there’s a lot to get used to.  You know, they say living well is the best revenge.”

“I’m working on it,” Simon said, very dryly.  “First task, learning not to get lost in Vorkosigan House.”

“Oh, that took me five years,” Cordelia said with a wave of the hand.  Simon couldn’t help but chuckle.

“And that’s not a joke,” she added.  Then glanced at her chrono.  “Damn.  I do so much want to stay.  But I have to be on my way.”

“Where—?  Oh, right.  You’re going to see Lady Alys.”

“Indeed I am.  By the way, thanks to her, I’ve been getting some halfway decent intel on your condition.  Her bulletins have been very illuminating,” she added with a knowing sidelong glance.

Simon took his gaze away and hoped the warmth in his cheeks wasn’t too obvious.

Cordelia chuckled as she rose.  At the door, she turned to grin at him.  “Can’t leave you alone for a minute,” she said again, and was gone.

Simon sat in his armchair, listening to her firm tread fade away down the hall, and smiled to himself.

After a time he shifted in his chair, preparatory to getting up, and felt something shift in his pocket.  He pulled it out: it was a message disk.  What…?  Oh, yes.  Aral.  Well, no sense putting it off.  He sat down at the guest-suite comconsole.

Aral’s face appeared over the vid plate, his face tense, his hair a shock of white and silver.  “Simon…,” he said.  “Oh, hell.  I’m so damn sorry.  I don’t know what to say.  I know how much you and Gregor were counting on your plans for Miles.  And he would have served the Imperium well in your shoes.  Maybe even with distinction.  Though,” he added, “it’s probably better not to speculate what kind of distinction….”

The joke fell flat in the guest room where Simon was sitting, and it must have fallen flat to Aral’s own ears, because he cleared his throat and went on.

“It was a damnable and fool thing to do, and I know he’s sorry for it, as he ought to be.  In his message to us, he was…perhaps understandably…preoccupied with the disgrace of his career ending, but he doesn’t seem to think you could or should have done anything different—”  Simon dug his nails into his palms and swallowed his dry gorge— “and reading between the lines, I guess you must have shown him as much generosity as the situation would bear.  For which I thank you.  He may not have a clear sense of what this cost you personally, but I can imagine it.  Nothing clarifies the love and respect you have for a man like the moment he injures you.”

Only Aral Vorkosigan could say something like that without a hint of maudlin sentiment; and Simon would not have endured hearing such words from anyone else.  He could hardly bear it as it was.

“Cordelia thinks he’s bound to take off for the Dendarii, which means we’ll never see him again.  I hope to God she’s wrong, but I don’t know what he’ll do.  It’s something that he’s still on Barrayar right now.  I don’t suppose you can actually sit on his head till the danger passes, but I’m fighting the temptation to ask you to.  Would’ve worked when he was younger, maybe, but not now.  We’ll just have to wait and—” his lips twitched— “see what happens.”

You won’t be disappointed, Simon thought to this Aral of the past.  His memory of that time in the infirmary was incoherent and tattered, but he had fragments of images from when Miles had finally arrived, and in all of them Miles had looked him urgently in the eyes, his own eyes naked with respect and concern and a complete lack of reproach.  Simon didn’t know which of them had saved the other that day, but he had a sense that they had gripped one another in free fall and not let go.

If Miles went the rest of his life without committing another act of honor, it wouldn’t matter to Simon at all.  And yet neither of them, he thought, could look upon that moment as anything particularly remarkable.  It was an exact fulfillment of expectation, with nothing left over or wanting explanation.  A real and living instant, to hold to for ever afterward.

“Well,” Aral concluded, “I’ll send this with Cordelia and hope to keep informed about the latest while she travels to you.  I’d like to hear from you before I set out for Barrayar myself.  If you can manage it.  If not, I’ll see you then.  Take care of yourself, watch your back, and give my best to Alys and Gregor.  Till Winterfair, then.”  There the message ended.

Till Winterfair.  Simon speculated what it would be like to meet Aral wearing no shoes but the ones he stood up in.  Who and what would he be, then?  It was fodder for curiosity.

*

That night Simon dreamed, vividly, of Vorkosigan House in deep winter.  Icicles gleamed outside every window, dazzled and infinitely reflective in the sunlight that poured into the rooms, through which children were running, thundering like a cavalry horde as only children can do.  There was a great game of hide-and-seek afoot; Simon found himself dodging from floor to floor, until at last he was in one of the house’s attics, treasure trove of artifacts, history burdensome and arcane, heaped anyhow in piles.  He found himself a hiding place behind a rack of uniforms and gowns dating from the Time of Isolation, and Lady Alys hid there with him.  She was teasing him gently: he kissed her, and she kissed him back, returning him all his own intensity.  Then a child pulled aside the rack of clothing hiding them, and pointed at him with a cry of triumph, and all the children with him were laughing at them, but Simon didn’t mind.  They bore Lady Alys off to be the seeker; Simon went exploring among the mouldering treasures of the attic.  Under an old faded horse blanket, he found Miles’s Vor knife, and held it up breathing fast, feeling as though he had found it only just in time.  He turned around triumphantly to see Miles himself standing there in his best House uniform.  With pageant humility Simon offered him the knife hilt-first: with the selfsame humility Miles accepted it from him and fastened it to his belt.

“Come on,” Miles said, taking his hand.  “You don’t want to miss the wedding.”

Laughing, they picked their way through the piles of history to the attic door.

“You and I can lead the maple mead toast,” Miles said, as they tumbled out together into the hallway.

“Let’s not, and say we did,” Simon said dryly, and Miles grinned.

Simon woke in the darkness of Count Piotr’s rooms not knowing whether to laugh or weep.  So he did both.

After the paroxysm passed, he turned over, into the nest of his bed and the dream, and relaxed into sleep again.

 
Day Thirty-nine

Simon woke up.  He reached over to nudge Kanzian so they could be silently on their way, and found to his horror that he was already caught and bound.  He was fastened down naked to a medical bed, in some sort of clinical room, and there was a knot of men in ImpSec insignia and white coats arguing over his head.  Shit.

“—downloading mechanism,” the thin one was saying.  “There’s no port.  It was designed to be a volume to itself.  Not to mention the subjective retrieval interface.  Information can only go out the same way it went in—via the conscious cooperation of the chip’s subject.”

Ah, God.  They were going to break into his head for information to attack Lord Vorkosigan.  “I’m afraid you’re out of luck, gentlemen,” he said in a clipped voice.  “There won’t be any cooperation on my part.  And you can’t use fast-penta, unless you want a corpse on your hands.”  Probably they did.  He’d do his best to take a few of them with him, anyway.  He wondered what they’d done with Kanzian, but didn’t dare ask.

The heavy one said, “Obviously that method is going to have its problems.”  He did not look down at Simon.  “And it’s not as though we have all the time in the world.  The situation is clearly deteriorating.”

Was it, now?  That was interesting.  Simon listened carefully.  If he was lucky enough to escape this, he could possibly get to Vorkosigan with some usable data on Vordarian’s movements.  Though he’d lost his prize in Kanzian, obviously.  Bad luck.  Simon wondered how he’d been caught, what wrong turn he’d made.

“We have our orders,” said the thin medical man.  “We have to try at least.”

Simon prepared himself to fight.  If he twisted hard enough, perhaps he could break one of the medical restraints on his wrists.

A younger medic said worriedly, “But even with his cooperation—”

Simon woke up, shot out from under the deluge of recall, but not to relief.  The anomaly in his head had metamorphosed into full-blown roaring interference, a roar without sound, without sense, impossible to fight or pin down with his consciousness.

“—which we’re obviously not going to get—how can you possibly get anything off the chip when it’s turning to snot inside his head?”

Oh, God.  That was it, of course that was it.  He’d always suspected the damn thing was a ticking fucking time bomb, and here was the proof.  He shivered, hard.

“Angle, raise the temp bar in here,” said the heavy medic.  “Avakli, he has a point.  Whatever we do, we’re going to have to do quickly.  He’s not going to stand much more of this.”

So glad you noticed, Simon thought.

“The perceptual jumps are getting steadily closer together,” the medic went on.  “At this rate, he’ll be on a constant cascade of data dumps within a week.”

A week.  Simon knew with a sick clarity that he would break before then.  And these doctors weren’t going to think of clean ways to show him mercy.  They hadn’t even looked at him, much less spoken to him like a man. 

I need Miles, he thought.  But Miles had done himself out of any authority he might ever have had to help Simon.  Except, of course, for the authority with which he was born, the authority which Miles wielded as casually as he carried the Vor knife his grandfather had left him.  Miles would understand what was needed here.  After all, he was not only Vor but the son of Cordelia Vorkosigan, who understood both ruth and ruthlessness.  Though she’d had Bothari to help her, and Miles didn’t.  Still.

What an irony, that the system which he and Aral Vorkosigan had worked so hard to declaw was his last appeal.

“Miles,” he said, in a low pant.  “Get me Miles.  I want him here.”  He struggled, weary beyond belief, against the restraints.

“I’ll go over the specs again,” Avakli said, not listening.  “There’s got to be something there I can use.”

“Angle, how long has it been since his last sedative?” said the other.  “He’s starting to get agitated again.”

“No,” Simon groaned.  “No—”  And woke up.

He was in a hospital room, but it was a different one than the one he’d waked up in before.  They’d told him he wasn’t supposed to have memory gaps like that.  And he had no idea why he was feeling so frightened and tired, nor why he was restrained to the bed and naked.  Had he gone crazy like the others?  Oh dear.  Ezar would be so disappointed.
 
A medic was coming toward him with a hypospray.  “Tell the Emperor I’m sorry, sir,” Simon said.  “I did think it would be all right.”

“There, sir,” said the medic, pressing the hypospray to his inner arm.  “Don’t fret.  We’ll get you fixed up right and tight.”

“Oh, you think so?”  Simon said blurrily, as the drug began spinning its way through his consciousness.  “Good.  Good.  Can’t serve very well if you’re crazy.”

“No, sir,” said the medic, his voice oddly raw.

 
Day Fifty-seven

A knock came at the door of the guest suite where he sat not-reading a book.  “Who is it?” Simon said.

“It’s Alys.”

“Oh,” he said, surprised.  He got up from his armchair wonderingly and was halfway to the door before he remembered.  “That’s right,” he said as he opened the door to her, “you said you would come.  Do come in, my lady.”

She smiled at him as she entered.  She was wearing dark blue today, and smelled of something light and floral. 

“Shall I have Martin bring tea?” he said, ushering her to the other armchair.

“I’ve already sent Martin to fetch it,” she said, seating herself with an air of practical delicacy.  “Where is Miles today?”

“I don’t know,” Simon said.  He frowned in thought as he sat down.  “I saw him this morning.  I think he told me, but I can’t remember.”

“Ah well,” Lady Alys said, with a wave of the hand.  “I’ll catch up with him eventually.  If he thinks that being an Imperial Auditor is going to get him out of researching nuptial history, he has another think coming.”

It wasn’t till the tea arrived and he was helping her arrange it on the table between them that the memory burst for him.  “ImpMil,” he said suddenly.

She gave him a concerned glance.  “ImpMil?  What about it?”

“That’s where Miles went.”

“Oh?”  She looked at him with interest.  “So is he finally doing something about those seizures of his?  It’s about time.  Good.  At last I have something to report to Gregor.”

Simon smiled.  “I don’t envy you that debriefing.”

She gave a ladylike snort, and poured the tea.

As they took their first sips, Lady Alys embarked on a very different debriefing, telling him all the Residence news, as she had done for years.  Now, however, Simon was not participating in this exchange by parsing and collating everything she told him, or even quite listening to the content.  He sat with his eyes half closed and rested in the sound of her voice.  Lady Alys, for her part, seemed to be content with his new response; she answered his occasional questions with unruffled patience even when, Simon suspected, she had to repeat herself.

Though he found it hard at long stretches to follow her brief from thought to thought, he nevertheless recognized the signs that she was beginning to wind up her report.  Soon she would make gentle noises about leaving, and rise and allow him to see her out.

And so it was.  But as she rose, putting down her empty teacup and saucer, she said:  “Oh, and Simon.”

This could preface any number of things, several of which were of ominous import.  Simon paused in the act of rising.  “Yes, my lady?”

“There’s a concert this evening at Company Hall,” she told him.  “If you are willing, I should like you to accompany me.”

He blinked.  Good heavens, what was she asking him to do?  He fumbled for a response.  “I…fear I would not be much use to you at such an occasion, Lady Alys.  You had probably better apply to ImpSec, if you want—”

“But I don’t want ImpSec,” she said levelly.  “I want you.”

“Oh,” he said.  He looked up into her face, and their eyes touched briefly.  He was aware of deep startlement before he snatched his gaze away and looked out the window, considering the implications.  As he thought it through he was increasingly tempted to smile.  “That,” he said slowly, “would be an interesting first reappearance in public.”

“But unexceptionable,” she pointed out blandly.  “That is, if things go according to my plan.”

Now he was really tempted to smile.  “If those words were coming out of Miles’s mouth, I should be forced to run away screaming.”

“Fortunately,” she said, “Miles is not involved with this in any way.  Do my plans ever go awry?”

Simon thought of Ivan, but did not tease her.  Looking up at her, he thought he could detect the faintest hint of uncertainty in her serene confidence.  For answer, he rose to his feet and bowed gracefully.  “I should be pleased to serve as your escort for the evening,” he said.  And if he kept his mouth shut he would probably not make a fool of himself in front of Vorbarr Sultana society.

It was the right answer.  She gave him a sudden smile of such unaffected delight that he was startled again.  “Very well,” she said, “I will come back here to pick you up by 2100.”

“Very well,” he echoed, feeling just as delighted, “I’ll be ready.  But—” he added in sudden panic, “what…exactly…does one wear to a concert?”

Lady Alys gave him the up-and-down, and released a small sigh, eloquent of years.  “One of these days,” she said, “you will listen to me and engage a proper tailor.  Until that blessed day comes, your dress greens will do perfectly well.”

In the past, Simon had responded to such chivvyings with a bemused impatience tinged with amusement.  Now, he had trouble repressing a grin.  “Yes, my lady.”  Then he thought.  “My dress greens are still in my quarters at HQ….”

“Would you like me to retrieve them for you?” she said.  “Or—”

“I have a better idea,” Simon said.  “On my way to walk you out, I’ll have the gate guard pass a message to send them over.”

“Excellent,” she said.  “Then it’s settled.  Thank you, Simon.”

“Your servant, my lady,” he said, and she rewarded him with a look of wry affection as she went before his outstretched hand.

It occurred to Simon, walking back from Vorkosigan House’s gate, that were he to betray his new deficiencies in public, it would not be a total loss however much it might embarrass him.  It would certainly remove him from the calculations of some of ImpSec’s enemies, perhaps even confound his own.  He would be even more unremarkable than he had been before, and yet without any urgent need for subterfuge.  What an odd freedom.

He wondered if he would get used to it.

*

“And there’s Countess Vorinnis, talking with Lady Vorventa,” Lady Alys murmured up to him, as they crossed the mezzanine lobby.  “And…ah, I see Falco is back in town.  I suppose we had better greet him.  You don’t seem to have trouble recognizing people, I observe.”

“No,” he replied in a low tone, “I know everyone I know.  But sometimes names are slow in coming.”

“Yes.  Well, that won’t be difficult to handle,” she said.

“But you’d probably better not leave me to find my way about in here by myself.”  Simon’s earlier experience of the concert hall had been of a precise schematic map, and tonight it was like walking into a different place altogether, where every new view was a revelation and a mystery.

“Don’t worry,” Lady Alys said.

“I’m not worried,” he murmured back, casting his gaze out across the glittering congregation of high Vor and military brass.  He returned his eyes to her face to find her studying him with narrowed eyes.

“You’re up to something.  What is it?” she said.

“Not necessarily.”  A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.  “This is reconnaissance.”

She made a noise of sardonic exclamation, but Simon was spared any further remarks by Falco Vorpatril’s approach.  “Good evening, Alys.”

“Good evening, Falco.”  Lady Alys gave the head of her House a formal dip of her elegantly-coiffed head.

“And Captain Illyan.  A pleasure to see you in the land of the living.”  Vorpatril’s brows twitched curiously.

“Thank you, my lord Count.”  Simon left it at that.

“There’ve been a great many wild stories coming out of ImpSec the last few weeks,” Vorpatril pursued.  “Everything from assassination plots to internal cleanouts to security stings.  Doctors crawling about Headquarters…ImpSec literally throwing young Vorkosigan out on his ear—”

“That sort of thing rarely works on Miles,” Simon murmured, nevertheless enjoying the mental image.  Miles hadn’t gone into details about the effort required to get in to see him, but Simon had no doubt Vorpatril spoke the exact truth.

“Your second seems to have everything well in hand, which I have to say is a relief after all the speculation.  The rumors floating around have been positively nightmarish.”

“For better and worse from a security standpoint, rumors tend not to compare to the truth,” Simon said cryptically.  Vorpatril appeared to sense the double edge of his remark, and prudently altered his pursuit.

“At any rate, here you are.  I don’t suppose there’s any chance of your dropping a hint of your hidden agenda for the evening?”  He divided the “your” equally between Simon and Alys.  Judging from her little smile, she found this as amusing as he did.

“No chance at all, I’m afraid, Falco,” Lady Alys said.  “We’re enjoying an evening out at Company Hall.  It’s quite straightforward.”

“Oh, certainly,” Vorpatril smiled.  “Well, then, I wish you every enjoyment of the program, Alys.  Captain.”

“My lord,” Simon said, with a polite bow.

“Well!” Lady Alys said as Falco disappeared among the crowd.  “I couldn’t have hoped for a better man to carry a good tale.  He’ll have the Conservatives’ feathers settling down in no time.”

“Mm,” Simon said absently, taking in the crowd around them.  People had begun to notice him and Lady Alys: he suspected that Vorpatril would not be the only interested party to pump them—er, greet them before the program began.

Sure enough, Lady Alys steered him through five more conversations between them and their seats in the loge.  By the second conversation Simon had a full grasp of his strategy.  He stopped volunteering to speak but let Lady Alys carry the burden of conversing, turned up his blandness to full and pleasant obscurity, and allowed his gaze to wander absently to their surroundings—once per exchange was enough, twice would be overkill.  By the time the lights dipped and they excused themselves from Countess Vorinnis’s robust effusiveness, Lady Alys was smiling at him in a way that he understood for a glare.

As soon as they were alone in their box, her glare became evident.

“Simon,” she hissed, “don’t tell me you intend to play the fool on purpose!”

“I rather thought I wouldn’t have to,” Simon said calmly.

Her eyes lit, incensed.  “That is a very poor joke.”

“I’m not joking,” he said.

“You are not—”

“My lady,” he cut her off, “I intend to take every advantage of serendipity.”  Short term and long term, but he didn’t say that.  He added instead, “You can take the boy out of ImpSec….”

Her glare subsided to hard calculation, and she allowed him to lead her to their seats.  With her skirts arranged and her dudgeon settled, she looked out over the gathering audience and spoke to him quietly.

“Then you do think it was sabotage.”

“I have no opinion about it, one way or the other,” he answered in the same tone.

“But in case it is, you want them to think their mission is accomplished.”

“Just so,” Simon said.  He never had to explain things to Lady Alys.

As the lights went down she relaxed and breathed easier, and he relaxed with her.  “I hope, by the way,” she said, “your primary aim in view is not protecting me.”

Simon inclined his head.  “Believe me, my lady,” he said, “given the opportunity, I would much sooner unleash you.”

“Just bear it in mind, Simon,” she said, and he caught the flash of her dry smile in the dimness.  “Bear it in mind.”

He gave a quiet laugh.

Other Vor came in, belated, greeting Lady Alys and Simon in whispers, and took their seats just as the curtains swept back to reveal the Company and three full choirs.

The program turned out to be a Russian night, weaving arrangements of folk tunes with symphonic program music.  The choirs were liberally used; at one moment Simon caught himself moving his lips to the words of a piece sung by the boys’ choir alone.  He hadn’t even known he remembered that folk song from his childhood, hadn’t even thought about it in forty years at least.

Simon hadn’t just lost a whole catalogue of things; he’d found things he didn’t know he had.  Was this why it didn’t hurt as much as he expected, to let go of ImpSec?  In the tides of music redounding through the concert hall, in this perfect present moment, Simon knew that he was finished there.  ImpSec and Miles between them would solve the puzzle of his chip’s breakdown, and when the investigation was complete, he would retire.  It hardly even needed saying out loud.

In the secure darkness of the music-drenched box, Simon reached over and took Lady Alys’s hand.  She clasped him back comfortably, without moving her head to look at him, and there they stayed till the music ended.

*

In the back of Lady Alys’s groundcar, Simon leaned his head back and closed his eyes briefly.

“Tired?” she asked him.

“Mm,” he said.  He felt as if he’d lived several lifetimes today.  He opened his eyes and turned his head on the seat back to look at her.  “You?”

The lights of the broad street down which they glided washed briefly over the dark braids of her hair and the shimmer of her gown and wrap.  “I don’t allow myself to think about it,” she said.  Another wash of light, and he caught the unaccustomed hint of weary lines about her eyes and mouth, along with the humorous resignation he had long since come to…admire was not quite the right word.  There was something more of kinship in it.  Simon reached out a fingertip before he’d even registered the impulse, to brush the pragmatic tuck at the corner of her pretty mouth.  It moved into a smile under his touch.

“Thank you,” he said softly, “for bringing me along.  It was very instructive.”

Her smile widened, and he let his hand fall away.  “Thank you for coming with me.  It’s nice not to be alone at these things.”  She captured the hand that had touched her in both of hers, and turned it over.  Another passing light washed over his narrow palm: not a young man’s hand anymore, but then, as a young man, his hand had not been held by hers.
 
The part of Simon that had always held him subconsciously on his guard seemed to have gone off duty.  He couldn’t remember ever having been enclosed in such a moment as this, completely undisturbed by risk.  “You may always call on me, you know,” he said.

“Good to know,” she murmured, and he smiled.

She kept his hand in hers, as she had done during his long nightmare, and she was lovely and intrepid and kind; and she smelled delicious, as of a sweet rind of sunshine broken, and before he knew what he’d done he bent his head and touched his lips to hers.  She didn’t pull away.  So he kissed her again.

He was just pulling her closer to get a better taste of her mouth when the on-guard part of him struggled in from his sleep cycle with one boot on and his stunner tangled up in his jacket.  Simon’s eyes snapped open and he dragged his head back, breathing fast.

Ah, God.  What had he just done?

“Simon?” she said.  “What’s wrong?”

Simon uttered something incoherent about not wanting to trespass.

She straightened indignantly.  “Trespassing!  Simon Illyan, do you think I wouldn’t tell you if you were trespassing?”

Well, now that she mentioned it…no.  But this only served to increase Simon’s confusion tenfold.  “I’m…missing some information, here,” he said.

“Well, then let me fill you in,” she said, sounding amused.  “Close your eyes.”

He obeyed.  The dimness of the groundcar’s interior was shut away, leaving him in the darkness behind his eyelids.  She took her hands away from his and touched them both gently to his face.  Her fingertips explored the round of his cheekbones, the soft skin around his eyes, the thin fall of his hair where it brushed his forehead.  She touched his mouth as if seeing it for him, as if she were creating his visage with the line of her touches, and he shuddered, drawing in a new-made breath over the curve of her hand.  At last her hands conformed warmly to his skin, her thumbs brushing against his eyelashes, and rested there: and he thought suddenly of the depths to which she had gone with him in his madness, and of tea overlooking Ezar’s garden.

Oh.

Simon’s confusion fled, to make way for a quiet and comprehensive terror.

“You see?” came her voice, very soft, her breath gentle against his lips.  “You needn’t be afraid.”

“Oh, yes I need,” he said hoarsely, and then his mouth was open against hers.  “I need….”

Taking her at her unspoken word, he gathered her in and kissed her thoroughly, and she answered him with a little noise in her throat.  Oh, the taste and warmth and scent of her was all that he had never allowed himself to imagine:  like her hands on his face, the sensation created all that it touched; it struck through him like revelation not only of the present, but of a past he had left unguessed.  He consented to the unmooring of his inward reserve, and with part of his mind noted curiously the sudden tingling expansion of a sense he had no name for:  it proliferated like something equally botanical and crystalline, both delicate and strong, like Alys herself.

She had mussed his hair with one hand and worked the other down to slip round his waist.  He kissed her mouth at the corner, and her cheek below the eye, and both her closed eyelids, and then her lovely mouth again, supporting her at the nape with the hand she’d caressed.  He could kiss her all night.  He wasn’t tired at all.  He laughed in his throat, which touched off an answering laugh from her.

The groundcar glided to a stop and began to sigh down to earth.

“Damn,” Simon breathed.

“I told Devereau to take the long way home,” she said peevishly, and he laid his forehead in the hollow of her shoulder and shook with silent laughter.

“Thought you said your plans don’t go awry,” he said when he got his breath back, and she gave him a light slap on the flank, the only part of him she could currently reach.

They could hear Devereau alighting from the driver’s seat.  In the next moment the canopy would be popped and they’d be uncovered like naughty children.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

Simon was hungry in several capacities.  He paused over whether it would be politic to say so; but his hesitation must have been eloquent enough, because Lady Alys chuckled.

“Allow me to rephrase that,” she said.  “Will you be pleased to let me give you a light supper before I take you home?”

Ah, parameters.  He had been right to trust her.  “Yes, I will,” he said gratefully.  “Thank you.”

He sat up just as the canopy lifted.

 
Day Fifty-nine

Simon laid two folded shirts on the bed, then a pair of trousers and a matching well-worn jacket.  With practiced motions he placed them together in rolled layers and packed them neatly in his small duffel atop his toiletry kit and linens.

“Simon?”  He heard Lady Alys’s voice at the open door of the guest suite.

“In here.”  He smiled over his shoulder at her when she appeared.  “Good afternoon, my lady.”

“Good afternoon, Simon.”

“Were you able to get away for dinner?” he asked her, coiling a belt.

“Alas, no.  I can join you and Miles at the tea table, however.  I see he is here this afternoon—I suppose we won’t be letting the tea get cold today, then, more’s the pity….Simon, what are you doing?”  She approached the side of the bed next to him and frowned down at his duffel.

“I am going with Miles to Vorkosigan Surleau.  We leave in the morning.”

“Whatever for?” she demanded.

“According to Miles,” Simon said, tucking in an extra knit shirt, “to be idle in the manner of gentlemen.  I’m sure it’s just coincidence that this scheme takes Miles away just when Cordelia is scheduled to arrive.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Lady Alys snapped.  “Doesn’t he realize our time together is at a premium?”

“No, my lady,” Simon said, “I don’t believe he does.”  He fastened the bag and straightened up to regard her with an incipient smile.  “Would you like me to clarify the matter for him?”

She folded her arms and glared.  “No.  He can damned well figure it out on his own.”

“Very well.”  He gave the bag a shake to settle its contents and set it down on the floor.

After a moment she gave a sharp sigh.  “Well, if you must, you must.  How long are you going to be gone?”

“I have attempted to sound Miles out on that point, but without result.”

“So in all likelihood,” she said, “you are not going to be back in time to prepare for the festivities coming on.”

His eyebrows went up.  “I need to prepare?  Prepare what?”

For answer she gestured at his outfit.  He glanced down his own length and sighed.  “Ah.  Yes.  I forgot.”  Yes, there was no getting around it: he was going to have to acquire a proper civilian wardrobe, as befit a retired veteran of twice-twenty years’ Imperial service.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well, as Cordelia liked to say.

“Can you at least make time in the morning for a tailor to come and take your measurements?” she pressed.

“As you wish,” he said, gamely. 

“There,” she smiled, patting the front of his jacket.  “That is a great improvement upon years of ‘We’ll see, my lady.’”  He captured her hand on his chest and smiled back.

“What do you have on tonight?” he asked her.

She sighed, and slid from his grasp to perch on the foot of the bed.  He sat down next to her, at a discreet distance.  “Vor bores tonight,” she said, “and Komarrans tomorrow.  Eventually I suppose we’ll get them all integrated, but it’s slow work.”

“Mm,” Simon said.

“And you,” she said, “you’ve been entertaining a bit this week.  Whom did you have to dinner last night?”

Simon gripped his knees and tried to call it back, but last night was suddenly as blank to him as an unterraformed rock.  “I can’t remember,” he said finally, trying to make his voice neutral, and, he suspected, failing.

Lady Alys made a dismissive gesture, as if to brush away her own question, but Simon shook his head.  How long was he going to be this incapacitated?  Forever?  It’d probably be crass to try and compare notes with Koudelka on the matter.  Koudelka….  “I did have a note from Koudelka,” he told Lady Alys.  “Sent his regrets.  I don’t think it’s me he’s avoiding, however.  I suspect he’s afraid of scalding Miles with his pity over Miles’s medical discharge.  Miles’ll be easier about it with time, but if Kou wanted to see him sooner, he’d have done better to get in on the ground floor for it, like Galeni.”  Galeni had been here a few nights ago, stiff and uncomfortable.  Galeni.  Allegre.  It was Allegre who’d been here last night.

“Ah, Captain Galeni,” Lady Alys said pensively.  “I never did get round to asking you how he took Gregor’s and Laisa’s announcement.”

She wasn’t exactly asking him now, Simon noticed.  “Badly,” he said with a sigh.  “You were right.  Fortunately for all our sakes, he behaved impeccably to his Emperor, and then called Miles and took it all out on him.”  Simon couldn’t remember the verbal content of that conversation, but he knew it included the sort of things that duels were fought over, that blackmail for treason was laid.  He remembered Miles’s look of chagrined understanding.  That he could remember this much about a weeks-ago surveillance review, when he couldn’t recall the last twenty-four hours at will, oppressed him with a sense of cruel mockery.

“I suppose we should count our blessings,” Lady Alys said.

“God,” Simon burst out bitterly, “if only there were some rhyme or reason to what I can remember and what I can’t!”  He buried his grip in the bed’s coverlet at his sides.

“I’m sorry, Simon,” Lady Alys said, her voice low, her compassion matter-of-fact.  “I don’t suppose it’s any consolation that that’s characteristic of the human brain.”

“The human brain can go and—”  Simon forced himself to release a long sigh.  “It’s been a frustrating day,” he admitted at last.

He glanced her way and saw that she was watching him with that grim, worried look.  “Is that why you agreed to go to Vorkosigan Surleau?” she asked him quietly.  “To change the scene?”

“Not exactly,” Simon said.  “Can you think of any way I could have refused?”

“No,” she said, her mouth going wry.

“Well, there you have it.  I’d rather be here drinking tea with you.  Or letting it get cold.”  Their glances crossed and met, and he was suddenly very conscious that they were sitting on his bed.  They had so far been sufficiently intoxicated by stolen kisses, but there was an entire world lying unexplored before them, and they were mutually aware of it.

She lifted her chin, not quite suppressing a smile.

“You make me think of what I haven’t lost,” he said.

Startled, she turned to stare him direct in the eyes.  Simon swallowed.  He hadn’t meant, exactly, to deliver himself quite so nakedly to her, but now that he’d done it he found regret curiously missing.

When she spoke her voice was very quiet, touched with the same humor that was buried in the corners of her mouth.  “Better than the alternative.”  She swallowed in her turn.  “And what haven’t you lost, Simon?”

His lips tipped up into a smile.  “It’s a surprisingly long list,” he said.  “Of course,” he added with a sigh, “then I get frustrated and forget.  Or remember I forgot.  Or forgot that I remembered….”  His attempt at humor trailed off when he saw the tears in her eyes.

She rose and came to him where he sat.  Lifted a hand to lay along his cheek.  He let her hold his gaze: the silence in the room was perfect, like something new-born.

“And in you,” she said quietly, “I see what I haven’t lost.”

“Yes, my lady,” he said.

“This was a long time coming.”  It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” he said, and knew it for the truth.

“Yes,” she agreed.  And, “You keep your secrets well, Simon.”

“Even from myself,” he said, and she smiled at that.

They shared a gaze for another long minute; then he tipped his head wryly.

“Well,” he said, not without humor, “I shall go and help Miles hide from his mother.”

Lady Alys gave an exasperated roll of the eyes.  “That boy funks at the most peculiar times.”

“So he does,” Simon said, very dryly.

 
Day Fifty-one

“…and Mother actually threatened to go on strike, or at least that’s what Miles says she told Gregor.  What she told me was that not sending her any word of what was happening down here was the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, and that was saying something, which, ouch.  That left a mark, all right.”

Ivan had taken it upon himself to brief Simon on everything that had happened since his collapse, while Miles and Lady Alys were away from the infirmary on other business.  He seemed so relieved to be speaking to a sane Illyan that he was rattling confidingly on at a pace too brisk for Simon to keep up, but Simon was too tired to mind much.  He relaxed bonelessly in his chair and left Ivan to it.

“Anyway, apparently she really put a flea in Gregor’s ear.  Gregor never says much, but when m’mother was mentioned he got that look you get when you’ve been royally reamed by your CO.”  Ivan shook his head.  “You’d think the Emperor wouldn’t have a CO, but emperors and Imperial Auditors are no match for my mother when she’s pissed.”

“I’m still grappling with the fact that Gregor made Miles an Imperial Auditor,” Simon said, bemused.

“Well, he had to.  ImpSec wouldn’t let Miles within twenty feet of the gate.  Miles had quite the dust-up with your General Haroche, you know, sir.  I think you’re well out of the headache—” so to speak— “you’d have had if you put Miles on a desk under him.  They managed to get across each other good and proper even without.”

Simon sighed.

“Anyway, once he had the choke-chain, Miles collared me along, to storm the fortress.  You should have seen it.  He rolled up everything—everything— ’d you ever actually meet Admiral Naismith?— and hit ImpSec over the nose with it like a puppy.  It was worth the price of admission.”  Ivan paused and frowned pensively.  “Well, actually, the price of admission turned out to be rather steep.  But at least you’re all right now.”

Simon didn’t know about all right, but he appreciated the sentiment.

“So between Mother and Gregor and Miles and whoever in ImpSec gave Miles the inside track, which I give you three guesses who that was and the first two don’t count—”

“Vorberg,” Simon murmured.

Vorberg?  You mean that poor courier that Miles—well, this is Miles we’re talking about.  If he can get his homicidal clone brother to rescue his cryocicle from Jackson’s Whole, he can get Vorberg to totter over to Vorkosigan House and give him prime intel on an internal crisis.”

Simon was amused in spite of himself.

“However,” Ivan went on, “I don’t doubt that Galeni put his oar in too.  Anyone would, if they saw what was happening to you and knew to put Miles onto it.  ‘Course, Galeni would have had to pull up his socks to go talk to Miles first, after…well.  Never mind.  I’m sure they’ve worked it out.  Should tell Miles to invite Galeni to tea.  One of Ma Kosti’s spiced peach tarts should turn him up sweet for good.”

“Who?”  Simon blinked at him, confused.

“Oh, of course you don’t know.  Miles picked up this utterly amazing cook, who just happens to be the mother of Vorkosigan House’s ImpSec detail—what are the odds?—and he’s gone from choking down Reddi-Meals to eating like a frigging king every day.  Gregor doesn’t eat that good.  Oh, God, she makes this cream sauce that just…I’ve had dreams about it.”  Ivan’s face took on a devoutly orgasmic look.  “And each dessert is more heavenly than the last.  It’s practically a religious experience, eating at Vorkosigan House these days.  I told Miles to double her salary, just in case some rapacious Vor lady tries to carry her off.  I’d get myself invited to dinner at Vorkosigan House posthaste, if I were you—”

“Ivan,” Lady Alys said from the doorway, “for heaven’s sake.  You’re going to wear him out.”

It was true that Ivan’s patter wasn’t exactly restful, and Simon had the uneasy suspicion that he wasn’t going to retain much of what Ivan had told him; but the boy had his mother’s knack of rolling a story along and taking up one’s interest with it.  “It’s all right, my lady,” Simon told her.

Lady Alys refrained from scolding Ivan any further, but she came in and evicted him ruthlessly from his chair next to Simon’s, then took possession of it and appropriated Simon’s hand with an air of practiced right.  Ivan gave way with good grace.

“I suppose I’d better be going,” he said, much more easy in manner than when he had come in.  “It’s good to have you back, sir.”

“Thank you, Ivan,” Simon said.  “And thank you for the brief.”

Ivan grinned, seemed to pause over whether to salute Simon or give him a Vorish bow, settled for jerking a respectful nod, and went out.

“I hope he was not too tiresome,” Lady Alys said.

“Not at all.  I enjoyed his company.”  Which was, remarkably, true:  Simon could neither remember nor imagine having said that about Ivan Vorpatril before.  Not that there was much difference between memory and imagination now.  Ivan’s presence had temporarily banished his attention from that daunting fact.

“Well, I’m pleased you’re allowed so much,” Lady Alys said, a flash of her dark eyes giving truth to Ivan’s testimony.  “Without Miles’s intervention, you wouldn’t have had any company at all.  It’s criminal.”

Her hand tightened on his.  Simon had a handful of dim dysfocused memory, of Lady Alys sitting in that chair next to him in this; blinks of her straight spine, her grim mouth, her gentle, melodious voice.  He wished it might be imagination, but had a sinking feeling it wasn’t.  Had he really begged her to convince Miles to kill him?  He fervently hoped that part had been a dream.  In any case, none of them had cooperated:  he had the sense of coming muddily to rest in a backwater pool after going down a river gorge.  He was neither dead nor, apparently, insane.  Simon was too tired to consider the implications of the rest.

“By the way,” Lady Alys said—yes, the sound of her voice was familiarly soothing—“Dr. Toscane asks me to give you her greetings and well-wishes.  She hopes you will recover speedily.”

“Kind of her,” Simon murmured.  “Tell her I thank her.”

“I will.”

He was having trouble keeping his eyes open.  “Sorry,” he said after an uncertain minute, not sure whether he’d fallen asleep.

“Not to worry.”  She removed her hand from his.  “I’ll go now and let you rest.”

“You needn’t,” he said.

He could sense her hesitation, and opened his eyes to look at her.

“Would you like me to stay?” she asked quietly.

He let his eyes fall shut again.  “Only if I’m not keeping you from your work,” he said.

“This week,” she said tartly, “my work is whatever I decide it is.”

He couldn’t suppress a little smile at this.

“Go to sleep, Simon,” she said, her voice a caress.  “I’ll be here.”

 

Day Sixty-four

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Simon fretted.  He was beginning to regret getting into the groundcar.

“No,” Lady Alys said.  “But Gregor requested.  He did leave it up to our discretion, however.  Do you want to—”

“No.”  He sighed.  “I’ll go through with it.”

“You do look nice,” Lady Alys said.  Trust her to remind him of the reassuring power of sartorial excellence.  The tailor had surpassed all expectation and delivered him up two suits in record time, one for day and one for evening, both of which were weirdly comfortable.  He’d never worn anything bespoke before.  Simon had come down to the foyer of Vorkosigan House and presented himself for inspection, and Lady Alys had studied him judiciously and pronounced herself pleased.

“Are you nervous?” she said now.

“About meeting Gregor?  No,” Simon said.  “…Yes.  No.”

She touched his hand briefly where it lay on the seat between them and said nothing.

“My lady—” Simon hesitated— “I would request that you not help me overmuch.”

Lady Alys straightened her skirts at her knees.  “Would I do a thing like that?”  She shot him a sideward glance; there was a rueful half-smile in her eyes, which he returned with gentleness.

He said: “I would rather not prevaricate, with Gregor.”

“Can you call it prevarication?” she said mildly.  “I wouldn’t.”

She had a point, but, “Nevertheless,” he said; and she gave him an acquiescent sigh.  They said nothing else till they reached the Residence.

Cordelia had gone ahead of them, so when the groundcar pulled up to deposit them at the east entrance, Simon was unsurprised to see her come out to receive them.  “Oh, good, Simon,” she said, “I was hoping you would come.  We’re going to be in the garden room.”  Between the groundcar and the heavy doors, a freshening wind kicked the ladies’ skirts and ruffled Simon’s hair, promise of winter bearing down.  Inside, Dr. Toscane was waiting for them.

“Captain Illyan,” she said, coming forward to welcome him.  “I hope I see you well.  It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure is mine, madam Doctor,” he said.  She allowed him to bow over her hand, an acceptance not at all Vorish, but with its own commensurate charm.

“Gregor is in conference with someone come to give a report,” Dr. Toscane explained to him and Alys.  “He’ll be joining us at the table.”

This was hardly a remarkable occurrence; without further discussion the four of them set off.  “Lady Alys may have told you,” Dr. Toscane said as they went down one corridor and made an inexplicable turn into another, “we saw Lord Vorkosigan this morning when he came to talk to Gregor.  I took care to invite him to a little party I’m giving tomorrow evening.  You might know—does he have any romantic attachments?  I found him quite impenetrably vague on the subject.”

Simon swallowed a smile with difficulty.  It was hard to be offended by people who guilelessly presumed that a senior ImpSec official would be privy to the bedrooms of everyone in Vorbarr Sultana and out of it: because, after all, it was more or less true.  “He had a long-standing affair with a galactic colleague,” he answered.  “I think she does not take much interest in…downside life.”

“Mm,” Cordelia said.  “Since he hasn’t abandoned downside life, I presume the attachment is on its way out.”

Simon privately agreed with that assessment, but he was too busy wondering why they’d just turned left to give it much more thought.  The garden room wasn’t this way, surely.

“Interesting.  But more to the point,” Dr. Toscane said, “I would be pleased if you would be one of the party, Captain.  If you feel well enough recovered, that is.”

“You are very kind, Dr. Toscane.”  He paused only a little.  “I would be very pleased to come.”

“Excellent,” she said, sounding genuinely delighted.  “And—of course you may bring a guest—if you wish—”  She stopped short of any speculation about Simon’s ability to find a date.

“I feel certain Lady Alys could take care of that,” Cordelia said blandly, from behind Dr. Toscane, who was at the front.  Simon and Alys shot her a glare from either side, and she grinned unrepentantly.

“Of course,” Dr. Toscane said.  She led them down a completely unfamiliar dark-paneled corridor and opened a door.

The garden room.  Simon tightened his lips to stop a sigh.  He’d made it his business for thirty years to know this building inch by bloody inch, and not only did he not know how they’d got here, he would probably need help getting out again.  He would have succumbed to a great wave of frustrated depression then and there, but Gregor was already in the room, and turned as they arrived.

Simon’s biological memory of Gregor was as shadowed as everything and everyone else.  But Gregor in the flesh was reassuringly precise and direct: dark hair, ascetic face, straight and thin shoulders; and a somber incisive gaze that sought out Simon’s at once.  Their eyes met, and Gregor broke into an actual smile.

“Simon!” he said, and in the next moment his hand was in the Emperor’s and they were face to face.  Simon was confronted with an old memory, a composite image like that of himself at tea with Alys:  of Gregor as a child, as incapable of such a smile as he had been incapable of refusing his trust to the adults who decided what happened to him.  It nearly knocked him over, but he kept his feet and pressed Gregor’s hand in return.

“I’m so glad you were able to come,” Gregor was saying.

Simon bowed his head.  “Thank you, Sire.”  And his gratitude was not only toward the Emperor, but coruscated out from him to the garden room and his companions in it, to their very life and breath.  One breath to the next, buoyant gratitude and acid frustration, and back to gratitude again.  No wonder he was permanently disoriented.

They sat down to lunch at once at, Simon was amused to note, a round table.  No formal meal this.  Gregor seated Dr. Toscane next to him with ardent attention: observing the progress of their affections since the last time he had seen them over a month ago, Simon had to salute Lady Alys for her perspicacity.  He glanced at her where she was seated at his right, and she responded with the faintest twitch of her lips.

“I’m told you were recently down to Vorkosigan Surleau,” Gregor said to him over the soup course.  “It’s a long time since I was there.  How was it?”

Simon thought about it.  “Salutary,” he said finally, and Lady Alys gave a tiny snort.

Cordelia said:  “Straight from the standard diplomatic repertoire of words to describe one of Miles’s schemes.  What did he have you doing?”

“Fishing,” Simon said.

Fishing?  That was hardly one of his favorite pastimes.”

“Well, it was most compatible with his current medical condition, not to speak of mine,” Simon said dryly.

“If you can survive the consumption of ethanol it entails.  Did you actually catch anything?”

“Oh yes.”  Simon addressed himself serenely to his soup.  “You should have been there, my lady.  Miles mentioned your enthusiasm for fish dinners.”  There, that should revenge him for her crack in the hallway.  He looked up at her: she smiled, registering points scored.  Next to him Lady Alys was determinedly keeping a straight face.  Gregor, who didn’t know the context but who knew Cordelia and Simon of old, looked amused.  Dr. Toscane was looking at him with her eyes at thoughtful half-mast: Simon suspected the Empress-to-be of a sense of humor.

As the main course was brought in—which was a very good vat-fowl cutlet, but did not rise to Kosti-level inspiration—the talk turned inevitably to preparations for the betrothal.  Simon was very quickly left in the dust, not only because of his limitations but also because he was out of the security loop.  He realized with a pang of jealousy that Lady Alys would be debriefing herself in the future to someone else; no doubt she would continue to do so to him, but he would not be doing anything vital with the information, even if he could.  Perhaps—he thought, plying his napkin—he would become an information-gatherer himself.  If he could find a way to retain it.  Surely there was some way to work around his poor memory.  Hold that thought.  His hand twitched; he turned it into a gesture smoothing his napkin back in his lap.  He wished, for what felt like the first time in his life, for a notepad and lightpen.  But no, he was going to have to find his way back to this thought on his own.  He returned his attention to the talk going forward.

Lady Alys was lamenting Cordelia’s absence at a reception a few nights ago, when a Komarran merchant had become embrangled in a discussion with Count Vorinnis over some arcane Vor custom which Simon had missed hearing discussed; and he couldn’t reel the last few minutes back for review, damn it.  “I succeeded only by the skin of my teeth in preventing a severe loss of temper on both sides,” she said.  “It was dreadful.”

“Well, I don’t see how I would have succeeded any better,” Cordelia said.  “Very likely I’d only have convinced poor Vorinnis that all galactics think his heritage is chimerical.”

“Well, it can’t be, can it?” Dr. Toscane said.  “Not with so much of your government dependent on it.”

“Oh, now,” Cordelia laughed, “you mustn’t say things like that.  Not in mixed company!”  She grinned at Gregor, who smiled dryly back.

“I have learned,” Dr. Toscane said, as the liveried servitor removed her plate and replaced it with a dessert, “that it is actually better not to make reference to the romantic appeal of Vor tradition.  Too many people think it means one isn’t taking it seriously.”

“In some cases they would be right,” Cordelia said, still mischievous, and, “Oh, Cordelia,” Lady Alys sighed in almost the same breath.

“What do you think, Captain Illyan?” Dr. Toscane said, looking straight at him. 

The sound of dessert forks abruptly ceased.  Lady Alys’s hand moved toward him in a protective twitch, but she stifled the movement and did not look at him.

Simon blinked.  “About Vor tradition?” he asked calmly, playing for time, “or its romantic appeal?”

“Either,” Dr. Toscane said.  “Both.”

He cocked his head and stared at her curiously.  “Do you know,” he said, bemused, “I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me that before.”

She smiled back.  Simon realized suddenly that this was a test quite other than one of memory and attention.  The Komarran Empress-to-be wanted to know what the chief of Imperial Security thought about the system he had sworn to uphold.  He took a bite of his dessert, thinking.  It was quite a good cream tart, though not of the caliber to give Ivan Vorpatril that melted look.

Simon chose his strategy carefully.  After a moment he said:  “I understand we have a mutual acquaintance in Captain Galeni.  He is an historian on the subject, I believe.  What does he say?”

Both Lady Alys and Cordelia took a sudden breath, though, Simon suspected, for quite different reasons.  Gregor looked thoughtful.  Dr. Toscane’s eyes widened briefly in recognition of the parry, and she smiled wider, a smile suddenly both more genuine and more intent.

“Well,” she said wryly, “Captain Galeni hasn’t much use for the romantic appeal of Vor tradition.”  Simon would have been surprised to hear he had.  “He says that the system as we know it is largely a product of the Time of Isolation.  Without access to technology, Barrayar was forced back onto archaic means of survival, which led to archaic means of ordering society.  From an historical point of view, he says, it’s not at all romantic to be forced backward.”

“Mm,” Simon said, his gaze in the far distance.  He took another bite of dessert.

“Is he right?” Dr. Toscane asked him, bluntly.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Simon said.  He looked at Gregor, who was smiling ruefully into his dessert plate.  “The downside view is a little different, however.”

“And it is?”

Simon looked her directly in the eye.  “It doesn’t look like looking backward to us.  It looks like what it did when it began…an assumption of risk for the sake of posterity.  Not always practical, and in some ways quite ruthless.  But still a forward-looking risk.”

“That’s true,” Cordelia said thoughtfully.  “Every people assumes those risks somehow.  Beta Colony, for example, by scientific enterprise—both on and off planet.”

“Well,” Dr. Toscane conceded with a shrug, “and Komarrans understand risk for posterity very well, every time we send out a trade fleet.  Without those revenues we couldn’t continue terraforming at home.”

“But we aren’t isolated any more,” Gregor said slowly, drawing his fork across the surface of his dessert.  “Our risks are no longer faced all at home.  So it does, I think, look like looking backward to some.”

Simon replied, “Perhaps, but—” but gave way when Cordelia spoke in the same moment.

“Including,” she said, “some who would preserve the traditions at the expense of growth.”

“What progressives would call growth, Cordelia,” Lady Alys said, with a gentle smile.

“What anyone would call growth,” she argued back.  “It’s not just progressives using uterine replicators, for example.”

And if that were an accidental choice of example, Simon would eat his silver eyes.

Lady Alys gave her a level glare and said, “That would seem to prove Captain Galeni’s point about the force of technology.  However—”

“Then in what,” Gregor said, continuing his point doggedly, “does the risk now consist?”

“Responsibility,” Simon said at once.  “The Vor were held accountable for the welfare of their charges.  Their honor depended on fulfilling their responsibility.”

“Yet you, among others, have spent a lifetime’s career detaching responsibilities from the Vor,” Gregor said to him, with an amused smile.  “With full awareness of the implications for the future.”

“And yet,” Simon smiled in his turn, “we dare not make too many changes that depend for their immediate success upon the cooperation of the next generation.”

Both Lady Alys and Cordelia gave an identical snort.

Gregor’s eyes were lit with what for him was a grin, though touched by rue.  “And don’t forget the cooperation of the previous generation.”

“Yes, it’s a dicey business, posterity,” Cordelia said dryly.  “People have died over it.”

“Indeed they have,” Lady Alys said, brisk in that way she had when she was remembering grief.  “For the sake of their honor, and in betrayal of it.”

“Then do you think, Captain,” Dr. Toscane said, “that there is no honor without responsibility?”

“There is always responsibility,” Simon said quietly.  “We put ourselves in one another’s hands daily.”

The truth of his words sank in: Gregor blinked wet eyes at his fork-scored dessert, Dr. Toscane beamed at him in gratification to the pitch of relief, Cordelia cast him a sad smile.  Lady Alys sat upright, her chin lifted and her eyelids low, and drew a breath of chastened triumph, like a queen.

“Thank you, Simon,” Cordelia said at last.  “That is a very apt description of my career at least.  I can’t speak for anyone else.”

Their eyes met on it, and he gave her a small nod.

Lady Alys turned the talk then to lighter matters, and they finished their coffee chatting pleasantly of winter gardens.  Simon remained quiet; this effort had tired him more than he liked to admit.  At last they all began to push back their chairs and rise.

“Oh, Lady Alys,” said Dr. Toscane, “may I borrow you for a few minutes?  I wanted to consult with you on a few things for tomorrow evening.”

Lady Alys glanced briefly in Simon’s direction and then said, “Of course.”

“You need not see me back to Vorkosigan House,” Simon told her, “if you have work to do.”

“Oh, it won’t be but a few minutes,” Dr. Toscane said firmly.

“In that case,” Simon said with a small bow, “I should be happy to wait.  I will meet you down at the entrance, then.”

“All right,” Lady Alys said, with an uncertain glance into his face.

Simon drew breath to humbly ask for a Vorbarra attendant to guide him back through the Residence, but Gregor spoke first.

“I’ll walk down with you,” he said.  “I’m going that way myself.”

Lady Alys shot the Emperor a grateful look, and allowed Dr. Toscane to bear her and Cordelia away.  “See you at dinner, Simon,” Cordelia called over her shoulder, and he gave her a brief grin.

So it was that Simon walked alone with Gregor through the maze of the Residence to the entrance.  Gregor, unfailingly observant, telegraphed his turns before he made them with an easy subtlety, so that Simon could follow him without appearing to do so.  They did not speak until they reached the foyer, to wait both for the car and for Lady Alys.

Simon was unable to regret coming here, but he was now very tired indeed, and wished desperately for a nap before dinner.  Reacquainting oneself with one’s whole life was hard work.
 
Gregor must have been thinking along similar lines, because he regarded Simon thoughtfully a moment and then said, “Salutary,” with an air of repeating something.

“What’s salutary, Sire?” Simon asked.

“It’s the word you used to describe your visit to Vorkosigan Surleau,” Gregor said.

“Ah.  Yes.”  Simon was pleased to find he still agreed with himself.  “So it was.”  And then, “So it is.”

Gregor nodded, having got his answer.

“Do you think of Captain Negri, when you go there?” Simon asked him suddenly.  Before, he would never have dreamed of asking Gregor such a question, but now it seemed natural.

Gregor answered it in kind.  “Sometimes,” he said.  “Not always, now.”  He didn’t say, Sometimes I forget.

“I think I got off lightly,” Simon said, frowning pensively.

Gregor’s lips compressed.  “Even so,” he answered slowly, “there is a limit to how much I’m willing to let people suffer in my service.”

Simon understood this to be, among other things, an apology for not intervening sooner in his medical treatment.  Simon considered carefully how best to accept it.  Gregor let him think.

Simon fixed his gaze on the modern mural gracing the wall, both familiar and unfamiliar in its blues and purples.  Time was, his memory had gone straight through his thoughts, like a plumb line, like a fishing reel: now, his memory was the water, meters deep and impenetrable to the angler.  A depth charge here would be futile: only patience would suffice.  And even as he sighed, he found what he wanted to say.

“Do you remember,” Simon said, “the Hegen Hub incident?”

Next to him, Gregor gave a chastened sigh.  “Yes, Simon.  I remember.”

Simon turned and looked up into his Emperor’s face.  “Ask me,” he said, “if I regret giving over to you your own discretion.”

Their eyes met.  In the same moment, they both heard the staccato footsteps of Lady Alys coming down the corridor toward them.

Instead of answering in words, Gregor reached a hand to clasp Simon’s shoulder.  For a moment his grip tightened, and Simon sensed in him the shadow of passionate feeling, like the unheard harmonic radiance of a musical tone, beyond the un-expression of his countenance.

Then just as quickly he let go, divided a nod between him and Alys as she reached them, and went away.

*

There was no need for a postmortem in the groundcar ride back to Vorkosigan House.  Lady Alys took his hand instead, seeking as well as offering solace.  He threaded his fingers through hers and left the silence unbroken.

After a while he said: “D’you think Dr. Toscane will be offended if I don’t bring a guest to her party?”

Her lips twitched humorously.  “Are you doubting your ability to find a date at short notice?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “you’re going to be on duty.  And I don’t want anyone else.”

It was a thing of wonder, the life and color that came into her face at these words, as if anything he could offer her might cause her delight.  He wanted to do it again.  With a sidelong smile he said:  “Perhaps I could steal you away for one dance.”

“Perhaps I could contrive to be stolen,” she answered, turning her irrepressible smile toward the window.

“I’ll depend on you, then,” he said softly.  She caught her breath at the note in his voice, which startled him in turn.  The car turned into the drive of Vorkosigan House then: Simon damned the house, and the groundcar, and all drivers who never took the long way home.

“Will you be coming back today?” he asked her, before alighting.

Their eyes touched.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “Depends how early I can get free of tonight’s obligations.”

He nodded.  “If not, then till tomorrow, my lady.”

Their hands parted reluctantly.

*

Simon was waked from his well-earned nap in the deep armchair by Pym, come to tell him that Colonel Olshansky would be coming home with Miles for dinner.  “Then I’ll certainly need another nap,” he said, and closed his eyes again.

“Very good, sir,” Pym said, with the faintest breath of humor in his voice.

But when Simon went downstairs, dressed and ready for the evening, he found Olshansky waiting in the library alone.  He stood nervously as Simon entered.  “Sir,” he said, half-gesturing toward a salute.

“Colonel,” Simon said, easily.  “Has no one come to greet you yet?  Where’s Miles?”

“He’s not coming, sir,” Olshansky said.  “He passed me a message to give you and the Countess that he wouldn’t make it for dinner, and—” He stopped, flushing.

“—and we were to make you welcome without him?” Simon guessed.  “That sounds like Miles.”

“What sounds like Miles?” Cordelia said, entering the room.  Olshansky looked, if it were possible, even more rigid and suffused.

“He skived off dinner and left poor Olshansky to come to Vorkosigan House alone,” Simon told her.

Cordelia glanced toward heaven.  “Well, let’s hope his progress on the case is directly proportional to his rudeness,” she said.

“I think there may be progress, sir, Milady,” Olshansky said.  “He’s requisitioned an Ops team headed by Captain Vorpatril to inventory the whole of the Evidence department.”

“Hm,” Simon said.  “There’s a lot there to inventory.”

“Yes, sir.”
 
“Any idea what set him off?”

“No, sir.”

Simon glanced at Cordelia and found she was looking at him.  “Terrier,” she said.

“Rat,” he agreed.  “Well, I doubt we’ll hear from him till he’s dragged it out.  In the meantime, my lady, allow me to make known to you Colonel Olshansky, head of Sergyaran Affairs.”

“Of course.  We’ve corresponded before.  It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Cordelia said graciously.  Olshansky rose to the occasion and shed his embarrassment to bow properly over her hand.

They went in to dinner.  Cordelia with her Betan Survey savoir-faire quickly disarmed Olshansky by opening a conversation about harvesting hydrogen from local Sergyaran fauna and an incident in which someone lost his wits and mounted a failed attempt to blow up a settlement using a migrating flock of radials.  She even managed to keep Simon abreast, a feat that would have made Miles envious had he been there, Simon thought.

But discussion of Sergyaran daily affairs, stimulating as it was, couldn’t stop Simon’s attention from sidling off to contemplate what Lady Alys might be doing at this moment.  She hadn’t told him what obligations had kept her away tonight—or perhaps she had, and he’d forgotten.  Not, of course, that there was going to be any letup in her duties between now and the betrothal.  Now that Simon hadn’t any duties to speak of—except to make one of the dinner party at Vorkosigan House—he had nothing to distract his mind from dwelling longingly on their interrupted trysts in groundcars.  He could ask the Emperor for something to do till she had more time at her disposal.  Or perhaps Gregor would consider letting Alys—

“Simon?”

Simon blinked.  Cordelia and Olshansky were both looking at him, fork hands paused.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Cordelia,” Simon said.  “I was thinking of something else.”

“The case will keep, you know,” she said, though the faint humor in her face suggested that it wasn’t the case she suspected him of thinking about.

“Yes, it will,” he said, with a bland look that dared her to tease him further.  “Now what was it you were saying?”

*

Colonel Olshansky departed late that evening, having been encouraged by Cordelia to linger over his glass of District wine and finally delivered home in one of the House’s cars.  Simon said goodnight to Cordelia and went upstairs to his own rooms, stretching pleasantly.

He hung up his tunic and sat down in his shirtsleeves, not yet ready to go to bed, but unable to summon the interest for a book or other distraction.  Miles still hadn’t come home.  Well, it would take a while to inventory all of Evidence; but it sounded like he’d commandeered some help for the task.  Simon didn’t like the implications of this development.  It almost certainly meant that someone in ImpSec itself had a hand in this assassination of his.  Not that the evidence hadn’t already been drifting in that direction, but it was bleak news nevertheless.  Simon had a nasty feeling he was going to like even less what Miles finally dragged into the light.  Well, boy, he thought, get on with it.

Simon shouldn’t have had that extra nap.  He was wide awake, poised on a breathless cusp between the future and the past.  In the near past, he’d met with Gregor without disaster; in the near future, Miles would faithfully report to him his findings.  He’d stolen Lady Alys’s breath with a word, and promised to steal her a dance tomorrow.  Any minute now the fine balance of the present would offer him the moment to dive in.

Nothing happened.  Simon listened to his own slow breathing in the silence of the room.

He was just about to get up and dress for bed when a quiet knock came at the door.  It opened before he could respond.  Simon, expecting Miles, was startled into unguarded pleasure when Lady Alys entered and closed the door softly behind her.

She was wearing gold this evening, a subtly sparkling gown with a complex texture, and carried a wrap around her shoulders of a similar fabric, padded warm in the middle and tapering to a diaphanous golden tassel at the ends.  Pearls shone in her dark hair, which was woven artfully under and around a gold band.  Wherever she’d been, she must have outshone her surroundings like sun on water.

She crossed the room at a deliberate pace and came to rest before him, the hems of her gown brushing his shoes, her face unsmiling but warm with a clement pleasure.  Simon clasped his knees and looked up at her wordlessly.  She looked and smelled like sparkling wine.  She was altogether lovely, and he could never dare to want her, except that she had given him permission.

“You got free,” he uttered softly at last.

“I did.”  She spoke with the same quiet pleasure.  “Now I and my evening are all yours.”

He could feel his whole skin growing warm.  “Did you see Cordelia on your way in?” he said, sounding much more casual than he felt.

“Yes.  She was on her way to bed, so she wished me goodnight.”

Ah.  Well.  He smiled.

“And Miles?” she asked.

Simon shrugged.  “As far as I know, he’s still at ImpSec HQ with his Ops team, shaking the place upside down like a toy box.”

“Ah.  That explains why I couldn’t get hold of Ivan.”

“Yes.”

They looked at one another for a long moment.

Finally, he said quietly:  “Is it time then, my lady?”

She slid off her wrap and folded it neatly.  “Yes,” she said, laying it over the arm of the other chair.  “Yes, I think so.”

Yes, oh, yes.  But how to begin?  After a moment’s hesitation, Simon lifted his hands in suppliant offering.  She laid hers in them, in a gesture a mirror to his, and he kissed them, then turned them over and kissed the heart of each of her palms.  She made a little movement, and he looked up to see that he had stolen her breath again.

He rose up then; took her face caressingly in his hands, and kissed her, withholding nothing.  She slipped her arms around his waist and let him hold her up, then got back her equilibrium and kissed him back.

He broke the kiss briefly to murmur, “Oh, this works so much better here than in a groundcar,” and she chuckled.

“Or—around a tea table—”

“Yes.”

“I can think of a place it’d work better still.”

“Can you now?”  So could he.  He led her by the hand into the bedroom, levered off his shoes and kicked them somewhere, and resumed operations.

Her fine-boned hands had worked their way under his shirt, and then moved on to undoing his collar.  Which seemed permission enough for him to search out by touch the fastenings at the back of her gown, but he feared to damage it.  She murmured in his ear, “Do better to do it by sight,” and he nodded.

He stepped behind her, but paused first to kiss the nape of her neck and touch with a slow fingertip the curve of her shoulder.  Her skin was not young, but it was polished and cared-for, softer certainly than his, and seemed to breathe inexhaustible perfection.  This then was the present moment offered to him: and he had already fallen in.  Seconds could tick past and he would never know it.

“My God,” he whispered.  “I had no idea time could be so elastic.”

“Mm,” she said.

Experimenting with this new discovery, he unfastened the catches of her gown savoringly, and when he had done them all, he leaned his cheek on the back of her hair, closing his eyes, and breathed in.

And still the present moment accommodated him.  He lifted his head and began to explore the pearls in her hair: he tugged gently on one and discovered that it was threaded at the base of a hairpin.  He bent to murmur warmly into her ear:  “May I?”

For answer she held up her hand at the height of her shoulder.

Grinning boyishly, he drew the pearl hairpin free and dropped it into her waiting palm.  Then he picked out another pearl at random and pulled it gently.  It followed the first.  Soon there was a gathering nest of pearl hairpins in her hand, and with each one he tugged, her whole coiffure began to move.  They were both laughing under their breath by the time he lifted away the gold band and hung it ceremoniously over the tips of her fingers.  Her hair stayed up for a brief moment, then fell by slow degrees, and he stroked it all the way down.

“There,” he said.

She bent and transferred the pins and the band to the top of the nightstand, then turned to face him.  With her hair down she looked younger, like a girl, but for the command in her dark eyes. 

“There is,” she said, “only so much elasticity in time.”

Grinning, he drew her close and laid his brow against hers.  “Are you in a hurry?”
 
“Not as such, exactly.”

He kissed her, not hurrying.  Then snatched a breath to say, “I’m afraid I must apologize in advance.”

“What, again?” she said, indignantly, and he laughed.

“I’m very out of practice in this, you see.”

“Well,” she said, in a voice too breathless to be tart, “that makes two of us.”

“Ah.  Then we’ll relearn together.”

She reached up a hand to stroke his cheek.  “You see?” she said.  “You are not alone.”

“No,” he said.

 
Day Sixty-six

Simon stood at the bow window, looking out on the back garden with his arms folded tight against him. As he watched, the morning became full and luminous day, sparkling on the light-frosted roofs of Vorbarr Sultana; the frost dissolved to steam and rose in a curling haze.  Unlike his insides, still pickling in acid fury; unlike his thoughts, mired down in an unbreakable circle.

A knock sounded on the door, followed by a click as it opened.  Too quiet to be Miles; too circumspect to be Alys.  He made no response.

Sure enough, Cordelia edged into his peripheral vision.  For a moment she stood next to him following his gaze out the window.  Then she spoke quietly.

“You’re standing right where I left you last night.  Didn’t you sleep at all?”

“Yes,” he grudged.  Honesty compelled him to add:  “Briefly.”

She looked at him sidelong.  “You still mad at me?”

Simon closed his eyes and exhaled a sigh that seemed to come from the lowest depths of his body.  “There was really nothing else you could have done,” he admitted, with as much grace as he could muster.  “Dragging me home was the most expedient way of dealing with the crisis.”

“That is not an answer to my question,” she said.

“Yes, it is,” he said tightly.

“In other words,” she said, sounding amused, “you’ll get over it.”  After a pause she went on:  “To that end, might I suggest a change of scene?  Come up to my rooms, and we’ll have tea there.”

Only Cordelia could coax with such a straightforward air.  Simon was already relenting in spite of himself.  He allowed her to draw him, and a moment later was following her up the stairs to her sitting room.

He was still angry, no question about it.  Cordelia had come to find him and Lady Alys on the terrace, grim in purpose, with Dr. Toscane and Delia Koudelka in tow, and communicated quietly the news of Galeni’s arrest.  Alys had taken Laisa and Delia off at once to start damage control, leaving Cordelia to collar Simon sharply from going down to ImpSec HQ himself.  On the instant they had engaged in what in any other time and place would have been a toe-to-toe shouting match.

Miles is on it, she had said, locking eyes with him.  There’s nothing you can do.  And as Simon expostulated, she went on, And at this point, do you think they’ll even let you in down there?

And you’re going to spare me that little humiliation? Simon had whispered almost inaudibly.

No, she’d said, equally quiet.  You are.

And then she’d carried him off home, stiff and silent and scalded bloodless with rage.

Funny, Simon thought; he wasn’t having any trouble at all remembering this.  His temples hurt with remembering.

But Cordelia was right: a change of scene and a cup of tea was helpful.  Even better, Cordelia didn’t actually try to talk to him.  She let him sip his tea and think his circular thoughts.  By the time he reached the bottom of his first cup he had relaxed enough to let out a long, tired sigh.

Finally he rubbed his temple and said:  “Where’s Miles?  Have you seen him?”

She shook her head.  “Not to speak to.  He’s been in and out, I think.  There’s been no news.”

How Simon hated being out of the loop.  And what was worse, on a professional level he approved of it.  He’d spent years perfecting this detachment: the impassive eye, seeing all and moved by none of it.  It had seen him through some difficult days.  But for this it seemed an unwieldy strategy.

“The whole thing smells, to me,” Cordelia said.  “It can’t be Galeni.”

Ah, the east point on the spinning compass of his thoughts.  “You don’t know that.  It could.  We don’t have the intel,” Simon said with his eyes closed.  South-east.

“Oh, come on, Simon,” she argued.  “The Komarran with the terrorist father?  The cuckoo in the ImpSec nest?  It seems a little too pat to me.”  South.

“He could easily have had the opportunity.  And he got close enough to me.”  South-west.

“But why on earth would he, after all he’s been through to prove himself here?”

“Motive, Cordelia.  It’s for sweeping up afterward, not making the case.”  Simon didn’t mention the surveillance review, his shadowed memory of Galeni’s dead fury.  West.

“Well, I happen to think the case is being pretty poorly made.  What the hell was your General Haroche thinking, arresting Galeni at Laisa’s party, and then dumping the brief on Gregor at a time like that?  Idiot.  He could hardly have embarrassed the principals in the matter any more if he’d done it on purpose.”

Yes: the other reason Simon was furious.  Made worse by his professional eye mocking his own fury; he’d had to be willing to look like a fool for the sake of security, many times.  He didn’t have the intel.  He didn’t know.  North-west.

“Simon, if you really do think that Galeni could have taken you out as some sort of twisted collateral damage—”

Simon opened his eyes.  “I don’t know what to think,” he said, his voice thinning with strain.  “I thought I knew Galeni.  But I thought I knew all my men.  I don’t know if I can trust my judgment on that point anymore.”  North.

“Especially after what Miles did.”  Cordelia said it for him.

Simon shut his eyes again, feeling beaten.  “No, that was consistent.  One might almost have seen it coming.  Of course Miles would panic and try to shore up his position with the Dendarii.  At a distance of twenty wormhole jumps lying to me might not seem so bad.”  At five paces it had looked pretty horrible, to both of them.

“Yes.  Consistent,” Cordelia said.  “Does Galeni as culprit seem consistent to you?”

Simon opened his hand.  “And here we are again,” he said without opening his eyes.

“Yes,” Cordelia sighed.  And then, “It’s getting near time for lunch.  Perhaps I should order—”

“I’m not hungry.”

“—a snack.”  He recognized her determined tone and decided not to bother with further protest.

She was also right about the food, as it turned out.  Well, if nobody was coming to him with any reports, he needed something to do.  Cordelia wasn’t quite of Alys’s caliber when it came to soothing piffle, but she managed to keep off the topic of the case and the fiasco of the party.  Simon felt better; he was almost all finished being mad at Cordelia, at least.

But he kept picking at the edges of the problem, in his mind.  Finally he ventured:  “Have you heard anything from Lady Alys?”

Cordelia shook her head.  “Not since very early this morning.  She was on her way to snatch a little sleep.  She thinks the party itself was saved from total disaster, but she’s not so sure about Galeni’s reputation.  And she’s desperately furious that her one evening off was snatched from her by bungled Security business.”  She gave a black chuckle.  “I don’t think Haroche realizes how dangerous it is to thwart Alys.  You’d think he’d learn.”

“The evening did not exactly end as either of us envisioned, no,” Simon said thinly, avoiding a smile.

“Yes, that too,” Cordelia said.  “She’s been without company for so long.  I’m glad you’re doing something about it.”  Ah, yes.  With a rising sense of hilarity Simon braced himself for a deluge of Betan frankness.  Better just go with it.  “Up till now, I don’t think she’s had any sex since Ivan was born.”

“Hell,” Simon snorted, “neither have I.  That I can recall.”

“Well, if you can’t recall it,” she grinned, “it must not have been very memorable.”

Simon couldn’t stop the laugh.  He shut his eyes and shook with it for a long minute.  “No, indeed!”  Ah, God.  He was really free of all that unmemorable lumber.  What a gift.

“So then—” Cordelia’s smile softened without losing any of its mischief— “I take it all goes well on that front?”

It would be indecent to beam widely.  Simon schooled himself to a collected, “Yes, very well.”  And then added thoughtfully, “Though I must say, it appears that sleeping with someone at the age of sixty does involve some actual sleeping.”
 
“All that hard work,” she said wickedly.  Simon looked for something to throw at her, but the bowl of sugar cubes was out of his reach.  She laughed.

“By the way, I suspect you’re responsible for Miles’s unwonted circumspection yesterday morning,” he said.  “For which I thank you.”

“Heh.  You’re welcome.  I wonder if he’s noticed yet what it all means.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  His attention is rather consumed just now.”  But even with Miles’s attention elsewhere, Vorkosigan House wasn’t exactly a quiet trysting-place.  There was always something going on.  Even at this moment, on the floor above, there was the sound of a door shutting, and furniture being shoved.  Simon poured himself another cup of tea.

“Just as well,” Cordelia said.  “We need him to get to the bottom of this.”

“I would like him to give me a report sometime today, however,” Simon growled.  “Though I haven’t the right any longer to demand it.  Damn, this is going to take some getting used to.”

She sighed in sympathy and reached for the teapot.

Upstairs, the faint sound of a harsh voice reached them, then abruptly there was another shove followed by a volley of quick, light footsteps, back and forth, and back again, over and over.

Cordelia looked up.  “What’s going on up there?”

Simon thought he could recognize the footsteps.  “That sounds like Miles.  But that’s not his room up there.”

“No, it isn’t.  What’s he doing?”

“It sounds like he’s pacing.”  Simon had watched Miles pace often enough.  “But that doesn’t sound like his usual tempo.”  The tempo, in fact, sounded more than frenetic; it sounded desperate, like a rat in a cage.  Yes, of course.  Miles the terrier had dragged out a rat that turned out to be…not himself, but a close friend.  Near enough.  He had to be feeling the strain.

Wait.  Galeni was Miles’s friend.  What better way to discredit an Imperial Auditor who was getting too close than by fastening the crime on someone close to him?  Dammit, why hadn’t this thought occurred to him hours ago?  He must be out of it.  Simon’s hand curled into a fist on the armrest of his chair.  It surely had occurred to Miles:  and Miles had been fully briefed, unlike Simon.

He was Miles’s friend too: moreover, one who was staying as a guest in Vorkosigan House.  The embargo of information from him suddenly took on a much more sinister tint.  There was something terribly wrong in ImpSec.  Taking him out was one thing; tangling the whole department up behind its own fortress walls was quite another.  You can’t plan for everything, he told himself.  Everyone gets blindsided sometimes.  But damn, and damn.

“Simon?” Cordelia said.  “What is it?”

Simon drew breath to answer her, but in that moment there came a sickening multi-impact thump from overhead.  Simon and Cordelia looked at one another in alarm.  Then as one they got up and made for the door.

“Which room is it?” Simon asked, when they reached the next floor up.

“I think it’s this way,” Cordelia said, striking off down a corridor that looked parallel to her own one floor down.

There was only one tight-shut door in the right vicinity.  Cordelia knocked on it.

“Who is it?” came Miles’s voice, from somewhere low, near the floor.

Cordelia frowned in a glance at Simon.  “Miles?  Are you all right in there?”

If he was on the floor— “You’re not having one of your seizures, are you?” Simon said.  He remembered well what Miles had looked like, seizing on the floor of his office: the incident had been a ghastly icing to a disastrous cake.

“No—” Miles said— “no.  I’m all right.”

Cordelia shut her eyes briefly in impatient concern.  “What are you doing?” she said.  “We heard a lot of footsteps, and a thump through the ceiling—”

His reply came back in a light, quick stringendo.  “Just…wrestling with temptation,” he said.

Simon recognized Miles’s cryptic humor.  It meant Miles was getting somewhere.  Good.  “Who’s winning?” he asked.

“I think…,” Miles seemed to hang fire for a moment— “I’m going for the best two falls out of three.”

Simon laughed, much cheered.  So then—not a rat in a cage.  He could leave the thing in Miles’s hands after all.  “Right.  See you later.”

“I’ll be down soon, I think,” Miles assured them.

“Well, that sounds promising,” Cordelia said, as they retreated to her sitting room.  “Maybe he’ll have some news for us when he emerges.”

“Ha,” Simon said.  “I predict an uptick in chaos when he finishes thinking.”

“Not that we’re not well-stocked as it is,” she agreed.

“True.”  Simon sat down and picked up his tea; it had grown cold.  He put it back down on the table with a sigh.  “Oh, Cordelia.  Forgive me.  I could have been more help to you last night.  I’m not used to not being the one issuing the orders at a time like this.  But that’s no excuse.”

“It was understandable,” Cordelia said.  “And I don’t mind being your safest target.”

He winced.  “Not for the first time, either.  Worse and worse.”

“And where would any of us be if we kept a strict account?” she countered.  “Do better to forget about it.”

“Something I can actually do, now,” he mused.

“I recommend the practice.  In suitable moderation, that is.”  She smiled at him and put both their teacups on the cart behind the table.

“It’s only just occurred to me how wide-open everything is now,” Simon said, with his eyes on the floral print on the wall opposite.  “If I’m not issuing orders, I’ll have a freer hand to do…just about anything.  I hope I don’t get bored.  I thought of asking Gregor for something to keep me occupied while Alys is so busy.  Of course—” he grinned— “I could just ask her and save a step.”

“Beware, Simon,” sang the Vicereine softly.  “When I left Beta to marry Aral, I thought I was coming to Barrayar to retire.”

They were still laughing over this when they heard Miles’s running feet in the hall, and the growing volume of his shout.  “Simon!  Simon!”

In the next instant the door slapped open and Miles was in the room like a thunderclap, his House tunic open and swinging.  There was a fresh cut on his lip: he had had a seizure since last night, Simon deduced.  But it was his only thought, because Miles was already in full spate.

“Simon!  There you are.  Good.  I need you.  Get dressed.  You have your undress greens here, right? with all the trimmings?  Put ‘em on and meet me downstairs.”  As Simon spared a belated glance at his shirt and trousers, Miles’s gaze swung to Cordelia.  “Mother.  I need you too.  Go get Pym and tell him to bring me round the groundcar.  The big one.  I need all the room I can get.  And quickly!  Time is of the essence.”

Neither of them moved.  “Where are we going?” Simon said, and in the same moment Cordelia asked, “Why the big groundcar?”

“Can’t risk the comconsoles,” Miles said.  “No idea who’s listening where.”  He paused to gather his thoughts, fist in palm.  “Have to do this in the right order.  Delia first.  Then Weddell.  I hope to God he answers his damn door.  Then I’ll swing back and get Ivan.  That’ll cut the lead time for news to trickle over from Ops, if ImpSec has any ears over there.  Dammit!” Both his fists doubled up.  “I can’t believe I’ve lost so much time already.  He could already have covered his tracks by now.”  He looked at them both where they sat still frozen.  “Well, come on!  We have to hurry.  Duv’s hanging by a thread over there.  I’m going to get cleaned up—I’ll see you both downstairs—”  He was almost out the door already.

“Miles,” Simon said, in the slow quiet voice that was his only means of ever stopping Miles in his tracks, “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me who we’re stinging.”

Miles did stop then.  He gave a grim nod half to himself and turned in the doorway.

“I’m sorry, Simon,” he said, meeting Simon’s eye with a grieved look.  “The Yarrow was good work.  I almost hope I’m wrong.”  Then his face darkened.  “Almost.”

And he was gone.

Simon stared into the air Miles had vacated and let the thoughts click into place.  Yes: he could see it clear, could almost, without the same intel, follow Miles’s drift.  The delay in his treatment; the blockade against Miles; the case against Galeni.  Shit.  He felt suddenly very, very tired.

“Simon?” Cordelia said.  “Do you know who he means?”

“Yes,” Simon said.

*

It was late when Simon finally got back to Vorkosigan House.  He had stayed for a few of the meetings that were boiling up in the ImpSec fortress, but had gratefully accepted Miles’s offer to send him home after he had fully debriefed himself.  He was the last of Miles’s little assault team to go: Ivan had ducked out as soon as humanly possible, and after speaking to Allegre, Gregor also had gone and returned to the Residence—but not before giving Simon a searching look that had stuck with Simon all the way back home.

The house was quiet: Cordelia was either not home or had gone to bed.  Simon suspected the former; Cordelia would likely not have waited for her brief, but gone to shake down the Emperor for further information as soon as she got wind of the operation’s success.

Upstairs in his rooms, Simon paused before the floor mirror with his fingers on his cufflinks and stared thoughtfully at his reflection.  This was probably the last time he’d be wearing this uniform.  He’d get one more wear out of his dress greens, going to offer Gregor his retirement.  That was mere ceremony at this point: it had been spoken of by everyone as understood, probably because Miles had taken him at his word when he said he didn’t intend to go back.

Miles was now the age Simon had been when Aral Vorkosigan pointed at him and said, You’re it.  Simon remembered the bottomless, exhilarating terror of that moment; and he hadn’t even known then what the next thirty years would involve.  The gray-templed, bright-eyed man now looking at him in the mirror had the privilege of passing on freely his responsibility to the next generation.  Another gift, surely.

Simon had twitted Gregor about the next generation.  But he’d just spent an evening in a close cell with that same next generation, and had hardly needed to speak a word.  Gregor…Gregor was everything he had ever hoped to serve in an Emperor.  It was a good salve for the wound of Lucas’s betrayal, possibly the only effective one.

With a deliberate air, Simon undid his cuffs, then the fastenings of his tunic’s belt.  He shrugged out of the tunic and went to the closet to hang it up.  This was an occasion for wine, he decided.  He would carouse quietly to the next thirty years, whatever they would bring and make him.

On a chair next to the closet door lay a small bundle in a cloth bag.  Thinking perhaps it was something he’d left there and forgotten, Simon paused to lift the edge with an idle finger.  Inside was a neatly-folded pile of clothing, the top layer a rich blue fabric that, when shaken out, would show no wrinkle.  He realized suddenly what it was he was looking at, and couldn’t stop the smile taking over his face.

And as he hung his tunic in the closet, he heard the faint rustle of her skirts as Alys herself arrived.  Without startling, he turned from putting the tunic away to see her standing there silently inside the doorway.

“Ah, my lady,” he said quietly.  “I was just going to call for some wine to toast my own retirement.  Perhaps you’d care to join me.”

“I would love to,” she said.

On the way to the voice com at the side of the bed, his feet detoured directly to her, and his arms drew her in, and he was kissing her:  and in the same moment he had forgotten the wine and everything else except the salt hunger of holding her close and closer still.  And she was kissing him back with the same ravenous intent, her hands in his hair and at his nape.

Simon gave a sop to the obligation of briefing her by saying against her mouth:  “Did you hear what happened?”

“Got the digest from Ivan,” she replied, almost without breath.

“Well, that’s convenient,” he chuckled.

“I thought so.”

“Details later?”

“Much later,” she said.  “Kiss me again.”

He complied, with such vigor that she was unstrung for a moment in his arms.  On the resurgence of her strength she pulled his head down further and kissed his cheek, and the corner of his closed eye, and his temple: he trembled and breathed her in, and then breathed out her name:  Alys, Alys….

“Oh,” she said.  And held him close against her.

*

Much later, they lay quiet together in the darkness, he on his back with her hand under his on his chest, she curled close with her head tucked under his ear.

She broke the silence.  “We never did get round to toasting your retirement,” she said, with a sleepy chuckle.

“It’ll keep,” he murmured.  “There’s time.”  After all, it wasn’t as though he were in danger of changing his mind.

And indeed, with such blessing before him, what else would he do?  But Simon remembered Cordelia’s clear warning.  Love and partnership was no guarantee of a quiet life—indeed, it was sometimes the very provocation for the attacks of those who wanted to destroy the work that had been done.  The next generation….

Simon wouldn’t make the mistake of complacency if he could help it.  It was entirely possible that he would never find out what it was like to be bored.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked him, after a moment.

For her, always the truth.  “I’m trying to calculate how much easier it will be for an enemy to use one of us against the other,” he told her.

“Easier.  You mean, more likely?  Or more effectively?”

He smiled in the darkness at her sang froid.  He had never envisioned what having a partner would be like.  “Either, I suppose,” he said.

She thought about it.  “Well, I suppose it will be somewhat more likely that someone would try.  Unless you think we should keep this entirely to ourselves.”

“I think there’s no point in attempting it, at this time of the day,” he said.

“No.  Even if we wanted to.”

Indeed.  “Mm,” he said.

She went on:  “As for more effectively, I think a large part of that depends on us.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I don’t suppose someone would get very far using a physical threat.”  She was Vor; he, an old campaigner.  Neither of them would be easily moved with that lever.

“No,” she agreed.

“As for other kinds of threat…I hesitate to say how I would behave, so far ahead of the event.  I would hate watching you suffer because of me.  I can’t guarantee I’d be rational.”

“Well…in case it needs saying…don’t ever forswear yourself on my account.”

“No,” he said quietly.  “Nor you either.”

“No.”

The silence that followed sealed them together, her hand and his over his heart. 

After a while, she said:  “I suppose someone could deceive one of us….”

“We’d better keep one another well briefed, then,” Simon said.

He felt more than heard her chuckle.  “Oh, Simon,” she said on an affectionate sigh.

He gathered up her hand under his, and her thumb stroked his knuckles gently.  “And I think it’d be just as difficult for someone to lie to me now as before.  One never knows what I might forget,” he said with a quiet laugh.

“I think we need not be afraid,” she said.

“No, only circumspect.”

“You can take the boy out of ImpSec….”

“Speaking of which,” he said, “I’m going to have to find a new flat.  I can’t keep living at ImpSec HQ.”

“Oh, but I was so looking forward to visiting you there,” she said, and they both snickered.  But he ended his laugh on a sigh.

“It’s been so long since I engaged my own living quarters.  I hardly know where to begin.”

She said, after a hesitation:  “Would you like any assistance from me?”

“I would love your assistance,” he said frankly.  “But you have so much to do as it is.”

“It would be a respite,” she said.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Well….”  He thought.  “In view of our discussion just now, I think I’d like not to be too near to where you are.”

“But walking distance?”

“Walking distance would be acceptable,” he said with a smile.

She hummed, thinking.  “A few places come to mind,” she said.  “What sort of budget will you have?”  She asked the question without embarrassment, so he felt none either.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said.  “I think if the flat were modest, it could encompass a driver and a housekeeper.”

“Mm, yes.  You’ll want them, certainly.  And after years of living in that spartan castle, I daresay mere simplicity would feel like luxury.”

He chuckled.

“Well, that gives me a few ideas,” she said, sounding satisfied.  “I’ll look into it in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Simon said.  “And…is there anything I can assist you with in return?”

“—Yes,” she said suddenly.  “You can help me plan a holiday.”

“A holiday?”  He blinked.

“Yes, a holiday.  After the betrothal, I want warmth and light and sybaritic indulgence.  A beach chair, and a beach to go with it.  No comconsoles, no calligraphy pens, no appearances, no meetings, and no Vorbarr Sultana in winter.  Gregor will just have to cope without us for a few weeks.”

“Us,” Simon repeated, amused.

“Yes, if you will be pleased to come.”

He thought about it: days on end with Alys all to himself.  “It sounds wonderful.”

“Well, then.  You find a place for us to make our escape.”

“I’m on it, my lady.”

She snuggled closer against him.  “Thank you, Simon.”

“A holiday,” he repeated after a moment, in blank wonder.  “I’ve never so much as envisioned myself on holiday.”  Or fallen into a bottomless sky of love.  Or lost in the Residence.  Or retired.  “I thought my only door out of ImpSec was death.  But I’m alive instead.  I’ve no frame of reference for this.”

“Does it frighten you?” she asked quietly.  He could feel her listening, not just for his voice, but to all of him.

“It probably should.  But I think I’m more curious than anything.  What will I be now?  Something else.  Something I didn’t look for.”  He smiled in the dark.  “Perhaps…Lady Alys Vorpatril’s absent-minded consort.”

He felt her tense beside him.  He said:  “Sounds an enviable commission,” and the warm humor in his voice relaxed her.

“Well, I hope you’re not expecting a sinecure,” she said, replying in kind.

“By no means.”  He moved his head to kiss her hair.  “Besides, we have an Imperial wedding to get through.”

Something suddenly relaxed completely in her: her hand flattened under his and slipped all the way round him, and he moved his to cradle her shoulder.

“You see?” he said.  “You are not alone.”

She nodded, agreeing.  After a moment he felt her give a tiny jerk, and then another; and he realized that she was crying, in utter silence.

It was a thing she would never do, he knew, outside of silence and darkness and until after the fact; to do otherwise would have been to forswear her own courage.  He wrapped his arms closer around her and buried his lips in her hair.  Grieve for a little, he thought, and then be comforted.  It seemed a good directive for them both.

It did not take long before she drew an uneven breath and subsided again.  For a moment she sniffed and swallowed noisily, then sighed as if she had just finished a long-delayed difficult task, and nestled her head down on his shoulder.  Within minutes he could feel her falling asleep; her breathing slowed and she grew heavy in his arms.  Before she could sink completely, he shifted to dispose them both more comfortably for the night, then drew the covers over them and closed his eyes.

If she fell asleep before he, he did not know it.

 
Day Seventy

“Knock, knock,” Cordelia said at his open door.  Simon looked up.

“Come in,” he said, and she grinned comfortably and came to take a seat at the table with him.

“What’s all this?” she said, gesturing at the morass of flimsies and brochures covering the table’s surface.

“Various things,” he said, moving aside a cup of cold coffee.  “Brochures from various resort hotels…a sample copy of the lease from that flat I looked at yesterday…Guy was kind enough to run me a report on the building—” he fanned the corner of the sheaf of flimsies from ImpSec for demonstration— “references for staff from Guy and Alys…and a few other things as well.  Can’t just run my eyes over them and recall it all later,” he explained.  “Have to take my time over them now.”

Cordelia nodded.

“Was there something you wanted?” he asked her.

"Well,” she said, “I have for you a message and a present.  Which one do you want first?”

He gave her a quizzical look.  “The message, of course.”

“Of course.”  She smiled at him.  “The message is from Gregor.  He wants you to attend on him tomorrow morning at a meeting with him and Lord Auditors Vorhovis, Vorkalloner, Vorthys, and Vorgustafson.  Sharp at 0900.”

Simon blinked.  “Good God.  What’s that all about?”

“I couldn’t say,” Cordelia said, with a dry smile.  “Gregor merely asked me to pass you the message.  He did say something about having you a brief delivered this afternoon, so I deduce you’re wanted for some kind of adjunct consultation.”

“Well, with so many Imperial Auditors involved, let’s hope I don’t forget the appointment.”

“Ah.  Well, that’s where the present comes in.”  Cordelia placed a small box on the table and lifted off the lid.  Inside was a shiny black device.  Simon lifted it out and examined it.  “It’s a notefiler,” she explained.  “It has both display and playback for any information you put into it by audio.  And you can cross-reference the files you put in by keyword, or date, or heading.”  As Simon’s understanding dawned, she began to grin.  “Best of all,” she added— “you can purge it whenever you like.”

It was entirely characteristic of Cordelia not only to think of giving him such a thing but also to understand which feature of it would fascinate him the most.  Simon blinked rapidly and tried to think of a suitable reply.

“Oh, and there’s actually another present.”  She pulled out of her pocket a holocube and set it down next to the box.

“A map,” Simon said, quietly.

“Yep.  Multi-scale.  Both continents down to the meter.  I suspect you’ll be using the Vorbarr Sultana portion of it most, however.”

“It doesn’t have a schematic of the Residence on it, by any chance?” Simon said.

“Alas, no,” Cordelia said.  “Some hard-ass Chief of Imperial Security got a law passed forbidding it.”

He chuckled.  After the space of a breath he bit the inside of his lips and reached for the map.  Then he looked up.  “My very own swordstick,” he said softly.  Cordelia gave him a stricken smile and drew breath to reply, but he went on.  “You are unfailingly kind, Cordelia.”

She answered:  “As an ancient Earth sage once said, all kindness is but justice.  We owe it.”

“Then we must owe gratitude with equal force.  Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” she said.

Simon took her presents and tucked them both in his pockets.  Then he unearthed from his flimsies the list he had been keeping of things to be noted by date.  Under tomorrow’s date he added a neat note:  Gregor—Auditors—0900.  “I should move these things into the filer,” he said, “but I’ll keep this copy as backup till I’ve got the hang of using it.”

“Good plan,” Cordelia said.  “I see you are beginning to plan your long-term strategy.”

“Well, starting to, anyway,” Simon said, pulling the filer back out and starting to fiddle with its display.

“Have you got a strategy yet for dealing with Ivan?”  Ah, yes.  He’d been wondering when Cordelia would start teasing him about that.

He cast her a level look over the filer.  “I hardly think it’s necessary to develop one.  He’s been avoiding me pretty comprehensively.”  Cordelia’s lips twisted slyly, and he sighed in capitulation.  “I understand that he finally figured out why he can never find his mother anywhere but Vorkosigan House.”

“Especially when he can’t find her the morning after the night before.”  She chortled; Simon smiled indulgently at her.  “I notice you didn’t come downstairs with her yesterday.  I suppose Pym tipped you both off that I kept Ivan cooling his heels in the library until you emerged.”

“That’s one theory,” Simon said, swallowing his smile as he keyed up the filer’s directory.

“Such cowardice, Simon!”

“Cowardice sometimes coincides with good policy,” he replied.  “He’ll get over it, given plenty of space.  I’m sorry to deprive you of the entertainment.”

“Ooh.  That’ll leave a mark.” But she was grinning.  He grinned back.

Cordelia rose up from her chair.  “Well, I’ll leave you to it.  I’m going back to the Residence for lunch with Alys and Laisa.  You know, I’m really starting to like her.”

“Yes,” Simon said, “I think Gregor chose well.  I like her too.”

“Well, it’s certainly mutual.  You made quite an impression on her the other day.”

“Did I?” Simon cocked his head, looking up at her.  “I’m afraid I don’t remember how.”

“You educated her on honor and responsibility and Vor custom,” Cordelia told him; it brought a little of the conversation back to him, and he smiled faintly in reply.

“Your soul remembers, even if your brain doesn’t,” Cordelia said.  She went to the door and paused.  “I’ll see you at dinner, maybe.  I’d drag you along to lunch with me, but I don’t wish to get between you and your fortifying nap.”

This bout of teasing was bound to run its course, eventually.  Simon was starting to recover his ability to keep a straight face. 

He pulled the holocube out of his pocket.  “Actually,” he said, catching it lightly in his palm, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”

*

Outside, it had turned cold, with sharp eddies of wind that smelled of frost.  Simon fastened up his jacket and tucked his hands into his pockets, removing one to wave at Corporal Kosti and his shift partners on his way out the gate.

He turned right and struck out briskly along the high iron-and-stone fence fronting Vorkosigan House.  Beyond it was the empty lot which ImpSec used as a security zone, much less urgent now that Aral was no longer Regent, all its haphazard vegetation died back for the winter.  Simon crossed the street and passed along a gauntlet of commercial buildings of varying vintage, came to a traffic circle, and glanced both ways, seeking his direction.  He had some idea that the Residence was ahead, and the river was to the left, but couldn’t be sure.  He pulled out the map and stirred it to the right scheme with his finger.  No, the Residence was to the right.  This traffic circle angled between southeast and northwest.  If he kept going straight ahead he would run eventually into the University.  Before that was a varied neighborhood, half old residences and half rebuilt into commercial zones since the Pretender’s War.  Once, he’d dodged all through it with Kanzian one step behind him, disappearing from Vordarian’s men and ImpSec itself at a blink’s notice, uncannily as a ghost.

Simon went on straight, feeling oddly corporeal.

The memory of this section of town that was now gone with his chip had been scrolled tight and clear.  Now, Simon had snatches of old experiences, unreliable as a record, but, he thought now, valuable to him as a privileged possession.  A cat warmly curling its tail round his legs in the grocer he’d frequented as a young officer.  The scent of rain on stone when winter broke.  During his dodge from Vordarian, he remembered the bellying of laundry on a backyard line as he and Kanzian ran full pelt through the garden.  Then they came back later to steal some of the clothes.  Simon remembered laughing wildly under his breath.

He stopped at a quieter corner, with his map in his palm.  The holocube weighed almost nothing.  His chip had weighed as little, but its psychic heft had been great.  He could carry the map everywhere, with all its information, and it would never weigh anything more than it already did.  He didn’t have to carry it in himself.

The audiofiler in his jacket pocket weighed a little bit more, but it too was only physical weight.  And Cordelia had said it could be purged.  He thought about it, thought about how he’d organize whatever data he put in it, envisioned himself going through it daily, weekly, and my God, deciding what to keep.

Simon’s gaze at the map in his palm was drawn off by a flying bit of white.  He looked up and saw that the whole air around him was full of snowflakes, curving in their own inscrutable parabolas, stirred by the fitful wind as they came down.  Every other pedestrian in the vicinity was turning up a coat collar or scurrying into or out of a groundcar, the air between them and Simon defined in its depth by the falling snow.  The flakes fell, tickling his scalp through the thin thatch of his hair, brushing cold kisses on his face and his half-numb fingers.  Upward, in the gray closeness of the clouds over the city, the snowflakes were dark by contrast.  Simon blinked them out of his vision.

He was free.  Bewilderingly and wonderfully free.  Now that the wave he’d feared had caught up with him, he felt light and yet contained, as if he were fully inhabiting his own body for the first time.  He could think about his own dreams now, he thought.  He could take a walk in the snow and owe what he saw and heard to no one but himself.  He could lose anything, anything, and what his soul didn’t remember, the people he loved would.

Simon closed his hand around the map and slipped both into his warm pocket.  He started forward again, walking into the falling snow with a gathering, buoyant stride.

And kept walking.

 
Day Seventy-one

“Well,” said Vorhovis, “it’s certainly no joke to say he’s a loose cannon.”

“No,” Vorthys said thoughtfully, “I think a loose cannon would actually be easier to point.”

Simon gave an inward snort.  Gregor didn’t look at him, but Simon knew the Emperor sensed his reaction and was amused by it.

Vorkalloner drew up the last pages of Miles’s ImpSec file on the vid-table display.  Yes, there it was: the report that had so wrung Simon’s heart, reflected in the dark glass.  “Given his career from start to finish, it seems clear that he valued the independence and power of his assignment.  Maybe a little too much.  One ought to give a talented man a position that suits him.  But if that position is the only terms on which he will serve the Imperium—”

Simon thought of Lucas and said nothing.

“The question is,” said Vorgustafson, “how can we know his loyalty will remain clear, given his past willingness to compromise?”

He looked at Vorhovis, who looked at Gregor.  Gregor looked at Simon, and the eyes of the Auditors all followed.

Simon looked down at his hands, resting on the vid table, at the sharp cuffs of his dress greens, at the pad and stylus he’d requested to keep track of this conversation.  He had made careful notes at the beginning of the meeting, but had abandoned the stylus when the talk became less practical and more philosophical.

“I think the answer to that question,” he said slowly, without looking up, “lies in the answer to another question, which is: why he didn’t leave Barrayar after I fired him.”

A small silence, then Gregor said:  “I asked him not to.”

“At your request he was willing not to leave,” Simon said.  “What made him willing to stay?”  He reached for the control pad and flicked back through pages of the ImpSec file.  The display came to a random stop at a report Miles had sent him from Tau Ceti, annotated heavily with Simon’s own commentary.  Simon had paged through this file last night, rereading Miles’s grandiose style and his own acerbic notes as if for the first time.

“Somewhere in this file,” he said, “is the report of an incident in which a man introduced Admiral Naismith to Aral Vorkosigan, not knowing they were father and son.  He thought he was introducing one strategic genius to another.  And so he was.”  He looked up: the import of this fact was clearly evident to the Auditors, summed up in Vorthys’s look of grim sympathy.

Simon went on.  “There’s no doubt that Miles values the independence and power that his assignment as Naismith gave him.  But it was the identity of Naismith that Miles valued most.  Naismith was…a masterpiece in the original sense, Miles’s work of art.  He was neither reviled nor revered as his father’s son; he was free to prove his mettle on a field that would accept or reject him on his own merits.  That his own merits are considerable is a fact that Miles would never accept without testing it to the utmost.”  Simon paused with his gaze on the display, feeling the eyes of four Auditors and his Emperor upon him.  “I underestimated the extent to which Miles identified with his own creation,” he said finally.  “He saw that he was going to lose Naismith, and he lied to protect him.  Then he found out subsequently that Naismith’s days were numbered anyway.  And it was true: even if I hadn’t intended to bring him home and put him at the head of Imperial Security, the Cetagandans would certainly have got abreast of his sleight-of-hand before long.  But none of this would have mattered to a man who was too far gone in the addiction to his chosen identity.  Yet Miles stayed home.  And stayed even when he was offered Naismith back as a bribe.”

“Why do you think that is?” Vorhovis asked him softly.

Because he’s a Vorkosigan, Simon thought.  Maddening, imperious, impossible, irresistible, incandescent.  The next generation.

“I think,” he said, “you had better ask him that question.”

Vorhovis nodded.

“Yes,” Vorkalloner said, “we will want to see what he says for himself when he reports to you, Sire.”

Gregor nodded.

“Well, my lords,” Gregor said after a short silence, “I think that is as far as we may go today.  If someone will be so good as to brief Vorlaisner—”

“Yes, Sire,” Vorhovis said.

Gregor stood, and the others rose with him.  “Thank you, my lords.”

The meeting broke up in an unhurried flurry of gathered flimsies and murmured asides, and the Auditors made their bows to the Emperor and exited slowly.  The door fell shut on Vorthys’s pleasant wrangle with Vorgustafson about the new applied science building at the University.

Simon turned to Gregor and opened his mouth, only to find Gregor also drawing breath to speak.  They both stopped, Gregor looking amused.  After a moment he tipped his head in a slight gesture toward the door to his office.  Simon nodded, and gathered up his data case, pad, and stylus.  With a faint echo of the terrified exhilaration he’d discovered in the last few days, he erased the notes he’d made on the pad.

Gregor noticed his smile.  “What’s so funny?” he said.

Simon could spare the truth to Gregor easily.  “I’m continually torn,” he said, “between a childish delight in erasing things and an equally childish terror of never being able to bring them back.”  He looked up to catch Gregor’s faint sad smile.  “I’m sure the novelty will wear off soon enough.”

“No doubt,” Gregor murmured.

It could be no secret to Gregor what Simon would want to speak to him about, but he seemed to wish to postpone the inevitable.  “I would like a cup of tea,” he said when they reached his office.  “Would you care for some?”

Simon assented readily, and they were soon settled together in chairs, away from Gregor’s desk.

For a long moment they didn’t say anything, merely sat with their cups and looked out the window at the gloomy sky.  Simon sipped his tea carefully; habit drove him to avoid the mess of eating when he was wearing his dress greens, and he had put them on with particular care this morning.

“It’s a far cry,” Gregor said finally, “from the day when we were here discussing whether we might have to kill him.”

“Now there’s a memory I would as soon have lost,” Simon said.  Or maybe not.  Without that memory (the involuntary little noise he’d made in his throat when Gregor said the words out loud), would this day mean what it ought to?

“Fortunately, we never had to visit that discussion a second time,” Gregor said.  “He didn’t run.”

“I don’t think I could have done it,” Simon said honestly.

“No.”

Another silence.  Then Gregor spoke again.  “I mean to give him first refusal of the head post at ImpSec.”

“Yes,” Simon said.  “He won’t take it, though.”

“You think not?”

“I’m sure of it.”  Simon paused to sip his tea, and then said:  “It was a mistake, that plan.”

“And a costly one, for you,” Gregor said, his gaze fixed outward.  Simon heard the guilt in his voice and tried to wave his words away, but Gregor went on.  “It made Miles’s perjury all the worse, and it created the conditions for Haroche’s betrayal.”

Simon shook his head.  “You followed my lead.  I was the one who read that situation wrong.”

“No,” Gregor said, “we both did.  Give over, Simon.  I’m not giving up my share of the responsibility for this.”

Simon recognized Gregor’s tone of ironic humor and conceded the point with a little snort.

“What do you think of Allegre?” Gregor said.

Simon thought about it.  “I think he’ll do,” he said finally.  “If my judgment still holds.”

Gregor nodded.  After a moment, he turned to look directly at Simon.

“What will you do?” he said.  “After.”

“Well, today,” Simon said slowly, “I’ll go down and sign the lease on a new flat.  Then tomorrow I’ll move in.  The day after that, perhaps, I’ll look into the purchase of a groundcar.  But there’s no hurry on that; it can wait till I get back from the holiday I’m planning.”  He cast Gregor a dry smile: he felt quite sure that Gregor already knew all about that.

“Yes.”  Gregor hesitated.  “Cordelia tells me that you and Lady Alys have…grown rather close.”

“I’m sure that’s not what she said, Sire,” Simon said, very dryly.

“I’m paraphrasing a little,” Gregor admitted, with the ghost of a smile.  He looked searchingly at Simon, who gave him his own bland not-smile right back.  He could outlast Gregor on this.

Sure enough, Gregor’s lips twitched ruefully after a moment.  “Very well, Simon.  I expect I won’t regret giving you your own discretion in the matter.”  He delivered the words with the air of quoting someone: Simon suspected that someone was himself.

“I’ll see that you don’t, Sire,” he said.

“Good.”  This seemed to be a response not to Simon’s promise, but to the happiness it represented.  Simon nodded in reply.

“Thank you, Gregor,” he said quietly.

The silence this time was longer and more companionable.

After a while, Simon put down his teacup and straightened in his chair.  “If there was nothing further, my liege,” he said tentatively, “I had probably better be about my business….”

“Yes, of course,” Gregor said, and rose, releasing Simon to rise too.  Away from the tea-table, they faced one another.

“My Emperor,” Simon said, formally placing both his hands over his heart, “I beg you will allow me to offer you my retirement from active service.”

“Most honorable Captain,” his Emperor replied, “We accept your offer, with all gratitude for your long and distinguished service to Us.”

Simon lowered his hands in a graceful arc; Gregor took them in his.  But before Simon could drop and touch his right knee to the floor, Gregor broke the script and bowed low over his hands.  For an instant Gregor’s grip tightened; Simon submerged a flinch and waited to see what Gregor would do next.

Which was to straighten, his face inscrutable, and give the next move to Simon with his gaze.  Slowly, Simon did his delayed obeisance, and regained his feet.

Were this being done at a public ceremony, there would at this point be speeches, and possibly gifts.  Since they were alone, they squeezed one another’s hands briefly and let go, smiling as one does at the successful conclusion of a ritual.

“Shall I see you on your way?” Gregor said.

“Thank you, Sire.  Yes,” Simon said.

They walked together to the entrance where the car waited to take Simon back to Vorkosigan House.  At the door they turned to one another, as if to search for the last perfect thing to say, some way to express their mutual confidence in Simon’s return of his duty to Gregor’s hands.

In the end, Simon merely saluted Gregor, who returned the salute with equal solemnity, and passed out the door of the Residence, to the duty that lay unmapped before him.

 
Day Seventy-two

In his new bedroom, at his new apartment, Simon fastened the tunic of his evening suit and brushed the fronts straight and free of lint.  He evaluated his appearance in the cheval mirror in the corner, and decided it passed inspection.

The mirror was one of several gifts from Cordelia, who had taken him on a Vorishly rapacious tour of several of Vorkosigan House’s attics.  With his reluctant assistance she had plundered him a number of useful articles of furniture that were neither too fancy nor too dilapidated nor too egregiously historical.  Lady Alys had supervised the removal of them to his flat, and then carried off his own modest possessions and Simon himself before leaving him with a promise to return and take him out to dinner.

Even with the items from Vorkosigan House, the new and old clothing he’d had with him during his stay there, and the entire contents of his quarters at ImpSec HQ, the flat seemed still far too big for its occupant.  Simon had had very few books or papers; he had never needed to reread anything, so all but the most vital items had passed unregretted from his hands.  From his family he had a few boxes of effects in storage, but other than a few icons he didn’t recall anything in them that would make this place feel more lived-in.  He would have to develop that from scratch.  The thought left him curiously undaunted.

Yes; he would want some books, and some art for the walls, something restful, but with enough intricacy that he wouldn’t get bored looking at it.  The small kitchen was nearly bare: Simon had set his new housekeeper the task of acquiring the proper accoutrements, though he intended to do most of his own cooking when he was by himself.  Until that was accomplished, however, the only thing in there was a case of District wine Cordelia had sent as a housewarming gift, plus a bottle of maple mead added by Miles.  Simon figured the latter would come in handy if his home medkit ran out of tranquilizers or painkillers, or antiseptic.

Simon wandered thoughtfully through the rooms, sizing up the space and imagining how he would dispose things as he acquired them.  He had just circled back to the bedroom when he heard the door chime.  He glanced at his chrono: Alys was early.

But the figure on the holo-reader wasn’t Lady Alys.  Simon opened the door to see Duv Galeni in the flesh.  Galeni’s face was unreadable, but his demeanor was calm.

“Captain Galeni,” Simon said, allowing the note of surprise to shape his inflection.  Then— “If it is still Captain Galeni….”  Galeni was in his undress greens, but they looked much fresher and neater than a full day’s work would leave them.

Galeni gave a diffident cough.  “Yes,” he said.  “I have decided not to resign my commission.”

“Ah?”  Simon felt a smile tugging at his lips.  “I’m very gratified to hear that.”

“General Allegre and I—” Galeni said, hesitantly— “had a long conversation.”

“Mm,” Simon said, giving him a narrow, thoughtul look.  “Yes.  Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you, sir.”  Galeni stepped inside and cast an assessing glance around the near-empty sitting room.

“I’ve very little in the way of furnishings thus far,” Simon said, “except for a case of wine from the Vorkosigan’s District.  If I can unearth a glass or two, perhaps you would allow me to drink to your future.”

The flicker of a smile crossed Galeni’s face.  “Thank you, sir,” he said, in a voice warmer than before.

They trooped into the naked kitchen, where Simon pulled open the crate of wine.  A second, smaller box was nestled among the padded bottles, which turned out (oh, bless you, Cordelia) to contain a pair of stemmed glasses and a seal remover.  Simon blew the dust off the fine crystal and set the glasses on the counter.

“I doubt your benefactor expected me to be your first toast,” Galeni said.  Simon caught the humor in his voice and glanced up to see an equally humorous glint in his hooded eyes.  Yes, he thought, a complete waste of time it would have been for him and Alys to try to keep their alliance a secret.

“Yes, well, life is full of surprises,” Simon said.  “Hand me that bottle.”

The wine as it spiraled into the glasses was a beautiful jewel red, and its scent dusked the whole room.  Simon gave one of the glasses to his former subordinate, and swirled the wine in his own appreciatively.  Then he raised it.

“To the next generation,” he said.  “Who deserve the luck.”  Galeni acknowledged the toast with a slow grateful blink, and they both drank.

The wine tasted as lovely as it looked.  “D’you suppose the glass helps?” Galeni said.

“I’m sure it must.  Though its powers are limited, I suspect.  I could have treated you to Miles’s gift of maple mead.”

Galeni’s grin flashed briefly.

They stood over the kitchen island, letting the wine linger on the palate, for a long minute before Simon fixed Galeni with a penetrating look.  “Well?” he said, finally.

Galeni did not duck the implied question.  “It seemed to me I ought to thank you.”

“To thank me?” Simon repeated, nonplussed.

“For your discretion.”

Simon stared at him a long moment, taking this in.  Galeni elaborated:  “Allegre told me that he was looking for a fitting way to make things right.  He said that he suspected merely offering me a promotion would not serve, even if things fell out so that he was able to offer me one.  Which, he said, was not certain.”

In the event that Miles, against all expectation, accepted Gregor’s offer of ImpSec on a platter.  “I see,” Simon said, and he did.

“So, Allegre asked me what I wanted, by way of satisfaction.  I think it was a test.  I told him I wanted to be allowed to read the details of the case against me, after the fact.  I wanted to know exactly what I was up against…and if I couldn’t keep my temper after reading it, I’d no business coming back anyway.  He agreed and let me see Haroche’s brief.  When I saw the substance of the charge….”

“Your supposed motive was a little late given the timeline,” Simon agreed.  “Or at least, one of them was.”

“Yes,” Galeni said, doggedly.  “I noticed that it wasn’t you who brought that against me.  You were willing to trust me.”

“But that’s hardly a matter of discretion on my part,” Simon pointed out.  “How do you know I didn’t just forget?”

“Not then,” Galeni said.  “Before.”

Before they’d removed the chip.  Before they’d any of them known what was happening to him.  When Simon had been taking Galeni’s reports with a poker face and monitoring his reactions to the Imperial romance that blasted his hopes.

“You do realize, Duv,” Simon said gently, “that such discretion cuts both ways?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, meeting Simon’s eye.

“You don’t owe me thanks,” Simon said.

“I think I do.  You didn’t know what day it was from one minute to the next, and you still didn’t finger the only Komarran in the room.  That’s a salient pattern, if you like.”

There was no way to deflect this compliment without appearing churlish.  Instead, Simon allowed a smile to tip up the corners of his mouth and said:  “Let it never be said that Komarr adds nothing to the honor of the Imperium.”

For answer Galeni gave a bow of the head and swallowed the last of his wine.

“If you must thank me,” Simon said, “then thank me by getting us through this wedding in one piece.”

Galeni replied with a morose little snort.  But the humor returned to his eyes in the next moment.  “Life is indeed,” he said softly, “full of surprises.”  He looked up at Simon.  “May I drink to your retirement, sir?” he said.

“Not to my assassination?” Simon shot him a sidelong half-grin as he reached for the bottle of wine.

“Or to its remarkable unsuccess,” Galeni replied, in kind.

“Or all of the above.”

They drank.  After, Galeni put down his glass on the counter and offered Simon a brief smile.  “Thank you for the wine, sir.  I had better be on my way now; I have a dinner engagement.”

“Mm,” Simon said.  “Do give my regards to the Koudelkas.”

Galeni snorted again, this time to avoid the smile creeping up his lips.

Simon saw him to the door, which opened on Lady Alys in the act of reaching for the chime.  She was swathed in dark blue, with a matching coat that flared at the waist.  “Oh,” she said.  “Captain Galeni.”

Galeni bowed.  Simon told her, “Captain Galeni has decided to retain his commission, and weather the attack on his reputation.”

That is welcome news,” she said, with spirit.  “I am very glad to hear it.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Galeni said.

“We have just drunk a toast to his foolhardy courage,” Simon said—Galeni snorted appreciatively— “and are now sending him off to his dinner.”

“Which I do not like to be late for,” Galeni said, with a gallant smile.  “Please excuse me, my lady, and accept my compliments of the evening.  Sir.”

“Of course,” she said, and, “Good night, Duv,” Simon said.  She watched him go, and as he disappeared round the corner toward the lift tubes, she said:  “He looks better smiling.  I hope Delia trains him properly.”

Simon chuckled.

She turned back to him where he stood in the doorway shrugging on his coat.  “Well.  Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” he said.

He came out to where she stood waiting, and palmed the door closed behind him.

*

finis