"I didn't know old Illyan could dance," he commented.
"I sure didn't know he could dance that well," Miles agreed.
Simon sat back in his armchair, gazed around the ballroom and wondered quite how he'd allowed Cordelia to talk him into this. Aral tells me you're supposed to be relaxing and recovering, she had said. Why don't you come along to this little party I'm having? Purely friends, no politics or security concerns. Of course, the latter was never wholly true of anything the Prime Minister and his wife did, but it had been fairly relaxing. The Vorkosigans' cook had proved a great improvement on Simon's own culinary attempts alone at home, and whilst some of Cordelia's other guests had been wary of making small talk with the no-longer-disgraced chief of ImpSec, liberal potations from the Vorkosigan cellar had eased that in time. And it certainly had taken Simon's mind off his recent experiences in the ImpSec dungeons.
"Not dancing, Simon?" Cordelia, clearly in 'good hostess' mode, approached Simon's armchair.
"I don't dance."
"You're not telling me that after all those dances you've observed, with that chip in your head, you don't know how to dance yourself," Cordelia retorted in the manner of one playing a trump.
Simon grimaced. "Negri used to make that mistake. It's amazing how wide the gulf is between having seen something and being able to do it. I could--probably--go out there without making a complete fool of myself, providing my partner knew what she was doing, but there's a difference between that and actually knowing how to dance. The chip's not fast enough; it's muscle memory that gets a dancer through those moves."
"Hmm." Cordelia drifted off, leaving Simon to his thoughts. Lieutenant Jole danced past with Lord Vortala's eldest daughter--a truly stunning pair. How was it that some people had all the luck? When Simon had been a junior lieutenant, before the chip, he'd spent a lot of time crouching hip-deep in icy water in ditches or poring over files with aching eyes, but no time at all dancing with beautiful young women at parties. Then again, he hadn't been an aide to the Prime Minister.
He rose and crossed to the window embrasure, looking out at the spotlit grounds of Vorkosigan House. His chip, unbidden, started to dump security data into his consciousness: the force screen, the locks on the windows, the guard rota, the motion and infrared sensors, the tangle-field, the blast shutters… it took an effort to stop the flow of information. He did need a rest.
Footsteps approaching made him swivel around at combat speed, then relax, feeling foolish, when he saw it was only Cordelia returning, this time accompanied by a smiling Lady Alys. There was a glint in Cordelia's eye that made him tense again. She gave him a too-broad smile, and made a little formal gesture with her hand. In her best Regent-Consort manner, she said, "Allow me to present Captain Illyan to you as a suitable partner, Lady Alys."
Alys blinked, but played her allotted role correctly, smiling and making a graceful curtsey towards Simon for all the world as if he had never sat in her office for hours sifting through social gossip and seating plans. He bowed in return, automatically.
"I rely upon you to teach Simon some new skills, it'll do you both the world of good," Cordelia continued, dropping the affectation. "Stop moping in the corner, Simon, and enjoy yourselves, both of you."
She beamed upon them again, and strode off. As soon as she was out of earshot, Simon, with a reluctance that he made sure Alys couldn't see, said, "Please don't feel you have to do this if you don't want to. Cordelia is almost as bad as Miles at forward momentum when she puts her mind to it."
"Oh no, it's not an imposition," Alys said smoothly. "I am fond of dancing."
Simon's chip, matching by keyword, supplied a quotation from an ancient Earth novel; he smiled warmly but did not dare to repeat it aloud.
"Very well," he said. "I am at your command, my lady."
Her lip quirked. "Indeed."
There was a new piece of music beginning. Couples were breaking apart and reforming around the ballroom.
"Ah, good," said Alys, "this one is quite easy. It's a polka, the Hazelbright Polka to be precise. Pick a couple and watch for a minute, get the step patterns clear in your mind. When you're ready we'll have a go at it."
He obeyed, watching Jole again, who seemed to be a good dancer and was now partnering Cordelia. The steps were a fairly simple pattern, and he ran through it in his mind a few times, listening intently to the music. Cautiously, he took Alys in the hold he had observed the other men using, one hand lightly on her hip, the other clasping her hand.
"No, not like that," Alys said. "I'm not made of glass. You have to keep your arms firm, so that we can move together. For good dancing, you must each be an extension of the other's body."
Simon almost blushed. He tightened his grip on Alys, trying to find the sweet spot between feeble and aggressive. It must be working, for Alys gave an approving nod and put her free hand securely on his shoulder. Simon breathed carefully. He hadn't been this close to a woman for--he firmly stopped his chip before it called up the shaming exact date of the last time he'd had a woman in his arms. Apart from in the line of duty, of course.
They began to dance, Simon carefully minding his feet and trying not to steer Alys into the furniture or the other couples. She moved lightly in his arms, but he had a lowering suspicion that she was somehow doing most of the work for him. She certainly didn't feel like an extension of his body, more like a person he couldn't quite dodge in a narrow corridor.
Alys was counting time in his ear, "One-two-three, one-two-three." It wasn't in the least romantic. He missed a step, trod on Alys' foot, apologised, tried to figure out what he'd done wrong and nearly collided with Aral and Drou.
"It's all right," Alys said, frustrating Simon with her ability to talk and dance at the same time. "You'll get the hang of it."
She was right. After a few minutes of one-two-three-ing around the room, the steps grew familiar on his feet and he could start to look for things to improve instead of simply avoiding disaster. Alys proved a meticulous teacher, as he might have expected, and he found himself adjusting the angle of his elbow, altering the length of his steps and keeping his shoulders parallel to hers in obedience to her soft-voiced instructions.
"And you're allowed to smile," she added. "This isn't a military exercise."
Simon met her eye, and smiled.
He was about to risk a remark of his own when the music swelled to a finish. He stopped awkwardly, uncertain what happened now. Alys somehow twisted from his grip and sank into a curtsey facing him. The other men were bowing to their partners, he saw out of the corner of his eye, and he imitated them. A moment too late, his chip pointed out that he had observed this happening at the end of every dance he'd ever watched, sometimes with some rather elegant twirling and spinning.
"Thank you," he said. "I enjoyed that."
"I'm glad. It's so rare to see you at one of these dances as a guest rather than at work."
It was almost worth a month in his own dungeons to have this as his reward, Simon thought. Alys' hand was still resting lightly upon his own. He considered the next move.
"May I get you a drink?"
"Thank you, yes." There was a gleam in Alys' eye as they moved through the steps of polite social interaction, remarkably like the steps of the dance. Simon bowed Alys into a chair, signalled one of the waiters (ImpSec, of course, and highly alert to their chief's presence) and sat down beside her.
"You must be very relieved to have Ivan back," he said when they both had glasses of something good from Aral's cellar.
Alys pursed her lips. "That's one way to put it. I'd ground him for the next month, but fortunately for him, the commander of the academy has agreed to take him back. When I think of the things he did…"
Simon's chip contained the full account, and he smiled a little. Ivan had had the luck of fools and madmen, or possibly of lascivious teenage boys, but by his analysis, Ivan's acts had been critical to the destruction of Vordrozda's plot.
"Saving the Empire by accident," he murmured. "If that's what his luck is always like, I might try to hook him for ImpSec when he's through with the cadets."
"As a mascot?" Alys retorted. "Well, at least it would be employment." She sipped her drink and they watched another dance start up. Simon felt a new appreciation for the complexity of the activity, and he tried to track the steps and work out how it fit together. After a lengthening silence, Alys shook herself.
"I'm sorry. I'm not being very good company tonight." She paused, looking at him, and gave a rueful smile. "It's just so nice to be able to sit with someone and not have to find five hundred ways to sound him out for Aral or persuade him to vote against the treason charge." There was a hint of weariness in her eyes, behind her social mask.
"That," he said, "is a very great compliment." He smiled back at her. "Don't feel you have to make conversation. You've done so much."
Alys sighed. "I wish I could have done more, but I had to be so careful."
Simon raised his eyebrows. "It was a lot more than I was able to do." He suspected that Alys' manoeuvrings were the reason Vordrozda's plot had been forced to progress so slowly. She had been working as hard as any of them to calm Gregor's fears, detach him from his new 'friends' and shelter the Vorkosigans from his suspicions. In fact, since Vordrozda had not seen her as a threat, she had been rather more effective than Simon himself. Not, he thought half-ruefully, half-charmed, that this was anything new.
"The trouble was," she said, "when they finally moved everything happened so quickly, and I found that everything had changed under my feet before I could intervene."
"Yes. Power grabs are like that. For me, one minute I was the chief of ImpSec, the next I was under arrest and all my power gone."
"It was like that at the start of the Pretendership too," Alys remarked thoughtfully. "I went from Vor lady to fugitive in a minute. Very frightening."
Her words started Simon's chip playing, as he recalled the opening moves of the Pretendership: the moment he had learned that Vordarian was moving against them, the firefight at ImpSec to get out as their fortress became a trap, the desperate race to the Residence to find it already taken, no trace of Gregor, nor Negri, Aral … the scenes flashed through his mind, more vivid than the ballroom, carrying him with them unwilling.
"Simon? Are you all right?" Alys was looking at him with concerned eyes, and he dragged himself back into the present, suppressing the flow of memories. "You seem … not quite here."
It was probably the fault of that fourth glass of Vorkosigan estate wine that he answered her honestly. "I'm not. It's the chip. One of its many pitfalls, only this time it nearly had me. You see, there's a constant temptation to live in my own memories. I can play back whole days, weeks, all as clear as when it happened, and it never gets dull. Normally, there's so much else to pay attention to that it isn't a real temptation, but during a month of solitary confinement… well, I nearly lost myself." He paused. "It's just as well Miles didn't get back much later. Though I suppose it wouldn't have mattered whether I was sane or not by the time they started the executions."
Alys was sitting very still, listening to this. "I was worried about you," she said at last, "worried you might be … hurt."
Simon gave a wry smile. "Oh no. Not like you're thinking. Not even Vordrozda is stupid enough to look for ways to torture me into confessing to a conspiracy that he knows full well doesn't exist." His smile sharpened. "And anyway, the best torture is always self-inflicted."
At that, Alys drew in a quick breath, and Simon cursed himself for reminding her what he was. After all, he had been Negri's protégé. But she merely replied, "Well then, I'd better provide you with something else to pay attention to." She glanced up the room. "Come on, they're just forming up sets. Do you know Masha's Wedding?"
Evidently he was in for more dancing lessons. Simon allowed Alys to take his hand and lead him into the formations of couples taking shape, attending to her rapid-fire instructions. As distractions went, it was remarkably effective. The musicians played a long chord, everyone bowed or curtseyed, and the other dancers began to move in the formal figures. Simon shortly found himself doing the same, aided by a few discreet pushes or tugs on his hand from the other dancers, who were always in the right place at the right time.
It was very unlike the previous dance. For one thing, he rarely did more than touch Alys' hand in passing as they wove their way around the other dancers. Most of the time he stayed on the men's side, and she on the ladies', though when it was their turn to lead the dance they moved in synchrony. It was a good metaphor for Barrayaran life, he thought, and it was entertaining in its own way, even without the exhilarating closeness of the couples' dancing.
He was a little out of breath by the end, but the other couples called to the musicians for another similar dance, apparently an old favourite, and they attempted that one, accompanied by much laughter and quick-voiced instructions from Alys. It was more complex than the first, and it was only near the end that Simon finally understood how it was supposed to work. He caught Alys' hands for the final bars, in which everyone spun their partners in a dizzying whirl, and she frankly grinned at him, flushed and breathless. The musicians played the final chord and everyone bowed again.
After that it seemed natural to continue. Alys gave no sign of wanting to stop, and Simon had no intention of being the first to break the moment. They started a couple's dance, a Tau Cetan two-step with a number of complex variations that Alys tried to explain. Simon's chip could cope with it fine, but his legs were struggling, pointing out that he was the wrong side of fifty and had spent the last month locked in a very small cell. After he missed the fourth step in one minute, marvelling at Alys' ability to avoid getting her toes trodden on even when his feet were not where they ought to be, she steered him into a corner and stopped.
"I think I need a rest," she said, a face-saving move that did not deceive him.
"You mean I need a rest," he smiled back at her. "Sorry. I think my brain and my feet aren't on speaking terms any more."
He bowed her towards a sofa and sat down beside her.
"You're learning quickly," Alys said. "We'll have to keep practicing."
"I'm enjoying it very much," he replied. "Thank you."
"Thank Cordelia, it was her idea," Alys said, but she smiled at him.
His wrist com chimed quietly. With an apologetic look at Alys, he answered it. The slightly tinny voice of Sergeant Trowbridge spoke to him.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but that Ceta squad has got away from us again. They were sniffing around your flat, but they got clear before we could close on them. I've sent a cleanup team to go over the area, but I don't think they'll be finished until 0600 tomorrow at best."
Simon groaned. "I see. Well, tell them to get my room ready at HQ, then." He slept overnight at HQ frequently, but after his recent involuntary stay, he was enjoying the space and freedom of his own flat. But not enough to want to play games with a Cetagandan assassination squad. They'd been at large for months, but locked in his own prison he'd been utterly safe from them. He could just about appreciate the irony.
"Already done, sir, and I've upped the guard on your car for when you leave."
"Good. Happy hunting, then." He cut the link and blinked at the peaceful ballroom and Alys' smiling face.
"Nothing serious, I trust," said Alys delicately.
"Just the next go-round with my dear Ceta friends. My security team can get some practice after their month off."
Her lips compressed. "They're after you?"
"Fortunately." At her raised brows he explained, "Better me than Gregor."
Alys bowed her head in acquiescence. "Well, be careful," she said after a moment. "I have a lot more to teach you before you'll be a credit to me."
"Perhaps," he said carefully. Perhaps I'll dance with you again, perhaps I'll pretend that this is possible, that the Chief of ImpSec can have a life, can have a lover to stand in the line of fire with him and constantly play second fiddle to the security needs of the Empire, perhaps… "When I have more time off." And I'm always on duty.
He could see Alys withdrawing as he spoke, the honest pleasure on her face being covered over with her usual social charm. It was painful to watch.
"I suppose I'd better circulate," she said, breaking the awkward silence. "I can see Lord Vortaine hoping for another chance to coax me into helping him become Gregor's uncle-by-marriage."
Simon blinked, parsing this, and felt an odd stab of anger. "Is he bothering you? I can--" He didn't know what he could do, but he was sure he'd think of something. A month in the ImpSec dungeons on a trumped-up charge, say.
"I can handle him myself, don't worry." Alys rose, smoothing her skirts out with the air of a commando checking his equipment. Politely, Simon stood up too and held the delicate wrap for her to drape from her elbows. Their eyes met and Alys relented slightly, a softer look crossing her face. "You'll make a good dancer," she said, "if you keep in practice."
Then she went back to the party. Simon watched her go, feeling like Cinderella returning to scrubbing floors after a dream-night. This had been a mistake from the beginning, to tantalise himself with something he couldn't have. All it did was make him want it more, but that desire could be the death of them both. Of more people, if it interfered with his judgement. Better to smother that spark, get control of himself again and get back to work.
His chip flashed an image before his eyes: Cordelia's face, when he had arrived at Vorkosigan House on the night of the soltoxin attack. She and Miles had paid a terrible price that night for Aral's job. That had been when he had first vowed that he would never cause someone to hurt that much for his sake. His chip ran remorselessly on from that moment, spilling endless scenes of agony and terror into his mind. Simon had to pull all his attention onto the music to force it to stop.
Enough. He decided to leave quietly, and began to sketch out polite excuses for Cordelia in his mind, but as he began to move, Aral appeared at his elbow.
"Cordelia been bossing you around again, I see?" He raised his glass cheerily in toast to his wife, and Simon realised that Aral was more than a little drunk. "You should do this more often."
"I think not," said Simon, then added, "Besides, you wouldn't accept my resignation."
Aral blinked at him slowly. "Did you genuinely want to stop?" he asked. "I mean, if this last month hadn't happened, would you still have offered me your resignation?"
Simon frowned. A quiet voice at the back of his mind cried Yes!, but he overruled it to consider the question properly.
"I didn't realise it at the time," he said at last, "but the selection committee after officers' training sent me to the right place. I belong in ImpSec." He paused, then recited, "I live to serve." ImpSec's motto had meant different things to him, over the years, sometimes ironic, sometimes overly optimistic, but somehow he had come around to accepting it as plain truth about who he was.
Aral nodded in satisfaction. "I'm glad you know that."
They stood together silently, and Simon idly watched Alys claimed for the next dance by Jole. It was a swift, complex couple's dance, and they whirled around the room like two feathers on a breeze, always in perfect unity. Simon swallowed envy. This was the price for being ImpSec instead of Ops.
"She's a fine woman," Aral observed, following Simon's gaze to Alys. "You looked like you were enjoying yourself."
Simon smiled faintly. "Yes. I was."
Cordelia joined them then. "Scared her off, have you?" she asked.
"More or less," Simon admitted. "It was a kind thought, milady. But I'm the chief of ImpSec, not one of your matchmaking victims."
"Are you sure about that?" Aral said. "When Cordelia puts her mind to something..."
"The irresistible force and the immovable object, in this case, love," said Cordelia. "Well, I tried." She gave Simon an unnerving, speculative gaze, then leaned in to him, speaking in an undertone. "Don't try to cut yourself off from all human feeling, Simon. You could succeed." Then she slid her arm into Aral's and led her unresisting husband back into the dancing. Simon sank onto the sofa again and went back to observing. Cordelia was stealing kisses from Aral in the mirror dance that followed, decorously but with a hint of the powerful love and desire underneath. Simon looked away, uncomfortable.
Were the Vorkosigans reading each other's minds? Aral had said practically the same thing to him two days ago. Caring about other people is what makes us sane.
He folded his arms and watched Alys working the party. She was standing in a circle of politician's wives, listening to Madame Racozy, then making some remark. If he wanted, he could play it back in his head and read her lips--he'd had too much wine to lipread in real-time--but he could tell from Alys' expression that this wasn't anything important. Just the lubricant that kept the Vorbarr Sultana political scene running smoothly. Cordelia had told him this party would not be critical for either security or political reasons, but he suspected all parties were critical for Alys. He wasn't, he realised, the only one who was always on duty. It was plain that Alys found her role satisfying on every level--her eyes were gleaming as she spoke again--but he had no doubt that even she must want to rest sometimes and do something different.
The musicians began the introduction to yet another dance, and Simon's head went up as a memory sparked in his brain. Not an instant crystalline memory from his chip, but a shadowy heart-deep memory from long in his past. He'd learned this dance at school, on a stormy day when the boys hadn't been able to go outside for sports and the regular gym teacher had been off sick and the history teacher who had been substituting for him had decided to teach forty teenage boys how to dance. Young Simon had pretended to laugh at it like the others, but he had enjoyed it. And he still remembered the steps. Perhaps Cinderella could have one more moment of dream-joy before the scrubbing started again.
He stood up, strode over to where Alys was standing, and bowed to her formally.
"May I have this dance, my lady?"
Drou and Lady Vortala both giggled nervously at his unaccustomed behaviour. Alys' eyes only widened a trifle. "I would be honoured," she said, equally formal.
Her eyes on him were hesitant, but the music was beginning and there was no time for conversation. Confidently this time, he collected Alys into his arms with the firm hold she had insisted upon, and led her into the dance. He felt her uncertainty at first, saw her quick glances to check that they weren't going to collide with anything or get stuck in a corner with no space to turn, but he said nothing, letting his accuracy tell its own story. After a few circuits of the room she began to trust him and let him lead, relaxing into his arms. Simon concentrated fiercely, on his steps, on the figures, on the other dancers and the room, and on Alys. It was breathtaking. This, he thought, was a memory he was glad would be stored forever on his chip.
The music ended. He swirled Alys under his arm and into the curtsey. She tilted her head back and smiled at him in a way that made him swallow. He bowed over her hand and, impulsively, raised it to his lips. Alys did not draw away, but Simon released her quickly.
"You have learned well," Alys said, a little breathless.
"How could I do anything else, with such a teacher?" He smiled at her, looking into her eyes. "If you still wish it, I will try to make time so that I can keep in practice."
He knew as he spoke that he had all too little to offer, perhaps only a single dance in the course of a long frantic year, but instead of frowning at him, Alys' eyes glinted. "I'll hold you to that," she said.
As Simon bowed acknowledgement, he thought that this would stand as a symbol. Not merely a tantalising scent of a banquet he couldn't have, but a promise that perhaps one day, if they both survived, there could be something more.