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The Residence was late-night-quiet as Simon finally finished his work and made his way through towards the rear door where his groundcar was waiting. Passing through a chilly corridor, he froze at a sound. The sharp ring of metal against metal was coming from Lady Alys Vorpatril's new office. Drawing his nerve disruptor, he flung open the door, scanned the room--and stopped dead.

Lady Alys had sprung to her feet at his violent entry, the knife in her hand coming up in what he recognised in surprise as a correct defensive position. The steel in her left hand she held guarding the knife. As she saw him, she relaxed.

"Captain Illyan," she said coolly. "You are very abrupt."

"I'm sorry," he managed. "I heard the sounds, and I thought--"

"I see." She seated herself in a swirl of grey skirt. "I suppose I'm fortunate you haven't turned out the entire of the guard." She held the steel firmly and drew the blade of the knife across it again.

"I didn't know you knew how to use that," he heard himself say.

The Vorfemme knife glinted as she sighted along the blade, studying its edge. "It would be very foolish to carry it if I did not."

Entirely true, Simon supposed. "Especially sharpened. I ... had been given to understand that most Vorfemme knives were blunt."

Alys gave a graceful shrug. "Not all Vor women have been in a war zone."

"And you sharpen it yourself? I'm sure I could find one of my men--"

"Do you not care for your own weapons, Captain?" Alys asked sweetly. "My grandmother told me not to entrust the care of my weapons to someone whom, perhaps, I might have cause to use them against one day. A Vor woman's knife is to defend her honour, most frequently against men."

"I ... see." Simon made a respectful bow. "I apologise for intruding, my lady."

"Not at all." She rubbed at a smudge on the jewelled hilt of the knife, and he reached out a hand.

"May I?"

She passed him the knife, and he held it. It was a little lighter than a combat knife he would use, but the blade was finely made and though the jewels in the hilt made it a little uncomfortable in his hand, he could see that in Lady Alys's smaller hand it would fit perfectly. He raised it in salute to her, then passed it back hilt-first.

"It's a good knife," he said. "I hope you may never have cause to use it, but I am glad you have it. I'm sorry I disturbed you."

Lady Alys inclined her head in acknowledgement, and he left her office, closing the door quietly. As he continued down the corridor, he heard the knife slide against the steel again. It was his duty and his life to defend the Imperial Household, and to do that he needed to understand them. But just when he thought he had learned everything about them, something new would come up. Lord Padma's widow had seemed no more than another fluttery Vor lady, interested in clothes and gossip and her baby. But the image of her face as he'd burst in floated crystal-sharp in the forefront of his mind, the terror in her eyes and the steadiness of her hands. The fluttery Vor lady was made of a stronger metal than he'd supposed.