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Winterfair Conspiracies

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“Miles,” begged Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril, pulling his cousin into a quiet corner of the Emperor’s winter garden. “You’ve got to help me!”

Miles only responded by rolling his eyes. Ivan’s puppy-dog expression would be far more effective on someone who hadn’t been immunized to it in early childhood. “No, Ivan.”

Ivan narrowed his eyes at his cousin. “Count how many times I’ve hauled you out of trouble by the scruff of your neck in this last year, Lord Auditor coz, because I think you owe me one. Besides, I know you’ve been bouncing around Vorkosigan House for two whole months.” He raised his voice in a high-pitched imitation of Miles at his most hyperactive. “Ivan, go tell Gregor to give me some work. I’m going mad with boredom. Mad, Ivan. Tell him I don’t need a holiday, I need something to do!”

“I’ll admit to being bored,” Miles answered with dignity, “but not suicidal. Inviting your mother’s wrath is not on my holiday plans.”

“Trust me, my mother will be too busy with Gregor and the Cetagandans to even notice. All I want you to do is catch hold of this woman as soon as she steps in and keep her occupied for the rest of the evening.” Ivan glanced worriedly at the opposite end of the garden. “Miles, they’ll be here any minute. I’m counting on you, all right?”

It was difficult to resist that pleading note – but something was suspicious here. “Since when have you tried to avoid pretty Vor women, Ivan?”

“Pretty Vor women sponsored by my mother?” retorted Ivan. “Always. I know how this will go. I smile at one joke of hers, and next morning my mother’s whispering to her aunt and they all show up at my doorstep with a witness and a bag of groats.”

“You have a point,” admitted Miles, following Ivan’s gaze to the entrance, where a deep purple vine climbed over the glass doors, and a pair of Gregor’s armsmen waited to check each new arrival before letting them through to the reception. “But what makes you think I can make up your obligation? I’m not exactly the best person in the world to charm a lady.”

Now it was Ivan’s turn to roll his eyes. “Miles, you’re an Imperial Auditor now. Not to mention your father’s proxy and Lord Vorkosigan. She’ll want to talk to you all right.”

That, thought Miles, grimacing, was the problem. Somehow, the less repulsive Vor women found him as the years passed, the less attractive he found them in return.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “You owe me a favor, though. And if your mother ever finds out, you owe me ten.”

“Deal – there they are!” Ivan ducked out of sight behind a flowering bush with a speed that would have impressed their old drill sergeant at the Academy.

Miles sighed and made his way across the reception to the family of three that had just stepped into the garden.

 

***

 

“Ah, Miles,” said Lord Auditor Professor Vorthys, smiling down at him. “May I present my niece, Dr. Ekaterin Vorvayne?” He gestured to the woman behind him. “Ekaterin, this is Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about him.”

Vorthys’s niece turned her attention from the vine climbing over the entrance. She was around Miles’ own age, dressed simply but elegantly in a dark skirt and green jacket bordered with patterns of leaves in silver. Miles saw ivory skin and sharp features untouched by makeup, and long hair pulled back into a loose knot, a rich dark brown that gleamed amber where the lamplight struck it. He swallowed. Ivan, you idiot.

He did catch the widening of her eyes as she observed his stunted, ill-proportioned frame, and saw her mouth open in silent astonishment for an instant. Damn that negative correlation…

At her husband’s side, Professora Vorthys was looking around the garden with an expectant gleam in her eye. “Ekaterin, my dear,” she murmured. “Do stay with us for a while. There’s someone I’d like you to meet…”

Dr. Vorvayne’s determinedly pleasant expression flickered, and Miles took the tactical opening with alacrity. “Dr. Vorvayne, it’s a pleasure. Would you like to take a walk around the garden?”

“Lord Vorkosigan!” she said instantly. “Of course. You grew up in the Imperial Residence, isn’t that correct? You must know this garden well. Thank you; I’d love to hear about it.”

“Oh, but…” began Professora Vorthys, but Dr. Vorvayne had already placed her hand on Miles’ arm. Miles bowed to the Professor and Professora, and wasted no time in leading away his target.

 

***

 

Miles did not, in fact, know everything there was to know about Gregor’s winter garden, a fact he was quickly regretting. He did recall quite a few games of hide-and-seek, one of which he'd won by snorkeling in the water-lily pond - and a particularly unpleasant incident when he’d fallen out of one of the Lairouban orange trees that bordered the garden and ended up in the Residence infirmary with both legs broken. Still, a Vorkosigan would not be defeated by so simple a mission.

Family history would do in the absence of actual botanical knowledge. He led Dr. Vorvayne around the pond to a dense shrubbery of round, dark reddish leaves. “My great-grandfather, Prince Xav, sent the parent plant of these from Tau Ceti V.” Miles decided not to mention that the original shrub had been used to extract certain at-the-time untraceable poisons, which then-Emperor Dorca had made good use of. After all, the descendants before them had all been gene-cleaned by Betan experts during the fifteen years Miles’ mother had had charge of this garden. 

"Fascinating," she murmured. "Prince Xav was a botanical collector, too? I'd not heard his name spoken in that context."

“Not really –” Miles searched his memory. “Emperor Dorca’s second wife was an avid collector, and when the wormhole was discovered she made it her mission to populate the Residence with plants from all over the Nexus. Prince Xav and his wife traveled to Earth just before the Cetagandan Invasion – officially to ask for technological aid, but really a large part of their mission was collecting seeds. My parents have done their share too, sending home the least dangerous specimens of Sergyaran plants – those strange tiger-lily like things behind that rock there are Sergyaran, I think.” He improvised wildly. “It’s a pity Komarr doesn’t have any native flora. It would have been a brilliant symbol for Gregor’s wedding.”

Dr. Vorvayne was presently examining the Tau Cetan shrub with much the same expression that Miles had worn the first time he’d seen an active plasma cannon, but she looked up at this. “Not so much, given that there’s no native Barrayaran flora in this garden either. It might have been taken the wrong way; Komarr being lumped with the rest of the galactics, or being exploited to supply what Barrayar lacked in itself. Perhaps if the Emperor populated a few of the outer beds with flowering razorgrass, it might have worked.”

Miles wondered if that was a joke. Native Barrayaran flora was dull, inedible, poisonous and often deadly. The only thing anyone could do with it was incinerate it - in specially designed furnaces, with all the staff wearing full protective suits.

She must have read his expression. “It’s remarkably beautiful, when looked at in the right light. And one has to admire its determination to survive in all conditions. Rather like us Barrayarans ourselves. Plants shape people, even in enmity.” She smiled. “But I'm boring you by talking about my favorite subject.”

"Not at all," said Miles, entirely entranced by the smile. It wasn't an interpretation of Barrayaran history he’d ever considered before.

“It's just that I have never been in the Imperial Residence before," she went on. "My uncle gets invited to all these occasions; I rarely accompany him. Social functions are neither my area of expertise nor my interest. Today was the first time I received a separate invitation." 

An invitation in the Emperor's name could not be refused, and Miles thought he knew his aunt's true purpose in sending this one. For once Ivan’s loss would be Miles’ gain, and if Aunt Alys should chance to find out how it had happened – well, perhaps this would be worth it after all.

He offered her his arm, and they walked away from the Tau Cetan shrubbery, back toward the guests scattered in small groups around the grass. "For you, of course, this must be like home,” she said. “Do you still spend much time in the Residence for your work? Are you involved in the ongoing negotiations?"

"No," said Miles. "As an Auditor, I work on the investigative side, not the diplomatic, though Gregor has called me in to advise a few times. I wonder, though, if he might need me on this one." He'd been desperately hoping that Gregor would need him, until tonight; now he thought he'd much rather have time on his hands. 

“There have been whispers of a Komarran terrorist threat against the talks,” he added. “I hear Commodore Galeni – he’s the Head of Komarran Affairs at ImpSec - was tearing his hair out over that last week; he couldn't pin down anything definite. And Gregor badly needs everything to go well. He’s lived through three wars with Cetaganda, and commanded one himself; now that he’s married with an heir in the replicator, he is determined that there will be a proper treaty between our Empires.”

“So this has been planned for a long time,” she murmured. “Was the timing deliberate?”

“The Winterfair spirit, you mean? Why not? It’s the season for peace.” Gregor might well have planned it that way; he had chosen the venue months in advance. Cetagandans approved of both symbolism and gardens. “Speaking of which, look-”

The groups of chattering guests had fallen silent; Gregor and Laisa were standing beside the pool in the garden's center. Lady Alys was beside them, presenting the Cetagandan envoy, Ghem-General Arida, and his lady.

The visitors were the very model of a Cetagandan lord and lady of the military race. Ghem-General Arida was taller than every Barrayaran in the garden, arresting and powerful in his well-decorated uniform. Lady Arida seemed to be a good deal younger than her husband, yet matched him for presence as well as beauty. She was pale and haughty, wearing a flowing gown of white streaked with red. Behind them, a robed and hooded servitor, who Miles recognized as a Ba, carried a large object swathed in white covers.

Gregor greeted the Ghem-General formally, then bowed low over Lady Arida’s hand and murmured a few words. Miles listened as Ghem-General Arida replied with equal formality, his resonant voice carrying well across the garden as he thanked the Emperor and Empress for their welcome, mentioned the visit of the haut Pel Navarr a year ago, expressed his hope for a mutually beneficial outcome from their negotiations, and, finally... 

“… as a symbol of the expansion of cordial and cooperative relations between our two great Empires,” he finished. “May our ever-growing alliance soon flower into the full bloom of its destined glory, with the signing of a treaty here among the living representations of the entire galaxy.”

On cue, the Ba stepped forward beside its mistress, and Lady Arida gracefully swept away the covers from a tall plant.

A single white flower the size of Miles' hand crowned spirally climbing iridescent blue-green leaves. Ten more pearl-white buds tipped with red emerged from side branches, surrounded by delicate curling tendrils. Beside Miles, Ekaterin Vorvayne made an admiring sound.

Gregor accepted the gift with his own formal words. “We hope that this shall be a lasting symbol of the peace between our Empires. This gift shall adorn our garden for many years, even as the treaty we complete this week shall bind our Empires together in friendship.”

Now there was a turn of phrase that had certainly been written by Lady Alys. But Gregor set down the flowerpot with an artist’s eye, in exactly the right place to set off its color.

Miles looked up at Dr. Vorvayne. He’d meant to present her to Gregor at the first possible opportunity – but those eyes were fixed on the plant, as if Gregor had, for the first time in his life, been relegated to part of the background. A good strategist adapts his plans to the situation, he thought. As Gregor took Lady Arida's hand and led the Imperial party toward the tables at the end of the garden, Miles advanced. The Auditor’s chain cleared a path through the admiring crowd to the Cetagandan gift.

Even as a guest in the Celestial Garden on Eta Ceta, Miles had seen few more beautiful specimens of the Cetagandan Empire’s preferred art form. Three concentric rings of delicate membranous petals, the outermost streaked with red at the tips, the inner two glowing with faint silver-white bioluminiscence, curled gently inward to a golden central disk. It was clear from Dr. Vorvayne's expression that she hadn't seen anything like it either. 

"Oh," she breathed, kneeling down right there next to the pond, apparently utterly unbothered by the dirt on her knees or by the people looking her way.

Miles stood silently and watched her examine the plant, brushing away a small silvery insect that got in his way. It settled on the center of the flower for a few seconds, buzzing contentedly, before fluttering away to rest on the nearby grass.

Another silvery creature floated down from the glass ceiling high overhead, buzzing energetically around the flower’s center before flying off in the same direction as its partner, settling down comfortably on top of a lamp. “The moths seem to approve of the Ghem-general’s gift as much as you do,” Miles said.

“Diamond moths,” she said absently, looking up from the plant. “Not really moths, they don’t have a larval stage - they’re native Barrayaran. Most Barrayaran gardeners breed them as pollinators, since they’re capable of feeding on – and dispersing pollen from – almost any food source, including earth-descended plants…” she stifled a yawn.

Miles extended a hand to help her up. Her fingers rested against his, cool and soft. “I’m sorry, Lord Vorkosigan. I’m feeling sleepy suddenly – I can’t imagine why. This has been so interesting.” She rubbed her eyes, and looked around the garden, searching. “I think I’d better go home and rest. Can you see my aunt and uncle anywhere?”

"No need to bother,” said Miles. “The Emperor’s armsmen will call an air-taxi for you, and inform the Professor." He escorted her to the Residence foyer where some of Gregor’s servants and liveried men were waiting to see to the guests’ needs. A Vorbarra armsman brought Ekaterin’s coat and handed her into a waiting taxi. 

Suddenly there was no point in his staying any longer. Miles had turned to find his own armsman and groundcar when Ivan appeared beside him.

“Was it that bad?” Ivan asked sympathetically, raising a glass in salute. “Thanks, Miles. I won’t forget the favor.” 

Miles settled for ignoring him completely.

By the time he returned to Vorkosigan House, he was feeling sleepy too. Fortunately all ImpSec agents had ways to get around the need for rest. Miles took a couple of pills and settled down at his desk for the night – to draw up the plans for his next assault.

She was beautiful. Beautiful, and brilliant, and did he mention beautiful? Miles had always been attracted to warrior women, but competence and strength were present in other forms as well; more lasting forms, more suitable for a man who was, after all, no longer a mercenary admiral, but a Vor lord and future Count.

Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorkosigan, he wrote at the head of a sheet of flimsy, and stared at the words for several minutes, alternating between marveling at their beauty and trying to figure out where to put the doctoral title.

Then he rolled up his sleeves, gripped his stylus tighter, and began figuring out how to make the words true.

 

***

 

“Are you sure there isn't a problem, my Lord Auditor?” the Director asked nervously. Several functionaries hovered nervously behind him as he escorted Miles down the brightly lit corridor. The staff at the Imperial Science Institute were clearly not used to such visits outside the classified military research section.

“Not at all, Professor,” Miles said. “The Emperor considers it his duty to keep track of the progress of every branch of his Imperium. He values your contribution.” Both statements were perfectly true.

He ignored the Director's reply, and kept an eye on the nameplates on the doors they passed. Aha! There it was! Xenobiology and Terraforming, Dr. E. Vorvayne. Miles pointed at the closed door. “Let’s go – oh, how about there?”

For some reason, the Director looked even more nervous at this choice. “That one? Are you sure, my lord?”

Miles smiled. “Why not?”

The Director twisted his hands together. “Wouldn’t you prefer, ah, the Sergyaran genetics group, just down the hall? Or the plant toxin laboratory? That’s the one we were expecting you’d be interested in…” 

“Oh, I find this one interesting enough.” Miles pushed open the door and walked in.

There were plants everywhere, a riot of red and brown native Barrayaran vegetation growing in neat rows on tables beneath lamps or tall windows. And there she was, almost as beautiful as before in practical Komarran-style trousers and laboratory coat, with her hair pulled out of the way in a tight braid. 

Dr. Vorvayne pulled off a pair of thick protective gloves and crossed the laboratory to greet her visitors. “Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, this is a surprise," she said, extending a hand. "I’d heard there was an Imperial inspection going on, but I hadn’t expected it would lead here.” Out of the corner of his eye, Miles caught the Director making some sort of complicated pleading gesture in her direction.

“It was a pleasant chance that I just happened to pass your door." Ha. See if I leave anything to chance. I am a better tactician than that, milady... "So, if I can trouble you for a few minutes," or an hour, or as much time as you'd spare... "why don’t you tell me what work you do here?”

“Very well," said Dr. Vorvayne. "We are studying the Cetagandan invasion.”

Beside Miles, the Director covered his face with his hand. Miles blinked. “I thought this was the Botanical department?”

“The Cetagandan invasion of plants, Lord Vorkosigan.” Miles followed her down past the native plants to the chemical laboratory. "The Cetagandans did more to terraform this planet in twenty years than we did in two hundred,” she explained. “Unfortunately, when they left, they burned their laboratories and took their records with them, with the result that we still don’t know all that they did – and in the cases where we do, we often don’t know why. They were planning for the long term, and we are left to piece together what those plans were, seventy years later.”

Miles glanced at the insects buzzing in glass cases beside the wall, surrounded by chemical bottles on all sides. “Are you saying there might be Cetagandan bioweapons hidden on the planet?”

She sighed. “That is not the point of this at all, but if we don’t understand what they did and why, then yes, it could hurt us badly. On Barrayar, we have this unfortunate tendency to think of terraforming as a simple process -”

“Simple?” Miles echoed. It certainly hadn’t seemed that way when he’d last been in the District.

She made an impatient gesture. “Conceptually, I meant. We keep cutting down the native plants, keep planting the Earth-descended ones. But that is not how the Cetagandan satrapies work. They preserve every piece of genetic diversity with a vengeance. The Cetagandans would spend thirty years studying an ecosystem in minute detail; then they would tweak here, there, add three genes to a rare species of bacterium, and twenty years down the line an entire planet’s life would shift.”

At the end of the laboratory there was a door that led into an office, presumably hers; beside it, a transparent door led into a small glass house filled with plants. Dr. Vorvayne followed Miles' gaze. "Ah, that. One of my duties is to maintain the Institute’s collection of native plants. I don’t have much time to devote to it – but, well, I do feel a garden, even such a small one, ought to be properly designed. Something more than just a collection of plants thrown together."

Miles opened the door and stared. It was nothing compared to Gregor’s garden, of course; but the comparison didn’t even make sense. This was something he’d never seen before; flowering razorgrass around the edges of the garden, growing as high as his head, and further inside spiky shrubs in red, brown, purple, arranged in jagged natural lines that wound around a common center, which was occupied only by something that looked like a smaller version of a skellytum.

“I begin to see what you meant,” he said after a minute. “About Barrayaran flora - being rather like Barrayar itself. Beautiful in spite of everything.”

"You think so?” She was visibly pleased. “It’s honestly nothing. The Cetagandans, I am told, design on the scale of entire planets. The more I find, the more I wonder what they’d have done to Barrayar, given time. Take, for example, the plant you showed me the night before last." She led Miles to a small stone seat, and sat down beside him. “I’ve been thinking about what you said that night, too. A treaty really would be wonderful. This alliance would make it easier to travel, to create scientific collaborations – if, for example, I could get samples from Cetagandan plants to compare with the native ones we suspect were meddled with – actual samples, not just guesswork based on the few changes we can trace in modern genomes, would make all the difference.”

Perfect! Only a fool, an absolute fool, would waste such a golden opportunity. “Well– it’s Cetagandan, after all,” Miles said. “ImpSec must have tested every component of the plant for poison before they let Gregor handle it. It’s standard procedure for biological gifts. They sequenced the genome too, I’ll bet. There’ll be a report gathering dust somewhere.”

Her eyes shone with evident scientific longing. Miles gave her a seated half-bow. “I’ll have a courier bring a copy to you tomorrow.”

She sat back, staring at him with obvious astonishment. “But – I didn’t mean - it’s ImpSec, surely classified-"

Miles waved away that objection. “An Imperial Auditor can request anything. It shall be my honor to serve you in this small way.”

She was clearly impressed. Would gratitude make her more receptive to his next proposal? He hoped so…

Miles schooled his voice to what he hoped came across as a calm, professional tone. "Dr. Vorvayne, your ideas are… impressive, to say the least. Have you considered testing your theories in the field? On a larger scale – such as, perhaps, Vorkosigan’s District?”

She sat up. “Are you saying you’d allow me to use Vorkosigan’s District as… an experimental site?”

"Why not?” Miles smiled. She would have to regularly visit Vorkosigan House, at the very least, to consult with Count Vorkosigan’s heir and proxy. Ekaterin Vorvayne had made it clear by her behavior at the reception that she did not wish to meet suitors - but armed with a purely business offer, Miles could get past her guard.

“I’m sure we could negotiate a suitable contract. Vorkosigan's District would get the first benefit from any successful terraforming techniques you develop, and you'd have an unlimited - generous - budget." Miles would willingly put all the money he possessed at her feet – but he thought Tsipis and the Count his father might both have a few words to say about unlimited. "You could hire all the staff you wanted. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement."

She looked tempted – but also troubled. "Well, the idea is certainly… appealing. But I should tell you that I have never embarked on a project of that scale."

Miles brushed this objection away. “Nonsense. You have the ability, I can tell. It would take time to set up, but I’m sure the Imperial Science Institute could spare you for a month or two.” Confronted with an Auditor’s chain, he was quite certain they would.

Dr. Vorvayne smiled. "Oh, I wasn't doubting myself. I was simply telling you.”

Sold, thought Miles triumphantly. He’d laid out his bait, and she’d taken it. The next step would have to wait for the next engagement. 

Not that he would leave without setting the date and time of that next engagement, of course. And – why wait? “May I have the honor of your company for dinner tomorrow night?”

Dr. Vorvayne paused for a moment. “To discuss the terraforming plan, you mean?”

Miles put on his most innocent expression. “Naturally.” At first.

She smiled and inclined her head in acceptance. “Lord Vorkosigan, of course you may.” 

 

***

        

Miles skidded to a halt in the middle of the foyer. "Roic, where did the gardeners go? She's going to expect a tour - and you have no idea, the kind of gardens she maintains in her spare time – I don’t want there to be a single dead leaf on the grass when she turns up. And tell Ma Kosti to serve the Illyrican blend of coffee after the dessert, I need you to go tell her because she threw me out of her kitchen -" 

He stared frantically around the foyer. Nothing should be out of place,  not here – not in the entire house, since he would need to give her a complete tour – show her what she would be mistress of, he hoped, though that was far ahead – but it would be prudent to see her reaction to the domain of Lady Vorkosigan. “And the cleaning service? Roic, where’s the cleaning service?”

"The cleaners are on their way, m’lord," said Roic in a soothing voice. "They did ask why we needed them again so soon, since they did the entire house just two days ago."

“But she’ll be here in just an hour!” Miles wailed.

Roic was endeavoring to calm him down when Pym entered. Miles paused in mid-nervous breakdown at the sight of the senior armsman’s solemn expression.

“My lord,” said Pym. “There’s a call from the Imperial Residence. The Emperor requires your presence at once.”

 

***

 

The body lay sprawled in the middle of the Residence ground-floor hallway. Miles watched the forensic team dust the floor and the corpse's green uniform, and paced around.

There was no obvious cause of death; that was the greatest problem. No marks from weapons, no signs of violence. Even the corpse's expression was peaceful. 

And yet one of the Emperor's personal guards, the most highly trained group of security personnel on Barrayar, lay dead here in the most secure building on three planets, and Miles had no clue of how, let alone why or who.

“The blood sample is on its way to ImpMil, my lord,” said Armsman Gerard, coming up to stand beside him. 

“Good," said Miles. "I want it tested for every poison they've ever heard of, as a matter of the highest priority. And I want every guard who was on duty last night to be questioned separately. Your men must take over the Emperor’s protection until then.”

"It will be done, my lord," said the armsman, looking just as grim as Miles felt, as grim as Gregor’s face had been on the comconsole. 

Gregor - who was, in fact, bypassing ImpSec’s crime scene tape and stepping into the corridor right at this moment. “Sire,” said Miles. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t mind me,” said Gregor coolly, watching the forensic team. To their credit, the ImpSec men completely ignored the Imperial presence and went on with their work. “What have you turned up so far?”

Miles spread his hands. “Not a thing, sire.”

Gregor frowned. "Lieutenant Saint-Simon was assigned to Our guard only a month ago, Miles. He was betrothed last week. I will have to make the calls to his parents and to his fiancee. So tell me how he died and why.”

Miles shook his head. “It’s too early to say, Gregor. The only lead we have is that report of Duv Galeni’s - that whisper of a Komarran terrorist group being in the capital to strike at the Residence before the treaty signing.” Miles paused. “I assume you know that Lieutenant Saint-Simon was half-Komarran.”

Gregor’s expression closed. "I see. That does complicate things."

“Sire, that’s an understatement.”

Gregor smiled suddenly, sharp-edged and humorless. “But you’re good at complicated things, Miles. That’s why I keep you around.” He paused for a moment. “I admit, I wouldn’t normally have disturbed you from your holiday for what ought to be an ImpSec case - but Ivan came to me this morning and insisted that you were desperately bored and I needed to give you some work for the safety of Vorbarr Sultana.”

Miles gritted his teeth and made a mental note to exact revenge at the first opportunity. “I am grateful for your consideration, sire.”

“Leave no stone unturned in your investigation.” Gregor inclined his head regally. “And - on that note, Miles, may I ask why I have just received a strangely apologetic message from the Director of the Imperial Science Institute? I have not asked for that particular branch of the Imperium to be inspected. Were you really that desperate for things to do?”

Miles let out a horrified cry. “Ekaterin!

 

***

 

Miles almost ran into the foyer of Vorkosigan House as soon as Roic opened the door. “Roic, Dr. Vorvayne – was she very upset? Was she angry? Did she say anything? What did she say? Did Ma Kosti at least feed her well?”

Roic finally managed to get a word in. “She’s still here, m’lord. And Ma Kosti certainly tried to feed her, but she hardly sat down at the table.”

Still here?” Miles checked his chrono. It was almost midnight. She hadn’t felt obliged to wait for him this long, had she? “Where, Roic? Where is she?”

Roic stood aside. “In the attics, m’lord.”

Miles was already halfway up the staircase.

 

***

 

“Dr. Vorvayne!" Miles skidded to a halt in the attic. "I’m so terribly sorry – I never intended – you didn’t have to wait -”

She looked up at him from the floor, where she was sitting surrounded by maps on all sides – old terrain survey maps of Vorkosigan’s District. Miles marveled. Such a woman as Lady Vorkosigan… for the time being he had to be satisfied with placing her in charge of terraforming, but eventually… she’d reorganize the entire district, he was certain. Beautiful, brilliant, efficient.

Dr. Vorvayne smiled at him. “Don’t worry about it, Lord Vorkosigan. Your armsmen told me you were summoned into the Emperor’s presence. I must accept his precedence over me, surely.”

But his alone, and no other. Miles mentally added compassionate to the no doubt boundless list of Ekaterin Vorvayne’s virtues.

“So, he finally needed to call you in on the Cetagandan negotiations?” She reached down and began folding up the maps.

No, don’t go, not yet! “I wish it was only that,” said Miles, shifting a few maps aside so he could sit down beside her. "It was murder."

“Murder?” A pale hand flew to her exquisite, unpainted lips. “In the Imperial Residence?” 

“One of Gregor’s guards was found dead.” Miles said. “Poisoned, we think, but we don't know how. There’s a possibility that it might have been a Komarran terrorist cell trying to get at Gregor. Or sabotage the negotiations. Or both. It's - a mess, and not just in the way that any assassination attempt that gets near Gregor is. The boy was half-Komarran, and we don't know how he might have been mixed up. He was newly betrothed, too. I don’t envy Gregor right now."

Dr. Vorvayne looked deeply troubled. “I think you can certainly be excused for being late if that was the cause. Especially since I’ve spent a very profitable evening here.” She gestured to indicate the neat stacks of documents beside her. “Lord Vorkosigan, do you know what treasures your house holds?”

“Lots. I've been thinking of getting a historian in to catalog all of it. I don't suppose your aunt would be interested?” It would be another excuse to visit - though Miles had prepared a list of things he might need to consult his fellow Imperial Auditor about, in time…

“She might – but I was thinking of this, actually.” She leaned forward and spread out a long roll of paper on the floor. 

Miles had not seen the portrait before. It showed a man, perhaps around fifty years old, strong-featured and handsome, with deep blue eyes and dark hair that fell across his shoulders. Miles’ attention, however, was drawn to the patterns of color streaked across the right side of his face. The elaborate intertwining vines suggested an older, more formal generation of the Cetagandan aristocracy.

“Ghem-General Governor Amer Elasin,” Dr. Vorvayne murmured with an appalling amount of respect in her voice. “Surveyor, terraformer, geneticist, and architect of what was perhaps the greatest contribution of one person to Barrayaran science.”

“Ah…" Miles wondered what the most tactful way to phrase this would be. "This would be the same Ghem-General Governor Elasin who my grandfather and Ezar Vorbarra strung up in Vorkosigan Vashnoi?”

“It would, yes; and also the same Governor Elasin who permanently eradicated potato blight from Vorvolynkin’s District with a single modified soil virus. The Cetagandans held him in immense regard, and justly so. Has anyone ever told you that the bomb exploded exactly above the square where his body was displayed?”

Miles blinked at her. “No. No one ever told me that.”

“Why am I not surprised? Anyway, that was a distraction.” She rolled it up and pushed it away. “I’ve been going through the maps and the soil surveys, and I think I have a preliminary idea of what your District requires. I have your district deputy’s comm. number, and can discuss further details with him if needed. I will send you a proposal and a draft contract in a few days.”

“That would be -” far quicker than Miles had expected; his estimate of her rose again. But he’d hoped to spend a few more days on the preliminary negotiations – discussing, trading ideas - “excellent.”

She rose gracefully from the floor. “A few days, then.”

She was halfway out of the door when Miles had an idea. He stood up and held out the roll of paper. "Would you like to take this?"

She paused in the doorway. “I- I couldn’t. It’s a historical treasure, Lord Vorkosigan. You should donate it to a museum, or even the University.”

"My grandfather probably kept it as a trophy. It should go to someone who appreciates it for… other reasons. And we're supposed to be signing a treaty, and it’s Winterfair, and all that... it’s time to put aside old grudges, isn’t it?" Miles realized he was rambling, and closed his mouth.

She hesitated – then smiled and extended a hand to accept the gift. “Well, in that case… thank you, Lord Vorkosigan. I’ll have to find a way to pay you back.” 

Miles bowed, his heart soaring. "I shall think of something, my lady."

 

***

 

“Well, Miles?” demanded Emperor Gregor.

It wasn’t the first time Miles had marveled at Gregor’s talent for somehow converting an ordinary question into an Imperial demand without deviating noticeably from his normal tone or volume. It was fraying a bit, though.

"Well nothing, sire." He sat down, exhausted. "The toxicology report came up negative for everything we know. We don’t even have a cause of death, let alone a perpetrator."

It had been a long time since Miles had seen Gregor openly frustrated. “Miles, the final negotiations are going awfully. The Ghem-General simply won’t concede any of the important points. Now he’s using this death, claiming that he and his wife are in danger and I can’t provide them with suitable security. I need answers, my Lord Auditor.”

"Duv Galeni is doing everything he can to track down this terrorist cell, sire. And I am doing all I can to assist him.”

“Not enough. I count on you to pull miracles out of your sleeve when I most need them, Miles.” Gregor gave him a firm nod. “Sort this out. Before Winterfair.”

Miles gritted his teeth. But Winterfair was crucial to his attack plan! 

He hopped off his chair. “I’ll go to ImpSec right now, sire.”

He was going to bring down those Komarran terrorists.

 

***

 

Dr. Vorvayne turned around from her bonsai skellytum. “Lord Vorkosigan! And – flowers?” She blinked. “You brought me native Barrayaran flowers?”

"Native to the Dendarii mountains, in fact." Miles bowed deeply and presented the strange bouquet. He’d had them sent up from Vorkosigan Surleau in the morning. "I felt I owed you a personal apology for my rudeness yesterday evening. And a symbol of the project I hope you’re still willing to undertake."

“It’s very promising,” she agreed, rising to accept the flowers with a smile. “The few Cetagandan records we have seem to suggest that a fair amount of terraforming was taking place in the Dendarii region, before the guerrillas made it impossible for scientists to work there.  But it also means they wouldn’t have had time to clear up the evidence of their work. We’d get to see a snapshot of an early, experimental stage in terraforming, which might give us some entirely new ideas about the process.”

Perfect. "May I suggest,” he said tentatively, “that you take a tour of the region, before you consider signing a contract? You’ll need to get an idea of the terrain, the diversity - choose some preliminary sites for sampling, I suppose."

She nodded firmly. “And talk to the locals. Farmers especially; they’ll have a wealth of useful anecdotal data. And hire local guides, assistants, trackers…” 

There would be more work involved in this than Miles had anticipated. He might easily extend such a tour to, say, two weeks... “Are you accustomed to that sort of rural area? People there don’t talk to outsiders easily, especially Vor outsiders from the capital.”

“It should not be a problem. I grew up in a very rural area. The South Continent, in fact.”

It was the perfect opening for the personal conversation they hadn't had yet, and Miles took it. "So you’re a country girl."

"By birth. I’ve lived in Vorbarr Sultana ever since my university days."

Miles paused, wondering how he might broach the topic. If she had met his Aunt Alys’s strict standards, there could be no doubt of her eligibility, and yet… “It’s rare to find an unmarried Vor woman of our age, in the capital.”

The smile disappeared. “Overqualification,” replied Dr. Vorvayne shortly. “And an unreasonable desire to give my best efforts to a job that takes up entirely as much time and energy as a husband and children.”

“Oh.” But surely that wouldn’t be a problem, for Lady Vorkosigan? Miles would make sure it wasn’t. He'd hire her a platoon of servants, an entire army, however many she wanted. And if it was work she wanted, she’d have as much work as she’d ever wished for.

She, too, seemed to be hesitating over her next words. “Lord Vorkosigan. Forgive my rudeness, but I must ask.” She looked directly at him. “What happened to you?”

Miles grimaced. “It was a teratogen,” he said shortly. “An assassination attempt on my father, which hit my mother while she was pregnant with me. The only antidote to the poison was a compound that dissolved immature bones.”

She straightened, looking down at him with sudden intent. “Oh! I’d thought – a mutation – but it’s teratogenic, not genetic!” 

Miles stopped. Had she – had she feared that it might be a mutation? Had she, too, been thinking along the same lines? Could he be as lucky as that? “Entirely so,” he said. “Any children I have – which I hope to, someday –” wait, was that too forward? He rushed on – “would be perfectly normal, even without gene-cleaning and replicators – I mean, of course they will have gene-cleaning and replicators, I meant to say -”

He trailed off. Dr. Vorvayne’s eyes were bright as she looked at him – really looked at him – for the first time in their short acquaintance. Yes, yes, yes! He was right!

“That makes so much more sense!” she said. “I assume the teratogen was delivered in gaseous form? I wonder – Lord Vorkosigan – would you happen to know – was it a fluoride?”

Miles spluttered, staring up at her. “No one - no one, in the entire Nexus - has ever reacted that way before.”

"Well - it must have been very difficult for you, of course. But I can see that it hasn't affected your mind, which is, of course, far more important. The blood-brain barrier is an amazing thing.” She was still looking at him with fascination. “Whoever treated you must have been an exceptional biochemist.”

Where on Barrayar would he ever find another woman such as this? Miles mentally upped the planned tour of Vorkosigan’s District from two weeks to three. “Colonel Vaagen. He’s the head of toxicology at the Imperial Military Hospital. He could probably tell you all about the, ah, fluoride, and anything else you wanted to know.”

“Vaagen?” She frowned. “I’ve never heard of him. I thought I knew the scientific community in Vorbarr Sultana fairly well. Who is he?”

And how, how, had they managed to get so badly off plan that they were discussing Vaagen? “I'm not surprised. He works mostly in the classified military research section. He’s an expert on every kind of poison known to mankind, including a few that exist only in ImpMil’s secret vaults.” He supposed he could invite Vaagen to dinner sometime, for Ekaterin’s satisfaction. Though not for a few weeks yet; he wanted her company for himself, first… anyway, Vaagen would be a safe dinner guest for her company. The man was sixty years old and obsessed with lethal poisons. Ivan, on the other hand, wouldn't be allowed onto the premises on any day she was visiting. Which, Miles hoped, would soon be every day...

"Dr. Vorvayne - may I call you Ekaterin?" She didn't object. "I wonder if I might have the honor of your company at the Imperial Residence, on Winterfair eve?"

Her hand, which had reached out absently to touch the top of the skellytum, stilled. "Winterfair eve?"

"The official treaty-signing ceremony - Gregor and Laisa and the Cetagandans, in the same garden as before. My parents will be there. I could introduce you.” And this time he would make sure nothing interfered, not even Gregor. Miles had planned this vitally important meeting out to the last detail, down to the flowers in the background. He’d start off the conversation with the Sergyaran tiger lily things; he made a mental note to call the Sergyaran Affairs Office and find out their name somehow.

But Ekaterin’s eyebrows had flown up, and her expression turned cool. Too fast, too fast! Miles backtracked frantically. “My mother’s a scientist herself, you know. She had a long career exploring new planets for the Betan Survey. She has a ton of stories. And Sergyaran terraforming is her pet project right now.  I’m sure you’d enjoy meeting her.” 

Ekaterin paused. "You want me to meet the Viceroy and Vicereine so that we can discuss… terraforming?"

Miles nodded. "Exactly!"

“Oh. In that case, I’d be happy to accompany you, my lord.” She looked at him quizzically for a moment. "But don’t you have an investigation to run in the meantime?"

“Gregor!” exclaimed Miles, horrified.

 

***

 

A day and a half later, Miles trudged into the Emperor's office at last. “Sire, I’m sorry.”

Gregor looked up from his comconsole. "For what, Miles?"

“Duv and I finally caught up with the Komarran terrorists this morning.” Miles slumped into a chair without waiting for permission. “And they weren’t terrorists at all. They were a bunch of kids on holiday from Solstice University. Their grand plan was to start a riot by dropping a bunch of fake greekie revolutionary pamphlets around Vorbarr Sultana. They didn’t have the ability – or the courage, or, for that matter, the intelligence – to kill anyone at all. And we wasted days hunting them down. And tomorrow’s the treaty signing. And it wasn't the Komarrans, Gregor."

“Miles,” said Gregor. “Calm down. I know that.”

Miles looked up. “You know that?”

But then he realized that Gregor was smiling – genuinely smiling, for the first time in the entire week. 

The smile broadened. Gregor stood up. "Follow me,” he said, and led Miles out of the office.

Miles trailed after him, confused; down the hall where a man had died, around a turn and into the arbor that led to the garden, where an instantly recognizable figure stood waiting…

“Ekaterin? What are you doing here?” This was all wrong; he’d planned to introduce her to Gregor himself, at the right time! Then he blinked as a familiar grey-haired man in uniform emerged from behind her. “Colonel?”

“Colonel Vaagen and Dr. Vorvayne actually came to me several hours ago,” Gregor said. “They have been waiting this long so that they might test their theory.” He looked around. “Ah, Gerard. All ready, I see.”

Armsman Gerard jogged up to them, wearing a gas mask and carrying a machine in one hand. Miles recognized it as a handheld spectrometer, of the sort he’d been taught to use to check atmospheric safety when he’d been training for ship duty at the Academy.

“Sire, stay back!” Gregor obediently remained at the back of the group and watched curiously as the door was opened and Gerard ran into the garden.

Miles caught a glimpse of the Cetagandan envoy’s gift, still sitting in its place near the pond. All the buds were now in full bloom, shining almost as brightly as the lamps that hung from the orange trees. Gerard activated the spectrometer, carried it around a circuit of the pond, and returned within a minute, closing the door behind him before removing the gas mask.

Vaagen and Ekaterin pounced on it immediately.

“Trace compounds…”

“Looks like a hexadecenal derivative to me –”

“- we’ll have to synthesize it and run it through a toxicity assay, but it’s certainly not the natural product -”

“- clear case of enzymatic modification – yes, Dr. Vorvayne, I think you were right.”

“Excuse me,” said Miles, watching with growing suspicion. “Would someone explain to me what is going on?”

“Sire,” said Colonel Vaagen, turning from the instrument to the fascinated Gregor, “I regret to report that your garden is poisoned.”

 

***

 

“Of course, the plot all hinged on the fact that the gardeners only enter in the morning,” Ekaterin explained, when they were all settled in Gregor’s office a few minutes later. “The Emperor’s garden is always locked at night, except when it is being used to host a party. I suppose the security team the Cetas sent ahead of them must have reported that.”

“But Lieutenant Saint-Simon would have had access,” Gregor murmured.

She nodded.  “Lieutenant Saint-Simon’s fiancée is a student at the Imperial University. When I met her this morning with my uncle, she broke down and confessed that he’d brought her a flower – stolen her a flower - from the Cetagandan plant. He was feeling ill when he brought it to her; sleepy, confused. He took stimulants and went to complete his patrol - and never came home the next morning.”

"I didn’t believe it when Dr. Vorvayne came to me with the idea,” Vaagen said softly. “But after seeing the genetic report, I had to admit it was at least possible. The full biochemical model took us half a day to build." 

“I first noticed the odd behavior of the moths on the night of the Ghem-general’s reception,” Ekaterin continued. “Diamond moths normally rest on high surfaces – on the ceiling of the garden, for example. These moths – after drinking nectar from the plant, they flew around for a few seconds or a minute, and then settled on or near the ground and stayed there. Also, it’s mating season, and none of them seemed at all interested in each other. I went home and spent the entire night thinking about what could have caused it – and I didn’t believe it was possible at first, either, but when I saw the ImpSec report -”

“My people analyzed every part of the plant before it was presented to Emperor Gregor,” Vaagen put in. “Including the nectar. A spectroscopic analysis revealed that the plant’s nectaries released an unusual modified amino acid. We checked, of course, and determined that it was entirely harmless to human beings – when considered by itself.” He gave a half-seated bow in Ekaterin’s direction.

“Entirely harmless – until it is absorbed into the moths’ circulatory system,” she completed. “Where it concentrates rapidly in their pheromone glands, and modifies a harmless aldehyde into a potent airborne neurotoxin. The moths don’t fly; within a minute, huge amounts of energy are diverted to ever-increasing toxin production. And no pheromones are actually produced, so they don’t mate. They’re tiny; you wouldn’t notice their behavior if you weren’t looking for it.”

“The neurotoxin is small and easily dispersed,” Vaagen added. “Within minutes it would spread around the entire garden. And the whole thing would only last for a few hours; after that the moths’ system would run out of pheromone to modify. And the moths are nocturnal. By the time the garden opens in the morning, it would have degraded, and the air would be perfectly safe to breathe again.”

Gregor looked up abruptly. “What about Lieutenant Saint-Simon’s fiancée? She has kept the flower for three nights now-”

“Miss Elisa lives in a windowless apartment on the twentieth floor,” Ekaterin assured him.

Miles’ looked back and forth between the two scientists, appalled. “The Cetagandans - were trying to assassinate the government? At the treaty signing? Is this a prelude to an invasion?” 

“And to think I believed the Star Creche actually agreed with me,” Gregor said softly. “I thought a treaty could truly work. Can it be that they were plotting this all along?”

Ekaterin spoke. “Actually, sire, I believe I have the answer to that.”

She opened her folder and laid out two pictures side by side. “This is Ghem-General Amer Elasin. The other -”

“Needs no introduction,” murmured Gregor, looking down at the picture of Lady Arida that had appeared on the Vorbarr Sultana Times society page on the day of her arrival. By sheer coincidence, the photographer had captured the same pose; Lady Arida's head was thrown back, her dark hair spreading around her shoulders and her blue eyes fixed on some distant point to her left. 

“Do you see it?”

"The resemblance?” said Gregor. “Yes, I do." 

Ekaterin nodded. "While Colonel Vaagen was completing the structural analysis, I asked my aunt to present me to Lady Alys Vorpatril. I think she might have misunderstood my reason for wishing to meet the lady in question, but Lady Alys herself understood quickly enough." She smiled. “Lady Vorpatril called in Lady Vorob’yev, who was able to shed considerable light on the situation.”

Understanding was beginning to dawn on Gregor’s face. “It turns out Lady Arida is the daughter of Ghem-General Elasin’s daughter by his first wife, who he was forced to repudiate in favor of a haut-wife from the Celestial Garden. And also - in older Ghem custom, there are many variations on the traditional face-paint, for special occasions. Red against white, in vertical streaks, means anticipation of long-delayed revenge.”

“If Lady Arida inherited her grandfather’s scientific notes,” continued Vaagen, “she would have enzymatic structures from every major plant pollinator on Barrayar. To design a modifier for the pheromone-synthesizing enzymes would be the work of an hour for a woman of her expertise.”

“I doubt Ghem-General Arida even knew,” Ekaterin said. “He has nothing to do with his wife’s genetic work. And he would have to be present at the treaty signing, though Lady Arida could find some last-minute excuse to miss it. Perhaps she meant to dispose of an inconvenient husband at the same time as the entire Barrayaran government.”

“But it would still have started a war," Miles pointed out. "No matter how well she did it, this would have ended in war.”

Gregor leaned back in his chair. “Yes,” he agreed. “But there are many on Cetaganda who want a war, Miles, for personal as well as political reasons. And this -" He rested a finger over the picture of Lady Arida's gown, white slashed across with patterns in the color of blood. "I would be dead. My wife would be dead. Half my Counts, most of my Ministers, and the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar would be dead. Cetaganda would have won this war.”

Miles swallowed. “The Cetagandan Emperor will have to publicly deny all association with it once you tell him. Even if the Ghem-general knew nothing, he will pay with his life just as surely as his wife will.”

“A potential outcome that I shall point out to him at length.” Gregor reached for his comlink. "Gerard, would you please wake up Ghem-General Arida, and tell him I will see him in the Green Room in ten minutes. Mention that I believe we should make some last-minute modifications to the treaty."

His smile had faded into a look that Miles knew better; calm, prepared, satisfied Gregor.

"Dr. Vorvayne,” he said, formally. Ekaterin straightened in her chair at his suddenly changed tone. “You have rendered great service today, both to Us and to Our Empire. We have put some considerable thought into what a suitable reward might be.”

Ekaterin bowed her head. “We believe you are not receiving the appreciation that your work deserves, in your present position.” Gregor went on. “But I received a message from the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar last night. Apparently Sergyar is in desperate need of a new Minister for Terraforming. The previous one has recurring nightmares of being attacked by vampire balloons and has been granted extended leave to travel to Beta for treatment."

“Thank you, sire.” Ekaterin looked up and met Gregor’s eyes. “But I had a different post in mind.”

Gregor’s eyebrows rose. There was a sentence he didn’t hear too often, Miles thought. “Do tell me.”

Ekaterin leaned forward. “Scientific Liaison Officer to our Embassy on Eta Ceta,” she said clearly. “With Imperial responsibility for observing Cetagandan genetic engineering - and planning to apply the same principles to Barrayar.”

Miles saw Gregor’s regal composure flicker for a moment. “Ah… Dr. Vorvayne, no such post exists. No such post has ever existed in Barrayaran history.”

She smiled. “Well, you are negotiating changes to the treaty, sire.”

 

***

 

Miles watched silently from across the garden as Ghem-General Arida signed his name to the end of the treaty. The General looked faded now, as if he had aged overnight; no doubt contemplating the reception he would receive on his return to the Celestial Garden.

He was also very determinedly not looking at the plant which Gregor had stood right in front of the treaty-signing table. All ten flowers were in splendid bloom, illuminating the glittering garden. Every single nectar gland had, of course, been surgically removed and turned over to the Doctors Vorvayne and Vaagen for analysis.

Gregor accepted a stylus from Lady Alys, and put his own name under the Ghem-General’s to the sound of applause. At last the treaty was complete; two empires separated by mutual mistrust would now open their borders to trade, exchange, education. All thanks to a will to move beyond the enmities of the past, and a powerful bit of blackmail in the background. And one woman’s genius, that had rescued the Imperium from certain destruction.

And there was the woman herself, standing in an alcove beside the fragrant Illyrican jasmine vine, talking animatedly to the Vicereine Countess Vorkosigan.

“Oh, and Gregor asked me to give you this,” Miles heard his mother say as he approached the pair. “He apologizes that you cannot wear it in public, but hopes your new post will make up for that inconvenience.”

Ekaterin looked down at the ribboned medal and smiled before tucking it away in a pocket of her jacket. Miles recognized it. He had one of those himself. Vicereine Vorkosigan shook Ekaterin’s hand in parting, whispered something that made the younger woman laugh, and returned to the crowd with a smile in her son’s direction.

“Dr. Vorvayne,” he murmured coolly.

“Lord Vorkosigan,” she returned. “I have sent the Count your father’s deputy a copy of the plans and contract for experimental terraforming in Vorkosigan’s District. I have included a list of several competent terraforming consultants who might be willing to sign it. Two of them are my former teachers.”

“I see,” said Miles. “Tell me, Doctor Vorvayne, when we spoke of you working in Vorkosigan’s District, did you ever really intend to accept?”

She inclined her head. “Not really.”

He had to appreciate her honesty, even at this late hour. “I don’t appreciate being manipulated, my lady.”

She returned his steady look. “No, Lord Vorkosigan. No more than I appreciate being invited to political gatherings for the benefit of the hostess’s son – or being invited to terraform Vorkosigan’s District so that its heir can give me three-week long personal tours.” 

Miles flushed. “I… was that transparent?”

“Yes.” She looked exasperated. “If we can skip the part with the mutual apologies?”

“Um… yes. Definitely.”

“Good.” She smiled down at him. “Now, the Vicereine was telling me that you’ve been to Eta Ceta before, in a diplomatic capacity.”

Miles blinked at the sudden change in topic. “Ah, yes - it was a long time ago. I was diplomatic envoy to the funeral of the present Emperor’s mother, along with my cousin. I don’t see…”

“I was just thinking,” said Ekaterin softly, “that I will need someone to explain Eta Ceta to me; someone with rank and diplomatic experience, someone known to the Cetagandan aristocracy. It would take time – but I’m sure the Emperor would be able to spare you for a month or two.”

“I – explain…” Miles trailed to a halt. “Doctor Vorvayne, are you offering me a job?”

Her eyes were sparkling now. “It depends, Lord Vorkosigan. Do you think you can handle it?”

Miles grinned. “Oh, yes. But, milady, I should warn you that when people offer me jobs, they tend to end up with rather more than they expected.”

She extended a hand to him, smiling. “That sounds perfectly fair to me, Lord Vorkosigan.”