Chapter 1: The Tale of the Devil's Seed
Watching from the doorway, Niktos watched as Father threw the alembic across the room and watched it shatter. He had been in a foul mood ever since David had left. Niktos wasn’t supposed to have even seen David, he was supposed to remain in the tower room and stay quiet. Mother kept David away from the tower, and Father saw to it that Niktos remained where he was supposed to be. Mostly.
But Mother had died, and so had René, and David and Father had a fierce argument. And David left, taking only his few books. Niktos envied him. He wished he could leave, and David hadn’t been treated like Niktos.
He trembled thinking about that. Father had moments where he was almost gentle, except for the darkness in his eyes. But more often he was cruel. Niktos still had bruises from where Father had hit him for asking about Mother.
While he called the man Father, Mark still dreamed of grey eyes when he heard the title, rather than blue. Mother was truly associated with a pair of eyes a different shade of grey, rather than brown. Brother also carried grey eyes, and black hair, rather than René’s dark blond hair and blue eyes, or even David’s middling brown eyes and hair. While there was violence associated with the grey eyed man, it was never turned to Niktos, and the woman was always associated with gentleness. The boy who was associated with brother, he was a cheerful competitor and compatriot, nothing like René, or even distant Duv.
Nothing like the family that was all he had known in his six years of life.
Father’s voice rang out from inside the room, sounding absolutely vicious. Niktos began to creep away. He was too late. One of Father’s spells caught him and forced him into the sanctum. His eyes grew huge as he saw what was there.
A demon was standing impatiently in the summoning circle. “Well,” it said, sounding very annoyed, “Is this the child?”
“Yes, Harputros,” Father said. “Make certain this son can’t betray me like my own flesh and blood did.”
The demon, Harputros apparently, gave Niktos a jaundiced look, and said, “It can be done. The payment is the same as the result. I will implant some of my essence in the child, which will result in the loss of his soul. The complete loss will take…many years, after the completion of which I will gain total possession of the boy. My hold will only be broken should someone truly name him and hold tight to him, no matter what happens.” Harputros gave Father a look, and asked, “Is this acceptable to you?”
Father waved his accession, and said, “Fine, fine. My plans should be completed within the decade. If I can get further use out of the child, then that is simply a side benefit.” He turned away from the demon and the terrified Niktos. “Now, I must punish my own flesh and blood for running away when I need him.”
Harputros smiled, revealing a great many sharp, pointed teeth, and said, “That is always the danger of sons, that they will seek to destroy their father’s influence. Now,” he turned to Niktos, looking him in the eye, “Come here, human child.”
The horrible, wonderful eyes disarmed Niktos’s mind completely. Everything that was horrible about Father was reflected as wondrous in those eyes, and all that was good about the grey-eyed family became terrible. Niktos wasn’t even able to scream as the demonic essence entered his body and ate at his soul.
Chapter 2: The Tale of the Brother's Quest
Ice. The universe was an endless expanse of dark ice. Miles cried out ‘Mark! Mark!’ In the distance, he saw the glow of a fire, barely large enough to be a candle.
There was a dark laughter, and a voice Miles recognized as Ser Galen’s, but with overtones he could not have described if his life depended on it, said ‘Mark is no more. I am all that is left.’ The laughter began again, and consumed Miles’s world.
He woke with a start. This was the third time in as many days that Miles had what he termed the ‘Ice Dream’. He lay in bed, panting and shuddering. Shaking his head, he decided to begin preparations for leaving on his quest to find Mark tomorrow. Well, later today.
The Ice Dreams had begun when he was around six, but he had never been able to remember anything beyond the sensation of cold until his powers developed. He didn’t know how these dreams were related to Mark, but he did know that they were, and that if he didn’t act soon, his brother would be beyond rescuing. The ice had crept through the dream gradually, but all that was left of warmth in the dreams was that single, flickering candle.
Turning over facts and emotions in his head, he didn’t sleep for the rest of that night. As soon as the first lights of dawn appeared over the horizon, he was out of bed.
Later that day, as he was looking over his gear, and figuring out what he needed to have re-made for a man his size, his mother approached him. “It’s time?” she asked, quietly.
“Yes,” Miles replied. “I’ve been having the Ice Dreams more frequently, and I know that they’re a warning.” He looked up at his mother and asked, “You aren’t going to try and talk me out of leaving, are you?” While his family had been nothing but supportive about his plans to go hunting for Mark as soon as Barrayar was stable enough, people outside the family were quite adamant that he should forget about retrieving his brother. Miles wanted to be certain that his family truly were supportive, rather than just humoring him.
She shook her head, “I understand. I actually probably understand better than your father, because I’m a twin, too. And as close as I was to him, your developing a twin bond means that even if you’ve never met Mark, you’re probably closer to his essence than I ever was with Benedict.” She shook her head, and said, “I don’t know that I can ever go back to Bethara now, they would probably view me with as much suspicion as Barrayarans view you.”
Miles actually blinked at that. It had never occurred to him that the Ice Dreams were a manifestation of a twin bond, but it made sense. Of course, that meant that Mark had developed powers around six, which was confusing, especially as it had taken an influx of magic to awaken Miles’s abilities. Cordelia’s other comment would take some thought as to how to make things better for her.
But Cordelia had continued speaking, “However, I do want Bothari to go with you. It will ease my mind to know that you have someone to watch your back.”
Grimacing, Miles agreed, “At least Bothari has a quiet mind, although from the little I’ve gotten from everyone, I don’t want to know how he developed it. But I want you to tell him that when I tell him to leave, he is to leave.”
“Do you think you will need to tell him to leave,” Cordelia asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I do. I’m pretty certain that the last part of the journey must be made alone. And I also know Bothari well enough that if you don’t tell him to leave, he won’t.”
Cordelia sighed, and said, “Very well. I’ll order him to leave you when you tell him to. But,” she said, sternly, “You won’t be journeying alone. Both you and Mark will have my love, and that of your father.” She bent down to kiss him on the forehead, and said, “Remember that, Miles.”
While ordinarily Miles would have squirmed at the sentiment, he knew that he had just been given an important gift. How it would be important he would need to wait and see, so for now he would put it aside and finish his equipment examinations. So he simply said, “Thank you, m’lady mother. I will remember.”
It had taken three years to get Barrayar in good enough shape that Miles could leave without having to worry that it wouldn’t be there when he got back. A good portion of the intervening time had been quelling sectarian influences in the Council of Counts. While the metaphorical cats of the Emperor and his supporters with the largest moral club to beat their fellow Council members over the head with, had been away, the rats of the Council had flourished. While it had been less than half of the Council, that had been enough to keep the loyal members busy with trying to stem the tide of disintegration, especially with the Cetagandans on the Komarr-Sergyar border. So they had returned to a mess that surpassed royal and imperial, going straight to god-like.
Of course, Miles received the brunt of hostility for looking like a spirit. And when the mindreading was included, it was best to say that things had been difficult. But, on the positive side, no one had attempted to assassinate Gregor since they had gotten back, admittedly mostly because the only real options for Emperor were Miles, either outright or as Aral’s heir, or Ivan, who had been playing alternately utterly gormless and extremely willful, in addition to his recently acquired deformity.
Cordelia had made some very snide comments about Barrayaran prejudices, but they had made those prejudices work for them extremely well.
Must remember to tell Mark about those, Miles thought. Although, come to think of it, Ser Galen would probably have done his best to present the worst side of Barrayaran society. Well, unless leaving it unmentioned would help whatever his plans were. Miles shook his head; he’d have plenty of time to consider those ramifications of his actions later. For now he had to focus on finding Mark in the first place.
Chapter 3: The Tale of the Hermit
Riding through Sergyar was pleasant. While they hadn’t encountered anyone who had heard where Galen was making his current home, Miles felt they were getting somewhere. The activity was decreasing the frequency of the Ice Dream, which was the best indication that they were headed in the right direction he had.
The landscape transitioned from wild to semi-cultivated. Someone had taken the time to clear the area, and there was a tangle of wildflowers growing by a cottage. Miles and Bothari halted their horses. Looking at the cottage, Miles asked Nosey, “What do you see?”
Standing up in the leather cup attached to Miles’s saddle, Nosey slowly arched her back, then stretched forward, yawning. Finally, she leaped up to Miles’s shoulder, and gazed at the cottage. She sniffed, then sneezed, twice. Miles said, “Thank you for getting up there just for that purpose. Now what do you see?”
Nosey said, ‘There is darkness, but it isn’t native to this place. The flowers are sorrowful, they have memories lost by the one who looks to the past to understand the future. He has a way to directly see the future, but is prevented from seeing it by the ill light. What the ill light knows, he knows but loses, and what he knows, the ill light knows.’
Miles weighed his options. He knew that whoever the hermit was, he was connected to Ser Galen, who was probably the being Nosey called the ill light. Intimately connected, from what Nosey was saying. The question was whether the information this man might provide outweighed the almost certainty that Ser Galen would find out about Miles looking for him. Unless…
“Nosey,” he asked, “Can you block the connection to the light, without it knowing you’ve done so?”
Bothari gave him a look communicating his dislike of what he was certain Miles was planning. He didn’t even have to say anything. Miles ignored him, concentrating on Nosey. She gave first Bothari, then Miles, an offended look, saying, ‘Of course. Kitten’s play.’
“Then, if you would, of your courtesy, do so,” Miles said, going into formal mode. After you unintentionally insulted a fae cat, it was best to use high formality. Intentional insults were part of the game.
‘I can’t do it from here. I need to be closer.’
“Lord Vorkosigan, I would prefer you didn’t get close to someone who is probably connected to Ser Galen while that connection is intact,” Bothari growled.
Miles bit back his first response, because it would have been extremely unfair to say to a person who only wanted the best for him, and was supposed to be pointing out potential errors in judgment. He sighed, and said, “Then you will accompany Nosey to the door, because I have no idea what the effect of blocking this connection will be,” he checked with the cat, and added, “Neither does she. She just knows that it can be done. Is that acceptable to both of you?”
Nosey and Bothari gave each other the same wary, semi-hostile looks. He had no idea why they disliked each other, but neither of them would explain and as long as they didn’t try anything overt, Miles was forced to be satisfied with the answer of ‘Personal and past difficulties, nothing to do with you.’ Although how a three year old fae cat could have past difficulties with someone who she had met six weeks after her birth and whose interactions had been monitored was beyond Miles.
He just wished that he could shake the nagging feeling he should be pursuing the source of this problem more vigorously. Realizing that neither had given him an answer, he simply asked, “Well?”
Exchanging a second glance, they both nodded their assent. Nosey jumped down from Miles’s shoulders and deliberately walked by Bothari with an insulting tail-twitch. Bothari didn’t physically roll his eyes, but gave a damn good impression of doing so and followed her. Miles remained on his horse, Spirit-Song, and waited.
Bothari pounded on the door. It didn’t open immediately, but when his hand rose to…knock implied far too much politeness, but…to demand entrance again, the door swung open and a striking dark haired man said, “What do you want? I appreciate company, but…”
Miles could tell when Nosey did whatever she had planned on doing, because the hermit froze. Slowly, he crumpled to the floor, or would have if Bothari hadn’t caught him. Miles was happy Bothari had even considered doing that, social niceties were not the armsman’s forte. He slid off of Spirit-Song carefully, and approached.
“Why did he collapse?” Miles asked Nosey as he arrived at the doorway.
She glanced up at him before switching her gaze back to the unconscious man. She told him ‘Disarming the defensive measures without letting the ill light know its work was being tampered with produced some shock to his mind. He will come around soon.’
Nodding his acceptance of the information and thanks to Nosey, Miles poked his nose around the door frame to look around the one-roomed cottage. The room was tidy, everything obviously in its place. A pot of soup was simmering over the fire. The only furniture in the place was a pair of chairs, a table, and the hermit’s bed. Miles said, “Bothari, please put him on the bed.”
As Bothari obeyed him, Miles looked at the main feature of the room. Its bookshelves. The cottage was practically lined with book shelves, and they were all filled with books, too. A rich hermit, apparently, because Miles could recognize some Betharan printed-books, mixed with Barrayaran hand-illuminated manuscripts, Komarran ledgers and, peeking out, a few Komarran spell books as well, Cetagandan silk scrolls that must have cost a fortune, and books from places he didn’t recognize the writing or binding style well enough to identify.
After Bothari had placed the man on his bed, Miles said, “Please go take care of the horses. If he gets violent, I’ll call you, but your presence…would probably be inhibiting.”
Bothari looked like he wanted to protest, but obviously decided from the look on Miles’s face that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. As the armsman left, Miles pulled one of the chairs to the bed and watched Nosey situate herself on the mattress between himself and the hermit (and begin her look around the cottage) as he waited.
* * *
Slowly opening his eyes, Duv woke to the presence of his own ceiling. Something felt different in a painfully good way. It felt like the lancing of a boil, or opening a septic wound to drain the fluids from it, only in his mind rather than his body.
“You’re awake. Good,” a voice he didn’t recognize said. He looked over with his Sight to see an incandescent personality sitting in one of his chairs. He blinked, releasing the Sight. His ordinary vision showed him a small, black haired, grey eyed man, with the same passion in his eyes that was indicated by his Sight.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Yes, I am. May I ask who you are, and what you did to me?” Even if what had occurred felt good, that wasn’t necessarily a symptom of benignity. While the man had appeared mostly human to his Sight, that didn’t necessarily preclude his being inimical. Duv knew that well enough.
“I am Miles,” the grey eyed man replied. “As for what happened, Nosey blocked a connection to what she described as a darkness so I could talk to you without worrying about showing my hand too much.”
At the comment about Nosey, he finally registered the presence of the cat. He met her gaze, and she mrrted at him. She was on the small side for a fae cat, but the luster of her coat and the intelligence in her eyes marked her as a fae cat indeed. She must be the man’s familiar. He frowned. He had heard of a Barrayaran with a fae cat familiar, been told he had Seen one…
Miles. This man had to be Miles Vorkosigan, who he had heard about even here whenever a villager decided to visit him. When the Vorkosigans had disappeared along with Emperor Gregor and several others, the shockwaves had rippled throughout the Empire, even to this tiny corner of Sergyar. When they had reappeared six years later, with a deformed Lord Ivan and a spirit-like Lord Vorkosigan, there had been equally strong shockwaves. He actually knew approximately three-quarters of his visions from those seven years, because the villagers had been haunting his house, hoping for any news.
“And what brings Lord Vorkosigan to the house of Duv Galeni, who once was David Galen,” he asked, slowly as he sat up.
“My brother,” was Vorkosigan’s simple reply. “Nosey told me you would have news of him.” Duv waited for some remark about his father, but there was none.
“I don’t know-,” Duv said, before stopping. He whispered, “Niktos...”
“My brother is not ‘No One’,” Lord Vorkosigan said, huffily. “His name is Mark.”
Shaking his head, Duv said, “Sorry, I just can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. My…father,” he could never say the title without choking on it these days, “Left for several months when I was eight. When he returned, he had an infant he never explained the origins of, and called Niktos. I didn’t see much of the boy, and I always assumed that he had simply purchased him from some family with too many children as a replacement for the servants that left.” Not that Ser Galen had noticed the servants leaving until the cook left and there was no food prepared for three days.
As he spoke, he noticed a faint pressure in his mind. Watching Lord Vorkosigan watching him, he realized that the man was using his spirit powers to see if he was speaking the truth. When he was about to protest, the pressure lifted. “Sorry for intruding,” he said, “I wasn’t actually reading your thoughts.” He paused, “Although you’re the first human I’ve encountered who’s been able to feel me touching their mind unless I’ve spoken. Probably because you’re a Seer.”
“Some Seer,” Duv muttered.
The fae cat swiped at his arm, fortunately with her claws sheathed, and stared him in the eyes. To his surprise, she spoke, ‘Foolish human. Your powers and mind have been bound to the ill light since they awoke. You may discover what he knows by having others tell you, but the ill light covered your mind in such a manner that others telling you was the only way you could know what you knew.’
Duv looked at Vorkosigan, who stared back in a manner suspiciously similar to the cat’s. He asked, “Are you going to lecture me, too?”
“No, I suspect Nosey told you off enough.” Before Duv could say anything more, Vorkosigan said, “I’d better call Bothari in, or he’ll come bursting through the door. From what Nosey’s said, and you’ve indicated, you don’t remember anything indicating a direction, but my intuition says that you’re supposed to point me in the correct direction. So, we’ll be staying for a while. Let me know if you need help with something.”
Joy, thought Duv, I’ve got a Vor lord and his hulking bodyguard and familiar staying around. I hope I find what he’s looking for soon. I do enjoy company, but this is a bit much.
Curious Animated Troublemaker knew neither of them were aware of how badly Wrong Dark Mountain’s presence was affecting their tempers. She knew Burns Brightly’s mother, Leaps Before Looking, wasn’t aware of the effect Wrong Mountain had on her son, for all that she knew more of Wrong Mountain’s past than Burns Brightly did.
She had been quite happy when Burns Brightly had finally asked his prior-litter brother, Passionate Silent Horizon for permission to leave. His littermate, who from the reflections she could perceive from Burns Brightly was Brittle Night Wind, was disintegrating. And while she could feel, and share, Burns Brightly’s eagerness to find his brother, she also shared in his joy in discovering new lands. With her, it was greater, because Brittle Night Wind wasn’t her brother, and so her concern was naturally less than Burns Brightly’s.
Mountain Stream was taking down a book, no, one of the scrolls of her homeland, to read. Curious Animated Troublemaker could feel her pupils dilate and ears and whiskers prick. She was fascinated by books, and Burns Brightly never had enough time to indulge her as much as she wanted. He sat down and she trotted over to jump up and sit down in front of him.
“Gah!” he said. She jumped and glared at him. That had been highly rude. He said, while spitting, “Interfering cat! Not only is your master underfoot all the time, so are you! And you just gave me a mouth full of fur!”
Her ears went back. She informed him, in a growl, ‘Burns Brightly is not my master. I am his companion, an equal. He is my furless littermate. And as for being underfoot, would you prefer to have the sick light that is your father in your head again?’
She watched Mountain Stream consider that. Sometimes, she wondered what human minds translated her terms into, if they translated her essence names into the symbols she heard them use during verbal conversation. From what Burns Brightly had discussed with her, and from overheard conversations, she suspected they did. Burns Brightly was the only one who used anything approaching an essence name when talking about her, combining her essence name with a human symbol. All the other humans she knew used a symbol, ‘Mila’, which told her nothing of what they thought she was.
To her surprise, Mountain Stream didn’t growl back. Instead, he got a curious feeling around him, and studied her carefully. He said, “My apologies for offending you, although I’m still not happy about getting fur in my mouth. I’ve never encountered a familiar before. I thought you were somehow unusual, in that you are a fae creature.”
Flicking her tail, Curious Animated Troublemaker explained to him, ‘Familiars are all creatures of the parallel worlds. We choose our companions when we encounter a being with the correct resonance. I knew Burns Bright and Fiercely’s presence from the moment I left my mother’s womb, he was the first being I saw when my eyes opened, and I knew from that moment that he was my furless littermate.’ The comment about fur in his mouth was beneath her dignity to respond to.
“Really? You knew that early?” Mountain Stream was fascinated. She felt him relax, and the pent-up stream of sight released.
She called out for Burns Brightly, but he was through the door before she even started her cry. Mountain Stream’s eyes flicked to him, and he said, “Deep corruption eats at the nature of the Nameless One. The cry of the bird of warning leads the way, but darkness bars it three times before he may be called back by love and true acceptance.”
She and Burns Brightly felt Mountain Stream resettle in his self. He shook his head, and looked at Burns Brightly, saying, “I suppose now you’ve gotten what you needed, you’ll finally get out of my hair?”
With an odd look, Burns Brightly turned to her, ‘Curious Animated Troublemaker, would you mind staying with him? I don’t want to leave him alone, for multiple reasons.'
She considered that. While she wanted desperately to travel with Burns Brightly, she suspected she could do more good for him if she stayed with Mountain Stream. The reasons didn’t need to be enumerated, she knew them well enough. Besides, without her presence, the ill light would have access to Mountain Stream, and that was a danger to everyone. Finally, she told Burns Brightly, ‘I will stay with him.'
Mountain Stream broke in, and said, “You aren’t going to leave me in peace, are you.” It was a statement rather than a question.
Burns Brightly said, “Bothari and I will be leaving. I’ve asked Nosey to stay with you to keep blocking your father. It’s as much for your benefit as mine, and I’m not going to change my mind about this, so, I’ll leave you to get acquainted.”
As he left, Mountain Stream gave her a look that was frustrated, fascinated, and faintly hopeful. She didn’t truly want to stay, but she would, for the sake of Burns Brightly. She would get reading time from this, but she would lose her chance to see more places directly. Well, perhaps someone from the village would come by soon.
Chapter 4: The Tale of the Physician, the Tainted One, and the Princess
Several weeks later, Miles was not nearly as confident in Galeni’s prophecy as he had been on setting out from the cottage. He and Bothari were currently riding through the tiny kingdom of Khliin, barely a three day ride across, near Escobar. He had been talking to every bird he encountered, hoping one of them was this elusive ‘bird of warning’, but they all had nothing to say to him.
According to the directions they had received from a passing merchant, the crossroads leading to the capital city should be reasonably near. Bothari was indicating impatience with the course set, and Miles was beginning to agree with him.
They reached the crossroads, and Bothari reined in. He looked at Miles, and said, “M’lord.”
He didn’t need to say anything else. Miles said, “Yes, yes. We’ll go a little further, but it’s about time to change course, I agree.”
Before they went any further, a harsh voice cried out, ‘Love, you are as beautiful as the sight, of a dead horse, that has just fallen by the side of the road. You are as delicious as that horse’s, wonderful meat. Your wings are as shiny as oil spilled in water. Your eyes are…eyes are…’ Miles looked up to see what had to be a fae raven singing on the sign post. The raven looked down at him, and asked, ‘Do you know anything that describes a lovely young raven lady’s eyes?’
Miles blinked. Looking first at the raven, then at Bothari, then back at the raven, he finally managed, “I’m afraid, sir raven, that in this case, human and raven, ah, preferences in romance, may be too different. Most lovely young human ladies decidedly do not like to be compared to horse corpses, or pools of oil in water.” He wasn’t looking at Bothari, whose thoughts were along the lines of how easy his romantic life would have been if he were a raven. Deciding that he might as well continue, since he had acknowledged the raven in the first place, “Before offering your lady a song, you might, ah, make an effort to discover her interests. She might dislike horse meat, for instance.”
The raven contemplated this. Finally, he said, ‘You may be correct about the horse meat. She prefers tidbits of roe buck. Fresh. High tastes, but she is a castle raven. Horse is such a common meat.’
Deciding that, for once, discretion was the better part of valor, Miles managed not to ask the raven how he preferred his horse. Instead, he told the raven, “Then don’t compare her to a horse, especially if she’s a lady. Comparing her to something common implies that you think she’s common.” It was about then, he realized that the raven, or at least ravens in general, was the bird of warning Duv had mentioned. And not just for the traditional associations either, but also for the fact that the first minds he touched were those of a flock of ravens warning of danger.
Trying to determine a way to lead the raven around to what he needed to know, he finally came to the conclusion that the best way would be to directly ask. He did so, “Have you, or anyone you know, seen a yellow haired man with taint surrounding him who looked like this?” He sent an image of Ser Galen that he had gotten from Duv. He continued with another question, “Accompanied by a dark haired man?” It would be easier to look for someone matching the description of Ser Galen that he had gotten from Duv than assume he had any idea of what Mark looked like, beyond dark haired.
The raven considered, and finally said, ‘I’m not certain how much he matches the appearance of the man you are looking for, but there is a yellow haired tainted one at Court. I have seen him when I visit my lady. His companion is a dark haired man. Actually, he’s supposedly the Princess’s doctor’s guard. The doctor is the dark haired man.’
Quickly coming to a decision, Miles said, “You can tell me about the doctor and his maybe-guard on the way. We were going to the palace ourselves.”
The raven said, ‘I can only tell you what my lady has told me, being a wild raven, I have nothing to do with Court. But from what she’s said, Khliin’s flock leader, the Princess, has a disinclination to take a permanent mate. My lady said it has to do with the nest access bargains you humans are so fond of, as well as religious differences. Apparently, the humans have a good enough ability to defend the home nest, despite the Court colony’s small size, and their water landing facilities are quite good. Due to the difficulty simply throwing the current inhabitants out, princes from the neighboring kingdom-nests all flock to court her. But Princess Eleanor disliked all of them. Not that I blame her, exactly. Unpleasant lot, even for human males, from what I could see when I visited my lady.
Anyway, Princess Eleanor announced that to court her, a prince would have to display three characteristics: strength, intelligence, and cunning. And no prince displayed all three. There were many strong princes and a fair number of intelligent and cunning ones, but none won all three tests. Then, the dark haired physician came to the court, from the Isle of Athos. The tainted yellow haired man came with him. The physician, my lady said, was nervous, but had come to Khliin to negotiate for breeding rights for his people. And l saw myself, three days later, tainted yellow hair’s talk with the princess, later she would say he displayed all three characteristics.
So, the physician and yellow hair negotiated breeding rights, with tainted yellow hair being the father of the future princess. My lady’s fellow ravens are uncomfortable, but no one asked us for our opinion. A grave oversight, I’m sure.’
“Of course,” Miles said, dryly, thinking about the probable reaction if someone without an established knowledge of what animals, magical or otherwise, said telling a ruler that there was something off about her chosen…mate probably was the most accurate term, even if it wasn’t one that generally came to mind when discussing human relationships. Although if the royal residence had fae ravens, he would have thought they’d have someone who could speak with them. Even ordinary ravens had quite a lot to say.
Shaking his head, he decided to, in the words of Gregor, wait and see what happened. There was no use in coming up with infinite contingency plans when he didn’t know what the actual situation was.
He had been most surprised to discover that Athos’s long standing treaty with Khliin had been made with a female ruler, even if the Council was mostly male. And to his equal surprise, the Athosians had been treated with more respect by this Princess than by her male Council. But they had finished their business, and he and Terrance were the only ones who remained in what he had to keep reminding himself was a den of iniquity.
“Lost again, Master Urquhart?” He jumped, and turned to see a maid, who he thought he recognized from two times ago looking at him with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. Even if they were sinks of sin, the maids had been surprisingly sympathetic to his difficulties.
Smiling nervously, Ethan stammered out, “Y-yes…madam. Er, well…I need to-to find the throne room.”
Giving a quiet smile back, the maid said, “Court is being held in the Royal Gardens today, Master Urquhart.” She then proceeded to give him directions. Hopefully, he thought, he wouldn’t get lost again trying to get there. Focusing on the directions, he made several turns and walked into someone going the other way.
“Sorry,” he said, then discovered that he was talking over the head of the person he had run into, and after that became aware of a distinctly menacing presence behind him.
“Bothari,” the short, grey-eyed man sighed, apparently addressing the menace behind Ethan “He just ran into me. Besides, you can tell by the way he moves he’s no warrior or assassin.”
“Could be a trick,” rumbled what to Ethan’s startled eyes was a giant as he came out from behind him. Grey eyes gave him a cynical look, and the giant said, “It is unlikely, though, m’lord.”
With a nod of satisfaction, grey eyes turned his gaze on Ethan, who felt paralyzed by the intensity. To his surprise, the short man offered a hand in an apparently friendly gesture, and said, “Miles Vorkosigan.” The giant, who Ethan’s mind finally registered as having been called Bothari, gave a warning rumble. Miles rolled his eyes, and said, “I already gave my name to the guards to get in here, Bothari. Your paranoia is useful at times, but completely unnecessary at this juncture. Besides, I’m going to be introduced to the princess. It’s not as though he won’t be hearing my name anyway.” Turning back to Ethan and offering his hand, he asked, “Now that I’ve gotten through Bothari’s paranoia, what’s your name?”
Dazedly, Ethan took the hand gingerly, and found it being shaken. He said, “Ethan. Ethan Urquhart. I’m a-a physician. From Athos. The Isle of Athos.”
At that, the intensity of both Vorkosigan and Bothari’s gazes increased. Vorkosigan said, in a voice that masked the power and fury of a forest fire that had somehow been focused, if not harnessed, “Do you have a blond bodyguard, physician Ethan Urquhart from the Isle of Athos?”
Almost paralyzed by the intensity of Vorkosigan’s gaze, Ethan still somehow managed to get out, “Bodyguard? No, no, I have-no bodyguard. If-If you mean- T-Terrance, he-he’s my bonded. Do-do you wish to s-see him?” He wished he hadn’t told the man about Terrance as soon as it slipped out, but he couldn’t take back the words.
Exchanging a quick set of complicated glances first, Bothari nodded once, and Vorkosigan said, fires banked but ready to flare up at any moment, “It would be very welcome to do so.”
Stammering as he hand since Miles had encountered him, Ethan said, “I-I was go-oing to the-the Throne Room. A-as ambassador for Athos, I-I’m supposed to attend Court functions.” Miles could read the distaste and discomfort at that requirement from Urquhart’s face even without reading the man’s mind. Although the discomfort and distaste and fear from that quarter were strong enough that Miles was having a hard time thinking over it.
Trying to project calming thoughts, and indicating to Bothari with his eyebrows to cut down on the menacing aura, Miles said, “When we came in, we were told that Court was being held in the Royal Gardens today, and were headed that way ourselves to be presented.”
Urquhart said, “Th-they’re th-this way.” He began to jerkily walk down the corridor Miles and Bothari had been turning down. Miles wondered how someone this timid ever became an ambassador, usually ambassadors were men who couldn’t be intimidated by anything short of a small army or a number of assassins. He did have the diplomacy to stay quiet, though. He thought Urquhart was intimidated enough.
They managed to reach the Royal Gardens without Urquhart fainting or jumping out of his skin. The guards didn’t seem to find anything unusual in his comportment, either, which Miles had been concerned about. Waving Urquhart through, they then stopped Miles and Bothari. The one on the left asked “Who are you?” in a brisk tone. Miles nodded to himself. These weren’t just idiot ceremonial guards, these fellows had some brains, even if they were too blasé about letting through a nervous man.
He stood and said, “Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. The men at the gate said they would send word, as I’m supposed to be introducing myself to the Princess as a foreign noble. The fact that your men know how to navigate the maze you call a Royal Residence means you should have heard we were coming.”
The guard nodded, “We’ve been expecting you. Your guard will have to stay here, and any swords you have will have to be peacebound.” Sensible precautions, although they didn’t mention either daggers or knives for whatever reason. That was rather silly of them.
Bothari didn’t look happy, but Miles said, “I know you don’t like it, but you have to do the same back home, and you understand the reasons very well.”
As Miles no longer carried the two swords, or indeed, any sword, he had nothing to be peacebound. It had never seemed worth the effort to go about retraining in the two swords when he would never achieve the reach to make them effective or the sturdiness to withstand a fight with them. A thrown knife was a much more effective weapon for him, and anyway, he had the armsmen to use swords for him if necessary. The guards let him in.
The first thing he saw on entering the garden was an absolutely gorgeous woman. At any other time, he might have been interested, but the crown on her head indicated that she was the princess, and as he wasn’t certain that this Terrance wasn’t Ser Galen, he didn’t want to get caught up with someone willing to make arrangements with a tainted person. He began assessing the numbers, trying to see if he could feel the nasty shields Ser Galen had been using the one time they had been in the same room.
He didn’t feel anyone directly to his left, which was why it came as such a surprise when someone grabbed him from the left and pushed him up against the wall, pressing their arm against his throat. Miles looked to the side, and nearly cried with disappointment. There was the blond man who must be Terrance, and he certainly wasn’t Ser Galen. This whole side trip had been a waste of time. He frowned, the man looked familiar, but he couldn’t exactly place him. He looked to be of decidedly mixed origins, though. And then he noticed the ravens taking an interest. He indicated they shouldn’t interfere. Then he started wondering why the courtiers weren’t interfering, and reached out.
They all seemed to be frozen. In fact, he and Terrance appeared to be the only people capable of movement in the garden, except for the ravens. “What are you doing? A time stop? And how long can you manage it?” He asked, curious now.
Terrance blinked, then frowned. Apparently this wasn’t going according to plan. He said, “Stop trying to put me off, Cetagandan spy. I’m not going back to Cetaganda, no matter what ghem-lord Benin says on behalf of the Star Crèche.”
“I’m not a Cetagandan spy,” Miles spluttered out. Who on earth would think-
“Don’t play coy with me. You’re Little Cat, Benin’s Star Crèche appointed servitor. I certainly saw you about whenever he brought you back to be checked up. Although you’re finally talking I see.”
Miles cursed his noticeable form. Terrance appeared to be under some sudden strain, and Miles finally put things together, “You’re Ther-en-tse.” Terrance’s arm increased pressure on Miles’s throat, and the ravens swooped at him as Miles instinctively reached out. That attack disrupted the time stop, and everything suddenly became very confused.
The Barrayaran had entered, and she had wondered how a spirit-blooded had been made Barrayaran Vor, when everything had blinked, and the next thing everyone knew, Terrance was holding the Barrayaran against the wall and being attacked by ravens. She had called her bodyguards, women formally consecrated into the order she was a lay dedicate of, the Order of Yshera, and they had separated the two. To everyone’s surprise, Vorkosigan had, as soon as Terrance was pulled off of him, said, “You never did answer, how did you manage that time stop. And while you’re at it, why can’t I feel you?”
Terrance had hardly resisted them pulling them off the Barrayaran. He still seemed mistrustful, but whatever had happened in the time blink seemed to have confused him. Before Elli could order them arrested, Terrance said, “You aren’t trying to take me back to Cetaganda, are you?”
“No,” Vorkosigan answered. “I would be a particularly bad choice to do so, as I am both quite noticeable and rather fragile. I won’t deny that I was in Cetaganda, and was called Little Cat, and am still on friendly terms with Lord Dag Benin re-Thir, but my attitude towards the rest of Cetagandan society ranges from indifferent to hostile.”
“I acknowledge you’d be a poor choice as a retrieval agent, but you scared Ethan so badly, and when I recognized you, I made some poor assumptions,” Terrance replied, giving the answer to why he had attacked.
“I made my own poor assumptions, based on flawed information that I’m certain you don’t want spread around.” He turned to Elli, and bowed graciously, “If you would, Princess, give us access to a private area to discuss matters.” Turning to Ethan, he inclined his head, “And Physician Urquhart, I apologize for terrifying you. I took full advantage of how much Bothari and I did so.”
Elli noted that he didn’t say that he wouldn’t do something like that again. Whatever Vorkosigan was after, it was something that meant a great deal to him. As much as the son she knew she was having meant to Ethan and staying out of Cetagandan hands meant to Terrance.
As much as getting her Council to finally listen to her would mean to Elli. Yshera knew, Elli was about ready to rip their throats out in frustration. Vorkosigan’s eyes flicked to her. She wondered what had brought her to his attention. She had noticed he seemed interested when he entered the garden, but as soon as he recognized her, his interest had dampened.
Weighing matters on balance, Elli decided to permit a private conference, although the only guards present would be hers, and they would be watching both Terrance and Vorkosigan. She said, “Very well. I will permit you to speak privately, as long as my guards and I are permitted to be in the room.” She didn’t want to discover that they had murdered each other if she let them alone.
Terrance acquiesced immediately, Vorkosigan more slowly. She indicated they should precede her. Unlike members of her Council and Court, they did so. They at least didn’t underestimate her.
Once everyone was settled in her solar, actually remodeled for weapon’s practice, she said, “Now explain. I know Terrance is from Cetaganda, and he’s escaped them. What do you,” to Vorkosigan, “Have to do with things?”
Vorkosigan said, “Well, my part in the business began when I and my entire family were cursed by the sorcerer Ser Adrian Galen…”
The story was fanciful, fascinating, and yet Elli could tell that Terrance, at least, certainly thought it made sense and was factual. And it did have the benefit of explaining how a Barrayaran Lord could look like a spirit, and still retain his Lordship. But still, there was the matter of the brother, “You’ve been spending all this time searching for a brother you’ve never met, and who has probably spent his entire life being raised to hate you?” she asked.
Shrugging, Vorkosigan said, “Yes. I don’t expect you to necessarily understand it, but finding Mark is something I need to do. Something I’m being driven to do. Or driving myself to.” He turned to Terrance, and said, “That’s why I came here. A fae raven told me that there was a tainted blond man who accompanied a dark haired man. I needed to discover whether the tainted blond man was Galen.”
“And now that you have discovered that I am not?” Terrance asked, warily. Elli pressed one hand to her belly, where the children were gestating at the mention of taint. She knew what Terrance’s heritage was, but Vorkosigan’s answer could change everything.
“Now that I know you aren’t, I look somewhere else. Although I do want to know the source of the taint in you.”
Terrance considered that, and eventually said, “As you have doubtless concluded, I am a product of the Star Crèche. From what I was told, I was bred with demon’s blood. While I carry no demonic consciousness, which takes the implanting of a demon’s essence into a human vessel, if a demon has sexual relations with a human, they leave something of their powers behind. I believe that is where my demon blood comes from.”
“And your ability to stop time is from that heritage. Well, manipulate time at least,” Vorkosigan said. “And possibly your mental invisibility.”
“Yes,” Terrance said. “So, what do you intend to do?”
“Well, currently I’m planning on going and finding my armsman and getting a room, here if the Princess agrees, in the town if necessary. Then I’m going to leave, as this appears to have been a complete dead end. Unless anyone happens to know where to find a dark sorcerer who’s fleeing from both Barrayaran and Cetagandan authorities?”
“I meant with the information,” Terrance growled.
“Nothing. Now I know what you are, and why you can do what you’ve done, I don’t need anything more.” Vorkosigan ignored the stunned silence at this comment. This was not the response anyone was expecting, especially knowing the likely response of the Council and Court if it got out that Terrance had demonic taint. And they had expected a Barrayaran to be worse about matters. “Now, about the room?”
Elli considered, and finally said, “You can have that room. As for dark sorcerers, there was a report of one fleeing through Escobar towards the First Lands a while back.”
Vorkosigan looked relieved, he said, “Thank you, m’lady.”
After she gave him instructions on how to find the room, he got up and left. Elli noticed that despite his size, he had no difficulty getting the guards to recognize his authority. She decided that in the time that remained of his stay, she would observe his actions. Maybe she could learn something useful about managing men.
Chapter 5: The Tale of the Robber Girl and the First Lander
Warning, this chapter has discussion and threat of rape and other nastiness.
While Miles enjoyed the Escobaran countryside immensely, Bothari got gloomier the further they went. Eventually, it got to the point where Miles felt like he was trailing a thundercloud. Bothari’s natural darkness was getting deeper.
The countryside might have been pleasant, but the Escobarans’ responses to the Barrayarans was less so. Bothari refused to say a word in front of the people they met, and after Miles’s Barrayaran accent got them extremely cold reception, and vastly overcharged on supplies, Miles switched to imitating his mother’s Betharan one. The Barrayaran invasion was too recent. Even if Barrayar and Escobar were officially at peace, the memories ran deep and strong.
About three weeks into Escobar, and Miles was finally tired of his personal storm cloud. “You,” he announced to Bothari, on a stretch of road going through hilly pine forest, “Are going to explain what is making you so depressed, because quite frankly, by now I can’t even hear Spirit-Song, much less anything else around.” He paused, then said, “You were a part of the army during the invasion, weren’t you?”
Bothari stiffened, but said, “Yes, m’lord. But I met your lady mother, and she saved me. I am her dog, and she gives me scraps of her grace. More than I deserve, but her kindness is infinite.”
Miles, who had heard some of the things his Ma had done and said, took the last statement with a grain of salt. Although perhaps they were infinite where Bothari was concerned. He had never found out what exactly had gotten Bothari cursed to obey his mother. But whatever it was, it was related to what had occurred in Escobar, he somehow knew. Or could feel.
Finally, he asked, “Bothari, how did you meet my mother, exactly?”
While all Bothari said was, “M’lady has asked that I not tell,” his natural shields flickered briefly. Miles caught a glimpse of a tent, a Vor lord dead at his feet, his mother…he shook his head. That couldn’t possibly be right. But…
In his distraction, the first indication that something was wrong came when Bothari reined Lady-Light in. Spirit-Song danced ahead a little more before coming to a stop. Trying not to hear anything, Miles turned back to ask Bothari what was the matter. He had just turned his head when an arrow seemingly appeared in Bothari’s chest. Even with what he had just learned, his first reaction was to jump off the horse and rush to the armsman’s side. To his surprise, Bothari was smiling faintly. He said, “Blood washes away all sins, young Lord. Your lady mother said so.” Miles tried frantically to staunch the blood that was flowing too freely. The arrow hadn’t hit the heart, but the blood was flowing far too fast. Bothari shook his head, “Don’t be touching me, Lord. It will hurt you more than this does me.” Then his eyes met someone over Miles’s head, and the armsman whispered, “You are beautiful, my Lady daughter…” and died.
As Bothari’s soul fled to wherever it was headed, even with what Miles was experiencing he wasn’t going to guess where that was, his memories flooded Miles. He barely had enough time to command Spirit-Song and Lady-Light to go home before he saw everything and faintly registered the two pack horses following instinctively. He saw Bothari’s madness, and what had driven it to greater depths throughout his life, the surprising base for sanity the curse had given him, how Cordelia had added to the sanity, the great depth of loyalty and worshipfulness, untainted by any of Bothari’s many darker emotions, with which Bothari had regarded Cordelia and Miles himself.
A rough hand seized Miles’s shoulder, and Miles vomited at the sensations that flooded his already vulnerable and full mind. This one, a corner that was still Miles thought, had no excuse for depravity. He just enjoyed his actions, and considered it a pity that his chief didn’t allow him access to women as well as men.
“Well,” a woman’s voice said. “I suppose you’ll have to do for spoils. At least you shouldn’t give the men too much trouble.” Her hand gripped Miles’s hair, and forced his head up. He looked into the face of an older woman. She had once been beautiful, but age and cruelty had taken their toll on her features. She frowned, “And you’re a Barrayaran Lord. Well and good, I will have taken two vengeances at once today.”
“How can you take vengeance, when I and mine have done nothing to harm you?” Miles asked, shakily. “Bothari became a member of the Vorkosigan household through your curse, and my forbearers had nothing to do with what happened to your daughter.”
He realized he shouldn’t have tried to use logic when she twisted his hair tighter, and brought her other hand up to backhand him sharply across the cheek. She whispered viciously, “I shall enjoy your screams, Vor lord, as they take their pleasure in you.”
Miles managed not to say that she sounded exactly like one of the two men she hated above all. He tried not to vomit again at the vicious glee the woman was shoving down his throat. He was surrounded by sane human evil: not demonic, or geshe-ki, or even inspired by inborn madness. Suddenly, another female voice pierced his thoughts, saying, “No, Grandmother, they will not. You said I could have a pet from this raid, and I want him as my pet.”
The woman who was now identified as Grandmother said, “’Lena, dear, wouldn’t you rather have one of the horses? You already have a Barrayaran pet, and I doubt a Vor lord would make a very good pet for you.”
‘Lena walked closer. She was guarded, but her relatively clean thoughts were a balm to Miles’s shattered and horribly exposed mind. There was no needless cruelty or filth in her. He could feel her begin prying her grandmother’s fingers out of his hair. She said, “The only horses that looked interesting were the ones that went galloping off first. And I somehow doubt that they are going to be collected. I already have a pack horse. I don’t have a Vor lord, and it’s completely up to me whether I choose to keep him or not.” She won Miles’s hair free of her grandmother’s grasp. Miles turned his head to look at ‘Lena.
She was a tall woman, probably a little older than Miles himself. Which made sense given the general timeline Miles had gotten from Bothari’s memories. She was beautiful and elegant, which she obviously had gotten from her mother, and her features were a blend of her parents’. But more importantly, he could see in her the potential to be a protector, and he had no problem taking advantage of that and nurturing it.
Hands that were surprisingly gentle searched Miles thoroughly, finding his knives and seal dagger. He didn’t struggle, there was no point and he needed to be seen as a good pet. ‘Lena gave him a look that said I’m onto you. He gave her an innocent one back. She snorted and looked dubious. This wasn’t going well at all.
The men who had been sent after the horses came back with the pack horses. The bandits began divvying up the goods, and destroying what they couldn’t use. Most of Miles’s supplies ended up destroyed. Miles tried not to wince, reminding himself that he was fine, and everything else was replaceable. Well…except for…
He shook his head. He couldn’t afford to think about that right now.
To his surprise, ‘Lena got up on Jenn, the pack horse that had carried his supplies, and then said to him, “You come up as well.” He had expected to be taken to the bandit camp in the same manner as he had entered Cetaganda, face down over the back of a pack horse. He didn’t need any more prompting and clambered up behind her. ‘Lena started Jenn walking.
Miles had never ridden pillion in all of his life that he could remember. It was yet another uncomfortable situation in a day full of them. He focused on getting his mind back together.
Pulling himself back together took so much of his concentration that Miles didn’t catch what ‘Lena said the first time. He only realized she had said something after the fact. He asked, “Pardon? I didn’t quite catch that.”
She gave him a look over her shoulder, and said, “You will have to listen better than that, my pet. I won’t do anything to you, but Grandmother and the men won’t appreciate being ignored. I asked what business brought you here.”
With a blink at ‘Lena even asking, Miles began his tale as he had for Princes Eleanor and Terrance, “It all began about nine years ago, when my family and I were cursed by a Komarran sorcerer named Adrian Galen…”
He got through the entire tale without interruption. ‘Lena didn’t say anything for a while. Just before they got to the caves that must house the bandits, she said, “If you displease me or grandmother badly enough that I need to get rid of you, I’ll kill you myself. I won’t turn you over to the men.” Before Miles could say anything, she continued, “Now, you’ll be in charge of my other pets. I’ll introduce you.”
Miles dismounted first. He knew it would be supremely ironic if he had managed not to get any bones broken earlier to break his legs sliding off the horse wrong. Fortunately, he managed to get down unharmed. ‘Lena dismounted far less carefully, and gripped Miles’s wrist, towing him along.
The cave she pulled him to was neat, but there was the smell of too many animals in too small a space. He could see the usual forest animals, a fae hawk, several dogs, a wild cat, and…another man. No, two men. The first man was tied securely and had a collar chaining him to the wall, just like the dogs. The second appeared to be a Barrayaran commoner, possibly with military training from the way he moved. There were a couple alcoves, one with a curtain pulled across it. He wondered what was in it.
‘Lena waved to the Barrayaran, and said, “That’s Baz. He fixes things around here. The other’s Ky. I thought he might appreciate being rescued, but he keeps insisting he’ll only serve someone who can best him at three games. And he cheats.” Miles noted that for later. He might be able to get Ky on his side if he could win the man’s loyalty.
Baz walked over, looking suspicious. He asked, “Who’s this?”
“I’m Miles,” Miles said. He knew his accent was putting Baz on edge, and that using his last name would just make him edgier. Although the accent was also putting some of Baz’s severe homesickness to rest at the same time.
“Just Miles?” Baz asked, again sounding suspicious.
“Yes, just Miles,” Miles answered back. He saw Baz was wearing a collar as well. He supposed it was a way to mark the men as ‘Lena’s.
‘Lena confirmed that supposition when she said, “He needs to be collared, Baz. And then the men said that the still’s broken down.”
“And I’d better get over there while they’re still sober enough to recognize I’m off limits, but after they’ve drunk enough that they’ll leave me alone long enough to fix the damned thing,” Baz said. He went to an alcove that held a beaten up chest of drawers and a pallet, pulling a collar out of a drawer. He advanced on Miles as if expecting Miles to try something. He seemed extremely surprised when Miles didn’t try to get away. “Wouldn’t think a Vor lord would tolerate this,” he muttered.
“I’ve learned to tolerate a lot. Especially when it keeps me alive and intact. Artillerist?” Miles asked, seeing from the other man’s surprised look that he was correct. “Deserter?” He asked again, hitting dead center, again. His final question of, “In the heat?” caused the former artillerist to pale, looking as though he was going to faint. Miles hurried to say, “I have no intention of taking you back even if I could, especially if you served in the Escobar conflict. Barrayar doesn’t need the ghosts of that mess dredged up again.”
As Baz left, seemingly only slightly reassured, ‘Lena said, “The food for the animals is around. I’m sure you can find it, it’s not as if there’s much space here for it to be. Just stay out of my sleeping area and… whatever else you do, don’t go into the curtained off alcove. If you do, I can’t guarantee your safety.”
‘Lena then left, and Miles weight his choices, eventually deciding that speaking to Ky could wait. The animals were hungry, and their hunger was distracting him. Curious about the fae hawk, he asked, ‘What’s your name and where are you from?’ as he went about searching for the food ‘Lena said was here.
* * *
Grandmother was most annoyed with her, ‘Lena could tell. Sometimes she wondered why Grandmother didn’t cast spells on her, to make her more of the person she apparently wanted ‘Lena to be. As she made her way back to the cave she shared with her pets and Mother, ‘Lena observed the men getting even more drunk. She hoped Baz had managed to get the still fixed. Even what he termed as ‘the weak horse-piss’ that was all that the still would put out would make the men happy. And if they were happy, Grandmother wouldn’t be demanding any of her pets to entertain them or for dinner. More than one of ‘Lena’s pets had gone that way.
She got back to the cave and gave an experimental sniff. It smelled…different. After a moment, she realized the smell of unwashed animal and unwashed cage was gone. She went and looked at the rabbit cages, they had been thoroughly cleaned out. Looking into all the other cages, she saw that they had been cleaned, too. Walking over to her alcove, she saw it was apparently untouched, but Baz was curled up on the pallet he shared with her as her favorite. She nudged him with one toe. He woke, and said, “Yes, Elena?”
She smiled. Baz was the only person who called her Elena, which she desperately wanted to be called. ‘Lena was the name you called a little girl. Elena was a woman. “Did you have time to clean the cages?”
“No, that was all Miles. He said something about there being happier thoughts if the animals weren’t living in filth. He found the spring chamber immediately, according to Ky. I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed some of your soap, but he had a bucket of water ready for me to rinse off with, and I lent him your soap for Ky and himself.”
“No, I don’t enjoy living with the smell of unwashed cages and unwashed men. I would have been doing some of this myself, but…”
“Yes, your grandmother keeps you with her whenever she goes out,” Baz said. He had given up on trying to persuade Elena to leave Grandmother.
“Where is Miles, anyway?” Elena asked. She could see Ky in his space, but Miles was nowhere visible.
“He’s sleeping with the dogs. Mentioned something about soothing his nerves with the thoughts of ordinary animals.”
Elena frowned but glanced up. Yes, now that she knew what to look for, she could see Miles’s small form curled up underneath a pair of dogs. She said, “I don’t quite understand. He mentioned some sort of spirit powers when he was talking about why he came here, but he was rather vague on the exact manifestation. He also mentioned being a servant to a high ranking Cetagandan when his family was cursed, although I’m not certain how much of his story was true, it was quite fanciful.”
Baz frowned, “If he was a servant, then that explains some of his reactions. He certainly acted as though he were putting on a persona he hadn’t used in a while. I certainly don’t doubt he’s a Vor lord, though. He’s got the proper reactions.” He paused, and said, “And one of the men stopped by while you were out.”
Almost growling, Elena said, “What was he looking for?”
“Apparently, he was making sure that Miles hadn’t slipped off. He certainly terrorized him enough. Afterwards was the only time Miles stopped working until he lay down to sleep, he was quite off balance for the only time I could tell. Seemed quite sick for a while afterwards.” Baz shook his head, “He said that the man was worse than a geshe-kiich is quite a feat from what I heard about those creatures when I was in the Imperial Service.”
Elena sighed, “I’ll have a few words with Grandmother. Not that I think it will help, but I’ve got to at least try.” She began her bedtime preparations as Baz watched. They hadn’t had sex, but Elena wished she dared at times. She had caught Baz looking at times, as well, giving her longing looks. She shook her head, she would talk to the Vor lord tomorrow, and that would come soon enough.
* * *
As Elena stirred, she became aware that she was being watched. She opened her eyes, expecting to see the Vor lord. Instead, it was the hawk that had been one of the three pets she had been allowed to keep from the raid that she had gotten Ky from. Grandmother had taken the third from her, but she had still managed to keep the hawk and Ky.
“You know, Triumph actually likes you, even though you’ve kept him from flying, and he still prefers Ky.” Elena started, and turned to see Miles carefully not watching her. “He does wish you’d let him fly, at least on a night when Baba Yaga’s men are all drunk.”
She realized that Triumph must be the hawk. She asked, “Why are you calling the hawk Triumph? And is it a male? How can you even tell?”
“He told me. His name’s actually Arrives in Glorious Triumph, but that’s a bit of a mouthful,” Miles gave her a wry smile. Before she could ask, he said, “It’s my spirit powers. I can read the thoughts of anything that has a mind.”
“And he can fly…at night?” she asked, feeling utterly bewildered. She knew that hawks were strictly daytime creatures, so how could this one fly at night?
“He’s not a regular hawk. He’s a fae hawk. Fae creatures aren’t bound to the laws of the human world’s nature,” Miles answered. “He’s actually a former familiar, his wingbrother died in such a manner that he could release the bond before they died together.” He looked distant for a moment, and said, “I hope I can do the same for Nosey if the time comes. The distance between us should help.”
“Nosey? Wingbrother?” Elena asked, feeling as though she had been run over by a herd of horses.
“My familiar. She’s a fae cat. I left her with Duv Galeni to keep blocking his father’s influence,” was the response. “And wingbrother is the closest translation I can find to the term he used.”
It was then she realized what Miles had said about his spirit powers, and a use for them occurred to her. “You said you can read the thoughts of anything that has a mind?”
“Yes, although I usually try to only read emotions, rather than actual thoughts,” he answered, extremely cautiously.
“Then I would like you to do something for me. I won’t force you to, but…it’s my mother,” she said, with a pause before she went on, “She’s been catatonic since…well, I know you know what happened.”
Elena could see Miles pale, and recognized that he knew all too well what had happened. Briefly, she wondered when and how he had found out. Shaking her head, she continued, “ Grandmother’s been using spells to keep her fit and fed, but….I need to know if her mind is at all present, and if it is, what’s keeping her catatonic.”
“And you want me to assess,” Miles said, carefully.
“Yes,” Elena said, “I’ll be out in the forest with grandmother and the men for three days. Apparently there’s a merchant caravan that’s supposed to be coming within range. If you could please check Mother?”
“I will,” he responded.
She smiled as she left, thinking, I may finally get some straight answers about Mother.
* * *
Miles waited until the bandits were gone before approaching Ky, cautiously. The stocky man was built for combat, and Miles knew that the First Lander could quite easily snap his neck, especially when Miles unfastened the wrist restraints. Baz had been the one to give Ky access to his bath yesterday, but Baz had told Miles that he was going to take advantage of the absence of the bandits to do a complete restructuring of their still, and Miles was quite happy for the lack of witnesses. He needed a First Lander guide, and he suspected Ky would do admirably.
Assuming he could win the man’s loyalty.
As he saw Miles approaching, Ky gave him an assessing look. When Miles got close, he said, “Well, boy, I hope you don’t think I’m ungrateful, especially for the thought you’ve given to both myself and Triumph, but that doesn’t buy my loyalty. I’m a mercenary, but I’m not cheap, and my true allegiance can only be won.”
“I know,” Miles responded. “’Lena told me.” He grinned, “But I think I can at least arrange a proper challenge for you, especially if you unbend enough to tell me what games you require me to meet you at.”
The other man blinked in bemusement, and he said, “Go, hiashatar, and tâb. You probably aren’t familiar with either of the latter.”
“Actually,” Miles said, “I’m quite fond of hiashatar, certainly more so than go. You are correct that I’m unfamiliar with tâb, though.”
Ky gave him another odd look, and asked, “How do you know hiashatar? It’s not played much outside the First Lands or the Cetagandan Empire.”
Miles smiled distantly, “I happened to have spent three years in the Cetagandan Empire, admittedly as a servant, but even the common folk play hiashatar. Also, Dag Benin, my master, was fond of me, and we played a few games.” He paused, and said, “But you still need to explain how to play tâb.”
“Tâb is a game of chance,” Ky began to explain. Miles listened carefully, he would need to be able to play if he had any chance of winning the First Lander over.
After listening to the explanation, Miles asked, “And exactly what is this supposed to be testing? Hiashatar and go are clearly supposed to test my strategic sense, but the only way tâb would be a legitimate test would be if cheating is permitted. Which, I’ll grant you, would make it a very good test indeed, a combination of luck and skill.”
Ky chuckled, and said, “Cheating is permitted, unless you get caught. That’s the test, how well you can hide your cheating, and how much legitimate luck you have. That’s why it’s the final game.” He frowned, and said, “But you have a distinctly unfair advantage, boy. Your mindreading is something I can’t protect against, and so am wary about challenging.”
Miles sighed, “All I can offer is my sworn word that I won’t read anything but what is forced on me. Just don’t think too loud, and I’ll be fine.” He paused, then said, “Triumph might be able to help. He’s not my familiar, but he likes you a lot, and I think he could help me reach Nosey and help her block my abilities.” He shook his head, “I don’t like to do that, I’ve gotten rather reliant on my sixth sense.”
“And where is your familiar, if you do indeed have one?” Ky asked sharply.
“Holding the fort back with someone I met back in Sergyar, on my way here. She’s blocking a line of information that could prove fatal for myself and the other party involved. Neither of us were happy about separating, but she liked the other party and so was willing to put aside her dislike of separation, and I needed her there to make sure we all had a chance to come out of this alive.”
He could see Ky begin to ask Who are you?, when he stopped, and swore, “You’re Miles Vorkosigan, aren’t you, boy.”
Miles could see no point in trying to deny it. He was rather recognizable, “Yes, I am.”
Ky said, with great enthusiasm, “Your father’s the best damn strategist I’ve ever encountered. His work in Komarr was a thing of beauty, it was such an honor to get defeated by him. I was a member of the mercenary company the Komarrans hired, you see.”
As the First Lander gathered momentum in his raving about Aral Vorkosigan, all Miles could think was Ye gods, a fanatic! At least this one’s on my side. He wondered what it was about his parents that made them draw the attention of fanatics like honey drew bees.
* * *
While Grandmother directed the men in their stowing of the caravan loot, Elena grew quietly impatient. All she wanted was to go find out about Mother from Miles, but Grandmother was taking forever. She wondered if the older woman was subtly punishing the men for letting all of the merchants escape, although Elena thought that given the men’s preferences, the merchants’ escape was probably punishment enough. She prayed that Grandmother wouldn’t be requesting one of her pets in a few days.
Finally, Grandmother said, “’Lena, you may leave.” She didn’t have to be told twice.
As she entered the cave, Elena heard Ky ask, “All right, boy, how often did you cheat? I can’t believe that anyone could have that much good luck at tâb.”
“Would you believe, only four?” Miles’s smug voice answered. Elena froze. Tâb was the third game Ky required, and Elena had never managed to win at the first game, go. What was Miles playing at?
“No, I wouldn’t,” was Ky’s response.
“Ask Triumph. He’ll tell you that I only cheated four times. Twice to get out of the starting row, once to get the triple stack, and once to take a piece.”
“You are the luckiest damn person I’ve ever met, boy. I’m almost afraid to follow you. That much luck tends to draw severe negative attention from the gods.”
Before Miles could answer, Elena came in, and asked, “May I ask the pair of you where Baz is?”
Miles turned, and said, “He’s getting firewood. It’s not like I could do it without taking forever, and you took Ky’s collar key.” He met her gaze without fear, which made her even angrier, even though something told her it was unreasonable for her to be this angry.
He blinked, and suddenly the anger cut off. Elena wondered what had made her that enraged. Before she had much opportunity to consider, Miles stood and said, “I have several things to tell you. But I think that Baz should be here when I talk to you. I’ll go find him.”
He left, and she wondered what required Baz’s presence. She turned to regard Ky, “So, he won you.”
“He won my loyalty, not me, which he understands completely. I know your upbringing has been such that you can’t recognize the difference, ‘Lena, but there is a significant one.”
Pausing, she asked, “I’ve wondered, I know you’ve heard Baz call me Elena, and that I prefer it, why do you call me ‘Lena?”
“Partially out of habit. When you’ve lived as long and done as much as I have, everyone who hasn’t done either starts to look like a child. Partially because while you might be a woman grown, you’ve never asserted it, except with those who can’t fight back.”
Elena tried to think of a response that wouldn’t make her appear to be the child she was trying not to appear. She couldn’t think of one. Ky paused, and said, “I’m sorry I can’t be gentler girl. You’ve got a good heart, even though that bitch of a woman who’s your grandmother keeps trying to smother it. You just need some proper lessons on civilized behavior, and you’d probably be a decent person.”
Again, she felt an unreasonable rush of anger. Is this what my father was like? Elena wondered. She’d have to ask Miles, who had actually known her father.
Almost as if thinking of him had summoned him, Miles entered the cave with Baz following. Actually, given Miles’s abilities, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that it might have. Miles indicated that they should go to the spring cave, and he stood waiting for Elena and Baz to settle. He seemed distinctly nervous.
Before Elena could think of how to phrase the question without it sounding too much like a demand, Miles began, “I’m afraid I will be the bearer of bad news. Not about your mother’s chances of recovery, but about why she has remained catatonic for these past twenty-five years.” He paused, and said, “Your mother has aura sight, not as a human magic but as spirit magic.”
While Elena wanted him to get to the point, Baz asked, “What exactly is the difference? I’ve always wondered.”
“Human magic is both consciously activated and tends towards the flashy, as well as quite often learned. Spirit magic is innate, unconscious, and tends to be relatively subtle. Fae magic is innate, conscious, and flashy. But that’s mostly an aside. Your mother began to come out of her catatonic state at the end of the Escobaran-Barrayaran War. But she was returned to her mother, who became bitter at what had happened to her daughter. While if her mother had chosen to leave matters at cursing Bothari, it is quite possible she might have awakened, but…then she began gathering the bandits and becoming further twisted. The presence of all those souls like those who had tortured her made your mother reenter the protective catatonia that she had assumed during her captivity. And that brings us to you, ‘Lena.”
He paused here, and said, “Your grandmother has been manipulating your mind, probably since you were a little girl. While at first it appears to have been to make you more to be what she remembered your mother to be, as you grew, it was to suppress your will and resistance. Your grandmother has repeatedly raped your mind. If you will permit, I can remove the influences, I’m pretty certain. But it must be with your consent.” Miles paused again, and said, “I’m sorry, ‘Lena.”
She felt rage at what she knew to be the truth, but how could he know what this did to her world. To her surprise, she felt a mental whisper, ‘Like this, ‘Lena.’ And showed her what her father had been to him. More than a servant, more like an uncle or foster father. And he showed her the knowledge that he had received at his death. She couldn’t say she…loved the man as he had, or at all, in fact, but she could understand now what he had said, and that he did understand. She turned to Baz and wept for the dream-woman she had always wanted her grandmother to be. Miles withdrew.
When she reached the end of her tears, Elena turned back to Miles, although she didn’t disengage from Baz’s arms. She said, “Do it. Remove everything. But…what will I do after? She won’t kill me, but she’ll go back in and make new spells, and then she’ll take you…and probably Baz and Ky as well. And even if I leave, she’ll chase me.”
“Leaving is a very good idea, but you have to do more than leave, ‘Lena,” Miles answered. “You’re going to have to ensure that she has no opportunity to wreak vengeance or chase you.”
Elena understood where this was headed, “I don’t really want to turn my grandmother in to the authorities…and I doubt they’d listen to me.”
Miles shook his head, “They certainly won’t listen to you if you go directly. But if you have Baz tell them, he’d just have to tell the truth, that he’s been held captive by the bandit gang that’s been blocking trade through whatever forest this is, and that he’s managed to escape. He looks the part, and he should be able to be convincing.”
Looking at Baz, Elena didn’t think that he was nearly as certain as Miles was, but she saw his face gain determination. She then turned back to Miles, and said, “Then, I’ll release the animals…and you and Ky. I’ve got four horses, you and Ky can have two, Baz and I will still have two and we can split the supplies, and Baz can help Mother.” She paused, then said, “And…before you take the spell off, I can get the men good and drunk, and…and I know how I can ensure Grandmother stays asleep.”
Miles nodded, and said, “I’ll take care of the animals, and start sorting supplies with Baz. And Ky, with your leave.”
He left, and Baz followed after a moment, but before he did, he said, “I’m glad you are finally willing to leave this soul destroying life, Elena.”
* * *
Under the cover of darkness, Miles, Ky, and Triumph left the stable cave. “You think Baz and ‘Lena will manage?” Ky asked, as he mounted Kalle, the packhorse that had borne Bothari’s goods from Barrayar.
Looking into the distance and trying not to remember the slimy sensation of the spell, as well as wishing Nosey were here, he said, “Of course.” But underneath, he did wonder. He shook his head, and urged Jenn forward. He couldn’t dwell this. He had to find Mark. The Ice Dream echoed in his mind from his brief nap this afternoon. Trouble behind, trouble before, and the Ice Dream urged him on.
Chapter 6: The Tale of the Fae with Two Faces and the Demons' Sister
This is half of the sixth story. The other half will be posted asap.
The lands Miles and Ky passed through got greyer the further they went. While the seemingly endless expanse of grey hills depressed Miles, it seemed to energize Ky. While part of Miles’s depression was related to Bothari’s death, and his wondering if he had handled Elena properly, a lot of it was due to the land itself. At his questioning how anyone could stand to live here, Triumph told him, ‘This is the usual early autumn weather. You probably wouldn’t believe it, but the air of the First Lands is marvelous in the warm times, and the sun is always shining. Perfect hunting weather.’
“You know, Ky,” Miles said, trying to distract himself from the bleakness of the land, “I’ve always wondered why this particular land was called the First Lands. Because according to the Betharans, the human homelands are on a continent far to the south, and while I know nothing about fae or spirit lands, neither really seem to place much emphasis on origin.”
“These are called the First Lands because, as legend would have it, the first cooperative empire composed of humans, fae, and spirits was born in these lands,” Ky surveyed the land proudly, “Part of the reason I don’t think it’s all nonsense is that the boundaries between the mortal world and the fae realms are very thin here. Anyone can cross over at almost any time if they want to. While Cetaganda is said to be the same,” He paused for verification.
Miles thought, and said, “It’s not quite that thin in Cetaganda, but the cities and fae palaces are all built in areas where anyone can pass at the proper time.”
“Figured something like that. I’ve never been to Cetaganda, but from the legends, Cetaganda was built by the remaining nobles of the Great Empire after it fell due to some cataclysmic disaster. The tellers also usually mention that the cataclysm happened somewhere on Cetagandan lands, but I’m not sure I believe that,” Ky said, and then added, “But if you have any information…”
Smiling at the blatant fishing attempt, Miles answered, “Actually, that does make sense. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about Cetaganda, but in Cetagandan lands there are creatures that the ghem name geshe-ki. They’re insubstantial creatures that possess the physical beings of the land and that have a hatred of everything living. Or at least, as much hatred as something so completely alien can be said to have. The people they destroy by possessing will then kill others, usually in extremely nasty ways while making odd magical artifacts using the life-force of the people they kill. And it’s very hard to detect them magically.” He frowned, and said, “You know, I think they might be demonic in nature.”
“Why?” Ky asked, looking interested.
“Because I actually encountered a geshe-ki with its powers suppressed, but I couldn’t read its mind until that happened. And I know I had encountered it while it had full access to its powers, and while I could tell something was wrong, I couldn’t tell the difference between human madness and madness brought on by an outside influence. The haut have a difficult time sensing them, as well. But anyway, in my journeys, I encountered a tainted man. He was born tainted, but I couldn’t sense him at all. Demonic essence might block my abilities,” Miles shook his head, and said, “When I get back, I’ll have to write Dag Benin. Although the haut probably do know, but they don’t bother to explain such things to their ghem projects or their servitors.”
Blinking, Ky said, “I think that you need to explain more about Cetagandan society for me to understand that, boy. I’m just an old soldier from the First Lands, I don’t have any experience with the haut, and very little with the ghem. But Justyn always had the greatest respectful fear regarding haut capacities.”
Justyn, Miles knew, had been Triumph’s human partner. And while he didn’t believe Ky’s protestations of ignorance, he began to explain what he knew of Cetagandan hierarchy, figuring that the more people who understood Cetagandan society, even at the rather marginal level he did, the less chance there was that Cetaganda would succeed in future expansion attempts.
Ky glanced at Miles, who shook his head slightly. Turning Jenn towards where he knew the fae was, Miles sent Triumph around behind her, then said, “While he is a mercenary, he isn’t part of whatever group is bothering you. If you would come out, we could negotiate.”
The woman’s voice growled, “He’s the direct commander of the mercenary who’s bothering me. Ky Tung, commander of Auson the Idiot. Who unfortunately appears to have acquired a brain somewhere, even if it’s not in his head.”
Miles glanced at Ky, who had started swearing at the mention of Auson, “You know of this man?” he asked quietly.
“Auson was sent to this area by Oser, my commander, on what was supposed to be a simple delivery mission. He was absolutely not supposed to go around antagonizing any of the natives, much less the fae. He had orders.” Ky frowned, and said, “I think this is Bel Thorn, of a type of desert fae. We haven’t exactly gotten along in the past.”
From Ky’s thoughts, Miles could tell Ky was thinking something odd about this Bel’s gender, but he was so focused on the fae it didn’t really register. “Somehow, from what she’s saying, he appears not to be under your command any more. Whose command he’s under, I couldn’t say, but… put down your weapons. Your visible ones, at least,” Miles turned back to where the fae was, “If you would care to negotiate, Ky is disarming. We won’t dismount, but we will talk about matters.” To show a little good faith, Miles dropped two of his knives. He wasn’t going to give up all of his, especially when the fae had shown no compunction about shooting from ambush. Fortunately, neither did Miles, and he also had no problem requesting a dive from Triumph should the need for it occur.
But to Miles’s, the fae’s voice shifted to a light tenor as Miles felt her- his? No, it must be the only pronoun appropriate for whatever species of fae this was, so…its thoughts grow nearer. It said, “I’ll come out to talk.” A lithe, young -looking man with brown hair to his shoulders made an appearance, crossbow loaded, but pointed downward.
The being drew close enough to make out its features. A handsome face, although for most Barrayarans the gemlike blue eyes and pointed ears as long as Ky’s hand would be off-putting. The fae’s clothes were loose, probably to accommodate bodily shifts. Certainly not an elf or any other fae species Miles was familiar with.
The fae stopped about ten feet from Miles and said, “I am Belsharethanialaneraph of the Thorns of the Desert Rose Clan from the Desert of the Diamond Shores. Bel Thorn for short.”
“I am Miles Vorkosigan. Ky Tung you know,” Miles said. “Now, what problems are you having with this Auson?”
With a nod of appreciation at Miles’s getting to the point, apparently Bel’s type of fae was only longwinded in regards to their names, Bel began, “I have been courting a Sivari musician who has been making rounds in the nearby village.” That statement was accompanied by an image of an attractive four armed woman playing a specially made hammered dulcimer. “However when I went to visit the village she told me was her next stop, she had left suddenly. I asked around, and she had last been seen talking with Auson. Whose men attacked me when I went to ask after NiKohl.”
Miles considered this, and asked, “Could you sense anything odd about the men? I know you mentioned that this Auson’s acquired brain wasn’t in his head, and I don’t think that you were speaking metaphorically.”
Frowning, Bel said, “There was something off about him and his men. I was too busy defending myself to pinpoint what exactly it was, but it was grating on my senses, whatever it happened to be.” It shrugged, continuing, “But my people don’t necessarily have the best mystical senses.”
“Can you think of anyone who might want to possess a Sivari musician?” Miles asked. He was starting to see an uncomfortable shape behind this. If he was getting close to Galen, the land could be becoming tainted, and taint meant that the boundaries between mortal and fae lands and the lands of demons became perilously thin.
Ky gave him a sharp look, which the fae noticed, “What are you thinking, Spirit-blooded?” Bel asked, the timbre of its voice becoming more alto.
“Demons. Have any demons voiced an interest in this NiKohl,” Miles answered.
He got the answer he had feared yet expected before Bel managed to force out, face and body becoming feminine at the mention of demons, “Yes…there were a pair of Converted who expressed interest, in the way demons do so.” The expression on the now entirely female fae was murderous, before its body shifted back to male. “I need to speak with Lilly Durona.”
Before it could go striding off into the forest, Miles called out, “Wait.” When Bel paused, Miles said, “I think we need to go with you. I need some assistance of my own. I suspect my problem is related to yours, at least in passing.”
With another frown, Bel asked, “I have my own horse and could accompany you, but I need to know why you want to come.”
Miles had been preparing to repeat his explanation, “My brother, Mark, was stolen from our cradle by a sorcerer. I suspect that the sorcerer is what has caused the thinning that led to your paramour being abducted, so my business is connected to yours.”
Bel considered this, before laughing briefly, “We’re both insane, you realize.”
“Probably,” Miles replied, with a sardonic grin of his own. He turned to Ky, and said, “You don’t need…”
“Forget it boy,” Ky interrupted, “I’m coming with you as long as you’ll have me. Someone needs to keep you on track.”
Triumph cried agreement.
Shaking his head, he asked the fae, “So, where exactly does this Desert of the Diamond Shores correspond to in the human lands? And what are your people called? And…what use are your two forms for?”
“My people are called the Andrepath, and our forms are for distraction. The Warrior form is female, the Diplomacy form is male. We developed the shifting magic to unbalance those who would attack us.”
Miles nodded, “I can see that.” It had rattled him to have the woman he had been talking to change into a man and he had known something was different about Bel. And given that virtually every humanlike sentient race Miles had encountered tended to perceive sex roles as strictly defined, even if they didn’t necessarily agree on what the place of each sex was, a gender shifting race would be strongly unbalancing. And it was more reasonable for a fae race to develop shifting, as fae sexes didn’t tend to be as differentiated muscularly as even spirits' did.
“As for where my people live in corresponding human terms, the Desert of the Diamond Shores is located in the land known as Bethara. Of course,” Bel continued, “The barrier there is exceedingly thick. I never met a Betharan until after I had left my homeland.” It paused, “To be honest, Auson was the first human I met.” Turning to Ky, it said, “I’m afraid it gave me the impression that, well…”
“Humans are complete and utter shitheads?” Ky asked, with a sympathetic chuckle.
Bel gave a small smile, and said, “You said it, not I.”
Miles was considering Bel’s statement about where the Desert of the Diamond Shores was located. The thickness of the barrier it had mentioned certainly explained why Betharans in general knew nothing of the fae, either light or dark. Especially when their mixed blood and tendency to assimilate newcomers would seem to make them ideal subjects for interbreeding with fae races.
Ky asked, “So, who and what is this Lilly Durona you’re taking us to meet?”
“The sister of a pair of demons,” Bel answered, sounding far too blasé for comfort, even if Miles had had more time than Ky to adjust to the idea.
“How many more of them are there, in addition to Lily? And where did they come from?” Miles asked. Ky had been oddly silent since Bel had announced that Lilly Durona was the sister of demons. Miles was letting him think in peace. Triumph wasn’t saying anything, but let Ky know through Miles that he would not accompany them to some strange…bubble realm?
“There are around thirty adult Duronas, and nearly a dozen children, last I knew. They’re former demonic subjects, some unwilling, some who didn’t know what they were getting into, and some who came to regret their deals.” It shrugged, “As for how she manages to break the hold the demons have on them, I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask her. Although it probably has something to do with them all looking like her.”
By that point they were in the center of the circle. Bel concentrated slightly, and they found themselves at the base of a hill, a castle constructed of bluish-grey stone and a ridiculous amount of glass below a darkening sky above them. There were two moons, a green one nearly at zenith, the other, purple, one just rising. Assuming that the directions were the same here as in the mortal world.
“What is this place?” Ky asked.
“It’s a pocket dimension, somewhere between the worlds of the demons, fae, and mortals,” Bel replied. “Which is why we couldn’t reach it immediately from anywhere in the First Lands.”
Miles glanced around, his mental senses investigating the area. He didn’t feel anything, but out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of someone watching them. He said, “I assume that the person watching us is a guard.”
Bel answered, “Yes.” Then, raising its voice, it said, “This is Belsharethanialaneraph of the Thorns of the Desert Rose Clan from the Desert of the Diamond Shores the Andrepath and traveling companions, here to seek an audience with Lilly Durona.”
The guard stepped out into the open, making his way to the circle of stones. Miles saw that he was a young man, perhaps only a little older than Miles had been when the curse descended on him. He drew closer, and Miles could see that he appeared to be a blend of human and elf, the human aspects showing the same general blood as Ky.
“Cardinal,” Bel said, sounding slightly surprised, “I wasn’t expecting you.”
The young man shrugged, and said, “Raven’s going through some unexpected increase in his powers, so Lilly’s keeping an eye on him.” He started towards the castle, saying over his shoulder, “She’s waiting for you.” Even though he couldn’t sense the demon blooded, Miles suspected the Duronas of having a type of group mind, as he could feel, not Cardinal’s mind, but rather the shadow of a mind connecting him to someone else. Possibly multiple someones else, he couldn’t tell at the moment.
Cardinal escorted them first to a stable, where a young woman with similar facial features to Cardinal took charge of their horses. Bel’s horse went willingly, she and this girl knew each other. Jenn and Kalle hesitated until Miles told them it was safe to go, a combination of good training and the demonic essence still clinging to the girl. Then he escorted them into the castle.
The interior of the castle looked more like a monastery than a fortress or a palace, austere and meant to focus the mind, rather than delight the senses or the body, or to offer protection for the body. Well, perhaps that wasn’t surprising, even if it wasn’t to his taste, a bunch of formerly possessed people would probably like quiet contemplation, especially if they were as damaged as the shape of the only non-demonic sentient mind in the place that hadn’t entered with them suggested. There was certainly a group mind here.
Stopping at the door at the end of a long hallway, Cardinal opened the door, saying, “She is expecting you.” Bel bowed its thanks, and preceded Ky in. Ky went in second, and Miles followed. And stopped. Someone was probing his mind. He pushed back, tracing the tendril back to its source, which was the nexus he had been able to sense. He didn’t search further, at least not yet, and began looking at the room with his eyes so that he didn’t trip and fall ignominiously on his face.
His eyes stopped on the source of the probe, an aged woman. Lilly was a fae-human hybrid as he had thought. No spirit blood from what he could tell, meaning that the rescued ones represented her only way to have children. The human base looked to have been First Lander, the fae, elven. Possibly even haut-elven, if the very long, white hair had a cultural base instead of a personal preference. Her dark eyes, old even for a fae-blooded stared at him, flatly assessing in a way similar to the mind probe would have. He did his best to look calmly back.
Her assessment appeared to have been what she had hoped for, because she smiled and said, “Ah, the searching Vor lord has come. Sit.” She gestured to a chair. Miles seated himself as she turned to Bel and Ky, saying, “Bel Thorne, be welcome. Sit. Ky Tung, be seated there.”
Once they were placed to her satisfaction, Lilly spoke again, “Tell me what brings you to my retreat, Bel Thorne.”
Bel began its tale of NiKohl the Shivari, with more detail than it had given Miles, finishing with, “Two demons sent minions to offer NiKohl a place in their Courts. Fellethren and Yryvlarr, who were once Felle and Ryoval. I wondered if you had heard anything of your former brothers.”
Lilly’s eyes and thoughts grew darker at the naming of the demons, but her voice remained calm, “Indeed, Bel Thorne. I can confirm your suspicions. Fellethren suborned the mercenary captain to his will and caused him to abduct the Shivari maiden. She is untouched, as Fellethren has chosen to use intimidation and threats to bend her to his will. He currently aims to use her as a prize to throw in Yryvlarr’s face, but if he finds a toy he prefers to taunting his brother, or Yryvlarr finds something he wants, the odds shift dramatically. You must get her and close the portal before Fellethren loses interest.”
As Lilly spoke, Miles got impressions of her now demonic brothers. Apparently, demons had their preferred prey to negotiate with, Fellethren’s preference was for those who wished to reach their aims through battle, but were unwilling to put in the effort and materials to assure their victory by honest, or even ordinarily dishonest, means. Yryvlarr’s were those individuals willing to sell anything to satisfy their own desires, even their own blood kin.
He wondered in passing if Galen had ever considered summoning Yrvlarr for his attempted vengeance on the Vorkosigan family. He had certainly sacrificed everything except the souls of his blood kin in pursuit of that goal.
Looking back up at Lilly, Miles suspected he hadn’t been as good at keeping her out of his mind as he had thought. Or been allowed to think. Meeting her gaze, he thought ‘Point to you, Madame Durona. But the game is still in play.’
Smiling, she sent back, ‘I am certain it shall be interesting, Burning Lord.’
‘And what should I call you, if we are speaking on familiar terms. Perhaps-‘ he pushed almost without thinking, and came up with, ‘Cautious dh’Vierre?’
He knew he had chosen the right part of her spirit name to combine with the Cetagandan title she could have claimed, had her father been honorable enough to claim his children and see them fostered in a suitable ghem family.
‘Sharp boy. You’ll get in trouble someday, if you haven’t already,’ she responded. Then she spoke with her voice, “You have questions, Lord Vorkosigan. Ask.”
Miles thought, then asked the question close to his heart, “How do you free your children from the demonic contracts they have been bound to?”
“I Name them,” Lilly said. “I give them a symbol and they learn who they are now. I use what remnants remain of their personalities and forge them a new identity. They are never the people they used to be, but I build on what they remember.”
“And why do they take on your appearance? Appearance is not tied to action or essence,” Miles replied, thinking of Ivan, who when he made himself hear what Nosey called him, was called Hides His Cunning, which wasn’t obvious even to those who knew him well, and didn’t fit the appearance he had maintained before the Curse.
“A magical gift from my haut ancestors,” Lilly said. “They could be tracked through their blood, so modify their blood, giving them some of the characteristics of myself. They take on some of my appearance, if not my particular make-up.” She gave Miles a look, and said, “When you return from Iaksoniara with Bel, there is one thing I may give you. I cannot give the hale body you would have had if you had never been cursed, the magic is too intertwined with your being. It would destroy you. But I can give your bones strength.” She smiled, “I will give them the strength of the Irraknar, whose bones are as strong and light as leaf-steel.”
The Irraknar were a type of bird-like fae, closer to the fae animals in form than humans, but still a specific race of fae. Lilly had met one, Miles could tell from the image he received that she had found the other woman fascinating. It was then that Bel broke in, saying, “They’re both coming with me? I never asked for them to follow me into danger.”
Miles said, after giving Lilly a dirty look for spilling his beans, “Well, I’m accompanying me. Two heads are better than one, and Ky might be able to get through to Auson. Besides,” He paused, “Nosey says I need to go with you, and since she’s staying with a seer, I’ll trust her intelligence.” Turning back to Lilly, he asked, “What do you know about demons?”
Lilly’s eyes became distant, “I know a great deal, more than I can tell you in the time we have. But I will tell you of their origins and how they are made. You have met the remnants of the First Ones, the fragmented beings known as Ancients. Demons are unable to truly reproduce physically, but the First Ones discovered that by implanting their essence in sentient creatures of the human and fae worlds, new demons were formed, and what was more, they could feed on the soul-stuff of the implanted creature, gaining more power. The new demons created from unwilling subjects, or willing ones without a strong will, were never as powerful or intelligent as the demons they were spawned by, and their souls were not as nourishing to the original. But then there were the willing, strong-willed subjects.”
Miles listened carefully. He needed to understand why demons did what they did and how they had become what they were.
“Not only were these subjects more nourishing to the original demon, they formed a new demon, with some aspects of the person they once had been, grown twisted. I believe it is a process very similar to going mad. These created demons were more cunning than the First Ones, and they knew how best to tempt the humans, spirits, and fae they encountered or who came to them. The Later Ones drove the First Ones out of the plane of Iaksoniara, and the haut elves and their servitors shattered them, leaving only the remnants of consciousness.”
It was then that Miles realized that something about what Lilly hadn’t said was bothering them. She said that she rescued the subjects of demons, but there was no explanation about where they had come from. While some of them may have been self-willed enough to escape, there were others who wouldn’t have been. Including the children. In his mind, Lilly whispered, ‘Bright boy. I should have known you would have figured it out.’
‘Who is your contact on the inside?’ Miles asked, while Ky asked a question of his own.
‘Fellethren. His consent was coerced, but he has maintained enough self-possession to send me those able and willing to be saved. His humanity is being destroyed, and when that happens, I will likely have to destroy the demon he will be. But until he becomes the demon entirely he will still be Felle, my younger brother.’ She sent a sensation of wan good humor. ‘Tell my brother that Lilly says to be a good boy and put away his toys.'
As Ky and Bel were answered by oblique statements, Miles sat back and let Lilly recover. He had cut close to the bone, and even if he hadn’t, Lilly wouldn’t have given him any direct answers. But…she had given him all the answers he needed, if he could put them together. Annoying, but to be expected. She was elven, and elves, especially haut elves, didn’t give up any information they didn’t have to. Even to people they needed. He wouldn’t fail.
He wouldn’t let himself fail.
Chapter 7: The Tale of the First Lands
This has some uncomfortable scenes, and has an abrupt beginning and end. I do intend to write about what happens both before and after, but the prologue scene goes with another story entirely.
And I go from the source of taint to a tainted land, Miles thought. Looking about the luminous fog that covered this area of the First Lands, he thought he might prefer the demonic realm of Phaeras. It might have been more tainted, but there wasn’t the disconcerting familiarity associated with a tainted human land.
He heard the sound of Jenn’s hooves on the ground change slightly from grass to very old road. The fog lifted briefly, just long enough for Miles to see that they had entered a ruined city. His eyes were drawn to a completely intact tower on the other side of the city. He wondered if this was the place. Almost without thinking, he closed his eyes and -reached-
His mind encountered the same type of nasty shields Galen had used when they had encountered each other in Cetaganda. His soul met…darkness, with a touch of flickering light. And yet, the darkness wasn’t necessarily wrong darkness, even though it had a great deal of leaning in that direction. But that was only because this soul lacked knowledge about other ways.
And there was a great deal of potential kinship, someone who was not exactly like Miles, but who matched him.
Miles shook his head. That was distinctly uncomfortable. The only sensation that even came close to this was the…encounter…he had in Phaeras with the young woman who had been fused with a spirit wolf. Taura, he reminded himself. He should know; he had named her at her own request. He blushed at the memory of the rest of that encounter.
Suddenly, he paused. His physical ears were telling him someone was approaching, even if he couldn’t ‘hear’ anything mentally. Responding to his mental outcry, Jenn reared and spun, almost as well as a warhorse could have.
Unfortunately, what Miles had heard was the sound of the person (his brother, his heart whispered) who he knew but could not sense mentally launching himself at Miles. The other man bore him off Jenn and to the ground. As he struggled with his twin, Miles realized that where Miles had gotten bird bones from Galen’s curse, Mark had gained the strength of a flying creature. Lilly Durona might have given Miles bones of leaf-steel, but he didn’t have the raw strength that Mark did.
But maybe…Mark wasn’t using his greater strength and mass to his advantage. He might not even know how. Miles consciously relaxed, and when Mark responded by letting his guard down slightly, Miles took advantage.
Of course, Miles discovered quickly, Mark had a significant advantage himself. Something dark, almost and yet not quite demonic, flashed in his brother’s eyes, before Miles’s air was ruthlessly cut off and he was sent into unconsciousness.
* * *
The Other answered, in its utterly toneless non-voice, ‘Because he is necessary. And because to kill him would be to utterly destroy Us.’
Niktos was puzzled. The Other didn’t usually acknowledge the greater plurality of the five personality fragments and Niktos himself, at least not when it spoke with Niktos. Usually it only spoke of Niktos and itself. Finally, he asked, ‘Why? Surely he isn’t that important to Us.’
With impatience, the Other said, ‘Because he is Our twin, who you reached out for and connected with before any of the rest of Us existed. And not only did you form a connection, so has he. Killing him will kill Us all.’ The Other paused briefly, before continuing, ‘And he can help to free Us all.’
They had reached the cells. Niktos dropped his burden on the bare floor before backing out of the cell and arm’s reach. He was vaguely surprised Grunt had showed no interest in Vorkosigan, although Howl was quite eager to feast on Niktos’s pain, both the emotional pain of meeting his twin and the physical pain Father would inflict on him. The one good thing about becoming a demon would be the opportunity to destroy Father before Harputros claimed him.
It seemed to be ages before Vorkosigan stirred, but Gorge hadn’t even stirred in the likely futile hope of a meal when the slight man shifted slightly and lifted a hand to his head. He said nothing, his silence eerie even to Niktos, before pushing himself up on all fours, cradling his head as he did so.
Suddenly there was a shimmery feeling, almost like firelight, flickering inside Niktos. It wasn’t lighting, but was certainly warming all the crevasses of his soul. Niktos and his subsidiary personalities shivered. All except for the Other. Nothing seemed to touch the deep darkness that was the Other. Niktos pushed the fire away, roughly.
A flicker of movement from the cell caught Niktos’s attention. Vorkosigan had almost cringed back. Frowning, Niktos realized that the Barrayaran had been hurt by the shove. He gave another brief push, gentler this time.
Vorkosigan grunted, before whispering, “Mark, please…”
Mark? It took Niktos a small eternity to realize that Vorkosigan meant him. Vorkosigan was dragged a few feet towards the cell door by an invisible force before Niktos forced himself to release the mental grip he hadn’t been aware of initiating. He growled, “Don’t call me that. I am Niktos. No One.”
“No, you aren’t,” Vorkosigan sounded odd. Niktos had never heard those particular emotions in a voice before, and the slightly choked quality to his twin’s voice was something he only barely remembered hearing.
Niktos shook his head. The Other must be influencing him. Turning abruptly, he almost ran out of the dungeon, into the grey mist of the outer world. Coming to his favorite spot, the corner of a destroyed wall, he sat on a block of fallen stone and wrestled with his inner turmoil.
His. Not the Other’s* * *
Miles guiltily watched as Mark fled the dungeon. I did that to him, he thought. But what had caused that reaction? He wrestled with the question, pacing frantically around the cell. Minds were easy to understand, even emotions were relatively simple, but souls… How could he so misjudge the effect he would have on his twin?
But Mark had been so cold and lonely. Even as he had tried to force Miles away, Miles had felt the need to stay close, to warm his heart, his soul. He cursed Ser Galen. How could any human sell someone else’s soul, a child’s soul, to a demon? Especially when Miles suspected that if Duv hadn’t fled, Galen would have sold his own flesh and blood.
Miles couldn’t deny that his brother was demonic, at least in part. The lack of any mental presence, the faintly glowing eyes and almost claws, the hint of horns and pointed ears all spoke not just of demonic blood, but of the active twisting brought about by a pact with one of the greater demons.
And yet…for whatever reason, Miles didn’t get the sensation of wrongness in those altered features. Unlike the demons he’d encountered in Phaeras, the mix of features seemed no more jarring than Thya d’Benin’s fox eyes and wolf’s tail had seemed, or the blends seen in any number of fae and spirits. It wasn’t human, but it wasn’t unnatural or unharmonious, either.
He had no idea how long he had pondered the problem of Mark when he was jarred from his thoughts by a heavy hand plowing into his shoulder. After recovering his equilibrium, he looked up to see a vaguely humanoid golem with a blank expanse where its face should have been. Before he could even attempt to stand, the golem gripped his shoulder so forcefully he could feel his enhanced bones grinding together and began dragging him out of the cell and down the corridor.
While the tower was in far superior repair to the remnants of the city that had once stood outside, it showed very little sign of habitation. Not surprising when you considered that only two living beings inhabited it. Out of the corner of his eye, Miles almost saw nasty crawling symbols on the walls, but fortunately he didn’t have long to contemplate them.
As the golem dragged him by a ridiculous banquet table, especially considering that there were only two living beings in the area, and Mark didn’t look as though he was fed nearly enough, Miles had a flash of inspiration. He couldn’t follow Lilly Durona’s instructions exactly, especially as Mark didn’t have a firm identity or name in the first place, but he could perform the ceremony as best he could. Through pure luck, he managed to snag a silver table knife and slip it up his sleeve.
The golem bore on, up a ridiculous number of stairs. By the end, it was literally dragging Miles, who was thankful that he was being dragged by the shoulder, instead of the arm. As it was, his front was going to be completely black and blue tomorrow.
Finally, they reached the top, although as soon as they entered Galen’s sanctum, Miles wished himself anywhere else. He didn’t need Nosey’s faint ‘Nasty’ to know that there was something hideously wrong with Galen’s spells. He could feel the echoes of pain from the sacrifices used and the sting from Galen’s shields.
Valiantly managing not to retch, Miles made certain to maintain eye contact with the mage who was staring at him hungrily. The feral blue eyes under hair gone iron grey never left Miles’s, although Miles took a brief moment before their contest to notice that Galen didn’t look ill-fed.
Galen didn’t even bother to restrain Miles himself; the golem had enough control over its movements to shackle Miles to the wall. Miles couldn’t hold back the gasp of pain that came with the touch of the metal. He almost reached out for Mark, before Nosey pushed a quick shield between his mind and the pain and fear that had grown into the shackles.
‘Now is not the time,’ she whispered into his mind.
Briefly, he leaned into his golden-orange lady’s touch before raising his own shield, ‘You are correct. Soon, though.’
She purred briefly, before he said, ‘Pay attention to Duv. I can handle it from here, but I don’t know what Galen will do when I pounce.’
He sensed her reluctance, but she saw the need as well. With a mental flick of her tail and a slight head-butt, she disengaged. Miles turned his attention back to the room with equal reluctance.
In the brief time Miles had been communing with Nosey, Galen had gotten uncomfortably close. Not close enough to touch, but close enough for the sensation brought on by the shield to go from pins and needles to lances of fiery pain. This close, Miles could taste the same type of possessive, filthy lust and desire for control that the bandits had radiated, even through his and Galen’s shields, and almost retreated from reality again, this time into memories of Taura.
With a jerk of his chin, Miles resettled his gaze, “I suppose you’ve got some sort of tie to Mark, letting you know when the twin-bond is activated.”
“Of course,” Galen said. Looking over Miles, he continued, “Of course, I was expecting something a bit more…dramatic looking. After all, a person who can charm the haut shouldn’t look like some sort of underfed, mangy rat.”
Miles didn’t bother to answer that. He mostly liked rats, and they had far more scruples than Adrian Galen had exhibited. Besides, he wasn’t altogether certain he had charmed the haut. Solved a few problems for them, yes. Charmed…maybe, maybe not.
Galen looked frustrated at Miles’s non-responsiveness. But just before he spoke again, Miles felt the tickle of Mark’s presence coming closer. Moving closer, Galen leaned down to whisper, “I’m going to make certain you can’t interfere anymore. And when I destroy Barrayar, I’m going to make certain your father knows what I’ve done before he dies.” Galen’s shields weren’t effective at very close range, and Miles knew exactly what the sorcerer had in mind.
It would work, too. Galen already had the contacts and it wasn’t as though he was selling Miles’s soul, something he had no right to. Just selling Miles’s body to the demon Harputros, a demon who may not have known that Miles had interfered with his plans, but certainly wouldn’t have any problem passing Miles on to Yryvlarr. Who most certainly did know a reason to be very angry.
There was a part of him that wanted to rip Galen to shreds. There was another part that wanted to scream, plead, and generally carry on. Miles very firmly restrained both reactions. Galen seemed to be thrown more off balance by non-reaction and Miles needed to keep his head clear. He’d only get one chance.
Mark entered the room with great timidity. As soon as he did, Galen magically pulled him closer, while moving himself out of Miles’s reach. Once Mark was in his physical grasp, Galen jerked.
The pain flared not just through Mark, but into Miles as well before something Miles couldn’t define, could barely sense, stopped up the connection. The pull had only been a second, but had felt endless and Miles sagged against the wall, panting as his mind screamed to get to his feet because time was slipping away. Finally, he managed to pull himself upright.
Just as he did so, Galen released Mark and strode over to the summoning circle. Mark stumbled back, and Miles managed to slip the table knife out and grip Mark, pinning his brother’s arms against his torso as he did so.
Mark didn’t struggle, not even when Miles raised the flat of the blade to his throat. Dimly, he heard a scuffle across the room, but Miles’s attention was on what he needed to do.
“Hale bodied second son of Count Aral Xav Vorkosigan and Countess Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, you are to be a sinew of the Imperium, true Vor.” At that greatly abridged ritual phrase, Miles dropped the table knife. Continuing, he said, “I name you Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. May you be a credit to yourself, your people, your family, and your Empire.” Not the usual order of things, but this wasn’t exactly a usual Naming, either. Miles ended with a sentence he knew was needed, even if it wasn’t part of the official Naming, “Be welcome, be blessed, be loved, Brittle Night Wind.”
Finally, he looked up to see Galen being restrained by a greater demon he assumed was Harputros. Showing a mouth full of shark’s teeth as he smiled, the demon said, “Interesting display. A most fascinating display, Spark. But can you welcome him fully?”
With that, Mark swelled to incredible obesity. Looking into his eyes, all Miles could see was a great hunger, just as his brother opened his mouth to display a set of teeth that would put Harputros’s to shame.
“I’m hungry, brother,” Mark didn’t sound menacing so much as desperate as he used his greater muscularity to pull one arm free of Miles’s grasp. “So hungry. Please, let me go, or I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Even though Miles knew from the uncomfortable snuffling that Mark was making exactly what this facet feared it might do, deep within Mark’s soul, Miles could tell that this aspect was uncomfortable with its desire to act. So he said, “You don’t need to fear. I trust you not to do anything you’d regret. This is a part of you, but not all of you. You are my brother. I love you.”
With that, Mark shrunk back down to his prior size, but when Miles tightened his grip, Mark began to scream. It took Miles a second to realize it wasn’t in pain, “Please! Please! Tighter, I need the pain…you’re too gentle, brother. I’ve had to learn how to glory in the pain, since you abandoned me here. Do something for me… Hurt me.”
From the soul flicker this particular facet had given before it hissed the last phrase, Miles knew that it didn’t quite believe what it had said. But neither had it been forced. It was hoping to provoke him, and almost did. Voice thickening as he worked through why this aspect had come into being, Miles said “You’ve received enough pain, Mark, and will doubtless receive much more in your life. I won’t deliberately inflict more. This is a part of you, but not all of you. You are my brother. I love you.”
Suddenly, Mark wasn’t struggling to get away. Instead, he seemed to be trying to tuck his way into Miles’s skin. This facet was making snuffling sounds too, but they were even less wholesome than the first aspect’s. “You smell good, brother,” the aspect crooned, “I’m certain you feel as good as you smell. I could make you feel good, too. Far better than anyone else has.”
Miles almost vomited, but like the first one, this aspect was uncomfortable with its actions. They might have both had some of the inclinations being expressed, but Miles could tell neither would have acted on them if there had been a choice. That knowledge was the only thing stopping him from vomiting and pushing Mark away. With a brief glare at Harputros and Galen, Miles said, “I know you don’t really want to do this, and I trust you not to force me. This is a part of you, but not all of you. You are my brother. I love you.”
Another flicker of personality, and Mark returned to his former appearance. Except for his eyes. Those were a disquieting not-quite silver.
Mark shrugged loose of Miles’s grip and swiftly pinned Miles to the wall. “You talk a good game, Miles. But can you accept what I’ve done? I’ve hunted people down as sacrifices, you know, although Mark hasn’t. For all the difficulties in his life, Mark is…surprisingly innocent. That’s what I’m for, and I don’t wish to see that innocence spoiled. And of course Gorge and Grunt have longed for tidbits. They haven’t been indulged, but they still want them. Howl, of course, needs to know when it’s appropriate for him to come out and play. So, Miles Vorkosigan, can you accept the whole and not damage any of the parts?”
There was only blankness. This particular facet was quite obviously the demonic essence, but whatever was happening, it didn’t seem to be under Harputros’s control. Miles was fascinated, but he needed to answer the aspect’s questions, “I was able to accept that I had a torturer and rapist as a bodyguard and surrogate father. Admittedly, I didn’t have to look him in the face afterwards, but I accepted him and still loved him nevertheless. Could I do less for my own brother?”
The aspect gave him a cold smile and said, “Many have, but you won’t.”
“No, I won’t,” Miles confirmed, although it hadn’t quite been a question.
With a brief nod, Mark’s demonic part nodded and…the best description was stepped back. Mark himself came forward, looking utterly confused. Before he could say anything, both brothers’ attention was drawn to Harputros’s voice. The demon said, “Our contract has been broken. Do not try to contact me again.”
Galen started to splutter, but Harputros vanished between one syllable and the next. Once he realized Harputros truly was gone, he turned a dangerous gaze on Miles, screaming, “You! You’ve ruined everything!” Miles spared a moment to marvel at Galen’s talent for exaggeration. But Galen continued, “I’m going to see you torn to bits. I’m going to destroy you myself, just to make certain you’re dead, I’m going to…”
Before Galen could continue, Mark’s eyes glowed that odd silver. With a dismissive gesture, a fireball sprang from his fingers and flew towards Galen, catching the sorcerer mid-chest and mid-rant.
Mark…or whoever, whispered, “The problem with you, Father, is that you never learned control.”
Chapter 8: Epilogue: Coming Home to a Place I've Never Been
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Mark knew that his way was being smoothed. While he’d been able to have his demonic appearance toned down a bit (Lilly Durona was a marvel), he still didn’t look human and he knew that he still reeked of taint. If someone hadn’t notified people, he’d never have made it this far.
He even knew exactly who the spy was. Mistwalker hadn’t hidden the fact that she was Miles’s familiar’s littermate, by the same sire even, and neither had she hidden her communications with her sister.
The fae cat moved from behind his saddle to climb up and drape herself about Mark’s shoulders. After washing his ear and preening his hair, she told him, ‘All will be well. You know I told Curious Animated Troublemaker that we were on our way, and Burns Bright and Fiercely understands how overwhelming people can be if you have become unused to their presence. Trust them.’
Trust them. The hardest thing for Mark to do.
Without thinking, he indulged Gorge, pulling out a piece of jerky and eating it automatically. The sub-personae were much more settled these days, and he had figured out ways of giving them acknowledgement and care without them overwhelming the core of Mark. Gorge enjoyed it at least; Mark was too busy fretting to even taste the jerky, which admittedly wasn’t much of a loss.
Howl was thoroughly enjoying Mark’s uncertainty, it was like a fine wine to him; Grunt was hanging back, it wasn’t as though there was much there for him; the Other was anticipatory as it watched and waited. Frowning, Mark asked it, ‘What are you so eager for?’
It almost shrugged, saying as it did, ‘You do know this will be good for you. You’ve been too alone for too long. Besides, you wanted to be near Miles even when you hated him.’
That was truer than Mark wanted to admit. He would have found something to say to the Other, but they were rounding the bend of the road and in sight of a heavily fortified residence standing on a cliff above a great lake. Down across the lake, Mark could see a village, Vorkosigan Surleau, a small part of him corrected. The residence looked as though it had been severely damaged at some point in the not too distant past, but it had been repaired expertly.
He rode the forest road to the fortress in silence, both internal and external. Finally coming to a clearing, he heard someone call out, “Halt!”
Reining in the horse, he waited for whoever had seen him to approach. It was only a brief wait, soon a pair of brown and silver liveried soldiers or guardsmen approached. The younger and taller of the two made a brief warding sign against demon’s when Mark’s glowing eyes fixed on him (Mark could feel the Other shiver slightly inside him), but the older one gave his compatriot a sharp look, “None of that, Roic. Lord Vorkosigan told us what to expect.”
“But his eyes are…” Roic made a brief gesture possibly indicative of fire or light. “You see them Pym.”
“And you’ve survived Lord Vorkosigan walking through your mind, talking to Simon Illyan, and various purely human menaces. One friendly Lord of the House isn’t going to kill you.”
The Other was amused by that.
But now Pym was at their side. Mark watched as the guardsman gave him a slight bow, saying, “Lord Mark. Lord Vorkosigan told us to expect you. He and your mother, the Countess, are awaiting you in the gardens.” With a look Mark couldn’t quite classify, Pym continued, “Stableman Herel should be arriving soon to take your horse. After he’s arrived, Roic and I will be escorting you to them.”
Roic looked as though he wanted to protest, but after Pym’s lack of tolerance for his prior nervousness, the younger guardsman was wise enough not to. Perhaps Mark was being used as a trial by fire.
With a brief meh, Mistwalker said, ‘Intelligent human.’
Well, hopefully the guardsmen would adjust to Mark. Apparently they had adjusted to Miles well enough... But that was all the time he had to think because the groom was approaching. Mark almost looked away, but stopped himself. He wasn’t going to be scared of his own household if he decided to stay. The groom’s hand twitched, but other than that there was no response. Everyone in Mark was impressed at his self control.
The groom gave a slight bow, before saying, “Lord Mark. Who’ll this…” he paused to check under the horse’s hindquarters before saying, “Lad be?”
Mark hadn’t even known the horse was male, although since it had never bothered any mares (that Mark knew of), he supposed it must be a gelding. With a brief blink, Mark said, “I never named him.”
The groom made a tsking sound, “Then he’ll be Parr. Short and easy to say, unless Lord Vorkosigan or you decides to change it.”
Shaking his head in slight confusion, Mark dismounted and said, “That sounds fine to me.” As soon as Mistwalker had resettled herself, Mark pulled himself together and said to Pym, “So lead on.”
* * *
He and his escorts rounded a bend in the path to find a red haired Betharan seated on a bench by a pool. She looked up, and Mark could see that her eyes were the same color and shape as Miles’s. The same as his would have been, if he’d been permitted to mature as he had been born. He also felt a tentative brush through the twin bond, the same warm glow that warmed him throughout as before.
Before he was fully aware of her movements, the woman…his mother…was on her feet and across the intervening space, embracing him with fervent joy. While he wanted to struggle, at least briefly, he adjusted to the unfamiliar contact very quickly. Through a mental fog, he heard her say, “Mark, my Mark. Welcome home.”
Behind him, another embraced him and whispered through the purring of two fae cats, “Brother. You’re home.”
This is the end. Thank you to all the readers who stuck with me throughout this story. There will be a third story coming along sometime in the new year.