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The Committee To Prepare The Ground

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"Eleven million Barrayaran marks!" Vorparadjis roars, and only Gregor's long training prevents him from flinching. "Eleven million – do you know what that will buy?"

They’re all shouting at once. "A medium-sized fleet of galactic mercenaries," Gregor murmurs into the general melée, and, louder, "Gentlemen…"

"I apologise, Sire," Vorparadjis says, to his credit, at once. "I am merely…"

He trails off, but Gregor understands the man's stiff sense of honour, at least. The noise continues at a lower volume. "This can't go into open court," Allegre is saying. "It's not even clear whose jurisdiction it's in – Captain Illyan is a civilian now, even if he was in ImpSec's employ at the time of the alleged… events…."

"There would have to be a venue hearing." Lord Auditor Vorthys looks troubled. He, Vorparadjis and Vorkalloner are present; although Lord Auditor Vorkosigan has been involved in the investigation, he’s been specifically barred from participating in these proceedings and is standing quietly at the back of the room. Gregor is impressed. "And then, witnesses would have to be called – but nevertheless, if we could…"

Vorkalloner interrupts, ponderously, "It would be a public hearing. If I may refer to the elephant in the room – Captain Illyan is a former spy. A former spy's spy, even. And not to mention his notorious memory problem…"

Allegre looks like he wants to interrupt, but gets beaten to it by Vorthys. "He's still entitled to testify on his own behalf. And to the due process of law, for that matter, and to witnesses in his defence."

"Chief of whom may be his wife," Vorkalloner begins, heatedly, but is interrupted in his turn.

"Eleven million Barrayaran marks!" Vorparadijis seems to be a little hung up on the number. "Eleven million…"

"Anyone would think," Illyan says, sotto voce, to Gregor, "that I wasn't actually here."

There’s a specific point in the day when the sun emerges from the buildings across the courtyard and begins to creep gradually into Gregor's study. He inspects the warm light peeling through the dust motes in the room, and reaches a decision. "Gentlemen," he says again, and this time, silence falls. "Captain Illyan. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Illyan stands up. "General. My Lords Auditor. Sire." A brief bow to Gregor, which isn’t lost on him. "Firstly, for the avoidance of doubt, I understand the nature of the charges levelled against me. I am accused of the embezzlement of eleven million, two hundred thousand, three hundred Barrayaran marks, over the thirty-year period during which I was Chief of Imperial Security. Certain facts have come to light during a routine inspection of Imperial Security accounts undertaken by Lords Auditor Vorthys, Vorkalloner and Vorparadjis, and I'm grateful for their diligence.

"Secondly, for the avoidance of further doubt" – his eyes gleam – "I am not legally married. For everyday purposes a mere academic point, but as it stands there are few people who cannot be compelled to testify against me."

In the silence that follows that statement, a careful but confident knock is heard at the door. A long moment goes by before Gregor speaks. "Captain Illyan, where are your manners?"

Illyan smiles. "My apologies, Sire." He walks unhurriedly across the chamber to the little wooden door that leads to the anteroom. Somewhere in the last thirty seconds Gregor has started to enjoy himself; he doesn’t move to get a better view of who's behind the door, content with taking in the expressions of confusion, anger and mild constipation crossing the faces of his Imperial Auditors.

"I was wondering," Illyan says, his voice quiet but carrying, "just when my cavalry were going to appear. Gentlemen, I believe you know Lady Alys Vorpatril and Professora Vorthys."

They enter in a sweep of skirts, Illyan following respectfully behind. Both women bow slightly to Gregor; he acknowledges them with a bow of his own. And then, after a cough from behind the door, there are more of them: women Gregor knows of without having seen the pictures, so he remembers all the names without the faces; middle-aged women wearing their university colours, girls in their first season in society, girls in prole workboots and hair carefully brushed back. More of them than the silence behind the door would have indicated; almost more of them than will fit into this beautiful old room, in long lines in the sunlight.

Lord Auditor Vorthys is the first to react. "Helen?" he says uncertainly. "What is this?"

Helen Vorthys waves him silent. Illyan catches Gregor's eye and Gregor nods.

"My lords," Illyan says, "my co-conspirators and I are here to propose a deal. If that sounds unfortunately Jacksonian, I can only plead the improving influence of my daughter-in-law."

He pauses again, and Lady Alys takes his hand. Gregor suspects he isn’t the only person here enjoying himself.

"We will tell you the truth," Alys says, "if you will hear it."

"Yes," Vorparadjis says, still bullish, but taking a step backwards regardless: away from that silent, sunlit force of women.

*

It had begun with a pitched battle over a dropped tray of pastries at the Imperial Winterfair reception.

"Really, Captain Illyan," Lady Alys was saying, her voice somehow permeating all of the space in his office despite the fact she never seemed to raise her voice, "the man was an incompetent. I understand he was there for some other purpose, but…"

"That other purpose, as you put it, was to execute a highly sensitive information drop," Simon said, exasperated. "The role of a servitor was the best cover for him."

"Captain Illyan." Lady Alys breathed a sigh, looked straight at him. They had been working together not quite a year, and Simon wondered how it was possible that they could already have had the same disagreements twenty times over. "I could have trained a girl do that job. And she could have done it without getting whipped cream on the Lord Regent's boots."

Simon sighed. "You haven't been cleared, milady."

Lady Alys tipped her head and regarded him. "Indeed not," she said, crisp. "I was just a country Vor girl whom Padma liked. He danced with me a few times; then he asked me and I married him. I came to this city with him. You know the rest. Two weeks ago, after the Escobaran reception ball at the Residence, Cordelia was called away unexpectedly and I carried Gregor up to bed myself. No, I have not been cleared. Tell me, whose failure was that?"

"Milady," Simon said, gently. “You must know, women in the Imperial Service…"

“Yes,” she said, after a moment. “We’ve always known the Imperial Service doesn’t make good use of its resources.”

Simon shrugged, a little helplessly. “It is what it is, milady.”

Lady Alys sniffed. “Is your mother dead?"

"Yes,” Simon said, and there was no reply; but then there was never going to be. She knew what she was doing and the damage had been done, because now Simon was thinking of his mother: the chip was dumping image after image in his mind, of his mother's house, built in the hills of Vorkosigan's District; of the chimney smoke wreathing into the winter sky; of her hand in his, calloused in her middle age; and in a memory of a memory, the sensation of being lifted into the air as a child, swung skywards by her strength.

He breathed out. "All right," he said at last. "I'll prepare an initial mission outline. Run your girls how you please but for my peace of mind please limit their number to two, at first. It's my practice to have the agent name the handler but in this case…"

His gesture was vague, intended to cover social standing and all its similar manners of sin, but he had to give her credit; her expression merely flickered.

"Gregor is five years old," she said. "For fifteen years at least, we'll be working together. Perhaps we ought to be on first-name terms."

Simon nodded. "Alys, then. Identify your people and have them vetted by my department. I'll send some documents in hard copy and it will be your duty to ensure they are destroyed. Welcome" – a slight smile – "to the service of Imperial Security."

Alys bowed.

*

It was raining again, over the farm and vineyards, and there was no chance of going out that day. "You could send one of the Armsman in a lightflyer to get you something new to read," Katya offered, wanting to help even if she didn't know exactly how, and Elisaveta was grateful. She had had her few years' reprieve and she was grateful for that, too: she had read ancient and classical languages at the University of Vorbarr Sultana before returning to her mother’s house in the district, ready for the spring season.

"You know," she said, privately aware even at that moment that it wasn't quite a joke, "maybe I could take the lightflyer, run off to the city in the middle of the night" – but before Katya could respond to that, one of the family Armsmen announced a guest.

“I’d best see to it,” Elisaveta told Katya, regretfully - Katya was adept in the social graces, more so than her older sister, but only seventeen, still, to Elisaveta’s almost-matronly twenty-two - and went downstairs running her fingers through her curls and wondering if her dress were trailing threads.

“Lady Alys Vorpatril,” she said, a few moments later in the parlour, having called for tea and pastries and still worrying about the state of her hair, “Mother is out, presently, but if you’d care to wait…”

“Actually,” Lady Alys said, settling in her chair with a subtle fluttering of skirts, “I’m here to talk to you."

"Oh?" Elisaveta said, wondering if she'd committed some social sin in the city, or if Katya's little misadventures in the vineyard with the son of the town vintners had come to brighter light.

But Lady Alys leaned back and said, "I understand you have a facility with languages” – and Elisaveta let out a deep breath.

“Yes,” she said, and then quite a while later, when Lady Alys had drunk her tea and Elisaveta’s own was cold and untouched in the cup: “Yes. Yes, please, yes.”

Lady Alys smiled, and made a note; the following week at the first spring reception, Elisaveta wore a green dress with silver trim, with high colour in her cheeks and just a hint of a smile; the gossip in Vor circles pronounced it quite a satisfactory debut into society.

*

“Everyone says,” Masha said, “it’s to do with that man. She's in love, he's smitten, they'll live happily ever after, et cetera. It’s all total rubbish, of course."

“Why so?” Sara asked, with some interest. “She went to the ball for the Emperor’s birthday celebrations, can you imagine? Before Alexei Vorob’yev took to her and started squiring her to everything, I never heard her family was so exalted that they’d get an invite. Elisaveta’s only third cousin twice removed from the district Count.”

“Vorob’yev’s been out of the city for years in the Imperial Service,” Masha pointed out. “You think he’s just discovered girls all at once and of all the ones he could’ve had he’s gone for her? There’s more to it than you’d think - oh, damn.”

“What?”

“Forgot my books. You go on - no, do, I’ll catch up.” She waved at Sara cheerfully enough; she wasn’t in any hurry to get to Introduction to Philology and Sara knew it. But when she turned around to retrace her footsteps, she startled at a hand laid on her shoulder.

“Who was that you were speaking of, just now?” asked Professora Vorthys; Masha knew her slightly from her first-year courses in the biological sciences.

“Elisaveta Vormuir,” Masha said, a little embarrassed at being caught gossiping. “She’s back in the city after she graduated last year, and I was just saying…”

“I heard what you were saying.” Professora Vorthys paused, and Masha cringed a little: she had thought the professora a kind woman, from what she knew of her, but Masha knew she was an Imperial Auditor’s wife and that her path wouldn’t have crossed with Masha’s anywhere else. “I thought it was… perspicacious of you.”

“Oh,” Masha said, quite at a loss at how to respond to this.

“I think you’d better come and have tea with me, my dear,” Professora Vorthys said, and Masha followed, feeling suddenly sure that it wasn't a request.

"Tell me," the professora said, over a samovar of tea fragrant with the brightness of green leaves, "what you're considering doing next, after you leave the university" – and Masha hadn't given it a great deal of thought, yet, but she never made it to Introduction to Philology, after all.

*

It was a day of rain when Alys received the summons, water curling around the wrought-iron awnings of the university district, and hammering flat on the roof of ImpSec HQ. Illyan looked up at her entrance, his hands full of heavy, scented paper. “A cipher," he said, "apparently based on an early dialect used in the Cetagandan empire, before the Star Creche was even thought of. Your agent is… thorough.”

“She’s your agent, too,” Alys said, primly, and Illyan nodded.

“Quite so. I’d be grateful if you would extend my compliments.”

Alys smiled. “The newer girl has a friend whom Professora Vorthys has recommended, also,” she said, and Illyan leaned back in his chair. “Her name is Sara Vorfolse, I believe her father is involved with counter-espionage operations on Jackson’s Whole for ImpSec.”

Illyan sighed. “He is. Not that anyone but a select few, none of whom save one are currently in this room, should know it.”

“Lady Vorfolse,” Alys said, tiredly in her turn, “drinks.”

They looked at each other over the desk for a moment, in silence. Alys was aware of the tick of the clock, the distant murmurs in the outer office, the sense of quiet and focused intensity throughout this building, and the things girls had to drive them towards excellence. “Up to five, then,” Illyan said, and Alys nodded.

“I’ll set Professora Vorthys on it.”

Illyan nodded in return, rising from his desk, then paused. “The newest girl,” he said, after a moment. “Is she… pretty?”

“Captain Illyan,” Alys said, mustering her frostiest tones, “if you, or any man who works for you, ever thinks for a single moment…”

“Lady Alys.” Illyan grinned at her; the effect was very sinister. “Forgive me. I’m making better use of my resources.”

“In that case,” Lady Alys said, still frostily, “they may all serve” – and Illyan looked suitably abashed.

*

"And tell me, sir," Clara had said, lowering the flimsy, "what happens if I say no to this?"

Captain Illyan regarded her solemnly over his desk. "Lady Clara. Tell me, what handle…

"Agate." She’d picked the name herself, not long after Lady Alys had tapped her on the shoulder at a quiet evening salon that perhaps a woman of Lady Alys's social standing wouldn’t - considering the calibre of the others invited - usually attend. At the time Clara had been wearing a semi-precious necklace of heavy green stones, and thinking a great deal about being the third daughter born to a family of country Vor.

Semi-precious, she thought, again, and stood up straighter.

"Agate." Captain Illyan nodded. "If you say no, I will say, thank you for your time, and then I will move to the next woman on the list." Off her look, he frowned, bringing his fingers together in a steeple shape. "It's not an order, agent. I have a policy of never ordering any agent of mine to do something I would not be willing to do myself. Willing, not able," he added, anticipating her comment with an uncanny precision.

She grinned despite herself, and then frowned. “So if I say no…"

He almost smiled. "Try it and see."

"No," she said, suddenly deciding. "I'll do it."

And now the sheet was slipping away from her body in a slow sweep, ghem-Colonel Esteban had a self-satisfied look on his face, laced with pure satiation, and she was quite pleased as she swung her legs out of bed and let her feet land bare and silent on the floor. Her clothes were piled neatly on a chair and she reached for them with a careful nonchalance - neither embarrassment nor eagerness. Give with one hand, Elisaveta had taught her, take with the other. “Tell me, Colonel,” she said sweetly, “how long are you on board?”

Four days, said Illyan’s voice in her head. Do what you can.

“A while longer, my dear,” Esteban said, making no effort at all to get up. He was on board the Kanzian as an exercise in diplomacy. Clara had tailed and toyed with similar as part of her training, and wondered a little sourly if diplomats ever did any work, beyond the obvious. “Perhaps, if you’re available…”

“I’ll try,” she said, dipping her head demurely, eyes on the undersurface of the bed. No mounted devices that she could see, but that didn't mean they weren't there. “I might be called away by my other duties. It can be so” - a pause, a half-smile, a look of embarrassment – “overwhelming, on board ship.”

“I’ve no doubt.” Esteban regarded her with a kind benevolence.

“I’ve never been away from home before,” Clara confided. “I’ve always been with my ma, or at school.”

“One’s horizons do have a tendency to expand,” Esteban said, with a louche wink on the last word, “whether one wants them to or not” - and she nodded, and blew him a kiss.

"I'll see you tonight," she said, "if I can."

She finished it off with a giggle, and then she set off into the corridor. Around two corners, then along a passageway, then down some steps; then into the ship’s transit lift-tube, up two floors, down three, then another corner, to a hollow between the ship’s bulkheads, shielded by accident or design from interference with radio communications.

“Stand by for transmission,” she murmured into her wristcom, and idly parsed the cipher in her mind: preliminary stage completed; have item; request instructions. Standing by.

Stand by, came the response; Clara shook it. In her palm, the datachip rested safe and secure. She wondered if Esteban had missed it yet.

Stand by, came the response again, in a single-digit code. Stand by.

Clara nodded, straightened out last night’s cocktail dress, and went to find something more appropriate for morning diplomacy.

*

“Why do I need the file? The bloody man’s bloody flown, that’s why! And you…” Vormaren stood up, his face pink with exertion. “Is correct filing beyond your comprehension, what? Was it foolish of me to presume prior knowledge of alphabetical order?”

Sara felt herself standing straighter. “I’m sorry, sir. It was a mistake. I won’t do it again.”

“Oh, you’re sorry.” Vormaren looked at her distractedly, than down at his desk. “What do I tell the chief? That oh, bloody Vortinde’s disappeared, but no, we can’t tell you anything more about it, the file is in transit. Whose cock did you suck to get this job, anyway? It wasn’t Illyan’s, that’s for sure.”

Sara breathed in, and out. “Will that be all, sir?”

“Just get out.” Vormaren picked up a pile of papers and flimsies and threw them into the air, presumably from pique rather than because it served any purpose. Sara turned away and scurried down the stairs. Cockroach Central - she’d earned the right to call it that, through six months of requisitioning old files, putting away new ones, and picking them all up at the end of the day - had just the one set of bathrooms marked for the use of women, hidden down a back staircase and conveniently on the way to the records archive sub-basement. Some of the other women had marched into the bathrooms on the other floors, on the reasoning they weren’t marked at all - but Sara was tired. She locked herself in a cubicle for a while, until she knew how many standard issue ImpSec black and white tiles it took to cover a toilet ceiling, and then went back out up the stairs, through the lobby and out into the winter sunshine. A few streets outside the standard security cordon, she caught a cab to the university district.

“Professora Vorthys,” she said, without preamble, taking the sign about the professora’s office hours off the door as she went in, “I’ve got to do something."

“Sara?” Professora Vorthys looked up at her, and then at the firmly-closed door, “I see. Are you looking for new employment, perhaps?”

“No” – Sara gestured, breathed, paced up and down - “that’s not it. It's fine. I just… I have to. There’s something I have to – and I'm…"

Professora Vorthys looked at her, then sat deliberately down in her desk chair, as though making a decision. “You know,” she said, “before I married, my name was Vorpolous.”

Sara frowned. “As in Vorpolous’s Law?”

The Professora smiled. “From a less exciting branch of the family, thankfully. When I was your age and frightened to speak in class, I always allowed myself the length of my full name. Even now when I’m about to present a paper, or some such thing, for the time it takes to write Professora Helen Vorpolous Vorthys in the margin, I’m allowed to be scared. After that…” She waved a hand.

Sara smiled wanly. “My name is much shorter than yours, Professora.”

“You’re young, you have more courage. In all seriousness” - the Professora reached out and placed a comforting hand on her arm - “I’ve never chosen a woman for this job in whom I didn’t have absolute faith. Come back here when you’re done, if you want.”

Sara nodded, seriously. “Thank you, Professora,” she said, and the same cab was still hanging around the gates when she went out, looking for another fare. She tapped the window and mouthed back again through the glass.

And then she was back, back in that grey, toweringly hideous building, with her fingernails digging into her palms and her breath coming in short, insufficient bursts.

“Captain Illyan, sir?”

He looked up. She expected his eyes to go vague for a second, and was surprised when his gaze stayed sharply on her; perhaps he knew who she was without looking it up. He was waiting, and she wasn’t speaking.

“I need to tell you something,” she blurted, and cursed herself for how much of a schoolgirl she sounded.

“No one comes in here just for the pleasure of my company,” he agreed, and strangely it was that flash of irony that steeled her: every agent in the building quailed from Illyan’s sarcasm, which included, it seemed, her.

“I pulled some files from store last night,” she said clearly. “Captain Vormaren was investigating… well.” She paused. “He was suspicious of possible moles on board the Kanzian. I wasn’t supposed to know about it.”

“That’s because,” Illyan said with heavy irony, “no one was.”

Sara nodded. “He asked me to pull the files for Vorkalloner, Kaverin and Vorteil. And I made a mistake.” Sara was blushing, furious at herself. “I pulled Vorkalloner and Kaverin, but also Vortinde. I sent the file back to store when I realised what I'd done and now it's in transit.”

Illyan drew in a breath. “Vortinde has - I presume you know this? He’s…”

“Disappeared.” Sara kept on breathing. “He was gone early this morning, Vormaren said.”

Illyan had gone absolutely still. “When did you pull the files from store?”

“Yesterday night, just before finishing for the day.”

Illyan’s expression didn’t change, but his palms turned over, fingers moving reflexively, and Sara could see his mind making each leap behind that studied blankness: the files, the timing, the movement of information inside ImpSec. And then he leapt over his desk and landed while still moving, one hand out to steady himself on the edge of the desk. Even carried along with that burst of energy, he still paused at the doorway, turned to say, “Well done, agent” - and he was gone, leaving Sara standing in his office alone, breathing, upright.

*

They were discussing arrangements for the next Imperial Winterfair ball, considering the details of place settings, and who might be seated with whom, and Gregor was a little older now, and perhaps there were girls from Vor families - but perhaps not yet, perhaps too soon - when Cordelia turned to the window and said, “What’s that?”

Alys followed her gaze to the light in the sky, intensely bright in the dimming sky, with threads of trailing vapour beneath it like a comet’s tail. “Oh,” she said, something nagging insistently in her memory, “I think…”

Kanzian,” said Armsman Esterhazy, suddenly, and Cordelia turned to him to ask more questions, but Alys didn’t. “It’s the new ship - I mean, it was…”

Later, Alys couldn’t think how she’d crossed the ground between the Residence and ImpSec HQ so quickly; she thought she must have called for a driver, gathered her skirts into the back of the groundcar and been scanned by the security personnel allowing her into the building, but afterwards she could remember nothing of it, nothing until the sudden fact of Simon’s outer office and her own hands curling into fists and hitting the door, more loudly than was strictly decorous.

He was at the door in an instant, the expression on his face changing from determined to despairing as he saw her, and then back to bland too quickly for her to respond. “I know,” Alys began, before he could say anything, “I know you have… this, as a part of your working life. I know you must…”

“The day it becomes routine, milady,” he said heavily, “is the day I…” His fingers curled in a horribly precise gesture. “I am…”

“Please don’t say you’re sorry,” Alys said, “and please don’t speak of her in a different breath from the other… how many?”

There must have been other agents aboard that ship, she knew; ImpSec believed in redundancy. She saw the brief battle of emotions on his face at the thought of passing on information related to a deep cover assignment, no matter how useless that information now was. “Four,” he said at last, the sigh resonating through the small space.

“What happens now?” she asked, partly to fill the silence, and partly to know.

“My analysts are on it,” he said, uncharacteristically sitting on the edge of his desk. “There’s some evidence they were betrayed. But it’s going to take time.”

Alys nodded, trying to take that in, to sit alongside the place settings and the coming season. Betrayal, and time.

“They tell me the debris is in a decaying orbit,” Simon said. “For a few nights we’re going to have meteor showers above Vorbarr Sultana. They come down as falling stars.”

Alys wondered when he’d last eaten, or slept. “And your agents? What of them?”

“Their last transmissions are being decoded.” Simon inclined his head. “Their courage will not go unremembered. I do not speak of your agent separately.”

"Do you want to match her courage, Captain Illyan?" Alys said, feeling her voice drop into the dangerous register. "Will you write the usual letter to her parents?"

Simon looked up, as though the thought had never occurred to him. "You know I can't do that, milady."

“Though her courage was no less?”

Simon said, evenly, “No one is saying that.”

“No,” Alys said. “No one is saying anything at all.”

That time, Simon was looking at her with an easily readable worry crossing his face. ”Lady Alys, you know you can't…"

She regarded him coolly. "Don’t insult me."

“Lady Alys, I don’t…” - he hesitated - “I don’t mean…” He trailed off again, then stood up, taking a step towards her. "If you think it best, we can terminate the programme."

Later, she'd look back and be surprised she hadn't slammed the door in his face; it was certainly the closest in some years that she'd come to it.

"I have nothing further to say to you, Simon,” she said, instead, crisp and dry-eyed, and went back out into the hallway, out of the building, back to the Residence, choosing to walk rather than call a groundcar; she would have to school her face back into even expressionlessness, for Cordelia; she would have to recruit and run at least one more agent; and for the moment at least she would have to avoid looking up: at the cooling evening sky, still falling.

*

Business before pleasure, her da always said. The snow was melting – at least, it was in the city, the packed-down banks of stale ice finally dripping away down the gutters. In Katya’s family’s home district, north of the capital, the snowdrifts were still lying about, as the song said, deep and crisp and even – but there were spring dresses in the boutique windows, and a wedding to plan.

“These are not ordinary times,” Lady Alys said as Katya entered, and Katya was startled; it was unlike Lady Alys not to pour the tea, and ask sincerely after Katya’s mother and sister, before moving the conversation in any other direction.

“Well, yes,” she said, a little awkwardly, looking around Lady Alys’s perfectly-decorated sitting room, every surface gleaming. And that in itself was odd, Katya noted; she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times they had met here, rather than in Vor-frequented cafés and salons, on more safely anonymous ground. “I was meaning to speak with you about it, Lady Alys. I don’t think I should carry on – well, after I’m married, you know…”

“I have a job for you today,” Lady Alys said, again with a peremptoriness that grated on Katya’s calm. She breathed in for a moment, drew on her training, took in how Lady Alys was sitting, stiff and straight-backed, all elegance without ease, with her fingers clasped perhaps a little too tightly on the edge of her chair.

“Today?” she repeated, her mind suddenly filled with visions of spring dresses, and wedding flowers, drifting out of reach.

Lady Alys looked directly at her and Katya flinched a little under the intensity of that scrutiny. “This job,” she said steadily, “is more important than anything else you may have to do today – anything else, do you hear me? Consider the promises you made when you took on this role.” After a pause, she sighed, and Katya realised that under her make-up, she was pale and tired. “I apologise, Katya. You haven’t been to the city in some weeks – perhaps you’re not aware of the political situation?”

Katya shook her head. “Only… little things, like something’s not right. But the Council of Counts, the Lord Regent, they’re always at each other’s throats, aren’t they?”

“Succinct but accurate. Yes. But… this time. I’m not permitted to tell you a great deal, but this time is different.” This time, Katya mentally amended, taking in the sudden slump in Lady Alys’s shoulders, is personal.

“Whatever it is, I’ll do it,” she said.

And perhaps, she thought a little later, the spies on Vorthalia the Bold could have done it in a manner both elegant and suave, but she was doing it. "Psssst," she said, cringing a little with the amateurishness of it. "Psssst."

But it worked. There was a movement in the far dim corner of the cell; within a few seconds, Captain Illyan had slid out of the greasy darkness, his fingers curving around the bars. She took in a few seconds' worth of observation – thinner than he had been, but standing; bearing weight on his feet though steadying himself with his hands; fingernails broken and bloody, but still there. He bore the inquisitive gaze patiently for a few moments before speaking. "The shift change takes, at the most, forty-five seconds," he said, quietly, his voice sounding husky from disuse. A pause, then he inclined his head. "Where's your accomplice?"

Katya grinned. "Along the corridor and up a bit. She got lost, then she slipped and fell and hurt her knee. It's amazing, isn't it, how young women always need someone to look after them. We've got" – she glanced at her chrono – "a good three minutes, yet."

He nodded, his eyes sweeping over her with professional appraisal. "Very good."

“Thank you,” she said, recovering from a moment's discomfiture. “This” – the box, carefully constructed, slipped precisely through the gap in the bars – "has lockpicks, cold lights, medical alcohol, painkillers, vitamin tablets and water chlorination tablets. My superior officer asks most particularly that you don't get those last two confused."

A flash of a smile. "I'll try."

"And," she hesitated, "we don't know… how long, or…"

"Say no more, agent." He gave her another smile, this time without humour. "Just one fucking thing after another, as a friend of mine would say."

To be sworn at by the Chief of ImpSec – or sworn in front of; her mother wouldn't have made the distinction – was a compliment, Katya realised instantly. He was looking at her with frank curiosity. "What's your name?"

“Topaz,” she said brightly. “Serial number 14-88-33.”

He inclined his head again. "That wasn't a test, agent."

"Everything's a test, sir."

"Ah,” he said, “quite" - and then there was a sudden clang from the distance. Illyan jerked backwards by reflex.

"That's my cue," she said hurriedly, but she couldn't resist giving him an analyst's salute, so his eyes flashed in the darkness, before she scurried away down the corridor.

She delivered her report in person, and Lady Alys smiled wanly when she had finished. “You’re a good girl, Katya. You know, there should still be time – I wouldn’t want you to disappoint your mother, I know she’s very excited for your wedding.”

Katya smiled. “Thank you, Lady Alys. I’ll tell her you were remembering her.”

“A pale pink would be pretty, with your hair,” Lady Alys said, her eyes kind, and tucked one of Katya’s curls behind her ear.

Katya smiled again. “Thank you, Lady Alys,” she said, very gently, and shut the door very quietly behind her.

*

"The Committee to Prepare the Ground,” Masha read, “for the Coming of the Revolution. Is that what it was originally called?”

Ana laughed. “That’s the trouble with taking over the reins before the project’s done. Not that it could be helped – it’s a lifetime’s project, many lifetimes’ project. But it was begun by Vor, did you know that? Had it all from books, rather than lived experience. Who else would have had the means to print neat little pamphlets like that?”

Masha set it down carefully. She’d been surprised to find that the organisation had, primitively but meticulously, curated its own tiny historical archive. Century-old Vor pamphlets, like the one she’d been reading; banners carefully furled from long-ago marches; small jars holding twisted bullets. To someday serve history, Masha thought: the someday Great Library of the Proletariat, perhaps housed in what was now Vorhartung Castle, its great inner vaults lined with testimony to the struggle. The long view made her dizzy.

“Are you all right?” Ana asked. “You seem like you’ve got something on your mind.”

“I’m fine,” Masha said.

Later that day she went to the drop, walking along past the river idly kicking pebbles and listening, rather than watching, as they skittered down the bank into the water. It was very cold; something in the clouded, vivid quality to the light spoke of snow. She caught an autocab through the fashionable city districts, brushing the water off her dress and expertly applying her lipstick in the cab mirror. Lady Alys Vorpatril met her at the usual table, ordering tea and pastries from the waiter as Masha took her seat, tucking her skirts neatly underneath her.

“Lady Maria,” Lady Alys said, looking up. “A pleasure, as always. How is your lady mother?”

“Very well, thank you.” Masha hadn't seen her in six months. “Her health is improving.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

“How is your son?” Masha asked.

“He's well. Although, on occasion,” Lady Alys added, dryly, “rather tiring.”

Masha smiled. “My brother was the same.”

Lady Alys let her pour the tea; only someone who was listening for it, as Masha was, could hear the clink of a tiny data chip hitting the table. Idly, Alys brushed an invisible crumb off the cloth. They spoke of the weather in Vorbarr Sultana; of the upcoming Winterfair balls given at the Imperial Residence; they spoke of mutual acquaintances. At length, Lady Alys made to rise, her eyes on the window. "It's looking nasty. It might be prudent for us to retire ahead of the weather."

"Lady Alys." Masha hesitated, then went on. "That's… a beautiful dress you're wearing. It reminds me of the red you wore in the spring season."

There was only a flicker in her expression because Masha was looking for it. Lady Alys said, "Is that so? Thank you."

The snow was starting to come down as they left the exclusive little café and parted ways on the slick pavement outside. Masha walked all the long way back to the Ground Committee, letting water collect in the creases of her eyes, letting her make-up run. Ana was there as the door opened. "Masha! I was starting to worry. Where were you?"

Masha didn't answer, standing there wet with snowmelt, taking in the genuine concern on Ana's beautiful, drawn face.

The summons came two days later, in the morning. Masha dressed neutrally, in a prole's trousers and work boots and with her hair tied back. In the park there were families out walking; old men taking constitutionals, their breath showing in the chilled air; children skimming stones on the half of the pond not frozen over. Masha sat on the bench closest to the water, and waited. When she looked up, a nondescript man with soft brown hair and a puppyish look was sitting to her right.

She let a minute pass. "You came."

"You sent for me." His tone was neutral, bearing only the hint of a question; she nodded in answer, let another minute go by in silence, broken only by the sound of the stones hitting the water.

"I could have just… run," she said at last. "But I didn't – I couldn't do it like that. I just…"

She trailed off. Illyan paused, an indescribable expression crossing his face. "Perhaps," he said after a moment, "it would help to know that for the next few minutes, nothing you say is on the record."

She laughed, a little bitterly. "Nothing said to you is off the record."

Illyan bowed his head. "I keep greater secrets than this, my lady."

Masha turned to face him and he met her gaze. "You're not Vor," she said, suddenly. "Neither was my ma, did you know that? My da, he was... unconventional. The things they used to say about me at school! But we're not poor either, you must know that. My ma had done well in Komarran shipping and my da… well, anyway, it was a whirlwind romance and here me and my sisters are. They used to call us prole scum, they used to wash their hands after touching us. And I've got 'Vor' in front of my name." Another pause, before she burst out: "Don't you have anything to say to that?"

Illyan dropped his eyes. "Only this. I live to serve."

Masha snorted. "Yeah. That’s why I couldn't just…"

"Run." Illyan was sitting absolutely still.

"Ana and the rest" – Masha shrugged – "yeah, they're violent, sometimes. So's everything. People fight wars for what's right."

Illyan said, face shadowed, "Yes. That's true."

"And?"

"And nothing at all, Lady Maria." Illyan was looking at her with characteristic intensity. "If that's your final word on the subject…"

"It is."

"...then I must thank you for your service."

When he didn't say anything further, suspicion rose in her mind like a bubble. "Now what?" she asked. "You send someone after me, someone to kill me?"

Illyan inclined his head. "My lady, I believe you have just given up the right to ask me that." But before she could respond, he sighed and leaned back on the bench. "No. But after today, you have no protection from me. If, in the future, there is, ah, violence…"

Masha nodded. "I understand." A pause. "You won't – I mean, the other girls, they're nothing to do with it. You won't assume that…"

He shook his head. "Of course not."

They both stood, and perhaps in another world, another life, Masha was thinking, they might have embraced or shaken hands. But they stood still, regarded one another warily, until Illyan finally put his hands in his pockets and started walking. "Good luck," he said very softly, and made his way slowly away from her, across the park, without looking back.

Masha watched the ducks slipping and sliding on the frozen surface of the ice, for a little longer. Beneath her feet the snow was thick, and beneath that was the frozen ground.

*

Even after all these years, it followed a ritual. When their business was concluded, Alys took pen to paper. The record of the meeting would join the others, in a locked chest with a false bottom, beneath an array of earrings and necklaces: tourmaline, garnet, topaz and lapis lazuli. "A quiet few months," she commented as she wrote. “Several on codebreaking, one analyst working out of her mother’s attic in the Vorrutyer’s District - and another fifty or so on deep-cover, somewhere. Oh, and you're sure about the Vorpinsent girl?"

The Professora nodded. "Too flighty, I think. A shame, as she's very bright. Will you take some tea, Alys?"

"That would be wonderful, thank you." Alys looked up and smiled; it was also part of the ritual, for them to spend a short while speaking of other things. Today, as so many times before, the Professora got up to make the tea, taking the few steps across her study to the little electric heater and boxes of tea leaves laid out below the window. The room was under the eaves of an ancient Time of Isolation university building; Alys found its honey-coloured stone and crawling ivy restful.

There was something stilted in the Professora's movements, Alys noted. "Alys," the Professora said, quietly, her eyes on the tea, "I wonder if I might… confide a regret to you."

"Professora," Alys said sincerely, "I'd hoped you considered us friends. I would be listen to anything you might wish to tell me."

The Professora gave her a wistful smile. "Lemon and honey?"

"No, thank you." Alys cleared books and journals off the low table, piling them neatly and leaving space for the tea.

"I'm a career academic," the Professora said, at last sitting down opposite her. "I work with the ancient leaves of history. I wonder, sometimes, if that makes me slow. When there's a situation demanding my attention, right in front of me, perhaps I'm too worried about posterity and developing contexts to… I don't know. To act."

Alys took a sip of her tea, and listened.

"I have a niece. Well, I suppose not biologically - she's Georg's sister's daughter."

"People worry too much about biology," Alys said. "Do go on, Professora."

"She read plant sciences here at the university and she lived with me while she was studying. Not a stunning beauty, not a sparkling conversationalist." The Professora smiled, still wistfully. "Intelligent, practical, competent. A good girl, growing to be a valuable young woman. I had thought…" She smiled again. "You know exactly what I thought. I was even planning how I would broach it to her when she brought me the news. Her family had found a match for her, the wedding would be in the spring. In the Southern Continent, so I couldn't practically attend. I sent them a present and my good wishes."

"Many women," Alys said, carefully, "have found fulfilment and happiness in marriage."

"I believe you." The Professora gave her a sharp look. "But, Alys, she doesn't write to me. She did, for a while – notes on my birthday and Winterfair, she used to send me articles that she thought I'd be interested in. And now… she doesn't. And I… you may be right. Perhaps, marriage, and motherhood… but I'm worried, that's all."

"I have no doubt in you," Alys said, "that you will do the right thing."

"Your faith gives me heart, Alys." The Professora sighed and took her first sip of her own tea. "I wonder when we grow old," she said, after a moment. "I wonder how it happens that we start looking back, rather than forwards."

"You're a student of history, Professora." As she said it, Alys's eyes were skimming over the shelves lining the study. Over the years she had had ample opportunity to take in the rows of spines, to notice how they never had the chance to gather dust, how they shifted in great patterns Alys feared she wouldn't understand even if they were explained. Not for the first time, she thought of the great irony: all of her own education had been from her experience, the combination of her native wits and her steep, lifelong political learning curve. It wasn't unlike a prole apprenticeship in a trade.

"I sometimes wonder," she said, wondering if she might be offering confession for confession, "what my life might have been like, if I had had… other opportunities."

The Professora smiled. "It's never too late to learn, Alys. What a terrible world, if it ever was."

Alys smiled in return. "Perhaps not. Not that we've ever had the opportunity to test that theory."

They shared a moment of perfect understanding. Alys sipped her tea, breathing in the jasmine fragrance.

*

In Gregor's office, Lady Alys takes a step forwards, into the sun. "There were four hundred and sixty-four agents in total," she says, bright and clear. "They have relayed intelligence from Escobar, from Beta Colony, from Jackson's Whole, from Eta Ceta. Elisaveta Vormuir" – the woman in the university colours looks up – "continues to parse ciphers for ImpSec today."

"General Allegre only knows my initials," Elisaveta murmurs; Gregor smiles and Allegre looks stricken.

"Over the years," Lady Alys says, "some ceased their work when they were married. Some worked for us for decades. Some turned; some were killed; some walked away. We have remembered all of them."

After that, the silence is absolute, the dust motes still twirling in the sun. At length, Gregor says, "Thank you, Lady Alys. Thank you, Professora Vorthys. Thank you all."

The other auditors understand they aren't included in that, Miles notes. They stand back for a moment, and then Lady Alys and Professora Vorthys bow, again. "Captain Illyan," Gregor says, after another minute, "I'll see to it the charges against you are quietly withdrawn. Although…" – he paused – "I wonder what the university would make of it, if we sent them several decades' worth of newly-declassified material as a Winterfair present."

Illyan smiles and nods, and then follows his cavalry out of the room, a silent presence at their heels. As he always was, for all of his agents; Miles watches him go, wondering how many secrets will die with Simon Illyan, and if after everything some things are worth saving, after all.

Later that evening, he walks into the kitchen at Vorkosigan House to find Ekaterin just coming in from the Barrayaran garden, her cheeks pink and hands covered in soil, and says, without preamble: "Simon's been cleared."

"Oh, thank goodness," Ekaterin says, turning to the sink to get the worst of the dirt off. Miles watches the water run black, fondly. "Not that I thought… but. Good. Good."

"My thoughts exactly." Miles smiles beatifically up at her, and starts rummaging for any of today's leftover Ma Kosti creations; Allegre was visiting, earlier, and having escaped the man's job, Miles feels it's kind to keep him well-supplied with whipped cream.

"Dinner time soon," Ekaterin says, glancing up at the wall chrono. "Though I suppose we could" – she's fabricating coffee as she says it, rummaging out plates and butter for scones – "just this once."

Miles doesn’t take much persuasion. He tears into the food without waiting for the butter to melt, and Ekaterin gives him a few minutes before asking, "What happened, then?"

Miles swallows, wipes his mouth and takes a deep breath. "Of course, I never thought Simon could really have – I mean, with the amounts of money we're talking about, the question becomes, where could it possibly have gone?"

"Well, exactly." Ekaterin nods. "Even if Captain Illyan had been, I don't know, maintaining a secret wife and family – isn't that the canonical reason men do this sort of thing? – it wouldn't have been just one, not for that amount of money. It would have been dozens of them."

Miles grins. "Ekaterin, it's funny you should say that."

Ekaterin puts down her fork. "Miles…"

Miles laughs, knowing he's being aggravating, and relents. "It seems," he said carefully, "that Simon did the exact same thing with the money as he did with all the other Imperial money that passed through his hands for all those thirty years. It turns out, though, that his payroll was just…. a little larger than we thought at the time."

He realises as he says it that's been a while since he reverted to the ImpSec we. Ekaterin waits.

"It turns out," Miles says at last, "that there was a classified project I never heard of. No one ever heard of it, no one except Simon and Gregor and Lady Alys and a very few others. They started with women from high Vor families – second daughters, often – and then they expanded to students, Vor and prole women who'd come to Vorbarr Sultana to study…"

Ekaterin looks at him in surprise. "Working for ImpSec?" she says, and Miles can see the wheels turning behind her eyes. "Analysts or field agents?"

"Both, I believe." Miles takes a handsome bite of cake. "According to Simon, they could do things the ordinary chain of command couldn't. They were recruited and run in secret, mostly from the university here. And no one ever suspected, because no one ever... had the imagination to suspect, I guess? And of course, he never wrote anything down. But they were there, all along."

"All along," Ekaterin says, with something distant and awful in her voice, and Miles takes a breath.

"Ekaterin," he says, "you might want to go to tea with your Aunt Vorthys, soon. I mean… not as a matter of urgency."

"Not any more," Ekaterin says, and stands up sharply, pushing her chair under the table. She goes to the sink, to wash off the dirt that's no longer on her hands. Miles doesn't go to her. He sits quite still, and lets the ticking chronometer and the water splashing on the tiles fill the silence.

"How could they," Ekaterin says, after a little while, and then pauses. "How could they keep it secret, for so long?”

"Hiding in plain sight, I guess." Miles returns to his scones, taking another a couple of giant mouthfuls. He reaches for his coffee cup, then pauses. "Ekaterin, are you all right? What is it?"

Ekaterin doesn’t answer. She's looking at their daughter, who has come into the kitchen unnoticed while they’ve been talking. Helen is young, still. She is leaning against the wall with her arms folded, taking in the room and everything in it with clear, dispassionate eyes.