As Miles and Ivan rushed towards the Council chamber, Renthier trotting beside them, Sularenimon asked in his most sardonic tone, “You certain that you know what you’re doing, Miles? This has the potential to be more unpleasant than our visit to Beta last year.”
Ignoring Ivan’s question about what happened last year on Beta, Miles told his daemon, “You know very well how certain I am. Besides, isn’t it a bit late for second thoughts, daemon mine? You had plenty of time to voice your complaints, and it’s not as if you have any difficulty doing so. You’ve let me know every time you disagree with anything, from the color of the socks I’m wearing to trying for military service. Also, you’ve fully enjoyed the benefits of what happened on Beta last year, so you don’t get to complain about how unpleasant it was.”
With a laugh that, by rights should have been harsh and croaking instead of a light baritone, Sularenimon said, “You know me, Miles. Have to be the devil’s advocate at all times.”
After he said that, he made as if to fly ahead. Miles reached up and grabbed the daemon’s legs before he could take off fully. He muttered under his breath, “And you call me impulsive and incautious.”
“That’s because you are,” the daemon replied. “Doesn’t mean I’m not, too!”
Ivan muttered, “The pair of you will be laughing and arguing at your execution.” Renthier snorted her agreement and shook her mane. Miles wondered if the horse daemon was deliberately making her footsteps loud in irritation, or if it was just him. It wasn’t as if she would answer if he asked. The only daemon other than his own who would break protocol enough to speak with him was Nalaresti.
Sularenimon would talk to anyone who held still long enough to be addressed. For all their arguments, Sularenimon and Miles were more alike than different, having a very good relationship. One of the characteristics they shared was a disregard for the rules of polite society and standard behavior. The matter of ‘Beta, last year’ had been to see if they could manage the witch’s trick of physically separating themselves. And they had managed it, too. But they both knew better than to tell anyone. Miles was already odder than acceptable because of his physical deformities and male daemon, adding anything else, particularly a talent most frequently achieved by women, would be asking for more trouble than even they felt they could handle.
And that was on Barrayar. On Beta, the discovery could have even worse consequences. On Beta, with the Betan mistrust of anything outside of scientific parameters and an equal mistrust of anyone trying to manipulate the bond between a human and their daemon, it could have gotten them into severe legal difficulties and possibly into Mental Health. His mother had told them about the severe culture shock she had experienced when she met a witch. Witches might not have been common anywhere, but they were nonexistent on Beta. For all that Beta was incredibly open when it came to consensual sexual relationships, they were extremely closed about daemons.
But that didn’t stop Sularenimon from trying to use the freedom they had won, especially as they had been forced to wait until the daemon’s form had settled before they were even sure they could try it. Witches’ daemons were always birds, there were only two recorded cases of people with witch powers without bird daemons, and those were from a different world. And Sularenimon hadn’t settled until Miles was fifteen, much to their mutual impatience.
The party came to a halt, and Miles looked around. While he had been thinking, they had reached the entrance to the Council chamber. Miles and Sularenimon made their way through the weapons check. The guard kept shooting him nervous glances, but after checking three times for weapons, said, “You’re in time, Lord Vorkosigan. They’re doing the summation right now.” Over the guard, Miles could hear Hessman’s voice.
Ivan muttered, “He probably would have given us the clear sooner if you both weren’t vibrating.” He kept shooting his own nervous glances at Miles, Sularenimon, and the door.
Miles ignored that. Vordrozda’s voice was now dominating the chamber, speaking quite plausible nonsense about the missing nephew and a secret message. As someone who had just received masters’ instruction, if not doctoral or even postdoctoral instruction, in plausible nonsense, Miles approved of the technique, if not the content. Just as he thought that, Sularenimon said, “He does that very well, you know.” Miles turned his head and grinned, even though the moment was serious.
Vordrozda paused, after a biting inquiry of Miles’s whereabouts if he was innocent. The straight line was perfect, even Ivan recognized it. Steeling himself, with Sularenimon and Renthier schooling themselves into appropriate bland daemonic comportment, he pushed the door open and entered, Sularenimon on his shoulder, Ivan and Renthier following.
As Miles set about demolishing Vordrozda’s plot, he didn’t allow himself the admiration of the skill his opponent used. This was a matching of wits more crucial than any he had experienced in Tau Verde space. Coral snake versus raven, and raven needed all of his concentration. Prod, prod, make the snake reveal his venom to Gregor, the bitter poison in every honeyed word.
When the snake finally revealed his true colors, by pulling a needler, it was still a shock. Even as Miles breathed, “Who now is out of order,” he expected those to be his last words. Sularenimon squawked, and flew at Vordrozda, but Miles knew he wouldn’t be in time, even if time was going nearly as slow as his perception was. Then what felt like a wall hit him.
He turned, barely seeing out of the corner of his eye the massed Council of Counts charging Vordrozda and his charged needler, and pushed at the weight. And the sensation was indescribable. He was himself. He was Sularenimon. He was Gregor. He was Nalaresti. He was all of them at once, and yet none of them. The weight of the borzoi daemon, equal to his own, pressed down like a silver sable ton of bricks. Then he hit the floor, and felt the impact distantly. With the impact, his left hand flew off Nalaresti, cutting off the flow of unfamiliar mental input. As he heard Nalaresti growling over him, like a bitch protecting her pups, he prayed he hadn't broken his arm.
* * *
Cordelia had waited until Miles and Sularenimon left for bed unusually early, and then pounced. Aral admired her technique and knowledge of her son and his daemon, that neither of them were going to tell her what had happened, anywhere. The only reason Aral knew so much of what had happened since they left from Miles’s own mouth was that Miles had needed to tell Gregor his actions before witnesses. The only part of Miles’s galactic mess that Cordelia had heard from Miles was Bothari’s death.
She waited half a minute after Miles left the room, then asked, “So, Aral. What was the general verdict on our maddening, and quite probably mad, boy?”
Knowing that Cordelia would win everything from him anyway, he began, “It didn’t look as positive as it ended, especially when Miles touched Nalaresti in front of the entire Council of Counts. Although Vorhalas said even if he had pursued the Vorloupulous’s Law charge, he wouldn’t have pursued the Mstislav’s Law."
Even after living with her for eighteen years, Aral had a difficult time determining whether Cordelia was more horrified over Miles touching Nalaresti, or the charge of Mstislav’s Law. For Aral, the more horrifying thing was a potential outcome of that charge. Hollowing. Barrayar hadn’t actually separated a daemon and human since the Mad Yuri’s reign, although he knew Serg had experimented with variants on the process. Those experiments had been the impetus Ezar had required to have Serg killed, and he hadn’t dared to perform them on board the ship.
But even the knowledge that Hollowing hadn’t been performed in decades, actually within a century and a half in terms of a legal execution of the sentence, didn’t stop Aral’s mind from leaping immediately to the worst possible consequences. He remembered the moment Sularenimon had put together the possible sentence, even if he hadn’t actually said it.
“What’s the second potential charge,” Vorvolk had asked, genuinely confused.
“Mstislav’s Law. Touching the Emperor’s daemon without being the Emperor’s spouse,” Sularenimon whisperer. Admittedly, whispering for Sularenimon was still loud enough to be heard. Henri and Vorhalas both turned their heads suddenly to look at the raven daemon, unfamiliar with his habit of talking publicly. Heratha had glared at the breach of protocol, not that Sularenimon had ever paid attention to something as minor as a dirty look. “That one might actually be worse, depending on who you ask, and even if the Vorloupulous’s Law isn’t brought up, someone will bring up the other one, because of all the witnesses. Unless someone decides to squash it.”
Vorhalas had taken shameless advantage of the power this whole matter had given him over Aral. Brock Vorhalas had probably longed for that moment for years, although it had given Aral some hope that Heratha had seemed ambivalent with regards to what her human was doing. Chechya nipped him, warning that he was getting too lost in negative thoughts. Shaking the thoughts away, he looked at Cordelia. She was petting Bythren in a manner suggesting distress equal to his.
Kicking himself for getting too lost in his own pain, he went over to Cordelia and embraced her, carefully avoiding touching Bythren. She said, “Sorry, it’s just…”
“I know, your inbred Betanisms make you cringe at thinking of even touching another person’s daemon.” He tried not to show impatience. He had accepted this part of Cordelia a long time ago, just as she had accepted a great deal of Barrayaran situations with…relatively minimal complaint, unless they touched on Miles.
“Yes,” she said quickly. Then, more slowly, “I know I’ve done a poor job of adapting to the Barrayaran customs with daemons, especially as a lot of them make more sense than the Betan ones. It’s just…Oh, fuck it!”
Blinking at the uncharacteristic swearing, Aral nearly jumped out of his skin when Cordelia reached out and touched Chechya, as Aral had always hoped she would. Cordelia had been the first lover of Aral’s that both he and Chechya had ever wanted to touch her, but her Betan upbringing had inhibited her dramatically in that regard. It seemed to be the only matter Cordelia was ever inhibited regarding. Or, rather, had been. He shivered with pleasure as he felt their souls meet, and reached out to touch Bythren, glorying in the physical sensation of the cat’s fur as well as the strengthened mental and soul ones.
Cordelia pulled back from Chechya, giving Aral the signal to stop touching Bythren. He did so with reluctance. She smiled, “Let’s put that on hold for now. Since Miles has been let out on his own recognizance, obviously all charges were cleared. I’ll also be coming back to the whole ‘Miles touched Nalaresti’ business. What is going to be done with Miles? And the mercenaries?”
“They’re both being placed under Simon, much to his dismay. Miles won’t be actually seeing Simon until someone can mention his name without Lerante swearing in Greek.” Aral remembered the under-voiced invective he had heard from the daemon earlier. Simon himself had been politely and understatedly horrified, but Lerante had always been much more vocal around people she and Simon trusted. Sometimes, he wondered if that was where Sularenimon had gotten the idea that it was acceptable to speak to anyone. Other times, he was pretty certain that Sularenimon had decided to talk to anyone on his own. Knowing the pair of troublemakers, the latter was quite likely.
“Where’s Simon going to put Miles to keep him out of trouble? He did say he wasn’t going to the Academy,” Cordelia clearly remembered that disappointed pronouncement with semi-guilty relief. “Make-work will certainly not keep Miles out of trouble.”
“Miles is being placed on the Registry. The Fledged Registry, hopefully at some point,” Aral said.
After the prior alarums and excursions, Cordelia’s response was a measured blink. She knew that the Fledged Registry was a division of witch spies. Finally, she said, “I suppose he and Sularenimon have already managed physical distancing?”
“Last summer. On Beta, no less. I’ve given them my lecture, and Simon will pin them down the moment they actually meet. I suspect Gregor’s saving up for a stern one as well.”
“I’ll corner them tomorrow,” Cordelia growled. “There’s the usual recklessness, and then there’s outright stupidity. Performing physical distancing on Beta leans very much towards the stupid end.” Switching subjects, she asked, “Do you have any idea who’s going to be their teacher? I know a strong will is necessary for a witch, but there’s strong willed and then there’s able to handle Miles and Sularenimon without being handled overly much in turn.”
“Simon and I will be discussing that as well, but I suspect that Madame Faina Pym will be the most suited to teaching them. She already knows them, and has never tolerated being handled.”
Cordelia laughed at that, “Yes, Faina will be able to manage our boys quite well.” The armsman’s witch wife and her great grey owl daemon, Maelestren, were more than a match for Miles and Sularenimon. And now, I think it’s time to discuss what Gregor’s response to Miles touching Nalaresti was.”
“Mostly positive,” Aral said, after thinking about what Gregor had looked like. “He looked a bit nauseous right after, but given the shock of the revelation of Vordrozda’s betrayal, and the fact that Sularenimon was chasing Zypherel around the Chamber rather bloodthirstily, I don’t think it was necessarily because of the touch. Particularly when I’m certain I saw him stopping himself from touching Sularenimon a couple times when Miles was telling us what happened.”
“And how do you feel about that,” Cordelia asked, “Especially if it does go somewhere?”
Aral sighed, “I’m not precisely excited about it. If it goes somewhere, I could easily see Miles dying because of it, but…it’s not my business, unless they ask for my advice. To which, I would council caution, and not pursuing a relationship unless they’re certain that they want to make it permanent. And I think they’re both too young to be making lifetime decisions.” He remembered all too clearly how well the decisions made for him when he was about Gregor’s age had gone.
To his surprise, Bythren spoke up, “Your caution is admirable, but I suspect that a relationship could also help balance Miles and Sularenimon. They are quite young, I will admit, but even with a witch’s lifespan, I can only see benefit for Miles. I think it’s best if he learns balance before he’s lived too long. It might help him actually reach the end of his potential lifespan. And he’s probably going to come up with new applications of witchery. Some of the stuff, I just can’t see him using, like their invisibility charm. And he’s tone-deaf, so a lot of their spells he’s going to have to come up with new ways of doing.”
Both Aral and Cordelia looked at Bythren. Aral asked, “I had considered those points, they were just secondary to my concerns. But how do you know so much about witches? For a Betan, that is. I know Cordelia, due to her discomfort with witches and other methods of manipulating daemons, has left the subject alone.” He held Cordelia’s hand to let her know that he understood, and that there was no judgment in the statement.
“Me,” Chechya replied. “Bythren asked, and I told him. It was when we all were getting reacquainted when Cordelia came to Barrayar.” The wolf daemon didn’t need to say anymore about why Cordelia and Aral had no idea about Bythren’s knowledge. Their reacquaintance had been quite passionate, and involved very little conversation, at least at the point where Chechya and Bythren had clearly been discussing.
Cordelia made a wry face, then said, “You know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you for more than a few minutes at a time, politics has been making such a widow of me.” She caressed first Aral, then Chechya, “Let’s go get reacquainted again. Which actually fits the Rules of Barrayaran Sex as a proper euphemism, you know.”
Aral laughed, and said, “But mentioning the Rules breaks them, Captain mine.” Cordelia joined him in laughing, and took Aral’s hand to lead him upstairs.
* * *
Even though Gregor genuinely liked Henri, the other man could be the most boring person on Barrayar when he got into a discussion about finances. After Vordrozda, Gregor had examined Henri’s behavior, trying to figure out if he was doing it on purpose to disarm his Emperor, but nothing suggested that. He just liked finances, and couldn’t understand that they bored other people, namely Gregor, to tears.
He saw Nalaresti’s ears perk, just before Miles poked his head around the door of Gregor’s office. He saw Henri, and said, “Sorry for interrupting. I just-“
Gregor cut him off, saying, “Nonsense. Henri was just leaving now.” He had wanted Miles to visit ever since he had been acquitted.
Looking utterly confused, Henri asked, “I was?” Gregor and Nalaresti leveled the exact same Look at him. Blinking, he said, “Apparently I was.” Kiritkii scuttled into his pocket, and they left quickly.
Walking in unusually cautiously, Miles sat in the chair Henri had vacated. Gregor knew they had some serious matters to discuss, but for the moment, there was only one question he wanted. And while it was serious, he hoped there was some pleasure in it, “How are the lessons going? And where’s Sularenimon?”
“Sularenimon is coming. He wanted to fly, and I was hoping that you would speak with me, so I told the guard to turn off the tangle field on your office windows for the next ten minutes. It slightly disturbed me how easily he obeyed me. He said you had given your leave?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Gregor said.
“While I’m happy that you believe I’m not a traitor, I’m also a bit worried that you may have thrown all caution out the window,” Miles started.
Gregor raised a hand to stop the flow of Miles’s conversation, “I don’t think that you’re the one to be lecturing me on caution. Not after what you and Sularenimon did on Beta Colony last summer.”
There was a tapping on the window. Miles started rising, but Gregor waved him back down, getting up himself. He went to the window and let Sularenimon in. The raven flew to Miles, and stood on his shoulder in their usual posture.
Miles said, “All right. If you’ll promise not to give me the lecture about last summer, I won’t give you the lecture on overdoing trust.”
“I assume you’ve already heard several variations on the theme?” Gregor asked. He hoped so. Miles’s actions had been more than usually reckless.
“We’ve gotten it from Ma, Da, and Madame Faina already. We’re expecting to get it from Simon, too, when Da finally lets him talk to us,” Miles replied.
“I know that at times we can be reckless, and perhaps a little stubborn, but I do think that three times is a bit much,” Sularenimon added.
Gregor and Nalaresti exchanged stares. Nalaresti then fixed the raven with a long look, and said, “Sularenimon, you go so much beyond a little stubborn that if Miles wasn’t a witch, you’d either be a mule, or a goat like Trethimane.”
Miles snickered, and when Sularenimon looked at him, deliberately mournfully, said “You asked for it, daemon mine. I’m not going to join you in defense of a defenseless position.”
While Sularenimon fumed too visibly to be truly offended, Gregor jumped in, “How are your lessons going, Miles? You never said.”
“Good. Very good. We got time off for good behavior.” Nalaresti snorted, and Miles gave her a quelling look, before he said, “All right, we got time off for working hard. Is that better?”
“Knowing your standards for good behavior, I suspect it’s more accurate,” Nalaresti said.
“What have you learned,” Gregor asked, leaning forward. He had always had a faint fascination with witch’s powers. And quite often wished that he could turn himself invisible, the better to escape boring diplomatic functions. And that Miles was the witch just made everything more interesting.
“Well, I learned the invisibility state of mind, and have been developing my senses. And learned that science has done a grave disservice by reducing everything to just its physical parts. Take stars, for instance, they are more than giant balls of flaming plasma. They sing, quite beautifully in fact.” Miles’s gaze was distant, but then he brought himself back, “Also, I modified a neat trick.” He hummed a couple bars of oddly beautiful music, especially considering that Miles had always been utterly tone-deaf, and suddenly a nine year old boy with a cat daemon was looking at Gregor. Another couple of hummed bars, and a small adolescent girl with a hawk smiled at him. “An alteration of the invisibility trick. I think, if it turns out I can handle space flight and get placed permanently on the Fledged Register like they’re planning, it will become quite useful. Invisibility just screams that you’re a spy if someone manages to find you.”
The girl- no, Miles, Gregor had to remember that this was really Miles, looked at him, and that made it easier to remember. Only Miles’s eyes could hold that particular blend of pleased arrogance, little boy ‘look what I just did’, and nervous hope for acceptance. Gregor said, “And you figure that if you look like a child, whoever you’re spying on will put it down to playing? And how are you suddenly able to carry a tune?”
“I figure it’ll work most of the time, especially if I keep shifting appearance. And I, at least, can go into situations I’d never put a child in. And I think that my ability to carry a tune came with the music of the stars,” Miles said. He hummed again, and resumed his real appearance, stroking Sularenimon’s head. He sat silently for a little while, then looked at Gregor, and asked, sounding utterly lost, “Gregor? Why? You said it was because you knew me, but how could you not know I would never betray you?”
Gregor sighed, sadly. He had known this question was coming, and he still wasn’t certain about the answer. “It was…a number of things, and a great deal was due to envy and fear. Envy that you’ve had the love of your real father, fear that he’s always been planning to keep me subordinate. Envy that you’ve had opportunities to…to adventure, to be yourself and not…some figurehead and fear that you would use that to become a better emperor than I’ve made. Fear that the third son of the tales will prevail over the first son. You were always the perfect third son, Miles, and what chance does the incompetent, arrogant older brother have when the third son wants something?”
“You don’t really think of me as your brother, though,” Miles said. “Unless you’ve got some seriously twisted desires stuck in your head.”
Blinking, Gregor realized that Miles touching Nalaresti had opened more of his mind to Miles than he had thought. He leaned over, unconsciously reaching for Sularenimon, before drawing back as he realized what he was doing. He needed to know two more things, before he did anything regarding the attraction he both feared and longed for. The attraction that had only been strengthened by Miles’s hand meeting Nalaresti’s flank. “I’ve got a couple of questions, though. First, what were you thinking when you decided to attempt separation on Beta Colony? You could have ended up in Mental Health, with your personality destroyed, you know. Are, or were, you passively suicidal?”
Miles looked distant, and said, “Not exactly suicidal, although the summer before that, I certainly had my moments, culminating with an incident involving me, Grandfather’s seal dagger, and Bothari. But…I felt utterly useless and terribly depressed and…there was some thought of how much it would hurt, which I will admit had quite a bit of appeal. And Sularenimon so desperately wanted to fly farther than the standard range would allow, so he didn’t care how much it would hurt him, and I wanted the pain, to prove I was still alive.”
“And Bothari let you do that?” Gregor asked, incredulously.
“He knew I would find a way, and I promised him I would only do the work when he was available to act as guard. And I think he figured if I was going to hurt myself, it might as well be that way, and not with knives or other means. The Sergeant…understood about self destruction, and I think judged it a reasonably harmless method, as long as we were protected from the Betan Mental Health Board.”
Which said something disturbing about Bothari, that he considered a possibly soul destroying method of pain a relatively harmless thing. But the mention of the Sergeant led to the second matter he wanted to discuss with Miles, “What did you leave out of your account of Bothari’s death? I could tell you were leaving something out.”
Miles and Sularenimon exchanged wary glances, then, instead of addressing Gregor, Miles asked Nalaresti, “Do you think that Gregor is ready for what I know you, at least, could sense was the truth?”
Giving the question serious thought, Nalaresti said, “He’s had some time to adjust to Vordrozda’s betrayal, but while this particular betrayal involves someone more intimately connected to him, I think…that you must tell him, perhaps not the details, but at least the general outlines.”
Nodding, Miles said, quietly, “Elena Visconti mentioned Prince Serg. I’m certain you’ve heard the occasional whispers about him?”
Gregor nodded, seeing the shape of this betrayal, but unable to believe it, “Yes, I have.”
“Apparently, they barely scratch the surface. I will not tell you the details, but…Serg’s death was a mercy to Barrayar, from the shape of the man Elena Visconti described.” He paused, and said, “I’m sorry Gregor. I wish I could take the pain of knowledge from you, but there’s no spell to counter soul-pain.”
Even though he knew that Miles had to be hurting, if only because Gregor was, Gregor growled, “Easy for you to say. You haven’t gotten all your ideals about your father shattered.”
Miles drew back as if Gregor had slapped him, and hissed, “You don’t think finding out about Bothari was pain enough? Bothari was my second father, Gregor.”
Gregor wilted, and whispered, “I’m sorry, Miles. It’s just…” and he started to cry like a baby. He felt Nalaresti jostle his leg, and settle with her head on his lap. He heard Miles move, and then felt him settle on the chair arm, his arms surrounding Gregor. Gregor turned his face into Miles’s chest, and Miles’s hand moved up to cup the back of Gregor’s head.
Even the tears caused by the shattering of precious illusions must end, and Gregor became extremely aware that Miles was touching him, holding him tightly. He looked up to see Sularenimon looking at him. Almost in a dream he pulled one arm out of Miles’s embrace, and reached up to brush his finger against Sularenimon’s beak. There was a jolt of knowledge. He gasped, and he felt Miles stiffen and look up. Gregor started to apologize, but Miles whispered, “Do that again.” His pupils were huge, only leaving a slight ring of grey around the black. Gregor reached up and stroked the raven’s head. The experience was…indescribable.
Miles reached out and petted Nalaresti’s head. She leaned into his physical caress as Gregor leaned into his soul’s caress. Miles was wrong, Gregor thought, there is a cure for soul-pain.
They stayed that way for what seemed to be an eternity, but when Gregor eventually pulled back, and Miles lifted his hand turned out to have been less than a minute. Miles eventually whispered, “Where are we going to go from here?”
Gregor shook his head, and said, “I don’t know, but we can’t go back. We’ve left the nest for the last time. Where do we go? It only depends on how much we dare.”
Giving his version of a grin, Sularenimon said, “Hazardous statement, Gregor. Miles and I dare a lot. You had better be certain you’re willing to follow where we fly.”
Looking at Miles and Sularenimon, Nalaresti said, “I don’t know about my human, but I’d be willing to follow you off a cliff, especially with Gregor at my side.”
Knowing his daemon was as infatuated as he, Gregor shook his head and ended the surrender that had begun when he realized that he had almost touched Sularenimon when Miles was giving his evidence and confession. He said, “If you’ll have me, I’ll follow you wherever you lead.” He took Miles’s hand, and said, “Anywhere.”
“Stars above, I’m as crazy as everyone keeps saying,” Miles muttered, before saying, “I’ll lead you anytime, Gregor.” And in Miles’s eyes, Gregor could see visions of the dance of stars.