Chapter 1: The Hegan Hub
As Miles entered the spaceship, he breathed a sigh of relief. The songs of the stars were close on board a ship, not distorted as on a station. They were altered on planetary surfaces, but most planets had wild songs of their own. A space station’s song was uninspired and regimented, and while ship songs had those same qualities the lighter shielding on ships made the songs of the stars clearer; especially with the amplifying properties of the silk he was wearing. Sitting next to a viewport, he asked Sularenimon, who had moved from his shoulder to his lap, “So, do you know what excuse the Council’s using this year to try and disinherit me?”
“Ah, yes. It is that time of year, isn’t it,” the raven daemon said. “Probably your relationship with Gregor. They can’t dethrone Gregor without instant civil war, and only Count Vortrifani wants that, but they aren’t happy about you and him being in a relationship.”
“It’s not like they’re going to be stuck with me forever,” Miles muttered. “I promised I’d step down in favor of a non-witch son, not that my sons are likely to be witches, after fifty years.”
“Miles,” Sularenimon said, “Why are you expecting logic from politicians? Besides, I know you still prefer Barrayaran politics to Betan politics.”
“That’s because Barrayaran politics and politicians are honest and efficient, even if I want to beat them around their heads for some of their prejudices,” Miles grimaced.
“Barrayaran politicians are efficient?” was asked in Nalaresti’s soft soprano. “That’s news to me, although I will grant you their basic honesty. Mostly.”
Even in his irritation, Miles found himself smiling as he turned to face Gregor and Nalaresti. “Gregor. I thought you were buried in treaty negotiations, invitations, requests, and other paperwork.
“I was,” came Gregor’s response, “But Nalaresti said she’d bite me if I spent another minute today on paperwork, and your father has everything under control in the Hub, so I came to see if I could get you in a more reasonable mood so that you don’t insult any more ambassadors.”
“Ah, you heard about what I said to the Betan ambassador,” Miles said with a grimace.
“Yes. Informing it that any rational person would prefer any other form of government to a system where any lunatic with a pulse and a daemon was given a voice equal to that of rational people was hardly the most diplomatic response.” Giving him a sharp look, Gregor continued, “May I inquire what you were thinking? I’ve already had demands for Admiral Naismith’s swift return for therapy from the Betan government.”
“And your response?” Miles asked, hoping for more time to put his thoughts in order.
“That we are pleased to have…what do you think Admiral Naismith should be to Lord Vorkosigan?” Gregor sat down on the opposite end of the seat as Miles. The seat was as large as a couch, so the distance was informing Miles how displeased Gregor was better than the irritation and concern radiating from the other man did. Miles should have been more worried, but the concern was for him and Sularenimon rather than the plans they might have damaged, and underneath was love, deep yet passionate. It was soothing, especially after…his mind shied away from that thought.
“Cetagandan clone,” said Sularenimon, promptly. Under the weight of three gazes, he began to explain, “He can’t be a brother, because that would raise too many questions about what happened and where he was all these years, we don’t want to admit that Lord Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith are the same person, and whatever the Cetagandans say to deny it, they’re hardly a credible source at the moment.”
“But we wait until people ask, and then give them as little detail as we can get away with,” Miles said, picking up where his daemon had left off. “If they make up a nice dramatic story, they’ll believe it and we won’t have to try and convince them of it.”
“And how do you expect to explain that Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan have the same species and sex of daemon, in addition to both being witches given the unlikelihood of those being the same?” Nalaresti asked. She didn’t sound argumentative, more as though she were testing the weaknesses of the story.
Miles shrugged, “If anyone knows how to get the probabilities right, it would be the Cetagandans. They care about what happens to their experiments. Unlike the Jacksonians.” He turned to Gregor, and said, “That’s part of what I was thinking about. Their lack of caring for the products of their research, that any failures to produce the right daemon in experiments lead to the eventual destruction of the product in experimentation. Cavilo mentioned in passing that a Jacksonian witch looking to expand her already long life could require several clones made before she found one with both the genetic and the residual potential, and that a male-witch could possibly require fifty or more. While I was brooding over that the Betan Ambassador cornered me, and that was when I realized…”
“What did you realize?” Gregor asked after a short pause. All anger had gone out of his voice, and the concern and love had come to the surface. Miles jumped slightly when Gregor moved next to him and put his arms around both him and Sularenimon while Nalaresti laid her head on his lap. Even with the depressing subject matter, he let out a sigh of contentment at the love he could have felt even with his full House uniform on.
“The Betan Mental Health Board destroys souls. Not the way Hollowing does, but through the destruction of a person’s individuality, their uniqueness. And they do it to daemons, too. In some ways, Hollowing is more honest, and it’s certainly over quicker.” Miles shuddered, closing his eyes and turning his head towards Gregor’s chest. The confrontation with the ambassador had been too much, especially considering, no, he wouldn’t think of that. “The ambassador had worked for the Mental Health Board for a while, and enjoyed its work there. Possibly too much, which was why it was removed. It received an ambassadorial post for its years of loyal service.”
They sat that way in silence for some time. Eventually, Gregor said, “I have to have dinner with the Betan president when we get there. I know he’s going to be after me about extraditing Admiral Naismith. Can you think of anything I could use to derail him? I know I can’t accuse him of destroying souls, much as I’d like to.”
With a brief, yet completely genuine, snicker, Miles said, “Have Simon send you the data on how they rigged the last election. I’ve had a look around their system myself, and I don’t think there’s been a completely honest election in my mother’s lifetime. The voting fraud’s become particularly egregious since the Escobaran War.”
Gregor was amused by the irony, too. He said, “How much information does Simon have? And how do you know the statistics, anyway.”
“Their InfoNet security is laughable. The only thing the Betans actually protect is their scientific development data, and that’s on the companys’ private terminals. When it comes to the InfoNet, they might as well have a huge sign saying ‘Hackers Welcome! Stay as long as you like, take what you want!’” Miles shook his head, “The pre-test for the second tier hacking class is to break into it. If you can’t within a specified amount of time, you’re eliminated from the class as having no aptitude for hacking.”
Nalaresti asked, “Why do they leave statistics regarding their voting fraud on a public server?”
“Arrogance and their known position in the Nexus, mostly. The arrogance goes without saying, but most Betan citizens and Nexus governments wouldn’t even bother, both because they know the InfoNet’s impregnable, and because they can’t imagine that the Betan government would do anything underhanded,” Miles responded. Shifting so that he was on Gregor’s lap, both daemons moving to leave more surface area, he sighed, “Thanks for getting the fleet to the Hub in time. I knew Simon had to have all the data, but when Ungari had no idea that there was going to be a Cetagandan invasion, I had a few bad moments.”
“We had a few bad moments on our end,” Gregor said, softly, “When we heard the Dendarii were engaging first the Rangers, then the Cetagandans in Vervain space, we knew you had to have gotten to them, which was good in that we then knew where you were, then gut-wrenching because you were in danger.” He shuddered, “I was terrified, Samye.”
“I’m sorry, Sierdtsy,” Miles whispered.
“Don’t apologize for being you, unless you set out to scare the shit out of us it’s not your fault. Just…expect to be treated like fine china for a while.”
* * *
Listening to Miles and Gregor with something approaching contentment, Sularenimon flew over to where Nalaresti had laid down. She cocked one ear at him, saying, “You know, you could explore the rest of the ship.”
“What type of cad do you take me for,” he said with mock offense, “Leave my lady to herself?” He began gently preening her neck fur. She shivered in delight.
They watched their humans moving from necking to petting, with a potential for clothing removal. Nalaresti said, “I’m happy Gregor’s finally comfortable with us watching. He’s never been one to pull out the cedar boxes, but he always made his partner’s daemon and me avert our gazes. He needs to be someone’s ‘Heart’.”
“And Miles needs to be someone’s ‘Most’. Whether it had to be each other, I’m not sure. But I do know that Miles’s has been more secure in himself with Gregor,” Sularenimon gently preened Nalaresti’s ear, remembering his part in getting Gregor comfortable with losing control. Gentle teasing had been the ticket, enough that Gregor didn’t feel he was being overly sheltered, but not as hard-edged as he could be. “And I do know if Miles was going to settle down this young, he needed someone he already felt secure with.”
Nalaresti didn’t say anything to that, but instead asked the raven daemon, “What other reasons did you have for not wanting to leave?”
And there was the disadvantage of being a member of a long term relationship. Your partner, and their partner, had time to get to know you. Not that Sularenimon objected overly much. While he would play at being inscrutable, he wanted someone to know him deeply as much as Miles did. “I need someone to relax with, after being grabbed at, mauled, and handled. And I’ve had too much enforced loneliness. I need to relax in company.”
“Who handled you?” the borzoi growled, ears going back in her quiet anger.
“Metzov. His daemon was the thing that mauled me, too,” He shuddered at his remembrance of the daemon’s harsh breath and Metzov’s nasty mind.
“Well, abomination,” the former general said, gloating. Sularenimon struggled in the hold of the wolverine daemon’s jaws. They had never feared wolverine daemons until now. Even after having seen what Bothari’s daemon, Blade, could do to another daemon, he had never feared the dangerous breed, and neither had Miles. Metzov continued gloating, “It appears God has delivered you into my hands.”
“Actually,” Miles said, as if he weren’t tightly bound with his daemon only a fraction of a Pascal away from dissolution. As Miles continued, Sularenimon idly began approximating the pressure the other daemon would need to snap his spine, “I was delivered by Cavilo into your hands. While she would probably appreciate being called God, I doubt she has achieved divinity.”
Metzov growled, and backhanded Miles across the face. Sularenimon thanked whatever divine being existed for his other half’s reinforced bones. The insane man glowered down at Miles, eventually bending down to whisper, “I wonder what I should do first…” He chuckled, and the wolverine made an equally unsavory chuffing sound. Even when he had faced snake daemons, Sularenimon had never understood even partially how the animals his form was based on felt when confronted with snakes. Even if this daemon wasn’t a snake, there was a level of unhealthy predatory instinct emitted in that single sound.
On hearing his daemon, Metzov turned. And his smile was not only cruel, it wasn’t remotely sane. He approached the two daemons. On reaching them, he glanced back at Miles, the chilling smile still on his face. Then, with a gentleness that was crueler than a blow would have been, he reached out and caressed Sularenimon’s head in a twisted mirror of the gentle touches Gregor initiated.
Through the sensation of swimming through electrically charged sewage while being skinned, Sularenimon heard Miles’s soft cry mingling with his own. Even as the filth overwhelmed their minds, Sularenimon wondered if Chechya had experienced something similar when she tore out Mad Yuri’s throat.
He came back to the present with Nalaresti curled around him. As Miles was doing with Gregor, he relaxed into the soothing presence of his beloved. Even knowing it was a stopgap measure, that they would have to talk with someone, for now he could bask in being loved without explanation.
Chapter 2: Beta
Nalaresti lay quietly by Gregor’s feet while they listened to the Barrayaran ambassador refresh Gregor’s memory on the details about President Pierce. She had asked the ambassador’s sparrow daemon a few questions of her own, but the information provided had proved less than helpful. Maybe the bird disapproved of Nalaresti even wanting the information. She would have to ask Gregor to request a different ambassador as it was becoming obvious that this one didn’t want to work with her, and therefore interfering with their interests.''
She wished Miles and Sularenimon could have accompanied them. Their deliberate disregard of protocols often was a useful unbalancing technique. Miles’s rudeness to the Betan Ambassador hadn’t been the cause for their concern, but rather the lack of calculation and a flurry of edged conversation averaging insults and compliments to a mild negative assessment.
Even now Nalaresti knew what had thrown Sularenimon and Miles off balance, she couldn’t tell Gregor. Sularenimon had asked her not to, begged her not to. She hurt as she remembered the pained fear in her bold, cheerful Ren. She had agreed to not immediately tell Gregor only after extracting a promise from the raven daemon to either tell Gregor himself or, preferably, have Miles tell him.
The one thing she didn’t have to worry about was Gregor accidentally finding out. Miles and Sularenimon could be overly self-sufficient at times, but they weren’t cowards.
The groundcar stopped and as they exited the vehicle, both Nalaresti and Gregor eyed the presidential residence. Built to impress, but not nearly as gaudy as some of the dwellings of the wealthy and powerful they had seen on Komarr and in the Hub. There had been one she wished Sularenimon could have seen to mock. It had looked like someone had tried to make a full scale replica of the Imperial Residence in a Komarran house that was, to be generous, a twentieth of the size.
The president was a tall blond man with a ridiculously toothy smile and a genial manner. His chameleon daemon’s disdain told a different story. Nalaresti suspected that because they were mere Barrayarans, the daemon didn’t feel the need to pretend to friendliness and approachability. Or she might be that way with everyone, and Betans just didn’t pick up on it. Betans were daemon blind.
In some ways that was good. Nalaresti had noticed that galactics who weren’t daemon blind tended to assume that a domesticated canine daemon meant you were only waiting for someone to whistle. When a Betan was willing to recognize you at least as an expression of a part of your human, it was good.
But it hurt to be ignored as though you weren’t a large part of your human but were instead a useless appendage. And her exposure to Miles, an outlier on the standard distribution of friendly human-daemon interactions, didn’t help her sense of hurt. Miles treated daemons like…like he treated married women, someone interesting and with their own interests that happened to mesh in places with the interests and life of someone else.
She knew that she was a vital part of Gregor, but she hadn’t realized how much she loved being treated like a person until now.
They were seated in a private dining room, apparently their status as the darlings of the Hegan Hub meant that the president didn’t want to press his perceived advantage in public. Which was fine. Gregor wanted to try a spot of blackmail of his own, and that would be more difficult to do if he had to worry about other people than the president.
Gregor seated himself neatly, and Nalaresti sat beside his chair. The president sat down across from them and a server brought in the first course.
Chechya’s ears perked and she lifted her head. Someone was coming. He had left the door open so they could hear people. The sounds of the footsteps quickly identified the person as Miles. Looking at the timepiece, he muttered, “He’s earlier than I expected.”
“He’s Miles,” Chechya replied, “He never does what you expect. That’s the general you, of course.”
“I know,” he said, reaching down to ruffle her ears as he had done since they were young and she had assumed forms making that possible and convenient. Which had been fairly often, she had usually chosen canine or feline forms. She wasn’t like Sularenimon, unwilling to stay in any one form for too long, wanting to try every shape he could before he settled once and for all.
Miles walked into the room with an approximation of his usual confidence that might have fooled someone casually acquainted with him, but couldn’t fool a person who knew him well. His smile appeared genuine, but Aral could tell it was hiding pain.
Sularenimon wasn’t with him. Not unusual, the daemon only spent long periods of time with Miles during official occasions or when they were undercover. Or when Miles was with Gregor, as Sularenimon adored both Nalaresti and Gregor himself.
Dramatically flinging himself into one of the chairs in front of the command desk, Miles spent quite some time making himself comfortable. Aral watched with amusement and worry, “You finished?” he asked in the same tone he used when Bythren did something similar.
Picking up on the emotional connotations of the question, Miles replied, “Mostly. No one makes chairs the proper height.” He paused, looking nervous before plowing ahead in his usual fashion, “Sularenimon will be joining us soon. He has a question for you and Chechya.”
The only response Chechya had to that was a slight ear twitch, although she had to be curious as Aral about what Sularenimon and Miles wanted to talk about. Even with Miles claiming it was Sularenimon’s question, his presence indicated interest equal to that of his daemon. Not wanting to touch on whatever had brought Miles before he and his daemon were ready, Aral asked, “Are you all right with not being able to visit Beta anymore?”
Mind elsewhere, Miles quite visibly suppressed a jump before answering, “I know Mother’s always wanted me to enjoy Beta, but…visiting Beta, particularly of late, has tended to be more duty than pleasure. It’s given me a greater understanding of how galactics think, but I’m Barrayaran, no matter how much I’ve tried to deny it at times.”
Aral blinked. Becoming a witch seemed to have done Miles a great deal of good, at least in terms of self knowledge. For all the difficulties it had caused (and would continue to cause) Miles, the boy had gained significant stability. Whatever was bothering him, it was nothing to do with his abilities.
Just then, Sularenimon flew through the open door. Remembering Miles’s tone, Aral pressed a button and waited for the door to close before saying, “It’s good to see you, Sularenimon.”
The raven gave a respectful nod before replying, addressing both Aral and Chechya, “It’s good to see you as well, Sir, Ma’am.”
After Chechya gave her own nod of acknowledgement, Sularenimon settled himself on Miles’s lap, Miles leaning forward to rest his head on his daemon’s, putting his arms around the raven. A position the family recognized as indicating emotional vulnerability. Miles and Sularenimon so often acted as completely individual units that it was unusual for either man or daemon to admit their interdependence. Grey eyes over black gazed at him quietly for a moment, before an unspoken agreement was reached and Sularenimon said, “I need you to tell us about Yuri.”
Aral felt himself go rigid with shock. Although he had subdued most of the emotions and memories associated with that period of time long ago, there was always a flash of mixed anger, fear, and the indefinable remembrance of madness.
While Aral collected himself, Chechya asked, tone sharper than she meant it to be, “What about Yuri?”
“His death,” It was Miles who responded, “The decision process…and how you coped with-what happened- afterwards.”
Closing his eyes as he realized what was driving this question, Aral eventually managed to answer, “I don’t remember most of his death myself, and Chechya has never spoken of her memories, but I do remember the debate leading up to the execution. Death by committee, I believe your mother called it when I told her the full story. But…all those who lost family in his purge or to experimentation afterwards were to take a cut. That was…a substantial number, even without all those who had been completely eliminated.” He remembered the feel of the room, even his Betan grandmother had been coldly furious, enough to take part in such an un-Betan activity. “Then, when he was near death, our daemons were to tear apart his daemon.”
Miles looked vaguely sick, at what Aral couldn’t say. He allowed his son some time to recover himself, “I was to take the first cut as the only surviving victim old enough. I remember standing there in front of Yuri, him taunting me…and all I wanted to do was vomit. I raised the knife and then- Chechya leaped for his throat. Before anyone could try and stop her, she had ripped it out. I felt what seemed like an eternity of madness and pain, before I found myself off to the side of the room being treated with smelling salts. Being scolded and realizing that Chechya had settled with Yuri’s blood on her muzzle.”
There was a brief pause before Chechya spoke, “It was a mutual desire for Yuri’s quick death that motivated me to make that decision. I was watching Kyvren, and doing so made me realize how horrible we would both feel after going through with the plan. And I took matters into my own hands, as it were.” She brooded for a moment, “It felt like being struck by insane lightning, more than anything else.”
Sularenimon and Miles sat, motionless, through end of Aral’s remembrance and Chechya’s additions. Almost as soon as Aral and his daemon settled their emotions, Sularenimon shifted and moved to Miles’s shoulder as his human stood. Bowing his head, Miles said, “Thank you, Sir, Ma’am.”
Before the pair could disappear, Aral stood and walked to Miles. Placing one hand on Miles’s shoulder and gently cupping his face with the other, Aral said, “Do Gregor and Nalaresti know?”
Closing his eyes, Miles said, “Nalaresti knows, Sularenimon told her last night. Gregor will know soon.” Sularenimon nodded his agreement.
“I am always available if you need someone who understands,” Aral said, Chechya quietly adding her assent.
With a sad smile, Miles said, “Thank you,” and left.
Chapter 3: Komarr
They were back on Komarr, and Gregor wasn’t looking forward to the next endless round of banquets and individual dinners of varying degrees of formality that awaited them. Komarr was a particularly thorny stop for a high level Barrayaran official at the best of times, and when you were the Barrayaran Emperor with the ‘Butcher of Komarr’ in tow, matters became even more complicated.
Gregor hoped that whatever was bothering Miles wouldn’t interfere with public appearances. While Miles’s male witchery lowered his status and overall desirability on Barrayar, on Komarr it was a surprising boon. Many of the Komarran trade families were run by witches, at least all of the wildly successful ones were, and there were as many male witches heading families as female ones.
The door chime sounded and the door opened before he could activate his wristcom to ask the guards who it was. Turning around, he smiled as Nalaresti awoke, saying, “Hello, Miles.”
The door shutting behind him, Miles almost crept into the room. Smile disappearing, Gregor asked, “What’s wrong?” He hoped they had enough time before the welcoming banquet; Miles’s problems generally took a while to sort out.
Miles stopped about three feet away from Gregor, which made him even more anxious. Now that he thought about it, Miles hadn’t initiated close contact since the Hegan Hub, but Gregor didn’t have much time to consider this, because Miles began speaking, “I have a confession to make.”
Trying not to think of what Miles could have done that was horrible enough for Miles to need to ‘confess’ Gregor waited, holding on to his patience. Nalaresti came to his side. She seemed to have some idea of what happened, which was slightly disconcerting, but not as disturbing as Miles’s immediate step backwards as she approached.
Shaking his head, Gregor told him, “Just say what you came to say.”
“I know I should have told you this much sooner, but…it never seemed the right time. And I know you’re going to be angry, which is part of the reason I didn’t tell you before…”
Watching Miles wring the hem of his tunic and listening to him dance around the subject put Gregor over the edge. He growled, “For the love of daemons and stars Miles, just spit it out!”
Miles jerked back as though Gregor had slapped him. Before Gregor had a chance to apologize for the harshness, Miles spoke, “Metzov touched Sularenimon. And his daemon touched me after Cavilo let Sularenimon escape.”
It took Gregor a moment for Miles’s statement to register, longer for it to seep into Gregor’s brain. He had never had the misfortune of meeting the former General, but even with all the pieced together information on his insanity, he hadn’t seen anything to indicate that level of depravity. An angry haze enveloped him and he reached down to place his hands between Nalaresti’s ears to ground himself.
When he looked up to apologize to Miles, both for not pursuing the oddities earlier and for frightening him, Gregor discovered that the other man had left without a further word.
That action said more about Miles’s state of mind than anything else.
* * *
Seating himself on the…he’d be generous and call it a couch, Miles began to consider the beginning of the whole mess. He wondered if he would make the same decision to reveal himself if he had known what Metzov would do to him later.
“The Moot is traditionally held in the Arctic, far away from the Clan territories,” Faina said as she and Miles flew on their cloud pine branches. “While most Vor lines and their corresponding Clans aren’t as intertwined as the Vorkosigans and the Koskhans, holding the Moot on land held by any one Clan or line would be asking for trouble.”
“And these arctic lands have only recently been used for anything by normal humans,” Miles thought aloud.
“Indeed,” she paused briefly, before saying, “It is traditional to only use our Clan Names amongst ourselves during our first lifetime, when we are most closely linked to our mortal families. Eventually, we abandon our birth surnames and only use our Clan names, as you will eventually leave behind the brown and silver for the white and silver. I am Faina Koskhan-Pym now, but two hundred years ago, I was born Faina Vorkosigan.”
Miles had known the Koskhans had special interests in the Vorkosigan line, but hadn’t known why, or how close the two extended families were intertwined. Sularenimon asked, from his position below them with Maelestren, “How did this closeness happen?”
“You have heard the tale of the Maiden of the Lake?” Faina briefly paused before continuing, “After the assisted suicide of his bride-to-be, Count Selig decided that any bride of his would have to be both willing and able to defend herself, not only from his enemies, but even those they considered friends and stand the storm that would result from such willingness. When he was riding through the Dendarii, he met a witch gathering herbs. While it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for him, she persuaded him that she was willing to forsake her mountain home for a short time for his sake. They married, and since that time at least one daughter in every generation has been a witch.”
Miles barely had time to process this when a whiff of near-terror/pain/despair/anger came on the wind, the synthesiac combination of scent-sound nearly knocked Miles from the sky.
Without thinking, Miles turned towards the source of the fear, urgency lending speed to his flight. Behind him, he heard Faina let a brief curse before she shouted, “Miles!”
“I’m not stopping,” he threw over his shoulder.
“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” she huffed. He felt her hand grip his ankle, holding him back. “However, I believe you should take on the appearance of young Melina until we determine what exactly is happening and whether it requires Lord Vorkosigan.”
“Sorry,” Miles muttered before casting the image of Melina and Kythe over himself and Sularenimon. He shot an unfocussed gaze at his daemon, making certain that he could see the overlay of a merlin falcon instead of just the raven. After considering things for a moment, he also slowed his pace, because he didn’t need the mismatch problem that happened when he moved too quickly while projecting an illusion that didn’t match his real size. Melina might have been shorter than Elena and the Koudelka’s, but she was still a good six inches taller than Miles.
While cloud pine (even with extreme urgency of thought behind it) was far slower than a lightflyer, and they weren’t traveling at the fastest pace that cloud pine could manage, the group of flyers came upon the source of the negative emotions far sooner for any of their comfort.
It looked like a scene out of nightmare, the worst of the Time of Isolation, or possibly even Old Earth. There were two groups of men standing in front of a storage bunker. One group, the composed of the people with weapons, was primarily made up of trainees. The other group was naked in the cold. From their general appearance, they had been standing outside for far longer than was healthy for an ordinary human. Miles had no idea what was going on, but whatever it was, he doubted it was rational even if it was somehow legal.
Sularenimon did an almost loop that looked impossible every time he performed it, whispering to Miles, “I think you should activate the emergency beacon.” Miles frowned, but the daemon didn’t give him a chance to argue, “We both hate interference, but even if you have to be Lord Vorkosigan, we’re technically outside of the military chain of command.”
Knowing that his daemon had a point, Miles reached up to press the button that was on the hand gripping the cloud pine branch. With a flick of thought, he threw a bit of non-detection over the wristcom. No need to go to all this trouble to hide his identity if he was going to give it all away by forgetting to hide his security measures.
Maelestren and Sularenimon back winged about twenty feet above the head of the iron-haired man. Miles didn’t know if Maelestren would be able to do anything, great greys were extremely light, but their presence gave them moral support if nothing else.
Once Miles and Faina landed, Faina took the lead. Miles marched after her, trying to maintain the general feel of his clan-sister, while at the same time running an assessment of the situation. Now that they were close enough to see the cast of this nightmare, his political situation alarms were all bellowing. The techs were mostly Greek, at least from appearance, while the- general?- yes the commander was a general, was likely of the Russo-English majority.
Faina reached the commander, and demanded sharply, “What is going on here, General? What business have you in trying to murder your own men?”
The general looked furious and his wolverine daemon growled. “This is a purely internal disciplinary affair, witch.” He made the term ‘witch’ sound exactly like he was saying ‘bitch’, “What business have you in interfering?”
Deliberately giving the scene a jaundiced look, Miles as Melina stated, “Discipline? Looks like murder to me.” He forced himself to stalk forward like the young woman would have, “I believe the General Staff would be most interested in this crime, General.”
None of them were expecting the general to aim a blow at where Melina’s head would have been as the wolverine daemon burst forward. Even as Miles dropped to the ground, Faina herself flew into motion, striking the general on the temple as Sularenimon and Maelestren contained his daemon.
Before any of the soldiers who might be inclined to mount a counter-offensive had a chance to think, Miles dropped the illusion, announcing as he did, “Don’t move, unless you want to add attacking a Count’s heir to the list of crimes you’ve managed to acquire.”
He hoped no one would think to call his bluff. He wasn’t certain what the soldiers would do if they figured out that they outnumbered the two witches.
Fortunately, between the four of them Miles, Sularenimon, Faina, and Maelestren had managed to keep the soldiers too busy to think of mutiny. It had reminded Miles uncomfortably of the beginnings of the Dendarii, but he was also grateful that he had the experience in keeping soldiers too busy to remember the odds. Now that he thought about it, the general emotional state had been about the same both times, too…
The question’s subject suppressed a leap and banshee wail, although Sularenimon took flight. Almost before he turned around, Gregor pulled him into a gently fierce embrace. Even without the whispered apologies and explanations, Miles knew he was forgiven his cowardice.
Even though he was five jumps away from Barrayar, he felt like he had come home.