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A Place to Stand

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"Give me a place to stand, and with a lever I will move the whole world."
-- Archimedes

*

Even the horse was bored. In his stiff pose, Miles only had a direct view of the dark chestnut ears and the fall-splendored tree across the path, but the animal was moving beneath him, restless.

Miles tilted his chin minutely, waited for one of the polite reprimands from the artist, and not receiving one risked another few centimeters, just enough to see Gregor out of the corner of his eye. Gregor had slipped on one of those remote, all-knowing masks of his, and Miles knew for a fact he was capable of standing there like a statue for hours without complaint.

Miles didn't know who had come up with this particular staging for the traditional imperial post-wedding portrait. It had been offered up as a foregone conclusion, and he cynically suspected a flurry of concealed planning. It was a pretty good pose: Gregor standing in the foreground, three-quarter profile at the stirrup of Miles's horse, reins in one hand and the other on the horse's neck. Miles was mounted behind him, gazing off into the distance, trying to look regal but probably just managing over-caffeinated. It was formal, it was elegant, and it made it much less obvious that Miles was the wrong size. He was still the wrong gender, though he imagined there was a sizable population out there who would happily see that altered on canvas, too.

"I think that's enough for today," the artist said at last.

Miles let out a breath, stretched his arms over his head, then scratched the itch on the back of his neck that had been driving him slowly mad for fifteen minutes straight. His left hand was trembling faintly like it still did off and on, and apparently would for the rest of his life. "Can't we just take a holo and blow it up real big?" he asked plaintively.

"It's strange to me that someone with such an active mind can get so bored so quickly," Gregor said, and turned to offer him a hand down. Gregor's mind, left to itself, turned inward and lived on its own intricate machinery. Miles's, on the other hand, came bubbling out his ears. Lady Alys was approaching to check on their progress, and behind her hurried one of Gregor's secretaries with a stack of flimsies. They were coming to shuffle Gregor off, back into the labyrinth of his tightly-scheduled day. "Miles?" Gregor prompted, touching his knee.

"Back in a second," Miles said, scooped the reins out of his hands, and leaned forward. The horse sprang to life and they were off down the path, sliding from the warm-up walk he'd intended right into a quick, springy trot. "If you say so," Miles said to the horse, pleased, and guided him left around the fountain to go deeper into the grounds, away from the Residence itself. Up a gentle slope and through the rose garden, and the horse's stride was already loosening up and stretching out. Miles clucked, and the transition into the canter was as smooth and precise as Lady Alys pouring a cup of tea. "You're not just a pretty face, are you?" Miles said, and thumped the glossy neck affectionately.

The path curved, but they went straight on down the open green. They startled a gardener bending over one of the border hedges; the man shied more than the horse, which looked once and then away. He was orienting down the hill and, squinting along his line, Miles saw one of the low stone benches at the base of the slope. The horse leaned into the canter, eager. Ha, he'd thought that'd been an awful lot of suggestive hindquarters musculature.

"This really isn't the saddle for that, y'know," Miles said to him, still grinning. But he leaned forward too, his body remembering how to do this even though it had been . . . God, it had been years. Coming up fast but not too fast, Miles let the horse take more of the work than he really should, but that seemed just fine because he counted strides one-two-three, and the rock back, and they floated over the bench as sweet and smooth as a lightflyer. "Oh, I really like you," Miles said spontaneously.

But then they were swinging left through the orchard, finishing the loop he'd carelessly plotted. Everyone was still on the path, waiting, and Miles slowed to a trot with a sigh, and then to a halt back in his place next to Gregor.

"I take it you like him," Gregor said, deadpan.

"He's marvelous," Miles said, dismounting. "Wasted on a modeling career."

"Well, actually," Gregor said, clasping his hands together in one of his very few tells.

"What?" Miles asked, puzzled.

"His name's Lumiere," Gregor said. "He'll be here in the stables whenever you want him." He'd gone faintly red, subliminally jittery the way he got every time he offered a gift.

"Oh," Miles said. "Gregor, th—"

"Excuse me, Sire." A Vorbarra armsman hurried up the path. "You asked me to tell you when Minister Umeri arrived."

"Yes, thank you." Gregor lifted an apologetic hand to Miles. "I'm sorry, I've got to fit him in today."

"Go on," Miles said. "I'll see you later."

He took Lumiere back to the stable and chased a pack of grooms away to deal with the tack himself. Then he leaned on the open stall door while they got to know each other a bit. He had nowhere in particular to be, apparently, and Gregor had clearly intended to offer up some entertainment, in place of . . . in place of anything else he couldn't offer, at least not right now.

At last Miles got out of the grooms's way, and wandered back up to the Residence. By default, he went down to see his son, who was gestating away safely in an armored bunker under the East Wing. The place was windowless and brightly lit, and the embryo had plenty of company in the form of a full six guards outside the door and another two in with him. Still, Miles had a weird urge to carry the gently humming machine up and set it on the sill of an open window like a potted plant, to thrive on sun and air.

It turned out he wasn't the only one come visiting.

"Ah," the Count said, "I wondered when one of you would show up. I've been here for an entire half hour."

"We're – exactly that bad," Miles said, laughing. He bypassed the largely incomprehensible status screens to join his father at the holovid projected over the replicator.

"He's adorable," the Count said gravely.

"He needs magnification to be visible," Miles retorted, grinning. "Also, apparently not actually a he, yet. The chromosome is there, I mean, but developmentally it won't start expressing for another eight or nine weeks or so." Gregor's Y-chromosome, to be precise. Miles wasn't actually sure who had floated the thought that there might be some sort of sociopolitical ramifications on that point, but he'd found the ensuing discussions hilarious in the extreme. At least until he realized how uncomfortable the whole thing was making Gregor, knowing that at least that vital scrap of genetic destiny was, with only tiny in vivo mutations, a perfect match for his father's.

They contemplated cellular division in a companionable silence. The Count stood unsmiling, parade perfect but for his hands clasped behind his back. Miles self-consciously shifted forward onto one foot as soon as he realized he was mirroring his father.

"What're you thinking about there, gran'da?" he asked.

"Mmm," the Count said, a pleased little smile touching his lips. "Now there's a promotion I've been waiting for."

Miles scuffed a toe. "Yeah, sorry about that," he said. "The wait, I mean. You must be relieved."

The Count flicked an ironic glance to the silent ImpSec Captain, armed with stunner and disrupter, posted against the back wall. "A weight off my mind," he said dryly. Then he opened both hands in quick conciliation, forestalling the next choreographed steps of that particular dance. They had it down to well-worn grooves by now. "I'm just glad I get to meet him," he said, then caught himself again. "Damn. Sorry, boy." He dropped a hand on Miles's back. "I'm rotten company today."

"Any reason?"

"No. Just thinking about legacies," the Count said obscurely.

Miles frowned. "An unpleasant thought?" he asked.

The Count's head snapped around. "No," he said, firm and clear. "Never." He gripped Miles shoulder, sighed. "Really, don't mind me. The future is a mirror, which also means it reflects what's behind you." Miles blinked, puzzling at that. "Enough," the Count said briskly. "Have you decided what you're going to do with him?" He jerked his chin to the busy replicator.

"I think we'd pretty definitively settled on raising him," Miles said. "Might teach him to read and everything."

"I meant physically," the Count said. "Have you decided to rearrange Greg – your apartment here, or will you move to another suite?"

". . . oh," Miles said, taken aback. "That's an interesting point you make, Da." He chewed thoughtfully on a knuckle. He really liked what Gregor had now, though it was a bit crowded with the addition of Miles's accumulated detritus. They could always combine the study and the library. Miles cast a dubious look at the innocent little replicator.

"Lots of room," the Count said, unprompted. "Acres and acres."

"Huh," Miles said. "What are we going to do with him?"

The Count clapped him companionably on the shoulder. "Come to dinner soon," he said. "The two of you, I mean, of course. You haven't been home since the wedding."

"Believe me, I know," Miles said. He had always expected to live out his life in Vorkosigan House in the old multi-generational co-habiting way. Such a strange thing, to be swept off under someone else's roof. "How about tomorrow?" he said impulsively, then corrected himself. "Er, I'll have to check with Gregor and message you in the morning."

The Count took his leave, and Miles stayed only a few more minutes in distracted contemplation, before heading slowly back up and into the North wing. He glanced in at Gregor's antechamber. Lord Auditor Vorhovis was just making his bow in the doorway. Coming in, not going out. Curiosity prickled – he'd seen Gregor's schedule just this morning, and Vorhovis wasn't on it. The urge to go invite himself in was overpowering. He now had a security clearance to match Gregor's, which wasn't so much a clearance as a statement of absolute right. So he could hear anything Vorhovis and Gregor might need to talk about.

Miles turned away. If Gregor had wanted his input, he would have asked. There really was no such thing as an absolute right, after all.

Gregor's outer office was all antique hardwoods and hand-woven carpets. In contrast, Miles's own was crowded, noisy, and covered in a persistent layer of construction dust. Two techs lay prostrate on the bare boards, arguing over a gaping panel of circuitry. Captain Avalos hunched at his temporary comconsole, doggedly ignoring them as he plugged away at something. He caught a glimpse of Miles out of the corner of his eye and leapt to his feet.

"My Lord," he said. "Can I help you with anything?"

"Er," Miles said. "Actually. Am I . . . supposed to be doing anything right now?" The techs had fallen silent at his entrance; their eyes were heavy on his back.

"No, my Lord," Avalos said helpfully. He didn't have to check Miles's schedule, never out of arm's reach. "Your next engagement isn't until tomorrow afternoon. You're to accompany the Emperor to Count Vorsoisson's—"

"Right," Miles said. "So what are you doing?"

"Your correspondence, my Lord."

How horrified would he be if Miles pleaded to be allowed to help sort the mail? "Carry on, then," he said, sighing. "And let me know if there's anything interesting."

"Ah—" Avalos extended a hand as Miles turned to go. "They've just put in your comconsole, actually. There are some messages waiting."

"Really?" Miles turned back, delighted.

"The desk is temporary, of course," Avalos said. "But yes, the security people just finished this morning."

"Thanks," Miles said. He went to the inner door, then turned back. "Oh, and hunt up a copy of the Residence blueprints for me, will you?"

The comconsole was the only clean thing in what would, eventually, be his office. It sat on a standard-issue ImpSec desk, pending the painting and the carpet and the furniture commissioned from the southern continent and the art on loan from a few eager museums. Until then, he had a comconsole, a chair, and an impressive pile of construction tools against the far wall.

Miles powered up the station, verified his identity with thumb and retina, and examined his new fiefdom with interest. He tapped through to a main directory. Someone had imported his data from the comconsole at Vorkosigan House, and then added all the new things he would need. His old address book sat side-by-side with an open pipeline straight to the top level Ops data channel. Miles amused himself for a few minutes watching Admirals Vortaine and Palian argue about the significance of the recent explosion in Escobaran ship production, then moved on. He had access to Gregor's schedules, all three of them at successively deepening layers of privacy and complexity. He also had the ability to edit them at will, which was the single most enticing thing he'd learned in the past week.

He tapped through to the financial documents, and gaped. Someone had been very busy. There were his familiar Vorkosigan holdings, clearly delineated with the usual access to the district books and the separate personal accounts. Below that was an entire new set, trailing a boggling complement of zeroes. There was yet another personal account, flagged with his new title. Miles tapped into it apprehensively, and thought that he might want to put his head down between his knees for a minute. It was a staggering portfolio. Mostly securities, and not just Barrayaran, either. There was a separate category for income from real property. Miles called up more details, and found most holdings had been signed into joint ownership with Gregor, though a significant number were now his outright. Those, he saw as he dug deeper, had lain in trust for years under Gregor's name, untouched. In fact, the last activity aside from maintenance was recorded as – yes, it really was – Princess Kareen cashing out a tidy sum, six months before her death. Contingency plans? It's what I would have done.

He also had a new household account. Making quick comparisons in his head, Miles discovered that Gregor's Consort was expected to require a monthly budget that could, just for example, support the upkeep of a mid-sized mercenary fleet. Good God. Someone had helpfully organized various pools for assorted domestic needs, including a fund marked 'discretionary, charitable.' That, at least, was familiar territory – he'd had a fund like that since he'd reached his majority. Though not quite on this scale.

Miles contemplated briefly, then excised 40 percent of the amount and appended the transfer to a note to his mother, commending it to her various philanthropic endeavors. There, that was something, at least.

On to the correspondence, then. Avalos had helpfully sorted things into categories for him. Miles grinned – they weren't called 'people you actually give a damn about' and 'people you have to give a damn about,' but they might as well have been. Ivan had written him a cranky and seemingly pointless string of complaints this morning, composed when he ought to have been paying attention to the morning Ops briefing to judge by the time stamp. Miles scrawled, "come for a drink," in reply. Ekaterin wanted to warmly reiterate her congratulations upon the conception of his first child. Miles thanked her and asked delicately what in the world was wrong with Ivan. Delia Galeni wanted to talk to him about his winter wardrobe. Miles scribbled, "the week after never," then crossed it out and proffered a workable time. Dono Vorrutyer wanted him to drop a few words in Gregor's ear about textile tariffs. Sure, for all the good it would do Dono, which was absolutely none. Gregor himself politely inquired if Miles would mind taking his place to christen the latest fleet cruiser in six weeks, as Gregor had a conflict. Canny, that. It wrapped Miles in a protective layer of figurehead ceremoniousness, while also gently reminding that he did embody tangible military authority now.

Avalos knocked at the open door just as Miles had dug down to the intimidating stack of invitations left to his personal discretion.

"Ah," Miles said, pushing back from the desk. "Find it?"

"Yes, my Lord." Avalos came in and unrolled an enormous flimsy across the desk at Miles's gesture. "The Residence steward is at your disposal, as well."

"Thanks," Miles said absently, circling his desk to find the east wing. All right, and there was Gregor's current apartment. These must be classified blueprints – two out of the four emergency exits were actually marked.

"Are you looking for something in particular?" Avalos asked at his shoulder.

"Space," Miles said, tracing lines with his finger. Nearly the entire floor below the apartment was blocked off for security reasons. Gregor also had the overflow from his library down there, and his gymnasium. And right above the apartment was – huh. All right, if you were going to put a very large anti-aircraft cannon anywhere, that was probably the logical place. Did the roof actually retract, or would they just vaporize it? And perhaps more intriguingly, how had they gotten it up the bloody stairs when Miles's own damn couch hadn't fit?

"Does that actually say . . .?" Avalos leaned close, squinting.

"Emperor Dorca," Miles confirmed, tapping the block of rooms up the hall from Gregor's. "His personal suite." He eyed Avalos's reaction. "He had to sleep somewhere, y'know. I think the senior Cetagandan occupying General took it over as a symbolic gesture when they held the capitol."

"Oh, right," Avalos said, enlightened. "And then the Emperor pinned him to the wall with a sword through his heart when he retook the city."

"He gave him a drink first," Miles said. "And by all accounts a civil game of tacti-go." He considered the map uncertainly. "Story doesn't say if they actually left him there as a, um, permanent decoration."

"Could go look," Avalos said practically. "The rooms aren't sealed, at least not by these blueprints."

"No," Miles said slowly, "they aren't, are they?" He measured the space with his fingers, glancing at the scale. There was already one large bedroom which could be converted into a nursery easily enough, and beyond that a string of other rooms. To grow on. Only—"What's that, though?" Miles asked, finger coming to rest in the space between Gregor's sitting room and Dorca's bedroom. Clearly something was there, but there were no doors marked, not even a notation that the room had been sealed for the sake of history or safety.

"That's strange," Avalos said. "I can go ask the Steward, if you like."

The comconsole chimed.

"Yes, do that," Miles said, and went to see if anything interesting had made it through to him, in the absence of Avalos's filters.

It was his mother, volleying the money right back at him. "Nice try," she said, "but do your own." Well, worth a shot.

"He doesn't know," Avalos said, appearing in the doorway faintly out of breath. "And he says that's the most detailed blueprints he knows of, though General Allegre might have something different."

"Doubt it," Miles said, straightening slowly. "The most highly secured deep storage in the Imperium used to be between Simon Illyan's ears. Writing things down was just asking for trouble." He pondered for a moment, foot tapping convulsively. His restless eye swept the bare walls, the stripped floor, and came to rest in the far corner. "Well!" Miles said, and rubbed his hands together.

"My Lord?" Avalos asked, suddenly apprehensive for no reason Miles could see.

"Bring these," Miles said, and shoved the blueprints at him. For himself, he retrieved the precision laser drill abandoned with the rest of the construction detritus. It was a lot heavier than it looked, and Miles grunted as he shouldered it.

"My Lord!" Avalos said in an entirely different tone, jogging after him through the outer office. Miles was feeling charitable, so he propped the lift door with the stock of the drill until Avalos caught up. "My Lord, you aren't about to do what I think you're about to do?" Avalos asked forbiddingly.

"Says the man who wanted to go check for Cetagandan skeletons five minutes ago," Miles said, and pushed ahead of him out of the lift. The guard on duty at the mouth of the corridor did a double-take, and Miles saluted him with the drill.

"I'm pretty sure this is one of those times I'm supposed to lodge my strenuous objections," Avalos said. Miles struggled momentarily at their apartment door, encumbered by the heavy drill, and Avalos huffed as he reached past to open it for him. "Lord Ivan actually recommended knocking you down and sitting on you, but—" he made an untranslatable, helpless gesture.

"That wouldn't be very sporting," Miles said. Pulled from the field or not, Avalos could probably take him down in under three seconds, though Miles would like to think he wouldn't entirely disgrace himself.

"Damn right," Avalos said dourly. "Don't know anyone who's ever managed to wrestle down an oncoming flood."

"Objections noted," Miles said, trotting into the sitting room. A maid leapt up, startled, from where she had been dusting the low bookshelves. "Ah, no, we don't need anything," Miles said. "Only the room, please."

"He means he doesn't want any more witnesses than he absolutely needs," Avalos added helpfully, and the poor girl skittered out, duster in hand.

"Right," Miles said. "Here, clear the table. Do you have a measuring tape on you?"

"I must have left it in my other trousers," Avalos said, unrolling the blueprints again.

"No matter," Miles said cheerfully. "Looks like we share—" he crossed the room and thumped a fist into the plaster "—this entire wall. Huh," he added, after a moment's contemplation.

"Yes?" Avalos prompted, in the act of lifting down a large painting of the Vetra cliffs from over Miles's head. "Perhaps you are having something like a second thought?"

"No," Miles said, distracted. "Only remembering. I stood here once, nearly five years ago now, my God. Back up against the wall, fighting with Gregor." His fisted hand slowly opened, and he pressed his palm to the wall.

"You fight with the Emperor?" Avalos asked, in tones of mingled horror and awe.

"Oh, not if either of us can help it," Miles said. "And that time we really couldn't." He squinted into the past. It had been a densely-packed argument, ostensibly about Miles's safety from an unknown assassin, but in reality about Gregor's persistent, insoluble terrors. And, of course, about the painful inequity between them, with Gregor freely offering his beating heart in both hands and Miles unsure whether he could accept more than the old abiding friendship. He'd fled the Residence that night and kept on going right off Barrayar, halfway across the nexus until he could breathe again.

"Walls," said Miles obscurely, braced his feet, and thumped the drill into the plaster.

"Is this a good time to ask if you have any idea how to work that thing?" Avalos said, taking two unflattering steps back.

"Looks simple enough," Miles said, twirling his thumb to widen the laser bit to its largest circumference. He set his grip and turned the drill on. It whined, bucked in his hands, and slid crookedly into the wall like a spoon into warm groats. Miles hastily switched it off and backed out again, unwilling to go through and right on into whatever lay on the other side. Particularly if it happened to be the sewage lines for this floor. Hmm, now there was an unpleasant thought.

"Just insulation, so far," Avalos reported, poking into the round hole with his light pen. "Would you like me to do that?"

"I've got it," Miles said, though his shoulders were screaming protest. "Leave the destruction of property to your commanding officers, that's what I always say."

"That's not what I hear," Avalos said tartly, but stepped aside.

"Remind me never to let you talk to Cousin Ivan again," Miles said, and powered the drill up, leaning gently into the push until the resistance suddenly gave way. "Ah-ha, here we go. Can you find a—oh, thanks." Avalos relieved him of the drill, swapping him for a tiny, ornate lamp liberated from a corner table.

Miles slid it into the hole, whose smooth edges were only faintly warm. He leaned close, breathing in a lungful of plaster and insulation and, behind that, a musty funk. If this actually is a Cetagandan skeleton . . .

It wasn't. At least not in the inadequate illumination of the lamp, limited to Miles's narrow angle of view. He could see the floor, which was the old hardwood of the original construction, and the corner of a colorful rug. Other than that, there was a lot of darkness.

"Hmm," Miles said. "This may take a while."

They took turns at the drill, after all, slowly widening the hole until Miles could lean his entire torso through and get a better look.

"Huh," he said, after a long pause.

"Well?" Avalos asked. He didn't actually shove Miles over to get a look for himself, but it was strongly implied.

"It's a bedroom," Miles said slowly, playing the light over the bed with the ornately carved wooden headboard, the nightstand, the desk in the corner, the bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves.

"Why's it shut up, then?" Avalos asked.

"A good question," Miles said, and hitched one knee up to the lip of the hole. The wall cracked and crumbled under his weight, making the mess that the laser drill had avoided. Avalos, for once without a sarcastic comment, quickly supplied his cupped hands to boost Miles's knee, then tipped him neatly through with a shove to the other foot.

"Go find me a better light, will you?" Miles said, picking himself up. He sniffed, and promptly sneezed a half dozen times, rapid fire. Damn dusty, unsurprisingly, but mostly the air had that stagnant quality of a long-sealed tomb.

Miles made a slow circuit of the periphery. Many books, all on paper. Some philosophy, some poetry, some novels, a lot of history. He took a few down to check the dates. Nothing less than a century old, at least in his tiny sampling.

He tried the desk. A stack of fresh paper was waiting, complete with ink in actual bottles. Miles looked for a seal, but didn't find one. Not too strange, considering most people wore theirs.

There was a dagger in the top drawer. Even in the bad light, Miles could see a flaked, rusty stain at the tip, as if someone hadn't cleaned it the last time they'd sealed a letter the old fashioned way.

Everything was precisely organized, but there were some obvious gaps. No date book, for one, and no calendar, and no correspondence with names helpfully appended. Miles made his search quick but thorough, and then moved on to the nightstand.

There was a stack of books there, too, all with faded ribbons marking someone's place. The contents of a teacup had long since evaporated, leaving a brittle dark sludge in the bottom. On the wall just above hung several bunches of dried flowers. Miles was afraid to breathe too hard near them, for fear of accidental disintegration.

He sat gingerly on the side of the bed and tried the top drawer. Ah-ha, there was the correspondence, reams of it in neat stacks. Miles tugged gently at the ribbon binding the topmost bundle, then carefully twitched out a folded sheet. Quality paper, his fingertips cataloged, even if fragile and aged. Miles unfolded it tenderly on his knee and bent close, squinting as he skimmed down for salutation and signature. An unrevealing if evocative My heart for the first, and as for the second.

"Bad day?"

Miles leapt, swallowing a shriek, and the letter slid off his knees onto the floor.

"Ivan, you idiot," Miles snapped. The voice had issued from the hole in the wall, where a dark shape loomed. Miles would know that drawl anywhere. He fumbled on the floor, collected the letter with reverent hands that shook only a bit in reaction to the shock.

"I know I'm going to regret asking this," Ivan said, "but what in all the tiny hells are you doing?"

Miles folded the letter, put it in its place, and quietly shut the drawer. "A spot of home renovation," he said, and crossed to the hole. "Get out of the way, will you?" Ivan did, and Miles slithered back through, managing not to land on his head. Avalos was just coming in, a selection of handlights tucked under one arm.

"Sorry, my Lord," he said. "Do you still need these?"

"Not at the moment," Miles said, tugging fruitlessly at his rumpled jacket. "What I think I need is an antiquarian. Or a preservationist, anyway."

"Whose room is it, then?" Avalos asked curiously.

"I have no idea," Miles said. "But I just opened a handwritten letter from Emperor Dorca, and I'd really love to read it without cracking it in half."

"I'll get right on that," Avalos said, leaving the lights and promptly reversing course.

"And then go home," Miles shouted after him. "Don't let me catch you at your comconsole after midnight again."

"Hi," said the ignored Ivan. "You're filthy."

"So I am," Miles agreed, looking down. "What d'you want?"

"Drink, remember?" Ivan said. "You didn't say when, but I messaged him," he jerked a thumb after Avalos, "and he said you were free."

"Right," Miles said, pleased. "A drink, yes. Give me a minute and we'll go."

Ivan trailed him down the hall. "Go?" he repeated. "Where?"

"Dunno." Miles ducked into the fresher and did some rapid scrubbing of hands and face. "Where're you drinking these days?"

"Well, there's my house," Ivan said dubiously. "Ekaterin isn't much for – but I have some wine."

Miles padded back out to the comconsole in his socked feet. In place of a vulnerable glass window, they had an inset holo panel that projected a view of the outside world. It showed twilight now, accurate to the second yet still subtly wrong to Miles's eye. He brought up Gregor's secretary with a single tap.

"The Emperor is meeting with Lord Auditor Vorhovis," Stavely informed him helpfully. "Would you like me to convey a message?"

Still? "No thanks," Miles said, and cut the connection. "No," he continued to Ivan, ducking into the closet for a change of clothes. "Somewhere with people. And possibly music."

"Are you sure you're allowed to do that?" Ivan asked from the other room. He was familiarly blunt, but it came to exactly the same thing Avalos had been saying all day.

Miles ground his teeth and jabbed at his wristcomm to summon Colonel Inceri. "That's what I want to find out."

They compromised, after a relatively short three-way negotiation, on the Emperor's Arms. It wasn't a particular officer favorite, which made Ivan happy; they could come in through the back and get a sheltered corner table without anyone noticing, which made Inceri happy; and they had a lot of whisky, which was making Miles increasingly happy.

"So?" Miles prompted as the second round was delivered. "What crawled up your nose this morning?"

"Oh, you know." Ivan waved a dismissive hand. "Just another day, another seven thirty briefing. Bet you had a lie-in," he added resentfully. "I asked Avalos – he said you had a long hard day of getting yourself immortalized on canvas."

"Hmm," said Miles, spinning his glass between his hands. "Yeah. Very relaxing."

"Anyway," said Ivan. "How's the next generation coming along?" He had inquired nearly every day since the conception, more slavishly devoted than anybody except maybe Gregor.

"Cooking up nicely," Miles said. "Don't worry, you'll be off the hook, right on schedule."

Ivan beamed. "To the Crown Prince," he said piously. "May he gestate in happy peace." They both drank to that. "Anyway," Ivan said. "I would have thought you'd be off your head today, if anyone was."

"The portrait isn't all that bad," Miles said. "Well. The horse is nice."

Ivan blinked at him. "Wait, you're telling me you don't know?"

"Know what?" Miles set his glass down.

"Oh," Ivan said, looking suddenly hunted. "I don't suppose we can forget I ever said anything?"

"Ivan."

"It's just a cartoon," Ivan said quickly. "In the paper this morning. Very . . . droll."

"Oh God," Miles said, in mounting dread. And yes, now that he was thinking of it, no one had offered him a news flimsy this morning, which was strange. He took a healthy slug from his glass. "All right, hit me," he said.

"It was just a suggestion, really," Ivan said. "About how you could, uh,. Better fulfill your new role. By, um, taking the Dono route."

"Taking the . . ."

"There was a sketch of you," Ivan added. "With, y'know . . ." he made a gesture with two suggestively cupped hands that Miles tried very hard not to comprehend. He failed. "I'm sure they didn't mean anything by it?" Ivan said hastily, flattening against the back of the booth.

Miles breathed through his nose, in and out. All right, maybe I have a new benchmark for the ultimate sacrifice. "Okay," he said evenly. "Right. I'm going to get up now and send one of my highly trained bodyguards to get the next round. Hopefully he'll come back with the bottle."

"I've got it," Ivan said, standing quickly. He eyed Miles. "And maybe some food wouldn't be a bad idea either," he added.

*

Miles opened his eyes to artificial dawn on his face and the world doing a slow loop-da-loop around his head. He squeezed his eyes shut again and counted out a dozen careful breaths before turning his face away from the light and trying again.

"Good morning," Gregor said, awake and watchful on the pillow beside him.

"Mmm," Miles said feelingly. Gregor rolled away to retrieve something, then silently presented Miles with an analgesic tablet and a glass of water. Miles accepted them and made noises of piteous gratitude as he washed out his arid mouth. They were quiet for a while as Miles silently urged the little tablet on to do its work. He was dimly aware of Gregor beside him, propped on one elbow, watching him.

At last, when the universe had edged up a notch from unbearable to merely dreadful, Gregor spoke. "I need to know if there is anything I can do to make you less unhappy," he said.

"I'm not unhappy," Miles said automatically.

Gregor inhaled carefully. "Miles. There is a giant hole in our sitting room."

". . . Oh." Miles groaned and rolled onto his back. "Point."

Gregor waited a long moment. "Also a lot of unidentifiable equipment," he said. "And a very excited gentleman from Vorbarr Sultana University who babbled a lot of things at me about the interactions of the acids in wood pulp paper. We had startled each other quite badly, you see."

"Oh, is that what that was?" Miles asked, excavating a dim memory of reeling in last night under Ivan's woozy direction and thinking there was something peculiar happening in the sitting room. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, then looked back over at Gregor. Who wasn't angry, or even annoyed. A shot of adrenaline jolted Miles's nerves. That was white-knuckled terror he was looking at.

"I'm not unhappy," Miles said. "Gregor, I swear it. I am not having regrets."

"Good," Gregor said, easing off the invisible high wire. "But you're not particularly happy, either."

"No," Miles admitted. "But it's okay, really it is. It'll pass. I'll get used to it."

Gregor flushed, suddenly angry like he hadn't been over Miles taking construction tools to the interior décor. "You'll get used to it?" he repeated. "You'll what, you'll learn to bear it, and you think that's an acceptable way to – that I would just stand by while you –"

"Gregor, Gregor," Miles said hastily, alarmed. "Really, I didn't mean to – damn it all. I'm just a little bored, all right? I hear uncorking a kid is the best cure for that, anyway."

Gregor stared mutely, breath coming too fast. Then he passed a hand over his face and looked up to the ceiling. "You're . . . bored," he said.

"Well yes," Miles said, exasperated. "I have nothing to do."

"You . . ." Gregor repeated. "Why didn't you say something?"

"Because I didn't want you to have to tell me to get my nose out of things," Miles said, frustrated. "I know you'd hate having to do it, and I know I'd really hate having to hear it, so . . ." They'd never actually talked about this, not really, about what Miles's job would be after their marriage. But he'd thought Gregor had plans for him, that he could shoulder some of the load and be helpful. It wasn't Gregor's fault that had been abandoned in the breach, with public acceptance as fragile as one of those brittle old letters. Surely it would get better, eventually. And until then, Miles could exercise his patience, and learn to be a good da.

"I didn't want to ask," Gregor said. "Or to impose my expectations. Because I thought you needed time and space to get your feet under you, to figure out what you wanted." He rolled his head on the pillow and smiled tiredly. "That was very silly of me, apparently."

". . . Oh," Miles said again, blinking. "You were being considerate."

"So were you," Gregor shot back.

"Yeah," Miles said. "Clearly we have to stop it at once for the sake of the marriage." They eyed each other across the pillow, as the near-fight fizzled. Miles slid carefully closer, and Gregor's hand came around his waist to settle warmly on his back. "Gregor," Miles said softly into his collarbone. "May I have something to do? Please?"

"Of course," Gregor said warmly. "What did you have in mind?"

"What do you need?" Miles asked.

Gregor brushed his mouth over Miles's cheekbone, eyes closing briefly. "Let me think about . . . hmm!"

"Yes?" Miles asked, leaning back a bit.

"Lord Auditor Vorhovis," Gregor said slowly. "He came to see me yesterday."

"I know," Miles said. "You were in with him for a while."

"Yes." Gregor had stopped smiling. "He's dying," he said. "The brain cancer again, only worse this time."

"Oh, hell," Miles said with feeling. "And there's nothing to be done?"

Gregor shook his head. "They've already done the retrogenetic therapies, and it just came back anyway," he said. "He has about six months."

"Is he . . ." Miles began, then lacked the appropriate ending. 'All right,' certainly wasn't it. "I should go see him."

"He seemed . . . accepting," Gregor said. "But that's often the only face people will show me." He laughed, humorlessly. "He's Vorhovis, you know how he is. He suggested having the six months time window will be useful to me in finding his replacement."

"Right," Miles said, the governmental implications sinking in. Vorhovis was one of the sharpest Imperial Auditors Gregor had. It was one thing to leave a slot empty when one of the ancient, senile Admirals died, waiting for the right man to come along to fill it. Quite another to carry on without Vorhovis, when they'd be painfully understrength.

"Which is what I'd like you to do, I think," Gregor said.

"Ah," Miles said, enlightened. "Quietly, I assume?"

"Right. Easier that way, let me tell you, without everyone underfoot and hoping for the appointment. It'll be at least a few months before Vorhovis has to stop working."

"Okay," Miles said. "Do you have any particular sort of Auditor in mind?"

"No," Gregor said comfortably. "I think I'll leave that to your discretion. And perhaps your creativity."

This was going to be a massive undertaking, Miles slowly began to realize. Finding suitable people, getting a good look at them, doing a thorough investigation to uncover any hint of impropriety. "I can do that," he said, enormously gratified.

Gregor hummed agreement into Miles's rumpled hair. They lay quietly for a long time as the holographic sun rose in the holographic sky.

"Sorry about the sitting room," Miles murmured at last. "And the University chap – I know you don't like having strangers up here."

"It was somewhat startling," Gregor said, dry but serene. "And I wouldn't mind a little warning next time. But you've not said – what's actually going on out there?"

"Oh," Miles said, reminded. "Right. See, I was thinking we need to expand a bit, what with the impending multiplication and all. I was thinking we could just take over Emperor Dorca's old rooms, if that's all right. Only there's something weird in between, and I found these letters."

"Oh?" Gregor asked, interested.

"From Emperor Dorca. To one of his women, I'm thinking," Miles said. "Though I never knew he actually moved one of them in here."

"Might not have been a woman," Gregor murmured, running a hand down Miles's side to rest at his hip.

Miles blinked. "You know, that never even occurred to me. Do you—"

Which was when the morning alarm sounded. It reinvigorated Miles's fading headache, and he huddled under his pillow for safety while Gregor rolled away and fumbled it off. "Damn," Gregor said, "I'm having breakfast with the Betan Ambassador." He excavated Miles from the pillows. "Tell me about it tonight, will you?"

"Oh," Miles said, reminded. "Dinner. With my parents, is that all right? I checked your schedule."

"Of course," Gregor said. "I'll put it down before someone else gets any bright ideas." He rolled out of bed with his usual morning person efficiency.

"I should get started," Miles said, and did the same. Three seconds later he reeled face-first into the wall and slid dizzily to the floor. Gregor's bare feet appeared in his field of view, and two capable hands lifted him under the arms.

"You should go back to bed," Gregor said dryly, "since I'm pretty sure you're actually still half drunk."

"I'm perfectly –" Miles began, then finished "—willing to do that," as Gregor steered him back to bed and he felt how good it was to put his head down.

"You should also probably stop trying to outdrink Ivan," Gregor said, voice tart but fingers tender on Miles's forehead. "I swear, you have one drink with him and you completely forget that he's twice your weight."

"Yep," Miles agreed. "S'completely Ivan's fault."

Gregor snorted and took his warm hands away to go shower. Miles dozed in and out in the brightening sun and the warm covers. Gregor came back, briefly, smelling of cologne. The sleeve of his suit jacket was soft against Miles's neck, his fingers softer on Miles's face. He said something warm and quiet that Miles was too asleep to understand, but it lit a matching warmth in him, affirmation so instinctive it was a bodily reflex.

*

He dragged out of bed scandalously late but feeling much more charitable all around. The coffee some sensible person had hot and waiting for him in the kitchen didn't hurt, either. Miles sipped slowly, ticking through a long list of really smart people he knew, and wandered out to survey the sitting room. The hole in the wall had been enlarged to the dimensions of a small doorway, bright light was pouring through, and Gregor's cat was occupying Miles's preferred spot at the end of the sofa where the late morning sun – the real one – could bake the ache out of your bones.

Miles crossed to the new addition, coffee in hand, and found Captain Avalos on his knees on the ornate rug, sorting papers and making notes on his comp pad. "My Lord," he said, looking up and starting to stand.

"Stay there," Miles said, waving him down. "You've been busy."

"Not me." Avalos sat back on his haunches. "I made some calls and got a document historian up from the University. He took care of these for you." He extended a sheet of paper and, taking it, Miles found the very letter he had first opened. It had been coated in some transparent, protective laminate that still managed to transmit the texture of the paper to the fingertips.

"Did he read anything?" Miles asked.

Avalos looked scandalized. "No, my Lord. They're Emperor Dorca's private letters."

"Exactly," said Miles. "

"I thought it should be left to you," Avalos said. "In case there's anything that ought to be classified."

"Yeah," Miles agreed. "Though if there's anything we need to still be worrying about, I frankly don't want to know it at all. But first things first. Who was he writing to?"

"Oh, I did see that," Avalos said, sheepish. He exchanged sheets with Miles and pointed at the top. "I didn't realize for a while, because they just say 'Cate.'"

"Ah." Miles traced the letters with a fingertip. Dorca had a firm but educated hand. "Empress Catherine Sophia Vorbarra, ni Vorrutyer."

"M—Emperor Yuri's mother," Avalos said.

"Yep," Miles agreed. "And Pierre Le Sanguinaire's sister, which would make her my—" he paused to count on his fingers "great great great aunt."

"She died young, right?" Avalos asked.

"Childbirth," Miles said, then paused, suddenly less sure of that. "At least I think so. And she wasn't that young. Well, I mean, she was, by our standards, but she was older than him, a right old maid. Which makes sense – who else would dare try it, with Le Sanguinaire for a brother. Dorca remarried a few years later and had Prince Xav and then the girls."

Avalos nodded. "This is very strange, my Lord," he said slowly.

"How so?"

"Well, mostly it's that." Avalos pointed and, in the better lights, Miles belatedly noticed the door that should let out into the corridor. But it didn't – he knew there was only blank wall on the other side. He walked over and knelt, touching fingertips to the smaller swinging door set within it, down at ground-level. It was the sort of little door that some people had to accommodate their pets, and also the sort of door that other people had in order to safely slide trays of food into a prisoner.

"All right, that's a little creepy," Miles said.

"It's bricked up," Avalos reported. "Neither door will open, but if you get down on the floor with a handlight, you can see underneath."

"I'll take your word for it," Miles said, standing creakily. He brooded over the door for a minute, then made another circuit of the room, looking at things again in the better light. The rug was beautiful autumn colors, clearly hand-woven. The covers on the bed echoed it in more muted shades, and the headboard was carved like flowing water. Two doors stood newly open on its far side: one led to a primitive fresher facility, and the other to a lady's dressing room. Between them were heavy blackout curtains, and behind those a redundant set of closed wooden shutters. Miles tugged experimentally at the catches, but they were stuck fast.

He inspected the dressing room more carefully, fingering the soft fabrics and bending to touch the embroidered slippers. No evening gowns, no riding clothes, and no jewels fit for an Empress. Though that last might not be so strange – the accumulated Vorbarra jewels were kept down in one of the vaults, except for a few historically valuable pieces on display at Vorhartung. There had been no one to wear them since Princess Kareen died, and there wouldn't be again until there was another Vorbarra princess. Until they had a daughter.

Miles swallowed, and went to sit down on the rug by Avalos. "Let's have a look, then," he said, and reached for the first letter.

My Lady:

The rain stopped late last night. I walked in the garden this morning as the sun came up, and felt warm for the first time since the new year bonfire, when I drank enough champagne to see the fireworks twice over, and you let me dance with you on the terrace nearly until dawn. It smells like rain this morning, and wet earth. I hope it lingers on these first-blooming flowers I've picked for your breakfast tray.

And, you'll be gratified to know, you were right about Lord Vordavon. He came to me late last night, very proud for a man come to go down on his knees and plead. It must have been a hellish trip, making it across the eastern Vordavon border on foot, not sure which men were loyal to his father and which might be wavering, and always with the chance of being run through once he got to my territory. Though no, that isn't right, for it is all mine, every inch of it, including those inches under Count Vordavon's boots right this moment. Lord Vordavon has come to believe that, where his father I think never will. It will be over by the summer, I'm sure now.

I'll come for dinner tonight, if it please you, and tell you what he said. I'm riding north for the day to inspect Vorpatril's lines. Ten thousand swords strong, and fresh for the spring campaign. Still, I have your voice in my ear constantly these days. "You can win by the sword, Sire," you said to me, "but you can't live by it." I think you're right about that, too.

Yours,
Dorca Vorbarra

Miles passed it on to the avidly curious Avalos. "Vordavon was the last holdout," he said. "Every other Count had bent the knee to Dorca by the time he was twenty-two, but Vordavon refused for another six months, the fool. Most of that was winter, and Dorca brought him in line the following spring with the help of Lord Vordavon, at the cost of . . . well. I don't rightly think they kept a very good count of how many it was."

"I didn't know he was so young." Avalos set the letter carefully aside. "There are a lot of these," he said, and offered a bouquet of little paper strips, clasped at one end by what looked like a hairpin.

Miles flicked through them. More of Dorca's handwriting, except now in short, disconnected sentences. How are you tonight? And I talked to Vorburg. And I did. He sends his regards.

"It's a conversation," Miles said slowly. "Or half a conversation, anyway."

"But why, though?" Avalos asked. "If you wanted to talk to someone in here, all you'd have to do is sit on the floor and open the pass-through door."

"Yes." Miles chewed his lip. "Let's see what else we have."

There were a lot of letters, and every last one was in Dorca's hand. Hundreds, by a conservative estimate. Miles went through them slowly, sticking to the order the historian had preserved from the drawer. Some letters were elaborate, descriptive narratives of Dorca's travels across Barrayar as he shored up his newly won imperial authority, or rode the streets of Vorbarr Sultana to Vorhartung Castle, or walked the halls of his own home. Others were intricate political projections on a planetary scale. Dorca's vision spanned decades – the securing of his holdings, the reinvigoration of the land so not every man need work to the bone to feed himself, and beyond into a better future. He had no idea what was coming, what the arrival of galactic civilization and then the Cetagandan invasion would do. To say nothing of his own son.

Some of the letters were light to the point of whimsy, recounting amusing anecdotes from the day. They were all, to a greater or lesser degree, love letters.

Cate:

I can't sleep tonight. I hope the rest that eludes me has found you. I know you're tired. God, Cate, what I wouldn't give to

No, I promised I wouldn't say that, and I think you're wise, as usual. Never pull the blade out until you're ready to bleed, every soldier knows that. I am home from campaign, perhaps for good. The test of ruling well. I would never have thought that I would retire from soldiering just as you were forced to take it up. That's what it is, after all, but on an entirely different plane. But you fight for Barrayar, just as much as I ever have. I know many things to tell young soldiers, but none of them will help you. I don't know how many boys I've told to keep their feet dry, for the love of God, or they'd lose their toes before coming within a hundred miles of the enemy lines. But your feet are clean and warm. I would say dainty feet, as a man ought to his lady wife, but you laugh at my excesses as it is. But I will say it anyway, and damn your laughter. Which is also what I was thinking when I sent the baba to you. Dainty feet. And delicate ankles, too, so there.

I am not ready to bleed. Sleep well, my Lady.

Yours,
Dorca Vorbarra

Avalos left at one point, and came back with sandwiches and more coffee. Miles read and sorted and thought, until the early afternoon when the alarm on Avalos's chrono sounded and it was time to go dress for Count Vorsoisson's wedding.

"This is the fifth, right?" Miles called from the dressing room.

"Sixth, I think," Gregor said, appearing in the doorway. "And they keep getting younger. It's appalling – I wanted to pat the last one on the head and send her home for early curfew."

"Please tell me we got them a really passive-aggressive wedding gift," Miles said. "Like one of those horrid rosebud virginity pins all the girls wear in their first season out."

Gregor made a face. "Alys picked something out, so I suspect not."

"Oh, that reminds me." Miles tugged his collar straight and brushed past Gregor. "I need to run a quick errand downstairs. I'll meet you at the car."

Lady Alys's office was much quieter with the wedding madness behind them. And these days, it was just as likely to be Delia Galeni at the neatly arranged desk as Lady Alys took some well-deserved time for herself, and let her protégée assume more responsibility.

It was Delia who stood and curtsied to Miles's knock.

"My Lord," she said demurely, just as if he hadn't used to try to put bugs in her hair when they were children.

"I want to have a party," Miles said.

Delia looked dubious. "Really?"

"Really." Miles came and perched on a chair so Delia would sit down. "I don't actually mind most parties, y'know, so long as I like who's coming. Gregor's the one you have to hog tie."

"I haven't tried that yet," Delia said judiciously. "What sort of party? An afternoon tea, or dinner?"

"Dinner. Not a ball. I want to be able to talk to a lot of different people, is the thing."

"So no dancing." Delia took rapid notes with a silvery stylus. "We can keep everyone at the table for a while, then adjourn to a few separate conversation parlors. It's getting too chilly for the terrace, unfortunately. Guest list?"

"Here's a start," Miles said, and provided the list of four dozen names he had generated throughout the day, essentially off the top of his head. "I'm going to keep adding to it, though."

Delia glanced down it, eyebrows going up. "This is an intriguing mix," she said. "Lord Vorline, Vice Admiral Fedechev, the Dean of the University – who is Mr. Billy "who counts the Counts" Guise? I don't know a lot of these names, actually."

"An accountant," Miles said cheerfully. "Forensic accountant. He can smell nasty bookkeeping three miles off. I met him on a case a few years ago."

"You're holding a salon," Delia said, slowly beginning to smile. "Inviting friends and unknowns to mix up and see what happens."

"I suppose I am," Miles said, and pushed to his feet. "Let me know when you schedule it. The sooner the better. And feel free to bring some of your friends – yours and Duv's, I mean."

"I'll get started right away," Delia said.

"Some of those people might be off planet," Miles realized. "I didn't really check."

"They'll come back," Delia said confidently.

Miles blinked. "Oh," he said, stupidly. Because at an invitation from him, yes they would now. "Thanks."

"Actually, since you're here," Delia said, and produced a book of fabric samples from nowhere.

"Sorry, gotta go, Gregor's waiting," Miles said, and backed hastily out.

*

They went straight from the wedding reception to Vorkosigan House. The first thing Miles did, after hugging his mother, was abandon his stiff jacket on the library sofa.

"Please tell me the girl was of age," the Count said, pouring wine for them both.

"I certainly wouldn't swear to it." Miles flopped down on the sofa and thought longingly of taking off his boots, too. "How did you two get out of that?"

"I," the Count said smugly, "am retired. And my health is fragile, you know." He grinned over the rim of his glass, hale and hearty.

"Speaking of." The Countess came and sat beside Miles. "We'll be heading down to the lake house soon."

"Not for the whole winter?" Miles asked, startled.

"Probably not. At least, not unless we can get the heating system redone again in the next few months." She grinned like a school girl. "But if we just happen to get snowed in down there, well, what could we do?"

"Are you taking notes?" Miles asked Gregor. "We should try that, next time you want a vacation. Divert a few weather satellites, bit of unexpected snowfall, maybe a titch of ice . . ."

"Actually, we were thinking you two should take a week and come down," the Countess said.

"Ah." Miles set his glass on the low table after only a sip. All he really wanted was water, for a couple of days at least.

"The house misses you," the Countess said, her eyes keen on his face. Beside him, Gregor moved restively.

"And I miss the house," Miles said. He stared at the light refracting in the bell of his wine glass. "It's just, maybe –"

"Maybe not this winter," Gregor said smoothly. "Perhaps in the spring." When the muffle of snow was gone and the mountains were exploding into bloom, and it would be nothing like last winter.

"Of course," the Countess said warmly. "Whenever you like. Ah, Selitz, thank you, we'll be up in just a moment. Come eat, and tell me how my grandson is doing."

For being still microscopic, the embryo could take up an impressive volume of conversation. Gregor was more talkative on the subject than Miles had ever seen him; apparently the Countess had been sharing child development books with him. For about the thousandth time in his life, Miles could have gotten down on his knees and thanked his mother for just being herself, for easing Gregor through this psychological morass so kindly. Poor Gregor, who wanted children with a deep, oceanic longing, but who still lived with his genetic legacy like a man in a haunted house.

They'd talked about it only once, the day after they'd gotten home from the honeymoon. There was no room for delay, they both knew that, and so no sense thrashing out options and wanting time they didn't have. But still, Miles had asked, "you do want this, yes? Forgetting the inheritance and the politics, you do want children?"

"I want your children," Gregor had said, and they had set a date.

They moved back down to the library for dessert and coffee. Miles claimed the spot closest to the fire, while Gregor and the Countess converged on the comconsole at the other end of the room for an exhaustive discussion of brain development.

"So?" The Count prompted quietly. "How's married life, then?"

"It's strange," Miles said frankly. "We were planning this for years, but apparently I never actually adjusted my expectations off what every Vorkosigan has done before. Even when Gran'da married Princess Olivia, he brought her home. Here."

"You're not entirely unprecedented, though," the Count said unexpectedly. "In a way, you're following in your mother's footsteps, when it comes to making a marriage."

Miles sat back, startled. "What a terrifying thought," he said honestly. It wasn't that the Countess blazed new trails through the jungle of Barrayaran society; instead she strolled off cliffs and danced midair, flying on the magic of never looking down. Miles had watched her all his life, and he still didn't have the trick of it.

"Da," Miles said slowly. "I have a question."

"Mmm?" the Count prompted.

"About Mad Emperor Yuri," Miles said, and checked his father's expression. Startled, but more curious than anything.

"Go on," the Count said.

"I heard a rumor once," Miles said. "About him. That he was illegitimate."

"Oh yes," the Count nodded. "There was a rumor, that's true enough, though I can't speak to its veracity."

"I just assumed it was a tactic," Miles said. "To discredit him during the war."

"It worked that way, yes," the Count agreed. "But I don't think it was invented then. I think some of Ezar's cronies were . . . stirring up old sediment."

"Do you know where it came from originally?"

The Count pursed his lips. "Well. I imagine there were many stories, but the one I always heard was that he was fathered by Pierre le Sanguinaire."

"Eurgh," Miles said, working that one out.

"Thus capitalizing on the strong resemblance to his mother," the Count said. "But you can't be worried about this. Even if it were true, it would be no threat to your children."

"Oh, I know," Miles said. "It's just, I was thinking, and what you said about Le Sanguinaire makes sense. Discredit him, sure, but wouldn't a story like that also cast the blame for Yuri's madness somewhere other than the Vorbarra line?"

"Shifting blame to the Vorrutyers, yes," the Count said, and flickered a glance over Miles's shoulder.

"Who do you blame, then?" Gregor spoke right behind him, and Miles jumped. Oh, hell.

"Me?" the Count opened both hands, innocuous. "I wasn't there for most of it."

"But you have an opinion," Gregor said evenly. "Tell me, what do you think?"

The Count set his glass down with care. "I don't think most madness is inherited like eye color," he said deliberately. "I think we all have the capacity for it, to a greater or lesser degree, and what matters is where the fault lines crack, when you lay the pressure on. I think Yuri was captured and tortured at least once, fighting in the occupation. I think some of his . . . later methods looked remarkably familiar. I think he was always paranoid, always not quite able to understand other human beings. But I do not think he was born a killer." He considered Gregor. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

There was a subtle shift in the air pressure behind Miles. "Yes," Gregor said evenly. "Thank you, Sir." He set his hand on Miles's shoulder; Miles was already uncrossing his legs and reaching for his jacket in response to the subliminal cue. "We should be going. And you, Milady," Gregor added, and bent over the Countess's hand in the formal way. "A pleasure, as always. When will you be going?"

"Next week, probably." The Countess hugged him in that spontaneous way of hers, and Gregor took it with shy gratification, like he always did

The Count shook both their hands, clapped Miles on the back, and wished them a good night. They crossed the entrance hall arm-in-arm, and Gregor paused when Miles did, patient as Miles let his eyes dwell on the black and white tile, the curving stair, the hall deeper into the darkened house. It was Colonel Vortala, not Gregor, who hurried him along with a gentle clearing of the throat. Miles rocked into motion again, shivering at the first gust of unexpectedly cold autumn wind. He stepped to block Gregor from it; Gregor caught him at it and didn't laugh at the ridiculousness of someone Miles's size trying that, but simply nodded his thanks. Leaving home to go home, Miles thought as they pulled down the drive.

Gregor wanted to go down and visit the uterine replicator when they got in, which Miles would have anticipated if he'd been thinking at all.

"I'll join you," he said. "Just want to get something upstairs."

The lights were still burning in what some thriller holovid portion of Miles's brain insisted on calling the secret room. Gregor's cat was stretched out on the rug, doing that magic trick where he expanded to twice his normal standing length. Miles gave him a wide berth and went to retrieve a stack of letters, packed carefully back in the drawer.

His hand was shaking again, in place of the patchy numbness he'd been experiencing for the past few days. For months Miles had dutifully tracked every lingering trace of the poison, noted each wave of numbness or tingling or weakness in his left leg. He'd stopped eventually, when it became clear none of his doctors could do anything more, and he wasn't getting any better.

Gregor had pulled up a chair to the viewer over the replicator when Miles arrived downstairs. One of the silent guards moved to retrieve a seat for Miles, too, but he waved it off and went to lean on Gregor's shoulder. Brooding, he assessed, but not alarmingly so.

"These would be the mysterious letters?" Gregor asked, glancing over at him.

Miles nodded and handed him one. Gregor read it, eyebrows steadily rising. "Goodness," he said, startled.

"Seems you come by your epistolary tendencies naturally," Miles said.

Gregor turned faintly pink, pleased. "I've gone through his papers, you know," he said. "And this might be the most . . . intimate record we have."

"That's what I thought." Miles handed him the whole stack he brought, and waited while Gregor worked rapidly through them, well-trained speed reader, pausing here and there to tap a fingertip on the page in thought. "Thing is," Miles said when he was done, "I think he locked her up in that room. Have you looked?"

"Quickly, this morning." Gregor frowned down at the letters. "He writes as if they're separated."

"But she was right here," Miles said. "At least it looks that way."

"This was the final spring of the reclaiming of the Counts," Gregor said slowly. "Yuri was born that Midsummer Day."

"So she was pregnant," Miles said. "Gregor, why would a man lock up his pregnant wife and then write her love letters?"

"For protection," Gregor said, not looking up. "For the sake of his child, and to judge by these, for the sake of what he felt for her . . . he could have been driven to extremities."

"Yes." Miles leaned into him deliberately until Gregor looked at him again. "But so that he himself could never see her?" Gregor lifted an empty hand, baffled. "I was hoping you knew something I didn't," Miles said, disappointed.

"No." Gregor's eyes returned to the viewer. "I don't know much about her at all, come to think of it. Just her lineage, the date of her marriage – there are some pictures, you know – and her death at Midsummer in childbirth."

"It just doesn't make sense," Miles said. "I mean, if it wasn't his child, he might've been punishing her. But then the letters don't match up."

"He was not a particularly forgiving man," Gregor said. "Do you know how many executions he ordered? How many he presided over?" Miles didn't, but Gregor clearly had a precise count.

"All right," Miles said, spinning theories. "Say Le Sanguinaire raped her? Or someone else, for that matter. If anyone knew, she would be dishonored, and he needed to secure himself with an heir. And if he loved her . . ."

"But confining her might well have been the source of the rumor in the first place," Gregor said.

"Yeah." Miles sighed and looked into the viewer like a crystal ball. Hello, he thought to his son. I'm your Da. We can't wait to meet you. Sorry about the Imperium and everything. We'll do our best, I swear it.

"This is bothering you," Gregor said. "Dorca and Catherine."

"I don't know why," Miles said. "But it really is."

"There might not be anything left to find," Gregor cautioned, unnecessarily.

"I know. But I was thinking I might see what's in the vaults. You said you had his things." He paused. The vaults held all still sealed Imperial papers, which in actuality was most of them. "If that's all right?" One of your Gran'das was a monster, you know. But I think the other three grandparents make it up pretty well, so don't you worry.

"Yes," Gregor said. "I have no secrets, not from you."

"Okay," Miles said. "Thank you." He rested his hand at the back of Gregor's neck, squeezed gently, ran his thumb up the line of vertebrae and then across the faint bristle at his hairline. Gregor turned and rested his head in the crook of Miles's elbow, looking up at him with soft eyes, happy within the curve of Miles's thin arm. He'd clearly forgotten about the audience of guards, an uncharacteristic lapse in such a private person. "Come on," Miles said quietly. "You're tired."

They rode the lift up in comfortable silence. Gregor turned left from the entryway of the apartment, while Miles went right into the sitting room to return the letters. He pulled up short, gaped, and hastily set the letters on a side table.

"Gregor! Your cat is eating a mouse on a three hundred year old rug!" Negri looked up from his prize and gave Miles a hostile, yellow stare. Miles approached cautiously, crouching a bit with his hands out. Negri watched him, waiting for the moment when Miles was just a hair too far away to grab him, and then leapt. With the mouse, naturally. Miles swore and dove for the door to cut off escape. Negri changed direction midair, landed on the sofa, and then shot toward the balcony door, which was – damn it – ajar. Miles flanked him from the right, feinted forward enough to divert the cat from the balcony and the forest of handy chair legs to hide in. He pulled the door shut as he slid by, snatched a cushion off the sofa, vaulted the foot stool, broke right, and whisked the cushion a millimeter over the impudently pricked black ears. Negri recoiled, dropped the mouse, and streaked out the door between Gregor's feet. Miles crouched there, panting.

"Congratulations," Gregor said into the sudden silence. "You have outsmarted the cat at last."

"Thanks for the backup," Miles said, scowling at him. "And what do you mean, at last?"

"I was spectating supportively." Gregor glanced down at the rug. "I'll let the Steward know we've got mice again," he said on a sigh. "It's amazing to me how we're secure from Cetagandan microbes, but not rodents."

"I don't think so, actually," Miles said, leaning closer. "It's a mouse, but . . ." he poked it gingerly with a fingertip. "Definitely not recently deceased," he concluded.

"Ug, don't tell me he's stockpiled them from the last time?" Gregor asked, sounding appalled at something the cat had done for the first time in four years.

"Um, no," Miles said. "A bit longer than that." He gestured demonstratively at the secret room, still unsightly and gaping. "Try a century. It's actually mummified."

Gregor made a horrified face, his secret squeamishness showing. "I'll go close Negri in the bedroom then, shall I?"

"The study, you mean?" Miles called after him. He sighed, shook his head, and went to dispose of the thing. There were hundred-year-old mouse guts on the rug, he was about to spend the night fighting with the damn cat for the warm spot against Gregor's back, and he couldn't stop grinning.

"Domestic life suits me," he informed Gregor, coming to bed a few minutes later.

"I'm glad," Gregor said. "Because sleeping next to you every night suits me. So much, Miles."

"Yeah, that too." Miles had wondered how it would be, sharing a bed with somebody night after night. He'd never done it more than a few weeks at a stretch before. Now he knew, and he had to worry what it would be like trying to sleep alone when they travelled apart. "Gregor," he said quietly.

Gregor glanced up. Miles looked at him steadily, comprehensively, from the faint touch of silver at his temples to his bare shoulders to the notch in his collarbone where Miles left marks sometimes, just to watch Gregor finger them under his collar all the next day. Under his eyes, Gregor flushed hotly, as if at an intimate touch. He shuffled across the bed, clearly aiming to slide under the arm Miles was using to prop himself. Miles let him, then bent close, pressing Gregor flat to the pillows. Gregor's breath rushed against his cheek, and Miles hummed, riding his own surging response. He turned his head and Gregor craned up for it.

Their lips were millimeters apart when Miles gently murmured, "Cat."

Gregor froze. ". . . Shall I go put him in the study, then?"

"Yes, please," Miles said sweetly, and let him up. "But Gregor? Hurry back."

*

The comconsole woke him an hour before dawn, to judge by the chrono. Miles rolled out of bed and into his discarded clothes before waking up enough to wonder if he really ought to answer a call that must be for Gregor, who was still stirring groggily. But General Allegre, on the other end, only blinked once and adjusted his greeting to an apologetic, "Sorry to wake you, Prince."

"Problem?" Miles asked, dropping into the chair.

"There's been an incident," Allegre said. "Unexpected and explosive decompression at the Motoget construction site."

"Casualties?" Miles asked, coming fully alert. Motoget would eventually be a fully fledged space station outpost, in ecliptic orbit a few light minutes out from Barrayar. The last time Miles had seen the holos, it was nothing but a whole lot of money and a spider web of girders.

"Unclear. There are extensive drills and everyone has emergency suits, but they're still counting heads." Allegre paused. "We did just rotate work crews a month ago. The new bunch is one of the mixed Komarran cohorts."

"Oh," Miles said on a sigh. "Of course it is. I don't suppose it was a freak accident?"

"Also unclear. And the new cruiser prototype docked there just three days ago." Allegre made an unhappy face, then acknowledged Gregor over Miles's shoulder.

"We'll be down in a few minutes," Gregor said. "Thank you, General."

Miles swiveled in the chair as Gregor switched on a lamp. "Have there been any intelligence blips lately?" he asked.

"No." Gregor ducked into the closet to dress. "Nothing unusual on the Komarran front, and nothing at all about Motoget." He reappeared briefly in the doorway. "You should come sit in on my regular morning briefings," he said.

"I will," Miles agreed, pleased. He chewed briefly at his lip. It's not a test. I just need to know. "Only, someone's going to have to go out there."

"Probably," Gregor said. ". . . ah."

"Unless there's someone else you'd rather—"

"There is rarely anyone else I'd rather," Gregor said, smiling. "And you are perfectly suited to this problem. So yes, of course, it's yours if you want it."

"I think I do, thanks," Miles said. "I'll go pack."

It actually was a freak accident, as it turned out, one of those million-to-one chances that, as Miles pointed out to Allegre, did actually come around every millionth time. He spent a week and a half out at the site confirming it from nine separate directions, soothing the frazzled nerves of the station Commander, and making tentative friends with a handful of industrious young Komarran officers. Sleeping alone was unpleasant. He sent off short, daily reports; Gregor responded with a few helpful suggestions and reams of baby holos. In Miles's absence, his son had cleverly developed the neural groove and somites that would shortly be his spinal cord and vertebrae. A nice showing all around.

He came home in the late afternoon, just in time to throw a party. Avalos split off from him to deal with the backlog at his comconsole, and Miles stuck his head into his office to find it smelling strongly of paint, but nearly habitable. The desk had arrived, a wedding gift from Gregor, and Miles ran curious fingers over its satiny finish.

"Almost ready to hang out my shingle," he said to Avalos as he went back out. "Oh, good God," he added at his aide's blank look. "Those rural schools really are as bad as you keep saying, aren't they?"

Gregor's door was open, and he was alone. Miles breezed past all three secretaries and swung the door shut.

"Ah," Gregor said, dropping his stylus.

Miles circled the desk, planted one knee up on Gregor's chair, and kissed him soundly. Gregor was breathless and flatteringly starry-eyed by the time he was done.

"Here you go," Miles said, dropping the final report into his hand.

"Thank you," Gregor said, as quickly disposing of it on his desk. He leaned in, and Miles kissed him again, obligingly, cradling Gregor's jaw and tilting his mouth just where he wanted it. Gregor murmured softly into the kiss, eagerly pliant.

"Miss me?" Miles asked, breaking off.

Gregor's lips parted on something heartfelt, but they closed quickly at a knock. Miles stepped back, then hitched himself up on the corner of Gregor's desk. Lady Alys bustled in at Gregor's summons, carrying an ominous stack of place cards.

"Well-timed, Miles," she said briskly. "Your guests will be arriving in less than two hours, and we still haven't settled the seating issues."

"I can shuffle those for you, if you like," Miles said helpfully. "Make things more lively." She gave him one of her more freezing looks, opening her mouth. "Look, I really don't care," Miles said. "Honestly, I either like everyone on that list or want to know them, so I leave it to your talent and discretion." Beside him, Gregor quivered in silent amusement at this blatant handling. "Is Lord Auditor Vorhovis still coming early?"

"Yes." Alys subsided for the moment. "Where would you like to receive him?"

"Upstairs. That is, if our sitting room is presentable?"

"In your absence, yes," Lady Alys said crisply. "He'll be here in an hour."

"I should go dress then," Miles said, and escaped.

*

Lord Auditor Vorhovis's bow was a bit stiff, but that had been true for as long as Miles had known him – arthritis, probably.

"Sit down," Miles said, waving him to the sofa. "Something to drink?"

"Whatever you're having. Ah," he added, gratified, as Miles retrieved the brandy snifters. "Yes, please."

"Gregor has asked me to conduct the search," Miles said, going straight to the point. "For your successor."

"Cheers." Vorhovis toasted him, in nothing but good will.

"I wanted to know if you had any opinions about it," Miles said. "You needn't participate, if you'd rather not."

"I'm happy to help, however you like." The man was imperturbable.

"You'll be impossible to replace," Miles said honestly. "To duplicate, I mean." Vorhovis was a singular mind: he had the talents of a Prime Minister, if his life had gone a more overtly political direction.

"And that isn't the point, in any case," Vorhovis said, dipping his chin. "I've been thinking for a while, Vorkosigan, and I – oh. My apologies, my Prince."

Miles waved this off. "I'll answer to that until the day I die," he said, "no matter how politically inconvenient. You were saying?"

Vorhovis nodded gravely. "It's not enough to choose a man by vocation, I think," he said. "With only eight of us –"

"Five, really," Miles put in.

"Precisely. With so few, you'll never anticipate every need. That's what the ninth auditorship is for, anyway, to bring in the weapons developer or the neurosurgeon or the literature professor. Ha, haven't I told you that one? A question of the authenticity of a play from the Time of Isolation, upon which an inheritance turned for a series of honestly ridiculous reasons. In any case." He shook his head, sipped his drink. "It's the quality of the mind, not the vocation."

"And what quality would that be?" Miles prompted.

"Oh, all the expected things. Suppleness, adaptability, lateral thinking." He gestured, open-palmed. "But the main thing is . . . I like to think I have served well, that I've been helpful."

It was said without pride or question, but Miles answered anyway. "You have."

"It's that, I think," Vorhovis said. "It's personal. It's why some of the other auditors were of no real use to the Emperor even before they grew infirm – they were chosen to fit another hand, and they did not understand him. You need someone you can work with. A person simultaneously independent and an extension of your will."

That was the Imperial 'you,' Miles realized mid-nod, delivered to him for the first time. It meant Gregor, of course, but also Miles, slotted into the imperial mechanism beside him seamlessly in Vorhovis's mind. It was a shift of perception Miles himself had not yet achieved. Dizzying, to catch a flash of it like that.

"Quite right," Miles said. "Thank you. I appreciate the advice. And if you have anything more concrete – some names you'd like to put into consideration – please tell me."

"Kind of a lark, you know," Vorhovis confided. "Who else gets to do this? Not Counts – they've got inheritance precedence laws. Perhaps it's morbid, but I think it's actually grand, choosing the man to take my place."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," Miles said. He studied his fingernails, then looked up again. What the hell. "I . . . know something about what's happening to you right now," he said. "I was very sick, not too long ago and, um, the details aren't important. But what I mean to say is, you wear it well."

Vorhovis looked startled, then pleased. "Why, thank you," he said. "I don't have many regrets. Some – if there were none, I think I would have been doing things very wrong. One of them is that I won't get to see the Crown Prince."

Footsteps sounded in the hall and Gregor appeared, dressed for the evening. "Lords Auditor," he said formally, then flicked a glance to Miles. "Your guests are beginning to arrive."

"Right." Miles stood and rubbed his hands together. "This is going to be fun."

*

It actually was. The receiving line didn't get clogged up, miracle of miracles, and Miles ran through a series of mental mnemonics to keep all the new faces attached to the proper names. Ivan appeared, uncharacteristically early; Miles attributed the punctuality to Ekaterin, who was looking lovely in green. Particularly when Gregor told her so and she went pink and stuttery. Delia was busy ensuring the line ran smoothly, so her husband appeared to make his bow accompanied by a group of unfamiliar Komarrans – two officers with Barrayaran wives, a financier, and a doctor.

Three people were either flustered or malicious enough to kiss Miles's hand as if he were a lady, which was a trial both for the muffled titters it provoked in the onlookers and for the overwhelming desire to curl the hand into a fist and present it an inch farther up the face. Gregor's invisible spasms of hilarity every time didn't help, either. Miles absently greeted a stock broker whose meteoric portfolio indicated either extraordinary perception or extraordinary insider trading, only one of which was the skill set he was after. Gregor had been laughing a lot lately, he thought, sneaking a quick sideways look. That's because of you, you dolt. The mere quarter glass of wine he'd drunk would not excuse the warmth in his face, and Miles coughed momentarily into his hand to collect himself.

The end of the line finally straggled by, and they were allowed up to mingle. They were pulled almost immediately into the nasty vortex of an argument on advanced biologicals imports; Miles listened for three minutes, then faked a summons from across the room and ruthlessly abandoned Gregor to it. He wandered for a while, drifting from conversation to conversation. Unlike many of the upper crust Vorish gatherings he'd been to lately, not everyone here actually knew each other. There was a lot of, "so what do you do, then?" which no high society Vor would ever ask another, anyway. Miles crossed three people off his mental list in the course of twenty minutes, one for having the bad judgment to be already slurring his words an hour into the party, and two for being so stultifyingly dull it made his brain congeal.

Gregor appeared with a light touch to his elbow just as the dining room doors were opening, and Miles submitted himself to be escorted in. It turned out that Lady Alys had separated them, with Gregor at one end of the table surrounded by a buffer of friends, and Miles at the other with an industrial shipbuilder and a cybernetics researcher on one side, and the Galenis's Komarran doctor friend and Admiral Vortaine on the other. It was an odd mix, and they all had to work a bit in the beginning to get the conversation going. But Ma Kosti came to the rescue – an innocuous comment about the seared salmon elicited the information that Garren, the shipbuilder, had worked as a short-order cook while in university, and revealed the further fact that he was hilarious. Their entire end of the table spent the first course in fits over a highly convoluted story – "but true, my Lord, every word!" – involving a misprogrammed protein vat and a befuddled health inspector. Miles saw it coming, but he still had to dab his eyes with his napkin when Garren finished ". . . tastes like chicken!"

This started Admiral Vortaine on the fruitful line of "the worst job I ever had . . ." Miles contributed the story of nearly burying himself in mud on Kyril Island, and Dr. Farley to his left offered a morbid but charming account of life in an organ regeneration laboratory.

At that point their conversation was subsumed by the perennial cultural assimilation debate, spreading down the table like a virus. Miles sat back, mildly annoyed, and accidentally caught the eye of Dr. Farley, who was casting surreptitious looks over to see how the Butcher's son was taking this.

". . . some differences so fundamental, they're all but biological," someone said.

Miles and Dr. Farley rolled their eyes simultaneously, caught each other at it, and grinned in mutually startled amusement.

Miles leaned over and spoke confidentially. "Lately, I swear this conversation is more nuanced and productive if you start it, 'a Barrayaran and a Komarran walk into a bar . . .'"

Farley actually laughed at that. "Duv Galeni says assimilation is working better than anyone thinks, because you can be guaranteed to have the exact same conversation about it around any given Komarran or Barrayaran table."

"Does he? He'd know, hopping back and forth like he does every few weeks. I haven't been to Komarr in nearly eighteen months, at least before the honeymoon," Miles realized suddenly.

"I haven't either, come to that," Farley said. "I imagine you've been busy. At least that's what I always tell my mother."

"You like it here?" Miles asked, curious.

"I do," Farley said, smiling wryly. "I came for a job – I'm a diagnostician, you see, and you lured the best diagnostics unit here from Solstice about ten years ago. But now I think I'll stay for the climate. The oxygen content, really. And open spaces. And sunlight." He broke off, then looked hastily around for a cue to stand or not as Gregor came around the end of the table and nodded a reserved greeting.

"Racozy needs me for a minute," he said, setting a hand on Miles shoulder.

"Problem?" Miles asked, dropping his napkin on the table.

Gregor kept him in his seat with gentle pressure. "No, not yet. Stay, enjoy your party." He vanished just as silently.

". . . come to pragmatically accept the reality of Barrayaran stewardship as a betterment to Komarr, in the face of astrographic fact. Why, in military protection of shipping convoys alone . . ." that was Galeni, knocking down dissenters with that dry eloquence of his.

"He must be very good at whatever it is he does for you," Farley said, following Miles's gaze.

"Too good," Miles said. "Poor bugger's never going to get promoted out of his current slot, not with the record he's been setting. That, and his wife's career will keep him here, I think."

"That's a strange thing for a Barrayaran to say," Farley said, then moved quickly to apologize.

Miles waved him off. "Oh, you're right. It's true, though – she's coming into her own as Gregor's – our social director. She's going to be a power broker, plain and simple." He glanced up the table to where Delia sat, flirting gently with Vorhovis. "How'd you meet them, anyway?"

"I do shifts in the emergency room at Vorbarr Sultana General," Farley said. "I patched him up when he took that projectile to the shoulder, and we got to talking."

"Ha, I'd forgotten about that," Miles said, smirking. Poor maligned Galeni, who had come out the other side of a Cetagandan death squad, only to be taken down by a punk kid with a homemade rifle in an amateur grocery store robbery. It wasn't actually funny, except for the way Galeni turned bright red at a mere hint of it.

Miles attention was jerked away by Delia, who in Gregor's absence passed the duty of the toast to him. He quieted the table and delivered one off the top of his head to camaraderie, to his son simmering downstairs, and, obliquely, to Vorhovis. The string of toasts that followed was mercifully truncated, and the guests stood when Miles did to flow into the string of connected parlors.

"This is weird," Ivan said, appearing as Miles accepted a tiny cup of coffee from a circulating servant.

"What is?"

"This party. Miles, do you realize no one's rekindled an ancient blood feud? Or even upchucked in the cloak room? These friends of yours are doing it wrong."

"They're not my friends," Miles corrected. "Not yet, anyway."

Ivan snorted. "After ridiculously expensive coffee imported straight off an Escobaran plantation, you bet they are."

"Where's your astronomically better half?" Miles asked.

Ivan looked around furtively. "Don't let her hear you say that," he hissed. "Just because some people are all disgustingly newlywed – where's yours, anyway?" Gregor materialized out of the crowd and tapped him on the shoulder. Ivan jumped, swearing as coffee went everywhere. "That's it!" he snapped. "If you two are going all creepy telepathic on us, I'm moving to Komarr."

"Everything all right?" Miles asked Gregor.

"Fine. Enjoying your party?"

"I am, thanks." Miles took his hand and drew it through his arm. "Come on. I want you to ask this fellow Garren those pointed questions about Betan engine advancements that Minister Umeri couldn't answer last week, see what he says."

They were separated half an hour in, and half an hour after that, Miles looked around and realized he hadn't actually seen Gregor in a while. He exercised Admiral Naismith's accent on the new Betan ambassador just to watch him boggle, then was waylaid for his sins by a linguistics professor who wanted to talk about his diphthongs. Miles escaped into the untender mercies of Prime Minister Racozy, who after five years of proximity was still something of a mystery. Miles couldn't even tell if the man liked him fine or loathed his guts. He made a point for the rest of the night of seeking out the remaining new faces. He wished he could have Avalos follow him around and take notes as he rapidly added and deleted and flagged names for consideration. He had a lot of ImpSec files to read tomorrow.

He took his leave just after midnight, and trotted upstairs, humming. Gregor was on the sitting room sofa with a glass of wine to hand and a stack of Dorca's letters in his lap.

"I've discovered yet another marital benefit," he said, looking up. "I can leave a party when I've had enough of people, and it's much less remarked on when you're there to hold down the fort."

Miles flung himself down on the sofa and exchanged glares with the cat, who was sprawled behind Gregor's shoulders. "Ah-ha," he said lazily. "His dastardly designs are revealed at last."

Gregor's smile softened. "And then you come home to me," he said.

"That's still blowing my mind, let me tell you." Miles kicked off his boots, then stuck his cold toes in the warm bend behind Gregor's knee. It was one of those presumptuous gestures that had annoyed previous lovers, but that Gregor thrived on, for their rarity in his life.

"So," Miles said. "We're going to have a son."

"Yes, we are," Gregor agreed, equally serious.

Miles rolled his neck to loosen his shoulders. "I'm going to ask you if you're all right in just a minute here," he said. "And I'm going to keep doing it now and then for the next couple months, if you don't mind. Are you all right?"

Gregor didn't pretend to misunderstand him. "I think so," he said. "Most of the time, I'm merely terrified at having charge of a new human life. I'm told that's normal."

"Is it?" Miles asked, diverted. "I just keep hopping up and down and chanting 'faster, embryo! Gestate, gestate!'"

Gregor laughed, and then spontaneously said, "I love you."

"I know," Miles said, warming.

But Gregor had stopped smiling. "No, I mean." He shook his head, made a frustrated face. "I'm not very good at this, when it's not on paper, and I just – I'm sorry for that."

"You're not very good . . ." Miles repeated helplessly. This from Gregor, who hadn't just offered his heart once, but did it over and over again ten thousand times, with their morning coffee or when they couldn't sleep or when Miles was using him as a foot-warmer. Gregor extended himself, every day, and yet somehow it was never ordinary. And yes, it was true, sometimes there was a frantic quality to his gestures, as if he were trying to pour out all the devotion he had before his happiness went up in smoke. But Miles had schooled himself not to take that personally, as a sign of doubt, a long time ago. And he liked to think it was getting better, under long, careful tending.

"I know sometimes you can't say what you want to, when it's just you and me," Miles said. "That you get tongue-tied." Gregor nodded, miserable, and Miles wanted to grab him and shake him. Gregor was a rock in the face of Cetagandan threats and personal hatred and traitors. It was only Miles that undid him. "And you don't think that tells me everything I need to know, loud and clear?" Miles asked, then sighed, frustrated by his own inadequacies.

Gregor looked away, took a breath, and let the tension bleed out of his shoulders. He rested one warm hand on Miles's ankle, and fished out one of the letters with the other to set silently on Miles's knee.

"Yeah," Miles said softly. "Like that."

My Lady:

It's done. You must have heard the cannons in celebration this morning. The new Count Vordavon ordered his men to stand down, and by God, Cate, but they did. He's acquitted himself well, Vordavon has, though it's an ugly way for a man to come to power.

My father was the first man to bend the knee to me, did I ever tell you? I was sixteen, the day we buried Crown Prince Tavar, and he and his friends brought me to Vorhartung and swore their oaths to me in the Council Chamber. They told me not to worry, that Barrayar would be mine by blood and by right. Six years on, half of those men dead. We've spilt the blood, and I've asserted the right.

And there she is, united Barrayar. And now what to do with her?

Don't worry, I remember all the plans we made, your brother and I, with you sitting quietly by the fire at your sewing. Except when you'd look up, every now and then and say, "No, Sire. Not that way." I was terrified of your no's, do you realize? It made for a very fraught state of mind, waiting for the answer I wanted most.

But here it is, peace, and a ride home to my Lady wife. This must never happen again. When I think of the good soldiers sacrificed to pride or three square miles of bad farmland or rank stupidity, I could just scream at them all. And it won't happen again, not in my reign.

I will be home soon. Your brother sends his love. I would do the same, but you already have it all, and you can parcel it up as you need it. I will be there soon, and you can tell me how the child progresses. I will try not to rage. I will not put my fist through the wall again. I will try to be the man you need.

Yours,
Dorca Vorbarra
*

Gregor's library had once been comfortable and cozy. With the addition of Miles's books, accommodated on a double row of new shelves, it had transformed into an overcrowded used bookshop.

Miles knelt and ran his fingers along the leather spines of Gregor's familial biographies. He didn't have one for Empress Catherine, and an extensive interlibrary query revealed that there wasn't actually one. Miles selected Dorca's fat volume and carried it next door to the study to read in front of the fire.

He started out skimming for references. He knew this story, after all. But it was famous for a reason, and Miles found himself slowing as the teenaged Dorca served in his father's military train and learned statecraft from his mother's father, Prince Verl, the Emperor's brother. Catherine first appeared, in passing, as a lady companion to Dorca's sister. The one who died of the Blood Rot, not the one who hung herself, a footnote helpfully clarified. A cross-reference directed him forward to the deaths of the Crown Prince and all his siblings one after the other when Dorca was sixteen, carried off by the same disease. There was a picture of a gaunt, anonymous face, skin mottled purple and black after months of the internal decay. And he was a lucky one, surviving through the initial intestinal illness long enough for the virus to attack his skin and lungs.

Miles shuddered and kept going, through that disastrous spring with the imperial heir dead and the epidemic cresting and the Counts' old feuds snarling to life again. He could only imagine what it had been like for Dorca, receiving sudden pledges of loyalty from one grizzled old player after another, all of whom wanted above everything to control him. Dorca was named heir almost immediately, assumed the Vorbarra name, and attended upon his dying Great Uncle.

And then, in the course of less than four years, with the third and final wave of the epidemic sputtering out and the Counts taking sides for what could have been cataclysmic war, something happened. Dorca lifted the tattered remains of imperial power, and in his untested hands it became something new. He won Le Sanguinaire to his cause and gathered the Counts beneath his banner one after another, with guile and blazing charisma and, occasionally, brutal violence. He sifted the skills and loyalties of his advisers, retained some and discarded others – his father, most painfully. He wed Catherine three months after his twentieth birthday, against the advice of many who would have preferred he take to wife the sister or daughter of a wavering Count rather than waste himself on an existing tie.

There was a grainy photograph of them together in wedding finery. Dorca was the familiar Vorbarra model – tall and lean, with the brown eyes that had dominated before Ezar's line. Catherine nearly matched him in height. Her dark hair was piled atop her head, but Miles thought it was curly. She was turned side-on to the camera, facing him, and it was hard to see much more.

Yuri was born at Midsummer when Dorca was twenty-two and Catherine twenty-six, and she went to her pyre the very next day. Dorca carried on his campaign to control the Counts. He remarried four years later – a Vortaine this time – and produced Prince Xav and the girls in rapid succession. The eldest, Dava, would one day become Ezar's wife and Gregor's grandmother.

The Betan Expeditionary Force arrived when Xav was three, and four years after that, so did the Cetagandans. Of Catherine, there was nothing more.

Miles left the book on the sofa and went to dress. He was distracted, fruitlessly turning and turning the paltry pieces of information.

That was, until he stuck his foot into his boot and something squished warmly between his toes. Miles yelped, yanked the boot off, and extracted foot from slimy sock with his fingertips. He hopped to the bathroom, did some emergency scrubbing, then came back and carefully inspected his next set of boots before putting them on. Then, on a hunch, he got down on his knees and peered carefully into every visible pair. Gregor's footwear was unscathed, but Miles made a series of increasingly horrible faces as he investigated his own.

"My Lord?" said the valet, appearing in the doorway. "Can I help you with anything?" He didn't actually add, you raving shoe-sniffing lunatic.

"Yes," Miles said through his teeth. "You can tell Gregor that – that – no, never mind, I'll tell him myself." He shoved a pile of boots into Rete's arms. "Deal with those, will you?" he said meanly, and sailed out.

He waited an entire three minutes in the outer office before Gregor's early morning meeting broke up. Miles stomped past Minister Van, whose cheerful hail transformed halfway through into a quick bow and retreat.

"Good morning," Gregor said, looking up. "I'm sorry I missed you at breakfast."

"Your cat," Miles said.

"Yes?" Gregor prompted. "Do you two need a neutral moderator again?"

"I need a tanglefield generator," Miles snapped. "He puked in my shoes!"

". . . Oh," Gregor said. "I, uh, apologize sincerely on his behalf."

"Not your shoes, you'll note," Miles said. "Just mine. Repeatedly."

"I'm sure yours were easier to reach," Gregor offered.

"Gah!" Miles said. He snatched Gregor's coffee cup and took a substantial gulp. Gregor watched him, unassailably straight-faced, damn him. "What do I need to do to get into the vaults?" Miles asked, in carefully modulated tones.

"Oh, right." Gregor swiveled to his comconsole to tap in a series of rapid commands. "Let me just – there. Your seal should do it now."

"Thanks," Miles said, and exited.

One of Gregor's secretaries passed him on the way in. "My Lord," he said helpfully, "I think you picked up the wrong coffee cup. That's the Emp—"

"Yes it is," Miles said, and kept going.

He went straight down to the vaults, three levels below ground where the four wings of the Residence met. His seal got him through both sets of doors, and Miles spent a few stunned minutes wandering around. It was like the best organized jumble sale he'd ever seen. Princess Kareen's elaborate wedding dress hung swathed in plastic next to Emperor Ezar's blood-spattered uniform from the civil war. There was a whole rack of chains and seals for every office imaginable, an impressive weapons cache, and boxes. Hundreds and hundreds of boxes, all meticulously labeled.

Miles went back out, commandeered the first four burly guards he saw, and set them to carrying.

He spent the next three hours acclimating to his new office from the perspective of the floor, since his desk wasn't big enough to spread out as much as he wanted.

He took a break mid-morning to go upstairs and have the Steward unlock Dorca's old rooms for him. It was far more informative on the topic of nursery space than anything else. The rooms had been stripped of everything personal, and most of the furniture as well. Avalos would be pleased to learn that there was still an impressive hole in the plaster wall opposite the living room fireplace, complete with suggestive blood stains.

The bedroom furniture was mostly still there – empty wardrobe and chest of drawers, and an enormous bed pushed up against the far wall. Miles stared at that wall for a minute, frowning, and turned away.

He wandered back downstairs, thinking. Emperor Dorca the soldier, the statesman, the infamous philanderer, the disinterested father. A great man, with concomitantly great flaws. History had turned him into a nearly cosmic event, the perfect man at the right moment, the only one who could have forged political unity on the anvil of personal power. And against all evidence, he'd once married for love.

The swinging doors into the north wing opened for him, and Miles glanced up to thank the guard holding them open from the other side. But the man wasn't looking at him, or the hall monitor, or even off into the middle distance the way they disconcertingly did sometimes. Miles followed his glance down. Negri sauntered through, coming the other direction, then paused in the doorway to lick a paw and scrub fastidiously at his face. The guard waited at rigid attention; his eyes rolled in startlement when Miles stepped disgustedly around the cat.

Well, that certainly explained how Negri got anywhere he wanted in the Residence. Miles thought a series of more or less treasonous things on the subject of the imperial feline, and returned to his office.

Avalos stuck his head in just before lunch to say that General Allegre was on his way over to hand deliver the ImpSec investigative files he'd requested.

"I'll just come out to him, then," Miles said. He stood, and hop-scotched through the maze of stacked papers.

"Find anything?" Avalos asked, holding the door for him.

"No," Miles said. "Well, yes – Dorca's hand-drawn tactical maps, and first drafts of all his declarations. Including his first attempt at the disbanding of Counts' armies and the limit on armsmen, which is a lot more sarcastic than the official version." He shook his head. "But no, nothing, actually." He'd been hoping for the other half of their correspondence, perhaps overlooked or forgotten by Gregor, but there was nothing. The conversation remained half-complete. "It's like she didn't exist," Miles said. "How is that possible?"

"Maybe all her letters were burned on her pyre," Avalos suggested. "Or his, for that matter. Say, you're related to her brother, do you think you might have something stuck away in the attic somewhere?"

"Don't think so. All his things went up when the Cetagandans torched his estate." Miles paced a tight circuit around the outer office, frustrated. It was as if she were on the other side of soundproofed glass, trapped in silence. And elusive, too – whenever he tried to focus on her, his attention slid off like water onto her husband or her son. What happened to you, my Lady?

Gregor was right. It was possible he would never know.

*

Luniere's gallop was even better than Miles had hoped. The park trail had a straight shot down a gentle slope, smooth-packed dirt a few hundred yards long. They flew down in what felt like a single breath, and Miles slowed to a canter only reluctantly. Lumiere felt like he could do that all day, but Colonel Inceri's piebald didn't have quite the same pace, and Inceri had recently picked up this way of looking at Miles like it wounds me in my beating heart whenever Miles did something he shouldn't. Like leave his long-suffering security in the dust.

Looking back, Miles realized he'd left more than Inceri. He'd apparently outstripped the entire riding party – only his beleaguered personal guard was visible, strung out along the path behind him. Miles sighed and turned Lumiere with a touch to the reins. They trotted sedately back up the slope, and passed Inceri just as the first riders appeared from out of the trees. The path was very wide, so Miles kept going against the tide, nodding as he passed the Vorbrettons and the Vorrutyers. Simon Illyan and Lady Alys came, horses shoulder-to-shoulder. She was riding side-saddle rather than stoop to trousers or split skirts as many of the other ladies had.

Miles turned to fall in with them, acknowledging Illyan's casual salute. "Afternoon," he said cheerfully.

"Good afternoon, dear," Lady Alys said, smiling benevolently upon him.

"Er," said Miles, wondering a bit frantically what he'd done to make her so happy. Then again, it was entirely possible Ivan had recently done something particularly egregious to the maternal sensibilities, and Miles was simply elevated in comparison. "All right, what did I do?" he asked, coming up blank.

"You insert social events on Gregor's calendar before I do," Alys said sweetly. "And then get him to come along without that look on his face like he's getting a migraine. It's good for him to relax more in company," she added, in the same tones Miles's mother had used to inform him that he ought to eat his broccoli.

"Newlyweds," said Simon, who was married in all but name, thank you.

"They're really quite piquant, aren't they?" Lady Alys asked. "Just the other day I caught Miles here slipping into Gregor's office when he was gone to hide a book of poetry in his desk."

"I have a question," Miles said loudly before there could be further exploration of this topic. "Not for you," he added at Alys's inquiring look. "Simon, are there any more detailed blueprints of the Residence than the ones the Steward has?"

A frown touched Illyan's brow. "No," he said slowly, then more certainly, "No. Those aren't complete, of course, but I think they're the best copy we have. Why do you ask?" he added with predictable nosiness. After a rocky start, Illyan had settled into a solid, well-matured retirement, tempered by that flashing, ironic wit and a habit of curiosity that would never be quenched.

"Just wondering about a room that was unlabelled," Miles said.

"I'll keep thinking about it, if it's important," Illyan offered, a bit diffident in that way he got when he thought he might have lost something they needed.

"No, don't trouble yourself," Miles said. "I was just curious."

They chatted for a few more minutes as they made their stately progress down the hill. Simon had developed a passion for literature, and he'd had several scholarly book reviews published. Anonymously, of course, for the sake of the poor nerves of the authors he lambasted. Miles drew him out on a Komarran short story writer they'd both read, and reflected that they never could have had this conversation ten years ago. Simon didn't read fiction then, or patronize the theater, or garden.

Miles drifted back at last, and greeted Garren the shipbuilder and his wife. He turned and slowly worked his way back through the winding tail of riders, exchanging nods as he went. It was a gorgeous day, warm but breezy, and everyone was in high spirits.

The Galenis ambled by, followed by a few of their friends. Miles had harassed Duv into a half-decent rider over the past few years, but he winced to see some of the other Komarrans. Dr. Farley had the grimly determined look of someone whose only goal was staying on.

"Relax your hands," Miles suggested as he passed. "And your legs. And your – relax your everything."

He found Gregor at the very end of the pack, riding alone but for Vortala and a few other watchful eyes. His gray was going at a lazy amble. The reins were looped loosely around Gregor's wrist, and the Galenis's young daughter was tucked in the crook of the other arm. Relaxing in company, ha.

"Practicing?" Miles asked, turning to fall in beside him. Lumiere adjusted his stride without being asked, clever thing.

"We're discussing horses," Gregor said. Anya babbled in happy confirmation, flailing one hand at Miles.

"And what does the young lady think?" Miles asked, amused.

"She seems to like the big ones," Gregor said. "Or at least I think that's what blowing bubbles means."

They reached the bottom of the hill and turned into the last stretch of the two-mile looped riding trail. Miles rode in silence, listening to Gregor's soft monologue punctuated by Anya's determined vowel sounds. He only hoped Gregor could keep this quiet confidence when the child was his own, complete with freighted Vorbarra chromosomes. Plus Miles's own contributions, of course, given last winter when he'd been dying. For all he was in line for the Imperium, he and Gregor were less related genetically speaking than any two randomly selected Barrayarans, thanks to the two infusions of Betan DNA in Miles's recent ancestry. And they weren't all that relationally related, either, not to the tangled extent some Vor families were. In fact, their first common ancestor was Emperor Dorca.

They reached the open green where the rest of the party was dismounting. Miles swung down before a groom could supply a block, and went to Lumiere's head to rub the velvety nose and tell him what a marvelous creature he was.

Gregor passed him, murmuring, "Usually you only look at me like that," and strolled off to return Anya before Miles could come up with a suitable retort.

Miles produced the apple he'd snagged from the lunch table, and carved it into chunks with his boot knife. He and Lumiere shared them, crunching companionably.

At least until Galeni dashed up, a bit wild around the eyes. "You found letters?" he demanded.

"Er, yes?" Miles asked.

"From Emperor Dorca!" Galeni said, and Miles abruptly realized he was looking at the slavering graduate student, not the urbane officer.

"Oh," he said. "Yes. I take it you'd like to see them?"

"Can I?" Galeni asked, in a tone that suggested he'd come straight through Miles if necessary.

"Sure," Miles said, highly amused. "I'd like your opinion, come to think of it. You haven't forgotten all your Barrayaran history, have you?"

Delia appeared, Anya in her arms. "If it's old, he reads it," she informed Miles.

"You can come now, if you want," Miles offered.

"Great," Galeni said. Delia cleared her throat pointedly, and he looked momentarily blank.

"Ah, I can catch a cab," Dr. Farley said quickly.

"Oh, right," Galeni said, deflating. "I can run you home and come back."

"Both of you come," Miles said, expansively happy after the ride. "Farley, you can explain to me why force-grown organ prices have gone up so much while Galeni has historical raptures."

He turned regretfully back to Lumiere. He'd had vague thoughts of throwing his weight around and riding the two miles back to the stables on the surface streets, but he didn't think he could get either Komarran back on a horse at this point. Which also meant leaving the tack and rub-down to a groom. Gran'da was turning in his grave.

Miles gave the reins over to a groom and lifted a hand in summons to Inceri. Gregor joined them in the car, where they chatted inconsequentially. Gregor left them in the entrance hall, hurrying off for a quick stop in his office and then out again for a fast trip to the Vormuir District.

"The whole thing is extremely strange," Miles said in answer to Galeni's proddings. "Letters from Dorca to Catherine – his first wife," he interpolated for the benefit of Farley, "but no replies from her. And – well, come see."

A proper door had been installed in place of the ragged hole. Galeni circled the room like Miles had, hands clasped behind his back. He spent a long time on his knees at the little hinged door. "Not locked," he said. "Though there might be a second latch on the other side that locks. How did you find this place, anyway? That door wasn't there before."

"Home renovations," Miles said.

Galeni looked pained. "And here I thought when Delia said you were bashing holes in walls, she was speaking metaphorically. Have I mentioned lately, my Lord, how glad I am that you're not in my chain of command anymore?"

"Yep," Miles said brightly. "Now you're in mine."

"He commanded you?" Farley asked from the doorway, puzzled.

"In the technical sense that I outranked him militarily and he was supposed to do as I told him, yes," Galeni said dryly. "In reality, it was actually like – well, it was like trying to ride one of those infernal horses. The sense of being perpetually two seconds from landing on your head is very evocative."

"You were great," Miles protested. "I thought we got to have an excellent working relationship when it was all said and done."

"That's because I spent half of it missing, so I couldn't give you inconvenient orders," Galeni retorted. Farley grinned, uncertain. "So, how about those letters?" Galeni prompted.

They adjourned to the sitting room, where Galeni spread the letters out on the low coffee table and burbled happily over the personalized military tidbits he unearthed. Then he slowly went quiet, reading more carefully.

"That's unexpected," he said, setting a letter down.

"I know," Miles said, jerking a thumb at the open door into Catherine's pretty prison. "It doesn't square up with letters like that."

"Or with his womanizing," Galeni said. "Though I suppose, now that I'm thinking of it, all the stories are later, during the occupation. Maybe he was only unfaithful to his second wife. A good thing, too – more reliable birth control by then."

"There were effective abortificiants during the Time of Isolation," Farley put in from the other end of the sofa. "Some people still use them, I hear, in regions where an implant would be too expensive." He was politely appalled – by the poverty or the witchdoctory, Miles couldn't tell.

"Working on it," Miles said. "I'm pretty sure we can get the Counts to cough up for a rural reproductive services grant organization this year."

"What were the objections?" Farley asked, in all innocence.

Miles counted them off on his fingers. "More encouragement for this mad uterine replicator fad, what on earth will our wives do if they're not bearing children, by God I hate that Vorkosigan imperial upstart. My children will help," he added thoughtfully. "With the uterine replicator part, I mean, not the hating me part."

"That's very efficient of you," Farley said with palpable dubiousness.

"Not really," Galeni said, eyes glued to a letter. "This is Barrayar – the personal and the political collapse to the same thing here. Take him," he added, jabbing a finger blindly at Miles. "I'm still not sure if he got married in order to change the world, or if he's changing the world so he can be married."

"They come to the same thing," Miles said.

"See?" Galeni said to Farley. "You get used to it eventually. And it works better than you'd expect." Negri wandered in from the hall and commandeered a sunbeam on the rug, where he commenced fastidiously bathing.

Farley was frowning. "I'm just not built that way," he said. "My parents are both doctors. Middle-class, strictly non-political. No time, really. Closest they get is annoyed when some hothead with a cause shuts down the whole damn city with a bomb threat."

Galeni looked up at that. "You realize you just compared Vor imperial sovereign loyalty to Komarran terrorism?" he asked.

Farley stuttered. "I meant—"

"Ha," Miles said. "First time Gregor made that comparison to me, wine came out my nose." He glanced over to Farley, who had gone suddenly silent. "It's not inaccurate, you know. I can admire the patriotism, the devotion to abstract sovereignty, while still abhorring the violence."

"That's . . . incredibly Barrayaran," Farley said slowly. "Except, if you'll forgive me, the last part."

"Working on that, too," Miles said. "Oh good God, what have you eaten now?" Negri was hunched over, making alarming hacking sounds. Over the rug, naturally. "Gah," Miles added, as the cat swelled to twice his normal size, then expelled a mass of . . . something. "Sorry," he added, making a face to his guests. "I don't know what's gotten into him lately. Or what he's gotten into, more likely. Let me just—"

"Hmm," Farley said, leaning forward. "My Lord, has he seen a veterinarian lately?"

"I don't think so," Miles said, frowning. "He's Gregor's, really." Damn, if there was something really wrong with him, Gregor would be crushed. "I thought cats just did that sometimes."

"They do." Farley slid off the sofa onto his knees and leaned close for a look, medically unperturbed by stray body fluids. "Only, there usually isn't blood," he said. "Here now, let's have a look then," he added to Negri, and gathered him up carefully. Negri was limp and unhappy, batting only vaguely at him. Farley murmured soothingly to him, reflexive bedside patter as he pressed two fingers to the cat's tiny heartbeat. He rubbed a thumb under Negri's jaw, then neatly popped his mouth open. "Can I have some light here?" he asked peremptorily. Miles played the part of assisting nurse and passed him one of the handlights Avalos had left. Farley shone it into Negri's mouth, went "hmm!" and moved on to his ears. He touched a fingertip to the cat's nose, then pried up an eyelid. "There's blood in the sclera," he said slowly. "Not much, but it's there."

"What does that mean?" Miles asked apprehensively.

Farley sat back, switching the light off. His face worked in furious thought. "Blood in the sclera," he repeated. "Vomiting. Petechial hemorrhages in the mouth. And elsewhere too, I bet, if we shaved him. Blood in the . . . no. No, it couldn't . . ." His eyes snapped to Miles. "Are your antivirals up to date?" he demanded.

"Yes," Miles said promptly. "Broad spectrum immune enhancement, just last month. Why?"

"I'm wrong," Farley said plainly. "I mean, I've got to be. But just in case I'm not." He shook himself. "I took a medical history course once. The history of epidemics. And it can't possibly be, but your cat has the Barrayaran Blood Rot."

*

Gregor swung into the apartment a half hour after their usual dinnertime, an apology on his lips. It died there as he halted in sheer astonishment.

"Good God," he said. "The lion has laid down with the lamb."

Miles looked up from one of Dorca's letters. On his lap, Negri didn't stir. "He's drugged up to his eyeballs," Miles said. "He'll be appalled by his behavior once he's sober. Hold on," he added suddenly, "which one of us is the lamb?"

"What happened?" Gregor asked, alarmed.

"He's fine," Miles said hastily. "Or he will be. They had to go in and take out a few bits of his gut that had gone necrotic. Here, come sit down." Gregor did, and curved one hand over Negri's sleeping head.

"What happened?" he repeated.

"He has the Blood Rot," Miles said. "Symptoms are perfect. We don't have a viral sample to compare from a century ago, but it makes perfect sense. The mouse," he added at Gregor's continued confusion. "The one he ate, remember? Can't confirm now, but pretty good bet what it died from, back in the day."

"But the Blood Rot is fatal," Gregor protested, face twisting. "People, horses, everything died."

"Not anymore," Miles said. "The most basic antiviral we've got zapped it, first go. Hundreds of thousands dead," he added wearily, "all for want of a few grams of viral retro-engineering."

Gregor's face eased, and he gently scruffed at the back of Negri's neck. "So we can't get it?"

"No, our regular antivirals should assure that. And we'd know by now, anyway."

"You should see your doctor," Gregor said abruptly. "You had that awful infection in the spring before the wedding when you were recovering, we need to be sure—"

Miles laid his hand over Gregor's. "I'm fine," he said firmly. "And Negri will be, too." He lifted the placid cat and passed him over. Gregor held him gently, rolling him to inspect the tiny incision in his abdomen. "This explains everything, you know," Miles said quietly. "Catherine," he added at Gregor's blank look.

"She was sick," Gregor said, figuring it out.

"She was dying," Miles corrected. And pregnant, of course. Maybe they'd thought the nausea was morning sickness, at first. She'd been confined sometime in her fourth month, as far as he could tell. So the baby had started to show right around the time the bruises had come up on her face and her arms, unmistakable. "It could go dormant for years in someone," he explained. "I've been doing some reading. Maybe the stress of the pregnancy triggered it, who knows."

"And no one could know," Gregor said slowly. "There would have been panic. And they couldn't risk Dorca getting sick."

No, not with the fragile newborn peace balanced on a sword's point, held together by pure will, all Dorca's. If he'd been infected, if he'd died like everyone did, without an immediately obvious heir . . . Miles shivered. If he'd died, it was entirely possible they would still be at war today.

"So they locked her up," Miles said. "So no one could see her. And he wrote to her, every day." And when it got to her lungs, when the coughing got so she couldn't speak, they'd sat on the floor in the hall and the little room and had their nightly marital conversations on paper. He'd had to burn hers, of course; he probably hadn't dared even touch them. "It's ironic," Miles added tiredly. "Because it's a good bet he was immune by then, that he'd caught the lesser strain when he was younger."

"That's awful," Gregor said quietly.

"Yeah." Miles slowly restacked the letters. They made much more sense now, agonizingly. "They did what they could," he said. "She hung on long enough to give birth." He tumbled through a spate of futile speculations: had her death left resentment in Dorca for the child who survived her? What might have been, had she lived? What might not have been?

"He must have spent years waiting for Yuri to get sick," Gregor said, going down a different path. "They used to kill the infants of infected mothers as a matter of course, you know, though if I remember right, most of the children were actually fine, at least until they started breastfeeding. Hellish risk to take, letting him live, for all they knew."

"But Barrayar needed an heir," Miles said. He wished he could add that she'd fought for her son's life, that she'd convinced ruthless Dorca to let him live. Possible, certainly. The scattered reflections in Dorca's letters showed a bright, passionate woman. But that was all they had of her, reflections, and Miles could still say nothing of her with certainty. I would have liked to know you, silent Lady. "She did her duty," Miles said. "And no one could ever know."

Gregor breathed out. "But now we do. Hail, Empress Catherine."

They leaned together for a long stretch of silence, while Negri snored gently in Gregor's lap.

"These should be in a museum," Miles said, touching the letters. "Or published."

He expected Gregor's finely honed privacy boundaries to rebel at that, but Gregor only gave a considered nod. "Of course," he said.

Miles ran a hand down Negri's curved spine, while it would be permitted. The cat was warm and soft, breathing steadily. "I want to convince you of something," Miles said slowly. "And then you can hold some other people down for me while I convince them."

"I'm listening," Gregor said.

*

Epilogue

They were running late, of course. Miles wandered down the portrait gallery, glancing from the painted faces he passed to the view of lush spring greenery below Vorhartung Castle. There was furious activity behind him, where the Vorbarra portraits hung. Every Emperor and Crown Prince, painted upon coronation or majority, and replaced when married. And remarried, as the case might be. The portrait of Gregor, a grave-faced twenty-year-old, was even now being shuffled off to a less felicitous location.

At Miles's elbow, Lord Auditor Dr. Farley coughed. "I hear congratulations will be in order very soon now," he said.

Miles grinned involuntarily, resisting the urge to bounce on his toes. "Actually," he said, looking over his shoulder to make sure they weren't overheard. "It's more like—" he checked his chrono elaborately, "—four hours."

"Well, mazel tov," Farley said. "My respects to the Crown Prince."

They ambled in silence for a minute, while Miles giddily contemplated the imminent arrival of his firstborn. It really wasn't all that bright that he and Gregor were both already loopy with tiredness even before they uncorked the new addition with expansive lungs and no sense of a proper sleep schedule. But they'd stayed up all last night just the same, sitting together on the nursery floor and blowing through at least two bottles of wine. They'd talked themselves hoarse, and kissed each other dizzy and breathless until the sun came up.

"I have a question," Farley said.

"You generally do, yes," Miles said dryly.

Farley had been wearing his new chain for an entire hour now – he was continually fingering it in bemused confusion. "I didn't know what to make of you, you know," he said. "All those invitations throughout the winter, the way you kept quizzing me on completely inexplicable things. At first I thought there was some hysterical mixup and I was suspected of something. And then I thought you were in need of, um, discreet medical services and wanted to sound me out first."

"I was sounding you out," Miles said. "Only about other – hold on." He stopped abruptly. "You thought I had a – a venereal disease?"

"Er . . . no?" Farley said, completely unconvincingly.

Miles made a disgusted noise and turned down the small side corridor where displaced portraits hung. There was Emperor Vlad before his marriage, Serg without Kareen. And Dorca and Catherine, down at the end.

"Anyway," Farley said, trailing him. "I'm not fishing for compliments, you understand, I just want to know. Why me?" He sounded genuinely puzzled.

Catherine's eyes were blue. Miles had visited her several times throughout the winter. She was not beautiful, but even in the formal portrait Dorca looked at her as if she was.

"You're a new breed," Miles said to Farley. "Educated, travelled, politically aware but . . . unentangled. Refreshingly unrelated to the people you'll often be investigating. And your training in diagnostics -- as a way of thinking, I mean, as well as medically – will be useful." He flicked a look over. "You're what We need."

"All right," Farley said. "Only, it's a very old job, for a new breed."

The hubbub in the gallery was subsiding, and Miles turned away from Catherine's portrait to go and look appropriately solemn while his own was hung. "Then change it," he said, and went to join Gregor.