Actions

Work Header

The Iron Gates

Work Text:

Ekaterin wakes reluctantly when the young ensign from the Kestrel’s Nav and Com comes tapping on her shoulder.

“Lady,” he says apologetically as she struggles upright. The steel bench bolted to the wall outside Medical is abysmally uncomfortable and has done something terrible to her back. She hasn’t slept anywhere else in a number of day-cycles.

“Yes, Ensign….” she struggles for a name. The man is bright-eyed, dark-haired, and indescribably young, and she recalls being introduced to about five of him.

“Mavrophilipos, ma’am.”

“Yes, thank you Ensign Mavrophilipos. My apologies. What can I do for you?”

The man is clutching a sheaf of papers in his hand and looking decidedly in over his head. 

"For the, uh, for the—"

"For my husband, I take it?" she prompts, holding a hand out. Her other works at one of the knots in the back of her neck. Roic asks her every few hours if she wouldn't rather sleep in her own cabin, shoebox that it may be. Well, he had been asking her that, until Miles had that most recent seizure and remained stubbornly unconscious for almost an hour afterward. Last time he’d checked in, it had been with another blanket in hand.

"I have the same security clearance as the Lord Auditor," Ekaterin sighs when Mavrophilipos starts to sweat, visibly wrestling with that tricky worldstate of ‘not going according to orders.' "And it's best I just sum them up for him, anyways. We have to incinerate everything he touches."

This in particular seems to startle the poor ensign into motion. He thrusts the papers into her waiting hand, back straight as a board.

"More news from the intercepts, ma’am,” he offers, as she begins to skim through the pages. They sit in her lap as she pins her hair at the back of her neck, the exact positioning required to keep it free of the suit's helmet seal a matter of instinct by now. "Vorbarr Sultana has evacuated all civilian personnel from Marilac at the request of our embassy there."

"They've gotten word of the ploy with the incubators," she says, rubbing a hand over her mouth.

"Well, not that they know it's a ploy," Mavrophilipos begins, before remembering himself, "but yes, ma’am. Most of the low-level ImpSec agents on Eta Ceta IV have been recalled, as well."

Ekaterin rubs the tip of a finger against the headache growing between her eyes. "Of course," she says, "Standard procedure. And then this is— ah."

She turns the last page of Comms’ report. The final message must have come in a matter of minutes ago— it's still riddled with junk letters and a few unencoded names.

“Ghem-General Benin, I see. I'll take it right in to him." She passes the papers back to Mavrophilipos, and stands slowly, back straightening with effort. "You'll be waiting out here for his reply, I assume?”

"Ma’am,” he nods, taking up a sharp position by the door. His boot heels very nearly click.

Ekaterin wonders, for a thoughtless second, if Miles ever looked so young in his army days. She's too tired to admonish herself for the thought when it comes, or the grief that follows swiftly after.

"Thank you, Ensign," she says aloud, and begins to pull on her suit. 

 


 

"Miles," she whispers. Her voice comes out tinny through the suit's speakers. It's starting to suffer from overuse.

"Miles, love," she tries again, pressing one hand to his shoulder. 

She imagines she can feel the chill of his blood even through her glove. He stirs weakly.

"Ekaterin?" he mumbles, as his eyes begin their slow slide open. He’s done little more than sleep and shiver in the past few days, and the lights in the Kestrel’s med bay have been dimmed to let him. It makes for a truly grim sight, all the tubes and monitors and the sharp edge of his skull lit only by the intermittent glow of the LEDs. From where Ekaterin sits (and sometimes imagines she has always sat) in the chair beside his bed, Miles looks like a body long-drowned, stuck tethered to the bottom of the sea. 

"What's come up now?" he asks, voice hoarse. She keeps hers low to match. The dim shape of Bel Thorne shifts minutely across the room.

"It's General Benin," she replies. “The message just came in.”

“Not dead is he? Would be completely out of character for him.”

“Not just yet,” she says, smiling as he chuckles weakly. Miles’ ability to laugh at his own jokes will certainly be the last of his cognitive functions to... Well, he is very fond of himself. “But the young men in Comms have picked up a new tightbeam transmission from Eta Ceta. The general’s being investigated by his own people, and they’ve started monitoring his communications. Captain Allegre has lost contact with his man closest to Benin, as well.”

Miles swears. It’s barely audible over the hum of the blood filters, his own and Bel's muttering softly together. 

“Bunch of idiots and armchair admirals. Rather start a war than trust their own people. Is Allegre’s man dead?”

Ekaterin’s mouth twists. Miles has, in the past, referred to the expression as 'artful.' “They’re not sure. It’s possible he may have just gone quiet.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Miles sighs. “The investigation into Dag, do we know what they’re looking for?”

“I…damn,” she hisses, wishing dearly she could rub at her aching forehead through her faceplate. “I’ve forgotten the phrase they used. It was in the reports the young man gave me, but, well, it was some doublespeak for insubordination while ghem. It sounded so much like a stock phrase, but I can’t—“

Miles grimaces in sympathy as she exhales her frustration. “Don’t let it worry you. Whatever the charges, we’ll just have to keep trying to hail him and hope he doesn’t get this head chopped off for saying hello.”

His shaky hand skims over the bedsheets, finding her glove, twisting their fingers together. “Besides,” he adds with a thin smile, “You’re far from the only one running a bit ragged this week.”

Ekaterin squeezes his hand and ignores the burning in her eyes. The desire to touch him, skin to skin, is like an animal eating its way through her heart.

“There’s nothing really for it,” he says. “We’ll just have to make them listen. If we can’t get to Benin then, well, I suppose there’s the haut, not that they’re any more accessible. But someone must listen. Vorbarr Sultana can’t make them, so we’ll have to. What’s the good of an Emperor’s Voice that no one can hear?”

His voice is starting to drift, sleep, or something more sinister, starting to pull at his syllables. When Ekaterin leans in, his eyes can’t quite track the movement.

“Miles?” she tries, fearing another seizure, but he rallies at her voice.

“Sorry, sorry,” he says, little more than an exhale with consonants. “Getting hard to stay awake. You really will just have to shout until someone pays attention. Yenaro’s a prick, but he’s not working alone, and I think Rian is in over her head trying to retrieve the Star Crèche’s key.”

Ekaterin’s breath hitches, her gloved hand tightening in his. 

“Not that she’ll ever admit to it, of course. Pride seems to be their only sin, the haut women, but they certainly get their money’s worth from it. Though, thinking about it, there’s got to be some strong veins of wrath running through there, if Vio’s propensity for murder is any indication…”

Ekaterin hates this. She’s not sure she’s ever hated something like she’s hated this, watching disease go dragging Miles and his lovely mind back through the jumbled, tarnished memories of his life. She recognizes the events he’s reliving, for better or worse. Some he’s told her himself, in the med bay while she parroted reports, or earlier, in livelier places, when she’d wake him from dreams and ask him about the names he’d argue with in his sleep. A little of it she’s even gotten from Ivan, ostensibly by accident, obviously because he tires of being his cousin’s favorite secret-keeper.

Miles is still rambling. The corner of her eyes are growing wet.

“I can’t tell Ambassador Vorob’yev now, of course, we’re long past the point where that will do me any good. Though maybe you can drop a hint, see if he’d amenable to at least, well, something, I don’t know, but I saw you flirting with him by the copy room the other night—“

“Miles,” she manages, around the stone in her throat.

His gaze finally meet hers, in a roundabout fashion. “Ms. Maz?” he asks, befuddled, and then his eyes go wide. “Ekaterin. Oh, hell, Ekaterin, I didn’t—“

“It’s fine, darling,” she says, voice bright with conviction she doesn’t feel. She swallows tightly, and hopes he doesn’t notice. “You came back in the end.”

And next time he may not. What an awful way to phrase that. 

“I’m sorry,” he tries, as he always tries, but she shushes him into guilty silence. His breathing is starting to slow regardless, even this short exchange enough to tire him out.

"I'll be back soon," she tells him, standing carefully from her seat. He mumbles something into his pillow, some of the thin, painful lines in his face starting to ease, but she doesn't hear it.

"As soon as I can," she adds, but he's gone. She retreats.

She strips in the improvised clean room between his bed and the corridor, leaving her biosuit hanging from its hook, and steps out into the hallway. Young Mavrophilipos is waiting for her, now with company.

“Captain Brun," Ekaterin smiles, meaning not an inch of it. "How good to see you."

"And you as well, m'lady," Brun replies, voice clipped with formality. He may be a bigoted twat, Security Captain Brun, but oh, he does so love his manners. Mavrophilipos looks nervously between them.

"How is the Lord Auditor faring?" Brun asks, bowing his head slightly. He was never so courteous when Miles was hale, of course. Ekaterin presses her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth, keeping her hands loose at her sides.

"Poorly," she replies, more shortly than he was likely expecting. "Can I help with you something?"

Brun straightens. "I'd only hoped to hear the Lord Auditor's take on the most recent news regarding ghem-General Benin. Very worrying, if he's our only contact on the Cetagandan side."

His voice changes when he speaks with her, Ekaterin has noticed. Like it changes when he speaks with Nicol, and of Bel. Ekaterin smiles faintly. "Worrying indeed. But my husband has faith. His orders are unchanged. We'll keep trying them on comms. The lag should be much more amenable after this next jump."

"Mmm," Brun hums tonelessly. Mavrophilipos' eyes are darting between Ekaterin and the captain with a speed born of growing terror. "I'll speak with the Admiral."

What a meaningless reply. The smile doesn't leave Ekaterin's face. 

"Of course, Captain. Thank you for your diligence."

Brun nods, as comfortable as any high Vor in his condescension, and takes Mavrophilipos with him when he leaves. The ensign risks a glance back over his shoulder before a turn in the corridor spirits them out of sight.

Ekaterin lingers a moment longer, starting at not very much at all, then makes for her cabin. She's starting to smell a bit stale.

Just make them listen, says Miles in her ear.

 


 

They jump in the night, Ekaterin's gray, wasting dreams interrupted by a thankfully short bout of jumpsickness. It peaks around 0200, early enough that by the time breakfast is served she feels almost human. Roic gives her a few looks of concern after she emerges from her morning visit with Miles, but whatever line (lines?) in her face has him worrying so, she hasn’t the power to fix it now.

In the mornings, she dines with Admiral Vorpatril and what of the Kestrel’s original command still fits on the ship, by virtue of her own rank as much as Miles'. It's an abysmally tight squeeze, the oversized crew forced to eat in twenty minute shifts unless they'd rather stand in the corridor, and Ekaterin imagines herself surrounded by a small halo of jostling elbows and immediate apologies. It's like trying to eat in a bubblecar, complete with overworked ventilation and a faint air of suppressed agitation.

"Are we making good time to the next jump?" Ekaterin asks the Admiral. There's a lull in the conversation, and she doesn't know the man well enough to make any other kind of small talk. Asking how he keeps so neat-looking on a shoebox courier ship carrying half again its usual crew is unlikely to provoke a sincere answer, she feels.

"Better than good," the Admiral replies, folding his napkin in his lap. "At this speed, we could reach Sergyar in half-time had we the fuel. And if we weren't blockaded along the way."

They'd been forced onto a day-long detour not long ago after one of the wormholes on their route, controlled primarily by Xi Ceta, had been closed by means of mercenaries. Despite Ekaterin’s best efforts to keep her voice pleasant and bright while delivering the news, Miles had nearly bit through his tongue.

"So we should reach Rho Ceta within a day or two?” Ekaterin’s voice sounds alien to her own ears, like the bodily process used to produce small talk hasn’t been updated in some time.

The Admiral’s fingers rattle against the tabletop. “We could,” he says. “Yes.”

The world snaps back into focus. “Could, Admiral?”

Security Captain Brun settles into a chair on her other side, a dollop of groats landing on the table as he sets down his tray. “With yesterday’s news of the investigation into General Benin,” the admiral replies, meeting her stare evenly, “I’ve begun to question the wisdom of sailing directly into Cetagandan space.”

“We may no longer have a warm welcome waiting for us on the other side of the Rho Ceta jumps,” Brun adds. Ekaterin considers shoving a spoon up his nose, but doesn’t turn away from Vorpatril.

“Surely you don’t think ghem-General Benin has betrayed us?”

The admiral sighs. “Regardless of his intent, I think by now the general is probably under arrest.”

“The most recent reports were worrying, true,” Ekaterin says, suddenly sweating to keep her voice even, “But we must assume that Benin is still waiting for us. There will be war if we don’t get these haut children to his people.”

“The may be war regardless,” Vorpatril replies. “Your husband’s theory is surely genius, but if his contacts can’t—“

“My husband,” Ekaterin bites out, “is an Imperial Auditor in service of the Empire, and speaks with the Emperor’s Own Voice. He gave orders to fly for Rho Ceta, and saw no reason to change them when last we spoke.”

Vorpatril and Brun exchange glances. 

“So you say,” says Vorpatril, and Ekaterin bites sharply into her lower lip.

“And what exactly do you mean to accuse me of, Admiral?” she says, when she finds herself again capable of speech.

“Nothing, ma’am, of course nothing,” Vorpatril replies, one hand raised placatingly. Brun is looking at her with a wholly contrived pity that has her shaking in her seat. Neither of them, not a person in the room seems to notice. “Our only concern is that the Lord Auditor may no longer be fully capable of understanding the situation…”

And that I’m too stupid to realize it.

“According to Captain Clogston, his flashbacks do seem to be getting worse,” Brun adds.

And your eavesdropping improves every day. Ekaterin tastes blood in her mouth.

“Whatever the Lord Auditor’s mental state now, he was of clear mind when he gave you your orders in Quaddiespace. This war is preventable, Admiral, so long as we keep pushing the Cetagandans via tightbeam and make all haste for Rho Ceta.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Vorkosigan,” Vorpatril says, leaning back from the table, “But the situation is not what it was in Quaddiespace, and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan is not in possession of all the facts. I’ve taken all factors into consideration, and have alerted the crew. We’ll be jumping onto the Komarran route at the next opportunity and rendezvousing with Galactic Affairs in Solstice.”

“And my husband’s Cetagandan-born illness?” Ekaterin asks, too furious to feel guilty about leaving out Bel Thorne. She wishes she were Miles, and could storm and rage and pull stunners on the lot of them.

Vorpatril seems momentarily cowed, either by Ekaterin’s expression or the implication of an Imperial Auditor’s death. Brun, the pig, slides smoothly in. 

“The doctors in Solstice can surely do more for him and the herm than Clogston’s team can. There’s nothing to worry about, Lady Vorkosigan.”

The sheer factual inaccuracy is staggering, but Vorpatril and Brun are already rising to leave. Ekaterin watches them go, frozen in her seat.

“Our next jump will be within the day,” Vorpatril adds, sounding apologetic. Ekaterin says nothing, and he turns away with a set expression.

She waits until they’re out of earshot to swear.

 


 

Armsman Roic, her affection for him having blossomed since the wedding, is not afforded the same courtesy.

“M’lady,” he mutters, looking dazed, as her rant loses steam. Nicol, floating just inside the door, looks faintly amused. One part of Ekaterin is pleased by the rare smile, even if it comes at her own expense.

Of course, the rest of her heart feels no such joy. Between Roic and Nicol there is a bare two feet of unoccupied floor space in her tiny cabin, and she paces them incessantly, twisting on her heels every other second. It feels unnatural to her, like her husband’s mannerisms grafted onto her own, but she can’t seem to stop. Too long a journey spent sitting on her hands, perhaps. Too long a life.

"A ship full of idiots more concerned with fighting their grandfathers' wars than actually creating a peace!" she says, again, cheeks shining with frustrated tears. "Happy to let a thousand children and our partners die just so long as they've covered their butts!"

The smile slides from Nicol's face. Ekaterin stops suddenly, clutching her elbows, and is sorry to see it go. "We've got to stop them. We've got to make them listen." 

"M'lord—" Roic starts, but Ekaterin shakes her head.

"He's more confused every day," she says, and the next rush of tears comes unbidden. "I don't know that he'll even be able to recognize me, the next time I visit."

Nicol puts a hand to her arm. In the cramped quarters of her cabin, they're nearly shoulder to shoulder already. Ekaterin lays a hand overtop hers and produces a watery smile.

"It's alright," she says, to the both of them. "We'll find a way through this. Even if I have to dangle Miles like a marionette in front of the comconsoles myself.”

Roic, looking stricken and cramped, folded on top of her bunk out of sheer spatial necessity, muffles his choking noise as professionally as he can. Nicol's thin smile is as sodden as Ekaterin’s own, but its return is welcome. 

"If any of us can do it, it's got to be you," the quaddie says, and Ekaterin feels the conviction leak out of her like air from a tire.

She sinks to her bunk beside Roic as he scrambles to make room. "No," she sighs, "If any of us can do this, it's Miles, but, well—"

She gestures vaguely. It encompasses much.

"Bel used to tell me that back in the old days—" Nicol starts, then cuts herself off. Her gaze flicks meaningfully to Roic.

"Ah," Ekaterin says, laying a hand on Roic's knee. "Armsman— Roic, what's your security clearance?"

"L, ma’am,” he answers, looking concerned. 

"Well, now it's Q, unless you'd like to cover your ears for this next bit."

Roic's eyes widen, but, perhaps feeling a bit daring, his hands stay where they are. Ekaterin squeezes his knee as companionably as she can.

“What I was going to say was that Bel," Nicol continues, voice cracking only faintly, “Liked to say that, as far as it could tell, the Admiral Naismith scam was only half the time about being the smartest person in the room. The other half of the time, success had a lot to do with being the stupidest. So maybe..."

"So maybe it's time to be a little less Barrayaran?” Ekaterin asks, wiping the back of her hand across her cheeks. Some memory is calling for attention in the back of her mind.

The corner of Nicol’s mouth hitches up. “Well, I suppose you could equate Barrayarans with intelligence,” she says, but Roic’s splutter is muffled and Ekaterin is thinking.

What had he told her, that afternoon in the attic when she’d allowed herself to love him? A hundred things, surely, a thousand thousand words all spoken with equal ease and punishing sincerity, and she’d pay her life to hear them all again, every stupid, stumbling comment he’d offered her, but there had been one thing in particular about—

About Naismith.

He’d told her, Naismith was a lie he’d made true after the fact. A sin belatedly redeemed. She doesn’t need to lie, strictly, she’s telling the truth even if Vorpatril ignores it, but the direct way, her honest appeals to the chain of command, they no longer quite work like she needs. With Miles’ authority trapped in his failing body, what use is her own except for a nice seat at the breakfast table? What use is her coin when no officer on the ship will accept it? She can never be less Barrayaran than she was born, but maybe she can be slightly more galactic. Maybe she can act now, and deal with the consequences some other damn time.

It’s not a good long-term strategy, of course, Miles’ life is proof enough of that, but it can be made to work in the moment.

Miles’ life is proof enough of that.

“Armsman,” she says, pointing, “Toss me that holocube.”

He does, able to reach her tiny desk without sitting forward on the bed, even (if there were ever a man unfit for the claustrophobia of space travel!) and she flicks it on. A map of the known nexus blooms in the too-close air.

“I’d been studying it before Miles fell ill,” she says. “The jump last night, that was this wormhole here.”

Her finger finds one dot of light among hundreds, the hologram warping around her fingertip. Nicol and Roic lean in. 

“And our next jump, were we still heading for Rho Ceta, would be here.” She points to a nearby next dot of light, minuscule text marking its nearby stations. Roic nods blankly. 

“But now, we’re diverging onto the Komarran route here.” A third wormhole, maybe a light hour from the next jump towards Rho Ceta. 

“And if we jump towards Komarr, the quickest path to Rho Ceta will then be through Komarran local space itself,” Nicol adds, the Komarran nexus lighting up at her gesture. “And if we enter Komarran local space…”

“Oh,” says Roic, face falling.

“They’ll never let us leave. Not with all the haut children on board, and certainly not to save two old ImpSec agents’ lives,” Ekaterin finishes. Her voice is hard, and she presses her palms flat against her thighs. “So I’ve got to convince them before we miss the Rho Ceta jump.”

Neither Nicol nor Roic try to tell her she doesn’t have to, which is a kindness of its own. Nicol instead glances to the clock on Ekaterin’s comconsole and says, not quite casually, “Well, if we’re running on schedule, then you’ve got thirty minutes before we pass it.”

Ekaterin jumps to her feet. Roic dodges an elbow. “Damn. I was hoping— I have to hurry. Armsman, grab your best uniform and meet at the bridge as quick as you can. Nicol, you’re going to the med bay?”

Nicol nods. She’s there as much as Ekaterin, and has the undereye circles to prove it. It’s like asking if she’s thinking of breathing today.

“Well, God knows if he’ll understand, but tell Miles what’s gone on, and give him my love, of course. I’ll find you as soon as I can.”

“Of course. Kick Vorpatril’s ass if you have to,” Nicol says, pressing a kiss to Ekaterin’s cheek.

“Should I get the opportunity, happily,” Ekaterin replies, already too far out the door to return the gesture, smiling grimly at the lovely woman in the floater, “But I’m not going to talk to Vorpatril.”

 


 

The Kestrel’s bridge is brightly lit, fizzy with the hum of a ships’ worth of electronics, and very, very cramped. When Ekaterin strides in, the pilot in his chair and the handful of crewmen at their stations take immediate notice. Admiral Vorpatril is thankfully absent.

“M’lady—“ starts one of the crewmen, a Lieutenant by his stripes, but Ekaterin has eyes for one power only.

“Captain,” she says, to the jump pilot, a sturdy, dark-skinned man with hair cropped close to his skull, “I don’t believe I know your name.”

The sentence is less a question than a statement, and it takes the pilot a moment to realize he’s required to speak. He watches not warily, like the lieutenant, or with stark terror, like young Mavrophilipos in the corner, but with genuine surprise, like she’s a horse who’s learned to wear trousers and kitten heels and speak.

“Captain Henri Davignon, lady,” he replies. “And you—“

“And your orders, Captain Davignon?” she cuts in before he can question her. Or ask her name in return, more likely, but she’s gotten up a certain inertia now, and worries what may happen when it’s stopped.

“Uh, we’re on our way to Komarr, ma’am, via the FL-KC3 wormhole about five hours out. Admiral Vorpatril—“

“Gave you new orders this morning, yes, I’m sure. Captain, how long would it take us to get pointing back towards the Rho Ceta jump?”

The captain is openly goggling now. As is the rest of the crew, Ekaterin’s sure, judging by the tinny beeping behind her of a workstation left unattended.

“I mean, not long at all, really,” Davignon manages. He reaches up one absent hand to scratch at his implants, fingers locating them only on their second or third try. “We got the new orders only a few hours ago, we’re still in the process of course correction at the moment.”

Ekaterin straightens her back, clasps her hands in front of her. “Excellent,” she says. “I’d like you to take the Rho Ceta jump.”

One of the crewmen, could even be Mavrophilipos, squawks. “Ma’am?” asks Davignon, sounding strained.

“I assume we still have our place in the jump queue,” Ekaterin continues, over the sounds of several grown man having quiet, confused panics. “I doubt even Admiral Vorpatril would be sure enough of his judgement in this matter to give that up to whichever merchant freighter is next in line.”

“Yes, ma’am, we still could make the jump, but…” Words, for a moment, appear to fail the captain. “Ma’am, who in the hell are you?”

Behind her, Ekaterin feels the massive, 6’6” displacement of air that is Armsman Roic entering the bridge. The flash of brown and silver embroidery in the corner of her eye is profoundly reassuring.

“Yes, we were never formally introduced. I am Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson Vorkosigan,” she says. Her name feels like a triple-Vor barreled shotgun in her hands. “My husband is Imperial Auditor Captain Lord Vorkosigan, currently wasting away in this ship’s med bay. On his orders have we been flying for Rho Ceta. Until this morning, of course.”

The pilot’s glance darts between her and the point over her shoulder that must be Armsman Roic, in his finest House Vorkosigan uniform. Ekaterin feels her flat hair, the lines the biosuit left in her clothing, the lingering pallor to her cheeks disappear from the pilot’s attention before the silver-trimmed glory of Roic’s bulk.

The pilot—she thinks she could quite like this man in another context. His mouth sets in a firm line as he turns his gaze back to Ekaterin.

“And the Lord Auditor didn’t give the order to change course for Komarr, did he,” Davignon asks, or states. If Ekaterin had to guess his age, she’d put it at about her own. A long way displaced from Vorpatril, or even Captain Brun.

“No, Captain,” Ekaterin replies, “He did not. That was a decision of Admiral Vorpatril, and with all due respect to the admiral, it was not his decision to make. My husband speaks with the Emperor’s own Voice, and has had extensive dealings with Cetaganda besides. We are still needed at Rho Ceta, as he knew. Should we proceed to Komarr instead, not only will my husband and Portmaster Thorne die, the thousand Cetagandan embryos stored on this ship will fail, the Cetagandans will declare war against Barrayar, and the blood of every boy that dies in that entirely preventable pissing match will be on our hands.”

The silence that follows is absolute. Davignon’s face looks faintly gray beneath its color. Another workstation begins to beep tonelessly, looking for attention. Ekaterin keeps still beneath the crew’s stares, though the muscles in her back, pinning her shoulders and around her spine, are beginning to creak.

The lieutenant, the one she’d noticed on the way in, is the first to speak. “Lady Vorkosigan,” he starts, voice hesitant, pale brows drawing down over a space-pale face, “I understand the urgency here, and of course the Lord Auditor’s experience should be taken into account, but we haven’t been able to establish direct contact with any Cetagandan, let alone one who can assure our safety when we jump into Rho Ceta. If we take them by surprise—“

“Well, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise,” Ensign Mavrophilipos says, and then clamps his mouth with an audible click. His look of horror is immediate, and Ekaterin feels a sudden, pulsing sympathy for him.

Ensign,” the lieutenant starts, spinning to growl at the young man, but Davignon cuts in.      

“Let him speak, Hayes. Dimitri?”

Mavrophilipos, eyes white all the way around and with a muscle pulsing in his jaw, swallows, then speaks. “Well—“ he tries, voice cracking, then coughs and tries again. “Well, Captain—Lieutenant, ma’am—I can’t really imagine we’d be a surprise to anyone, arriving at Rho Ceta. We’ve been blasting unsecured tightbeams with the Lord Auditor’s name for days, with the full details of our cargo and everything. Cetagandan forces haven’t responded to any of them yet, but they’ve certainly been acting on them. I mean, that’s why General Benin’s being investigated, isn’t it? Someone’s listening to us. And—“ he glances at Ekaterin again. Not at Roic, Ekaterin notes, or at Roic’s uniform, but at Ekatein. “—If we got the Lady Vorkosigan within speaking range of them, not just tightbeam but actual real time communication, I think she could convince anyone we’re telling the truth, don’t you?”

Davingnon looks thoughtful. One of the other crewmembers, out of Ekaterin’s line of sight, lets out a low, short whistle, and then there’s a rustle of fabric and mass that sounds like the whistler getting an elbow in the ribs. Mavrophilipos, for his part, is still looking at Ekaterin. Ekaterin can hardly help herself. She beams at the boy.

Scrubbing a hand over his head, careful of his neural implants’ wiring, Davignon sighs. Ekaterin’s attention snaps back to his drawn face. She feels like she’s balancing on a tightrope, a careful, nervous thrill, but one with very little pleasure to it. Her hands, still laced together, go white as she clenches them.

“Ma’am—“ Davignon starts, not meeting her eye, and Ekaterin cuts in.

“I understand your hesitation, Captain, but forces on both sides have already mobilized and—“

“No, no,” he says, waving a hand through the words she hadn’t meant to say with quite so much force. “I get the urgency here, and the need, but… are you sure about this, Lady Vorkosigan? I mean dead sure. What you’re asking of us is mutiny, by any plain definition of the term.”

Ekaterin inhales, blinking slowly. The muscle between her shoulders is really starting to throb.

She isn’t Naismith, in the end. Not even Miles is still Naismith. She is capable of only so much fiction.

“It is,” she replies. She hears the shifts of Roic’s uniform behind her. “And should it come to it, I don’t know for certain that my husband will be able to offer you a pardon. That anyone will. I’m sorry to ask you to risk so much, but—“ she finally unbends, fingers loosening, back curving a fraction, one hand rubbing lightly behind her jaw, “—but more lives than yours or mine are at stake here. If we do this wrong, and we could start a war.”

She meets the captain’s eye, mindful of the growing whispers, and spreads her hands. “Please, Captain.”

She sees it in his face when the decision is made. He nods, a lopsided smile already growing, and sits back in his chair. “Well, suppose they didn’t parade your man’s father in front of every damn academy class for nothing. Engines?”

He jabs a button on his console, speaking closer to the mic. “Engines, this is Davignon. Back to the first plan, we’re jumping in twenty. Prep the engines, and tell Yaroslav to get that control thruster sorted now, I’m firing portside.”

The squawking on the other end of the line is, to Ekaterin, completely indecipherable, but she can tell that its outraged, and that Davignon is maybe having a bit of fun. Gallows humor, maybe.

“You can return to your cabin if you’d like, ma’am,” he says over his shoulder, eyes now fixed to his controls. “We can take this one from here.”

There’s no sensation of movement when the ship adjusts attitude, only the wheeling of stars past the vidfeeds and slight change in pitch in the computers’ hum. Ekaterin resists the habit to lean into the turn.

“I’ll stay,” she replies, then pauses. “If you don’t mind of course.”

Davignon’s grin is visible even with his face half-turned away. “Don’t mind at all, ma’am. Sorry we haven’t got more room.”

Mavrophilipos, still a bit shaky, points them at the one free seat in the room. Ekaterin and her dear Armsman, looming comfortably, have a very quiet stare-down over who will be taking it as the wormhole’s attendant station starts to come into view. Ekaterin finally relents, settling down as Davignon readies for the jump, and is glad of it when the jumpsickness hits. It’s a nasty rush every time, like getting dragged through mud at very high speed, and that, combined with the inevitable adrenaline comedown after arguably commandeering a military ship, leaves her grey-faced and panting when Vorpatril’s voice comes crackling over the comms.

“Captain Davignon, did we just jump?”

Davignon’s voice is steady despite his own sick pallor after relative hours in jump. “Yes, sir, Admiral. On the Lord Auditor’s orders.”

Ekaterin eyes the console beside her and presses the button beside the mic. “And under my supervision,” she adds, leaning in. The noise that erupts on the other end of the line is indecipherable.

One of the crewmen even dares to laugh at that. It’s thin, though, a bit panicky, and the lieutenant quickly shushes whoever it is as Captain Brun storms onto the bridge, one of the Kestrel’s security officers trailing behind him.

“What in God’s name—“ he starts, face a mask of fury, until his eyes catch on Ekaterin.

You,” he snarls. “You damn fool woman, you’ve done this! You’ve incited mutiny among these men!”

“I have done no such thing!” Ekaterin snaps, jumping to her feet. Roic’s discreet hand at her elbow helps mask her unsteadiness. “They have ignored a criminal order, and you cannot and will not punish them for it!”

Brun’s lips pull back from his teeth, his lean face made leaner by rage. “A criminal order? Have you lost your mind? Vorpatril is right! Your husband’s contacts are not there! There is no help for us among the Cetagandans! If—when,” he laughs sharply,”we jump into Rho Ceta space, we’ll be disintegrated before we ever see ground again!”

The crew is deathly silent, except for Davignon’s labored breaths, and Ekaterin is just so tired of having this argument. “Not if I speak to them,” she says, voice tight like it’s never been since they tried to take Nikki from her. “Not if I make them listen. And I will. My husband’s name—“

“Your husband’s name—“ Brun roars, voice booming in the crowded, stifling room, and Vorpatril’s words cut through the noise like disruptor fire.

“Enough,” he says, Brun’s lackey scrambling back out into the corridor as the admiral strides onto the bridge. “Captain Brun, I thank you for your help, but I’ll take it from here.”

“Sir—?” Brun starts, his rage fast deflating into a resentful kind of shock, but Vorpatril shakes his head.

“Out, Captain. I won’t say it again. And you, Armsman…”

Vorpatril levels his gave on Roic as Brun, with as much dignity as an officer can muster, stomps from the room. He shoots Ekaterin a look over his shoulder that she’s sure is absolutely loathsome. Roic, for his part, keeps his eyes on Vorpatril, face otherwise blank. The intersection of military chains of command and sworn Armsmen has always been hairy, and Ekaterin has a sudden visions of bodies hitting the floor.

“Armsman Roic,” she says, breaking the standoff, “You’re free to return to your cabin until I need you again. Thank you very much for your help.”

Vorpatril relaxes a bare inch as Roic hesitates, watching Ekaterin’s face carefully. When she gives him a tired nod he returns it, along with a shallow bow, and steps out. With his departure, another fraction of tension eases from the room.

Leaving quite a bit behind, of course.

“Captain Davignon,” Vorpatril barks, turning on his exhausted jump pilot, “Are we locked into Rho Ceta?”

“Yes, sir,” Davignon huffs, “The closest link to the Komarr route is now behind us.”

“Hmph. And Lieutenant Hayes?”

“The fuel cost would be too great to turn around, sir,” the pale lieutenant replies, looking unenthused to play any further part in this drama. “Following our original, er, current trajectory, we won’t need refueling until Rho Ceta. If we try and backtrack, the acceleration will drain us dry.”

“And of course,” Vorpatril says, almost to himself turning back to stare at the vidscreens that dominate the center of the room, “Wherever we’re going, we must go at speed. Alright then.”

Ekaterin, still jumpsick and fuming, doesn’t shake an inch when his gaze turns to her, for which she is very proud of herself.

“Congratulation, Lady Vorkosigan,” he says in a deeply uncongratulatory tone, “We’re going to Rho Ceta. In fact, we no longer really have a choice in the matter. But in putting us on this path you have suborned my men and by doing so, risked all our lives, and the lives of all of Barrayar. You and your man will be kept under watch for the rest of our journey, and should either of you attempt to enter the bridge or speak to my pilot again, I will have you confined to quarters.”

Ekaterin keeps a very tight lid on the anger that comes blazing up her gut. Vorpatril, by quirk of his white brows, sees her do it. For all Miles’ authority, she is nothing more than a passenger on this ship, and they both know any protests on her part would be futile to the point of childishness.

“Should General Benin contact us, you will be told, and maybe we will live,” he continues, mouth framed by increasingly grim lines. “But of course, Benin has likely been compromised. And if he hasn’t been already, he soon will be. That Cetagandan tendency to eat its own, eh?”

The admiral’s smile is dire. “Benin’s cooperation is not something we can ultimately bank upon, and so we must assume that whatever awaits us at Rho Ceta, it’s unfriendly. Like I said, Lady Vorkosigan, our lives have been placed at the mercy of your judgement. You can leave the bridge now, of your own volition, or I can bring Brun and his man back in.”

Vorpatril, by his stance and small, fixed smile, seems happy to go another round of intimidating staring contests should it come to it, but Ekaterin feels suddenly exhausted. Whatever momentum got her this far is fading fast, leaving her shaking and, damnably, on the verge of tears. The crew have all averted their eyes, even Davignon intent on his console, and Ekaterin gives in.

“Admiral,” she says, with a slight bow of her head.

His crisp “ma’am” follows her out the door.

 


 

“Miles,” she says, sinking into her usual chair, careful of the biosuit’s bulk, “I think I may have cocked this one up.”

Her minder, the Kestrel security officer who’d followed Brun onto the bridge the day before, waits outside the isolation area. Ekaterin feels his presence like a weight at the back of her neck. Miles is slow to wake, and slower still to focus, even she traces the scars around his wrists with her gloved fingers. Her thumb moves against the thin surgery scars criss-crossing the back of his hand.

“Ekaterin,” he says after a long slog to consciousness, the smile that tugs slowly at his face only a momentary pleasure. It fades quickly. “Dear, what’s wrong?”

She hates biosuits. Really loathes them. When she begins crying, there’s no way to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“Nicol was in here yesterday. Do you remember what she told you?”

Miles shakes his head, a motion so small she’d never have seen it had she not been looking for it, and hunts for words. “I remember her being here, and her voice, but not what she… I’m sorry. I don’t.”

“It’s fine, love, nothing to apologize for,” she says, though the voice in her head is howling I don’t know if I can fix this!

Miles smiles again at her platitudes, blinking heavily. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She does, pausing only to sniffle grossly once or twice. She tells him about Benin, in case he’s forgotten, and he has, then about Vorpatril, and Brun, and Brun’s smug sexist face, and then about the bridge, which takes the longest of all. When she’s done, his fingers move carefully over her gloved palm, as if tracing the invisible life line beneath.

“You did the right thing, you know” he tells her. A week ago he might have struggled to sit up, meet her eye to eye. Now, even he can’t imagine that small task is within his ability. “We’ll have to see if it was the legal thing, of course, but it was the right one.”

Ekaterin smiles damply. “I hope so.”

A week ago she’s sure he would have argued that one further, but he lets her reply lie with obvious reluctance. “Well,” he sighs, “I suppose as long as you keep trying to reach Benin…”

She shakes her head. “I’ve been summarily barred from Comms. I think Vorpatril might space me if I try contacting anyone again.”

“But then,” Miles brows knit together, “Who’s talking to Cetaganda? Is anyone? We’re not just flying in blind to a burgeoning war zone, are we?”

“I don’t know!” Ekaterin laughs, the tinge of hysteria in her voice bright and shining. “I don’t know what they’re doing! It’s been almost a day and I haven’t heard so much as a peep! Vorpatril could have struck up a chat with Emperor Giaja by now, for all that I’m aware. Oh, damn it all, they’re just desperate, aren’t they? Desperate to be Barrayaran, and to hate Cetagandans, and, ha, keep their oaths, and here we are, stuck useless in our rooms…”

She trails off, hiccuping faintly. Miles grimaces. “Us Barrayarans and our oaths, huh? It’s a miracle every generation that enough of us survive to reproduce.”

It’s a weak joke, told in a weak voice, but it’s enough. Ekaterin starts sobbing, swallowing each wet gasp as best she can, wishing she could wipe her face, wishing she weren’t stuck in this damn suit.

“Oh, damnit, Miles,” she chokes, “What if Benin really is gone? What if I’ve ended those crewmen’s careers for nothing? Or worse, killed us all out of sheer stubbornness? What if you and I—“ her mind balks at thought, stopping her tongue before she can finish the sentence, but it’s not something she can truly avoid anymore, only circle and circle in a narrowing fear.

“What if,” she manages finally, shuddering, rubbing at her wrists, “What if something should happen, and all we’ve done for the past two weeks is touch each other through plastic and biofilm? I just— I can’t stand it anymore, I can’t stand this suit or this room or the sight of you in that bed and—“

Miles hand over hers stops her short. On her left wrist, where her right hand had been fiddling with the release of the biosuit’s glove, he curls his fingers through hers and pulls them away. She hadn’t even realized she’d been tapping at it.

“It’s alright, Ekaterin,” he says, nearly whispers, and they curl together over their joined hands. “Whatever happens, it’s alright. It’s not so bad.”

His fingers play at her gloves again, tracing the seams along the side, the little divots in the material. His smile is weak, little more than an implication of expression, but it tugs at Ekaterin’s heart just the same.

“Had we but world enough and time,” he begins, and Ekaterin’s laughter and tears are one and the same, “This coyness lady were no crime. We would sit down, and think which way, to talk and pass our long love’s day.”

She loves the poem. She really always has. “There will be time,” she promises, but she doesn’t think he hears.

His voice is faint, interrupted by the perpetual beeping of vital monitors, so she joins her voice with his on the next line.

 


 

“Lady,” says the voice that wakes her. A hand is on her shoulder. She’s on the bench outside the med bay again. Asleep again. Mavrophilipos again?

No, the face hovering over hers is plainer, more familiar, and tense with dread.

“Roic,” she says, struggling up. Roic gets a hand under elbow, helping her to her still-aching feet. “What’s—“

The sight of the chief surgeon, Clogston, already half-dressed in the medical staff’s standard-issue biosuits, is enough to stop her tongue. His face is grave, as grave as Roic’s. Ekaterin’s gut plunges before he’s even opened his mouth.

“Lady Vorkosigan,” says Captain Clogston, “Something’s come up with your husband.”

 


 

They explain it to her in small words. Whether this is in deference to her obvious exhaustion or her obvious grief she's not sure. Her tears are as much a product of one as the other. 

The chill, which they hoped would kill the parasites as effectively as it was killing Miles, is not doing its job. The swarms in his blood are multiplying. They need to get him colder.

“Cryofreeze?” she asks at that point. She’s adrift, sights and sounds reaching her only through a heavy filter of fog, black and cloying, but she seizes on that. Miles hates cryofreeze. He taps at the scars on his neck when he’s nervous, covers them with his hand when he doesn’t think the tic will be noticed. He wouldn’t want to be so cold again.

“As a last resort,” Clogston is saying to her. The movement of his mouth seems indecipherable. Miles, unconscious on the bed beside her, is like a void into which all her cognition is swallowed.

“We’ll try stasis first. Hibernation. It’ll buy us time.”

Time, time, never enough time. Just make them listen, says his voice in her ear.

“I give my consent,” she says when she thinks she has to, and then there’s a flurry of motion. She’s jostled to the side of the room, and it’s enough to wake her slightly, to make the fog start its retreat. Miles regains some semblance of consciousness himself, under all the activity, and she kneels by the bed when there’s a break in the hovering bodies.

“You can’t say goodbye,” she tells him, when it looks like he might try. “I won’t accept it. There will be time, Miles.”

“You’re sure?” Whatever they’re doing to him is having an effect. There’s a note of fear in his voice he can’t hide.

Yes.” She nearly shouts it, takes his hand tighter in hers. “Time enough for everything. I promise.”

He presses his lips to his hand, presses his hand to her faceplate. “I’ll hold you to it,” he says. His voice is soft.

Ekaterin stands when it’s clear he’s gone. Not gone, her mind shouts, never gone, but when he sinks into sleep and the doctors step back she retreats into the hall.

She can’t get out of the suit fast enough. Her gloves she drops as soon as they’re free, her helmet she dashes to the floor. She stands panting, still in the bottom of the suit, as Roic picks it all back up.

“Armsman,” she says, catching her breath, “Had I died the night our wedding, if that necklace had done its job, how should he have gone on?”

She doesn’t have to tell him who she’s referring to. Roic tucks the gloves under his arm, spinning her helmet in his hands. It catches the light with every rotation. “M’lady,” he says, “…I don’t think he would have. Not for very long.”

“And if he should die now, this week, tied to that bed with tubes down his throat, how do you think I will go on?”

She feels frantic, wired, and she watches with shivering desperation as Roic considers the question. His round face is as serious as she’s ever seen it.

“I think, m’lady,” he says, at length, careful with each word, “That you’ll go on as you always have.”

She thinks he’ll add more, but he doesn’t. It’s all he has.

She stands in the hallway, Roic still holding her helmet, strip lights humming overhead, and breathes shallowly. Then less shallowly. She strips out of the bottom half of the suit, handing it to Roic. He hangs it up by the door, all of it together, and Ekaterin exhales. She brushes the wrinkles out of her clothes.

There will be time.

Just make them listen.

There will be time.

“As I always have,” she says to the quiet air. “Alright.”

She draws herself up to her full height, inhaling deeply. “Roic, have you got your stunner on you?”

“It’s in my cabin, m’lady. I can go and fetch it, if you’d like.”

“Yes,” she says, “That would be good. We’ll stop by your cabin and get your stunner, and then we’re going to the bridge.”

 


 

Ekaterin is glad, when they burst onto the bridge, that she didn’t let Roic stop and go back for his spare charge.

“—and should you agree to our terms, we will hand over the incubators to you at a negotiated time and place—“

Vorpatril!” she screams, making the admiral jump and spin from his position in front of the comscreen. The ghem he’s got on the line looks startled after a few seconds, the time delay nearly gone since they entered Rho Ceta’s local space. Brun, because of course he would be here, stands from his seat with a snarl.

“Vorkosigan!” he starts, hand hovering over the stunner at his belt. Ekaterin almost laughs.

“Roic, if you mind,” she says over her shoulder, and her armsman, his bulk occupying the entire doorway to the bridge, raises his arm, sights, and fires.

Brun drops like a rock. The bridge is still a cramped and crowded place, so he drops right into poor Ensign Mavrophilipos’ lap.

“Are you out of your mind?” Vorpatril barks as she storms forward, Roic at her heels. Mavrophilipos, to her right, appears torn between respect for a superior officer, even when he’s asleep in your lap, and a great need to have his superior officer off his lap.

“No!” she replies, level with him in front of the comconsole. “But you must be! Do you seriously intend to ransom Rho Ceta’s children? Are you an idiot?

Vorpatril stares. “I am an admiral, ma’am—“

“Yes!” she shouts, face not very far at all from his, “And God save us from them! Roic, if he makes one more move, drop him.”

“ ‘Course, m’lady.”

“This is ridiculous!” Vorpatril bellows as Ekaterin turns away, coming face to painted face with the ghem on the vidscreen. “You can’t do this!”

“You never know, sir,” comes Davignon’s voice from the other side of the room. “She is a Vorkosigan.”

“Connect me to ghem-General Benin immediately,” she tells the ghem on the screen, who looks distinctly nonplussed beneath all her face paint.

“And you are…?” the ghem asks, gathering the remains of her disinterested air as best she can.

“Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan of Barrayar. One thousand haut children are on board this ship, and I’d like to speak with General Benin.”

He made the same claim,” the ghem says, her raised eyebrow indicating the invisible Vorpatril. The expression sends a cracked line scurrying through her face paint.

“And he was, for once, correct, though he then immediately proved himself to be full of shit. Put me on with General Benin, or someone who can get me to General Benin, now.

She snarls the last word. The ghem, seeming to considering this not even within the same planetary system as her paygrade, transfers the line. In the few seconds of dead air that ensue, Ekaterin turns to Ensign Mavrophilipos.

Who still has Brun on his lap, and is just leaking confused terror.

“Oh hell, dear,” Ekatrin sighs, “Just dump him on the floor, I need you to go do something for me.”

“Ma’am?” Mavrophilipos leaps to feet, Brun thudding rather disconsolately to the floor beside him.

“Grab an earpiece and a camera, something that can stream as it films, and get down into the cargo bay. We’re going to need to give them proof that we’ve got the real thing on board.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the young man says, saluting smartly, and disappears down the hall. A new face appears on the vidscreen, his facepaint far more complex than the previous woman’s.

“You are—“ he starts.

“I am Ekaterin Vorkosigan,” Ekaterin snaps, pivoting back to face the vid pickup, “Still! And you are not General Benin!”

“Of course I’m not—“

“No! Enough of this! Your planet’s thousand children are on board this ship, and two of our crew are dying of one of the Star Crèche’s damned bioweapons! Let’s do something about it!”

“The incubators are on your planet, miss—“

Ekaterin is going to tear her damn hair out. Vorpatril is watching her in what might just be amazement.

Not miss, thank you! Ma’am! Or m’lady, if you’re feeling formal! I am Lady Vorkosigan, and you will connect me to the General so that we can all stop this stupid war if for no better reason than… damn it.”

She twists to eye the packed bridge, face half-turned from the vidscreen, and shouts, “Anyone without Q level clearance needs to cover their ears now unless they want a stunning!”

Hands clap to ears around the room with astonishing speed.

The ghem on screen is looking entirely less sure of himself. “My husband is personally responsible for averting an attempt on the lives of the Star Crèche haut women ten years ago, and was awarded the Order of Merit by Fletchir Giaja himself! That same husband is dying right now of some horrible Star Créche parasite, and if he does pass, it will have been in an attempt to return your children to you. I am not lying! This is not a ploy! The incubators discovered in Vorbarr Sultana were a plant! Your children are on board and my fondest hope is to return them to you, so please, connect me to General Benin now.

The ghem, like his subordinate before him, is scrambling for detached calm and failing mightily.

He opens his mouth, eyes frantic. “You claim to—“

Ekaterin screams. “No! I am not claiming anything, I am telling you the truth! Lieutenant Hayes!”

The lieutenant, seated to the left of the vid pickup, jumps. “M—Ma’am?”

“Has Ensign Mavrophilipos made it to the cargo bay? Is his camera running?”

“Er, yes, ma’am—“

“Patch the video in to our transmission.”

There’s a burst of static on the vidscreen, and then the vid splits. One half still shows the ghem, his paint starting to run down his neck as he sweats. The other half shows an image stamped on plastic, a screaming bird curved around a key. The ghem’s eyes go wide.

Ekaterin leans into Hayes’ mic. “Move back a bit, Dimitri, let him see them all.”

The image from the cargo bay changes as Dimitri zooms out and then, turning, pans over the room. Hundreds upon hundreds of Star Crèche incubators, stacked neat as you please, displays blinking merrily.

The ghem, whoever he is, is shaking.

“Get me the General,” Ekaterin says, and his feed cuts out.

“He didn’t hang up, did he?” Ekaterin asks as the silence lengthens. She thinks she might be shaking, too. Her hands tremble where she’s gripped the console, hard enough for the edges of the thing to have cut into her skin.

“No,” says Vorpatril, voice gruff but not, for once, dismissive. “Just put us on hold.”

She turns to face the man, taller than her if not as tall as Roic, a fine officer, one that Miles had even spoken well of, in his descriptions of the events on Graf Station. The anger in his face has faded. He looks at her with something very much like respect.

“I am sorry,” Ekaterin sighs, scrubbing a hand over one eye. Roic, she notes, has already holstered his stunner. “I should have found another way to do this. Should have tried, at least. I’m sorry I had to undermine your authority to get this done.”

“You know,” Vorpatril says, clasping his hands behind his back, “I don’t think I am. Sorry, that is.”

Ekaterin, feeling the incandescent rage that’s been driving her for half an hour go spilling out her feet, finds herself smiling. She thinks the ensuing twich in Vorpatril’s gruff face might even be a smile back.

“Lady Vorkosigan,” says a voice, not Benin’s, from the vidscreen, and Ekaterin turns. If she’s been put off again, sent through another carousel of bureaucracy, then she’ll get angry again, she will, despite the way it eats at her bones, despite the relief she feels at having let it go. She draws herself up though, pins her shoulders back, and then she stops.

On screen is the most inhumanly beautiful woman she’s ever seen.

“Ah,” says the woman, a sound as musical and profound as any symphony, “Lady Vorkogisan. I am haut Pel. How lovely to finally put a face to the name.”

 


 

The med bay on the haut Pel’s ship, flown direct from Eta Ceta on behalf of the Star Crèche or so Ekaterin’s been told, is much nicer than the bay on the Kestrel. They’ve given Miles his own room, for one thing— elegantly appointed, and there's even a live fern in the corner. It seems obscenely wasteful for a spaceship, but the smell of well-watered soil that rises from its pot heartens Ekaterin to no end. She can’t help but be pleased by it, especially after a few days spent in its company.

She holds Miles’ between her own as he sleeps. His hand is warm in hers, not cold, never cold again, and she gently traces his life line around the curves of his palm. “Now let us sport while we may,” she whispers as she does, glorying in the simple act, “And now, like amorous birds of prey, rather at our time devour, than languish in his slow-chapped power.

"Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness,” she sings, “Up into one ball, and tear our pleasures with rough strife, through the iron gates of life.”

Miles’ fingers twitch, twitch again, then curl around hers.

“Thus,” she finishes, her smile a living, thriving thing she could never hope to hide, “Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.”

She leans in, holding his red hand close between hers.

“Miles, love,” she says. “It’s time to wake up.”